Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Five Months of Lent

My latest column is up at Hope and Healing. Anyone who's been following this blog for any length of time has already read versions of this many times, though, so it's not required reading!

If you do read it, I hope you get something out of it.

Next Tuesday will be the anniversary of Dad's last trip to the ER. I followed the ambulance in the rain, focusing on his pale face through the window.

I'm so glad, for both of us, that all that's over. But I miss him.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Deep Survival

Here's this morning's homily. The Gospel is Luke 4:1-13. The painting, "Jesus Tempted," is by Chris Cook, an artist from Georgia.

One of the subtexts here is that my own parish is in very bad financial shape at the moment and may be on the endangered list. Dark times all over, in through here.

Update: We're in the middle of a huge snowstorm, so church is canceled this morning. I plan to go into deep survival mode by staying inside and drinking lots of coffee.


Writer Laurence Gonzales, in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, explains how people get into trouble in the wilderness. Each of us carries in our head a mental map of the world. When we’re in unfamiliar territory, that mental map no longer matches reality. If we’ve gone out hiking near dusk and have taken a wrong turn, we may believe that the parking lot lies beyond the next bend, only to find that the next bend reveals nothing but more trees. People who cling to false mental maps, rather than taking stock of where they really are, endanger their lives. They press on along strange trails as darkness falls, saying to themselves, “I know the parking lot has to be around that bend, and if it isn’t, I’ll just keep going until I find it.” They never get to the parking lot. Instead, they succumb to fear, exposure and exhaustion.

“Being lost,” says Gonzales, “is not a location. It is a transformation. It is a failure of the mind. It can happen in the woods or it can happen in life.” Being lost, simply put, is a refusal to accept the reality of where we really are and what resources we really have. Young children lost in wilderness have better survival rates than adults, because they instinctively find ways to take care of themselves. If they’re cold, they find a place to curl up and get warm, rather than plunging ahead and risking hypothermia. If they’re tired, they lie down to sleep, rather than expending their energy in fruitless effort.

To survive an ordeal in the wilderness, Gonzales says, “You don’t have to be an elite performer. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to get on with it and do the next right thing.” And the next right thing can be wrenching. “One of the toughest steps a survivor has to take,” Gonzales says, “is to discard the hope of rescue, just as he discards the old world he left behind and accepts the new one.” I must realize that I am lost somewhere in the woods. I have no idea how to get back to the parking lot, and I can’t count on anyone finding me. I have to figure out how to survive here, in the world I’m really in, not the world where I want to be.

The forty days of Lent invite us to follow Jesus into the wildernesses of our own lives. Jesus leads us as the Spirit led him. This is true even when Lent doesn’t coincide with foreign war, domestic economic disaster, and statewide threats to essential institutions: schools, libraries, prisons, healthcare systems. Everyone I know is in turmoil now: afraid of losing jobs and homes, fearful of the future, unsure how to care for neighbors when we don’t even know if we’ll be able to care for ourselves.

Enter the devil. Temptation thrives on fear and scarcity, real or perceived. Episcopalians don’t tend to believe in literal demons, external and embodied forces of evil, and so we may be tempted to read Jesus’ tempter as metaphor or hallucination. Writer Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, offers a more helpful definition. “Each of us acts as the Antichrist,” a pastor once told Norris, “when we hear the Gospel and do not do it.”

In this morning’s Gospel, the devil offers three temptations, all connected to pride, supernatural power, and the desire for rescue. He challenges Jesus to prove his identity as the Son of God by feeding himself, by claiming power over the world, and by daring angels to rescue him from a life-threatening fall. Jesus, famished although he is, easily resists these temptations.

Jesus is in the wilderness, but he is not lost. He knows who he is, whose he is, where he is, and what surrounds him. His mental map is the Word of God, the ultimate reality. He refuses to change stone into bread, instead embracing whatever other food God has provided in that place. He refuses the power the devil offers, instead embracing the power of God and of his own God-given ministry. He refuses to throw himself from a high place, instead embracing the wilderness itself. Harsh though it may be, he will stay on the solid ground God has granted him, rather than plunging in some other direction in a potentially disastrous quest for the parking lot.

