Not an Accident

Written for a creative non-fiction class.

Traffic was heavy on the 805, but moving at the speed limit. As I drove south the late morning sun dazzled to the east, but was swallowed up by the dark fogbank still covering the beaches. San Diego in June spins with contrasts. The southern California image doesn’t match the cloudy beaches. Crowded highways dull the carefree car culture.

Just south of Highway 94, about a quarter mile ahead I was startled to see what looked like a man cart-wheeling across the two right lanes. A motorcyclist must have been hit. I gripped the wheel a little tighter, ready to hit my brakes. But there were no brake lights ahead, no slowing. In a few seconds I approached the spot where I had seen the strange acrobatics. There was no downed motorcycle. No debris at all. Off to the side a man in faded jeans and a black and white plaid flannel shirt scrambled on all fours up the steep bank of ice plant.

What had I seen? Nothing made sense to me until a couple of miles down the freeway. I came up behind a light green bus – an Immigration and Naturalization Service bus with bars on the side windows. But there were no bars on the back windows and the left one was now ringed with jagged bits of glass. The man rushing up the bank had shattered the window of the bus, climbed out and jumped into traffic to escape deportation. I tried to imagine the desperation it would take to make that leap. Traffic was heavy on the 805.

For Marilyn

Written for her 50th birthday – a few years ago.

Laughter, Fine Food, and Death

Quick, write a story for my best friend about our times together. Sure. All I can see is a collage of fun times. There we are laughing hysterically. There we are having a fine meal. All the images run together in the pressure of having to choose just one.

Why are we always laughing? Well, there was your story of fleeing across state lines with …well, that won’t be so funny when your family reads this. And we laughed the hardest when Alex sparked the discussion of ethics in choosing body parts at a funeral. Are all our good times dealing with death? Some of our worst times were. But there was that sunny day in the Cambria cemetery. Wait, wait, there was a time when no corpses were involved. Remember in the ID store when Alex tried out the andirons? It was so funny, but there’s no story to tell.

Okay, try to find the best story in our other treasured moments. Countless meals at Cilantro’s with no mariachis and no cilantro. Meals on the island at Phil’s Fish Market. Oh, but the salmon barbecue on your deck with everyone beats that. Of course, nothing can top the New Year’s Eve feasts of steamed crab, bernaise sauce, spinach salad, fresh bread, and one time, flan. That is life at its best. Yes, we do meals almost as well as we do death. Of course, Judy pretty well tied those two together. Damn.

Hey, we’ve had lots of great times not eating or talking about dead people. I know I can find a story there. One of the best times of my life was the full week we spent at Cayucos last March. The story there was day after day after day talking, laughing, eating (can’t get away from it), writing, watching four or five movies, reading, laughing, watching sunsets and zodiac light, and napping. Just over and over and over. There was the Day of Nine Dogs and the Day of the Otter. You introduced me to “Whose Line is It Anyway?” – always good for a laugh. This isn’t a story with a lot of laughs in the telling, but it was a fine time. It gave me the strength to deal with my father’s decline and death. Oh.

As long as I’ve drifted back to death, I might as well mention Linda. You cared for her for all of us, to your own detriment. But that’s not my story. I wasn’t there. That’s my story: I wasn’t there. But I don’t want to tell that. How about our Christmas preparation gatherings at Linda’s. The marathon cookie baking sessions. The long table in the living room, covered in flour – the table and us. It culminated in the body parts sculpted in cookie dough – some with chocolate sprinkles. These are not the same body parts we discussed in Cayucos. These were not from corpses. But it was hard to tell after they baked. They couldn’t take the heat.
And the annual Christmas party at Linda’s where each of us tried so hard not to arrive before the other and tended to leave as soon as was acceptable. We had already been to the top with the cookie festivities.

And how about the big gathering where we sat in her backyard – you have a photo of us. We discussed why a certain fun person stayed with his unpleasant wife. However, later, he became unpleasant, so maybe it turned out okay. I never did get my copy of that photo.

And could you ever forget our art lessons with Pearl? Either at Linda’s or the one at Elk Horn Slough one wintry day. Hey, maybe we can forget the art, but the gatherings were always good for a laugh.

Or the collage making at my place near the slough where the highlight for me was seeing the magnitude of your revulsion at cutting up a National Geographic magazine. Such reverence.
Of course our friendship is not just about laughs. We’ve had some long, deep discussions over the years. You have shared your feelings during these difficult last few months. I hurt for you and want to help, but all I know how to do is listen. And I bless you for continuing to share this with me. It has meant the world to me and helped me through some tough times. These serious heartfelt talks keep me alive. Your encouragement is essential to me. When I told you about the wheelchair book I would write, you were totally supportive. And you haven’t mentioned once my failure to do it. Of course there are serious subjects that cross the line into comedy. The things we cry about (some men come to mind here) often make us laugh ourselves silly.

So where does that leave us in stories? Some of our best stories are in our dreams and plans. And they are an ongoing story. There’s still the RV trip – I haven’t given up on that. And our beach house. I have a vague picture of what the house would be. And a clear picture of what our private cemetery looks like. Then there’s our big Victorian house so we can all live together. And our cottages and community center on acreage somewhere between Arroyo Grande and the Canadian border. The only thing I’m sure of for my future is that I want you and Alex in it. That’s all I need to be sure of. I have complete faith that the sharing and laughter and love will always be our story.

Three Towns

Tombstone, where David lived and died, sits exposed on a gentle slope, visible for miles. Straight streets form right angles and carry names like 1st, 2nd and 9th. The town imitates a theatrical set with people in character and costume making it difficult to separate reality from theater, truth from legend. David fit well here – he was always dressed for 1881. He believed in the script without knowing who was playing the roles. In the town of the OK Corral, a jealous lover stabbed David in the back. A dozen people in Tombstone can give you two dozen perspectives. All illuminate something, but the whole is never seen. No one knows the actors’ real names.

