Even Brighter Lights

Dear Ben,

It was gray and drizzly the November 15 you were born thirty one years ago, very much like today’s gray drizzle.

November is too often like that–there are times during this darkening month when we’re never really certain we’ll see the sun again.  The sky is gray, the mountain is all but invisible behind the clouds, the air hangs heavy with mist, woods and fields are all shadowy.  The morning light starts late and the evening takes over early.

Yet you changed November for us that day.  You brought sunshine to our lives once again.  You smiled almost from the first day, always responding, always watching, ready to engage with your new family.  You were a delight from that first moment we saw you and have been a light in our lives and so many other lives ever since.

And you married another bright light and now you shine together with a new little bright light of your own in your lives.

I know this is your favorite kind of weather because you were born to it–you’ve always loved the misty fog, the drizzle, the chill winds, the hunkering down and waiting for brighter days to come.

November 15 was, and each year it still is, that brighter day.

Love,

Mom and Dad

Readiness to Die

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. 
It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.
~ G.K. Chesterton 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
~Lawrence Binyon from “For the Fallen” (1914)

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
~LtCol (Dr.) John McCrae from “In Flanders Fields”

When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 

To all our U.S. veterans over the centuries – with deep appreciation and gratitude–for the freedoms you have defended on behalf of us all:

My father was one of the fortunate ones who came home, returning to a quiet farm life after three years serving in the Pacific with the Marines Corp from 1942 to 1945. For the first time I have been reading his letters home to my mother over the last few months, realizing how uncertain was their future together. Hundreds of thousands of his colleagues didn’t come home, dying on beaches and battlefields.  Tens of thousands more came home forever marked, through physical or psychological injury, by the experience of war.

We citizens must support and care for the men and women who have made the commitment to be on the front line for our freedom’s sake.

I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did at the WW1 Armistice. This is a day that demands much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and interrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who answered the call to defend their countries by sacrificing their time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives.

Remembrance means never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom. It means acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf. It means never ceasing to care. It means a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported. It means unending prayers for safe return to family. It means we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.

Most of all, it means being willing ourselves to become the sacrifice when called.

To you from failing hands we throw    
The torch; be yours to hold it high.    
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow…

Never an End to What’s Left Behind

“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.
~Ted Kooser “Carrie” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985

My Great Aunt Marion was considered odd, no question about it.  She usually dressed in somber woolens, smelling faintly of mothballs and incense. Her straight gray hair was bobbed with bangs,  unfashionable for the wavy permanents of the fifties and the beehives of the sixties.  Aunt Marion was a second grade teacher all her life, never marrying,  and she lived for over 50 years in a spotless tiny apartment until the day she died in 1975.    She bequeathed what little she had to the church she had faithfully attended a few blocks away and was buried in the family plot on a windswept hill overlooking Puget Sound.

I was overseas when she died, and to my knowledge, none of the extended family attended her funeral.  In her retirement years she had become reclusive and remote.  It was clear visitors weren’t welcome so visits to her became rare.  In an effort to counteract that, I have annually visited her gravesite for the past 30+ years, paying homage to this aunt who remained an enigma in life and became even more mysterious in death.

She grew up in the early 20th century in an impoverished German immigrant family who relocated from Wisconsin to the northwest. Her father was gone most of the year running steamboats up the Yukon, leaving her mother to make do as a some time school teacher and full time mother. Her older brother dropped schooling early for the rough and ready life of the local logging camps but Marion finished teachers’ college at the Western Washington Normal School on the hill in Bellingham. She began her life’s work teaching 2nd grade a few miles away at Geneva Elementary School, and became the primary caretaker in her mother’s declining years.

Her shock over her brother’s marriage to a much younger teenage girl in 1917 created foment within an already fractious family that persisted down through the generations.  As the offspring of that union, my father tried to prove his worth to his judgmental aunt.  She was had a spiky and thorny personality, stern and unforgiving, but politely tolerated his existence though would never acknowledge his mother.  Family gatherings weren’t possible due to the ongoing bitter conflict between the two strong-willed ladies.

Though Marion was childless, her heart belonged to her many students as well as a number of children she sponsored through relief organizations in developing countries around the world.  Her most visible  joy came from her annual summer trip to one of those exotic countries to meet first hand the child she was sponsoring.  It seemed to fuel her until the next trip could be planned.  She visited Asia and India numerous times, as well as Central and South America.  It  provided the purpose that was missing in the daily routine of her life at home.

I moved to my great aunt’s community over three decades ago, 10 years after she had died.  I’d occasionally think of her as I drove past her old apartment building or the Methodist church she attended.  Several years ago, I noticed a new wing on the old church, modern, spacious and airy.  I commented on it to a co-worker who I knew attended that church.

