Just posting my latest review of fellow graphic novelist MK Czerwiec’s important work about the 90s AIDS epidemic. And just finished a working vacation where I took new author photos. Not my favorite thing to do, but we got a few shots I can live with.
Also, we finalized the cover and description for my forthcoming novel House of Rougeaux. See those here. If you are eager for this new book, I believe it will be available for preorder by the end of October, for an April 2018 delivery. Stay tuned.
Another graphic memoir captures the heart and soul of a piece of history. Taking Turns follows MK, a nurse in an unorthodox care unit, Unit 317, of a hospital in Chicago in the 1990’s, the height of the North American AIDS epidemic. In simple, straightforward drawings and prose, MK creates a portrait of this devastating time, during which a community came together with great bravery and compassion to respond to the epidemic. A very personal, yet universal, meditation on life and death, sometimes funny and sometimes profound. MK does not paint herself as a hero, but she certainly is one.
The award ceremony took place in June in New York during the Book Expo America, which I hear is a big shin-dig. Just as I wrapped up House of Rougeaux, my first novel, I began writing the next book in what will be a series. I did not plan it this way, but turns out there is more to tell. I have been collaborating with the publisher and designer, working on getting the cover for House of Rougeaux just right. We’ve been working for months now. It’ll be nice to finally get to that stage where the advance copies are printed, hopefully soon. Stay tuned for more about House of Rougeaux, like a description and the cover! It’s scheduled to publish in the Spring of 2018.
Hilarious, harrowing, heartfelt and heroic, Trevor Noah’s memoir paints a vivid picture of a childhood and coming of age pre- and post-apartheid, a picture of a brilliant, trouble-making young man emerging from a chaotic life, and a stunning portrait of his fiercely loving and powerful mother. Deeply insightful into life, love, the political and the personal, from every angle, and beautifully written, this book will grab you with both fists and drag you (willingly) for the full duration of its wild ride.
Two disabled high school wrestlers from inner-city Cleveland, with a unique and powerful friendship, find an unlikely champion in a television producer. This difficult story of love and perseverance, in the face of crushing poverty and trauma, is deeply compelling from beginning to end, heartbreaking and inspiring.
Award-winning author Jenny Jaeckel has a collection of stories out called For the Love of Meat. It is the perfect summer read: Literary but not cerebral, a bit of soft romance and lots of historical variety. Her ebook is on sale starting today and over memorial day weekend (2017). It’s never been just $.99, so if you haven’t already, download this gem!
Recently, I was asked on to the podcast ONE BAD MOTHER to talk about my graphic memoir Spot 12: Five Months in the Neonatal ICU. It’s a 100-page comic about my experience as a mother with a baby in the NICU, and how, in part, my mental health worsened over the course of the hospital stay.
When I was on the podcast, Biz Ellis asked me if I had advice for parents, friends or family with someone they love in the NICU. I found I had a lot to say about the subject! I thought it might be worth sharing this information here, just in case it might help someone else in a similar situation. There’s definitely more in the podcast interview, and you can find it in itunes or here’s the link to episode 189: ONE BAD MOTHER.
So here it goes, if I had known then what I know now… here is what I would have told myself:
1) Get as much help and support as you can.
When Asa was in the NICU I needed help with the basics. I needed help with food, with laundry, etc. and I needed someone to stay with Asa when I had to do other things. Chris and my mom and I took turns staying with Asa, so we were able to cover a lot of time, but we still needed other people. Chris was working, my mom was doing all kinds of errands, I was on the breast pump many hours a day, and once we started the tracheostomy training the three of us were away from Asa at the same time for 3 hours twice a week.
I also needed to get outside and take a walk every day, though I didn’t know it at first, I needed the fresh air, the exercise and a touch of normalcy. Every minute I was away from Asa felt like a heinous crime on my part, but the more I walked the better off I was. Unless a person is injured or too depleted, exercise is actually medicine for every known ailment, mental or physical, scientifically proven.
