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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Resurrection

Just before the funeral director closed the lid of my mother’s casket, she sent everyone but immediate family out of the room, so my siblings and I and our families would have a final chance to say goodbye alone. Then she stepped in front of the casket, and in the monotone voice funeral directors and customer service hotline operators cultivate for difficult conversations, she held up a little red enamel dove. It was like the little pins you got in high school in the eighties for participating on the forensics team or the school literary magazine.

I didn’t hear everything she said about the pin; the gist of it was that doves represent eternal life and this particularly tacky dove would accompany my mother on her journey.

I’m lost in 2004 while the funeral director keeps talking. When one of your parents is dying and the other is sliding into dementia, ordinary moments are moving chords; they never mean just what they mean. It was probably February. My mother and I were standing by the kitchen window on Marvle Valley Drive, looking out into the barren woods. “They aren’t going to bloom this year,” she told me, her gaze taking in all of the trees in the dense woods behind the house.

“What?” I asked her. “What do you mean they aren’t going to bloom?”

“They are dead,” she told me. “All the trees are dead.”

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Easter always made perfect sense. We buried the “Alleluia” on Ash Wednesday, and the world acted out the Lenten season. Dark came early, stark branches spread like gnarled hands across the back yard, and what little light there was turned the sky a milky gray.

Here in 2015, the funeral director is talking about resurrection, bending over the coffin and pinning the tacky red dove to my mother’s pale blue jacket. She doesn’t place it carefully, in the spot where it would look the most pleasing, as my mother would have done, but sort of randomly, in a spot that was easy for her to reach while she kept one eye on us. I want her to stop, but I don’t know how to make that happen.

Growing up in Pittsburgh during those long gray Lents, there would come a day when I’d run home from the bus stop, and the house would be full of pussy willow branches. My mother always spotted the first buds and filled the house with vases full of this soft promise that winter was ending. Then Easter would come, the forsythia would bloom, and you would believe. Every single year, the whole world acted out the resurrection.

I’m thinking about that year when my mother stopped believing in spring when the funeral director turns back to face all of us, a harmless looking little baggie in her hand. “Here,” she tells us, “are pins just like your mother’s for each of you.” She walks around our awkward semi-circle handing them out. She’s saying something else—(it might as well have been “do this in remembrance of me”) –something about wearing them to be connected to our mother forever—and I want her to stop.

There was a point not long before my father died when neither of my parents were eating much of anything. Cancer was making food unappetizing for my father. My father’s cancer was making life unappetizing for my mother. But somehow, for a while, they could both eat at Olive Garden. I was home for a visit and we were eating minestrone and breadsticks at the Olive Garden just behind the Crowne Plaza where my sisters and I would stay when we came home for my mother’s funeral.

“What if none of it is true?” my mother asks. She is sitting by the window and looks even smaller than usual. The moment is too intimate, too raw. These aren’t the kind of feelings we say out loud to each other in my family. I wanted her to stop.

At some point, the woman in the funeral home stops talking. I drop the little dove in the change purse of my wallet. I don’t notice what my siblings do with theirs. We process in cars with little black flags on their hoods to St. Louise where I went to grade school and where Uncle Larry says the funeral mass. Then we process to the cemetery, and then back to St. Louise where strangers serve us chicken and potato salad and cookies. I wish I could say it was raining, but it is sunny and clear, and there is a tiny woman standing outside the church watching us leave. I do not know who she is, but I can feel that she is blessing us.

Back home in Albuquerque, I don’t know what to do with the dove. For a few weeks, I leave it sitting on the dresser. I’m angry about it. I feel like the funeral director bound us in a sacrament of her own creating. “Really?” I keep asking myself. She thought she could bind us to our mother in her grave with a cheap pin the funeral home probably buys in a pack of a hundred?

I haven’t talked to my siblings about the dove, so I have no idea what they think about it. Perhaps they found it moving, and by writing I am ruining it for them. Maybe we checked yes by some box and asked the funeral home to perform this final service. Maybe my parents requested it in their preplanning. “For an additional $12.95,” the director is saying, back in those easy days before death crept over the horizon. I can even imagine my parents’ conversation. “No, I don’t think we should do that for my funeral,” my dad is saying, “but you might like that, Cathy.” And I can imagine my mother being rather noncommittal, thinking that if my father thought it was a good idea she had no problem going along with it. She was, I imagine, pragmatic about how she’d feel about tacky baubles once she was no longer alive.

I tell the story of the dove to a friend who suggests I throw it away. “It’s nothing to you,” she says. She’s right, of course, except that what she suggests is impossible.

It sat on my dresser for a few weeks, and then I decided to put it back in the little change purse on the side of my wallet. I look at it when I am trying to find a nickel and two dimes and three pennies so I don’t have to break a bill. Maybe someday it will fall out and I will or will not notice. Maybe one day I’ll wonder where it is and get out of bed to search for it in the middle of the night.

The months since my mother’s funeral have been fraught with a series of health emergencies for my siblings. I admit to having a moment when I wondered if the funeral director had cast her spell too literally; perhaps it’s dangerous business to talk about binding people to other people in their graves. For some reason, I can imagine my father finding this hilarious, in an Oscar Wilde sort of way, if we all were reunited too soon on the other side.

The evening of the funeral since we’re all still in town, we throw a surprise birthday party for my sister back at the hotel. We get Danny’s hoagies and Bethel Bakery cake and a bunch of bottles of wine and share them outside on the patio. Later, when the rain finally comes, we fly into the hotel. We’ve been moving as a flock through these last few days, and this final night is no different. The great love between our parents was the central fact of our childhoods. Maybe, as my Uncle Larry is certain, my parents were somewhere else that night in some bodily form, celebrating their long-awaited reunion. It’s hard to wrap your head around. I like to think they were right there with us on the patio, binding us together in the sacrament of birthday cake and wine.

