Scream

By Neva Knott

The lights were on the band and I was dancing next to the guy I like, feeling guilty that I like him and wondering what he’d do if he knew, because my boyfriend just died two months ago and they were friends.

I looked around that familiar room, a bit like the room that held our collective youth, and wanted to scream. Primal, loudly, and to let it be drowned by the sound of rock and roll. In that moment my mind shattered into pieces of some other reality that still included Andrew…our first public kiss in just about that spot, a time when jobs and money didn’t matter, the reality that preceded the twenty wasted years of my life.

As the lights flashed on stage and the song changed my mind came back into focus and my heart flashed on reality. This is my life, these are my people, in this room, and I don’t want to waste any more time elsewhere. I left it all behind by stepping away into adult life. Fuck that, it’s been a let-down.

Not that I want to be destitute and irresponsible. I want to feel alive. The whole time I taught, and went to bed at 10 PM and arose at 6 AM and spent evening upon evening on my couch using my own time to grade papers that were shit and most of them shouldn’t have come to me until they were better written by students who largely didn’t give a fuck as long as their parents weren’t on them about grades, I was lost and angry and miserable and sad.

Andrew was what I missed the most. He, by that point, had shaped my life as much as I myself had…he and my dad. I told him so in his dying moments before the morphine was hooked up, that he and my dad made me who I am. Andrew was always the center of the scene for me…even after I accepted loving him in the sense of all things are beautiful and one rather than being the girl with the biggest crush on him. All else was the backdrop, but I loved it all and valued it, too. The people, the bands, the late nights.

While pondering all of this I watched one of our friends watch the band and remembered that the last time he saw Andrew was the last time I saw Andrew–and he was dead. I wonder what that was like for our friend…in the moment, in the hospital, in that frozen moment, he said “oh buddy” over and over, with tears in his eyes.

What became clear or just made me want to scream last night as the band played on was that the times in my life I’ve felt guilty weren’t about something I was or wasn’t doing at work, or how much money I was–or more likely wasn’t–saving, or about accomplishing goals. It was that deep inside of me I knew that I was denying my true existence by unintentionally, though with resigned acceptance, walking away from all this love and friendship and creative purpose…this essence of life.

I admire the people who surrounded me last night, immensely, because they have not succumbed to that fear.

Acceptance and grief are funny things. They bite you in the ass when you least expect to be gnawed raw by their brutal teeth. All the usual commentary becomes trite…you know he loved you, no one knew he was so sick, we all wish we had more time, if he would have taken better care of himself, so sad that you two finally got together and now he’s gone. All trite, but all of it what we say to each other as salve for the bite marks.

I need to scream because I am over getting over shit. My list is long…I was hit by a car age seven and had to learn to walk again; I realized, in a hotel room in Saigon in the 70s at age eight, that my mother really didn’t like me and that we’d never get along; my father died when I was fifteen leaving me alone with that bitch; I took a profession and pushed at it and pushed at it and exhausted myself pushing at it for twenty years so that I wouldn’t have to call myself a failure. I lost touch of myself along the way, and then I met Adam and he died; I moved to Maui and failed professionally and left behind my dream of island life; a few years later I got laid off, then I got fired. I left Portland to return to Olympia, this time to manage my mom’s estate after she died–a move “home” that never works for me. And came back. And then I lost Andrew. And then I had to put my dog down, mercifully, because of his old age.

So I will scream, though sometimes silently in the lonely dead hours of the night when I am alone. And I will dance and let the music fracture my mind into a different reality, one filled with life and love, but none of that will fill the hole left by Andrew. This time, I know he’s not coming back from tour, I know I’m not going to run into him at a show, I know we won’t get together for a drink someday soon.

I will scream because I can’t fill the hole left in our world by Andrew’s death. I will dance because I am surrounded by all of this truth and beauty and love, because the people who died, died and I am alive.

Leaving: the longing, nostalgia, and truth of traveling young.

