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Going The Distance

Dad on January 8, 2012

Dad on January 8, 2012

On a good night, when the wine was flowing and we were gathered as a family around the dinner table, my father told jokes. My brother Bruce and I were given to puns of the worst sort, and for a time I specialized in the foul humor I picked up from the ad agency where I worked, but Dad was the family story teller. One of us usually handed him a cue, a short sidelong reference like, “There’s a pony in there.” Off to the races he’d go.

He straightened, there at the head of the table, and made eye contact with his audience as if to ask if we really wanted to hear that old story. His pause, his expectant look, was all he needed to gather us in.

There was one about the boy who found a strange spotted creature he called a “rarey” that began to grow so fast it threatened hearth and home, prompting the boy to load it in a truck and attempt to drop it over the edge of a cliff on a high mountain peak. The punch line? “That’s a long, long way to tip a Rarey.” (Insert groan here.)

But my favorite was the one about the optimist and the pessimist.

He avoided the usual start. No “once upon a time.” My father launched right into the action of the story, setting the stage. In the setup for the optimist and the pessimist, he described a family’s problem with a pair of twins. One looked on the bright side of everything, so much so that he could imagine no problem that could not be surmounted or that wouldn’t dissipate all by itself. The other saw only gloom and doom, and no matter what wonderful opportunities arose, he felt he was sure to fail. The parents decide to engineer a resolution by giving the optimist truly terrible Christmas presents and the pessimist, truly wonderful ones. The story ends with the parents standing by, confounded, while their optimist son gleefully digs in a huge pile of horse manure, exclaiming, “There must be a pony in here somewhere!”

My father loved to tell stories, but in the end, he left me a riddle. My father, who was doled out more than his fair share of dung in life, never gave up, never became bitter, never stopped believing in the possibility that things would get better. While many people become curmudgeonly as they age, he became gentler. Why? What drove him?

If my mother had her druthers, the answer would be faith. Her faith sustained her through the loss of her father while still in her twenties, the war, the loss of her daughter to leukemia, the death of her mother, and the long frightening years of my father’s struggle with heart disease. Resting on the levee of the river during one of our many walks, I asked my father if he believed in God. I wanted to hear him say yes. I wanted that little bit of reassurance that, when the time came, he would be welcomed into heaven to join my mother, even as the little doubter in my own mind wondered if that’s what really happens after we die. “I wish I could believe,” he told me. He just couldn’t make the leap from concrete reality to ephemeral faith. The closest he ever came to saying he believed in an afterlife was to say he looked forward to seeing my mother again.

Perhaps it was love that fueled him. Love, to my father, wasn’t about what you said, it was what you did. His place in the middle of three sons, with an emotionally abusive father and a bully for an older brother, had a lasting effect on his dedication to others. My grandmother lived out her last years in a convalescent home in our community. After he ate with us, my father took her dinner every night. I’ll be honest. I didn’t like my grandmother, and she didn’t like me (she thought I was entirely too outspoken, my father confirmed much later). Why my father would want to spend time with such a sour old woman I couldn’t understand. But in his last years, I saw my grandmother as my father saw her: she was a gentle woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering egotist. I remember how her face softened, how something flickered across her features, when my father spoke to her. His nightly visits were driven by more than filial duty. They were borne out of love.

Or maybe it was hope that kept him going. Within a week of his death, he still believed he could recover his strength, if he just got out there and started walking again. Anthony Scioli, a professor at Keene State College in New Hampshire, has been investigating the link between hope and health. Writing in Spirituality & Health magazine, Louise Danielle Palmer summarized his conclusion, that “…hopeful people tend to be more resilient, more trusting, more open, and more motivated than those less hopeful, so they are likely to receive more from the world, which in turn makes them more hopeful.”

I’ve used a lot of trite quips to explain my father to others. “Like a Timex, he took a licking and kept on ticking.” His health challenges alone would have flattened most men: three heart attacks, three open heart surgeries and three strokes.” While we were growing up and he still had our college educations on the horizon, I know he felt he had to recover. He had to provide. That was duty. But how do you explain his dedication to come back from strokes after my mother died, after his duty was discharged?

