I Went to a Funeral Today

We were the last to come. The trip was longer than we’d planned and by the time we got to the church, nearly all the pews were filled.

My old friend stood at the front of the church, a small cluster of people around her. An arm’s length away, her daughter lay in a casket, her black hair splayed across a satin pillow and a bouquet of flowers at her waist. A small poster of the Virgin Mary was propped on the casket’s lid. She was still like a painted wooden statue, her extraordinary light gone, doused. There were only a few hints left of the exotically beautiful girl she had been.

I hugged my friend. It was a desperate, clenching hug, full of knowing and apology and grief. I’m so sorry, I said. I’m so sorry, I thought. I’m sorry that your daughter’s life ended, sorry that this terrible thing happened to you, sorry that I’ve stayed safe from grief for so long, sorry that I haven’t taken my turn, sorry my sympathy is such a small dry kernel to offer. How can what I have to give you be made bigger?

We sat in the fourth pew behind a dozen cousins and best friends. They were sitting shoulder to shoulder like students at an assembly; their seriousness radiating off them. There was no chatting, no whispered comments or gesturing, just solemn sitting. One man’s long blonde dreadlocks were twisted in a loose knot. Another’s ear lobes were stretched to accommodate two-inch hoops. He wore a trainman cap that showed a ragged edge of red hair. They sat in the front row where family sits, their pew with an engraved metal plate that said “reserved.”

Settling in, I snagged my bracelet on a hymnal. It was one of a pair of bracelets that had been my mother’s. The elastic band snapped and the bracelet’s beads scattered on the carpet. I leaned over to pick them up, each tan bead, each silver bead, and put them in my purse as if later I’d restring them although I knew I wouldn’t. It was a cheap bracelet but it was my mother’s and I wouldn’t let my mother’s beads lay on the carpet like trash to be vacuumed up by the custodian. I reached with my foot to roll the far beads toward me so I could pick them up. Each bead had become precious to me in that moment.

After the service, I sat with my husband and friends we have known for a long time, our children having grown up together in many ways, and we talked with our bereaved friend and hugged her and took our time about it. We listened to the story of her daughter’s death and heard every word, patient, as she knew we would be, even though we hadn’t seen each other for a long time. She knew we would take her story in our laps and hold it like a child. She had that trust in us.

On the way home in the car, I read through a book of writings by Rumi. I’d taken the book with me hoping to find something on the trip to the funeral that would be in my head during the service but the pieces were all too long and too complicated. But on the way home, the book fell open at this poem which began with “Sit with your friends; don’t go back to sleep” and reminded me that “Life’s waters flow from darkness,” both things being true today, each more precious than my mother’s beads in that moment.

Search the Darkness

Sit with your friends; don’t go back to sleep.

Don’t sink like a fish to the bottom of the sea.

Surge like an ocean,

don’t scatter yourself like a storm.

Life’s waters flow from darkness.

Search the darkness, don’t run from it.

Night travelers are full of light,

and you are, too; don’t leave this companionship.

Be a wakeful candle in a golden dish,

don’t slip into the dirt like quicksilver.

The moon appears for night travelers,

be watchful when the moon is full.

–Rumi

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Translated by Kabir Helminsky in The Rumi Collection, Shambhala Publications, 1998

Put that Chainsaw Down! I Found the Key

Jan & Karen, Danskin Triathlon, 2007
Jan & Karen, Danskin Triathlon, 2007

It’s Tuesday, June 21st, and it’s the first day of triathlon class.

When my friend, Karen, and I took the class before, we swam in our own mature women’s  lane on the end so as to avoid all the intensely competitive zipper-up-the-back black tri-suit wearers but we stopped when the instructor took to diagramming things on the chalkboard. Most of the time, his drawings had to do with exertion and recovery and how the proper balance of that was the science of stamina. I got the reasoning but it changed nothing. I have one swimming speed. I don’t mind swimming a long time. I just don’t like swimming fast. It requires so much exertion.

