Published on November 5th, 2014 | by Michelle Mirsky


“If You’re Going through Hell, Keep Going”: MICHELLE MIRSKY on Loss

If you make it to forty without scars, you’re doing it wrong. I wear a scatterplot of tattoos and accidental scars on knees and shins from childhood derring-do. My hair has turned slowly over decades from almost black to mostly white. I’ve dyed the roots rose and hot pink and coppery-caramel and colored the whole thing every shade of brown. I will not relent. I don’t have wrinkles to speak of. I have pale stretch marks on my hips from two babies: I’m mother to Joss, a 9 year old boy with sea glass eyes, and to Lev, a 3 year old strawberry blond ghost who would be seven now, had he lived.


Photo credit: Jason Umlas

I married once, for keeps. We had a kid. Built a big life, like you do. Bought a big house. Big cars. Big. All big. Until our second son was born small and sick, lived three sweet years, and then died suddenly but not unexpectedly. An only child by subtraction is a thing. But it’s not a thing anyone ever plans on. During the years when we had two small children, my husband and I wandered away from each another, like you do. And after ten years together, we lost our son, and we’d fought so hard, and we found ourselves at such a distance that I moved out, and we divorced. The fact of Joss’ only childhood proves itself a phantom limb to be reckoned with, impossible to ignore. I didn’t–and I don’t–know how to raise an only child. It’s lucky that there were two of us. I was wholly unprepared to be a single parent in any form or fashion. Joss’ dad stayed in our big cluttered house, taking it day by day. We shuttled the dog back and forth for a while and then we stopped and she stayed with me in my tiny apartment. I did a lot of things wrong, we both did. But mostly, I tried to protect Joss from the worst of our bullshit. We both did.

In that first year following the loss of our child and the end of our marriage, I found myself in a state of calm determination–solitary–in an eye-of-the-hurricane place. Ten days after Lev died, the divorce papers were filed. Lev’s death was an undoing and the catalyst for a crackling need to rebuild on the same site, only much bigger; the compulsion to be someone Lev could always find. To be the giant, shining golden haystack where the sharpest needles hid. Lev watched me always, I was certain. He talked to me in symbols and signs. He chastised and encouraged me. A couple of weeks after Lev died, I got a tattoo on my ribcage of a black Lion with a heart of bare skin, because Lev means heart in Hebrew and Lion in Russian, and because a tattoo on the ribcage means pain. I was hungover at the time, drinking black coffee to kill my headache. I was sleeping with a poet, spending nights awake in bed and sleeping late into the afternoon. Lev was always with me. I carried his ashes in a charm around my neck. I held him in the palm of my hand every day.

It was harder, though, to hold Joss. Continuing to show up as Joss’ mother, a single mother, amid the grief and hushed absences after the funeral and mourning period, after everyone else went back to their lives, was a sucker punch to my glass jaw. I was broken and exhausted and I wanted nothing more or less than to wrap myself up in a warm blanket of alcohol and sex and childless friends. I wanted no one to need me anymore or to think of me as a mother, let alone a mother who’d lost her son. Here, I was selfish. I was selfish with my time and with my heart and with the space inside my head. It was difficult for me to reach the mothering part of me at all. I endeavored to fake it and hoped the feelings would return. There was no eureka moment when I awoke from my mother-coma. It was a long and strange process of feeling the gears begin to turn again. I am gifted with a son who is wired quite a lot like I am–a small person who feels so deeply that in moments of greatest emotion, he seems to flip the fail-safe switch into the appearance of stoicism. Joss worried aloud in an even tone that all of my love died with Lev. And I knew. He was not entirely wrong. I was devastated by how much he understood. By how much I couldn’t change it. How much I wanted to change it.


Just before my divorce was final, I fell in teenaged love with a retired painter with whom I drank whiskey and lay in bed re-reading the collected works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and remembering with all due intensity how to write. Less than a year after Lev died, I became a published writer (which, for people who write, is that moment when your inner Pinocchio turns into a real boy). I was 36 years old. I moved with my dog and my remaining son into a duplex with huge windows that stretched from the floor nearly to the ceiling and bathed the place in light. My retired painter spent most nights with us: dinners and Legos and walks in the neighborhood. He was, and remains, a man who liked to draw the curtains tight; a man who was unaccustomed to loving a writer–a writer who was enjoying a period of flayed-open honesty bordering on confession every second of every day. In a fit of exuberance and overjoy, I wrote about the painter, gently–about my love for him–in a commissioned piece that was published before I understood what would come next; how far I’d transgressed in opening the curtain at all on our life together. Afterward, things were never the same between us again. I left him the following winter. I suppose I chose writing over love. My son might someday forgive me for leaving the painter. I suspect he will. The painter, I think, will never forgive me for writing about him.

