Archive for the 'Life and death' Category

Some you win (with apologies to James)

A happy outcome to the story in my previous post. I saw immediately today that the eggs were gone, and I stood staring for several minutes before I saw anything else.

The eggs were nowhere to be seen, and I stood looking for several minutes before I suddenly saw them.

Can you see them? To enlarge, click once and then click again.

They made not a sound nor a movement, not even a twitch, which is why I couldn’t see them even though I was looking right at them. I had been checking almost daily because the killdeer gestation period is 24 – 28 days and it had been about that long since I’d first spotted the nest. They were still in ovo last Friday, so I had a feeling there might have been a change over the weekend. Mama and Papa both went apenuts when I bent to take the photo. (“Sorreeee”.) All present and accounted for. Each is about the size of a golf ball.

The virtuous deception

I will GET loud!”

— Robert Downey Jr. channeling Alfre Woodard or a killdeer in Heart and Souls

A killdeer is a small nervous bird with long legs and red irises whose call is a high, piercing stutter. I photographed one a couple months ago while walking in the state park at lunch. At the time, I didn’t know much about killdeers and honestly, I wasn’t interested in them as much as I was some of the other birds I was getting to know, especially the waterfowl.

Killdeer at Lake Sammamish State Park.

Killdeer at Lake Sammamish State Park.

But another birder I met at the park one day pointed out a place on the beach just a few feet off the walking path where a killdeer had made her nest. I hadn’t even noticed, even though I walk by there every day. The bird was away at the moment and a single egg lay in a little scoop in the ground. It was the 30th of March.

When I was able to return three days later I came back with my camera and found the killdeer sitting on the nest, blending so well with the surroundings that I might again have missed her if I didn’t know where to look for her. She didn’t stir until I got a little too close in my effort to photograph her. Then she hopped up and ran away from the nest, calling in a high, twittery, broken sounding way, and I was able to see that there were not one but three eggs now.

Baby killdeers disguised as pebbles.

Baby killdeers disguised as pebbles.

A few yards away, the bird did this strange, beautiful thing: she put her wings out partway, scraped her belly on the ground and lowered her tailfeathers so that the vivid brown color of her inner feathers could be seen. She put her tail at an angle as if it were broken and shook herself, continuing to call out loudly.

The gimpy act.

The gimpy act.

Her cry, if I might be so bold to interpret for her, said “Come and get me. I’m wounded, an easy kill, a plump dinner right here for the taking.” It was her attempt to draw attention away from her eggs. I’d heard of this behavior in quail many years ago but never seen any bird actually performing this act. I left her alone and wandered off, noting however that she quickly regained her composure, tiptoed back to the nest and lay over the eggs again.

I walked down the beach to where a woman with a camera was taking photos of some mergansers while her dog snuffled around offleash — an infraction of park rules carrying an $80 fine. I didn’t congratulate the woman about her being special and the rules not applying to her because I’ve been special in other ways at other times (cf. stone, casting first), but I did hope that she was not heading down to the end of the beach where the killdeer’s nest was. My hope was in vain. I watched her wander down the beach and, though it was now far away, I could see that the woman’s big fluffy hound was trotting across the area where the nest was, and not directly across but in that doggish back-and-forth way that seemed at this moment optimally suited to covering the most ground and assuring the accidental destruction of small eggs underfoot.

You can be a few yards away and not even see her sitting there.

You can be a few yards away and not even see her sitting there.

A park employee in big green raingear was doing some work up ahead and I stopped and told her how bummed I was that special people were letting their dogs run free against park rules when there was a killdeer who was trying to raise a family out there. The lady signaled sympathy with my dismay about Specials, but was even more interested in the killdeer nest and wanted me to show her where it was.

I hesitated, mumbling that I had to get back to my office — true, this — but she said “we can take the Gator”. She hopped onto the little green park vehicle — basically a golf cart with a flatbed for rakes and shovels. I couldn’t resist.

We sputtered across the park with a small breeze beating against our faces, and I showed her the nest. She stood a shovel up in the gravel a yard or so away to identify the spot and said she’d have her supervisor help her mark it so the lawnmower guy wouldn’t mow it (apparently they mow the gravel beach). She said the killdeers were some of her favorites but their numbers are dwindling in the park (right, I thought, because they aren’t smart enough to build their nests away from foot traffic), and with a sad expression noted that between the seagulls and the crows and the raptors (eagles, hawks, what have you), she didn’t think the eggs stood much of a chance.

