A Non-Fairy Tale

Nancy Farell photo_CNF

My daughter fell under the spell of fairy tales early on when, as a toddler, she watched Lady and the Tramp for the first time on a VHS tape that I’d rented at a Delaware County Blockbuster while she fought a stomach bug. She’d enjoyed the movie so much that we gifted her with Lady and Trump stuffed toys for her next birthday. Thereafter, she gradually became enamored of everything else Disney, until we got an inkling that this might be coloring her world view. We’d warned her about stranger danger as a youngster, and yet she’d extend the perkiest of hellos to folks we’d pass on the street, as Goofy might. And, as a teen, when our family visited Disney World, she’d had to be reminded to breathe as we’d embarked on Main Street USA, despite our caution that while that Main Street USA’s souvenir shops were beguiling, they were also pricey. Fortunately, even a souvenir as unexceptional as a bag of Mickey Mouse-shaped pretzels made her smile.

As a college freshman, she met a young man who was honorable and hardworking, and they fell for one another over afternoons at Linvilla Orchards or the Sproul Bowling Lanes and evenings at Friendly’s restaurant or the AMC Theater. In their mid-20s, he proposed marriage. She had officially found her prince, and they said their vows in 2013 on a bright, fall Saturday. Soon after, they found a place to live in Wilmington with copious drafts and missing shingles but a good configuration, and they slowly turned it into a home that included a Cinderella snow globe and a Mickey and Minnie alarm clock.

But these fairy tale associations would come to an end, and the beginning of the end fell on Christmas Day in 2014, when my daughter and her husband, both age 27, excitedly shared with me their desire to start a family. They’d been helping me peel our dinner potatoes in the kitchen, when she’d excitedly let slip, “Mom, we’re trying for a baby.” I saw my son-in-law blush and hugged them both. “How wonderful!” I cried out.

They spread the news to the rest of the family as we gathered in the dining room. Then, my daughter leaned toward me and whispered, “Who knows, mom? I could be pregnant already.” I nodded and put my hand in hers. We had no idea what was coming.

My daughter was not pregnant on that Christmas Day in 2014, nor was she pregnant on Christmas Day in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, or 2019. Instead, they were diagnosed as the one couple in eight who suffer from infertility.

In 2015, after one year without success, my daughter’s gynecologist had various recommendations, such as ovulation predictor kits and fertility monitor bracelets among others. However, no amount of calendar marking, temperature taking, or urine dip sticking resulted in pregnancy.

In 2016, they visited an infertility specialist. The hope was that medical breakthroughs would step in and solve the mystery. Coinciding with this time was a career opportunity for my son-in-law, but it required that he live out of state for a couple of months. My son-in-law didn’t want to live away even temporarily, but the Intra-Uterine Insemination (IUI) procedures they were about to begin at the Reproductive Associates of Delaware would be costly, and my daughter reassured him that a better job was for the best. It was determined that, with meticulous planning, the procedures could take place while my son-in-law was away, and that I would accompany my daughter to the infertility appointments.

Ahead of the first IUI, an exploratory surgery was performed to check for cysts or blockages. I sat in the waiting room wishing that something would be found because then something might be remedied, but the surgical results were inconclusive. The diagnosis was unexplained infertility, which doesn’t sound like a diagnosis at all, but is one, we discovered. Our drive home from the surgery center involved my getting hopelessly lost, while my daughter endured post-anesthesia vomiting in the passenger seat. Eventually, I got her settled at home with a blanket on the sofa, unearthed old coloring books and crayons, ordered a pizza, and then slipped Mulan into the DVD player, and there we sat for hours.

In July of 2017, I held my daughter’s hand as she underwent IUI #1. Post-procedure, the doctor left the room while my daughter and I remained for a recommended 20-minute period of lying supine. In the sterile environment, I rubbed her stomach to soothe her and decided to sing Hap Palmer’s My Mommy Comes Back, her favorite childhood song. She laughed and shushed me, but I saw tears slip from her eyes, so I continued. I sang dreadfully but hoped it would generate good luck. Then, two weeks later, when we returned to the doctor’s office, her pregnancy test was negative.

In September of 2017, we were back at the Reproductive Associates of Delaware, ever hopeful, as my daughter underwent IUI #2. “The odds are better the second time around,” the doctor opined. This didn’t seem logical, but my daughter lit up, so I nodded and said, “Well, here we go then!” As she laid on the table afterward this time, I didn’t sing, but I dug deep for words of comfort as she closed her eyes. We’d brought along what we hoped were good luck charms – a photo of her as a baby in my pocket and a prayer bead bracelet on her wrist. Two weeks later, we returned for her pregnancy test, and once again, there was no pregnancy. We traversed the parking lot as she sobbed.

Then my son-in-law returned home from training. He was assigned employment in New York, and we all did our best to focus on that instead of on the IUI failures. We threw them a going away party with decorations and gifts for their new place in Queens. No one mentioned babies. Instead, we spoke of the excitement of the Big Apple. It was a fresh start.

They signed on with The New York Fertility Center in Flushing. Other than adoption, their last-ditch effort was looming, namely In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). Their leadup to IVF was chockfull of doctor appointments, injections, and medications. They needed to create a poster board to keep track of everything. There were injections of Gonal, Menopur, Ganirelix, Progesterone in Oil, and Ovridrel. The drugs included Letrazole, Medrol, Estrace, Zithromax, DHEA, CoQ10, and Prenate. After weeks of prep, the doctor inserted a needle into my daughter’s ovarian follicle and retrieved six eggs. Those eggs were placed in a culture dish, where sperm was waiting.