One evening in the lonely spring, Joss and I arrived home to find that while we’d been at school and work, someone had smashed one of our point-of-pride windows. They’d made their way past our cowering dog, past Joss’ bike, past the remnants of breakfast and they’d stolen from us. As I crept through the rooms, it became clear the thieves had taken an approximate backpack’s worth of treasures: a camera full of photos of both children, all of my jewelry, and my laptop full of finished and half-finished writing–all I had. I let out a howl that scared the bejesus out of Joss and I elected to remove him to somewhere safe from whatever had happened and whatever might be coming. When my ex-husband arrived to shuttle Joss to the safety of a non-burgled house–he looked me in the eyes and held my arms in his hands for a moment and he said: “You cannot fall apart. You cannot.” I did as I was told. I choked back wide-spaced sobs and waited in the quiet for my landlord to come and fix the busted window and for the police to come and dust my house with black, pointless soot. The next day, I called off from work to sit on the sofa, alone in my bright, ruined duplex. I left once to stalk my jewelry through fluorescent lit pawn shops in the bright light of day.

The storm had come for me. It was a fog of unbecoming, of wandering and getting lost.

I have, historically, found words for everything, whether mine or someone else’s. Favorite graphic-designed, chestnut phrases are legion and they are everywhere, shouting from screens, from walls, from post cards–ubiquitous buoys, picaresque driftwood in a storming sea of inevitability. Aphorisms are balms of my soul, as necessary to my healing as Prozac and therapy–bold-faced, italicized morsels of self-help writ large. My favorite: “If you’re going through hell, keep going…” –Winston Churchill. In my memory, when I first saw the words, they were on a magnet, but perhaps it was a card? I found whatever it was in the upmarket stationary store, the one I used to haunt near the house where I lived when I was married. I stuck the words to the stainless steel fridge we paid off in installments.

There was a poster of Winston Churchill in the TV room of the tall house in which I grew up, the one where Churchill’s weathered face looked out from above our rust-colored velvet sofa. Hand in hand with my childhood, lockstep with my father, with that place where people told me what to do and I did it, where there was a higher authority. The leader of the Free World squinted from under the brim of his signature homburg hat, mouth slightly upturned in a Mona Lisa smile, WW2 bombers flying overhead, imploring from his place on the wall, and in history: “Let us go forward together.”

And, I thought. And I think: “Yes, sir, let’s.”


Photo credit: Iona Mirsky

Days after the break-in, Joss and I moved into a dark, quiet apartment in a safe complex with zero character. Everything I did and felt and saw was grey. Sounds hurt my ears; colors were absent. I got up every day and brought Joss to school. Cooked for him, but forgot to eat. I tried to write through the mess but there were no words. Inside my head there was screaming and silence, but no sentences. Terror. I had only just tasted command of the words I’d tried so hard to grasp. I wanted, fiercely, to keep writing my story. To create something meaningful out of the experiences that made up Lev’s life and mine while he was on the earth. I read and wrote something every day. But it felt hollow and strange and I hated every word. And I realized that all of the reflection, the constant diving back under water into the past, took away from my time in the present with my living son–with my Joss, who was five and then six and then suddenly seven years old. I moved away, indefinitely, from chronicling myself. A step off a cliff into living in the moment without.


In my experience, to find your way home, you first have to leave. After the end of the school year, Joss flew East with his dad while I got into my Volvo with our 11-year-old dog and drove from Austin, Texas, where we all live, to New York state. I wanted us to be together at the beach for Lev’s third posthumous birthday. So, in July, we visited my ex-mother-in-law’s house in Montauk, where we’d spent countless, happy seasons with our children, before the ship crash-landed. We slept in a room with two twin beds, Joss curled up with me, his dad snoring opposite us. We dug up oysters and ate big meals and got sunburnt. A family. Still. Always.

Soon after, Joss and I drove upstate for a 6-week stay in my parents tall house, the house where I grew up: the house where my dad and Winston Churchill would have the last word. We settled into the apartment in my parents’ basement, our summer hunger quelled by a steady diet of lamb chops and flank steaks and perpetual bowls of sweetened strawberries, my dad’s specialties. I did crossword puzzles at the dining room table until I ran out of answers. My mom brought Joss to day camp with his cousin each morning and I retreated to the basement and began, again, to write. Some days, fighting the panic of empty pages, I would climb all the way to the top of the tall house and visit my dad’s workshop, the poster still there in the old TV room, Churchill urging my father on as he built model airplanes and ships in a cloud of balsa wood sawdust and noxious glue.


Back home in Texas, my only child lives in two homes on the same avenue, each one full of pets and books and love. Two places situated three blocks away from one another across a single busy road and two quiet streets. When he’s older, Joss can walk or ride his bike between his parents’ houses. At nine and thirty-nine, Joss and I are a unit so tight it hurts my heart. He tells his friends and schoolmates about his mother who is a writer. He asked me to come in and teach his 2nd grade class about creating characters, at which opportunity I leapt: one of the top 5 proudest moments of my life. As we walk the dog on the weedy path across from our apartment, the boy dragging his scooter behind, sparkling gnats in a waning sunbeam, bouncing color off rocks in the dry creek that runs along the side of our route, tree branches above us leaning to form a shade, a secret arbor in the middle of the busy everything. I am grateful and lucky. Again, I have all of the words I need.


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About the Author

Michelle Mirsky is a writer who works an earnest nine-to-five job and sometimes tells stories on stage. Her work has been featured on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and in Best American Essays. She hates looking for parking, jerks, and being told no. She likes whiskey, reading, saying yes, and knee-high boots/classic modernist chairs (tie). She lives in Austin, TX with her son.

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