My mother had no common phobias that I knew of, growing up. She didn’t like mice or insects, but disposed of them with a minimum of fuss. We never encountered snakes. I don’t remember her having any reaction to my fears, which are heights and bridges. But she was wildly afraid of birds.
Birds. All of them. Even the tiny finches that populate my bushes in hopping swarms, hunting bugs on branches before they flutter off. She feared the bright-beaked chickadees and fat-bellied robins, the overbearing jays, the comical crows.
I love the songbirds and the corvids, but I can understand a healthy wariness of raptors. They have a focused and lethal beauty, but I am not a mouse, a shrew, or a field rat. I am completely beside the point for a raptor. And now that I no longer have to watch for owls when I let small dogs out at night, I can let myself admire the owls.
Talking birds are a little iffier for me. Very large tropical birds have talons and beaks. They speak. This is an uncanny combination, and unsettling even to me. But the smaller talking birds? The wee parrots, parakeets and budgies? Oh, I adore them.
Mom was terrified of them. All of them. Every single bird.
My parents were both educated, literate people. They were passionate about politics, art, music, literature. They raised us to be the same.
Our house was alive with conversation.
When they lived in Missoula, my parents rented office space in the Wilma Building. If you’ve never lived in Missoula, this means nothing to you. If you have lived in Missoula, you know what an adventure that was back in the 1970s, when Bob and Eddie presided over Missoula’s small gay culture from their lavish apartments on the Wilma’s upper stories.
One day, while waiting for a ride down, the elevator opened on Mom’s floor. Out stepped Bob (or maybe it was Eddie), a small green bird riding on his shoulder. My mother went white and flattened herself against the hallway wall. She let him pass without a word. Mom, I told her, that was a parakeet.
It didn’t matter. A bird indoors was her worst fear.
I need to make it clear how much I loved my mother. I longed to spend time with her. She was my favorite person in the world.
I believe most phobias have an origin. My own fear of bridges happened after Mom had a friend—I’d describe him as an arrogant jerk—who took us out on his huge sailboat. He had a daughter close to Lauren’s age who had grown up on this boat, and he laughed when I asked for life jackets for my two children. He accused me of not trusting his expertise.
I spent the entire sail around the Sound watching Lauren in an eagle-eyed panic, with one arm tightly wrapped around baby Rachel, and the other looped into the strap of a floatable cushion. I was sick with fear the entire outing, trying to figure out how to save two children if we went into the icy water. How long would we last? Would Lauren’s swimming lessons pay off? Dear God, would it never be over?
During this sail, my mother was serene and joyful, as she was on a boat. When we docked, she alighted, refreshed and exuberant. My knees shook so hard that I almost couldn’t walk. I vowed to never back down on an issue of safety again, but the damage was done. For the next twenty years, I approached any bridge with hammering heart and prickling armpits, gripping the wheel, determined not to let this new phobia get the best of me. It has mostly abated.
Where did Mom’s bird phobia come from?
My mother’s mother, Grandma Lucille, had representations of birds throughout her home. There was a pair of large ceramic chickens on the side table in her breakfast room. There was a framed print of a nesting robin on her dining room wall. There was a ceramic cardinal, because she lived in South Dakota and my grandmother loved a cardinal. And there were two porcelain robins, a pretty one and a fat, grumpy one. I loved him.
But I discovered my favorite of Grandma’s birds in her dressing room. It was California pottery by an artist named Kay Finch, who specialized in figurines of birds and animals with signature curling eyelashes. This little bird was ivory colored and trimmed with green. He looked so happy to me with his fat cheeks and feminine eyelashes. One day, while admiring him, I turned him over. Written on the bottom in girlish script was a loving message to my grandmother from my mother, who at some point had bought this bird for Grandma Lucille and inscribed it.
Later in her life, my mother gave Grandma Lucille two Limoges plates with birds on them. They were different than Grandma’s usual birds, more elegant and stylized, and Mom had found them in France. She was a bit defensive about this expensive gift, as she was defensive about so many things. But Grandma seemed happy with them. She displayed them in her hutch.
