Archive for the ‘Essays about Life’ Category

Phil Provenzale: It’s about the Little Things; or Knowing a Person that you Don’t Know


2013
08.11
My cousin and her husband Phil

My cousin and her husband Phil

How does one know a person yet not know a person? We all know so many people that we don’t know, and one day we will wish we had. But – is it possible? Perhaps not, at least in the current arrangement of our lives and our world. It’s all too big and too fast.  Two things happened last week at a funeral I went to: I finally got to know my cousin Andrea’s husband better, and he was the deceased. And I got a nugget to chew on regarding the current arrangement of my life.

My cousin’s husband Phil died last week.  He was only 61, but he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for many, many years and to say he fought this disease valiantly, with faith and spirit, with optimism and courage, would be an understatement.  He continued to work during his extended illness at his job as a senior vice president at 20th Century Fox International (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/fox-film-executive-phil-provenzale-599700).  But other than knowing he had something to do with the film industry, I only knew him as Andrea’s husband Phil.  He was a person I knew yet didn’t know.

It’s funny how we all know people differently. I knew Phil as the handsome, tall young man marrying Andrea at one of the most beautiful weddings my husband and I attended.  Then I knew him as Andrea’s husband Phil, whom I spoke to in pleasantries about not much of consequence at family occasions – birthdays, weddings, celebrations, and, as the years passed, funerals.  Since we did not live in the same cities, we didn’t have day-to-day encounters where we would know each other in a more comprehensive manner.  We kept up with what was happening in the families but that’s it.

Until we went to Phil’s funeral and I got to know Phil better.  And I found out that his life was about the little things, and now I want to make the rest of my life about the little things too.  Here’s what I mean.

First, we know Phil was excellent at his job because if he hadn’t been he wouldn’t have had it, but no one mentioned that Phil was good at his job. No one listed his accomplishments.  No one talked about the blockbuster deals he made or the financial successes he produced. They talked about how nice Phil was. They talked about Phil the incredible human being. Over and over.  The words I heard were nice. Kind. Universally respected.  Good manners. Loved. Charm. Warmth. Gentle. Unconditional love.

Nice.  Not nice like, yeah, he was a nice guy. But NICE. A woman who had been with him for over 16 years at Fox and at Carolco Pictures before that said that he greeted every single employee in his division every morning when he got to work before entering his own office – every day. I got the impression this was not just a cursory hello. And that it was “required” that everyone say goodnight to him or he to them before leaving. Why? Because he genuinely thought it was important to take the time to know people and care about them and let them know that they were more than an interchangeable body at a desk. He thought it was important to treat everyone with respect, and in turn he was highly respected himself.

One person who spoke said Phil had a candy dish and found he couldn’t put it in the normal position on his desk because if his back was turned to the computer, people snuck by and took some quietly so they wouldn’t disturb him. He had to place it on his desk deep in his office behind the monitor, forcing people to actually come in and face him to take candy.  In other words, human interaction was important to Phil.  He was never too important or too busy.

These are all seemingly little things – good manners – hellos, goodbyes, respect, caring – that in aggregate add up to something bigger.  Like ten plus ten equals twenty, the little things add up to something bigger.

The priest officiating at the service talked about the tall, quiet guy who was always helping, ushering, cleaning up, doing what needed to be done.  He didn’t know his name.  The tall guy didn’t require that his name be known. Of course, as the priest later learned, it was Phil. Doing the little things.

And someone spoke from Phil and Andrea’s son’s elementary school.  Their son is in college now but Phil and Andrea will never be forgotten at that elementary school because apparently they have virtually created it. Andrea volunteered there when their son was a student, and when she saw a need, she told Phil, and the school would mysteriously find a new copy machine in the office, or a teacher would all of a sudden have something needed in the classroom.  All done quietly without fanfare.  And it continued long after their son left that school.

At the graveside service I talked to several of Phil’s colleagues and I heard the same things over and over – how absolutely incredible a person he was, how kind he was, how well respected he was, until I pictured him head and shoulders above everyone walking down the hall, and he was already tall enough to be head and shoulders above everyone. 

I think I could tell you some other things about Phil too, even though no one said them.  If anyone who worked with Phil is reading this, you can tell me if I’m right or not.  I would guess that Phil would do anything in the office that he would ask someone else to do from making coffee to fixing a paper jam in the copy machine. I expect he would do anything he could to assist an employee in a family emergency.  He probably acknowledged his employees birthdays. He was probably the first to arrive and the last to leave.  All the little things that add up.

What does all this mean besides the fact that Phil Provenzale was truly one of the finest people I didn’t know? I don’t know that I could have known him. Living in a different town, even not too far away, seems like a continent when you are raising a family and then having grandchildren, working, taking care of parents – all those things that make a life. 

I can, however, look at the people I know here, where I live, and ask myself if I know them.  I have a feeling I may know a few too many people that I don’t know.  And I can take a lesson from what made Phil so remarkable and polish up my manners.  I have the inner sincerity in caring about others but I think I trend towards impatience when it comes to showing it.  Or am just not present enough and forget to show it.

So then, if I can keep my head together, that’s two takeaways that will, I hope, make a difference.  But there is one more.  The aforementioned nugget to chew on about the arrangement of my life.  My husband and I are at that stage where we thought we had made our last move but due to some recent experiences are rethinking that.  And the question becomes – stay in Bakersfield or not?

The nugget to chew on is this.  At the funeral, the priest talked about this regarding Phil. He talked about the impatience and impermanence of our society, our need for the next fastest computer model, the most updated phone, the bigger house, the more upscale neighborhood, and so on. He talked about the lack of roots that keep people from knowing each other through the years, neighbors getting together over time, and so forth. And he talked about Phil’s constancy.  How long Phil and Andrea lived in their house without the need to move up, leading to continuity in the neighborhood and with neighbors; how they stayed committed to their son’s school long after he left and thus over time made a great difference in that school and especially its library; how a long involvement with the church made a difference there – and how all of that contributed to stability as a family.

