Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Home Again

We pulled into the driveway about 1:30 pm.

Outside temperatures were over 100; we felt sticky and achy; and oh, so glad to be home.

Howie was glad to see us, as one might expect; he is feeling under the weather, however. Apparently he stopped eating a few days ago, and so John, worried that I'd come home and find my dog a skinny wraith, fed him extra and tempted him to eat with tuna fish. The result: major intestinal upheaval. At least I wasn't the one who had to clean it up.

I waded into the pool and reveled in the chilly water, at length. The heat of the air seemed as nothing. I know I will again be in the pool tomorrow, as the temps are not going to stray far from the 100's.

Tomorrow I don't have to get up early to get on the road, not one little bit. Haha, I don't mind that at all.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ha Ha, God, I Guess That WAS Funny

In a previous post, I noted that we almost didn't get a room at the end of a long day in Des Moines on our way east.

Now my mother would have called me careless, lazy, and unmotivated, and other people would call me a fool, but I do tend to rely on God for provenance. That there was only ONE room available in Des Moines the night we came through a couple weeks ago, and that ONE room was in the very hotel we longed for -- well, I thanked God that night very much, and spent time marveling at how the event had been tailored to our preference as well as our need.

Today our travels took us from Rock Springs, Wyoming, to Winnemucca, Nevada. It wasn't a strenuous drive; I let Bernie sleep until 8:30, then we showered and had a leisurely breakfast. Around 3 pm, we opted to stop and have a sit-down meal in Elko. No worries. After all, we were going to stay in Winnemucca, which is some two and a half hours from Reno, out in the middle of Ja-pip.

We got to Winnemucca, and went into the hotel lobby. While Bernie took care of some of his own business, I stood in line at the front desk to book a room. My heart froze when I heard the lady at the counter say to someone on the phone, "No, I'm sorry, we're fully booked." There were a couple men in line in front of me; both parties had prior reservations. Again, the woman answered the phone and told someone there were no rooms available.

Bernie joined me, and I told him what I'd heard and asked him if he wanted to forge on the next two and a half hours to Reno. He looked pained, because frankly, even with the leisurely pace, we were both really tired. "Let's ask her where else we might stay in Winnemucca," he advised.

Our turn at the counter. The lady asked cheerfully, "How are you today?"

"Not very good," I answered, "I heard you say you're full up."

"Oh, that's tomorrow," she said with a grin. "I think we have a couple rooms tonight."

She frowned as she looked at available rooms. "I have one room with two queen beds," she said.

One room, with two queen beds. We always get the two beds because after riding in the car for hours, I tend to twitch and kick and thrash in my sleep. "Thank God," I said, in heartfelt relief.

Only a few minutes later, as I was soaking my achy old bones in the hotel hot-tub, I thanked God again, and was even able to chuckle a little at how close, how precise the provenance was.

I'm reminded of the Bible story of Jesus being asked for the "Temple Tax." He tells Peter to go and catch a fish. Peter catches a fish. The fish opens its mouth, and there, inside, are the proper change in coins for the Temple Tax.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

In the Neighborhood Again

Ahh, Wyoming!

There's no doubt that we've made some hurried trips from California to Pennsylvania and back again in the past three years and some. Interstate 80 may be a fairly tedious route, but it is the quickest, and we've come to know it maybe all too well.

In all the trips, I've been saddened to leave Wyoming on the way east, and overjoyed to cross into Wyoming on the way back. Is it because I know that I can get home in one day from Wyoming? Or is it the lovely pronghorn antelope, of which we saw literally hundreds today?

I do love the wild and alien environment of Wyoming, and wish that I was young and adventurous and could explore (safely) all the strange little side roads on horseback, but I think that the answer is the "one day" thing. If I woke up with an Incredible Homing Instinct tomorrow morning, by bedtime, I could be in my own house.

