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Visit

Go to the nursing home, he says. It will make you feel better.

I start crying before I even pull out of the garage. The thing is, I don’t think going to the nursing home will make me feel better. But not going won’t make me feel better, either. Honest to God, there is nothing at all that makes me feel better about any of this. Alzheimer’s is hell on earth for everyone it touches.

I cry most of the way down the highway. Cruise control keeps the car moving forward. I pull into the parking lot and back into a spot. I face the nursing home. I like backing in. It makes for a quick get-away. I sit there for a few minutes. Then I turn off the engine, and sit there for twenty more. I feel paralyzed. Stuck. I can’t go in, but I can’t go home, either. I war with myself. You drove all the way down here. Just go in for a few minutes. You don’t have to go in. It’ll just upset you. Drive home, before it’s too late. It’s already too late.

I watch the clouds shift and fade and deepen. It’s overcast today, but the clouds are thinner, lighter in some places. Darker and heavier in others. High above, in the distance, movement catches my eye. Birds, flying in a v-formation. They drift in and out of shapes. They are so high and so far away that it takes them a long time to reach me. I open the moonroof cover so I can look straight up and see them. They are beautiful. Then they are gone.

I make a picture. I text with my best friend. I text with my sister. I text with my husband. I cry, dry my face, and then shower it again. I take off my sunglasses and dry them off and put them back on. I do that several times. I am glad I stuck a new box of tissues in the car. I stare out the windshield. I stare down the woman who walks out to place something in her car and looks at me. Then I stare at her the second time she comes out, the time she leaves. I wonder if she wonders what I am doing. I realize if she is visiting a loved one, chances are she’s done this, too.

By the time I finally go in, I feel more fragile than ever. It is hard to walk through the heavy double doors and down the long corridors. It is hard to push the little green button that temporarily unlocks the memory care unit, allowing those of us with memories to slip in and out. It’s ironic that I always forget her room is so close to the nurse’s station. I am always surprised when I stumble upon her faster than I expect. I’m usually looking into the community room at all the other residents. There are some real characters there, and I am fond of them. Then I glance the other direction and my mother is there, in her room, looking at me.

Hi, I say. Hi, she says.

She is agitated almost from the beginning. Her head hurts. Her stomach hurts. Her elbow hurts. Twice she tries to pull off her elbow, and screams that she wants it gone. She wants to throw it in the ocean. She hits herself in the head. She calls me by my aunt’s name. She yells that she wants to go home. I cry right to her face and tell her I miss her, and then panic that hearing this will upset her. It doesn’t register. She is upset about the noise in the hallway. I close the door. I try to deflect, to distract.

I tell her I like her black and white checked pants, and she says they are awful. I tell her they are cute, and that I wish I could wear cute black and white checked pants like that, but my hips are too big. I grin. Remember what you used to say to me? You told me I have birthin’ hips. She looks at me wide-eyed. I’m sorry, she says. I’m sorry I said that. Holy shit. My mother has never apologized in her life for the myriad things she said to hurt me. So I cry again. We watch television together for a little bit, and I catch her staring at me. A blank, vacant, thousand-yard stare with no feeling behind it. I cry right to her face. This time I lie when she asks why I am crying and say that I’m sad because work is hard right now. It’s not even a good lie because I have just finished a week off for spring break, but she doesn’t know that. She tells me to find a new job, because, she says, you are amazing.

This only makes me cry more.

I’m glad I went. I’m sad I went, because with every visit I close up a little more, I withdraw a little more. It messes with my mind, every time. I’m glad I went. I wish I wouldn’t have gone in. I’m glad I went in. I don’t feel better at all. I feel a tiny bit better.

At least I have stopped crying.

Watch out. She’s writing again.

I finally, for the first time in well over a month, have time and space to write. It feels amazing. And yet, I sit here and struggle to think of some topic worthy of committing to paper. Or screen, rather.

I pulled out my laptop here at the coffee shop and, after wrapping up some membership business for St. Louis Writers Guild, decided I would actually write. I would think of erudite words and I would type them into pithy phrases sure to delight both me and my readers. If I have any readers left, that is. They’ve probably all gone off to greener pastures, tended by people who say they’re going to write and then actually do it.

There’s plenty that has happened lately, so I should have a variety of topics from which to choose. That plenty is what has, by and large, kept me from writing. It’s all so packed with emotion, though, and I don’t really feel like crying in the coffee shop. Again. Maybe I can summarize.

My mother went into the hospital, because when you keep screaming at the husband who has been caring for you for years and then throw a lamp at his head, you don’t get to stay at home any more. She is now at a facility that we don’t necessarily prefer, but is the only one that will take her given her behavior issues. Turns out lots of places don’t want to take someone who screams expletives at her aides and spits on them when they try to do such terrible things as feed and bathe her. She will never return home again. That part is hard. No, wait, all of it is hard, and all of it sucks.

I find myself in new territory: parenting a tween girl. This means that I am reviled 10% of the time, considered annoying at best 25% of the time, and clung to the remaining 65% of the time. Keep in mind these percentages shift from day to day, and there is no warning which defcon alert state is currently active. What buoys me is that her father seems to be in the same boat, so we’re paddling furiously in circles together, just trying to stay ahead of the riptide. We spend a lot of time looking at each other and shrugging. She spends a lot of time rolling her eyes and texting.

The news. It’s getting in my head and generally wreaking havoc. I find myself spending way too much time reading and watching the news, and then reading the massive amount of commentary by people who argue not with reason, logic and fact, but by lobbing ad hominem attacks, most of which are rife with misspellings and grammatical errors. Honest to God, I don’t know what bothers me more: the news itself, or America’s steady, inexorable decline away from the long-established norms of the English language. I realized that I needed to stop reading the unceasing breaking news headlines and start reading literature. So I charged up the Kindle and downloaded my book club book, which I couldn’t remember the topic of until I started reading and then remembered: freaking Nazis. Fascism is apparently quite prevalent these days. How charming.

M has launched into another one of his charming “I’m gonna travel to all the places” periods. He’s been gone over a week now, and will be gone on and off for the next, oh, month to month and a half. He’s visiting places like London, Dubai, Taiwan, Beijing, Shanghai, San Jose and other places I don’t know because he hasn’t updated the family calendar beyond blocking weeks at a time with “M on Business Travel” yet. Keep in mind that I think it’s hilarious that he’s going all over the world…and to San Jose. Yes, he knows the way. He leaves Shanghai and flies east. I think. Sometimes he flies over the North Pole, but that’s when he’s coming into the Midwest. Not sure if it’s a more direct route to the west coast.

Our email server blew up at work last week and the short story is that I went about 48 blessed hours over the weekend with no email at all, and have not had work email on my iPhone since. Then today I discovered that by granting my employer permission to tighten the electronic leash with installing email on my personal phone, I also gave them the rights to do whatever they damn well please on my personal phone. This was discovered after they inadvertently took both Safari and my camera app off my phone, without me knowing about it and most definitely without my permission. I won’t get into the details of my discovery of the missing apps, melt down, frantic Google search to figure out what the hell was going on, and rant at the tech guys, although looking back it was probably fun to watch. One of the tech guys said, with a sly smile, “Oh yeah, we could totally brick your phone if we wanted,” which may or may not have sent shivers down my spine. *cough*stalkers*cough* So I’m seriously considering scrapping work email on my personal phone altogether, both because the mental space it has freed up has been most welcoming and because I don’t need IT all up in my personal iPhone business. I google some crazy stuff sometimes, because I’m a writer, yo. Freaked me right the hell out. No, thanks.

