“Can I help with the turkey?” Dad inquired at 8:00 a.m., approaching slowly, barely able to stand, with his thrift store not-a-walker, which has become his favorite walker. “No,” Mom responded definitively. Of course not. She has planned this Thanksgiving turkey bake for weeks. She bought the frozen turkey a month ago, placed it in the refrigerator a week ago, and dressed it an hour ago. “Should we turn the oven on now?” he queried, wanting to helpful, but much to late in the process to be helpful. “No, the turkey isn’t going in until 9:00,” she explained. The more Dad tried to help, the more he intruded on her well-made plans. “If we turn the oven on now, it will be pre-heated by 9:00,” he ventured again. “That’s too early,” she barked. “The oven only takes ten minutes to pre-heat.” Dad slinked away slowly, unable to be helpful, because he had not made the plan and did not know the plan, and because his too-late suggestions interloped on the well-established plan. He had been good-hearted, well-meaning, but extraneous. I watched this collapsed negotiation and felt an ache. Mom and Dad have navigated their relationship for 62 years. Are they any better at it now than early on? Are the negotiations any easier than at first? Relationships are always a challenge, always a negotiation, always a struggle of overlapping egos and an accommodation of disparate wills. Even the good-hearted and well-meaning work to exhaustion nudging those two wills to one purpose. After my 27-year marriage, I was beyond tired, and I wonder still these seven years later if I would ever find the courage and strength to take up anew the dance of negotiation and compromise. Being alone is so much easier, having only occasional arguments with myself. But at times I pull out the scales and examine the platters hung on chains, weighing the ease of aloneness against the terribleness of loneliness, watching them teeter on the fulcrum of elusive equilibrium. Dad asked me to string the bushes with Christmas lights, since he cannot do it anymore, with particular colors in a particular order on particular bushes, and I invited my capable creative son John to help me. He suggested a fun variety of colors for adjacent bushes, nowhere close to Dad’s plan, but I figured Dad would not really notice, not being able to walk anywhere near that far, and rarely seeing his yard after dark. Just then Dad shot through the front door on his power wheelchair to come inspect my work. And I figured it would be better, in this case, to ask permission than forgiveness, so I intercepted him en route, told him of John’s color notion, and asked him if that would be alright. Of course, having been asked, he said yes, and sat in his chair on the sidewalk, cheering us on, expressing his excitement and gratitude. “I just love seeing Christmas lights on my bushes. This is important to me, and makes me happy.” That negotiation worked out well—I love happy endings—and did not even leave me feeling taxed. The job done, he wheeled and we walked into the house for small slices of very rich French pear almond tart.
Mom’s favorite flower is the yellow rose, and on the most momentous of the year’s days (including Mother’s Day and Mom’s birthday), Dad brings home a big bouquet of yellow roses. “What do you think of that one, Rog?” he pointed from his power cart at a bouquet of 18 yellow roses. “Let’s get it,” he encouraged without awaiting my affirmation, and I placed the flowers in the basket. He asked me what I thought about a second bouquet of muti-colored flowers, and instructed me to add it to the basket. Then a third, with roses the color of sweet aromatic ripe cantaloup, joined the other bouquets. “Are all of these for Mom?” I wondered. “Of course! It’s her birthday!” One 18-rose bouquet would tell her she is special, a second that she is very special. But a third would make a definite statement about her being supremely special, especially to him. Stuck in a chair he exits only with difficulty and pain, Dad often calls to Mom, “If you were to walk by, I would give you a hug.” Or sometimes, the more direct, “I want to hug you.” Just when I expect her to huff with the sentimentality and inconvenience, she sidles up to him, holds his hand, caresses his head, kisses his cheek, and reaffirms her love: “I love you, too, Dear.” Mom at her most tender. She held his hand today, too, in the radiology recovery room after the lumbar puncture that sucked from him two tablespoons of spinal fluid, sent to the Mayo Clinic with his blood for advanced diagnostics. Dad is hopeful that a firm diagnosis can finally be had, with a corresponding treatment. I am hopeful his fighting spirit can outlast the ticking months of decline without diagnosis. Answers bring knowledge, and with knowledge, hope. Having no answer to the mystery causes of his mystery disease is like waiting for the ice to melt in the arctic: a very long wait with an uncertain outcome of dubious value. His head still rang with singing from Mom’s birthday party the night before, at which the family gathered and sang the old campfire songs—nearly the whole book of them—we have sung around real campfires through three decades of family reunions. Old songs like “Springtime in the Rockies” (chorus lyrics below). During their occasional moments of marital tension, I tell them “I can’t take it” and I leave the room, and Dad assures me later that he has never had an argument with my mother, has never even been angry with her, which is nonsense, of course. But these are sentiments he honors and believes and embodies. My father loves and honors my mother. He seeks her counsel and her tender affections still, after 60 years of marriage. And he gives her big bouquets of yellow roses.
