Kenneth the Magician


After Kenneth’s funeral, at night, long after everyone who had come to pay their respects had gone home, I remember the kids hanging out in my kitchen. The neighborhood kids were over. A bunch of them ran around as if it were the last gasp of a party. We had hosted many parties that ended exactly like that in the past, where several of us ate leftover food and watched the kids play, talking, sipping wine amidst the remnants of a long day. Except this party was ending on a somber note. It wasn’t a party at all. But we had been celebrating Kenneth’s memory, so maybe it was in an absurd, twisted way.

One of the kids got into Kenneth’s magic box, and in no time they were all pawing at the tricks like children who had just gotten into something they weren’t supposed to touch. The tricks had always been off-limits. But Kenneth wasn’t there to say no. He was dead. They were being kids.

I noticed one of the neighbor boys holding a thumb tip, looking at it sadly. He used to go to the magic store with Kenneth.

“Do you guys want to take some tricks home?” I asked without really thinking it through. The idea had just come to me.

“Really?” they all asked.

Ethan’s eyes grew wide and a smile spread on his face. “Can I have them too?”

“Of course,” I said.

When Kenneth died, I found myself taking on the job of making other people feel better about all of “this.” Forget my own grief. I needed to help others work through their sadness. I would make these children feel better by giving them Kenneth’s magic tricks. Party favors. Absurd party favors you get after a funeral.

I methodically divided everything amongst the children, first making sure Ethan had the magic tricks I knew he wanted, giving the neighbor boy a thumb tip, and then making sure everyone else would walk away with something too. They were all thrilled.

In my mind, this was how Kenneth could continue to live on in the hearts and memories of these children. I could only hope that they would always remember him doing the tricks for them.

Kenneth would often hold out his palm, revealing a shiny coin for a person to inspect. This is how every trick began. No funny business. Just a coin. And in the next second, he’d make the coin disappear. He did this exact trick dozens of times for every one of the kids in my house. In fact, he loved doing magic tricks for kids. They were a more forgiving audience.

When we were invited to dinner at a cousin’s house in Israel, Kenneth performed tricks for the children. They were delightfully entertained and kept asking for more. Magic tricks seemed to transcend language barriers. My relatives filled his glass with Johnnie Walker and he had a great audience to show off his magician prowess. After that, Kenneth decided that he loved Israel.

When the neighborhood kids went home the night of the funeral, and after my own children were tucked into bed, I looked around my lonely house and wondered where to start with the clean-up. My eyes were drawn to the empty magic box and I felt an ache inside of me. I knew I did the right thing by letting the kids take the tricks. These things are for the living. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt me to see his magic tricks gone, scattered. Like everything else in my life.

I wish I could remember how Kenneth’s magic hobby started. I wish I could ask him. It’s the little mundane details that disappear out of my memory over time, like grains of sand falling between my fingers, unable to contain, even though I want to hold on to every single one. They are all I have left.

It is possible that the magic was subconsciously planted inside of Kenneth’s mind during his pickup artist years, since one of the gurus, Mystery, was a magician. I think Kenneth would deny that version of the story though, even if it was true. He wouldn’t want to look like a groupie.

He told me that he started liking magic as a child. Maybe that was it.

Or perhaps he got interested in magic during all of those trips we took to Disneyland, when his eyes would linger on the sign of the magic store on Main Street.

“Do you want to go look?” I’d ask.

“Are you sure?” His eyes were eager.

“Yeah. No problem. I’ll take Ethan over there,” I’d say, pointing to another store. “Take your time.”

And he would. I’d wait around for a while and then eventually make my way back to the magic shop. I’d see Kenneth leaning over the counter, mesmerized as one of the workers demonstrated a trick with invisible string. Kenneth laughed, that loud, exuberant laugh that sounded like something you’d hear out of a child.

He’d notice me and straighten, trying to make it look like he was ready to leave, even though I knew he never was.

“It’s Annemann,” he said, showing me the book in his hand. Apparently that name was supposed to mean something to me. “Should I buy it?”

“Sure. Get the other one too.” I already noticed there was more than one book in his hands.

“Oh, this? I’m just looking at it.”

“Get it.”

“Really?” he’d say, his eyes lighting up. “We do get a passholder discount.”

“Yeah. Sure. Go ahead.” I’d wheel the umbrella stroller and Ethan back toward the door so he wouldn’t feel rushed. He’d linger at the counter a little longer, chatting about magic with the workers, picking their brains about magic tricks. This is probably why he always wanted to go to Disneyland every week, just for this little bit of time that he got to play with magic. It’s probably why I don’t like going to Disneyland anymore.

Kenneth really, really, really wanted to be a magician.

I kind of ignored the entire thing. I mean, I would watch and humor him and listen as he explained the tricks, which he would two seconds later clarify that he wasn’t supposed to tell me, because magicians aren’t supposed to tell ANYONE how a trick works. He always told me anyway. It was pretty dorky, but I figured there were worse things for a man to indulge in. Might as well play along.

He was typically found with a coin in his hands or pocket, usually a 50 cent piece. He used it to practice palming. This was where he’d learn to hold a coin in the palm of his hand and make it appear as if it disappeared. Although this sounds easy, it actually required a lot of practice and skills. He started practicing on us, and then he practiced on his students. I’d see him in the hallway, in between classes, showing students how the coin “disappeared,” and when they’d smile in puzzled amusement, I’d look at his face and see how proud he was to pull it off.

Sometimes after class he’d tell me how he tried a new trick and that he was very nervous in front of the students, even though almost nothing made him nervous in life. For a guy who could easily do cold calls without breaking a sweat, it was funny to see him get shy about his magic tricks.

