Live Laugh Love

Life is short, so live it.  Love is rare, so grab it.  Fear controls you, so face it.  Memories are precious, so cherish them.  We only get one life, so live it!

dance naked

My neighbor passed away today, unexpectedly.  She was 70, and had experienced some health problem recently, but it was still a shock to hear the news; I just talked to her walking her dog yesterday.

Her husband was out of town, and called a neighbor to check on her when she didn’t answer his calls.  My other neighbor, 88 years old, made the terrible discovery and had to be the bearer of such halting news.   He was clearly upset when I ran into him, just an hour or two after, and before the authorities had even arrived.  88, health problems of his own, his own mortality now thrust front and center, visibly distraught.

I always thought that when you reached his age, you had already made your peace with your own demise, without any effort, like hair turning gray.  Clearly that is not the case.  We must all struggle with the inevitable, and age has nothing to do with it.  Some of us are forced to confront this much earlier than others, but even living a good long life doesn’t mean you ever want to let go; life is good, and there is so much beauty, even in the struggle.

But our bodies have limits, and the rules of biology and physics must be honored, and life and death is the realm of the gods, not us mere mortals.

What is up to us is how we react to these limits.  Once again I am humbled and awed by the courage and acceptance that Debbie displayed when faced with these inevitabilities…

I stopped down tonight to visit my distraught neighbor, his first night joining me in the Gibralter Drive Widowers Club.  The house will be quiet tonight, too quiet; it will feel like everything is wrong.  And it is; you just don’t spend 90% of your years with someone and then suddenly adjust to their absence.  It won’t feel real; he will be trapped somewhere between a bad dream and disbelief; we always think we have one more day.  There is not much that needs said at this time, because we both know what it feels like; and sometimes you just need to sit with those feelings for a while.  So we embrace and I honor his wishes to be alone tonight, and I certainly understand that, too, as memories of my first night alone flood back…

I stop in to see how my other neighbors are doing, too – you just don’t live next door to someone for 41 years and not feel the loss, too.  He and his wife graciously welcome me into their home, clearly happy for the company tonight.  We talk; about our neighbor and his wife, all the good times they shared, all the changes they have seen over the years.  We share a beer and memories, the memories of what makes life special – pride in 59 years of being married to your sweetheart (and a big 60th anniversary coming up in December!), pride in raising their two boys, pride in their hard work and accomplishments throughout their working careers, pride in their neighborhood and their humble house full of love.

Stories.  They are what make us human, what makes us unique.  In the end, it is all that we have; but it is all that we need, if we have written ours in full, if we have truly lived.  I am honored to have shared tonight in my neighbors’ stories, and the spark in their eyes recounting these cherished memories does not go unnoticed.  Indeed, it burns as bright in the eyes of someone who is 88 as it did the days they were made.

I can’t help but imagine a time much earlier, bodies young and muscular and functioning perfectly, hearing and eyesight still good, the new lime green carpeting in a brand new house full of dreams lit up in the hopes and dreams of an evening sunset streaming through the front picture window, just like tonight’s…big smile.

Life is precious, even if you are 88.

And life is short.

So write your story, everyday.  Visit your elderly neighbors and relatives while you can, while they are still here to share their hard-earned wisdom.  Comfort those who need a shoulder, if you have a shoulder to give.  Enjoy every sunset, especially the ones that light your dreams and memories.  Smile until your face hurts, cry when tears need shed.  If you are lucky enough to love someone, tell them.  And when times are good, sing out loud, no matter how off key, and dance, dance naked and rejoice!

Live, laugh, love…


Grace, Courage, and Dignity

It has taken me an entire year to digest the events that unfolded over the days from Trevor’s ninth birthday party up until Debbie’s passing on July 8th, 2012.  It was an extraordinary eight days, the most amazing spiritual experience I have ever had, and it is a story that needs told, that needs shared.  That is why I started this blog, because these big issues, life and death and all meaning in between – they are easier to bear when shared.

Time has diffused and distilled this account – it was too raw to even be touched at first, but it has cooled to the right time.  I don’t know how time and fading memory have shaped this account and I know that others who shared in this incredible week will remember things a bit different, but this is what has remained with my heart, where it matters.

And this is my account – I strongly encourage others who remember this week to post their thoughts, their feelings, what remains in their hearts today.  “Grief shared is grief lessened”, that is why I am writing and sharing, and this blog has been a tremendous healing tool for me; I have found a voice I didn’t know I had.

Please add your voice, your perspective, your tale, and we can all remember and perhaps even rejoice, grieve and heal and, most importantly, honor Debbie, who taught us all so much…

Debbie Last

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
The unknown is frightening
I’m right here, my love
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying
I’m right here, my love

July 2, 2012 – 5:30 am – Good lord it’s still dark, the first hints of gray are just now on the horizon, and the birds haven’t even started singing yet; why is Deb waking me up now?   I know we have a big day planned; it is my first non-duty vacation day of the year, despite the year being half over, and we are both exhausted from hosting a 9th birthday party the day before for little Trevor, so we agreed to sleep in a bit today.

And we both went to bed excited about our plans – a celebratory chocolate chip pancake breakfast at Pamela’s in the Strip, followed by some shopping and then an afternoon Pirates game at PNC Park.  We have never been to Pamela’s, and life was way too busy this month; we didn’t get a chance to properly celebrate Deb’s 45th birthday on June 5th or our 19th wedding anniversary on June 12th, so today is to be a catch up day.  Debbie always enjoyed the simple things in life, and wanted just a pancake breakfast with her boys for her birthday and anniversary.

But Deb is not excited about the world famous greasy cakes now.  In fact, something is wrong, terribly wrong.  She has been up a while, it is obvious she is upset, and has been crying; she has a bag packed.  A dark foreboding comes over me, as if the day should be getting darker, not lighter.  “We need to go to the hospital” Deb says, her voice cracking, trying desperately to be strong.  But her bottom lip quivers, betraying her fear…

Deb’s cancer went Stage IV in August of 2011.  I study statistics, study the odds, study the studies; I knew immediately what that really meant.  I knew there was only a 20 percent chance she would survive two years, less than 10 percent chance for five; especially since the cancer had spread to her liver.  The day in August when she received the Stage IV news, when she showed up at the batting cages where Trevor and I were working to rectify his batting slump, when I saw that look of terror on her face – that day will remain one of the worst days of my life.

But Deb is a fighter, she is so strong, she has an incredible faith and she has an army of prayer warriors, and the best doctors in the state are on her side.  She is consulting with a nutritionist and drinking green tea and green veggie shakes and seeing an energy healer and visiting the old sacred places in the high New Mexico desert with her good friend, and has been to the world’s best MD Anderson Cancer Clinic in Houston – she is doing everything she can to fight, and she is doing everything right.  Surely she will be the one to beat those small odds if anyone can…

But the news at the hospital is not good; I don’t need to be told, it is etched in the furrowed brows and slightly hushed tones and more gentle mannerisms that the harried hospital staff and caregivers display around us that is more telling than anything they say.

