This Too Was A Gift

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

The Uses of Sorrow – Mary Oliver

Years ago, I was younger and didn’t understand myself, or the bumpy ride of Life I was embarking upon. There was a time when I thought all fathers screamed and made their mothers cry, made their daughters scream back, lost all of their families’ money (repeatedly), and didn’t remember friends’ names. At this same time, I knew the core understanding was that no one was to know what happened in our house. It was like the sitting room in every one of my parents’ houses with its Ethan Allen sofas upholstered in blue, the mahogany coffee table, and the china cabinet, in which no one ever sat. The only time I remember sitting in that room was the day that my mother and my boyfriend Chris’ parents and I and Chris discussed how I had to get an abortion and that was our only option. (It was the best thing, don’t get me wrong, but the approach could have used some work. But then again, what the hell are you going to do when your 15-year-olds end up pregnant? Probably make a lot of mistakes and say the wrong thing.) There was a china set in my parents’ house that was purple with gold metallic rims and I always loved the dishes because purple is my favorite color, but we could never use them because they were so “expensive” then one Christmas in my 20s they were “worth more than you” and then there was a threat to break all of them (from 20 something me) and then one Christmas they were used for a guest who I informed should feel very valuable, and now, after death, are used all the time.

I used to think that all the things that happened in my parents’ house were normal until I became an adult and began to see how other peoples’ families worked. For some reason, as a child, I didn’t or couldn’t see it as clearly as I could as an adult.

My dad died in November of 2021 after a very short burst of a battle with lung cancer. As he died, my mom became extremely angry at him, at everything probably, and lashed out a lot. He died very quickly, 9 days after he was admitted to the hospital which was just a few days after being diagnosed. I had forgiven him before he died, partially as a by-product of COVID (we couldn’t see each other for almost two years) and partially as an effect of years of therapy including CBT and EMDR.

Beth died in November of 2022, the same week as my dad a year before. I can hear her laughing at me right now and rolling her eyes at me as I type about how great she was and how painful it was to lose her. Lately, I have been hearing her laughing and it’s like this twinkle in my heart-mind as if tiny gold bells are jingling together and I can see her laughing at the same time. She would not want me to be sad. It was out of my sadness at losing her that I began to find my way to understanding myself; no doubt this process has actually been cooking on the back burner for years, but the reality is that the grief I have felt and still feel for Beth has been one of my greatest gifts and one that she uniquely could give to me.

I mentioned above that I have been in therapy for years. I have had several therapists but two really are the most significant: my therapist in Ellsworth, Maine, and my therapist here in Austin, Texas. My Maine therapist was my kind of therapist: practical, insightful, focused, and pro-active. She told me when I decided to move back to Texas, to seek out a provider to do CBT next. And so, trusting her, I did. I began to work with my therapist in Austin and we first worked using CBT and then combined it with EMDR and, slowly, ideas began percolating in my heart-mind, and here we are.

This year has been incredibly stressful for me. I am a new assistant principal at a high-needs campus in a small, rural district that doesn’t seem to understand how to find adequate resources to help with serious needs in reading, teacher training, and changing student behavior. They are big fans of Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking”, or so it would seem: they appear to believe that if they just wait it out long enough, solutions will appear and they themselves don’t need to seek out experts or helpers or research or……anything. I have noticed this year, in moments of desperation, that my mind follows the path built for it during my CBT, and if I close my eyes for a few seconds, I go to the forest up the hill from Duck Brook, the location I chose years ago in a therapy session which, even to me, was fairly random because I haven’t even spent that much time there throughout my life, but apparently my heart-mind thinks it is the calmest place I have ever been. Visualizing Duck Brook makes the seething, buzzing stress disappear, calm down, and become manageable.

The other day I was in the bathroom washing my hands and thinking about a friend’s house who I was going to go to on Friday. I was nervous as right now I feel so stressed out that I feel a bit insane, despite knowing this is very temporary, and I wonder if it shows on my face or in my words, or will make people not want to talk to me. A voice in my head said to me, “you don’t have to be perfect all the time”. Wow! Really? And I said, wow! Really? It’s working! My messages to myself, in my heart-mind, are changing.

