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This is one of the best ways I remember Grandma Trulove: camping.

While I was in New England, my Great Aunt texted to let me know that my Grandma Trulove died at age 99 on May 16. It wasn’t entirely a shock because she had been declining, but still came with the regret at not having visited her more often, and a discussion about whether to cancel my vacation and go home for the service. I decided to stay in New England. It was a lucky choice, since I never heard any information about a burial or funeral. That wasn’t entirely a shock either.

Grandpa Trulove married Margaret Louise after divorcing my other Grandma Freda. This happened before I was born, so I grew up knowing her as Grandma Trulove, and no amount of understanding legalities made her less of a grandma to me. She was loving and welcoming and fun to visit. Grandma loved creating with her hands, and all the grandkids benefitted from her hobby of sewing stuffed animals for us. My favourite was a large purple stuffed rabbit, and my brother’s was a stuffed green dinosaur.

My earliest memories of her are from hunting camp, when I was a child. The family, and a few friends, would all camp together during deer hunting season. The kids would play in camp and most of the adults would go off in search of deer. Grandma would stay in camp to hand out Kool-aid or in case we needed a bandaid. We rarely reached out to her, busying ourselves with digging holes in the dirt, stacking rocks, hurling pinecones or playing in the creek, but it was good to know she was right there.

At home in Klamath Falls, Grandma Trulove presided over the kitchen. She would ask me to help set the large table, and then I helped carry serving dishes to cover the whole table in comfort foods. She liked to paint, and crochet, and by combining her talents and special finds while shopping, she filled the bottom drawer of a dresser in the spare room with gifts. I was allowed to peek into the drawer, where already-wrapped gifts waited for birthdays and Christmas. It seemed magical to me at the time, a reminder that holidays were coming, and that Grandma would never forget.

Grandma Trulove in a Christmas outfit. Look at those shoes!

Here she is posing with the Thunderbird. It was probably the day she and Grandpa bought it.

She also loved to write, and we exchanged hand-written letters all my life until her last few years, when shaky hands made the writing too difficult for her. Once she got older, Grandma always apologized for the shakiness of the cursive writing and the lack of more interesting things to say. Of course I was so pleased to receive one of her letters that I never noticed the things she thought were flaws.

When I was a teenager, Grandma and Grandpa begged for me to come and live with them and go to Mazama High School, only a couple blocks from the house. When I married Tara’s dad, they were proud to make the trip and attend the wedding. Their love was undeniable, and I adored them both.

The best times we shared were when she lived in Sandy, Oregon, which was only 45 minutes away from my home in Portland. I enjoyed our visits so much. In minutes she would begin telling me stories of her life. She told me about when she left home in the 1940s and went to live with her sister in Portland, and how the two of them worked hard to pay the bills and loved the handsome military men that would come into Portland. She told me about the hard times too: her difficult marriage while struggling to raise her babies before she met Grandpa. Most of all she loved to tell me about Grandpa Trulove, who had died in 2002, how he was the best friend and partner she could have wished for, how he always took care of her, and how he gave her a comfortable life with vacations and friends. She loved traveling with him, particularly to Hawaii.

“I don’t know what it is about you,” she said on more than one occasion. “As soon as you get here I just start talking and talking. I tell you things I don’t talk about with anyone.” I told her it was my superpower: people just talk to me. And I asked her to tell me more.

Grandma hated having her photo taken, but I begged for this one and she acquiesced. This is with Tara in Grandma’s place in Sandy, OR in September 2007. I gave her that clock as a Christmas gift many years ago. She gave it back to me when she had to downsize. It’s hanging in my living room right now.

She loved to tell me about her kids and her other grandkids – estranged from my family for some reason. Maybe because they were from a different marriage. She was so proud of them all and excited to show me their artwork and family photos. She told me stories about my mother and father when I was a baby.

She was very proud of her life, and not the typical mooshy grandma stuff, but her individual adventures and accomplishments. When she was in high school, she and her best friend used to stop by the local courthouse on the way home from school, just to sit and watch the hearings. She said it was the best entertainment in town. She got jobs to support the family when she needed to, and she got good jobs, taking over secretarial and financial posts for companies and delighting in the well-earned praise that she received. One of her favourite jobs was in Shasta Lake, California and to the end of her life she marveled at her great luck in getting that job. She talked about creating a whole filing system for Crater Lake National Park in Oregon when she and Grandpa lived and worked there as full time residents. The system was effective and efficient, and she became a valuable resource for the Park offices, being called back now and then to help them on a temporary basis, even after her full-time employment had ended.

Grandma Trulove was a voracious reader, even with poor eyesight. She went through books like meals, eating them up and gaining sustenance from them. She kept bookshelves with her favourites as long as she could, and loaned me some of them: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Gone With the Wind, and anything by Louis L’Amour.

Because of her sharp intellect and subtle wit, she was frustrated with her counterparts while living in the retirement home in Sandy, and later in Lebanon, Oregon. She was 92 when she complained to me, “Everybody here is old. All they want to talk about is babies, and their sicknesses and which medications they take. I want to talk about interesting things. There are so many more interesting things to talk about, but they don’t want to.” When she did find close friendships there, it was when she found someone who shared her fascination with the rest of the world.

