Wednesday, August 20, 2014
I knew a couple, both in their seventies, who lost a son to suicide. When the mother replied to my sympathy card, she said that she was sad that her son would not come to know the joys of later life. At the time I did not know about such joys, but a few decades have rolled by since and I’m beginning to get it. For one thing, by the time you’re in your late sixties, you’ve had pretty much every kneejerk reaction a person can have, and you understand that drama is best left on the stage, because in real life drama is a waste of time and energy. For another thing, you begin to make peace with mortality, your own and that of other people. Remember the first time you grasped the fact of your own expiration? What a bummer. You may have felt terror. You may have wept. You may have shivered and shuddered alone in your bed in the dark. Different people are bound to have different feelings about death, but in general I’d say they’re against it. I once worked as a chore assistant for a 100-year-old woman, whom I shall call Mildred (not her name). She was in a wheelchair, but her mind was working fine, thank you. About all she could do anymore was crochet baby blankets and tell me I’d missed a spot on the carpet while vacuuming, but she was alive and lively for all that. Her 97-year-old cousin, Gertrude (not her name) came to visit one week, and while Mildred napped Gertrude told me that some people, like Mildred, wanted to live forever. Gertrude said, “I’m 97 and I’m ready to go any time, but Mildred just wants to go on and on.” She shook her head with an air of irritation, as if to say, honestly, doesn’t she know when it is time to quit? So apparently the realization of your own mortality and your feelings about it evolve as you re-visit the prospect over the years. Perhaps as time goes on you realize, like Gertrude, that there might come a time when you are ready to rest. As you watch friends and family slip into their eternal rest, you grieve deeply, but you realize that your time is coming, and that if all the people you knew and loved and who knew and loved you are gone, well, heck, who is left to remember those dances at the Spanish Castle (or Avalon Ballroom) with you? Even in age, even in grief, even in physical infirmity, even knowing that there will be a last dance and you’ll have to go home, you can feel the joy of being alive. My husband passed away last year after many years of illness that ground him down. I am gradually getting used to his being gone, though I miss him terribly. He was the best company, and we shared forty years of history. I don’t think the wedding vows are supposed to be a check list – you know, richer, check; poorer, check; sickness, yeah, dammit; health – it was nice while it lasted, and so on – but I think we hit most of those conditions at one time or another during our life together. When you’re getting married, you’re hearing the vows and saying, yeah, yeah, whatever, I will. You don’t realize that those vows are covering all the things that are really going to happen in a lifetime. But I digress. So I’m a widow now, and I’m getting old, and I don’t have much in the way of worldly fortune. And yet – when I got up this morning the sun was shining. I went out in the yard and pulled up a few feverfew plants – don’t worry, they’ll be back. Feverfew is a tenacious plant – and the exercise made me feel good, as well as the new unobstructed view of the flower bed. I made a cup of coffee, gave the dog her morning biscuits, and sat on the kitchen porch watching the chestnut-backed chickadees pulling seed out of the bird feeder, and I sang: “My life goes on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation…” Turns out that there are joys in old age. Turns out that grace rains down, and life bubbles up, and it’s good to be alive, just because, even if you’re lonely and grieving and walk with a limp and have high cholesterol and life seems too hard sometimes. So stick around, friends. You wouldn’t want to miss the joys of later life.
On Sunday the 29th of June I stopped for a bowl of clam chowder at the Ivar’s Seafood Bar in Burien. It was a pleasant sunny afternoon, and the dozens of multi-colored petunias planted around the restaurant lit it up in a cheerful summery way. As I got out of the car I remembered the petunias being there last year. My husband, Rick, had a monthly medical appointment in Renton, and on the way home we often stopped at this Ivar’s so he could get fish and chips. He loved fish and chips, and he especially loved them drenched in malt vinegar. Looking at those petunias I realized that the last time I’d stopped there was with Rick. I was swamped in memories. I pulled out my notebook and wrote, among other things: “Looking backward and knowing it is time to turn my gaze forward.” It is easy to forget, when remembering those who are gone, that there are people still here who love and need us. My granddaughter brought me up short on that point one night when I was whining about losing Rick and Cousin Nancy. “There are other people who love you,” she said in a stern, what-am-I-chopped-liver? voice. Oh yeah. It was later that Sunday that I realized that when I was having my chowder at Ivar’s it was six months pretty much to the minute since Rick died, and that realization hit like a punch in the stomach, and left me a little unbalanced for several days. Widowed friends have been sympathetic to me about these milestones and first times. Thanks to Anne, Marcia, Crystal, and others for sparing a little grace for a sister. Making the transition from being one of a couple to being one person alone means inevitable passages through shaky and sometimes plain sorrowful times. Because I was feeling vulnerable and insecure, I found myself wanting to do something which I thought I’d left behind: I wanted to write letters to