Cast off

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And just like that… four weeks passed, and the right thumb, swathed up to the wrist in purple, was freed to resume its life as a functional digit. Though it’s not completely functional yet, it’s giving it the old college try (which is nice since it was injured on a college campus). The thumb, along with my recovering sprained ankle, will receive physical therapy from a nice young man named Gerry in the weeks to come. But for the moment, it’s happy to breathe fresh air again, not have to be encased in a large rubber glove in the shower (hand/wrist condom!) and try to bend a bit.

Here the nice Cast Man uses the little circular saw to free my wrist.

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Free at last!

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What’s also amusing is to look back four years to photos from the last time I had a purple cast on the other wrist/arm. It was 2015 when I fell off my front porch and landed with hand down in such a way that it broke my left wrist.

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The photos remind me how much more challenging that experience was—six weeks with most of the left arm in a cast after I broke my wrist. Showering and doing basic tasks were much more difficult than this experience… something else to be grateful for.

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We were invited to the classy Authors on the Move dinner in 2015, so we dressed up as best we could (we are not generally dressy folk) and sat at the table of MC Beth Ruyak. We were definitely the low-rent folks at that table. Above, we pose with the late Wally cat at my house. (He was very sweet kitty.)

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So my goal is to get through the rest of my lifetime without breaking/spraining/ wrenching/yanking any body parts. Though the casts allowed the broken bits to heal, here’s to remaining well balanced… and returning to regular walking and yoga, which has long helped me stay upright in the world.

 

 

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Cast Man

So this happened.

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And in the great scheme of things, it is a mere annoyance, I have reminded myself dozens of times since Monday evening. No one died. No one died and stayed dead. (Thanks again to the speedy action of strangers who resurrected my fella after his heart shimmied like an aspen, felling him in an airport, blessedly before we got on a plane.) No, it was just klutzy me falling after I stepped in a small hole on the way to my car, my left knee and right thumb taking the worst of it… skinned knee, sprained right ankle, broken right thumb now swathed in hard purple. Because if you’re gonna have a cast in your early old lady-hood, make it a purple one.

I was pissy for more than one reason. Not again, my brain moaned. You’re gonna miss Linda’s reading, it intoned. Her first poetry book debuts tonight. “No,” I said aloud. “I can still make it.”

I took inventory, right there on the ground. Torn left knee in the nylon navy pants purchased at a Target in Hawaii after the fella’s resurrection. Scraped knee for sure, though I couldn’t see it in the waxing dusk. Felt a slight tweak in the right ankle, but it seemed walkable. And then I caught sight of my right thumb, its base already starting to bruise. The tip shouldn’t be pointing out like that, should it?

That’s when the “oh, shit” escaped my lips.

There was no one around, so I painfully rose, tested the ankle—yep, good to go… it’s been tweaked so many times I know when it’s not walkable—and limped to my car. Sighed. Decided not to call Dick yet and drove straight to Kaiser ER. Parked way too far away… no parking anymore near the ER? That’s dumb. Limped my way in, stood in a much-too-long line for a Monday evening for a half hour until I got to the window. Apparently I looked like a serious case to the triage nurse because in minutes a young RN stuck her head out of massive double doors to the inner sanctum and called my name.

As I limped back to where she had me sit, the young RN looked at the paper I’d handed her and into my face and said, “Do you teach at Sac City?”

Dick says we can’t go anywhere to eat in Sacramento without encountering one of my former students. But this was the first one I’d seen in an ER. I looked at her tag: Mary Jane Perry.

“I had you for… maybe mass media?” she guessed.

“When?” I said, of course not remembering her.

“Oh, it must’ve been ’93 or ’94. I had a different last name then.”

I smiled. “That was my first year teaching full time at City,” I said. “Way back in the last century.”

Mary Jane smiled at me. “You were one of my favorite teachers,” she said, and just like that I knew I’d been delivered into the right hands.

In that way the universe does, the right people tended to me that evening. The ER doc, born when I was a sophomore in high school, was named Roger Yang.

“My father was a Roger, but he was born in 1930,” I said after I was seated in his exam room. “That’s more of an old-fashioned name. When were you born?”

“1974,” said this Roger, and I could hear my father’s chuckle somewhere deep in my brain. “I don’t know where my parents got it.” He paused. “Roger Moore was big then.”

“007,” I said, and we nodded at the same time.

As we chatted, he said that he went to high school with another Roger Yang and, in one of those supremely more-than-coincidence kinda ways, both this Roger Yang and the other one became ER docs. For Kaiser. The other one in Southern California, this one in Sacramento.

“Huh,” I said, as the NorCal Roger gently touched my busted thumb.

“Yeah, weird, huh?” he grinned at me.

