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Saving The Family Tree

11-02-08 Family Tree Skull

Moments after I gave birth to my daughter, my second child, I felt as though a heavy blanket of grief lifted from me. My daughter was born in June 2008, exactly a week before the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death.

The closeness of those two dates held even greater meaning for me because my son had been born in February 2005, just four days before the second anniversary of my father’s death. It seemed like the start of my kids’ lives filled the voids left by my parents.

Holding my newborn daughter in my arms, the sudden sense of completeness gave me confidence that my family wasn’t lost forever. That thought was a relief because the intervening five years felt like living in a black hole.

A few months later, on the Day of the Dead, I made a tribute to my parents at a community event at the Tacoma Art Museum. It was the first time I made a formal effort to honor their passing. Before that, I don’t think I’d been able to accept they were gone.

In the community art space I painted my parents’ initials on a sugar skull and wrapped it in scarlet tissue paper. When I was done, it was mine to take – but I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t really a mantlepiece object and I didn’t have a grave to place it on. So I stuffed it in my purse and took it home.

As I pulled up to my house, I saw the red Japanese Maple in my side yard. It had been a tiny sapling when we first moved in, but grew into a beautiful tree over the years. Its leaves were just starting to fall, and I noticed they matched the color of the tissue paper.

When I took the photo above, I half-jokingly named the maple “The Family Tree”.

***

Since that day, I watch the tree every morning while I drink my coffee. I thought of the roots I put down here in the Northwest, far from my North Carolina home, as it grew tall enough to reach the attic windows of my house. The tree even inspired me to draw, despite the fact that I’m not so good.

 

7-25-11 Japanese Maple

The previous homeowner planted the tree just before selling to us. It sits closer to the house than it should. On top of that, the trunk divided very close to the ground. It looked like two trees joined together.

According to my tree book, those two factors put the tree at a serious disadvantage.  For years I wondered if it could continue to support both main branches. I fretted over its viability in such tight quarters. Every Spring I would stand in front of the Family Tree and try to carefully, modestly, prudently prune the branches to keep it happy.

***

Last summer we installed new siding on our home and the tree’s placement made the job harder. The siders wanted to remove it to get easier access to the job. I said no.

For three days I listened to the two men yelling at each other in their native language as they wedged scaffolding in the narrow space between the house and tree, bumping into branches and badly scraping the trunk. I couldn’t understand their words, but I guessed there were plenty of curses being tossed in the tree’s direction.

Before Fall hit last year, most of the Family Tree’s leaves turned dark, curled up, and fell to the ground. While the neighboring green Japanese Maple still fluttered in the breeze, the red maple bared its branches.

05-15-15 Family Tree-2

***

This Spring the Family Tree looks sad. Few branches have leaves, most of them are dry and splitting. My research tells me that there’s not a lot I can do to make it come back to life. It will or it won’t, depending on how strong it is.

05-15-15 Family Tree-4

Last week on Mother’s Day my husband tackled a few jobs for me. First, he took the hand saw to one of the Family Tree’s main trunks. It was dead beyond recovery. Once it was cut off, the remaining tree looked fragile. Only a few living leaves clung to the tips of the branches.

Although I shouldn’t read so  much into landscaping, I sat in the yard looking at the tree and wondered what its death would mean for my own extended family. When I left North Carolina back in 1999 I didn’t think it would be forever. I thought I’d go back in a few years.

I tried to hold on to my connections down South, but the physical distance crept into familial distance. It’s not easy to keep a family together, especially once everyone has kids of their own. At some point, I suppose, we have to focus our energy on growing our own little saplings. Still, as I looked at the drastically diminished Family Tree, I felt the loss of my lineage all over again.

Then, my husband did one more job for me on Mother’s Day. He painted my weary, ragged kitchen cabinets so they could be used as chalkboards. Until we get the money to overhaul the whole room, we figured we could have fun “arting” up the kitchen.

