Whenever I have doubts about whether all of this effort has been worth it, I go out into the wilds behind my backyard and taste a fruit or flower freshly plucked from a tree or vine. My mouth, my tongue, and my heart remind me what my mind too often forgets: I love the flavor of where I live, and all the plants and creatures I live with.
They say your senses dull as you age. We are familiar with the gradual loss of sight and hearing, possibly rectified with glasses and avoiding night driving or adding in hearing aids. But the loss of smell, taste, touch….what does that experience feel like? Does it feel like losing a part of yourself? Or does the loss seem so gradual that is it not even discernable, the baseline shifted to the new normal, each and every day?
The memories of a whiff of orange-zested cinnamon buns, the mulled clove wine in the winter. Freshly cut grass and the wet earth awakening in the spring time. The effervescence nose of a class of champagne.
The taste of creamy chived goat cheese on a seeded cracker. The melt in your mouth sugar cookie that was Nadine’s recipe. The tangy twist of a bright Meyer lemon.
And touch…being able to grab a hot plate with ease. The nerves either damaged or aged to the point that they don’t fire as strongly, don’t scream out to be heard. Or the softness of a hand inside your own palm, fingers long-ago calloused and softened through with the thinning of skin and the fading of sensation and the passage of time.
I was listening to a podcast this week – “grief is a sneaky bitch” – where john a. powell was reflecting on his life, the work, and why we are where we are, disconnected yet yearning for connection, finding a place where even those that transgress us belong.
The interviewer asked him a simple question about making meaning or some life event or maybe it was about the arc of one’s life. I don’t actually remember. But what sticks out for me is his interpretation that we go on, day to day. And the human existence is about stringing things together like delicate beads in a necklace, weaving them like colorful threads in a tapestry, making people, places, things and events have meaning, significance, a cohesive narrative. “Ah yes, I see it all clearly now, as if it were inevitable, meant to be, destiny, a fait accompli.” We grasp, pretend, affirm that this is the story that our lives were meant to tell. And while we’re not without ego, we have hope that this meaning of our lives will carry on in some small way, some gentleness, love traveling forward, where a story or snippet or recollection is tucked away in some family tree.
Sure, when I was six I was convinced that if I went to sleep, when I woke up, everyone would be dead. And then I almost died, bloodshot eyes staring back at me in the mirror, all alone. I almost died, at least knowingly that time (I mean, who knows how many other brushes with death I’ve had, missed by the fraction of an inch on some curvy dark road, crossing the street at rush hour, hitting a patch of turbulence in the air, stepping over a poisonous snake on a remote trail). And now, death is all around me. She died, he died, they are dying, we are all dying, we will all die. I read everything I can about death, grief, practices, beliefs of what happens when we die. It crops into everyday conversation – my curiosity, coolly and casually, asking friends of all faiths and creeds and doubts and dissents, “well, what do you think happens when we die?” they often pause, reflect, share some conviction or some uncertainty, and the conversation then lingers, a pregnant moment, each of us breathing on either end of the line or into the inside of a facemask, figuring out where this conversation, the conclusions we’re each drawing, the human connection we’re having, where this fits in and lands on that grand arc.
How many times have you been in purgatory? In the doorway In the tube of the PET/CT In the space before reaching 10,000 feet In the hold on the phone with a credit card company In the time between turning the lights off and falling asleep In the waiting for the seeds to germinate In the pandemic In the zoom room In the meeting that could have been an email In the email that could have remained someone’s inner monologue In the wedding toast that was more about the person toasting than the people being toasted In the clicking refresh refresh refresh to see those vaccine appointments In the indecision, does he love me or love me not In the swimming pool before my body gets used to the chilling water In the drip drip of the coffee machine In the 15 mins waiting to comfort her when she’s crying In the rain, flagging a free taxi In the undoing of the past and redoing of the future In the salary negotiation In the courtroom awaiting the verdict In the wee hours of the morning before a deadline In the stalled subway car in the Transbay tube under millions of gallons of ocean water pressure In the adulthood, between childhood and death
We were sitting there, side by side, at the scratched up wooden kitchen table at 604 S. Hibbard. Mail, tea cups, paper towels used then folded in half to be used again at each placemat. It was an afternoon in the summer. I was home home for a few weeks, like I love to do. Escape the San Francisco fog, get back to fireflies and hot humid stickiness. Long summer days, the back porch wicker swing, the locusts singing at dusk, family just a few blocks away.
