Friday, May 17, 2013

In Memoriam, A Daughter's Tribute

"It is such a secret place, the land of tears."  -Exupery
The one year anniversary of my father's death quickly approaches. I can hear the heavy footsteps just over my shoulder. I've learned not to run from grief or try to ignore it. It won't be ignored. It finds its way in around the edges of things, usually in the early morning just before I surface, when my heart is unguarded, and there he is, my Dad, sitting on the doorstep of my dreams, the threshold between sleepy choreography and the world at large. I am usually small and barefoot and he is whole and happy and larger than life. It's a quiet exchange, usually a smile and a light breeze, no words. And he belongs to me again for a moment. A moment, until the glaring sun falls across my pillow and pulls me into the morning, and my Dad fades like a shadow.

Over the months, this has become a familiar dance for me, so that I don't dread sleep the way I did, or waking. I think I've learned to hold onto that moment a little longer each day so that the vacancy isn't so hollow. And maybe I've learned how to let go of it.
Grief was turning my heart to iron ore, the way it set so heavy in my chest and held me under in those early weeks. But I have learned to stand up underneath it. To feel so sad and bruised and lost and so grateful and lucky and warm.
I have learned to greet this grief like an old friend. To sit and remember the most terrible moments in the hospital on his final day, and also the way he smelled of Old Spice aftershave in the morning, his short sleeve dress shirts tucked in over his big belly and his neatly trimmed hair... We remember, my grief and I, like two separate entities, so happy and so broken. Woven together in a way I don't think will ever be separate.

My brother included this in the program for the funeral service. "You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” -Anne Lamott
And these are the words I spoke on the morning of my father's funeral service.

When something of this magnitude happens, life becomes very small. A heartbeat, a breath, a memory. Some of the memories I have with my Dad have walked into the room of my heart that is aching so bad, they sit down with me, and bring me so much comfort.

I remember riding along in his truck as he visited many of your farms. We spent afternoons at his veterinary clinic every week, but he was nearly always elbow deep in pustules or extracting something unfortunate from some creature’s intestines. I was left to my own devices, my own diversions. But in his truck, he was 2 to 6 feet away from me for 45 minute increments as we drove from one farm to the next with nothing better to do than listen to talk radio and talk about my soccer games or he’d tell me stories about growing up, or teach me the Spanish words for things.

My Dad’s trucks were the living room couches of our relationship. This is where life unfolded or it’s where we reflected on the folds. It was a comfortable agreement, he did all the driving and navigating, stopping every so often at hole-in-the-wall donut shops in forgotten towns to introduce me to the world of jelly filled pastries. And I slid from one end of the bench seat to the other as he swerved to avoid potholes the size of public pools or gunned the engine and launched the 2 ton truck down dirt roads like The General Lee. Together, we reveled in the freedom of junk food and windows rolled all the way down.

Dad was remarkably, uncommonly, quietly kind. Unless you happened to be a democrat. If you’re here today and you’re a democrat, he probably didn’t know or he decided to forgive you and overlook your shortcomings. But Dad was remarkably kind. In fact, I venture to guess that if I were to ask anyone who has ever been touched by my Dad’s kindness to stand, we’d all be on our feet. And I’d love to hear those stories, if you’d be willing to tell them to me or write them down and send them to me. Once, while I was in high school, we were driving over the Main Street bridge in Norman, and he told me that some years earlier, he had been driving over that same bridge and traffic was nearly at a standstill. People were getting angry, blaring their horns. Dad noticed that there was a car at the front of the line of cars that was barely moving. He pulled his truck into the median and then jogged up along side the car and opened the driver’s side door. Inside, a man slumped over, a box of sugar cubes in his lap and his son on the passenger side. Dad said he immediately recognized that the man was in insulin shock. He scooted him to the middle of the seat and climbed in behind the wheel. He told the boy that he was taking them to the hospital, but the boy begged my Dad to take him home because the man’s medicine was there and his mom would know what to do. The boy was able to navigate them home and my Dad returned them to their family. The man’s wife was so grateful. She thanked him profusely and asked him how she’d ever be able to repay him. To which, Dad said, “I could use a ride back to my truck.”

He gave me his poor eyesight and his unruly eyebrows. (I chickened out and didn't actually say this bit while I was speaking. But it's true. My daily inheritance. And mostly irrelevant to the world at large.)

