As Good as it Gets . . . for now

There’s a great scene in the Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good as it Gets” where he barges into his psychiatrist’s office without an appointment. When the psychiatrist sends him away, he walks through a packed waiting room, pauses, turns to the patients and says, “What if this is as good as it gets?” Off camera, someone gasps. Everyone else just stares at him.

One year and one month after my husband of 46 years died and left me to redefine myself with a new label—Widow—I had an appointment with my therapist. I’d been off and on weepy for a couple of days, suspecting we were nearing the end of the journey she had guided me through. I was reluctant for our relationship to end. She’s someone I can sit across from and uncage all my emotions. To me, they’re terrifying gargoyles, yet she never once flinched when I sent the demons flying in her direction. However, over the past couple of months, they’ve calmed down and are increasingly content to snuggle, purring, at my feet.

We talked about how I was doing and reflected on the past 13 months.

Gary died on March 15th—the Ides of March, which was ironic given that his favorite Shakespeare play was Julius Caesar. If you’re unfamiliar with ancient history, Julius Caesar had named himself dictator in perpetuity of the Roman Republic. Soon after, members of the Roman Senate were, like, “Yeah, well we don’t like Caesar all that much, especially not enough to put up with him forever.” But according to law, they couldn’t vote him out.

A few conniving senators gathered and got all hopped up on whatever the Roman’s hopped-up beverage of choice was and decided to call a special senate session with two agenda items: (1) Bring a knife hidden under your fancy toga; and (2) Be prepared to use it.

At the appointed signal, they surrounded Caesar and stabbed him to death—on the Ides of March.

A few days before Gary’s death, he mentioned this play. As if foretold, he died from complications of diabetes exactly 2,065 years after Julius Caesar. Remarkably, Gary survived a nearly recording-breaking 65 years of living with juvenile diabetes. Despite the care he had taken to survive for so long, the devastating effects of his disease conspired to attack all at once— pneumonia, kidney failure, heart failure. Like Caesar, his death was an ambush.

Life is strange. Death, it seems, can be even stranger.

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I’ve dealt with dozens of widows through my work as a financial advisor. I have a few close friends who were widowed years ago. I’d learned that the first year is awful, the second year nearly as bad, and the third year begins to offer some relief from the pit of dreadful emotions. Despite my enlightenment, my adult children worried about me. Even though I tried to shield them from the gruesome details of my sorrow, they saw through my guise, feared for my sanity and urged me to seek professional help.

I confessed I was a broken-down mess, but argued that this was normal. Eventually, in an effort to placate them, I asked a therapist friend for a referral and based upon her recommendation, contacted Carol.

She was full up until the end of June. Fine by me. I didn’t want to see her anyway.

When I went to my first appointment in early July, I wore snappy business clothes so Carol would recognize me as a woman of corporate steel, someone fully capable of dealing with whatever monkey dung life flung at me. Moments after I sat on her couch, she asked about my situation.

Tears and snot burst from me like an erupting volcano. I tossed the F-word around like beads at Mardi Gras. I spewed my anger at myself for feeling weak and overwhelmed, feeling tired all the time, being confused and forgetful, and hating people who said things to try to make me “better,” but only made me feel worse.

After a bit, I paused and said, “I’m sorry, but I say fuck a lot.”

She said, “I don’t fucking care.”

I knew she was the therapist for me.

Over the months after Gary died, my anger towards people consumed me and caused me to be filled with guilt. I’d been raised to allow others to express anger, but not me, oh no, not me. I’d grown up with the notion that I should react to people with love, not anger. In Carol’s office, I covered my weeping face with my hands and rocked back and forth. I was a horrible person for hating people when they said inane bullshit. I should look beyond their words and honor their attempts to soothe me.

And you know what Carol said? My wonderful, savior Carol? “During times like this, people say things to make themselves feel better. You were raised in an era when women had to bury their feelings in order to be socially acceptable and take care of others. You don’t have to do that anymore. Anger and hatred can sometimes be useful emotions to propel us forward, to help us take action.”

I’m forever grateful to her for this.

I never—well, let’s say very rarely—unleashed my anger onto others. Not because I’m a saint, but because I’ve learned enough in this life to know I’d have to later apologize. Quite frankly, I’m too lazy to expend that type of energy.

Over the following months, Carol guided me through exercises where I wrote scathing letters to those who had ignited my ire. After I read them to her, I was not to send them, but to shred them. This went a long way towards allowing me to maybe not actually like these people, but to not hate them as much.

In my last session with Carol, she praised my hard work. As much as I am tempted to avoid it, I sit with my grief—not all day, every day, but begrudgingly make a place for it whenever the bitch barges in uninvited. I allow myself to experience true anguish even when I fear it will kill me. I have a group of supportive friends who I interact with on a regular basis. I accept myself for being a mess because, fact is, I was a mess and sometimes still am.

When Carol asked if I wanted to continue seeing her, I pointed to a cupboard in her bookshelf and asked, “Do you have any ecstasy tablets in there?” She laughed and said no. “In that case, can I keep you on speed dial if I need you in the future?” She said yes.

For now, this is as good as it gets—long stretches before sadness sneaks up from behind and shoves me to the ground, feeling joy in moments that call for it, gratitude for family and friends and even towards those who said lousy things that once pissed me off—at least they cared enough to say something. I’m having fewer anxiety attacks, my mental capacity is improving, and I don’t fight as much against this process—a onetime formidable foe.  

Without my guide Carol, I would not be here. I’d be lagging far behind on the grief path, lugging a heavy pack filled with sorrow, anger, hatred, self-judgement, shame and vulnerability. Over the months of our hiking together, she gave me permission to toss bits of these aside and lighten my load.

Don’t get me wrong, this hike is far from over. My load still feels heavy at times. Whenever I’m distracted, those pesky demons tend to slither back into my pack. But I’m stronger than I was a year ago and the burden is not as hard to carry.           

Life after a Death

What is life after the death of a significant loved one? Over the past year, I’ve asked myself this at least once a day.

Six months after the death of my husband Gary, our daughter Jenn came for a visit. The day after she returned home, I found she’d left the Bill Bryson book, “A Walk in the Woods” on the guestroom nightstand. I picked it up and read the back dust cover, intrigued by the author’s quest to hike the Appalachian Trail.

