Tomorrow marks the anniversary of my brother’s death. Since I moved to Los Osos, the cemetery is too far to drive to. It would take five or six hours. And is he really there? Or just his bones?
Last time I visited I tried to give the cemetery office my current contact info, only to find out that my father is the “account holder” and therefore in charge of any changes. A few weeks later, we had an emotional conversation, my dad and I. I learned a surprising thing: we both feel guilty; we both believe we could have changed the outcome — let’s not mince words: saved John’s life — if only we’d done things differently.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today: the minutiae of dying, the emotions that accompany death.
I s’pose I want to say:
THANK YOU, JOHN!
You made me laugh. You loved me. I loved (and love) you.
I really enjoyed playing cars with you, and racing snails, and running around like Batman and Robin with our bath towels flying behind us as we leapt off the back of the couch. I loved splashing in the little blue pool with you in Glacier, Montana. I loved being your big sister. (One entire year older!)
I was your personal interpreter, translating your baby language into English for Mom and Dad. Those were the days of peanut butter on toast, matching cabooses (muu-muus), and scary fire ants.
You… are irreplaceable.
I am loving you. Wherever and however you are.
This morning I awoke before dawn, drank dandelion leaf tea, and scrambled two fertile eggs; put on my wetsuit (there’s a warm-up exercise); packed food, tea, and water; grabbed the purple bag with the hot pink beach towel, goggles, gloves, hood, and earplugs; tied on my purple Timberlands; snapped up the yellow windbreaker; and locked the door behind me.
Squeegee’d the dew from the car windshields; fed Shadow pieces of carrot; chit-chatted with an equestrienne heading out for a beach ride with Jetson; mixed Cisko’s pellets, vitamins, and psyllium; and trudged out to give it to him.
“Hold your horses!” I said. He was banging the pipe fence with his hoof — I was late, Cisko-wise, though the sun was barely over the ridge in the east.
Drove away from the Ranch. Did not stop for gas but did check my PO box. Work mail.
A big-ass white pick-up tailed me north along South Bay Boulevard and turned onto the freeway behind me — gunned it as soon as he could get around me. I, a former speed-freak, was keeping to the speed limit.
The half moon was high in the sky, and sunlight gilded the hills. The air was brisk and out of the north, and I smelled a bit of woodsmoke mixed with hay.
Eighteen miles later, I pulled into a turn-out on the west side of Highway 1.
Estero Bluffs State Park. Not another car was parked at the trailhead.
The path is firm and flat along the bluffs, until you veer north toward a sandy beach. I hiked along the shore to the north end of the cove, and found a spot in the sun, out of the wind. Put on my swim-gear (wouldn’t booties be nice), and walked into the ocean. The tide was going out, but not quickly. This stretch of ocean is relatively sheltered from strong currents.
A surfer! What?! Walking along the shore toward me. One of the reasons I like this ridiculously beautiful beach is that the waves are usually small — good for swimming, bad for surfing.
He seemed, like me, less than thrilled to find another human here at this hour. I veered into deeper water so we didn’t have to say hello.
(By now you’ve probably realized that I’m a tad anti-social at times. Humans tire me, and I was already weary from a week of work.)
Today I want to practice alternate side breathing: stroke stroke breathe, stroke stroke breathe. Last week, swimming at this same gorgeous beach, I’d tweaked my neck by breathing only to the right the entire time.
Success! But I ran out of sheltered water before I ran out of swim-energy. So I walked down the beach so I could swim away from the sun. Passed the big piece of driftwood. No sign of the surfer. I entered the ocean again.
Kelpy. And bigger waves where the sea curves in. And weird currents, I suddenly remembered. And sometimes seals.
“It’s breeding season,” said Pam last week. “Watch out, you in your wetsuit.”
About my suit: it’s black and gray with white stripes on a calf and arm, with a white collar and white inserts at the waist. Very cute. Last month, at a different beach, several swimmers asked if this was an “anti-shark suit.” Apparently it looks like something an Australian guy designed to deter sharks. “To a shark,” said one swimmer, “you look like an octopus, not a seal.”
Hunh. I’m all for repelling sharks, but I wouldn’t go so far as to guess what they think when they see me. I just hope they don’t see ‘Food.’
I swam a bit farther, a bit farther, a bit farther — until a huge piece of seaweed freaks me out. I have a pact with myself now, after years of over-adrenalization, that if I am scared, I stop what I’m doing and take my body to safety. This is new behavior for me.
I get out and catch my breath. Enough swimming for today.
I walk back to the sunny spot with my dry clothes and warm jacket; scarf a banana; change out of my swim gear; eat a pear.
Good timing: here comes a barefoot man, following the trail the surfer had taken, just north of my spot.
“I know women like you,” said the knife sharpener.
He looked at me, unsmiling, then– “Ha!” he fell back into guffaws.
I paid him for my freshly sharpened scissors and walked back across the empty lot behind the farmers market to my car.
Beauty makes people behave strangely.
Yeah, I said it. I am beautiful. Three years after evacuating my Washington State home, I am feeling good, and healthy, and striding through life in Levi’s and purple Timberland boots. Not every day is like yesterday, full of confidence and vitality. I still need plenty of down time to rest and reflect, but there seem to be more good days than bad, knock wood.
This morning I got up and dressed in the pre-dawn light, and ate my oat-raisin-coconut-banana-chia porridge while looking out the east window at the sunrise. Chopped up a big-ass carrot that was so fresh it stained my hands orange, and went out into the morning chorus. Lotta birds here, large and small. Various horses whinnied as I approached the stable.
