O’Reilly Auto Parts and Other Things You Can Count On

There we were, reaching what was supposed to be the easy part of a meandering drive from Denver to Lubbock. Late July, and we are on our way to reclaim our faithful golden retriever from sleep-away-camp at my step-daughter’s house. He’s spent the last three weeks playing with her black lab and entertaining her family by barking at the animals on tv.

I call the drive meandering because, when our son-in-law told us where to turn to take the direct route, neither of us was paying much attention. Instead, we woke up in Denver, plugged “Lubbock” into my phone, and followed the google over the river and along Ranch to Market Roads and through the woods until at last we found ourselves skirting the southern edge of Amarillo.

A straight shot down I-27 would get us to Lubbock any time now. I put my phone away, try to find a radio station that isn’t telling me to turn my life and money over to Jesus, and look up at the sky.

I wish I hadn’t. It’s that purpley-black color that always makes you think you’re about to see Aunty Em and a mooing cow fly by. We’ve been playing keep away with these clouds all through Texas, and now it looks like the clouds are going to win. Sure enough, we’ve barely merged on to the interstate when rain comes bucketing down. Even before anything goes wrong, Fred is straining to see the car in front of us, and the clouds are so thick that I wonder how we’ll ever fit two of each kind of animal into the Subaru.

Let’s stop here for a thought experiment. Pretend Mary Anderson had never invented windshield wipers. When it rains, you have to catch a crow and use your shoelaces to tie him to the windshield. Then, you roll down your window and toss handfuls of grubs or worms or kernels of corn to entice the pissed off crow to hop back and forth across your windshield, dragging his wings to clear the water.

I don’t expect I’ll win a design award, but that’s exactly what I think when the windshield wiper on my side breaks and starts flapping around like a broken wing. The near-zero visibility we’ve had since the rain started drops even further.

Now, this essay isn’t about how differently my husband and I see the world when we can’t actually see the world, or I’d explain that his response to our life and death crisis was to turn the windshield wipers off so the wiper that was flopping around like a pissed off crow wouldn’t scratch the windshield. At the time, this strikes me as a remarkably bad idea. I start praying the Memorare, certain our flimsy ark is about to go down.

In everyday situations, I wouldn’t describe Fred as calm. In a crisis, though, he’s a rock. He’s driving the car through the blinding deluge as though he’s the only one wearing swim goggles. “Ask Google to find the closest O’Reilly Auto Parts,” he says. I take a break from reminding the blessed virgin Mary that she’s never left anyone who implored her help unaided to ask Google to find me an O’Reilly’s.

Google and Mary both come through, and we finally drive out of the storm into Plainview, Texas, an aptly named town. Young Frank steps away from his computer to verify that our windshield wiper is indeed as useless as a dead crow and snaps on a replacement. $7.00 and five minutes later we’re back on the road, ready to brave the next storm.

“You can always count on O’Reilly’s,” Fred says. He sounds like a radio ad at the end of a Garrison Keillor broadcast. His words feel loaded, like one of those ordinary sentences that ends up meaning more than it meant to. I’m strangely reassured.

I have one of those moments when you realize that even after twenty-five years of living with someone, you can still learn something new, and the rest of the summer passes uneventfully, with lots of live/love and no other close encounters with leave.

Last night I read this essay out loud to Fred as I often do before I post them. “You’ve got too many different stories,” he said. “You should just let it be about the drive.”

He has saved you all from some rambling diversions in the past, so I tried to listen to his advice. I cut the part about Jerry Lewis dying and the memory about the neighborhood carnival where I dressed up as clown and sold popcorn for Jerry’s Kids. Maybe I’ll put that in some other essay. But I keep feeling like this next part belongs here, even if I can’t quite put my finger on why. (If you can’t get past it, write the problem into your work, I tell my students.)

So, summer passed and I’m back at school. The theme for our opening faculty and staff meetings this year is play. Thursday morning while people with very different jobs than mine are performing knee surgery or nailing two-by-fours together, I’m in our black box theater playing rock paper scissors with seventy other adults.

By the time the champions are crowned, the rest of us are lined up in two long chains behind them, our hands resting on each other’s shoulders, chanting the names of the last two people standing. It was another one of those accidentally meaningful/O’Reilly Auto Parts moments.

But that’s not why I don’t want to cut this part of my essay. In the next game, we’re given a notecard. We close our eyes, and the facilitator’s voice guides us on a long, long walk through a beautiful forest. At certain points she tells us to write things on our card: a favorite animal (Rusty, of course), a favorite color (that morning, it feels like yellow).

Then she tells us that we have reached an immense wall. It’s so big there is no way around or over or through it, and we’re too tired to walk back. “What do you do?” she asks. I write my answer on my card, and before long we’ve moved on to the next game. My small group has already started planning how we are going to turn our bodies into three still photos that tell a story when she interrupts us.

“By the way,” she says, “here’s what those things you wrote down mean.” It turns out it was one of those games like the ones you play at bridal showers–someone writes down people’s random comments and later reads them back to the bride as things she’ll say on her wedding night. The animal and the color we chose had something to do with how we see ourselves and how we want the world to see us. But it’s the last phrase, the one about the wall, that I can’t stop thinking about.

“That’s how you feel about dying,” she says.

If this isn’t the first time you’ve read one of my essays, you know I think a lot about that “leave” part. Usually I’m writing about death from a place of grief, or anger, or fear. At best, it feels like a design flaw. “Let’s give them unbearable beauty and the capacity for love,” a generous creator says. “Yes,”a trusted assistant chimes in, laughing, “and expiration dates!” You have to wonder how the idea even made it out of committee.

One time years ago I was telling Sr. Therapist about a dream I’d had. (“You’re still adding stories,” I can imagine Fred saying. He’s in bed, though, so I’m not listening this time.) It was terrifying. I was lying in the grass on a tiny raft when a huge storm came. The raft was tossing in wind and waves, and I was certain it was going to overturn. When drowning seemed imminent, a voice in my dream spoke, calming my fear. “It’s not a raft, it’s an island,” the voice said.

By the time I’d finished explaining the dream, Sister Therapist was beaming. “That’s your subconscious,” she told me. “It’s telling you that you are going to be ok.”

When I unfolded my card to learn what I really think about dying, I felt that same relief I felt in my dream, that same relief I felt when we pulled into the parking lot of O’Reilly’s. When I reach that insurmountable wall, the wrinkled notecard of my subconscious tells me, I’ll “rest against it, letting it support me.”

Sometimes the insight you need is right there waiting for you, in plain view.

 

 

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Estranged

Late one evening in Cocoa Beach I was having a glass of wine with my friend and her sister after Fred had gone to bed. Somehow the conversation drifted to the idea of friends or family members who have become estranged. It’s not a word I’ve ever given much thought to.

Most of the old friends I’ve lost have been through carelessness. You mean to call, of course, but there’s all that life stuff going on, and before you know it years have passed. We didn’t have Facebook when I graduated from high school or college to make it so easy to retain at least an illusion of connection. That’s an excuse, of course, but it’s one of those excuses that works a little bit because it’s true. I’ve squandered more good people than I like to admit.

That night we were talking about how silly it was to let one or two stray comments end a long friendship. We were talking about a relationship that ended because someone said something that rubbed the other person the wrong way, and it burrowed in like a tick and festered. How easy it would have been to have a different ending, we told each other. We ended the evening laughing, declaring we were all now estranged and making plans for the next day.

