Thursday, April 10, 2014

widow, orphan, and what comes after

So three months after Mike, the day after Christmas, daddy left. It's a blessing to know he's no longer suffering, yet so hard to accept a world without Eugene in it.

As a child, I lived in stark terror of death, courtesy of First Lutheran Elementary and the filter in my brain that pulls every frightening thing out of religion that's there (and possibly not there).

Also the not-good-enough, that was definitely a gift of First Lutheran. Not good enough to survive the judgment that comes after death, because who is? And once dead, they "put you in the ground in a really pretty box" and the worms come (thank you Stanton Hoffmeier, 1st grade Sunday school teacher).

Lying awake at night, petrified by that prayer ~ "if I should die before I wake" ~ I'd listen to my heart beat. The thud, thud, thudding in my ear, cushioned as it was by my little pink lamb pillow, was so alarming I couldn't sleep. All I could think of was what happens when it stops. And I'd imaging lying in the cold and the dark, below ground, in that pretty (I imagined paisley in 1964) box. Dead.

As terrified as I was of it most of my life, I'd never have dreamed that death could be so welcome. As my sister and I sat by my father's bed that final morning, alone with him for a brief period, we both prayed mightily for whatever Power exists in the Universe to let him go, to free him from the horror of dementia that he'd lived with for years.

From the first morning he called me over a decade ago, deeply shaken because he'd gotten lost in Ponca City, to the last few years when daily living was hell, the deterioration had been slow and unrelenting. Because he had a great, big, shiny, amazing brain, I suspect he lasted longer than some, but dementia gets everyone in the end. A killing heart attack, a massive stroke, so much more merciful than the slow dissolution of a life, a personality.

When I couldn't get enough of my father as an adult, enough alone time, because he was always surrounded by those who adored him, I could never have envisioned a day when I'd pray him dead. We sang songs for him, prayed so he could hear us, our old Lutheran indoctrination serving us well in those final moments. We whispered in his ear that was okay to go, that all of his loved ones were waiting for him. And that was no lie, no banal palliative whispered to encourage him to release this life. In the week before he died, I sat with him while he held extended lucid conversations with long dead relatives, though he'd been incapable of conversation for six weeks. Believe or don't, I know absolutely that they had come to urge him to get going. It was time, past time, for him to move on.

I've admitted to being woo-woo before, my catch-all term for a believer in the Energy of the Universe that inhabits us all, in the One Spirit that enlivens every living breathing creature from plant to whale, humans included. I meditate, talk to my dead loved ones (yes, out loud), and have heard from them all in the last eighteen months: daddy, Mike, my long lost mother.

So again, believe what you like. I don't actually believe this, that we continue. I know it. There is a difference in believing and knowing: you can believe that I'm wearing a ladylike white blouse and elegant skirt, sitting here at my desk in my tidy office, clattering away, because I tell you so. And why not believe it? But in fact, I'm clothed in black sweats and a black, dog-hair bedecked t-shirt, the only ladylike aspect of my appearance being my pink fingernails and red lipstick. If you could see me, experience my cluttered office, you would know the truth.

So I believe, but I also know, because I've experienced it, that my sweethearts continue. And knowing that has set me free. When I first heard from Mike about nine months after he died, the relief was immense. I walked into a Spirit Fair, something I'd never have done before my men left me, and the crowd parted. At the end of the obvious path was a table and a smiling woman. She said "my, you have a crowd with you, come sit down."

I sat. And the first of my "crowd," to come through was Mike. "I have a man here, he's telling me that his brain exploded." That's a pretty good way to describe a brain stem stroke, so okay. Then "he is telling me that he knows you sold the Mexico house, that it was hard, and he's sad too, but it's okay." I won't go into all of the details ~ to your relief, I'm sure ~ but that put me on a path unexpected.

Since that day almost a year ago, I've gone to multiple spirit fairs. I've heard from my dad, my mother, from Mike. When I spent a month in Morocco, Greece, and Turkey, I heard that daddy and Mike were ecstatic about "a big trip coming up, going to need a big suitcase, be sure to take plenty of aspirin for your arthritis, lots of walking, we are so, so proud of you for doing this." My mother, bless her, told me that she felt the forgiveness my sisters and I sent to her and that the process we went through set her free of her guilt and suffering.

Mike came to me directly once in meditation, a tap-tap-tap on my chest, and then the clearest full color image of him smiling, this in a brain that only vaguely imagines in pale, misty color, mostly black and white. My oldest sister's been visited by our parents in her silence. It's the most miraculous thing, and the most divinely freeing and healing. So what comes after, after loss, after grief, after losing love, is healing. It's finding a life, making new plans, accepting that irrevocable changes have occurred, but it's all survivable.

As for me, I'm busier than I've been in  years. Living in near poverty on a tiny state pension and some savings, committed to staying this way as long as I can, because ... freedom. That's what I think of every day, that freedom is a gift, and it sometimes comes out of great tragedy. I am better. I am actually really happy. And I don't worry about my people, though I think of them often and miss them. It's not with that aching, agonizing sense of having my heart yanked from my chest, my very breath stolen by the pain of loss. They're still with me. I am blessed. Life is lovely. I hope so for you too.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

widow

It will be five months next Tuesday since Mike's heart stopped. Some nights I can still feel the warmth of him as I lay that last hour with my head on his chest. I can hear the beat of his heart growing softer, slower, until it finally stopped. I still can't quite grasp that: here, not here, with me, gone. I haven't been able to write anything, though I have the urge some days. I am sad, grieving, but also finding myself again. The last two years were a hell beyond anything I'd ever experienced. A death is excruciating. In slow motion, it's beyond tolerance. Still, I'm here. Standing. Not writing, but here. Maybe soon. Life as I've known it for 20 years is becoming something else. Mike, Michael, my sweetheart, my only love. What now?

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

put aside your skepticism

For just a moment, turn away from your understandable suspicion, your disbelief in things you cannot see, and let me tell you a story. Listen to me with the openness we had as children, an age when we all willingly believed in what is mysterious and magical, for this tale, while true, is hard to accept.

I've told you before about my mother, who vanished on a cold Sunday morning, a few days before Christmas of 1969. It was a singular event in my life and in the lives of my family members. There is tragedy and heartbreak in losing one so loved to death. And it is a different kind of tragedy, an endless heartbreak, for someone to go missing for over 40 years.

There was before, and there is after. In more than forty years of after, we've never been able to really let go, to grieve and move on, and we've marked the transitions of life and the passage of our ordinary days always wondering. What happened? Where could she have gone?

Often, I would look at my father, now nearly 95, and think "it's not possible she could still be living." She would be so old, and surely in ill health, alone and lonely, and troubled by the same demons that drove her out the door that frigid December morning. But if not alive, then where could she be? Where is her body? Wouldn't her secrets be finally revealed in death? For 20 years, I've fought to keep her on my state's missing persons list, the oldest case in Oklahoma, but nothing has come of it. Nothing.

Two years ago, my very smart, rational, science-minded Republican sister, 66 years old, happened into a small encampment in Florida called Cassadaga. There, she encountered mediums and psychics, first one, and then another, for this was a small village devoted to the mysterious arts and whether you believe or do not believe, they are there, a flock of working spiritualists, and they are busy.

I know. Their busy-ness is no indicator of truth, just in the willingness ~ sometimes desperation ~ of people to believe in something that soothes their pain, or illuminates an uncertain future in a way that engenders hope. And isn't that what we all want? A bit of soothing, some certainty, something to hope for? And might that cause us to believe the unbelievable? Of course.

And yet, a skeptical Karen entered the medium's lair, was seated, and before she could even speak, the medium drew back, looking alarmed, and exclaimed, "oh, oh, there is someone rushing at me, she is pushing everyone aside."

Everyone. Yes. I know the images that will evince for most of you, the very idea that we are surrounded by the spirits of those long gone, that they can be invoked simply by a willingness to believe they are there. And yet it is possible, I now know this. It is possible even if we cannot set aside the flood of disbelief that wells when someone says these things aloud. Sometimes, as with Karen, we have only to show up, skepticism in tow. But even if we cannot believe ~ if you cannot ~ it changes nothing. It happened. It is true, and disbelief, yours or mine, does not change the fact of it.