Nevertheless, we won't drive home all in one day from Rock Springs, Wyoming, where we are currently ensconced in a VERY comfortable Holiday Inn Express watching Sunday Night Football. The Piker Press is ready to turn over in the morning, and after a leisurely breakfast, we'll make our way to Winnemucca, Nevada, where we will hole up and watch Monday Night Football.

For us, that makes today and tomorrow the most vacation-like days of this long trip. Then the real resort living resumes: patio sitting, nature walks, playing with pets, eating really, really, really good food. Home in two days.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Perfect Weather

September is a variable flavor in Pennsylvania. I can remember an orientation week at Penn State (which would be the third week in September en aquellos dias) when it snowed, and other Septembers when it was hot and humid and disgusting.

Yesterday was perfect, as our days in PA have been since we got here. We went for a walk along the Juniata River, where the old canal used to be, and where they have made the canal edge into a walking trail.

Moving along the path, surrounded by the kind of woods I remember from my youth, of locust, and horse chestnut, sycamore, tulip trees, oak, and sassafras, infringed upon by raspberry canes and ubiquitous poison ivy, highlighted by beautiful orange-blossomed jewelweed and goldenrod, I sank into the environment and was captivated by the river. I could live back here, I thought. I could tell Bernie we have to come back, and I'd have my river back again.

I'd can veggies for the winter, I'd fish and freeze and eat bass, all the fish I could catch, and I'd fish every day, and love the bright red of sugar maples peeking out from the forest ...

The rational part of my mind gave me a ripping good kick on the ass and said, "You moron, how many days out of the year felt like this when you DID live here???"

After some thought, I answered, "Lots. Uh, ten?"

Rational replied, "HOW many days are there in a year?"

I didn't answer, but did continue to salivate over the remembered taste of pan-fried black bass, oh, with Spanish rice on the side, and tomatoes from the garden.

In the afternoon I had to travel to the next county up the state, where my mom's nursing home was, and in front of a snooty county clerk, swear that I was who I was and that I, as executrix, would carry out the terms of my mother's will; I'm sole inheritor as well as executrix, so I was promising that I would be just to myself in all my dealings with myself. Thanks, legal system, that little dance cost me $200, and I didn't even get to take a swing at the snooty clerk.

By the end of the day, I wasn't in any mood to move back to PA, but only wished my paper chase was done and I could be transported back to the other coast and sit in my quiet studio to write.

We're on our way as the sun comes up tomorrow, thank God. We're in no hurry to get across the interstate highway, but we're headed back to where we belong.

And you can bet your booties that snooty clerk is going to be featured in a story in the not-too-distant future. Maybe something with zombies, maybe something more in depth about her inability to respond adequately in relationships ... I'm not sure, but something.

Hey! Maybe a cartoon!

Friday, September 17, 2010

The End

I saw my mother into the ground today.

The service was absolutely beautiful, with lovely music and terrific readings. Close friends were there, though the attendance was not huge. Mom had often complained years ago that most of the people she had known were dead, and she had lamented being a survivor of her cohort. Yeah, that happens sometimes, and so most of the people who went to her church only knew her as a dotty and confused old lady.

No more. On the Other Side, the girl her mother called "La Furia" (The Fury) is back in action, I'm sure.

I cannot say for sure, for I do not know the mind of God, but the luminous, perfect weather this morning was like exultation. I don't think I've ever seen such a glowing, clear morning in Pennsylvania in my life. The views of the mountains and the river as we drove to the church were extraordinary, so much so that I forgot I had the camera in the car. Maybe Heaven -- and my dad and my sister -- are happy that Mom has joined them, all flashing smile and presence big enough to move mountains. The mountains and the sky and the sun seemed to speak loudly this morning.

I'll take that as a "yes."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Old Gray Mare ...

Hoo-boy, as Stan Lee used to say in Marvel Comics. What we've found on these past two days! Things just ain't what they used to be...

First of all, I was awakened Wednesday morning by my phone ringing. I answered it croakily. "What the hell, were you still asleep?" my sister-in-law's voice boomed. "I've been up since 5 am! When are you getting here?"