He acquired lots of tricks over the years. I’ll always remember him with thumb tips, coins, and pieces of paper that he cut into squares for his mentalism tricks.

One time Kenneth did a mentalism trick on my dad, which involved tiny pieces of papers with answers and a water bottle. I forget exactly how the trick worked, but it had something to do with “reading” my dad’s mind, which Kenneth successfully pulled off. I remember my dad digging in the trash can, trying to figure out how Kenneth did it.

My grandmother looked forward to our monthly visits. She’d always remind me on the phone to have Kenneth bring his tricks. I got the distinct impression that my grandmother was starting to like Kenneth better than me. He was more entertaining.

And he loved an enthusiastic audience, so of course he really liked my grandma.

His dream was to become a street magician.

Someday, he said. First he had to get better with his form, and then he needed to come up with a routine. There had to be a story that entertained an audience. That was the part he said he needed to master.

Five months before he died, we were in Vegas. We were walking down the street, on our way to the drugstore for something we needed for one of the kids. We came across a street magician, and Kenneth excitedly watched the performance. I’ll never forget how he laughed, clapped, and tried to absorb the showmanship that the man had as he performed his tricks and told a seamless story that drew people in.

“That’s exactly what I want to do,” Kenneth said. He was inspired.

He read books. He watched videos. He practiced and practiced and practiced. He did exactly what he did whenever he was really interested in something: he obsessed over it.

One time, he was even going to build a magician’s podium. Kenneth was never handy. Anytime I suggested that he perhaps find some handiness inside of him, he’d scoff at the idea.

“I’m an intellectual.”

“I’ll be sure to use that one on you next time you want me to make dinner,” I’d say.

But it seemed if Kenneth was motivated to do something, he could do it. He followed the directions from his magician’s handbook and built a podium and painted it black. He had a red mat that he laid on top and it all looked very legit. I have a photo of him hunched over a pile of wood, a toddler version of Ethan sitting next to him, putting it together with a look of determination.

There was a magic booth at the summer fair that he had to visit every year. It was just like Disneyland. I’d offer to go entertain the kids somewhere else. He’d be found leaning over the counter, watching the vendor demonstrate tricks, and then he would carefully decide which ones he wanted to buy. He fantasized about having a similar gig when he retired.

(The summer after he passed away, this same vendor mocked my Ruth Bader Ginsburg shirt that I wore. I’m glad Kenneth didn’t know that he had been patronizing a man whose ideology would have repulsed him. It would have ruined the magic for him.)

“Pick a number 1 through 10,” Kenneth said. His infamous words. I’ll never forget them. It’s funny how words that once annoyed me have become so endearing. What I would do to hear them again.

Kenneth was gifted tickets to the Magic Castle for Christmas. We never got around to going. To this day, the tickets are in a jar with the other gift certificates we have. I don’t know if I have it in me to go without him. It doesn’t feel right. But somehow I know, like all other things, that I need to push through the pain and just go.

He’d want it that way.

Someday, I might.


When somebody dies, they tend to get elevated to an untouchable godliness that can only be bestowed upon those who can no longer do anything wrong. Any of their past mistakes have been smoothed over and forgotten; they are remembered fondly and reverently. The bad parts of their lives are mostly erased and not spoken about; we do not want to tarnish the memories of the dead. Especially the ones who died too early.

I decided a while ago that I would not write about “really” bad stories. If a person isn’t here to tell their side of the story, it seems unfair. Maybe even pointless.

But it is also silly to paint a picture of a person using broad strokes and ignoring the details that made them human, even the unpleasant ones.

I find this happens a lot when remembering my husband. The good memories rise like cream to the top and we neglect the murky, unpleasant ones that sunk to the bottom.

When you lose your spouse, you go through phases. Sometimes it is unbearably painful and sad and you miss them terribly. Other times, you think about what you hated about them, and then you feel guilty for thinking that you ever hated them. Sometimes you’re indifferent. Sometimes nostalgic. The feelings are an elusive shape-shifter.

I have a confession to make.

I am a better wife to a dead man than I was to a living husband.

And I suspect that if he could come back from the dead, he’d be a better husband. We would all be better people if we could learn the lessons death teaches us and then get a re-do. If only life worked that way.

I wasn’t the worst wife ever.

I just wasn’t as good as I could have been. Sometimes I wonder if I was ever cut out to be a wife. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be a wife. I’m fairly confident that I was made to be a good mother, but I’m not so sure if I ever had it in me to be a good wife.

Kenneth and I agreed on all of the important issues that usually plague marriages: money, how to raise the kids, politics, religion. We never had to worry about those landmines.

But on other issues, like how to keep the house clean, we were fervently at odds.

He hated that I overscheduled our time. I found a journal entry of his where he wrote about how he wanted to write a book, so then he could show me that he did it, and afterward I’d have to agree to let him be lazy and watch movies and leave him alone for the rest of his life.

Part of me stung when I read his thoughts scrawled across that page in his sacred journal. How could I have made him get up and do things in his final weeks and months? Why didn’t I let him watch movies and drink beer? He should have been resting. I’ve had plenty of moments where I contemplated whether or not I was responsible for his aorta exploding.

The other part of me smugly thinks, “Good, you got to go to Paris again and experience Israel and other places and we did lots of things as a family because I made us do it. I helped you live your final days of life as fully as possible.” And then I feel like a self-less angel. Mother-freaking-Teresa.

But it’s always more complicated than that.

When somebody dies, it is natural to beat yourself up and to think about what you could have done, should have done, or would have done. I’ve been mostly kind to myself about the entire ordeal. My pragmatic self realized early on that hindsight is a foolish barometer of how we should live.

