As you know, Bob, 2020 was the year to end all years. We’re all shocked at the relentless horror show, and we’re glad it’s over and we can look forward to many changes for the better.
But that’s not what I came to tell you about.
For the past three years, I’ve been remarkably silent everywhere but Facebook. This time, for me, has been one long 2020, merely capped by the disaster that was this past year. Three years ago last Sunday my husband died.
People like to say “passed away,” or “expired,” but that’s not what happened to Dale. He died. Suddenly, without any real warning. Of course, had there been any warning he would have been in the emergency room at the time, but instead he was asleep in his bed. In a single instant his life was over, and so was mine.
Dale had the flu. Just plain flu. He’d been out on the road and returned home just in time for Christmas. In thirty-six years of marriage Dale never missed Christmas even once. Even in 2001, the year he drove for the Trans Siberian Orchestra, whose whole schtick is Christmas music, he made it home on Christmas Eve because the tour had a show in Nashville on Dec. 26. He came home, exhausted from the overnight drive, and that night eight musicians and the tour manager came for Christmas dinner.
Oh, yeah, the flu. Dale had been out with The Grateful Dead (now aka Dead and Company,) and came home sick. That wasn’t unusual. Music tours were bad for giving him the crud. He usually had a flu shot, but that year he’d forgotten. No flu shot, and no pneumonia shot. But it was just the flu.
He was home for a little over a week, I think. He was scheduled to return to the road on January 4 with Imagine Dragons. He was still sick the day before, but turning down work during the off season took a chance that there would be no more work until spring. He had to go.
But on January 3, when he tried to sleep before the tour, he was having trouble breathing. We discussed options. I asked if he wanted me to take him to the ER, but he said if he could just get some sleep he’d feel better. So he went to bed early, and I went to the living room to watch TV. If I’d known what pneumonia sounded like, I would have made him get dressed and taken him to the hospital.
A few hours later, I went to check on him. As I entered the room, I thought he was breathing easier because I couldn’t hear it. I thought that was a good thing. I headed for the bathroom, but stopped because I’m a mom and I like to make sure everybody is breathing. I said his name, then poked him. No reaction. I poked him again. No reaction. I shook him, and he didn’t move. I thought he was fooling, because he was in the habit of playing that very game. I said, “Not funny,” then shook him again. Only then did I realize the truth.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no…” I ran around to the other side of the bed and tried to pull him up, wake him up, get him moving. He was limp. For a moment I just stood there, trying to think of what to do. What were the authorities going to expect from me?
I ran to the kitchen and called 911. “I think my husband is dead.” The operator sent me back to the bedroom and guided me through CPR. Weirdly, that gave me hope even though I knew it was pro forma procedure. I heard my daughter in the hallway, and called to her. “Come help me!”
Nikki came, and took over the CPR while I let the firemen in the back door. After that, my brain turned to slush. I could only do what I was directed to do; thinking was…risky. Somehow I ended up with my coat, out in the ambulance. We stayed in the driveway for what seemed like forever while they worked on him, and hope grew. Finally we went.
Lights and sirens aren’t exciting. Speeding down the main drag while traffic pulled over and stopped to let us by wasn’t even interesting. It was a horror, and I wanted to hide. I clutched my coat, and it was the only thing grounding me to reality.
At the hospital emergency entrance I got out and didn’t know what direction to go. Nikki was there. Then the gurney came from the back of the ambulance, and I saw Dale had not changed. That was when the slim hope died and I knew he was gone.
They took him to a room, and Nikki and I went to another room. Our son, Travis, arrived. We waited. About an hour later they called time of death. We were able to go to where he was and say goodbye.
In grief counseling, I heard stories of long illnesses and how one’s life changes in that experience. There was some discussion about which is less bad: sudden death or long illness. I still don’t know the answer to that. I didn’t have months of knowing the end was near and getting closer, but on the other hand I didn’t get to say goodbye and tell him I love him. Many things went unsaid. Loose ends dangled. The following year was a nightmare of red tape and explaining to people over and over that my husband was dead. No cash on hand for a funeral, and the guy in charge of the Memorial Gardens where Dale’s parents’ and brother’s graves are was unconscionably insensitive. Every bit of future we’d hoped for evaporated in an instant. I had no clue who I was anymore.
It has taken three years of exploration, studying, figuring out where he ended and I began, and I’m still taking baby steps. I foster cats now because I can’t stand an empty house and I love the cats like they’re family. I do artistic things with model horses. Covid has stunted the development of any plans. But it’s a new year and many things are changing.
Ever since the kids became responsible, tax-paying adults, the holidays have been a nightmare of scheduling. During his senior year in college, Travis went to work for a chain pharmacy which is known for being open 24/7/365. Nikki in her retail years sometimes was free on Christmas, but then she married a firefighter and all bets were off. When the kids were little we used to have a big dinner party on Christmas Eve, then open presents the next morning and relax the rest of the day. I miss that.
With Dale’s job, the one day of the year he was guaranteed to be home was Christmas Day. The touring industry is pretty seasonal, so it was usually easy enough for him to have downtime on that day. Particularly in the years when he was home from Thanksgiving till nearly Easter. Some years not so much, though. Our first Christmas, in 1981, he flew in off of AC/DC at midnight on Christmas Eve morning. That day we went scrounging for a tree, and found one for $12. It was short, spindly, and had an enormous hole on one side, but it was by-God real and it was our first.
Even the year (2001) he worked for the Trans Siberian Orchestra, whose entire schtick is Christmas music, he managed to make it home. The tour just happened to have a show in Nashville on December 26. Dale cruised in with his passengers on Christmas Eve day, and because nobody on the tour was permitted to fly home for the holiday, Dale brought nine guests with him for dinner that night: the tour manager and eight of the musicians. The viola player made homemade eggnog for us, and we demolished the biggest turkey I’ve ever seen, let alone cooked.
For the past dozen years or so, though, with the kids grown and having their own lives, we’ve had to give up the dinner parties and get together at the time when a majority of us were available. Dale was always there, and a few years ago his mother moved into the area, but sometimes Nikki had to eat and run, and there were years when Travis had to close the store Christmas Eve and open on Christmas Day. The grandsons arrived, but then when the divorce happened the boys’ presence was dictated by the court and nobody took that well.
Last Christmas, for one bright, shining moment, it all changed.
That time, it all came together, like magic. The boys and their mother live here now, and it was our turn to have them on Christmas Day. Travis last summer was promoted to general manager of his own store, guaranteeing him Christmas Day off. And Dale worked to mid-December, taking an extra week with the Grateful Dead (these days Dead and Company), and came home in plenty of time to enjoy a break.
Both the kids (they’re in their mid-thirties now) took me Christmas tree shopping. There’s a tree lot that for a number of years has set up on a vacant lot that used to be a funeral home. (Yeah, I’m one of those people who give directions like, “Turn left at where the old WalMart used to be.”) We’ve gotten into the habit of buying our trees there, and that’s what you call tradition. It was a special treat for me that Travis and Nikki were there, because they know I like tree-shopping as a family.
This year, it was no Charlie Brown tree. The kids bought us a huge, flocked one. I’d never had a flocked tree before in my life. My mother used to sneer at them, so I had never been interested, but when Nikki asked me if I wanted our chosen tree flocked, a mood came over me. Yes, this flocking was pretty. And when I felt of it, I could tell it would stay on the tree and make the branches sturdier. I accepted the flocking with much pleasure.
This year we weren’t particularly flush, but we had enough. When I asked Dale what he wanted for Christmas, he couldn’t think of anything. So he mentioned that his watch needed repair.
