Who Tells Your Story

Back Story

When I travel around New England to speak at Schwartz Rounds in dozens of hospitals,  I usually mention that Jim would have told his own story far differently than I.  Although it was never his choice to leave us, I view it as a sacred trust that he left his story with me to tell.

When I began doing that, the lyric some of you are internally playing right now (“You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story“) was but the seeds of a melody in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mind.

And akin to an as yet unwritten song, the story Jim lived out wasn’t a story yet, not even when it appeared to end.  It remained a moment-to-moment maelstrom–what Margaret Atwood termed “a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood.”  She explained: “It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all.  When you are telling it . . . .”

Like all true stories, it changes from telling-to-telling.  This is the guiding principle of “The Moth” (where, at an evening of stories about “Coming Home,” I described Jim’s last days): true stories told live, without notes, never having been memorialized in writing.

“True” is, in this sense, superfluous.  Unlike the Herculean effort it takes to keep track of lies, you can’t ultimately lose the thread of a true story or forget how it ends; you tell it differently.  You add and subtract, rephrase and reframe, refocus on different portions.

It has occurred to me only very recently that this is also true for wordless stories, like those told by photographs.

One of my great lingering regrets is that I maintained such overwhelming quantities of flotsam in the attic of our former family home that I wasn’t able to unearth the old negatives and black-and-white prints Jim had made in college.  He mentioned during his last weeks that he’d like to find them.  He had an amazing eye for photography, and although he eventually persuaded me to join the digital age, he retained a soft spot for the days when he had developed his own film.

Somehow, after he died, he put the camera he had always carried into my hand.

I didn’t find his missing prints until I finally cleared out the massive attic when we moved  the year after he died: an empty boardwalk receding into ocean marshes in one of his favorite places on the South Shore of Massachusetts; sparsely populated winter vistas on the college campus we shared; a half-sunlit glassy puddle on Nassau Street.  Because we shared these places, I know their back stories.

As in the endless series of photographs I would take once he was no longer here, I noticed he had focused on enduring landscapes  far more than on the casts of beings who sometimes wander through them, and that he primarily photographed animals other than humans.

A photographs tells at least two sets of stories.  If I  know the photographer or recognize the setting, to some degree I filter what I see through what I already know.

Another kind of story can be told by a glimpse of an unfamiliar place with no recognizable faces, like the interruption in a pure blue sky where storks had created their own capital by building a nest atop an ancient Roman pillar.

Life continues among the ruins.

A juvenile stork peeks out into a setting sun as his proud parent arches back like an Olympic athlete, a split second I was lucky enough to see when–thanks to Jim–I found myself across the globe with a camera in my hand.

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Purple Chimes and Valentines

Sweet as” was in the glossary I picked up from fellow travelers during my recent adventure.

It’s a New Zealand term of assurance: all is well, “no worries” (a phrase that now hits my ear as  well-meaning  but oxymoronic, a double-negative coupling of “no” and  brow-furrowed “worries”; like being told not to envision a pink elephant, if I’m told not to worry, I’m going to worry).

Where “no worries” comes to a declarative full stop, the object-less “sweet as”  is gloriously open-ended, and calls to mind all my (slightly belated) Valentines.

The list is, as we say in the business, not limited by enumeration.

Sweet as….

My friend Barbara’s face when I first saw her, not knowing she’d made the long trip, downstairs at Phillips Church after hundreds of people had paid their respects and filed out.  (She does not know that the purple glass chimes she gave me years ago now hang on the window overlooking my Brady’s garden.  Their gentle clinking restores the missing sound of his bright blue tags as he made his way from flower to flower.)

The friend who told me he’d be there in ten minutes–from another state, on a traffic-filled holiday weekend–when I desperately texted that I had to make an unbearable decision about my beloved middle beagle, then dispensed (and even re-collected) a stream of tissues to me in the aftermath.

My newest friends, who made me laugh harder than I have in years, picked me up when I slipped on Morocco monkey ice (story to come), taught me Australian card games, and tried fruitlessly to contain me from overspending my dirham.

George, a wildly busy colleague whose wife had died when his children were very young.  He always took my calls, called me when I had been silent too long, and knew when it was time for me to go back to the job I loved.

Joe and Diane, who showed up to help me move a daughter into her freshman dormitory  when Jim could not, and who took all of us into their home when the same daughter graduated.

A network of people I’ve never met in person, who take the trouble to read my blog and leave me messages about posts and share their own thoughts.

Friends who sent me flowers on Mother’s Day and after my father died, who helped my children when I could not get to them because of competing crises in other states and countries, who shared their own heartaches with us and helped us see “the size of the cloth.

G., who secured for me the music for Jupiter and in whose office I knew I could always appear and get my bear hug without needing to speak.

Bethany, whom I met getting ready to go on a great big stage where we both told our stories, and arranged for me and my son to hear a long sold-out John Hiatt show after I told her the story of the golden CD my husband had burned for me years before I found it.

Jim’s lifelong friends, who visited him when he was sick and brought him a touchstone of their shared past, and who still invite me to their family events and allow me to be a part of theirs and their children’s and even their grandchildren’s lives.  Jim’s family, who became my family long ago.

David Subnaught (so-dubbed  to distinguish him among many distinguished college Davids), a classmate of Jim’s who flew from Colorado to the East Coast to be there for my eldest son’s graduation two months to the day after Jim died.

Tineke, my best woman, the first person I called.  She literally fed me, cooking from scratch  the only things she knew would tempt me, when I could not manage even that.  Best man Jon, who drove to us on the night we finally brought Jim home bearing pictures he’d taken the night before our wedding and had us all laughing so hard we may have unnerved our children.  Randy and Judy.  Dr. Bob.

