My Father’s Tulips

 

                                                                                                     FOR two weeks this spring, tulips popped their small, delightful heads out of the soil in my father’s garden and they graced our lives with color, conversation, and beauty.

My father’s tiny, unkempt garden of possibly five tulip plants revealed my father’s passion for flowers and I could not have known this had I not been brought back into his life, and I felt glad to be exactly where I was the moment this softness came to the surface.

Knowing a person’s softness makes grief harder, more complicated, more beautiful.

A man who typically limits his conversation topics to politics and football revealed a quiet, yet fierce, passion for his flowers and the safety of his tulips caused a bit of a resentment in our row of three condos.

A neighbor, with good intention, put up a basketball hoop for the neighbor’s kids and my father thought this hoop in too close proximity to his flowers and this bothered him so much that he would not invite said neighbor over to do some light handyman work in the condo.  When he told me about the basketball hoop, his body language changed, his eyes lit with passion, and he described his anger at the newly placed basketball hoop, saying, “Maybe I should put up a spiked fence to protect my tulips.” And then, one afternoon while my father was sitting in his chair in the driveway, soaking up the afternoon sunshine, reading the newspaper and enjoying his tulips, he noticed a bird built a fragile nest in a rather precarious spot right behind the basketball hoop. My father, the non-confrontational, even passive man I have known my entire life knocked on the neighbor’s door to make her aware of the nest so her sons would not harm the bird’s nest while playing basketball.

And now, it is not even May and the tulips are gone. They lasted just a few short weeks.  Yet, during the tulips short visit to our lives, my father would say to me, “Come outside and see the flowers, they are something.”

Now, when we pull out of the driveway we talk about how unfortunate it is that tulips last but a few weeks and how we wish they could last longer.

Often our notions of beauty are joined with notions of longevity; yet, I find myself measuring the beauty of those couple of weeks of tulips not by how long they were pleasing to us but by the way they came in and out of our lives so quickly and abruptly that my dad and I will often pause and draw upon our memories and our stories as we search for ways to appreciate their beauty, even in their absence.

The tulips in my father’s shaggy, unkempt garden created a deeper narrative in our relationship and next season when the tulips come again, my father will be gone.

 

 

This Isn’t What We Wanted

Yankee Stadium. Nebraska native, Joba Chamberlin was on the mound that night. Dad came to New York to watch my triathlon. We went out to the Hamptons for my tri, ate black-and-white cookies while we walked around the Village; he ate Indian food for the first time and Cara, Jen and I stayed up all night drinking wine, laughing and talking while he slept in the other room.

My father has six months to one year of life left inside of his body.  It started with colon cancer advanced to colon and liver cancer and now it is colon, liver and lung cancer.

To know that someone is dying soon is odd information to hold. He is reasonably cognizant and mobile so his death is looming with elusive inevitability. Death should be like checking out a book at the library – a due date.

We have frank conversations.  We have personal conversations.  We sit stiffly at his breakfast table sipping coffee while talking intimately and this intimacy between us feels like two foreigners trying to negotiate a transaction in two distinct languages. Our exchanges remind me of a time when my friend Jen and I were driving around Portugal. We were pulled over by a policeman and ticketed for some mysterious traffic infraction. The policeman spoke Portuguese, Jen spoke Spanish, I gestured. The exchange was awkward, scary, and tense; but for the remainder of the trip, we laughed heartily about the abusurd scene.

My dad and I were never close like the fathers and daughters of my envy.  I translated his sensitivity for humanity to mean that he had an ability to show sensitivity toward his children and I wanted him to be different or better or closer or more available.  I wanted intimacy and he did not have this to offer and it made no sense to me and, for most of my life, I could not accept his physical and emotional distance. Looking back at our lives, I doubt he understood it either.  We were jointly perplexed by our desire for closeness and our inability to create it.