How does this connect to losing Beth and having my heart squished, smashed, twisted, and transformed with grief? Last weekend two friends and I talked about how we could hear her laughing all day. It was magical and funny. Lucy and I talked about how we felt that she was becoming a part of us like her spirit is living inside our body and that’s how we can hear her and feel her all over the place. I told her that last Saturday I kept thinking I would turn around and she would be sitting next to me. I love this idea of processing loss as a process of transforming with the person, and I love the words shared with me by my coworker Mr. Moore who assured me those we love don’t want us to be sad.

I remember one trip to the coast we were in Port Lavaca, walking along its dirty in-town beaches looking for a roseate spoonbill skull or a pelican skull or both (skulls were the main focus of those trips) and we found this tiny vegetarian or vegan restaurant on one of the shore roads. It was in an old Victorian house and had a traveler-esque caravan in the front yard. We sat on a couch in front of the bay window that looked out to the ocean and found a copy of “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay in the stacks of reading material. We were waiting for our fancy teas (or smoothies? I can’t remember) to be ready and she told me the story of Louise Hay and her belief that past traumas can “live” in the body and make you sick and how she believed you could heal yourself, and how she loved her because of what she did for gay men in the 1980s who were dying of AIDS and made them feel better and that it wasn’t their fault what had happened. I knew then that Louise Hay’s ideas had made a huge impression on Beth and that they had informed a lot of what she thought in terms of keeping her cancer at bay, which she was able to do for almost 15 years.

Beth was blessed because she was a blessing and was loved by many people. Some of them helped her change her life away from how she had grown up in Oklahoma (something about her early life she fundamentally decided she had to change), brought her to Texas, and helped her feel a sense of functional, supportive family, something she had never had. She began to learn about possibility and began to repeat the teachings shared with her by that family’s father figure, Mr. Rusque.

Throughout our friendship, Beth taught me a lot about living, not be afraid of dying, and being honest and present with oneself and with others; to not judge but also not judge oneself too harshly. These lessons sank in, slowly, despite my stubbornness and fear (the fear probably will linger forever, it is in there deep), and I think she was speaking to me last weekend when I heard that message about not having to be perfect. When she was alive, I heard her say the things she said, I heard her reflect on her life and her death, I listened to her reflect on people and laugh at things that had happened and never try to force anything to happen one way or another, but just to be delightful and loving and funny and extremely beautifully dressed.

In death, in transforming my heart, in creating a space within it in which she will always live, I can hear her words, clear as tinkling golden bells, and I can begin to take them to heart. It is an amazing feeling to feel someone so deeply, to miss them so much, to have them so close. It is the best way I can honor her, to hear her speaking, to hear myself speaking, to practice what I have learned in therapy and in life, and to move forward. She liked to say during the last few months about how she was getting out before it all fell apart. Little did she know she wasn’t leaving, not really. She was giving herself to us.

Acceptance

Lately, there has been an elephant sitting on my heart. It is not sad, or a mean elephant: it is just elephant-sized. A weight.

I remember when I began to accept my Dad’s death last year. I felt like I had just gotten into the bath or taken a sip of perfectly-warm-hot delicious special tea, but only for the tiniest of moments. But it is a window, so that feels good.

I work with a wise man named Mr. Moore. He grew up in Smithville and has been a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and now, counselor. I have learned so much from him and he is the person I am most thankful for this year. Anyway. The other day we were talking and he said that the person who loves us wouldn’t want us to be sad about them passing away. I logically agree, my heart was in disagreement, but I think today we leveled up a bit to understanding.

A week from today is my friend Beth’s birthday; she would have been 44. ❤

Love Rising From the Mists

When I tell you this story, there are some of you who will hear, some will listen, and some will know.

I feel that I am at the beginning of grieving the loss of my friend Beth. When I think of her lately, I can feel her hair in my hands; at the end of her life, her hair grew back as she wasn’t on chemo anymore. Her hair was brown and short and stuck up and out in places, but she still looked so cool with her yellow beanie. When she died, we realized that one of the colors was always yellow.

When we went to the doctor on October 4, her longtime doctor and trusted caretaker told her that she had lived well with cancer for a long time and that now she would not live well with cancer anymore. Her liver was failing; destroyed by chemo, it had changed from the soft sponge of bodily fluid filtration to a hard rock that didn’t let much in or out. Her tummy filled up with liquid and she felt ugly. She wasn’t, of course.

