Monday, February 22, 2010

Who We Carry


One of the first things I fell in love with about the television series "Rescue Me" was the ghosts. I loved how Tommy was followed by the ghosts of the people (and cats) who died in the fires he was supposed to be putting out. I loved that his past hung on, and perhaps I loved even more that he hung on back.

Author Joan Didion tells us, "We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget."

I thought I would never forget the sound of my father's voice. The way he smelled after shaving. The way his polio-eaten leg hung loose in his wide-legged pants. 

But I have.

I hear his voice on an old tape and I think -- no, that isn't him. That isn't what he sounded like. I sit next to a man who uses Mennen After Shave and I remember, but then I shake my head. No. That's not quite it. I conjure up his image in the La-Z-boy chair, scratching his foot with a putter, but I can't quite see. The edges have gotten blurrier than I thought possible.

Of course, I never thought there would be 23 years of him dead.

I thought I would never forget my first lover's touch. The way my grandmother's homemade chocolate cake (the only thing she could make) tasted. The way our house on Springfield Drive pulsed.

But I have.

I can pretend, but there's no point in that because the pretending enforces the illusion of permanence -- that illusion that has caused me untold nights of suffering. That illusion that has kept me hanging on to the ghosts that walk behind me. I was so afraid that if I didn't hold on to everything that had ever passed through me that I would lose it all. That holding pulled me deep into the swamp. It wrapped itself around me, delighted to be of service.

Holding on doesn't do what you think it'll do. Snuggling up in the scents of those long gone doesn't keep them with you. It keeps you stuck. Replaying the way you remembered the first kiss, the last touch doesn't sear those moments into your soul. It wears grooves into your flesh instead. 

In "Rescue Me", Tommy walks around Brooklyn with his ghosts following him. Even when he lets them go, they still pop up like mad Jack-in-the-boxes. Sometimes I think the ghosts follow us. Sometimes I think we leave breadcrumbs. I don't suppose it matters much. What seems to be the truth is that every moment we have experienced has been absorbed by our cells. Those moments become transformed as we integrate with them. They do not remain in their original form. Stasis is not a natural state. Motion, transformation, integration -- these things occur over and over and over. This becomes that becomes this becomes that. No stopping.

One day I will forget the things I cannot imagine forgetting, and one day there will be no one left to remember me. But this is not the Great Tragedy I once perceived it to be. This is just an opening and a closing. A breathing in and a breathing out. It is all there ever was.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Feel Pretty

Today, my friend Debra is being removed from life support. It may have already happened. Yesterday when I got home from work after attending John's memorial service, I had a phone message waiting.

"I have an update on Debra," the voice said. "Here's my cell number. Call me."

I did.

"I would have called you sooner," the voice said. "We thought she was doing better. We thought she was going back to work in March."

Debra was my hair stylist. I have been seeing her every eight weeks since 1992. I have followed her through three salons. After I moved to Prescott, I still made the 90 mile drive back to Phoenix every eight weeks to see her.

I didn't do this just because she was an awesome stylist. I did this because she was my friend.

When I moved back to Phoenix from Tucson after college, I was even more lost than when I left. I returned to my safe friends from "before" my dad died. I found a job that paid $725/month. I rented an apartment in the city I swore I'd never live in again. But I stayed in that city for 15 years.

I've never liked my hair. It's straight and fine. My face is round and squishy. I wanted big fluffy 80s hair. I wanted long hair down to my knees that was silky and wavy. But I didn't get that. To compensate, I colored it all kinds of colors -- from jet black to platinum blonde. I spiked  it. Permed it. Twisted it. Hated it.

And then I found Debra. She also had straight fine hair. She was hilarious. She told everyone where to go and what to do and they loved her for it. She and her husband had been together since they were in high school. He still stopped by work to say he loved her. They still had one day a week that was just for them. They raised three daughters who have gone on to have children of their own.

Deb loved what she did. She loved hair. She brought in books with new styles. She tried out new products. Every time I went to see her, her hair was a different color. She had tattoos up and down her arms. She gave me a big hug every time I showed up and every time I left. She managed the salon and everyone knew it. She had a moral compass that was always solid.

Deb was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. She recovered.

Another stylist at her salon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. Deb went to see her every day. She brought her food. Did her nails. Painted her toes. Washed her hair. That stylist died in late November.

In December, Deb was diagnosed with lung cancer. She began radiation and chemo and steroids. She was getting better. She was going back to work. On Thursday, she wasn't feeling right, so her husband took her to the hospital. The cancer had spread to her brain. By Saturday, it had doubled in her brain. She could not speak. Then she stopped breathing. They put her on life support until her family could come in. Last night they all arrived. Today, they let her go.