If people are unhappily married, they can leave the marriage and seek out a new partner; if a friendship is unhealthy or miserable, people can leave the friendship and seek out new companions; but we cannot trade in our father for a new father or a mother for a new mother. The opportunity to understand these complex relationships is finite. These relationships that define our very existence can be marked by infinite limitations and frustrations.

I believe when my father married, at a very young age and when he quickly had children he wanted with everything available to him to be a good father and a good husband.  Even after he got and remained sober for the rest of his life, I believe he recommitted to these hopes with renewed vigor. For reasons I doubt he understands, my father could not consistently show love or show up. He moved in and out of our lives according to his needs and this jarring movement left a gaping hole in his four children’s hearts and lives.

Yet, as I have spent most of my life processing the absurdly selfish man to whom I owe life, when life nears closer to the end, there can be a natural softening between people. When I open up the boxes in my mind, which hold a lifetime of tears and frustration I am also reminded of his uniqueness.  He was a terrific reader and superb critical thinker.  A bit artsy my father, curious and sensitive. He tells a story of him as a child skipping school only to spend the day lying on the ground behind his father’s barn staring at clouds. I find a connection with him through this story because when I was a child I often lost myself in an afternoon of making pictures out of fluffy white clouds.

As we drive home from his doctor’s appointments, we discuss our shared love of satire and he tries out his jokes on me. He sits in his favorite, rather worn, chair reading the New Yorker and we spend our time discussing the current administration while listening to NPR.  He displays a childlike innocence when, in the morning, he suggests some new and improved cancer drug he saw advertised while watching Late Night with Johnny Carson re-reruns on television. When the person with whom you have spent decades bundling up sorrow and sadness and stuffing this sadness into the closets that live inside of your mind acts with authentic vulnerability their meaning and the narrative of your relationship changes. The narrative of any relationship is not fixed. Not even after they die.

My dad gave to his children our profound love and appreciation of music. When I am upstairs doing this or that I often hear him whistling to the radio playing loudly downstairs. He will yell up, “Andrea, remember Sly and the Family Stone? They had the most bizarre interview with Dick Cavett on his show. I think it was the drugs.” I pause; I will miss his whistle.

He had a wonderful singing voice and he tells a story that when he and mom were newly married they took my older sister, who he thinks was five years old, to a church where she sang in the children’s choir. A woman sitting behind him said, “Who is that little red-haired girl singing? She has a beautiful voice!” Dad told me he beamed that day and he felt proud to be her father. There was a time when I would have craved the attention that my older and more talented sister received from him but now it feels joyful to see him sit comfortably inside of a happy memory. There are so many sad memories from his life and from our life that, from this day forward, if he only remembers the good stuff, I will hold these moments with him.

He will never be the father I wanted him to be but this is no longer sad or hateful; not because there isn’t time for sadness or anger, there seems to be an infinite amount of time in this world for hard and unmanageable feelings, there is no longer a need. It is as if I am standing on a train platform watching that train slowly leave the station. Who he was as a father and as a man is just a fact. It is a fact of my life. It is as true as the grass is sometimes green, the sky is sometimes blue and the clouds are sometimes white and puffy and linger beautifully overhead.

This Time of Year: Sandy

Sandy died on Thanksgiving morning. Early morning. I was living in Portland, Oregon and my brother-in-law called me. I think it was 10 years ago, maybe more, I am not good with dates.

It is October and no matter how much I try and chase the memory of her passing throughout the year – it taps me my shoulder when the leaves change color. This year, when I suggested breast cancer awareness activities to my CEO, at a hospital, she said, “What will that bring us – two or three mammograms?” I wanted to say, “It might save a life.”

My sister was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. She was young. The cancer was aggressive. She died 15 months later. She called me on a Tuesday afternoon and said, “Hey, this is funny, I have a boil on my sternum.” Yet, by the time she called that week on Friday, she told me it was stage three breast cancer. My best friend who worked for a doctor said to me, “I want you to prepare yourself.”

