Wednesday, October 14, 2015

small town witch

This morning I woke up early, 6am, and lay happily curled and cozy warm under the covers there in the dark of the guest room at my parents' house. Eventually I got up, ran a comb through my hair, threw on yesterday's clothes and my Aunt Ellen's hand-me-down red clogs and ventured out through the back garden for a walk to the store so that I could get milk for my morning tea.

The world outside smelled of woodsmoke and rotting apples, and chestnut casings crinkled and snapped underfoot. It was cold still, and I could see my breath exhaling in wisps under the streetlights, intermittent as they are here in this funny little town. I know I keep harping on the sky here after so many years of being surrounded by tall buildings, but this morning it was spectacular in its simplicity, in its metamorphosis from the dark of just before dawn to the rosy glowing warmth of just after.

A clutch of children startled at one point as I strode by in the half-light, and I myself startled at their startled look. It was then I looked down at this morning's particular and peculiar get-up: my very tall mother's ankle-length black dress (a mishap with glue during an art class the previous night having rendered my own skirt un-presentable), my favorite black sweater, my aunt's red clogs, my bright red hair, and I couldn't help but feel momentarily -- caught as I was in between shadows and the light -- like a modern day incarnation of the wicked witch of the west. It is October after all, and who knows what might find itself wandering the streets and byways early of a morning before the sun is fully up.

This made me smile the rest of the way to the grocery store, where a lovely cashier rang me up on someone else's club card to get the sale price, and the someone else was pleased to get the extra gas points on his card, which of course I don't need. 

Such is life in a small town, I suppose, saturated in apples and smoke and sky. It's not such a bad place to live.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


I realized the other morning, as I walked by a particularly fragrant patch of the summer's last alyssum, that my annual autumn sadness seems to have gone astray. The alyssum was so sweet, white tufts awash in the morning light, that I couldn't help but smile as I traipsed on towards a job I love, in a town I love, where the sky is vast and beautiful and constantly changing.

I realized in that moment that I have not cried in months.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

in the span of friendships

It was a beautiful day, last week's summer solstice, and filled to overflowing with almost everything good. Oysters and chocolate cake and laughter and fresh local strawberries and crisp vino verde and boundless affection for dear relatives and new and old friends alike.

One of these new friends, a kind and generous woman, gave me a card that quoted Albert Camus. It struck me as beautiful as soon as I read it, but it wasn't until days later that I realized it's been swirling around up here in my head ever since: In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was within me an invincible summer.

My mind's been casting back to the long nights and gray days of this past winter; of the winding down of a relationship that was the catalyst for a cross-continental move; of a sometimes insurmountable homesickness for the life I so carefully constructed over the course of two decades in New York City; of the strangeness, both disconcerting and lovely, of living again in my mother's house. It may have been an unseasonably warm winter (at least here in the fair northwest) and even an unseasonably sunny winter (or so I've been told by the locals), but until now, with a layer of distance and beautiful June days, I hadn't quite realized how dark it felt.

To have this new person (this wonderful woman, this friend) be aware of some of this was a shining moment I don't think I could have imagined back in December, February, March.

And then the other night I was chatting with an old, old friend -- a man I've known since we were ridiculous young teenagers spending hours on the phone or sneaking out for clandestine after-hours talks down at the lake. I was whining to him, I'm afraid, about lingering insecurities -- of growing old and fat, unattractive and unloved. He scoffed at this, of course, as any friend would, and said, "You are as you've always been." And then, "I remember you. We are from the same cloth."

Somehow these simple words -- this moment of being truly seen, of being known to an other through all our years of overlapping histories -- brought such a warmth that the rest of the evening found me glowing (though perhaps aided by the beer with dinner, the bit of port afterwards to accompany delicious birthday chocolates from another new friend).

