Six days a week, between about 1 and 4 p.m., I head to my city’s oldest college campus that has taught students for going on 105 years, now quiet, seemingly abandoned. It’s not, of course, though nowadays students and teachers like me learn and teach from home. Still, maintenance folks and district police, along with a few hardy administrators and operations people, not to mention construction workers laboring on new buildings, appear at Sacramento City College every day through the pandemic.
As do the cats, the ferals of SCC, some of whom I feed Saturdays through Thursdays. My colleague, physics professor Doug Copely, feeds the cats on Fridays just outside the old portable building where he was teaching before last March when we were all sent home, having no idea when we’d return. (We still have no idea when we’ll return.) I worked in that portable for 20 years before journalism moved to a new building across the campus.
It’s one of two feeding sites on campus, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, the Sacramento City Kitty Committee (so named by my retired colleague Holly Kivlin) continues to feed the ferals that hold down the campus space so others don’t occupy it.
Yesterday, the first Monday of the spring semester, as I pulled into campus next to Hughes Stadium, the 1928 football stadium named for a long-ago school superintendent, I saw masked volunteers waiting by tables, also there for food duty. They do a different kind of feeding as part of the college’s now-monthly food distribution. Students who’ve signed up for various pickup times drive up and, staying in their cars, pop their trunk lids or hatches so volunteers can deposit a box of food from the Sacramento Food Bank.
This is all the doing of Dean of Campus Interventions Andre Coleman and his team who, working from home, have been concerned since last March about food insecurity that they know affects students. Before the campus shutdown, Coleman and his staff, plus volunteers, provided donated food weekly on campus—no questions asked—to all comers. But the shutdown stopped that, and it took Coleman and his staff months to reinstate the first regular food distribution in November.
Now they’re giving food boxes monthly to those who sign up—again, no questions asked—and drive in to receive it.
Of course, all over the region volunteers are participating in food distribution, even during the pandemic—not least through agencies like the Sacramento Food Bank and the River City Food Bank and on-site feeding places such as Loaves and Fishes. Multiply this times thousands of groups doing this across the country, across the world, always, not just in pandemic times, people doing the work of angels.
I watched the teams at work as I fed the ferals, realizing that we were doing the same kind of volunteering at the same time—feeding those who need feeding. I’ve always fed students, too, bringing snacks from home, buying pizza for newspaper staffs, going out for sandwiches. I’m not much of a cook, but I can buy food, and students are always hungry.
Like the cats. For better or worse, I’ve brought a number of cats home over the decades (cats that have been pets do not fare well after being dumped, so we in the Kitty Committee have tried to find them homes). I often tell people I haven’t gone out to purposely acquire a cat in 25 years. Unlike the recipients who pick up food, the cats are champion social distancers and not nearly as grateful. Even across the road at the trailer, I could hear people calling out their thanks after the volunteers closed the open trunks and hatches.
And that made me smile. I rarely see the feral cats; they’re wild animals, after all. But I have gotten to know some of them over the years who’d sneak out and eat, who’d learned the sound of my voice. The food distribution folks and those of us feed the cats don’t require thanks. I’m honored to be part of a campus full of people who believe that feeding the hungry is important enough to show up at a campus closed by a pandemic, to smile behind their masks as they put food boxes in trunks, and wave as the recipients drive off.
Two years ago today Dick Schmidt felt dizzy and collapsed as we stood in line in Honolulu to board a plane home after our annual winter trip to Hawaii. Without warning, he died in that moment.
But two men immediately came out of the line behind us — Claudio Alvarado to monitor Dick’s then-nonexistent pulse and Salesi Maumau to perform CPR. Chris Ohta, a Hawaiian Airlines employee, ran to get an AED and returned with it to literally shock Dick back to life.
That began a chain of goodness and compassion from strangers who stunned us as much as the events of Dick’s cardiac arrest, a series of kindnesses that continues to this day. We are grateful beyond measure to Claudio and Salesi, to Chris and all the Hawaiian Airlines staffers who rushed to help that day, along with the EMS personnel, the lovely women at the AED Institute, and the tremendous medical team at Moanalua Medical Center.
