Mom Says Goodbye to Her Most Valuable Possession

Mom always said, “Time is your most valuable possession.” We thought of this as a “Mom Quote.” Some famous philosopher probably said it first, but we still think of that as hers. Mom chose to value her last months, resigned that the progression of her illness would lead to her death, but letting the knowledge enhance the joy of living. Not easy to do, I don’t imagine, but if I’m fortunate to have that kind of time for myself I’ll now have a model for how to manage. She said goodbye to visiting Seattle in the Fall, goodbye to Florida in the Spring. Expected final visits started coming early in the summer as people visited from far away. These goodbyes were always emotional, heartbreaking even, but she also found them nourishing.

The goodbyes came more bunched as her health deteriorated. The first I recall was trips to the basement. One weekend we were talking about installing a better hand rail for those rickety steps and the next she told me she was done going into the basement. They had an old house and a purely functional basement. It contained the water heater and furnace and the washer and dryer, a work space scattered with tools. Mom only went down there to do the laundry, to do a chore. But it hit me to pass that door and hear her say she was done going down there. I read recently that when people know death is imminent they run through lasts: last time to see a sunset, last time to see the snow, last time to feel the wind. These aren’t even always last pleasures but even last chores, like doing the laundry. When I read that I immediately thought, I wish I’d known. I was so focused on Mom’s health, I thought of her as thinking, I won’t be able to go into the basement to do laundry ever again, but maybe she was thinking, I won’t go into the basement to do laundry ever again. Maybe she wasn’t regretting losing these pieces of her life but simply saying goodbye to them.

What I read makes sense even on a less significant scale. When I quit waiting tables in Seattle, I still remember nearing the end of my last shift and thinking of how that was the last time I would run food, drop checks, fill drinks, etc. Repetitive tasks I’d certainly had my fill of after seven years, but I focused on them, a form of meditation maybe. Certainly life is filled with repetitive tasks we’ll one day say goodbye to stunned at the degree of low current pleasure we received from them. When we do, we have options. We can fixate on what’s being taken away or we can reflect on the pleasure they gave us and say goodbye.

When I initially read that, I got hit with a brief but potent feeling of regret. If I’d read about that in time, I could have been more with her for those goodbyes but that feeling quickly passed because my behavior wouldn’t have changed. I was with her and she was showing me how to live, it just took this long for me to understand the lesson, which means she’s still teaching me.

Ebullience Died Today

The mysterious bond between man and animal is transcendent of scientific explanation, is transcendent of breaths and beating hearts. The first words to arrive and comfort me were these from Joseph Campbell: “The end of things is always painful. Pain is a part of there being a world at all.” Ebullience will live on, in my memory and in my writing, past and future. Probably—maybe—my best standalone story features a fictional kitty based on her personality. Hopefully one day it will be published and people will have the chance to meet her. She was always shy meeting people, including me. She was the last kitten to emerge from the kennel the day I picked her out sixteen years ago. I’ve since learned people are hesitant to pick out shyer kittens, like that, but that was what made me want her. Maybe she knew. Maybe she picked me out.

200th Blog!

Milestones are nice. They’re opportunities to reflect. I don’t think of reaching 200 blog posts as an accomplishment just because I’m not really aiming for a number. I just enjoy putting these posts together on a variety of subjects and I’m always grateful when people stop by and read them. As I did with my 100th, I’m going to link in some that just strike me as particularly memorable, in order from shortest to longest. If you have the time to read one or two or feel like reading all five, I hope you enjoy them and thank you!

1. Selflessness, two sentence fiction:

2. Hearts Connected by String, with help from a friend’s son:

3. This bit got cut from the book I made of my grandfather’s WWII letters home to my grandmother, Happy Valentine’s Day from the cutting room floor of Letters Home:

4. Slightly frightening that as exceedingly rare as it is for any of these older posts to get views, this one has more than once come up in google searches and apparently been looked at: My Cooking Cats Dream:

5. I’m working on a follow up to my Cop Stress post, so that should show up somewhere in my next hundred posts: Cop Stress:

Thanks for helping me celebrate by reading. I enjoy writing them because I imagine connecting with readers. If you read all five and are feeling motivated you’re always welcome to pick through the archives. I always see when they get views and it’s always a rewarding feeling. Thank you!

Letter with Letters Home

I enclosed copies of this letter with the copies of Letters Home I gave to my three nieces and my nephew.