That’s not much of a present. I’d bought him that watch for Christmas several years before. But he couldn’t think of anything else, so I took it to where I’d bought it to see if they could fix it. They told me all it needed was a new battery. Sixteen bucks. I had them fix it, then texted Dale. “Watch only needed new battery. Suggestions? Off to browse Best Buy for ideas. I’ll return the watch when I get home.”
He replied, “Ok. I don’t know something fun maybe whatever is comfortable to budget lov you.”
“Fun it is. I know exactly what.” First time ever, I knew what to get him. I went looking for a VR headset.
Christmas Eve the boys got to toast marshmallows in the fireplace, a tradition that for me goes back to about 1960 when my brother and I were preschoolers. They said goodbye to Buddy, their Elf on a Shelf, and hung their stockings by the chimney with care.
Christmas Day was like old times, but without the stress. Jack-O-Lantern pies made from Halloween decorations. Turkey–a cheap one shot with broth, which are never dry and always taste fabulous. Dressing with gravy, and I make the BEST gravy. My grandmother’s recipe for sweet potato casserole. Nobody poised to eat and run. Nobody arriving at the last minute. Nobody annoyed, and Dale even seemed to like his VR headset.
It was one of the best Christmases ever. God blessed us that we had no idea that last Christmas would be Dale’s last Christmas.
[This series of posts over the next few weeks tell of why I haven’t posted since August. If it’s too depressing, feel free to skip them over.]
Well, I’m back. Ready to tell the story of the stroke I had on October 19. Weirdly, typing is painful in ways I never would have expected. Sometimes it requires medication, sometimes medication stronger than Tylenol. I try to avoid painkiller.
But let me tell this from the beginning.
On Thursday, October 19, I was struggling to make peace between two good friends. We’d known each other for about forty-five years, and had been through much together. Now they were fighting and I wanted to smooth things over. For about six hours I talked and negotiated, and as one might guess I got nothing but grief for my effort because, as you know, Bob, no good deed goes unpunished. Then, in the midst of this, my daughter came into my office and accused me of setting the thermostat too high. The thermostat was new, a fancy-schmancy smarthouse sort of thing, and we’d spent about a week trying to figure out how to set it so we wouldn’t have to keep fooling with it. So I went to see what I could do.
I don’t do numbers well. I was already stressed out and exhausted from a day of failing to make peace, and now I was supposed to figure out this unfamiliar technology. I’m generally pretty good at assimilating new things, but, you know…numbers. My daughter had her brother on the phone, and they were both trying to tell me what to do while I struggled to think and listen at the same time. Suddenly my upper lip went tingly-numb.
My first thought was “stroke,” but the numbness went away after about sixty seconds. Huh. I was accustomed to neuropathy in my feet, and that’s what this felt like. So I went back to what I was doing, reset the thermostat, and continued my chat with my friends. I did take a BP reading, and it was high enough I should have gone straight to the ER, but the numbness was gone so I decided I didn’t want to go to the ER just to be sent home again. I don’t have money for that sort of thing.
The following morning I woke up with no feeling at all in my lower-right face and my right hand. I knew something was terribly wrong, but I still didn’t think it was a stroke. I thought strokes always involved muscle weakness or cognitive difficulty. To me, this felt exactly like I’d slept weird on one side, or the peripheral neuropathy I’ve had in my feet for nearly a decade. Business as usual. So I waited for it to go away, as it had the night before.
The following day the numbness was still there. It began to scare me. It wasn’t getting worse, but it wasn’t getting better, either. I called my son to take me to the ER, but ended up changing my mind. I still wasn’t convinced it was a stroke, and knew how much it would cost for an MRI or CT scan. I didn’t go to the ER.
The next morning my English handbells group was to play in church. I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble playing; I could still read and move. But when I arrived at the church and I learned one of the bells needed its rubber clapper spring replaced immediately, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to just tough this thing out. I was the only player who was sufficiently skilled at replacing bell springs, and I knew my lack of sensation in my right hand was going to keep me from succeeding at this. I talked another player through it, and decided that I needed to go to the ER as soon as we were done playing that morning.
I ducked out of the service as soon as I could, went home, and asked my daughter to take me to the ER. First I had to contact my insurance provider to find out whether there was an in-network hospital nearby.
The Hendersonville Medical Center (TriStar) ER is where my brother died in 2001, and is also where he was sent home with no diagnosis two months earlier for having no insurance. In short, as I’ve mentioned here before, my brother died for lack of coverage. It was more than creepy going into that place, and I couldn’t help wondering whether the room I was in was the room he’d been in when they’d tried to revive him. And there I waited, accompanied by my daughter.
I went through the usual, vitals, bloodwork, heart monitor, etc. Then I was taken out for a CT scan (my grandson is called CT, and I wish they still called them CAT scans), which was a breeze. After some more waiting in the room, a neurologist came to tell me he had a pretty good idea I’d had a small thalamic stroke. But he wanted to see an MRI to make certain.
MRIs aren’t so bad. I’d heard they were loud and scary. The operator carefully explained to me what was going to happen, and I was able to ask questions. (Will I be able to rest my arms, or will I have to hold them up?) Then they slid me into the VERY small opening in the machine. My only moment of panic was when my shoulders touched the sides of the tube and I didn’t know how narrow it was going to be. But once I stopped moving and was able to find a spot for my arms, I was able to close my eyes and practice being still. I awaited the noise I’d heard so much about.
Wasn’t so much. Yeah, it was loud, but not startlingly or overwhelmingly so. They’d told me it was going to take awhile, but I was able to drift off in the rhythm of whack-whack-whack, and the scan was punctuated by two or three pauses. More boring than scary.
Back in the room that my brother may have died in, we waited some more. My husband called, and I updated him. Then we had to have the Living Will conversation. I didn’t have one, and since we were probably dealing with a stroke but didn’t know anything else about it, I had to tell him no machines. I wanted to be DNR. It was pretty upsetting for all of us, but it had to be said. And I made a mental note to do some legal paperwork once I had the chance. It came home to me that death wasn’t the worst thing that could happen in a hospital.
The stroke was confirmed, and I was admitted. The cash register in my head went, “Ka-ching.” More frightening than the MRI noise.
Since my arrival at about noon, I’d been asking about getting something to eat, because I hadn’t eaten since early the day before. But when they wheeled me to my room I was told it would be awhile before they would do the eating test that would determine whether I could chew without choking. I waited. It was nearly midnight before I was given the test and awarded a small turkey sandwich. Still polite, I didn’t complain about the tiny piece of bread and single slice of processed turkey. I waited for breakfast the next morning.
Food service was somewhere around 7:30, and I was beginning to feel light headed and cranky. I kept asking when it would arrive, and nobody seemed to know. Finally, about three hours after I woke up, a tray came. I could smell the sausage from the hallway.
My tray, however, contained a bottle of Ensure, some Jell-O, and a bowl of grits.
I lost it. Entirely. I’m a diabetic, and there was nothing on my tray I could consume without having a sugar spike. And…for God’s sake…grits? Furthermore, there wasn’t enough food on the tray to put a dent in my hunger, even if I had been able to eat it. I’m afraid I wasn’t very gentle in my request for a real breakfast.
The kitchen responded with a single scrambled egg and some orange juice.
The egg was fine, though not nearly enough. Orange juice has been off my diet for years, because it’s extremely high in sugar. What part of “I’m a diabetic” did they not get?
By this time I was frantic. I complained to the nurse and wanted to know what in bloody blue blazes was going on. She had no information, which is retrospect was probably a lie. I insisted on actual food. They sent someone (I forget her title) to talk to me.