I also very much needed emotional support. All the focus was on Asa, the one in the picture who was in critical condition and who needed everything, so all that focus was entirely appropriate. On the other hand, I was in crisis, having been through a traumatic birth and then dealing with Asa’s ongoing medical crisis. What I really needed was to talk to someone every single day. At first I just talked to someone once in awhile. There weren’t that many people I felt I could call for support, and I didn’t want to over-tax anyone. A few months in I began talking with one of the hospital psychologists once a week. That was great, but there were a hell of a lot of hours in between those appointments. Finally I asked a few family friends if I could call them regularly for support and they said yes, so in the end I was able to talk to someone most days, even if it was only a few minutes. I asked my support people to help me with calming down and thinking positively, or sometimes I just cried my eyes out.
2) That baby is YOUR baby.
Having a baby in the NICU means that as a primary care provider you, the parent, are immediately ousted. Or at least it can seem that way. However, no matter what happens, that is YOUR baby. TRUST your instincts! The doctors and nurses are authorities in the situation, but you have instincts about how to care for your baby that no one else does. Find every way you can to be with your baby, talk and sing to your baby, touch your baby, find ways to hold your baby even if you can’t pick them up. Asa had some procedures that required holding still, we found that Asa stayed much calmer if we helped with the holding and spoke soothing word throughout. We found that some of the medical staff were very encouraging for us to participate in Asa’s care, and some acted like we were in the way and interfering. I was often worried about ruffling their feathers, I worried Asa’s care would suffer if I complained or asked for too much. What I would say to myself then, knowing what I learned in the process, is: don’t worry about pissing people off a little. Advocate for your child for what you think is best. Be as diplomatic as possible, of course, but do what you think is right!
3) Look out for signs of postpartum depression.
Prior to Asa being born I didn’t have a history of depression and I didn’t know the signs. For the first month or two I was pretty constantly upset and terrified, but I assumed I was just reacting as any normal person would react to the events that were unfolding. However, over time, and with all the accumulated stress and trauma, I descended down into a very deep depression. One of the things I noticed (in hindsight) was that at a certain point I got no relief from crying. Normally if I am upset about something to the point of crying, and I cry, then afterward I feel some relief, calmer, I can think better, and I can move into a happier emotional state. Once I was depressed I felt exactly the same after crying as before, which was terrible all the time, there was no emotional variation. Another thing that happened was that I could no longer do normal things, like wash dishes. When Asa was in the NICU, Chris and I stayed in an on-site residence at the hospital for parents of NICU babies. We had a sink in our room and it would get piled up with dirty dishes, and I would look at them but not be able to get up and wash them. I also had relentless dark thoughts. Thankfully I never became suicidal, but if I was crossing a street and saw a car coming, I did think “what if…” Lastly, though there were other signs, there was the moment when I clashed with my mom over something tiny, completely lost it, and attacked a Coke machine. Then, after hitting the Coke machine as hard as I could, I dropped to the ground and screamed. I screamed in a public place. Things had gotten pretty far. After that incident I made the decision to get on anti-depressants. Had I known the signs of serious depression I would have made that decision a lot sooner, and I believe it would have helped me be a little more sane.
How is Asa Now?
Asa is doing great and, since 5th grade, is using the pronouns they/them. They had the hole in Their neck that was made for the Tracheotomy repaired over a year ago. I did a series of blog posts that are more detailed about her childhood. You can find those here: Raising Asa.
Spot 12, the book
My graphic memoir Spot 12 (memoir in comic book form) was published in October 2016, and is available In the US and Canada everywhere books are sold. There are also some copies in various libraries in the US and Canada. It is also available in Spanish (called Cunero 12). The ebook version of Cunero 12 is available now, and the Spot 12 ebook should be appearing soon. Thanks for your interest in my work!
Close to two years ago in the fourth grade, Asa, my then exclusively-boy’s-clothes-wearing daughter, heard the term “gender-neutral” in a class discussion on gender. This term really resonated with Asa, who by this time was not feeling like a boy or a girl, but something like both, neither, or in-between. Asa wanted to “re-identify,” wanted us to start using gender-neutral pronouns, and did not want Chris (my husband) or I to use the word “daughter.” For Chris and I, no problem! We are very clear it’s our job to help Asa be Asa, whoever that is. We also know Asa to be a person who is dedicated to their values, and who sticks to decisions. Clearly this wasn’t just a whim. So we looked up some gender-neutral pronouns on the internet and started practicing using them.
