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.

Don’t Look Back

A Wounded Deer—leaps highest—
I’ve heard the Hunter tell—
‘Tis but the Ecstasy of death—
And then the Brake is still!
~Emily Dickinson from “165″

The deer in that beautiful place lay down their
bones: I must wear mine.
~Robinson Jeffers from “The Deer Lay Down Their Bones”

As the house of a person
in age sometimes grows cluttered
with what is
too loved or too heavy to part with,
the heart may grow cluttered.
And still the house will be emptied,
and still the heart.

Empty and filled,
like the curling half-light of morning,
in which everything is still possible and so why not.

Filled and empty,
like the curling half-light of evening,
in which everything now is finished and so why not.

Beloved, what can be, what was,
will be taken from us.
I have disappointed.
I am sorry. I knew no better.

A root seeks water.
Tenderness only breaks open the earth.
This morning, out the window,
the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Standing Deer”

My first time ever
seated next to my mother
in a movie theater, just
a skinny four year old girl
practically folded up in half
by a large padded chair
whose seat won’t stay down,
bursting with anticipation
to see Disney’s Bambi.

Enthralled with so much color,
motion, music, songs and fun
characters, I am wholly lost
in a new world of animated
reality when suddenly
Bambi’s mother looks up,
alarmed,  from eating
a clump of grass
growing in the snow.

My heart leaps
with worry.
She tells him
to run
for the thicket,
to seek safety where
she has always
kept him warm
next to her.

She follows behind,
tells him to run faster,
not to look back,
don’t ever look back.

The gun shot
hits my belly too.

My stomach twists
as he cries out
for his mother,
pleading for her.
I know in my heart
she is lost forever,
sacrificed for him.

I sob as my mother
reaches out to me,
telling me not to look.
I bury my face
inside her hug,
knowing Bambi
is cold and alone
with no mother
at all.

She took me home
before the end.
I could not bear to watch
the rest of the movie for years.
His cries
still echo
in my ears.

Now, my children are grown
and have children of their own to protect.
My mother is gone from this earth,
my thicket emptying,
my heart full,
my stomach stronger,
I even keep the seat from folding
me up in a movie theater.

I now can look back
and weep inconsolably
once more.

It Doesn’t Matter a Hill of Beans

I spent this morning adjusting to this change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure.  Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.

As I scooped and pushed the wheelbarrow, I remembered another barn cleaning twenty years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days.  Whenever horse people gather, there were personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me that I had taken very personally.  As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart.  I was miserable with regrets.   After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group,  my work felt like it had not been acknowledged or appreciated.

My friend Jenny had stayed behind with her family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure.  Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen.

“You know,  none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now.  People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country,  a wonderful time with their horses, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom.   So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy.  You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us.  So quit being upset about what you can’t change.  There’s too much you can still do for us.”

During tough times which still come often in my professional life,  Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to stop seeking appreciation from others, or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way.   She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time and she was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and keep focusing outward.

Jenny, I have remembered what you said even though sometimes I emotionally relapse and forget.

Jenny herself spent the next six years literally dying, while vigorously living her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was initially helpless in the face of her faith and intense drive to live.    She became a rusting leaf, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until she finally let go.   Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end.  Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her belief in the plan God had written for her and others.

Despite her intense love for her husband and young children, she had to let go her hold on life here.   And we all had to let her go.  

Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.

You were so right, Jenny.  No conflicts from twenty years ago amounted to a hill of beans; all is remembered fondly by those who were part of the gathering. I especially treasure the words you wisely spoke to me.

And I’m no longer upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us. There is still so much you do for us, alive in our memories.

I know we’ll catch up later.

Jenny R –photo by Ginger Kathleen Coombs

Something Finished

Gold of a ripe oat straw, gold of a southwest moon,
What is there for you in the birds, the birds, the birds, crying
down on the north wind in September, acres of birds spotting
the air going south?

Is there something finished? And some new beginning on the
way?

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.
~Carl Sandburg from “Fall Time” and “Autumn Movement”

My summer of “no doctoring” finishes today. I return to part-time clinical work tomorrow; a new beginning is on the way.

I am readying myself.

I consider how it will feel to put the stethoscope back on and return to spending most of my daylight hours in window-less rooms. Several months of freedom to wander and wonder will be tough to give up.

However, when I meet my first patient of the day, I’m “all in.” Someone is needing my help more than I need time off. The wind has shifted, it is time to migrate back to the work I was called to do over forty years ago.

Still I will look for beautiful things where I can find them, knowing that even though they don’t last, they will always be well worth the weeping.

Summer’s Parting Sighs

When summer’s end is nighing
  And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
  And all the feats I vowed
  When I was young and proud.

The weathercock at sunset
  Would lose the slanted ray,
And I would climb the beacon
  That looked to Wales away
  And saw the last of day.