It turned out that some doctor (probably the hospitalist, who turned out to be a true nitwit when I finally met him) had decided that, because I was a stroke patient, I should be on a liquid diet. Never mind that I’d passed the eating test the night before, this guy who had never laid eyes on me decided to put this diabetic on a liquid diet that was 100% carbohydrate. More on him later.
So when my lunch tray came it was still the liquid diet, but I was told to eat what I could from that tray and a real lunch would follow soon. So I wolfed the turkey soup (yes, you can wolf soup if you’re hungry enough), which was the only thing on the tray I could tolerate. Soon after another tray came with a sandwich, salad, and other goodies. I finally felt human again.
On the subject of that day’s hospitalist, here’s why he’s not getting paid by me. He did finally come by my room that afternoon, and informed me that he didn’t like my cholesterol numbers and he’d prescribed Lipitor for me. I informed him that I won’t take Lipitor because I saw what it had done to my husband. I have a long history of bad side effects and searching down the right medications, and won’t take anything that is likely to make me sick. No Lipitor for me.
He argued with me. I argued back and wondered out loud why Lipitor was the only thing he had. I asked for an alternative, but his response was to tell me he was prescribing it and I didn’t have to take it if I didn’t want to. When I asked him, “Is that all you’ve got?” He reached for his phone, pretended to take a call, wandered away, and I never saw him again.
When I saw his bill, which was an outrageous amount, I threw it in the trash. He’ll not see a dime out of my pocket.
I spent a total of two days in the hospital. I’m not sure what the purpose was of the second day, except maybe they just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to go home and start bleeding again. My meds and diet haven’t changed, though I’m more mindful of keeping stress levels low. (Yeah, right. See next rock.)
It’s been five months, and I now have sensation in my face and hand. At first it was terrible pain, but the pain has eased off somewhat and it’s now just an uncomfortable sensation. Like burning, whenever I touch something. I’m told it may eventually go away entirely, and at least for now it’s tolerable.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been AWOL, and I apologize. I expect you all found other things to amuse, and I haven’t been much fun in any case. On the 31st I had oral surgery, and it went well, thank you. Then four days later my dog died.
You know, this blog was not intended to be a litany of people and pets I’ve lost. Honest. No, really. I swear it. When I migrated my website, I fully expected to have more worthwhile things to say than “my dog died.” But let me tell you about Max. He was the best dog ever.
In June of 2010, we found ourselves dogless, and it had only been seven months since I’d lost my very favorite cat, Silas. My husband knew I wanted another Border collie, and thought he might meet me at the airport on my return from a trip to New York and present me with a puppy, but thought better of it and let me pick out the puppy myself. So we found a breeder up the road in Beth Page, and went to look.
The place was clean, the dogs seemed happy, and there were several puppies to choose from. All the unusual-colored ones were spoken for, but I was happy to take a black-and-white rough coat. I picked up one of those, and he settled into my arms while I looked at the other puppies. We talked about rough coat vs. smooth coat, eye color, and other sundries. I wanted a rough coat, and thought I might like one with blue eyes, but at five weeks old it was too early to tell eye color. We looked at the parents. The father was a smallish, red, rough coat with erect ears. We were told he was an agility competitor, and his parents had both been imported from Scotland and Ireland. I liked that very much. Mom was quite large for a Border collie. She was floppy-eared and so shaggy she almost looked like an English Sheep Dog. Her people were working cattle dogs from Kentucky.
The puppy in my arms fell asleep, and when it came time to choose, I saw no reason to put him down. So we bought him and named him Max, then left him there to grow up for another week.
The following Saturday I went to pick him up after he’d had his shots, etc., and the breeder greeted me with, “I have good news. It looks like he’s going to have one blue eye.” One blue? I thought that was a little weird. But then later he ended up with one blue and one blue/brown merle, which I found unutterably cool.
At six weeks old, Max was still very young to be leaving home. Eight weeks is the recommended age. But I had the time and energy to focus on him. I would sit with him on the carpet, and he would play for about ten minutes, then fall asleep in my lap for five. Play for ten, sleep for five.
He was the first puppy I’d ever had who was specifically my dog, and with my husband on the road there was nobody else around to influence him. I bought several books on dog training (I can do anything if I have the instructions), and began readying him for the obedience class I planned to take, which would be a learning experience for both of us. At eight weeks I started showing him the concept of “fetch.” Mostly I would take his favorite toy, toss it in front of him, then praise and pet him when he picked it up. It was maybe a couple of weeks later that he caught on that the objective was for him to bring it to me, and from then on he was a fetching fool. A Border collie with a job is a happy puppy.
Some months later we signed up for an obedience class. He already knew how to sit, but hadn’t yet grasped coming on command. He learned it in no time flat. Every week the instructor was at a loss to fill the time because Max would pick up the day’s lesson in about five minutes, then go, “Okay, what else ya got?” I decided I liked having a dog who was smarter than me.
Even for a Border collie, Max was high energy and smarter than average. We have a broadcast-style (no wire) invisible fence we’d bought for our first Border collie, Ziggy. The instructions say to give the dog a couple of days to get used to the perimeter. Ziggy, being of a breed known for intelligence, learned it in a couple of hours. Max, at about a year old, learned it in five minutes. Which is also about how long it took him to learn to catch a Frisbee (aka Slobber Disk.)
As I said earlier, Max was a fetching fool. Anyone who came to our back door was immediately presented with Max’s honeycomb ball. Like a bridge troll, he expected the ball to be thrown several times before he would allow that person to pass. And no matter how many throws he got, he always went, “Piker!” Often when I walked down the driveway to get the mail, that ball would go rolling past me to the street. I’d turn around and find Max standing at the top, waiting for me to throw it for him. The neighbors all loved playing fetch with Max, which I encouraged because I could never keep up with him.
On August 4, two weeks ago, Max died. The vet showed me the x-ray, which revealed something that looked like a bone in his colon, and a shadow that looked like a massive infection. Since everyone in my family knows not to give bones to a dog, I can only guess he got it out of the garbage. In any case, he passed only a few minutes after I got him to the vet.
I’ll get another puppy, probably in a year or two. Meanwhile I’m working with my daughter’s dog, a Mountain Cur named Cooper. He’s not a stupid dog, but compared to Max he seems badly retarded. I’m so spoiled by Max.
Let me brag about my grandsons. If you don’t want to hear this, then run away. Save yourself. I’m about to be insufferable, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. It’s in the DNA to brag about our descendants, so we just must listen to new grandparents every once in a while, sort of like having to eat rubber chicken at conventions or white knuckle teaching teenagers to drive.
When my daughter first told me she was expecting, she informed me that I could start making a baby quilt. So I gestured for her to follow me to the quilting storage boxes to show her the stash of fabrics I’d already bought for it. I was quite ready to be a grandmother. I began sewing immediately, and rushed to finish the quilt before the due date. By the time it was done, Michael was ten days old. The thing was a simple appliqué block covered with embroidered flowers, in bright batiks and a rainbow of floss. Seven months of needlework, and I rushed the last bit of embroidery.
Michael is, as of this writing, Six years old, and he’s my first grandchild. His brother, CT, just turned four. They are, of course, adorable. According to the law of infants, Michael was a Gandhi and CT a Churchill. Now that Michael is losing his front teeth, he occasionally looks like Alfred E. Newman, but in an adorable way. CT is one of the most photogenic little boys I’ve ever seen. He’s got eyes the color of a blue-eyed dog’s, and everyone who sees them goes, “Ooh, those eyes!”
