That’s not my name: Mrs. Joe Brzycki

It’s started

Just as I knew it would:

With Christmas cards the first holiday season

After the wedding

Addressed to

Mr. and Mrs. Joe Brzycki.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful,

Because I truly enjoy Christmas cards,

Even the drugstore ones with the dashed-off signature and nothing else.

But it makes me chuckle:

Mrs. Joe Brzycki?

There’s no such person.

I get it:

People assume that I changed my name,

Because that’s what most women do.

Or they don’t know my last name,

Or they know it but are unsure of the spelling.


Of the three last names in our house,

Mine is probably the easiest to spell:

Brzycki (Joe and his kids),

Hietalahti (my son),

Niemela, (me).

I’ve thought about those smooth gray stones

You can order at the State Fair:

“Welcome to the Smiths!”

The neat and tidy family surname:

Everyone in the house with the same last name!

We’d need a boulder for all the names in our family.

But I love all our last names.

There’s a lot of history,

In the grand sense:

Polish and Scandinavian immigration to America–

And the modern dramatics of a blended family–

Marriage, kids, divorce, remarriage.

(And now another kid on the way who,


Will have my last name


Why not?)

Here’s the deal,


I don’t care what you do.

Change it,

Keep it,

Hyphenate it,

Tack it on at the end,

Slip it into the middle,

Make up a whole new name so

Everyone has to get a new drivers license!

For me,

Ever since the age of eight or nine,

When I realized that

Most women take their husband’s names,

I knew I would keep mine.

I haven’t wavered in that.


There are so many reasons I’ve kept my last name

Through one marriage and into another.

(Never had to change my passport


Yes, it’s about

Gender politics,

Symbols, and–

Dare I say the F-word–

I’m gonna say it–


To me,

The idea of being Mrs. Joe Brzycki

Subsumes me into Joe

In a way that anyone who knows us

Would find absurd.

But I also kept my last name

Because I just like it.

I know what it means:

Peninsula, in Finnish.

I imagine a point wooded with pine and birch

Jutting into a clear,

Boulder-bottomed lake.

Like a Boundary Waters campsite.

I’m a writer.


Names are words–

Are important to me.

Not just the aesthetics of how a word looks

Or sounds.

But what words mean.

Why choose one word over another?


Or solitude?


Or Niemela?

Does it matter?

It does,

To me.



Even as part of a family unit,

It’s my policy to keep a part of myself

Just for me.

And my own name,

From beginning to end,

Is a manifestation of that part of myself.

It’s like the




Just before I fall asleep at night,

When no children,

No husband,

No job,

Need me.

The divine chemicals of sleep

Bathe my tired brain.

It’s just me: Jennifer Niemela

At rest.


Dying and being born

My mother is dying.

We’re all dying,

But she is actively dying

Lying completely still in the

Hospital bed in my parents’ room

At home.

We stopped transferring her to the

Wheelchair the day after


Perhaps her last act of sitting up

Was dozing through the Thanksgiving meal,

The waist strap on her wheelchair keeping her from

Keeling sideways onto the floor.

In bed now,

She lies with her face turned slightly toward the window,

For the light?

Or because she had a mild stroke on the right side,

And she now lists that way?

We don’t know.

Anyway, her face tilts toward the gray winter light.


The hospice workers and nurses–

Don’t give a prognosis,

But days or weeks

Are more likely than months now.

They will say that.

Be ready,

Is the implication.

And I think I am.

It’s been nearly seven years

Since the first symptoms.

But no matter how prepared you think you are,

It’s still a shock,

The hospice chaplain says.

And I believe her.

I’ve never done this before.

What do I know?

It’s not like in the movies

Where you sit gazing into the

Dying person’s face.

You can’t do that for hours on end.

I sit in the recliner next to her bed and

Read my book,

Or work on the laptop,

And look up between chapters or emails

To see if her eyes are open.

If they are,

I might lean across the bed to get my face into her line of vision.

I might smile, and say,

“Hi Mom. Are you awake? Hi.”

It’s rare now for her eyes to focus on mine,

Or for a smile to flicker.

That’s another thing that’s not like the movies:

The dying person staring off into the distance,

Past your shoulder,

At the sky,

Or God.

She’s just not looking at anything.

There’s no focus point that

I can gather.

They say at the end,

The dying person withdraws,

That their focus is inward.

Maybe that’s it.

It’s impossible to speculate,

Or even accurately describe.

I guess I’ll know myself someday.

And by then, I won’t be able to tell you about it.

It’s peaceful, her room.

Their bedroom for 25 years.

Nurses and home health aides pass in and out.

They speak quietly and gently.

Some are more efficient than others;

Some work hard;

Some sit on the couch and text.

But they are all gentle, quiet women.

The room has the same beige carpet and

Floral-striped wallpaper it’s always had.

It’s warm and quiet,

And I rockĀ in the recliner.

I’m 18 weeks pregnant,

And rocking quietly,

I can feel the first flutters and pops of the baby’s movement.

It’s all very circle-of-life.

And yes,

It’s a comfort to everyone

That I’m actively pregnant

As my mother is actively dying.

My two pregnancies will likely have

Book-ended mom’s


It was when I was pregnant with my son,

Six years ago,

And living overseas,

That my parents came for a visit,

And I first noticed it:

She kept leaving books behind at restaurants,

And once she nearly stepped into traffic,

Not noticing the light.

“Does Mom seem more forgetful to you?”

I asked my dad,

And he said,


They were starting to notice things.

Now, more than six years later,

That grandbaby watches cartoons in the next room

While I sit in the dying room.

She is unlikely to see this baby,

Due in May.

Dad told her I’m pregnant

A few weeks ago,

And he thinks she understood.

She grew animated,

And smiled, he said.

That seems so impossible now,

Just weeks later.

She is calm.

She doesn’t seem afraid.

Maybe that’s a final blessing of a disease that

Destroys the brain–

Maybe she’s not conscious anymore of

What’s happening.

I imagine that,

Like her new grandchild,

She feels tactile sensations

Like warmth,

And hears muffled sounds;

She grows closer everyday to the

Next stage,

And has no awareness of

What’s coming

Or what’s gone before.