Transcription of From the Heart #300

Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle, and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at Here are a few highlights from this week’s program.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: During that concert, I said, “I want to be a part of this for the rest of my life.” I don’t know what that means. At that time, I didn’t know whether I was going to be a singer, or an arts administrator, or a conductor. I spent the next five, or six, seven years trying different things out through college, but I knew this is what I wanted to do.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: It was a very powerful moment. There are many of those in the book, times when people say, “How can you remember?”, and I’d say, “How would you forget?” This was the first. We have not sat her down. We were not at a place of thinking that she was going to die. Only that her condition was really very, very serious. At that point, we were still hopeful. We hadn’t used that word. For Liamarie to go there, she was a very verbal almost four-year-old. It did take me by surprise that she went there instantly.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. You are listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 300, airing for the first time on Sunday, June 18, 2017. Today’s theme is “From the Heart.” We all have had experiences that push us to go beyond what we know in our daily lives. Today, we speak with Dr. Emily Isaacson, the artistic director of the Oratorio Chorale, a Maine Chamber Ensemble, about her unique commitment to music, and how she came to make her life’s choices. We also explore ideas of grief in childhood with psychologist, Dr. Mary Plouffe, author of the memoir, I Know It in My Heart. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is Portland’s largest gallery, and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and host a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website,
Dr. Lisa Belisle: My next guest is Dr. Emily Isaacson who serves as the artistic director for the Oratorio Chorale and the Maine Chamber Ensemble, a symphonic chorus of professional orchestra in Maine. Last year, she launched the Portland Bach Festival with faculty from the Julliard School. Thank you for coming in today.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Thank you so much for having me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’ve had a very interesting career for a Maine woman. You’re doing some things that I don’t think as many people are doing who come out of Brunswick.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: I feel really lucky for the adventures I’ve gotten to take. I feel very lucky for the opportunities. I’m excited to be back doing it here.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me about why music became important to you as a younger person because, obviously, this is something you’ve been doing for quite a while.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter now who, according to my parents, looks, talks, and acts just like me. I’m getting a new vantage point of viewing my own journey. My daughter wants to perform everywhere. You turn on music, and she’s dancing. You say something funny, and she’s repeating it back as a play. That was very much me. I was captivated by art, and music, and theater, and dance right from the get-go.
I started doing Maine State Theater productions when I was in fourth grade. Huge debt of gratitude to Chuck Abbott, who was the Director of Maine State Music Theater at the time, for teaching me not only about show business, but really about hard work, and dedication, and focus, and being nine years old and working adults.
I did a lot of Maine State Music Theater and theater project acting until I was about 12 or 13. Then, I became an awkward, ugly teenager. I lasted in that space for maybe until 35. No, just kidding. For a good long time. The summer, there was a summer where I auditioned for all sorts of plays, and I didn’t get in because I wasn’t cute anymore. I was too young to play an adult role, and too old to play a cute kid role. My mom said, “Why don’t you audition for the Boone Summer Music Festival Chorus.” I didn’t want to do that. It was classical music, and it was with my mom. That’s not cool at 14, 15, but why not.
I did. It just so happened that that summer, they were doing a piece called Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein, which is a gorgeous piece, and is actually really important in my musical evolution in terms of thinking about what music can do, and be, and sound like. It blew my mind as a composition. It also happened to have a boy solo in the piece, a child solo. I was the youngest person in the choir by probably 20 years. I got the part, which is great.
It was being directed by Jeff Milarsky, who is not the Director at Columbia University, but, at the time, was a professional percussionist at Philadelphia Orchestra. Then, June Han was the harpist, who’s now become a good friend. She’s playing with New York Phil, and she teachers at Juilliard.
Anyway, my point being, I got access to these musicians that were like in another stratosphere of creativity. Because I had this solo, and because the piece was quite complex, I had a number of private coaching sessions with June and Jeff. I have such vivid memories of being in this tiny, little apartment space in Brunswick on Cleveland Street, and June, and Jeff, and I working together, and feeling like I was part of art in a way I had never experienced before, that I was part of something transformative for myself, and also expressive of something so much greater than the three people in this room and the little town of Brunswick.
