Happy Days

I have some good news.  Last week my son proposed to his girlfriend, and she said yes.  Not that there was any doubt.  It’s just the latest positive development in his life.

The reason I ever launched this blog was because, five years ago, he was in prison. In addition to the predictable emotions like despair, I felt relief that I now would know where his was, and deep shame.  Counterintuitively, it made sense for me to write about it for all the world to read.

He entered prison a drug addled, bloated, overweight, broke, middle-aged chronic alcoholic.  This was just the latest in a 20-year string of bouts with unemployment, homelessness, crime, and broken relationships.

It would have been easy for him to use drugs and alcohol inside, but Vince chose to be sober in prison.  He also started writing alternate posts for this blog.  They were heart breaking, hilarious, and articulate.

He made it through an intensive “boot camp” program, where he worked on self-discipline, attitudes, and thinking processes.  He also started running, something he hated but continues to this day.

He came home a little over four years ago and moved in with me.  That was rough.  He dated a woman but it didn’t work out.  He got a job in a laminating factory and moved in with a couple guys who were also trying—some successfully and some not—to stay sober.  He started his own blog.  He bought my beloved old Mini Cooper from me.  He dated another woman but it didn’t work out.

Two years ago, he was offered a cook job at a country club on Lake Minnetonka.  That’s where he laid eyes on Amanda for the first time, and it was love at first sight.  He moved in with Amanda and her two young daughters.  From the start, he has been all-in on parenting.  He can now put “expert in potty training” on his resume.

One year ago he bought a house in the tiny town of Silver Lake. He traded the Mini for a minivan.  He worked with me to publish the first year of this blog as a book.  He applied for better jobs, and in the end was offered a great promotion at the country club.

The girls’ father is under a two-year no-contact order.  Vince has supported Amanda as she has courageously fought to finalize her divorce, custody, and child support arrangements.  Last month Vince and Amanda were awarded full custody.  The three-year-old calls him daddy.

In court, Vince made a statement to the girls’ father—that if and when he gets his act together, Vince and Amanda will work with him to welcome him back into the girls’ lives.  The guy thanked him.  I was very proud of Vince.  A lot of men wouldn’t have done that.

Here they are, at the country club where Amanda works, after the big proposal.

In June he’ll mark his five-year sobriety anniversary.  They’ll be hitched in August.

All of this is to say that very few situations are ever hopeless.  Similar to my own story, it didn’t happen overnight and it took a combination of working hard as hell and letting go.  Vince has plugged away, working his program, trying new things, taking risks, sometimes failing, but mostly moving forward.

In three weeks I’ll be in Japan.  I still feel way behind on the planning.  I created a Google docs spreadsheet to try to keep track of it all and it looks a mess.  I’ve got six out of eight accommodations booked.  I’ve got my JR Rail Pass in hand.  I’m finally able to retain some place names from one day to the next.

Progress, not perfection.  One of the AA slogans that is good to keep in mind whether one is an addict or not.

Last night as I was reading about Japanese baths again (I worry about the baths and the shared bathrooms), I was struck by how many iconic cultural traditions Japan has given to the world: origami, sumo, haiku, sushi, manga, anime, samurai, geisha, bonsai, and Zen.  There are probably more.  Is there another country that has created or adapted so many traditions that are recognized worldwide?

Circles

In one month I’ll be in Japan.  My plans are progressing.  I have been assured that my  investment of over $550 in a Japan Rail Pass will more than pay for itself.  I’ve booked accommodations in five locations and have two more to go.  I’ve downloaded apps like a free wifi finder, a Tokyo subway route finder, an offline map of Tokyo that turns out to be only in Japanese, and Google Translate.  I will test this last one out with my sister in law before using it on the street, just to make sure it doesn’t translate, “Where is the sub-way?” as “Where is the worst route?” or some such.

My aunt’s funeral took place last week.

The young priest at the small-town parish had alienated himself from the townspeople and congregants by firing the choir directors because they were openly gay.

Why couldn’t they stay closeted, like him and his “assistant,” Lance?

One day a month ago, my aunt had said to me and my cousin, “I hope you don’t think it’s weird, but I still want to be buried out of the Catholic Church.”  We assured her it wasn’t weird.  She’d been raised in the Catholic milieu of Small St. Paul in the 1930s and 40s.  She attended Catholic schools through high school and worked at a Catholic college.  There was, and still is, plenty of good work being carried out by nuns and Catholic lay people.

But she didn’t want the young priest saying her funeral mass, so my cousins imported a more liberal-minded visiting priest from St. Paul.  Other than calling her by the wrong name, he did a fine job.

