Company

One Wednesday evening last fall, I found myself sautéing sage leaves. I can’t claim to do this with any regularity; my October Bon Appetit just happened to show up as I was trying to decide what to cook for my relatives, who would be getting off a plane at ten-thirty that night. I was looking for food that would satisfy them if they hadn’t had a decent meal since Pittsburgh, that would say “I’m so glad you’re here!” and that wouldn’t reproach them if all they really wanted to do was say goodnight and go to bed. Who wouldn’t fry sage leaves in that situation? By the time I left for the airport I had chilled the champagne and done everything but drizzle the butternut squash tart with the Serrano pepper honey simmering on the stove.

As they came toward me through security, the gate agent was pushing Uncle Don (at 87, my last living uncle on my mother’s side) in a wheelchair. He was wearing his Marines Semper Fi baseball cap and talking to the agent. My cousin Tommy (proud bearer of the title of oldest cousin on my dad’s side) was pushing Uncle Don’s fancy red walker, wheeling his own suitcase, and almost succeeding at balancing Uncle Don’s little blue suitcase on the seat of the walker. Uncle Larry (last living uncle on my father’s side and newly retired from the priesthood) and my brother Paul were carrying, dragging, and balancing the rest of the luggage. All of them looked like they might be rethinking that decision not to check the bags.

That was the last moment anyone looked back on. It was a magical five days, the kind of visit you always imagine having until your real company has replaced their fantasy doubles, set their glasses down without coasters, left the gate open to let the dog run away, and failed to be duly impressed with the view of the mountains from your backyard.  This company wasn’t like that. (And if you have ever stayed at my house, rest assured that I’m not talking about you.)

That first night, we didn’t get to bed until four; it was as if we’d all agreed to wring every last bit of life out of these few days together.  Thursday night I baked a six-layer cake I’d found in that same issue of Bon Appetit. Nine eggs and fourteen squares of dark chocolate later (this was a serious cake), we were singing happy birthday to Uncle Don, as he turned eighty-eight. “You know,” he said, “you live alone for so long, and then people do something like this for you, it just makes you want to weep.”

Mine looked almost like this.
Mine looked almost like this.

Saturday morning I make pancakes (plain old Bisquick and blueberries now that we’ve reached day three) shaped like sixty-fives to celebrate Tommy’s birthday. My husband takes Uncle Don to the casino so he can play bingo, and the rest of us launch into another day of sightseeing. When we meet for dinner later, Uncle Don raves about the two (“not one, but two!”) hotdogs he ate at Wienerschnitzel and slyly shows me the bingo markers he has slipped into the trunk of his walker for the ladies in his “harem” back home.

I forget to warn my relatives not to make eye contact with the mariachis, so soon an orange-haired woman and her husband, who met fifty years ago in their church choir, are serenading us. They sing happy birthday and Una Paloma Blanca, and we’re all fast friends by the time the check comes.

I’m still singing about that white dove flying up to the sun as we walk out of the restaurant and see fireworks exploding in the east against the Sandias. We sit down on a bench in front of the restaurant like we’re sitting on the front porch on Marvle Valley Drive (and I won’t change that to “Marvel” just to make spell-check happy, because that street was misspelled my whole life, and I’m trying to tell the truth here). We watch until the last flare fades.

No one feels like going to bed when we get home, so we turn the Notre Dame game on, play some pinochle, and listen to Uncle Don tell stories about how he met Aunt Ann. For some reason we start googling our birth years. Uncle Don was born in 1924, the Year of the Rat; 1955 puts Paul in the Year of the Sheep.  For some reason we find this hilarious. Sometime after midnight we talk about how fast the days are going and call it a night. In bed my husband and I marvel (there, spell-check, happy now?) at how these days are glowing so richly by.

Sunday morning the sky is full of hot air balloons, and I’m trying to decide if I should wake everyone up to see them. The coffee’s ready, and the last thing I expect Paul to say when he comes out of the guest room is “I think Uncle Don is dead.”

