Novelist | Singer
Her eyes are the first thing I see as I pad out from the bedroom in the morning. The frosted lenses follo
w me, so I know she sees something, but I’m never sure how much. Cataracts have overtaken the brown of her retinas – leaving shadowy gray discs. Sometimes I can even get all the way into the kitchen before my movement wakens her. She sleeps much more deeply than before, which was not deep at all. In those days, she could go from snoring to running and barking in a split second. She is my good girl.
Her ears perk as I make the coffee and tuck the cups from last night into the dishwasher. As usual, she has placed herself right in the middle of my path, so I have to coax her to move out of the way before dad wakes up and roars at her. It’s funny – she doesn’t mind it a bit, just drops those ears a hair, does what he says, and then it’s over. I move her mostly so I don’t have to hear it. But I caught him talking gently to her on regular occasions. We both know that she is getting old.
Now her timer is running. If I don’t feed her within a couple of minutes, I’ll hear it. She is accustomed to being a priority and will remind me if I forget or neglect any step of our morning routine. Sometimes she starts soft, yet urgently – a bark that can be heard from the living room into the kitchen. If she is in a feisty mood, however, she’ll skip the intro and commence with a full-on bark – that sharp penetrating Aussie yap that makes sheep sit up and notice. That bark can be heard from the other side of town. It will wake Al up, and I don’t want the morning to go that way, so I give into the demands of the oldest member of our family, my 14-year-old Aussie shepherd Lila.
I grab a fistful of kibble from the canister with the leopard spots and drop it into her bowl. She loves that sound. Now she is up and standing at the entrance to the galley kitchen, the stub of her tail sending vibrations throughout her entire body. Her nose angles higher and just the black rubberish end twitches. How is it possible that she can actually smell the brown, non-descript tablets of chow? They don’t smell much like anything even if I put my nose right above the bowl. Nothing I’d like to eat anyway. She does her 30 second slurp of breakfast and lies down to lick her chops. Now she’ll be fine for the next twenty minutes or so until she decides it’s time for her pills. Two glucosamine chondroitin for her arthritic joints, one Rimydyl for the pain, and one fish oil for general health and a shiny coat. She eats them all with zeal. She started eating the glucosamine when I was gone last winter and she was staying with a friend. Jennifer thought maybe it was her way of protecting HER pills from the other dog in the house. It’s so much easier than the messy peanut butter routine.
After her pills, she’ll hobble to the slider where she awaits release for her morning stroll. For twelve years, she has made the trip down those twenty seven stairs, taken her solo neighborhood expedition, then back up the twenty seven to bark at the screen door for admittance. I’ve always been a bit nervous about her daily neighborhood route, but unable to put a stop to it.
What if she gets hits by a car? What if she runs into some wild animal? What if she gets hold of something nasty, or something poisonous? Over 4,000 times she has made the trip without incident, so odds are in her favor.
Those excursions occupied a wider circle when she was young. Twice she cost me beers at Pratty’s when she found her way down there looking for the hotdogs Cousin Tony used to give her late at night when we stopped in after gigs. “Do you have a dog named Lila?” is a heart-stopping opening from an unknown caller. Perhaps I was negligent. But she has enjoyed a freedom most pets do not, and she deserves freedom, after her punishing first two years inside a crate. That was before she came to us.
I know it’s not over yet, but Lila is nearing the end of her life. Every day becomes a reminder that she is indeed still vital; barking, pooping, sniffing—everything a dog does when she is still full of life. But before she goes outside I find myself helping her more every day as I dress her in her new vest with a handle for boosting, and I can feel that the grieving process (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) has already begun. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be caught in the depression stage. There are many days when one look at her will bring tears to my eyes.
What is she thinking? Does she know she is getting old? Does she wonder? Can she feel herself failing? Does she question her fate—why was I able to run before and now I can barely walk?
Dread fills at least a spot of every day as I witness yet another symptom of her advanced years, the hitch in the step, the labored attempts to stand, the increase in water intake. I am not ready to lose her, and wonder if I will be when that time comes. Possibly, I am anticipating the weight of responsibility for being the one responsible for ending her life. How many times have you heard, “Why can’t we do that for people?”
What??? How could we ever bear that responsibility, although with our advanced language skills don’t we make detailed wishes heard? We can ask for the end as a dog cannot. What will I base it on? Certainly pain will drive my actions. I won’t be able to bear seeing her in pain. She is my good girl.
There are things a dog fulfills that I have never experienced from another human being. There is a look unique to a dog, and one that wrenches my heart from my chest. Oh, yes, we look into the eyes of our lovers, spouses, children and even best friends, but the look that a dog delivers is somehow deeper, more meaningful and more trusting. That one look says,
“Do you know my life is dedicated to your safety, that I would gladly give mine for yours?”
“Do you know that I put myself in the way to ensure I will wake and be vigilant whenever you make a move?”
“Do you know that life has no meaning for me without you in it?”
“Do you know I love you more than anything in the world?”
The look is profound and endless. She stares right into my eyes with an all-knowing power of connectivity. There is no embarrassment, no hesitation. It is complete, unfathomable and soul-filling. It is the sweet meat next to the bone. It is the meaning of life itself.
In the past, I think maybe she was not aware of the impact of her gaze. At those times, she smiled and did her frenzied tail dance, butt tucked in, bumping into my leg intentionally. Maybe she is just joking about the gaze. “That’s OK Mom, just blanked out for a second – sorry I was staring at you.”
But now that she is old, the gaze is prolonged and intent, and happens more often. It is clear that she is conveying thoughts; telling me her story. And we both know her story. Where she was born, what she endured in a crate for two years with a shock collar cinched around her neck.
I can hear her saying, “I am here, you are here. Everything is just fine.”
She is not worried. She is my good girl, and though her faculties are impaired, her spirit remains vigilant. And so must I.
