Last week at the beginning of a session, my counselor handed me a plastic dinosaur. I tucked it under my arm as we talked, and waited for him to tell me what was up with the toy. Of course he didn’t start by telling me anything; instead, he asked me what I “noticed” about the T-Rex… And the obvious observation is that he’s full of holes.
Bullet holes, as it turns out.
He’d been used for target practice the previous weekend, 9 millimeter rounds. The next obvious observation is that a 9mm bullet hole looks WAY different in a plastic toy than it does in a human forehead. That’s precisely where he was steering me, and the ensuing hour was an intense “unpacking” of my late husband’s gunshot-to-the-head suicide in my presence.
I don’t think I’d dug through that event in such detail ever, certainly not out loud to another human being.
If you’re not familiar with poker, the thing to understand is that you start a hand with some cards of your own, and you don’t yet know what other cards will be available to you to use in that hand. You have to “sign up” to play that hand by putting some money in the pot before the other cards are revealed, and there’s a minimum amount (the Blind) that’s essentially the baseline price of admission to play. Sometimes people will bid higher than the Blind (if the cards they CAN see bode well for play, or if they want their opponents to THINK that), but sometimes a player will hope to see the next few cards without investing a great deal up front. Calling the Blind, or going in for the minimum amount, is called Gypsying, or Limping in.
The other day my counselor told me several times that the word “Gypsy” describes me. (I don’t think he even knows that I literally do live on wheels, in an RV!) In that same day, reading a book about Borderline Personality Disorder*, I got forehead-smacked by chapter-headings titled “Playing the Dealt Hand,” and “Learning to How to Limp.”
With the word “Gypsy” on my mind, and the poker-connection of Gypsying or Limping, those headings felt significant, so I read mindfully; I believe in Messages rather than Coincidence. (“As my first Sponsor always said, “Coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous!”)
The chapter in question talked about practicing change, which can be “a monumental struggle” for a Borderline Personality. Okay, that sounded odd to me at first, given my own very-varied past performances in Life… On the surface, you wouldn’t tag me as a person who struggles with change.
There are some phone calls in life that a person wishes never to have to make. Three months ago I had to make several of those calls on a Sunday morning: breaking the news to Keoni’s children and his parents that he had just shot himself.
And “breaking” is precisely the word for this. Utterly in shock myself at my sudden and unexpected widowhood, I heard hearts break with every one of those calls—the daughter’s screams, the mother’s anger… And I felt at the time as if I were the instrument of all that breakage. As my own shock wore off a little, my thinking shifted: yes, I’d had the heavy task of imparting news, but I wasn’t the one who’d made the choice that created that wake of heartache.
There’s no way around it: the sound of that single shot, fired inches from my face, signaled the abrupt alteration of every aspect of my life. It was literally the starting-gun to an entire new (unasked-for) chapter of Life, with an entirely alien new set of labels… Widow. Single mom. Unemployed. I had to close our restaurant at his death, and I was suddenly out a living as well as a spouse.
For now I won’t rehash the three months of grieving—and ongoing healing—except to say that it feels like it’s been a lot longer than three months. It seems like I’ve lived three years since that Sunday morning, and my grief counselor (knowing I have a biology degree) even explained the brain-physiology behind my apparent mental time-warp. I shared with her at one point how messed up my sense of time was; as an example, I’d called my doctor’s office in those first few weeks for an adjustment to my antidepressants, and then found myself wondering later why I hadn’t yet heard from the pharmacy in the week or so since I’d made the request. It took some focused thought to realize that it was only 3pm on the same day I’d called the doctor—but it honestly felt like a week. That severe “time distortion” continued for a good month and a half—so I felt as if nearly a year had passed already.
My grief counselor also commented that I could be the “poster child” for having the tools already in place to heal from trauma. With a lot of prayer and unfailing support from friends & family, along with the social network and tools-for-living found in Alcoholics Anonymous, healing has been happening.