So here I am, thousands of miles away from the place I secretly thought would always be home, unexpectedly single again, perched precariously on the edge of a new life. In no small part thanks to the amazing good fortune of having these new and old friends, and much to my surprise, I find myself actually, excitedly, loving it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

the modern age

I am writing this from the modern age: unplugged and sitting in the back garden, feet propped comfortably on an ottoman, glass of perfectly chilled white wine and plate of sliced and salted kohlrabi from the garden close to hand.

A girl could get used to this, I have to say.

Two weeks ago I was chained to a semi-functional laptop with a battery life of approximately zero and an ancient flip-phone that could barely handle text messaging. Now here I am, the pleased and slightly discomfited owner of not only an iPad but also the newest iPhone. (Yay for early birthday presents, generous relatives, and a brother who continues to live up to his reputation of sniffing out the best possible deals on, well, everything.)

Which is how it came to be that one mid-June afternoon found me and my mother hunched over a table, peering intently down at our phones, she offering instruction on the ins and outs of iPhone ownership and me, mouth agape, trying to absorb it all. The humor in this inter-generational role reversal did not escape me.

And so here I sit typing contentedly away in the garden, untethered and unchained, convinced anew (or perhaps for the first time) that the future is, in fact, now.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

the things you miss

It was so unbelievably quiet and dark that night we made love in the funny little hotel in the funny little town of Winthrop, Washington. I was used to city sex, always interrupted by the grating grumble of garbage trucks and drunken brawls, delivery men buzzing the wrong apartment and taxi cabs screeching through the intersection six flights down. The dark and the quiet were overwhelming in the way that they saturated the room -- sinking into our skin and seeping into all the words that could have been said between us, spiking the tears we were surprised to find on each others lips.

The next morning we got up early and headed back over the mountains toward the Pacific, leaving eastern Washington's dry summer heat behind us as we climbed higher and higher into the mountain passes. There was so much love still between us then, at least during that handful of days we overlapped before returning to our respective worlds -- he here in Anacortes, me to the ever-beckoning isle of Manhattan.

These last few months, almost two years on from that odd and lovely little road trip over the mountains and back, have been brutal for both of us. He said once, toward the end, that he felt like I always had all these ideas about us in my head. So many ideas, in fact, that I forgot he might have ideas, too. He said he sometimes felt like there wasn't room for him in the world I'd wanted us to build together. He wasn't really all that wrong, I suppose.

Later this summer he's probably going back to Winthrop with someone else -- a good friend of ours, a buddy of his, but still.  They'll probably go to the places we went to: the pizza place that we walked to from our hotel along the river in the lengthening shadows and golden evening light; the bakery in Twisp so that we could try their famous (and rightfully so!) 'cinnamon twisps'; the power plant on the river with its beautiful surrounding forest gardens and cooling waterfall-induced breezes.

It's not that I'm jealous, exactly, but learning of their potential road trip sent such a pang of sadness through me that I had to go into myself, just sit and be quiet in the dark for a little while. I want so much to be going with them, to be driving through the mountains in his beat up old Subaru with these two people I love so much, with the windows rolled down and the radio playing and my feet propped up on the dashboard like before.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

on knitting

I've been a bicoastal creature most of my life -- born in Oakland, CA to hippie parents who relocated to the Bronx when my father got a faculty position at Barnard College, then moved again to a quiet, leafy suburb of New York City; summers spent on Idaho's gorgeous Lake Coeur d'alene and driving up and down the Oregon and Washington coasts. But mostly I've been a New York City woman, having moved there at the age of eighteen for college, taking on a library job at Columbia University, and never looking back.

My grandmother was an avid, if quirky, knitter who for decades tried to pass along her love of the craft to me, her endlessly stubborn granddaughter. Finally, as I approached thirty and she wasn't getting any younger, my mother and I went on a little road trip to spend a ladies weekend with her, our dear matriarch. We armed ourselves with a couple pairs of size 11 knitting needles and some pretty wools and decided to finally let her have her way with us. And lo, by the end of the weekend we were well on our way to knitting our very first scarves.

