Dying, Grief, Love, Uncategorized

Easter

IIsaIt is Easter. My father’s funeral was one year ago. Two days ago, my neighbor Dagmar died.

This weekend I washed our wood floors. I’ve never been much of a housekeeper. There are permission slips on the end tables and one shoe, upturned, will disappear soon. Don’t look closely at the coffee table: green ink stain in a shape like a treble clef and a pinky-print of glue, ossified. Despite my chronic underattention to these imperfections, the floor-cleaning was therapy and slow and the air was mercifully cool.

The priest for my father’s funeral was the priest of my childhood. Father Bob. His voice was the same and his smile was the same as 1987. I chose all the music myself without asking anyone for input. We sang Be Not Afraid and The Prayer of St Francis and I whispered dumbly at one point: “I like all this music because I chose it myself.”

Everything else about last April I did not choose. I thought about my neighbor while washing the floor. She was neighborly. She was old-fashioned courteous and proper. Her voice was deep and Southern and hung in the air on the last legato. I admired her because she didn’t need me to admire her. She gave my children gifts, sometimes quirky old-lady gifts and sometimes stuff that made them coo: oh cool. She gave us chocolates and magazine subscriptions and it was all polite and kind.

While I cleaned the floor, my youngest daughter was busy on the rocking chair writing a birthday card for her friend. She chose a word for every letter of her friend’s name. Incredible. Stupendous. She started writing hearts, twelve to a row.

I thought about postponing my father’s funeral last April but not really. My mother lay dying while we were away listening to Father Bob. We understand, people told me. If you postpone, you could do a double funeral. But silly them — that couldn’t be my life. No one plans a funeral for her father and chooses all the music without any input from anyone and then postpones it to keep vigil for her dying mother. Do you all understand that I have chosen all the music on my own?

My father’s funeral reception was in the church basement and the funeral committee served fried chicken. I remember being in that basement as an elementary school-aged child for a Seder meal during Lent, not understanding why we Catholics were having a Seder meal during Lent. Bitter root and unleavened bread. Mass every weekend. The same pew every week. The same blessings.

I picked up the rugs and shook them onto the floor. The last time I talked to Dagmar, I had parked in her driveway. There were cars and people at my house for our home remodel and Dagmar’s driveway had more shade. There was also the fact that she spent her nights at an assisted living residence nearby and I hadn’t seen her car at the house for a long time. So I sat in my van in my neighbor’s driveway and savored a moment to myself. My phone rang. A man asked to speak to my mother.

My mother didn’t die while we were away for my father’s funeral. She survived for 13 more days. When I think of it all now, the dying and the death and the funeral and the dying and the death, I realize this all came with permanent changes to my cells. They became weary and triumphant, breathlessly aware of being loved. They became heartbroken and stuck. I learned two things: anything horrible can happen to anyone. I can fly.

When the phone rang, I offered up a prim “My mother is deceased,” and then I hung up and cried. Having no tissue, I wiped my nose on an upholstery sample I found tucked in the van door. And then, right then, Dagmar pulled up next to me.

Why, at that moment preposterous, was she there? I jumped out of the van to explain and she only looked at me politely. She looked at me as if I were waving from my porch, as if I had rung her doorbell a decade before when my babies were tiny. There was no “oh my,” no “you poor thing,” no annoyance. She didn’t let on whether she noticed my tear-stained eyes or my hastily wiped nose.

It was my most humble moment of the year, snot on my hands, forsaken directly by a God with wicked timing. There was Dagmar to bear witness to my dumb and brutal world, its whiplash. Yet all she did was be polite. She smiled at me and nodded and continued on into her house. In that, there was nothing to distinguish this day from all the others.

I think Jesus would serve fried chicken at a funeral. I think he would be on the funeral committee and show up with aluminum pans of chicken and salad and desserts on little plates. I think the whole point of the life of Jesus is to make us want to be on the funeral committee and let neighbors park in our driveway and write birthday cards like my daughter did — words and more words of love and devotion and at least seven rows of twelve hearts each.