Dear kids,

I’m not sure when you’ll want to first read this but whenever feels like a good time, for you, will be best. You probably know your great-grandpa Rex, your grandma Lynne’s dad, was a pilot and fought during World War Two, back in 1945. Great-Grandpa Rex and Great-Grandma Kate were just married and separated for many months. He was on a boat in the Pacific Ocean, near Japan, and couldn’t call her. Of course, they didn’t have computers way back then. Your great-grandma Kate was pregnant during that time, with Grandma Lynne, as it turned out. They didn’t know that. Back then people couldn’t know they were having a boy or a girl until the baby was born. You’ll learn things from reading your great-grandpa’s letters about what all that was like, for the two of them. You might notice different things as you read it at different times in your life. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the story any time you feel like talking with me about it. (We could exchange letters even!)

Writing is a wonderful invention. A writer I like, Carl Sagan, once compared writing to traveling through time. A person thinks and writes words and someone else, sometimes from a much later time, reads those words and knows what that person was thinking from a long time ago. That is happening to you, right now, as you read my words, and if you’re reading this some long time after today, which is 1/10/2015, you’re kind of time traveling back to this day.

My grandpa Rex died when I was around the age all you kids were when your grandpa Gary died. So I knew him and remember him but I felt like I got to know him a lot more by reading through his letters to Great-Grandma Kate. Hopefully you’ll get that same feeling from reading the letters in the book. You’ll also, at some point, learn in school about that time in American history when America fought against the Japanese. As you learn about those events, you might want to revisit this book and get the perspective of a person who was there and who is a part of your family. You might find, as I did, that your great grandfather was a very brave man. Partly because he did a dangerous job but also because he performed that job that was necessary for him to perform without losing his sense that war was a sad and unfortunate thing. He never lost his feeling that the people he was fighting in the war were people much like him who were good people they were just stuck in this situation of war. I think that made the hard thing he had to do even harder and that, to me, is what made him so brave.

Uncle Greg

Something I’m not putting a provocative title on, though I easily could have

My first thought after waking from this nightmare was that I would never tell anyone about it. I chose two people to use to unburden myself with the memory of that dream and then a bit later in the day I decided I would blog about it. There, we should be past the part that shows on facebook, so it’s just us. Seriously, I don’t want to tell the whole world. So I was in for surgery, laid out on the table with doctors working around me, and they injected me with something to make me high, which was the only good part of this dream. Then I realized they were about to start. “Wait! I’m going to be awake for this?” A doctor sort of stepped away, looked calmly at me, and said, “That’s how it has to be done.”

I should just say, rather than save it for a surprise, that I was having a testicle removed because of cancer (the left one). So in the dream I felt faced with two options, go ahead with the procedure and live or get up off the table and walk away, and this, in the dream, felt like a difficult decision, like about 50/50. But I told them to go ahead. Then I felt no pain, because of the drugs, but I felt this distinct sawing of my ball off that is a feeling I’ll never forget.

So why am I divulging this personal, graphic dream with all the world that stumbles onto my blog page? Because narcissism is progressive and anyone who’s been writing for fifteen years has a clear case of it? No, not true. Maybe true, not the reason. I realized the dream was about my mother’s courage. My mom has had cancerous portions of three organs removed over the last fifteen years. All of them, thankfully, after early detections, but that posed unique challenges, because she was virtually symptom free. She had to be brought in to have a lobe of her lung, a portion of her pancreas, and an eyeball surgically excised from her body. The last was probably the least invasive or risky procedure but the one most difficult emotionally, both for her and those of us who love her.

I’ve gone through several surgeries in the last few years. For some of them, I was too incoherent to recall my thinking beforehand, but for the others I was terrified. For my surgeries that fear was probably barely more rational than a fear of flying, but that doesn’t diminish the intensity because it’s emotional thinking and there’s no outthinking emotional thinking. When you’re scheduled for surgery, they tell you to show up at the hospital two hours early and to not eat or drink anything after midnight the night before. You think, F that. I’m going to sleep in, eat a four-egg and cheese omelet and a pound of bacon, get in my car and drive until I reach a beach, and spend all day watching water get moved by the moon. Then you do exactly what you’re told. At the Cleveland Clinic, they roll you down a hall and stow you out of the way under a shelf outside the surgical room until they’re ready for you. You’re alone on a bed and you’re not tied down and you’re staring up at a ceiling a foot above you. Yes, it feels a little like what I imagine it would be like in a coffin. And you can still flee! This is where we realize we are simply animals. Name me an animal, not human, that would submit to this willingly.

