Credo II (Morningside After Dark edit)

Three times a year — once in January, once in February, and once in April– a sympathetic and broad-minded crowd gathers in the basement of Morningside Church in Edina for a night of stories and songs on a particular theme. The event is free (donations to the church are always appreciated but not required) and always both life-and-spirit-affirming. 

Last night, I did my third MADark reading. I’m always honored to be included, but last night felt particularly special somehow. Anyway, here is the essay I read, a version of “Credo” I edited for last night’s theme: Growing Pains.

 

Lizzie on Henry's shoulder

 

First and most of all, I’m for love –the kind you need and want from the people who give it best.

 

I stand for Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. I am against mocking people for believing in God and I am against mocking people for not believing in God.

 

I believe in deep quiet, loons, and swimming with horses, which I tried once at Camp Lake Hubert the summer I was 15– it felt like flying. I believe in an Afterlife … not harps and fluffy white clouds so much as a clarity, an understanding, a lifting of all the veils that make us think our stubborn, self-destructive thoughts. I am for a Heaven that reconciles my vision and God’s, a big explanation, God saying “this is why and this is why and this is why.”

 

I’m for Grandma Betty, who kept rosaries in her desk and fed me soft, pillowy doughnuts rolled in sugar on Sunday mornings after Mass. I’m for the tiny, Technicolor strawberries she grew in her garden, which I picked and brought to my dad and grandpa in a metal pail, one by one.

 

I am for Grandpa Skluzacek, whose pickup truck smelled of wood shavings, tobacco, and the fish he caught alone in secret lakes and I am for Grandpa Thacher, who took me to get stitches on my chin when I was 4 and told everyone how brave I was when I wasn’t.

 

Camp Lake Hubert

 

I am pro-cabin, pro-camp, pro-canoe. I’m pro-Constance, who meets me at the back fence now and then to exchange lemons, eggs, sour cherries, solidarity. I’m for the teary girl I saw at the elementary school last October, willing herself down the hall. I was her once. I am pro-aloneness, anti-loneliness.

 

I am in favor of the simple, peaceful Lonsdale cemetery where my dad and other members of my family are buried, but against all the reasons it’s full. I am in favor of tough old ladies and soft old men and I am all in for Minnesota. I believe in flannel sheets, down comforters with the windows cracked, the romance of a December wedding. I would relive mine a thousand times if I could … I probably have.

 

Yes to my dad and stepmom, who honored me by dying when I was right there in the room and yes to my mom and stepdad, who spared me that sorrow. No to a crystal ball, though I badly want one. No because I would use it irresponsibly.

 

I swear by birthday cake for breakfast and I swear by my mom, who taught herself the Club Med line dance with a tape she bought at the gift shop and practiced in our living room until it was perfect. I am passionately pro-nerd.

 

43rd birthday cake for Brian 2015

 

No to mealy apples, no to fake vanilla, and no to both phone and in-person solicitation. Yes to bread, GramBea’s rice pudding, lake swimming, being up late at night. Yes to wilderness and protecting it.

 

I believe in the peonies my dad grew and brought to my house in vases each spring; the Eames chair where I sat in his lap when I was five, watching Little House on the Prairie on Monday nights; I believe in the bronze stars and purple heart he brought back from Viet Nam. I believe in anyone brave enough and wise enough to choose tenderness.

 

I’m for the brilliant nurse who helped me bathe my toddler at Children’s Hospital when she had wires glued to her scalp and I’m for the brilliant neurosurgeon who performed her brain surgery at Mayo when she was three years old. I’m against staying in the hospital with your child alone – don’t do it.

 

Sweet Brian and Carolinbe post EEG

 

I am for raising yourself as you raise your kids, I am for Dad, who worked at my high school and would make a convincing camel face for anyone who asked and I am for Mom, who called me Lamby and Lovebug right up until she died when I was 41.