He did it a step at a time. With the help of a physical therapist, he learned to concentrate on swinging his weaker left leg and striking with his heel. He had to think about each step to avoid stumbling. When he was in acute rehab at the UW Medical Center, I remember how proud of himself he was when he demonstrated the new skill he had relearned with the occupational therapist: he made me a cup of instant hot cocoa. Even now, when I write about it, I cry. To be so reduced by a stroke that completing the steps – take out a cup, fill it with water, microwave it, pour in the cocoa and stir – was an accomplishment. It could have been humiliating, but it wasn’t. It was a milestone. A good day. The medical professionals predicted he would be wheelchair bound; then they revised it to “he’ll never walk independently without a walker.” But he did. For years, he just used a cane.

Every day on our walk, he set a goal. Sometimes it was to make it no farther than the third driveway down. He felt the load in his chest, was breathing hard, but he rarely stopped short of his goal. When I said that most people would quit when they started to feel the strain, he simply said, “Every day I try to go a little farther.”

My father went the distance.

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An Anniversary Tale

The happy couple - wearing a 1906 wedding dress and tux in 100+ degree heat!

The happy couple – wearing a 1906 wedding dress and wool tux in 100+ degree heat!

A few minutes ago I saw my classmate’s post after she received her first feedback from her advisor since beginning our graduate writing program. Within the space of minutes, she reported that went from feeling curled in a fetal position to feeling Determined.

After my first workshop at graduate school didn’t go so well (the most favorable comment was “weird but interesting”), someone at home asked me if I was going to continue. Well, of course! It’s not so much that I’m a when-the-tough-get-going kind of girl, but that I’m a tell-me-what-I-can’t-do-and-I’ll-try type.

This characteristic has led to some stunningly stupid outcomes. When I was in fourth grade, my brother told me I wasn’t brave enough to jump off the roof where it was two stories high. Well, of course I was! It worked out well for him and for me: he got a chance to practice his Boy Scout first aid skills and I got street cred with my brother.

In the still-early years of my career, I was told I shouldn’t apply for a promotion because I was pregnant. Well, of course I would! Though I didn’t regret it in the long run, I would never advise someone to take a new job when six months along.

Trouble arises when my narrative collides with someone else’s. For example, my husband’s. About nine months after the birth of our first child, we talked seriously of continuing our family. He had waited eight years for his sister, and he believed that having a sibling was a good and a joyful thing. Then I returned home from work one day, fresh from my performance review, and announced to my husband that I’d made a decision. He looked at me expectantly. I’m going to get my M.B.A., I told him enthusiastically. Dead silence. He had his own story arc in mind: happy couple marries, happy couple has some time to enjoy their freedom before settling down, happy couple starts family, happy couple has baby number two within three years (three years seen as ideal spacing), and the family is complete. We were telling different stories to ourselves.

Here is why this is an anniversary story. Today, my husband and I have been married 32 years. Looking for something else over the weekend, I found the notebooks into which we wrote our hopes and fears when we attended an Engaged Encounter retreat four months before our marriage. He wrote of his hopes for five years out, “I want to raise a family with you, badly. To nurture, protect, and to love.” I was a little more tentative. I wrote, “I’d like to be about ready to have our first.”

Marriage and family hadn’t been part of the stories I told myself in my early 20s. It was the Seventies, and I was Going Places. Then I met Todd. I couldn’t imagine life without him, and my narrative changed. I’ve always been the type that opened door number one without much idea of what might lie behind it. When he proposed — complete with a fake plane ticket made out for Mr. and Mrs. Todd Stone to Hawaii — I said yes. Here I come, I said, and there I went.

I wasn’t prepared for marriage. I didn’t know how the story would unfold. I called him “my puppy and my knight in shining armor” when I wrote my betrothal pledge at age twenty-four. (Yes, I really used those words.) Deciding to say “yes” to my love’s proposal was the scariest thing I ever did. And the wisest.

I wrote that I wanted to be “sensitive, supportive, vulnerable, loving, protective, and broad shouldered.” Turned out that my husband was. Every time that I suddenly changed the story line, he wove himself right back in to the narrative.