My husband and I visited them the following weekend. We explored Queens for hours, but mostly listened for a call from the doctor to learn how many of the six eggs had been fertilized. When the call finally came, the doctor reported that two eggs had been fertilized excellently, two acceptably, and that two were not viable. The four useable embryos would be allowed to remain in the culture dish until they became blastocysts, about five days post-fertilization. It was decided that the two excellent blastocysts would be transferred to my daughter’s uterus, while the two acceptable ones would be frozen for future use.

IVF #1 took place in April 2018. The injections and medications continued, and they were scheduled to return to the doctor’s office in two weeks for a pregnancy test. That day, my daughter phoned me from the doctor’s parking lot in a downpour, “I’m spotting, mom, there’s a discharge, so I guess I’m not pregnant,” she despaired, her fast-moving windshield wipers delivering a background whoosh. However, the news they received was just the opposite. They were pregnant! The doctor said that a discharge can be normal, and implantation is often the cause. I wanted to hoot and holler with joy but found that I was paralyzed with fear. There was so much at stake.

In the weeks that followed, our family and my son-in-law’s family hoped, prayed, and begged for a viable pregnancy. My husband visited his father’s grave to ask for this one favor, this one blessing, if possible. The waiting was terrible, but something that we would bear gamely, if it resulted in a healthy pregnancy.

Yet, on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, 2018, they suffered a miscarriage. The discharge had increased. It had not been from implantation, but had been a slow breakdown of the implanted blastocyst. Afterward, they drove from NY to the NJ shore to spend the rest of the holiday weekend with family in Brigantine, where my mother owns an always-crowded, but much-loved, 1950’s era bungalow. We sat on the weathered porch and waited for my daughter and son-in-law to arrive, and when they did, everyone went inside to console them.

IVF #2 took place in July 2018. The two frozen blastocysts were thawed and then transferred. For this go-round, my daughter took a leave of absence from work in the hope that being inactive would boost their chances. After two weeks, they returned for a pregnancy test, and once again, it was positive. I tried my best to slay negative thoughts. There was no discharge. How could there be back to back miscarriages? It was finally their turn, wasn’t it?

At four weeks of pregnancy, my daughter and son-in-law had their first ultrasound. There wasn’t much visible on the screen, but the technician called this normal, so we sighed in relief. My husband and I visited them again in Queens, bringing grocery bags filled with healthy food and drink. The desire to do something helpful was palpable.

At five weeks, an ultrasound showed a yolk sac — great news — but a fetal pole was to be expected and was not there.  The technician said, “No worries, the fetal pole will probably be found next time.”

The next ultrasound was scheduled for the following week. We wanted to jettison the days that stood in between.

At six weeks, we learned the fetal pole was visible. Once again there was a caveat. My daughter told us, “They did expect to see the heartbeat today too, but they didn’t, and so they hope to detect it next week.”

At seven weeks, a miniscule heartbeat was seen on ultrasound. It was termed a”flicker.” Then, another caveat, “We should also hear the heartbeat, however,” the technician said, but added, “let’s see what we’ve got next week.”

But what they heard the next week was not the sound of a heartbeat. Rather, it was the sound of the technician’s voice letting them know that the “flicker” had vanished.

It was the beginning of the Labor Day weekend, as fate would have it, and another miscarriage was diagnosed. This time, an examination of the uterine contents revealed a female embryo with an extra chromosome that would have led to serious birth defects. After resting for a day, my daughter and son-in-law joined family once again at the bungalow in Brigantine. Like before, we waited for them on the porch. That evening over dinner, we talked about how their miscarriages had bookended the summer of 2018—Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. It was a summer we were eager to put to rest.

As I write this, 2020 has just begun, and my daughter and son-in-law remain childless. Following the IVF procedures and failures, they decided to try for adoption. They met in early 2019 with a NY adoption lawyer, who gave them loads of advice, but no distinct path to finding a child to adopt. The lawyer explained that couples today advertise in order to locate potential birth mothers. We found this unusual until some Internet investigating proved it to be true. The lawyer also explained that my daughter and son-in-law would first need to become NY-certified adoptive parents. The process took six months to complete. The contents of a packet that was placed before a NY judge and scrutinized included employment and financial records, background checks, fingerprinting reports, and a home study report by a licensed social worker. Their marital relationship and mental health were studied, and queries responded to about extended family. Today, my daughter and son-in-law have created a website, as well as social media accounts, all of which endeavor to encapsulate who they are and the unconditional love that they long to share with a child. They’ve designed and printed postcards that communicate their desire to adopt, and they’ve placed ads in church bulletins. Thus far, their luck hasn’t changed, but they tell us they remain more devoted to one another than ever, a silver lining. They now have two nephews and can often be found building Lego towns with them or treating them to Disney on Ice and Paw Patrol Live.

While the physical and emotional hardships are unmistakable, there is another hardship that bears mentioning, and that is the financial toll of infertility. Treatments are not covered by the majority of insurance plans. IUI procedures can run from $2,000 to $4,000 each, inclusive of pre-testing, medications and follow up. My daughter and son-in-law were able to use savings for their two IUI procedures, but for IVF, they were forced to use credit cards. The cost of the two IVF cycles they underwent was $17,500. They opted for the “special rate,” which meant they signed on for two IVF cycles from the get-go. Credit card bills of that heft are not paid off quickly or easily. Moreover, the monthly credit card statements are a reminder of what might have been.

My daughter and son-in-law tell us that everything they’ve gone through will be worth it when they finally bring home a child, no matter how it happens. As for me, I imagine that day, picturing my husband and me showering our future grandchild with kisses. I can almost see it: my daughter leaning toward me to whisper, the same way she did on Christmas in 2014 when everything started. Only this time, she will say, “Mom, can you believe we have a baby?”

Nancy Farrell is a lifelong writer with a focus on autobiographical works. She works as a legal assistant in Media, PA. If you would like to connect with the couple featured in “A Non-Fairy Tale” about your own infertility struggle or if you are considering giving up a child for adoption, feel free to visit http://www.mandmadopt.com.