 

Yes to GramBea playing piano out on her four-season porch as I was coming in from school, yes to the beautiful connection between my children, which is what I have always hoped for. Yes to the way my dad and his sister would laugh together in a kind of harmony and yes to letting your kids see you cry. No to anyone who makes you feel like you’re crazy for feeling too much.

 

Yes to reminding people they are not alone – including myself. Yes to growing up together, to people who are afraid but keep trying anyway.

 

Yes to you, my friends from long ago and far away and yes to you, my friends from always. Yes to everyone who is here now and yes to those who couldn’t stick around for one reason or another.

 

I stand for you.
I stand for me.
I am for you and me.

 

Bridesmaids 121199

Between Two Years

South Carolina riverboat 082217

 

Have you ever felt stuck between two years? I do. The problem is this: 2017 was so scary and heartbreaking, from start to finish, that I think I’m afraid to enter 2018.  Despite the fresh sting of my dad’s absence, I had my loveliest holidays in a long time at the end of 2017. I made dinner with my step-sister Kerry for our family like we used to do at our parents’ house years ago and it was such a beautiful party. There were candles and fresh flowers, enough snow for a light cover, delicious food and easy conversation.

 

I miss that night already –I wanted it to last a lot longer. When dinner was over and we were all sitting at the long table, a vision flashed through my mind of us all in an old wooden boat, floating through a stormless channel between What Was and What Will Be. I felt less afraid for a while but as we crept closer to school starting up again, my fear returned.

 

I don’t typically get paralyzed and technically, I’m still doing what I need to do: I go to the grocery store, show up where people are expecting me, water the plants, feed everyone. Yet there’s a strange sense of life happening to me these days. Ordinarily, I make choices –good or bad– and my life, like water, finds its path around them. Since my dad died, I feel like the path is fixed and my choices have to find their way around the inevitability of loss and grief.

 

When my dad got sick two years after my mom died, I had a good cry, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work. We talked every day on the phone about what he might be able to eat, how much weight he was losing. Sometimes he would tell me about conversations he had had with Father Pirkl, his beloved priest from church, about forgiveness and whether God would consider his choosing an easier chemo regimen a kind of despair (NO).  Once in a while, we mistakenly drifted into politics and had to spend a day or two licking our wounds. It was never more than that … we knew we didn’t have that kind of time.

 

I spent the first half of last year in waiting rooms, exam rooms, infusion rooms. Maybe because I’m an only child, maybe because I spent my childhood and adolescence moving back and forth between my divorced parents’ houses, my hobbies are portable. I would knit or write while my dad retreated into his own thoughts or slept in his chair. Last January, when he was in so much pain that it made him cry, I cried with him. I participated in the last months of his life. I walked him all the way through to the end and I never shrank from any of it.

 

I was in the room when he died, an honor both he and Linda, the love of his life, gave me and a sorrow both my mom and Steve, the love of hers, spared me. I am so grateful to all four of them for the way they departed, for sharing their most vulnerable selves with me. I had four anchors when I got married 18 years ago. One by one, they’ve been pulled and now here I am, trying to start my first year without any of them. It’s so strange, not being anyone’s daughter.

I read this poem aloud at my dad’s burial in the Lonsdale cemetery:

 

In Blackwater Woods
By Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

 

So that’s the work ahead of me this year and beyond – making the choice to love fully, despite the fixed path, the black river of loss. My original anchors are gone, yes, but my boat is filled with people I can love right now. It is a new year and we mortals are leaving the quiet channel together, letting go, choosing What Will Be.

Mom & Dad

Misty Park

 

Dear Wonderful You,

Have you noticed how some people seem to have these misty, soft-focus end-of-life experience with their parents? That’s not how it happened for me. To tell you the truth, both of them were giant pains in my ass.

 

My mom, with a brain tumor, had no business driving her Lexus Death Star in the middle of a polar vortex. She, of course, would not concede this fact, so while she was at the rehab center after her surgery, I took her keys – and her car batteries for good measure.