Grandma’s optometrist was far away in Portland. She needed a good eye doctor because she was legally blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. “I’ve got to take care of my good eye!” she pronounced. Once I found this out, I took advantage of my employer’s generous family leave policy that allowed me to take a paid sick day to take care of my grandmother. I looked forward to our long days together: the drive to the eye doctor, the waiting room, the visits themselves (she invited me in so I could help explain anything, if necessary), stops for prescriptions afterward, and the long drive back home. She was exhausted by the end of those days, and I was able to keep her spirits up because I was having so much fun.

Grandma and me March 2013 in the waiting room at the optometrist’s office. This is the very last photo I could get her to agree to.

I was broken-hearted when she moved to Lebanon, separating us by 3 hours instead of 45 minutes. That made it much harder for me to visit, and the frequency dropped dramatically. I am sorry about that to this day. My Great Aunt and Uncle live just a few minutes away from the assisted living home, and as a pastor and pastor’s wife, insisted to me that it is part of their church work to visit the elderly in their community. They offered to visit Grandma Trulove, and soon became an active part of her life.

On a visit not too long ago, Grandma was talking about my Great Aunt and Great Uncle, her relatives who had been to visit. I tried to correct her. Grandma was in her nineties and of course things were hard to remember. “No, Grandma, they are from my side of the family. They aren’t actually related to you, but they love you!” Oh my goodness, the look I received. Grandma was almost never angry with me, but that time she made her anger evident. It was as though I was talking trash about her beloved family. She let me know that she was my elder, and she knew more than me, and those two were her family and there would be no further discussion on it! Well, I laughed about it later. But what better compliment than for someone to love your visits so much that she decides you are related!

For at least the last decade, Grandma Trulove wanted to die. I think it was mostly because she missed Grandpa so much, and also because of all the “boring old people” she lived with. She had wretched arthritis and her crafty hands were always in pain and not flexible, so all the hobbies she most enjoyed: painting, sewing, crocheting, and crossword puzzles, were lost to her. She was not interested in computers. Television bored her, and though she always had a set, I never saw it on. She told me without hesitation that she wanted to die, every time I visited. With dry humor she would say, “Well, I was at the doctor on Tuesday. He said I’m in good health as usual.” She would sigh. “I’m ready to go any day, but my body won’t let me: I’m just too darn healthy.” She tried to take it into her own hands by not eating, but her care providers at the home were required to make sure she ate every day. That frustrated her too. She just wanted to sleep and never wake up.

Well, Grandma, finally your battle is over and you won. Thank you thank you for loving me, trusting me, and sharing so many of your stories with me.

High school Neal

A high school reunion was planned for this weekend. We canceled in order to attend Neal’s funeral instead.

Did you have a close group of friends in high school? I did. My school was very small: 7th grade through 12th grade all together on one side of the building, Kindergarten through 6th grade on the other side of the building. I think I remember a statistic that the high school side had 170 students total.

Because of the size, we all clung to each other, regardless of who was a Freshman, Sophomore, or Senior. The jocks and the nerds and the metal heads and the brains and the cheerleaders – we all hung out together. But I was lucky enough to have something special. Within that tight group, I had my own little friends group. It was sometimes larger, and sometimes smaller, but John, JR, Jess, and Neal seemed to be the core, and they welcomed me when I was around. We all had family struggles. We were all poor. We were all smart. These guys were my family and today, I credit them for the the creation of the young woman I became.

When other people let me down, these guys did not. There were times when I would spend the whole day with them, just to feel better, loved, accepted. I would leave my house in the middle of the night and go find them sometimes. I even lived with JR’s family for a while. Our love and acceptance of each other extended to our families, and because we loved Neal so much, we loved his mom and dad, Ruth and Perry.

Sunday, Jess left a message on my phone to ask if I would be attending Neal’s funeral. I thought to myself, “I only know one person named Neal.” Puzzled, I did a Google search Monday morning at work, and found out that Neal had died. I cried. Right there at work.

We are too young for this.

I asked for Friday off and drove to Boise to attend the funeral. There was no question that I had to be there for his family, and in honor of his memory.

Neal and I were not close, in one sense. We haven’t spoken in years. I checked up on him occasionally on facebook. I came across his hilarious stories in my archives (I was the high school paper editor and Neal contributed brilliantly comedic stores). I found old photos of Toe Jam performances, the band the guys formed so many years ago. But I guess I didn’t need to talk to him to feel him as part of me. Neal is family. So yeah, we were close in that sense.

I forgot about the time change, and arrived exactly one hour later for the service than what I planned for. I arrived in time to hear people talk about their memories of Neal, and I learned that I had lost an opportunity to share in the life of a good man by not visiting him in the intervening years. It sounds like he improved the longer he lived.

In the hallway at the church

Jess, JR, Katrina, Scott, and Doni. At a bar not too far from the church

And we had a reunion anyway, because we were there. John couldn’t make it, but JR, and Jess were there, and so many of us. The others, like me, had been welcomed back then into their awesome little clique whenever we wanted to join them. In a moment alone, all swollen with the emotions of seeing so many familiar faces again, the unbidden thought came that it would be so much more perfect if Neal was there. Then I remembered.

