I remember the point after which my dad died, maybe it was four months, perhaps five, where I didn’t cry every day. Maybe it was some indicator of a new stage of grief. Or maybe it was the physical proximity of that bed, that room, that house, that town, that state having more states between us now. All the physical reminders of death and dying, of hospice and stacks of sympathy cards, an airplane ride away.
The crying today caught me by surprise.
I was careening down highway 280.
It was my first day back in the office since February 2020, first day commuting. Since I decided to become a parent. Since I lost a parent. Since so much living and dying has happened. Since there was a moment I fell in love and my dad wished he could have been there even though he was there. Since silences fill spaces, complete with the tick and tock of the tall grandfather clock in the family room. Since my mom doesn’t have a need to use her voice all day.
I was careening down highway 280. I’ve written this sentence before.
That highway brings up so much.
When my work moved from the Presidio with views of the shimmering golden gate to a business park in the valley, when there was a bubble, when there was a recession, when I got married, when I sat idling in the pouring sheets of rain, when I got the phone call that it “was not good,“ that I had breast cancer, when I almost hit a deer, when I sat on so many family conference calls navigating my dad’s treatment plan, when I swerved to avoid a collision in the first bright ray of a morning sunrise, when I saw the reservoir drop so low, when I became old enough to wear driving gloves to protect my hands from the California sun.
This was my first time waking before my daughter, quietly getting ready, turning off the house alarm, scurrying down the block to my car in the dark, cranking the heat and kicking it into drive. All before 645am. She would be gently sleeping for nearly another hour.
No morning hugs, no morning books in bed in our pajamas, no helping me make my tea, no stretching out the minutes until the day started.
How many caregivers have had to sacrifice this, have never gotten this chance, have not been able to luxuriate in the soft joys of soft mornings?
This road, these phase shifts, the endings and beginnings.
The crying today shouldn’t have caught me by surprise.
The arid grass and live oak landscape, co-evolved with the rise and fall of the oceans. Expansion and contraction of the earth itself, as each turn causes an inhale and an exhale. Sturdy trees with roots deeper than our souls, mother trees tending the social creatures, all connected and talking to one another on scales not yet understood, sharing sustenance and calls for distress, and all the while, providing so much – a home, a shelter, a food, a calendar with its signal of verdant buds to tell when the bears would wake up, a provider of dye for tattoos to signify an age and a readiness, a medicine to heal infected wounds.
Razed to make way for the animals, carried here across ocean basins, grazing, stomping, snorting, kicking up dust in their wake, dropping invasive seeds here and there, turning over soil faster than it cared to be.
Then orchards. The jewels of red, orange, yellow, tangerine citrus dotting the deep green and dusty brown hillsides. Giving way to soft-skinned apricots and deep purple figs. The ground kept and swept empty between to avoid any competition for dwindling water tables.
Onward we go to the hilltop multi-million-dollar homes, set against a backdrop of pink sunsets, cloud-free skies, bluebird days across the coastal mountain ranges. Silicon, devices, attention dispersed, looking down rather than at the sky, looking down rather that at each other, the noise so loud we cannot hear the messages from in front of us and from the beyond.
To whatever comes next.
Fire and water and mud taking back what was always theirs. They lay in wait for years, centuries, plotting and maneuvering. Until the skies opened and rained down hail, thunder reverberated through chest cavities and between heartbeats, and lightning illuminated the world as it is and as it was, if even for a moment.
I sit flipping through the photo albums and the snapshots in my brain, thinking of this city, town, hamlet, blink-and-you-miss-it place that I’ve loved. There are so many places to love and that many more reasons to love them. The creamy sand dunes around Sidi Bouzid, the hunter green projected on Vancouver’s north shore, the periwinkles of the sea around Beaufort’s inner coastal waterway, the rainbow of terra cottas in Rajasthan. The golden bell within Kuala Lumpur’s Batu Caves.
How only so many generations ago, dreaming of those places, seeing pictures of those places, traveling to those places, visiting and then falling in love with and then living in those places was not a thing. In any one lifetime.
And yet, how nomadic has become a trend, an escape, an option, when it was once the norm.
How we have come full circle.
The explorers turned conquistadors and colonizers bent this trajectory, while burning down their own homes in the wake. Smoldering piles at their backs.
Thomas King says of settlers like me, essentially, “Watch out. It’s as though they always have one foot on land and one on the boat.”
I feel that in my bones.
My DNA a curated scattershot from across Europe. Is that my homeland?
I think of the tall grass-green corn stalks and their thin golden tassels of mid-July surrounding my birthplace in southern Illinois. The Myaamia, the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, the Kaskaskia, the Kickapoo, the O-ga-xpa Ma-zhoⁿ, the Osage and before them, the pre-Colombian Cahokia building the largest city and burial grounds North of Mexico.