How do Jesus’ temptations translate into ours? I think it’s significant that when the devil dares him to act as the Son of God, he stubbornly insists on being the Son of Man, rather than relying on miracles. He responds with his humanity, not his divinity. Mere mortals can’t change stone into bread: well then, he won’t either. It’s as if he’s saying, “I refuse to feed myself in a way my human followers can’t use to feed themselves. I’ll eat only the food everyone around me can eat.” The Gospel tells us to feed our hungry neighbors; the devil, instead, tempts Jesus to use a privileged source of nourishment for himself. It would be easy to justify this; “If I starve to death,” Jesus might think, “I can’t go on to heal and redeem anyone else.” But Jesus knows that God gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness, and will do the same for him.

Similarly, the temptation to worldly glory and authority is a trap. “Jesus! Worship me, and you’ll be rich, famous and powerful!” Jesus knows that he’s called to self-sacrificing service, humiliation and powerlessness, the seemingly dry dust from which God will bring forth the miracle of resurrection. He dismisses the devil’s promise as easily as most of us dismiss spam e-mails promising instant riches. Reality, we and Jesus know, doesn’t work that way. If you grab at seemingly easy money, you may discover that you’ve sold your soul.

By this point, the devil’s getting a little desperate. His appeal to hunger, that most basic of instincts, hasn’t worked; neither has the appeal to worldly power. All he has left is the appeal to circus tricks. “Go ahead, Jesus! Jump off the temple! Let’s see if angels rescue you!” But the devil has no promises this time; he’s as bound by gravity as Jesus is. He doesn’t say, “I’ll save you.” Even he must ultimately appeal to God. All he can say is, “Prove God is with you by making him rescue you.”

Jesus doesn’t need to prove that God’s with him. He knows God’s with him. He doesn’t need to be rescued because he hasn’t been abandoned and isn’t lost. He knows that he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be, doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing: the next right thing.

Mere mortals can have a much harder time figuring out what the next right thing is. But it’s easier to know what the wrong things are, the fatal turns and plunges. We abandon the Gospel, becoming anti-Christ, whenever we care only for ourselves and not for others; whenever we succumb to the lures of wealth and power rather than practicing the disciplines of service and sacrifice; whenever we rely on desperate and risky appeals for rescue, rather than quietly taking stock of the ground on which we stand.

The devil leaves Jesus, but not for good. Temptation lurks in the background, always “waiting for an opportune time,” as this morning’s lesson puts it. Resisting temptation requires continuous discernment and constant humility. But when we choose the wrong path, we can retrace our steps, returning to the God who always loves us.

To survive our wildernesses, we do not need to rely on miracles. We do need to maintain both our humanity and our faith. We need to remember who we are and whose we are; we need to make an accurate, clear-eyed assessment of where we are and what resources we have. We don’t have to be elite performers. We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to get on with it and do the next right thing: following the right map, the Gospel that tells us to love and serve God and our neighbors.

“I am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus tells us. If we follow him, we cannot be lost, no matter how far from home we seem.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Friday, February 19, 2010

Save Our Schools

There's an online petition urging the state legislature to find solutions to the current budget crisis that don't involve gutting education.

Please go to the site and sign the petition. It takes two seconds, and you don't have to be affiliated with a Nevada school, or even a Nevada resident: you can just say you're a "supporter."

I wish I could say that I really believe this will help, but it can't hurt. We need all the help we can get. And while you're at it, please send up a prayer or two for the most vulnerable populations in Nevada: kids, the elderly, the mentally ill, prisoners, the unemployed or soon-to-be unemployed.

I know all states are hurting right now, but we're already last or almost-last on all quality-of-life indicators (including education, and that's before the anticipated massive cuts), and proudly at or near the top of the list in various pathologies. You'd think we'd have nowhere to go but up, but instead we're going down.

A friend of mine said, "People in Nevada used to be able to say, 'At least we're not Mississippi.' Now people in Mississippi are saying, 'At least we're not Nevada.'" Since my father lived in Mississippi for many years, I can vouch for the fact that Nevada's climate and geography are a lot more pleasant, but that's not much help to the poor and disenfranchised.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tears and Joy

Dad's hospice had its annual memorial service this afternoon, and I went with my friend Sherry, who's also one of my priests. Gary didn't want to go, and several friends I asked couldn't; I really didn't want to go by myself, so I was immensely grateful that Sherry was available and willing.

The only thing I disliked about the service was the music, which ran to the sappy and sentimental. It would have sent Dad screaming out of the room, and I might have responded in the same way in other circumstances, but of course I stayed put this time. I'd started crying almost the minute I walked into the room, and I was just grateful to be in a room of people who understood that and weren't going to criticize me for dwelling or wallowing or not being over it or any of the other messages folks tend to give when they're uncomfortable with someone else's grief.

