Monday, March 14, 2016

4th Annual Writing Contest for Fairfax County, VA, Middle & High School Students Sponsored by the Chantilly Regional Public Library & The Writers of Chantilly

Deadline: May 15, 2016

The Chantilly Regional Public Library, and the Writers of Chantilly, a not-for-profit organization of local professional and aspiring writers in Chantilly, VA, are sponsoring a free writing contest open to all middle and high school students in Fairfax County.

Students are invited to write an original essay, short story or poem on the theme of “Re-write the ending to...” –about going back and changing history, choosing a new direction, mending past regrets, or any other creative idea.   

First through third place winners in poetry and prose will be chosen to read their work at an author event held on Sunday, September 25, 2016, at the Chantilly Regional Library. Winners also will receive a writing prize package, and have their work published in a future Writers of Chantilly anthology.

·       Only one entry per author may be entered
·       Entries must be postmarked/received by May 15, 2016 to be eligible
·       Works must be written by students, and reflect their own original ideas
·       Pieces will be judged on creativity, content and structure (stories and essays should have a beginning, middle and end; poems may be free verse)
·       Stories can be fiction or nonfiction
·       Only unpublished works are eligible
·       Previous winners of a Writers of Chantilly writing contest are not eligible to enter
·       Entries must be typed in English
·       Maximum word count of 1,500

Include your name, grade, school, mailing address, email address and phone number with your entry (your information will be kept confidential), and note if your piece is fiction or nonfiction. All entries will be acknowledged; winners will be notified by June 10, 2016. Send or email entries to:

About the Writers of Chantilly

The Writers' of Chantilly meets twice monthly at the Chantilly Library to encourage and support writers 18 and over at all levels—newcomers warmly welcomed. WOC has published several anthologies, the most recent being Secrets, Lies & Sighs, available on or through the Fairfax County Public Library system. More info:

This writing contest has been approved by Fairfax County Public Schools.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Secrets, Lies, & Sighs: New Anthology from the Writers of Chantilly Released!

We all have secrets, parts of our pasts we’d rather keep hidden. Inside the pages of this anthology, you’ll find secrets uncovered. A church confessional come to life, who knows what you’ve really been up to. A happily married woman reflecting on a college romance, and the unexpected revelation that ended it. A private school principal who finds kicking a student out of school may lead to public revelations of his own unsavory past. These secrets and more lie hidden in these pages, waiting only for you to discover them.

The new anthology from the Writers of Chantilly, Secrets, Lies, & Sighs, is available now at Amazon.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Writers of Chantilly Announce Winners of 3rd Annual Student Writing Contest

Congratulations to the 1st-3rd place winners in the 3rd Annual Student Writing Contest co-sponsored by the Writers of Chantilly and the Chantilly Regional Public Library.

1st Place: The Time Machine by Stephanie Zhang (Rachel Carson Middle School)
2nd Place: What Lies Below by Jonathan Zheng (Thomas Jefferson High School)
3rd Place: Project: Morgan by Brooklynn Scott (Rachel Carson Middle School)
Honorable Mentions:
Emotion by Maianh Nguyen (Fairfax High School)
Fly by Mia Yang (Rachel Carson Middle School)
One Thing by Amy Epps (Chantilly High School)

For this year’s contest, students submitted stories, poems and essays exploring the theme of “Mysteries and Wonders ”—about a hidden treasure or marvel, a surprise history, or a new discovery. The quality of entries this year was exceptional, making it very difficult for our judges to choose the winners.

The students were recognized and read their winning entries at an author event and open house held on Sunday, September 27, 2015, at the Chantilly Regional Public Library, 4000 Stringfellow Road, Chantilly, VA, 20151. 

The winning stories and poems will also appear in the Writers of Chantilly’s next anthology, Secrets, Lies and Sighs, to be published later this fall. 

Please email with questions about the contest or September 27, 2015 event. 

Photos from the event:

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

CHOKING DOWN FURY By Rebecca Thompson

I circle my brother. He watches me. His eyes promise, I won’t hurt you. Believing him, I stop the wary pacing. Trust him. I am a little girl and I want a nice brother. A white blanket lies on the floor. It is bedtime. I ease under the blanket. His mouth slackens; he comes for me. Terror grips me, I cower.

A looming path appears by me. Gaping, it beckons. I flee down the path, soaring mightily. Running, my body hums and changes. Growing into a woman, lean and strong.

Path ends... a startling, strange dark sea. A vast melting chocolate sea. It gleams, tantalizes, drawing me. I ponder this burnished sea, I listen. It sings of succor. It wants me. Gliding in, I bathe and eat, feeding on waves. But, I am not pleased. I am not full, I want more, I am angry, I am hungry…


Sea fades. Dream ends. I wake in a stifling room. Touching my neck, I sweat. Groping, I hope to find her, lean and strong. Bulging stomach in my palms. Thick arms sag. Swollen legs. My face crumples, tears burn hot. The old familiar voice snickers. You are ugly! It mocks. You are fat! Pathetic. It sneers in disgust. Despair pries at me and I hang my head. My husband lies next to me, I wish he would waken and hold me. Maybe he could scrape away my hate and my fat to find a small pretty woman.