There were many flights. Most of our interactions throughout our lives, and in the end, were conflicted. Most of my writing at the time was angry. We had a conflicted relationship. It became only more so in her final months. We were awash with emotion. We had a troubled relationship that was hard to put into words and, a decade later I understand that most close relationships are difficult to articulate clearly. Words are hard to find when there is love, admiration, respect, anger and disappointment.

Her name was Sandy. She was named after my mother’s oldest sister, Sandy. Sandy was three years older than me and she was a lot like me: sensitive, smart. She was also very talented. She could sing. Her voice matured at an early age and it earned her a scholarship to a reputable liberal arts university, Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska.

When I think of Sandy, I think about her voice and I think of the last time we were together, in Las Vegas when she wanted to connect and I was not able to connect. When she was in the late stages of cancer, and she took her children to Vegas so her daughter could see Paul McCartney live and so her son to see Cirque du Soleil.  Her hair was gone. She slept unless she was taking her children to the shows they wanted to see.

That weekend, she reached out to me. Sitting in her bed in the hotel room. I did not reach back. She looked me in the eye. I think she knew she was dying. The years of our conflicted relationship floated in front of me. I did not see a dying woman reaching out for forgiveness but the noise of our past muddied up our present . I did not believe that time was finite.

Every fall, I am filled with sadness. The sadness is sneaky. It slithers in like a centipede.

Sandy was talented. She was vibrant. She was flawed. She cried. She loved being a mom. She loved pleasing people.

She was not perfect.

I miss her.

I asked my mom tonight, “Do you miss her?” She said, “I miss her every single day of my life. I don’t remember what year she died but I could not care less. I miss her and talk to her every day.”.

 

 

 

 

 

Unexpected Pleasures from My Life

The Watch

When I was five years old, I found a gold pocket watch buried deep beneath the snow in the backyard of my childhood home in Weeping Water, Nebraska. I thought it was a shiny toy and tossed it in my top dresser drawer. I don’t know exactly when I learned that it was not, in fact, a shiny toy but a ladies pocket watch valued at $6,000. I carried  the treasure with me through many moves. It is a 1862, 24 karat gold  Waltham women’s pocket watch – like something George Sand might have worn around her neck as she wrote a story on a manual typewriter. I carried the watch with me when I moved and moved again until I found a watch repair shop in Lafayette, California – a place I lived for less than a year – who swore to repair it to its original authenticity. The part in question was the pin that connects the beautifully designed cover to the body of the watch. Originally, it was 24 karat gold and every watch repair shop I visited over the years suggested using  a gold plated pin, which would have taken away from its authenticity. Then, by chance, I found a watch repair shop who was thrilled to see such a rare piece and who had a contact in Chicago that made those pins in 24 karat gold.

I left the watch with the repair shop.

Then, I moved. And moved again. And yet again. Every once in awhile, I would call the shop, and update my contact information hoping that they would finish repairing the watch and return it to me. I called them from Los Angeles, from San Francisco, from New York and from Singapore.

The watch had been with the repair shop for ten years by the time I moved to Portland, Oregon. Over the ten years, the watch repairman’s mother passed away, the shop in California burned down; and for a time the watch was lost in Chicago with a watch repairman who was replacing the pin.

While working in Portland, I decided it was time for me to get back the watch I dug up in the deep Midwestern snow when I was five years old. I called the shop with my original claim ticket and told them that my father was celebrating his 70th birthday and I wanted to give it to him as a special gift. The story was, well, a story. They returned my call only to let me know that the watch was ladies pocket watch and, it was not yet finished.

About the same time as my latest inquiry, I was working with a woman: Michelle. She was my employee and I don’t know why but I knew she was a woman who could make things happen so one day I walked across the hall, shut her door and said, “I was wondering if you could help me with something?”

Michelle and I had one of those “fastly” made friendships that happens just a few times in one’s life. We had not worked together long when I said to her, in an earnest, naive voice, “Do you think there is a way that I can be in a relationship with someone but never, ever have them see my thighs?” I knew we would be friends when she said, “Probably not” without pause and without shame.