When it’s springtime in the Rockies,
I’m coming back to you.
Little sweetheart of the mountains,
With your bonnie eyes of blue.
Once again, I’ll say I love you,
While the birds sing all the day.
When it’s springtime in the Rockies,
In the Rockies far away.
My nephew’s wedding day had finally come. I had worked many hours over several days to make Mom’s and Dad’s back yard—the wedding venue—look beautiful. But as I sat at my circular blue-clothed table listening to the couple exchange their self-customized vows, I wondered at the irony and futility of my work. In other words: not one living soul would have cared if the grass edges had not been string trimmed or if a weed or two had been missed—these would not have dampened anyone’s excited happiness. My parents and my sister appreciated my effort more for the sacrifice and love it expressed than for the merits of the landscaping, and rightly so. For the next event, will I target the same energy toward the venue appearance, or will I focus on weightier matters, like visiting with distant cousins and playing with the grandchildren and preparing heartfelt messages for the celebrants and lessening family burdens? The temperature plunged from 92 degrees the evening before to 53 degrees on the morning of the wedding day, with rain falling all night and all morning. But we tumbled the table cloths in the dryer and the clouds broke in time to warm and brighten the ceremony. Poor Dad could not walk—he could merely lean heavily with both hands on his front-and-center cane and drag each foot forward a few inches, with screwed face and suppressed groans. And that “walking” presupposed an ability to stand from his chair, which he could not. I turned around to see a very-former son-in-law vaunting mock magnanimity by grabbing Dad by limbs and joints and hoisting with humble hubris. But Dad preferred to wait for me, because the two of us together know just how to get the job done, with a heave of my elbow under his armpit to slowly stand, then his arm pretzeled heavily in mine to move across the grass toward the house. The bride looked lovely and confident and serene, despite the morning’s rain and the morning’s drama by some guests who were invited to stay home. And my nephew looked a naturally boyish nervous though he knew the marriage was right and good, and that his bride was the right bride and friend and life companion. Little Gabe, almost four, came jaunting proudly down the center aisle carpet holding up as if for royalty a pillow to which were tied the bouncing rings, lifting them high toward the couple, his uncle and brother, his aunt and sister, who read to him and bathe him and feed him and play games with him before his tired mother returns late from work, for she pays the bills, and the bills must be paid. Before the wedding, he fell and bonked his head and cried more from insult than from pain, wanting the comfort of love over a bag of ice, so I held him in my rocking chair and listened to his very big small-person sadness and fear—he was worried the new couple now would move to a house of their own and leave him alone and lonely. But they will keep their comfortable niche in the family house and continue to be Gabe’s protectors and nurturers until his mom and dad come home from work. Gabe’s head and heart felt better and soothed and he laughed at being tickled and dressed in a three-piece suit and praised. Weddings are not my favorite occasions because I know how much is at stake and how much trouble and pain lie ahead and how awry things can go, and I hope they will make it against the odds, and I hope they can find happiness, together. I always hope for a new couple, for who am I to jinx their joy with my suppressed sense of doom? I am no one, and the doom is a false projection of bad prophecy. We just need to put away our pride, and focus on the other’s happiness and fulfilment and meaning, and trust in life and in the Divine—then we can make it.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly with his two wonderful youngest children at my nephew’s back-yard wedding.)
