Tag Archives: memories

he gave me a backpack, he showed me the way

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His last gift to me was a backpack.  A royal blue, 60 liter, Gregory backpacking pack. Rugged, heavy, built for the wilderness and paid for with drug money, or maybe it was stolen. He smiled while he extended the pack and I felt his glassy, bloodshot eyes trying to read my face. I hesitated, as this gift-giving stank of another tactic to delay me in throwing his ass out of the house we bought three years earlier with the blind optimism of newlyweds. A new build, as young as our marriage. I can recall the smell of the fresh plywood as we wandered through the partially framed-out structure the day we signed the purchase agreement. We were two children playing house in a half-built skeleton, wondering where the ceiling fan would hang in the living room.  If I had known what demons lurked in the shadows of the not-so-distant future I would have fallen to my knees in the construction dust and screamed.  Instead, I innocently grasped his sweaty hand with mine and contemplated ceiling fans. It was better that way, better not to know of the impending storm. It wasn’t long, after all, before the demons stepped into the light; we saw their faces and whispered their names, and began the long slog of suffering which brought us, too-thin and broken, to that moment under the whirring ceiling fan when he handed me a backpack. A bulky manufacturer’s tag swung back and forth in the circulating air and the body of the pack was slightly slumped, begging to be filled with camping gear. My toes curled on the standard-issue, builders-grey carpeting while I steadied my face, trying to suppress delight at the pack so as not to confuse the giver, for I had no delight left for him. But I smiled, I couldn’t help myself, and I took the backpack from his shaky grip. Sliding it on my thin shoulders it felt foreign, but somehow right.

How did he know I needed that backpack? He was nearly as shattered as a person can be, consumed by addiction and rocked with grief. Was he informed by whatever love for me that remained lodged in his big, broken heart? Was some higher force working through this tortured man, transforming selfishness into charity? I may never know, but this gift, this final act of generosity in our doomed marriage, was the answer to the question I had yet to articulate.  In giving me a backpack he showed me the door to my salvation , although I didn’t walk through it in earnest for many more years.  I had more suffering to do.  I had to fall further before I was ready to rise.

Oh, and I have risen!  Nature has soothed me.  Freedom has saved me. And this pack has been with me through it all, my trusted companion while I strolled through forest meadows, gazed at the sea, smelled temple incense and gulped thin mountain air. We shared the adventures he and I only dreamed of. It has traveled in trucks, planes, trains, but mostly on my sweaty back. We have been rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and baked in the desert sun. I have kicked dust on it, I have thread wildflowers through its numerous straps. I have dropped it, propped it, hung it, slugged it. It is starting to show its age, but I still adventure with it proudly.  From misery to ecstasy, we have been through a lot together.

a sweet contradiction

The holiday season harbors a sweet contradiction.  We gather around full tables.  We feast until our stomachs protest, until we collapse on the couch in a food coma.  We eat and we drink and we enjoy the bounties of the year, the gifts of our family and friends.  It feels good, so very, very good.

And it is a simultaneously a season of longing. quiet moments masking an internal cacophony of regret and longing and grief and sadness.  We miss the ones who are far away, the ones we have lost.  The ones that are gone, the ones that were never here. We want things to be different, we want what we cannot have. 

This Thanksgiving I remembered my friend, who died 17 years ago in a car crash. She has now been dead as long as she was alive. I was mourning her absence, feeling the echoing hole that her departure left inside of me so many years ago, and in that moment of missing her a turkey vulture soared above me, the Great Purifier. Call it God, call it science, but there is a mysterious force around us and above us.  Something which takes the dead and decaying and turns it into life, into that which sustains us. And in a strange dance we can transform grief into merriment, our losses into the joy and essence of life

Life is an undulation, it is a gentle swaying between the dark and the light.  A step forward, a slide backward. So we gather for another holiday.  We hold each others hands while old songs play on the radio and we laugh about the days which live on in our memories and collective recollections. We are sad, but our grief allows us to feel more poignantly the joys of what we do have.  We can taste the sweetness of pie and the tartness of the cranberries and we can take it all in, every bite.  In this way we honor the ghosts that haunt the quiet moments, but embrace the living, embrace our life.

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Ozark butterfly, July 2013

released from optimism

I sort through the vestiges of a past life.  A fifth grade report card.  Figure skating trophies. A yellowed love letter.  Photographs.

I have literally carried this box of memories with me for miles.  I have moved at least 15 times since graduating from high school. How many creaky steps have a I slugged up with these relics in my arms? How many shelves have they sat on, gathering dust?

Some things I’m keeping, some things I’m throwing. But even what I keep doesn’t hold me anymore. These artifacts tell a story that today seems of little consequence, the story of a young person who no longer exists. My mother’s death is the red smudge on my timeline. It it is the plot twist, it is the sentinel event. What came before is the story of someone else. I don’t dislike this person, but she isn’t me anymore.

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Chacala, Nayarit. Age 16.

