Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footprints

I have always maintained that life would be much easier if upon death we made our home a funeral pyre and burned it down with us inside it.

It would save our survivors hours of figuring out what to sell and what to give or throw away. Tense and tearful hours as they pored through our digital and paper lives learning things that perhaps we never wanted them to know. Jewelry and other valuable small items wouldn’t lead to family fights over who deserved it or who mom wanted it to go to.

Everything reduced to a fine pile of ash.

Family and friends would come to the burning ceremony and set up chairs a safe distance from the fire. The musically inclined could bring their instruments and play gently in the background. As the sound went down a bottle or two could be passed around to soothe the grief and loosen the tongue for the stories of the departed that demand to be told one last time. Once the fire quieted, and the grief dialed back to a simmer, the participants would sit quietly and roast marshmallows as they pondered their mortality. People would slip off silently as the night wore on and at dawn the area would be deserted and only a hot bed of coals would mark the site.

Doesn’t that sound so much better than the current process?

When my daughter died, there were some things that were easy to part with. Her car went first. The sight of it parked in the driveway was like an open wound that reminded us she would never come home again. Her shoes, undergarments, bathing suits, sunglasses were all items that required no thought to discard. Everything else, though, ended up being packed up and kept.

I’ve moved twice since she died, and each move forced me to look again and see what I would keep and what I could bear to part with. On the second move I managed to discard 4 boxes of DVDs and some small crock pots. After five years I released a few more items that no longer held an emotional charge.

Some of us her stuff I still use today. The lamps, pictures, and curtains she picked out when we moved to South Carolina, as well as the house decor she carried here from New Hampshire, is either being used or waiting to be used. The wooden moose figurine, that for some reason infuriated my ex-husband when he saw it on a Lowe’s bill, sits atop my mantel. The riding lawnmower, chosen by her for her use, still sits outside even though I could afford a lawn service. Her favorite coffee cup, the remains of a plate set, a wine glass she purchased for her sister’s bachelorette party, all exist in a world where she is gone.

Other things I hold onto are not utilitarian. I have the messages she wrote to herself during her time at Brattleboro Retreat and the letters fellow patients wrote to her. There are gifts given to her by boyfriends that are now grown and married. Her datebook diary and favorite books are safely ensconced in a large Tupperware container that I still don’t have the strength to open to review the contents. Everywhere I turn there is a reminder of her.

The Bible says from dust you came and from dust you shall return. I won’t say this with certainty, but maybe losing someone would be easier if that same principle applied to all of our possessions when we died. Instead we are doomed to live in a world where the possessions remain with us long after the person has left.

The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants, Til it Doesn’t

Valentine’s Day reminds me of all that is wrong with love.

At the impossibly long-ago age of 24, I’d decided that love, marriage and children wasn’t in the cards for me. I witnessed the tumultuous marriage and divorce of my parents. I’d been in a physically abusive relationship at 20 and decided that dying alone, surrounded only by dogs, was a much better option than falling in love again.

And then I met my husband.

The day after meeting him I wrote my sister a letter (yes, we wrote letters back then) to tell her I’d met the man I was going to marry. His initials were TLC, his birthday was Valentine’s Day, and he had a crazy mother that mirrored the craziness of my dad. Plus as we walked barefoot across a dew covered field that night, he stopped so we could look at the stars and feel the dew on our feet before he kissed me.

People have gotten married for less.

I fell in love with him, or more likely I fell in love with what I thought I saw in him, and I moved in and never left.

He told me years later he wished I’d left.

When my brother died several months into the relationship, and my whole world turned upside down, he was there for me. He was good at appearing solid and trustworthy and all of the things I craved but had never found in a partner.

Appearances deceive.

As the years went by, he revealed himself to be a liar and a cheater, yet I forgave him time and time again. I was honest, at least, as I told him that love was like a well. Every time he cheated or lied, the level got lower. And someday, maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday, the love I felt for him would disappear. And when that happened, no amount of pleading or begging would fill it up again.

I would be gone.

In preparation of that day, I became a nurse so I could make enough money to support my two daughters. As soon as I had my degree and my first job, I threw him out.

He wouldn’t go.

