The man God sent

I dreamed last night that my brother came to my house to go through mom’s stuff with me again. All the smaller items, like rings and sorority pins and my grandfather’s garnet ring, with the garnet separated from the setting, weren’t in their respective boxes where mom used to keep them–and where I keep them still.

She kept my dad’s fraternity pins in a separate box along with his 1928 USC college ring with his name, Don, engraved on the inside. I started to wear the ring about a month ago. In the dream my brother wanted my dad’s ring. I was distraught.

When I awoke, I felt for the ring on my finger and was relieved–and a little guilty. I don’t think he wants the ring, and he certainly wouldn’t wear it. But I felt selfish. There are still feelings around the loss of our father.

I was 14 months old and my brother was six when our father died in his sleep of a heart attack.  My brother’s last memory of him was under a sheet on a gurney leaving the house.

They used to play together, throw the ball on the “green” where we lived and at Christmas they ran a train under the tree. My brother has painted railroad scenes through much of his life. He is one of three people who still remembers my father, including my 96-year-old aunt, and a cousin.

I have one photo of our family. My father is sitting on his haunches, holding me on his knee, looking at me. My mother is behind him smiling at someone to her left. My brother and I are also looking off to the left. I’m not sure who had captured our attention, but for that moment I had captured my father’s attention.

Mom was stricken when he died. She didn’t know how to relate to my grief because I was a baby, but she related to my brother because he remembered his father. Whether or not I consciously remembered, I’ve missed him my whole life.

I also missed my mother. When a parent dies, the child often loses the surviving parent to grief. With three months she remarried and moved us to a new city.

The family was stunned by her decision. Her brother told her to take her time. But she didn’t. We saw our maternal grandmother once or twice a year but the stepfather didn’t like us to spend time with my father’s family. My aunt, my dad’s sister, was mad at mom for five decades for taking us away.

I didn’t know what I was going to do to support you, she rationalized.

Their mothers knew each otherHe was a high school friend. He said he would love you. 

I tried to understand her decision. My father’s death cast mom into uncertainty and fear. She had been out of the workforce for seven years. At the onset of the Depression she quit college to support her mother and brother. She married in 1935, but worked until she was pregnant with my brother in 1941. My father was making enough money as a dentist to support the family. Her job at the Broadway Department stores was the last job mom ever held, except for volunteer work. When my dad died seven years later, the new slacks he planned to wear to the grand opening of his children’s dental practice hung in the closet. They owned a sailboat and property overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

But he didn’t leave enough to support her children.

I interviewed potential babysitters, but none were suitable, she said.

Instead, she left us with the stepfather.

I thought God sent him, she wrote in a letter to me in her late 80s. I still do, she added.

But if God sent the stepfather to her, what did that say about us? I would ponder.

I won’t completely understand until I stand before Whomever I get to talk to on the other side and I can ask, “Really? What was that all about?”

What I knew growing up was that my father wasn’t there to protect me from the man “God sent.” Nor was my mother.

It took a lifetime to find her and nearly as long to forgive her. My forgiveness worked itself out by taking care of mom and in the end, we found each other.

As for my father, I never found him…except in the small things left behind. The one photo of the family, his journal of their trip east, his dental college notes, business cards in a leather case, a marble inkwell. Small treasures that link me to him. But the ring I now wear reminds me that he, not the stepfather, was the man God sent.


Mom’s hands

Today I was staring at my hand. Well, it was an exercise in the book, “No Enemies Within.” Throughout the book she gives exercises to help a person bring more awareness of what is going on in their body.

The section was called, “Personal Exploration, A Date with your Self.”  She describes a series of three exercises, utilizing kinesthetic, auditory and visual senses.

In the first she asked the reader to hold a place on their body, say the neck, for three minutes. Imagine the pores in the skin breathing in and out, she says. I know, you’d have to be there. Read the book.

But then she said, … imagine the pupils of your eyes can inhale each time you take a breath. Look at one of your hands and receive it through your eyes. Rather than looking at how wrinkled it is, or how you need to trim your nails, just see it as it is. After those three minutes, stop and notice the effect.

I held my hand out in front of me and the first thing I noticed is how wrinkled it is and how I need to do my nails.

I stared at my hand some more, continuing to notice the wrinkles and the nails.

Then I turned my hand over and looked at the palm.

And then I thought, I never looked at the palm of mom’s hand.

I looked at the top of her hands all the time. They were beautiful hands, wrinkled and aged and knobby at the end of her life. I photographed them once holding her great-granddaughter’s baby hands and again when great-granddaughter was three and mom was nearly 100.

