Why Open Another Box?

A unconditional conversation between mother and daughter...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Laura Schiller was my supermom, even when her body
wouldn't let her be. In the spirit of Halloween, may you all
find the phonebooth that transforms you, into your most super you.

Clark Kent is a wimp
and so am I.
He is clumsy and awkward
and basically a nerd.
We have those characteristics
in common as well.
Yet, when Clark Kent
goes into a phonebooth
and tears off his everyday clothes,
he becomes Superman,
who is quite the opposite
of Clark Kent.
All of a sudden,
he is faster than a speeding bullet,
more powerful than a locomotive,
and able to leap over tall buildings
in a single bound!

In addition,
he can bend steel with his bare hands,
has x-ray vision,
and is damn good-looking!
His transformation from
Wimpy to Wonderful
takes just a matter of seconds.
Such a dramatic and rapid change
would seem to be possible
only in comic book pages
or in movies having large budgets
for special effects.
But I am living proof
that such transformations are possible
without cartoons or cash.

When I need to be strong
or powerful or pretty,
I simply enter my phonebooth,
which is in the form
of an easy chair and a computer.
Someone puts a switch in my hand
and in an instant,
I change from mild-mannered wimp
to Superwife, Supermom, Supreme!

There is nothing I can’t do
with the power of my imagination
and the marvelous machine
on the table in front of me.
I can climb
the treacherous and icy slopes
of Mount Everest.
I can explore the depths of the sea
to observe the behavior of the whales
I admire so much.

But more important to me,
I am able to enjoy the complex conversations
with my husband
and can join with him
to guide and discipline
our growing children.
I can physically hold and comfort
my daughter and son
or tell them stories
or play with them.
I can have another child
as I probably would have had
if I hadn’t gotten ill.

Skeptics will tell me
all these things aren’t real,
that they’re all in my mind.
They certainly are in my mind
but also on this paper
in black and white!
What’s more,
you just have to look at me
while I’m sitting in my phonebooth
to see how
my writing transforms me
from Wimpy to Wonderful
in a matter of seconds!

I sit taller,
have roses in my cheeks,
and a gleam of inspiration
in my eyes.
Since such a small movement
is required to activate the switch,
I feel no weakness in my limbs
as I create a different world
on my computer’s screen.
My phonebooth gives me confidence
in my ability to be
an important and worthwhile person,
which I rarely feel
when I’m away from it.

For as long as I am there,
I’m as strong and invincible
as Superman!

In case you were wondering,
I have something else in common
with Superman.
I, too, haven’t found a way
to handle the Kryptonite.

By, Laura Schiller
March 1988

Friday, October 1, 2010

Brownies, Ice Cream and a Lesson in Caregiving

Some people are naturally good caretakers. I am not one of those people. My husband Paul … now he’s someone you’d pick to be in your lifeboat after a shipwreck. Caring for others comes naturally to Paul. When we were dating, right before he proposed to me as a matter-of-fact, he was my sole caretaker during a nasty bout of pneumonia. He took me to all my doctor appointments, made me homemade chicken noodle soup and literally, was at my beckon call. In all times of sickness, sadness or otherwise down and out periods in my life, Paul has always gone above and beyond in caring for me.

Now I, on the other hand, cannot readily confess that I have reciprocated the same attentiveness to Paul. Mothering, thank GOD, is something that comes a bit more naturally! It’s caring for big people that I find unnatural … and sometimes unsettling. I can’t really pinpoint my discomfort other than to say, that the thought of caring for an adult creates an overall sense of uneasiness within me. Am I doing this right? What if I screw up? Or, worst of all, the admission of: I wish I were doing something else. Part of these lamentations stem from the caretaking responsibilities I had as a child for my Mom, which although were not many compared to some, were enough to leave an impressionable distaste in my memory.