He changed, or he appeared to change, and I convinced myself that at last, he loved me as much as I loved him. But love is never equal like that.

And eventually the well went dry.

It took almost 30 years to get to that point. 30 years of forgiving him, making excuses, telling myself that I couldn’t make it financially or emotionally if I left him. 30 years of being more scared of being alone than of being miserable. But then the well ran dry.

One night I packed up his things, told him to leave, and never looked back.

I’ve learned a lot since then, some bitter, some sweet. I learned that what your children see in your relationships can either send them into the arms of the wrong person, or keep them from making the same mistakes you did. I realized that the only person I can control is me. I figured out that there is always a choice, and sometimes the choice is standing up for yourself instead of some Michael Bolton love song.

It’s not easy to turn your back on the person you built your life around, but maybe the real lesson is not to build your life around another person. Maybe if I’d had a solid foundation, instead of thinking I needed someone else to help me build one, I wouldn’t have ended up wasting so many years loving someone who wasn’t capable of loving me back the way I deserved.

And I do deserve someone like that.

So this Valentine’s Day I don’t need chocolates and flowers and empty promises written on heart shaped cards. I’ve already had all of those and they only led to heartache and tears.

I don’t want to fight for someone’s love. That’s always a losing battle.

Valentine’s Day celebrates the appearance of love, because the reality of love has nothing to do with chocolates and roses and expensive dinners.

To be honest, I want someone to spoil me with honesty and loyalty, I can finance myself. If that person doesn’t ever materialize, I’m okay with that, too.

I can buy my own chocolates.

Rest Easy Mom and I Hope You Can Be Soft Now.

When I was 16 and suffering my first broken heart, my mother didn’t gather me into a hug and tell me everything would be alright. Instead she told me life wasn’t fair.

For her, it wasn’t.

An only child, her father died when she was young and her mother retreated into an overwhelming grief that left no room to raise a child. Instead my mother roamed the neighborhood, eating out of garbage pails and fending for herself. She grew up and married a man she thought would give her a life of stability and comfort. Instead he moved her to a dilapidated farmhouse in New Hampshire and eventually abandoned her to support 4 kids and pay off the mountain of debt he’d acquired. A Catholic, even after women on birth control were banned from Communion, she did not ask much from God, only that he keep her children safe. She said she could handle any other trials he sent out her, as long as he didn’t take her children.

When her oldest, my brother Rod, died in a car accident at the age of 25, she firmly turned her back on God for betraying their covenant. The product of two Italian parents, she knew how to hold a grudge and to the best of my knowledge, she never forgave God for taking my brother.

She became a police officer because they only had one pay scale. She could make a man’s wages doing a man’s work, and support her family. She called her police uniform her costume. She hated the yearly qualification she had to pass in marksmanship. Her greatest fear was another officer would shoot her accidentally practicing their quick draws or panicking when they entered a building. She wanted to go in first, not out of bravery, but out of self preservation.

She preferred her billy club when dealing with reluctant arrestees. She was quick and sneaky with it and no matter the damage she wrought, the male officers got blamed. As one of the first woman cops, she benefited from the perception of women as kind hearted angels and used that to her advantage.

We had few boundaries growing up. She was too busy making a living and paying off my father’s debts to focus on much else. The main rules were to be home when she woke up, and to not embarrass her in her line of work. The one time I didn’t make it home early enough, I earned the nickname APB Maynes after she put out an All Points Bulletin on me. The one time I tried to evade a traffic stop, the unfortunate officer who finally pulled me over had my car driven to the police station and took me home with instructions to tell my mother what happened. He had no desire to give my mother the news. When she drove into work the next day and found my car in the police parking lot I imagine they drew straws to see who would tell her my latest misdeeds.

For most of her life, I didn’t know her as a warm person, I knew her as a strong person, a hard person, a person who took what life threw at her and trudged on. If there was an obstacle, she didn’t go around it or over it, she went through it. The cupboards might have been bare, our only heat the kitchen stove, but I never saw her break down, I never saw her give up, and I damned sure never saw her cry.

