Wednesday, June 30, 2010

the revised stages of grief

Forget Kübler-Ross. She is sooo 40 years ago.

Here are my revised stages of grief.

  1. Bad Grammar. That phase where you constantly blend your verbs, mixing the present and past tense in close proximity, as in “Mom wanted us to go together... Mom always pays him on the first...”

  2. Idiosyncratic Awareness. When you become painfully self conscious of all the sayings you and others use involving death until it becomes dangerous to have any conversation. “I'm starving to death!” “I looked like death warmed over!” “This is gonna kill you!” Etc.

  3. Non Sequitur Confluence of Sadness. For example, one minute you are dragging around the Acme in your hometown looking through their pathetic excuse for produce, the next you tune into the music playing over the PA system. Hey! Is that the Hooters?? And though either would qualify for a spring board into deep depression, you aren't sure if you are crying about the state of the cucumbers or the crappy 80s band that played at your high school before they made it “big.”

  4. Contained Maternal Rage and Breakdown. The day you decide to play the audio tape your mom made for your son when he was born that includes stories of when she was little, her singing rainy day songs for him, and her talking about how after she's gone she thinks she will still be able to watch over him and he gets almost to the end before he says, “Can we turn this off? It's giving me a headache.”

  5. Concession to Outreach. When a book arrives in the mail – poems about grief and healing – and you are deflated and incredulous because you thought this friend knew better than to send this kind of shit. But then despite yourself you open to the table of contents where many familiar, contemporary names pop out at you and instead of setting it on fire, you set it on your nightstand.

  6. ABD. (All but dead.) The strong desire to call your deceased loved one to tell her about her own death (“Mom, you'll never guess what happened!)” accompanied by the rational acceptance of all the circumstances leading up to and following from the death of the loved one except for the fact that she will still not be here tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or the next day after that. Or the next.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

and then there were four

That's me. The one wrapped up in the green and white blanket. I still have that blanket.

My mother has left us careful instructions. Or, more like strong directives. Okay, the woman left a paper out for us in her bedroom titled “When I Die” which basically yells at my siblings and I to take care of one another and stay in better touch. (Who writes stuff titled “when I die??”) Bitching at us from beyond the grave. She admitted as much in the note. Only my mother.

We are doing our best, the four of us, to honor her wishes. We've called each other more in the last ten days than we may have in the last two years. Of course it's early on, the real test still to come...

I once compared our family to the metro system in Budapest – It's built like the petals of a flower, the lines don't cross, you have to keep going back to the center to change directions. Now our center is gone, and we are in need of practice getting around.

The day after my mother passed, I sat on the futon in her house next to my sister, trying as hard as I could not to hate said sister for swallowing so freak-ing loud-ly. Like I said, we need some practice.

We may have a lot of ground to cover, but I know we are doing a hell of a lot better than some families. From her bed in the hospital my mother pointed at my sister Rita, “I want you to have my computer. You need a computer.” Then she turned to my sister Ruth, “You get my car.” The closest thing the woman had to a will. And so it will be. Not a problem.

A couple days after the futon scene, I get out of the shower and hear through the door my older sister trying to instruct my other sister on the computer she has just come into. I freeze. All the little red flags start popping in my head. I consider never coming out of the bathroom. I have water; I could hold out forever if I needed to... My sisters are different. Anyone who knows us will know that that is possibly the understatement of the century. And things haven't always been, shall we say, smooth between them. I listen nervously for a safe moment to emerge, but everyone is on their best behavior and the coast remains clear.

Communication is a challenge, but stuff? Not an issue. At one point as we gathered a few bags of recycling from my mom's house I announced, “I want the lighthouse photo (a framed black and white of the Cape May Light with a bolt of lightning striking behind it).” My sister shrugged and gave me a look that essentially communicated, “So take it already. Whattaya want outta my life?”

At the funeral home, the four of us sat around the requisite polished dark wood table and mock-argued about our “inheritance” -- half a dozen rolls of toilet paper, at least eight sheets of stamps (she kept losing them and buying more), and $35.56 in cash we found in mom's wallet. The funeral director peers up over the umpteenth form in front of him and tells us he's seen four fist fights already this year on his porch, although to be fair he also said that was slightly above average. I asked him when his memoir was coming out. Then, I revised my implied advice and suggested he take his stories on the road in a one-man show. He didn't seem that interested, so I told him I'd write it then and it would suck for him when it hit Broadway. My siblings rolled their eyes and shifted in their seats, but did not raise their voices or threaten to take away my share of the Charmin.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Home. There was nothing to do but collect my suitcase and wade into it.”
-- from The Mermaid Chair (Sue Monk Kidd)
 This was the marquee of the church in front of my house when I arrived back in California.

