Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Geometry

In my study, in the closet, there are five boxes of people I don't know.

Five crates, clear plastic, full of photographs. One crate is full of slides and another of boxed Super 8 film reels. These were delivered by my father a few weeks ago.

I am listening to "An American in Paris." My son and daughter-in-law are looking through the photographs with me. Daughter-in-law. I dislike imprecise language. Unmarried but a solid couple, adored by us, if I say daughter, it is correct in a sense but not in another, confusing, as my daughter would attest. If I say daughter-in-law, it is incorrect. If I say Jessica, it bears no weight, no affection, no relation. Imprecise language.

Imprecise memories as well. I cannot say who most of these people are. They bear no weight, no affection, no relation. There are no labels. No notes. Just faded faces, old clothes, foreign settings with foreign people. We file through them, staring overlong, putting some aside, sorting them into piles of we want and we know. Small small piles. We hold these aside. The rest are we don't know and have no idea. They go back in the crates.

Like geometry, the relationships allow me to occupy a point in time and space far more than my location and date. This is something I lack. I lack the geometry that tells me who I am, where I am from, I am untethered, free-floating.

A few seem to be of me as a child. Some of myself and my brother. Some of my father and some of my mother. Some of both. Maybe more were. I can't say. There are so many faces unrecognized. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins perhaps. Friends. How am I to know?

No one does. My father didn't know. He is seventy-two. Since delivering the photographs, he went to Portugal. I am not sure why. He called from the Ft. Lauderdale Airport. Assured me he was coming back. Would I think otherwise? Two weeks later he was found wandering Newark Liberty Airport without his baggage. Other events, since then, are sketchy. He is home and I understand very little. His stories waver, depending on the day, depending on who he is talking to, depending on who-knows-what. Sometimes he is not sure to whom he is speaking. His stories are imprecise. His language, his relationships, imprecise. He has no geometry. He floats.

My mother knew who these people were. She is seventy-two. She will never be older than seventy-two. But in some pictures she is sixteen. Or twenty. She is with friends. With my father. In a bathing suit.

A few of these were shown to me, some years past, by my mother and my Aunt Jane. She was from England and met my Uncle Al when they were fourteen. He was pushing a street cart. In her late eighties she would go to the old age homes with my Uncle, to "entertain the old people." She would play piano and sing. He would play accordion.

She showed me some pictures, told me who a few people were. She and my daughter made a family tree of whatever they could remember. In the nineteen thirties and forties, it looked like someone took a chainsaw to it.

When she died, my Uncle took me aside. He told me he felt untethered, he occupied no place. His geometry was gone. He just floated.

My Aunt showed one picture in particular. That is the one I wanted. The reason for these crates. It is of my great grandfather. He is the Lord Mayor of Hereford and is walking before a carriage with King George VI and Lady Elizabeth. I figure out who he is by process of elimination.

Of the five crates, only a handful of pictures have recognizable faces. Of some of these, I am not fully sure. I guess. If I write these guesses on the back, they become fact. I could use post-it notes, leaving their identities tentative. Imprecise. I think they deserve better. I can't give it to them. I can't offer them any real place, any real geometry. They shift and float.

But maybe guess are better than nothing. Someday, I may forget too.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Yahrzeit

This, today, August 29th, 2010, is the one-year anniversary of my mother's death. Yahrzeit.

I could not write this. But I could say this. I dictated it and a friend, a good friend, for who else would do such a thing, typed it while I talked. He also made what edits and proofs were needed. He did this to save me the pain of a careful reading. Thanks, Craig.

I read it anyway.

I do not say this is what happened. What is here is truth but may not be fact. It is what I remember from two days that are hard to remember. I have added things as I recall them. Still, maybe I got something wrong. Maybe I got something backward. Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe someone will be mad. Maybe they'll get over it. Maybe they won't.

It doesn't matter.

• • • • •

My brother called me that Thursday and told me my mother was in the hospital, or that she was going into the hospital, I actually don't quite remember which one. I said I would try to get down the next week or so, and he said he thought it was important I get down there in the next day and so. I left the next morning.

My mother had Parkinson's Disease, had it for about fifteen years. For the last two years she'd had trouble speaking, and she seemed more and more trapped. She had brain surgery, which really didn't work for much more than two or three weeks at a time. I think she hadn't walked in probably a good year.

So I called my daughter and asked Sef if I could stay with overnight at her place. She was living in Deerfield Beach and my mother was in the hospital in Coral Springs, about twenty minutes away. I also asked if she would meet me at the hospital. And she said of course she would. So I drive down and I got there around 11, and Sef met me outside the hospital. And we walk in together. I think we met my brother on the way up to the room, or perhaps outside the room. Apparently my mother was not able to swallow anymore. I hadn't seen her in, I think, about two months. I had called from time to time, but because she was unable to speak, she would try to speak on the phone but end up crying, so I alternately thought I should just call and not have her talk, or I should not call so as to not make her cry. So I probably didn't call her as often as I might have. I certainly didn't call her as often as I wanted to, because the crying was hard for both of us. She was such a dynamic person, it was harder to hear her not be able to speak than it was to see her not able to move.

So we went in to see her. My father had called the night before my brother did, and he said she had not been eating, and I forget what else he said, but he was considering taking her to the hospital. I suggested he take her right away—from his description she needed to be there—but he was wondering, vacillating. I believe it was my brother who finally convinced him to get her to the hospital.

Went in. She really looked very "shell-ish," nearly unable to move, unable to eat because she couldn't swallow. I went in, gave her a hug, Sef gave her a hug, I did my best to not cry and I didn't. My father, of course, takes me outside immediately to talk to me "in secret"—he was always telling secrets, always took me aside to whisper things—"Your mother's not doing well, you're mother's not this or that," as if my father still thought she was 40 and playing croquet, as if it were to be a surprise to him that she's sick. When he'd call and say she's not getting better, I'd say, "What did you expect, this is what happens with Parkinson's." I think he was trying to hold on to her, but I found it frustrating. He would whisper it because he didn't want her to hear.

So I sat with her, held her hand, Sef was on the other side, held her hand, talked to her. She made a few sounds here and there, she could move her eyes a little bit. Apparently a Swallow Test had been ordered—I'm not sure what the logistics of a Swallow Test are, I really don't need to know—but they came and got her, wheeled her down, and before they wheeled her back up, I spoke with the nurse and asked what the plan was, what the possibilities were. If the Swallow Test came out well, she would be able to eat. If the test did not come out well, she would be unable to eat, and the only way she would be able to receive nutrition would be through a tube going through her side and into her stomach. But the Parkinson's medications can only be administered orally. So it means the Parkinson's would get worse and worse. So even that was not the best option. If she didn't get the tube, she also wouldn't get the medication. So IV feeding would be useless.

My brother's wife, Amy, worked at the hospital as a pharmacist, so anything needing clarification were made clear, She explained that the Swallow Test indicated she couldn't swallow. That even ice chips would very easily be aspirated. She was wheeled back into the room, put back in the bed, and my father pulls the nurse outside and around the corner—and by then a friend arrived, this guy I didn't know—and my father asks the nurse the results of her test.

"Why don't you ask in front of mommy?" I say.

The nurse cuts him off and says, "She has a right to know, and I will not discuss this with you unless she's present."

I thanked her, and we walked back into the room. The nurse addressed my mother directly. She told her that the Swallow Test indicated she was unable to swallow, would aspirate anything she tried to eat, was at risk for choking, that the Parkinson's meds can only be given orally, had to be digested, so the only possibility was a PEG tube. And that was the only option.

So she asked, "Do you have a Living Will?"

And my father says, "No." At that point my father and my brother get into an argument about why there is no Living Will. I don't remember if it was me or my brother who asked him, "Did it never occur to you that this day would ever come?" My father was crying. Denial. This was no time to have an argument about why; the fact remained that they never discussed what she had wanted.

A long time ago, before she got sick—twenty years ago—my mother told me that if she ever got like my grandmother, unable to take care of herself, she "wanted to be shot." I had to repeat this to the nurse, saying we had discussed this in the past, and she looks at my mother and says, "Is that true?"

And it's the last whole word I can remember my mother saying: "Yes."

And the nurse looked at me, and said, "That's very clear." And so she continued to ask her a few questions: "So that means you do not want a PEG tube?"

And again: "Yes."

"You understand that means no nutrition, no food?"

"Yes."

So I was standing behind the nurse at that point, so she could talk as close to my mother as possible, and my father asked what that means, and she said, "It means your wife does not want to be fed, and wants to allow this to take its natural course."

