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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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Uncategorized

Those Who Teach

Jefferson County, Colorado. My childhood home.

Jefferson County, Colorado. My childhood home.

My husband’s mother spent her career in the classroom. For more than four decades she was the lively presence at the front of the room, stewarding group after group of first graders through the hallmarks of that pivotal year: by the time they moved on, those children had grown into literacy. Over the years my mother-in-law assembled a wide collection of gifts from these little ones, the “#1 Teacher” plastic apples and the framed photos with mats covered by the wide scrawls of child signatures. As she readied finally for retirement, she began to thin her classroom supplies, and her grandchildren were the recipients of a career’s worth of materials.

There were books. In fact there were stacks and stacks of books — hardcover picture books with playful jackets, thin “Learning to Read” books with large fonts. In many she had written her name in the crisp handwriting of one who spends years communicating with six-year-olds. There were other supplies — holiday decorations, geometric magnets, alphabet-learning kits, hundreds of markers. All of it was purchased from her own pocketbook, and all for the purpose of bettering the experience she provided for forty years’ worth of children.

She was a good teacher who was a stalwart advocate for early childhood education, one who witnessed the detriment of disparate starts, one who stood patiently by the many children who never occupied the pole position. She read to the children and rhymed with the children and sang songs to them, repeating, celebrating, noticing.

Several years have passed since her retirement, and in that time our public discourse about education has dwelled in a contentious era. We are living in a time when the American teacher can often be maligned more than lauded. Rather than revering the professionals who have learned and honed the craft of pedagogy, we behave as if anybody could do that job — we could edge our way into it sideways, we figure, as if the task of getting dozens of different minds to attend to, absorb, process, and retain information were as simple as guiding a lone child safely through a crosswalk. Common sense, we figure, ought to do it.

Yet many of us remember our teachers well. My third grade teacher was a soft-spoken woman. I cherished the daily citizenship awards she bestowed in the form of fuzzy googly-eyed creatures pinned to one’s shirt. My fifth grade teacher had a deep respect for literature; he read to us aloud every day. I remember the feeling of mastery I attained that year from memorizing and performing the poem “The Spider and the Fly.”

An English teacher taught me to avoid starting sentences with “Perhaps.” Just say what you want to say; don’t qualify it. This was the beginning of my emerging voice, one that would guide me well into college when the tasks became to pitch my ideas to the arena, to test my own novel theories, and to craft my own prose. These educators were among the scaffolds that shaped me into a learning, thinking global citizen.

I grew up in Jefferson County, Colorado, a place for which I have an enduring fondness. In reading this month about the tumult caused by a Board of Education majority that is alienating many of its teachers, I think of my K-12 classrooms. I remember how my mind was blown at the idea of negative numbers. You mean you add it to another number, yet get less? I remember the empowerment of being a co-editor of the high school newspaper. I recall the satisfaction of completing a geometric proof. I know I believed that my sixth-grade watercolor portrait of a girl in a hat was by far the best artwork I’d ever done — except for the color of the girl’s neck. I didn’t get that part right. The point is that I, like anyone, was profoundly influenced by those years of my education. And those years were the proud work product of many teachers, men and women who were voices and guides and creators and facilitators. I owe them a debt.

We all owe our teachers a debt. Theirs should be a profession that we dream of as children. Theirs should be a profession that we daydream our own children could achieve — oh, a teacher! We should revere our teachers. We should be grateful that there are people who choose these tasks so mighty: to take the reluctant five-year-old or the distracted 10-year-old or the sly 15-year-old and raise up each one, raise them all up by giving them the knowledge that is their birthright. We depend upon our teachers to do the daily work, the creative, active, demanding work, the work most vital.

And so we should support them with our every resource. We should respect their expertise, their innovation, their systems of leadership and quality control. In our era where we emphasize that it is “kids first,” we neglect a simple principle: fostering a well-resourced, enriched, highly respected teaching workforce is a magnificent way to put our children first.

I read recently what an editor of a literary magazine wrote to those who toil in the art of writing short stories. “For this,” he began, “despite what anyone might say, you are a person of great virtue.” It is time for us to transform our collective mindset so that we approach those who teach with this same respectful admonition. For dedicating your careers to students, for studying the art of teaching, for filling classrooms with stacks of books — for all that you do, dear teachers, you are people of great virtue.

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