During that doctor’s visit, every experience that we had had together flashed before my mind. I thought of Port O’Connor, and Angela, apartments in Dallas, plastic jewelry, my first marriage, Cecile’s old apartment, and when she decided to marry “a rich guy”. I thought of searching for dead things and going out to Sunday Beach with Angela’s high school crush (or perhaps she was his?) and his two children. His son looked like a Troll doll and we loved him. He covered us with mud. We escaped without sunburns. I thought of walking through the Albert Memorial near Buckingham Palace, and traipsing past Embassies and through the city at night. I remembered getting dizzy in the jewelry room at the V&A and eating sandwiches on the lawn, watching naked British children bathe in the pool.

When we were told that it was the end, I remembered all the lived experiences; so much life! That is of course what I learned the most from Beth. I learned about LIFE. We once found a beautiful coffee shop with a caravan in the front garden in Port Lavaca; it was an old Victorian house and we never found it again, but that one time we found “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay and she told me about how and why Louise Hay wrote the book. On one of her last days, she said to me, “I wish my body could heal itself!”

During that last month, I spent most of my time with her massaging her and talking with her. She was in so much pain, although I suspect she didn’t admit the true force of the pain because she didn’t want to be woozy with Dilaudid. I massaged her because I wanted to keep her energy moving; keep her chi zipping around her body and soul. I spent a lot of time rubbing her perfect feet and legs and the middle of her back; this is where most of the pain was. I would also rub her face and her head and her shoulders. I would try to move the energy around, hoping it would keep her with us for longer.

One night I was staying with her and I looked at her in the half-light of the lamps. She was so tired but kept saying thank you, kept saying thank you and I love you. I went outside and called our friend Vivien. I said, “Vivien, I am worried. Her eyes look funny.” It was as if they couldn’t focus properly, or wandered when they shouldn’t. I remembered Maw Maw and how fast she slipped from us once she started. I will never forget her sleeping in that big bed with its white sheets and its golden light, falling asleep at about 7pm after I cooked us a dinner of lamb chops.

I have heard a theory of grief that I like and can attach to; the pain we feel is an alternative experience to the love we feel for the person. When my dad died last year, I felt like I was falling off a cliff into some bottomless space; there was no anchor. Slowly though, I found my footing again and realized that I must make my own anchor and remember all the tools he gave me, despite our many fraught years. This is different.

As I said above, when I think about Beth, really think about her (because I avoid it in my conscious mind sometimes), I can feel her hair in my hands, I can feel her hands, her shoulders, her tiny arms, her beautiful legs, and perfect feet. I can hear the sound of her moving in her hospital bed. I can see her eyes clouded with ammonia toxicity. I can see her moving around and saying thank you to me. I can hear her talking about cheese and visiting Italy. It is like she is becoming a part of me, of my body, as I feel all the parts of her. It is like she is right here, an ethereal version of a very real person. I think that this means that I truly love her, and she loves me, and this feeling, this painful transformation, is the process of grieving her loss. From now on, there is the Patience that lived when Beth was alive, there is the Patience during this grieving process, and there will be the Patience after.

Due to her immense grace, humor, love, and understanding, I suspect the Patience after will be a better person who is more in touch with faults and feelings, and with the preciousness of the moments.

When we went to the doctor on October 4, how would we have known she would die less than one month later, on November 2? She had lived so well, for so long. I wish I could hug her. But I can, because when I think of hugging her, I can feel her hugging me; I can feel her tiny body that cancer just ate up. I can see the light in her windows and the green of her houseplants. I can think of how great a hostess she was, and how she loved drinking dandelion tea those last few weeks to help her liver.

Beth, I miss you so much. I know you are here, in your own way. As Lilian said the other day, it’s like you are everywhere!

Griefburst

“It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.”
― Georgia O’Keeffe

Life is beautiful and life is painful.

Anger is a foreign feeling to me; I am uncomfortable with it, and it makes me feel fear. The fear stems, I think, from the concern that my anger may become uncontrollable, like my dad’s was.

Lately, I have been feeling a lot of anger. I now understand why people smash up their apartments when they get upset, yell, scream, and cry. I understand the 5 year olds in my care who tear up their classrooms. I am frustrated.