After I first started knitting on that trip ten years ago, I couldn't believe the pleasure to be had in making these things -- these simple blankets and striped scarves in beautiful natural fibers -- and I had this insatiable desire to just bundle them around all the people that I loved, to keep them warm and cozy and safe. Somehow this seemed even more necessary in the face of bitterly cold New York winters, saturated as they are with an icy frozen-ness of concrete and glass. 

Eventually practically everyone I loved had an Emma-scarf, so I began selling my work and branching out into more complex forms of knitting. Teaching myself how to knit lace was a whole new experience, and I became entranced with the idea of these delicate silks softening the harsh edges of the concrete Manhattan world that surrounded me. I began focusing on bridal wear and chuppahs (traditional Jewish wedding canopies), eventually started Emma's Bridal & Lace, and grew to love this type of work most of all.

And not long after that, the siren call of my west coast relatives -- mother in Anacortes, brother in Portland -- became too difficult to ignore. So here I am, having traded in my beloved Manhattan and a career at Columbia University for an entirely new way of living, here on beautiful Fidalgo Island. These days, I wake up peacefully in the mornings to birdsong and the salty wind coming in off the ocean, the scent of lavender and peonies having permeated my sleep . 

This new piece, my seaweed girl, is an attempt to embody some of this newness -- this clear air I've come to love so much, the greens of the forests and the tangling weeds washed up along the shore, the beautiful snarled essence of living here, tentatively, on the edge of the briny deep.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015


The peonies are amazing here -- huge clusters of them frothing all over the garden in the early morning light. Their scent lingers in the air as I stand out there with the hose, watering before the sun is high enough to burn the moisture off. I've been gathering them in, taking armfuls to the shop, keeping a few on the dining table until their petals begin to drop.

The poppies, too, are amazing though I've been leaving them outside. Bright orange and crimson and salmon and pink, glowing against the blue sky if you catch them right. I always wondered about that scene in the Wizard of Oz, even back when I was a little girl. What was it exactly that made them all fall into such blissful unconsciousness? And, honestly, why would they ever want to wake up?

Sunday, June 07, 2015

hobbled, and missing the city

Woke up yesterday morning to a shooting pain in my right leg, no idea why. This morning found me hobbling to work in a particularly awkward fashion even more ungainly than is the norm, forced to slow down my usual brisk pace.

It felt like such exposure -- to weakness, to vulnerability, to visibility -- and made me miss the half-block walk from my old New York City apartment to the bus stop that would get me to work every day. It made me miss, too, the anonymity of the teeming streets there, where no one gives a second glance to a hobbling girl (this I know from experience).

I'm not sure anyone noticed here either, but when you're practically the only one walking out along the streets and there is absolutely no teeming to be seen, it's sometimes hard not to feel like the entire world is looking at you. Every car, every passer by.

It reminded me of all the times I shaved my head after having let it grow out. For the first few days immediately following the latest hair follicle massacre I was absolutely positive that people were staring as I got on the M4, walked along the A-train platform, traversed Canal on my way to Chinatown. I could feel their eyes, hear the whisper of turning heads trailing in my wake. And then, a couple days later, it would stop -- no more stares, rude or curious or otherwise; no more startled looks or averted gaze. But the thing is, of course, in a place the size of New York City it wasn't the fact of being around strangers that changed, it was me. Which means it was either all in my head in the first place and no one was ever staring, or people were still looking and I just stopped noticing.

I've thought about this now and again over the years; the ways in which we inhabit a real or imagined gaze, the ways in which we let this shape us.

And so I spent the awkward, painful walk to work this morning telling myself that even here in this not-New-York-City people surely have better things to do than gawk at a hobbling girl, and that this uncomfortable feeling of being exposed in my weakness must also be in my head.

I suppose I could have just called someone for a ride, but therein lies the McNeil stubbornness: if I can't damn well take care of myself, what business did I have moving out here?

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

'i can't seem to see through solid marble eyes...'

