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Harvester of Sorrows

Art: Britton Sukys

I don’t stand to inherit a great family fortune, but I used to console myself that I have a wealth of family stories. If times got hard, I thought, I’ll just write a book and cash in on the amazing tales of my ancestors. Because writers are known for being rich.

Lucky for me, I found myself in need of money recently. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to transform my legacy into riches, so I called on my ancestors to help me bring their lives to a public that needed to hear it. I had heard the stories so many times, I can repeat them as well as I can the Apostles’ Creed.

 

 

Advice for Wishing

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“Every Thing You Ever Wanted!”, 9″x12″ mixed media collage by Megan Sukys

When my son was six years old, I got home from work at his bedtime. We would take a few minutes in the dark of his room to talk over our days.

One evening he told me he imagined his closet was a magic closet that granted his wishes.

“What do you wish for?” I asked.

“I usually wish for lots and lots of money to come out.”

“What would you use the money to buy?”

“A Go-Kart!” (He was obsessed with Speed Racer.)

“Then why not just wish for a Go-Kart? It would save you considerable time and effort in trying to locate a dealer. And even if you found someone willing to sell you one, you might run into trouble trying to negotiate a good price as a kindergartener.”

He told me he thought the money would give him the ability to get whatever he wanted, in case he changed his mind about the Go-Kart. I pointed out that he was already in the realm of pure fantasy with his magic closet. Wishing for money just set up an unnecessary middle step to achieving his dreams.

I asked my son what he wanted to do with the Go-Kart. He said, “Go real fast!” I suggested he could get that wish fulfilled much easier than having to deal with the hassle of a vehicle purchase, licensing, storage, taxes, and maintenance.

At the time, there was a Go-Kart track near our house. He was still too little to drive one by himself, but he could ride with his dad. I offered that if he slightly modified his wish – to name the experience he wanted rather than the object he thought was necessary to achieve it – his wish might come true.

It took more than a year for us to arrange, but he eventually found himself speeding in circles through clouds of diesel smoke, inches above the asphalt. His father didn’t hesitate to drive with the reckless abandon young kids crave. My son’s magic closet worked!

Money is only one way to acquire products, services, or experiences. When we wish for money, we are longing for the power to get what we want. That can knock us off course as we pour energy into securing the means to the end, instead of clearly identifying the true nature of our heart’s desire.

One thing I love about talking with kids is that the advice I give them inevitably applies to me as well. I don’t think I could have come to this realization on my own. But, ever since then, when I find myself fantasizing about money I stop and ask myself, “What is it I really want?”

Our dreams are closer than we imagine.

Here Be Dragons

ART: Britton Sukys

 

On Washington State’s Peninsula, nestled deep in the Olympic National Park, the Sol Duc Hot Springs tempted me with warm waters and a fantastic origin story. An online blurb said:

Native American legend tells how the springs were created by dragons.

“Once there were two dragons. One lived in the Sol Duc Valley and the other lived in the Elwha Valley. Neither dragon knew of the other’s existence. One day they were both out exploring the forest when they came face to face on top of the ridge separating the Elwha and Sol Duc Valleys. They exploded with anger as each accused the other of invading its territory.

“The fight was brutal as the dragons thrashed and ripped at each other to win back their territory. After years of fighting and clawing at each other, they grew frustrated. Their strength was evenly matched and neither could win. The dragons both admitted defeat and crawled back to caves in their respective valleys and are still crying over being defeated. The dragons’ hot tears are the source of the hot springs in the Elwha and Sol Duc Valleys.”

I read this back in August, while we were on our annual family vacation to the Olympic Peninsula, and I decided we had to go there. Dragons are kind of our thing.

During our first visit to the Hoh River Valley, we started playing Dungeons & Dragons together.

ART: Britton Sukys

Fantasy plays a central role in the way we talk about the world with our kids.

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My mother and my son’s 3rd grade art

I once suspected a dragon was responsible for a problem under our basement.

ART: Britton Sukys

My husband even summoned a dragon to watch over the alley retaining wall behind our house.

ART: Britton Sukys

The thought of bathing in dragon tears was irresistible to my overactive imagination.With a legend like that, it had to be a magic place. Surely, the waters would grant me some powerful vision.

