Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Crime Against Nature

On the shady side of the house the grass is always green. In this northern part of the yard, the harshness of the sun disappears a little earlier in the day and the ground stays a little wetter, a little more fertile. The heavily used bird feeders are surrounded by a few strong evergreens, a few variegated hosta plants, and a few colorful shade loving perennials. It is in this part of the yard where the weeping Japanese maple tree lives. For eight years, the tree with the gorgeous, fine cut, red leaves lived a happy and healthy life. In its place of honor near the front door, the beautiful, well behaved tree put a smile on the face of the family and friends and door to door salespeople who arrived at the home. It is on this shady side of the house that the shocking crime took place.

The yard had been well cared for in years past. The vegetables in the backyard, the petunias and tulips in the front yard and the small green lawn surrounding the house showed that the caretaker was a thoughtful and energetic and creative gardener. The yard had been cared for organically and as environmentally friendly as possible. It was a critter friendly yard. Ladybugs were released. The butterflies and birds were made to feel welcome. The worms helped create the compost. The spiders were allowed to keep their webs. The yard was full of love.

However, all was not exactly as it seemed. Behind the perfectly arched gate and fence boards stained in “Sierra Oak”, the yard was hiding an embarrassing, dirty secret. It was unfinished. Although the yard was over eight years old, the caretaker had failed to bring the yard to its full potential. Oh, the front yard fooled most of the neighbors, but the unseen backyard didn’t even have all of its flowerbeds cut out of the lawn yet. No larger patio had been pored. No deck had been built. No arbor with scented, climbing vines had been installed. And shockingly, the backyard did not have one privacy tree planted. This inexcusable, unfinished yard business should have been the first clue that all was not well with the caretaker.

As the years went on, there were signs that the yard was becoming too much for the caretaker to handle. The caretaker began to get careless and even neglectful. The hostas weren’t divided when they should have been. The bulbs weren’t dug up on schedule. The edges on the lawn weren’t as crisp and trimmed as they had been in prior years. The strawberries stretched out and even began growing into the lawn. The raspberries weren’t tied up and began to fall over. Years went by without a single tree branch being pruned. And most appalling, a Halloween pumpkin decoration was left in a flowerbed for over a year.

Before long, the critters also began to mutiny out of control of the caretaker. The slugs and snails multiplied to an unreasonable number. The yellow jackets and wasps built nests willy nilly under the eaves. The dwindling ladybug population was no longer able to keep the aphids under control. A possum was seen making himself at home underneath the rhododendron. Neighborhood cats began using the flowerbeds as a litter box. The screaming and shaking caretaker was even seen chasing a renegade pair of raccoons from the bird feeder. It was the ants though, that pushed the caretaker over the edge. It was the thousands, perhaps even millions, of swarming ants that caused the caretaker to go over to the dark side. The caretaker began to kill. The plants and critters looked on in fear as she sprayed the non organic, ant killing poison all over the fleeing black specks. She yelled out loudly with a joyous and victorious feeling, “Ha! Take that! I win, you little buggers!” The yard then knew for sure that the caretaker had gone off the deep end. The yard was no longer full of love.

The caretaker began to waste water on the lawn. She fertilized the lawn with fertilizer that didn’t have an environmental seal of approval. Many of the critters were now seen as pests and disposed of as fast as the caretaker could find the poison to do it. She gave up on composting her yard and food waste. She no longer went to plant sales or garden centers. She failed to place an order from the bulb catalog. The hedge went untrimmed.

And so it was, one cloudy desolate Saturday morning, that the caretaker decided to clean the green moss and algae off that northern, wetter, shady side of the house. The caretaker hooked up her supposedly non toxic, outdoor bleach cleaner to her hose and began to saturate the side of the house. She let it set. Then she rinsed. The caretaker was most pleased. The shady side of the house was fresh and clean and new again. Little did she know the impact of her actions that day would bring such harm and shame to the yard.

A day later, the caretaker walked out of her front door and saw the effects of her careless actions. The loyal Japanese maple tree cried out in pain in front of her. The disappointed yard cast its eyes downward to avoid her gaze. The birds fled. The years of the caretaker’s neglect had culminated in this appalling crime against nature, a crime against the innocent tree. The caretaker had failed to rinse off the bleach solution as well as she should have. The caustic, assaulting water dripped down on half of the maple tree, bleaching the half of the tree closest to the house. The caretaker had given her innocent maple tree highlights. Half of the tree’s leaves were a beautiful deep purplish-red color. The leaves on the other half of the tree were a cheap hooker hair orangey-blond color.