In our time remaining, I will find a way to embrace her old age; to ignore the “old” in her and focus on wisdom, trust and steadfastness. I will talk to her and also listen; to her words and her glances until her cloudy eyes no longer see. The ego that often dictates human action cannot derail the remainder of our journey together. And however it goes, we have had a great run.
I was recently in the Bahamas to escape at least part of the winter. I don’t mind winter, just the length of it, so even a bit of away is a bonus. We sail and fish, and I spend a great deal of time just sitting and looking and pondering the amazing world in which we live. During this trip, the incredible mangrove caught my attention.
Mangrove forest is both tough and tender – strong enough to survive hurricane winds, yet gentle enough to nurture the babies who feed the world.
They are some spooky snorkeling, and not much to see until you slow down and really look. Millions of silver baby fish wiggle by in orderly schools, not a bit scared; just looking. The ghostly roots and branches provided excellent cover as their algae–draped limbs snake down through the shallow water to anchor deeply into the mucky substrate—deep enough to endure wind over 100 miles per hour and the waves driven by such wind. It is little wonder that the mangrove has been chosen by nature to guard its most vulnerable young ones.
Another testament to its toughness is its mindboggling ability to live in salt water, a deadly environment for most life. Mangroves put up more carbon than their inland forest counterparts. Their soils are constantly waterlogged, they filter salt out with their miraculous roots, just sipping less than a third of their temperate counterparts.
The picture is equally as impressive as trees that grow on high, frosty mountain slopes or rugged, hot wind-swept plains. The resilience of our fringe environment vegetation puts the vulnerability of Homo sapiens to shame. We northern hemisphere residents are even unable to drink water from natural sources without boiling and filtering first. Oh, boy, are we in for trouble when the lights go out. Mother Nature is by far the most selective force on the planet, and she occasionally puts on a demonstration just to show who’s boss. Do we listen? Some do.
Those living in close contact with nature generally step back and let Mother do her thing. Others regret their ill-conceived decisions: driving in a blizzard (on round wheels, no less!), chasing tornadoes or hanging around for the hurricane party. Meteorologists talk about the wind speeds, which are a substantial force. More powerful yet is the water driven by the wind; storm surge, terrifying waves, with power enough to destroy bridges, concrete foundations and transport tons of sand out to sea. But not our humble mangroves standing guard over the babies. Their waxy leaves may be stripped temporarily, but these are by design expendable and will grow back after a storm. The hundreds of twisted roots anchored deeply into earth and their beautiful above-ground counterparts hold fast through tempest and blasting heat waves, eventually releasing their fishy guardians to the world as a reliable seemingly never-ending food supply.
And yet, when coastal development takes place, those are the first plants to go – those ugly mangroves. With one fell swoop of a heavy machine, not only is all the future food supply gone, but the wind and wave protection as well.
Wahhhhhh????? In their place, we import plants that won’t survive unless we water them – never mind when the sky turns black and the water rises. The story doesn’t end there. Many human decisions are ego-centrically (though not intentionally) opposed to nature and financially lucrative for the inventor.
Chemical solutions for everything from high blood pressure to bugs on vegetative monoculture we call “food,” these things that will eventually poison us. The whole myth of “low-fat” and manufactured foods being better for us than butter and animal products. Bottle-feeding rather than nursing our own babies are just a couple of examples of how far astray we allow ourselves to be taken. Homo sapiens; the strangest creature on earth in defiance of Mother Nature. Few comedies are cleverer.
Thankfully, certain factions among our kind have the wisdom and foresight to preserve the very things that save us from the destructive power of nature. We have protected marsh and forest. We’re getting better at seeing where we have gone wrong. Among these discoveries, The Everglades in Florida is now up front and center in recent news. And though much of the Everglades is grassland, the entire western edge of it is—guess what—mangroves. The nursery and guardian of our baby fish and shoreline.
There are loads of sources on-line that tell the natural history and ecological story of the mangrove. Like our northern marshes, mangroves are the glue that holds the southern environment together. It’s worth a read.
Upon our return from the winter get-away, what a greeting I discovered in our mail pile. An a bubble-wrapped copy of “Garamba – Conservation in Peace & War,” a coffee-table book from Dr. Kes Hillman-Smith, the woman who acted as my “boss?” “advisor?” when I was doing my Master’s field work in Zaire in ’93 and ’95. After I left Africa, Kes contacted me about writing a chapter for the Garamba book on the research focus of my Master’s thesis, and of course, I said yes. It’s been a long time coming – more than 15 years, I think, and now I have the book in my hands. It is much more book than I expected! They are $187.00 on Amazon!
I am so fortunate as a contributing author to have been sent a copy. I realize that this is not something that people would just click and purchase because they are loyal friends, but wanted to add it to my network anyway. You should see the book. It is GORGEOUS. Considering the fact that conservation projects in places like Africa are always starving for funding, I hope they sell thousands of them. Whatever the case, it is a product worthy of the fantastic story of Garamba National Park and all of those who gave their talents and some much more for the preservation of fabulous wild land and irreplaceable creatures. Africa always sounds so exotic and fabulous (which it is), but living there, particularly for the native people is exhausting and labor-intensive. In many places, water must be carried home every day from one well. That is just one example of the difficulty of everyday life.
Though I have been published on other platforms (newspapers, magazines and journals), this is perhaps the one which makes me most proud. This is due in part to its dedication to my African assistant, Atolobako Vukoyo who gave his life to protect the wildlife in his world. Kes also added a beautiful photo of Atolobako (pictured) from those days, a handsome young park guard who served as my guide and protector in the African bush. We endured many blistering hot days together in the hand-planted agricultural fields of Nagero Park headquarters, struggling with a creative mix of English, French and Lingala, but were always able to communicate the most abstract of ideas. He hovered over me when I got too close to the banks of the Dungu River and its 15 foot crocodiles. He looked after me as if it were his sole responsibility to make sure I made it out of Africa in one piece, and perhaps it was.
