Roberta F. King

Author site for the memoir, He Plays a Harp

26 October
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Days of the Dead

Papier mache skull for Noah’s shrine.

I made my first shrine for Noah on a Sunday afternoon ten months after his death. At Mass that All Saints Day morning, I was shaken from my reverie when our priest read the names of parishioners who’d died that year. “Noah William Miesch,” he said. Noah was included on a list of people I only vaguely knew, older people mostly shut-ins and the very ill whose names I’d seen week after week in the parish bulletin. That day we were urged to remember our dead loved ones, so I came home from church and built a shrine on the kitchen cupboard with a box of pasta, a photograph of Noah and a SpongeBob toy.

Over the last eight years, I’ve created increasingly elaborate shrines for Noah and incorporated some traditional Dias de los Muertos objects—mostly skulls and skeletons—which Noah liked. Oddly, the last Halloween Noah was alive we were at Mackinac Island and he dressed as a skeleton for the festivities there. I place that ironic photograph on the shrine each year. Day of the Dead celebrates the lives of people who have died, not that they are dead. This is the message I tell people who are interested in my book, too.

I’m careful to not commandeer this holiday, being sensitive that my ethnic heritage is mostly Swedish, not Mexican. I think respectful cultural appropriation is okay—it’s part of being a citizen of the world and forming relationships with people who are different than me. Adopting cultural traditions is part of being inclusive and being included.

I’m happy to share that I’ve created a shrine for Noah that will be on view at Grand Rapids Public Library starting October 29. There are a lot of shrines at the library each year and I hope you’ll take the time to stop by to see them. On Saturday, November 1 at 1:30 PM, I’ll talk about my altar along with with other altar-makers and I’ll be reading a bit from my memoir He Plays a Harp, too. Come celebrate.

Photo of Noah as a skeleton. He’s with Mike and Tasha.

23 September
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The Right Fit

I like finding signs in life. It pleases me when the cosmos give me a hint that things are aligned, or not. A year ago today, I designated September 23 as “Manuscript Pitch Day.” It would have been Noah’s 25th birthday and I took the day off from work. The day was to be devoted to sending my manuscript to the world, in hopes of publication.

When He Plays a Harp was published, Principia brought me a box.

When He Plays a Harp was published, Principia brought me a box.

I’d long prepared for this day: revising, editing, engaging pre-readers and reading dozens of literary agent and small press blogs. I dove deep into tips and editor/agent interviews in publications like Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest. I created a list of 50 literary agents and made a spreadsheet of their query requirements. I wrote pitch letters that were personalized and charming. All along in this process, I held onto an article I’d read a year earlier in The Grand Rapids Press. It was about a local publishing company, a start up, called Principia Media. I read the company’s blog and was a Facebook follower. I felt a connection—they were politically progressive and our values were closely aligned. I hoped my book was for them.

The day I sent out my pitches, I braced myself for the onslaught of rejection that the magazines promised me would come. I kept hoping, though, that Principia would want to read my full manuscript, they just seemed right to me. While a New York agent and publisher would have been fine and the idea of fame was fun, I really wanted a company with whom I could form a long-term, genuine relationship. Someone who understood He Plays a Harp wasn’t a transactional book and while making money and selling books was important to me; connecting with readers was just as important.

We celebrated Noah’s 25th birthday that night by sending off a sky lantern. As the lantern blew across Muskegon Lake, I made a quick wish that my manuscript would find a home and become a book. It knew it would be the best way to honor Noah’s life.

The following days I obsessively checked my email for responses—and sure enough—rejections were coming in. Within a week though, I’d heard from two agents who was interested and one publisher—Principia. As soon as the manuscript was accepted by Principia, I contacted the agents who were still considering and told them I’d found a publisher. I’ve always felt it was better to reject before you’re rejected. I have no regrets about my decision to use a local small press publisher.

Working with Principia has brought some great people into my life. CEO Vern Jones and his wife Irene are as kind and compassionate as any two people I know; Dirk Wierenga brought a significant amount of book design, publishing and book distribution knowledge to the table and public relations director, Julie Hurley worked with local bookstores and wrote my first press release for me.

