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2014 Top 10: #1 A Secret From Beyond The Grave

The last time I spoke to  my mother, I made her a promise. She was in a hospital bed in Columbia, South Carolina, in terrible pain with late-stage Multiple Sclerosis. I was at my desk in a radio station newsroom in Seattle, Washington.

I had been calling her repeatedly, but no one answered the phone in her room. I didn’t know for a fact that she was dying, but I knew she wanted to be done with her disease.

Shortly after my father died, four months earlier, my mother began to have a series of severe MS attacks. She was placed in a nursing home. She was only 58. She didn’t want to be there. In fact, for most of my life she told me, “If I ever have to go to a nursing home, I’ll die.”

We talked once while she was in the home, and we speculated on where, exactly, my father’s spirit had gone. I told her how much I missed him and that I didn’t want her to die. She said, “But you wouldn’t want me to live like this, would you? To stay like this forever?” I told her I would never hold her back, that as much as I loved her, I wanted her to be in peace.

So, when my mother was admitted to a hospital a couple weeks after that call, I suspected she was heading for the exit. During a lunch break at work I was determined to get her on the phone, fearing it was my last chance. It was.

After four attempts, letting the phone ring until a recorded voice from the hospital came on to tell me to hang up and try again, my aunt answered. She was my mother’s savior those last few years. They had been incredibly close growing up, and after my parents’ divorce my aunt brought my mom to live near her, helped her with everything, eased the burden of her physical decline. My aunt picked up the phone and said to my  mother, “You were right, Trish. It IS Megan.” Then she handed the phone to my mom.

My mom said, “I knew it was you calling, Megan. I could hear the phone, I just couldn’t answer. I’m not doing so well.” She was on massive amounts of morphine, but it still couldn’t ease the burning nerve pain of the MS attack.

Then she said, “Could you do me a favor? Could you go get me an iced tea from the cafeteria – they have that ice I like.”

I thought the morphine was muddling her mind, “Mom, I’m not there. I’m in Seattle, I’m on the phone.”

My mom got annoyed, “I KNOW that, Megan. I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to my sister. Yes, thank you.

Once my aunt left the room, my mom turned back to me, “Megan, they’re trying everything, but nothing is helping. I’m really in bad shape. But, I want to ask you something. You’ll tell my story too, right?”

At my father’s funeral I promised to tell his story. He lived like a character in a novel. It’s easy to capture him in words.

My mother, though, followed the Southern rule, “Don’t give them anything to talk about.” With my natural tendency to broadcast everything, she was always telling me that no one wanted to know about how bad your life was, and they certainly didn’t want to hear you brag about how good things were. It never occurred to me that she’d ever want me to share her life.

I wanted to ask her what she wanted me to say, how much I should reveal. I don’t have such good brakes when it comes to storytelling. Unfortunately, she was is no shape for a full conversation. So, I just said, “Yes, mommy. I’ll tell your story, too.” My stomach turned as I said it, afraid that I agreed to a job I could never complete.

She said, “I love you.” Then she hung up.

That was the last exchange we ever had. Soon after she lost consciousness. I flew to be by her side when she died, but she was silent.

A promise is easy to make, but so hard to keep. How do I tell the story of her life, the beauty and tragedy, full of dashed hopes and disability, in a way that anyone would want to read? That worry has kept me paralyzed since 2003.

Then, just this past year, I received a letter that gave me a starting point. It wasn’t a letter in the mail, though. My #1 most-viewed post of 2014 began with a letter from the past.

***

originally post June 14, 2014

***

Daddy and Megan, 1978 - ish

-Father’s Day 1978-

Having been sternly warned by my mother, I run to my father and whisper in his ear, “Daddy, we got you a present and it’s underwear, but it’s a secret so I’m not supposed to tell you.”

-Father’s Day 2014-

I’m still terrible at keeping secrets.

My big mouth is probably not hereditary, though. Yesterday, just when I thought it would be safe to dig into old papers again, I discovered a secret that both my parents took to their graves.

The secret has been in my possession from the moment my parents divorced, back in the Fall of 1998. In the midst of a chaotic and tragic separation, in a desperate bid to save family heirlooms from my father’s resale shop, my sisters and I split up all my mother’s keepsakes: the china, silver, grand mirror, dining set, chippendale furniture and also two letter boxes.

Two 1960's vinyl letter boxes

My mother said, “Oh, just throw those away.” When I resisted, she said, “They’re MY letters. I say throw them away.” I didn’t.

The aged vinyl of the boxes told me they were probably from the 1960’s, when my parents’ lives were golden. Since then, our lives had become a weepy melodrama and I wasn’t going to lose any evidence of a better time. I carried them to my home in Rocky Mount, NC, moved them out to Tacoma, WA and kept them in an airtight box, out of sight and out of mind, never even opening them.

About three years later, my mother accused me of throwing away all her souvenirs during the divorce. She thought I followed her instructions about the letters. (Kids, here’s why it’s okay to disobey your parents.) I told her they were safe, that I knew they were something special.

My mother told me the boxes held all the letters my father wrote her while in flight school to be a Navy fighter pilot. She told me I should read them because he wrote about the challenges he faced in training, how hard it was. She said it would be an interesting document of Naval life. I told her I would read them when I got home. I didn’t. (Kids, the rest of this story is why you should obey your parents.)

In 2003, my father died on February 5th. My mother died June 19. Thinking it would help my grief, right after my mother’s funeral, I opened up the boxes and sorted the letters in chronological order by postmark date. I started reading them in order and got as far as January 9, 1965.

My dad had just started flight school in Pensacola, Florida. My mother was in her junior year at East Carolina University, studying to be a teacher. I was shocked by how young he sounded, how in love. And then, I read this:

image of letter, text follows

“Tricia,
If the Earth is ever invaded, it will probably be on a Sunday night. It is such a depressing time that no one could retaliate.”

 

I laughed and then cried. I knew just what he meant. It made me miss him more than ever. I closed the boxes, put them back on the shelf, and only managed to read another two or three letters over the next eleven years.

Yesterday, with Father’s Day coming on, I thought I might try one more time to make it through a few of his letters. He felt so alive when I read them. I picked up where I left off, February 15, 1965.

I committed to reading them in order, just as my mother would have received them. I wanted to feel like she did, getting those air mail envelopes at the Kappa Delta sorority house.

envelope addressed to Kappa Delta sorority house

 

But, my eyes began to glaze as letter after letter recounted his sleepless nights, inspections, exams, hops, cruel officers and endless efforts to see my mother for just a few days. Even though I knew they found a way to be together long enough to drive each other certifiably crazy, I couldn’t stand the drawn-out suspense of their courtship. I started jumping forward in time, until I got to December 2, 1965.

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 2

“Won’t it be wonderful if I can get leave starting the 18th? That will give us three weeks to be together. That will be an eternity compared with what we’ve been used to.”

 

When I read this letter, I decided to step back into the blow-by-blow action. But, there was a long break in the letters after that, during the time they must have spent together over Christmas. The correspondence picked back up with a letter postmarked January 17, 1966.

It reads exactly like earlier letters, painful pining and punishing piloting, but after six pages he ended with this:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 3

“Here’s one more joke for you.
Q. – Do you know the difference between a pick-pocket and a peeping tom?
A. – A pick-pocket snatches watches!
(That’s dirty if you can’t figure it out.)”

 

My dad always loved a stupid, dirty joke. I never knew my mom did, too. I kept reading

As I opened the next several envelopes, I caught a whiff of my mother’s perfume. I don’t know if the scent was trapped from when she first read it, or from years in her bedroom, but I could vividly imagine her reading them.

My dad was stationed in Kingsville, Texas, another stage of flight training, more than a year after he first started. I knew they married in September 1966, that they had to change the wedding date because storms prevented him from making the final aircraft carrier landing he need to complete his training. So, I hoped I might read something about their wedding plans. Then, I read this in a letter postmarked April 4, 1966:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 4

“I just wish you were coming to stay with me forever. I do love you so much, and I need you with me to be complete. Why can’t the Navy realize that a man 23 years old would be worth so much more if he could live with his wife.”

 

To me, that sounded like a hint that they must have gotten engaged. I thought he was probably just talking ‘as though’ they were married. But then, in a letter dated April 12, 1966:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 5

“My Darling Wife, “

 

Wife? I still guessed it was just a loving term, anticipation for their September wedding.

But then there was a letter postmarked April 18, 1966. He had a cyst removed from his ankle, I don’t know why, but he complained that he didn’t get a letter from her all week, just the insurance company,

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 6

“saying I owe them $120. It will be nice when we can admit being married so the insurance will go down.”

 

The April 18 letter is written over several days. Later he says:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 7

“I’m so glad your mother feels okay about you coming down here in June. That will be so great. If we do have to miss you having a wedding, it will be worth it .”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 8

“I’d like to spend every Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night of my life doing something with you.”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 9

“No man could be as lucky as I am. All my life I’ve dreamed of someone even halfway approaching the standards you represent. And now – you are my wife. I certainly must have a guardian angel.”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 10

“Just how much does your mother know about me? To agree to let you work in Corpus, it sounds like she knows we’re already married. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if she did.”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 11

“Of course, when you come down, there’s still going to be people we have to keep our marriage a secret from. Too many people would like to be able to spread something like that around, and get me kicked out of the program.”

 

Some of the words are a little smudged. It looks like tear drops fell on the ink.

And then, when my mother was student teaching in Havelock, North Carolina – not living at the sorority house – he addressed a letter postmarked April 21, 1966, to:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 12

“Miss Patricia Rouse (J.)”

 

I noted that this letter arrived “POSTAGE DUE 5 CENTS”.

 

Inside the letter, he begins, “Dear Mrs.”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 13

“I got to thinking the other day that it would be nice to wait and have a big wedding, but immediately decided it’s much more important for you to be down here. Maybe we could have a big reception in Fayetteville after we’re through down here. That wouldn’t be funny or anything, would it?”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 14

“Well, Mrs. Jackson, I’d better study for these two hops [flights] in the morning
….
Your loving husband, Elbert”

 

They secretly eloped! When? How? It must have been over the long Christmas break, when there were no letters. But, he hadn’t said anything about the event in January. Had they even kept it secret in correspondence?

Then I opened the letter postmarked April 26, 1966:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 15

“Tomorrow we will have been married four months. I wish it were four years, and we didn’t have to worry about everyone finding out.”

 

My parents married in secret at the end of December, 1965. I never, ever suspected they had a secret like that. Never. Ever.

Then I remembered a phone call with my mother when I was in college. It was so weird and awkward that I often joke about it with friends.

I had been dating a guy for about seven months and was telling her about a trip we took to Nashville. She got very quiet and then asked me in a low whisper, “Megan, are you two… married?”

I said, “What?! No. I think I would tell you about that.”

She was silent for another space of time and then sounded perturbed, “You know what I’m talking about. Are you two married?

I didn’t know. “Mom, we didn’t run off to Dillon, South Carolina to get hitched. No. What’s wrong with you?”

The conversation led us to talk about the sin of intimate premarital relations.

She asked me point blank about the status of our consummation. I made the case for being a college student in the early 90’s.

She bemoaned her sinful daughter. I told her not to ask questions she didn’t want to know the answer to.

She wailed. I asked her if she would prefer that I lied, that I kept my life secret from her.

She said, “No. I want to know about your life. I just… I guess I have a hard time with the way you young people live these days. Why can’t you just wait till you get married?”

 

Those vinyl boxes contain no letters from my mother, only my father’s responses to her actions, to unmentioned quarrels, to vaguely defined trouble with parents. If I fill in the gaps with what I know of my mother’s personality, of anecdotes from old friends and of the culture of North Carolina in the mid-60’s, I can see her feeling troubled about the limbo of being just a girlfriend. His pilot training dragged on and on and he had to do what the Navy told him. I can see her being willing to elope just to make their union legitimate. They were 22 and 21 when they got hitched, not kids, but they still had parents and social expectations.

When the rest of American culture shifted during the late 60’s, and then more in the 70’s, then the 80’s, and even further in the 90’s, my mother didn’t accept that social standards could change. That’s a big reason why she resisted getting a divorce from my dad, even when his drinking made him emotionally abusive and physically unpredictable. She would tell me over and over that she made a promise to God, she wouldn’t break it.

I thought it was because of guilt that my mother kept accepting his late-night phone calls, kept trying to solve his problems, years after the divorce. And, our conversation about my college relationship seemed to justify that. But, after reading my dad’s letters yesterday, seeing it through his eyes, I don’t think it was just stubborn morality.

 

Back in 1966, there was only one more letter from my father before he left for a summer on the aircraft carrier, postmarked May 4, 1966.

It included this check:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 16

“Everyday of our life, 19-forever, No. 1 and only
PAY TO THE ORDER OF Mrs. Patricia Rouse Jackson
$1,000,000 worth
All the love and affection, care and protection possible
FOR Being so wonderful”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 17

“Dearest,
I miss you terribly. When will these horrible cadet days ever be over? My one goal now is to finish as quickly as possible so that we may properly be man and wife, living together.”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 18

“I’m sorry I sounded so depressed when I called you. It’s just that talking to you and not being able to be with you is terrifically maddening. My temper will definitely improve after I finish. Well, Mrs. Jackson, your husband has a link, a hop and a lecture to study for tomorrow, so au revoir.
I love you,
Elbert”

 

My parents didn’t live another five years after they divorced. They couldn’t leave each other alone. My mother died just four months after my father. Even though they lived hours apart and had nothing but volatile encounters, she seemed to lose the will to live once he was gone. She told me she was furious that he went first, that he left her alone. At the time, it sounded like madness. I understand a little better today.

