Here's how one woman helped her friend's son cope with his mother's death.

N.J.’s eyes are dark and deep as he kneels in the garden, hands wrapped gently around the kale seedling.

We line peas on either side of the fencing I’ve brought, and I show him how to press each one down to the first knuckle on his index finger and then pat the soft dirt over the hole. The tomato plant doesn’t want to come out of the container. It’s root-bound, clinging to the pot; I tap the edges to loosen it and pull slowly on the stem.

“Plants are tough,“ I say, as I slice the roots with the edge of the trowel and then let him do the same thing to the other side. We wiggle the tangly, knotted white roots loose, and then he sets it in the hole we dug, snuggling it in and combing the soil with his fingers. Finally, we dot the front of the box with onion starts and poke them in, some of them already sprouting little green shoots from their tops.


It’s May. We are working together in a garden box his parents built in their backyard the previous summer. All the seeds they planted had washed away in a hard rain. They hadn’t had time to do any more with it, because Mary, N.J.’s mother, was undergoing chemotherapy after a diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer.

N.J., out of frame, waters his garden. All photos courtesy of the author, used with permission.

Now, a year later, treatment has ended, and Mary is in her last days.

She won’t get to see her son in his garden, though she is only steps away. Breathing slowly and steadily, nodding and smiling softly — these are the things she is doing with the energy she has left. She looks at pictures on my phone, though, of N.J. with his hands on his plants, proudly shepherding his garden along, smiling her same soft smile. His eyes are her eyes.

N.J.’s lettuce.

Before Mary was diagnosed, we were friends, but not close friends. We lived down the road, attended the same church, chatted here and there in passing. I have two girls; she had two boys. She would bring N.J. and his older brother to play as soon as he could walk on his own.

N.J. would toddle through the rows of my garden, stuffing cherry tomatoes into his cheeks, tugging on fat pea pods, and eating cucumbers like you eat an ear of corn. He seemed to delight in the magic of growing things the way I do. We are born gardeners, part of that secret society of people for whom weeding is not a chore, but a pleasure.

After Mary was diagnosed, I never really knew what to say. But I did learn, over time, to just be there, with vegetables, with bread, with myself.

I saw the washed-out garden box in the backyard that summer, but I didn’t yet feel confident enough to suggest planting it again or to just go ahead and do it.

Over the winter, though, Mary let me be one of the people who took her to chemo and other appointments. We grew close, closer than we had ever been. We both had strong opinions, we both swore a lot, we both liked Thai food. I would get a spread of things to nibble on together while the medicine dripped into her port, while she got hot and then chilled and then dried out and thirsty.

And then, when it was over and she was exhausted, I’d bring the car around, and we’d drive, the winter sun setting behind us as we headed home from the cancer center.

A parent’s first worst nightmare is something happening to their child; the second worst nightmare is something happening to themselves, because the loss of a parent leaves children vulnerable to danger, to pain.

Mary said to me once, on one of our many slow walks up and down our road, “At least it’s not one of the boys. I couldn’t handle that.”

But they, of course — and Mary’s husband — have to handle that it was her.

Some of Mary’s flowers remain in the author’s own garden.

When it became clear that treatment was no longer working and that it would be days or weeks rather than months, the new growing season was just beginning.

On one of my last visits to the house while Mary was still alive, before I knocked on the door in the garage, I walked around back to see the garden box.

Mary had covered it with a tarp the previous summer, and I pulled back a corner. Just a few weeds here and there. The soil needed turning, but it was soft and loose and rich, I could tell, full of good lobster and blueberry compost from the coast of Maine.

I had some extra pea fencing and plenty of seed, and a grower at the local farmers market had donated kale, tomato, and cucumber seedlings. I brought N.J. out to the patch of land and, together, we started to work.

When I whispered to Mary how good the box looked and how pleased N.J. was with his garden, she smiled, eyes closed. "Take a picture for me," she said.

Someone brought a sunflower in a pot; N.J. planted it in a corner of his box. He carefully tended his vegetables all summer after his mother died, pulling every other onion plant for scallions so the remaining onions would bulb up nicely, weeding around the kale, training the peas as they climbed.

His eyes are dark and deep and full of pain, but kids, like plants, are tough.

This story originally appeared on Rodale's Organic Life and is reprinted here with permission.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Image is a representation of the grandfather, not the anonymous subject of the story.

Eight years a go, a grandfather in Michigan wrote a powerful letter to his daughter after she kicked out her son out of the house for being gay. It's so perfectly written that it crops up on social media every so often.

The letter is beautiful because it's written by a man who may not be with the times, but his heart is in the right place.

It first appeared on the Facebook page FCKH8 and a representative told Gawker that the letter was given to them by Chad, the 16-year-old boy referenced in the letter.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."