Cathy A. E. Bell

Personal Essays and Poems by Cathy A. E. Bell

Life in a Scrapbook (Originally Published in Colorado Central Magazine–January 2013)

Cotton Proe as a teenager

Cotton Proe as a teenager

Anyone who ever met Charles “Cotton” Proe quickly forgot about the iron split-hook peeking out from his buttoned cuff where his left hand should have been. Instead they would be whirled up into Cotton’s friendly ambiance: his smile, firm handshake, and a gentle shine in his eyes. All who knew him called him “Cotton,” a nickname bestowed in early childhood for his nearly white head of hair. Although his shock of white became more blonde the older he got, the name stuck, becoming a small part of what made him such a unique man to those who knew him.

The essence of a man’s life may be difficult to capture, especially in a scrapbook. But, for Cotton, his scrapbook sums up his character and fortitude well. Many of his triumphs, illustrating his ability to overcome his limitations, appear in newspaper clippings; those that weren’t written about might be captured in a photo or a story told by his only living daughter, Bobbie, sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee, looking through his scrapbook. And with Cotton Proe, there’s never been a shortage of stories.

One black-and-white photo in his scrapbook, circa 1909, shows Cotton as a young boy in Nebraska wearing his newsboy cap, kneeling within a row of other young boys all holding up dead coyotes. Cotton is holding one canine’s head while another boy holds the limp but beautiful body. The animal looks like he’s sleeping. Behind them are nearly 50 adults, family, and neighbors, the women in bonnets and dark coats, the men blurry in the background, most with barely detectable smiles or none at all. But Cotton, he looked like a boy who had just lost his best friend, with his full lips in a pout. Some looking at the photo might think it’s just country ranchers showing off their kill, but for Cotton’s middle daughter, Bobbie, that photo tells a much sadder story. “Daddy begged them not to kill this one coyote. He loved that coyote—he was like a pet to him. But, they went ahead and killed him anyway and Daddy was crying for his friend in that photo.”

Cotton with his family and neighbors iin Nebraska.  Cotton is first row, third from the left.

Cotton with his family and neighbors in Nebraska. Cotton is first row, third from the left.

Later years, in high school, a sepia-toned photo shows a basketball team, Cotton standing the tallest, arms crossed like his teammates, long nose, dimpled square chin, blonde hair short on the sides and longer on top, brushed straight back, resembling hair styles of the present day, his head tilted slightly, looking a bit cocky and certainly sure of himself. After high school, an article titled “Creamery Five Cinches Title in City Loop” describes a winning game for the semi-pro Norfolk Creamery team. Cotton scored well above his other team mates (and his competition), earning 12 points out of the 22 points that won the game. One can imagine his large, strong hands grasping the basketball and shooting the winning hoop. “It was the basket flipping of Proe, Creamery center, that cinched the game for his mates.”

Cotton with his basketball teammates. He's back row, center.

Cotton with his basketball teammates. He’s back row, center.

When Cotton was about twenty-two, Colorado came calling and he made the move to Alamosa, where one of his first jobs was hauling bricks to the construction site of the Alamosa State Normal School. Years later, when his oldest great-granddaughter told him she was accepted to Adams State College he said, “Well, I’ll be darned, Lil’ Red. I hauled the first load of bricks used to build Adams State back in the early 1920s when it was just a patch of grass. Isn’t that somethin’?” Whether her great-granddad was more proud of her or his part in the history of Adams State, she wasn’t sure; but his enthusiasm was evident either way.

One day, Cotton was driving to South Fork for a date when he spotted a beautiful woman standing on a bridge looking out over the Rio Grande River. Dorothy was helping a friend serve food to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad crew at Masonic Park and was taking a break. Self-assured as always, Cotton pulled his Model T off to the side of the road and began to chat Dorothy up. Cotton quickly changed course and took Dorothy on a date that night instead. They married in 1925.

Cotton and his wife Dorothy on the Alamosa bridge

Cotton and his wife Dorothy on the Alamosa bridge

Other photos of the early 20s show Cotton, tall, lean, and dusty, in his life as a farm-hand, with bib overalls rolled at the cuffs, holding the reins of a horse. Lending more detail of Cotton’s life at that time is a photo-copy of an article about Jack Dempsey, the championship boxer. Jack was visiting his family’s farm in his home town of Manassa, just outside Alamosa. The photo shows a row of people standing in front of a Model T. In the middle stands a man in suspenders with a wide-brimmed black hat, hands in pockets—the only one with a slight smile in the photo. The caption reads: “Dempsey held a deep affection for this family and kept in constant touch with them. Here he and Kearns [his manager] are seen visiting Dempsey’s brother. Unidentified man in center was hired farm hand.”

Cotton working as a ranch hand in Colorado

Cotton working as a ranch hand in Colorado

After Cotton’s life as a farm hand, the photos of his life fade out for a bit, but the stories don’t. There’s no newspaper article telling of the Denver and Rio Grande railroad train he saved from derailing as a young brakeman working his normal route from Alamosa to Chama, New Mexico. But his daughter Bobbie will tell of the night in a dark canyon when Cotton was alerted that something was wrong while working in the second engine car. He swung out of his car, hurrying across the side until he reached the locomotive engine in the front. Finding the engineer asleep, Cotton grabbed the brake, grinding the train to a halt before it hit a large boulder on the tracks. Those that know Cotton will say he recounted all of his stories with humility and humor and, although he was a hero in this story, he probably didn’t feel like one.

In the early 1930s, a couple of years after leaving Alamosa (after quick stint as a Hoover vacuum salesman in Wyoming and Limon, Colorado), Cotton moved his wife and young daughter, Elaine, to Cañon City. A few years later he found one of his callings as a prison guard at “Old Max,” Colorado Territory’s first prison, built in 1871. Cotton’s relationship with the inmates wasn’t typical, but nothing much about Cotton’s life was. He put together a baseball team of trusties and took them to play ball with other town teams at the baseball field. He’d cart along his daughters and afterwards he’d treat them all to a burger at Murphy’s Drive Inn. Bobbie still looks back on those days with a giggle and watering mouth—it was the one time she was allowed to drink soda: an icy-cold bottle of Orange Crush. For Cotton and his girls, the cons were extended family, even the murderers. One convict even made Cotton’s eldest daughter a beautiful wooden chest, which remained one of Elaine’s most precious possessions.

Between baseball seasons with the inmates, Cotton’s youngest daughter, Peggy, was born premature. (Peggy would put together the scrapbook for her father decades later.) She was so tiny Cotton could slide his Masonic ring over her hand all the way up to her shoulder. Fearing she’d be dropped by a nun at the hospital, he built an incubator for her at home that used a light bulb for warmth. That story never made the paper either, but it survives in family lore.

Cotton with his German Shepard

Cotton with his German Shepard

But amidst the newspaper articles of Cotton’s life, among his obituary and short articles telling of his volunteer work and civil duties, is the one that explains best how a man lost his large, strong hand: the one that built the incubator, stopped the train, and threw the winning basket, and overcame his disability to keep playing his beloved game of golf.

“Up to 1943, I had a four handicap [in golf],” Cotton told reporter Bob Wood in an article published in 1973 and again in 1987. “In 1944,” he continued, “May 18th at 8 o’ clock in the morning, I cut my arm off in a sausage grinder.” Cotton was working in a grocery store, grinding meat, and when he pushed his hand in too far, the blades grabbed it. Cotton was rushed to a hospital in Colorado Springs where doctors managed only to re-connect his thumb to part of his forearm. Waking up from surgery, Cotton’s realization of his changed life must have been crushing.