 

I confessed the day I picked her up to go home. I was loading her things onto a little cart to take out to my car and had to hold onto it when I told her I was keeping her car keys, my legs and hands were shaking so badly. She yelled at me, I cried and took her home. Once she was sure I had left, she dug out a secret set of keys, likely congratulating herself (again) for being way smarter than her daughter.

 

Of course her cars wouldn’t start, so she called to lecture me about my negligence in exercising them regularly while she was out of commission. Brian took the phone and I sat on the stairs eating my hands while he broke the news about the batteries, which he had hidden in our garage in case one of her friends decided to help her do a break-in.  We knew of a couple who might.

 

We fought near the end of her life like we had when I was a teenager, only the roles were reversed: she wanted to be allowed to take the car; I insisted on more supervision when she was home alone; she couldn’t believe how controlling and overprotective I was being; I said the way she was talking to me made it LESS likely I would acquiesce, not more.  It would have been funny if cancer hadn’t stolen her insight and fear hadn’t stolen mine.

 

Carol & Marta 1977

 

My dad, who had always been gregarious and considerate, became sullen, self-centered at the end of his life. He was embarrassingly rude to waiters and cashiers and claimed my time with neither acknowledgment nor apology:

 

“On the 24th, pick me up at 1:00,” he would say after the briefest of greetings over the phone. “I need to be at the clinic by 1:30.”

“Okay …you know the 24th is my birthday, right?”

“Right.”

“Okay. See you then.”

 

It was 23 minutes to his house in Apple Valley, then another 30 back up north to the clinic, another 20-30 of waiting to start the appointment, another 20-30 once we got in. Then I would go back out to the waiting room for two hours until he was done and drive him home in rush hour traffic. Sometimes I was able to run  to the grocery store or go home to check on my kids while I was waiting.

 

Those appointments were for stent replacements. Once he was diagnosed, in December of last year, he got a port and a more permanent stent and started chemo. He wouldn’t take pain relievers stronger than Tylenol, so in January,  he had a nerve block procedure to manage his pain. We accidentally entered the wrong building  and he walked 20 steps ahead of me all the way through the tunnel to the other one, never saying a word to me.

 

I could count on one hand the number of actual fights we had ever had until the year he died, but we were on opposite sides in the 2016 election. Our political discussions, which used to stop short of doing real damage, started hurting.  Once, while he was getting one of his chemo infusions, I (stupidly) asked him what he thought about Betsy DeVos being Secretary of Education. He was a public school educator and I wanted to hear what he thought about such a catastrophic appointment. It started out okay, but eventually he told me I should move to Canada or Europe with the rest of the snowflakes and I cried because he was being mean, he was dying, and I was ashamed I had started the conversation. The nurses attended to him without looking at either one of us. We worked it out, but I still get a stomachache, thinking about that day.

 

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

 

We hung out on the phone a lot. Sometimes our conversations were just like they used to be. We would talk for a couple of hours about raising kids in competitive, challenging Edina,  loneliness, how hard it is to believe that who you are is enough, how important it is to listen to God. I loved those conversations, but they became fewer and further between. More often, he gave me detailed accounts of what he was eating, his pain, how quickly he was losing weight.

 

I would do anything to have those two know-it-alls back.  I miss them all the time.

 

How are you? Do you feel like some giant drain has opened up and all the good is leaking out of the world? I hope that’s just me.

 

I’m glad we’re back in touch.

In love and solidarity,
Marta

A Return

paperwhites

 

Uncle Ed and Aunt Betty –my dad’s younger brother and older sister– were diagnosed with two different cancers on the same day in October of 1992. Ed’s diagnosis, lung cancer that had traveled to his brain and hip, was terrible but not really a surprise. He had always been wild and self-destructive. He lived rough. I knew him only by the twin packs of tights my grandma would wrap for me and sign his name to every Christmas.