So NorCal Roger sent me for an x-ray and was relieved to find that, though there was a tiny chip in the first knuckle bone, it was not bad. He offered me anesthetic (“yes, please,” I said) before he yanked my thumb back into place.

“That’s gonna need a cast,” he said, holding my tingling thumb after he reset it.

“Can you put it in a Velcro brace thingie for now?” I asked, using the technical term.

Roger called for Mary Jane who came in like a soft breeze. “I’ll go see if I can find one,” she said.

“We don’t have those here,” Roger said, “but she’s good. She’ll track one down.”

I smiled. “I really need my thumb.”

“Yeah,” Roger said, “but I’m gonna send you to an orthopedic doctor who’s probably going to want to cast it.” He saw my face. “Maybe not,” he added. “It’s a very tiny bone chip.”

Mary Jane returned with the Velcro brace thingie, which cradled my tingly thumb like an infant. She cleaned up my boo-boo knee. My ankle wasn’t bothering me at all… until I had to hike back to my car.

Before I left, MJ, as she said to call her, walked me to the big double whooshing doors to the waiting room. We hugged. She had told everyone who saw me during my two-hour visit that I’d been her teacher. I told her how happy I was that she’d gone into nursing.

“Yeah,” she said, “I finished in communications at Sac State, but I didn’t know what to do with that.”

“I could’ve suggested some things,” I said, “but I’m glad you didn’t ask me. I’m so glad you ended up here. Thank you for everything.”

We hugged again, and she waved me goodbye.

***

Two days later the orthopedic doctor sternly told me when I tried to bargain my way out of a cast, “Bones don’t negotiate. You want full function in that thumb, it needs to be immobilized.”

The question mark beamed from my eyes. “How long?”

“Four weeks,” he said. “We’ll take it off and see how it’s doing then.”

He did not guarantee that it would only be four weeks. Guarantees are for new cars, and it turns out it’s not the bone he was concerned about. It’s the ligaments and tendons that have been stretched in ways they’re not meant to stretch. They need to be kept in place for a while.

But I felt laid low by this news. I’ve had casts before—notably one on my left wrist—that hobbled me. And it’s mid-semester, I’m the only journalism writing teacher, there is no sub for what I do, I’m on a computer or grading papers many hours a day… and I had learned over the previous two days how important it is to have two functioning opposable thumbs. Very.

I had learned that without my right thumb it was difficult, if not impossible, to:

  • write remotely legibly/grade papers
  • start my car
  • turn a key in a lock or a doorknob
  • use scissors (which, apparently, I do several times a day)
  • trim nails, even with a clipper, since my left hand hasn’t learned how
  • tweeze body hair
  • put or or take off a bra
  • button or unbutton

and worst of all,

  • type without holding my right hand high above a keyboard and
  • use a mouse, especially to highlight things on a computer, which I do, literally, hundreds of times a day.

And while I am willing to learn to use my left hand to mouse, it had been slow going. I work about 60 hours a week as it is, and I could not imagine doubling the time it took to grade papers by hand or on the computer, put together PowerPoint lectures or many other tasks.

A cast was going to make all that even more difficult.

I was sent back to the waiting room to ponder my fate and wait for the orthopedic technician (aka cast man). I moped in a chair with my Velcro thingie, which, in a fit of pique, I ripped off my hand to study my swollen bruised thumb and feel sorry for myself.

I had plopped myself in a chair next to a woman sporting a worn-looking cast on her leg watching the lovely scenery to peaceful music on a screen high in a corner. As I sighed, she leaned over. “I get mine off today,” she whispered.

It was all I could do not to say the rude thing I was thinking.

“I like to guess where this is,” she said, nodding at the screen. Wildflowers, rocks, big waterfall. Easy peasy. Dick and I go there most years in May.

“Yosemite,” I said. “Bridalveil Fall.”

She beamed at me, a perceptive student. “And that?” I followed her gaze to the wildflowers. I knew them, had seen them often in Yosemite, even in summer. But the name didn’t come. I used to know that, I thought.

“Columbine,” she said. “It’s all over my yard.”

That surprised me. “Isn’t it too hot here for columbine?”

“Oh, I don’t live here,” she said. “I live in the mountains, way up Highway 50. We have a lot of shade.”

“You came down here today?” I said.

She smiled. “It’s only about 90 minutes.”

I felt the universe’s you-think-you-have-it-rough nudge in my ribs. I turned my head to look at her, this female Buddha/Quan Yin next to me delivering a message I needed to hear. My late friend Julia Ellen Cook’s voice in my head: Honey, there are no accidents.

A medical assistant emerged and called for Jean. The woman next to me said, “That’s me.”

“Hogg?” said the medical assistant. “Jean Hogg?”

