Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Her Spirit Moves

This morning Theo, my five-year-old, came upstairs while I was taking a shower. "Mommy, I was holding this tinker toy, and Natalie's spirit moved it. I felt it." "What did her spirit do?" I asked. "It rolled it across the floor. Like this." (He rolled it across the floor.)
She is here.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Your Lesson To Me

Everyone talks about what cancer taught them. About how it taught them to appreciate each moment. To live without fear. To love. To not put things off. All of this is so beautiful. And everyone who learns these lessons is blessed. But I feel like my lesson--watching my friend die--is the opposite. I already live for the moment. I have a carpe diem personality in excess. I live for the moment, to an extreme. I ALWAYS put off doing the dishes, paying the bills, and making the bed, to do the fun thing in the moment--much to the joy, and often annoyance, to adults in my life. Like my husband. My crazy, almost delirious urge to enjoy the moment comes from a life of constantly moving, the life of a Navy brat. As a child I never knew when my father was going to come home and say, "Guess what, tomorrow we are moving to X!!! Isn't that exciting?" It was. But there was no option. Each time I would leave my friends, my teachers, my school, and all the places I loved. I never knew if I would ever return. It was just over. I never knew if ANYTHING i did, ever, would be for the last time. I am an adult, now, so I have a little more control. But it has been hard to realize that. So I guess I live with the determination to appreciate that is often born in the terminally ill for the first time. I appreciate!
What I have a harder time with is things that last for a long time. My mental time horizon lasts about three months. Being pregnant was a mind-blowing experience for me. I could not imagine ANY endeavor that would last 10 months. Let alone 18 years. I always felt I would die young. I thought I would be dead by 30. I liked the biographies of young geniuses who flashed through the world like comets--ablaze and beautiful, lighting up the sky--and then were gone. I wanted to be like that. I have had trouble coming up with longer term goals. My husband has tried. As has my therapist. She said I have trouble with gardens because I do not believe, deep in my soul, that I will even be around long enough for the plants to grow. So why bother?
But as I lay with Natalia, who knew she had six weeks to live (which turned out to be three days) I thought about what I really want to do. I thought, of course, about what I would really want and wish for if I were told I had six weeks. It's never what you think it would be. It is not the big things, the trips, the grandiose gestures. It is the smallest, sweetest things. But more than anything, I felt myself switch from short term to long. I realized, as I lay there with her, that I CANNOT die now. I absolutely CANNOT die before my boys are 18. I must fight, I must be here for them, I must devote myself to them for the long haul. I cannot indulge in half-formed romantic notions of dying young (not that I am so young any more...) I must be here. I must take care of myself. I must take care of them. I brought them into this world and I must show them how to love, and swim, and surf, and travel, and make the world a better place.
I must do more than live for the day. I must live for a lifetime.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Are You Out There?

Chris Price said after you die, there is movement from your spirit, just like before a baby is born, and you can feel its spirit coming, even though you can't see the baby yet. She said your spirit will still be out there for a little while, and it needs me to help it on its way. So I am with you, Nat. I am thinking of you, and going to the ocean, and eating pasta and drinking red wine with you. I know you are zipping around, freed from your sick body, and I can feel you.
I will go to Stinson, and I will walk that beach with you. Because that is our place.