I was having trouble finishing this essay. There’s too much unsaid—how our relationships with our mothers are always fraught. How we miss the mothers we had as well as the mothers we never had. How the person who fed you and taught you to find faces in clouds and mountains is the same person who told you “You have the wrong ideas about everything,” and said, quoting her mother, “What do you want, that the camera should lie?”

Then my friend Mary brought her mother to choir practice last night. We were singing “Take up your cross” when the tears came and kept coming. I came home from practice and still didn’t finish the essay.

Then just now, Fred and I watched last night’s Late Show. Stephen Colbert is interviewing Joe Biden, who sounds a whole lot like my Uncle Don as he talks about his faith and the loss of his son.

We were never a family to say hard things out loud. We weren’t a family who said I love you, or hugged, or shared our problems with each other. But somehow, that didn’t keep us from forming a net, a web with points in Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. Steven Colbert told Joe Biden that his mother used to say, “What’s the use of being Irish if you don’t know that life is gonna break your heart?”

My family never said that out loud, but we lived it. And we lived a corollary Stephen Colbert didn’t mention. When the heart break comes, all you can do is hold on. And maybe find a reason to throw a party.

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Paradise

When I started this essay in April, I was walking with Rusty, my golden retriever friend. Tiny darting birds were dipping and zigging across the street. A late snow had sugared the Sandias, and I was kicking tumbleweeds off the sidewalk while more tumbleweeds went skipping down the street. Rain clouds were tilting at the sky. I was trying to figure out why the year had seemed so hard. A few weeks earlier in another essay I didn’t finish, I had written that the year was all wax and no wane.

Now it’s half past June already, and the summer keeps racing on. It’s father’s day, but I don’t want to write about that this year. I’m thinking about the “8 words” a CNN anchor noted in a story about Charleston this morning. “The doors of the church are still open.”

When my students get stuck in their writing, I tell them to write the problem into their work. Someone important taught me that. (Ann Lamott? Annie Dillard? Nick Hornby? Anyone want to take credit? ) So here’s the problem, at least as it stood through the end of May. I’m stuck. I haven’t posted a blog in months. I’ve started essays and abandoned them. I’ve stayed in bed instead of getting up to write. I’ve spent hours writing lesson plans that should have taken ten minutes. I’ve stopped exercising, stopped even trying to eat things that are good for me. And all that was before my husband broke his ankle.

And it wasn’t just my writing life that fell apart. My life as a teacher went off-kilter, too. It was one of those years when the things I did poorly loomed so much larger than the things I did well. I kept thinking about the kids I didn’t reach; the project that didn’t teach what it should have; the way the big problems of the world–racism, sexism, anti-Semitism–kept manifesting in my school. I finished May thinking about the weight I’d gained, the writing habit that had fizzled, the fact that I hadn’t ridden my bike or gone for a good run since last September.

The problem with not posting essays frequently is that fear creeps in. I start telling myself things like, “No one wants to hear you complain.” And believe me, I get it. I work in a small, private, independent school. A whole wall of windows in my classroom looks out on a grassy quad where art students wrap tree trunks with bright colored ribbons and yarn. Children and puppies frolic (seriously—I chose that verb deliberately) on the lawn. Sometimes on the seniors’ last day of school someone sets up a barbecue grill or a slip’n slide. On rare snowy days, someone always builds a snowman. I don’t even want to hear myself complain.

Here’s more. Students and teachers enjoy one another at my school. Geese lay eggs on top of Patrick Dougherty land art and their babies float around on our pond, squeaking at the turtles sunning themselves on logs. Sometimes a snake or a pheasant shows up by a window outside the library, or a roadrunner with a lizard squirming in his beak darts by the classroom I used to teach in. Between the pond and the cottonwoods I can pick basil or kale or hot peppers to take home for dinner. One day so many crows were flapping in the trees outside my classroom that a student who had just discovered The Birds was getting a little freaked out.

It’s all a bit too much, isn’t it? I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise. We broke ground on the building I teach in just as the recession was getting underway. Every day, as the stock market tumbled and homes were repossessed, I watched a new building rise out of our dusty parking lot and felt like the world was going to be ok. Walking into the lobby of that building every morning now, I’m greeted by a beautiful double-sided fireplace flanked by walls of bookshelves. Vaulted glassy ceilings let in sunlight and amplify the pounding of the rain when it storms. It’s beautiful here.

And yet. I had a really hard year. So hard that I spent a good third of it plotting my (aborted) exit strategy. One day I asked a colleague I ran into outside his classroom how he was doing, and he said, “Oh, you know, another day, another bunch of missed opportunities.” I knew exactly what he meant. Every year as a teacher, you do what you can, and you worry about what you didn’t do.

This was also one of those years when fear kept poking its head out from behind the bulky curtain I use to pretend it isn’t there. It was the kind of year when kids kept reminding me that we’re soft-shelled creatures; that skin is a ridiculously flimsy and porous outer barrier to hold against the world.

This was a year when I stopped going deep.

In late April of this hard year, the parents threw us a Teacher Appreciation dinner where they showered us with gifts. This celebration followed a week of pies, and burrito breakfasts, and chair massages. After this year’s dinner I went home with gift certificates for dinner at The Quarters and a pair of kick ass emerald green cowboy boots. This year, my school undertook a video project where every teacher was asked to record herself teaching. The administrators did it first. We were offered a variety of protocols for reviewing the video, all of them designed to remove fear and create a supportive learning environment. I was allowed to drive the process, to ask for the feedback I wanted from teachers I trust. I am thanked and supported regularly. I do not lose teaching time to state-mandated tests that purport to determine my worth as a teacher or get asked to implement new strategies that may or may not resonate with my own practice every time I turn around. I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise.