I almost let it pass, let Jean take my place in the cast room. But.

“I’m Jan Haag,” I said.

“Oh,” said the medical assistant, coming to show me the paper with my name on it. “Jean Hogg?”

“Close enough,” I said and followed her into the cast room where I’d been before. It has two stations for the cast men (and women) to work. A young man in a wheelchair had had his cast removed, and a young woman was trying to shove his obviously hurting foot into a walking boot. His face contorted in pain as he tried not to yelp. It didn’t work. Little yips escaped the poor guy.

“Janis Haag?” said a gentle voice, pronouncing it correctly.

And I looked into the face of an older man who seemed familiar. As I sat on the examining table covered with the ubiquitous paper, I realized that he had installed a different cast on me once upon a time. I couldn’t remember his name, but his kind chocolate eyes and gentle hands had years earlier molded wet gauze that hardened around my broken left wrist. He held out a cane horizontally, decorated with different colors of gauze.

“Your choice,” he said.

I didn’t say what I was thinking: I don’t want this. Let me just use the Velcro brace thingie. I looked for a good ten seconds. Not screamin’ pink. Black was too severe, even if it did match my mood. The teal was kind of nice. But…

The young man across from me, his sore foot now shoved into the walking boot, panted like an overheated dog. I tried not to look at him.

“Purple,” I said, thinking, it’s my color, it’s the color of the last cast, the highest chakra, the color of Hawaii’s last queen.

“Good choice,” said the Cast Man. “I’m gonna make you a nice cast.”

He gently took my hand and looked at my thumb, explained that he would leave my right fingers free but that the cast would go up to my elbow.

“Does it have to go that high?” I asked, revving into high maintenance gear.

“Where was the break?” asked the Cast Man.

I pointed to the tip of my thumb. “Way up there.”

He smiled. “Let me go ask your doctor,” he said.

And he did, returning with the same smile. “I can do you a shortie,” he said, which made me smile.

He asked what I did and I told him. “Oh, dear,” he sympathized. “I’ll make sure you’ve got lots of wiggle room in your fingers.”

I asked how long he’d been making casts. “Thirty years,” he said. “Started in the army. Then I retired.”

I looked surprised. “But you’re here,” I said with a flair for the obvious.

“They called me back,” he said. “I work here and there when they need me.”

And he cut two layers of black sock-like material to put against my skin, including a thumb sock. “When you see this again,” he said, placing the sock over my thumb, “it’s gonna be good as new.”

That made me smile as his capable hands sculpted layers of gauze into what would harden into a protective shell for my thumb. “The magic healing cast,” I said.

He kept winding layers around my upraised hand. “That’s right,” he said. “The magic healing cast. You got it.”

And just like that, the Cast Man cast his healing spell on my busted digit. I heard the voices of the universe chuckling at me again. I have sent you nothing but angels, it whispered.

Because apparently I needed to be reminded again to trust that helpers will arrive when needed, that they will lend a hand when you’ve broken part of yours, that for all the inconvenience, there are blessings bestowed—some by people who have known you in a previous life, some by those new to you, and many, many by the ones unseen, working overtime on your behalf.

And I thanked the Cast Man and walked into a sunny morning, not quite fall, pleasantly warm, my new cast still damp and very, very purple.

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Resilience

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On the dock at Sugar Pine Point State Park.

The last time I didn’t even think about being “strong” or “resilient” or “brave,” all of which others ascribed to me. It was just dealing with what was in front of me last January: my partner, collapsed in cardiac arrest in an airport; people materializing out of line behind us to help; someone running for a machine in a plastic case that, with one shock, brought him back to me.

That, I told people later, was the easy part. What followed was not, but I was in such a state of shock and awe at the miracles unfolding to help us every step of the way that the difficulties seemed small by comparison.

Have to sleep on a fold-out chair in a freezing hospital room for two weeks? Not a biggie because I got him back. No clothing or toiletries because they went home on the plane without you? There’s a local friend who can make a Target run, and there’s your beloved, alive in that hospital bed. Running out of cash and nowhere near an ATM? Another local friend arranges for a large sum to be delivered to you. Have to eat what passes for meals (Spam musubi! Japanese green tea!) in the hospital cafeteria because there are no other reasonably close options? No problem. (I love Spam musubi and green tea.)

And at the end of it all, super-competent professionals will open his chest and bypass those clogged arteries with great amounts of TLC before, during and after.

After that, I returned to teach the third week of the spring semester. I felt a little punch-drunk but grateful. And two weeks later, he came home, too, and grew stronger and healthier each week. He even wanted to travel to British Columbia, our usual summer trip, where he walked miles he couldn’t have done before, alone and with me. I was relaxed and happy.