We had planned the celebration for months, and on the day of, I awoke too sick to attend. My sisters handled all the preparation and hosting. At the top of stair case, I listened to bursts of laughter amid the general soft murmuring of many friendly voices in catching up and conversation, like the gentle babbling of a booklet tripping down a mossy cascade, and in that gentleness I detected elements of acceptance and respect and affection, and of a love that could turn fierce in mutual defense. I enjoyed my chicken salad croissant and chips, watching through the railing as Dad, 86, launched into his stories, with occasional intervening from Mom. They had met at a church dance, at the end of which he asked for her phone number (“and she gave it to me!”). He called her the next day, and drove her to the university and dated for the next three years, and they married—60 years ago. “I know her much better now than I did then!” Law school over, they moved to New York City, living in Greenwich Village. While Dad was at school, Mom rode the subways just to see where they went. She played violin in a Washington Square orchestra, and during one concert the conductor’s baton hit the music stand and flew out of his hand into the audience. After three days of descending to the street at 5:00 a.m. to move the car the opposite side of the street, Dad sold the car to the bellboy for $50. Then off to São Paulo, Brazil, where I was born, to live in a tiny studio. Mom passed the time by walking me to the embassy library and taking me on every bus route (in the city of then 16 million people) to the “fim da linha”—the end of the line. “I can’t do this,” was not part of Mom’s vocabulary, Jeanette enthused. Dad befriended the city comptroller at school, and invited him to their studio, where they sat at a card table on folding chairs, their only furniture, for homemade pizza, which the millionaire graciously enjoyed. “I loved your mother when we got married,” Dad said, “but I love her more, and differently, today. I never look at her without thinking, ‘I love her.’” (“Even when I’m bossy!” Mom chimed in.) David told how Mom and Dad sacrificed several days to help clean and paint his house, and how their love is literally worked into the very walls of the house. “I want to tell you something,” Dad began, warming up to his life’s witness. “This is important to me.” And he quoted Jesus: “’Be faithful, and I will protect you from every fiery dart of the adversary. I will encircle you in the arms of my love.’ That is how our Savior feels about us.” When I was an infant in Brazil, Dad was assigned to visit ten families who no longer attended church. He had no car or phone, just bus schedules and maps. But he found them, and visited them every month of that school year. Walking home from his final bus ride in Brazil, Dad contemplated his ministering effort. That is when a voice in his mind affirmed, “I accept your offering,” and he felt an overwhelming loving presence embrace him. As I listened and watched through the bars of my separating sickness, I contemplated how close Dad is to walking home from his life’s final bus ride, and of my certainly that he will again hear the words, “I accept your life’s offering,” and will again enjoy that sublime embrace.
“Hi baby!” Mom answered my phone call. I had called in honor of their special day, to make sure they were happy, to praise and cheer them, Mom and Dad. They had driven the faithful Suburban to Burt Brothers for a safety inspection and minor repairs. They had walked next door to Dairy Queen for burgers with bacon and for fries and for a chocolate Blizzard—“They were so good! But the walk about killed your dad,” Mom reported. “And the walk back about killed him again!” But it was a “lovely day,” a “perfect day,” she said, and she was very happy, I could tell. Approaching home near 10 p.m., I turned into Smith’s grocery store and selected a small bouquet of flowers of vibrant colors. Steven had sent a thoughtful happy card. Barbara had brought a lavender orchid. Others had called and texted and Facetimed. Entering the house with my inexpensive bouquet, I cheered, “Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad!” Happy 60th Wedding Anniversary. Sixty years of marriage. As I snipped off several inches of stems and slid the flowers into a clear glass vase, I heard Dad say from his recliner to Mom in her recliner, “I love you, Lucille. You are so wonderful.”
Pictured above: my real life Mom and Dad. Happy 60th!
At a family party, we asked Mom how she and Dad met. She related how she met him at an Institute dance in late 1959. Institute is the name given by my Church for an organized opportunity for religious instruction and for social interaction, mostly for young single adult members of the Church. Mom was about 20 years old, a freshman at the University of Utah. She remembers, “He was standing there, leaning against a door frame, looking very cute in his navy-blue suit.” It was the suit he wore on his mission to Brazil (1956-1959), and was well used, but “still looked great.” Mom’s friend, Dolores, whispered to her, “That’s Nelson Baker.” Dad asked Mom to dance, and before the evening ended, asked for her phone number. The very next day he called her on the phone, and came to visit her at the bungalow-style house her father built for her mother in 1932. Mom and Dad went out a lot, to the movies, to dances, to visit with Dad’s mission friends, to the Frost Top for shakes and fries. Dad drove her every morning to the University of Utah, where they both graduated with bachelor degrees. “Your mom was very beautiful,” Dad boasted. Sitting in his music appreciation class one day, on the third floor of the David Gardner building, he looked out the window to see Mom standing on a street corner waiting for a bus, to go to her elevator job. Seeing her there filled his heart with sweet feelings. They married on April 5, 1962, in the Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and will celebrate this year their 60th wedding anniversary. Of course, they can get on each other’s nerves, but they are eternally devoted and kind to one another. Now, that’s love.