And I'm watching my mother, and I think it was at that point that she realized she was going to die, that all the days she had left could now be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that was it. I saw her realization that she was about to die. And she just started to cry. And she just cried for quite a while. And people held her hand, and hugged her.

My brother kept saying to her, "It's going to be all right, it's going to be all right."

My father kept saying, "Don't worry, Sheil, don't worry Sheil."

I, on the other hand, went up to her, and said, "I don't know why they're telling you everything's going to be all right. You know and I know what the truth is. You'll be fine, but you won't be here. Everybody loves you. You did good. Rest." And I kissed her on the forehead. She stopped crying, and a few minutes later she closed her eyes and fell asleep.

My father had brought in a CD player, and he was playing Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole, John Denver. I think her hearing was perfect. No TV, just music the entire time. The nurse had left at some point to go get the social worker to have her come up and talk about her options. It was a small room. I guess there were four of us in the room, Amy would pop up from time to time, so five. And directly above her, not four feet above her head, a bank of fluorescent lights on the wall, and fluorescent lights on the ceiling above, and bells were dinging and people calling on the loudspeaker. It was not at all a restful room. So the social worker comes up and we go down the hall to talk—my mother was still sleeping and we needed out of the room for a while. I had Sef come with us because I actually depend on her sometimes to have a clear head when I don't. The social worker wants to talk to us about hospice, which I think is a great idea, and the sooner the better. She couldn't stay at the hospice in the hospital, because you can only stay there for three days, and starving to death can take up to two weeks. My father keeps saying he can't afford hospice. The social workers keeps saying Medicare would take care of it. "My insurance won't take care it." "Medicare will take care of it completely," back and forth.

She told him of Hospice by the Sea, which I have heard over and over is the best care anyone could ever want. He wants to see it first. He think it's going to be dingy, old.

"Is it going to be worse than the room she's in now, with the fluorescent lights and the loudspeaker?" I ask.

"I don't know," he says. "Why don't we go see it tomorrow morning?" he asks.

And my daughter asks him, "Why don't you go see it NOW?"

"Well, everyone's tired, maybe we should rest, see it tomorrow morning."

My daughter insisted: "Why don't you think of her? Get her out of that room, get her somewhere comfortable?"

I ask the social worker: "Can we do it tonight?"

"Yes."

Father didn't know if he'll like it, didn't know if he could afford it. Don't remember my brother saying much, but he probably did.

I asked my father, "What are your choices? Look at your choices. She can't stay her more than three days. You cannot bring her home. This is her only choice. If you like it when you see it, if you don't like it when you see it, if it's a palace or a dungeon, this is your only choice. Why are you putting it off?"

I looked at the social worker and she said, "He's right, this is all you can do."

And so arrangements were made to bring her to Hospice by the Sea that evening. It was a Friday evening. So he wants to go there first to see what it was like. I look at the social worker and said, "Let's get her ready to go, we'll get the papers signed, we'll go to Hospice by the Sea first and be there when she arrives." I ask my father if that works for him, and it does.

In moments here and there, my daughter keeps asking me, "What did he think was going to happen? What did he think his other choices were?" In the meantime, she had called in to take off work for the evening. She told them she thought she might have to take off the next day or two . She could not afford to do this, but she did it anyway.

So I went back into the room to see her, got the papers signed, and got ourselves over to Hospice by the Sea. And my father is starting to fret: "I can't do this, I can't let her starve, what am I going to do?"

We get there and the place is absolutely gorgeous. It's quiet, she has a large room, could have had a party in her room. This is the idea behind the design—everyone can come to be with the person who's dying. We open up the doors in front of the room, and everything is built around this garden with beautiful tropical foliage.

I know at some point we ate, don't remember when, don't remember what. My mother gets there around 11:00 at night, and they bring her in to the room. My father asks for a cot, and they bring him a rollaway bed so he can sleep right next to her, and he goes to find the nurse in charge. And he is beginning to panic. I don't want to say he's not rational, but he's walking around nearly hand-wringing: "I can't let her starve, I can't do this to her, I can't watch her starve, I can't starve her to death!" There wasn't much that we could do to calm him down. The nurse explained that she couldn't eat anything, and she also wouldn't be able to drink anything. You can go twenty-one days or longer without food, but you can't go that long without water, and they expected her go to within seven to ten days. I asked about IV fluids. She explained that she couldn't do that, because as you die, your body doesn't process fluids properly, and that means no fluids.

My father is crying, as you might expect; I'm not handling this well either, but I'm the one who has to. When my maternal grandmother died, despite the fact that my father and she hated one another, he fell apart, and I had to handle everything. Despite the fact that my second child had just been born, and I was out of work, evicted, and had moved back to south Florida to look for work, instead I had to handle funeral arrangements. My family doesn't handle this death business very well.

We talk to the nurse, and we decided they would settle down for the night, go to sleep, and we would be back in the morning. Just before we leave my mother starts making noises like she's hungry. This just makes my father more upset. And none of us knows what to do; there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. My father is asking if there's some way we can feed her. The nurse tells him that they can try feeding her—if she wants. But the likelihood is that she will choke. And their recommendation is that would not be the best thing. Let her go to sleep, let her rest.

So I go back to my daughter's apartment with her and settle myself down on the couch, and it's too short for me, which is really saying something. It's about 1:00 in the morning, I think.

I'm not going to be able to sleep anyway, so I decide to talk to my mother, me on the couch in my daughter's apartment, my mother in her room in the hospice. About two weeks prior I had gotten a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and had started memorizing it. I had no reason to do this; I don't like memorizing things. And so I decided to recite the first paragraph to my mother, first as it was written, and then departing from it, paraphrasing:

O nobly-born, that which is called death hath now come. Thou art departing from this world, but thou art not the only one; death cometh to all. Do not cling, in fondness and weakness, to this life. Even though thou clingest out of weakness, thou hast not the power to remain here….Be not attached to this world.

O nobly-born, what which is death has come to you. You are leaving this world. Do not hold on. Let go. Rest. O nobly-born, death is coming to you. You are leaving this world. Rest.

I kept saying it again and again and again to my mother. And then I said to her, "Please don't do this to Daddy. You know he can't handle this. He can't watch you starve to death. Please just rest, and don't do this to him."

At some point I fell asleep saying this. And then I hear a phone ring. It's my daughter's cell phone. And know what the call is. Sef comes out of the bedroom, walks over to me and says, "Dad, Grandma died."

And I said, "I know."

I was curious why my father called my daughter instead of me. He insists he called me, but Adam and Sef are nowhere close on his cellphone address list. It was five minutes before six. We got up, got dressed, not slowly but not quickly—we were both exhausted and feeling a little spacey.

Sef drove to Hospice by the Sea, we stopped on the way for coffee at a Dunkin Donuts, we needed something—protein, milk, something, because Lord knows when we'd be eating again. Five minutes later were were at the hospice. My brother was already there. My father was by my mother. He was standing over her saying, "I only left her for a half hour." He was beside himself—he had gone home for some clothes and some food.

And I saw my mother. And the first thing that occurred to me is that she looked like a dried fish. There was nothing there. Empty. Gone. My father kept stroking her forehead, kissing her forehead, telling her, "It's going to be all right, it's going to be all right, this is not how it was supposed to go, we were supposed to go together," on and on and on, telling her she was beautiful, telling her she would going to be all right. I imagine he was telling himself that, but I really don't think he believed it. We—my brother, daughter and I—went to speak to the nurse. She told us that she really didn't understand it. A few minutes after my father left, my mother started aspirating liquid, that her body had stopped processing fluids completely. The nurse said she couldn't suction out her mouth fast enough, and that her heart congested and she simply died. She kept suctioning out her mouth to make her as comfortable as she could, and it took about fifteen minutes. She died about five minutes before my father got back. The nurse said she had never seen someone in this state go so quickly; it should have taken at least three days, minimum, probably five to seven. She really did not understand.

I told her I did.

And that was Saturday morning.

I know we had to get my father to eat; I'm not sure where we went or what we did. I think my brother took my father out while we waited with the body. My daughter and I waited because someone had to be there with the body until someone came to claim her, and that way we could give each other periodic breaks. Good thing we stopped to get her coffee; that had been my daughter's idea, and she's always right.

The funeral home arrived for the body around 9:30 in the morning, a very large man in a suit. I was supposed to make sure she was going to the right funeral home—my father was worried—so he could get the right dress to her; I was supposed to give the man a ring that he could put on her finger. So he's wrapping her up, in the shroud first, and up to this point I have not cried. As soon as he put the cloth over her face, that was it: I started crying. He puts her in the body bag, and wheels her out.

