gifts to be opened later

I have pursued many forms of creative expression in my lifetime. Maybe it is incorrect for me to say that I have pursued them at all; maybe they have pursued me. Ten years ago, when I made a decision to travel south and see if there was a way that I could assist my elderly parents, I packed up my world along with a series of beadwork projects in midstream. All of it landed in baskets and boxes that were trundled down to Los Angeles in a 1979 Volvo station wagon named Blossom. There, my little world remained hidden, quiet, and mostly patient.

My bewilderment, grief and shock over how I could possibly be back in Los Angeles after feeling that I had barely escaped it when I first left in 1972 was enormous. I begged for inspiration that would slake my creative thirst and heal the wound that was reopened with my return, but there were a few restrictions: it had to be very portable, as I was not exactly living in my own home, and it had to require little or no cash outlay. After a time, my almost unconscious murmurings were answered: a freshly broken Eucalyptus branch invited me into its life. The branch had broken out of a large, gnarled and stately tree which I walked beneath every morning at the onset of my sunrise circumambulation of a nearby but little known wildlife reserve. The very next morning after it fell to the ground, I easily peeled its bark, and then began to sand and sand and sand the gently arching beast. As I sanded, a presence appeared. Over time, one end of the branch began to emerge as the head of a bird. I was not the only one to see it in this way. Most who witnessed the journey that this stick and I were taking together, quickly commented about the bird. I had no urge to carve anything…I was simply compelled to sand.

I carried the stick with me wherever I went. After the initial peeling of the bark with a Swiss Army knife that my brother had given to me some twenty years before, sheets of various grits of sandpaper became my only tools and a manila folder containing them, my toolbox. I sanded while sitting in the park where the branch had first called out to me. I would sand while sitting in the patio outside Starbucks (which my friends and I called one of my “offices”), surrounded by cigar-smoking Entertainment industry attorneys and screenplay writers working on their laptops. Later on in the day, in this reclaimed desert of southern California, I would sit out in the backyard of my childhood home.

This portion of the time I was to live in Los Angeles, came after my mother had Crossed Over. Her death left my father and I to sort things out between us – not a small project. We had all thought it was my father who was preparing to leave this world and that is what precipitated my journey far away from my adult home and back to the place of my childhood. He and I had become fierce opponents without really knowing what the precise source of our disagreement was, long ago, beginning with my entry into adolescence. We each yelped in our respective ways, as raw nerve endings were disturbed easily by our clumsy exchanges with each other. The shock of mom’s death, coupled with the difficult nature of dad’s and my relationship was excruciating. By the time we found ourselves as housemates alone together, we had been having our often-fiery misunderstandings for a long, long time.

When I first began to go out into the backyard, my father would stand at the door, harping at me through the screen. What the heck was I doing out there anyway? In the beginning, I would invite him to join me. He always refused. After a while I stopped inviting him. He had little left of his eyesight, and not that much of his hearing. Dementia was taking up residence in him as a rather pushy, uninvited guest. We were finding our way through grief, through heartbreak, he and I. Our approaches were unrecognizable to one another. I would sit out in the backyard sanding and sanding. Mourning doves would sing the late afternoon into evening. Finally a breath of coolness would tinge the air.

Often he would holler at me, when was I coming back inside? I felt like a caged animal in that house. Having lived in several small but somehow spacious cabins in the woods of the northwest for years now, residence inside the modest, late 1940’s-era house chopped up into small interior spaces, in the midst of the San Fernando Valley was closer to a prison for me. This backyard served once again as my refuge. The same refuge I had sought as a child who would one day become a woman who loved to live in the woods.

One afternoon dad finally ventured out into the cooling dusk. I was sitting outside beneath the tangerine tree that he had planted when I was just a toddler. He sat in a lawn chair next to me and again began his heckling. What could I possibly be doing out here with a stick, he demanded. I was slowly beginning to learn how to translate my father’s language…his choice of words. I understood now, that really what he was saying was that he was lonely and wanted to connect with me. I said nothing, and handed him the four-foot long stick. He was shocked when he grasped it, as his failing eyesight had enabled him only to see the bare outlines of what I worked on. He let out a long, slow whistle. He held it in his baby-soft hands…hands that had not been used for any kind of manual labor for many, many years now that he was in his nineties.

He whistled again as he felt the entire length of the branch, carefully exploring every nuance of the wood. Finally, he moved his hands back to one particular spot where a twig had once jutted out from the main branch. True to his long and well-earned reputation as a man of few words, he handed it back to me saying, “Here”. My father had found a way to work with me on this project. He became my inspector. I would sand and sand, and then hand it over to him. He used his heightened sense of touch, which he’d come to depend on increasingly as his sight faded into the background of his awareness, to direct me to the next phase of sanding. We both sat this way, connected by this branch-becoming-bird, quiet for long stretches of time, serenaded by the songs that called out to the approaching dusk. Slowly, by way of our two sets of hands caressing in turn this that was once simply a broken branch, we were beginning to meet each other soul to soul.

Darkness would fall for my father earlier than for me. At best, he lived in near dusk even at the brightest times of the day, as macular degeneration continued to commandeer his vision. He would head back into the house…getting restless about nightfall coming on. It made him nervous when I stayed out back. He could not find a way for his sense of the evening to coexist with mine – could not imagine that dusk still reigned in my world if darkness had come to his. Finally I would give in to his reckonings about the hidden dangers lurking in the nighttime that was upon us. His agitation would only increase until I either went to bed, or every once in a long while, just got in my car and left the house. Either tactic worked.