Wedding 4

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My parents took the secret of their early wedding to their graves. I couldn’t keep the secret for 24 hours. Why?

Because it doesn’t seem like a shameful secret. There’s got to be a statute of limitations on young love.
Because I’ve been berating myself for not reading those letters right away. If I had, I might have been more compassionate about my parents’ tortured love.
Because I wish for everything that I could hear the story of their first wedding. I’d love to hear how they snuck off, why they did it, what they thought.

 

In my career as a radio interviewer and producer, I heard hundreds of stories about the pain of secrets. I’m currently producing a storytelling show where many of the tales revolve around hiding love. But, in every instance, when the secret is set free, the truth acknowledged, forgiveness allowed, a miraculous transformation occurred.

Some secrets, like the contents of a Father’s Day gift, make for a fun surprise. Other secrets need to be told. Early. Often. And when you have the chance.

 

2014 Top 10: #2 The Last Debacle

My father was a car salesman when I was a teenager.  And he was good.

He had a way of dismissing you into wanting whatever he had to sell.

“Yeah, I’ve got this one here.  But, I don’t know if this is the kind of thing you’d really want.  It doesn’t have such good gas mileage.  But, that’s what you get with a V12 engine.  I mean, it’s just impractical to have a car that can go from 0 to 60 in less than five seconds…”

(Long drag of cigarette.)

“Nah, this Jaguar’s probably not for you.”

As a salesman, he could drive one of the cars from the lot.  And that meant he’d often have a different car every day.

Jaguars were my dad’s favorite cars.  So they became my favorite car.  When he’d get one of those on his Sundays off, we’d sometimes go driving through the back roads of North Carolina – just to see the tobacco farms go by real fast.

He’d have Vivaldi blaring on the stereo.  We’d open the windows – and occasionally the sunroof. He’d have a cigarette in one hand and a Solo cup full of bourbon on ice in the other.  But, he’d still manage to conduct the orchestra while we barreled down the road – he steered with his knees.  He had been a fighter pilot – he thought that meant he could multi-task if he was going less than 500mph.

The cars gave us a chance to feel rich.  In reality, the family was in a long, slow decline.  By the end of my twenties, he was living in his mother’s house and working part-time at a pawn shop.

Still, he managed to scrape together enough to buy an old 80’s Jaguar: British racing green paint job, tan leather, sunroof.  It was about his only possession… and it was in the shop a lot of the time.  But when I went back to visit him in North Carolina, he would take me for a drive around the city, cruising the back roads… because the cops didn’t often patrol there for drunk driving.

We never could talk about what was actually going on.  We’d occasionally share a memory from a building we passed.  “Hey, remember the pancakes there?”  That was the sum of our visits.  But, when I’d hug him goodbye he would always say, “Sweetheart, when my ship comes in, I’ll give you whatever you want.  And, at the very least, I’ll give you my Jaguar when I die.”

When my dad did die, the subject of the #2 most-viewed post of 2014, my older sister told my younger sister and I that someone had stolen the Jaguar.  That’s what my dad told her, anyway.

I never expected that he’d be able to keep that promise; he didn’t keep many.  But, as my sisters and I were driving around after his funeral, we started joking about the bills he left unpaid.  And I said, “Yeah, well, he promised me his Jaguar.  And I’m not getting that.”

My older sister said, “Yeah, he promised the Jaguar to me too.”

My younger sister said, “Yeah, me too.”

And at that point, we all began to suspect that perhaps the Jaguar’s disappearance was intentional – just so he wouldn’t get caught.  And we could just hear him up in Heaven somewhere…

(Long drag of cigarette.)

“Nah, this Jaguar’s probably not for you.”

***

originally published February 5, 2014

***

My father’s autopsy was filed under “Birth Certificates” in my box of important papers. I ran across it accidentally during a start-of-the-year organization flurry a couple weeks ago. He died eleven years ago today.

photo collage of my father and his autopsy

There’s a post-it note on the autopsy from my sister telling me that “my veterinarian explained ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’. An inflammation of the lining around the heart, for some unknown reason, triggers an immune response against the heart itself.”

That’s the best medical explanation for why he died, but the summary and interpretation at the end of the report reveals why I never tell people my dad died from ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’.

Coroner's report of my father's death

“Alcohol use” is my usual response to, “How did your father die?” I also add, “Plus he was bipolar.”

He was drinking heavily in those last months before his death. Drinking heavily, and then stopping abruptly without the proper detox, drying out, and then drinking heavily again. While my father was in ICU in “an unconscious state”, a friend of his from Alcoholics Anonymous stopped my two sisters and me to tell us how bad things had been during that time. My father was despondent and no one was able to give him the help he wanted, and he wouldn’t take the help he needed.

At one point, my father drove his late model Jaguar down to Pensacola, Florida, where he went through flight school to be a fighter pilot. While he was there, the car got stolen, so the story goes, and he hitchhiked back to Fayetteville.

When my dad collapsed he was in line at the bank waiting to deposit a large check from his mother. He started having seizures in the bank and was rushed to the Emergency Room. Evidently, he wasn’t strapped to the bed in the E/R and got up to leave, fell, hit his head and died. The E/R staff spent twenty minutes resuscitating him. They got a heartbeat – he was technically alive – but he never regained consciousness.

My sister called me here in Tacoma to tell me what happened the same day the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded. She told me no one was certain whether he would ever wake up or if he might need to be put into a care facility in a vegetative state.

The one thing I knew for certain at that moment was that my father wanted to be dead. As his mental illness got worse, he would occasionally call me at work, frantic to speak to me “while my head is clear”. He’d tell me he loved me and then he would tell me over and over that if he should ever end up on life support, he wanted to be allowed to die. He told both my sisters and me that he had a living will and he expected us to enact it. However, with Daddy lying in limbo the living will was nowhere to be found.

My sister scoured his apartment. He lived a few blocks from his mother in a historic brick building. His family paid the rent. They even bought him a couch and lamps to decorate, but he never took the price tags off. It was immaculately clean and reeked of cigarette smoke.

Even though his behavior was erratic, he kept precise records of everything. When my sister checked his file cabinet for the living will, she found documents of his volatile relationships with banks, being fired from doctors, tirades with various companies about unfair treatment. Each encounter was in its own folder with handwritten labels that said “The Triangle Bank Disaster”, “The Fiasco with Dr. So-and-So”, “The Diamond Services Debacle”. Never fully understanding his illness, things like that always made me think he was faking, that he was playing some elaborate hoax.

The living will wasn’t in the file cabinet, though, and my sister couldn’t find it in the safe on the floor of his closet. Finally, she called me to talk over our options if we couldn’t find it. I said, “Well, I know he doesn’t want to be in that state. I mean, are we not allowed to kill our father?” Dark humor is a hallmark of our family and a gift I inherited from my dad.

In fact, we did have the right to make the call about leaving him on life support. My father’s mother and sisters supported us in making the decision. Talking to me on the phone, though, my sister said she’d feel a whole lot better if she had his official paperwork.

I suggested she sit at his desk and think like him, “He was so persistent in telling us about it, he had to put it somewhere obvious.” My sister sat in his rolling arm chair and spun around as we talked, then she said, “AHA!” From the angle where she was sitting, she could see that my dad’s closet safe had a thin shelf at the very top. It was the kind of thing you wouldn’t see if you were standing up and looking into it, but it was, indeed, obvious when you put yourself in my dad’s place.

Our family life had been on the decline for a while. I like to think it’s a William Faulkner kind of downfall, but it’s probably better suited for a Pat Conroy paperback. Before my parents got divorced in 1998, I would wait for the phone call to tell me they died in a murder-suicide. I could never decide who would do which part.

My dad, the bipolar alcoholic, and my mother, the three decade Multiple Sclerosis patient, had a relationship built on biting comments, sarcastic comebacks and tragic misunderstandings. Even though they got divorced, my mother and father could never let each other go. In those last five years of their lives, they still fought on the phone regularly and my dad would occasionally drive the three hours from his place to my mother’s apartment in Columbia, South Carolina, just to knock on her door, say something nasty, and drive back home again. I think that was how they loved each other.

I got a flight on Monday, February 3 and met my sisters in Fayetteville. My mother was too sick to make the trip, so we updated her by phone.

On Tuesday, we went to the hospital with the living will in hand and weren’t afraid to use it. In fact, I think our casual jokes about the whole situation disturbed one of his doctors, the one from India. The doctor from Fayetteville, though, the one who knew Daddy, gave us a compassionate smile when we laughed and said, “Good news! We’re gonna let him die!”

There was time for us to sit with my father, for his mother to sit with him, for his sisters to sit with him. One of his sisters recounted their father’s last days. He was a tyrant of a business man, successful, generous, but with a vicious temper. She said she asked him why he never told his children they did a good job at anything. My grandfather told her, “Because I thought that would make you stop trying.”

My grandmother sat in the room, but only by the door. I never saw her touch him. She looked down and said, “You think you’re doing the right thing…” It was the same day that President Bush spoke at the Space Shuttle Challenger memorial. She said she thought the President’s words were so kind – and then she started to cry. I went over to comfort her, which was the total wrong thing to do. She dried up, picked up her chin, and left.

It was Wednesday afternoon by the time we had everything cleared for my father to be taken off life support. The hospital set him up in a private room and let us know it might be hours, days, even weeks. There was no telling how long he’d live because at that time we weren’t even sure why he was dying. We had the account of his fall in the E/R, but no clear sense of what was really wrong. He had no brain function, but his reflexes remained strong. We hoped the final autopsy would answer the question.

Once he was off the ventilator, my father’s breathing got more labored. He had been a smoker since he was twelve, so it didn’t sound that different than usual.

My sisters and I planned on taking turns sitting by his side. We knew that he could hear us, if he was alive enough to understand it, so we tried talking to him even though it felt like we were just pretending he was listening.

My dad wasn’t always such a mess. He was wickedly smart, a Mensa member, a pilot, a businessman, a salesman, a City Councilman, a church choir member, an actor in community theatre and military training movies. He had a rich, booming voice and loved to dance and tell jokes. Looking at him in the bed I was mostly angry that we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. So much of his life had been like a movie, but in the end we didn’t get the cinema farewell, the chance to make peace. It didn’t seem a fitting end for his life.

Before we even had the chance to take shifts, though, it became clear my father wasn’t going to live for days or even hours. His breathing got weaker and his breaths farther apart. My sisters and I held tight and one of his sisters showed up in the room. The four of us held hands and stood around his bed.

I timed his breaths by the sweeping second hand on the clock. Twenty seconds, thirty seconds, his breaths got farther apart. Then his chest was still. We waited, but he didn’t breathe again. It was so subtle, the transition from life to death. There was no dramatic moment, just a slow slipping into the ever after. He was gone.

The door to my dad’s room was open, but we didn’t think about closing it. We were too focused on him, shocked into stillness by what happened. So, it was a surprise when a woman walked past, stopped and poked her head in the doorway. She said, “I’m just down the hall visiting with a friend and the Lord called me to come and be with you ladies.” I think we all wanted to close the door, but this being the South we simply couldn’t. That would be rude. Even in death, hospitality rules.

We all gave her weak smiles, but couldn’t say anything. She stepped into our circle, took our hands, closed her eyes and began to pray with passion and no concern for her volume, “LORD, comfort these women at this time of sadness. Let them know that this is YOUR plan, that YOU know what we need and what is right. Don’t let them worry about this man who they love so much, let them know that YOU will take him now, that YOU are the ALMIGHTY and that YOU love every one of us…” She went on and on and mostly what I remember is peeking through the prayer and exchanging glances with my sisters, holding back giggles.

The woman went on for several minutes before concluding and giving each of us long, hard hugs. We barely hug each other in my family, we were not prepared for this stranger. She held our hands again before backing out the door, glancing down the hall and quickly walking in the other direction.

There was nothing left to do but alert the staff and get the final preparations started. As we filed out of the room, though, my younger sister said, “Wait. Just wait. Just stand here for a minute.” So we did. We stood, looking at each other, glancing back at my dad’s body, waiting for her to say something. After about ten seconds she said, “Okay. We can leave. I just didn’t want that woman to be my last memory of Daddy.”

If asked, we wouldn’t have chosen to have that woman’s prayer at my father’s final moment. However, I think it’s what he wanted. He loved the outrageous display, the dramatic flair. He had no problem making a scene. For him, bigger was always better.

We planned a fitting funeral for my dad with a bagpipe player and an organ rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Friends who had witnessed his decline came to try to remember who he used to be. My mother’s mother came, even though he had been especially nasty to her, and told me, “I didn’t realize your father was so sick. I just didn’t know that he was really that sick.” She spoke the confusion that had been in the back of my mind as well. Mental illness is an illness, but it’s not always clear what that means until someone dies from it.

After the funeral, we waited more than two weeks for the autopsy, hoping it would reveal something about my father’s death, some hidden something that would explain everything. Perhaps the coroner would discover the reason he fell apart. Instead, we got the report that I quickly filed away in my important papers, a report I didn’t look at again  until a couple weeks ago.

Eleven years later, ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’ tells me nothing about what made such a gifted, big-hearted man spiral into such a mess. In all this time, I’ve looked at photos and remembered the good and bad times, but I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfying reason for why he had to die. So, today I dug deeper into the memories from that time that I locked away out of grief. I found the eulogy I gave for my dad.

