Thursday
Sep182014

When We Fly in Predictable Lines

The other night, I was giving a presentation at a meeting, sharing with a camp board how I could help them with an upcoming strategic plan. In the middle of my engaging and emotional PowerPoint, we heard what sounded like fireworks outside.

It was autumn, the camp season was over, so generally, the property was deserted.

I kept talking for a minute or two more, but then the board chair stopped me.

“What is that”? he asked the executive director of the camp.

“Oh, that’s Howard going after the geese,” the director responded. “There are nine of them—they are ruining the place.”

I must have looked a little shocked. I don’t normally hear such things when I am talking about strategic plans. Normally, we talk about competitive advantages, financial challenges, impact statements, and opportunities. Not so much about geese pooping on the lawn.

“We are trying to scare them away,” he said, and he winked at me.

Howard, the guy somewhere outside, was the maintenance man, always working on something—repairing cabin screens, painting trim, turning off the water for the season. Clearly, he also managed wildlife.

People nodded about the geese. A flock of geese can be pretty destructive. Forget what turkeys can do to your lawn—geese will destroy it. And they love nicely trimmed fields near large bodies of water—the very definition of most camps. The director might as well put out a giant “STOP HERE ON YOUR WAY SOUTH” billboard.

“Where is the sound coming from?” asked the board chair.

The seven or eight of us at the table pointed to the sound, but we all pointed in completely different directions.

We all laughed. It was clear we had no idea where Howard and the geese were—only that they were somewhere outside.

Such is life in rural new England. My own neighbor target shoots next to our backyard, and even though we are on a 6-acre parcel, it feels like he is right in my ear. On Saturdays, we will often hear him going on and on for an hour, “BANG BANG BANG pop BANG pop BANG!”

But do I know exactly where my neighbor is? No, I never go look. And just as funny about Howard and these camp geese was that we had no clue where the sounds were coming from. We pointed where we thought they were, all in different directions, but most of us had to be wrong.

It was just like in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy says to Toto at the forking yellow brick road, “Now which way do we go?”

And the scarecrow jumps in, “Pardon me….that way is a very nice way, “and when Dorothy looks down that path, he then points the other way and says “”It’s pleasant down that way too!”

Finally, just as Dorothy is starting to realize that a scarecrow is talking to her, Ray Bolger crosses his arms and points in both directions and says, “Of course, people do go both ways!”

This is how life is, isn’t it? We have many paths we can go down, a thousand different yellow brick roads through life. But which one do we follow?

I once heard someone say, “It doesn’t matter so much which way you go, which decision you make, but that you align with the direction you choose.”

So whenever friends ask me about “Should I take this job or that, should I go to Alaska or Jamaica, should I do X or do Y?” Or, should we put this goal in our strategic plan, or that one? I always tell them, it doesn’t really matter which you do out of a few good choices, just that you align with your decision and feel good about it. All will flow from there.

Just like the geese will eventually line up and fly away decisively south (or at least most of them will), just as they fly away in their distinctive V, so must we make our choices and align with those paths that we choose. That’s the very gift of grace, and the lines within it.

Sunday
Sep142014

Another Kind of Birthday--with My Dad

I just turned 45 in August. It’s a great age to be—distantly approaching the round-up year of 47 where I might as well be 50, but not there yet. I’m beyond the poor twenties, out of the tired thirties, safely in my fun forties.

A year ago, on my 44th birthday, I remember my cell phone ringing.

I could see by the caller ID that it my sister.

We don’t call each other much—we usually text or email because we never seem to be free at the same time. We did a lot of texting over the last six years, usually to communicate about my dad’s care, his medications, when his next care review meeting was.

But this was my birthday, so I knew that was why she was calling.

“Hi!” I said, enthusiastically.

“Happy birthday!” A gruff, gravely male voice responded.

I paused. Who was this? It was supposed to be my sister.

It only took me a minute to realize it was my father.

My dad, who was 84 at the time and in a nursing home, hadn’t called me in years. Not only did he not have a cell phone any longer, but he didn’t have the capacity to follow through on the multiple steps. He’d have to think, “I want to call one of my kids,” then ask a nurse for help, find the number, and then say hello and actually talk when I answered. Sometimes he would just be quiet on the other end, distracted by what someone else was doing in the hallway or by something on T.V.

Even calling him was a production—I had to dial the switchboard, get put through to his floor, have a nurse available to answer, transfer it to another line, who would bring a cordless phone to him, and he’d have to be awake in the first place to even take the call. In the last year of his life, I stopped trying to call him at all because it was easier just to go visit him once a week.