NO, don’t feel, don’t care. Pushing the voice out, I pull away. Uncurling out of bed, I head for the kitchen. 

Squatting at the refrigerator, I hunker close to food. Urgently I rummage. Panic swipes at me. Slamming bowls and bottles aside, I tangle and hunt. Cake. Grabbing the plate, I tear at it. Kneeling, breaking off chunks, I cram cake past lips. I swallow hard. Fast. Mouthful after mouthful I drive in. Insides clench. Churn. They clamor, greedy and grasping. Cake gone, I lick the plate. Undone, I seize whipped cream. Head tipped back, I fill my hands with the cool billow of cream and guzzle down white froth. I am not full, I want more, I am angry, I am hungry. Grabbing a bowl, I punch a hole through the wrap and dig out cold stiff mush. Frenzied clawing and gulping, I gasp for breath. 

Time passes. I finish. Numbness drapes over me, blowing cool the fever. Raspy breaths slow. Long fall ends. Stillness comes. Blessed, I am full. 

Drinking water, I watch the clock. Minutes go by. Clipping back tousled hair I walk to the sink. It must come out. All of it. Bending over, I push out raw, acid rage, it scalds my throat. I heave out the forlorn, the dim, the sorrow. I retch out the brother, muffled nights, my family. Spent and worn, I stop. Battered, I shake.

Cold water on my face, I wash away sins. Rough towel rubs away my shame. Throbbing knuckles crimson raw with the scratch of my teeth and the searing hate of my belly. I soothe my hands with lotion; it smells of lemon. The clean, crisp perfume anoints me clean. My steadfast oath, this will never happen again. Be clean. Be good. The oath comforts. 

3:18 am. I must sleep. Picking up a bowl of food, I clear my secret. In disbelief I watch a hand dig in. The wrath again, it bellows. Fierce, unforgiving, I ram food into me. Biting my hands, the pain scoffs at me. My hands are mauled, eyes swollen. My inside snarl, I snap. Picking up a fistful of cold pulp, I hurl it against the wall. Again and again. I grunt, short and vicious noises. Wrung out, I steady myself, choking down fury. I reign in. Weary, I stand in frays. 

Scraping walls, I clean up hideous secret. No one can know I am crazy, pitiful. Lying in bed, I am tattered and bruised. I rot. Begging to sleep, I drift into dreamy blur. Misty blissful slumber blankets me. 


In scorching haze I look up and out. Sun smoulders. It rides a strange dark sea. A sea of melting chocolate. Shimmering, the enchanted sea waits. I ponder this burnished sea, I listen. It sings of succor. It wants me. Creeping forward,  I look down at bare feet. Toes curl in creamy chocolate. Velvet liquid rises slowly, hoarding me. Ooze reaches my thighs; thick and seductive it coats me warm. Mesmerized, I yield. I stretch arms towards the sun. Languid, I sway and dance. Entranced,  I am thin and beautiful flowing in the sea.

Plunging my arms into the kind and gracious sea, I scoop the dense wet. Holding it high, chocolate silks down my arm.  Arching back, chocolate snakes lazily across my breasts, pooling into the hollow of my neck. Dizzy, I straighten. Craning forward, licking the underside of my arm, I savor the sticky sap. My tongue trails greedily up the wrist, across my palm and up to the tip of my finger. I suck my finger clean. Sensous sweetness coax but I am not full, I want more, I am angry, I am hungry.

Lowering myself, sea swills around me, murmuring. Sinking deeper in, it furls against my stomach, laps against my breasts and tugs at my hair. Swirling, it croons away my dread and steals away my weariness.

Sensing dead and thinning air, I falter, unsure. But the sea whispers, promises. Caressing, it gently cradles me. Immersed in rich molten satin, I am consoled. I want this. Loving the thrum and purr, I let go and ebb. Relief soaks me. I lay back, my face wears a soft, milky look of peace. My eyes, heavy lidded with chocolate, closes. Lips part, syrup pours in. I float down.

All is forgiven. All is known. I slip into where no sound rushes. No giving is taken from me. I hear a cry, it is me. I am free. I lower into a sweet, wet grave with no hunger. No hiding. No sick secrets. It is brother-less. No lamenting here. I am full. Engulfed. Tender, reverent,  I am sanctified…

