five from the land of first and forgotten things

The first bell rings. There is a slam of a heavy door somewhere that echoes through the church. It's probably not part of the service, but what do I know? Everything is symbolic here. I do not understand most of the words and I do not know these songs and I do not even want to be here, no one does, but the alternative is that he would be suffering, somewhere, in a bed, staring into a corner or sedated or throwing a keychain and refusing to submit to an injection. And I do not have a choice and neither did he, so we are a few feet away from each other and he is colorless and still and bedecked in finery. I stand for hours and listen to the men sing for him, sing him home, beg forgiveness on his behalf.
Winter blew in and froze everything and it feels like Winnipeg again, cold as Mars. I forgot my gloves on Saturday. The wind blew through two layers of pants and two layers of tops and a massive parka, through my skin. It turned my bones blue. My hands barely escaped frostbite. I shoved them into my pockets and paced until the bus came. Fifteen steps east, fifteen west. I stop the processing and grief for a minute because I cannot think of anything else except the cold and how my brain has forgotten it from last January. What else have I forgotten? What was first? 
I send an email: It's kind of amazing how some things never change I say, and I know the woman getting it will hear the fury beneath those words, even though they sound almost winsome out of context. I send an email: I love you and am glad I do not have to talk about dementia with you anymore and these are true things, but I do not trust brains anymore; they feel capricious and half magic and I wonder if I even remember how to talk about other things. I send an email: I was up in the middle of the night so I have been Bowie-sad since then. It is just a further thumb-press on top of the already existing FIL sadness and I do know the difference between the two and I am the kind of person who loves to press her thumb on bruises, so here I go, pressing.
First was this: When I was little, two years old, I asked my mother: Daddy come home now? Daddy come home now? When? She was 22 and had to explain over and over that he was not coming home, what dead meant. And I would get sad and then I would ask again. When? At some point I stopped asking and maybe it was a relief and maybe it was worse, maybe it was all downhill from there.
At the newspaper office, Myron drops off the obituary and a photograph. A woman tells him that the year ahead will be a year of firsts. First Easter, first birthday. You know. The first without. And yes, she is right, but to have watched Papá change over the past years--from the first time I saw him pray, at our wedding, until he became the man who played with my hair when I stood beside his hospital bed--is to have been clocking firsts all this time. The first time I lost my temper with him, the first indignity of an aging body, the first time I was sure I knew the difference between the slipping of memory that comes with aging and the slipping of self. Each one rang their own bell. I remember their pitches and their trailing tones, first, first, first, again, first.

these are pearls

Full fathom five thy father lies; 
    Of his bones are coral made; 
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
    Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
                   --from Ariel's song, The Tempest

That quote is too on the nose. But if there were ever a time for noseness like this, it's the last day of a long year, while I am thirty-six hours stunned, while his eyes are still so clear in my mind. I can only remember life with a dead father; now Myron is in the club

The thing, the truth, the cliché about dementia (one of so many), the one that you remember over and over again as if you're learning it the first time, is that the person you love is both there and not-there, playing peekaboo and juggling your love with a pair of fireballs. Or maybe not playing peekaboo but surfacing after longer and longer periods full-fathom-five below, not waving but drowning. When Papá showed himself after a period of not-there, I would seize on it and try to enjoy it as much as I could, because it was as ephemeral as everything else in the world is. But though these moments felt desperate to me, they didn't feel that way to him; he didn't gasp for air like a drowning man because he did not remember there were sharks circling. 

We brought him to the hospital not because of the dementia, but because he had fallen and couldn't walk. His heart, lungs, and other necessary systems were doing fine, especially considering his age. Between us and his doctors, we were planning for recovery and much more time with him. And when I say I am thirty-six hours stunned, it is because I still cannot believe that he is gone. How does it make sense that I thought I had more time with a ninety-one-year-old man? I did, though. And so another cliché, the one where I say it does not yet feel real, because it doesn't.

To face death at the end of a year is to do it with the knowledge that everyone around you is looking ahead to arbitrary freshness and possibility. (This is not my first time doing this.) Instead, I ponder the cool, quiet silence full fathom five might bring to a man whom you could believe might just have gone deaf in self-defense, to shut out the things that didn't make him happy. I ponder the pearls that were his eyes because they twinkled, blue like a baby's. I am considering the necessity of sea change, for all of us, and wondering what can possibly be more rich, more strange, than what we are already doing here, year in and year out. I am working that piece of verse like a good English major and trying to find some solace before the fireworks go off.

I hope 2016 brings you loveliness. And largeness, and wonder, and the company of good people, and laughter. I hope it brings you insight and nerve when it brings you pain, because it's bound to do so. I hope it surprises you, and brings you pearls.

about that.

Yesterday I said something like "autumn is not ready to let this city go" because threatened snow hadn't shown up. It came overnight and I am doing that thing where I tell myself it is beautiful and fight to see this beauty, the way I have to when I look at art I don't understand or try to read a book that isn't grabbing me. 


My parka hasn't been taken out of storage yet so I shoveled in a waffle top, fleece, leggings, jeans, and a wool peacoat. I also put on Myron's dad's giant Soviet fur-lined hat. Desperate times, dude. The wind pushed me around and went through me so cleanly it's almost amazing that I don't have holes afterward. 