My story would be incomplete without him.

Dear knight in shining armor: you still are.

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What Will Happen To Me?

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What will happen to me?

           My father often asked this question. Like answering a child who wonders where babies come from, I gave the simplest answer. I knew that money had been a concern of my father’s for as long as I could remember, so I summarized his financial position and told him he did not need to worry. I even went so far as to write out a statement of his monthly income and expenses for him to carry in his breast pocket. For a while, that was enough.

After a time, his question what will happen to me took on a different tenor. He wanted to know how he would die and how he would be cared for. He was the man who had figured out how to load a battle ship (put in last the things you need first). He thought in scenarios. What was the plan, he wanted to know. But this wasn’t a briefing. He was asking me, his daughter, to acknowledge his death and dying. How to even talk about it? Did he want reassurance – don’t worry, Dad, we’ll take care of you – or did he want a contingency plan? Should I use the word “death” or something sanitized: when the time comes? Did we really have to talk about this? I told him the truth: that I didn’t know what would happen. He could have “the big one” and die suddenly, felled by the heart disease that had plagued him since he was forty-six. He could fall and have to go to the hospital, in which case we would get him home to my house as quickly as possible. Or he could slowly lose ground, in which case he would be at my house with hospice. Whatever happens, Dad, we will work to get you home and you will not be alone. And for a while, that was enough.

He was thinking about his death. But he did not seem frightened. As hard as it was for him to lose my mother, first to dementia and then to lung cancer, he did not rail against the heavens. I asked if he believed in God. He said he wished he could. But he was angry, angry that my mother had feared her own death – a woman who had been devoutly religious, a mother who had been sustained by her faith when her little girl was taken from her by leukemia. He placed the blame on God. If there was a God, how could he let her be afraid, he asked. The Just God was unjust. Then he said, “I hope it doesn’t shock you but I look forward to being with your mother again.” So you believe in the afterlife, I asked him. He replied, “What’s the alternative?”

Six months before he died, he had stopped asking what would happen to him and started predicting his own death. On a visit in July, my brother Bruce called, choked up; hearing our father talk about dying unhinged him, he said. Initially Dad’s phrasing was playful: “I don’t have long before the big jump.” He made it sound like an adventure. He was plummeting to earth.

It was summer then, when the trees drooped from the heat that pressed down from relentlessly blue skies. In better days we would have walked in a lazy serpentine from one circle of shade to the next. Dad would have summoned his breath to recite a passage from The Ancient Mariner, intoning in his best imitation of Richard Burton, “Alone, alone, all, all alone,/ Alone on a wide wide sea!/ And never a saint took pity on/ My soul in agony.”

Instead I watched him pant in his chair, his lungs crunching inward at the end of each exhalation. He interrupted his sentences to breathe. For a while he said I don’t think I can pull through this. Finally he began to say I’m not long for this world.

I didn’t want to believe him. I even found a word for people like him, people who survive long past every prediction, people who teeter on the precipice time and time again, but always pull back from the edge. People like my father are called “biologically tenacious.” On the day that hospice came to evaluate my father, my son told me that he didn’t think Papa could die, would die within six months, as the nurse had to conclude for my father to be admitted in the program. My son was angry at the hospice nurse for her matter-of-fact statement about Dad’s prognosis.

My friend Jim wrote me: “Remember, the descent is like going down stairs.  Sometimes one by one, and sometimes several at a time.  Nothing you can do about this but be present and loving.  His spirit is trying to discard his human body so it can move forward.”

I wrote this prayer:

Help me, God, to be fully present

Help me to feel calm so that I can calm my father

Help me to radiate so much love that it warms him

Help me to support the others who love him on this awful journey

Help me to understand

Help me to love

Help me

I knew I had to say goodbye, to say the words that might help release him. I told him my brothers and I would be okay, that he had raised us well. That we would do the best that we could to help him be comfortable. I told him I wished I could make it easier. He told me he was proud of me.