Before Michelle agreed to call the watch shop in Lafayette California, she said, “Honey, I just don’t think they have your watch. It has been ten years. They probably sold it.” With that in mind, she called the watch shop and said, “This is Andrea’s mother and it has come to my attention that our cherished family heirloom is in your possession. We need this returned immediately.”

Two days later, well ten years and two days, I received a phone message that said, “Hi Andrea, this is the shop and your mother called. We will have this to you within the week.”

The watch arrived in perfect working order in ten years and one week.

New York

A couple of years after moving to New York I met a woman who was smart, funny, and much younger than me. She had moved across the country to live in New York for one year. I admired her because she was brave. I don’t remember the first time we met or how we became friends but when we met, I felt like her friend and her sister. While I admired her, I also wanted to be someone whom she liked. My relationship with her was a tension between vying for her acceptance and a desire to protect her. We spoke daily. We would get bagels and sit on the bench in the warm spring sun talking about our jobs, the men we dates and the challenges with our friends. We had a lot of fun when we both lived in New York going to bars, to the beach, and doing all of the things young people do when they move to New York. During the short time she lived in New York, far away from her friends and family, she became pregnant and together we went to the doctor. That day defined my relationship with a woman with whom I would end up sharing a lifelong friendship.

There are times when life’s big shit cuts through the other shit and creates an unarguable definition of relationship.

Over the course of the many years since we have been friends, there have been times when our relationship experienced tremendous stress. One such time it resulted in what looked to be a permanent parting. While I was living in Africa, a mutual friend’s mother passed and I reached out to my friend to make sure she knew of the death. After a few emails, I was sitting on a veranda in Africa calling her via Google voice surrounded by complete darkness during a power cut listening to her laugh, her trepidation and our new relationship.

North Dakota

One Friday afternoon in Southwest Iowa, I heard, “Go to North Dakota” and within two hours I packed two cameras, several lenses, two pairs of underpants drove north. I had a basic idea of where I was going but only a basic idea.

In Iowa, I zipped off the off-ramp into a construction zone and was immediately pulled over. It is rare that the Hybrid will go fast enough for a ticket except for in a construction zone. The officer asked, “So, where are you off to?” and I told him. My authentic exuberance charmed him and my ticket was greatly reduced.

After I visited the protest, I became miserably lost. After finding the  road, which would take me home I stumbled upon expansive fields of sunflowers. Of course, I stopped my car along side of the road to take a photo of the fields of bright yellow. As I stood on the side of the road, empty of traffic, noise and distraction, tears flowed down my dusty cheeks. The striking contrast of the dusty landscape of North Dakota, the yummy blue sky and bright yellow sunflower faces caused my eyes to leak uncontrollably. Maybe it was visiting a group of thousands of people who were united for a cause, maybe it was appreciating living in a place where people can protest without being shot, where voice has a place or maybe there is something powerful about absorbing beauty alone. The beauty of the human spirit and of the sunflower faces was mine to love and love it I did. On a highway alone in North Dakota there was freedom to weep shamelessly at beauty.

Cycling

I chose to ride my first century in Vancouver, Washington in the Spring. Spring in the Pacific Northwest is cold and rainy. I started riding when my sister got sick with cancer. She called me at work on a Tuesday and said, “Hey this is funny, I have a boil on my sternum.” By Friday, it was stage four breast cancer and within 15 months she was dead. I started riding a bike while trying to make sense of this new chaos.

I rode the Spring Century alone. I was new to riding and did not yet own any rain gear. In fact, my gear was mostly second hand and rather shabby. At the half-way point in the ride, I had the choice to turn around or to finish and I chose to finish. It was raining and every time I bent my head forward a puddle of cold rain would fall out of my bike helmet. I didn’t have long-fingered gloves so I wrapped my cheaply made jacket around my fingers and pedaled forward with the intent of finishing my first century.