For years, for ages, for my whole life almost, I blamed my dad for everything wrong that happened. When he was dying, my brother and I thought my mom would get better somehow, after he died. But she didn’t. And I didn’t (this is most important). I realized that the problems came from both of them, not from just one.

Last night I realized that one of the reasons I am so angry with my mom is that she didn’t take care of herself, didn’t protect herself, let alone her kids. I had a grief attack Monday that started innocuously enough; I thought that Cody wasn’t listening to me and I became steadily afraid of him taking advantage of me financially (this happened in my first marriage), and devolved into me not really knowing what I was saying but refusing to end an argument that wasn’t based on anything real. At 11:30, I became scared and sad. I went into the front yard and cried. The dog looked at me with a worried expression. I came inside and cried some more.

The next morning, I realized that I had been acting like my Dad; after all, we are very similar. I lost control over my emotions, and what I was saying, and let it all come out in a way that made no sense. The next afternoon, I apologized to Cody and asked him to help me stay grounded.

My grief is stemming from the loss of my father, realizations about my mother, my relationships with both my parents, the recent loss of my friend Mary Ann, and my experiences at my job. I have never hated a job before, and, in reality, I quit this job that day when the 5-year-old brought a gun to school. That was the third week of school. We are almost at Week 16. In other words, I am overloaded and I exploded. I asked Cody to help me stay grounded, stay focused, to re-align myself by asking me to come back to conversations later, and to refocus by taking time to make something. I am finding that only when I am making things do I feel almost ok.

My grief is overwhelming. Little Patience is sad and tired. Little Patience feels that my parents tried their best, but they did a lousy job. Adult Patience hates the job I worked really hard to get, not knowing what the job really was in the present state of education in Texas. Present Patience, strong though I am, is incredibly sad that I was the person who brought Mary Ann to the doctor the day she was told she was dying, the person who arrived first the morning she died and watched waves of people awkwardly enter and leave that space and witnessed my friend Von be so sad and there was nothing I could do for her. I was also the person who packed up the apartment with and for her sister Pearl when all the other friends couldn’t see past themselves enough to help. I say that I am incredibly sad because I am, not that I regret being there in any of those moments; those moments just were and are incredibly, soul-shakingly sad.

Tonight I looked up the world’s strongest animal; it is the dung beetle, the scarab. When I was weeping with the grief counselor a few days ago, she said she felt my strength in all my stories. I am trying to get there; trying to cross that bridge from sorrow to accepting that God only gives us what we can handle. I have learned that when things are really hard, that is very difficult to remember.

A Letter Written the Day After Your Funeral

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun ’tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine –

Witch-Wife by Edna St. Vincent Millay

You once told me, when I described the trouble I was having staying asleep, that I should get up in the wee hours and write my memoirs. After all, that was what Patti Smith had done! I listened.

Yesterday we held the art show for you: the one you talked about every day until the day you left us. The art show had your shadowboxes and your bones and dead things, your bed, your cushions, some clothes, and most of the jewelry. None of your paintings made the cut; I am looking at one right now. I love the Fossil Hunters. I was interviewed by the videographer whilst wearing no lipstick, my Patagucci jacket, and frazzled hair. He said what I said was “great”.

Later in the day, I had had too much wine and was admiring Gary and Mary’s advanced 14-month-old baby ruling the roost like she was at least two, and we talked about past relationships and past lives and that time he saved all of us when we moved you out of the big house on the hill. Last week I learned about how the people you lived with really didn’t want you to move out; both parties the same, but different. Two locations, a similar feel. I will write my treatise on devil’s bargains later. Today is just a letter to you.

All day I thought I would come around a corner and see you laughing. It was unbelievably cold yesterday; fog descended upon the city and everything was cast in white-grey. The light was lovely. Vivian and I dressed the mannequin in a wonderful yellow-and-orange outfit; two kimonos and a yellow shirt dress and a necklace made of hundreds of charms. Behind the mannequin, in the window, hung jewels and pearls and chains, as well as the chandeliers. We made the room look like you had just left it after getting ready to go to a party.

I knew you, we knew each other, through so many different lives. Vivian knew you through more; she and I bonded during Covid over our shared moment in life. We bonded again during your death as we aimed to protect you ever still from people who sought to own parts of you, thinking your things would help fill the void. You, wiser than they, knew better.