First the two medical directors of the hospice, one of whom was Dad's doctor, gave opening remarks, talking about what hospice means to them and linking that to their own spiritual traditions (Jewish in one case, LDS in the other). Both of them said that as physicians, they've always hated having to tell patients, "There's nothing else we can do for you." In hospice, there's always something else to do: making people comfortable, alleviating pain, facilitating the healing of relationships. One of the doctors talked about how hospice had taught her that there's always something else to hope for: if not for a cure from illness, then for enough time to witness the birth of a grandchild, for enough comfort to enjoy the flowers friends have brought, for the gift of not having to die alone.

After the opening remarks, we saw photographs families had sent in of their dead loved ones (while they were still alive, obviously). The pictures were displayed one at a time, alphabetically by last name, on a large screen, over a really sappy song (which at least mentioned sailing; Dad would have approved of that part!). The AV person had gotten the display timed just right, so it ended when the song did. Each photograph had about ten seconds of screen time, and zoomed inward during that time, so the person in the picture seemed to be getting closer. It was a surprisingly moving effect. I'd sent in the picture of Dad at the top of this post; it's the one I took the evening we picked him up in Sacramento, on October 18, 2009, the last night of his life that he wasn't on oxygen. It looked really good on that big screen.

When the hospice invited us to the event, they sent pieces of parchment on which we could write notes to our loved ones. After we looked at the photographs, we were invited to come forward and place our notes in the pockets of a hospice quilt hanging at the front of the room. It was a beautiful quilt; I gather there's one quilt per year. The hospice director told us that each person's name will be embroidered on the front of the pocket holding that note, and then we can come visit the quilt in the hospice headquarters whenever we want to. What a great tradition! I loved it. I have some of Dad's old shirts, and I'm tempted to try to make a quilt from them -- especially after seeing the display of Gee's Bend Quilts at the Nevada Art Museum this weekend -- but I sew so badly that I'd be afraid of forever ruining the fabric. Maybe I'll try to find someone who can make one for me, though.

There was another sappy song and a benediction, and then the service was over, followed by a reception. I spoke briefly to the hospice chaplain, and also to Dad's doctor, who remembered both Dad and me (even though Dad was only in hospice for two days) and very kindly told me about some conversations he'd had with Dad. He asked how things were going at the university, and together we deplored the governor's determination to gut education and services to the most vulnerable in the state -- children, the elderly and the mentally ill -- rather than raising taxes.

I'd offered to buy Sherry coffee after the service, so we stopped in at one of my favorite cafes, where we managed to snag two of the best chairs. She hasn't been at church much lately, and I've missed a lot too, so we caught up with each other and shared opinions about various parish goings-on.

While we sat there, I heard a piece of music that made the top of my head came off. I went up to the counter to ask the barrista what was playing. "Nickel Creek," he said, and as soon as I got home I started browsing Amazon.com's MP3 downloads and downloaded five of the group's instrumentals. The one that had filled me with such joy is called Robin and Marian, and I have it on continuous repeat on my music player. (You can listen to it if you go to the link and press the forward arrow.) This is the kind of music that made me want to learn to play fiddle, although I'll probably never be good enough to play this song! Dad would have loved the tune, I think, so it felt fitting that I heard it for the first time today.

One of my favorite psalms is 126, because of the lines, "May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves." That's kind of what today felt like.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Space-Age Toothbrush

Yesterday I got a super-duper electric toothbrush my periodontist recommended. He said it would save me thousands of dollars of dental work, and I'm all for that. There's a steep learning curve with this thing, though: it has roughly as many parts as the space shuttle, including a wireless instructional device that tells you how long to brush each quadrant of your mouth, times it for you, and sounds a warning beep if you're brushing too hard.

I swear I'm not making this up.

When I'd opened the package and blinked at the gazillion-and-one parts, I went downstairs and said to Gary, who was wrestling a brownie recipe into submission in the kitchen, "I have a problem."

"What?" he said. He hates being interrupted when he's cooking.

"I don't think I'm smart enough to use my new toothbrush."

Gary started laughing. "That's why I'm sticking with the old-fashioned kind."