And I think Jesus wants us to laugh at ourselves. When we have been thrown onto a pitiable, lonely surface, I think Jesus hands us an upholstery sample for our dripping noses because in eleven minutes, this scenario is going to be…kind of funny. It’s going to be kinda funny when your neighbor is at your side and you expect her to wail about your lonely lonely bell jar and she is instead as neighborly as she always was and smiles and goes on. That’s the point. Life must.

Life must. I am grateful for the lives of Raymond Stewart and Barbara Jean Tigges and for my neighbor Dagmar. One year ago yesterday, we marked a collective farewell and thank you to my dad. Today, again, it is Easter.

Standard
Education, Uncategorized

For love of public schools: This is what we’re fighting for

kindergarten My public elementary school in Lakewood, Colorado was a red brick building. Here is something amazing: for a while, there was a glorious fort in the library with two levels (an upstairs?! Imagine the joy) and piles of pillows. There were poster board stars hanging from the ceiling of that library, covered in aluminum foil to make them look shiny and important. Each noted the names of students who had passed spelling tests because spelling was a Big Deal. The Dukane projectors provided private showings of The Solar System or Great Plains Indians one slide at a time with cassette tape soundtracks. Our principal, Dr Doll, was a firm and fierce tiny-boned woman who insisted “I want every eye on me” and holy lord, if that administrator wasn’t a great role model for being a badass woman in charge.

 

School was wonderful and it was life. My classroom’s incubating chicken eggs did not hatch at all one year. Total bust. But still, year in and year out I was the type of child who reveled in my workbooks and rejoiced in my Trapper Keepers and closely guarded my favorite Hello Kitty mechanical pencil.

 

Not everyone was the same. Every year my class was a motley crew. I was a Green Frog one year. Not everyone was a Green Frog. Some were Yellow Ducks and Brown Bears. But there we all were, the kids with peeled-crust sandwiches and the kids with free lunch tickets, the kids who guarded Hello Kitty pencils like I did, kids with every sort of last name. Bear Creek Elementary had a place for everyone.

 

I had the same teacher for my final two years at that school. Mr. Pyle was only five feet tall, about my height then, but he looked like he could bench press a few. He was balding with a gray mustache and was a stickler for discipline, following directions, and penmanship. My friend and I memorized “The Spider and the Fly” and performed it in class, and we built a robot using a shower head and other odds and ends we found in my dad’s basement workroom. Our class completed an entire weeks-long unit on baboons, of all things. Mr. Pyle was a fiend for complete sentences and his book reports went on for pages. He challenged a sixth grader to a pumpkin pie making contest and attributed his popular-vote victory to his precision in following the recipe. He admitted he had never traveled anywhere but Kansas and Colorado, but he had a reverence for books and information that was contagious.

 

When I graduated from high school six years later, Mr. Pyle showed up at my doorstep. Although I was nearly 18 years old, I found this embarrassing, the reality that teachers are humans who continue to exist off campus still seeming debatable. He congratulated me on my achievements and gave me a gift: a book of Bible verses. Thinking about Mr Pyle, this gift wasn’t a shock – that love of discipline and decorum probably did dovetail pretty well into adherence to religion. But I have to give the man credit – he never betrayed his Christian faith in his classroom. We were at a public school, and his job was teaching us to multiply negative numbers and keep a clean desk and give oral reports on the Siberian Tiger. It was not to teach us those Bible verses.

 

Again: not everyone was the same. There was a place for everyone at Bear Creek Elementary. There was a boy in my classrooms through the years who pulled out his own hair. There were kids with various special needs, some of whom were in separate classrooms and some, like the hair-puller, who weren’t. There were jokers and math whizzes and the Latina trio that performed Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That” at the school talent show with matching shirts that read “No Can Do” on the back. There were kids who moved away before they could settle in and the kids from the “Luxury Apartments” near the school.

 

Those were not luxury apartments. I’ve always been proud to be a product of public schools, beautiful and diverse and complex and successful public schools. The Green Frogs and the Yellow Ducks and the Brown Bears are now teachers and accountants and bankers and veterans. They are making decisions, building, repairing, doing research and leading. They are parents and taxpayers and neighbors.