It was a good thing she called, or we would have slept until 10, or later. I remembered Bernie's alarm going off at 6am and him telling me to go back to sleep, which I gratefully did. We pried ourselves out of the hotel and onto the road by about 9:30 -- not an efficient travel plan. But we did get to Maumee, Ohio, where we rented a room from Holiday Inn.

Now Holiday Inn used to be a nice bet for travel. We've come to vastly prefer Holiday Inn Express, and just in case you haven't already found out, the two brands are totally different experiences. Holiday Inn Express, by and large, wants you to continue to use their chain and goes out of their way to make sure your room is wonderful, amenities unequalled, experience utter luxury. Plain old Holiday Inn could just give a shit as long as they get your money. Bare bones rooms, lack of customer service. We found out too late at night that the air conditioner in our room worked only with a noise like a train driving through the room. Higher rates, less service. WTF?

I forcefully fantasized that I was on a space ship and that the noise was the ship's engines kicking on. I got a little sleep.

Today, we made it to home base, a motel that used to be a Holiday Inn, back in the day, but is now a "Quality Inn". It has adequate facilities, but nothing special. It used to have in it the successor to Tony's Cottage Inn , but alas -- Tony's has changed. The signature salad is a shadow of what it was only a few years ago. And we went down town to grab some Laskaris hotdogs, but Laskaris has been sold, and it's secret chili sauce is gone, and the hotdog grill, and the poor folk who bought and run it are doomed. No one but us was in the restaurant, and the owners were ... sad, apathetic, clueless people who aren't even keeping their work counters clean.

I have a sad feeling that an Age has passed.  At least the AC in here works quietly.

Oh, Well, He Lied.


Up at 6, breakfast after a shower, and then on the road. Yes, back on the road, after a night's broken sleep as my already out-of-sync body rebelled at going to bed several hours early after getting up the day before long before it wanted to. Also the body rebelled a great deal during the night about the Subway sandwich I ate for the afternoon meal Monday. Not rested.

Originally we thought we'd get from Rock Springs, Wyoming, to Des Moines, Iowa (too late to pester our friends there), but as the day wore on, and we lost another hour to time zones, we decided to stop right after Lincoln, Nebraska, at the first Holiday Inn Express we could find.

NOT. There are no Holiday Inn Expresses after Lincoln. In fact there's jack shit but bedbug factories (which my sister-in-law, a former truck driver told me after the fact) between there and Des Moines. And getting into Des Moines well after dark, we found every frackin' hotel booked solid. I'm not lying. It was ridiculous, a veritable Posada of searching for a place to stay. "Everything around here is sold out," we were told over and over again.

Finally, one hotel had ONE room. It was on the far side of Des Moines, and it was a Holiday Inn Express, and we crept in like crippled mice and crashed. So much for Tuesday.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Long Day

Bernie tells me that tomorrow is not going to be as long a drive as today was. I hope he's right.

We started off at 4 am this morning; losing an hour going from Pacific Time to Mountain Time, we got to Rock Springs, Wyoming around 6:30 pm. For once, we didn't hit a lot of road repair, and traffic was light.

The hot springs at Nightingale Hot Springs, Nevada seemed closer to the road than we remembered, with a lot more steam coming out of the ground. Is the volcanic activity increasing?

There was still snow on some of the peaks south of the highway in eastern Nevada. Not as much as we saw in June, but amazingly, still some.

Just east of Salt Lake City, I saw a strange color on the hillsides. "What could be blooming red at this time of year?" I thought to myself. Well, DUHH, it wasn't blossoming, it was the beginning of Fall Color. We don't get that for a while yet in the Central Valley of California, and rarely if ever such a sweet, bright hue.

Wyoming was beautiful in the early evening light. Our room at Holiday Inn Express is GORGEOUS.