At some point, after the half-way point, I was alone on the highway and a semi-truck passed me leaving me covered in mud. I popped a snack in my mouth for imaginary encouragement and kept pedaling. An older cyclist pulled alongside me and said, “Hey, how are you doing?” I said, “I keep talking to myself and that conversation is not going very well.” He said, “How about I ride with you for a bit” and we talked as we rode. I don’t remember what we talked about but he kept me company and the inner conversation I was having quieted. At some point he told me how many miles I had left and what I could expect and I finished the ride.

The following Monday morning, I emailed a male colleague who was an experienced rider and asked him if he finished the ride. He said no that he and his riding buddies turned around at the half-way point and then, he asked if I finished. I said that I had finished. He replied, “Respect” and our friendship was forever changed.

Queen

I was a kid who, every other weekend, packed a bag and waited for my father to pick me up for our weekend visit. These visits were stressful. My father was recently sober and a devoted member of Alcoholics Anonymous and most of my weekend visits were spent in smoke filled rooms full of confliced adults revealing their most intimate thoughts.

My father drove many cars throughout my childhood but one that he had for a long time was an off-white, two-door Pontiac.  By all standards, this was a cool car. It had a vinyl, plastic bench back seat where me and my three brothers and sisters would slide around as he quickly turned a sharp corner. It was about an hour drive from my mother’s home to my father’s home every other weekend.

One particular weekend, while I was sitting in the backseat, miserable from the heat and the incessant fighting that was now part of our family fabric, I silently thought, “Please please please radio play a good song and maybe everyone will listen and stop fighting,” and then Queen, “I Want to Break Free” came on the radio and, Dad turned up the volume so high that everyone stopped arguing and started singing together, “But life still goes on,
I can’t get used to, living without, living without, living without you by my side, I don’t want to live alone, hey God knows, got to make it on my own, So baby can’t you see
I’ve got to break free.”

We probably fought when the song ended but I don’t remember…..

 

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courage

Roman bridge over Rio Tormes in SalamancaAt some age, words and their meaning, began to evolve. When I was younger my life experiences were limited; therefore the words I thought I knew were narrowly defined. Then, unexpected life  experiences made meaning evolve. It is unexpected life experiences that change meaning. Experiences that sideswipe the order I thought I created.

At 25 years old there were things I was sure I could count on: I would have a famed career making films. I would be a writer. I would always live in a city. I would do everything and anything I wanted to do in my life. I would make life grand.

I didn’t know what courage was when I was younger. I did not feel courageous when I when I rented a car, alone, on my first trip to Europe; just as the borders were coming down after the wall came down. My boyfriend flew into Brussels, Belgium to meet his brother and I chose to fly into Frankfurt, Germany so I could drive the Autobahn, alone – an experience I had only read about in books. My expectation was that I would land in the Frankfurt airport, pick up a map written in English and, well, drive to Brussels, Belgium. I didn’t have an address for my boyfriend’s brothers apartment in Brussels but I had a phone number. I naively believed if I packed some US quarters, I would find a gas station, use the phone and well, he would answer and I would get directions from Germany to Belgium. It was all very naive. I didn’t even pack a travel guide. Just me, a backpack full of clothes, a journal, a Walkman and a few cassette tapes and some US quarters for the pay phone.

I landed in Frankfurt and the airport, unbeknownst to me, was one of the largest airports in the world – at the time. Also, in 1989, there was very little English spoken in Europe. I wandered amazed through the Frankfurt airport, bumping into to experienced travelers in search of my English language road map. This did not exist.

I found the rental car counter. We muddled through. They were, rightfully annoyed at my lack of German language skills. They pointed impatiently to where the car was stored and I found my rental, put the keys in the ignition and pulled the car out of the car park. I quickly stopped. I realized I had no idea how to find Belgium. I pulled my compact car up to the the taxi stand. Wrote Bruxxles on a napkin. Four or five men wrote down the highways I was to follow and off I went. Zooming away, eager for the Autobahn experience, I glanced in my rear view mirror to see four or five men waving wildly to the right and with a quick jerk of the wheel, I turned right, flew over a small grassy medium and off I went. The taxi drivers were seen clapping wildly and laughing hysterically at the very young looking woman zipping furiously down the Autobahn toward the country called Belgium.