I wish I could show you all the book (which echoes the stunning cover) – it represents the culmination of a very worthy project that ended prematurely due to political unrest. I often think about Garamba and all the people still living there, the constant failures of conservation as poaching rides on the coattails of political unrest. All of it can be overwhelming. It is heart-warming to see such a beautiful product of story interpretation arise from all the struggle.
When I checked the last blog I wrote, the date on the file was two months ago. Good Lord, how could this happen? I’m a writer.
It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve been doing LOTS of writing; emails, emails, emails and emails. They do count, don’t they? I’m also sure to make appropriate edits and spell checks. And I have an exhibit project in motion at one of my major parks, which means intricate writing—slow, meticulous “no word but the right word” kind of writing.
No wonder I’ve been so jumpy. I’m testy and tired and bumping into walls – literally. The straw that broke the llama’s back (I prefer them to camels—they’re not quite so cliché) was Sunday morning. I yearned for my T’ai Chi like a dog pants for water. When I arrived, the class was in full swing and serenely parting the horse’s mane. What? What had happened? Turns out that I had indeed been sent an email about the time change to a half hour earlier. I had read it, and weighed in – yes, that would work for me as well. I had no recollection of that email until I walked through the door.
The tardiness at T’ai Chi was just that particular final straw. T’ai Chi is my anchor; the practice that keeps me tethered to Earth. I finished up the abbreviated class and jumped in my car, tears fat on my bottom lids. At home, I broke down and sobbed on my husband’s shoulder. He was perplexed. I wasn’t one to cry about something so minor – in fact, I hardly ever cry except in the case of major crisis or a particularly poignant movie. But things had come to a head. Life was just too busy and I had lost control.
Most of the rest of that day was a little dreary and slow, but being a problem solver, I had to erase my pout.
I set about exploring what had brought this on. My active curiosity tends to push me over the edge on a runaway train of constant busyness, along with the expectation of heaven resulting from doing the right thing and serving a fellow human-being. We learned that as little kids in Sunday school.
It has been a rough summer at work. I supervise eleven seasonal interpreters who present natural, cultural and historic programs for the public, and it can get intense. If I had to choose a tough season, I would say summer every time. Not only are the days mercifully long and warm, but there’s just oh so much to do and experience. I have to live in the north just so I won’t burn myself out. I’d last about two years in a warm place, and would eventually be discovered face-down in the lapping waves on the beach.
Clearly, if this is happening to me, I’m either causing it or allowing it to happen. Self-reflection includes swallowing some interesting admissions. And it’s so difficult to let go. Life has so many choices – too many for me. I’m lucky that regular TV doesn’t appeal to me or I would explode from overstimulation. It can make for some pretty embarrassing conversation. I’ll bet I’m the only person in the country who hasn’t seen Game of Thrones.
As I calmed my racing mind, I stood for a bit in the middle of the living room, frozen in space – unable to make a move for fear it might be the wrong one. There were a million things to do – things that I had on my many lists and had left undone. Things that plagued me with guilt. Things that I know realistically would remain undone because I don’t like doing them.
I took a deep breath, released the T’ai Chi interruptus and began to visualize what I would most prefer to do at this point in time. Writing would be a great idea, except in this frame of mind, I would write myself into circles, and I didn’t want to have to straighten it out at some future date. Visualize and breathe. Visualize and breathe.
Make something. Creation with the hands. Tactile stimulation that is logical but requires very little thinking beyond modest geometry and entailing no measurements. Something simple, and square.
Once I glommed onto it, my spirit peeked around my ego; I caught my breath and straightened my spine. Down in the bottom of a drawer, I found three beautiful pieces of material that I had had for a couple of years, planning eventually to make pillow shams. Boring? A little, but this was good material of three different patterns. And, a square pattern. Perfect.
I dedicated the remainder of the day to creating my pillow shams. As I gently smoothed the cloth with my hands, measured, cut and inserted pins, I could feel the quietude of creative invention envelope my consciousness and calm my mind. By the time I had broken the last of my sewing machine needles (gotta get that Kenmore serviced), I was in much better spirits. My new outlook felt like a warm Snuggie and actually allowed me to think.
Full engagement in life is a true blessing. Being run by life’s chores is not. Especially now, with social media and digital everything, having access to your entire network at any moment can be overwhelming for a small town girl raised in simpler, slower times. I will always be busy because there are so many options in our world today; compelling adventures, interesting pursuits, great books and fun projects. But you know what they say, “You can’t do it all.”
The answer? To learn to say no and let a few go. That’s hard—especially when you believe in what you are doing every day.
Another solution is to tap into the healing power of creativity. The spirit feeds off creativity. Turns out there is a connection between the size of dopamine-rich regions of the brain and creativity. No wonder it worked so well on my truncated T’ai Chi day.
Life will never become slow and sedentary under my roof. I will always have a to-do list of uncompleted tasks and loads of percolating ideas that may or may not take root. But life is good, and I enjoy my incredibly busy job. It also allows for creativity. Let’s face it—creativity is the essence of life.
Richard Louv spoke at Brookwood School in Manchester-by-the-Sea the other day. His new book Vitamin N follows on the heels of his other two ground-breaking works Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle. Last Child was a wake-up call to our nation to recognize the necessity of outdoor creative play for children to develop into sound, complete adults. Nature Principle is targeted more toward adults and the restorative period we are now entering, the most creative period in history. Vitamin N contains 500 suggestions about how to incorporate nature and outside time into our kids’ lives. Nature provides peace, essential microbes, fresh air, exercise. Though we live in houses, nature is essentially our “home,” and knowledge of surroundings increases our safety and enhances our life experience.
I have followed Louv’s writings since Last Child. As an Interpretive Coordinator for Massachusetts State Parks, I have experienced fear and hesitation from parents of small children about being outdoors, but more than anything, unfamiliarity. Of course we want to infuse our children with nature, the natural order, sunshine, and clean air. But in order to succeed, we need the parents.