My mother grew up feeling unloved and unappreciated by her mother. According to my grandmother and aunt, Mom was furious most of the time. She was personally affronted by her sister’s slim beauty, and found her mother maddening. My grandmother was a deliberately oblique person, determinedly serene, who hid from life’s difficulties in Christian Science. She found her daughter exhausting.
They were an ill-matched pair, as far as a child’s needs and an adult’s capabilities. But I took comfort in these gifts from my mother to my grandmother, the plump bird, the elegant plates. My mother hated birds, but she gave them to her mother. This was physical evidence. They showed (to me, at least) a desire to love.
If I were to write a memoir about my parents, I would call it “Always Starting Over.”
My grandmother’s home was lovely. It was full of items my mother coveted. She spoke of it reverently, cataloguing the origins and perceived value of its contents. Grandma kept some items her entire life. My Aunt Elaine ended up with all of it when my grandmother died, and expected me to be upset about it.
I wasn’t. I have things from Grandma, I reassured her. I have a painting, bricabrac. I have some jewelry.
She still worried. When she and my uncle finally sold their home, my aunt specifically called to apologize for leaving behind Grandmother Lucille’s loveseat in her barn.
My mother had beautiful things, but she sold them because our constant moves would wreck them. Besides, we needed the money. So one by one, they went. A secretary desk here. A massive oak table there. Daybeds and chairs. Washstands. Headboards. All left behind in my childhood, shed like the sideboards and pianos discarded by early pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
Raptors know that a comfortable chick will never learn to kill. So as soon as chicks are ready to fledge, the eagles begin to remove whatever made them comfortable. This is called “stirring the nest.”
My mother had therapy at different times in her life. The longest stretch came in her mid-fifties. This coincided with menopause, which finally brought relief from her PMDS. She didn’t have a medical diagnosis for this, only my armchair diagnosis, based on witnessing her day-long tirades every four weeks for most of my early life. Mom could fly off the handle at any time, but these rages were perfectly timed with my own period. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out.
I imagine their cessation was a huge relief for her. Maybe that’s why she was ready to do some work. Once she reached her fifties, my mother’s life was fairly serene, at least by our family’s standards.
She learned a few things in therapy. She was fascinated by a new idea that all events are neutral. She’d always interpreted every upset as a personal attack on her. But she started to repeat this like a mantra. “All events are neutral.”
Another revelation was repeated less often. I remember when she told me that she had a narcissistic personality. She wanted to share this information about herself, but she did it with an edge of her trademark defensiveness. “It means that I interpret every event in terms of how it affects me,” she explained. I’m sure it had not occurred to my mother that this was unusual, even pathological. She wanted me to understand that to her, it was only natural.
I listened, nodded. I treated the information as neutral.
My mother didn’t understand the anxiety that plagued all four of her children. We are riddled with it. It would shut down my older brother to the point where she and my dad would have to intervene at times. Pay his bills. Hold his hand. Even bring him to live with them for a bit, until he calmed down enough to take on life again.
But Steve was simply the most affected by anxiety. The rest of us dealt with it as best we could. Mom would shake her head, baffled. “I just don’t have that,” she would say. As if it were inconceivable that we would have something she didn’t. As if its very presence were a complete mystery. As if our anxieties could not be traced back to childhoods marked by her monthly tirades, her screaming arguments with our birth fathers, the divorces, constant moves, and social rejection brought on by always starting over. We always experienced financial insecurity, often to the degree of not having food in the house.
Those were our shared disasters, but we each had our own personal load to carry. My older brother lived with the torment of being extremely obese back when there were no fat kids. My sister was abused from a very early age by a trusted male relative. After the older kids left home, my younger brother was left alone repeatedly to fend for himself while my parents spent their evenings in coffee shops or bars. He was six years old.
And me? Well, in addition to what I shared with my siblings, there was the fallout from being put out at age fifteen to live in a different state with a physically abusive older boyfriend. That was terrible—with the first few months marked by profound loneliness and anxiety attacks that robbed me of my ability to breathe—but at least I could finish high school in one place. My parents lived in three states and six homes during my last two years of high school.
Besides, he didn’t hit me that often.
When I finally called my parents and told them what was happening, my mother said, “Just try not to make him mad, Honey.”