I was walking home this morning squinting through an unexpected barrage of tears, swiping frustratedly at the silly salty things, trying to keep them from dripping down my nose, my cheeks, my lips. The wherefores of it are not important, really, but I found myself wanting to turn west on 10th Street instead of going directly home. I  wanted to walk up the steps to the ex-boyfriend's house, knock on the door, hoping for some sense of welcome, some sense of warmth, maybe even a hug. I guess I've been feeling a bit lonely, of late.

Instead I came home and spent a surprisingly satisfactory few minutes deadheading the rose bushes in the back garden before coming inside for a cup of tea and a blaring of this song, which for some reason  always, always makes me feel better.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

this & that

There are moments of clarity, sometimes, when you realize that despite nothing going the way you expected it to go -- the man, the work, the great westward migration -- you are still, somehow, miraculously, exactly where you're supposed to be.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

on being a work daughter

I've been thinking about her a lot recently -- Mary of the wild hair and sometimes surprisingly wicked humor -- as I went through the process of applying for, being secretly sure I would get, and then not getting a library job I thought should be mine.  I've found myself wanting to take my humiliation to her, to drop my hurt and disappointment at her feet and demand of her, "What the hell happened?"

For years Mary wanted me to do more with my life, to pursue a higher level of librarianship, to live up to a potential she saw in me that, for whatever reasons, I didn't want to fill. Last fall, after her death, a colleague referred to me as her "work daughter," and though I scoffed at this at the time (as though I had some claim on her!), I wonder if in some ways I didn't turn her into a work mother.

I started working for Mary when I was twenty-three years old, grew into true adulthood on her quiet but observant watch, went through heartbreaks and joys in the world she so carefully kept an eye over. I think she would have been proud of me for leaving, in the end; for following my heart even if it was a misguided heart, for trying to decide what was true. Mary was a woman of formidable practicality, after all, and the idea of wallowing in stagnant unhappiness would not have appealed to her.

Is it ever too late to eulogize a person? Months after leaving her world, months after her leaving ours, she's been so close to the surface again lately, demanding the good solid cry I couldn't give her back in the autumn time.

We worked together for fifteen years, watched each other with reserved affection through illness and loss, through depressions and accomplishments and the giggling fits of just life. I spent her last days at the library shredding documents for her and wanting to say, "You are dying." Wanting to say, "Mary. No one cares, no one will ever care, about documentation for your travel expenses from 1995." Wanting to say, "Please stop. Stop shredding, stop hiding, stop protecting us, stop building your walls of privacy. You are dying. Be here with us now."

But I kept shredding decades old papers as she gagged and drooled, her weakened fingers puzzling at handfuls of handkerchief. We loved each other, she and I, but we were not a demonstrative pair, and I had made a promise to her weeks before not to make her cry. It just made her already difficult breathing more so, and I didn't want to be a part of that.

At the end of her last day I helped her put on her jacket and gathered up her bags and walked with her through her library for the last time. I looked on as she smiled graciously at everyone we passed -- our staff of so many years, professors whom she'd known forever, students who didn't realize she wasn't coming back. We walked across Amsterdam Avenue, across campus, across Broadway in the October dusk and finally into her apartment, me carrying her bags and not really knowing what to do with myself during those moments when she had to pause to rest, to catch her breath.

I wish that I'd understood then that she was down to weeks. If I'd known (I tell myself now), I would have forced myself awkwardly through our reticences.

Later, after finding out that she had died -- at home in her beloved Columbia apartment, surrounded by her siblings -- I would obsess over never having gotten a job recommendation from her. When I finally realized last summer that I would be leaving New York I went to Mary's office and told her of my unplanned plans for heading west. She asked then if she should start working on a letter for me and I said no, not yet, I'm not quite there yet. She just got weaker after that, needing more and more days off, causing ever increasing busyness on the days she came to work, and I never brought it up again. Later, I felt like The Outsiders' Two-Bit obsessing over losing his favorite comb in the rumble that led to his best friend's death. It felt easier, of course, to obsess over the lack of recommendation than to obsess over the lack of Mary.