Everyone at Principia worked hard from the start to make sure He Plays a Harp was well edited, proofed, beautifully designed and readily available to readers. They’ve supported me with their presence and their commitment to me as an author. I feel a bond with them that I don’t think would exist if I’d found a publisher outside of Michigan or one who was more interested in making money than sharing Noah’s story.

21 July
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Member of the Tribe

It was a hotel with one thousand rooms, but even in that expanse, recognizing the bereaved parents was easy. We were the worried-looking people with name badges on blue lanyards and big photo buttons of our kids. Though we didn’t pack them, Mike and I had our big Noah buttons by noon the first day of the conference. A volunteer assembled the buttons onsite with a hand-operated button machine. Ours were made from a scan of a worn sixth grade picture that Mike carried in his wallet. I must have missed the memo about bringing a nice photo of your child to the conference for a big button and ours looked worn. Some parents wore two and even three buttons—one for each child that died. I can’t imagine that, which is just what people say to me when I tell them my son died.

So, in our own way, we chose to show our belonging to the group by what we wore. A big photo button and name tag badge with the name of our deceased child printed next to ours told everyone that we were part of the bereaved parents tribe.

Conference Goer from Across the Way

Conference Goer

Across the skywalk from the Hyatt Regency O’Hare where parents and siblings gathered for national conference of The Compassionate Friends (TCF), Exxxotica, the Largest Event in the USA Dedicated to Sex and Love was holding its annual show. They were easy to spot, too. The Exxxotica women wore bum-showing shorts or skirts, sometimes with leg warmers and stilettos or with thigh-high boots. They wore cinched up bustiers with bellybuttons showing, There was lots of black and hot pink clingy material and spangly sparkly tops. They showed inches and inches of cleavage and were generous with their colorful eye makeup and lipstick. They had plenty of ink, too. I spotted a leg length snake working its way from an ankle around the calf, up a thigh and up into the front of a short skirt. The men, for the most part, carried women’s stuff—bags of whatever people in the erotica industry need to have on hand. When you’re toddling around on seven-inch heels, you don’t need to be schlepping a heavy bag.

It was an odd mash up and I wonder about what the hotel conference planner must have been thinking at booking time.

The last night of the conference, I wanted to get a picture of one of the participants from Exxxotica. I needed proof of this unlikely convergence. Mike and I walked the musty and warm skywalk over to the Rosemont convention center after the closing candlelight ceremony for TCF. The skywalk was carpeted, which seemed to be contributing to the dank smell. We passed several possible photographic candidates, but they weren’t interesting enough. Finally, I spotted the one. She was at least six feet tall, but with her spiked heels it was hard to truly gauge her height. She was probably as old as me, and easily seventy pounds lighter. Her makeup was heavy and her expression worn. She’d probably been working a trade show booth since noon. I wondered if she was repping a line of dildos, or was it lube lotion, leather goods or videos? I didn’t ask.

“Hi, do you mind if I take your photo?”

“Sure,” she said cheerfully. She let go of the arm of the man who was escorting her. She smiled and posed against an unfinished trompe de l’oeil painting of a window. I took two images with my phone.

“I just wanted a photo, well, because we’re from the bereaved parents conference. We’re in the same hotel as you guys,” I said. “You know, bereaved parents and erotica in the same hotel. I just thought it was interesting,” I stammered.

Big photo button“Oh. So did we,” she said, nodding. “Who did you lose?”

I told her a bit about Noah’s life and death as we walked back toward the hotel. I was glad she asked, and we were happy to tell her about our son. She steadied herself on her companion’s arm and we fell behind them a few steps. We parted as the doors opened from the smelly skywalk opened to the marble floors of the hotel lobby. Her heels clicked as she and her companion strutted toward an elevator.

I’ve thought about this brief meeting and how the tribes we represented that weekend are on the fringe of what’s considered normal in American culture. Death and sex are two topics people are generally uncomfortable talking about. So here we were, parents celebrating the lives of our beloved dead children, mixed up with other adults reveling in their sexuality and simply looking at one another in wonder thinking: how do you do it?

29 June
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Up North Book Tour

Okay, so it wasn’t the greatest idea to schedule a book tour around the Fourth of July holiday.