And Neal *was* there. But not as much as we wish he were.

Sunset over the Weiser River as I headed to Scott’s house for the night.

I stopped by the river to breathe a little by myself, after the funeral.

The next day I made the long drive back home. I appreciated the beauty of my old home state.

At a rest stop along the way, there were information signs about the Oregon Trail and difficulties pioneers experienced in making the month’s-long journey across the state of Oregon. How grateful I am that I could cross the state in 7 hours for my friend’s funeral.

Southern Idaho is all about agriculture.

Somehow, the desert here can still be beautiful.

This was the hand-written message at the bottom of a Christmas letter from my Great-Aunt. It brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.

This was the hand-written message at the bottom of a Christmas letter from my Great-Aunt. Look how she first wrote “her,” then used white-out and wrote “them” instead. It brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.

Being transgender does not mean what I thought it meant. It doesn’t mean today what it meant when my kid first taught me. In fact, the definition is probably changing right now as I write this, incorporating more ideas, sharpening the concept. I’m going to share with you my rough understanding of it, from my perspective as a parent.

The media coverage I’ve seen on the challenges transgender people face did not prepare me for the challenges their parents face. That process has been an ordeal. It’s a swim through an emotional stew, dipping into and out of the murky grey sea of sex and gender, pride and shame, loss and reward. I have to face all of the hard and icky feelings to get at the good stuff that comes with it.

Thank the gods I became a parent. The best, best, best thing I ever did to help my own education as a human being was to have a child. I’m sure I would have learned more if I had more children, but this only child has helped me grow much closer to the person I always wanted to be.

Tara is the one who is teaching me what it means to be transgender, and how to treat a transgender person. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever learned in life. I was raised by a religious mother and a conservative father in tiny, rural communities. This type of upbringing around the world tends not to be supportive of alternate definitions of love, family, sex, and gender. And while my people are good people, I did not have the opportunity to learn about these topics. I am deeply ashamed to admit that when I was 18, as Tara is now, I was outspoken about how homosexuality didn’t make sense in nature, and so shouldn’t be taken seriously. I had never even heard of transgender people then, and I’m certain I would not have been accepting of them.

The most common questions I get when I say that my child is transgender, are “Female to male, or male to female?” and “Has your child had an operation yet?”

Just like them, I yearn to place people into simple categories, binary if possible, and assign distinct characteristics to them, so I can know where I stand and then move on to the next category. Categorizing people was probably really handy 3 million years ago on the African savanna when humans were only recently upright and spent most of the day surviving. But in the 21st century it gets in the way. It got in the way when Tara finally told me they are transgender.

Strangely, rather than the day when we talked about what it means to be lesbian, it was the day Tara talked to me about being transgender that finally forced me to consider that this was not a phase. Instead of exploring the idea of homosexuality for a couple of years, then drifting back to heterosexuality as I expected, Tara just kept going farther from the norm. Not that I was actively insisting that my kid was heterosexual, I just hadn’t given it any serious thought. I had decided everything would ‘work out’ in the end to something that would make sense to me, and in the meantime it wasn’t important enough to dwell upon.

About two years before our talk about being transgender, middle-schooler Tara had asked, in tears, in an apprehensive voice, “What if I’m a lesbian, Mom? What does that mean about me?” This question didn’t scare me because the categories were easy: females and love. Those are two words I am used to defining. I told Tara to stay away from a label like “lesbian,” and just stick with the facts. “You like girls, that’s all it means about you. And liking girls doesn’t change who you are.” The girl-crush thing persisted, and I wondered whether it was my fault for making my kid that way, because I can never seem to find the right man for myself.

But see what I was doing there? I was judging Tara, doing exactly what I had done as a teenager: dismissing the preposterous idea, assuming it was a phase, assuming it was not important, assuming it was something I could have caused, waiting for Tara to turn out ‘normal.’ What kind of subconscious unsupportive messages was I sending to my own child? I am appalled at my own behavior.

The day of The Talk, I sat on Tara’s bed while they explained that a dictionary definition of “transgender” is a person whose gender identity does not correspond to that person’s biological sex assigned at birth. It can mean a person born a boy feels like a girl, or vice versa, but does not necessarily mean that.

Gender is a person’s individual awareness or identity or role that they fill. Sex is a person’s physical anatomy. Tara was born with female anatomy, but explained they did not feel female. And the startling part: they do not feel male either. Tara asked me on that day to stop using the pronouns “she” and “her,” and to use “they” and “their” instead. They do not even feel as though their gender is fixed, but that it moves from day to day.

“Think of a spectrum in the shape of a triangle,” Tara told me with wisdom, clarity, and calm that belied their 16 years of life. “On one point is a concentration of female qualities, one is male, and one is no gender. As you go toward the middle of the triangle, you move away from one gender and take up parts of the others. I am somewhere in the middle, and on some days I feel more female, some days more male, and some days I don’t feel either. I cannot predict how I’m going to feel, but usually I can tell when I wake up in the morning.”