But here’s the thing. Paradise is a gated community.

It turns out St. Peter really is standing at the gate, checking his list. It costs families more than twenty thousand dollars to send one child to paradise for one year. We offer as much financial aid as we have, but we’re far from being a place any child could attend. This fall I was conducting a tour around campus at our admissions open house when one little girl asked if we ever give full scholarships. We don’t. I dodged the question, and she continued, “Because if it costs more than a few dollars, I won’t be able to come here.” It can be heartbreaking to teach in paradise.

So here’s what I’m wondering about on this Sunday afternoon, now that the school year has ended and I’m trying to re-find my voice. How do you rejoice in paradise when what you really want to do is tear down the walls to let everyone in? What is the nature of the responsibility that someone who teaches in paradise bears toward someone on the other side of the gate? How do you teach kids gratitude without accidentally teaching them superiority? How do you use the freedom to experiment, the gift of teaching in a beautiful facility where all the supplies I need are stocked down the hall by the copier, to do something other than perpetuate the inequity in the world? How do you bear that responsibility justly? Can you?

It’s sweltering in Albuquerque today. The west mesa is oddly green and the Rio Grande is running high. I’ve come to the end of a hard year simultaneously grateful for and embarrassed by the bounty in my job. If we’ve all got #first world problems, I’ve got first world problems in a private school.

I know that teachers, by nature, believe in the world imagined. I finished the year reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with my 11th graders. As the main character struggles to the end trying to make sense of his grandfather’s deathbed advice, he contemplates leaving his bright basement hole. He affirms, “Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and the light is the truth.”

If I could write a plan for schools like mine, the first draft would read something like this: “We live in a country with a deep history of racism, sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism. This history continues to manifest itself in our world in ways that some of us have the luxury not to see. Private schools, positioned as we are inside the gates of privilege, have a unique imperative to make this history visible, to best equip our students to be responsible, big-hearted actors in the world.”

It’s summer after a hard year in paradise and the world continues to lurch from loss to love. This morning people in Charleston, South Carolina, who know more about the weariness of pain and loss than I will learn in ten lifetimes, said “The doors of the church are still open.” It turns out this same flimsy, porous skin lets it all in—loss and pain and horror and sunlight and love. Ralph Ellison says that, too. As the narrator contemplates his return to life beyond his basement hole, he says, “I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of it all, I find that I love.”

It’s June, and I’m writing again. Sixteen hundred words and not an answer in sight. I’m still searching for a way to end this essay. I always tell my students not to give their closing words to someone else, but I’m breaking that rule today. In a line that’s always haunted me, Ralph Ellison’s invisible man says, “But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant.“

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Crossing the Bridge

I don’t love Ernest Hemingway. I need to start with that. But in his Nobel prize speech, Ernest Hemingway said, “if he is a good enough writer,” (it was always a he), “he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

For at least twenty-six years of my life, I had no idea what he meant. Hold that thought for a minute.

A small stretch of Montaño Road between Coors and Carlisle runs like a furrow through the middle of my life. I could say it runs like Marvle Valley Drive, or Clifton, or Irishtown Road, because it runs like those streets I spent my first twenty years walking and sled-riding and learning to drive on. Going east Montaño opens into mountain. Driving back home mesa dissolves in sky.

For a number of years now, it has seemed that if I am going anywhere, I am driving across the river on that stretch of Montaño. Thursday nights and Sunday mornings, I head across the bridge to St. Michael and All Angels. Saturday mornings, I turn right on Carlisle for violin lessons with my granddaughter. Sunday afternoons, I turn right on Fourth Street to play mandolin with Ken, Elizabeth, Katie, and Steve. I’ve ridden across this bridge on my bike and run across it training for a half marathon. One sad morning in 2011, I walked to the middle of the bridge with a group of teenagers and dropped flowers in the river. Monday afternoons after that sad morning, I drove across the bridge to a warm office just east of Carlisle to try to regain my footing in the world.

On those Monday afternoons, the bridge was full of breakthroughs. I’d be on my way home from my appointment; crossing the bridge, something would snap into place. I’d find clarity around a question, or a decision, or just a new ability to make sense of what I was feeling. It’s as though these roads we live on wear grooves in us, instead of the other way around.

Somewhere in those years, I decided I needed to write now. I was teaching teenagers, not fighting bulls or going on African safaris, but I was facing, for the first time, eternity, or the lack of it, every day.

In November, when the light grows shy, the cranes come. They stand in the fields on the north side of the road by Los Poblanos. Thanksgiving morning, four of them rise out of the cornfield just beyond the bike path and pedal into the air. I am on my way to meet my friend Martha for a hike. I am listening to Lori True singing “Go Now in Peace.” My heart is going all squinchy, as though those cranes are tugging at it and pulling me up into the air with them.

Thanksgiving morning is warm. When I meet Martha and her pug Saki at Elena Gallegos, I get Rusty on his leash, tug my sweatshirt off over my head in the sun, and head into Pino Canyon. The first part of the trail is relatively flat and exposed, and Rusty and Saki set a good pace. Soon we’re moving deeper into trees and climbing.

Part of my plan for this hike is for Martha to help me fix my life. “I’m not writing,” I had told her earlier in the week. “I’m spending every second working. I have to figure out how to change things.”