Each of them, as our friend, songwriter Antsy McClain, sings, proved that “a stranger’s just a friend waiting to happen.”
Some longtime friends appeared in Honolulu to be by our sides—Makena Ongoy, Jan Lake, Andy and Leona Doughty, Cora Johnson and Connie Raub. Many others, including those of you reading this, cheered us on from afar.
Every time people ask me, “How’s Dick?” I want to respond with “alive and well.” Usually I say, “He’s doing great.” We both are. Even during a pandemic and unrest. He’s taking photos, as he always does, closer to home than on our usual travels, loving his snazzy iPhone (for which, I tease him, he had to die before he agreed to own) with its outstanding camera. (Thanks, John Thompson!)
He continues to be a great helper serving family and friends, something he’s done all his life. And he’s coming up on his 78th birthday in February, in addition to this second “rebirth-aversary,” as one of our new friends dubbed it. (Thanks, Eryn Maumau!)
We’re alive and well and so “gratitudinous,” as Dick likes to say, for all the love bestowed upon us. Thank you all.
For Dani, whose help this year has made all the difference
On the last day of the no-good-very-bad year we get to work. You come to my house— a near-weekly stint for the past nine months—take stock of the living room, the boxes, empty and full, into which we have slowly poured the detritus of my life, survey the interior of the old garage and new shed, and say, “What if we…?”
Without thinking too hard, a plan emerges, the notion of making things better cheering us both in a time when it seems we can do so little.
How can it be that everyone on the planet— no one is immune—suffers at the same time? Additional agony doled out to those who have the least, who have been preyed upon, kicked one too many times, who can’t carry any more pain, who deserve better. Still, no one got the hall pass, the easy out. Everyone is fighting a great battle; many of us are dying in the trenches. The wounded wander, masked and stunned, trying to make sense of the senseless.
You and I know the sick, the dying, the dead. Yet we work like stevedores, unloading freight from the vessel of my century-old house into the shed, which replaced the one erected by someone who died two decades ago. The last of his handmade Adirondack chairs graces the deck, the second incarnation of one he and his brother built. There is so little left of him, the one I called husband, yet he lingers as you and I work on this last day of the no-good-very-bad year.
As we schlepp boxes, I mull over the remodeled lives none of us saw coming, think of a friend who spends each year’s end cleaning, tidying up for the next twelve months, literally putting her house in order.
And so do we on this sunny, light-breezed day, so unexpectedly lovely that you pull out the folding table recently tucked away for winter, and you eat your bean and cheese burrito, and I dive into my chicken taco plate, an abundance of warmth on our backs, basking in the accomplishment of a job well done. This is grace, I think, this peaceful moment of satisfaction.
Well done, indeed, good and faithful servants, you who toil, you dearly departed, rooted in the hearts of your loved ones, now residing in mystery—never, thank God, left behind, never forgotten.
All is calm; all is bright at the North Pole, where Santa, it has been reported, is immune to the virus and ready for takeoff.
The big man and elfin team are working in earnest, getting ready to load the sleigh, hitch up the reindeer and make their worldly rounds.
No one knows if he’ll wear a mask, but his is a solo act. And he’s a champion social distancer, able to slip presents undetected under brightly lit trees.
This jolly fellow, stealthier than any virus, who circumnavigates the globe in one night, will fly his annual journey as always, leaving the greatest of gifts under every tree—peace and joy and love— this year delivered with extra helpings of hope.
81-year-old William Shakespeare was the second person to get the first COVID vaccines at University Hospital in Coventry, England, Dec. 8, 2020.
In the winter of our discontent ‘tis not a dagger I see before me but a needle to begin the Taming of the Flu, as a newspaper called it. Patient 2B or not 2B. I choose 2B.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. A miracle. Here’s our own hands against our hearts. We have seen better days. But a light heart lives long. And what light through yonder window breaks? Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile.