Another crying fit over seemingly nothing.
“Do you think you're missing grandmom?” I ask.

He nods.

“But I'm not missing the castle!” he says through tears. The castle is the Playskool Castle with dragon and dungeon and wee royal family that I had as a little girl. It lived at my mom's house. Isaac adores it.
“The castle is coming to me!”

I am not quite sure if this is him reassuring himself with something he loves, that he's looking forward to, or if maybe it's his way of finally admitting he knows these two things – his grandmom and the castle – are separate entities. That it is possible for one to exist while the other is gone. New territory for him. Kind of like the concept of home feels like for me. How to separate it from mom?

I hate the town where I grew up. I could elaborate on my feelings of loathing, but let's just leave it there. I visited “home” to see my mom. Can there be “home” without her? What is any stronger sense of home than mom? Our first home.

From inside that vessel
that before him I could never have envisioned
providing anyone: the body-- my body-- as home,
a concept so foreign. Me, a base, a safe place
to be...
(from my poem “Could I Hear the Wind?”)

I feel like I am falling. Perpetually falling. There is no ground.


It is two weeks ago and I am in Big Sur with Isaac, we have fled there for the afternoon to escape other painful experiences that began this month, trying to dissolve them in the beautiful river, the soft red bark. My phone lights up with my sister's number, then, cell service sketchy at best, the call is lost. I just spoke to her that morning and I wonder if maybe she hit the call button again by accident. If only.

I arrive home to the news of my mother's heart attack. She is in ICU and she is sedated.

I tell Isaac in simple terms. Grandmom is in the hospital. She is very sick.

Isaac gets the concept of death about as well as any five-year-old can. He is well aware he already has a grandfather on the other side. And he has lost a cat. We talk about them. We talk about spirits. About ancestors. He puts one of his plastic horses on my altar next to the rose petals and the pictures of my grandmothers.

As the week progresses I tell him there is a chance his grandmom might die. He begins to cry.

“But what will happen to her stuff?”
“What stuff?”
“What will happen to the stuff in her house if she dies?”
“Then your aunts and uncle and I will sort it out and keep things we'd like and give things away that other people can use.”
The crying intensifies.
“What stuff are you thinking of, Isaac?”
“The castle!”
“I bet Grandmom would want you to have the castle.”

The castle remained the focus of his concern through the week, along with how doctors don't think it's yucky when they cut someone open and whether you can keep your clothes on if you have an operation.


From the moment he'd seen the mermaid chair, he'd loved Senara, not just for her mythic life in the sea but for how supposedly she'd heard the prayers of Egret Islanders and saved them, not only from hurricanes but from golf courses.”
-- from The Mermaid Chair

“Tailing the Stars,” one headline read the day I left. I felt murderous. “Tiger vs. Himself,” said another. Indeed, he can definitely go fuck himself.

The US Open in Monterey = I'm lucky to have gotten off this bloody peninsula for under $2500 in trying to get to my mother's death bed. If you ask me, wealth is really wasted on the rich and, surely, there is a special place in hell for golfers.

They had already pretty much lost me when they canceled the farmer's market for US Open parking. Not that the “official” US Open SUVs I encountered around town could actually park. The banners were everywhere as the shuttle drove me out of town: “Welcome Golf Fans!!” They might as well have just hung red lights in all the restaurants and businesses since it essentially comes down to whoring ourselves for the almighty tourist dollar.

I'm done with Monterey. And even as I say that there is a part of me that wants to cling mercilessly to its crumbling rock cliffs, its exotic beauty. But it's time for us to move on. We have been plotting a move for a long time now, and if things go as planned (ha!), it will happen in the first part of next year. The painful piece is that we are moving east. Not to Jersey, but still, we would have been closer to my mom, so much closer.

When I originally told my mom about our plans, you might think she would have responded like so many other mothers and grandmothers. Something to the tune of “Oh! It would be so great to have you closer!” What my mom said was, “Oh! I can't imagine you taking Isaac away from the California coast!”

My mother was difficult to sort out. She put up an ultra-casual, laid-back attitude. Nothing was ever a problem and there was always a next time. Too often I began to believe her hype. I regret that.


My mom insisted she was ready to go. And though I was not at all ready to see her go, nor was I prepared for the compression of time – arrive, talk to her about this and that like always, leave the room and return as she took her last breaths – I'm doing my best to take in the fact that this is part of the package. 

