Thirty Years


Thirty years ago today, life as I knew it ended. The last night of my childhood was frosty and silent. A deep cold that settled into bones.

Today I sat down and read grandma’s final diary: October 9 – November 28, 1983. It’s the same as all of her diaries, an accounting of comings and goings and meals and TV shows. But this one is the end of the story, which is hard to read.

Grandma hadn’t been able to breathe properly for months. She got short of breath, then panicky, which made it worse. Her doctor sent her for all the tests and eventually put it down to her “general state” (body destroyed by cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation). She got an oxygen tank and a prescription for Librium.

I don’t remember doing it, but in grandma’s final diary she mentions me giving her oxygen on several occasions. I was still technically living with my grandparents, but I spent less and less time there. I didn’t like seeing grandma sick and weak and miserable, so I stayed at my mom’s apartment until it was nearly time for bed most days. A couple of weeks before her death, grandma writes that “Kitty doesn’t care if she sees me at all.” Of course I cared. It was just too hard.

She writes that I “did everything” for myself in the morning on several occasions. I think this means I toasted a pop tart and brushed my own hair. She hated not being able to do things for me. On October 20, she writes,”Got up this morning — couldn’t breathe — panicked — couldn’t finish getting dressed — Kitty did everything for herself — told her I loved her — she got up + hugged me.”

On October 29, she opens her diary entry with the closest thing to a prayer I’ve ever heard from her: “I wish I could stop feeling so horrible — help me to get through this. Please.”

She didn’t think she was dying — that’s clear from reading her final diary. She was scared and miserable, but she believed there was a future. She was going to Spokane to get her lavender chemo injections, which she was tolerating well. Her blood counts were good. She just couldn’t breathe. Or sleep. Or eat.

November 28 is the last entry. Her last sentence is a bit mysterious: “I have to stop. Something to do with nerves — I suppose.” The following page is dated “Tues. Nov. 29, 1983” and the day’s astrological squiggles are drawn into the top margin as usual, but the page is blank.

On November 30, 1983 I went home to grandma’s toward bedtime as usual. She was sitting at the kitchen table in her chair where she did her late night reading and writing. She hadn’t been out of bed much, so it was rare to see her sitting. My uncle had made custard, and I helped her eat a small serving. She couldn’t really eat more than a few bites of anything.

I got up to go to bed, and she said, “give grandma a kiss.” This wasn’t a typical request, but I kissed her soft cheek. Even as sick as she was, she smelled of face powder and jasmine. I don’t remember whether I told her I loved her that night.

She woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t breathe. Grandpa Frank was there, trying to help her, but her heart gave up.

And now it has been 30 years. Grandma has come back into my life this year, in the form of diaries. It’s weird, her writing in 1983 is not very different from 1942. At 16 she was longing for her love, and in 1983 she was longing for her life. In both cases there was a strong sense of why me? Indeed, why?

There was a lot of unhappiness in her life from the very beginning. But there was still joy. There was the summer of Zip, and the elation of first love. There were her camera and her watercolors, and the peace she found creating art. There were holidays and grandkids. Her rituals of Christmas decor and present wrapping. There were the Sunday drives and the meals in diners. Even when she was sick and dying that October she stopped to note “a pretty blue and gold October day.”

I’ll never really get over the shock of that morning 30 years ago when she was just… gone. But her words survive, and I’m glad that I can still get to know her a little better.


Letters from Zip


I admit it, when I got a packet of photocopied letters from my grandma’s first love on my birthday last weekend, I was a bit giddy. I’ve been transcribing grandma’s diary from 1942, and thereby living through the terrible longing for Zip… for letters from Zip… for anything Zip. I felt like — FINALLY — the letters from Zip had arrived.

What I’ve missed — in reading grandma’s 16-yo obsession with Zip — is Zip’s voice. I could never tell from grandma’s diary whether he was really interested. She certainly didn’t think so. She doubted him and hated herself, said she was jinxed.

Zip was not exactly the master of romantic prose, but he was less of an oaf than I had imagined. Each letter is signed “Love, Bob” and implores grandma to write soon.

When love is interrupted by things like war — and lovers are forced apart, unable to consider any kind of future — there can be a lot of emotional static. Does he really like me? Will he ever write again? Will he live through the war? It’s a kind of sweet torture. Intense longing riddled with doubts.

It’s painful to read the longing from both sides, especially when grandma was so certain he didn’t really like her at all…

GRANDMA (Nov 23): “I love him + miss him so much — guess he likes me a little or he wouldn’t write at all — but maybe he’s just doing it cause he said he would — oh — but I just love him — Probably writes to Phyllis all the time — she couldn’t think so much of him as I do tho”

ZIP (Nov 24): “I sure was glad to get your note. That was cute stationery. I miss you too. But will see you again. If you care… If you haven’t anything to do wish you would write bout six times a day, well maybe just once if you still love me, or did you ever?”