So on that day last year, I started to cry. Just because he was on the phone, and because he called to wish me a happy birthday.

My sister was there visiting, having dinner with him.

When I asked what they were eating, he said, “We’re having mushrooms.”

Never mind that they were actually having lobster rolls. Never mind that his words were a bit slurred due to multiple strokes and TIAs. Never mind that he didn’t even know it was my birthday until my sister told him. It was my dad, and he was calling me.

I asked him how old I was, and he guessed 45. He was close.

“Remember, Dad? You were 40 when I was born, so my birthday is always your age minus 40? Remember how when I was 40, you were 80, and that was the only time you’d ever be twice my age?”

That math was way more complicated than he could handle, even though he was an engineer and had always been good at math. In the last years of his life, he never remembered how old he was, so the comparison wasn’t useful. 

“Are you having a good time”? I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “We are having a lot of good food and merriment.”

That made me smile. I don’t remember him ever saying “merriment” before in his life. He was not a guy that would typically talk about merriment.

Forget cake, forget presents, forget that shot of tequila that a friend brought me when he found out it was my birthday. I will always remember that call. Especially now that my dad has gone, a simple mention of merriment is worth celebrating. 

Sunday
Aug242014

How It Looks When It Tapers

My son is starting his senior year in high school on Monday. Whenever anyone asks, “How old is D. now?” and I tell them he’s in his last year, they always say, “Wow! So you must be looking at colleges?” And I say, “We’re starting the process, but he is thinking about doing a gap year.” 

And the whole time, I’m thinking, “Damn straight! Put it off as long as possible!”

I’m ready to keep D. around as long as he wants—within reason. I do tell him if he wants to take a year before going away to college, that’s fine, but no matter what, he has to be a productive member of society.

D. is on the young side—his birthday is August 31, so he’s still 16—most of the boys in his class are a year older than he is. So it’s not surprising that he’s considering community college or working for a year before launching that life of sleeping through 8:05 am classes and pulling all-nighters for mid-terms (thank goodness).

D. is my only, so I am a bit overprotective. My ex and I separated when D. was only five, so for many years, it was just D. and me against the world. Of course, now it’s D. against the world—not in a rebellious kind of way, but in an I’m-almost-a-man-I know-how-the world-works-and-don’t-tell-me-differently kind of way.

This week, D. and I went together to get our hair cut—sometimes he’ll get a quick trim while my color is processing (all those years raising him have taken the pigment right out for some reason). My hairdresser M. has been cutting his hair since he was born—literally, when D. was still in a bouncy chair, his dad used to bring him to the salon and he’d race around in his walker while his dad got a haircut.

A few weeks ago, D. told me he was thinking about getting his hair buzzed. His girlfriend and I were horrified—not because buzz cuts are bad, but because he has such nice hair. It’s light brown, blond highlights in the summer, a bit of wave to it year round, and it falls right no matter how long it is. We tried to dissuade him—I even asked him how he would feel if his girlfriend got her hair buzzed (and he didn’t seem to like that idea at all for some reason).

His hair had gotten very long—he hadn’t had it cut in several months, and his Catholic high school has a strict rule that boys’ hair can’t go past the bottom of their ears or cover the nape of their necks. So he had a firm deadline of needing a cut this weekend.

D. sat in the stylist’s chair, and she fastened a cape on him, pumping her foot to raise him up to the height of the mirror. She asked him what he wanted. He said he was thinking about a buzz cut, and she and I both gasped, “Really?” at the same time. I was hoping he had dropped the idea. D. said he was considering it because of football, and the less hair he had the cooler he’d be. But he wasn’t completely convinced he wanted to go for it, so she said she’d start by cutting it short and then see what he thought.

There ended up being so much hair on the floor after the first round that he almost could have made a donation to Locks of Love. As M. cut, the three of us talked more about to buzz or not to buzz, and he even asked me, “What do you think?”. I just kept saying, “It’s your head, it’s your hair, do what you want.” I even heard myself say, “It will look good no matter what you do,” and “What about you shave it all off?”. Secretly, I was thinking, “please don’t buzz it!”

Once M. finished what she fondly called “Haircut Number One,” he looked carefully at it, and said, “I’m going to do it!”

I shruggled, and M. said, “Okay! Haircut Number Two!”. She pulled out her different clipper attachments, and told us that Zac Efron was wearing his hair that way now anyway, and she always thought D. looked like Zac Efron. We laughed about that—she once saved a People magazine to show me a picture of Zac when he was in High School Musical and said all the ladies in the salon were talking about how D. looked like a young Zac.