I remember desperately wanting to be the one to give the eulogy. I didn’t want anyone else to get up there and apologize for him or lament everything he wasted or talk about how God would forgive him. I had been mourning the loss of my father for more than ten years by the time he died and I wanted to find something positive to say about his whole life.

I also remember feeling woefully under-equipped to put a positive spin on his death. Reading it now, I see how much my early training in speech and debate influenced my script. But, eleven years later, I think it may finally be time to take my own advice from 2003.

Here’s what I said:

DADDY WAS USUALLY THE ONE TALKING.

 AND THAT WAS THE GREATEST GIFT HE WOULD GIVE – TALKING TO YOU.

WHEN HE SAID, “UH. LEMME TELL YOU SOMETHING” – YOU KNEW IT WOULD PROBABLY BE WORTH YOUR TIME.

 YOU ASK ANYONE ABOUT ELBERT, OUR DAD, AND THEY WILL LEAN THEIR HEAD BACK, CLOSE THEIR EYES AND SMILE. THAT MEANS A STORY’S COMIN’. DADDY HAD A LOT OF STORIES AND THEY ARE ALL PRETTY REMARKABLE. YOU SEE, DADDY STEPPED OUT OF THE PAGES OF A GREAT NOVEL, ONE THAT HE WROTE THROUGH LIVING. AND WE SHARE IT WITH OTHERS BY TELLING HIS STORIES.

 WE ALL KNOW THAT HE WAS PROUD OF SERVING AS AN F-8 FIGHTER PILOT. THEY DON’T LET JUST ANYONE TOOL AROUND WITH A SUPERSONIC JET AND THEN LAND IT ON AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER. SOME OF YOU HERE TODAY KNOW THE ADVENTURES FROM THOSE DAYS.

 PLEASE, SHARE THOSE STORIES.

•   HE ONCE HITCHIKED AROUND THE COUNTRY

•   HE COULD LOOK ANYONE IN THE EYE AND SELL HIM A MATTRESS, A CAR, AN ANTIQUE COUCH, A WATCH

•   HE WAS A VERY GOOD GOLF PLAYER, A PHOTOGRAPHER AND A FISHER

•   HE HAD THE WORLD’S LARGEST VOCABULARY AND COULD DO THE NEW YORK TIMES CROSSWORD PUZZLE – IN PEN

•   HE TOOK UP ACTING AT THE AGE OF 46. NO PART WAS TOO SMALL FOR HIM TO HAM IT UP. HE WAS MARK TWAIN, THE BUTLER WHO DIDN’T DO IT, JUST A GUY ON THE TRAIN… IF YOU NEEDED A MEMORABLE ENTRANCE OR A ONE-LINE ZINGER TIMED JUST RIGHT – HE WAS YOUR MAN.

IF YOU KNEW ELBERT THE ACTOR, THE SALESMAN, THE PILOT… SHARE THOSE STORIES.

BECAUSE THAT’S REALLY WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO – SHARING THOSE REMARKABLE TALES.

WE LOOK BACK ON DADDY’S LIFE, AND IT IS A KALEIDOSCOPE OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND ESCAPADES – NOT A ONE OF THEM SMALL, TENTATIVE OR BORING.

IF ELBERT WANTED TO DO IT, HE DID IT WITH GUSTO. WE HONOR HIM BY SHARING THOSE STORIES.

WE CELEBRATE HIM BY SHARING THE TALES OF DADDY, ELBERT, ELBERT CURTIS, MR. JACKSON.

HOW DO WE MAKE SENSE OF THE THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN LIFE?

HOW DO WE ARRANGE THE JUMBLED FRAGMENTS?

BY REMEMBERING THE DETAILS.

I SEE HIM STANDING IN THE SUN, BESIDE HIS CONVERTIBLE FIAT, VIVALDI BLARING OUT OF THE STEREO, AVIATOR SUNGLASSES, BERMUDA SHORTS AND KNEE SOCKS.

IT’S A DETAIL, A MOMENT.

WHAT’S YOUR PICTURE?

NO ONE PERSON CAN SUM UP HIS LIFE. IT’S UP TO ALL OF US TO SHARE THE ELBERT WE KNEW WITH ONE ANOTHER.

OUR LEGACY IN LIFE COMES FROM WHAT WE HAVE DONE FOR OTHERS,
AND ELBERT DID WONDERFUL THINGS.

LET’S HOLD DEAR THE GOOD TIMES WE HAD WITH HIM AND SHARE THOSE TIMES AND KNOW THAT ELBERT WAS A GOOD MAN AND WE LOVED HIM – ALL OF US.

Fayetteville's Prince Charles Hotel, 1990

2014 Top 10: #3 The Injustice Of Cape Disappointment

As much as I want to avoid being a helicopter parent, the world doesn’t help me much. If I am supposed to let my kids take risks then someone needs to do something about sharp corners and dangerous strangers and gravity.

Things aren’t like they were in 70’s, when I grew up. We lived in a small town where I could bike around a little lake to the library and drugstore by myself, without a helmet. However, when I think back farther than childhood nostalgia, I recall how many kids in that town were paralyzed in accidents, were viciously attacked by dogs, and died in car crashes. The world wasn’t any less dangerous. I think we simply have a lower tolerance for tragic loss these days.

For all the times I have felt silly for being so protective, something like the #3 most-viewed post of 2014 happens.

***

originally posted July 18, 2014

***

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A friend and I took our kids camping at Cape Disappointment, Washington in early July. The area clocks in about 106 days of fog every year, so our chances of enjoying a sunny beach trip were slim. Plus, we had three kids under 10 between two moms. We didn’t expect it to be relaxing, and I took the State Park name as a reminder to keep my expectations low.

When we arrived, everyone from the park ranger to the store clerk to fellow campers warned us, “Don’t turn your back on the ocean.” It may look inviting, but sneaker waves and rip tides make it treacherous.

From our campsite, we could hear the roar of the Pacific, sounding like an Interstate full of cars. Added to the usual camping hazards – fire, axes, climbing trees, strange dogs, mosquitos, molten marshmallows, etc. – I anticipated 48 hours of lifeguard duty. My mantra of the trip looked to be, “Stop, Don’t Do That, Watch Out!”

My friend is a seasoned camper. I am not. She brings all the gear and know-how. I bring extra food and complaining.

As we set up the tent and unloaded equipment and fielded a thousand requests for risky adventures, I groused about how much it cost – mentally, emotionally, physically and financially – to give our kids happy memories. Luckily, after fourteen years as friends, my companion knew how to deal with me.

“The first thing you have to do is get over the injustice of it all.” We were talking about dealing with intense kids, our kids, the kind of kids who fulfill the curses our own mothers put on us when we tried their patience.

She told me she had to let go of the fact that children will find every flaw in a system and exploit it to their fullest advantage. And, there’s no way to enforce every rule, all the time, with complete accountability. Following rules is not a natural state of being. So, kids demand eternal vigilance from parents. A moment of inattention can result in tragic loss.

Motherhood requires personal payments of blood and pain and humiliation for the public profit of well-adjusted, vibrant, creative and productive adults. If you expect huge personal returns, you might be unhappy with the balance sheet. It’s a sketchy investment, and my friend advised that mothering was more manageable when she made peace with that fact.

I listened to her. Then I poured us each a jelly jar of wine. Once my glass was half-full, I decided to give her crazy idea a shot. I told myself that for the next 45 hours I would let go of the injustice of it all.

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By this time, we had a campfire going and we had to negotiate the acceptable parameters for stick burning and log poking. It’s all too easy to go from a little stoking to wielding a torch. In exchange for temperance around the flames, the kids demanded a spooky story. I pointed to my now half-empty glass, “Y’all are big enough, why don’t you tell a story yourself?”

My friend and I were entertained as her son, 8, and my son and daughter, 9 and 6, respectively, struggled to scare one another.

“It all happened at an abandoned toy store,” the 8 year old had the best grip on pint-sized terror. “These kids found it and inside… hanging from the ceiling… was a Barbie doll… WITH ONE EYE. Only, she could hypnotize people. And she made them… STRANGLE THE OTHER TOYS! She was possessed by a ghost who made her do it.”

“That’s not really spooky. It’s more… gruesome,” the 9 year old assumed the role of critic. When pressed to make up his own tale, he suggested his sister should try first.

The 6 year old started talking low and whispery. But, it became clear she was just telling the same story as the 8 year old. The boys shouted her down and she threw her hands in the air, “What?? That voice was totally scary.”

Finally, they joined in a chorus to beg me to tell them a story. I didn’t have one. But, I figured kids without a television or tablet would be too desperate for entertainment to judge harshly.

So, I drained my jelly jar and  launched in with a seed of an idea, a classic story starter. “Do y’all know how Cape Disappointment got its name?” The kids sucked on their juice boxes and shook their heads. I didn’t know, either, but I thought I’d see what I could make up on the fly.

“It happened more than 100 years ago, back in 1889. A lot of people from back East were moving out here to start new lives. They walked across the country or they took a boat to get here. Either way, it was a loooooong journey.
On one of the boats, three kids traveled with their families. They were coming from… New Jersey.”

The 8 year old jumped in, “I’ve been to New Jersey. My mom’s from there. We went to the beach.”

I raised my eyebrows, “Interesting, because that’s the exact beach where the kids left on the boat.”

“From the boardwalk?”

“Yes, those three kids walked that exact boardwalk to get on the boat.” Sometimes kids make a great, gullible audience.

My 9 year old spoke up, “Hang on. WE’RE three kids. How old were they?” He threatened to bust my tale before it got started.

“I don’t know. I just know when they were born. Let’s see… one boy was born in 1881, another boy in 1880… and his sister in 1883. What would that make them?”

Much finger counting commenced and the 9 year old reported in awe, “Oh. My. Gosh. They were the same age as we are!”

The 8 year old came dangerously close to wising up, “Yeah, I’ve heard this story before. At the library. It will be all about us, really. That’s how the story’s told.”

I knew I was about to lose them. “Really? Huh. Well, I don’t know what story you heard, but all I know how to do is tell the story as I know it. It didn’t occur to me that the kids were like y’all. You may not think you’re all that similar once you hear what happened to them.”

Then, I stopped pulling punches and let my imagination entertain ideas that would even scare me.

“So, the kids boarded a boat in New Jersey and sailed down the East Coast, down along South America, around Cape Horn, back up along the West Coast, past Mexico, past California and they got as far as right off this beach, out in the ocean.
They were on their way to Seattle to start new lives, working and going to school and all that.”

The 8 year old jumped in again, “Hey! I live in Seattle!”

“They sailed along this Cape one night and a huge storm blew in. Black rain clouds blotted out the stars, the wind whipped the water to twenty-foot swells.
The ship rocked side to side. The sails almost dipped into the water. The weather threatened to sink the ship.
Everyone scrambled for the life boats, women and children first. It was chaos and the three kids got separated from their mothers. A sailor grabbed them by the collars and threw them into a life boat… all by themselves. He put oars in their hands and told them to row for shore, ‘JUST DON’T STOP PADDLING!’

And then, the kids were out on the water, all alone. They frantically paddled, but the storm waves knocked them so much that they didn’t even know which direction to go. One by one, the wind tore the oars out of their hands.
And then, they felt a BUMP on the bottom of their little boat. Then again. BUMP! All three children peered over the edge of the life boat and saw underneath them… a WHALE. It was pushing them to shore.
Somehow, the whale kept them from capsizing and got them as close to shore as the breakers. Any closer and the whale would have been stuck.
A wave lifted their boat toward the beach. And when it looked like they were almost safe, another wave, a SNEAKER WAVE, smashed into their little boat and they all spilled into the water.
The children tumbled in the breakers and gasped for air, but instead got mouthfuls of salt and wet sand. They thrashed and kicked, but the waves beat them back down.

The next thing any of them knew, they were sprawled out on the beach, soaking wet, clothes torn, bare feet. They managed to find one another and they huddled together, shivering, until the sun rose up out of the forest.
The morning was beautiful, warm, gentle.
The ocean’s roar fell to a whisper.

The three children were hungry and went searching in the woods. They found berries and mushrooms. Back at the beach, an eagle swooped low and dropped a fish – still wriggling – at their feet.
Since they had all seen their mothers prepare fish, they knew what to do with it. Only, they couldn’t build a fire. So they just ate the fish raw. And it was pretty good.

By late morning, the children were feeling… kind of good. Most of the time, they were treated like little kids. But, they saw they survived the worst, most scary night and lived to see the sun rise again. The animals seemed to help them, so maybe they weren’t totally alone.
Soon, they were making plans for new lives – all on their own.

They called it, ‘Kidtopia’. It would have a queen and two kings. They planned to climb the rocky cliffs and build a marvelous castle overlooking the ocean.
They started to even feel a little excited. Living on their own, by their own rules, no one to tell them what to do, meeting the animals and running free of clothes and chores.
And just as they started to sing the new National Anthem of Kidtopia, they heard someone yelling.

Then they heard two people yelling. Then, they could see two women, way in the distance, running toward them.
They recognized the coats and long dark hair of their mothers.

The children ran to meet their mothers and hugged them long and hard. Then, their mothers told them that, miraculously, everyone survived. Even the ship weathered the storm and would be ready to sail again in a day’s time.