Anytime is a good time to start. Parents sometimes feel inadequate about teaching their kids about nature, but lucky for you, there are materials everywhere. And the season for ease of identification of plants and trees is hot upon us.
The magic has begun. The natural changes in autumn provide parents with a brilliant opportunity to teach children – a virtual science project surrounding us on all sides, the sensory delight of color, technical lessons of chemical reactions, all contained in a spiritually magical setting – the fall colors emerge.
The process is complex; terms like anthocyanin and carotenoid, chlorophyll of every persuasion, biological processes that can blow the mind, all manifested in a gorgeous display of nature’s best. The best part is – you don’t have to know all the scientific details to introduce your kids to natural species.
And for the nature lover – a chance to easily put names to key species. Every plant has its own composition and as a result, its own unique color and window of change.
At this writing, the red maples are at peak, and are concentrated in wet environments, stream beds, and low-lying areas. These are the reds that drive the fall leaf peeping schedule. The change of colors continues for weeks, yet as different species of trees attain their hues, we experience several peaks of color.
Early in the autumnal change, nature spotlights one of the more ubiquitous species in New England – poison ivy. Right now, poison ivy is visible from hundreds of yards, particularly the tree and telephone climbing individuals. It is bright red and surrounds the trunk sometimes as high as 15 or 20 feet, a spectacular and successful species that also provides plenty of berries for wildlife winter repast. Now is the time to teach children about this noxious plant. Once they can identify it, they can avoid it, unlike yours truly, who suffered from horrible episodes every summer of childhood. Look closely at the leaves and learn them now. Your kids (and you!) will remember what they look like.
Blueberry bushes turn their gorgeous red-purple, Virginia creeper scarlet (both anthocyanins), and invasives become show pieces. Just drive on any highway at this time of year. The oriental bittersweet becomes bright yellow and lays in virtual sheets over trees on the side of the road. This time of year, you can see how pervasive this introduced plant has become.
Following the red maples with their brilliant scarlet, the sugar maples bloom in orange and yellow combinations that will make your heart sing. They are unique beacons in the less brilliant surrounding palette. Identifying the sugars now will allow you to collect sap in the spring with your kids, providing yet another opportunity to teach the amazing lessons of nature, and consume its products. When a child eats something they have harvested themselves, it takes on a whole new meaning and can make them feel more secure in nature. We have gotten so far from the circle of life in recent history that food appears to originate from a store, rather than from natural foodstuffs in the world. If children see themselves as part of nature rather than separate from it, the fear of outdoors melts away and becomes a stage for creative exploration.
Take your time. Pick up a couple of field guides and page through them. Learn and then teach one or two basics. Feel the texture of the bark, of the leaves. Press some colorful leaves (but not poison ivy!) to laminate later. They make cute refrigerator magnets; a taste of New England you can send in a Christmas card. Your kids’ knowledge will impress their friends and draw them closer to the natural world.
And remember to have fun. Exploring nature is enjoyable as well as educational, and has the added benefits of fresh air and exercise. Find your local parks and make friends with the trees, now shutting themselves down for the winter and giving us the true magic of autumn colors.
Yeah, it’s STILL winter. It’s April 4th today and it snowed. And they’re saying there will be more. I have started to look for reasons to be happy about being here, and decided that there are some delightful aspects of winter here in Gloucester, although m
aybe not as numerous as in summer. Here’s a big one. Everyone knows how to drive these narrow roads.
I believe after living here for 20 years, it’s because of a clever maneuver that I have coined The Gloucester Pull Out. Some people from the outside think it’s rude, but I’ve never been able to figure out why. In taking a left turn from a driveway or side street, we wait for three or four cars, which is reasonable in the winter, and then pull slowly into the coming lane. Eventually, and most times, immediately, cars in the other lane will stop and motion us into the flow of traffic. We’ve all done this thousands of times, and I’m wondering if Gloucester residents realize how brilliant it is. Nobody gets angry, nobody is inconvenienced and often, you receive a smile or a wave. And, the traffic moves like magic.
We need to teach all of our summer visitors this one technique, and perhaps the love and generosity would spread. I know the traffic would move better. Even at my age, I’m still hopeful.
I’ve lived in lots of places before coming to Gloucester (I’ll never leave by the way, except in the winter for as long as possible), and I’ve never seen this used so consistently. Go even a couple of towns away. They don’t do that. You have to wait and wait and wait and then screech your tires and lay rubber just to jump into the far lane without getting side-swiped. Your heart is pounding, horns are blaring, and your day is less pleasant for a short time. Not in Gloucester. We’re cool.
Why does this one phenomenon exist here and nowhere else? I watched the drivers carefully when they motion me ahead or flash their lights. Friendly faces, smiles, waves. You don’t even see that in the Midwest. And Midwesterners smile a lot. I know. I’m from there.
The answer is pretty simple. Gloucester is a community.
Even if you’re not a socialite, you see someone you know every time you leave the house. I love that. It’s small town stuff. It’s community.
Sure, Gloucester is beautiful and all that, has lots of interesting people and many things to do year-round, live music almost every night, art and artists, politics, culture, the harbor, etc., but I think our greatest asset is the strong sense of community. Everyone just takes care of each other. That’s the way life is supposed to be.
Oh, we have our fights. We have our naysayers. There are people who complain about living here. That’s okay. It’s still the best town in the world.
So what do you think? Shall we teach everyone who visits The Gloucester Pull Out? What a world this would be if we actually lived by the words, “After you.”
I felt like I had never been to a funeral. I am 55 years old and have at least several dozen funerals under the soles of my feet. Still, I stood at the casket trying desperately to see her through that drawn, plastic expression creased with makeup she would never have worn. The hint of a smile curled from the corners of her mouth—a smile I had never before seen. Her natural smile was bright and toothy, or full and sunken after she couldn’t keep her upper plate in any longer.