Thoughout the day I remembered the reason for our trip, feeling pangs of loss, pangs of guilty relief. Alzheimer's just obliterates the one you love, and abrades your heart to the very soul. At times over the past years of Mom's decline, I would find myself wishing that Dad was there to keep her from the dangerous forgetful actions, but he had such a tender heart, and loved her so much -- I'm glad he didn't have to go through this. I hope they meet again on the other side. I hope that she will be able to see just how beautiful she was to him, and how much he loved her.

And though the world is much poorer without my mother, her death was the mandate for me to use that dread apparatus of modern life: the telephone. I spent literally hours on the phone this past weekend, letting close friends know about Mom's passing, and catching up, and loving hearing Deb's and Lonz' and Barb's voices, getting a kick out of reminiscing with Dan Brown about what Mifflintown was like when we grew up in it. (He's the funeral director, and was the younger brother of one of my grade school/high school class mates.) I found myself wondering why I don't talk with them more often, and remember my mother nagging me to stop being so shy and solitary and get out there and talk to people!

And travel. Don't become a stay-at-home.

Got it, Ma.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

End of the Line

Peacefully in her sleep, my mother died this morning. 

My dreams were strange last night, and I had a hard time sleeping around 4 am. Mom died right around that time.

Today I'm packing, doing laundry to pack; we'll clean up the car and get a new case of water for the trip. Howie won't be coming with us this time (he's getting too old, and the last trip took too much out of him) so we'll have plenty of room for extra clothes. I have no idea how long we'll have to be there.

I'm not happy my mother is gone, but I am happy that she's done with that damned disease.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Sad Dream, Sad News

A few weeks ago, I had a nightmare.

In it, I was in a house with my mother and my father. I wanted to get something from the upstairs, but I was so tired that I could only crawl up the white painted steps. (Note: I have never lived in a place with white painted steps.) As I neared the top, Molly the Macaw came waddling around the corner, and as she usually does in real life, began coming toward me. 

As I do in real life, I tried to get away from her, but slid down the stairs. She landed on me, and I kept trying to keep my face covered while she flapped and squawked. I shouted for my mother to help me, over and over, but she just kept on doing whatever she was doing in the kitchen.

Finally, I was able to get an arm under the bird and fling her away from me. I scrambled to my feet, staggered over to my mother and shouted at her. "Why didn't you help me? Why didn't you help me?"

She turned to me, looked down her nose, and said, "Because I don't like you." I raised my hand to crack her across the face, but all she said was, "You can't hit me."

Indeed, she was right. In the dream I knew I could never hit her, and just turned away, sick at heart because my mother hadn't really loved me at all. I'd been loving someone who didn't love me back. And my father, in the background, just shrugged, as if to say he didn't care about it at all.

Honestly, in the dream, it felt like my heart was being torn into pieces. Even after I woke up from the dream, I hurt inside, and shed a couple tears.

Now, a person could be miserable for days after a dream like that, even to the point of being afraid to fall asleep in case they dreamt something like that again. But I do know something about dreams, and I believe that you have to tackle them head on sometimes, to find out what's actually lurking in your subconscious.

The parrot as fear is a no-brainer: I'm scared as hell of that bird in real life, and every time she screeches it feels like someone put a chainsaw to my spine. Perfect symbol of a fear from which I need to be saved, right? But what is it that I'm afraid of, that my own mother won't help me overcome, and just turns away from me instead, disdaining me? And how could I be that angry at her, that I would (as I never did in life) raise my hand against her?

Any guesses? Oh, right. Alzheimer's.

And with that realization, I understood that at some level in my subconscious, she should still be the Mom I knew growing up: fierce, fearless, vibrant. She should have been able to surmount Alzheimer's! But instead, she has drifted away on the tide of forgetfulness, not even looking back. On that deep and cloudy level of my mind, I have anger at her for leaving me behind, no longer remembering me. And Dad, oh, Dad, where have you been while her disease has been crippling her, and breaking my heart?

I was able to find peace in understanding the dream, and I know she loved me. She didn't always know the best way to love me, but I never doubted that she did.

