And Death Shall Have No Dominion

“Though lovers be lost, love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.”

Dylan Thomas, 1933

The Pasatiempo magazine comes every Friday with the local newspaper’s end of the week edition—the New Mexican’s “Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment and Culture.”  Needless to say, with two yearling giant sized puppies hell bent on destroying my house, I don’t get out much.  But I do like to browse the magazine.  What caught my attention today was not the local events profiled inside, but rather the advertisement on the back cover:  “An Open Letter to the Citizens of New Mexico.”  The full page ad detailed a place called Orion’s Peace Camp and Learning Center.  As it turns out, Orion Strong was a boy who attended the Peace Camp in 2005 as a seven year old.  In 2013, at his eighth grade graduation, Orion received an award presented to the student who best exemplified the concept of selfless service and for his commitment to being drug and alcohol free.  On November 10th, 2014, the ad stated that “Orion earned his angel wings after a 17 month battle with leukemia. Before he transitioned, Orion asked those who want to honor and remember him to do something to uplift the community.”  Earned his angel wings?  Transitioned?  Why can’t we just say “He died.”?   Because, as the poet Rilke said, “Der Tod ist gross.”   Death is huge.  And when it happens to a child, it is unthinkable and unmentionable.

Tuesday, October 25th would have been my nephew’s 21st birthday.  He died on August 30th while away at college, about to begin his junior year.   He was articulate, intelligent, handsome and beloved by his classmates.  To celebrate his birthday, his friends and peers gathered at a harvested wheat field near the college in eastern Washington state.  In the photographs, the wheat chaff is yellowed and lifeless against the ground and there is a roiling gray sky.  There is a storm coming—one can feel it.  His friends hold balloons, each emblazoned with a message for their lost friend. The barometric pressure rises, creating an intense feeling of suffocation. And then the balloons are gone, risen to the ether while his friends remain behind to grieve.  There is a strange light in the horizon.  It is dusk, but it seems like dawn.  And death shall have no dominion.

I am sure that two years later, Orion Strong’s family is still grieving.  And I am certain that we will be grieving the death of my nephew in every year to come as summer gives way to fall, as the leaves turn blazing colors and the nights grow cold.  There is no making lemonade out of lemons when it comes to the death of a child, a brother, a grandchild, a nephew.  We each have to do what we can—my sister will establish a scholarship in her son’s name at his college; I will go back to work to fight cancer and I will make a donation to Orion’s Peace Camp.  And I hope that my nephew’s friends and classmates will remember him and seek help if they are struggling, and lend a hand to their peers that need guidance, and that each and every one of us will resolve to be a little kinder and a little more understanding.  Death is real; death is huge, death is not a euphemism.  But let us all strive so that in the end, no matter how or when it comes: “Death shall have no dominion.”

Be Prepared

My friend Rachel and I have done a fair amount of traveling together over the last ten years.  Mostly we’ve gone to dog shows, with occasional side trips thrown in.  We like a lot of the same things—deerhounds, horses, art, jewelry, and husbands who stay home with the animals while we jaunt around the country. Rachel had a military career before settling down in Sierra Vista, AZ, and I know it drives her crazy that I am ALWAYS late because she’s always buttoned up early and squared away.  She has a big cargo van, which is even more spacious than my Ford passenger van, so occasionally she helps me out when I need to transport things. In exchange for putting up with my tardiness, Rachel gets to observe my idiosyncrasies and provide our other friends with endless entertainment by telling stories about me.

In August Rachel agreed to meet me in Colorado at my parent’s condominium there, which had just been sold, to help me transport my father’s artwork and my mother’s “collectibles” (yes, Mom loved tschotkes too!) back to San Diego.  Our mission was to sort through twenty years of belongings in twenty four hours from Friday evening to Saturday night, then hightail it back home 976 miles on Sunday morning to be back at work by Monday.  It was a tall order, but we managed.  Most of the furniture was to remain behind to be picked up and donated to Habitat for Humanity, including an almost new and very large television set.  Rachel’s tv at home had just gone on the blink, so I offered her the behemoth in the living room.  She said, “Let’s see how much room we have in the van.”  I said, “Let’s put it in soon, then.”  She said, “I don’t think we’ll be able to get it down the stairs—it’s heavy!” When all was said and done and oil paintings and antiques were sandwiched safely between multiple dog beds, space was at a premium and the television stayed in the living room.