I have turned my own life over and over in my hands, trying to understand how it went so radically astray, trying to understand what it has done to me, what I did to myself. As hard as it was to be on my own at fifteen, I think it probably saved me. My worst misfortune was that I grew up in a house of volcanoes. I was the only calm person in a household of reactive, emotional personalities, screaming and crying and shaking and falling down in fits. This is its own kind of trauma.
So, yeah, we had anxiety. And Mom didn’t get it.
I wondered if Mom told her therapist about any of this, our U-Haul odyssey of a life, daughters shoved out too early. I doubt it. It would have blown her hard-won cover.
She and Dad had reinvented themselves on Bainbridge Island. They both worked at Boeing as technical writers. They owned bed & breakfasts. They moved a lot—eight houses in twenty years—but they stayed on the island where they had a group of friends, daily coffee meet-ups, the opera. Bainbridge was the base from which they traveled internationally. They went to live in Turkey for a while but came back to finish out their lives on Bainbridge.
I want that to be true. But it isn’t.
There was one more major life disruption in the works. My parents were actively planning to divorce when my mother found out she had cancer. They didn’t get a divorce, obviously. They clung together for the duration of her very short decline.
My father was gutted by her death, as were we all.
As I’ve said, I don’t know all that Mom worked on in therapy. I do know that Mom talked about her bird phobia with her therapist. At first, she thought it had to do with her own mother, something about Grandma Lucille’s love of birds, some aspects of her demeanor that were supposedly bird-like. But in truth, Grandma’s birds were simply knickknacks. After much discussion, my mother and her therapist decided it was something else.
Mom saw “The Birds” and never got over it.
During the Dust Bowl, crows built nests out of barbed wire. They built with what they had.
Once I learned that fact, I have never quite gotten over it.
I haven’t had a lot of therapy, but I have worked on a lot, mostly through writing. One thing I still work on is giving myself permission to write honestly about my life. This, of course, includes writing about my mother. It feels incredibly disloyal to tell the truth. It also feels incomplete.
I had a difficult mother, but I didn’t have a difficult relationship with her. I loved her. But more importantly, I always felt so loved by her. I never doubted her love for an instant, and her last words to me were, Oh, I love you. She feared being taken to task for the ways she had failed me, but I never had the heart to do it. I forgave her, completely, honestly, repeatedly.
I hope she felt my love flying from my heart to hers, constant and true to this day.
I was on the phone with my sister the other day, trying to distract her from a painful medical situation, and we were discussing the fact that someone she briefly dated asked her to take his dog. The dog in question is a fine little gentleman of a chi mix. He’s old, but sturdy and well-behaved, especially for a chihuahua. But my sister lives on a fixed income, and she likes to spend lots of time at her little cabin at the beach, and she doesn’t want a dog. “Besides,” I told her, “dogs are expensive.” I added up how much my current dog is costing me, and I got a little dizzy.
This is the dog in question. I have had her for seven years, and she was around six when I got her, so that means when she goes to the vet, they talk about her as a “sweet old girl.” I fear my doctors talk about me the same way behind my back, now–there is new and unfamiliar level of solicitude extended my way by the cardiologist, the GP–so maybe I’m a little sensitive about aging.
I don’t see my girl as old, even though her spine is starting to emerge as her muscle tone goes, and her eyes are slightly cloudy. She’s my vital, expensive, adorable little rescue dog, a mix of Chihuahua, Lhasa Apso and Shih Tzu. She’s going to live forever, even though her special food, vet plan, and medications cost me close to a hundred dollars a month that could be going into my retirement fund.
She’s worth it. She’s worth it because I love her. She’s worth it because seven years ago, I saw her funny little face on Petfinder, and felt a pang in my heart that could only be cured if she came to live with me. I wanted her so much that I agreed to adopt a bonded pair, and the other dog was way too small. I’d zipped right past her photo on Petfinder, thinking, “That’s a cute little dog for someone who wants a dog that small.” I have never had a dog that small and I never intended to.
Just look at that little monster on the left, that adorable killer. Six pounds of territorial spite. Fiercest guardian of the front door, attacker of ankles, biter of children. She was 3/4 chihuahua, 1/4 unknown. She had the coat of a polar bear and feared no weather, and I don’t think she feared anything else, either. Or maybe she feared everything. She never, ever stopped barking at my neighbors, and bit every finger extended through the fence to make peace.