GRANDMA (Nov 27):  “I miss Zip so much! — he probably writes to half a dozen other girls + I hate to be the only one who really likes him when he likes them all — specially that Phyllis bag!! — Wrote a letter to Zip to-nite — (said he misses me — but he’ll see me again — if I care) — he knows darn well I do!”

ZIP (Nov 27): “Well as I lay here in my bunk thinking of you it’s raining like hell! Oh I hate this dam weather… I bet right now there’s a dozen Slys or that kind of dopes in your house… Seems as though I’m thinking of you a lot. If I don’t get some letters soon I’ll stop writing letters to you for good. You probably don’t care — you can have more time to sleep.”

GRANDMA (Dec 6):  “I wrote another letter to Zip — I printed it — went to bed — what a life — I’m just jinxed — I just love Zip — but there’s so many other girls where he is — he’ll probably stop writing to me + just write to Phyllis — I despise her — ugh!! — They played ‘At Last’ in the show and I almost cried — just makes me so lonesome.”

ZIP (Dec 12): “I just received your letter and card. I can’t remember when I have received anything so nice and thoughtful. I sure wish I had been to the dance the other night at Black Diamond. We sure would have had fun… I sure look forward to your letters. No kidding.”

GRANDMA (Dec 14):  “guess Zip quit writing me letters — course to Phyllis or somebody — that’s probably different — don’t think he gets mine — oh well — he wouldn’t care if he did or not — wish he did tho.”

ZIP (Dec 22): “I don’t know where you get the idea I don’t like you a lot. Because if I didn’t I wouldn’t write or enjoy getting letters from you so much. So you regret going out with me eh. Well I don’t blame you. I’ll bet you have fun just the same.”

GRANDMA: (Dec 27): “I hope I get a litter from Zip tomorrow (letter not litter — but I wouldn’t mind a litter of letters from him)”

ZIP (Dec 28): “You sure are lousy on sending letters. I thought you were going to write often.”

GRANDMA: (Dec 28): “I suppose Zip stopped writing letters — to me but of course not to other girls.”

ZIP (Dec 29): “I’ll take a drink for you on New Years and be thinking of you. I would like to be in P.A. on New Years. We could sure have fun… You know something. I guess I write to you as much or more than anybody.”

GRANDMA (Dec 31): “I won’t even say happy New Year. It couldn’t be. I love Zip.”

Musings on Mortality, Mindfulness, and Meaning

IMG_3334We’re all going to die. Today 50 people died in a plane crash in Russia. Most likely none of them expected to die today. They were idly anticipating a dreary airport and lost luggage — maybe a reunion with someone waiting below. And then something went terribly wrong.

We all secretly expect to go on living, to wake up again tomorrow. Maybe people whose bodies are closing down shake off that expectation in order to accept the inevitable. I’ve watched both of my parents face that moment, organs failing, drifting further and further from the selves they’d created. Mom got a reprieve, but Dad didn’t. Neither of them expected to get cancer in their fifties. And then something went terribly wrong.

Most people have probably seen friends and relatives die earlier than expected. I can’t say I was lucky to have the person closest to me (my grandmother) wither before my eyes and die of cancer when I was twelve years old, but it prepared me for a lot that would come later, in a way. I don’t know if anything can prepare you for certain tragedies, but getting that hard slap in the face early in life braced me for just how terrifying and fleeting and uncertain life can be.

I’ve watched friends go through cancer, dangerous surgeries, near-fatal accidents, and rare drug reactions. One good friend was beaten to death by teenagers for no reason (boredom). A co-worker from my first job went down in the Pacific Ocean in a plane crash along with his new fianceé. Someone I knew and liked — the mother of a brand new baby girl — spent months on a breathing machine before she died from aforementioned drug reaction.

Wow. this may be the most depressing blog post ever… It gets better, I promise!

Staring mortality in the face tends to trigger a quest for meaning. Being somewhat depressive and world weary, I used to tend toward the “there is no meaning” camp — when I was young. Now I look at meaning differently. It’s not a Big Question, and there is no big answer. There’s not something I’m supposed to do, nor is there any mandate that I accomplish Something Big before I die. Putting that kind of expectation on myself only leads to misery.

Meaning, for me, today, is this: I am alive right now. I am experiencing this singular moment with this singular consciousness in this living/ dying body. And that is enough. It’s more than enough. It’s amazing.

Meaning is connection, communication, love. Sometimes I feel disconnected and lonely. But I’m never really disconnected or alone. I can pick up a book (or send a text, or open a web browser, or walk to the neighborhood bar or — heaven forbid — make a phone call) and find instant connection. And love is always right here, if I pay attention. It doesn’t come from someone else in a one-way transaction… it flows through us, in all directions.

Ok. My secret inner hippie is showing now. My Mom had a much-highlighted copy of Be Here Now when I was a kid (probably still does), but it took me a few decades to catch on. Ten years ago — in my early thirties — I was just beginning to gain some self-confidence. It had taken me the previous decade to get over the trauma of all the Bad Things that had happened and the conviction that I was doomed. DOOMED.