And Deb’s belly.  Since April it has started to swell; it was not very noticeable at first, a muffin top that too many American girls sport now anyway, but completely out of the ordinary to someone who rocked a six pack abdomen her whole life up until kid number two.  By the time of Trevor’s party, Deb had taken to wearing a sweatshirt tied around her waist to hide the bump, which was now in the 3-4 months pregnant size.  I wonder if the party guests understood why she was wearing a sweatshirt around her waist when it was 90 degrees and sweltering outside…

But of course that is how Deb is – she is very prideful about her appearance, the good pride, the kind that comes from hard work and appreciating all that she has in her life and the pride that comes from doing a good job, from doing the right thing, including taking care of your appearance.  Even when you have cancer.  Even when your hair falls out four times through chemo.  Even when you are really, really sick, but you want the all the attention of the day to be focused on your beautiful little nine year-old and you want him to have the best birthday party ever, as every one of his birthdays has been.

The news that Deb is in the hospital shocks most people.  Again, on the outside, her sunny ever present smile and pleasant disposition never even remotely hinted at her internal turmoil.  And so to see her in a hospital bed, connected to IVs and in a hospital gown and now mostly wearing her pink coyote hat, this is not the image that most expect when they stop up to the hospital.  And her belly, it has now swelled to 7 months pregnant…

Of course there is a battery of tests, lots of confusing information, and Deb’s regular doctor is out of the country on vacation, adding to the mess.  There are people in and out of the tiny little hospital room, it is always crowded, and people close to Deb have come in from out of town.  It is chaotic, and everyone struggles to make sense of how this can be happening, here, now, right now, when just a couple of days ago we were all laughing and celebrating and everything was fine.

I can only speak for my own struggles to come to grips with it, and I am sure everyone was at a different place on the spectrum during this time.  But at first it is a very detached scene, surreal, with a dreamlike quality, slipping in and out of focus and in between hope and despair.  And at this point the prevailing expectation is that things will get better for a while and Deb will come home.

But that is not what I feel now, a couple of days later, and not what I sense from Deb.  Her belly is huge now, 9 months pregnant.  Her vitals are still okay, so I go home to sleep (okay, to rest, sleep is very difficult) the first two nights she is in the hospital.  And that is another surreal experience, pedaling my bike home from the hospital at dusk because I have lost my driving privileges at the most inopportune time that could ever be imagined.

I am pedaling hard, making my heart beat harder just to know its still there, making myself sweat, making myself breathe faster to quickly get rid of the toxins, trying desperately to come to grips with what is happening so fast, trying to come to grips with everything that I knew would one day come but until it is actually upon you, you cannot even imagine how you will react, trying to out-pedal my fears, which are roaring like the giant trucks on the highway right behind me, ready to overtake me, ready to flatten this crazy guy riding a bike along the highway in the dark now.  They are just so much bigger, so much faster, than I can ever be…

Can you taste my kiss?
I’m right here, my love
I wish life was endless
I’m right here, my love
But living costs something and pay it we must
But I will keep your kiss
I’m right here, my love

There is a sense of calm that begins to emerge out of the chaos the next day, believe it or not.  Do not think this is an easy calm, for we are discussing topics that are life’s hardest – palliative care versus hospice, more aggressive chemo or none at all, whether to install a drain to relieve the swelling, which is now 10 months overdue pregnant.  One would think the chaos would escalate, but it does not.  It is a duty calm; it is important.  And it is calm because Debbie is so calm.

Certainly she understands the gravity of the situation.  In a rare private moment Deb confides in me that she knew way back in April that she was getting worse and would not be recovering.  In the time since then she has continued her heroic fight, but she has also worked with God and herself on acceptance.  She is truly not afraid.  It is clear now, with her calm amidst all this chaos, that acceptance and peace have been earned.  I am amazed and humbled, but keep it to myself.  Others who know and love Deb are not ready for this yet.

But she declares it with a grace and courage and conviction that can only come from having truly made her peace when the doctor tells her that there is nothing more that can be done, and that she is dying, and that it is only a matter of time.  Debbie stares at the doctor, her belly bloated but her smile still there, and with the utmost calm and conviction, tells him that “that’s okay, because I am alive now, and it’s beautiful  Life is beautiful.”  My mom and I, the only others in the room with Debbie and the doctor, are stunned and blessed at the same time…

Debbie doesn’t see the behind the scenes discussions amongst the family with the doctors and staff; things are just happening too fast, the news and the numbers are incomprehensible.  The hurt and the anger and the confusion is palpable.  We have the discussions again, because these are hard issues.  The oncologist is blunt and curt, directly to the point, perhaps because he is not Debbie’s normal doctor and hasn’t fallen under the spell of her smile, or perhaps because he has studied the charts and the numbers and the options and is staring right back at the insurmountable wall that modern medicine cannot climb when faced with cancer at this point.  But other hospital staff exhibit extraordinary patience and caring; I recognize that they do their jobs with love, and I am thankful, it is one less burden that we have to bear.

Since it is a holiday today, most people go home for the night, including the boys, who are well taken care of by my brother- and sister-in-law.  Only Deb’s parents and her sister Diane and I remain at the hospital.  It is clear to Diane and I now that we will need to stay at the hospital for as long as Deb is here.

It is the Fourth of July.  We roll Deb into the family room in a wheelchair, her belly huge, her discomfort felt by all of us, but mostly by Deb.  She does not complain however, but her smile is forced, and it doesn’t appear often now, usurped by the pain.  Two walls of the corner room are windows, allowing for a panoramic view, and the room is ours tonight, no one else around.  The hospital is quiet on the holiday, too quiet, visitors reduced to only those most directly affected by their loved ones illnesses and a skeleton crew.  We attempt small talk, but it is hollow.

There is a weird silence that fills the room.  Fireworks are exploding all around us, far off on the horizon, like watching a battle from the command center, far removed from the carnage.  Normally this would be a joyous time, celebrating the birth of our nation and summer and fun, feeling the thunder rumbling through bones and the seeing the lightning flashes reflected in wide open eyes, sharing ohhhs and ahhhs.  But not tonight; there is a heaviness in the room as thick as the fireworks smoke that certainly fills the air.  It is a silent movie, and the fireworks are not real tonight.  No body-thumping thunder, no smell of acrid smoke, no lightning flashes that light up the sky with excitement; just a sterile empty hospital room.  We watch detached, as if in a bad dream.  Deb asks to go back to her room…

Can you feel me tremble?
I’m right here, my love
Does it feel like you remember?
I’m right here my love
The future’s assured in the pulse of our blood
I can feel you tremble
I’m right here, my love

It is a bad night.  Deb is in serious discomfort and pain, drifting in and out of consciousness like the waves of a bad fever.  She needs help going to the bathroom and is tangled in tubes and IV drips and ill-fitting hospital gowns.  But Diane and I attend to her every need, keeping her as comfortable as we can.  There is very little rest for any of us.

