Unconditional Love in the Time of Teenaged Angst

Once upon a time, a thousand years ago, that was me. I lived above a print shop in a small town and went to college six blocks away, down the hill, past the New Haven Pizzeria and the laundromat where I once watched a crazy man with a tin foil triangle on his head talk to his mother on the pay phone, trying to convince her he needed money and couldn't risk coming home because the aliens were everywhere and nowhere was safe.

I lived in this two story apartment with three other girls and my dog, Wombat, or as I like to refer to him: The Great And Mighty, All Powerful Wombat...The dog who set the standards for all other canines and who, still today, was a dog's dog and a swell being if ever there was one.

In fact, when Dad wasn't able to talk, just a day or so before he died, Sister Flea and I got him to smile when we told him Wombat would be at the gates of Heaven to welcome him.

I loved Wombat, but he was Dad's best companion when we kids were older and Dad was still driving all over suburban Philadelphia, visiting shut-ins and taking communion to old people. Dad would swoop into my apartment, whether I was home or not, spring The Great And Mighty, and off they'd go in Dad's tin can of a Ford Fiesta, or Vega, or Datsun B210.

Wombat was part-terrier, part-schnauzer, with only a nub of a tail- but when he saw Dad, he'd wag that stump so hard it would knock him over. Wombat was happy a lot, so most of the time it seemed Wombat walked like a crab, sideways, because he was always wagging that nub.

I suppose that's why he and Dad got on so well...but then, everyone got along with Dad.

All my roommates adored Dad and it was a mutual thing. JackOHarps is right when he says Dad was "open and honest and funny as hell!" We girls made over him like he was the coolest guy in the universe, even then, when we were still teenagers. In fact, even in high school my friends wanted to see Dad...when things were bad at home, or they'd done bad acid and needed him to talk them down, or when they just wanted to sort out how they felt about God or life or whatever. They sought him out because he never tried to tell them what to believe or how to be. He never condemned them or tried to control the outcome of their lives.

It's that kind of unconditional respect for another's ability to be okay and sort things out in the end that I miss in my life right now. He never made me feel small for not knowing something. He was too secure in himself to need to make anyone else feel small with his emotional and intellectual superiority. He didn't talk about other people unkindly. He always tried to see the world from the other person's perspective. If he felt you weren't quite "getting it" he would work to understand why you thought the way you did. If he truly felt what you were feeling then he could better offer you a platter of wiser alternatives...but if you chose to stay with your original stance, he never treated you as if you had failed to grow.

When Dad visited the Rubber Rose Ranch 2 we never had to clean up, put away, or be anything other than who we were.

So we decorated the place with antiques from one roommate's attic and barn, wore antique ballgowns to our parties, served champagne and home-made egg rolls, always had live music at our gatherings and sometimes Dad was there, hanging out in a corner, listening to us grow up.

Sometimes it would make me mad that Dad never took my side when a boyfriend broke my heart. I wanted him to be like TV dads and threaten to kill the poor kid. But my father never would. He would listen to me rant, let me run out of steam, and then, just as with every other issue, serve up a healthy dish of compassion and understanding for us both.

I can't find that kind of acceptance and understanding now and I don't really expect to. I can't be that perfect with my friends and family either-I am too insecure. But knowing how it felt to be loved like my father loved me makes me want to strive to be half the person he was.

I know I'll never be on a par with Dad. Really. And that's totally okay. But I would like to be more like him because I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that freely-given respect and compassion.

Being so loved by my father makes me want to be a better person.

I think that's a pretty wonderful legacy for a father to leave his daughter.

How Are You...Here in this No-Man's Land?

It has finally happened.

Today Cookie didn't know who I was.

Last week I thought maybe she was having trouble, but today I knew for sure. She rolled up to the entrance of the Social Services office where I was getting reports on my patients and gave me a blank stare.

"I can't go through here," she said. Her voice was dull, her expression flat.

I smiled at her, said her name, gave her cues, did anything and everything I could think of to bring her back, but it was no use. We rolled down to her room and I pointed to the witch on her door, the witch her daughter hangs up every year. Cookie didn't even respond to her daughter's name.

I crossed the threshold and sat down on the end of her bed with Cookie right behind me. She looked around and said, "Now that is unusual!" She was pointing to a second bedside stand and she was right, it was unusual.

"That doesn't belong in here, I said."

Cookie gave me a look like "Tell me about it!" and moved on.

"I'll tell you," she said. "I'm not going to do that again. Not with those women. Those..."

She was wearing maroon knee socks with a clashing red skirt and top. Mary would never have allowed her to look like this, but Mary quit and now a young girl with no common sense is her new aide. She doesn't seem to care how Cookie looks. She bathed and dressed. Enough.

I point to the wall of pictures that is Cookie's link to her family. "Do you know who they are?" I ask, hoping.

Cookie stares a hole through me. "Yeah. I'm not going to do that again!"

But I hope in my heart of hearts that she does because it will mean she's come back to herself. This is how it's going to be from here on out. Cookie may appear in fragments, for moments or hours or days. She may never come back. Or she might be right as rain on Thursday when I see her next. They'll tell me she has a UTI (urinary tract infection. Old people get them a lot and it frequently makes them psychotic.) They'll say she's on an antibiotic and coming around.

And that's just not going to happen.

Sometimes I think of the rooms full of people I've lost. I remember their names, their smiles, their tears. When I walk into a room where one of my people has died and find someone new in their bed, it always sets me back. I have to catch my breath before I take their hand in mine and say, "Hi, I'm Nancy. How are you?"

How are you here in this cinderblock-walled institution where people come to die? How are you, now that you know you'll never ever go home again? How are you now that all you have left to hold onto are your memories and even those are soon going to leave you? How the hell are you?


I Miss Him Swell, I Do

A month is not a long time to miss someone. Not really. There were times when I went a month without calling Dad or visiting. These times came after we moved to Greensboro and left him and Mom in Atlanta. That was the beginning of our separation after day upon day of hanging out, raising my babies.

All my life I wanted time with Dad. The three of us kids would be forced to steal what minutes we could with him- often by accompanying him on his various errands- visits to shut-ins, communion to parishioners in the hospital, trips to the grocery store or hardware store. We were content to sit alone in the car for hours, waiting, just to spend a few precious moments talking with him on the ride to or from his destination.

When he retired and they moved south to be closer to my young family, I suddenly had everything I'd ever wished for from him. Dad immersed himself in our lives, pitching in to help me with the kids while my then husband was working, puttering around my house fixing things or constructing monuments...

One time he arrived to find me busily nailing twigs together in the backyard. He watched for a few minutes then said, "What are you doing?" I said, "Building a trellis." He shook his head. "I don't think that's gonna hold up," he said. "Want some help?" The result was a lattice arbor, covered in four varieties of clematis with an attached swing. The neighborhood called it The Monument because they all knew it was Dad's way of saying he loved us.

On another occasion I wanted to build a fountain I'd seen in a magazine. It was made out of Terra Cotta pots and we had to drive almost an hour away to find all the materials needed to build the damned thing. My memory of that trip was not of the end result. What I remember is that I was standing a good fifty feet away from Dad and the boys, who at the time were like 2 and 4, when I turned around to hold up a piece of black tubing. The three of them were standing by a huge fountain, making anything more than gesture and sign language impossible.

As I held up the pipe and Dad squinted to inspect it from all those yards away, he forgot the two little boys behind him. As I watched they both walked to the edge of the huge pool that framed the fountain, clasped their hands behind their backs and slowly bent forward to dunk their heads in the water. They looked like the little bird toys that perch on the edge of a glass and with a tiny shove it dives down into the water.

By the time Dad caught on and I'd reached them, the boys were soaked and blissfully proud of themselves. What could we do but laugh?

When John got laid off and we had to move to Greensboro it was the end of an idyllic era. Gone was the house on Lake Lanier, the nights out on the sailboat, the afternoons spent floating in the cove on rafts, the dinners and parties. It was all over.

Until they moved once again to the water, this time four hours away in New Bern. It wasn't an every day existence but Dad was so obviously overjoyed to see us we couldn't bear to stay away any more than we absolutely had to. But sometimes soccer season prevented our visits, or life got in the way, and it was more than a month between visits.

Dad and I don't like to talk on the phone. It's just not the same and so time would pass without a word. But once we were all together in one place, the magic just seemed to happen all over again. As the eldest Unnamed One said, "Grandaddy was New Bern."

So in this brief month since Dad died, I have grieved...but I have also deluded myself into thinking it's just one of those busy times. At any moment the phone will ring and plans will be made for a weekend of sailing and eating and general loveliness. All the unconsciously stored up issues will be placed out on the table and dealt with and by the time we leave, our lives will be immeasurably better.

If only this were true.

Instead I find myself lost. The unconscious issues become all too conscious- like the old house not selling and us trying to pay two mortgages without a book contract or a good-paying, reliable source of income; like my not-so-secret feeling that I am a failure in my life because I don't know how I'm going to save us from bankruptcy. I know I could talk to him and without him telling me what to do, the answer would come clear and the burden would lift off my shoulders and leave my soul feather light.