I remember the performance for that concert, opening my mouth, and hearing something coming from somewhere else, and not recognizing it as my own. During that concert, I said, “I want to be a part of this for the rest of my life.” I don’t know what that means. At that time, I didn’t know whether I was going to be a singer, or an arts’ administrator, or a conductor. I spent the next five, or six, seven years trying different things out through college, but I knew this is what I wanted to do.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Both of your parents are attorneys.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: That’s right.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Yet, they’re both very interested and involved in the arts.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That’s a fascinating blend that you have in your household and the stock you come from?
Dr. Emily Isaacson: I’m lucky, but I don’t think it’s that abnormal. One of the things that I love about Maine is that members of the community in all different sectors, business, medicine, law, education, are involved in all sorts of other sectors. My dad always said growing up that one of the things he loved about Maine is that you could really be a part of the conversation and make an impact because of our scale.
I didn’t really understand what he meant by that until I lived in Chicago, and Washington DC, and then Boston, and started trying to become part of the conversation, and there was no room. Unless you have three PhDs and gazillion dollars, no one really wants to talk to you. In Maine, you can really make things happen. I really value that about this community. I value that the people in this community give back.
I’m now in a position where I’m doing a lot of development and fundraising. I’m talking with people who are lawyers, and CEOs, and executive directors of other organizations. That was very much what my parents were. The law was their career. They loved that work. My dad is also a professor at Bowdoin. He gave me that sense of curiosity. They were always very involved in the community whether it’d be things in the health board, the medicine, or various art forms. It’s always been a part of my life.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You didn’t originally know that you wanted to do conducting. This is something that came over time. It’s not something that those of us, I guess, in the regular world, the lay world, I guess we should say, necessarily think of when we think about music, unless we watch “Mozart in the Jungle,” and then we’re back to nothing. How did you come to this place?
Dr. Emily Isaacson: I think I came to it in the same way that other leaders come to that vision. Both my siblings and my brother-in-law went to business school. There’s a lot of conversation amongst them and their friends about being a part of a large company or organization. Then, they desire to be the vision, be the one making the decisions, to build something of their own.
I started thinking that I wanted to do singing. My college application letter was about wanting to be an opera singer, but also wanting to raise chickens, and that that was going to be a dilemma because if you’re an opera singer, you have to be in a big city, and you can’t raise chickens, at least, back then. I guess, in Brooklyn, you can do it now. That’s where I went in to college thinking, but as I was doing things, I realized that the musicians and the singers are the executors, that there is an incredible amount of talent. Frankly, I don’t have the talent it takes to do those positions, but I didn’t want to just execute on somebody else’s vision.
It started to become clear to me. I went to Williams College. It started to become clear to me that I had a lot of ideas, some good, some bad, but that I wanted to be the one creating the vision, and communicating it to other people, and that if I have any gifts, they are not in exceptional musical talent. Although, I’m not bad, but they are in my ability to communicate both as a musical leader, and also as a member of the community, and advocating for the arts. I thought I would try that pursuit. It has been very difficult but so rewarding. I’m so glad to not be in my 20s anymore. I’m glad to be here.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What does it take to become a conductor?
Dr. Emily Isaacson: There’s a simple and a complicated answer to that. The simple answer is that you go to grad school. Then, you start working your way up the chain. The reality is and one of the things that made my 20s so hard is that as a conductor, you are expected essentially to be an expert in music theory, music history, diction, which means you need to be able to speak French, German, and understand Italian, and Latin.
You need to be able to play piano. You need to be able to sing. You need to understand all of the instruments of the orchestra. You need to be able to communicate well speaking. You need to be able to write program notes and communicate well through writing. No one told me I needed to be good at business, but turns out that’s a huge part of what I do now. Then, on top of that, you need to know all the repertoire in your field, and be able to wave your arms around.
I have two masters and a doctorate. My 20s were, in some ways, just a constant failure, which I now look back on grateful for the struggle. At the time, it’s hard when you are used to being a good student and succeeding at life. Then, not having so much to learn that there’s no way that you can learn it, and constantly failing, constantly being at the bottom of the food chain.
Frankly, I have had some really wonderful personal mentors in my life, but music grad school is a really brutal place. I hear people at med school and law school talk about their experiences. I can identify, except for there were only two of us in the class. It’s that level of brutal critique on a much more intimate, heightened level.