Saturday, August 8, 2015


"Doh-brey-ah oo-trah," we greeted each other, practicing our Russian. Good morning.
            It was a bitingly cold November day, a Russian public holiday. Soldiers carrying red flags marched up the street outside our seven-story hotel in Ivanovo. Unlike the contemporary Cosmos Hotel in Moscow, where we'd stayed the night before, the Sovietskya hotel was built in the 1950s and hadn't been updated since. The cavernous lobby, where we waited for the translators, was paneled in honey-colored wood, and empty except for the check-in desk, a pay phone, and a green sofa so mid-century modern it was trendy again. An art nouveau chandelier overhead had burned out. Even the air smelled vintage.
            "Spa-see-ba," we practiced. Thank you.
            The day before, we'd been in Moscow, touring the city, visiting the Kremlin and Red Square, shivering in the sub-zero wind gusts in front of St. Basil's Cathedral to have our pictures taken. For lunch, we ate at Sbarro's pizzeria in what once had been an enormous state department store in Soviet times, but now was an upscale mall. I was surprised to see French fries on the menu, learning over the next several days that French fries are a staple of the Russian diet, served everywhere. Another surprise: toilet paper is not provided in Russian public bathrooms. I had to carry my own supply in my purse.
            Raw-cheeked from the cold and weary from sightseeing, we happily boarded a van for a six-hour drive east to Ivanovo, through old-world villages and magnificent birch forests. My travel companions—all in their 40s and 50s—were friendly and fun to be around. Most had been to Ivanovo before; some, like Carol, several times.
            "I keep coming back," she said. "I miss the kids."
             Everyone on the team who had signed up for the trip to visit Orphanage #1 in Ivanovo had done so for unselfish reasons—to cheer up the children, to make a difference in young lives, to be in mission to others. I was there because when our church mailed us a form asking for help with its programs, I joked to my husband, "Well, I could either donate $20 to the church's operating fund or go to Russia."
            "Okay," Steve said.
            "Okay what? I can go to Russia?"
            "But who would watch the boys?"
            "I'll take off work," he said. "We'll be fine."
            This is crazy, I thought, checking the "Ivanovo Orphanage Mission Team" box on the form, my head filling with images of Imperial Easter eggs, onion-domed churches and Byzantine art. I can't just take off to Russia for ten days.
            I couldn't have known then how broken I would be by the time we left; how the impulsive act of checking that little box would be the first step in putting me back together.
           We were paired with our very own Russian translators, all of them women in their early 20s, all of them wearing stiletto boots despite the thin layer of ice on the ground.
           Olga mothered me from the start, though I was ten years older. "Where is your hat?" she scolded in heavily accented English before we left the hotel. She had a round, cherubic face, limp brown hair, and wore the same two sweaters—light blue and beige—throughout the week. Clothes are so expensive in Russia that people wear them over and over between washings.
            "It can get smelly sometimes," Jan, a team member, warned those of us who were new. "Especially in the orphanage. It gets really stuffy in the winter."
            The 15 of us—team members and translators, and Anya, our petite, briskly efficient guide—piled into a van for a ten-minute drive to a Russian Orthodox Church to attend Sunday services.
            The towering red-bricked cathedral with high arched windows, scalloped cornices and three onion domes topped with metal crosses took my breath away. Congregants, the majority of them elderly ladies in long coats and head scarves carrying tote bags, hurried in and out of the massive double doors. I covered my own head with a floral scarf.
           There were no pews inside the church, only a circular, high soaring space with an altar in the middle. Glittering icons of Mary with baby Jesus and religious scenes decorated the walls. Tables around the room were weighed down with hundreds of lit votives. A priest in ornate robes, and several nuns, chanted and sang in Russian, their voices echoing. People in family groups stood in silence.
            At first I thought we'd missed part of the service, but Olga quietly explained that it would go on for hours, with people coming and going. The women bustled around the sanctuary, collecting scraps of paper from worshippers, delivering them to the nuns.
            "Written prayers," Olga whispered.
            There is something about the grandeur of a centuries-old cathedral—the rituals, the incense-scented air, the carvings and stained glass—that moves me, that makes God seem closer. Thousands of miles from home, listening to a sermon in a language I didn't understand, with little Russian ladies scurrying around me, the anger I felt toward God, and the universe, and cancer—and the guilt I carried inside—began to ease.
           My mother passed away three months before I left for Russia, and between the time she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died—just five months—we spoke of death only once.
            “Isn’t it better to go suddenly?” she asked tearfully. “Isn’t it better not to know?”
“No!” I said.
At the time I was thinking of my grandmother who had died suddenly, giving me no chance to say goodbye. Knowing is better, I told myself. I can prepare. I can say what I have to say. Turns out, Mom was right. Sudden is better.
What did I think we were going to talk about? Her fears? She kept them to herself. Relieve my conscience? There was nothing to resolve. Everything that I’d ever wanted to say to Mom had been said. Talking about the past now made her cry. Making funeral plans meant that we had given up, so we didn’t talk about that either. All there was to talk about were her appointments and treatments, the only certain things.
A round of radiation caused Mom's hair to fall out and I'd offered to shave my head in solidarity. “Don’t you dare!” she said.
The floral scarf I wore in the Russian church was hers.
            The sermon was still going on when we left thirty minutes later. After a short drive, we pulled up to Orphanage #1, a plain two-story tan-painted building. The door flew open and children ran out, older ones throwing their arms around team members who had come before, younger children hanging back, shy. I felt shy myself, stepping down from the van, overwhelmed, uncertain how to act.
            In the common room, where all the kids were gathered, Russ, one of the two guys on the team—Scott was the other—led the group in a simple sing-along in English. Afterwards, I had a chance to talk to Dima, an 11-year-old boy with brown hair and eyes, and a sweet smile. The conversation stumbled at first, as we got accustomed to speaking through Olga, but before long Dima was telling me about school and his favorite sport (soccer) and asking me about life in America. Too soon it was time to go, and as the team stood in the hall, saying our good-byes, Dima clung to me like he never wanted me to go, and I looked over his head, blinking to keep tears from falling.