M. started buzzing over the top, and partway through, threatened to leave a pseudo-mullet. But when she began working on the back, with D.’s chair turned so his profile was in the mirror, I felt myself start to cry. I knew that hairline, that profile. Only this time it wasn’t blond, and it wasn’t on a six-year-old boy, but it was brown, and the face under it was not my little kid, but a young man.

Because D. was turned sideways, he could see me—he studied me carefully. When he saw the tears running down my cheeks, he said, “What?”

I’m sure he was thinking, “There goes my crazy mother.”

But I hadn’t seen that his forehead, that hairline since he was six or seven. It caught me off guard. That buzz cut was shaped the same, looked the same at the edges, only this time it was on a man, not on a little boy.

It was on this young man that I sort of know. I know him, and yet not really. I don’t know who he is becoming or where he is going or what he will look like when he gets there. And I don’t know how all of that will affect he and I—who we are together. Andy by the way, there really isn’t as much of an “us together” anyway. Now, it’s he and his girlfriend, he and his path, he and whatever his vision quest is going to be. And I’m just on the sidelines, sitting there with color in my hair, pretending I’m younger than I am, pretending that not everything is going to change in the next year or two. Pretending, just for now, that everything will be how it always was.

And yet D. somehow knows it’s different—that big changes are coming. He probably thinks about it far more than I even know. Maybe that’s why he wanted to get a buzz cut. It’s the beginning of a new era—and sometimes, one must dramatically mark such an occasion.

 

Note: The picture above is of D. on his first day of school of first grade. I told him I will have to take a picture tomorrow so I can compare. I think he’ll humor me.

Sunday
Aug032014

The Regular and Predictable Sounds of Whales

I just returned from a week-long poetry workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown on Cape Cod. At this magical place, you study with leading-edge poets and writers, painters, or other fine artists, spending half the day in a workshop with ten or so other students, and then the other half exploring the craziness of P-town, hanging out at Long Point, or pursuing your art.

I worked with Terrence Hayes, who is an amazing poet with four published collections—he has won a National Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Plus, he’s brilliant, and says things like, “Where’s the heat in this poem? How can you move that heat upstairs?” Or “Where are the images decorative, versus functional? You need to make sure the poem is not too pre-determined.”

Terrence is only 42—younger than me. Made me feel like a slacker.

There were cool people in my class—my BFF, another writer friend, a guy from Michigan who is getting his MFA in Texas, and about seven other women, including one named Wilderness.

How cool is that, to be a poet named Wilderness? Maybe that’s my problem—my name, Kellie, means “Warrior Woman.” That’s why I am typically out digging in the trenches of management rather than crafting poems in between glasses of white wine.

On the last night at the FAWC, they had an open mike for student writers. They read a brief bio of who you are, and then you share a page, and everyone claps politely, even if what you share is terrible. All the instructors are there, smiling. It’s very encouraging.

When it was my turn to read, I shared “Ode to Eruption,” a new poem I wrote in response to a prompt Terrence gave us, to write an Ode.

My poem is about a 30-ton female humpback whale. One of the first things I did while on the Cape was go on a whale watch. And I was pleasantly surprised with dozens of sightings—we saw seven humpbacks, including Eruption.

The cool thing about baleen whales is that they sleep by shutting down one half of their brain. While they rest one side, the other half keeps them alive, assuring they surface regularly in order to breathe. Whales are not involuntary breathers as we are—they have to remember to do it. So they can’t just sleep, or they would drown.

I would love to be able to do that—when I am stuck in my left-brain, analytical, driving, warrior woman self, I’d love to be able to turn that off in order to open up my more creative poet side. (By the way, this actually happened to Jill Bolte Taylor when she had a stroke—she wrote about it in a great book, My Stroke of Insight.)

So there I was, at a poetry workshop all week, trying not to think about my day job, trying to live in my right brain. It was an amazing, open-heart space to be.

When I was in the middle of reading “Ode to Eruption” in the Stanley Kunitz Common Room, I suddenly noticed something odd: My dad’s shirt was sitting in the front row. A gentleman about my father’s age, who happened to be a host of one of the writers, was wearing it—one of the last shirts my mother bought my father. It was a classic “grandpa” shirt, with a bold Cliff Huxtable-like pattern, and sophisticated undertones of gold, rust, and burgundy. Just the kind of shirt my father loved.