I have a number of graduate degrees, which are really helpful learning the repertoire. Some of those things, certainly, music history, and music theory, moving your arms around in a repertoire, but I really feel like that’s only about 50% of what I do now. I think my conducting technique has been greatly influenced by my training as a ballet dancer when I was younger, and also my training as an actor largely by Al Miller and the Theater Project.
So much of it is about what you can communicate with your face, with your eyes. I view myself as the first part of a reflecting mirror. I am reflecting the emotions of the music and what’s going on in the music in my body to the players. Then, their job is to then reflect that in sound to the audience. If what I’m showing the players is dead, then the musicians are going to be dead as well. A lot of that is what Al taught me.
Then, I do a lot of business stuff now, building organizations, marketing, development, fundraising, PR, that kind of stuff, which I have zero training in, but I am loving learning on the job. It’s been so fun.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me what it’s been like to be female in a largely male field.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Hard. I’m grateful to have my mother as a role model. She was one of 12 women in her law school class. I grew up hearing worse stories at that time, and also her arguing in front of the Appeals Court. Hearing stories like hers and other women around me was very helpful, but they weren’t models in my field.
As I mentioned, I realized I wanted to be a conductor by the time I was 15. That was really solidified by the time I was in 20 and in college. I went to take my first conducting class. I was one of three students in the class. The professor said, “There are no good female conductors because women can’t conduct.” Then, we spent 16 weeks together. That was my entrée.
Then, I was very lucky to go get my first conducting degree with one of the few women teachers in the country, Sharon Paul, out in Oregon who is a magic-maker. It was also a really safe environment being out in Oregon. In Oregon, everyone is a tattoo artist, or a Pilates teacher, or a meditation coach. The fact that I was a female conductor, no one cared. That was a great area to be making mistakes and to be learning.
I applied for a number of graduate programs both at the masters and doctoral level where … All sorts of ridiculous things. I would be invited to the audition. Then, they would have meetings or parts of the audition behind my back, and not tell me about them. There’s no way that I could compete for that.
Part of what you do in music training is you go to graduate school, but you also go to all these summer programs. Both my professors in graduate school, but also in the summer programs, the number of comments I got about my body and about the way I dressed, which is fairly conservative, I’m pretty conscious of that, but I’ve not really ever heard them make a comment about a man’s body on the podium. I’ve gotten pretty used to having those comments about my body. I’m now trying to use it as an asset, but that was certainly a struggle.
I think the hardest part was I said I had these mentors in other fields, but not having people in my own field. Sharon Paul, my teacher in Oregon, was wonderful, but her career was a really different path than what I wanted. She led the San Francisco Girls Choir. I’m not really interested in doing children’s courses. That’s what everyone assumes I want to do because I’m a woman conductor. I want to conduct symphonic courses. I want to conduct symphonies. I want to conduct big oratorios and concert works. I love the huge requiems with the big… You had 150 people on the stage. Those are my favorite. It’s so exciting. You hardly ever see women up in front of 150 people doing that.
I think what was the hardest for me was trying in this already extremely competitive field where 10%, 15, 20% are able to make their living. That so many people will drop out, or leave, or have to switch careers. That within that space already, how was I going to be able to raise a family, keep a marriage, not be moving every two to four years, lead a fulfilling life outside of my career, and be a woman in that leadership position?
I’m so grateful. It was incredibly serendipitous that I got the job at Oratorio Chorale. We’ve been around for 44 years. 22 years in, the director left. It just so happened I was finishing my doctorate at the time, and was looking around. It also just so happened that the Downeasters are going up to Brunswick, which is where my parents lived. I could bring my newborn baby with me, hand her over to grandma, and run off to rehearsal. This has been such a rewarding community to be making really high-level music. I really push my musicians.
For the most part, they’re very comfortable with me being a woman. They value, I think, what some people consider feminine qualities, which I don’t see as feminine qualities, but just as good leadership qualities such as humility, or inclusiveness, or willingness to admit that I’m not perfect, and that I’m a part of the process.
One of the things I’ve noticed in my other female colleagues is we tend to see the people we work with as collaborators, rather than being the dictator in charge. I think, at the end of the day, that makes for better music and a better organization. It’s been a challenge, but we’re getting there. We’re getting there.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Is there a glass ceiling currently?