By Neva Knott

1968 was a time of global intensity; mores and values were changing, driving social unrest. 1968 marked the significant increase in American deaths from the Vietnam war. It also marked the date of student protests in France that were considered a cultural, social and moral turning point in the history of that country, and 1968 marked an equally intense protest at Columbia University. It was the year of the My Lai massacre and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wonder what was going through my father’s mind the following year as he made the decision and the requisite following choices to move his family out of America and into the world of third-world countries and extensive travel in the South Pacific and Asia. As he retired from his thirty-year career at the Washington State Department of Game and maneuvered us to live his boyhood dream of traveling, did he think about Vietnam raging out of control?

My parents with one of the brown suitcases, so happy and in love.

My parents with one of the brown suitcases gifted to my dad by his colleagues on his retirement, so happy and in love.

 

I realize now how I’ve lived much of my life in the same way–going without consideration of what’s to come, valuing experience and the journey over the outcome or the destination. I pause—how are those two things connected…my father’s choice to take us out of the country at such a tumultuous time and my lose-the-map way of living? Is there a connection? Or, might I just be supplanting perspective on my memory of him and my fascination with that time?

Dad's Retirement Notice in the Daily Olympian

Dad’s Retirement Notice.

We left the States in September of 1969. My dad’s new job was on the island of Saipan, in the Marianas Islands, in Micronesia. A small island, just fourteen miles long and five miles wide. The Battle of Saipan was a major offensive of WW II, featuring the Allied troops against the Japanese. Another historical tidbit–one theory on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart is that once her plane was downed, she was held hostage by the Japanese in a Saipanese jail. Saipan is part of the Marianas Island chain which sit along the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the Earth’s oceans.

I was six, a few days from turning seven. My sister was four, just weeks from turning five. I remember the leaving. In my little girl mind I was unaware of all the steps—my parents leaving their jobs, the packing, the selling of house and cars, garnering of passports, inoculations, the intricate decisions  about what to take and what to leave behind. We left our dogs. We left my pet bunny. We left our house by the lake.

The night before we flew out, we stayed at grandma and grandpa’s. I asked my grandma to come with us, a simple child’s request. At four in the morning my sister and I were awakened, and left the twin beds in that room we’d napped in so many days of our childhood. The beds with the polyester flowered comforters, one pink and one yellow, the colors we’d fight over in choosing a bed.

Grandpa and me, Rachel and Grandma, a few months before we left for Saipan.

Grandpa and me, Rachel and Grandma, a few months before we left for Saipan.

My parents had traveled to Hawaii the year before, something neither my sister or I was aware of until we found the slides, Kodachrome images of mom and dad as tourists, iconic in their 60s garb and naiveté as travelers, holding up pineapples, wearing leis. When Rachel and I saw those images, we realized just how green our parents were at travel that morning we left behind the warmth of grandma’s. As we left the States, we stopped over in Honolulu before catching our flight to Saipan. In Hawaii, Rachel and I stayed in a hotel for the first time. We swam in a hotel pool and the ocean for the first time.

Hotel pools were to become the mark by which my sister and I judged the fun factor of each of many long trips to places like Bangkok, Australia, Indonesia, India, Saigon. Hotel pools were where we formed our bond as the world got bigger and bigger and we knew we had to stick together.

In Honolulu we shopped at the Ala Moana Center, then a new mall, visited the Polynesian Cultural Center and Pearl Harbor. In a sense, that first trip was a rite of passage to our new identities as world travelers, as little girls who would come to know that most cultural practices were wildly different than our world of Olympia, Washington.

Flying from Hawaii to Saipan was a journey from the first world to a pin-dot on the globe in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. Because of Micronesia’s remoteness, our flight stopped at little islands along the way to drop supplies. When the plane landed on Saipan, a fire truck raced it down the runway, just in case. The airport was barely more than a cement hut. Over time, we’d come to love the empanadas sold at a stand there, full of spicy, greasy meat that dripped onto our hands with each bite.