Near the end of my dad’s life, he wasn’t really able to wear button-downs anymore—they were very difficult to put on while he was in his wheelchair, so the nursing home staff resorted to long-sleeve tees and polos. So this shirt, along with some select other dressy clothes, hung quietly in his closet for the last year or so.

At the end of June, I went on a trip to Alaska. My father loved Alaska. He first went there when he was in the Air Force, and longed to go back. He loved the majesty of the glaciers, the untamed wildness of it, the moose and grizzly bears. He always threatened my mother with the idea that they might explore it by RV. She didn’t think they would both survive such a trip—and not because of the grizzly bears.

In the end, they did go to Alaska before my mother passed away—but on a cruise, the same way I went there.

While I was in Alaska, I looked desperately for whales almost every chance I got. The other thing that I love about whales is that according to Native American lore, whales are the keepers of the story. It is believed that through their song, they pass stories from one generation to the next.

I only saw one whale in Alaska—and not much of it, just a piece of its disappearing dark body as it went for a deep dive below the ship. But between that whale and my dad’s shirt at my poetry reading, I am comforted that our stories are somehow being serendipitously passed along.

 

P.S. Yes, that is a picture of a whale’s tail that I took on the whale watch. I have no idea if it’s Eruption or not—I couldn’t tell them apart by their tail flukes even though the naturalist on board could!

Saturday
Jun072014

Don't Do As I Say...Or As I Do

I’ve always been a doer.

The more I do, the happier I am.

I was a complete joiner as a kid. My brother and sister and I all took piano lessons starting at age six, mostly because our mother felt we should know how to read music. Later, we all took up second instruments because we could—for me, it was clarinet. I loved the smell of the black, fuzzy inside of the case and the wax I could rub on the corks, tightening the clarinet pieces together.

With my swinging clarinet case, of course I had to be part of Band, because that’s what you do if you play an instrument in fourth grade.

My sister and I had also started ballet lessons at age six—that was before people started having kids take ballet at three. I remember the unique sound our tap shoes made on the wooden floor and learning to dance the Can-Can. One of my Russian teachers clearly liked to be active too, because she chain-smoked through every class.

If you can read music, and carry a basic tune, you also sing in the school choir. So I added that in fifth grade. I was a Soprano—the safe kind.

But to be well-rounded, I knew you couldn’t just pursue the arts. I had to develop my physical skills, so I also played basketball—I was a guard. But in seventh grade I realized I had no future in basketball because of my height so I became a cheerleader for other people who had a future in basketball. In eighth grade, I added field hockey, and gymnastics and tennis in high school.

Of course, there were school plays—I was Merlin in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest and some other character in The Dining Room that I don’t remember.

And I was a Girl Scout through all of this—that’s where I learned about three kinds of firewood, how to sing Taps, cook and sew, say hello in four languages, and even interviewed some writers, and learned about binary coding from my neighbor who worked for Byte magazine.

In high school, Student Council was calling my name, and of course I had to attend writing conferences because I was aspiring to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. And I worked at a day camp in the summer and held down a part-time job at a stationery store.

Phew! It’s exhausting even to write about it!

So what was the point of it all?

All of that frenetic activity kept me taking the late bus home. It helped me develop some social skills and confidence, but most importantly, helped me feel like I was contributing.

These days, I sometimes ask my 16-year-old son D., usually when he’s playing PC games, “So what did you do to be a productive member of society today?”

I’m half joking—but two-thirds serious. I value activity. Even if D. did just one focused thing, like write the Great American Novel, I’d be okay with that. But I ended up with a kid who is decidedly not a joiner. He had no interest in learning how to play an instrument, or being in drama, and he decided at six after two meetings that being a Tiger Cub was boring. I haven’t been able to get him to join one single solitary high school club (“Are you sure you don’t want to join INTERACT? It would look so good on your college applications!”). D. does play football, and tennis, and now has a part-time job teaching tennis, so he’s not a slacker, but he generally avoids joining anything as much as physically possible.

So what happened to my joiner genes? Where did they go?

On the other hand, there may be something I can learn from D.

I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to learn how to NOT do stuff all the time. Years practicing yoga (four different kinds, of course: In order, Kundalini, Kripalu, Astanga, and now Bikram) and working with meditation has enabled me to slow down (some), and periodically experience a quiet mind. For years, I had trouble writing because I didn’t like to just sit still long enough to do it.

I’m learning that sometimes there is more value in not doing than in doing. Blaise Pascal had figured this out back in 1654 or something: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

(Of course, I could struggle my way through Pascal’s Pensées if I had a French dictionary because I made myself study that language for seven years and minored in it in college. But brilliant Blaise would say that is not the point.)