I must continue, so come along with me, and if you can, push it aside, that sense you have that I've gone a little mad, succumbed to the kind of new age craziness that sometimes afflicts women and men in their middle years. Listen. Because the spirit who rushed the medium to get to my sister, the one who pushed "everyone" aside, gave us answers to the questions we've had since that ghastly day in 1969.

What happened to Audrey? Why did she leave? How could she have stayed away, never to have reached out, not once?

If you've been here before, you will know that, like my sister, I am also reasonably smart, and science-minded, but also artsy and romantic, so you will naturally suspect my interpretation of events. I want to believe, I admit it. I love the idea of the unknown becoming known and I inhabit my own imagination as if it's another, very real, world.

So do not believe me, as I am suspect, but believe Karen, who conversed with our lost mother 41 years after she vanished. Because you do not know them, either Karen or Audrey, you can't know how unsettling it was, how difficult to accept, but that it was my mother, I have no doubt.

There were dozens of proofs, dozens. A complete stranger in a part of the country where none of us have lived before knew details of my mother's pre-internet disappearance she could never have known. Karen's appearance before the medium was not preceded by an appointment, or signing in, or any of the myriad ways a bit of information can be given and research obtained. The trip to Cassadaga was done on a whim.

Karen's appearance was unheralded and the medium a stranger. It seems impossible that one can speak to the dead, but this happened and it is real, though unbelievable, I admit. The medium revealed everything: where she left from and why, what was happening to her at the time, where she went and with whom, and most importantly, that she had died in 1993.

Listen. I know you are scoffing, having gathered back into yourself your skepticism and unwillingness to believe in things unseen because it's more comfortable that way, to believe only in truth we can verify, touch, or experience ourselves.

But listen, and know this is true. It was my mother, of that I am certain, as certain as I am that my eyes are brown and my once red hair has gone silver, that I am living and breathing in Tulsa on a hot Thursday in July. As certain as I am that most of you will not believe, though a childlike part of you, before you fall asleep tonight, may whisper "what if?"

Believe this: my mother, her spirit, had to make amends to move on, and more importantly, she needed to know that we could forgive her for walking out that chill morning in 1969, that we could let go of our pain and anger and years and years of wondering, of not knowing, of never being able to grieve for her. She needed our release and we gave it.

We performed a ritual goodbye, Audrey's three daughters, committing a last loving act of forgiveness and letting go. For two years, we have had a sense of peace that's been missing for the previous forty. And her spirit, my mother's, was healed. You're frowning, I suspect, thinking "how could she know?" but that, that knowing, is for another day. About the 40 year mystery of my mother, though, I finally know, and I believe. I am at peace and so, at last, is Audrey.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, March 09, 2012

thief!

Almost twenty years ago, when I became a thief, I began by simply watching the patterns of the old man down the street. Every morning he rose early to tend his treasures. It was obvious he took great pride in this lifetime accumulation and he protected his wonders with everything he had.

A year or two passed and I noticed he was failing. Early risings were rare and though he still cared for his beauties, it was clear that all was not well in his world. Another year and his lovelies rose up in spring without any care. They were strong and hearty from 50 years of his love and attention, but they missed his nurturing hand.

The following spring the house went up for sale. It was empty. I know this because I skulked over there at 1:00 a.m. one Sunday and checked it out. My nighttime skulking began at the tender age of six, when my sister and I developed something we called the "cat prowl." To complete the prowl, which fast became a popular activity among our parochial school set, it was required that we sneak out the bedroom window late at night, scamper to the street then follow a route which took us past the back windows and through the gardens of a dozen of our neighbors. We were, essentially, school-age window peepers. We threw in a little moonlight dancing, a little fantasy among the hollyhocks and roses, but our greatest thrill was viewing our neighbors through their windows when they believed themselves unobserved.

I have long known that a proper nighttime skulking outfit is entirely black, with black shoes, black hat, black black black. So I crept about my neighbor's home, attired in the proper garments, and I observed his cherished babies where they slept. A rescue was clearly in order.

It was my first plant theft conducted at midnight with fast-beating heart and an utter terror of being caught. I liberated six huge clumps of those lush, 50-year-old peonies, each root bundle as large as a bushel basket, and I planted them in my very own back garden where they have bloomed ever since.

How fortunate, because the entire 50 x 12 foot bed so lovingly tended by that sweet old man for his entire adult life was subsequently plowed up and planted with boxwood and (shudder) red-tipped photinia. How utterly mundane and how sad. The following spring, I noticed a number of the ruby-red slender arms of the ancient peonies breaking through the soil. I was heartbroken to see the new homeowner whacking at them with a weedeater. Another spring and they no longer even tried.

I wonder whether they sleep still beneath the soil in that spot, so long a nourishing home for their immense and tangled roots. Are they waiting down there for someone to love them properly? to appreciate their rich beauty, their immensely heavy softly colored heads perfuming the air for half a block?

It was the first theft, not the last. Subsequent thefts were more brazen: houses up for sale and empty. Once the sold sign went up, off I went at midnight (properly dressed, of course), spade in hand. I liberated ancient peonies, Madonna lilies, phlox, iris, roses. I eventually took to liberating ancient moss-encrusted birdbaths from houses near the airport slated for demolition. I found old troughs, bird feeders, great moss-covered stones. I was a full-fledged garden thief and unashamed.

My favorite liberation was accomplished at sunrise just before a bulldozer cleared a path for a new driveway in a house just a mile from my little cottage. Milk and wine crinum lilies, those rare old southern heirlooms, were freed from the rock hard soil as the impatient driver raced his engine and bellowed at me to get out of his way.

The result stands sentry at the start of my south garden path and the scent is intoxicating. Their heads rise up at dusk to invite pollination (don't we all rise up at dusk to invite "pollination?") and they release the richest perfume. Magnificent. Addictive. Stolen.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

on becoming a dick

When I was a baby in sobriety, I used to hit a meeting in Pratt, Kansas, before heading to my parents' cabin at 99 Springs. It was a discussion meeting, not my favorite kind, but the droning of my fellow travelers gave me plenty of time to think. And one of the things I pondered at length was the meaning of a sign on the wall. It said "When you're off the beam, you don't know you're off the beam, because you're off the beam."

Although "the beam" is mentioned several times in the body of AA literature, the sign always struck me as ridiculous. In AA clubhouses and meeting rooms across the planet, there are all sorts of signs plastered on the walls. "Think, think, think" is one. "Don't think" is another. (I know, but it makes sense to us.) I've never seen the beam sign anywhere but Pratt.

To me, the on-the-beam, off-the-beam, sounded silly. And the last phrase, almost a taunt, "because you're off the beam." Nah nah nah NAH nah. So there. Like that.

Just this week, though, I have received from the Universe the perfect lesson in being off the beam, and not knowing it, because I'm ... well, off the beam, and so I couldn't know, could I? As a result, I've lapsed into being a dick. An asshole if you prefer. A jerk if you want to keep it clean.

I have been argumentative, calling others out for their condescending tone or words, while condescending myself in presuming I know better than they do. I have been judgmental, quickly pointing out to others their judginess against those I felt sure couldn't defend themselves. Hellooooo condenscension, my ever present friend. Of course, in my view, I have been on the side of angels, but the truth is I've just been an ass, and worse, I have been smug (oh! I hate smugness!), certain that my own beliefs and experiences are superior to those of others because, you know, I'm right.

I am right. As I write that, I'm hearing the echoes of sponsors past, "Would you rather be right? or happy?" I'd like to be both, please. I want it all, the joyous righteousness of being correct, and oodles of happiness to boot. I want it all, always have, forever after, I always will.

But they were right, those men and women who helped me along the way. If right becomes an argument, there's no happiness there. And why have I been so wrought up in being right anyway? Me, who for years made the case that any version of a Power is fine, that a Power is a Power is a Power and it's our personal definition that's the key, the key to freedom and joy and happiness. I have been the greatest booster of find-your-own-way thinking. What's right for you is right, that kind of thing.

Along with my recognition that I'm off the beam, I've figured out the root cause of my recent dickishness. It's perfectly correlated with Mike's good and bad days. It's my form of projection and protection. All of the anxiety I feel about being unable to help / control / make perfect his health, I project out into the world and I pick fights and by God, if I can win there, then I've won and that would ... oh hell, I don't know. In my new on-the-beam-ness, I see the stupidity in the thing, but who ever said the brain will always make sense? It won't, at least not mine. And picking fights with strangers won't make Mike well. Winning won't make him okay. Or me.