 

But Betty …oh, Aunt Betty. She was the voice, the beating heart of the whole family. She was musical, soulful, and giggly. She nurtured everyone within her reach in that enveloping small-town-church-lady way that feels so good when it’s genuine, and in her it always was. At Thanksgiving or Christmas, we gathered at Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek’s tiny shoebox house, which magically expanded to accommodate all 11 of us. While my cousins alternately teased and fawned over me, an exotic only child from the Cities, my aunt and dad lingered at the table, telling stories and poking fun at each other. Every few minutes, they burst into enormous, musical laughter –my aunt’s soprano high and quick, my dad’s tenor warm and rich. I have a sense memory of that laughter. It’s what I miss most about her –the way she was a sister to my dad. I might miss her for him even more than I miss her for me. I might.

 

Ed and Betty died three days apart the following spring. I remember little about Ed’s funeral except how old he looked in his casket. He looked more like Grandpa’s younger brother than Dad’s. I remember studying his face, looking for a connection and waiting for a hook in my chest to catch and register the loss. There was none; I didn’t know him and never had. Even as I stood shaking hands with the long, dreary line of mourners, I was thinking more of Betty. Ed’s funeral felt like a dress-rehearsal for hers.

 

Betty died singing, surrounded by her children and insisting they sing with her. Her funeral was a three-day grief marathon beginning in Albany, Minnesota at the Church of the Seven Sorrows, where she had been Music Director, and ending 118 miles away in her hometown of Lonsdale. The air was close, heavy with early-summer heat and the scent of candles. Grandma fainted and it was my job to distract Grandpa, dazed with grief, while Dad revived her.

 

Even as I stood shaking hands with the long, dreary line of mourners, I was thinking more of Betty. Ed’s funeral felt like a dress-rehearsal for hers.

 

Betty was buried next to her brother on the breezy hill outside of town where our people rest. That cemetery is one of the prettiest I know … somehow that makes burying people there a little easier. It’s a simple and intimate place, like the Heaven I imagine. The grave markers of all the Skluzaceks, Uhlirs, and other Czech families like ours remind me that our departure from the people we know and love is just as much a return to others we know and love. Eventually we will all be together –just not quite yet. Still, I wish they could be there with me in those last moments to say “Isn’t this beautiful? Aren’t we so lucky to have this, to have had each other?”
 

After the funeral, we gathered in the basement of Immaculate Conception church for ham sandwiches with yellow mustard, kolachkes, and experimental jello salads served with loving discretion by a team of powdery matrons. Even their pillowy arms were sympathetic, reaching out from sleeveless calico blouses to feed, to comfort, to attend.

 

My grandparents perched like fragile birds on the edge of one of the benches, picking up their sandwiches to take a bite, setting them down again as well-meaning friends and neighbors approached them.

 

“Lord have mercy. Just terrible. Vivian lost her girl when she was 40.”

” My sympathies, we are praying for you. Eat, eat.”

 

Eat. How? They had buried two of their three children in a single week. Cancer casts its shadow over every life in some way or another. It steals children, mothers, fathers, friends, lovers, anyone it wants. It has stolen from me seven times, tried for an eighth. People like to rail at God for these things, but cancer was invented by chaos, not God. Chaos multiplies the cells, breathes fear and resentment into exhausted families, whispers false hope, distracts. God is the eye of that storm, offering respite and comfort and a quiet space, if not a safe one.

 

Betty was a pure loss for our family — a mother, daughter, sister and aunt of the highest caliber.

 

I don’t pretend to know why some people get better while others succumb and are lost, but I have a hard time believing God plays favorites that way. Maybe God decides when and chaos decides how we die. I don’t know, but when people whose loved ones survive cancer or some other physical affliction put on beatific smiles and talk about how God healed their person, it sticks in my craw. Because why wouldn’t He heal mine? Maybe that kind of bitterness is chaos at work in me. I’ll have to give that some more thought.