As we drove to the Sol Duc Resort, I imagined there would be dragon relics everywhere. In my mind, I saw myself discovering a portal to the primordial wisdom of the forest.

We paid the $25 entrance fee to the National Park and another $48 for day passes to the pools, and I mentally budgeted for the dragon T-shirts and traditional dragon art I was sure would be in the gift shop. I wanted to document whatever epiphany I received.

But when I got there, I found nothing about the legend. In fact, I couldn’t find any information on the local tribes. I did find that lunch for four at the snack bar cost $78. Without any beer.

Despite the lack of dragon souvenirs, historic documentation, or a frosty mug, the hot spring pools still enchanted me with their heat and lingering scent of rotten eggs.

Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort
Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, PHOTO: Britton Sukys

Soaking in the sulfur, I wondered about the deeper meaning of the legend. Stories, especially ancient myths, speak on many levels. Bathing in dragon tears, shed after bitter, endless battles, seemed like a powerful metaphor for dealing with an unwinnable feud.

The forest hot springs are now channeled into chlorinated, cement pools surrounded by a tall fence. The local tribes were forced off the land many years ago. I could only imagine how the original residents made use of the natural springs.

It occurred to me that the steaming, stinky waters and their accompanying legend may have been a way to cook out the inevitable violent frustration that comes with uneasy truces. Drown your hot rage, sacrifice it to the fantastic beast that also couldn’t vanquish those deplorable neighbors.

After further poaching in the pools, though, I began to think instead that the hot springs percolated warriors for another defense of sacred territory. Absorb the dragon’s rage and strength, fight for your terrible beast’s honor.

Depending on the day and situation, I could see either interpretation as good guidance. If I wanted to hard-boil my hunch, I’d need more context. I decided to track down the source story.

Back at our cabin, I couldn’t find mention of the tale on any of the Peninsula tribes’ websites. All the online references to the legend were on tourist sites and they all circled back on themselves. There were plenty of dragon tears hits, but I couldn’t find which tribe first shared the story – or to whom.

Something smelled fishy. The purported legend started to reek of marketing gimmick. I knew better than to seek enlightenment from a clever commercial.

***

Don’t be fooled by the vast forests and languid mists of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s not a serene wilderness. Much like the Elwha and Sol Duc dragons, people have been battling for control of its rich landscape for centuries. Since the 1880’s, Native tribes, non-Native settlers, tourists, timber companies, and the U.S. military have staked claims to it.

When we first drove along Highway 101 out to the most Northwest point of the contiguous United States, it looked like a 1960’s travel postcard. The overexposed light, the blankets of evergreens, and the isolation made it seem frozen in time.

Then I passed the lumber company clear cuts and ramshackle homesteader sites with crudely lettered signs protesting federal land grabs. The remote tribal reservations, clinging to the coastline, vulnerable to rising ocean waters, were a mix of extreme poverty and fierce cultural preservation. The illusion of the Olympic Peninsula as a pristine sanctuary dissolved.

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Clearcut on Highway 101, PHOTO: Megan Sukys

radio story I edited back in 2009 first drew me to the Peninsula. The self-proclaimed “Sound Tracker” Gordon Hempton determined that deep in the Hoh Rain Forest he found the quietest One Square Inch in America.

I live on a busy city street, near a major Air Force/Army base, up the hill from train tracks and a shipping port. Noise is my life. So, I took my family out there to discover the balm of silence. For a few years we were heard the world as our ancestors did.

The serenity didn’t last. Recently, Navy Growler jets drowned out the frogs with sonic booms. The U.S. Forest Service granted “permission to the Navy to route its Boeing EA-18G Growler jets over Olympic National Park on electronic-warfare training exercises”. (Seattle Times, 4/17/16)

We listened to the jets fly for an hour at a time, twice a day. Then, we inhaled the peace that returned once the jets went back to their hangars.

While I searched the internet for the dragons of legend at my remote woodland vacation rental, the real-life, roaring, fire-breathing beasts of today flew circles overhead. My cursory Google inquiries only yielded dead ends, so I promised myself I’d do deeper research back at home.

***

With my magical Sol Duc dragon fantasy under review, and hoping to distract us from the military maneuvers overhead, I started reading “The Buried Giant” out loud to my husband. My mother-in-law gave it to me as a birthday present, and I knew very little about the plot when I started it.

