81

Dad

 

My dad would’ve been 81 today and all morning I was thinking that I’d write something light-hearted. Maybe it’d even be funny in places. He would’ve appreciated that. But I mulled too long and recognized anew that I didn’t know him.

I can tell you that he was handsome.

I can tell you that he liked palm hearts with salsa rosada and that I’ve never known anyone who ate as slowly as he.

I can tell you he did this thing with his mouth. With his lips together, he’d thrust them forward, usually when he was deep in thought.

I never saw him demonstrably angry.

He expected people to take care of themselves.

I can tell you that he was in Korea, that he was in charge of doling out the soldier’s pay. It is likely that when asked if he would slip in a little extra cash, he had a whole litany of clever come backs. He was the guy that was reserved, no great talker, but when he did speak up, he was funny.

I’ve been told he named Post road in St. Paul. I wonder what the joke was.

I can tell you that he preferred pencils to pens and that he kept them sharp with erasers intact. His handwriting was on the small side and leaned sharply to the right. His politics were that way too.

He enjoyed carpentry and had a lathe. I liked to watch him shape out rounded spindles from straight flat wood. I liked the way a long squared piece of wood became cylindrical just by the spinning. Turn off the machine and,although the wood was shaved and chipped in places, it was still square. What was its true shape? What was my dad’s true shape?

I can tell you he didn’t like to come home or, rather, he liked to go drinking. When I was growing up, before I knew about hangovers, I thought of him as  a man who was a little terse, who never wanted to be disturbed.

I can tell you he died of ALS. When he still could bear weight, I remember helping him up the steps into his house.

“Lift your right foot,” I said, because I was going to nudge it forward to the next step.To be funny, he lifted his left. “You rebel,” I said.

And he smiled.

And I smiled.

And that is how relationships reshape themselves.

 

Smoking

IMAG0850

The first time I quit smoking wasn’t because I coughed sometimes when I got out of bed in the morning. It wasn’t because the house stank, the stale smoke smell clinging to the walls like tartar on teeth. It wasn’t because smoking had become uncool and I already wasn’t cool. The first time I quit smoking was because I wanted to climb mountains.

I started climbing the week after I quit. Every day I’d embark on a trek up the Himalayas. The first day, I lasted eleven minutes. The next day I lasted twelve, then fifteen. Soon I was climbing for 36 sweaty and strenuous minutes, surrounded by an eerily unnatural phenomenon, the health club.

All around me were rows of black machines- biking machines, rowing machines, running machines, and climbing machines. Some of them buzzed. All of them hummed.

In four weeks I was speed climbing, 62 feet a minute. There are 5280 feet in a mile. That meant I could cover a mile in about an hour and a half on a machine in a climate controlled environment. I could do this.

While I climbed my electronic mountain, I often thought about mountains. In Valencia, Venezuela, where I spent a lot of my childhood, there were mountains all around us. I remember the time when my older brother, Brian, ran away from home. Ten years old and he stomped out of the house, up the road to the mountains, a half of a mile away. I don’t know if he climbed. The important thing was that he had the option. When you climb a mountain, cross the ridge, descend on the other side, you can’t be seen. It’s a full separation from where you were.

“Aren’t you going to go get him?!” I yelled at my mom.

“He’ll come home.” she said and sat down on one of the kitchen chairs and lit a cigarette.

I learned smoking from her. It was how a person waited. I suppose I am like her in that way, always wrestling with time. I think about the past and there’s so much I want to relive and there’s so much I want to forget. How does a person reconcile those opposing impulses? They smoke. I think about the future, what changes are coming. But it’s so hard to see change and newness until it’s sitting like a smiling dog in your memory. So what does a person do while waiting for the future to arrive? They smoke.

After all the months of not smoking, of going to the health club, we, Terry and I, were in a car crash. We weren’t killed or maimed. I don’t know if it was with the loud pop of impact, the sound of crunching metal or the wild spin we took, that I decided I needed a cigarette.

The other times I quit was when I was pregnant, well mostly, anyway.

And now, I’m going to quit again. It’s not because I’m having any more children, because I’m not. It’s not because I’m worried about my health, because I’m not. It isn’t because my boys are always on my back about it. It isn’t because it’s gross.

The reason I’m quitting is because I don’t want to be like my mother. In some confused way I’ve been holding on to her, cigarette by cigarette. I don’t know how I’m going to do it but it’s time to let her go.

 

 

Dog Walk

We are walking, Betty and I, past the small house on the small hill, the one with the retaining wall that was messily put together. It isn’t crumbling, though it seems to be, the way the once oozing cement between the blocks is dry now. On top of the retaining wall are two grand statues of lions. Sitting between the lions is a cat, black with some white, and I think I know her. I wonder what she is doing here, between the lions, a few feet from the front door of the darkened house, where a bright orange piece of paper has been posted. Then I realize I don’t know her. She’s fatter and much too young.

We look at the cat for a long time because that is what we like to do together, look at other animals. Betty is the first to turn away, being the peaceful, non confrontational dog that she is.

We walk some more, down to the creek. We see another dog, whose owners will not allow it a social moment with Betty. In the wake of their passing, I catch the smell of my grandpa’s dog. He was a shepherd who lived outside and roamed the fields, rolled in the dirt, swam in the Mississippi. Until the end of summer, his winter fur was still turning over, falling out in hot clumps. From that tangle of fur, my grandpa would pull ticks. If they were fat enough, he’d crush them. If they weren’t, he’d drop them into a can with an inch of black oil at the bottom, where he dropped the potato bugs.

It’s twilight now. Rabbits are playing invisible. Flowers push their last flash of color before night. We pass another cat who has the face of an ape but we don’t stop to look. I am ready to be home, to review the promises I made to the day, to keep the ones I still can.

