Hold it Lightly

Published on January 10th, 2023 | by Cheryl Klein


Fear and Loving in Los Angeles

My 7-year-old is watching The Croods: A New Age again. It’s better and weirder than you’d think—a tribe of warrior women called The Thunder Sisters saves the day, led by Gran Crood’s sentient wig, who is named Wigasus.

Dash is stapling together two sides of a construction paper Christmas stocking he started making in the after-school program. 

“This is for Joey,” he says. His six-month-old brother doesn’t have a stocking yet.

Dash has seen this movie many times and isn’t paying much attention. It’s mostly a soundtrack for his other activities: making crafts, standing on his head on the couch, asking for snacks, eating snacks, complaining that he’s bored. The actual soundtrack plays “I Think I Love You,” covered by Tenacious D. 

I think I love you!
So what am I so afraid of?
I’m afraid that I’m not sure of
A love there is no cure for
I think I love you!
Isn’t that what life is made of


Once upon a time, I fell deeply in love with my mom. I don’t remember it, of course—that early infatuation, the veined skin and dark nipples. I’ve heard that breastfeeding changes the color of mothers’ nipples, so maybe hers were once pink, but they were a dark rose by the time I remember her. A flash of nakedness in the bathroom. 

And then she left. Tale as old as time. First when my sister was born, and her energy was devoured by my new small enemy. Then with finality, from ovarian cancer, when I was 26. The body is frustrating in its resistance to metaphor, and its simultaneous propulsion to it. Her heart stopped beating/she broke my heart.

Now I’m the one bottle-feeding Dash’s new small enemy. There are seven years between them and four failed adoptions before Joey. Joey, a preemie turned chunky six-month-old with dark eyes and a wave of brown hair on top of his head. Joey, who is apparently here to stay.

But is he? When it seems like the legalities of the adoption will work out (and it does), I worry about his health and development. When those seem fine (and they do), I worry about my own health. Am I here to stay? 


It’s medical test season, coming in hot on the heels of this adoption thing. I had breast cancer almost ten years ago, so I do a blood test for tumor markers every six months. I have a smallish but larger-than-average genetic risk for pancreatic cancer, so I do an MRI of my midsection every year. I lay in a tube while dye pumps through my veins and a machine takes magnetic pictures of my body’s secrets.

As I type this, I am compelled—a compulsion, like a tick—to note that I have been in remission for nine and a half years. Not ten. Not yet. The hubris of rounding up feels like inviting bad luck. 

Entitlement gets a bad rap. We think of Karens demanding that the world bend to accommodate their whims. But entitlement is what enables us to do anything; certainly to parent. Yes, we should respect our children’s autonomy and try to pause for gratitude. But anyone who says “take nothing for granted” hasn’t carried that mantra to its illogical conclusions. If you aren’t fairly confident you’ll be alive in a year, how do you get through the day without grieving your own death? If you don’t believe you have a right to be your child’s mother—and sometimes I don’t—how can you tell them it’s time for bed? If you don’t believe in the solidity of the ground, how can you walk out the door?


My therapist says that my cancer fears are about my attachment insecurities. 

My other therapist says to sit with the feeling, see what comes up.

My sister’s oncologist said ovarian cancer screenings aren’t very good, they catch the cancer too late, but might as well do them anyway.

My partner, C.C., says we’re all going to die, but why not enjoy life while we can?

Joey’s first mother says This is my new number, download this app so we can video chat. She keeps picking herself back up from life’s potholes, finding new ways to keep the umbilical between Los Angeles and Virginia from drying up and falling off.

My mom says nothing and everything. 

The leader of a self-improvement cult that is the subject of a documentary says love is suffering. There is a universe in which I would absolutely join that cult, or some cult, in order to aim my suffering at an alleged greater good. Give me a leader who almost but doesn’t quite love me. Give me rules to live by. Take away the horrible burden of choice, which is to say, of risk.