At some point, after I learned to stay the heck out of the left lane, I stopped at a small country bar and I am not sure how much I spent to make that call, but I reached my boyfriend who laughed hysterically while I jotted down directions. Brendan’s brother was working for the newly formed, European Union. No one thought the European Union would take….

When I arrived at the flat in Brussels, I felt like a hero.

That boyfriend and I had a tumultuous relationship. I was never enough for him. When I was finally able to part with his intermittent company; feeling crushed, I made a list of everything I was afraid to do alone. I wish I had that list today but I remember three of the “to-do’s”: Go to dinner on a Saturday night alone; Go to a nightclub alone and Go a movie alone. I ticked off the “to-do’s” off my list week by week and the last on the list was to go to a nightclub alone. On a particular Saturday night, I packed it up and went to a club I knew well and sat alone, off to the side while the music played. I stayed for a couple of hours, decided I had fulfilled the goal and proudly packed up my bag and walked several miles home. It was very late and it wasn’t until I was crossing Mission Street in the sketchy Mission District that I felt queasy about the surroundings. The streets were empty. I was wearing my yellow Walkman and took it off so I could be very aware of my surroundings. At a very sketchy patch, a man started following me and my heart started to beat faster and faster. In front of me, I saw a telephone booth. I went into the telephone booth, started to dial 911 and turned around and he was staring right at me – closer than arm’s length. I held up the receiver and yelled, “Come on, you want a piece of this? Bring it and I will beat you to death with this phone.” This is pretty funny, looking back. But, it worked. He turned quickly away and made his way down the street.  I have never walked as fast as I did that night but after my key hit the lock, I started laughing. Death by phone.

When the list was complete – it was a proud accomplishment and that boyfriend lost his emotional hold. The grieving was far from finished – I grieve for long periods of time – but his control had evaporated. I learned how to manage competing emotions: loneliness, grief, and sadness while creating experiences that fill my heart with hope.

Earlier in my life, courage was learned through huge leaps and huge gestures. Today, there are fewer huge leaps and keeping courage alive is more subtle.

When I was in Fez, Morocco, I walked out of the Medina into Nouveau Fez which was more like a European city than the Medina where I had spent three days wandering down streets so narrow the sunlight could not reach the sidewalks. The Fez Medina was the largest pedestrianized area in the world, at the time. It is an ancient UNESCO World Heritage site where hot water was rare and coveted. It is the poorer, more interesting, part of Fez. Nouveau Fez, by contrast, is marked by wide, tree-lined boulevards complete with modern tea and coffee houses and fancy boutiques one might see on the Champs-Elysees.

As I wandered down the boulevard digesting the contrast, I noticed that there were no women sitting in the coffee and tea houses and me, as a woman walking alone, was of great interest – quite the enigma. As I made my way slowly down the boulevard back to the direction of the Medina, I promised myself I would walk into a coffee shop and take a coffee before I entered the gates of the Medina. I wanted to force myself to push through what is desperately hard to be the “odd man out”, in such a spectacular way. When I was in Morocco, it had not been that long that women were allowed to enter the tea and coffee houses when men were present. Walking slower and slower as I got closer and closer to the end of the boulevard, I faced the final coffee shop before the Medina gates and walked inside. The entire coffee shop stopped and stared. I quickly scanned the coffee house and noticed not one open seat, so I hastily ordered a coffee and proudly scurried down the boulevard coffee in hand.