 

There needs to be a place for everyone, regardless of circumstances and resources, regardless of belief systems or ability. And here’s another thing that’s as amazing as that library fort: we are better together. We learn from each other. I’m better for having been in class with the boy who pulled out his hair.

 

So to those who would undermine our proud public school system and its principles: no can do. Let’s lavish our public schools, and every Green Frog, Yellow Duck, and Brown Bear within them with our patriotic pride. I grew up in a country in which boys and girls, learners of every pace and style, six-minute milers and 18-minute milers, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and None of the Aboves were all deemed worthy of my nation’s time and effort. In this era, we cannot each flee to our own distant outposts and figure everybody else is not our problem. There is not a problem. Together, we are abundant in riches.

 

 

 

Standard
immigration, Love, parenthood, Politics, Racism, Uncategorized

A story of other Donalds: You cannot have this nation

tafoya-potWhen I was younger, my eyes were directed toward the future. With age, I look to the past with more curiosity than I once did.  Now that my parents have died, I want to ask questions I didn’t value in prior years. That is one of the barbs of grief; there are no more questions. What has passed is past.

I grew up without grandparents. My father’s father, who died a dozen years before I was born, was Hugh Donald Stewart. Hugh’s parents were immigrants from Scotland and England. His mother died at 31, leaving five sons, the youngest just eight days old. He was drafted into the US Army during the First World War. His gravestone notes his service: PVT, Company B, 116th Supply Train. He lived and died in Missouri, married a German Catholic, and was the father of six children, the eldest named Donald.

His story is an American story. His nation is one of service and perseverance through tragedy.

My father was named Raymond Gerard. He was 19 years old when his brother Donald died. At his mother’s behest, he followed Don’s footsteps into the Catholic priesthood. In his late 30s he left his vocation to marry and lead a nonprofit treatment center for alcoholic adults. He supported past clients with his ongoing friendship and patronage. Our Volkswagen Beetle was always serviced by Jesus and Tibor, two such men.

His story is an American story. His nation is one of humble faith and friendship.

My son is named Anthony Raymond. He is my father’s only grandson. When he was two weeks old, my father had a heart attack. My father was not well for any year of my son’s life, but Papa recovered and continued on, recovered and continued on. Anthony possesses my father’s gentle heart and ease with affection. Those two were pals. My father declared it so. “We’re good friends,” Papa assured him. “Really really good friends.”

Anthony’s story is an American story. His nation is one of gentleness and nurturing.

These are white men, one still a boy, the descendants of Christian European immigrants. Their nation may not be what you predict. Their nation never stays the same. Their nation grows wiser and wiser. Their nation learns; it is kind.

My parents bought a modest tract home just a few months before I was born. The back yard seemed vast to me as a child, the trees on the lawn forming three bases for baseball: weeping willow to apple to ash. My father was a tinkerer and fond of books, and he kept his religious faith his entire life. He had his own soft-cover copy of the Bible in which he wrote notes. From Psalm 145, he underlined: “May our sons be like plants well-nurtured in their youth, our daughters like wrought columns such as stand at the corner of the temple.”

My parents began to collect handmade art from native peoples when I was a child. First they bought a Navajo rug. This rug, they explained, was in the Two Grey Hills style. Their collection then expanded into pottery, first Hopi and Santa Clara Pueblo. Maria Martinez of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, they told me, was one of the greatest potters in all the world. Her creations were a marvel. We took a road trip to native land to purchase pottery from artists. My father asked one such artist, named Madeline Tafoya, if he could take her picture posing with her work. She agreed.

Their intersecting story is an American story. Their nation is one of reverent study and mutual respect.

My father coached youth soccer for many years. My mother was into it too; she rooted unapologetically from the sidelines (“Kick it kick it kick it!!!”) and helped my dad plan player substitutions on soccer fields drawn on yellow legal pads. Years later, when I told my parents that my friend, a star defender on our team, was in a same-sex relationship, neither said a single disparaging word. My father didn’t grow up in a world of rainbow flags; he was a young adult in the 1950s, after all. And yet he continued to welcome and support the woman he had known as a determined little girl.