I think it’s rather odd to have descendants once removed like this. I’m daycare every other week, so I get flashbacks of the days when my own children were that size. Old reflexes kick in, and I surprise myself that I remember how to do any of it.
But then when they are with their father, I find myself occasionally looking around and going, “Where are the kids?” Oh, yeah. Odd to have such a life-changing thing and be such a small part of the larger picture. But that’s part of maturing, I guess, and at my age I should be a lot more mature than I really am.
I’m lucky in that in the afternoons they sometimes let me take a nap. I try to make sure at least one of them is also asleep, otherwise I would wake up to a fully trashed house. Or else one of them (usually CT) outside and wandering around in the front yard where neither is supposed to be.
Sometimes I read to them. I have saved all the best children’s books my own kids enjoyed, and have recently acquired a full set of Winnie the Pooh books. I also have all the old Disney Classics on DVD, which they sometimes like but more often they want to see Thomas the Train or something involving LEGOs. They are skilled with the remotes and can watch whatever they like on the Kids’ account, so long as it doesn’t have a dollar sign on it.
They call me “Granny.” Like in the Beverly Hillbillies? I don’t think so. More like the dowager countess in Downton Abbey. Picture the oldest daughter saying “Grannehhhh…”
In Other News
I heard from the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? people yesterday. They said, essentially, Thanks but no thanks. Better, I think, to have a definitive rejection than to wait until gradually you are forced to realize you’ve been rejected. They also warned me that there was a limit to the number of times I can attempt this. After five rejections they say I should take a hint. Apparently they get a lot of people throwing themselves at this wall.
Um…I think I’m good. I’m certain that whatever it was that made them reject me isn’t going to change any time soon. I’ll just sit in this corner over here and pretend I didn’t really want to be a millionaire. What? Comfort and health care in my old age? Not for me.
Hello. My name is Julianne, and I’m a packrat. Okay, maybe a hoarder. A border hoarder. I’m able to throw things away, but it takes focused resolve and a commitment to not pull things from the Goodwill pile before they can make it out the door. And I do get rid of things. Junk. But not nearly enough of it. My bookshelves are not just crammed with books, and books stacked on top of books, but in front of the books are crowds of knicknacks. Greeting cards I can’t bear to throw away, executive toys I haven’t played with since the seventies, more clocks than anyone could need, collections of stones inscribed with inspiring words like “faith” and “peace,” a faux Roman coin I bought in a souvenir shop in Carlisle…junk. I tell myself that the only reason the path through my office is so narrow is that my daughter and grandsons are temporarily housed in my guest room and my stored belongings needed to go somewhere. I watch hoarder shows on cable and tell myself that at least there IS a path through my office and I keep it sanitary.
I have a friend who acknowledges her shopping/hoarding problem only because she has rooms she can’t enter because they’re too full of stuff she bought but never opened. Stacks of that stuff have fallen against the inside of the door. I tell myself I’m not a hoarder. Just a packrat. I come by it naturally; my dad was constitutionally incapable of throwing anything away. After he passed, it was discovered he had about a dozen BB guns stashed here and there for no particular reason. They were found amid the books, magazines, old slides, model airplanes, model cars, shot glasses…
He kept them clean and more or less organized, so you see…packrat, not hoarder.
Scariest among the hoarders are the people who have too many cats or dogs. Folks with fifty or a hundred or a couple hundred animals. Sometimes living in such horrible, filthy conditions they have to be rescued from the people who thought they were the rescuers. I see these folks pop up on Animal Planet often. Among normal people there’s a fascination with cat owners who don’t see they are so overwhelmed by the urge to nurture they can’t see the harm they’re doing. I know the urge, and I’ve struggled with it myself. Taking in cats can be a slippery slope. Every homeless animal makes me want to take him or her home. People who know I’m a sucker for cats and kittens always think of me first when they encounter a stray or a pet they can’t keep. But I have to turn them away, because I know exactly my cat limit. It’s 2.5.
Well, yeah, it’s incredibly hard to find that half a cat, so I waffle between two and three. I currently stand at two, am mulling taking on one more kitten, but am resisting the urge by imagining the extra cat hair, litter box, vet bills, and especially the pissing wars that can break out when personalities clash. Over the past thirty years of cat and dog ownership as an adult, these are things I know well.
Tasha was the first cat my husband and I took in after moving to Tennessee. She was a young adult shorthair tortie who appeared one day and stayed with us for a few years.
In the late eighties my husband brought home three abandoned littermates. Four cats was plainly too many. We found a home for one of them. Later Tasha disappeared; I like to think she was taken in by someone in the new condos behind us, the way we’d done. We were then left with Spot and Star. Star, a calico, disappeared almost immediately after we moved in ’93. Spot was, of course, a striped shorthair tabby. (What else does one name a striped cat but Spot?) So for the next seven years we held steady at one cat. All was under control.
But then my daughter brought home an orange-and-white stray Ragamuffin kitten, about six weeks old. He looked like a fluffy creme-sicle. Silas was the best cat buddy I’ve ever had. I knew the instant I saw him he was special, though he’d been rejected, dejected, neglected, infected, and infested in just about every way possible. The vet wasn’t certain he would live, but he did, and he turned out to be filled with relentless life. I nicknamed him Zoom Kitty, because as a kitten he had two speeds: all engines full, and asleep. He lived up to all the wonderful things you hear about Ragamuffins. All was well, with two cats, until Spot passed away at the age of thirteen. and Silas lost his second mommy. He was ten months old.
The following year my husband brought home a six-week-old female who had come into the bus yard riding in the engine compartment of a pickup truck. We named her Aeryn, and later I identified her as possibly a Siberian mix of some sort. She looked very much like a Siberian. (Thank you, Animal Planet and Cats 101.)
Then, while I was away on a research trip to Scotland in ’03, I phoned home and received news of a new kitten that had followed my daughter home. It had only been three months since we’d acquired Aeryn, but one more cat didn’t seem out of line. Marley was a blonde medium-hair, who as a kitten closely resembled Bill the Cat from Bloom County. He grew into a pretty guy (a pretty fat guy), but at first he looked very much like the sort of kitten one would get from a homeless teenager who couldn’t take care of him. Which is what my daughter had done.
That was when we tipped to half a cat too many.
Straight away Marley’s presence brought trouble. Not his fault, but when my daughter brought him into the household she neglected to take him to the vet. When I returned from Scotland, I assumed she had. For the next several weeks she kept giving him baths to get rid of fleas, which puzzled me because I’d assumed some topical flea killer would have been part of the vet visit. What I finally discovered was that there had been no vet visit, and Marley had brought in fleas and tapeworms.
It took three weeks. Four sets of medications for three cats and two dogs, two bug bombings, the yard sprayed (twice), topical flea killer for everyone (twice), and two hundred dollars later, we were finally free of tapeworms and fleas. From then on, no unvetted cats for me.
The difference between two cats and three is much more than the difference between one and two. The third cat seems to double the hair, the expense, and the behavioral issues. Marley was mellow enough, but the pissing wars weren’t pretty. At one point the kitchen stove became disputed territory, and I assure you there is no stench more appalling than burning cat piss. Also, Marley liked to chase Aeryn around the house as if he’d forgotten he was fixed, and we discovered Aeryn was epileptic. Stress triggered her seizures. We’d always known she had a screw loose, and now we knew why.
So…we were learning that though having two cats might seem to leave room for another, three cats was just a teensy bit too much.
But then my daughter began bringing home every stray kitten that crossed her path. I had to tell her to find another place for them. I was at my limit, and when a friend of mine died, leaving behind her eleven-year-old cat named Smoky Blue, I had to dig in my heels. As much as I would have loved to save every kitten on the planet, space and resources are always finite. Even the ASPCA knows that. Smoky went to another friend.