On New Year’s Eve, when we watched the festivities on television, we did not know he had only twelve days left. He turned to me and said, “In my next life I’m going to come back for you.”

 

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Driving Dad

My Dad gave lots of feedback, just not the critical kind. A while back I mused on the topic of my horrible adolescent makeup choices (tarantula-like eyelashes) and wrote:

I remember few rules from my youth. I wasn’t harangued to make my bed, come home at a certain time, do my homework, achieve better grades or get off the phone. I wasn’t told when I could start shaving my legs, or wearing makeup or start dating. I did want approval, my father’s approval in particular, and I knew what he admired without him ever saying a word. I was more interested in the brass ring of admiration than avoiding the sting of criticism or the pain of punishment.

When he moved to Sacramento in 2006, I was his driver. He had taken himself off the road in 2003, after he hit a newly installed curb and blew out a tire.

Unfailingly, when we were going from Point A to Point B, he would say something about my driving:

“I like the way you drive.”

In my impatient youth, it drove me nuts that Dad edged into the shoulder to let faster cars pass. “You’re going so slow,” I would think. Over time, I stopped thinking of this habit as disadvantaging our progress and started noticing the effect of his polite road manners.

He made room for cars trying to merge, waving them in. Seeing a pedestrian waiting on the curb on a heavily trafficked street, he stopped to let them cross. When someone politely waited for him while parallel parking or slowed slightly to let him enter a lane on the freeway, he extended his arm through the window and gave a brief salute. He was the kind of driver that made other drivers smile.

When he told me he liked the way I drove, he was acknowledging that I had internalized his road manners.

This was how he taught us: he initially explained something, then modeled the behavior, and then shut up. Except when we did something right. Then he said something complimentary.

One of his concerns about me was that I would never be physically active. With his history of heart disease, he knew that exercise could make the difference between life and death, or at least ability and disability. During my adolescent years, when my highest level of volition was moving from the couch to the dinner table, he went so far as to hand me the Canadian Air Force exercise manual, chock full of isometric exercises. I tried them a few times and quickly bored of them.

He must have been shocked to see me work out with a personal trainer in my 50s. She had me doing situps and jumping jacks, step ups and mountain climbers. She worked my tail off. (And I was paying for it.)

As I worked out on my back deck, I could see him watching me through the window from his regular seat at my kitchen table. He would pump his fist in the air, silently cheering me on.

“Atta girl,” he was saying.

When I drive, workout, and starting Thursday, return to graduate school to begin a Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at Bennington College, I still hear it:

Atta girl.

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On Waiting

Mom as mother-of-the-bride

When I married, I knew I would never again live in Western Washington. Although I would return to visit my parents, the pleasures I took for granted would no longer be mine by right of residency. The thrill of accelerating up a steep road bracketed by thick stands of Doug Firs, glancing into the thick underbrush for signs of ripe red huckleberries on clear cut stumps or small animals making their way on padded moss floors. The contentment of walking along an isolated rocky shoreline, examining shells with a mental dichotomous key – one valve or two? – while overhead seagulls wheeled and screamed their victory cries. The rhythmic symphony of rain outside my bedroom window: the soprano tick-tick-ticking of droplets hitting the concrete sidewalk accompanied by baritone beats from the downspout and occasional bursts as pooled water slid through the slats of the upstairs deck.

When I returned to my family home in Tacoma in the early years of my marriage, I took mental inventory even before I got out of the rental car. Was it the same? Sometimes I could tell Mom had been out dead-heading the rhodies, noting a tidy pile next to the giant that reached to the gutter. Or I could see her handiwork in newly planted annuals in the front flower bed along with evidence of a futile attempt to sweep up the loose dirt that had spilled onto the concrete.

Anticipating my return, the front door would be unlocked, so I’d enter and set my suitcase down on the green slate entry floor. Did it shine, as it did when one of my chores was polishing it? Before Mom developed dementia, you could count on seeing an arrangement of fresh flowers – whatever was in season in the yard — placed on the drop leaf mahogany table in the entryway.