And their mothers said, ‘Wonderful news, we can row back to the ship and still make it to Seattle in time for all of you to… START SCHOOL!’

And do you know how those children felt?”

My 9 year old said, “Pretty bad.” My 6 year old groaned. The 8 year old said, “NOOOOO!”

I said, “Yeah, they were DISAPPOINTED.”

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The next day we did our best to fulfill the kids’ wishes and do everything the Park had to offer. Sand castles and scooter rides and meeting every other child in the campground. Having been admonished to only swim at the mouth of the Columbia River, never in the ocean, we let the kids jump the smallest waves at the very edge of the water on a beach called Waikiki. (It offers little competition to its Hawaiian namesake.) They claimed the land and renamed it, ‘Kidtopia’.

Through it all, my friend and I were hawk mothers. We called out when they climbed too high on the rocks, we swooped in when they got in water over their knees. We laid a blanket in the sand and barely sat on it because the kids kept finding some new danger, like climbing the creaky driftwood sculptures people built on the beach.

07-04-14 Cape Disappointment-4

During the five minutes we both happened to get off our feet, we each wondered if we were being too careful, if we should just lay off, not worry so much. Then, we watched a Coast Guard boat speed across the horizon, heading north, so fast that it caught air as it cut across the choppy waves.

When we got back to our campsite late in the afternoon we couldn’t hear the ocean. Instead, the air was full of the sound of helicopters. My friend is a reporter, and a news hound to the core. She followed the sounds back to the beach to see what was happening. I took kid patrol, continuing my mantra, “Stop, Don’t Do That, Watch Out!”

After a half-hour my friend came back, sadness on her face. No one official was on the beach, but the talk among the crowd was that two pre-teens had been swimming in the ocean and a sneaker wave pulled them out to sea. The helicopters were searching for them. As she told me this, another helicopter joined the search, flying low over our heads on its way to the beach.

We followed our camp schedule for the rest of the night, burgers on the grill, campfire, s’mores, scooter time, tree climbing, tooth brushing, but no story. That night the story was still in process.

Three hours after the search started, the helicopters still circled. Four hours after the search started, the helicopters still circled. I climbed into my sleeping bag, my children on either side of me in their bags. They grabbed my hands and put their heads on my shoulders. I listened to the helicopters and thought about the mother of those children.

Everyone warned us not to swim in the ocean. Had anyone warned her? Did she even know her kids had gone in the water? Was this the result of one moment of inattention? Did she see it happen? Was she listening to the helicopters, too?

I wrapped my arms around my kids and pulled them in tight. I prayed for the other mother whose children were alone in the ocean. I wished for them to have a benevolent whale, a miraculous salvation.

I tried to get over the injustice of it all.

Beach walkers found the body of Lindsey Mustread, 11, floating in the surf of Bolstad Beach  on Saturday morning. The search was called off for her body Thursday night after she was presumed drowned.

Lindsey Mustread, 11, and her brother, Kenneth, 9, were caught by surprise in a riptide off the shore of Long Beach, Wash.

2014 Top 10: #4 The Reality Of Fantasy

My son was four years old before he asked me, “Mom, do you have parents?” I said, “I do, but they died before you were born.” Thus began The Day Of Big Questions.

From morning till late afternoon, in between PBS shows and over PB&J, I fielded, “Why did they die?”, “How did they die?”, “Did they know they were dying?”, “Who else dies?”, “Does it hurt?”, “Do we HAVE to die?”, and repeatedly, “HOW do you die? I mean, what happens?”. I gave him as simple an answer to each one as I possibly could – but I’m not so good at simple answers. Inevitably, my responses would wander into philosophical possibilities, or a survey of world religions, or scientific explanations.

Finally, as the setting sun bathed the living room in a golden light, he said, “But, if all we do is die in the end, then why even live in the first place?!?” I told him, “That’s a question almost every human has asked. But, the real answer is up to you. Why do you think we live?”

He thought for a minute, “Well… I think it’s to… swim… and to laugh… and to love. Yeah, I think that’s why we live. How about you, mom?”

I thought for a minute. Swimming, laughing, and loving all sounded like great reasons. I said, “I’m going with your answer. That’s real good one.”

He said, “I love this game! Let’s play “Why Do We Live” again!!” And so we spent the next half-hour naming off all the experiences that make life worth living.

Within a few days, my son was on to another obsession. I think it was Thomas the Tank Engine. I, however, continue to play the “Why Do We Live” game to this day. It’s a wonderful meditation when melancholy pays me a visit.

I thought of that day when I wrote the post that occupies the #4 spot on my 2014 Top 10. Kids need lots of guidance and supervision, but as often as not, I find raising them ends up teaching me more about myself.

***

originally published on March 7, 2014

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9 year old's drawing of a dragon on a pile of bones

The worksheet asked third graders to determine whether creatures and characters were “real” or “fantasy”. My son made aggressive air quotes around the words as he told me about the assignment. His voice trembled with outrage, “There were pictures of dragons and fairies and unicorns and the whole thing was about how those things weren’t really real!”

The assignment was light-hearted busy work during his weekly academic enrichment class. It was supposed to fill time before lunch, but my son took it as a personal affront.

“I walked up to my teacher’s desk and told her I couldn’t do the worksheet because of my beliefs.”

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I braced myself for the rest of his story, wondering if I would soon receive a call from his teacher. Growing up in a small Southern town, there was a distinct line between what was acceptable and what was devil worship. I learned early on to demarcate imagination from faith, never talking about my fascination with unicorns and magic in church or in school.

When I was in third grade, we had a special guest come into our class to tell us how to identify Satanists and to be aware how they were trying to snatch us from our loving families. It was 1982. Parents worried about the mental  and moral damage caused by Ozzy Osbourne, Procter& Gamble and games like Dungeon & Dragons. This was the same year that the made-for-TV movie “Mazes and Monsters” aired. The boundary between reality and fantasy had to be firm, or else we would all end up trapped in our imaginary worlds, like poor Tom Hanks.

As careful as I had to be in public arenas, at home my mother welcomed conversations about the nature of reality. I could ask her all the questions that made my Sunday School teacher go pale. And if I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t accept something, she made it clear that I had to develop my own understanding of the world, that my faith could be my own.

My mother identified as a Christian without reservation, but she loved to probe the greater mysteries. She read Edgar Cayce. She talked about the possibility of multiple planes of existence, “A train could be rushing through this room right now in another dimension.” She would pose provocative questions.

In one Bible study she posited that Jesus was reincarnated, “The Bible says that Jesus knew what it was to be human in every way, but he didn’t do everything that humans do in his life. He didn’t kill, he didn’t steal, he didn’t marry. How could he know? What if,” she would get a twinkle in her eye when she asked ‘what if’, “What if Jesus lived before? What if Jesus had been Adam, Noah, Abraham, David? He would have had all those very human experiences, so when he came back as Savior, he could truly know what it meant to be human.”  The members of her group shifted uncomfortably and let her question hang in the air without response. My mother told me about it with a sense of a humor, “I guess they hadn’t thought of that before.”

In 1984 “The Neverending Story” came out. My mom and I watched it together. We got it on Beta tape (my mother was insistent that Betamax was superior to VHS and that she would only get the best technology) and watched it over and over, especially the saddest part.

“It’s the Swamp of Despair!” She told me about “Pilgrim’s Progress”, the 17th century Christian allegory that included a swamp where the hero sinks under the weight of his fears and guilt. She bought me my own copy of the book so we could discuss the significance of the image in relation to our real lives. “That’s what depression is, Megan. It will pull you under, but you have to have faith that you will be rescued, even when it all seems hopeless. That swamp isn’t reality, it’s not more powerful than God’s love.”

For years afterward, we would talk about our challenges in terms of the fantastic characters and situations of “The Neverending Story”, especially the idea that wishes, our hopes for the world, are the things that make that the future. All of my mother’s words carried more weight because she talked to me from her electric cart, unable to walk or work due to Multiple Sclerosis. She knew what it was to be immobilized, to lose the ability to meet the rest of the world, to feel stuck and alone due to circumstances beyond her control.

Reality for her was often full of pain and limitations, so she fiercely protected the freedom to think what she wanted, to believe in the ideas that kept her going through her own Swamp of Despair. Even though she couldn’t take me out to parks or on long trips, she helped me travel the galaxy and explore alternate dimensions through imagination. And she always made clear, “We don’t really know what’s real and what isn’t. With God, anything is possible.” It’s a gift I treasure, a lesson that shaped how I see the world.

Still, I have struggled with my son’s vivid fantasy world. When he was in kindergarten, I’d interrupt his flights of fancy to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating or expecting an actual dragon to be hiding behind the tree. He’d look at me with disappointment and concern, “I know Mom. It’s IMAGINATION.” I can’t shake that early warning about Tom Hanks, I guess.

My instinct is to tell him to hide his “beliefs”, downplay its importance to him, couch it in terms that won’t upset people. I imagine the judgment of my upbringing and don’t want him to get labeled or outcast. Perhaps even more, I don’t want to be accused of being a bad mother. That’s why I’ve been trying to remember my own mother, to reach back to the years before she died, before she got so sick that even fantasy couldn’t break through the pain and disability. What would she say to my nine-year-old son?

I didn’t take detailed notes of her words, I didn’t get a hard drive of her brain, I don’t yet have a phone that makes calls to the afterlife (iSeance, anyone?). If I want my son to learn from the woman who taught so much to me, to know her as more than just a picture in a frame, I have to conjure her from my memories. To have her wisdom and presence in the present, I can’t worry about what fits societal norms for “reality”. The only way to keep her real in my life is through fantasy.

When my son told me about protesting his assignment, he wasn’t looking for approval or advice. He felt confident about his actions, firm in standing up for his right to maintain his “beliefs”.

I tried to remain neutral, allowing the incident to be his own, “How did your teacher respond?”

He said, “She said she knows plenty of people who can see things that aren’t supposed to be real. She said she has friends who say they can see angels, and she believes them. Then she gave me a math problem that was so hard it took me till lunch to figure it out!”

That was it. He ran into the other room to play Minecraft. Even though I was prepared to tell him all about what my mother told me, he didn’t need it. He was fine in his “beliefs”. I was the one who was having a problem. I was the one who needed advice on how to handle being woo-woo without apology.

So I asked myself, “What would my mother say to me?”

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2014 Top 10: #5 A Lousy Labor For A Great Kid

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My six-year-old lost her first tooth on Christmas Eve. Two days later my nine-year-old son lost a tooth as well.

Sibling rivalry exists even below the gum line.

Waiting for those teeth to break free, I found myself repeating the kind of advice I got when I was giving birth.

“It will happen in its own time.”

“Don’t try to rush it or it will just hurt more.”

“Yes, there is pain, but it will pass.”

“You’re not dying. This is a natural part of living.”

“The waiting is the hardest part.”

“Don’t panic. Just breathe.”

“Something new wants to be born, that’s why your body is changing.”

“You did it! Bravo!”

No one required an epidural, luckily. Even so, I remembered why I wrote the #5 most-viewed post of 2014.

Whether it’s losing a tooth, remodeling the kitchen, going to slay a dragon, or starting a new career, the pain, concentration and screaming reward of any new journey has a lot in common with having a baby. For years, I’ve wanted to write the stories that talk to me in my head, but I just couldn’t push them out. Finally, last February I decided the only way to get over the first, big step was to revisit an experience that I wanted to forget.

***

originally published February 2, 2014

***

My son turned nine yesterday and I’ve never written down his birth story.

I hoped I could give him a tale of more courage and less pride,

but I hate lying to kids.

A painted sky moments after his birth
Sunset, moments after his birth

 

By the time this photo was taken, I was surprised either one of us was alive. It wasn’t the most traumatic birth, but my midwife repeatedly told me that it was “the lousiest labor I’ve seen in a while”.

It started at 8:00 am on January 31, 2005 with a small white pill.

Having been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, I was lucky that my care providers were willing to let me go forty-one weeks, one week past my due date. Even though I had no other complications, statistics showed that my risk of having a baby too large to birth vaginally got significantly higher the longer the pregnancy went. I fought to postpone intervention since my 38th week, but finally agreed to try inducing labor by taking the drug Cytotec. It’s no longer approved for labor induction, but at the time it was considered a less extreme method than Pitocin.

My older sister flew out from North Carolina to be with me, my husband was by my side and my doula was on call as I sat in the Labor & Delivery Suite of St. Joe’s Hospital in Tacoma. They watched me swallow the pill. Then, we were free to leave and wait for the magic to happen.

On the way out of the hospital we saw another couple in the elevator. The mom-to-be looked discouraged. She had also tried Cytotec, but her labor didn’t start. She was probably going to get even more intervention. I prayed that I wouldn’t. All I wanted was a beautiful, transcendent birth where everything went exactly according to my plan.

My husband and I had taken Bradley Method classes to prepare and I was determined to do the whole thing without any medication. My older sister recommended I take Bradley classes because they had helped her deliver her second two kids naturally after an emergency C-section with her first.

A few weeks earlier I told my midwife I was only worried about the pain, whether I could handle it. She looked at me with a blank face and said, “Well, it’s gonna hurt.” I couldn’t believe her callousness.

My doula, who had four kids of her own, told me to moderate my expectations. She pointed to her own difficult labors, each with complications that required intervention. Only on her fourth birth was she able to deliver according to her wishes, and her description of that one was nothing like the calm, spiritual water birth I felt was necessary to bring my first child into the world. I wondered why my doula was so discouraging, whether she doubted I was strong enough to handle it.

