Dulce Et Decorum


I sat in the kitchen, pitting plums for my first foray into canning for the season, my first foray into making plum jam as well. Yesterday, I gathered them from my friend’s buggy pulled up close to a tree with branches bending low with the weight of so much fruit. I watched a video about the best way to pit the plumbs—cut twist, cut twist, cut twist again. Easy on the video, in real life, slow work that left my hands wrinkled like raisins and required a lot of patience.

My sister-in-law, Lynn, stood across the small island for our kitchen Sherod made earlier this year. I remember the first time Memorial Day Weekend acquired a new meaning for me. Sherod and I had only been married for 2, maybe 3 years. I knew Lynn’s husband Clyde had been killed in Vietnam. I knew Memorial Day had something to do with fallen soldiers. That day back in the very early 90’s, in Memphis, I answered the phone and heard my sister-in-law’s voice raw with grief as she asked to talk to Sherod. I only heard bits and pieces of the conversation but I got this much: it had already been more than 20 years since Clyde’s death, and still, it was an awfully hard day for Lynn.

In the years since, there has been something of an ebb and flow to the weekend in our household. Some years, all the retrospectives on TV, all those blurred clips with the colors not quite right and the sound distorted, the accent different than we hear on the news these days, all those clips have had the man I love sit rigid, watching the scenes, too well known, play out, flashbacks on TV of his time in Vietnam. Other years, it hasn’t been so bad. I just don’t ever know how it will be. This is the first year, Lynn, Sherod and I have marked this time together.

I kept pitting the plums and heard my sister-in-law describe coming down the stairs of her house, vacuum cleaner in hand, to see the soldiers at her door. How long it took for her husband’s remains to find their way back home, 10 days of waiting. Her oldest was maybe 6. Her youngest 3. Lynn left alone with three little girls, one of them severely disabled and sick.  Clyde was in his early thirties, Lynn in her twenties. Even now, there are letters, bits and pieces of those days in 1970, that are too hard for her to go back and revisit.

Sherod’s mom and dad were children of folks who made it through the grinding poverty of the depression. Juanita and Earl worked hard, really hard, to achieve a level of financial security their parents could never have dreamed of. At 80+ years, Juanita got a passport for the first time in her life and went to Europe with Lynn, to visit her granddaughter Kim, who was stationed in Germany, and was an aviator like her dad had been. All of them women of resilience. Her parent’s daughter, Lynn absorbed the blow of Clyde’s death and kept going, raised daughters, helped raise grandchildren and now is helping raise great-grandchildren and is retired after holding jobs that were pretty thankless, a lot of them.

We talked and cooked and had a nice meal together and I can’t help but get angry, enormously angry, at how blithely we talk of war these days. I know John McCain’s son served in Iraq and so did Joe Biden’s. But there are not many sons or daughters of people with power and money who  have done military service or gotten in harm’s way. Today we were three very ordinary people, doing the ordinary chores of early summer, laughing, enjoying the flowers in the garden, doing stuff most anyone could do. But I didn’t have to listen very carefully (though I did), or look closely at my sister-in-law’s face to know that it is ordinary people’s lives that are carpet-bombed by war. They pick themselves up and keep going. But it is still a lie, a hideous lie, the one that claims, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

What I Can See

These are strange days with time folding back on itself even though there’s no
going back. In the course of 3 years, starting very precisely on May 23rd, 2011 and
ending June 8th, 2014, much of what I knew, what I did, who I was, got lost. It was on
May 23rd of 2011 that I flew to Panama to accompany my mom and dad through my
mom’s last days. June 5th marks the 5th anniversary of her death. Exactly one year
later, on June 5th of 2012, we placed Maria in the residential program where she still
lives. June 8th of 2014 was my last Sunday as priest-in-charge at St. Ambrose.

I get very sad in these weeks—not curl up in a ball kind of sad, but sad enough to struggle to find much to say. It’s that thing of hosting grief, made a bit harder this year by the
hard time Maria is having again.

If it is true that there was enormous loss in that three year span, these days I look at what became possible precisely because of the loss. In those three years, night after night, after night, I walked until I was exhausted, and in the summer, soaked in perspiration, making my way through the South Florida humidity. It was on those walks that I hosted grief, learned how to befriend it in myself. Now, when I receive the grief again, I am able to do so as I work out in the garden of the farm, as I continue to tend to all manner of creatures and life, even if I have an enormous lump in my throat.

When we bought this little farm, there was a magnificent sycamore on the east side
of the house. I can’t even count the number of times I sat under that lovely tree and
simply allowed myself to look up at the beautiful leaves as the breeze played with them. About 6 weeks ago, and in a matter of two weeks, the sycamore took sick and died—just died on us.  In a paradoxical way, I welcomed the sorrow I felt when we had to get it cut down. I welcomed the sadness because I am now so much more connected to, and a part of the land I walk on, the trees that give me shade, the beautiful flowers that give me joy
beyond words, our cats and dogs and chickens, and the ruby-throated hummingbird
that’s back for the summer, and especially, all the fireflies, thousands of them, that
light up our evenings as darkness falls. It took losing everything I thought was
essential to who I am to discover how vastly much more there was for me to do and
be and be a part.