            Lunch was at B-mart, a department store with a cafeteria-style restaurant inside. Along with the ubiquitous French fries, the self-serve buffet featured borsch, potato salad and sausages.
            Eyeing a pan of flat things in a sauce labeled "cutlet," I asked the woman behind the counter what kind of meat it was. She shook her head, not understanding, so I called Anya over.
            "What kind of meat is this?" I asked.
            "It's a cutlet," she said.
            "Is it beef? Pork?" I asked, conscious of the line getting longer behind me
            Anya shrugged. "It's joost meat."
            Resigned, I ladled some on my plate. (It tasted like chicken.)
            An old, gloomy looking apartment building was our next stop. Two 17-year-old female graduates of the orphanage lived there. In Russia, children are forced out of the orphanages at 14, and, if they are lucky, placed in government-subsidized apartments with periodic visits from a "house parent." Essentially adults, they are expected to shop for groceries, do their laundry and cook for themselves, get a job or attend a tech school or, if their grades are high enough, go to college.
             I would have been appalled at the rundown condition of the apartment building if it were any different from the hundreds of other dreary apartment buildings in the city. The stairs to the second floor were covered in moldering trash and paint was chipping off the walls. Yuliya's and Nastya's apartment, however, was clean and tidy. The girls flitted around the tiny space, which I could tell they were proud of, serving tea and store-bought cookies. Being motherless myself, you'd think I'd be able to relate to these girls, but the visit was awkward because of the language barrier, and because I didn't know what to say to teenagers who had lost so much, and who were so childlike and hard-edged at the same time.
            After leaving the apartment, we met the girls and a dozen more graduates at a nearby pizza place with a party room upstairs—a sort of shabby Russian Chuck-E-Cheese—with cartoon characters painted on the walls and coin-operated video games. A bizarre place to bring teenagers who had stopped being children years ago, but Anya had chosen the location.
            The seven team members and our translators split up among the graduates, and thus began ninety excruciating minutes—I secretly checked my watch—of conversing with four teen girls who looked as though they'd rather be anywhere else than sitting here answering my questions—"What are you studying in school?" "Do you have a boyfriend?"—through an exhausted translator, who, for all I knew, could have been telling them, "Sorry you got stuck at this table. It's almost over."
            Back in the hotel room I shared with Carol, alone for a moment, I began to cry. What am I doing here? I can't help these children. I felt completely inadequate to the task I signed up for. I was in a strange country, completely cut off from my family. And I wanted my mother.
            After Mom had been diagnosed in April 2007, I telephoned her every day, like I had before she got sick, but getting her to talk became a struggle. She seemed far away already. It got to the point where I dreaded calling, because I didn’t know what to say and she didn’t either. For the first time, there were uncomfortable stretches on the phone that we didn't know how to fill. I felt shut out of her life. I didn’t know whether to be a cheerleader or listener. I asked her once, what she wanted. "I don't know,” she said. "Just be there."
             She seemed to be tolerating the radiation treatments well, so it was a surprise when she had to be admitted repeatedly to the hospital, once for dehydration, twice for blood clots in her legs. The last time she was admitted, her legs were so swollen she was nearly paralyzed from the waist down. Those heavy puffed-up legs were especially difficult for her to cope with because she’d always been self-conscious of having chubby legs, and never wore shorts.
             Until this point I had lived in complete denial. We lived an hour apart, close enough for me to help in a crisis, but far enough away that I was shielded from the day-to-day realities of her treatment. I would have these rare moments of clarity when the implications of her illness would hit me and I’d fall apart, but most of the time I went on with my life, totally unable even to conceive of a world without her. It was easier that way.
            To address the clots, her doctor inserted a stent. He talked about her going home, but she didn’t want to leave the hospital. I think she must have known what I refused to accept.
            That afternoon, I took the doctor aside to ask, “What now?”
            He looked me straight in the eye. “This is it. It’s over.”
            Numb, I returned to her bedside, told her what a wonderful mother she was, but she turned away. “Leave me alone,” she said. “I don’t have the energy to talk to you right now.”
            The next day she was released to hospice care at home, where I stayed for the next five days. It was astonishing how quickly she deteriorated. This fiercely private woman let me feed her and hold her while she used the toilet. My brother said later that he felt privileged to have been there, part of her inner circle. She refused to see my husband, my brother’s wife, or even the grandchildren. "I don't want them to see me this way."
One day, she struggled to put a pill in her mouth and kept dropping it. “Damn it, what’s wrong with me!”
In that moment of frustration, I caught a glimpse of her spirit, as strong as ever, trapped inside. I’d always struggled with my beliefs of the afterlife. But now I was convinced that her soul wouldn’t just die with her body. It had to go somewhere.
Mom’s legs bothered her, so I did what I could to ease the discomfort, rubbing them, covering them with damp cloths when they burned from lack of oxygen. Hour by hour, it seemed, the purple crept under the skin from her toes, over her feet and up her ankles, like a shadow—like death. If I could just stop it from spreading—make it go away—I could save her.
"Put socks on her feet," the hospice nurse suggested.
I did, hoping it would help, knowing deep inside that the socks were for my benefit, so I wouldn’t have to look at my mom’s feet anymore. I never realized that hospice was as much involved with helping the family let go as caring for the patient.
“We don’t know how to die anymore,” another nurse told me. We started out hating the nurses, ended up loving them.
I administered morphine every four hours, and when the drug wore off, Mom would come around. She was sometimes alert, mostly incoherent, looking at something in the distance only she could see. Overnight, my brother and stepfather slept on the couch and loveseat. Both snored so loudly that I couldn’t have drifted off had I wanted to. Sometime in the night, my brother woke up, glared across the room at my stepfather for making so much noise and fell back asleep. Ten minutes later, it was my stepfather's turn to wake up and complain, “Could your brother snore any louder?”