We made the running part of the training a nice brisk walk around the high school track. My friend’s knees are shot so there’s no running for her and, of course, I had to stick with her. How would she have felt if I took off jogging through the city streets, leaving her alone with the old ladies signed up for Ambling 101. Insensitive. That’s how it would look. And I’d have none of that. My friend’s feelings came first, never mind my training needs.

But biking was always the worst. My bike has been chained to an old refrigerator in the garage since last October. Over the weekend, we puzzled over why the key I had for the lock didn’t work. At one point, my husband proposed using his chainsaw to free my bike because, wow, heaven forbid, that I not have a bike for triathlon class. The logistics of the chainsaw strategy baffled me; he tried to demonstrate: all I’d have to do is hold the bike chain between my outstretched arms nice and taut so the saw could get through the chain.

It was between the 15th and 20th time trying to jam the tiny key into the lock and my husband waxing on about his chainsaw that it occurred to me that lightening may, in fact, have struck twice in the very same place and we were both suddenly in the throes of dementia.  What would that mean, I wondered, if both of us were wondering around the house looking for things, wondering what was up. It never seemed that scary before. But now there was this chainsaw dimension to it all. It gave me pause.

Fortunately, we finally found the right key and avoided the chainsaw. But I have to say I hate the reality of biking. I love how biking looks and, in my mind, I see myself pedaling across the country. It’s a goal that I would love, ambitious and solitary, like Forrest Gump running but without the people. The wind, the open road, the muscles, people in small towns cheering, the film of it all could play on a continuous loop at my funeral. Beautiful.

Basically, I think biking is a bitch, way more effort than it looks, a huge bait and switch. Plus I get insanely hot riding my bike even though I pedal so slow that there is a question of maintaining balance. My biking colleagues quickly become tiny dots on the horizon while I pedal on, flipping the gears and wondering which magic combo will make biking effortless. I just want to be like the other kids. Ride with no hands. Not be so hot.

I bought a new lock for this new adventure. My friend never uses a lock because she’s an old hippie and never carries anything valuable and says if you put your underwear on your valuables, nobody will steal anything anyway. But I bought a lock because I am pretty establishment and have thousands of dollars of hearing equipment to protect. My new lock is gold and very pretty. Delicate, like us. The golden girls.

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The Daily Post: Companion

 

Finery

I have a friend who, in the face of recurring cancer, throws a Kentucky Derby party.

And she won’t let you in the door unless you’re wearing a hat. And she expects you to bring a dish which you will describe to the other guests as she points to it, making sure the gaze of everyone in the room is centered on, in my case, extraordinary, high end wieners in bourbon sauce. (Don’t laugh. I’ve spent a lifetime searching for my “signature dish,” that one dish that mourners would bring to my funeral, wanting to comfort my mystified descendants who themselves will have never tasted said dish since they never went to any Derby parties with me.)

So my friend, the one with the recurring cancer, the one facing a list of horrors the very next morning, things that involve a hospital gown and anesthesia and recovery and chemotherapy and a host of other assaults on her person, exhorts everyone to vote for the best hat, insists that each of us pick a horse, and wants to know if we are properly appreciating the special Kentucky Derby 2016 salad. The brims of our hats touch when we talk; we’re not used to the maneuvering needed to manage big hats, bows fall in drinks, pinned-on roses slip out of place. Still we wear our finery. None of us will surrender our lovely hats. They get lovelier and more precious by the minute.

We are obedient guests.We gather around the TV to watch the Kentucky Derby as if we had been reading the Daily Racing Form every day since last year’s race. We nod like we know each jockey’s colors. “I like that guy’s outfit,” I aside to another guest, noting the broad purple stripe, and ignoring his quizzical look. I push the mint leaves to the side of the special Kentucky Derby commemorative glass to take the last swallow of julep. I have no business drinking anything this strong, I think. Where is the wine? But it’s not that kind of party. It’s mint juleps we are to drink and we do. Amazingly, they are the best mint juleps on the planet.  My friend won’t have it any other way. She insists.