A man can die but once, but let that not be today or tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Uneasy lie the lies from the head that wears the crown. Lord, what fools these mortals be! Hell is empty and all the devils are here. Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air. The evil that men do lives after them.
Nothing will come of nothing. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep. We know what we are, but know not what we may be. Let us Be! Be! Be!
Mostly Will’s lines (the original Shakespeare) with transitions by Jan
Sereeeeena I just met a cat named Serena And suddenly the name will never be the same to me.
I’ve known more than a few kitties in my life, falling hard for them as a kid when my family acquired our first sweet kitten named Fluffy. She grew up to have many litters of kittens in the days before my mother decided that spaying a cat was a good idea. Consequently, my sister and I, as well as our next door neighbor, Sue (who grew up to be a veterinarian), got lots of lessons in “taming” kittens, as we called it. That amounted to a lot of girl-handling and saying as their tiny needle-sharp talons pierced us, “No claws! No claws!” Sometimes that worked.
I grew up to care for ferals at the college where I’ve taught for three decades, going to school daily to leave fresh food and water, even during the pandemic. I’ve trapped and hauled cats in big wire cages to vets to be tested, spayed, neutered and sometimes euthanized. I’ve hand raised brand new kittens, even toting a cat carrier bearing a pair of pale orange twins to school where some of my students kindly bottle fed those babies as I taught. Dick and I spent many a night rising every few hours to feed them, too.
All this is to say I have some cat experience under my belt, as well as my share of mistakes. So when Dick’s sister-in-law Dottie this summer fell and broke her hip, she was away from home for a good couple of months. Dick, his niece Rebecca and I joined the team of Dottie’s neighbors to do in-home care for Serena, a sweet calico tabby with only one ear. She had the other one amputated because of skin cancer, and she’s now a happy indoor cat with Dottie, who lives alone since the death of her husband Steev, Dick’s brother.
Serena was easy to care for—delighted to be introduced to cat treats (aka kitty crack) and quick to jump on a lap for a pat. We brought her cardboard scratchers and, with the help of Dottie’s neighbors Barbara and Mary, made sure she was fed and visited twice a day. When Serena developed breathing difficulties and had what looked like an ear infection, I took her to the vet, followed by a 10-day stretch of applying various medications to her eyes, ears, nose and mouth. It’s been a great team effort.
I typically sing to cats when I feed them. The smart ones realize that dinner is about to be served, and they usually come from wherever they’re sleeping or hiding to sit politely in the kitchen before the chow-down. I’ve made up kitty songs for years, often spontaneously. I’m fond of this variation on “Wooly Bully”:
Catty o’ catty It’s just the catty and me There’s the catty And she’s ready to eat
Catty, catty. Ooooo! Catty, catty.
Catty, catty. Catty, catty. Catty, catty.
(Bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, bump)
With Serena, a take on “Maria” seemed appropriate. And she responded, coming from wherever she was to sit and watch, even if she wasn’t hungry. I’d sometimes put the food down, and she wasn’t interested, but she’d follow me as I sang:
Sereeeeeena I just hugged a cat named Serena and suddenly I’ve found how wonderful a sound can be.
Dottie finally made it home to Serena in October, and in mid-November she had her hip replaced. She came home the day after the surgery (amazing!) already feeling much better with home health care people on duty all day and night. Things were going well until the Sunday night before Thanksgiving when a new care worker left the front door open when he went out to his car, and Serena scooted out.
Dottie alerted neighbors Barbara and Mary, who immediately went out to search for Serena—to no avail. Dottie texted Rebecca and me, and we both said we’d be over the next day.
Rebecca, who lived with me for a time when she was attending Sac State, is the master cat finder. She discovered my old cat, Noodles, who, in his dotage, had lost more than a few kitty marbles. Though I was trying to keep him inside and safe, he’d still sneak out sometimes, and I’d find him lounging in the sun on the driveway, which was better than his former habit of sometimes sleeping in the middle of the street. On a hot day. (Noodles never was the smartest thing on four paws, I’m afraid. Lesson learned: Don’t name a cat something that calls his intelligence into question. The cat will live down to his name.)