I had to use my outside voice to be louder than Navy Growlers, but we were still drawn into Kazuo Ishiguro’s take on post-Arthurian Britain. It’s a story of a living under a fragile truce between deeply divided cultures. In the wake of wars between the Britons and the Saxons, Ishiguro follows an elderly couple searching for their estranged son through a mysterious mist causing amnesia across the land.

My husband and I noted the coincidence of the novel telling another story about territory disputes. Then we reached the part of the book where Ishiguro reveals the source of the mist. A creature named Querig. A dragon. We upgraded the coincidence to synchronicity.

ART: Britton Sukys

I reserved our cabin in the woods for six nights, but just before midnight on the fifth night Navy jets began nonstop exercises. The Growlers screeched across the sky for five minutes, then circled to the other side of Mt. Olympus, giving us five minutes of quiet, and then came howling back into our airspace. I didn’t sleep at all.

The maneuvers continued into the morning and stretched past noon. Five minutes of sonic shrieking, five tense minutes waiting for the war machines to return. Finally, I admitted defeat and packed the car to leave early, returning to my urban cave to cry hot tears over the money I spent on a rental I couldn’t use.

Back in Tacoma, I finished reading “The Buried Giant” and all of its resonant themes of mutually assured destruction, military occupation, wounds that won’t heal, cultural divides, and the challenge of forgiveness. Ishiguro’s dragon was not the same as the Sol Duc dragon, or the Navy Growlers, but they all told the same story. Beasts of battle die hard.

***

I expected that my further investigation into the Sol Duc dragon legend would reveal it as a modern fabrication. But, like all my other expectations, this turned out to be wrong.

I contacted the Olympic National Park, the Burke Museum, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and the Quileute Nation. They were all incredibly helpful.

I found that the story being used by the National Park was originally in the book “Gods & Goblins” by Smitty Parratt. Smitty grew up with a National Park Ranger for a father. Smitty went on to work with the National Park Service himself. The dragon legend was one of many stories he catalogued from the Olympic National Park. However, Smitty wasn’t a tribal source. He re-told the story as he heard it.

Then, the Quileute Nation helped put me in touch with Larry Burtness, the tribe’s grant writer and planner. He sent me this link to a Quileute account of the Sol Duc legend by Chris Morganroth III. There I found the same story of evenly matched opponents and hot tears, but the beasts were not called dragons, just monsters.

And then, Larry put me in touch with Jay Powell, an anthropologist who, along with his partner Vickie Jensen, has helped preserve many of the languages, stories, and traditions of Washington and British Columbia tribe. Jay sent me this account, as told by Hal George. Hal’s telling gave me a much richer description of the weeping creatures beneath the hot springs:

Both monsters were fierce, like martens, and strong and wiry and real smart because they were old. They had big mouths full of teeth as big as a man and sharp toenails. And their breath was like a hot wind that could burn you if you stood close, and they cooked their meat by just blowing on it. They were real big; when they walk through the woods you can see their heads and backs above the trees. When they fight they whip their tails on this side and on this (other) side and roll around. Their tails break off trees. And when they roll they flatten the trees they roll over. And sometimes the hard breathin’ sets the woods on fire around the battlefield. So that’s why nothin’ grows on Boulder Peak.

Well, then. Those two monsters are just covered with scars. They have scars all over their bodies from fightin’ because they have been meetin’ to fight for a lon’ time. They have big scars where their skin was ripped and tore. Every time they fight, they fight until they are bloody and tired, all bit, bones broke, skin ripped and burned. They have scars on top of scars.

But, they are even matched so one of them can never kill the other one. Neither one can kill the other one. We say they have ¶ibiti taxîlit, real stron’ spirit power. If you are a good warrior, you need that power. Neither one can kill the other. But they cause real bad injuries to each other every time they fight. Often them fights went on all day until night and it got dark. Then, they stop and roar. Both of them roar and roar and sing a victory song. The Quileute monster sang his song: “¶ip•ll• abi/ ¶ib•ti ti/l. ¶qpitilawli. Ahii. Ahiii. ‘A’a’aaaa. (four times) He’s talkin’ about havin’ a strong power and that’s why he is always winnin’. The Elwha monster sings, too. And then they roar some more and go home. They go to their cave.