This afternoon the nursing home called me. Mom's foot is ...'better' ... but she is not. Some new phase of the disease has kicked in, and she forgot how to feed herself, forgot how to swallow after a bite of food. Uncomprehending, she just spit out her food and couldn't figure out what she was supposed to be doing with it. For the last three or four days, she hasn't wanted or tried to eat or drink anything, too weak to stand.

The nurse said they would put her on an IV to see if rehydration would "perk her up" -- but warned me that if there wasn't a big change in the next couple days, they'd be calling me again to discuss ... "making her comfortable." That means, in real life, allowing her to die.

I know that. I knew from the beginning that Alzheimer's is terminal. But my heart still thinks ... well, you know.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

This Writing Thing, Part 3: The Avalanche

So I signed up for National Novel Writing Month.

On Halloween, I dressed up in a long, ugly dress, put on a scaggy witch hat and wig, and painted my face in horrible patterns. And since I was wearing some funky high heels, I wore pantyhose. Alex and John came by to hand out candy. In the giddiness of the holiday, the visit, and the impending writing glut-to-come, I scampered through the family room, making my 7-month-old puppy Howie chase me. I stopped in the hallway, but Howie didn't. He crashed right into the back of my legs, knocking my feet out from under me, and sending me skidding on the slick pantyhose and carpet, right into a broken doorstop on the closet door. The rough metal end tore a hole in my right palm.

I didn't need stitches (though John thought I did and wanted to drag me to the Emergency Room), but by the next day, that was one sore hand. What a perfect excuse to not follow through with NaNoWriMo!

Instead, when I got ready to start writing, I just changed the bandage. The prospect of writing was overwhelming.

I don't remember how much I wrote that first evening. I do remember that letting the words begin to pour out onto the screen of my computer gave me a sensation very much like the one I got back when I would dive from a high diving board -- a sense of air, of stretching my arms out, of daring life to take me, and the glowing kernel of faith, that I knew I had the skills. I just wrote, drawing from a recent incident in my life, and one of the remembered dreams.

The following morning, I read what I had written, cleaning up typos as I went. It was all right. In fact it was more than all right -- it was part of Me there on the pages. As soon as I was alone, I set in to write again, thrilled to indulge my memory and my vocabulary. And then I began to lie.

I think that was when I really began to enjoy myself; the words were fun to build with, and the imagery delightful to paint, but when you write fiction, none of it has to be true. I was writing in the first person (which many literary snobs sneer at, but a point of view I have always loved in books) and allowed myself to peer at life through the eyes of my main character.

The most amazing part of this first writing experience was the deadline: if you're going to gush out fifty thousand words in thirty days, you can't stop and second guess yourself. You have to keep a-hammering. And to do that, I needed to hone a skill my father taught me when I was nine -- which fingers to use to type correctly, which I had always tried to do, but never had the motivation to do so without looking at the keys. That November, I didn't have time to keep looking down, I had to follow where I was in my paragraphs. One more thing was thrown into the mix at that time: Alex and I began to use an instant messaging program. Before the month was halfway through, I finally learned to touch-type.

No one read a paragraph of my story, not until the very end. I didn't "share" with others; writing was a wholly personal and private act for me. That's the only thing that got me through, I believe, because there were some parts of the writing that were damn good, and had someone told me that, I probably wouldn't have had the guts to try to finish it, for fear of spoiling it.

The timing was strangely right: only a day or so before the last day of November, the last paragraph was ready to pour out, and I was overwhelmed by emotion. Wondering at my sobs as I typed "The End," Bernie read over my shoulder what I had just written. "Wow," he said.

Now, was that month's writing a good and finished story? Hell, no. It wasn't supposed to be about good and finished. It was all about the writing, the doing, the writing, the thinking, just the writing, that's all.