But now, finishing the first four weeks of the new fall semester, even after spending many hours prepping over the summer, I am in a daily state of high anxiety. I’m teaching what feels like two brand new classes, though they are not—just ones I haven’t done lately. One I haven’t taught for more than two decades because my colleague who retired in May taught it so well for so long. The other now I’m doing without using a textbook, which puts the big whammy on me to create PowerPoints and lectures with all the information I’ll put on quizzes. And those quizzes? All online on a platform I’ve used only slightly.

Fortunately, I have young students who are so much more technologically savvy than I. But every day when I go into class, I brace for the inevitable: “I can’t get to the quiz,” or “It said I got this answer wrong, but you said in class that it was xyz,” or “Did you say you were going to put that online?” Yes, I say, I thought I did. And then, with a student over my shoulder as I sit at the computer in the classroom, we look, and the one I’m supposed to be teaching points to something on the screen and says, “What if you do this?” And she’s right, and I’m grateful and say so.

But the upshot is: I’m feeling terribly incompetent at my job, slow to learn this new technology and put together new lessons, and the knot in my stomach has been growing larger each week. The learning curve feels vertical right now, and I’m not used to that. My confidence stems from my competence, and both are shaky at the moment.

I thought going away to Tahoe last weekend would help, and it did. Walking around Sugar Pine Point and marveling at how high the water is in the lake after its super-snowy winter restoreth my soul. I cut his hair beneath pine trees next to our cute cabin on the west shore. But then we’d go inside to deal with the hinky internet connection, and I’d want to tear my hair out. I spent the first evening and much of the night in a swivet because so much of what I need to do now relies on a fast internet connection. I’m not used to getting thrown offline (literally and metaphorically).

The man who’d been brought back to life and had his heart repaired said that first night in our small cabin, “Now don’t you go having a heart attack over this stuff.”

And he was right, of course. But the free-floating anxiety remained.

I know how to calm myself. I start every morning with meditation. I was doing yoga this summer three times a week, often in my backyard, my favorite place to practice, sometimes with a dear friend, sometimes alone. I love to take long walks and breathe deeply.

All that went to hell when the semester started, and suddenly I had to be at a workplace about 9 a.m. to teach an hour later and be there all day without any break until about 6 p.m.

“Like normal people,” said the man with the repaired heart. “Like regular teachers.”

Well, yes. But for years I’ve floated into school about 11 a.m.ish, taught much of the afternoon, had an hour or two break and then gone back for a night class, often leaving campus about 10 p.m. Still a nine- or ten-hour day, but at hours that work better for me. And those classes were easier, I told the heart patient.

“Really?” he said. “Putting out the paper once a month? You used to want to kill those kids. You had to say the same things over and over, and they still didn’t get it. Now you don’t put out an actual paper; it’s all online. That’s not easier?”

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Restin’ and readin’… heaven!

Well, yes, I had to admit. Through the end of last semester I was looking over students’ stories before they went online AND guiding them through the rigors of putting out a paper in print.

“But newswriting,” I whined. “I’m back to teaching newswriting.”

I’m watching students struggle with this new way of arranging and writing information. I’m not at all sure that I’m teaching it effectively, this class that resembles a composition class—so much to read and offer suggestions, let them try again, then I read and comment again. Repeat as needed for each student.

“But it’s all online,” said the man who loves me. “I’ve watched you grade those things, and it’s so much faster, you’re telling me.”

That’s true, but all the hours I’m spending creating those lessons and exercises to put online…

“But then you have those things for next semester,” said the Pollyanna in my life.

He’s right, of course—he’s usually right—but still, a teensy part of me wants to kick him.

But it’s true: Every week I find that I’m asking fewer questions of people who know a lot more about this newfangled stuff than I do, even if I am still making lots of mistakes when I confront all these new moving parts. I might even be getting a wee bit faster at using the fancy-dancy system, which does make things easier for students, and one day, perhaps me, too.

I’ve had a lot of help from patient people. More than once this summer from a newer, very patient friend who teaches part-time on two campuses and is juggling more than I am at half the pay. And the most recent support guy I called for help (only a 15-minute call, down from the usual half-hour ones), when I pre-empted him with a “oh, I know how to do this,” responded with, “See? You’re getting it.”

“You’re a good teacher,” I told him.

“So are you,” he said, which brought tears to my eyes.

I have to remind myself that it’s good to be sent back to beginner’s mind now and then. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re old and out of touch. Dealing with new information and life stuff is what my students experience every day. It’s also what happens when you get to restart your life after it suddenly ends.