They were delaying the funeral for me. The funeral director stood to the side next to Pastor Cage, handsome and strong in his vestments, his expression a mix of pure sympathy, godliness and professionalism. All pastors know how to do that. They must offer Countenance Classes at Seminary. The church was solemnly hushed. And still they waited . . .
I had intended to stand straight with a resolute mask of appreciation for the handful who had come to see my mother off to heaven. That was where she had gone. I had intended to remain dry-eyed, and foolishly applied the makeup I almost never wear, thinking about people I hadn’t seen in years, letting vanity guide my decisions. Already the mascara was burning my eyes.
Mom’s hair looked better than it had in years. Maybe they had cut it. During my bimonthly visits from the East Coast, I had cut her hair despite her gentle protests, but she would let me do anything I wanted. Though her hair had been short ever since I could remember, she had come to prefer long hair because she thought it made her look younger. Long hair gave her a wild, crazy old lady look. She had slept a lot this past year, and the aides didn’t have time to comb it every time she woke. I would ask them to keep it short, but she wouldn’t let them, not like she let me.
I had painted her nails pale pink the week before. I wish I had chosen shocking red. Before she went to the Memory Care unit, she had broken, peeling nails that would never grow. It was odd, what happened to her these last two years. Her mind had retreated, but her nails grew long and hard, and the aides often painted them, even bright hues of red. It made her feel young.
She was a little girl on her first visit to the beauty parlor. It was fun. We sat face to face, her hands delicately laid on top of a pair of Depends to keep the wet polish off her bedclothes. After the first coat, I lifted her tiny sculptured hands so reminiscent of baby bird feet, and blew gently on the shiny surface of the polish. One coat barely revealed color. The second, a bit more of the color emerged. On top of the pale fingernails, I appliquéd little flowers and butterflies. I was determined that the nails be well-polished because I knew this would be the last time. Damn all the lasts we suffer during the final lap of someone’s life. The last haircut, the last meal, the last breath. She didn’t think that way. To her, it was just one more day in a long, long line of days that blossomed into one lifetime. Last week I took her outside for the last time. I thought about that, too. She had lifted her face to the warm November sun, her last November, her last Thanksgiving, her last poinsettia dyed orange to match the season. “It’s so nice to be outside,” she said in barely a whisper.
Standing there at the casket, I knew they all were waiting for me, but somehow, I didn’t mind making them wait. Mom’s left hand lay on the Luther’s Catechism she had received at her confirmation. “Marjorie Mann” was written in beautiful cursive on the inside front cover warped by time. That one book was 77 years old. Alongside the bound cover of dark red lay my favorite photo of our family, circa 1965. My younger brother told me at the visitation the night before that it was her favorite photo of our family. I hadn’t known that. It was my favorite photo, too.
Mom was so snazzy in her black jacket with orange, blue and green embroidery. I had pulled it from her closet just three days before. It was beautiful, but I was quite sure it wasn’t hers. It had appeared in her closet following her two-month stay at Ashton Creek Rehab after she fell and broke the bone that held her left titanium femoral head. Perhaps someone who had died left those clothes behind, and they happened to be the right size. Whoever it was had very nice clothes. There was also a yellow sweater, pale yellow, one of Mom’s best colors. I wasn’t sure, but I had left them there because I didn’t have the heart to eliminate anything just yet. I had already chosen another blouse on my September visit, but changed my mind in favor of the jacket. It had more body than the blouse, and would fill out her skeletal frame for the viewing. Later Aunt Norma would tell me that she had the same jacket, and the coincidence both puzzled me and made me very happy.
When I hugged her last week, I could feel her bones through skin that hung limp like a silk scarf on her frame. She had always been small, but her condition scared me. She needed nutrition and calories, but near the end she was simply unable to eat. I couldn’t blame her, because all of her food looked like gray, orange or green spackle. She had been put on pureed foods months ago, and anything they prepared came out in one of those three colors.
She also suffered from choking response, and it was frightening to watch her eat. The choking and coughing would start and go on for what seemed like ten minutes. I would sit helplessly and look into her eyes, wishing I could slap her back or something, anything to make it stop. Then it would slowly dissipate, and she would forget immediately that it had happened. I would scoop another small spoonful of the pureed stuff, hold it up for her, and pray.
At the coffin side, I placed my hand on hers, the one holding the photo. It didn’t feel like flesh. It was cold, of course; a temperature I had prepared myself to feel, but which still took me by surprise. My brothers stood behind me, impatient for my signal, that now we could finally get this thing behind us. I didn’t want it to end, not just yet. In seconds, the funeral director would close the heavy dark brown wood cover, hiding that ceramic face for the last time.
I wanted to kiss her forehead or her cheek like I had hundreds of times in the last three years when I put her to bed, or when I tore myself away from her bedside to catch yet another plane back to my own life in the East. She had had such beautiful skin, almost wrinkle and blemish –free. How had she accomplished that? She had loved the sun and getting a tan. She had loved dawn and dusk, fierce winter storms and sultry summer nights. Actually, she had loved everything, all of life.
I saw her cry only two or three times in my life. One was when Dad died, and that was over the phone in September, 18 years ago. She reserved her grief for private times, one of the valuable lessons I learned from her. “No one wants to be with a Gloomy Gus,” she told me. Where did she come up with those expressions? “For crying out loud,” “What the Sam Hill?” —some things I never heard from another human being—just her. She didn’t cry when we took her to Harbour Assisted that first day, during her surgeries or rehabs, or any of the times I left her to return home, or at the end. She wasn’t afraid to die, not at all. She told me that.
Just an hour before the funeral, we had gathered in the Founder’s Room to pray with the pastor. He prayed, and we bowed our heads and folded our hands as we had thousands of times before in church. I wished I had a recorder so I could save those spiritual words for comfort in the days ahead—the days when life returned to “normal,” and no one could see the pain that I held deep inside because my mother was gone.
She was gone. For good. The person she had been was not lying in the wooden box with the red rose flower spray draping its cover. I had no idea who that person was. It could’ve been a mannequin. That was not my mother.