End Times


I stare at my therapist’s coffee cup the entire time she talks to me about the importance of communicating. I’m focused on the yellow Sunoco logo that hasn’t changed since 1995 when I would see its sign across from our first house on Lewis Road. What I’m truly thinking, as she talks about advocating for yourself and not running from conflict, is if I can really trust the advice of someone who gets their morning coffee from a shitty gas station that doesn’t even let you pump your own gas. Did she pay the grizzly old man with oil-stained callouses to run inside and grab her this too?

I nod and nod and wait for the small timer to go off because I know it’s got to be time soon. I give little mmhmm’s when a pause is long enough and wonder if getting her a Starbucks gift card for Christmas is passive-aggressive. Do you get your therapist Christmas gifts? Is that like a conflict of interest?

Time’s up.

The chime is still going off by the time my coat is slipping on, and I’m on my feet. Unless she has a patient lined up right after me, she always finds ways to make it all go another 10 or 15 minutes, until my left leg starts bouncing. I tell her bye, that I’ll think about what she said, that I promise to actually keep that thought journal she asked me to do from two weeks ago and look into reading that book about love languages.
I choose to miss the bus and run to the coffee shop across the street to sit for a few minutes. One of us should have a reasonable cup of coffee.


The good news is Aly thinks I spent extra time with Dr. Wasterman. I finish the coffee before I get home and toss the cup in a trash can outside a different coffee shop two blocks down from our apartment. This one has stickers with rainbows and things about trans rights and all that good stuff in the window, but the one barista creeps me out. He works on Sundays and right when they open on the weekdays and always looks pissed off.

The bad news is she wants to go out.

I really would rather only do one thing a day. And therapy is like three things already before 11am. But she wakes up when I’m already gone and gets stir crazy waiting for me to come back and the sun is popping in and out between clouds today with a nice, even high of 55 or so. She wants a hike. Fresh air, open space. I can’t accuse her of cornering me if the conversations I don’t want to have given myself over to the wide-open outdoors where I have everywhere to run. That tactic didn’t come up in Dr. Wasterman’s long monologue about communication. Or maybe it did. I was focused on the coffee cup.

On the edge of the city lies a valley of trees and climbable rocks. Over a couple hundred or thousand years, a few streams scored through the trees and ground, causing ridges to rise up on either side and eventually dumping into the Schuylkill. This is where she wants to go. She looks me dead with green eyes and says, Diana, you said we could do something today. I meant puzzles or baking something or finishing any of the fifteen shows we were trying to watch at once.

Yeah, okay.

I change into boots and put on pants that I care a little less about. I fill up the water bottle she got me for my birthday. She packs snacks, and I realize it’s not going to be a short hike. I ask if we can stop for coffee.


We take my car because it’s the one that has the parking permit. We cut through Manayunk and up the hill into Roxborough. While we drive, I ask if she ever thinks about how many dead bodies are probably just strewn and hiding in the woods around the city. She shakes her head and tells me something is wrong with me.

People talk about the bodies in Washington Square. Something like 20,000 under the nice, clean concrete paths and fountain welcoming you to Old City. It’s not just me.

I didn’t think I could afford therapy. I’m pretty sure I still, technically, can’t. This therapist has a way of billing for like four sessions at once. Rather than $80 a week I see an occasional bill of a couple hundred, followed by incessant payment reminders on my phone. She once refused to take my calls or set up an appointment until I paid off the $50 that I owed her. I get it. We all have to make a living. But everyone saying we should all be in therapy like it’s something anyone can afford or something insurance companies give a shit about.

After our third reenactment of the same fight, I had a moment of some kind of clarity and said fuck if we’re doing this again. Everyone talks about insanity and its definition as doing the same thing the same way over and over again and expecting a new result. I don’t know if that’s true, but every time a line like that came out of a book or a TV, I felt them talking to me

Why am I the only one of us in therapy, though?

I think about the bodies again because this place is old. Not old-old, but it saw a colony and a revolution and all sorts of other stuff. A friend from my old D&D group out in the suburbs once said that you can tell there’s a body because the ground does kind of a six-foot by three-foot dip where it’s decaying, and the earth is filling in. Like I said, it’s not just me. But Aly doesn’t like macabre or do horror.

We pull off to park along Hermit Lane because she wants to take the Yellow Trail to Lover’s Leap–the long way–probably take a photo and call it a day.

The first paper mill in British North America was here, she says while we walk along the trail. This was all industry. I nod. She tells me about the Battle of Germantown that happened farther down the trail, about an abandoned trolley bridge, about the legend of a Native American couple who couldn’t be together because of tribal disputes jumping from the rock we’re heading to. She never does her research halfway.

On our first three dates, she was swimming with facts. I had smiled and nodded and found it cute. Figured it would go away the more comfortable with me she got. It’s almost two years later now.

We walk to the trailhead beside a cream and yellow house with a sign outside that says Hermitage, with some stories about the Russian entrepreneurs who lived there and made a couple gazillion for their descendants. I follow her down the trail, which bends and turns sharply. The leaves hide the path every couple of yards, and I think about grabbing her hand to make sure she didn’t slip.

I want to show you something cool. I nod and follow and think about Dr. Wasterman and how she tells me things like You’re afraid of vulnerability and it’s okay when relationships don’t work out. I wonder when you know. Is it in the first couple months when something is just not working? Is it when you get to a year and no one wants to tell anyone else that they love them? What happens when you’re two years deep and you feel numb in your shared apartment, numb when she’s holding your hand?

America’s first doomsday cult was here, she says. The Hermits of the Ridge lived out here and waited in the woods for the world to end.