These were my dragons! Mouths full of teeth, huge tails, breath to ignite the forest, and “real stron’ spirit power”. And there was the message to the warriors, “If you are a good warrior, you need that power.” Spirit power.

This documentation of the story titles it “The Border Monsters”. Jay Powell says that this tale takes place, “in the liminal region of peaks and rain-forest riverine headwaters where Elwha and Quileute territories come together”. The world liminal jumped out at me.

Liminal” is used in anthropology, medicine, and literature. It refers to that confusing, slippery space of transformation between an old way and a new way. Terrible things can happen when we leave known territory and venture into wilderness. But, moving through that space is the only way to achieve lasting change.

In the 16th century, liminal space on a map was noted with the phrase, “Here be dragons“.

***

The idea of dragons as threshold guardians resonated. They have held that job in stories around the world, including Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”. But, border monsters didn’t set my imagination running. Soaking in their tears did.

I set up a makeshift hot spring in my tub at home, adding epsom salts, leaving out old eggs, and stewed on the matter. Wading deep into the realm of metaphor, I remembered that the phrase “take a bath” can also mean losing big on a major investment. Certainly, not being able to vanquish a perceived threat can feel like going broke.

In the Sol Duc legend as told by Hal George, though, “both of them roar and roar and sing a victory song”. The Quileute monster sings about having a strong power and “that’s why he is always winnin’. The Elwha monster sings, too.”

It’s only once the monsters go home from the fruitless battle that they move a rock over their holes, lick their wounds, and cry. “They cry and cry because they are hurt bad.”

The description of the monsters sounded a lot like what I know as dragons, but the Quileute don’t use that word. According to Hal George, the Sol Duc dragon was named “the monster who cries in the woods”. It wasn’t named, “the monster who lost”, or even “the monster who sets the woods on fire”. The monster was known for the sorrow it feels that its perceived enemy was so evenly matched.

***

As preface to the Sol Duc legend, Hal George tells how the mythic Quileute hero Q’wati, called “The Transformer” in English, established the border between the Elwha and the Quileute. Q’wati piled up boulders at the boundary because the two tribes fought over territory “until Stormking Mountain had enough of it and tore off a big stone from his head. He threw it down and killed the warriors…” That’s how Lake Crescent came to be.

Mount Storm King over Lake Crescent, WA PHOTO: Wikipedia

The dragons of the legend guard a border meant to keep human battles from fracturing the earth itself.

***

Stories, especially ancient myths, speak on many levels. They also speak different lessons to each person, depending on what the person needs to know.

The Sol Duc legend tells me that if I want to venture beyond the boundaries that fence me in, I will have to face the dragon at the divide. I cannot expect to defeat that dragon, not even if I have a dragon of my own.

Unable to eliminate my foe, I can soak my head in the sorrow of my limitations. But if I go too deep into those bitter tears, I could drown in despair. Or, I could steep myself for another painful, fruitless fight. Either way, those waters stink.

Instead, I’m going to let those tears wash away my fiery rage, a rage so powerful it could burn up the very land that nurtures me. If defeat is impossible, for either side, then I’ll make sure to wear only my human form, and to pack my real stron’ spirit power, as I venture once more into the liminal space that promises true transformation.

The Mother of All Jobs

photo by Britton Sukys
photo by Britton Sukys

 

“Not everyone has to become a mother, Megan. The world also needs good aunties.” If I could remember what prompted my mother to tell me that when I was a teenager, I might not harbor this suspicion that she thought I’d make a lousy mom. That, in turn, might make me feel a little less like a lousy mom.
Then again, I may just be a lousy mom.

***

My mother died before I had children. In her final years, she continued to downplay the importance of parenthood. “You really don’t have to have kids, Megan. It’s okay to focus on your career. You don’t have to try to do both.” I lived three-thousand miles away from her at the time, but we had money problems in common. She could barely afford to stay in an apartment and cover medical care with her disability payments. My husband and I were under a mountain of debt, barely making minimum payments and rent with our entry-level salaries. Her reassurances were a relief.

Less than a year after she died, though, I was pregnant. It seemed like an act of rebellion. “I’ll show her. I WILL do both. And I’ll like it!” Giving up my career was never an option. I might disregard my mother’s advice on kids, but her lessons about making a living were sacrosanct.