I am confused by the people who express their sympathy in ways that would imply it was all unnecessary, a complete surprise. The morning of my mother's heart attack she posted what would be her final blog, about memories, family, about her life. There are pictures on her camera from that afternoon, likely only a couple hours before she dialed 911. They are of her garden. There is life and there is death. We all share this cycle. No one is exempt. I wish I could say I felt as my mom did, that it didn't frighten me, but I'm not there yet. What I do get is that we are all meant to help each other along the way. We are just all meant to help each other. Can it be that hard?

The day before I got on a plane headed for home, for I didn't know what, for a panicked call from my sister (“You need to come straight to the hospital!”) as I waited to see if they'd pluck my name from the stand-by list for an earlier connection, only to be stuck anyway in a two-hour delay in Chicago due to a wicked lightning storm, the precipice to a season of storm, of meltdowns, that is only still just beginning, I had been climbing around on a rocky beach, exploring the Pacific tidepools with Isaac. The juxtaposition is jarring, though I clutched my cell phone through the low tide, though I never really forgot what was going on on the other coast..

It was a class I'd signed him up for ages ago, to have a little more information on the itty-bitty creatures in their wildly elaborate eco-system and a break from preschool, something special to do with his mom. There were about eight three - six-year-olds there with their parents watching crabs and touching sea anemones.
this and the next shot were taken by Isaac. ("I'm like Grandmom. I like to take pictures.")

About half-way through the class, as our troupe clamored over boulders avoiding limpets and barnacles, another five-year-old who happened to be next to me instinctively reached out and took my hand for balance. And I, instinctively, let him. His father couldn't stop apologizing. I kept brushing him off, telling him it was no problem, but he was embarrassed somehow, not willing to let it go. He didn't get it. He didn't get the fact that, for godssakes, we are all in this together.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


On this father's day, all I'm thinking about is my mom. She passed yesterday afternoon. More later. If you'd like to read a little piece I wrote on her blog or read her own words and what she was passionate about that blog is here.

What is this world? The one without my mom in it? What a strange and frightening space.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

school search part IV

There is a school where Isaac goes every night while we sleep. He does his best not to wake us, then gets on his dad's bike and rides 50 miles to Big Sur where he meets his friends and Secret School commences.

It's been about five months, I'd say, that we've been hearing about Secret School. There are special keys involved – usually bits of plastic we find around that have no known origin. “That's my key to Secret School!” Isaac will shriek, and dive for it before it his the trashcan.

By all accounts Secret School is a very special place. Very fun. And, of course, very secret. He can't really tell us all the things that go on there. We wouldn't understand anyway.

His preschool teacher has a theory on Secret School. You see, there are five of them – the Fab Five I call them – who've been together now since, well, yes, since they were in diapers. Isaac, two other little boys his age, and a pair of sisters. Theses days, they are the cool cats. The older group at school. Inseparable. We take them to the park and they slide down the slides holding hands. (Yes, I forgot my camera, thank you very much.) And now it seems the group is breaking up. The sisters are moving. The other boys are going to a different kindergarten experience next year while Isaac will stay where he is.

This week is the last for most of them to be all together. Really, it's nothing short of heartbreaking. They've known it was coming, and Isaac's teacher believes that Secret School is their way of staying together. No matter where they live or where they go to school by day, by night they run the show, hanging out among the redwoods, learning only the fun stuff, no grown up rules, nobody has to leave.

Sometimes in the mornings, Isaac will ask us, “Did you hear me 'neak out for Secret School??” Or he might report on who wasn't able to be at Secret School, or even a guest speaker that showed up at Secret School. This morning the story was a new one.

“I didn't go to regular Secret School last night,” he told us.

“Oh, really?”

“Everybody else, they went to the usual Secret School, but I went to a different Secret School. Just to check it out.”

“To check it out, huh?”

“Yeah, you know, see what it was like.”

“And how was it?”

“Good. A lot of the things were the same.”

“There were different kids there though?”

“Yeah. One kid talked like a pirate. You know, 'Get the booty!' Stuff like that.”

“Hmm. So you think you're gonna go to this new Secret School?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

spiders and the spill

The Spruce-fir moss spider, its tiny two-part body stretching only four millimeters, a little longer than your thumb nail, is disappearing from the Appalachian Mountains. You may wonder how I know this about our dear eight-legged friends. It has to do with dull-eyed college students and Wikipedia and poem writing prompts. Their cousins – the spiders, not the dull-eyed students – who populate my clothesline are much bigger, their numbers apparently flourishing. Rather than comparing them to the length of your thumb nail, the ones that chill in my hood are closer to the width, length and girth of your thumb.

