Valentine’s Day 1997

We held the viewing on Valentine’s Day, a cold and rainy night. **People came dressed for dinner, a night out, champagne and chocolate. Some filed through quietly, paid their respects to my parents and slipped out the door with their umbrellas. And then in the middle of the background easy-listening Christian hymn music, a cry would go up from the front of the room, a sob that couldn’t be held back.

My brother in the casket, waxy, pale despite the make-up, his short Marine buzz cut spiky with gel. I ran my fingers over it, the black stitches holding his scalp together blending into his hair. You could see where the coroner had used the saw to remove part of the skull, to see what damage his brain had sustained. The coroner’s report read “massive head trauma.” I was surprised he looked this good.

I was angry with the people in their fine clothes, the anticipation of a romantic evening after this duty. Numb and tired from crying, from helping my mother choose a casket. Angry with the funeral home director for trying to sell her a casket she couldn’t afford. The fabric was nicer, made of steel, blah, blah, blah. And I looked at him and asked, what’s the point; it’s getting buried six feet under. You pay more money for a casket that will keep the body from decaying for a longer period of time? And you make more money as a result. That’s disgusting.

My mother pleaded with me to be nice. No, I have no more nice left in me. Bury me in the dirt and let the critters of the earth do their job on me or burn me to ashes and scatter me to the wind; don’t waste your money on this artificial finery. I just wanted to sink into sleep, a long, long nap and when I woke from this dream I could go on with my life as it was before. Not this constant, nagging ache, this realization every morning before I could even open my eyes that something was desperately wrong and out of sync, what was it? Oh yes, now I remember. I don’t want to remember, I want to go back to sleep. But that awareness pulled me into the days and weeks ahead. And still, it remains.

** Editor’s note: My mom finally read this and told me it wasn’t raining that night. The whole week from the accident to burial was beautiful, clear and crisp. I remember the clear weather on Feb. 15 at the gravesite, but for some strange reason, I remembered it as raining the night of the 14th. So, a good reminder in memoir work…sometimes it may be wise to check with others who shared an experience. They have different memories of the emotions, events, whatever, but these little details aren’t subjective. Mom says I need to send stuff to her for fact checking now!

Last chance

14 years ago today…

I held the phone, helpless. The woman on the other end pleaded with me to ask my mother just one more time to consider donating the healthy organs of her 23-year-old son. Strong heart of a Marine in training, lungs for running, kidneys for two, corneas to see. I’ll do my best, I promised.

But mom couldn’t bear the thought of breaking apart his body even more than it had been by the impact of his skull against the steel side of a van. Motorcycle helmets can only do so much. How many lives were waiting for that last chance that a mother’s anguish could not see light to give?

If you were to die unexpectedly, do your loved ones know your wishes? Are you an organ donor? Have you had this discussion?

Praying for lumpy breasts

Dropping things, nervous, hands shaking, stomach knotted. Do my breasts hold small insidious killer cells or are they just “lumpy”? I may not have always been happy with their size—too small I’ve sometimes complained. But they swelled with pride and milk when they nourished my babes—giving them life, rosy cheeks and strong bodies.

They don’t bounce obnoxiously when I run for miles and miles. They still stand alert, at attention, when a brisk cold wind blows or a kiss is planted along my neck. I treasure them, with their little stretch marks that tell stories, like lines on a palm. They will never sag to my waist like two tennis balls in tube socks as one friend once described hers—the same woman who found killer cells. She’s okay now, with two perky breasts sculpted under a surgeon’s knife. I’d prefer to keep these breasts, imperfect though they may be, the surface sensitive to touch, nipples with neurons intact. In this waiting room, I’m praying for lumpy breasts.

 

A perfect Sunday…

walnut grove

Up before dawn, we picked up Peet’s coffee and a bag of Noah’s bagels and hit the road. Exploring north for a photo project, following instinct and a hunch. Dense fog along the Sacramento River, farmlands and orchards. Winter’s chill giving way to sun in the afternoon. Knights Landing, Colusa, Robbins, Rumsey, Guinda—towns with quiet Sunday mornings.

Mary’s chapel and cemetery

Homesteader cemeteries—babies dead before they could walk, sons lost in the two world wars, wives gone in childbirth. A few headstones of those who lived long enough to witness horse-drawn wagons give way to Fords, to hold grandchildren on their knees and pass along a farmer’s hunch of what to expect come spring.

Farmhouse in foreclosure

A sprawling farmhouse off a levee road, fallow fields to the north and hundreds of rose bushes carefully planted to the south. Nobody left to roll marbles across the warped wood floors. A foreclosure sign tacked to a Mediterranean blue front door. Orange trees lining the drive dropping fruit to rot and mold on the damp ground. The stories these walls must hold, lives begun and ended, hopes and dreams born and dashed.

Old barn in foreclosure

Old bridge over floodplain at base of Sutter Buttes

Past walnut orchards, old bridges and fields. Geese honking through the fog, egrets perched on the levee’s edge. Putah creek, Cache Creek, Sacramento river, the base of Sutter Buttes, the ridges of the coastal range. Driving till dusk, our eyes full of this land of plenty.

Tacos from Roberta’s Taqueria in Colusa–YUMM!!

Oaks framing Sutter Buttes
dormant orchard
Old truck in Rumsey, CA
Cache creek from old Rumsey bridge
Three billy goats gruff