Now, as I am dealing with the fall out from failing to get this library job I'd been banking on more than I'd quite realized, I am missing her good sense, her support, her forthright trust in my abilities and my judgment.

I'm trying to believe (to steal a phrase from a feel-good view of the world I've never quite bought into) that the library thing is 'just not meant to be.' The library thing is old school, my old life, and maybe not what I'm supposed to be doing out here on the western rim, in my new life, in this new world. Maybe it's time to let that go, to dive perhaps into writing, to get more serious about my fiber work, to throw something creative and achingly beautiful out into the world.

I'm not entirely sure that Mary, in all her good sense and solid practicalities, would approve of this, and I am missing what surely would have been a righteous indignation on her part when she heard about this job fiasco. But I know she would have appreciated whatever beauty I come up with, and would have loved watching her work daughter finally spreading some wings and daring something new.

Friday, May 08, 2015

in the library

In the library I've been working upstairs of late, doing searches and straightening during my volunteer shifts. I love it up there in those early morning hours before we open our doors for the day. I move things around, neatening, looking behind for long lost books, running my fingers happily down shelves and shelves of mysteries, romances, fantastical science fictions and all the other fictions -- all new curiosities to me after so long in a university research library.

It is quiet up there. Sometimes Sydney or Linda or Brian will wander through with an armful of magazines or books to re-shelve, but usually it's just me rustling about among the stacks.

It is empty and quiet and sky-light bright, and I get the sense sometimes of being safely tucked away in an aerie. The seagulls must have a similar affinity for the library's roof, and as I wander I find myself smiling at their raucous, riotous squawking from up top. So I work my way through the rows of books up there on the second floor, listening to gull music and the wind and the quiet of this tiny city perched here on the edge of the sea. I work and listen and wonder what it is they're squabbling over, what it is they're saying, what exactly they're looking for up there. Of course, sometimes I wonder the same thing about me.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

lost in translation

I am wishing that we had learned the same language, or at least pidgin versions close enough so that we might understand each other.

When I propose a plan in my sometimes neurotic overly-planning way -- a meal, a walk, catching up on The Walking Dead -- I am saying, "I care about you, and I am missing you, and I would like to spend time with you."

When you bring me a loaf of bread, your first baking in months and months, you are saying, "I care about you and am bringing you this offering of love -- love for myself, love for you."

I am saying here now, "Let's have lunch tomorrow, Wednesday," but I am also saying, "Please acknowledge soon this token of my affection, this desire to see you and break bread with you. Please don't leave me here alone."

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

in the rain

The snails were on the move today in the early morning rain, slimily traversing sidewalks and grassy lawns, hellbent on getting underfoot. I tried to avoid them on my walk downtown to meet Mom after her dental surgery but got distracted momentarily by a flowering tree all glimmering and glistening in the raindrop-filled sky. And then crunch. I felt terrible, and turned back to assess the damage inflicted on the poor little gastropod. There it was, shell flattened, oozing its slimy self out into a puddle. I looked around and noticed similarly shaped splats all over the sidewalk, reminding me of the ubiquitous black smears you find on New York City sidewalks and subway platforms, and the disgust I felt upon learning that all those millions of little black splats were formerly wads of chewing gum indiscriminately expectorated. I've been feeling a little bit like a Dorothy today, whisked off to a rain-drenched utopia, missing her beloved concrete city, wondering if it's preferable to tread on other people's spit-out chewing gum or on the backs of innocent (at least in this context) migrating snails.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

'i wanted to fill my elegy with light'

1.0 I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds. But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he's dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.  So I began to think about history.

1.1 History and elegy are akin. The word 'history' comes from an ancient Greek verb meaning 'to ask.' One who asks about things -- about their dimensions, weight, location, moods, names, holiness, smell -- is an historian. But the asking is not idle. It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.

 6.1 When my brother died (unexpectedly) his widow couldn't find a phone number for me among his papers until two weeks later. While I swept my porch and bought apples and sat by the window in the evening with the radio on, his death came wandering slowly towards me across the sea.