I won’t lie: I know now more than ever that it’s messy being human! I was so relieved to find laughter again in a day, but felt guilty at the same time. All too often, missing-him took the form of being angry at him. In packing for the move to a new home, I came across what seemed like a million mementos from the five years of our marriage, and I could never predict whether any one of those memories would make me smile, or rage, or crumple up crying.
I will also say, though, that I have been determined, even from that first week, that I AM NOT DONE LIVING.
(I hope that the other people who loved and miss him will not take it amiss that I prefer today to talk about living—and finding joy—rather than dwelling on grief or bereavement. The grieving process is by no means done, but “Grieving Widow” just isn’t a role I feel meant to wallow in—and I don’t intend disrespect to anyone by making the conscious decision to focus on Living rather than on Loss.)
Those of you who have been reading here over the years have heard me say (repeatedly!) that God’s plans (especially in times of crisis) are better than anything I could come up with—and there’s a reason why “God’sHumor” is a good-sized tag in that sidebar to the left… Chief among the things I wouldn’t have thought to plan for myself at this point would have been meeting someone new. No, let me say it straight: coming to love someone new.
Wouldn’t have been my plan, but I’m at least wise enough not to turn away from the Blessings God puts in my path… I met Dustin in A.A. shortly after Keoni’s death—he’s Sober and Spiritual, fun and feisty, intense and energetic, and (no question, the seal on the deal!) my kids took to him instantly.
Our first “date” outside of time spent at our A.A. home group was a demanding hike up Boise’s Table Rock plateau with my son Christian, followed in short order by stringing Christmas lights and putting up a tree (things I hadn’t done for seven years—and now I know the kids had missed it), family poker games, home magic shows, trampoline basketball, hiking and playing games of “Capture the Flag” in the Boise Foothills…
We were having dinner at the kids’ favorite cafe recently and I noticed the older couple at the next table watching us closely. When they finished their meal, the wife came over to us to say (actually with tears in her eyes) that we were sitting at what had been their family’s regular table, and it was a joy to see kids and parents actually talking and laughing together. “You have a beautiful family,” she told us as she left. It was that same evening that Elena Grace (who usually takes forever to warm up to people) chirped brightly from the back seat: “Mommy, you should marry Dusty!”
Even when the kids aren’t around, I’m enjoying our playful spontaneity… Just before Christmas we spent an evening at a local entertainment place (“scouting” before bringing the kids… yeah, that’s our story!) playing laser tag and racing go-karts. A few nights before that we sat on top of Table Rock to watch the sunset and moonrise. We play poker (always with something significant at stake; my new short haircut is the result of one of those games!), spend evenings singing country songs together, read aloud to each other, work out together… We laid down the “ground rules” right off the bat that Parenting & Sobriety absolutely come first in the relationship—and we’re beginning every day with coffee & prayer & A.A. reflections, and hitting an A.A. meeting together every day.
And yes—Living from the Heart, I’ve already followed my daughter’s directions.
Quietly, in the back yard with just the kids and an ordained friend to officiate (after Dustin asked Christian’s permission) I married him.
When Dustin shares during an A.A. meeting, he often wraps up with a favorite quote of his—and as we were slow-dancing in the half-packed kitchen at midnight (among stacks of packed moving-boxes) I was thinking we need this one on a plaque on our wall:
The Secret to Life… is to LIVE!
EDIT November 2016: OK, it felt like a happily-ever-after when I wrote the above post, but there have been some twists & turns & lessons & LIVING in the two years since. In other words, there’s more coming…
Dad took me car-shopping my Senior year of high school, explaining that although he’d drive the new car for a while, it was intended eventually for my use. I pictured myself in a Jeep Cherokee: four-wheel-drive, room in the back for dive gear and camping kit, a rack on top for my parents’ old orange canoe, and plenty of under-carriage clearance for the treacherous Forest-Service roads I enjoyed exploring. Instead of a Jeep, though, we drove away in a 1990 Subaru Loyale wagon—less expensive (even new), and with the same 4WD, clearance, and room in the back for all the stuff I imagined packing for my upcoming Life Adventures.