I got to know your sister and her children over the last few weeks. She and I cried together and I became buddies with Aabah especially, laughed with Saabira, and stared into Faatina’s eyes, tearing up when I realized she will never know you because she is too little. Yesterday, I carried Aabah into the dressing room and said, “do you see Beth’s clothes?”. She nodded and said, “sometimes Mama gets very sad when she thinks about Beth”. I said, “we all do because we can’t talk to her anymore. But one day, you will wear this jewelry and that is how we will remember her”. She nodded.

Downstairs, just before we sang “So Long, Marianne”, Noah and I met and talked and he shared with me that he thought, he suspected, that you never wanted people to see the art while you were alive. We remarked on how mysterious you were in moments, how contrary. He said that he thought if you had had the show while you were still alive, you wouldn’t have come. I suspect he knows a thing or two (please see me winking to you here).

Yesterday I woke up and could barely get out of bed. It felt like the morning, at 4am on November 10th of last year, when I was woken by my mother to go to the hospital. I sat on the couch in the living room that morning and said to myself, “ok. You have to drive your mother to the hospital where her husband has just died”. I said to myself, “you can do this”. I said to myself yesterday, “you can do this”. I drank coffee and red wine and forgot to eat, but I did it. I went to sleep at 830 and woke up twelve hours later.

I said that yesterday it felt like I would walk around a corner and see you. Today it felt like I didn’t believe you are gone. I don’t believe it. You will come back, won’t you? I can talk to you again, can’t I? I know the true answers. I must remember you in my heart and mind.

Remembering you telling me you were having a heart attack (it was steroids) and speeding through tiny coastal towns until we reached a hospital, running inside, and announcing, “someone has to help me, my friend has cancer!”. The doctor was a jerk and we stole all sorts of things from the ER room, remember? Or when we walked through London trying to find strange buildings, and ate ramen and saw the city at night, and had cappuccinos under the Albert Memorial, and saw the jewelry at the V&A. Or when we went to Mexico and took mushrooms at Mimi’s mom’s ranch, drank too much cheap wine in Amanda’s trailer in Port O’Connor, cooked spaghetti and told our life stories in the dark, got stuck in sand bars, found skulls and skeletons, shopped at thrift shops, drank frozen rose on the one day you were angry at having cancer. So many more memories; the day we learned that you would die from your doctor, except we didn’t know you would die less than 4 weeks later.

I miss you. I miss you. I miss you. We had so much more to do. I will take you with me, see and feel you everywhere. The other day the sunset blew up the sky in orange and blue and I said, “Hi Beth”. I wonder if you are sitting on the couch behind me whilst I type, just out of reach; as I turn to check, will you slip away?

THE TIME you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

To An Athlete Dying Young by A.E. Housman

All of Us

There was the one with the haunted heart, the one who feigned understanding; there was the one who had no time, and there was the one who worried. There was the one who sang to her in the depths, and the one who stood on the sidelines, watching. There was the one who kept the house and pushed all the feelings away. There was the one who said, “wow” in love and wonder. There was the one who breathed Italy and made pasta and asked nothing of anyone, only gave true love and feeling. There was the doctor a la distance, who made everyone well.

And then there was her.

She stood, sat, and laid, in the middle, fading away. Over the years it had begun to wear on her; you could see it in pictures, even if you couldn’t see it in real life.

The whole cast of characters stepped in to help that last month; in 12-hour shifts they monitored and assisted and wondered. The one who worried worried so much that it stole her away from her family, temporarily. She was the one who was there in the end, when it became so quiet.

She left us early in the morning one week ago; stealing off in the silence and the dark, saying her goodbye quietly, in the twilight sleep when everyone thought she would be there tomorrow.

They all wonder where she is today as they gaze upon her beauties, her treasure chest, her hoarde of collectibles that together make a life. What to do with such beauty? Hold fast, hold together: the one with the haunted heart seeks to haunt others, but the others resist and remember the love at the center of it all.

Where do they go?

Circle of Life Week

I really wish I had some chocolate but will have to settle for a glass of red wine, a cat, and a small dog.

What is it about tragedy that really brings out the sweet tooth?