Is that my homeland too?
If it is – and it is – why was I so urgently seeking to leave it, even if I love it? To bolt, my shoelaces tied, body posed at the starting blocks, muscles twitching.
What would it be like to know a place, to stay rooted in it forever and ever. Knowing it so intimately – where this spring leads to and what’s beyond that dead end. The dew point at which that the grasshoppers quiet their voices. The time when the deer shed antlers to reveal their soft, downy velvet underneath. The right moment to plant a tomato from seed. When the north winds blow, from all the way from the Arctic ocean’s shores, where they pass over so many heads before they pass over mine, what it means I need to do to keep the fire from working its way out too quickly. The temperature and cloud cover that are just right for the chlorophyll to break down, for the leaves to die, the green pigment to disappear, and the yellow, orange and red carotenes to become vibrantly visible to me. And why the jonquils decide to come when they do as the day gains light at its own pace.
One place. Generation after generation. What would I give up to know these things, to breath them in, to shift my compass to a new north star. Or rather, is the question, what would I gain?
There are a million and one ways to die. Protests against a fanatical interpretation of a religion, suspension bridge collapses, stampedes, a virus. Those were just today’s headlines.
There are a million and one ways to die. To die even before you are born. Cells never coming into formation enough to become a being. Forcing the profound realization of the porous-ness of the living and the dead. Here we are looking through the screen door at one another, arms outstretched, in a hug, a holding, a releasing.
There are a million and one ways to die. Surrounded by your children, in your home of 40 years. One of them sleeping in the adjacent bend, one gripping your arm, the other holding your soft and still-strong hand, mindlessly rubbing the coarse hair on its top, thinking about all the times those hands tossed her in the air. Your partner of over 50 years stepping out, for one minute, one reprieve at the kitchen counter to eat because everyone wanted her to eat to keep her energy up, to keep her focused on the land of the living, to keep on living. The hospice nurse later remarking, “They are always waiting – waiting for someone to come or someone to leave.”
There are a million and one ways to die. To die like a star whose time has ended, a period or maybe even an exclamation point. Shooting through space into the atmosphere. Only it’s doesn’t shoot, it doesn’t have upward velocity or an arc of a trajectory. Instead, it drops, free falls, really. Gravity pulling it closer to where we stand overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a clear night, the milky way stretched like a thick ribbon above us. The star traveling until it’s no more, fading into another existence, skipping down the marine terraces into the deep ocean trenches, to be reunited with its relations of minerals, time and pressure. Transitioning from one state to another, the light it carried from light-years ago present and then disappearing from our eyes. Us, bearing witness to its time travel.
There are a million and one ways to die. Our ancestors know this truth. Only I cannot stare them in the face, the most of them. And I’ve only started to identify and understand their names, the bits and pieces of their lives – facts, really, no stories – captured in some public record, some baptism, some death, some tombstone in a distant plot in Kentucky, South Carolina, France, Italy, Germany. All dialects and languages that would now sound foreign to me. When someone asks, “what’s your mother tongue,” which mother do they mean? I write my stories for myself, for my daughter. Because one day, I, too, will die.
There are a million and one ways to die. My dead friends know this. We whisper their names, one by one, taking account. All the spots on their livers, resected here, radiated there. Metastatic breast cancer, shutting one critical organ down until the entire body and every fiber and every cell gets the message that now is the time. The effort valiant, the body weak, the mind angry. It is not always in peace and acceptance. It is not always full circle. It is not always in the natural order of things. They held life like a face, too. And this is where they are, scattered to the four corners, carried on the wind, inhaled by me, returned to the earth.
The sound of the summer. Loudest underneath the shade of the large oak trees in the backyard, even in the still of an afternoon. No birds or butterflies passing by. The sun at its peak, sky so bright it’s white. Cicadas, toward the end of their long life, rubbing their wings together, luring in mates. We would run around, collecting those tan little shedded exoskeletons. Pluck them from trees with some effort, build up a pile on the back porch like trophies, just because we could. In my memory I think of them as a symphony. There was movement, different cicadas from different corners of a tree, of a yard, of a neighborhood coming together in unison. I recall thinking it a miracle of sorts when they would crescendo altogether in some long outbreath, then recede and fade so slightly. Only to pause and begin their weeee oo weeee oo weeeeee again and again.
This will always be the sound of the summer for me.
Even when something like the song of the summer comes and goes. 2022, Lizzo’s “About Damn Time.” It is about damn time.
I just crossed ten years of life with and after cancer.
About damn time.