I went and thanked everyone at the hospice. They told me they were worried about my father, and wanted to make sure he was getting care. I said I rather doubted that he would. He had spent fifteen years taking care of her. There were times when we were not sure whether he was doing a good job or not, but how were we to know, and what could we do? We tried making him get respite care, but he said he couldn't afford it, yet he never checked with Medicare. We tried getting him support care for himself, but he wouldn't' do it. At the hospital we were told that my mother was in wonderful shape. They rarely see people at her stage so well taken care of, and the job he did taking care of her was, in the nurse's words, "heroic." But I seriously doubt that he'd get any care for himself at this point.

My daughter insists we go back to the apartment, shower, eat breakfast. She takes me to Flakowitz of Boyton, a rather famous deli and restaurant. It's crowded, a Saturday morning, she says the place is good. I fret about not being able to find food that's good for me. She tells me, "Eat what you want, your mother just died!"

I said, "You mean, I can have comfort food?"

She tells me to shut up and get what I want. I don't remember what I got, but I remember it was really good.

As I eat, it dawns on me. I am a motherless child. I say this out loud. Sef nods. I say, "This will take some getting used to. I wonder how long."

"It's only been a few hours," she says. She wishes she knew her grandmother when she was able. She became sick when she was ten. She didn't know her when she hiked, rode bikes, prospected for precious stones played croquette, gardened, pained, did woodwork. When Sef knew her, she was barely still able to crochet.

My son does not know her without a wheelchair, barely able to speak.

I think we were meeting with the rabbi around 1 at the Funeral Home of Lantana, about 20 minutes north of there. It was Shabbos, which means my mother could not be buried that day. It's Jewish tradition to bury the dead within 24 hours unless it's Shabbos, in which case it's two days. At some point that morning I called my wife, Lee, and let her know. She had known my mother for about thirty years, so it was more than just her mother-in-law having died. She said she would throw some clothing in a bag for me, something appropriate for a funeral, and she would rent a car and come down, and she'd be there sometime that afternoon. We had only one car at that point.

We all met with the rabbi, and I instantly liked this fellow. He wanted us to write down things about my mother, things he should mention, things her friends would know, things he should know; he wanted us to treat him as though he would have been her friend. He made sure he pronounced her name properly, what she would want to be called, what she would want people to know. Then there was the matter of planning the funeral day. It was Saturday, the funeral would have to be Monday.

"Why not Sunday?" I asked.

"We can't get the grave dug by then."

"Why not?"

"We don't have gravediggers on Saturday. We'd have to pay them time-and-a-half."

In Jewish tradition, someone has to sit with the body continually until it is buried and say prayers over it, and that's a paid position, a shomer. We'd have to pay a shomer to sit for two days. I ask the rabbi how much that would be. He gave us the figure. I ask him how much time-and-a-half for gravediggers would be. There was a ten-dollar difference in cost, about $250 more one way or the other. So I suggested we simply ask the gravediggers to come in and work some overtime, and spare some old Jew who didn't know my mother from sitting with her and saying prayers over her. So that was settled.

We met my wife and my son Alek at the Ft. Lauderdale airport where the car had to be turned in, and we went to get a hotel room. I wanted an inexpensive hotel room; my wife wanted a nice one. We ended up at Embassy Suites. Why? "Because," my wife said. "Because your mother just died!"

That week my father-in law went into the hospital for a cardiac catheterization. I think that was it. But he was surprisingly blocked, especially considering the excellent care he takes of himself including his diet. He ended up in surgery and was, understandably unsettled. Lee needed to see him. It was bad timing, to be sure, but it was what it was. I could not stand to be by myself so I went to Pembroke Pines with my wife and kids to see my in-laws.

My mother-in law hugged me, asked if I was ok, did her best to be kind. I was exhausted and sat. My father-in-law wanted to talk and did so. He talked to me for nearly three hours straight. I dozed, woke, nodded, listened, dozed. He talked as though nothing different had happened to me today. As though today, for me, was nothing of note, was any other day.

We left. Lee commented on how good I was. I would normally have brushed the comment aside. Not this time. Yes. I was. Better than could be expected. Better than was reasonable. Above and beyond. Lee squeezed my hand and we headed back to Deerfield Beach.

That evening, we ate dinner—the whole family was together—and I watched how differently people handled the obviously empty space. There was an empty seat next to my father. I thought it needed to be empty for a while; my brother wanted me to move over and fill it. We sat there for a long time; I don't remember what we talked about.

I feel crooked. I feel unbalanced. Like one shoulder has a weight the other does not. Like one ear is sensing movement differently than the other. A part of me that has been around for 45 years, that my brain has developed knowing was there, is suddenly gone. It does not feel right. The world does not feel right. It is lopsided. I no longer have two parents. I have one. Something is missing. I wonder how long this will last.

Back to the hotel room. Lee drags me down to the pool and the hot tub. We walk on the beach for a while, then go to the hot tub. A blazered gentleman came over and said the hot tub is closed, it's past midnight. She tells him he really needs to sit in the hot tub tonight. He says, "But the rules say the hot tub closes at 11." She tells him my mother just died. He said, "Stay as long as you want." At some point she also got two gin and tonics down me, which is one-and-a-half more than I usually drink.

The funeral was set for 11. I had called my oldest friend, Carol, to let her know. She knows me since I'm 13 or 14; she insisted on coming to the funeral. I don't remember who else I called. The next morning I'm getting dressed. I pull out the pants and they are not mine. Apparently my wife brought a pair of her black pants, a drawstring number, pleated, which looked very nice—on her. It's Sunday morning; my father wears a size 42, so nothing he has will fit me; my brother is six feet tall, nothing of his will fit me. Lee's pants do fit. So I wear the cute little drawstring number. I pull out the shirt. It is a black silk shirt. I figure if I wear this shirt, I will melt off at least half a dozen pounds before the funeral is over. I go to put on the shoes. They are my seventeen-year-old son's skater shoes. But they fit me. So I am not quite dressed in the manner one would generally assume a son should dress for a funeral.

We headed to the funeral, which was held at the cemetery. We start at the chapel. This is the same cemetery where my father's mother is buried. The couples are buried one on top of each other. There are four spots, each for a couple, so it's a two-story underground concrete sealed horror. The caskets are lowered, then a concrete slab is lowered on top of that, then the marble lowered on top of that. Originally my father and my mother were supposed to be next to his mother and father, but my mother insisted she wanted to be at the other end of the grave "condos." Those who have read "Funeral, Expurgated" will understand why.

People start arriving. Some are crying, many are in wheelchairs. They were very involved in Americans with Disabilities Act activities. I don't remember a lot about the funeral except that I felt terribly self-conscious about what I was wearing. Carol found me and hugged me, and we went off and talked for a while, she and myself and Lee.

At some point my father went to the casket, and opened it up to look at her. He asked me if I wanted to. I said I didn't think I could.

Then we were told it was time to take our seats. My father, brother, and I were in the first row; Carol sat behind me; Lee, Sef, and Alek sat behind her. It was a bit of a wait, maybe five minutes, for the funeral to start. I leaned back and said to Carol, "These pants are chafing a bit, but I look so cute in them! Leave it to me to get into my wife's pants at my mother's funeral!" She starts laughing. A few other people laughed. A few people did not find it funny. I'm sure, however, that my mother would have, and I was fine with that.

Carol knew the rabbi, said he was a perfect choice, and indeed he was. He did a wonderful job, though I don't remember any of the details. You would think he had known her. He was splendid. The rabbi asked if anyone would like to speak. I raised my hand. Later my brother would tell me, "I knew you wouldn't be able to not speak," and I said, "I knew you wouldn't be able to, so I figured I would."

I told everyone that I had learned my sense of morals from her, and if that's all she'd ever taught me, it would have been enough. I said that the last thing I had told my mother was that everyone loved her, that she did good, and that it was time to rest. I don't think I spoke for more than a minute. We moved out to the graveside. I immediately went to the casket to help roll it to the grave. "You don't have to," I was told. But of course I did. I literally buried my grandmother; I would certainly have done the same thing for my mother, if I could have. The least I could do was help push the casket out to the grave.

One of the four graveworkers stands aside so I can help roll the casket out. Even the grave workers are dressed better than I am. It's a long walk from the chapel to the grave, and it's August 30 in south Florida in a treeless cemetery. I am wearing a black silk shirt, black linen pants, black suede shoes, and it's a loooooong walk to the grave. I don't remember what was said at graveside; I know that Kaddish was said. I know that other prayers were said. There was a canopy with some chairs set for people; I stood by the grave the entire time.