***

When I was in junior high I’d sit at the table with my mother every day after school. We’d drink ice tea and she’d lecture me about the importance of getting a college degree, earning my own money, never relying on a man, learning what it took to succeed in an industry and then doing whatever that was with passionate intensity.

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My mother would point out to me that it was only because she got Multiple Sclerosis that she was at home. “If I hadn’t gotten sick, I’d certainly still be working.” Before she had to take disability retirement, she earned her Masters in Education and considered moving from teaching into school administration to improve remedial instruction.

She fondly recalled the brief time when she worked and my father kept house, back when they lived in Chapel Hill and only had one child, just before I was born. “You know, that was the perfect situation for us. He was so good at homemaking, and I loved having a career.”

My mother in Chapel Hill, before I was born.
My mother in Chapel Hill, before I was born.

 

But then I was born, my father took a job at his father’s mattress plant, we moved to Hope Mills, and my mother was diagnosed with MS the first week in the new house. To her, the correlation implied causation. To me, it was a cautionary tale.

I concluded that all of the other factors that contributed to our family’s crises – my father’s bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and hereditary depression, my mother’s chronic, degenerative disease, the socio-economic shifts during the 80’s and 90’s – could have been avoided with better employment decisions. Specifically, NEVER LEAVE A CAREER FOR FAMILY.

Family is unreliable, marriage is vulnerable, love is blind, but a career gives you freedom. I hard-wired that into my brain and made professional success my priority.

At the start of my senior year in college, my boyfriend broke up with me, accusing me of wanting to trap him into a traditional married life. He thought I wanted him to work and take care of me so I could have babies. He said I’d stop him from pursuing his dreams.

Ending the relationship hurt me deeply for many months, but that accusation burned me for decades. There was no greater insult than to say I might be willing to just be a mom. I had dreams too, and they didn’t include staying at home with kids.

***

I went back to work full-time when my son was eight weeks old. After my daughter was born, I started working from home only four weeks postpartum. My husband cut down to part-time work: three days a week with the first baby, then just one day a week when I was pregnant the second time. He assumed the primary parent role so I could hold on to my career. I became the breadwinner.

Our situation echoed my mother’s best times. According to my teenage judgement, I should have been as happy as my mother remembered she was before I was born.

I wasn’t happy.
I also wasn’t healthy.

Even though I put my job first, the factors that contributed to my family’s crises still affected me. Professional success did not rewrite DNA nor avert socio-economic shifts.

Not only did I have less and less time to see my kids, the stresses of my job drained all my emotional capacity. I couldn’t offer them any support through the daily challenges of growing up. I couldn’t even offer my husband much. And no matter what, I didn’t have anything left over to take care of myself.

I started to crack. Then, I cracked. A debacle to call my own.

As much as I wanted to fulfill the dreams of my fourteen-year old self, and as much as I respected my mother’s experience, life didn’t turn out the way I planned. I broke up with my career. My husband went back to work full-time. I started part-time consulting. Our family budget took a huge hit, and our lifestyle is exactly what I feared most as a senior in college.

Ever since then I’ve had time to sit down at the table by myself, with a glass of ice tea, and re-examine what my mother told me. I am now the same age she was when she imprinted the primacy of a professional life. Rather than seeing her as an irrefutable authority – and she had an amazing authority about her – I have tried to see her as a fellow mom, as a peer.

photo by Britton Sukys
photo by Britton Sukys

 

My mother raised three girls while slowly losing the use of her body. She counseled us through school work, boyfriends, frenemies, lousy jobs, cruel teachers, car crashes, and most notably, our father. Despite his long decline, the drunken insults, the DUIs, the embarrassing public displays, the inconvenient absences, she believed in his better nature and told us not to hate him because it would only be hating ourselves.

I can clearly remember countless days of talking with her for hours. In my memories, I’m in a parade of different hairstyles, fashions from halter tops to floral dresses to vests and then overalls. And always, my mother is there, listening, asking questions, offering advice.

There was no way for her to know what I needed to do to have a secure future. She didn’t even know how to secure her own future. In fact, she didn’t know a lot of things. She didn’t know that I might marry a man very different than my father. She didn’t know that a good job is still no guarantee. She didn’t know that I’d take one thing she said one afternoon and try to build my whole life around it.