turnips. By “turnips” I mean people who have no love to give, as in, “You can’t squeeze blood out of a...” People who, as the saying goes, just weren’t that into me. People I would write to hoping I’d change their minds and they’d finally love me. Turnips. I thought I’d outgrown that exercise in futility and discouragement, but suddenly the compulsion was back. It’s about trying to win my mother’s love, you see. Looking back I’d say she loved me instinctively, but she simply did not feel enough inner abundance to be a generous, nurturing person, or even to be nice a lot of the time. She did have it in her to be critical, always ready to tear me down (or anyone – you know, it wasn’t entirely personal. I happened to be the most convenient target). How I strained for her approval and praise, or even a little damned civility, but she simply did not have it in her. At various times of my life I have tried to persuade people to love me and be nice to me, trying to make the childhood drama have a happy ending, I suppose. Wow, what a waste of time and effort. You’d think I’d learn. I thought I had learned. Ah, the mighty rational mind! So clever, and so on top of things! But the dumb heart still goes running out of the house and down the street without its pants on. I broke down and wrote a letter to one of the turnips. Annoyed with myself, I addressed the envelope and put a stamp on it and tossed it on the kitchen table. Got up the next morning and looked at it. Then I picked it up and walked it in to my office and put it through the shredder, singing, ♪ AIN’T IT A GRAND AND GLORIOUS FEELING! TYAH-TYAH-TI-DAH! ♪ * The experience gave me a dose of humility. When you’re vulnerable it’s easy to fall into the old ways that never worked in the first place. The feeling passed, as feelings do. Six months after Rick’s passing I am starting to look forward, and I am starting to be more alive in the present, and I am more aware of how his love lives on for me, healing me and holding me, making me more whole so I can go on without him. Like everything else about grieving, it is a blessed surprise. *(Thanks and a tip o’ the hat to Clare Briggs, great American cartoonist.)
Got an email in my junk box in which the subject line announced I had won a UK lottery. It was awfully good news. This living on Social Security is not a piece of cake. I can barely afford cake. The subject line made me smile once, a little, before I deleted the email unread. Living on Social Security you can budget. You can designate where every penny is going, but life doesn’t change that much simply because you’re living on a fixed income. There are always those little surprises, like that emergency room bill that wasn’t quite covered by insurance. There are the occasional expected expenses, but so seldom expected that you forget to budget for them, like the new tires I need to get for my car before next winter. Plus the 140,000 mile major vehicle maintenance, which I really ought to schedule soon seeing as how the Honda is up to about 144,000 miles. Shoes. You have to have shoes around here. My shoes are sandals, usually, and I hadn’t looked at my sandals for a long time. They were my best pair, in my mind, so I was shocked when I looked at them to see that the heels were worn right down to the leather uppers, and the leather was fraying. Those poor babies were beyond repair. So now I have a new best pair. That took care of any wiggle room in the budget for this month, and that was before the ER bill. It really is extraordinary how many things I’m noticing as I return to the land of the living. When you begin to recover awareness of the life that’s been going on without you while you were immersed in your personal drama, you find that there is a lot of catching up to do, and you might feel a little lost without the intense sense of purpose and direction that propelled you through those years of your spouse’s illness. On the one hand you are deeply relieved that those hard years are behind you. On the other hand, doing the dishes and laundry and vacuuming and other household chores, while gratifying in its own way, does not give you a feeling of worth and purpose. Plus, there is now nothing to distract you from the dishes, laundry, and vacuuming. So I was pleased when my granddaughter auditioned for and was cast in Drama Dock’s summer production, the 1959 musical “Gypsy.” I am now a stage grandmother for my granddaughter while she’s in a play about a stage mother, Rose Hovick, and her two daughters, June and Louise. The family lived in West Seattle. Rose found West Seattle boring, and decided she would make her talented daughter June into a vaudeville star with Louise as a supporting performer, and the three of them would live the exciting lives of touring vaudevillians. Both of Rose’s daughters would grow up to find success in show business – June as actress June Havoc, and Louise as Gypsy Rose Lee, the classiest stripper ever to remove a glove. The true story of Rose Hovick’s life would have been a little too out there for America in the late 1950s, so the play is a fictionalized version of how Louise became Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s a good show, well written, with some great laughs and great songs, some of which became hits back in the day. My granddaughter and everyone else working on the show is enjoying the community that is forming among the cast and crew. The show is about to kick into high gear with nightly rehearsals. It opens in July. You’ll be hearing about it in coming weeks. It’s nice to have something new to think about, and work on. It’s especially nice to say at rehearsal time, “Oop, can’t do the chores. Gotta go.” Like all denial, it only goes so far. Guess I’ll go work on the budget, or else fold the laundry. Have you ever noticed that having to work on a budget makes folding laundry attractive?