But that’s exactly what he says.

I could tell you a lot more about this story; I could explain how the police came and Uncle Larry said last rites and I cooked a pot roast and we all moved into that shimmery borderland you walk in when death reminds you that it’s been there breathing beside you all along.

I could tell you about Uncle Larry’s Christmas card this year, in which he said he’d love to visit again, “with a slight adjustment being that all who arrive together will depart breathing.” I could tell you about Uncle Don’s comment, earlier in the week he died, that some nights he would lie in bed alone and say, “Ok, God, why don’t you take me now, I’m ready,” and how sure I am that he said that prayer that night in my guest room.

I could tell you about all the jokes we make now about the thorough vacation experience available at my house, and about how happy everyone is that Uncle Don died here, surrounded by family, at peace in his sleep after a day that included mariachis, bingo, pinochle, fireworks, and hotdogs.

I could tell you about the envelope the funeral home sent me, full of left-over laminated flag bookmarks with Uncle Don’s obituary on them, and the mass cards bearing the dates October 4, 1924-October 7, 2012, along with the complete text of The Halls of Montezuma, but I’ve said way too much already.

It’s a short story, really.

It’s the one I told the people whose names I found in his address book and called that Sunday morning: Uncle Don came to visit, had a great time, and died.

In her poem “Train Ride,” Ruth Stone writes, “All things come to an end. No, they go on forever.” The lines repeat throughout the poem, and you can feel the train jogging along through the music. I used to think the poem was arguing with itself, trying to decide what kind of a world we live in, what kind of lives we live.

I don’t think that anymore. Monday afternoon I drive my last living uncle, my cousin, and my brother back to the airport. I watch as planes pull away from the planet. I know that when Ruth Stone (who didn’t publish her first book of poems until she was sixty) says, “All things come to an end. No they go forever” she’s not arguing with anyone. She’s just telling all the truth there is to tell about the world.

 

 

 

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Signs

I’m not really much of a cyclist. Take one look at my teal ten-speed and you’ll notice at least three dead giveaways. No toe clips. Two big metal baskets on the back. A peeling purple bumper sticker that says “So many books, so little time.” Clearly, putting my feet on the pedals isn’t my primary passion.

The fact that I’m not a real cyclist also shows when I’m meandering down the river trail. I tend to spend most of my time looking up, wobbling into the other lane, watching for porcupines and bald eagles in the still bare cottonwoods. Frequently, I see them.

A few Sundays ago I was about six miles in without spotting as much as a scrub jay. Riding the river trail is a little like driving toward The World’s Biggest Cross somewhere in the middle of Texas. A straight line of pavement peels away clear to the horizon.

So I was surprised to see something big and black change the shape of the line ahead. I was even more surprised when I saw the empty ribs arcing gracefully up into clear air. It looked like a picture I might have seen in my brother’s Boy Scout book of a canoe before you put its skin on. It looked like a moment Georgia O’Keefe might have captured and called “Rib Bones on Trail.”

Just south of the bones, at the point where the tail connected to where the body used to be, a brilliant spot of fresh red marked some still uneaten bits. I have to point out that I’m not talking about a squirrel or a rabbit. This animal is big.

The trail along the river is ninety-five parts urban, five parts nature. It’s where city people like me go to be outside without worrying that we won’t find our way home. It’s not really supposed to be wild, in the “animals are eating each other in the middle of the bike trail” sort of way.

A few hours later I rode back and he was gone. He hadn’t left a mark, no blood or crime scene chalk recorded the spot where he died. I tried to imagine a city Open Space employee out clearing carcasses at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning. It seems more likely that whoever’s meal I’d interrupted came back to finish the job.

All week I kept thinking about those ribs. I saw their shape in the way the trees arched over the bridge. I thought of them when I went for a run and felt my own torso, breathing. I talked to a biologist friend who convinced me to call him a beaver. I googled “beaver size” and learned that they can weigh as much as seventy-five pounds, and that they are most vulnerable when they travel on land. I googled “beaver predators” and learned a coyote, fox, eagle, mountain lion, or even a large hawk could have been eating breakfast just before I rode by.