Knowing there’s nothing physical I can do for my Family Tree, I picked up the chalk and created an artistic tribute to it. My daughter saw me drawing and asked what I was doing. I told her the Japanese Maple was in bad shape and I hoped that maybe imagining it coming back to life might help.

That evening I walked into the kitchen to discover a companion drawing on the cabinet. My daughter told me she decided to draw her own picture, “but with the sun, because trees like sunshine, too.” She also told me she put her own message on the drawing, so the tree would know what she meant.

"Please come back to life. You so pretty when you are alive." My daughter's message to the Family Tree (spelling corrected).
“Please come back to life. You are so pretty when you are alive.” My daughter’s message to the Family Tree (spelling corrected).

My daughter has a better grasp of the spiritual than me. All my years of school and science and journalism leave me a little embarrassed about fully committing to prayer – or even positive thinking. Just shy of seven-years-old, though, my daughter has an innocent confidence in the power of intention.

***

This morning I went out to check on my garden and braced myself as I walked up to the Family Tree, afraid I’d see even more branches failing. Instead, I saw something on a part of the tree I thought was long gone. A teensy-tiny leaf pushed its way out of the bark.

05-15-15 Family Tree-3

The rational part of me can’t credit this new growth to the drawings my daughter and I made. But, thinking back to how my daughter’s birth, her emergence into this world, helped a long-dormant part of me come back to life, I can hope it’s a sign that my Family Tree isn’t yet a goner.

***

Luckily, I’m not the only one to find inspiration among the trees. Here’s a playlist of songs that fuel my flights of forestry fancy.

Elegy For The Dead Mouse In Our Wall

Art by Megan
Art by Megan

***

On this radiant May Day, full of flowers basking and leaves shimmering, I remember the sun was once a god.

Watching his blazing chariot high in the sky, I call Apollo’s attention to a tiny, deceased bod.

+

Way back when, the ancients sometimes called him Apollo Smintheus, because he was also Lord of the Mice.

Mice adorned his temples, served as his informants, and delivered his plagues, which wasn’t so nice.

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Today, Apollo’s golden radiance can’t shine where one of his rodents lay dead and alone in the dark.

He expired behind the plaster walls with only a rank bouquet as his final resting mark.

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Since I cannot locate his corpse, rotting in some unseen space, for proper sacramental burial,

may this kitchen table verse, its stinky rhymes written with wrinkled nose, be his soul’s carry-all.

***

I first saw you, up close, when I discovered your poops, scattered behind the pasta on my cabinet shelf.

How shocked we both were when I found you still hiding in the Santa cup, that sneaky old elf.

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You scrambled from the plastic mug, your gray body only inches from my eyes, and I screamed.

With the smell of your passing now filling my head, I confess this is the ending I dreamed.

+

When the cats saw you on the back porch the next day, scurrying under the plants, I let them outside to find you.

My hope, I must say, was that they would stalk and pounce and be anything but kind to you.

+

The undoubtable confirmation of your permanent demise should be a joyful pest expulsion.

Alas, the lingering vapors of sulfur dioxide, methane, and benzene just fill me with revulsion.

***

O Mouse, wee mouse, house mouse, you’ve inspired some of the greatest cartoon characters.

Mickey and Jerry, Mighty and Fievel, I drank in their stories like ambrosia’s nectars.

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Only you would be stirring, scampering deep in the night, while the rest of us lay sleeping.

Not even a clock striking or blindness or a farmer’s wife’s knifing could stop your creeping.

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Long before the moving pictures, the poems, even the books, humans honored your small mousy ways.

Your presence meant an abundance of food, and you were a prophet back in the days.

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Some believed that you gnawed through the weapons of the enemy on the evening before battle.

For all your good deeds and entertaining adventures, though, it’s time to skedaddle.

***

Mystics say your spirit shows small actions can achieve great goals, if you don’t get too picky.

As a totem mouse, you bring wisdom to my life, no matter how icky.

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Despite the billowing fetor of your current state, you’re an orderly and fastidious creature.