Spiders rule the territory around here. And there are many more of them than us, so I accept that they are just part of the deal. I have nothing against spiders. Sure, I held a small grudge against the black widow that I carried inadvertently to Isaac's preschool on the bottom of his dump truck to co-mingle with a dozen three-, four-and five-year-olds, but other than that, me and the spiders are good. Solid. Some of them, the light green ones that like to hang out on the underside of my kale leaves, for example, I've had quite involved conversations with. Things that go along something like, “Look, dude, either you get these aphids or I will. Now, I don't want to steal your thunder or anything, but step it up! Have you got the appetite it takes to live in my garden or not?”

It's frustrating, trying to help these creatures. Typical morning in my house: “Mommy! There's another one on the wall in the hallway!” I drop what I'm doing for the latest spider rescue. It's a huge black one and fast. I grab Isaac's latest addition and subtraction work from school – the booklet with his name on the cover colored just so, the one he is so proud of – and slap it down in front of the beast as it races for under the computer hutch. I stop it, but not before I crack my head into the corner of the hutch.

Ungrateful bugs always wait until I've almost got them out the door, then they try the daring James Bond escape down their silky threads.

Isaac has always been prone to bites – bug bites of whatever kind. And especially in the winter here when no major flying, biting insects are generally hanging out, when my son gets up in the morning covered in itchy bites, I suspect spiders. I brought this up to our pediatrician, however, and he informed me that there are only a small percentage of spiders that can break the skin of a human. Fine. Facts always get in the way, don't they?

One of my students' (the dull-eyed ones) favorite pieces that we read in the environmental writing class was about spiders (the eight-eyed ones). It was David Quammen's “The Face of a Spider” from Flight of the Iguana: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature. In it, the author debates just how humans are meant to behave toward members of other species. In fact, he brings up the question over and over again in just this way --”How should a human behave toward the members of other living species?” Quammen is faced with 100 black widow hatchlings swarming his desk in Tuscon, Arizona. The essay is humorous and down to earth, and though he is reflective and somewhat remorseful, he ends up killing the itty-bitty babies with a can of Raid.

The question that comes up for me is a little different than Quammen's: When did it happen that we came to believe we were so very much more important than anything else that lives here? The subjugation of the planet to our way of life has proven oh so charming. Birds are covered in oil. Sealife we don't even know the names of are dead. And on and on it goes. I can no longer listen. But it hasn't stopped the weeping. Or the desire to burn my car and never look back.

Unless each of us can think our way through the tiniest, daily, individual encounters with other species and decide what truly we can do for ourselves and our partners in this dance, then we're doomed. But first we'd have to have tiny, daily, individual encounters. I think all the BP officials should be sentenced to a life of gardening.

One more fact about that Spruce-fir moss spider: endangered as it is, it spins a web not to catch prey, but only for shelter.

Friday, June 04, 2010

school search, part III

Losing it. We are. Losing it.

After re-reviewing another alternative education website, focusing in on one school I know we've read about 1000 times before, and (again) searching for life and houses in its general vicinity and proximity to oceans and airports, Mike and I are still beside each other with the laptop, me zoning out, Mike at the keyboard when I shake myself from my reverie just in time to catch this phrase being typed in the Google search box: “Best elementary school in the world,” then he hits enter.

Since you asked, I'll tell you that what appears when you lose it and start typing this bizarre thing into Google is a school in Laguna Beach, California called “Top of the World Elementary.” And since you further inquired, “It is among the few public elementary schools in California to receive a distinguished GreatSchools Rating of 9 out of 10.” (Zzzzzz. Oh, sorry, I thought we were talking about the future of children. I must have wandered into the wrong meeting.).

There is also (since you insist on hearing more) an article that debates whether Finland has perhaps the top educational system around, though I don't suspect we'll move there since it can tend to be very cold and very dark and good as they might be at schooling, there are people there who eat reindeer, and I REFUSE to explain THAT ONE to the boy who talks non-stop about the magic of Santa Claus 12 months out of the year.

And (you just won't let this die, will you?) there is a link to a page for an out of print book on some of the best schools in the world as determined by a couple folks in New Zealand.

Hard to tell if it was exhaustion or clarity that kept Mike plugging away, and so he typed in “compassionate elementary” which headed us for an elementary school in Fort Collins, Colorado which boasts a Kindness and Compassion Club and a school in Saco, Maine that has completed a 7 month kindness initiative through something called the Kindness Center.

The search is still on. Maybe something we found today will be the ticket (just not the Rudolph murderers). It's hard not knowing. It's hard looking at your family's future in the form of small pins plugged into an electronic map denoting real estate for sale and then measuring how far each pin is from the school you just got a virtual glimpse of. And how far the school is from the town, when there is one. Mapping, mapping. Studying. Looking for the right key words that will unlock it all.

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