That’s all the news that’s fit to print from this corner of the world.  May this weekend be a time of sabbath, and for those who must still host enormous grief for the loss of those whom they loved and who served even unto death, may gentle breezes and kind sunshine offer some small consolation.

That Grace Thing, Again…


Mouse and Dad in the Sitting Area


Pía Chillaxin’ On A Beautiful Spring Day

Yesterday, on our way out to grab a bit of lunch at the Highway 80 Café, Lowndes’ finest dining establishment, Sherod reached out from the truck and grabbed the mail in our mailbox. There was an envelope that at first looked like junk mail to me, and then, something made me look more carefully. It was addressed both to my dad and me. I opened it and my heart about stopped beating. My dad’s Green Card. He is now good and truly a permanent resident of this country and within 5 years could apply for citizenship.

It came months sooner than we’d been led to believe by the attorney we worked with and did not involve the interview with Immigration he’d said would happen in August or September and which I had been dreading. When Sherod and I were married and had to have our interview to determine the authenticity of our marriage so I could get my resident visa, I started weeping as soon as I stepped into that INS office in Atlanta and had a hard time stopping. The powerlessness even privileged people like I experience in those offices can be pretty brutal. At any rate, my father and I will not be interviewed, that card is in his hands and all the anxiety of waiting, and making decisions ‘as if’ but not really knowing, is over.

I headed down the road at 6 this morning, on my way to IKEA in Atlanta. This is a real act of love for one who despises the drive, especially since I had to go through Spaghetti Junction in downtown Atlanta. I’ve learned the trick: I close my eyes tight and step on the gas. Works like a dream every time!

I had the list of things my dad needed me to buy for him to finish furnishing his little house. I got those and a few more things. Back a few hours later, I helped him assemble everything but the desk I bought for him. Then I came back to the house and found one of my mother’s most favorite tablecloths, a gift she gave me many years ago. I also gathered set of small crystal pieces that graced the coffee table in my parents’ beautiful house in Panama. I added those to a small pair of candle holders I got for Dad at Ikea and brought it all over to give to him, to help him be able to wake up in the morning and have pieces that help him find himself again, hopefully allow him to realize that along with the loss, there are also unbreakable strands, threads, more precious than gold, that will help him knit a meaningful new life for himself here.

I needed to be able to be so busy this weekend. Not only is it Mother’s Day, a hard one for me more often than not, but we found out on Thursday that despite our best hopes, our girl Maria is not able to come celebrate her 20th birthday with us next week. I miss my daughter. And I am dwelling on the gratitude for for the birthdays we have gotten to be together, for a husband who has been infinitely patient with my dad (and has figured out a lot about me by watching how my dad operates). I am filled with great gladness seeing my dad’s happy face. Resilience. That’s my word for the year and what I intend to keep practicing till I get it right…

Such Courage



Inside of La Casita Blanca-The Move Has Begun

My dad is exhausted. He has spent the day moving into his new cottage. This is the first time he has ever been completely responsible for furnishing and decorating his home. He’s going slow both on the décor and the furnishings, trying to get a feel for the space, figuring out what is really essential. But he is very clear and definite about what he wants and what won’t work for him. This is his to do and manage. This afternoon, he was so exhausted that he asked me if I would be willing to make his bed for him and I did so, filled with respect and deep admiration.

We kid my dad about his lack of cooking skills, and how he has introduced crunchy fried eggs to our family. Yet, I was strangely touched, watching him pore over the instructions for the induction hotplate he’s bought for himself. That, and the new microwave, will be what he’ll use for his cooking.   Imagine being almost 89 years old, used to getting all kinds of help and learning how to do your own laundry, your own cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, all the big and small chores of running a household. Sherod and I help but are also trying to give him space to find his own way.

A few years ago, in one of the moments of shocking realization after my mom’s death and Maria’s move to BARC, I wrote something to the effect that it was awfully strange to find that I had to define myself increasingly by subtractions rather than addition. I was—and am—clueless. I have not had to watch my spouse die, not had to sell the house built with dreams of retirement, not travelled to visit a daughter and ended up allowing just about everything else that defined my life to slip away, just like that, while I find my way in a foreign land.

Dad looks happy, as well exhausted tonight. He had this small, very satisfied grin as he looked at the shower curtain he had just put up in his new bathroom. The new beds he got for Mouse and Pia are already in the house and he has a case of Campbell’s vegetable soup cans good to go for several meals this week. Even with all the subtractions, all the wrenching losses, he keeps going, keeps being as courtly and unfailingly polite, and determined to make the best of an awfully hard situation.

This. This is what real courage looks like.