And then the funeral was over. The casket was ready to be lowered into the grave, which is done by machine (this is not how most Jewish funeral go), and I had my hand on the casket as far down as I could—I'd have preferred lowering it ropes myself, but that wasn't available; I think we definitely lose something by having all this stuff mechanized. We were given little plastic baggies of dirt, about the size of two ketchup packets, to throw on to the casket. I wanted a shovel and a pile of dirt, and what I got were tiny baggies. I wanted to bury her and all I could throw in was a teaspoon of dirt, so I grabbed all that I could find—it didn't matter if anyone else had any.

We were then told that it was time to leave, because it was time to bring in the backhoe to load in the concrete that would be lowered halfway down the condo so it would be covering my mother's casket. The canopy had to go. The plywood on which the seats sat had to be moved so the backhoe wouldn't eat up the grass.

And I told them: "No." Very matter of fact. No. I was going to help, until it was completely sealed. I told the rabbi, "I don't get a shovel, I don't get any dirt, but I'm going to damn well see this thing sealed." He said he understood.

The first piece of concrete had a bolt hole in each corner. Large eyes were screwed into each, chains attached to those, the four chains attached to a hook on the backhoe. It was picked up moved, positioned, lowered. And I stood there, a little too close for safety, until I could catch the last glimpse of the coffin as the slab covered it. Then one of the workers had to jump in and unscrew the bolts and take the chains off. Lee wisely kept me from doing that; I was very bothered by someone I didn't know jumping into my mother's grave, silly me.

Then came the second concrete slab to cover the top half of the two-story grave. Same process. I helped unscrew the bolts and take off the chains, since this was just below ground level and I could reach it. Then the same process for the marble grave top. It's positioned into place with my hand on it. I helped take off the chains, unscrew the eyes. And then the workers come over with a bolt and a large brass washer, and that is screwed on, attaching it to the concrete grave box.

I said to one of the workers, "Mind if I do that?"

And he says, "You're not supposed to."

And I said to him, an older black fellow, "If this was your mom, and you had no shovel and no dirt, what would you do?"

He said, "I would hand you the bolts and hand you the wrench and say, "There you go.'" And he did. And I screwed my mother's grave closed.

That afternoon we—family, extended family, friends— went back to my brother's house. Amy had gone ahead, picked up platters of sandwiches and desserts. And we talked. I changed into normal clothes that were actually mine. I met the son of my mother's oldest friend. My father's brother came down. I sat with Amy and said that I would prefer that we manage to get together under circumstances other than this from time to time, that it would be nice. We were there about two hours before we left. Everyone needed rest. Lee and I and the kids headed to Carol's house. She had made us macaroni and cheese, and other assorted things we shouldn't eat, and we sat and talked. I needed that comfort after this weekend. Next to Lee, she's the person I've known the longest. Sometime around 6 we left and drove home, less than a two-hour drive. I drove there with a mother. I drive home without one.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rememberance

The dates had been set for a trip for Lee and I to New York City. A drive up with the remainder of my daughter’s boxes, sixteen of them in varying sizes and weights, two portfolios, two pictures carefully wrapped in blankets, one tool set and a two by six by eight inch stone signed by fellow students from the inaugural class at The America Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC. The dates were changed from later in the month to earlier - her work schedule changed and, always overprotective, she worried about us traipsing around NYC by ourselves. On our end, work became heavy and, heading into summer, we were reticent to tell patients they could not have appointments.

It had been months since we'd seen her. Too long for me. But, in the end, though I missed her enough to bother her by phone nearly every day, it seemed a trip destined for difficulty. I felt we were pushing it somehow - the fast drive up and back, the shuffling of patients, the challenge in accommodations as she had, as yet, no couch or blow-up bed and I was not looking forward to arriving in NYC and immediately dropping a few hundred on a sleeper sofa.

Lee suggested Alek go along instead. We made the plans but, at the last minute, he felt it was a bad idea. Not just for him, but for anyone. In the end, it seemed he was right and we canceled. But I still needed a day or two away and Lee suggested Gainesville.

I had shied away from Gainesville. But, now settled into a home I like, visiting the place I considered my home for so long no longer seemed melancholy and bittersweet. I could go to my favorite gardens, walk the trails, climb the sinkhole, sit downtown, stay up late at my favorite coffeehouse, spend the afternoon at museums. And I can get from here to there well before a single MP3 disk runs out.

I asked Alek if he wanted to go – to get away with me and leave Lee the house to herself for a couple of days. Happily, surprisingly, he said yes.

This might have something to do with my having invited his girlfriend too.

Jessica is a sweet kid. A smart kid. We have made it a point to include her in the household whenever we can. She’ll watch TV with us, have dinner with us, go out with us. We want her to feel welcome and to know that she is. This is no chore - she's fun to have around.

A week ago, Alek took her to South Florida to visit my father and brother, my in-laws. She learned quite a bit about the family and, yet, she stayed. So why not take her to Gainesville and show her some old haunts and tell her some odd stories. Let her see where Alek was born, where we lived, learn a bit about his parents.

Besides, Alek is quiet, Jessica talks. She and I will sing in the car while he sits. When we go out, he is worried about which one of us will embarrass him more. In short, it’s fun to have her along and it makes Alek happy. So why not?

The day was set. We leave Thursday. An easy trip. One night there. Gardens, sinkholes, museums, flea markets, thrift stores, retro clothing, coffeehouses. Maybe I’ll look up some people I know. Maybe not. I post a status message on Facebook. “Anything musical, festival, artful, eventful, funful or playful going on in Gainesville this Thursday of Friday?” I should have known not to, I did know not to, and I did it anyway.

Wednesday night I got this reply as a message on Facebook. It is from Tori, a friend of fourteen years. Tori thinks it is longer and I don’t tell her any different. The subject was “The Wild Young Zikr, Poetry Jam and Potluck”

I had gotten an invitation to this a month or so back but, since it was in Gainesville and I am in Palm Bay, three hours away, I said no. That and the fact it was a potluck which means there will be food and people which means eating food and talking to people. Actually, that was the only reason I said no.

The entire body of the email was two words. “Come by.”

People who know me, who spend time with me, come to understand that somehow, often somewhat uncomfortably, often somewhat frequently, they are in for new experiences. Tori, later, Victoria, later Murshida, always Tori to me, is like that as well. Having seen the comfort-stretching, learning and experiencing my friends tend to endure when around me, I knew what I had to do.

I had to say no. I had to say it quickly and before it was too late.

Why did I not use the word no? I walked right into it. I said “My dear Dear, It is a party. That means I will be struck with near paralyzing fear, cold with sweat, and wanting to crawl into any hole I can. Then I'll cling to anyone I actually know and then worry about having done that. How’s THAT for a confession and knowing myself?” I added, “Besides, I won't have been able to have cooked anything.”

There. That would be that. Done. Over. Crisis averted. After all, I promised no more forcing myself into social situations. I didn’t need them, didn’t like them, didn’t want them. And I can lie to myself as well as the next guy.

On the occasions I have needed a psychotherapist, and I assure you I have and do, I have not seen one. Why? Pack of idiots. Pulling out their tricks and counting on their common logic. I know their tricks and can out-logic them half asleep. Too smart for my own good, I am told, I have never found them to be effective. In psychotherapy, a good therapist has to get past your mind, past tricks and leave you with no place to go but in the direction of discovery, experience and growth, of finding or leaving. Tori is a psychotherapist. I should have known better. I should have just said no.

Her reply.

It's not a party-- it's a ceremony-- does the invite say party? That was a student's oversight.

Come at 8:30 to eat and for Zikr-- helping clean the dishes as your contribution to the meal will help manage your social anxiety between the eating and the invocation-- bring a couple of dark chocolate bars to add to dessert-- you can break them up and arrange them on a plate once you get here-- another activity to manage social anxiety...did I tell you I was almost paralyzed by this for years... covered it up because I am an actor. It sucks. My heart to you! I love you.

And Zikr... Zikr is... Zikr is...

5,000 years of Dervish Divine Magic. 130,000 prophets in the room, Illumined Teachers in the room, music beyond what is being sung... such beauty.

During the height of the Moorish Empire when our ancestors lived in the Iberian Peninsula enjoying what is sometimes referred to as The Golden Age of the Jews, there were seven generations of Jewish Sufi Sheiks. And you, my dear, area Dervish to the core. So... if you don't come I won't be insulted for a moment, but what a thing to pass up... eh?!!! ♥ ♥ ♥


Damn. She did exactly what I would have done. The sidestep. She deflected my issues, piqued my curiosity, spoke to my longing and left me nowhere to go but discovery and experience and growth. She left me nowhere to go but her house on Thursday evening.