It is agreed that a drain will be installed into Deb’s belly in the morning.  And when the procedure is done it does do a world of good, relieving the pressure and the discomfort Deb has been feeling the past few days.  It relieves pressure on us, too – her swollenness was to the point where we cringed to look at her, wondering how she could possible bear this burden.  Of course she is back to smiling her pretty smile, even with tubes protruding and the overall situation unchanged.  We are able to talk with her again without the obvious pain that she tried to hide but that her slight grimace and lack of smile gave away.  It is a small gift, and allows everyone, mostly Deb, to rest a bit.

But we are clearly not out of the woods, and everyone is unsure what to do next, and there is a permanent surrealness that has settled in, especially for Diane and I, as we have not slept in days now.  Visitors come and go, and Deb comes and goes too, drifting in and out of consciousness, and our reality ebbs and flows between the adrenaline which is keeping us on our feet and the bone-tired physical drowsiness that is constantly trying to drag us down to unconsciousness.

The nights are the worst.  Diane and I take hour and a half shifts, trying to grab cat naps in the public lounge in between sitting in the uncomfortable chairs next to Deb in her too small room, stuffed to the gills with the plethora of medical equipment, and the bright flowers and gifts have taken a back seat to the seriousness of the situation.  In the lounge the periodic screams of suffering from another older cancer patient pierce the normal beeps and blips and alarms of hospital equipment, and in full consciousness it would create an atmosphere of foreboding.  And perhaps the screams register somewhere in our foggy brains, but mostly they have been reduced to the background noise that lulls us to sleep for 45 minutes at a time. Diane no longer even hears the screams.

But we take care of Deb.  We get her to the bathroom while she can, clean her messes when she can’t, always keeping her pink coyote hat on her head when she tries to pull it off in her moaning delirium, mindfully and respecting her hard earned pride.  We sit by her as she weaves in and out of a coma, the cancer and the drugs suspending her halfway between life and death.

She always knows someone is near her.  And in the daylight her extended family and friends take on the same roll.  She is surrounded at all times by love, and is comforted as best we can, even if her semi-coma lends doubt as to whether she knows we are there.

And it is an honor to take care of her, a true honor.  I have watched others take care of people who are dying, wondering where in God’s name does the strength come from to do so?  I was just a teenager when I watched my mother take care of my father as he struggled with this same evil disease, as the cancer racked his body and robbed him of his pride and whittled him down to 80 pounds of bones and bedsores.  And I watched Debbie nurse our cat Mickey through his last two weeks, tenderly changing blood-stained furry bandages and making him as comfortable as possible.

Now I understand, I know where the strength comes from.  What I didn’t understand before is that this strength is a gift, a gift from those who are dying, a gift from God, a gift to the caretakers.  And there is incredible beauty in serving those who can no longer help themselves, and this beauty outshines the mess.  Diane agrees with this, and we talk extensively about this later, and it is a lessen that we will both keep close to our hearts, and it is a bond that Diane and I will forever share, and a tribute to Debbie…

And bigger gifts are yet to come.  Out of this chaos, out of the confusion and mess, out of the biohazard and sterility, between the screams and the prayers, where all of these things stand side by side in the oncology wing of any hospital, somewhere between the hard cold facts of science and the comfort of bedrock faith, between biology and Spirit, somewhere between Life and Death, emerges a miracle…

Just after sunrise I awake from a brief sleep, sticking to the vinyl chair next to Debbie. When my eyes adjust and I shake off the exhaustion, I realize she is awake and smiling at me.  “Hi!” she chirps, with a little wave and that beautiful smile. I am shocked; where is the coma, the delirium?  Instantly any drowsiness disappears, and adrenaline puts every nerve ending on alert.

I hold Debbie’s hand and look deeply into her eyes; she is there.  We talk in hushed tones, with a respect reserved for sacred places.  The small talk is quickly replaced by heartfelt conversation.  I ask if she is okay; she is; if she is afraid; she is not.  She tells me she knows she is dying.  My memory retreats to the dark places that all couples who have shared 27 years have; I bring up a specific fight that I wish now I could take back.  She remembers and offers forgiveness before I can even ask.  I start bringing up another episode, but she squeezes my hand and stops me; I am forgiven for all my shortcomings.  But did I love her enough?  Her journey will be cut short, way too short, it is not fair, it wasn’t supposed to end this early and had we known would we have done things different?   Could we have loved each other more?

Deb stops me, tears streaming down my face, but hers still calm and peaceful and smiling.  She starts telling me about her best memories, the birth of our two sons and the pure pleasure she took in being a mom and raising them; we reminisce about some of the wild, out of control times with friends at bars and concerts; and we are suddenly whisked back to the perfect glow of a week without work and duty, where we laid in bed in our new house and made love the entire week, and just talked and read and only got up to do the bare minimum for Jake and then immediately rushed back into the comfort and peace of each other.  We gaze at each other like we did when we first met, when the spark and promise of love was all we needed. Mutual smiles, shared comfort, the tears are just tracks now, real, true forgiveness, real, true love, and peace, genuine genuine peace…

I know enough from my research and reading about death and dying to know what is happening here, and I know that this gift is not just for me.  I practically run through the hospital to find Diane, whisking her hurriedly into Deb’s room, and leaving just as quick, shutting the door behind me.  And I am working the cell phone frantically, getting people up here.

It is amazing, in hindsight, how everyone Deb wanted and needed to see was on their way.  Her sons, her mom and dad, both of her brothers, my mom and sisters, and they all arrived staggered but in perfect order, as if being guided by the Grand Organizer.  Everyone gets 20 or 30 minutes with Debbie; what gifts or goodbyes she gave them, what gifts they gave her, are I am sure forever etched in each other’s hearts.  But the way this morning played out, the perfectness and the organization and the heartfelt gifts and the peace and the love that happened in Room 6523 at Forbes Hospital in Monroeville PA – it was truly a miracle.

I have read extensively of these awakenings, from a scientific and medical perspective, and from a spiritual perspective.  They are not uncommon; in fact Kubler-Ross estimates that around 50% of the dying patients she has spent her life studying experience them.  We can measure increases in brain waves, in areas of the brain associated with beliefs and emotions, and there are changes in body mass and a rejuvenation that “normal” disease progress doesn’t allow.  Kubler-Ross cannot explain it any better than science, but she, a scientist and a spiritualist, is 100% sure that they are gifts from the dying, to the living, a comfort to those left behind.

Perhaps these souls have straddled the divide between death and eternal life, and know the comfort that awaits them – that explains their calm and serenity.  Yet they continue to want to comfort those that they love, they are hesitant to leave those that they will always love, those who will be left behind temporarily, even though they know where they are going is better.  So they muster up a reserve of spiritual strength that science cannot explain, to say goodbye, and to offer whatever gifts their recipients are willing to receive.

