“Like homing pigeons,” a man in a New York bar once told me about Pittsburghers. “You leave. You go back. You’re lucky. There aren’t many places like that.”

By Lori Jakiela 

The following is an excerpt from Lori Jakiela’s They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice: On Cancer, Love, and Living Even So to be released by Atticus Books.

My daughter Phelan likes to dress up as a character she created herself, a professional wrestler named Violent Violet Jones.

“It’s all about story,” she says, when she talks about why she loves professional wrestling when most of the other girls at her school love boy bands and overpriced sequin-y clothes from a store called Justice.

“It’s about good guys and bad guys,” Phelan says. “It’s scripted, not fake.”

I love that at 14, my daughter considers this, the complexity of the world up against the ease most people believe in. When people ask how my sweet, smart daughter got into wrestling, I usually shrug and smile. No one else in our family is into it, though I remember my father loving Andre the Giant and Pittsburgh legend Bruno Sammartino when I was growing up.

My father died years before Phelan was born. He loved Andre because Andre was an outsider and sad but kind. He loved Bruno because Bruno was Pittsburgh and a good son who loved his mother.

Both Bruno and Andre represented hope. My father, a veteran of World War II and the Depression, didn’t see much hope or goodness in the world.

“I’ll live to see the bastards burn,” he said, meaning most people.

Still, hope, even the bastard-burning kind, helped my father live in this world.

My daughter is the embodiment of hope. She is almost always joyful. One day when she was 11, she walked into her bedroom, shut the door, came out hours later, and asked her father, “Do you know who Larry Zbyszko is?” and he said, “The wrestler?” and Phelan, all blonde curls, her voice like sparkling juice, proceeded to spout statistics.

We love when our kids discover worlds we never imagined.

“The Heart wants what it wants,” Emily Dickinson wrote.

But writers are my business, not my daughter’s.

Phelan loves men who leap from the top rope and smash each other.

She’s cool like that.


Violent Violet Jones is half-harlequin, half pin-up girl.

Phelan’s friend Cilia, a future fashion designer, made my daughter’s costume out of clothes they found together at Goodwill. What had been someone’s old prom dress transformed into satin shorts and a halter-top. What had been someone’s scarf was now a championship belt. A polyester skirt the color of a juice stain–something a 1980s businesswoman might have worn with suntan pantyhose and a blazer with oven mitts for shoulder pads–became boot covers and fingerless gloves.

“Ba-Boom!” my daughter said when she strutted through our tiny house like it was a runway. She did an impressive sidekick and struck a pose. “Do you like it?” she asked, and I said, “Woah!”

Cilia is a master seamstress, but the outfit was pretty revealing, in a bathing suit kind of way. Lots of stomach. Young boobs coming out. A little butt.

“You are so not letting her go out like that,” my son Locklin said.

He’s 17.

He knows some things but not others.

Locklin hates professional wrestling, mostly because his sister loves it. He worries. He worries about what people think and how every thought reflects back on him. He worries constantly. He looks at his phone. He worries more.

Maybe worry has the power to shift gravity. I think it does.

Locklin said, “You are not letting her go out like that.”

“Of course I am,” I said, and scowled at him. “She can wear what she wants.”


“I look pretty okay,” Phelan said, tossing her long blonde curls over one shoulder then the other while her brother sighed and stared at the ceiling and hoped I’d notice and put a stop to all this.

“You look awesome. So bad ass,” I said, and hugged Violent Violet Jones hard.

“Clueless,” Locklin said to the ceiling, to the dust bunnies hanging there, and I pretended not to hear.

My son frustrates me with his fears, and I pretend that’s not so because I am his mother.

Later I went to Target and bought Phelan two full body suits – one black, one beige — to go underneath her wrestling costume.

As women, we try to love our bodies, even so. But we forget the danger of other people, men, loving our bodies too much.

“So you’re not cold,” I said, and passed her a sweater and a pair of my combat boots.


Phelan turned 14 in July, but she looks older. She is beautiful but doesn’t know how beautiful yet.
I want her to be free to become her own good bad-assed self, but I am, despite my 17-year-old son’s belief, not clueless.


One of Violent Violet Jones’ signature moves is The Baby Kick, something my daughter started doing when she was just out of diapers and still helpless. She learned it while roughhousing with my husband. She used to lie on her back and kick hard. It was hilarious. She used her heels to do damage.

She still wants to babykick.

It looks very different now that she’s a teenager, though she doesn’t know that. I pretend nothing about her is sexual while knowing it’s all sexual, sexy, creepy, not creepy, pretty.

Pretty is the right word. Right?



“Be safe. Stay with your friends,” I say to my daughter as she heads out for what will likely be her last round of trick-or-treating, her childhood fading into ether.

“Don’t go to strangers’ houses. Don’t get into any cars. Watch for creeps.”