The first night on Saipan is forever etched in my mind. I can’t find the adjective for the sum total of the experience, but I remember the scene. Rachel and I were beyond tired. Our parents were tired. Collectively, we were clearly out of our element, and even at six I got this. We stayed at The Hotel Hafa A’dai. The hotel’s name means good day in Chamarro, the mixed language of the islands. The hotel was the best on the island, yet we were unseasoned travelers and didn’t know what that really meant. Our room had that musty smell I now know is inescapable anywhere in the tropics, a smell I now equate with longing and nostalgia and truth. There were geckos on the ceiling, they chirped all night, and my mother was scared of them. The air conditioner was loud and erratic, also a now beloved common feature of tropical hotels the world over. It seemed dark and dingy in the room, and our parents worked to smooth over the rough edges so that we could fall asleep in one of the double beds. Our new life awaited in the morning.

Our house on Saipan, on Capital Hill

Our house on Saipan, on Capital Hill.

During the four years we lived on Saipan, we went to the Hafa A’dai often, for dinner, to entertain visiting colleagues of my dad’s, or just so our parents could socialize while the kids swam in the pool. Music played from the bar, and our parents would linger while my sister and I went to the gift shop for Cadbury chocolate bars.

I don’t know what my dad intended, but I do know that traveling and living overseas during that world-gone-crazy time of the late 1960s and early 1970s shaped my world view. Maybe those experiences are what allow me to cope in these similarly chaotic times. I know they shaped my persistent belief that there are only two types of people in the world, regardless of social norms, politics, race, gender, creed, or culture–there are those who love and those who hate.

The swimming pool at the Hotel Hafa A'dai.

The swimming pool at the Hotel Hafa A’dai.

Sometimes, I dream of that first night on Saipan. Often, I dream of the Hafa A’dai pool and the beach just beyond its edges. I think I travel in my sleep to that innocent time, when my parents were alive and happy, to try to get back to whatever part of my soul is still there, listening to the geckos.

 

Remembering Andrew

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I sat in the darkened Club Vera in Holland last October, listening to the music on stage and thought, in this messed up world, there is no greater humanity. What I saw on stage that afternoon brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my face, simultaneously. I sat, holding Andrew’s hand, as band after band, all friends of his, took the stage to honor him. Each band played one or two Dead Moon songs, some set to their own band’s style like the lounge electronica version of “Dead Moon Night” by Das Audio Combo. Andrew’s dear friend Jozzy took the stage with the Dead Moonlizards (they’d changed their name for the night, adding the “Dead” to their usual moniker the Moonlizards) to sing “I need a shot of Dead Moon,” a song he wrote about Andrew for his own band The Bips. The music ended with a jaw-dropping solo of “Dagger Moon” by Eric, another dear friend.

Andrew watched the stage all through the show with pure adoration. At times he’d mouth the words to a Dead Moon song, or tap the drum beat with his cane. But what he was really doing was cheering on, with deep pride, his friends and their musicianship. He knew the night was about him, but for Andrew, the night was about friendship and music. That was the shared humanity I felt in that room.

Andrew was not driven at all by ego and the need for fan adoration, but by love. He needed to be loved in all the forms of that emotion, especially in the form of friendship. His friend Kate Fix called him an empathic imp, the perfect description. Andrew was generous with his love and friendship in return. As the Beatles line goes, “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” To have a deep bond with Andrew was to have the best friend ever in your back pocket for life.

Thankfully, we have music to heal our wounds in a time when we have to create gofundme campaigns for people who are sick. Andrew’s world was one of dimly lit clubs, loud bands, and friendship–not one of doctor’s offices, radiation masks, CAT scans, hospital beds and the rest he’d endured in the past year. Ultimately, Andrew’s world was one in which he inspired others to be their best selves.