And so Debbie blessed us all one last time…

Can you sit closer?
I’m right here, my love
Now watch me pass over
I’m right here, my love
We did not give in and we did not give up
I’ll watch you cross over
I’m right here, my love

Deb’s awakening lasts only a few hours, soon she is tired and falls back into a semi-comatic sleep again, and the fire in her eyes from the morning does not return.  Deb does not get any better, but those of us around her have changed, we are calmer and even a bit refreshed.  But there is still so much work to do.

It is agreed that Debbie will be released in to hospice care and taken home.  This is what she wants, we all know it now.  As with anything involving hospital bureaucracy, it is a maze of confusion and phone calls and organizing that is herculean.  We are all on full alert now, and all the family members are around, and we are working as a team.

Getting Deb home is tough, and it hurts to see her carried into her house in such a frail condition by the beefy ambulance driver.  Of course Deb tries to make light of the situation, but the loss of strength is now a permanent feature that she has to consciously fight; when she does drift to sleep there is an uncharacteristic frown of exhaustion.

The confusion of being left alone at home, caring for a dying loved one, without any professional help until the morning, sets off a panic.  We have been given cryptic instructions for administering 6,000 types of medications all the way up to morphine, and we are unfamiliar with the oxygen machine and the hospital bed and the portable toilet and all monitoring all that needs monitored.

It is a MASH unit right after a battle at 210 Gibralter Drive, but we are here out of love for a spouse a sister a daughter a friend; once again out of this chaos Love rises.  Everyone’s strengths are utilized, and the curtain goes up between the family room and the dining room for privacy, and computers are fired up and spreadsheets emerge to chart the medications and the internet is humming on cell phones as we track which drug is which and when it should be administered and who can run to the store for more Ensure and pick up a pizza on the way, will you, and can someone make sure the boys are okay, I haven’t seen them all day and oh my god just a couple of hours ago we were all a mess but the Great Organizer has shown up again and after many frantic phone calls and very patient medical providers, there descends a sort of equilibrium over the Walko household as the last of the days’ light filters into night.  Enough organization that I am able to lie in a bed sometime after midnight, for the first time in a week , knowing that Debbie’s family is gathered close to her for the night.  We all get some very fitful but so needed rest, however brief, sleeping on leaky air mattresses and uncomfortable sofas and the too thin carpet.

In the morning the situation is not good.  Deb takes only a few sips of Ensure, and has not urinated in over a day; I know from the hospice folks what this means, and call them out first thing.  And indeed, the hospice worker confirms that the situation is dire, and we are instructed to keep the morphine up as needed.  Two hours, two days, two weeks – the timetable of passing will forever be a mystery.  Once again we are left to ourselves.

Later in the morning it is obvious that Debbie is entering the final stages of dying.  Every breathe is labored and uneven; she is not responsive.  We struggle with when and whether to give her more morphine.  Everyone is summoned.  And just like a few days before, when Debbie gathered everyone to say her last goodbyes, we are all gathered around her bedside.

Debbie’s hospital bed is in the middle of our living room, so there is room for everyone to circle her.  The room is bathed in light, from the sunlights and sliding glass door that leads out to the deck, to the designer window that looks out over the woods and is flooded in green.  White butterflies flit through the green, and it again is peaceful.

We are all together, Deb’s entire family, my entire family, but we also experience this separately.  Everyone reacts to this in their own way, the culminations of years of experiences and beliefs that are as different as fingerprints.  Some pray traditional prayers passed down for generations; others sit in silent reflection and personal prayer; some keep busy checking on the kids and taking care of everyone’s physical needs, which don’t abate even in these dire times. Some weep openly, others in silence.

But we share many things in common too.  We all want to hold on to Debbie, and the jockeying for position has reached a lineup that allows everyone access to touch Debbie.  Her mouth is now open and her eyes are partially rolled back into her head, and there is a quiet fear that has joined us, too; we don’t know when death actually occurs.

This is not my first experience with this moment.  When I was fifteen, on an early May evening, I had a feeling that I should not go to bed, despite it being a school night. Mom was okay with this for some reason.  And I went and sat next to my dying father, and I watched his breathes quit coming, and I watched what was left of him sink into the same type hospital bed as his soul left his cancer riddled body…

And now I am faced with the hardest part of the inevitable – do I bring the boys out to be with the mother as she passes?  It is a horrible dilemma, it is true torture.  I am so glad that I was with my father when he passed, but I was older; I don’t know how this will affect a 9 year old and a 12 year old.  I look around at the worried faces who are gathered around Debbie; I am kneeling, holding Deb’s hand, asking her what to do one last time, but she doesn’t answer.  I look up to the faces around me, pleading for help, pleading for advice – do I bring the boys out or not?  No one can help me, for there are no right answers; I must make these decisions on my own.  And although I don’t know it at the time, it is this precise dilemma that is the single parents’ greatest crisis, it is why we can’t sleep, why it is so hard – the decisions I make alone will affect my kids deeply.

I decide to talk honestly with Jake; I tell him his mom is dying.  Would he like to be there while she passes, or at least come and say goodbye?  Jake opts for the later, and kneels by his mom and says a prayer and tells her goodbye like he is telling her good night.  All of our hearts break…

Trevor is different; he is younger, he is more sensitive, he carries on Debbie’s gentleness and her big heart.  I truly do not know what to do with him.  I pray silently outside his door for a sign, for guidance. And when I enter his room he is asleep.  I decide this is a sign that he should not be there when mom leaves.  But I carry him out to see mom one last time, and again we say a prayer and he gives her one last kiss, and the scabs and scars of the heartbreak of just a few minutes ago when Jake said goodbye are torn open again in fresh agony.  It is the hardest thing I have ever done…

And then there is a long period where nothing happens.  Deb enters into a period of suspension between life and death, and nobody has any idea how long it will last or what we should do.  So we continue our vigil, waiting for signs.

And then Deb’s parents’ priest arrives.  His simple entrance breaks the pall, and his authority on these matters lifts everyone.  He is serious but not somber, and his faith that this is okay is comforting to all.  Especially to Debbie.  Last rites, given before, are given again, and we all join in prayers of the sacrament.

There is a sense that Debbie has been waiting for this.  But Father Joe knows that those gathered around are in need too.  His spirit is light, almost jovial – not what I expected.  After the sacrament, he even makes jokes, lightening the mood, trying to make everyone feel better, trying to make everyone happier.  Just like Debbie would have. Just the escort she was waiting for.

Debbie passes five minutes after Father Joe leaves…

I do not remember how I felt right then; I do not remember what went through my mind, what I felt in my heart.  It is like a dream again, and I am in a tunnel, and reality is at one end of that tunnel and the unknown at the other.  I am pulled in both directions at once, and caught in the middle, suspended in a state of disbelief.  I can hear crying and wails, and I think I am even making some of those sounds.  But it is like a scream that you cannot hear…

I don’t know how much time passes, a minute, five minutes, an hour, before I am pulled from the tunnel into reality.  From my knees, at Debbie’s bedside, I ask everyone for some privacy, for one last moment alone with my wife.