You would think that a funeral would be the saddest part of a death, but this was a Catholic funeral, so it was all about Jesus and not my aunt.  Lance played the organ and belted out the hymns like he was in a broadway musical, so at least the music was good.

It’s the little reminders that catch you off guard.  Like seeing her knitting lying abandoned—the baby hat she’ll never finish. She knit baby hats for the local hospital.  I teared up when I came across her glasses, which she wore to read or work on crosswords, two of my own favorite pastimes.

While my aunt was dying—in pain or during moments of indignity she would have hated if she’d been conscious—someone asked, “What’s the point of all this!?” and I thought, “There is no point.  It’s biology, physiology, pathology at work.  It’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.”

And in my mind I start going around in circles like I always do, asking, “What’s the point of life?”

Some people seem to believe that the point is to be productive.  “I’m so busy!” is their refrain, as though that’s something to be proud of.  Others believe the point is to change the world for the better.  But I’ve seen so many well-intentioned do-gooders make things worse.  Is the point to live in the moment and be appreciate whatever is good and beautiful?  That seems a vapid, not productive….  Like I said, circles.

There are infinite details to figure out for the trip.  I need to get my duplex ready for the Chinese couple who are renting it while I’m away. And figure out how will I meet up with my sister in law’s parents to retrieve my nephew when the time comes.  And how do I buy tickets for a baseball game?  My nephew would love that. Must remember to register with the State Department.  Would it be worth going to Yokohama, where my dad was a sailor with the US Navy before I was born?  Should I get travel insurance?  What kind of gift should I bring for the in laws?  Japanese gift giving is fraught with peril.

And what is the deal with the baths?  Are they for health?  To get clean?  To socialize?  To relax?  There are so many types, and so many rules.  This CNN video clip about Japanese baths features Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who quips, “Having to say a prayer before you do something?  Makes me a little nervous.”

What Iffing

Why am I finding it so overwhelming to plan for Japan?  Is it the language barrier?  I’ve traveled in places like Jordan and Palestine where I spoke none of the language except for marhaba (hi), la (no), and yanni (a sentence filler like ya know).

Is it because I will stand out and look different?  No.  I remember standing in a square in El Salvador, all 5’ 3” of me. I was six inches taller and ten shades whiter than everyone else.  I had a great time.

Am I worried about the expense of a month in Japan?  It’s not a cheap destination.  I quit my job in December.  I’m working on contract for my former employer but after June there’s a cliff.  So yes, cost is on my mind but it’s not what’s making my gut churn.

Is it the sheer number of accommodations, train rides, entry tickets, and restaurants that must be found and booked?  Partly, but my Japanese sister in law and Lynn, my British friend who will join me for two weeks, are both working on this plan too.

The closest I can recall to feeling this panicky is planning three weeks in Italy, Malta, and Spain. The what ifs took over.  What if I can’t figure out how to get from the train station to the hotel in the dark and have to sleeping in a park?  What if I can’t figure out how to use the subway and end up on the wrong end of town, and the subway closes and I have to sleep on the floor of the station?  What if I miss the last bus back to Sorrento and have to sleep on a bus bench?

My worst-case scenario always involves sleeping outside, exposed to muggers, rapists, and crooked cops who try to shake me down for bribes. It is always dark, cold, and raining.  There is always an unshaven man in a ratty coat who tries to steal my suitcase.

I think it goes back to my young adulthood of living on the verge of eviction, bounced check fees, and going to food shelves.  But in all my travels, nothing like this has ever happened.  If it did, I would deal with it.  I’m no longer a passive, vulnerable young single mom. So thanks, blog, for helping me analyze my irrational fears!

I am going no matter what, and if I have to sleep in a train station Japan is the place to do it because it is so clean and safe.

Maps, guidebooks, and websites are not particularly helpful in planning a Japan itinerary, unless you enjoy falling down a rabbit hole.

While my map of Australia was overwhelming due to the vast distances, the Japan map is so densely packed it requires a magnifying glass.

I had found Frommer’s Easy Guide to Australia helpful; it boiled everything down to 300 pages.  I bought their Easy Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Western Honshu.  Notice it’s not the whole country, just two cities and their region.

This was my attempt to focus in using post-it flags.

This got my attention:

“One difficulty in finding your way around Tokyo is that hardly any streets are named.  Think about what that means: 9 million people living in a metropolis of nameless streets.  To make matters worse, most streets in Tokyo zig-zag—an arrangement apparently left over from olden days, to confuse potential attacking enemies.  Now they confuse Tokyoites and visitors alike.”

