“I wish I could do more for you,” Mom lamented one recent afternoon. “I am so sorry for all the mistakes I made as a mother.” For a moment I stood stunned at the revelation of my 82-year-old mother’s insecurity, especially as incongruous as it was with my memory of reality. Mom gave her whole soul to being a mother. Hot whole-wheat gruel steamed on the table before school, and she served a delicious dinner at precisely 6:00 p.m., every day. She washed by basketball socks and took me to buy my first pair of Levi’s. She gathered us every Sunday afternoon to play games—PIT was a favorite, with six kids clamoring cacophonously for “wheat!” and “rye!” and “barley!” The family car ran night and morning with rides to and from marching band practice, piano lessons, and early morning Bible class. I sat at the kitchen table one evening struggling with my homework, trying to remember the Spanish word for pain—dolor. She surprised me by bursting out protectively, “You know: dolor, just like Delores!” referring to my painfully unrequited infatuation for a girl at church. I never again forgot that word! She nursed me through dozens of ear infections and serious injuries followed by surgeries and staff. She organized a family vacation to the magical woods of Maine, and I have loved loons since. She even gave me an enema (my most embarrassing life memory) when I writhed from what the doctor arrogantly insisted was constipation but was in truth an appendix about to burst. And at 82 she says good-bye with “I can’t wait to see you when you come home!” and greets me after work with “There’s my boy!” Once again she is providing a safe and comfortable home for me, and listens without upbraid to her children in all their multitudinous troubles. “What mistakes?” I asked her sincerely. “I cannot remember any.” Even were they present, and I presume they were, they are long forgotten. We six siblings, and our numerous offspring, all cherish her. It is our turn now to wish we could do more for her.
I had never heard of a “gender reveal” before, and I confess my first involuntary horrid absurd notion was of holding aloft a naked infant for the invited guests to gawk at. Instead, I learned, a gender reveal is a party at which the soon-to-be parents and their guests learn from a trusted person the sex of the coming child, followed by balloons and confetti and thick-frosted cake, colored blue or pink, boy or girl. At John’s and Alleigh’s invitation, family and friends from Utah and Idaho gathered to Mom’s and Dad’s house for the celebration, happy to see each other, pumping hands and exchanging embraces, catching up on news and activities, eating chicken salad croissants, everyone eager for cupcakes with swirled pink and blue icing. Mom and Dad added little cups of deluxe mixed nuts and candy corn. We played cornhole, the always popular bean bag toss game. Then it was time for the revelation (or is it “the reveal”?). John and Alleigh each grasped a cardboard cannon, cameras whirring. On “3!” they pulled the cannon strings and out exploded clouds of blue confetti—and then the whoops and screams of delight. Their first child will be a boy! His two-year-old cousin, Lila, gathered up little fists-full of confetti and announced, “fireworks!” They had been equally contended with the thought of either sex. Their exuberance was not over the baby’s gender, but over the ever-more-real fact that their baby is coming, soon—the happiest of all possible news.
I live my days on the edge of anxiety, tense, waiting for the next unexplained bump or clang, in fear of the next fall, tense, nodding with sleep at my desk but ready to jump into action at the slightest premonition. The garage door opens, and I start at the sound, knowing Dad has ventured into the yard to clip or rake or hoe or mow or fertilize, and the temperature is 95 degrees, the sky cloudless, tool handles too hot to touch, the grass rotting and pungent in the can. My personal spiritual pursuit is to cultivate trust, a trust that life is beautiful and good, a trust that I can improve my character and mind, a trust that truth and goodness will prevail as often as possible, a trust that God is real and loves infinitely and actively, that he redeems and pays personal attention and dispenses mercy abundantly to all who want it. That is my labor. I feel tired. I’m going to go check on Dad.