Fast forward to the 6th grade: Asa’s teacher, who is wonderfully supportive, loaned us a book of short stories by an author from Vancouver who identifies as a “trans person.” This author has gotten the question “Are you a man or a woman?” so many times they wrote a story about it. Asa and I read the story together and discussed different ways to respond to the question “Are you a boy or a girl?” Soon after that talk, a boy at school asked Asa The Question and Asa told me about the interaction after school. Asa was pleased with the conversation, and we both thought it was comic material. Here’s what we came up with.
For those of you who have been reading my posts about Asa because you were wondering what happened to them after Spot 12, we are now officially caught up to the present! I am posting this with Asa’s permission, and as they allow, I will post from time to time on the journey of parenting. Thanks everyone for tuning into my blog. Have a great Turkey Day!
The Way Back is a short series of comics I did several years ago. The characters are fictional, but the stories are all based on real events from my life. I have always been a big fan of those absurd and/or magical moments in life we all encounter sometimes. These moments aren’t always fun at the time, but as long as we survive they make a good story.
As Asa got older (the first few grades of elementary school), more socially aware and more medically stable, dealing with the tracheostomy in some ways became more of a social concern and less of a medical one. She had something that looked different, and she sounded different too. Asa’s peers in class quickly got used to the “trach,” but there was always the first day or week to deal with and she still got a lot of stares in public places, and the occasional rude comment. Once a kid in Asa’s fourth grade class went around saying he had seen Asa’s vocal cords, and once, at a museum, a grown man said to Asa, “You sound like Stephen Hawking.”
On the other hand, we sometimes met other kids and families who were kind and curious, and became friends after striking up that first conversation. Once a kid on the playground said to Asa, “I love your marshmallow necklace!” And one friend of Asa’s, a couple of years younger, told his parents he wanted “a cool necklace like Asa’s.”
Sometimes the comments were confusing or frightening to Asa, such as when one of her kindergarten classmates told her that she would die if her trach tube came out. We changed the trach tube at home regularly and I asked Asa if she remembered when we took out the tube the week before. She did. “Did you die?” I asked. She smiled, and said “No.” We had a lot of conversations about all these comments, which gave Asa the context and clarity she needed to deal with it.
Asa wanted to know why she had this problem that other people didn’t have, and we had a lot of conversations on this theme too. To me, it was essential that we frame these talks in a certain way:
A) Problems are a part of life and everyone has them, even if they don’t show on the outside; and
B) We are extremely lucky and have so much to be grateful for.
Asa always wanted to know what kind of problems other people had and we talked about those things. On the gratitude front, we talked about all the things Asa could do, about everything we had and the people who loved us. I liked to mention that I was grateful for the trach tube itself, because it was a life-saver, and allowed Asa to have a healthy, active life. I hope that all this has served as early lessons in compassion and gratitude for Asa, and resilience too.
I’m excited for Spot 12: Five Months in the Neonatal ICU to reach a larger audience. Sometimes people ask me what it’s like to reveal such a personal story, and personal struggle, in such a public way. For better or worse, I told it all, but I don’t find the public part too hard. This story is something that happened to a human being under difficult circumstances, and as humans we often find ourselves facing ourselves facing difficulty. I believe we can learn a lot from each other when we share those struggles, and by sharing we learn we have permission to have our experiences as we have them. Should we have been stronger in those hard times? Better somehow? Probably not. Did we learn a lot? Totally. My best hope for Spot 12 is that readers find in it a kind of solidarity. Whatever we go through in this life is something we can share.
A routine prenatal exam reveals a dangerous problem, and Jaeckel and her husband find themselves thrust into a world of close calls, sleepless nights, and psychological crises. Surrounded by disagreements and family tensions, death, and questions of faith, Jaeckel struggles to maintain a positive frame of mind. Against the antiseptic, mechanical reality of the NICU, the dedicated doctors and nurses are drawn as sympathetic and wry animal characters. Doctor Eyes and Nurse Gentlehands are two of the caring individuals who do all they can to save Baby Asa. At times Jaeckel and her husband battle feelings of helplessness and despair, but their determination, hope, insight, bravery, and connection ultimately helps keep their little girl alive.