Martha is looking for change, too. A health scare in the middle of the night has left her with a sense of urgency. “I’m not waiting,” she told me. “If there is something to do, I need to do it now.” Our plan is to walk up the mountain and figure everything out.

About a mile or so in, a massive bolder flanks the trail. Sun-warmed and statuesque, it’s the sort of rock Tolkien could have turned into a hotel for hobbits. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we walked around the back and found a tiny door. Martha pauses by the rock as she always does, pats it, and says hello. We give the dogs some water and keep climbing.

In a little while, we reach the point on the trail where it feels as though the mountain has rotated; suddenly the highest ridge we can see is to the north rather than the east. I always find this spot disorienting. I’m looking out through the trees to the model train city far below when Martha tells me I should write about friendship. It’s unique, she says. It’s free of the obligations and expectations we get tangled in with every other kind of relationship. It’s profound, she says. Metaphysical. Holy.

I started writing today thinking I might have something to say about gratitude. I wanted to say that at this time of year, the leaves still hanging on the white plum in my front yard are the same color as the cranberries boiling on the stove. In late afternoon, the sun comes rushing through the window and transforms my office into a chapel.

A few weeks ago I thought I was writing a different essay. I was trying to figure out if I live in a body or as a body. Which part is me? Today, hiking up a mountain with a friend, it doesn’t feel like the right question. Something has been changing in me. It’s as though my edges are dissolving: the boulder, the cranes stepping into air, the light in my plum tree, the spots of snow by the side of the trail, lately it’s been feeling like all one thing. There’s not so much here and not here, less wondering about what’s me and what’s not-me.

In I and Thou, one of those books I read in college that bobs up into my consciousness now and then, Martin Buber says, The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou: All real living is meeting.

So I am thinking about friendship, and the holy way in which we are connected to our friends, and the fact that all real living is meeting. Martha is laughing and remembering another hike where I fell dramatically into cactus when I remember that matter is neither created nor destroyed in this universe. I must have learned that phrase in ninth grade physical science, along with Bernoulli’s Law, “the faster a fluid moves the lesser is its pressure.” I remember those words devoid of any scientific understanding; I just like the way they sound.

Recently, though, I started wondering what it means that matter is neither created nor destroyed. I googled E=mc2 and read about the law of the conservation of mass-energy. I looked at pictures of people on space ships bouncing light off of mirrors and read that mass and energy are different forms of the same thing. I read about Einstein and Newton and Lavoisier and clicked through a web site that claims the First Law of Thermodynamics proves the existence of God. I read Martin Buber, who describes God as “the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I.”

I don’t understand any of it. It’s Thanksgiving morning and Martha and I have climbed as high as we can for today so we turn around. I’m heading down a mountain with my dear friend, and Rusty is in a hurry. I’m trying not to fall as his energy tugs on my matter and light splashes down on us through branches and leaves. Martha keeps her camera close in case I cartwheel into another cactus.

There were a lot of years when I never thought about dying or loss or even really let myself fully feel the loss of people I loved. And then there were years when loss shook me like an earthquake, and I had to relearn to trust the ground to hold. For a while now, I think I’ve been in this other space: I get it. I face eternity or the lack of it every day. I know loss throws you to the ground like lightning, and at some point, I decided to love anyway.

That’s an empowering choice, maybe even a brave and ordinary one, but it didn’t take away the fear. I hate flying. I won’t ride roller coasters. Sometimes I can’t shake a huge sadness at the thought that someday everything will go on without me. It seems too much, really, to ask of a species: to hold in our minds at one time the knowledge that life is meaningful and that life ends.

Martha and I stop again by the boulder that either rose up or crashed down to this spot millions or billions of years ago. I’m thinking that matter and energy are just different forms of the same thing, and that they are neither created nor destroyed in this universe. Everything, it occurs to me, is transformation.

Maybe all I’m trying to say is that lately I don’t feel quite so temporary. Thanksgiving morning I walked up a mountain and I walked down a mountain and I drove across a bridge. I talked to a friend and I said hello to a boulder. Light kept hurrying to the earth. I am guessing the sun will come up again in the morning and streak gray and blue across this desert sky. Crows and geese and cranes will settle on the pond and the river will keep sidling south. Martin Buber says, “The present is not fugitive and transient, but continually present and enduring.”

Some mornings, I believe.

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“Who made the grasshopper?”

I have graded my last papers, taken the posters off my walls, sorted my old files, and gone to bed the past few nights without setting my alarm. If that doesn’t clinch it, I just woke up on the couch from a nap, I’m writing a new blog post at last, and I’m quoting Mary Oliver in the title. It’s summer!

I ended this school year in love with my students, in love with my profession, and thinking about some of the things I learned in high school. When I was a junior at Bethel Park Senior High, I served as the school district’s first (non-voting) “Student on the School Board.” It was something like 1981, and the district had decided to implement “activity fees” for extracurricular activities. All of them—think National Honor Society, Concert Choir, Key Club–no one was exempt, and I was outraged. I led the student revolt against the fees, which culminated in presenting a sixteen-page report at a public board meeting.

It was big news. We filmed a “speak-out” message with the local public television station, and one Saturday morning my mother handed me the phone (you know, those ones that were attached to the wall in the kitchen with a long curly cord) so I could talk to a reporter from the Associated Press.

Heady times. Seventeen is a good age to have a cause, to fight for something with utter certainty that you are right. The board presentation went great.

My political education began the next day.

Every single board member made a point of taking me aside to tell me that they agreed with me. They had been convinced, they said, that the strong extracurricular activities in the district were a selling point for people looking for a new home. They agreed that imposing a fee on a poor student to enable that student to sing in a choir was antithetical to the values of public education. They agreed that the fees collected would be big enough to prohibit a student from participating but too small to make any noticeable impact on anyone’s property taxes. They agreed, in short, that the argument was strong and had convinced them that the fees were not going to do anyone any good.

