Archive for September, 2013

The Balls of Bothell II

One of my early posts was called The Balls of Bothell. The Balls, Darl and Jeannine, lived for many many years on a curve of the busy road that runs around the north end of Lake Washington. I never met them, but like thousands or even millions of people traveling on Wasthington State Route 522 (called Bothell Way on that stretch), my wife and I had become familiar and even attached to their wooden sign, which we looked for and verbally celebrated every time we came around the curve in the highway where we knew it waited to announce their habitation at that place. It said “The Balls of Bothell” in big gold letters, and then in smaller letters beneath that it said “Darl and Jeannine”.

The sign hung from a post at the bottom of the Balls’ driveway. It was there for ages and then one day it was gone. I wrote a blog post about the sign and about our experience of the sign, and wondered what kind of people the Balls were and whether they were aware of how time and the increase in traffic on that once quiet country road had rendered strange such an exuberantly personal and inviting sign. (You know me…just wondering.) I didn’t have a photo of the sign to go with that post, and at the time I had no reason to think I’d ever see it again.

I think the Balls' sign hung about where this new post is. It was a few yards back from the road but the road was not as wide then.

I think the Balls’ sign hung about where this new post is. It was a few yards back from the road but the road was not as wide then. The curve is known locally as Wayne Curve.

If you go to that post and read through the comments that readers posted, you’ll see that old Darl himself eventually got wind of my post and logged in to give a shout out to all his fans, reporting that he still had the old sign and the sad news that Jeannine had passed on a few years earlier. I made a mental note to track him down and ask him if I could come look at the old board and take some photos of it, but I never got around to doing it.

Darl Ball, 1926 - 2013

Darl Ball, 1926 – 2013

Then Darl died, a fact I learned in those same comments when his relatives and friends started turning up and leaving little eulogies to him and Jeannine. One of those people was Darl’s nephew, Bradley Mitchell, who goes by Mitch and in conversation calls his uncle simply “Ball”. Mitch commented to let me know the sign had come to him and that if I wanted to see it I should come over to his home in Kirkland soon, because he was preparing to ship the sign to some relatives out of state who had the Ball surname.

I visited Mitch this past June. He is an interesting character in his own right, having himself many times been the subject of magazine and newspaper articles and television segments because of his large collection of deep sea diving gear and other marine equipment, many specimens of which fill his home. In the relatively small world of deep sea diving gear hobbyists, I’m sure his is a household name. But he clearly lives in a state of constant and enduring admiration of the man he calls simply “Ball,” and while he commented with very few words about anything related to his own celebrity, he was fairly verbose about his uncle’s life and times, and had dragged out for my perusal numerous photos and several paper artifacts from his uncle’s days in the Merchant Marine (Certificate of Efficiency to Lifeboat Man, serial number B71663; Certificate of Service to Able Seaman, serial number A120679; and a temporary American passport issued by the American consul at the East African port city then known as Laurenço de Marques, now Maputo in the People’s Republic of Mozambique).

Young Darl and his Merchant Marine buddies.

Young Darl (far left) and his Merchant Marine buddies.

I took several photos of the photographs he laid out. I spent an hour with him during which he said a lot of things that I did not write down and which I cannot now remember. I do recall him noting several times that Ball joined the Merchant Marine even though he couldn’t swim a stroke. That single fact seemed to represent the very gizzard of the man for Mitch. He also told me, something that may be of interest to history, that his was the third sign the Balls hung, that two others had been stolen over the years. I can’t remember if he said the earlier ones were smaller or larger, but I think they were not all of the same dimensions. It’s my opinion that when the stolen ones eventually turn up in some garage or at a flea market, they should be given to the City of Bothell for museum pieces.

You can read about Mitch in this April 7, 2007 Seattle Times article, and if you catch up with Mitch you can ask him all about his Uncle Darl, how the man went to Texas or someplace to buy a large piece of construction equipment — a crane, I think — and drove the thing all the way back to Seattle to use in the landscape business he’d started after the war. I would have liked to be able to relate more of what Mitch told me about him, since I had openly wondered about the Balls in my earlier post, but it wasn’t the right time and I was not on my reporter game.

Nevertheless, my main purpose was fulfilled; I got to see the sign again, which was much larger than I had remembered. And because I know there are so many out there who remember it fondly, I provide a couple of pictures of it herebelow, with thanks to Bradley Mitchell for letting me take them and use them.

Mitch Bradley.

Mitch.

Sign Number Three.

Sign Number Three.