Your Gift to Me

Being with you for your last hours was the biggest gift you could have given me. I got your final time. I got to hold you and take care of you and talk to you and hear your last conscious thoughts. I got to watch you and listen to you as you went under, beginning to take trips to the next world, but still coming back.
I read to you from the Tibetan book of living and dying.
And I got to watch Chris Price, guru and earth mother and Esalen goddess, ease you out of this world and into the next.
I got to watch the power of your mind. You were so strong.
We went out to dinner on Saturday night. You wanted to have one last great meal. We put your wheelchair in the back of the mini, your oxygen tank in a backpack, and drove off to Sausalito as the sun was setting. You hadn't walked for days, but you got out, walked into Fish-a yummy West Coast version of a crab shack-and we ate fresh oysters, fried green tomatoes--which somehow seemed like us because it was a movie about a lovestory about two women and pals who took care of each other forever. Until death. You had a giant crab roll and fries and a local microbrew. You ate it all. You even wanted dessert.
You started to fall asleep before the blueberry crostata came out of the oven, so I put you back in the car.
We drove back to the house and Peter, your boardwalk angel, and mine, too, appeared out of the darkness and helped me put the wheelchair back together again. You were so tired.
I put you in your hospital bed, next to the lilies. I lay down next to you on the sofa so I could hear you and help you. You wanted to be held, but you were just too uncomfortable.
At 11:00 p.m. Chris Price appeared at the door, with food, computers, books and a sleeping bag. I love her.
She went right to you and held you and said you had to get ready to die. She said you had to start saying Goodbye. She said you had to practice saying it over and over and over. You had to prepare. Tears rolled down your face, and mine, too. But she was so wise. Why doesn't everyone get someone like her?
She asked if you wanted to see your Dad. She asked what kind of funeral you wanted. She asked who you wanted near you, and how you wanted to die. She was gentle, but never shied away from the truth.
You didn't want to decide. You never wanted to decide. You were about living. Not dying.
She said she would make a plan and you could say yes or no. So she did.
I gave you morphine all night, and Peter brought you an almond budino from Rulli in the morning. You wanted to be outside. So we rolled your lounge chairs together and wrapped you in blankets and made a big bed so you could see your flowers and your creek, and someone could hug you and rub your feet and head and everything. All day you lay there.
You didn't want to talk about your dad. You wanted your mama to come. But you didn't know if she could. You wanted to see Lauren. You wanted to drive into the city and have Sandy bring her from her four hour layover at SFO and meet at Tartine. I think you knew.
And then you started traveling. You knew who we all were. But you were dreaming. You said you had been out bicycling. You told me I had to leave the light on. That I couldn't forget. You told me to take care of Benji's vision, he had double vision, because he was double smart. You said you found three guns, for short range, medium range and long range, and you needed David and Roberto to show you how to use them. You said you wanted me to surf with you, but you were retaining so much water, you couldn't surf. Chris said you were trying to leave your body. It was so heavy, you just wanted to take flight. It was holding you back.
You said you were going snorkeling, you needed instructions. Then you could barely talk. I held you and we looked in each other's eyes. That's all you could do at the end, you hurt so much. Tears rolled down my cheeks and yours. I told you you could go. You didn't need to wait for me to come back to Stinson if you hurt too much. I would be with you. I told you I loved you, and that you were one of the great loves of my life. You cried, and looked at me with one big blue eye.
You were on your way. I could feel you going.
When I walked down the boardwalk and drove out of Larkspur I felt I had gotten your final window. As I drove through the middle of California, with the shadows growing long on the golden hills, I told you you could go. I told you it was OK. There was the most spectacular sunset. It looked like a cathedral ceiling in Italy--huge clouds with rays of gold coming down like God. I felt like you were being lifted up. I stopped at a rest stop and called. Brooke said you had talked to the hospice nurse and she gave you methadone for pain and you were sitting up with Chris Price rubbing your back, and Karma sitting on your lap. So I thought maybe I was wrong. But that night you refused your medication, and the next day you were gone.
You didn't want to live if you couldn't eat food, entertain and perform, and go to the beach. You didn't want to try if you couldn't be fully alive. So you left.
You taught me so much.
Chris Price kept telling you: Your body knows what to do. It is just like birth. You don't need to tell it what to do--it knows. It is a miracle when life goes, just like when it comes. We have that knowledge inside us.
And it was.
You did know.
As I lay with you, knowing you were going, I realized, none of those things matter that you think will matter. You didn't wish you had been more successful, or left more of a mark on the world. All that mattered was that you were leaving the beauty and the love of this world. When you lie there ready to go, that is what you mourn, that you are leaving the love, that you are leaving the beauty. You will regret if you did not savor the beauty of the earth, and bask in the love of those you knew.
I feel less scared.
I looked through your albums, of you, and us.
You wanted us to do it together, but you were too out of it.
We were there in Japan. We were there driving cross country. We were there skinny dipping in mountain lakes and camping in redwoods. We were there at Stinson, and in the hot springs at Esalen, and running races, and with Nick, and in Ventura. We were woven into each others lives.
You loved me in a way maybe three people will in my life. You really loved me, my essence. And I loved you. You drove a lot of people crazy, but I loved you. One person who knew my essence, my history, my life, is gone. I miss you so much.
But you were true to yourself, Nat. You found the place you loved. You found California, with its redwoods and fog, and sunshine and endless summer. You found your fellow dancers and yogis and spiritual seekers. You built your family, the one you felt you didn't really have.
You were true to yourself, Nat. I hope I can be, too.
You loved California. You loved beauy.