Most nights I would simply head to bed early, on his schedule, and then arise before dawn to visit the only wildness I could find: the wildlife refuge that was, ironically, perched in the armpit of the busiest freeway in southern California. Most of the inhabitants of the San Fernando Valley did not know of the hundreds of acres slowly inhaling and exhaling just below the freeway…few people that I met had ever heard of its existence. Interestingly, my father was the one who introduced me to this place long ago. It was contained in an even larger tract of land, used as a flood control basin, to contain the wild waters of the flash floods that southern Californians call “rain”. Within the boundaries of this area are two golf courses, “my” wildlife refuge, a larger, more civilized and widely used city park and then off to one edge, of all things, rows upon rows upon rows of cultivated corn, soaking up the hot desert sun.

When I was a young girl, sometimes just dad and I would go to what was for me, quite an exotic place. We would go to the produce stand on the edge of the glistening cornfields, and buy FRESH corn on the cob for dinner. Dad grew up in the Midwest, in Detroit, and he knew what real corn on the cob tasted like. He would carefully and precisely pull ears of freshly picked corn out of mountainous piles and place them in the paper bag that I proudly held out for him. All those long years ago it was my father who introduced me to this place. Most people did not know of it even then, but he did. In his way, he gave it to me as a gift that would sit, mostly still wrapped up, to be opened by me when I, and really both of us, most needed it.

what HAPPENED to your pants

I really wanted to know what the world looked like through dad’s eyes as his vision continued to worsen. At the donut shop one day we sat at a small table facing each other and I asked him, “Dad, tell me what you can see when you look at me.” He told me that most of what he saw was a silhouette…he really couldn’t see the features of my face any longer. I paused to ponder a world without all the spectacular details that it held for us…but somehow he had made peace with this. Whatever life tossed at him, he found a way to deal with it – he just kept on going.

Once when we were driving, he sneered from the passenger seat, “Don’t try it you son of a gun”, to a driver about to pull out of his driveway into our lane. “How could you see that guy,” I asked. He said he could still see out of the corner of his eye quite well, and he could – he’d caution me about bike riders or pedestrians. His eye doctor had told us it would go this way…even when he couldn’t see straight on, he’d still have his peripheral vision. When he first started back seat driving from the passenger seat, I’d bristle, falling into adolescent thoughts of, “Daaaaad, I KNOW how to drive”.

A bit of compassion began to develop in my heart after being wary of this man for much of my life. I remembered that he’d been driving since he was 10 or 11 years old. He’d told stories of “borrowing” his older brother’s car before he could even reach the pedals. He’d drive it around the block without permission when his brother was at work, sometimes leaving it in a slightly different position when he brought it back. He was young enough that he couldn’t figure out how his big brother knew he’d driven it. My father, almost 80 years later, had given up driving on his own accord, and what an enormous thing to give up, so he was still trying to contribute, to have some say, some purpose – it wasn’t at all about my driving, it was about his “not” driving and trying to find some use for himself. With the crazy behavior of LA drivers, it was good having another set of eyes, even if they could only see part of the story.

I walked into the kitchen one morning as he was organizing the refrigerator, carefully positioning each item after he determined its contents. He slid the milk away from the wall of the refrigerator, moved a bowl of leftover salad – which to my father had always meant a few pieces of iceberg lettuce without dressing – so it was not too close to a jar of mayonnaise. Watching him, I realized why he refused to keep much food in the refrigerator. With enough space around each object, he could “see” the silhouette and feel pretty confident that when he grabbed something he’d get what he thought he saw.

I’d taken to writing him notes because he’d begun to forget what I told him more often than he’d remember it. Where I’d gone or when I’d be home were crucial bits of information, and not knowing these caused him great anxiety. He was too proud to tell me that he couldn’t read my notes…but soon enough it became obvious. As I began to better understand the way that the world looked to him, I learned how to write notes that he could actually read. If I wrote large, thick black letters with a Sharpie marker, and with plenty of space around each letter, he could read a written note. Early on, it embarrassed him to have to read notes written with those big, huge letters, but eventually it was more important to be able to read the note than to worry about the fact that it looked like a page out of an elementary school printing lesson.

By the time that we had our last Thanksgiving meal at his home, the refrigerator was covered with these kinds of notes: one with emergency phone numbers, a list of doctors with a word or two describing what they helped him with, the numbers of his caregivers, the numbers for each of his three children. The ENTIRE refrigerator door was covered with these notes, each one using one or more 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets of paper and I have to say, it did look insane. Being that dad and his siblings were neither shy, nor quiet, it was inevitable that one of our dinner guests was going to make a comment about the crazy refrigerator door as soon as they entered the kitchen. His younger sister walked in and the first thing out of her mouth was, “What the hell’s wrong with you? What are all those notes on the refrigerator?” My sister and I shrank to hear her speak to him that way…but we were both smart enough to stay out of the middle of their family drama.

My father’s increasingly limited vision, coupled with the dementia that was now becoming a more and more constant companion, caused changes in his eating habits. A few months after Thanksgiving, we had a smaller family gathering at dad’s house for his 93rd birthday. One of his caregivers made him a beautiful feast – an entire traditional Philippino birthday meal, including barbequed chicken and several noodle and vegetable dishes.

