Mary Beth Writes

If you type my name into the Internet this quote pops up; "If growing up is the process of creating ideas and dreams of what life should be, maturity is letting go again."  

The line is from this essay, Broken Days, published in Mothering magazine in 1987.

Later it was published in the Utne Reader.


It was not a calm time in the first place. Our daughter was two, our three month old son had colic. We had just come through a month of Christmas, colds, and flu. My husband and I were exhausted, he had taken an unprecedented afternoon off just to sleep.

The phone rang. It was our friends Otis and George; they had just taken Dan to a hospital. The admitting doctor informed them. "I don't need an HIV test to tell you what you already know. Your friend is dying of AIDS. He's further along than any person I've ever examined for the first time. He could die this weekend."

We were stunned. Dan was our great friend. He was witty, bitingly sarcastic about pompous things, tender and gentle to animals and children. His lively blue eyes sparkled when he laughed at himself or at us. We loved him.

Welcome to the grown-up world of people dying. I thought I knew something about that place. My father had died when I was fourteen, my grandparents had all died in the five succeeding years. I thought I understood about pain and loss. What I didn’t know and was about to learn was not only how painful it is, but how damned inconvenient.

It was sheer grace that Dan rallied and a week later was discharged. We were relieved and happy. But I wonder if the events of the following three months weren’t exactly why he nearly let himself die, undiagnosed, in his own apartment.

We all had to take care of him. His friend Linda visited him every day whether he was in the hospital or at home. George and Otis hassled with insurance, public aid, making a will, considering funeral arrangements. They notified Dan’s mother and helped her around the city when she visited. I did less because of the obligations of my family. Still, I visited, called on the phone, sometimes we drove him to chemotherapy sessions. During that time I decided to hire a babysitter so I could write. The very first time she came to watch my kids I used the time to cook a dinner for Dan and then drive it to him through rush hour traffic.

The dirty little secret is how much disruption other people’s crisis bring to our own lives. To varying degrees we do what we know to do. Send cards and casseroles. Talk on the phone. Sit with our loved one and remember old jokes and happy memories. In the closet of our minds crave for things to be back to ordinary. So we can cease this effort. So we can find time to catch our breath and absorb the impact of this crisis. So we can be done with the guilt we feel for not doing more. So we can mourn the loss of our friend’s life instead of the loss of our own.

Most of us have an idea of how we think our days should go.  We assume our right to uninterrupted sleep.  We want to waken at the hour we think best.  We want meals at certain times, our homes to have a certain amount of order, family members to act in certain thoughtful, sociable ways.  We want pleasant evenings of our own choosing.

What we hate is broken days, interrupted schedules, uncomfortable disorder in our homes, phone calls when we’re asleep.  If this is the night of our favorite TV show, please God, don’t let the neighbor’s house burn.  If we’re trying to change jobs, don’t let our mother need weekly rides to the doctor.  If we’re already using all our resources to deal with a hectic life and a colicky baby, please God, don’t let our friend collapse with AIDS.

I did a lot of thinking about stress during those months.  I know about the charts where one checks off all the stresses occurring in one’s life in a given year.  Even before Dan became ill we were pushing our limits.  It seemed overwhelming that on top of everything else we would have to deal with this.

I wanted to rail at something or someone.  “You can’t do this to us.  Let Dan get sick some other year when I have time.  I want to sit with him and remember old times.  I want to talk to him about faith and religion and what he thinks now.  I want to make him lemon meringue pies. I want more time and less obligation.”

For awhile I thought the problem was simply the stage of life I was in. My friends Judy and Bill listened sympathetically but told me otherwise. Their two children are in their early twenties. For the first time in two decades Bill and Judy were looking forward to some moments just for themselves, maybe some long weekends away.

Then her father and his mother became ill. “It was like our kids finally walked out the front door and while we were proudly waving goodbye, our parents crept in the back door. Now we call one of them every night. We have to talk to our siblings ail the time to keep ourselves posted and make arrangements. We pour our money into their care. We go to see them in their respective towns every month or two."

I remember an hour from the end of Dan's life. It was another busy Saturday morning. I nursed the baby and then left him home with my husband and took our daughter with me to a meeting. After it was over I tucked her in the car seat, drove to Dan's apartment, then hauled her back out and up the two flights of stairs to his apartment.

He was gaunt and weak. He gave me a hug and returned to the nest of pillows on his bed. I set my daughter at his dinette set with water paints and paper. We watched her, both of us with tears in our eyes at the sight of this small girl, tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth as she painted suns and flowers, oblivious to poignancy of the moment. The kitchen window framed her; its light illuminated her fair hair and tender neck.

I can still see Dan reclining on the bed. Sometimes his eyes were quietly shut, sometimes they were open to an unfamiliar watery blue. He would endure the pain for a moment as he watched my daughter.