I asked how this is different from what everyone feels. Doesn’t every person feel a little female some days, a little male some days? Tara was certain that it is not the same thing, but had a hard time clearly explaining the difference. For a time we settled on this concept of change, of “fluid gender,” and later we used “gender neutral.” I asked if they thought their gender would always be in a state of flux, or if the changes are a part of trying to figure out who they are. Tara said they didn’t know yet. There was a period where Tara got completely fed up with both male and female, and began identifying as “agendered,” meaning neither male nor female. Even within the very tolerant community that Tara has built around themself, there was pushback. People simply hate vagueness.

Tara’s current preference is “non-binary gender,” to emphasize the fact that gender is not either-or. But I still struggle to grasp the real meaning of Tara’s identity. They say that it is hurtful to be thought of as female or male. “Each time a person calls me ‘she’ isn’t that bad, but what happens is that after a series of people thinking of me as a girl, all day long, it becomes very painful. So uncomfortable that it hurts.” I asked, “How is it different from when, for example, people make incorrect assumptions of me because they see me as female,” I asked. “They think I am not smart enough or strong enough to handle something. How is what you feel different from that kind of pain?” Tara answered that they can’t really explain the difference, except that when it happens, they feel two distinct reactions. One is that the person wrongly assumes they are female, and two is that the person wrongly assumes they aren’t smart enough or strong enough. “They aren’t the same reaction, they aren’t the same kind of hurt.”

It was over two years ago, The Talk, and the trauma of it lingers. I won’t kid you: I was stunned. I was so confused that I couldn’t even begin to respond to Tara. My questions along the lines of “Aren’t you simply giving a high-falutin’ name to what everybody feels?” were based not in love, but in denial. I was trying to flush out the proof that it was not real. I was mostly in shock, but at least able to recognize that this was a pivotal moment in my child’s life. The only thing I could do was to help Tara get it out and to feel safe talking to me. I said,  “Tell me more about that,” when I wasn’t sure I could handle hearing much more. The more Tara talked, the more I felt part of my world breaking apart and falling out from under my feet. Out of loss.

I don’t know if I can explain it, but my love, respect, and appreciation for Tara never wavered. In fact, I was a bit in awe of the kid for having the presence of mind to initiate this conversation with me, and to stick with it while I was so obviously gobsmacked. But I was flooded with a profound sense of loss. It felt like I lost my child that day. I lost my daughter. The one I had constructed in my mind because…well, how was I supposed to know I had to keep my mind open to something else? I just assigned “girl category,” and filled in all the rest.

For the next few days I was in a deep depression and I experienced a very real grieving process. I felt sorry for myself. I cried and cried. It was so hard to explain it to friends, “I have to give up who I thought my child was, and give up the future dreams, like marriage and children. There will be no giggling over boyfriends, not ever. Well, of course Tara can still get married and raise children, but every bit of it will be different than what I had imagined.  Not that it’s bad…it’s just…confusing. And unexpected.” My friends, bless their hearts, gave me hugs and didn’t quite understand what I believed I was giving up.

My own child was not who I thought. Sixteen years of a relationship based on misconceptions. It really, really hurt to face that.

“I can be physically attracted to just about anyone,” Tara corrects me today. “I could easily have a boyfriend one day and children. It’s just another vagueness of my future I am not sure of. My non-traditional identification stems from gender and sex, and also how I choose to appear and how I define my romantic relationships.” Just for context, Tara’s been in a relationship with another transgender person for three years, so the boyfriend comment is more to make a point. “Brynnen are you Tara’s boyfriend?” I asked, “Yes,” they answered without hesitation. And it was a relief to laugh.

Two years later, we are the same tight team we have always been, and – get this! – I am actually not assigning Tara into a gender category in my mind so much anymore. I didn’t realize it was possible, but with time, I am able to give up “female.” I am getting much better at using the difficult pronouns, which for a somewhat OCD grammar-freak, is extremely difficult when I’m constantly using a plural pronoun to describe an individual person. I am doing better at using “them/they” at work and with relatives and acquaintances. Without exasperation or anxiety, I can respond to their confused questions, calmly explaining that I am only talking about one person, and Tara prefers that I use those pronouns.

I am not over it. I hate it that I am not. Who knew I would so stubbornly cling to my traditional upbringing when I have made it a point most of my life to be as open-minded and tolerant as I can possibly be?

But I am not sorry for myself anymore, which allows me to give more of the emotional validation that my kid needs from me. I’m on board, and I actually get irritated when I fill out forms and have to check a box to identify myself as male or female. These days, I often check male, to be difficult, because I’m finally starting to understand how frustrating it could be to live in a binary world. And I’m done thinking of it as a phase. This person who has been right next to me all these years, is actually way more genuine and brave than the one I gave up.

Moma, the woodpecker. She got her name because she brought her young each spring and taught them to find food at Mom's cabin.

Moma, the woodpecker. She got her name because she brought her young each spring and taught them to find food at Mom’s cabin.