That I can get behind. She shows me a stone plaque next to the black mouth of a small, man-made cave. Inside it’s about the size of a guest bathroom, rectangular, and surprisingly tucked away from the air of the park outside.

Johannes Kelpius used this place to meditate and think and study–

And just wait for the world to end.

She tells me about how they built a tabernacle and observatory, how they practiced chemistry and astronomy. People say they had the philosopher’s stone, and that Kelpius had thrown it into the Schuylkill before he died, or that it was buried with him, depending on who you ask.

Where’s he buried?

She shrugs and tells me no one knows.

I think again about the bodies.


I don’t want to go to this party, but I need to get better at being social. It’s all her friends and people who now say they’re my friends, but if we broke up, I’d never hear from them again. I add that to my growing list: how do you deal with a failed relationship when it makes you a friendless loner afterwards?

We walk south, cross Baltimore, and make a few turns I don’t track, but she knows West Philly better than I ever will. It’s some kind of housewarming party a few months late. We know every housemate, but it will be fun to guess which guest got invited by which person. We’ve brought a bottle of wine that’s just for us because they’re the kind of people who offer Yuengling and PBR to guests alongside cheap tequila and vodka.

It’s loud. I always wonder what neighbors are doing when parties are this loud. How close are they to calling the cops?

I stick close to her, our hands laced. It’s a survival tactic. There’s no soft grip or thumb running across the soft skin at the back of either of our hands. It’s hot and tight, and I wonder exactly how many people this apartment floor can hold while a group of women jump around to Robyn playing over the laptop speakers. Furniture has been moved out of the way to create a makeshift dance floor, and we find a spot on a couch in the corner of the room. No cranny is quiet, but we feel separated from the crush of bodies. We pass the wine bottle back and forth and look at each other. We give up on trying to shout over the music and we’ve stopped holding hands. A year ago at a party, she pulled us out to the balcony and asked if we could make out, and we giggled and held each other where no one could see us. Now it’s like that first night in the Mexican restaurant where we couldn’t keep eye contact. The difference is that back then felt like a start. This feels like we’ve finally tunneled to the other side of the Earth and said now what?

People talk to her. People who have known her far longer than I have and maybe still know her better. I sip the wine from the mouth of the bottle, grip tightly at the neck like I could snap it, and smile when I make eye contact with people. The heavy weight of the wine settles over me all at once when it’s half gone from the bottle and the clock is just past midnight.

She’s good in a crowd. She wouldn’t agree. But she’s good with her friends. All fifteen of her closest friends in one room. I don’t talk to anyone from my college. Maybe I should have been in more clubs.


I have a dream about the cave. Or, at least, because of the cave. The outside was the same, but this one went deep and winding. I was pushed down into it by something behind me, and I was tumbling for hours or at least what I understood to be hours in dream time. I never find the bottom because eventually, a work alarm goes off.

I’m in the shower thinking about how cold it’s going to be today and wondering if, with my boss up at the New York office for the day, I’ll have time to just put Netflix on in the bottom corner of my screen and watch something .

I do end up having time. But instead, I google the cave.

Johannes Kelpius was born in the same village as Vlad the Impaler. I hoped that would lead to stories of human sacrifices and Satanic carvings along the ravine in Wissahickon. But the monks were surprisingly kind and open to anyone who stumbled on their sanctuary. When the end of the world came and went, they did too. No fanfare, no Kool-Aid, no shootout. The world didn’t end, but that part of their lives did and they moved on.

I go home and we talk about absolutely nothing that matters over dinner. She puts on sitcoms from the couch, and I clack away at my laptop reading about Kelpius and a faction of historians who actually went on dredging missions in the Schuylkill to see if the philosopher’s stone was really down there.

Aly says she’s going to bed and closes the door without much else, and I’m left in the kitchen by the light of my laptop screen. I wonder if they put enough thought into this elixir for all diseases to make it cure mental ones too.


A week later my therapist is talking, and I’m not listening until she says the words break up, and I lift my head. I think it’s a joke for a second. I think maybe she said it because she knew I wasn’t paying attention and wanted me back in the room. But she repeats it again with dead eyes at mine, and I feel that tightness you get at the front of your throat when a good cry is going to come on.

I think it’s something you need to consider, whether this relationship is healthy and sustainable. I wonder if therapists are always this blunt. But I have been focusing on her shitty gas station coffee for two weeks, so I don’t have much to compare it to.

I actually do consider it on the walk home down Chestnut. I pass the City Tap, where we went one Saturday night on the way back from watching a friend play indoor soccer. We got two beers and maybe a little tipsy and didn’t have to pay for our pizza and then went home and had sex. I move past the bagel place we would go on Sundays, trying to get there before the Penn students roused themselves from sleep. A bookstore with a friendly, fat cat that I constantly sent her pictures and videos of. A beer shop where we built overpriced six-packs and got popsicles when it was summer. I can feel all these memories rotting under a time-lapse video like a carved out pumpkin left too long on a stoop. They belong to another part of me now. I can see the pair of us, young, moving down the street, holding hands, and thinking this has to be for forever.

I walk past them. They’re farther behind now. I can’t even hear their footsteps. I do not go back to our apartment.

I get in my car and drive. I think I put on my seatbelt. I don’t remember the car dinging at me. I use turn signals and don’t think I blow through red lights, but I also don’t remember the drive as I move out of West Philly and up through Bala Cynwyd. I cross the river and bob and weave through the tight turns to get to the top of the ridges of Manayunk. I’m not sure what the speed limit is.

I park my car as the sun settles low beneath the trees. Without the leaves, slices of sunlight slide easily between the thick trunks. I follow the path and think about dead bodies and cheap coffee.

It looks like the shadow of a jail window.

