Category Archives: family

Happy Birthday, Sweetheart (3)

Dear Dan,

I was planning to write to you later in the day, but the train went by as I was waking up, and something about train horns in the dark makes me feel lonely. So I’ll write my birthday letter now, while it’s still too dark outside to run.

We’re doing a lot of work around the house. A new water heater, some new furniture, and just a lot of organizing and throwing away of junk. I’ve been putting mounds of old stuff out on the curb, and most of it gets taken by neighbors. The basement is beautiful: I bought about ten plastic storage shelves, and put everything in plastic bins and XXL flexible totes. When it floods now, there won’t be a bunch of wood, cardboard and paper holding onto the humidity. As long as the sump pump keeps working, the annual floods won’t be such a problem.

This is all stuff we would have done together before. Really, mostly you. In the hours it took to put together the new front room furniture, I was thinking how you could have put it all together in the time it took me to eat lunch.

But I’m learning. I found a store on Willy Street you would have loved, called Howe Brothers Plumbing. You go in and tell them your problem, and they tell you how to fix it and sell you the stuff you need to do it. Okay, for me so far this has involved getting in touch with Tony the fix-it guy and letting him do the work. But when I move on to the simpler problems, I’m hoping to go the DIY route. I’m sure they would have had you installing a water heater on your own, but that seemed a bit much for me.

You’d be proud of me, though: I’m taking a series of bike repair classes next month, put on by We Are All Mechanics, a group that teaches women how to fix their bikes. How Madison is that, right? Meeting at–where else?–Revolution Cycles.

You’d be horrified by what I’m doing in the workshop. I’ve been going through your toolbox and getting rid of anything I can’t identify. Hammers, drill, saws, screwdrivers, bike pump–all safe. But we’ll have to do without the metal thing shaped like a hook on a stick with a leveling tube attached, and those little elbows of copper pipe, and the thing shaped like a cross with a point at the end (for slaying vampires, maybe?) I hope the neighbors get good use out of them.

Sam will be moving into your room in a few weeks; I hope you don’t mind. Since you’ve been gone, it’s been kind of a memorial room. Lots of pictures, a couple shelves full of the weird stuff you used to find when you went out metal detecting, collections of everything from old coins to the cards I saved from your memorial service. But it doesn’t make any sense to have Sam in the smallest room in the house when two bigger rooms are empty, so I’m painting this weekend, then re-rearranging furniture. I’m buying him a new bed for his birthday, so that’s when he’ll actually move.

I feel good about it, but a little bad too. I liked going in that room and just looking around: the picture of your parents’ wedding, the rusty metal bear collection, the little plastic Scotty so imbalanced he looks like he’s about to fall on his phaser, the partial set of ancient encyclopedias you rescued from a dumpster, the photo collage of my mom they made after she died. I’d look at the picture of you from when you were about eleven or so, and wonder if you’d had your first drink yet. Probably so; since you grew up in country taverns, I bet they were handing you watered-down beer as soon as you could walk.

No more train horns, now it’s thunder, and still dark. Maybe I’ll stay in and move more furniture around, or maybe I’ll go out and run in the rain. It feels like it’s going to be one of those days when the morning never lightens. If you were here, I’d be in your room with two cups of coffee. We’d each take a sip or two, but the coffee would get cold before we’d have a chance to finish. And it would have been your sixty-first birthday.

I will love you always.


Everyone loves a man with a machete

diagonal Danny

With so much snow weight, branches are coming down all over town. Each of our silver maples landed a big one on a phone line. Our line is fine; it didn’t get touched. My bird block feeder is still hanging off it, attracting woodpeckers and nuthatches. Our trees are just screwing with the neighbors.

One came down on the phone line of Crazy Neighbor Lady to the right, and one came down on the phone line of Party Chick to the left. So this has been Danny’s exercise while he’s on leave: sawing up branches so the phone company can come out and take care of the lines. He’s out in Party Chick’s back yard now. It’s snowing, and he’s wearing sweatpants and army boots and a t-shirt he earned at some 10K in Texas, wielding saw and machete. If Party Chick comes home while he’s out there it’s going to look kind of funny, but I’m sure they’ll figure it out. That branch just came down either last night or this morning, so she probably doesn’t even know about it yet.