Mike and I were engaged, starting to plan a wedding, something good for our family that had in those before-times seemed to be on a streak of goodness. GG was the seamstress in the family. More than a seamstress, really. She crafted, made clothes, made country keepsakes, sold them at fairs throughout southern Illinois, spending weekend after weekend schlepping pillows and embroideries and things that made you feel like Americana was still a thing and that the décor of a Midwest farmhouse should be as you would imagine, gingham and muted greens and reds and blues. It was her way to help make ends meet, hover around the poverty line I would later understand.
She was 85 then, but always seemed so young. So spry. Living with cancer in her bones for almost 6 years now. Caring for my grandfather whose sight slowly receded for much longer than that. I’d catch, out of the side of my eye, her mindlessly rubbing her hands and all their joints, so thin and freckled, with blue veins that were like swelling rivers on a map of her life, through hardships and joy and more hardships. The bone pain had to be so significant. She never let on, only sharing that it was a chore to lift the cast iron pan for cooking some days.
I wanted our wedding to feel like home, to feel like this home in particular, to be homemade, to have the fingerprints of my family all over it, GG’s fingerprints included. We had assumed we would not get married and then it all changed when GG’s diagnosis became more complex. We would get married to honor she and my grandpa who were to be married 68 years, to try and live up to what they are, which was very much in love.
She was in her cozy jeans and smart rubber soled black shoes, laced up. She wore a beloved cardigan – pockets full of tissues and peppermints – draped over her Alfred Dunner top on her ever-slightening frame. Her gold-edged glasses pushed towards the bridge of her nose. Blue eyes still very much clear and bright.
She was teaching me how to create a French knot. As I pan out from her hands to the table to the room to the house to the town to it all, I think, “what in earth was GG doing teaching me how to French knot?” It sounded so fancy, so unlike her. But here we were. Our little save-the-dates were coming together – the image of a map of the United States, a French knot on the map – at the precise confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers – where we were to be married – and a French knot on the map of wherever our guest were coming from. A string connecting them both, indicating the journey we would all be taking to be together in celebration.
Her small hands working quickly. My large clumsy hands and long fingers fumbling, not quite grasping the loose threads I needed to yank on to make the knots secure, not even managing to keep the thimble safely on my finger. She was so patient. Showing me over and over again, while my shoulders were tense and eyebrows furrowed. We laughed at my attempts but she ended with an upbeat, “oh that one’s good, see, you’re getting it.” She probably did most of the save-the-dates in that one afternoon, now that I look back, bypassing my frustration that I didn’t inherit her natural comfort with needle and thread.
I wish I had known that she would die two months later. I wish I had known that she wouldn’t be there at our wedding. I wish I could rub her hands and give her some relief. I wish I still have her muscle memory to create those perfect little round knobs of thread.
Dad was dad and daughter was daughter. Parents were in charge and children were to follow their lead. Dad knew pretty much everything – whether gutter guards are worth it, what percent to put into my 401k, when the check engine light was serious and what a tire rotation should really cost, when the tractor needed oil, when to plant the tulip bulbs, when to mulch and when to deadhead, which route to take to get to I-70 the quickest through the country past the farmer’s cemeteries, when the red finch were bound to come back each year, what was the rare word for an opera used in crossword puzzles (an aria!), which band sang which song, which year what major historical event happened, and it goes on.
I came to rely on this dynamic. Its steadfastness. The order of it. Every question has an answer. Everything has a place. Everyone has a role.
So when I had realization after realization of what life really is, these notions of order – illusions really, childlike assumptions that the way things were was that the way things would always be – dissolved. Reality moved into the vacancy. Before I could even grasp that there was a significant phase shift, I was in the new phase, catapulted with no time to look back, no time to appreciate, no time to grieve, no time to long for what was.
He would disappear. Maybe it was detaching, disassociating from the world around, the pricks and poison and procedures happening to and on his body. Cave into himself, nestled into the family room chair, tucking away his humor, his engagement, his answers. His eyes closed but awake, listening, enough to make the rest of us act normal. Like our father wasn’t wilting and wasting away day by day. Sometimes he indicated to me, quietly and rarely, he wanted to know what it would be like when he was gone, when there was an empty chair at the table. What would it sound like without his voice.