One day Noodles disappeared, and Rebecca and I traversed the neighborhood calling and looking under bushes. Nada Noodles. A week later, Rebecca was driving down the street and saw Noodles on a neighbor’s porch about a block away. She parked the car, got out and walked toward him saying, “Noodles, ya moron! Where’ve you been?” He seemed content, she said, not eager to go with her, though she scooped him up and brought him home. The neighbor, Rebecca reported, had been feeding Noodles and even let him in her house.
“Did you just forget where you live or find a better place?” Rebecca asked as Noodles gave us his Noodle-y look.
So R. (as we call her) did a morning look-around for Serena, and we joined forces later in the afternoon to search farther and wider. We put out dry cat food in a few places, hoping she was close enough to find it. Barbara and Mary had been looking, too, talking to the neighbors. The neighbor to the east of Dottie said that his dog was growling at something underneath the back porch. But when the neighbor looked, he couldn’t see anything. I even went to the vacant lot at the end of the street and searched all the way to a slough. No Serena.
The next day I was busy with school stuff, though R. went back to search and post flyers, as did the neighbors. Finally early Wednesday morning, after Serena had been missing for three nights, Dottie’s overnight caretaker saw a one-eared kitty peering in the front window. I said I’d go over mid-afternoon and resume the search.
As I’d roamed the neighborhood a couple of days before, I’d called Serena’s name, but now, the day before Thanksgiving, I sang my way through Dottie’s yard and the neighbors’:
Serena! Serena, Serena!
Unfortunately, the yard guy with his blower had arrived, taking care of three yards the day before the holiday, so I gave up for a while and went in the house with Dottie and Kanisha, the daytime caretaker. Dottie was in tears. “I just want my kitty,” she sobbed.
When the yard guy was finally done, 4 p.m.ish, the sun was beginning its descent. Mary came over from across the street with a cardboard cat carrier. She and I walked to the fence between Dottie’s driveway and the neighbor with the dog. Mary called and I sang through the tall pickets:
Serena Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying. Serena I’ll never stop saying Sereeeeeena
Suddenly Mary, peering through the fence, said, “There she is!” I caught a sliver of Serena emerging from under the porch coming toward us. There’s no way into the neighbor’s yard from there, so I sprinted around the front of the house, hoping I could find a way into his back yard. It turned out that there was no fence on that side, so I jogged into the yard, singing:
Serena! Serena, Serena!
And there she was, emerging from under the porch, the little one-eared calico tabby with the white chest and tummy, walking toward me, crying. I stopped, kept singing, and she walked right up to me. I bent over and patted her. “Is this where’ve you been?” She let me pick her up and began to purr. I cuddled her, but she didn’t try to wiggle away, as she often does.
Mary met me in the front yard, both of us flushed with delight. She took our photo. I walked Serena up the new ramp to Dottie’s front door that Mary’s husband George had built just before Dottie came home. As I got inside the small front hallway, Serena leapt out of my arms and plonked on the floor. She walked over to one of her scratchers and immediately dug her front claws into the cardboard. It took Dottie, sitting on the sofa, a minute to realize that Serena was back, and as I went for the box of kitty treats on the cat tree by the window, Dottie gasped and said, “My kitty!”
I put some treats down on the scratcher and then on the cat tree, so Serena would follow me and Dottie could see her. Mary took photos. Kanisha shook her head in amazement, and Serena looked, well, serene, as if it had all been no big deal.
Dottie kept saying again and again, “Thankyouthankyouthankyou… my kittymykitty mykitty.” I lifted Serena onto Dottie’s lap, and she continued up to the arm of the sofa. I stood there grinning and a little teary myself, my heart rising at the sight of a woman who has been through so much this year so joyful at the return of one who was lost.