And the tears are unstoppable.

And my wails fill the house.

And the screams fill the space in everyone’s tunnel.

And it echos out into the yard and into the trees and the green, where the white butterflies fly.

And I hold her one last time, and I sit with her until the wails stop, until the tears are no more, until I have to let go…

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
Thunder and lightning
I’m right here, myl ove
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying

I’m right here, my love

The evening Deb died there was a spectacular sunset, and a cool breeze swept away the oppressive summer humidity that had added to the pressure of that week.  A line of thunderstorms had rushed through earlier, though we barely noticed. In its wake was a 15 degree temperature drop and a refreshingness that was palpable.

I sat on the bench that Deb and I made, in the yard that I have molded to my dad’s plans, looking at the house that Deb and I made into a home.  The days’ confusion is gone, thankfully.  It is a Sunday night.  No more coroners or medical supply people or pizza delivery persons; no more crying relatives and friends, all with the best intentions but also wrestling with and adding to the confusion.

Death is not an easy topic.  Dying is not something we like to discuss.  It is shrouded in sadness and pain, and mostly, fear.  And these are all appropriate, and necessary – for we all need to work through these issues, as we inevitably experience the death of loved one, and as we inevitably will experience our own death.

All of these emotions that we carry through the process of dying teach us something.  As I sit on the bench in the Evening’s Light, filtered through the trees, the cool breeze lifts up my spirit and carries me along with it.  I know, certainly, that this loss will hurt, it will hurt bad, and it will affect me in ways that I cannot even begin to fathom.  I know this will haunt my boys for the remainder of their days, and I know that so many special people, people that are so close to me and meant so much to Deb, I know they are hurting in ways that only they understand.

But there is a calm tonight, a calm that I cannot explain and that I certainly did not expect.  Perhaps it is because I am emotionally spent, spiritually carried through an adventure of epic proportions.  I am tired, exhausted, and completely hollow; I have nothing left.

But at this moment I do not need anything.  At this moment my boys are okay; they have constructed offerings and tributes to their mother that will forever touch my heart.  They are still kids and glimpses of still being kids as they play in the yard bring me strength.  And my sisters and I have said our prayers and constructed our own offering to Deb and her spirit; and it is good, the acknowledgement coming from the Spirit that flows through the cherry trees now, the wind that takes away our sadness, at least for this moment, the sound of only the leaves rustling and the sense that even though things change, it is all okay.

“If life was found to be agreeable, then so should death be. It comes from the hand of the same master.” – Michelangelo


I’M RIGHT HERE MY LOVE – written by Scott Miller, duet performed by Scott Miller and Patty Griffin

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
The unknown is frightening
I’m right here, my love
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying
I’m right here, my love

Can you taste my kiss?
I’m right here, my love
I wish life was endless
I’m right here, my love
But living costs something and pay it we must
But I will keep your kiss
I’m right here, my love

Can you feel me tremble?
I’m right here, my love
Does it feel like you remember?
I’m right here my love
The future’s assured in the pulse of our blood
I can feel you tremble
I’m right here, my love

Can you sit closer?
I’m right here, my love
Now watch me pass over
I’m right here, my love
We did not give in and we did not give up
I’ll watch you cross over
I’m right here, my love

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
Thunder and lightning
I’m right here, myl ove
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying

I’m right here, my love

Post Script – Jake and Trevor and I went downtown, by bus, in August, to Pamela’s, and to a baseball game, just like we planned.  And mom and mom’s hat went with us.  And the aroma of the world’s best pancakes and ballpark hot dogs and the laughter of children and the sound of life, beautiful life, floated on the summer breeze…


When faced by any loss, there’s no point in trying to recover what has been; it’s best to take advantage of the large space that opens up before us and fill it with something new.” – Paulo Coelho

Lightning flashes light up the woods and rocks in an eerie electric blue, but only for a second, the pitch darkness quickly returning like a thick heavy wet blanket, the thunder rolling through the hills and up my spine until the hair on my neck stands straight up in perfect posture.  The leaves scream in collective protest, like the roar of a crowd building and fading with each gust.  The wind tosses the trees, stretching them to their breaking point, and in the far off distance snaps and cracks tell of those pushed too far.  I am alone and small, just like the leaves, just like the animals that cower for shelter wherever they can.  We dig in, and steel ourselves to the storm as best we can…

And it passes.  Every storm runs out of rain, eventually…

After the storm, with the lighting and thunder receding into the distance far up the valley, visible and audible but no longer threatening, a light gentle rain settles over camp.  It creates a mesmerizing white noise, interspersed by the tick-tocking of larger drops as they collect on the leaves of the now-stilled trees and fall to the saturated earth with a plop when their gathering burden can no longer resist gravity.  Adrenaline is replaced by calm, even a weird serenity, that comes from weathering the storm.  I will be able to sleep now…

The gentle rain continues through the night, and into the morning, and the song played on the tent walls is the sweetest lullaby; true refreshment greets the gray light of morning.  Emerging from the tent, I am met by a whole new world of lush, lush wet, and green of every hue, a jungle bowing down to the life giving moisture.

The birdsong is charged this morning too.  It is not the joy and spark of a sunny day, but the confidence of survival, a confidence that banishes any vocal wavers and cracks to passing adolescence, replaced by the maturity of graduating the storm’s test.

These tiny creatures, with only lightweight feathers for protection, many weighing no more than a dime, tossed and turned in the tempest last night like the leaves and reeds, surely they are even more joyous than I for surviving the storm.  And this sense of gratitude permeates the entire forest, and it flows through me without effort, like the fog that connects the earth and the sky now…

Mystique is the main character this morning, accompanied by possibility.  Creation is possible, dreams are refreshed, life is renewed, life is gloriously alive, and we are here to take part one more day.  And for now it is calm, and I go forward with cautious confidence into the beauty and mystery and storms that lie in wait down that foggy, wooded path…

Caring Place Quilt Dedication Ceremony

“I am here for you,

You are here for me,

We are here for each other”

CP QuiltMay 19, 2013 – Grief to a child – it must be the most baffling emotion of all…

What wonderful and sacred work the Caring Place does!  I don’t know what the boys got out of our 12 weeks of time at the Caring Place, and its dividends may not be evident for years – but I am proud of them for their courage and hard work.  And our quilt square is beautiful, Debbie would be so happy hers is on a pink quilt! 

This day was an emotional train wreck for me, but we will probably all look back and smile someday at what we created, at what we shared, and at what we learned.