It has been a month and I need him.

I watched 60 Minutes tonight and saw an episode about the medical teams trying to save lives in Iraq. One nurse, Mary, hit a nerve when she talked about fighting to save those boys, about remembering the names of the lost ones and how she still calls on them for strength when facing a particularly difficult case. She talked about fighting to beat the black spiral of death and how she feels like a failure when she loses.

I listened, started crying and had to leave the room for the bedroom where I watched the rest of the segment and sobbed. I know it triggered every weak spot in my all too vulnerable soul. I feel like Mary does when one of my old guys dies. I feel like a failure for not being able to save Dad and I still talk to my old guys and a few times, even Dad.

But he doesn't talk back, at least not yet, and it has been a month since he left. The logical rational part of me says, this is the way it is, kiddo. Welcome to the rest of your life. But the rational, sensible part of me says, he's just taking the tour. He'll be back. But my heart knows differently. My heart knows denial when it sees it.

So no, for me a month is not a long time to be missing someone- not when the rest of your life stretches out before you and the future without him is unfathomable on such a foggy, starless night.

I miss him bad, I do.

I must call my sister, Flea, and find out what she's feeling...I can tell with us, no news is never good news...


Sweet but Still Corny

I'll get over Candy Corn soon. I'll stop nibbling the tiny white tips, then the orange middle and tiny, yellow bottoms. I'll walk past the Jack O' Lantern candy jar without stopping. I won't slip the lid off, or slide my hand inside the slick, ceramic globe to grab an indiscriminate handful. I won't crave the honeyed-sugar "finish" on my tongue. I will beat this. I don't have a problem.

I mean, I beat the tiny orange pumpkin things...sort of. I don't search for them anymore when I'm corn-diving. If I happen to snag a few while I'm grabbing little corns, that's fine. If not, oh well! I'll survive without them.

You see, I can quit anytime I want to. I can control my life on sugar.

I can beat Candy Corn.

Excuse me...I need to go check something in the den...Yes, I know that's where the jar is...I'm only going to see if I left the light on or anything...

Sigh. Alright, fine!

Hi, my name's Nancy and I'm a Cornaholic...


Toenail Moon in a Ten Cent Town

Driving home tonight the moon hung just above the road, a huge sliver in the sky, a “toenail moon” as one of my boys used to call it. It is silvery-white and hangs so low in the sky I almost believe I could reach out and touch it.

I made it through an hour and a half of clogging practice this week and only thought of Dad a few times. Tomorrow it will have been one month. It all seems so long ago…How could this only be one month and not a year or a decade?

Cookie held my hand when I went to see her today. We sat in her room, her in her wheelchair; me perched on the side of her narrow hospital bed. Her hands and legs are full of bruises. They say it’s the medication she’s on. But today she kept rubbing her leg, just above her knee.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know. It was just so unnecessary.”

“What, Cookie? What was unnecessary? Did you hurt your leg?”

She nods, frowning. “Yes, I guess I’m a sissy,” she said and smiled.

“You’re not a sissy. You’re one of the bravest women I…”

“Well, it was just so unnecessary,” she says, interrupting.

“How did it happen?”

Cookie’s face clouds and she shakes her head. “They say it’s my…What that word? I can’t think…I don’t know.” She is frustrated. “This is so unnecessary!”

I would do anything to give her back her mind. I grasp for words, a thesaurus of possibilities. “Birthday?” She shakes her head no. “Anniversary?”

I’ve found the word. She nods. “I say it doesn’t matter. I don’t care if it’s my…What was that word?”

I’m wondering, who would tell her it’s her anniversary with her husband long dead? I can’t remember, is it her birthday? There wasn’t a Happy Birthday sign on her door.

“This is all so unnecessary!”

But it isn’t really. It is very necessary. I can’t tell her this though. Cookie has reached the place where she can no longer hear my complete sentences. She barely retains phrases.

“So, what do you…” her voice trails off as she forgets the question.

“Know?” I supply. “Oh, nothing. It’s cold…”

Cookie is rubbing her knee again, not listening. That is when I notice her hearing aid is missing from her ear. I check the box on the dresser. It isn’t there. An aide comes in and I ask if she knows what’s happened to it, but she’s new.

“It’s been a long time,” she tells me seriously.

The girl hasn’t been working at the place more than a week. How the hell would she know? I think she is just giving me whatever answer she thinks will make me give up and go away, believing that she is doing her job and caring about her patient.


Cookie’s nurse is tired too. When I tell her Cookie’s knee hurts and is swollen she gives me a vague look, like she’s surprised I think she should do something about it. When I ask about the hearing aide she frowns and says, “I think it’s been missing at least three weeks. Her daughter says she doesn’t know where Cookie lost it.”

Given that Cookie can’t retain a sentence- I am not surprised to hear this- only sad.

“Maybe that’s why she’s been more confused lately,” I suggest. “She can’t hear us.”

The nurse nods, measuring out meds for another patient and only half listening. “Yeah, when I get right up next to her, she answers me,” she says.

I realize then that no one thinks it would be a good idea to replace Cookie’s missing hearing aide. No one seems to think hearing will be of any benefit to someone who is losing their memory and their mind.

I take the elevator to the second floor where sweet Hilda gives me a hand-crocheted Jack O’Lantern pin. They are doing something to her bladder with electrodes, she explains, pointing to a small black box. “I keep peeing in the bed, so they’re trying to train my bladder to hold it.”

I look at the box, the squares of sealed-up electrodes and realize she’s serious. I feel like I’ve slipped into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. You can train bladders not to pee?

I roll my eyes at Hilda. “So, you’re telling me if your bladder’s bad, they’ll zap it and say ‘Bad bladder! Bad! Bad!’ until it gets the message?”

Hilda chuckles and rolls her eyes back at me. “They don’t know what in the hell they’re doing!”

I wonder if she knows how true that is. Hilda’s pretty with it. She probably knows exactly what’s going on.

By the time I reach the second nursing home I am almost too tired to get out of the car. I have made the mistake of listening to “Running With Scissors” while I drive. Dysfunction is everywhere. Nursing homes are little better than insane asylums, I think. I wonder if I do anybody any good or whether I’m just fooling myself.

And then I get a grip and instruct myself to stop feeling sorry for myself.

I walk up the long, walkway carrying my heavy, black backpack. Wayland is sitting by the door in his wheelchair. He’s a chunky black man wearing a ski hat and bug-eye dark glasses. He sees me, breaks out in a big grin and says, “Hey baby!”

I rub his shoulder. He’s eating a piece of pound cake and clutching a Pepsi can. As I walk past he calls after me, “I love you!”

“Back at ya, Big Man,” I say. I walk into the dining room where the activity director and, I kid you not, the director of the local funeral home, are divvying up cake and serving it to the residents.

The funeral director sponsors the monthly birthday party. He comes with his wife, wearing his unctuous smile, pretending to dance with residents in wheelchairs. He treats them like stupid babies and all I can think when I see him is that he’s trolling for future clients. Over time, you learn to ignore him. The residents do. The activity director does and now, so do I.

But my buddies greet me like a long lost daughter. Toni cuts cake and gives me grief for not getting there sooner. Little old ladies hug me and one dirty old man makes a smooching gesture and winks.

I know they don’t pay me enough to make the mortgage here and the paperwork is horrendous, but the love…Well, even on a flat-broke, dead-dog-tired Thursday, their love slices through my fatigue. It hangs out there in front of me, forcing me to pay attention to its beauty. Their love is as big as the toenail moon that lit up my drive home tonight and it is every bit as glorious.


Bounty Hunters Like Me and My Brother

This is my brother, John, talking to Dad about the meaning of life, checking his opinions out against the Buddha of our household, because what Dad says is important.

This is Dad listening. This is what he did best, listen to the questions without placing so much emphasis on the answers because he said the questions were what was important, they indicate where the asker's true interests lie. Dad listened without judging, without making you feel stupid for saying what you thought. He listened with his heart.

It is very hard to use the past tense when I am talking about my father. It makes him more dead, if that's possible. Which of course, it isn't.

He leaves huge shoes to be filled. I think all of us try, with the bits of Dad we do best, but my brother is the only male. I told him this made him the patriarch of the family now. He seemed uncomfortable about this, as if accepting the role made him a traitor, or like it is with me and the past tense, maybe stepping into Dad's role made John feel like Dad was more dead.

We are all changing. Shifting to accommodate the void in our circle. Trying to make a new balance for ourselves.

And then, just when I think I can't watch, hear or read one more thing about people losing their fathers...I see last night's bounty hunter show, the one that features this guy, Dog, and his wife, Beth a.k.a Baby.

Her father dies and in addition to chasing bad guys and lecturing them about their lives and second chances for redemption, old Dawg has to deal with losing his father-in-law and helping Baby through the loss.