The problem was, he couldn’t see what was on his plate; the chicken had a nondescript shape and the rest was just piles of food to him. He’d had no luck with randomly jabbing at things with his fork. I watched him put it down and then he just dragged his fingers around the plate until they ran into something, he’d grab it, give it a little squeeze to try and figure out what it was, then into his mouth it went. This was the first time I saw him pick up his food with his fingers. I completely understood that this was the best, most practical solution that he could come up with – and he was a very practical man – but I knew this was not going to go over well with his brother and sister, aged 91 and 86. Unfortunately my aunt, who was his baby sister, was sitting right next to dad, and she reacted to him like he was a toddler. Before she could stop herself she slapped his hand and chided, “Don’t eat with your hands! Use a fork!” There had to be some kind of grace present with us at that meal, because luckily dad didn’t haul off and slap her back, instead he just laughed at her, and at himself, and kept using his fingers. “Wow”, I thought, “We are definitely in some new territory here.”

Dad and I were learning our way around each other. I joined him in the living room after returning from my morning walk, wearing a pair of pants that I loved. I thought they were beautiful and they were so comfortable. Sewn out of a rayon batik fabric, they were loose and flowing, with large flowers scattered all over. Dad was sitting on the couch with his arms crossed, facing me. He took one look at me and shouted, “What HAPPENED to your pants?” I didn’t know what he was talking about at first but I knew there was an insult in there somewhere. I looked at him and his whole body was quaking because he was trying so hard not to laugh. “I THOUGHT YOU COULD ONLY SEE SILHOUETTES?” I threw back at him. “Oh I can see THOSE pants just fine…WHAT HAPPENED to them?” There he sat with his characteristic tight-lipped smirk, shoulders bouncing up and down as he tried to hold back his laughter. We had arrived at a good place. Instead of taking it personally I could laugh with him as I imagined how they appeared with his vision; big, baggy pants with very large, dark blotches. By this time he’d had more than a few bathroom emergencies where he’d gotten there just a little too late…he was probably relieved to think that he wasn’t the only one. So what else would he say?

are you going to the game

The three of us sit in a lonely row on a long wooden bench. The cushions are lean as if to make sure we will not stay long, and no one will. My sister sits on one side, me on the other. We bookend him in this way to comfort him and ourselves, but we also sit on either side to keep tabs on him a bit, in case he gets out of control. Although it’s not really possible to control him, we always try.

“Where are we?” he asks in the kind of whisper that is louder than regular speech. His brother and sister-in-law turn and give him The Look. “Haven’t I been here before?” he whispers with more volume. Now his younger sister, who sits in the bench at the front of this small, family section, turns with a horrified look – a heartbroken, heart-wrenching look. “What’s WRONG with him?” she begs, whispering even louder.

Yes. Yes he’d been here before. We’d all been here before. Two years ago we’d been here twice: once to bury our mother…my father’s wife of 56 years, and then four months later we buried dad’s youngest brother. And here we are at the cemetery again. My sister and I, we sit with our ninety-one-year old father, possibly in the exact same spot on this long, lonely, bench. Back then my father was not whispering the way young children do, causing everyone close by to stare with their eyes or their entire bodies. Back then, he was so utterly crushed with his wife’s unexpected death, he sat between us, silent. His brother’s death followed so quickly, he was mostly just numb.

We each held one of his baby-soft hands, just like today, but only for comfort, not control. Before mom Crossed Over, there had been a few times when dad had completely forgotten something important he’d said, or we’d said to him – like a slice of time had been thoroughly removed with a small sharp knife. But since Mark’s death, something seems to have snapped.

He’s whispering again, louder than before, “What are they talking about? Where are we?” How do you tell someone who’s brain has already completely refused the information, how do you tell them again, whispering, in the midst of a funeral? It would be hard enough if he was a two-year-old boy, which sometimes is the best model for working with my father these days. We are not working with a two-year-old, but with an old man who often has the attention span and sense of time of that of a young child. We are working with someone whose tired mind simply cannot receive this information; that his strapping young nephew once a top high school swimmer, prize winning triathlete, City of Los Angeles Harbor firefighter, has dropped dead of a heart attack, not on the job, but simply at home.

How can we whisper to dad while Mark’s sister is giving his eulogy, that this generous-hearted man who always kept the wiffle-ball baseball game going at our annual Mother’s Day picnic, even if he had to play all the outfield positions, so that the next generation of little kids could have a game, how can we whisper to dad that we are about to bury this man?

My sister calls to say that dad is acting strange. He keeps asking her if she is going to “the game”. At first she starts all over again, and tells dad that no, we aren’t going to a baseball game; we’re going to Mark’s funeral. Each time she tells him, he hears it as if it was the first time.

Finally we tell him yes; tomorrow we three will go to the game together. And when it’s time, my father somehow knows that he needs to put his good suit on, and tries to remember how to tie his tie, wide with broad but subtle diagonals, and that he has to put his wingtips on; men’s dress shoes with laces, purchased from a younger brother’s shoe store some fifty years ago, black leather with small, delicate perforations in curved designs at the toe and heel. Shoes with real leather soles that weigh so much dad has trouble picking them up, being just 116 pounds fully dressed, including his shoes. Somehow he knows that today he has to wear his dress suit to “the game”.

“Are you going to the game with us?” he asks hopefully, when I come into the living room, dressed in black. “Yes, we’re all going to the game.”

what more could I ask for

Today is 30 May and today is also Memorial Day. Historically, no matter what day of the week it fell on, 30 May was always Memorial Day. It began as a way to remember and to honor those who’d given their lives…lost their lives, during their military service to this country. Currently, the date of Memorial Day is not set to a particular date, but is always celebrated on the last Monday in the month of May. This year, on this Monday…it is both. Seems special to me.