She’ll have noticed an hour ago at least that I’m not back yet. I think about meeting her parents and how much I’ll miss them and how I’m supposed to tell my mother that we’re breaking up. How many clothes I’ll have to return. How many gifts strewn through my stuff are things she gave me that will forever carry her aura. I think about sleeping in my bed by myself and all the times I used to wake up confused in the middle of the night when we lived in separate places, and I wondered where she’d gone. Would that be my world, now?

How did those guys camped out here think the world was going to end?

I sit on the dirt floor of the small cave. People could think in here, meditate if you were good at that sort of thing. It’d be even easier back before the screaming cars on Lincoln Drive and Henry Ave.

I think if the world would just die in its sleep, that’d be best. Maybe this is how you do it. In this cave. It’s chilly in here, and the sun’s gone now. I’d like to sleep in here, but I’m not sure I can do it. Hours must have passed now. Is my phone still on?

If you knew the world was going to end, what would you do? It was one of the questions she asked me on an early date. She had at least one odd question every time we went out somewhere. I wondered if she picked it up on other dating apps or had done one of those strange speed dating things. I told her I would eat everything without worrying about carbs or sugars or what happens to my hips and stomach. The answer was the same as if I knew I had a terminal disease that would get me in a couple months.

But I guess I lied. I guess I’m doing this.

I see why he did it. It’s small and contained and a little chilly, but nothing a fire couldn’t handle. I can do it, I think. Trees and leaves and eating berries and finding dry wood and making a small civilization onto myself out of nothing. Monks who were alive and kicking before George Washington ever set foot in Valley Forge did it. And the Lenape long before them. Maybe that Bible passage they named themselves after, the woman in the wilderness, was me after all. Is this how messiah cults start? With someone deluding themselves into thinking they’re the second coming? At three in the morning, anything feels possible. Maybe I’ll find that stone at the bottom of the river. Everything will suddenly click into place, the base metal of our waning relationship transfigured.

The sounds from the road slow and fade, the lights from Center City are something I understand exist but cannot see. She is in a warm bed somewhere in a pocket outside of me, and I think it’s best if she stays there, gets used to it, learns how to live there. I’ll do the same.


And then the sun comes up like it always does. Outside the cave there are animals and early morning hikers and the sounds of Henry Ave and racing cars. I step out of the hole and walk back to my car, which has not been towed. I charge my phone to a herd of missed texts and calls, and I’m terribly hungry, and I think maybe gas station coffee wouldn’t be so bad because coffee is coffee and sometimes life is like that.

When I get to our front door and she hears it open and comes running into the living room with dark circles under her eyes and justified anger, I don’t know what I’ll say. I didn’t like that cave. I don’t do well with long silences.

I start by opening my mouth. I think it’s the better route.

Melanie is a copywriter and author living in Belmont Village. Her short fiction has been published in Ghost Parachute, Meat for Tea, and A Woman is a Cinema. Her nonfiction reviews and criticism have appeared in Boulevard, POPSUGAR, Prometheus Dreaming, DIYMFA, and Write Now Philly. Her debut novel was published in 2018 through Waterton Publishing, and her forthcoming second novel is set for publication in 2021 through Lanternfish Press. When not writing she serves as the Marketing & Outreach Coordinator for the 215 Festival, cooking, and exploring Philly’s restaurant scene.



Sam’s final aching breaths, and the silence between, woke Miri, and she rose from the tangled blankets she slept on beside his hospice cot to hold his hand until it went cold in hers. She had been prepared for weeks now, and the phone was hooked up beside his cot. Her family arrived by dawn, first her grown daughter, Sonya, and then the rest. Some of her cousins brought food when they arrived. After embracing Miri, they pulled off the lids to show her what they had brought—soups, fruit salads, pasta dishes—saying, “So you’re all set for now.” They piled the containers in the fridge and began filling their air mattresses. Miri had insisted that no one get a hotel. She had plenty of space. She helped her family scatter their mattresses around the living room, where she had already dismantled Sam’s cot, and she moved back up to their room, alone.

Under Miri’s direction, her family busied themselves with the arrangements, all the appointments, the calls that needed someone to attend to the line during holds, the normal bills that, in this time, still needed to be paid. Whenever possible, Miri went at tasks alone. Alone she selected the prayer to be read for Sam. She chose the cards she would send out to all who came to the funeral, including the same family members who surrounded her now. She failed only at writing Sam’s eulogy, beginning several times over and never writing more than, What am I going to do without you? What am I going to do? Sonya placed her hands on Miri’s shoulders, almost motherly, and then slid the paper away from Miri. The eulogy no longer her responsibility, Miri asked her cousins what she could do to help make their stay more comfortable, but they always shook their heads, no, no. Eventually she could only stand back and watch the activity around her. Everyday someone had to do laundry before the appointments, the funeral, the reception, the burial. Everyday someone swept the kitchen to attack the footprints of too many shoes. Downstairs, in all moments, there were the sounds of squeaking sneakers on the polyurethaned floors, the faint beeps when someone lifted the phone from the receiver and dialed, the low murmurs as her family tried to prevent Miri’s overhearing. These sounds layered over the silence Sam had left in his wake, and over the many years of his laughter, the scratching of his frantic note-taking each morning before they left for work, his soft coughs of habit, and rendered his presence in their house gone.

The last morning, after all others had departed for their homes, Sonya cooked breakfast for Miri a final time.
“I’m making extra oatmeal. I’ll leave the pot in the fridge, so you can just heat it up this week. Raisins are in and everything.” Sonya placed the pot next to the containers Miri’s cousins had left her. Sam and Miri had never kept this much food in the fridge. On the fridge door, Sam’s picture was posted. The two of them. Miri didn’t know the year it was taken, but it hadn’t been in the last two. In the picture, Sam’s cheeks were not yet gaunt. In the picture, he held her close.