So – leave Bakersfield someday?  Maybe not. We have some roots here. Our lungs have adapted. Something to think about.  We may for family reasons but it’s not a given. There are reasons for permanence.

Two takeaways and a nugget.  Lots to think about, thanks to Phil. I’m glad I got to know you this much, Phil.  It’s not enough, and it’s too late, but under the circumstances, it’ll have to do.

 

Why Wait? Do it Now.


2013
04.24

Why wait?  I opened up Facebook the other day to see a friend’s status staring at me, reflecting back one of my basic operating principals.

I determined this to be good operating policy a long time ago for a not very profound reason.  We were living in Virginia and had three small children and a small budget.  Or perhaps it was North Carolina when we had three smaller children, an even smaller budget, and many jobs between us.  At any rate, Mark’s parents flew us out to California for a significant family event and we were going to take the kids to Disneyland.  You can imagine the excitement and buildup to this magnificent event.

The question was when to go – at the start of our trip or near the end.  Nothing prevented us from going near the start – we just didn’t.  And in the last week, Mark got sick.  Very sick.  Just a cold, flu-type thing, but he was weak and Disneyland was in real jeopardy.  It came down to the wire and he thought he was perhaps well enough but we might need a wheelchair to push him if his energy flagged, and then it rained.  His dad said it was folly to drive from Ventura to Anaheim in the rain and try to visit Disneyland.  We insisted so his dad insisted on coming with us and doing the driving.

We went, I’m sure the kids had a good time, but I have no memory of the visit at all.  My main memory is kicking myself for not going right away at the start of the trip.  Ever since that day so long ago, I have determined not to postpone doing things that are important.

Of course, there are varying degrees of import.  When you are young, broke, and have the chance of a paid-for Disneyland trip for your kids, that’s one kind of important.  Nothing really hangs in the balance.  Then there is the other extreme, when life hangs in the balance.

I suppose that could mean telling people what you’ve always wanted to tell them, something we always think might be a good idea but never quite get around to.  But when my mother-in-law died, my daughter Karen wondered why we wait until people die to say what we think of them.  She thought we should tell each other what we thought of each other right now – so my husband, our three girls, and I wrote individual essays about each other saying just that. It was hard work – that’s four thoughtful essays each – but I bound them in a booklet called Family Tributes and it was and is something precious to have.  As I reread, it’s also become something to live up to.

A more active interpretation of DO IT NOW is just that – do it now, don’t wait until life hangs in the balance.  About eight years ago I told my husband I would be traveling and I hoped he would come with me.  I was watching too many people in my school district save up and wait until retirement to start traveling, at which time they or their spouses dropped dead.  Literally.  And I watched a math teacher stand in our break room in bewilderment after his brother, barely 30, had died of a heart attack, wondering why he and his wife were working so many jobs all the time and never spending a dime.  He vowed to take the kids on vacation that summer.  There is never a good time to do something.  There is never the perfect time.  There is never enough money.  You just have to DO it while you have the health and the time and just enough money.

Another way to look at that statement to DO IT NOW is in an everyday kind of way.  My father recently died and in examining his life – which I’m just beginning to do, really – I’m starting to peel away the layers of a complex individual who used every moment doing what he loved.  He wanted to be an artist since he was a child and he was an artist.  From his boyhood until his 80s he thrilled to the feel of a paintbrush in his hand and the excitement of whatever he was working on.  He did what he wanted every day of his life. This is not to say he wouldn’t have liked to have had more money – but he made a choice and knew what he was getting into by doing what he wanted.  His entire life he Did it Now.

I think I just uncovered the key word in this reflection on DO IT NOW – choice.  Just what exactly do you want to be doing so acutely that you must be doing it now?  Coelho means of course what will fulfill your life, and I would wager not all of us can easily answer that question, but it’s worth thinking about.  Our book club just read and discussed his novel The Alchemist, which was about following your personal legend (which seems a contrived way of saying personal dream, but maybe it’s just the translation).  And it’s all well and good to follow your personal dream but if we are all running around pursuing our personal dreams I think chaos will result.

What started as a simple reflection on doing what we want now or we’ll run out of time has morphed into a crazy mess of doing what now, how do we choose what we really want to do, how far do we pursue it even if it means abdicating responsibilities, and are we talking about a grand scale here or just day-to-day.  Knowing that Coelho, who wrote the above quote that caught my eye, wrote The Alchemist, I think his quote is oriented toward the grand scale.  However, The Alchemist is a modern-day fable and we can take the message as we will.

I take it as a reminder on a scale large and small.  We all waste time, or misuse it.  Or fritter it.  But we do it less as we get older and understand that our own mortality is facing us and indeed, if we are going to do it, we’d better get on with it.  The question is, what is IT.  I think our hearts can tell us that answer to some degree.  What do we respond viscerally to? If we don’t know, it really will be too late.

I know what it is for me.  It’s not a grand answer.  It’s seize the moments as they come.  It’s not letting fear hold me back.  It’s keeping the enthusiasm and interest to see and experience.  Small example: I read two weeks ago that this year the bloom of Joshua Trees is unprecedented, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime.  My response?  Must see!  So we made it happen.  Can’t wait.  See, learn, go, do.  Teach.  Kids, grandkids, husband, friends, family.  Give them all experiences.  I think I have done pretty well in the DO IT NOW department.  But I do have to get to Antarctica.  Can’t wait long.  Money, health – who knows how long those things will hold out?  Like Coelho says, one day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time.  I can’t get it all done but as long as I keep thinking, revising, reflecting, paying attention, and seizing the special moments, I think I’ll get enough done now of what I want to do.