I couldn’t believe I had adopted a vicious dog. I tried for three months to cure her using every method I found on the internet.
I gave up.
She spent countless hours locked in the bedroom during family gatherings, books groups, potlucks, and more. She drew blood on at least five friends, and we won’t talk about my poor niece, who eventually became the only child she liked. And we put up with this. We put up with this because she was such a strange, sweet, comical mini-mutt, who intensely loved her people and kept us entertained with her stiff-legged little antics.
She was a spite pisser and a slipper killer, a fence racer and a cuddler who shed constantly, covering us with hair from an undercoat worthy of an Alaskan sled dog. She started each day by bounding up on our chests in bed, letting out a big sneeze to let us know she meant us no harm, and covering our faces with endless flicks of her oversized pink tongue. Kisses. Loves. Demands for breakfast. But so much joy and love.
When we walked in the door each day after work, she turned a few stiff little circles, then flopped on her back for belly rubs, crying with happiness. Or maybe that was more food demands. She was always hungry.
God, she was such a pisser. She was so loving to us and so terrible to everyone else. We loved her and forgave her. I had taken her on, and I lived around her ways, and she gave me back her fierce devotion.
She was also a remarkable fighter as far as her health went. In the time I had her, she had throat cancer (which went away, as cancer sometimes does in dogs), three different bouts of vestibular disease, which is supposed to last three days and in her case, lasted a month or more each time. She had two strokes that I witnessed, and recovered from both.
And there were seizures. She didn’t respond to the medication prescribed by the vet–it made her rear legs stop working, and the seizures actually increased. So we took her off, and she had maybe one seizure per week at night–screamers, as we called them.
My other dog would run to her, put a paw on her, watch her, and then when she came around, encourage her to lick her feet. This is a cooling mechanism, and since overheating is the biggest danger for dogs with seizures, I think it helped. And you might say, how could the other dog know what to do? She’s a special little dog, a canine nursemaid who takes care of everyone when they need it. And she took good care of Lita when the seizures happened.
Lita was probably eight or ten when I got her, so she was somewhere between fifteen and seventeen years old. She was failing, but in my heart, she was still the fat and happy little tyrant of our household. The thought of letting her go devastated me. She kept fighting. I kept letting her.
I remember one long night, holding my husband’s hand and crying in the dark, saying, “It’s just that I know I’ll never have another dog like her.” Because there was no other dog like her.
At that point, I’d had her for seven years. The last year was rough, particularly the last six months. When we came home for the quarantine, we understood that her seizures were not just happening at night. She had constant “gum chewing” seizures, small events that were fairly quiet. But the grand mals were happening while she slept during the day, too.
We would be quietly working away. One or the other of us would say, “There she goes.” We would watch her little body spasm, wondering if it was time. Of course it was time. But I couldn’t face it. So we treated her with massive doses of CBD, which made the seizures less intense, but they still happened.
Then the food issues started. Her love for food was always strong. When she was being fostered, they fed her so much that she went up to ten pounds. She would take her plastic bowl and throw it across the room at them when she was hungry.
I switched her to a heavier ceramic food bowl. She broke two of them. I kept her at six pounds for the seven years I had her, which meant waking up to her crying for food every morning at 5:30 or 6 AM. This dog loved her kibbles.
But one day about six months ago, feeding became incredibly difficult. She barked over her food bowl for ten or fifteen minutes, then walked away without taking a bite. I tried canned food, tuna oil. Nothing worked. She would go for a day or two between meals.
But when my oldest daughter had to move home due to pandemic-related unemployment and brought her dog, spite became Lita’s favorite sauce. She started guarding her food so viciously that she’d kick it all over the room. The only time her tail came up was when she assumed her guarding stance, by her bowl. But she still wouldn’t eat.
We tried many different ways to get her to eat. The most obvious one was the least successful–isolating her. She had no interest in food unless the other dogs were there. She flatly refused. Our days were measured by if she ate, and how much she took in. She’d only eat if one of us sat with her, scooping out small amounts of food by hand, keeping the other dogs in sight, but back.
So that’s what we did.
This photo makes me cry. Look at that skinny little girl. Her hunched back, her lowered tail, her hollow tummy. And yet we kept her going like that for three months, because I didn’t want to let her go. Because I remembered this little girl.
