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What do I remember?

I remember searching for old bottles at the bottle graveyard in Austin on warm summer days, shaded by mountain laurel and cedar trees. For what seemed like miles lay bottles 6 feet deep, maybe more, and we trundled through them, looking for blue ones and manganese ones, for white milk glass and bottles with writing still legible upon their surfaces. Once, we found an old refrigerator, and a sign for Violet Crown Cola. Each time, we took them back to my house and set up tubs of hot, soapy water on the floor of the old kitchen, set up shop in front of the ancient double-barrel oven, and scrubbed with toothbrushes until the bottles came clean: my favorites were always the ones with rusted metal tops still attached. As I sit here typing, I am looking at many of them sitting on the tops of tables and on the piano.

I remember camping in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico, deep in a winter’s night. Camping high above the valley floor, we could see the glowing embers of hunters’ fires that mimicked our own. Up there, we cooked beans and rice at night: oatmeal in the morning. In the dark, you could see the black forest floor below pinpricked with campfires, and up above were innumerable stars. Once, in the morning, we woke up to discover snow 6 inches deep all around our campsite and down the hunting road that we had to walk to return to the car.

I remember telling my parents that I was volunteering at the library one summer, and spending every day at the base of a giant, man-made hill, sometimes in the sun, sometimes in the shade, occasionally sneaking off to read poetry and philosophy books at the Barnes & Noble. In many ways, we fell in love in the aisle of the bookstore that held Kahlil Gibran and Rumi and Hafiz.

I remember rides on Texas highways in a 280ZX with t-tops, glazing brakes coming down a mountain in Death Valley, sitting on the rooftop of a hotel in Mexico, and a kitchen with a brick floor in Ossining, New York. I remember watching eagles fledge in my back garden, listening to the Velvet Underground in a trailer, discovering a sea lion on a beach in Washington, rearing feral kittens behind the washing machine and later, behind the couch in an old house in East Austin. I remember drinking lychee martinis in Manhattan, and trading peaches for special brownies in Oregon. I even remember a wedding, buying a home, planting gardens, raising chickens and cats. I also remember sitting on my back porch, feeling bewildered and lost when it was all dissolving: moving away from me so fast that couldn’t process what, indeed, was happening. I remember ending up in a tiny house in Hyde Park; I loved it despite the fact that it was hotter inside than out on the warmest summer days. I remember opening the door to my life too quickly to one who didn’t deserve entrance, and once he was inside, destroying what I didn’t even know at the time I had to rebuild, I found it very hard to get him to leave. Eventually, of course, I found a path to get him out the door, and lock it behind him so that neither he nor anyone else could come in without knowing the secret password and a set of very complicated keys.

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But herein lies the problem: I didn’t even understand the secret password, nor did I know to which locks each key belonged. In fact, it is more accurate to say that when I locked that door, I threw away the keys and erased the passwords so that I couldn’t let anyone in. It was an unconscious risk assessment, you see, and I deemed myself too high a risk.

Two weeks ago, it was a warm summer night and in a moment I spoke the words that rebuilt and created a new set of keys, and gave me the secret password that I hadn’t yet discovered. I said that I had realized that the state of mind I had been in for the last two years, of fight and flight, of holding my fists in front of me lest anyone try to get too close, no longer applied. I verbalized that the people in my life are good people, that I care for all of them and they me, and that it was time to shed the past and realize where I am.  In this moment was when I realized that I needed to express more gratitude to those I love, that I needed to bring my fists down and relax my hands, and that I needed to say yes much much more than no.

The Yes is fraught with panic and insecurity. The Yes comes with what if? and maybe? and I don’t know what is happening? and all of these thoughts are mechanisms of trying to control situations that are inherently organic and dynamic, in which control doesn’t really play a role. The Yes is cautious and is dependent on trust, so it involves alot of timidity and dipping ones toes in the waters of life only to pull them out again, but I will say that everyone who I have been lucky enough to surround myself with, now, after a bit of trial and error, loves me, encourages me and laughs with me at myself and allows me to grow and be here. There are hands held out to me here, and after two years, I finally trust that they are really here to catch me, and I am ready to catch them, too.

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Meredith Drew, Three Years Later

dans garden end of august 2013 024I met Meredith eleven years ago, when she lived in a renovated Arts and Crafts era bungalow in The Heights, a splendid Houston neighborhood. The house had a front porch, and a very small boy inside. The small boy played with everything, but had a true passion for living things, especially insects. In that house, the small boy hatched an egg of hundreds of Praying Mantises, who, of course, escaped their cage and exploded all over the walls, the bed, the floor, the jambs of doors: all surfaces of that small room were covered in tiny mantids.