As planned, my dad drove the wagon for a couple years, periodically taking me to an empty lot at the edge of town for lessons in driving the stick-shift. And eventually—once I’d learned not to lurch around the lot or assassinate the engine—he turned over the keys.
I’d thought myself clever to come up with “SCUBARU” as a personalized plate—but someone else had beat me to it! With sailing, scuba-diving, and canoeing in mind, I settled on WTRLOGD for the plates… Still, I come from a family that names cars, and this one would always be “Scubaru” to me.
I loaded her up at various times with Forest Service maps, tent and camp-stove, hiking boots, canoe paddles, picnic blanket, books and camera and journal… And over the years my trusty vehicle & I ventured forth to “fill in” the Idaho atlas with tracks of where-we’d-been. A five-foot map of the state hung on my wall, with all my roaming & rambles marked in highlighter pen—and at every opportunity I interspersed those outings with forays to the Pacific coast.
Scubaru proved her worth over and over again. In a blinding snowstorm atop Washington’s Snoqualmie pass, when most of the cars on the road were either pulled over or slid onto the shoulders, I put on my chains and kept right on going. An ice storm in Oregon’s Colombia Gorge encased trees, signs, and roadway in inches of solid ice, but Scubaru crept cautiously all the way to Portland, accompanied by the explosive acoustics of bursting trees alongside the road.
After one particularly hairy drive in the Sawtooths (a pot-holed and washed-out dirt road, no wider than the car and without turn-outs for passing—just a sheer drop, inches from the passenger tires) I spotted a warning sign: “NO passenger vehicles.” (Oops. If there were a companion sign at the other end of the road where I started, I’d missed it!) I had to peel my fingers off the steering wheel to pat Scubaru’s dashboard and congratulate her with a heartfelt “Good girl!”
Of course, even four-wheel-drive isn’t foolproof. (Though Dad also taught me not to BE a fool; specifically, not to drive into tricky conditions with the 4WD already engaged—because if you get stuck when you’re in 4WD, you’re really stuck!) Nevertheless, I had to dig her out of a couple spots. I used a snowshoe to scoop a back tire out of a snowbank in the Boise National Forest, and in the Salmon-Challis Forest put my grandpa’s collapsible Army shovel to use, extracting her from a mire of mud where a beaver dam had flooded the road…
When a downpour threatened a planned picnic along the Snake River, I popped open the tailgate and happily set my spread in the back of the car. Sheltered by the overhanging door, I savored my strawberries & brie to the soundtrack of raindrops pelting the roof. On a couple occasions, with lightning storms too close for comfort in an exposed tent, I folded down the back seats and stretched out to sleep.
On the shore of Big Trinity Lake, I woke one morning to drifts of snow piled against my tent-corners, and had to chip my solid-frozen bacon from the cooler with a hatchet… but Scubaru scooted me safely back down the mountain, heater blasting.
Along the Washington Coast where stretches of beach serve as legally designated “highway,” I misjudged the incoming tide and dashed the last leg with waves licking the tires and wipers warding off wads of sea-foam blowing against the glass. Scubaru served staunchly through many a scrape and adventure.
With a little love and care, a Subaru will run forEVER. I drove that one for close to twenty years, and I might still be driving her… But when I departed my first marriage, I didn’t stop to quibble about any of the community-property stuff. Not long after I moved out, the wagon was also absent from her accustomed spot in front of my ex’s house… I never inquired about her fate.
Fast forward a few years… My husband started making noises this summer about the red 1989 Subaru Loyale parked in front of our neighbor’s house: I wonder if they’d consider selling it. I countered with “practical” negatives—we work together and don’t need a second car, they’d have posted a sign if they wanted to sell… But Keoni recognized what I hadn’t acknowledged even to myself: my affectionate nostalgia for that whacky wandering wagon. In no time at all he had negotiated a sale-price, payable primarily in the form of a sizable certificate to our restaurant.
Next thing I knew, I was slipping into the driver’s seat of a car that felt as familiar and comfortable as a favorite old pair of jeans.