That’s when the silver lining appears: Had he not been resurrected at the airport, I’d still be going through all the stress of doing the old job in a new way—alone. Had angels not emerged around every corner of our journey, back at home this man would not be feeding me dinner many nights—baked fish and green beans one night, crab legs and corn another. Had my teaching schedule not changed, I wouldn’t have had these evenings with him.

Had the talented, kind folks who repaired his flabby heart not turned it into a snappy one, as the surgeon said, I would not be sitting on his sofa, working on his laptop, only to look up and see him standing there holding a small bowl. Creamy vanilla ice cream and fresh, sliced peaches.

“Here,” he says, and I close the laptop.

And he sits beside me with his own bowl as we “mmmm” and smile at each other. Perhaps this, too, is resilience, the stepping back to appreciate something sweet.

The knot in my stomach subsides as cool ice cream slides down my throat, as the warmth of someone who’s been looking out for me for almost three decades seeps into me again, and I inhale deeply, happily.

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Cuttin’ the hairs in Tahoma.

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Our relationship continues

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Cliff and Jan at home in Davis, 1984, with first Apple Macintosh.

(Thanks to Margo Fowkes for asking me to write this for her fine website, findyourharbor.com, a place where people tell stories of their grief after losing loved ones. You can find this essay on that site here, too.)

One person was brave enough to say it after my husband died: “You weren’t living with him. Why are you still so upset?”

I hope I was charitable to that person, that I didn’t snap at her with the answer I often gave people who asked more nicely:

“We’d been friends since college, and even after we separated, we rebuilt a friendship around a house we still co-owned and a dog we both loved. We saw each other every weekend. I helped him change his IVs after he left the hospital during his last illness, though he lived almost an hour away. We were family.”

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Dec. 17, 1983

One of the reasons we decided early in our marriage not to have children was because of his illness. He’d told me that he didn’t expect to live a long life. Cliff had been a sickly baby, as they said in his family. They kept him alive as an infant with goat’s milk because he threw up everything else. He grew tall and skinny, no one having any idea that he had congenital heart deformities that wouldn’t be discovered until his early 20s, during an exit physical for the Coast Guard. Though he grew stronger after surgery to replace his faulty aortic valve, Cliff was never truly well.

But he was shy and kind, and he adored me. Even when I said that I could no longer live with the depression that often pinned him to the sofa on weekends, he said, “I’ll help you move.” And he did. I have rarely experienced such overt demonstrations of love as those from Clifford Ernest Polland, who died alone at his home in Winters, California, on March 18, 2001.

When I got a call from the county coroner that spring day asking if I was his wife, I said yes, of course, knowing that bad news was coming. (Coroners never call to wish you a good day.) I asked them to leave him as he was when he died, so I could see him. I raced to his house to find him slumped in the oak Arts and Crafts-style recliner he’d made in our garage, an IV in his arm still trying to pump antibiotics to quell the infection around his artificial valve. He wore the pump and bag of penicillin in a tummy pack around his waist. I reached into the pack and turned off the beeping pump, indicating that the bag had run dry.

Then I sat down on the floor beside one of his big feet that had fallen off the ottoman and took that cold, cold foot into my lap. It felt like marble. I looked at his chin settled on his chest, thinking about how often I’d seen him sleep like that. I prayed that his ending had come quickly. It had, I learned later, from the pathologist who did the autopsy. The valve hadn’t failed; he’d had a stroke, always a possibility due to the required blood thinners.

“Oh,” the pathologist added. “You might find this interesting: His heart was three times the normal size.”

“He always did have the biggest heart,” I said, though I meant it metaphorically.

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At work, The Vacaville Reporter, 1984

I don’t recall many details during the days and weeks that followed, though after a week off I went back to my job teaching writing at the community college. Colleagues stepped in to proof the campus literary journal before it went to the printer because I couldn’t concentrate long enough to do it.

One of the things I learned very quickly was to ask specifically for things I needed, not to be afraid to say, “I can’t manage this right now. Can you help?” Everyone I asked said yes, of course, because so many people want to help, but they often don’t know how. Some folks would say, “Let me know if I can do anything,” but often the grieving one can’t think of what anything might be. I learned to make lists of what I couldn’t manage—even the most basic things like remembering to buy toothpaste—and then, often without my asking, someone would appear who could do that thing for me.

That was the other thing I learned: Angels appear when we need them, especially in times of great grief. We just have to have the eyes to recognize them, not to say, “I’m fine, really,” but instead to say, “Yes. Help, please.”

This extended to letting people feed me. Often, after someone dies, people show up the first week with food. But many of us who don’t feed ourselves well at the best of times need food support for weeks or months. I loved it when people would call or email and say, “Have you eaten today? Would you like me to come feed you? Or can I bring you your favorite burger/salad/whatever?” At times I’d forget that I even had a favorite burger/salad/whatever. But when someone would ask, I’d realize that what I really wanted was a hot fudge sundae. And that someone was happy to comply.