Hmm... social interaction and food. Nothing like dropping myself directly into the lion's den.

But, if it is religious as well, it would probably be interesting to Alek, soooo...

Mind you, my newest poetry is not printed out so all I have is some older things. I mean, I have the new stuff on Internet access and on the computer, but not on paper. So if I read it might be something you have heard before.

Eight-thirty, eh? Dark chocolate, eh?

You know, if I'm on stage, I'm fine. If it is my job, I'm great. But I have even stopped going to contra dances for fear I won't get asked, or, if I ask, I'll be turned down. I never am but I know, next time... next time… so I don't go. I just stopped forcing myself.

So what's the dress code?


Why was I asking her that? Was I actually going? I asked the kids to see if they might say they’d not want to go. I prodded. I suggested.

“Sounds interesting,” they said. Damn.

Tori’s reply to my queries and misgiving?


Dress code is comfortable. Alek is welcome of course. Lots of young people. Not a place for performing actually. But what comes through comes through... you'll see. Someone will be holding your hand most of the time and guiding you through... I promise that! lol. ♥ VA ♥


I wrote back. “Guiding me through? I'll have Alek's main squeeze with me to. Guiding me through?”

Notice the sidestep here. “Awesome... ,” she answers. “The Path of Love Loves Lovers... yep yep yep ♥”

“Damn, it looks like you are giving me something to write about. CRAP!”

“Yes!”

I have not written much in the last two months. It’s not that I have nothing to write about. I am working on a revision of a book coming back into print, on a novel, on a series of vignettes, on promotional material for the office. I have things I could write about. Maybe too many. A friend joked the other day that my problem was I had so much to write about that I don’t know where to start. I said “I need assignments. Write about this event. Write that story. Even better, maybe someone will give me an adventure. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a something interesting I could go to, less than a day away, that I could write about.” Make sure you really want something before you ask for it.

So Thursday morning we set off.

It is a three hour ride and we arrive in town with plenty of time. I take the kids on a tour, showing Jessica the house we lived in that we bought because of the live oak tree (age three), where the Lubavicher rabbi, one Shabbos eve, got Alek drunk on vodka and he spit up all over the rabbi in return (age four), where I died in my orange VW bus after a head-on collision with a blue truck, laying across Alek keeping him safe (also age four for him), his elementary school, Littlewood (ages five to nine), the old cooperative school we started out in the woods (ages who knows), Civic Media Center, where I got my start reading poetry at a clothing optional event (age who knows again), the bookstore we owned (age seven to nine) which now sells cigarettes and beer, and the house he was born in (not age four).

We pass the houses of people we know and decide to not stop in. Many we have made attempts to keep up with and most of the friendships fell apart from disuse as the distance and time grew. Some I email and some I call and from none do I get replies. That evening, I clean out my phonebook.

We explore downtown a bit and stop in at Flashbacks, a retro consignment shop. We buy a dress for Jessica and some cool whacked-out multi-coloured skater shoes for me (women’s size ten) and a great, magnificent find - a plaidish wool fedora. Neither appear to have been worn at all. Ever. Divesting myself of fewer than twenty-five dollars and feeling well on the upper-side of the bargain, we set off for lunch.

El Indio. It is not hard to find it and we have a great lunch of Mexican food under the trees on Gainesville’s main street, which is not Main Street, but 13th Street, US Highway 441. From there we walk a block to Mother Earth and buy three bars of dark chocolate. Green & Black's Organic 85% Cocoa Dark Chocolate.

There is a whole lot of tired going on. We head back to the West Side, near Archer Road, and look for a hotel. Classes let out for the summer a week ago and rooms are plentiful and inexpensive. We settle in, me in one room and Alek and Jessica in another. We will rest and, in an hour and a half, at quarter ‘til seven, leave for Tori’s.

Out Hawthorn Road, in the Southeast region of the town, down towards the lakes, in a hidden area of small to medium, iconoclastic adobe, A-frame, tin-roof, shack, balcony, geodesic houses, each more improbably different than the next, we wind around dirt roads until we find Tori’s home as described, notice the many people sitting, standing on the wide front porch. I had hoped we’d arrive before most of the people and I feel my heart rise in my throat.

It is difficult to find a place to park and we squeeze past the cars on the narrow lane, turn around at the end, at the bank of Calf Pond, and squeeze past them again to park by the top of the street, unblocked and unblockable by any car obeying even the rudiments of the spirits of logic and the traffic laws. I have planned my escape.

The kids exit the passenger side. I left not quite enough room for me to get out and I step into the vines and loam, smoothing my way against the side, compressing myself over the hood. Down the road, up the short path, two steps up to the porch.

“Adam!” She rushes toward me, slams into me, hugs me. It takes me a moment to process the voice, now buried in my shoulder. Kat. Katey. “Katey!”

In her mid-twenties, tall and thin, other than a sporadic picture on-line, I have not seen her for nearly ten years. Long among my daughter's best friends, even when distant. For years we saw her nearly every day.

I introduce the kids. Alek, of course, she knows though he has changed much since his age was in the single digits.

She takes my hand and brings me, around the people, inside. A small house. An adorable house. Different coloured walls, arches, stucco, sashes and prayer flags over doorways, devotional items on the walls, a fireplace to the left on the front outside wall as soon as one enters, and a table at the far end covered with food. A floor. The floor looks like people. Pillows and people. A sea of people between the front door and the table. A sea of people wearing shorts, t-shirts, sarongs, tank tops, less, more. I step around, over, through.

Really, it is not that crowded, but I don’t look down. There are many people but I don’t look down as that is where they are, sitting. Katey tells me her mother is busy talking with someone and points to a door through which I assume Tori is. And she must go as well. “Wait a moment.” I reach into my backpack and hand her three large bars of the 85% cacao chocolate. “For the desert table.”

We stand. It must be a few minutes or maybe a few seconds. I look at Alek and say softly, “I’m going to go outside where I’ll be less conspicuous.” I am not thinking about the fact that I am dressed in a button-down, albeit flowered, forest green shirt and dungarees which is as comfortable as I get when I don’t know the people. No, I am thinking about my mere presence and palpable, I am sure to everyone, discomfort.

And from some part of the room I hear, "be less conspicuous?" And so confirmed becomes my belief, my self-fulfilling prophecy, that people notice me, laugh at me, talk about me. I walk out the door again. Across the porch, down the steps, to the road and walk to the left, the right, one end, the other.

Out comes Tori. Tall, bright, nearly buzzed white hair, dressed in white, flowing inside and out, she hugs me. And I do so adore her. Always have. And miss her. Always do. She senses the discomfort even as I melt. She tells me how good it is to see me. She takes my hand, leads me around, introduces me to people, tells them she knows me much longer than she does. I don't argue. "Want to take a walk to the pond? We have a dock that goes out into it."

We walk down the road, onto the narrow, single file, wooden dock. In the water baby gators swim by.

"I swim in there," Tori tells me and a few other people who have followed us, met on the way, or were already there. "I just listen to my instincts."

It's time to go back to the house. Time to eat. Back up the lane, inside. Tori walks to the table, gathers people around, points to the dishes and tells us what is what, what's in it, who brought it. Time for a blessing and we all gather in a large circle squashed by the walls. Someone is missing. Tori's mom. I'll get her, says someone and leaves the room. A few moments later, her mom, thin and white, sitting in a chair, is slid into the room, chair legs across the tile floor.

The last time I saw her mom she spoke. The last time I saw her mom, she walked. Last time I saw her mom... I want to go over and say hello. She smiles. People talk to her. I can't. My lack. It has not been long since my mother died and it feels like that. Far too much like that. Far too soon. And immediately I feel badly for my inability to communicate with her, my desire to distance, the feeling, if I walk over, I will begin to cry and see my mother, again, cold, dry, dead. My last image of her and I can't do that now.

It is my lack. But I choose to be kind to myself. As kind as I can be while still dishing self-reproach.

The blessing begins. Tori leads it, blessing the food, our gathering, that we have come together to share this meal, this love, this precious time together and our reaching out to one another in union, in expansiveness, in joy. That we all move toward the one and the one moves within us all, each a ripple or wave in a single expansive sea.

And we eat. I wait, as always, not wanting to be seen eating, that someone might say, "he's fat but he's eating?" knowing, as I do, I am the only one who begrudges me food. But I wait, regardless, until the line is down, 'til seconds have been had, 'til cleanup has commenced, 'til most are busy talking, or laughing, or walking in the warm night.

I grab a plate and find the food is gone. This was my hope, of course. My son tried to get me to eat. I told him I would. But if the food is gone, what's to be done?