Her hands were warm. She would hold my hands and say, “They are like ice,” and then hold them to warm them.

If I laid my head in her lap, which I rarely did, she would run her hands through my hair and gently massage my head. What bliss it was.

Then a strange thought. I wish I had looked at her life line on her palm.

I’ve never had my palm read, and don’t plan on it, but still, that would have been interesting.

That’s what I noticed–mom’s perfectly manicured, wrinkled, knobby, gentle hands–and how much I missed them.

Twenty-two boy angels

A friend lost her husband to MS a few weeks ago a few days after their 11th anniversary. I hadn’t talked to her because her daughter came to stay with her after he died and then the in-laws came for the memorial service. After that she flew to another city to see her ill father. By the time I talked to her three weeks had passed. She was calm and clear and grounded, the way she always is, but maybe a bit manic.

She’s financially stable, has a little home, and at 62, won’t have to work again.

Someone said, “Why don’t you move closer to your daughter,” and she said, “Are you kidding? And be a babysitter. No, thanks.”

“I have other things to do,” she said. “I can travel a little, do my crafts, and [where I live] offers many cultural opportunities.”

She and her husband had fun together even when they knew his time was short. People came into help and she was able to get out for respite times.

In his last days he went into a coma. One afternoon while she was in the room he spoke.

“Twenty-two, 22? 22!”

She said, “Twenty-two what?”

And he finally said, “Twenty-two boy angels, and St. Michael.”

Then he said, “Oh, it tickles.”

“What tickles,” she said.

“The feathers on their wings,” he said.

She said that he talked to his deceased parents and his first wife, who had died years ago.

The last day he was alive she went into his room to give him his pain medications and when a friend arrived, they would turn him. He was breathing slowly. She spoke to him and said, “What the hell are you still doing here? You have places to be and people waiting for you. And you want me to keep turning you every day? This is ridiculous.” (Or words to that effect.) She wasn’t angry, just speaking in her honest, straight forward way.  She was done…and she could see that he was done.

Then he stopped breathing. Oh, I think he just died, she thought.

She waited a minute and then leaned down with her ear near his mouth.

Suddenly he gasped, drawing in a deep breath.

“Holy shit,” she cried, leaping back and scattering his meds across the room.

She called the hospice nurse who said, “Yes, he’s dying. He’s taking his last breaths…sometimes it happens like that. He might do it again.”

Watching from across the room she waited for another breath. Another one came, and then he was gone.  Now, three weeks later, she was painting and remodeling the bedroom she used to sleep in before they were married. She was moving back to the room because it had french doors that opened onto her patio garden.

She needed a few pieces of wood for the closet. At Lowes she began talking to a customer service rep and asked him if he could cut a piece of wood for her. He told her no, they didn’t do that, but then suggested that her husband cut it for her. “It’s not hard,” he said.  The clerk assumed she was married because she’s wearing her husband’s wedding ring she had resized.

“I don’t have a husband. He died three weeks ago,” she blurted.

He stammered and said he was sorry and oh gosh, sure, I’ll cut the piece of wood for you. 

On her way home she called her daughter and said, “You’ll never guess what I just did.”

Her daughter said, “Poor man.”

“I laughed all the way home,” she said.

She said she has her moments, but for the most part, they had closure (even though I wrote in a previous post that there’s no such thing).

“There’s nothing left hanging, nothing left to say,” she said. “He’s going on to a new adventure and I’m going on to mine.”


A private party

Ritual and tradition help us honor important life transitions. In the Jewish faith, the Bar Mitzvah is a classic example of acknowledging the transition from boyhood to manhood. In some cultures, young women are celebrated when they begin to menstruate. Graduations, weddings, baby showers, retirement parties. In all kinds of ways we recognize and celebrate when people move from one season of life to another.

This past week we celebrated my friend’s graduation with a master’s degree, her son’s graduation from high school, and her daughter’s graduation from college. There are three more graduations in the next few years in their family.

When my friend remarked on Facebook about the three of them finally graduating, I joked, “I’m glad. I’m exhausted.”

At the graduation barbecue Sunday, the older folk sat on the lawn under the trees and talked. One of the women talked about her 93-year-old  father who has Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home. She talked about his care, about what and who he knows and how it was when he moved and how he remembers her sometimes but not always and when he stopped driving and when her mother died.

I listened with compassion, recognizing that not long ago, I was in the same club. Her story is different from mine, but it’s the same taking care of aging parents’ club.

And when her father dies, she will join the club of those of us who are now the oldest generation.