Over the last years there have been more deaths in my family and in my small circle, than I could have imagined. The word memorial has taken on a much more personal meaning. Memorial Day, for me, has come to be connected to remembering and honoring those who’ve lost their lives in all the infinite ways that we humans do lose our lives, including those who’ve lost their lives in military service. For me, Memorial Day is about remembering.

The piece that I am posting is one that I’ve been working on for a long while now. Approaching this weekend I began to feel that I needed to get it finished so I could post it. Today. And it wasn’t until just this weekend that I looked up to notice that not only was I preparing to post this essay on Memorial Day weekend…but that today is the actual, original date of Memorial Day.

Both of my parents were in the Army…it’s not too much of a surprise that my father was…but more so with my mother. Neither of them lost their lives during their military service, but over these last few years I have come more and more to connecting this day, in part, with them – who they were, how they lived their lives. As I continue to listen to the guidance that comes to me in my life…I find that it makes perfect sense that I finally make this posting about my parents, on Memorial Day. It is a remembering and an honoring of these two who I am only beginning to know. If they were still alive, neither of them would be too comfortable with my remembering or honoring them. Maybe by now, wherever they are, they can receive my grateful bow and humbled heart that I had the great good fortune to have these two courageous, rebellious, heartbroken, hard working, poetry loving, extreme opposites – that these two enormous hearted ones would walk their own incredibly different and winding paths and eventually become my parents. I honor them and I remember them.

After having left Los Angeles as soon as I could find the courage to do so, just one year after graduating from high school, and with a rather loud slamming of the door in a metaphorical kind of way, it came as quite a shock to me and most who knew me, when, some thirty years later I moved back there: down to Los Angeles to help out my parents who were both in their eighties. All of us in our family, including dad who at the time was 87, felt that he might not live much longer. As it turned out, it was my mother who was getting ready to go.

What SHE said

Slowly during this time that we had together, and ever so carefully, my mother and I began to open our hearts to each other…in person. We were entering a new realm. Our relationship did not shift because either of us thought it should; nor did either of us try to make it change. It shifted by some grace, because of course we deeply needed it to shift – it’s just that neither of us had any idea how to begin such a thing. As with so much beauty in life, it was taken out of our hands.

Mom had become ever more wobbly on her feet as neuropathy took its toll on her ability to walk. One morning she stumbled and fell, hitting the back of her head on a broken wooden drawer-pull on a piece of old furniture in the dining room. She ended up with quite a large gash. I was not there when she fell, but received a strange phone call from her at work. At that time, only a month after I’d arrived, we still subscribed to staying out of each other’s lives at all cost. Just the fact that she called me at work was alarming. She wasn’t speaking to any direct point, she was rambling a bit…this was not like her.

Finally she told me she had fallen, that dad was certain she didn’t need to go to the hospital and that he was sure the bleeding would stop on its own. The problem was, she couldn’t see the wound herself, as it was on the back of her head. Dad’s vision, by this time, was quite poor, so he couldn’t really see what was going on either. And, we found out later, he couldn’t bear to look at the wound in the first place, but couldn’t admit to that. Mom and I were both starting to notice that in subtle ways, dad was beginning to have trouble accessing good old common sense. I could hear in her voice that this was part of the problem. He wasn’t quite able to grasp the potential gravity of the situation; it was just too much for him to process. I said I would come right home and she answered with, “Please. I’m sorry.  Please come home.” This was big…she asked for help, asked me to leave work and come home. That’s not something that we did too much of – ask for help. We didn’t ask anyone and we especially didn’t ask each other – but we were learning. I had only been back home a month. Thank goodness I was there and able to help them. They were at a point in their lives where more and more of life outside of their small little world was too much for them: too fast, too complicated, incomprehensible really.

As I entered their house, I found dad in his usual spot on the couch right by the front door. He looked worried, and I could tell from his body language that he didn’t know what to do. My mother called out to me from the bathroom and as I joined her I saw blood all over the bathroom floor, and all over her. I took one look at her and said that we were going to the hospital. Something had changed in our family dynamic, at least on this one day. I was in charge; they needed and wanted me to be in charge. This new role of mine spontaneously occurred because we were in an extraordinary circumstance, and we each knew that we three could make this shift.

We needed to take mom to the hospital, and together we began a long journey. We arrived at the emergency room on a Saturday morning about 11 am. That is a bad time, probably the worst time, to go to any hospital emergency room. The whole world shows up on Saturday mornings. I’m sure it’s much worse now, but even then, ten years ago, there were so many people in southern California that could not afford any form of healthcare, emergency rooms had become the only option for medical assistance.

As you may know, head wounds tend to bleed A LOT, so my mother’s injury looked much worse than it actually was. Luckily, miraculously, she did not seem to have a concussion, and was not really feeling much pain from the fall itself, another miracle. There were many patients with much more urgent medical needs; stabbings, gunshot wounds, automobile accidents. This meant that my 87-year-old father, my 81-year-old mother and I, sat together in an insanely crowded ER waiting room along with the rest of the sick and injured of the San Fernando Valley, for a very long time.

My father who at this point in his life had lost a great deal of his vision to macular degeneration, needed to find his way to the restroom frequently. I was not comfortable leaving mom alone and there certainly were no hospital staff available for such mundane needs. Each time he hurriedly made his way toward the desk to get directions to the restroom, I worried that he’d get lost in the inner sanctum of the hospital, never to return. I worried that if questioned he would not be able to remember our names or why he was there. So he was on his own perilous journey. This otherworldly situation brought the three of us together. It was precious. We were all looking out for each other. I looked out for both of them, my father looked out for my mother and I, which was, simply put, his lifelong duty, even though all three of us knew that there was nothing he could do about any of it, and, maybe most importantly, we all knew that we needed to take care of mom.