When you have a dog, this day arrives. And you kiss that stubborn little head for the last time, and you make yourself say goodbye. You let her go.
She’s buried in the front yard, next to the magnolia tree that we planted over the first dog we buried at this address. Mylo was a sleek little dachshund who was only two years old when she slipped the fence and got hit by a car. Mylo’s been joined by Holly, Zoe, Tessie, and the ashes of my dad’s dog, Rupert. And now my little Lita.
I miss her every day. And so does my other dog, who has bonded nicely with my daughter’s dog. But between the time they were fostered and the time she was with me, she spent close to ten years like this, cuddled close to her Lita. I know she is sad.
So when you total up the cost of having a dog, you do the math. You add up vet visits, dog licenses, vaccinations, health plans, prescriptions and food. You figure in the baths and grooming, dog sitting so you can travel, having to be home right after work so you can give the dogs their dinners and let them out. You factor in poop in the yard and pee in your shoes (Lita did that when she was mad). You consider the constant annoyance of dog hair on your clothes, in your mouth, on your bed.
But that is not the real cost of a dog.
The real cost is, you have to say goodbye.
And what if it’s the truth?
I’m not sure if I’ll watch “Leaving Neverland.” At this point, I’ve had to accept that one of my favorite musical icons of the 80s was abusing children in the name of love. I’m not afraid to listen to these men describe what he did to them.
I’m afraid of hearing them express their great and lasting love for the man who manipulated, abused, exploited and abandoned them.
One of my dear friends shares an ex with me. This man, who is dead now, was a hero in his community. I had no intention of dating this man when I met him. We were casual friends, and then my mother died. To escape that grief, I threw myself into a bad decision for six weeks. That bad decision was him.
He was an unlikely Romeo with a jolly, avuncular presence. A wonderful conversationalist, a great joker. It ended badly between us, but after the dating ended, we became good friends. He called me his “best friend” for years before he dropped me cold. I never understood why. I was not sufficiently loyal to him, I guess. I mean, that’s what I think happened. I think that’s the reason, because he would never tell me.
He knew my sudden absence would cause some questions, and I was determined not to have a messy, public thing going on that would strain the emotional resources (and patience) of our mutual friends. So, I suggested to him that we downgrade from friendship to “friendly acquaintances.” We would be pleasant to each other in public, and estranged from each other in private. He agreed.
I went on to watch his antics from a remove. And he went on to lie about me to anyone who would listen. People who had never met me were told stories about who I was and why our friendship was over. We were no longer friends because I was crazy, was the gist of it. Crazy and jealous, some jumble of untruth that preserved his public image as a good guy. A real mensch. The best. He was practically a saint by the time he succumbed to cancer. Yes, he had cancer, and yes, he died from it. It was a long, public, awful fight. But even as he was sick, he continued a pattern that had gone on throughout our friendship, and, I had to face it, had included me.
He would choose women who were especially vulnerable for one reason or another; an empty marriage, a fresh divorce, a recent death in her family, or his favorite, the person who hadn’t dated in so long that she’d forgotten what romance felt like. And he would use his friendly, harmless appearance to slip under her fences, and love bomb her. Once she was conquered, he would stay for as long as he wanted to. Then he’d end it, and leave her devastated and blaming herself, because everyone had warned her that he was like that.
I am embarrassed by how long it took me to see this about him. Once I did, I blamed myself for falling for this, and I blamed myself for believing his reasons during our friendship — reasons that always boiled down to, “She’s crazy.”
He carried on with more and more women, more and more publicly as the years went on. He maintained a robust and messy romantic life through bout after bout of cancer treatment.
And then it was over.
As his community grieved, some of us who knew him quietly touched base. We were sad, we were angry, we were grieving. But we were not speaking publicly. One friend said it best; “I didn’t say anything when he died because if I was kind, it wouldn’t be honest, and if I was honest, it wouldn’t be kind.”
There is a version of this person that lives on in his community. It is the kind and jolly man who is remembered. People who see him differently keep their mouths shut. They never speak the truth, that this man was an emotional predator and a narcissist who preyed on vulnerable women and made us think it was our fault when he hurt us. He was pathological. He was also brilliant, hilarious, generous, and so much fun to be around.