She might have been born in New York City but inside she was pure Yankee granite

That steely resolve certainly helped her in life as she buried 2 children, one in 1984 and one in 2021 and a granddaughter in 2014. She cut me out of her life in 2015 and though I reached out to try to heal the rift, I knew from experience that once she made up her mind there wasn’t anything anyone could do to change it. I lived on and so did she. I, too, have a bit of steely resolve I inherited from her.

As I reflect on her life and death, I can say she was one of the strongest women I have ever known. It is not easy being raised by a woman who didn’t tolerate weakness. The mistakes she made weren’t because she was malicious or bad. They were because that was the only way she knew how to get through this life.

Life made her hard.

I have a poster in my house that says:

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard.

Do not let the pain make you hate.

Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.

Even though the rest of the world may disagree,

You still find the world to be a beautiful place.

I hope wherever my mother’s spirit takes her, this time she finds a place where she can be soft.

Domestic Violence – The Shame is Not Yours

I left my home state in 2013 after a marriage marred by emotional and verbal abuse escalated to the threat of physical abuse. There is no more sobering realization than accepting that the wall/door/kitchen island that cracks under punches and kicks could have been your face.


Both of my daughters supported my decision. They never said it out loud, but I suspect they wonder what took me so long.

The decision to move almost a 1000 miles away before I filed for divorce seemed wise when Kelly J Robarge of Charlestown NH disappeared the day she filed for divorce from her husband. He was eventually convicted of murdering her, but in our court system being convicted of murdering your wife or girlfriend is harder than you’d imagine. (Yes, I’m thinking of OJ Simpson).

On October 20, 2014 my daughter’s boyfriend, Caleb Linart of Walhalla, called me and asked me to come to his house to get my daughter as they’d been fighting and he couldn’t get her to leave. I arrived to find her half clothed, face down on the bedroom floor. I stayed on the phone with the 911 dispatcher as I attempted to start CPR, but she had been dead so long she was too stiff to even turn over. After the paramedics ushered me out of the house, and the police arrived I texted Caleb a short message, “Alana is dead.”

When he arrived back at his house, crying and distraught, I didn’t have a lot of questions. My mind reeled, thinking perhaps Alana had an accidental overdose of pain pills and alcohol from an injury she suffered a few weeks before. She’d returned home from a weekend with Caleb with a bruise that stretched over her entire side. It was so painful I wondered if she’d broken a rib and when I asked how it happened she’d had a plausible story: Caleb and her were moving a couch and he pushed it too hard and the arm of the couch hit her in the side.

I didn’t think twice about it.

A detective introduced himself to me and asked questions. I patiently waited on the lawn in the hot South Carolina sun, knowing my daughter’s lifeless body was behind the front door of the house I stood in front of and having no idea what to do next.

Eventually the medical examiner came out and asked if I wanted to come inside and see her before they moved her. She was in a black body bag, unzipped just enough so that I could see her face. I had no idea that underneath the bag her body was covered with bruises and markings from being beat. I had no idea they’d asked to photograph Caleb’s hands to document any evidence of his fists being the ones that beat her. I had no idea they’d bagged her fingernails to protect any evidence they might provide.

I had no idea.

The next day when the medical examiner drove up with a woman he said was the victim’s advocate assigned to Alana’s case, I was more than a little puzzled. It had never crossed my mind her death was to due to domestic violence. No clue her autopsy showed signs she had been both beaten and strangled.

They later told me she also had a lethal level of heroin in her system. Another surprise as she was not an addict.

Two medical examiners, two different outcomes. Both agreed she’d been beaten and strangled. The Oconee one said the heroin killed her before the strangulation. The other maintained she’d died of strangulation. On some level it didn’t matter, she was still dead.

And I will never know exactly how she died. The State of South Carolina Victim’s Assistance Fund heard the testimony of the detective in charge and paid for her funeral as a victim of violence. The court downgraded Caleb’s charge to attempted murder and eventually, after Caleb’s former girlfriend withdrew her statement that he had a history of domestic abuse, the solicitor encouraged me to file a civil complaint as we would not prevail in a criminal case. The police never found the heroin that contributed to her death, and even the pictures that Caleb snapped of her that morning, dead on his bedroom floor, didn’t show any drugs. By calling me to come to his house, he’d left open the defense that she had taken the drugs herself and I had covered it up.

As so often with murder victims, our court system would not extract a price for her death.