Courage today is like buying that cup of coffee. It is made up of small, yet impactful, gestures. If I were to re-create that list of “to-do’s” today, it likely would look like this:

  1. visit my father because he is in a rehab facility that smells like pee. He is bored and stares mindlessly at at a TV since he is no longer able read the books he loves because chemotherapy has blurred his vision;
  2.  walk across the gym in front of the young meatheads while they stare at my bulbous backside and I think they are thinking, “what is SHE doing HERE?” but walk anyway;
  3. tell my girlfriends when my feelings are hurt;
  4. ride my bike even though I no longer have a “cycling body”;
  5. close my door at work and cry when I need to cry and apologize to no one for having feelings;
  6. set boundaries and apologize to no one;
  7. say no to the party even though I will grapple with complicated feelings;
  8. say no to unsafe people even though I will be alone;
  9. ask for help because I need help. they will judge but I will ask for help;
  10. stick up for the underdog, even though that is not the strategic move, but do so because, for all of my life, I too have been the underdog;
  11. and, be open to pain and risks with humans knowing I will cry; but, know if I can fight off a mugger with a phone or buy a cup of coffee – I will always recover from grief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shedding Away

A friend said, “This is time for fall and fall is where the green falls away to the bright colors  – before the stark white sets in – we are in a season of shedding.”

Peter died. I met Peter when I first moved to New York in the late 1990’s right before the Yankees were recapturing their glory; before I met the man who would become my husband; when I would meet a woman who would become a lifelong friend and when I would begin to think of myself of a writer.

I loved Peter for his energy and intelligence. I have always been a jerk for smart men. They need not be pretty – nor nice – they just need to be smart and funny and Peter was both. Peter believed I was a writer. Peter was a writer. Our friendship, mixed up by drunken sex escapades,  was brief, and punctuated by his highly intelligent critique of my writing.

Twenty years had passed and our friendship was not marked by frequent conversation but by US. After I returned from Africa, I reached out to Peter when I was briefly in New York and he drove down from Upstate to Manhattan and that straggly, chain smoking guy and me sat on a bench in the middle of Lexington Avenue after a day exploring the magnificent Met. At our age, it no longer needed to be fantastic. We talked. We drank coffee. At this point, he had met the love of his life, Michelle; and he said, I never loved you like I love Michelle but you, you were always my muse.

I was hurt because I had yet to understand the myriad levels of love; then, one year later he died, unexpectedly. It was Facebook that delivered the news and, after I read the news, I sat at my desk in Iowa while inch-wide salty tears crept their slow path through my freckles, down my cheeks, making a solid landing on my keyboard. I did not stop them because time stops when a life stops.

The first death I grappled with was my sister, Sandy. Sandy was a force of a personality  and I had spent a lifetime cowering in her shadow, as her younger, less talented sister. We lived in a time where talent was not as valued as vanity and we both competed with each other for different, illogical reasons, where neither of us would win.

I was living in Cambodia, it was raining, as it does in Asia, and I was peddling my bike in the dark, flooded streets of Siem Reap and making my way to a fancy restaurant. The water was up to my knees and I struggled with every pedal stroke. I arrived at the restaurant, took my seat and we discussed the sewer water and snakes through which I rode my bike.

I returned to the Midwest entertaining an absence of 30 years with an intent of taking care of my parents. Initially it was charming and then it was hard. I love the corn. The corn on the side of the road. I love the tall stalks. I love the porches. The Midwest is a place of wide, charming porches.

I did not know when I returned to the Midwest a year ago that it would be a time of shedding. I assumed it would be a time of putting back on the layers not taking off the layers.

Recently, my father said to me, “I am sorry. I have never remembered you birthday and I am sorry.” To which I replied, “You know, I am most like you. We are the sensitive ones.” And I saw my father weep for the second time in my life.

The first time, the only other time,  I saw my father weep was the day he left our humble farm house in Weeping Water. I was climbing the magnificent Oak tree in the front yard where I spent my time daydreaming; but that day I saw my father walking out of the front door of the grey house with his hands loaded with white bed sheets. I yelled, Hey where are you going? He said, Ask your mother. I caught a glimpse of his inch wide tears as they fell onto the white sheets while he fumbled awkwardly with his keys, balancing the white sheets, opening the door of his off-white, two door Pontiac, and then to drive away from our farm house never to return again.