And this:

“Tokyo has a unique address system.  A typical address might read 7-10-1 Ginza, Chuo-Ku.  Chuo-ku is the name of the ward.  Wards are further divided into districts, in this case Ginza. Districts are broken down in to chome (numbered subsections), the first number in the series.  The second number refers to a smaller area within the chome—usually an entire block.  Thus, houses on one side of a block will have a different middle number than those on the other side.  The last number refers to the building.”

Lynn wrote, “We’ll have to accept we’ll get lost more than usual.”

I will remind her she said that when we’ve passed the same intersection for the fifth time.

Broken Links

There are a few good things about being present as someone dies.

1) You encounter caring and professional people in the nurses and other caregivers.  It’s easy to feel cynical about everything in the world these days, so interacting with compassionate people who know their stuff was restorative.

2) You get to spend a lot of time with family and friends.  How often do you get to spend days with your relatives?  This may be some people’s worst nightmare, but I enjoyed and found comfort in it.

My cousin Molly, my mom, and I spent an afternoon going through old family photos.  There was this gem:

“Who is he?” I asked my mom.  “He looks like a US Marshall, or maybe a wild west sheriff.”

“He’s a … food … he’s … uh … oh darn it!” said my mom helplessly.  She’s always had learning disabilities but since she had a stroke she has found it more and more difficult to get her words out.  It’s called aphasia.

From her hospital bed, my aunt croaked, “That’s our grandpa, William Dudley.  He’s the one who got the letter from a London solicitor about the Dudley inheritance.”

“The Dudley Inheritance” is family lore that was newsworthy enough to be chronicled in the St. Paul newspaper.  William, a hapless, dirt-poor farmer, received a letter from a London solicitor informing him he had inherited £500,000.  He went to London—no small undertaking—but the story goes that he had to return because World War I broke out.  He would never talk about it later.

“But he returned in 1911,” I said, as I Googled “world war i, dates” on my phone.  “World War I didn’t start until 1914.”

It was probably a scam, and I would love to know more about how it was perpetrated.  In 1911 there was no Internet.  How did the “London solicitors” find William, and why did they target him?  He didn’t have any money to scam.

“After the farm failed, he moved to St. Paul and was a health inspector,” my aunt continued. “That’s when that photo was taken.  It wasn’t much of a job.  He had to live with us.”

“Poor grandpa,” my mom said mournfully. “He died in our house.  He had cancer, and Daddy used to take us out for walks at night to get us away from the sound of his screaming.  He was in agony.  We could still hear his screams a block away.”

I diverted the conversation.  “This is cool!”

It was the naturalization papers of the Ur Dudley, Robert, who immigrated to America in 1854.

“He had ‘to renounce all allegiance to any prince, potentate …’” I read aloud.

“I love that word, potentate,” Molly said.

“… in particular ‘Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.’”

A few days later, I was going through more family papers with my mom.  “Who was John Geisen?” I asked her, handing over a marriage certificate.

“John Geisen … Jacob?  That was Daddy Jake.  No, it was … Joe?  John?  Oh, I don’t know!” she hissed in frustration.  “I can’t remember it all.”

By this time my aunt was still breathing but had spoken her last words.  The last person who knew the answers to the family history questions was gone.

My poor mother.  She’s the last sibling standing.  When I called to relate the funeral details, I had to repeat them over and over. Her abilities are especially strained when she’s tired or stressed.

“My penmanship is terrible now,” she said, exasperated.  “The funeral is at night?”

“No, mom, at eleven in the morning,” I said.

“At night … no, morning … 10 o’clock?”

“No, eleven o’clock.”

“Oh, Jesus H. Mary!” she exclaimed.

My mother never swears except for the occasional “shit.”  I have no idea what Jesus H. Mary means except that she was at the end of her rope and it provided some comic relief to Molly and me.

Speaking of comic relief, here is my favorite Japanese hotel website so far.

 

I’m afraid it’s hard to read, but I did not book here.  Since one must indicate one’s gender when reserving a Japanese hotel room, I was afraid my reservation might signal an unhealthy interest in the “multifunctional shower heads popular with female guests.”

Good Bye

It’s been a month since my last post.  I was going to get back into regular writing about travel—specifically my upcoming month in Japan—but life intervened.

Two nights ago I felt my aunt’s wrist and neck for a pulse while she took her last breaths.

She chose to start hospice services after a year of chemo, radiation, and immunotherapy didn’t cure her cancer but only stripped everything out of her life that made it worthwhile—she stopped reading, attending ladies lunches, knitting, and over-posting on Facebook.

And so a month ago a nurse and an aide started coming to her home once a week, then twice, then 3-4 times, and in the end it was every day plus a private carer.