Beth left us yesterday, after a thirteen or fourteen-year battle with cancer. When I introduced Cody to her, seven years ago, he said, “THAT’s Beth?”. It was hard to believe that she had cancer. She never looked like she was sick, never, until the last ten months. There was a dwindling to be sure, but the spark was still there. She was cracking jokes with me on Saturday, and talking about visiting Italy; she was still inspired and impassioned by special cheese and offered one coffee. Even as she passed in and out of consciousness as I worked my massage-energy-love-magic, she was vitally there. She was talking til the very, very end.

I just spoke with one of our oldest, mutual friends: Meg of the terrible Russian accent and electric tooth-brush (if you know, you know). We talked about old, dark apartments and beach trips and first marriages and mysteries and how maybe there were only a few people who knew the whole story of Beth, and maybe we were lucky to be in the 4 or 5 who did. The allure, the glamour, of Beth was to have her close, in a small space, and in that space, she would reveal everything. As time progressed, despite the circle becoming larger, the reveal became less and less. Perhaps that was part of the lesson; to observe, to participate, to laugh, to travel, rather than to be truly known.

I don’t know.

Yesterday morning, just after finding out about her leaving our frame of reality, I took Oscar (the dog) out to walk the land, as is our daily, early-morning custom. I now go to work extraordinarily early (damn you, elementary school!), and we walk each morning, in the dark. It was foggy, dark, and cool. The air seemed to drip; it hung in milky shrouds. The fog clouds felt held in the air like curtains on so many windows. I said, “well, hello Beth. So you are the fog now?”.

I have written many times about my friend Meredith who died ten years ago and who I still talk to, and who still laughs at me. Beth didn’t laugh at me, but smiled, in that Beth way. I said, “well, we never made it to Maine, so I will just take you there with me and show you all the most beautiful places.”

To lose people is so difficult, for me. No more talking. No more sharing. No more confirmation in the mutually shared delusion which is our friendships with one another.

I already miss her. It has been 1.5 days. She died November 2nd, Dia de los Muertos/ All Saints Day. My dad died November 10th. My cousin’s dad died November 6th. Cody’s birthday is November 6th. The veils are thin between life and death at this time of the year.

I heretofore name this period: the Circle of Life Week. Death, birth, life, and all the parts in the middle.

I still wish I had chocolate. Good night.

Dark Apartments, Stingrays & Terrible Shoes

There were noises the other night: creaks and movements in the dark. These were noises that I hadn’t heard for three years since I had last taken care of a loved one in the night. They were the sounds of someone moving around who recently had a normal bed that makes no creaks and the strange plastic sounds of an airbed with a human being moving upon it.

I met her in a dark apartment in Dallas, a hundred years and 7 lifetimes ago. By that I mean 21 years, when we were 21 and 22 years old. She made plastic jewelry in her oven in her own dark apartment, but it was in the dark apartment of our friend Ashley that we met. Ashley knew about makeup and exfoliation and hung giant pieces of fabric from her ceiling. Her boyfriend who would become her first husband barely spoke to me and never spoke to Beth. She talked about the smell of the plastic jewelry as it baked in the oven and how it was probably toxic. Toxic, but geometric; it was clear in spots and opaque in others. Squares danced upon rectangles intermingled with other shapes, too.

Later, it was raining in July at the Tarpon Motel in Port O’Connor, Texas. I was in this crazy moment of rejecting a corporate career; upon reflection, I just realized that was the last time I hated my job. But I digress. It was raining. Raining, raining. Beth sat on the second queen bed in the room. She was wearing a very fashionable hat and was very quiet. She was very quiet a lot then. We went, during a break in the rain, to drink cheap beer on the dock of the marina next door with Billy’s mom, Lynn. Lynn was great; she was a strong woman and was so loving to her kids. She was great until she wasn’t; like all of us.

During that trip, we were assured that Ashley’s brother knew how to navigate the shallow waters of the gulf and could take us to Matagorda Island to a friend’s cabin. Adam ran aground within minutes and we were stuck trying to get an outboard out of the mud, all the while conscious of possible stingrays beneath our feet. When we made it to the island, it was unbelievably hot and the cabin just had screens over the windows. The screens had holes in them, or the door did, or something, because the heat and the mosquitoes were unbearable and we abandoned ship quite soon to shimmy back in the water and the mud to the mainland.