I was at loose ends with the new reality widowhood had dealt me—unanchored with no discernible path forward. Clutching the book to my heart, I had a revelation—I could gear up and hike the Appalachian Trail! This would be the key to purging my sadness over Gary’s death and spark the journey to recovering my power.

I envisioned myself striding through the forest, staff held high, wearing sturdy boots that encouraged long Amazon-woman strides, breathing in a new life along with the heady mountain air. A smile graced my lips, my gaze drifted heavenward as the light of a thousand angels washed over me and filled me with joy.

Okay, okay, I admit I was not in my right mind.

Over the course of my career as a financial advisor, I’ve encountered dozens of widows. I believed I was empathetic to their plight. Each was confused and sad most of the time, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Until Gary died, I had no idea—I repeat, no idea—what that actually meant in practice.

Now I do.

For nearly half a day, I remained infatuated with the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail. It felt empowering to imagine stepping out of my comfort zone, putting myself into the middle of nature—which is not one of my favorite places—and having no choice but to commune with it.

Never mind that I’m surrounded by a loving family and a community of friends who are supporting me emotionally through this time. The fact is I was stuck in a tarpit. I didn’t want to depend upon others to help pull me out.

I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. With Gary gone, I needed to set goals to move forward and become fully functioning once again. And that had to happen ASAP! But I didn’t have the faintest idea how to begin. I was incapable of designing a blueprint for what that life should look like.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail might be the key.

I was excited!

My usual counsel to new widows is to avoid making any major decisions for the first year or two. I’ve seen dreadful mistakes, like finding a substitute mate who eventually steals money and goes on the lam, or moving closer to adult children who don’t want them nearby.

Yet here I was after six months of widowhood believing that hiking the Appalachian Trail was a good idea. Why should I sit here amidst the muck of despair and deep sadness when I could break out, have an adventure and learn a thing or two about myself along the way?

As I read Bryson’s book, I quickly realized this hike was far from my romantic notions, far from allowing me to have moments of life changing experiences which were not also life threatening. I had to admit that I truly hate camping, having never once had a pleasurable experience.

And backpacking? Gary and I went on our first and last backpacking trip with friends early in our marriage—to a mountain above Palm Springs. We were dedicated cigarette smokers at the time and woefully out of shape. After we struggled up endless, winding trails to finally throw our packs off at the summit, the only thing that allowed us to continue breathing were the generous shots of whiskey poured by our friends.

Over the past year, I’ve resentfully learned that as painful and awful this grief process is, sitting with it has turned into an unexpected adventure, one that is slowly allowing me to discover myself. It is not fun by any means. It’s as uncomfortable as I imagine being drafted into hell. Several pages into Bryson’s book, I realized that backpacking through the Appalachian Trail would be worse—lugging a heavy pack, disgusting bugs, blood-sucking mosquitos and ticks, terrifying bears, hazardous terrain, trying not to barf while eating Top Ramen every night.

Throughout each of my days since Gary died, I’ve been able to live in a comfortable home with running water, central heat, electricity, homecooked meals, flushable toilets and toilet paper. Every night, I’m able to put on pajamas, curl up in my luxurious Flo-Bed and snuggle under a pile of blankets. My sadness is regularly put on hold by family and friends who keep me distracted and entertained.

I was disappointed to come to the conclusion that hiking the Appalachian Trail will not help me. It would probably kill me. I don’t wish to die in such a fashion, not to mention my kids aren’t ready to be orphans.

If you haven’t suffered the loss of a significant loved one, I envy you. If you have a relative or friend who is going through this kind of grief and you think they’re crazy, trust me—they are. I humbly ask you to be there for them without judgement. Those of us who are grieving judge ourselves harshly. We think we should be better, but we’re not. Be there for them—regularly reaching out with a phone call, text, a meal, a walk or an invitation to coffee or lunch. Such things will go a long way to help them heal from deep wounds.

Try to be there for the long haul. It takes more than a year to heal from this type of pain. Take comfort in knowing that when you have this same experience—and you will—these people, people like me, will be there for you in ways others cannot.

Practicing Gratitude & Co-dependence at the Dollar Store

On March 26, 2021, nearly two weeks after my husband died and two days after trying to celebrate my first birthday in 46 years without him, I made a conscious decision to spend the day in gratitude. I’d spent so many days frazzled and crying, starting when Gary entered the hospital on February 10th to struggle for three and a half weeks to survive against numerous odds. When all hope to save him had been extinguished, he returned home to spend nine days before he died. Each of those days was overlayed with sadness which hollowed me out, left me defeated and tired, so dreadfully tired.

I needed a break, if only for one day.

I expressed gratitude for the amazing family we built together, that Gary was no longer suffering, and I didn’t have to watch him suffer, for our excellent health insurance, that it was a bright, warm sunny day. . . and on and on and on.

A friend who lives in Mendocino invited me for a walk. I added “grateful for friends” to my list. On the way to meet her, I stopped at the Dollar Store. Easter loomed, and daughter Jenn and I had promised Gary we would decorate his urn—a vintage Folger’s coffee can—for each holiday. I quickly found two items—a headband with bunny ears and a bunny head.

Perfect.

Only one checkout stand was open and the waiting line long. Then again, most lines seemed longer at that time given the Covid restrictions of respecting a six-foot social distance. As I took my place at the back, a reinforcement checker was summoned. She appeared to be mid-fifties, early sixties—who knows? All I know is she didn’t look happy. She looked like she’d been pulled prematurely from a cigarette break and, as a result, plotted a capital crime of revenge, like arson or murder. I recognized that look, having a time or two entertained such thoughts myself.

I noted another gratitude item—I don’t have to work at the Dollar Store.

I followed the elderly gentleman in front of me to her checkout stand. With a pinched face and cold competence, she completed his transaction. She asked, in a threatening manner, “Do you want a bag?” As if he would take the bag only to later casually toss it into the garbage, adding to the earth’s already overflowing landfills.

He barked, “Yes, damnit, I want a bag!”

I felt a tingle of anticipation. This had the potential to develop into something interesting, to spice up the monotony of standing in line. I was disappointed when he left without incident.