“Lying in bed there, when the doctor came in I said, ‘Hey Doc, can I play golf anymore?’ He wouldn’t answer me.” After Cotton’s surgery, he asked for the thumb to be removed as well. He had befriended a young girl in the hospital with a prosthetic leg and seeing that her leg didn’t slow her down at all, he decided he wanted to be fitted for a prosthetic arm and couldn’t have one with his thumb attached. Cotton endured more surgeries. He confided years later to his son-in-law that the subsequent surgeries were harder than the initial one because they had to amputate even more of the arm to accommodate the prosthesis. He was often “cranky,” Bobbie remembers, primarily because the shoulder strap that controlled his hook’s opening and closing would rub his skin raw. It took many drives to Denver before the substitute arm and hand fit well.

Once Cotton’s pain was under control, his feisty spirit returned and it wasn’t long before he was on a mission to find a way to play golf. His goal: to build a prosthesis that would allow him to hold and swing his golf club again.

“I had the cons at the penitentiary help me at first because I was an ex-guard and I built eight of them before I finally perfected one.” Cotton designed his “hand” out of a piece of hose from a tractor for flexibility, a locking pair of pliers, and a rounded clamp welded the to the tip of the pliers. “I went out to the course and I hit a ball about 200 yards down the middle and I said, ‘Boy, I’ve got ‘er.’”

Life went on for Cotton. He bought and remodeled an old theater on Main Street, turning it into a bowling alley. An old black-and-white photo shows a piece of Main Street with a large white bowling pin sign attached high on the brick near the apartment windows above the store-fronts. Nestled between two signs, “Liquors” and the “E-A-T-S; Ellie’s Diner,” is an arrow pointing to the door of the bowling alley that says “Popcorn,” perhaps left over from the theatre days. He set up bowling teams for the kids in town and Bobbie would do her homework there after school so she could bowl afterwards. He ran the place for years, hiring a couple of club-footed siblings to be pin setters. He’d buy the kids shoes and other items their family couldn’t afford, save their money for them until they had something they wanted to spend it on, and drive them home “way out to the boondocks” when the bowling alley closed at night.

Main Street, Canon City, Colorado in the 1940s or 1950s

Main Street, Canon City, Colorado in the 1940s or 1950s

After Cotton left the bowling alley business, he began a twenty-year career as the superintendent of the “finest humane shelter in the United States,” according to a Daily Record article in January, 1969. Multi-page articles fill the scrapbook touting the new animal shelter (better known as the Humane Society of Fremont County now) with photos: the shelter with the caretaker apartment on top; brand new dog kennels and runs; Cotton preparing dog food for the nightly feeding; and his wife, Dorothy, bathing a stray dog. As well as taking care of homeless dogs and cats, Cotton and Dorothy often took in whatever family members needed taking in—somehow managing to fit everyone into the small five-room apartment above the shelter.

One perk of being the superintendent of the shelter was that Cotton oversaw all filming of movies, like The White Buffalo starring Charles Bronson, near the Cañon City area if horses or other animals were involved, ensuring the animals were treated well. He quickly became a favorite of cast and crew on many films. “The actors loved Daddy and looked after him,” Bobbie remembers. In one film, an actor tried dismounting a horse when his foot became caught, dragging him behind the running horse. Cotton quickly grabbed another horse and stood in the path of the runaway horse to stop him. He did stop the horse but was knocked around a bit and broke some ribs in the process. But, Cotton did what he always did: saved the day in his humble sort of manner.

Charles "Cotton" Proe

Charles “Cotton” Proe

A few pages over, a clipping shows Cotton accepting an award from the Elks (even though he wasn’t a member himself) for “Citizen of the Year.” They praised him for running the Fremont County Humane Society for two decades and for his care and love for animals. After a speech by an Elk member proclaiming Cotton’s “brotherly love” because he saved thousands of animal lives, he received a standing ovation from over 150 people. Cotton’s smile is humble yet proud.
After Cotton’s loss of his forearm and hand, he went on to become a legend in small-town Cañon City. He encouraged wounded World War II soldiers who’d lost a limb not to give up and showed the vets, by example, life could continue with some hope and determination. He won trophies for his excellent golf game (and bowling) and folks hailed him when he still continued winning trophies at tournaments into his 80s. And although he’s the only one in the golf and bowling photos wearing long sleeves (a far cry from the sleeveless shirts showing off his muscled arms of his basketball days), he seems a happy man, someone who did his best to make the town he loved a little better than he found it.

One writer, his name not visible from the photocopy of the article, after watching the Senior Beacon Open golf tournament and telling Cotton’s story, summed up his quintessence well, saying, “Now that’s what I call the determination of the human spirit; to carry on no matter what the odds.”
Those who knew Cotton were left with an impression of him as distinctive as his name. It was only fitting that the older Cotton grew, the more his hair color resembled the color it was as a child.

Cotton told folks, “The hardest thing about gettin’ old is watching your friends die,” and because he died at 93, he outlived most of them. But his family keeps the stories and images of him alive—even if his friends can’t—picturing him on the golf course, holding the 9 iron firmly with both of his hands, his tuft of white hair glinting in the sun.

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My Nemesis

A postcard from the Body World Exhibit.

A postcard from the Body World Exhibit.

I estimate that at least eight years of my life have been stolen by wicked, sneaky migraines (if you add up all the minutes, hours, and days).  The poisoned feeling along with a pounding head first made its debilitating debut into my life in the fifth grade.  I was carted off to an eye exam because my teachers thought eye strain might be the cause.  It wasn’t.

I won Student of Month that year and was interviewed by my motherly teacher for the write-up and photo that hung in the hallway of the school. During the interview, Mrs. Lowe asked, “What is your biggest pet peeve?” I told her it was the headaches.  Always the headaches.

Later that year, our fifth grade class took a trip to Denver to visit museums, the Mint, and the magical Casa Bonita.  Since we came from a small, southeastern Colorado town, we stayed overnight at a school: girls slept in the library, boys in the gym.  While all the other girls were playing and having fun, I buried myself deep in my sleeping bag to keep out the light and noise. My savior, Mr. Nichols, our school principal, noticed I was sick and gently coaxed me out of my bag and took me by the hand to the cafeteria to get me a carton of milk.  In the dark and quiet of the cafeteria I felt better.

Migraines are my nemesis, my angst, forcing me against the grain of who I am.  I use up all fifteen sick days a year at work, plus some vacation, too.  What should be relaxing vacation time is spent, instead, lying in the dark with an ice-pack on my head chanting “Please go away.”   I feel embarrassed when I have to send the email to my boss and department saying I have to go home, again.  Often times, if I’m busy with important tasks, I’ll work through the migraine until I have things under control, and then I go home.  I’m lucky to have a compassionate supervisor and department head, who graciously accept this disabling disease of mine.  Many people who suffer with migraines aren’t so fortunate and suffer job loss.  Studies estimate the economic impact of migraine headache to be in the billions of dollars. I count my blessings.

The disease invades many systems in my body: nervous, circulatory, endocrine, muscular, and digestive. I’m not sure the medical community realizes it’s a systemic devil, but I know.  It took me 30 years to figure out that dysfunctional digestion is a huge factor in setting off a migraine.  Some theorize the body becomes toxic when foods aren’t properly digested or eliminated and that a full colon can cause pressure on the sympathetic nerve centers and on the cerebrospinal system. I don’t know for sure, but I do know my digestion problems are connected—and so are my hormones, blood-sugar, sleep patterns, the weather, and countless other things.  Like I said: It’s sneaky.