He would get confused. “Now what’s happening when? And who is going where? Oh, that’s right.”
He would get fixated. “Now, we have to take this route and park in this way for me to get to the radiation appointment on time. And then you get the wheel chair and I have my ID cards in this old plastic baseball card holder in my grocery bag with my glasses and that’s all I need.” Trying to control all the controllables in an out of control situation.
He would forget. His memory no longer reliable, the sharpest in the family, the elephant, the steel trap. He would admit, “I don’t know,” words strung together that were new to him or at least him saying them to me. And he would get frustrated by it when we shared the answer, corrected the story. “Oh, that’s right.” And shake his head so quickly, seemingly trying to make the admittance somehow more bearable or to brush the cobwebs out like that was possible or to forget that this is the new him.
We often wondered – was it the drugs doing this, was it the cancer doing this, was it the drugs and the cancer and the sadness of all of it doing this.
I saw a picture this week that made me pause. That doesn’t happen too much these days, being numb and overstimulated, adrenal glands more and more like shriveled up raisins.
The image was of honey bees, sleeping, nestled up together in pairs, feet touching feet, inside a flower, the delicate petals – always so soft and fragile in my hand – strong enough to hold and cup these resting workers. Overcome by the fruits of their labors, that a nap together, in the waning afternoon light, was the only evident next step.
I wondered – what else have I been missing all along? What else are we missing each and every day, our concept of time being just one in all the world’s beings?
The symbiosis of two creatures, or two events, taking time to co-evolve over millennia. The thumbprints of a tree replicating the thumbprints of a human, rings of knowledge, wisdom, observations, lived experiences of turbulence that cause the rings to thicken some years and thin in others.
Walking through the Pfeiffer Big Sur redwoods this weekend, between the rain storms, up onto a trail that was closed since the 2016 fire season, as far as I could see, rows of baby maples, no taller than me, stretching and competing for light. Only a few lucky ones would make it. There was likely a baby redwood or two in there, needing enough heat from the hottest wildfires on record to crack open its seeds and start the new life of its own, future generations as it were. And these maples, they would have otherwise never gotten the chance, the darkness of the forest floor before preventing any chance of success in their sprint into the sky.
I’ve been dipping my toe into this parenting thing. A casual lurker on a mother’s group here. A voyeur in a parent’s group there. Casually skimming and scrolling, clicking and closing, catching the scents that are carried along the winds of parenting in the Bay Area, parenting period.
I could jump in, a perfect dive, toes pointed just so, avoiding any splash. But, I wait. For what, I’m not sure.
The latest thing though that some alert tells me to start worrying about is Halloween. What’s your child’s costume???? With one too many question marks.
And the next: my kid’s school has stopped Halloween costumes, citing religious reasons. Chaos ensued because I’ve spent so much time on the costume and my kid was sooooo excited! The weight of the pile-on of so many mothers weighing in – yes, if your child is 2 to 12 it’s pretty much all they want to talk about, the costume, the spooky things, the pumpkins, the bats and spiders and witches. How dare they???!!! The outrage. As if this is the only thing that matters in this moment! One mother sharing with a lot of patience and high mindedness – well not everyone can afford a Halloween costume so it’s not really an equitable holiday to celebrate, not really rooted to any cultural practice. Then the initial mother, well if they would just say THAT, I’d be fine with it. Sure, I think.
And then the next, my kid came home from preschool today crying because her new friend, the religious one, said that he wasn’t afraid of witches because he believed in god and god would save him. And my kid probably should be afraid because she didn’t know about god.
My tongue-in-cheek reaction to that line was, I wonder which god was in reference?
I close the browser, close the laptop, close my mind and carry on.
Like beads on a necklace, links on the chain, this paver to that, one foot catching up to the other.
The stories. They breathe life into a life, any life, my life, your life, his life.
When the person dies, the stories die with him.
Gone from the concavity of an empty chest, into the ground, into the air, into decay and rebirth.
