May the Road Rise to Meet You

Jeffe and PatrickLast week I posted to Facebook that I’d heard that my Uncle Patrick died. It was quite a shock, because we’d been in tenuous contact for the last few years. I knew he was getting older, that he’d retired, but not that things had gotten as bad as they had. The last couple of times I talked to him, he got confused about who I was, mixing me up with the Campbell cousins from Nebraska.Mom and Me - Christmas 1971

Patrick became my uncle just before my seventh birthday. Many of you know my father died when I was three, my mother widowed at twenty-seven. For a few years, it was just the two of us. Then my mom met and married Leo Kennedy. He was my stepfather for thirty years, until his death in 2003. With Leo, I gained another grandmother, Francie, and my Uncle Patrick and Aunt Jane. I also gained those Nebraska Campbell cousins (Francie’s family) and assorted great-aunts. scan0004

If you’ve read my essay collection, A Report from Driver #3 is about the aftermath of Aunt Jane’s death in 2001. At that time we knew Leo was sick – and I mention it in the essay – but we didn’t expect him to be gone a short two years later. As Francie had passed away while I was in high school, that left Patrick the last of that branch of the Kennedys. 

Leo and Patrick had been tremendously close. Leo idolized his older brother and followed his footsteps into the priesthood, though he later left the church. Patrick remained a priest all his life, serving at various parishes around Colorado. He treated me as his own family. My growing up is littered with visits to whatever town he lived in at the time – fishing in Brighton, fiestas in northwest Denver, cross-country skiing in Minturn, near Vail. He attended most holiday dinners at our house. On Christmas and Easter, he would bring the collections from mass, as they were always the largest, and had us help count them to keep his numbers straight. Over those dinners, over many years, he and Leo debated politics, religion and the church. I learned more about Catholicism, both old and new, from the two of them – and also how to argue a point. Or even play devil’s advocate. With a father who died much too young of black lung, they leaned far left. Patrick famously got in trouble with the Archdiocese for his relentless defense of what he felt the church should be doing for the poor. 

I once blurted out that they wouldn’t vote for Jesus Christ if he ran as a republican and they agreed that I was absolutely right.

There wasn’t a question of church doctrine Patrick wouldn’t answer for me – even if it reflected badly on the church. With an encyclopedic mind and a lifelong love of learning, he knew the answers, could cite and quote extensively. Patrick and Leo both taught me to understand the difference between the religion and the church, the difference between personal faith and spirituality, and man’s institution on earth. Patrick gave me my first communion in Francie’s living room, but never bothered me about attending church. He lived his faith, embodying compassion. 

After Leo died, and my mother remarried a few years later, we saw less and less of Patrick. With my mom living in Tucson half the year, I made it to Denver less frequently. Then even less so when I moved to Santa Fe and when she later sold the Denver house. I sent Patrick Christmas presents, though he never much cared for material possessions, another way he lived his faith. Mostly I gave him subscriptions to Wyoming Wildlife and sent food baskets, as he always loved to eat. 

I tried to keep in touch, as Leo would have wanted, but Patrick didn’t seem to need me to. He kept busy with the church and his parish. When he retired to the Catholic Priests Home, they spoke of him with affection when I called. In the end, his mind went, which explained his confusion when I talked with him.

The funeral mass last week was done in grand style at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver. The Archbishop presided, along with many bishops and priests – many who remembered me from the years. They spoke highly of Patrick, and wryly mentioned his contentious politics. It was a good service.

I don’t remember much about Leo’s funeral. He died much too young, after years of struggling with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP). His was not an easy or peaceful death and that was a hard time for us. One of those things you bear down and grit through. 

Somehow, though, saying goodbye to Patrick felt much like letting go of Leo all over again, too. I wept during the Eucharist, which shouldn’t be emotional, and yet somehow was. The core of faith, that bread and wine become body and blood, that we transform and move on. We say goodbye, but no one is ever truly gone. 

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.


Please Speak Ill of the Dead

Me with my dadThe other day, David (aka “The Man”) said to me that he thought he wasn’t as good of a man as his father had been. His father died nearly two years ago now, and there were thoughts from the family on Memorial Day (he was a Marine in the South Pacific in WWII) and photos of visits to the cemetery. So I wasn’t at all surprised this was on David’s mind, nor that he felt that way.

Instead, I thought, “yep, right on schedule.”