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Yes, absolutely. With no good reason, but there is. Of the 103 arts organizations with the largest budget, I think it’s something like 14 or 15 have women conductors. Of the big 22 that you think of, only one has a female conductor, Marin Alsop. Repeatedly, there will decades of seasons where there’s no woman guest conductor. It’s really still not happening.
I read an interview with Marin Alsop, who’s the Director of the Baltimore Symphony recently. She’s probably in her 50s maybe. She said that when she was in grad school or in her training, she thought, “Okay, my generation is going to be the one that breaks the ceiling that changes.” Then, 10 years, 15, 20, 30 years later, it really hasn’t changed. How frustrating that is for her to see.
There’s more training opportunities now just in the last few years. Marin Alsop has started a fellowship for female conductors. Dallas Opera is doing this really interesting program for female conductors. There’s certainly more female conductors applying for and sometimes in the graduate programs, but they’re not ending up at the top leadership positions. There’s still a ceiling to be broken and work to be done.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me about Amazing Grace.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Oh my gosh. I’m so excited about this concert. This is a concert I’m doing with Oratorio Chorale. Just to step back for a second, when I had that moment at 15 where I decided I wanted to be a part of this amazing art, I also realized how many barriers there are to other people feeling that way.
Because of my parents, because my parents fostered creativity and curiosity in a sense that the world is my oyster, and because they gave me direct entrée to that art form at such a young age, I was going to Boone Summer Music Festival Concerts in the ergo on my mom’s chest. It wasn’t intimidating to me, but I realized how intimidating it was to other people, and how uncool it was viewed pretty much between the ages of 10 and, I don’t know, 40. I don’t know when you get the bug again.
Part of my mission has always been to tear down some of what I see as unnecessary restrictions to what is incredible music. In both my jobs, both with the Oratorio Chorale and Bach Festival, a lot of my programming is geared towards that. How can we get audiences engaged, potentially interactive, multi-generations? How can we put them in unexpected settings, so that you may be sitting, listening quietly to music, but you’re holding a microbrew in your hand, or you’re looking at the ocean while doing so?
Classical music was not in tall muller until the late 19th Century. That’s not the way people heard music. All of Bach’s secular music was premiered in Zimmermann’s Café House, which was a bar hall. It was one of the few places that unmarried men and women could mingle, and flirt, and talk to each other. It’s in that setting that he premiered many of his works. It’s the same, at Mozart’s operas, everybody was drunk, and it was like a dance hall. Everyone is playing around. You think of Schubertian Salon, Schubert, it was just a big house party that happened that also have incredible art. I’ve wanted to bring back some of that socializing, celebratory, easy nature.
Amazing Grace is this concert that my hope is through listening, reading, watching, and feeling the audience experiences this music and the concert experience in a very different way. It’s the African American Spiritual. We’re featuring a buddy of mine, Reggie Mobley. Reggie and I got to know each other, I don’t know, five years ago or so. Since then, he has just skyrocketed in his career. He is flying directly from Buckingham Palace, where he is singing for the Queen of England to Maine for this concert, which is so exciting. He’ll be doing early music for her, which is what he’s known for, with Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Then, coming and singing these spirituals with us.
This concert, one of the things that’s really important to me is that we approach Bach, and Mozart, and Beethoven with the circuit of academic ethos in this performance practice lens. We don’t always apply that to contemporary music or to music from our own country. I wanted not just for myself and for the ensemble but for the audience to put these African American spirituals in context.
We’ve worked really closely with Judith Casselberry, who is an African American Studies Professor at Bowdoin College, and an expert on this kind of music. The concert follows the evolution of the spiritual in America. Starting in the plantations in the way it would have been sung in a folk style or a congregational singing, what you think of as a call and response, but, then, improvised harmonization underneath that. To create the context around where that music was coming from, we’re doing a number of readings by Frederick Douglass.
Then, we moved into the Fisk Singers generation where this music was now being concertized, thought of as a performance opportunity. W.E.B. Du Bois was at Fisk University while this was going on. We have some writing by him. We go through emancipation. Then, towards the 20th Century, and the Civil Rights, ending with the way that the tune Amazing Grace was used during the Civil Rights and Over My Head was used during Civil Rights.