When I reunited with pen and paper (or fingers to keyboard), one of the first stories I wrote, was a story about feeding my mom brownies when she was in the height of ALS. Titled “Brownie,” the story was what I would call an honest piece of writing—but also an angry appraisal of caregiving. I now identify that I was angry for being angry at being angry about feeding my mom brownies, when really, I’d rather be doing whatever it was I thought I’d rather be doing at the time. It has taken me many years to forgive myself for all those brownies. But I have.

I was reminded of “Brownie” when Paul was in the hospital after a motorcycle accident. The night before he was scheduled for elbow surgery, he asked if I would feed him some chocolate ice cream. Willingly I obliged; and as I put each spoon full to his mouth, a familiar feeling crept over me. It was a feeling reminiscent of a time when I brought a spoon full of chocolate goodness to the lips of my Mom-- but the feeling wasn’t anger this time. It was fear. I remembered feeling utterly vulnerable as a kid, sitting there in a room, just Mom and I-- a brownie and a spoon. “You can do this”—the thought that willed my sometimes hesitant arm to lift the spoon.

There I was again, but this time, sitting in a hospital room, just me and Paul-- a chocolate ice cream container and a spoon. And again, I thought, “You can do this!” adding without realizing, “this is not the same situation.” Without much further contemplation, I fed him the rest of the ice cream. The next day, (post surgery) Paul wanted coffee. Again, I obliged and held a cup with a straw to his mouth. I quickly realized that my mind had wandered somewhere into “brownies past” again. The result: hot coffee dribbled out of the straw, down Paul’s chin. “You can do this!” … but somewhere between the ice cream, brownies and a few 24 hours in the hospital, I could feel my resolve begin to dissipate.

Paul home from the hospital three days later, I continued to site myself on poor caregiving incidents. I caught myself sighing at one of Paul’s simple requests. I openly threw a tantrum after hours of enduring our three girls having tantrums of their own. Worst of all, I started to feel angry for being angry that I’d rather be doing whatever it was I’d rather be doing at the time. “You can do this!” had completely degenerated into, “You suck at this!”

Perhaps my biggest flaw was that before the hospital release papers were even signed, I had already set my expectations to a degree fit for complete and utter failure. I was going to surpass June Cleaver in all her mothering, caregiving, house cleaning and cooking abilities. Right—because I am so like June Cleaver, who I might add, is just as fictitious (and not nearly as cool) as Superwoman. I suppose it’s kind of like expecting a child or teenager to be happy about feeding her adult mother brownies, with the absence of fear, frustration or embarrassment.

I don’t believe in blaming my behavior or shortcomings on situations that have occurred in my past. I do however; believe in using events from my past as information to help me grow in my present. It has not served me well to cast aside the memories of brownie feedings, or to discount my feelings tied to them. If I can accept my feelings and limitations tied to caregiving, I can replace “You can do this” with “I am doing this … the best I know how.” I don’t have to be June Cleaver and I don’t have to love doing something I don’t love to do. I only have to remember that just because I have forgiven myself for an event in the past, doesn't make me immune to feelings surrounding the incident. I have been given the tools to effectively field my feelings ... I just have to remember to apply them.

Lord knows I have a l-o-n-g way to go in taking care of big people. Poor Paul--the guy probably missed a few meals and baths here and there during my motorcycle accident caregiving days… but we made it through. I made it through.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Before I had children,

I used to envision myself

sitting in a rocking chair

with my unhappy baby in my lap

and singing the child to sleep

with a sweet, soothing lullaby.

What a bitter disappointment it was

when my daughter and son came along

and were definitely NOT soothed

by my rocking and singing!

Neither of them

fell asleep in my lap

while listening to my vast repertoire

of sleepy-time tunes.

Evan always became wide awake

and used his time on my lap

to dance and wriggle.

But my rocking and singing

actually seemed to irritate Erin.

As soon as she was old enough

to express herself verbally,

Erin stopped me

every time I tried to sing

to her or with her.

When I asked her

why she didn’t want me to sing,

she said she didn’t like my voice.

I remember telling my mom

I didn’t like her singing voice

when I was a kid,

but unlike me,

Mom ignored my negative opinions

and went right on singing.

I think the reason I gave up trying

to sing to and with my children

was that I had no support

from my little family.