When he was finished wrestling the brownies -- which were excellent, by the way -- he came upstairs to help me assemble the toothbrush. It took two of us several minutes to figure out how to get the battery cover off the wireless guide thing-y. See, you have to take off the battery cover to find the switches that let you change settings before the toothbrush is charged. Once it's charged, you can change at least some settings from the toothbrush itself.

I was very proud of myself when I managed to get everything set up the way I wanted it (counting down the seconds I was to spend brushing each quadrant of my mouth rather than counting up, for instance). I also finally figured out that the small blue plastic square that had come with the package was a piece of super-duper adhesive for attaching the wireless thing-y to the wall over the sink.

"The toothbrush command center is now on the wall next to the mirror," I told Gary. "I'm just letting you know so you don't think it's a thermonuclear device."

"If it starts counting down from 100 in red letters," he said, "I'm getting out of the house."

So far, that hasn't happened. The wireless guide has informed me how long to brush each quadrant and then flashed a smiley face when I've brushed for two minutes. Sometimes the smiley face winks. I expect the wireless gizmo to start singing "Daisy, Daisy" any day now, while the toothbrush harmonizes.

The toothbrush has a bunch of settings: gentle, clean, superclean, clean-and-floss, clean-for-people-with-braces, polish, and chainsaw. I also strongly suspect that someone on Etsy has invented vibrator attachments for it; if not, there's a lucrative market waiting to be tapped.

But I gotta say, it gets my teeth real clean.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

My Sister's Socks

I just finished this pair of socks for my sister. I hope they'll fit her; I'd used this lace pattern for a shawl before, but not for socks, and it doesn't have as much give as it needs. It's really pretty, but I won't use it again for socks. I can get them on, but only with a lot of tugging. They're comfy once they're on, though. If Liz can't get them on, she'll send them back to me and I'll make another pair for her -- in a stretchier pattern -- as I still have enough of this yarn.

In fiddle news, I can't remember if I've mentioned here that Felicity's now hanging on my wall. This means I can keep the shoulder rest on, which generally makes it much easier to grab her and start practicing (no opening the case, no assembly, etc.). I'm learning a reel and practicing different bowing techniques for a jig. I'm also trying to write a lament for my stepmother -- who helped introduce me to Irish traditional music, and who played the cello in her youth -- but so far, it just sounds like a really dorky exercise.

Charlene's threatening to have a recital for her students. I told her I'd come only if I didn't have to play; she rolled her eyes. I then amended that to say that I'd come if I could play "Mary Had A Little Lamb," still the only tune I feel confident playing in public. She rolled her eyes again, but told me I could play whatever I wanted. Gary's plugging for "Simple Gifts" or "April Waltz."

I play much better when I'm practicing then when I have to play in front of anybody, including Charlene. Knowing that someone else is listening makes me get all tense and rushed and paralyzed. I'm very comfortable with public speaking, but not with public fiddling. Maybe I can record myself playing and play the recording at the recital? If it happens? Which I still hope it won't?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Unwrapping History

I woke up this morning to an e-mail from my sister, asking me to call her when I woke up, because she had a question for me. It turned out that she was trying to get some family chronology straight. "Which birthday was it when Dad gave you Whitey? Were you four or five? Wasn't that the birthday in Michigan where you were so scared and hid and didn't want to open any of your presents?"

"Whitey wasn't a birthday present; I got him for Christmas. But I think the scary Michigan birthday was when I was five."

"Yeah, it must have been." The second wife was at that ill-fated party, and she and Dad hadn't met yet when I was four.

Whitey was the world's most wonderful teddy bear, made of pure white sheepskin (hence the name), huge and soft and comforting. Dad saw him in a shop window on Christmas Eve and bought him for me, first instructing the shopkeeper to put a bright red ribbon around his neck. Red was Dad's favorite color; mine,too. Whitey looked somewhat like the bear in the picture above, but bigger and better made. He had tan suede "pads" on his paws, and bright glass eyes, and his arms and legs moved.

Dad and his wife always had a huge party on Christmas Eve. The apartment filled with friends and family, and we spent hours -- or so it seemed to a child anxious to open presents -- at a fancy dinner we'dspent days preparing (I was put in charge of making place-cards), and at last it came time to distribute the mounds of packages under the tree. Almost as soon as she met me, my stepmother hit on an annual Christmas gift of a huge box of books for me, Dell YA paperbacks I'd devour over the coming weeks. She was generally in charge of buying gifts; Dad usually only got gifts for her, expensive boots or purses, which was one of the things that made Whitey special. Dad had gotten Whitey for me himself.