#1 Daughter: Longevity and Loss


2013
03.28

Photo by Felix Adamo

#1 daughter.  Susan. That’s how I signed cards to my parents.  It was just a fun thing because I was the first-born, a way to bring some levity to the same old “Love, Susan.”  Now both my parents are dead and #1 daughter takes on a new meaning because a new word takes its place – the M word.  Matriarch.  #1 in birth order. That word has a forbidding sound.  Kind of like the name Bertha, which always intimidated me.

But let’s back up a bit.  I’m 66.  I feel I may be a tad unusual to have had both my parents so long; Mom living until 87 and Dad until 94.  The last 10 years have been a rocky journey demanding a great deal of attention from us kids as Mom and Dad navigated hospitalizations, and then increasing dementia with Mom, while continuing to live independently.  “Independently” was a misnomer but we enabled them to believe it was so because we knew there were no options: they were not going anywhere or having anyone in.  Dad knew, however.  But he was a master of self-deception, not recognizing what he knew to be true.  Yet even that isn’t true, because on a deeper level he knew what he was doing and chose to ignore it.  He was a master of levels.

Mom died just in time.  She was on the verge of major cognitive changes and neither she nor Dad would have handled them well.  But losing her broke Dad’s heart.  It broke all our hearts, but Dad’s irreparably.  He showed so much courage in tackling life and trying to move forward but the struggle was brutal.  I found myself thinking it was time for him to die and wondering how it would come to pass.

And then he planted a rose bush on the coldest day of the winter.  My sister Janine, who was visiting from Alaska, and I were on an adventure – a day trip to Boron and having a wonderful time.

Janine in Boron

Dad had his own unexpected adventure.  We got a phone call from my housekeeper Connie who had been cleaning Dad’s house too – had we seen her glasses?  She had left them at Dad’s house, we said.  And the next thing we knew Connie was at Home Depot with Dad buying a rose bush.  What?  Janine and I were ecstatic!  Maybe this would be our answer – maybe Connie could take care of Dad and that would give a spark to his life!

Before we could even get to the idea we heard that Connie was too much woman for Dad – too “take charge.”  But planting the rose bush on that very cold day almost did him in, and he told us it was time for him to move to a retirement home.  We were so excited!  We had such high hopes for him to have two or three or who knows? even more good years where he would meet people, have more to do, more to eat.  His new apartment was wonderful and he was so happy and excited.  And he only got eight days and he died.

Photo by Felix Adamo

It breaks my heart.  I was not ready.  None of us were.  It’s been a month and I’m still not ready. We wanted Dad to have more.  That’s what we wanted.  And Dad wanted it for us – he was making the very best of what he had but truly, he hadn’t had a happy day since mom died, and he was ready.  It’s not about us.  He lived a remarkable life and he died a remarkable death and that is the end of his life on earth.

My dad, Edward Reep the artist in his studio in the mid-60s

It’s hard to believe he is gone.  And after 27 years in Bakersfield, there will be no more trips out to the house on Crowningshield Drive.  I won’t be driving out two to three times a week and calling every other day or more.  When the phone rings at 7:00 a.m. I won’t be cursing the fact that I’ve been woken up and it won’t be my dad.  Just like that, the pattern breaks.

And I contemplate a new role.  Matriarch.  Does that mean anything nowadays?  My father took his role as patriarch quite seriously.  I’m not sure he actually did anything but he felt a responsibility.  We aren’t a tribal society and we don’t look to the tribal elder for advice or approval or special dispensation for anything and I am not sure I’d want to be giving it anyhow.  But I am the female head of the family and the oldest family member, male or female.  I’d like to think I acquitted myself well in the role of daughter – not perfectly, but well – and now there’s a new role to play.

What family am I head of?  My own little (or not so little) family?  My extended family – sisters, brother, nieces and nephew?  Their spouses?  Cousins? It’s probably a meaningless contemplation but interesting nonetheless as we think about the structure of family and how families are coming back together as finances shrink.  How the wagons are circling and kids are gathering around the campfire again instead of scattering to the four winds.  Or is that the wild winds and the four corners of the earth?

I guess it will sort itself out, probably by disappearing completely as anything to think about at all.  A meaningless contemplation.  I just won’t be #1 daughter any more because there won’t be any more cards to sign.  My role as a daughter is over.  Now it’s part of history.  It’s an overwhelming thought, that the role of daughter is over.  I don’t want to give it up.

Maybe we’re never ready.  We just move on.  But I’ll be all right.  And as Dad said the night before he died, “I’ll be all right.”  I love you, Dad.

The Algae Woman


2011
07.29

In keeping with my “BLUE”mood, and as Creative Every Day’s BLUE-themed month draws to a close, I have one more item to share – a poem.  After writing  The Algae Woman, it was as if my mind cleared and the mood lifted.  Writing is indeed therapeutic.

The Algae Woman

 

The Algae Woman

 

I have become the algae woman.

I’m that person out by the pond every day

As golf carts roll by and the regulars look.

I’ve become the weird one, that woman,

You know, always out in her yard.

What the heck is she doing?

 

I’ll tell you what she’s doing,

Besides removing algae from the pond.

She’s wondering if she’s old.

She knows she’s the algae woman and doesn’t really care.

Isn’t that a sign of getting old? Or is it just getting careless.

 

She goes out first thing in the morning in her nightgown

Just to see if there’s any new water lilies.

She figures if a golfer goes by, he won’t even notice it’s a nightgown.

That’s old-person thinking, but at least she’s thinking.

Or she’s careless, or just doesn’t care.

 

She’s noticing that everything seems like too much trouble.

Is she just old chronologically, or emotionally, or what.

Is she slowing down, or has she chosen to slow down.

There’s a big difference.

But should she care?

 

Plagued with questions that shouldn’t be asked,

She’s thinking, sorting, observing, saying no thank you.

 

She’s snipping. Cutting notices from the paper.