When we were finally taken to an exam room, our situation became even more intimate. There we were – my mother stretched out on a hospital bed with me at her side, and my father, sitting in a chair in the corner as far away from my mother as he could get. It turned out he was extremely squeamish about all the blood. We knew that he was present with her and deeply concerned…he just couldn’t handle the blood. I had never seen him like this, so tender and vulnerable with her. Nor had I ever sat with my mother in this way. She rarely got sick, never needed nursing. She kept assuring us that she felt fine, and that we didn’t need to stay with her, that I could take dad home and come back for her. There was no way we were leaving her there – we might never find her again in the writhing mass of humanity that existed both inside and outside of that hospital.

At some point I found the courage to take my mother’s hand. And she found the courage to hold on to mine. To you, this might not sound like a courageous act, but for us, it was deeply courageous, and newly intimate. We sat there, mostly in silence. Every now and then I would ask her how she was doing. Her reply was always, “Me? Oh, I’m fine.” A nurse would come in and inspect the gash on her head. My father’s complexion would shift a bit more toward the green spectrum, even though he was facing away from her and looked away with every cell of his body. Without any exaggeration I can tell you that we were in that room for many hours. I am deeply grateful for this…we could have still been out in the tiny, overcrowded waiting room where hundreds spilled out onto the sidewalk, for all those hours.

When a doctor finally came to stitch up the wound, my mother with her insatiable curiosity began asking about everything the doctor was doing. She told my mother, a little too cheerfully, that she was actually using “staples,” that for head wounds such as hers it was easier, quicker…and the scar would not show. My mother strongly encouraged her to find a different word – as “staples” was more than even my sturdy mother could handle. My father almost lost what little food he had in his belly at the mention of “staples”, and at least energetically, pressed his entire being completely into the corner of the room farthest away from mom and the stapling that was still going on.

Sometime later my mother shared with me part of what kept her calm, kept her going all those hours. I have a necklace that I wear most every day. It is a pendant made from bone, carved with a face that has a subtle and ever so peaceful smile within it. Many ask or suggest that it’s the moon. My mother told me that as she lay there on that hospital bed on her side, to avoid putting any pressure on the back of her head, the peaceful face that hung around my neck was right at eye level. Any time that her eyes were open, she was looking into that beautiful and somewhat ethereal face. She told me that it was a great comfort to her. Even this was a new and intimate exchange between us.

That was the beginning of an opening for my mother and me: an opening between our hearts, a kind of bonding that I’m not sure had existed between us until then. All of this had to occur before my mother and I could come to a place where she could tell me one of her most personal and intimate truths, directly and in person.

I made a point of taking mom out to lunch once a week, and not just to eat. We also went window-shopping…just wandering around somewhere with no particular goal in mind. She was no longer driving, and my father had absolutely no patience for wandering – especially at the very slow pace that she now wandered at.

We were sitting across from each other at her favorite coffee shop. She looked me in the eye and her expression changed. She told me the following: she told me that every health issue that she had – every syndrome, disease, chronic issue – they were all caused by lifestyle choices. She looked at me even more directly and told me that none of it was hereditary…that her illnesses were all caused by her own behaviors, choices she’d made in her life. And she pleaded with me, begged me, to not follow in her footsteps. Some of the issues that she struggled with, I do struggle with still. And I hear her voice, pleading with me. “Please don’t. You can do something about it. Please. Okay?”

For us, for our history, for how we’d behaved toward each other most of our lives, for all the fears and heartbreaks we’d had and not shared with each other – in this one brief conversation it was as if the bells of cathedrals worldwide were ringing, all in unison – and the walls between us were beginning to crumble. They did begin…and they never crumbled all the way. Maybe they did crumble all the way; it just looked different than I thought it would. We both could feel it and now we could see each other across those walls. Slowly, subtly, we allowed each other in.

I got to spend this time with my amazing and courageous mother. These are qualities that I only began to recognize in her toward the end of her life, and really didn’t name as such until after she was gone. We found our way into each others’ hearts – while she was still alive. Maybe I’ll say instead, that we finally saw ourselves residing in each others’ hearts, because truly we were already there. We’d just never looked before, like we were now. I do know that this sort of gift, healing, whatever your particular word for it is, could have also occurred after her death. We were lucky, so lucky; we got to have it while she was alive, but just barely. She was gone within two years after my arrival, and our lunchtime conversation came only three or four months before her death, the death that was a surprise to all or at least most of us.

What He said

My father developed dementia in his last years, which accelerated after mom’s death. As this occurred, it became harder and harder for him to keep track of a conversation…he just couldn’t follow it, keep all the parts in his head. It became even more difficult for him after I moved back up north to my home in Washington State, because then we only had phone conversations. Those are harder for so many reasons, even without dementia. Add that into the mix – well, he just couldn’t do it.

Because he’d had a small business as a younger man, and I now worked in a small business, he’d always begin by asking, “So how’s business?” Often, I was stressed out about one thing or another, and would instantly begin to ramble on about it, since he’d asked. Quickly though, I’d remember that he couldn’t follow where I was going, but not before he’d cut me off and ask his real question, which would crack my heart open a little more each time he asked it:

“But are you happy?”