Most importantly, my mother had no idea what kind of a mother I might be. I know this because I have no clue how my kids will turn out. I’m still surprised they made it out of diapers. I dispense wisdom and warnings in equal measure, hoping that the right things will stick so they’ll make the best decision they can when they’re all on their own. Only now can I see that that’s what she did as well.

As a child, I listened to her words. As a mother, I look at her actions. Rather than saying the perfect thing or accurately predicting any future, her greatest gift was showing up day after day. If I still followed all of her advice, I’d be wearing patterned sweaters, oversize glasses, and have a smart, short haircut. If I follow her example, though, I give my kids my time.

Mothering is in the minutes.

***

I think my mother was right that not everyone has to be a mom (or dad). The world does need good aunties (and unkies) because kids require a tremendous amount of guidance and support. But whether or not my mom thought I might be good at it, I can’t back out of motherhood now. I have two kids and if I’m lousy the only thing I can do is try to get better.

That’s where all those years of institutional indoctrination and management training might help me gauge if I truly am a lousy mom. I need a personal performance review.

Since a performance review is based on a job description, I wrote one for myself. I put down what I think I’m supposed to be doing – not what I want to be doing or what I think would be ideal. My hope was to capture any illusions and unrealistic expectations as well as the daily tasks I expect of myself right now.

***

JOB TITLE: Queen Megan

Reports to: The Higher Power
Colleague: Captain Britton
Supervises: Young Padawans

Work Hours: All of The Hours

PURPOSE: This position manages the physical, emotional, and spiritual development of the family which is defined as the four humans and three cats currently living Chez Sukys, Tacoma, WA.

DUTIES:

  • Physical Needs
    • NUTRITION: Provides food eating routines consistent with a healthy body, community, and planet.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: grocery shopping, meal planning, meal preparation, school lunches, Receiving Complaints
    • SANITATION: Develops and maintains routines which inhibit noxious germs, odors, and clutter on people, in rooms, in the yard, and in cars.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: dishes, laundry, garbage, recycling, compost, kitty litter, floor, dusting, pest control, disinfection, bathrooms, windows, filing, organization, winnowing, gardening, car maintenence, showers/baths, haircuts, handwashing, medicine cabinet, veterinary, doctor and dentist appointments, Lectures on the Black Plague
    • SUPPLIES: Evaluates and maintains stocks of necessary possessions.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: food, cleaning supplies, clothes, shoes, school and office supplies, art supplies, games, entertainment, catnip, incense, cars, household items,  gifts, tools, luggage, garden supplies, bath products, appliances, Saying No
    • ENRICHMENT: Researches and schedules opportunities to enjoy and learn through physical, mental, and artistic experiences.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: after-school clubs and sports, summer camps, family vacations, educational opportunities, screen time, library, home improvements, dining out, babysitting and child care, parties, playdates, movies, bikes, watching baseball, Judge of What’s Funny
    • BUDGET: Creates and maintains resources to accommodate all needs and duties.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: contract consulting work, financial software, taxes, reconciling accounts: checking/savings/retirement, insurance: health/car/life, loans, budgeting, allowances, charity, debt collection, low balance warnings, Uncomfortable Family Finance Meetings
  •  Emotional Needs
    • SELF: Assesses and provides the care and treatment necessary to maintain a loving, compassionate, Cosmic view self and this incarnation.
    • COLLEAGUE: Communicates with and supports Captain Britton to maintain a loving, compassionate, cooperative, creative, Cosmic, sensual partnership and parenthood.
    • PADAWANS: Communicates with and nurtures children to help them recognize their unique needs and personalities, assists them in creating routines for self-care to maintain loving and compassionate Cosmic views of themselves in this incarnation, offers love, compassion and personal Cosmic views where they need it, allows them room to also practice their routines of self-care.
    • EXTENDED FAMILY: Maintains relationships, knowledge and communication with family members outside the house, as well as ancestors, to share and understand the care and treatment necessary to maintain a loving, compassionate, Cosmic view of self and this incarnation.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: journaling, napping, sleep schedules, eating schedules, meditation, yoga, books, storytelling, family photos, character analysis, videos, letters, cards, ancestry, dates, holiday celebrations, visits, music, artistic expression, hugs, kisses, tickles, Apologies 
  • Spiritual Needs
    • SELF: Develops and maintains daily routines to connect to the timeless, Cosmic view and applies any lessons to daily activities.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: journaling, meditation, research, classes, reading, rituals, oracles, retreats, fellowship, Being Alone
    • FAMILY: Shares insights and lessons from self-spiritual path when appropriate, encourages others to find their own connection to the timeless, Cosmic view. Listens and dialogues about others’ questions and insights, learns from others’ unique perspectives, offers fellowship and participation in spiritual seeking.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: listening, inquiring, storytelling, artistic expression, rituals, wilderness trips, Fielding Questions about Santa and the Tooth Fairy
  • Continued Development: Recognizes that all listed duties are subject to change at any moment without notice, accepts continual evolution of physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies within the family, adapts assignments and delegates tasks as soon as possible, maintains health and energy reserves to handle any and all eventualities, including the ones that cause insomnia.
    • IMMINENT CHANGES: puberty, menopause, male-pattern baldness