And if I keep it up, things will still not be okay some days (and some days, thankfully, they will) and I'll be a dick for real. Because my dickishness right this minute is a temporary state of being. Like all ugly habits, it could become permanent if I feed it and make it grow and allow it to settle in.

Today I choose not to, and I'm grateful to the Universe for this little lesson, and eternally grateful to the people of Pratt, Kansas for that goofy little sign that captured my imagination 28 year ago. Some of us are slower than others and sometimes I learn things again and again and again before I actually learn them. One thing I know for certain is that I don't want to be a dick, whatever happens to Mike. It's not fun and it won't make the sun shine. It's just a distraction from getting back on that beam, and that, my friends, is the place for me.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, September 01, 2011

joy diet

I've lost my joy. She ran off a few months (years?) ago and was last seen skipping down the sunny path with my old companions serenity, grace, and gratitude. I miss her, miss all of them, my old friends. It took a lot of years to find them and to get rid of my bad old bar pals, anger, despair, and emptiness. It's been so long since I felt like this that the old sense of calm and wonder I used to live with every day seems like a dream. I see from that post I was struggling with the same thing in 2008. It's worse now, my connection with the Universe having fallen into serious disrepair like a pretty house long left behind by those who loved it.
Yesterday, as I was leaving home, I grabbed a book I've had forever in case there was a line at the bank. There was, of course, and so I opened Martha Beck's The Joy Diet for the first time.

Somewhere in these boxes that were going to Mexico, I've got another of Beck's books, Finding Your Own North Star. There are several of these helpful volumes around the house, wisdom filled tomes I've always imagined would jump start my spiritual practice if it ever lapsed. The thing about lapsing, though, is it's hard to notice when it's happening. Only when I am settled into old habits and patterns do I look around and realize my sweet friends have moved on and the old ugly crew's slavering at the gate. Googling a little this morning, I see that Martha Beck's books are big with Oprah and her crowd. I'll try not to hold that against her as I commence the once a week reading of a chapter in Beck's book.

Let me repeat: once a week. One chapter a week, with practice in between. One. Seriously? I quickly finished the first chapter in the bank line yesterday and was advised by the calm, focused Ms. Beck that I need to be still for 15 minutes once a day. My monkey mind slaps its tail and screeches its outrage at the very idea.

Stillness is not in my current repertoire of states of being. I am jumpy and easily startled, feeling on high alert every waking moment. Late at night, I've been practicing the beginning positions of Tai Chi with a friend. We've been running through the positions over and over, fast as we can, trying to get it down. Beck's introduction includes the suggestion that I use her book as I would learn Tai Chi, practicing one single form for an entire week before moving on to another. Ja! Ja ja! One form, one movement, for a week. I mentioned this to my friend and was pleased to see that his incredulous response to this absurdity was similar to mine, a big-eyed "What? One??"

A few years ago, I acquired a horrific case of poison ivy. Driven by the desperate itch to consult a dermatologist, I was shot up with antihistamines and put on a Prednisone dose pack. I find the energy and focus that comes with steroids quite intoxicating. My voice takes on a seductive huskiness reminiscent of old movie stars. I sleep two hours a night and leap from my bed at first light unrefreshed, but caring not one whit. The aches and pains of mid-life vanish and in their place comes a tight thrumming sensation in my muscles. Alas, that wondrous feeling of being all speedy without the speed is complicated by a barely-under-the-surface rage. When I found myself bellowing about the misdeeds of a juvenile court judge in the courthouse, a ranting, raving, public diatribe rich with words like "cocksucker" and "fucking bastard," I realized something was amiss.

That is how my brain feels of late, as if I am ramped up on a dose pack, a wide eyed, no sleeping, can't focus, monkey minded dervish in constant motion, running, running, running. I have to stop. I know this on an intellectual level, and I think I got a feel for it yesterday when Beck's suggestion to practice silence resonated with the part of me that cherishes my old connections with joy, serenity, grace, and gratitude.

The monkey's bounding around right now, ricocheting off the inside of my skull, brandishing lists of things to do, frenziedly pointing at this task and that one, every bit of it needing attention right now. Sit in silence for 15 minutes a day? For a week? As Beck says, "I chafe wildly at this agonizingly incremental way of learning," but learn I must. I think it will be easier this time because I'm re-learning, and it's not all new. As we say in AA, "you already know more than you will ever use, now you have to put it into practice." I know how to get that connection back, I just have to do it. I hope Beck's book will help.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

run away

Even the heat loving Bermuda grass has gone brown and crispy now. What sounds like rain outside my window is the drought stressed river birch dropping its leaves. The temperature's 108.1 °F according to the constant bringer of bad news, Weather Underground, and it's like this day after day after day.

Some of my earliest memories are of wanting to be somewhere else. There have been years in this life when that wish to be elsewhere was spurred by an internal distress. That's long since resolved and still this feeling is with me with some regularity, a lot of late.

I can't capture the essence of it in words. Maybe you've felt it too, this itchy restlessness, a sense of things missed, of other worlds. Lying on my back under a full moon at the top of a mountain in New Mexico, looking at that endless sky, the urge to go, to see, to experience everything in this world is so strong as to be near irresistible. The voice inside whispers run away, run away, just go. I've felt it, too, in the thick of the bird-filled mangroves on the Black River in Jamaica, at the top of a downtown high rise looking out at the city lights. It struck me with wrenching intensity standing alone on the edge of the Grand Canyon watching the sun rise and sparkle on the snow. In my younger years, the urge was always for the city, but these days it's for a big emptiness, for mountains, for the endless horizon of ocean, the rush of a wild river.

Recently, along with the run away urge, comes an awareness of time passing much, much too fast. That, coupled with these dreadful hot days of summer, feeds the sense of urgency. Escape. Where to? I fall asleep reading the GAP Adventures catalog that comes in the mail a few times a year. Where to? Nepal? Overland through Zambia? Mountain trekking in Morocco?

I don't know where I want to go. Actually, that's not entirely true. I want to go everywhere, I just can't settle on a single place. I want to see everything, experience everything, get out and away and on the road. I want away from the sameness and the drudgery of working day after day after day. Time's wasting and this is no way to spend what remains. Had last year's plans worked out as intended, I'd be writing this from the terrace of our Mexico house. The different-ness of that place would be a welcome change, but surely after a while, even there, it would again be time to go.

Do you want to go? Where to? Tell, please.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

cool blue

Never a fan of summer, I am confident the reason I've few memories prior to age four is a result of the heat. Our house on 12th Street had an old swamp cooler that barely reached the bedrooms. On Elmwood, it was central air and my remembered life commenced.

We spent summers until I was 15 or 16 at an air-conditioner-free cabin on a lake at 99 Springs. The difference between western Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma is this: At 99 Springs, nights are cool and mornings are a pleasure. In Tulsa, the hellish heat of night can only be endured. It does not waver in intensity until the early morning hours, dropping briefly to the 80s before the blast furnace reappears with the first rays of sun.

My house A/C is faithful. We're comfortable and grateful inside. I lie around under the ceiling fan reading old magazines and whimpering. Invariably, summer is presented as a grand opportunity for Outdoor! Living! With! Family! And Friends! People are cooking out, resting on the open porch, taking lunch under the trees at 2 p.m.

Just as gardening books always seem to be written for northeastern gardeners (Grow Short Season Tomatoes rather than the desperately needed Kill Those @#%@#%@ Spider Mites), home and garden magazines focus on the joys of living in sane climates, those high-in-the-sky or on-the-globe places where 90 is a heat wave.

Bless your hearts, all you Yankees and mountain folks. Bless. Your. Hearts. Here we're just trying to survive, and daily I check the temperature in Yucatan, thinking of that front porch where the ocean breeze kicks up around noon, and the heat is somehow more tolerable than it is in this dry and dusty landlocked city. Maybe it's the view.

At night I go to the gym and swim. I'm not a good swimmer. Since the summer of '63, when I faked my ability to dog paddle and nearly drowned in Bogan Pool, I have managed to remain afloat, but never in a graceful way.