Modest, resourceful, orderly and loyal, I should adopt some of your best features.

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Once considered a carrier of souls, the incense now burns to carry you across the threshold.

For my wishing your death, let this sage smoke atone and release your odor’s stranglehold.

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Experts say it may take weeks for the stench of your decomposition to finally dissipate.

Until then, remind me to smell life’s sweetness, before I reach the same fate.

****

The Care And Feeding Of Your Human Incarnation

Art by Megan
Art by Megan

 

Humans are incredibly resilient, considering their squishy makeup. However, you will want to provide your human incarnation with the best food and treatment if you want her to thrive, stay engaged and live as long a life as she possibly can in this chaotic, carbon-based, quantum-powered universal plane.

It can be hard to tell humans apart since they all have four limbs and walk upright. Upon closer inspection, you’ll discover your human is unique, with her own character, talents, and genetic variations.

Before you assume your human can be trained to behave in a certain way, or you expect her to fulfill complex commands, get to know her as an individual. Just because she can’t perform an action that may be popular among other humans, she may have her own strengths that will allow her to do any number of actions that only she can do.

Obviously, behavior, command and action are why you acquired a human incarnation. But, humans are not toys. You must address their basic care and feeding before all else. These are deceptively simple needs that can lead to the most chaotic, quantum-level disasters if they are not addressed every single day.

***

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of acquiring a human incarnation is that you must assume occupancy before you can provide your organism with these basic requirements by yourself. Thus, other humans must provide your needs. Some humans are better at this than others.

Unless your human carefully evaluates the care she learned from her first human contacts, she may simply perpetuate bad self-treatment, thinking it is the best for her. As a result, you may find yourself at a time in your existence where your human incarnation is in pretty lousy shape with no real clue how to take good care of herself.

This brief, modest Guide attempts to provide a few practical tips for daily maintenance and troubleshooting of your human existence. Remember, this life does not come with an extended warranty – or a money-back guarantee.

 

BREATHING

The very first skill your human incarnation must learn is sucking in and blowing out air. If mastered, this task will occupy every moment of your human’s life.

If you find something is amiss with your human, she isn’t responding well or is acting unusual, check with her breathing before all else. While there will be times when your human does not exchange air, that only happens when something is creating a significant challenge to your human, like swimming underwater, running from a tiger or carrying stinky garbage to the alley.

You may quickly resolve many, many issues with human incarnation by rebooting her breathing. Remember, breathing is sucking in and blowing out air. Often, the human neglects one or the other task. Take the time to guide your human slowly through each stage of the breath.

Refrain from mocking or judging your human for forgetting this most basic task. Occupying a mortal existence AND maintaining her constant function is a lot harder than it looks from the outside.

WATER

Humans live almost exclusively on dry land, but don’t be fooled. They are water-based organisms. Rather than swimming in the liquid so essential to their existence, they carry their ocean inside of them. This is terribly inefficient as every action humans take, including breathing, depletes their water reserves.

Humans must constantly replenish their cellular sea. The great challenge for watering a human incarnation is that, unlike breathing, this cannot be accomplished without a conscious effort.

She must seek out, procure, and consume water, often taking time away from far more entertaining and seemingly important tasks. And yet, if she does not monitor and maintain her water levels, all those far more entertaining and seemingly important tasks will take on the challenge level of running from a tiger – or carrying stinky garbage to the alley.

Do your human a favor, keep her interior ocean full of clean water. Since humans tend to resist their best care (hence the need for this Guide), you may find it easier to camouflage the delivery of this liquid life essence in an entertaining and changing mix of flavors, vessels and locations.

FOOD

The most difficult and yet very first step to fulfill this basic need is identifying food. Your human incarnation encounters an infinite amount of matter on a daily basis, much of which can fit in her mouth, some of which can pass through her organism without causing death, and very little of which will actually  keep her existence operating at optimum levels.