Update 29 May 2014: This story never seems to come to an end. People keep commenting on the original Balls of Bothell post. Someone commented today, actually a comment addressed to Mitch (shown above) not to me. But it got me curious, so I did some googling and found a Bothell Reporter obituary for Jeannine that included a small photo of her, which I include herebelow. I don’t have any rights to the material, but I’m claiming “educational purposes”. I thought people might like to see a photo of one of the principles in this strangely ongoing tale. There’s also a Facebook page called “You know you’re from Bothell if…”, where the facilitator posted one of the above photos of the sign, and the comments it drew are very interesting and enlightening. One old Bothellian recalls that a photo of the sign made an appearance on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show or David Letterman’s Late Night. Also, almost unbelievably, the first “Balls” sign was made by a person named Cox.

Jeannine Ball

Jeannine Ball

Jeannine Ball, 81, passed away quietly in her sleep on Tuesday, September 22, 2010 surrounded by those she loved. Those who loved her know her long battle with illness is over and she is at peace. Jeannine will be remembered for her loving spirit, caring nature, and bright sparkling eyes. A friend to all, she lived in the Bothell area for nearly 40 years. She was an avid gardener who loved her roses and dahlias along with the birds and wildlife they attracted. Jeannine’s indomitable spirit and never-ending sense of humor were an inspiration to all. She leaves behind three daughters, Bobbie Metters, Debbie Rayburn (Buck) and Charnell Morud (Doug) and six grandchildren: Jayson, Katherine, Charles, Tessa, Carey, and Evan. Sisters Jorgia Irish, Sandra Winterburn (Victor) and their families, as well as former husband and friend, Darl Ball, are with her in spirit. All will miss her dearly but rejoice in having shared her life. Jeannine knew the true meaning of love. Her legacy is that she shared so much of that love with her family, friends and everyone she encountered. Services were held Thursday, September 30 at Purdy & Walters at Floral Hills in Lynnwood. To view the everlasting memorial visit http://www.dignitymemorial.com. Remembrances may be made to Meals on Wheels or other services for seniors.
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Following the obituary’s trail, I also found her archived remembrance page on the Dignity Memorial website, where a gallery preserves several dozen pictures of Jeannine taken throughout her life, from childhood to her last days. One of them — and again, I have no rights to it so tell me if it is yours and you don’t want it up here — is this wonderful image:

The infamous pair and their infamous sign. Oh the glee!

The infamous pair and their infamous sign. Oh the glee!

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Nowhere I can reach her

Sweet life’s a sparrow lost at sea,
In dark of night with far to go

— Tom Rush

I died, and behold I am alive forevermore…

— The Book of Revelation

My sister Jeni died in April. She died of complications from her third battle with a cancer that came upon her when she was in her early thirties. Needless to say… Well. There are so many things that are needless to say. Most everything I can think of to say is needless to say, which is why I’ve had trouble imagining how to write about this.

Jeni, under attack and bearing it with grace.

Jeni, under attack and bearing it with grace.

Jeni died suddenly, we felt, for we were not prepared for the precipitous downturn in her health and the failure of her liver, pretty much in a single day, after what seemed like a pesky imbalance in her body chemistry that simply needed correction and monitoring. We her family were caught off guard, though some friends were able to see that the battle had become very fierce in recent months and were very worried. She herself expected to come home from the hospital after a few days, and although she was uncomfortable and in some pain at times she did little complaining, focusing her energy instead on her work, which was as a piano accompanist for voice students at Seattle Pacific University. The thing that galled her the most was the occasions when she could not play piano because her fingers became bloated and painful and her fingernails turned black, or the drugs took away her energy. She wanted more than anything to continue to support her students.

My sister and I were not as close as many siblings are, but she mattered to me. It was important to me that she was there, that she was here, here in life with me and my brother and my parents, that she remain a living piece of the nuclear unit I was hatched into. And I also genuinely enjoyed her as a person — her sense of humor especially, and her generosity and her courage, and her willingness in later years to see things from other people’s points of view. We had very different experiences in our faith journeys and it was, all our adult lives, difficult and even uncomfortable for us to converse about those journeys. I am a person of doubt, she of certitude. My faith is an unquiet searching — a thrashing one might even say — in the face of enormous fears. The voice of God in my life is hard for me to discern because my ego, my lower power, makes so much racket. My sister Jeni’s faith was a serene confidence that the Wonderful Story that had been handed down to us was true, literally and absolutely, and though the cancer bared its teeth and gnashed at her for twenty years, which was surely terrifying for her, she spoke most often of God’s provision and God’s care and God’s mercy and God’s grace and God’s love, and of her certainty that she was in the palm of his hand no matter what happened. She gave the disease nothing but her body, which in her view was the least of her.

My sister playing piano and my brother-in-law Randy blissing in her presence.

