Roberta F. King

Author site for the memoir, He Plays a Harp

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.

16 April
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His Dad is a Runner

There have been ebbs and flows, months or years early on that I didn’t run, but for the most part I’ve been pounding pavement for the better part of thirty years as a runner. Running defines me. It is part of my person, who I am. As much as I am a wife, a mother, a, writer, a PR practitioner and a vegetarian, I am a runner.

I run alone mostly, in the dark stillness before dawn. I run without music and headphones because running time is thinking time. The hour of running is a time for reflecting, new ideas, planning out my day, problem solving and writing in my head. I sometimes surprise myself when I return home from my five-mile route and can’t remember having passed certain corners or run down specific streets, but I know have, as an hour has passed and I’m sweating.

Despite my love of solitude in running, I love the community and conversation around running. There’s nothing more interesting than a talking with another runner about the details of a specific race route, pre-race/post-race eating, shoe lacing, good bras, race strategy, results and even pooping. This commonality, the shared experience of running and racing is important to me. I’ve mentored novice runners and swapped tips with people who have run as long as I have. I wince when another runner talks about a bum knee, a tight hamstring or plantar fasciitis. We share the love and pain of running and the exhilaration of a race well run. Runners share the disappointment of a race that goes badly and the surprise and joy of placing in our age group. Runners are my community.

That’s just part of the reason the attack on the Boston Marathon was so painful. One of the three deaths in Boston was an eight–year-old boy. He was there, like many kids at races, to cheer on a parent. His dad is a runner.

Kids at races are the best and loudest yellers and the most enthusiastic sign wavers. They ring cowbells, blow whistles, give high fives and yell stuff to strangers like “You’re looking good!” and “Keep it up!” Kids who’d never think of picking up their room or handing a glass of water to an adult, willingly sweep smashed cups and pick up used Gu packages at aid stations.

Where else do kids line up in cheer groups and urge their parents to greater glory?

On April 15, when some hateful person(s) decided to intervene in the sport of running at one of America’s most revered races and killed a cheering kid named Martin Richard. I know from my own experience with the death of my son, that Martin’s parents will never be the same. They will grieve his death for the rest of their lives. I am quite sure, though, his dad will continue to run. Anyone who qualifies for Boston isn’t a quitter. He’ll probably run on his son’s funeral day—I did on my son’s. Each time now, when his dad heads down the chute to cross a finish line, looking around for his cheering people, as all runners do, he’ll think of his son and there will be less joy in the result.

Cheering Girls at Gazelle Girl Half Marathon
Courtesy of Stellafly

 

27 February
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Tolerance of Grief

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of Noah’s death.

I admit, the pain of his loss isn’t as acute as it was seven years ago. But still, when I think of him, I can feel the tightness in my throat and my eyes start to burn.

And I think about him every single day.

That’s the reality of this kind of loss. The grief hangs on and on. It’s become a part of me. As much as I am a writer, a runner, a public relations professional, a wife and a friend, I am a grieving person.  I don’t mind the sadness as much anymore, like running I’ve built up a tolerance to it. Just like going out to run five or ten miles, there’s effort, but not the pain I once knew.

A friend of mine pointed me to a poem by Emily Dickinson, I found the last line of it to be intriguing. It seems hopeful,  aspirational, but impossible.“First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.”

Her word choices describe the early bits of of death very well. I struggle with the letting go part, though. I don’t think letting go is something I’ll ever completely do when it comes to Noah. All that I have left of him are memories. Grief and memories are interconnected and without memories what would I grieve? I grieve as I remember the good times we had with Noah, eating supper, reading books, getting ready for school, the trips we took, celebrating holidays and how he looked, felt and smelled.

As long as I have memories of my son, I’ll have grief in my life. The letting go is something I don’t ever want to do.

Noah on a boat in the Keys

One of my favorite images of Noah, we were boating in the Florida Keys. He was about 15 years old at the time.

 

 

 

30 December
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Poking the Wound

One of my classmates in my online writing class mentioned a book she thought I’d like to read, Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon and I’m pleased that she did.

Noah had a volunteer job at Meijer handing out fliers. He thought it was fun and people would often tell us they’d see him at work.

The book is about parents, children and how their identities are wrapped around one another. His focus is on parents with children who are not “vertical”or similar to their parents. He writes about kids who are deaf, dwarfs, have autism, are prodigies, become killers, are disabled or otherwise very different their parents–kids who are horizontal. Kids who are far from the parental tree. The book is comprehensive, with more than 600 pages (900 including the notes, bibliography and index) and is such interesting reading. He delves deep into the relationship between kids who are different than their parents. He interviews people who are brutally and graphically honest about these differences and how difficult it can be to love a child that is different or to be the child that is different. Solomon and the people he talks with don’t hold back or sugarcoat what life is like when there is difference. The pictures they paint of their kids and the relationships aren’t always what people want to believe happens in life. Even to someone who parented two kids with disabilities, I had to pause and think about the parents (and kids) in his book who faced challenges many times greater than my own. Also, they were saying things about their feelings and their kids that I’ve known to be true about Noah, but avoided altogether as I’ve written my memoir. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been protecting Noah, but not for any good reason. I just didn’t want readers to not love him because he was cognitively impaired. Because Mike and I were around him so much, we understood him, we realized he had a special intelligence that couldn’t be quantified by an IQ test. We knew it, we could see and feel it. But, the reality was, he had a significant intellectual impairment. At present, my memoir circles around this important fact. To tell his story honestly, it can’t just about the wheelchair, it’s about the brain, too.