There is half a slice of bread left, made by Tori, spelt and seeds and dense and delicious. There is a handful of cucumbers and a few fork-fulls of salad. I eat. Beside me is a conversation about massage therapy and sore legs. One woman has shin pain and wants to know how to stretch to alleviate it. It is a chance to help and I apologize, ask if I might make a suggestion, and, with leave, do. She is a massage therapist, not a student as I thought, and I think they might believe me to be egoistic. But it is information she did not have and seems happy for it. And I back out off the conversation before I have worn thin my welcome.

I bring my plate into the kitchen and, among three other people, wash my dish. Then other dishes on the counter, then gather other things to wash, happy to have a chore - doing something that allows me to face away from others and with no expectation of socializing. When there are no more dishes to wash, I walk outside. The kids are sitting on a set of steps.

Jessica is feeling uncomfortable. Her stomach hurts. She feels somewhat nauseous. Part of me wants her to want to leave and I will, of course, concede. part of me wants her to come in. We've come this far, why not go all the way? Tori comes over, crouches, speaks with her, assures her no one will ask her to do anything she feels unable to. She agrees to come in and give it a try. I am heartened. I am undone. My mind, my will, divided, opposed to itself, gets what it does and does not want.

Then, we are called back into the living-room and asked to take seats upon the floor. There are pillows. I refuse one, knowing, within ten minutes, my legs will be asleep. People push in, Tori askes we get closer. "Smush. Smush." My son to my right, Jessica beside him. To my left, a young lady who's name I do not know. I do not know anyone's name save my son, Jessica, Kat and Tori. She wears a green dress and sits on a pillow. Everyone has a pillow and she leans forward and grabs one of the few remaining, piled in the middle of the room, and insists I take it. She has a Spanish accent, South American. Argentina, I am nearly sure. I refuse the pillow. I refuse the kindness.

"Smush Smush." We do, I am pressed against Alek and he sits tightly. I try not to impose on his space. Ms. Argentina is pressed against me and I try to move to give her room, but there is no where to go. She sits cross legged and lets her legs fall to the sides, her right leg resting on my lap. I thank her for the excellent suggestion of the pillow, taking it from behind her and popping it under me. Newly elevated as I am, her leg still drapes over mine, resting on my thigh. I have no choice but to melt and breath.

Tori lays a sheepskin down in front of the fireplace and sits. "This (drawing a large circle in the air) is Islam. This (drawing a large circle slightly intersecting the other) is Sufism. This little space where they come together is Islamic Sufism but the rest of this circle is Sufism too. A long time ago, Mohamed welcomed the mystics, persecuted elsewhere, into his protection. Everyone was welcomed. Muslims, Jews, all the mystics. And they sat on sheepskins, or 'sufs.' So they were called Sufis."

Zikr. It means to remember, to praise, to celebrate, to devote. It is movement and a spiritual state. It is to occupy ones body and mind, simultaneously, with the act of devotion so there is no space, no thing within that is not involved in devotion, not filled with celebration, not engaged in remembering, not suffused with love. The entire being becomes a celebration of all that is within and without and, soon, cannot tell one from the other. All things are divine and nothing is not the ground of creation. Zikr. Dhikr. Daven. Sway, rock, recite, repeat, praise, sing, move, move move.

She speaks about recognizing each other. Sufi's, those on the path, mystics, though not all alike, recognize each other, as she recognizes us tonight.

There is further, but brief, explanation. Some chants will be in Aramaic, some in other languages, but all will be translated and all are here to bring us toward the one, toward unity, to ecstasy, out of our bodies and out of our minds to expansion past our skin-encapsulated egos, and into the ocean of being. We will be soaked, drenched in the one. We shall be drowned, encompassed without, filled within, by the love of all that is.

"Allah hu. Hu Allah." A name of the one and the universal sound, a breath. We chant. I was taught a similar chant by Rabbi Isenberg, now the Chairman of the Department of Religion at the University of Florida. We would breath, chanting fast, bowing our heads. " Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil / Adonai Eloheinu / Adonai echad." Three bows each time, one for each part. Fast, faster, breathless. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour. Shaya would gather the Jews of a mystical bent and the Muslims of a mystical bent and have evenings he called "Jufi Dancing" to prayers and songs and chants. The Dances of Universal Peace. On Sundays, often, we'd play soccer, the Jews against the Muslims, no one keeping score. A name for oneness is a name for oneness.

Yet, I have trouble as the chant takes hold around the circle. First I sing not at all, then quietly, barely moving my lips. Then, as time passes, the chant starts singing itself and I feel no choice.

Words have meaning, rhythm and sound. Their power comes from the vibration of these three. But we don't need to understand the words. Sometimes the words are lost. Sometimes we can't pronounce them. The rhythm and sound are all that is needed as these impart their own meaning.

A rabbi taught me , if I don’t know the words, hum. There is power in the tune, in the rhythm and sound. Some chants come and go. Some, though, have power in their tunes, power in their sounds. They last. "Allah Hu."

So I sing. And Tori begins to twirl. She spins and spins and spins in the little space there is within the circle. She bends down and grabs someone's hands and they spin together. She lets go and that person grabs someone's hand and they spin. We chant, we breath, they spin. With each choosing of a new partner, I wish simultaneously to be chosen and overlooked. We sing we sing we sing, they whirl, they whirl, they whirl. Faster and faster and then, as though by cue, we slow and breath and slow and slow and stop.

We had all pulled our legs in, to make more room, to not get our feet spun upon, and Ms. Argentina and I are now rather nestled into each other. And it is time for the next chant.

We count off into ones and two. Hold hands. Ones turn to the left first, then right. Twos to the opposite. Say "I don't exist." Turn. "You exist." Turn. "I don't exist." Turn. "You exist." Again. Again. Look in the eyes. Repeat. Again and again Ms. Argentina and I look into each others' eyes, tell each other "I don't exist." Alek and Jessica are doing the same. Alternately, I turn to Alek, tell him "You exist." Back to Ms. Argentina. "I don't exist." People are snickering, some laughing, some looking down, some follow through, more and more, look around, smile, radiate, expand, glow.

We rise and learn a song. Umbay alahay alahay alaho / Umbay alahay alahay alaho / (Rise an octave.) Umbay alahay alahay alaho / (Drop and octave.) Umbay alahay alaho. We sing. We sing. The circle breaks and the beginning of the line moves, sways, walks, dances. We become a snake, moving, swaying walking, around the house, into the kitchen, out the back door, into the yard, singing, walking, spiraling, singing, singing, faster, slower, louder, softer, tight, loose, drawn, compressed, expanded, pulling, pushing, singing singing singing. Passing eyes, looking, gazing, singing, the line doubles on itself, we face each other, it spirals again, we face away, it folds, circles, folds. We coil, coil, sound in our ears, singing all around and after an unknown time, we are all spiraled into a singing coil, tight, tight against each other, side by side, front and back, singing, pressing, pressing. Warmth and sound and naught else.

There is nothing to do but sing and melt. I cannot tell where I end and the next person begins. How long have I been holding Ms. Argentina's hand? Alek's hand? I am pressed between them, against the person in front of me, the person behind me. Briefly, ever so, I take inventory. What is there? Sound. But so much is missing. Anxiety. Worry. Boundaries. Me.

We quiet. Sing in a whisper. Slowly uncoil. Sit on the warm Earth. Come back inside. Sit again.

We are quiet. It is time for a story. Tori starts it. We each add a bit then pass it on. I am two thirds of the way around and it falls in and out of continuity, the story of a lonely woman of the distant past. A woman who lives in the desert and wishes to see the ocean. My turn comes and I do my best to return the story to the realm from which it came, to address the original question, get the woman to the ocean and away from caves and talking cats and speeding cars and back to her home and time and desert and to help her find her ocean.

The person before Tori has his turn. "I don't have to finish it, do I?"

"No," she says, "I wouldn't do that to anyone."

He takes his turn. So does Tori. But the story is undone.

"Adam," She asks. "Would you finish the story?"

I guess I'm not anyone. I am surprised. It is a compliment, I know. And I take it gladly, finishing the story with the breath of the divine lifting the woman and her carpet to the clouds, to the sea. Everyone blows. Everyone blows. Our breath together is the divine breath. Our wish together is the divine wish. And together her wish is fulfilled. Together, may all our wishes be fulfilled.

Tori looks across the room, smiles, puts her hands together in front of her heart, shakes her head yes, says "I love that man."

And, yes, I believe it's true. And, right now, so do I.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A Poem for Emily

I don’t remember when I clipped it. It’s a column inch and extends just a quarter inch below the fold. It is cream now, not white, not yet yellow. Not brittle.