Once when I was very young, I sat next to him in the truck as we backed out of the gates of a farm and he ran right over the cast iron jockey that stood sentinel next to the driveway. He threw the truck in park and proceeded to spew and fume and sputter. I tried to be as small and invisible as I could be on the passenger side. He walked around to the back of the truck, stood the jockey back on his feet and then walked back around and got back in the truck where he saw me sitting, my eyes as wide as tea cup saucers. “Emily!” He said. I don’ t remember what he said after that, only that I was in trouble for hearing him cuss.

He was a student all his life. He read text books, recreationally. His knowledge was encyclopedic. He could calculate down to the minute when we would arrive somewhere based on distance, speed, road condition, like a precursor to sat/nav and he was almost never wrong. 

He was a brilliant math mind, always enthusiastic about helping me with my math homework. He’d usually peruse the lesson, disapprove of the way the teacher taught it, and then scrawl a fourteen step “short-cut” in the margins of my math book. My eyes would glaze over, “See.” He’d proclaim, “Easy.”

I remember, when I was small, walking next to my Dad. Well, he was walking and I jogged along beside him, taking 3 steps for every 1 of his. And I was probably peppering him with questions. Eventually, his stride would carry him ever further ahead and I couldn’t keep up. I’d fall behind, find my own pace and catch up to him sometime later. He always got to where we were going first.

As a wife and mother, my family and I would visit his farm. We’d laugh and eat and pet the dogs and the horses and measure the grandkids on the wall in the barn…

Eventually the sun would begin to set and we’d say our goodbyes, load up the car, and drive away. I always looked back and he was always standing there in his front yard watching our plume of dust billow, all the way down the road.

This is the image of him that most frequently comes to me in these last few days. Standing there, hands in his pockets, smiling at us as we disappeared down the road, out of sight.

I love this image of him. I imagine that it’s the beginning of his next equation, the calculation of exactly when our paths will cross again. And he’s almost never wrong.

And so, we’re not ready to say goodbye. I’m not ready to say goodbye. But I know he’s only lengthened his stride. I’ll find my own pace and catch up to him later.



Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Of Sewing and Mending

"When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden."-- Minnie Aumonier

My father died in May. It was a shock. He was here, on the earth, feeding his horses, having dinner at home, texting with me about his next visit to Colorado… And then he was gone. He was 62. Joan Didion said, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

There are layers and layers to a sudden shock of sadness. For weeks I felt as if I were alone, lying on the floor of a deep underground, bomb shelter, my face pressed to the cool ground. Occasionally, my children would visit me there with all their light and beauty. Their giggles reverberated against the walls in me. It was very disorienting.

This is the story of finding myself in the sun, once more. This is that layer.


It is therapeutic to put your hands in the earth, to get dirt under your fingernails. There is a transaction that happens between gardener and soil. Molly Ringwald noted the importance in an essay for the August 2012 issue of Martha Stewart Living. She gardened through a miscarriage in a rooftop garden in New York. She says, " I found almost nothing to fill the emptiness...It was a very solitary sadness. To my surprise, the one thing that did make me feel a little better was venturing up to the roof alone and putting my hands in the soil." 

We were starting the garden before my Dad’s heart stopped. We bought all the plants just the day before. Then I left for 2 weeks. And Jeff and the kids followed me for a week. The plants sat in their plastic containers in cardboard trays, mostly shaded from the sun. Jeff’s mom came over each day and watered them. She kept them alive.

But they were sad, spindly little plants when we got home. And my heart was splintered from the blunt force trauma of watching my Dad die.

I stood over those disintegrating cardboard trays and sprinkled the plants with water, dumbstruck at the way things trundled on and how my life still expected me to show up.

These spindly stalks needed me. They were dying. And I resented them for it. I just wanted to walk away from the garden this year. I could barely remember how to slap a sandwich together for my kids, much less nurture these tender squash and tomato plants. The inside of me had turned to chalk and it crumbled in a cloud of dust periodically through the day like an avalanche of snow in the mountains, only much less beautiful but equally alarming. Each morning, I watered and contemplated tipping the trays into the trashcan and being done with the whole thing. I wouldn’t have to stand by and watch these plants die. I had some control over this situation. But each day I turned off the water hose and went back inside like The Dread Pirate Roberts: “Sleep well, Wesley. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

And then Jeff started rebuilding the garden structure. Our old garden was made with 2x4s and it was decaying and falling into the yard. It was an item from our to-do list from the previous year which may as well have been a previous geologic age. I watched him stack and cut the timbers, piecing them together, measuring, finding just the right fit, sweat pouring between his shoulder blades. He is so strong and able-bodied. I was grateful and also newly struck by my Dad’s death. I crumbled again and spent much of the next two days inside where I was safe from bulging muscles and strong, confident hearts.