The first time I heard these words I could not believe my ears. I can never recall my father even speaking to the idea of happiness. I have no memory of such a question ever coming from him. He was definitely not the kind of man who would ask about being happy. My cousin wondered, when I mentioned this to him, if maybe it was because for many in dad’s generation, especially the men of that era, happiness was not something that anyone ever really expected. I do know now, that so much of what he said or did when I was younger, really was pointing to that question – but for me, in the midst of our very strained relationship – I had no idea that he was wondering, let alone hoping, that I was happy. Now I know that most definitely he was.

“But are you happy?”

That’s what he asked me, and quite quickly, every time I spoke with him on the phone those last few years. And he asked it so sincerely and with such a deep concern and unabashed yearning for me to say that I was, that I could not disappoint him. But I also couldn’t lie to him. I wanted to be able to answer yes to his question because I heard in his voice, in the way that he asked the question, that he knew some larger truth, and I wanted to know it for myself. I heard that he was really asking me to dig deeper, to get to what was really important in life and see that there, in that place, in that deep and peaceful place I would always be able to say, “Yes, I am happy.” It became a question that I would hear him asking me at different points in my day. In a way, his question became a monitoring device. So I began to know that I was happy…not pretend syrupy-sweet happy, but truly, deeply happy. I learned this from my father, a man of very few words.

That I have these two beautiful kernels held carefully in my cupped hands, given to me by my parents; that I traveled on a long, winding road with them to a place where the fierce winds of life stopped just long enough for the jeweled gifts to be placed in my hands, and that we looked into each other’s eyes and hearts as the jewels were given by them and received by me; what more could I ask for?

not bad

We all knew this would probably be the last Thanksgiving at Dad’s house. Growing up, our cousins fondly called it, “Aunt Rose and Uncle Ted’s house”. My parents, that house; they were always there. I remember when one of my cousins visited them after being out of town for years. Gleefully and with a broad smile across his face, he announced, “Your dad’s still sitting in the same position, on the same couch.” I laughed along with him and also rolled my eyes a bit. But it was true…no matter how crazy the world was, we could return to Beeman Avenue to that safe, solid, and yes, maddening consistency, if even just for one evening.

The years rolled on, we cherished the house and all the memories it held for our family. For the last five or ten years that my folks, and then my widowed father, lived in that house, it fell to our family to host the Thanksgiving feast. For all the years that it was her responsibility, this assignment was mom’s nemesis, her unraveling. She was a mother, and a wife who, like most women of her time, cooked all the meals for her family. She’d try some new recipe now and then, but cooking did not make her heart sing…never had, and my father was…well, he was how he was. A man of few words, a man who never, ever, tasted food before dousing it with salt, he was also not one to praise unnecessarily, which from my perspective meant…there was no praise.

So it was no surprise each year as Thanksgiving loomed near – mom’s dread increased. My sister and I in our various ways inherited some of her dread or resistance or insecurity or whatever it was, so sadly we were not the triumphant daughters who would come home and just take over the task.
We helped out for sure and we made a great team. We created the beauty that Thanksgiving at 5219 Beeman Avenue became known for: we ironed all the vintage table linens inherited from mom’s folks, we polished every piece of beautiful silverware and serving pieces that sat hidden the rest of the year in the deep drawers of the breakfront that came out of grandma and grandpa’s living room. We set the tables with the lavish, gold filigree-edged dinner plates that had graced my grandparents’ Sabbath meals as my mother was growing up.

To my astonishment, in those last years, dad found his own tenderhearted way of contributing to the beauty of our evening. Using a tray, which in earlier days would have been piled with his “famous” hamburgers, cooked every weekend on his old-fashioned barbeque, and with a pair of scissors that mom had forbidden anyone else to use, and dad of course broke her rule every time, he’d disappear out into his beloved backyard and cut mountains of bougainvillea flowers bursting with life. What a sight he was…close to ninety-years-old, skinny as a rail, carrying his collage of tangerine, magenta, and scarlet hued flowers into our home.

The tables were rich, sumptuous and oddly out of place, pasted on top of the plain interior of our home. It was a little fairy tale that we all traveled into, together. The den that held our feast began as a large, 1950’s era screened-in porch complete with sloping concrete floor. Dad helped remodel the room in the ‘60’s, keeping the original floor, tiling it with linoleum. This was a great feature if you needed to hose down an outside porch, or if you were a kid rolling toy trains across the floor, but bizarre and unsettling for a bunch of octogenarians, some who were losing their eyesight or hearing, and some gaining dementia in exchange. Dementia was definitely beginning to move into dad’s life in inconsistent but obvious ways. Tinged with bittersweet, we all knew, without speaking of it, this might be the last time.

Neither my sister nor I were up to the task of taking on the actual preparation of the turkey. In mom’s absence we marveled that she had done it for so many years. No matter what several of our well-meaning friends told us about how easy it was to roast a turkey – we knew we could not manage both dad’s increasing unpredictability and our grand lack of confidence around cooking a meal for so many relatives…several of whom had also slipped into the realm of “unpredictable”.
Enter the Angel of Thanksgiving. My sister’s childhood friend happened to be coming down to L.A. for the holiday and she came from a family of fabulous cooks…she loved to cook. After hearing my sister’s description of our dilemma, SHE VOLUNTEERED TO COOK OUR ENTIRE FEAST. Our anxiety-ridden circumstance appeared on her horizon and she was happy to get the opportunity to cook an elegant meal, and to offer a treasured gift to our family.

We, and our home, had never seen such a feast. Yes, we had green beans, but for the first time ever, we had FRESH, delicately cooked green beans, with FRESH herbs. The deliciousness went on and on throughout every detail of the meal. The menu equaled the elegance of the crisp linens, sparkling silver and riotous flowers. It was magnificent.