But then more Bad Things happened. Parents with cancer. Divorce. Economic downturns and lost jobs (four times!). Dead pets (my ex and I had many pets… they all predictably died). Difficult relations with men. A totaled car. Poor decisions about drugs and alcohol and money. Debt.

I quit drinking for a while. I started doing more yoga and reading about Buddhism and brain chemistry. And I’ve started to Be Here Now a bit more. Slowly. And not always successfully.

My birthday is coming up next weekend. Forty-two. This doesn’t seem as old as it would have ten or twenty years ago, when youth seemed to have a hard stop at forty. That’s the world I grew up in. Women, especially, turned forty and were suddenly old ladies. Some of my closest friends are in their late forties/ early fifties. And they’re not old! I’m pretty comfortable with my age.

But birthdays in your forties are inevitably reminders that this life is probably halfway over, if all goes well. And all doesn’t usually go well. If I died today, I’d feel like I was unfinished (let’s just assume that I can both be dead and feel, for simplicity’s sake). I have things to do, things to learn, relationships to build, and Bad Things to shake off.

The inimitable Doris Lessing passed away at 94. She lived a life I would be proud to have lived (with maybe a slightly different hairdo). If I have the luck to live that long, will I be proud of the life I’ve lived? Mistakes were made, surely, but, at the end of the day, did I do good? Did I make something of value? Did I spread love and joy?

This kind of self-questioning is valuable, I think, in terms of course-correcting. It’s not very good for Being Here Now, though. Fretting about the future or mulling over the past are the paths to unhappiness. Those are some lofty expectations, and I’m just a flawed human. I’m smart and kind and competent and strong. But flawed.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably alive. You also have an amazing attention span. This is one long, dreary piece of writing. Thanks for reading.

So, you’re alive. Stop for a minute and just take that in. You probably have things you don’t like about your life, or yourself. I sure do. Maybe you’re in pain, or feeling fear or grief or anger or boredom or loneliness. Allow yourself to feel whatever, because you are alive, experiencing this moment that no one else will ever experience. And this moment is the only thing any of us has. And then its gone.

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” –#DorisLessing RIP

Trapped in 1942

Grandma in a tree, 1940
Grandma in a tree, 1940

For the past few months I’ve been painstakingly transcribing my grandma’s diary from 1942. I say painstakingly because, wow, that girl had some undecipherable handwriting. I have a small advantage because I taught myself to write by tracing her grocery shopping lists in the mid-1970s. Her handwriting never improved, it just got more… mature.

Grandma Pat had an emotional intensity familiar to anyone who has ever been a sixteen year old girl (or boy). When she was mad, she was MAD. She didn’t tolerate imbeciles or “old bags” as she referred to the girls she didn’t like. Boys were falling in love with her every other entry, to a decidedly tepid or even hostile response. But when she fell in love, she fell IN LOVE.

Grandma first mentions Zip in the Valentine’s Day entry, which was later adorned with a lipstick kiss. Grandma is so flustered when Zip asks her to dance that she refuses. At this point she is so obsessed with some boy named Dave that she carries his picture in a locket and goes to Sunday school just to look at him. Dave doesn’t stand a chance.

One night in August, grandma leaves the skating rink with Zip. And she falls, and just keeps falling, in love.

More than anything, this diary is a love story. It’s an imbalanced love story, because we never get the other side of the story. It’s hard to tell if Zip has feelings for grandma. He’s twenty years old, likes to get drunk, and goes out with other girls while grandma stays home with a bum toe. He is about to join the Navy, and he is enjoying his final months as a civilian.

I’m not sure whether I like Zip. He’s never around when he should be, tells lies about where he goes and with whom, has something going on with some girl at the service station. Not to mention some short, fat, easy redhead. And Phyllis. Ugh, Phyllis.

Ok, so maybe Zip isn’t perfect. But this meticulous transcription of grandma’s heart laid bare is having an unnerving side-effect. I’m falling in love with Zip. I can feel the deep longing when grandma is waiting for Zip to show up, not knowing when she’ll see him again. I feel the relief and joy when he finally does show up with beer and cashew nuts.

One night, parked in front of grandma’s house, Zip falls asleep with his head in grandma’s lap. She sits, listening to music on the radio and watching falling stars. I can imagine myself in her place, my fingers in Zip’s hair, listening to his steady breathing, allowing him to be vulnerable.

When he leaves for the Navy, I can’t bear the brevity of the single goodbye kiss. I can’t stand the uncertainty as to whether he’ll write. I can’t stand the idea that he’s gone away. And then the missing him gets even worse. Every day that there’s no letter grandma is in agony. And the letters that do come contain none of the endearments grandma craves.

When I finish transcribing this diary, there’s going to be a strange void. These days spent in 1942 — falling in love and dancing to the Hit Parade with Zip  — will be hard to say goodbye to. Not to mention grandma. She was my best friend when I was a kid. She died when I was 12. And now I’m standing in as her best friend as she opens her heart on the page.