I heard an echo of his idea in an audio book I was listening to this week, Matrix Energetics, when Melissa Joy said: I am a door, not a doer.

That really resonated with me—even in my work as a consultant, I am doing doing doing all the time. I am addicted to my Outlook calendar and my GPS because they keep me sane and on a straight path when I have 12 meetings and calls in one day. But I sometimes ask myself, if I weren’t so darn busy all the time, if I weren’t a doer but a door, what would open up?

I have a piece of artwork hanging on my wall above my desk. It says, A new phase of life resides beyond the door, revealing infinite potential.

I’m starting to open that door.

Sunday
May182014

The Grave Marker

What words do you engrave on a headstone for your mother and father?

How can you properly summarize not just one life, but two?

My sister and niece and I puzzled over this question one recent Saturday. It was a week before the internment ceremony, when their ashes would be brought to the cemetery—we had to turn in the form that day. They were being buried together in the Veteran’s Cemetery, and would share a single headstone—he would be on one side, and she would be on the other.

So where did we start?

Where you can start anything these days: Google.

Very easily, we found 101 Beautiful Epitaph Examples. But the problem with this site was that most of the examples made us cry. Our mother sleeps. When will the morning come? We never lose the one we love forever. Though he’s gone, within the hearts of those who cared, his memory lingers on.

Many of them were also way longer than the three 15-character lines we were allowed on each side. We sat there around my sister’s dining room table, scratching out options on bits of paper and wiping our eyes, trying to figure out how to summarize two lives in six lines.

There were a few possibilities that might work for both: They are gone from our home, but not from our heart. But which side do we put that on? And besides that, it was depressing.

The day my father died, my niece posted on Facebook that at least he was now able to dance with my mother again. During their 40-some-odd years together, my parents had gone on a number of cruises, where they took ballroom dance lessons—they loved learning the Cha-Cha, the Tango, and the proper way to waltz on board ship. So on his side, we decided to engrave DANCING WITH MY / BRIDE AGAIN / FLY FREE 88.

My father loved airplanes—as a teen in Long Beach, California, he had been trained to serve as a spotter during WWII, and he could identify almost any plane he saw. He later joined the Air Force.

The 88? That was their secret code. We found it written on old letters to each other, and it’s engraved on a pewter horse our mother had given to our father. We liked putting that on there, even though at the time we didn’t know what it meant. (My sister later Googled that too, before it was etched in granite, and found out it means “hugs and kisses.” So that was safe enough.)

The cemetery also allowed us to put a religious symbol on the top—and while our parents were not at all religious, our father had collected eagles. So we were happy to see that an eagle was an option—that would make him happy.

Our mother’s side was a bit trickier. We did discuss that because our dad’s side was written in first person, mom’s had to be too (the good grammarians that we are). We considered a bunch of options: She skied, but loved the sea, yet loved her family more. That could work, because our mother did love the ocean and her family….except she didn’t like skiing. What could we substitute for skiing? Singing? She was studying to be an opera singer when she met my father. We could easily write that in first person.

But after half an hour or so tossing out ideas, my niece had a suggestion. She said, “Well, it could be sacrilegious, but how about “I’M NOT DONE, I’M FINISHED?” My sister and I laughed. Our mother had constantly corrected our English, whether it was because of us improperly using “me” when it should have been “I”, or “good” versus “well,” or there was that time I argued with her about “a historical event.” She insisted I needed to say “an historical event,” and I thought that sounded silly. I looked it up, and she was right.

Whenever we were with our mother eating dinner, when we finished, if we said,” I’m done,” and tried to get up from the table, she’d interrupt us and say, “Hams are done, people are finished.”

She insisted that a person can’t be “done” with something. Not proper English. I’M NOT DONE, I’M FINISHED would be just right.

But then what would we do with the third line? We decided simply to close it with the name that her grandchildren called her: LOVE, MENGA.

My mother hated wakes, and funerals, and cemeteries, and anything to do with death. So to find something on her headstone that would make us smile was exactly what she would want.

It was immediately clear to my sister and niece and I that this was the way to go. We knew every time we saw their headstone, we’d laugh—both sides would make us smile as we remembered our parents. These things are supposed to be about celebrating life, not about always mourning, right? Memories should sometimes make us happy, not always sad, right?

The headstone has been set, and there they are, back to back, resting peacefully in Boscawen, NH. We know that every time we visit them, they will be there smiling right beside us.