But I do acknowledge that I was too harsh as a wife. Too judgemental. Too rigid in my thinking. Too no-nonsense. Too intolerant.

I don’t accept all of the blame. A lot of it falls squarely back on my husband’s shoulders, too.

But I take responsibility for having made a lot of mistakes. I wish I could apologize. I wish we would have held hands more. I wish I didn’t get mad at him so quickly. I wish I didn’t think he could have been something more than he was, or expected him to change in ways that had long been settled. I wish I would have complimented him more. I wasn’t patient enough with his struggles. I wish I would have surprised him more often. I wish I would have given him more attention instead of drowning in the duties of motherhood. I wish we would have gone on date nights.

I came across a quote a few months ago by Eckhart Tolle:

“To love is to recognize yourself in another.”

I didn’t do that. I know I held him up to standards that were too high, too inhumanly possible to achieve. Standards I wouldn’t want to be judged by today.

But that was before I had been fully bitch-slapped by life. I didn’t know any better. You never do. And then you do, and you wish it could be changed, but there is no such thing as living backwards.

In widowhood, I feel like I can objectively look at marriage since I both experienced it and lost it. There are pros and cons. There are no right or wrong answers. Marriage is messy, just like life. It is not a pretty Disney fairytale, but it shouldn’t be a horror movie either if you marry the right person.

Except there is no “right” person in the sense that there will ever be somebody who completely embodies the image in your mind of what you want. There is no such thing as a perfect person. There are only compatible people.

Marriage is a living organism that must be tended to, fine-tuned, invested in, and if it is alive, it evolves. You have to be ready for the changes. Marriage is strangulation. Marriage is an agreement. It is devotion and loyalty. It is soul-sucking and all-consuming. It is also loving, safe, and warmth. Marriage is a tedious marathon from which you do not get a vacation from. Marriage is both wonderful and stupid.

There are a lot of aspects about marriage that I miss. I miss being a parent with my husband. I miss being able to gaze fondly at our children and then making eye contact with each other, knowing that we are mutually invested in life’s greatest creation. That we created this family together. There is nobody who loves my children as much as I do, except their father. And now he is gone.

“Daddy loved you guys so much,” I tell the kids on a regular basis. “He gave me all of his love to make sure I love you enough for me and enough for him.” They smile, leaning toward me as I kiss their cheeks.

When I tuck them into bed at night, I tell them, “Mama loves you. And so does Daddy, wherever he is.” And I think they believe it.

I miss having somebody to vent to. To truly vent to. Somebody invested in finding solutions to my problems. Somebody who shares my burdens. Somebody who wouldn’t flinch to try and relieve me of my burdens.

Somebody to adult with, to squish the bugs in the house, a person to ask “what do you think?” when I’m indecisive about what color to paint the house or whether or not I should buy a new patio set for the backyard. Somebody to share responsibility with, so I’m not the only one to blame. It was less scary living life with a partner.

I miss sitting next to Kenneth on the long drive to our annual camping trip, listening to music, talking about politics.

I miss having somebody in the world who thought I was the smartest, prettiest, most amazing woman out there. I never had to question his loyalty–ever. He would do anything to protect me.

I miss having somebody who thought I was beautiful even in my pajamas, first thing in the morning, with or without shaved legs.

There were also a lot of things I didn’t like about marriage. Our life was not a fairy tale. We both had journals filled with complaints about the other person. I do enjoy my freedom as a single woman. I make big decisions like where to go on vacation and I don’t have to negotiate with anyone. There is no way in hell Kenneth would have approved us going to Japan last December. I come and go as I please. My house is always clean and organized. Nobody is keeping track of where I am. I get to sleep with whoever I want! I get to drive to my tennis class in a red convertible. Nobody ever asks me what I bought from Zappos or Amazon (okay, sometimes my dad does, but there is never any teeth in those inquiries). Complete freedom.

But upon examining the good, the bad, and the everything in between, I know that if I was given a magical choice, I would marry Kenneth again. I would trade the vacations and my red Miata and my freedom in an instant if I could have my old life back, even the bad moments.

Too bad there is no such magic in life. So instead, I get to decide how to live my future. I get to use the knowledge from this experience and become an improved version of myself. My consolation prize. It is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime, bittersweet gift.

I can choose to live my life with flexible expectations.

Strong boundaries.

Intentional choices.

Kinder to myself.

I can love more deeply.

Be softer with people.

Keep an open-mind.

But most importantly, I can dig deep inside of myself and know, honor, and respect who I am. No apologies. I like a lot of freedom. I’m a loner who is very independent. I need time alone. I need to be able to make decisions without somebody hovering and commenting and bothering me. I don’t like to be micromanaged. I like men who have a lot to say and who are super smart. I require creativity and wanderlust and thinking outside of the box. I like to be challenged.

And when and if I find somebody I deem worthy of my time, I will remember that I am not in the business of changing. Or micromanaging. Or smothering. Or mothering. I will try to be honest and communicate, have patience and respect, and to love unconditionally.

But I’m not in a hurry for any of it. Intentional living means not forcing square pegs into round holes. It means being happy living with yourself, knowing that the life you have built for yourself is good enough. You are good enough. It means keeping an open mind for whatever else may unfold in the future.

When I married Kenneth, we said vows and promised to love and care for each other as long as we both shall live. Even though my wedding ring is no longer on my finger, I am still loving him by the way I raise our children, making sure he has flowers at the cemetery, and the way I try to keep his memory alive. Life moves on. The pain is always there, but so is the love. You don’t stop loving the dead. You just learn to make room for more love.

