I just returned from a short trip to my father’s cabin on Lake Superior in Northern Ontario. The last time I was up in August 2011, my father and brothers were still alive. My parents went up every summer in late July, after the bugs cleared out, and stayed until late September or sometimes early October. Before this year, I’d never been to the cabin without my parents being there with me. It was the place I went to spend time with them each year. Visiting them in Houston, a 2.5-hour drive from my home, would have been closer. But the cabin is special. And so I traveled to Canada in late August nearly every year. 2011 would be the last trip for my dad.

It’s been nearly two years since he died, and I thought I’d healed enough that I could manage being there in his absence. And if I couldn’t, well, the Big Lake has energy that can heal broken hearts.


The Big Lake They Call Gitche Gumee

Soon after I’d arrived, I realized I should have taken the trip alone. It would have made it a lot easier to just let go each time I burst into tears over seemingly random things. My father’s clothes hanging in the closet. Working on the water pump in the rain. Watching the chipmunk filling his cheeks with leftover blueberry pancakes. Sitting on the deck in the misty morning with a cup of coffee, the loons floating out front fishing for breakfast. The memory of my father sleeping upside down in the bed because of the spatial disorientation from Alzheimer’s.

On this morning, I fed him peanuts rather than pancakes.

On this morning, I fed him peanuts rather than pancakes.

Morning Loon

Morning Loon

But I brought a friend, and so I kept trying to keep a lid on the emotions that kept bubbling up and overflowing. When I wasn’t busy trying to keep the tears from leaking out of my eyes, I was trying to keep myself from shushing my friend. As it turns out, she is a talker. She simply could not bring herself to shut the hell* up for five minutes at a time and just enjoy the sound of the waves, and the wind, and the quiet. She talked endlessly of the most mundane and uninteresting things. And when I didn’t respond to her prattle, she talked on and on to herself, an endless loop of mumbling interspersed with loud cackling. I imagined tying a rock to her neck and throwing her into the lake.

*The word in my head here was not hell. But I am trying to be more judicious in the dropping of the F bomb into my posts.

I’ve got nothing against talking. I too enjoy opening my mouth and letting thoughts spew forth. I can prattle on with the best of them. But I know when to shut up and listen. I know when there is not one thing I can possibly say that would be more important than the call of the loon. The rippling of the water against the rocks on the shore. The wind brushing through the leaves of the birch trees.

Just the thought of those sounds soothes me. I needed a tremendous amount of soothing this year. Soothing I did not get. And so I will conjure up those sounds and lose myself in my imaginings, until next year.

Next year, when I return to the Big Lake they call Gitche Gumee. 

Being alive is weird. I’m sure being dead is weird, too. Or maybe not. Maybe your consciousness is dead along with your body and so there’s nothing left of you to witness whether being dead is weird, or not. But back to alive weirdness.

We put my mother’s beach house on the market this weekend. (It’s been 20 months since my dad died, and I’ve finally moved from calling things “my parents'” to calling them “my mother’s”.) My parents bought the beach house when the grandchildren were little. My brothers were still married to their wives. They were still alive. They spent weekends at the beach house with their wives, and kids, and with my parents. My sister and her husband and their kids went, too. No one knew yet what my sister’s husband had done (was doing) to their daughter. My brothers’ alcoholism hadn’t yet stolen their lives. Dementia hadn’t stolen my father from us. And now my brothers and my dad are dead, and we know what my brother-in-law did. And the beach house is up for sale.

We’ve spent the past weeks sprucing things up, moving things out, and dealing with my mother’s need to hang on to her things. Her memories.

“I can’t leave that coffee table. Mike made that. I won’t just leave it with the house.”

Mike. Her oldest son. Oldest child. Dead in April 2012 at 56. Liver failure. Fucking alcohol. It’s a god damn thief.

I didn’t know it was going to be hard to sell the beach house. I didn’t know I was going to well up with grief all over again. My sister, who is not terribly sentimental, couldn’t bring herself to throw out an old metal dog bowl.dog bowl

“It was Sandy’s originally,” she told me. Sandy was my dad’s boxer. The first family dog after I was born. I recall a photo of me as a little girl, leaning over toward Sandy, pressing my forehead into his. After Sandy, there was a series of black labs. Rebel, then Nugget, and then Lacy. Each of those dogs had, over four decades, lapped water from that metal bowl.

“Maybe you should take that,” I told my sister. And so she did. She took it to her beach house, where the dogs of her daughters will drink from it. And maybe some day, the dogs of her grandchildren. Dogs that will be around long after my sister and I are dead.

We die. And the beach houses and dog bowls remain. Weird.