QUALIFICATIONS:

  • Superior Communication Skills
  • Compassion
  • Humility
  • Ability to Clean Up Bodily Waste from Humans and Animals
  • Situational Focus
  • Internet Security
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Negotatiation
  • Selective Memory
  • Logic and Debate
  • Semantics
  • Photography
  • Eyes in Back of Head
  • Interrogation Techniques
  • Search and Rescue
  • Karaoke
  • Love

Death Star Public Radio

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“Star Wars: A New Hope” premiered when I was four years old, and I blame the blockbuster for warping my expectations for my career. I wasn’t even aware of the power the story held for me until I got my first public radio job back in 1998.

Below is a loving homage to the epic, with support from John William’s genius soundtrack, about what happened when my path crossed a media Empire in the place I least expected it. There is no written version, as is only fitting for a story about radio.

ART: Britton Sukys

ENGINEERING & EDITING SUPPORT: Britton Sukys

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Sunday School Squadron

05-25-15 F-8 Collage-1

My dad taught my Sunday School class for a brief time when I was fifteen. I wouldn’t have gone if he didn’t. He wouldn’t have gone if my mother didn’t make him. He wasn’t the Bible study type; he was in alcohol recovery for the second time, at the age of forty-five. Redemption was on the line.

The high school class never had many attendees. On the first day, when only two other students showed up, my dad took out his wallet and counted his cash. Then he pulled out his car keys and said, “How about a field trip?”

He drove us to McDonald’s. After we got pancakes and sandwiches, he sat down at the booth with a small black coffee and an aluminum ashtray. He lit a cigarette and admitted he didn’t know how to teach Sunday school. But, he knew the Bible was mostly stories to help you live your life. Since he couldn’t think of any Bible stories, he said he’d tell us a story from his life, from his days in the Navy.

My dad never talked much about life in the military. He was a Navy fighter pilot stationed in Hawaii during the Vietnam War. That sentence pretty much summed up all he ever told me. His photos shared more words.

Composite of Official Photograph U.S. Navy and My Father's Message on the Back
Composite of Official Photograph U.S. Navy and My Father’s Message on the Back

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My dad would say “Fighter Pilot” like that was all I needed to know, like that title was beginning, middle, end. Before our McDonald’s breakfast, the closest he got to sharing Navy stories was when he tried to explain the flight simulator program on our new home computer.

I ate my Egg McMuffin, elbow to elbow with my fellow fast-food acolytes, while my Dad smoked and looked in the direction of the Mayor McCheese playground with a faraway gaze. He knew how to use the dramatic pause. I wondered which amazing adventure he was going to share.

Almost everything I knew about my dad I heard from my mom. My mother talked about his service more than he did. When he wasn’t around – which was most of the time – she told me how much he loved flying, to explain his manic depression.”Once you go supersonic, how is anything else in life going to match that?”

She told me how everyone in his squadron had alcohol problems, not just my dad. “Was it the men who became pilots or what being a pilot did to the men?” The planes he flew were notoriously difficult, earning the name “ensign killer”. My mom told me a friend of my dad’s was killed during take-off from a carrier’s flight deck – the jet just flew straight into the ocean.