I can’t pinpoint any moment that marked the beginning of the end. His death came suddenly and unexpectedly, it was not on par with what the doctors had been telling us. It will be hard for all of us to let go, to believe that Andrew is gone and won’t “be here later,” walking through the door with his buoyancy and smile and jokes. Though there will forever be a hole in the heart of our creative community here at home and around the world, Andrew’s left us with some good rules to live by, though…in addition to his music.

  • Live your passion on your own terms–be the drummer, not the dishwasher
  • Treat others as you want to be treated
  • Don’t miss opportunities–actually, he told me he learned that from Fred
  • Don’t sell yourself short
  • Wear a good hat

This is not my loss alone. We live in a messy world during tumultuous times. But, even when we feel our own lives are out of control, we have to be outward with our good intentions. We have to keep spreading the love.

I’ll leave us with these words from American author Ralph Waldo Emerson as they embody Andrew’s enduring spirit:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty and to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better through music or your relationships; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived; This is to have succeeded.”

Rhythm and Fade: A Night Walk in Cork, Ireland

By Neva Knott

The Ovens Bar in Cork on a Tuesday in July. Older couples, men and women who looked like they’d worked a day in their lives, sat side by side in booths, facing into the room, backs at the wall. Each he, a full pint of dark beer, each she, a half. The booths were red and the walls dark and trimmed with heavy wood. Eyes followed us as we entered. Low words marked our presence, foreigners in a common place at day’s end.

The nine of us took a table and struck up little conversations in clusters of twos and threes. The World Cup was on the screen. Two happy Irish men tuned, violin and banjo, and made ready to play music. A third man, younger, muscular, jovial, carefully unpacked his tap dancing shoes.

My eyes on it all–the projected energy of the game, the enthusiasm of the band, the constant smile of the dancing man, the contemplation of the drinking couples, the random conversations of my company, the movement at the bar. Unwilling to drink more and unable to sit still any longer, I knew I had to take my leave.

How to explain I had to go, to walk? Not wanting to appear rude or disinterested, but as I watched the soccer players run and watched the dancer click and step, I couldn’t keep my place on that barstool. It was late evening, the best time to walk. I told my friends good-bye and left the bar.

Outside, the city was aswarm. The sky was still blue. As I walked it began to pale to grey, but a brightness remained behind buildings, and the sun still projected light above the church-tops and shop roofs. I walked along Oliver Plunkett Street to the rhythm of footsteps, the beat of young couples going to the pub, of overly made-up girls going for a drink, of tourists seeking entertainment, of shop workers going home. Buildings and shapes and languages.

Two blocks up, a man with a red electric guitar. He was an aging rock star, dressed in hippy-style motley, a man whose musical generation was fading in the same way the light dropped behind the buildings. His guitar shone, the sound amplified down the side-alley and along Plunkett Street, and his voice–mellow and strong, clear and convicted, gave to the fading light the words of a ballad, “Stairway to Heaven.”

The notes from the red guitar, the familiarity of the song, and the walking beat blended into me. I wondered, what, for me, glitters with gold?

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The rhythm of the city’s dusk carried me past the closed shops, past the pubs with the noise of the World Cup spilling out of each doorway, across the bus mall, and onto Washington Avenue. Half a mile down, the avenue began to parallel the River Lee. I could see the day’s end reflected on the cool glass of the water.

The street was quieter now, though still populated. Shapes and textures of the city took my eye–the glass-scapes of modern hotels layered upon stone-built old churches. The Records and Relics shop with its mannequins in a shoot ’em up western motif. The quick-mart, still open for snacks and liquor, the forgotten milk, cigarettes, a sandwich. Row houses with iron gates, mild-mannered graffiti on cement garden walls, the flora of the college grounds. The ever-present, soft-flowing River Lee.

I felt alive and part of it all; I was walking.