My writing spot at Doe Bay

My writing spot at Doe Bay

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a writers’ retreat on Orcas Island taught by memoirist, Theo Nestor. It was a momentous four days. Four days of clearing the hurdles I’d constructed between me and writing my story. I thought, having cleared those hurdles, I’d come home and begin filling the pages. But up until today, I hadn’t written a word. As I worked my way through this post, writing and rewriting, adding and deleting huge chunks, I finally realized: I’ve been mentally working through the events of those four days. But mentally working through things doesn’t work nearly as well for me as working through them via writing. And so today, I wrote through them.

One of the most formidable hurdles I would work through at the retreat was how write my story with the specter of my sister’s husband hovering over me. How to write about his sexual abuse of their daughter, my niece, and my possible (probable) abandonment by what’s left of my family when I do so. Just look how I phrased the issue: (1) To write my story I have to write about my brother-in-law’s pedophilia/sexual abuse of my niece (and to a lesser extent, me); and (2) if I write about that, what’s left of my family will abandon me. Yeah, that’s a little bit of a block, don’t you think? And what about my arcless story; the not knowing where my protagonist is headed, if anywhere? Not knowing how she’ll be transformed? If she’ll be transformed? And if she is transformed, whether it’s the kind of transformation anyone will give a damn about? Without an arc, without transformation, there is no story. How can I write a storyless story?

I decided to be brave and meet privately with Theo hoping she would have some sage advice on these issues. Turns out, she did. As for the abuser, I simply need to write the story to sort out how I want to deal with it. Do I need to employ a take-n0-prisoners approach, and torch the whole village? Will I feel OK if I omit the abuser and the abuse entirely? Or will I find some middle ground that feels like truth? It all depends upon what kind of memoirist I want to be; which depends upon who I am. Writing it will help me sort out whether I have to burn it down to feel I’m being true to myself; to my art.

Next up was how to deal with my seeming lack of arc–a protagonist who has not had a readily identifiable happily-ever-after transformation. Theo suggested that if I write the story, I might find the transformation I’m in search of. She then asked what I hope to find. What drives me to write my story? Well that’s not hard. I want to find Peace.


And when I thought about that word–Peace–I thought about Sophie, the little black stray cat. About the months and months, amidst all the death and despair, I spent trying to save her. How I did save her. And then I had it. My story was about saving a little black stray cat named Sophie. And through saving her, I would find Peace. And my Arc.

I’ve been avoiding the page for the past two weeks because I haven’t wanted to deal with life head on. The year anniversary of the death of my brother was a couple of weeks ago–March 25. I took the day off work and drove out to Pedernales State Park to commune with nature and my brother’s memory.


Pedernales River March 25, 2014

I generally don’t like people in my nature photos, but if you look closely you can see the itty bitty people standing on top of the rocks right of center, which gives some perspective as to the vastness of this place.

On my way home, I saw these little guys, so I pulled over to stop for a visit.

As spring finally appears in Central Texas, I’m only now beginning to appreciate how weighed down I’ve been by all the grief. The change of seasons is prodding me to awaken, and the fact that it’s so difficult to do so highlights grief’s impact. As I hiked around the park, I thought of Steve, and my dad, and my other brother, Mike. All the loss has changed me. Irrevocably. It had to.

I no longer know what I want from life. I don’t think I want much of anything, in fact. I don’t want to excel at my job. I want to do good work, but I don’t want to achieve, get ahead, become a star. I don’t want to pass the time in idle conversation. I don’t want to buy things. I’m not much interested in world news or politics, including Facebook bickering. It just seems so inconsequential. To me. (I did accidentally shake hands with a tea party candidate at my office last week. One who is expected to win a powerful post in my state. I felt like I’d contracted cooties, afterward.) I used to care deeply about this stuff. But many things that used to matter, don’t now.

What does matter is this beautiful rainy Sunday. The squirrel eating out of the bird feeder. The gold finches and the doves. The cat on my lap. My visit with my mother at her assisted living home yesterday. The doctor told us last week that based on her EEG results, she’s got dementia. They are starting her on Aricept and Namenda. I kept hoping her memory loss was due to grief, but it’s only getting worse. The doctor says she’s still very high functioning. And she is. But I can’t help but think of my father’s deterioration and the fact the Alzheimer’s killed him, albeit indirectly. (Disorientation caused him to fall out of bed and hit his head on a nightstand–he died a year and a half ago from a subdural hematoma, exactly a month after emergency brain surgery.) I asked them to do an MRI of my mother’s brain, which will be done next week. Hopefully it won’t reveal any additional concerns.

All of this has brought me back to a familiar spot. Wanting my mother to live and enjoy life for many years to come. But not wanting her to live long enough to make it to the devastating late stage of dementia. My father got close, but the brain injury spared him (and us) from the worst of it. And now with both my parents having been diagnosed with dementia, it’s bound to catch up with me at some point. I’m trying to stay in the present. Focus on the beautiful moments in front of me. But my mind keeps racing ahead.