I got a call from Zoe’s school a couple weeks ago. Or rather, from a parent at Zoe’s school. It started like this, “Hi, Amy? Yes, this is ____ from Zoe’s school. SHE’S FINE.” And then the woman explained she’s with the parent association and we laughed about how when someone from the school calls a parent it’s best to lead with the fact that your child isn’t hurt/in danger/flunking out. She then went on to ask me if I would serve as the volunteer vice chair of Zoe’s class next year, which would make me the chair of her class the following year. She told me that my name had been proposed during a nominating committee meeting and that I had been enthusiastically endorsed and then I asked what kind of drug they were all smoking because can I have some please. I also wondered if they had just gone down the parent list alphabetically and finally got to the last name and hoped I’d be the sucker to say yes. And, of course, I’m exactly that sucker. So next year I have to help put together some weekly news, which mostly involves looking at what happened this week last year and then changing the dates, and also help set up some coffees and finding hosts for a parent party or two. I’m sure there’s a whole slew of duties and responsibilities that she forgot to cover, like setting curriculum, hiring teachers, cutting the grass, and walking the head of school’s puppy, but I’ll figure it out as I go. I’m taking a calculated risk that things with my mother will be more settled by then, so I won’t be stressed out and crying every 2.5 minutes. However, given my history, there will be a whole new crisis du jour and I’ll have my hands full, but hopefully crying only every 3.7 minutes. It’s good to have dreams.

So that’s what’s been going on with me. Or some of what’s been going on with me. There is stuff I haven’t told you, like my dirty laundry. And by “dirty laundry” I mean actual dirty laundry. I have a ton of it at home. And a basket overflowing with clean laundry that I haven’t folded and put away yet because tonight…tonight was about the writing and not about the laundry. And damn, it felt good.

These are some of my recent Project 365 pictures. The project is doing exactly what it’s intended to do, and I’m so glad I decided to embark on another one. Want to see them every day? Follow me on Instagram.

First Printing

I took a big step earlier this week, which was so big for me and which I doubted would mean anything to anyone else.

I printed my first manuscript for the first time.

It turns out that lots of people thought it was big and told me so on my social media platforms, which was affirming and very much appreciated.

Printing my manuscript for the first time involved a fair amount of deliberation mostly related to my feelings about printing and the environment (I prefer digital to save trees whenever possible) while also realizing that editing a hard copy is much more effective for me than editing on the screen, and worries that with a black toner cartridge down to 15% I wouldn’t have enough toner to complete the job and then that would just be a weird let-down to have a partial printing in addition to impatience while waiting for the new cartridge to be delivered. My mind is complicated, people.

I enlisted the help of my engineer husband, who is quite handy in situations like this. I asked, “How many pages do we have left on the existing black cartridge?” He went into full-on tech mode, pulling up supply status pages and researching statistics about how many average pages a cartridge can print, delving into information on both a regular cartridge (which we suspected was currently in the printer) and a high-capacity cartridge, including cost per page. God, I love this man.

I had resigned myself to waiting for a new cartridge to be delivered, or putting it off until the next day because procrastination was appealing since seeing my manuscript in print for the first time felt daunting. Is it even worth the paper? The ink? Who knows. “I’ll do it tomorrow” felt really good. Self-doubt was driving the bus. I realized that it wasn’t really about the environment and toner supply, after all. Ecology and supply issues were just speed bumps along the way to Shameville. Who do I think I am to print all those pages of my so-called manuscript? No, I don’t need to print today. I’ll wait until tomorrow, when I can come up with yet another reason to stall.

After M did all his research, he said what I needed to hear. “Print it.” To me, this wasn’t just a go-ahead because the toner supply was adequate. It was someone I trust telling me that it was okay to print my manuscript. I’m not saying I need external justification to proceed, just that it feels good when my best friend says, in so many words, “Yes. You can do this.” He says this a lot, which is one of the reasons he’s my best friend. Of course, he’s also tried to use this to his advantage in the past, trying to convince me that yes, I could change all the poopy diapers and yes, I was utterly brilliant with my use of the washer and dryer and way better than he was at doing laundry, and yes, I could cook dinner rather than go out. Still, what counts, when it comes down to it, is that he always says, “Yes, you can do this,” just when I need to hear it. He’s the Wizard of Oz to my Cowardly Lion, helping me to occasionally take my fortitude out of mothballs and parade it down the main street of the city. His yesses help me overcome my nos.

I re-stocked the paper tray and, before I could come up with any more excuses or chicken out, hit the “print” icon. 286 pages later, after feeding the printer more paper (oh my gosh, do we have enough paper?), my manuscript was complete. I held the 1 5/8” stack of printed paper to my chest and damn near cried. It’s pretty hefty, and I find it hard to believe that I thought of and typed all those words. It represents hours and hours of work, not just sitting down and banging it out, but the thought that went into the characters and the plot, the reading and attending workshops that gave me the tools I needed to craft a story that is (hopefully) compelling and interesting and has conflict and resolution. I have thought about this story at night while I’m trying to fall asleep, in the shower, in the car as I’m driving, waiting to pick up Zoe after school or sports, on my walks. I have thought about this story in cars, trains, and airplanes. I’ve worked on it mostly in Missouri, but also in Colorado, Illinois and Ohio. I worked on it in every state on the Amtrak California Zephyr route, the Coast Starlight route, and the Empire Builder route. It’s a massive personal investment.

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “Write drunk. Edit sober.” Although the man was a raging alcoholic, I take this also as a nod to writing being the easier part (as hard as it is), and editing being the long, hard slog. I have never edited a manuscript before so I have no idea if Hemingway is correct, but I adore editing so I’m actually looking forward to this. I do realize it’s a ton of work, but since I’ve actually written a book now, I think I might be up for the work.

Thank you to everyone who liked and/or posted celebration and encouragement on Facebook and Instagram. Ya’all are my field wizards, feeding my heart and pushing me down that yellow brick road to my dream. Thank you for helping me fight my own flying monkeys.

Goodbye, 2016. Hello, 2017.

On the face of it, 2016 stunk it up, and so many of us are happy to see it go. 2016 brought a torrent of cultural and political pain from which the country is still reeling. On a personal level, it wasn’t exactly a banner year, either. As I reflected on the past year over the past week, I found myself scowling and angry, and frightened for what’s to come.

The year dealt multiple blows; we lost: Harper Lee, Bowie, Prince, George, Rickman, Wiesel, Cohen, Wilder, Ifill, Frey, Glenn, Ali, and more. The year dropped trou with a flourish by taking Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds back-to-back at the end, an enormous hand gesture to America that’s too crude to type here. The political scene was chaos and pandemonium, and most of us sat horrified and watched it unroll before our eyes, not believing that what was happening was actually happening. I don’t know whom to blame for that. The media? Nah. Russia? Naw. I think we have only ourselves to blame. And I think recovery is impossible until we admit that.