At the time, it made sense. I wanted to be in the town of Big Bay for the Independence Day parade that Bay Cliff Health Camp sponsors. The campers dress up and make elaborate costumes for the parade that celebrates their independence. Noah was in the parade when he was a camper and Big Cliff was an important part of his life. One chapter is about Bay Cliff and his camp experience is woven throughout He Plays a Harp. Combining a book event or two with the parade and visiting Bay Cliff seemed easy.

Noah dressed as mashed potatoes for the Independence Day parade in Big Bay.

Noah dressed as mashed potatoes for the Independence Day parade in Big Bay.

In reality, making a Fourth of July book tour was a bit more challenging than I expected–some libraries and stores were already set with events for the summer–though I was working on this in early May. Some claimed to be too busy at this time of year, while others said they were too slow. This made me ponder, where do people who live Up North go in the summer? Do Yoopers come downstate to Muskegon, Grand Rapids or Detroit.  Do they go further north, to places like Winnipeg or Moosejaw? I’ll be finding out the answer to these and other vexing questions next week!
In the end, I secured FOUR book events:

Les Cheneaux Community Library 1:30 PM, on Tuesday, July 1. The library is in Cedarville. I’ll be reading and signing books.

Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore 5-7 PM on Wednesday, July 2 The store is in Munising. I’ll be talking with readers and signing books.

We’ll be at the SAIL benefit concert at the Ore Dock Brewing Company in Marquette 6-9 PM on July 3. This benefit will help Upper Michigan citizens with disabilities. They’ll have books on hand before I arrive. A portion the proceeds from book sales will help SAIL with its programs.

Private reading for teen campers and staff at Bay Cliff Health Camp, July 5 after lunch.

If you’re a Yooper or a troll like me just up for a visit, stop in to the library or bookstore and say hello.

PS: If you subscribe to the St. Ignace News, there was a great article about the camp, book tour and Noah. Can’t wait to get my paper copy!

29 May
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Connectioning

I’ve found that one of the joys of reading He Plays a Harp is talking with people who come to my book events. I haven’t had that many events (yet) but at each, I meet people who have connected with my writing or my story.

Open

Open

Recently at Schuler Books, a young woman came for the reading and brought me a book to be signed. She was a bit teary and I asked her if she’d lost a child. “No,” she said, “but my son Colin has CP.” I asked her to stay after the signing so we could talk. Her son is 2 ½ years old and is in Grand Rapids for a session at the Conductive Learning Center. The six-week program of intense physical and occupational therapy helps kids with CP and other conditions gain strength and mobility. The mom was from California, her husband had just flown back home and she was staying for the therapy program. During the event I read a couple of stories about the severity of Noah’s disability—one about reading to him throughout his life because he never learned to read and another about an incident when Noah, despite his poor hand coordination, pulled a fire alarm at school. These stories perhaps foreshadowed her future with her son. She’s still coming the grips with the idea that she is raising a son with a severe disability—an emotional and heart-ripping situation when you don’t know what the future holds. Even with a non-disabled child, there is no sure and smooth path to the future, but that path is more stable and steady. Some kids with disabilities require constant care and attention and I think she knows that’s what her son will need. It is a heavy burden to carry—knowing that your child’s future is full of complications and physical, mental and social barriers physical.

I didn’t have any words of advice—other than you meet each moment as it comes and just do your best for you and your child. The fact that she was in Michigan from California for a six-week program showed me that whatever the future for Colin might hold, it was certain to be filled with tender care and motherly love.

Could anyone ask for anything more?

03 May
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A Second Goodbye

Broken

Broken

After four years of writing, revising and editing; making photo choices and reviewing page proofs I have a book in hand.

I love the feel of its soft touch paper cover, the typography is pleasing and the stories delight me as I re-read them. I have a handful of events planned and people seem excited to read it. This is what I worked for, right?

And I wonder why I don’t feel better, happier about this moment in time. I reached out to another author, Christine O’Hagen. She wrote The Book of Kehls, about the death of her son Jamie from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at the age of 24. After her book was published she had similar feelings. She wrote this to me: “The reason why you are not happier now is because you had Noah with you during the writing of the book, and now he is gone again. It took me a while to figure this out. The whole catharsis thing everyone in the world promised would happen – didn’t happen at all.”

