I’m learning to live with your best
sugar bowl in my hutch, sweater on
my skin, watch on my dresser.
I’m sweeping the rug you gave me
snowed under with tissues I wept in,
shredded and scattered by the dogs.
I’m bewildered, most of all,
rinsing out vases, my hands stained
yellow with the pollen of lilies.
It happens each year. October 30th draws closer, and I’m a wreck, and it’s been long enough that I don’t actually remember why I’m a wreck. And then I do. A daughter always remembers losing a mother. She remembers it in her bones.
The power of the calendar baffles me. How can a date on a manmade chart have power? But it does. Maybe the calendar isn’t manmade. Maybe it’s just discovered, and it ties in to deeper natural rhythms. Maybe we socialized, higher-thinking creatures have decided these rhythms don’t apply to us, but they do. We are animals, and animals feel grief.
Grief is not a function of whatever higher mind we think we possess. When our big Holly dog had to be put to sleep, we brought her body home to bury. Zoe, our little dog, gave her a last, sad sniffing-over. Then she put up her snout for one loud, sad howl. For the rest of Zoe’s life, when we talked in Holly’s special voice, Zoe’s ears pricked up and she looked around, expecting Holly to show up when we talked the big dog talk.
So I guess it’s not surprising that for years, I waited for Mom to show up. I mean, I know it’s insane and all, but I still kept thinking this terrible mistake would somehow be reversed, rectified. On my first trip up to Bainbridge Island after she died, I fully expected her to appear. She would step out from wherever she’d been hiding and we’d all laugh at how she’d put one over on us.
By the end of the day, I was exhausted by my own disrupted expectation.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion talks about saving her husband’s shoes after he died, because, well, he’d need them, wouldn’t he, when he returned. She knew he was dead, of course she knew that. But still, he might need those shoes. I understand that perfectly.
Here’s something else I understand. You all have moms, and your moms are not going to die. That only happens to other people’s moms. I know that, okay? But you all don’t have moms like my mom, that’s what I should make clear. No one, aside from my brothers and my sister, had a mom like mine.
She loved us deeply. Profoundly. Imperfectly. She was emotionally expansive and inclusive, easily wounded and unforgiving. She was magnetic, intelligent, frustrated, passionate, narcissistic, petulant, sarcastic, educated, manipulative, conniving, loving, caring, hopeful, idealistic, hilarious. Most of all, my mom was alive. She was on fire with living, from the soles of her size-12 feet up through and out the roots of her silky silver hair. She was larger than life, and though she hated that about herself physically, she wore it like a queen intellectually. She was a force of nature.
I don’t write much about Mom’s actual death. The official version is, I drove to Seattle with my oldest daughter, my sister and my nephew on a Saturday. I was going to argue with Mom about cooperating with her cancer treatments. I walked in to the hospital to find my brothers and father there, and my younger brother told me, “We think it’s going to be today.”
I’d been told she had six months. It had only been two weeks since they told me that.
I remember too much of the hours between when I entered the hospital and when I left. Reading to her, talking to her, trying to calm her down. Every shapeless syllable that rose from her throat, because she was not able to speak anymore. What comforted her and what angered her. Her determination to die.
At the moment when it happened, I remember my family in that room, our heads thrown back, the rising, keening cries that reminded me of Zoe’s last howl for Holly. We just wailed. I called my ex-husband from the bathroom of the hospital room. To him fell the task of telling two daughters who weren’t with me.
I called my friend Elizabeth and let her know it was over. Saying the words still didn’t make this real or understandable. The last time I saw my mother’s body, my little brother was bending over her, gently talking to her and cutting off a piece of her hair with his pocketknife, so I could have it as a keepsake. Then it was time to leave.
When I paid for my parking at the hopsital, I asked the attendant, “How long have I been here?” and he said “Three hours.” I said, “Your whole life can change in three hours, did you know that?” He nodded and gave me my change.