I remember the last hug. "See you in January, darlin'," she said. "Be careful driving back up the hill. Say hi to your mom and Keith for me."

"See you soon," I said.

Deb made me feel pretty. No matter what was happening. She was ecstatic when I met Keith and wanted to meet him herself. Last summer, Keith came down with me for my appointment to say hello. Deb believed in love. She believed in loyalty. She believed in me.

Until soon, Deb. Fare well. Thank you for making me feel pretty.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Married By a Monkey


Keith and Laraine and Keezel 
May 21, 2009

An Open Letter on the State of My Marriage:

Allow me to introduce Keezel, monkey extraordinaire, counselor, friend, cherished son, teacher, and direct descendant of Hanuman.

Keezel arrived in our lives at the boardwalk in Santa Cruz in 2007. Keith's family was having a family reunion in Aptos. We went to the boardwalk and I saw, hanging in strapado from the tent flaps, my beloved Keezel. Alas, my beloved Keith could not win Keezel for me, so Norm, Keith's sister's husband, threw darts at balloons until Keezel could be mine. Keith's dad named him, and because I am who I am, an entire narrative began around the monkey. Keezel has since traveled everywhere with us. He comes to my workshops. He helps people cry. He helps people laugh. He was present at John's death last week. He is sometimes profane. Sometimes sacred. All times our friend.

Neither Keith nor I wanted a wedding. We're not fans of ceremony. We're really not fans of spending a zillion dollars on a single day, and it seems cruel and unusual to subject friends and family to buying a dress they'll wear once (and hate even then.) We're not religious. We don't need anyone else telling us what we are and what we aren't. We don't need, nor require, approval from an outside entity.

Today was John's "Good to Go" party. I was introduced as the daughter-in-law, which prompted many questions from layers of distant family and friends about when the ceremony took place. "I was married by a monkey at Ocean Beach," I said. When prompted, Keith and I couldn't even remember the exact date.

Every once in a while, Keith and I would talk about legally marrying, and both of us cringed. It feels like having to ask permission from some agency to do something. Doesn't sit well. We also have friends who are unable to marry because that same agency that would allow us to marry won't allow them to marry because they are of the same gender. That also doesn't sit too well.

Since you can send away for a clergy license to perform weddings, this seems to further illustrate the randomness and absurdity of who is licensed to perform marriage ceremonies and who isn't. My sister is even clergy. (If you knew her, you'd know how absolutely hilarious that is). So, why can't our monkey do it?

We went to San Francisco. If there's any place in the country where we could get married by a monkey, San Francisco is it. We took a bus to Ocean Beach. It was chilly. We had our monkey. We got off the bus, used the public restroom, and climbed over the sand dune until we saw the gray ocean. We held the monkey between us. We spoke to each other. And then, over the wind and waves, Keezel said, "Poof! You're married!" And we walked back over the sand dune, had a coffee, and took the bus back into San Francisco.

Price for wedding attire, dinner, and facilities fees: zero.
Effort spent deciding who to invite and who to leave out: zero.
Master of ceremonies fees: zero.

Reclaiming and redefining language: priceless.

Are we "really" married? Yes. We reject the state's involvement in our personal lives. We do not need a judge, a priest, a rabbi, a minister, to say it's OK -- to say we are OK. We knew we were OK a long time ago.

The only two people who needed to say it's OK for us to be married were there. And oh yes, our monkey.


Friday, February 12, 2010

Closer to the Bone


John M. Haynes
June 28, 1934- February 2, 2010

I spent most of last Friday through Tuesday evening at hospice with my husband and his family witnessing and assisting with his father's dying. I want to write about all of it. It was extraordinary -- as a detached observer, as a participant, as a member of the family, as a human being. I don't want to expose what was sacred to the family to the public, but I am a writer, and I'm always watching, and anyone remotely close to me should be aware of that. I'm looking. I'm stealing. I'm noticing. I'm processing. I'm filtering. And I'm going to write. It's just what I do, and I long ago learned not to apologize for who I am.

Each person present at John's dying has his or her own piece to tell. The relationship each of us had with him created part of the lens of the experience. Each person's experience with and beliefs around dying created part of the lens. If we sat in a circle and shared the story, perhaps we'd find the essence. Perhaps it doesn't matter.