Sonya served this morning’s oatmeal. When Sonya ate, Miri did too. She hardly tasted the oatmeal. It dropped to her stomach and sat heavy there. Sonya’s car waited in the driveway. They both looked at it as they ate. When Sonya said she could stay no longer, they stood and shared a long, uncomforting hug.

Miri murmured, “I’ll call you later, when I expect you’ve settled in.”
Sonya shook her head. “I’ll call as soon as I get home.”

Miri didn’t argue, knowing this was Sonya’s way of expressing care, of needing care. “We’ll talk later.”

“Right around 5:00.”

Falling silent again, Sonya tucked her chin over Miri’s shoulder and squeezed hard. Miri let her, as she had let her daughter try to take care of her all week. Though Sonya was grieving, expressing her grief in the same outreaching manner as Miri, Miri did not worry for her. Sonya had always been close with Sam, and she’d visited enough these last years. And, when she finished the drive, she’d be back to her work, her own life, her own husband. They were hoping to have a child soon. Miri knew Sonya must be in deep pain too, but she was not experiencing the same final loss, the beginning of solitude.

The house went silent once more. Miri reclined on Sam’s side of the couch and closed her eyes for hours.

In the early afternoon, she trudged upstairs and busied herself to try to quell the ache. She made their bed. She only had to tuck the covers over her side. She did not need to lift the covers to her nose to know that they no longer smelled of Sam. He had not slept in their bed for months. She wiped the bathroom counters. Opening the medicine cabinet, she counted Sam’s bottles, six, then tucked them behind her own medications and closed the cabinet. In the mirror she watched herself lift and drop her shoulders once, twice. Through the silence cut the loud crackle of her joints. Miri studied her reflection as she brought her hands to her neck and rubbed. The ache endured.

Downstairs, she unpacked the fridge and freezer, decorated the kitchen table with Tupperware containers. She pulled off the lids. Miri’s cousins and Sonya had preserved the food perfectly, all of the quick-to-spoil foods in the freezer. With the fruit salad alone, she had enough food to last for days. Tiny crystals formed on the berries, reflecting under the kitchen lights. Miri replaced all the lids and returned the food to the fridge and freezer. She would eat another time, later. She did not look at Sam’s face as she closed the refrigerator door.

Drawn curtains darkened the living room. The shadows nearly obscured the carpet imprints where her family had set up their mattresses, where Sam’s cot had stood. Miri would not go in there again, not right now, and she retreated back into the kitchen until she stood near her walking shoes. After studying them a moment, she put them on.

Outside, the temperature had risen since she’d last been out. “It is summer,” Miri whispered. Soon sweat bloomed on her brow, and the arthritis in her knees warmed, flared. She would not turn back yet. It was only 2:00 when she left. She did not have to be home for Sonya’s call for hours. She pressed through, kept going, went all the way downtown. She had nearly reached the river and could go no further, and she thought to turn back, but to her left she spotted a cafe she and Sam had never been to. She would order sparkling water, or iced tea, and return home. She chose a table outside under an umbrella.

A quiet waiter brought her a menu, and Miri requested water, said she’d have to look over the menu. When he went inside, she did not open the menu right away. Only a few cars were parked on this street, and fewer drove by. Nothing caught her eye, and she soon thought of home, of the grating, interminable silence. Only two or three months ago, when Sam had the strength to sit up, she’d moved him from the living room cot to the porch for a few hours. He knew it was her spring gardening weekend, and he said he’d like to watch her work. She could not bear to tell him that she hadn’t been able to buy the topsoil this season—she hadn’t been able to step away from home to do so. She’d left him on the porch to catch her breath inside; and even now, replaying this moment, she fought to keep her breath unchoked.
But seated in the shade, the breeze was good on her scalp. Her sweat began to dry, and she first forced and then allowed herself to pay attention to the wind lifting her hair.

The waiter returned with her water and asked, “What else can I get you, ma’am?”

Miri hadn’t looked at the menu. She wanted nothing, felt no hunger, and said so, but added quickly, “An iced tea will do.”

“That’s a good choice for a day like this. Sure you don’t want something to eat?”

“Oh…” Miri started, thinking of the piles of food at home that her cousins had prepared for her, how if she let it go bad, she would not be returning their care. But to get to the food, she’d have to reach past Sam’s picture. She’d be haunted, while eating standing up in the kitchen, by how she ended up with this food. By the silence around her.

If she ate a bit now, she could delay it all, and she said, “Perhaps you can point me to something light.”

The waiter gestured as though to hand Miri the menu, then stepped back, clutched the menu to his chest. “The scones are good. They’ll brighten your day. Just baked this morning.”

Miri nodded, and he returned inside.

Under the umbrella, she was no longer overheated, was simply warmed, swaddled. The sun was not directly overhead anymore, but still it couldn’t be near 5:00, when Sonya would call. Soon, Miri would have to trudge home to catch Sonya’s call—soothe her from a distance, assure her there was nothing more they could do for her father—but not yet.

Miri watched those passing by, and those coming to the cafe for a light bite. A family entered—a couple with a young child, perhaps nine. Soon a man and dog approached the cafe, and the man secured his dog’s leash near Miri’s table. He went inside. Miri watched him order, watched him wait. He glanced toward the door often, craning his neck to see his dog, checked again for his food at the counter. His dog, large and long-eared and hairy, some sort of spaniel, stood patiently, panting in the sun. Miri scooped an ice cube from her water glass and threw it to the dog. The dog sniffed the cube, licked it once, then sat up straight again and resumed panting. Droplets formed on his tongue, fell to and darkened the sidewalk. It was the hot part of the day, perhaps unsafe for a dog to sit in direct sun on concrete. Miri patted her thigh, and as she hoped, the dog scooted closer and stood within the umbrella’s reach. The dog looked up at Miri, the whites of his eyes flashing, his mouth open as though smiling, and then faced the cafe, watching again for the man.