I keep track of sunny days, to take care of the birds. I can’t simply fill the feeder, because of the squirrels. They have figured out how to get the top off the feeder. Those dang squirrels actually climb inside the feeder and munch seeds till they’re full. The reckless climbing in and out tips the hanging feeder and spills its entire contents on the ground in minutes. We are left with a pile of seeds two inches deep that eventually gets rained on and rots in a pile.

Thus I am forced to go out daily and fill only the tray around the outside. I spread handfuls of sunflower seeds directly on the mossy ground, to tempt the squirrels to stay away from the feeder, which holds mostly millet for the finches and chickadees.

Squirrel doing acrobatics to get at the bird seed in the feeder.

Squirrel doing acrobatics to get at the bird seed in the feeder.

Rainy days happen often here in Portland, as I know you’ll assume. The birds are as excited about dry mornings as the people are, and arrive in my backyard in bursts of wings and twitterings. The large clumsy jays swoop in, attempt to perch on the ledge of the feeder, and spill teaspoons of seeds each time they kick off in search of a sturdy branch.

As I scanned the spotless grey blue sky this morning, watching the pink and eggshell splashes growing brighter in the East, I began thinking about my mother, and her birds. She felt an obligation to secure the health of the animals on her mountain. Her kitchen window looked directly onto two separate feeding stations outside. The birds on the mountain became like misbehaved children, begging for breakfast if she didn’t get outside in time. The favourite, Moma the woodpecker, would dive bomb the kitchen window. (She still does this to Jim, who stuffs cookies into the hole in a piece of wood mounted by the back porch, just for this purpose.)

My mother at her kitchen window.

My mother at her kitchen window.

Who will take care of the birds in a world without my mother? Jim has to take care of his business. And he’s encouraged the company of a wild cat, to take care of the mouse population. It has also discouraged the company of birds and squirrels at the cabin.

Arno asked me if I’ve always kept a feeder. I have not. But this morning I realized that sometime during 2012 I began feeding the birds for my mom.

I felt for a moment as though I was channeling her spirit. When I am late to feed them, and I go outside for something else, birds suddenly begin appearing in the trees around me. They hover above me, and perform brave, rapid fly-bys to ensure they have my attention. “Food!” they call to me. “Make seeds happen!”

I’ve got nuthatches, chickadees, Western Scrub Jays, crows (who prefer leftover scraps I throw out), and sometimes surprise visitors like the ruby crowned kinglet and the gorgeous red shafted Northern flicker who, despite her size, can perch gracefully on the feeder ledge, hanging most of her body below and selecting seeds one at a time. The other day, when I tossed out the remains of Tara’s gingerbread house, we were visited by seagulls, who look enormous next to the others.

They aren’t the same birds. These aren’t even wild forest birds. But today, birds are being fed in honor of my mom.

Seagulls perched on the roof of the garage.

Seagulls perched on the roof of the garage.

Hanging beneath the feeder.

Hanging beneath the feeder.

 

Gramilda, Pulek, and me, at her home in Nampa

I told Arno not too long ago that I believe I live in such a way that I invite drama into my life. Not drama in a negative sense, but more along the lines of Big Happenings. I live with my mind open and my eyes open, and while all the normal crazy things in life happen to me (as they do with everyone else), a whole bunch of other things happen too. I create this sort of “happening” energy around me, where pistons are firing on all cylinders all the time.

To make it more chaotic, I choose to engage with everything that comes along. I feel all the requisite emotions (and then some), I participate whenever possible, and you guessed it: I am often exhausted.

Recently I have had to endure the stresses associated with loss of loved ones (something I can’t control) as well as the stress of getting ready to live in another country (something I can control), and all the little adventures in between!

As I have recently talked about here, my mother died in December, very unexpectedly. Her mother, whom I call Gramilda (Grandma + her name, Armilda), took the blow severely. Gramilda has been suffering from poor health for several years. Now she had the death of her firstborn child to grieve, and it was too much for her to overcome.

Gramilda died Thursday night.

I talked to her a week ago Sunday. At the time, she knew she was going to die, and she sounded at peace with it. She said we were not allowed to be sorry or feel bad about it. That she is happy she doesn’t have to be old anymore, because she was sick of it. Gramilda said she refused to let another one of her children go before her, and thus was willing her own passing. Achingly poignant.

I can’t exactly grieve for her, because my heart is still all walled off from trying to avoid grieving for my mother. (She says, tongue-in-cheek) But seriously, I am not emotionally prepared to process another loss. Especially during a time when I have have had limited communications with the outside world.

HP guts (and my green toenail polish!)

My computer quit on me almost two weeks ago. Everything fine, then… blip! Nothing. I went 5 days with nothing at all except work computers, and about went mad. I had spent all my savings on Tara’s plane ticket to Japan (more on that later), and a new computer for Tara, whose own laptop had finally kicked the bucket just last month. Totally broke, my knight, Arno, saved me and bought me a new laptop.

The great thing is that only the hardware gave it up. All my saved files and documents and photos and spreadsheets are just fine. I got all the old stuff transferred from the old hard drive onto the new computer, and I’m back in business finally.