Still, I couldn’t leave. There was something else to do, but what was it? I pictured her floating above me, sorry that I was sad, urging me quietly to hurry on with the others and leave this lifeless body, absent its spirit. I couldn’t kiss the stiff cold cheek. It was too creepy. I had kissed it for the last time on Thanksgiving Day.
Wispy elongated notes floated out of the nave as the organist set the stage for the sparsely attended funeral. The ushers had seated all of the guests on the right side of the aisle. They were attempting to make the crowd feel cozier; close together so they felt free to sing with Lutheran gusto. It had the look of a shotgun wedding to me. Everyone who was coming was already here. The clock had made its way past 1:00 p.m. There were around 30 people in attendance, some of them former neighbors, some of them Dad’s co-workers, some of them my high school friends, very few relatives and some I had never before seen. Where were all the people who had known her? This cavernous church should be packed to the vaulted ceilings with those who knew her while she was still alive. They must’ve known what a beautiful, generous lady she had been, and still, they hadn’t come. But, she was 91. How many of those people were left?
She had chosen three hymns: For All the Saints; I’m But a Stranger Here; and Lord, Keep us Steadfast in Your Word. We had sung the same ones for Dad’s funeral. It would be quiet and morbid and sad, so unlike her. She could’ve chosen When the Saints Come Marchin’ In. Oh, how the Lutherans would’ve shuddered.
The organist played on, finding ways to incorporate phrases from the service’s hymns into his beckoning intro, reminding everyone that, yes, the service was now starting. Lutherans are funny. They are never pushy. They nudge gently to remind you to stay on track, color within the lines, but never forcibly. Living out East, I had become accustomed to a more directive demeanor. In a twisted moment of grief, the imp inside me wondered how long they would continue to allow me to stand here with my Mom before leading me away to the front pew. Five, ten minutes? It would never be enough, and I knew this was the last time I would ever see her face—the real face, not just a photo. The real face that was hers but not hers.
From now on, everything would be in the past tense; my speech, my writing, anything that concerned her. She was gone.
I leaned my body against the side of the casket to steady myself. Her image blurred with tears that forced their way without permission out of my eyes. I was embarrassed for the others to see. Crying in public is not my thing. I placed my right hand on her chest and bent over, touching my head gently to hers. The skull was cold and hard, and the tears came in force now. She was gone. For good.
She and I, forehead to forehead like school girls in a playground. I spoke to her. “Mom,” I sniffed and caught my breath in a gasp. I could feel her presence strongly close at hand. “Mom, I love you. Everything’s okay now. I’ll make sure that everything’s okay. We’ll be fine.”
I touched her hand for the last time; the hand that held our photo when everyone was happy and safe and living in Kansas. My husband tucked his hand through my elbow in a gentle reminder. We have to do this now, honey. Let’s get on with it.
I turned from the casket so I wouldn’t see them close the weighty lid that would trap her body forever inside. The massive pipe organ issued the first breathy notes of I’m But a Stranger Here; Heaven is My Home.
Last week, I woke up in the morning and glanced at the digital clock on my bedside table stand. The time was 6:33 a.m.
I didn’t think a thing about it, until I woke again the next night, at exactly 4:33. Then followed a string over the next several days of 7:33, 2:33, 12:33, until at last I awoke to 3:33, all on the same clock, all the same situation. It was at that point that I really started to freak out a bit. The sensation was never negative. It was always at night and usually during sleep, when the subconscious controls our world, and dreams play out our inner most hopes and fears.
This must have happened about 7 or 8 times, enough to grab my attention to convince me that there was meaning behind it all.
I told someone at work, and her immediate exuberant reaction charged me up.
“That’s Jesus!” she said.
Then she went on to explain that Jesus had died at age 33, and mentioned a few other connections to the divine. Another co-worker was listening in and suggested that maybe it was a sign from my mother, who had passed away on December 1, and was letting me know that she was looking out for me and there if I needed her. The whole experience was way beyond coincidence, so I researched the meaning of the number 33 and found this:
Number 33 is a Master Number (Master Teacher) and resonates with the energies of compassion, blessings, inspiration, honesty, discipline, bravery and courage. Number 33 tells us that ‘all things are possible’. 33 is also the number that symbolizes ‘guidance’. The Master Number 33 is connected to the Ascended Masters, and the repeating Angel Number 33 is a message that many Ascended Masters surround you and are offering their assistance.
The feeling of comfort washed over me like a warm summer rain in a field of daisies. Although I will be looking for more 33s in my future, I may not encounter them again, but the signal is loud and clear: Everything will be just fine. I will be guided in the right way for me.
Many, many small but powerful signs exist for us on a continual basis, and the more we open to them, the more potent the force becomes. We are all comprised of electrons, neutrons and protons within our atoms and the atoms of the entire universe. These are winging around, exempt from time and space, and connect all of us to the earth, but most importantly, to each other. Take some time in your own life to listen to the universe. Allow the signs to come into your spirit and awaken your consciousness. Go happy.
Living in New England is just the best, but often the short summer leaves us with gobs of green tomatoes, and truthfully, do you like fried green tomatoes? I’ve tried, I don’t, and so the green tomatoes haunt me–until now. My very savvy food expert step-daughter, Anjal raved about this recipe, and she is right. You will actually savor this dish, rather than feeling like you should eat the fried green tomatoes because they took so long for you to make! Nothing worse than obligatory food. Enjoy!
Bacon and Green Tomato Pasta
6 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound green tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons minced pepperoncini
1/2 pound cappelini pasta
2/3 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, plus more for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
1 In a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels. Drain and reserve 1 tablespoon bacon fat. Add the olive oil to the pan. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 60 seconds.
2 Raise the heat to medium high. Add the tomatoes, salt and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes soften and start to turn golden brown, about 7 minutes. Add the wine and pepperoncini and cook until the some of the liquid evaporates and the tomatoes are a bit saucy.