I care not at all. The pull of the water is irresistible. In that cool, blue world, the only sound comes from my kicking feet and my breath escaping the snorkel. Yes, it's true. I don my snorkel and mask and swim that tile pool, never lifting my head, cutting through the water as if I'm above a coral reef. The dark blue line leads me end to end, and I find absolute peace in the rhythm and the sounds and the softness of the water.

There's no heaven in Tulsa this time of year, except in that pool, late at night. There, I imagine I'm in the tropical waters I love. I escape this life completely. An hour back and forth and my mind empties of anything beyond the sensation of water on skin, of hands and feet propelling me forward.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

change. of. life.

I am pretty sure if we really grasped the fragile nature of this life, we'd all be shrieking, hair-tearing lunatics, too frightened to step out the front door. I, maybe most of us, live in an insulated state, making my little plans, setting out each day to accomplish this task and that one. It does not normally occur to me that any moment the earth might yawn wide beneath my feet, plunging me into a chasm of uncertainty that is the only real absolute in life. Who could live with that knowing? Who??

When a little over a month ago, my husband woke from a nap swollen and gasping for air, the earth yawned wide. I know terrible things happen to people every day; I'm no Pollyanna. Dreadful, unexpected, unplanned for events happen with fair regularity and we are none of us immune. Yet I don't think anyone can live sanely with a real time awareness of that second life, the swirling, fetid undercurrent below the good life we all expect and hope to live in. Down there lies sudden, severe illness, natural disaster, wars, murders, personal crises of every stripe, and devastating world events. It is silent, this tandem reality, yet as true as the one we live in most days.

Without beating to death the obvious, it is the most extraordinary thing to know the very instant, the moment, the nanosecond that life changes. "I can't breathe." Three words irrevocably changed my world from that second forward. A slow motion sequence of events, from those words through what came after, runs over and over through my mind, a five week looping replay, replay, replay.

And much did come after. There was much good, with excellent medical care, brilliant doctors, and compassionate caregivers. And there was one very, very bad night, when neglect and indifference stopped the heart I love for seven torturous minutes.

Even now, having been through the nightmare of weeks and weeks in hospital, medical care and medical mistakes, diagnoses and lack thereof, I find that I'm edging again toward that calm place where bad things don't happen. Truly, how else can we live? The alternative is an impossible ~ yet still powerless ~ hypervigilance. It's not possible to openly live with the truth of it, that we're swept along in this river of life bobbing in the sunlight, while all manner of uglies clutch and grasp at us from below.

Life changes in an instant, turns on a dime, the earth tilts on its axis. Only cliches provide some semblance of comfort, assuring that this is a widely shared human condition, that my little family isn't being singled out somehow. Satchel Paige said "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." And I'll add to that, don't look down. Don't look beneath the surface. It's too terrifying. Better to live in that safe space above, where the sun shines every day. At least for the moment.

Have you ever lost your footing in a completely unexpected way? Were you able to get it back? Did it forever change your outlook on life? Tell, please. I know we're not alone in this, but it's a comfort to hear that from others.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, September 11, 2010

i help

Left hanging by my freight company Wednesday night, I was stuck with 300 pounds of 19th century hunt cabinet on a pallet jack on the sidewalk. After griping at the freight company for not showing up and worse, not calling, I closed up shop and prepared to move the pallet back inside the building.

The ramp to the warehouse is crunchy with old concrete and I had been sick all day with some kind of respiratory crap that left me hacking and breathless at the least exertion. I pumped the jack to raise the pallet, trundled the massive thing to the warehouse door, lined it up to make a run at the ramp, and pushed as hard as I could. Nothing. I could get it to the ramp, but not over the broken lip of it. I hacked and coughed, pulled it back, ran at it again. POW! This time I hit so hard the monster jumped back at me. I released the pallet jack and doubled over coughing.

As I recovered, I noticed a couple of guys from the auto shop across the road watching me. I looked back, silver hair on full display. One waved, got in his car and left. I could see the big guy owner of that shop gazing at me from inside his building. No help. Many cars passed my corner, which intersects old Route 66. Lots of looks from passersby. I can imagine their thoughts as they roared down the road: "Dang, she thinks she's going to move that big ol' thing? Good luck, granny." Thanks, boys.

I pumped the jack again, ran at the ramp, BANG! Slammed that broken lip full force and came to a dead, bone-jarring halt. I just couldn't get past that lip. By this time I was so breathless from coughing, so worn out from the very long day and being sick, that I didn't think I could do it again. I considered leaving it on the sidewalk over night. Would someone actually make off with 300 pounds of jack and four huge boxes of hunt cabinet?

And then a shiny red pickup stopped in front of my shop. I didn't look too closely. People are always stopping at Jim Blue's Barber Shop next door. I pumped the jack, preparing for another run, and just as I began to push, a pair of brown hands joined mine and I looked up to see a friendly smile, and heard the words "I help."

And help he did. Together this kind man, who barely spoke English, and I, who barely speak Spanish, found the sweet spot on that ramp, moved the massive thing inside, and finished the task which moments before had seemed impossible.

I remembered my friend Marlene saying that the best way to get the attention of any man in Mexico is to sing out "mijo." In a restaurant in Yucatan, a woman's voice calling "mijo" will turn every male head. That seems so sweet to me, that the grown up men of Mexico will still respond to their mothers' term of endearment.

And so I slammed the garage door, turned to my good Samaritan, said "gracias, mijo" and winked. He laughed out loud and was still smiling as he drove off waving.

It was a wretched day turned lovely by a chance encounter with a generous man. I woke up this morning remembering how, in my earliest days of sobriety, I would make an effort to do something nice and unexpected for another person, and to keep it anonymous. I think I'll try that again. The world would be a gentler place if we could all live by those words: I help.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

books books books books!!!!

Lacking the will to do anything about it, I hauled out my purse-size go-to-auction tape measure and discovered that there are nine feet of books on my bedside table. Granted, it's a large bedside table, an old mahogany tobacco twist parlor table with big top and a shelf below. But nine feet? That seems excessive, doesn't it?

In six stacks ~ four above and two below ~ there are cookbooks and novels and memoirs, travel books and language books, and of course a wide selection of books political. I am currently deep into The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom, and it fits my weepy mood. It is impossible to accurately put into words the wretchedness of slavery, but Grissom's book is a good effort, and her depiction of one mixed family's life is both inspiring and heartbreaking.

In between I'm trying to get through Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution. Oh. Em. Gee. As seems to be the case with much of Trotsky's work, he is operating under the assumption that the reader is extremely well versed in world events of the early 1900s and fully acquainted with even the most obscure activists of the revolution.

Being anti-capitalist, I chose Trotsky from the boxes of classics I've rounded up to take to Mexico. I've successfully avoided classic literature since one hideous semester in high school spent reading Shakespeare. I'm a voracious reader, but not very discerning. The book has to grab me in the first chapter or two. But I thought I could improve my mind and possibly stave off dementia by plowing through these masses of books that everyone should have read by 53. And maybe I'll be able to concentrate if I've only got to get up, make coffee, and lounge on the porch all day.

So what about you? What are you reading these days, and are you looking for any books? I've got books and they've got to go. Media mail's cheap. Let me know.

Labels:

Monday, June 21, 2010

salad days

Life is not fun at the moment. My dad's terrible. We had to put two beloved dogs to sleep Friday. My husband left me yesterday. There's another poor tortured dog at YCAA. And the heat. Not the heat so much as the humidity. And Bill the Jack Russell's little rear end problem has not resolved.

So can we talk about salads? Do you have a favorite summer salad? The best thing I've ever eaten was chunked very ripe heirloom tomatoes with basil, olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. And garlic! Lots of fresh pressed garlic. In high summer, when it's all fresh from the garden, there's nothing better. Unless you toss a few bits of a good, whole grain, rustic bread in the mix. Heaven in a bowl.

So yesterday I made this:
Torn butter lettuce
Diced mango
Diced avocado
Diced cucumber
Chopped cilantro
Ground pepper
Dressing: fresh lemon juice, olive oil, lots of garlic.

It sounded better than it tasted, at least with the ingredients I had. Missing my Progreso market fruit lady, who always picks out the best mangos and avocados para hoy? o manana?

