Gratitude and Loss …

I’m on an airplane on my way to Palm Springs. The plane is soaring over a blanket of fluffy, cotton clouds that will dissipate the farther south we go. We’re flying in to sunshine and ninety-degree weather. My sister has a beautiful home, and a salt-water pool. We’ll celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes and cranberries. We’ll enjoy our feast poolside, around a table with a built-in fire pit. We’ll probably have too much wine.

I’ll go for a walk and admire the palm trees lining the streets. I’ll marvel at the brilliant azure sky contrasting with the pale, dusty mountains that tower over Susan’s home. We’ll laugh until our bellies hurt. We’ll play games, and we’ll spend a lot of time in that pool. The perfect Thanksgiving. Sounds idyllic.

Doesn’t it?

But on my way to work this morning, I was struck with a sadness so deep, so empty, that it took my breath away. I pulled over. Pressed my forehead against the steering wheel. Thinking back to a sweet spot in my life. In my family’s life. To a Thanksgiving more than twenty-five years before. Justin was about eight, I think. All four of my grandparents were alive. My sisters and I were happy in our marriages, and our four children were whole and healthy. My parents were vibrant and strong.

But this year, we’re scattered. Fragmented. My son will spend the holiday with his girlfriend’s family in Washington. My sister, Neil, and Izzy will stay home to look after their animals. My nephew, Chris will join them from Montana. They have friends joining them, too. They’ll have a fun, raucous, unconventional holiday.

I have another niece and a nephew, estranged from the family, who will be somewhere. I don’t know where.

I am so full of gratitude for what I have. For my parents, who are still the adventurous, fun-loving, consistent mom and dad they have always been. For my son, who has grown up to be a remarkable young man. His girlfriend, who I love like my own daughter. My sisters. Izzy. Neil. Dennis. Innumerable friends, more precious than gold.

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But that gratitude is tempered by the experiences that have formed today’s reality. To juxtapose the memory of my healthy boy with the young man who struggles every day with his damaged body. To remember those times before great loss. Before divorce. Before mental illness and substance abuse. Before my nephew’s Purple Heart.

I know by Thursday, the gratitude will win. It always wins. But the older I get, the messier it all becomes. Gratitude and loss have become inextricably bonded. So today, I’ve spent some time grieving. But tomorrow , I’ll get on with the business of living in the moment. With joy, and laughter, and one spectacular cannonball. There is a pool here, after all …

No, Dad. We don’t crowd-surf anymore.

My sister celebrated her birthday on Saturday. We’ve traded concert tickets for our birthdays since Star Jeans and feathered hair, and this year was no exception. I was talking to my dad before we left on Friday. He was surprised we hadn’t grown out of wanting to sing and dance and listen to live music. “Are you going to crowd-surf?”, he asked. I laughed. We have definitely grown out of that.

We traveled from Seattle to Vancouver, BC, making our way up along scenic Chuckanut Drive. At this time of the year, it is a vibrant tunnel, with thousands of golden leaves falling gently from the sun-dappled canopy. The leaves dance from our tires as we wind through the narrow byway.

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There is something about driving that makes conversation easy. Amy and I had hours together, stopping when a peek at the water or a path through the woods caught our eye. We talked about memories of our childhood, and the angst and tragedy, both real and imagined, of our youth. We laughed at concerts past. How we would enthusiastically weave our way through the crowd, ducking and dodging, to reach the coveted front row. And laughed even harder about how rude that seems now. It was worth the affront to gain a front-row seat to Steven Tyler, Bon Scott … Mick Jagger.

I love having sisters as best friends. I got lucky. I got two. The intimacy of knowing a person from birth is an extraordinary gift. We’ve shared rooms and secrets. We’ve fought, and we’ve made up. My sisters share my history. They know my soul.

I know family isn’t safe, or comfortable, for everyone. It can be tangled and messy. It can mean pain, and it can mean comfort. It has expectations. If you’re fortunate, stretched tightly beneath those expectations is a sturdy safety net. I am so thankful for the gift of my family. I have never felt alone, and I am grateful.

Happy birthday, sis. I love you.

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Bullseye

January 15, 2017: My son was thirteen when Bullseye found him on the porch. It was a cold, fall day, and Justin had locked himself out of the house. Skinny and skittish, Bullseye sidled up to my boy, as he sat waiting for me to come home. “We’ll get him fed,” I said, “but he’s not our cat.” As the days got colder, I softened. “We’ll let him come in from the cold,” I said, “but he’s not our cat.” Then, “We’ll take him to the vet. Get him checked out. Give him his shots.” And softly, “But, he’s not our cat.” Finally, “This is Bullseye. He is our cat.”

Bullseye never really warmed up to anyone but my son. He would stiff-arm anyone that tried to hold him. He’d brush up against you, and then quickly dart away. But Justin could hug him and kiss the top of his head. He could scratch his ears and stroke his soft fur. He never left his side.