I kept patting my daughter. That was not for her comfort, but for mine. I’d feel this terrible spinning, like I had nothing holding me down, like I was going to fall off the earth, and I’d reach out, touch her hair, regain my footing through the primal reassurance of her presence.
While we waited in the ferry line, I called my friend San from work, to ask her to let the office know I wouldn’t be back the next day. I wasn’t crying. I was too shocked to cry. I remember the questioning tone of my voice when I told her, “My mom is gone?” and the questioning tone in her voice when she said, “Oh Karen, she is? She’s gone? I’m so sorry?” Like the weight of declarative statements would have crushed us as we gently interrogated this new, nearly unspeakable truth.
Like a pile of sand
Churned to bits and heaped
Waiting for the tide to take me
But daughters come, with pails and pats
And shore me up
Not letting me wash away.
The first Christmas after losing my mother, my family gathered and made our way through, stopping now and then to just cry. We would carry on and cook or eat or open a gift, and then one of us would choke up, and then all of us would. Tears upon tears, dominoes of grief, one after another, until we had all fallen down. Over and over that day, we stopped what we were doing and grieved.
My grief was exacerbated when my younger brother and his wife announced that they were expecting their first child. I was so happy and so devastated. How could it be that my mother would never meet this child? Worse yet, how could it be that this child would never meet my mother? This child who is nine years old, now. I try to tell her about her other grandmother, some halting explanation of how wonderful she was to my girls. But what am I trying to do? Make my niece experience a loss she doesn’t have to experience? I don’t know. I just know I want my niece to have some concept of her other grandmother, some idea of her.
At one point, a friend said something like, “Your mother wouldn’t want you to suffer like this.” I said, “You didn’t know my mother. Mom would want to be missed. She’d want me to be miserable. She’d want me to lie down in the middle of a road and let cars run over me.”
If a desire for advice brought you to this post, I’m sorry. I’m not much for advice. But I can tell you that it does get better, I swear, it does. You look at each other and express disbelief that it’s been five years, then ten years, then more. This year, it is twelve years since that day in Seattle.
Losing my mom was like this: I was standing on the prairie alone, and the ground was dry and the sky was getting dark. Somewhere behind me, a gigantic roar started. It was a roar and a wind and a howl, and I could hear it back on the horizon, and I knew it was coming but there was no getting out of its way. It gathered up and blew through me with the force of a freight train, and it left a hole that wouldn’t close. The world became a place I didn’t recognize.
It felt like this for years.
But at some point, I realized that I’d made it through the worst. I forgave myself for not going to the cemetery on her birthday one year, or on Mother’s Day the next. Eventually I forgave myself for going on. I understand that we are designed to outlive our parents, to survive losing a mother, a father. Eventually, we are supposed to be all right, and I am. I hope my mother would forgive me for that.
I will always remember her last words to me, spoken over the phone on a day when she was too sick to talk, so I said I’d let her go and told her that I loved her. I could hear the nausea and misery and pain in her voice when she said, “Oh, I love you.” Best last words ever, I think. I feel profound gratitude for those words, every damn day.
So, I take it back. I do have some advice: think about ending more conversations with the words, “I love you.”
Grief’s handmaiden bears a bowl
Where once her heart beat
Her ribs encircle it
It goes all through her
Her mourning is soft and dappled
Like the wing of a pigeon
Fanning the surface
Testing the tension
And she spills a bit here
And she spills a bit there
Minding her grief
Making her way.
Oh! The joy of collaboration!
I’m here to announce the publication of a new book, ORCAS INTRIGUE, but my name isn’t on it! This is a collaboration with my friend, Shannon Page. And I’ve never collaborated before but let me tell you, I am absolutely going to do it again. Soon.
I’m a great collaborator at the day job. I love to sit in a meeting and bounce ideas back and forth, watching them build or deflate accordingly. But I never collaborate in my personal writing, ever. Except…Shannon and I have this mutual fan club going.