Keoni and our son Kapena are plotting “improvements” to the engine and paint and upholstery… Fixing her up will be a fun family project, but I’m content already. I’m “back” in my very first car, and behind her wheel I’ve come full circle. This time with the SCUBARU plates!
My husband Keoni found a historic gem online yesterday: game-film from the championship football game he played his senior year of high school. The whole game—complete with a “pause to change reels.” Yep, reel-to-reel, black-and-white game film. Classic 1973.
Naturally, I didn’t miss the opportunity to tease him about my Favorite Fact. “Wow, there’s Senior-in-high-school You. What was I doing then? Oh yeah—I wasn’t born yet!” (Hell, I wasn’t even conceived yet.)
And another favorite topic of teasing: the mascot for Punahou High School. To back up for a little history, this school stands on Hawai’ian land won in battle by King Kamehameha I, and gifted half a century later to the missionary Hiram Bingham. (If you’ve read James Michener’s Hawaii, Bingham is the historical basis for the dour, hardass character of Abner Hale.) Bingham and his fellow missionaries started a school for their kids in 1841, with Daniel Dole (think pineapples!) as the first principal. One hundred seventy years later, Punahou is still a prestigious private school, known to some as the alma mater of Barry. You know Barry… Obama? (He graduated with Keoni’s younger brother.)
But I’ve digressed—it’s the mascot I like to tease about. Any guesses? Punahou’s mascot is (drum roll, please)…
The Lauhala Tree. That’s right, a tree. Ferocious and intimidating, don’t you think?
So while the game commentators used the opposing team’s mascot (“the Crusaders”) in references to them, Punahou was identified instead by their colors—“the Buff and Blues”—as if that were the team name. I’ve been giggling and poking fun at this unusual mascot-situation for years, but hearing it from the sports commentators took it to a whole new level of fun.
Plus, I have to add the observation that to members of my generation, “buff” is a state of undress rather than a color. Seriously—I had the 128-box of Crayolas, and there wasn’t a buff anywhere in the line-up. (Of course, our son Christian just pointed out that his generation uses the term “buff” to refer to someone who’s very muscular—so I guess this is one of those words that pinpoints your age by how you use it…)
Generational joking aside, it was fun to hear some familiar names in the commentary. Punahou’s offensive line alone boasted three all-star players who seemed destined for the Pros: Mosi Tatupu (who went on to USC and a career with the New England Patriots), Keith Uperesa (who went on to BYU and played for the Oakland Raiders & the Denver Broncos), and one John (a.k.a. Keoni) Tyler (who went on to ASU, but lost his football scholarship to a career-ending leg injury).
I will admit to one moment of weirdness, when I was commenting on his uniform… (Ladies, you know what there is to say about football pants, right?) …And then it dawned on me that the version of Keoni I was watching was a sixteen-year-old. In fact, exactly the age of our son Kapena—which suddenly made my commentary seem a little creepy. Until I reminded myself that I wasn’t even born yet when this particular butt was on display. Well, I’m back to patting the 55-year-old version of that butt, but I sure got a kick out of our YouTube time-travel.
We don’t usually get a lot of rain here. We live in Idaho’s “high desert” climate, where it gets really cold in winter and really hot in summer, but we seldom get even an inch of precipitation in a month. Which makes the last few days unusual—we’ve had more than an inch of rain this week.
I do love Idaho autumn, though–despite the inescapable fact that winter will be following close on its heels. I don’t like the cold. Give me barefoot-weather any day! Still… The oversized old trees around us are ablaze with rusty colors, and there IS some satisfaction in snuggling under our down comforter when our windows are icing over…
Keoni and I have been joking that perhaps this week’s rain is not coincidental, given how closely our home is coming to resemble the infamous Arc of Old Testament story…
For quite a while we didn’t have any animals (unless you count kids, which might not be a misclassification), but a year and a half back we rather unexpectedly ended up adopting my Grandpa’s cat. I had flown to Colorado with my mom to visit my grandparents, who had recently moved into assisted living, and discovered that the Big Family Question was what to do with Grandpa’s kitty, Suzy. Keoni had always declared himself “NOT a cat person,” but I called him from Colorado to feel him out on the topic of Suzy—which is how I came to find myself navigating the security checks at Denver International Airport with a stoned cat as carry-on luggage.