Those who have never had a migraine can’t imagine what they’re like. I understand. It’s impossible to know the bastard unless he’s ingested part of your life and invaded your body.  Anyone that’s ever had a migraine, though, even just once in childhood, understands. You don’t forget the misery, hopelessness, need for darkness and quiet, and time ticking past at a deathly slow rate while you beg for the symptoms to lessen–just a little.

I understand now that depression and chronic pain are very intertwined.  When I feel well, I love my life.  I can’t wait to read my latest book, talk to friends, work in the yard, clean up the house, and write.  But when I’m sick, and the for the day after–there’s always a migraine hang-over–the house remains messy, the dog un-walked, the books unread.  Daily chores are beyond my ability and interactions with people seem muted and cloudy. Food doesn’t sound good, either. Life just has a dull pallor to it.  All the little pleasures normally enjoyed are hidden away, out of reach.

But then, after the migraine leaves and the hang-over subsides, life is grand again.  I’ve learned to do everything I can when I feel well, so I won’t be stressed out when I’m sick. As much as I like to get things done, everything is put on hold when the migraine hits and that’s okay.  I’ve learned to take all the pressure off of myself when my head is pounding, and relax.

Once every couple of years or so, I’m desperate enough to seek medical help. Sadly, Migraineurs are sometimes perceived as drug-seekers.  I’m relieved Kaiser doesn’t treat me that way.  The nurses and doctors get me in quickly, turn down the lights, and give me an ice-pack without me saying a word.  Then they ask me what my usual cocktail is for relief. I say, “Demerol and Phenergan.” Soon I feel some relief from the intense pain and nausea, finally able to sleep when I get home.

Thankfully, the triptan drugs like Imitrex, give me reprieve much of the time. I’m not sure how I survived migraines before their invention.  Rarely do I use narcotics.  They make me sick (and exacerbate the digestive elimination problem).  That said: There is a time and place for the pain-killers—day nine of a migraine is one of those times.

Once, over a decade ago, I was denied pain-killers at an urgent care facility.  The nurse said, “Studies show that an I.V. with fluids and anti-nausea drugs are shown to be just as effective as narcotics.”  If I had been in a normal state of mind (another symptom of migraine is not being able to think or speak very well), I might have replied to the nurse, “That may be true when you first get a migraine, but when you’re on day nine of that migraine, you’re lucky if narcotics will even help.”  The whole scene created just one more layer of blame, guilt, and shame that forms tightly around the unbearable pain and sickness.  In my disbelief and feelings of helplessness, all I could do was cry and tell her to call my dad in from the waiting room.

Even at thirty years-old, I needed my dad to fight on my behalf that day. And he did.  He demanded to see the doctor. When the doctor denied me narcotics again, stating they didn’t even carry them in urgent care, my dad stood up and yelled, “Well, can you tell me what to do to help my daughter then?  If you people can’t help her with this pain, then tell me where to go or what to do!”  I hated witnessing his rage, but I needed him to funnel the anger I could never muster up for myself.  Even though I hadn’t told him I was suicidal, I think he knew.  His desperation and fear mirrored mine.

When someone is sick enough to go to the doctor over a migraine, every single blood-pounding moment is too much to bear.  The two hours I sat in the waiting room, hoping for relief, was seven thousand, two hundred blood-pounding seconds too long.  But I was willing to go through it all as long as I knew relief was coming; to be told relief wasn’t coming was heart-wrenching.

Finally, the doctor agreed to get morphine from the emergency room next door.  In the end, I felt a tiny bit better, and that was good enough. Mostly I felt defeated and just wanted to go to bed. Thankfully, that experience was rare and not the norm.  I learned after that to manage my pain better, curbing it any way I could before it got that severe.

I’ve certainly learned a few other things about migraines, too—things that make me feel better. One: I can’t cure myself. I do, however, look forward to menopause when many women report migraines subside greatly.  Two: It’s not my fault I have migraines.  Genetics can take some of the blame. Six genes have now been shown to contribute to the disease.  Three: A trigger is only a trigger sometimes, but if you pile on several triggers, you’re in trouble.  So, skipping a meal, not getting enough sleep, being premenstrual, and then trying to have a drink? Not a good idea.

In my quest for healing, I’ve tried 2 drugs from every classification of preventive medication.  Massage, chiropractor, Botox, colonics, thousands of acupuncture needles, changing my life habits…  And when those didn’t cure me, I tried the more spiritual side of things like praying to saints (begging might be more accurate), talking to psychics for any clues on how to manage them, and energy work.  Maybe one day I’ll even get some of the healing dirt from Chimayo, New Mexico.  Well, it can’t hurt, especially compared to the six inch acupuncture needles I’ve had in my head. And if all else fails, my plan is just to patiently wait for menopause. Growing older never sounded so good.

Also published at migraine.com

Bat Crazy

mexican-free-tailed-bat1

“Four Freaky New Bat Species Discovered” reads the headline of a recent Fox News article, portraying a large (much too large) photo of the ugliest creature ever seen. Uglier than a hairless cat, a Naked Mole Rat, or even a Proboscis Monkey with a nose that takes up a third of his face. At least the monkey has a real nose.

The new bat species are a type of horseshoe bat known for their flappy, grooved, wide-open noses called “noseleaves.” They don’t look like noses, though—more like a dog’s ear that’s been sliced a few ways, turned inside out, and glued to the front of the bat where a nose should be. Apparently, most bats emit sonar from their mouths, but these hideous creatures echolocate from their noses. Good for them. Even better is the fact that they can only be found in eastern Africa, which is far, far away from me.

Unfortunately, not all bats are that far away from me. One evening last spring, my dog and I were happily lounging on the couch, I, watching TV (recovering from too much tequila the night before), Izzy, dozing like dogs do. Suddenly, we both caught something in our peripheral vision move from the top of the floor-length curtains on the French doors to underneath the couch. Izzy and I needed no conversation on this one—we were up and off of that couch in one-tenth of a second. I thought, “What in the hell was that? ” I bet Izzy thought something very similar.

I looked down at the floor, and there, at the end of the couch was an extended brown-black bat wing sticking out.

Saying I was horrified might be an understatement.

Bats do not belong in your living space. Period. You can’t compare them to a mouse or a bird or a squirrel. Bats are bats—creepy, ugly, and dangerous if they carry rabies. It didn’t help that I had just heard a story on the radio that morning about a man who died from a bat-bite to the foot. Words. In my head. Rabies, shots in the abdomen, rabies, ten-thousand visits to the doctor for shots in the abdomen with big needles, rabies…

I used to like bats, from afar. I’d enjoy watching them at dusk, swoop out of their sleeping places and dive gracefully after the bugs. I didn’t mind the clicking noises coming from the trees at night knowing those furry, little bats were preventing countless mosquito bites (they can eat up to 1,000 mosquitos an hour), making my night more enjoyable on the patio. Bats are mysterious and intriguing and the basis of so much lore that a person can even be afraid of them and still love them the way we love graveyards, Halloween, or watching scary movies. We like to be a little afraid. The second summer after I moved into my old, Tudor house in the Park Hill neighborhood, I even saw the bats coming from behind the ivy near the peak of the roof. I didn’t care, I’m only renting, and hell, I liked the bats.

But, somehow, having one of them under your couch changes that sentiment pretty quickly.

I took Izzy down to the basement where my roommate lives and asked him to keep her in his room. “Oh, of course! Glad I can help by keeping her company!” Mike is not a manly man. He’s not the stereotypical feminine gay man either, but still, I’m more of a man than he is. Not surprising, he didn’t offer to help me get the bat out of the house.