Now, please understand that Shannon is well-and-often-published. One of her first, early novels has been acquired by a publishing house, and she’s working on it in order to deliver it for publication. My early work has been repped by three good agents, but no one could sell it (ah, the story of my life). So I am working on my stuff in order to bring it out myself.
We both have WORK to do.
Shannon and I help each other in this process by reading, suggesting, enjoying each other’s stuff. Shannon is also a professional editor and proofreader, so when I hand off something to her, I never get back weird suggestions that ruin the syntax of my sentences. In fact, I will go out on a limb here and say that she’s never once suggested a change that has done anything but improve my syntax. Because I get a little windy at time. Lengthy. Or, choppy and fragmented.
This probably has to do with the pressures of what I write at work, which is by nature brief, cogent, persuasive or informative. Though I am permitted fragments galore while writing certain types of work copy, my run-on sentences have no place in the office, so I indulge them magnificently when writing on my own dime.
So, a year ago, I approached Shannon with the very unusual idea of collaboration on a specific project. I’ll tell you about that another time, but Shannon countered with another idea. In fact, Shannon was on FIRE with this other idea, and before I knew it, a 30K+ draft landed in my inbox. It was amazing. She had the basic characters, initial plot and fantastic setting all laid out in this draft. All I had to do was bat it back and forth with her until the manuscript had acquired a dead body, lost a romantic ending and doubled in word count.
People, this was so much fun. I had no IDEA how fun collaboration could be.
As a writer, I read other people’s stuff all the time. And I conceive these strong ideas of what something needs (or doesn’t need) and I have to think of a way to diplomatically convey my absurdly strong opinions to the writer, knowing full well that whatever I suggest probably won’t be adopted. Imagine, then, the joy and freedom of opening up the document and just MAKING THE CHANGES. Right then and there.
Now, I am aware that in Shannon, I had an experienced collaborator who was happy and open to change. It might not be that way with anyone else, I don’t know. But the experience was fantastic. Under our nom de plume, Laura Gayle (Laura is Shannon’s middle name, and Gayle is mine plus an “L”, to make it sound more like a last name), we plan to collaborate much more and very soon.
So, let me tell you about this book we wrote.
ORCAS INTRIGUE opens with Camille Tate taking the ferry to Orcas Island. Orcas is part of the San Juan Islands, which snuggle up so far north, they are practically Canada. She’s fleeing a broken heart, and has decided the best way to handle her disappointment and misery is to go to a cold northern island where she can steep in her misery and work on a screenplay. Of course, she is almost immediately embroiled in terrifying events, and those events show the reader something strange and special about Camille.
This is a cozy mystery with elements of suspense, mystery, romance and the paranormal. There is also a lot of humor to be found as Camille explores Orcas Island, learns about its eccentric inhabitants, and solves a crime. It’s available in paper and Kindle. And has a beautiful cover by Mark Ferrari.
So give it a look-see. I love it and I hope you do, too. And if you do, please leave a review! Amazon reviews are incredibly helpful!
Note: This really is a ten year-old piece of writing about my favorite microwave and my second-favorite microwave. Seriously. Apparently nothing is too mundane for me to write about. And for the record, I still have that second microwave.
I just dropped off my microwave at a repair shop over here. Now, I know you all say, what? Karen G. Berry, are you nuts? how much does a new microwave cost, anyway? Why not just buy a new one?!
Well, for a couple of reasons. I like the way this one looks, and I like the way this one works.
I dislike programming things. I have a hard time figuring out just which information the microwave requires. When I select defrost, why does it wait? Why doesn’t it just get to the defrosting? But no, it wants some weight and some power levels entered, and every microwave is different. When I try to make a frozen dinner, sometimes it wants to know how many. Like, cooking a frozen dinner in the microwave may be one of the most pathetic “I am single and on a diet” statements a person can make, and it feels like the microwave is mocking a person, asking if perhaps she wants to put two frozen dinners in to cook. Which she doesn’t. Same with cups of “beverage.” No, the microwave is the single person’s appliance of choice, and it should be built for one.