Christine was right. For four years I held Noah close as I wrote. I thought about him hard, recalling scenes and moments that would help me create his character for the book. I held him closer than I had in many years and in the writing he became alive to me again.  Then, the writing ended. I had a sweet book on the way and I focused on other things. I felt emptiness return and the ongoing grief that had been tempered by writing was back. I’m missing Noah like I did in the early years after his death.

In the next few weeks I’m doing several readings and book signing events. I’m hoping to feel Noah’s presence as I introduce him to people that never knew him and share memories of him with our old friends.

 

 

 

15 March
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Finally! A book.

It is with great pleasure I’m finally able to share news about my memoir, He Plays a Harp.  The official publication date of the book is May 11, 2014, Mother’s Day.

Cover of He Plays a Harp

Cover of He Plays a Harp

I didn’t set out to write a book, I just wanted to mark the fifth anniversary of Noah’s death with a piece of memorable writing. Thanks to The Rapidian, I had a place to publish it and the waves were set in motion. Readers reacted to the essay with encouragement and strong emotion and that’s pretty much all an author needs. Other essays followed. A few literary journals published essays, people shared them on social media and I knew Noah and I were on the right trajectory.

Over the course of three years, I remembered, I wrote, I revised and revised again.

I found a wonderful publisher close to home, Principia Media. I read an article about the company soon after I began writing and I always hoped they’d take me on as an author. They’re as enthusiastic about He Plays a Harp as I am. I’ve met some great people through the process—Principia’s CEO Vern Jones and Dirk Wierenga, who is an incomparable publishing advisor.

Over the next few months, news about my launch party, readings and media appearances will be shared here. I’ll be creating a new Facebook page for He Plays a Harp and sharing news on Twitter and Google Plus. I hope you’ll stop by for a reading and that the book’s messages around life, loss and love are memorable.

PS: And the cover? It’s an oil pastel drawing that my husband Mike created, we found it in his portfolio and thought it was perfect.

27 February
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Odd Day, Even Year

noah scans-113

Noah in a hammock with a hibiscus.

Like a birthday, wedding anniversary or any important date, the anniversary of Noah’s death is one we note. It’s on my electronic calendar as a recurring date, The Day Noah Died, as if I really need reminding. It is on our wall photo calendar with a picture of him and the words, Noah’s Day on February 27. He died in 2006, an even year just after the end of the winter Olympics in Torino.

Eight years seems like a long time for him to be gone, I miss him just as much now as I did when his death was fresh and Mike and I were navigating the first days, weeks and months of being Noah-less. This anniversary is a little bit different and perhaps a bit less bitter. With the upcoming publication of my memoir, He Plays a Harp, I feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to do five years ago: I’ve created a permanent reminder of him and our life. People sometimes ask me if writing his story has been cathartic or healing and until now, I said, “no.” I truly didn’t believe that writing about Noah could heal or fix my hurt. I’ve re-thought that premise and I’ve come to realize that writing about bad experiences can heal and help.  (It also helps to have found a wonderful publishing team in Principia Media). I’ve written and exposed very personal parts of my life, my emotions and my relationships with Noah, Mike and Tasha. I still feel profound grief from his death, but I don’t feel as fragile as I did eight years ago.

The writing has strengthened my relationship with Noah. I never believed that people could have a growing and ongoing relationship with someone who isn’t in this world, but as with using writing to heal, I believe that Noah and I are closer than we were when he was alive.

Today is Noah’s Day and I honor him for helping me write our memoir and giving me seventeen years+eight more years of inspiration.

 

 

05 September
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The Signs

I’ve always been open to signs, you know, like an answer to a meaningful question via the appearance of a rainbow, a bird crossing my path or something else that tells me what I need to know.  Though I’m open to signs, I can’t think of a time when I actually had a meaningful sign.

Until today.

Heart Rock

Heart Rock

I found this rock, or chunk or concrete while I was running. I picked it up and ran home with it in my hand and the moment I spotted it, I thought “Ah! A heart rock for Sally.” Sally is my friend from the Neahtawanta Inn in Traverse City. She collects heart-shaped rocks. Her husband Bob Russell, died August 23 from cancer, which he fought for almost three years. I met Sally and Bob when we stayed at the Inn in 1988. I was pregnant with Noah. While Noah was growing up, we stayed there, too. I like to think that they built the accessible room at the Inn just for us! I’ll bring that rock to Sally, in memory of Bob.