Crazy Neighbor Lady wasn’t home either. It’s funny their family hasn’t said anything about all this; that line went down a week ago. We just needed to get the branch out of the way before we called the phone company. (I have a sneaky suspicion that if they had to call a tree surgeon, we’d be billed for that.) I guess their phone and internet kept working, even with the line on the ground. But it’s running along the ground right through our back yard, so we need it fixed even if they don’t.

So good to have the Kids here! Danny is doing the lion’s share of the brush cutting and hauling, and Sam can be around to answer the door for the phone company if they come while I’m at work. Aren’t they helpful little cusses?

A Dream

I had a dream last night, the first one I’ve been able to remember in about a year (though I sense I may be having some unremembered dreams lately).

I dreamt it was the middle of the night and I was sleeping. The phone rang. Kid B’s room is much closer to the phone than mine, so he picked it up before I had time to get out of bed. He came back to my room, and told me some woman had called from the airport. She told him a man was there, and that he’d been waiting some time for us to come pick him up.

We were still talking about what we should do, and were getting out the phone book to look up the number of a cab company, when Dan walked in the back door. He said he’d gotten tired of waiting and walked home. (It’s about four miles.)

He was very tired, so I got out the cot for him and found him some pillows and bedding.

It still pisses me off.

The priest, I mean. Maybe I should say, “He still pisses me off.” But there was a certain lack of personality, and anyway it was more the situation than the guy.

When he first came over to the house, I asked him about his background, and he told me he was Orthodox. So I asked him did he know Father Joe, and he said yeah, and mentioned that Father Joe had to step down because of health issues and all that, which I didn’t know but could have guessed. He once said in a sermon how we all have a certain number of inhales and exhales ordained, so why waste any of them on exercise? A clever sounding philosophy. Doesn’t work too good in real life.

When the Hospice people asked what we needed, I mentioned we could use a nutritionist. They asked could we use a clergyman. I said no, but Dan was indecisive. They sent the priest, and we never heard from any nutritionist. Apparently when you have pancreatic cancer, it’s just as well to eat nothing but candy. Do I believe that? Hell, no. If the man had gone for raw fruit instead of candy, and maybe some raw greens in place of all that ice cream… Food is important, dammit. People treat nutrition like some kind of a joke because they don’t want to deal with it, but the numerous small gains that come from each individual meal add up to big statistical differences.

Anyway, the priest. The reason the guy still pisses me off is that he acted like my husband was this really keen guy. As if it was perfectly all right that he rambled and rambled about Ugaritic alphabets and motorized bicycles and electronic minutiae and some imaginary wedding involving his sister. No, Priest. It is not okay that my husband was running off at the mouth. That was the morphine talking, not the man.

Which is why at the memorial service, I thought it was totally wrong for this guy to talk about my husband. A few cousins got up to do eulogies, but overall it was a pretty quiet crowd. Maybe I was supposed to say something. But I don’t think so; my guess was that the widow was supposed to be too broken up to get and talk.

Actually I was in pretty good shape at that point. Better than a month later. Heck, better than now. For a short few days after the night when I was with him, the night when I observed his death, I was okay. Because death was a beautiful thing.

Surviving is not so pretty. Mainly, I think, because I am not so pretty.

But during the memorial service I was perfectly okay. I wore the ugliest blouse I own, because I knew that whatever I wore to that day I was never going to wear again. So I picked out this matronly long-sleeve knit, which I’d bought at the local cheapass cheese-girl butt-ugly fashion emporium during a misguided warmth-seeking episode.

The boys were with me, seated in the second row. Nobody was in the front row except Cousin Liz, and she was only there because she was in charge of the music. Her mother, Dan’s sister, was the one who made all the arrangements. It was she who told the priest to do it up Catholic. Dan hated that shit, but a few weeks before he died he went to lunch with his sister, and she got him to make some morphine-induced positive statement about the faith they grew up with. From that, she got the idea that he wanted to come back to the church.

She was also the one who chose “Oh Danny Boy.” This may shock you, Reader Zero, but when Cousin Liz got up at a stately walk and put that on, I had to swallow some fucked-up laughter. Kid A must have thought I was crying or something; anyway, he gave me a pat on the shoulder and I leaned into him as if for comfort. And I said, “If your dad could hear this shit I bet he’d puke.”

Kid A kept a straight face, bless him. Don’t know what Cousin Liz thought.

Anyway, about the priest. He delivered a eulogy about what a great guy my husband was, drawing from his acquaintance with my husband, which was all about his morphine-induced reverence for collectibles and his insurance-money-induced love of travel and his morphine-induced positive cancer-kicking good humor.