There’s reading. There’s incredible art by Daniel Minter and Ashley Bryan, who are Maine artists, who have been on your show. Judith is reading. Oratorio Chorale is singing. Reggie is making people weep in their seats. Music is coming from all sides. There’s a lot of movement in this concert. It looks absolutely nothing like what you’re probably expecting.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: With your very busy schedule, I really appreciate your coming in and talking with me today.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Thank you so much for having me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Emily Isaacson, who serves as the Artistic Director of the Oratorio Chorale in the Maine Chamber Ensemble.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Thank you so much.
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Dr. Lisa Belisle: Today, it is my pleasure to have with me Dr. Mary Plouffe, who is a licensed psychologist and writer. Her memoir, I Know It in My Heart: Walking Through Grief with a Child, is coming out in May 2017. She is currently working on a book of essays on listening. Thank you for coming in.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: Thank you for inviting me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I don’t often think about the art of listening. How long have you been in practice now?
Dr. Mary Plouffe: About 35 years.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You probably have some experience with that.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: I do. I do. The book is a chance to peel back a little bit the things that were most powerful for me to hear as a child and an adolescent. Then, it pulls back the screen a little bit in therapy, and talks about who we listen, and to what, and what healing is about in terms of both silence and listening because I think they both weave together in good clinical practice.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Give us just a taste because that’s not the book we’re going to talk about today.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: No.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I’m very excited to read it in the future.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: I didn’t bring any piece of that book with me, but I did an essay. This is actually the reason that this book is now on listening is that when I got an agent for this book, she said, “I need to sell writers, not just books. What else do you write?” At that time, I have had one essay published and it was “This I Believe” essay on the power of silence. It talks about all the different silences that I know in a therapy office, the silence of having said just the right word, the silence that follows somebody telling something they’ve never said before. It’s that kind of listening that I’m exploring in the book.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You had to do a fair amount of listening yourself in this situation that you’ve just written about your sister dying of breast cancer at a relatively young age, and you’re being really pulled into the helping raise her small child. It’s a very different kind of listening for you.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: Yes, it was a very different kind of listening to me. Just to shift that just a little, Martha didn’t die of breast cancer. She was completely free of cancer at the time she went into this research project, which was supposed to be a last treatment that might extend her life. It was unknown and uncertain. She died of complications, unexpected complications of that treatment. There’s a slightly different feel to that. We had no expectation that she was going to die, or no expectation that anything, except a long and full life was ahead of her.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’re right. That’s s a big distinction because I believe it was a bone marrow transplant.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: It was a bone marrow transplant research program at Johns Hopkins, which also had a second stage to it. It was a phase two study to see whether people with her particular tumor would have a longer lifespan outcome if after they were freed entirely of tumor by chemo and radiation, they also did this further step.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: At that time, there seemed to be research behind doing this. Then, subsequent to that, it was learned that the researcher who was doing this wasn’t being forthcoming with his information.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That’s especially tragic, really.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: It was especially tragic. It was exactly a year after her death that the results of the National Association found that no one here in this country or in Europe could duplicate the results of the South African studies that had sounded so promising, and on which all of these programs in our country were based. Following that, they went to South Africa, and looked at those studies, and found them to be falsified.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: How does one work through? I’m just thinking, if this were me and my sister, the anger over that, and, simultaneously the grief over the loss of a sister, and simultaneously trained to help with the grief of a child. That’s so many different things that you’re trying to balance.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: It’s a great question because I don’t think we balance everything all at once. I think, we prioritize. I certainly did. Liamarie was my first priority. She was supposed to be with me for three weeks when she came. That was my first priority.
The way, when you read the book, the story about the research, I put in an epilogue. There were a lot of people said to me, “No, no, no. You have to weave that into the story.” I said, “It’s dishonest,” because the truth is I didn’t weave it into my story. I knew it, but I really walled it off. I could not allow my feelings about that to be primary or even to take up a lot of energy. I had three children. I had a mother who had lost her daughter. I had a three-year-old whose husband was asking me, “Please help me raise this child, and help her understand that her mother is gone.” I think for a long, long time, I said, “Okay. That’s the bad news. That’s the horrible news, but that’s something I can do nothing about.” I walled that off.