The clerk looked at my two items on the conveyor belt and snapped, “Two dollars and eighteen cents.” She hadn’t even scanned them, yet knew the price. Of course, she did. She works at the Dollar Store where everything’s a dollar. It probably isn’t that difficult to memorize the tax due on a simple purchase. Still, I was impressed. I handed her a twenty-dollar bill.

“Do you have anything smaller?”

“Pardon?” Between the mask and the plexiglass separating us, I hadn’t heard her.

“I SAID, DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING SMALLER?”

I certainly heard that. “I’m sorry, I don’t,” I said with an appropriate measure of shame.

This seemed enough to completely ruin what I suspected had started out for her as a terrible day, perhaps even a miserable life. Did her husband recently die and she didn’t have the luxury of spending time to properly mourn him before going back to work at this shithole?

“Do you at least have eighteen cents?” She scowled.

I did not. I only had two twenty-dollar bills in my wallet.

The woman behind me piped up, “I have twenty cents.”

I pointed to the woman. “She has twenty cents.” Behind my mask, I smiled at the benevolent stranger, grateful that we had a potential solution to the clerk’s dilemma, tail wagging like a puppy eager to please its grumpy master. I sincerely wanted to make the clerk happy, someone who is forced to work at the Dollar Store while I am not.

“Forget it,” the clerk growled. “I hate having to give up the change in my drawer.” I imagined this was the first and only time a Dollar Store employee had uttered this sentence.

As if everyone in the store needed an explanation as to why I didn’t have a measly eighteen cents, I said to the woman behind me, “After coins build up in my wallet, I put them in a cup to roll later and deposit in my savings account at the bank.” The woman cheerfully said, “I do, too. We either have a bunch of change or we don’t have any.”

“Exactly!” I was thrilled to have found an ally and looked at the clerk for a flicker of understanding. She glared as she ripped bills and coins from her till.

As she reached to offer my change, I opened my wallet and held it out her. I was not in my right mind—had not been for several weeks. The only explanation I have for this behavior is I was trying to prove that I didn’t have any change, that I hadn’t deliberately intended to make her day worse.

She looked at me as if I was addle-brained and let out a heavy sigh to indicate I was to stop this nonsense, take the change, and get out of the goddamned store.

On another day, I might have been offended by her behavior. On this day, I walked out, got into my car, closed my eyes, tilted my face upwards while taking a deep breath, determined to continue with my day of gratitude.

I started the car and the Cat Stevens song, “Trouble,” came on the radio.

Trouble

Oh trouble set me free

I have seen your face

And it’s too much too much for me

Trouble

Oh trouble can’t you see

You’re eating my heart away

And there’s nothing much left of me

I bawled all the way on the 15-minute drive to Mendocino.

True or False?

On October 26, 2021, I waited in line at the Mendocino Coast Clinic’s mobile vaccination clinic to get my Covid booster shot. When it was my turn, I handed my card through the car window to a young woman who filled out the date and dose and returned it. I tossed it on the passenger seat and moved forward to get my shot. From there, I drove to the designated parking area to wait the required 15 minutes. As I put the card in my wallet, I noticed the date of my first vaccine—February 23rd.

That couldn’t be.

That. Could. Not. Be.

***

In the early days of the Covid vaccination clinics, none were offered on the Mendocino Coast. People urged me to go inland—to Willits (an hour away) or Ukiah (an hour and a half away), even Santa Rosa (two and a half hours away). One person suggested getting “aggressive” in my quest to get myself and my husband vaccinated. What they didn’t realize, what I didn’t share, is how increasingly disabled Gary had become over the past year. There was no way he would be able to tolerate what I termed a cattle call, traveling such distances only to wait in line with dozens of people. I didn’t have the luxury to be “aggressive.”

Eventually, a friend learned of a vaccination event at Mendocino High School on February 23rd—only a 15-minute drive—and signed me up. My appointment was at 1:00. I arrived at 12:45. Because the school’s parking lot is quite small, I parked on the street at the bottom of the hill. It was a cold day, made colder by the biting wind. I’d put on a sweater, wool suit jacket and scarf. I was going to bring a heavier jacket, but decided against it, figuring the time from leaving my car to entering the gym would only be a matter of minutes.

Near the base of the hill, I was stopped by the end of a line, which by my calculations was a good 10 miles from my destination. I wanted to scream, “What’s going on here? I have an appointment for God’s sake! Don’t tell me these people were all booked for the same time!” I settled myself with the reminder that I’m not the only person in the world, that these people suffered my same predicament and maybe the line would move swiftly.

I pulled out my phone and began playing crossword puzzles—the equivalent of sucking my thumb whenever I have to wait. As the line moved slowly—as in snail pace slowly—the air grew colder and the wind more insistent. For the first time ever, I was able to relate to the valiant hikers who struggle against the elements to crest Mount Everest.

If you’ve never been to Mendocino High School—and I assume most of you haven’t—it sits atop one of the most pristine pieces of real estate along the California coastline with a 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. Such a shame to waste it in on snarky teenagers who by that time in life hate their small town and can’t wait to escape. If Jeff Bezos ever sees this school, he’ll figure out a way to capture it, tear it down, and turn it into either a rocket launching pad or one of his many luxury retreats.

During the two grueling hours it took me and my fellow hikers to get into the gym, my fingers grew numb from the cold and could no longer navigate the crossword puzzles. I silently cursed those who “organized” this event. They deserved to be punched in the face or at the very least publicly humiliated.

I realize this was early on in the vaccination effort and people were doing the best they could amid the chaos. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t have unpleasant feelings about enduring the hardship of freezing for two hours without snacks or a porta-potty.

When I finally entered the warm gym lobby, I wanted to drop to my knees and weep with gratitude, but feared any tears would freeze to my frostbitten face. A young man asked my name. When he checked his iPad, his brow furrowed. “You’re not in the system.”

I nearly shattered into a million pieces.

I was cursed with two names—Kathleen is my given one, Kate is my nickname. I had said Kathleen. After I said Kate, he looked again and found me. I nearly leaped over his table, grabbed him by the shoulders and kissed him on the mouth.