A picture is taken of me and my friend who is weaving her party through the hoops of recurring cancer and in the picture, she is beaming, her smile incandescent like the light bulb in my grandmother’s kitchen that lasted decades, the tiny wires inside like the veins of an immortal being. That’s how she glows.

IMG_4904And a week later, she mails the photos, the ones of me in my ersatz Kentucky Derby hat, my husband looking like Colonel Sanders in his short-sleeved white shirt, black tie and straw hat, and this one of me and my incandescent friend. What a beauty she is. How beautiful and carefree and valuable she makes the rest of us feel, despite what awaits her tomorrow.

What a gift she brings.

 

Just Beautiful

Swimming early in the day makes me cold all day. But not in a bad way. In a way that makes me feel like all my blood vessels are open, completely open and the blood is rushing through my body so fast it has waves and currents. Things and people could get caught up in the vortex.

This morning’s swim with my friend Karen, with whom I have been swimming for thirty-five years, started with my lament that a younger colleague had just gotten a big job, causing me to realize that my career was no longer on an upward trajectory.

She’s only 32, I told Karen.

What were you doing when you were 32, Karen replied, surprising me by reciting my job title and responsibilities.

It’s somebody else’s turn, we chorused. Besides, Karen said, it’s that time in our lives when we’re supposed to go backward, be teenagers, do whatever we want. We’re six months apart but both 67.

We headed for the lanes in the diving area because the regular lanes were full. There were just two lanes and so we started next to each other. We mind our own business when we’re swimming but I always know where she is and what stroke she is swimming. Sometimes we race but not today.

In the diving well next to us, a scuba instructor sits at the bottom. He is 14′ down and several yards over from where I am swimming but it feels a lot like swimming over a nurse shark in the Keys which I’ve done a couple of times. I kept my imagination in check and swam. Then the boys and one girl from a local fire department suited up, pulled on their wet suits, ever so slowly, and then hauled their scuba gear to the edge of the pool where one by one they slid into the water. It was training time.

It made me remember the one time I went scuba diving. It was in a quarry. I was with my boyfriend, an experienced diver, who told me not to go in head first, which I did and so the tank hit me in the back of the head. The rest of the excursion was similarly frightening with my breathing so heavy and fast that I used the air in the tank in a quarter of the time allotted. It was unnatural being underwater and breathing. I hated it.

I thought of that today, swimming laps while watching the fire people, now sitting on the bottom of the pool 14′ down and several yards over. I wondered if they looked up and saw what a fine swimmer I was. I wondered if they had underestimated me, thought I was an old lady. I can swim. I’m not a champion or anything and I don’t go fast but I am a good swimmer. They showed no signs of appreciation for that. To my knowledge, since my goggles fog up leaving much of the external world to be constructed in my swimming mind.

When we got out of the water an hour later, we resumed the discussion about age. On the way back to the locker room, we passed what we call the old folks pool where a dozen people were doing water aerobics. That’s next for us, isn’t it, I asked. Maybe, she said, it’s actually kind of fun.

My friend of the ages.

Do you know how many locker rooms we’ve been in, she asked, reciting them as we walked up the steps to leave the Y.

Later she sent me an email with this picture. I love her for this. Well, I love her for many things. But today, I love her for this.

old

Happy Birthday to Karen

Jan and Karen Triathlon (2)

Most of what I know about not giving a shit I learned from my friend Karen. I don’t know what she’s learned from me, probably how one would color inside the lines should one be so disposed. Which she isn’t, so whatever I taught her has been useless in her life.

She says to me, “So what’s the down side?” Then she says to me, “That’s not really a big deal.” Then she says to me, “We need to go swimming.”

When we swim together, we swim side by side in the same lane. She always starts faster. She has a strong stroke but sometimes her kick drops a little. After several yards of being just behind her, I usually decide to go a lot faster so I can be first to the wall. I wear a swim fin so it isn’t really fair but it doesn’t matter to me, the competition still feels equal as if it’s right for me to have that extra edge. Beating her is irresistible. I don’t know why.  It makes me remember beating her in a 25 35 years ago when I was still smoking. No fin. Proud moment.