Cousin Nancy died on my birthday. You might think that feels bad, but it feels bittersweet. She is at peace now. No more pain, no more drugs, no more cancer. She’s with the angels, no doubt telling them how they can do their jobs better. She could always tell you a better way to do something. It could be annoying, but it was the basis for her working career, streamlining manufacturing processes and organizing warehouses. She was born in 1947, the second of two daughters. After Nancy’s birth her mother, Chick, began to notice symptoms which were diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. Chick raised the girls and ran the home from her wheelchair as long as she could, and then the girls had to take over. Nancy would come home from school and do whatever needed to be done to take care of her mother, and then make dinner for the family. Some days Nancy would come home and find her mother had fallen out of her chair. She described rolling her mother onto a blanket and dragging her down the hall to the bedroom, cleaning her mother up, getting her into bed in a fresh nightie and jacket. Chick died in April, 1964, when we were juniors in high school. Nancy’s older sister Charlotte married soon after, and Nancy lived with her dad until she turned 18, at which point he told her she was on her own. He refused to pay for any further education for either of the girls, or to support them. Nancy got a job as a bank teller and found a place to live. She enjoyed the single life, and then she met Jerry. They moved in together and later married. They were happy the first few years, and in 1976 had a son, Jeff. Unfortunately Jerry started to drink. When he lost his job in Oakland, he found another in Long Beach and they relocated. Jerry’s alcoholism progressed, and one morning Nancy got up and dressed herself and Jeff in several layers of clothes. She said good-bye to Jerry as if she was going to work and taking Jeff to school, got in her car with Jeff, and drove up 101 as fast as she could, back to the Bay Area. Jerry spent the rest of his life harassing her and Jeff and not paying child support. Jerry died in 1994. Nancy settled in Benicia, a lovely little town on the Carquinez Straits, to raise her son. She got a job and stayed with it for over 20 years, until the company downsized her. She also got a job cleaning up and closing a laundromat seven nights week. When Jeff spent weekends with his dad, she did housecleaning jobs. During those years, when I went to visit Nancy, she’d go to sleep mid-conversation. She had a couple more manufacturing jobs. One moved the factory to China. One she was pushed out of by a guy who was later arrested for his double dealing in his work. After that she had a series of jobs that were unsatisfactory. As she reached her late 50s she discovered that it was pretty hard to find a job if you were an older, plus-sized woman. In 2010, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She had surgery followed by six months of chemo, and was pronounced cured. She went to her son’s wedding in Hawaii in November of 2011, which was the happiest day of her life if her expressions in the pictures are anything to go by. The cancer came back in February, 2012. Nancy lived on chemo from then until this spring, gradually becoming more disabled. This winter she went blind in one eye. That was her last straw. She turned to her sister Charlotte one day and said, “I don’t want to suffer.” Pause. “I’m suffering.” She went into hospice at the end of April. I drove to California to say good-bye. After I got back, I talked to her on the phone a couple of times. She was on heavy painkillers and I could hardly understand her slurred speech. She was barely here anymore. Her friend Anne called me last Monday night to tell me that Nancy was gone. Those are the bare and by no means complete facts of Nancy’s life. They don’t tell you how much fun she was, how upbeat in face of the adversity, how generous, with how little complaint she lived through three years of chemotherapy, and indeed her whole hard knock life. She loved her family, her friends, gambling, and staring at the ocean, which she called, “Renewing my staring certificate.” That, she said, was her church. Rest in peace, my sweet beautiful cousin.
People often tell me they cannot sing, or they are terrible singers. They offer lots of excuses. My favorite excuse for a less than lovely voice is, “I ruined my voice singing on the street for the Salvation Army.” That was my mother. My mother and her siblings were raised in a Salvation Army orphanage in El Paso, Texas. Part of that experience was going out on the street to sing and try to reform the sinners of El Paso. My mother was a gifted piano player, and she accompanied singers and choirs at school and in the orphanage. After she left school, during the Great Depression, she had the opportunity to be a concert pianist, but an older and supposedly wiser man advised her that it would be too risky, and she should stay with her $10 a week bookkeeping job at the Hollingsworth Garage in Watsonville. She was just a kid – she graduated from high school just before her 16th birthday – so she listened to this advice, and stayed at the garage, where she met my father. In 1941 they married. But she saved up to buy her own piano while she was working at the garage, and she played it all through the years. As for singing, though, my mother had a voice that sounded like a chicken with a particularly accurate sense of pitch. As I say, she blamed that on the street singing she did for the Salvation Army in her youth, but I blame it on genetics. She got the gifted piano player gene, and she did not get the lovely voice gene. My Aunt Della did have a lovely voice. She was five years older than my mother, or perhaps seven. She lied about her age when she was young and then had to recant and look for paperwork to prove she was two years older when she wanted to collect Social Security. When she graduated from high school, she went into the Salvation Army, which posted her in San