Motherhood & Words

I’ve been feeling so stretched lately—juggling the two girls and work and life. D has been working long days, and sometimes I feel like screaming. (I did, in fact, scream in the car the other day when Zoë was wailing and Stella was whining. I just screamed, and I scared the sh*t out of Stella with my outburst. A really proud moment for me.)

Luckily, we got away to my mom’s cabin last weekend—all four of us! I spent months there every summer as a child, and it’s still one of my favorite places. Stella loves it as much as I do, and she was so excited. She chattered the WHOLE WAY (4 hours) up there, asking, “Are we there yet? How much farther? When are we going to get there?”

I went running a couple of times, read a little and napped. Monday morning was gorgeous. D and I sat on the dock drinking coffee as Stella threw pieces of bread into the lake for the sunfish. (Zoë was up at the cabin being bounced by grandma.) It was breezy, and I just lay on my back, listening to the rustling of the Aspen trees, their leaves waving in the blue blue sky like a thousand tiny hands.

Then D and Stella and I went for a canoe ride and saw two bald eagles perched in an oak tree. One flew off as we approached, but the other sat there, head tilted to the side, watching us paddle around the point. A bald eagle never fails to make me draw breath. I can’t get over the fact there were so few of them—I never saw even one in Minnesota as I was growing up—and now I can canoe 100 feet away from one.

I didn’t have a chance to pick up any of the wonderful novels you suggested, so I took up a book that has long been on my shelf: Before and After Zachariah by Fern Kupfer. It is a memoir about what happens to Kupfer and her family when her son, Zachariah, is born severely brain-damaged. It’s heartbreaking. But that doesn’t even begin to describe it. As I read, there was a jabbing pain in my chest, and I felt, quite literally, as if my heart were breaking.

As you know from the books I discuss here, I love honesty. I have so much respect for a writer who writes the hard truth, even when this truth may cast her in a less than flattering light. Kupfer is not afraid to put it all out there—the anger, the sadness, the way that Zachariah’s condition wreaked havoc on her family. She’s not afraid of writing anything (or so it seems), and for this, I respect her tremendously.

At two years, four months, Zachariah is institutionalized. He cannot walk or stand or sit or talk. He cannot hold up his head. His developmental abilities are that of an infant. He cries constantly, only ceases when he is being held and rocked. Kupfer and her husband pass him back and forth, becoming more and more distant and angry with each other. For years they don’t get answers from the medical community to their long list of scary questions.

She writes: “There is a part of me that unequivocally rejects Zach, rejects who and what he is, as part that turns from him, even as I hold him in my arms, delighted to feel his breath against my neck, to kiss his face.”

She writes: “I’m not sure anything we’ve done for Zach has really helped him—I know it hasn’t in any significant way. What has helped me more than anything else has been talking to other women who have handicapped children, a cruel common denominator that cuts across the divisions of economics, of education, of social class.”

She writes: “Often I’m angry at strangers. Dull, sloppy women in supermarkets blithely wheeling their normal kids. Sometimes any woman with normal kids seems to me carelessly unaware of her good fortune. Last summer in Virginia I was sitting with Jan, Eddie and Zach in their strollers, waiting to go into the therapy room. Across the room a woman was chasing a toddler who looked teasingly over his shoulder as he ran, shrieking with delight. But she meant business. When she caught him, she smacked his behind several times until his giggles turned to tears. “Stay put,” she commended, putting him down in a chair, “and don’t move. Don’t you ever move.” Jan and I sat looking at our children. Jan turned to me with clenched teeth: “I feel like shaking her,” she said.”

This book once again confirms for me the need to respect people’s lived experiences. There are those who judged the Kupfers for institutionalizing Zach. But how can anyone judge her, them, when they didn’t live their lives, didn’t survive the day-to-day with Zach and his many needs?