Mr. Non-Cat-Guy fell under Suzy’s spell from Day One, and submits to her whiskery whims without even a pro forma protest. She has trained him to perform a number of Human Tricks—my favorite being the one where she cries for food when her bowl is still full. She’ll carry on until he goes to her bowl and rattles his fingers through her kibble, at which point she’ll settle in for a contented meal. He’ll get out of bed to do that, knowing full well that she’s not out of food.
So Suzy has been family for a while… And then, along came the chickens! (Or, as Suzy prefers to refer to them: “Kitty Television“…) The chicken-house gradually took shape over the course of the summer—the work of Keoni and our 11-year-old, Christian, who had put in the original chicken requisition last spring.
“The Girls,” as we call them, have turned out to be charming and entertaining—and they do a fantastic job of cleaning out all the kitchen scraps that used to end up in the trash. No waste in this household! And although we’re supplementing with commercial pellets to ensure they’re getting everything they need, it’s nice to note that the bought feed will stretch a long way while they’re eating scraps.
One by one they have been earning names, beginning with Ku’okoa (tagged with the Hawai’ian word for “freedom”), who regularly asserts her independence by running around our yard outside the chicken-fence. When we go to feed the Girls in the morning, we just leave the gate ajar and she comes scuttling back into the enclosure to make sure and get her share.
The first hen to start laying earned herself the moniker of “Fertile Myrtle.” She started off by presenting us with an absurdly miniature egg, but she has followed up with a nice big brown one almost every afternoon since. (I always thought hens laid their eggs first thing in the morning! I still don’t know if that were a misconception on my part, or if we just have a confused chicken…) Whatever the case may be, we’re enjoying her output.
Saturday morning the kids climbed into bed with me, we queued up a rainy-day movie, and Keoni brought us all breakfast in bed! Crepes for Christian, pancakes for Elena Grace, and biscuits & gravy for me—all prepared with eggs from our chickens. How cool is that?
We did run into one hiccup when we brought the chickens home. Elena Grace had been excited by the idea of chickens, but when she came face to face with them, she didn’t want to chase them, catch them, or… well… touch them. In pretty short order, she felt left out—and started wondering aloud about a pet of her own.
First she floated the idea of a bird, but I confess (despite my mom’s amusing stories of a childhood parakeet with some embarrassing catch-phrases and a habit of riding around the house on the dog) that I’m not wild about the idea of an indoor avian. I suggested something of the mammalian persuasion instead—maybe a gerbil?—and promised that if she would do the research about gerbil-care, we could build a gerbil cage and get one. She proceeded to fill a small journal with gerbil-notes from her online research—she’s nothing if not thorough!
Keoni had noticed some likely building materials in a scrap-pile belonging to our neighbor Chuck, a disabled vet whose lawn Keoni has been caring for all summer. When he asked Chuck about them and explained the proposed project, Chuck told him to hang on a moment, disappeared into his shed, and wheeled out a moment later with a cage! Elena Grace wrote him an illustrated thank-you, and off we went to the pet store… Where both kids fell in love with the mice.
Welcome to the family: Nibbles, Whiskers, Climber, and Frogger (the jumping mouse). Suzy’s Kitty Television now had two channels: Chickens and Mice!
But guess what? We’re not done. Evidently on a roll, Christian proposed a ferret. And promptly found a guy on Craigslist whose landlord had ordered him to offload his ferret in 24 hours—so Christian counted up his saved allowance and got a crazy cut-rate deal on a ferret, a cage (more like a condo!), and a box full of ferret-care goodies.
And just for good measure, we had a surprise on our front porch when we arrived home: a hexagonal fish tank with a note from Chuck, who thought the kids might like this as well… Research is once again underway.
Allow me to pause here and observe one small irony about this growing menagerie. Our current custody schedule has the kids with us for just two weekends a month during the school year. (We’re on the verge of filing for a change, but that’s another story for another time.) So as the schedule stands, Keoni and I are the sole zookeepers for 24 of every 28 days. And we have zero regrets.