You know who you are.



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The Dunes Abide


A limitless tapestry of rich red-gold sand is dappled by hoof prints roughly the size and shape of swaddled footballs.  With each tread, a spray of pure gold rises, hovers, and enfolds itself back into dunes.

My elaborately wound scarf has not come undone.  I have held steady where others have lurched, given the abrupt toe-to-heel reclining process camels seem to favor.  I carefully down 18 ml of filtered water every six minutes, abiding rehydration instructions furnished by my new astrophysicist friend.  My camera has not yet fallen into the towering dune from which its shutter will emerge unforgivingly at sundown, as crystalline sheaths of stars begin communing in the night sky.

For now I am hewing to the newly coined “Stephanie rule” that requires I maintain both hands securely atop Geronimo’s Berber rug saddle, even when he pauses photogenically and casts his magnificently elongated shadow across Sahara dunes.

I’m starting to get this camel safari thing down.

It’s among phrases I think my husband Jim did not think me remotely likely to utter during the days, years, and likely decades when he could no longer be at my side.


Night in the desert was far from silent.  Cats mewed before curling to nap upon campers’ chilly feet.  Our group astrophysicist narrated the heavens.  Bare feet thunked on rugs dotted with sandy lagoons.

Geronimo, splayed with somewhat less grace than his regal sphinx-like brethren, had borborygmi.

It could have been my recent bout of altitude sickness.  As unaccustomed as I am to hallucinogens, I suppose it also could have had something to do with the sprig of Artemisia absinthium that had adorned our cups of mint tea.  Whatever the organic source, for the first time in my life I had waking hallucinations while sleepless in the Sahara: I saw filigreed ochre arches morphing into  imaginary birds and horned magical creatures and back again, a Möbius of ancient design melting into myth.

Like those who preceded us, we left no traces, but in the desert’s expanse I somehow acutely experienced every sense of the moment even as the vast past’s residuum danced before my eyes.  I felt kinship with a Kiran Desai character who “seemed not to have traveled forward in time but far back.  Harkening to the prehistoric, in attendance upon infinity,” watching the sun slowly rise into the deepest indigo, and be swept away by a lavender-orange wing of clouds.  I stood in an ever-yielding landscape I surely would never have occupied had I not found myself alone to wander in a world I no longer fear, knowing that beautiful and terrible things will continue to unfold no matter where I am or am not.  And I no longer ask Jim one of the two questions that tormented me: where he is.  I have my answer.  He’s everywhere he would want to be, including these red-gold dunes bracketed by watercolor skies and earth, “our heaven, for awhile.”



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Spring Forward, Fall Back Down

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Frozen in Time (c) Stephanie M. Glennon


Spring forward, fall back down…”

I know, I know: it couldn’t be much more wintry in New England.

It’s a balmy -6 degrees, enhanced by an order of magnitude for those who dally with windchill.  Boston had its highest recorded tide, sweeping an icy gray lagoon into waterfront streets.

My big boy beagle gazes at me with recrimination when I am compelled to turn around and whisk him back toward home.  He clearly has places to be, but unknowingly relies upon my limited capacity to exhibit adult common sense.  My less than-scientific measure of when I have ventured half as far as we safely can go is the loss of  sensation in triple-gloved hands.  The outermost layer belonged to Jim: enormous blue-green knitted wool  gloves into which Rufus still pauses to press his snow-dusted nose, retrieving scents of his puppyhood.  I am violently allergic to wool. Angry winter welts encircle my right wrist, which one over-sized glove accidentally touched as I struggled to shovel a path through blizzard remnants.

Even my camera is too cold to do its job.  I dare not risk its delicate inner mechanisms’ life for a picture–even of wavering sea-smoke etched in bright gold across the horizon, or planes of dazzling white which migrate across eye-level snowdrifts, or tree branches encased in ice glittering under a super moon.

Other than at sunrise and sunset, which in winter tend to take place during work days, when they rarely can both be seen, bright color has disappeared from the landscape.  It may visit in the form of  a scarlet cardinal or blue jay, or a burst of berries holding fast for them to find.

But this lyric spanning the other seasons has taken its place as resident ear-worm.

I first heard the Weakerthans’ song on the radio while driving back from a solo trip to Bar Harbor.

My city’s still breathing (but barely, it’s true)
Through buildings gone missing like teeth
The sidewalks are watching me think about you,
Sparkled with broken glass
I’m back with scars to show.
Back with the streets I know
Will never take me anywhere but here

My status could be the answer to a riddle: I occupy a new old home in my old home state, having left our old old home in a new home state.

But I am back with streets I know.  In a place I never before lived, I feel I am back home.

Wait for the year to drown
Spring forward, fall back down
I’m trying not to wonder where you are

One daughter came to my new old home for Christmas, bearing a discrete tattoo she explained to me is based on Slaughterhouse Five.

Spring forward, fall back.  I realized it’s not just a handy trick to set clocks to mark time in the seasons that bookend winter’s essence, but a Tralfamadorian progression through life–including waxing and waning grief and hope.  A (Billy) Pilgrim’s progress, if you will (HT Mr. Vonnegut).

I shall try to seize on those glimmers, bright traces which foretell spring or commemorate fall, even when blanketed by colorlessness–the orange fish which glided underneath inches of pond ice as we skated at the old home we shared, the leaf  whose lime stem tilted toward the sun as if it still could absorb light when my beagle’s front paw sank ever-so-slightly into a frozen puddle’s surface, leaving in uneven colonial bricks’ lacuna a ghostly misshapen cameo, a reminder of our presence there made possible by a New England winter.



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