He and my friend together have an American story. Their nation is one of love.

In my father’s penultimate year of life, he and my mother were tended to by a professional caregiver named Fay, a woman from Iran who often read materials in Farsi during her stays in their home. My father thanked her often. One day while she and I sat in an emergency room corridor, Fay told me a tender tale: she had helped my father with his shoes, and as she knelt before him, he kissed her head in thanks. At the estate sale for my parents’ condo not long after that day, I gave a desk, lamp, several pots and pans, office supplies —  even a Peruvian tapestry — to an Iranian father who came by. He was a new immigrant to the US. “I have nothing,” he said. He paid me a small sum in exchange for the many items. My father would have done the same.

That immigrant’s story is an American story. His nation is one of hope and opportunity.

My father circled this in his Bible, from Proverbs: “Hatred stirs up disputes, but love covers all offenses.” His father before him, and he, and my son, and the potter, the soccer player, and the immigrant now cooking with my parents’ pots — all have American stories. They are the Donalds and the Raymonds, the Madeline Tafoyas and the Fays. This is their country. No one can take away their nation.

Standard
Love, Politics, Uncategorized

Thoughts on What Awaits Us

ugly-couchMy thoughts on what awaits us:

Not long after my dog and I set out on a late afternoon walk today, we strode past the home of the childcare provider who cared for each of my children in past years. It being around 5:00 and therefore pickup time, there were three cars in the driveway. Two of the moms engaged in a familiar ritual: standing with the car doors open while chatting. In the third car, I noticed a toddler buckled into her car seat. She was waving repeatedly, a low and anguished wave, moaning “Bye, bye, bye.” Her face was scrunched up in outrage.

Sigh. I can relate, little baby. I have felt like that for weeks, seeing story after story of farewell speeches from the Obamas, last gestures, that Medal of Freedom the president gave Biden. Now I’m buckled into my car seat and despondent and my hair is a mess and my nose is running and I’m just on autopilot saying bye, bye, bye. I opened my back patio door the night Obama first won in 2008 and screamed in joy. I freely acknowledge that I’ve been crushing on Michelle Obama for, what, a good nine years now. I know if she were a mom I met through our children of the same age, and we ended up chatting at a school function, I’d be grinning well past the time we parted. I might stop to think, gosh, I am still grinning. I have been grinning for a *while* now.

I’m still grinning. That woman is glorious. But times change. My 42 years of life have seen plenty of changes. My childhood photos now uniformly look a bit orange and grainy (was anything ever in focus?) and we’re all wearing huge and high collars and swooping lacy hems that now look ridiculous. My parents had two sofas in a row that may qualify for the ugliest piece of furniture ever produced, featuring big brown plant-like shapes with rust accents and then deep, fuzzy, stone-cold-serious plaid. When I was pregnant with my first child, we decided that we should probably go ahead and get a cell phone (!) for my husband. This prudent precautionary measure would ensure he could be reached if I had an emergency. Mark Zuckerberg was a high school kid at the time. The other day my son, always full of middle school silliness and possessing his own sharp sense of humor, joked that he hadn’t done something “Since ‘Nam.” What? Hey child, I was the one who grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War era and made joking references to my ‘Nam years. Last week, a tiny but hardy PHONE BOOK was delivered to our driveway. This deeply aspirational offering made me stop and stare. Valuable coupons inside, it promised. I wanted to take selfies with it and cradle it like a baby but instead I left it on the driveway and my husband chucked it into the recycle bin. Times have changed. Apparently, not everyone gets all the memos.