My cousin Molly, who lives nearby, was there almost 24/7; her brother came from Madison and stayed for the last 10 days. My sister and I made the one-hour drive every other day and alternated overnights.

After two weeks, a hospital bed was installed in the livingroom.  She gradually stopped eating and drinking.  As the pain advanced she receded.  Tylenol and oxycodone were bolstered with morphine and fentanyl.  I know there’s an opioid epidemic, but believe me if you are dying and in pain they are miracle drugs.  She had said she preferred to be lucid over being drugged-up, but that’s easy to say in the beginning.

As her conscious moments became fewer, I admired her practicality and acceptance.  There was no drama, philosophizing, or protesting.  I think I might be a quivering mass, crying and pissed off and asking, “Why! Why?”

She suffered anxiety as death neared—who wouldn’t?  But it was manifested in physical restlessness, and for that there was another drug, and yet another drug for nausea.  She would have hated that other people were performing functions for her that she could not—like applying balm to her lips and swabbing the inside of her mouth.

One of the hardest things was hearing other people cry, like my aunt’s 80-year-old cousin, a former cop.

Molly, on whom the lion’s share of the care had fallen, found inner resources to do things she had sworn she would never do.  We all did.  It takes a village to help someone leave this life.

When our anguish over her suffering peaked, we would consult a brochure provided by the hospice team.   Turns out, dying is a predictable process—except for the timeline.

At the last moment, I had turned off the oxygen pump that had been producing a steady kah-khoosh … kah-koosh soundtrack.  My cousins and I were standing in the kitchen talking about who would want such-and-such household items: the memorabilia from my aunt and uncle’s long careers at a private college, the cut-glass pickle boat, the bisque statuette of a shepardess who had stood on the mantel for decades.  We managed to laugh a bit, probably from sheer exhaustion.

Suddenly we realized she wasn’t breathing.  We watched, frozen, as seconds ticked by.  She gasped and inhaled.  We moved to her bedside and I took her wrist, then felt her neck for a pulse.  She took a few more breaths, then stopped.  I wanted to cry out, “Don’t go!” but my boy cousin was saying, “It’s okay mom, you can go now.”  And of course he was right.

These thoughts run through my head: “She was 89, she lived a good life.  She was your aunt, not your mother.  This shouldn’t hit you so hard.”

But our families grew up three houses apart.  My aunt and mother shared a job for a while and alternated child care. We ran in and out of each other’s houses and went to the same schools. As an adult, I drove up to spend a night or two with my aunt and uncle and cousin on a regular basis.

During her “wave of energy” (see booklet), I told her I had always appreciated how I was able to just be myself around them.  She said, “You’ve been like a second daughter to me.”  I didn’t’ say it but I thought, You haven’t been like a mother to me.  You’ve been a great aunt. 

Never underestimate your value as an aunt or uncle or cousin.

Upside Down

Last night I dreamed that the whole world was—literally—turned upside down.  I was stumbling along the ceiling, with books and coffee mugs falling past me, when someone pulled me into a building where everything had been glued or attached to the ceilings by Velcro. This meant we could hang out on the ceilings, which were the new floors, and everything would feel normal.

But the person who’d brought me along cautioned, “Don’t look out the window.  It’ll remind you that everything is really upside down.”

Like a toddler, I think I am going through a phase.  I left full-time employment three and a half months ago.  Up until now, I’ve been busy with contract proposal writing, working part-time at the Y, and boosting my exercise levels—as long as I’m at the Y twice a week.  I was constantly shoveling and moving my car and scraping my windshield and batting icicles off the roof.  I did about 30 hours of CPR and other training as part of my Y orientation.

Everything was new and different and I didn’t have time to think about whether this was permanent or what.

I stand in the child care center at the Y, watching a group of four-year-old boys play with toy dinosaurs. Their names are Milton, Kash, Zacques and Denzel—Denzel Zhou.  A mom enters and checks in a new boy.  I look at his name on the monitor: βӕrәӦn.

“Umm…” I stammer.  “Baron?”

The mother gives me a withering look as though I am a moron.

“No,” she says very slowly and mock-patiently, “It’s ber-on, the ancient Slovenian god of moss-covered river rocks.”

“Ah, I see!” I reply, trying not to sound too much like Basil Fawlty, and immediately forget how to pronounce it.  I will have to avoid using his name for two hours.

I do love the kids.  I like pivoting from proposals about torture to observing children at play.

My days are also punctuated with emergency room trips for my mother, her husband, and my aunt.