Then there was the time we went searching for a building like the Pompidou Centre in London. I was wearing terrible shoes; a trait that Beth constantly chides me for. Terrible shoes! They were beautiful vintage men’s loafers that were the complete opposite of what one should wear while walking through London. We had lunch at the Barbican and found the building, and my damn feet hurt, and we ate vegan ice cream in a strange downtown coffee shop in the finance district and took the Tube during rush hour. She was sick, even then, and even during those days was having reactions to chemo that made her unable to do much because she was so itchy and having a hard time sleeping. We did, however, walk around London at night and eat ramen in Mayfair and Indian food near Buckingham Palace and have cappuccinos (I think) at the Albert Memorial after seeing a show at the Serpentine with Alberto and Reuben.

I just spent the evening in my workshop, applying gold leaf to a lantern I have been working on for a friend for years. We played on the wood it is made out of when it was a tree. For years, we have played on this tree. I took Matthew’s graduation photos on it. About ten years ago, it finally died after one last winter storm. I culled its bark and have hauled it around with me since. I sat tonight, applying gold leaf and thinking about how much life changes, and how losing people is so difficult. Losing people is hard for me because I can’t talk with them anymore, I can’t hear their voices anymore, and I worry about losing my memories of them. I think: do I want to be in a world without them? The answer is of course, yes, but it is a sharper world; the visions are more dear, colorful, passionate, and valuable. The big things are bigger and the little things fade into complete unimportance.

So it goes.

I will miss you.

On a Late Evening

Last night I was up at 2am dreading the reality of the drudgery of the every day.

Lately, I am up almost every night around 2-3am, running scenarios around in circles in my mind; scenarios that I think I handle well enough, but nevertheless fill me with worry, dread, concern, and questions.

I read a poem yesterday all about being awake at 3am, knowing one’s family is asleep and at peace, and sitting in a quiet house, writing. So here I am.

My friend Beth is slipping away; she is leaving us. Since she and I went to the doctor about three weeks ago, she has begun to change, alter, shift, move, and become something else. Sometimes she is totally normal, sometimes she makes little sense, sometimes she is up, and sometimes she is away. Such is this mystery we call death. Her liver is failing due to years of chemotherapy; cancer will not kill her, cancer medicine will.

A year ago, I was up in Maine, wandering the streets of Bar Harbor in tears, trying to figure out how to feel about losing a father who was both a giant thorn in my side and a guiding light in my perception of reality. Turns out, he was both at the same time, always. A year ago, I caught myself in the sunlight of autumn in Maine, in an alley, with ice cream. I was stuck, you see, in the light and in the shadow.

On the night that he died, I looked at all the photos of him and I from when I was a baby until recent days. That night I felt like I had fallen over a cliff’s edge and was falling into a space with no bottom. He died at about 4am, alone, as made sense for him. We had been with him for the preceding 9 days when he fought leaving this mortal coil tooth and nail and lived for those 9 days with no water or food.

Beth is different. Her passing is more peaceful, and more supported by friends and caretakers. Each day she slips away from us more and more; her body failing, her spirit partially here, partially somewhere. She ebbs and flows like the river, like the tide. Today we talked and she told me that my massages make her feel better, she asked me if I would leave Cody for a wealthier husband (I think this was a joke), and she asked me if I was going to a pottery festival. She told me that my bracelet, currently in an art show, is better than she had thought it would be. She told me that her family is here to see her, and that they are crying a lot, but that we all have to process in different ways.

I am fascinated by the process of death, and I am convinced it is not the end of our existence; it is only a change of form, like how soil is formed by hundreds of faded leaves, or a caterpillar becomes a butterfly through the mystery of the structure of the chrysalis.

I am fascinated also by our choices, and how they bring us to these points in our lives that are pivotal. I wrote earlier about a 5-year-old child bringing a loaded gun to my school; I recently learned that there are DNA and fingerprint kits being sent to districts across the state to help parents identify their children in the event of them being killed at school. The death cult becomes a blood cult. All the while, in the background, children are learning to read and be happy with each other and eat snacks and go to recess. My vision of my dad changes in my mind. Beth dies. I wrestle with the fact that although this job is not right for me, I do not regret it because I have learned so much. I will continue to learn every day.

Tomorrow is October 23rd. How many more days do any of us have? When will I lose my friend? Will the date be significant or will it simply be a marker for my memory? Are those two things different?