Returning upstairs, I took a peek under the couch. Yep, still there.

So I did what I always do when I’m scared and don’t know what to do. I called my dad.  (After leaving the house and shutting the door). He wasn’t helpful, unless you call reminding me that people have to get lots and lots of shots in their abdomens for rabies helpful.

Next, I called my big boss from work. He was the man who’d know what to do. “Open all the doors,” Spero said, “and then get a broom and push him out the door.” I hung up, gathered all the bravery I could muster and started opening the doors. As I opened the last of the doors, the French doors, I moved the drapes to the side and heard a hissing noise. I looked up.  There in the folds of the brown curtains was a very well-disguised bat.

I screamed. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. I have two bats!” I ran from the house and called my dad. Again, not helpful.

Eventually, I looked under the couch and there was no bat, so I realized there was only one bat and he was back on the curtains where he’d started from. I felt like an idiot for thinking the whole house was full of bats, but I was relieved nonetheless.

I took a deep breath and grabbed the broom, trying to brush the creature towards the open door, but instead of going outside, he started flying like a maniacal killer in circles around the room not far above my head.

“Ahhh!” I screamed as I squatted on the floor ducking with the broom above me. “Shiiiittt!” I tried to open the pocket door to the kitchen (the closest exit out of there), but the door came off its rail and jammed with only an inch-wide opening. A good sized opening for a bat, but not for me. Now I’d have to go the long way around to the other door to escape.

I waddled around the couch to the stairwell door, opened it and ran down the stairs into Mike’s room. After shutting his door, I leaned against the wall, sliding all the way down until my butt hit the floor, my face buried in my hands. I cried some weird cry with no tears. This must be how you cry when you scared shitless, I thought.

I couldn’t even speak to Mike. I was annoyed. Why can’t I, just this once, have a manly-man roommate to help me get this psychotic bat out of my house? I was also peeved that my boyfriend wasn’t answering his phone, let alone on his way over to save me. Can’t a guy just save a girl from this fucked-up situation?

After five minutes, I regained some sort of composure and went back upstairs giving myself a pep talk as I went. “You can do this, you can do this. Don’t be a wimp.”

Back upstairs I found no bat. Not in the curtains, not under the couch. Since all the doors were still standing wide open, I thought he must have flown out. I looked around the room and it looked like it had been ransacked. I had no memory of trashing the place.

Slowly, I started putting everything back in order. As I was cleaning up bat guano from the floor below the curtains, I heard hissing. Near where I was kneeling, on the floor, was the ugliest, scariest creature looking up at me with his mouth wide open, baring 856 needle-sharp teeth.

“Holy shit! Are you kidding me?” Quickly, I grabbed a box and put it over the bat. He hissed some more. I collapsed on the couch.

Once I slowed my heart-rate, I tried sliding the box over the threshold of the French doors. It was too high. The gap was too big. The bat was really pissed now and I knew if I kept lifting that box over the threshold he was coming for me.

Now what? I called Dad again. This time he actually had something of value to offer. “Slide something thin and strong under the box and then you can carry him outside.” I went to the basement and found a pad used for cutting quilting squares big enough to cover the opening of the box.

Slowly, slowly, so I could give him a chance to hop on the pad, I slid it underneath the box.

I left the bat and the box alone for a while to calm myself down. I just didn’t know if I could take a chance lifting up the box, holding the pad just right so the bat couldn’t escape and carrying him outside. I needed to think on it. Maybe give myself another pep talk.

The gods must have been half-listening in when I asked for a man to come take care of the situation, because just then my (young and very boyish) step-brother called and said he was going to be over in a couple of minutes to borrow my sleeping bag. Hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Chen Mi greeted me with his typical child-like enthusiasm. I realized this might be the one and only time I am grateful for his immature bravery. Instead of eating red dirt in Sedona to see what it tasted like, or recklessly climbing pine trees while camping, I could use this to my advantage to get him to deal with the bat.

Really, I didn’t have to manipulate him at all. He “loves” bats it turns out! Fun! I tried to be grateful Chen Mi was there even when he told me that I was being silly to be so afraid of a bat. “Cathy, bats are good luck for the Chinese! It’s good to have one in your house!”

There was no use trying to express my fear to a fearless person, so I just nodded.

I was still grateful, though. Just having another human next to me felt reassuring and I knew he’d do whatever I needed him to do.

I said, “Okay, Chen Mi. Since you’re not afraid, please help me get this box outside and then YOU can lift the lid and let it go free.” We carefully picked up the mat beneath the box, gingerly holding the box in place. I felt like we were on the bomb squad. Maybe we should have protective bat suits, I thought. After stepping over the awkward threshold, we set the box down on the concrete patio very gently.

“Don’t touch that box, Chen Mi, until I’m inside with the door shut. Got it?”

He looked at me like a boy on Christmas about to open the best present ever. “Okay, Cathy! No problem!”

Quickly, I stepped inside and shut the door. Even though there was glass in the French doors, I couldn’t watch him free the bat. Nope. Done with the bat.

Chen Mi came back inside and said, “Wow, that was a cool bat!” I just hugged him. Thank God for little Chinese brothers who find all this scary shit fascinating.

In order to move past this bat-trauma I’ve tried to learn more about bats, so that maybe, just maybe, I can get rid myself of the image of the vampire-toothed creature.

Really, the only thing that makes me love bats now is the nifty fact that I may not have my high-quality tequila without them. Turns out those little bastard bats pollinate the agave plant whose seed production drops to 1/3000th of normal without them.

Good to know. So next time I’m drinking my tequila I’ll toast to the bats, but please, keep them out of my living room.

Dereliction of Duties

I met the nicest criminal today. He wore a bright green and white horizontal striped polo shirt—not a black hoody like a normal criminal would. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a meth addict. Just a guy in his early 30’s, who ate real well, with his hair pulled back in a pony-tail.

I was at work, rushing to meet Ursula for lunch, but first I needed to mail a card. The fastest way for me to get to the mailroom is to cut through the break-room from the outside of the building to the inner hallway.

I swung the door open to the break-room, walked past the Pepsi machine, noting out of the corner of my eye a guy standing very close to the side of the machine. I thought it was odd—maybe he was loading it with bottles of soda? Even in that quick glimpse though, I knew he wasn’t wearing a uniform and thought it strange.

As I headed to the interior break-room door, I saw it was closed. It was never closed. I knew something was up for sure. “Shit,” I thought. “I don’t want to know what creepy stuff’s going on. I just want my lunch. I’m starving.” I almost walked out of the room, feigning ignorance. But, I thought that would be irresponsible, so I turned around to look at him.

He was hugged up tight against the vending machine. At first I thought he might be humping it, but then I saw the crow bar in his hands. He was prying open the seam near where the contraption sucks in the dollar bills. Hmm. Did the beast eat his money? No, no, Cathy! People don’t carry around crow bars when they buy soda!

The assulted Pepsi machine

Then I understood. He looked at me apologetically like he had just cut me off in traffic and felt really, really bad. He snatched a dollar bill out of the machine. He looked at me again, then back to his little gold mine to grab another. After he had a few bills accumulated, he shoved them into his shirt.

Why isn’t he running out the door? He could have escaped without me even getting a good look at him. Damn. Why is he forcing me to confront him? I don’t want to. He should be running out the door. What sort of criminal is he anyway for God’s sake?