I went to bed and didn’t give the conversation any more thought. The next afternoon, my friend of over thirty years and I were sitting way out on the end of the pier at the Tiki Bar, watching pelicans dive for fish and surfers paddle out to catch waves. “Whatever happened to your old friend [who I’ll call] Amanda?” Kathy asked me.

I told her I had no idea. Come to think of it, we were estranged. We had been close, things had happened, and we had both felt the need to close the door on the friendship. At least, that’s how I remember it. In retrospect, I am not sure how mutual the decision was. Nevertheless, the door closed more than a decade ago, and over the years neither of us ever knocked on it.

It was a lazy afternoon at the beach. Kathy had known Amanda too, so she said, “I’ll just look her up on Facebook and see what she’s up to.”

Sometimes that’s a good thing to do. We’ve probably all looked up an old friend from our childhoods just to see how things turned out. I’ve reconnected with a number of people I’m happy to have back in my life. Many of my old students have found me online, and I love to see who they’ve become as adults.

That afternoon on the pier, though, Kathy got quiet. “You’re not going to like this,” she said. And if you are reading this post, you’ve probably read enough of my other essays to know that what we found was Amanda’s obituary. She died two years ago, apparently from some sort of cancer.

So there’s that. I still haven’t figured out how it makes me feel. I’m sad, of course. A vibrant, joyful life was cut short. I don’t think I feel regret, but maybe that’s just bluster. I feel tender toward that thirty-something-year-old me, doing the best that she could. And yet, it turns out it is different to be estranged from an old friend who is going about her life in the world and an old friend who has died without your ever knowing she was dying.

Kathy and I sat there quietly on the pier, watching the waves wash in and out. Then we paid the bill and headed off down the beach, two old friends, as the late afternoon sun sank inexorably toward the water, and the waves erased our footprints as we walked on.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

If you called an old friend after reading this, tell us all about it in the comments!

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Big Potatoes

"Mercy as it is here contemplated is said to be a virtue influencing one's will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another's misfortune. It is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that although mercy is as it were the spontaneous product of charity, yet it is to be reckoned a special virtue adequately distinguishable from this latter. In fact the Scholastics in cataloguing it consider it to be referable to the quality of justice mainly because, like justice, it controls relations between distinct persons." The Catholic Encyclopedia

It’s mid-May. The rose bushes are blooming and I’m thinking about the school year ending, and about the fact that I never posted in April, and about the things I should be grading tonight. But mostly I’m thinking about mercy.

It’s my Uncle Larry’s fault. Easter morning found me flying out of Albuquerque into the sunrise. I was on my way to Pittsburgh to get home for his funeral. Having held on deep into Holy Week, Uncle Larry had died on Wednesday, and we had to wait for Jesus to rise from the dead on Sunday to bury my uncle. He’s a Catholic priest. Something about flying into the light on Easter morning felt right.

By 1:00 Monday afternoon the family had gathered, filling the 18th-century sitting rooms at Beinhauer’s on West Liberty Avenue in Dormont. My sisters and I were sharing a room at what Judy calls Bereavement Hotel. (People who stay there for other reasons know it as the Crowne Plaza across the street from South Hills Village.) My brother Pat and his wife Pat were standing near a fringed lampshade when we got there, and the rooms were filling quickly with my cousins, their kids, and their kids’ kids. These cousins are the people, my generation, about whom Uncle Larry said last year, “There were twenty-two of you. Five are gone.”

That was at my brother’s funeral, and my uncle’s pain was palpable. “It’s too much,” his body seemed to be saying, while his mouth said “Our Father, who art in heaven” and “When I say ‘Lord have mercy, you say Lord have mercy.'” Today Uncle Larry looks like he is at peace, flanked by the flowers surrounding his open casket.

All day long we meander through these rooms like disorganized extras on a film set. Along with the four sitting rooms, there’s a kitchen stocked with coffee, tea, and, for some reason, cherry slushies. The kitchen opens into a playroom. “That’s where they have the birthday parties!” one of the cousins’ kids’ kids explains.

In Catholic tradition, the corporal works of mercy include such things, among others, as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and “harboring the harborless.” All day long, my uncle’s former parishioners and friends merry-go-round through the funeral home, sharing stories about the times my uncle did these things for them. “Your uncle came to the hospital every day while my wife was dying,” one man says. “Your uncle got me into AA,” a woman whose kids I used to babysit for tells me. “Your uncle opened the rectory on Christmas Eve and made a great Manhattan,” says a man with twinkly eyes. I can vouch for that one.

At some point after we’d been there a little while, Uncle Larry put his glasses on. I didn’t see him do it, but there they were, where they hadn’t been just a few moments before. I don’t question things like this at funeral homes. I know there are funeral directors who take care of these sorts of things, just as I know there is a moment when a doctor can declare a person dead. But I’ve also been there for that last breath, and in those days just before that last breath. I’ve walked through that shimmery space, that opening between what we know and what we can’t imagine.

So I’m glad Uncle Larry put his glasses on to see the room fill with his old friends and parishioners, all those people who called my Uncle Larry Father John. My cousin Tommy, the oldest cousin/acting patriarch, greeted every single person who came through the door.

On our way to St. Bernards that morning, one of those fancy osprey helicopter/jet hybrid thingies flew right over my sisters and me as we drove down Fort Couch Road. It turns out President Obama was in Pittsburgh for a funeral, too. Dan Rooney, long time Steelers patriarch, was put to rest about an hour before my uncle. The Bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese sent a letter to my family explaining that he had to be at the Rooney funeral instead of Uncle Larry’s. My uncle would have said something funny about this situation, but I don’t know what it would have been. That’s the thing about people dying.

Even though Bishop Zubik wasn’t there, St. Bernard’s in Mt. Lebanon was full of priests that morning. Thirty or forty of them in solemn robes billowed into the first five pews across the aisle from my family. The priest who gave the sermon was the same priest who had been smiling from the altar since the mass began.

He talked about my uncle’s faith. “We’re sad,” he said, “but don’t begrudge your uncle his joy on this day.” I thought about Uncle Larry’s words at everyone else’s funerals: my sister’s, my brother’s, my father’s, my mother’s. “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” he would say. And I thought about his wry smile in the coffin after he put his glasses on.

The smiling priest reminded us that when Uncle Larry/Father John wanted to get people’s attention, he would say, “This is important–this is big potatoes.” I remembered how Uncle Larry would come up to me, the “caboose” as he once described our shared position among our siblings, at other funerals, and say, “You’re going to say something, aren’t you?”

The first time this happened my sister Meg had died. It was 1990 and I was twenty-six. I don’t remember everything I said, but I remember quoting Dostoevsky from the Brothers Karamozov. “…let us remember how good it was here, when we were all together, united by a good and gentle feeling, which made us all, perhaps, better than we are.”

To bury the dead is another of the corporal works of mercy. On Tuesday, Tommy (who would later snag some yellow roses from a bouquet outside the mausoleum saying “The O’Shea girls should have roses”) said a few serious, gracious words, and the funeral drew to its end. The closed coffin perched beneath the altar, the holy water was sprinkled, and the pall-bearers stood in position. All that was left was to sing one more hymn, process out of the church, stick a black flag on our car, and fall in line behind the hearse on the way to Queen of Heaven cemetery.