Pook at Eight

Rebel Pook

Eight years ago our Pook was born. He was a mild baby. He didn’t fuss. He always fell right to sleep when I held my hand gently on his forehead. When he was awake, he calmly, often without expression, watched his world. I thought he would be a shy, quiet thinker.

But he’s not like that at all. He is a great ball of passion. He is loving and full up with compassion. When he plays the piano, which he does at all hours of the day, I’m filled with wonder. He can be noodling on the piano, his fingers instinctively knowing where to find melody and, at the same time, be looking at and chatting with whomever is in the room. It’s as if he exists on two separate planes. At once, he is on the spirit-creator plane and the plane of our hard edged world. He’s divided and yet perfectly unified.

And he can loudly indignant when presented with what he perceives as injustice.

A few days ago, while walking to Lake Nokomis for a swim, Pook decried a message written in chalk on the path. It read Girls Rule!

“That’s just wrong!”  he said, “Everyone is equal!”

“They should be.” I said.

I understood his affront. Terry, his dad, suffered a similar affront when he was about ten or eleven. At his sister’s school, Regina, they were recreating the 1972 album “Free to be You and Me”, which promoted gender equality and the idea that everyone should be true to themselves and their own unique identities. It still rankles Terry that he couldn’t go to that school. It seemed like a fun school. It was closer to home. But it was girls only.

Pook knows about inequality. He knows about injustices. If he hears me mutter under my breath, “That’s disgusting.” or “That’s ridiculous.” he comes running, as if lassoed, to find out what’s going on.

When we talked about the legislators in Texas restricting a woman’s right to govern her body as she sees fit, I didn’t mention that tampons were confiscated instead of guns. Like the Texas legislators, he wouldn’t understand what tampons are used for because he doesn’t know about the reproductive cycles of women.

When we talked about Trayvon Martin being shot, he said, “Why do people kill?”

Pook always gives me a platform and I said, “I suppose it has something to do with how we define ourselves, our self image. And fear. But I don’t know. I’ve never wanted to kill anyone.”

Maybe I said more. Maybe not. But it got me thinking that We ARE sheep and we are supposed to live in community but we don’t have to give up thinking on our own. That’s the great thing about being human. We get to do that.

And self image is just that- an image. By defining ourselves by where we live, what we wear, how we speak, we inadvertently or purposefully pass judgement on others. To kill, first you have to judge.

Pook and I talked about Edward Snowden, too. I’m sure I said, “I wish him safe passage and a safe haven.” And I might have said, “People need privacy because we live in a world with many stones.”  And I thought but didn’t say, “Governments aren’t people and should be like shiny glass houses, unable to cause great, secret harm.

Why was I talking to a seven year old about these things? Why will I talk to him about similar things now that he’s eight? Because he questions and questions and questions and will repeat the questions if he gets a brush-off answer. And I love him for it. Happy birthday my tender hearted rebel.

 

 

Fear

Fear

What if, a week after you give birth, there is a thunderous storm and the power is knocked out and won’t be on for days and the air in the house is a 95 stifling degrees Fahrenheit? What will you do? You’ll find somewhere else to stay because you can’t imagine tending your baby in that heat especially in the dark, dark night.

And then after, when you come home and the fridge is stinking, you put your new baby in the bassinet just past the threshold to the kitchen so there’s room for the bucket of soapy water and the trash can.

And suppose you have another child, about 3 1/2 or so, who is eager to show his infant brother a chunk-sized toy and pushes it in his face. You think you hear a small squeal but everything seem O.K.

Then later, you notice that your baby has a black eye and another bruise by his ear and immediately you think he’s got a horrible blood disease so you call the nurse line at the hospital and they tell you to bring him in to the ER. So you do.

What if you’re so fraught with worry, not to mention your hormones haven’t even begun to level out, that all you can do is cry? When they ask you what happened to your baby, you say, “I don’t know.”

And then, what if the doctor says, “Are you sure you didn’t drop him down the stairs?” and he orders a CAT scan and then he tells you you’re lucky he’s letting you take the baby home. He orders you to see the social worker in the morning.

The social worker wants to know if you’re married and for how long and if it’s to the baby’s father. She’s profiling you and you don’t fit any of the criteria of an abuser except that you happen to live in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city.

Suppose she says, “I’m really afraid this baby will end up in the morgue.” and you become aware that this woman hates you and she knows nothing about you. She doesn’t ask what you think about violence or guns or God. She has no idea what happened to you when you had children, how, suddenly, your heart split open wide and you understood EVERYTHING about love.

What if when they are trying to take pictures of his eye he gets restless so you pull up your shirt, your bra, and you nurse him? And the social worker says to you, “Are you sure you want your breast in the picture?”

What if they order a full body x-ray and you hear your newborn cry for the first time in his life and then they leave you in the darkened x-ray room on a metal chair for a long, long time?

What if they order a second set of x-rays in two weeks and the social worker says she’s sending this case to the county because your baby has another bruise on him, where he sucks on his arm, where she has seen him sucking on his arm?

Tell me, how long will you be afraid that they’ll come to take your baby away? They’re not calling you and they’re not going to call you. How many years will it take before you can go a day without thinking about this? Four? And why, after almost eight years, when you do remember it, do you feel sick to your stomach?

Maybe now you’re thinking that you should’ve said, “Are you fucking crazy? I would never ever, ever hurt my child!” or “No! You’re not giving him any more fucking x-rays!” But you realize that wouldn’t have done any good because you were rendered powerless.

Now suppose there is someone else who isn’t as fortunate as you, one who has had injustices heaped upon them, cunningly or openly, and are in the midst of that injustice, what are you going to do?