“What the hell are you doing?” I finally say, trying to sound intimidating. But really, I sound as casual as if I’d asked the barista at Starbucks, “Can I get a tall two pump white chocolate mocha, please?”

“Sorry,” he replies. He makes no move though—just keeps filling his shirt with dollar bills, now one at time.

This time, I decide, I’m going to sound stern: “I think you better get out of here,” I say. But instead the words come out like I’m his accomplice. More like: “Hurry, Dude! Get outta here before someone really mean walks through that door and you’re busted for real!”

“Okay,” he pleads. “Sorry. I’m sorry.” He says “Okay,” but he’s not moving. Instead he looks at me as if I just caught him taking a piss in the trash can and he was doing his best to hurry even though he was mid-stream.

I’m still perplexed by the apology: Sorry for what? “Sorry I’m interrupting your lunch when it’s 47 minutes past the time you normally eat.” Or maybe, “Sorry for stealing, but I only need three more dollars before I have enough to buy my dog a pretty collar with rhinestones. Bear with me here.”

Admittedly, I didn’t know what I was going to do next if he didn’t leave. He was being so polite. Who was I to be rude? Finally, satisfied he’d held me at bay longer than I could stand, or maybe satisfied he could now buy his dog a pretty collar, he walks to the door. But, instead of just walking out and not looking back, he is looking back. At me.

It was a weird moment, but the cop’s daughter in me said, “Quick, memorize his face and clothes!” So, I did. I took it all in. Every detail. Possibly Hispanic, hasn’t shaved, but isn’t that hairy anyway, could lose a few pounds, and wearing a really ugly shirt. Done.

At last he leaves. I open the other door to the hall. I don’t want to call the cops. I’ll be late. And I told Ursula to meet me at the car and I won’t be at my car because I’m here, dealing with shit I don’t want to be dealing with.  Why bother? I don’t care about the pop machine. That shittin’ machine takes a buck-fifty from my pocket every time I buy a soda. A rip off! Let him have the money—the soda monster deserves being robbed in return.

But then our building administrator’s voice is in my head: “You what? You didn’t call the police?”

Okay, okay. While I’m looking around for a phone, I remember I have my cell phone. But, do I have campus 911 number programed in my phone? I check. Yes, I do, because I’m a former cop’s daughter and these are the things you do to be prepared—you know, just in case.

I dial and walk outside to see if I can see the guy. Nope, he’s gone. Oh, well. Time to get lunch. I’m beyond starving now.

I look around for Ursula, afraid I’m going to miss her.

The dispatcher in my ear is very serious: Where is he now? Which way did he go? What did he look like? I’m sending an officer right now.

“Look,” I say, “I’m on my way off-campus. I have to meet someone. Can you just have the cop meet me in an hour?”

“Oh, no. You’re the witness. You have to stay to talk to the officer.” I just roll my eyes.  

Now I’m looking out for Ursula more than I am the courteous thief.

The cop comes. He says he has other cops looking for the guy.  I explain what happened. We laugh because the guy was so sorry. Then I spot Ursula walking out and I open the door and scream, “Ursula! I’m in here!” She comes in and when I tell her what happened she laughs, too, but really Ursula laughs at everything. I love that.

I describe the guy to the cop like a good witness, over and over. No, he didn’t have a Spanish accent even though he looked Hispanic. No, I didn’t really notice his pants. Yes, he was really sorry. Super polite guy. Yeah, real nice.

I write down everything about myself on a card for him. “Do you really need my social security number?” I ask?

“No,” he says, “Just your work information is fine…and your driver’s license info. Oh, and your phone numbers.”

The irony doesn’t escape me that I’m the one being treated like a criminal here. That dude is off buying his dog collar and now it’s 72 minutes past my lunch time, and I’m impatient and bitchy and really fucking hungry.

“Can I leave now,” I ask?

“I’m running this all through my head trying to see if I got everything—trying to decide just that,” he says, flipping through the pages of his nifty little notebook full of crime-fighting details.

I grab my stuff. I’m headed to the door nodding to Ursula to follow me out. “Okay?” I ask.

“Sure. You can go.”

Finally. Food.

Later, back from lunch, I told a co-worker what happened. He said, “I would have told him to put all the money on the table and if he didn’t do it I would have tackled him!”

“Really?” I was puzzled. “Over $10 from the Pepsi machine?”

My dad’s response was similar: “See, Cathy, if you had your concealed weapons permit, you could have pulled your pistol from your purse and held him at gun point until the police got there.”

After hearing everyone else’s version of how things should have gone down, I could see how neither my polite new friend, nor I, acted the way we should have. He wasn’t a typical psychopath and I’m no Charlie’s Angel. But so what? I think in the end he and I did just fine. After all, he just wanted a few bucks, and I… Well, I just wanted to eat my lunch.

Ramblings from Taos… (Thoughts on a Weekend Away Alone and Writing)

The 1850s adobe schoolhouse where I stayed

 October, 2010

This morning I walked out of the little 1850’s adobe schoolhouse where I slept last night, into the expansive courtyard, and remembered something I didn’t even know I knew—Georgia O’Keefe made a comment once about the quality of light in New Mexico being different than anywhere else. Yes, I can see that. Yes, I can feel that.

Driving here to Taos from Denver, over and down La Veta pass, I was bathed in copper and gold light.  I breathed the metallic colors into my lungs, hoping I could prolong the experience just a little longer.  Even spring cannot compare to the luminosity of color autumn creates. 

I did a little research and found O’Keefe’s first visit to Taos was in 1919.  Drawn to the “clear desert light” and the mountains (and after a longer stay in 1929), she went back to Taos once a year to paint. She often came to stay at the Mabel Dodge Luhan home that is right next door to where I am staying—not far from the square, but at the end of a long dirt road and butted up against miles of open native Pueblo land. I can feel O’ Keefe’s presence as I tour the Luhan home and that of D.H. Lawrence, Carl Jung, Ansel Adams, and all the other historic guests of Mabel’s.

 

Bell over the gate of the Mabel Luhan home

Taos is so full of old and new art.  And it’s delightfully historic as well—a lovely history of passionate artists and writers. I feel creativity oozing out of everything. Being here makes me want to create: paint, photograph, write, sculpt…  I haven’t felt this artistic for a long time. I wouldn’t have necessarily considered myself an artist before now, but I know I am because I can’t help but to create and that desire is what defines an artist.

And it’s so incredibly beautiful here. I just feel inspired–even just to breath and exist.  If I added up all the beautiful art I’ve seen my whole life it would fill up a dinner plate compared to the Olympic sized pool of art here. How can so much God-made beauty and man-made beauty exist all at the same place?  I keep overhearing conversations around town that last year at this time all the leaves were blown off the trees from high winds.  Nature politely waited for me this time and I do not take it for granted.

I’ve traveled alone when I’ve had to get from point A to B. I’ve planned lots of small weekend trips not knowing if I’d bring someone or not, but then usually at the last minute I bring someone with me. I always thought traveling alone would be a waste because I couldn’t stand next to someone and have them witness the sights with me.  There would be no one to breathe in sharply with me when they looked at the landscape or fall in love with a painting or taste the most amazing baba ghanoush that has ever touched my tongue.   But, I’ve discovered that even alone, those experiences aren’t diminished at all. If I need to share them, I can use that desire to help me write.  Read my words, see my photographs, feel the lightness in my step and hear the deep breaths I take after I’ve been healed and rejuvenated through the beauty I’ve seen here.