The mango and cucumber were a little bitter, so I added some honey to the dressing and it helped. If I make it again, the mangos will be perfectly ripe, the avocado lightly salted, and I'll skip the cilantro and add pecans or toasted almonds. The dressing was great. Definitely one I'll make again for other salads.

So what green, crisp, fruity, savory growing things are you munching on this summer? I'm wishing for a perfectly ripe avocado with a squeeze of lime, freshly ground pepper, and Pick-A-Peppa sauce drizzled over it all. Or something with blueberries in it. What are you eating? Tell, please.

Labels:

Monday, May 31, 2010

maurico

There are days I still can't get the picture out of my mind, even more than 15 years later: Maurico, on his knees in the cold damp of a drainage ditch, on his knees with a gun to his head, on his knees as the trigger is pulled. And then Maurico, face down in the water, three bullets in his head, dying alone in the cold, lying in that ditch for three days. I can't see the picture without thinking how afraid he must have been, how desperately he must have wished to go back. I wonder what he thought of in those last seconds and then I can't think about it anymore, it's hurts too much to imagine his last moments, the terror he must have felt.

His brother identified him, hearing a news report of an unidentified body found in a ditch on Gilcrease. Demond recognized the ring Rico was wearing, knew it was his brother out there, thrown away as if he were trash.

The day after Rico's funeral, the juvenile court judge called me to say "that boy was never going to make it." Liar. Four months before, that same judge had come down off the bench to shake Rico's hand, to congratulate him on his success in a 90 day treatment program. When I took him home from that successful 90 days in confinement, the only lockup he'd ever experienced, his grandmother was gone and once more, Rico was alone, nowhere to go. Nothing I could say helped. His grandmother knew he was coming home and she left.

I can't write this in a way that makes sense. There's too much to the story, too much I still feel guilty about. Like the main thing: the system ~ what used to be my system ~ failed this young man from his first year of life. Abandoned repeatedly by his mother after birth, left with this dope dealer and that addict boyfriend while she ran off to chase her own cocaine high, it was still 18 months before Rico was taken into custody. Child welfare took him and gave him back over and over ~ four times total ~ before they took him for real.

And then he went to live with his grandmother, who didn't want another child, who'd done a pretty poor job with her own daughter, Rico's mother. She didn't want her own kid, and she ended up trying to raise three grandsons. It was a mistake, but what are you going to do with a three sibling group of boys?

Some people say harsh is good and grandmother was harsh as hell. A lot of people tell me that kids today are messed up because they don't get spankings like kids of yesterday. I think it's bullshit. I think what kids today are lacking is parent time. Spankings were one indication parents were paying attention when I was a kid. But spankings weren't the only thing. We got parents who were awake and alert, working, and functional. We weren't brought up by adult-sized kids too narcissistic to recognize that we couldn't raise ourselves.

But I'm way off track, and this is Rico's story. I have to tell it through my experience, and I have got to get rid of it this time, this Memorial Day, my fourth try at getting Maurico out of my head.

I met him when he was 15. He was an angry, hostile young man, sitting in a Sapulpa shelter, waiting on his worker to appear. He'd been adjudicated on yet another misdemeanor-reduced-from-a-felony and was awaiting placement. Rico had a long trail of felony-level property crimes running behind him, dismissed over and over and over again.

He was my second assignment fresh out of college on my first real job as a social worker. I was convinced I could make a difference. I was convinced I could make a connection. Maybe I thought I could save him, or at least help him save himself. I was right on the first two, wrong on the last.

Over the next two years I tried everything to get him the help he needed. He had a hurt inside big as a house, and it spurred his fuckups and placement failures. He'd get things going his way and life would smooth out, get calm and quiet and something would come alive inside this child. He'd get irritable, then critical, then angry, and once he was angry, it was all over, a matter of days before he'd run.

So many tries at so many placements, and so many failures. I was desperate to get him what I still believe would have helped him: locked up in Rader long term so he couldn't run and could start to excavate that hurt, dig it out, expose it to the light and to the air and let it heal.

This is where I get pissed off thinking about what he needed and couldn't have. He was a property offender. My rapists and child molesters and armed robbers, hard core criminals all, were easy to get into lockup kid prison. Their crimes were so big there was no bargaining them down.

Rico, though, he stole cars, and he shoplifted. He did a couple of burglaries, and he wasn't scary, not at first. He had a slick public defender for whom it seemed a game to get Rico free. It was a back and forth between the public defenders and the assistant district attorney, who's going to prevail, who's going to lose. The kid too often seemed like an afterthought.

Most of the time the PD won. Rico "won" but in winning, he lost. He lost the felony adjudication that would have allowed me to get him where he needed to be, so he could have a shot at saving himself. I understand the theory behind community based treatment, I do. But our treatment efforts at the time were also supposed to be needs-based. Rico needed to be safe, to be secure, to have the option to run removed. Instead, because of some numbers on a page, because of some game playing at the court, he couldn't have that.

Some kids will not stay in a place if they can run. No one wants to hurt, and no one really wants to work through their shit. We kept putting Rico in unlocked facilities, trying to force him to dig deep, down there where it really hurts, where the wound's been festering for a lifetime. What was he going to do? It was madness.

Twice I begged his PD to let the felony stand. He told me he couldn't, that he had to do what Rico wanted, act in his "best interests." The PD's at the Juvenile Bureau were old hands and they wiped the floor with the rotating fresh faces staffing the ADA's office most of the time. The PD would bargain to win, and Rico would lose.

So I'd place him in unlocked facilities and he'd run, again and again. I tried for Rader again and again. I wrote pages and pages of justification for why Rico needed lockup, how he couldn't make it in any facility with an open door. It never worked, and with every placement failure, Rico got worse. He got more involved in street life. He hooked up with a gang. He finally started using, just like his mama, like his grandpa, who'd died of alcoholism before Rico was born.

Shortly after that 90 day program he'd aced, when he'd returned home to find his grandmother gone, there were rumors of a new dope charge coming up in Osage County. He was on the run again, knowing there could be a warrant out for his arrest. Two Osage County cops came to my office to tell me he was in trouble, that they believed he was salvageable, to ask me if I couldn't do something, put him back in Rader for real this time. Two cops.

Could I do something? I thought maybe, and I tried. I put the word out with my other kids that if they saw him, I wanted him to call me. Just call. Two days later, he did. We met at Williams Center downtown. He was late, waiting by the door for 15 minutes to see if I'd brought the police with me.

When he sat down next to me, the first thing he said was "I can't do what you think I can do, I can't stay in those places." I knew that. It had been my fight with my agency for 18 months. We talked about what he was doing. He showed me where he'd broken his hand in a fight. We talked about people we both knew and about the possibility of a charge in Osage County.

I convinced Rico to come in, one more time. I think about that now and it seems impossible. But it's further proof of what I believed then: He wanted to get better, he wanted to have a good life, he just didn't know how to get past the emotional turmoil that would come up when he sat still. He wanted to get better and he trusted me. It breaks my heart to write that, but there it is: the unloved child who believed in nothing, trusted no one, trusted me.

We stayed in my office all that night, him sleeping on the sofa, me doing paperwork, because there was no place for him to go while awaiting sanctions. But he was there, knowing some serious shit was coming down, he was there.

I was convinced he still had a little bit of hope left. He looked like hell from being on the streets. Thin, with dirty clothes, hair a mess. He was tired, I think, worn down from trying to make it on his own, worn down from too many failures. I don't know, but seeing him curled up on that couch, I thought this might be his moment.

We did sanctions, and my plan was to do a parole revocation while he was away for seven days. It was an obscure process that no one ever used anymore. I could bypass the Juvenile Bureau and get what amounted to a felony adjudication because Rico had violated his discharge plan. I'd be able to get him back into Rader long-term if I could make it work. He had to go away for seven days to an unlocked facility ~ sanctions ~ but it was tightly controlled and I could get the revocation set up while he was safe there. He agreed to go and I took him there, dropping him off by the lake, my sense of hope for this kid growing as I worked on volumes of paperwork necessary to skirt both the Juvenile Bureau and my agency's placement unit.

But he didn't make it. Three days into sanctions, the director called to say he was uncooperative and staff were restraining him. Four hours later she called again, saying she didn't have the staff to continue that kind of one-on-one attention. What? She should have said "I don't want to pay anyone to stay because that cuts into my profits." We were supposed to be doing individualized treatment at that time, getting kids what they needed, no matter what. I know it was a joke on a lot of levels, but I never thought a shift's worth of overtime could cost a child his life.