(Grief is no time to be worrying about your weight, by the way.)

I was also reminded that this was a time to allow help to walk in the door. Sometimes I asked; sometimes people offered. But I think of my mother, who kindly paid for Cliff’s autopsy when one wasn’t originally planned because I wanted to know why he died (not from a failure of his artificial valve but from a stroke, it turned out). My sister, who accompanied me so many times to Cliff’s rented house to help me clean it out. She scrubbed the inside of the filthy oven in that house until it gleamed. Cliff’s best friend Rick who happily adopted his dog. His sisters, too, arrived to lend their hands and hearts. It made all the difference.

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Cliff in his home darkroom, Rescue, Calif., 1981

I think the highest calling for someone who wants to help is to be the person who shows up. I didn’t need someone with me all the time, but I did need someone I could call in the middle of the night. I had a few of those people, and even when I awakened them, they would listen to me talk and cry and give me a big EGBOK.

My grandma loved EGBOK, which stands for Everything’s Gonna Be OK. I needed lots of EGBOKS because boy, did I have guilt—after all, I’d left the sick, depressed guy. He died alone. I broke his heart. What a terrible person I was.

But dear ones convinced me (as did my therapist, whom I saw twice a month for the first year) that I was uselessly torturing myself. My therapist—bless her—insisted that I tell her about every one of my alleged transgressions and failures, which no one heaped upon me but me.

“Now is that really true?” she’d ask gently.

And, little by little, I came to believe that most of what I thought was not true.

It was that conscious walking through grief with my therapist that brought me back to writing, which has always been my other good form of therapy. I imagined that I’d write profound essays about my relationship with Cliff. But what emerged at first were pinched, stilted little poems. I wrote them anyway, knowing they weren’t, technically, “good,” but hoping that by getting it out of me and onto the page, it would become a healing thing. It did. The page can take whatever we dish out, I’d long preached to my writing students. It was never more true for me than in that year after Cliff died.

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Cliff at work, Vacaville, 1984 (Photo by Dan Trevan)

And here’s where that writing led me—to hearing his voice, to feeling him around me, though this took months and months. Those first poems, with time and editing, improved and eventually turned into a poetry collection called “Companion Spirit.” Because that’s what Cliff had become.

Even eighteen years after his death, I feel him with me. Sometimes I’ll hear him in my head, offering an “atta girl, Toots.” I sometimes feel his presence in the empty passenger seat as I drive or smell wood shavings and dog—classic Cliff—when I walk in the front door. About once a month I’ll awaken in the night and feel as if we’ve just had a conversation. It always makes me smile.

And I’ve learned, as I wrote in a poem in “Companion Spirit,” that:

Death is merely a change of address,
and loved ones wend their way home
like turtles or salmon or whales—
by smell, by feel.

The relationship has changed. I can’t call him on the phone; now I speak into the air. I often say, “Thank you, Clifford,” and while I’m at it, I thank the other companion spirits, the dead loved ones, who I hope hover around me, too. I’ve learned that our relationship continues. It goes on as long as I do.

And that is the biggest gift, among many, that Cliff Polland left me. I am beyond grateful.

 

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Semicolon

You can get through your whole life
without one, I tell my students.
Really. You can. Periods and commas
will do you fine, if you use them
correctly, if you resist the urge
to polka dot a page or sprinkle
them through a field of letters
like so many chocolate chips.

If a period puts a button
on the end of a sentence,
halts a declaration, and
a comma serves as a mere pause,
when you combine them—
that simple dot over a curvy
wink—you arrive at the spot
dividing two complete thoughts.

It creates parallels;
it speaks of relationship—
your road running next to mine,
each of us equals,
holding our own weight
in this lovely dance
of a sentence together.

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Poet friend

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Marie with Finley and Luna (photo by Rose Varesio)

Thinking of my dear poet friend Marie Reynolds on the first anniversary of her passing, grateful for so much about her… among other things, that she was able to hold her book of poetry, “Seaworthy,” close to her before she died, so happy with that great achievement. It is a fine collection, and I am honored to have published her elegant, wise poems with the help of some of her local poet friends.

She was my best poetry buddy, editor, gentle critiquer, and her suggestions were always spot on. I miss her for that and for her devotion as a friend. But in the wake of her passing, Marie left us many gifts, not least some of her friends who’ve become closer, people with whom we can remember and celebrate her.