What I do know is the part I played in my daughter’s story of domestic violence. I, like so many other women, endured years of verbal and emotional abuse and explained it away. I was the one who made excuses, kept the peace, and normalized a relationship that was not normal.

Some of you may see yourself in those words. You tell your children things like daddy didn’t mean it or dad had a hard time at work or dad just had too much to drink, he really does love us. To you, I want to say stop.

Just stop.

Teach your daughters that they are deserving of relationships that are founded on love and respect. That alcohol or stress or jealously is no excuse for abuse. Be clear there is no acceptable level of abuse. Most of all, show by your example and if that means leaving an abusive relationship, seek the proper help so you and your children can escape without becoming victims of further violence.

Most of all, don’t blame yourself. On Alana’s facebook page she posted:  “So there were two choices: I could close myself off, resign myself to the fact that the world is an imperfect place and I could carry my hurt like a security blanket. Or, I could forgive myself. I could decide that loving people isn’t a weakness and trusting people isn’t a flaw. I could decide when others wrong me that’s a reflection on them, not me. That’s the beauty of it. Something that could have damaged me and made me bitter ended up opening my heart in ways I never knew. So yes, I believe there’s always a chance.”

Think on the line that says “when others wrong me, that’s a reflection on them, not me.”

It is not your fault. You do not deserve to be abused.

In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month and my daughter, who never got a chance to escape an abusive situation, consider donating to Safe Harbor, Turning Points, or any group providing services for victims of abuse.

If you are a victim of abuse, call The Domestic Violence Hotline  at 1−800−799−7233. Your mothers, your fathers, your sisters and brothers, and your children are all counting on you. You deserve the chance not to be another statistic in a government national domestic violence report. There are already too many women that are.

The Fairness of Life

Khaleesi of our dog pack

Khaleesi of our dog pack

When I was 16, my  mother told  me that life wasn’t fair. Until that point I’d understood the lessons learned growing up poor but, at some point at least, I thought the scales would balance out and occasionally the good things in life would come my way.

My mother made it clear that was not to be.

Still, I went on to live a good life with ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and though luck always went to someone else, I was okay with that.

Until my daughter’s death.

Words can’t contain the enormity of the hole left behind by a child’s death. As a writer, I’ve spent the days since October 20, 2014 searching for the ones that will comfort me late at night when I lie in bed trying to find sleep instead of heartache. I haven’t found them yet.

In my parent’s grief group I hear the stories of other mothers and fathers who, too, struggle to get through each day while mourning the loss of their child. We talk about the boxes of belongings we can’t bear to part with. The items of clothing and jewelry we wear in a vain attempt to keep our dead child close. And then, the ones who have survived this pain the longest tell us it will never go away, but it will change.

Some day, they say, the smiles will outnumber the tears.

While I wait for that change to come, I remind  myself of the 27 years I had with her. Her exuberance for life. Her love of her family. The way she adored her dogs. How her smile brightened a room. How her tears could break your heart.  Her persistence. Her love of chocolate and Starbucks and Sonic. Her ability to be both wise and foolish in the same instant. Her transition into a woman who had been disappointed and had her heart broken more than a few times, but kept trying.

In my mind, I knew the adult she would turn out to be. I’ll never see that played out.

Life is unfair like that.

But  I also had 27 years to love her and that was worth every bit of pain I’ve suffered since her death. Maybe life isn’t so unfair after all.

Alana Concetta Carpenter 8/17/87 to 10/20/14

christmas part deux and brunch 004

Alana and sister Sarah Christmas 2010

Alana and sister Sarah Christmas 2010

Alana Carpenter on whale watch with her sister, Sarah

Alana Carpenter on whale watch with her sister, Sarah

Alana Carpenter at Calyx Farms.

Alana Carpenter at Calyx Farms.

Alana Carpenter at Greenville Sipping Safari

Alana Carpenter at Greenville Sipping Safari

Alana Carpenter with family at Greenville Zoo

Alana Carpenter with family at Greenville Zoo

“Sometimes, when chaos burns like wildfire around us, we have no other choice but to fall in love with the warmth.” Christopher Poindexter

Alana Concetta Carpenter was our warmth.