It did. I needed two more days for the parole revocation process and yet my supervisor gave the okay for them to stop the restraint. Rico was gone in an instant, hitchhiking into town in his pink sweatsuit. I don't know what happened between the Thursday he ran and the Thursday his body was found. It was one week of Rico on the streets. I imagine he was scared. I imagine he didn't think he had any outs left. He'd promised me and let me down. Osage County was after him. He couldn't face himself long enough to stay anywhere.

And then he was dead. Shot three times in the head. Lying for days in a ditch before a school bus driver saw his body and called the police; another day before his little brother recognized the ring from a news report about an unidentified body.

The funeral was a dreadful. His mother came in shackles from prison, arriving as we were all leaving after the service. Late. Always late. Never there for her son, even in death. His grandmother was raging and refused to buy a headstone. We made and sold teddybears to buy a marker for his grave.

It's too much to tell. The details don't mean anything unless you were there. I know only this: I loved Maurico. I did. I loved his heart and his spirit and his smart little brain. I loved that he recognized how unjust his life had been and was pissed off about it. I loved that he kept trying, that he would cry and rage and disappear, but then he'd come back. I loved that he wanted to be different. He was a good kid, a good guy, so terribly wounded. And I couldn't help him. I let him down.

I still believe locking him up would have helped. He might have still ended up in prison or dead, too many young black men do. But it might also have kept him alive long enough until something clicked, until he could see that throwing his life away over the past was a waste.

I always hoped he'd get to where he could see that the best way to focus all that mad inside would be to do well. It's the ultimate fuck you to the abusers: you hurt me so bad and still you couldn't stop me. But without security, without the basic safety of something to hold him in, he just couldn't do it. As an infant, as a small child, he was hurt over and over and over again and he was powerless to do anything about it. When he got old enough to run instead of taking the pain, he did. I don't blame him. The way he grew up, running equaled survival.

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a man named Eddie. I worked with Eddie at the same time I had Rico. They were in that 90 day program together and they were a lot alike, except that Eddie had a mom who wouldn't quit on him. I think that's 90% of what got him through. His note was sweet and it made me think maybe all that time in the trenches of juvenile justice wasn't a complete waste.

But unlike Eddie, everybody quit on Rico, even the agency charged with helping him. We let go of his hand the day we wouldn't cover another shift to keep him in sanctions. One more letting go, one more bit of proof that he wasn't worth the expense or the effort or the time.

It's Memorial Day, and a time for remembering our loved ones who've died. I remember Maurico and I loved him. I failed him. We all did.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

obscenity

I just watched a crowd of people jeering at a man who said he was ill with Parkinsons. The mob facing this man, who was sitting on the ground, yelled at him about handouts. One man lectured him, saying "If you're looking for a handout, you're on the wrong end of town. There's nothing for free over here, you have to work for everything you get." Another tossed money at him as he sat holding a sign saying he needs help.

Is this truly what we have become in this country? Have we actually come to a place where such callousness and brutality against our fellow citizens is accepted and cheered? What has happened to us here?

I encountered this obscenity having just come back from a short visit with my father. He is 92 now, increasingly weak, very frail. He is pale, unsteady on his feet, and his memory has deteriorated dramatically in the last few months. My precious daddy is finally, truly old, and I don't think he'll be with us much longer.

My father is ill. He needs help, he does. He is blessed to have social security and Medicare, bank accounts, plus a supplemental health care policy, thanks to good fortune in education, work, talent, and being able to save a little money. Despite a lifetime of saving, though, his financial situation is worrisome. Last year, some thieves at Lehman Brothers waltzed away with a sizeable chunk of the money he worked a lifetime to accumulate.

I picture my father sitting on the ground in the condition he's in, holding a sign saying "I'm elderly, weak, and sick. I need help," while people mock him for his frailty. I see my husband, who was so desperately ill for four long years early in this godforsaken century: sweet Mike, 120 pounds of him, skeletal, wasting, so close to death. I imagine people scoffing at him for his weakness, for having become sick, as if it could not happen to any one of us.

On the way back from Ponca City, we passed workmen on the road, and a work truck flying a big American flag. I realized when I saw it that I have grown ashamed of my country. I am ashamed to live in a place where compassion is derided. I am disgusted to belong to a nation so insistent that our values are Christian, where so many who claim Christ use the Bible as a weapon. I am apalled when people boast of American exceptionalism while condemning and ridiculing those in need.

Maybe it's my frame of mind today. It's gray again, and cold. I've spent a couple of hours sitting across the table from my failing father, and I've watched my fellow Americans angrily jeering a man who says he is sick, mocking his weakness, his need. I've seen the red, white, and blue of my country's flag blowing in the wind and I wonder if it means anything at all anymore.

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, February 13, 2010

flatland

It's New Year's Day and we're at Aunt Ethel's house again. We don't come here often. Every other year on first day of January, we visit my mother's only living sister in Wellington, Kansas. Aunt Ethel's a short, plump, blonde and she wears the same high heels and cinched-waist dresses my mom's known for. She's married to Les, a train man, who's tall and kind, with twinkly eyes.

Aunt Ethel's house is 1950s modern. Blonde brick, gray and pink interior. Her sofa's streamlined and sleek, upholstered in that awful stiff nubby weave that leaves red loop marks on the backs of my legs. Armless chairs, blonde tables, and jazzy gray lamps with flaring shades complete the space age picture. It looks like the Jetsons could live here.

I hate it. Even at eight, I'm into old stuff. My father's house is packed with antique furniture, old clocks. My mother buys and restores old furniture, sells it. With my family, we've hunted antiques all across Oklahoma and Kansas. My mother's persistence in visiting one Kansas farm four times a year, five years running, resulted in the arts and crafts oak pedestal table she longed for finally coming to live with us.

It's New Year's day and the monotonous sound of the television droning on and on drives me outside. I don't want to watch the Rose Bowl parade. I can't bear the sound of football games on TV, even at this age. Cindy, the streamlined, sleek, black and white terrier, joins me in escaping. As often happens in this part of the country, January 1 is sunny and not too cold.

I sit in the sun on the front steps, feeling the warmth on my shoulders, looking across the road at nothing. We're on the edge of Wellington here, in my aunt's house. Everything is flat and winter-crisped dry. Brown. Ugly. The air smells dusty but the heat feels wonderful on my head.

Closing my eyes, I get the sense that this feeling I'm having will be with me forever. The sense of wanting to escape, of wanting to get away from the way things are, I think I've had it the entire eight years of my life. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be somewhere else, away. Just away.

I long to live anywhere but here. I want to free myself from the dry sameness of this landscape, the flat, unending prairie rolling off to the west. I am sure there are other ways to live, better ways. I've been to New York, to Chicago, to other big cities.

I think about how it feels on the trains we take to Wichita, to Dodge City, to Chicago, as if something's going to happen, something thrilling, electrifying. I remember how I feel standing in the space between the cars, looking out at the night as we arrive in the bigger cities. It feels as if there's a life out there and I'm missing it. I am misplaced. Lost. I know I should be someplace else. Anywhere else.

Aunt Ethel opens the door and tells me it's time to eat. She hugs me close as I edge by her, her sweet, flowery perfume at odds with the modern house I step back into. On the table is a feast. Turkey and dressing, potatoes and gravy, cranberry relish, jello salad. My family's standing around, waiting for me to come in so everyone can say grace together. The game drones on across the room. We bow our heads and pray.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

okie blogger awards again

If you could see me, my hands are planted on my hips and my lips are puckered in that pouty little twist which only comes after saying "Who did that?" Okie Blog Awards nominee, Best Writing category. Seriously. Thanks. I do feel honored.

Labels:

Monday, January 25, 2010

heart. beat.

There's a tiny starfish drifting in the water swirling past my feet. I am standing in the front yard of my house in Chuburna, looking at the vast ocean, the unending horizon. The delicious blue sky melts to lilac where it meets the water, and right there where they join is a band of dark blue. How far can that be from my front yard to where the water turns to cobalt? And how can that same water, rushing toward me from the endless horizon, become such a delicious, sunwashed green? Verde is the Spanish word for green, and it sounds just right for this color. Verde. Verdant. Divine.