The caretaker knew she had failed the tree and the yard. Neighbors would walk by and stop and gawk at the disfigured tree. Healthy plants in the neighborhood would taunt the new neighborhood outcast as they blew their healthy branches in the wind. When the Mormon missionaries came to the door they weren’t interested in saving the caretaker. They asked if there was anything they could do to help the poor tree. Even the neighborhood cats refused to hide under the crinkly, dried blond branches anymore.

As so, dear reader, we are left with a careless crime against a tree, a yard full of neglect, and an embarrassed caretaker vowing to change her neglectful and harmful ways. The caretaker has since recovered her bulb catalog out of the recycle bin, pulled a few weeds from the shady side of the yard and has tied up the raspberry vines. And she has vowed to never, ever again be stingy with her rinsing water. The yard is happy to report that since it is now October, the neighbor children aren’t laughing anymore at the Halloween pumpkin decoration sticking out of the flowerbed. As for the tree, it has actually grown quite fond of the highlights and is secretly hoping to go a shade lighter in the spring.

Check This Out!
I’ve been listening to two heartfelt and passionate female singers this week. Look up “eclectic Celtic” Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt at www.quinlanroad.com . Check out her song Dante’s Prayer. You can find “folk rock” Brandi Carlile at www.brandicarlile.com . You’ll like her song, The Story.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Silent Phone

I picked up the silver phone with my shaky hand, clicked through the numerous phonebook listings and found the number for my parents. A lot had been happening. I had seen a ton of people the day before. There was so much to tell. She would want to know. I pushed the button to dial. As it rang, a slow and deep and painful depression overcame me. My stomach turned. I had just tried to call my mother and inform her of her own death. I had intended on telling her the details of the past few days, including information concerning her personal and heartfelt funeral, the lovely reception that followed with a slideshow and her favorite cake, and most importantly, the juicy gossip that I had learned during the whole event. My heart pounded and I stopped breathing as I realized that she would never answer the phone again. In shock, I hung up the phone and stared at it. The silent phone was blaringly loud.

It was a Thursday, the day I buried my mother. Her 13 year old grandson and the rest of the pallbearers gripped the side of the beautiful dark red wood casket she laid in. She was placed in the ground wearing her favorite purple sweater and matching button up, no wrinkle, cotton/poly blend shirt. Her face had more color than we had seen in months. In her sweater pocket were tokens the grandchildren had bravely parted with, in honor of their “Granny”. In her hands, my father had placed a copy of her favorite family photo. The people looked on with tears brimming in their eyes. Eight times more people than she had expected lined her grave to say goodbye. This is funny, because she always bought more than presents than anyone possibly needed, cooked more food than anyone could possibly eat and worried more than was humanly possible. Yet when planning her own funeral, she woefully underestimated the turnout.

The next day was a fittingly foggy Friday when I awoke, unrested, feeling that the prior day had been very busy and somehow unfulfilling. As I looked at my calendar that morning I realized that I had a haircut appointment that day. How could it be possible that life so quickly and callously returned to the mundane and normal, the insignificant and unimportant? The prior weeks and months had been a whirlwind assortment of factual and guestimated medical analysis that never quite made enough sense, attempted emotional support that always fell short of what was necessary and an underlying subconscious denial of everyone’s worst fear. And now, the empty and silent day after had arrived. Exhausted and confused, there were now only two things that I was sure of. Today, I would get a haircut. And there would be no phone call from my mother. The phone would be silent.

Over the next days and weeks, as I paged through the grief pamphlets from the hospice people and the funeral home, I learned that I would probably feel the typical shock, confusion, anxiety, anger, guilt and sadness. I might even experience some physical symptoms. What symptom surprised me the most however, was the profound and pervasive sense of unmatched loneliness that I felt. While I did not see my mother daily, we did speak on the phone nearly every day. And lately, the painful silence of the phone screamed at me loudly.

The greeting cards arrived with their attempts at comfort and consolation. The cards promised to share my loss. I am remembered in prayer and God will give me comfort. They reminded me of my inner strength and encouraged me to talk and remember the good times. They wished me courage. They wished me hope. They wished this sad time would pass quickly. Not one of those cards, however, wished that the silent phone would stop taunting me each time I walked by.