Tai chi, yes, she should get back to that.

Concert, yes, she wants to see that.

Drink recipes, she wants to learn umbrella drinks.

Snip snip snip.

 

The stack of notices sits on the table until finally,

As always, she throws them away.

Why did she cut them out anyhow?

Everything seems like too much trouble.

 

She stays up until midnight,

But staying out past eight sounds awful.

She doesn’t like to drive at night, but that’s nothing new.

Last year she got lost coming home after dark

On a route she’s driven hundreds of times.

It’s just a whole lot of trouble.

Is it wisdom or age?  Maybe both.

Shooting for wisdom though.

It’s supposed to come with age.

This she cares about.

She thinks about this.

 

So that’s what she’s doing, that woman by the pond.

She’s pulling out algae.

She’s me.

 

I’m the algae woman,

But removing algae isn’t as simple as it looks.

 

Losing Mom, Part Two: The Final Goodbye


2011
06.27

Mom and Dad with me

Note about the photo: My dad was back from World War II, he had built their first house, and the first baby was born – me.   I can hardly imagine the excitement and hope for the future that Mom and Dad had as their lives together began to unwind and reveal the joy, the pain, the adventure, but mostly the love that led them through 68 years of marriage.

……

I began this 12 days ago.  Mom died on June 17 at 7:00 a.m.  It’s been 24 days since my sister and I have functioned in anywhere approaching a normal pattern.  That’s ok.  We both had 24 days to spare for our mother. We will forever be grateful that Mom’s pain did not last very long, that she was able to go out under her own terms, and that she died comfortably at home.  At least one of us was with her at all times, holding her hand, telling her how much we loved her, what a good mother she’d been, and that it was ok for her to go, we understood.

We had a memorial on Friday, June 24, before Janine went back to Alaska.  It was small and intimate, at my house, and it was a good send-off.  I had made photo boards and I’m going to do some blog posts matching my eulogy to photos – partly because I think it’s interesting to look at old photos, but mainly as a tribute to Mom.

Even though we hadn’t really had mom for years because of her dementia, I still miss her terribly.  Even though she was 87 and deserved to die on her own terms, I miss her.  I’m at Pismo Beach now, alone, hoping to catch up on sleep and quietly contemplate mom’s life.  In all the hubbub, no one has had time to properly mourn her or consider her life.

It’s still perplexing how all of this happened so fast.  We knew, of course, something big would happen soon.  Each day that something didn’t happen was one day closer to the “event:” losing a parent.  I mean, Mom was 87 and Dad is 93.  We knew it was looming.  We’d been blessed by all those years. But then it happened.  So fast.  June 1 was the first time we knew we were in trouble – 17 days.

Mom had been in pain before June 1, but it was perplexing.  Dad would call and say, “Your mother is in terrible pain.  We have to go to the hospital.”  One of us would rush over and Mom would be sitting on the couch laughing or standing at the stove.  So we’d leave only to get another call the next day.  Looking back, she may have had a small fracture that was irritated more and more by certain movements – I don’t know – until it reached critical.

People ask – doctors, officials – when did she fall?  But how would one know unless that person was present?  With elderly people who don’t remember so well, it’s likely that you’d never know when a fall occurred.  Elderly people fall at home, they fall in hospitals, they fall in nursing homes, they fall in supermarkets – they just fall.  Sometimes Mark has gone over to help Mom up from a fall, but not often and not for a while.  The doctor said she may have fallen sometime that we didn’t know about and had a hairline fracture that could have worsened just by leaning hard against something, i.e. a fall that didn’t quite happen.

But now I understand why broken hips and broken pelvises often spell the end for the elderly.  It’s too much for an already frail body to recover from.

Mom, rest in peace.  We knew you and loved what we knew.  Our kids and grandkids – your great grandkids – all knew you and loved you.  You made us all better people just by being you.  You will not be forgotten.  You made a difference.  We will try to continue that difference, learning from you as we contemplate the details of your life and fully understand your tremendous courage.

My Mother is Dying


2011
06.26

Karen Patricia Stevens Reep circa 1938

Mom in her garden last year

Begun June 14, 2011

My mother is dying.  It’s so bizarre.  First everything is fine, then there is pain, then a fractured pelvis is diagnosed, and then dying – in the space of two weeks.  Activity is frantic as caregivers are lined up, the house rearranged, and a story line develops that changes three or four times by the end of the day.  Death moves quickly when one has decided to die.

Mom is heavily sedated right now – thank goodness.  We called Hoffman Hospice yesterday since hospice nurses are always amazing, always available, and always knowledgeable.  I knew deep inside that she wouldn’t make it, but mostly, Mom needed pain control and that’s one of many things hospice does well. Part of me thought, if the pain can be controlled…but the other part remembered… she’s not eating.  She doesn’t want to eat.  She doesn’t want to be alive.

Neither my mom nor my dad has ever wanted to live in an incapacitated manner.  When mom was first home from the hospital, she realized she couldn’t move or walk without great difficulty and extreme pain, and she said she can’t live like that, she’s just a big lump, she doesn’t want to live like that.  And I knew she meant it.  Maybe if we could have gotten the pain controlled earlier…but thoughts like that are futile because it was what it was.  A fractured pelvis can take up to a year to completely heal, and months until the severe pain goes away.  Mom wouldn’t be able to do that.  She always said it, and she meant it.

Mom actually asked me how long it would take to heal and I told her the bone can take a long time but the pain should be able to be controlled and might go on for a few months, but not as bad as now.  She said, “Susan, I know I can trust you.”  In retrospect, I realize she was deciding whether to live or die.  She knew that asking Dad was impossible since he’s 93 and has loved her deeply for almost 70 years; she knew asking my sister was impossible since she is so emotionally invested that she’d just be encouraging. Not that I am not emotionally invested, but it’s different. I marvel at Mom’s clarity in this as she’d suffered from dementia for years and couldn’t remember one minute to the next. I’m glad I didn’t know the burden that was placed on me until afterwards.  Burden is perhaps not a good choice of words, because Mom would never have intentionally burdened her children with anything.  I’m glad I was truthful even though I made it a little rosier than it would have been in reality.