We’ve all been there, especially over the last eight months—so much lost. But then we are grateful for what’s been gained, too—the recovering body, the friendship and assistance of the kindest neighbors and pitching-in family, the gift of a new hip and kind strangers-turned-caretakers, the joy of arrival, whether in a wheelchair or carried in by someone who loves you, and the feeling of putting your paws down again in the place you call home.
Zooming through poetry class online for the 11th week—still not used to students’ faces in little rectangles onscreen, wishing the ones who elect not to show their faces would—
weeks of discussing imagery and metaphor, sonnets and villanelles, syntax and sound, putting them into virtual rooms to write to prompts, praising those who read aloud their brand new drafts,
when, as I’m talking, of course, the big orange cat saunters in my office crying his siren wail, and I can’t turn around and look at him, though the students catch his yowl,
but I sneak a glance over my shoulder anyway and see Diego, head bent reverently over a dark shape whose tail curls into a question mark and, before I can stop myself, an “oh, shit!”
falls out of my mouth, and, because they are muted, I can’t hear my students’ chuckles, but I add, “The cat just walked in and dropped a dead rat on the floor… a big one,”
and someone unmutes and says (though we have not discussed this all evening), “Well, that’s about right for tonight.” And as I turn back to the screen, I see them laughing—with weariness?
With relief? We are all so tired; we have reason to be. And one of the brightest students in class unmutes to observe in a properly academic tone, “Well, that’s a metaphor, isn’t it?”
And we all laugh—the grinning faces of those who allow themselves to be seen in these vulnerable moments— and I look again—yep, it’s dead, it’s not going anywhere, and the big cat meows mightily over his catch,
and I say, “Yes, let’s call that a metaphor; let’s call it hope.”
Few things soothe me when I’m busy or anxious as well as time spent by the ocean. That’s why, mid-semester in this crazy world of Zoom teaching, Dick and I had arranged a different kind of oceanside getaway—one that involved a whole lotta birds.
If you spend time at the California coast, you’re gonna see birds—lots of gulls, some cormorants, maybe in the distance some pelicans—but in October we headed to a place that’s literally Bird Central, staying just down the road from Pt. Lobos State Natural Reserve.
As a native Californian, I can’t imagine that I haven’t visited what has been called “the crown jewel of the state park system,” but this visit felt like a kind of discovery for me. Not for Dick—he knows Pt. Lobos well from visits over the decades to Carmel, including one to visit photographer Ansel Adams and his wife Virginia six weeks before Ansel Adams died in 1984.
According to the state park website, Pt. Lobos gets its name from the offshore rocks at Punta de los Lobos Marinos, Point of the Sea Wolves, where the sound of the sea lions carries inland.
A more recent visit brought Dick and his longtime friend Connie Raub to Pt. Lobos in 2014 to quietly scatter some of the cremains of Connie’s late husband Richard. They were tickled to find Gibson Beach (in the photo above) since Connie’s original name was Gibson. They enjoyed their time there, taking in sea lions barking on offshore rocks, otters in Whaler’s Cove and the many pelicans at Bird Rock. But that’s just the beginning: more than 250 types of animals and birds call Pt. Lobos home.
The birds with the gigantic 9-foot wingspan captured our hearts, especially when we walked the Bird Island trail. Scores of pelicans soared overhead, and a brief walk took us to a place on the trail where we could one of the pelican rookeries. There, mamas (we guessed) tended the chicks of various sizes.
Everywhere you look, it’s Pec-i-lan (as Dick likes to say) City, such quiet birds, preening and tidying up next to their brethren. Such a tight group in close quarters and no fussing between them. What surprised me was the elasticity of their heads and necks, how they accordion’d themselves into compact feather bundles and swiveled their heads Exorcist-style backward to lay their long beaks on their backs.
Those beaks, incidentally, are long, scissored things (from 11 to 14 inches long) that made me realize, as we watched them, that Big Bird must be part pelican. And breeding adults have white heads with a golden wash, a pale version of that 8-foot-2-inch famous bird.