What I’ve learned is that I manage it by going into this Zen state of acceptance where I let go of that fear because I have to, which is really quite incredible, but what’s really going on is even more fascinating. I’m entrusting my life to human skill and knowledge woven into the fabric of our society, I’m trading temporary pain and discomfort and even risk of end of life for an imagined future. I’m managing to fall asleep at night in my own bed knowing I’m going to wake up in the morning and not just allow but participate in all this happening to me. In my cases, my surgeries were all immediately necessary, which facilitated my participation. In the cases for my mom, something just showed up on a scan, a doctor told her surgery would give her the best prognosis, and she went in and had it done. That sounds easy, or it maybe doesn’t sound easy but it sounds less hard than it is, because we’re used to trusting doctors, we maybe follow doctors’ orders with little reflection, but that stronger emotional attachment to a body part like an eyeball illustrates the courage that act requires. My dream seemed to be showing me my mom’s courage.

Waiting for Healthcare

People are stunned when they hear me say I’m in favor of socialized medicine. Their opening argument is usually that there would be long waits. I just wish people who made this argument would follow it to its logical conclusion. If socializing medicine would lead to longer waits for care that could only be because a percentage of people in this country aren’t getting care under the current system. No one gets an appendectomy just because they might as well since they can. The only people receiving treatment for illnesses are ill. That won’t change. So IF (and that’s a giant IF) those people are right about the waits, that’s a sign the current system is failing. So who is it failing for?

The sick. The strangest group to pick on because it could be any one of us tomorrow, but we’re not picking on them directly, we’re just entrenched in a system that screws them over. Which most of us don’t even realize is happening. Most people contribute a substantial but affordable amount from their paychecks for insurance through work, or they look into private insurance and decide if it’s affordable or if they’d be better off crossing their fingers. Few people have insurance that won’t surprise them with huge financial strain when they need it and even fewer of those are able to maintain that insurance when they’re sick and start missing work.

Healthcare can be potentially expensive, even before costs in this country skyrocketed, that’s why health insurance exists, because you need a pool of people contributing for the minority of people who end up drawing from that pool when something happens to them. (it’s the same philosophy we use with car insurance.) But the goal of health insurance companies is to profit. So they’ve sneaked as much payment as possible onto the people who end up needing healthcare. And they eliminated offering insurance to people with a history of needing care. I’m not sure if people who haven’t been victimized by the pre-existing condition invention of insurance companies fully understand that. They eliminated offering insurance to people with a history of needing care by pricing them out of any chance to have it. I had gotten off my parents’ insurance and got a packet for private insurance. I wish I’d saved it, but I have a good memory of it because of the emotional punch of that moment when I looked at the first page and saw a list of about twenty ailments, these were general things like do you have HIV, have you ever had a heart attack, are you diabetic, etc. if so refer to a different page. Well, what I had was on there, which I was pretty sure was not going to be good. But I called. I was still entitled to insurance, but I would go into a separate pool of people and our premiums would be eighteen hundred dollars a month.

I was seventeen years old when a neurologist told me to get a job with a big company because a small company wouldn’t be able to afford to insure me. I decided I wasn’t going to spend my life worrying about being insured, which turned out to be a good decision. I moved around a bit. I lived with a feeling of freedom. I got lucky. I’ve always had insurance through work when something happened. I had insurance when I was sitting in the waiting room of a neurology clinic, and a woman turned to those of us waiting, she didn’t exactly make a scene, but she said fairly loudly, “I guess if you don’t have insurance, they don’t want to help you.” And she left. She left a neurology clinic having been refused treatment. She wasn’t trying to see her family doctor about a case of the flu that wouldn’t go away. Something was wrong with her brain. That was several years ago, and I still wish I’d stood up and offered some agreement as she was leaving. Who knows what happened to her? Hospitals are required to give emergency life-saving care to anyone who shows up and needs it, but that’s not the same as the kind of care that will actually save your life.

That might have been the same visit, it was definitely around the same time, when I came in for a follow up visit after surgery, and I’d been having headaches. The headaches had me scared already, but when I told my doctor and he immediately wanted to get me scanned, I was terrified. They had brain scanners right in the building, so I was waiting and waiting, thinking I might drop dead any minute (admittedly an over dramatic thought, but that’s how it feels when something might be wrong with your brain). I waited so long, my neurosurgeon passed by and asked if I’d gotten that scan yet. He went to find out what was taking so long. You can imagine what his impatience did for my worry. Turned out my insurance company had refused to cover the scan. It eventually got straightened out, I got my scan an hour later and there was nothing wrong. But how many times is that scenario and scenarios like it playing out across the country and it doesn’t get straightened out? How many fatalities have been caused?