Personally, this year brought turmoil, too. A lung cancer diagnosis for my father sent my family into a tailspin. In addition to the fear for his health, we were forced to face some hard truths about what it takes to care for my mother, whose posterior cortical atrophy/Alzheimer’s continues to wreak havoc. His recovery was hard and scary, and everyone was pushed to the limits in multiple ways.

The foundation of our three-year-old home cracked and water poured into our finished basement. We ripped out drywall and baseboards and the front porch and, eventually, the entire front yard. Jury is still out on whether it’s completely fixed, but needless to say this wasn’t something we expected to have to do in a three-year-old home.

A dear friend at work learned that instead of launching into a new and exciting academic year he had to instead start fighting leukemia three days before the school year began.

A beloved family member on M’s side was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

We lost our parish, a huge blow from which I’m not sure I will ever fully recover. Thankfully we did not lose the community we’ve built there.

2016 gave me, at the end, the awful cold/flu crud that’s been going around. I was down for almost three weeks and had fought my way back to 99% when it slammed in again two nights before Zoe’s already-much-delayed birthday party. I self-medicated with caffeine and DayQuil, and forged ahead. A visit to the ENT the morning of New Year’s Eve confirmed that I needed antibiotics, nasal spray, rest, and quarantine from everyone. This made me crabby and hate 2016 even more.

Clearly, I was happy to see 2016 come to a close. Even with the uncertainty 2017 promises, I was just ready for the year to end. I spent the last six months praying that nothing happens to Tom Petty before he gets to St. Louis on tour again, because even though he’s been here a thousand times I’ve always had a conflict. He’s coming May 12. Hold on, Tom!

While sleeping half the day on NYE and grousing that I felt so crummy when I was conscious, I realized that I needed to flip my thinking. 2016 wasn’t all terrible, despite the fact that with little prompting I can reel off a litany of crap. So I made myself find 16 things that didn’t suck in 2016. Here we go.

  1. Zoe applied to, was accepted, and started at a new school that is challenging her in so many ways that we are continually reminded that we made a good, if tough, decision. She transitioned beautifully, made new friends easily, and is excelling academically. I cry when I think of the new worlds opened to her with this move. We made new friends through her new school, too. Our horizons are widened by these unique experiences and backgrounds, and the perspective gained is invaluable.
  2. I launched a new book project, a non-fiction work that I am still so excited about even while feeling bummed that life got in the way this year. It’s still there, waiting for me, which gives me hope and motivation. I hope to re-tackle in 2017 and get it moving again.
  3. The three of us enjoyed a mega-vacation that involved sleeping multiple nights on a train (one of Zoe’s most ardent desires) and experiencing San Francisco and Seattle. It was an amazing trip that gave us time together and memories I will cherish forever. M did an incredible amount of work planning this trip (mad props to him), and we all had a wonderful time.
  4. I got off my butt and started walking. I walked and walked and walked – almost 300 miles starting in the fall – and left nearly 30 pounds behind. I feel better and have retired a significant part of my wardrobe (significant both in size and in quantity). Better health led me to sign up for two fun runs late this year: the Girl Scouts Run for the Cookies and the Hot Chocolate 5K. We ran these as a family, creating more memories.
  5. I became more active in a private Facebook group for writers. This amazing group of people from all around the world is inspiring and motivating and supportive. We are collaborating on an anthology and I committed to writing a piece. It was hard, but I wrote it and gave it to two friends to beta read and edited it and submitted it and am so glad I did. Now I have to work on my bio, which I think may actually be harder to write than the original piece. I’m toying with, “Amy Zlatic lives, writes, photographs, mothers, wifes, plays and works in St. Louis, Missouri. She owns a cat that sneezes constantly. She likes pickles.”
  6. Because M retired the Christmas display, we were able to do the fun runs and more together. We decorated our tree as a family. We spent a Saturday in St. Charles to support a friend’s book launch and enjoyed the kick-off for the holiday season on Main Street. We’ve done Wild Lights at the Zoo and Way of Lights at Our Lady of the Snows. Never in my marriage have I had so much access to my husband before and even during the holidays. When people ask if I miss the display I am honest. No, I do not miss it. I spent too many years missing my husband. I’ve fallen in love all over again, with him and with the season.
  7. I won my second NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), this time finishing the middle grade novel I began last year. I haven’t brought myself to print the entire thing out yet to start editing (and oh boy does it need editing) but that’s on the 2017 to-do list. Word says it’s 323 pages. Not sure I’m ready to kill a tree yet, but I know it’s inevitable. It’s too hard to edit properly on-screen. I need hard copy and a red pen. And lots of coffee.
  8. I grew closer to two wonderful women who support me and love me and accept me and make me feel not so crazy. These women inspire me and motivate me every single day to try to be a better person. I love them and their families, and feel so grateful they have fully embraced me and my family. One of them actually happens to be extended family, which is just icing on the cake. (She can’t get rid of me, ever!) They taught me patience and the insanely valuable lesson of “Always respond in love.”
  9. We road-tripped to Cincinnati and enjoyed a jam-packed weekend full of fun and family. I don’t think we could have crammed more into that weekend, which included a Cardinals-Reds game, a big family bike ride, shopping, and a Labor Day party complete with fireworks and Boom! I love our Cincy family so much my heart hurts when I think about how much I miss them.
  10. Zoe participated in two piano competitions and earned highest marks in each. She continues to stun us with her talent, and I continue to marvel at the fact that I get to regularly cook dinner and clean the house to live piano music. At the second competition, she exited in tears, convinced that her errors had tanked her score. There was a lot of snuggling and reassurances and discussion over what to do to not feel that way ever again (more practice!). She was shocked to later learn she had received highest marks, and her teacher told her, “It’s not about the mistakes. It’s about how you recover, how you keep going.” What a great lesson for us all.
  11. I read so many good books. So, so many, including two books by writers of color which reshaped my world view. The last book I read in 2016 was “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ll be chewing on that one for a long, long time. I highly recommend, but offer this caveat if you are not a reader of color: you absolutely must go into it with an openness to accept that your point of view can be – and should be – challenged.
  12. My dad recovered from lung cancer and surgery. My colleague is in the final stages of chemo and has beaten leukemia. Our cousin had successful surgery and appears to be doing remarkably well. For all of this, I am grateful and relieved. They’re all staying on the daily prayer list, though. Just to be sure.
  13. For the first time in my life, I voted for a president who looks like me. Even though she didn’t win, I have a new sense of purpose and resolve. I never again want to feel like I felt on November 9, when I was overwhelmed with feelings of, “I could have done more.” I am now exploring involvement with She Should Run and EMILY’S List.
  14. When my work friend was diagnosed with leukemia, I volunteered to take his advisory until he recovered. I had no idea what I was getting into, taking on nine boys freshman through senior. It’s way more work than I anticipated, but the rewards far outstrip the work. I was also asked tasked with the position of faculty moderator for the yearbook, overseeing four seniors who are the editors. I have grown very fond of all of these students, and find myself worrying about them and championing them like a mother hen. It has been my privilege to take all of this on, and I’ve received far more than I’ve given. They make me laugh every day, and they challenge me in the best possible way. This has injected a new passion into my professional life.
  15. I rode a camel. I think that’s pretty self-explanatory.
  16. When I couldn’t attend the big NYE family bash, I sent my family on without me. My husband, who shall be henceforth known as The Greatest Husband in the World, came back home to check on me and bring me food from the party. He sat and watched Parenthood with me while I sniffled and wheezed on the couch. When he was at the party, he texted and called me, so I didn’t feel quite so alone. And right before midnight, he and Zoe returned and made Sprite and orange juice mocktails so we could ring in the new year together. It was pretty damn special.