Francisco, and then in Watsonville. There she met my Uncle Mike, one of the most profane auto mechanics on the Central California coast, but he watched his mouth and kept buying War Cry! Magazines whenever my Salvation Army lassie aunt came around, and in the fullness of time, they married. So, Aunt Della sang on the street and had a beautiful voice, and my mother sang on the street and had the voice of a chicken. The singing gene (but not the piano playing gene) came down to me and my brother, but I was the one who loved singing and began performing at age 8. I thrived on the attention and approval it got me. My sons both can sing, but like my brother they don’t often choose to sing. My granddaughter used to make up songs in the car all the time when she was little, but she did not get hooked on singing the way I did. Now she’s having to sing for a show, and it turns out she has a voice. So you’re sitting there, some of you, thinking, boy, I didn’t get the gene. Well, maybe not, but please - stop annoying people by whining about how you can’t sing. If you don’t feel good enough to be a professional, dry your tears. Most people aren’t good enough to be professional, and a lot of people who are good enough aren’t interested in a singing career. A lot of people who aren’t good enough have gone ahead and done it anyway. Think of that. Don’t compare yourself to any of these people, or anyone else. They have nothing to do with you. The only question you need to answer is, do I enjoy singing? I sang well enough to perform and over the years I must have made, oh, dozens of dollars. So why keep on singing if I can’t earn a living? Because it makes me feel good. I enjoy it. I sit here and plunk out chords on the guitar or piano and feel glad to be alive. That is the only reason to sing, or do any kind of music, or art, for that matter. So if you enjoy singing, raise your good or lousy voice and let it sail. The only person to whom it matters is you. Enjoy. Have fun. Life is short. Sing! Buck buck bacaw.
I drove to California last week to say good-bye to my cousin Nancy, who is now in hospice care. My memories of the trip include the sides of freeways as I whizzed by, and the times I spent with Nancy, who is hanging in there so far, and with my mother-in-law Diane. To say that Diane is my mother-in-law is a bit of a joke. Yes, she was married to my husband’s father, but she is only a year older than I am. Now that Rick and his dad, Mark, are gone – they died exactly four months apart - we are simply friends, and last week we talked together about the experience of being widowed. First of all, it sucks, and blows. When someone asks, “How are you?” we agreed that we usually reply with a non-committal, “Fine,” delivered with a brave smile and (we hope) a clear unwillingness to talk about it in public. You don’t want to know how we are. Honestly. Diane said she prefers to call herself single, because that feels better to her than saying widowed. Yeah. The “w” word carries a lot of freight. It conjures up visions of squat old ladies dressed all in black with black scarves over their heads, maybe missing a front tooth or two. I’m not saying those ladies are anything but perfectly respectable and whole human beings with lives and stories of their own, but I am more the jeans and purple t-shirt and wild hair type of widow. We talked about the feelings and perspectives we have as widows that cannot be explained to anyone who hasn’t lived the experience. We talked about how much grief is a physical experience. Well, it’s a total being experience – physical, mental, emotional. spiritual. I know I have been caught by surprise by what it is really like. I expected to be weeping and wailing, but for me it’s been more a case of catching myself sitting and staring, occasional nausea, occasional tears, bouts of old chronic illness kicking up, nightmares, the surfacing of old, old emotional wounds, and strange feelings of being out-of-body, as if the laws of physics have been repealed. Does gravity still work? Apparently, but sometimes I feel like I’m floating in space, unhitched and unbound by every rule and law I’ve lived by. Nothing makes sense. We talked about how fortunate we were, to have been with this person who liked us and loved us better than anyone else in the world. That is not a gift that everyone gets. We appreciate that and we are grateful. We talked about seeing old couples together, in the hardware store, for example, and how we want to go up and say, HEY, do you realize how lucky you are, having someone with whom you can go to the hardware store? We want to tell people to be grateful that they have companions. When you live in harness with someone for decades, you develop your own little country, with its own culture and language and history and customs. There is a story that is created by your joined lives. When your partner dies, that all goes away. The punchlines to old jokes don’t make anyone else laugh because they don’t know the joke. They weren’t there when the baby touched his father’s smooth face right after Dad shaved, and said, “Moozh;” or the time your other son saw a sandpiper on the beach and said, “There is a walking creature.” No one knows the words and lines that became part of the family language forever. Suddenly you have to make your own new country, and customs, and culture, and history, living every day into the new reality. I watched an episode of the British series “Call the Midwife” the other night, in which one of the nuns tells a grieving young nurse, “Keep living until you are alive again.” That pretty much nails it. As for Cousin Nancy – she is on hospice in her little apartment, and she gets lots of visitors, which she loves. She’s stubborn and she’s hanging in there. She’s weak, and on a lot of strong drugs to combat the pain. When I left we hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks and said, “Thank you for loving me all my life.” I’m glad I went. Thank you, too, for reading this far. I am grateful that you did. That’s it for this week.