It’s a dubious distinction, this club of orphans. Cards and flowers will be sent, and condolences offered to mark her father’s passing. But will anyone recognize or celebrate the major life passage of hers. As my friend always says, “We could light a candle.”

I would love that. But that is not the way of things in our culture. We don’t celebrate old age or the transitions offered up by the passing of our parents and loved ones.

I wonder how things might have been different this past year if I had waited and marked time and the seasons with a greater appreciation of what I needed rather than what I thought I needed, or what others needed, expected, and wanted.

It’s up to us in the club of orphans to mark and honor our transitions. No one else is going to do it for us.

I will honor this graduation into a new season of my life.

It will look different than the graduations of my friends last week.

There’s no robe, no tassel, and no celebration–just a season of solitude.

A private party.


A desert walkabout

I’ve been craving solitude. I wanted to go to a writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island, or return to California and spend time in my friend’s La Jolla loft. But husband is remodeling a home an hour from here, and rather than drive home each night, some nights he will stay there in our trailer. I miss him, but welcome the gift of time without the responsibilities: laundry (he goes through a lot of clothes because of work) and cooking dinner.

Last night I made soup at 7:30. I vacuumed. I painted. Not the walls, but my watercolor swatches. I don’t like to color in the lines so I make bushes or swirls on the edge of the paper after I’ve been a good student and colored in the squares.

I’m also working on a  braided memory project. Laurie Kanyer, a local artist and writer, developed and published Braided Memories: Recalling Life’s Memories on String several years ago. Kanyer describes braided memories as a kinesthetic tool, a way to make “connections between historical events in your life…. the trials, the tribulations, the celebrations and the amazing accomplishments.”

I like the feel of the thread and the beads in my hand, like a rosary. Similar to weeding the garden. This morning I pulled long strands of grass out of the lavender bushes, like pulling threads though a weaving on a loom.  It had rained all night, softening the earth so the weeds came up easily.

 At the core of my desire for solitude is the memoir. The memoir is a way to braid the memories so they aren’t scattered in my mind, unconnected.

Few people know I’m working on it. Some of my friends know, but they don’t take me seriously because I haven’t made it a priority. I was taking care of mom, and before that I was working, and before that I had returned to college and before that I was a single mom and before that…I was making some other excuse. But part of it was that I had to get to this part of the story before I could tell it.

New words: “Sorry, I’m writing today,” or, “No, thanks, that doesn’t work for me,” my new favorite comeback to a request I don’t want to fulfill. Other writers take themselves seriously enough to say those words.

In Ruth Haley Barton’s book Sacred Rhythms, Arranging our lives for Spiritual Transformation, she writes, “One of the most important lessons I have learned over the past few years is how important it is to have time and space for being with what’s real in my life–to celebrate the joys, grieve the losses, shed my tears, be with the questions, feel my anger, and attend to my loneliness.”

Times of solitude have been compared to going into the desert. In The Eye of the Eagle, Meditations on the Celtic hymn, ‘Be thou my Vision,’ by David Adam, he says, “There certainly is a desert that is destructive.”

In the desert I am afraid I’ll be lost, that I’ll die of thirst, that no one will come looking for me.

But Adam says, “There is also a desert that is creative, a place of transition, which needs to be crossed if we are to leave the old behind. …  Once emptied of … trivial pursuits — or false directions — there is a chance for a space to be made for God to work. The desert can be a place where life blossoms, but it is not a place to ignore. When we are unwilling to enter the desert, in a strange way the desert enters us.”

The desert has entered me. I lost my mother and in the process lost an identity. I lost a career. I’ve lost friends. Other friends are going through times of loss, separating me from them while they attend to their own desert. I left my family behind–again. I’ve had heart palpitations and a trip to ER to find out they were benign. Anxiety, they say.  Doctors tell me meds will help. Instead, I will enter the desert and go on a walkabout.

For me the world is weird because it is stupendous, awesome, mysterious, unfathomable; my interest has been to convince you that you must assume responsibility for being here, in this marvelous world, in this marvelous desert, in this marvelous time.” ― Carlos CastanedaJourney to Ixtlan

Connecting Points

When mom died the family dynamics shifted. No one visited, except for the memorial. I was left alone to sort her stuff, pay the taxes and bills, and figure out what to do with her ashes. It was a lonely year. My brother and I were grieving. We talked, but it was hard. Then we had trouble getting organized to bury the ashes. I also felt as if my son had distanced himself. He was busy with work, music, and is in a committed relationship.

The crazy glue, the mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, had left us, and over the past year we each had to discover a new paradigm of behavior in the family. Slowly things began to shift.