The starfish has ridden the waves from the deep, its tiny spark of life adrift somewhere in the ether. Next to the starfish, my toes are buried deep in the sand. I stand here in the light surf, feeling the waves washing over my feet. Each incoming shuuuush feels like a breath, and the outgoing waves make a sound like an exhalation. I also breathe in, and exhale, standing here in the middle of my dream, rooted to this spot, my feet fully buried now in the sand. I can't even feel my heart beating. I feel part of these gentle waves, of the sun overhead, of the sand washing around my feet.

I flew into Merida after dark Wednesday. The cabin lights were out and I watched Yucatan appear out of the night sky as we approached land. Twinkling lights strung out along the coast glowed in welcome, and it felt like coming home after a long absence.

I noticed for the first time in weeks that my heart was beating slowly. North of the border, I am plagued with a skipping, racing heart beat, a beat that has been examined and tested and assessed over and over. It is nothing, this skippy beat, nothing but stress and too much coffee. Destress, the doctors say. Avoid caffeine. But my life is nothing but stress. Stress and exhaustion and caffeine to keep going, to push beyond my limits, to endure; thus the beat, as if my heart's trying to escape, to lead the way out.

But here, in this place, on the coast of a country not my own, I feel at peace. I can take a deep breath and feel it all the way into my belly. My heart beats like a metronome, a slow and steady tick tick tick.

Standing in the surf in my front yard, my feet rooted deep in the sand, the waves are rushing around me and the wind picks up. There are electric flashes of white light in the sky and I make out tiny birds rushing in from the north. There are hundreds of birds, white ones, with flecks of black, and they're making little chirring sounds, soaring, swooping, and diving.

Pelicans have come, frigates are soaring overhead, and I am laughing out loud with the joy of it all. This ocean, this beach, the water, the birds, this house, this life, this place I call home. I can't help but laugh while my heart beats with the rhythm of the waves. I can hardly believe it, but this is my life now. I thought I was stuck but somehow, magically, this is my home, will be my permanent home by November. And on this magnificent day, I am here, standing in the waves in the front yard of my house. The tropical sun warms my head, and life feels fine, very, very fine.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, January 03, 2010

moon over the osage

I'm flying down the highway through the thick of the Osage. A corpulent yellow moon hovers huge on the horizon, bathing this empty landscape in a golden light. Oil wells and Indians, some of the richest in the state, populate this largest county in Oklahoma. My childhood was spent in Kay, but just across the river, across the rickety bridge, lay the endlessly fascinating wilds of Osage County. Osage County ~ the Osage ~ with rough and tumble Pawhuska and the seedy glamorous, redneck dancing danger of Jump's Roller Rink, temporary home to every swinging, twanging western singer from Bob Wills to Hank Williams to Haggard and Jones.

Hank himself is lamenting his lonesomeness on public radio, and I'm wishing I could cry as I'm driving because the world is a lonesome place at times and heartache is the only word to describe this pain in my chest. I've spent the day with my father and it hurts. It hurts that he is there and not there, that we connect and then the connection is lost. It hurts in my heart and it's physical, this ache, a wound that will never heal.

He's endlessly fascinated by my car, laughing as I race the streets of Ark City, of Winfield, downshifting on the curves, letting the muffler pop-pop-pop to make him smile. I remember my first experience with speed as a child. Waking in the front seat of my daddy's sharp finned Ford Fairlane, I watch big eyed as the needle on the speedometer climbs over 100 and my daddy's foot presses harder on the accelerator. My studious, intellectual father is running that V8 Ford hell for leather across the Salt Plains, side by side with his best friend Gene, racing for the joy of it. Speed and freedom transform two brilliant scientists into wild men. I'm enchanted and terrified, experiencing my first ~ nowhere near the last ~ fear-induced adrenaline rush in the company of wild men I love.

My father is a car man, and so the questions about the six speed Mini are endless. Good gas mileage? How fast will it go? How's the gas mileage? Who makes it? What's it called? What kind of mileage are you getting? I answer each question as if it's the first time he's asked, and I remember his joy in driving another tiny car, a big finned Sunbeam Alpine convertible he found in back of a barn in Texas. That car lived in the garage next to a Cadillac Fleetwood and then a Chevy Nova, jacked up in back, and carting a big block 454 engine, eating way too much gas and moving far too fast for the times.

We spend a happy hour discussing cars of the past: the pink Rambler, the host of big-nosed Studebakers and the 1940 Woody station wagon, my favorite of all. We talk about the Salt Plains race and that fast blue car. My mother vanished in the Fairlane Christmas of '69 and I see the perpetual question in his eyes even before he says it: Do you think she's still alive? Audrey? A wound, a heartache, one that never dulls for him. Why doesn't dementia take the agonies of life as thoroughly as it steals the joys?

We sing our way through Winfield where he started college at 18. Tears come to his eyes and he chokes up as we read the words on the monument at his alma mater. At the top of the 77 steps he used to run without a thought, he holds my arm for support and we are bathed in the golden light of the afternoon sun. He is remembering what life was like nearly 70 years ago, when he was 22 and the world was abrim with possibility and promise.

He sat with my mother there ~ right there ~ on the bench commemorating the class of 1898. He proposed to her on Reservoir Hill, the 1930s lover's lane behind the Kansas State Home for the Mentally Disabled. We saw it today, that scalped hill topped with red brick buildings, now turned to use as a prison. Nothing new there. More horror and pain, different inmates.

We stop for ice cream and coffee and by the time we're done, he can't remember that we've been to Southwestern, that we've driven by St. John's and so we do it again. We stop at the boarding house where he lived with seven other young men, and he says "I never thought I would see these things again" and his voice is choked with tears of memory and the lump in my throat is the result of seeing this place for the third time today.

"Did you have fun today?" He asks me that, and my heart wrenches into a knot. I had fun, I did. But I know he's asking for himself: Did I have fun? Did I? For most of my younger years I longed to have my father to myself. I'd rise at dawn on holidays at the cabin just so I could have him to myself for a few minutes. We'd drink coffee on the terrace, watch the sun rise over the lake, and talk about life, his life and mine, about politics, about the world. It was so hard to get him alone in those days. My family centers around him, a benevolent patriarchy of love.

And now I have him to myself as much as I want and I can talk to him endlessly and it's not the same. It's not the same when he doesn't remember. I feel as if I'm fighting against the black emptiness in his brain, the evil nothingness where a frontal lobe used to be standing in the way of my connection to my father. It's a kind of lonesome Hank Williams never sang about, the lonesome of being unknown in this moment to the man I've loved my entire life.

It's intolerable, this feeling. And so I'm driving fast through the Osage and the moon has gone high and cold and the sound of Hank's lament is long gone. The lament in my heart, though, it never ends. I can't drive fast enough to leave it behind. Dementia is a god damned fucking shame and I am on this night, on this empty road in Oklahoma, so lonesome I could cry.

Labels: , , , ,

good girl

It's a hot June day at First Lutheran Elementary. We're making construction paper baskets and filling them with candy. I'm pleating tissue paper between my fingers, sneaking jelly beans when no one's looking. Vacation Bible School would be a trial if not for the crafts and the sugar. Through the jalousie windows, I see Gloria's mom. She's carrying a box and I'm happy because her peanut butter and chocolate cookies are the best.

Our candy baskets are going to the nursing home; we'll take them on Friday, a parade of eight and nine year olds, little Lutherans doing good deeds. I've been doing good deeds since before I started school, urged on by my mother and my personal theme song, as sung by my father: "There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead, when she was good, she was very, very good" and every time he would smile and hug me. I'm 10 before I hear the last line ~ and when she was bad she was horrid ~ and it stops me in my tracks, shocked to hear that a good girl can go bad.

I feel dozey in the Oklahoma heat and I want to get out of here, home, where we'll play baseball all afternoon and run the neighborhood with Danny and Tim and John. It's an idyllic childhood, which I don't actually know until I'm grown up and see how most kids live in the age of electronics. I just know that summer days mean absolute freedom outdoors catching frogs at the pond, playing baseball, swinging statues and red rover, spying on neighbors, staying out til dark uninterrupted but for meals, and it's heaven.