Come to think of it, there are a helluva lot more than 16 things to be grateful for last year. Happy New Year, my friends. Hang on, because I think 2017 will be a wild ride.

Move-ember

I covered a lot of miles in November. I’m not exaggerating or being facetious or even speaking in metaphors, which I have been known to do from time to time. I actually covered a lot of miles.

100.2 miles, to be exact. Most of them within eight miles of my home. I walked, and sometimes (very slowly) ran (downhill), 100.2 miles last month. My longest walk was over eight miles (Thanksgiving morning!); my shortest was two. I listened to hours and hours of podcasts. I walked at 5 a.m. and at 10:15 p.m. and all the hours in between. Mostly at 5 a.m. for a very good reason outlined below. I looked like an idiot many days, including times when my podcast made me laugh out loud or cry rivers of tears or that one day when the podcast app wasn’t working and so I listened to music, forgetting that the reason I stopped listening to music when I walk is that I can’t help but do this weird, funky, white-girl dance-walk thing that makes it look like I’m having some sort of fit because I love music and it makes me want to mooooove. I have learned how much to layer based on the temperature, and which jacket keeps me pretty dry when it’s raining, and to not stuff my headband into a certain pocket because it will fall out causing me to backtrack and search with the flashlight on my cellphone and throwing off my whole route with my exact mile markers. I have seen enough dead rodents to last a lifetime, including an unfortunate collision between a squirrel and a Ford Mustang. The Mustang won. The big Thanksgiving walk was the best, because I smelled wood fires burning, a turkey in someone’s oven, and, near the end, a pie baking. That’s pretty good motivation.

My legs weren’t the only appendage working in November. My fingers were super busy, too. I logged a lot of wordmiles on the keyboard. 54,288 words, to be exact. I committed to National Novel Writing Month again (NaNoWriMo), which is 1,667 words every day for 30 days, resulting in a solid 50,000-word novel. I didn’t start a new book, but finally fleshed out the novel I had started a couple of years ago before writing myself into a corner. Time off from the book plus lots of workshops, articles, and books on writing helped me figure out that I simply hadn’t made my main character suffer enough. She has suffered now, but I’m not entirely sure it’s enough. She may need to have some more terrible things happen to her. The book, as it stands now in all its SFD un-edited glory, is at just over 73,000 words. It needs a heavy red pen and I’m fairly certain that there are whole chapters that require replacement, but at least I have the base down. That ain’t nuthin’, friends.

Oh, yeah, and I also covered some miles in the air, traveling to Columbus, Ohio, for a conference for work. During which I continued my walking and my writing (boom). I can also now check the whole “travel with a Benedictine monk” thing off my bucket list. That was pretty fun.

I started walking in late September, when the weather was nice. I walked after work, when Zoe was at PSR or volleyball practice or piano. The timing was perfect and the weather was glorious. Then I decided to NaNo and realized that I’d need time to write every day. This isn’t something you can crank out in 15 minutes. At least, I can’t. Not fiction, anyway. I knew that some nights would require slogging away for almost two hours to get to that word count. And I knew that if I went walking after work and then made dinner and then ate dinner and then cleaned up dinner and did the family thing, all I’d be ready to write was a series of Zs on my pillow. I also knew that if I got up early to write, half the time would be wasted while I waited for my brain to fully wake up. So, starting November 1, I switched my walking routine to 5 a.m. most mornings. I can get four miles down in about an hour and be home at about 6, giving me a little over an hour to get ready for work and get us out the door before most of the bad traffic hits. This freed up my nights for writing. Food being a need most evenings, I subjected my family to a series of crockpot meals that I prepped late the night before and assembled that morning. Most were really delicious, which was a relief since I was trying new recipe after new recipe to stave off the boredom. I made real meals, too, but those crockpot dishes were a huge help on many nights.

So, in these ways, it was a great month. (In other ways, not so much, but those are topics for other posts.) I was completely absent from here which was disappointing, but there’s only so much a girl can do each day.

It’s no longer November, so I don’t have to continue walking so early in the morning. But here’s the thing: by the time I start walking at night it’s just as dark as the morning, and there are a lot more cars on the road. I get blinded by headlights, and it’s disconcerting to not see the sidewalk in front of me. I very much prefer the early morning walks, when it feels like hardly anyone else is awake and I’ve got the canvas of my whole day laid out before me. I now, much to my surprise, relish walking in the pre-dawn morning, before the cars are out but when there are a few other crazy people walking, running, and biking and when there are loads of stars twinkling or a gorgeous fog wraps everything in silence. It’s just a matter of launching my body out of the warm bed and into the laces. I never regret it, but dang, sometimes it’s hard. I did almost get clocked by a dude on a bicycle this morning, but he swerved at the last minute so all is good. (Aren’t bicyclists supposed to ride on the road, and not on the sidewalk? Eh, it might help if I wore a headlight like I’ve seen other early-morning people have. I do love the pre-dawn gloaming, though, and an LED headlamp seems rudely interruptive.)

Things I got from this blog post: I’m writing here again. Not anything spectacular, but I’m back on the beat. Which feels good.

Things you can get from this blog post: an amazing podcast list and/or good crockpot recipes. Send me a message if you want either. I’ll hook you up.

You’ll get the book I wrote later, I promise. This isn’t like last year’s book which was written with the intention of shoving it in a drawer. I’ll work on editing and then maybe recruit some beta readers and then shop it around for an agent. Since 2016 sucked on many levels, I’m determined to make 2017 rock.

This post is dedicated to my adorable husband, who put up with crockpot meals and an abnormally-cranky wife on the few days she didn’t walk and vicious snarls when he tried to talk to her about football, television commercials, and random internet stories while she was trying to write. I am well aware that many writers struggle with families who don’t understand their need to pound the keyboard, and I am so incredibly thankful to have a husband who has continually encouraged all of my art – be it writing or photography – over all of these years. You, quite simply, are amazing and I love you.

The Crash of a Hero

One of my favorite childhood toys was an Evel Knievel action doll. Evel’s diminutive doppelganger was a slim man in a white pantsuit with a deep, dark blue V chest applique that was studded with white stars. He had a matching white helmet and a cape. His white gloved hands were perfectly molded to clamp onto the handlebars of his shiny motorcycle. That motorcycle locked into a plastic hand crank that allowed me to wind him up and set him flying, just like the real Evel Knievel.

The real Evel Knievel was a stud. Even his name was cool, tripping off the tongue with the same fanfare and panache he displayed flying over rows of cars. We all, boy and girl alike, dreamed of doing the amazing stunts that Evel Knievel pulled off. We all dreamed of being the glitzy, famous showman featured over and over again on the Wide World of Sports. To a little girl whose heroes included drag racer Big Daddy Don Garlits and the boys from the Dukes of Hazzard, Evel Knievel was just one more daring flash in the world of fast cars, fast bikes, and reckless behavior. I ate it all up.