 

I do know this: Ed, who lied to and used and betrayed everyone in his family, was not an easier loss than Betty, who adored and supported and nurtured. Betty was a pure loss for our family — a mother, daughter, sister and aunt of the highest caliber. Ed was a complex loss: his death meant he couldn’t wound and disappoint anyone anymore, but it also meant he could never become who he was meant to be, the one we all hoped he would be if given enough time.  Ed was the death of a dream.

 

At Betty’s house after her first funeral, I saw Grandpa standing by the grandfather clock he had built for her, his first child, his only daughter. He set the clock to the hour of Betty’s death and stopped it there, his back and shoulders shaking as he cried. He might have been crying for Ed too. He might.

 

I think about Ed and Betty, together on their peaceful hill. He’s telling her his stories now, the ones he never got to tell when he was here. He’s finally within her reach. Grandma and Grandpa have arrived by now and someday my dad will, someday I will, departed by chaos from those we know and love, returning by God to those we know and love.

Weather Report

Snowy Trees

 

My mom died a year and a half ago and I still don’t know how to carry that loss. I’ve been wearing it like a coat, through all seasons, hiding in it and draping it over my shoulders as a cape, stuffing it in my purse and sleeping under it. This heartbreak is new, more fundamental than any other I have experienced; I’m not good at it. I can’t move through it — it’s always moving through me. There are no stages for grieving my mother, only weather:

 

Sun 

I’m fine, I’m living my life, I miss her but she taught me how to be in the world without her, I’m managing it …I wish she were here so she could see that I’m managing it.

 

 

Clouds

I miss her, I miss her, I miss her, I miss her, I miss her.

 

 

Wind

My head is down, I’m pointing myself where I want to go, but I can’t get there at a normal pace. It’s like running in deep water …exhausting.  I take shelter near something or someone solid if it gets to be too much.

 

 

Rain

I sit on the porch while the shower soaks into the grass and runs down the driveway. I let it drip through the trees and  flood the gutters. I try to be grateful for the drop in temperature and the colors deepening.

 

 

Thunderstorm

The power is out, I can’t sleep, the kids can’t sleep, we are all restless. We feel vulnerable no matter how solidly the house is built. I light candles and say, “we’re okay, we’re here together, there’s a kind of wild beauty in it, right?” But that’s easier to believe on a clear day.

 

 

Tornado

I hide in the basement, I hold the kids tight, I breathe and I wait.

 

 

Snow

Nature puts the world on mute and I go inside. The door is locked, but if someone knocks, I will let them in. From my window, I watch the snow erase everything familiar to me. Spring, when it comes, will draw me something new.

 

 

There are places in this world where predicting the weather is really easy — Minnesota is not one of them and Grief is not one of them. Here, where I am living, weather doesn’t follow any rules. Sometimes there’s snow in June. Sometimes there’s  a thunderstorm in February. This kind of grief has its own climate.

Signs of Spring

Spring in Pamela Park

After about five solid years of winter, I’m seeing signs of spring –not necessarily in Mother Nature, who is usually still sleepy and moody in Minnesota this time of year anyway– but in my own nature. For example, I saw a heavily lacquered Barbie plow her Escalade between two lesser automobiles (instead of patiently waiting her turn) at after-school pickup yesterday and it only irritated me for about seven minutes; 25 is the norm. I have switched from Adele and Bon Iver to Madonna and Fleetwood Mac, watered my plants two weeks in a row, and bought two articles of clothing that aren’t black or grey. Spring!

 

Really, though, I know spring is finally here because I’m looking at my life through windows instead of imagining it from behind doors.

 

I am sure you’ve heard this saying: “when one door closes, another one opens.” It’s true, but I have spent a lot of time standing in the dark after the first door has closed, waiting for the next one to open. Either I’m longing for whatever is behind me, re-imagining it until it bears no resemblance to the reality, or I’m staring at the door ahead of me, looking for light through the cracks, writing a story in my head about what will happen in the room beyond before I even see it. In the meantime, I’m trying to take as little notice as possible of what’s around me in the space between.