Baby pats the box of ashes (and it was not a cardboard box either) that sits on top of a casket covered in flowers. She is sobbing. She points out a chocolate covered cherry atop the formal portrait of her dad and then a candy-filled funeral wreath sent by her father's buddies.

Now why couldn't we have had something like that at Dad's funeral? I mean, candy. It would've been the seventh inning stretch sandwiched between the cloying flowers. We could've broken open a pack of Skittles when the Hotrod Priest got too wordy or carried away with himself. It would've given us something to do with our mouths besides biting down on our lips and trying not to laugh hysterically when they dropkicked Dad into the ground.

Dog even cries because his grief gets triggered when his wife asks if he wants biscuits and gravy for breakfast, because this is what his father-in-law always made. He sits there, wiping his eyes, in his black leather vest, his bleached blonde hair hanging down around his shoulders, his wraparound black sunglasses perched like a headband on top of his head.

The camera follows this family everywhere. They force Little Baby, or whatever the daughter's name is, to come catch bad guys with them because this is their family identity. It's what they do. They even pray and say this day of catching bad asses is dedicated in their dearly departed's honor.

It's what gets them through. They tell the bad guy this when they catch him...In addition to telling him they're sorry his life is so awful and he's hooked on ice and has to go to jail. They're sorry BUT they're taking him to jail because maybe now he'll get sober. Maybe he'll take this second chance. They tell him it's what his father would want him to do...And then they talk about Baby's father a bit and how the bad ass can still turn straight while his father's alive.

I watch this like it's an oncoming train wreck.

Little Baby even says she likes catching bad guys now and her mother teases her about crying all the way to the scene.

I'm sitting there watching and realize this hokey show has a theme whether they know it or not. They are carrying on, showing how the next generation will try to fill the shoes of their dead hero.

I can't decide whether to laugh or feel touched by their genuine emotion. I am watching a carnival and seeing some real gold amongst the tacky glitz.

Today I am wearing a black leather jacket as I go forth into the world to fight insanity. I have had an epiphany...

Our lives are all reality T.V shows, only most of us forgot to put film in our camcorders.


Make-Believing Normal

My family has never been normal. For awhile this bothered me. I wanted our family to be more like the Huckstables on the Cosby show or the Waltons. Instead, our family was more like the Adams Family.

We lived in a rickety,old mansion, left to my dad's church by an elderly spinster with a passive-aggressive streak. Who else would leave such an drafty albatross to keep her memory alive? She must have had issues because the house was a handiman's nightmare. Three stories and a basement. Five porches, two staircases, two living rooms, umpteen bedrooms, enough rats to populate New York City and cockroaches that could probably carry pianos on their backs.

We Flea Sisters thought this was just swell...that is, until we realized the roaches weren't kittens. We loved the ancient wicker chairs that sat like green thrones on the many porches. We treasured the winding staircase to the attic, the unusual windows, the pink cabbage rose wallpaper in my bedroom, and the closet with the secret compartment that passed through to the "middle room," a room that divided the two halves of our house.

The Middle Room became our doll hospital, our school classroom, our make-believe library and on rare occasions, our upstairs T.V room.

We completely missed the fact that the place was cold and drafty in the winter. We didn't really notice the rats because we rarely went down into the spooky cellar with its dirt floor and clanging furnace.

But we did notice the formal gardens, complete with an ancient gardener, left behind by his former mistress. We loved the two outdoor fireplaces, one small and brick, the other huge and made of gray stone.

Once, after we'd been to see Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, I convinced my best friend to hold on to the handle of my mother's oversized umbrella and step out off the chimney of the tallest fireplace. I was just sure she would sail off on the breeze and fly...but not certain enough to try it myself.

We lived in a fantasy world of our own making. Becky was Pollyanna or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms. I was Cherry Ames, Student Nurse or Nancy Drew, Girl Detective. My brother was Batman or Robin or Ultraman. As our world grew crazier, we burrowed deeper into our created universe. It was like sticking our fingers in our ears and singing "Lalala!" at the top of our lungs, only more it lasted longer and was a more elaborate way of tuning out the unwanted realities of our existance.

Making believe made it easier to ignore the fact that Dad was working long hours, trying to meet the needs of his parish; or that our mother stayed upstairs in her darkened bedroom, always "sick" and rarely coming out into the daylight like the real moms did.

Playing make believe made it easier to look out into the audience at a school talent show or winter chorus performance and see only our dad and the housekeeper, Alice, sitting there, watching and clapping proudly.

I learned years later that the teachers and some of the other students assumed Alice was my mom and that I was bi-racial. All in all, not a bad alternative. Alice was always there and we loved her. Five days a week, she was the stern, caring presence who gave us boundaries and taught us how to survive alone.

Because a lot of the time we were really alone.

When Dad finally came home at night, we fell on him like starving orphans only to lose him to the voice down the hall, the one that demanded his continuous attention.

We could, the three of us, have felt sorry for ourselves...the poor minister's children with our mismatched clothing and bad haircuts. We could've stayed steeped in bitterness and languished on therapist's couches for a lifetime. But we didn't. What we got from Dad was enough to carry us through. No matter what else happened, we knew he did truly love us. If we really needed him, he would move mountains to reach us. But the rest of the time, we were on our own.

So, we became survivors...Warriors at times, pulling each other up and along, past the rough patches, out of danger and into the clearing where we could venture out to become whomever and whatever we wanted to be...because wasn't that what we had been doing all along anyway?


Haunting Traditions

Halloween Decorations 2006

Halloween Decorations 2004

When the kids were little, I'd get a bit carried away on holidays. Some would say I still do...but really, this is very tame for me. I have orange icicle lights that, if hung, would outline the house in garish drips of flashing twinkle bulbs. The Dogwood tree, while strung with ghost lights, lacks the elan of the flashing skeletons...mainly because they're broken, again, and this time I'm not fixing them. The glowing, orange pumpkins are still in their box for the same reason.

There aren't as many little kids in the neighborhood...They're all teenagers now, with cars and lives. When the little guys come to the door now, I no longer look to see if I recognize them because I know I won't.

I probably won't dress up as Madame Rosa, the gypsy, either. The wig's hot and itchy. The multiple skirts and heavy makeup a pain...unless I'm doing the fortune telling booth at the elementary school carnival, which of course, I am not.

I've got mini-adults living in my house.

Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade them for the world...but they require different activities. I make Sunday dinners and listen to wild stories of their weekends...or life with their every-other-weekend dad. We laugh and carry on. They don't censor themselves here as much as they do with other adults and for that, I am very thankful. But we don't make costumes or worry about who'll hand out the candy and who will walk around the neighborhood with the kids.

It's different and yet, in some ways, the same.

The boys roll their eyes as the garish decorations emerge from the attic. They moan, "Mother! Really!" But let something go missing from the display and I hear "Where's the Frankenstein head?" "Don't we have a remote controlled rat somewhere?" Then, "Hey remember the year we hid in the bushes and scared little kids with the fog machine?" "What about the year we dressed in camo? " "Yeah, and you took all the republican campaign signs out of that one lady's yard!"

They are big on tradition, my boys are.

Birthdays must be celebrated in the dining room. The Birthday person's favorite meal must be prepared. Balloons blown up and tied to chair backs. Pictures taken, songs sung, presents only opened after dinner, after a long, agonizing day of waiting and pleading "Come on, just one! Let me open just one!"

On Christmas morning no one can come into the living room until they hear carols playing. Stockings are still hung across the mantle. Inflation mandates Santa now leave a quarter in the toe along with a juicy tangerine and tiny presents wrapped sloppily. Tree bread is served for breakfast. Dinner is served mid-afternoon.

My kids dutifully complain about the rituals, trying to act "beyond" all of this foolishness, too old to be treated like "babies"...But in their hearts they know what I do...Our traditions and silly little rituals are the ties that keep us close, set us apart from the anonymous others in the world and make us who we are...


Admissions...College and Otherwise

I know, I said I wouldn't write about Them anymore, but the eldest of the Unnamed Younger Ones has once again touched my heart...as children are want to do.

He emailed me the following answer to a college admissions essay and asked for my feedback. I think he was also letting me into his head and heart. Grieving is a very personal and individual process- there is no one "right" way, no set time for mourning...Grief trickles through our conscious and unconscious minds, filling every little crack and crevice. I think of water poured into a vase full of pebbles when I think of the way I miss my father.

My son has given me a gift, whether he knows it or not. I'm sure he probably doesn't see what I see in his sharing of this treasure. He would say it is what it is and I am once again making too much of things...But I think not.

While life goes on much as usual, we each must make something out of our shared memories and painful loss. We look deceptively "normal" to the outside world. But when the boy opens the window into his soul, even a tiny bit, it reminds me we never alone with our grief. It is a comfort, I hope, to both of us.