“I know, I know,” she says, and kisses me hard, four times, exactly four times, something she does for luck.

“It always has to be four,” she says, though she can’t say how she decided that.


Things that come in fours:

Suits in a deck of cards.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.


When I was young, I told my parents I loved them all the time.

I did it so often things got weird.

“Pass the salt, please, I love you.”

“I can’t find this sock, please, I love you.”

One time my father asked me why. I told him I wanted it to be the last thing he’d hear before he died.

He quit speaking to me.

My father hated the idea of death, mortality. He wanted to believe he would never die. The idea of death scared him, but I didn’t know that then.

When my father stopped speaking to me, when he looked away when I entered a room, I felt sad and confused.

Young, blameless, I believed in death. I believed everyone I loved would drop over at any minute and I, the adopted kid, would be twice orphaned.

Ba-boom. Just like that. The victim. The star.

“As it was in the beginning, so it will be in the end,” Father Ackerman, the hairy-eared priest at St. Regis often said.

Father Ackerman was famous for shouting kids down in the confessionals and prescribing three thousand Hail Marys and Our Fathers to clean out sins. He told me I’d go to Hell multiple times.
But I believed if I did the right things, if I was good enough, if I knew the proper magic, the correct words, I could save people.

I could even save myself.

My father eventually talked to me, though I never mentioned death ever again.


When my daughter kisses me, I think about my friend Maggie. As a child, Maggie would make herself say “peace and love” eleven times before she would fall asleep at night. Like me, Maggie was sure everyone she loved would die if she didn’t do things just right.

“I had OCD before OCD was a thing,” she says now and laughs.

Lately, my daughter holds my face in her soft hands when she kisses me.

“Hold still,” she says, like as if, how kids speak, as if we didn’t move, we could stop time.

Maggie’s mother died when Maggie was 17.

Both my parents are dead now. Cancer. Cancer.

My father’s last words to me were, “Don’t worry, honey, I’ll be around.”

My mother’s last words were, “Is that all?”

She asked what time it was and I told her and she was disappointed it wasn’t later.

I don’t remember my last words to my father, but with my mother, it was just that, the time.


According to numerology, the number 11 is the angel number, a communication from God.
When you see the number 11, on your alarm clock maybe, prepare your heart, mind, and body for tremendous acts of grace.


Four days before Halloween, as my daughter plans her first transformation into Violent Violet Jones, a man murders 11 people at The Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

Squirrel Hill is 20 minutes from my house. On most Saturdays, Phelan and I are there, a few blocks from the synagogue. She takes music lessons at a place called Sunburst.

Sunburst on Saturday mornings is filled with children laughing, exhausted parents sighing over coffee they snagged from a shop downstairs, the sound of music drifting from the practice rooms.

I like sitting in the lobby for the 30 minutes my daughter spends singing and laughing with her teacher, a pretty and tiny woman named Roseanna who plays with her husband in a duo around town. Roseanna and her husband play a lot of weddings and bar mitzvahs. Their music is sweet and uplifting and helps people. My daughter adores Roseanna. Roseanna encourages Phelan to write songs then sings backup and plays piano to my daughter’s song at a recital. It is so lovely I could scream.

Thank God for teachers.

The receptionist at Sunburst is a musician, too. I used to see her perform around Pittsburgh back in the 90s. She controls the background music in the lobby, and I love the way I can time travel back with her – The Replacements, The Clash, The Verve, Counting Crows’ August and Everything After.

I moved away from Pittsburgh in the 90s. I went to New York, which is what people from Pittsburgh used to do when they wanted to become writers and artists. We believed in the magic of New York, its glitter and shine, its promise of transformation.

“I went to New York City to be born again,” Kurt Vonnegut said.

And then there was 9/11, the exodus after that.

I moved home just before 9/11.

My father was dying and my mother needed help. I planned to go back to New York, but I didn’t, which is what Pittsburghers do, I think.

What I did.

We come home. We come home and stay.

“Like homing pigeons,” a man in a New York bar once told me about Pittsburghers. “You leave. You go back. You’re lucky. There aren’t many places like that.”

That man was from North Carolina, I think.

A few of my Pittsburgh friends are displaced New Yorkers who came to Pittsburgh for an easier, kinder, gentler life.

Pittsburgh, the birthplace of bingo and Ferris wheels.

Pittsburgh, the neighborhood of the Rooneys and the Steelers and Mister Rogers.

“There are three ways to ultimate success,” Mister Rogers used to say. “The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”

I believe that. I also know the world can be a terrible place.

I’m not sure what to do with that.


Around the time the synagogue shooting happened, Tom Hanks was in Pittsburgh filming a movie about Mister Rogers. There were pictures in the news, Tom Hanks looking earnest in Mister Rogers’ sweater and Keds. Tom Hanks explaining death to puppets, X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat.
Later in the news, reporters would latch onto the fact that Squirrel Hill was Mister Rogers’ real neighborhood. He lived just a few blocks away from The Tree of Life. He walked the sidewalks and got coffee and shopped at Little’s Shoes.