And despite the awkward, rocky terrain, some particularly well-balanced pelicans manage to find purchase in places only experienced rock-climbing humans could.
Once hunted for their feathers and devastated by the use of DDT and other pesticides, pelicans made a comeback between 1970 and 2009, though it’s still listed as an endangered species on the California coast. They’re an indicator species, and because of the decline in sardine populations—one of their staple foods—due to overfishing and climate change, their numbers are in decline.
Fortunately, the number of pelicans at Pt. Lobos makes the species appear to be thriving. In another part of the reserve we walked the Cypress Grove trail through the ubiquitous trees for which this part of the coastline is famous. We rounded a curve in the trail to see this vista before us:
Dozens of pelicans roosting in cypress trees—as birds do, of course—but how funny to see these sizable birds decorating the greenery. Though many of us imagine that they use their voluminous pouches to carry fish, they don’t. They cruise 60 to 70 feet over the ocean, spot schools of fish, then dive-bomb the water, scoop up their fish, and let the water drain out of their porous pouches before they swallow. If they’re caring for young ones, like other birds, after they return from hunting, they regurgitate part of their meal for the babies.
“Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best, and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself.” —Big Bird
We had good days walking Pt. Lobos and getting closer to pelicans than ever before. So close, in fact, that one bird, well, christened Dick and his Canon. Perhaps it’s like the tradition of tossing one’s lei in the sea in Hawaii: If a pelican, um, gets you, you’re meant to return.
I was out watering the plants in my front yard a couple months ago, trying to give them a good drink before the heat of a Sacramento August day, when Robert Gordon walked by. He was moving at his usual fast pace, paint-spattered shorts to his knees, flip-flops squishing in the water I’d inadvertently added to the sidewalk.
He sang to me by way of greeting: “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.”
“Hi, Robert,” I said, meeting his grin.
“I’m gonna leave you a new painting,” he said. “You’re gonna love it.”
Every so often I come home to find a Robert painting on my porch, always on some scrap wood or cardboard. I think of him as the moonstruck artist because there’s clearly something a little different about him. And not least because he likes to paint moons. He veers from topic to topic in conversation, his colors run to the wild, as do his images, some of which look as if they were painted under the influence of hallucinogenics or mental illness—though I prefer to think of it as inspiration.
A couple of years ago my next door neighbor hosted an impromptu art show featuring Robert’s paintings and freeform, found object sculptures. She told me that Robert lived in a halfway house not far from us. I bought a few paintings of his—my favorite a big, beautiful round moon with a smiling face and a clock in the center of it. It had a $15 sticker on it. I gave him $25, and the moon sat in a protected area on my front porch for quite a while.
One day I came home to find that the moon had disappeared. In its place I discovered two pieces—one boxy looking thing, originally cardboard, painted with odd abstract pieces sticking out of it poked onto thin wire. I didn’t love it, but I could guess who’d dropped by. But the moonstruck artist had also left a long, horizontal board with a small moon on it overlooking the Tower Bridge—a Sacramento landmark that made me smile. A new moon, as it were.
When I next saw him walking by, I asked, “Hey, Robert, did you take the moon clock and leave me these pieces?”
He looked momentarily confused, started talking about something rattling around in his brain, then shook his head like a wet dog.
“Oh, yeah. I needed it for a show I’m doing,” and he named a gallery I’d never heard of. “I left you the other pieces—are they all right?”
“Sure,” I said, “but when your show is over, I’d love to have my moon back.”
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “But did you…?” and off he went into another topic as he came up on the porch to look at his art.
“I love the Tower Bridge one,” I began.
“I put a moon in there for you,” he pointed with a paint-spattered index finger.
“I know!” I said. “That’s great.”
“What about…?” he gestured to the boxy thing.
“I’ve gotta say that’s not my favorite piece of yours,” I began.
“No problem,” he said, reaching for it. “I’ll take it back.” He genuinely didn’t seem upset by my appraisal.