No dogs allowed. If you look closely you can see her sitting in the Safe Zone.

No dogs allowed. If you look closely you can see her sitting in the Safe Zone.

On April 6th I found the nest surrounded by a neat rectangle of cones and tape. The mama bird, looking now a bit like an art exhibit, again dashed away shrieking to draw me off after she became convinced that lying still and quiet on the nest was not having the effect that she was hoping for. But she didn’t go far this time. She put on the same display and again got loud, but stayed close. I quickly turned to the nest to try to fire off a quick shot — four eggs now! — and when I did so she turned toward me and gave me a beak lashing. Really, she told me all about it. When I turned back to regard her she immediately turned away and started limping and fluttering again and her voice went weak and tremulous.

Four!

Four!

I turned to the nest again and took my shot, and she practically charged me. I half expected her to kick me in my toe. I took an out-of-focus shot of her reading me the Riot Act before she quickly turned away from me again to shiver and shriek her staccato plaint.

“Okay, sweetheart,” I said. “Okay, I’m goin’.” I didn’t want to cause her any more stress. It couldn’t be good for her.

Cue the Hitchcockian bird-attack music. She ran at me so fast I couldn't even focus.

Cue the Hitchcockian bird-attack music. She ran at me so fast I couldn’t even focus.

On April 9 as I was walking toward the little coned-off square it occurred to me I should probably name her, since she had become a little story for me, and the name Selma came to mind. But when I got closer I could see that the killdeer was not on her nest. I looked past the cones and found the nest empty. Absolutely empty. I wondered what this could mean. If there were broken eggs I would know that marauders had attacked before the chicks had hatched. If there were pieces of eggshell I would surmise that the chicks had hatched, although I would think it odd that they were gone. Maybe I would think they hatched and were plucked up immediately by predators, but I might also hope that Selma had marched them off to the safer area of vegetation beside the creek, even though it seemed that less-than-a-day-old chicks would not yet be able to waddle or even see.

But the total absence of the eggs pointed almost to removal by human hands. Or theft? Who would do that and why would they do it? It would certainly mean death to the chicks and eventually, rotten eggs that would be too smelly for an egg collection. Did they cook and eat them?

The site of probably tragedy.

The site of probably tragedy.

I saw the park worker some days later and asked if she knew what had happened. She said it was most likely seagulls or even the Canada geese that are hanging out at the park these days, even though there were no shell fragments. I was mildly crestfallen. I thought the mama bird was the bravest little life in the world, pretending to be wounded and putting herself in danger’s path in order to give her babies a chance at survival, and I was sad to think her nesting dreams had foundered. What would she do for the rest of the spring? Would she and her mate split up, turn to drink and gambling?

The woman said, however, that a few killdeer pairs were nesting “over in the boneyard”, a clearing in the woods where park employees dump old tree trunks that are in the way of paths or otherwise pose a danger — (most snags are left standing for habitat and after they fall are left lying for forest health), and that if I wanted to see more nests I should go there.

I did and I did. Just last week, I finally visited the boneyard and sure enough, the moment I walked into the clearing there were two killdeers trying to give me the runaround, one faking the broken wing and making a lot of noise. I thought I was smarter than they were and looked for their nest — carefully, look before each step! — in the area where I first spotted them, opposite from where they were trying to lead me. But it turns out that at least in this location they actually don’t spend much time at the nest. When I finally found it — by pretending to leave the clearing and then watching through my binoculars to see where one of them eventually went and settled down — it turned out to be well away from where I had first seen them. Canny buggers. There were four eggs, and these had a slightly different pattern from those in the first nest. They had more of the light-green hue, with larger but fewer dark speckles.

A new batch.

A new batch.

I’ve since learned that four is a plenary session for killdeer eggs, and once the fourth is laid the sitting starts in earnest, so this little quartet are on their way. I also read that killdeer chicks are precocial (yes, the word is related to “precocious”), meaning that they exhibit a high degree of independence very early. They can see when they’re born and walk almost immediately. Being hatched in unfeathered divots in parking lots and on open beaches, it makes sense that they would be up and about toot sweet, not waiting around the nest to have breakfast regurgitated at them (altricial) or be snatched up by a gull.