I am so pleased to call Rose Varesio, Annie Andrighetto, Susan Flynn, Julie Brower and others my new friends. I’m also grateful to her family for their love and care at the end of Marie’s life. Thanks, Marie, for your bountiful gifts to so many.

light year

(for Rose and Marie)

how long is a light year?
you asked

i looked it up:
a unit of length equal
to the distance traveled by light
in one earth year,
about 6 trillion miles
or 9 trillion kilometers

a trillion has 12 zeroes
after a number,
which feels like a very
dark year

like this one,
missing her

because the second
definition of a light year is:
very far, in distance or time

which is how she feels
to us much of the time, like
the milky way stretching
over 200,000 light years

except for moments
like now, when we talk
about her, and she’s
right here, in our spiral spur
of milky river across the sky

in that pinpoint of light
in the corner of the room

just there
and there
and there

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Schlepping rocks II

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A half century later I’m the one searching
for those piles of rocks along Auburn Folsom Road.
The man who led us there died 15 years ago,
and I begin my quest for river rocks thinking of him.

But as I drive past the spots where we once hefted rocks
into the trunk of my father’s Chevy, the two-lane road
has morphed into a four-lane highway, one side
rimmed with houses, shopping mall, light rail
replacing railroad tracks. No longer a safe place
to pull over and paw through piles overgrown
into hillocks sprouting grasses and trees.
Five decades of rain and dust and debris have turned
the mounds into living organisms—although perhaps
they always were alive, those river rocks keeping
their stories to themselves.

I want these rocks—suddenly attached to memory
like ions clinging to water molecules. I want
them in my life again, in my yard,
far downstream from where I started.

As I drive and search, the prayer arrives:
“Our father, who art in heaven, Roger be thy name,
guide me to a quiet place where I can safely
lift rocks in peace, in the name of all that is holy—
river, rocks, you, the universe, amen.”

And I turn down a road into a space once populated
with grasses and oaks, perhaps a deer trail or two
the only way through, to find myself arrowed
into a small, empty parking lot. I park, head down
a bike trail that I suspect meanders toward Lake Natoma,
dredged more than sixty years ago from American River soil,
those rocks joining the huge field of tailings left
a century earlier in the rush for California gold.

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And around a curve they stand, gleaming as if brand new
under summer sun: naked mounds of river rock.
I climb one pile, feel stones shift as my weight
bears down, chuckle at the top to see a field
of exposed piles undulating northward,
as if deposited just for me.

I grin my thankyouthankyouthankyou to the sky,
set to work hefting, selecting, tossing keepers toward
the bike trail, know that I will come back, come back,
come back to this place outside of time.

Again and again I will load rocks “yay big,” as he
used to say, into a red bucket on a wheeled cart,
tow it up the trail behind me to my own waiting Honda,
transfer each rock into that welcoming space,
head back down the trail for more—
each step a meditation,
each rock a memory,
each breath
love.

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Photos by Dick Schmidt

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Schlepping rocks I

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How many times did he load us into the car,
my mother, my sister and me, head south
down Auburn Folsom Road by the huge mounds
of tailings left over from gold mining days?
There, we’d pile out, he’d open the trunk,
and tell us to look for rocks “about yay big.”

“Yay big” was a different size every time—
sometimes small enough for a child’s palm,
sometimes ones that took two hands to lug
to the trunk. But my father, young, crewcut’d,
before his belly grew and his enthusiasm shrank
for yard projects, had rock walls to build.
And there they were—all those lovely, roundish
river rocks dredged from the American River,
just sitting there.

The summer men walked on the moon
for the first time, my sister and I imagined
not astronauts on another world retrieving rocks,
but Gold Rush miners lugging them in wooden
wheelbarrows, then later bucket dredges that
assembled great piles like pyramids, a field
of humped stones 10 miles long and 7 miles wide.
I didn’t know then that the river was dredged
to build a second dam downstream from the one
that created the lake we swam in, skied on,
saw as ours—Folsom.

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My father was as proud of those dams
as if he’d built them himself, ones that
ended annual flooding of one of the rivers
that circled Sacramento. Years later, when
I migrated to the college hunkered down
next to the American bordered by tall levees,
my father assured me that, no matter
how much it rained, I’d be safe because
of the dams upstream.

I think of that in winter when rain pours
and the river rises fast, once again
channeling the liquid mystery of movement.
“California doesn’t do water well,” my father
would say. “It’s either too little or too much.”

Sometimes during deluges, I head for my alma mater
snuggled next to the levee and climb its manmade
steps to the top. I watch the hefty American
rush its muddy way to become one with
the Sacramento surging down from Mt. Shasta,
and, thus braided, forging on to the sea.
I think of the rocks embedded in its rich soil—
perhaps like those still lodged in moondust—
that will likely never see daylight, others tumbling
in the current that carries the stories of river,
the whoosh of watery highway,
right past us.