Inside the gym, an acquaintance who was a volunteer beckoned me to her table where she filled out and gave me my vaccination card. I wallowed in euphoria for the few moments it took her to hand me a slip of paper and say, “You’ll have to check this website in a couple of weeks to register for your follow-up shot.”

What?!?

What?!?

Every person I knew had their second shot scheduled when they received their first. What sins was I atoning for that forced me to suffer this horrendous ordeal? I took a deep breath, thanked her without meaning it and moved forward to the designated waiting area.

After about five minutes, a nurse called me to her station. She started to chit chat. My jaw was still thawing from the cold and I could neither chit nor chat. She said she’d heard my name before. I’ve been told I’m practically a local celebrity, but wasn’t in the mood to sign autographs. She wouldn’t stop asking me if I knew this person or that in hopes of finding a mutual connection. I wanted to scream, “There’s a thousand people out there freezing to death. Give me the blasted shot and get on to the next one.”

I sat the in 15-minute waiting area and didn’t faint or die. As I walked down the hill past the poor, blue-lipped, shivering peons, a woman about my age appeared at my side. “Well, that was a f-ing shit show,” she said. Ah…a kindred spirit. We walked together, volleying the F-word back and forth. At the bottom of the hill, we parted and she said, “I’m going home to smoke a big, fat doobie.” I flashed her two-thumbs up.

My memory is that I went home to rant and rave with Gary about Covid, about how it was ruining our lives, about how the government was bumbling the vaccination rollout—maybe even about what the hell we were going to eat for dinner. We eventually soothed our rage by watching “Judge Judy” which routinely allowed us to criticize stupid-ass people and going a long way towards boosting our self-esteem.

***

As I put my October 26th updated vaccination card in my wallet, I realized I couldn’t have come home to Gary on February 23rd.

He entered the hospital on February 10th where he spent the following three and a half weeks. He and his doctors struggled to find ways to allow him to survive before finally surrendering and he made the noble decision to come home to die. It was Covid Time. He was in Adventist Hospital Saint Helena, three hours away. I wasn’t allowed to be there, but was in telephone contact with him and the staff several times a day. It was a deeply traumatic experience—for him, for me, for our family.

Looking back, I realize the trauma of Gary’s last weeks sent my mind into another dimension with little sense of space and time. I believed I handled everything in my usual take charge manner, but now know I was living a surreal existence.

How on earth could I remember Gary being here on February 23rd when he’d been in the hospital for 13 days?

I suppose it was because for 46 years, Gary had always been with me. He was my sounding board. I didn’t always agree with his feedback—especially when he told me to calm the hell down—but I valued my ability to ask for it. How was it possible he wasn’t here when I returned nearly hypothermic from standing so long in the cold, after being told I’d have to check a website in a few weeks to schedule my second shot? How was he not here to agree that we live in such a terrible time, that Covid has completely screwed up everything, and we couldn’t take it anymore?

How?

I know for certain I would not have called Gary to complain while he was fighting for his life in the hospital. So, who did I rant to? I honestly cannot remember. Probably to my poor daughter and son-in-law who were with me during this time. Probably over the phone to my sister who was always available to listen to my tearful rages.

Fear for my mental health sent me to the internet to do a bit of research. I was relieved to discover that my experience isn’t unusual for someone who has experienced trauma. It’s called false memory.

According to the website “healthline,” (www.healthline.com/health/false-memory#overview), “[False memories] range from small and trivial, like where you swear you put your keys last night, to significant, like how an accident happened or what you saw during a crime.”

As time goes by, I’m sure I’ll uncover more false memories from this time. As for this particular one—and as strange as this might sound—it comforts me that even though Gary wasn’t here to commiserate with after I got home from the Mendocino debacle, I was able to spend several months believing he was.

Close Encounters of the Deer Kind

zombie buck

Drawing by author, artist and blogger Jenn Hotes (www.jenniferlhotes.com)

I’m driving home from the gym one dusky late afternoon in January. The gratitude I feel for life pumps to the Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” blaring from the radio. A challenging day has been rewarded by a workout with friends Kathleen and Bethany. I’m looking forward to a quiet evening with my husband Gary and dog Lucy.

I pull into my garage a little after five. When I open the car door, I hear Lucy barking like she’s defending our yard from terrorists. I exit the man door (yes, the door made for people to walk through is called a man door) of our detached garage and see Lucy’s backside near the left corner. She’s barking with such ferocity that she’s practically lifting from the ground.

I walk towards her to find—around the side of the garage—a deer. Actually, a large buck with imposing antlers—standing about 12 feet away.

A big-ass, mangy buck. Just standing there. In my yard!

I have no experience with wild animals and have never been this close to one in my life.

I recall stories of deer kicking and injuring dogs. I yell at Lucy to stop, but of course she does not. She’s in what we call Catahoula mode where her brain is entirely controlled by instinct. For over a century, Catahoula’s have been bred to hold animals at bay until the hunter arrives to…well…you know. A well-trained Catahoula will back off when given a command.

A Lucy is not so well trained.

I wave my arms and yell at the buck. He just stands there. I start towards him, waving and screaming. Lucy moves closer to him, still barking. I yell at her to stop.

He doesn’t move, just stares at me with blank, black eyes.

I wonder if he has the rabies. I’d recently heard a podcast where a woman told a story of being attacked by a rabid raccoon. She was severely injured and it took her months to recover.

Amidst the chaos, the buck just stands there. Staring. Unblinking.

Every horror movie I’ve ever seen comes back to me.

The buck must be a zombie.

Suddenly, he lowers his head and takes a step towards Lucy. Oh God no—he’s going to skewer her!

I ramp up the arm waving and cursing. I wish I had something to throw at him. It seems like forever—but is probably only 15 seconds—before he turns, trots to the fence with Lucy in hot pursuit, and jumps out of the yard. I race to look down the alley to make sure he’s gone.

When I turn, Lucy is taking a poop.

As I walk to the house, trying to calm my heartbeat, I call Lucy to come. She’s laying in the grass. It’s coated with rain and she hates rain. I check her out and see no blood. She slowly gets up, limping behind me.

A few years ago, she had luxating patella surgery on both knees, which makes her susceptible to an ACL tear. My heart sinks at the possibility of having to choose between another surgery or euthanasia.