Friday
Apr182014

The Train Case

When I tell people my mother’s ashes have been in my closet for seven years, they always look a little shocked.

Some might think it’s sacrilegious, or even downright creepy. But you have to know my mother to know why.

My mother passed away from cancer at 67—she had fought it for 10 years, outlasting the doctor’s prognosis of stage IV uterine cancer by five years. But by the time it was finished with her, she was ready. She was weak, nauseous all the time, in a lot of pain, and wasting away to nothing. She said, “I can’t do this anymore.” And told us, “Take good care of your father.”

At the time, we knew we would not hold a funeral or wake for her—she thought such services were morbid. Her father had died when she was nine, and that traumatic experience left such a pit of anxiety in her stomach she never got over it. She only attended a handful of funerals in her lifetime—she avoided them as much as possible.

So we honored her wishes, and did not discuss the idea of a funeral or hold any services for her. Friends said to me, “Yes, but the service is for you, the family!” But the truth was, losing her was so devastating that none of us could handle it at the time anyway.

We talked about burying her at the family plot in California—we’re 6th generation natives, and so her mother and father and grandparents and a few other generations are buried there. But we didn’t like the idea of her being so far away. We discussed spreading her ashes on Stinson Beach in California, but technically, that’s not legal, and none of us have been out that way anyway. We thought about creating a memorial garden for her, with an engraved rock as a headstone. Our father even bought a brightly colored glass vase to put her ashes in, but he could never figure out how to make a lid to seal it, so her ashes just stayed in my closet.

When our dad died at the end of March, it was an easy decision to bury him at the New Hampshire Veteran’s Cemetery. He was enlisted during the Korean War, and he could have his deserved place in this peaceful spot among the other heroes. So we asked about burying our mother there at the same time. They said, “Of course you can!” It was only $350 to add her, they could share same headstone—his information on one side and hers on the other.

It was serendipitous—we loved the idea of the two of them being buried together at the same time. They could even share the same urn—while we were at the funeral home planning everything out, the director told my sister and I that we could find unique box to put them in if we wanted to, rather than a traditional urn. So we had plans to search something out.

Before we left, I went to get my mother’s ashes out of my car. They were in her old train case—a small, hard suitcase for her cosmetics that she took with her when she went on La Liberté to France at 17 years old. The case still had old paper LAX tags on the handle from her several different journeys, and stickers from all of the places she had been. When we cleaned out our parents’ house, we couldn’t bear to part with the case, but what else were we going to do with it? It was as heavy as a rock. So it sat in my closet with her ashes inside for seven years.

After we gave the funeral home director her ashes, my sister and I stood in the parking lot, next to the open case, talking, and a thought suddenly occurred to me.

“What about if we use this as their urn?” I said to my sister, pointing to the case.

“Oh, that’s a great idea!” she said.

We rushed inside with the train case to talk to the funeral home director, and he said the case would work just fine. It was just the right size for the two of them, and would be buried at their internment ceremony.

Our parents had loved to travel together—some of their happiest times were on cruises to Alaska, Iceland, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan. They learned to ballroom dance on board, played bingo and shared high tea, went to fascinating lectures about culture, history, and people. My mother always took a thousand pictures to share with us afterwards.

It’s comforting to think about them being together again, ashes touching, in a tiny suitcase for their final journey.

Saturday
Mar222014

He Wasn't Religious, But He Went American Gospel

After my mother died, my father, who had never used a cell phone in his life, decided he wanted to use the new phone we had just given her for Christmas.

We were fine with that—the phone was just sitting abandoned on the kitchen counter, battery draining.

When we had given her the phone on Christmas Day, her grandchildren had huddled around her, playing with the voice activation. They recorded each of their names in high-pitched voices. They wanted her to be able to call them anytime, on a whim, even if she were driving.

But she would never end up using it in that way. Even under lipstick and a brave face, her bones were tired. We weren’t surprised on February 1, 2007 when she slipped away.

When my father decided he wanted to start using the phone, I told him I’d show him how. I deleted two messages my mother had saved: one of her grandchildren singing “Happy Birthday” from the May before, and a more recent one from my sister, where she said, “Hi Mom, just calling to check on you.”

I helped him record a new voicemail message on it, although I hesitated having to delete what the last recording of our mother’s voice.

Dad was a music aficionado—he loved classical, jazz and blues. He had a hundred CDs of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington. So he wanted to change the ringtone to something more musically sophisticated. I played all of the options for him in order: “Bach Fugue in D Minor,” “Calypso,” “The Entertainer.” He listened carefully, as if it mattered, as if he would be taking a flurry of calls.