After years of listening to Heitor Villa-Lobos music during his late-night reading, Dad abruptly shifted to Johnny Mathis. Seventeen tracks repeat every night. Amazingly, I know all the songs—I heard them on the radio growing up. And I learned to like his iconic voice. The CD insert did not include the song lyrics, so I offered to print them for him, from the internet. “You can do that?” he asked. “Of course,” I answered, feeling smart. I pasted the lyrics of the 17 songs into a Word document and handed him the stack of pages half an hour later. He was impressed. The next morning, however, he told me how disillusioned he felt with the song lyrics, which included a lot of “baby baby” and “I need you” and “our love will never die” stuff. I expressed my experience that while popular lyrics are often shallow, the music and the feeling can still be quite moving. Some lyrics are quite romantic and sweet, like in Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, the beguine being a slow rhumba-like French dance. In the song, the commencement of the beguine dance music conjures powerful feelings of love and romance for the dancing couple. From my home office one morning, I felt tender feelings as I heard Dad’s gravelly waking voice singing Begin the Beguine to Mom, his sweetheart of 60 years:
Let them begin the beguine, make them play
Till the stars that were there before return above you,
Till you whisper to me once more,
“Darling, I love you!”
And we suddenly know, what heaven we’re in,
When they begin the beguine.
What I’ve always known—cognitively—is beginning to sink deeply in—emotionally—with emphasis on the word “sink,” and pulling me down with it: I cannot fix this. I do not have the power to heal the illness, to strengthen the tired muscles. The canes and walkers and wheelchairs, the doctor visits and blood draws and MRIs, the heart monitors and blood pressure cuffs, the shakiness and fatigue, the “take your pills” and “drink more water” and the worry worry worry—they are all here to stay. I am riding this streetcar with Mom and Dad to the fim da linha, the end of the line. One day, the streetcar will come to a stop and Mom and Dad will get off, and I will wave good-bye. And then the car will start again and turn some corner and carry me toward other stops. Until then, my power is found in my weakness, my strength in my service. All I can do is cook and clean and comfort, and listen, and love. And this is enough. In fact, this is the job. The job is not to fix anything as we ride the streetcar together, but to be with them for the duration of the ride, and to make the ride as comfortable and peace-filled and happy as my siblings and I can.
Mom said to me soon after I moved in, “I’m old, and I can’t do much, but I can do laundry and I like to do laundry. Would you let me do your laundry? I would like to do that for you.” I felt inclined to decline, and demurred. Dirty laundry is a sensitive subject for me. Returning from a five-month separation in 2014, I gently insisted on doing my own laundry. Home from my eviction, I found I could not allow her to handle my dirty laundry, though she wanted to. I could not let myself be vulnerable in that way. Now, with my mother’s request, I am trying be vulnerable enough to allow her to do something for me that she can do and wants to do and likes to do, even though I like doing it, too. For me, separating the colors from the whites and putting in the soap and running the machines is fun. And I like folding the clean clothes and putting them in their organized place. With Mom’s offer to wash my dirty clothes, I have come full circle to my childhood. Mama is taking care of me again. How tender that she wants to. After thinking it through and breathing deeply, I said to her, “Mom, I would be very appreciative of you washing my dirty clothes. Thank you so much for offering.”
In July, just before I moved, Mom told me about how she and Dad sat in picnic chairs in the driveway every evening at 8:45 to watch the sun set, enjoying the colorful clouds. I texted her one night that I would go stand by the apartment complex fence at 8:45 to see the sun set over the Tooele valley, in solidarity with her. While she gazed toward the Oquirrh mountains to her west, I looked toward the Stansbury mountains to my west, each with peaks over 11,000 feet. As July moved into August, our sunset time came earlier and earlier, today already at 7:45. Sitting there in the driveway, the three of us, on our picnic chairs, we waved at neighbors driving or walking by, talked about the day’s work and news, and admired the brilliant colors. With the worst California fires in history, Utah’s sun became an orange-poppy sphere that we could stare at without discomfort for the thick smoke. As the sun dipped behind the mountains one evening, Dad announced, “I can see Venus!” I looked and looked for several minutes, but could not see the “first star.” His cataract removal and lens implants seem to have given him telescopic eyes at age 85, while my 20-20 eyes (thank you Lasik) still searched for the pin point. As the sky darkened, Mom told of when she was six years old and sang at a neighborhood talent show, in the church building, and for the occasion her mother made a dress for her out of rolls of white crepe paper stitched together, with red paper trim and pink paper hearts. Then Dad led us in a round of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and told me how wonderful my mother is (which he tells me every day, and she is). Soon the automatic sprinklers popped up, and the quarter moon shone a rich orange through the smoky sky.