And then Bishop Winter went off script. “I want to say one more thing,” he said. “There was a huge snowstorm in Pittsburgh one night.” He paused and looked away for a minute, the way you do when you feel like you might cry but would rather wait until later. “If you had made it home, you were happy,” he said,  “and you stayed home.” He paused.  “I stayed home.” He paused again, and I thought of the way my father couldn’t speak the only time I heard him mention the baby who would have been my fourth sister.  “Not Uncle Larry,” he said,  “I mean Father John.”  We laughed as the man we knew as our uncle merged with the man the Bishop knew as a priest.

The cloistered Passionist nuns, he told us, had quietly tucked in that cold evening when they heard a knock on the door. It was Father John, the Bishop said, braving the blizzard, checking to see that the sisters had everything they needed to weather the storm.  “That’s what I remember,” the Bishop said. Then the organ clanged a chord and they rolled the coffin down the aisle.

We filed out, pew by pew. The church was packed, and the person standing at the end of each row was holding a lit candle.  Tuesday afternoon we followed Uncle Larry, one more time, through the light, into the light.

One of my favorite memories came years ago when my brother Pat had my last two uncles use Skype for the first time. Self-conscious on camera they joked, and then, somehow, my mother’s sister’s husband and my father’s brother decided to sing “As Time Goes By.” Just for fun just now, I looked up the lyrics. Reel Classics begins with these lines I’ve never paid attention to before:

This day and age we’re living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension…

And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed.

In my uncle’s last Christmas card, he wrote, “I don’t like Skype.” He also said, “I love the old phones that had mouthpieces that you spoke into,” but not the distance that had flung my sisters and me across the country. “O well,” he concluded, “times are changing, I’m not. I don’t understand.”

The simple facts of life that cannot be removed are these: Easter morning I flew home to Pittsburgh and Wednesday afternoon I flew back home to Albuquerque. Sunday afternoon at five to twelve I opened Skype, right on schedule, to join my niece’s online baby shower. We broke bread and drank wine and I can’t stop thinking about mercy, about my big and scattered family, how strong the bonds are, how fragile the strands that bind us to this world.

It’s big potatoes.

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Two Gyms

The Sunday after forty-five first hung a “Closed” sign on the Statue of Liberty, my granddaughter had a gymnastics meet. Sunday afternoon found us in a gym full of sparkly tweens, cheering as Aurora balanced, swung, jumped, flipped, and tumbled.

The meet began as they all do. We stood and turned toward the flag hanging way up in the corner. Kids and adults put their hands on their hearts, men took off their hats, and a scratchy recording of the national anthem blared through the sound system.

Many of the people I spend time with are cynical about this ritual, but I’ve never really been one of them. It’s not that I don’t understand the perils of blind nationalism or know the way a flag can be draped over deep flaws to camouflage them; I do. But I’ve always been a sucker for words sung or spoken aloud together. Maybe it was all those years of Catholic school where we began the day by reciting both the Our Father and the pledge of allegiance, or those long Pittsburgh Lents when we walked around the church, praying aloud at every station of the cross, We adore thee o Christ and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world. I have a vivid memory of a Girl Scout ceremony from elementary school. We were standing outside in someone’s backyard on the other side of Clifton Road on a cool Bethel Park evening. We finished saying the pledge, and somebody’s little brother said loudly, “Amen!”

It was all one thing back then, even before I got to Notre Dame and read “God, country, Notre Dame” engraved in the doorway of Sacred Heart church. It’s the same thing with the national anthem. I’ve always been that person standing in the row behind you at the baseball game, singing along. If I’m being all the way honest, I’ll admit that I even tear up a little in those moments.

I’ve never before stopped  to interrogate those tears. Trying to understand them now I think they might be about the fact that thousands of strangers are sharing a unifying moment, any moment. But now that I say that out loud, it sounds terrifying.

So last weekend in that gym, standing between two of my grandkids, looking out on a floor filled with little glittery girls in leotards, I couldn’t do it. My hands were clenched in fists at my sides and nothing was going to make them move. All that intellectualized fear of blind nationalism that I’ve carried for years moved out of my head and settled like weights in my hands. Symbols matter, I told myself. Now more than ever, it’s important to be clear. 

And then it was Monday morning. I went to work and headed into our gym for a full-school morning meeting. We were gathering to welcome the Mexican exchange students who had arrived that weekend. Thanks to some amazing Spanish teachers, my school has had an exchange program with a school in Mexico City for more than a decade. Near the end of every winter as the light returns, a dozen or so new students enliven our school. Then, a few weeks later, our kids head to Mexico City. For years, this program has built life-long friendships and deepened intercultural understanding. This year, it felt also like an act of defiance. We welcome you, my school said loudly, in the face of those who would build walls to keep you away.

I started writing this essay just after that powerful morning in the gym, and then life took over and sent me meandering down different paths, as it does. When I thought about the gymnastics meet, I wondered if I had reached some new understanding, some new point that would keep my mouth closed and my hands clenched tightly by my side.

And then I started thinking about Lorraine Hansberry. I read A Raisin in the Sun again with my eleventh graders this fall, and last week I kept thinking about the scene where Walter Lee has lost his father’s insurance money, including the part that was earmarked to pay for his sister’s education. His sister, not surprisingly, is furious. When she tells her mother there’s “nothing left to love” in him, Mama stops her. “When do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? …that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so!” she tells her.

Then one morning the students at my school announced an upcoming discussion about America. One of the young women publicizing the event said, “I’m trying to figure it out. Is it ‘America, yay, we’re great!’ or ‘America, oh, that’s not so good’?” She invited her classmates to join her in a conversation to figure it out together.

I was heartened by the students’ desire to make sense of America, and I still hadn’t figured out what Lorraine Hansberry was trying to tell me. Then I was unpacking some books and I came across an old marked-up copy of Elie Wiesel’s Night.  In his Nobel lecture, Wiesel said “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

I’m thinking about all those other moments I’ve spent in gyms and stadiums, cheering on St. Louise, rooting for the Blackhawks at Bethel Park Senior High, yelling for the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame and the Lobos at UNM. I’m wondering about all those times I’ve cheered and chanted and sang for our side, for our team. I’m thinking about how easy is to get pulled in to those moments, to think you care more than you really care.

I’m thinking about the fact that symbols matter, and that it’s important in challenging times to be clear. Let’s write 2017 down as the year democracy kicked us in the teeth and reminded us that we don’t get to keep it for free. It’s not a spectator sport or a pep rally. We can’t cheer from the sidelines and trust that somebody else is going to get it done. This is the year we need to remember that those same fireworks that look so beautiful in the sky are explosions here at ground level; those “bombs bursting in air” actually kill people.

Yesterday afternoon I walked out of the house with Rusty on his leash by my side. We’d only taken a few steps when we both came to a dead stop–I flinched, and Rusty pushed his belly toward the ground. We felt the air above us churn and heard a powerful clapping of wings.  A giant hawk had bulleted over the roof of the garage and passed just inches above my head; it was as though we had stepped right between him and the prey he was diving for.  Rusty and I watched, stunned, as the hawk changed course and skidded back into the sky.