In late March, a month before our trip to California, son’s girlfriend texted me a photo and said, “Here’s your new grand baby.” A puppy…yippee. Not exactly the species I was hoping for. But I recognized it for what it was…a connecting point. They invited us to bring Taz and meet the grand-dog and go to the dog park. First we had the California trip, but last Saturday we went to Seattle to meet Dio, a five-month-old border collie/golden retriever mix.

Son has trained Dio to sit at the end of hallway and wait until he calls him. He rolls over on command, sits, lies down, and waits patiently for a treat set down an inch from his nose. He’s crate-trained, the only way you could have what will be a 70-pound dog in a small apartment. Dio rings a bell to go out to pee. They take him for daily walks and to the dog park twice a week. They are also looking for a house with a yard.

The dog park is a nine-acre off-leash complex on Lake Washington where dogs run free, chase frisbees and each other, and hobnob with new pals. A 25-foot wide fenced lane (dog freeway) leads to the dog beach. Owners amble, while dogs sniff, visit and chase each other. It’s a blast. At the beach, water dogs chase frisbees and balls in the water. The other dogs cavort on the beach. Owners sit on benches or stand, as if watching their preschooler at a playground. It’s not a whole lot different.

Taz is crazy and fun, but more mature now. She’s friendly and well-socialized. If a dog annoys her, she moves on. She doesn’t annoy other dogs. And puppies, well, they aren’t that interesting. And Dio was, guess what,…acting like a puppy. Son said Dio was being a jerk. I said he has high expectations, since his dog is already better trained than Taz. I can’t imagine her waiting anywhere for anything unless she was chained to a post.

“He just has to grow up a bit,” I said. “You’ve done a great job training him.”

But J said we should leave the beach because Dio was misbehaving. A lot like a cranky preschooler. And son was setting good boundaries. I didn’t remind him how he used to act when I took him to the playground when he was a preschooler. We began the trek back to the car.

As we walked Taz engaged Dio, who had been preoccupied chasing and annoying other dogs. Tas is fast and agile and ran in great arcs, never allowing Dio to catch her. When he got close, she jumped over and around him. He would land flat-faced in the dirt and skid to stops narrowly missing Taz. It was clear she was teasing and teaching. Finally, he surrendered and rolled on his back in submission.

This is back at the apartment but an example of his submission. She’s not really barring her teeth, just playing.

We cheered and son said, “Good job, Taz.” He was happy to see her teaching him.

We went to lunch, the dogs played more at the apartment and we took photos. It was a great afternoon. A connecting point.


While in California my big brother gave me an art lesson. That might sound like a small thing, but brother has been an artist for 50 years and he teaches art. I’ve never asked for a lesson and he didn’t know I was interested. But recently I had a lesson with a friend. I wanted more.

The last morning we were there, my brother brought out his paints and some paper and taught me to mix water colors–Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine, New Gamboge, and Burnt Sienna (the primary colors, red, blue, yellow, and a brown). He said those colors are all I need to get started. He showed me what brand to buy and where. He showed me how to make color swatches and how to practice mixing the colors.

And, he gave me one of his paintbrushes. I felt like a little girl again–the same feeling as when he first introduced me to jazz music–Louie Prima, Dave Brubeck, Ella and others. It was just me and my big brother sharing his love of art or music with me. A connecting point.

A few nights ago I practiced mixing color. I ended up with six different shades of dirty brown and orange. It’s harder than it looks. But I have beginner’s mind … and my brother, a feeling I had missed for a long time. We were both sad when we parted at their house in California. But something had shifted. Now I can call and ask him how to mix watercolors. Or talk to him about politics, or a myriad of other things, rather than recount the latest drama with mom.

The connecting points have always been there, with my son and my brother, but when everything changed, everything changed. I wasn’t sure how or where to connect. It’s possible that the connection never left, but it has been transformed.  Our clan never fit the pictures of an intact clan, but it’s not fractured, as mom used to say and I believed. It’s not like the clans where the three children and eight grandchildren gather to visit grammy and grandpa and then the next day 142 photos go up on Facebook. But it’s my clan. And I am connected.

Oops, wrong month

When someone dies, usually the person is either cremated and put in an urn for interment at a local cemetery, or scattered somewhere. Or, a person dies and they are put in a casket and the casket is buried, usually within a week, after a nice funeral or memorial service.

Occasionally, there’s no service, but there’s still a burial. And occasionally, more often than I once thought, people keep the remains in an urn or an orb or a box, enjoying the presence of the ashes that remind them of mom or dad, or their dog, as one person I know.