Then came the punch line, or maybe I should say the punch. Every single board member voted to impose the fees. Every one of them explained, as though it were the most rational position in the world, that they didn’t have a choice. The elderly voters in the district wouldn’t be happy/vote for them again if they didn’t pretend to help them by imposing the fees.

My adult, teacher self wants to say to those people, be careful what you teach a teenager.  The cynicism was too much for me.  I didn’t vote for years.

But wallowing in ancient outrage is not where I planned to go with this essay. I meant to write about grasshoppers. They came out of the earth by the millions a few weeks ago.

As my dog and I walk down the street, they fly up from our feet like little dust clouds (remember Pigpen?).  They part for us, wafting up and settling five or ten feet up the road. It’s as though someone is bedecking our path as we walk. (And yes, I really mean bedecking–it’s just that sort of old-fashioned, ceremonial connotation that I need here.) The grasshoppers are turning our ordinary walks around the neighborhood into processions. We are attended in our walks by leaping clouds of glory.

Rusty didn’t like them at first. He’d swat at them with his paws as they leaped too close to his head or snap at them like travelling snacks, but he’s used to them now. He accepts their homage, confident that he deserves it, trotting smartly, head up and gait stately.

Curiously, unlike the tent-worm summers of my childhood, or the more recent Albuquerque moth infestations, or the Mormon crickets on a fire-closed highway between Reno and Jackpot (where we stopped for hours and watched the blacktop crawl), I like this plague.

A news site out of Philadelphia writes, “People in Albuquerque are on edge as millions of grasshoppers invade the city.” Really? People in Philadelphia are talking about our grasshoppers? List me as one ‘Querque who is not on edge.

I have to say I saw them coming, although I didn’t know the earth well enough to know what I was seeing. A week before the grasshoppers swarmed, I told my husband the sycamore in the backyard was dying. There was a sparseness in the leaves; the yard was a little more sun dappled than seemed right for late spring.

Extra birds were also swooping and diving and chattering around us. We see lots of doves and robins and sparrows and finches, but big birds with yellow bellies were flying back and forth from rooftop to rooftop, something small and deep orange flashed and settled in my neighbor’s mulberry, and big black speckled birds and swallows were arguing and dipping low over the empty house on the corner. All sorts of bird sounds I couldn’t identify were singing me awake each morning.

And now, all the neighborhood birds, hungry these many drought years, are growing fat on grasshoppers. Mary Oliver asks who made them and has a beautiful line about their jaws, and ee cummings wrote a grasshopper poem, too, but it’s too hard to reproduce it here. Keats in his poem “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” gets it right when he says, “he takes the lead in summer luxury,– he has never done with his delights”–

Rusty and I are laughing in that grasshopper delight when we turn into the driveway and see something I’ve never seen before. A robin is picking a fight with a bunny under the piñon tree. The robin flies at the rabbit’s head and startles the rabbit, who hops back and freezes, hops and freezes. I don’t know if I am watching animals at play in the world or if the robin is hoping to eat this bunny.

So here’s where it turns out I’m going with this. Rusty and I stop in the driveway and watch for a few minutes. When the robin notices us, she gets wary, hops back a few steps, and freezes. The rabbit ignores us; she’s holding still, pretending to be invisible. After a few minutes, Rusty gets restless and makes a move toward the front door. The robin flies back about ten yards to perch on a low wall, and the bunny, sensing her chance, takes off across the street.

I can’t help thinking about what we saw. Was that rabbit really prey to a rogue robin, or are these just two creatures who share my front yard and don’t always get along? Is there a nest of baby rabbits under the sage bush and a nest of baby robins up in the white plum? Maybe nothing at all momentous was happening under my piñon.

I can’t shake the feeling, though, that Rusty and I helped shape the world. What if our most casual and unintentional actions helped save a little fuzzy life? Or maybe I’m wrong to be rooting for the rabbit; what if the rabbit were the aggressor? What if our simple action of walking up the driveway determined whose babies lived and whose didn’t that morning?

And here’s my point, at last. There are people in the world who have just that sort of power, people who could make intentional decisions that might just keep someone else’s children alive, who keep finding excuses not to make those decisions.

I’m grateful to Richard Martinez, whose son was killed in the most recent shooting and stabbing rampage, for saying he doesn’t want sympathy from politicians. “I don’t give a shit that you feel sorry for me,” he’s widely reported as saying. “Get to work and do something.”

“Don’t you dare,” is what I want to say to all those school board politicians in the House and Senate who agree that gun laws should be strengthened but rationalize inaction out of fear of political repercussions. Don’t you dare pretend you don’t have a choice, as you cede your actual power to the NRA’s threatened power. Don’t you dare tell a grieving parent that you know they are right but you can’t vote their way.

In Pittsburgh school kids paint little fishes by street sewers to remind people that their actions have consequences. Little kids know you still own the garbage that ends up downstream.

Keats says, “The Poetry of earth is never dead,” and Mary Oliver says “I don’t know exactly what prayer is,” and Richard Martinez says, “I don’t give a shit that you feel sorry for me.”

It’s summer, and the world is frothy with grasshoppers. Robins and rabbits are fighting in my front yard. The earth keeps swelling with grief and glory.

Let’s all be careful what we teach the teenagers.

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Driving

I suppose my oldest brother has said wise things before, but if he has, I wasn’t listening. Last week when he picked me up at the airport in Charleston, West Virginia, he said two things that struck me at the time as being worthy of remembering.