Ten years ago in 2012, the song of the summer was Carly Rae Jepson, “Call Me Maybe.”
I remember the phone call, asking me to drive into the clinic for the results of my breast biopsy.
I knew right then it was not going to be a maybe.
And yet here we are. To commemorate the event, I had an OB/GYN appointment. Serendipity of scheduling, I guess.
Just a regular appointment to talk things through, chemicals, chemically-induced menopause, hormones. And the doctor, while rescanning all of my charts, inquired, “when’s the last time anyone has discussed your ovarian cancer risk with you?” Oh, right. That. I knew that because of my genetic mutation, discovered mid-treatment, one of the things that helps make me me, I have a lot of increased risks for one cancer or another. There was a certain point in my recovery, after the first diagnosis and then the pre-cancer second diagnosis, if we call it that, where I tucked all the other cancer risks deep into my mind – ovarian, pancreatic, melanoma, prostate. Ok, yes, I actually put that last one out of my mind completely.
But for all the others, like the cicadas, I burrowed down. Stretched myself to block out the sound of it all. Not wanting to be deafened by the noise in my brain.
Wasn’t my experience so far enough for one lifecycle? One lifetime?
Hadn’t I shed enough skin along the way?
The doctor hop-skotched through the screening she was now recommending, bloodwork and ultrasound every six months. And because I really do need my ovaries after all the suppression they have withstood, the next best thing would be to take my fallopian tubes. Because, they’re learning, that’s where ovarian cancer typically starts.
I sat there, in the cloth gown, worn nearly soft by so many others receiving so much information before me, both good and devastating. Blackness creeped in around me and the sound of blood pumping through my body, like that weee oo weee ooo weee of the cicadas, becoming louder in my ears.
Deep painful breaths, bringing myself back to earth, back to the room, back to my body.
So my summers – after the solstice when the days start getting shorter, ever so perceptibly – are bookended by this day on the calendar. A somber event some years. A celebration in others.
Above it all, I just want to be here to hear the music, to be part of the collective experience, to feel the sound of the summer.
There are a few things that come to mind when I think of growing up in the Midwest. Cicadas and corn in the summer. Pumpkin patches and apple picking in the fall, half the class being absent on the first day of deer hunting season. Snow drifts and being off school in the winter. The sub-freezing temperatures, the farm kids who wait for the buses being at risk for hypothermia. And in the spring, daffodils and jonquils, Easter pictures underneath the crabapple tree, squeezed together shoulder to shoulder.
I also think about the practicalities of being working class, even though that’s not what we thought of ourselves. Of being rural. Of living with and through 4 seasons. Of the weekly protestant sermons to keep your chin up and push through at all costs. Of making ends meet. Of repurposing because that was the obvious thing to do.
But back to the practicalities.
Say it’s time to upgrade your refrigerator. Maybe it’s Christmas time and a new fridge is a perfect gift for your loved one, or maybe the Sears’ layaway program had a sweet deal. But what do you do with the old fridge? Get rid of it?
No, of course not. Why would you do something like that? It works good enough, just a little more chugging than it had when it first arrived.
Just put it in the basement, cellar or garage. Where it can be an overflow storage. Right next to the deep freeze.
The deep freeze. Forget the sparklers and parades and neatly planted corn that should be knee high by the fourth of July. Forget the country cruises with a natty light in hand, waiting for the cows to cross the road. Forget all the yearning to bust out of there to meet the big bad world on its own terms.
It’s the deep freeze that might be most iconic for me, my childhood, those four seasons, that town with no stoplights.
When we moved into this house on South Van Ness over 10 years ago, my parents were back and forth from the Midwest to San Francisco, helping us get settled. It was at that point that my first breast cancer diagnosis rippled tidal waves through our lives. So, my parents kept coming. And busying themselves with all types of projects – painting pantry shelves, hanging pictures, staining the deck, building a bench, even – all to focus on what’s in front of us, what we can do, what we can do with our hands while so much is out of our hands.
It was one night when some generous friend dropped off an extra lasagna for the freezer that my dad, after watching me rearrange things to try and squish the casserole dish in, declared: “you need a deep freeze.” It was less than one hour later — after dad went to it measuring the width of the cellar door, discussing with my husband Mike how a dolly could get a large appliance down the steep stairs, envisioning how a platform could quickly be fashioned to keep anything off the cement floor — that the Lowes over on Bayshore had a major purchase, to be delivered the next day. My dad was a man of action.
Mike was a little more flummoxed about this whole thing – growing up in a city where big cuts of meat weren’t stored for the future or the bounties of summer fruits tucked away to enjoy in the winter or there weren’t Italians in the midst who made extra food because we were always planning our next meal anyway. He found it perplexing that my family of 5, now dispersed into 4 households, already had 10 refrigerators and deep freezes between us (no, I’m not willing to certify the energy star on each of these). But like many things an in-law does, landing in this foreign and mysterious micro-culture called a family, he largely held his tongue.