In the end, he made his choice:

Oh, when the saints go marching in

Oh, when the saints go marching in

Lord I want to be in that number

When the saints go marching in. 

Wednesday
Mar192014

Don't Write What Makes You Cry

Grace is what helps you actually write around something.

Sometimes, there is a peace in finding a happy diversion, something to distract that part of your brain that feels.

The last few blog pieces have been dancing about in this way—I’ve written about dueling cats, a neighbor who wanted to raise 20,000 egg-laying chickens, this very long winter we’ve had. But I knew when I found myself writing about the weather that it had to be to not write about something else.

I’ve been writing all of these things so I don’t have to write about the fact that my father is dying.

Some days, you know how you just need to keep that part of your mind dormant? It’s that part that remembers how my dad used to cheerfully wake me up Saturday mornings collecting the garbage out of my room. He’d say, rustling the wastebasket, “Wake up, sleepyhead! It’s 8:00 am!” He’d try to get me to go to the dump with him. I outgrew all that by the time I was 12.

My dad was always a morning person. That was terribly annoying when I was a teenager. Now, I’m the morning person, I’m the one waking up my own teenager. And I’m the one waking my father up when I visit him at his nursing home. He opens his dark brown eyes, and they start to smile sleepily before the rest of him does—but then I see that familiar crooked grin.

He’s been in a nursing home a while because of a head injury he had six years ago. But even though he is borderline diabetic and has high blood pressure, he’s been strong, and stoic, and other than a little dementia, it seemed like he’d go on forever.

We just learned a few weeks ago that he is dying. My less-than-favorite doctor said, “N., do you understand that you are going to die?”  And he added, “I am going to repeat myself because Daughter #1 tells me that you don’t always remember everything.”

He then did just that, sharing a few more details about my dad’s organs shutting down. And then he said, “Questions?” He offered to give me, Daughter #2, a hug, which I declined.

After the doctor left the room, I started to cry. And then my dad started to cry. He never cries. The only time I ever saw him cry is when my mother died.

He whispered, “I don’t want to die! I’m only 80!”

I laughed.

“Dad, you’re almost 85,” I said.

And he said, “But I wanted to live to be 100!”

He won’t see 100, and maybe not even 85. He is going into renal failure. The good thing is he’s not in any pain—he’s just sleeping more, slowly weakening, and drifting away.

Most days, we find him with the TV on. Although he is asleep so much, it’s more like the TV is watching himSaturday, he slept through part of a Rocky marathon. When I arrived on Sunday to visit him, Rocky II was on again. So together, we watched the moment when Rocky pulls himself up on the ropes to become heavyweight champion of the world.

Why do you wanna fight, Rocky?

Because I can’t sing or dance.

I remember the smell of fresh-cut sawdust off my dad’s table saw in our basement. How he could take any antique scrap of something  and convert it into something useful—a wheel into a glass-top table; an old Ivory box into a sign; a guitar into a knick-knack shelf. He made me a bunk bed when I was in college for our too-small-to-be-a-double apartment.

He was an engineer—he understood how the world worked. He could rebuild cars. He could identify almost any aircraft since WWII. And he gave us everything he could, everything we needed. He wanted his children to have the most magnificent lives. He wanted us to do something remarkable.

When we were driving somewhere in the car, he would often say, “What do you know for sure?”

And I’d always say, “I don’t know.”

Now, after we’ve been sitting there in silence for a while, with him drifting in and out of sleep, when he opens his eyes, I say to him, “What do you know for sure?”

And he just smiles.

If he asks me that today, I will say, I’m going to miss you, Dad.

Sunday
Mar162014

No More Nine Lives Here

About six months ago, my son D. and I decided we wanted to get a second cat.

Actually, the original idea was that we wanted a dog, a nice yellow Labrador that we could walk down our country back roads, that would rush to the door to greet us when we get home, and that would curl up by our feet when we watched Modern Family.

My boyfriend D. squelched that idea, however, because he works from home and insisted that he would end up being up the one who would have to take care of a dog. (You might ask, “So what’s wrong with that?” and I don’t have a good answer to that either).

But little D. and I saw our opening—we told big D. that we would stop harassing him about getting a dog if we got a second cat. So in some weak moment, big D., the animal lover, agreed.

It took us a good six months to find the right one—we wanted to adopt a cat that was already declawed because we have a significant number of screen windows and wooden doorjambs, and because declawing cats is mean.