(Anne Carson, Nox)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

wild fennel

Your mother sounds skeptical when you mention you're going out with him again, after one too many nights of seeing you come home sad, mad, or on the verge of tears. You tell her it's only trivia at the bar, don't be silly, you're just friends now. You tell her you're pretty sure you won't be crying over him anymore.

She was right, of course, as mothers so often are about stubborn, foolish daughters. And so you find yourself walking home alone again, vision blurred with angry tears, wondering what the hell you're doing in this tiny little town, house key gripped painfully tight in your left pocket.

But there's a picture from earlier, taken as you walked out to the pavilion alongside this man you've loved for years. There was this moment of grace somewhere out there by the harbor, a moment of bursting light and the scent of wild fennel wafting along the path, a moment in which you wanted to take his hand -- even after everything, even after all of this.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


The waking-up noises here are vastly different, of course, from those I grew to know so intimately during the twelve years I lived in my sweet little apartment perched on the northwest cliffs of Manhattan.

I've been in this little town -- this tiny city, if you will -- for four months now as of last week and have only recently really begun to listen to the early morning. I've begun, it is true, ignoring my quarter to six alarm, lolling about in bed until six, six-thirty, sometimes even pushing on towards seven.

Sometimes the Llama-monster jumps up on the bed, curls into my neck, soft and purring, drowning out the almost-silence, lulling me into forgetting where I am, and how it is not where I've been for so long.

Other times she doesn't, and I find myself lying there quietly in bed at first feeling guilty about not immediately getting up and on with the day. But then I've been falling into the silence, feeling the weight of bed and sheets beneath and above me, the feel of hair tickling my ears, the sound of my breath. I've begun noticing the quietly sporadic symphony of early morning bird songs, the cresting waves few and far between of the traffic over on 12th Street, muffled by the houses between there and here. If I let myself linger long enough, I start counting the different birds, the increasing traffic as early commuters start coming in from off the ferries, and the noise begins to swell into full day.

Sometimes I miss the cacophony of the pre-dawn garbage trucks in Washington Heights getting their city ready for its day. But I think I could get used to these meditative hours or half-hours, here in this tiny city, counting bird calls and cars passing by, one by one by one.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

another april eighteenth, relocated

Marking twenty-two years today since losing Dad, and the first time I've spent the day as a resident of the state he grew up in and loved so much. The day was beautiful, and filled with warmth and sadness and anticipation: a morning coffee walk & talk with Mom, an afternoon spent with a new friend generous enough to come over for a photo shoot for my latest shawls, and now a quiet evening with the folks.

There is something to be said for quiet days spent with loved ones, surrounded by gardens and the ocean air. And also something to be said for hording these old pictures that Mom and I have been sorting through these last few months. Just look at that face, decades before that warm, sunny, gut-wrenching April 18th twenty-two years ago. It's enough to make me smile no matter the day, and reinforces this strange sense of maybe finally being home.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

the sea, again

We spent an afternoon last week having one of those long, meandering, utterly heartbreaking conversations that seem to never want to end. We perched for hours on a bench overlooking the Salish Sea, our words laced through with rage and loss, resentment bubbling up before receding back into tears.  I tried to explain, as we sat there in the salty ocean wind, how I had imagined breathing this air with him, here on the edge of things, thousands of miles away from the concrete and noise of New York City. And I tried to hear all the ways in which I have let him down, all the ways in which we have failed each other. He, ever the optimist, said there is plenty of air to go around, even in those moments when it feels like we just can't breathe.

Eventually, though of course not really, there was even a quiet peace, perhaps born more out of emotional exhaustion than any real denouement.

The sun had long since passed its zenith by then, glaring down on us from the western sky, dulling the chill of an early-April breeze. And the following morning, an angry red sunburn encircling my neck -- but for a glaring white stripe where my necklace had been.