3. Describe a mistake that you'’ve seen some leader make, and tell us what you would have done differently. Please keep in mind that the leader in question doesn'’t have to be prominent; instead, the person could be someone in your community, your school, or your household-—maybe even you yourself. (250 words)

Head over heels, my grandfather entered the grave. He was merely ashes at that point, stored in a modest cardboard box. Before his death, he was a dedicated minister and teacher. Despite this, the pastor in charge of the interment ceremony bent down slightly and tossed Granddaddy into the hole. The priest let gravity take my grandfather three feet down when he was supposed to be ensuring his journey many miles upward.

I watched disbelief spread like a wave around the circle of family members. Their eyes fixated on the cylindrical hole as my grandfather bumped and tumbled into his final resting place like a man in a barrel going over Niagara Falls.

The pastor was the leader of the ceremony, the emcee of mourning and remembrance. He failed to recognize the somber respect required of him, especially conveying our beloved elder into his grave. Though nondescript and simple, the cardboard container held the epicenter of our family. Handling it required respect and care.

That box was my grandfather. Though Granddaddy had a propensity for misadventure, the priest should have gently placed him on the floor of the hole. One in a position of leadership must realize the effect of every choice he makes on the people in his charge and must act in the best interest of his followers.

When a leader makes a decision that does not jibe with those who placed him in authority, he loses their respect.


Robert's Little Rebellion

Marti and I are down. We realize this at lunch. For the first time ever in the history of our best-friendship, both of us are depressed at the same time.

How could this happen?

"We can't do this!" she says. "We've got to..."

"Be the women we are and not the bitches we've become?"

Marti nods quickly. "Yeah that, but we've got to make a plan. We've got to pull ourselves out of the black hole."

A plan. That's the ticket. A plan.

It reminds me of something I've done when for the past bazillion years, ever since I got a job as a social worker at a rural mental health center in Georgia.

I was new...New to Georgia and new, really, to true mental health work. I only had my bachelor's degree at the time, but I thought I was the shit. I mean, I owned a 4" thick copy of Otto Kernberg's tome on psychoanalytic psychotherapy. What the hell else would a good therapist need?

I'll tell you what...When you are stuck in East Bumfuck, Georgia, with redneck crazies who are in real and genuine crisis, no textbook, even the kind for Dummies, is gonna help you. You need seasoning and experience. You need the wisdom that comes from time spent in the trenches. You need mentors.

As I did not yet have any of these things, they stuck me in the Day Treatment Program for chronically mentally ill adults. I suppose they thought I couldn't do too much damage to there...Those patients already been through the wringer. They'd had electroshock treatments, been involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals for years and been loaded up on more drugs than you can find in most pharmacies.

Surely a little, Yankee, do-gooder would be safe with them.

They did not expect me to really do anything. I mean, what could you do with people who'd been suffering from psychotic illnesses for decades? They were beyond helping. The best you could do was to provide a few hours of respite for their poor, beleaguered families. You could entertain the poor, crazy people. That was a valuable service.


Like I would ever fall for that idea! Not help someone? Me? I had The Book. I was going to change the world.

Little did I suspect my patients would end up changing me, enriching my life in unimaginable ways.

They taught me about mental health. They showed me how to find happiness when all hope is lost. They gave me the gift of their love and respect while I, in turn, loved and respected them right back.

Lesson Number One: Follow A Schedule.

No matter what. No matter how bad or crazy you feel, a schedule will give your life purpose and meaning. To this day when I am depressed, I create a daily schedule and I follow it. I build in meal times and exercise. I force-feed fun and exposure to other humans and activities. I act as if I am a happy person having a happy, satisfying life until finally the act becomes the reality.

This lesson has served me well. It has gotten me through tough times and broken hearts. "Fake it 'til you make it."

Robert was the best at living this rule.

He was a thin, pale man in his 40's, with sad brown eyes and thinning gray hair. He'd had ECT so many times he'd forgotten most of his life and seemed to no longer care about what happened next. He appeared perfectly content to live with his mother, following her rules and becoming once again the child she never wanted to relinquish.

I saw him once a week for individual therapy and my sole goal was to see him smile. Just once. I carefully took him back through his life, searching through the shards of his memory for any happy moment that might remain...but those tiny pieces were few and far apart.

And then we hit a vein rich with treasure. The years between high school and going to war. Robert had truly lived then. Rolled cigarettes up in his t-shirt. Courted wild women. Raced cars down deserted, red clay county roads in the middle of hot, Georgia summer nights.

I mined that ore, delighting in the momentary smiles that crossed his face only to vanish like comet tails or shooting stars.

I mourned the loss of that happy, free boy. I wanted to bring him back. But day after day he showed up, dropped by his mother at the clinic door like a preschooler arriving for Mom's Morning Out. He followed the schedule...went on outings, cooked in the kitchen, listened to music, made awkward clay figures in art therapy...But the boy he had been never seemed to visit the man he had become.

Until one early spring day in April.

An hour after I'd come to work, just as my patients were beginning to arrive, the center director called me into her office.

"Robert won't be here today," she said. "He's going back to the hospital."

"Oh, no! What happened?" He'd seemed so...Robert yesterday. What had sent him into this downward spiral?

Claudette was shaking her head. "I don't know. His mother called. She was terribly upset. Somehow Robert managed to get ahold of his monthly Social Security check. Apparently it was quite large, probably making up for the months his claim was in process."

I'm listening, heart pounding, worried he'd bought a gun and tried to shoot himself.

"Robert went down to the Toyota dealership yesterday afternoon and bought himself a bright, red sportscar. A convertible no less!" Claudette was obviously horrified.

Yes! The boy Robert was back! He'd finally done something to reclaim his lost life. I barely managed to remember that this would not be deemed appropriate behavior by Robert's mother or the psychiatrist. I kept my face carefully arranged, appearing concerned instead of delighted by Robert's rebellion.

"So, is he all right?" I asked.

Claudette nodded somberly. "Yes. Thank goodness they finally found him before he crossed the state line into Florida."

"Good," I said, sounding unconvincing even to myself.

Was it my imagination or was Claudette eyeing me with suspicion?

"So will he be back tomorrow?" I wanted to secretly congratulate him. I wanted to celebrate the attempt at freedom and independence.

"Oh, no," Claudette said. She frowned. "They took him right back to the state hospital, of course. It's clearly a manic phase."

A manic phase?

"What will they do?"

Claudette shrugged. "Change his meds, I suppose. Keep him there until he calms down and stabilizes."

Calms down and stabilizes. Code for One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest sanity. Good behavior, as judged by his keepers...He would have to stop "making trouble."

I tried to explain the way I saw the situation, but it was like pissing into a tornado. What foolishness. Robert would always be the way he was. He wasn't going to get better. People like Robert don't get better they said.

That night I lay in bed, envisioning Robert driving his red convertible on the open highway, the wind sweeping through his sparse hair. I imagined him smiling, humming along with the radio, maybe even singing. I hoped that no amount of drugs or electric shocks would ever remove the memory of that one brief day from his memory...And I prayed I hadn't done more harm than good.

And then I quit.

I wanted no part of that kind of mental health. I went back to school. I played the game, wore the face, regurgitated the lessons, and eventually learned to sort out the good from the bad techniques- through trial and error and instinct.

I started working with drug addicted bikers and strippers in a treatment center because that felt honest and true to me.

And every time I felt down for longer than a few weeks, I would remember the Day Treatment Program. I would make up a little schedule and follow it, blindly believing in "talking the talk until I could walk the walk." But above all, I remember Robert's rebellion.

I remember how important it is to fan the sparks of our true being; how necessary it is to create happy memories- even if we can only use them to warm us through the darkest of desolate winter nights.


Listening With My Heart

When Dad was first diagnosed and I knew nothing about Pulmonary Fibrosis, I stumbled upon the Huff and Puff group, an internet group made up of people with P.F and the loved ones who try to help.

As you can imagine, as with any incurable disease, it's tough going. But these folks always come up with something to ease the pain, or answer the question. Sometimes it's a reference to a journal article, or a good doc, or a personal account of how they dealt with whatever situation is put before them. And when all else fails, they tell jokes...really awful, corny jokes...Like:

A blonde calls the fire department and sounding like the typical valley girls says, "My house is on fire, my house is on fire". The Fire fighter who answered the phone asks, "How do we get there?" To which the blonde replies, "Duh, big red truck!"

See what I mean?

These guys are wonderful. When someone's down, they pull them up. When someone dies, everyone mourns and comforts the family left behind.

So when I wrote to tell them about Dad, they were predictably wonderful. They said things like:

Hi Nancy
We are so sorry and yet it seems that you really shared a special life together with your dad. For that you are so blessed.
Did you know that the word blessed means fortunate? Isn't that beautiful?
Much love and hugs,
John and Pam

And this:

I think the Wisest Man in the Universe has an amazing daughter. I appreciate your sharing with us your father and the time you spent with him at the end of his life. And I can't imagine a better passing than the one you helped your father experience.