Bisbee, where court was held and justice meted, snakes along a canyon. Streets curve, with no square corners nor long views. On steep hillsides houses perched on minimal foundations and old foundations that outlasted their homes are linked by long flights of steps. Criminal court here documents the witnesses revealing pieces of lives, pieces of crimes that don’t quite fit together. This puzzle has holes and it buckles and twists, first favoring this view, then that. All that is evident is the pain, sadness and futility. Bisbee tries to mine the truth, but most of it still lies unknown.

Douglas, where his remains are buried, lies unprotected by hills, wind-blown against Mexico’s border. Across the grid of streets surrounding the cemetery, winds pile up sand along the gravestones. But the dust can’t hide the delineation between those living above and those buried. No ambiguity. David is dead and lies under this stone in a town he’d never seen, three blocks from the border, in the next world.

BFD

I’m sorting things (again).  I’m going to post several older writings over the next few days.  Just want to put them out into the world and get them out of my files.   This was a fun newsletter my brother and I concocted.  We aren’t technically baby-boomers, but literary license prevailed.

Some Fiction

Some fiction, but not enough.  This was a piece I wrote almost 20 years ago when I was caring for my parents.  Loosely based on our experience.

GENERATIONS

“Where did he go now?” I asked my niece, Sheila.

“I think he’s out on the porch,” she replied, not looking up from folding laundry.

“Will he be okay, can he get down that step?”

“Yeah, he takes it very carefully.”

“I hope he doesn’t go out in the street.”

“No, he usually plays in the driveway.”

“Huh?” Did she say my father was playing in the driveway?

“Who are you talking about?”

“Jack.” Her 18-month-old son.

“I meant your grandfather.” My 83-year-old father.

A quick glance at each other and we began to laugh, as we headed to the porch to check on our two charges. Jack played with his red dump truck in the driveway while Dad sat on the porch taking in as much as his failing eyes and ears could.

This was Dad’s last trip to Minneapolis. It was August in the Midwest, and just as in his childhood: hot, humid with mosquitoes and thunderstorms. In our four days there we caught up on each other’s lives. Dad held his only great-grandchild. His granddaughter Sheila saw how Dad coped with his infirmities. And I watched Sheila as a mother, a new role for her.

After that first exchange, we tried to be specific so we would know who we were talking about, but often we forgot. “Has he had a nap? You know he’s cranky without one.” Jack or Dad? “He sure makes a mess when he eats.” We would look at each other and often get the giggles. Maybe this was cruel, but Dad couldn’t see or hear us and Jack never thought we were laughing at him. We were laughing at our situations. Mine, the incongruity of the black-sheep, youngest child of the family now in the position of caretaker for my elderly parents. Sheila’s, the shift of a successful 32-year-old CPA now caring for an intelligent toddler. Her rational world of finances had disappeared in the hormonal irrationality of pregnancy and motherhood. Survival here demanded a sense of humor.

A year later Sheila and I still marvel at the similarities in our lives. At one point last week I was sinking in the sadness of sewing name tags onto Dad’s clothing so he could go to a nursing home. I called Sheila for support. She had just put names in Jack’s clothes so he could go to nursery school. Nursing home, nursery school. Closer than I had imagined.

Dad is not going to get better. There is no cure for his macular degeneration, hearing loss, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. The disabilities have taken over his life. Jack, however, gets better all the time. Nearly three now, he has passed Dad in abilities, moving, speaking, thinking and growing. Those days of us mixing up Dad and Jack are gone.

Sign of the Geese

Someone dumped three geese at the slough.  They must have thought it was a good place.  There had been rains and the creek was flowing – a small stream of fresh water in a brackish mudflat.  Would there be enough fresh water and how could they get food?  One disappeared quickly.  The other two stayed within a hundred yards or so of the road.

People left food for them almost every day.  A couple of farm workers left reject vegetables.  A family with two small girls left bread.  Several times folks put grain out for them  For two months they were a familiar sight.  But the rains stopped.  The fresh water was now a trickle.  And one day they were gone.  I missed them and worried about their fate.

A few days later a small, handwritten sign was stapled to a stake.  “The geese are OK.  They have moved to a house with a pond.”

Abandoned animals point out the best and the worst in people.  Worst in the ones who dump and best in those who rescue.  Thank you for rescuing the geese and thanks for the sign.

[Written years ago after an incident at Elkhorn Slough near Watsonville, California.]

I Miss My Xterra

Xterra at Salt River Canyon, Arizona.

I can’t believe how emotional I was about my car.  It was a 2001 Nissan Xterra – the first new car I ever bought.  I’d always had to buy used cars before that.  My brother’s advice:  if you keep a car for 15 years, buy new.  Good idea.

I put over 237,000 miles on it – freeways to off-road trips in the desert.  It never let me down.  After 16 years though, more and more things had to be replaced and we finally hit the tipping point.  Time to get a new car.  Shock: they no longer make Xterras.

The Xterra in Monticello Box – the creek is the road.

 

 

After some research I chose a Honda CR-V last November.  It’s nice, but it’s not the Xterra.

I was surprised how difficult it was to let the Xterra go.  Friends have assured me this is not unusual.  Still.  Taking it to my mechanic to sell for me, I could barely speak.  It felt as if I was taking an old, loved dog to the pound after getting a new puppy.

I’m enjoying the CR-V – it’s more fuel efficient and more comfortable, but I still look longingly at Xterras on the road.

The new kid.