 

 

 

The Frogs’ Melodies Tonight

By Neva Knott

Full moon. That majestic golden orb shines through the still-bare boughs of the maple tree just at the edge of my yard. This morning, even, while I was walking the dog at dawn, I saw it in the sky, too full yet to move on to the other side of the world. Since, it has made its rotation, and brightens my night.

My dog Josh is on the deck, listening to the frog orchestra that began a week or two ago. The field below our house floods in the spring rain, bringing these amphibians that, night after star-bright night, vocalize their passionate search for a mate and signal the change in temperature as the world shifts toward spring.

Each spring evening I’ve heard the frog-song, I’ve thought of my father, of a particular memory of him. When I was a very little girl, three or four, we lived on the shores of Chambers Lake, on the other side of town. Across the lake, coyotes roamed along the railroad tracks. They howled, and on those nights, my father would awaken me, wrap me in a blanket, and carry me to the porch to listen, to nature, to the universe. This memory has become emblematic of the legacy my father left me. He died when I was fifteen, but before passing, instilled in me a deep understanding of the connection between humans and the natural world.

In the 1970s my father worked as a zoologist for the United Nations in Bangkok, Thailand, where I attended seventh grade at the International School. He gave a lecture to my class, “Man and the Natural Environment.” I have his notes, dated September 17, 1973, in front of me this evening:

The natural environment surrounds us with geography–mountain vistas, high plateaus, low hills used for farming, river valley deltas made into rice paddies, the land itself. The natural environment includes seasons and sunlight and the rainy season and typhoons and all of it culminates in soil quality.

Humans need the soil to grow food. Without good soil, there is no rice, no fruit. Work animals–yak, buffalo, horse, and elephant–live off the land, too.

Humans influence the natural environment. We make our mark by building houses, planting crops, keeping livestock, and using resources to make clothes, travel, and build cities.

Humans need nature, the good environment–clean air, clean water, green scenery, and wildlife. The bad environment is dirty air, dirty water, no green, no wildlife but rats. The bad environment is caused by too many people, ignorance, and the desire for wealth now.

The warning bells are loss of wildlife, loss of green across the landscape.

His endnote reads, “If they can’t live–can man????” On this part of the note page, it is clear my dad pressed his pencil hard into the paper.

As I read these notes I realize my dad’s schema of “Man and the Natural Environment” is the same as the ecologists’ schema today. If they can’t live–can man???? is the still the biggest environmental question.

These are the notes of the man who instilled in me my love of nature. Even though the last decade of my life has been rife with crises, I live as a dreamer who walks often along the river, listening to the muted splash and caress of water on rocks. I listen to the softly ensconced echo of the world’s sounds as the trees pull sound down and drop it into the river’s flow. I take these walks with Josh, who also lives to walk along streams, to find himself tangled in long grass along the banks, and then goes splashing with a distinct surge into the river’s tumult and flow.

Nature allows me to I survive.

I return my father’s notes to his desk. The moon illuminates my thoughts and I realize the frogs’ melodies tonight are the beating of my father’s heart as he held me close, listening to the coyotes.

Chanting E ala e

By Neva Knott

Jim’s rustling in the kitchen and the smell of coffee awakens me. It’s four in the morning. I stay nestled in my blanket on the couch, listening to him find pans to make breakfast, listening to his wife Gail turn on the water for a shower. The lapping sound of the ceiling fan reminds me I’m in the tropics, not at home in rainy winter Washington. I stretch my arm over the couch. Jim puts a cup of coffee in my hand and says good morning. “I’m up, really,” I reply. I’m usually the sleepy head of the bunch, but today we need to get a move on, so I get up, dress quickly, organize a bag for the day, and step out onto the lanai, into the still darkness. Our rental is a cabin is in Haiku, a residential area just off the North shore. Each Hawaiian island has a wet side and a dry side–Haiku is on the wet side, the jungle-y part of the island. No street lights, curvy roads through gulches and eucalyptus. The air smells clean yet musty, as it always does after a night of rain in the islands. I swing for a while in the hanging porch chair, taking in the warmth of the coffee, the dampness of the air and the silence.