Miri reached out, hovered her hand near his shoulder. The dog did not turn to snap, and Miri extended her fingertips to touch his coat lightly. The dog shifted his stance, his hip against Miri’s leg, almost leaning. Miri rested her hand on his back, warm and damp beneath her palm, but then the cafe door opened, and the dog leapt from her touch to greet his companion.

The man flashed Miri a quick smile but did not speak as he stooped to untie his dog. She watched them go, holding her water glass. Her palms chilled once more. Sonya would be crossing the state border soon, would speed up, mesmerized by her nearness to home.
The waiter came out and presented her with a scone on a little dessert plate.

“This is one of the last of the day. They sell out quick.”

“I’ll be glad to eat it. Thank you,” Miri said and waited until he was inside to try the scone. It had a cakey quality, the butter a little too noticeable, but it crumbled nicely with each bite, and the subtle flavor did not overwhelm her. On this day, this was something she could eat, and she ate it slowly. When she finished, she leaned back in her chair. The sun lowered and grew more glaring.

When the waiter brought out her check, he met her eyes and smiled at her, but other customers needed him, and he said no more before returning inside. Miri might not have another unstrained exchange for weeks. She reached for the bill and held the edge. The thermal paper crumpled easily, and she rolled the bill’s edge between her fingers, made the paper even softer. Then she tucked it back into the presenter, but not yet with her payment. It had to be nearly 5:00 now, and Miri could not walk home in time. Sonya would soon call to tell Miri she arrived safely. If Miri were home to pick up, she would note the relief in Sonya’s voice, always present after a long drive home, but weaker than usual, toned down perhaps for Miri’s sake. In the background, she’d hear the blaring TV as Sonya’s husband watched his after-work show. She’d point this out to Sonya, draw her back to her life and the goodness in it, and soon Sonya would excuse herself from the call. Other family members would call too, arriving home after long drives or flights, asking one more time if Miri needed a gift card for additional meals. And their check-ins, Sonya’s included, would overbrim with love, and yet they would each take something out of Miri.

Warm in the day’s last strong rays, Miri did not have it in her to push her aching body away from the chair, rush home, and listen. The calls would end, and she’d be left keenly aware of the empty house, its hush.

Now the city was growing louder. Sitting outside this cafe, she heard the traffic in the distance, the voices of workers leaving corporate buildings down the street, and the afternoon wind rushing the river along. Miri sat awhile longer, listening to these sounds. She clasped her hands together and placed her chin atop her folded, warm hands. She closed her eyes.

Natalie Gerich Brabson is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program and holds a BA in Hispanic Studies from Vassar College. Her fiction has been published in Cleaver Magazine, New World Writing, and Eunoia Review. In 2017 she was selected as Go On Girl Book Club’s Unpublished Writer Awardee. She lives in West Philadelphia and is at work on her first novel.

On the Solitary Death of Uncle Mike

Editor’s Choice: 2020 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest

You better hope that you’re lucky
enough to die outside like a tick-ridden
raccoon, bloating and frozen in the first
week of March, lucky enough to be
casually murdered or mowed down
on a busy street by a hulking heap
of American steel, then they just might
tag and take you to the cold heart of the city
morgue where at least you could rest
like old plans for some benignly useful
city project in a tidy municipal drawer,
or you better hope your loved ones have
twenty-one-hundred bucks on them
when the ambulance arrives, futilely,
because if you happen to die inside
your family rowhome in the city
of brotherly fuck you and no one has
the cash on them to pay the undertaker
to come, they’ll leave you without
a second thought, lifeless and decaying
on your plaid couch, because after all
even when you are finally incapable
of doing anything, you better have
the money to grease the wheels of
America’s rust-bucket free-enterprise
shit-show of callousness, I got mine-
get yours, godblessamerica, too stupid
to get ourselves out of sad festering
state of pigheaded dysfunction or
you’re fucked for good. Capiche?

Sean Webb has received many honors for his work including fellowships from The Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Utah Arts Council. Most recently he was awarded the Passages North Neutrino prize, 1st place in the Gemini Magazine 2017 Poetry Open, and 2nd place in the 2017 Public Poetry contest. His chapbook, The Constant Parades, was selected by Afaa Weaver as a runner-up in the 2017 Moonstone Poetry chapbook competition. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and in 2005 he served as Poet Laureate of Montgomery County Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in dozens of publications including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Nimrod, Mudfish, The Quarterly, The Seattle Review, Greensboro Review, and the anthology Frances and Clare in Poetry.


Editor’s Choice: 2020 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest

The zebrafish’s neon stripes
and globe eyes flash in LEDs
as our bodies marble in reply with squiggles
of phosphorus. Who can say
what spirit moves in us as it moves
eel-like on my mom’s blue hat, the one
with a crab on the front, brim hovering
like a cave mouth over her invisible face?
Who can say what god spoke to her
earlier at church while I was sleeping?
My brother extends an awkward hand to spook
some arowanas gliding too close to the glass,
and mom twitches as if she means
to stop him, then reconsiders, stills her hand
and rests it in the dark as if upon
a shoulder, as I wonder what the pastor said
today and if it would have moved
me still in spite of everything.

Mother Explains

Honorable Mention: 2020 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest

Jane Miller_poetry

Where your brother went, a river met him at the shadow’s edge, a river he walked on
we cannot see, though it flows near us and all the small fish you can imagine wait, circling as if on a merry-go-round until he toes in; and it is then they feel his small steps, each vibration a plated splash and they rise: blue gills, pygmy puffer fish, black mollies, orange clowns, all clamber, making for him a path.