Some days are unabashedly victorious and joyful. They need make no excuse for their happiness, and deserve their delight. One recent glorious day was my son Caleb’s wedding day. He and his wife Edie found each other after years of mutual adventures shared by family and friends: rock climbing, kayaking, canyoneering, hiking, mountain biking, and missionary service. My heart believes in them individually and as a couple, that they can be happy together for the long haul through life. Caleb’s mother and I joined peaceably in the celebration of our son’s hope and happiness. Not long ago he was a chubby grinning toddler—now he is a giant with as big a heart. Mom and Dad, 86 and 82, were able to attend the wedding ceremony, pushed in wheelchairs by my sister Sarah and her husband Tracy. The marriage was solemnized in the Jordan River Temple, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we took hurried pictures in a sunny 25-degrees. The wheelchairs were wonderful tools for access and ability, and at the same time ominous portents of things to come. My thoughts about marriage are tender and wounded and fearful and hopeful. I want so badly for the marriages of my children, especially, and my friends and neighbors—everyone—to succeed, to be joyful even, knowing the disruption and agony of that particular failure. What matters today is that Caleb and Edie are happy together, and they are determined to work with each other and for each other to keep it that way. I feel so very happy for them. And how content I am that Caleb’s still-living grandfathers and grandmother could join in the celebration, from the wheelchairs that made that joining possible and even comfortable. Here’s to good days.
On a Sunday afternoon, I took Mom and Dad to see their church leaders to renew their temple recommends. This document allows them admittance to the temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church has 265 temples worldwide in operation or at some stage of construction. They are magnificent buildings, and we consider them a House of God on earth. Temples are not for regular weekly worship services, but for ceremonies in which we covenant with God to obey his commandments, to be moral and chaste, to contribute our time and means to the Church, and to love and serve one another. We are instructed on the purpose of existence and the nature of God and his Son. And couples are married and families sealed together not just until death but for eternity. We change into white clothing as an aspirational symbol of purity and cleanliness, and of having left the world outside. Mom and Dad do not visit the temples anymore due to age and infirmity, but visited temples monthly during the previous decades. Even not attending, to them it is important to be worthy to attend. So, they cheerfully waited in the church meetinghouse foyer for their interviews, making pleasant small talk with the other temple-goers. I waited for them as they each had their turn, knowing the questions they would be asked, including: Do you have faith in God the Eternal Father and in his Son Jesus Christ? Do you believe in Jesus and his role as your Savior and Redeemer? Do you strive for moral cleanliness, and are you chaste? Are you a tithe payer? Do you abstain from consuming harmful substances? Do you believe in the truthfulness of the Church, and support its Prophet and Apostles? Are you honest in all that you do? Mom and Dad each emerged from their brief interview with humble smiles, the smiles of peace from living lives of faith and good works.
Pictured above: Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah (where I live), dedicated in 1898.
Some Church temples around the world:
Brazil, Sao Paulo
From my home office window, I saw the USPS mail truck drive by. A few minutes later the doorbell rang. I ran down the stairs and opened the front door to find no one there and no packages on the porch and no mail on the javelina snout. Huh, I wondered and literally scratched my bald head. Mom was sitting calmly at the kitchen table. “Mom, I heard the doorbell ring, but nobody’s there.” She allowed a sheepish grin and told me it was she that had rung the bell. At my quizzical look, she confided that the doorbell is a kind of intercom message from her to help Dad get up and get moving into the day.
I have just learned that another friend–a lovely, talented woman–has suffered decades of control and disdain from her husband. Is it simply human nature to be boorish? I don’t buy it. Life need not be such a slog. Every man, woman, and child on this planet can learn to be more kind and caring, more loving and forgiving, more outward viewing. Sure, it takes a little effort, a little discipline. The ultimate means of assuring our own success is to contribute to the success of those around us, not to tear them down. What will I (and you) do today to build another up? What connection do you see between this note and my poem “Grooves” below?
Our two lives
have worn two grooves
in our sagging mattress,
where we have lain
side by side
through the battles.
I would that there were
no grooves at all,
or only one.
So much that
a new, level mattress
could not erase or replace.
As moonbeams glow
on the frozen snow,
I lay and listen
to the woman
in the sunken space
next to mine.
How does one write a poem about domestic violence without slipping into shallow prose, or, more importantly, without trivializing a horrifying trauma. As a municipal attorney, I have helped hold DV perpetrators accountable for 23 years. I have spoken with the women, seen their fear, heard their terror. I have seen the photographs of bruises, heard the sobbing screams in 911 recordings, and watched the abused tremble on the witness stand. I have watched the “bad guys” smirk and win acquittals from ignorant or misogynist juries. How I admire the courage victims have to become survivors, to stand tall and to say “Never again!” I wrote this poem for victims of domestic violence, though the poem is by no means a celebration or victory song. The poem attempts to express both the horror and the hope of someone caught, for now, in the twisted power and control dynamics of domestic violence. To all of them, I say: have courage; have hope.