Terry Tempest Williams wrote in Refuge that losing her mother released her from her optimism.  I used to be someone that furiously planned, incessantly dreamed, a person hypnotized by the promises of the future and happy endings. But then life happened. I have said I do, and later I won’t. I have watched my mother get sick and die. My missteps and a few macabre twists of fate have cost me dearly, in every way. I have tasted the bitter knowledge that all my dreams won’t come true, can never come true.

But here is the thing- joy isn’t sequestered in some future date, nor is it bound up in the past. Joy is neither encased in romantic love, nor unlocked only by achievement.  It simply is, and it is right here for the taking. So I find my salvation in the now.  I am not mesmerized by a past which is no more, and I refuse to be transfixed by whispered promises that lie beyond the horizon. I hold my memories loosely, so as to not get too attached to things which are no more. I am released from the bounds of optimism. I no longer subscribe to the blind faith that things will get better (even if sometimes they do). I no longer practice the religion of anything that pulls me away from the present moment. Which gives me the space to relish the earth beneath me, the sky above me.

The now is the only place where I find peace.

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Sierra Ancha Wilderness. October 2013.

 

mother’s day without you

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the ring I gave you for Mother’s Day- 2007?

It is hard to be without you today, every day. My soul still seeks you, a message in every throb of my aching heart:

I miss you.
Thank you. 
You were wonderful.

On this day, I would buy you flowers, or a piece of jewelry.  Some small, stupid item that could never say enough the good you did the world, how tremendously kind and loving you were to everyone and everything you touched.  Mothering is more than giving life- although you did that for me too. I was your only child by birth, yet you were a mother to many. You nurtured, you encouraged, you eased, you pushed and you believed. And we miss you here, in this life, in this world.

The Mother’s Day gifts of the past were inadequate, but it felt good to do something, to make even a lame attempt at showing gratitude. I miss the simple joy of sliding a necklace around your warm neck, or watching you close your eyes as you inhale the aroma of roses. These days, I have no such recourse for showing thanks. Maybe your spirit is at such great heights, a little fleck of firmament, too distant to hear murmured prayers of thanks. Or perhaps you have absorbed into my skin, or disseminated into the air I breathe, and you are so very small, so omnipresent, so close there is really no you anymore. In either case, I cannot reach you. You are too close.  You are too far away.

So, I could do nothing else with today but surround myself with beauty, to ease the aching loss of you. I went to Sabino Canyon with my dear friend. The one I believe you sent for in the last hours of your life, so she could be there for me at the moment of your departure. You loved her, I love her, and we remembered you today, as we gazed upon the wonder of it all.

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a return to San Antonio

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The Riverwalk snakes through the heart of San Antonio. Dotted with waterside cafes, it is a romantic, lovely place to visit. I escape from the worlds premiere conference on breast cancer to sip Pinot Grigio in the sunshine while aggressive waterfowl vie for breadcrumbs.

This isn’t my first experience in San Antonio; I was here 20 years ago. I skipped along the river, as free as the ducks scrounging at the cafe. My sister and I frolicked in an amphitheater while my mom took pictures of our spontaneous dance.

Click, click, click.

I was a girl. I believed because it happened once, it would happen again. Unfortunately I was too naive to notice how special the small moments are, too innocent to know I might not return until I was grown up, old enough to sip my wine quietly and listen to the slapping of the water along the riverbank while I bask in the sun.

Life is full of so many beautiful moments that are gone in a flash, never to return. I know I can never hold on to them, but I hope to be awake, aware, to soak them in like I do the sunshine.

a sign of the times

Only now, well into November, are we starting to feel the chill of Fall in the desert. Long nights descend, and although full of sunshine and 80 degrees, the days are short, and temperatures quickly plummet under the heavy blanket of darkness. At high noon in the warm sunshine, it can be easy to forget when and where we are in our path around the sun. Not fooled by the heat, the fig tree hears the silent call in waning daylight.  Her brown leaves flutter to the ground and remind me, the native Midwesterner, that yes, Autumn is here.

I had different signals in my childhood, and one of them was freezing my ass off at the bus stop every morning after about the third week in September.  But if that wasn’t enough of a hint,all I had to do was look at my grandmother’s door.

She was not a devout person in a religious sense, but she believed in corn. Every year she hung dried ears of corn to mark the season, the colorful kind commonly referred to as Indian Corn before such titles were considered potentially offensive. She hung it on the door to her double wide when I was a young girl, her apartment when I was a bit older, and in the hallway in her assisted living facility when I was older yet. Year after year, despite her changing circumstances, the corn reappeared.

Last year at this time, my mother had been discharged to hospice.  She was dying, and it was the last autumn she would ever know.  Her legs were swollen with fluid and she walked with a wide, awkward gait.  But she pulled out a managed to pull out a trio of colorful ears from a storage box and waddle out the front door.

“What are you doing?” I cried.

“Hanging some corn” she replied.

This year my mother is dead, and my grandmother is plunging deep into her dementia in a group home in Sun City.  She doesn’t have a door to hang her corn on; she doesn’t remember this old habit that was part of her annual routine for decades. Fall is here, and for the first time in my life I want some corn for my front door.  A thread to tie through the generations, despite being severed by illness and death; an organic symbol of where I came from.