The air was thick – collectively we were in a food stupor. I sat next to my father and watched him go through the motions he’d made every single night of his married life to signal that he was indeed, finished with his meal. He pushed himself away from the table slightly, took his grand, sage-green, linen napkin, which any other night would have been a small, white paper napkin, and with both hands, gently wadded it up and placed it in the center of his plate.

“How was your dinner, dad?” I asked, truly expecting at least some small amount of praise even though praise was not his style.

After a long silence and looking straight ahead, he responded.

“Not bad.”

I burst out laughing at the absurdity of his reply. How far I’d come, that my unscripted response was pure laughter where years before it would have been anger or resentment or rage. All I could do was laugh.

“Not bad?!” I thought to myself.

“Not Bad?” I flung at him, inside my head.

“NOT BAD?!?!?” I said out loud, incredulous.

I began to describe the subtle and exquisite flavors that Paula had included in this feast that defied any inkling of anything we’d ever eaten as a family. I was on a roll, flinging words right and left. Finally I noticed that dad’s body language had changed ever so slightly. He was still facing straight ahead, but his arms were now crossed, resting at his belt (he had no belly to rest them on) and his shoulders were shaking ever so slightly. That subtle smirk formed across his lips.

“That meal, to quote mom, was ‘INCREDIBLE’,” I informed him.

He nodded his head slightly, saying,

“That’s what I said.”

Time stopped. The earth stopped its rotation. I stopped breathing. Everything stopped.

“THAT’S what NOT BAD means?”

He nodded again, showing a little more movement in his shoulders now, doing his level best to hold back his laughter.

In a complete state of shock, and in the brief space between one sentence and the next, my whole world had been thrown on its head. I had spent a great deal of my childhood and a good chunk of my adult life consciously or unconsciously seeking approval from my father. What I was hearing from him right now was pointing to the very real possibility that much of my quest for approval stemmed from a problem with translation.

Not bad = Incredible

I honestly will never know if my father was only shaking with held back laughter at my reaction to his response about dinner, or if he had a glimpse of our life-long struggles and this issue of mistranslation.

Thankfully, by the time this extremely disorienting discovery arrived, I was able, rather gracefully actually, to take it in stride. TAKE IT IN STRIDE? Well…pretty much.

The Queen of the Flowers

I met Teodore Thorvendal, a tall, lanky, ninety-five-year-old Swedish man with a sometimes explosive temper, while living in Seattle in the early 1990’s.

Soon after his wife Crossed Over he lost all of his short-term memory. Every morning when his nephew Stefan, a new friend of mine, came out of his bedroom, Teodore would lunge at him, thinking he was a burglar. Somehow Stefan would convince his uncle again, who he was and why he was living with him. This happened every single day until after a year; Stefan couldn’t take it any more. He was going back home to Sweden and on this particular day, I would be driving Stefan to the airport.

I knocked on the front door and I was relieved that Stefan answered. I was afraid of the old man…the one other time I had come to the door of the house, he pulled the curtain aside an inch or two, peered out at me through the window, wild-eyed, and cursed at me to get off his property. So yes, I was anxious when Stefan invited me to come inside on that last morning. They were just finishing breakfast and he motioned for me to join them in the kitchen. Timidly I followed him in and there was the crazy old man glaring at me. I sat there while they both finished eating; metal spoons scraping up the last of their cereal the only sounds that broke their silent meal. Before I could stop him, Stefan jumped up and said he’d go out and load his luggage into the back of my borrowed truck.

That left me alone with Teodore. He put his spoon down on the table, pointed his long, crooked finger at me and said, “Please. Come with me.” I was afraid – afraid to go with him and afraid to disobey him. Against my better judgment, I followed him through the dark living room and out onto the front deck; the same deck I’d stood on when he cursed at me and told me to get off his property.

“She planted them every summer,” he said, speaking to me softly, shaking his head. “Look at them now – they’re all dead.” At first I didn’t know what he was talking about – I was nervous being so close to this man that could become so agitated without warning. I followed his gaze and realized that the entire deck was lined with planter boxes that were filled with dead bedding plants – flower heads in tact, but stone dead. “Please,” he begged me, “please plant them.”

How did he know? How did this man that I had never spoken with, this man whom I was still not sure was safe to be around at all – how did he know that my most favorite thing in the world was to plant flowers and tend them? We stood there silently, then Stefan found us and he and I were off to the airport – Teodore’s request went unanswered.

Back home from the airport, I replayed the conversation with Teodore in my head. Did he really ask me, a total stranger, to plant his flower boxes for him? It seemed that he had, and I decided to do a good deed. The next day I rode my bicycle to the nursery near my house and loaded up my saddlebags with potting soil and bedding plants. It was an unusually hot summer day and by the time I rode my bike back up north to Teodore’s house I was sweaty and tired. And, I have to say, quite proud of myself. I was helping this “poor old man” with his dream to somehow bring back part of his wife’s memory by replanting her garden.

I leaned my overloaded bicycle up against the edge of the deck with a bit of a thud. The front door flew open and there he was; the crazy, wild-eyed man screaming profanities at me, demanding that I get off his property. I was mad now. Hadn’t I just spent my own money, not to mention my sweat equity, to get all these supplies? Isn’t this what he had asked me do? Yes, I was afraid of him, but now I was pissed off. He wasn’t going to beg me to do something and then threaten me when I did it. It was too late – I’d had it with him. I flew around in a rage and told him it was none of his business, that I’d bought the plants after he’d asked me to, and now, like it or not, I was going to plant them. I glared at him hard. We stood there for a few moments, both of us stubborn and fierce. He wheeled around, went back inside and slammed the door.