But two months later Silas died of heart failure, a problem common in Ragdolls and Ragamuffins. Meanwhile, Smoky was being handed from one adoptive family to another, unable to get along with other cats. A few months after Silas died, yet a third friend of mine told me she was going to be forced to take Smoky to a shelter because she couldn’t keep him and nobody wanted an eleven-year-old cat with bad habits. I volunteered to take him, though that put me back at half a cat too many.
Smoky was a cat and a half. He really should have been an only cat, but there was no choice in our house but to get along with the other residents. But Smoky was also in poor health. After a year and a half of chronic barfing, inappropriate peeing, hair loss, weight loss, and general crankiness, we learned he was suffering from kidney failure. We put him on an expensive prescription cat food and consulted with the vet regarding end-of-life strategy. His condition improved, we put down pee pads in the one spot he chose to visit (the doorway into my office), and closed him into my office at night to reduce the competition for territory and expensive prescription cat food.
The other thing with Smoky was that he’d been declawed. I hate that euphemism, declawed. One should say “The cat was scratching the sofa, so we took him down and had his front toes cut off.” I learned that many of Smoky’s least desirable behaviors are common in declawed cats. They can’t scratch, so instead they bite. They can’t jump and climb. They can’t balance. They’re crippled in ways humans often don’t understand, and it makes the cat cranky. All we could do was keep Smoky safe and fed.
Then my mother-in-law had to move in with some cousins who were allergic to cats, and she had to get rid of her beloved Maine Coon, Muffin. My husband asked if we could take the cat. I hoped another accommodation could be made, but when it became plain my MIL would have to lose the cat forever, I agreed to take her. We were up to four adult cats now, and none of them going anywhere.
Muffin was a five year old only cat, and poorly socialized. When she came to us it took a full month to get her to come out from under the bed in the guest room. The first time I found her sitting on top of the bed, and she let me tippytoe in and take her onto my lap, it was a major victory. I’d never in my life seen a cat purr and growl at the same time. She left after a minute, but next time she stayed longer, and eventually she was sleeping on my bed and taking up more than her half.
The Gang of Four were almost never all in the same room. Smoky owned the office. Muffin had the top of my bed and Aeryn slept inside the box spring. Marley had the kitchen and living room. Muffin guarded the litter box in the bathroom, so I had to set up another one in the guest room. But then I took in a boarder. She lived in the guest room.
With her cat.
Sassy stayed in the guest room, with her own private box. We didn’t see much of her, but Aeryn would sit by the door and sniff underneath it with the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. I felt the pissing wars coming on. Five cats in the house was more than I could take. They required more attention than I could give. There were twice as many cats as there should have been, but there was nothing I could do about it. Every day was a struggle for normalcy, every evening a ballet to get everyone fed the correct food in the correct amount without conflict. The dust bunnies in my house all had real fur. It was that way for about six months.
Then the boarder moved out with her cat. Shortly after, my mother-in-law left her cousin’s house to take an apartment near us, and reclaimed Muffin. It was a happy day when Muffin went back to her real mommy. I was attached, but everyone was happier this way and I was tickled that my mother-in-law hadn’t given away her cat to a stranger.
Then, alas, five years after we took Smoky in he finally passed away from the kidney problem. He’d been on the expensive prescription cat food for more than three times as long as the vet’s best-case prognosis. He was approximately sixteen years old, and it was time.
Last December we lost Marley to liver failure at the age of thirteen. He’s now buried in the back yard with Spot, Silas, Smoky, and two dogs, Ziggy and Riley. We were down to just one cat, Aeryn, for the first time since Silas came in 2000, and Aeryn was the same age as Marley. Plainly this would never do. I looked around, wondering where to find a kitten. I’d never had to actually look for a kitten before. They all just were brought to me. It felt very strange.
So I signed up for a pet-finding online service. The first email I got had a picture of a fluffy gray-and-white female who was marked like Silas, but had odd-looking eyes. It turned out she’d been born prematurely, without eyelids, and had required surgery to enable her to close her eyes and save her sight. The cat rescue who’d taken her in, FLUFF, had paid for surgery for her and two littermates. When I met her she sat on my lap and wouldn’t budge. Her medium-length fur was so soft she sometimes slid. I took her home and named her Morrighan.
Now I’m finding kittens everywhere. I want them all, but know I can’t take them all. Morrighan is my shadow and my lap magnet, and she makes me laugh exactly as Silas used to. I’m holding steady at two cats. See…packrat, not hoarder.
I’d thought I was going for a final visit. My father had been sick for a long time, and had been living on borrowed time since his heart attack in 2005. I pictured myself spending a couple of weeks hanging out with my dad, looking at old family photos, saying things that needed to be said, answering questions and settling misunderstandings.
My flight reservation was for 4:28 p.m. on May 2. That morning I got a phone call, and the caller ID said it was Dad. Half asleep, I picked up and when I heard a man’s voice say my name I groggily thought it was him. Surely calling to say he was feeling better, and he’d see me later.
But it was my stepbrother, telling me my father had passed away half an hour before. Suddenly my visit became a trip to a funeral.
I used to like flying. Before 9/11 it felt like a Grand Adventure to climb on a plane and head off to places I’d never been before. Scotland, New York, Montreal, Frankfurt…then the TSA entered the picture and it’s never been the same since. But today there were no hassles. The world had turned…soft. Dreamlike. As if everyone knew I was not really here anymore, and that no matter what happened in transit, it would still be better than the morning I’d had.
I landed in Spokane shortly before the car rental counter was due to close down at midnight, with an hour and a half drive still between me and Colville. One of the handles on my suitcase had been broken off, but I had more pressing things to deal with.
I turned on my phone to call my husband to tell him the plane hadn’t crashed, but the thing went into a beeping fit and turned itself off. Huh. Turned it on again, and it beeped some more before blinking off. It appeared I would need to plug it in once I got into the car.
The nice car rental fellow gave me a key and sent me to slot J4 where I was supposed to find a cheap, wind-up-toy sort of car. Economy was all I could afford.
No car in J4. I peered at the key fob to see what it said, but my reading glasses weren’t anywhere near my face and all I could see was a big J4 scrawled on the fob in black sharpie. And even I could see there was no car in J4.
I pushed the door unlock button on the fob, and the car in J5 blinked a “hereIam.” I blinked back. It was a 2017 silver and black Camaro. Convertible. I was tired enough to go, “Oh, dear.” I knew for sure the car rental guy was going to come scurrying out of the terminal any second, and take away the fob he’d mistakenly given me. He couldn’t possibly have meant for me to have this car. But I was too tired to do anything but say “screwit” and make a note to argue with them later.
The trunk was absurdly tiny, but my bag made it in. I climbed into the driver’s seat, and couldn’t see over the dashboard. It was dark, and I was afraid to feel around for random buttons lest I accidentally put the top down and couldn’t get it back up. So I tried to see what I was doing in the dark. (See above: no reading glasses.)
I got the car started somehow, though there was no actual key on the fob. Also a first for me. Good thing the dashboard gave me an error message telling me to put my foot on the brake, or I’d still be there, pushing that button. I found the cigarette lighter plug and plugged in my phone. Tried to turn it on, but it only beeped and pooped out again. I started to become frustrated.
The car was one of those newfangled, quasi-manual shift cars with no clutch. I like a standard transmission, but I don’t think they make those anymore. I had never, ever seen one of these with no clutch. I had not the faintest idea how to shift this thing.