The news reported this like it meant the death of something.

Kindness and hope, maybe.


On September 13, 2001, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, declared irony dead. On September 14, 2001, Onion editor Stephen Thomson said, “None of us are feeling funny. The age of irony is dead.”

“I can’t go on,” Irish playwright Samuel Beckett said years before all that. “I go on.”


The man who killed the beautiful people in the Tree of Life synagogue was driven by hate, of course. The news reports said he told the police who captured him that he wanted to kill all the Jews. The doctors in Pittsburgh who worked hardest to save his life were Jewish.

“Ain’t that a kick in the ass,” an anonymous hospital source said.


“I wish I could believe in things I used to believe in,” I said to my husband the other day.

“I’m relieved I don’t believe in things I used to believe in.”

I said that, too.

We’d been talking about time, about growing old, about the world, what that does to a person.

We’ve been together almost 20 years. We’re both writers. Pittsburgh is our beloved home country.

We believe in the power of words. We know words can’t save us.


As I write this, today, the family of Cecil and David Rosenthal, two brothers in their 50s who were killed in the Tree of Life shooting, placed a full-page advertisement in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The ad urged people to perform random acts of kindness for strangers. The ad said the brothers, who were both special needs and by all accounts the gentlest of hearts, left a legacy of love, kindness, and acceptance. The ad featured a drawing of the brothers, and “Random Acts of Kindness” coupons readers could cut out and share with strangers.

“Be committed to making your community a better place, and make a stranger’s day,” the cards say. “Be creative. Be passionate. Be stronger than hate.”

The family set up a Facebook page, too, where people could share stories of kindness. The page is called “Love Like the Boys.” The first picture there is of a little girl named Paisley. She looks to be about 11, maybe. Paisley has a huge white bow in her hair. She’s holding a Random Acts of Kindness coupon. She wears a shirt that says, “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar.”


Kurt Vonnegut said this, too, “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies. God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”


It’s “Dress Up As A Superhero” day at my daughter’s school, something to do with the D.A.R.E. program which is supposed to keep kids off drugs and inspire them to be their own good selves.

Phelan wants to wear her Violent Violet Jones costume.

“Even though no one will get it,” she says.

We worry over dress codes, too much skin, her brother’s eye rolling, but we make it work.

I go out to warm up the car, the way I do every winter morning. I drive my daughter to school because she doesn’t like the bus so early in the day – it’s too loud, people are too much, she likes to stay quiet in the morning. She likes time to think her thoughts.

“All those crazy kids,” she says and waves a hand, as if she’s not one of them.

At the entrance to her school, there are new signs that say, “Gun free school zone” and “School grounds under surveillance.”

These are the first things we see every day. I want to stop and take a picture of the signs, but I don’t. I don’t know why I want to document them. I don’t know why I keep my phone in my purse.

Maybe I’m dark. Maybe the world is dark.

The world is dark. But not dark, too.

I pull up to the front doors, where Phelan will have to stand in front of a camera and buzz in and state her name and grade before the door buzzes open with a sound that will always remind me of a prison. Her school, like most schools now, has active-shooter drills and evacuations and there’s a grim police officer stationed most days inside the entrance, for which I’m both sad and grateful. I always wave to him and sometimes he waves back.

Today my daughter checks her make-up in the visor mirror. She woke up early to do her eyes to match her costume, glittering in every shade of purple. Her lips are a shade called Jinx.

She snaps the visor up and turns to me.

“How do I look?” she asks and sucks in her cheeks and puckers up. “Do I look okay?”

I look for hope and kindness everywhere I can find it.

Most often it’s in my daughter’s face, her love for the world, and the strange and wonderful things in it, wrestling, the color purple—all royalty and bruises, the magic of being alive.

“The world breaks everyone,” Hemingway said. “And afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

I love Hemingway. He knew things I try to know. The realities, a critic once said.

“You look so beautiful,” I say, and lean into my daughter, who kisses me four times hard.

Things that come in fours: nucleotides, the seasons, the sign of the cross.

I want us to go on like this forever and ever.

I want to tell my daughter the world is as beautiful as she believes, but hard, too.

I don’t say any of this.

My daughter leaves four kiss marks the color of amethyst, the color of mountain laurel and lilac, on my cheeks and forehead.

Lori Jakiela is the author of four books, including the memoir Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (2016), which received the 2016 Saroyan Prize, was a finalist for the Council of Literary Magazines and Small Presses Firecracker Award and the Housatonic Book Award, and was named one of twenty Not-to-Miss Nonfiction Books of 2015 by The Huffington Post. She directs the undergraduate writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, where she is a professor of English and Creative/Professional Writing. Her author website is here.