To make the whole matter of identifying food matter more difficult, there are many other humans who produce matter that looks exactly like food, but is not, in fact, anything that should really pass through the biological engine that keeps your human alive. This category of matter includes things like rubber cheeseburgers, fast-food, and the Wienermobile.

The core challenge of identifying food is so great that some humans dedicate their lives to the answer, some build religious belief systems around it, and some spend great amounts of money to fool other humans into believing their definition of food. (Curiously, all of these apply to the Wienermobile.)

With this in mind, if your human incarnation wants to perform other actions beyond defining food, she might aim to acquire nutrition that has passed through as few human hands as possible. Food does not come from humans, it comes from the sun.

Plants, being far more grounded than humans, chose to keep solar energy transfer as simple as possible. They adopted photosynthesis. Humans, already being willing to walk around in their own personal ocean, chose to harvest their solar fuel from other organisms. It’s only incidental that this action allowed humans to get back at those smug plants.

Since plants are dependent on the up-again, down-again sun cycle, humans sometimes harvest their solar energy from other animals who store the energy they took from plants in the form of delicious meat hanging all over their bones. However, the topic of eating animals is an express ticket right back to the battle over defining food (and oddly back again to the Wienermobile).

To steer clear of the Wienermobile conundrum altogether, this Guide advocates a close examination of the way anything claiming to be food affects the operation of your human incarnation. If your human is performing poorly or malfunctioning, you may need to evaluate what she has identified as food and help her develop a definition that serves her biological engine better.

SECURITY

Once your human incarnation is comfortably breathing, hydrated and fed, she must face the unending awareness that her continued existence is under constant threat of attacks on a microscopic, biological, chemical, mental, cosmic, and even virtual level. Many humans complain loudly – and frequently – about their lot in such a chaotic universal plane, despite the perks of being carbon-based.

This Guide takes the attitude that it’s a little late to argue the contract of existence. Keep in mind that even stars explode. If they didn’t, you never would have all that squishy carbon to assemble into a body to occupy. The best thing is to make the most of the peaceful times between attacks on the microscopic, biological, chemical, mental, cosmic and even virtual levels.

Since there is simply no way to permanently secure your human incarnation, even though it is one of her most basic needs, it may be helpful to remind your human frequently about all the things that are secure in her life. If you’ve already addressed her breathing, water, and food, these are good things to point out to her.

Threats from tigers, stinky garbage that needs to be taken to the alley, or anything that compromises your human’s ability to pursue the next three basic needs, must be addressed. The action to be taken can span the widest range of human behavior: running away, shutting the door, making a witty retort, putting a foot in a delicate place on another human’s body, or even breaking a societal dependence on fossil fuels. Like with food, entire human civilizations have risen and fallen and been mocked for centuries afterward because of their approach to perceived threats.

With that in mind, take the time to understand the cultural context of your human incarnation to determine how her security could be compromised by forces beyond her control. Although it contradicts many powerful human empires, this Guide takes the stand that anything that violates your incarnation’s physical body and degrades her existence can most certainly be identified as a security threat that requires attention and correction.
(Even though the Weinermobile fits these parameters, please note that this Guide is referring as well to oppression that eclipses the visual and conceptual blight of mobile processed meats.)

Your human incarnation is limited in her ability to completely secure her existence, especially considering the constant threat of attacks on a microscopic, biological, chemical, mental, cosmic and even virtual level, but giving her a clear and compassionate assessment of her security level is an essential component of maintaining her well-being.

REST

Having satisfied basic care up to this point, most human beings are ready for action. Paradoxically, action may be the last thing they need. With the possibilities of carbon-based activity before your human incarnation, she may ignore the most essential source of her lifelong energy: rest.

Human resilience enables all of them to function and perform commands even if they are desperately tired. In challenging situations, like tigers, stinky garbage, or fleeing the Weinermobile, your human can tap into reserves that give her the ability to get herself to safety. This is why it is helpful to address security before rest.

