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Out of Step: A Diary To My Dead Son

Click for my new book Out Of Step

He had been too dead for 8 years! Was there any way to repair their damaged relationship now? His mother desperately wanted to try. Her growing need for communication in their truncated relationship pushed her to start a diary to her dead son. In it, she tried to fill in the gaps, initiate conversations that never happened, continue conversations that were unfinished, tell him about her life that he hadn't wanted to know, and attempt to listen to him as the child he had been, and the adult he had grown into. Interracial adoption in the 1970s, divorce, guilt and abandonment, homosexuality, HIV-AIDS, death in one's prime -- all were parts of their complicated mother-son relationship.

"Out of Step: A Diary To My Dead Son" was published as an e-book in 2013. It is available in different formats on several e-readers. Go to for details about the book and how to order it.

This article about "Out of Step: A Diary To My Dead Son" appeared in the Grief Digest Magazine in June of 2014. The article includes a tv interview that discusses "Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird," "Out of Step: A Diary To My Dead Son," and the Suellen Zima Archive at the Hoover institution at Stanford University.

My almost 35-year-old son died of AIDS in 2003. Writing helps me deal with life, so I tried a couple of times to write about him as both fictional and non-fictional. I soon gave up and wrapped him up in a warm, fuzzy place in my heart, living with the ache because he was dead, and the guilt and pain of our truncated relationship.

Eight years later, my mind unproductively gnawed on my grief. He was just too dead. How could I make him come more alive to me? Our relationship, complicated by transracial adoption, homosexuality, divorce, and living separately from the time he was 12, left me with a largely unfinished, partially formed relationship. There had been years when he refused all contact with me and the only information I had about him was through his dad.

He had tentatively re-connected to me when his HIV moved into AIDS. At that time, it was pretty much a death sentence. Over the two years until his death, he took charge of the contact, calling me when he wanted, but never giving me his phone number. The phone calls were somewhat uncomfortable conversations that mimicked an angry teenager and parent. A year before his death, he came to visit for one week that was cut short by his needing to be hospitalized for a few days. He had little breath left for talking.

I was left with much that was unsaid and undone between us. In 2011, I started to write a diary to him, rather than about him. Rather than having to push myself to write regularly, I found myself going eagerly to the computer to talk to him. Talking to him was, indeed, what I did. I talked to him about what was going on in my life, what was going on in the world, what was going on with AIDS in the news. I answered questions that I thought he might have had. I gave him a picture of who I was in old age, what I thought about, what I wanted to do with what was left of my life. I wanted him to understand me as I am in the present.

Although I had welcomed him to come with me as I stretched myself into other parts of the world and other cultures, he had chosen to stay with his father. He felt I had abandoned him; I felt he had abandoned me. In the diary, we could finally talk about that.

The tone of what I wrote to him ran the gamut of emotions. Sometimes I was angry, expressing hurt that he had chosen to live with his father instead of me. I realized the reason I couldn't write about him was that I really didn't know him well as an adult. My curiosity to learn more about his life and the adult he had grown into grew. The diary helped me to ask him many questions and think about his possible answers. I allowed him to ask me any questions he wanted to, and I tried to answer them.

In writing the diary, I was able to realize more deeply how much the divorce had hurt him. I thought more about how his homosexuality might have influenced his life and his decisions. Having to imagine his responses to what I was saying forced me to see things more from his perspective.

As I wrote and freed emotional baggage I had kept packed for so many years, I became more creative, more poetic in my writing. I wrote about things I was reading, what I was seeing, what I was thinking.

I would have said before that I was a pessimist who faked being an optimist, but I found myself reading the old book about Pollyanna and beginning to sign e-mails to other friends as Pollyanna-in-training, moving eventually to Pollyanna-ish.

I wondered how the diary could end. And then - it just did. I knew it came to its end when I wrote imaginary phone conversations between us. In these calls we were calm, forgiving, and loving. I was ready to publish the e-book, "Out of Step: A Diary To My Dead Son," and moved onto sending him occasional e-mails.

He did become more alive to me. My grief moved into a less devastating phase, and I gained more appreciation for my dear dead son. It was more than I had hoped for when I began the diary to him.

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