“Let me pay you for the bridge painting,” I said.
He looked at me as if he’d never considered such a thing. “You don’t have to,” he said. “I just thought you’d like it.”
“I do,” I said. “Let me give you something for it.”
He thought. “Ten bucks?”
I went inside the house and returned with a twenty and handed it to him. He extended his hand for a shake. In that pre-COVID moment, I shook on the deal.
“Thanks,” he said, already heading for the sidewalk, on his way toward J Street. He turned near the end of the driveway. “I’ll bring more.”
And he has. One day I came home to a painting that just gobsmacked me—a vertical piece of wood curved on top that might have once been a cupboard door. It says WELCOME over a house and a tree and under a sweet-faced crescent moon. It took me a minute to realize that Robert had painted my pink house and my tree (and a sweet crescent moon!) in unusually subtle colors for him. I got a little teary. When I next saw him, I offered to pay him, but he refused.
“You’re such a nice lady,” he said. “I thought I’d do one special for you.”
He stops by from time to time, and, if I’m out in front, we chat. When I ask now and then about my moon clock, he is vague. Once he said someone offered him “a lot of money for it.”
“Robert,” I said, “if you can sell that for a lot of money, do it.”
“I’ll make you another one,” he said, “if I can find a round piece of wood again.”
“Deal,” I said. “I don’t need the clock, actually.”
He nodded, then set off into his day.
As I watered, I thought about my friend Pat Schneider who had recently died after a long decline. She created the writing method I use in my writing groups, and over a period of about eight years I hosted her in Sacramento at least six times that I can recall—maybe more—as she led workshops and did lectures here. We became great friends, and she was a feisty, sometimes cranky mentor. But I adored her and she me. She published a book of my poems, and I proofread the manuscripts of her last two books.
Though I knew she’d been declining in her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, and that Pat and her husband Peter had moved to assisted living for the better part of a year, and I got word on an email list of “nearest and dearest” (her term) from one of her daughters that she had entered hospice, I found myself enveloped in grief when word came that she had died. As I do with so many people in their final days, I hold them in prayer and meditation, wishing for an easy passage at the same time I didn’t want her to lose her. It’s so human to want them to stay and go at the same time.
That day, seeing Robert, I thought of Pat’s brother Sam, who, like their mother, struggled with mental illness. Sam, whom she described as “a drifter,” often homeless, put in jail here and there. She told the story in her book about writing that Sam was as good a writer as she was, but motorcycle riders from hell, as he once wrote, pursued him. He died young, and she mourned him in her poetry and prose.
I have failed in my life, many times, to appreciate people who are different, especially those who may be challenged by mental illness. I’ve had a lot of students and not a few friends and former friends who fit that description. In recent months I’ve realized that Robert, this uncommon man and congenial artist, has been delivered to me. He is a Sam of sorts but with a safe place to live, a painter who lives to paint, who scrounges materials to make his art, then gives them away with no expectations of money. These are gifts from his heart on found pieces of wood and cardboard.
And Robert can paint anything. Not long ago, as he left after a brief visit, I called to him, “Paint me a typewriter.” He laughed and pointed to an old manual Remington that lives in my front yard. I promptly forgot about my request. But within a week I was coming home to painting after painting of typewriters propped on my porch—a tall vertical one with typewriter and a tall black cat, and another square one that’s inscribed, “Write a book. Get rich.” (That would have made Pat, a well-published but far-from-rich writer, laugh.) At the rate they’re arriving, I may soon have as many paintings of typewriters as I do the actual machines—and that’s a sizable number.
But that day in August, Robert walked by my house and sang to me (“sail on, silver girl, sail on by”) as I was missing a person I loved, one I had never expected to meet, much less turn out to be a woman who loved me ferociously and gave me so much.
After the artist who leaves me treasures continued down the street, I smiled and pointed the hose nozzle up in the air, letting the shower cool me, smiling about the unexpected gifts that arrive in human form—the ones, if we’re lucky, we think to cherish when they’re right in front of us.