Kind neighbors would stop by to drop off their casserole. They would politely ask how I was doing. 2 hours later I was still babbling as the poor souls sat trapped on my sofa. Good friends emailed me to offer their support. 20 emails later I had forced them into the depths of analyzing death, family, psychology, philosophy, religion and the general meaning of life. They were left trying to catch up with their work. Sympathetic relatives would call to check in. I would jabber away about whatever crossed my mind in an attempt to fill the empty space. And when the neighbors left, the e-mailers logged off and the relatives went back to their lives, the loneliness returned and the silent phone started shouting at me again.

In this silent loneliness that echoes through me, I am left with the overwhelming sense that death is an expert teacher. I am grateful to death for pointing out, so obviously, the petty and extraneous and hollow pieces of life. Death has gifted me the pinpoint focus and mental clarity to know innately, without any doubt, what is now essential to my being. Through death, my family has gratefully been surrounded by people, worthy of daily emulation, who arose to provide support during the preceding months of misery. Death provided the camera in which I was able to see my own father and brothers behave in a way that can only be described as selfless, heroic and grand. Without death, my own husband would have never said that their example of not just proclaiming love, but actually showing it and living it, has made an indelible impression on his life. Death has shown me that even in grief and loneliness, a quiet peace can exist. In death, there can emerge goodness.

As I move forward, I am sure that I will continue to progress my way through this lengthy journey of grief. I know there will come a day when I will wake up having slept through the night. There will come a day when the nightmares stop. There will come a day when I will realize my inner strength and be able to remember the good times. There will come a day when you can email me or visit me and I won’t make you talk about the meaning of life. And I know there will come a day, as the grief pamphlet stated, that I will have worked my way through the 6 Reconciliation Needs of Mourning.

I also know however, in my lonely soul, that there will never again come a day when that phone will ring and it will be my mother. And that silent phone is one gift from death that I’d like to return.

Check This Out!

My friend Ben made this casserole for my family to eat during the sad times. This casserole is great anytime though, not just at funeral time!

Chicken and Rice

1.5 cups instant rice
1 can condensed cream of mushroom
1 can condensed cream of chicken
1 can condensed cream of celery

Mix all that together and spread in greased/sprayed 9x13 pan.
Place some chicken breasts on top of that.
Mix 2 chicken bouillon cubes in 2 cups boiling water and pour on top.
Bake at 350 degrees for 2 hours.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Uncomfortable Silence

The people never arrived empty handed. They always brought food. From behind the living room curtain I could see their heavily laden arms carrying bags and buckets and boxes full of food to the front door.

“We’re so sorry for your loss,” they would say as I opened the door. “We’ve brought chicken.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. The one most bothered by the silence piped up. “Let’s eat chicken!”

And so, we ate chicken. And still, there was an uncomfortable silence.

The people gathered in the kitchen. They had to say "excuse me" to move around each other. They insisted on doing the dishes to ease their own inner tension. They spilled out onto the concrete floor of the garage and mingled among the overflowing recycle bin, the litter box that needed cleaning, and the tool bench stacked with golf balls. The living room was full. The people sat on the cold stone hearth. The blue folding chairs were brought in. She would have washed them first.

He sat in the corner trying not to cry, trying to make polite conversation. The children, some oblivious to the circumstances, played football in the front yard. There were a few mourners, overwhelmed by the numbers of people, who holed themselves up in the bedroom near the computer. The headline on Yahoo was, “Cancer Deaths Declining in the US”. They turned the computer off. It made them feel cheated. The newspaper was spread across the bed; the headline of the day searing through them, “I Survived Cancer-Now What ?” They turned the paper over. It made them angry.

The people tried so hard. They were so kind. Their words of comfort spilled forth. “She’s with our Lord.” “She’s no longer suffering.” “She’s in another dimension.” “You did so much for her, now you should focus on you.” “She’s looking down upon us now with a smile.” “She’s finished with her work here on earth.” “Her spirit is with us right now.” “Do you think granny will become a ghost?” “You do know that God had already prepared a place for her?”

Then there was an uncomfortable silence. The one most bothered by the silence piped up, “We have soup! Who wants soup?”

And so, we ate soup. And still, there was an uncomfortable silence.