Near dawn, Mom sat up asking for a dictionary. My heart beat rabbit-fast as I took the stairs two at a time to the office upstairs to scan the shelves. What are you doing?! All I could think of was her downstairs, trying to get out of bed and falling. Grabbing a book at random, I brought it to her. “What do you want me to look up?”
By then she couldn’t remember. She started to get agitated; I panicked. I could have woken my brother and stepfather, but that would just add to the turmoil.
“I forgot…” she moaned. I couldn’t make out the rest. What did the nurse say? I tried to remember, something about just reassuring her.
“No you didn’t,” I said. “You took care of everything.”
“It’s my fault…all my fault.”
“No, no. It's okay.”
I started her on morphine around the clock after that, which kept her in a constant twilight state. I felt like a coward, because I could not say if medicating her was for her benefit or mine, even though the nurses had urged us never to let the morphine wear off. Fluid had filled her lungs, she was suffocating, and the drug helped her relax. We'd resisted, so desperate for those rare moments between doses, when she was Mom again and could speak to us.
Every time I squirted the drug into her half-open mouth, it felt like an assault. I told myself that if the roles were reversed, if I were lying there, I would trust her to do this for me.
            The last twenty-four hours were quiet, long-drawn-out. I watched her suffer, helpless to relieve it. We listened to the soundtrack from the movie, Somewhere in Time. My brother went home to his family. My stepfather made final arrangements. The hospice nurse bathed her, changed her bed linens, called her "Miss Sue." Her breathing, though quick and shallow, was calmer, because she wasn’t panicking anymore about the lack of air. But her body was strained, her back arched and her arms straight. She still fought. I painted her toenails, held her hand. When had I ever been this close to her? Been aware of her every breath and heartbeat?
             She died on a Tuesday morning. I was on the phone in another room, talking to my husband. I felt a change. It was so slight.
             I knew without looking she was gone.
            They say that there is no such thing as time in Heaven. That final week with Mom, it felt like some of the timelessness of Heaven had leaked in, surrounding us. Time passed so slowly. As soon as she was gone, time sped up again, to catch us up to the rest of the world, which had been going on the whole time.
At first, it had been a relief to go to Russia, to outrun grief for a while, to live in the moment and forget about everything. But after the surprise of Dima's hug, the bleak apartment buildings and the disastrous evening with the graduates, sorrow overwhelmed me, and I felt as helpless as I had the last days of my mother's life.
            "It's okay," Carol said kindly when she walked into our room. "It gets to everyone."
The next day we took the children from the orphanage to the zoo. Dima saved a seat for me on the bus and held my hand. What a strange, sad little zoo, with its ramshackle cages and outbuildings, and junk strewn around, including an old rusty van. Despite the zoo's neglected appearance, it had two tigers, three bears and a lion. The kids loved it; most had never been to a zoo before.
Back at the orphanage, we played monkey in the middle in the hallway, and decorated t-shirts. I found out that Dima's favorite toys were Matchbox cars, but that these inevitably ended up stolen or hoarded by other children. My sons had dozens of toy cars to play with and this Russian child did not have even one!
The next four days passed in a whirlwind of activity, with no time to think about Mom, or life back home. We had "spa" day for the girls, turning the common room into a beauty parlor with make-up, nail polish and hair accessories. As expected, the girls loved it, and I found it much easier to talk to them while styling their hair in an elegant up-do. We also decorated keepsake boxes and picture frames, had sing-alongs, indoor scavenger hunts, and a board game challenge. To every child we handed out backpacks filled with school supplies, slippers and new pajamas that had been donated by members of our church. As the week went on, I found myself growing attached not only to Dima, but to two teenage girls—Sveta and Katya—who could not have been more different. Fourteen-year-old Sveta was slender, with brown hair and eyes, and a quiet, shy manner. Katya was a year younger and stockier, blonde and blue-eyed, and as rough and tumble—and belligerent—as the boys. Before coming to Orphanage #1 two months before, she had lived on the streets.
For many days the children had been rehearsing for an evening performance in our honor, and the team had organized a full day's "carnival" activities leading up to it, including face painting. For two hours, Olga and I decorated faces with butterflies and flowers, and for the majority of boys, red and black Batman style masks around the eyes. When it was Katya's turn, she demanded a Batman face, too, but eventually chose cat's eyes and whiskers.
The orphanage caretakers were annoyed with us. Here, the children were supposed to be on stage later that evening, dressed in their best, performing traditional dances, and we had decorated their faces! Any child they could get their hands on was scrubbed clean. I felt bad, until later that night, when a gang of little boys in black vests and Batman faces took the stage for a polka. It was a magical evening that brought the entire team to tears.
We only had two hours with the children the next day before leaving for Moscow. Although we were discouraged from singling out children and giving them gifts, I did manage to smuggle Dima some Matchbox cars I'd bought at the B-mart. "Be a good boy," I told him. "Study hard in school."
The girls—Sveta and Katya—stayed by my side, posing for photographs until it was time to go. Without thinking, I took off the ring and heart necklace I was wearing—gifts from Mom—and gave them to the girls. To see Katya—that tough cookie from the streets—sobbing uncontrollably broke my heart.
"Duh svee-dah-nee-ye," I said, hugging her one last time. "Do svidaniya. Goodbye."
Don't look back, I told myself as we pulled away. Russ, Carol, Jan—they were all crying, too—and I thought, How can they bear this over and over again?
During the long drive back to Moscow, and the flight home, I ached inside, knowing I would probably never see Dima, Katya or Sveta again. At the same time I felt replenished, uplifted in spirit, as if my heart was knitting back together.
"Funny how I go there to help the children," Carol told me. "But I end up receiving so much from them."
            There are lessons we cannot learn without loss. Joys we cannot experience without pain. Grief that hurts and heals at the same time. I'll never forget the suffering I saw during my mother's last days—nothing can erase those images entirely from my mind—but there were also moments of grace. The soft way the light came through the windows at the end of the day. The tranquil, quiet moments we had together. How time—and the world—seemed to stand still.
            Goodbyes wouldn't hurt so much if we didn't love.