This is part of the piece that's mine to tell:

John was diagnosed with cancer in mid November. He spent eleven weeks in Phoenix in and out of St. Joseph's hospital. He endured two rounds of chemotherapy, both of which put him in ICU with pneumonia and other complications. After the second round, he called his wife and said, "No more." He was transported back to Prescott on Friday evening and entered hospice care. By Tuesday evening he had died. He had two lucid days. His death, cliched though it sounds, was peaceful.

That's the nuts and bolts of what happened. Doesn't tell you very much does it? Could be any person, anywhere, any time. It's safe though. You'd find content like that in an obituary. No one could object to that. It's also boring. You'll forget it as soon as you read it. How does that honor an experience? How does that honor his living and his dying?

Let's get a little more real:

When John was in ICU in Phoenix back in December, he talked to me about death. He'd called Keith in the middle of the night. All of us thought he was dying that night, so we came up from Tucson to be with him. He had a mask on in ICU, and all of us who entered had to wear gowns and masks to protect his stripped immune system. John had been listening to a Kris Kristofferson song "Closer to the Bone" that he really liked.

"You know, Laraine, you always wonder your whole life what it'll feel like when you know you're dying. When you know for sure you're dying." He had to stop to breathe. "It's like this Kristofferson song. Everything is closer to the bone. Everything is raw. Everything that doesn't matter falls away."

Comin' from the heartbeat
Nothin' but the truth now
Everything is sweeter
Closer to the bone

When John entered his hospice room on that Friday night, he was visibly relieved. No tubes. No beeps. No frantic rushing to keep everyone alive. Just a space. Lots of chairs and a couch. We brought him tacos and a Dos Equis. Some member of the family sat with him all the time for the final five days.

"Looks like I'm not going to get to Pebble Beach," he said on Saturday. "Shit."

His legs had swollen to over twice their normal size. His feet were supported by blue foam. Nurses turned him every few hours. The first morning he wanted a paper. Then that fell away.

The next day he was silent. People came and went. His breathing anchored the room. We watched. Nurses still turned him every few hours. The family brought a wooden putter from home that he'd loved and placed it in his hand. He lay in the bed with his putter. Breathing.

Then, he woke up.

"Love you guys."

He ate his daughter's chicken dinner. His brother came from California. His friends came. Went. Came. Went.

Then he didn't eat anymore. Food fell away.

His wife spent his last night with him. She held him. His breathing anchored them.

Then water fell away.

"I want my Roseanne Cash," he said. We put the CD walkman around his ears. "Black Cadillac" began to play. "I'm gonna get working on dying now."

Then words fell away.

We put his putter back in his hands. We put his Pebble Beach US Open 2010 baseball cap on his head.

Then his color fell away, and a yellow glow moved up to the surface of the skin. His breathing kept us coming and going. Coming and going.

And then the first pause.

We put "Black Cadillac" on the room's CD player. We decided not to go for Thai food just then. We moved closer. I put my hand over his heart which was beating far too quickly for someone no longer moving.

Then the second pause came, and we knew.

"You're good to go, Papa," his children and grandchildren said.

"We love you, Papa," they said.

"Everything is taken care of, Papa," they said.

"You're good to go."

And during the last song of the CD, his breath fell away.

So I'll sail off on the good intent
To my true happy home
Yes, I sail off on the good intent
Never more to roam

I took my hand from his chest while his family stood in the silence, listening for the breath that had anchored them for a lifetime. We were no longer parents and children, brothers and sisters, lovers and friends. We were in the space where everything had fallen away.

We were closer to the bone.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pandora's Box o' WTF

Greetings everyone. It's been a wild few weeks, and once again it's snowing. I'm ready for cute shoes and no socks. Especially the cute shoes part.

I've got a few more blogs lined up, but I wanted to pass on some news. First, my father-in-law, John Haynes, died on Tuesday, Feb 2. I'll be writing some about that, but know that it was an extraordinary experience for all of us, and that the family is moving into the next part of their lives with grace. If any of you are in the Prescott area and knew John or the family, the Good to Go Party is Monday, February 15 at 11 am at the Mountain Club Clubhouse. Everyone is welcome. John planned out what he wanted for his party, and he'd want a big crowd and a keg or two (we're already taking care of the keg).

Second, I had the privilege of being interviewed by poet Lori A. May on her fabulous blog. The interview came out today.

And third, the book cover design for my novel, Ghost Swamp Blues, arrived last week. Much more on this book at it gets closer to the release date of June 1. Right now, I'm still catching up from last week and looking out my window at the thick flakes and wondering if they (please oh please) are going to call another snow day.  Until soon ....