Fast forward 30 years, and I’m a middle-aged working mom married to a man who is solid, stable, and reliable. He doesn’t wear a white jump suit with a cape, or race a quarter mile in less than five seconds, or jump his car over creeks in an attempt to evade the law. Thank God I grew up and turned away from crass, renegade showmanship in favor of stability. This man, our child, and I were at a local amusement park last weekend, waiting for the train. We relaxed on a bench in the train station, chatting and watching a large television that promotes various add-ons in the park and features cartoons and trivia. A trivia question appeared about Evel Knievel and how many cars he had jumped during one of his motorcycle stunts.

“Evel Knievel!” I said. “Wow! I haven’t thought about him in ages!” I quickly launched into a tirade to my child, drowning her in my enthusiasm for some weird motorcycle stuntman she’s never heard of and couldn’t care less about. This was another one of my famous “teaching moments.” Wisdom gleaned from my own childhood. M and I reminisced about our Evel Knievel toys, and he’s the one who reminded me about the crank. (I vaguely remember my crank breaking early on, and resorting to wrapping Evel onto his bike, pulling it back to load the wheel spring, and letting him fly with abandon. It didn’t work as well as the crank as I never quite held Evel perfectly vertical before letting him go, but that didn’t stop the fun.) And then I made a huge tactical error.

I googled Evel Knievel. Right there on my phone, while we waited in the train station.

Turns out, for most of his life, he was a real shit. A huckster, a scammer, a ne’er do well who floated from one money-making scheme to another. He dropped out of high school after sophomore year and went to work in a copper mine. He was promoted to earth mover driver, which lasted only until he popped a wheelie with the mover and hit Butte, Montana’s main power line. He was chased by police and crashed his motorcycle. He joined the army and then left the army and got married. He started a semi-pro hockey team, and it’s implied that he swindled the 1960 Olympic Czechoslovakian hockey team out of their expense money. The USOC had to pay the Czech team in an attempt to maintain diplomatic relations. He then started a hunting and fishing guide service, which did quite well until the U.S. Park Service discovered he was illegally taking clients into Yellowstone National Park to poach. After all this, he decided to go legit and started a motocross career. An early injury forced him into less flashy work, and he sold insurance to support his family. Ever the egomaniac, he demanded a promotion to vice president months later, and quit when his request was declined. He opened a Honda motorcycle dealership, then closed the Honda motorcycle dealership and concocted his daredevil show, serving as the promotor, logistics man, PR shill, set-up crew, ticket seller and emcee. The man was not in short supply of energy. He sustained injuries, but kept riding and jumping, adding more and more cars to his jump line when he’d return to a venue in an attempt to get old customers to come see his show again. All this was before the age of 29. He finally scammed his way into jumping over the fountain at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, by creating a fictitious corporation and hiring three fictitious “lawyers.” He crashed yet again, and earned increasing notoriety.

The man’s Wikipedia page lists a litany of bone breaks and injuries, including at least three concussions and a groin injury so severe it landed him in the hospital for nearly a month. He broke his arm, ribs, left wrist, right knee, and more ribs. He crushed his pelvis and femur, suffered fractures to his hip, another wrist, and both ankles. He broke his right leg and foot, his hip again, and his collarbone. He compound-fractured his right arm, broke both legs, his back, his pelvis again, and both arms again. He estimated his broken bones to number 35.

Later, when a former promoter wrote a tell-all book that exposed Evel Knievel as a wife-abuser, child beater, and drug user, Evel attacked the man with a baseball bat. He pled guilty to battery and spent six months in jail and three years on probation.

Who in the hell thought this man was a good role model for children?

My illusions of grand Americana clad in a white leather, star spangled jumpsuit are shattered. The man was a fraud. A hack. A huckster out to make a quick buck while achieving fame and notoriety. He spent more time in casts and braces than out. He swindled where he could, and resorted to physical violence when he couldn’t. I sat there in the amusement park train station, aghast. “Oh no,” I said. M leaned over. “What?” “Evel Knievel was awful.” With that, the train pulled into the station and off we went, while I thought about how I was much better off not knowing the real Evel Knievel. I was happier remembering the toy that represented so much that I hadn’t even realized. Bravery. Heroism. Daring American ingenuity. One of my childhood dreams is now shattered by reality. My superhero stuntman is grounded by super-human faults and foibles. His was a show driven by ego and greed, not by a genuine desire to reach further, go faster, do better. The fall of Evel Knievel in my mind is breathtaking in its severity, and astounding in its absorption of brain space. I am also appalled at my own naiveté for all these years. How could I have not known the real Evel Knievel? Why do I care about this so much?

Because I am stupid and don’t learn from my mistakes, I googled Big Daddy Don Garlits. I’ll be damned if the man isn’t a racist homophobe. Because of course he is. Farewell, Evel Knievel. Farewell, Big Daddy. There’s simply no room in my heart for reprobates and haters.

That’s it. I’m never googling anyone ever again. Next thing you know, I’m liable to learn that the Dukes of Hazzard were nothing but redneck scofflaws with questionable motives, a healthy disrespect for probationary boundaries, and a trampy cousin. I just can’t handle news like that.

Dear Henry, let’s talk chickens

I’ve been reading about writing lately, which is not as good as actually writing, but some days it’s the best I can do.

And I keep being reminded, over and over, that the only way to be a writer is to actually sit down and write. Duh. This sounds easier than it is. Butt in chair is surprisingly difficult. At least it is for me, right now.

Stephen King says, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

He also said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” which is awesome and true, but that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post.

He’s actually got quite a few good quotes about how sitting down to do the work is the hardest part, but I’m too lazy to go look them up right now.

When I was journalism school, my favorite professor was a crotchety old adman named Henry Hager. He was of the 3-martini-lunch generation who didn’t cotton to the newfangled sensibility that it wasn’t a good idea to get hammered halfway through the work day. He bought me my first martini, Henry did, that next year when I went from being his student to being his teaching assistant.

One of the exercises he had us do was write him a letter each week. One page, double-spaced. It could be about anything we wanted. It was an exercise in sitting down and just letting the words flow. It was my favorite homework ever, even the weeks when I struggled to find something worthwhile to write. He read every single one of our letters, leaving comments about the writing or the content or both. I treasured them. At the end of the term, we were to choose our favorite ten, print them out and bind them, and hand them in. He gave us a grade that didn’t really matter in the scheme of the semester, and handed it back. I still have staple-bound packet, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. A snapshot into my life as an undergrad journalism student dating a cute engineer who lived hundreds of miles away. Now, as a crotchety old person myself, I understand that the whole point of our turning in our ten favorites as a collection was that it gave us something to hold on to, a package. I may have all those loose letters somewhere, but I doubt it. I only have the packet because he made me make it.

I should get back into that routine of writing whatever I want, stream of consciousness, regularly. I can write to Henry. He’s pushing up daisies now; I cried when I read his obituary in my alumni magazine a few years ago. But I could still write to him, or at least to the idea of him. I imagine he’d get a kick out of it, even if I’m as far away from Hemingway as you can get.