My sister and I are the only ones who have to do Bible school, a fact the neighbor boys point out with some frequency. Danny and Tim and John barely even go to church. I'm envious of their freedom and their families' casual approach to religion. They don't do many good deeds either, those boys. Danny in particular is a rowdy boy my age and he's pretty bad. Rough, a little mean, quick to hit or throw a baseball bat. I know this and I feel a little bit smug. Of all of us kids, I'm the best, the sweetest. I am very, very good.

We're set free at noon and my sister and I walk home. Walking home, from Sunday School, from church, school, it's expected. It's not an ordeal, we don't whine and cry. We cut through yards and wave at neighbors and imagine we're grown up and living on our own. We're absolutely safe in this northern Oklahoma town, and so we are fearless, free to roam and dream and pretend we're all grown up. We imagine our lives 10 years down the road, how we'll go anywhere, live anywhere we want. Good girls grown up, out in the world.

At the corner of brick street Elmwood and Overbrook, we turn right, away from home, so we can buy grape bubble gum at Jack's market. Down the hill and then back up, we pass Mr. Johnson's house both times, but on the return trip, he's outside and we smile and wave because we're friendly girls, Lutherans fresh from Bible school, good girls.

He motions to us to come over, says he's got something he wants us to see and we follow him around to the back of his house. There are no backyard neighbors. Mr. Johnson's house sits on the creek we float after summer rains. There's no one around and no houses nearby in the aptly named Acre Homes, and Mr. Johnson's got something we simply must see, he tells us this as he opens the back door and ushers us inside.

This feels wrong and I'm torn between being a good girl, obeying an adult, and telling a lie about having to go home. His TV is on and he's got a little table set up with brownies and a pitcher of milk. Has he prepared this for us? This is weird. My eight year old brain knows this and in between his shutting the door and our moving to the table, I get a little kick of fear.

But this is Mr. Johnson, our neighbor, a grown up, and he's made brownies for us and so we sit with him and watch TV and eat. When we're done, we thank him and start for the door, and he says he's got something else to show us and tells us to sit back down. He brings out a box full of geodes, cut open, but unpolished and we do find them enchanting, the crusty round stones with the crystal centers.

I'm picking up each rock, testing the weight, looking closely at the crystals when Mr. Johnson moves behind my sister and rubs her shoulders. I catch Margene's eye and she has the frozen look my little Easter rabbit had when Zachariah scared him to death. The cat ran up on the rabbit and never touched him, but the bunny died of fright, eyes staring straight ahead as he shook to death in my hands.

Mr. Johnson is touching my sister and he's scaring her, me too. He's rubbing her nine year old shoulders and I don't know what to do so I drop a rock on the table and he startles, a wash of anger before he smiles again and says it's okay. He lets her go, though, to check the table. There's a tiny dent in the top and he licks his finger, rubbing his spit into the dent making it darker than the rest.

He's focused on the dent, licking his finger again, and we're standing up, saying our thank yous and goodbyes and moving toward the door when he's suddenly in front of us. His fly is open and his back's to the door and he's saying "I'll bet your mother's wondering where you are, do you think she's worried" and other things that scare us near to death and all of a sudden, I know how the bunny felt when Zachariah pounced.

I want out of this house and I want my sister safe too but I'm shaking and scared and I don't know if good girls can die of fright like rabbits, but I feel sure I'm going to. My sister is a zombie, unmoving, and I give her a shove and shout "my mom is waiting for us right now and she'll call the police if we don't come home" and he's out of the way, the door magically open and we're free, running. I look back to see him in the dark of his house and he's not human to me, he's evil, a demon and we've escaped.

Margene and I are running and fragments of the 23rd Psalm loop through my mind. We're crying and breathless and because we're little Lutheran girls, we're not supposed to fear any evil in the valley and the Lord's supposed to be with us, but I'm petrified and we're alone. We're running, running up the hill, all the way to the safety of brick street Elmwood, home and inside.

There's my mother in the kitchen, smiling just like it's any other day, and she hugs us and asks us why we're running, why are you crying and she says "What did Danny do to you?" and sweeps us into her arms, kissing our heads, holding us close. This is safety and it smells like White Shoulders and it feels soft and warm and I think of the demon inside that house and my heart races while my mother holds me tight.

We stay in the rest of the afternoon and my sister and I, we never talk about it, never mention it again. When we walk down Elmwood, though, going to Jack's, to Miller Market, we don't ever walk on Mr. Johnson's side. We look away and hurry past that house, the white house with the blue trim and a demon inside.

I am 14 years old and it's after school. I'm standing on the library lawn where the bad kids go, learning to inhale the Salem in my hand. My friends have mostly mastered this art and I want the bad girl cool that comes from smoking. Danny comes over where I'm standing and says "that pervert died, a fire truck hit him" and I say who? but I know that somehow Danny knows about Mr. Johnson, about the things he likes to show little kids, about his open fly and what he keeps inside. How could that be? I say "Johnson?" and Danny nods and we both smile. The demon is dead and I'm a bad girl now, working on cool. It's okay to be glad.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, December 21, 2009

apple of her eye

On the phone last night, my sister said "you know tomorrow it will be 40 years." I knew, of course. How could I not? Forty years since my mother vanished. Forty years of not knowing. Forty years of dissecting, imagining, crying, raging, wondering where on earth she could have gone, how anyone could vanish so completely.

Karen told me that after mom disappeared, Daddy called her every morning well before dawn to ask the same questions: What do you think happened? Do you think they missed her when they dragged the lake? the river? Could she have driven that Fairlane into the stone quarry out north of town and stayed hidden all these years? This daily dissection went on for years. Even when she was having Tony, her middle son, laid up after a C-section, the early morning call: What do you think happened?

People used to call us in the middle of the night. Whispered voices in the dark: "I know where she is, she's being held against her will." "She's in Grand Lake, just next to Ketchum Cove, in the deep water."

The calls were torture, and we finally stopped answering the midnight ringing phone. She was gone. No one knew where. The FBI couldn't find her, the OSBI either. Ponca City police convinced themselves Daddy did something to her, and they managed to misplace the two polygraph tests he passed with the FBI.

Karen and I went back over all of it last night, start to finish. What we'd done the night before (home, with visiting friends), what happened that morning (building a fire together, early Sunday morning), the missing gun, the fact of her leaving her glasses, her purse, hell, even her clothes. How could a 51 year old woman drive away half blind, with no money, in her nightgown and robe, and not be observed somewhere along the way?

That line of thought takes us back to the quarry, or the river, or one of Oklahoma's many lakes. But then there were the cards: hand-typed advertisements from a boutique in Chicago none of us had been to. We were so certain it was her that my father flew to Illinois. Wild-eyed and shaking, he confronted the boutique owner with the cards that had so oddly appeared in the mail. Still no answers.

Karen and I have convinced ourselves that it was her, that she was involved in the process of mailing those cards somewhere along the line, at the printer's shop, the typing service, mailing, something. It was the only clue, the only indication we ever had that she hadn't died the day she left, a victim of suicidal despair she'd fought for years.

We talked about her life, my mother's, how she'd changed herself to fit my father's expectations, how she'd survived the most hideous sexual abuse as a child, gone to college, met my Dad, and married him, the love of her life, in the 1940s. Marriage was probably a disappointment. I think it often is in small ways and big. It's just life. Nothing's perfect.

My 64 year old sister choked up as we were talking, remembering how mouthy she'd been as a teenager, wondering what would have happened had she been a little less so 50 years ago. And Margene ~ 14 months older than I, 10 years younger than Karen ~ she was starting to get a little mouthy too. "But you," she said. "You were the apple of her eye. She adored you, and you were so sweet. You spent so much time together. How could she leave you?" And I can only think how could she leave any of us? For forty years? How is that even possible?

It is the defining event of our lives. One day my mother vanished and our lives were never the same. And though we've long since moved on, made good lives, become productive citizens, it never goes away. Always, always, the nagging questions: what happened? where did she go? Why? Always and forever, why.

And you? Do you live with some mystery, some unresolvable thing that is always with you? Tell ~ or don't, because those mysteries can be very personal, can't they? Just yes, or no, and whether you wonder every day how such a thing could happen. It helps to believe there are others out there waiting for an answer.

Labels: , ,