You truly did "love him swell" and with an open heart right through it. I admire your bravery in doing that. I would imagine it would be tempting to draw inward and protect yourself at least a little bit from the whole hurt of it, but you didn't do that. You are a living testament to his wisdom and compassion; he did good work in you.


I opened their responses this morning, saw the words "Wisest Man in the Universe," and felt my throat tighten as an ocean of missing Dad overpowered me with its unexpected arrival. I kept on moving through my morning, ignoring the hole in my heart, pretending there wasn't a room deep inside my chest where a girl sat crying for her father.

Because that is how it has to be now. I have to keep moving forward, one step at a time. To do anything else would be dishonoring my Dad's teachings. But sometimes I am so tired and it is an effort to force myself to do and go and be. The world swirls on around me. People forget. They assume it's all normal deep down inside where I live. They push and yell and complain. They bitch and I take it personally.

And then...I drag ass into the nursing home, lugging an armful of donated stuffed animals to give to my lonely old guys...And there sits Cookie.

When she sees me, when I put a soft, squishy bunny into her arms, she breaks out in a delighted giggle. She is smiling like a little girl on Christmas morning- A little girl who perhaps only moments before was desperately hoping her big brother was wrong about Santa Claus ...Hoping that when she walked down the stairs magic would happen and the world would be as it should be...Full of joy and surprises.

I knelt down beside her wheelchair. Cookie is losing her words now. Syllables come out, sometimes a familiar word, but never a phrase or a sentence. She looks at the bunny, then at me. She clutches the rabbit in one hand and pats the top of my head with the other.

"Yes," she says, smiling and stroking my hair. She looks from my face back to the bunny and back again to me. She hugs the fluffy rabbit, pats my head, placing us together in her head. "Yes. There."

I feel the weight on my heart lighten and ease just a bit. I feel my father's voice in my heart, preparing for communion, facing the congregation he would say, "Do this in remembrance of me."

Okay, Dad. I'm listening.


Warriors in Cheap Satin

I thought the days of doing homework were long gone, vanished like soccer practice and homeroom cookies. But tonight I was happy to find out I was wrong. My Unnamed Younger One needed assistance. A puppet show is to be performed tomorrow and the Unnamed had no puppets and no plan.

Thank God for the Dollar Store! 4 Santa tree topers, an angel topper and 2 woven placemats and we were good to go.

Considering these former Santa and Angel tree toppers were the base of our operations, I'd say we did a right credible tribute to 1300 A.D local culture.

Thank God for glue guns, ace bandages and leftover makeup! Without them, all hope of world peace is impossible!

And to think I failed Art in 4th grade. Miss Casner, eat my leftover school paste! I am woman hear me roar! And The Unnamed Younger One ain't too shabby either!

Get 'er done!

Am I punch-drunk from 5 hours of this crap?

Letting Go of the Unnamed Others

It has been brought to my attention, albeit a bit rudely, that my family does not appreciate my writing about them. While the positive comments seem to elude them, the perceived "negative" ones have not. One of the Unnamed Younger Ones even went so far as to say in an email "You have an undeniable capacity for elevating a trivial issue to the top of a pedestal formed of your own stress."

This comment, along with four more paragraphs of comments arrived in response to an article I wrote last night about the attitudes of 18 year olds. In my defense, I might add that I wrote mostly about a friend of mine's daughter and my response to having an 18 year old who is about to leave me for the larger realm of "The World" and college.

This led to another family member saying I was "obsessed" with my blog, that I am unaware of how critical I am of them, and that "It's not writing. You don't get paid for it. I don't understand why people even do it!"

Sigh. Anyway, after all that feedback I took "The Dark Side of The Moon or I Have an 18 Year-Old With and Attitude" down.

I spent the rest of the morning wondering, why, as a writer, mom and human being on the planet, do I do write this blog?

When Dad was dying I wrote because I couldn't let my feelings out any other way. I couldn't trust my voice to work and I didn't want to lose my shit with my father or my family. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I needed to be strong for them.

But I also write as a way of checking in on "Normal." I write to identify with other people who might be going through the same things, or have been in my shoes. I write to hear what you have to say. It's a way of connecting.

I write because, as I writer, I can't not write. I try out new ways of writing here and the feedback helps shape my next, money-making, writing gig.

I write because while my life is fairly ordinary, I think it's interesting and amazing and I want to share it. I write about the people who are important to me, the people I love; because they are the core and center of my world.

I write because before we can grow we to say goodbye to where we are now, and that poignancy is something I wish to share.

Frankly, I think I write a lot more about my own foibles and mistakes than I do anyone else's. I am far more critical of myself, I think, than I am of others.

But those "others" have rights as well. So, I will try not to mention Them anymore.

I felt very sad about choosing not to write about them. Those Unnamed Others have been such lynchpins in my existence. They matter and I am proud of them...but sometimes they also piss me off. It's all part and parcel of loving who they are.

I wondered what I would write about if I didn't write about Them, which led to realizing what important roles they play in my life and how hard it will be to let go of them. This led to the reality that soon my nest will be empty and the hole will need to be filled. I will need to find other interests, other people, other activities to fill up the spaces their day-to-day living up under my wings has filled.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

I'll just be practicing letting go a bit ahead of schedule.

P.S. Just so you'll know in print, and in case you hadn't already gathered it from prior posts...The Unnamed Younger Ones are outstanding, brilliant, good people who, to quote directly from one of their emails "Don't do anything wrong." And the Unnamed Others? They are very good housekeepers. When I said I had a lot of catching up to do upon returning from New Bern, it was by no means intended to reflect upon their domestic skills. They were not expected to do the things I had left undone. They did a marvelous job of keeping my house and Unnamed Younger Ones together and I will always be indebted to Them. Their care for my Unnamed Younger Ones was what made it possible for me to stay with my Dad when he needed me.


Waiting at the End of the Line

This picture pretty much symbolizes life around here. I couldn't quite bring myself to take down the "Whatever" angel that hangs over the fireplace, so I put the Halloween devils all around her. Whatever!

The place is starting to look more fall-like. The blinking eyeballs and ghost lights are out front. Panises are beginning to overtake the portulacas in the planters. Leaves are falling everywhere and the backyard looks a lot like my hair...wild and frizzy.

I find myself thinking about Dad like he's on vacation. I wonder how things are up there, if he's having a good time and finally...why haven't I heard from him?

I know, I know...he's a big explorer but I figured he'd at least holler back or something by now. Whatever...

It was homecoming weekend at the high school. Once again I made a bazillion corsages, but this time three actually got used! Adam and Ben each had dates and J.P, Adam's best friend, used one of my creations as well...this after his mom, Ellen, arrived to show me the disaster of a corsage she'd ordered from a florist.

She arrived on the doorstep holding a white box. "Look at this," she said.

I peered at the wrist corsage nestled deep in the white shredded paper straw.

"It has little bugs sticking out all over it, and berries. What is that? What do you think?"

Tiny red roses sat amidst bug antenni, black lacy ribbon and red berries.

"I think it looks like Elvira's Christmas," she said.

"It's nice," I said tentatively.

Ellen told J.P afterwards, "We must never trust Nancy again. She lied and said the corsage was nice! She didn't really think so either!"

"Come on," Ellen said to me. "It's hideous!"

Well, it sort of was...unless you were Elvira and it was Christmas.

So we hotglued babies breath to it...lots of babies breath. This resulted in it looking like Elvira's Christmas wrist corsage buried in a white snow-covered bush.

And that's how J.P's date wound up with one of our creations.

Amanda, the Devil Witch, got a pure white one. I tried to stick a few red baby rosebuds in but Adam overruled me. "Mother, it's homecoming not the 4th of July! Her dress is navy blue. She'll look like a flag!"

Damned teenagers.

Ben had a date. I believe this is the first time both boys have attended a school dance with dates...But what a difference! Adam, the Player, and Amanda are old, seasoned hands at this date stuff. The girls all dress at one girl's house. The boys arrive to pick them up, take them to dinner and then drive on to the dance. Mothers are permitted to show up at the one girl's house to take pictures, but must leave promptly and not talk too much.

This last part is difficult for me.

Anyway...Ben wasn't having any of this. "Why do you have to come?" he asked.

"Well, to take pictures."

"I'll have Emma's mom take pictures and Emma'll give them to me and then you can see how we looked."

I waited a long moment, hoping to spare him, but when he failed to realize the obvious, I said, "Well, the other reason I'm coming is because I'm your driver."

"Maybe," he said cryptically.

"My ass!" I answered...definitively.

And so it was that I arrived walking a respectful and required 3 yards behind my son, watching as he navigated the pathway up to the front door, rang the bell and when Emma's hulking father opened the door, looked the man straight in the eye and said, "Hi, I'm Ben," and shook his hand!

Turns out my shy, disorganized child had organized the entire evening, minus the transportation. He picked the restaurant, selected two other couples, added two tag-along boys and was the social facilitator...which seemed to require that they play a game called "Big Booty" while I drove them from the Thai restaurant to the Marriott.