Prayer was opaque. Holy writ just words. I did not know where God was. We lifted things from the cardboard box, cupping them like fragile hatchling chicks: ukulele – senior yearbook – prom photo – drawings and doodlings – Church worthiness card – Eagle Scout medal – employee-of-the-month certificate – Godzilla action figure – hoodies and pajamas, smelling of him, a good clean smell. We planted a linden tree, tall and straight, ringed with daffodils. He didn’t know who he was. He didn’t have any sharp edges. Not. One. The only thing I hated about him was that he hated himself. I have to wonder if one more text, one more call, one more conversation or smile or hug might have tipped the scales. You slipped a letter in before the casket closed and asked him to remember playing Legos in Grandma’s basement and having play fights with Godzilla. A small thing, you said. I am numb and sick and angry and sick and numb. A man told me once, I am going to walk through that door, and when I do, the darkness will not come through with me. And the man walked through the door, and the darkness had to stay behind. Fight to choose light over darkness. Always. But our boy was not that strong, yet. A finger twitched. A demon slug. In the end, all we can do to make a difference in this world is to love. In your quiet times, you will feel a sweetness in your heart, a soft presence, and you will know it is him. And then, that Church conference on YouTube with the whole world watching during Covid-19 and the audience stayed home to watch and the tabernacle choir stayed home to watch, but recorded choirs sang from conferences past: and there he was, on the back row by the big organ pipes in his black suit, singing and singing and alive! Our angel alive and singing.
This piece is a word collage gathering the expressions and feelings and images of many family members surrounding our beloved Korey following his death by suicide. We love him, and feel him with us still, and always.
Our, Angel Gabriel
It was an unseasonably warm winter afternoon when Angel Gabriel came to visit. I was baking bread for his great-grandparents who sat thin-jacketed watching him lead my angel sister toward the enormous long-needled Austrian pine – she carried a five-gallon bucket that could have carried him – where he hunted his favorite treasure: Continue reading
Teasing Daddy’s Ear
I have been watching a man at church, sitting in his cushioned pew. His child sits belted in a wheelchair because she cannot use her legs at all and would flop to the floor if unrestrained. She is motion, her arms and hands fluttering around and her head wagging and her tight long ponytail swishing violently as if warding off some invisible and pestering thing. Continue reading
Cards of Leaves and Petals
I buy birthday cards at the dollar store: 6 for a dollar. If I’m lucky I find pack of 8 for one dollar. And I buy about ten packs which will last maybe a year. The cards don’t have HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! or anything else printed on them. Which doesn’t bother me because I can write HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! just well, or even better because I am practicing my handwriting. I have got the cursive G down and the S as well, but H has me harrumphing. The fronts of the cards Continue reading
Amy helped decorate the family Christmas tree: with lights, ornaments, and…a lizard. Sunshine’s pretty color fits right in. Sunshine is such a good friend to Amy, and Amy to sunshine. Everyone needs good, loyal, supportive friends. As 2020 winds down, we can find someone to be a friend to, someone who needs our friendship, our kindness, even our love. We can do it. We should do it. Try.
Amy is remodeling Sunshine’s apartment. Actually, this is his short-term rental, as it were, where Sunshine sometimes hangs out during the day while Amy does her homework. Comfy quarters. His main house is a large glass tank with a rope hammock and a heat lamp. No crickets jumping around in there–Sunshine ate them all!
“I am worthless,” my friend sighed to me. “Oh, no,” I urged, “you are so worthy, so deserving.” My friend wanted to believe, but could not. “You are worthy,” I insisted again. This poem declares your worthiness:
rocks and ice in frozen space:
dazzling beacons of pulsing proton beams:
rainbow clouds, glowing, brilliant, birthing billions of bright suns:
gold dust, iron dust, plutonium dust, the stuff of supernova stars:
volcanoes bursting liquid stone to the skies, hot and hissing:
waters of life, boiling and crystalline, flowing, flowing:
the breath of God:
Driving alone toward Zion National Park in southern Utah one night, the full moon appeared above the redrock cliffs, shining large and bright and white. I found myself suddenly flooded with tender emotions, wanting desperately to hold and be held. I wrote this poem to help me remember the image of the immaculate moon, and my emotions upon spying her. Please do me the honor of understanding that this is not a sex poem. Rather, this is a poem about the powerful and wonderful feelings that can accompany intimate romantic love, even across great geographic distance.
