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Catherine (Cathy) Shields writes about parenting, disabilities, and self-discovery. In her debut memoir, The Shape Of Normal, A Memoir Of Motherhood, Disability And Embracing A Different Kind Of Perfect, Cathy explores the truths and lies parents tell themselves. Her book was named a category WINNER in the 2023 American Writing Awards, and her writing has twice been nominated for a Pushcart. Her essays have been published in NBC Today. Newsweek, Bacopa Literary Review, Grown and Flown, Brevity Blog, Mother Magazine, U Revolution, and Write City Magazine. Cathy resides in Miami, Florida with her husband. They enjoy taking long bike rides and kayaking. Follow her on her Instagram @cathyshieldswriter. Cathy Shields (@cathyshieldswriter) • Instagram photos and videos

Here’s an excerpt from my book, a story published in Bacopa Literary Review

The Messenger

My cousin Charlie and I stand six feet apart in my living room. I imagine he has already calculated the prescribed distance before he even stepped over the threshold. He hasn’t changed. Not since I saw him ten years ago when he came to my wedding and wore what seemed to be an exact replica of that long, black coat.

When he called to say he was coming to Florida and asked if he could visit, I agreed. Of course, I agreed: He’s my cousin; he’s family. But now that he’s here, I realize it was a mistake. I should have made up an excuse or told him we’d be out of town. 

Now Charlie strokes his long beard and sways from side to side. The tzitzit, knotted ritual strings, peek beneath his jacket hem and dance along with him. I imagine rivulets of sweat pooling beneath the layers of his heavy clothing and wonder if he’ll take off the coat. I bet he’ll keep it on.  It stays. 

Years ago, we were friends. I’ve never told him otherwise. He wouldn’t understand. But his visit reminds me of how close we were when we were growing up, roaming the Miami neighborhood like wild monkeys, pulling mangoes off the trees, and launching imaginary grenades. Charlie, wild and willing to take all kinds of risks, charmed everyone. People turned toward him like sunflowers following the light, whereas I was introverted, shy, and awkward. Friends were hard to come by but Charlie dragged me along to parties where I’d do my best wallflower routine. I loved watching the faces of entranced listeners whenever he shared one of my stories. At one of those parties, Charlie introduced me to my future husband, Andrew. 

After I met Andrew, the three of us rented a house and became adventuresome explorers who did everything together. Bike rides, rock concerts,

I remember Andrew said, “If you want spirituality, why not seek it in  Jewish mysticism?” Years later, I would blame him for pointing my cousin in that direction.

Near the end of that summer, in 1984, Charlie disappeared. For the next six months, we didn’t hear from him. I wrote long, rambling letters that went unanswered. I wondered if he had run off and joined a cult. His mother, my  Aunt Helen, informed me Charlie had enrolled in a yeshiva, to study ancient  Judaism. When Andrew proposed, I tasked Aunt Helen with the delivery of his wedding invitation, elated when she told me he would attend along with the rest of the family. 

“But I have to warn you,” she added, “Charlie has become observant.”  What did that mean? The way she whispered the word ‘observant’ sounded foreboding. 

Two days before the ceremony, Andrew and I headed to the hotel where everyone had booked rooms. When the door opened, I rushed toward my cousin. “Charlie!” I cried.

He took a step back and held one hand up as if to say, don’t come any closer. He looked so different. Gone were the flannel shirts, baseball caps, and jeans, replaced with a long, jet-black coat and black fedora. He had cut his long hair short except for the payos, which curled in tendrils down his neck.  White fringe hung from the top of his pants and trailed halfway down. My cousin looked as if he had stepped out of the eighteenth century.

“Please call me Chaim. That’s my Hebrew name.” His hand hovered in the air, warding off my impending embrace. “I am not permitted to touch  women.”

I dropped my hands to my side. The ground between us split. A gaping crevasse. Charlie–Chaim–whoever this was, hooked both thumbs into the pockets of his long black coat. Then he grabbed Andrew. They thumped each other on the back while I stood alone, a pariah.


Now, ten years later, my cousin, the stranger, stands beside me in my living room. I try not to think about that moment when everything changed, how I’ve missed him, or how I feel that rumble of hope every year when we get mail from Crown Heights, even though I know it will just be a packet of prayers for an upcoming Jewish holiday.

Warily, I gesture at the sofa and suggest we sit. Chaim chooses the tan lounge chair, settles in, and drapes a  hand over the edge of the armrest. Trying to be an accommodating hostess, I  offer him snacks I’d set out, but he declines. Shame brightens my cheeks as I  stare at my bag of chips poured into my non-kosher bowl, rendering it inedible. I had forgotten about his dietary restrictions. Andrew jumps into action, offering to go on a kosher grocery run. 