The people whispered in the background. “Have you seen her cry yet? I haven’t seen her cry yet. She’s not dealing with this well, is she? She needs to cry.”

“No I haven’t seen her cry yet,” another whisperer answered. “But he sure is taking it hard. He hasn’t stopped crying. He’s not dealing with this well is he? He needs to get it under control a bit.”

And then, there was an uncomfortable silence. The one most bothered by the silence piped up, “Who wants pie? We have pumpkin pie!”

And so, we ate pumpkin pie. And still, there was an uncomfortable silence.

“Do you remember how she always had a kitchen towel slung over her shoulder?” “Do you remember how she always put others before herself?” “Do you remember how she always wanted everything to be fair?” “Wasn’t it wonderful how giving and kind and selfless she was?” “She would have been worried about the kids’ football going into the street.” “She would have washed those chairs.” “It was too soon, wasn’t it?” “At least she got to have grandkids.”

And then, there was an uncomfortable silence. The one most bothered by the silence piped up, “Who wants lasagna? We have lasagna!”

And so, we ate lasagna. And still, there was an uncomfortable silence.

“Do you want to be there when she is lowered into the ground?” “Do you want to place items in her casket?” “Do you want an open casket and a viewing period?” “Would you rather have a dove or a flower scene on the funeral programs?” “Do you want those flowers surrounding a gate or trailing over a trellis?” “We have a wonderful package that includes programs, the guest book, and the thank you notes for a very nice price.” “Do you want an $8,000 casket or our minimal $1,700 casket?” “And of course, you don’t want to skimp on the vault.” “I’m afraid the small graveside service for 20 has turned into a full chapel service for 160.” “Oh yes, we do understand your concerns. “

We left the funeral home in silence. The one most bothered by the silence piped up, “There’s sub sandwiches at home. We could eat those.”

And so, we ate sub sandwiches. And still, there was an uncomfortable silence.

We met with the pastor. “Tell me your memories,” she said. We couldn’t stop talking. The pastor couldn’t take down notes fast enough. We laughed. We cried. We bonded. We remembered. We expected her to walk in at any moment and correct us. But she never did. We were left on our own.

Instead, there was an uncomfortable silence. The one most uncomfortable with the silence piped up. “Someone dropped off stroganoff back at the house. We could eat that.”

And so, we ate stroganoff. And still, there was an uncomfortable silence.

“Do you remember the story when she was a kid and she bought that candy from the store that rivaled her dad’s store and she got in so much trouble?” “Do you remember when she threw those pancakes?” “What is this picture with her with the blond hair? “When did she have blond hair?” “Oh, look at her in that video…that’s just like her sitting in the back so the kids could have the good seats.” “Look how happy she was when he was born.” “What do you mean she did "the wave" at the bowling alley when she was younger?” “Why didn’t I appreciate these things more when she was alive? Why didn’t I know about some of these things?” “More people should be like her.” “Oh, she wouldn’t like that picture. We shouldn’t use it for the slide show or the photo board.” “I’m going to write something for the pastor to read.” “Are you going to speak at your mother’s funeral?”

And then, there was an uncomfortable silence. The one most uncomfortable with the silence piped up. “I think there are mashed potatoes and gravy in the fridge.”

And so, we ate mashed potatoes and gravy. And still, there was an uncomfortable silence.

Over the next few days we ate those mashed potatoes and gravy. And the fried chicken. And the ham. In fact, we ate all of the lasagna, the stroganoff, the coleslaw, the pumpkin pie, the chocolate cake, the doughnuts, the biscuits, the candy, the sub sandwiches, the croissant sandwiches, the fruit bowls, the stroganoff, the many, many salads, the butter tarts, the homemade cinnamon rolls and drank more soda and coffee than a person should have in a lifetime.

And still, there was an uncomfortable silence. Finally, the one most uncomfortable with the silence piped up. “I guess we should leave for the funeral now, shouldn’t we?”

In loving memory of MAMA.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Kitty Contract

Dear Kitty Cats,

This is your mother speaking. Your human mother. You may have noticed lately that I’ve been speaking in loud, angry tones whenever you enter a room. You may have seen me making violent gestures toward you with a squirt bottle full of water. You may have even noticed that you’ve been spending more and more time locked in the bedroom in a kitty time-out than you’d probably like to. This is not the kind of relationship I had hoped that we would have. The relationship I had envisioned involved a whole lot more submission and cuddly cuteness on your part and a whole lot less frustration and cleaning up kitty messes on my part.