My memories of that house were of how much I loved its dark wood, the kitchen with its funky tiles, and the artwork that was everywhere. There was an old leather sofa, paintings, drawings, an African mask, a sword or two, books, papers: everything that was in that house reflected the complicated personalities within it. Meredith and her son lived there with her husband, the man behind its renovation and its steady march to monotony. The colors disappeared, the landscaping was typical, and there was only one tiny blotch of color to distinguish the way the house was when they first arrived.

Meredith was my soon-to-be husband’s best friend’s mother. Meredith was disorganized, irreverent, opinionated, sarcastic, and she cursed a blue streak most of the time. She also had a fierce glint in her eye, and when she thought something was particularly funny or insightful, the glint combined with an upturned motion of her jaw, and she would nod as if what she believed was common sense to all, and hilarious.

I cannot count the number of times I cleaned Meredith’s kitchen, or tried to get her papers in order: she was inherently a creature of disorder, of mess, of clutter. Meredith had lived many lives before I met her; she had been married, divorced, raise two sons on her own, was an accountant for a huge accounting firm that later lost their influence during the Enron scandal, was remarried, and had a very young son who was about fifteen years younger than her eldest. Meredith loved history and families, she had a huge respect for her father, had a great Texas accent, knew many stories of the way life was when she was growing up outside of Austin, kept lists of good books with descriptions of why they were great, had amazing collections of everything you could want to peruse on a slow weekend day, and she had an open-ear policy for listening.

Last Sunday, I went with a friend to a friend’s mother’s funeral, and many people whose life she had impacted spoke up. There were stories about skiing and vacations and puzzles and dinners, but the common theme was that this woman had taken in all the lost children she had encountered along her path. Meredith was similar, and our friendship was a back-and-forth of giving and taking of what we knew the other one needed to know.

dans garden end of august 2013 031At the beginning, I saw Meredith as a tough as nails woman who had almost literally fought her way through life and was left standing. As the years went by, though, I began to realize that her tough exterior was a mask covering a very sensitive and uncertain soul. Sometimes I feel like one of the reasons that I am on the Earth is to be a friend to those people who are locked within themselves, and to bring them out. Just as old houses sit for years, asleep, before the right family moves in and fixes the porch and plants some flowers, many people sit, alone and closed off from those around them, even if their surface exterior would show you different.

Over the years of our friendship, Meredith helped me and mine a lot. She helped pay for and plan my wedding. She gave us gold to melt down for our wedding rings, and made sure the baseboards of our house were vacuumed before the wedding, much to the consternation of my mother and my soon-to-be husband’s mother, who wanted to stake their own claim as dominant women of the day. When we moved to New York somewhat on a whim in the early spring of 2005, she helped us pay our rent to our roommate, her son. When she visited, she laughed at the huge vegetable garden and how invested both my husband and her son were in it, a project they did not want to participate in during its inception, when I spent hours tilling the soil at the top of a giant hill in Croton on Hudson, New York. When we returned to Texas, she and her husband and their young son were living in a new, larger house, now in San Antonio, and I spent many hours drinking wine out of tiny wine bottles, the ones that come in four packs at the grocery store, sitting on the edge of their pool, under a canopy of wisteria vines.

dans garden end of august 2013 032Time passed, and my marriage fell apart due to many things, mostly a lack of an ability to talk to one another. We went separate directions but stayed in the same physical space, I think hoping that with time, we would find our way back, but we never did. In the early fall of 2009, we were divorced, our house had been sold, as had most of our furniture. I left the house I loved so well, with its native plant garden in the front, and huge vegetable garden with chicken coop in the back. At that time, I thought that Meredith belonged to my ex-husband’s friends, and although we emailed sporadically, we lost touch.

Later in 2010, sometime around May, my friend Angel told me the news that Meredith was very sick and had cancer and was living alone with her young son in an apartment in South Austin. With phone number in hand, I called her up and went to see her.

When I first saw Meredith, after all that time, almost two years at that point, I was shocked and afraid. She couldn’t use one arm and was very thin, and her house, of course, was a mess. Her young son was struggling in school and was barely leaving his room, and when he did, he would go on long walks in the woods wearing all black clothing, long sleeves even in summer. She had no doctor, no insurance, and no path to healing. She was stuck.

The first words she said to me were: “it is so good to see you.” And it was.