Watching the changes on the sociopolitical scene unfold these past two months still seems like watching an entertaining but derivative movie in which the good guys are threatened by the sinister forces who want to do away with everything that seems, well, somehow not that controversial – low-cost healthcare clinics women can access, not coldly turning away cancer survivors and diabetics who want to purchase health insurance, keeping public schools open and thriving, supporting the arts, letting LGBT people snuggle into adorable urban lofts and plan weddings and put a ton of sunscreen on their toddler children. I’m expecting a scene soon in which a heartbreakingly precious baby owl is juuuuust starting to fall asleep in its nest and then some sort of bulldozer comes and the owlet’s eyes pop open and it flaps and flaps and flaps its little owlet wings while the bulldozer pushes the tree down. While watching this movie I might think, well this is a bit campy and over the top and, it now being 2017, unrealistic. Jabba the Hutt debuted decades ago and that oversexed gross villain thing has been done to death by now.

But here we are. Times change. Apparently the pendulum swings back. There’s been a lot of consternation among many people I hold dear. I don’t know what to say except that well, here we all go. Six and a half years ago I was on one of my rare solo travels, visiting my beloved Colorado like I am wont to do. I left a visit with one dear friend and headed south toward Denver to visit two other dear friends, Allison and Jill. Midway there, on the Boulder turnpike, suddenly I was braking and then I was actually spinning, turning the wrong way. I remember thinking, oh wow, so this is me having a car accident. This is real life happening right now.

My trajectory ended next to a concrete boundary on the side of the highway with me facing approximately northwest when I had been driving southeast. I didn’t really understand what had happened. I think I even explained that I had hit the concrete, except that I totally hadn’t. A witness pulled over and did not help the situation by becoming upset on my behalf and asking repeatedly if I was hurt. All that happened to me was that some water spilled and I broke a toenail. Then there was a traffic jam forming, and police officers and an ambulance and me assuring everyone everywhere that I was uninjured. Of course I cried. I apparently called Allison and Jill, because within what felt like a mere 17 seconds there they were. I can still feel my relief. My god. Familiar faces. Competent faces. One of them laughed at the fact that I had frosted mini wheats in the car. Thank you and thank you for teasing me for my frosted mini wheats.

So now here we all are, and stepping into this new era feels like the brake and spin of that moment of my life. We’ve all together been hit by an unlicensed driver in a Ford F250 while driving a tiny rental car and now we’re spinning and this direction is for sure not the direction we were just going in. I take solace in the fact that on my 300-degree spin, I managed to hit no other vehicle. That still seems implausible – there had been a fair amount of traffic heading into Denver at rush hour. And while I was a confused and tearful mess, soon my friends were there. I don’t know at all how they drove up from the south and turned around and navigated the traffic jam and were there to hug me within 17 seconds and then handled everything while I pretty much contemplated clouds and the sun setting. I was okay. That poor rental KIA only had about 700 miles on it before it was totaled but I was okay.

So I think, while we all wave dolefully at the outgoing administration and murmur bye, bye, bye, bye, that we really are going to be okay. The mama owls are going to get enraged and even the owlets are gonna be plucky and put on goggles and come back at the bulldozers. We’re all talking. We’re realizing some stuff. We’re marching. The background music is starting to take on a triumphant tone and the montage is coming in which the diabetics and the gay dads and the little girls and the disenfranchised and the people fielding the threats at the JCCs are all going to join the righteous owl mamas and turn again in the direction every heart knows is right, where there is equality and voice and respect and access and kindness. First the Ford F250 with the unlicensed driver was tailgating us, and today it hit and we spin. Here we all go. We spin together.

Standard
Grief, Love, Uncategorized

Requiem for the year

Today the sky here is gray. There has been no sun. Although I grimace when the forecast calls for soaring high temperatures, I am a Colorado girl and expect my sunshine. But clouds always do make me think, as if they alone can ease the pace of a day. The verb here is beautiful: slow.

This is a year I will always remember. It is pinned: orphan. But it is also pinned: care. I have seen more friends and family in this most memorable year than I have for a long time. I have enjoyed the company of cousins, of childhood playmates I’ve known my entire life, of my godparents and my brother and dear friends from all eras. I’ve been warmly welcomed into backyards, shared meals, received kind messages and laughed. Even this last week of the year, I have been lavished with time with friends, and this morning a truck arrived to deliver a bouquet of flowers from two friends I have known since elementary school.