I imagine it must have been around President Clinton’s second inauguration. Miller, an Arkansas native, read for that event. That makes it 1998. Why I clipped it is another question.I cannot say. I do not remember. Really, I have no idea.

I found it while going through some file folders at my office. Most all of the contents were disposed of. This bit of newsprint certainly was incongruous with the receipts and forms and other papers in the Pendaflex.

I pulled it out and read it. Quite good, I thought. Quite nice. No particular effect other than appreciation of the poetry and wonder at what made me cut it out of the newspaper eleven years earlier. I left it on the back desk of our reception area until I figured out what to do with it. Why not throw it away? Filing it again would be silly.


A Poem for Emily by Miller Williams

Small fact and fingers and farthest one from me,
a hand's width and two generations away,
in this still present I am fifty-three.
You are not yet a full day.

When I am sixty-three, when you are ten,
and you are neither closer nor as far,
your arms will fill with what you know by then,
the arithmetic and love we do and are.

When I by blood and luck am eighty-six
and you are someplace else and thirty-three
believing in sex and god and politics
with children who look not at all like me,

sometime I know you will have read them this
so they will know I love them and say so
and love their mother. Child, whatever is
is always or never was. Long ago,

a day I watched awhile beside your bed,
I wrote this down, a thing that might be kept
awhile, to tell you what I would have said
when you were who knows what and I was dead
which is I stood and loved you while you slept.



That was a month ago. Maybe two. Since then my son and his intended have become pregnant. At first the decision was to wait. Spend some time with it and decide. We, my wife and I, were nervous. We were upset. We were worried. Then, the decision was to terminate. Then it was not. Keep the child? Adoption? My son would be about nine months younger than I when our first child was born. Certainly it can be done. We started to look forward to it. We started to feel a bit excited. Why not? We can help. It would work.

The decision was made, by the two of them, to put the child up for adoption. “It isn’t a good time to have a child.” When is? “It isn’t going to be easy.” When is it? “How could we do this?” We’ll make it work.

The decision stands. She is beginning to show. Yesterday we saw a sonogram of the child. I have not held a sonogram before. We didn’t have one done for either of our children. A small slip of paper. There is the baby. A bit more than two months into getting herself out. Her? Him?

Today I saw the poem again. Under some inventory papers. I read it. This time, I cried.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

To Succeed in Life, You have to Actually Show Up OR How David Pastorius still owes me Eighty Dollars

This is not going to be a masterpiece. I am not saying I have, in the past, managed to create such but, If ever I had, this isn’t going to be it. No exemplar this. I’m just mad.

Yes, I know, some of you are saying I should use the word angry instead. Nope. Not this time. I’m just too mad.

Irresponsibility. Complete lack of follow-through. Zero respect for me or my time. And it is rampant.

And this last week, I had had enough. Here is what I posted as my status on Facebook the other morning.

"I will indulge in a moment of complaining and excoriating (which I shall confine to Monday mornings, though, I like Mondays) as I dislike being taken, as I abhor dishonesty and irresponsibility. Such went the way of my recent electric bass lessons for which I waited so long, for which money was paid and no teacher showed. Waste of time and money. Ask me who it was?"


Of course, people did. Did I call. Did I email? Did I demand my money back? And I answered.

"I sure have. David Pastorius keeps saying he'll bring it by but doesn't. He just keeps wasting my time. I am past wanting my cash back for the three lessons not used. I want it all back since he wasted so much of my time."

It was suggested I stop by his place of work.

"Excellent idea. When he gets back from NYC, I will have to spend some fun time finding where he works and just enjoy annoying him until he pays me back.

I might write a small blog entry on it and include his name. After all, it will come up whenever his name is searched and it isn't libel as long as I say only what is true. He did not show for the second class and did not call. The next class he asked only a few hours ahead of time (and then by email) to cancel due to his daughter's b'day though, one would assume he knew ahead of time, eight years ahead of time, when her birthday was. Later that evening I saw a Facebook post from him that he was at a jam session. The next week he just plain didn't show up. I had to call him, of course. Then he promised twice to give me the money back for the missed classes. Never did. Just the facts."


I did speak with him once. He said he was not cut out to teach. He’d return the money. He didn’t. He said “I’m not like that” and that he’d get it to me before leaving for New York. He didn’t. Apparently, he is like that.

Prior to his leaving for NYC, I called him. I texted him. I emailed him.

"Well, I didn't see you Friday and I know you are leaving Monday for NYC. I wish I did not feel as though I have been taken and cheated, but there you are. I should not even have had to have asked for the money back as it should have been offered by you when you abdicated your position as teacher and wasted my time waiting for you.

I have been working on an essay on people who simply do not come through. Workers who do not show up, people who ask for business and do not return calls, people who want to be hired but don't show for interviews. All first hand. It seems I will be able to add this experience to that. And, as I am rather well-read (bloggily speaking), it, and your name, will show up on the Internet searches quite easily and quite a bit.

Silly me, I am hoping you make good on this before it is published so I can let it go without your name.

Please make good on this and don't leave me asking again. I waited time waiting for you and now I am having to ask repeatedly for the money back. It just isn't right."


And right it is not. So while I was at Guitar Haven talking to Howie, the owner, I mentioned it when there was a crowd around. I did the same while I was at Florida Discount Music. A few other places too.

If it was only Pastorius it would be annoying, I’d be out a eighty bucks, but it would not be so bad. But it isn’t. This behaviour seems rampant.

It’s everywhere. We just moved into a house. We call people to do repairs. No calls back. Repair people who dropped their cards in our office do not call back when we call to hire them. People we’ve managed contact set times to come by but never show for an estimate. Handymen hired don’t reappear.

People send in resumes for positions at our office and make appointments for interviews. Beg for interviews. They don’t show up. (We finally did find a great person for our front desk but... well, that’s another story.)

Massage therapists hired simply do not appear for their first days. I need not point out the economic climate now. Not showing once hired? (Thank heaven’s for Jazmin but, that too, is another story. She starts soon. Start making your appointments.)

So I’ve had it with this. Totally. Completely. Brains. Ability. It means nothing if you don’t show up.

Dave, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Ya gotta show up.

And you still haven't.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Adventures in Service Doggery

The first time we went to put the service vest on Dusty, she backed up. I was on my knees, following her as she backed into a wall. That’s when I slipped it over her head and fastened its blue airy mesh loosely under her belly with the Velcro strap. She walked tentatively around the block. For week she did this, walking with the vest unsure, as though something was wrong.

Then we took her out, to a store. We went food shopping. Into the car she went, jumping in as though she thought the vest would inhibit her ability to make it from the ground to the seat. Once in, she was happy. Does this vest mean car trips? Indeed so.

She was in heaven walking into the grocery store, stayed by my side, wagged the entire time. People asked if they could pet her. Of course. She’ll let you. Many people simply gave us a wide aisle to walk. No need, but I didn’t argue. Kids yelled “doggy” and adults remarked “how beautiful.”

After that, we never had trouble getting a vest on her again. Not that she needs one. All she really needs is my service dog say-so. But the vest is the accepted symbol in this culture. She also has a tag on her collar stating she is a service dog, with the appropriate law and corresponding numbers. I have a card in my wallet but I have never had to use it for her.

One Sunday we walked to a nearby church fair. Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, whirlybirds. Games, food and many other things I had no intention of taking any advantage of. I just thought it would be a good walk for her. Cops came by, asked if they could pet her. Children patted her.

One gentleman left the game he was running to come over to us - a set-up designed to make it seem easy to knock down a pyramid of bottles, placed there for the sole purpose of giving you the easiest task in the world just so they could say you did something, anything, to deserve the stuffed animal they so very much wanted to give you. It didn’t look like they were running out of prizes anytime soon. He tried to get me to play.

“No thank you.”

He knelt down in front of my dog, nearly nose to nose. “Is he blind?”

Who goes nose to nose with a dog they don’t know? Who talks into a strange dog’s face? What else could I say? “No, you moron, the dog can see perfectly well.”

We took my daughter’s dog to New York. She had left her with us while she moved and got settled in. We took a plane up so we could drive her now unused car back.

As a working dog, she was able to come on the plane with us. At twenty-five pounds, she didn’t take up much space and sat on the floor against the bulkhead. Good doggy!

The plane went from Melbourne, Florida to Atlanta and then, with an hour layover, to Newark. We were told Delta had a greenpatch for dogs, this not being the first service or working dog they’d had on a plane.

We disembarked. We asked at the gate for the greenpatch. No one knew where it was.
They called for someone to come get us. Apparently it was a security risk to tell us where it was and let us go ourselves. But the person coming for us knew. Just be patient.