3 Meanwhile, cook the pasta in salted boiling water according to the package directions until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water, then drain the pasta.
4 Put the drained pasta back into the pot and add the cooked tomatoes, cheese, 1/2 cup parsley and cooked bacon. Toss until combined, adding reserved pasta water to moisten, if necessary. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper.
5 Divide the pasta among warm plates, sprinkle with additional parsley and serve immediately.
My mother is nearly absent from the memory book of my first ten years. Only a few episodes remain in my subconscious film strip. Two stand-outs occurred when I was about six years old. One was when she whisked me to the sink to whack my back, dislodging the nasty morsel of melon lodged in my windpipe. The other was when my rope swing broke at the apex of the arc, sending me hurtling to the ground below—maybe six or eight feet, though it felt like thirty. I had problems on and off with my back throughout my adult life, culminating in spinal fusion surgery to correct a herniated disc, and have at last learned the true meaning of cause and effect.
Other than those few standouts—no mom memory at all. Mom was there, of course. She was always there, always over-shadowed by Dad, always the support, the smile and laugh. Always the first to suggest a game. Always game. Always.
I am ashamed to admit that when I was younger, I thought of my mother as ordinary—that she hadn’t accomplished much in her life. The naivety of youth is my puny excuse, but doesn’t free my heart from indignity.
In contrast, my father, the Reverend Doctor Harold H. Buls was accomplished. He came from the “simple” stock of America’s breadbasket; eastern rural Nebraska, from a town small enough to be called “Germantown,” named so for its original residents. He was nine years old at the start of the Great Depression. He and his brothers and sisters each had one suit of overalls. They gardened to eat vegetables, and hunted to eat meat. No indoor plumbing, and one cow for milk. His father was a teacher, but went stone-deaf in his 20s, became a rural mail carrier, first on horseback, then in a Model T. Hard life.
Dad was the oldest boy, and did not choose his own road. He would’ve been a train engineer if it had been left to him. God and Grandpa decided early on that Harold would teach in a parochial school system, and so Dad boarded at a high school seven miles from home, and he would jump the train to visit home on some weekends. After high school, he completed a Bachelor’s degree, graduated from Lutheran Seminary and was ordained into the ministry, carried out missionary work in Africa, followed by a Master’s, then a PhD. A man of the cloth who maintained a rigorous schedule of meal-time prayer and devotion, he also wrote a book series of New Testament interpretation. He survived two open heart surgeries at ages 54 (stopped smoking) and 64, followed by daily exercise (10 miles per day as prescribed by the doctor. Dad went around the world twice on a stationary bicycle), and maintained absolute dogma in everything, especially religion or the Bible. He was a remarkable man.
He knew what he believed and boy, you’d better believe that too. No free thought was allowed in his house. One of his favorite lines was, “You all vote and then I’ll decide.” This was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but we knew he secretly meant it. On one of our rare trips to a restaurant, he would say, “We’ll make this real easy. We’ll take four hamburgers, and the kids can split theirs.” Children were seen and not heard, women were compliant and supportive. He and I locked horns most of my life.
At the beginning, I was his shadow. I was there when he built our pontoon boat, “The Tortoise.” He is the reason I know the names and uses of hand tools. He built a train for us when we were kids. No, not a model train (although we had one of those, too, later on), but a real train that ran around an oval track in the backyard. It had an engine with a lawnmower motor built in, pedal car (with a tricycle mounted inside—you rode it just like a tricycle), tank car, coal car and caboose. My mother painted the cars just like a Santa Fe train, and the identification numbers on the sides depicted our birthdates as we were born. It. Was. Cool.
We were the only kids I had ever met with a real train. Dad even designed a switch plate and cut a door in the back of the garage so the train could be stored inside. He also built a tractor and a play house (for me), and of course, the boat. It was brilliant. Although I grew up in Kansas wheat country, followed by Illinois and Indiana corn country, I spent lots of time on the water because we had a boat. Not much money, but a boat—and a train.
So, you say, life was like Disneyland, eh? Frolicking around in the backyard, running our train, jumping from the roof of the Tortoise into muddy mid-western river water. What a life. Ahhhhhhhh.
But my dad—was a tyrant. There is simply no other way to look at it. My brother describes him now as a zealot—also true. The commonality of the terms is the word “uncompromising.” That one word best defined him, and part of the reason that Mom was invisible to me as a child. The much accomplished, multilingual, multi-degreed, inventive hardworking father overshadowed the social, happy-go-lucky mother, to the point that she was a mere watermark. Initially, I worshipped my father for his talent, philosophy, and larger-than-life character. But somewhere along the way, (adolescence?) I began to decipher another force – a darker angle; the love void that was never filled.
In all my life, I’m not sure I ever received an authentic compliment from Dad that wasn’t laced with stinging correction. So perfection became the bar, which I suppose isn’t a bad thing, but at some point, without encouraging lessons and positive feedback, the young ones will give up. A tragic day. I knew I would never receive approval from Dad, so what is the point? I thought possibly he was disappointed that he ever had kids, because he sure couldn’t deal with kid behavior; noise, energy, fighting. Several times in a fit of anger (which was frequent), he even said, “You kids will never amount to anything.” Seriously. He was hard.
My brothers and I flew low most of the time, but never quite developed the sibling bond that could have healed those wounds, and we scattered one by one like autumn seeds to the wind. Jon went to Arizona, Dave went to Washington, Fred went to Georgia, I went to Montana, and then to Japan. Clearly, we were putting distance between us and home.
But it is about Mom, right? So why am I spending so much ink on Dad?
Mom, alone, remained unscathed. Judgment could not taint her heart. Criticism couldn’t eclipse her smile. She had the malleability of Play Dough and found her niche wherever she landed. From Chicago Big City girl riding the El in a fur coat and high heels to her job at Marshall Field, to wife of Lutheran Junior College professor in a one-horse town in Kansas. Winfield. Ever heard of it? Probably not, unless you know about the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival held there, though it wasn’t when I was a kid. It was just a sleepy little town in southern Kansas where my Nebraska-born father brought her from the Big Windy City. That is my mother. She is just her – no matter where she is, and allows everyone to be themselves. Mom has always been an easy person to love—one of the most difficult challenges in life.