I had a GPS with me, and felt around, hoping to find a second cigarette lighter plug. No luck. I had to unplug the phone to plug in the GPS. I didn’t much like being unable to call my husband right away, but I had no clue which way to go to get to the road north.
With the GPS booted, I went to enter my destination, which was my dad’s house. I realized I did not know the house number. Which was on my phone. Which I couldn’t turn on.
I unplugged the GPS, plugged in my phone, then sat for a moment, beyond frustrated and holding back panic.
I noticed an OnStar button, and pushed it in desperation though I figured I would get a robot voice asking for a credit card number. But instead I got a live person, to whom I spilled my guts about my situation. She happily sent me the directions to Colville via the onboard GPS.
So I backed out of the space, nearly an hour after my plane had landed, and made my way out of the parking lot.
That was when I realized the shifting procedure wasn’t going to make itself apparent. The shifter did nothing once it was in drive, and there was no obvious control for changing gears. I could hear the engine winding up, and had to pull over to think about this. I was having nightmare visions of driving all the way to Colville in first gear and arriving sometime near dawn.
As I poked around the dashboard, looking for the bloody shift control, my phone rang. It was my husband. I picked it up, certain the thing would turn off as soon as I touched it. When I heard his voice, I burst into tears I was so relieved.
He talked me in off the ledge, explained to me how to shift the car (paddles on the steering wheel…who knew?), and then tried to help me figure out which way to pick up the road to Colville. Because he’s spent the past forty-five years driving everywhere in North America and some places south of the border, he knew where I should go. However, he couldn’t know exactly where I was because I could see no signs. I had to hang up, plug the GPS back in, and see if I could shift the car well enough to get out of Spokane. Then I looked up dad’s house number on my phone, entered it into my familiar GPS, and proceeded on my way.
An hour and a half later I pulled up at my father’s house, where my father no longer was.
My stepmother and two of my stepbrothers were there. Over the next few days we all picked carefully through the minefield of memories, photographs, and paperwork. We pulled together the details of Dad’s life, and I helped write his obituary. It was a surreal experience.
He was all about airplanes. He learned to fly before he learned to drive. After high school he studied aeronautical engineering and began military flight training in the Naval Reserve. He declined an appointment to Annapolis so he could continue his flight training, then was called up for active duty in the Korean War. He finished his training in Pensacola. His flight gear and log book are on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum there.
During his eight years of active duty, he flew fighter jets off the U.S.S. Boxer and U.S.S. Hornet, earning seven citations and service medals. After the war, he flew as a test pilot and was assigned to the U.S. Naval Air Missile Test Center at Point Mugu, California. I was born on that base.
After his discharge from active duty, he went to work at Lockheed Missiles and Space Corp. Still with the airplanes. In his forties he took a hiatus from there, finished out college, picked up an MBA, and worked as a flight instructor, instructor trainer, and aerial photographer. He tried to teach me to fly, but I couldn’t get past the unshakable conviction that the instant I took control of the plane it would plummet from the sky. I still have the logbook that shows half an hour of flight time.
One of my favorite pictures of myself was taken by my dad when I was about three years old, as I was running across the yard to hug him. When I was four, he came home from somewhere with a copy of Black Beauty for me. I looked inside and said, “I can’t read this; there aren’t any pictures.” He said, “Then learn to read.”
And I did.
In 2002 when my second novel was released, I was visiting my dad for a family reunion. We went into Barnes & Noble and found seven copies of Outlaw Sword on the shelf. I said, “Cool. Let’s see if they want me to sign them.” He laughed, thinking I was joking. But he stopped laughing when I took the copies to the service desk and the manager was happy to have me sign them. As I did, my dad stood there looking like he was going to pop from pride.
On May 18 he was buried in a veteran’s cemetery outside of Spokane, with full military honors. Jet airplanes taking off from nearby Spokane airport added an oddly appropriate soundtrack as we mourned a former fighter pilot. In the distance the United States flag flew at half mast. Three riflemen fired three volleys. Strangers in uniform saluted him, with all military precision and respect
I knew him for sixty years, and now I can’t imagine the world without him in it.
On Tuesday, May 2, my father died. This week I’m helping my stepmother make arrangements and decisions, so I won’t have a post until next Saturday. Meanwhile, I leave you with these thoughts from Joseph Kennedy III:
Joseph Kennedy III writes:
“It is among the most basic human truths: Every one of us, some day, will be brought to our knees by a diagnosis we didn’t expect, a phone call we can’t imagine, or a loss we cannot endure.
That common humanity inspires our mercy. It fortifies our compassion. It drives us to look out for the sick, the elderly, the poor, and the most vulnerable among us.
Yesterday’s bill — yesterday’s devastating bill — does the opposite.
The bill is more than premiums and tax cuts. It is a cold and calculated world view: It scapegoats the struggling, and sees fault in suffering. It is deadset on dividing us based on who we love, where we come from, the direction of our faith, and the size of our fortunes.
We see this worldview in their tax plan, their budget cuts, their immigration policy, their civil rights assaults — and yesterday, in their cruel health care plan.
We must reject it.
We must decide, instead, to take care of each other — because, but for the grace of God, we will all one day wake up in need of a little mercy.
This nation’s character has never been defined by the power we give the already strong — but by the strength we give the weak.”
Due to a family emergency, this week’s column is a favorite from four years ago. There is a brief update below.
I’m not going to be the next Fox Network Master Chef. Let me tell you how I know this.
For those who are Chef Ramsay clueless, Master Chef is one of about half a dozen “reality” shows produced by Chef Gordon Ramsay, a chef of haute cuisine who owns restaurants in London, Glasgow, and Los Angeles. As a television personality, Ramsay is quite a character. He’s known for his foul mouth and wide mean streak, yet his shows strike a chord in that he is sharply tuned in to other people, and that is what makes his shows work. In Master Chef, a hundred amateur cooks are chosen from across the country to compete in several weeks of cooking competition elimination challenges, from which only one emerges the winner of $250,000. Simple enough on the surface, but not so simple when you understand that the contest is not about the food so much as it is about the people. That is why, when the producers went looking for a hundred cooks for Season Four, they called it an audition. This isn’t a contest, it’s a drama.
So I decided to bop down to the audition in Nashville last Saturday. I’ve been cooking for family since I was eleven, and I figured with forty-five years of experience behind me I might have a shot at this. I, too, am a character and there is no reason I shouldn’t fit in with the folks in that competition. The worst that could happen is that they could sneer at me like Ramsay and his buddies often do, and send me home. I’ve been sneered at; they don’t scare me.
My best recipe is a pumpkin pie my mom used to make, which I made traditional in my family and it morphed into something slightly different. I call it Jack-O-Lantern Pie. Every Hallowe’en I carve a jack-o-lantern from a large pumpkin, set a candle in it, and put it out on my porch until the trick-or-treaters are done for the evening. The next morning I cut it in half, bake it until tender, then puree it. I freeze the puree for pies on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and one large, reasonably moist pumpkin will usually cover me for four deep-dish pies. After nearly thirty years of baking pies with fresh pumpkin, I can hardly look at canned pumpkin and decline to order pumpkin pie in any restaurant.
So I got up at dawn on Saturday to bake a pie. I often don’t make my own crust, but this time I did, and fashioned little crust-leaves for decoration. It was a thing of beauty, easily the finest pie I’ve ever made. I set it in a flat basket for transport, covered it with a new, white dishcloth, and set out for Nashville like I was headed for grandmother’s house wearing a red, hooded cape.
