Dead or alive—we love them all, don't we?
Journal | Week of November 7, 2022
For those new to this e-community, I offer my readers weekly snippets from my daily writing (tidied up a bit ;-)
November 7, 2002 | Monday
Ninety-four. Happy birthday, Daddy. If you were still alive and fully you, you’d be turning not just 94, but turning the compost out back because you liked to make things grow. A systems guy, you taught me, “compost needs to breathe.”
Later I understood. Turning the rotting mess into itself is a way of enriching the pile with oxygen, heating it up deep within, and speeding the decomposing. The decay is a feast for bacteria and worms, old life into new life.
Stray thought: Did I just describe what a writer does?
Fathers need to breathe, too. We’re humans, though, not food scraps. So, it’s lack of oxygen that turns us to compost, or in your case, ashes.
How is what’s-left-of-you doing in that marble, lidded vase next to Mama’s? Do you know you’re buried in dirt above the daughters you lost decades ago to fire? No worries if you don’t. I’m knowing that for you, holding the poignance and meaningfulness like two pretty pebbles glinting in the stream of time.
I miss you, but no griefy-ness today.
You’d be happy to know: I compost. Sounds like a variation on what that old metaphysical philosopher, Descartes, once said about thinking and being.
I compost therefore I am. Not quite.
You’d be disappointed to learn I haven’t turned the compost in awhile, though I’m sure the raccoons, foxes, and ravens have at least clawed and mixed it a bit.
How can I honor you, the self-described cock-eyed optimist?
How about this: I will hold one being in my mind each day this week and remember a detail, some quirk of memory, that reminds me why I love them. They can be dead or alive, though not in that wanted-outlaw-poster kind of way.
The truth is we love the dead as much as the alive. Thank you, love, for being such an awesome emotion.
November 8, 2002 | Tuesday
Election Day. The word divergence, popping into consciousness. No thank you. The mission this week is inviting my dead or alive ones for a mind-visit.
I want convergence. Surprise, I’m getting it, in the shape of a bird.
Outside, just off the deck, three Grey jays hang on to the suet feeder, pecking at the sweet fattiness enclosed within. They’re more like big chickadees than jays. Wings flutter holding them in balance, mostly upside-down, as the wire cage of suet sways.
Suddenly, I see D and K, standing in their hiking boots, each holding a glass of wine, little puffs of steam slipping out of their smiles because it’s Christmas and chilly. An ocean cliff nearby, the immense arms of redwoods reach over us, as if nosy elders, leaning in, listening.
We’re together: D and K, my husband and I at Patrick’s Point State Park. We’re younger. We don’t know what blisses and losses lie ahead. We’re in an empty campsite, chatting, storytelling. K’s hands are petite and soft, girlish. What was she like as a child? Why have I never asked?
Above us, the sky is slate-dark, the afternoon light already fading toward evening. Cheese and grapes on little plates wait quietly for our mouths to find them, when a Grey jay joins us.
D, in a baseball cap, has just sipped his Zin as a Grey jay lands on his head. We all go still and wildly delighted.
While other jays flutter in tree limbs, this one Grey jay just stands there on D’s head, curious and content, claws clutching cap but not hurting him. Probably only a minute of perching, but also years, this memory stretching perhaps a decade into this moment.
How can you not appreciate a man with such quiet magic that, of all the places to land on a Christmas Day, a bird chose him?
November 9, 2002 | Wednesday
Opening a burl-wood box, one long tooth, a canine, Gizmo’s. My step-dog, gone since ’98.
I don’t want to remember how the tooth ended up in this handsome box … the neighbor’s snarling shepherd-something mix rushing into our yard, randomly attacking Gizmo, a brown and white mutt small enough to sleep in my lap.
Fierce little waggler, Gizmo lived to tell the story, if he could have, for several more years.
Holding the tooth, slightly yellow, in my palm, I summon him so we can go walking our Sierra foothill path one more time. Closing my eyes, he’s trotting a few steps ahead. Sunny and hot, the scent of Douglas firs is with us. Red dust clings to his paws and my hiking boots, a blood smear on my calf where I swatted a deer fly.
“Are we having fun?” I ask him, his tail bobbing and waving, “yes.”
Each time I hear a bird and pause to look for it in my binoculars, Gizmo stops and sniffs. He smells the night history of passing raccoons, coyotes, and bobcats.
Sometimes I get ahead of him, and when he pauses to ponder the possibility of a leg lift and a bit of dog spray on an intriguing leaf, I plant my feet in the duff, listening and looking for whatever the woods wants to show me.
As if an invisible thread tethers us, neither of us lets the other one out of sight. There is Gizmo and there is me and there is this something-else.
“A Third Body.” I’m reminded of Robert Bly’s poem. I pull his poetry from the shelf. He’s talking about a man and a woman, though couldn’t the man be a little brave dog?
“They are content to be where they are, talking or not-talking.
Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know. “
Yes, that’s us, traveling our trail.
“They obey a third body that they share in common.
They have made a promise to love that body.”
This morning I am loving a long-gone dog who taught me about that third body called us.