My sister playing piano and my brother-in-law Randy adoring her.

The feeling was -- and remained -- mutual.

Some years go by. The feeling was — and remained — mutual.

Jeni asked God when the cancer first came if she could be allowed to see her children grow. The oldest of four was only eight or nine years old then. I was turning a spadeful of earth in my parents’ backyard when my mother came running out of the house through the sliding glass door that gave onto the brick patio under the old crabapple tree. She was gasping and sobbing, having just gotten the phone call from Jeni. At that time I could not imagine the fear that engulfed my mother because I was not yet a dad. But that was Jeni’s request, the prayer she prayed. And she did see them grow. She saw the three girls wed and her son affianced.

I wish to do honor to my sister and her world-view, to a faith that in large part I share with her, but the words I would use to describe what has befallen her and my family, and myself, are different words than she would use. She left behind an online journal that has become a permanent testimony to her courage and to what she would describe as God’s faithfulness. Many, many people, some fellow cancer patients and others not, have expressed what a blessing her candor and faith have been to them. But I am having a different experience of it all, and my faith is sore afflicted these days.

I, my sister Jeni, and my brother Ben.

With Jeni and my brother Ben.

 

Jeni's family in our parents' back yard.

Jeni’s family in our parents’ back yard.

The facts on this side of the veil are simple enough: she got breast cancer, she survived it, it went away for almost a decade, it came back again and she survived it again, even though it took an enormous toll on her physically, and then it came back a third time, and while doctors were trying to figure out the origin of a big bellyful of fluid that my sister in her wonderful phlegmatic way named Henrietta (her journal abounds with references to Henrietta’s waxing and waning and how uncomfortable life with Henrietta was), her liver just conked out.

It happened on the 3rd April. She had been in the hospital over Easter weekend because she had passed out at home. The doctors had found that her sodium levels were alarmingly low and her potassium high and couldn’t figure out why. My brother Ben talked to her Easter weekend and she said she was low on energy but was hoping to go home before Monday. He, a fireman, became alarmed when she was still in the hospital on Tuesday, and wondered whether the doctors weren’t saying how much trouble she might be in. I, swamped and mentally exhausted at my new job, did not even realize she had not gone home. Wednesday Angela called me in tears and said “Jeni is dying. She has a day or two.”

Four generations: My grandmother, my mother, my sister, my niece.

Four generations: My grandmother, my mother, my sister, my niece.

It seemed unreal. I wondered what to do. I went back to my desk to see how I could tidy up things so I could take a day off the next day and go to the hospital, but Angela called a while later and told me I needed to get on a bus to the hospital right away. It would not be days but hours. My new job is in Renton, which is a half-hour drive south of Seattle in good traffic, and I had no car because I ride in a carpool. My sister was in Bellevue at the hospital I was born in. I caught several buses and got to Overlake Hospital in time to join a growing circle of friends and family. Jeni’s husband was there and had been there since morning. My mother was there. Angela arrived with the girls shortly after I got there. Jeni’s son and youngest daughter were there. Her oldest daughter was flying with her husband from Minnesota, and her second oldest daughter, who had just landed with her husband in Japan for a visit with his family of origin, had turned right around and was trying to get a flight back home. Jeni was not lucid when I got there. Her eyes, her beautiful eyes that had such wit and humor in them, a readiness to be delighted, were open slightly as she labored to breathe, but she was unable to respond. We took turns holding her hand and stroking her arm and talking to her, and her husband Randy, a theologian, acknowledged that what he was hoping for now was an outright miraculous healing. But there was no reprieve this time. There came a point when the many church-friends that had gathered to support us moved out into the hall so that Randy and the kids and Angela and I and our girls and our mother could have a quiet moment. We did not want to acknowledge what we knew. My nephew Scott raised a piano concerto on his phone, something by Brahms that my sister loved, and it filled the room while we were quiet. I went out to text my cousin in California and some relatives on the East Coast, and when I opened the door to go back in she had slipped away and Randy was sobbing and holding onto her and saying her name over and over, and my family was bent inward around him like the petals of a flower closing at dusk.

Playing for family at my uncle's mansion on Cascadia Avenue, late '70s or early '80s.

Playing at my uncle’s mansion on Cascadia Avenue. For me, the sound of Jeni playing piano is the sound of family.

It all happened so fast. Not just her death, I mean, but her life. She was fifty-two, just sixteen months older than I. It will not be long at all before I reach an age that my older sister — she who came first and was always — never reached. A half-century and change. No time at all, really.