He said the old church building had undergone significant remodeling over the years to update the wiring and plumbing, to create a more welcome sanctuary for worship and most recently to add a new educational wing for Sunday School and after school programs during the weekdays. As one of the council members in the church’s leadership, he commented that he was fortunate to attend a church equipped with financial resources to provide programs such as this in a struggling neighborhood that had more than its share of latch-key kids and single parents barely making do.   He mentioned an endowment from a bequest given over 40 years ago by a spinster schoolteacher in her will.  This lady had attended the church faithfully for years, and was somewhat legendary for her silent weekly presence in the same pew and that she rarely spoke to others in the church.  She arrived, sat in the same spot, and left right after the service, barely interacting.  Upon her death, she left her entire estate to the church, well over $1 million in addition to the deed to an oil well in Texas which has continued to flow and prosper over the past several decades.  The new wing was dedicated to her memory as it represented her expressed desire for her neighborhood.

I asked if her name was Marion and he stared at me baffled.  Yes, I knew her, I said.  Yes, she was a remarkable woman.  Yes, how proud she would be to see her legacy – what she had worked so hard for and then left behind — come to fruition.

There were times as I was growing up I wondered if my Great Aunt Marion had a secret lover somewhere, or if she led a double life as her life at home seemed so lonely and painful.  I know now that she did have a secret life.  She loved the children she had made her own and she lived plainly and simply in order to provide for others who had little.  Her extended family is better off having never inherited that money or an oil well.  It could have torn an already conflicted family apart and Marion knew, estranged from her only blood relatives,  her money would hurt us more than it would help.

Her full story has died with her.  Even so, I mourn her anew, marveling at what became of the dust of her, the legacy she chose to leave. 

Of this, I am deeply proud.

That Look

She raised her face, shining, and found her mirror in <his> eyes. I saw them look at each other, and felt the tears prickle behind my lids.
~Diana Gabaldon from Voyager

I leaned over his shoulder now and deposited a bowl of oatmeal in front of him, a smile hiding in his eyes, caught my hand and kissed it lightly. He let me go, and went back to his parritch. I touched the back of his neck, and saw the smile spread to his mouth. 
     I looked up, smiling myself, and found Brianna watching. One corner of her mouth turned up, and her eyes were warm with understanding. Then I saw her gaze shift to Roger, who was spooning in his parritch in an absentminded sort of way, his gaze intent on her.

~Diana Gabaldon from Drums of Autumn

from Outlander (Starz)




…she had ventured only one glance…she raised her eyes to his face…
…their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush..
~Jane Austen from Pride and Prejudice

from Pride and Prejudice (BBC production)

Occasionally books and movies get it right.  If they really want to show two people in love with each other, it does not require states of undress, or acrobatic clinches, or lots of heavy breathing.

All the movie needs is “that look”.

Some call it “locked eyes” or the “the held intense gaze” or “gazing longingly”.   It’s not ogling or lurid or lusty.  

It is the look that confirms: “I want to look into your eyes forever and stay lost there.”

It works for me every time because I am lucky enough to know what it feels like.  I get that butterfly in the stomach feeling anytime it happens.  My husband held my eyes with his from across a room early in our relationship, and forty years later, he still holds them when he looks at me.  And I look at him just that way as well.  The eyes say what there are no words for.  The eyes don’t lie, being both mirror and reflection, as they are portal to both the mind and heart.  The eyes never change even though the years bring gray hair and crow’s feet.

The “look” says “I want to look at you forever, just like this, just as you are, wherever you are — because of who you are.”

from Outlander

Freed into the Wider World

photo by Nate Gibson

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still,
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.
~Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.

I knew two things for sure:
I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun.
We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.

A real (sort of) starter farm.

Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.

I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.

Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.

My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever:  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods. 

That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.

Too Full of Blossom

She skimmed the yellow water like a moth,
Trailing her feet across the shallow stream;
She saw the berries, paused and sampled them
Where a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth.
Light in the air, she fluttered up the path,
So delicate to shun the leaves and damp,
Like some young wife, holding a slender lamp
To find her stray child, or the moon, or both.
Even before she reached the empty house,
She beat her wings ever so lightly, rose,
Followed a bee where apples blew like snow;
And then, forgetting what she wanted there,
Too full of blossom and green light to care,
She hurried to the ground, and slipped below.
~James Wright “My Grandmother’s Ghost from Above the River: The Complete Poems 

I saw my grandma’s ghost once.

She was my only grandparent I actually knew and who actually knew me — the others were lost before I was born or too young to realize what I had lost.

She had lived a hard life: losing her mother when she was 12, taking over the household duties for her father and younger brother while leaving school forever, too young marrying an abusive alcoholic, losing her first child to lymphoma at age 8, taking her three remaining children to safety away from their father for a year to live above a seedy restaurant where she cooked seven days a week to make ends meet.

But there was grace too. A marriage that somehow got patched together after Grandpa found God and sobriety, her faith that never wavered, their soil that yielded beautiful flowers she planted and nurtured and picked to sell, children and grandchildren who welcomed her many open armed visits and hugs.