Sunlight and rain fall equally on the evil and the good, so the master said. Nor are there any guarantees for little birds using whatever wits their maker gave them to keep the tribe going, except that they shall not fall unregarded. But hope seems wondrously unteachable, both in birds and men. I returned again this week and the eggs were still there.

——————————————–

Update 5/5/15: I only just published this post this morning, but already there is more to tell. During my lunch walk today I happened upon the park employee — she’s actually a volunteer — doing some work up ahead on the path, but some yards beyond where I would be turning off. I almost didn’t bother to take the extra steps and disturb her, but I figured she would be happy to know that I’d found one of the killdeer nests back in the boneyard. When I told her this she was thrilled and asked me again if I would point it out to her.

This time I didn’t hesitate, but hopped aboard as she shipped her tools and fired up the Gator. Her name is Pat, I learned after introducing myself, and she has been worried to pieces about those birds back in the boneyard. She hadn’t seen the nest, but she knew there must be at least one because of the presence and behavior of the adults, and that clearing is frequently subject to the ravages of tractors that the park employees use to push stumps and piles of brush and other deadfall around in it. Pat had prevailed upon the park administrators to impose a two-week moratorium on any tractor work back there, but in that time she had not been able to locate any nests and in fact the two weeks was up today. One of the park employees, says Pat, has found her eagerness to inconvenience park operations on behalf of a mob of little chirpers more than a little irritating (“he thinks I take it too far,” she said), and she had had to overcome loud objections in order to win the reprieve. My news today came just in time.

I don’t know what my fellow employees thought, several of whom were also out walking in pairs or singly, when they saw me with my blue Blunt umbrella riding shotgun on the state park’s maintenance vehicle next to a state park volunteer, but it didn’t matter.

“We’re on a quest, Matt,” said Pat, leaning over the wheel as if this would make the cart go faster.

“That’s right, Pat,” I returned, indulging in a wide grin.

In the boneyard. Volunteer Pat indicates the nest, near the end of the bleached branch that's sticking out of the ground.

In the boneyard. Volunteer Pat indicates the nest, near the end of the bleached branch that’s sticking out of the ground.

She stopped to grab a tall orange “cone” and throw it on the cart, for marking the nest. She said that now that the spot is identified, the employees can continue their work away from the nest and yet the eggs will be safe. (At least from humans. Predation is still a threat; a hawk circled over the boneyard as we set the cone near the nest.) It’s a comfort to me to know I’m not the only one who worries about the little things that don’t fit into this consumptive, twittering age’s idea of value. Is it just another one of the many eternal mysteries, then, that our Father in heaven simultaneously ordains by supreme fiat each avian death and seeds the breast of folks like Pat, and like me, with an impulse to strive beyond comfort and reason against that ordinance? And is that little ridiculous place in the human heart in fact the tiny nest of God’s own love?

19,133 days

east wind’s rain and north wind’s clearin’
cold old southwest wind’s a fair wind home
one bell two bells don’t go grievin’
all our bad times past and blown alee”

–Gordon Bok, “Saben the Woodfitter”

If I live to awaken on August 14th I will be a different person in a kind of way. Sometime during the hours that comprise the preceding day there will come a moment when I will have lived 19,133 days. That’s how many days my older sister lived. Nineteen thousand, one hundred and thirty-three days.

She was born 497 days before I was and she died on April 3rd of last year, so sometime on August 13th of this year, or perhaps the hours just around the edges of that day (I can’t figure it that precisely) it will become true of me that I have lived longer — first by a second, and then by several minutes, and then by hours — than the sibling who preceded me into the world. That morning, I will have crossed a psychological border into a territory that I was never meant* to inhabit or tread into or even see.

Seems no matter whom you talk to, the mountain is sacred ground.

Day 19,122; a selfie seems inevitable. Jeni felt a strong bond with Mount Rainier all her life, so I snapped this one thinking of her when we visited the old rock a few days ago. More about that soon…

In some ways — maybe in most ways — this is a meaningless thought exercise, just one more way for a naturally melancholic overthinker to punish himself for being such a bumbler as to lose a sister, to not fully appreciate and properly cherish a family member while she lived such that there would be no feeling of loss when parting time came, no missing. We can’t demand that every sibling drop dead after the elapse of a certain precise time span. And this happens all the time. In fact, Angela has the similar experience that she has now lived longer than her own mother did. It is nothing new under the sun.