The Glasses


Yesterday we came home from Ellie’s tennis lesson and I rushed to the kitchen to re-heat leftovers and boil corn and empty backpacks before the sitter would arrive and I’d be running out of the house to go to my own tennis lesson. There was a sink full of dishes and I could feel the noose of time tightening around my neck. I kept glancing at the clock, my hands plunged into the warm soapy water, trying to wash as fast as I could in my effort to juggle it all. Peter begged to go on the tablet, which I had banned so we could be more traditional about how we spend our time. Ellie complained about being hungry as if her whines directly correlated to the speed of which dinner would be served. Their noise was like the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard.

Right in the middle of the chaos, Ethan asked where his father’s glasses were.

His glasses?

I don’t know why I said that out loud. Of course I knew what he was talking about. Kenneth’s thick-rimmed glasses that were the color of dark honey. The glasses they handed to me in the hospital before I left his dead body behind for the mortuary to haul off. The glasses I clutched against my chest in those early days and weeks, one of the only tangible reminders I had left of him. The glasses that I set on top of his urn, as if somehow I was putting them back on him. Or maybe it was my way of finding the glasses for him one last time, just like I used to do when he fell asleep with them on at night and then needed me to help him find them in the morning. Humanizing that box full of campfire ashes just in case anyone forgot that was my husband.

“I think they’re in the memory box,” I told Ethan. The memory boxes in the garage, probably under a pile of old baby clothes I needed to get rid of.

He looked at me with big eyes.

“Do you…uh…want me to get them?”

He nodded eagerly.

I could hear the gurgling water ready to boil over on the stove. The pile of dishes wasn’t getting any smaller. The minutes ticked dangerously close to the hour.

“Okay,” I said, and headed to the garage. He followed. So did Peter and Ellie, because that’s what they do. If there is any promise of adventure, they are right there, with or without an invitation.

The garage was as hot as a sauna and I worried somebody would get too close to my new car, so I tried to work quickly. I lugged my memory box off the middle shelf where it had been collecting dust. The outside of the box said “Teresa’s Kenneth Memory Box” and it had hearts scrawled all over it in black Sharpie marker. I was sure the glasses were in there. I would have kept them for myself, I thought. Kenneth looked so cute in those glasses. Of course I would have claimed them.

Little hands attempted to swipe items from the box. I swatted them away like a game of whack-a-mole.

I felt a familiar ache growing inside of me. The kind I don’t like to feel. A feeling I’d rather hush. Why open up that can of worms? Nothing will ever change. Better to just keep walking straight ahead, not looking back. I usually keep boxes like these closed and stowed away for safekeeping.

“Daddy’s hairbrush!” Ellie gasped, lunging for the black hairbrush that is missing its handle. Kenneth was always brushing his hair with it and annoying me.

“Why are you brushing your hair AGAIN?” I’d ask him, cringing.

“You don’t get a head full of thick hair like mine for nothing,” he’d say proudly and keep brushing, ignoring my disgust.

These conversations always re-play in my mind when I touch seemingly innocuous items like a hairbrush. I want to tuck the memories away. Contain them in my mind for really quiet moments when nobody is around, when I can mull them over on my own terms and then dismiss them as quickly as they come.

The kids want memories today, though. This is what they need. I go along with it. Sometimes we need to open boxes.

We do not find the glasses in my memory box. The next logical place seemed like it would have been Ethan’s box, so I put my box away and take his down.

When Kenneth died and I had the burning desire to purge the house of everything that reminded me of him, when I had to throw away his favorite jeans and shoes and sift through the piles of his journals and intrude upon the sacred boundaries of a person’s humanity, I tried to be methodical about it. I kept what I considered to be the most memorable items that would tell a story as to who he was, and then I divided them between four boxes: one for me, and one for each of our children.

I noticed Ethan trying to pick through the contents of his box. It made me anxious that something terrible was going to happen with the memories, like, say, Peter drooling all over an original document.

“Do you want to look through your box?” I asked Ethan.

He nodded, clasping his hands in front of him in eager anticipation.

I told him he could go through everything in my room, as long as he went slowly and carefully, especially with the papers. I put the baby gate on the door so he would be left alone and soon he was swallowed up by memories while I returned to the kitchen to finish my business.

When I came back, there were items strewn all over the floor. Kenneth’s tiny handprint in clay from when he was 5 years old. Drawings he did in 1970, with the name “Kenny” scrawled in a child’s handwriting. Pictures of him as a teenager. His favorite belt buckle. The thumb tip magic trick he always practiced. An old employee ID badge. A picture of Kenneth during his first year teaching, looking very young in his oversized suit.

“Did you find the glasses?” I asked Ethan.

“No,” he said, but it didn’t bother him. His attention had shifted to the other items he unearthed, and I could see that he already claimed the Star Trek communicator. It seemed his longing for his father had been temporarily quenched by these discoveries.

I helped him pack everything back into the box, being careful so we would not crush the kindergarten artwork. Soon Ethan was off doing something else while I lugged the heavy box back into the garage.

That’s sort of what grief is like. It comes in bursts. Opening a box. Fresh wounds exposed. Closing a box, collecting dust. It is the ebb and flow of feelings inside of you that shifts and swells and shrinks and whirls. It is the pain that sits heavy in the pit of your stomach and also the pain that folds up neatly inside of an organized drawer. Pain that is ever-changing but always present in some form.

The other day Ethan and I were walking to school. I can still get him to hold my hand. I kept looking over at him, admiring the way his faux hawk was the same texture and jet black color as his daddy’s.

“What do we do with pain?” I asked him.

“We look it straight in the eye,” he said.