"I love that game!" Emma cried when Ben's hyperactive buddy suggested it.

And she looked like such a shy, sweet little thing, too.

But all the way downtown they chanted "Big booty, big booty, number one, number two!"

It seemed a game where you had to pick on other people to pick up the chant while never losing the rap-like timing, doing it faster and faster until someone lost track and was then "out."

Then they were gone, leaving their sport coats behind as instructed by the principal's earlier phone message. "This is Mr. Gasparello, principal at Grimsley High School," as if we could forget...he only calls every other day to leave long-winded messages that interupt everyone's dinner hour.

"Boys leave your coats and cell phones in your cars. The PTA doesn't have space to check them all."

I drop them off, drive away and am only two blocks down the road when my cell rings.

"Mom, can you come back," Ben says. "Steven left his ticket in his jacket."

I circle around and when Ben meets me I say, "You're supposed to leave your cell in the car."

Ben and Steven roll their eyes. "Good thing he didn't, Mrs. B," Steven says.

"Yeah," Ben adds. "How would I have called you?"

As if they knew all along this situation would occur.

"Whatever!" I said...because really, I'd rather he have the phone and be able to reach me in an emergency.

So when the thing rang again three hours later, I was ready.

"Hey Mom, this is Ben." Like I wouldn't know my own son's voice!

"Steven left his house key in his jacket pocket, so Charles's father's going to bring us by so he can get it, okay?"

By the time they're seniors this will all be old hat. They'll drive themselves to the dances, clean up their own mistakes and barely conceal their glee at being self-sufficient. They will do things that I will only hear about later, years after grounding them to their rooms has become impossible. They will suffer heartbreaks and triumphs, tragedies and adventures and through it all I will be right here...waiting at the other end of the cellphone.


Clogging One Day At A Time

At noon I looked out at my audience and said, "My father wanted me to dig deeper into my writing, to touch the sadness he felt was always lying just beneath my humor. I told him I was like too shal-low," I said this last phrase like a valley girl and they all laughed.

Then I said, "I told him I just didn't have anything that deep to write about. So, too oblige me, he decided to die."

There is a soft, collective gasp among the crowd.

"We had a year to say goodbye, and during it all I wrote my guts out." Then I read them a passage from the blog. One about Cookie.

It was amazing. They actually liked it. I didn't have to say funny things...okay, well, a few, but they liked the real stuff. In fact, they seemed to like this as much as the funny stuff.

I was fine then. My voice didn't quaver. I didn't feel like I was going to cry or anything. I felt almost as if I could feel him coming from deep inside my soul when I said, "Empowerment comes not from money or status. It comes from within. Empowerment is the ability to celebrate that which you do well and to give thanks for that gift."

It was easy as pie.

Tonight I went back to dance practice with my clogging team. I've danced with them for about ten years only since Dad got sick, I missed almost four straight months. We dance in an old Rec center, on gray linoleum tile. The room is hot. It smells like smelly bodies. But it is, in a way, home. It was the safe haven I found when my marriage was coming apart.

And our instructor, Kenny, is the only person, other than my sister Flea, who could ever teach me a dance step and get my spastic feet to actually follow it.

When I arrived they were already dancing. I put on my shoes, walked out onto the floor and fell right back in step. It was fine...Until they put on "Calling Baton Rouge." Suddenly I was transported back to the activity room kitchen in Dad's assisted living facility...And I missed him so badly I could feel my bones ache.

One by one the cloggers came in to the room, saw me and said, "Hey, we missed you! How are you?" They hugged my neck...I felt as if I was once again in the receiving line at the church after the funeral. "I'm fine," I said. "Just fine."

A few of them, the ones I knew who'd lost people close to them, looked at me with understanding compassionate eyes. "It's just one day at a time," they said. "The funniest things'll make you remember, like a bolt of lightning, you'll remember and it just tears you up, doesn't it?"

I had to leave. I wasn't obvious about it. Only Marti knew why I left, but still, I ran like a scalded yard dog.

I know it gets better. This is all part of the process. Yada. Yada. Yada.

It's Thursday. Dad died two weeks and one day ago.

If I Only Had A Brain...

Okay, this happens to me...

I have known, since this summer, that I am the keynote speaker for the Greensboro YMCA's annual meeting/fundraising event. It's a luncheon, today at noon in the Empire Club and tickets are $30 a head...To hear me, a person without one single thought in her head!

Not one word.

Not one syllable.

This always happens. I drive toward the engagement, feeling very UN-funny, without a word in my head, sick at my stomach, dying really...and then something takes over. Something that bypasses my brain and comes straight out of my mouth. People laugh hysterically, because when I am terrified, I apparently get real funny...But later, I couldn't tell you one word of what I said...With the possible exception of the American Businesswomen's Regional Conference. I ducked into the ladies' room just before I went on and saw in the full-length mirror that my pants were WAY too short.

And that is what I talked about for most of my speech. They laughed until ice tea spewed out their noses and I don't remember a bit of it...other than I explained that when your ass increases, your pants shrink north.

That is not funny.

20 minutes. I haven't spoken in public for almost a year. I am having a nervous breakdown! I am just a wreck!

My luck, I'll step up to the podium, look out at the crowd and start telling them about Dad and the Naked Guy. I won't remember that the Y's mission is the empowerment of women and the end of racism.

However, and not to digress, last night was Wednesday and I was totally empowered. We whipped the little whippersnappers butts by a good 800 points...not that I'm bragging, not that I would wish to deliver such a crushing blow to such innocent children...but then I whipped 'em in Tribond too...I'm just reporting, not bragging...bragging would negatively affect my Karma and piss of the universe making future victory impossible.

I'm just going to take some deep, cleansing breaths now and hope that somewhere out there, my brain has been turned into the lost and found and will be returned to me before noon today.

There will be a reward, of course...won't be money on account of the alimony suddenly vanishing and old people work not paying a whole lot...but it will be a reward...I'm thinking, I don't know...homemade chocolate chip cookies?

If my brain does not return however, I will gladly accept the loan of Kim's brain and verbal talents...especially when faced with David Sedaris! (See Oct. 7th's I Came, I Saw, I Choked) We are truly sisters separated at birth.


Headless in Heaven

One week and one day after Dad died, my sister Flea called.

"How are you?" she asked. "How're you doing with everything?"

"Fine," I lied. I mean, I am the older sister. I have a reputation to uphold.

In my experience (and remember I am a trained psychotherapist), losing your mind is usually something you want to hide from others, not share. And I was fairly certain that I was either a) losing what little sanity I had or b) dying of a terminal and as yet undiagnosed illness. Normal people just did not feel like I was feeling...Irritated, irritable, tearful, scattered, exhausted, hypersensitive then numb. It was a brain tumor, right? Besides, wasn't bone-deep fatigue a sign of either depression or cancer?

I chose the brain tumor.

"Well, I'm not fine," my sister said. "I'm pissed off at everybody. I'm just looking for a fight. And then a few minutes ago I walked into the drugstore to pay on Dad's bill, took one look at the pharmacist, and knew I was going to have to leave before he saw me crying. I just remembered all the times we talked about Dad's medicines and it made me...I had to come out to the car and cry. Then I thought, maybe I should call my sister Flea and see if this is happening to you."

She stopped, her voice thick with unshed tears.

"Oh, honey, you poor thing!" I cried. I sounded very concerned, which I was, but more than that I was relieved. Someone else on the planet was nuts.

"Well, it's just grief," my sister said...also a trained psychotherapist. "The adrenaline wore off and now we're just grieving."

Duh! Now why hadn't I thought of that...Well, I had, but I'd dismissed the idea as impossible. I mean, didn't I grieve for a year before he died? What did I have left? We'd said goodbye a thousand times. Why was there still gunk left?

"Well, how long is this going to last?" I asked.

I could see her, sitting in the cracked asphalt parking lot in front of Realo, honking into a tissue, her nose cherry red, her eyes swollen. I could feel my own body respond, tears welling up in my eyes even as I willed them away.

"It could be awhile," she said, her voice muffled by Kleenex. "We loved him bad. Mom's crazy too. She keeps trying to fight with me, but I won't do it."

"So that's why she sent me that nasty email about hiding the CD of Dad's funeral from her?"

"Oh, I'm sure," she answered. "When I didn't fight, she went for you."


"Are you tired?" I asked.

"Oh. My. God!" Flea answered. "I'm drinking coffee in the flipping afternoon! I've never done that in my life!"

Cut me and I bleed Starbucks...But still, the exhaustion, the lack of braincells, the lack of any worthwhile thoughts about anything...It was so incredibly overpowering.

"Are you dreaming about him yet?"

I am the one in the family that has all the "strange" and "unexplainable" things happening after people die. They talk to me. One even sat on my bed in pink long-underwear and explained that I was just way too upset about his death and should ease up because he couldn't go on in peace until I did. (It's a long story and I have a patient in 20 minutes. I'll explain later, if you're interested.)

