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.

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.



A mother’s look back


This is a reprise of an essay I wrote back in April 2009, on the one-year anniversary of my daughter’s diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes

One year ago this afternoon, my baby girl was sick. On and off, she had been fussy for days. Late in the afternoon on the 20th of April, she had vomited. I hoped for the random fleeting-sickness of early childhood. Twelve hours later, in the early morning, we awoke abruptly as she vomited again. And then, she slipped into something unfamiliar: sleepiness? That wasn’t it. It was lethargy. Eventually, non-responsiveness. Her breathing quickened. I remember the sight of her eyelids as I held her in my arms, still hoping for an explanation that would be treatable, something that would disrupt our lives for this day, this week, and then cure itself just like so many viruses, so many quirky kid bugs.

                There is a number when you are diagnosed with diabetes. That is all you need. A measure of blood glucose. It is a simple finger prick, a wait of some seconds, and then a number. 408. And then a rush, shock. For me, of course, who cries monthly, if not weekly, a steady stream of tears began that would not end for hours, as new sights and words urged them on.

                We rushed her ourselves to the children’s hospital. People stare at you, inevitably, when you walk speedily into an ER with that stubborn stream of tears and the baby who does not wake up. And then you yearn for an escape from the foreground, to be seated and anonymous, to believe that no one particularly cares what you’re doing and doesn’t attend to the message of your face. You wish for this: I want to just be, as everyone else.

                She returned to wakefulness the next morning. The nurse had promised it would be a long night. We will get through it. And then, after dawn, there was Gloria, awake, who pointed with a dimpled baby arm and declared, “Rice.” It was her word of the month back then, her catch-all proclamation, and of course I cried.

                And so, here we are, one year later, and I can’t help but reflect on that day. I have an imprintable heart, and I am not one to let dates pass without stirring their meaning in my mind. There is much to dislike about this day for me. My memories still feel young, and they have not taken pity on me yet, nor softened with any note of kindness. It saddens me to think that this is just year one of many, that there is nothing that recedes, there is no “getting better”, no past tense. I do not hope for a cure – there is nothing proximate about such an ending, so talk of a cure feels like folly to me. Neither am I on a journey, for that too suggests an end. Gloria is living her life. I am accompanying her. It is a maddening task, much of her phenomenology opaque to me. It is humbling, frustrating, unceasing. I repeat phrases: we have our good days and our bad days. More accurately, there are things that are good and things that are bad about virtually every day. I try. I have many five-second spans of concern when I wait for the results of a finger prick. Her blood sugar is too high. Her blood sugar is too low. Act. You miscalculated, overshot, undershot, almost got it, didn’t. I use faint praise too much: “decent”.

                I have to find something promising in this day. She is one year older. In that year, she has learned to talk. She has taken on the righteous outrage of the typical two-year-old. She plays. She feeds her baby dolls, puts on her own shoes, hones her toddler humor. She bops, grins, is still a fan of a good round of peek-a-boo. She has been to Disneyland twice, ridden a city bus to the county fair, gone on four camping trips, taken an airplane ride, discussed “Barracko Bama”. The reflection of her cuteness is no less blinding than it would otherwise be – I am overwhelmed by it, as I was and continue to be with my other two children. There are an abundance of moments for which I, like any parent, am grateful: when she rouses from sleep as I sit near her, and she murmurs, “My baby?” and her hand finds her nearby baby doll. She imitates my made-up songs, puts her head on my shoulder, pats my back. “Hold you!” she admonishes me, and I hoist her up another time, and she is back on my hip. I was never going to limit her, never going to sit down, never planning to stop encouraging her to enjoy the diversity of pleasures available for the grasping. Still, I resent everything about her disease, I resent our culture of sugar and of eating, and I resent the questions I have to ask myself every week: is she screaming or is that the diabetes screaming?

                So, we have made it to another April 21st, and it is a blessedly ordinary day. Memories will age, others will form. Eventually she will no longer fit on my hip, but her burden will remain. I am left with a lament known to many others: there is much, much – too much – that a parent cannot do


Colina del Sol

Paris, France. August 2013.

Paris, France. August 2013.

Recently two of my children and I visited an unfamiliar park in a part of San Diego that we have explored little. The park sits on a hill, some of the slope on its west side a retaining wall of concrete covered in a thoughtful but neglected mural. The playground above that wall is wide, a generous half circle that is just enough a blend of aged and grand to remind me of one of Paris’ more modest parks: Les Arènes de Lutece, a mostly empty echo of a Roman amphitheater where older men play boules in a setting not so much memorable as quiet, a place of simple interjections and humble adjectives — yeah it’s nice here, one might say.