When I finish writing here, I will finish packing my car and take off for California. It is time to go say good-bye to my beautiful Cousin Nancy. She’s throwing in the towel after four years of fighting cancer. She’s been through surgery, radiation, and several kinds of chemotherapy. She’s lost her hair, and now it’s growing back in a curly frizz unlike the wavy-straight hair she used to have. She has laughed and cried and thrown up and put as positive a spin on everything as she could, which is how she’s lived her life. She lived to attend her son Jeff’s wedding on Maui, possibly the happiest day of her life if the pictures are anything to go by, and to have a warm relationship with her daughter-in-law Ariel. She lived to watch the first year and a half of her grandson’s life, and he has been her heart’s delight. She has loyal friends and family down there in California, and she has me up here. When she lived in Soap Lake for three years (long story), she and I made some trips to beaches and casinos – Nancy loves to gamble – and one year she and I and her sister Charlotte drove to Montana to visit their relatives in Kalispell and go to Glacier Park. She got me to see the Grand Coulee Dam and the dry falls created by ice age floods that broke through natural dams in Montana. I never would have seen all those things if it hadn’t been for Nancy. I never go anywhere. Except California, which is where I’m going now, to tell Nancy I love her, to tell her she is beautiful, to have some more inappropriate laughs together if possible, to say good-bye for the final time in this life, to ask her to give my love to Rick on the other side. We’ve been buddies since before I can remember. We were born 10 months apart. Her mom, Chick, was my father’s sister. Chick had multiple sclerosis and was in a wheelchair for most of our childhoods, and Nancy spent a lot of time taking care of her, coming home after school to take care of Mom and make dinner for her Dad, who would be angry if it wasn’t ready when he got home. Nancy went to work when she was eighteen, and she was married for fifteen years. The marriage broke down and she ended up a single mother, working a full-time job and a nighttime job during the week, and cleaning houses on the weekends when her son was with his dad. When I visited her in those days, we’d be in the middle of a conversation and she’d nod off. I include here a picture of Nancy and me, taken in front of my family home in 1964. After her mom died in the spring her dad bought one of the first Mustangs, and on this day she drove it down to the ranch to visit us, wearing an outfit she made herself that matched the Mustang. I didn’t know until last year that she had taken the Mustang while her dad was at work to make the trip, and when she got back, he was furious, and she didn’t care that he was furious. She’d had enough of being bullied by him. So I’m off for one last good-bye. If she’s gone by the time I get there, I won’t hold it against her. I know she’s ready to rest. It is the last day of Lent and tomorrow is Easter. I started trying to derive deep significance and symbolism out of starting a trip on the last day of Lent and literally driving into the resurrection because that’s how I roll, but then I thought, oh Mary, give it a rest. What it is, is enough. Save your energy for the drive. I wish you all a blessed season of resurrection. I’m sure I’ll tell you all about the trip when I get back. Maybe even with pictures.
“Do you think you’ve hit bottom? Do you think you’ve hit bottom? Oh no - there’s a bottom below. There’s a low below the low you know You can’t imagine how far you can go Down.” – “A Bottom Below” by Malvina Reynolds Depression has been a part of my life since I was about fourteen years old, or at least that’s when I first noticed it. I felt like I had gone away from everyone to some harsh isolated place where everything hurt, and I felt helpless to get out of it. A few weeks or months later the fog lifted as mysteriously as it drifted in and I resumed my conventional teenage misery and my unrequited crush on a boy named Tom who said I was his best friend and told me all about the girls he liked. That in itself was depressing, but the prolonged periods of gray despair and lethargy that I was to experience over the years were not connected to any apparent outside cause. Depression simply was part of my life, and by my early 20s I was considering depression almost a friend, it was so persistent a presence in my life. Say what you like about depression, it will stand by you when everyone else leaves. At some point I realized that the darkness was likely to move in around October. Later I heard about Seasonal Affective Disorder, and thought that might be part of my problem. I probably should not have moved from California to Vashon Island if lack of light was affecting my mood. Oh well. Over the years I worked hard to overcome my depression. I read books of humor and cartoons, ate chocolate (chocolate again!), took vitamins and herbs, sang to lift my spirits, fell in love or something like love which gave me a few days of feeling good, did talk therapy and group therapy and 12-step groups, prayed, meditated, and walked. It didn’t help that I get migraines, because they can be pretty depressing. Writing a song was the best mood elevator, though that was not something I could do at will. I could work at writing songs and come up with snippets and crippled fractions of songs, and I did that – this is called “honing your craft” - but only when a whole song came through did the endorphins start flowing. Yay! Better than sex, better than fresh corn on the cob, better than chocolate. Better than anything. Ask any songwriter; he or she will tell you. After years of trying everything I could think of and becoming reasonably happy, October came and with it the inward blackness, for no apparent reason. It just came in, like the fog or the tide, and engulfed me. At that point I surrendered to the suggestion of my medical provider of the time, and tried one of