The immigrant trunk across an ocean. The bentwood cedar box full of experiences, the first time ascending a mountain, sounds, a string quartet and the living whisper of a breeze, sights, the way the light hit a pond on a waning October evening, boding the longest night would be here soon. The snippet of conversations, the humdrum and every day occurrences in the churn of the living. The recreation of a family tree, a mental map of who is who in this world – you know her, she was married to so and so. So and so was her aunt. They lived on S. Hibbard street. Ah right, right before they moved away.
They say we have blood memory. Our epigenetics speaking, tapping out a Morse code, transmitting the truth. If we’re quiet enough to listen to it.
Well, I’m quiet. I’m waiting. And I wait for it to come – a flash back and a flash forward and all the sudden I’m floating again, grasping for the thread of the story, of the tapestry, to finally discover which patch do I belong to, what stories are mine now, not to be kept, to be shared, for now and for when I too am gone.
My friend Josh asked me how it’s going today, in such a way that he truly wanted to know. I shared that, I don’t know Celeste, my four-month-old daughter. I don’t know her and she doesn’t know me. And yet of all the billions of people in the world, it’s me who knows her best. And yet, it doesn’t add up. Because how can anyone truly know someone else. I’m constantly surprised at the most important people in my life.
Because, I look at her. I’ve never consistently been so close to someone’s face so much. Never been such a student of someone’s face so much that I could describe it to a sketch artist. Her skin is so new, up close it’s like an airbrush of fresh, rose and ivory. The round apples of her cheeks, the two even dimples in her chin and the way her eyes fold into half moons when she smiles, the slight upturned angle of her mouth, her pursed lips, the crystal blue inner ring of her Iris, the Gerber swirl of hair at the front of her head, her softspot showing her beating heart, the birthmark stork bite on her eyelid, the clump of her long left eyelashes that get so sticky that they sometimes attach to her brow bone during a nap.
And even despite all that – putting it aside – I don’t know who she is or who she is becoming.
Well, Josh said, you might know her more than you think you do. Tell me who you think she is, what her personality is, how she shows up in the world. Write it down, tuck it away, and you’ll find it in several years and either be wrong. But I bet you’re more likely be right.
But, I wonder aloud, is that me projecting onto her? Or putting her into one box or another Doesn’t she have a say in the matter?
Of course. But you’ll see, he said, that she has always been who she’ll always be. It takes the pressure off of parenting a bit, right? Just go with it for awhile.
I think aloud…she’s observant, quiet yet lets me know what her needs are when she has them. She doesn’t suffer fools, her goofiness and lightness take an amount of work. And she’s determined.
That’s as far as I get. So here I am. This is me writing this down. An answer, no, more like a mere idea, about someone who is 112 days old.
This year – in a year of mass casualties – I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about death. The dying process, stories from hospice volunteers and the visions that many people have of ancestors calling them how, the rise of green burials, how different cultures handle bodies over time, who digs graves with their hands and who leaves bodies to be eaten by crows or butchers bodies to toss into the air for a sky burial and who unshrouds and brushes off skeletons that are becoming mummies every few years, the emergence of death doulas in our death defying culture and the yearning to fill an emptiness that represents, how people around the equator keep memories of the dead alive, the ofrendas, who is put into bentwood cedar boxes and put on platforms until the time comes for ceremony on the ochre cliffs, the world’s religions and how they each view the cycle of life, who laughs at death, who is wrapped in beaver skin robes, who is buried in mounds with the remains of abalone, clam, mussel, oyster, cockle and the bones of other mammals, how science has ultimately taught us very little about death, who throws coins to the four corners to ward off evils in an afterlife, who repeats a mantra to focus the dying mind, who uses chopsticks to gently pick up the bones after cremation to place them in the urn.
It’s a raw time to be thinking about death, when I have a new life in my house. But who isn’t thinking about death, living with it, having it visit in their dreams and night terrors?
If the poet Barry Lopez says that “all that’s holding us together are stories, stories and compassion,” I’d add to that breath.
In this tour of death, I stumbled upon the 9 contemplations of Atisha, an 11th century Tibetan Buddhist scholar….”Every breath brings us closer to death…Our life hangs by a breath…So I abide in the breath….So I attend to each inhalation and exhalation.”
But what if I don’t? What if I forget?
What if seeing a last deep, long exhale and a first shallow inhale – all in one trip around the sun – is not enough?