There were many years in between then and now, when Justin was not entirely lovable. As his mom, I loved him fiercely, while Bullseye loved him gently. At the times where he needed that the most.

Bullseye died yesterday, nestled in the crook of his boy’s arm. I stood holding Justin, his body quaking with grief, and the years melted away. So many memories! Bullseye stood sentinel over Justin through twenty years of angst and laughter, hardship and growth. When Justin was in a car accident at nineteen, he was bed-bound for six months. But he was not alone. He was never alone.

Justin spent a great deal of time over the last year nursing his old partner. He loved him well. But it was time to go, and it was a peaceful journey over that rainbow bridge. Farewell, dear Bullseye. Thanks for looking after my boy.

Little stinker

July 23, 2016: My niece and I are off hiking this weekend. I thought it would be a great opportunity to teach her about important things you should carry on such endeavors. I got my pack ready. Later, I lifted it, and it was significantly heavier than the last time I picked it up. Checked it out, and it had been loaded with rocks. So while I was working on teaching Izzy about the ten essentials, she was working on teaching me about “super cool stuff you collect”. And sneak in to your Aunt’s pack. Little stinker. I adore her.

When shit gets real

March 26, 2016: I’m waking up in a makeshift nest next to my sister’s hospital bed for the third morning in a row after she suffered a kidney infection that morphed in to sepsis. The sheets are “crackly”, which is the term the docs keep using to refer to my sister’s lungs. The pillows are plastic, the beeps and whir of machines make sleep elusive, and the tenor of the experience changes as each new shift comes on board.

I’ve spent too many nights in places like this. Watching over my son, my sisters … my family watching over me. Today is a better day. Her kidney function is improving, and her focus now is working those lungs. Yesterday, she experienced equally hilarious and terrifying narcotic-induced hallucinations. Whatever you do, the next time you’re out, don’t order the “crazy fish”. Even though it is very inexpensive.

The below quote is a favorite of mine, and it is so apt. I don’t ever want to sit still. I don’t ever want to take my health for granted. I want to live. Truly, truly live. “…to travel, then, is to do, not only to see… To take a chance, and win; to feel the glow of muscles too long unused; to sleep on the ground at night and find it soft; to eat, not because it is time to eat, but because one’s body is clamoring for food; to drink where every stream and river is pure and cold; to get close to the earth and see the stars–this is travel.” (From the Foreword to “Through Glacier Park,” by Mary Roberts Rinehart.)

Day 4: We just moved rooms (which signifies progress). The new nurse asked Susan what she’d like to be called. For me, that would be Deborah or Deb, for the most part. At this point, Susan is feeling very, very uncomfortable. But without missing a beat, she replies, “Mustang Sally”. I love my family. Funny as hell, even when shit gets real.

Cast 3.0

February 26,2015: I wrote earlier about the difference in boys and girls and their level of nurturing. I may have had it all wrong. Perhaps they just respond differently. Less frequent, perhaps, but with intense caring.

My message tonight was direct. “Still alive…cast 3.0 has been installed. Still on my wheelie cart. Can’t wait to take a real shower. Miss you.” He immediately called. Usually when I miss him, I host a family dinner, I told him. But right now I can’t.

“Well that doesn’t mean I can’t cook for you, mom. Let me look at my calendar.”

Huh?

The lessons I’ve learned from raising a boy are many, but two stood over for me that night. (1) Don’t wait for them to call you. You may be waiting a good long while. (2) Periodically send a text stating that you are alive. The phone will ring within three minutes.

Despite the struggles, I love this kiddo with every fiber of my being.

 

The perfect tree

December, 1992 … or thereabouts. We wake up, breathless with thoughts of the adventure ahead. A hearty breakfast, a loaded car, off to find the PERFECT tree. Not a forest trek, nor a Safeway lot, but somewhere in between. A “U-cut”, which equates to a good walk in sturdy boots out with a rough-hewn saw to find the very best tree for us. This perfect tree was always a good two to three feet taller than we expected, once we got it in the house. Sticky sap, the pungent scent of evergreen, needles in the rug past Easter. Hot chocolate or hot spiced cider … your preference. Maybe even a hay ride, if you’re lucky. The ornaments … oh, the ornaments. Collected over several lifetimes. Handmade beauties, literally bursting with memories. The day would last long in to the evening …

December 2013 … I have a glass of a nice chardonnay. Grab a stool, lug the artificial tree off the top shelf, dent the car just a little bit in the process. Hmm … underestimated the weight of that box. Unbox the tree, give it a shake … voila! Pre-lit! Five minutes.

If you’re fortunate enough to have ’em, and they’re still young enough to enjoy the magic, embrace the time with your kiddos, folks. That time will be gone before you know it. I adore the man my has become, but on nights like this, I desperately miss the boy he was. Feeling a little nostalgic on this chilly December evening …

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