Ouch.

Poking the wound, pressing where it hurts is what makes writing memorable and real. For my memoir be successful, I need to write about all of Noah. My manuscript will undergo one last revision and in it, I’ll to dig a little deeper and press it where it hurts to draw the readers in and to be true to Noah’s real character.

23 December
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Nervous

This is one of several Christmas stories in my memoir.

Near Kalkaska we found this Nativity Scene and laid Noah down as a baby Jesus stand-in. He wasn’t happy, but couldn’t get up and get away. This photo has  nothing to do with this story, but I like it.

Noah loved Christmas and we fueled his passion with our own holiday hype. We’re super hall-deckers. There’s not a surface in our house that doesn’t have some piece of Christmas crud on it. Elves on shelves. A manger scene with a menagerie. In the bathroom a rooftop Kleenex box topper with a pulled tissue looks like chimney smoke. A bobble head Santa. Angels in high and low places. A super-groovy Christmas red wax lava lamp. We set up miniature figurines of the entire cast of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer accompanied by a large, animated Bumble with stiff white fur. Central to our celebration is a big, lit like Tokyo at night, fully-ornamented, set-up-the-day-after-Thanksgiving-until-Epiphany-or-St. Knut’s Day-fake tree.  At our house, Christmas is never a day, but a season.

***

Shortly after his late September birthday, Noah began his Christmas quizzing.

“How many more days to Christmas?” “How do reindeer fly?” “How many elves are there?” And the random, “Does Santa really love me?”

For years we played along. Mike and I liked the innocence and the imagination that surrounded Noah during the holidays. Even when he was in the third grade and someone told him (again) that there was no Santa, we acted shocked.

“What?! Who said that? They are in such trouble. If you don’t believe you won’t receive,” I said. “Santa-denying is a very bad thing.”

“Really?” said Noah.

“If you want to believe in Santa, that’s okay. Dad and I do, and you can too. You don’t have to go along with the kids at school. Believe what you want to believe.”  Noah was a little naïve, a little too trusting of his dad and I. He was born with cerebral palsy and relied on us, not only for his mobility and day-to-day care, and for much of his life information outside the classroom. Sometimes the worldview we provided was laced with imagination and irony.

Noah seemed suspicious, but was hesitant to question us too strongly on the chance of jeopardizing his relationship with Santa.

“When can I go see Santa?” he asked me at Halloween.

“That’s going to be awhile,” I said. “You have all of November and some of December. You don’t want to go too early because Santa could forget and you don’t want to go too late because he might be out of things. We have to time it just right,” I said.

“When’s that?” he said.

“Around December 10.”

Noah held me to that date, checking the days on the calendar after Thanksgiving. We’d see Santa out and about while shopping and he’d crane his neck as we wheeled by.

“Now? Can’t we go now?” he said.

“No. Not yet. Still too early.”

“Those kids are with Santa Claus.”

“Yes, they are. You’ll get your chance,” I said. “Do you have your list ready?”

“Not really.”

“Well, then. There you go. No need to see Santa today. Let’s get that list in shape,” I said.

We didn’t make a paper list. We just talked about the things Noah wanted and needed, and his job was to remember the list when he finally got to see Santa. “It’s more sincere that way,” I told him.

“Buzz Lightyear. Talking Woody. Racecar set. Charlie Brown DVDs,” he recited, working on his memorizing.

“All good stuff. How about some pajamas? A new jacket? How about some underwear? You can always use underwear,” I teased.

“No underwear,” he said. “I’m not asking Santa for that,” he said with disgust in his voice and a wrinkled nose.

The Saturday we headed to visit Santa was cold and clear, unusual for West Michigan which tends to be gloomy in the winter. The sun was out and there was a thin layer of new snow on the ground. We bundled Noah in a jacket and mittens and loaded him and his wheelchair into the back of the van.

“Are you ready to talk with Santa?” I asked.

“I’m nervous,” Noah said.

“Don’t be. It’ll be fine. Just remember your list. And be polite,” I said.

“I’m nervous.”

He looked nervous; his face was flushed and slightly sweaty. Perhaps I’d put too much pressure on him with memorizing the list and all.

“Dad and I’ll be there with you. There’s nothing to be concerned about,” I said.

As we stood near the mall’s North Pole chalet, an authentic-looking Santa motioned toward us with a white-gloved hand. We looked around, up and down the line, not quite knowing for sure who was getting the wave. Santa sent a helper to fetch Noah.

“Come on up here,” she said. “Santa says he’s been waiting to see you.”