Two weeks ago in Denver I stood alone on a hill beside my beloved natural history museum. My parents took me to that museum often. We went to the big traveling Ramses exhibit and to planetarium shows and stood in a tedious long line to see gem carvings one year. I volunteered there as a teenager and wrote about my experiences on college application essays. My mom and I took my two eldest children there when they were wee people with chirpy high voices, and we stood chatting as my babies pretended to be astronauts.

When I was a child the museum had a sculpture of the head of a saber tooth tiger, mouth wide open, where one could drop a coin and make the tiger growl. I was a little afraid of dropping a coin in, just like I was a little afraid of the creepy elevators amid the animal dioramas, but I could do it. I was brave enough to make a saber tooth tiger growl.

The museum still has that saber tooth tiger. I walked into the lobby this month and I could hear that sound again, imprinted as it is, as if it came from some stalwart neuron devoted to only it. There must have been an eager child that December day with a cupped hand full of coins, because the growls continued. I took it all in, slow that day too, playing another track in my life’s soundtrack. Then I walked outside to the old familiar hill.

There are always geese in Denver’s City Park. My mother loved birds. On my wall, I display one of my father’s paintings, depicting the ash tree in their backyard of 33 years. Within the tree is a birdhouse I decorated for my mom one year: “Barb’s Birds.”

The sound of my mom’s longtime friend drawing a bath for her granddaughter in July was a visceral and sensory reminder of my mom doing the same for my child ten years earlier. The way my college friend’s husband spoke for a puppet in December was gut-punch similar to what my dad would do. So I stood outside that museum in City Park, the saber tooth growl renewed in mind, and I forgave the wild geese I found there.

I forgave them for giving and then for taking away. I forgave them for the goodbyes after the goodbyes, the many reminders, the over and over work it takes to let go.

They are sorry, the wild geese. And I’m sorry too. I am not without gratitude: thank you to Mother Earth and to God and chance and the wild geese for conspiring to give me this life that I wanted more of. Thank you for my belief that it wasn’t enough time.

The year is over. When I look up from it I realize that I am within a circle of my parents’ making. I turn, and turn, and turn, and the circle is unbroken. It was both the year of orphanhood and the year of the most abundant and tender care.

I was too young for this. I wasn’t ready. But standing in my parents’ circle, the year they died now ending, I am certain of something only the snow in City Park knew before me: I am brave enough for forward. I am brave enough to make a saber tooth tiger growl. I am encircled by mighty things.

Standard
Dying, Fate, Grief, Love, Uncategorized

Three Funerals

img_3826This morning I decided to give my dog a bath. I have a hunch that other fluffy dogs around here get more frequent baths than my pooch, who gets only an occasional professional grooming with a bath added so he’ll smell good when he’s done. Lately Riffle hasn’t been smelling too fancy, and the kids are starting to make comments about our resident stink. So today I got bold, dug out the old shampoo bottle and into the tub he went.

He can be a pretty mellow little animal, so he tolerated that experience. The bathtub got dirty. I squeezed out his hair as much as I could when we were done and then set him free. Oops.

He went bolting outside, immediately began rubbing himself in our patchy lawn, went running toward the dirt of our perimeter landscaping and rolled there. Then he did a few freakout figure 8’s around the lawn, went careening into the house and slipped frantically on our wood floors, then darted into the master bedroom and did a strong ricochet off my bed and its white bedspread. More bolting back outside, and I finally closed the door behind him.

Wet, dirty smears were everywhere, a dripping dirty dog stood outside, and a newly christened-in-pawprints bedspread rested on the bed.

Mission accomplished! So it turns out that sometimes, life doesn’t go as planned. I feel like this is now the only counsel I want to offer my three children as they get closer to their college years. It’s going to be different than you think. Adapt. Brace against the weather that comes. Think it through. And when the time you spent bathing the dog not only doesn’t result in a clean dog, it creates a dirtier house along the way, come up with a better plan for next time and clean up the mess without lamenting how your vision of an adorable, hospital-clean fluffy dog who smells like lavender and daydreams did not become reality.

