Monday, July 18, 2011

Cheryl Maher: A life and death, tragic and complex beyond words

Cheryl Maher
For more on Cheryl Maher, victim of a July 10 murder-suicide, CLICK HERE

Originally published July 17. 2011
Concord Monitor Viewpoints

I know there was nothing I could have done to prevent the tragedy of Cheryl Maher's death. But something in me flickered, like failure, when I heard she was the victim in a murder-suicide who had been bound, bludgeoned, stabbed and left for speculation.
I'd written about Cheryl in the past, after getting an SOS from her two summers ago.
She found me because I was the local reporter in Derry, where she lived at the time. We tried to meet at the always bustling Mary Ann's Diner on Broadway, but there was a wait for tables, so I followed Cheryl a few doors down to Anthony's Cucina, where there was no wait because there were no other customers.
"This is better, anyway," said Cheryl, like she was finally able to breathe.
In the time it took us to walk the few hundred feet, a huddle of friendly faces greeted Cheryl by name as we passed by the Friendship Center, a hole-in-the-wall meeting place for people in recovery, positioned between the two downtown diners.
Cheryl was known there as a woman who'd spent too many years retreating from life and escaping her personal pain through drugs and alcohol. She'd been down the rocky road of recovery and relapse. Over time she had discovered how the kindness of strangers who'd been down the same road had a way of helping you drop the crutch of your addiction as you learned to walk again, in hope of running one day, full tilt, toward life.
Back then, I wasn't able to solve Cheryl's dilemma.
She came to me concerned for her twin daughters who were about to enter high school. Both of them have steep learning and developmental challenges due to autism. Cheryl feared they'd be swallowed whole in the state's largest high school.
"Just read through this and you'll understand why I have to fight so hard for my girls," said Cheryl, transferring the armload of documents to me as a waitress refilled our coffee cups. I paged through the records of their school evaluations, noting between the lines a pattern of advocacy -- she frequently made waves during evaluation meetings, without apology. Cheryl wanted the best for them. She understood their differences. She saw their untapped potential.
She wanted me to write about the flaws in the educational system for kids with disabilities, and the frustration it creates for parents. She wanted me to write about how her daughters weren't getting what they really needed in the public school setting. Individual Education Plans are written to protect the system and secure special education dollars, said Cheryl; they rarely elevate the child in need of real life skills.
Her biggest roadblock was that she shared custody of her three youngest kids with their father, and as legal custodian, he did not agree with Cheryl's sense of urgency, that a move to a private school in Amherst would make a difference.
Looking back, maybe they both wanted what was best for their daughters, but in the end, it was the bitterness of their divorce -- the drama of their marriage, the soap opera of Cheryl Maher's life -- that got in the way.
I wanted to help her. I tried contacting the district's special education director that same week, but summer is a tough time to find school staffers to interview.
I never wrote the story.
Because, over coffee that day, Cheryl also told me her life story. The tidal wave of turmoil she shared with me was overwhelming. It was beyond my ability to navigate in a world of daily news deadlines. In that moment I recognized that the real story was about Cheryl, an imperfect but intriguing human being who was a victim of circumstance long before she was a victim of murder in Weare.
So yes, the news of her death last week shook me hard. Tears rose up in me like a reflex as I involuntarily imagined her unspeakable suffering.
As everything went dark in her world, I imagined how her helpless, frantic heart stopped beating, and how her last thoughts settled on the pain of leaving behind four motherless children.
But the truth is, I cried for the tragic life and death of a woman too complex for anyone to capture in a single news story. I cried knowing that all the stories written in the aftermath would never be enough to solve the puzzle of Cheryl Maher, a beautiful dreamer and broken woman on the mend; a resilient survivor who was stopped dead in her tracks just as she was finally learning to run.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Of Monarchs and Milkweeds

In a small patch of miracles on Robert Frost Farm in Derry you might not notice that it's the season of the Monarch, a small but amazing force of nature that exists, in no small way, thanks to the humble milkweed.
By fall this season's fourth generation of the storied winged waifs will have emerged, fortified and ready to fly far from the incubator milkweeds that begat them.
The first three generations live only weeks. Their sole purpose is to procreate. They know their place -- live and die in the garden of their birth.
The autumn Monarchs are different; four times removed from the truncated life cycle of their great-grandparents, they are born with loftier goals: to live long enough to migrate south to their ancestral home in the mountains of central Mexico. Here they will soak up the secrets of life, like miniature mutant Mayans seeking some force stronger than sun. Impossibly they have found their way to a place they've never been, collecting on tree limbs like a million pulsing leaves.
In the spring, they head back in the direction from which they came, following the scent of milkweed blooms, breeding and dying along the way, sloughing off three generations as they journey home.
It is the fourth generation of these majestic flyers that will once again complete the cycle, settling among the milkweed of their predecessors, their predestined breeding ground, exhibiting a hard-wired instinct as inexplicable as it is magical.
Monarchs lay only one egg per plant. When caterpillars emerge, they feast on the milky weed, its sap laden with a chemical that renders the caterpillars toxic to its predators, even after they morph.
Through spring and summer the orange-and-black insects behave just like their less-majestic counterparts. But as the leaves begin to turn, everything changes. The last caterpillar, bred to survive, has climbed from its chrysalis, dried its wings in the sun and fluttered off to find the place where its great-great-great-grandmother wintered.
And so it is that the milkweed can finally fade, having served its purpose, as well. Its leaves shrivel against October's chill. Its pods, browned and burgeoning with fluff, provide a home for lady bugs and their tiny speckled larvae, which crawl like microscopic alligators along the thin bark of the craggy, skeletal weed.
And then it happens, one by one the pods explode, their puffball seedlings strewn in clusters, some clinging to the papery shell, waiting for the right motivation; others catching the first breeze that comes along, drifting until the air-borne seed is plucked from the atmosphere by tiny fingers that know a good wish-puff when they see it.
Some will be eaten by the birds; others will rot on fallow rock and stone. Those that find their way into the woods and weeds will wait for spring, to germinate and regenerate, and to beckon once again to the butterflies which will come back, because they must.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Maternal Magnetism