Some of the most heartbreaking parts of the book for me were the scenes with Zach’s older sister, Gabi. How faithfully she loved him, how graceful she was, at age five, when all of the attention was focused on Zach. At one point she says to her mother, “I’m just feeling very hostile toward Zach…I think he gets entirely too much attention around here. He’s all you ever talk about. Sometimes I just feeling like yelling, ‘You dumb baby, you stupid-liar-dumb baby.’”

Kupfer agrees to let Gabi yell that to him the next morning, but the next morning, when Zach wakes crying, Gabi calls her mother instead: “He needs you.” When Kupfer asks Gabi if she wants to yell at him, she says, “’No, I don’t feel like it anymore.” Then thoughtfully, ‘Maybe just telling you was enough.’”

This book was first published in 1982, and reprinted in 1988 and 1998, so the language she uses to describe her son’s condition is not the language most people in the special needs community would use today, but I hope no one will hold this against her.

Near the end of the book, Fern Kupfer addresses her readers: “Those of you who are reading this and have normal children, those whiney miracles, fall to your knees by their bedsides; let gratitude burn forever in your breast, an eternal pilot light.”

I promise, Fern, to be grateful. I promise not to scream in the car anymore. I promise to think of Zach each time I begin to complain about my hectic life with two healthy kids.

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. **camera shy momma** on July 3, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    oh gosh. i needed to hear this. this honesty.
    ~~Near the end of the book, Fern Kupfer addresses her readers: “Those of you who are reading this and have normal children, those whiney miracles, fall to your knees by their bedsides; let gratitude burn forever in your breast, an eternal pilot light.”

    that honesty is rare, it’s a wake up call. thanks for sharing these parts of her memoir.

  2. sista gp on July 4, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Thanks for this post. I will definitely recall this when my son is not on his best behavior.
    I can still remember my fear when he was born asleep and the attendents had difficulty awakening him. He spent 4 hours in the special care nursery before we were able to bond. I was so grateful when I was told that he was fine.

  3. Katie on July 7, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    This is so true. Thanks for bringing it to the light, how grateful we should all be for our children. It is hard sometimes to see it, but allowing ourselves to look through someone else’s eye who has had such a difficult hand dealt truly helps put things in perspective. I can’t believe I got TWO healthy, happy, perfect little boys. I hope realizing that brings tears of joy to my eyes for the rest of my life. I am always afraid if I am not grateful enough I will lose what I have taken for granted; but this is just superstition, people who are constantly grateful still have tragedies in life.

    being a mom is hard! sometimes i dont even want to feed them at night, im so lazy! ridiculous.

  4. American_in_Cairo on July 8, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Sari and Fern were buddies. I remember reading that book and then having Fern for class, and that honesty was so piercing, it’s true, in the prose, and it reflected in her teaching and writing advice. She can spot a truth-fudger a mile away. I’m so glad you read that.

  5. kate hopper on July 16, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Yes, yes, it was Sari who recommended the book. I meant to thank her in my post. Thank you, Sari!!

  6. The Beyers on August 23, 2009 at 12:18 am

    I am a mother to twins one of whom has brain tissue loss. He is now two and does not roll, hold up his head, sit, walk, talk or do anything that his typical twin does. He only eats pureed foods and has seizures everyday. I also read Ferns book. She is a wonderful writer and I truly admire her honestly yet I could not imagine leaving my son in an institution at this age. I know everyones circumstances are different but I cherish everyday I have with my son even if some days are very difficult to bear!!!


  7. The Beyers on August 23, 2009 at 11:27 pm


    Thanks for responding to my comment on my blog. I tried to leave a note on your website but I am not sure it went through. It is funny because I had just ordered "This lovely Life" from Amazon before reading your comment!

    I should add that when I read memoir's such as Fern's I try to have an open mind and not make judgements about the author. Although I feel that my situation is similar to hers it is not the same. Each of our lives are different in so many ways, so really how can we judge what we don't know?

    I personally could not bear to send William away as I mentioned in my previous comment. Yet some days are very challenging. Actually most days are very challenging. Sometimes, like Fern, I feel that part of me rejects William too. I am angry and frustrated that he is not making progress yet I love him. I love him so much!