I don’t know what the students at my school decided about America. I suspect, or maybe I hope, that they ended in ambivalence–that they weren’t so cynical to have stopped believing in the ideal of liberty and justice for all, but weren’t so blind to believe it will magically manifest on its own.

At the end of his speech, Wiesel said, “Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.”  We’re all charged with creating the world. Let’s use our hands and hearts and voices for that.

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Peace on Earth and Barry Manilow

I vaguely remember one New Year’s Eve–call it early high school in Bethel Park, PA. I don’t know whose basement we’re in, but there’s a tv up on the wall in the corner and we’re waiting for the ball to drop. Barry Manilow is singing “It’s just another New Year’s Eve,” and my friends and I are throwing things at the tv. “Good riddance,” we are yelling at 1970-something. The details are sketchy from this distance, but I’m thinking our bad year had to do with boys, maybe even one specific boy. Maybe it was one boy who several of us had been in love with. Maybe some of those loves had overlapped, and maybe that boy who might have been tall and lanky had been careless with our eager hearts. Maybe that Barry Manilow song would become an anthem of sorts, pulling us back together. Maybe when Barry Manilow sang, “We’ve made mistakes, but we’ve made good friends too,” my friends and I looked at each other and knew our friendships would outlast all those high school boys who might have tossed their heads to push long straight hair out of their eyes while they played tone poems on the piano and sang soulfully to each one of us as if we were the only one who mattered. Like I said, it’s all blurry from this distance.

This New Year’s Eve, I haven’t been able to get a purchase on my feelings. My life with a small l is as peaceful and rich as it’s ever been. After trying without success to sell our house for the past few years, we finally decided just to stay. I love my house. The ceiling in the family room soars to three high windows, way up on the wall. Sometimes when I am sitting on the couch, I see a plane fly by. Sometimes when I am standing at the kitchen sink, I see a friendly moon rising over the deck. Sometimes when I sit in the loft at night, all of Albuquerque twinkles below me, and I remember how the snow crunched in Pittsburgh, how the whole city glittered beneath Mt. Washington at night. During the day, the Sandias put on a cloud-show, playing games with the light from the moment the first red glow appears before dawn.

Since we’re staying, we’re doing the things you do when you love something. We’re fixing up, polishing, tending to, shining. Everything old is feeling new. It’s not the same anticipation I had been feeling about building a new house; but it feels good. It feels solid. It feels like home.

Last Christmas, not long before he died, my brother bought a tree and a nativity set. He was newly excited about living, even as his health was getting worse. I put up his nativity set this year, and I think about him when I walk into the living room. Maybe that’s how I feel about 2016. It was sad and hard and beautiful and joyful, and we’re still here. Last night just before midnight I asked Fred what he thought was the best thing about 2016. He thought for a while, and then he said, “I’m still alive.”

I thought about what he said in church this morning. I started singing in church choirs in middle school. With the exception of a few years when I was too angry to be a Catholic and too Catholic to be anything else, I’ve sung in church choirs my whole life. I need it: the camaraderie, the ritual, the faith act of opening your mouth and turning air and flesh and bone into music. All of it feeds me in a way I’ve finally learned not to try to understand with my head.

This morning we were singing “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” The story goes like this: Once upon a time, a bunch of angels dipped close to earth, playing golden harps and singing about peace. The earth just lay there listening (“in solemn stillness” to be precise), but didn’t really get it. I’m picturing a polite clap from a few cold, bored shepherds leaning on crooked staffs on a rocky hillside before they turned back toward the fire. Fast forward through the centuries into verse two and the angels keep coming. They float around singing elevator music about peace on earth while the “weary world,” now filled with “sad and lowly plains,” keeps ignoring them.

By verse three, we’re getting more explicit, and strangely, this morning I find the words deeply comforting. The angels have been singing for “two thousand years of wrong” while “warring humankind hears not.” The lyricist even gets a little testy: “hush your noise” and listen to the damn angels, he says. I’m not sure I should be feeling better about 2016 and life with a capital L in 2017 because the world has been messed up for millennia, but somehow I am.

Neither Barry Manilow nor the carol writer can resist sappy optimism in the final verse. Barry tells us bloodlessly that we’re going to be “just fine,” but not even I can look around the world heading into 2017 and believe it’s going to be that simple. (Besides, it’s obvious Barry just needed to rhyme with Auld Lang Syne. He could just as easily have said, “the cancer is benign,” or “now go out and dine.”)

I’ll get to the angels’ happy/sappy ending in a minute, but first I need to tell you about something that happens every now and then when I’m singing. Once in a while, my body disappears. That’s not exactly what I mean, but I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s as though I’m not the one making the music; rather, I’m as much an instrument as Justin’s recorder or Rachel’s viola or Ken’s violin. In those moments, instead of singing, I’m being sung.

That happened to me this morning during the angel song. In the fourth verse, the angels stop flying around and the writer imagines a better time, a time he believes is coming, maybe even immanently. In this new era, the angels give up on floating around strumming cheery Muzak on their shiny harps. In this new era, an impatient peace takes over and”flings” it’s “ancient splendors” over the earth.

Imagine that! I spend a lot of time talking to students about using strong verbs, and I’ve never noticed that one before. I want to be alive when peace starts flinging itself over this weary world.

I’m left with contradictions as this new year begins. We’re all still alive. My life in this house I’ve lived in since 1998 feels whole and rich and grounded.  And yet, I know it’s probably not just another New Year’s eve. The world beyond my house feels jarring and chaotic, violent and confused.  It seems unlikely that peace will pick 2017 to start flinging itself at this weary world.

I was talking to a friend after church on New Year’s day. “I’m ok today,” he said, and I think there’s wisdom in his words. All sorts of things we can’t foresee will surely be demanded of us tomorrow. I’m going to try to meet them with love. I’m going to try to notice when peace comes flinging my way. It’s been a long time since anyone accused me of being an angel, but for what it’s worth, I’m going to keep on singing.

 

 

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Right Now

Right now–Cubs up 5-1 with two outs in the  bottom of the fifth in game seven–while the Cubs still might win the World Series for the first time since 1908, and right now, while the U.S. might still elect our first woman president since, well, ever, right now, I want to write about road rage.

A few weeks ago as Fred and I pulled into BJ’s on a Tuesday night for half-price wine, we watched a Yukon-sized car careen through the mall parking lot, pull in front of us as we turned into the restaurant, then come to a dead stop in front of the entrance to unload a clown car’s worth of passengers. I’d be lying if I said we waited calmly and patiently while people climbed out of the car, but we did wait. That was our only option, as the car was stopped in the middle of the road, blocking our only path to a parking space. (For the record, I’ll add that it was a hale and hearty bunch who climbed out; no little old ladies or little kids with broken legs in sight.)

Things took a turn for the worse when the backup lights came on and it seemed likely that the car was about to ram into us. That’s when Fred hit the horn. It wasn’t one of those cute little tap-tap honks that says, “Excuse me, I just wanted to make sure you knew I was here.” It was a long honk, the kind that calls the other driver names, the kind that continued beyond the point when the other driver saw us and decided not to back up.

The big, empty car realized we were there, pulled forward, and we all parked. As we headed into the restaurant, while I tried to avoid eye contact, the driver came toward us angrily and said, “I was going to stop!” There was some arm waving and head shaking, and somehow Fred managed not to respond in kind, and we all ended up in the restaurant. Fred and I hustled off to a table in the bar while our new friends waited to be seated.