November 10, 2002 | Thursday
A week out from her lung surgery, my little sister has a visitor, pain. Four holes along her abdomen and one lobe missing a piece, healing hurts.
About to water the sunflowers in the kitchen, I stop. Bought as a symbol of her, a way to have her near and nurture her, the blossoms are now spent, dried. Last week’s wide-open, yellow petals are pulled in and up, turned a ruddy gold, crusty flames in suspended animation.
So, I look for a photo of Little Sister on my cell phone. My finger does its flicking dance on the glass. Images blur past. Dizzy. Then, wait. Stop. There. Not a photo of Little Sister, but one she sent of me in a gorilla mask, knowing it would transport me back to a certain day we decided to be bizarre, why not?, in her local Target store.
Hmmm, wearing an enormous gorilla mask has a slimming affect on the rest of my body. I should buy one.
I can hear the straw-slurping of Little Sister, her Starbuck’s ice tea almost empty. Her grandson, Adam, not yet one year old, is with us, wiggling in the shopping cart, speaking a foreign language called, baby babble.
A few weeks before Halloween, never imaging it would be four years and counting until we’d be together again, we discover the masks.
Adam doesn’t know me yet. Ironic. Adam doesn’t know me from Adam. Can he tell the difference between my face and a fake gorilla’s? He doesn’t look fearful, only perplexed, as if he’s figured out that growing up is overrated.
My sister tries one animal mask, then another. They’re the rubbery kind, pulled over the head. We’re laughing, joking, pretending. We’re loud. We don’t care. Not the usual, rule-following us. Adam shrieks a few times—baby glee. Yes, people pawing through bags of candy bars and marshmallow pumpkins look up and shake their heads.
We know our parents, if alive, would be aghast at the spectacle. Though in death, life must look different. I hear their voices, “Have fun while you can—it’s all too short.”
November 11, 2002 | Friday (Veteran’s Day)
You were there. Vietnam,
in its sweat and insects, a mixed
soundtrack playing music back home
amidst a local percussion
The body is a satchel, carrying
every lived moment.
Then and now—those jars
of dark and light, rattling
So you cook, swaying to songs
you pick, blending unsavory into
savory, feeding whoever comes to
your table, a communion, each of us
filled with, grateful for, you.
November 12-13, 2002 | Saturday & Sunday
“People are putting animals in my refrigerator.”
Not long before Rosie, my mother-in-law, died, that’s what she was telling my husband, his face anguished, as he handed me the phone.
“What’s up, Little Mother?” She liked when I called her that, softening the reality of a spine compressing with age. “Someday,” I’d say, “you’ll be so tiny I’ll carry you around in the pocket over my heart.” She liked that, too.
That evening, a quivering voice on the line. Rosie was pure fear. At 94 and a half—when you’re very old or very young that half matters—she was living in a nursing care environment because she couldn’t walk or be alone anymore.
Rosie had no refrigerator.
“Well,” I said, that’s a surprise, isn’t it?” Only the sound of her quick breathing coming through the phone. “What kind of animals were they?” She couldn’t remember. Only that there were a lot of them in the refrigerator.
“You know, Little Mother, you and I are animal people.” A wispy but positive, “Yes,” and her breath seemed to relax.
“The people where you live know you love animals and animals love you, right?” Another wispy, “Yes.”
“I think they put those animals in the refrigerator as a lovely surprise for you.” Rosie’s breath became a soft pulse, getting calmer, considering that possibility.
Thinking quickly, I made a request, “Next time you see those animals, can you find out what kind they are? I’d love to know. I bet there are cats and dogs and maybe unusual ones, like a speckled ocelot or even a kangaroo.”
Without the ability to see Rosie, I was listening deeply. Breath is a compass, a clue to where the mind is going. Tone of voice, a portal into emotion.
“Okay,” she said, with a bit of confidence, and asked, “Then what?”
“Well, if it were me, Little Mother, I’d take all those animals out of the refrigerator and pet them and play with them and feed them bits of meat, unless they’re cows or horses, then maybe some veggies for those guys.”
When I called her the next day, Rosie’s spirit was sunlit, happy. “They were mostly dogs and some cats,” she said excitedly, “Oh, and a little horse I think I used to know.” She’d once managed a horse stable.
“I let them out of that cold place. I had dog bones for the dogs. The cats ran around, purring. The little horse stayed by the window, shaking his mane. He had such shiny flanks. Finally they all got in bed with me. Their bodies were so warm, and we all fell asleep.”
“That sounds fun!” I’m smiling even now, because it does sound fun. “Then what happened?”
“When I woke up they were gone, which was sad, but I’m glad I rescued them from that awful refrigerator.”
Rosie’s animals never returned, and by the following week, she didn’t remember them at all.
Even as her mind and body were beginning to unplug from this life, she trusted my voice and then her own still-flickering inner wisdom.
There’s so much more I celebrate about Rosie, though when the world feels scary, I come back to the refrigerator full of animals.
Often what we fear is where possibility dwells. You just need to invite it out of its cold place. See it for what it is. Play with it. Snuggle and sleep with it. Then, let it go.