Dying, Grief, Love, Uncategorized


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.


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.