I really do talk about other things besides the weather. Or I try very much to. Today there was nothing to photograph, nothing to think about except the 2015-ness of this year, which is what the first snow really makes me think about. I get self-reflective early enough that by December I'm sick of looking back. Did I get enough done? Never. Did I do anything new, anything that mattered? I think so. I think about the way Papá used to be, how vibrant and with-it and even kind of snarky and at the same time, almost childlike in his pleasure with his possessions and his collections and in Myron. I think about the way he said by golly at the end of a sentence, when he was really and truly stunned by something, a politician or the price of a prescription or the persistence of a telemarketer. He said it like he meant it, like it had a meaning. There were times this year when I was of use to the man he is now, when I either didn't take his bullshit or when I did. He is not unrecognizable from the man who chopped down those trees. But there is so little of that man left that you can't help seeking it out, scanning for it always, the way you look at a night sky and can't process the darkness, just the scattered little bits of light.

#scintilla13: charmed, I'm sure


I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 15 prompts, Tell the story of how you got the thing you are going to keep forever. Include an image in your post, if you can.We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

My favorite charm: the one commemorating her engagement to my dad.

My favorite charm: the one commemorating her engagement to my dad.

When I told my mom I was getting married, I hadn’t seen her for a few years, though we spoke on the phone frequently. “It’s no big deal,” I said. “Just a tiny wedding, just a couple of people. You don’t have to come if you don’t want.” It broke my heart to say that, but from her sigh of relief I knew I’d said the right thing.

“I wish I could. But I’m happy for you.”

My grandparents had both had serious recent health issues. I wanted her with me, of course, but they needed her. I didn’t know at the time that she was already quite sick herself and felt unable to leave home even for a weekend. I asked if I could borrow her charm bracelet to wear for the day, and made arrangements for Michelle to pick it up on her way to the occasion.

I had always loved it, ever since I was a little girl and first jingled it under her watchful eye. It was made up of around 25 charms, mostly from her teens and early twenties. I have always had a fascination for who my mother was outside of her role as a parent, and the bracelet dangled and jangled with the noise of her history. Her first job out of high school, as a secretary in an office down in the city. Her sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays. Road trips with friends to Virginia, Gettysburg, Philadelphia, New York. Her graduation, her nomination as Girl of the Month, January 1969. Her engagement and wedding. Obscure charms with dates engraved and no clue as to what they might mean—their significance secret. And now I was going to have a part of her to keep with me on the day I would make the most serious promises ever. It mattered. I walked into the art gallery where Myron was waiting for me, and when he noticed it on my wrist, he immediately tuned out the celebrant and brushed it with his fingertips. I still don’t know if he knew everything he agreed to when he said “I do.”


When she said afterward that I could keep the bracelet, I was moved and grateful. I kept it safe and examined the charms again from time to time, especially when I missed her. I brought it with me when she went into the hospital for the last time, and I wore it through all the grief rituals in the days after she died. The cousin who gave her this bridesmaid charm came to the funeral home, and I showed it to her—Remember this? She kept it. It was a moment I won’t forget. Thirty-five years vanished for her and then rushed back again. All because of a piece of metal the size of a quarter. 

They say after someone dies, all you have left are your memories, and to an extent that’s true. And obviously, you do get to keep personal effects and grant them meaning. I love that part of what remains of my mother are these mysteries, the question of whether my scamp of a father proposed on April Fool’s Day on purpose, how it felt on July 1 when she started her job at H.K. Porter, who she was with when she visited the San Jacinto Monument. These are conversations I put off, thinking I had time. Now some holes in her history, even just a few of them, have shape. I know what I’m missing.

#scintilla13: the kids' table

Many   of our fondest memories are associated with food. Describe a memorable   experience that took place while preparing or eating food.


This is not a story. This is just a scene.

For days people had brought food. We ran out of space for it and left some of it out on the porch in the March cold, occasionally picking at bits of it here and there. I thought I was hungry, from time to time. Some autonomic system was. And then I would try to eat, and fail. People kept bringing it, though, tray after tray, and eventually we hit the point in the process where people would leave us alone with our grief. Our grief and our cold cut platters and enough overcooked industrial pasta to feed a family much bigger than our dwindling one.

The four of us went back to the house: my brother and his wife, Myron, and me. We sat at the dining room table and ate. Myron remembers my sister-in-law saying something funny to break the ice. I don’t remember much of anything. There was a tall and very fancy layer cake, one so festive and grotesquely inappropriate that it felt like someone had meant to celebrate something, hadn’t had the heart (or nerve) to do so, and passed the cake on to us in our hour of need. I think it was festooned with tiny chocolate curls. We made conversation, but there is always too much to say and no good way to say it.

So no, I don’t remember much, not enough for a story. I remember the four of us, talking like adults at the dining room table, a place heretofore reserved for special occasions and long, lingering conversations that were not for little ears. Talking like adults—we were adults; there were no children anymore in that house and we had claimed the dining room for ourselves. We were old enough to have been through this before and to remember how much better the food had been last time around, when the death was a different kind of tragedy. I remember the decorative glass of the light fixture, the tablecloth, the china cabinet displaying my mother’s good dishes. The way the coat closet doorknob was hard to close. The view through the window at the backyard. The way it hurt. My God, the way it hurt to not fall apart. There’s a time and a place for falling apart, and it’s not at the dining room table.