As I rode home that morning I kept thinking about the scene in Kundun where they dismember the body of the Dalai Lama’s father, and offer it to be eaten by the birds. Vultures flock in and carry bits of the body away, much as I imagine a bald eagle might have fed on this beaver. I had never heard of Tibetan sky burials before. In an article in the Orange County Register, Nawang Phuntson, a professor and Tibetan native, takes Scorsese to task for failing to provide the “sacred philosophy” behind the sky burial. He explains that the practice is grounded in the belief that “nothing should be wasted, that death should be used to sustain life.”

I’m thinking about those sky burials and about using death to sustain life when I see the Canada Goose perched high in a cottonwood, keeping an eye on the trail. I wonder if she has been sitting here all morning, if she witnessed the moment when the bald eagle tugged at the beaver’s heart, and carried it, still warm from beating, into the sky.

 

 

 

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Strong

Tonight when the big orange dog jumped up on the leather couch he couldn’t settle. He’s a lanky dog, so sometimes he can’t quite maneuver himself into a comfortable position. The problem is this: after he turns south and shakes, and then turns north and rubs his head on the back cushion, and then twitches his back paw and turns south again, thinking perhaps he’ll lay his head on the arm rest instead of in my lap, his fur has gone all static electric wild, and he’s totally freaked out. You can practically see the sparks shooting and his synapses shorting, and you just can’t figure out how to help him. (And if you are thinking that at this point a rational person would instead be thinking about how to get the big hairy dog off the couch, I get it. But that’s not the house I live in.)

Tonight as his fur splays out in an electric halo, I hear myself tell him, “Just give up and lay down.”

Just give up and lay down. They are the kind of words that hang around in the air after you say them, determined to mean more than you intended. You keep humming them like the first three notes of a song you used to know, until your neurons get their act together and you remember that once on a very bad day, a very good priest said, “Don’t be strong.”

Seriously? I like strong. Strong is easy. Strong is cry later in your car. Strong is keep showing up on time. Strong is put the dishes in the dishwasher, prep for class, get the laundry done. Strong is “Good, thanks, and you?” or “I’m ok. Really.”

Strong is when your voice doesn’t catch when you find yourself reading out loud this line, spoken by the irritating mother in The Sound and the Fury, who, having lost her son Quentin to suicide, realizes her granddaughter Quentin is missing and says, “Where’s the note? When Quentin did it he left a note.” Strong is reading straight on through to the next sentence, without your students seeing that your heart is now on the outside of your body, all static electric wild.

I like strong.

Sometimes, though, words are spells.  When the priest said “Don’t be strong,” I stopped being strong. I cried outside under the cottonwoods. I cried in the classroom. I cried in the church and in the cemetery and in the morning and on Thursdays and when birds startled out of trees. I cried when Orion appeared on the horizon and when the cranes flew in. I wasn’t strong.

In 1994 I tumbled over a horse’s head and shattered my wrist. A great surgeon pinned my bones to a plate and stitched me back together. I remember walking through O’Hare Airport before it was fully healed; all I wanted to do was to protect it, to hold it close to me like a little broken bird. But I was strong, and I had somewhere I was supposed to be, so I had gotten on the plane. I remember how all the people around me looked like weapons; I clenched my body against them, the way morning glories fold their petals as the light wanes.

It doesn’t work like that when you’re not being strong. You don’t have any petals to close. You walk through the world without any skin, as though you’d just had your chest cranked open for heart surgery and the surgeon has forgotten to sew you back up.

When you’re not being strong, everything hurts. Things that happened decades ago when you were being strong sense your weakness and rush back to hurt you all over again. Things that haven’t even happened, like when the kind looking man at church tells you he’s come here to kill Satan today, hurt you as much as if he had actually taken a gun out of the little gun-sized pouch on his back and begun killing the people you love. When you’re not being strong you learn to call these sorts of moments trauma.