But I don’t always beat her. I have to have the fin and she has to be a little tired. And she has to keep that kick a bit too low. Any of those things change and she gets to the wall first and waves to me still coming on the way back. I try to look like I don’t give a shit. In my case, I’m pretending. In her case, it’s real.

Oh, she’s accomplished. She’s fought poverty and injustice in a dozen different ways. Organized things, events, people that everyone else thought were impossible. Quit a desk job to become a sheet metal worker because she wanted to be a woman in a tough place and belong to a union.  She has a ridiculous amount of grit.  There are things in our town that ought to be named after her.

But what I love about Karen is her telling me after hearing me talk about one problem or another, a new or old struggle,  something I think I should be afraid of or worried about, “Who really gives a fuck?” And when she says that, I ask the same question. I realize I’m an idiot for giving a fuck and that if I was really a tough cookie, a hard charger, someone like Karen, I really wouldn’t give a fuck.  And that is freeing and empowering at the same time.

A lot in my life has been changed for the better because of Karen teaching me the fine art of not giving a shit, of being one’s own person, day in and day out. And I’m talking about thirty-seven or so years of instruction. A very long time. Need I say more?

Thank you, old friend. And Happy Birthday.

Pet Lessons

IMG_3319

When our dog Minnie has a seizure, she struggles to stay standing but her back legs give way, then her front legs splay and also give way until she is lying on the floor like she is grabbing the carpet to keep from falling. Then she shakes and looks at us because we are saying her name and telling her it will be okay.

One of us will get on the floor with her and pet her head until the seizure is done. “It’s okay, Minnie” we say over and over. “It’s okay.” And then after a few minutes, the seizure is done.  We encourage her to stand up, walk around, be like a normal dog.

We don’t try to fix her. The vet says there’s nothing much to do about the seizures but just ride them out. So we just sit on the floor with her and tell her it will be okay.

I wish I did that with people. Instead, when a person I love has a hiccup or a seizure, metaphorically speaking, I swing into action. Problem-solving is my middle name. I always know what other people should do. It always seems so clear. To me. Not them.

It never works, my approach. It stiffens people who should relax, makes them feel like patients in thin hospital gowns, being told what is what and what is next except in this case the doctor has no degree, doesn’t really know what she’s talking about. She only thinks she does.

What I should be doing when I am with people who are hurting and troubled is just sit with them and tell them it will be okay. And then wait until they can stand up and walk around and can see it for themselves.

So that’s my goal. Less diagnosing, defining, deciding, directing. More hearing, helping, holding, and hoping.

That’s a change I want to make.

 

 

 

 

Social Engineering

I want them to be friends when they are 30. That’s my goal.

But I’ve tried to engineer a lot of relationships in the past and have usually failed. There’s a science of trying that says if you try to hard, you will queer the deal. This lesson has been itself 30 years in the making. Forcing, expecting, wanting people to have feelings that they don’t genuinely have is a perpetually losing proposition.

Yesterday, I whirled around in the car to face them in the back seat. “You’re cousins. You know what that means? You have to treat each other better than you treat everyone else. Okay? You have to be extra nice to each other.”

Or do they? If their relationship takes tons of extra effort and gets monitored to death by their grandmother, it’s probably not going to take. If an adult has to sand down the scratchy parts of each child so they fit better together, then whose relationship does it become?

Better they should have scratchy edges and figure out themselves how to accommodate and negotiate. Better that they should figure out whether it’s worth it to move the effortless reliability of being relatives to the possibly rocky shores of friendship. And that will take some time.

I think it takes a week. Every year.

Flying across the country so one Wisconsin girl and one California girl can be pals.

That, and letting them be.

That, and not having an opinion about everything they say and do.

That, and letting them figure out their own relationship.

That, and having a lot of time for them to run down a hiking trail and in and out of the ocean’s surf.

photo (9)

That, and letting the sun shine on their friendship and just letting it grow.

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#69/100: 69th in a series of 100 in 100