Last weekend the kids played with their pets for hours. I’m not a fan of mice in the kitchen cupboards, but in the kids’ hands they’re awfully sweet. And Niele the ferret (named with the Hawai’ian word for a nosy busybody) has enchanted all of us. She’s clumsy and playful and scampers around the house nosing into everything and chirping like the chickens, then collapses curled up in her hammock to recover from her exhausting adventures… She’s absolutely adorable.
We hope we won’t be floating away on a flood (despite all the recent rain, and despite our location on an island of the Boise River)… But a menagerie-count of five people, one cat, four mice, seven chickens, and a ferret would have been a good start even for Noah.
Keoni and I make a running joke about his age—not because he’s incredibly old (though of course that’s the joke), but because he was in college when I was born… So I tease him that when he used to carry girls’ books after school, they were clay tablets… Or that his birth certificate was chiseled in stone…
Maybe my teasing sparked an idea, because he recently picked up some pieces of sandstone that have been piled in a roadside heap since the dismantling of a wall at the entrance to our neighborhood. He started looking up traditional Hawai’ian petroglyphs, and next thing he was playing with his dremel tool and carving into his sandstone squares.
In Hawai’i you can find petroglyphs (literally, “rock-pictures”) near sites of old villages, around the volcano, or the sacred grounds of heiaus. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that they aren’t cordoned off or marked out like museum-pieces; you can just be poking around a lava flow and realize you’re standing on a story… The petroglyphs (or, to use the Hawai’ian term, ki’i pohako) tell stories about the sea life and plant life of the islands, family and social relationships, birth and magic and food and sport (Hawai’ians invented surfing, of course)… As a writer, I’ve always felt a special affinity for these enduring image-stories.
We’re both familiar with many of the traditional petroglyphs—hunters and fisherman, canoe paddlers and boats, and of course the honu (turtle) outline that’s all over the merchandise in tourist shops. I hadn’t realized until he started researching, though, that there’s a petroglyph for the owl, my own totem. So the owl was his first carving, followed by a pair of paddlers in memory of my Hawai’ian friend Al (an outrigger canoe steersman, whom I wrote about last year on the anniversary of his death).
He went on to make a pair of carvings for the two youngest kids, each one representing a family name we use for them. I nick-named Christian “Turtle” when I was pregnant with him and didn’t know know his gender, so honu is the obvious choice for him. Keoni carved a sandstone version, and then another on a circle cut from a gourd, which he put on a braided cord for a necklace.
Elena Grace was trickier to match with a design, but she’s been a “monkey” since I first saw the movie Curious George… She was two years old and so exactly like George that I jokingly began to call her by that name when Christian and I came home from the theater. I didn’t anticipate the repercussions, though. For a month or two afterward, she insisted on being called George, persistently referred to herself as “Jooj,” and wouldn’t answer at all to her given name! If I felt ridiculous about the incredulous looks I got when I addressed her as “George” in public (because she wouldn’t acknowledge any other form of address)—well, I guess it was my own doing…
She was also born in a Year of the Monkey, which she particularly celebrates because she has that in common with Keoni. They’re the Monkey-Twosome of the family… But sadly for us, Hawai’i doesn’t have endemic monkeys, and therefore no monkey-petroglyph in the traditional line-up. No matter, though—we made up our own, adding a tail to the conventional “man” symbol.
The kids were thrilled with their carvings, and I got even more of a kick out of Elena Grace’s determination to try her hand at carving herself. She went through the stack of index cards on which Keoni had drawn different petroglyphs, picked out “bird,” and after a quick demonstration of the tool, went to work on a piece of sandstone. Maybe that one is for the chickens we’ll be adopting soon.
We have a pile of sandstone left, so the carvers are still at it. We’re thinking of pua’a (wild pig) for Kapena, since he’s so passionate about his “pigskin” (football)… Now we just need to figure out the other four kids, and the three grandkids, and we’ll have the whole family line-up in story-stones.