This Writing Thing, Part 2: The Transformation

What did I have in my head that I wanted people to know, though? That's what stories are all about, aren't they? A writer has a message they want to get out there to people, a great thought that will change the lives of the readers, a beautiful idea that will dazzle the mind. At least that's what I thought writing was all about, and the fact was that I didn't have a great thought in my head.

My only personal manifesto was to enjoy life day by day. It's what I wanted to do from the time I was sixteen. Of course, my mother didn't think much of that idea at the time, and in 2001, she was still hoping that I would someday "bloom" and become "successful," whatever the hell that meant.

I could write about that, I posed to myself. Maybe I could have a character who thought that very thing, and lived her life accordingly. And anyway, no one would be going to read anything I wrote, so I could make the character just as boring as I pleased.

But fifty thousand words! That's a lot of words, and how would I come up with them?

While tidying up the bedroom, I came across a dream journal I'd used the previous Lent, loaded with six weeks of memorable dreams. The entries were just notes, fragments to bring my dream back to mind for meditation. I could stretch them into more words...

I could ...

What a transforming phrase! What a wonderful word, "could!" A couple days before Halloween, I was suddenly sweaty-palmed and trembling at the thought of writing all those words. ALL those words. All those WORDS!

No more concise, say-it-clearly-in-the-briefest-manner writing -- instead, I could allow myself to be as wordy as I wanted to be; I could describe everything until not a speck of it was hidden. I could jabber, I could embellish, I could use images from my own life and finally explore them in words.

And no one ever had to read a sentence of it. As many words as I cared to write, they were mine, all for me.

Obviously, I had changed my mind about NaNoWriMo. I was "in."

This Writing Thing: The Beginning

Before November 2001, I hadn't written a scrap of fiction since college days. I'd taken one course on writing fiction in order to take a class with Bernie in it (we thought that would make it more likely for us to actually get to class), and when that class was done, I was tremendously relieved.

Over the ensuing years, I read a lot and painted a little; then in the 80's got a bug in my ear about writing religious education courses for teens and adults. I wrote a teachers' manual -- one that was in use several years after I left that job, which would be flattering if they had any idea at all that I was the one who wrote it. I believe they simply used it because they had no idea how to write a new one.

For the next six years, the only things I wrote were letters and emails. I painted not at all; I didn't sew or draw. My garden was my canvas, and that was enough.

Then came October of 2001, and the e-mail from Alex with a link to NaNoWriMo. She was going to take the challenge and try to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. "Ma," she wrote, "you have got to try this!"

How to describe the feeling with which I recoiled? A boiling fear immediately surged through me, and I knew I wouldn't take the challenge. Fear of failure, fear of losing, fear of looking like a stupid hack with no imagination at all ... fear of trying something new and unexpected.

The fear was an old familiar thing, a hangover from something in my early twenties that had surfaced bit by bit: if what you do doesn't come out perfect, then what? People won't respect you, they won't buy the product, they'll stop thinking you're good at what you do, they'll pity you for your inferior effort ... That old familiar fear had put to a complete end drawing just for the fun of it; stomped to death my painting, squelched my singing. Nothing made me feel less like completing a project than having someone pause, have a look, and say, "Wow, that's really coming along!" God, then what if I spoiled it? If I tried to write a story, someone might read it and say, "Gee, Sand, I never knew just how much of a mush-brained incompetent you were." So I turned my back on the challenge.

No one would ever have to read what I wrote, though. That was the part of the deal that kept NaNoWriMo in the back of my mind. No one would have to see if I was stupid, or untalented, or banal. After all, I could hit Control + A for All + Delete at any time. Presto! Gone as though it never existed!

Because Bernie worked second shift, he was gone from about 3 pm until 2 am ... that meant that he wouldn't be there to peek over my shoulder at the computer. Alex and her husband lived in Modesto at the time, so they wouldn't be popping in unexpectedly to find me writing my pathetic little attempt, and the dogs wouldn't care if I wrote total trash, so long as I fed them.

A secret vice. A secret game. A secret club, just for me ... maybe it was worth a try.