Once secure, though, your human incarnation may be reluctant to surrender the energy of emergency. She may avoid sleeping, reclining, even sitting down, simply because rest can feel like dying.

To be sure, sleep is a weird state for the human incarnation. She must deny herself the use of her four limbs, relinquish even her sight, and enter a state of suspended animation, unaware of her physical surroundings. Wired as they are for movement and command, it’s no wonder humans try to deny this basic need. It only reminds them of their limited existence.

This is why it is so very important that you provide your human incarnation with consistent, adequate periods of rest and deep sleep, even if she says she isn’t tired. What humans cannot see is that deep inside their organism, rest gives their operational systems time to both repair and build new networks of information and processing that will enable them to perform actions and commands in ever-better ways.

Regarding Dreams:
Perhaps the most vexing aspect of sleep for the human incarnation is dreams. Not only must she enter the dream world without her carbon-based body, she must confront bizarre, illogical, and frequently frightening distortions of her own life.
There is simply no way around this.
Your human will function best if you give her some positive, assuring explanation for these surreal mind movies. Only you can determine what will work best for her, but dreams could be anything from neural processing to astral visits to the spirit world.
Perhaps both.
Have fun with it.

COMPANIONSHIP

The human incarnation provides you with a solid, yet squishy, carbon boundary. This makes it necessary to connect with other incarnations physically, as it is exceptionally difficult to simply drift into any other organism’s consciousness. In fact, companionship, the sharing of existential space with another being, is an essential element of your human’s care.

It may be helpful to remember that your human incarnation gained entry into this existence through the body of another human incarnation. Connection with another being gave her life and was necessary to sustain her life when very young. Companionship defines her experience of existence.

Depending of her developmental stage and unique characteristics, though, that companionship may take many different forms. Your human incarnation may crave close proximity with a single other human, or she may eagerly seek out connections with many, many different humans, or she may find companionship with animals, plants, even the Weinermobile. To point out a pattern, companionship can have many different definitions.

This Guide encourages you to allow your human incarnation a wide interpretation of companionship, depending on her current life situation and what allows her to thrive, stay engaged and live as long a life as she possibly can in this chaotic, carbon-based, quantum-powered universal plane.

Whatever definition suits her, provide your human with the experience of companionship every day.

PLAY

At this point in your human incarnation’s care, she can effectively fulfill most any behavior, command or action that falls within her unique existential skill set. This is when it may be most tempting to set her to the tasks that drove you to occupy human existence in the first place. Indeed, it may be necessary for her to go straight to work. Keep in mind, though, that the importance of playing cannot be overlooked.

This carbon-based, quantum-powered universal plane, despite being chaotic, operates through systems. Any action or command given to your human must comply with concurrent systems of gravitational orbits, tectonic shifts, hormonal cycles, and even more terrifying forces like the touring schedule of the Wienermobile.

It is impossible for a human to know the most effective and successful way to accomplish anything without first knowing the system in which she operates. This is what play does for your human. Through playing, she gets the chance to explore and experiment with many different systems, understand similarities between systems, and learn more about her unique skills and talents. Those experiences are critical for her to be able to actually get anything really useful done.

Once again, the definition of play is something you must discover for your unique human incarnation. There are humans who find play in pushing tiny stones around a square board, others delight in pushing other humans around a square mat, and still others pursue games that having nothing whatsoever to do with pushing. (Some people even pursue play by writing Guides to Caring for Your Human Incarnation.)

***

We expect an awful lot of humans, considering they are such water-soaked, squishy, and needy organisms. It’s a testament to their stout nature that they will fulfill behavior, command and action even when their most basic care and feeding is woefully denied.

Too often, we fail to realize what our human incarnations might accomplish, the marvelous secrets they might unlock about this plane of existence, if treated with care and attention. However, it’s never too late to make life better for them.

No matter how busted-up or run-down your human incarnation may be when you find yourself in the position to consistently supply these basic needs, you’ll be amazed how she rises to the very fullest potential of the life remaining to her carbon-based body. What’s more, you may find that your human’s unique skills and characteristics will shine in new ways, enabling her to spread her life energy beyond the limits of her skin boundary, even improving the lives of other humans.