My parenting years and mid-life thus far haven’t matched my teenage vision. Oh for those halcyon 1990’s when the world was one big promise tinged with the buzz of meeting new people and experiencing life in ways that felt amusing and forward: Thai food! The lark of a group outing to an adult toy store! Europe on a youth rail pass! Season tickets to a Final Four college basketball team! A sweet 98% on a final exam right before winter break! 

My parents used to meet me at the gate when I flew home for school breaks, and I remember the time I told my mom about that 98% in the airport. I felt good. My mom flashed a high-energy wide smile when she was excited, and she would even add a little clap of her hands when she caught sight of me coming off an airplane. I was so valued and amazing and in fact a super hero then. 

This past summer, my son flew alone to join me and his younger sister on our sabbatical-from-life in my hometown after my parents both died in the first third of the year. Since my son was an unaccompanied minor, I was allowed to get a special pass to proceed through security to the gate to meet him. It had of course been many years since I’d experienced a reunion right upon disembarking. As we waited at the gate, I remembered those many ebullient greetings my mom gave me at airport gates: her eyes practically sending off sparks, my reaction more muted but still grinning. The wait for my son’s plane seemed long. I wanted to cry as I sat there, pretending I didn’t so as not to trouble my nine-year-old who waited with me. I turned away and widened my eyes; that only sort of works.

My mom would be wearing her big white thick coat for the winter break reunions. She never got rid of that coat herself. Midway through her Alzheimer’s disease, she wore that coat, along with hat and gloves, to view Christmas lights with me in San Diego. I remember wishing it were a colder night. I opened the car windows a bit to make it seem colder. It was still 61 degrees. Thick coat, knit hat, and gloves.

Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. 

I don’t know how to take my own advice, to adapt and accept and move forward. My career isn’t much of a career, despite that 98% on that exam. My mom not only didn’t know my name when she died, she didn’t know her name. She didn’t know who I was anymore, except for the time when she saw me from her movement-restricting hospital chair in the psychiatric ward and raised her hands toward me like a child would do, just the shadow of the shadow of the joy and jazz at those airport gates. I have lost my super hero powers. I can see through nothing. 

I have cataloged 2016 as a Hard Year. It was the first year since my first child was born that I couldn’t write a Christmas letter. This year’s letter would be this: “Well. Fuck.” My mom wouldn’t approve of the profanity, so I skipped it. Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.

The Hard Year is now finally near its end, and I have one more thing left to do. I have to go say goodbye to the year. I’d like to just let it leave, let it slam the door indignantly behind it. But I have to tell it goodbye. I’ve always been one to scurry to the window after the door slams, to murmur oh, to look at the closed door like my stinky dog would do and bite my bottom lip. I need to tell this year goodbye. 

My classmate Mollie just died, and her funeral mass will be at the same church as my two other funerals this year. I sat in that church of my childhood in April and again in June. I liked all the music for my dad’s funeral because I chose it all. There was no music for my mom’s funeral; I couldn’t bring myself to plan much when she died 13 days later. I’m going to go sit in that space again, a third funeral in a single year, and I’m going to tell the year goodbye. I’m going to tell it that it took my dad. And then my mom dropped out of the sky like a bird struck by pellet, gone and mute. She didn’t sleep for three straight days in the hospital. She wouldn’t stop. And then she stopped. I’m going to tell this year that I miss my mom. Her disease began when Mollie’s began. I’m going to tell 2016 that it took Mollie away. I met her at that very church. We sat on opposite sides of a table in a church classroom and learned about baptism and reconciliation and covenants. “I will go to your funeral one day,” I didn’t say across that table. “I’ll mourn you the same year I mourn my parents. It will be a hard year.” Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.

My father used to comment often: “Another chapter for your book.” I would always nod when he said that, say something inconsequential like “yeah”. This chapter has made me cry. I’m on the last few paragraphs now. And as for life, there will be cracks. The lift over the horizon will rest at an angle that causes vertigo. This chapter, the chapter when so much did slip from my hands, will finally go, lost too, and there will be no funeral for it but the moving on. A page will turn; the next words will be new.