I am willing to admit, however, that perhaps I wasn’t clear enough explaining the house rules to you when I so lovingly and selflessly rescued you from certain death at the shelter. So, in the interest of fairness, I will again, tell you the conditions to which you must adhere to if you are to continue to remain a cherished and loved member of our family.

You may not become obnoxious and loud in the morning before the family wakes up. You may not howl your death meow, scratch the door, repeatedly run over the top of the bed as fast as you can or tickle my face with your whiskers while you purr loudly and stare at my face before my alarm goes off. You may quietly sleep on the end of the bed in such a manner that will not hinder any movement of my legs during the night. And this coming under the covers halfway through the night, lodging yourself between the husband and me and then stretching out as far as you can must stop immediately. At night, when the family goes to bed, you must also be silent. You may not, under any circumstances, use this time to work out your little kitty squabbles. Now is not the time to screech or growl at each other, nor is it time to pull out each other’s fur and leave it all over the floor for me to pick up in the morning.

You may only eat your own food. You may not wolf down your food and then attempt to steal another cat’s food. Likewise you may not eat my food. You may not steal my food from the pan in which it is cooking, the counter that I have temporarily left it on or the plate that I put it on. And most importantly, you may not eat my food from my fork as I attempt to put it in my mouth. And as a side note, you may not lick my mouth after I have eaten my food. Yes, even if I have just eaten salmon or chicken or popcorn. You may help yourself to any food or crumbs dropped on the floor. In fact, if you could make a twice daily clean up trip around the kitchen baseboards and underneath the boy’s chair that would be most helpful.

You may not climb inside of any appliances. The dryer, washer, microwave, oven, and dishwasher are all off limits to kitties. You might also want to stay off of the top of the stove too. As you well know, it takes a long time for burn blisters to heal. Also, you may not stick your paws inside the toaster. Chasing the toast as it pops out of the toaster is also forbidden. You may not remove the crock pot lid when I’m not in the room and you should not put your paw in the hole in the lid of the running blender. You should only climb in the kitchen cabinets if you are sure you can open the door again to get out. If you find yourself stuck for some length of time in a cabinet, do not think you can take a nap inside the mixing bowls. And I would stay out of the drawers altogether. Having to flatten yourself up against those knives last time looked a bit uncomfortable.

The only place you may claw and scratch is on your scratching post. The carpet, furniture, screen doors and fireplace screen are not approved for scratching. You must also retract your claws when sliding down the stairway banister, chasing the cursor on the computer monitor or climbing out of the bathtub after you’ve fallen in. Please remember that if you attempt to help me tie my shoes your paw will sometimes get tied up as well. I would also appreciate it if you would stop moving the wireless antenna on the back of the computer, stop lying on my magazine when I am trying to read it, and stop sticking your head between my legs when I am on the toilet. Also, your help is no longer needed painting the bedroom. I’m sure have enough to do cleaning the paint off your paws, your tail and your newly highlighted whiskers. I’ll be busy scraping a painted kitty paw print trail off of the dresser, nightstand and headboard.

Finally, I wanted to remind you that your kitty litter should, at all times, remain inside the litter box. All deposits you make should be covered up immediately. And never, ever think that you may make any deposits outside of your litter box. I don’t know what your fascination is with peeing in the sink and pooping in the bathtub but you are ordered to stop those behaviors immediately.

I would like to end our conversation by thanking you for some of the good things you have done. Every time you knock a picture frame over it shakes off a little dust, making it just a little longer before I need to dust them again. I want to thank you for howling to me every time that neighbor cat invades our yard and tries to poop in my flowers. I almost chased her off last time. Thank you for hunting, killing and eating all of the bugs that somehow make it in the house. It's so much handier and more pleasant than doing it myself. And of course, I want to thank you for climbing on my chest last night and licking the tears off my face. It was a sad time and you, somehow, made everything just a little bit better.

Love, Mom

Check This Out!

C & W's The Ultimate Southwest Blend vegetables make a fabulous snack or lunch. Mix it with a little salsa and a dollup of sour cream. Grate a little cheddar or pepper jack on top. Throw it on some lettuce for a salad, on top of some scrambled eggs or in a tortilla. Look for this fine food product in your friendly grocer’s freezer case.