“Yes. We look at it. Acknowledge it. We don’t bury it. Even when it hurts. And if we feel pain, what does it mean?”

“It means we’re alive.”

My star pupil. Always listening. Absorbing. Their eyes watching me for guidance as to what we should do next.

I don’t want to disappoint these children, my precious, living legacies. Their father has entrusted them to my care.

So we keep opening and closing boxes as often as we need to. I have to show them that I am not afraid of boxes. There is a time to compartmentalize and a time to unpack. It is all okay. We can use our boxes to organize or we can use them to bury and hide the clutter in our lives. We get to choose.

In the end, these heavy boxes do seem to be a better alternative than having a life full of empty ones.

Kenneth and Politics

When I started teaching at my current school, they placed me in the reference room of the library. I was hired after the school year started, so they had to create new classes. The principal assured me that he would find me a classroom, but first he had to evict the teacher currently in there. I spent a week or so in my makeshift space, and then I was able to move into my new classroom. It was the first room on the left side of the hallway, on the second floor of the newest building on campus. It had an LCD projector mounted on the ceiling. This was amazing to me. My previous school required that we share a projector with an entire department of teachers, and it came on a cart with a tangle of wires. My new classroom had large windows and lots of light, and on a clear day you could see Signal Hill and San Pedro. It was like winning the teacher lottery.

The beginning of a new assignment at a new school is a blur of stress and just being overwhelmed. A few faces stuck out, particularly the handful of kind people who offered their help, their phone numbers, and came in to check on me. Most people kind of just leave the new person alone. My future husband, located in the only classroom next to me, opted to ignore me in the early weeks and months. I later found out that he was mad at me for taking over his buddy’s classroom (the unlucky teacher who got evicted in order for me to move in). But in one of those early days, Kenneth caught me in the hallway. He basically asked about my political party registration. I didn’t even know his name, but there he was, asking about how I vote.

I didn’t answer him, and politely as possible, without saying “none of your business,” but meaning “none of your business,” dodged his question. The new guy across the hall wasn’t so lucky. He naively disclosed it, and the answer appalled Kenneth.

“You’re like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders!” Kenneth told him. He took over articles for the new guy to read. He tried so hard to convince this new guy that he might be missing pertinent information that would surely change his mind, but this was all for naught. New Guy didn’t buy any of it.

Kenneth basically left me alone after that one early encounter.

Until we started dating.

When we started dating, I didn’t know what a union was, even though I was paying dues. He made sure I knew what it was, and not only would I know, but I would learn how to precinct walk, go to marches, and actively participate. There was no such thing as being passive if you were in Kenneth’s world.

Kenneth didn’t just talk politics. He felt politics. Whereas most people live their lives generally apathetic about what is going on in Washington, bad news seemed to literally cause Kenneth physical pain. I don’t think he could have survived the world we live in now. He barely survived the Bush years.

Kenneth abhorred apathy. He couldn’t understand it, especially when an issue directly affected our jobs. I remember him trying to get other teachers to volunteer for precinct walking. Most of them usually had a thousand excuses about why they couldn’t phone bank or precinct walk. They were too busy. They had kids. They lived too far. Whatever the excuse, it drove Kenneth up the wall. We were too busy. We had kids. When we were living in Long Beach, it was inconvenient for us too. But he still did it.

The reason Kenneth would get so mad was because he knew what was at stake, and he wanted to do everything he could to stack the odds in our favor. When people didn’t want to do their part, it drove him nuts. But if you did volunteer, you would forever be on his good list. He’d never forget.

Kenneth would precinct walk every day he possibly could have during election season. He said that was his role. He wasn’t organized enough to do anything else, he claimed, but he was a workhorse. There were many times when I would find him in a neighborhood and drop off water or lunch so he could keep knocking on doors while I took care of the kids. Or we would go together as a family. I always seemed to be pregnant during election season. We’d often go door-to-door pushing a stroller, or one or both of us would have a kid strapped to our backs.

I think Kenneth thought in his mind that if he didn’t do everything he could, it would surely lead to disaster.

And he couldn’t understand why other people didn’t see it in the same way.

That was Kenneth. He felt everything he cared about passionately and deeply with every fiber of his being.

He was a vault of information. His memory of details was phenomenal. Putting his socks inside of the hamper or keeping the floor or his desk clear and tidy wasn’t something he could handle. But following the latest news about whatever issue he was paying attention to at the moment was an obsession, and he could remember every word, every detail, every source cited and then be able to tell you about it. Maybe that’s why we always fought about his clutter. I knew he had a great memory when he wanted to use it. So why did he pretend to forget about the socks?

Kenneth was like a mad scientist. If you look at his collection of books, you can see his obsessions. Politics. Philosophy. Chess strategy. Health. Finance. Poetry. He focused on one thing at a time, and he consumed everything he could about the topic until he felt like an expert. He was a genuinely interesting person, at least in my biased opinion.

Sometimes it was overwhelming. There were times when I wanted to turn off the world and relax, but he couldn’t. He was always hungry for more information. He was always feeling like there was something he had to do.

In the car, KPFK was always on.

“Can’t we listen to music?” I’d plead. “I don’t want to hear Ian Masters again.”

“This is important,” he’d say, and begin trying to educate me. I knew he wasn’t going to budge.

He gave money to causes he felt strongly about.

He was always calling or emailing elected officials.

Going to protests and marches.

He was a voracious reader, even though he was a slow reader. But whatever he read, he remembered. His black backpack always had a book inside of it. There were stacks of books in the bathroom. His classroom was loaded with books that we had no room for at home.

At night, he’d watch documentaries.