I can’t remember the first one. The second one was, “You can’t drive someone else’s car.”

Often when my husband and I are going somewhere we have the following conversation.

Heather: That car in front of us has his brake lights on.

Fred: He shouldn’t. The light is green.

Heather: Nevertheless, it will hurt if we drive into him.

Fred: I don’t know why he has his brakes on.

Heather: It doesn’t seem important to me that you know why he has his brakes on. What seems important to me is that you put your brakes on so we don’t crash into him.

Now, a critical reader might note that the fact that I have time to use the word “nevertheless” indicates that the danger I’m imagining is less than imminent. I suspect that’s what Fred would tell you. My ability to imagine danger is both a genetic and cultivated gift, but you’ll have to read some older posts if that’s what you are interested in. Today I’m thinking about driving.

When we were little, my friend Joanne would feel carsick every time my dad drove us somewhere. I always felt safe in the backseat of the Pontiac, but my dad did have a habit of accelerating toward stop signs and then stopping quickly. An engineer, he taught me that you have more traction if you accelerate through the curves, so we’d do that, too. Joanne and I would sway into each other in the backseat as we veered off Clifton onto Dashwood. And then there was that other spot on Dashwood, if you came down the hill from Irishtown, where your stomach would do that jumpy roller coaster thing if you could convince the driver to take the bump without slowing down. I loved being a passenger.

Today as my brother and I take the curves easily and drive across the bridge into southern Ohio, I’m mostly managing not to help him drive. We are on our way to visit our sister and our mother.

When I was learning to drive, my father offered me the choice of learning with him and fighting a lot, or letting my sister teach me. I opted for my sister. She stayed calm even when I drove the car into her boyfriend’s house in Gibsonia. I passed on this calm approach to my step-daughter when she picked me over her father to teach her. She still laughs about me saying things like, “You might want to accelerate now that you are in the middle of the intersection so that truck doesn’t barrel into us.” When I wanted to learn how to drive a stick shift, my husband left town and one of my best friends bunny hopped around parking lots all over Albuquerque with me. I never really thought about driving being this thing passed on between women before, but I like that thought.

My mother never learned to drive. The story I heard is that my dad tried to teach her once and it didn’t go well, so she never tried again. As she got older and the world changed around her, we would often encourage her to learn. I remember once she told me that she couldn’t drive because she could never live with herself if she ran over a child. (See “both genetic and cultivated” above.)

I hardly ever visit my mother. For the past few years she has lived in a nursing home in Kentucky, many years into a lonely ride with Alzheimer’s. The people there are kind to her, my sister visits her all the time, and her roommate, who is also losing track of her memories, expresses herself solely via compliments. “Those are some nice shoes you’re wearing,” she says, as soon as she comes in the room. I can barely say thanks before she says, “That sure is a nice purse.” She has enormous clear blue eyes, and I’m not sure how this game goes.

“You have beautiful eyes,” I compliment her back, and we go several rounds before my sister laughs. “You can’t win,” she says. Eventually my mother’s roommate sits on her bed, tells me to take her shoes off, and falls asleep. I hope that if I lose my mind before my body wears out, my dementia manifests itself in such a gentle way.

It has been years since my mother has spoken at all, or recognized any of us in any conventional way. One time when she was still speaking a little, she recognized me as my sister Meg, who died in 1990. My mother’s eyes are all that speak now, which is either heartwarming or heartbreaking, depending on whether she is happy (my last visit) or suffering (this one). A recent stroke has taken away her ability to walk, so she sits upright in a wheel chair now, held in that position by what looks like one of the aprons she wore in lighter years.

After a few days with my sister I flew off the mountain in Charleston and headed out the next morning to the Taos Shortz Film Festival with a bunch of teenagers. My friend had one carful of kids and I followed her around through the week in my Subaru. The teens in my car laughed as my friend buzzed through yellow lights, leaving us behind to find our way without her. “You can’t drive someone else’s car,” I told them.

We watched one hundred eleven movies in four days. One afternoon, almost all of the movies were either about people in varying stages of living with Alzheimer’s or about children who were being horribly mistreated by the adults in their lives.

At some point that afternoon, crying in a dark theater, I realized just how little love it takes to barrel through pain. I also realized how true my brother’s words are. You can’t drive someone else’s car; you have to love the world as it is.

No one expected my mother to live long after my father died; it was hard to imagine either of them without the other. I like to think it’s possible that my dad has been trying to get my mother to join him for a while. She never moved quickly. Anytime we left the house she went through a series of steps that strike me now as more incantatory than practical. She would check the stove, then the locks on the front windows, then turn on the radio. She’d get halfway to the car only to run back to turn on a few upstairs lights so it looked like we were home, after which she’d have to check the locks again.  Sometimes we’d drive around the block to make sure we hadn’t left a window open. That was the ritual to leave the house for an hour or two. I can only imagine how many things will have to be in order before she leaves for the last time. “Let me just make sure I turned the stove off,” I can hear her saying, as she runs back into the house to check one last thing.

I want to imagine my father growing impatient. He is waiting in the driveway with the engine running, calling, in a sing-song, never actually irritated voice, “Cathy, we’re going to be late.” One of these days she’ll come skipping down the front steps at last and get in the car.  If she wants to check one more thing he’ll convince her that everything is taken care of.  He’ll turn on the radio and pull out of the driveway. If an old song comes on, he’ll turn to her and say, “Do you remember this one?”

She won’t, and he’ll explain where they were when they heard it for the first time. Time and love will grow wide around them. I’ll be standing in the front yard waving until I can’t see them any longer, but they won’t look back. My dad will accelerate into the curve, and they will drive off into the unknown world together.