(Right now, the team that needs to find a new name just scored two runs on a wild pitch, so I need to write more quickly. The Cubs are up 5-3, still two outs.)

I ordered an expensive glass of La Crema Pinot Noir since it was Tuesday and I was having the cherry chipotle salmon, and Fred and I were talking and having a nice evening. At some point after our drinks were served and before dinner came, the man from the parking lot appeared at our table.

“I was out of line,” he said. “I would have reacted exactly like you did.” (I’m going to bet you didn’t see that coming, either.) Of course, that led to a pleasant exchange, we admitted our honking had been a little excessive, and the evening became brighter and warmer than it had been.

A little while later I was eating my salmon when our waiter came by with another glass of Pinot Noir. “This is from the folks at table 22,” he said. I went to the hostess stand to make sure I had the the right table, and then went over to talk to them.

The thing is, I had had a pretty hard day. Sometimes I struggle to leave my students’ problems at school. Sometimes the helplessness I feel about not being able to make someone’s life different than it is threatens to engulf me. I worry about the unknown, the news that might come in the next phone call.

That’s what I said to my new road rage friends at table 22.  “That was so unnecessary,” I told them, “and so incredibly kind.” I told them it had been a hard day. I thanked them for reminding me that bad things can lead to good.

It was only later that I realized they had also reminded me that grace is real, that I’m not completely crazy for believing that good has an edge.

Right now (6-3 in the top of the seventh, less than a week out from the election), when everything is possible and everything could still go either way, that’s what I wanted to say.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to wake up and either be the same Cubs fan I’ve been since those wonderful summers right after college when I lived a quick train ride from Wrigley and rooted for the perpetual underdogs, or I’ll be some new kind of Cubs fan who cheers for a team that can actually win.

November 9th we’ll all wake up in a different world than the one we live in today. My road rage buddy made me a little more hopeful that, whatever world it is, we’ll figure out how to live in it.

 

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Bumper Cars

When you teach eleventh grade English, you end up reading Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” he tells us. He tugs at me every time I read him, just as Rilke does when he says, “You must change your life.” If I remember my Rilke right, there is a line break between change and your, so in that tiny breath between lines, while your eyes scan down the page, you rest. You don’t see Rilke’s imperative coming at you until it’s too late to hit the brakes.  The oracle has spoken.

It’s July, 2016, and everything is hard. I’m here and not here. I’m thinking about Thoreau and Rilke and one great day at an amusement park in the summer of 2014.

Cliff’s Amusement Park in Albuquerque, which used to be called Uncle Cliff’s before it grew up, defines a responsible person (an RP if you will) as anyone who is “over 54 inches.”

That simplifies things nicely, don’t you think? If the top of your head stretches four and one half feet above the planet, you have reached the age of reason. (It turns out that this is precisely the same methodology the New Mexico DMV uses to issue drivers licenses, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

54 inches is an important number at Cliff’s. If you are 54 inches tall, not only are you responsible, but you can also ride The Cliff-Hanger, the Rattler, the Sidewinder, and every other ride in the park, all by your sensible self.

48 inches is another important milestone in the amusement park business. If you are 48 inches tall, you are what I might call an FP, or a Forgetful Person. At four feet even, you might remember to hold your little brother’s hand in line, but forget to wait for him as you get off the Galaxy, leaving him behind like just another lost lunchbox or library book or jacket or jump rope or another jacket on the playground. If you were just six inches taller, you would never make that mistake.

42 inches matters at Cliff’s, too. If the distance between the bottom of your feet and the top of your hair is three feet and a half, and you were just responsible enough to bring an RP with you to the park, together you can ride a few of the rides otherwise reserved for the more elevated, like the Mega Water Monkeys and the Rocky Mountain Rapids. If you did not bring one of those RPs, or if the RP you brought would rather ride with an FP, you are out of luck. (Sorry, Dude.) Hence your designation as a YP, or Yearning Person. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll lump everyone else into a final category. We’ll call them SPs, for Short People, or Sad People, as the case may be.

As the summer of 2014 rollercoastered to an end, my husband and I, 132 inches (or a total of 2.444 RPs), took 1 RP, 1 FP, and 1 YP to Cliff’s.  When we’re not at Cliff’s, height measurements become less critical, and we tend to call these children Cali, Aurora, and Luke (from tallest to shortest).

Years ago, when Luke was still an SP, we took the kids and their parents to Six Flags in Dallas. The main thing I remember about that day is driving with Luke in one of those real-ish cars on real-ish roads with real-ish signs and traffic signals. I remember this moment because the tiny, meek, reserved little boy who couldn’t reach the pedals grabbed the steering wheel from my hands and started yelling “Wahoo!” as soon as I stepped on the gas. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what Walt Whitman meant when he said, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Luke yawped and wahooed until we got out of the car.

I remembered Luke’s wild wahoo that August when the two of us finally ditched the RP and the FP and headed toward Kiddieland. Luke spotted the bumper cars and accelerated toward them like an Albuquerque driver at a yellow.

It was a quiet morning in the park, so Luke was able to ride, exit, run to the end of the line, and get right back on. All of the SPs and YPs were doing it, going round and round on the bumper cars like one of those bands of rubber ducks rotating around a wheel in a shooting gallery.

This morning, there isn’t a whole lot of driving going on in the bumper car arena, unless you count the parents. They are going wild on the side of the road. “Gun it, Priscilla!” one woman (I am certain she is a Girl Scout troop leader) yells at her daughter, who looks at her mother and waves as she drives into the wall. “Drive, ‘jito, drive!” another man hollers to his son in the bright red car.  Soon so many shouts of drive, turn, use the gas, watch where you are going, look out are filling the air like a traffic jam that I’m beginning to feel that I’m trapped in the square of a comic strip bursting with word bubbles. I decide to move away from the scout leader.

To be fair to the parents, these children are terrible drivers. Little YP1 in the Grateful Dead t-shirt can’t tell the brake from the gas. Redhead YP2 lurches into the wall the moment the ride begins and never gets free.  SP1 in the Dodgers cap crashes into SPs 3, 4, and 5. SP5 starts crying, at which point his mother (not the Girl Scout leader) starts trying to convince the RP in charge to stop the ride. She’s a bored fourteen-year-old (1.4 RPs, I’d estimate) listening to invisible earbuds and pretending she can’t hear the parent. YP3 in the princess t-shirt is stuck alone in the corner, waiting to be rammed back into action by another uncoordinated child who might accidentally bump her free. I am watching Luke with no intent whatsoever of coaching him on an amusement park ride. (Really, I’m the outlier here?) He is sitting in his car, all forty or fifty pounds of him, leaning gently against the driver’s side door. His left arm rests on the open window while he steers with one hand. James Dean cool.

I can’t tell what he’s doing at first. He’s not driving into the piles of cars hung up all over the arena, and he’s not taking aim and deliberately ramming into people, which, to be fair to these future bad drivers of Albuquerque, is actually the point of bumper cars.

No, Luke is following one of those old driver’s ed mantras that still pops into my head from time to time: “Aim high in steering.” He’s looking down the road, picking his path, maneuvering between cars. He is making decisions on the fly—can I get between that clump of cars ahead left before that nearsighted boy in the green car breaks free and hits me? Can I pass this girl who keeps forgetting to press on the pedal before she closes the gap on my right? Can I do it without taking my foot off the gas? Can I do it with one hand? This little boy is teaching himself how to drive. His whole body yawps wahoo!