At nine am on Sunday morning, Rachel was seated in the driver’s seat, ready to roll.  In true obsessive compulsive fashion, I told her that I needed to make one more “pass-through”, just to make sure we weren’t forgetting anything important. She sighed and watched the minutes tick away while I ran back into the house.  I realized I had forgotten the closet in the master bathroom.  And that’s when I discovered the treasure trove!  Packaged up neatly into one gallon Zip Lock bags, were dozens of complete first aid kits—the remnants of my father’s many overseas travels.  Each bag was perfect—alcohol wipes, benzoin, gloves, suture material, gauze, dressings, steroid and antibiotic creams, and band-aids.  Many, many band-aids.  My heart was aflutter—I saw a first aid kit for every family car, for the barn, for the spare suitcase, for the dog grooming bag.  While Rachel waited patiently in the car, I stuffed the first aid kits into garbage bags, laundry bags, grocery bags—anything that would hold them. She watched in dismay as I ran to the car and tucked my treasures into every spare nook and cranny.  I was very proud of my resourcefulness, and I offered her some of the take.

Four months later, she still enjoys telling the story.  She regaled the guests who had come to her home a few weeks ago to pick up their new deerhound puppies with the tale of her crazy friend, who walked away from a brand new big screen tv, not to mention crystal and porcelain and her mother’s mink coat (which incidentally made her look like the Michelin tire man) in order to stuff BAGS OF BANDAIDS IN THE CAR!  I let her have her moment of hilarity.  But I know, in my heart, that those band-aids will prove to be far more useful than the mink coat.  The next time someone calls out—at a dog show, on an airplane, at the gas station—“Is there a doctor in the house??!!!”—like a good Boy Scout, I will be prepared.

Dear Catherine

When I saw the peonies just poking their new shoots above the ground next to your house, it was almost too much to bear. I love peonies. In 1991 we bought the house on Strawberry Hill back in Dover Massachusetts. The perennial gardens were seventy years old then, and I had no idea what was planted there. That spring was a miracle—tulips and irises and daffodils and crocuses shot up in green tendrils through the last few mounds of old snow and blossomed into a riot of color. But the peonies were a surprise—crawling with ants they lifted their heavy heads and bloomed into unparalleled delicacy. I was in awe, and the peonies and the lilacs are two of the things I will always miss from my years in Boston. I wish I had taken more photographs. When I saw your peonies, I cried for both of us.

I have been to New Mexico many many times, and I agree with all of the tourist literature and hype: New Mexico is indeed the Land of Enchantment. Everyone knows and loves Georgia O’Keefe, but in my opinion Wilson Hurley did it best. He captured the big skies and sunsets that the Navajo saw before the white folks came and that keep people like me coming back. The sunsets, and the friends I have made there hold a special grip on me. Of all of my friends, you were unique. An Army “brat”, you had lived everywhere—Florida, Europe, Japan, New York City. You were educated, you spoke several languages, you rode horses and had collies and you loved the ballet. But in the end, you came back to Albuquerque, to a home you loved. We met because of the deerhounds—in a world of instant gratification, fast food and big screen violence and romance, we were anachronisms together.

I too came back to Albuquerque–on Wednesday to help Joan settle your estate. Your parents died in 2008 and 2009—you had no brothers or sisters or children. In the end, crippled by an old accident which had shattered your legs at nineteen and dampened your spirit, you succumbed to diabetes, heart disease, infection and time. I could have done, and should have done more for you. When I visited, I always stayed at the hotel you recommended. You said, “Stay with me NEXT time, after I get the house fixed up.” I did not want to inconvenience you, and besides, having so many dogs and cats and demands at home, staying in a quiet hotel, with the soothing sounds of an air conditioner and no midnight potty calls seemed like a luxury to me.

In August, when you got sick, Joan finally had the key and let us into your house. I was appalled at the conditions you were living in. I had no idea—Natalee was supposed to be taking care of you. She failed miserably at her duties, and she took advantage of you, and I was determined that you could not, and would not go home until we had remedied the situation. We spoke in the hospital of your expansive back yard, and of the charm that the little adobe home must have had in the past. You agreed that it was time, finally, to reclaim that charm, the sun filled living room, the warmth of those thick adobe walls, the cozy bedrooms, and the photographs of the greatest dancers the world has known. You knew that it was time, and you let Joan hire a contractor. All you ever wanted was to be home by Christmas.

The house is beautiful, Catherine. The living room walls are a pale turquoise, just as you picked out. Your bedroom is the same color and the guest rooms are a lovely yellow, the color of the New Mexico sunshine. There is an amazing tub in the bathroom, perfect for a person in a wheelchair such as yourself—you just grab the handrails and do the transfer and sit on the bench while the door seals itself shut and you soak in warm water up to your neck. I am so sad that you never got to enjoy it. Joan did a wonderful job.

I miss you Catherine—your wit, your humor, your love of pretty colored gemstones, and of course the calendars you sent me each year of the handsomest men in the world. I know you always favored Viggo, but you humored me with photos of Gerard Butler and Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom and Javier Bardem and Olivier Martinez. I will keep those calendars forever, to remind me that we, you and I, can always dream of handsome men and beautiful jewels. I hope that your deerhounds met you at the “bridge”, and that you are there as in your youth, dancing in your finest pearls.