I knew that this hour was the crux of my own confusion and pain. This moment, out of the hundreds of times in our friendship we sat and talked, would be one of our last. But I was also anxious. The baby would need to nurse soon, my daughter needed her lunch and a nap, my husband needed the car. How could a moment be crowded with so much love, poignancy, and yet be so hectic at the same time?

If growing up is the process of creating ideas and dreams of what life should be, maturity is letting go again. My friend and mentor Nancy died the year following Dan. My sister lost her life, this summer, after two hard years of fighting cancer.

Over and over again I'm not capable or nurturing or insightful enough. I don't solace or comfort the way I imagined I would. At the same time our home life is ragged at the edges. We give up some of our routines and pleasures in order to find enough time and energy to make a water painting for Dan, an early morning letter to Nancy, Mom's coffeecake for my sister. We are not triumphant at anything. We go along.

As the ill and dying give up their life, we give up our claim to quiet nights and neat days. Maybe it's those who die who finally teach us this. That Iife and love and moments of connection stilI come through where there are cracks.



This short essay is the best one I have read, and there have been some excellent pieces that I have read of yours.

I wish I had more time to write, for myself and for others, but right now I mean in response to this wonderful piece of writing. So I’ll just say you “get it”, and thank you!

Awesome writing. Amen.

I lived through that time period and made it through in one ragged piece... George and I were in a totally comited relationship when the news started showing up in the gay press about young men in their prime being struck down by something that didn't even have a name yet... It would be years before the straight press would even mention anything about it... My circle of friends at the time would discuss at every party we went to who had lost weight, died suddenly or wasn't making an appearance at this or that party... Then it would be the partner of that person that stopped coming out only to die months later... It finally got so depressing that we stopped having party's ( George & I threw at least 4 a year ) because there was nothing to celebrate and the survivor guilt became too much to bare... Then just before George and I split and Michael came to share my life Jim my first boyfriend called me to say that he was HIV positive... POW!!! I had gone through the loss of many people I had known but until now no one I had shared a life connection or body's with... At that time it was basically a death sentence and the drugs you were givin at the time might just kill you before the virus did... I went to visit Jim in Kansas City and wanting him to know that I still loved him and wasn't afraid we safely spent the night together... When I got the letter from his niece a few months later that Jim had passed was when I fell into the dark hole of depression, a hole that I wasn't able to crawl out of for nearly a year and a half... There was way too much going on and it seemed that nothing you did was good enough... Those truly were "Broken days"
Mary Beth's picture

I'm really sorry. Those years were so intense. It's hard to fathom that we lost so many in that generation.

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A-Z M is for Aunts


Reprint of old column from 5/22/2004 

Happy Mother's Day to all the women who raised us! 

This was my all-time favorite moment from the "Friends" TV show. It's a few hours after the birth of Ross's son (not with Rachel) and all the friends are meeting the baby for the first time. Monica, Ross's sister, holds her newborn nephew tenderly, tears in her eyes with awe for this new life in her family.


This was first published May 10, 2002

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were talking with our kids about the best and worst jobs we have had. I said picking asparagus was pretty boring. My husband didn't like the day he was a taxi driver. We both love writing when it goes well, we get a lot done, people tell us what clever people we are, and we earn lots of money from it. These aspects of writing come together about once a, well … I'm sure it's right around the corner.

My daughter prodded, "Come on, Mom. What's the best job of your life?"

Dark River

The photo is the Platte River in Nebraska. This post was a newspaper column for the Racine Journal Times in 2003.


Dark River

"I think us here to wonder."  (From "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker.)

The day was one of those glorious October days when the sun blazed through gold and crimson trees; the incense of burning leaves perfumed the air. It seemed a shame to go inside simply because night was coming on.

"Let's take the canoe out on the river tonight."

Where Heritage is Found

Last week I spoke with a woman who  is working to support MayaWorks.

I sent her this writing I did back in 2006.


I stayed several days with the Sepet family, a very cash-poor Maya family that lives in the altiplano, the mountains of Guatemala.  These people were so intelligent, gracious, strong, and hospitable.  

This adventure happened during my second day with them.

Quarantine Dairy #669 A Rerun


I have a lot of projects to get through today. I wrote this in 2006 when I worked at Target for six months. I still like it.


This week I saw an inspiring sight.  I saw a little kid completely lost in his imagination. 

Car Accident & Not Buying the Farm Today

My friend Karen texted last night that she is okay but she had been in a car accident in the afternoon. A driver had not stopped at a stop sign, thus plowing into Karen’s rear driver-side door.

Her accident reminded me of one I was in with my son years ago. This is the newspaper column I wrote about the event.

Hold a good thought for Karen today, okay?  She texted this morning, rather poetically, “I feel like I’ve been dragged through a knothole.”


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