Dad has been gone eighteen years now, and I’m beginning to identify the avenue of forgiveness, but it’s taking a long time to find my way there. I can see the wreckage of his wake in the lonely lives my brothers have chosen. Until last year, none of them were married. Fred married my wonderful sister-in-law Cecile last year, thankfully and broke the Buls boys’ curse. Finally, when Dad was diagnosed with cancer, we were able to make amends and talk about precious things, but we never became huggy or tender. He told me about mending burnt bridges with his only brother, also a minister. He said he was proud of me. I think he told me he loved me. This began the process of healing the damage wrought on my young life, and I felt badly that he was dying. We talked on the phone every day. I have a photo of him in my house now to check up on how it feels today to see his face. It still doesn’t bring feelings of anything but anxiety. Thank goodness I’ve never felt that about Mom.
After Dad died, she came to visit often; at least twice a year. She talked a lot about Dad and how she missed him. While my brothers and I groused about how Dad had made us feel so small, and traded notes about little mean things he had done (teasing mercilessly, laughing AT people—that one sucked), she told stories about his wonderful work at the Seminary and the students who still talked about him and what a great guy he had been. Of course I recognized his greatness to the outside world. I wanted to be mad at her because of how she felt about him, and occasionally voiced my big-mouthed opinion about how unfair it all had been.
Mom was surprised and apologetic, of course. Took the responsibility for not having defended us more. Maybe didn’t realize it, maybe just scared or uncertain. Maybe just happy to have a family in any way that it functioned.
One incident lives in my mind. On a certain Christmas visit about a year before Dad died, my brothers and I escaped to a hot tub at a hotel near the house. Something had happened which started tempers flaring and Dad had gotten angry. I can’t remember. It wasn’t particularly remarkable; this happened all the time. Among the gurgling bubbles, we talked about Dad and how mean he could be. Then I said to Fred, “You never argue with Dad. How can you stand it?”
Always the thinker, he replied, “If I fight with him, he just takes it out on Mom.”
Ah. He was right. But the most amazing thing was that she could take it. It’s like she didn’t even notice the tone or the bite of his voice. Like water off a duck’s back. (Love that saying.)
I have never fought with her. Imagine that. A daughter who has never had a fight with her mother. I’ll bet we could make it into the Guinness Book of World Records—fifty five years without a mother and daughter fight. You can also be assured that it was all due to her restraint.
My mother is true peace. She is absolute responsibility and recognition of blessings. I have a great example of who my mother really is. After she had moved in, one evening in late fall, she came back from her darkness. I knew before she even spoke a word. I could tell by the expression on her face—something in her eyes was clear and logical, replacing that vacant Alzheimer’s stare.
She was coherent again. All of a sudden, it was as if she had woken up from a stupor, and she sort of shook her head and said, “What am I doing here?”
It was different than the confusion she had exhibited at times before. It was lucid confusion—like she suddenly came to and noticed that things were different.
“You’re living here, Mom,” I said.
“What? How long have I been here?” she asked.
“About three months.”
“Three months! Why have I been here for three months?”
I stopped for a second and checked my breath. This was weird, but Mom was back. It was important to say the right thing.
“The doctors say you shouldn’t live alone anymore, so we brought you here to live.”
“This is terrible!” she said. Her face was twisted into a gruesome mask.
“What? No, it’s not terrible. You can’t remember things very well anymore and so it’s better if you live with someone. Just a second. Al?” I called for my husband. “Mom, just a second, I’ll be right back.”
I had seen this in the movie The Notebook. I had wondered if it was true, but here was adequate proof.
“Al!” I called for my husband, who was on the computer in the office. I got up and raced halfway down the hall and hissed, “You have to get in here. Mom’s back.”
We spent about fifteen or twenty minutes with her in the living room, trying to explain what was going on and why she was living with us (without saying the word Alzheimer’s), and all she could say was that it was terrible. Finally my husband said,
“Mom, it’s not terrible. Look. Look at us, the three of us living here. We want you to live here, and we’re fine. Look. Look around you and see that everything’s fine. It’s not terrible.”
My mother tilted her head. She looked upset. I was waiting for something that I would have to solve or answer.
“No, no, it’s terrible for you,” she said.
Dead silence. Her distress was not about her diminished situation, or that she couldn’t remember anything anymore or do much of anything for herself. Her distress was about me, about us. The fact that her infirmity was a burden on our lives, and she was the cause. We sat there for a while, talking about all kinds of things. Al went to bed, and finally my mother said,
“I’m tired. I think I’ll go to sleep.”
I didn’t want her to leave. My Mom was finally back after months of drifting, and now she was leaving again. I thought there was a good chance she wouldn’t be there in the morning.
“Okay. That’s fine Mom. That’s a good idea. We should go to bed.”
She started back toward her bedroom in her robe and slippers. Her tiny little shuffles whispered up from the tile. Suddenly, she turned and faced me.
“You’re amazing,” she said.
“You’re amazing. Why didn’t you just put me in a home?”
Tears leapt to my eyes. “Mom, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t just put you somewhere.”
“You’re amazing,” she repeated.
We all have complaints about how we were raised, about the mistakes our parents made, likely in the throes of depression or entrapment or financial stress. We all know this. We would all like to hide behind the things that went wrong for me as a child. The problem is—it doesn’t work. We all have the potential to be brave and authentic and real. Only a few people seem to find their way there.
My mother’s stature grew exponentially that day. She was a giant. A big, strong, courageous hero. I put her to bed that night like she was a little kid. We both enjoyed it. I tucked her in and kissed her.
“I love you Mom.”
“Oh and I love you.”