My ex-father-in-law decided one day that his wife’s remains belonged in the rose bushes, just as others bury their loved one’s ashes in the vegetable garden for a little added carbon. A former client buried her baby’s ashes under a tree in the mountains outside San Diego and sent me a teaspoon of his ashes that I still have. My grandfather was scattered over the Pacific Ocean from my cousin’s helicopter. A friend took his parents’ ashes out in his boat and photographed the beautiful colors the ashes made as they circled and descended in the water.

But I do not want to keep mom’s ashes. And I sure don’t want them in my garden. She hated gardening. And so, a year later, they sit on a shelf. In a fascinating series of events, however, we have set a date.

It’s no one’s fault that the ashes still sit on the shelf, except maybe mine. I am the one who moved to Washington and enticed mom to do the same, moving her away from the rest of the family and three (not one, but three) burial plots in Southern California from which to choose to inter her ashes.

There was the plot next to her third husband in Oceanside, California, except there was no “next to,” since his ashes were interred in a “group burial.” We never discussed that, but his daughter told me. Then there was the plot somewhere in San Diego next to her second husband.

Mom originally told us she wanted to be buried with the third husband, but then one day as we talked with my brother on my patio she said, “If you want to bury my ashes next to your dad, that is fine with me. Do what is easiest.” HA.

She has owned the plot at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale since April of 1947 when our father died a year after I was born.

Note: In line with mom’s wishes to do what was simple, I preferred the ashes blowing in the breeze along the Oregon Coast. But brother and I decided that by burying her ashes next to our dad, we would be “completing a circle,” long broken. I agree, but some ashes may end up along the Oregon Coast anyway.

I pushed my brother relentlessly these past months to make a decision about what we were going to do. I suggested a family trek to the coast, but he felt strongly about Forest Lawn and I agreed. Even though I liked the idea of Oregon I will be glad we are going to our dad’s grave together to put her ashes next to him.

He agreed to meet with the woman from the mortuary to give her a check, something I couldn’t do from Washington. But when they met he didn’t pin down a date, even though we had talked about some time the last two weeks of April. She called me, she emailed me. I called my brother. He said he would get back to me.

A week later he called to say that he and wife were leaving for their home in New Mexico for ten days. He would call me in the morning. The next morning I got a message saying he still needed to talk to his son about the date and then asked if I would call him. I said in a return email that I thought it best he talk to his son and get back to me.

After they returned, husband called him mid-week because he needed to schedule his jobs around this trip. Bro said he would call back after talking to his son.

And so it went. A few days later I talked to sis-in-law who said, “Yes, I need to get in on my calendar as well. I’ll talk to your brother.”

A few days later we hadn’t heard. I was feeling anxious, waking up in the night, not wanting to be a thorn in their flesh, but determined to make sure this happened. There are other people we want to visit. My cousin with cancer. My 96-year-old aunt. My husband’s brother and niece. And my nephew, wife and great-niece. And we needed to pick dates to kennel the dog.

I called my brother. He said he hadn’t been able to talk to his son to pin him down because my nephew is busy getting ready to move into a new house.

Then nephew wrote me an email telling me the only dates that would work are April 5 to 15. I laughed hysterically. When husband walked in the door from work I had poured a glass of wine, but held the bottle up to my mouth, knowing that would make him laugh.

I called my brother and said, “We have to set a date and let whoever wants to come make a decision.” He agreed.

I wrote my nephew and said, “We can’t come then. The 23rd is the date we will bury mom’s ashes. Can we visit the weekend of the 27 to the 30th? A weekend is better than nothing.”

He wrote back and said, “That’s not a weekend. I’ll be gone. That won’t work.”

I wrote back and said, “It is too a weekend.”

The next email said, “Oops, wrong month. That will work fine.”

Next email, “Whew. I’m so glad.” Nervous breakdown averted.

In the meantime, I called brother’s wife and she said the 23rd sounded good. But I had sent an itinerary that said we would be at their house to visit the 25th and 26th of April. The 26th is mom’s birthday and I want to be with them. She said, “Oh, no, I’m not going to be here on the 26th.”

Then she said, “Oops, wrong month. That will work fine.”

I was thinking that the burial of mom’s ashes had become a fascinatingly bizarre sub-cultural study on family dynamics.

But the date is set. And that’s what counts. Although I know I have been annoying and persistent, if I hadn’t pushed, it wouldn’t have happened. I needed it to happen.

Irony will have it, we are burying mom’s ashes 65 years to the week she buried our dad. He died April 17, 1947. We will bury her ashes April 23, 2012. It’s the right month, the right week, and the right day. Now all we have to do is use the same calendar.