When he believed in something, he’d want to tell everyone about it.

Some people resented him for his boldness. They interpreted it as pushy, I guess. Too political. Too extreme. Or they made fun of him for always stressing out about things, being too paranoid, or the way it would get him worked up.

Other people loved him for it. They appreciated his dedication and passion. They recognized his efforts and selflessness. They knew he was a kind, sensitive person who had deep feelings and cared a lot.

When I would bring him to a social event with friends or family, I’d have to give him the lecture.

“Do not talk about politics or religion.”


“Because I don’t want you embarrassing me.”

“Then what the hell will I talk about?”

“The weather.”

He’d get that pouty little boy look. “Fine,” he’d say. “I won’t talk about anything then.”

Kenneth and I could drive to San Francisco and back and never run out of things to talk about. We used to do that drive every other weekend for a few years when we visited his son. It was the only thing I liked about those weekends.

We were always sending each other articles. Texting each other something we learned or heard or thought about. I’d come up with theories, and if he thought they were good, I would know because he’d say, “let me think about that one.”

I really miss that about Kenneth. I haven’t found anyone since him who I can talk endlessly to about politics and philosophy and anything else under the sun. In fact, since being married to him, I find most men boring. I know somewhere out in the world there is somebody who I will know is worth my time because we never run out of things to say to each other, but so far it feels like Kenneth will be hard to match. He had fire inside of him.

I want to carry his torch, but I can’t. I’m not ignited by the same kind of passionate fury that burned inside of him. I care. But he cared more. I can’t feel injustice reverberating inside of me the way it did for him. I want to be like him, but I am not him. Sometimes I feel like I’m not as good as he was. Not as kind. Not as feely. It makes me simultaneously proud to have been married to him, and partly ashamed that I can’t continue his legacy in the same way.

The reality is, the world is full of different people. But people like Kenneth are rare. People who aren’t afraid to feel things deep inside of their bones. People who aren’t afraid to speak out about issues they care passionately about. People who don’t spend the majority of their time trying to be nice and liked; people who instead will err on the side of doing what they feel is right, even if you don’t like them for it. People who will show up to do the grunt work, who will walk to every house in a precinct even in sweltering weather, people who will seek new information and share information.

People who really care, and don’t just say they care.

I want our kids to know that this was who their father was. Somebody who cared immensely for people, his country, and for the rest of the world. Somebody who hoped for a better future not only for his own kids, but for your children too. Our Kenneth. How we miss him so.

The Babysitting Wage Gap


Not quite 12 in this picture, but only 2 years off. What a dork.

I started babysitting as soon as I turned 12 years old. I counted down the days until I reached the legal age to be left alone with other people’s kids. It’s ironic that now I don’t even like holding babies, but I once carried dolls around and loved playing with children. At any rate, I had regular gigs with a few families. I got paid between $1-$1.50 per hour, per child. In hindsight, it seems like slave labor. (As a side note: I did the inflation calculator, and that would be up to $5/hour today. I pay my sitter $15/hour. Seriously, us millennials and border-millennials really got ripped off in life. The previous generations ruined the economy and then stuck us with astronomical costs of living now that it’s our turn to play house. But that’s another essay.)

One particular couple I babysat for used me multiple times a week, but if they went out on the weekends, it usually meant drinking was involved. If drinking was involved, then I could count on a few things. Inevitably the dad would come home with inappropriate things to say, fumble for the money he often couldn’t find, and then I would scurry out of there before things got too weird. Which they always did.

If I didn’t get paid, then I had to take on the awkward task of following up with them. I’m not a natural businesswoman, and I definitely don’t like haggling over money.

Over time, the job description for this gig grew while the pay stayed the same. Eventually, for a whopping $3/hour (they had 2 kids), I also had to deal with their cats, slobbery dogs that sometimes urinated in the house, and children who were prone to being unruly and frequently brought friends over to play with, which meant more hassle for me.

The dealbreaker came when Mr. Inappropriate started telling me that they expected that I start cleaning. As in, clean the mess they left before I even got there. As in, wash their sink full of dirty dishes. As in, organize the toys they scattered all over the house long before my shift started. I was okay with making sure any mess under my watch got cleaned up, but becoming their housekeeper for no extra pay crossed (another) line.

I refused. I don’t think I ever babysat for them again.

Naturally, they hired my brother to replace me.

My brother had NO experience taking care of children. I would have never even trusted him with my Cabbage Patch Doll. They never asked him to clean, and they immediately gave him a raise. I couldn’t believe it. My brother ate their food (I never did). He MADE messes. He never put the kids to sleep on time or paid attention to the usual details of childcare like I did. Yet they gave him a RAISE.

(I think it’s because the mom liked my brother. I only had the drunk dad liking me, and we all know that’s worth a whole lot of nothing.)

I don’t think experiences are for naught, though. Some of the unfair experiences we encounter can become defining moments in our consciousness as females. We have the opportunity to learn from them. I have a few pearls of wisdom that came out of this experience:

1. The gender gap is alive and well. Men still get paid more than women for basically…nothing. Men can cost their employers more money and still get paid more.

2.  Men get away with a lot of crap. Women will be held accountable to strict standards and even unreasonable standards.

3. People still think housekeeping is a woman’s job.

4. Older men find anything attractive. Some even find awkward 12 year olds with braces alluring. Basically, a man with alcohol in his system would find almost anything attractive. Do not be so easily flattered.