Big thanks to the dedicated, caring and genuine staff at the Caring Place, and to all the volunteers who give so selflessly of themselves to help those that are hurting…

The Quilt – by Kevin Sunderman

Memories squeezed from crushed

hearts, pieces picked out

of shattered lives, letters tickets

commendations photos dog

tags strips of fabric paintings

drawings writings feelings

toys keys medals hopes

papers names dreams

a single spent rifle shell in salute

fragments of lives once

shared shreds of a whole now

left behind in another hole placed


carefully tremblingly on small cloth

squares lives condensed

between four borders so much

there in such a small

space so much not there

or anywhere ever again giving

urgency to the task of careful

placement careful ironing

on of cloth careful sewing

closed some of the holes

in lives felt to be broken open

like fence after a stampede


families working intensely alone and

together with each other anyway

sharing thread sharing scrapes

sharing tables sharing

losses for which there’s

no practice no training

no preparation thrown in the deep

deep end and it’s sink or

swim and no going back to

start over and no chance to

choose a different course and

at least we can help

each other keep afloat


quilt squares created, lives once

lived poured into cotton pieces

assembled together into a memorial

to lives still living inside hearts

and souls and families bruised

but limping onward a memorial

quilt woven of pieces from each

of us to make a larger and

stronger whole:

We are that quilt, families

woven together into a larger and

stronger whole and each of

us will be part of each other

for the rest of our days knit

together in our loss and in our

hope a tribute to those

gone and a sign of life

continuing on

by Kevin Sunderman

Over-wrought , Overwhelmed

“I felt the kind of desperation, I think, than cancels the possibility of empathy…that makes you unkind.” – Sue Miller, While I Was Gone


The home phone hasn’t worked in months now.  Called the cable company a few weeks earlier, they said nothing is wrong on their end, which is good because I would have to take a precious vacation day to sit and wait for a service call “sometime between 9 and 2.”  Was told to get a new phone, so a trip to the store is added to my list.

There is no division of labor anymore for me, I have to do everything, including all the things that Deb used to do as a stay at home mom.  The problem is that ten hours of my day are not spent at home, but working, including travel time.  I just don’t have the time to do everything, and most days we eat dinner right before bed, if we eat at all.  The boys video chairs are surrounded by candy wrappers and empty Red Bull cans and boxes of cereal, the cat hasn’t been fed in days (which actually worked out because he at least ate the 2-day old puke that no one cleaned up), and the snake is now over a month without a mouse.

The pressure mounts; it’s not the big ticket items, like grief and big losses, that cause the most – there are support groups and sympathetic ears at the ready if you need a shoulder to sob on for those big things.  No, it’s these little things, like a phone that doesn’t work, the Easter baskets still not put away, the piles of clothes that never get put away, the dripping shower, all the dozens of little things, things that are small and easy to fix, if you have the time, that really add up, that build to the crushing weight.  No one wants to lend a shoulder to hear you bitch about a thousand little things.  I don’t blame them either, and frankly, I would get sick of hearing it too – but that is what the single parent’s day consists mainly of, these things undone…

So Friday night I had to leave work early because the home phone is still not working and neither of the boys would answer their cell phones, and nobody answered the door when I sent a neighbor over.  I figured they were fine, and they were, they were outside, believe it or not.  But I’m not getting enough done at work – there are thousands of things left undone at work – and that means I will now have to somehow find time this weekend to make up the work – my big presentation is Wednesday and I am far from ready.  Add it to my list.

So I bring home the new phone and plug it in and it doesn’t work; I yell at the kids to fix the phone problem, they supposedly of the technologically gifted generation.  But that is as useless as talking to the cable company about my phone.  My kids are completely helpless and lazy, the product of a stay at home mom who did EVERYTHING for them and has now left them, completely dependent on me.  The anger rises…

I just wanted to come home and plant some trees that I bought earlier in the week, enjoy the remainder of another beautiful day that is again sacrificed to duty, maybe even enjoy the sunset, or catch a bit of the Penguins game and a beer while lounging on the couch a bit later.  The phone situation steals an hour from that plan…

And also of course, as usual, none of the boys’ chores are done.  So I set Jake to mowing (he was supposed to do it Thursday) and of course he is doing a crappy half assed job, and throws the mower down and breaks it.  And a huge fight erupts, yelling and screaming and cursing for the whole neighborhood to hear and threatening to kill each other, and I truly just want to fly away and never come back and go somewhere where there aren’t any kids and the constant “dad dad dad” that follows me like a tormentor, where there are no unreasonable deadlines and constant pressures to do more quicker and faster and better with all new systems all the time and everything in my job changes all the time, I want to go somewhere where the phones work and the house isn’t falling apart and needing constant maintenance and upkeep, and where the dishes and the laundry and the homework do themselves, and where, after a long long week of literally four consecutive 18 hour days because of work and kid crap in the evenings, where I can just come home on a Friday evening and relax a bit and plant some trees and dig my fingers in the ground and enjoy my first moments of relaxation and non- rushing and sunshine all week, that is all I wanted…

But instead we fight.

Single parenting IS the hardest job ever, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, friend or foe.  And no one understands that – except other single parents.  And we are not allowed to bitch about it – except to other single parents.  And everyone around us is sick of us complaining about it…because mostly we complain about these little things, and they don’t understand why, it’s not that bad…

But nobody understands what it is like to go over a year without a full night’s sleep, to constantly do a half-assed job on everything because you just don’t have the time to do things right, including making vital decisions that affect my kids well being.  Who knows the ramifications of my sleep deprived decisions now?  Who knows what unknown damages I am inflicting on them because I don’t even have the time and energy to take care of myself, let alone needy kids?  Who knows whether tonight’s fight will be brought up again some time in the future as it’s recounted to a counselor? Some kids come from privilege and wealth and every opportunity and two parents, and they still grow up to a mess.  And some kids come from disadvantages far worse than having only one parent and grow up fine.  Who’s to know what is important and when???  Certainly not the stressed out single parent…

So we keep plodding along, us single parents, doing the best we can.  Some days it seems fine, it seems like maybe we can do this.

And some days the wheels completely fall off and the whole world seems it is crashing down, like tonight.

Tonight is a low water mark, a breaking point for me.  Tonight I cannot do this.  I am killing myself trying to do everything and getting only 4 or 5 hours of sleep each night.  I have reached my depths, and something has to give…

Tonight I just want to cry, to throw in the towel, yell “no mas”, walk away, lock myself in my room and sleep for 100 hours, maybe forever, or at least until this weariness, this chest-crushing weariness, this zombie inducing haze of too much all the time, the over-wroughtness of over-responsibility, until it all goes away, sleep until it is all gone or at least until a fairy godfather takes care of everything for an extended period of time so that you can rest, and even crosses a few things off the ever growing to-do list (like the shower that has been dripping for three months or getting the phone working again), maybe even become human again, and remember what it is like to see and think clearly again, not rushed and hassled, and maybe even have some extended leisure time that is measured in hours not minutes and that doesn’t end with jumping right back in to the pressure cooker again, and maybe, just maybe, even having some extended time just for you…

And on top of this, Sunday we are supposed to go to the Caring Place, for a quilt making ceremony to honor mom.  I do not want to go.  We just did a very emotional and heavy tribute to mom last weekend at the Race for the Cure, and I have not emotionally recovered from that (because I have no time to address grieving issues) and right now I am so pissed at Deb that I want to explode.  She up and leaves and moves on to betterness and happiness, while I am left in hell…not fair that we go honor her, again, while I’m left picking up all the goddamn pieces at the base of an insurmountable mountain…

