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.


Who’s Your Audience?

On Saturday, my mom mentioned that they were heading out to a fun local bar to watch the Aggie’s football game. Now, this is the woman who advised me that I could find the perfect man by trolling the aisles at Tattered Cover bookstore during a Bronco‘s game. It used to drive her crazy that my stepfather, Leo, would loll around all weekend long watching football games. And basketball games. And baseball games. Leo passed away a few years back and now my mom is remarried – this time to, Dave, a Texas A&M graduate. When she told me about the plan for the game, I said, “I wonder if Leo ever realized that all he had to do to get you on board with football-watching was to take you to a fun bar?”

“Even if he had,” my mom replied, “he would never have paid to watch a football game.”

It occurred to me that Dave is a wise man, who knows his audience well.

I read an interesting review the other day of Margaret Atwood’s new essay collection, meant to be an examination of fantastic stories. (Caveat: I have not read the collection myself and am relying on the reviewer’s assessment here.) Margaret Atwood has always been a favorite author of mine and I’ve admired her ability to straddle genres. It’s always been my impression that people are somewhat bemused by her science fiction books (Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood), sprinkled amidst the “literary” ones (Cat’s Eye, Robber Bride, Lady Oracle). The reviewer confessed disappointment that she really had little illuminating to say about the genre for anyone who is a dedicated SFF reader. He suggests that those who pick up the collection only as Atwood fans who otherwise don’t read much SFF might get something out of it. And I thought, yeah, but I bet most of the people who aren’t SFF readers won’t pick up this book.

Writers and, more to the point, publishers and marketers, often ponder who the audience for a particular work will be. As a newbie writer, I really hated that question. It was very difficult to imagine who my readers might be, besides “someone like me” (my standard answer) or people who already loved me and thought I was wonderful. I think this is something you get better at knowing, the more you publish. Meeting readers goes a long way towards this. You discover who these people are, who don’t know you but love your stories.

I’ll give you a hint: they’re not like me, either.

In many ways, I still believe that writing the story should be all internal, about what the story and I decide it should be. But there’s a point at which you have to bring your critical eye and think about who will be reading this. Will they understand that reference? Will they squick at some dark detail? Deciding what to do from there is part of the acquired skill of being a professional writer.

Sometimes it means paying out a little bit, in whatever currency that might be, a bit of sacrifice, a little pain, in order to achieve the greater goal.

Remnants and Goodbyes

All in all, it wasn’t so bad.

My mom and I went through everything and decided on keep, save or store. She’d already culled quite a bit, which made it all easier. We purged all of Leo’s things years ago, after he died. Then more when my mom married her David and she made space for him to move in.

The hardest part was the jewelry. For both of us.

For every pair of earrings, for every ring and necklace, there was a story and a memory. Who gave it whom on what occasion. Some pieces were from the 60s, gifts from my dad. Some had belonged to my grandmother. We ruthlessly categorized – some I took, some she’s keeping, some goes to be appraised and sold, some for my aunt to look through.

The jewelry is when we cried.

But at least we got to do this together.

My mom and I have had a long-standing joke, whenever she brought home a great new piece of art and I said I liked it, she’d answer “good, because it will be yours someday.” Sometimes it gave me a thrill, thinking of the day I’d get to have that painting or sculpture. Until I remembered that would mean my mom would be gone.

I walked myself through it from time to time. How she’d have passed away and weeks later I’d go through the house and decide what to keep or sell.

I never could get myself through it.

Now I don’t have to. I brought home some of my favorite things now, the ones that won’t work in the Tucson house. Others I’ll take after the house sells. It feels good to have everything accounted for.

I’m giving my old dollhouse to Lauren, for our granddaughter to be born in October. The carpet above were pieces I’d cut for the dollhouse and carefully stored. Yes, they were remnants from our own house. The yellow was in my bedroom, the tile in the kitchen and the green throughout the rest.
My mom wants you all to know that she had that carpet out of there by the 80s. We were just stunned at how bright it is. Didn’t seem like it at the time.

I’m also lucky that way. I have friends whose parents never did redecorate since the 70s. One mother had a house with a different color for every room: purple living room, red rec room, green kitchen, yellow bedroom – and didn’t want to change a thing to sell it.
It turned out to be a pleasant weekend. We got a great deal accomplished and spent some time together on the patio, where we spent so many family occasions.

The twinsie shirts, by the way, were a coincidence, but I think we shouldn’t let them live it down.

Snow Day

We managed to fly into Denver last night, my colleague and I. Which is saying something because we first got diverted to Grand Junction, to sit on the tarmac while we refueld and the visibility improved at DIA. We were happy to get there, so it wasn’t so bad the roads were too bad for us to strike out for our homes, north of Denver. We’d go stay at my mom’s empty house and have comfort food at The Bent Fork.

But it was closed. So was the Bent Noodle, my other neighborhood fave. The Bent Noodle’s recording said that they’d closed at 1:25 in the afternoon, for their employees’ safety. Schools were closed yesterday and, as I sit writing this, lookin over the commons and the path that leads to my old grade school, Polton, a path that is blanketed in pristine white, not scuffed by schoolchildren, it appears they’re closed again today.

I remember wishing for snow days as a kid. We’d be all hopeful the night before, watching the snow fall. I had an advantage because Leo was a vice-principle and at the top of the telephone tree for school cancellation. The phone would ring around 5:30am. No phone call meant I was going to school. If the phone rang, I could turn off my alarm and go back to sleep, delighted in the unexpected holiday. Leo would warn me though: don’t get too excited, it takes a lot for them to cancel school.

This just doesn’t seem like a lot to me. Nothing like the big storms of my youth. Yes the roads are obnoxious, but hardly worth shutting down a city. Not the Mile-High City. For two days in a row.

I suppose some of this is simply Denver becoming so much larger and more complex over the last 35 years. When we moved into this house, Parker Road was the highway, I-225 hadn’t been built and Peoria & Yale were dirt roads with a four-way stop at the intersection. Those that live in the area now know how different it looks than that. A bigger metropolis means more that can go wrong. “They do that to keep people off the roads,” my mom says of the hair-trigger closures.

In the eighties, though, I remember our parents talking about the influx of Californians. Housing prices had crashed out there and West Coasters were moving to Colorado in droves. People called Fort Collins “Fort California.” The refrain was: sure, they like it now because the weather has been so warm and the winters so mild. Just wait for one good winter and they’ll turn tail and run back to Californy. Everyone felt sure they’d learn their lesson or toughen up.

It never occurred to us that the reverse might happen, that we would learn their softness.

Denver no longer seems to plow through. There’s only one or two good snows in a winter anymore, so perhaps the city can afford the luxury of shutting down.

Just wait for one good winter and we’ll see.

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.