Up until this point in my life, I had been able to will my way through most every challenge. Perhaps because I’m an Aries I found that putting my head down, setting my jaw and plowing forward was an excellent method for getting anything done. I saw no reason that giving birth would be any different. So, when I started getting contractions about 5:00 pm while we walked the neighborhood, I thought, “Bring it on.”

Back in my living room we put Jill Scott’s “Golden” on the stereo.

Feel free to take the time to listen to that song and imagine a kid emerging to his first breath with a voice like that singing about living life like it’s golden.
I did.
I felt the first waves of labor and could see the radiant miracle.

If you’d like to keep that image, stop reading here.

Within a couple of hours the contractions got more intense, piling one on top of another. I ended up sitting on the stairs of our house, moaning and rocking. The pain was intense enough that I couldn’t talk or smile or focus on anything except breathing. That’s usually a good indicator that labor is at its peak, the baby’s coming soon.

We packed up and went to the hospital about 10:00 pm. The general agreement was that I’d have the baby by midnight. As we checked in at the front desk, I was doubled over in a wheelchair, moaning loudly. The attendant felt certain I might give birth in the hallway. I only remember the process by people’s voices, I held my face in my hands.

The staff got me into a delivery room, one with a large tub just like I hoped. It seemed like I would get that water birth after all.

Based on my physical state, my midwife said, “I see you’re in pain and I can offer you this comfort, it looks like you’re about to be over with this soon.” But when they got my clothes off and my midwife checked my cervix, I had only dilated 2 centimeters.

The magic number in birth is 10 centimeters. When the cervix is dilated 10 centimeters, the uterus is ready for the baby to be pushed out. Before I got pregnant I didn’t realize that the real hard work and the worst pain of having a baby comes from that dilation. To find out that I was only twenty percent of the way, that everything so far had yielded so little progress, I collapsed onto the bed.

When the staff hooked me up to the labor monitor, the green lines on the black screen showed that my contractions were irregular, random and ineffective. This is the first time I heard my midwife use the term “lousy” with my labor. No one ever said the use of Cyctotec could have been the problem, although it might have contributed. It was used off-label at the time and was known to occasionally induce very hard labors. Instead, I heard “lousy” and thought she was describing me, my efforts at laboring.

I reached deep into my head and screwed down my intention as far as it would go. I told myself I’d make it through the birth without any more medication or I would die. I would not accept that my first act as a mother was “lousy”.

The next ten hours sucked for everyone on that floor of the hospital. I was on the birthing ball, on my knees, in the tub, on the toilet, in the shower, on the bed, never in any clothes. I cried and moaned my way through rounds of contractions that didn’t get me any closer to the magic 10. My body wasn’t following a standard trajectory.

The pain was the worst in my back. My midwife came to the conclusion that the baby wasn’t in the best position. My uterus was spinning him around to get him into the right place. I had the dreaded BACK LABOR.

When I was preparing for natural childbirth, I often tried to imagine the pain. I thought that as long as it wasn’t like getting cut in half with a chainsaw I could probably handle it. For me, back labor was *exactly* like getting cut in half with a chainsaw. I knew I had brought it on myself, like the Ghostbusters getting the Stay-Puft marshmallow man as their destructor.

That night is a blur of faces and voices in my memory, but I do remember wondering if they’d let me leave it all for a few minutes. I thought someone had the authority to let me press pause, put on a coat, go home for a little, especially if I could promise, promise, promise to come back and pick up right where I left off in a day or two. In truth, there was no relief.

My sister got a break and went out to the nurses station in the center of the floor. My moaning echoed off the concrete floors. One of the nurses shivered and said, “I hate hearing that.” My sister found out it wasn’t because of the labor, but because people claim that floor is haunted and I sounded just like a ghost.

I kept thinking, “Surely this is almost over. Surely if I hold on a little longer it will be done. I have to be strong enough, I have to be. I can’t give up. If I’m not dying, then I can  and will do this.” Finally, the sun started to rise and the sky outside the window got brighter. My sister politely closed the blinds, knowing the dawn of a second day would discourage me.

At 8:30 am my midwife said the hospital clock was ticking on my labor. My cervix had only dilated to 3 centimeters. She advised that my bag of waters should be broken to help speed labor. She also wanted to start Pitocin, to push the dilation along. For me, speeding labor and pushing dilation would mean increasing the pain.

I’d been laboring intensely for twelve hours by that time. I had been up all night. I was exhausted by pain and crying and that screw down deep in my head was failing. I knew I had to keep going, that to ask for medication, for relief, was to admit complete failure.

The midwife, the doula, my sister and my husband all sat around me, looking at me intently. It was ultimately my decision. I could say no to anything. They just needed to know what I wanted.

I wanted to be in control. I wanted to show them all I was strong enough to withstand the trial of childbirth. I wanted to be better than “lousy”.

My doula said, “Remember Megan when I said you had to check your expectations? You have worked hard and you still have work to do. This isn’t what you wanted, and you need to make a decision based on what IS happening.” My doula said this as she nursed a migraine that came on during the night, probably due to all my screaming.

I looked at my husband and he just cried. He had been holding my hand, my head, my entire weight at various points the whole night. He had gray hairs that weren’t there the morning before.

I looked at my sister. More than anything, I wanted to do it for her. I wanted to make my sister proud that I could do it just like she did. If I asked for help, if I took pain medication, I felt like I’d let her down. I whispered to her, “I’m sorry. I can’t do any more.”

My sister smiled, “There’s a reason there are pain medications, Megan. You’ve done a lot. No one can say you didn’t work, you didn’t put everything into doing what you could. But, you don’t have to keep doing it this way. What do you need?”

I didn’t want to say it. I had hoped at one point that I’d black out or go into a coma and then they’d have no choice but to drug me and take over.  Regardless, I stayed conscious and alert and responsible for my medical decisions. If I was going to get relief, I had to say that I wanted it. For me, asking for help is just about the most painful thing. Labor, as it turned out, was the only thing more painful.

I hung my head in shame and said, “I need something to help me with this pain. If I can have help, something, I would like it now.”

The whole room exhaled, the staff sprang into action. Having admitted the pain was too much, it felt worse than ever. I curled up on my side and didn’t care who poked what or where on me. The screw in my mind, the one that held in place the promise that I would “make it through the birth without medication or I would die”, busted loose. As far as I could reason at that moment, I was dying.

One nurse hooked my IV up to fentanyl. A nurse promised the anesthesiologist would arrive in less than twenty minutes and she counted down every minute until he got there. He made it in less than fifteen. As he prepped my back for the epidural, he muttered, “I don’t know why anyone would want to put up with this pain.” My sister glared at him. I accepted his judgment. It sounded to me like, “Sheesh, why would such a lousy woman put everyone else through this when she clearly couldn’t handle it?”

Then the medication took hold and I passed out, feeling like the next few hours would be my last.

Silence returned. My husband crawled into the birthing tub and took a nap. Everyone else tried to get sleep.

My husband asleep in the birth tub

 

My body and the Pitocin worked together for the next eight hours while I slept.

At 4:00 pm on February 1, 2005, my midwife came back to check on me. I was finally dilated to 10 centimeters. The epidural had worn off enough that I was feeling contractions and could move my legs a little. It was the perfect time to push. But, I had no will.

The hard part of me, the part of me that pushed through everything, that knew how to make things happen no matter the odds, was broken. I said, “I don’t feel like doing anything.” I thought for sure that whatever I did I was going to end up with a C-section.

Then, a new nurse came in to the room. Her name was Kevin. She also happened to be a midwife, but was working as a nurse. She was calm and casually tucked in the sheet on the bed.

She said, “Do you mind if I check and see if you are even able to push? Since you had the epidural, you might not be able to push on your own right now. So, if you can just give it a try, I’ll know if it’s even a good idea to ask you to push.” She reminded me of an elementary school teacher, kind of like my mother. She clearly expected very little of me and very little was exactly what I felt like I could do.

So, I gave a little effort. She said, “Hey! That was a better push than I thought. It may have just been lucky, though. Can you do it a second time?”  I took the bait. I pushed a second time to show her what was lucky and what wasn’t.

She said, “You know, you don’t have to push now, your body will get around to it anyway. So, what do you say we take another tiny practice here while you’re rested?” Again, it was so non-committal, the stakes were so low, I figured I could give it a try.

In a few minutes, the tiny practice pushes became bona fide baby pushing and I was surrounded by my husband, my doula, my sister, my midwife and two nurses, all yelling at me, “PUSH!” The shift from low pressure to high pressure was so sudden I felt tricked, but I knew deep down that I needed every one of them giving me as much encouragement as they could.

There was a moment when my son’s heartbeat dropped and the crisis team rolled in with more monitors and oxygen. Kevin had me get on my hands and knees. I was scared. When I’m scared, I make jokes – even if I’m in pain. I made a “Blue Velvet”  reference through the oxygen mask to see if anyone would laugh.

Everything about birth seems to hold the specter of death. At any moment, it could all go to shit. And, with all the tubes and the machines and the loved ones around me I kept thinking that the last time I’d been in a hospital, I watched my mother die. I watched my father die four months before that. But, I had never seen life begin. My initial expectations had been for a soft-lit, ecstatic delivery. By that time I just hoped we’d both be alive.

Changing positions worked. My baby’s heartbeat came back strong. The pushing got stronger as my body seemed to get the idea and the contractions worked with me. A nurse wheeled in a giant mirror and asked if I wanted to watch the progress as I pushed the baby out. I said, “OH GOD NO!! I’m barely doing this as it is. No WAY I want to SEE IT!”

My midwife sat between my legs, giving me the play by play. “I see the head! Nope, it’s back in. Push a little further. There’s the top of his head again. Dang, if he just had more hair I’d grab it and pull from this end. One of these pushes should work eventually.”

My sister asked if they had a ‘squat bar’. They did. With my legs propped up by my ears, my husband held my shoulders, my doula looked me in the face and said, “PUSH!!” I cried, “Why are you all so mean to me??” I only kept pushing because I didn’t know what everyone would do to me if I stopped.

At 5:16 pm, when I was sure the midwife was going to call it all off, tell me I was “lousy” at pushing, when I felt like my heart was going to pop out of my chest and it would be the end of me, my son emerged from my body, eyes wide open. He had his left hand against his chin, like a Jack Benny reaction shot. As his shoulders emerged, he took a huge poop. For me, it was the creepiest slippery fish feeling as the rest of his body slid into the open air.

When they put him on my chest, I recognized my eyes. Through all that time, I forgot that he would be a real human being. I had forgotten everything except trying to survive. And yet, there he was. He was clearly my son. And, despite the whole lousy circumstances of his arrival, I was undeniably his mother.

Mother and Son, seeing each other for the first time

It was another hour before they wheeled me out of the delivery room, but I must have still had a lot of narcotics in my system. I held my infant son and said to my husband, “Ok, so NEXT time I have a baby…”

2014 Top 10: #6 To Hadley And Hadley Not

12-26-14 Homer-1

This is what the kids gave my husband for Christmas yesterday. If it wasn’t for Homer, we probably wouldn’t ever have family dinners.

The magazines tell me that I should aim for four meals a week around a table together, but what then? If quick-cook meal commercials were correct, we would all explode into hilarious anecdotes, smiling as we chewed our beefy-mac and talked at the same time, toasting one another with our milk glasses. My family does none of that.

I enforced a few years of diligent table dining, complete with “What was the highlight of your day?” conversation starters. No one enjoyed them. The kids pouted and just pushed at their food. My husband and I gave each other tight smiles. We ended up shoveling our plates clean – or not – and then slinking off to our respective evening entertainment.

Then, we discovered the nightly repeats of The Simpsons. With back-to-back episodes at seven AND seven-thirty, for one whole hour a day we all have a common love. Of course there are many jokes the kids miss, and many that we just talk loud over so they won’t hear enough to question. But, there are plenty of episodes that get us talking – even if it’s just about how we DON’T ACT LIKE BART. OKAY??

The laughs draw us to living room to eat, plates perched on TV trays. Sometimes, though, the show seems to have an eerie correspondence with our real lives, like an animated oracle. That’s what I wrote about in the #6 most-viewed post of 2014.

***

originally published February 15, 2014

***

Rather than joining the throngs of happy, loving couples eating out on Valentine’s Day, my husband and I celebrated with some quick pasta for the whole family at home. We all sat on the couch and ate on trays in front of the television as we watched the nightly Simpson’s syndication on Seattle’s JOE TV.

It was the episode, “The Daughter Also Rises”. Whoever programs the reruns must be monitoring my reading habits.

Early in the show, Lisa spies a boy at the next table through a crack in a restaurant booth. He’s reading “A Farewell to Arms”.

My husband turned to me and said, “Hey, just like your book!”

I’ve been reading “The Paris Wife”, by Paula McLain. It tells the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their life together in France during the early 1920’s.

I am not a fan of Hemingway. In his work I’m most likely to identify with the people he hates. As a woman, I feel like I’m not really invited into his world.

A new friend recommended the novel, though. I only agreed to borrow it if she promised that Hemingway didn’t get a whitewash. “‘Cause I think he’s a jerk, okay?” I surprised myself by how emphatic I was, but she said she didn’t like him either and that’s why she wanted me to read it, so she could talk trash about him with someone else. I started reading it a week ago.