One miraculously slow Friday, when Dash is at school and Joey is napping, C.C. and I watch Emily the Criminal on Netflix while I stuff envelopes for work. Aubrey Plaza plays an artist with $70,000 in student loan debt and a criminal record that keeps her from getting a decent job, so she turns to credit card fraud. Spoiler alert, it fucks her up as much as capitalism does, but she gets away with it. She escapes to South America where she draws and walks in the rain and swims in the ocean. 

Something in me stirs. Right! Sometimes risks pay off! I’d almost forgotten.

Another afternoon, Dash is missing the neighbor girls, his best friends, with whom he’d spend ten hours a day if he could (and nearly did, at the peak of the pandemic). He sees them less these days. Everyone has school, and the oldest is a ten-year-old who pouts and looks at her phone a lot. But when we’re lucky, there are still long afternoons of mess-making and cookie-baking and packing bags for imaginary adventures. 

We knock on their security door, an unintentionally menacing bang bang bang of metal, and wait. Their grandmother is visiting from Mexico, a family dinner is planned, but yes, afterward their mom will walk them over, the oldest promises. 

Dash is effervescent with hope. It’s so familiar to me, that roller coaster. For the next half hour, he is extra gracious, as I am when I think things are going my way. He even agrees to let me read him a few pages of Harry Potter, though he’s almost never interested in reading when it’s not bedtime. As the night stretches out, his hope stammers and fades. But eventually, they come.


Every round of waiting for medical tests feels like the worst yet; I don’t know if this one is the worst, but it’s the longest, because MRI, because December in a medical system plagued by cold and flu and COVID. Kaiser’s website wears a banner that says, more or less, Excuse our shit show. 

Usually late nights are my safe zone, the demands of the day over, the possibility of bad news kicked down the road. But this night, twelve days into waiting on top of waiting, all roads lead to What if I lose everyone I love? 

Losing even one of them would be enough to ruin me and cause me to lose the rest of them. Wouldn’t it? I don’t want to find out. I pace the house and bother C.C., who is sleeping. A little comfort, please? I plead. I already comforted you today, I need sleep, she murmurs, not unreasonably. But it feels like confirmation of all my fears. 

The irony, of course, is that my intrusive thoughts, pounding like cops at the door, separate me from those I love. Every time I stare blankly at Dash’s soccer game and think What if some bit of red tape stands in the way of finalizing Joey’s adoption? instead of seeing how sweet Dash is in his shiny blue shorts, doing little practice kicks out in the midfield, I lose him. 

At the adoption support group, a social worker says, Every adoptive parent fears their children being taken from them. 

When I hold Joey close to me, when I gaze into his eyes or elicit a quiet laugh (I worried he wasn’t laughing yet; then I listened closer), I am comforted. And I fall deeper. No turning back now. That makes me worry more. How do you hold tight and lightly at the same time? 


Used to be, whenever I really spun out and couldn’t stop sobbing about one of my core group of things to sob about (the attachments), I would find myself whispering, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. To my mom, I suppose. I’m sorry I’m fucking up this life you gave me. I’m sorry for whatever I did that made you go away. That made you turn your face to my infant sister, first, and then leave this world too early. I’m sorry I ruined everything.

Lately, though, I’ve been trying out a new phrase. It came to me like a worry stone unearthed in a messy garden. 

She loved me so well, I marvel. You loved me so well, I tell her.

If I die, I tell C.C., let Dash know how hard I worked to bring him a brother.

All the tests roll into my Kaiser portal, full of medical lingo and numbers that tell me what my heart can’t: I’m okay. So I’m not dying right now. I circle back to worrying about whether the adoption will be finalized instead. 

I’m sorry I’m like this. I don’t know if I am loving my loved ones well. But I am loving.

I close my eyes and picture Emily the criminal butterflying into the ocean, with all its unknown currents. This is what life is made of.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her MUTHA column “Onesie, Never Worn” was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2022. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.

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