Recently, my mother came to my home while I was working a lot of hours and cleaned my small apartment and she said in a soft voice , “Sometimes a person just needs nurturing.”

And, when I found out my father had cancer, my friend from Oregon flew to the Midwest to hang out and watch movies and eat well prepared food.

With all of this death there is a shedding. It is a shedding of people who aren’t there when you need them, and a shedding of ideas that no longer apply. Maybe this is what they mean when they say, ‘mid-life crisis’ because the old no longer works.

You get life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grief

WA Road Trip 2013 050Nearly all attempts at articulating grief sound silly and trite even though grief is one of the most painful emotions humans will ever experience; if only because it lingers in wholly unexpected ways. We want to logic out grief where logic does not apply.

Today, I went to a man’s house to deliver a donor thank you letter and he invited me into his home. This was our first meeting. His wife of 65 years passed in their home in January. He invited me inside to show me their black-and-white wedding photos – she was a mere 18 years old. After proudly showing me photos of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren he sat across from me and cried innocent shameless tears of loss. Sitting in his chair in dressed in worn farmer’s overalls, he took off his glasses and wept.  I wanted to say, “You are so lucky to have known love over decades, more decades than I have been alive….” but, I refrained and looked into his eyes willing to absorb his pounding grief. Absorb is not the right word because I cannot take the enormity of his loss from him – it is his to carry. Grief will make a stoic farmer weep shamelessly in front of a stranger. The Price is Right played loudly in the background. This was their second home in 65 years. The home smelled like them, their past life together. He pointed to the chair where she passed. He told the story three or more times – he went to the Elks Lodge to play cards like he does every day, came home an hour and a half later, and she was lying peacefully in her chair. Her arms were crossed across her chest. She was cold and gone. He said more than once, “I thought I would go first, it was supposed to be me and now, it is so quiet now.” I think it is silence we hear first when a person leaves.

My first experience with grief was in college. Brendan stormed into my life – all six foot five, blond haired, poetry writing Brendan who taught me how to embrace desire. I learned about the many possibilities of food, books and places from Brendan and when he could not commit, I wrapped myself in a ball, holding tightly to the storm of what I thought were complicated emotions, and wept in a hot bath. I put in a tape of the Waterboys (Brendan was Irish and introduced me to Yeats – grief can be silly too), and listened until the tape wore through. I felt hopeless and confused by the torrent emotions which closed me off from the rest of my life. I came out wiser; grief teaches tenacity. Grief is full of trite truisms that do nothing to alleviate pain.

Now, many decades later, it astonishes me how little the grief process has changed except in my astute awareness of the many areas it has influence. My physical abilities have changed with the onset of severe osteoarthritis in my knees. For several years, I was in denial and continued to climb mountains and beat my knees until bone spurs started to deform my right leg. When I met with Dr. Bones recently, I wept longing for my athletic abilities and I grieved not only my knees but also my athletic identity. I no longer curl into a ball and give into the warm comfort of grief because wisdom acquired from decades of living has proven that the initial shock of grief is not permanent. Age shows us that grief is not hopeless nor does it last an eternity. It makes time more relevant but it does not, as it feels, stop time. It just makes us more aware of time and our awareness of time is inherently sad because when we are aware of time we are aware of our own mortality.

The last time I felt grief was the recent ending of a relationship. I don’t know if I loved him and that is not important. My heart was hooked to his heart and I wanted with desperation for our hearts to share a space. This is not to be. The confusion and mystery of love is that no matter how much grief one seems to experience there is always room for more attempts at love. This tenacity is illogical. I touch the hot stove, I am not likely to do it again, yet, I touch love, in all of its exuberance and inevitable pain, and I will repeatedly return ever-so-hopeful for its magical permanence.