I enter the house, my gratitude flushed into the putrid cesspool of self-pity. Thanks to this crazy buck, my dog could be facing grave consequences.

Gary reports that he’d let Lucy outside and heard her start barking. He called her and tried to see what was going on, and was worried about her for the half hour it took me to return home. His mobility issues and impaired eyesight makes it impossible to see much.

Lucy eventually loses her limp and passes out on the sofa, content in the knowledge she is Rin Tin Tin for the day. We praise her valor.

The next day, I tell my sister—who lives in a city and was raised like me with no exposure to wildlife—about the incident. She urges me to call the authorities. “That’s a potentially dangerous animal.”

I imagine the police dispatcher’s response to such a call. It would be the same as a 911 call I made some years ago when I found a stray dog wandering around the yard.

“Ma’am, this is not an emergency.”

“It is to me.”

She’ll hang up, go to happy hour where she’ll tell her friends, and they’ll all get a good laugh at the moron who is afraid of a deer.

I tell my sister my plan if the buck comes back—I’ll throw a skillet at him.

A friend who lives on the outskirts of town tells me that deer freeze when frightened. I had no idea. She assures me that because of his traumatic experience, the buck probably won’t return, but advises me to get some deer repellant and spray it around the perimeter of the yard and on some plants.

I do this and the next morning Lucy runs around the house barking and whining. I look outside and in the dim light see two doe standing in the middle of the yard. I rush, cursing, to shoo them away.

So much for deer repellent.

I used to think deer were graceful, almost spiritual animals. Now I’m not so sure. That buck scared the crap out of Lucy and the wits out of me and is responsible for making me no longer trust deer. I scan the yard a few times a day, wary of his return. I suppose I’ll have to live with post-traumatic deer syndrome for a while. In the meantime, I’ll keep a skillet handy.

Inwindow

Lucy in recovery from post-traumatic deer syndrome

***

For an entertaining view of a deer acting crazy, watch this news clip.

Getting It Together With Bob

tenmile2

I sit in the Ten Mile Justice Center courtroom in Fort Bragg, legs crossed, right foot bobbing in an effort to dissipate my nerves. I’m here for the second month in a row to request a continuance on a restraining order I was reluctant to file, but that law enforcement has encouraged me to pursue.

My lower back starts to painfully throb. I concentrate on taking deep, slow breathes, which manifest as shallow asthmatic wheezes. I want to cut and run.

The cases previous to mine are mundane—the opening of probate, something about a family trust, and an illegal eviction. About a half hour after court comes to order, someone enters through the back door. I don’t know who because I’m sitting in the front row of the gallery. The person sits behind me to the right of my peripheral vision. Cigarette fumes give me a nicotine contact high. All I can see of this person is orange and gray athletic shoes.

The judge calls a case for a someone named Bob (not his real name). The guy sitting behind me stands and moves forward. He’s a trim, grizzled 50-something who wears capri-length workout pants and a tank top with three horizontal slashes across the back. I’m somewhat alarmed that he seems to have ignored the posted rules for appropriate court attire—no shorts, no tank tops. His blonde streaked hair is combed forward and he’s got a healthy tan. If he were a few decades younger, he’d look like an attractive surfer dude.

The previously bored bailiff stands and rests his hand on his pistol.

The judge informs Bob the restraining order against him has been dropped. (This order has nothing to do with my case.)

“So I can go back to Ukiah?” Bob asks, incredulous.

“I cannot tell you what to do,” the judge says.

“I’ve been living in Ukiah getting my life together,” Bob announces proudly. “I’m off meth.”

“Good for you,” the judge says with genuine warmth.

“I have some clothes at that house. Can I get them before I leave town?”

“I cannot tell you what to do,” the judge says.

“Since the restraining order’s been dropped, I can go pick up my clothes?”

“I cannot tell you what to do.”

Bob shakes his head as if to dispel water from his ears. “I just wanna tell ya,” he says, “you’re the best. The best!” As if the judge had something to do with getting the complaining party to drop the restraining order.

“Thank you. You’re free to go.”

“I won’t forget this.” Bob turns to leave. “You’re the best. The best!” He’s giddy, pumping his fist in the air like his favorite team just won the World Cup.

The bailiff sits down.

I make note of Bob’s full name in order to later check the online Mendocino County Sheriff’s Booking Log. I’m certain—willing to put money on it—that  he’ll be arrested before nightfall for causing a kerfuffle at a house where nobody wants him, yet where some of his clothing still resides.

After he leaves, my case is called. For Bob, my experience would have been a day at the beach. For me, it was stressful enough to send me home to lay on the floor with an ice pack under my back and feeling what Southern women used to call “having a case of the vapors.”

The party I’m seeking a restraining order against, someone who made an obsessive series of calls to my home, someone who is well known to law enforcement, has a right to be served with notice of the filing. He cannot be found. I’m granted my continuance, but scheduled to return the following month. I want nothing more than to have this process over and done with, but fear I’ll spend the bulk of 2019 going to court.

A few days later, I remember to check on Bob to see if he escaped arrest the evening following court and made it safely back to his new life in Ukiah.

Exactly one week before his appearance in the coast courtroom, he was arrested in Fort Bragg for being a public nuisance. He was held overnight.

The day after his release, he was arrested in Ukiah (about an hour and a half drive from Fort Bragg) for disorderly conduct: alcohol, and held overnight.

Two days after that release, he was once again arrested in Ukiah on the same charge and held overnight.

The following day, he appears in the Fort Bragg courtroom to make it a matter of public record that he’s getting his life together.

Bob might have issues with substance abuse and appropriate public decorum, but the underlying struggles he’s dealing with have been visited upon all of us to some degree or another.

We’ve all made the Monday morning promises—“I swear to God I’m going to (fill in the blank).”

  • Quit smoking. Until you can no longer suppress the desire to chop someone’s head off (usually by noon on Monday when you bum a smoke from a co-worker).
  • Quit drinking. Until you get home after a stressful Monday at work.
  • Go on a diet. Go to the gym. Get in shape. Until, on your way home from work, you stop by McDonald’s for a value meal to pair with your tequila shots.
  • Give up that toxic girlfriend or boyfriend. Until 10:00pm when you start drunk texting.