One call. Two calls. We pace. We walk. Time to get back on the plane. Someone comes, apologizes, and hands us napkins.

“I’m so sorry we weren’t able to get you to the greenpatch. I don’t know what went wrong. But here are some napkins in case she has an accident so you’ll be able to clean it up.”

I let Lee handle this one. “First of all, this is cruel. You and Delta are being cruel to this animal who has behaved as well as anyone could want. Two, that would not be nearly enough napkins, I’m sure. Since she has been holding it since six this morning and it’s now noon and we won’t be landing again until two-thirty. Three, you can be sure, if she goes, it won’t be an accident. And you can be doubly sure it won’t us cleaning it up.” Back on the plane. Poor doggy.

Once we landed, Lee got the luggage and I raced the pooch outside and she saw the first plant since we left the house. She raced for it. I timed her. One minute and twenty seconds worth. What a pup!

In the meantime, Lee had procured a shuttle from Newark to New York to drop us to meet Sef at NYIT.

Seven people and a driver, us and the dog. The driver wants to know where the dog’s cage is.

“No cage. She’s a service dog. They knew that when we got the tickets. No cage on the plane and no cage now. Service dogs don’t have cages. They wouldn’t be of any use in a cage, now would they?”

“Well, he can’t get in the van without a cage.”

“According to US law, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, she goes where I go. And as long as she behaves, no one can deny access.” I showed him the tag and the card I was carrying that described the rights of the working dog and his or her owner/handler.

“Well, according to Super Shuttle law, she needs to be in a cage or she isn’t going.”

“You know, there was a time when someone would have said I don’t care what US law says, people who look like you still can’t ride in the front of this bus and you sure as hell can’t drive it.”

That did it. He just stared at me while seven people waited. “Well, if it’s ok with them,” and he pointed to the other passengers.

“It doesn’t have to be ok with them. You are going to lose this one no matter what. But ask any way if it makes you feel better.”

An old Scots lady said instantly, “Of course it’s ok. Shall we just go?” Others said similar. We were loaded, on our way and, of course, no problems with our pup at all. Everyone said good bye to her. But no one much spoke to the driver. When we departed, the last passengers, at Columbus Circle, I tipped him. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Today I took Dusty to the grocery store. Nothing much appealed to us at home and Lee wanted a sub. We walked there, walked in and waited at the deli counter. And waited.

Dusty sat by my legs, as she always does when we wait. People comment on her, as they always do. My turn was soon to come. After this, I’d walk with her to the pet aisle and let her pick out a treat.

Along came a man, impossibly tall, wearing a stocking cap that reached high enough over his head that I have no real idea how tall he really was. He could have had a cone under there. He could have been hiding three stacked rolls of toilet paper under there.

Beneath that, he had a face full of beard and a tattoo high on his left cheek. A shiny white t-shirt over a pot belly and black shorts with a white strip reaching mid-calf. Stolen, I imagine, from a middle school marching band. Up his leg ran tattoo flames. Down his arm ran the same.

Then came a shopping cart with two infants and his wife/sister/friend. “Doggy. Doggy” She asked if the children could pet my dog. Certainly. Yes.

One child walked over, cookie in hand, and gingerly started to pet Dusty. The impossibly tall idiot bent down behind the child. Now, I do not say he was an idiot for his mode of dress, hat, height or tattoos. But for the fact that, the moment the child touched my dog, the idiot barked in the boy’s ear as loudly as I think he could muster. In front of the deli counter.

The child jumped back, dropped the cookie. My dog jumped back, pressing herself against my leg. The impossibly tall idiot picked up the cookie and began eating it. The wife/sister/friend hit the impossibly tall idiot on the arm. “What did you do that for?”

“I wanted some of the cookie.”

“Why didn’t you just ask for it?”

“I don’t know.”

She asked again if the children could pet the dog.

“I think it’s best they do so they don’t stay traumatized. You can too. But I don’t think she’ll let him pet her,” I said, tilting my head towards the impossibly tall idiot.

On the way home, walking through the grass, I noticed her leash had somehow come off her collar and was dragging behind me. No difference. She was right by my side. A very good dog.

Friday, February 19, 2010

From my Daughter, on the passing of my Mother

I have never posted anything on this blog by anyone else. This is the first.

When my father announced he had a girlfriend, we were happy for him. He is out and living again. He spent so long in the heroic effort of keeping my mother as safe as could be, as happy as could be, as well as could be. Who could deny him? For so long he watched her slip away to become less, less, less. Who can judge him?

Yet, for some, for many, it seems too soon. It is not quite six months since my mother's death.

This is by my daughter, Sef Rachel Tritt, who wishes she knew the woman I did and had that woman as her grandmother. She wrote this upon my father's announcement.


I still see her face:
eyes clear, staring up,
mouth open,
peaceful,
no fear.
She waited till she was
alone,
a rare moment.
He would not leave her side.
He refused.
He loved her—
too much, perhaps.
Still does.

I still see her face.
When I close my eyes
she is there.
Her eyes, once so blue,
are gray,
wide open but do not see.
Could not see me,
could not see him
crying for the emptiness she left.
Does he see her face
as I see her,
pale and cold?

I still see her face
when I think about death.
She waited.
I told her I loved her.
So did he,
again and again.
I went on my way
expecting to see her in the morning,
alive.
But now when I remember her,
I see her face,
stiff,
like a stone,
when I close my eyes.

Toward the Sea

There is a room with three walls and no doors. A ceiling but no floor. There is sand and there is ocean water and there are people. Throngs of people. The waves wash in and out from the open end of the room, through the throngs, against the back wall. All is sepia-washed walls and light and people and I am there looking out into the ocean.

Along the left wall is a couch. Red, leather, extending the length of the room to ocean-edge of the wall. It is for me. I don’t swim and the couch is for me. The water is up to my waist and I hoist myself up onto the couch, slide myself oceanward, people saying things to me to which I pay no attention, patting me on the legs, the sides, some sad, some happy. I hear them, but register nothing. My wet bathing suit sticks to the leather. Everyone is in a bathing suit or less. All in the water but me.

And the body. Handed out, over the heads of the people, hand to hand to hand, my mother. I cannot see her through the hands, the arms, the bodies. She moves slowly seaward.

I have reached the end of the room, the edge of the couch but the people go on, the handing of her body overheads continues out, out, out until I barely see, until the water rises, until the people disappear, until her body slips to the sea.

It's a long way out. You're resting. You have a long time and no where to go. I can only watch as you recede.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Accidents

By accident, I kicked a beer can. During an after-dark walk, dog by my side, my right foot grazed a beer can at the edge of the sidewalk. Clattering, out of it spilled beer, old and stale – the smell lifting even in the wet January air.

Years ago, late night, we would drive behind liquor stores, convenience stores, bars. My father, in boots and old dungarees, would jump into dumpsters and hand out aluminum cans my brother and I, ten and thirteen, nine and twelve, eleven and fourteen, would grab and drop into bags. Two and three garbage bags on a Friday or Saturday night would come home in the back of our van, a Ford Econoline, rigged by my father during the gas shortage so he could flip a switch and make the tank read empty. The next day my mother, father, brother and I would walk the shoulders of the main roads picking up cans, each of us with a bag. I would grab them by the bottom, hold them far from me and shake them to encourage the escape of the roaches within before dropping the cans in my bag. Then, back home, dumped onto the driveway, we would empty the bags, crush the cans and put them back into the bags. Always the smell of stale beer.

Every few weeks, we would fill the back of the van with bags of aluminum cans and bring them to the recycling center. They would be weighed and we would be handed cash. Nine cents a pound. Thirteen cents a pound. The value would change depending on the market, but we never worried about that. We just collected, crushed, delivered and took home the cash. It took many bags to make a buck.

And we would plan. Estimating the cash from cans, we would figure how far we could travel on our vacation. Each august we would drive, in the van with the shorted out, always reading empty gas gauge, to Tennessee or North Carolina or Arkansas, pulling behind us a pop-up camper. We would camp in the valley, by the river, on a mountain top and mine for emeralds, pan for gold, dig for rubies, search for diamonds.

And we would find them, take them home, cut them, polish them. Some we’d sell. Some we’d give away. Some we’d keep.

One night, on top of a mountain in North Carolina, it rained. It rained hard. It pelted into the rocky river next to us, hit the canvas roof of the pop-up above us, pinged the aluminum of the camper encasing us. We were surrounded by rhythm and wet. The air smelled of freshness and clay and pine. With every rain, it still does.

Such things come of accidents.