them new-fangled anti-depressants. My life changed for the better. I had an influx of energy and optimism. This stuff is great, I thought. Of course there are people who are pleased to say that being on an antidepressant is proof of mental instability. You’re supposed to be strong. Subdue your emotions. Put on a happy face. Pray to Jesus. Grin and bear it. Stop making the rest of us feel ashamed because you’re so unhappy. No, that is simply backwards. The anti-depressant is the treatment for the mental illness. Mental illness + appropriate treatment = better mental stability. Got it? It’s spring now and my spirits rise with the lengthening days. I spotted the first dandelions blooming in the yard this morning. Then I noticed that the forget-me-nots are blooming, and the wallflowers and primroses have been rioting for weeks. My goodness, could I be feeling…happy? I found myself singing Malvina Reynolds’ cheerful ditty about feeling bad, and laughed. It’s hard to admit that so much of my life has been crippled by depression, but even when the worst things do happen and it feels like the darkness is never going to lift, eventually the light breaks in and spring comes again. Every Good Friday has its Easter, and vice versa, to be honest. When my boys were teenagers and a friend of theirs committed suicide, I told them that no matter how bad you feel, if you do nothing at all but wait and let time pass, you’ll feel better. It’s true. Feelings will come and go and come again. Life goes on, and the dandelions bloom. Even with the depression and the migraines and the true grief, I wouldn’t have missed this grand tragic comedy, not for the world. It has been, and still is, a great ride. That’s how I feel on a sunny spring morning.
My Honda is in the shop being inspected for needed repairs, so I am driving Rick’s truck this week. My Honda has an automatic transmission. Rick’s Nissan has a manual transmission. This morning it occurred to me that I am so old that I remember cars before they had synchromesh transmissions. Naturally I looked up synchromesh when I got home and read up on it. In fact the cone synchromesh transmission was introduced by Porsche in 1952 in its 356 model, so in fact synchromesh was around long before I was driving, but the cars that did not have synchromesh were still around when I was learning to drive. The first car I drove was a Willy’s Jeep, a post-World War II model that had a manual transmission. I was eleven at the time I had my first driving lessons, creeping and jerking up and down the driveway on the farm. I remember well the resistance of the gear shift lever in my hand and the horrible noises that poor tortured transmission made as I tried to learn how to coordinate clutch and stick shift. I remember that when I came to a stop I had to shift into neutral before shifting into first to start up again. Most of the cars I drove were like that, and the first car I drove that had synchromesh to shift down to first was a revelation. Talk about an idea whose time had come. My mother’s car, a 1963 Dodge Dart, had a push button automatic transmission. Part of the whole 50s-60s push button convenience movement, I guess. After my wrestling matches with manual transmissions those push buttons were amazing. Once you punched the “D” for drive button, you just left it there and forgot about shifting gears while the car did it for you. In 1969 my father bought me a 1958 Chevy Del Ray for $284.00, or a little over $300 with tax and license, at the Santa Cruz Volkswagen dealership on Soquel Drive. Giving me the car wasn’t generosity on my father’s part. The Ford Falcon that I purchased on my own (for $150) had died up on Skyline Boulevard, and he towed me home instead of watching the All Star baseball game on television, so he was ready to get me launched back into my independent life before I could cause him any more trouble or inconvenience. Oh yeah: the truck he used to tow me home was the pickup he bought to replace the one I ruined by driving without oil a year or two earlier. I drove the Chevy without water in it at one point, turning all the gaskets into burnt cork, and he and my uncle took it out to my grandfather’s barn and hoisted the engine out and took it apart, cleaned it up, and put it back together like new in about a week. Fathers and uncles did that sort of thing for daughters back in the day. You can see why my father wanted me to go live somewhere else. I was ridiculously high maintenance. The Chevy had a manual transmission featuring the gear shift lever on the steering column, which was popular in the 50s. It was not as nifty as an automatic tranny, but it was pretty smooth and easy to use. One night on the way back to LA from San Luis Obispo, the transmission locked up and suddenly I had only two gears, second and reverse. I went into the first gas station I could find and told my tale of woe to a nice middle-aged man who got under the hood and unlocked the linkage arms, and told me that I needed to shift gears gently, using only my fingertips, because if I cranked the gear shift lever with my whole hand, the linkage would lock up again. So from then on I practiced the gentle gear shift, light and delicate. If I let anyone else drive the car they invariably locked it up, even though I warned them to shift gently. I carried a hammer in my car so I could get under the hood and hammer the linkage arm that was stuck in the higher position back down where it belonged. I preferred stick shifts for years. I thought automatic transmissions were boring. But now I drive a Honda Civic with an automatic tranny. I like it. When I have to drive the truck, though, I find that my gear shifting ability comes right back. It’s good to know I am able to shift gears when I have to. Now, I know all you readers are highly intelligent people, so I won’t belabor the point of today’s rambling sermon. Here it is: in cars and in life it’s good to be able to shift gears when you have to. And when your linkage gets stuck, sometimes you have to use a hammer.‘nuff said.