When I drive by The Barley Mill Pub on Hawthorne, I remember years of sitting across from him in an upstairs booth, talking about his crazy love life and laughing my head off At all those crazy women of his. I adored him. He confounds me to this day. I still miss him.
In my family, there are some truths that cannot be told by me, because they don’t belong to me. A man operated like an octopus in our family, reaching into different generations, choosing a child, working her free, squeezing her in his death grip of favoritism, blackmail, and predation.
I was bothered by him. I was not completely unscathed–I doubt that any female child in our family went unmolested to some degree–but I was not singled out as the special child he preyed upon and warped. That happened to someone I love. And I have lived my entire life with the damage he did to to her, and the damage she wreaked on everyone else.
I grew up in a family that was been intentionally fractured so that the octopus could go to work. This is the story of my life, but to tell it, I will have to tell stories that belong to other people.
In one of my novels, I have two predators. One of them is a man of god, and one of them is a trucker. And oh, they are bad. I mean, they are evil. Bad men doing bad things. Because they’re BAD. I wish I’d made these characters a little more appealing, a little more confusing. Villains should see themselves as the wronged parties, shouldn’t they? I assume that every writer looks back at her published works and wishes she’d done something just a little better.
But after I published this book, I sent a copy of this book to someone in my extended family. She also writes. She read my book carefully, and called me to talk about it. There is plenty to discuss in this book, but she wanted to discuss how the predators met their terrible ends. “So, there’s no love for the abusers?” she asked me. “No forgiveness? They die, and that’s that?” She had a point. There was no love for my one-dimensional villains. They are lovingly portrayed from their hats to their boots, but I do not love them.
But we loved the octopus predator. I was eleven or twelve when it all came out. The family was calling and crying and threatening and defending, appalled and betrayed, unearthing who had known and who hadn’t, who had able to protect their children and who had driven their children to this man’s door.
Everyone blamed each other, and everyone blamed themselves. Because how could a child not tell. And how could a mother not know. And how could a former victim not understand that this abuse wasn’t restricted to her, that it would happen over and over again for generations.
My household was in a roil. Finally, my mother had to explain to me what had happened. After she did, she said, “I don’t know what to do with my love for him.”
He lived a long life. His wife never left him, even after she knew. And I have stayed silent, because there are people in my family who love him still.
When I was very young, he often sat me on his lap and told me story after story about three animals. They were cats or dogs or rats or horses. There were always three, and one was black, and one was red, and one was brown. And one of the three was always named Pete. And these animals had great adventures in the alleys and pastures and barns and backyards of the octopus’s imagination.
Imagine how delightful that was for a child. How special. All of that is tainted by the fact that I loved the octopus.
It’s an old saying, “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” It is unfair to speak ill of those who are no longer here to defend themselves.
There are people who love the person you’re talking about. He has his defenders, his family. You will hurt them if you tell the truth, and incite their wrath. You will expose people who wish to maintain their privacy and silence on the matter, who do not want the lid pried off their experiences, their pain. You will tell stories that don’t belong to you.
There are others who don’t see what happened to them as abuse. When you tell the truth, you take away their choice in the matter. They’ve lived their entire lives seeing themselves as complicit at best, or part of a grand love affair at worst, and they don’t feel they are victims. You are, in your way, victimizing them.
What you’ll find most often, though, is people who blame themselves for not knowing, for not seeing, for not understanding what was happening to their children, their siblings, or even to themselves. You will find, over and over again, people who feel responsible for what happened, even though they did none of it. They will hate you for making them feel responsible and defensive.
Which brings us back to watching the Michael Jackson documentary, and whether or not I’ll do it. I’m afraid to hear these men talk about how much they loved him. I don’t even want to hear their mothers talk about how they didn’t know.
All these victims, blaming themselves.
On December 6th, I lost my older brother to an array of medical woes that have been changing the shape of his life for the last ten years.
If I were to list for you what he endured, you wouldn’t believe anyone could. At birth, my brother got a bum ticket when it came to his body and health. But he lived life as large as he could within the bounds of his earthly container, and he fought long and hard for each day, no matter how much pain and discomfort it held.