By then, Mom would have noticed my arrival. She would push the kitchen pocket door open, shoo the dog from underfoot and approach me. Her warm smile and twinkling eyes felt like an embrace from six feet away. What did she say? “Welcome home, honey,” I think. Did she call me honey? Or was it dear? Or just Betz? (It was rarely “Betsy.” She said she really meant to call me Betz but didn’t have the gumption to spell it that way.)

What I remember most, however, was not the visual details. It was the feeling.

I had the feeling that old 8601, my parents’ home, waited for me. Mom, Dad, the house and the dog (Meg, the Brittany Spaniel, in later years) all waited for me. The deadheading of the rhodies, the planting of the annuals, the fresh flowers in the hallway: they felt like preparations for my arrival. I don’t think I’m being egotistical here. I knew that I was important to my parents, and they waited in expectation on the afternoon when I arrived.

Something in me waited, too. When I met my husband a couple of years after graduating from college, I said to myself, “This guy is not going to leave Sacramento. If you get serious about him, Sacramento will be where you live.”

Hot and flat. Those were my two initial impressions of the Central Valley town. From the air, the valley floor looked like a crazy quilt of browns and greens, embroidered by curving ridges that partitioned flooded rice fields. After the lush tall forests of the Northwest, the ground looked bald. Colorful but bald. During the first summer of our marriage, Sacramento experienced 45 days over 100 degrees. Or as locals like to say, temps “in the triple digits.” It left me speechless. I didn’t even have a vocabulary for that kind of extreme heat. When I climbed into my VW rabbit, with its cloth and vinyl seats, it had to be over 200 degrees.

For many years – 10? 15? – I still felt like a foster child of Sacramento’s capitol. By then, I was a mother twice over, my career was established and I had a large network of friends and colleagues. When would it really feel like home?

Something in me had waited for that moment when I would arrive at 8601 43rd Street West. I inhaled, my lungs filling with crisp air cooled by the inland sea, smelling slightly of salt, earth and vegetation. Moisture penetrated my skin, plumping it after the desiccating dryness of California. I smiled, imagining the regeneration of the webbing between my fingers and toes – a Northwesterner’s inside joke.

My parents, the house, the area — all seemed to wait for me. But a part of me had been in suspended animation, too. I had been waiting.

Sometime in the past 15 years, Sacramento (finally) started feeling like the place I belonged. Maybe it happened after the death of my mother in 1999. Or perhaps it was after my father moved to be with me in his late 80s.

I thought about all this two weeks ago, as I waited for the arrival of my son from college. He had spent a couple of weeks tooling around Washington after graduating. I sped toward Sacramento from Santa Cruz, intending to arrive before he did. I wanted to be waiting.

During the two-and-a-half hour drive, I realized what a privilege it was to wait, and to be waited for. Perhaps my parents did not put their lives in abeyance when I visited, but it felt like they did. I felt cherished.

With both of my adult children now living in Sacramento, I doubt they have this feeling. Our lives are busy, bustling here and there. I’ve got stuff to do, and they know it. My world doesn’t screech to a halt when they’re around.

I cherish them, nonetheless. I should wait more often.

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Connections

Dreaming

Next to me, my great nephew sleeps on, lips occasionally twitching, elbow thrown across my chest, lifting now and then in dream-driven movement. Perhaps he hears the call of the referee while he stands at bat, primed to swing.

He crawled in at 6:55 a.m., having been told by his mother that he could come down and snuggle with me when he awakened in the morning. He pulled back the corner of the comforter of the guest bed and laid down quietly next to me. Within moments, his breathing slowed. He settled into a steady rhythm of deep inhales followed and forceful expulsions as he wandered the realm of dreamland.

Time has met the timeless. I am right here and nowhere else, reluctant to move lest I disturb this rare morning moment.

But simultaneously I am remembering how my mother and father snuggled grandchildren of similar ages.  When my brother, Bruce, began his family — a little earlier than he expected — he and his wife lived with us, along with his daughter, Sandy, who quickly grew into a bright and sunny toe-headed urchin with a ready giggle.

Dad was intense in those days, feeling the weight of financial responsibility for two children still at home, and Bruce’s new family. His proud Marine Corps frame slumped into a chair in the living room when he returned from work. He regrouped with a scotch on the rocks. Dean and I knew to leave him alone.