Whitey was special anyway, though. All the women at the party passed him around and hugged him, telling me they wanted to steal him. Around midnight, Dad put my sister and me into a cab to send us to New Jersey, where our mom lived (and where we lived with her most of the time, and went to school). She always waited up for us in her much smaller apartment. We'd come in to find the Yule log on the TV and our stuffed stockings casting tempting shadows in candlelight. Every year, we told my mother about our New York Christmas and then went to bed, waking up early to tackle the stockings and the wrapped gifts under Mom's small tree.

New York Christmas was fancier and shinier than New Jersey Christmas, but New Jersey Christmas was homier, cozier and safer. New York had squawking parakeets and increasingly loud and drunken festivities; New Jersey had purring cats and the muted, elegant brass of the Yule log carols.

The Whitey Christmas, all I could talk about was Whitey. Mom loved him as much as everybody in New York had, and I happily carried him off to bed with me and slept with my head cuddled against his right ear. I slept that way for years. Whitey's ear finally fell off, and at some point -- junior high? college? -- his head came off too, and he more or less disintegrated. I couldn't stand to throw him away, so I put his parts in a garbage bag and stowed him in my closet.

By the time Whitey fell apart, things in New York were also in a shambles. The era of large, loud parties was over. Dad was in horrible health and horrible debt, and had increasingly trouble getting and keeping legal work. In the years since Whitey, gifts from New York had grown more and more secondhand. They were always useful -- one year I got a very good typing chair that had been in the New York home office for years -- but Dad loved to crow about how he'd gotten them for nothing or for a real bargain, and since my mother was struggling to keep herself and her two daughters afloat on no child support, and my father occasionally went out and bought something like, oh, a large sailboat, the situation grated.

When I graduated from college, Dad sent me a gold chain, wrapped in Kleenex, he'd gotten from a pawn shop. One birthday much more recently, he sent me a small lamp he said he'd found in a thrift store, but which turned out to be an old lamp of Fran's. (She was happy I had it, and I love it; it's illuminating my study even as we speak.)

All of this was good stuff, useful stuff, thoughtful stuff. But I kept remembering Whitey, and wistfully wishing for something new, something no one else had ever owned, that Dad had picked out just for me. I knew he'd picked out the used stuff just for me, and he bought used stuff for himself, too: even his two sailboats -- owned consecutively, not at the same time -- were used, which explained why he could afford them and also why he then spent almost all of his time and money trying, often with extremely limited results, to get them into full working order.

Two or three summers ago, he came out for the visit that convinced him to move here. During that visit, as we listened to the radio in my very low-tech car, I casually mentioned that Gary and I were looking forward to having a CD player someday, in our next car.

Dad, who loved music, decided we should have one right away. We went to an electronics store and picked out a new radio and CD player for my car. The unit was pretty pricy in the first place, and the installation wound up being even more expensive, because we had to get a new faceplate for the unit, which involved more labor charges for the installation, yada yada. Since Dad by then was on very limited Social Security income, I kept asking if he wanted us to pay for it, or at least pay for half of it, but he brushed the idea aside. He had some money saved, and this was something we wanted and would use, and he wanted to get it for us.

I listen to that radio every day. When Dad was here, he listened to it too. My car's disintegrating around it now; one of the reasons I'm reluctant to replace the car is that I'd have to dispose of Dad's gift along with it.

When Dad was dying, I asked him if he remembered Whitey. He did, vaguely, although he couldn't tell me much about what he was thinking when he bought the bear: just that it was a nice toy and that I'd like it. He seemed happy that it had meant so much to me, though.

I'm not sure why all of this is coming up now, aside from my sister's question, or why I'm taking the time to type it all here. I guess Whitey and the car radio open up some of my best memories of my father, and I want to honor them. My sister and I are both in a newly intense period of rethinking our family history, and this is the piece I thought about today.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Another One

My father's second wife -- still technically my stepmother; the two of them split in the early 1980s, but couldn't stand to have enough contact with each other to get divorced -- died very early this morning in Connecticut. I haven't been in contact with her for decades now, but my sister was still close to her, and has been sending me updates on her medical condition. She had lung cancer; I believe she died in an ICU, but I'm told it was peaceful, and friends were with her.