Moreover (really? have I become the person who says “moreover”?), this day and this reality have no inherent significance for my little brother, who is just as bereft as I. The difference between Ben’s age and Jeni’s was a different difference, and if he survives me, as is my hope, the countdown that begins on the day I shed the coil to the moment he becomes the “sibling who has become oldest” will constitute a different number of days for him; 1,589 days in fact.

So, yes, it’s ridiculous for me to dwell on this. I could with just these few thoughts dismiss the whole idea. But in another way, perhaps only to me, I think it’s the saddest thing in the world. I lose my place as the middle child, and my sister stops preceding me into my ages.

I used to look at these photos and think what a long time ago that was.

Jeni, Matt, Ben.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot (it almost goes without saying). About what I should do. It feels like I should do something, mark it somehow. Take the day off, maybe, although there’s no point in just having more time to be morose. Jeni’s grave is very close to where I now work. I could go there on my lunch break.

Anyway, if God ordains that I should open my eyes next Thursday, the landscape I see will represent what I think is the final leg of my journey as my sister’s brother. I’ll be the second-born oldest child, for the rest of my days on Earth. Maybe I’ll stop thinking about death so much; maybe it becomes easier to see every single day as a gift, something extra, a special bonus opportunity that not everyone gets.

stars thy compass, cloud thy canvas,
rock thy keelson, wind thy course to steer
one bells two bells don’t go grievin’
all our bad times past and blown alee”

———————————————————–

*What is “meant” to be seems to me ultimately indemonstrable, but one could argue the point, and you know what I mean.

Chem House: Or, another post that manages to be about death

In the best of times, one of the streets we use to get out of our neighborhood by car is practically impassable. It’s a narrow street with cars parked on both sides all the time, creating an inconvenient wait for whomever doesn’t get into the street before another car enters from the other end.

But these are not even the best of times, especially for the two nonagenarian residents of a particular house about mid-block. They have been relocated by the federal government of these United States while an assortment of vans and large trucks emblazoned with the Enivonmental Protection Agency legend and logo sit parked outside their home all day on both sides of the street and men and women in masks and reflective vests move large metal drums back and forth with handtrucks and pallets of Optisorb oil absorbent with pallet jacks.

EPA canyon.

EPA canyon.

In the last few days I kept forgetting that these outsized vehicles were there and kept turning into this street on the way to and from my house, then had to try not to click mirrors with them, or rather click my mirrors on their tires. Out of my peripheral vision I saw lots of yellow tape and black oil drums.

Yesterday as I motored slowly through the canyon of emergency response and spill control vehicles I rolled my window down and — watch how I do this — apologized to the young Security officer who stands in the street for barging through his area of responsibility again and saying that I’ll have to remember to take a different street next time. A woman in jeans and a vest behind him on the sidewalk came forward to my car immediately with a smile and told me that they were really sorry for the inconvenience and that they would be finishing and clearing out as soon as ever they could.

I asked if everyone was alright, thinking I’d have to inquire carefully to prevent her from clamming up, but without further prompting she started telling me what she and her team were doing and why, and how long they expected it to take. She handed me a flyer through the window, indicating the URL for a website where I could get more information.

I saw the phrase “Green Lk Chem House” on the paper.

“You mean you have a website for just this incident in particular?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Well,” she squinted. “There hasn’t really been an incident, it’s just that there’s a lot of improperly stored hazardous material in the house.” She said that the residents — I immediately pictured an old guy of my dad’s generation, his hair in a comb-over and his overalls marbled with paint from odd jobs decades ago — had been collecting chemicals in the house for a long time and not storing them properly. The fire department had somehow been alerted and they had called in her team to have a look.

Look they did and found they did, and came back with their trucks and masks they did. I asked where the residents were, and she said “they’re in a hotel.”

“Studying up on proper storage of hazmats,” I offered.

“One would hope,” she said.