Whereas I grew up

in a large, musical family

whose members sang daily,

my family by marriage was small

and loved all music

but the sing-along kind.

Erin and John loved listening

to all kinds of music

but neither one of them sang –

unless you count

the songs Erin made up as she played

and sang to herself.

The fact that my husband and daughter

didn’t sing

bothered me most

when we went on long trips.

When my sisters and I were young,

we used to sing

on all car trips

which were longer than a half hour.

It filled our travel time

in a pleasing way

and it made the time pass by quickly.

The three of us had memorized songs

from our school, church, friends, family

and Girl Scout camp.

We knew nursery rhyme tunes

such as the 99 versus of

“Old MacDonald”

and “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”

We sang rounds

like “White Coral Bells”

and “Hey-Ho, Nobody Home.”

We knew many folk songs

among which were

“Oh Susannah,”

“I’ve Been Working On The Railroad,”

and “Yankee Doodle.”

Since our father was a singer,

we had memorized several show tunes

from musicals such as

“Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,”

and “The Sound Of Music.”

Probably our favorites

were the nonsense songs

which usually told a story

and dragged on for many, pointless verses.

One of those nonsense songs,

called “Found A Peanut,”

was so long, repetitive and boring,

our parents groaned

every time we started it.

I think that’s why

we chose to sing it so often.

For the most part, however,

Mom and Dad supported and encouraged

our singing.

Not only did they enjoy listening

to our three sweet voices

blending together harmoniously,

but they were saved from

having to think of activities

to entertain us

on long car rides.

Singing in the car, therefore,

had become a pleasant habit for me

which I wished to continue

with a family of my own.

But it was not to be.

As I explained earlier,

Erin would not permit me to sing,

not even in the car

on long, boring rides.

Without the support of my sisters,

I could not ignore the

“Mommy, stop singing!”

which came from the back seat.

I often turned around to look at Erin

and to try to convince her

it would really be fun

if we all sang together.

She always answered me with a scowl

and a firm, “NO, I DON’T WANT TO!”

When Erin started preschool,

I thought she would finally start

to memorize and sing some songs.

However, I still received

the same negative reaction from her

every time I encouraged her to sing.

… Until, that is,

the day we were returning

from Southern California

where we had spent Christmas

with Erin’s grandparents.

Erin was four and a half years old

and had been in preschool

since the previous August.

I figured

she had to have learned

at least a few songs in school

by that time.

After two years of enduring

Erin’s intolerance of my singing,

I didn’t dare start up a song

she’d probably been learning at school.

But on impulse,

I asked her if she knew a song

she wanted to sing to us.

I was stunned

when she said yes.

And I was as unprepared

for the wonderful song she sang

as I was for her agreeing to sing

in the first place.

Love’s something

If you give it away,

Give it away,

Give it away.

Oh, Love’s something

If you give it away,

You’ll end up having more.

It’s just like a magic penny,

Hold it tight

And you won’t get any.

You spend it, you lend it,

You’ll have so many,

You’ll end up having more!

That first time Erin sang to us

is etched in my memory.

I can see her

sitting on her old crib mattress

in the back seat

and leaning over the front seat

while she sang.

I see her Dorothy Hamill haircut

and her round face

set in such a serious expression

as she concentrated on the lyrics.

I remember watching Erin

and listening to her

without moving

for fear of breaking the enchanting spell.

My memory of that moment is so clear,

I even know where we were

on our journey northward --

just south of San Francisco.

It is probably such a clear memory

because it never happened again.

Erin never sang to us,

in the car or elsewhere,

until she learned camp songs.

six years later.

I can’t sing now,

due to my illness,

but from long experience

tunes still come into my mind

nearly every day.


I’ve been humming to myself

Erin’s “Magic Penny” song.

So often, these days,

it seems to happen

that things which come into my mind

over and over again

are doing so for a reason.

This time, I think,

I’m being reminded

that love is nothing

if I hold onto it tightly.

It’s a natural reflex of my illness

to cling in desperation

to the people and things I love.