I also have the unfortunate habit of waking up with headaches, barely conscious enough to get to the phone, and instead of dialing 911, I call my mom, because I’ve learned, even with insurance, how expensive ambulance rides can be. And if you’re thinking, well that’s dumb, you’re exactly right, but you also probably don’t know how devastating it feels to be trying to focus on recovering from surgery and getting bombarded with bills. I’m not alone. A twenty-something-year-old in Seattle died in a cab on his way to the emergency room. Another twenty-something-year-old without insurance went to the emergency room with a toothache and they offered him either antibiotics or pain killers, well by then he was in so much pain he chose the pain killers and he died when the infection reached his brain. All over the country people are risking their lives to avoid medical debt. But anecdotes aren’t arguments. If I start listing anecdotes, the opposing side will start talking about Canadians who come to America for healthcare. Well, who knows for what reasons a small number of people come here for care instead of their home countries, but one thing’s for sure, they’re rich, or they wouldn’t have a chance of getting appointments with our neurosurgeons.

Good care is available in this country but people are being excluded from receiving it. All the things people are terrified will start happening if the government is in charge of healthcare are already happening to people. Insurance companies will deny cancer patients further chemotherapy because their tables say it’s not likely enough to save their life. But rather than argue these specific cases of our flawed current system and the validity of our fears of an unknown future system, let’s take a step back and just think about what we want to do. Every first-world country in the world uses some form of the single-payer healthcare system. We don’t have to follow any other country’s exact example. The money is going to stay the same. It’s just going to go to different places. Imagine how much more competitive the auto industry would be if it didn’t have to insure all its employees, imagine how much cheaper cars would be. Taxes would go up but insurance premiums would go away. There might be a rip in the market but it would all be temporary. A hundred years from now people would tell stories about how America was the only country that still hadn’t gone over to socialized medicine. And people will wonder how it worked before that, and the answer would be not very well. People will say we were smart to change over, and they’ll be amazed how narrowly we were able to accomplish it.

This is not intended as a defense of The Affordable Care Act, which is not socialized medicine. Obviously it’s not a coincidence that I’m posting it while our government has shut down over a refusal to fund that law. Anyone who knows me well knows I’m a proponent of socialized medicine and have been for years. It’s not something I like to discuss online, but I’ve reached a point where I feel a responsibility to add my opinion and story to the mix. I am a proponent of The Affordable Care Act, which has become universally known as Obamacare. From what I understand it accomplishes three important things. It eliminates pre-existing conditions as a way for insurance companies to screen out ill people and virtually refuse to insure them by pricing them out. It forces all Americans to have insurance. (And the argument that this is an impingement on freedom doesn’t work. We live in a country where if you drop unconscious on the street, emergency services will pick you up and put you in a hospital and care for you until you’re better. So arguing that you should have the freedom to not pay anything into a system that will do that, is a financial impingement on everyone else who is.) And it subsidizes insurance for people too poor to afford it. In my opinion these are all good things.

Excerpt from Chapter 4, Flowers on Concrete

This portion picks up right where the back cover excerpt leaves off, so I’ll leave a link to the back cover, posted in a blog here, for if you would like to read that first:

When I left the bar, Angela wasn’t there because Angela wasn’t there. I turned and looked back. Music seeped, weak and boxed in like from a stereo with damaged speakers, and couldn’t pierce the serene sounds of the quiet night all around me. The sounds of grasshoppers thick in the grass and a cool wind that shook the trees made the whole bar seem small. It was just a slanting box, really. Even the roof of it was practically flat. The sign hung crooked.

I got into my car and locked the doors. I wasn’t worried about anything, but it always gives me a nice feeling to be in my car with the doors locked. I started the car and took it out of gear but left the emergency brake on. The windows were all fogged up, but I didn’t want to leave yet anyway. I put the defroster on but at a low setting. What I liked was that I could leave at any minute or I could stay where I was. It was up to me. Very slowly, the air was making clear ovals like a pair of lungs on the windshield, like the car was breathing.

I turned on the radio. Late at night, a lot of radio stations play only love songs. Except listening to them makes you gay just for liking girls. So you have to listen with the volume low and you can’t sing along or people will be able to tell by how slow your lips move what kind of song it is. Who cared? I was watching the door anyway if someone had come out. I found a good one that a girl was singing and I pretended Angela was singing to me. I leaned over and wrote on the passenger window, ANGELA. Underneath, I wrote, I LOVE ANGELA. I looked at her name against the back light from the cloudy moon, little beads of shining light dripped through. I wrote on the driver’s side in backwards writing, ALEGNA, then above, EVOL I.