Luke gets off and gets back on, still beaming, and I’m watching him and thinking about Albuquerque drivers. When I moved here from Chicago in 1988, my car insurance skyrocketed.  People here don’t slow down at stop signs and accelerate through red lights. The only time you can count on Albuquerque drivers to stop is right after they have entered a roundabout. A few years ago a man who was eating a bowl of cereal rear-ended me after I’d been stopped for almost a full cycle at a red light. I can still see the bowl on the dashboard and the cheerios splattered inside his windshield. I’m reminded of Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby. When Nick Carraway tells her she’s a bad driver, she says that’s ok, other people are careful. She wouldn’t last a day in Albuquerque.

Luke waves as he makes another loop off the ride and back onto the ride. I wave back, and pretend I don’t see the Girl Scout leader, who thinks I was waving at her.

I know some of you probably think your city has the worst drivers, but trust me, you are wrong. Put on a helmet and come visit. KRQE, one of our local news channels, reported that “According to Wallethub.com, New Mexico is ranked dead last in the nation when it comes to driving safety.” I have no idea who Wallethub.com is, but I know they are right.  “All State,” my husband says when I tell him what I’m writing about. “It was All State who called us the worst drivers in the country.” There. How’s that for evidence? All State knows crashes.

Around and around Luke goes, never so much as brushing another car. I’m slipping into his rhythm, giving myself to the railing I’m leaning on, to the sun in my eyes, to the feel of my damp shorts still drying from the water slide. I’m trying to figure out, RP and then some that I am, why this moment matters.

I remember one night at Kennywood. I was riding on the Umbrellas. I was swooping up into the air alone, looking out over the Caterpillar and the paddleboats, listening to the wooden roar of the Racers. It was dark and something happened. I realized that I wasn’t just experiencing the moment; I was writing it. I was talking it through in my head, recording it in words as the stars swung around each time. I was living it and watching myself live it.

Luke doesn’t look like he’s watching anything as he slides between two cars. Joy shoots off him like a sparkler. He’s closing the circuit, powering his own car.  He’s a waxing moon scooting around on a magnetic floor, sculpting his own orbit.

Sometimes I write and write and have no idea why these particular words are in such a hurry, elbowing their way up into my throat, only to mill around while I try to figure out why I want to say them.  Then something happens in my life, and I realize I’ve been writing about it for weeks.

That didn’t happen with this essay. I left it buried in my “essays” file and moved on to some other idea. I tried tacking on a quote from a Ruth Stone poem I like (“In the next galaxy” she writes, “things will be different”), and brought Thoreau (“eternity remains”) back in, but all the strands kept hanging there separately, try as I might to weave them together.

Then today I remembered that one time I wrote a poem that won a prize. “The word is Americana” I said in the poem. I was thinking about sticky cotton candy on a boardwalk, holding hands in the mall, my brother working on an old Pontiac in the driveway, a man running his fingers across a name at the Vietnam Memorial in DC.

I wasn’t thinking about all those people who died in that war. I wasn’t thinking about the people who weren’t allowed to walk on that boardwalk. I was thinking about those moments of presumed innocence; those moments when a baby cries or a person falls in love and that awful human hope propels us into believing that we’re all living out some beautiful, tragic mystery together.

Back in 2014 the bumper cars go silent again, and Luke waves at me tentatively. The sun is still in my eyes and I’m wondering what the hell I could have meant by Americana. All Luke wants to know is “Can I go again?” I nod.  I could watch him drive all day.

 

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Jackhammer

Saturday morning around 11:00 Fred looked at me calmly and said, “We need to go to the emergency room.” Then he said, “You should probably walk the dog before we go.” Come again? “We’ll be there a long time,” he reasoned, “he’ll need to go.” It seemed quicker to take the dog out than to have a conversation about why walking the dog and going to the emergency room shouldn’t happen in the same sentence, so I gave Fred an aspirin, dashed Rusty up the street to the corner and back, and then headed off to Rust Medical Center, way out on the west side, to start our Memorial Day weekend. Fred was short of breath and having pain in his left lung that was spreading into his back, neck, and shoulder. Apparently it had started the night before and he hadn’t wanted to say anything. “I thought I could get to Tuesday,” he explained. He was trying to “get to Tuesday” so I wouldn’t miss the trip I had planned; I was heading to Chicago to visit my best old friend and go to my 30th college reunion at Notre Dame.

Two women hooked Fred up while, just behind a curtain, another woman was nursing a crying baby. There was nothing HIPAA-friendly about this set-up. I could hear everything the woman and her doctors talked about, as she could listen to everything the women who were sticking little polka dot monitors all over Fred’s chest and on his arms and legs were telling him.

In short order, Fred was plugged in, pricked for blood, and x-rayed. The nurse wound us through hallways cutely named things like “X-ray Avenue” and “Radiation Road” and finally ended up in a decent size room with all sorts of random equipment lying around. It felt a little more like being in a garage full of your dad’s old tools than in a hospital room.

We settled in, and Paul, our nurse (nice touch, Universe!) was in and out with questions, information, and an empathetic ear. Things went on like this for a good while, and then, out of nowhere, Fred got dramatically worse.

Fred and I have been married for nearly twenty-four years, and I’ve seen him in pain a few times. Fred in pain looks a lot like most people when they are not in pain. When the lawnmower jammed some twenty years ago and Fred reached under to remove whatever was blocking it, he walked calmly to the back door hiding his bloody hand, and said, just like he did today, “We need to go to the emergency room.” The emergency room doctor that time sent us directly to a plastic surgeon, who let me stay to watch him do the skin graft. We left his office with painkillers that Fred wouldn’t take because we had tickets to see Paul McCartney in Las Cruces that night. It was a great concert. The only nod Fred made to his pain was sleeping in the back seat on the long drive home. He never did take the Percocet.

A little more than a year ago Fred slipped on some ice and broke his ankle. Of course, we would never have known he had broken his ankle unless I had insisted, after a few days of watching him walk around almost normally while his ankle kept swelling, that he get an x-ray. He never even filled the prescription that time. He just doesn’t really acknowledge pain. (For the record, I am not that way. I am perfectly happy to be medicated and sleep through the worst of it.)

So, in the middle of the day when Fred’s pain spiked to the point that he was crying out and writhing, I was terrified. His blood pressure was spiking and his blood oxygen, flashing on the monitor above his head, kept dipping below 90% and causing the machine to ping. I felt like people in hospital garb should be running into the room and doing something, anything, to relieve the pain and fix whatever was broken. Unexpended adrenaline was humming in me, gathering my attention to one focal point, Fred’s ragged breathing. Painfully in and painfully out, for what seemed like forever.

Meanwhile Paul the nurse was checking in with the doctor and had gotten an order for morphine. He pumped the syringe into Fred’s IV port. After fifteen minutes (enough time, apparently, for intravenous morphine to take affect), Fred’s pain hadn’t subsided at all. Paul gave him another shot, and then wheeled him off for a CT angiogram. I paced around the room waiting for them to come back. Eventually they rolled in, Fred’s pain still untouched by the morphine. Paul went off to ask the doctor to order another round, and this time Fred’s breathing eased a little, but a half hour later, the pain roared back. The fourth shot seemed to be the charm. Fred finally drifted off, and I waited for the test results while I watched him breathe.