In The Simpsons episode, Lisa meets the boy from the booth next door at the dessert buffet. She learns his name is Nick. He quotes Hemingway, Lisa swoons.

Due to my aforementioned distaste of Hemingway, I don’t know that much about him. But, I felt a little smug at this point in the show because I read in “The Paris Wife” that “Nick Adams” was the main character of many of his short stories about his early life.

Despite my aforementioned distaste of Hemingway, I did get drawn into the novel about his marriage. There’s a scene in “The Paris Wife” soon after they get married. Ernest reveals to Hadley that he has to sleep with the light on, his World War I flashbacks overwhelm him in the dark.

Hadley recognizes his pain. Her father committed suicide when she was a girl. Hadley stays up all night in a chair by the bed, watching over Ernest like he was a newborn. At that point, my heart opened up for them, two lovers bound together by tragedy.

Once the newlyweds move to Paris, though, I struggled to lose myself in their romance. Living off Hadley’s small trust fund, they rent an apartment with communal piss pots on every stair landing. They only escape the squalor of their neighborhood by going to lunches with extravagantly wealthy friends. Ernest refuses any charity from the rich, but he doesn’t resent having Hadley completely pay his way.

She and Ernest drink to oblivion on most nights. She has little interest in creative work of her own, she dedicates herself to supporting her husband’s dream.

Ernest spends his days writing in seclusion and Hadley keeps house and shops by  herself. One day, she walks a block away from the dazzling market vendors to find an alley full of rotten meat and garbage and refuse from the week’s unsold goods.

I laughed out loud at the Simpson’s episode, then, when Lisa joins her new beau at  “Le Petite Appétit”. She holds up her hands to block out the vision of Barney puking in the dumpster and Gil bathing in the fountain so she only sees a fantasy of Parisian cafe life with Nick.

I said, “That’s what Hadley had to do! Wait a minute. Holy crap. Did the writers also read “The Paris Wife”?” I checked the broadcast date of the show and cross-referenced it to the release of the book. The show aired early in 2012, the book was first released in 2011. It was possible, and I hoped the writers had read the novel because I was having trouble finishing it.

The deeper the novel goes into the Hemingways’ marriage, the harder it was for me to imagine myself in the world. It’s written in Hadley’s voice and I felt trapped in her sad, outsider view. I kept waiting to see her “as wife and as one’s own woman”, like Entertainment Weekly promised in their front page blurb. It never came.

When Hadley accidentally loses the suitcase that holds all of Ernest’s writing, every last sheet of it, I shut the book. I had to go online to make sure the novelist didn’t make it up. She did not.

In real life, Hadley packed a bag with all of his work, including copies and notes, and it got stolen. Ernest gets mad when she tells him, but not nearly as mad as when she tells him she’s pregnant.

Hadley says in the book that she loves Ernest and is happy just to know he couldn’t do his work without her. I don’t love Hemingway and I was unhappy to suffer any of his terrible personality, even through historical fiction. By the time his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, shows up on the scene, a mistress posing as Hadley’s friend, I was ready to leave the whole love triangle between closed covers.

Even the prospect of trash talking Hemingway couldn’t get me through the rest of the book. I still had eighty pages to go in “The Paris Wife” on Valentine’s Day, when we happened upon the re-broadcast of “The Daughter Also Rises”.

In the final scene, Lisa takes off for a romantic rendezvous with Nick, but things go awry. Grandpa Simpson gets pulled over as he drives them to the beach, Nick pushes Lisa until she says “Ow!”, Nick lets a branch smack her in the face as they run through the underbrush, he offers little help rowing the boat to their romantic island destination and he complains of the cold. As they are just about to kiss, Hadley Richardson shows up in Lisa’s imagination.

Hadley advises Lisa against falling for Nick. Then, Pauline appears in the bubble and agrees that “Tortured writers make lousy husbands.”

I whooped out loud, “What are the chances!? JOE TV ran this episode based on the novel I’m pointedly *not* reading right now!” It felt enough like serendipity to inspire me to read the rest of the book. It had to be good if the Simpsons skewered it.

Before I read the last section, I checked online for any reviews of the episode. I wanted to see how someone else interpreted the satire of the book. Surprisingly, no one mentioned it.

The fan reviews of the episode are negative. I agree it’s a pretty shaggy plot. In fact, I remember seeing it the first time it came out and thinking that I could probably give up my appointment watching of the show. But, I wasn’t reading “The Paris Wife” at the time.

I Googled every which way, but I could only find one single reader comment that even mentioned a connection. In all the Internet, just this:

  •  I’m kind of surprised there is no mention of “The Paris Wife,” as this episode is clearly a parody of the book (which was based on the real-life experiences of Hemingway and his first wife).

frey78, you’re not alone.

I stayed up late and read the novel through to the end. It was disappointing.

According to the novel, Hadley never stops loving Ernest. She accepts another man, but when she hears of his suicide decades later, she wistfully returns to romantic memories of their time in France. I only remembered the pissoirs, snobbery, and alcoholism.

As I crawled into bed with my husband, he asked, “Well? What’d you get out of the book?” I thought for a long time, looking for the most spare and true way to relate my reaction and came up with, “Meh.” My expectations for books are probably too high.

I woke up this morning with a bad attitude about reading “The Paris Wife”. I felt suckered into spending those hours giving Hemingway’s persona even more validation. I was pissed that I felt compassion for him when he was young and fragile. It hurt me that Hadley never developed her own creative voice. Worst of all, the writer stayed very close to actual events, so I knew it was all really that sad. What’s the use of historical fiction if you don’t rewrite the worst parts?

That’s when I sought refuge in The Simpsons. We actually bought the episode on Amazon to examine it for any hope.

The episode we saw is called, “The Daughter Also Rises”, but the main plot is about Bart and Milhouse cracking school myths in a parody of “MythBusters”. After they dispel everything, including the classic dead girl  in the bathroom mirror, Dolf, the bully, says, “So school is just everything we see?” All the kids walk away morose, very similar to my feeling when I finished the novel.

Bart realizes he has to do something. “I can’t be the one who killed everyone’s fun!”

Milhouse and Groundskeeper WereWillie restore the magical fantasy for Springfield Elementary.

For me, the idea of busting myths made sense of “The Paris Wife”. The author, Paula McLain, pops the illusion of Hemingway the “Champ”. His feats of masculinity come across as desperate acts of self-making, funded by wealthy wives and fueled by the kind of smoke and mirrors publicity that was easier before the days of the World Wide Web.

At the end of “The Daughter Also Rises”, Marge braves water walkers to save Lisa from falling for Nick. Once she gets there, Lisa is just fine. She knows how to take care of herself.

Lisa does get a kiss from a true love, her mother. It’s not romantic, of course, but the whole episode starts with Marge sending Homer off with Bart so she can spend Valentine’s with Lisa.

Nurturing, functional, family love, not really the stuff of great literature, possibly a myth as well, is the prize of the episode. It’s what gave Lisa the self-confidence to see past romantic illusions. It’s what both Hadley and Ernest were missing, and what they couldn’t build together.

While I never fell for Hemingway the writer, I have succumbed to romantic illusions and men who were mostly myth. The dream of a dazzling lifestyle as a celebrated artist has also afflicted me, making me feel like my current situation is as bland as Hadley. But now, I have a different perspective on the gift of spending Valentine’s Day dinner eating on the couch with my husband and children.

 

File this under ‘blog post talking about a cartoon that’s a satire of a novel that’s a historical fiction account of a famous novelist writing about something that actually happened to him because he wanted to be a famous writer who everyone talked about’.

You win this round, Hemingway.

 

2014 Top 10: #7 It’s All About Tone: Listening To David Candow

On Christmas Eve, 2002, a group of six Magellanic penguins arrived at the San Francisco Zoo. Rather than settling into their new burrows, they began the annual winter migration they take in the wild, two-thousand miles, from Argentina to Brazil and back.

The transplanted penguins swam, circling in laps, in the tiny pool of their new home. They even convinced the other forty-six penguin residents of the zoo to join them. It wasn’t until Valentine’s Day that the birds finally completed their mock journey. The penguins sparked a media frenzy at the time, but never repeated their epic swim.

When I saw the penguin story back in ’03, I felt so sad for their futile effort to obey an instinct rendered meaningless by captivity. This past Fall, I thought of them again, this time with sincere sympathy. Two years after quitting public radio, I realized I was still following the same calendar, the same routines, as when I worked as a host and producer – my own futile attempt to hold on to an old way of life.

It wasn’t until I wrote about my first job in radio for our September “Take This Job And Shove It” Drunken Telegraph show that I recognized how much I was still operating out of an old paradigm. Then, the day after I drafted my story, a friend called to tell me David Candow died. A former CBC trainer, he’s the man who taught me the art of interviewing, the discipline of great stories, and the power of child-like curiosity. The shock and sadness of losing a dear teacher woke me up to the new life that is waiting for me.

The critical tone of my remembrance of David Candow, my #7 most-viewed post of 2014, is another break from my past. As a Southern woman, I would rather die that say something unkind. But, just like working in radio, being a Southerner no longer defines me. It’s time I spoke my mind.

***

originally published September 23, 2014

***

 

***

October 9th is the two year anniversary of the day I quit public radio. I wasn’t happy about walking away from a fifteen-year career in broadcast. It hurt to look at anything from my old job. I boxed up the eleven spiral-bound steno pads that hold more than a decade of to-do lists, pre-interview details, aircheck feedback, and notes from training sessions. I didn’t want to look at them again.

Last Thursday, though, I decided it was time to sift through the detritus of my years as a host, producer and editor. On top of the stack was a piece of paper, “Writing for Radio”. David Candow gave it to me during one of his annual training sessions at my station.

David was a former CBC producer and trainer who became a circuit riding consultant at public radio stations around the country. His list of yellow flags for writing hung by my computer for years. Looking at it last week, I thought, “I’ll never need this again.” I crumpled it up and threw it away.

The next day a friend who still works at my old station called me. She said, “Megan, I wanted to be sure you heard it from me. David  Candow died.”

I sat in silence, which is rare for me. I started crying. David inspired me and encouraged me. His message about the power of oral storytelling made me feel like I belonged in public radio. Losing him severed the last emotional tie to my past life.

***

David started at the CBC back when the network still produced radio theatre. Like me, his first love was the stage and performance. Unlike me, he became a major documentary producer, a trainer for CBC Radio, and he traveled the world teaching journalism. I knew there would be tributes to him all over the place. He touched so many lives.

Right after I hung up the phone, and stopped crying, I started searching the Internet. I wanted to find something that went deeper than 140 characters, something to tell me what I didn’t know about him.  I couldn’t find anything.

It wasn’t until late Saturday afternoon when I found Scott Simon’s remembrance on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. I purposely avoided reading the transcript and listened to the audio instead. David Candow’s gospel was that the tone of your voice tells more than words on a page ever could. Voice conveys true emotion.

I was disappointed. Scott Simon used pretty words, but his script and delivery defied all of David’s teaching. It sounded like Scott was just reading the page, not speaking from the heart. He used the auto-voice of a seasoned broadcaster. With each sentence, I could hear David calling out, “Words don’t carry a message! Only TONE tells the listener what it means. Words by themselves mean nothing!”

Rather than a warm memory of a man who shaped a generation of public radio voices, I remembered what David Candow railed against in his trainings. I looked at the transcript of Scott’s commentary. It was exactly what he read on the air. To the eye, the tribute was fine. But, having spent days analyzing scripts with David Candow over my shoulder, prodding me to make it better, I saw yellow flags all over the place.

Since I already had the Pandora’s box of steno pads open, I took the time to go through each one and mark the pages of notes I made during David’s training. Then I transcribed the notes into a spreadsheet. It was something I meant to do since February 2010 – the post-it note reminding me to do it was still on top of the notebook. His words jumped off the page. I could hear his voice in my head again. And I saw exactly what David would say about his radio tribute, if he edited it.

IMG_3688

 

***

“David Candow was 74. He was a slightly tubby man from Newfoundland with a sly smile and a soft voice.”

Scott described David using adjectives. From a February 2010 training, I found this note:

“Bad Radio Habit #7: Using adjectives rather than verbs. Adjectives are paint by number. Verbs allow the listener to paint their own picture. Describing someone as a “plain woman with a brown sweater and simple shoes” tells me nothing about her as a person. Instead, recount the action of her character, “she would blush when spoken to and shuffle around the corner”. 

Tubby reduces David to a caricature. David had the physique of a man who traveled thousands of miles of year, squeaking out a living on consulting fees. He didn’t think twice about eating tinned meat from a drugstore to save money. He built a house with his own hands. I never saw him sitting and relaxing.

“People who make their living on the air often distrust consultants.” 

Scott assigned his attitude to all broadcasters. From a May 2004 training, I found this note:

“It’s wimpy to use “Those who say” or “Some people” or attribute statements to the masses. Stand up to being the devil’s advocate. Wear what you say as your own.”

When the Washington Post wrote an article about David Candow in 2008, they quoted Scott Simon. Candow led a training at my station six weeks after the story ran. He was humble about it, and laughed that Scott said anything. He said he spent very little time with him, and confirmed that Scott didn’t want to talk to him. David said their meeting had been years and years earlier, and that he didn’t hear that he made any difference in Scott’s delivery.

The yellow flags continue through the whole script.

“David had a few rules for writing, which he called “good ideas,” because he knew journalists balk at rules. Over the years, I’ve found David Candow’s advice as valuable as George Orwell’s, with which it had a lot in common.” 