But Sandy did not. She toddled in to the living room in her little dress. Dad set the paper down in his lap and picked her up. It was time for their game. Sandy showed Papa her protuberant belly; Dad immediately pressed the frigid cocktail glass against her tummy whereupon Sandy exploded into waves of giggles. With each repetition, the pressure sloughed off Dad a little more.

As serious as Dad could be, he was always game for a round of Patty Cake, “Tom Tinker” or plain old “Sausages.” When holding a baby, he would lightly touch her forehead and say “Tom Tinker.” Moving down the little one’s face, he found “eye blinker,” then “nose smeller,” “mouth taster” and finally, “chin chopper.” At this last label, Dad tickled the baby’s chin and said in a low voice at double-time speed, “chin chopper chin chopper chin chopper!” After initial surprise, small eyes looked expectantly at him, ready for another go. Which Dad obliged, again and again.

I return to the moment, to the sweet child sleeping next to me. Son of that toe-headed urchin. I pull my arm out of the covers and lightly touch his forearm: utterly smooth, skin stretched tight over thin bones, not an ounce of flesh to spare. The tendon twitches just enough to twist his wrist ever so slightly to the left. He sleeps on, the arm bone connected to the wrist bone, the wrist bone connected to the hand bones.

Connected to me, to his mother, and before me, Mom and Dad.

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The Dam Burst

imageI wondered if I would cry — could cry — when my son graduated from college over the weekend. Water turned out to be the theme of the day.

At the interfaith baccalaureate service in the morning, where my son would sing with the Adelphian choir, a series of students shared their reflections one after another. They told personal stories, stories of coming out and trying to find a new way to relate to God and find a community, stories of hope lost and hope regained. They spoke with whatever vocabulary fit their understanding of Divine Mystery.  They sang and prayed for others.

We sat there, parents and family, faculty and staff, students and friends, listening and reflecting. For an hour, we became a community.

The morning light flooded through the chapel windows from the east, bathing my son’s face in gold. To close the service, the Adelphians sang Stephen Paulus’ “The Road Home.”

Oh where is the road that will lead me home?”

The song took me back to that day in October 2012 when my “other mother” teetered between life and death. As her children and grandchildren gathered around her bedside, my best friend and I sang that song. And as we sang, “Miss Ann” slipped to the other side, to the place where her faith guided her, where her husband and mother awaited.

Four months later, a small group sang it at my father’s memorial.

As I listened to the choir, I could almost see my mother and father hovering. Was it a daydream? Was it my heart’s longing that brought me their image? Were they really there? It felt as if they were.

The dam burst, and I cried. My stomach pulsed with withheld sobs as I cried tears of joy for my son’s safe passage, of happiness for the moment of reunion with my parents, of compassion for the tribulations that many of the students had experienced.

Water turned out to be the abiding symbol of the day. Rather than the typical, somewhat overly long commencement ceremony, in which one waited for one name out of more than 600, Yahweh (for it had to be the angry God of old) decided to interrupt things with an outburst of Biblical proportions.

The wind picked up as the class representative gamely soldiered on with her remarks. The skies above us swirled in a circular pattern. If we had been in the Midwest, we would have been heading for storm shelters.

Next came the rain. It did not “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” Each was a swollen bubble that splattered into inch wide rings where it struck heads, blouses and trousers. Within minutes, those initial marks were obscured by rivulets from the flood that pounded the crowd on the field.

Then came hail and lightning. Running through sideways rain that rapidly filled gutters, those who didn’t leave in the initial downpour – the hardy families who were determined to hear that one name called – evacuated to the field house. We sheltered for nearly an hour before university officials made the call to resume the ceremony.

This morning, the words of “The Road Home” returned to me:

After wind, after rain, when the dark is done, as I wake from a dream in the gold of day

Through the air there’s a calling from far away, there’s a voice I can hear that will lead me home.

Rise up, follow me, come away is the call

With love in your heart as the only song

There is no such beauty as where you belong

Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home

 

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