The author's mother,  1968

Thursday, July 16, 2015


You can’t imagine how much my husband hated it when I found God. Please, please don’t tell him what happened. I’ve had two miracles in my life, and I don’t want to try to kill the second one, too.

Early on after I started going to church, Sam said something that wedged itself in my head good and hard. “Riddle me this, Abbie,” he said. “If you’re in so good with God now, why is it so fuckin’ hard to make a baby?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say Sam’s an ogre. Don’t think that. He’s a good man, he really is. But whenever I would remember that for years after I would squeeze my fists until my nails drew blood.

I had to admit Sam had a point, though. We weren’t doing a lot of begetting, no matter how often we had sex while I was ovulating or how many thousands we spent on treatments at the fertility clinic. All we wanted was a sweet little newborn and the only thing we had to show for our effort was a pile of medical bills.

When we first decided to go for it, it’d been so romantic. Sam would come to bed with a flower, or a little poem he’d written himself, that goofy grin on his face. And I’d wear my sexiest outfit, the lacy black camisole he’d had gotten me on our first anniversary, or sometimes I’d surprise him by wearing nothing at all under the cool sheets. It didn’t take us long to get pregnant. Or so we thought.

When I missed my period we rushed to the drug store to buy a home pregnancy test. Could hardly get home fast enough and pee on that little stick, and when it turned pink we were so happy. Went out to dinner at the steakhouse to celebrate. At the first doctor’s visit that week they said everything was going well, and we started arguing over names. He wanted Andrew for a boy, I wanted Isabel for a girl.

We went back a month later for the ultrasound, wondering if we’d find out the sex that day. But in the examination room there was a problem. The technician had to go ask the doctor about something. She was gone a long time. When the doctor came in, she told us there was no embryo, just an empty sack. Anembryonic pregnancy, she called it. It couldn’t have hurt worse if she’d plunged a knife right there into my jellied abdomen. I almost wished she had.

I didn’t let Sam near me in bed for months after that. It just hurt too much. 


I felt like such a piece of crap for so long. Why can’t I do this one thing any other woman can do? I still felt like I had that knife in my abdomen. I could feel it twisting in my womb every day. And then I turned to God.

My friend Ellen invited me to the Assembly of God over on Pacific Street, and it all made sense right from the first visit. That day the preacher said we can’t understand God’s ways, but He has a reason for everything He does. And if there was a reason, it meant it wasn’t my fault. As soon as I heard that my insides started to relax.

Not only that, but I realized God might only be testing me. If I just showed him how faithful I was maybe then he would finally let what I wished for come to pass.