A  “good idea” from David’s “Writing for Radio”:

“The words which or that are strong indicators that you are about to write a subordinate clause. Put a full stop in front of them, and begin a new sentence.”

David’s advice came out of the knowledge that listening is linear and contextual. The ear can’t process information the same way the eye can. So, he advised us to only deliver one thought per sentence, in order, leading to a conclusion.

“Avoid corporate and technical cliches, and if you begin to hear a word too much — bandwidth, curate, eclectic and robust are my current least-favorites — it’s become a cliche; don’t use it.” 

“The use of a conjunction in the middle of a sentence indicates you are linking two thoughts.”

“And like Orwell, David said, “Break any of these rules if it will help people remember what you say.” 

The second reference to George Orwell, without telling me what George Orwell’s advice was. It reminded of something David said in May 2004,

“Don’t be stingy with knowledge. Don’t be exclusionary.”

I had to search online to find George Orwell’s Rules of Effective Writing to know what the comparison meant. I’ve read Orwell’s books, but I’m not an expert. As a listener, the reference made me feel like I didn’t do my homework rather than illustrating the subject of the tribute. I couldn’t remember what Scott said because I was too busy trying to figure out what he was saying.

Scott closed by saying,

David Candow used to remind us, “One of the most compelling sounds for the human ear is the sound of another human voice talking about something they care about.”

If you’re reading this post rather than listening to the audio version, you’re missing my point. You’re also making it.

Radio is all about tone, something the written word can never provide. From May 2004,

“Tone is as important as script.”

It’s simply not compelling to hear someone read an article written for the eye.

In my indignation after hearing Scott, I e-mailed all my old radio friends, asking if they heard it. None of them did. They saw the written version, read it, and were touched by it. They even shared it on Facebook. Indeed, it’s a fine piece of writing for the eye. But, none of them listened to it.

In the era of the Internet, no one has time to listen. Not even radio professionals. Twitter was awash in mentions. I eventually found a tumblr site with heartfelt remembrances and personal photos that made me smile. A web producer shared an e-mail exchange about applying David’s work to the web – prophetic about the shift of media.

Lots of writing. No audio, except Scott Simon. It looked to me like David took radio – and the authentic tone of the human voice – with him.

***

Scott Simon flouted David Candow’s lessons, but he did me a favor. Had I heard a passionate, sincere and informative remembrance of the man who gave me my most valuable storytelling tools, I might not have gone back and combed through all those notes. David sprang to life again in my mind as I read them. My memories came back as vivid as when I struggled to make daily deadlines and produce radio that touched people’s lives.

Scott still has the deadlines. He still faces the pressures that I quit two years ago. He managed to turn around his piece and have it ready for national broadcast in twenty-four hours. It’s taken me four days to pull this together. I admit I’m not being fair in dissecting his work. We all express grief in different ways.

***

When David and I last met, back in October 2011, I asked him if he was archiving all his workshop information. He said he tried to write a book with his daughter. He said she’s an excellent writer. But, he found he couldn’t convey the importance of tone through writing.

David and I often talked about the tension between the oral tradition and the written tradition. The spoken word is transient and malleable while the written word is permanent and authoritative. He told me this as we discussed why it was so hard to get journalists to tear themselves away from the page, to let their natural way of speaking lead their delivery.

I grew up awash in oral storytelling. I admired Carl Kasell, Charlie Rose, David Brinkley, and Charles Kuralt – all fellow North Carolina natives. Their straightforward style and honest connection inspired me. David once asked me, “You know why so many radio people came from North Carolina?”

He said, like Newfoundland, it was a place of Irish immigrants and not much money. Oral tradition dominates where formal education is unavailable. As a result, the oral tradition was often connected with poverty and ignorance, people who didn’t have the benefit of learning from the higher form of the written word. But, David pointed out, radio is an oral medium.

I suggested recording a series of interviews where he could share all his experience and insight. Like music, you can’t learn radio from a book. David wasn’t interested. He hustled to make a living. He was an itinerant preacher of a dying art form. I suspected he didn’t want to compete with himself. Why would anyone fly him in for a week of workshops if they could just buy a packet of audio files?

I don’t know the real reason he didn’t want to preserve his oral wisdom. But I do know I couldn’t cajole him into even one interview. When we parted I implored him to consider recording something. I hope he found a way to preserve the real magic of his teaching, if only the melody of his Newfoundland accent. I’ll keep listening for him.

Megan Candow 2007-1

 

***

I’m a story consultant and an independent producer now. Last week I threw away David’s “Writing for Radio” because I thought it no longer applied to me. But, that’s not the case. As I unearthed all my notes, I found that his teaching still applies.

So long as people talk to one another, mastering direct language and authentic tone pays off. Even if radio as an industry becomes simply a reading service for online articles, there will always be places where people want to hear humans sounding like humans.

You can’t replace sitting in a room with him, but for the sake of passing on the wisdom he gave me, I’ve created a spreadsheet of all my notes from Candow’s trainings, by date and topic. Feel free to download it and see if any gems help you in your work.

I finally completed my post-it note task from 2010.

**UPDATE: 10/2/14, I found one more notebook from a January 2009 training and added 75 more entries to the spreadsheet.**

Download (XLS, 25KB)

I also scanned pdf’s of all the handouts he gave me. He told me a producer helped him pull those together. He was reticent about documenting even that much. When he passed them out, he kept asking if they made sense, if they were helpful at all. They are. My thanks to the nameless producer who wrangled him into that much documentation.

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

 

2014 Top 10: #8 Freedom in the Neighborhood

One morning this Fall, on our way to school, my kids and I encountered a mama raccoon and her two babies. All six of us stopped in our tracks, surprised to run into each other.  We were running late for school, so I broke off the staring contest and hurried the humans along. Behind us, the mama scooted her cubs up a tree.

On my way back home I saw the raccoon family again. It seems she wasn’t satisfied with the tree and was searching in the hedges for a daytime resting spot. I stopped to watch her and she looked back at me with an expression that I imagined said, “Where’d you hide yours?” Motherhood is a challenge throughout the animal kingdom.

It’s so rare to meet wildlife, I like to see what symbolism has been attached to animals. I went straight back to my computer and searched “raccoon totem“. Even though Mrs. Raccoon was probably more concerned with getting sleep than delivering me a message, this online interpretation rang true with me, “Raccoon symbolism can also be a message that we sometimes need to wear different masks sometimes you’re a boss, sometimes you’re a mom, sometimes you’re a coach,  you can wear many masks just in one day all versions of your self.”

The raccoon morning was just one totem encounter from this past year. We saw this Golden Eagle at the mouth of the Hoh River, a series of moth run-ins inspired this fictional story, and a rare December hummingbird sighting helped me on a particularly dark morning. One sighting stood out from all the rest, though, and it comes in at #8 on my 2014 Top 10.

***

originally published March 18, 2014

***

Move it, kids! We’re late for school, let’s run past this crowd of screeching crows.
03-18-14 Eagle Sighting-1
 Whoa, that’s a lot of crows in that tree! Hang on, what’s the bird in the middle??
*An uncharacteristic run to the house and back to get the camera.*
03-18-14 Eagle Sighting-2
 We got ourselves a Bald Eagle on N. 6th!
03-18-14 Eagle Sighting-3

He’s eating his breakfast, the crows are complaining, and I’m just hoping it isn’t someone’s pet in those claws.

03-18-14 Eagle Sighting-4

A final piece of advice: when approaching a four-way stop, yield to Eagles.

2014 Top 10: #9 Something To Talk About

My parents’ marriage was a mystery to me. Luckily, they were riveting characters and left behind clues that I am still uncovering. Coming in at #9 on my 2014 Top 10 list is this audio story and behind-the-scenes look at my story crafting process.

Most of the audio story below transpired in the pre-Megan era, but it finally gave me some context to something that happened between my mom and dad in this century.

Back in 2001, my father was watching PBS and saw one of their fundraising specials.  It was a reunion concert of old doo-wop bands.

The music took him straight back to the early 60’s, down to Ocean Drive, South Carolina.  That’s where my father and mother used to go and shag dance.  They were really good and would win contests and all that.

Bands like Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs and the Dominoes would play at these little beach parties where everyone drank rum and cokes and danced barefoot in the sand.

Back then, my mom and dad were golden Kennedy youth – all shiny and full of promise.  But, over the years they fell apart like something out of a Pat Conroy novel.  My mother developed MS, my father developed into a full-blown alcoholic.  And by 2001, they were divorced after more than thirty years of marriage.

But, those songs…

My dad couldn’t resist.  He pledged $150 to get the whole box set.

When they arrived, he called my mom at her apartment across town and said, “Hey Trish, I got these great CD’s of doo wop.  You gotta listen, they’ll take you back.  I’ll bring them by.”

My mother said something like, “MM-hm.”  She had no intention of listening to those CD’s.  She didn’t want to be reminded of the past. She hadn’t walked, much less danced, in over a decade. So, when he dropped off the 4 CD’s of 101 doo wop songs, she just left them by the door.

He called up a week later, “Hey Trish, didja listen to ‘em?”

“No,”

“Why not??”

“Because I didn’t want to, Elbert.”

His bubble was popped. He thought the music might be a way for them to have a conversation like old times.  “Fine!  I’m coming to get them.”

“I’ll leave them outside my door.”

“Good, I didn’t want to see you anyway.”

But, when he got to her apartment, the CD’s weren’t there.  He banged on the door, but my mother wouldn’t answer it.

And so the great Doo Wop battle began.

My dad accused my mom of stealing the CD’s. She accused any number of neighborhood kids of stealing them.  My older sister asked if perhaps the neighbor could have picked them up, thinking my mother was away.  She was barked down by both of my parents.

My mother believed, in fact, that my father HAD picked up the CD’s, but was just accusing her in order to have a reason to call. Her bluff was called when he sued her in small claims court – think Judge Judy, without the cameras.  A sheriff’s officer came to her apartment to ‘investigate’ and asked her a few questions.

My mother was distraught.  She called me up, “Megan, your father is SUING me for $150.  And I don’t have it!”

I used to work in public media, so I was furious.  “$150??  Those CD’s only cost $70.”

“Well, he says he paid $150.”

“He better not be telling the IRS that because he made a tax-deductible contribution to his public television station and received a GIFT worth $70.  He shouldn’t be able to sue you for any more than than the fair market value.  Have you told him that? Have you?!?”

She hadn’t. And I think the sheriff must have discredited my father’s claims, because the suit was dropped.

Finally, my older sister decided to check next door, over my mother’s protests.  “Hey, is there any chance that you saw some CD’s…”

The neighbor was totally embarrassed.  “I did!  Ohmigawsh, and I TOTALLY forgot to bring them back over.  I hope it wasn’t any problem.”

This is how you know this a story from the South: my sister said, “No problem at all.”

She drove the CD’s over to my father, who no longer wanted them.  My mother didn’t want them.  And so they sit in my sister’s garage… To. This. Day.   And the memory of that calamity – and all the nostalgia that drove it – could have been tucked in there as well.

But this past summer I stumbled across the story below.

***

originally published August 3, 2014

***

Love ya Tricia

 

The Destiny City Film Festival invited me to tell a story about how I was transformed by compassion for an event called “Story Alchemy”. It wasn’t hard to think of what to tell.

My mother drilled compassion into my head. Whenever we would talk – and we talked a lot – she would always lead me to consider the other people in my life. What challenges did they face? What would motivate them to act the way they did? How did they feel about the things I said or did? Looking back, she gave me some of my best writing and acting lessons.

A couple months ago, though, I had the chance to apply that compassion to her life. I discovered a secret about my parents and wanted desperately to share the story. But first, I had to weigh the rules my mother lived by against her last request to me. It was a transformative process.

The event wasn’t taped, but crafting the story for performance created a lot of documentation, including this recording of my home rehearsal. Inspiration hits at weird times, and I was in the middle of doing laundry when I grabbed the mic and recorded this. It’s pretty close to how I told it on stage.

 

Although the idea for the story came easily, actually crafting the story took time. I wanted to take the audience inside the experience, but I had to figure out a way to do it in an interesting way – and without talking for hours. Writing for the eye is very different from developing an oral story.

In my work as a producer, workshop leader and consultant I offer other people an array of tools that can help them wrestle a collection of interesting events into a coherent, compelling story. Frequently, people resist spending too much time story-crafting and I always understand. I resist the development work myself – it seems like it should be easier to just tell a story about something that happened.
But, it isn’t.

Tools Of Oral Storytelling: A Story Circle, Narrative Breakdown, Once Upon A Time And A Recording Kit
Tools Of Oral Storytelling: A Story Circle, Narrative Breakdown, Once Upon A Time And A Recording Kit

 

I spent days trying to tell the story off the top of my head, never succeeding, often losing track of my point. Finally I had to break down and practice what I preach. That meant writing the story, charting the action, interviewing myself about my intentions, and nailing down the essential points.

Then, I had to let myself just spill out the story on tape and let my ears be the editor. The audio above is edited down from close to thirty minutes of me trying to tell the story, getting stuck, reworking phrases and pausing for long periods of time to figure out the most true way to express how I felt. I loaded the audio file into Adobe Audition and cut it back in the same way I did as a radio editor. Instead of looking at sentences to adjust, I used my ears to listen for plot and tension, timing, phrasing and tone.

Using a digital editor helps me "see" the story and edit with my ears.
Using a digital editor helps me “see” the story and edit with my ears.