Dear Henry,

I have two friends who are amazing and who keep me laughing and who keep me grounded. Well, I have more friends who do that than just two, but for this letter we’re talking about these two phenomenal women. We call ourselves The Chickens, mainly because of many experiences and jokes that all stem from a Jenny Lawson blog post. We didn’t start out calling ourselves The Chickens, but we ended up there and now our husbands call us that and, apparently, so do our children.

It’s incredible how well our children know us, despite the front we try to present to them. “Oh, hey, I’m your super-cool, awesome mom who always has her act together, who loves you more than you could ever imagine” is what we like to think we are. Instead, my kid is all, “Oh, hey, you’re my mom who tries really hard and who is innately human and therefore makes plenty of mistakes, and who loves me more than I could ever imagine but sometimes just needs some beer and a good cry.”

We were taking Zoe to camp on Sunday and I was doing my whole Woe-is-Me routine about how I was going to miss her and how she was going to have all the fun while I had to go to work every day. I lamented, “What will I do without you?” And she deadpanned, “You’ll get together with The Chickens and drink wine.”

Touché.

Just for your information, I haven’t seen my chickens at all this week. This is my busy season at work (well, busier season…there’s never really a slow season) and I’ve been putting in long hours. And I got my hair cut last night. Which, come to think of it, is a lame excuse for not getting together with friends. But still, what I’m trying to say is that I don’t just get together with my friends and drink wine, although I do that sometimes and with enough regularity that my daughter has lodged it in her head, and therefore knows when she grows up and becomes a busy mom that it’s important to have chickens. And wine.

So maybe I’m doing okay at this mothering thing after all.

IMG_5532Today’s pretty picture is from Sunday’s sunset. We dropped the kiddo off at camp and picked up the car with only two seats and went for a Sunday drive.

Regulation 1: Good Conduct

Over spring break, on our magnificent train trip out west, we visited Alcatraz. The island has been on my bucket list for many years, and it did not disappoint. Here and there, the parks department had posted signs and placards with tidbits from the United States Penitentiary Rules & Regulations book that every inmate was issued upon entering his cell for the first time. The more rules I read, the more I realized that these rules are actually pretty good for those of us who aren’t incarcerated for committing heinous crimes. At the end of the tour, when we were dumped into the gift shop (as all tours now tend to end), I felt compelled to purchase a book of 24 Rules & Regulations postcards so I could remember them.

Regulation 1, for instance, says:

Good conduct means conducting yourself in a quiet and orderly manner
and keeping your cell neat, clean, and free from contraband.

That first part is what I’d like the girls in my scout troop to learn. They don’t do anything quietly or in an orderly fashion. Ever. In fact, I think they go out of their way to be loud and disorderly. We had to implement rules and regulations for our inmates scouts that, upon reflection, may have worked well at Alcatraz, too: no shrieking, no cartwheels, and keep your shoes on. Although the administrators who put together the USP Rules & Regulations book probably classified cartwheels under being orderly in general, we found we had to be quite specific. “No gymnastics” could be interpreted, by some, as “cartwheels are okay because even girls not taking gymnastics lessons do those, so they aren’t really gymnastics.” They are wily, those scouts.

When I worked in a cube farm, I would have very much appreciated if my cubemates kept their desks neat, clean, and free from contraband. Contraband mostly being the stinky remnants of their fishy lunches. I would have liked if they didn’t cut and file their nails there, too. Ew.

Really, the person I would most like to apply these rules to is my child. She could use some good, old-fashioned, penitentiary-style raisin’. She is mostly quiet and orderly (save when she gets around a gaggle of her peers), but she most definitely does not keep her cell neat and clean, and she relishes her giant collection of contraband.

I had no idea how much kid contraband is out in the world until I got one myself. A kid, that is. Then the crap level in my home exploded exponentially. There are bits and pieces – her stuff – everywhere, all the time. Right now, without even being home, I can guarantee that there is a pair of sky-blue slippers, size 4, sitting on the floor of the great room somewhere in the vicinity of the couches. I don’t know that she ever actually wears them, although I sort of suspect that she might as they do move around. They never move into her room, though. They always hang out by the couches, and are usually lurking in places where I will trip over them. At any given time, the kitchen counter is home to: sunglasses, piano music, pencils, bookmarks, earrings, books, Hoot, candy, water bottles, school or camp papers, and a variety of bags in which she carries all of the above in random combinations. After weeks of clutter, I finally cleared the entire island counter the other night. There wasn’t a thing on it. It shocked me every time I walked by or looked that way. The great expanse. A huge plane of blessed emptiness. It lasted less than an hour, basically until she came out of her room again.

I don’t even want to look in her closet. That closet is the nexus of the contraband universe. We (meaning: me and I) go in and clean it out every few years, and she’s decently good at letting me get rid of stuff. She is not as good as her mother who would take the entire contents of said closet and stuff them into garbage bags for trash pickup Monday morning, but she does let stuff go. I have cleaned out Valentine’s from last year and countless trinkets gathered at the annual school picnic that she is thrilled about winning that day and then forgets she ever laid eyes on by the next morning. Plastic slinkies and googly-eye glasses and tiny prism kaleidoscopes and flags and capes and a flamingo hat that she can wear for only five minutes at a time because it makes her head hot. There are enough stuffed animals to staff an army of fur. Most of her bears have wardrobes far more extensive than my own. She does not have a food stash, probably because her militant parents have threatened her with solitary if they ever catch food in her room. And also because she doesn’t have siblings who steal her candy, so she can keep it in the giant candy bag in the pantry that also requires a good clean-out every year or so.

Right now, it is time to do that most dreaded task of mothers everywhere: cleaning out her clothes. Her drawers are stuffed full of clothing ranging in size from 8 to 12 (except for that one bizarrely large size 4 tie-dyed t-shirt she got at a preschool friend’s birthday party and won’t part with because it’s the softest shirt she owns) and for all seasons. Looking for her special Independence Day shirt the other day, we tore every shirt she owns out of the drawers. Both of us were close to melting down and I left the situation in M’s capable hands. He engineered the problem (because that is what he does, which is one of the many, many reasons I married him all those years ago, and because he kills bugs). He found that her drawers were so over-stuffed that, “she had a whole wardrobe of clothes that had been shoved out the back of the drawer and had fallen into the no-man’s land under the bottom drawer.” He found the desired shirt and rescued Fourth of July, and I took that as my cue to suck it up and clean out her damn drawers again. This is a job that takes half a day, infinite patience, and a bottle of wine. The patience is required to argue with the inmate over keeping a tie-dyed t-shirt that is finally too small.

This rule about contraband applies to my child’s parents, though, too. I’ll admit that there is something appealing about the idea of living a life that is neat, clean, and free from contraband. Monks actively choose this life, giving up their worldly possessions in return for room and board and life of prayer and good, honest work. Their rooms are even called cells. The cells in the monastery where I work are a good size, not tiny but not large, either. They are austere. It takes only minutes to straighten up your space if there’s not much in it. The inmates at Alcatraz had a bed, a small table and chair, a toilet, a sink, and two shelves. They were allowed only 12 books at a time. My cell, personally, must have wifi, and I could probably get around the 12-book rule with a properly stocked Kindle. But then I think I wouldn’t need much else. Not really. Neither monks nor inmates have extensive wardrobes; both essentially wear the same thing every day. There is no need to root around under the bottom drawer to find a missing garment. There is no need to argue with your inmate over whether these shorts from last year are suitable or have risen into hoochie-mama territory with a year’s growth of leg. (And, by extension, there is then no need to explain to your inmate what a hoochie-mama is.)