When you’re not being strong, you don’t just relinquish the job of protecting yourself from the world; you also relinquish the job of protecting the world from itself, which you hadn’t even known you’d been trying to do. You see this in the shape of your shoulders. Months later, when you have forgiven yourself for all the pain in the world, you actually choose to keep your chest cranked open and decide not to step back into your skin. You see pale green top the trees and marvel at how well the world has spun on without your constant attention.

My words don’t have the same incantatory power over the dog. He jumps off the couch, heads outside to bark and sniff for a while, and finally comes back in. This time he lands the sweet spot on his first try. As I write, his head is in my lap and I’m bending my arm at a funny angle to type around an ear. Every now and then he nudges my laptop, as if to push it away and nuzzle closer. “Give up,” I think he’s trying to tell me. “Lay down.”

(Oh, and one more thing in case it’s been a long time since you’ve read The Sound and the Fury. The second Quentin didn’t commit suicide. She escaped out the window and shinnied down Caddy’s plum tree. Life came and called her, and she ran.)

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Into the River

Way back in high school, I was the friend who would carry your secrets. Tell me your problems–I could pick them up and carry them around those high school halls without my shoulders bending a bit. Nothing marked me. People thought that was a good thing. I thought that was a good thing. Friends came out to me, told me about their abortions, explained their problems with their parents. I skipped on, their secrets and my own floating above me in a helium balloon sealed tight and tied securely to my backpack. Life was easy. I was happy.

Not that long ago, I realized that I’ve spent much of my life carrying that balloon, walking along the shore of the river, keeping my feet dry. Next to me rushed a river full of life: muskrats, beavers, river trout, crayfish, snakes–all of them were swimming by me. I kept my distance. I happily portaged other people’s problems down the river, slinging them over my head like a fiberglass canoe, but I never got my feet wet.

Suicide has a way of throwing you into the river. For a long time after the second of the two worst phone calls of my life, I drowned, I tumbled, I washed by places I wished I could stay. I fought the current, looking for the break when I could make my way back to shore.

But then a funny thing happened. Somehow my wet feet found the bottom. They  eased into the muck where tadpoles were burrowing and reeds were beginning their long, faith-filled journey toward the sun. I found myself walking in the river. It wasn’t easy. I kept losing my balance on slippery ground, and my feet grew heavy with mud. Sometimes I’d fall down; sometimes the weight of the water would keep me from walking at all. But once in a rare while, the water would buoy me up, and I’d swim.

One day I forgot to angle for the shore.

Here in the river cranes call from the marshes, eagles cast shadows, geese v overhead. Here in the river life is harder, my own problems snag on branches, my friends’ problems weigh me down. Here in the river cynicism and joy battle it out in me each day. Here in the river when the cranes call, I lift my eyes into the blooming morning sun.

This blog is called “live love leave,” and it’s about trying to learn how to do all of those things with grace. It’s about learning to play the violin, training for triathlons, loving things that are fragile, and loosening my frantic grip on the world. It’s about letting the world hurt you and love you. It’s about the shape of your shoulders as you try to stop carrying the world.

This afternoon I walked out into the hallway of my school and some kids were playing the Game of Life. It was an English project. Heathcliff and Cathy and all the gang from Wuthering Heights were there, riding their horses over the moors and ruining each other’s lives. (OK, Heathcliff was doing most of the ruining, but that’s not really where I’m going with this). I remembered how my old best friend Jacqui and I spent many hours of our childhood spinning that wheel, losing a job and going back two spaces, having a baby and pushing another little pink peg into our convertibles, getting married to Henry or Eddie or some other boy we loved from afar in fourth grade. (I suppose I should reverse those last two items. It was the seventies; we were in Catholic school.)

Not that long ago I realized that I’ve spent a lot of time learning to play life. This blog is about what I’ve learned, what I’m still learning, what I don’t even know I don’t know yet. If you plan to keep reading I have a spoiler alert: I make a lot less money than I used to. The shape of my shoulders has changed.

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