Longtime readers of this blog likely know that my own father died when I was very young – three years old. That’s me with him above. He was an Air Force fighter pilot who went down in his F-4. I have two memories of him – and those are vague, brief snippets. Otherwise I grew up with the knowledge that he’d died and I hadn’t really known him.

Which means most everything I know about my father came from other people and what they told me about him. When I was a little girl, I thought of my dad as this amazing, saintly, superheroic man who could do not wrong. Smart, handsome, loving, shining integrity, brave… Flawless. As I got older, it became clear to me that he could not have been flawless. No human being is. The fault lay in the people who told me about him, because they gave me a relentlessly sanitized version of who he’d been.

You know the old saw – “Don’t speak ill of the dead.”

Once I figured this out, I got better at asking the right questions. I asked my mother and my dad’s brother what they hadn’t liked about my dad. What habits had driven them crazy. What was the biggest fight they ever had. My grandmother stubbornly refused to answer anything like this. My father had been an angel on earth and that’s all there was to it. But the other answers – once people got over their hesitation to be critical of a man who’d died tragically, much too young – those were the stories who fleshed out his character. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a real sense of my father as a person.

It meant so much to me.

So, now, nearly two years later, I’m not at all surprised that David’s dad is looming large in his mind. A man of great character and accomplishments, who we all loved and miss greatly. But he wasn’t perfect. I reminded David of that and we talked about the things his dad did that drove him crazy, mistakes he’d made, the biggest fights they’d had. And that helped put things back in perspective.

In some ways we always measure ourselves in comparison to our parents. A difficult thing because that’s so difficult to do with any objectivity. Especially once a parent is gone and the cheerful whitewashing begins.

But I know I’m no saint – and neither was my father. I love him all the better for it.

A Valentine for Zip

P1010203This is the post I was going to write last Friday.

And then I just couldn’t.

Even, now, a week later, I’m tearing up as I write.

See, last Thursday, our old dog, Zip, died. He was almost 15 – old for a border collie – so we were expecting it. Braced for it anyway. You know how it is. For the last couple of years he’d been getting skinnier and more unstable. Two years ago we bought a ramp for him to walk up to get in the back of the Jeep. Not that he liked to use it. He’d always try to jump in and out anyway – which his joints just couldn’t take.

His two favorite things in the world were riding in the Jeep and going for a walk. Keeping him from crippling up so he could continue to do those things required more and more elaborate efforts on our part. He never quite understood that his body didn’t work as well as it used to – a blissful ignorance.

Zip was a beta dog. Or gamma. So far from being alpha, that we often shook our heads at his sheepishness. The cats bossed him around. He lived the first part of his life with our very alpha female border collie, who pretty much oppressed him. After she died, he  changed so dramatically, gaining weight and spirit, that David decided Zip deserved to be an only dog from there on out. It was a good choice. David was the sun and center of Zip’s universe. That dog loved being near David and being his constant partner.

So, though we’d been braced for it, the actual event took us by surprise.

He’d had his usual walk the night before, had been doing his usual things that morning. David came into my office and said Zip was acting foggy and would I give him a B-12 injection. We’d been giving him weekly B-12 boosts for the last several months and it had really helped. I did and went back to writing.

David came in again and said “I think he’s dying.”

Zip was lying belly-down on the floor, weaving his head around like he couldn’t see. He liked us petting him though. We sat beside him and he turned onto his side, breathing getting erratic and legs stretching. His tongue lolled out, which made us think it was a stroke. We briefly discussed taking him to the vet, but decided against it. We doubted the vet could do much and it seemed to be moving fast.

Indeed, within a few minutes, Zip sighed his last breath and was gone.

It was a lovely warm day, so we cleaned him up, took him outside and buried him. There seemed to be no reason to delay. Still, from him clicking around the house to being buried in two hours was kind of wrenching for us. I canceled weekend travel plans and we spent Valentines Day in mourning.

We’re doing better now, learning not to listen for him. David has been going on the evening walk without him, which never fails to trip my heart.

And, though, we’d said that, once Zip died we wouldn’t get another dog, David is changing his mind. He’s been talking about a puppy.

I’m good with that.

Suicide Owls

I’m not usually rabid about symmetry. In fact, for a long time I habitually wore two different earrings, just to be asymmetrical. But I like how this photo came out.

Straight road to the mountains and the sky beyond.