While running, before I found the rock, I was thinking about meetings in the afterlife. When someone dies, I’ll say a little prayer to Noah (since he’s an angel now) and ask him to keep an eye out for whomever might be arriving. I don’t know if Bob was a heaven-believer or not, that isn’t important. What matters is that Noah is looking for him, to welcome him to a new place.

Before I ran this morning I received an e mail that chapter from my memoir that I’ve been working on as a stand alone piece was accepted for web exclusive publication in Brain, Child, a literary journal for mothers. Other authors who’ve been published in it include Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler. The piece I submitted is titled, The Orders and is about when Mike and I chose to sign do not resuscitate orders and allow natural death orders for Noah.

One of my 2013 new year’s resolutions was that come September I’d start sending queries for my memoir to literary agents. I also wanted to see six pieces of it published–that would be another sign it was ready. That time has come, Brain, Child is the sixth. Also, Noah would have been 25 on September 23 of this year and all these numbers seem like a sign to me.

09 July
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Summer Camp and Love

Just out of Marquette, past Northern Michigan University’s wooden Superior Dome, there’s a turn to County Road 550. That’s where I’d move to the back seat of the van to sit next to Noah and hold his hand. Mike would drive and we’d pass Phil’s 550 Store, cottages, homes and the occasional rustic resort cabin complex while a Jimmy Buffett CD played to make the mood lighter. Noah loved going to camp and being there would be the highlight of his year, it was something we’d talk about for months before he went and after he returned. But leaving him at Bay Cliff Health Camp and saying goodbye for the summer was never easy and even after five years of camp, drop off day was hard on me. On Noah, not so much. He was stoic, solemn but the minute we drove up the camp gate, he was wiggling with excitement.

Noah in the camp pool.

Noah in the camp pool.

Bay Cliff is a therapy camp, designed and operated since 1934 for children and teens with a variety of disabilities. The camp focuses on therapy, physical, occupational and speech as well as programs for the blind and hearing impaired. Each summer session is eight weeks, designed to accomplish a camper’s therapy goals.

As tough as it was to part from Noah at camp, he always came home better than we left him. He was stronger, more independent, talked with more volume and was more observant.

Picking him up each August, Mike and I would rise at 4 am (we stayed in Big Bay the night before) and be first in line for pick ups. Over the loudspeaker they’d call each camper’s name, “Noah Miesch come on down!” and we’d anxiously scan the grounds waiting for Noah to wheel his way to us. After the first summer I expected him to be consumed with loneliness and longing for us.

“Can I come back next year?” he asked.

I was almost speechless.

Where was Mom, I missed you and Dad so much or I’m so happy to see you. He’d separated from us so cleanly.

“Well, can I?” he asked again.

“It was that much fun?”

“I love Bay Cliff,” he said.

“Then, I guess we’ll have to work on getting you back next summer,” Mike said. “What did you do all summer?”

“Therapy. Swimming in the pool. Had a parade. Ate goulash. Motorcycles came up and Indian dancers,” said Noah.

He started chuckling out loud. “I told a joke,” he said.

“To whom?”

“My therapy group. I told them,” he said.

“Tell us,” Mike said. “Noah has a joke.”

“Why don’t cannibals eat clowns?” Noah said, trying not to laugh and mess up the joke.

“Why?” Mike and I said in unison.

“Because they taste funny!” Noah grinned.

We laughed loud and hard. It was a big accomplishment for Noah to tell an entire joke.

Every June now I remember the ten hour drive from Muskegon to the middle of the Upper Peninsula and the solemn drive up County Road 550 holding my son’s clammy hand and how I tried to make sure he didn’t see me cry.

I think of Noah, now dead, with a bits of his ashes spread near his old Bay Cliff cabin and I rejoice for the Michigan summers and happy memories of days at camp.

Noah (center) at Bay Cliff Health Camp.

Noah (center) at Bay Cliff Health Camp

 

Noah dressed as mashed potatoes for the Independence Day parade in Big Bay.

Noah dressed as mashed potatoes for the Independence Day parade in Big Bay.