Our tent on the sand of the Sandy River, near Mt. Hood

This is Mother’s Day weekend, the one I had planned as my Tara Weekend prior to departure. Next weekend is Arno’s Weekend prior to departure. The weekend after that, I fly to Hiroshima, Japan, and then take the shuttle to Iwakuni. My choice for how to spend the weekend with my daughter was to go camping. So we set up a tent and a campfire on the beach on Friday night.

She looks great in a tuxedo!

It’s important to spend this time together, but not even Mother’s Day and Mom-Daughter time overrides the constant flow of activities in our lives. We had to break right in the middle for Prom.

Tara is only a Freshman, but was invited by her Senior friend to go to the big Junior-Senior event of the year. She is just daring enough to decide to wear a tux instead of a dress. She called me at work Wednesday, “Hey! Prom is this weekend! I need a tux!” Which is, if you are a parent, often the way things get brought to your attention. I had the luxury of three whole days to prepare. We picked up the tux without any trouble aside from the bill: $190! Luckily they gave us a $50 off coupon for first-time customers.

And so now, thoughts turn more and more toward Japan. I was selected for a temporary position with my employer, the Department of Veterans Affairs, to work for 4 1/2 months in Japan to explain VA benefits to soldiers separating from military service. I’ll be responsible for three bases on the mainland. A Marine base in Iwakuni, Air Force base in Misawa, and a Navy base in Sasebo.

Many things have been happening during April and May, but as you can see…very little evidence of it has appeared on my blog. Well, the most telling sign of all that I am extremely occupied (and have a dead computer): no posts! Rest assured, I will blog again.

Very soon, you will be hearing what it’s like for me to live in Japan. Sadly, my home will be on a U.S. base and not in the community, which would be my preference. But I am learning the language with Pimsleur audio lessons, and I plan to leave the military base as often as I can fit it into my schedule!

tracks in the snow

Arno and I are getting to know each other still. And we will continue to, of course, for years to come. He has seen that deeply personal messages sent originally to him will sometimes end up in a public forum. He said he’s realizing that <in his words> I am a writer, and a writer is going to write.</in his words> And the fact that it ends up posted on the Internet for all the world to see does not cheapen the intimate moments we have shared.

So yesterday at lunch when he told me my last email to him about my mother’s death was so passionate that it made him cry, I told him “Well, I just typed and then clicked Send. But if it’s that good, honey, it will probably end up on my blog.” Well, here is a part of my email to Arno. Only slightly edited.

***

snow rabbit

I stopped for the night at a hotel in Ritzville. I need to write Mom’s obituary. I was going to do that today, but got interrupted by packing up her things. It was hard, and upset me. Jim feels bad now, and I know he didn’t realize what a difficult thing he was asking of me. I don’t want him to feel bad about it. There is enough pain without adding more.

This morning when I woke up, I heard Mom’s ragged breathing. I had to look over to reassure myself that the hospital bed was gone, and Mom was not there, suffering. I knew I couldn’t bear another night there. I guess we probably all have a limited amount of tolerance for trauma. People who suffer with trauma for extended periods of time must go half crazy and get sick too. In the moments of her death, I thanked Mom for making it so easy on us. The quick journey through her dying was a gift for us and for her. Gramilda (Mom’s mom) said she thinks Mom did that on purpose, to make it easier on us. Ha, I can’t help but think she’s probably right. If Mom could find a way to take care of us while she was dying, I’m sure that’s what she did.

whose little feet made these?

So anyway, I may linger here alongside the freeway and take care of my last critical task. I can send the obit to the paper via email. My car is packed full of her stuff, and I may or may not get to it in a timely manner. Being away from the cabin makes it easier for me to fall into my old pattern of avoidance. I wish that trauma didn’t make me want to run. I went for a walk in the snow today (when I saw all those great tracks and sent you pictures from my phone), and I thought “I just can’t walk far enough.” No amount of running fixes anything. Today the walk didn’t even make me feel better. But being away from the cabin helps. I was still trying to take care of everybody. Maybe they didn’t need it. Maybe they didn’t even want it. But I can’t help but try to shoulder responsibility and boost everyone else’s feelings. It just sucks my energy out. I am not good at moderation. I seem to want to do things fully or not at all.

Man, I’m so glad I went to north Idaho when I did. The whole thing was so much quicker than I ever expected, or was mentally prepared for. But I’m tremendously glad I was there. When she died, it was such a relief to hear her quiet and at rest. Finally. I just wrapped my arms around her and held on to her and cried and cried. I felt greedy for the last bit of her life. Her body was warm, and I remember thinking I wanted to have her warmth, because that was all that was left. I held her until I realized it was my own body still keeping her warm in the cold room.

When I was finally able to leave the room, it was my biggest step toward letting her go. I did not look at her again. I did not watch when they took her away.

Driving away from the mountain, everything I saw was her. It was like the essence of my mother was in the air. Those mountains, the valleys, the river, the town of Bonners Ferry – they are all my mother. All I ever knew of those places is because of her. I was always with her there. I would never have gone there but for her. I know it all so well, and it’s always been flavoured with her perspective, her stories, her spirit and influence, her friends, her dreams, her thoughts.