Now You Are Really Gone

This morning I washed you off my body. You were still on me. Your skin, your breath, your tears. I didn't shower for four days. You were gone, but I felt like an imprint of you was still there. I know they wheeled your body down the boardwalk for the last time at 5:30 a.m. this morning, past the birds and the cats and Mt. Tam. I am thinking of you,

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Goodbye, Natalie

Yesterday, at 12:01 p.m. my friend Natalie died. She was in the arms of friends, in her house, looking out over her beloved creek. She is gone.
I drove up on Friday to San Francisco to see her. Sometimes in life it feels like the hands of God are pushing you where you need to be, and this is one of those times. I had wanted to go to a blogging conference, so I booked childcare on Friday and scheduled a trip to see Nat on the other end. She had another friend coming, but I said I was coming anyway. In the end I couldn't get into the blogher conference (and I started this blog instead), but since it was all set up I went. I felt like I was supposed to go.
I called her from the road and everything was cool.
When I got there at 1:30 someone I had never met before greeted me before I entered the house. She told me that Nat's doctor had called with the results of her latest scan. The cancer had spread more in her brain, more in her lungs and all through her liver. He told her to stop chemo. She had six weeks to live, or less.
I broke down, then went in.
She was sitting in the sunshine on her porch in a wheelchair, hooked up to oxygen. She was hunched over like my grandmother was when she was 98. She told me she wouldn't be able to eat much longer and she wanted to go to Chez Panisse with me, and to book a house at Stinson Beach the next weekend.
Once the doctor gives up the machines of death kick in. She had no time to sit and digest her death sentence. Within an hour a nurse from hospice was there to tell her how he could help her die. He offered morphine, haldol, ativan and a hospital bed. He offered names, phone numbers, and forms to fill out. He prattled on about insurance, and who would pay how much.
She said she didn't care.
He taught us how to do the morphine syringes. We practiced, and then he left.
All afternoon she entertained, calling people into her bedroom to cry and talk. Not best friends. Just anyone who came in. She was still performing and putting on her show, refusing no one.
Finally they all left. I gave her morphine and she climbed into bed.
It didn't work. I think her head was spinning with the news of her death. But no one talks about that. They just offer drugs.
So we held her hand and talked. We gave her more morphine.
She couldn't sleep unless she was in child's pose. I held her all night like a baby. When she woke up I gave her more drugs. I refilled the syringes. It wasn't enough so I kept upping the doses. She was so uncomfortable and I didn't know what I was doing. Had she been in this much pain all along? Or was it all kicking in because she was admitting the fight was over?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What if...

What if you were going crazy because life was too intense and your sensitive artistic mind simply couldn't bear the pain, the joy, the insanity of life. What if these intense emotions were the center of who you were, but the only way to survive was to dull it all--to take a drug that would mute life, and all your emotions. And so you lived, but only half-awake, no longer feeling intensely, no longer an artist. Entire events and relationships were formed in this new state of half-awakeness. And then what if you went off that drug, and you woke up, and the last time you remembered feeling anything real was 10 years before. Would it be worth it?

Words I Can't Get Out of My Head...

"Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."