The playground at Colina del Sol has a similar unhurried meter, and it too feels far from home. As my youngest daughter set out on her bicycle to circle the rim of the plateau on which the playground sits, my eldest daughter and I followed her on foot. The experience was one of gradual realization that we had arrived in a place that was, in that hour, home to a motley of identities — young and not-so-young, immigrant and local. As we progressed our way from west to east, we heard multiple languages. There were several children at play, and after completing a few pleasant laps my 7-year-old daughter got off her bicycle to join in the climbing and sliding. She approached with her usual blend of confidence and reticence. Minutes later, she strode back to her sister and me and told us that a little girl had asked for her name.

“Did you talk to her?” I wondered. My daughter nodded. I looked at the girl she’d referred to, thin and little, her long dress in an ornate pattern and lightweight fabric unlike anything they sell at Gymboree, her head covered in a hijab. She was one of several little girls so attired. “Good,” I said, and my daughter scampered back to the sand. She would entertain herself there some more.

My eldest daughter and I sat at the perimeter of the playground, two women to our right busily chattering in the shade, again in a language I don’t speak. A late midsummer afternoon, the temperature was pleasing. A boy on a tricycle added a sustained rumble to that otherwise quiet place. A hardscrabble ball field below us, mid-hill, was the site of a vigorous soccer game, what looked to be the full twenty-two players stitched into an undersized space. Above them, at still another level of this hillside, a volleyball game was underway. Everything — the play of the children, the chatter of the women, the informal volleyball and the determined soccer — was conducted by different groups, some homogeneous and some intermingled, the faces from Somalia, Cambodia, Latin America.

We had come to this neighborhood so my son could play golf at a small kid-friendly course near here. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have landed at this place, and we would have missed this patch of earth with roots both incipient and deeper, its beginnings pulled from around a shrinking globe. I sat and thought deliberately about how this diverse scene was different than my neighborhood, how it almost felt as if were traveling with passports in tow. Here, it felt silly to think about a term like “minority”, because there were so many ethnicities represented that we could all be so labeled.

My 7-year-old’s experience was different than mine. She didn’t ask why the girl who had spoken to her was wearing a headdress. She didn’t comment that we were the only ones speaking English, and she certainly didn’t point out that we were the only people there of European ancestry. Instead she climbed to a platform on the play structure. She waited for her turn at the pair of drinking fountains. She got off and on her bicycle. She enjoyed the dueling slopes between the playground and the ball field where she could coast down and back up again. She played amid the other children on the playground equipment and she and the other girl exchanged fleeting almost-smiles. Later she focused on keeping her bicycle tire away from a gap that had formed in the sidewalk.

I think about the ability of a child to simply be, to accept an environment and integrate its novelty without self-reflection. I think about how a child sees other children, how “otherness” is something that grows with time. I wonder if it has to be taught. My daughter herself carries with her some element of that “other”, having the chronic disease Type I diabetes. I’ve been ready for one of her young playmates to back away, to recoil when my daughter gets a quick injection in the back of her arm or when her lancet device produces a spot of blood on her finger. Six years past her diagnosis, we are still waiting for that day. Children instead move in rather than away, curious and perhaps lacking discretion, but never afraid and simply never aghast.

One needn’t romanticize a child’s deeds. My daughter did not end up hand in hand with her Somali age-mate on this day at Colina del Sol Community Park, and there was never a still shot of a pale hand clasping a dark brown one in a lovely show of solidarity. This is perhaps more a story of what my little girl did not do. Set amid a backdrop of contentiousness both near and far — the Palestine/Israel conflict has been little changed since my youth, and my fellow citizens of our border regions are blockading buses of refugee children from arriving in their communities this summer — I think it worthwhile to consider why and when we begin to snip away at our compassion, why we eventually mark limits around it, why we reserve it for our own collection. I doubt many parents teach this overtly to their children: when he falls, lift up your brother but not your neighbor’s brother. Yet that is what we as adults often display.

Sunset was still hours away when our visit to the park drew to a close. As we made our way back down that hill, I observed what lined the opposite street: an aging strip mall, an apartment building, and at the corner, a detached home with a fenced front yard. In that yard my 12-year-old and I noticed there were three grottoes of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I chuckled at the rate of three such images to one small yard, but this is what I said to my child: “See — being Catholic connects you culturally to people around the world.” There is always something that can connect us. There is always overlap.

I think we will return to this City Heights section of the city, and I hope that in our meanderings we uncover more pleasant surprises like what we found on this hill. On that return trip I will be certain to have my children with me, and they will do what they have always done: they will make me slower, they will make me stop, they will make me proud.