Somewhere lost in a box in a closet I have a picture of my father. He is leaning on a jackhammer, wearing goggles, kneepads, and a sweatshirt, and he is smiling. He had rented the jackhammer when hairline cracks appeared in the garage floor in the house on Marvle Valley. Being my father, he didn’t reach for the yellow pages. He went to the library, did some research, and decided to fix the floor himself.

Apparently, the first step is to make the cracks bigger. My father rented the jackhammer and went to town. He turned all those hairline cracks into little gullies, which grew into empty riverbeds. By the time he stopped, the garage looked like the desert mesa behind my house in Albuquerque, cracked with deep arroyos after a long summer without rain.

It turned out my father got a kick out of jackhammering. “Everyone should try this,” he kept saying. I pictured him riding his jackhammer like a revved up pogo stick while my mother laughed and, at his urging, took a turn.

Fred is resting easier while we wait for the test results. Last night, I was writing a different essay. It was about the end of the school year. We graduated the seniors Friday morning, and I was thinking about how cool it is that as a teacher, I get two New Years reckonings every year. The year ends on December 31 just like it does for my non-teacher friends, but then it ends again in late May. And the thing I really like about the late May ending is that New Years Eve falls on May 27 when the seniors graduate, but New Year’s Day won’t happen until August 17 when the kids come back to school. Instead of a few hours of champagne-tinted reflection about the troubles and glories of the past year, I have months to examine my life, my craft, the state of my relationship with the world.

I wrote that whole essay Friday night, but I decided to let it sit. I was worried that it was too sappy, too self-indulgent. I had started writing it after watching a video of two little girls and a horse dancing in a field. An old friend had posted it on Facebook, and in one of those sappy, sentimental moments that I’m sometimes prone to, I felt like that video held everything I needed to know about the world. (If you’ve ever cried during a Subaru commercial, you know exactly what sort of mood I was in.)

In that essay I told a story about one Friday afternoon when the middle school kids were celebrating Spirit Day. My friend Jinni told me she was going to be singing karaoke with the kids that afternoon in our black box theater. She was going to be singing with a girl I’ll call Hope, although her real name suits her better, and she wanted to know if I wanted to come sing with them.

I met Hope on the day my brother died. I had gone into school that morning feeling sad, of course, and more than a little lost. I found Jinni to tell her what had happened, and Hope was nearby and saw us both begin to cry. She put her hand on my arm, tumbling out of herself into compassion. This little girl exploded into my life that day like the first bird singing in the morning. All day, she kept reaching out to me. The next day she brought me a card. Now when we see each other on campus we run toward each other and exchange hugs.

On this Friday afternoon I’m remembering, I headed into the theater. The middle school kids are bouncing around like popcorn kernels in hot oil. Jinni, Hope, and I are standing at the microphone in front of a friendly crowd. We’re singing “Let it Be,” hamming it up, swaying back and forth. The kids in the risers start swaying, too, and then they take out their cell phones, waving their lights back and forth and singing with us. When the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me. It’s a horse dancing with two little girls in a field. It’s a hokey and beautiful moment.

Sometime after Fred’s fourth shot of morphine, Dr. Emmel, a tiny, soft-spoken man, came in with the test results. “Good news,” he said. He’d ruled out a heart attack, blood clots, and a host of other scary sounding problems. “It looks like pleurisy,” he said, which sounded like a disease out of Little House on the Prairie, or something someone’s great Aunt Rose came down with in 1917. It turns out its an inflammation in the lining of the lungs that hurts like hell and just has to run its course. They gave us a prescription for more painkillers, pointed us toward Departure Drive, and sent us out into the late afternoon. The sun was shining and the world had no idea that we’d been there and back again today.

After my father created his desert moonscape in the garage, he swept out the debris and made the furrows clean. Then he mixed up some concrete patch, troweled it in, and smoothed it over. Fred felt well enough by Tuesday morning for me to get on a plane and head to my 30th college reunion at Notre Dame. On Saturday afternoon, I run into a few old friends whose daughter has spent the last week in the hospital. I recognize their cracked open look, that bewildered way you feel when one foot is standing firmly in the grass in the world you know and the other is resting on nothing more solid than prayer.

I’m just about a week into my second new years eve of the year, and I’m thinking again about how these funny things we call ourselves are bodies, sets of complex interlocking moving parts, mysterious in both their fragility and their resilience. I’m thinking about how love is both the thing that jackhammers you open and the thing that fills the furrows. I’m sitting in my friend Kathy’s kitchen, typing. In a few minutes I’ll head to the airport, start my journey home. Fred will pick me up at the airport in Albuquerque, both of us for the time being standing on solid ground. I’ll walk into his arms, grateful, one more time, that I’ve reached home.

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Raw

When I got home from my unexpected trip to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago the ornamental plum outside my upstairs window was blooming. Spring happened in Albuquerque while I was gone, but I’m not ready for it. It’s still lent and my joints are hurting. I’m coughing again. My voice this morning was too hoarse even to sing.

Honestly, I’m not feeling much like writing.

Years ago my husband and I were driving west across Oklahoma. “From there to here we called it coming home,” I wrote in a poem once, and I’ve always liked that line. On this particular trip the sky was tilted all off kilter; clouds and earth and sky jangled at crazy angles to each other. We listened to emergency reports on the radio, wishing we knew the city names as we tried to outrun the tornado swirling somewhere behind us.

I thought of that sky Monday night when I couldn’t sleep. The world feels all helter-skelter again. A good friend is the first to use the “t word”—the call in the middle of the night, the shock of deeply bad news. Trauma, she says, gently.

Every time someone dies, it’s hard in a new way. It’s not just that it opens the well of all the losses that have gone before, although that’s part of it. This time it’s that it feels so much like it shouldn’t have happened. Three weeks before he died, my brother Paul bought a new Subaru. This past Christmas, he bought a tree, a nativity set, a bunch of ornaments. Last summer he bought new furniture.

It isn’t that we didn’t know he was sick. For at least a year we’ve been worried. This summer we weren’t sure he would survive surgery to put a stent in his heart, but he did. When it became clear that his best hope was to get to Cleveland Clinic where the doctors might be willing to do bypass surgery, we worried that he’d die before he got there. It seemed to take forever to get the appointment arranged, while Paul’s voice on the phone kept getting weaker.

The thing is, my brother made it to Cleveland Clinic. A few Sunday mornings ago he and my brother Pat got in Paul’s new CrossTrek with Paul behind the wheel and Pat riding shotgun. They drove to Cleveland Clinic. Monday morning Paul was admitted, and Monday afternoon we all got the cautiously optimistic report that they thought they’d be able to help him. Monday night I was sleeping well when the phone rang a little after midnight Albuquerque time. I saw my sister’s name and the time and knew before I answered the phone what she was calling to tell me. Actually, I didn’t manage to answer the phone. I fumbled it and dropped it on the floor, and Fred answered on his side of the bed when she called back a moment later. Paul had had a heart attack and died.

Any editor would tell you this is a terrible story. It’s too abrupt; the irony too O. Henry. It doesn’t give you any room for resolution; there’s no denouement. Nevertheless, it’s the story I’m in.