She was in her early seventies. I wish she'd lived longer, and I wish her life (at least the parts of it I know about) hadn't been so difficult.

So, yeah, my sister was still close to her. My father's sister and her family were still very close to her, even though many of them were no longer speaking to Dad. She had tons of extraordinarily loyal friends. So why haven't I spoken to her for decades?

Here's the thing: when she and my father married, I was the right age to be her biological child. My sister, nine years older than I, was too old. So my sister and my stepmom were good friends, but my stepmother and I --

Okay, let me back up. Her own parents were an odd pair: an extremely prim, devoutly Catholic, gentle mother, and a loud, lewd, alcoholic father prone to nuclear rages. I don't know if he ever laid a hand on either of them (although I wish I could say I'd be surprised), but I was terrified of his fury. He was a talented artist and an amazing cook, and he and I made an unbeatable team at Pinochle when I was a young teenager, but I tread very warily around him.

His only daughter inherited both his alcoholism and his temper. There were other issues. She was extremely bright, but she'd turned down a full college scholarship to work to help support her family. As far as I can tell, her model of parent-child relationships was that children were expected to sacrifice themselves for their parents, and could only see to their own happiness when they'd fixed whatever was wrong with mom and dad. Children's job was to rescue grown-ups.

She never would have said that aloud, of course, and probably wasn't conscious of thinking it. But that's how she lived.

So I was the right age to be her kid, and my father had his own drinking problems. You can guess where this is going. By the time I was in junior high school, she'd told me repeatedly, "It's your job to make your father stop drinking, because he loves you so much." (Sure. I'd love to. And how am I expected to do this . . . ?) During my every-other-weekend-visits to the two of them in New York, she also kept me up until all hours telling me about her problems, most of which revolved around my father. When I did something she disliked, she gave me the cold treatment and railed to my father about how cold and uncaring and selfish I was (I overheard several of those conversations). In due time, she started telling me directly how cold and uncaring and selfish I was. She and my father slid into a toxic spiral of bringing out the very worst in each other; she tried to pull me into various crises involving him, from which my mother, as gently as possible, extricated me. (Once she told my stepmother, very gently indeed, "You know, most people try to protect kids from situations like this;" my stepmother's response was a puzzled, "I guess you're right. I never thought about it that way." Of course she didn't; she never learned that lesson from her own parents. So sad!)

In the meantime, she was buying me presents she couldn't afford, being an absolutely brilliant hostess during increasingly infrequent dinner parties, and doing her best to cheer on my academic achievements. I now realize that last item must have been very difficult, since she'd sacrificed her own academic achievements and must have read my compulsive accomplishment at least in part as rejection and treachery -- which, to some extent, it was, since studying was my escape from family chaos.

When I was nineteen, this huge, tangled knot of guilt and shame and fury exploded when she physically assaulted me during an alcoholic blackout. (By then, she also had a pattern of physically hurting my father when he was too drunk to fight back.) She and I were both okay, thank God, and I got out of there, thank God, and the next morning -- when my father handed her the police report and told her what had happened -- she felt absolutely awful, so much so that my mother and sister and I all felt really sorry for her. She didn't remember assaulting me, because of the blackout. To her immense credit, she gathered her dignity and told my mother, "I know you'll never forgive me for what I did to Susan." I can't imagine how much courage that must have taken.

My mother said, "You didn't know what you were doing. We all know that. You were drunk. You need to go to AA. I'll take you to a meeting."

She didn't go to a meeting, though, and she didn't stop drinking. She and my dad split up, got briefly back together, and then split up for good. She came to my college graduation; he didn't. I tried to be friends with her until my late twenties. Let me emphasize again that she was bright, caring, compassionate and generous to everyone but me and Dad, and often to us too. But after the assault, my reptilian brain went into total panic mode whenever I was with her. We'd have a perfectly pleasant dinner, and then I'd be sick for three days afterwards from accumulated anxiety. I finally decided that maintaining the relationship wasn't worth it: I didn't think she'd ever be able to see my side of the story, not unless she stopped drinking, and I just wasn't getting enough out of spending time with her. So I broke off contact.

She never stopped drinking. Dad didn't, either; my mother's the only one who managed that difficult feat. But both of them became saner and healthier after they split up, because they were no longer bringing out the worst in each other. I was glad to hear it, but I kept heeding my reptilian brain, and stayed away.