I don’t know what else to do except keep moving forward, even as my kids grades fall because I don’t have the proper time to work with them and help them with their homework, as they almost burn the house down because the 9-year old is hungry after school and tries to cook instead of waiting for dad to feed him when I get home at 7 o’clock, even as they miss half of the activities in school because I just can’t be at two places at once, even as their hearts break because they don’t have a mom on Magnificent Muffins with Moms day and they ask to go in late that day but dad has to drop them off early because he’s got an early conference call, even as son #2 is the worst pitcher on his team because I just don’t get home early enough to practice with him in the daylight, even as my kids are wearing shoes a size too small or don’t have a proper fitting coat in the winter because I don’t have time to go shopping, even as their old man falls sound asleep in their band and chorus concerts, because he is just bone tired, completely exhausted, and has absolutely nothing left in the tank…I just want to run away…

But as much as I want to run away – I won’t, at least not yet.  Maybe I will quit my job on Monday.  I don’t know what else to do.  I am exhausted, totally exhausted, haven’t had any extended time off since Christmas and the few vacation days I did take were mostly to get chores done.  But patterns need broken now; clearly we cannot go on like this…

I think back to the previous Friday night, when I finally got home, just as exhausted and just as in need of some down time.  I just wanted to sit on the couch for a while – but the boys reminded me that I promised to take them to Carnival night at the school…sigh…

Respite will not be arriving anytime soon, I know that.  And most nights I can dig a little deeper; most nights I can peel myself off the couch after only five minutes of rest, the first time since 5 am that I’ve sat down, and get up and go to Carnival night, and things are okay.  But I am worried about the nights where I get home and pick a fight because I am just at rope’s end, and the exhaustion just seems insurmountable…

Run Forest Run


Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live. – Robert Kennedy



The bird song in the dark tells me dawn is not far away, a reminder that the longer brighter days of spring are here.  After a long hard winter, a time of renewal.  And it is warm this morning, t-shirt and shorts; it is freeing.

It feels so good to run.  Yes I have a busy hectic challenging day in front of me, but running clears my head and prepares me mentally for the day.  And at this glorious time of day, when the world is shared with only birds and my thoughts, everything truly does seem okay.

But at AE O’Block Junior High, in the burgeoning daylight, the flag is at half mast.  It stops me in my tracks.  So caught up in my own traumas that I forget the horrible events of the previous day, until this powerful reminder…

I cannot comprehend.  Can anybody?

But I do understand that people are in pain now, incomprehensible, shocking, how-can-this-be pain.  To varying degrees we are all shocked and saddened, for it is not a stretch to think that it could have been us or a dear loved one in that wrong place at the wrong time.

But we were not.  We are still here, for reasons that just as incomprehensible.  We are alive, and we have no choice but to keep moving; despite the pain, despite the fact that it feels like the world should have stopped.  We go on.  It is our duty to life.  And even on tragic days, life is still beautiful, the birds still sing, and the sky is still painted pink behind the stars and stripes at half mast.

So run.  Keep running.  Stunned and saddened, but still moving.

And on days like these, when it requires extra effort, reach down deep…

The entire inside of my right thigh is still black and blue and yellow from a severe muscle tear suffered weeks ago when I thought I could still squat like I used to in college.  I could barely walk for a while.  I should not be running this morning.

But I am alive.  I am moving again.  I am running.  I am healing…


As a mark of respect for the victims of the senseless acts of violence perpetrated on April 15, 2013, in Boston, Massachusetts, by the authority vested in me as President of the United States by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, I hereby order that the flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff until sunset, April 20, 2013.  – Barack Obama

On Golden Pond

“ ”Healing,” Papa would tell me, ”is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing nature.” ” – W. H. Auden

Keystone Sunrise

Morning in the woods.  The first sounds are the sweet warblings of robins, still distant and dreamlike as they shake off the cobwebs of slumber, as if heard coming from the end of a distant tunnel.  Soon cardinals join, then a song sparrow, and more robins; the chorus grows louder, the end of the tunnel much nearer; it’s an official invitation to join the celebration of dawn.  I cannot resist, and willingly trade the warm comfort of my sleeping bag for the promise of first light.

I stand outside my tent in the lightening pre-dawn, my frozen breath like steam from a locomotive, but insulated from the cold by a layer of down, same as the birds.  The chorus is a cacophony now, with phoebe’s phoebe-ing, grackles growling, red-winged blackbirds croaking and red-bellied woodpeckers trilling their shivered “brrrrrrrr.”  There is a buzzing in the forest, an excitement; after a long cold winter, it is official – spring can no longer be denied!

A hundred paces from camp is a lake, and I sit on its rocky shore as the horizon to my right glows brighter.  It has been too long since I have sat and enjoyed such a morning, my life turned upside down and inside out and then tossed into the dryer tumbler.  But I feel I’m out of the dryer now, still woozy and a bit disoriented, but at least on my own two feet and on solid ground.

A kingfisher rattles by and alights on a nearby branch.  She flies awkwardly, in undulating fits and starts, almost workmanlike, and certainly not gracefully; and even when perched her head seems exaggerated by her crest and her bill too bulky and long.  I too have felt so awkward in so many of my new roles, getting done what needs done workmanlike and through a sheer force of will, but longing for the day when there might be a bit of grace in what I do.

And there is a sense this morning that this grace is coming.  Maybe it is already here, and I’ve just been too busy to notice as it seeps up into my being through the unavoidable immersion of just doing, and lately, of acceptance.  Just as water fills the molecular gaps in a sponge when simply given enough time; you can’t see it happening but eventually the sponge is heavy with water and the puddle is gone.

Suddenly the kingfisher throws herself from the branch, letting gravity accelerate her plunge.  Her heavy bulky beak leads, pierces the air aerodynamically, accentuated by her crest thrown back and wings folded into the perfect diving machine, an Audubon painting come alive.  Her beak pierces the water surface silently, skillfully, perfectly, the ker-plunk of her wings coming too late to warn the minnow whose tail now wiggles in her beak as she emerges from the water and flies off directly into the rising sun.  A king fisher indeed!  There is no awkwardness at all as she demonstrates her grace in doing what a kingfisher does best.

The sun breaks the horizon and the lake surface is painted gold, the puffy clouds pink.  It is mostly overcast today except for the window where the sun is rising.  I am grateful for the gift, and the warmth of gratitude is better than even my comfy sleeping bag.  I reflect that I have so much to be thankful for…

My boys are sleeping comfortably in the tent, little Trevor’s mouth open and nose upturned, his head poking out of his sleeping bag, and messy-haired Jake, my budding young man, nestled deep in his bag.  They are so adorable when sleeping, and bring me a reminder of the pure joy of them sleeping on my chest when they were just peanuts.