I want to make love to the moon.
I want to caress her creamy, naked curves.
I want to whisper grateful sobs for withholding nothing but judgment.
Would she deign, I would make gentle, generous love to the moon.
“Such a cute couple!” “They are so good together!” I have heard these and other phrases so often about couples, young and old. But what does it take to make a perfect match? “Opposites attract,” says the cliche, though I’m not sure I believe it. It is that we admire in our partners what we lack, or do we feel more comfortable with someone similar to us in personality and demeanor? In this poem I explore two sides of a relationship that differ and yet complement. I admit to tending more toward the second half of each couplet, though the poem is not (necessarily) autobiographical. What are your opinions about what makes the perfect match? Let me know by leaving your comment!
A PERFECT MATCH
falling off the wagon
nose to the grindstone
inclined toward cheerfulness
tending to be sad
go to hell
pedal to the floor
foot on the break
a perfect match
Family gathering together is what makes the holidays special. Family, in all its forms. We arrive, ring the doorbell, and are welcomed with hugs (or grunts.) We eat and laugh and tell stories, catching up. We play out the human drama in the family microcosm. Older family members display what they have learned for younger generations to see, if they will. Funerals, though enormously sad, have been some of my most meaningful family experiences. We grieve together, share the family lore, and partake unquestionably in love. Weddings, while hopefully more joyous occasions, strike me as similar. Baptisms. Bar-mitzvahs. Holiday celebrations. Sunday dinners. Even the mundane moment, however, gives families powerful moments to bond, to contemplate, to rejoice, to mourn, and to hope. The poem “Monday Night,” below, describes one such moment from my family’s past, and relates to Chapter 16: Around the Fire Pit post of the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog.
and we gather again,
sitting on cinderblocks
around the fire pit;
holding long applewood sticks,
like fishing rods,
with points in the flames,
with the warmth, the glow,
the power and mystery of fire.
singing songs about
head, shoulders, knees, and toes,
and the beauty of God’s creations;
reading poems about kitties and calves,
and forks in the forest path;
telling stories of inspiration and faith;
munching popcorn and brownies;
keeping the cats away from our cups of milk.
toss sticks into the flames,
poke smoking sticks into the ground,
carve their special sticks
with knives that are somehow always dull.
Sun sets behind towering pink and orange
Cumulous that dwarf the snow-capped mountains.
Fire settles into a ringed bed of shimmering coals.
Children quiet themselves
and stare into the ebbing heat and color.
Mom and Dad look to each other
and share an unspoken gratitude that,
for this moment,
life is good.
While I was away attending the National Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia in July 2013 with my teenage sons, my wife and younger children brought home two little precocious pygmy goats. They named the black-and-white kid Olive, and the light-brown kid Cupcake. Oh, they were adorable, running and jumping and calling to their human friends non-stop. They loved the attention of being petted and bottle-fed, and followed Hyrum and Hannah around everywhere. “My babies,” Angie called them. This poem is about her love for the new kids.
CUPCAKE AND OLIVE
Olive is a pygmy goat,
white with black splotches,
or black with white,
two months old, almost.
You brought her, two days old,
home, with little cousin Cupcake,
and bottle fed her
four times a day.
She doesn’t bleat like Cupcake
(oh, my goodness),
even when hungry,
but cocks her head to one side,
just so, as if to say,
And where, Mama, have you been?
Olive will only suck
from a bottle held by you,
having jumped and flopped
onto your mother’s lap.
You stroke her neck
with a free hand.
Each morning as I leave for work I cross paths with my children. They each require a hug (or two or three) as I run out the door. I am often late and anxious to get away. Sometimes I protest, “Just let me go, guys” or “You already hugged me once” or “I’m just going to work.” When I slow down and live more mindfully, I stop and put my briefcase on the floor to give them a genuine embrace and a smile and a kind word, perhaps “I love you” or “Have a great day”. If I really pay attention to these moments of connection, I notice a subtle but distinct feeling of goodness and happiness, a sense that something in life has changed for the better. This poem is about one of those moments when I suppressed my natural tendency to hurry on to the next task and allowed myself to slow down and see what really needing doing. See the related Chapter 12: Worm Sign post of the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog.