The other day I heard a loud crack, the unmistakable sound of a bird hitting one of our windows. I knew immediately the bird had killed itself. I didn’t have to get up from my desk to know. Birds hit our windows sometimes, because they reflect all that sky, but usually they’re just scooting around the house on birdie business and bounce off. In over a year of living here, this is only the second bird to die on our windows. It’s only when they’re not paying attention, when they’re hunting or being hunted, that they screw up.

It’s with dread that I go look to see what bird it had been. Sometimes I’d like to pretend I don’t know, avoid looking altogether. I can’t give the bird its life back and yet I feel I have to at least witness it.

Surprising to me, this time it was a raptor. I thought a little kestrel, but David ID’d it as a pygmy owl. Turns out they sometimes hunt birds during bright daylight. Which also explains why he was easily fooled by our windows. Daylight is still not the strong suit for owls.

Really a neat little guy. I wish I’d seen him alive.

Cycle of life and all that.

And then David found out yesterday that one of his lifelong friends had “died suddenly at his mother’s house,” according to the obituary. He hadn’t seen the friend in quite a while, but it’s a shock. The guy was only 56.

These things make us sad, in diffuse ways. There’s nothing to be done. It’s part of the natural order and yet, it’s also natural to mourn their passing.

Death is the bookend to birth. A dreadful symmetry that draws boundaries around our mortal lives. We might try to buck that, play little games with ourselves and pretend that death is far away or that we’ll be different. But we know it’ll chase us down sooner or later.

We never know when we might be shooting for the sky and snap our necks on plate glass instead.

Because we can’t know, we focus on life. Death moves among us, but we live. In some ways, we owe it to the dead to enjoy our lives. Relish every breath, every joy and sorrow that reminds us that we’re part of the world.

And when we get down the road, there is the sky, and everything beyond.

Death and Saguaros

I have been remiss, it appears.

Following my last post, a couple of my faithful readers wrote to ask what the hell a “wickerman” is. I got too carried away with the poetics to provide the full context. A good lesson for me. On so many levels. That, and that El Patron margaritas don’t make you nearly so profound as you think. I was tempted to go back and revise, but in the interests of preserving the record, I’ll leave it be and try again.
With another shot of the saguaro wickerman. RoseMarie got it with her comment before — it’s about looking for God. Or maybe just for design, intelligent or otherwise. The pre-Christian Celts built giant figures made of straw and sticks. Essentially huge baskets. Sometimes in the shape of animals, sometimes in the shape of humans. Often these “wickermen” were filled with animals or people and then burned. Sacrifice to the unknown designers.
As the saguaro’s watery flesh dries up and blows away, the wickerman of the desert remains. Sacrifice in reverse. Perhaps that’s what we all end up doing in our lives, using up the flesh in living, leaving a network of bones behind.
Somehow the desert brings this into sharp contrast. Maybe the desert just shows the process at an accelerated pace, visible to the pedantic eye. All of the snowbirds flock to the desert sun, to warm their aging bones, as if to the elephants’ graveyard.
My desert wickerman seemed to stand sentinel to that.

Good-bye Lucy

On Friday, my mom had her Himalayan cat put to sleep. This sort of event occurs regularly through our lives, marking the eras in 10, 15, or 20 year increments — less if illness strikes. One beloved pet dies and we acquire another. For a family like ours, who keeps cats, we might have five or six primary cats through our own lives.
Lucy was 16 and it was her time.
My mom posted Lucy’s obituary via email:

Dear Friends,

It is with sadness that I tell you that Lucy had to be put to sleep yesterday. She was apparently suffering from kidney failure which went undetected until it was too late to cure her.

She had a very full sixteen years and got to experience travels to many fun destinations including Dauphin Island, New Orleans, and Tucson. She probably logged more car miles than most other felines. She was a comforting companion to Leo during his illness and a highly adaptable friend to me. She will be missed.

Leo was my stepfather, who died a few years ago. Lucy loved Leo, the boyfriend who followed and my mom’s new husband, Dave. She was always a man’s cat, loving my mom’s men as she loved them.
So Lucy’s passing now marks the end of this 16 year increment. Now begins a time when my mom has no cats. This is new, too. Dave has said they can get another, which is lovely of him. But she wants a little time of driving back and forth without dragging a cat along. I can’t help but think that the next cat will see my mom through the last increment of her life.
Or maybe there will be two more. I find myself adopting the leapfrogging cat method. Our two cats are 12 and 3. While this muddies the life increments, it’s also an insurance policy against being completely bereft.
I’m big on ensuring I won’t be completely bereft.