We have things in our house that bring me joy when I see them. This is the rule, right? Only keep what brings you joy. It’s the theory behind the tidiness movement. I have objects that bring me joy. The small pottery bird I found in Ireland when I went on my graduation trip with my father. The clay saki jar given to M by the owner of a small restaurant when he visited on two consecutive trips to Japan. A tiny black Squamish eagle acquired when we toured an aboriginal sweat lodge atop a mountain in Vancouver. These things spark wonderful memories when we see them, and bouts of cursing when I have to pick them up, dust them, and dust around them. I don’t know if I would remember that night in the Squamish lodge without the bird, or if M would ever think about that restaurant without seeing the saki jar. Do I need the rusted buffalo sculpture to recall our first Corvette trip out west, or the train that circled our wedding cake to remember the day we married? Are these items necessary memory totems, or are they just more clutter in lives already overly-bombarded by sensory inputs?

I think a human’s natural inclination is to collect, to gather. That’s why it’s so powerful that the monks choose to relinquish their possessions, and why it’s such a punishment that inmates aren’t allowed to keep theirs. There is a relatively new tiny-house movement that appeals to so many of us. It appeals to me, too. (Except for the composting toilet part. No way am I giving up the conveniences and cleanliness of modern plumbing.) With tiny houses, it’s the idea of freedom that is appealing. Because with possession comes responsibility. With possession comes commitment. A grounding. Roots in one place. I have to stay here, because here is where all my stuff stays. I have too much to leave behind. When I reflect on this, I have to fight the urge to take everything I own to Goodwill.

Here is what I think, though. Ultimately, I don’t want my daughter to always be quiet and orderly. Sometimes it’s necessary to raise hell, to speak out, to shout, even. It’s necessary to do these things to stand up for yourself, and to stand up for others. Sometimes, it’s good to shake things up with a cartwheel. I want to keep the small clay bird that makes my heart sing when I hold it, cool and heavy, in my hands. I smell the damp peat of an Irish October when I hold it, and feel the wind at the Cliffs of Moher all over again. I want to keep things that, when I look at them, flood me with feelings and memories from the places we’ve been, the things we’ve seen, the experiences we have shared. Our home may be cluttered at times, but it’s not cluttered with the latest home decorating trends. It’s filled with evidence of lives well lived. We have done a good job of being very conscious about our purchases. Do we have a place for it? Will this evoke a memory? Does this bring us joy?

And so, I will sometimes raise hell and I will keep my beloved belongings.

I can probably get rid of most of the crap on the counter, though.

Thursdays

Thursdays have been my Monday lately. Thursdays used to be my Saturday, but for the past month-plus, they are definitely Mondays.

Thursdays used to be my favorite day because of doughnuts, dress downs, and patty melts. I am a simple woman with simple pleasures. And then Thursdays consistently blew up.

It was Thursday when I found out my dad had lung cancer.

It was Thursday when I blew up my family.

It was Thursday when I realized that a week after surgery to treat the lung cancer, Daddy was still in the ICU and I still hadn’t heard him speak or laugh.

It was Thursday when the doctors did an MRI on his brain and found “something.”

I know these Thursdays because of how you remember exactly where you are when catastrophe strikes. My mother remembers (well, she used to remember) where she was when Kennedy was shot. I remember where I was when Challenger blew up, and when the twin towers fell down. I remember who was around me, how I felt, how other people reacted.

Every Thursday night I’m with my writing group. This small band of diverse people gather each week to write, to bounce ideas off each other, to celebrate victories (submissions, acceptances, the finishing of first drafts, new story ideas)…to be writerly. I was thrilled when one of them invited me to join, as this is the sort of group I’ve been longing for my whole writing life. What I didn’t realize was that this little band of writers are now much more than just the people who give me good synonyms and encourage me to keep writing.

They give me real support, the kind that goes well beyond writing.

I know this because when my life blows up each Thursday night, I am with them. And they immediately give me hugs. There is no judgment, there are no questions. Just loving concern. I sit at my computer and then I start crying and they kindly ignore me until I look up, shaking, and make eye contact and they realize I’m about ready to bolt or lose my shit or, quite possibly, both at the same time.

The hugs are the good kind. The kind that are tight and long and unrelenting. The kind that say, “I have you. You are safe, at least for this moment. I get it.”

The first time this happened I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared for these people to give so much of themselves, so much of their own humanity. Our conversations around the writing table are typically pretty light-hearted. I inevitably end up laughing and feeling so thankful that I was invited into this little community where the topics are wide-ranging and I learn something new each week. I considered this group my friends, definitely, but they were segmented into my “writing friends” group. Not my “cry my heart out friends” group. (I have those, too, but I don’t get to see them the same night each week, although I should because that would be awesome.)

Then one Thursday night all my fears and emotions about my mother’s Alzheimer’s came tumbling out, manifesting themselves awkwardly in public through my tear ducts. I stood up to bolt, because no one wants to bawl their eyes out in the local coffee house. I was cramming my belongings back into my backpack when one of my writer friends stood up, too, and wrapped me in a giant bear hug. All he said was, “I know.” And I remembered that his mother has Alzheimer’s and that he cared for her until he couldn’t anymore and that he visits her all the time in the facility that now cares for her better than he can. And I knew that he knows exactly how I feel and that I am not alone, despite feeling that way most of the time. Why do I forget I’m not the only person to go through this? Why do I think that I should hide my feelings about this because no one would understand? That’s the sort of garbage thinking that derails me completely. Left to its own devices, my brain will spin and spin, gaining in speed and destruction. It takes someone who has been there, reaching out to stop the escalation and still the spin, to get me back on track. It takes someone who knows the wide range of ever-changing emotions that comes with having a loved one with Alzheimer’s. It takes someone who can say only, “I know” and have it mean worlds. Only then can I slow down, stop, and remember that I am not alone, that there is a path through. It may not be the same path, but it’s a journey that none of us has to take alone.

I’ve written a lot over the past couple of weeks, and it has helped me feel better even though I know it’ll never be published anywhere. It’s been too dark here, though, even though the dark is sometimes comforting. I need my presence here, even while I want to hide under the covers.

Daddy’s surgery was almost two weeks ago. The surgery went fine. All the stuff after – the stuff that’s supposed to be the recovery – hasn’t gone well. At all. It took over a week and half to hear him talk. I miss his laugh. I miss his ever-present concern over our well being. Instead, I’ve seen him in conditions that I will never forget, and that will always make me cry.

They don’t know what’s going on. At first, he was aggressive when they feathered off his sedation. They don’t know why he woke up once and, even with restraints, managed to yank out his IV, his NG tube, and his chest tube. The nurses finally got him subdued and tightened his restraints and, I imagine, gave him something that knocked him on his ass for his own good.

It’s not supposed to be going like this. He’s actually supposed to be home now, grouchy but whole. He’s supposed to be grimacing as he sits up and doing his breathing exercises and setting up follow-up appointments. He’s not supposed to be still incoherent at best, and unconscious at worst.