When I entered the waiting room there was a light, cheerful, friendly feel to the place. Folks sat around, waiting for their nametag number to be called, most with coolers and carriers sitting at their feet. I took a seat and turned on my Kindle, for I could see there would be a long wait. I had no idea.
The applicants were processed at a rate of twenty an hour, so it was two hours before my number was called. A small, bearded man hurried in and out, who turned out to be the one responsible for the atmosphere staying light, cheerful, and friendly. Otherwise, I’m sure, there would have been mutiny. He came and went, joking and smiling, and explaining to everyone what was going on at any given time. I believe he saved lives.
As we waited, the smell of food wafting through the room kept reminding me I had neglected to eat breakfast that morning, for my stomach was nervous and I figured I would be able to grab some lunch when I was done feeding pumpkin pie to the judge. Silly me. It was well past noon, I’d been up since six o’clock, and was ravenous. Still we waited.
Finally my group of twenty was marched into the judging room, lugging our coolers, carriers, and baskets. Several people carrying clipboards stood around or scurried here and there. We were instructed to stand by a table and not touch the food until told. A short, dark-haired girl came around to squirt our hands with hand sanitizer, the plating and judging procedure was explained to us, and then we were allowed to plate our food. We had three minutes.
I never would have thought it could take so long to put food on a plate. The first piece of pie I cut came out in two pieces. I set it aside and cut another, which obeyed nicely and didn’t fall apart. I dumped the first piece back in the pie plate and set it on the floor next to my purse, then proceeded with the whipped cream and cinnamon candy syrup, finally decorating with the pie crust leaves sprinkled with cinnamon. I was well pleased with my presentation. Three minutes up, hands off the food, and we waited.
First to come around was the Head Guy judge, an Hispanic-looking fellow with a pleasant smile and a gentle voice. He spent a couple of minutes with each applicant chatting first then taking a very small taste with a plastic fork. He was a bit distracted by the guy in the cowboy hat, though. Everyone who has seen this show knows there’s always one contestant from the South in a cowboy hat. I guess that’s to signal the rest of the world that he’s from the South, for we all know that Southerners wear cowboy hats everywhere. This one had brought two jars of moonshine to serve with his dish. (Let me note here that in Tennessee corn liquor is legal so long as it’s aged and taxed according to law. Which, to my mind, makes it not moonshine, but maybe that’s just me. In any case, I have such a jar myself, and I assume the stuff in those jars was duly aged and taxed.) Head Guy saw this, and in the middle of his chat with the guy next to me turned and made a beeline for the guy serving alcohol. After a couple of shots, he returned to his task, but didn’t stay long. He hurried back to Cowboy Hat to ask for one of the jars, which he set aside before once again resuming his job. Everyone in the room laughed, but not very happily.
The smell of food in this room was stronger than in the room previous, and I was lucky my stomach didn’t start growling.
My turn. Head Guy had some nice things to say about my pretty piece of pie, and when he tasted it he said “Very nice.” So I was relieved to learn I wasn’t going to be sneered at. He asked me about the jack-o-lanternness of my pie, and further queried about why we call them jack-o-lanterns. Since I’m History Geek, I was happy to answer his question. He ended with “Good work,” and moved on.
He was followed up by the little dark-haired girl, whose question to everyone was “Tell me: Why Master Chef? Why now in your life?” Hard question to answer, since this was entirely a lark for me and I was only there to see how far I would get. I knew they wanted to hear about how I was hanging my entire existence on this contest and my heart would break if I didn’t get on the show, but I just couldn’t do it. That would be a lie. So I told the truth. I said it sounded like fun. I could see I was impressing nobody. But we segued into a chat about my grandson and his food allergies, so it wasn’t a total loss since I got to talk about the grandbaby. But then when she asked what I do, I told her I write novels for a living and her eyes glazed over. Hrm.
Then came more waiting. A lot more waiting, as we stood behind our tables. I looked over to my right at some fish tacos and my mouth watered. All that food in that room smelled so good! I like fish tacos. The woman to his right had something with a great deal of cheese. I like cheese.
People across the way began tasting each other’s dishes. I was so hungry! I hadn’t eaten since the day before. It was nearly three in the afternoon. The dish-sharing spread, and people were tasting those fish tacos and the casserole further over. My neighbors asked me for a taste of pie, and I gave them gladly. I nibbled a bit myself, but hesitated to ask others for theirs because I was afraid I would make a pig of myself. I was so hungry.
However, the girl to my left had something with Brussels sprouts that looked irresistible. Brussels sprouts can be very good if they’re done right, and these were very small. I asked for one.
Oh. My. God. It was the best Brussels sprout I’ve ever had. You could die from this Brussels sprout. I asked for the secret, then I asked for another taste. I could have eaten the whole plate.
We waited some more, then the judging folk read off the numbers of the applicants they wanted to stay behind. Nobody was surprised when Cowboy Hat Guy was called. Maybe I could have done what he did, but bribery just didn’t occur to me and I haven’t worn a cowboy hat since I was six. Brussels Sprouts Girl was called, and she deserved it. I was not called, and I probably deserved that. Clearly I am not, as they say often on this show, “Master Chef material.” I and my fellow rejects made that long walk to the door, just as hundreds of others have done in the Master Chef kitchen. We were blessed that we didn’t have to do it on camera.
I’ve been to cattle calls as an actor in Los Angeles, and I have to say those are a little easier to take. Usually what happens to an actor is that one is told to go home, then one goes home and waits for a phone call. Realization can take weeks, and it’s gradual. Last Saturday I knew I was rejected when they skipped my number and they told me to leave. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.
I don’t really know why I went. Or even why anyone goes to something like that. I guess it’s a need for others to see how special we are, and I think that’s a common enough feeling. But there are six billion people on the planet and that makes specialness either really common or impossibly rare, depending on how you look at it. In a way it’s bizarre and maybe a little pathetic. I stand guilty on both counts.
I’m not sorry I went. I had a day of smiles, was complimented on my Jack-O-Lantern Pie by someone who would know, and I now have a bag of fresh Brussels sprouts in my refrigerator waiting to be sautéed in bacon grease and maple syrup. Dang, those were good.
That year was the fourth season of Master Chef, which was won by a fellow from Italy named Luca. I cheered him on to victory, entirely over my disappointment at not getting a free trip to Los Angeles. I still enjoy the show, though it’s true the premise is wearing a bit thin. I tinker in the kitchen, and once a week I attend a pot luck dinner with a cluster of friends who are quasi-foodies like me. I’ve successfully made those Brussels sprouts a few times. I’ve given up my dream of being yelled at by Gordon Ramsay, and have set my sights on more reasonable goals.
Today I rerun an essay from my Facebook page, originally published about three years ago, when I was still a Methodist, attending a church undergoing severe upheaval. Our music minister, Bill White, was fired suddenly, for no apparent reason. Below the original essay, I present an update.
Most people understand there is a difference between people who are creative and those who are not. Those who are not often wish they were able to think up wonderfully entertaining things so they might be lauded as geniuses and artists. Those of us who do think creatively know it’s not really like that. I look at people who have stable lives and who are able to keep the imagination from wandering all over where the boogeyman lurks, and wish for that sort of peace. I would trade all my so-called talents for just one marketable skill.
But I’m not here to whine about my ADD. I want to talk about our church’s music minister, who was let go this week for reasons unknown to me. Bill worked for us for nearly twenty years, hired originally as our organist, then as our music minister when the woman in that job left. He is a local professional musician, which in Nashville means quite a lot. The day in 1994 he first played for the choir at practice, he gave us an improvisational rendition of Amazing Grace that was so sublime it made that tired old tune seem fresh. When he was done, I knelt, genuflected, and cried like Wayne and Garth, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” And it was true. He had a special talent none of us had ever seen in that church, and I believe we will never see again.