Paper goods too, Chaim requests. He can’t eat from our dishes. I can’t justify my anger, but it flares up before I can stifle it. Andrew takes off, and I  regret I didn’t volunteer. I’m uncertain how to entertain my cousin or what topics are off-limits. But as we sit across from each other, my four-year-old daughter, Tessa, stares at the stranger with her brown, almond-shaped eyes.  Born with Down syndrome, sometimes she has trouble keeping her pink glasses on her face. Before she stands, she pushes them over the flat bridge of  her nose. She’s headed for Chaim, her eyes locked on the fringe, but I intercept her before she can reach him. I glance up and mumble, “Sorry about that.” 

My cousin’s laughing blue eyes flash beneath the brim of his hat.  Apparently, Tessa has amused him. I spot my cousin’s crooked smile peeking through the bushy beard. Charlie always had a smile that seemed to hold a  secret, one he couldn’t wait to spill. 

Chaim lifts a hand and strokes his beard while he watches me redirect  Tessa. “I see why my mother admires you. But I’d like to ask, do you know the word neshama? It’s Hebrew. It means soul.” 

I shrug and shift uncomfortably in my seat. A tiny part of me had hoped that this visit would differ from the yearly prayer packets, but that spark quickly dims.  

“Neshama,” I repeat. “Why do you ask?” 

He nods excitedly and tells me about the Rebbe as he leans forward,  hands clasped in front of him like he’s ready to deliver an important message. “The Rebbe is renowned for his gift as a storyteller. He always has the  right message to deliver to those who suffer.” 

“Why, who do you think is suffering?” 

Chaim’s eyes remain on Tessa. “Many parents come to the Rebbe for advice when they have a child with special needs. He would say Tessa is a  treasured gift given because you and Andrew were deemed worthy.” 

“Thanks.” I offer, although I’m not grateful. I’m sick of hearing these blanket statements about children with disabilities. He probably intended this as a compliment, it comes across as a meaningless platitude. My cousin bobs his head like one of those dolls in the tourist shops. 

You’re welcome.” He tells me Tessa is a highly evolved soul who has chosen to become human. An angel incarnate. “Children like Tessa are born  with souls that possess a tremendous amount of light, with a magnitude that’s  so great it causes the vessel to crack and break.” 

What do you mean ‘the vessel,’ her body?” 

Chaim nods. “The Rebbe would say her neshama is a brilliant light that  shines through the cracks.” 

Cracks? She isn’t broken.” 

He prattles on. “Tessa has a childlike spirit. What more could a mother wish for than for her child to be happy? You have been blessed.” He flashes his crooked grin, which only raises my hackles.  

Tessa is no more or less a blessing than any other child.” I try to keep the annoyance out of my voice and don’t bother explaining that I’ve heard similar stories from mothers of children with Down syndrome and that many of them have called our kids blessings. There’s no point arguing that all children are a blessing or that both mothers and fathers want their children to be happy. Chaim might not care what I think. He was always a better speaker than a listener. But now there is a wall between us that cannot be breached, and  I am very much alone. I shouldn’t have expected this visit to be different from the last time I saw my cousin in this garb. 

Andrew calls from the kitchen, announcing he’s back. He walks into the living room, carrying a tray of the approved snacks. Before he plops down beside Chaim, they embrace. That’s when my eyes fill with tears. It hurts to watch the two of them. I get up from my seat and scoop up Tessa. 

It’s bedtime. Be right back.” 

Andrew lifts an eyebrow and gives me a knowing look. 

Instead of going to bed, I carry Tessa outside. Her petite body curves into mine as I stare at the night sky, remembering another night sky bedecked with stars. It occurs to me that there may be some mystical force at play. 

Perhaps Chaim believes God sent him to deliver a message, but he didn’t need to tell me Tessa is special. I already know that. The actual message is  Charlie has found what he was looking for. 

I should be happy for him. 

Even if I’m not.  




The Acceptance Letter from Vine Leaves Press

Dear Cathy,
Oh my goodness, we would love to publish this! Please note that our next available launch date isn’t until November of 2023. We hope this isn’t a problem.
If you are happy with our terms, ….
We’re very excited about this book!


One Step Closer

Yesterday I received an email from Kaleidoscope magazine, asking me to videotape myself reading an excerpt from a short story they published for an event called Giving Tuesday!
I know what Giving Tuesday is, but never expected I’d be invited to help promote it! Look what they said!

I‘m laughing at how many times it took me to videotape myself reading!

Kaleidoscope is designating our Giving Tuesday fundraising efforts to support the works of writers and artists who express their voices through Kaleidoscope magazine. With your help, we will be able to continue to highlight the exceptional work of artists and writers, like yourself, through this groundbreaking publication. With your permission, we plan to promote your work on our social media platforms, website, and email communication leading up to, and during, the event to encourage giving.