Whenever I chop an onion I think of Iréne, who taught me how to chop an onion. My mother never taught me how to chop an onion. I don’t think she trusted me with sharp objects. When I left home I could boil or fry an egg, and make toast, popcorn, instant pudding, instant coffee, and canned soup. These were my skills. I never would have learned to cook more than that if I hadn’t been born female. It would get to be late afternoon around the commune, and I’d realize everyone was looking at me. Being an obliging type, I’d make the effort, with widely varying outcomes and a lot of burned food. Of course when I was working and living alone a couple of years later, I could eat whatever I liked. Chunks of cheese and lettuce was a favorite meal, and lemon yogurt with granola. It was during this era that I forgot the eggs I was boiling one night and they blew up. Yeah. Cooking was not my passion. Getting back to Iréne, we were at her house up on Burton Hill for a gathering one day and as we women talked in the kitchen she was chopping up vegetables for whatever the main dish was, and I watched her dice an onion with a brisk efficiency that knocked me out. “How do you do that?” I asked. She was puzzled that I asked. Doesn’t everyone know how to cut up an onion? But she shrugged and she showed me: slice the onion in half, place the sliced side down on the cutting surface, cut vertical slices in the half, then turn it and cut horizontal slices. Voila! Now I can’t cut up onions with the swift precision that my friend Iréne has. When I chop up the onion, I slice it in half and then I do the vertical slices. Things go pretty well that far. Then I turn it 90 degrees and begin the horizontal slices. I’m holding the slices I just made tightly between my thumb and fingers, and I’m carefully making my crosscuts and seeing the beautiful little chunks of onion fall off. Then slices begin to slide against each other, and onion pieces explode up out of that tight grip, and the last row’s pieces are oddly shaped. Usually I let it go at that. I used to cut onions in half, then in quarters, then cut the quarters into little wedges, trisecting them with the knife. When I lived in Los Angeles around 1970, everyone was mad for the macrobiotic diet. I had no idea what a macrobiotic diet was, still don’t, except that it involved copious quantities of brown rice and didn’t taste good. Something I read at that time said that those wedges were the proper way to slice an onion for macrobiotic dishes, and that’s how I did it for years until that day I watched Iréne, and had my eyes opened. Iréne was kind to me, took this ignorant American in hand (she is Swiss) and showed me how to do it. That’s why I think of her every time I chop an onion. It is peculiar the little things that stick with you, the memories that pop up in the course of a common activity like chopping an onion, or perhaps when you catch a scent that swoops you back years to another time and place, to a person who may be long gone – a parent, a former lover, a friend who moved away. Smells especially can hook you and transport you to an internal leaning and longing. But Iréne – heck, I can send her an email or call her on the phone to thank her one more time, so that’s all right, and the stew was pretty good, although I put too much flour in the roux. No one ever taught me how to make a roux.
"I grew up in a town where if you see a sign like this on the ground, it means either they hit the sign to avoid the deer, or the teenagers got into their parents liquor cabinet again.” – J.D. Tuel, our older son, commenting on a picture he took of a downed road sign on Facebook this morning Got up before six this morning and took our son J.D. to the ferry so he could go to work, then came home, had breakfast, read the paper, and drifted back to the bedroom to lie down again for a while. Dozed off, woke up again, and was lying there waiting for my brain to start firing on all cylinders and petting the dog, when suddenly I heard a woosh of water running! Oh no! A leak, I thought. We insulated our pipes and closed in the crawl space years ago, but it has been awfully cold a couple of times this winter. Maybe something froze and broke and has now cut loose. I quickly went to the hot water heater closet, where I could hear the water gurgling through. What to do? Rick always took care of this stuff. My first thought was that I needed to check under the house to make sure water wasn’t gushing away there. In my haste I grabbed and put on a pair of work shoes which were somewhat too large for me. I’ve discovered that Rick’s shoes are only somewhat too large for me, and have taken to wearing them with thick socks for outdoor chores. Went outside, grabbed one of the two ski poles I got at Granny’s that I use to keep myself from toppling over in the yard. I have bad knees and the yard has uneven ground – a prop helps. Made my precarious way down to the door that opens to our crawl space, anchoring the ski pole as well as I could and hanging on tight as I wobbled downhill. Opening the door and sticking my head in, I could perceive no telltale sound of water running – whew, what a relief. Closed the door again and made my way around the rest of the house, carefully picking my way along the ravine side and then up and around to the front door. Went to the water heater closet. The wooshing water sounds had stopped. Maybe it was the water heater filling up and it was topped off now? The feeling of crisis passed, but I figured I still had a problem somewhere, and I still didn’t know what to do about it. Time to ask for plumber recommendations on Vashonall, I thought. Or maybe put a post asking for help on Facebook. Then J.D. came down stairs. He had decided he didn’t feel up to going to work and had turned around and come back out here so he could spend some time with his daughter, arriving after I had gone back to sleep. Then he took a shower. That was