This is the final paragraph at the of end of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," an apocolyptic novel about a man and his son traveling across a burned, desolate grey, cold landscape where it rains ash. You never find out why, or what happened. You only know that the world has been destroyed beyond recovery. Joy is drinking a can of Coke, or -- a highlight -- eating canned fruits that somehow survived. There will never be fruit again. They get to the ocean and it is cold and dead. There is no chance of regeneration. The world is just dead--with a few people still roaming and surviving. Likely killing and eating each other. The vision is so bleak it has haunted me for a month since I finished the book. There is no blame placed, no evil person, no political statement. We are all silently implicated in the destruction of our world.

I want it not to be true. I want to not believe we are destroying our world. And yet every day I feel I read in the paper some sinister sign that nature is going seriously haywire, that the world--our majestic blue and green orb in space -- has reached a point of pollution and devastation caused by humans from which it cannot recover. Chesapeake Bay blue crabs may be on their way out. Strange viruses are killing oysters farther and farther north. Whales are dying off the coast of California and no one knows why.

When I was still in my Twenties I vowed to go and see every magical place I could before they were destroyed. I travelled to Michoacan to see the Monarch Butterflies, and I am committed to seeing the birthing whales in the secret inlet in Baja. Already since I saw the butterflies their numbers have decreased dramatically. Scientists say soon they will dip to a place below which they cannot recover. And I wonder: Will my sons grow up in a world without monarch butterflies, or Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, or whales? Will they no longer be able to swim in the ocean--one of my greatest joys -- because it will make them sick?

When I was young, and tortured, and traveling in Asia agonizing over what I would do with my life this weathered old Dutchman said to me by a pool in Indonesia: But why do you worry about the future. Children born in the future will not miss these things you worry about, because they will never have known them.

Years later, I think this is true. But it still makes me unbearably sad. Will we destroy all the beauty of our world? So that my sons will never know the parts of the world that are most fragile, most magical, that make you feel most joyful about being alive?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Former Selves...

Yesterday one of my oldest and dearest friends wrote to me of a strange experience. It was her 39th birthday, and she had been feeling blue--too much time at home with a young child, not enough purpose, lonely in a new neighborhood, and longing for her old self. That very morning, on a street corner, she met her old self. It was a young woman, around 30, wearing a colorful Mexican top from Oaxaca. She was cute and smart and charismatic and they struck up a conversation. She was a struggling actor, just like Jo had been, and reminded Jo so much of her former self it both delighted her and freaked her out. She wondered what it meant. But she loved her conversation with the girl, and felt alive, truly alive, talking to her. She felt an instant kinship with her, and the spark of a new friendship. She wondered what it meant. Later she said it was just like meeting her old self. She said she didn't want to be that old self anymore. She just missed her.

I feel like that a lot. Being a mother is so wonderful. But you are forced to let go of your old self. The needs of everyone else take priority. Instead of having adventures, being interesting, learning new things and changing the world, you are taking care of a few people who may or may not even appreciate it. But most of all, all the things that made you YOU just seem to fade away, like leaves falling from the tree. The tree is still there, strong, powerful, with deep roots. But the leaves fall, and new ones grow in, that look and feel different from the old. It is alarming. You know something new is growing, but you don't know what exactly, yet.

I miss my old self. But I don't miss ALL my old selves. I went to my 20th Wellesley College reunion in June. I had the best time. But it was not without ambivalence. As I approached the campus on Friday I felt active dread. I did not love my time there. By Sunday I was grateful for all Wellesley had given me, a love of scholarship, a belief in the power of women to change the world, and a female utopia to see feminism and scholarship played out, beauty, and secret alcoves to curl up with books by the greatest thinkers of all times. I can feel all those things are a part of me. But I do not miss my Wellesley self. She felt unformed, still. I was actually surprised when people other than my very best friends even recognized me. I feel like I must look different visually. I feel so different. I didn't love that self. She wasn't cooked. She wasn't fully me.

But my mid-20s to mid-30s self I loved. She was adventurous and bold, creative and fun. She was a feminist. She was often lonely, always longing for love, but she was feisty and alive and living life to the fullest. When I pull out music from that time, or books, I miss that woman with an ache like Jo missed her former self.