Standard
parenthood, Uncategorized

They’ve got your back: Why my real-life crime story became a sign of hope

img_3475The first time I was catcalled was the summer I turned 12. “Loooooove you! In the purple!” the boys called. My reaction was a mix of awkward flattery and disbelief. Were they mocking me? They kept at it, giggling.

 

The first time I was propositioned was four years later, the summer I turned 16. A classmate at writing camp asked me in a student lounge, without particular warning, whether, hey, I wanted to “go do it now.” I said, “Go do it?” and turned away from him. We weren’t even friends. Lack of teenage nuance aside, the message was disheartening: there were those who cared not at all about what I had to say, my interests or biography or my voice. To some, I was only a body, and a body was something to be used.

 

I chose to teach my eldest daughter, now 15, that term “catcall” not long ago, when a truckload of men passed us while we walked the dog. I didn’t tell her much more — I didn’t warn her that as a comely young woman, she could expect years of this, or that she should always be mindful of her personal well being. We’ve talked about safety before, but on that street with the truck newly passed and her awareness of the men’s behavior still tending toward innocence, it felt like too much a visit from the adulthood she has not yet fully entered. I numbly kept it as a vocabulary lesson and couldn’t bear much more.

 

My youngest daughter made it to only first grade before she was viewed in sexual terms by a man, albeit one with criminal psychopathy. She and a friend had stopped at a park drinking fountain, taking a break from their rides on their scooters, when a man dropped his pants in the alcove of the adjacent bathroom. She and her friend were both only six years old.

 

One might look at me and my daughters, and at the countless similar stories of so many of us women viewed first as objects of sexual interest, and feel sullen or even enraged. We might gauge the low bar we have set for those in the recent public sphere and grow further troubled. Surely, we have work to do.

 

Amid this clamor, I offer a single hopeful sign that we humans are worthy creatures. There is more to the story of the day my youngest daughter became the victim of a sex crime.

 

Two young men witnessed the man’s criminal behavior in that alcove. They immediately accosted the offender and ensured he couldn’t flee. They moved him to the nearby lawn, where scores of their friends and family — at the park that day for a large gathering — encircled him.

 

I was aware of none of this. My daughter had subsequently fallen and skinned her knee. Totally ignorant of what had happened by the drinking fountain, I went to my vehicle to find a bandage and left my daughter with her friend’s mom. When I returned, I observed the group maintaining their angry circle around a lone man, seated helplessly on the grass. Their outrage was obvious. I gradually pieced together what had happened. Without those everyday heroes, the crime would’ve gone unpunished. I would have no idea what had happened to my young child.

 

 

Of course I was sickened to realize my little girl was a victim of a crime and that our lives were about to be impacted by a criminal case. Juxtaposed against those strong emotions, however, I couldn’t help but be reassured by the actions of those two young men and their benevolent posse. It was not their children who were victimized. Yet their outrage was certain and their course influential. By intervening, they likely protected future victims. The perpetrator turned out to be a registered sex offender with a lengthy record.

 

So it was their children who were victimized that afternoon next to that drinking fountain. And their children are mine. With their swift action, those two 22-year-olds – not much past their teen years themselves — introduced me to the justice of community, to a selfless vigilantism that comforts me to this day.

 

The legal proceedings dragged on for three years as the defendant sought repeated delays. Finally he pleaded guilty. A repeat offender, he will be sentenced in December and could receive up to 14 years in prison.

 

So it can be an ugly world. It can be an ugly and contentious world, a place dominated by self-interest and greed and the undervaluing of others. I’ve fretted over my child’s innocence lost, mulled restlessly over the unsettling “What if…?” question, and regretted the sad optics of taking my baby to a courtroom to practice serving as a witness in advance of a trial. The world can bring us pain. But two young men rushed to protect two little girls that day, and their tribe became my tribe, and our lives were linked. Our culture might stumble and err, and our media-saturated narrative might seem beyond repair, but there is good out there. There are many who respect the bodies and minds of women and girls. There is connection. We belong to each other. We have to let ourselves believe that, and then live that credo as brave witnesses.

 

Standard