In my fear of drowning,

I am actually pulling

the people I love

down with me.

I can save myself and them

by giving the great love within me


There is no limit

to the amount of people I can love.

The more I give away,

the more comes back

to support and heal me.

It’s just like my magic penny …”

as my daughter taught me

in a single, singing lesson

a long time ago.

By, Laura Schiller

March 1988

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Spaghetti Box Cars

Tonight, I remembered a time in my Mom’s life when she was able to eat spaghetti. As I wrapped long noodle strings around my fork at dinner this evening, I saw her. Of course only in my mind, but quite clearly, I saw her. She would twirl her own noodles in a red cyclone of meat and sauce, but unlike me, would use a spoon as a prop. The spoon was not only purposeful for noodle twisting; it was a great drip-prevention utensil. I could see Mom artfully lifting her united fork and spoon midway between bowl and mouth. Only then, would she release the spoon to take an effortless bite. My attempts to shadow this process were always done so in vain. Those who know me will not be shocked at my lack of form and dexterity in spaghetti twirling. I won’t even “go there” when it comes to the execution of my sloppy, spaghetti bites. Even tonight I can spot a few flecks of sauce on my t-shirt.

My memories of a healthy Mom are few. Those that are vividly imprinted in my mind (like the “spoon and spaghetti” incident) are even fewer. More often than not, the vivid memories are the ones I’d rather forget. I remember distinctly, visions of my mom slumped over the toilet seat, arms limp at her side, trying desperately to mumble something in the way of instruction to me, her mouth and voice mottled by muscular atrophy. I remember distinctly feeling helpless, embarrassed and terrified. I lucidly remember feeding brownies to my Mom at the kitchen table, drool seeping from the corners of her mouth. Just as lucidly, I remember looking away, pretending not to see. Or, I receive a blinding flash to the moments when my Mom was so frustrated at being trapped in a useless body, that what little strength she had, was used to propel her head onto the table for repeated, long intervals. The flash of me standing behind her as she banged her head over and over, willing her to stop, but unable to make myself move, is perhaps more blinding . My memories of a sick Mom are many.

I used to cower from unpleasant memories such as these. Recently however, I’ve changed my tactic. In the last year or so, some wise person shared an interesting meditation philosophy with me. The individual in question began by sharing of a frustration he had experienced while trying to meditate. He found that he was unable to quiet his mind because he was plagued by a constant stream of his own thoughts. His first instinct was to try to shove the thoughts out of his head. To his dismay, the more he fought the thoughts, the more frustrated he became. He was later taught by someone, to imagine his thoughts as individual box cars connected to a train. Instead of dispelling his thoughts, he was encouraged to let each one travel through his mind one at a time-- as its own box car. Eventually, he was able to reach his desired level of meditation by allowing his thoughts to pass through freely.

Now, when a sad or ikcy memory involving my mom’s illness makes its way to the forefront of my thoughts, I don’t try to shove it out. I give “it” a moment, and let it pass on. I find these less desirable memories pass quickly now. The memories that are few, from a time when my Mom was well … now these are a different story. These I let float around my brain for as long as I can. I encourage the pre-illness memories of my Mom to flow out into all the recesses of my consciousness. The ones that aren’t as clear, I try to focus—like I’m adjusting the lens on a camera. When I have the perfect shot, I hold onto it for awhile—spoon and spaghetti .

Sometimes, if I’m really lucky, I focus my lens with such precision, that another good memory shortly follows. Tonight for example, when I pictured Mom with her long blond hair, curling spaghetti with fork and spoon, I remembered her classic practice of drinking water out of a glass. I recalled the exaggerated parting of her lips, pursed but wide, so that her teeth were prominently exposed as she tilted the glass to her mouth. I remember as a child, watching this drinking method of hers with sheer fascination, wondering why on earth my beautiful Mom resembled a horse trying to drink from a water glass. I later learned that this “practice” was applied in an effort to evade lipstick transfer onto her water glass. I didn’t care about things like lipstick stains on a glass then … not at ages five and six. I was more interested in the mysterious, quirky ways of my mother. And just like my desire to emulate her fork and spoon spaghetti ritual, I remember taking the water glass from her hand. Once again, in vain but earnest attempt, I exaggeratedly pursed my lips, teeth exposed and tilted the glass. The end result of this process for me, typically yielded a bonk of the glass on my nose and water spills on my shirt.