I would like to meet my old self on a street corner.

Or maybe we have many former selves, scattered over the globe, held only in the hearts of those who knew us at that time, in that place. And maybe only a very, very few people in this life get to know ALL of those selves. And those that do we cling to. Like the old Nigerian saying: A friend is one who can sing you the song in your heart, even when you have forgotten how it goes.

This weekend I go to visit one of my oldest friends and most favorite people. She is 42 and terribly ill with metastatic breast cancer. She is my peer and my fellow adventurer. I have lived in Japan with her, hiked in the redwoods with her, stayed in the slums of Calcutta with her, and summered at Stinson with her. I have known all her selves since she was 20, and she has known all mine. We have watched each others various incarnations and struggles. I have watched as she renounced her worldly ambitions and became a yoga instructor and Esalen junkie, a spiritual searcher of the highest order. She has watched as I left journalism (my dream job) got married, had children, and settled down in a big house in Los Angeles, the last place she or I ever thought I would end up. But I have always invited her into my new worlds, my new selves, and she has done the same with me. This fall, at a gathering I feared would be our last, I began crying uncontrollably. I was crying out of terror I would lose her. But perhaps most of all I was crying because she is my history, and I am hers. She knows all my selves. She can pull me back on the right path with a few words, and remind me where it is I want to be going. Where all my selves have been aiming, even when they were still unformed at 20. When/if I lose her, which is something I need to begin to brace myself for, so that I can really really appreciate the NOW, with all the bittersweetness of knowing it cannot go on forever, I will lose part of my history, inscribed by someone who loves me. She knows my struggles and loves and goals and fears better than my parents do, and has known me longer than my husband.

So this Friday morning I head up for a weekend alone with her. I am taking our little red mini--a happy car--and filling it with acoustic chick music that reminds me of my former self, and hers. I am going to sit in her little houseboat on a boardwalk in Larkspur, Ca, under the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, and I am going to savor her, her history, my history, and our history together. And I am going to be with her--so that we can slip back into our thirty-something adventurous selves for one final girls weekend. We will dance and eat raw foods. We will drive around the redwoods of Marin County in my little red mini. And we we sit and tell each other stories, until she falls asleep.

And I will take care of her.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to...

On Tuesday Jonathan had a bike accident. He rode to work in an effort to be healthier and save gas. He was riding along La Brea (an L.A. road so busy it feels like a freeway) when he suddenly started thinking about how dangerous it was, since there were no bike lanes, and decided to go up on the sidewalk. He turned, his wheel got stuck in a grate and he flew off, scraping and bruising his 41-year-old-body. He's got head to toe road rash. He tried to call home but Benji hung up on him. So he just doused himself in hydrogen peroxide and worked all day through the pain. Until I happened to call him in the afternoon and totally freaked out. I could hear he was still in shock over the phone.

He forged on. He never complained. Barely even told me, and seemed incredulous that black and blue bumps had emerged on his hips and legs by nightfall. That is Jonathan, immune to pain, forging on, alone.

The next day he had a business meeting in Culver City. During the meeting his phone vibrated repeatedly in his pocket, shaking so frequently he had trouble concentrating. (Confession: One call was me, wanting to chat.) He emerged from his meeting, still slightly dazed from the day before, and was driving along when a high speed hook and ladder nearly drove him off the road and killed him. He pulled over, caught his breath, then drove on.

Then he began to pick up his calls. It turned out his sister had gotten in a car accident with her newborn baby, Elaina. She was rear-ended and when she looked in the back seat she was terrified because her baby's eyes wouldn't open. In a panic, she called 9-1-1. Apparently, California State Law requires that if there is a car accident involving an infant, a hook and ladder MUST go to the scene of the accident. When the paramedics arrived at the site, it turned out that the baby was just sleeping soundly. She slept through the accident, and didn't even wake up when Carolyn got her out of her car seat. Luckily, everything was OK. It turned out that the hook and ladder that almost drove him off the road was on the way to save his sister.