What is most interesting to me, as a writer, is the mistakes I found as I read it aloud and I had to ask myself, why hadn’t I seen this before? The word “WORD” was repeated three times in the first paragraph! The other thing I found amusing is since I hired the editor, that scene completely disappeared with the revisions!

#writingcommunity #disabilities


I love Social Media

This is a link to my friend’s blog. She wrote about me and Jessica. HER daughter’s name is also Jessica. The rest of the story is kind of intriguing. It almost sounds made up. It’s not.


The Journey Began Here

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Me when I was in First Grade

The television set was first introduced into homes in the ’50s. Every day, someone on our block was getting their brand new TV delivered. I can still see the delivery men carrying the monster box into our house and setting up the new black and white TV in our living room. Day after day we watched Mickey Mouse and the Mouseketeers at four o’clock in the afternoon. And that’s when I learned to harbor beliefs in the power of dreams …...

I blame Walt Disney. And my parents as well. I grew up thinking that if you wished upon a star, anything you dreamed would come true. My parents never set me straight, but they were probably dreaming their own dreams. They didn’t know how to talk to a child, so I grew up, naive, willing to believe in fairy tales, in a dreamy world of fantasy where nothing bad would ever happen to me. Ever…

Then in 1986, something bad happened. It wasn’t supposed to, but it did. The doctors told me my four-year-old daughter was profoundly retarded and

I finally stopped believing in fairy tales.

September 16, 2021 admin Comments Off on The Lie

The Lie


I lift the faded black and white class photo out of the box and turn it over. There’s a date on the bottom: 1958. The girl with the headband and ringlets, sitting in the third row of desks, is my best friend, Lori. Everyone used to say she looked exactly like the Shirley Temple doll, popular when we were kids. I’m the tall girl standing next to the teacher. Lori and I were second graders at Henry Flagler Elementary.

The school’s still there, off Flagler Street; although they’ve added so many classrooms and additions, it’s hard to recognize the place. It’s been fifty years since I thought about Lori or the second grade. That was the year our parents mapped out a route and allowed us to walk home by ourselves, and for months, Lori and I followed the same routine: stop at the corner store; purchase snacks, then head for our fifteen-minute walk home.

On one particular afternoon, the shop owner greeted us as we entered the tiny, darkened space. The place reminded me of a dungeon, but Lori and I loved the reprieve from the heat. A light breeze blew through the shop. Fans kept the air moving while the windows and doors remained open. The aroma of candy mixed with the fragrance of dank wood floors. We took our time picking out snacks. My favorite was the Mars bar. I could purchase it for twenty-five cents. Lori’s favorite was Juicy Fruit gum. I never told her I wished she’d pick something else. I was not fond of the overly sweet fragrance, but she was my friend, so I didn’t complain. But that day, Lori picked a Mars bar. She knew I didn’t have any money. At recess, I’d lost my quarter, cried about it, and because we were best friends, she promised she’d share.

After we left the shop, we walked another two blocks and that’s when I spotted him. The tall, lanky kid stood at the end of the street. He held a metal bucket and rocked it back and forth, his gaze bored and a little mean. We were close enough to hear the dull thud the bucket made against his shin. The sound sent shivers down my back, though Lori didn’t seem to notice. She prattled on about how her parents refused to give her extra money that morning, and that was the reason she didn’t have enough to buy the gum and the chocolate bar. I put one hand on her arm to get her attention and pointed with the other. “Hey, isn’t that Tom?”

Tom was one of the sixth graders I avoided. Sometimes he and his friends would hoot at me or grab at the back of my pants. I’d never encountered him outside of school.

“Lori, maybe you should walk to my house. Why’s he standing there? He’s blocking your way.”

But Lori had said she knew Tom; he was her neighbor, and their parents were friends, so I stayed quiet about my uneasy feelings.

Tom’s tousled brown hair flopped over his eyes; he held the handle of the bucket too tightly as it swung from side to side. I said nothing as Lori and I approached the spot where we stopped and bade our goodbyes. I said nothing as I eyed the turnoff, the path which cut between the houses, where the trees shared space with the narrow grey sidewalk, and where the trail was just wide enough for two people to pass. Instead of warning her to keep clear of Tom, I told Lori I had to run home, I had to pee. But the truth was, I was terrified. I didn’t want to know what was in that bucket.

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”


 ― Mark Twain

Lori waved me away. A minute later, I heard her. She screamed my name, begging me to come back. I glanced over my shoulder, then watched in horror as Tom lifted a creature out of the bucket. For a second, I considered running back, but I couldn’t move. The turtle’s webbed claws scratched the air. It craned its neck and snapped as Tom lunged toward Lori.

Then I turned and ran down the path. My legs shook as I listened to her screams, but I ran until I couldn’t hear her anymore.

I was breathless when I raced into my house and slammed the door. Fear and shame swirled in my belly. What if Lori were hurt? A half-hour later, the phone rang.