Luckily for me, it was almost the beginning of summer, and I was able to spend every day with her, sometimes for a few minutes, and sometimes for hours. Somehow I managed to find some care for her: an oncologist sometimes, a visit to the emergency room other times, a spiritual healer at others. I tried to clean the apartment, clean the kitchen, get her to eat a little bit. Sometimes, her eldest son and I would fight, like we always do, about what should happen. She became more and more ill as time went past, the cancer spread from her throat to her lungs and her stomach, to her esophagus and eventually to her brain.

During that time, I saw many scary things happen to Meredith and to her family as a result of being a 52 year old woman with cancer and no insurance. I discovered that there are no programs for truly poor women of non-childbearing age. Once, during a crisis, I took her to the ER for a blood transfusion, because her form of cancer seemed to leave her bloodless from time to time, and when we were about to be released, I asked a nurse what on Earth I was supposed to do with her. She said, “move to France?”.

Meredith wanted test after test, scanning for any information she could glean that would make her feel better. She laughed about many things, she fought with her family and friends. She grew angry quickly, because she was so tired. She didn’t want her sons to know how ill she really was, and how she was really feeling. One day, I asked her if she wanted to go to the emergency room, and she said no. I asked her if I called her nurse and the nurse said it was a good idea, would she go and she said yes. A minute later, when her middle son arrived, she changed her mind and said she was fine, so that he wouldn’t know how awful she felt. We took her anyway, into the hospital, where he became paralyzed in speech, and I had to tell the doctors and nurses what they already knew, which was that she was dying of cancer very, very quickly.

My memories of that time are hazy due to the intervening years and the intensity of the experience. I cared for Meredith to the best of my ability, and I know that I failed a thousand times where maybe someone else would have succeeded, but I also know that I tried my very best and so did her middle son who moved to Austin midway through the summer to live with her and her youngest son. He and I started sneaking marijuana into her food since she couldn’t smoke anything and would lie about it because she would actually eat when her avocados were spiked. He was quiet, stoic, calm, like a rock during those times. I will never forget his solitude, his way of clearly experiencing grief in his own, very individual way.

Close to the end, Meredith and I had a phone conversation in which she said she was trying to figure out how to “pierce the veil”. When I asked her what she meant, she said that she was trying to figure out how to send us signs so that when she died, if she needed to get in touch, we’d know it was her. She also requested that we get her stuffed, taxidermy style, so that she could still come to Christmas. The closer we got to the end, the clearer were her meditations on the meanings of life, and her most vivid, most intense belief was most certainly that the the individuality of the soul of a person was the most beautiful, mystical, and wonderful aspect of life on Earth. Over time, her conversations about where we came from, in the universal belt of souls, or somewhere in space, or astrology, wherever it is, became clearer and clearer to a point when I knew she wasn’t afraid to die, but she really wanted the people in her life to know how much she cherished them.

When she was moved into the hospital, during the last week of her life, she retained her wit and her spunk and her vigor and her downright mean streak. She asked us to rearrange her room so that she could look at pretty things and nothing that was informational or had to do with being sick. During those last few days, thanks to morphine and the loss of her functions due to the cancer expanding in her brain cells, she began to travel through time and across the world on a seemingly magic invisible carpet. Sometimes she was in Asia, Africa, Australia, America during the revolution, in the air, on the water, on the land. Over and over again, though, she repeated how much she loved her boys. Three of them, each so different and yet connected to the Earth by Meredith, sat beside her and listened to her ramblings, her stories, as she slipped away from us, beyond the veil about which she had spoken earlier.

When she died, I was teaching in my classroom, and was lucky enough to leave and sit with her middle son, his girlfriend, and Meredith’s sister, with whom I had become quite close. Later, only Margaret and I remained in that tiny room with what remained of Meredith: her body, not her at all.

Once, a friend of mine told me that Meredith was scary, in a way. Meredith never was on the Earth, in a grounded sense. Meredith was of the Earth, a powerful, difficult, and dynamic lady who struggled, perhaps more so than most people, but who made her way through with stories to tell and curios to share. Meredith was straight up and had no filters; Meredith made mistakes, sometimes huge and sometimes small. I say this because, in her final moments, her feelings of love were all that were coming out of her, and that shows me that she really was a creature of love, after all.

Three years and two days ago, I lost my friend Meredith Drew to cancer. During her memorial service, I saw photo after photo of my beautiful friend, and learned many things about her life that, sadly, I never had the time to ask her about. So life goes; it moves so fast, and just sweeps us along with it. I was just sitting on my porch, staring at the stars, wondering what now, and I had to laugh, because I realized that if I called her to ask her that, she would just laugh at me and I would be able to see that glint in her eye clear as a bell through the telephone. So, I see it in the stars instead.

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