Here is a photo I took last weekend, to bring me back to now.

Texas Bluebonnets

Texas Bluebonnets

Another surreal Christmas has drawn to a close. Over the past several days, I’ve been trying to think back to a time when Christmas wasn’t weird. When it was happy and normal. Maybe they were never happy and normal. But I get glimpses of moments. I know they’re there.

I recall trying to sneak peeks at the presents before my mother wrapped them, and my brother Steve telling me we shouldn’t look or we’d spoil the surprise. I remember baking cookies with my mom. Squeezing the dough through the pastry bag, snowflakes emerging through the tip. The red and green sprinkles and cinnamon redhots lined up in little plastic containers on the table, ready for the next step in the assembly line. I remember going sledding on a red wooden sled. I remember ice skates with two blades on each foot. And decorating the tree. My brother wanting to throw wads of tinsel on all at once. My mother insisting we do it strand by strand. The star, or the angel, always placed on top last by my father, who, up until that point, had been sitting in his chair supervising.

I can’t remember my oldest brother or my sister in this process. They left home as early as they could, but still, I should have memories of them. Other than the star, I also don’t remember much of my father from way back when. I recall later years. He was always trying to recruit one of us to wrap the gifts he always bought at the last minute. They were good gifts. My father was extravagant. My mother, on the other hand, was quite frugal. Even so, there was always loads of gifts under the tree. It would take hours Christmas morning to unwrap them. We’d take turns. As the youngest, I’d always go first. Then my brother Steve, my sister, my oldest brother, my mother, then my father. And the line would extend as the grandchildren were born. Before my sister estranged herself from the family and my brothers’ wives divorced them (both due to alcoholism), there would be 15 of us opening gifts Christmas morning. Each of my siblings came with a spouse and two children. 4 x 3 = 12. Adding 2 for my parents got us to 14, and I made 15. After high school, I rarely brought a boyfriend home for Christmas. Due to the yelling and alcoholism. And because I didn’t usually like anyone I was dating enough to go through the pressure of bringing them around.

Here we are present day, and my brothers, long-divorced, are now dead. My father is gone. My sister has created her own make-believe happy family with her husband, two adult daughters, her son-in-law, another possible soon-to-be son-in-law, and a grand baby. She gets to surround herself with happy people and pretend it doesn’t matter that her brothers and father are dead and that her husband didn’t do awful things to their daughter.

I, in contrast, get to spend Christmas with my mother and my brothers’ children. We went from 15 to 6. And yet, it was a nice Christmas. We all felt an ache, to be sure. As we cooked, the adult children of both my brothers broke out boxes of old family photos. They sat on the floor, photos spread around them, with my mother sitting in her wheel chair thumbing through them. They all looked like they were enjoying themselves. Every time I walked into the room and looked at photographs of my brothers and father, happy and healthy, I cried and went back into the kitchen, where my oldest nephew was helping me get dinner ready. (Actually, he’d taken charge and I was helping him.) I asked him if he didn’t want to look at photos while I minded the pots and oven. He said it wasn’t his thing. If you don’t look at the photos, you don’t ache. At least I assumed that was his strategy.

They came across one photo taken at the beach. My family spent a lot of time at the beach growing up. My brothers were sitting on the shore in a light surf, both with baby boys on their laps. Their oldest sons laughing and splashing at the water as their fathers held them safely in their arms. We took the photo into the dining room with us and set it on the chandelier. My brothers and their baby boys sat watching over us as the 6 of us ate our Christmas dinner. I said it was a shame Steve wasn’t there as there was plenty of room this year for his left-handed eating. And then I cried again.

I know my mother won’t be around for too many more years. Although she has surprised me by being around this long, given the frequent scares with her health. My father surprised me for many years too, with the cancer and the Alzheimer’s. But it caught up with him. As did the alcoholism with my oldest brother. And the alcoholism with Steve, although it was the cancer that killed him. Just 9 months ago.

For years I secretly yearned for the day I would be free of my family and able to make Christmas traditions of my own. I imagined, like my sister, I would have my own family and could create my own happy traditions, free of the conflict and alcoholism that scarred the holidays for many years. And now, I’m almost there. The only thing standing between me and that wish is my mother. I can’t bear the thought of losing her, too. We’ve grown quite close over the past year since my father died, and despite my railing on her as we adjusted, I’ve grown quite fond of her. All over again. And then there’s the complicating factor that I don’t have a family of my own. But I have friends. Dear friends. Friends that would (and have) welcome me into their family celebrations. Or I could spend a week on a beach. By the sea. Alone. But that would mean my mother is gone.

Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

And so I find myself caught. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

It’s in the 20s and 30s in Austin. Just a few days ago, it was in the 80s. I’m lounging on the sofa covered in a faux fur throw, a pot of Bolognese simmering on the stove. (Less than 2 hours to go!) Sadie is napping on the green silk chair.