Bill thinks in music. He sometimes has difficulty with the spoken word, but in his writing and playing of music he is able to express things that the rest of us can only feel. He’s the epitome of the sort of person who thinks creatively, and for those of us who receive spiritual message best through the medium of music, he was, literally, a Godsend.
I am a Christian not because my parents made me go to church when I was a child (they didn’t). I am one because when I was in high school I was given a little, red New Testament, and that made me curious. I then borrowed a copy of the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar, and played the music until I had every word and every note memorized. Internalized. To this day, whenever a bit of that Gospel story is mentioned in church, my mind brings up the relevant phrases of that music. This is how I access my religion. Without music, I would not have had a clue. When I joined this church nearly thirty years ago, the first thing I did was to join the handbell choir, and the second thing was to join the Chancel Choir. For some of us, the sermon is secondary to the music, and I truly believe church music exists for the sake of reaching people like me.
Having Bill for a music minister was special enough for me, and for many other members of the choir, to stay at this church during the past several years while other church members were unhappy enough with the new minister to leave for other churches. Our church musicians, especially, were under attack for being “too traditional.”
And yet the Chancel Choir hung on, rather than find other churches as did 400 other church families. To hear the offertory, which Bill always executed without sheet music, letting the music simply flow from brain to fingers and on out through the piano, was by itself worth getting up at dawn to serve in the choir of a church that made us increasingly uncomfortable. We hung on because most of us had been members for decades and we at least had Bill to guide us through this rough patch.
But we no longer have Bill. His last choir practice was on Wednesday, and instead of practicing that night most of us cleared out our folders. I estimate about half the choir won’t ever be back, and those who would stay won’t have a choir in which to serve. The church administration has made it clear that they don’t want a traditional choir. There may never again be a Chancel Choir in that church, or a handbell choir.
I was in the handbell choir for nearly thirty years. My children grew up in that church. It was the first church in my life I attended more than twice. It was the first place I ever had that gave me any stability in my life, and it was the only sanctuary I had from the difficulties of culture shock when I first moved to Tennessee. I’d intended to die a member of that church. What has been done to it is unconscionable. What was done to Bill was unimaginable, even by someone with an imagination like mine.
About three years have passed since that dark Wednesday when my spiritual world crumbled. When I said I thought half the choir would return the following week, I was wrong. Only four of the nearly fifty remained. The rest of us left and stayed gone. The handbell choir finished up our season and went on our usual hiatus, but the following fall only one third of us returned. The new music director, who knew nothing about handbells (or reading music, for that matter), wasn’t expecting any of us to return. It was an uphill struggle to play at all.
Now, three years later, many of the choir members are singing in the community chorus directed by Bill White. He’s now a published music arranger. Our group, The Hendersonville Community Singers, will be performing some of his arrangements in our Spring Concert this coming Tuesday. (PM me for information.) While we miss the old days, there is once again the deep sense of continuity that had suddenly gone missing when he was fired from the church. Most of the folks who left the choir have found other churches. Some have passed away. For myself, I’ve gone to another denomination and am now an Episcopalian. At my new church, “traditional” is not a pejorative. It’s a tiny church, where the choir has only eight voices and I feel deeply appreciated for my strong alto voice. I’ve also formed a handbell choir there, with borrowed bells and borrowed music, and have reassembled the old carillon the Methodist Church didn’t want. We friends have played together for thirty years, and look forward to many more.
Our priest is intelligent, educated, and kind. The atmosphere in that small congregation is welcoming and non-judgmental. They’ve given us creative types a safe place where we can worship musically, the way some people are intended.
When I was in my early forties I took my first trip to Scotland. It was a whirlwind of new experiences. I discovered it was possible to drink carbonated soda at room temperature, that ale isn’t like beer at all, and that black pudding is really very good, so long as you eat it with eggs that have really runny yolks. But part of what I learned was that in the U.K. older women are not invisible to young men.
Having spent most of my life as a young, cute blonde girl, quite visible but for all the wrong reasons, I’d become comfortable with fading into the background as I aged, because I was done with fending advances. After decades of leering looks, copped feels, really dumb double entendres and generally being treated like furniture, I’d take being unseen over being a target, with pleasure, thankyouverymuch. But then, in Edinburgh one Sunday, I encountered a young, handsome Irish fellow in a souvenir shop who did not ignore me.
Such a sweetie, he took seriously my lame desire for a clan badge for a clan that was not my own. He wasn’t certain he had one, but he was perfectly willing to help me dig through baskets of pins looking for it. He appeared to be having as much fun on my trip as I was chatting merrily as we knelt on the floor, looking for a Matheson clan badge for the character in my new book. I adored his accent as he told me about Ireland vs. Edinburgh, and the one thing missing was the condescending, yet somehow suggestive tone American men always seemed to have. If they spoke to me at all. This young Irishman spoke to me straight across, just as I’d always wished to be spoken to. I was astonished.
Throughout that trip I noticed other young men who did the same thing. The barkeep at a pub, a hotelier in the Highlands, a cab driver, a waiter. I was visible to all of them! The only downside was that I could no longer fight crime or walk into men’s rooms. I returned home, wondering what was wrong with American men.
Years later when I turned fifty, I celebrated my new eccentricity. I was, I felt, now officially eccentric rather than simply weird. I was now able to get away with things, just like Estelle Getty in “The Golden Girls,” whose character had no filter, so that she blurted whatever crossed her mind with impunity. In short, I could be myself and not be censured. Mostly. I was still invisible to young American men, but that mattered less and less. American men were a writeoff, and British men were…well, over there. I accepted.
Then one day last year I was getting my hair colored, and my hairdresser’s next appointment arrived early. She sat and chatted with us while my cut was finished up and blown dry. I noticed her hair. She had short, blonde hair in a kicky sort of style, and it had large streaks of bright purple. The sort of eye-catching color one these days usually sees on millennial girls, and sometimes boys. But this woman was my age, and it struck me that she didn’t look as if she were trying to appear younger than she was. In fact, it was just the opposite. She actually appeared to be flaunting her age. As if she were saying, “Yeah, I’m fifty-five. Get over it.” I couldn’t help staring at that fabulous color.
My hairdresser said I should have mine dyed like that. I said, “I was just thinking that same thing.” Not purple, because then I’d have to buy a whole new wardrobe. But blue. My favorite color is blue, which would work with everything I own. After some discussion, we settled on a bright, electric blue. Just little spots at first, but over the following year it increased to larger, more visible streaks.
Way more visible. Like a light going on, I was suddenly noticed, in a good way. Younger people I didn’t know, older people I did know, all thought it was delightful. Most
importantly, I enjoyed it. In an odd way, it seemed as if people in general began treating me like the person I felt I was inside. Eccentric, creative…visible.
This afternoon I was in a book store with some friends, at the checkout, and a handsome young man at the cash register said, “I love your hair.”
I thanked him kindly. I’d grown accustomed to positive remarks about it but it’s always nice to hear. I said, “Yeah, I’m a blue-haired old lady.”
“You certainly pull it off well.”
I thanked him again, now truly flattered. What a sweetie, and he sounded like he meant it, unlike all the young men of my own youth who’d only ever wanted to get me into bed. (Not nearly as much fun as one might think.) What a joy!
Outside the store I told my friends, “I love being an age where I can get a compliment like that from a young man and know for a certainty he’s not trying to pick me up.”
At long last I can be myself. Now I know what Robert Frost meant: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!’”