 

 

 

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Enough

I woke up this morning with a gospel song playing in my head. “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, oh Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer…”

I’ve been in a bad mood this week. My natural state is calibrated well toward the joy end of the dial; happiness usually comes easily. But something has been bothering me all week, some shadow standing between me and the sun, and I haven’t been able either to figure it out or to walk out of its shade.

Sometimes in the morning when I write, I find myself following random trails, bouncing from memory to story to inane prattle about my day. I might do that for a week or two, until one morning I wake up in a bad mood with a gospel song in my head and realize that for the past two weeks I’ve been writing about need.

November 10. I’m writing about how much work and how little time I have. Mid-thought I stop whining long enough to ask, what do I have enough of?

November 20. I’ve been thinking about something that happened at least ten years ago. I was in a public restroom in a mall in Lubbock when a woman in a wheelchair asked me if I could come into the handicapped stall with her to help her.

I had no idea what she needed or how to help, and some part of me that is too well trained in fear wondered for a moment if this were some new kind of scam, and if I were about to be mugged. Fortunately, more developed parts of my brain prevailed, and I smiled and said sure. I followed her in, did what she asked, and in a few minutes we were both washing our hands, exchanging pleasantries, and leaving each other’s lives forever.

It was an unexpected intimacy, and I thought about it for a long time. I wondered what sort of courage it takes to ask a stranger to help you use the bathroom in a shopping mall. I wondered what sort of grace had let me be chosen.

November 22. Thinking about the woman in Lubbock has me thinking about my mother-in-law. In 2007 when Ann was dying in our downstairs bedroom, I grew adept at helping with bathroom details. The hospice worker told me what to do and somehow my mother-in-law and I managed.

Late one morning the doorbell rang. It was Mary, the hospice social worker. I had just made a pot of coffee, so we all sat down at the kitchen table. Fred and Mary talked about how my mother-in-law was doing and what the doctor had said most recently and about the nurse who had been by earlier.

Then, this woman I had never met turned to me, looked into my eyes, right at the spot that was hurting, and said, “And how are you?”

We had moved my mother-in-law back into our house on the day we got home from my father’s funeral in Pittsburgh. We should have done it sooner; that day we drove straight from the airport to her house and brought her home with us. She had stopped bathing some time before, we learned, and for the first few weeks she wouldn’t move out of a chair in the living room. We had taken to opening windows in November and lighting scented candles before it finally occurred to us to call Hospice.

Hospice is an amazing thing. Strangers flooded our house, helped us manage things we couldn’t possibly manage: personal care assistants coaxed Ann into the shower, a doctor diagnosed her illness and dispensed medicine she didn’t want to take and oxygen she refused to use, nurses applied salves and showed me how to help her in the bathroom. There was even a social worker who stopped by from time to just to make sure we were all still keeping it together.

I hadn’t met Mary until that morning when we had coffee. I fled the house early each day, happy to escape to work, a place where everyone showered regularly and no one was dying. If you’d have asked me then, in those months right after my father died while my mother-in-law was dying, how I was doing, I would have told you I was fine.

And then this woman I didn’t know asked me over a casual cup of coffee if I was ok, and I didn’t tell her I was fine, and it felt good, weeping at my kitchen table, to say “I’m not ok,” and to let this stranger help.

November 28. I’m thinking about how long it has been since I’ve posted an essay on my blog and having a quiet Thanksgiving. Family comes Friday evening, so we’re saving the big meal for Saturday.  I made a pot roast today, and I’ll be baking pies tomorrow when everyone else is eating leftovers. I have to say I’m sort of enjoying the extra days of anticipation.

My dad used to tell this story about having enough. One time, he said, he was complaining to his brother. “There’s never any extra,” he told my uncle. “Just when you get the dryer paid off the dishwasher goes on the fritz. When the dishwasher is paid off, the car needs work. There’s always just exactly enough.” My dad would pause here before relating my uncle’s response.  Apparently Uncle Larry looked at my dad for a minute, considering his words. “That’s neat,” he said.

November days are getting shorter, but these aren’t dark days. I still haven’t really figured out why I was in such a bad mood this week, or why this gospel song keeps dogging me.  Walking the dog late in the afternoon I’m thinking about apple pie and my Aunt Ann’s cranberry orange relish; I’m thinking about need and about abundance. I’m thinking about how maybe all of us are broken and glued back together, and about the odd beauty in all those cracks and jagged edges.

As the dog and I turn the corner, the sun darkens.  Two crows are chasing each other across the sky. They swoop and dive and jabber, their bodies turning the sun on and off as they fly in and out of its path.  I look up and watch them dance. I don’t notice that I’m humming, or that my shoulders are softening, or that the glue in my cracks is growing firm again, but the dog does, and he’s not about to stand around and watch while a couple of crows have all the fun.  He’s all wag and bustle; he pants and prances; his whole body is shouting JoyJoyJoy or maybe it’s NeedNeedNeed–it’s all the same big blur of fur, and it’s tugging on the leash right now, pulling hard for home.

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Thief

Last Thursday, after living the first six years of his life as a largely law-abiding citizen, (I’m not counting the time he ate our rug or mistook my slippers for his; those early crimes were committed before he reached the age of reason), Rusty tossed respectability to the curb like an over chewed bone and embarked on a life of crime.

I’ve never seen him happier.

The incident took place on a drizzly afternoon. We were enjoying our usual walk when I stopped to talk for a moment with a friendly older man washing his car. He must have felt the need to explain to anyone who walked by why he was hosing down his Honda on one of Albuquerque’s rare rainy days, so he shrugged, grinned, and said, “I’m from Portland,” which I took to mean “I know this looks like rain to you, but trust me, it isn’t raining.”