5. Stay away from drunk men.

6. Even your own brother won’t stand up for feminism if his pockets are getting lined.

7. Always take payment up front, especially when dealing with men.

8. It always pays to be on the good side of the woman of the house.

9. Many women are just as likely to throw a fellow female under the bus as their male counterparts.

10. Know when to quit when the bullshit gets to be too much.

When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned


When my first child was born 10.5 weeks early, I was exiled to a hospital room at the end of the hallway, as far away as possible from the other moms and crying newborns. That was where they sent those of us who would not have our own new babies to press against our bosoms.

I couldn’t believe it happened to me. My husband and I planned our baby down to the very day of conception. I avoided all of the well-known pregnancy taboos, including coloring my hair and eating at salad bars. Yet there I was with a preemie, and nobody could tell me why. It was just my cosmic roll of the dice.

I realized that a major source of my pain and disappointment stemmed from the fact that I felt like my experience as a first-time mother was stolen from me. Everything I expected was not going to happen. Instead, I would watch everyone else take their babies home while mine stayed in an incubator, hooked up to tubes for 53 days.

Two years later, that preemie would get diagnosed with cerebral palsy. It reopened old wounds I had about the universe conspiring against me. I kept wondering why I couldn’t just have a “normal” experience. I felt like a lightning rod for bad luck.

Although the preemie experience felt like the most devastating thing to ever happen to me, it turned out to be a little warm-up in a life that would not go as planned.

Six years later, I woke up on an ordinary morning, right around the time that my husband and me would start the daily grind of making breakfast and lunches for our family that now included three children, the youngest just barely one year old. My husband took our children to their respective destinations in the mornings. In the afternoons we traded cars and parental duties. We were like a finely-tuned machine managing our household.

But on that morning, there would be no lunch-making. That was the morning I found my husband lying face-down on the living room floor and I had to follow the ambulance to the ER. The morning when a doctor told me there was nothing they could do. I had to talk to a coroner. I had to buy a niche at the cemetery and give a eulogy at his funeral and watch the life I knew fall apart.

The hardest part of life not going as planned is having to let go of the mirage in your head about what you thought your life should look like. It isn’t easy to accept that the things you wanted, or thought you wanted, won’t happen. To have to go back to the drawing board, to being forced to let go, to start again, to become a beginner, to be alone, or to not have what everyone else has. These are all realities that are not easily digested.

A reality we did not choose.

For somebody who always made to-do lists and 1-year plans and 5-year plans and 10-year plans, I felt like I had no control anymore.

I didn’t want to raise children on my own. I didn’t want to have to start dating again when I was older and now a single mother. I didn’t want to go to Costco by myself.

Night times were the worst after the kids went to bed. I would remember what my husband would be doing if he were still there: chopping fruits and vegetables to juice, watching Netflix, practicing magic tricks with his deck of cards, listening to 80s music, or maybe washing the dishes while I nursed the baby to sleep. Now, the space that was once occupied by him was empty, quiet. Always too quiet.

In the throes of grief, you eventually realize that you have two options. You can lose yourself to the anguish and let it debilitate you. Or, you can do something about it. You can keep living, even when life doesn’t go as planned. You can take the detour.

If you can see the possibility in the new route–the Plan B–if you feel like there is any chance that it can happen for you, that alone can be the seed of hope you need to keep going.

I had to let myself feel the pain before the detour could be an option. I had to lean into the excruciating feelings, listen to them, and let the pain help me grow and become a part of my foundation that would ultimately make me stronger.

I could become a better version of myself and still live a happy life, but I had to accept that there will be more unexpectedness and I won’t always have control. I could still choose my reactions and decisions though. I could find new routes and take detours when necessary.

I couldn’t get stuck in my disappointment.

Expectations are never reality. I learned the hard way that even when you have the best laid plans, sometimes the universe has a mind of its own. I needed to have flexible expectations.

On the day that my husband died, I wrote a note on a piece of paper for my kids, and I stuck it on a mirror:

We have two options: 1) lie down and crumble, or 2) get up, do great things and make Daddy proud.

I circled the second option and gathered my babies into my lap, holding them tightly and staring at my words in an attempt to convince myself that I could be strong, for them and for myself.

I’ve stumbled. I’ve felt like everything is hopeless. I’ve hated myself and privately cried and have been angry and wanted to die. But I’ve always gotten back up, and I try to make it a point to keep moving forward, even when it hurts. Maybe that’s what clicked. I had to embrace pain and struggle as an important part of my journey instead of resenting it.



The Road I’m On

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Me in Yosemite, 2005. Baby fat, oh boy! 

My idea of what my life should look like was very linear before April 2016. I started a career, we bought a house and got married, had children, and then…I don’t know. I didn’t have another destination mapped out after that. I became lost in a deep ocean of motherhood and family life, our days marked by trips to Costco, diaper changes, and admiring the latest developmental milestone that one of the kids made.

In hindsight, my old life seems hideously boring. There is nothing wrong with being proud your children, or snacking on free samples from Costco, but if that’s all you do, it does feel rather one-dimensional. Nowadays, I’m a strong advocate for having your own passion in life–not attached to people or things. I don’t believe your children or significant other should be your hobby. It sets yourself up for disaster.

Because one day, your children or significant other might not be there for a variety of reasons. But you’ll still be there. And then what? You have to live with yourself until you take your last breath in this world.

It took an unexpected freight train to come crashing into my linear path, destroying what felt comfortable and familiar to me, to make me realize that I was short-changing myself by letting domesticity and narrowly defined concepts of happiness swallow me up.

At first I hated it. Widow and single mother were vile words that made me feel deep shame. I felt like a failure for something I had nothing to do with. I saw a future that was bleak and difficult. It felt like a death sentence.