"Nope. No dreams," I answered. Maybe Dad was really and truly done with us. Maybe a year of saying goodbye had been enough for him.

"Hmmm," she said. "Maybe he's still in orientation. You know there's a lot to explore up there. Maybe he's just busy."

That's Dad, all right, ever curious. He'd assume we were fine and start investigating his new life immediately...I could picture that.

"Or maybe he's not around because when they took him away he was naked."


This was a stopper. Naked? "Did the funeral home people undress him before they took him? I don't think they do that, Becky."

But on the other hand, where were his clothes? I didn't remember seeing anything left behind? What happens to your pajamas when you die?

"He was only wearing a t-shirt and a diaper," she said calmly.

Somehow the word diaper did not belong in a sentence with Dad. He wouldn't have liked the image either.

"He's so private," she said. "He wouldn't want us seeing him naked."

Although that last week or two, I saw this many times and we got over it. "I have boys," I told him. "I can assure you, what you've got can't be anything I haven't seen a bazillion times." Of course, then there was the issue of conceiving those boys. I would've seen a penis then, too, but I didn't say that because I never actually admitted to ever having sex...I mean, ewwww, that is my father!

"So you think he's not coming around because he doesn't have anything to wear? I don't know about that. My friend, Tom, died and he was naked and he showed up in pink long johns."

"Really?" she says.

"Don't ask me why," I said. "I was too busy asking him why he killed himself to ask why they issued him pink long underwear."

"Hmmm," she said again. "Well, Mom thinks she saw him, but just from the neck down."

I think all the wrong things then...Like, how would she know for sure without his head? His body was a wasted wreck, would she still recognize it...I.D it in a line-up of other naked guys? On the other hand, they were married over 50 years. And why from the head down? What happened to his head? Or was that more a symptom of their relationship issues? Or was he trying to say I'm keeping my head in the clouds? Or you can have my body but you can't take my mind? Was his head floating out there like the Mighty and All Powerful OZ?

I stop thinking and ask, "Why just his head?"

Four hours away I know she is thinking the same things I am because we both snort-laugh at the same time.

It makes me remember Dad's birthday two years ago, when we were all standing out in front of his condo building in the dark, peering up at the building progress. Suddenly the blinds open in front of the plate glass, sliding doors of the downstairs, front left condo. A naked guy stands there staring out into the darkness.

We knew, according to my sister Becky, what message that guy was sending. It was after all, my father, Richard's birthday.

"He was trying to say, 'Happy Birthday, Dick!'" She'd crowed.

Now, if we could only figure out what Dad was trying to tell Mom...That is, if it was indeed Dad.


Karma Has Failed Me Again

Karma has failed me again.

Friday night, after experiencing the still-sweet taste of victory at the pinochle table, I blew it. I forgot all my vows to maintain my humility.

When Martha and I yet again beat Adam and the lovely Amanda at the game I so carefully taught them, I forgot all about the Soccer Mom Code of Conduct. You know the one. "It doesn't matter who won or lost, we're on the field to have fun!"

When Adam and Ben were little, I instilled this virtue in them, insisting upon sportsmanship and good manners at all times. All of us soccer moms taught our precious little ones this valuable lesson.

And well they remembered it, too.

But not me and Martha!

When we finally beat the Bruja Diablo and Picana Puntos, we did not maintain our humble and gracious demeanor. No, we jumped out of our seats, pointing, hollering, high-fiving and singing "This Land Is Your Land!" (I do not know why I chose this for our victory song but at the time it seemed the perfect choice.)

Amanda congratulated us...Just like her Mama taught her. "Good game," she said sweetly.

Did we respond in kind? Were we gracious? Oh, no we were not! We became the two little old ladies in theCitibank Identity Theft commercial...Revving our engines and talking about how we intended to kick their butts forever!

"The tide has turned!" I crowed.

"We are family!" Martha sang, which got all three of us to look at her with puzzled expressions. She shrugged. "Well, I like it!"

Disco will never die for the woman...Mores the pity. Anyway, I digress...

We smirked, we poked, we boasted and bragged...

And we have not won one hand since then.

I'm not worried though...Last night, after beating us again, Adam turned to me and said, "Put this score in your little blog, why don't you?"

Now who's pissing off Lady Karma, eh?


I Love Your Hair, Honey!

On a lighter note...there's Laura.

Laura is 85 and I know I've talked about her before. She's the one who never married, the career girl who lived around the country and finally retired in Greensboro...only to have a massive stroke within a few months. She landed in the nursing home, her body frozen into an awkward, uncomfortable position with only her wit to keep her sane.

She had herself declared "Incompetent" because she didn't want to fool with the paperwork that comes with living in an institution. Then she found out this also meant she couldn't vote. This pissed her off as she really couldn't stand George Bush. "He's an idiot, honey!"

Laura is one savvy lady.

Today she paid me back for staying gone so long.

"Your hair looks real nice, honey!" she said. "And I just love your pants! But honey, your butt sure got big, didn't it?"

Heaven's Secret Handshake

When I walked into Cookie's room this morning she appeared to be sleeping. I crept up beside her bed, stared down at her and for a minute, didn't know if she was even breathing.

I couldn't find her nurse. I asked the social worker if the doctor had seen her. "I think she has a UTI," she said. "They upped her sleeping medication."

I read the chart. The doctor said she was agitated. It didn't say they'd upped her Ambien, but the proof was lying in bed down the hallway, sedated. Nowhere in the doctor's note did it mention the numbness in the left side of her face or the way her mouth now droops into an unnatural curve.

Cookie was agitated and the doctor healed her of that annoying little symptom.

When I returned to Cookie's room later, I tried to rouse her. She opened her eyes, looked at me and then, with a chilling familiarity, looked past me. She was watching things I could not see- things that flew past the end of her bed...She was looking into a corner, studying a spot above the T.V.

She was doing the exact same thing Dad did before he died.

"What do you see, honey?" I whispered.

It took her a long time to get back to me, to form the syllables that sounded like words. "Was I...I was...but it was just the way it used to be...I see it all."

"What do you see, Cookie?"

"I see everything, just as it was, all of it! Is...was it a dream?"

"You saw your life?"

"The children...they were little. I have to go back."

Cookie looked torn for a moment, then turned her focus onto me. She was smiling. "You are the best friend I have ever had but if I have to go, if I leave, will you..."

"Understand? Yes, Cookie, of course."

She brought her hand up to touch the numb side of her face. She explored the edge of her mouth, held her left hand out in front of her and stared at it.

"It's not right," she said. "I can't feel..."

She took my hand in hers, pulled my fingers to her lips and kissed them. "I have never had a friend like you. I think you know how it is."

I nodded. I was trying very hard not to cry because I was thinking, "No, not you, too!" Which, I knew, was selfish.

Cookie's aide loves her. I walked up to her as she stood in the hallway pressing buttons on her wall chart, entering tasks she'd completed with her patients.

"How's Cookie seem to you?" I asked.

Mary shook her head. Her real name is not Mary, but that's what Cookie calls her. "I'm surprised she's still here," she said. "I don't know how she's hanging on."

Mary is a little woman, tough, but every day she sits by Cookie's bed, coaxing her to take a bite of her lunch. She drinks her coffee and leans in with a fork. "Come on baby," she says. "Just one bite."

"She's slipping away from us," Mary says.

I walk back into the social worker's office. She is on her way to lunch but something in my face stops her. "What's wrong?"

She is soft and kind and young. I think in the right place, with support, she could do many good deeds...but no one supports that kind of effort these days. They want the paperwork that leads to reimbursement.

"Cookie just said goodbye to me," I tell her.

The social worker's eyes well up. She hitches her bag higher on her shoulder. "Oh, no! Not today! Don't do this to me today! I'm already emotional!" She leaves the room, walks halfway down the hall and comes back.

"Are you okay?" she asks.

I nod yes, but I am thinking no.

Marti arrives to visit a friend before we have lunch. She takes a look at my face and says "You look like you just lost your very best friend! I've never seen you look this sad!"

I think, you're right. Because while it may not be today or even this week, Cookie is leaving.

I know it's stupid, but I wondered if Dad would be along to help ease the transition. After all, she has met him. He would be the logical link in the chain that stretches between Cookie, me and eternity.

He could teach her the secret Heaven handshake.

And maybe that way, with them together, I wouldn't miss them both so much.

Humility and Handcuffs

I know I said I would be a better person...but, Oh, Lord, just not yet!

As you may know, I am locked in mortal pinochle combat with my son and his girlfriend. I taught them everything they know about the game and they have proceeded to beat my ass every Wednesday night.

But last night, I discovered the secret weapon...Thank you, MySpace.com.

Foolish children! They send little love messages to each other, posted right up there on their home pages. It is a free country. I don't even need a membership to read them. And Adam did show me his homepage. Wouldn't he also know I'd bookmark it?