The piece de resistance was an ordinary green tennis ball. Rusty has had lots of them over the years. They sit ignored in the corner in his toy basket until his friend Circuit comes over and carries all the toys outside. Rusty never takes the toys outside, because he doesn’t believe he can fit through his doggy door with anything in his mouth.  He thinks Circuit is pretty cool for having this supernatural ability.

Anyway, Rusty has never cared much about any toy. He’ll play ball with you, if by playing ball you mean Rusty gets the ball, trots around a little, and waits for you to come try to take it from him. He’s never really understood the point of the traditional fetch game; it makes much more sense to him for the human to do the running.

I laughed with the car washing man and Rusty seemed to be in a hurry for once to get going, so we continued up the hill. I kept asking him what the big rush was, if he had big plans for the evening, but he was holding his head kind of funny and not answering me.

I’m not naïve to the fact that my dog can be sneaky. Rusty wasn’t even a year old the first time he faked having a goat head in his paw. We go on a lot of walks and we live in New Mexico, so we encounter a lot of goat heads.  (And if you are not from New Mexico, and you are actually imagining the head of a goat stuck in my golden retriever’s paw, just go with that. It couldn’t be any more painful than what I actually mean.) We have a system, Rusty and I.  He comes to a dead stop, lifts the affected paw as though he’s on point, and I, loyal servant and companion, kneel and remove the diabolical sticker.

Only this one time, there wasn’t a sticker. He just wanted some extra time to sniff out the new dog on the other side of the fence. I’m not making this up. After I fruitlessly searched his paw for a few minutes, he admitted he was faking it. He took his paw back and pointed with his head to the fence, where the now thoroughly sniffed dog was rustling around. “Sorry, I just really wanted to sniff him,” he told me, as clearly as if he had used words. Then he swung his head forward, saying, “We can go now,” so we did. I remember wondering at the time what else my dog was pulling over on me.

As he pulled me up the hill on the day he became a thief, he wouldn’t look at me. He cocked his head to the right when we reached the top to tell me which way he wanted to turn, and that’s when I saw the green felt gleaming between his teeth.

He ignored my half-hearted “drop it,” and kept going, for the first time ever sniffing absolutely nothing for an entire block. Every now and then he’d look over his shoulder at me, as if to be sure I understood that something important was happening. As soon as we got home, he ran into the house, down the hall, through the kitchen, and out his dog door into the backyard, never even slowing down to see if he could still fit.

I think he was showing his new ball his kingdom. He strutted around for a few minutes, and then came back in, ball in mouth, and lay down with it safely tucked between his paws. A little while later, he took a nap with his new ball all nuzzled up beside his nose.

If my life were a sitcom, this would be the part where the responsible parent takes the tearful child back to the candy store, makes him confess his crime, return the half-eaten candy bar, and trade the fleeting pleasure of chocolaty nougat for the presumably more lasting sense of righteousness that comes from having done the right thing.

I can’t do it. My dog is blissfully happy. I couldn’t make this elated dog give this ball back to its rightful owner if she were four years old, wearing pigtails and overalls, and standing in front of me crying.

Saturday afternoon I’m working on this essay and trying to figure out exactly what my thieving dog is teaching me about my commitment to joy and my lack of commitment to property rights when the doorbell rings. The man standing there when Rusty and I open the door is wearing Dockers and a tweed jacket, and he has some of the saddest, kindest eyes I’ve ever seen.

Those eyes, the ninety pounds of fur leaning against my leg, and the knowledge that my husband is upstairs in his office have lowered my usual “strange man at the door” defenses, so I’m actually listening when he says, “Have you ever wondered what happens after we die?”

Before I can say, “You mean, other than every day?” he hands me a pamphlet, says “There is some very comforting information in there,” tells me to have a good day, and walks off down the driveway.

These aren’t my mother’s Jehovah’s Witnesses. Growing up we lived a few blocks away from the Bethel Park Congregation on Irishtown Road, so it was pretty common for an eager believer to ring the doorbell on a summer afternoon and launch into an explanation of how we could be saved. Those Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t hand you a pamphlet and tell you to have a good day. They wanted to convince you, and they had all the time in the world for you to come around.

One day, my mother, devout Catholic, decided she was going to make her case, too. She started explaining Catholicism to the Jehovah’s Witness, and the two went at it for a long time on the front porch.

Because it’s Saturday, I actually read the man’s pamphlet, and it’s full of Old and New Testament quotations about life after death. I’m disappointed that the argument is as circular as it is, so I find myself thinking about the marketing team who came up with the plan to focus on eternity in this year’s doorbell ringing campaign rather than contemplating life and death with capital letters.

It’s the beginning of November, so Sunday morning the banco at my church is covered in photos of the dead and we’re lighting candles. For some reason, ever since I realized I was ok with my dog being a thief since it made him so happy, I’ve had the old liberation theology phrase, “a preferential option for the poor,” in my head. It always strikes me to think how at odds that theology is with today’s politicians who claim to be on God’s side yet work to demonize the poor. “Poor in spirit” is ok; poor in body and material goods is lazy.

Not knowing who Rusty stole this particular tennis ball from, I’m not sure if my dog is Robin Hood or JP Morgan, but it turns out I’m just rooting for joy. I’m thinking that this whole life/death thing might be a spectrum, not an on/off switch, and joy is what pushes at the far right boundary.

It’s been a week now, and Rusty’s new tennis ball is still his most important possession. He brings it to me when I get home from work, and I chase him around for a little while, and then we both flop down to rest, tongues hanging out, feeling like it’s good to be alive.

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