Of course, my first microwave was large enough to hold a small turkey.
When I was 19, my mom won a $1000.00 certificate, to be redeemed for something energy-saving. She went to a microwave dealership and negotiated three Amana Radaranges, one for her, one for me, one for my sister. These usually cost $450.00. Back in 1979, $450.00 was a lot of money, and these machines were built like tanks. Moving it was a disc-rupturing event, but move it I did, because I loved that machine. (click here to see exactly what it looked like: Perfect Microwave)
It was brown, heavy gauge metal, like the cladding of a refrigerator. It had a big chrome door with a handle, and the glass in that door was thick like the glass in a real oven door. It pulled out and down like an oven door, and closed with a satisfying thunk and latch, like the door on an ancient Buick, the kind my sister’s friends were bought back in high school because parents believed those Buicks would keep their kids safe in an auto crash (my parents bought us VW Bugs…hm).
There was no digital programming. There was no such thing as digital programming in 1979. It was a big dial that you set to the time, and spring buttons you pushed to start, like an old car radio or a push-button transmission. The glass tray inside was half an inch thick. The microwave itself took up about half my available counter space in any given apartment, and sometimes had to live on top of the fridge, due to space constraints or concerns that it was so heavy that it would go crashing through the floor to the apartment below mine.
It was a beauty. It lasted forever.
Okay, obviously it didn’t last forever. If it had lasted forever, I wouldn’t be hauling in some piece of crap machine I got a year and a half ago for repair, would I? But the old microwave was a tank. In about 1987, when it was eight years old and the lightweight models were flooding the market, my former husband wrenched it open while it was running. “Oops.” That was pretty much impossible to do.
Only a man with the massive muscles of this former husband could have managed this, as it was LATCHED while it ran. These were the days when people were terrified of radiation and the thing cooked with it, but he managed to do it. It was part of his plan (I was sure) to break everything we owned that I liked, which is what he started doing after he accomplished his first plan, which was to lose every nice thing I ever gave him (his first wedding ring, his expensive leather wallet, his tank watch, and his leather attache).
Anyway. Back to the microwave.
We had a repairman out who fixed it and went it over with a Geiger counter. “Keep this,” he said. “The new ones don’t even compare.” We did. I kept it in the divorce, and I know my former husband missed it. He missed it much more than he missed me, as it always heated right up and I was more iffy.
One day after school, Oldest and Middle were fighting. This must have been in 1998 or 99. And Middle Daughter took a plastic plate and hurled it at Oldest. It hit the microwave. It cracked the glass in the door. It was not fixable.
Middle: “Mom, I’m sorry!”
Me: “You broke the microwave?”
Oldest: “She was trying to hit ME with a plate!”
Me: “And she broke the microwave?”
Oldest: “Don’t you even care if she was trying to hit me with a plate?”
Me: “She broke the microwave!”
The girls still talk about this. It’s okay. It’s listed in the Big Book of Motherly Sins, listed under Bad Parental Priorities. “Caring more about microwave than inter-child acts of violence.” My picture is there, too, staring at a 20 year-old brown microwave, my face stunned and grieving. But that’s fine. It’s labeled “Bad Mother.” Whatever. I still couldn’t believe she’d broken the microwave.
So then I had to start using regular cheap-ass microwaves, like all you other people out there. You little people with your inferior little microwaves. Plebeian microwaves. Predictable microwaves. Pedestrian microwaves.
I scorned you. And then I was one of you.
I had lost my Buick Regal microwave and I had to use the stupid little white plastic microwaves that were designed to pop corn in dorm rooms, the kind that sprung open when you pushed a plastic button, the kind that had all the little choices on plastic film on the other buttons, no dials, just weird buttons that you pushed, hoping the microwave knew that your cocoa was merely tepid and only needed thirty seconds but the beverage was set permanently at 45 seconds so it was always TOO HOT when you got it out of there.