We have had a rough adjustment at times, this new family of all boys, and only through (often painful) trial and error have we arrived at this new level of comfort and respect – and yes, love! – that we have all enjoyed on this camping trip.  Trevor wormed and shimmied his way into my arms in the middle of the night, spooning into the perfect position until we both enjoyed our shared warmth and comfort in the cold dark night.  And Jake, my firstborn, has taken on a new role of helping me and a responsibility that I didn’t see coming, and for which I am truly appreciative; he even returned my embrace and hugs as we sang and danced around the campfire at night as Trevor lit up the woods in an explosion of light fueled by armfuls of dried leaves.  Joy!!!

Last night we also enjoyed the ultimate campfire comfort food of smores, made the way they are supposed to be made, with white goo oozing out of a blacked marshmallow shell dangling from the end of a whittled stick, graham cracker and chocolate claws pinching it into the sweetest sandwich.  They were brought to camp last night by angels, and my boys lit up enjoying them, as if some small void they didn’t even know they missed had been filled and they suddenly remembered how good it can be.

It’s these little things, these special treats, these little motherly touches, that have been missing most from my boys’ lives as I have struggled to piece things back together these past nine months.  They are truly missing the caring, nurturing feminine touch.

But now I get timely reminders to put a “love you” note in Trevor’s lunch and a “don’t forget to thank Jake for doing something on his own” reminders.  I have been trying to stretch beyond my masculine limitations, if only for the boys; they still need it.  But it has been a hard adjustment that still doesn’t come naturally to me; but it is here now, and it has made a world of difference.

Ear to ear smiles and hearty laughter from the kids lighten the night woods; and these kids deserve all the smiles they can get, after the hell they have endured.  It warms my heart more than the campfire.  Do angels really come down from heaven?  I don’t know.  But I do that so many miracles have blessed my life, even now, even if they are just simply these special precious ordinary moments that I thought would never return…

The morning sun shimmers and shakes on the water and wakes me from my prayerful reminiscing and mediation.  A speck on the water catches my attention, demanding a closer view through my binoculars.  What, can it be?  I have to adjust the lenses for a clearer look.  Wow, it is a sleek, beautiful striking black and white bird that bobs on the lake, a silky black neck broken by two slashes of white and black ladders and a speckled white and black back – a common loon in fresh, just painted spring plumage!

The bird is anything but common, if you take the time to look closely.  It’s beak is a lot like the kingfishers, designed for spearing fish, and the profile of this bird on the water is like a submarine on the surface – in fact when it senses danger its ballast chamber fills with water and its body sinks effortlessly until only its heads remains above water in pre-dive readiness, its beak pointed upward at a 60 degree angle like a skewed periscope.  But even from here I can tell that the loons’ grace lies under the water, where it swims like a fish and so much more cunningly and gracefully than it flies or walks.

For this romanticized human, though, a loons’ grace comes from the visions I’ve had of spying on these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat, at home on a wooded Maine lake, their primeval yodeling calls the essence of wildness.  Perhaps I would be in a canoe in their company, silently cutting the early morning fog, or perhaps I would be sitting quietly on the shore, as I am now, having just emerged to greet the day from a Walden Pond cabin after a night of Thoreuavian contemplation.  The difference between my dream and this reality is blurred now, though, for the loon is just as spectacular on this manmade lake on its migration route as it will be in the northern woods.  Maybe the vision is more important than the details and the dream, and maybe I just need to be more open to the gifts the universe is sending right now.  Again gratitude keeps me warm…

When the loon is finally forced into the depths and shadows by the growing number of fishermen, I head back to camp.  A pileated woodpecker, black and white with a red crest, king of the hardwood forest, drums loudly on the hillside.  And a colony of yellow-bellied sapsuckers is frolicking in the shagbark hickories that surround our camp.  Woodpeckers are one of the few families of birds whose common names reference the belly, like the red-bellied woodpeckers that are working the tulip trees two camps over, as their bellies and back are prominently displayed when you live the vertical existence of a tree climber.  And again the sapsuckers are mostly black and while birds, with a slight yellowish belly, certainly not nearly as striking as the scarlet red crest and throat that the males wear and the feature the birds should have been named after.

The birds are creating quite the stir, and if you close your eyes it would not be a stretch to think you are in the jungle.  In fact Trevor calls out from the tent, “god, what is making all that noise, a bunch of monkeys?”  The commotion rousts him from the tent, and he joins me for some breakfast of butter fried toast, oatmeal, granola bars and camp coffee.

We watch the sapsuckers in the morning light, so much more entertaining that video games or tv (my opinion only!)  Trevor tells me he loves the morning sounds of others making camp, pots clanking and utensils rubbing and the low hum of conversation punctuated by occasional laughter, while in the dreamlike state of just awakening, when not fully conscious but not longer asleep.  We share a conversation on whether it’s better to have the dinosaurs return to the modern world or to be fried in a nuclear explosion; it’s the kind of conversation you can only have with a nine-year old, and I know to file this away in my gratitude folder.  For my part I’ll take the dinosaurs back, for to paraphrase Edward Abbey, wouldn’t it be great to see a T. Rex rearing its head above the Central Park elms with a Morgon police horse in its jaws?  Peace laughter and joy, and good company and burnt bread and bad coffee and sapsucker monkeys and glorious sunshine!

Before breaking camp I walk the garbage down to the bin.  A little past it is a field, next to the lake, and it draws me to it.  Swirling above the field and lake are just returned from their southern wintering grounds blue-green iridescent tree swallows.  Occasionally their iridescent backs catch the sun and throw back a shiny dark blue or violet green.  Their acrobatics are enthralling, and I watch spellbound.  I remember my youthful imagination, discussing with friends what bird I would be if I could be any bird I wanted; swallows were always on my short list, because of the sheer glee they seem to exhibit when flying and twirling and chattering.  I’d still take my turn at being a swallow if given the chance, and on magical days like this, you can’t completely rule it out…

Jake is already trading in his childhood fancies for more practical matters (mostly girls!), and T will be soon too.  I hope I can get them through the inevitable rough waters ahead as best I can.  I hope Jake remembers chasing his brother through the woods for the sheer joy of it, because no one is around and he doesn’t have to be cool or pretend to be what he thinks the world expects him to be; he will have more than enough of these times in the near future.  And I hope he remembers singing around the campfire with his dad.

I hope Trevor keeps his vision of dinosaurs romping through a park alive, in the back of his memory, sparked on a quiet camping trip of own someday.  I hope it brings him warmth too, for those days when the world casts doubt into him.  And I hope sapsucker monkeys will wake him from slumber someday, and the taste of smores and smell of burning leaves will bring him back to this magical day.

I hope that both my boys will continue to have angels to watch over them, both the ones with wings and the ones with boots and special treats, and I hope that they will never be too old to suggest a camping trip with their old man…

And if they are lucky enough, I hope that they find their own angel to walk beside them and share some campfire smores and a walk in the evening woods, and I hope they learn to appreciate these golden moments as much as I do now…

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.” – John Muir