From hill and cloud and heaven
  The hues of evening died;
Night welled through lane and hollow
  And hushed the countryside,
  But I had youth and pride.

So here’s an end of roaming
  On eves when autumn nighs:
The ear too fondly listens
  For summer’s parting sighs,
  And then the heart replies.
~A.E. Houseman from “XXXIX” from Last Poems

Mornings bring cooler air now, and there is haze hanging over lower ground where the previous day’s heat is rising. We are fast approaching the end of summer season, with its overabundance of constant activity, light and warmth. To be honest, I too am fried to a crisp; increasingly grateful for moisture, a bit of clinging mist, the reappearance of green shoots from parched ground. There is need for restoration after so much overproduction.

I don’t regret growing older, considering the alternative, but do feel sadness about not spending my younger years more aware of how quickly this all passes. I wish my eyes had been more open, my hearing more acute, my tongue devoted to silence, my skin sensitive to the slightest feather touch.

So I make up for it now as best I can – though my vision is cloudy at times, I strain to hear the quietest sounds, I talk when I should be listening, my skin wrinkling and dry. Each day brings new opportunity to finally get it right.

As the days end with foreshortened flare and our weather vane points from the north, I sigh deeply for all that has been.

And my heart replies. Indeed, my heart replies.

The World Made Whole Again

More than once I’ve seen a dog
waiting for its owner outside a café
practically implode with worry. “Oh, God,
what if she doesn’t come back this time?
What will I do? Who will take care of me?
I loved her so much and now she’s gone
and I’m tied to a post surrounded by people
who don’t look or smell or sound like her at all.”
And when she does come, what a flurry
of commotion, what a chorus of yelping
and cooing and leaps straight up into the air!
It’s almost unbearable, this sudden
fullness after such total loss, to see
the world made whole again by a hand
on the shoulder and a voice like no other.

~John Brehm from “If Feeling Isn’t In It”

photo by Brandon Dieleman

We all need to love like this:
so binding, so complete, so profoundly filling:
its loss empties our world of all meaning
as our tears run dry.

So abandoned, we woeful wait,
longing for the return of
the gentle voice, the familiar smile,
the tender touch and encompassing embrace.

With unexpected restoration
when we’ve done nothing to deserve it-
we leap and shout with unsurpassed joy,
the world without form and void made whole again.




The Coiled Shell of Their Lives

Needing them still, I come
when I can, this time to the sea
where we share a room: their double bed,
my single. Morning fog paints the pale
scene even paler. Lace curtains breathing,
the chenille spread folded back,
my father’s feet white sails furled
at the edge of blue pajamas.
Every child’s dream, a parent
in each hand, though this child is fifty.
Their bodies fit easily, with room
to spare. When did they grow
so small? Grow so small—
as if it were possible to swell
backwards into an earlier self.


One more year, I ask the silence.
Last night to launch myself
into sleep I counted their breaths, the tidal
rise and fall I now put my ear to,
the coiled shell of their lives.
~Rebecca McClanahan from “Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea” from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems.

My parents have been gone now for some time, my father over 25 years, my mother now over 10 years. Their dying was a long process of counted breaths and pauses. I witnessed their bodies curling into themselves, shrinking smaller, worn down by illness and age.

I still miss them, reminded of them by the events of my own life, still wanting them to take me by the hand as I navigate my own daily path.

After mom’s death, those possessions not distributed to family members have remained packed up and stored in our barn buildings. I know it is well past time to deal with their stuff as I become keenly aware of my own greying and aging.

Untouched in the bookshelf of our bedroom is a sealed box of over 500 letters written by my mother and father between 1941 and 1945. I know the letters began as they were getting to know each other at college, then going from “pinned” to “engaged” and continue for three and a half more years after a hurried wedding Christmas Eve 1942. By mid January 1943 my newly minted Marine officer father shipped out to spend the next three years of his life on the Pacific Ocean, fighting on the battlefields of Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, not to return again to the states until late summer of 1945. My mother wrote her letters from a rural eastern Washington community, living in a “teachers’ cottage” with other war wives who taught school while waiting for their husbands to return home – or not.

It has taken me a decade to find the courage and time to devote to reading these letters they treasured and never threw away. Yesterday I sorted them unopened by postmark date into some semblance of order and sat down to start at the very beginning, which, of course, is my beginning as well. Only sixty letters in, I open each one with some trepidation and a lump in my throat about what I might find written there. I worry I may find things I don’t want to know. I hope I find things that I desperately need to know.

Most of all I want to understand the two people who became my parents within the coiled shell of their forty years together, though broken by a painful divorce which lasted a decade. Having lived through that awful time with them, I want to understand the origin of a love which mended their cracked shell, glueing them back together for five more years before my father died.

As I read their words over the next few weeks, I hope I too can cross a bridge back to them both.