One of the things that was hardest for me in writing this story, as a psychologist, is that I came to believe, after a lot of push, that it had to be my story. It was originally just Liamarie’s story. I was not going to be in it at all, except as a narrator. Once I was convinced that that was the way to write it, then I needed to write it honestly. Really, the only way to talk about that was to talk about how I had left that out, known it and said, “Don’t go there. I have other things that need every bit of attention that I can give.”
Dr. Lisa Belisle: This story is specifically about helping a child through grief. It’s written as your story, and as Liamarie’s story, and somewhat is your families story as well. It’s not a how-to. Yet, you still provide insights that may be useful for people who are looking for a way to deal with this. Why did you decide to go in the direction you did?
Dr. Mary Plouffe: That’s a great question because, first and foremost, when I thought about writing it at all, it was when Herb, my brother-in-law remarried, and I had written things just to survive, and to document, and to help myself think through what he and I were trying to do with Liamarie. I had never intended to use them except for us. I shared them with his new wife and family. I could see how they really resonated to living her experience, not just being told about it. That’s the first time that I felt like, “Okay, maybe this would have a life outside of our family.”
The other piece of this, Lisa, is that when I was in my deepest pain, all my textbooks, all my self-help books, all my how-to books were useless to me. I wanted only to resonate with somebody who was grieving as I was. Those were the books I found were helpful. When I thought about that, I thought, “That’s not a lot different from therapy.” You don’t sit there, and give people statistics, and numbers, and instructions. You take them to a place of feeling something about themselves. You use story and metaphor to resonate with that feeling because I believe we learn best with story.
It was always in my mind that it would not be a self-help book if I wrote it at all. It would have to be a memoir, and people would take from it what was relevant to their experience and their situation.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Would you read to us a passage from your book?
Dr. Mary Plouffe: Sure, I’d be glad too. “This is a piece that occurred the first night I went to Johns Hopkins, went to the hospital, and saw my sister who was, at that point, unconscious on a vent in the intensive care unit of the bone marrow transplant. It was a pretty horrific scene. Here, we took Liamarie up to the hospital. She chose not to go into the room that night.
I didn’t sleep much that night. I wasn’t upset with Liamarie’s choice not to see her mother. Herb and I were both relieved she was so clear. It gave us more time to think. We both knew this could not be Liamarie’s decision. If Martha died, it would be a choice we would have to live with for a lifetime. And no three-year-old could understand the implications of that.
What kept me up was the concept of death. Object constancy, object permanence, Piagetian and experiments with toddlers invaded my dreams that night. Cognitive development in toddlers and young children, I thought when I awoke. You need to read up on this. But Liamarie did not give me the chance. The next morning, when Herb left for the hospital, she pulled me into the living room, ‘Play Ken and Barbie with me,’ she asked, and I cringed. Not my strong suit. I was not a fun of these precocious dolls for young children, but now was not the time to worry about the politics of child rearing.
She led me over to a big dollhouse set up in the corner of the living room. It was an older Playschool house, designed for small figures, but that didn’t seem to matter. I sat on the floor, and she picked up the two dolls from a pile of toys in the corner. ‘Okay, Barbie and Ken are going dancing,’ she announced. She grabbed the figures rather roughly, and stuffed them in a blue plastic convertible. She didn’t bother to change Barbie’s clothes, though she was in a pants and a casual top. Woosh. Liamarie shot the car across the room. She got up, retrieved the car, and came back to the house.
‘Now, they come home and go to bed.’ She grabbed the car, and removed the dolls, leaving Ken unceremoniously on the floor, and laying Barbie across the tiny bed, too small for the oversize figure. I had not yet said a word. ‘And in the night, she dies,’ Liamarie offered tentatively, articulating slowly, ‘But then she wakes up in the morning, right?’ Suddenly, I realized where this was going. ‘Yes, love, toys are pretend, so they can do that.’ ‘And people too,’ she insisted. ‘No, Liamarie, not people.’ ‘Why not people?’ ‘People are not pretend.’ ‘So, if Mama dies, she can come back to life again too?’ ‘No, love. No, she can’t.’ ‘I don’t want to play this anymore,’ she said firmly, and walked away.”