When you travel alone you don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone. Are they too tired to keep looking through the galleries? Are they in awe like I am?  Especially for a people-pleaser like me—I constantly worry about everyone else’s happiness.  But, traveling alone is a gift of selfishness and self-indulgence.  Bookstores, museums, historic homes. Lingering strolls through beautiful gardens and galleries that leave your heart stopping every two feet.

 

A flower, fence, and field near downtown Taos

Now I indulge in two hours of massage and energy work from Mari, who lives a block over from where I am staying.  She counsels me as she baths my body in love and her light…she rids me of energy blocks and tells me that my relationship is good and a gift rather than telling me what others perceive.  Because I know it’s a gift and I know I’m learning and he’s learning. We are learning more together than we have in all the years we combined of dating other people.  And it’s not easy lessons in which we are being schooled. For me, it’s a lesson on how to let go, all the while holding on… For him it’s about opening up, trusting, and accepting the love and compassion he needs so badly. It’s about both of us letting go of the fear that has paralyzed us for so long.  It’s about laughing and playing like children. It’s about adventure and discovery.  We’ve both learned and have grown and I can’t articulate that to my friends and family, but this healer woman–she knows.  

I look around this place I’m staying and absorb all I see, writing it down.  Exposed logs in an adobe ceiling.  Wide wood planks in the floor…my dog curled up into a semi-circle on the futon.  A beautiful tin punched Mexican mirror above the sink in the kitchenette.  Rugs and other hand-made things I purchased earlier in the day from a fair-trade shop—just waiting to be opened and touched again. My new books sit on the table, waiting to inspire me to write. 

I’m wondering why sound comes through this old adobe schoolhouse so differently from other buildings. I’m wondering if it’s wind I hear?  I heard the adobe keeps in the heat once it gets hot. I’m just wishing now it was warm. Izzy and I both get pee breaks when I go outside and walk around the portal to the private, but disconnected bathroom.  When I come back and look into the slanted windows and see the cozy browns and reds of the bed and the warm wood, I am happy that the cozy scene I’m looking at includes Izzy and me.

The next morning, I sit at the desk, looking out the eye-level window in front of me with dog in lap.  The adobe window frames a perfect painting outside. I see it all in layers…just outside the window, a low, curved adobe wall. Behind that low, pink earth wall is a barbed-wire fence marking the boundary of the vast Pueblo reservation. Beyond the fence a bit, a row of yellowed-leaf trees providing yet another layer—and further past those trees, miles of brush and pine, green and gold.  And finally the last layer: the low Taos mountains. A perfectly warm, colorful Indian summer day.

I’m proud that I came here to write and I followed through.  I’ve realized that writing it down is like bottling the magic I feel here. I can open that bottle anytime I need to feel the gold light from the autumn trees on my face or see the hues of red and copper in the adobe, land, and textiles.   I’m sad I must leave tomorrow to go home. I love this land with its mysterious air and light. I’ll be back though, to see more, write more, and live more. And until I come back, I’ll have my bottle of words to remind me.

 

The Way He Loves Me (A Daughter’s Appreciation of Her Father’s Love)

 

Some of the most loving fathering I’ve had was not when I was a small child or a teenager.  It wasn’t when Dad said he loved me; that’s only happened a few times in my life.  It wasn’t through hugs; those are rare. He’s not that kind of guy. He’s a serious man—a retired cop who has seen a lot of rough things in his life.  Fortunately, though, he has grown a little softer through the years.  So, when I think of how my father has cared for me and sheltered me, I think back to my late 20s when I moved out-of-state to Arizona for graduate school and then moved back home a couple of years later. 

I made a neglectful mistake by not asking my father for help in driving the huge, stuffed U-Haul with my car in tow when I moved to Flagstaff.  I’m an independent person and I didn’t think to ask for help—or maybe I didn’t think he would help me.  It didn’t occur to me that I didn’t know how to drive a truck while hauling a trailer until my father asked me several times if I really knew what I was doing. 

“I wish I had known sooner when you were leaving. I could have taken time off and helped you move,” he said. 

“Oh,” I paused—the thought just occurring to me for the first time that I could have asked him.  I reassured him I’d be fine, trying to convince him and myself that I could move on my own.       

“Make sure you don’t hit anything with that trailer. Driving a trailer is not easy, Cathy,” he said with a knitted brow. I smiled faintly, looking doubtful, and told him I’d figure it out. But as I was driving away and ran over the curb with the trailer, I began to tear up, cursing myself for not thinking beyond packing the truck.  I had no idea what it was going to be like pulling a trailer.  

A couple of hours later, I nearly took out a gas pump and had to beg the attendant to pull the truck out for me.   After that incident, I made sure to only buy gas where I could pull through easily.  About 11 p.m., desperate to stop for the night, my young sister and I ended up at a motel in Albuquerque.  I pulled into the parking lot and had nowhere to pull through, but didn’t realize it until it was too late.  I was boxed in with a chain link fence ahead of me.  The next morning, it took me 30 minutes to back my way out of the lot, practically t-boning my car in the process.  Eventually, we reached Flagstaff and I immediately dropped off the trailer at U-Haul. I never wanted to see another one again.

When my two years of graduate school in Health Psychology were nearly over, my dad kindly responded to my desperate plea to come help me move home.   A few nights before he came to Arizona, I experienced an incident so frightening that I called him in the middle of the night crying. Late the night before I defended my thesis, I was watching TV because I couldn’t sleep, rehearsing my thesis defense in my mind.  To compound my stress, I was getting sick.  In a couple of days it would be bronchitis and a sinus infection. I was fidgety thinking about whether I’d be able to successfully defend my thesis the next day.   

I lived in a tiny studio apartment, less than 500 square feet.  I slept on a futon in the main room just a few feet away from the front window.  My apartment faced out to a never-ending forest on the edge of town and I had the window open. Even though the blinds were pulled down, I could still smell the pine trees outside.  The apartment was dark except for the light coming from the TV.  Suddenly, a man wearing a baseball cap was standing against my window peering down through the blind slats at me. I could hear the gravel under his feet as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.  I froze.  The gravity of the situation didn’t escape me—I knew he could rip my screen out and get to me in 3 steps. My breathing stopped.  I felt a rush of adrenaline surging from my kidneys, flooding my blood stream.  I was outside myself watching my reaction. I thought, so this is how it feels when something like this happens. 

I knew I wasn’t helping myself by freezing: I had to take action.  After what was only about 20 seconds but seemed much longer, I heard my voice say, very calmly, “You better get out of here, or I’m calling the police.”  He didn’t flinch. He stared. I thought, thank God this is the one night I didn’t put my phone on the charger across the room.  “I mean it. I’m calling,” I said louder.  He still didn’t move.  I slowly reached over and picked up the phone.  I dialed.  “Police.  Is this an emergency?” The dispatcher said.  He was so close he could hear the dispatcher’s voice.  As I replied saying quietly, “Yes, there is a man outside my window,” the man walked away.  The dispatcher told me to stay on the phone with her until an officer arrived.  Once the officer pulled up, I quickly hung up the phone, dressed, and answered the door. 

I tried to downplay the situation to the cop: “Oh, it’s just a peeping Tom. They’re harmless.”  “Oh, no they aren’t harmless,” he said.  “It always escalates. First it’s peeping, then it’s assault.”  He spent the next hour convincing me I needed to be scared by telling me stories of peeping Toms “gone violent”.  It worked and after he left, I was frightened, feeling vulnerable. 