“Didn’t you hear me screaming? Why didn’t you come back? Tom’s so mean. He kept laughing as he chased me with that turtle.”

I could have told the truth, but I didn’t. Tom with his turtle, me with my terror. It was too incomprehensible to explain. I half expected her to point out that a good friend would have come back, that it was our job to protect each other on that walk home. She knew the truth, and yet she let it dance between us like sheets flapping on a clothesline.

The next day, I pleaded with my mother to pick me up after school. I made up a story, said I didn’t want to run into the creepy man who stood between the bushes on that sliver of sidewalk that cut between the houses. I knew that was all I had to say. I didn’t tell her about Tom, the turtle, or how I didn’t help Lori. For a month, I cried myself to sleep.

The lie, my cowardice, both left me paralyzed. I’d always been an introvert, so no one suspected how deeply this affected me. When I had to speak in front of the class or answer the teacher when she posed a question, I’d burst into tears. I stopped speaking to Lori and never told her why I didn’t run back. Because of that, our friendship couldn’t bear the weight of my secret—at least for me.

We never walked home again. I avoided Lori whenever I saw her in school. My mother continued to pick me up. At first, when she asked if Lori needed a ride, I’d tell her no. After a while, she stopped asking.

Before placing the faded photo back in the box, I study the image of my younger self, the gawky girl in the photograph standing shoulder to shoulder with the teacher. Perhaps what happened back then influenced me to become a teacher.

But all that remains from this childhood memory is a burden of regret, entombed between the cracks of a gray sidewalk.



I’m proud of myself. Today I took a giant leap and entered the Pitch Wars contest, a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer suggestions on how to make the manuscript shine for an agent showcase.

So I believe I have a chance. I worked on my query. Many thanks to the Facebook group, Binders Seeking Literary Agents as well as my daughter, Alia the Librarian, who researched queries and synopsis examples. If I am chosen as a mentee, she is one of the people I will thank.

#writing #memoir #publishing

UPDATE: I didn’t make it as a Pitch Wars Mentee. I learned over 4000 people applied for a spot, and I had a  1.7% chance of becoming a mentee. Back to revisions! More later!




A few months ago, Jessica said she wanted a job. Rene, her support coordinator, began the process for her. He contacted Vocational Rehab, and after a bunch of mishaps, we got the paperwork completed and started the process. Today, after numerous trips to Voc Rehab, I picked up Jessica at her group home and took her to a scheduled interview at Goodwill Industries. This was supposed to be the 1st of many visits before she could be placed in any sort of job. I decided I would help her since she wanted it. Husband didn’t think it would go very far. I said, “I’m alright with that. After all, I’m retired. I can take the time off to do it & if this is something she wants, I’ll help her. “ We went to the 2-hour interview. When we got there, the job placement specialist, V.S., appeared annoyed when Jessica wandered around and became distracted. She insisted if Jessica WERE placed in a job, she’d have to conform. V.S. had the nerve to tell me Jessica would be better suited to Goodwill’s “Work Activities Center,” a different department, separate from Goodwill and one which required a separate application process altogether. Really? I’m patient but not this patient. She’s a job coach? She pissed me off. I told her about the plan to have Jessica placed in “Phase 2” (which Rene said would be our ultimate goal) The plan- to work with a job coach at the WOW center. Lady dismissed this possibility and argued with me, so I didn’t pursue it. During the 2 hours “interview,” V.S. explained all applicants are required to submit to a drug test. “Goodwill applicants must submit to a drug test within 24 hours of receiving this order.” I asked,” What if I do it another time?” “ Answer? “You will start the process all over again.’ Seriously? We went straight to the lab instead of the WOW center. At the drug testing lab, we waited for 30 minutes to be seen. Jessica did not produce enough urine in the cup (probably because she didn’t know how to pee into the container and was unable to fill it with urine.) and I wasn’t allowed to assist her. We tried a second time. This time she drank tons of water, I gave her a soda,& we waited another 45 minutes before the technician allowed us to try again. Again, she was unable to fill the container. At this point, I was told to “come back and try tomorrow, ” I was so distraught, frustrated, and upset, I started to cry. On the way out, I turned on a clueless Jessica, I swear I could’ve screamed bloody murder, I couldn’t believe how thwarted I felt. The whole process appeared to be a waste of time Jessica’s reply? “Forget it. I don’t need no job.” It ended there in the parking lot, but I thought it shouldn’t be this hard to help a disabled person. I understand Jessica has enormous limitations but this was a terrible experience. The hardest part? It emphasized and stood as a reminder of everything Jessica cannot do or will never do, including peeing in a cup! The support coordinator asked me to tell him what happened – so I emailed him a rehash of the entire thing. At least I got someone’s attention. He called as soon as he read it.


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