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That must have been quite something to be simultaneously, in your psychologist’s brain, an understanding that Liamarie was at a very specific stage of development that you needed to be aware of, but also being the sister of a woman who was dying.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: Yeah. It was a very powerful moment. There are many of those in the book, times when people say, “How can you remember?”, and I’d say, “How would you forget?” This was the first. We had not sat her down. We were not at a place of thinking that she was going to die. Only that her condition was really very, very serious. At that point, we were still hopeful. We hadn’t used that word. For Liamarie to go there, she was very verbal, almost four-year-old, and it did take me by surprise that she went there instantly.
I was grateful that I had some play therapy training because I could slide into that awareness and that head space, which kept it a little less emotional for me because I could tell when she was saying, “I need to process something with you. I need to figure out something with you,” versus when I just need to play with you and be with you. There was a different tone to it.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You have, obviously, the good fortune to have had this training.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You say play therapy, but also developmental stages. Most people don’t. Most people who are in this situation are flying by the seat of their pants really. How were you able to use what you knew to help Liamarie at this very specific three, almost four-year-old developmental stage?
Dr. Mary Plouffe: No. I think it was automatic pilot. She was so attached to me at that time. What we had thought was three weeks, because of delays and things, turned into four months. She’d actually been with my family. I’ve been playing substitute mother for a while. She really looked to me for answers to everything. I think, at that moment, it was the most constructive functional thing I could do, and that was good for me. I had no desire to run away from it. I just wanted to do the best I could to give her the support that she needed.
That was my healing, I think. I think when you can do something … You’ve been in medicine. You know when you can do something to help, you put your emotions aside for the moment, and you do that because that’s the best thing for both you and the patient. That’s really how it felt at that time, “Okay, now I can do something for her.”
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Do children and adults grieve differently?
Dr. Mary Plouffe: I think they do. I think they do. I think that’s one of the things I hope that this book will help people understand. Knowing is a process for children, especially for young children, but even older children. The time of a loss determines how much they can take in, and what level of abstract conceptualization about things like permanence and forever. No matter how many times you explain to a three or a four-year-old that death is permanent, they will still ask you, as Liamarie asked her dad, “Can we go to the train station? Mommy used to get off the train, and maybe she still will.” That sense of the inability to have the constructs that they need.
Every developmental stage, they rework what death means. They rework both in terms of their understanding of what they lost and what they will lose. They also rework it in terms of what it means to them because they, at four, you really can’t imagine what you will be like at 14 or at 44. Losing someone and knowing what that really means is a process that evolves through childhood.
I think for adults, we know. We know the moment it happens that it’s horrific. Our process is in titrating our awareness to that, and regulating our feelings about it, and taking it step-by-step. It’s not that we don’t understand it. It’s that we have to accommodate to it, and figure out how we’re going to make a life around it. When you’re three, your fragments of who this person is in your mind are still being developed. At four and five, Liamarie had few memories of the real mother, but she knew she was missing mothering, and that was her grief then.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: How did your own children work with this process? I know that your youngest, Margaret, was also relatively young herself.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: She was, yeah. My children were 10,15, and 20, actually, when Liamarie came to live with us. Those are very different stages too. The 20-year-old was off in college. The 15-year-old was in high school, and very much involved in athletics and music, and handled this grief, I think, like many adolescences do by diving head first into his own life, which was frankly a joy for all of us too. Margaret, I think, at 10 was in a more difficult position because she had one foot in childhood and one foot in young adolescence.
She was very aware of how big a separation this was for her little cousin. She felt for her. She would say, “I don’t know how she can be away from her mom. I couldn’t be away from you.” She felt with. She felt empathy for this, even more than in a sense was fair because Liamarie did not really have a sense of time. She thought she was just here for a three-week adventure, and she did not have a sense of the seriousness of her mother’s treatment even after the ARDS hit; whereas, Margaret did. She bonded with her really in an emotional way because of the stage she was at developmentally.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Through this time, you continued to do your work as a psychologist.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: I did.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You were still seeing patients while you were helping everybody else, and, hopefully, helping yourself to work through this process.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: Yeah. I had to take a great deal of time. When in the month that she was at Johns Hopkins, I was back and forth a lot. After her death, I really couldn’t afford to take another two or three months for grieving. I know myself fairly well. I knew that just not doing my work, my work was my survival. I could walk up to my office. I didn’t work 40-hours a week. I took what I called grieving days then when I have absolutely nothing on my schedule, except whatever my heart and soul needed to do.