I called my dad in Denver.  I tried to be strong; but as always, I cried as soon as my daddy—my protector—answered the phone.  Sobbing.  “What’s wrong, Cathy?” he asked.  More sobbing.  “Cathy?” he asked again.  Finally I managed a couple words in between gasps for air.  “Some—guy—was just—outside my window—peering in—at me. I called—the police.  I’m—okay.  Okay, I’m scared—but I’ll be alright.  Sorry, Dad—for waking you up.”  Slowly I regained my composure.   His reaction was soothing: “Too bad you didn’t have a gun! You could have whipped that right out in his face and scared him to death! That would teach him not to peep in windows.”   I felt better after talking to him, but still had to make it alone until graduation. 

Finally, Dad arrived. I picked him up in Phoenix and we rented a U-Haul and drove back to Flagstaff.  That night in my apartment Dad said, “I hope that guy comes back and I’ll hurl this front door open and scare the heck out of him. What do you think he’d think about that?”  He threw the front door open and looked outside, rehearsing his imaginary scene.  I laughed and felt comforted. Finally, that night I slept. Dad probably slept for the first time in days, too.  Graduation was the next day and Dad and I had a quiet dinner at my favorite restaurant and then we began packing and cleaning.  Soon we were on the road headed back to Colorado. No more peeping Toms to worry about.  I was moving in with my dad for “a while” while I looked for work. Going home. 

Not only did Dad give me a wonderful place to stay for free, he paid my bills while I looked for a job.  We gardened and fixed up his new house together. I repaid his kindness by cooking home-made meals for him and cleaning.  We were buddies, watching our favorite TV shows together and going to eat dinner in new restaurants. 

One night, we got home late from dinner.  I felt disappointed that it was dark already but was determined to get in my daily run around the townhouse complex.  Dad said, “Can’t you wait until tomorrow?  It’s just not safe to run at night, Cathy.”

                “Dad, you can’t worry about me so much! I’m 28 years old!  How do you think I’ve survived all these years without you?”  I smiled, went up to my room, changed clothes, and started jogging around the huge complex on the sidewalk.  It started to rain.  As I was coming up the last stretch, breathing hard, I thought “I bet he’s worried sick about me.”  After I cleared the last hill, I thought I saw something move under a tree.  I squinted through the darkness and rain and looked again.  There, hiding behind the tree, soaking wet, was my dad—holding a flashlight and making sure I was safe.  And that is the way he loves me.

Broken-Down Body, Beautiful Soul (A Story About a Man with Multiple Sclerosis Who Changed My Life)

I was 20 years old, a full-time college student, and minutes away from meeting Terry, one of the greatest friends I would ever have.  I pulled up to his upper middle-class suburban neighborhood nestled against the foothills on the West side of Denver and was thinking how much I needed this job—the pay was double my part-time hourly rate at the convenience store and this job sounded much more fulfilling than mopping floors, working a cash register and working for ol’ lady Myrna who was late to relieve me every night at 11 PM when my shift was over. 

I was nervous about interviewing for a job so unlike any job I’d applied for before.  All I knew from my best friend, who worked with Terry’s wife, was that he was in a wheelchair and they desperately needed help.  Terry and Penny were hiring someone who would clean, cook, take care of the yard, and do physical therapy exercises with Terry.  What did they expect from me? What was it like to work with a disabled person? I was getting my degree in Psychology and wanted to work in a helping profession someday anyway and this was a perfect chance to help someone who needed me.

As I walked to the front door, I thought about the phone conversation I had with Terry the night before; he was kind, intelligent and easy to talk to.  When I rang his doorbell, Terry came to the door riding his scooter and welcomed me in.  We sized each other up pretty quickly and knew instinctively the situation was going to work out well. 

Terry was in his early forties, balding, with a full beard and mustache sporting a bit of gray.  His voice was soft, but deep and his whole face was smiling—eyes twinkling.  Sometimes he’d laugh so softly, you’d have to listen very carefully and look in his eyes to tell if he was really laughing.  He was wearing sporty slacks and a golf shirt.  His scooter-like wheelchair had three wheels and was powered by a car-sized battery with a quiet whirr wherever he went.   On the handlebars of the scooter hung a basket with all his accessories—a portable phone, a folding multi-tool, and his wallet.  We began to get to know each other and joked around and after a half an hour, he hired me.  That day was a new beginning in my life—I spent the next 6 years by Terry’s side.

Terry was 28 years old when he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.  When Terry tried to re-enlist in the Air Force, he failed his physical.  They claimed he failed the hearing test—he knows now it was the “move your leg around in a circle” test that he really failed.  He said his leg was supposed to move smoothly, but the movement was staggered during the test.   Months later, he began falling for no reason.  Terry went to a doctor.  After many tests, they gave him the diagnosis.  Having MS meant never having full control over his body, watching his ability to walk fade away, and wondering some days whether he would have the physical strength to pull himself out of bed.  Terry lost his military career, lost his 1st marriage, and later,  his career in the auto industry, each loss a direct result of his illness—and all in the prime of his life. 

Terry had been in a wheelchair for about eight years when I met him.  I never sensed anger or bitterness about his loss of a healthy body—instead he possessed a joy for life that is rare in most people.  Part of that joy was having Penny in his life—his best friend and partner.  She really loved him and knew of his illness when she married him, but married him anyway.  They were a great team and working in this home day to day offered me a new and profound perspective on life.

Terry treated me more like a team-mate or family, and not so much like an employee.  Every day I’d get to work and say, “What are we doing today, Homey?” 

“Well, Bones,” he’d say while he pulled out his list, “Today we are going to the grocery store and then going to make Rice Krispy treats.  Tomorrow is laundry and mowing the lawn.”

One day when I asked what we were going to do.  He said, ”Going to look at a BMW I want to buy.”  So, off we’d go to buy a black M5.  He couldn’t drive, so when I’d drive it he’d say, “Step on it woman!  This car needs to be driven fast!” 

“Okay!” I’d yell over the wind blowing through the car, “But you are paying for my speeding ticket if I get one!”  I haven’t driven a fast beast of a car since, but when I drove for Terry it was to make him feel like he was driving himself.  He’d say, “Man, I miss the freedom of just getting in my car and going wherever I want. I miss driving in the New Mexico desert.”  I couldn’t give him the desert or his independence, but I gave him my youth and all the excitement and hope for the future that it brings.

Other days we spent our days working on the house, Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love pumping out Terry’s huge speakers and expensive stereo system, talking and learning about each other’s history and dreams, waiting for Penny to come home from work so that we could eat the dinner I had prepared with Terry’s guidance.  Terry was the mind and I was the body.  He verbally walked me through fixing the closet door, changing the oil in the snow blower, hooking up new stereo components, or repairing the sprinkler head in the lawn.  My favorite thing was working in the yard.  Terry would sip his iced tea on the porch and tap his foot to Robbie Robertson playing over the outside speakers while I pulled weeds or planted in the garden.     

When we weren’t working, we were philosophizing about life and love and death.  I was learning about Abraham Maslow and Peak Experiences in school and we’d talk about Maslow and Jung and any other theorists we found relevant to our emotional and spiritual growth. I read books aloud to him after doing physical therapy exercises, or we fell into a trance listening to a new CD we had discovered earlier that week—maybe Loreena McKennitt or The Blessing.  Terry introduced me, a culturally sheltered young woman, to many things in life I had never experienced.  Before Terry, the only Asian food I’d ever eaten was La Choy in a can.  He and Penny took me out for Vietnamese and I ate rice noodles and learned to love cilantro and lettuce with my egg rolls.  And he and Penny took me to my first performance, Phantom of the Opera, and later Miss Saigon.