She was busy planning her first trip of a lifetime at age 72 when we noticed her eyes looked yellow. Only two weeks later she was bed-bound in unrelenting pain due to pancreatic cancer, gazing heaven-ward instead of Europe-bound. Her dreams had been dashed so quickly, she barely realized her itinerary and destination had changed.

I was 16 at the time, too absorbed in my own teenage cares and concerns to really notice how quickly she was fading and failing like a wilted flower. Instead I was picking fights with my stressed parents, worrying over taking my driver’s license driving test, distracted by all the typical social pressures of high school life.

Her funeral was unbearable as I never really said goodbye – only one brief hospital visit when she was hardly recognizable in her anguish and jaundice. I didn’t even get to hold her hand.

Soon after she had been lowered into the ground next to her husband and young daughter, she came back to me in a dream.

I was asleep when my bedroom door opened into the dark, wakening me as the bright hallway light pushed its way via a shimmering beam to my bed. Grandma Kittie stood in my bedroom doorway, backlit by the light surrounding her silhouette. She silently stood there, just looking at me.

Startled, I sat up in my bed and said to her, “Grandma, why are you here? You died and we buried you!”

She nodded and smiled. And then she said to me:

“I wanted you to know I’m okay and always will be. You will be too.”

She gave a little wave, turned and left, closing the door behind her. I woke suddenly with a gasp in my darkened bedroom and knew I had just been visited.

She hadn’t come to say goodbye or to tell me she loved me — that I knew already.

She had come to shine with her light blossoming around her, mending my broken heart by planting it with peace.

The Knowing

We thought we were the perfect family—
loyal, stable, a brick wall you couldn’t topple
with a wrecking ball. Parents dependable
as the frozen Minute Maid juice
we squeezed from cardboard cans and drank
mornings, reconstituted.

We’d come to this place just to be together.
October in Ogunquit, record heat,
no need for the sweaters we’d packed.
Dad had died but Mom, in her 80s, sat
pouring green tea, our wicker chairs
on the small porch, six sets
of knees touching.

She didn’t mean to mention
Dad’s first wife.

To our collective what?
she sputtered lasted a year, before the war,
her name: Phyllis.
Remember that chest in the basement?
It was hers.

Some moments passed, then mutely
we agreed to let it go.
Radium glowed green in our brains
but didn’t burn. The knowing, a relief:
We didn’t have to be perfect.

The August-warm wind felt pleasant
and odd. We sat on that porch,
orange leaves pinwheeling down the street.
~Karen Paul Holmes “Rental Cottage, Maine” from No Such Thing as Distance

Surfacing to the street from a thirty two hour hospital shift usually means my eyes blink mole-like, adjusting to searing daylight after being too long in darkened windowless halls.  This particular day is different.   As the doors open, I am immersed in a subdued gray Seattle afternoon, with horizontal rain soaking my scrubs.

Finally remembering where I had parked my car in pre-dawn dark the day before, I start the ignition, putting the windshield wipers on full speed.  I merge onto the freeway, pinching myself to stay awake long enough to reach my apartment and my pillow.

The freeway is a flowing river current of head and tail lights.  Semitrucks toss up tsunami waves cleared briefly by my wipers frantically whacking back and forth.

Just ahead in the lane to my right, a car catches my eye — it looks just like my Dad’s new Buick.  I blink to clear my eyes and my mind, switching lanes to get behind.  The license plate confirms it is indeed my Dad, oddly 100 miles from home in the middle of the week.  I smiled, realizing he and Mom, the best parents ever, have probably planned to surprise me by taking me out for dinner.

I decide to surprise them first, switching lanes to their left and accelerating up alongside.  As our cars travel side by side in the downpour,  I glance over to my right to see if I can catch my Dad’s eye through streaming side windows.  He is looking away to the right at that moment, obviously in conversation.  It is then I realize something is amiss.  When my Dad looks back at the road, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before.  There are arms wrapped around his neck and shoulder, and a woman’s auburn head is snuggled into his chest.

My mother’s hair is gray.

My initial confusion turns instantly to fury.  Despite the rivers of rain obscuring their view, I desperately want them to see me.  I think about honking,  I think about pulling in front of them so my father would know I have seen and I know.  I think about ramming them with my car so that we’d perish, unrecognizable, in an explosive storm-soaked mangle.

At that moment, my father glances over at me and our eyes meet across the white line separating us.  His face is a mask of betrayal, bewilderment and then shock, and as he tenses, she straightens up and looks at me quizzically.

I can’t bear to look any longer.

I leave them behind, speeding beyond, splashing them with my wake.  Every breath burns my lungs and pierces my heart.  I can not distinguish whether the rivers obscuring my view are from my eyes or my windshield.

Somehow I made it home to my apartment, my heart still pounding in my ears.  The phone rings and remains unanswered.

I throw myself on my bed, bury my wet face in my pillow and pray —
for a sleep
without dreams,
without secrets,
without lies,
without the burden of knowing the truth
I alone now knew
and wished I didn’t.