Yeah, yeah, yeah—we’ve all made such proclamations, and we’ve all inevitably failed until for some reason—grace?—we follow through and actually turn things around.

Like a worried mother, I visit the booking log website every few days to check on Bob. I’m hopeful he’ll stay out of trouble for good—or at least for a time. Five days after I’m made aware of him, he’s arrested again in Ukiah for—you want to take a guess?—disorderly conduct: alcohol.

At least he’s not on meth, I tell myself.

Twelve days later, he’s arrested in Ukiah for indecent exposure.

I hope Bob eventually finds the grace to overcome his demons and find peace.

I hope I eventually get my own act together and stop checking on him.

Going, Going, Gone

hoarding1On the morning of January 20th, I was alerted to a fire at what I called the Hoarder House. I’d never witnessed a fire in real time. It was equally fascinating and disturbing (see January 31 blog post). When the burning finally stopped, the property was surrounded by barricades and crime scene tape. Eventually, a chain link fence was erected to keep passersby safely away from the crumbling mass of charred rubbish.

rubbleMonths went by. Winds and rain caused the waterfall of junk to precariously shift. People started asking me why the City hadn’t torn the place down. I’m flattered they have the impression that I’m privy to the goings on around town. I actually know next to nothing, and often stifle an urge to make things up.

Due to my years-long obsession with this house and people counting on me to know stuff, I recently took precious time and energy away from watching “Judge Judy” and launched an investigation. City Manager Tabitha Miller eased the burden of this task by sending a press release dated July 9, 2018.

Apparently, the City had a heck of a time getting someone to take responsibility for clearing the property. None of the parties involved—the owner, mortgage holder or insurance company—would cooperate. In April, Nationstar (the mortgage holder) received an insurance payout of $175,000. In May, they foreclosed on the property, which made them the official owner.

House2bSo what you think Nationstar did?

  1. Acted like grownups, admitted their liability, and offered to immediately clean up their property that stood like a gaping wound on the edge of downtown just off Main Street.
  2. Acted like juvenile delinquents, stuffed the money in their pockets, and ran.

Sadly, they chose number two. The City diligently tried to contact Nationstar, but they would not return phone calls or respond to letters.

On June 8—nearly six months after the fire—the Community Development Director sent a certified letter to Nationstar informing them that they had until July 10 to start cleaning up the property. For each day of delay, they would be assessed a $1,000 fine.

The threat of $1,000 a day seemed to catch the attention of the suits at Nationstar. By July 3rd, the contractor hired for cleanup applied to the City for a permit.

House3aA few weeks ago, black tarps were draped over the chain link fence and the demolition began. Within a couple days, the dumpsters supplied by Waste Management were filled to capacity and work paused until they could be hauled inland and emptied.

As the process unfolded, I finagled my way around the tarps to snap photos. For decades, this house stood as a shameful monument to hoarding. Within days, it was no more.

I find it hard to say goodbye.

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Lucy – A Year in Review

I originally posted this on our one-year anniversary with Lucy. That was before we knew of her extensive orthopedic problems, before her two complicated knee surgeries, before she’d learned to sail over fences to discover places a lot more interesting than our yard, before we spent many, many dollars to repair her body and erect taller fencing.

Today, Lucy turns five. We celebrate a life we didn’t anticipate sharing, a life we’ve become grateful to share.

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When our adult children came to town Labor Day weekend 2013—two weeks after our fifteen-year-old dog Wilson died—they despaired at our empty nest and gifted us with what they felt was the perfect “filling”—a puppy. My husband Gary was elated. I wanted to curl up into a ball and be taken to an asylum.

When Lucy was brought into the house, all I could think of—as I pasted a smile on my face and screamed with what I hoped sounded like excitement—was how much work she was going to create.

destructionOver the course of thirty-five years, we’ve raised four puppies. Gary might have forgotten, but I knew the drill. Even with obedience training and supervision, Lucy would learn about life mainly through the destruction of property—sofa pillows, socks, underwear, plants, holes dug so deeply in the yard that a visitor asked if we’d had trees removed. Given Gary’s disabilities, the majority of transforming her into a “good” dog would fall on me.

My obsession with wanting to skip the puppy stage of her development caused me two weeks of insomnia and vertigo.

559798_10152017172491844_2118415971_nThank God I found Puppy Kindergarten where every Saturday morning for ten weeks, Lucy had the chance to play with other puppies and sweet Elaine Miksak gave me direction on how to calm the hell down and enjoy my baby girl. For the first month, both Lucy and I returned home after class to take naps. After an hour, I’d awake to find my open mouth drooling on the pillow.

By January, Lucy had grown too large for the class (forty-five pounds), and we found Julie Apostolu, who convinced me Lucy was ready for AKC Canine Good Citizenship (CGC) training. I had no idea what that was, but hoped the eight-week course would help me continue to learn patience and understanding.

The CGC class was held in a clearing in the woods next to the Mendocino Coast Humane Society. The first day, Lucy kept tugging on the leash and gagging. She thought she was at a new Puppy Kindergarten and wanted to be free to play with other dogs. When that didn’t happen, she discovered the pine needles covering the ground hid buried cat poop that could be rooted out while pretending she was deaf to the command, “Leave it!” (She waited to come home to vomit on the carpet.)

The first few weeks of class were brutal. Lucy would not listen, jerked at her leash, and when she got tired, rolled onto her back and refused to move. Julie offered encouragement and direction, but I felt inept and humiliated.

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After a particularly rigorous digging session in the yard.

One afternoon, as Lucy headed off for the fiftieth time in one direction while I tried to coax her into another, Julie’s assistant, DeeDee, came to my rescue and took the leash. Her expert handling and swift corrections got Lucy’s attention. I watched in awe as my dog looked at her and obeyed commands. Tears filling my eyes, I wanted to get into my car and drive away.

Eight weeks after we started CGC training—Lucy was nine months old—came the test. The dogs had to do things like heel (yeah, right), sit and stay (maybe), down (Lucy liked to lie down because it put her closer to the cat poop), and remain calm when left with a stranger (this would be easy—she loves everyone). All of this had to happen without benefit of treat reinforcement.

We were doomed.