Our Fridays were spent visiting art and nature museums, state parks, and quaint little shops looking for books, incense, or enlightenment of some sort.   We drove to Boulder and watched street performers on the Pearl Street Mall and ate cheese fondue at my favorite restaurant. Those were the happiest days in my life. Through this life I began to live in the present moment—the here and now.  I didn’t worry about school, or making ends meet—I only lived in the glorious moment of now—Terry did, too.

 Terry showed me the world—more importantly, he showed me myself.  He was the first person that ever demonstrated compassion and total acceptance of me on a daily basis.  He would tell me I was one of the most passionate people he’d ever met, that I was good-hearted, and when I felt bad about things, he’d look at me with love in his eyes and tell me he understood me and tell me I was a good person.  He had a way of pointing out the truth to me without making me feel defensive.  I became more self-aware.  He was a mirror, reflecting my true, wonderful self.  Soon, I began to see myself through Terry’s eyes and although I battled with a fragile self-esteem, each day I grew into a more loving, compassionate, aware, and self-assured person. Terry and I gave each other hope for the future and he gave me a love for life.  I had intended on helping him that day I walked up to his door.  Instead, he gave a much bigger gift to a young woman fighting so hard to figure out life—a love for the world and a love of myself.

Originally written in 1999 and years later published in The Human Touch Journal at University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus

An Essay About My Grandmother and Her Alzheimer’s called “Number One”

My earliest memory of her—rocking me in her arms, singing You are My Sunshine, patting my butt to the rhythm of the rocking—her velvety hands, smelling of Avon hand cream, caressing me, patting me, loving me.  Later, whenever I visited her, I remember her always showering me with gifts: perfect outfits she spent hours sewing, little girl jewelry, modeling clay, personalized books with me as the leading character, and a doll that crawled.  My step-mother was fed up with how many dolls I received from her, but my grandmother bought them for me anyway.  She loved me.  I was the center of her universe.  As a child, a teen, and then a young adult, I knew—when I was in her presence—the world was just right and safe and good. 

I miss her.  I miss calling her when I have news. Sometimes I make up conversations in my mind.  “Hi, Gram. Guess what? Remember how much my eyes have been bothering me?  Well, I found out that I have severe dry eye.  All these years, I never knew that’s what it was.”  She’d say, “Oh, no. That’s just horrible. You poor thing.  I hope they can figure out what to do to help your eyes.”     

Or maybe I want to tell her about someone I’m dating.  But, I really don’t date anymore, so I guess that’s one conversation I don’t have to make up in my head.  Maybe I just want to cry to her and say, “Gram, the last 6 years have been so hard…I miss having you to lean on.  I miss you taking care of me and I’m tired of taking care of you. I love you, but the burden of your house and finances and the fights trying to get you in the shower and taking care of Grandpa and getting you on Medicaid and finding a nursing home—it’s just all too much. I’m tired and I just want you to hold me and tell me everything is going to be okay, like you used to.”

I guess, technically speaking, I could drive over to the nursing home she’s in now and have any one of these conversations with her—well, maybe not the one about taking care of her. She wouldn’t understand because she doesn’t know she’s sick. But certainly we could have a chat about the dry eyes.  She’d say exactly what I know she would. Yet, somehow it’s not the same because, one minute later, she won’t remember the conversation we just had. So, the comfort I used to get, and the best friend she used to be, are gone.  But, I still tell her things anyway. It makes her happy to hear about my life and it gives me a little glimmer of how things used to be. 

They call Alzheimer’s “The Long Good-Bye”.  It’s true.  You say good-bye a little at a time.  You miss your loved one and then feel guilty because he or she is sitting in front of you.  I’m lucky, though—my Gram still knows who I am. She still lights up when I walk into the room and brags about me to her family and friends.  She’s told me the story of the day I was born more times than my mother has. She always tells the tale with her arms cradled like she’s rocking me to sleep.  “You were born and I just felt like you were mine.  I knew you were mine.  God gave you to me and I had meaning in my life like I never had before. All the nuns in the hospital thought you were my baby.  You were my angel and you were all that I thought about. I hated to leave you with your parents. “

And who’s to blame her for not wanting to leave me with my parents?  When I was born, my mom had just turned 17; my father, 19.  They were kids who had no idea what to do with a baby.  It must have been hard for Gram to leave me, knowing my life was not going to be the calm, comfortable life she’d give me if she could.  She worried about me constantly.  My parents were dreadfully poor, so Gram would try to help as much as she could.  She bought fans because our trailer was too hot and bought me clothes, toys, and blankets.  She had a way of stepping in and filling in the gaps—not just when I was a child, but for most of my life.  She protected me.  She cherished me.  I constantly felt her love. 

Gram always tells me, “You are my number one!” and holds up her index finger to punctuate the point.   I’ve never felt more loved by anyone.  Luckily, that hasn’t changed since she got sick.  Thank goodness she’s still “there” enough to know she loves me.

 

Gram is happy now in the beautiful nursing home I chose for her.  She was depressed at first and cried every day.  She wanted to go home, even though she couldn’t always articulate that sentiment.  I felt horrible guilt when I wasn’t there with her every day.  But, now she has a friend, Charlotte, who wears funny hats and hobbles around using her walker.  Charlotte doesn’t talk much, but breaks out into song in response to anything you say to her.  If Gram says to me, “Cathy, your dog is so cute!”  Charlotte starts singing, “How much is that doggie in the window?”  Then Gram lights up and starts singing, too.  When they aren’t singing, they laugh at each other’s senseless jokes for hours.  They are so crazy about each other that they aren’t even allowed to sit together at meals because they never shut up long enough to eat. 

Sometimes I visit and we hang out in her room.  I lie down across the bed while she sits in her wheelchair and we fantasize about what trips we want to take—sometimes it’s to places she’s been or sometimes places she’ll never see, like Hawaii or Europe. Instead of letting her feel sad and trapped because she can’t just hop in her car and drive, I initiate imaginary trips.  We ate lunch on the sidewalk of a French cafe, chatting and people-watching.  We drove the English countryside, looking at the rolling hills and farmers with their sheep.  We traveled across Colorado and New Mexico in a fast car—she’s driving of course, with her foot to the floor. 

Sadly, though, some days when I go visit her, she’s so enamored with Charlotte that she forgets my dog and I are even there.  Talking to me, she’ll turn her head to hear something Charlotte has said. The next thing I know, she’s rolling down the hall in her wheelchair, laughing and looking up at Charlotte as they head to Charlotte’s room to eat candy and tell their secrets to one another.  I try to tell myself that it’s wonderful she’s so happy now and that she no longer relies on me to make her happy all the time, but later I cry because it hurts to not be “number one” today.

Several months ago she told me that we were soul mates. “Yes,” I said, “I know,” with a nod and a smile.  I’m not sure how I know, but I know she and I are connected spiritually—always have been, always will be.  I know I’ll be as close to her in death as I have been in life.  I feel such a sweet comfort in that knowing.  

I don’t think I’ll have any regrets when she dies—no wishing I had done this or said that.  I’ve said everything I need to say.  I’ve loved as much as I can.  I’ve washed her hair in the sink like she used to wash mine as a child.  I’ve curled her hair hundreds of times, just the way she likes it, and told her how beautiful she is—as she did with me when I was a kid.  I’ve bathed her, cooked her favorite meals, and listened to her stories, much as she bathed me, baked my favorite cherry cheesecake, and listened to my stories about boys.  I just hope I’ve been able to return the favor and give her the sense that life is just right and safe and good.

Originally published at A Long Story Short and as “Missing Her” in The Human Touch Journal at University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus

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