The rest of this chapter is a part of the free sample at amazon. You can download a free app to read it on your computer, if you don’t have a kindle.  I’ll leave a link for if you’d like to check it out, thanks for reading:

Excerpt from chapter three of Flowers on Concrete

Angela lived on the opposite side of town; the bank was between us. Rather than drive through, I liked to get out of town as quickly as I could and then take the back roads. I drove with my windows all the way up. The air from the vents was just as fresh as the air from outside. I caught a lucky string of traffic lights. All three glowed green and I slowly built my speed, catching the last two just as they turned yellow, seeing them shine red in my rearview mirror as I passed. The traffic thinned and the neon lights from the gas stations and stores, the dimmer lights from the windows of homes, faded in my rearview mirror. In the sky ahead, the clouds had nearly disappeared in the darkness, but still loomed there, hung low, in bulky shapes. Between the street lights, the stretches of darkness swallowed me. My headlights strained to light the road ahead for just a moment before it passed beneath. A short stretch of road before I was lost in the dark. My headlights drowning, illuminating the path ahead like the lid of a coffin.

I smelled a hint of Virginia Slims cigarette smoke and I cracked the passenger window. She knew I didn’t like her smoking in the car, but I only smiled and watched the road. My hands were light on the steering wheel, but I hugged the yellow lines. I eased my foot down on the accelerator and I could hear her breathing. She exhaled and it sounded like a giggle. I was giggling myself as bugs pinged off the windshield, their last thoughts of comfort in the car’s glow. I let go of the wheel with my right hand and rested it on the soft seat between us, my fingers crawling towards her. She giggled louder, the way women did, in movies, or on TV, when they were nervous and in love. I wanted to look over at her, but I didn’t dare. I leaned my head back against the seat and breathed deeply, watching the road between heavy eyelids. I felt her looking my way. She leaned against the passenger window in a flirtatious posture. I could nearly see the cigarette loose in her hand.

The tires caught in the shoulder, and the rocks along the side of the road exploded. I grabbed the wheel tight and yanked left, but the car kept right and I felt it tilting beneath me. A shudder and the car righted itself, climbing back up and finding the road.

A blaring commercial between songs filled the car. Wind whistled through the cracked open window. I closed the window. The shadows of trees and the void of black, flat fields loomed in the windshield.

When would I learn to not do that while I was driving?

But I’d been so happy. I tried to reach back and catch it like trying to crawl back into a dream. I could remember. I was with Angela, or she was here with me, and we were just driving like I was doing then, but I wasn’t alone. She was there.

It wasn’t enough to remember.

The road felt dry underneath me. The stars were like dots of white crayon on black construction paper.

Here’s a link to the kindle copy if you’re interested in downloading the first few chapters, for free,  to determine if it might be something you’d enjoy. If you don’t have a kindle, you can download a kindle app for you computer for free and read it that way. Thank you!

Movie Premier

I was staring at a clock, downtown Seattle, and it was five till something. This was soon after I began writing in the fall of ’99. I’d written a couple of short stories and a couple of chapters of the first draft of Flowers on Concrete. I was already hooked on the feeling writing gave me, but I didn’t have the confidence to write a book. I didn’t believe I could write a book. I figured I wasn’t really a writer but just wished I was. I thought for sure I was on the verge of running out of ideas. (A feeling that never goes away even when I’m in the midst of multiple writing projects.) But one look at that clock and I hit on an idea for a screenplay.

That one page screenplay was the only original screenplay I ever wrote. (I wrote a Frasier episode, which I’d be embarrassed to reread today, and a Simpsons episode, which I think I’d get a kick out of rereading.) I focused on writing books, instead. Ten years later, I met Wesley who wanted to direct movies and asked if I’d be interested in writing something for him. I was kind of like, “Oh yeah, I actually wrote a screenplay.” I say ‘kind of’ because I never really forgot about it. My writing memories are pretty vivid. I just never thought it would end up being made, but Wesley was up for making it, and we work with a couple of former actors who were willing to come out of retirement, so the movie will be premiered, this Saturday the sixteenth, at my house. Wesley is one of those quirky type directors. He wants the movie to be played on a tube TV. I know, right? Who still has those? Well, we’re in luck, because I have two of them.

Anyway, if you’re reading this you’re invited. PM me for details. Invitations are really just limited to people who want to come, so if you want to come, please do. Oh, what’s it about? I’m not good at describing movies, I fear giving too much away, but it’s about a guy and an alarm clock and a couple of people making fluffy scrambled eggs.