The payoff for all that work was two-fold. One, I ended up with a story that I felt confident sharing on a stage in front of a crowd – without any notes. Two, I gained insights into my past that I never would have gotten if I hadn’t looked at the events in so many ways. The process forced me to question my own motivations and verbalize why the whole experience mattered enough to share it with an audiene.

In the end, the biggest reason I shared this story is because I don’t believe it’s a rare thing. I think most of us have tales just waiting to be discovered and share. While the story-crafting process is personal, sharing stories publicly helps pass on wisdom that would otherwise be lost.

 

Speaking of lost messages, the picture of my mother that tops this post sits beside my computer all the time. She still helps me practice compassion in everything I do. But, in order to scan the photo for this blog post I had to remove the photo from its frame. I guess I’ve never done that before because when I looked on the back of the photo I found a note on the back – for whoever she sent it to.

I have my hair cut now but I thought you might enjoy seeing how I looked at the first of this year. Anyway if you don't  you can send the picture back.
“I have my hair cut now but I thought you might enjoy seeing how I looked at the first of this year. Anyway if you don’t you can send the picture back.”

 

I don’t know if the picture made it’s way to my possession because the recipient didn’t like seeing how she looked, but it reminds me that great stories can be hiding in plain sight.

 

 

 

 

2014 Top 10: #10 Time for Cake

As a young woman in the 80’s, I had no intention of becoming a proper wife and mother. Even though home ec was still offered at my high school, I would never dream of taking time away from chemistry or debate to learn the skills of domestic servitude.

As a mom in 2014, I wish I had gotten some better training in how to make a home. Jobs like dishes, meals, groceries and, worst of all, keeping track of a family’s calendar, are more confusing to me than calculus. If you want to talk about a mathematical study of change, limits, and infinite sequences, try developing a system for handling family laundry.

Living in 2014 it feels like the world is changing so fast, there’s no way to slow down or even plan for a consistent routine. Earlier this year I found myself wanting to talk with my late grandmother, my father’s mother. Her home was a sanctuary for me my entire life, even as she was dying. I wanted to know how she managed to cultivate serenity.

One thing that stood out to me about her – and many women of previous generations – was her ability to send cards at exactly the right time. I always received a birthday card from her on my birthday. How did she know to send it in the mail at the exact right time? I suspect calendar-keeping was a core training for housewives – the kind of skill I rejected for fear it would detour my career aspirations.

We had some intense wind storms move through Tacoma last winter, all howling and driving and threatening to rip up everything in their path. Then, a news story in February about cataclysmic climate change upset me so badly I tried to imagine myself back in my grandmother’s home, where her calm energy created a bubble of safety. I wondered how she managed to keep her calendar, and those cards, rolling even when the news was dire. That’s how this story came to mind.

“Dimensional Disturbances” is my title for the kind of stories I’ve always loved. “Twilight Zone”, “Outer Limits”, Stephen Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories”, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson. Creepy, tense, a couple degrees off normal life, exploring human nature – that’s how I like them. They remind me that life always holds the element of surprise.

I wanted to be a writer for a long time, but it always came after school, work, kids, chores. This past year I swallowed down my fear of failure and finally tried to push out some of the stories that have been begging to be told. With the calendar telling me another year is around the corner, I thought I’d count down the most popular posts from 2014.

Coming in at #10, “Time for Cake”.

p.s. You can find the recipe for Mildred’s cake here.

***

originally published February 16, 2014

***

a “Dimensional Disturbances” story

illustration by Britton Sukys

Mildred woke before the alarm every morning, but she kept setting it anyway because she hated breaking her routine. So much of her day depended on doing everything at the right time, or else it wouldn’t get done at all.

She put on her housecoat and slippers, made the bed, and stood in front of her dresser mirror to brush out her pin curls. Downstairs, she started the coffee percolator and pulled out a box of wheat biscuit cereal. There was only enough for her one bowl, so she walked over to her to-do list and wrote down ‘Buy More Cereal’.

The older Mildred got, the more she had trouble remembering the little things. She’d tell friends that if she didn’t keep a list, “I might forget where I left my head.”

She surveyed the items already on her list and frowned. More than five items and she might not get to any of them. She walked over to the wall phone to tackle the third item down, ‘Schedule Yard Man’. But, when she got there, she noticed something written on the calendar.

The note was in her own perfect Palmer Method handwriting.
It took up the entire square for the day.
It said, “Wait for Weather Rpt.”

Normally, Mildred wouldn’t abbreviate. It didn’t seem ladylike. She knew, then, that she must have really wanted to remember that message. She set down the to-do list, accepting that she might even need to start a second sheet of note paper by the end of the day.

****

Once the morning dishes were washed and put away, Mildred loved to sit down to the newspaper. That part of her routine disappeared several years earlier when the newspaper in her town closed. Most everyone she knew used the computer to keep up on events, but looking at a screen made Mildred’s eyes hurt. Instead, she picked up her oversized book of crosswords and worked on a half-finished puzzle from the day before.

After a few minutes, she looked out the picture window over her breakfast table to consider the clue, “Slanted column. (9 letters)” So far she had the letters, _ _ I _ O _ _ _ L.

Watching the clouds often helped Mildred come up with the right answer. As she looked up, though, she noticed the clouds moving faster than she could ever remember seeing. Then she looked into her back yard. The wind had knocked her potted geraniums into the azalea bushes. She remembered that was the reason she wanted to get the Yard Man out.

Mildred didn’t like having to ask others to take her of her business. She used to be able to handle everything around the house, and still have time and energy to take a covered dish to a sick friend or drive out to see family in the country. That was before her husband and son died, before her heart attack, before her memory got so bad. But, even back then she knew she wouldn’t be able to do everything forever. “All in the Lord’s time, all in the Lord’s time, ” she said quietly to herself.

Still, she felt stronger than usual that morning, the wind died down a bit, and Mildred decided to cut a few of the last gardenia blossoms. One or two fresh blooms in a juice glass made her whole kitchen smell just like her mother’s perfume.

****

On her way to put on her gardening dress, Mildred looked out her front windows, through the pine trees in her large front yard. She saw groups of young people stumbling down the street, laughing loudly and singing rude songs. It pained Mildred to see the youth hurt themselves like that. For all the fun they looked like they were having, they’d probably suffer later.

Mildred stepped onto her back patio in the same double breasted chambray smock she’d worn gardening for forty years. She knew it was quality when she bought it. She tried to always choose things that would last. Her clippers weren’t holding up as well, but they were probably sixty years old. Mildred found a can of Rust-B-Gone inside the back door and carefully oiled the joint of the clippers.

She was so focused on her task, she nearly jumped out of her skin when her young neighbor called her name. It was only then that Mildred realized she had forgotten her hearing aid on the night table. However, it didn’t matter that Mildred couldn’t hear the pretty redhead, the woman was already deep into saying something.

Mildred only caught words and phrases, “worried about you”, “we’re trying to make this a celebration”, “don’t be alone”, “no time”. She said “no time” over and over, but Mildred was used to the hurried pace of people half her age.

Mildred remembered when time went slower. She liked the slower life. Radio, television, phones, computers, they all made things go too fast. The faster people went, she noticed, the faster they wanted to go. She only kept clocks in the house to remember her routine, and know when to expect visitors.

Mildred also remembered a time when visitors announced their arrival and didn’t sneak up on people to chatter away without checking to see if the older woman could actually hear.

Before Mildred could say anything back, her neighbor pointed at the sky and ran back to her house. Overhead, a thick black line of clouds moved in from the East. Late summer often brought dramatic thunder storms.

Mildred spent many summer evenings as a child relishing the alternately cool and hot breezes that came before the lightning. While everyone else in her family would rush to tie down the loose items and shut the barn doors, she would smell the ozone and listen to the fevered cricket song, waiting for the bugs to fall silent moments before the drops fell. She couldn’t hear the crickets now, even if they were singing. So, she went back inside to find her hearing aid.

****

The hearing aid was more trouble than it was worth. By the time Mildred got it loud enough to make out the sounds around her, the little bud squeaked. She couldn’t hear the pitch, so her company often spent most of the visit working with her to get the level just right so they could have a conversation. People never said much new after all that trouble, that’s why she often left it by the bed and just nodded and smiled as people talked. That’s all anyone wanted, anyway, someone to nod and smile while they spilled out all their thoughts.

If she was going to hear the Weather Report, though, Mildred would need her hearing aid. The closed captioning in her area was so bad, it was a puzzle trying to figure out what the people on the television really did say when the words on the screen read, “MY CATS GOT WEEDED DOWN AGAIN.”

After  putting on a newly pressed cotton dress, Mildred pulled out a freezer bag of field peas and some rice for lunch. With her aid in, she could hear the sounds of fat rain drops against the sliding glass doors. Dark clouds marched higher in the sky, there was a distinct division between bright blue and roiling black.

Mildred thought of hurricanes, and she hoped the Weather Report wasn’t going to be about another big storm. There had been so many recently, it seemed like more than when she was young. Even the weather got more turbulent over the years.

Mildred decided a piece of cake would be a welcome indulgence if the weather was bad. There were usually a couple frozen pound cakes in her upright, but she let her niece take the last one a few weeks before. Mildred would have to make a new one if she wanted a slice. She walked over to her to-do list and wrote down, “Make Cake”.

Then, she put two sticks of butter, five eggs and a cup of milk on the counter to come to room temperature. Really, that was the hardest part of good baking, the part most of her grandchildren were too impatient to get right. If you want smooth batter, which gives you an even crumb, you need room temperature ingredients, and there is no way to rush it.

Mildred was glad she wrote, “Make Cake” on the list, though. Many times she absentmindedly put all her ingredients back in the ice-box, not remembering why she set them out.

****

The afternoon passed in the same way it almost always did. Mildred practiced her favorite tunes on the piano, a ragtime song and then hymns. She could hear commotion outside from time to time, but she didn’t hear a single plane. Living so close to the military base, she could usually hear the cargo planes at all hours. She guessed the storm was too dangerous for flying.

She played a few rounds of solitaire, read her Bible, closed her eyes for a short nap and then sat at her desk to write her letters. She pulled out her calendar of important events, every one marked in blue pen with the day she had to mail a card for it to arrive exactly in time. It meant something to get a card on your birthday, that’s why she did it. She liked making others feel remembered.

As Mildred looked at her desk calendar, though, she saw another note to herself, all in capital letters, “WAIT FOR WEATHER RPT.” It seemed odd that she would want to hold off on tending to her calendar just because of the weather. But, she trusted her own instructions. She was always level-headed, if forgetful.

****

It was almost time for the Weather Report when Mildred looked out at the pines again. They swayed widely, arcing all together as the hard wind blew in from the East. Hurricanes usually brought swirling winds. Something was different, very different. Mildred felt her stomach knot a little with fear.

Luckily, she had a routine for when things veered from her proper routine. She pulled a small, crystal sherry glass from the cabinet that once belonged to her grandmother. She filled the glass halfway from a bottle at the very back of her pantry. It was sweet and hot and absolutely the right tonic for her nerves.

****

On her way to the den, Mildred picked up her to-do list. She hoped the Weather Report would help her decide which items were the most urgent to get done. She wanted a smaller list, and she wanted to call the Yard Man as soon as the weather cleared.

Mildred was careful as she took the three steps down into the den where her television lived. The room used to be a garage, but her husband had it converted. It was a big room and relaxing, and she decided to sit in her husband’s old leather recliner for a change, since the day was turning out to be different than most.

Mildred’s husband had been dead for twenty years, but she could still smell his cigars and often thought she caught him walking through hallway, just out of the corner of her eye. He loved watching the news, and she mostly still watched it to think of him.

****

For all the serenity that Mildred cultivated with her simple daily rituals, the television was always chaotic – and that day more than ever. She turned on her local station and saw images of people running and screaming, the newscasters weren’t wearing proper makeup so their faces looked ghastly pale. People talked too fast to understand and the closed captioning was simply a jumble of letters, as though the typist fell asleep at the keyboard.

Finally, the pandemonium switched over to a still shot of the president’s office. The announcers spoke in hushed, anxious tones. The president stepped in front of the camera, looking rumpled and tired.

Mildred was shocked that she lived long enough to see a woman become president. It didn’t really matter to her either way, it just wasn’t anything she expected. If a woman was going to president, though, Mildred wondered why she didn’t look a little more put together.

Then the president began talking, clearly, slowly, in a tone that didn’t hurt Mildred’s ears.

“The storms are definitely coming.
Already the methane rain has started falling in Europe.
We still have had no communication out of China and, based on the chemical makeup of the clouds over Africa, it looks like no life will survive this.
If you are watching this, hold your loved ones.
As humans, we had a good run, but this is how it ends.”

Then the screen went black.

Mildred heard the winds howl and rage. She looked at the bookshelves that held photos of her family. The phone started ringing in the kitchen.

Mildred looked down at her hand where she still held her to-do list. The phone kept ringing, but Mildred took the time to carefully cross through, ‘Schedule Yard Man’, ‘Buy More Cereal’, ‘Call Mabel’, and ‘Birthday Cards’. The last item on the list was ‘Make Cake’.

Mildred held her pen over the ‘M’. She came close to touching the tip to the paper. But, she noticed the electricity was still running, the wind hadn’t broken any windows yet, the clock in the hall still ticked away.

All the ingredients would be at the perfect temperature by now.

She put the list down and headed for the kitchen. There was time for cake.