Noah’s eyes widened and he sat up tall in his wheelchair. His involuntary startle reflexes took over and his feet kicked the footplate of his chair and his hand flung out to the side. “It’s okay, Noah,” I said. I looked at the helper. “He can’t help the flailing.”

She smiled and we pushed on up to Santa.

He came down from his Santa chair and knelt close to Noah, putting his arm around the back of the wheelchair asking his name. “Noah,” he whispered. Santa’s hearing must have been excellent.

“Well, Noah,” he said in a normal, not too ho-ho or loud voice. “Have you been good this year?”

“Yes,” Noah squeaked.

“I thought so. What would you like for Christmas this year?”

Noah paused. His eyes gazed heavenward as he worked to recall his list, he bit his lip, his hand clenched and relaxed. A long stretch of seconds passed. It felt like hours to Mike and I.

“Well?” Santa said kindly.

Then, in voice loud enough for people to hear he blurted, “Underwear. I want underwear!”

Santa looked surprised. Mike and I laughed. Noah blushed and looked at his feet.

“Is that all?”

“Yes,” Noah said.

“That’s a good thing to want for Christmas,” Santa said. He was trying not to laugh. “I’m sure my elves can find some other presents for you, too,” he said.

Noah sighed. “Thanks.”

We thanked Santa, too.

“Wait, we need a picture of this young man with me,” he said. He wheeled Noah over near the painted backdrop of pine trees, a glowing cabin and snow.

“On the count of three, smile,” said the photographer.

With confidence he smiled, knowing, believing that Santa would take care of him.

01 November
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Day of the Dead

Talking about Noah and his death has always been difficult, even as we are closing in on the seven year anniversary. By now, I should be more used to it, but even just thinking about him makes me start to cry and talking about him makes my voice catch.

Just the other day Mike and I went to our financial advisor to review our retirement investments. When I met with him (the advisor) for the first time, two years ago, he was new to our company’s retirement plan and I lied to him. He saw Noah’s picture on my desk and asked about it. I told him it was taken when Noah was seventeen, a few years before. He asked what he was doing now and I said he was attending Loyola University. The minute I said it I wanted to take it back. It was an outright lie and I knew it. Just like when I lied about the harp. Shameful. Wrong. And in this most recent meeting, since Mike was there with me I had to confess that Noah was dead and that I made Loyola up. As we talked I could see on his computer screen a little column, Son, Noah, Loyola University-Chicago. It was embarrassing. I’d given Mike a heads up about the lie, and as I admitted it, he looked away.

Why was it so hard for me to just say “My son is dead.” or “That’s my son Noah who died in 2006.” Some of this reluctance comes from people’s (my own included) discomfort with death and then the additional discomfort of it being the death of a child. It is up to me though, to make people more comfortable. After all, it is my experience and my attitude that will drive the tone of the conversation.

Getting comfortable with death and celebrating the lives of our dead isn’t something that we do readily in American culture. Last year I wrote a story for The Rapidian about Day of the Dead and how it is celebrated here in West Michigan. In talking with my friend Eva Aguirre Cooper and going to a Dia de Los Muertos celebration at her house, I began a personal effort to try to make every day a day of the dead. I wanted to try to make an effort to not be afraid of  talking about Noah’s life and his death. His memory deserves my honesty.

Day of the Dead is about celebrating love and the people who matter most to us. I’ll celebrate Noah with this blog post and sharing photos of a Day of the Dead shrine I’ve created for him. And today and every day I’ll talk about him to anyone who asks.

 

 

23 October
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Running and Writing

In September and October I ran two half marathons, one in Spring Lake, the other in Grand Rapids. I’m partial to this 13.1 mile distance for a couple of reasons. First, it takes me at least three miles to get warmed up. I hate 5k races for this reason. By the time I cross the finish line of a 5k I’m just getting started. Second, the 13.1 miles challenges me and gives me time to think. I don’t run with headphones because I can’t think clearly with all that music going on (I also can’t write with lyrical music playing; orchestra music, yes, but no singing). I construct some of my best ideas, solutions to vexing problems and new ideas for stories when I run. If I run longer than 13.1 miles, I start to fade. By about 12 miles, I’ve thought all my thoughts and I just want to stop running.

Lately, I’ve observed that I have a comfortable word count, too. It is my 13.1 mile run of writing–1600 words. About half of the chapters in my memoir-to-be end at 1600 words. When I write fewer words, I feel like I’m not quite there and when I write more, I feel like I need to be more concise. As with running though, I sometimes need to push and take a subject further, recently I wrote about Noah and his feeding tube, a 2200 word piece.  It tells an important realization by Mike and I in his life and health. One, I wish we’d come to sooner. I’m writing essays for my UCLA Extension writing class now and the instructor likes our work to be 400-800 words, which is even more difficult. It has forced me to make choices about details and dialogue; cutting and revising.

Being comfortable in my writing (and running) is satisfying, but facing new a new challenge keeps me thinking boldly, believing in myself and in the story I have to tell.