After the structure was finished, Jeff ordered the garden soil to be delivered. He happened to be away when the dump truck driver rang the doorbell. I called Jeff on his cell phone. He said to have the driver dump the load in front of the house on the street. I did. And the driver did. And the dirt piled into a 1/10 scale model of Longs Peak. It was a monumental task filling the empty box with the soil. I grabbed my gardening gloves and a shovel. And soon enough, our children and Jeff and I were all working on it. I found it required little from me to shovel the small piles Jeff made with the wheel barrow. It was refreshing to be a part of things that were leveling out. The baby was filthy. But happy. The filthiest and happiest he’d ever been. My insides crumbled still, every once in a while, but maybe less catastrophically. At day’s end, the mountain in the street had been relocated and the garden was filled. My hands were blistered, my shoulders and legs ached, and I was a little relieved at the fresh notion of physical pain for a change.

The next morning, Jeff laid the sprinkler lines and I began to place the potted plants in their respective areas. They looked even more sickly in the vastness of the rich, dark earth. This isn’t a garden, I thought, it’s hospice. And as I placed the first stunted Zucchini plant in the soft dirt, I nodded. At least you’ll get to die with some dignity.

We transplanted the strawberries, all of which looked like bereft widows of a civil war by the time I got them in the ground. I told my six year old daughter they probably wouldn’t make it, but not to worry. We’d replant next spring.

We also transplanted Lavender, Sage, and Rosemary; all of them robust before the injury of being dug up. I placed them in the quadrant with all the herbs. They’d have new neighbors, but they were used to that kind of thing, like living in a college town where semester after semester fresh, young renters move in next door, live loud and wild and fast…and then one morning they’re gone and there’s a sofa on your front lawn.

I put the tragic, tragic tomatoes in. Four of them; all heirlooms; all around ten inches tall or less with seven yellowing leaves between them.

The peppers were the next in line. They too were straggly. I thought they might have had mange. I didn’t hold out too much hope for them. But then, I never hold out too much hope for the peppers. I haven’t unlocked their secrets. I’m a piss poor pepper steward, if we’re honest.

And finally the cucumbers went in. Cucumbers are temperamental. I think they are in a permanent state of adolescence. They are prone to water stress and bitterness and their vine and leaves will break out in a powdery fungus if they think you are playing favorites (and not in their favor.)

I stood back and surveyed the garden. It was a sad landscape. Little vegetable bodies slumped, wilted all over the place. My insides tumbled again and I resented the garden’s need of me, anew. Then my daughter enthusiastically asked about the seeds we’d bought together in April in anticipation of our spring planting.

Jeff brought the seeds. Carrots. Radishes. Onion bulbs. Basil. Peas. Beans. It was all a little ambitious, I thought. But we sprinkled the seeds and my daughter beamed at the thought of her beautiful carrots and peas. I think she even called the radishes, “precious.”

If love could make a garden grown, then surely her seeds would sprout.

Days dawned and stretched out over my garden and my broken heart. Sometimes it just hurt so much to be indoors with voices and televisions murmuring and laundry piles. I’d retreat to the garden. I’d check on the plants, all of their survival still questionable. Some looked as though they were getting stronger every day. Most didn’t. But I tended them. I watered them after the heat of the day. I pulled any stray weeds that tried to take root. And I told myself it was okay to feel broken here, among the infirm. I think I probably told the tomatoes the very same thing. All were welcome. Yes, we were sickly, but we were doing the best we could. And I was proud of us.

Jeff carefully laid a beautiful pavestone path through the heart of the garden. My daughter and I strolled through each afternoon watching the eager seeds she’d planted push themselves up through the soft dirt, what seemed like an insurmountable task, and yet, here they were, their faces shining.

One of the two cucumbers, I assume, was planted with drips of sweat from Jeff’s brow because it displayed an unparalleled stubbornness, refusing to die, while the other lay down his head and slowly withered away.

The tomato plants, whom any generous gardener would have given a 50/50 chance of making it early on, slipped from that scale entirely in the days and weeks after planting as they fully embraced the shock of having their roots pulled out from underneath them. I understood. In fact, I thought I knew exactly how they felt. I gave them a little extra water in the afternoons, let them soak their feet and wished them well. I decided not to make any more predictions about their fate.