Life does not come with an extended warranty – or a money-back guarantee – so when it comes to existence on this universal plane, your human incarnation can use all the kindness she can get.

 

***UPDATE 7/31/2016***

My daughter and I discovered the Wienermobile parked at our regular grocery store.

The Wienermobile attempts to convert my daughter into its disciple. Good thing I was already on to its nefarious processed meat intentions.
The Wienermobile attempted to convert my daughter into its disciple. Good thing I was already aware of its nefarious processed meat proselytizing.

Lilacs Smell Sweet

Day 127: May 7, 2010

Lilacs smell sweet

on a still April night

as clouds drift past the waning moon

and the brightest stars shine

in spite of

the bank of billboards out my front door.

I never would have known the heady fragrance

if the 24-hour Mexican restaurant across the street

hadn’t cranked up the bass beat of its kitchen music

in time for the burrito rush

after the bars closed

at 2:30 a.m.

In my bathrobe

and bare feet,

I stomped down the sidewalk

intent on yelling across the Avenue,

but then the perfume

of the first blooms

made me pause.

Smelling deeply,

surprised at the warmth,

the way the city felt smaller

when most people are asleep,

I thought twice about my plan

to scream,

“Shut off the damn noise!”

I lingered at the lilac bush,

ran my fingers across the perky blossoms,

buried my nose in the purple,

and decided

to hurl my obscenities

into the telephone instead.

photo: Elizabeth Thomsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

originally post June 14, 2014

***

Daddy and Megan, 1978 - ish

-Father’s Day 1978-

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

-Father’s Day 2014-

I’m still terrible at keeping secrets.

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

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

Two 1960's vinyl letter boxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

image of letter, text follows

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

 

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

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

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

envelope addressed to Kappa Delta sorority house

 

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 2

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

 

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

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 3

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

 

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

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

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 4

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

 

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 5

“My Darling Wife, “

 

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

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 6

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

 

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 7

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 8

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 9

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 10

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 11

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

 

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

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 12

“Miss Patricia Rouse (J.)”

 

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

 

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 13

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 14

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

 

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

Then I opened the letter postmarked April 26, 1966:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 15

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

It included this check:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 16

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 17

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

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 18

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

 

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

Wedding 4

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

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

 

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

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

 

2014 Top 10: #2 The Last Debacle

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

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

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

(Long drag of cigarette.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Long drag of cigarette.)

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

***

originally published February 5, 2014

***

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

photo collage of my father and his autopsy

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

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

Coroner's report of my father's death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I said:

DADDY WAS USUALLY THE ONE TALKING.

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

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

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

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

 PLEASE, SHARE THOSE STORIES.

•   HE ONCE HITCHIKED AROUND THE COUNTRY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW DO WE ARRANGE THE JUMBLED FRAGMENTS?

BY REMEMBERING THE DETAILS.

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

IT’S A DETAIL, A MOMENT.

WHAT’S YOUR PICTURE?

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

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

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

Fayetteville's Prince Charles Hotel, 1990

2014 Top 10: #3 The Injustice Of Cape Disappointment

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

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

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

***

originally posted July 18, 2014

***

IMG_1970

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tried to get over the injustice of it all.

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

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

2014 Top 10: #4 The Reality Of Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

originally published on March 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

03-07-14 Dragons are Real

 

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

 

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

12-23-14 Vivian Lost Tooth-3 12-26-14 BW Quinn's Lost Tooth-1

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

Sibling rivalry exists even below the gum line.

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

“It will happen in its own time.”

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

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

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

“The waiting is the hardest part.”

“Don’t panic. Just breathe.”

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

“You did it! Bravo!”

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

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

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originally published February 2, 2014

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

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

but I hate lying to kids.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My husband asleep in the birth tub

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother and Son, seeing each other for the first time

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