Stupid, shabby, cheap, plastic, stupid microwaves. I’ve had several over the years. And some required programming, and I don’t even have a programmable alarm clock, that’s too complex for me, all right? My new kitchen stove is programmable and I have learned to use it, but only under duress because otherwise I’d have to ask the kids to turn on the stove for me like I did the first three months we were back in the house, and after a while they refused and made me learn to do it myself.
So, after years of grieving the old microwave, complaining about the parade of shoddy, crummy microwaves that worked for ten months and then died, comparing them to the lost splendor of the gigantic Amana Radarange, the mechanical superiority of the One Perfect Microwave, finally one day my dad brought me a microwave from Costco. And he opened it up and we looked at it and you know what it had?
It had a DIAL.
That’s right. A dial. It’s digital, but I can turn this dial to the right and it dials up the amount of time I want, and then I hit start. Oh, the display is digital, and I do have to program it to get certain things done, so it is not exactly like the old Buick microwave. But it’s enough like it that when this one stopped working, I wanted to take it in and have it repaired, rather than replacing it.
I’ve been carting the microwave around in my car for about a month, now, waiting to get to the repair shop. Everyone who has ridden in my van has remarked on the presence of the microwave, generally with a snickered little aside about why would I have it repaired when a new one costs how much? And I’ve had to explain the knob thing to all of them, how I like knobs, not really good with digital programming, and this one is nice-looking, it has a HANDLE, even, rather than some spring button you push to open it. And they all scoff but people are generally kind when they realize how simple I am, so they leave me alone.
It took sort of a harmonic convergence to get it there, a special moment when the shop was open, I was near the shop, and my memory functioned enough to jog me into stopping there.
That happened today.
So first, the door opened and a nice looking young man with his name stitched on a tag on his shirt came out and I told him I wanted to drop off a microwave and he smiled and said he didn’t work there but he’d help me carry it in. So that was embarrassing because apparently I have turned into my mother, but then this woman came out of the repair shop and said “I’ll help her!” And my, what an extraordinary creature she was.
She was statuesque, not in the euphemistic sense, but in the tall and strongly built way, strong arms and shoulders, slimmer legs, good shape but plenty of curves. Tanning booth tan. She had long fluffy bleached blonde hair, all layered and curled and with bangs, even. Lots of eye makeup, all of it black, maroon lipstick, teeth were kind of badly spaced. She had on a black knit tank dress with slits up the sides, a very elegant dress to be wearing to check appliances in at a small repair shop, and she had on strappy black high heeled sandals, as well. Manicure, pedicure.
And then she had on the most amazing array of strange costume jewelry. It was like, big fake square rhinestones, and rings that had the plating worn off to the base metal, and all of it clearly, obviously false and very worn.
She was all business, checking me in. I looked around as she did so, looking at the machines for sale, answering the information questions, and when it got to where I needed to tell her what was going on, I started on my “I know it’s not a deluxe model, it’s just that it has a dial and I…”
“You don’t have to explain that to me,” she said with a smile. And I realized that she was right. I was talking to perhaps the only person in the greater Portland Metro area who understood why I wanted to keep this microwave, rather than getting a new one. Not only did she understand me, she supported me in this, as it meant business for her and the man who actually does the repair.
I felt validated.
And so, now, it’s just waiting. Waiting to find out if the machine is able to be repaired, waiting to see how much it will cost, waiting for the Goddess of the Microwave to call me and tell me that my microwave-with-the knob is ready to come home.
I wonder what she’ll be wearing when I pick it up.
It’s been a year now, a year of being single. It’s time to celebrate with a fresh, crisp bulleted list.