Yesterday and today, at least this morning, Mom kept telling my sister and me how much she loves us.  Over and over again.  She’d say, “I love you.  I love you so much.”  Every time someone visited, like Daniel, when he left she said “I love Daniel so much.” She was emphatic, making sure we really understood.  She was saying her goodbyes and I knew it. She repeated to herself over and over, “It’s going to be all right, it’s going to be all right,” by which she meant it was ok to leave us, she was comfortable that Dad would be taken care of and we would be all right.  She was convincing herself that she could safely leave us.  This, too, I understood in retrospect.

This morning she described a beautiful green lawn she was seeing.  She was looking for Grandma Betty, her mother.  She was reaching out with her hands to things invisible to us.

My mother-in-law did that when she was dying, and a dear friend did that when he was dying.  I read about it in a hospice booklet but now that I’ve seen dying people do it three times, I believe it. Dying people reach out to the unseen and recognize people who have passed before them.  Reconnecting.  Being helped over to the other side.

So my mom is dying.  She’s on the hospital bed that was delivered today to her bedroom.  She’s on oxygen, and when that was delivered this morning I said, “Oh, we’re not going to need that.”  How fast things change.  Within hours.

Mom’s been suffering from dementia and her personal hygiene hasn’t been good the last few years.  Now she’s as clean as a baby.  The “bath” nurse came.  To move her to the hospital bed, hospice called the transportation team who knows how to do these things incredibly gently.  Josh, the wonderful equipment guy, brought the bed and oxygen.  Another nurse came and spent hours with us.  And then the “bath” nurse came.  Who would have known?  She very gently bathed mom, washed her hair with real water and real shampoo, carefully put lotion on, and even filed her nails.

Tonight the “tuck in” nurse is coming to make sure everything is set for the night.  Our night caregiver, Katie, will be here and we were all going to sleep at home in our beds.  Now, that’s impossible.  I will – I can hardly hold my head up now.  But my sister is coming back – once it became clear what was happening, no way would she not sleep here.

While this was going on we were in a race to get our sister who lives in Alaska here in time.  She had been planning to come on Saturday, but it all moved so fast and we realized she had to come – now.  She got here by Wednesday afternoon; my husband raced to LAX to pick her up and get her here in time, and although Mom was not responsive when Janine arrived, I know she could hear and was aware that Janine was there.  Janine had all day Thursday with her because Mom died on Friday June 17. (the link is to the obituary).

We have Sharon, someone dropped in our laps from heaven I think.  She took care of a relative of my friend Pat in Utah and was highly recommended and she was available.  How quickly we came to depend on someone who was a stranger just days ago.  And Katie – she’s just 18 but she went from being someone new to a member of the family just like that.

Mom’s respirations are slow now.  Partly from the morphine, but mostly because her body is shutting down.  Looking at her, I just feel an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude that the unbearable pain is gone.  I’m fighting off the sense of loss that is trying to creep in.  I don’t want to feel it or deal with it until I’ve done what needs to be done and can collapse.

To be continued…

We don’t have a Christmas tree; we have a window.


2010
12.15

Many years ago we were struck with a thought: why did we buy dead trees every year and put them in our living room? And just like that, we stopped.  We devised a Christmas window.  Mark built a frame, we wound lights back and forth, and hung the ornaments.

Somehow, hanging the ornaments became more interesting and fun because we could really see each one and reflect on what it meant.  All our ornaments have a story – some funny, some poignant, some tragic, some satiric, some historic, but all with a story.  I thought I’d share just a couple.  And that’s a relative statement.  By just a couple I don’t mean two or three, but not many compared to the total mass.  I’ll do some every day for a while.  At least it may give people the idea that anything at all can be an ornament, and as such, ornaments can tell a family history.

This decorated the top of our wedding cake in 1968.  It hung around the house for years – in a box here, a cupboard there.  Couldn’t quite bring myself to throw it away even as it became more tattered and stained.  Finally the answer presented itself – make it a Christmas ornament.  So I did and now it’s a reminder every time I hang it of 42 years of marriage.  Overall they’ve been good years, or I guess I wouldn’t still be married.

This ornament joined the family in 1997 when my daughter Karen’s childhood friend Carrie Coons got married to Julian Harvey.  These were the favors and we’ve enjoyed this ornament for 13 years now.  Carrie and Julian dropped by for Easter dinner last year – I love being friends with my kid’s friends still.  When I look at this, so many memories flood my mind besides just the wedding.  For example, I think of the time Karen was riding on the handlebars of Carrie’s bike and she was so nervous and guilty because she knew we wouldn’t think that was a good idea.  I think she did fall, or maybe I’m making that up.  At any rate, all parties survived without permanent damage.

Anything can become an ornament.  This was on a drink stirrer in Haiti that our friend Don McLaughlin brought to us.  Don was more than a friend – he was our best man, he was the kid’s Godfather, we were students together at Cal Berkeley.  Don traveled to Haiti and other countries as an auditor for Bank of America and came back with tales that got less and less believable.  Tales about being followed, spied on – but during those years that sort of thing was happening to American businessmen in South America.  There was a spate of kidnappings.  So even though we didn’t believe these tales were true, we did believe them.  It came to pass that Don had paranoid schizophrenia and eventually he committed suicide before he was 30.  We still think of Don and love him and I’m so glad I saved this inconsequential drink stirrer.

Mark and I entered the Peace Corps in Morocco in 1971 when our daughter Jennifer was two years old.  Sometime during the subsequent two years I purchased these little dolls and eventually they found their way to the tree and then the window.  I stuck paperclips through their hair to hang them but hey, it worked.