     We weren't ideal together in this world. When you lined us up, more often than not we repelled, my mother and me, like certain magnets, the highly-charged space between us impossible to bridge. Only later in her life did my mother loosen her grip on my free-spirited world enough to see me in the context of who I'd become.
     Whatever rebellions I'd led against her in my youth, whatever assaults on her maternal authority, were forgotten by her in those last years.
     In the end I was a perfect daughter, she would say. And I gratefully accepted the gift of her selective memory, relaxing my own notion of her judgemental world, once and for all.
     She was a lefty. Her handwriting sloped downwards and her penmanship was decipherable, at best. When the dog chewed up the Valentine she'd sent that year, I didn't know it would be the last. But something in me gathered up the tooth-punched pieces for safe keeping. Once in a while on a slow morning I'd pull the scraps from the plastic bag and strain to read the looping script. Her message was hopelessly lost to me, but it was always just enough to bring me to tears, the thought that my mother's hands would never again write me a love note, Valentine's Day or not.
     Anna Mary Allen was born on July 3, 1918, the daughter of Victorian parents, eldest of two. She was not like the other girls -- she moved far from home for an Ivy League education at University of Pennsylvania, mastering psychology and social work. As an aside, her brilliance led her to fluency in French and German, mainly because it enhanced her love of classical music. She knew Mozart's works by heart, and recited their K√∂chel chronology by ear. "Accchhh," Mom would say, uttering the sound of appreciation beyond words in any language. "That's Mozart's piano sonata K330 in C Major. First movement," as a flurry of notes spilled from the hi-fi, always tuned to WFLN, Philly's classical music station.
     Her compulsions were expansive, beyond vinyl recordings of every great composer known to man loosely arranged and overflowing into a compulsive collection of storage cabinets. She also chain-smoked into the early 1970s, and collected small colored-glass vases, for rose buds, and bone china teacups, for afternoon tea. She subscribed to so many monthly magazines that the stacks were piled two-publications wide by 2-feet deep for all the 19 years we lived together. She read promiscuously and voraciously -- D.H.Lawrence to Billy Graham.  She later discovered she could listen to religious cassette tapes while she read, sponging up every kernel of knowledge available. 

     For all the flaws I've ever ascribed to my mother, I don't know if I ever fully understood or appreciated just how boundless her capacity for knowledge was, even now.
     I was more preoccupied with the idiosyncrasies of her intelligence and how she relied on regimentation to survive, just as she came to be tethered to an oxygen tank in the end. She had a specific way of watering her African violets, of hanging laundry to dry in the bathroom, of leaving herself copious, cryptic notes detailing everything from grocery items to affirmations from Jesus. She dusted around objects and vacuumed a solitary path through the living room. She drove to the supermarket, daily, in her old '55 Chevy to answer God's calling to find those in need of prayer, who would turn up in the cereal aisle, finding what they really needed -- a dose of my mother's spirit-filled, prayer-inspired social services.
     When my mother gave up the writings of Edgar Cayce for the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, I was relieved. At 14, my mother was so distracted by her new-found gifts of the spirit that I could finally breath the sweet air of freedom that had eluded me, under my mother's controlled atmosphere.
     So if I spun a little out of control, maybe it was because my maternal string had been so tightly wound. 

     I hate to think I had screwed things up for myself.
     Still, when I had to tell my mother that, at 16, I was going to make her a grandmother, I did not expect her inner social worker to wrap me up in a protective blanket of understanding, but she did.
     Looking back now, it was the best gift I could have given her at 58 -- I had apparently done enough to single-handedly wear down her sharp edges so that, when my first born arrived, my daughter could be received, completely and unconditionally, by her grandmother's open arms.
     And that is when the secret of motherhood magnetism began to reveal itself to me. It is an organic, unflinching force beyond our ability to control it, obvious to me as I saw my mother latch onto her granddaughter with the subatomic urgency that had escaped us. I began to realize that it wasn't her, or me. Our mutual complexities interfered with the natural pull I thought she lacked. But reflecting on it all, here and now, I know my direction in life was set by the precarious pivot on which we intersected. 

     Like a compass needle, her magnetism pointed me exactly in the direction I needed to go, whether we ever really knew it or not. Just as the invisible moon pulls at the ocean, even through a sky of clouds, my mother continues to move me. She did not fail me. I did not fail her. We were the best we could be together, and in that way, we are ideal; the space between us no longer impossible to bridge.