No one else in the family except my mother, my sister and my sister's husband understood my reasons. As far as I know, no one else had a clue. My aunt -- my father's sister, still very close to the second wife -- asked me in 1995, just before my wedding, why I'd broken off contact. When I explained the above history, she listened attentively and then said, "I didn't know about any of that. I understand now: of course you wouldn't want to see her." That's all we ever said about it.

Last summer I visited my cousin, my aunt's daughter -- also still very close to the second wife -- who asked me the same question. Her mom apparently hadn't filled her in. As I told the story, her eyes got progressively wider, and finally she said, "Oh my God, Susan! I can't believe what you've been through! And no, of course you wouldn't want to see her!"

I stressed to both my aunt and cousin, as I have to my sister, that I fully understood why they were still in touch. They'd always seen the best of my stepmother; my father and I were the two who pushed her buttons. Around almost everyone else, she was a hugely admirable person.

And now she's dead. I spoke to both my sister and my cousin on the phone today; both of them asked me how I feel. I'm not sure. I'm sad for her, and for the many people who loved her. I know I made the right decision in ending the relationship, so I don't regret that, but I do have an odd sense of absence, because someone who knew me so well for so long is gone. And, foolishly and selfishly, I can't help but wonder what my stepmother's many friends (many of whom were also my friends once) think of me now. I'm sure they see me as the uncaring, ungrateful child she periodically told me I was.

There were some good times before everything went south, and I am grateful for those. Mostly, I'm grateful that she and Dad split up: both of them would have died decades sooner if they'd stayed together. I'm grateful other people took care of her when I couldn't.

Today I sent a condolence e-mail to my stepmother's best friend's daughter. I knew this woman when she was a little girl. She's the person who was at the bedside at the end, saying, "It's okay. You can go now; you can rejoin my mom and all the people you love who've aleady died." I thanked her for being there.

I wonder if she'll believe me when I say I cared. I guess it doesn't matter. I know I cared. But I had to care for myself first. If that's selfish, so be it.

When I talked to my sister today, I said, "We only have one parent left."

"I know," she said. I could hear the shiver in her voice. It's an eerie feeling.

Thursday, February 04, 2010


And speaking of mental health, one of my poems has just been posted on the Cell2Soul blog (whence, I believe, it will eventually be collected into an issue of the journal).

Friends who've read this have found it creepy and disturbing, so if that kind of thing bothers you, be forewarned.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Heaven Can Wait, Redux

I forgot to mention that my latest column is up at Hope and Healing. This piece was mined from my fuller and longer blog post on the same subject, which some of you will already have read.

Happy reading!

How to Conquer the Cylons

Thanks for all the comments on my last post; I'm glad everyone enjoyed that particular bit of whimsy as much as I did! (And inky, we've seen the pilot of Caprica and liked it a lot, but will have to wait until the first season comes out on DVD to see more. We're currently behind on our DVD watching, anyway, because I've been so busy at work.)

I didn't even know about the MacMillan-Amazon imbroglio -- Gary filled me in over dinner last night -- but I'm glad it's over.

Now, for the important news. Those of you who've been worrying about the Cylon menace, fret no more! We have the answer!

Cats! (What else?)

I walked into my study yesterday and found Bali on top of the Yarn Vault with his head and front paws dangling over the edge. From this vantage point, he swatted at the shiny Cylon foot poking out from the top shelf, until he'd sent Cylon, knitting and yarn careening to the floor. He then jumped down and proceeded to have his way with the robot and the yarn.

I rescued both; the Cylon now sits in the middle of the shelf rather than the edge. I also took the opportunity to arrange his knitting properly. The experienced knitters among you will have noticed that his right-hand needle's in completely the wrong place in the photo (I'm surprised no one called me on that!). That problem's now fixed. I may post another shot when he gets a bit more done on his scarf.

I'm tempted to buy a teensy-tiny violin for him, but I haven't found one small enough yet.

In any case, it's deeply reassuring to know that in case of Cylon invasion, Gary and I are well-defended.

In other news:

I'm back to practicing my fiddle, and I think my tone's slowly coming back.

My hospital shift this weekend was eventful but satisfying, even though I made several missteps during one visit. At least I know what I did wrong, though.

This morning I sent off a poem I wrote about this weekend's shift. I started with the top market, BLR, which is the New Yorker of the medical-humanities field. I don't expect them to take it, but there are plenty of other places to try.

I swam an hour today, using various combinations of resistance equipment.

Go, me.