I know this seems like a relatively modest list, as far as happiness components. But these small things can absolutely wear away at me until happiness is impossible. Wearing uncomfortable underwear while riding in a car with a huffy mansplainer who can’t figure out where to eat sums up too much of my last relationship with [redacted] (I’d also like to point out that he’s happily established with another girlfriend, so it’s not like there isn’t someone who can handle all this stuff).
Here’s how it happened. Not the relationship’s end. Relationships tend to grind to a halt while you’re not paying attention, they’ve usually ended before you start to notice, and are actually over during that terrible, pointless part of the process called “working on things.” This is how I admitted it was over, because admitting it meant I had to take action, and taking action is the hardest part.
Just over a year ago, I was sitting in my neighborhood pie house having breakfast with my youngest daughter and a friend visiting me from Tacoma. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but we were laughing over some rapid-fire group of observations. I was enjoying myself so deeply, so joyously. In the pause that comes after people laugh, I spoke without having a clue what I was going to say. As best as I can remember, this is it:
“I feel like I’ve had every conversation I’m ever going to have with Redacted, and now we’re just going to repeat. I’m so unhappy. And the weird thing is, I feel like I have no right to be happy. I feel like I’ve somehow signed away my right to happiness.” It only took saying it out loud to hear my own stupidity.
I’d been hanging in there for a few months trying to work on it, making myself absolutely miserable so that he wouldn’t be. It had to change.
Do we have a right to be happy if it causes someone else pain? I know, it’s surprising that anyone still asks that question, right? We’ve been living under the imperative of personal fulfillment for decades, now. Self-sacrifice is out of fashion. The last thing anyone in our society is ever supposed to question is the right to personal happiness. But I did. I’ve been asking that same question for much of my adult life when it comes to ending relationships. Am I entitled to want personal happiness?
I’m afraid I’m going to have to come down on the side of yes. Yes, even if it makes someone else unhappy. Even if I’ve discussed commitment and planned for the future. Worst of all, even if it disappoints someone who has been good to me. I am entitled to at least try for happiness. Because, to be fair, I’ve had to allow that same right to several men who decided they would be happier without me. And though I greeted their decisions with more than the usual amount of disbelief and anger–I guess I think I’m really something special–I did know, deep down, that they had the right to leave me to pursue happier lives. I think this is in the American Bill of Rights or the Constitution somewhere.
But back to breakfast. And figuring out how to leave. Leaving is never easy, even when it’s easier than staying.
What followed was a discussion on timing. Late summer meant the fall holidays were approaching. Would I drag out the inevitable through Thanksgiving, our anniversary and Christmas? And having gritted my teeth and made it through Christmas, there was his birthday, and after that Valentine’s Day, and…no, best to do it soon. ASAP. On the double. So, in early October, after what I thought was a very kind and amicable discussion, I walked out of Redacted’s house feeling lighter than air. That was not the end of it, of course. There were dismaying reverberations that still echo around today. But the difficult deed was done.
The relief of ending a failing relationship is considerable, but the tension-filled months before the breakup had been sandpaper to my psyche. After the breakup, I stayed abraded for a while. Skittish, scuttling away from human contact like a fragile crab, I spent the first six months hiding from the world to repair my damaged introversion.
Eventually, I could get back out there and see my friends again. Oh, my wonderful friends, waiting with open arms, accommodating my single self in their couples-oriented events, rounding out dinners with charming men who were often a foot shorter than me, but still great company. They even found games that three people could play, instead of just four. I love my friends. One, though, was not supportive of the idea of a breakup. When I called her to say that I was tired of being with Redacted and ready to be alone for a while, she said, “I can only support your breaking up with Redacted if it’s to find a better relationship. I can’t support it if you’re breaking up with him to be alone.” I said, “Okay.” She said, “Thank you for putting up with me.” I hung up the phone and burst out laughing. And of course, I broke up with him to be alone.
So wish me happy anniversary, people. It’s a year now, of being single. Let’s hope this time, it lasts. Except–it never does.