He was very tired last night. But everyone is well.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

But Wait...A Formal Introduction...

This is us, a merry band of four.


Floating on the lazy river...Theo and Jonathan.

This is Benja, shot by Theo.

Who Are my Messengers?

After my husband, my boys are the great blessing of my life. Their names are Benjamin and Theo. Benjamin is 3 and Theo is 5. To me, they are the most beautiful boys in the world. Benji was born golden. He has strawberry blond hair, straight as can be, blue blue eyes, and full lips. When Theo was born he looked like a Mexican (He is a Fernandez after all). He had a full head of black hair, and his eyes looked black, too. Now he looks like a little French schoolboy, or a boy from a Caravaggio painting, with a head of brown curls, a perfect boy's body, dark soulful eyes with impossibly long lashes, and eyebrows that look like they were painted on with a Chinese landscape painter's fine brush.  They are drawn from completely different palettes, and yet, if you shaved their heads, and looked at their profiles in black and white, they look like they could be nothing but brothers. 

I often wonder where they came from, and how they ended up with me. When I was pregnant with Benjamin I saw the movie Hotel Rwanda, about an incredible man who harbored Tutsis (or was it Hutus?) in his hotel, so they would not be slaughtered in that country's horrible genocide. It was a gruesome movie, but uplifting, too, to know that there was a man like this rich hotel owner who would risk everything to save people he did not know in his five star hotel. 

As I watched the movie I had this premonition that the baby I carried inside me would be a peace maker, who would contribute great kindness to the world. (He was conceived when I was in the middle of a strange, cultish breathing, dreaming, yogic seminar for a news story on a group called the Art of Living, so perhaps it is fitting that I had a woo woo premonition like this...) But as they grow up, I do sometimes feel that both of them have been here before.

With Benjamin the feeling is stronger. Theo feels new, fresh, so happy to be here. He wakes up singing. He is joy.

Benjamin arrived as if he had already gone through something terrible before. In preschool self-portraiture exercises he paints himself black, even after he looks in the mirror. I like to think this life is his easy life. Before, he suffered. This time around he gets to be a white, rich, American male, with enough food to eat and parents and a brother who love him and adore him and will hug him as much as he needs.  He still likes to always be touching someone, even when he is sleeping.  He is holding onto us so we won't slip away.

They say that if people have lived a past life it can remain with them until they are three or four. Then it starts to fade. So last night as we lay snuggling in bed, after the lights were out, I asked him: "What would I do without you?" And he said, "You'd be working." (How did he know that?) "But does Mommy want to be with you?" "Yes." I asked him: "Were you here before?" He said: "Yes." 
I said, "Where? Africa? America? Mexico?" He said, "With you. But not with Theo and Daddy. Just you." 

I wonder if he was. Was he my son? I told Jonathan. He said Benji probably was my boy in a past life. Maybe he saved my life last time, and this time I have to take care of him.

I don't know. 

All I know is they are my traveling companions for this life, and I could not have picked three better people to go on this adventure with. 

What IS My Message?

Yesterday in yoga class my teacher threw out a phrase of Ghandi's that stuck in my brain all night and all day: my life is my message. Brilliant. I found his words grabbed me and centered me. Today, all day, for every little task I did, I wondered...is THIS my message? Is THIS? If every action you take, every word you utter, everything you say and do is your message, what am I trying to say?

Those simple, clear words refocused me on what I want to matter. Not just what defines success--which I am finding more and more confusing these days--but if I had to distill my life to one message, or three, what would I want to tell humanity? What would I want to tell my friends? What would I want to tell my husband? And most of all, what would I want to pass on to my boys? 

I am a woman of too many words. But I hope that here, in my blog, still secret for now, I can begin discovering my message. I hope that as you read through it, and me, too, that as I recount my thoughts and stories and ideas, that my message will accumulate, take shape, and appear, here in the blogosphere. So that is the topic of my blog...my question from Ghandi...for me, and for you. If my life IS my message, what do I want to say?????? What do YOU want to say?