For the rest of us, tell the people you love, that you love them every day. You never know when you won’t get a chance to anymore.

On Friendship, by Jackie Widen

My adult daughter and I were having a discussion recently about friendships.  She is at that awkward age – mid 20′s and graduated from a college that is now 2,000 miles away, early married and living in a city different from where she grew up.

 

Her circle of friends has changed over these past couple of years and it distresses her.  During a great chat about the nature of friends, their evolution and how some friendships change with age, life events and geography, we were able to identify two basic types of friends.  The first type is those you meet up with in common activities–your school class, the gymnastic or cheerleader squad you’re on,  student council, your various carpools, the church youth group. Growing up, there are limitless opportunities to encounter situations where everyone has a commonality with you.   College brings on another fertile breeding ground for friends– the dorm, campus life, parties.  As the years pass and majors are fine-tuned, you find yourself with a familiar group of friends who are taking those final courses for that specialized degree.  Pacts are made to always remain close, no matter what, and for a while, those promises are easy to keep.  But then life and choices sometimes alters those bonds.

 

As the years pass these “passage friends” fall away.  Phone chats are forced or inconvenient and interests change.  People marry and begin lives that suddenly involve a new circle of acquaintances.  But then there is the second type — those special friends who stay in your heart no matter the time spent away, the miles apart, the changed interests,  the new job.

 

Kind of like me and Miranda.

 

I like to call this type of friends “forever friends” because no matter how your life changes you always have a touchstone with these special people.  I find it more so with women than men who don’t communicate as well in general.  They don’t call up their bestie to cry when their Dad suddenly dies, or when they find out they are having twins with already a 2 and 4 year old.

 

Miranda and I are polar opposites.  We met when we were 10 years old and swimming for opposing teams.  We swam different strokes and seldom competed against one another, but we were both the best at our respective events.  Circumstances brought us to join a third team during our teen years and that’s when we really became good friends.  We lived close to one another and our mothers teamed up for carpooling to and from our 2 -a day workouts  in Houston.  Back in the 1960′s we could whip across the Houston freeways from the southern areas to Memorial in 20 minutes.  Now it would take more than 20 minutes just to gain access to the freeway.  By the time I turned 14 -legal driving age back then – I was given the keys to the family vehicle and I drove us to and from our practices.  I remember when we stopped at the convenience store after morning workouts to get giant Slushees and candy bars.  We used to compare the new eye shadow colors we liked.  We even shared a boyfriend.  No!  It wasn’t anything naughty – it was just an innocent crush on a guy who turned out to be a Blue Ribbon Jerk.  But he drove a red Corvette!

 

Miranda was Jewish and I was Methodist.  That didn’t seem to matter.  In our spare time during the spring and summer we put on our little bikinis and lay out by her pool to get some color on our pale bodies.  Practicing in an indoor pool didn’t allow much tanning.  When we were bored we would look at her father’s slides; all those plastic surgery cases.  Sometimes we would wish we could trade hair.  Mine was stick straight and I had to force it to curl.  Hers was curly and frizzy and she would slather on the gel to make it behave.

 

We chose different adult life paths.  After college I married and spent my time on the Mommy Track raising 4 small children spaced way too close together.  She went off to be brilliant in medical school and excel at her challenging Internship and Residencies.   I would ask her “Isn’t it difficult to do all those long rotations?” and she would smile and answer “Not as hard as our swimming workouts.”  And when she learned I had juggled all those kids with an alcoholic husband for over 25 years – she asked “Wasn’t that horribly awful?” and I would answer “Not as hard as our swimming workouts!”  Though our commonality was rooted in our swimming days, little did we know we would be bonded for life because of discipline and hard work.

 

We’ve made the effort to try and stay in touch during the past five decades.  Gee whiz – Did I say decades?  She lives in California and I live in Texas.  When we do have dinner or occasionally chat on the phone it is like the years dissolve and we are still teenagers.  As I approach a very significant birthday, I am profoundly grateful for my “forever friend”, Miranda.  We have birthdays only 2 days apart, and so I always think of her when I celebrate my special day.  This year, my 60th (yes I am the senior, she is a baby at nearly 59) I would like to say Thank you Miranda, for being a Forever Friend.  It is a rare and special thing to call you a friend for 50 years.  As I toast myself this coming weekend, I will raise a glass for you too.  Life is so very short and we need to remember the things that matter in our lives:  Faith, Family and Friends.   Especially Forever Friends, like me and Miranda.  Happy Birthday to us!

 

Thank YOU Jackie!  I couldn’t agree more.  Miranda