I have to tell you that this was a first for me. I had never challenged someone, anyone, like this before. There was something about him, or about the combination of the two of us that gave me the courage or the strength or the foolishness, to stand up to him…or maybe it was fueled by my big, fat, bruised ego.

I began working on the flower boxes, and as always, I found the peaceful rhythm of hands-into-dirt, plants-into-soil. I calmed down. I forgot all the craziness. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was peering at me through the window. Again he’d pulled the curtain back and was following my progress. When he saw me looking at him he threw the curtain shut again. Sometime later I heard the door open. I paid no attention. Finally he said quietly, “No, not there. Don’t put them there, they should go over in that one,” pointing his long gnarled finger across the deck. Glaring, I told him it was my garden and I’d plant them where I wanted. He slammed the door again and watched me from the curtained window.

After dragging a hose around from the backyard and thoroughly watering these new, young plants, I stood back to view the garden. The door opened and he spoke. His demeanor had changed – back to the imploring voice he’d used on me when he first asked for this garden. How was he going to take care of it? He was an old man; a weak old man and he couldn’t drag the hose over, or lift a full watering can…the flowers would just die. He was wringing his hands. Still suffering from a rather large and bruised ego I stared him in the eye and said coldly, “It’s my garden. I’ll take care of it.” I walked down the steps, climbed onto my bicycle and rode away without looking back.

Seattle was having a true heat wave and I was concerned about the newly planted garden. Two days later I rode back up to Teodore’s house. What would I encounter with the old man? Was I in real danger? My love for the young plants propelled me to return in spite of my fear of him. They needed water. This time I snuck quietly up onto the deck. Maybe I could water the plants without him knowing. But wait – not only had they been thoroughly watered, they had all – every single planter box – been carefully tended to. As I surveyed the garden, I heard the front door open. For some reason he didn’t yell at me, he just watched. I ignored him. He remained at the door, watching me through the screen. When I was satisfied that the plants were going to live for a few more days I turned to leave. Changing my mind I faced him. He tensed. Fear, then rage, flooded his face. I tensed too. Slowly I approached him. Part of me was screaming, “Are you insane? RUN! Get away from him, he’ll hurt you!” Then his face gentled and a smile formed in the most miraculous way. “Well, if it isn’t the Queen of the Flowers,” he murmured in a beautiful, deep, Swedish lilt. “The Queen of the Flowers.”

For the rest of that summer I visited Teodore most every week. He cared for the flowers – never have I seen such a well-tended garden. The moment any impudent weed had the nerve to appear, Teodore’s long fingers plucked it out. Somehow he found the strength and balance to carry watering can after watering can to quench his beloved garden’s thirst. My visits became social calls, not garden interventions. We would sit in his dark, cool, living room, he in his circa 1960’s plaid, upholstered, rocking chair. With eyes closed he would recount story after story of his childhood in the countryside of northern Sweden: the log over the creek that he and his friends would run across, the adventures they would have. Eventually he shared with me that each night before he fell asleep he’d pray that he’d awaken in the morning so that he could care for the garden. He told me he knew that’s why he was still alive, and that he was happy to be alive. In all other endeavors he continued to have absolutely no short-term memory. How could he remember me? What, or who, did he see when he looked into my eyes?

Each visit began with me approaching the front door. He’d draw the curtain back peering out, fearfully. The curtain would drop, the door would open an inch, and before he spoke, something would happen. I’d look into his eyes, he’d look into mine and after a moment he’d sing out, “Well, if it isn’t the Queen of the Flowers.”

It’s been over twenty years now since I met this remarkable old man. The experience has woven itself deeply into my bones…into my psyche. It’s about aging, about how our minds forget and also what they can remember; it’s about what’s beneath fear. And when I moved back home far from my current life, to help out my aging father, who coincidentally (?) was named Ted (Theodore) and lived to be ninety-four, my time with Teodore was patiently waiting there to guide me toward finding a way to connect with my father who had begun his own long journey into forgetting.

To listen to a radio interview I gave on The Story, about The Queen of the Flowers, click HERE.

grace AND dementia in the same sentence

Maybe you cannot imagine these two words linked in the same sentence: grace and dementia. The more time I spend with people who are going through a shift in the way they perceive their world, the more grace I discover.

Please. Dip your toes into the remarkable stories of the ones I have come to know. Many of these stories are about my father. He was and still is, the one who is teaching me the most about the landscape of dementia, even though he’s been gone now for years. There are others as well…other grand old ones with great gifts for me – treasures squirreled away in their twinkling or terrified eyes, in their enormous hearts, whole or broken-open…always they come bearing gifts.

The Queen of the Flowers, is the tale of me as an unknowing wanderer who ends up at the doorstep of a man with absolutely NO short-term memory, and how he and I found our way deep into each other’s hearts. This man, Teodore, gave me a crash course in dementia before I’d ever heard the word, before I knew there was such a thing as short-term memory loss. Our time together was a graduate degree in dementia crammed into the span of one hot summer. And to him I make a broad and low bow for the gifts that he bestowed upon me; his unknowing, then eager, student.

I hope that you will dive into this world that continues to bless me. I hope that sparkling tears will well up in your eyes and maybe roll down your cheeks. I hope that you laugh out loud too. All of this and more wait for you inside this world that our culture has turned away from, for far too long.

Welcome. Welcome Home.