 

If you’ve had a lot of trauma in your life, you can understand this approach. While you’re sitting in the bedroom where your adorable, thoughtful, truly classy stepmom is about to die of breast cancer, you don’t want to absorb into your memory her rattling, gasping breath, the medicine smell, the anemic sun straining through the clouds. You want to reinvent that scene later from a safer distance, from the other side of the door, where you can replace the smell of painkillers with the scent of lavender soap; where you can replace listening helplessly to the labored breathing with reading to her from a magazine; where you can replace the weak sun with a brilliant one.

 

Nostalgia and speculation are destructive habits if you can’t see beyond them.

 

And you want to imagine a sunnier room behind the next door, where you can sit and heal and remember how she made damn sure she was at both your rehearsal dinner AND your wedding in December, though nobody thought she would make it past February (she made it halfway through April on sheer will). You want to picture a room behind the next door where all of your most important people can come to visit, sit with you and put their arms around you and let you cry about how hard it was to lose such a special lady. It makes sense to picture that room, invent several scenes in it, hope for it, even if the room you get is another sickroom, this time at your mom’s house, where your stepdad will die less than a year and a half later of melanoma.

 

But even after these traumas and several others have passed, after you have absorbed all the losses and near-losses, it can be hard to give up the doors. Nostalgia and speculation are destructive habits if you can’t see beyond them; they let you skip over the crucial points that explain why something (or someone) has to stay in the past or allow you to dream a life for yourself that is far less beautiful and spectacular than the one God is dreaming for you.

 

Yet I will never be the kind of girl who lives in the moment; that’s not typically how artist brains work. I need to have a view into my past and some vision about the future to make meaningful connections, to write. For a long time I couldn’t do that –the past was too painful and the future too scary. I needed the doors in place for protection, so I could feel brave enough to keep feeling my way in the dark, knowing there were barriers between what happened yesterday, me today, and what would happen tomorrow.

 

Now I have begun replacing some –not all, but some– of the doors with windows. I can see into the room now at Children’s hospital where I stayed with my Caroline last August, she watching Olivia and I listening to music while she sat leaning against my chest in the little bed. I have kept the doors on all the other hospital rooms for now.

 

I can see through a window into Kyle’s memorial at his parents’ house in Milwaukee –the singing, the cooking, sleeping in a bed with my cousin Jessica like we would when we were little girls. But there’s still a door on my visit to the same house to visit Kyle the month before.

 

I can look through the windows in one room to see another, finally understanding that they belong together –they belong to the same life.

 

I can see into Linda’s room the day she died, see beyond the rattling breath, the medicine smell, the weak sun to the honor of being there when she finally felt brave enough to let go. I can see into Steve’s den, past the tiny man who bore so little resemblance to the one I knew, to the one I did know asking an uncharacteristically vulnerable question: “Where will I go?” I can hear my own answer through the window: “You don’t believe in Heaven, I know, but I believe in it for you.” There’s the medicine smell in that scene, but also a little bit of lingering pipe smoke –the memory makes more sense to me with both.

 

I can see through these windows some of what used to be, who used to be, and be grateful without being cracked open all over again with grief or heartbreak or fear. I can look through the windows in one room to see another, finally understanding that they belong together –they belong to the same life. At the same time I can see vaguely into the rooms ahead, imagine someone who’s missing from the room in front of me showing up in a room beyond it, imagine what might be, who I might be, and remember that God will write it way better than I can. In the meantime, there’s a lot more light where I’m standing now.

 

In another month or so, I’ll see outward signs of Spring…peonies and roses in my dad’s garden, that mossy, electric scent coming from the earth, and all kinds of whackadoos jogging in 60-degree weather practically naked. I’ll wear dresses and open-toed shoes and maybe more jewelry. I’ll leave this house with all of its painful memories and close the door. I don’t know if I’ll ever replace that particular door with a window, but I might. Knowing I might is my first sign of spring.