ACROSS THE DAY
Down the stairs he stepped,
pulling up a pant leg
to expose to me
yesterday’s skinned knee
and today’s unabashed want
“It still hurts,” he whimpered
as I flew toward the door
with my briefcase and bagel.
“And you forgot.”
With guilty remembrance, I stopped
and lifted him to a counter top.
With guilty haste I rummaged through a drawer
for a bandage and soothing ointment.
“It feels better already,” he sighed,
his smile following me
out the door, down the highway,
and across the day.
So many times I have caught myself reflecting on the fact that I am as old in a given moment, involved with one of my children, as my father was when involved in the same way with me: camping, throwing a baseball, swimming and sailing at scout camp, choosing not to spank a stubborn child, asking about girlfriends, counseling through challenges, on bent knees begging for a child’s welfare. I often sense a melding and shifting of the generations, from me being the child to being the father of a child, and yet I remain the child. I muse on this time-defying phenomenon in this poem, Generations, and on the Chapter 11: Austin post listed in the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog.
I am the center and the circumference,
the present and the past.
The generations are one before me,
the memories of years
a single infinite scene,
shifting and stirring within me,
slowly moving to embrace the future
even as it becomes the past.
I am at once a boy and a man,
a son and a father,
my child: my father: myself.
I gaze at my child
my father gazing at me
a father’s agony,
as I look to my father,
and my child looks to me.
Hands are the perfect metaphor for who we are, what we do, and what we hope to become. Do I use my hands to lift or to strike down, to caress or to punish, to persuade or to coerce? My hands with their fingers type the words formed in my mind, spoon soup for a grandmother, and tickle a toddler. Hands. Use them for kindness, gentleness, hard work, and love. And to write a poem.
Look at these hands.
They tell my life:
in groove and scar and callous;
in a knuckle torn by a chicken house nail;
in railroad lines from a childhood race through a glass door;
in black grease ground into coarse cracks and cuticles;
in blisters and blood on a westward handcart;
at times, thrust hiding in deep but empty pockets.
that hold the hopes and dreams of a self-hewn future;
that have sought the secret softness of a soul mate;
that have led trusting toddlers over perilous paths;
that hoisted an enduring ancient from the place of his collapse.
that have clasped tightly together in impassioned prayer;
that have suffered the sad sting of punishment;
that have bathed the infant and dressed the dead;
that have hooked a worm and thrown a ball.
that have penned a paltry poem;
that have reached for the stars and grasped only earth;
that have blessed the sick and slaughtered swine;
that can seal a man’s fate with a waive and a gavel’s rap.
that spared the rod, soothed a crying child, wiped away a tear, smoothed a stray lock;
that once were tiny and tender, that patted Grandpa’s drooping cheeks;
that bestowed a ring and received one in return;
that now are old and gnarled, resting folded and futile in my lap.
Touch my hands with your hands.
Bring my hands to your face, your eyes, your lips.
Feel the coarseness and tenderness of my hands.
Bring your hands to my face, my eyes, my lips.
Brian, my firstborn, suffered typical colic from about six weeks to about six months of age, always beginning at 6:00 p.m., it seemed. A second year law student (and struggling with the stresses of law school), I frequently paced the living room floor trying to sooth the crying baby with gentle bounces, soft shushes, coos, and random soft melodies. In Brian’s moments of calm slumber, I looked on his beautiful face and felt overcome with feelings of love, peace, beauty, and gratitude. In these serene moments I began to compose a lullaby, metered to the my rocking arms. Although Brian is now a 6-foot-4 24-year-old, I think of his once tiny form every time I sing this song. Here it is for you to enjoy. While I have titled it “Little Brian Baby” in my own book of music, for you I have titled it simply “Little Baby” and have added brackets in the lyrics indicating where you can insert the name of your child or grandchild as you sing. Enjoy this lullaby as you rock your precious little ones to sleep. (To see the score, click on the link below.)