I started praying all the time. I would just close my eyes and talk to God, didn’t matter where. In the checkout line at the grocery store. Taking a shower. As soon as I woke up in the morning and before I went to bed. I tried so hard to be faithful, to be thankful, to be patient. I thought if only I accepted God’s will, someday I would conceive. At night when everything was quiet and the only sound was Sam’s even breathing, I would calm myself and listen, hoping maybe God would whisper back to me, telling me what to do.

I believed, I hoped, and I prayed, yet that one deepest desire I possessed did not come true. And all the while, Sam got more and more bitter. Mean even.

I shouldn’t say that. It was as hard on him as it was on me. That was his way of dealing with it.

All his snide little comments sure didn’t make things any easier for me, though. “Why don’t you tell your Sky God to part these cars? You know, like the Red Sea,” he said as we sat in his truck, simmering in a traffic jam on Dodge Street. Right, ha ha. And that night, like nothing had ever happened, he had the pure gall to kiss me on the cheek and say, “Maybe we should do it tonight, honey.” Was I supposed to forget what he’d said earlier that day? But I did it anyway. I detested every second of it, but I let him roll on top of me and stick it in. I was his wife after all. Even with the comments and the hurtfulness, we were still trying to make it happen.

Anyway, I didn’t let all that bother me too much. I was too involved at my new church. And I was so excited, so curious, learning new things every day about myself and my role in His plan. I read the Bible like it was a glass of water and I’d spent years in a desert. In a way, I had—an emotional desert. I didn’t understand half of what I read, but that’s not what mattered. The words just poured over me. Cooling, calming, soothing.

I wanted Sam to have the same peace I’d found. I asked him to come to church with me, but you can picture how that went over. “I would sooner pull my own fingernails out with pliers,” he said. So I didn’t ask again. Ever.


On my birthday, Sam took me to the Spaghetti Works in the Old Market, my favorite restaurant. He must have told the waiter about the occasion because at the end of the meal they brought a dish of hazelnut gelato and all the staff stood around the table clapping and singing “Happy Birthday.” When they finished it was quiet for a second and I burst into tears. Somehow I’d gone all day without thinking about it, but it hit me right at that moment in the restaurant: I was forty-five. At that age you can pretty much write off ever getting pregnant. I knew right then I would really never have a baby of my own.

Everybody in the whole place turned around to see who was bawling on her birthday, probably expecting a five-year-old. I felt so bad, seeing the shocked look on Sam’s face, but I couldn’t help myself and cried and cried practically the whole way home in the truck.

He was so good about it. I apologized to him that night and he told me, “Hey, it’s your party, you can cry if you want to.” I laughed at that and he kissed me. I didn’t turn away that time. I closed my eyes and let his lips press against mine, let his fingers run though my hair. Maybe that’s why Sam didn’t fly off the handle when I told him we had to move.

It came over me all of a sudden, a real conviction we were in the wrong place and had to go.

“But where we will we live? Where will we work?” Sam asked, sitting up in bed.

“The Lord will let us know when we get there,” I said. The moving van was there that very weekend.

We got into town on Sunday and drove around, checking things out, with no real plan of where we would even spend the night. When we saw this place I knew instantly. The building was so tall and beautiful, and something about the gray stone and all the pinnacles and the pointed windows really struck me. It was like a cathedral, the kind of place where you could really get in contact with God. I said, “This is it,” and Sam pulled the truck over. We went right in and signed a one-year lease for an apartment that was available immediately.

Our stuff arrived the next day. After hours of carrying boxes and furniture, sweaty and exhausted, I sat on a stool by the open window. The movers had left and all was peaceful outside in the courtyard, with hanging plants all around on people’s balconies and the sky turning purplish with the coming night. I breathed in and the air smelled so fresh, filling my nostrils and lungs. And now I truly heard the Lord, and he was telling me it was time. I took off my clothes and went into the bedroom where Sam was unpacking a box of books and kissed him, fell right in his arms. We made love right there on the soft bare mattress, the first time in months. I knew right away a miracle had finally happened.


I was right, too. Nine months later I gave birth to Izzy, our gorgeous baby girl. She was born with a full head of curly brown hair and we brought her home to the nursery Sam and I had so carefully decorated with giraffes and lions and elephants.

She was so cute and precious, with her tiny fingers and the little pink booties we put on her feet. I never could understand why I was so sad all the time. More than that, I couldn’t even muster the will to get out of bed. The feeling was so strong it was a physical weight holding me down. When I heard Izzy cry for me in the middle of the night, I groaned with all my soul. How could I be like this, when God had given me everything I had wanted? I would have been angry, except I couldn’t even work up the emotion for that. Instead, I just hated myself. Hate was the only thing. The whole world seemed pointless and me most of all. I didn’t deserve what I’d received.

Sam was so good during this time, feeding Izzy, playing with her, while her stupid Mommy just laid around all day. I thought it was a good sign when I became jealous of him, because she had become so attached to her Daddy. It meant I was starting to feel again. That encouraged me to pray, and with God’s help, I became better gradually. I still had bad days, but they were fewer and farther between.

I insisted we raise her in the church, because God had done so much for us. That’s when the second miracle occurred: Sam started coming with us. Probably he was humoring me, or maybe he’d had a genuine change of heart. I don’t know. We went every week, and Sam and I listened to the sermon and held hands.