In the meantime, Cody worries about his son, his job, the house, the future, about his all-encompassing desire to be *away*. I do not wish to be away now, but I do wish for a change, a move from this place of strange obsession with guns.

Our friend Ben took a series of photos of Beth in a blue silk dress with pointed sleeves in her bed; she wanted them taken before she gets a hospital bed. She is, forever, an aesthete, a Dadaist, an artist, and a beloved person. There is one photo of her drinking her dandelion tea (good for the liver), and her cheekbones match the sharp corners of her dress’ shoulders. The maker’s mark of the teacup is sharp like her figure; tiny in a big bed, in a big room, surrounded by light, plants, and chandeliers.

She is hosting an art show November 19, a la Frida Kahlo; she will be in her bed, in a house that is pending renovation and so is a perfect setting for a dying person’s one-and-only art show. We will say goodbye in our best clothes, naturally. So many goodbyes in this life; it is hard to hold on to the present. We say goodbye to concepts, assumptions, definitions, parents, and friends. May we allow ourselves and everyone else to change.

It is midnight. Time to try to sleep; but if it doesn’t come, I will be back here in the peaceful moments: 3am tranquility.

A Sinister Blur

A few weeks ago, a 5-year-old child brought a loaded handgun to school to show to his friends. It was loaded with 14 bullets. It never made it out of his backpack; no one save his teachers saw the gun. Thankfully, children talk and a little boy came up to a teacher on the playground and shared what his friend had told him about bringing a gun to school. The teachers sprang into action. The gun was removed from campus within 30 minutes.

That day is burned into my memory as a sinister blur; it is much more a memory of feelings than of actual events. I was tasked with staying with the little boy who brought the gun and keeping him calm. I had to interview him about the gun and why he brought it, and where he had found it in his parents’ house. This interview process was the hardest, lowest, worst experience of all of my 17 years of being an educator. The feeling of that day is akin to the feeling I felt the night that my father died: I was falling into a bottomless dark space, somewhere I didn’t know, and didn’t understand. He described it as “Batman” at first and then acknowledged that he knew it was also called a gun. He told us he played video games with his dad that were “shoot me games” and that his dad had many guns, even “big ones” all in the same spot in his bedroom. He took the gun when it was still dark outside and his dad didn’t know that his little boy slipped into his room, opened the unlocked cabinet, took a gun, and put it in his superhero backpack, under his lunchbox.

It has taken me a long time to begin to write about this new job. I am not sure where to write about it, or how. I am sure that I am not supposed to write this story here, but I am filled with the fear that schools are not acknowledging the scope of the gun problem. Gun incidents are still being regarded as isolated moments in time, rather than a web of overlapping misunderstandings that lead to injury and sometimes death. There is no conversation about how gun possession, gun safety, and gun violence are family and community issues that require discussion and listening, and acceptance that there is one thing that we all can agree on, which is: guns don’t belong in schools.

My new job as an assistant principal in an elementary school in a small but rapidly growing town is incredibly hard for so many reasons. I expected it to be stressful; there was no way this transition wasn’t going to be hard because I am learning a whole new aspect of the school system, but I am surprised at how limited the tools the schools have to respond to behavioral and mental health challenges are. To me, it seems that either you behave and you are normal, or you go to the counselor for 20 minutes and then go to class, or you go to ISS, or you are suspended. We can’t suspend children younger than 3rd grade. That is it.

Feels limited and limiting, doesn’t it? In this current mental health crisis that we are in, we have 2 counselors for 750 students. We have 1 district social worker for 7 campuses. We have almost 1000 new students that our district has gained since the beginning of the year when demographers thought we would have 250. So many of those new students are exhibiting signs of stress, anxiety, depression, violent tendencies, failure to adapt, learning disabilites, and lack of motivation.

In this ocean of limited resources and so many high needs, it feels overwhelming. Sometimes I get incredibly sad. Sometimes I feel that I can’t do the work and I need to quit like my principal did two weeks ago. I think I will make it, but I do wonder how effective I will feel in another few weeks. It seems like I am getting very little sleep because I wake up worrying almost every night. I feel that my school district-level directors and assistant superintendents don’t know what to do, and even though I can accept that, I feel angry about it.

Who does know what to do? Where are those people? Are they out there?