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Photos by Dick Schmidt

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Gettin’ the band back together

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The great birthday 2012 birthday surprise: Cora Johnson (left) pops into the Alabama Hills.

Some years ago Dick pulled off a nifty surprise for my birthday. In July 2012 we took a driving trip down Highway 395, along the back side of the Sierra Nevada range, overnighting in Lone Pine, which is the perfect kickoff spot for, among other things, the Alabama Hills. Beginning in the silent movie era, Hollywood folks migrated north to film movies in the Alabama Hills, gentle contours of rock set against the rugged peaks of the Sierra.

The morning of my birthday we were in our hotel room in Lone Pine when we heard a knock at the door. I opened it to see our dear friend Cora Johnson, who had driven up from her home in Southern California just for the day to surprise me. That’s the kind of friend she is.

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Cora surprises Jan on her birthday, 2012

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The set for “Gunga Din” in the Alabama Hills, 1938, standing in for the hill country of India

We spent that lovely July 30 driving around the Alabama Hills, looking at spots where old movies were filmed, including “Gunga Din” and Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy cowboy film, and later “The Lone Ranger” and “Bonanza.” We also toured Manzanar, the former World War II relocation camp, where some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated. Then Cora aimed her car south and drove home to Cerritos.

Cora, of course, and her BFF from college, Connie Raub (both of whom have known and loved Dick for more than a half century), were the two angels who literally flew to his side in January. They mother hen’d Dick for two weeks on Oahu after his surgery to help him regain strength and confidence before flying home with him to Sacramento. In mid-February. Since they both live in snowy places (Cora now lives in Minden, Nevada, and Connie many years ago moved to Colorado Springs), getting home from Sacramento proved to be tricky. Cora ended up spending some extra time in Sacramento at the home of Dick’s sister and brother-in-law Marge and John Thompson. Then the Thompsons drove Cora halfway up the mountain where they met one of Cora’s Minden friends who delivered Cora home at last.

I often remind people who think that Cora and Connie had a lovely two-week vacation on Oahu of these two things: (a) They were taking care of a man recovering from heart surgery, monitoring his medications, blood pressure, exercise and food intake, and (b) They all froze in the little rental house Pearl City, Oahu, in the clouds (no heat in those houses), far from the ocean. In other words, it was not easy duty, but they were a superb example of longtime friends and the things you do for love.

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Cora boulders in the Alabama Hills, July 30, 2012  (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

I say all this to explain that Dick and I have been trying for years to figure out a way to surprise Cora. This year we had even more reason to do so. We finally managed it a few days before Cora’s birthday by arranging a dinner at the Chart House overlooking Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side. What Cora didn’t know was that Connie was coming to Sacramento to see relatives a couple of days before our scheduled dinner, so we sneaked in a Special Guest Artist just for the occasion.

And it worked wonderfully. We drove into the Chart House parking lot to see Cora waiting for us. Dick and I got out of the car first to greet Cora as Connie hunkered down in the back seat. “I need to get something out of the car,” Dick said, and he opened the back door with Cora standing by, and Connie popped out, stunning her former roomie.

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The big reveal for Cora’s birthday 2019

Much laughter, many hugs. We had gotten the band back together for the first time since mid-February. We had a lovely dinner—peach-bourbon glazed scallops and shrimp for Dick and Cora, summer vegetables and shrimp for Connie, and macadamia nut-encrusted wahoo for me. And for all of us for dessert two plates of the Chart House’s famous hot lava cake (ooooo! not on anyone’s heart-healthy diet).

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And a lovely bottle of Reata chardonnay, 2016, from the Sonoma Coast (photo by Dick Schmidt)

We have so much to celebrate this year—not just our three summer birthdays (Connie’s in June, mine in July, Cora’s in August) but more than a half century of friendship between Cora, Connie and Dick. And though I am newer to their group, they have made me part of their tribe, as we consider each other family, or, as they say in Hawaii, ohana.

Once again we are grateful for our ohana… these two here and all of you out there who have been cheering Dick on since January. Mahalo nui loa to you all!

(And haouli la hanau… happy birthday, dear Cora!)

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Cora, Dick and Connie, Aug. 7, 2019

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Six months out

RDS six months out

This guy is #1!

Six months ago today he had a triple bypass, resulting in a refurbished, snappy heart 💜.

Nine days before that, he was felled by a cardiac arrest in the Honolulu airport and was revived—after excellent CPR and assistance by two bystanding angels—with the use of an AED, an automated external defibrillator.

Today he’s wearing his AED Institute shirt with gratitude to that organization for placing AEDs in airports all over Hawaii. He literally would not be here without that foresight. A big mahalo to all who saved and supported Dick Schmidt from his first moments to today… and me, too!

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