And I wanted to get up and say, Fuck that! None of that was what Dan was really about. He was a guy who could make things work. He fixed what was broken, and drank too much, and listened to Blue Cheer, and jerry-rigged electronic test equipment out of dumpsters. He kept a bunch of junk he found with his metal detector, but never looked at it. He didn’t kick cancer–hell, nobody kicks pancreatic cancer. Dan was a real, sane, rational person that this priest, this person who only met him after he was deemed eligible for Hospice, never knew.

Not the priest’s fault, of course. By the time they met, no one would ever have a chance to know Dan again, because the person inside was already flittering over to the other side of the universe.

Still, it pisses me off that he, a man who was convinced he knew a thing or two about the spirit, let himself be fooled by the shell.


I am now in possession of two employed Kids! Kid B interviewed for a job at the local newspaper last week, and today they called up and offered it to him. It’s only 18 hours a week, sending paper through some kind of automatic folder. But hey, the kid got the first job he applied for–when does that ever happen?

It’s probably thanks to the job program he was in all this summer. He showed up on time every day and did everything they told him to do, which is something I’ve observed about 95% of the U.S. population is unable to manage. So they must have given him a pretty decent recommendation.

It will be nice to have someone to share the household expenses. So far I’ve been paying everything, and my paycheck doesn’t really cover all my living expenses; I’ve had to plug the holes with insurance money, which I really should be saving as much as possible for when I retire.

Our desktop computer died a few days ago, but really it’s no biggie. I’ve got two laptops and Kid B has one. It looks like the printer just plugs into two of the three, so I don’t see any need to do anything about the desktop but toss it. Donating it to charity wouldn’t be doing them any favors.

Kid A’s doing fine in the military, still bored out of his skull down in Texas. Seems to spend a lot of time on FB acing some music-related game. He made PFC, so I guess he’s doing something right.

Wisconsin is revolting!

Well, today’s the big day, when we either un-elect Scott Walker or fail to. Here in Madison, this is a huge occasion. We’ve had so many phone calls and people coming to the door reminding us of election day, I was starting to feel like a recording:

Yes, we know there’s an election Tuesday.
Yes, we plan to vote.
No, I’m not going to tell you who we’re voting for. (And how tacky of you to ask. . . didn’t say that part, of course.)

Every other house has a yard sign: Elect Tom Barrett, Recall Walker, Stand with Wisconsin. I know of one truck usually parked in front of a lakefront home that has an I Stand with Scott Walker bumper sticker (nicely cancelled out by the I Can’t Stand Scott Walker sticker I saw this morning), plus two houses with pro-Walker signs. Other than that, the governor doesn’t have much to show in this part of town for all the money he’s poured into this campaign.

Which is, I’m sure, just fine with him. Madison never votes Republican, so why should he care what we think? The pro-recall crowd can have the streets; he’s got the money for media adds. I had to sit through one before a YouTube video yesterday–Dropkick Murpheys, I think it was. Wait, no it wasn’t , it was Feist’s big song, 1234. Anyway, I was surprised to find a pro-Walker ad on YouTube, but from what I understand I’d be bombarded with the things if I watched TV or listened to the radio.

This is also Kid B’s first day on the job, so I’ve got the house to myself. I feel like I should be running around the house naked, singing opera to the houseplants, but instead I’ve been out all morning running errands. The program he’s involved with either lasts one or three months (Kid B was fuzzy about the details), and includes all kinds of counseling, job prep and help getting going with school if he chooses. He also gets paid, which will be the first time in his life he’s ever earned a paycheck. He is a very shy Kid, so he never got the experiences with petsitting Kid A did. I really think–and really hope–this program is just the thing he needs to get him off the ground.

Just the kind of thing, come to think of it, Scott Walker would probably like to get rid of.

First World Problems

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

Image via Wikipedia

Are we all ready to nominate that phrase for oblivion yet? It was funny enough at first, when it was used for things like not having enough room in your wallet for all your credit cards, but lately people are using it to refer to anything short of starving to death.

Anyway, I’ve spent the morning dealing with my large amounts of stuff: scrubbing all my floors, taking all my houseplants out for their first good drenching of spring, laundry, recycling, scrubbing the cat hair and barf off the furniture and windows (you don’t want to know). It took three and a half hours! It doesn’t seem like I got all that much done, but I was working all that time except for a couple potty breaks. Well, and the time I got a little distracted putting a few refrigerator poetry words up on the freshly scrubbed side of the fridge. But only for a minute!