Last week was the big Grimsley-Page football grudge match. All week long the students prepared to devour their enemy. Every day they had to dress with a different theme. Long story short...one day Adam dressed as a Miami Vice character...To which the lovely Amanda responded "You Vice Man! You can give me a ticket any day! And if I misbehave maybe handcuffs will be involved!"

Poor, poor children. To be so young, so smart and yet, so foolish.

I have kept this knowledge close to my heart. I have not said word one about it. Until last night when I was forced, as a mother, to take action.

The contest was getting heated. Martha and I were within 70 points of beating them for the first time ever. Adam was being his cocky self, talking about how we'd always be sniffing victory but trailing behind in the dust.

What is a mother to do?

I wait until I know Amanda has to make a critical decision, a decision that might swing the match to one side or the other and then I say, "Hey Amanda, I hear you and Martha (the cop) have something in common!"

Amanda's a sweet kid. I really, really like her. In fact, I'm a little sorry she's Adam's first girlfriend and not his last because she'd be a great daughter in law, but business is business and blood is thicker than water, and Adam needed a lesson in humility.

"Something in common?" she says, still studying her cards.

"Yeah, you both like handcuffs!"

Amanda totally loses her cool, collapses into a puddle of red-faced giggles and forgets her trump card.

We won the game but more importantly, my son learned all about humility from his own mother...

Uh-huh! We won! By a landslide! We're the best! You lose!!! Uh-huh!! How's that feel, big man?!

Like I was saying...Humility is a virtue.

Heartbeats and Sugar Daddies...

A lot happens in a week. Yesterday it was one week since Dad died. Now, I'm not big on remembering events by date but my aunt is. She called to see how I was doing.

I told her, fine, really. I was sitting at the kitchen table, gobbling down McDonald's chicken strips because the day had been too busy for cooking. I was doing the daily crossword puzzle, a habit I caught from Dad.

I told her that my year with Dad and his pulmonary fibrosis was magical; that all the grief I expected to feel wasn't there...probably because of our long goodbye.

And then I remembered Target. Tuesday night I went to Target and as I approached the entrance I saw a young woman walking with her father. An adult woman and her dad. I watched them, trying to push down the surge of grief that tugged at my heart. I can't do that ever again, I thought. I can't walk into a store with my dad. I can't do anything with my dad. He's gone.

So, I gave myself a mental bitch slap. You dummy, Dad's always with you, remember? He lives inside your heart, your memory, your very soul.

Yeah, that and a buck won't buy me a cup of coffee with him.

Sigh. I tried a different approach with myself...and mind you, all of this going on as I walk through the door behind them, studying their progress to an end cap where they study candy.

You idiot, I told myself...That's not her father! That's her sugar daddy!

I watched their body language. He leaned closer to her, his look more seductive than fatherly.

Ewwww! Ick!!!

Self-pity party over.

But when my aunt called I had another moment.

"I can't stop thinking about this one thing," I told her. "I just remember my hand on his chest, feeling his heartbeat so strong beneath my fingers and then, it just stopped. The feel of that last, small goodbye just seems to echo in my memory. I can't turn it loose. I felt his heart stop."

My aunt is silent for a moment. "But remember what he told you," she said. "I am always with you. And what you said, 'He is everywhere and nowhere.'"

But I was remembering my friend from high school, Steve. He fell in a freak accident and broke his neck. He was such a talented musician and songwriter. But when he realized he would never again move his hands, he gave me his guitar. A few years later, after Steve died, I found myself thinking I was playing just a little bit better. I believed Steve's energy travelled through the hollow body of that instrument to blend with mine. I felt as if a tiny part of his legacy lived on in me. I thought I was a better musician because of Steve's gift.

Why wasn't I seeing the same thing in my father's death? Why see a traumatic ending of his physical being when the alternative is so much closer to reality?

A bit of his energy flowed into my body with that final heartbeat- hopefully it will help me to be a better person- a kinder, wiser human being who tries her best to follow in his footsteps.

Of course, I can't expect to achieve sainthood overnight. Not while I still channel my inner bitch so easily. No, I'm going to look at this tiny bit of Dad like it's a vaccine...slowly my body and soul will build up an immunity to that part of me that is so overly sensitive and quick to find fault...and I will develop greater tolerance and kindness.

Yeah, like maybe when I'm 90.

For now my Inner Bitch and my newly acquired, Angelic Potential, will have to learn to get along inside this one body.

Cause if they don't, I'm gonna whip somebody's ass....um, I mean, I'm gonna try to realize that life's a process and that Inner Bitch and Angel are only acting out of their own insecurities and fears.


Misplaced Faith

I went back to work in my three nursing homes yesterday. In particular, I went back to the nursing home where my friend, Cookie, lives...the one who thinks I should move downstairs and live on her hall because I fit right in.

It's been at least 3 weeks, maybe a month, and I was really afraid Cookie wouldn't know me. She's so easily confused and her memory is slowly dissolving into feelings...like, "I love you. I don't know who you are, but I do know I love you."

A month away from Cookie is asking a lot of her fading memory banks.

The first time I slipped into her room she was sleeping. The second time I thought she was still sleeping, but she raised one arm in the air and while she may have been dreaming, I took it as a sign to venture closer.

I stood next to her bed, peering down at her small, sweet frame, and was shocked. I was the one who didn't recognize her.

Her face was swollen. In fact, hands looked swollen too. Her mouth seemed to droop to the left but you know me and denial, I just thought it was because her teeth weren't in.

"Hey, Cookie!" I spoke softly because I could tell she was just waking up. "Remember me?"

"Hello friend," she murmured and began to cry.

"I missed you!" she said. "Nobody knows. They don't know how I...They won't tell me what's wrong. There's something wrong. I don't feel right. And I missed you so much!"

She raised up her arms, like the boys used to do when they were babies, waking up after a nap.
And I did what we're not supposed to do. I bent down and scooped her little body up and kissed her forehead and stroked her hair. I whispered, "It's okay, honey. I'm here now."

She gripped my hand in her right hand, as if holding on made me more real or kept me anchored to her...when in reality nothing could keep her out of my heart.

"I missed you, too, honey," I say.

"You did?"

I am saying these things but I am thinking, something is wrong with Cookie. They must have her on a new medication.

"I'm so tired," she says as her eyelids sink down and her head slips slightly to the left.

She fights to keep her eyes open, to maintain her hold on me, but it's costing her. "Cookie, I'm back. I'm not going off again. Dad died, that's why I was gone for so long, but I'm back."

When I say, Dad died, her eyes close tight, she frowns and moans softly. She couldn't remember meeting him almost a year ago...Could she?

"Rest, honey. I'm going to go look at your chart for a minute. I'll be back."

I hug her again, kiss her forehead and she touches her fingers to her lips and presses a kiss to my hand. "I missed you," she says again.

Because the same nurse is working the hall that was working it the last time, I mistake her presence for committment. Lately the turnover has been nonstop, but hey, this one's still here. She cares, right?

"Is something wrong with Cookie?"

She's briefing her replacement on 3-11 and they both look up. 3-11 has been there awhile too, but I could never mistake her presence for concern. She could care less.

But the first shift nurse says "And you are?"

I tell her I'm the mental health consultant, glad she at least checked, and she rewards me with a fleeting smile.

"We think she's had a TIA. The doctor's going to look at her tomorrow. I called her daughter and she said she'd come if things got worse."

Got worse? They're not doing something now? We're waiting on the doctor until tomorrow?

It is pointless to say this to her. She's leaving. Meathead is taking over and this requires a step above floor nurse...which won't result in anything either, but I'm doing it anyway.

I turn to leave, to find a supervisor and the day nurse says, "We think she had another TIA two weeks ago, too, but it was smaller. This time her mouth's drooping and her left side is swollen."

I whip back around. The nurse is smiling again, but now it's an apologetic smile. "She's really going downhill fast."

Gee, ya think! Ya think maybe getting good medical attention would help prevent such a rapid decline? Do ya think if her family gave a good rat's ass it would matter?

But I don't say any of these things because it won't get me anywhere. I will tell the newest Director of Nursing. I will tell the social worker. And I will not have any faith in the system changing.

Cookie's possible TIA is old news to the social worker. "Yeah," she says, shaking her head. "I know." She shrugs with this, that's-all-we-can-do attitude, like that's normal-that's what happens. Hate it for her.

I do not think this is normal. I am not a nurse. I don't know my TIA from my ass, but surely this isn't normal, is it? What about asprin? What about X-rays? What, she's 91, so let her die? I remember vaguely other people having TIAs and saying, "There's not really anything that can be done about it. Eventually she'll have a stroke and that will be that." Did I hear that here, or from a real doctor?

It seems I am always screaming into the wind, hoping someone across the canyon will eventually hear me and give a shit.

I walk back into Cookie's room and smile like the world is one big happy place. "I just couldn't leave without giving you one more hug," I say. "They told me they think you might have had a little stroke, a TIA. The doctor's going to check you out tomorrow."

She nods. "I knew something was wrong." Then she smiles up at me. "I love you."

My heart snaps right in two.