The best part of my failure to copy-cat my Mom’s rituals, whether involving spoon and spaghetti or parted lips and water glass, was the echo of her laughter to accompany it; the crisp, hearty laugh of someone full of life and health; the laugh that only could belong to my Mom.

Today, I let the box cars in my mind run free. Sometimes it feels like more cars are filled with coal, than precious cargo, but every now and again … I get a really great one. When that shiny red box car comes round the bend, I grab for my lens and get ready to focus. A time or two, I’ve even caught myself laughing at a memory; the crisp, hearty laugh of someone full of life and health; a laugh that sounds a little like my Mom’s, but a laugh that could only belong to me.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Everything I Was and More

*Pictured Left: Grandma Carol and my Mom
*Pictured Right: Mom & Me

When I first became a mother,

I used to worry

that as Erin got older,

I wouldn’t love her as much

as when she was a cute, cuddly infant.

I was surprised to discover, however,

that instead of loving her less

as the years passed by,

I loved her more.

Even during the possessed-by-demon phases

Erin went through

at ages three and six,

I found myself becoming

increasingly addicted to her charms.

Now I look in wonder

at my twelve-year-old girl

because she has become

such a complex and interesting person

who will become much more complex

in the next several years.

The fact that the older Erin gets,

the less I will know about her

is fascinating to me.

When she was a baby,

Erin was the center of her universe

and I was the golden orb

revolving around her

and seeing to her simple needs and wants.

Over time,

other people were recognized as part of her universe.

There followed even more people

and objects and feelings

and attitudes and ideas.

As she became less dependent on me,

Erin became more the unique individual

she is destined to be as an adult.

My daughter keeps growing and changing

and will continue to change

until her life is over

yet I know in my heart

that all the things I loved about her

as she grew up

will always be a part of her.

The beautiful, happy infant,

the bright, adorable toddler,

the enthusiastically social preschooler

and the outgoing, creative person

she was in elementary school

are all still insider her.

Everything she has experienced

in her lifetime,

including all the treasured moments

I spent with her,

are pieces of the total Erin.

To put it simply,

Erin is everything she was

and more.

While reflecting on the miracle

of my daughter Erin,

my heart was pierced

by a sudden, painful understanding

of how you, my parents, feel

about your daughter, me.

You see me struggling to cope

with an illness

that is destroying my muscle tissue

and leaving me wasted and helpless.

There is nothing you can do

to protect me from this experience

or to bail me out of it

the way you used to do

when I was young,

the way John and I try

to protect our children.

Sometimes you must look at me

and think back to happier times

when my health was good.

I imagine that your memories of me

roll through your minds

like biographical newsreels.

You see the round, blond “Gerber” baby,

the even rounder toddler,

the “little mother” I was

to my younger sisters and brother,

and the director of childhood plays

and musicals.

You see the moody, introspective teenager,

the opinionated, intense college student,

the creative teacher,

and the dedicated wife and mother.

I became a very complex person

through the process of growing up

so that the longer you knew me,

the less you knew about me.

As I grew and changed,

your love for me increased

even when some of the changes

were baffling or hard to accept.

And I know in my heart

that your love for me will deepen

no matter how my illness changes me.

Yet I also want to assure you

that none of the changes

on my inside or outside

have wiped out the baby – little girl –

big girl – woman – wife – mother

I once was.

Everything I have experienced

in my lifetime,

including all the treasured moments

you spent with me,

are all pieces of the total Laura.

In other words,

I am everything I was

and more.

Whenever you think of me,

please remember that fact

and find comfort in it

as I have done with my daughter.

It helps!

By, Laura Schiller

June 1988