Is the bolognese done yet?

Is the Bolognese done yet?

Sally is doing the rolly pollies on the dining rug.

No, I'm not currently using the rug as a scratching post.

No, I’m not currently using the rug as a scratching post.

Sophie is upstairs in her room snoozing on the hand-crocheted blanket on her sofa.

imageOr at least she was until I attempted to photograph her, at which point she got up, went for a quick scratch, and refused to pose further.

You may photograph my hind quarters. That is all.

You may photograph my hind quarters. That is all.

Damn, the paparazzi. Always intruding on my naps.

Damn, the paparazzi. Always intruding on my naps.

This time last year, Sophia hadn’t yet appeared on my doorstep. This time last year, the temperatures hadn’t yet reached freezing. Thank goodness she was lost last year.

Later, I’ll lie on her sofa, and she’ll jump up immediately, meowing and trilling repeatedly, until she settles herself on my belly. She’ll lie there, purring and drooling, as I tell her what a lucky little cat she is. No hiding from storms or the cold. Or dogs. No scrounging in the trash for food. No matted fur. No protruding bones. No resorting to rubbing against bushes for petting.

This holiday season, she lives in a warm house with all the tuna she can eat (Whole Foods pole caught albacore, no salt added). She has her own room with a sofa, sheepskin, blanket, and jungle gym.  She has two not-so-wicked-after-all stepsisters who’ve all but stopped hissing at her. They’ve even allowed her onto the two-legged mama cat’s bed. She’s got a clean litter box all to herself that is scooped twice daily. And she gets to lie on her mama’s tummy every night, purring and drooling to her heart’s content.

I can’t help but think in these freezing temperatures what Sophie would have done had I not found her. How she would have fared on her own. But I did find her. Or rather, she found me. She gave me something good to focus on in the midst of all my grief. She warmed my heart. And I warmed her paws.

Journal entry for Day 2 of my Great Bear Rainforest adventure:

September 3, 2013 Tuesday

Crossing the Hardy Entrance

I awoke to the sound of the engine starting.

Last night, the cove in which we anchored was like glass, the pine-covered islands shrouded in fog. The sky was cluttered with stars, the cup of the big dipper pointing to the North Star. The Milky Way slid across the dark sky like sea mist.

The fog has burned off. Captain Dave tells us today’s crossing will be the smoothest he’s seen. A few swells here and there, but generally calm.

I feel my father. I can see him at the helm. Hear him yelling commands. I wish I could tell him of my adventure. Were it not for him, I wouldn’t have chosen this trip. When I begin to feel the grief envelop me, I think of Sophie. I conjure her meow in the early morning hours–“Mamamama.” My chest, which has seized into a fist, begins to relax.

It’s another unusually warm day. The sun’s rays dance on the sea. The shimmer closest to me, large chunks. It spreads across the water receding into a mass of shimmery white light at the horizon. Farther ahead I see a silver fog masking the bottom edge of the shoreline, growing wider until, at the farthest point, the entire land mass is hidden.

Steve stopped having adventures decades ago. The alcohol killed his wanderlust. He needed to stay close to home. Close to the bottle. I thought that having gotten sober, I’d get to take him into nature and remind him how it heals our wounds. Instead, I’m healing my own.

Only I don’t feel like I’m healing out here. I feel like the scab has been ripped off–the ache naked and raw. I feel like I have to work extra hard out here to keep from falling apart. Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing these past months–holding myself together by sheer force of will. Maybe I need to allow myself to fall apart. If I were alone on this boat, I would.

It’s warm here on the bow. I’ve unzipped my hoodie with nothing underneath but a t-shirt.

The strip of fog is edging closer. Will it disappear once we reach it? Or will it envelop us?

Some of the others saw a seal this morning before I came on deck. Captain Dave says there are humpbacks in the area. I keep an eye out. I’ve seen sea birds this morning. No other wildlife.

I love the sound of the bow cutting through the water–like a perpetual wave crashing against the shore. Like a mantra. Or a lullaby.

I shall stop writing for a moment, and just be.

And I had a cry. A little one.

We’re catching up to the fog now. It didn’t disappear into the horizon. The air is cooler now.

Growing up, I spent many hours on the bow of the boat. Alone. It’s my spot. It’s my spot now. It’s the place on the boat you can find solitude.

Hoodie off. Hoodie on.

And then the humpback begin breaching. Mist from their blowholes. The sound. Ffffffftowwwwwww.

Do you see things better through the viewfinder? Or do you miss them, focusing on the shot?

And now for a few of the photos I took this day. So hard to choose! When you have mom and baby humpbacks, which photos do you post? And what about all the other photos that day? I narrowed it down to a mere 26. And I’ve learned how to post a photo gallery.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 561 other followers