Her name was Kay. Mine was Matt. We shook. Kay said that as community involvement coordinator she was there to answer any questions, and it seemed so. She was not inside the house ordering people around or saying “careful with that, Steve, you’ll blow us all to hell if that barrel falls off your handtruck.” She was just standing across the street, smiling at anyone who came down the sidewalk or rolled down their car window.

Signs of danger.

Signs of danger.

I was surprised by this openness in a federal agency operation. I would have thought they would be pushing people away while they do their work, dissembling and saying very little and reiterating their inability to comment further. Probably I’ve seen too many movies. No, they have a website for the Green Lake Chem House with dozens of enlargeable photos showing basement shelves loaded with jugs of bromides and sulfates and ammonias and goodness knows what-all (“acid, oxidizers, solvents, and other chemicals typically found in laboratories or commercial use”, says the sheet), plus benches brimming with unlabeled mixtures that have long ago separated into scary sludgy solids and murky solutions, and funnels and tubes suspended over more jugs, and empty and not-empty drums stacked in piles out in the back yard.

I went back over there this evening to take some photos. This time not Kay but a similarly friendly, similarly safety-vested, similarly casually dressed man named Jeffrey was there to answer questions. He was talking with a young man who had been walking past carrying a backpack and who seemed very worried about what might have been going on inside the house.

“It was a man and his sister,” Jeffrey told the young passerby. “He’s 93 and she’s 91, and he told us he was doing some experiments, but a lot of the stuff has been sitting there for years.” He said that since he’s federal, he doesn’t know exactly how the discovery was made, but he said that neighbors are claiming that they’ve been complaining about the house for years. Apparently the man called the fire department because he needed help getting his sister downstairs, and the fire department alerted the EPA.

“He was unwilling to dispose of the chemicals voluntarily,” said Jeffrey, who turns out to be the EPA’s on-scene coordinator. “‘All of this stuff has value’, he said. So that’s what initiated our work here.”

It's when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

It’s when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

I’m unsure how obvious it is that I would be absolutely fascinated by a person like this homeowner, even slightly obsessed. I’m not a hoarder, b…wait…let me rephrase that. I’m not a very successful hoarder, but I have hoarding in me. I understand the impulse and if I hadn’t moved so many times and also had to make room in my physical, geospatial life for a woman and two children and two cats, and all their toys and kibble, I would probably never have been able to get rid of many of the things that I have set out on the grass verge next to the street with signs on them that say things like “FREE BAR STOOL — ELVIS SAT HERE”.

I get how it happens, at least with me. Time is escaping our lives at an alarming rate, jetting off like steam from a leaky valve, and yet we often imagine ourselves in a static sort of way, so that it’s possible for us to rethink old thoughts. “One of these days I’m going to fix that thing…finish painting that canvas…get some oars for that canoe…make a workbench where I can mount that drill press…replant those trees in bigger pots…use those old pieces of PVC pipe as hoops for…” The number of things I still think of myself as “intending to do” as soon as I get the time is astounding. But that number of things is not being reduced at the same rate that old age — yes, let’s just say it, my Death — approaches. I don’t know what that latter rate is, but it’s fast, probably a lot faster than I realize (even with all the realizing I’ve been doing about this in recent months), and at some dread hour in the future near or far the arrival of that fell visitor will overtake my to-do list with a sudden finality, and it won’t care about what’s in my basement.

And so I can see how this old guy suddenly finds himself nearly a century old and he hasn’t yet done all the mixing he needs to do. Doesn’t realize that the thought is old, impossibly old, beyond his ability now to carry out. What I want to ask him is, what does he believe he is trying to do? He’s obviously not some mad bomber. Is he, was he a professional chemist? Was there some elixir that eluded him, some El Dorado of cleaning agents the discovery of which would make him famous or rich and after which he still seeks? Has he been operating under the impulse of some old thought of himself as someone doing important work that our valiant military might deploy toward peace and democracy on far shores? What will happen when he finally understands, really understands, that his quest has been cut short, that it’s over? This is the moment I would want to be looking into his face, to encounter in its raw and yet thwarted state that strange Promethean force that makes people behave in ways that are inconsistent with — even orthogonal to — the reality in which they exist. But not to judge or to jeer. Just to gawk. Because I’m in awe. The madness of being alive and having plans, great plans…it’s pathetic and terrifying and lovable.

The game's up.

Whatever the idea was, its time is up.