Steve promised me that he wasn’t actually going to die. His specific promise was “Keith Richards, the cockroaches, and me.” Despite this promise, he’d been trying to die for a long time. Many times in the last ten years, we’ve been summoned as a family to make the hardest decisions, the final decisions. We’ve been asked to come to terms with his end and to prepare ourselves and wait. Every single time, he’d rallied in what was no less than a medical miracle.
After each of these events, Steve expressed, with some huffiness, his disbelief that the doctors expected him to die. He found it unthinkable and a little personally insulting. “They thought I was going to die.”
So in early December, when he came to the point where he was done fighting, none of us could believe it. We sat with him and waited, but at some point, he turned to the love of his life, Elaine, and whispered, “I wish we could just be alone. Just the two of us.” And though what he probably wanted was their life at home, with the cats and their favorite music and her gently preparing the simple meals he could eat, he also meant that he wanted to be alone with her as he struggled his way out of here. They did so much living that way. He loved his life with her.
Brother Steve died on the sixth of December. He died during my busiest month at work, the peak of deadlines and sales meetings and project coordination. And there’s that little thing called Christmas, which brings far-flung girls home to roost, and family gatherings, presents and parties and concerts. If you’re trying to avoid sitting alone with your grief, I recommend December. You can careen from distraction to distraction, especially if you can add the anxiety of writing an obituary and planning a memorial service on top of everything else. You can do so much to avoid your grief in December.
There are no good words for losing your brother. There just aren’t any. And I know it’s this “time of life” and all that, I’m in my late fifties and I know this is the season of loss, that all around me my friends are facing the same thing. As I said to my friend Kim years ago, we are designed to outlive our parents. That loss is survivable. But siblings? My big brother? Brother Steve? Even though I have been staring down the barrel of this for a decade, I still can’t stand it. So I planned him a pretty little memorial service with friends and family and a slideshow, my brother’s life projected on a wall, from his beginnings in California to his death in Portland. I had mostly my own photos to draw from, so there are many shots of my brother and I side-by-side, with our long hair and big noses and big smiles. Eventually, we both had big glasses.
You could always tell that Steve and I were related.
I dislike the sainting we do of people after they die. The polishing up and perfecting. My brother Steve, like any human being, was deeply flawed. He had sustained grievous injuries to his psyche, along with the life-long difficulties of his health. He was perhaps the most passive-aggressive person I have ever known, but as he said to me once, “Isn’t passive-aggressive better than outright aggressive?” Which made me laugh, even as it exasperated me.
He did things that drove me a little nuts, like ascribing long, complex motivations and desires to pets. He also had a unique mindset about the past that I can best explain this way; if it happened once to Steve, he saw it as always going on. So an isolated event loomed larger for Steve than it should have—having been followed home from school by a bully one afternoon, he remembered this as if he were followed home from school every single day. He extrapolated long, murky motivations from awkward social interactions, and had his feelings hurt accordingly. There was a tangle in there around his great big heart, mostly made of insecurity about whether or not people really loved him.
Trust me. People really loved my brother.
Steve had gifts that far outshone his flaws; a curious, brilliant, lively mind. Artistic and writing gifts of staggering proportion. A delightful sense of humor—playful and a little sharp, with a gleeful sense of mischief. And oh my gosh, could he converse. Steve focused on you when he was with you, and that gift of singular attention made him one of the finest conversationalists you would ever have the good fortune to know. I think he got both of these from our mother. Their conversations were epic. But if you really wanted to know Steve’s genius, you would find it in his relationship with music.
Steve’s involvement with music went so much further than just his own personal gifts. Yes, Steve had a voice like an angel from his earliest years. My aunt remembers him at age three, hearing things on the radio and then going over to my mother’s piano and picking out the tune by ear. He had a perfect soprano, she says. I remember when my mother was teaching him to play the guitar. Mom played the piano and the guitar, which she learned so she could play classical style, like Segovia. And it wasn’t easy for Mom to teach Steve—I have a distinct memory of her stern face, her cat eye glasses somewhat askew, as she worked and worked with him—but once Steve learned, he blew right past her in skill and devotion. Nothing made my mother more proud than when Steve surpassed her on the guitar.