I think the next time I go back will be another step of letting her go, if I can learn what life is like without her, then go back. If I can look at that part of Idaho in a world without my mother, I can re-frame what I see with new definitions. What will the snowy peaks look like without Mom? The yellow fields of cut hay and wooden fences and horses? They will still have her face and her voice when I stand there. The birds will sing in the trees the way that they do because of her. The squirrels will scold with all their boldness in the world she polished up for them. But how will that world change when she’s not here anymore?

And when I get home, what will my world look like without her? Her artistry is behind my world too. What is the next chapter of my life, where I am the mother now, and I look behind me at Tara instead of in front of me at my Mother? I don’t even want to know. But I guess I will find out.

“This is my family. I found it, all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Yeah, still good.”

I haven’t been sleeping well the last few nights. Lying awake at 1:12am, I’ve been trying to figure out why. It occurred to me that my mind keeps wandering back to Sunday, when my ex-boyfriend came over to pick up T for a movie and dinner. I haven’t seen him for about a month and it must have shaken me more than I thought. I must be still mourning the loss of what used to be.

While waiting for T to get ready, he mentioned that he had tried to watch an old movie, but couldn’t because of the memories of us watching it together. I told him my own story of when T had wanted to watch Lilo & Stitch, a family favourite, but I wouldn’t let her because I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold myself together for it. Mark shook his head and agreed, “Yeah, not that one. Not yet.”

We saw ourselves in the movie, of course. A woman and a girl struggling through life on their own. While a spaceship crashes to Earth in the background, the little girl prays to God to bring her an angel. “It’s me again. I need someone to be my friend. Someone who won’t run away. Maybe send me an angel! The nicest angel you have.”

Cut to the crash scene, and a twisted little alien climbs free of the wreckage and laughs manically.

Stitch needed a lot of spit and polish before he was even somewhat presentable. And even then, he caused a lot of trouble. But Lilo and Nani, both feeling like freaks themselves, eventually accepted the third freak into their family. In the end, Stitch’s reckless past catches up with him, and he’s about to be hauled off by authorities. He takes responsibility for his actions, and defends the others. “This is my family. I found it, all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Yeah, still good.”

That just kills me. Little, broken, and good. Yep, that’s my family.

It’s unlikely that a Disney movie could trigger renewed pain and loss of our –now even more broken- family. But that’s the way it goes with triggers: you never know when it’s gonna hit you or where it will come from.

“Why are some people broken by one tragedy, and others can not only withstand many tragedies, but also turn them into opportunities to serve others who suffer?”

This morning I read April’s latest blog entry, and was compelled to respond. April asked the question above. She brought up several questions I have asked myself before, and I used her blog as a chance to put into words the blobs of thought that had glommed around in my noggin for years now.

April’s mother died, and she has been gracious enough to share her grieving process on her Gaia blog, so the rest of us can learn and grow too. My comment on her blog is below:
______________________________

I agree that we all have the potential to be resilient. I can’t answer your questions, but I do have my own thoughts. I think our responses in life are related to our genetics and to our personal history.

We are inherently self-absorbed. That is a good thing, because deep in our cores, we must be driven by survival if nothing else, and who better to look out for us than ourselves? It’s just that our lives no longer resemble competition among other wild creatures for food and warmth like it used to, so what we are designed to do simply isn’t what we need anymore. We are now in a modern environment in which different skills are called for. Our valuable inherent traits of being selfish have less healthy usefulness a couple million years after we perfected them. Now, what do we do with ourselves?

Like domesticated dogs evolved from wild, running, hunting beasts, but now kept inside someone’s apartment all day long… some of us just can’t live the life we have and stay healthy. Sometimes those dogs go batty and bark themselves silly for 8 hours straight, or sometimes they get depressed. Humans have lots of ways to direct the confused energy.

To actually deal with our natures in a healthy way takes SO much work, as you well know. Not everyone wants to. Not everyone has faith that the work will pay off, and are less motivated to start.

I think a person can be forced to learn a skill like resilience. Say, for example, growing up in a family where kids are not much of a priority. When you get older, and get in a tough spot, you recall that in the past you found a way to take care of yourself even though you were scared and didn’t know how to do it at first. If you rack up a series of successful resilience memories, you will probably incorporate that knowledge into your toolbox. If you just got beaten back down more often than not, you probably will try something else first, before you try resilience.

Well, geez. What the heck do I know? ha ha. In any case, I have the same questions as you, and that’s why I had so much to say about it. It is a gift your mother gave to you: your resilience. She may not have known she was gifting you, but it’s still one of the greatest things you ever got from anyone!

Thank you dear friend, for this chance to clarify a few of my own thoughts for myself using your time and space. I hope that you find yourself surrounded by love and support each time you look up.

Grandma Haley camping with us

I just found out a couple hours ago that my grandmother died. Grandma Freda Haley of the big Haley clan, and the reigning Matriarch of that family, as well as the Truloves. She was 82, and had been ill for months, but not so ill that this quick passing was expected.

Gramma at the reunion

Gramma was the second of 8 children, but Great Uncle Bill died in 1946 when mortar fire hit his tank in WWII. So Gramma was the oldest and all her brothers and sisters loved her so.

