Comebacks

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Happiness in life is making comebacks. We all experience loss. It lays us all low at some point. More than once even. The thing to learn to lean into is the knowledge, the self-assurance, you will get back to seeing and tasting and hearing. That the living will be vivid again. The joy full again.

I took a day trip to San Diego in the middle of last week. Put a message on my voicemail and toured historic sites. My brother and I walked through the Mission San Diego de Alcalá. We enjoyed its gardens and its sanctuary. Stepped down into the padre’s quarters.

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A desk and a cot by a door that opens to a view. It was a hot day but pleasantly cool in the padre’s room because of the thick adobe construction and the breeze through the open doorway. It was calming, peaceful in the simple living quarters. Solid walls, a desk, a cot, a door, a view. The makings of comebacks. Strength to simply endure, curiosity, rest, an open heart that seeks the world outside itself, looking and seeing.

Two Packs

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My dad surprised us with Sno Balls, chocolate cakes filled with a marshmallow goo and covered with pink dyed coconut flakes. He brought them home from the 7-Eleven. He came home with two 2-packs for our family to share. My mom, my dad, my brother, and myself. I didn’t really like them–so sweet they were too sweet–but I joined in because they were his favorite treat and it made him happy to share them with us. I wanted to like them for him and would try to eat them in three sloppy bites, same as he could do.

Family change is a strange thing. Whether the change happens from separation or divorce or the tragedy of death. Or the act of slipping apart and away from each other over time. We went from an even numbered family to an odd. Dinner meant four place settings at the table. Then it didn’t, even though I sometimes forgot at first and put a fourth plate on the table–an extra plate I’d awkwardly try to remove before it made my mom cry.

One lonely time I brought Sno Balls home from the convenience store. Some attempt to taste normal again. But then there was the outcast leftover Sno Ball in the torn wrapper that made us feel more pointedly the absence of being left behind.

And then eventually with hard change comes renewal and happy and better. All good. But always the quick shot of lonesome pangs whenever I pay for my gas at the station and pass by forsaken 2-packs.

Maury, My Dove

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Harvested the last few potatoes of the season as we hit the hot of true summer here in Southern California. I’ve been adopted by a Mourning Dove I call, in an instance of bland uncreativity, Maury.

Maury follows me around the garden as I putter. He moves to the closest tree and sings his beautiful, mournful song. Watches me dig, plant, compost.

He draws in enough air to fill his chest in order to sing his big songs. And I think, that’s it. That’s what it first takes to make things and give them openly–exaggerated intakes.

The Sad Sounds of the Mourning Dove

Memories Like Orange Blossoms

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There’s the smelling and the not. The being in tune and the fog. The scents of sorrow and the smell of life’s renewals.

George served in World War II. He went away to war with a fiancee and an earnest faith in provisions. He came home from a prisoner of war camp thin and sickly. His family moved from his home state of Illinois while he was overseas and his fiancee got involved with another man. He went monotone when speaking in the briefest detail about surviving WWII and imprisonment under inhumane conditions. But George’s voice broke as he pressed his thumb into his palm when he talked about coming home to no home at all and no loved ones to greet him. It wasn’t until then he quit believing in god, he said.

He’d lived on belief in an image of his future. It got him through the hunger and the stench of being assigned to dispose of corpses. The image of his parents and his girl welcoming him home and the dream of starting new in peace and with lots of bread and butter and pork chops.

George was my mom’s longtime companion. A man who treated me like a daughter. Better, in fact, than some fathers. A man who hoarded canned goods and Christmas decorations like a person determined to never starve again. He survived a prisoner of war camp and further survived the loss of the dream that kept him going. Everything changed in the home he left behind in order to serve. So, after the war, he got on a train for California because he’d heard the jobs were good and the weather marvelous in the Los Angeles area. The train trip was lonely and he was disheartened.

Defeated, discouraged, tired, weak, he paid no attention to the changing scenery on the trip West. Until the moment something reminded him there is unexpected joy in living. The train stopped in Riverside, California while the orange trees were in blossom. It smelled better than anything he ever could’ve imagined. It cleansed the nightmarish rot. The blossoms of the orange groves snapped him back into awareness. They rejuvenated him.

He chose to stay and started fresh. Built a good life. Lived a long and good life. Independent until the last year. That last year in an assisted living facility without a kitchen or a pantry in his room. We put up a Christmas tree and a fresh pine wreath on his door his last year. Ate a bland Christmas dinner at a cafeteria table that overlooked the duck pond.

Twice over he was rushed to the emergency room where we found him restrained to the bed and delirious. In an absolute panic. A panic mixed with anger. They were holding him down to rape him, he said. We were all in on it together, he said.

It’s then you know you can’t take heart aches and bad memories away from people. It’s then you know the sacrifices were worse than you let yourself believe.

By the time they released him into home hospice care to await the end, he was back to cracking corny jokes–back to being George. Kind. Passive. George’s bravery was in experiencing violent inhumanity and opting to never perpetrate the same. George found faith again in his life and he lived in peace. He slowly drifted into a coma and died in peace. He was a peaceful man.

I am grateful to all who serve in the name of giving peace to a greater number of others. Because of that sacrifice I can live, love, lose, work, write, cry, dream, scheme, plan, hope, imagine. I can hike in the mountains and enjoy the invigorating smell of pine needles. I can putter in my garden and appreciate being alive and being free to smell roses and sage and jasmine and marigolds.

And, for George, orange blossoms.

Sunset in the Rearview

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I like to drive on hot nights with the window down. Last night the unexpected smell of fresh cut hay reminded me of growing up in Wyoming and riding a motorcycle along the irrigation canals. I passed an old corner market as the sun set in my rearview. The store’s pink paint flaking and peeling. Its liquor sign glowed warm but I felt no pull unlike the year I pickled my sorrow to preserve it.

Memories, pleasant and painful, behind and beside. Driving toward the next corner expecting lilacs around the bend.

Head Stone

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Sometimes I adopt graves. Her mom has the urn with her ashes. It’s just as well as I would probably treat it with a worshipfulness best put in the past. My great aunts and great uncles made me visit the family grave plots when I spent childhood summers in Wisconsin. I thought it creepy and, what’s more, boring. The pull to place gaudy plastic bouquets of flowers at a hunk of rock by a specific mound of dirt beyond my fathoming. I preferred to catch sunfish off the Atlas bridge.

Sometimes I am in need of a good visit. That’s why I now find calm communion in strange cemeteries beside strangers’ gravestones. There are almost always sparrows. Rarer times a bluebird or a towhee scratching through freshly mowed grass. My favorite cemetery in Murrieta is bordered by firethorns with clusters of hot orange berries in the autumn. There’s another in Beaumont with ancient cyprus trees the tour guide in Greece called the trees of sorrow.

It’s nice to read the lovely ways loved ones are memorialized. I wonder what would I have chosen to be chiseled for her. “Wife” but it wasn’t legal. “Partner” but it can sound like a business transaction. Soulmate, best friend, beloved… Maybe the most encompassing sentiment simply her name. Yesterday she would have been fifty.

Yes, it’s best the urn with her ashes is elsewhere. The name and the all of her better carried within me. Sometimes it’s nice to visit strange graves. To pay respects and to leave fresh bouquets of roses from my garden like a secret admirer. So also is it reverential to go home and harvest garlic–to close the cemetery gate and leave the headstone behind.