One day I spent three hours at the Y playing with an adorable Hmong baby named Howard, then rushed to the ER because my mom’s husband had fallen and they discovered he had a giant boil on his abdomen he’d been keeping quiet about, hoping it would just go away.

It didn’t.  They had to lance and drain it, and the smell almost caused me to pass out.

So I get to see humanity on both ends of the age and health spectrums every day.

Now the contract work has slowed.  The Y is routine.  The battle with snow and cold is over, for now.

As I sit and watch Howard drool and gnaw on a block, or wait endlessly in windowless ER rooms, I have hours to ask myself, “Is this it from here on out?  Taking care of babies and old people?  Am I taking a break from full-time work, or am I an early retiree?  My sister is moving to Oregon next month.  Why aren’t I planning a move to Belize to escape next winter?  Will I ever have any more adventures?  Shouldn’t I use this time to learn Chinese or write a novel or apply for one writing workshop per day?  Shouldn’t I be setting some goals, instead of reading and doing crossword puzzles and walking in the woods in my spare time?  Damn, I’m so lazy!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t feel sorry for myself.  I know I’m super lucky to be able to take this time out.  Or whatever it turns out to be.

And so I have procrastinated on blogging because I just haven’t known what to write about.  Normally I’d be posting up a storm about my trip to Japan in June, but I have also been procrastinating on that.

Here are two last photos from winter.

Can you spot my car?

And here’s a big ol’ nasty possum I encountered on my walk in a city park.  It appeared to be eating a wiener, or maybe a baby rabbit.

Ugh.  Thanks for reading; it feels good to get some thoughts out of my head.

Next post, the Japan plan.

Despair Down Under

I can’t stop thinking about the mass shootings in New Zealand.  I won’t use the real name of the shooter; I’ll just call him the Little Man.

The professors and pundits on the News Hour had this to say about it: This is just the latest and it won’t be the last terrorist attack that is part of an international “White Power Movement.”

This is the issue of our age.  There are 25 million refugees in the world right now—more than at any time since the end of World War II.  That doesn’t include displaced people (40 million), who are those who are still in their own country but who have fled their homes due to war or natural disaster.  It doesn’t count economic migrants (untold millions) who have left their countries to seek work elsewhere.

All this movement brings people into contact with others who are different from themselves.  Or it just creates the impression of it; we all see caravans and individual refugees, immigrants, and migrants in our newsfeeds.

People like Little Man aren’t crazy.  They don’t spring up at random.  They don’t have any original ideas or philosophies.  They may not know one another personally, but they connect online and read each other’s “manifestos,” as LM called his.  They’re just plain racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic, Islamophobic men.

And there’s the demographic commonality—they’re all men.

I think about the little boys I tend at the YMCA child care center.  There’s the three-year-old who waits by the front door, wearing his Superman cape, saying, “Mommy come back?” over and over in his plaintive, squeaky voice.  When mommy does come to pick him up, he exclaims, “Mommy here!” as though she is even more exciting to see than Superman.  There are baby boys and toddlers who want to be picked up and held, and rocked, and hugged.  Until they get to be about five, they play with girls as easily as boys, seemingly unaware of any differences.

Eighteen years from now, will they be punching their girlfriends, slapping their kids, kicking their dogs, and charging into houses of worship or college campuses or government buildings with assault rifles?

One night another three-year-old boy came to me, pointed to another boy, and whined, “That brown kid took my ball!”  I told him to go get another ball.  I didn’t try to lecture him about his use of the word “brown” because I knew he was being literal and descriptive, not racist.  And he was only three.  In 20 years, will he be marching in White Power parade with a torch, yelling hateful slogans?

What happens between four and 20?  There must be experts who know how we could interrupt the transformation of innocent children into hate mongers.

A faster intervention would be changed gun laws.  Little Man is Australian.  I’m guessing he moved to New Zealand because guns are easier to be had there.  There are three guns for every human in New Zealand. After a mentally-ill gunman killed 35 people in Tasmania in 1996, Australia restricted ownership of semi-automatic rifles and  shotguns and pump-action shotguns and reformed licensing.  The government held a mandatory gun buy-back in which Aussies handed in 643,000 firearms.

I have many friends and relatives who are a lot more liberal than I am.  I have never heard any of them propose that we rescind the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which says, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This is the “slippery slope” smokescreen used by the NRA and its members to block even the smallest, most sensible gun law change.

I idealized Australia. I thought it was kinder and gentler than the US.  But out of 25 million people there are bound to be those who believe being white makes them superior.

It’s easy to despair and feel powerless.  This is when I remind myself of the words from the Talmud: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  In other words, no one expects you, personally, to change gun laws or teach all boys empathy, but you can and should do something.