She married Rex Trulove and had six children – my Pa is not quite the youngest. I’ve done a bit of genealogy this summer, and by my rudimentary calculations, Freda’s children, grand-children, great-grandchildren – and one great, great-grandchild!!! – and their partners make up about 53 people.
I saw her this August at a family reunion. She was a smaller version of her vivacious self; not as loud, not as brazen, not as big. Her face was less physically beautiful – someone else had applied her makeup for her. Gramma was there despite the deception age placed on her skin, and it didn’t take any effort to see the amazing woman inside. Her devious eyes watching me like a hawk when she made up crazy stuff and told me with a straight face to see if I would catch it. Her bawdy jokes about sex and booze that she made up on the spot. Her willingness to use age as an excuse to cut in line and get the only brownie left, and to get wheeled into the shade when the sun got too warm. She would turn in her chair and look at me and laugh. I got the sense that she was still sort of surprised to be getting away with it.

The memories I have of her are primarily times when I was busting at the seams laughing. She could  – and did – drink as much or more than anyone at the table. She always knew the best jokes and it didn’t matter if I was 12: I could hear them with everyone else. I remember when my Pa brought her to Pine Ridge Inn, in Tamarack, Idaho for the Friday night jam session. She explained that the piano wasn’t tuned to the way she knew her songs, but with a little encouragement, she played and sang all night with the rest of us. (Yep, me and my little guitar and a mic in a redneck bar when I was only 10 years old)

with Gramma at the reunion

When she lived in Klamath Falls she had this teeny, white and curly haired, wiggly mess of Teacup Poodle named Sheba. One of the only dogs I’ve ever loved. Now, whenever I hear the name Sheba, I think it’s a poodle name. I was with her when her cat had babies, and I watched each one be born in a cardboard box. When the mother cat neglected the kittens, Sheba obliged. I was so impressed.

Her great love in recent years was her trusty companion, Spike. He was an indoor cat and gave her love back to her. When Gramma wrote a newsletter for her senior community, she included “Spike’s Corner” for news about pets. Spike died this year too.

Gramma was the only person I remember who washed my mouth out with soap. I don’t even remember what I said. I knew I deserved trouble, and there was no one else there to appeal to. I just accepted it. She opened a brand new bar of soap and made me put the whole thing in my mouth and move it around. Egad! That was horrible. The punishment was so effective that it wasn’t until I joined the Air Force before I was brave enough to learn how to cuss properly.

I have memories of her at huntin’ camp. Back in the days where it was a grown-up’s world and the kids were only invited along because they couldn’t be left home alone. There was coffee or beer to drink at huntin’ camp. I couldn’t bear coffee at that age, so I had beer for breakfast, and then I’d go find a creek to drink, or melt snow in my mouth if we were lucky to get an early fall storm. Gramma seemed at home camping. She was there at the famous Easter camp at some pond. Was it Otter Pond? Beaver Pond? The Easter Bunny found us out there and hid eggs in the Oregon Grape and amongst the pine and fir trees. Somebody imbibed too much and fell into the fire. That was the year I learned how to get over my squeamishness and bait my hook with a live grasshopper and I caught my first fish. It was only about 4 inches long, but my Pa was so proud he filleted it for me and fried it up anyway.

We’ve got this picture of Gramma in her chair right in a river. She’s got her pant legs wet, with her bare feet in the moving water, and a coffee cup (probably filled of whiskey and ice). I can’t remember where that was taken. Maybe it was one of the times she camped with us at Brownlee Dam on the Snake River.

She always laughed and laughed. She made everyone else laugh. She had had a hard life, sometimes things were bountiful, but often in poverty and want. All her kids and her siblings say to me about it is how she made life fun no matter what the circumstances were.

We are all so proud of her.

Grandpa Rex Trulove, Grandma Freda, Aunt Pat, Aunt Judy; my Pa and baby Uncle Buzz in front.

She was proud of her Cherokee heritage. Our Haley family came from Talequah, OK to Oregon. Gramma told me she was called Ho Ho Nay, meaning Calf-Woman. There was a great little story about why, but sadly I’ve forgotten it.

I complained once about being so fair skinned and blonde, saying I don’t look even remotely Cherokee. She told me to shush because she had a framed photo of a Cherokee Chief on her wall and the man had green eyes. I have green eyes. It made me feel better. I have big Indian eyes, especially when I was younger. I’m so white I’m translucent, but when I tan, I get golden dark, dark. I have a lighter streak of hair that naturally grows on my right temple and didn’t think much of until I saw a photo of Gramma with her hair parted in the same place, and a white-blonde streak in the same spot.

Send me some love. I’m so sad I couldn’t be at work today. I need to be strong for the services tomorrow in Eugene.

Comment from the old blog:

april

I’m sending love! I am sorry for your loss, and thankful for the rush of memories you provoked for my own grandmothers that have passed on. Thank you for sharing your grief and your memories with us, my dear friend. And for holding space for your grief by taking the day off and really allowing yourself to experience it.

Oooooh, so timely, go read Joy and Sorrow. The depth of your grief is a reflection of the joy your Gramma brought you.

crystal

Thank you, Ophelia, that’s a beautiful poem.

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