Unfortunately, at a certain point it’s also a potential “airborne toxic event”*, and therefore a hazard to the neighbors. So, let’s quit the morbid speculation and have another bag of Optisorb over here.

*See Don Delillo’s White Noise.

The Pick-Up Sword

I could be on the topic of my sister’s death for a while. I’m ready to talk about it. So you may want to come back in a year or two if you’re in an up phase and don’t want to be brought low.

I was doing the dishes one day recently and became aware that Millie, who is three and was sitting at her place at the kitchen table having a snack or drawing or something, had begun saying something interesting about her imaginary friend.

“My friend knows how to get people out of heaven. She has a pick-up sword,” she said in that off-hand way that kids have of saying things when they are also peeling crayons or grapes.

“What is a pick-up sword?” I asked, suddenly alert.

“It’s a sword that you use to pick people up and throw them over into the life,” she replied. “To where life is.”

Maybe something like this? Image found on www.kaia.ca and used without permission.

Setting out for heaven? Painting by Kaia (www.kaia.ca) used by kind permission.

I didn’t say anything for a long minute, during which Millie’s discourse wandered off into the realm of sports…or gardening — I wasn’t quite sure. “My friend was telling me  — he was calling the little red thing that was red and round, he called it a baseball tomato.”

I said, “I wish I could use the pick-up sword to bring my sister back to life.”

“It has to be special,” Millie said. “To pick up people. Pick-up swords are super special that you can’t even touch them. Well, you can try to touch them but you have to be super special.”

I wish I were super special.

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.

A hundred is better

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep”

— Robert Frost

There’s an old abandoned railroad grade called the Iron Horse Trail, the old railbed of the Milwaukee Road, that winds up to Snoqualmie Pass from North Bend along the northern flanks of Mount Washington, Change Peak, McClellan Butte and Silver Peak before running into what was in its day the longest tunnel on the Milwaukee Road system, then to emerge at the west end of Lake Keechelus at the top of the pass. This blog post is not really about that trail.

“A Taste of Old Monroe”.

Pictures of the Iron Horse Trail online now show repaired trestles that have no rails across them but instead smooth, walkable, bikeable, joggable paths, but when my friend Rich and I hiked along the railway there long ago, it was still physically a railroad, with rails and ties, and there was one trestle that we walked out on whose middle had collapsed many years before. We always saw it from the highway going up into the pass. It looked like a disaster waiting to happen, but it was the crumbling infrastructure of a world long gone.

The day we hiked along the rails we heard gunshots, someone shooting a rifle, but didn’t worry about it until we emerged from a wooded section of the railbed and saw a man standing next to a pickup that was parked next to the rails and looking sheepish. When he realized we were not authorities of any kind he told us he’d been target practicing along the tracks, hadn’t expected anyone to be walking up here, and was surprised when he saw my tee-shirt in the cross-hairs of his scope. My tee-shirt was blue and had a big rooster on it. Both the marksman and I were lucky that day, to say nothing of the rooster.

Trillium.

I had hoped my hiking buddy Scott and I might hike part of the Iron Horse Trail this past Saturday. But a sick man allegedly shot his wife and his daughter in their North Bend home the previous Sunday, then burned down the house by setting a can of gasoline in a skillet on a lit stove and headed for his bunker in the woods, where he had stockpiled food and ammunition for a last stand. Scott, who lives in North Bend, didn’t want to hike anywhere in the Snoqualmie Valley while the manhunt was going on. I agreed. The night before our hike, news reports were quoting forest experts who said that the man, a well-equipped survivalist, might be able to remain hidden in the mountains for months or years, which left us with the future prospect of hiking where we ran the risk of running into this desperado, or forsaking the Snoqualmie Valley completely and using up precious hike time on the highway to places further away.

As it turned out we needn’t have worried; the police work on this case was executed very swiftly. Images on the man’s computer, which survived the fire, practically put an X on the map for those in pursuit, and by the time I was driving to meet Scott the next morning I heard that special police teams were watching the man’s bunker, and before our day of hiking was done they would find him dead inside it, leaving us all to realize over and over again that even if they’d taken him alive there would have been no use asking what he was thinking.

Salmonberry. The lower woods were spangled with them.

Bridal Veil Falls.