I had one foot in the family life, and my other foot in the single life. I didn’t belong in either world. As confusing as this initially felt, it gave me the opportunity to eventually realize that neither world was better than the other. I also began to realize that I wasn’t the only one living an unconventional life. We are all living lives that are different degrees of messy.

One of the most profound lessons I learned in the past 16 months is the concept of everything having its pros and cons, and losing the mentality that there is a right way to live my life.

And if everything has its pluses and minuses, then mathematically it cancels itself out.

Which in my mind means that it’s not good or bad. It just is.

Being a widow and single mother isn’t good or bad to me anymore. It just is. In an existential sense, there is no meaning behind it.

I feel like we are conditioned to view life as good or bad, though. We must get this job, or everything is BAD. We must get married, or life is BAD. We must have children, or life is BAD. There are a few problems with this.

One, we have an endless number of things that we want. It literally can go on forever. We can get our job, our spouse, our children, our dream house, and STILL want something else. Or become restless with what we have.

Secondly, we are being naive to think there is such a thing as “bad.” I’m starting to realize that life isn’t black and white. It took me almost 4 decades to figure that out. What we once thought was “bad” might actually have potential for a different kind of happiness we couldn’t previously envision. We have got to stop thinking we have everything figured out. It only sets us up for disappointment.

I’ve come to terms with the unfortunate hand of cards that the universe dealt me. I’ve accepted that this is what I have to work with. Since I can’t change any of it, I might as well strategize my next move. I started to focus on looking for the potential in what is still available to me.

Mary Engelbreit said “if you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.”

When you accept the things that can not be changed, it frees up brain cells to start looking at the silver lining of a situation.

There are many positive things about being married, like companionship, financial incentives, someone to squish bugs, somebody to run your errands…you know. Very important stuff.

On the other hand, there are also a lot of negatives, like somebody snoring next to you, finding dirty socks on the floor, somebody to question what you just ordered from Amazon (again), and other nuisances of the like.

Being single is the same. There are good things about it, like being able to do whatever you want, and bad things like not having that steady companionship.

I’m not saying that losing my husband was a good thing, or something I wanted. It’s just something I can’t control. And for other people who have dealt with a life that did not go as planned, you might be able to relate to the moment you realize: wow, things aren’t always as bad as I thought. Maybe I can work with this.

I try to focus on the possibilities in my life. A major theme for me is treating my life as a re-do, with the opportunity to try new things. I even actively look for opportunities and experiences that I never thought about before. Why not? That’s one of my new favorite phrases. Why not try?


I’m traveling more frequently. I’m playing tennis. I can go out with whoever I want. I write a lot. My house stays clean and organized. I have new friends I probably wouldn’t have had before. I can connect and empathize with people in ways I was never capable of before pain ripped me in half. I feel more deeply. I don’t have to compromise and can listen to my music on full blast whenever I want. I take a lot of time to reflect. I make lists of things I want to do. I have bucket lists.

I want to go white water rafting. I want to play better chess. I want to always keep improving as a teacher. I want to take the kids to Plum Village. I want to watch oral arguments at the Supreme Court. I want to become a NICU cuddler. I want to be one of those people who show up to the ER with a box of tissues when a family has experienced death. I want to see more shows at the Pantages Theater. I want to go to concerts. I want to join a travel group. I want to learn a language. I want to help people. I want an Andalucian patio. I want to travel all over the world. I want to spend lots of quality time on a regular basis with my family and friends. I want to write and write and write until I die. I want to meet new people. I want to go see TED talks live. I want to spend an entire summer in Paris and live like a local. I want to make contributions to important causes. I want to start backpacking again. I want to raise happy, productive, resilient children. I want to be healthy and active into my 90s.

There are so many things I want to do.

When I think about all of the possibilities, it makes it hard to dwell on what didn’t go right in my life.

I often refer to a poem my 5th grade teacher made us memorize. A poem that meant nothing to us in the 5th grade, but a poem that has become important to me. A poem by the great Robert Frost.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost wrote this poem with his friend in mind. This particular friend apparently fretted over decision-making, overanalyzing situations to the point of it paralyzing his ability to make a decision. This poem was supposed to make a statement about people overstating inconsequential decisions. Meaning, we spend too much time worrying over the minutiae in life. You can scrutinize every decision, every option, every possible choice you could have ever made, and inevitably find good and bad things about anything. If you get bogged down in the details, you will miss out on living.

This is how I feel about my life. I could spend my days thinking about what I could have done differently, the choices I did or didn’t make, or dissecting how I got here, analyzing every possible detail.

But I don’t want to.

My path veered off from a traditional one. I am probably missing out on a lot of things by not staying on my original path. But I’m going to experience a lot of other things, including experiences I can’t even envision yet.

In my current journey, I can choose to live an intentional and reflective life. I can’t control everything, but I can control my attitude. I intend to have flexible expectations and an open mind, and I look forward to the many possibilities that will continue to unfold. Life has so much potential.

I’m choosing to let this new road I travel on make all of the difference in my life.

If I could go back in time and talk to 18 year old Teresa, I’d tell her that so many things won’t go the way she thinks it will go. I would tell her that she needs to experience more of life to know what she really wants. I’d try to convince her to have an open mind, to seek varied opportunities and challenges, to lean into her pain and learn from it, and to trust her gut feelings. Most importantly, I would tell her to become a master at letting go of the disappointment that inevitably pools inside of us when something doesn’t go as planned and to make space for new possibilities, because life is chock-full of an infinite amount of opportunities. Life is the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure book.

As the great Dalai Lama once said, “sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.”

We don’t always want it. We can’t always see it. It feels bittersweet and sometimes downright painful. But somehow one road leads to another road, and these unexpected detours can become the best chapters of our lives.