My mother also told me my dad never seemed to recover from the trauma of his Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (S.E.R.E.) training. It was POW training, required of all pilots. She said he came back different, that the experiences left him shaken for years. The training is what he told us about in McDonald’s.

That Sunday, he was a long way from his high flying F-8 glory days. After three years sober, he fell off the wagon a couple weeks before my sister’s wedding. He lost his job at the car dealership. He had nothing better to do than accept my mother’s Sunday School enlistment.

The thrill and honor of his piloting was the farthest thing from his mind. Instead, he remembered the pain, the fear, all the things I never heard about from him. He said he had a hard time thinking of a story he could share with kids our age, but he thought he’d tell us what changed him most during his service.

In one part of the training, my dad learned to find food in the wilderness. He told us how an officer held up a dove. My dad said it was the most beautiful bird, coo’ing softly as the officer pet its head. The officer talked about the importance of getting the most nutrition from every meal, that they should cook the whole bird body, no plucking or dressing. Then he ripped the bird’s head off and tossed the whole thing into a pot. My dad said that probably upset him more than anything that was to come.

Once they had their survival skills, his group was released in the woods and told to evade capture while crossing to a check point. He saw some soldiers just hide out, opting to wait till the training was over to emerge. Even though he tried to run, my dad said he got caught. His captors took him to a building where he was given a cigarette and a water. Then he was interrogated and a couple burly guys beat the mess out of him.

Once he was released into a cell, he found the other guys who hid out during the exercise. Evidently, they were picked up when the all-clear was given. Officers took them to a building where they were given cigarettes and water, then they were interrogated and got the mess beaten out of them.

He finally looked back at us Sunday Schoolers, across the pile of empty wrappers on the table. He said, “See? Either way, same ending. You can try to hide out, try to play it safe, but you don’t learn anything along the way. I mean, if you’re just gonna get a cigarette and a beating when it’s all over, why not try to get the most out of it you can before you get caught?”

Being only fifteen, I was still struggling to get past the dove decapitation, and the terror of imagining his training, and the brand-new awareness that my dad had an interior landscape totally foreign to me. I couldn’t begin to understand what his POW story meant to me, or even to him. I excused myself to get a refill of sweet tea.

My dad “taught” a couple more classes. Two more McDonald’s trips, but no stories. Just coffee and cigarettes and greasy biscuits. Then he told my mom he couldn’t do it anymore.

Soon after, he opened a consignment store. Then, he took up acting for the first time. My mom said it had always been a dream, but lifelong stage fright held him back. He decided he could finally face that fear.

I wish I could say that was the start of a whole new life, and a happy ending. It wasn’t. There were DUIs and mental commitments and the wild swinging of bipolar disorder still on his flight path. But, for a few more years, my dad got back into the pilot seat and took life for another spin.

Looking back, I could define my dad’s life by his failures, but I would only be cheating myself. I’m almost the same age my dad was in that McDonald’s, and I have debacles of my own.

I didn’t join the military, haven’t seen combat, I’ve avoided ever getting pummeled, and I can’t begin to understand the ways that his service during the Vietnam War affected his life. Despite his Sunday School lesson, I tried to play it safe, to hide out, to avoid getting caught. And I ended up having the proverbial mess beaten out of me all the same.

When I was fifteen, my dad’s advice to “get the most out of it you can before you get caught” seemed kind of obvious. (It’s easy to be smart before you actually learn anything.) I now see my dad’s advice is about having the courage to get back out there and play the game again. Even though you know exactly how much it’s gonna hurt at the end, and how little that affects the final outcome, you might squeeze a bit more learning out of life.

As resonant as his ‘get back out there’ message is, though, what means the most to me now is that when he was at his rock bottom it wasn’t old glories that got him through. It was the tough times. Remembering his POW lessons, that’s what gave him hope when his high flying days were over – not the promotional photographs.

That gives me hope because while I don’t have any dazzling achievements, I have plenty of painful lessons. Rather than letting those failures bury me, I might be able to use them – even if it’s just to pass on a little wisdom to kids who are still too young to use it.

Official Photo U.S. Navy
Official Photo U.S. Navy

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.

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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.

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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?”

03-07-14 Mommy Fantasy