Our wives had only given us shore leave until one o’clock, but we started early and drove up to Highway 2 to hike the Lake Serene trail, figuring if we didn’t have time to get all the way to the lake we could go as far as the Bridal Veil Falls Lookout.

We stopped for breakfast at the Hitching Post Cafe in Monroe, old Monroe, Main Street Monroe, which most people driving through Monroe don’t even know exists because it’s across the tracks from the main highway. I love Monroe’s Main Street because you can drive down the street and when you see a cafe you want to eat at advertising “A Taste of Old Monroe” you can just tug the steering wheel a little to the right and angle into a wide space, which is what we did.

I’m not sure if this is “stream violet” or “evergreen violet”, but it’s a violet okay.

“A few good years left in us.”

A day like this would not be complete, would not start well, without a good hungry man breakfast. I had the French Toast combo — I always do — and Scott got a similar arrangement with griddle cakes. The old men of the town were already there, having finished breakfast and now chatting over coffee. We sat in a booth painted with a little mural of a steam engine, “Pat McCoy’s 4-4-0″. There were other, larger murals covering all the surrounding walls, one depicting the street in the 1950s. Wood models of Conestoga wagons lined the shelves, and there were several old pistols, a guitar and a long logger’s crosscut saw hanging on the walls. The food was delicious and plentiful.

The trail was adorned with trilliums, yellow violets and salmonberry (I took pictures, naturally) and as far as the fork between the falls lookout and the lake it was fairly easy going, which fooled us into thinking we could make the lake in another hour. If this were an official report, I would note that there was a fair amount of downed material lying athwart the trail and that the trail was pretty much a streambed after the turn-off to the falls. Had the trail not been chiefly composed of crumbled granite rocks it would have been muddy going. And it was very steep. In many places there were wooden stairs that might as well have been submarine ladders.

The trail would have been muddy if it weren’t so rocky.

This is what the back of Mt. Index looks like.

During a water break near the top I called Angela on my cell phone. I don’t normally do this. I like to leave technology behind me when I’m in the woods. She had walked with the girls to a restaurant near the house and they were eating brunch, which made me glad. I knew that at a certain place on their walk home they’d be able to see Mt. Index, and I asked her to point and tell the girls that that’s where I was, and have them wave, which she did. She told them that even though I would not be able to see them waving I would feel it in my heart.

A snowfield lay over the last quarter mile of the trail, and Lake Serene was covered in snow and ice. We were way behind schedule now so we only stayed at the lake’s edge long enough to snap some photos, watch a few avalanches high up on the rock walls that rose from the lake’s far shore — the northern face of Index — and eat our lunches. Then we bolted back down the trail. The only wildlife I saw was a single chipmunk because the trail was so difficult, each step so full of potential for a twisted ankle, that I could never lift my eyes from the trail ahead of me.

A hazy stripe of sun lies across frozen Lake Serene.

Scott and I are attempting to plan and execute a hike — a no-kids, just-us-fellas hike — every other month this year, the even months minus December, so just five hikes. After we met a man on the trail who seemed in his seventies at least, Scott said to me cheerfully that we still had a few good hiking years in us. I got to thinking. That’s just twenty years for me now — Scott is a little younger. If we hadn’t committed to these five or six hikes every year (and we missed February because of bad colds and scheduling mishaps) then realistically I might only do one hike every year, if that. Twenty more hikes only? In the whole rest of my life? It reminded me of the lines by Paul Bowles in his novel The Sheltering Sky:

Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

Twenty hikes. The thought made me very sad and I said so.

Scott’s happy retort, “but a hundred is better!”, went ahead of us like the call of a trumpet, seemed to be picked up and amplified by the forest.

Scott and parties unrelated picking their way across the snowfield. By the time we headed down the footholds were getting slushy.

Faithful Scott. Yes. I’ll take a hundred, please. A hundred more hikes in these rolling fir hills that hatched me. And I’ll be grateful for them. I don’t like it that we get old. That death comes for us all. I hope someday to find a grace and a rhythm and a dignity in it, but right now it just bums me out, as it bums me out that a man can go round the twist without his neighbors knowing it, without them knowing that he’s spent six years building and stocking an underground munitions bunker in the woods, and that he will be willing to kill his family when he has decided the end of the world is at hand.

We have so far to go and it feels to me like there’s so little time.


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