I also tried to weave in what I’m here to do, which is to do my job because that also gave me a sense that life would go on. That was very helpful for grieving because we all know how awful it feels. What we need to know is that we can get through it. Sometimes, being able to do small pieces of your life, in spite of how awful you feel, is the affirmation you need that you will get through this and life will get better.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I was struck by one thing that you said about your husband, who also is a professional working outside the home as an attorney. There’s something like he had made it his responsibility to make sure that you have the space literally and figuratively to help provide care for people who needed it. I thought that was so wise because I know that when you are in the field of working one-on-one with human beings, it’s a very intense situation. For him to want to create that space for you, I think, speaks volumes of his understanding of what you do and also of your relationship.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: Yeah. None of this would be real without him. As I said, it is not a joke, but it was always a joke between us that he would say to me, “My job is to keep you sane, so you can go up to your office and do the same for others.” Boy, if those words had truth in them, they were proven both in going through this and also in the writing of this because the writing was relieving all of this, especially so many years later when I had to dig through so much material just to create a story and arc that made sense.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That is also interesting because how old is Liamarie now?
Dr. Mary Plouffe: She just graduated from college in June.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That’s a long, long time.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That’s a long period of space in which you’ve needed to grieve, and process, and write, and rework. It’s just evidence that this type of thing doesn’t happen overnight.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: It doesn’t happen overnight. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s as continuous a process of that. As I said, I didn’t think about writing the book until she was 10, when her father remarried. I asked her when she was 15. I felt like even then, it was a little risky thing to do. My first and foremost concern was that it wouldn’t disrupt her life. I took another five years with all the drafts, and with the fact that I wasn’t a writer to start with, and had to go out there, and learn how to do things. She was 20 by the time she actually read it start to finish.
That felt right to me because I think she really was able, then, as a young adult, to reprocess what some of which was some material that was very new to her, and very emotional. There, certainly, were years in there in which I would say we were all in a good place. Then, the question came, do I want to write this book? Is this what I’m going to do with this life experience, or am I going to share it, or am I going to keep it to myself?
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What was the turning point?
Dr. Mary Plouffe: To write the book, I honestly think the turning point was seeing how useful it was to Herb and his new wife who became Liamarie’s adoptive mother. A couple of years after that, I went to a conference. I said, “I’m going to write this story, and it’s going to be called Liamarie’s Story.” They said, “Was this your sister?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “It can’t be Liamarie’s story. It’s got to be your story of grief, and how you tried to care for her through that.” That was a shocking idea. I’m the psychologist who sits behind the desk.
I put it in my bottom drawer for three years, but I had fallen in love with writing. A good friend said to me about 2009, three years later, “You’re not going to write anything unless you get that book out of your head.” She said, “Why don’t you do what they’re saying. Put pieces together, and submit it to a totally objective author, and say, ‘This is how many legs outside the family. This is something you should just keep or could it be a book?’” I was lucky enough to have that person be Suzanne Strempek Shea, who believed in it from the minute she saw it, and kept saying, “You have to write this book, and you have to write it this way.” I think that was wonderful to have writers who felt that it would be a contribution.
Center for Grieving Children, when they saw the first draft, said it was very supportive as well. I’m very fortunate that people said, “This may do some good in the world.” That felt like what my sister would have wanted because she was a rebel, she was a fighter. She was, in the ‘70s, the red-haired Irish Catholic girl who went to Black Panther meetings at night. She was a rebel. I know she would have said, “Do something with this besides just keeping it to yourself. It feels good to be there.”
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I am glad that you wrote it. I enjoyed reading it. I learned something about children and grieving. I learned something about you, and I’ve known you for many years. It was really wonderful to be able to have, I guess, that window open into another, again, human being. I appreciate your being here.
Dr. Mary Plouffe: Thank you for inviting me. I’m excited to see it finally come out in the light of day, and to hear people’s reactions to it, and to share it.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Mary Plouffe, who’s a licensed psychologist and writer. Her memoir, I Know It in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child, came out in May 2017.
You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 300, From the Heart. Our guests have included Dr. Emily Isaacson and Dr. Mary Plouffe. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter, doctorlisa, and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. We’d love to hear from you, so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows.
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