Monday, March 16, 2015


The sky was heartbreakingly beautiful this morning, half past seven, as I began the walk back in to town from my housesitting gig. So windswept and dynamic and pulsing with all that is life.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


I'd not been to that particular beach before.  The air was bright that day, and the sky clear as we straggled, the three of us, along the water's edge. The sun was in my eyes and I found myself pausing on the edge of things, squinting out at the sky and the sea and the islands floating there. My mother walked up to me and said, "Emily, you look so happy right now."

We left the beach with pockets full of rocks, rounded pebbles smoothed by waves and sand and the ages, perfect for holding curled tightly in a fist. Grainy sand clung to them, and then to my fingers, damp and cold, begging to be licked. And the salt of the Salish Sea tasted better to me than tears.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


The stupid thing about dying is that we all go through it but we so rarely seem to understand it, and I am finding that my cavalier attitude towards it is wearing a bit thin these days.

I've wrapped this cavalier-ness around me -- and at times an accompanying near disdain for grief -- since I was sixteen years old. Once you've watched your father writhing on the lobby floor at the local Boys & Girls Club, and then watched his eyes glaze over as he's shoved into the back of an ambulance, there's maybe not much room left for empathy.

I don't know that I've ever really gotten over it, though I've learned to fake it better over the years. I've learned to sound knowledgeable about death: about the witnessing of it and the mourning of it, about the cocooning inward that happens sometimes after it.

They say, about childbirth, that your body forgets the pain, the agony, of it all. I wouldn't know about that, but I wonder if the same isn't true of deep, deep grief. How else to survive the mind-numbing brutality of it, after all, than to forget?

But I've forgotten the actual feelings of loss behind the facts of my father's death. The closest I can come now is to the grief I felt when a boyfriend up and left in abrupt and spectacular fashion after five years of living together. For weeks I couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, felt the world closing in around me, kept looking for the next thing that would make me feel better only to discover that the next thing never helped.

It's a silly comparison, I know, but it's the place I can look to for understanding. Adult grief is so much different, I think, than adolescent grief.

The year or so after Dad died, I found myself not cocooning in, but rather bursting out through the seams, craving attention and worry and concern, staying out late, sometimes staying out all night, or for days on end at friends' houses. I dyed my hair black and stomped around in black witchy boots and took up smoking Marlboro reds. I curled up and cried at parties, fell asleep at the movies, cut way too many classes, scratched at fragile skin with needles and pins. Some of my friends took to making sure I had someone to hang out with on certain nights. Some of them called this Emma-sitting, as in, "Who's got Emma tonight?" I like to think they didn't mind this task so much, but of course they did. We were seventeen years old.

Now I am watching this person I love going through the loss of his father. We're supposed to be grown up now, and there will be no rending of garments, no slashing and burning the world around us to the ground.

I am selfishly trying to remember that being on the outside of this is the right place for me to be: to be the person needed in the moments needed, to show up uninvited without feeling unwanted, to sit quietly over cups of tea, to not be the one needing to be held.  I am trying to remember how to reach deep into a darkness I don't quite understand for an empathy that seems like it should be easy.

Friday, March 06, 2015

in memoriam: a good man

All you had to do was walk into his presence, smile and say "Hi, Harold," and his face would just light up. It was, as they say, a sight to see.

He wasn't always that happy man, and struggled for years with depression and alcohol, sons he rarely saw and women he'd left behind. I didn't know him back then, of course, but rather met him years after he had managed to settle into a life that he loved -- with his wife Andrea, whom he married back in '76, and his son Evan, my sweet man, born three years later.

To me, honestly, he seemed like a giant teddy bear -- a quiet, gentle, bearded man with the strength of an ox and the steadfastness of an oak. It's hard to imagine those earlier years of discontent, of wandering the world, of serving in the Merchant Marines, getting shot at while running ammunition up the Saigon River, leaving broken hearts in his wake. It's hard to imagine but it also explained the hints of sadness, of longing, that seemed to linger sometimes in the creases at the corners of his eyes. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference, with him, between laugh lines and loss.