the water I heard running when I woke up. We haven’t had anyone living upstairs for long enough that I’d forgotten that sound. So the whole thing was one of those panic reactions to an ordinary event. Of course if I had realized someone was taking a shower upstairs and I didn’t know who it was, I might have had a whole different kind of panic. I thought I’d grown out of jumping to conclusions, but apparently not. This experience makes me realize that I do need to line up a plumber, and a handyperson – people who can help me do the things I am unable to do around here. Did I mention that Rick always took care of that stuff? J.D. walked home from the bus this morning while I slept. That’s when he saw the sign lying by the side of the road. He knows what he’s talking about when he mentions teenagers getting into the liquor cabinet, among other teenage adventures. Sometimes he tells me stories from when he was a teenager, and I’ve noticed that at some point in almost every one of these stories, one of the participants says, “My dad is gonna kill me!” It seems to be the unifying theme of teenage adventures, anticipating death at the hands of one or both parents. We never killed him, though. One adventure involved taking our car for a joyride and wrecking it, and my response then was, “God let you live. It would be wrong for me to kill you now.” Not that I didn’t feel a little homicidal at the time. I did. Glad we let him live. He’s been helping me with a lot of the heavy lifting around here. I don’t think he knows much about plumbing, though. Too bad.
There are little partially used rolls of medical paper tape all over the house. I keep finding them, and have been removing them and little strips of paper tape about six to eight inches long from end tables, night tables, the kitchen table, window sills, bookshelves, and chairs. Last night I found a piece sticking to one of the blankets on my side of the bed. Rick was always having to tape something, or change the tape and dressing on something, and he’d tear off strips and stick them up to use, or he’d tear off used strips of tape and stick them up to be forgotten, little bits of detritus last touched by his hands. We used to have rabbits and gave them the run of the house. After they were gone I found rabbit pellets for years – usually under a base board heater. The rolls and strips of tape remind me of the rabbit pellets. If this association offends you, tough. It has been a little over a month now, and the new normal is slowly sinking in. He’s not coming home from work in the evening like he did for 35 years. He’s not sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper, or writing in his journal. He’s not lying in bed looking out the window at the trees, the ravine, the sky. He’s not watching the squirrels doing their aerial acrobatics in the tree tops. Nope. He’s gone. I’m beginning to get it. It came to me last night that I have been grieving for his passing for years. It has a name: “anticipatory grief.” It’s when you know it’s bad, and it’s getting worse, and there’s only one ending in sight. You grieve for what was and never will be again, and for where you are going. I had a moment last fall at the Ivar’s walk up fish bar on Lake Union. I was chatting with the young man behind the counter. I was getting the fish and chips, Rick’s favorite fast food, because Rick didn’t feel up to getting out of the car and getting them himself, which he’d always done before. I said to the young man that my husband and I had just come from the hospital, and my husband was quite ill. The young man asked, “Is he going to get better?” I stopped. I stared. I blinked, and the truth answered: “No.” The young man was sympathetic, and kind, and expressed his condolences. No one had asked me that question before, and I hadn’t asked myself, either, but to have it so boldly stated took me by ambush. The doctors don’t speak to you that plainly, at least while they are still trying to treat a patient’s conditions. The Rick I first knew and loved was gone for a long time before he died. His spirit and personality were intact to the end, but they were affected by his illness, for we are whole creatures, body and soul together we are made, and one part of us does not change without affecting every other part. When he felt worse, he was less sarcastic and funny, and I came to recognize sarcasm as a sign of health in him. He did have a wicked, wicked sense of humor. It was wonderful, after he passed, to meet the old Rick again in the love and memories and words of people who’d known him years ago. He lives on, in them, and in me. But for about five years there he was going down, and I was watching, and we both knew where it would end. The last year especially we were both having to adjust to more and bigger and faster changes in his physical being, and I realize now that I was grieving, in anticipation of the inevitable. So here comes the sermon. If you wake up this morning and you aren’t dead, you are charged to live life to the fullest extent of your ability today, even if all you can do is lie there and do nothing. Who you are contributes to the universe. If someone you know is dying, don’t treat them like they’re already dead, because the difference between dead and alive is enormous, even if they’re lying there in a coma. Trust me on this. Talk to them like you always did, like they’re going to get up and you’re going to play some music together, or go fishing, or have a beer. Tell a joke, sing a song, read out loud. That person is in there, even if she or he can’t talk, or get out of bed. Yes, you are sad and frightened and angry and depressed about what’s happening. How can you not be? How can they not be? Still - give being you and respecting the divine spark of life that is in that person your best, because you’re going to miss them when they’re really gone, and there will be plenty of time then to think about what happened.