Now every morning I get up early for my own time with the Lord. I open the window and kneel with my arms on the sill, breathing in His good air and thanking Him for all He has provided for my family. The two miracles that have changed my life. The Lord talks back too. Not in words, but in the way I feel in my soul. So close to Him, in touch with his loving nature. I could not imagine a happier, more fulfilled life.

Izzy had her third birthday two weeks ago exactly. She’s at the age now where she has a mind of her own. She insisted she wanted a birthday cake with princesses, so I bought one at the grocery store and invited a few of her friends from daycare over. We held the party in the courtyard, put the cake on the picnic table made of white stone.

After Izzy blew out the candles, Sam picked up the stainless steel knife to cut the cake. His hand brushed the hand of one of the mothers. He smiled at her and she smiled back, her brown eyes flickering as if it wasn’t their first touch. I nearly fell to the ground in shock, a rush of blood to my head reminding me of the bad. All those years we couldn’t conceive. Sam’s hateful remarks. The way I’d felt it was my fault all that time for not getting pregnant. My tears that night at the restaurant. Even those dark days after Izzy was born when I acted so ungrateful.

I was nearly overtaken by panic right there in the courtyard. Were things really different now, between us? How well did he know this other woman? How many times had they met? Maybe I didn’t even truly deserve his love, or a beautiful child, or a happy life. At that moment in my mind, it was as if the last several years hadn’t taken place at all.

“Honey, are you all right?” Sam asked.

I took a deep breath, got ahold of myself. “I’m fine,” I said. “I was just a little dizzy for a second.” I picked up the matchbook and saw that my palms were bloody.

The next morning I opened my eyes and the crushing feeling hit me. It was another of those days like after Izzy was born. I forced myself to get out of bed and open the window. I kneeled down and breathed in the air. It wasn’t fresh anymore, or warm or sweet. It was cold and sharp as needles in my lungs, my gut, down to my womb. And I knew right away it meant the Lord was asking me to do something. Something I didn’t want to do.

I had to kill Izzy.

I closed the window and went back to bed. Tears ran down my face as I laid there. When Sam woke up he asked me if something was wrong. I told him I didn’t feel well, that was all.

I went over it in my mind, considered it from every angle. Why would God do this? Maybe it was mercy. Maybe something was wrong with Izzy, and killing her now would save her from suffering later. I watched her all day for signs of illness, but she seemed so healthy and happy, running to the swings at the playground and shouting in her little voice, “Mommy! Mommy! Push me!”

Three days I opened that window in the mornings, and three days that cold air entered me. I prayed to Him, I pleaded with Him. I prostrated myself on the floor and opened myself to Him, hoping that if He could only see how faithful I was He wouldn’t lay that terrible command on my heart. But in the end, I knew God wasn’t changing his mind.

On the fourth day I waited until Sam went to work. I picked out the stainless steel carving knife from our wooden knife block, the same one he had used on the cake, and placed it in a tote bag. I called Izzy to me and kissed her on the cheek and told her we were going down to the courtyard. She took my hand and we went out the door.

I hoped the elevator would stop on the way down, that somebody would get in and grab me and put a stop to it, maybe that old janitor who was always hanging around. No one did. The door opened and I led Izzy down the corridor.

“Where are we going, Mommy?” she asked.

“To the courtyard.”

“Are we going to play there?”

“Mommy has something she has to do there.”

“Did you bring a snack, Mommy?”

I squeezed her hand harder and pushed through the double glass doors into the courtyard. There in the center stood the stone table. I picked Izzy up and sat her on top.

“Lie down and close your eyes, Izzy.”

“It’s not my naptime, Mommy!”

“Let’s pretend it is.”

She laid down and closed her eyes, smiling in anticipation of the fun game we were about to play. I took out the knife from the bag and gripped it in my right hand, covering her eyes with my other. I raised the knife and did not hesitate, because I had prepared myself in my mind for this moment. I put my faith in the Lord and trusted in His will. I brought the blade down in a smooth, clean motion, and as it was about to pierce her ribcage a voice shouted, “Stop!”

I jerked my hand back and looked around. Nobody was there.

“What are you doing, Mommy?” Izzy asked, her eyes open now.

“Nothing, baby,” I said, checking the windows on the upper floors. Where had the voice come from? “Let’s go back inside.”

I replaced the knife in the bag and brought Izzy back upstairs. Inside the apartment the window was open. Odd, I was positive I had shut it earlier, because the air was so cold. Now though, the sun was out and I started to sweat, big oily drops oozing down my face. The sweat ran off me onto the floor. It was as if somebody had pulled a plug, and all the anger and pain I’d built up for years drained out of me, right out in a black puddle by the coffee table.

Izzy laughed. “You’re all wet, Mommy!” I stumbled to a chair and sat and held her in my lap. I felt relief, as if I had passed a test I hadn’t even known I was taking. And although I still pray every morning, it’s been two weeks now and God hasn’t spoken to me since.