Until this night. Some few eye rolls and questions and jokes, a valiant attempt to stop this juggernaut.
But dammit, Reno Calcari could not be stopped. His little girl needed a deep freeze. That would be THE thing to fix this whole mess. That lasagna needed a place to rest.
And rest it did.
The delivery men had some eye rolls too, some huffs and puffs in getting the deep freeze into the narrow and short cellar, being overseen by dad. He was giddy in how this whole plan was coming together.
A decade later, the deep freeze is still going strong. It’s five glorious shelves of storage, plus racks built into the door. It has spring-picked strawberries and pitted cherries, washed and ready. Hand-held apple pies. Smoothies waiting to be unthawed. Soups and stews saved for an easy weeknight meal. A few leftover lamb and pomegranate fatayer from the Arab bakery up on Mission Street. Cubes of pistachio pesto. And blue cornmeal pancakes.
Back six years ago when my friend Julie’s daughter Danika was born, Julie had a copy of our gate key. A friend also with a double mastectomy and needing to feed her new baby, she was searching for a place to store all the donated breast milk. We could offer her a solution. A needle in the haystack of city apartment freezers.
And for the past year, it’s also held breast milk. Hundreds and hundreds of ounces of breast milk from 23 donors throughout the city. For our daughter. Who never met her grandfather.
He would love it. He would love her.
I always make sure to keep a lasagna in there too. It’s what my dad would have wanted.
On the day that the embryo storage fee is due, a sterile reminder, coming from accounts payable, of those potential life-giving cells that remain frozen together, hung in space and time, an ellipses, an insurance policy, a story that we can’t yet write the ending on.
On the day that 19 babies were killed – after eating their favorite cereal for breakfast, playing catch at recess, retying their shoes because they are, were, still learning how – these young bodies killed with a weapon that comes from war, that symbolizes a war waging across and within whatever the “us” is that makes up this stolen land, how dare we call it ours.
On the day that I quickly typed into my running notes section: laughs when she sneezes. Sits cross legged and bounces towards me on her butt. Tried to feed the cat her dinner; he was not interested in curry. Afraid of the harmonica but still wants to touch it.
On the day that thousands are casting ballots, some seeing it as a referendum about abortions, a bellwether of the direction this country will go, yet again, how far it will go, slide, run, creep openly, unabashedly, unapologetically, towards an end it was destined for all along, given how it began, in poison, death and dominance, the snake ouroboro eating its own tail.
On the day that the invites were sent out for her 1st birthday party, who will be there at her birthday party, the red finches resting in the camellia tree and chirping down at her, the loved ones whispering across the breeze to her, sending their best wishes from up, away, and the other side, reminding us that there are no guarantees.
What makes life more bearable, as whole universes flash out of existence every minute?
Writing over, papering over, paving over these sordid and divergent truths that we hold all at the same time, because multiple things can be true at once. But isn’t that the hardest part?
Asking the question: why are we like this? And what happens if she gets gunned down too, at her first grade desk, second grade desk? And getting no answer, or no satisfying answer, or no real answer. But, our breath. The only thing we can control, the only reliable thing, until it isn’t.
Montreal, 2012. Right after we were married. I took a train through the countryside of Ontario after a long work trip to meet Mike in Montreal. It all felt so foreign, so surreal. Just in arms-length of New York City.
Our little Airbnb tucked away on a cobblestone alley, with the veranda overlooking a frontstreet parade route. Where within the first hours, we sat – sipping a bottle of cool Chablis – and wondered what the noise was all about. What the banging of pots and pans and marchers were yelling about all in French. We deciphered that it was student protests, eleve.
We thought, oh how cute. They protest with kitchenware up here north of the border. The “casserole protests” as they would come to be called. As we dug in more, we learned the protests were in response to rate hikes for post-secondary education, tuition to increase by $325 annually for five years. Where they pay less than $3k a year.
Mike and I wanted to cue the violins.
But everyone is dealing with something, we said. No use comparing one’s pain to the next, as we were riding high together – the in between time of health and sickness.
Eating our way through Montreal – bagels and baguettes, smoked meats and crème fraiche, Quebecoise fromage and poutine, drinking La fin du monde and farmhouse saisons. Sitting around the plazas and water fountains, watching children play in the squares, the public using the public spaces to be together, street musicians and performance art, the timing of the Pride or Fierte week, multiculturalism in the air, all felt like we were meant to be here. The spring before a long winter.