My anxiety grew as I watched others go through the course while Lucy jerked on her leash and gagged. While we were on deck, she calmed down to watch the dog being tested. I looked at her sitting with such dignity and my heart surged with love. I crouched and hugged her, petting her neck and chest, and whispered, “I don’t care if we pass. I love you and am so proud of you. Let’s have fun with this.”

Lucy rose to the occasion, messing up on only a couple of things. At the end of the course, I had to hide behind a crop of redwoods while she stayed with a stranger for a couple of minutes. When I was called back, Julie held out her hand—“Congratulations, she passed.”

Shortly after the photo was snapped, she tried to eat her ribbons.

Shortly after the photo was snapped, she tried to eat her ribbons.

“What? Really?” I grabbed Julie in a hug and howled with laughter.

I looked at Lucy who sat wearing her calm snowy fur like a halo. “Good girl! Good, good girl!”

I wish I could say from that moment on, Lucy sprang from puppyhood to maturity, but no. She’s a work in progress, a spirit we enjoy despite or maybe because of her quirks (pretending she’s deaf to commands, the ability to destroy any toy in less than twenty-four hours, and a need to prune fuchsia bushes).

Since CGC, we’ve taken at least 30 weeks of other classes (Rally Obedience, Jumps and Tunnels, Nose Work) where we learn, have fun, and meet wonderful people and dogs.

I’m happy that our empty nest has been filled with fresh, rambunctious life and grateful to our children who filled a need we didn’t know we had.

Rally O class picture. After hundreds of dollars spent on enrichment classes, this is how Lucy interpreted the command "Sit!"

Rally O class picture. After hundreds of dollars spent on enrichment classes, this is how Lucy interprets the command “Sit!”

Colon-NO-oscopy

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The receptionist looks like she’s ready to tell my friend—let’s call her Kate—some terrible, awful, apocalyptic news like her colonoscopy appointment has been canceled because the raging wildfires in Sonoma and Mendocino counties prevented the doctor, who lives in San Francisco, from driving to Fort Bragg.

Kate blurts out the “F” word—not because she’s upset with the bearer of the worst news she’s received in a long time, nor because the doctor wasn’t willing to risk his life to save her the horror of repeating the colon prep, but because yesterday she’d thought once or twice about contacting the hospital to verify her appointment. Her nutritionally deprived brain prevented her from following through.

She wants to collapse to her knees and scream, “Noooooooooooooo!” She wants to pound her forehead into the carpet until security arrives to escort her to the preemie ward where grandma types comfort fussy babies along with people whose colonoscopy appointments are cancelled at the last minute. A grandma will gather her into soft arms, rock her gently back and forth, pat her back and whisper, “Shhhhhh…at least you have good health insurance.”

The receptionist explains that because the local phone service is down, the hospital is unable to contact patients.

***

A few months previously, Kate showed true Big Girl Grit when she scheduled that appointment. Given she’d experienced two colonoscopies and knew the torture she’d be subjected to, this was a very brave thing indeed.

colon1If you’ve never had a colonoscopy, you may not understand why the term torture is associated with it. This applies to the day before. The patient is allowed to ingest only clear liquids, which by mid-morning sets off a primal alarm in the brain—the process of starving to death has begun. By mid-afternoon the brain partially shuts down and the patient wanders zombie-like through the rest of the day. She occasionally snaps into reality and tries to keep the whining under control by reviewing all the things she should be (but truly isn’t at that moment) grateful for: family, friends, shelter, blah-blah-blah, and good health insurance.

As the sun begins its descent into the Pacific Ocean, the day is finished off with a cocktail of Drano and Liquid Plummer disguised under the label “Suprep.” Kate refuses to detail what this does to the human body, and will only say that body must remain within sprinting distance of a toilet.

colon2 (2)After a fitful sleep, the following morning begins at four o’clock with another round of the cocktail. Kate wants to cry, but remembers there are a bunch of people in the world suffering a great deal more than her. She tries once again to concoct a gratitude list, but cannot think of a single thing.

At seven o’clock, debilitated and literally empty, she says to her husband—let’s call him Gary—and her dog—let’s call her Lucy—that the only thing keeping her going is the promise of drugs administered at the hospital. Not much of a drug user, Kate was pleasantly surprised by the gentle euphoria they provided on her two previous colonoscopy occasions. They nearly made the hours leading up to the procedure worth it.

Kate’s friend—let’s call her Marcia—picks her up at seven forty-five and listens to Kate pretend to put her misery into perspective in light of the devastating inland fires. Marcia escorts her into the hospital to get an estimated time of when to return.

***

Kate apologizes for saying the “F” word. The receptionist kindly says if she were in the same situation that is exactly the word she would choose.

As Marcia drives her to Homestyle Café for the best breakfast ever—two eggs, smashed fried potatoes and biscuits—Kate suspects the cancelation of her procedure is some kind of karmic due or payback for her sins. She’s not religious, but was raised by a former Catholic (once a Catholic, always a Catholic). Whenever something goes awry, she can never fully shake feelings of God’s retribution for her bad behavior.

Let’s see—what could it be this time? Her bossiness when working with a group? Her whininess when things don’t go her way? Her petty judgement of others? That the previous day she was dull to the pain of those who lost so much in the fires? Well now she’s simpatico with that pain. There you go karma or God. Point taken; you win.

Kate leaves breakfast expressing gratitude for solid food, family, friends, her dog, and good health insurance. The words ring hollow with the dread of having to go through the entire colon prep experience again—hopefully before the end of the year so she doesn’t have to pay a new deductible.

Marcia drops her off with a note of positivity: “Schedule it in December. You can give yourself a clean colon for Christmas!”

Serendipity to Soothe the Savage Beast

The day of our family reunion weekend begins two hours earlier than normal. By six o’clock, I’ve packed the car and herded my husband Gary and surrogate child Lucy-dog inside. We’re going to Tahoe for a family reunion. Gary has limited eyesight and mobility. He functions well around the house, but his issues become challenging whenever we take a trip. My mind whirls with logistics—buying supplies, packing the car, plotting stops that need to be made along the way, and helping him navigate unfamiliar territory. My efforts to make sure all goes well leave me exhausted and sometimes a bit cranky.