Now they will remind us of more than the Peace Corps years.  Our country director was Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who just died.  He was a man of destiny even back then – he had such a towering intellect and such drive that you just knew he would become a force for good.  Now we’ll never know what he would have forged from his position as President Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.  I do know he would have made a huge contribution toward a solution to those problems, and perhaps even bring the countries together as he did in the Dayton Accords which brought peace to Bosnia.

This ornament of the Coliseum is more lighthearted, especially if you don’t consider all the gladiators, servants, and common people who were killed for entertainment in this venue.  Retailers and manufacturers know what we all want – we want memories.  So Cost Plus World Market has ornaments each year of landmarks around the world.  And people like me buy them – in my case, an ornament for each country we’ve visited.  I still get shivers thinking of the excitement of seeing the Coliseum in person.

This was given to me by Esmerelda Ramirez when I taught 5th grade at Voorheis School.  My students always brought presents carefully picked out from the Dollar Store and I treasure them all.  This one is meant to hang on a wall – it weighs a ton but I manage to find someplace on the Christmas window to support it.  Many of my Voorheis students are graduating from college, one is going to medical school – such wonderful kids from a school many considered hopeless.  Far from hopeless, they are carving out good lives for themselves and I remember every one.

Last one for tonight.  One of my grandkids made this pink flamingo and it had been hanging around for years – sometimes from a piece of luggage, a purse; sometimes it sat in a box in the closet.  And one day, voila! I thought to use it as a Christmas ornament.  I don’t remember exactly which grandkid made this, but perhaps they will remember.  Perhaps not.

That’s only seven ornaments from the Christmas window, but it’s seven stories and memories, seven meaningful decorations.  I’ll do some more tomorrow.

The Surreal Conversation


2010
12.04

More and more, phone conversations with my parents  (because if you call and Dad answers, the first thing he says is, “Pat, pick up the phone, Susan’s on the phone.” And if Mom answers, the first thing she says is, “Eddie, pick up the phone, Susan’s on the phone.”) are like Marx Brothers movies.  Yes, they feel this zany.

I spoke to my parents this afternoon on the phone.  I haven’t seen them since we got back from Thanksgiving because I’ve been sort of sick, but I have talked to them on the phone several times.  But no one remembers anything so this is how today’s conversation went.

“Susie, you’re home! How are you?”

And right away, after that beginning, I knew I couldn’t have a real conversation.  I couldn’t say, “I got home almost a week ago, remember?  And I haven’t been feeling well so I haven’t been over, but I’ve called you three times.”

So I said, “Yes, I’m home and doing fine.”

And my dad asked, “How is the house?”

And instead of saying, “What do you mean, how is the house?  The house is just like we left it and we were only gone 3 ½ days,” I said – “the house is fine.”

After a few repetitions of the above, I reminded them that Sunday was Chanukah at Wendy and Gene’s house.  My mom said, “Chanukah?” in a worried voice.  My dad said, “Chanukah!” in an excited voice.  And I said “Yes, Chanukah.  Mark will pick you up at 4:15.  Can you write that down?”

So mom headed off to find a pencil while Dad was telling her to find a pencil, and then saying she wouldn’t find a pencil, at which time Mom said she had a pencil, but no paper.  So we all laughed about that.  She got a paper.  And I said, “Write down Sunday, 4:15, ok? Chanukah.”  So she did.  So she says.  I can guarantee you she had not written it down right, or if she has, the paper migrated instantly to an unrecoverable location.

Mom asked what she could bring, bless her heart.  She doesn’t know she’s not capable of bringing anything.  So I said Wendy had everything ready, but I was going to bring something.  The talk turned to food.  I said I was going to make a squash kugel.  Then I had to repeat the words “squash” and “kugel” many times until Dad got it, because he doesn’t hear well.  A discussion of kugel ensued.  Which led to a discussion of helzel and gribenes and schmaltz.  Schmaltz is chicken fat and a necessary component of helzel, which is made by stuffing a poultry neck with a stuffing-like concoction that includes schmaltz, and then sewing the end of the neck up.

Let me tell you, helzel is delicious and probably about 5,000 calories a bite.  But as we were discussing it, I made the mistake of saying “poultry” neck (because you can use goose or duck) instead of “chicken” neck.  That took lots of clarification until dad understood I had said “poultry.”  From there we went to gribenes, which is like the kosher equivalent of pork rinds and it’s a byproduct of making schmaltz.

Then my mom said, “I have a cookbook with some recipes you could use.  Let me get it.” And she did! She read me the recipe for knishes, and then said should she read another? I didn’t bother saying that I could not write down the recipe as quickly as she read it, and I wasn’t making knishes, I was making kugel, and at any rate I had it all on the computer.  I said, “Thanks Mom, but that’s enough.  Just the knishes.”

Somehow we concluded the conversation with another reminder about Sunday.

Follow-up

  • I called my sister right away to tell her I’d just had a strange conversation with mom and dad and realized that from now on, I’ll just make up answers to whatever they ask.  And Cris said that she had told them several times during the week that I was home but sick, which always produces a stricken “Oh, no, is she all right?” Well, no, I was sick but it was minor and not life-threatening although from my dad’s reactions, any illness is life-threatening and the entire fabric of the family could fall apart.
  • Then Cris said she had found a note at Mom and Dad’s that said “Call Cris.”  Cris suspects that that’s why Mom all of a sudden has been calling her three or four times in a row.  She probably finds the note that says “Call Cris” and calls her.  She hangs up and sees the note that says “Call Cris” so she calls her again.  You’ve just got to laugh.
  • AND Cris said that Dad said he wanted to make kugel! So could Cris get him some matzos.  She did, and you can use matzah flour in kugel but I’m not aware you can use the matzos themselves.  So maybe he’s just going to cook the matzos with eggs like we used to eat – because Dad doesn’t really cook anyway.  The whole thing is a mystery.
  • Finally, Mark and I went to an art opening at Metro Gallery tonight where we saw Wendy and Gene.  I asked again what time was Chanukah and Wendy said 6:00.  ” Oh,” I said, “I told Mom and Dad 5:00 and Mark would pick them up at 4:15, I need to tell them the correct time.”  And immediately I said, “But they won’t remember anyway so it doesn’t matter.”