So I remember my brother playing the guitar and singing. His voice, people, my brother’s voice. So high and clear and strong and beautiful. Singing at talent shows and in choir and in school assemblies and at his high school commencement, where he sang “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I was an adult before I understood the relationship between Steve’s weight and his incredible voice. All I knew was that when he was twenty, and he had the bariatric surgery to lose weight, his voice changed. He loved it, Steve enjoyed that his voice got a little lower, a little grittier, but I always missed that high tenor that rang like a bell.
Steve wrote songs, played in bands, picked up other instruments and learned them easily—banjo, mandolin, ukelele. Music formed the basis of his social life and it brought him Elaine, who he met on an Americana music board. You know how some people shut down and stop listening to any new music at some point in life, and there they are, back with Huey Lewis or whatever? That never happened to Steve. For his entire life, he was alive and curious and omnivorous in his musical tastes, and he shared them all with me. I’ve already written about how he brought home music that has always played a key role in my life and creativity.
But Steve was also my singing partner. Because of arthritis and illness, it’s been years since Steve could sing or play, but it always felt like, as long as he was alive, it might happen. We could still lift up our voices together on “Grievous Angel,” “Love Hurts,” “Six Blocks Away,” “Blackbird.” We sang together constantly. My voice is loud, so he often did harmonies while I took the lead. And Steve and I are both musical omnivores. The earliest songs I remember singing with him? The Beatles. We were always planning a CD, our CD that we would cut together and share with family and friends.
That CD won’t be made, now. I can’t believe I will never sing with my brother again. I can’t hold this in my heart.
I thought I could choose the music easily. Just start with the Beatles and come forward. But Steve loved so many styles of music, jazz and classical included. And like, Bjork. EVERYTHING. He listened like I eat—happily, with great curiosity and interest and openness to anything new. As a result, the thought of choosing music for his memorial service made my head spin.
Listen, I had figured out all the rest of it. Where to have it, and when, and who to include, and which photos to put on the board, and what should be on the table, and which flowers to bring, and food, and format. But the most important part of it was the MUSIC, and yesterday morning, I was sitting in my armchair crying because the day had arrived, and this was the most important part of the entire event and I hadn’t figured it out. How could I not have figured out the music for my brother’s memorial service?
I have always turned to Steve for music. We swapped songs like marbles. Have you heard—let me play—listen to this—you might like—All our LIVES we have done this. And Steve had curated a series of CDs for me that he called “Sweet Harmony.” There is a Sweet Harmony 1, 2, 3 and 4. These were the songs Steve wanted to sing with me on that mythic record that we were going to cut together, and never did. So I loaded those CDs into my shelf stereo, unplugged it, put it in a Winco bag and carried it to Nordia House. Steve chose the music for his own memorial service, after all. Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, and the Beatles, too.
The other CD I chose was a compilation of two records by an obscure artist that Steve and I loved to distraction in 1974. She was a heroin addict and a hold-up artist who spent time in prison and found God and music and made something magical of all these ingredients. I believe she was the first artist ever signed by David Geffen. She made two records that were not commercial successes, and died poor and alone. Her music is haunting, sacred, and strange. She has that singular musical sensibility of Dennis Wilson—swooping and eerie and deeply personal. It makes the hairs on my arms stand up.
So I had that playing while people arrived. We were going to have some light catering by Broder Soder, and as Casey from Broder was setting out the food, he lifted his head and said, “Are you playing Judee Sill?”
We find our consolations where we can. Despite these times when I am left alone with my grief, my tears, and these songs my brother left me, and this emptiness where he should be. This has to be survivable, too.
When I was 11, and my brother was 16, and our sister was 13, the three of us were sitting around a kitchen table in a ratty little house on a rundown farm outside Booneville, Arkansas. We were strange kids, all too smart for our own good, exhausted by the burdens of being outsiders, but strangely proud of it. Our childhood honed us, made us sharp and keen. And I said, “I don’t want to go to Heaven, and I don’t want to go to Hell. I want to start my own place.” My brother and sister loved this idea. After some discussion, we decided we’d name it “Joe’s Bar & Grill.”
So, Brother Steve, I will see you there, at Joe’s Bar and Grill. Please stock the jukebox with all my favorites.
Please bring your guitar.
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.