It does seem like, for just the two of us here, there are an awful lot of floors.

Cats are nothing compared to kids. They used to make such a mess, especially when their friends would come over–they’d have Playmobils and action figures set up in the house, and all kinds of squirt guns and balls all over the yard. I’d get them to clean up as much as possible, of course, but with little boys ever their clean-up efforts make a mess. After a week of homeschooling the house would be a wreck by the weekend. I’d try to spend the entire day Saturday cleaning house, correcting their work and writing up our lesson plans for the next week. It was so good to wake up on Sunday and have everything clean! It was exhausting, but worth it so we could go do family stuff without me having to worry about anything.

The house stays a lot neater now, so big cleaning days are a lot less frequent. It’s so nice to be able to walk barefoot without getting guck on your feet, and have everything smelling like fresh air and grapefruit spray cleaner.

February Fourteenth

Dan and I used to have a custom, or maybe it was more like a running gag, of giving each other the most un-romantic Valentine’s gifts possible, like vacuum cleaner bags or cans of WD-40. We had a gift bag with hearts all over it which we used for these gifts, one which we kept re-gifting to each other. If time permitted we’d also go out to dinner, or engage in other enjoyable adult activities. Of course we usually spent most of the day as usual, working.

I don’t miss him today any more than I miss him on any other day. I just feel more lonely missing him, if that makes any sense.

English: WD-40

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Ski Jump 3

I didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until I was nine, and even then only because my inability was starting to embarrass my brothers. It was a skill everyone should have by the time they hit first grade, and somehow I’d made it to third grade as clueless about bicycle riding as I was about just about everything else. So I’m pretty sure that when my oldest brother set out to teach me, it was because People Were Starting to Talk.

The streets in our neighborhood formed a steep bowl, with our house at the bottom. Mike stood there watching me roll and jerk somebody’s bike (it can’t have been mine; I never had one of my own till I was an adult) around and around the three-house-wide flat place, offering encouragement and a bribe of one black jelly bean for each time the pedals made a full circuit without me having to put a foot down. We probably went half an hour without him having to promise more than a half dozen jelly beans. The rhythm went something like:

Pedal, flump.
Pedal, flump.
Pedal, flump.
Pedal pedal, flump. “Hey, that’s great! You earned another black jelly bean!”
Pedal, flump.
Pedal, flump.
Pedal, flump.

Half an hour, maybe a full hour, of near-total failure.

But those black jelly beans kept my attention on the job, and eventually the bike stayed up for two, three, ten pedal rotations. Then, finally, my brother let me put whoever’s bike away, because he already owed me 69 jelly beans and his allowance was limited.

Actually, he never paid up. I sometimes still give him a hard time about this. But I’m still riding, probably a lot more frequently than the average 54-year-old female.

I’m hoping for the same effect with this year’s writing goal: 100 rejections. This was not my idea; I heard about it from Katya the Poet, who heard about it from somebody else. The idea is to send out enough submissions to receive an average of two rejections a week throughout 2012.

And no, it’s not fair to send out some truly despicable peom like Bastard Child of Emily Dickinson to a hundred classy literary journals. Nuh-uh. The submissions have to have some plausible chance at acceptance. I am, however, going to count contest losses and agent disinterest in my book or books.

It’s going to be tough, but I’m betting all those pedal, flumps will at least make for a whole lot of practice.


Wednesday will be the first anniversary of Dan’s death. One year will be a kind of fence, I think, between trying to forget and trying to remember.

The hard part is how to remember the man and forget the cancer. I don’t really know how to do either one. Cancer is a living thing, one that has a chilling presence that hangs around long after it kills its host. I can’t forget it, but I’d like to dismiss it. The dead disease needs to move out of our house.

Remembering the man is almost harder. Memory isn’t fantasy. Memory comes with all the lumps included, or it isn’t memory at all. It doesn’t come naturally to ask for more lumps.

After Dan died we made up a photo booklet for the memorial service, but since then I’ve kept it packed away. Now it will come out, and take its place at a central place in a sunny room, with the box of ashes, one of those big candles that comes in a glass jar, and whatever else pops into my silly little head. This memorial will become a beautiful and prominent part of our home.

On the other side of the fence, maybe I won’t shut down whenever somebody talks about diseases and survivors and people’s insides. And maybe my own insides can begin to thaw out.