But you know what?  I have to tell them because this will be one of those inexplicable times where they get it right and do remember and expect Mark to be there at 4:15.  So I guess we’d better have the whole conversation again tomorrow.  It’s possible we’ll have the exact same conversation again tomorrow.  Whatever it is, I’ll just make it up as I go.

The final score: a perfect ten


2010
10.30

A perfect ten.  I’m talking grandkids. With the arrival of Samuel Mark Jefferson Davies on October 28, we went from an excellent nine to a perfect ten.

This is how our grandkids go: junior in high school; sophomore in high school; freshman in high school; two in eighth grade; fifth grader; first grader; kindergartner; three-year-old, and newborn.  Quite a spread.  Thinking back to the first grandchild means thinking back 16 years.  How is that possible?  When Ali was born, her mom was still in college so we babysat Ali LOTS.  Finishing college was a priority; at least it was a priority for us that our daughter finish.

Ali was a wonderment. Mark and I would hold her and watch every little move.  We’d ask each other, “Did our kids do that?” If she fell asleep in my arms, I sat with her, no matter how uncomfortable it got.  Our patience was endless.  Then Sarah was born. She was just a little Jennifer – we saw so much of our oldest daughter in her right away.  Kim was next with her second.  The oldest and youngest daughter traded off.  After Daxton, it was Jen’s turn again and she had twins, Sophie and Joe.  There was a three-year pause until Kim had #3, Xavier.  Daughter’s #1 and #3 were finished.

And then came Karen, daughter #2. So exciting when Annabelle was born.  Then Jackson came along quickly – pretty hard having babies a year apart.  And the Colorado adventure commenced.  They moved and all of a sudden some of our grandkids were out of state!  We had the Bakersfield Six and the Colorado Three.

Three years ago I was out here for Cooper’s birth.  Taking care of a two and three-year-old was tiring.  A few days ago, along came Sam, and taking care of a six, five and three-year-old is not nearly as tiring.

I do have a way of complicating things, however.  I plan activities. Weeks ago I sent out a box full of fabric paint, glitter glue, Halloween candy, and assorted other decorations so we could decorate trick-or-treat bags. I sent out Halloween cupcake papers and paper umbrellas so we could make cupcakes.

Karen and Sam beat me.

My kids and I are pretty good at popping babies out, and they all weigh 8+ pounds.  Except the twins of course- they were smaller.

Sam arrived on the 28th and I got here on the 29th.  Steve picked me up at the airport in Grand Junction and we all went to the hospital to pick up Karen and Sam.  Annabelle, Jackson, and Cooper got their first look.

Jackson is scrambling – he must be headed towards Karen’s lap.

Abbo and Jacks took a closer look, and Abbo made a pronouncement: “He’s a girl.”

We’re pretty sure that by now she’s decided he indeed is a boy.

Abbo was still focused on Sam, and Steve had him ready to go home.  But Jackson got excited, so he ran around the room holding his pants up.

He thought this was the most incredibly funny thing ever.  Listening to his joyous laughter, we couldn’t help but laugh too.  I tell you, as the mom of three girls, boys are a different breed. When Joseph and I had our first tea party he was two. And when we were done, he threw his cup against the wall.  The girls never did that. The girls never did things like Jackson, either.

So we came home to Paonia.  And today being the day before Halloween, we did our Halloween activities.

First, decorating bags for trick or treating. Gads, setting up everything for the bag decorating was like herding cats.  Sit still, no, don’t touch, hang on, wait until we’re ready.  We’re ready.  Finally.

Abbo is a first-grader and she understands glue.  Cooper watched and then started gluing herself.

But none of that boring white glue for Cooper – nope, she used glitter glue, not quite understanding that she was supposed to use glitter glue on top for decoration.  Whatever – I didn’t bother to try to get her to change.  She was having fun.

Jackson concentrates intensely when he paints.

I had some googly eyes, and Jack realized it would be funny if he held them to his eyes.

Abbo loved that idea.

When Abbo concentrates, she sticks her tongue out, so her upper lip is chapped.  Plus she’s lost a tooth, has another growing in, so along with the googly eyes, she is quite a sight.

Sam made an appearance.

The finished products:

They turned out lots better than I expected.

Moving on to cupcakes.  I sent the kids into their room for quiet time while I baked the cupcakes.  The kids were decorating, not baking, and that meant eating frosting.

So that was that.

Yeah, I knew it was silly to buy pointy things to stick in the cupcakes, but I’ve always loved those little umbrellas.  Karen made an appearance and put one in her drink.

All in all, the day was a success.  Tomorrow I’m taking Abbo to Montrose to get her some winter school clothes, and then Monday it’s school.  How different it will be with both Abbo and Jacks at school all day!

Right now, the wind is howling, there’s a smattering of rain, and the air is cool.  Winter is coming to Colorado.  All the more reason to get snuggly inside with the Colorado FOUR!

When did you decide? You know, if you were going to be gay or not.


2010
10.05

So many suicides last week.  It was a bad week to be LBGTQ. One of last week’s suicides was here in Kern County.  Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old in Tehachapi.  I’m having a hard time getting my mind around what it would be like for a 13-year-old gay student.  What would drain his hope and spark for life so completely that he turned it off.  Forever.  That no one in his relatively small community saw even a warning flag. Or if they did, they didn’t want to cause a stir or put themselves out there publicly. Or no one listened and they gave up.  Or they got empty reassurances from someone who supposedly knew better.  Or they didn’t want to look stupid.