I think we are all still a little stunned. It was different with my father’s passing a year and a half ago. We had seen that coming, and he seemed like he wasn’t really looking forward to anything in particular anymore. He felt bad leaving my mom, he told me near the end, but they both knew he’d have been absolutely sunk if she’d gone first. So his breathing got more difficult and his energy waned and one day he went into a kind of dream state, where he was alternating between sleep and a fitful busy-ness with his arms, as though he were picking books off a shelf or dabbing at a painting or gathering pieces of yarn from a loom. He didn’t know he was doing it. Then he would suddenly see one of us and his face would light up in recognition, but only for a moment. He would say something incoherent and fall to dreaming again. Then he went into a coma, and it seemed strange but it wasn’t unexpected. He only lingered for two days. I was relieved. Although I’ve missed him a lot since, at the time it seemed like a mercy.

On our way to somewhere where dressy clothes are required.

On our way to somewhere with a dress code.

Up against the wood paneling for a picture.

It’s Easter. Up against the door, you two!

But my sister was so young. My poor mother must bear the unbearable anguish of burying a child — a weight I can’t even imagine bearing up under. Months later she cries every morning.

My sister died two months ago and she’s not here anymore. She’s not anywhere where I can reach her. That gone-ness is the part that keeps feeling so alien, and it scares me because it threatens to pull my feeble little faith into the rip in the cosmos that her death leaves, this gaping hole in the world that we’re all standing around. That dark hole she disappeared into forces me to ask myself what I believe about the Hereafter. It may be just a phase, but I don’t like the answers I’m coming up with.

Because our lives were both so busy in separate circles, I don’t miss her all through the day the way her children and husband do. It hits me out of the blue in moments when I have an impulse to share an idea with her, to call her up. Then I realize that I can’t do that. I’ll never be able to do that again. It is a sudden and permanent change in the configuration of the world I know. Or when I’m doing the dishes, sometimes it hits me that my sister’s life is a historical finality now, unlike mine. She was less than two years older, and yet while my life continues to have uncertainty, and choices, and joys and sorrows I have not yet foreseen — continues to “unfold” before me in time as I inhabit time — my sister’s life is a known span, a completed thing. Her life was a whirlwind of activity and learning and loving and growing and struggling and rejoicing and making music, but a whirlwind that people will speak of now in the past tense even as we struggle to hold her in the present. For a while there will be many of us who knew her and we will speak to each other about things she would have enjoyed or what she would have thought about something or things she used to say. Or we won’t speak but we will remember, each in our own eye, the look of her when she laughed, or hear in our ears the sound of her voice or her piano playing. Then there will be conversations with people who are very young now, like my daughters, and we’ll say “You remember Aunt Jeni. We used to go to her house at Thanksgiving.” And then we will say to friends we make in coming years, “Jeni was our sister, you never knew her,” and to those who have not yet been born we will someday say, “she died before you were born.” And when my children are grown they’ll say “Jeni was my dad’s sister. She played the piano.”  And when all of us have followed her into the Beyond there will be only photographs and stories handed down, maybe a recipe for a favorite family dish. Someday long decades or centuries from now she will be a name in a family tree, attended by two cold dates — 14 November 1960 and 3 April 2013 — whose life people may wonder about, and if they do they will imagine her incorrectly. But in some ways, my own life is exactly like that. All of our lives are like that. Already complete and finished and spinning away through the macrocosm like comets loosed from their orbits.

Whatever she figured out, I never quite got it.

!,?

I shrink from that thought, that we are nothing but cold stones in a vacuum, and what defeats the finality of that metaphor — at least for me, at least right now — is the same thing that defeats the finitude of death, whether we believe in a resurrection or not. It’s the bond between one life and another. The fact that we’re standing here stricken and knowing how stricken we are, knowing the fullness of our loss, the fact that we stop what we’re doing and come together celebrating the life and grieving the loss… that’s what tells us we are not just historic entries in a ledger, rocks tumbling through space. Yes, we will all eventually fade from the memory of earth and its inhabitants, but at the moment that we die we drag the hearts of our loved-ones to the edge of the abyss, stretching the bonds of a love loth to yield, and when the cord finally snaps we leave them there staring into the dark. The echo of the break whips into those left behind and ricochets through their souls. The wound proves the love and the love proves the life.

If each of our lives really is like that, I guess that’s okay. I mean it has to be, doesn’t it? And we won’t know until we don’t care. But maybe — I hope despite my extended moments of disbelief — maybe each flaming star of a life is also a sweet dream in the eye of a benevolent God, whom in my heresy or ignorance or willfulness I imagine to be grieving for us and with us…

The two who are gone.

Dad and Jeni. The two who are gone.

…and with us — in light of the beauty of each of the unnumbered lives it has created — capable of being startled by their brevity.


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