Mom knows what’s going on, generally. She doesn’t understand why he’s not home yet, which is perfectly normal because we don’t understand, either. She forgets that she’s already been to see him today. She cries because she misses him. We all cry because we miss him.

I think perhaps the hardest part is the unknown. We don’t know what’s wrong. So we don’t know how to fix it. We don’t know when it’ll be right again.

Sometimes I’m able to step outside my reality, and look at it objectively. That’s the woman whose dad is in critical condition. That’s the woman whose father has been in the surgical ICU for almost two weeks. How sad that must be for her. I wonder what’s going to happen? I wonder how she’s dealing with that? I think I’m able to do this mostly because some part of me just can’t believe that this is what is actually happening. At work, one day last week, colleagues started showing up in my office. “I’m so sorry about your dad and mom. I had no idea.” Over and over. I realized that someone must have sent out an email. It was touching and weird all at the same time, because I have been on those emails, have felt bad for the subject of those emails, have wondered how that person is coping with so much tragedy all at once. That’s when I could step outside my reality and look at myself clinically, as someone else. That poor woman whose world is crashing around her.

My sister and I take turns breaking down and building each other up. We text and email a lot during the day. She calls me with updates after she talks to the ICU nurses. She tells me over and over that I can call them myself and get updates, but I don’t know what to say to the nurses, or how to understand what they tell me. She has the medical background. She asks questions in that special code of medical language that I can’t decipher, the code that tells her volumes through data. She gets his temperature (the highs and lows). She checks on his oxygen, on his heart rate. She knows what all the different medications are that they’re trying, and what their dosages mean. She knows which is a sedative and which is for fever and which are his normal medications that he takes on a daily basis. She takes in all those terms, all those numbers and knows if he’s doing better today than he was yesterday. I say only, “What’s going on? Is he better? Have you fixed him? Why can’t you fix him?”

When the nurses answer my sister, they speak in that shared, common language. When the nurses speak with me, they speak in the dumbed-down language that they reserve for the Muggles of the medical world. “He’s doing a bit better today! Just wait, one of these days it’ll be like flipping a switch and he’ll be back to himself!” They are kind and professional and caring to both of us.

He has started coming back to us, slowly. He started speaking yesterday. When I visited him this afternoon, I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying. He wasn’t too responsive to me, and I realized that I wasn’t speaking loud enough. The nurse bustled around, belting out questions and getting crisp responses from him. I went to leave and spoke loudly, like she did. It felt like shouting to me. “Daddy! I’m leaving now but I will be back tomorrow. I love you!” He opened his eyes, puckered his lips, and gave me a kiss. He said, “I love you.” My heart soared and everything inside stilled and the universe tilted a little bit back towards center. And I realized that I will never again take it for granted when he says, “I love you.” I will remember when he asks me, for the fifth time, “Did you lock your doors? Did you close the garage?” he is really saying, “I want you to be safe because I love you.”

This Thursday was good. I am moved into a new office at work and today felt settled there. (Maintenance hung my pictures yesterday, which always makes it feel like home.) I had a wonderful end-of-the-year lunch with colleagues after an end-of-the-year plenary faculty meeting where five of my peers were recognized for being amazing people. There were doughnuts in the faculty lounge this morning. The rain stopped and the sun came out and Daddy said, “I love you.”

I’m sitting here with a group of writers, some of us writing and some of us talking about writing, and nothing is blowing up. When I arrived tonight, anxious because of how the past Thursdays have gone, two of my writer friends immediately looked me in the eye and asked how things are going. I relaxed, and said, “Much better, thanks.”

And then I sat down and started writing.

The gift

I read a business book years ago called A Complaint is a Gift. The premise is that businesses should look at customer service not as a wearisome task that needs to be dealt with, but as an opportunity to better your organization while potentially creating brand ambassadors. The concept is so stunningly simple that it’s amazing more companies don’t adhere to it. Listen to your customers, admit your error, and graciously fix what’s wrong. This happens so little these days that when it does, customers are blown away and won over, often leaving even more happy with the company than if they’d never had an issue to begin with. “I will stick with this company, because they stuck by me.” What seems like should be a basic human value – treating others well – still clearly needs to be outlined in a business book. It’s a good reminder for all of us, though.

The book was interesting in that it gave statistics to back up why it’s so important to listen to people and resolve their issues. You know, just in case you need proof that you should be a decent human being. For every one person that calls (or emails) to complain, there are seven more who are just as unhappy but who choose to stop doing business with your company. For the silent seven, their resolution of choice is departure, which is not what any company wants, and telling everyone they know about their horrible experience, which every company dreads.

On the heels of reading this book, the president of the organization I was working for proposed a new policy that virtually guaranteed an unhappy customer base. I saw it coming a mile away, and counseled (loudly and persistently) against it. I was overruled, the policy was implemented, and I watched, horrified, the revenue carnage that ensued. After a few weeks of tracking complaints, I took a report in to the president. She leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms, and replied, “If they’re unhappy, they can go somewhere else.” Well, they did. Sales tanked. Cash flow slowed to a crawl. It was like watching a car accident happen in slow motion.

After a year, remembering the book I read about complaints, I conducted another analysis mostly just out of curiosity. I took the complaints that I had tracked (number of calls, emails, and in-person complaints), and multiplied by seven based on the book’s statistic. This gave me a total number of unhappy customers, if the book’s premise held true. I then took the total number of unhappy customers and multiplied it by our average sale amount, and I’ll be darned if it didn’t come out to almost exactly the amount of sales decline over the prior year. I was stunned. I took my statistical proof to the president, and suggested that our customers had indeed done exactly what she challenged them to. They left. She waved me off, the policy stayed, and I eventually departed like so many of those unhappy customers.

Now, I’m sure there were many other variables that contributed to the decline in sales. But still, those numbers were pretty compelling. And it taught me, again, that when someone tells you you’ve done something wrong, you should listen and apologize and learn and change. Because I think this is a good thing for people to do, not just companies, I try to apply it to my own life.

This week, someone told me I did something wrong. It’s one of you, dear readers. The concern was expressed anonymously, which doesn’t lessen the validity of the complaint in the slightest. The fact is, I messed up. I own my mistakes, all of them, because they all teach me something. I won’t get into the details of how I messed up or how I tried to fix it (because who wants to blast their own imperfections out to the internets…especially if one is mortified, as I happen to be), but I do want to acknowledge to myself (and maybe to the reader, if I haven’t lost him or her, and maybe to the seven others who didn’t complain but felt the same way) that I am still growing and learning and figuring things out. I am so grateful that someone had the courage to point out to me what I had done wrong, otherwise I’d have never known. How many of us can easily see our own faults?

I receive gifts every single day. My family, friends, and colleagues make me laugh, which is a huge gift. People show me love and support through their words, their hugs, and sometimes a bottle of beer. My daughter snuggles with me and tells me she loves me. My husband insists that I don’t skip writing group, knowing that this time is so important to me. My photography friends share their beautiful images, and my writing friends share their beautiful words. My extended family shares their lives with me. And I have people in my life who help me be a better person by pointing out ways I can improve. I am rich in an abundance of gifts of all kinds. This is what I must remember when life feels hard, when in addition to the gifts I receive bad news, as I did last week (also not willing to disclose). (At least not yet.)

I am grateful for these gifts. All of them.