Here’s a snapshot of September.

  • Billy Lucas on September 9, 2010
  • Tyler Clementi on September 22, 2010
  • Asher Brown on September 23, 2010
  • Seth Walsh on September 28, 2010
  • Raymond Chase on September 29, 2010

Tyler Clementi is the hardest to understand.  We know kids do stupid things, make rash decisions, push it to the max. They drink way too much, use drugs.   But what in the world could cause someone to breach the decency barrier far enough to do something as base as Tyler’s roommate?  Film him having sex with another guy and show it online as it was happening.  And then do it again, letting people know ahead of time that they could watch.  And no one stood up to say this is not right. No one told a person with authority.  No one stood up for Tyler. These are college students and they should be able to get past not wanting to look stupid.  They should have some measure of personal courage.  But the decency barrier shattered.  Tyler put a message on his facebook of what he was going to do and where he was going to do it. In the instant communication world, you just know someone saw that and could have at least called police.  Everyone cares right now, but no one who was in on the video broadcast cared enough then.

You know what they say? If someone threatens suicide take it seriously? I think each of us has heard someone threaten suicide and thought, well, he doesn’t really mean it. I don’t want to look stupid and make a big deal.  I’ve looked stupid many times but I really don’t care.  I even talked to my daughter’s ex-boyfriend’s parents long ago because he was so despondent over the breakup. He mentioned suicide. Everyone thought I was  reacting too strongly, but again – literally, it’s a life and death situation and I don’t want to choose wrong.  I’d rather be seen as someone who overreacts.  I’d rather send the police to the bridge and find out Tyler had no real intention of killing himself, than not send them and he jumps.

Social media figured into Tyler’s death and others, but it’s not an excuse, a true cause, or an “if only.”  Even with the ability to connect instantly, that barrier of decency, of right and wrong, should be in place. But this is the world we live in and the social media are not going away.   So what’s the real problem?  Some people are still more equal than others.

I was at a political luncheon recently and a college-age boy was sitting next to me.  We started to talk, I commented on the lanyard around his neck and said “I’m a little monster too.” (Lady Gaga’s fans are little monsters.)  He was going to see Lady Gaga in concert and  I told him I’d just seen Adam Lambert in concert. He immediately said he didn’t like Adam Lambert.  Why? Because of his performance at the AMAs.  I didn’t like that performance either, but I’m not going to condemn someone forever for bad judgment.  Lambert’s bad judgment didn’t kill anyone.  Plus, he’s one of the kindest people ever to hit the stage, with his message of love and positivity and doing good.  But this young man was gay and he took it more personally.

Somehow the talk turned to gay marriage and the young man said he didn’t believe in gay marriage.  The older man across the table then said he was gay too.  But marriage should be between a man and a woman.  Why, I asked? We went through all the “talking points” which really aren’t valid at all.  I pointed out that if they married men it was not going to cause me to divorce my husband. Marriage would remain intact, and so on and so on.

I asked them both if they valued themselves so little that they were willing to be second-class citizens.  If they had so little self-respect.  I asked them when they had made the decision to be gay.  That stopped the kid in his tracks.

Right. They didn’t make the decision.  There is no moment like, “should I take chemistry or biology,” or “should I go to France or Spain on vacation,” when a young person sits down and says, “so -should I be gay or straight?”  It just is.  Black people didn’t choose to be black, I didn’t choose to have brown hair, and no one decides to be gay.  And what the hell do we care anyway? I am flummoxed by the people who so urgently want to make others straight, who are so threatened by their sexual orientation.

The answer is so incredibly easy.  But it’s not so easy to establish, because people still like to marginalize others.  Remember Orwell’s Animal Farm? The pigs were living high on the hog (excuse me) while the other animals toiled.  They followed seven commandments, the last of which was “All animals are equal.”  But later on the sign was amended and one day the worker animals awoke to the message “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

That’s why the answer is easy.  Unless we want to return to the days of slavery, when white people were more equal than black people; or the women’s suffrage struggle, when men were more equal than women; or the days after Pearl Harbor, when American citizens were more equal than Japanese-American citizens.  I could go on and on.  There is always someone to marginalize.  Once LBGTQ acceptance is solid, who will be marginalized next?

In America some people are not more equal than others.  All share equal rights. Or should.  And that includes gay marriage.

As I was giving my little lecture to the young gay man and the old gay man, the young man’s mother was giving me the thumbs up behind his back.  That led me to believe that she also has tried to put her son on an equal footing and he is too indoctrinated in his lesser worth to believe.  To believe that he needs to value himself and respect himself and quit worrying about being gay or not. But last week was not a good GBLTQ week, so how can he quit worrying?

The answer is easy.  Implementing the answer is not. Throughout history, when one group gains acceptance, another is marginalized.  If being gay were matter-of-fact, Tyler’s roommate would not have done what he did. Tyler would not have jumped off a bridge to his death.  Seth Walsh would not have hanged himself.  But the roommate  might have done something equally as base to the next group to be on the bottom of the totem pole.

So really, it’s not just LGBTQ people who must be given equal status and respect as human beings.  They shouldn’t have to be given anything because they aren’t missing anything.  The issue should not exist.  But it does, and what we have to do is internalize and live our American creed that all people are created equal. We need to live it with courage so we will step up when any kind of bullying is happening, anywhere, to anyone.  Easy to say, isn’t it? How do you make it happen? You start with a conversation.  Seth and Tyler’s and the rest of the suicides have to stay in the conversation even after the immediate shock fades.  We need no more Trevors, no more Matthew Shephards, no more Tylers and Seths. We must keep the conversation alive, on the front burner. Because some people are not more equal than others.  At least they’re not supposed to be.