My goal is to cross the Central Valley before temperatures rise to the fires of hell and melt our delicate coastal bodies. Two hours later, Lucy starts whining. I stop at a gas station in Lake County. After several minutes of sniffing, she fails to go potty. As the temperature continues to rise, I give her water, silently scolding her for wasting our time.

An hour later, we stop in Williams where Lucy has a successful potty. She and Gary are enjoying the journey. I marvel (not in a good way) that it’s only nine o’clock and already 75 degrees. I get breakfast sandwiches and a call from our son Harrison. “Would you mind finding a CVS and picking up sunscreen and a hat for Kasi [our daughter-in-law]?”

Actually, I would mind. Very much. I’m fixated on getting my passengers to our destination with as few stops as possible. Running a spontaneous errand while they sit in a hot car is not on the schedule.

I sigh.

“I’ll text you the address of a CVS along the way.”

When it finally occurs to me to question why he can’t do this himself, I recall last year’s family reunion where the nearest shopping was 20 minutes away. I can possibly save him a 40-minute round trip.

This Mother Teresa moment is fleeting. Resentment reaches in and captures my mood.

As I push past the speed limit along Highway 20, my phone pings with a text. Moments later, Harrison calls. “I sent you the address of a CVS at the turn off you’ll take in Truckee. Could you also stop at the Save Mart there and pick up a red onion?”

“Sure,” I snap. The outside thermostat has climbed to 80 degrees.

“And some ketchup?”

I groan.

“Don’t be such a curmudgeon.”

“I’m worried about leaving Dad and Lucy in the car. It’s hot and going to be hotter by the time we get there.”

“We worked all day yesterday,” he says (having perfected the counter argument as a child), “went grocery shopping and didn’t get here until midnight.”

In the game of Who’s the Most Martyred, it’s a tie.

Three hours later, I pull off the freeway in Truckee, a town that, unlike me, is fond of roundabouts. May I make a recommendation to those who design GPS systems? Instead of programming the voice to say “Take the second exit at the roundabout,” have it say, “HERE! HERE! EXIT HERE, DAMMIT!!!”

After twirling through two traffic circles and failing to exit at the appropriate times, the GPS gives up and guides me through back streets into a small shopping center. It is now 90 degrees. I park in front of CVS and take Lucy for a potty around back among a patch of spindly fir trees near the loading bay. It irritates me that the only trees in the parking lot are where they’re not needed. I reposition the car under their skimpy shade.

Inside the store, sunscreen and cap in hand, I stand at the checkout counter while tourists in front of me engage in conversation with the cashier about how outsiders have driven up real estate prices, forcing most service workers to live in Reno. While I sympathize with cashier’s plight—my own tourist community suffers from the same socioeconomic discrepancies—I want to shout, “Hurry the hell up! A disabled man and dog are roasting to death in my car!”

I notice two additional texts sent by Harrison.

“Please pick up some mustard.”

“And some pickles.”

I want to hurt him.

I exit CVS and debate whether to dash into Save Mart which is only about 100-feet away. I worry a semi-truck might arrive to make a delivery and won’t be able to maneuver around my car. I picture a big rig trucker yelling at me.

I find Gary and Lucy quite content. I move the car to the blazing hot sun in front of Save Mart. My deodorant has failed. Sweat pastes my shirt to my back. I verbally review the shopping list.

“What kind of mustard?” Gary asks.

“I don’t know,” I moan.

“Get Guldens.” He smiles, happy to be helpful. “And Claussen pickles.”

Gary’s mom was an expert canner and made the best pickles around. As a result, he’s quite fussy about them. I, on the other hand, hate the things. I want to yell “What the hell difference does it make?”

I leave Gary and Lucy in the Easy Bake Honda. Entering the store, I recall the game show “Supermarket Sweep.” Filled with sweaty adrenalin, I’m certain I can record a personal best. I imagine emerging to find my car surrounded by an angry mob that has called the police to report elder and animal abuse.

I quickly locate all the items on the list except the pickles. I go to the dairy aisle (where they’re located in my local Safeway). No Claussen’s.

Time is ticking, the temperature rising. The angry mob is growing. I hate everyone and everything. I’ll go back to the condiment aisle and grab the first damned pickle jar I see.

Moving swiftly toward the back of the store, I nearly collide with a teenage employee. Mustering my last ounce of humanity, I politely ask if they carry Claussen pickles. He directs me to the meat department at the opposite end of the store. I turn and encounter the back of a generous head of black curly hair. I take two steps forward to see her profile.

“Elizabeth?” I say.

She looks at me without recognition. If my outside resembles my inside, I look like a thorny hag.

Elizabeth is the daughter of Sue, one of my most beloved clients who, three months shy of her eightieth birthday, died as a result of a tiny hole in her lung. When told she could survive by staying on oxygen and having caregivers, she chose to call her family to her hospital bedside. After an evening of visiting around wine and cheese, she said goodbye. By the next afternoon, she was dead. When we settled her estate, Elizabeth and I spent hours sharing stories of her mother.

I remember Sue’s smile—how it lit her face and made her eyes squint with delight. I felt comforted in her presence. Her life hadn’t been easy, but she graciously accepted whatever came her way.  I remember how much I appreciated her, and how glad I was to spend time with her equally gracious daughter.

“Kate,” I say.

I’m engulfed in a hug. We talk about how bizarre it is that we should encounter one another almost exactly two years after her mother’s death in a place Elizabeth resides but I have never been. I tell her how I think of Sue each time I walk or run the Glass Beach trail where her memorial bench overlooks the ocean.

My mood shifts. Sue would have accepted the flow of this trip, would not have tried to control every minute. Somehow she managed to lead me to this place despite my childish protests. It wasn’t easy, but did what it was intended to do—cause me to calm the hell down.

I leave Elizabeth with another hug and smile as I saunter to the meat department to find the pickles. It’s a joy to fulfill Gary’s gastronomic desire. I breeze through the express checkout line and out the door to the car where Gary and Lucy are panting, but not too uncomfortable. I start the engine, blast the air conditioning, and continue to our destination as I relate my encounter with Elizabeth. My burdens have been lifted. The desire to incite violence has evaporated. I can finally allow myself to feel the blessing of being able to spend three days with our wonderful family.

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