“Good morning, Shadow,” I said to the paint. “Good morning, Kady.” She’s a retired cattle horse, a beautiful mover. “Good morning, Jake,” to a registered quarter horse who allowed me to ride him last week. “Good morning, Jetson,” to a shy roan. Black Magic was off in his pen, away from the main drag I was on. Old Cisko trotted around his corral while I filled his bin with a mixture of food pellets, vitamin powder, and vegetable oil. Everybody got carrots, except Magic, who isn’t allowed sweets.
The sun broke through the high clouds every so often, enough to color the edges a deep rose. I washed my hands, grabbed my rucksack, and headed for the ocean.
Most of the half-mile hike is through sand and coastal scrub, though parts of the trail are a little firmer where, in the ’40’s, the army “improved” the road in order to drive vehicles through. Now that it’s after Labor Day, there are even fewer people in this state park, especially in the morning. I note lizard, rabbit, and coyote tracks, and what I now — after weeks of believing them snake tracks — think are snail trails, winding down into horse prints and out again. I saw a brown-shelled snail a few mornings ago, with a sticky excretion lassoing around behind it.
At the top of the last dune, I stop for awhile to watch the clouds lighten to pink, the roar of the ocean at my back, small birds flitting high in the sky in pairs and flocks. Eventually I hike down to the shoreline.
Instead of jumping in the water as usual, I sit on a piece of bleached driftwood and drink raspberry rose tea from a beat up green REI thermos. Up the beach a man is fishing in the turbulent white water. A small line of pelicans cruises the waves, and curlews with their down-curved beaks search for clams. A raft of dark birds float out past the surf line, maybe cormorants, but they’re too far away to see.
Yesterday I shared a stretch of ocean with a seal, perhaps the same seal as the day before, but who knows? No seals or sea lions in sight today, though I know they’re out there. After awhile the marine layer blocks out the sun, so I get up to start the hike home.
There’s a bush that’s blooming now, with delicate yellow-green daisy-like flowers and a sweet scent. It smells a little like a very faint tuberose. When the wind is right, I can smell it from my apartment. Bees like it. Today it’s more fragrant on the way back from the beach, or maybe I’m not so intent as I pass by on the return journey. A dragonfly flutters overhead while I stop to inhale. So good.
Back at the ranch, I hear a neighbor’s door creak open, but I don’t feel like chatting, so head down, I climb the stairs on the south side of the house. Unaccosted, I open the gate at the top, and grab the horsehair brush by my front door.
Sand and dust brushed off jeans and boots, I step inside the warm studio.
“My brother’s the artist,” I said to Denise, an old family friend.
“There can only be one?” she asked.
Labels. They’re gonna getcha.
The Smart One. The Pretty One. The Dancer. The Singer. The Mathematician. The Physician. The Engineer. The Performer. The Professor. The Good Girl. The Good Worker (Reliable, Dependable, Trustworthy). The Starving Artist. The Flaky Musician. The Writer. The Liar. The Cheater. The Storyteller. The Rich One. The Poor One. The Owner. The Renter.
Pick one. Then discard. Why can’t we all be all of them? And none of them?
Two days ago, I was reading Through the Dark Forest by Carolyn Conger. In it, she related a story about 50-year-old Gerald, a dying man she was working with, using what she calls Voice Dialogue dreamwork. The basic idea is that we each have many selves, and some of our selves get more attention than others. She spoke with five-year-old Gerald, and he responded as his younger vulnerable self. “What do you want Gerald to know about you,” she asked. “I want him to remember me,” he replied. “I want to be happy, to play more.”
I suddenly flashed on my five-year-old self. My mother was pregnant and bedridden. If she got out of bed, she’d die. So every day in kindergarten, I painted her a picture.
Painting was a major source of happiness for me then. I was swept away, into color and form and texture. I was free to experiment and play. I did not worry about my very sick mother, or miss my dead brother or my absent father. When I played with paint, I was completely absorbed. Completely free. Anxiety didn’t return until I was on my way home, wondering whether my mother would be there or not, alive or not.
Paint, I realized as I put the book down. I need paint. I need art supplies.
The next day, Labor Day here in the USA, I drove to the nearest big box hardware store. I needed options. LOTS of options.
Why a hardware store instead of an art supply store?
1. I knew where it was and how to get there, only 11.5 miles away.2. I didn’t know where there was an art supply store and I didn’t want to spend time looking or asking around.3. Price, which leads to …4. Low pressure / fool the inner critic. I’m a writer. I buy cheap notebooks to write in (yes, long-hand), so that my writing doesn’t have to be precious or worthy or good. This frees me up to write whatever the hell I want, all the time.
What a happy hour I spent in that big-ass store! Grins galore.
I found small bottles of acrylics in many delicious colors; wood, cut to my specifications (big!); red rosin paper and pale green masking paper; brushes of various sizes and shapes, and round yellow “pouncers” made of sponge; masking tape; and brown “eco” tarp (big sheets of recycled paper).
Just writing about it slows and deepens my breathing.
Back in the car with my booty, I sat and laughed. Already an excellent return on my 60 bucks, and I hadn’t even used them!
Yesterday, I cleaned off two shelves and rearranged my closet to include an area for art supplies. Happy again!
And today, well, first I turned off the phone. Then I set up an art studio in one corner of my apartment. Laid down the tarp, set up my paints, opened the packages of brushes, filled an old cinnamon jar with water, used an old shea butter lid as a palette.