purple almost to black
Van Gogh starry nights:
where pale skin
red lightning bolts
in white orb
I can pretend
it did not happen
no one knows
you paint on pale canvass
still life model undressed
would you plied
with greens and yellows,
orange and sky-blue
in a Saint-Rémy sky
“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
Some of us wait silently to be loved, wait expectantly for our needs to be met. Others of us demand to be loved with stomping feet and a sharp tongue. The fortunate among us have learned to express their needs in ways that the listener understands, respects, and responds. We are all different in how we approach life and love, yet we all want and deserve love. My hope is that, rather than waiting for love or demanding love, we will learn to seek love in healthy, positive ways. Beyond this, my prayer is that we will first offer love and kindness to others, thus inviting love and kindness to come back to us.
This poem personalizes one seemingly ill-fated approach to finding love. What do you think the poem’s speaker could have done differently? Should the speaker have done anything differently? Was the speaker’s approach unreasonable? Consider posting your answer in the comment section below.
I WAITED FOR YOU
I waited for you:
Waited for you to come to me.
But you did not.
I waited for you
Like the crimson clouds after the tired sun drops behind the mountains.
When you came to me at last,
I had faded and gone.
I waited for you:
Waited for you to touch me.
But you did not.
I waited for you
Like a dry, dusty leaf under a charcoal sky when the soothing rain won’t fall.
When you reached for me at last,
I had withered and gone.
I waited for you:
Waited for you to smile at me.
But you did not.
I waited for you
Like a famished infant yearning to suck from her mother’s ripe, fragrant breast.
When you smiled at me at last,
I had drifted and gone.
–Marriage is a long, clumsy dance, with frequent stepping on toes.–
I sat on the couch next to Angie while she held baby Hyrum over her shoulder. Feeling romantic, I put my arm around her neck and shoulders. My hand alighted upon a cold, wet spot of vomited breast-milk on the burp cloth draped over her shoulder. She laughed at how “romantic” it was. I joined in the chuckle after a momentary shiver of “ew.” Continue reading
My wife and children and I crammed ourselves into a small hotel room in southern Utah where I was attending a legal conference for a few days. At three months pregnant, my wife should not have been having contractions, but she was having contractions–bad ones. Soon they became unbearable. We knew what it was and headed for the rural hospital, leaving the children in the care of their oldest sibling. This poem weaves together that horrific experience with others to address our attempts to deal with physical and emotional pain.
You bend with a wince and whisper that
the pain has come again,
the pain in your side above your left hip,
the pain that halts your thoughts and your speech and your steps,
makes you breathe in short and sharp.
That pain again.
The pain began after your last child’s birth,
two years and eleven months ago.
It comes and it goes with caprice,
making a shouting arms-flung-wide appearance,
interrupting your reading and your cooking and your puzzle-piece placing
until it steps off its box and fades into the conquered crowd for awhile.
She did the ultrasound from inside.
I’m glad I wasn’t there.
“It wasn’t so bad,” you said, but
I’m glad I wasn’t there.
The technician warned she could see a shadow,
a shadow on the organ that wombed seven children,
and several more that came early or deformed
or not at all, like when in that tourist town clinic
you screamed for pain killers; you,
steadfast as a hundred-year oak in a hurricane; you,
determined as a heifer facing a driving snow; you,
who pushed out seven babies with not a pill or a shot;
you begged and moaned on the gurney
for something to make the pain go away.
The nice doctor made you babble and moan, and said to me,
“Don’t worry, I’ve done this once before.”
He brought you the baby that wasn’t, in a bottle,
and you sobbed and shook when he took it away.
After a gray week of waiting they said
you were fine: no growth, no shadow of a growth.
No reason for that pain.
You called me and cried, you felt stupid:
all that for nothing. If you had to go through all that,
at least it could be something instead of nothing.
I offered to cheer you, and told you that,
with my Trasks on my desk, I discovered
I had on one blue sock and one black.
You mumbled, “. . . stupid. I sort the socks.”
I meant to be cheery
but made you feel dumb.
That pain again.
I didn’t care how the socks were sorted—they were clean.
Next day I wore one black sock and one blue,
but thought it best not to mention it.
–The Sego Lily is the most delicate and elegant of chalices, a veritable grail.–
The state highway traverses the valley three-quarters of a mile away, perpendicular to Church Road as I approach Rabbit Lane. In the dark morning, a long line of white headlights travels north toward the Great Salt Lake, becoming red taillights as I pan from south to north.
Where do they all go? Continue reading