When I walked into the funeral home Saturday morning my Uncle Larry asked me to say a few words. He’s done this before; I’ve spoken at my sister’s funeral, and at my father’s. By the time my mother died last spring the Catholic church had decided that lay people shouldn’t give eulogies at funerals, so the notes I jotted on the plane went unsaid. I didn’t think about the fact that Paul’s service wasn’t happening in a church, just a small chapel at the funeral home, so I was surprised when I walked in and my uncle said, “You’re going to say a few things, right?” There is only one answer to that question, and fortunately I’ve carried a tiny notebook around ever since I read Harriet the Spy three thousand times in middle school. I pulled it out and used the hour before the service, when relatives and old friends were gathering in the same room we all gathered in just last May, to try to figure out what to say about my brother.

Here’s a story I’ve never told. One night my sister Meg came home and something was wrong. I was little and watching the commotion in the street from an upstairs window. Someone, I think, had hurt her. My brother, nine years older than I, two years older than Meg, was losing it. “I’m going to kill him,” are the words that still remain, along with a flurry of efforts to hold him back, and some unremembered resolution of the night back into calm. By which I mean at some point I got in bed and proceeded not to think about the events of the night ever again. I wouldn’t have sought comfort or understanding. If my mother had stuck her head in to check on me, I would have pretended to be (and to have been) asleep. I do not know why this was so.

Here’s another story I’m trying to figure out. When we moved into the house on Marvle Valley I was three and my mother wasn’t with us. She was in the hospital losing a baby, and, I think, fighting for her life. My sisters are trying to piece that time together. They were in school, and Judy thinks they might have stayed with our grandmother whose house was close enough to St. Albert’s for them to walk. Where was I? I keep asking them, and they can’t tell me. They don’t think I was with them. How could you have left me? I keep asking them, all weekend, until it becomes its own story. Remember that time when I was three and we moved out of the house in Baldwin and you all went to stay with someone else and forgot me? What did that three year old know? What was she afraid of? In April 1967, did she believe her mother was never coming back? Had she been anticipating the baby that would have released her from her role as youngest? How did you all move out and leave me, I keep asking all weekend, as though that’s a story that actually happened.

Paul, I think, would have remembered. He would have known where I’d been left. What remained for me from the night he wanted to kill someone was the knowledge that my brother would always have my back. That’s what I say at the funeral. I don’t tell the story about how I knew.

Having an uncle who is a priest is never more of a gift than when he is leading the prayers at a funeral. Uncle Larry is standing behind the podium at the front of the chapel. He says, “When I say Lord have mercy, will you say, Lord have mercy.” I love the repetition of “When I say…Will you say…” That’s the litany my uncle’s prayers repeat and I fall into it. You do not have to have anything of your own to offer. You do not have to believe what you are saying. Your voice does not have to be strong. All you have to do is say the words out loud.

It takes a toll on him, officiating at family funerals. My uncle looks tired today, and older than I’ve seen him before. There were twenty-two of you, he tells me, meaning the children of his brothers and sisters. Five have died.

Yesterday afternoon I was on the phone with one of my students’ parents, a woman I’ve spoken to many times over the years. She asked how I was doing, and thinking she had heard about my loss, I told her I was muddling through. She hadn’t heard, so I told her, and she said something like, “Oh– you are still walking with God.” I am not sure that I heard her right, but I love that expression. I’m in those days of walking through the in-between space.

Here’s an image I don’t understand. The other night I walked outside and imagined that all the planets and constellations and blinking satellites had been lined up like icons on a computer screen. Gone was the spray of star I’m used to seeing. Someone had clicked on “align to grid” and they were all there, arranged neatly in two dimensions. I don’t know why I had that thought.

And here’s another. Years ago on the beach in North Carolina we flew a kite so high it disappeared; the string was wet and the only sign that the kite was still there was a certain tension, a vibration, a tugging on the string.

The last day Paul was alive was the last day I saw the three cranes I’ve been driving by all winter at the church on the corner of Taylor Ranch and Montano. They flew off to wherever they go when spring comes.

According to the American Psychological Association, “Writing about difficult, even traumatic, experiences appears to be good for health on several levels – raising immunity and other health measures and improving life functioning.”

Since Paul died I’ve been achy and exhausted and ill. I resent the early and longer light. I miss the cranes.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that I’m wallowing. I know that my little troubles pale against the world’s pain. I know that I can’t stay here, hunkered down, curled up, closed. I know that the stars are infinite and deep and that the ground in spring is eager to bloom. The inverse of grief is gratitude, and it soars like a kite into the sun. I’d be lying if I said I can feel it tugging at me, but there’s a faint vibration humming on the string.

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Guns, Redux

I’m in the middle of writing an essay that begins in a room with an x-ray machine and a man asking me to hold a heavy sandbag in each hand. My plan was to lighten up on the “leave” in “live love leave” and write something this time that would make you laugh. But that essay isn’t finished, and today’s shooting hit double digits (which, ridiculously, seems to matter), and maybe some people who read my blog now weren’t reading it the first time I posted this essay.

I have a t-shirt and a rug that tell me that “Love is all you need.” For the most part, I think Jesus and the Beatles got that one right. The world is glorious and the world is hard, and love does what it can to staunch the bleeding.

But maybe it isn’t actually all we need. Maybe we could do better.

So–to old friends, my apologies for posting a repeat. If you hated it the first time, stop reading now. It’s the same essay.  If you liked it, please share it. All most of us have as tools to change our world are words.  I posted the essay below in 2013, when the Senate decided not to expand background checks.

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Yesterday’s Senate action to make sure we don’t expand background checks on gun sales reminded me that maintaining the (deeply flawed) status quo is grueling work. I thought I’d take it upon myself to help our hardworking Senators by drafting a form letter they can use in the future. 

Dear Grieving Parents of [insert child’s name],

The United States Senate wants you to know that we will stand beside you in this time of deep sadness. We will light candles, send cards and teddy bears, and go to our churches and pray. We will also watch a great deal more twenty-four news than usual. Some of us may even commit selfless acts of genuine kindness on TV.

However, we think it is important to let you know what we will not do. (You might want to share this information with your surviving children so that they can better understand the illusive nature of their safety.)

1. We will not pass any laws that criminals are going to break, because that would just be stupid.

2. We will not pass any laws until we are sure that they will be 100% effective at ending all crime. Incremental steps that don’t instantly solve the entire problem are also stupid.

3. We will not give up or in any way limit our right to own military assault weapons, because military assault weapons don’t kill people, people kill people.

4. We will not give up our right to shoot dozens of rounds of bullets with a single pull of the trigger. If you were a hunter, you would understand. Game animals travel in herds.

5. We will not take any action to try to keep guns away from criminals and the mentally ill, because they will just get them anyway (see #1 above).

6. We will not place any limits on who can buy a gun, sell a gun, or shoot a gun. Any step in that direction makes it more likely that the government, which is secretly planning to invade your home, will write your name down and come take your guns.  Just like they took your car and your cat and your dog when you registered them.

In short, we will not take any difficult action to enhance your child’s chances of survival. We have decided that the murder of children (and adults, for that matter), while highly unfortunate, is a cost we are willing to bear.

We hope you understand how deeply saddened we are by your loss.  The teddy bears and balloons should be arriving shortly.

Sincerely,

Your U.S. Senate

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