He is not alone. Every step he takes, a fish takes its place underfoot, each fish a finned rock holding him as he walks so that your brother who cannot swim begins to hopscotch, sinking ever so slightly and then popping up, the fish under him shimmering like landing lights; in the dimpling water, the kiss of stars where he treads. He twirls and looks back; his arms spread wide beckon us, but the shore he left is fogged and fading.

Now he is distant and small, but in the vanishing I see him crawl into fins and scales
and become one of them, joyous and teeming. He has learned a new way to live and here inside us, who are mostly water, when you least expect it, you will shiver
and feel him.

Jane C. Miller’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals. She received first prize in Naugatuck River Review’s 11th annual narrative poetry contest. A fellowship recipient from the Delaware Division of the Arts, Miller is co-author of the collection, Walking the Sunken Boards published by Pond Road Press (2019).


Honorable Mention: 2020 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest

Chad Frame_poetry

We’re twenty, nude, everything firm
and responsive to the touch, soft
breeze cool on our flanks as the pool
laps small waves at the edges, night
purpling above us. You tell me

you have feelings, but I am young
enough to believe chemistry
waits dormant in all things for fire
to ignite—that perfect bonds form
on a whim. Years pass by in months,

six not talking, three back in touch,
each fuck-of-the-week with his flaws
you sob to me—the built frat boy
with awful car playlists, the twink
who texts you from across the room,

the circuit boy who makes the clack-
clack of credit cards on mirrors
every morning as he cuts
his breakfast lines. And each painting
you finish with a casual

mastery, sneaking some aspect
of one of them onto canvas—
the hyperreal Spartan soldier
who looks exactly like the guy
really into getting tied up,

the abstract square that is the house
you move into for a few months
with the one with the high-pitched voice
that drives you to drink and tell me
in some drab diner, like always,

that you wish we could have made it
work. A tentacle of cold cream
slowly wraps around my coffee
as I joke At least you’d paint me,
and the whole dark is strangled pale

Chad Frame’s work appears in Rattle, Mom Egg Review, Barrelhouse, Rust+Moth, and other journals and anthologies, as well as on iTunes from the Library of Congress. He is the Director of the Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program and Poet Laureate Emeritus of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, the Poetry Editor of Ovunque Siamo: New Italian-American Writing, a founding member of the No River Twice poetry improv performance troupe, and founder of the Caesura Poetry Festival and Retreat.

On Wassily Kandinsky’s Painting: “Little Painting in Yellow”

Honorable Mention: 2020 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest

Kathleen Shaw_poetry

Just before the Great War, Kandinsky
took time to paint something yellow,
something little, something that looked
like nothing anyone had ever seen. How
shocked they were– how outre to
paint something so unwarlike, how
perverse to veer from standards.
Is that an egg? Is that a sun? Is that
a cloud? Is that a mouth?
Yes, yes, yes, yes and no, no, no, no,
said Kandinsky, silently out loud,
thinking, while not thinking of war.

Kathleen Shaw is a semi-retired assistant professor of English at a community college. She has had poetry published in Philadelphia Stories, Anthology magazine, Derail, Schuylkill Valley Journal and online journals. She is now in the process of completing her first novel.

How to Ride a Train in the Andes

Runner Up: 2020 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest


In a coastal sweatland shanty town, I vowed
to clamber onto the corrugated steel
roof of a train car, to throw my life

up first like a knapsack, charcoal-cleanse
my nose, my lungs, my pores— be delivered
aching, for twelve-hours up a shifty seam

of steel my Abuelito laid
the one who carried the train on his back
Hold my breath, stay low, remember

to not drink chicha on the roof with the local boys
not to lose my head, or turn my back
on the tunnel like bisabuelo did. Hold tight

until the train stops just past Devil’s Nose
in a tiny Andes town, overlooked
by wooden window balconies

steel-sliced cobblestone kingdom
bearing a cordillera crown. Here
I let my fingers stroke the velvet mountain’s cloak

and from the furrows of the knitted fields
I see my Abuelita come running
the one waiting for the whistle

tired of air-kissing the cheek of fate
watch her smudge coal off her brow
watch her tuck family secrets down her blouse

purchase a ticket to another life
The first man who crosses my path
she vowed: con ése me largo.

Lupita Eyde-Tucker writes and translates poetry in English and Spanish. She’s the winner of the 2019 Betty Gabehart Prize for Poetry, and her poems appear in Nashville Review, SWWIM, The Florida Review, Asymptote, Columbia Journal, Raleigh Review, and are forthcoming in The Arkansas International, Chautauqua, Yemassee, and Waccamaw. She’s currently translating two collections of poetry by Venezuelan poet Oriette D’Angelo. Lupita and her husband live and homeschool their children in Florida. Read more of her poems at: www.NotEnoughPoetry.com

Lukens Steel, Coatesville, Pennsylvania

Runner Up: 2020 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest


            And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
The steel mill that sprawled across the city
reached toward the sky with the roofs of each wing.
Even on Sundays, the men in torn
khakis and faded t-shirts filed into the mill.

My father was one of them. In Sunday School,
I imagined him standing around, shooting the shit
about recession or politics, waiting for his shift
to begin. Punching in is a ritual of Wonder
Bread and pocket change.
            The body of Christ, given for you.

He made huge sheets of steel, long,
pure, and absolutely silver until
outsourcing turned emblem into epitaph—
Bethlehem Steel’s takeover could not save the place.
Still, the mill stands, decaying, hollow
monument to itself, the rituals abandoned.

The Lord loves the gates of Zion
            more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

Almost no steel is produced anymore;
instead, the silver pours out onto the faded
streets, the concrete walls of the city’s banks,
into the hair of old men.

Kyle Carrozza is a teacher and soccer coach who lives and breathes Coatesville, PA. His journalism has been published in The Coatesville Times, Scarecrow Grin, and The Korean Quarterly. His poetry has appeared in The City Key.