We picked out a name for this cat before we searched Petfinder. We were going to call him Fish—our other cat was named Tuna, and so a cat named Fish would be perfect. (It was either Fish or Helper, and Fish sounded better.)

But the name-story doesn’t end there. Little D. always wanted to have a pet named Kevin (I can’t explain that one). And I had told him if he had no missing assignments between December and January that he could name the cat Kevin. (I never thought he would do it, but lo and behold!)

So the cat’s name would be Kevin Fish.

Finally, we found the perfect cat. First, fortunately for him, he was a boy.

He was almost six years old, 11 pounds, and part Siamese. He was huge compared to Tuna—he was 11 pounds. Kevin was also a complete love—he came right to the door of his cage at the Animal Rescue Shelter and clearly wanted us to take him home.

Kevin was brought to the shelter because a second cat in his household was reportedly being aggressive toward him—and because Kevin had no claws and the other cat did, it was not a pretty situation. At the shelter, they told us they kept him separated because other cats stressed him out. They did say he should not be with any dogs or small children, and they weren’t sure how he’d do with another cat.

We were sure he’d be fine. So we brought him home, glad to rescue him from that kind of terrible place where he lived his days all stressed out. We gathered some detailed advice from the shelter about how to introduce Kevin to Tuna, namely, keep him in a safe room until they get used to each other’s smells and then as soon as he seemed ready and wanting to go out into the house, gradually expose them to each other, supervised.

Sounds easy, right?

We kept them separate for a week, but then gradually showed them to each other, holding each of them tightly, listening to them growl and watching their fur stand on end. We took it very slowly, because I read online that it can sometimes take up to 4-6 weeks for adult cats to get to know each other, so we had to be patient.

Something the vet said shortly after we got Kevin should have made me suspicious. I told her how Kevin was so loving toward us, and yet also growling and a bit aggressive when we showed Tuna to him. She said, “Well, hopefully he’s not just a people-cat but is also a cat-cat.”

A people-cat versus a cat-cat? Never heard of such a thing.

She also told me that one time when she introduced a second cat to her home, the first cat lost all of her fur due to anxiety. At first, she thought the cat had cancer or something, but then it turned out it just had PTSD and needed anti-anxiety medication.

The first time we let the two cats loose, Kevin immediately made a violent sprint after Tuna, and then chased her in circles around our downstairs, both of them hissing and growling, and until finally we captured him. This happened a few more times. So, we kept them in separate spaces, rotating them into the full house throughout the day. We tried everything to get them used to each other—we changed their litter boxes so they’d adjust to each other; we put their food and water by the door so they would associate each other’s smell with a pleasant experience. We patted and comforted them as we showed them each other for a minute or two at a time. But Tuna continued to hide under the bed in our bedroom and Kevin just sat outside the bedroom door, staring, just waiting for the opportunity to attack.

One day, we left the house for about four hours, and by accident, we locked Tuna out of her safe room. We thought she was locked in our bedroom, but she had snuck out at some point so she was actually locked out. I don’t know how long it took for Kevin to find her.  Probably 30 seconds. But when we got home later that day, Tuna was perched on a bathroom windowsill, looking terrified, and there was cat poop on the floor and tufts of hair throughout the house. She had some kind of tiny cuts on her back.

Remember the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp? “We are Siamese if you please  / We are Siamese if you don’t please / Now we’re looking over our new domicile / If we like we stay for maybe quite a while…” The owner, Aunt Sarah, thinks they are the sweetest, most docile cats, but the minute she leaves the house, they terrorize Lady and the Tramp.

Well, that’s Kevin Fish.

After about a month of this, we decided they couldn’t live together anymore. Tuna was living on the edge of a nervous breakdown and Kevin was in a constant aggressive, hunting state. We decided we had to split them up. Fortunately, my ex was willing to take Tuna at his house—so D. could still keep both of his cats, one at each house. They just had a small dog, Kyle, at their house—and when Tuna hissed at Kyle, he ran the other way. So I think Tuna’s pretty safe there.

Kevin is clearly very pleased with himself. He spends the days sitting in our laps or lying in the sun, and nights curled up on our bed, next to our legs. A friend of mine said, “Well, of course Kevin loves you! He’s thinking, Geez, I didn’t like that other cat, and they got rid of her! Cool!”

I feel guilty about introducing such a terrorist into our home.

In the meantime, my boyfriend D. has renamed Kevin. He no longer goes by Kevin Fish.

D. now calls him Katniss Everdeen.

*The picture above shows Kevin Katniss Everdeen Fish, basking in the warmth of our pellet stove. Doesn’t he look sweet?