More cycles of sun and shadow. More days of sewing and mending, seeds and hearts. Jeff and I had almost daily conversations about whether or not to replace the squash plants or sage brush or this pepper or that one. We probably still had time if we did it soon. But I dragged my feet. If these plants made it, so be it, if not, I’d see it through.
This is what I call the "Wreck the Dress" phase, as this poor Squash appears to have had a raucus evening and is unfortunately dragging the trane of her ball gown through the mud.

The squash and Zucchini and peppers rallied and began to gain noticeable ground each day. I eventually replaced the dead cucumber because they are social plants and the lone, stubborn plant needed a yin to his yang atop the little hill.

The end became glaringly evident for my big, brave Sage brush as thick, woody arms faded and dried up, one after the other until all that was left were the skeletal remains. I planted a sprite, new Variegated Sage there in memoriam.

I’m afraid my lovely Lavender will soon have a similar fate, even though she has persevered these six long weeks. She is languishing.

The strawberries, mere sticks poking out of the ground but weeks ago, are thriving. They have turned themselves out, hardships be damned, each one sits beneath a canopy of beautiful leaves and is sending out long runners that will become next spring’s daughter plants.

The tomatoes, once best described as “puny”-my Dad’s favorite word for me when I was sick as a child- have stood themselves up right through the tops of their cages and are each heavy with bright green, round fruit of varying sizes. The plants will soon be taller than me.

And after all those weeks of whispering in the garden of heart break and wither, I find myself considering possibilities. Not that my sadness is gone. I would give almost anything to sit with my Dad one more time; to be a daughter, held in her father’s gaze. I miss him so much. But as frail as I feel, perhaps there is hope for me yet. Maybe with a little tending, my roots will find their way.

The garden has surpassed me in mending, no question. But that’s ok. We’re all just doing the best we can.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Peace alights

In 1862, Charles Appleton Longfellow joined the Union ranks in America’s Civil War. Later that same year, on Christmas day, Charles’ father, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, sat down and penned “Christmas Bells.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on Earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow goes on to describe how the canon fire thundered and drown the church bells’ declarations of peace…

And in despair, I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong

And mocks the song

Of peace on Earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep

God is not dead, nor does He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail

With peace on Earth, good-will to men!

These verses ran through my head tonight as I hoisted my 34-weeks-pregnant frame into the bath.

Peace on Earth. Peace on Earth, good will to men, I sang and ran my fingertips over my globular belly.

In looking over this last year, I see now that I have been in pursuit of peace, which is foolish. Peace is just the sort of thing that settles on you once you have finally had the good sense to sit still for a minute—or have collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Peace alights. It doesn’t give chase or even own a pair of running shoes.

Peace on earth. Peace on earth, good will to men, I sing to my unborn son…A prayer and a declaration, if only for a moment.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cocoa and Corn Chowder

My poor, neglected virtual square footage.

Today, over a bowl of soup, I sat down in the middle of the floor and considered this place. I moved the furniture around, with hopes that this space will be alive and welcoming and once again serve as my retreat.

Tomorrow, I will be twenty-six weeks pregnant. Twenty-six. I have told myself that I didn't want this place to become The Daily Bump and then I excused my own absence.

But the barefoot truth is that I have been hiding. I cannot be accused of failure if I am merely holding my breath. And every obstinate toddler knows that holding one's breath changes the game entirely.
I still write nearly every day, stacks and stacks of Moleskine journals bursting with witless revelations and the daily drivel of a writer-in-hiding. But I feel like a pyjama-clad gypsy, crouching in corners, scribbling observations, and moving on with no sense to be made of any of it, really.
I want to go home.

I want to return to a familiar place and feel the warmth of knowing you're in the right zip code, a brightly lit corner with a window facing west and soft pillows, should you need them. Where you can make the most outlandish proclamations or sit quietly and examine the seams of things. Where there is a quiet hum from the bustle of good intentions and piping hot pots of chocolate and feet propped up on the furniture. This is home.

So, welcome back. Scoot that stack of books to the side and have a seat. The over stuffed chair by the window is nice. There will be talk of belly laughs and belly flops and big, round bellies in general; of leanings and aspirations and inspirations and failures and heartache; of cabbages and kings. And sometimes we'll sit and admire the view. And cake. There will be cake.