One of my favorite memories of Harold, Christmas of 2001. Nathan and I flew in to SeaTac from New York and Evan came to pick us up. His car broke down before we even got north of Seattle, but we managed to get to a friend's apartment. It was late, closing in on midnight by then, and Evan called his mom to let her  know we wouldn't be able to make it home that night. Moments later Andrea called us back to tell us Harold was out the door, car keys in hand -- there was no way in hell he was leaving his kid with a broke-down car in the middle of the night, hours away from home.

Another favorite memory, July of 2009, at the barbecue Mom and Paul hosted here in Anacortes for all the west coast folks who wouldn't be able to attend Nathan's wedding in Philadelphia that September. Paul spent the afternoon working his oyster-grilling magic and Harold spent the afternoon holding trays of oysters, wandering the barbecue, quietly offering them to the other guests. There was something so sweet, such a desire to be present and helpful despite a quietness that maybe sometimes made conversing difficult for him, that I found myself wanting to just give him a big huge hug. That was a few months before Evan and I got together, but I knew by then that his was a family I wanted to get to know better.

Evan moved to New York not long after that, and for the next few years it broke my heart when it came time to say goodbye to Harold at the end of our Anacortes visits. He always looked so sad to see us go, to see this beloved son of his leaving for the far side of the country. I can only imagine his joy when Evan decided to move home again almost two years ago, and then I didn't have to imagine it when I finally moved to Anacortes a few months ago.  He wore it all over his face.

The last few months were hard for Harold after spending a lifetime building houses, sailing the seas first in the Merchant Marines and then as an engineer for the Washington State Ferries, road-tripping with friends and family, learning the banjo and the dobro and falling into the wonderfully close-knit and familial world of the northwest bluegrass scene. The last few months saw his world shrink down to a recliner chair in the guest room, the trip from there to the kitchen, to the bedroom or bathroom and back again. As his liver disease progressed his eyesight grew worse and he began struggling to follow a conversation, to differentiate at times between waking and sleep, to eat, finally to breathe.

Yet through these months of enduring this slow decline and ever-shrinking world, Harold continued to live with an almost shocking grace. We would sit quietly together for a little while most days, he in his recliner chair and me pulled up close with my knitting in my lap. The television would be playing -- old westerns or Pandora bluegrass or country music stations -- and we'd talk about random things, as thoughts rose up through the increasing muddled-ness of his mind. The merits of the Beatles verses the Stones. The surprise of watching old tv shoes (Sanford & Son, specifically) and hearing words that are no longer okay to say. Whether or not I'd like some weed with the celery and peanut butter we were munching on (I didn't). Whether or not he wanted to continue taking anti-depressants. The frustration of causing stress and work for his loved ones.

Once, when I was sitting with him so Andrea could go out for a hair cut, he asked me a couple times when she'd be back. Eventually I noticed him looking off into the distance, a sad and affectionate smile on his face. When I asked him if I could get him anything, he sort of shook himself aware and said, "I sure miss that woman when she's not here...."

Another time, I arrived at the front door to find a semi-frazzled Evan trying to clean Harold up after his breakfast hadn't settled well and he'd vomited all over himself, his chair, the floor. I ended up sitting with Harold in the bedroom while Evan finished cleaning up the mess in the other room. Harold asked where Evan was, what he was doing, kept saying what a good boy Evan is, and eventually this: "I'm so glad he's my son. Otherwise I might not have been lucky enough to know him."

Home hospice care began this past Sunday, the hospital bed arrived Monday afternoon, and though of course we all knew what that meant, I think we were expecting weeks, months, to be able to sit with Harold, to smile at him and bask in his gentleness. Not days, certainly not hours.

It was a good dying, in the end. Early Tuesday morning he took his last breaths in his bedroom, in this gorgeous house that he built, his wife and son at his side. But despite that it is still a shock, as death always seems to be, and the void in the shape of this dear man will linger for a long time, as it should.