Twenty minutes later, we pile into the rental Jeep. Our destination is Haleakala, the “house of the sun,” Maui’s volcano ten thousand feet above sea level. We’re going up to watch the sunrise, so pitch black is what we want right now, the darkness is why we’re up so early. It’ll take us about an hour to drive to up. Though I lived on Maui for a year a decade ago, and though I drive up to Haleakala National Park every few visits, I’ve never been up for sunrise. Haleakala is, in Hawaiian culture and oral history, a sacred place, a place of ancient ritual. In the words of Mark Twain, who visited the islands in 1866, Haleakala is a place of “healing solitudes.”

This trip to Maui is my way of saying thank you to Jim and Gail for helping me remodel my mom’s house after she passed away two years ago, my way of saying thank you for the support, the sweat equity, for feeding me and for letting me sleep on their couch for a long stretch while mom was in the hospital. This trip is also a celebration of our reunion. We went to high school together, but lost touch after adult life took over. Jim and Gail have only been to Maui once before, and they had the bad tourist experience. The whole plan for our trip is for them to see this beautiful island through my eyes.

We make our way out of Haiku and to the main roads. I direct Jim the back way through the still-sleeping town of Makawao and onto the rodeo road that connects to Haleakala Highway. Then it’s up and up, via an s-curved, two-lane road. We drive, mostly in silence. Jim has said he wants to see the sun “boil out of the ocean on one side of the island, and sink back into it on the other.” Jim’s request reminds me of the myth of how Maui stole the sun. Legend tells that Haleakala Crater is where the demigod Maui captured the sun in order to convince it to take longer crossing the sky each day, so that his mother’s bark cloth could dry fully. Maui held the sun captive in the crater for several days. Finally, the sun granted Maui’s wish, so he let it return to the sky. Since, the island has enjoyed full days of sunshine and warmth.

The sky is lightening as we snake up the last few miles. I glance between the dashboard clock, the sky’s edge I can see along the volcano’s slope, and gauge the distance to the top. We make it to the parking lot just as the whole sky is turning from gunmetal to coral. Jim parks the Jeep and we jump out. As we start walking to the viewpoint along rim of the crater, we hear voices. Gail asks, “What’s that noise?” It’s rhythmic and soft, low in tone. “Chanting the sunrise,” I tell her, though in my mind, I worry that I can’t remember the words. I give a quick explanation of the Hawaiian ceremony of chanting the sunrise as a prayer, and as a way to begin each day with purpose. We make our way to the guardrail along the rim, arriving just as the sun peeks through the cloud layer and burst into layers of crimson-orange brilliance, filling the sky. For that moment, nothing else existes, nothing except the sun rising out of the ocean, coming through the clouds, lighting the sky, signaling the beginning of that new day.

The sun shifts higher and higher, causing the colors in the crater to change. The cinder rock hills come out of shadow and take on their daylight hue of deep rusted burgundy, the sharp edges of grey cliffs come into relief so that the stone’s edges are delineated, the vegetation is now bright green. The angle of the sun in relation to the volcano’s peak reminds me of the first time I saw Haleakala come out of shadow. That morning, I was looking toward Maui from Kaho’olawe, the island eight miles off Maui’s South shore.

Kaho’olawe was used as a bombing practice target by the US military, for fifty years. In the early 2000’s, ownership of it reverted to the Hawaiian government. Because of all the bombing, the island is uninhabitable. The water lens is cracked, and most of the vegetation is dead. Kaho’olawe, like Haleakala, is sacred ground, a place of tradition and ritual. The Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana, a non-profit activist group interested in rebuilding a cultural connection to the island, sponsors work party excursions. While living on Maui and paddling on the Hawaiian Canoe Club outrigger team, I was invited to join one such trip. I went with my friends Niccole and Wendy, as chaperones of the teen members of our club. Before we were allowed to set foot on Kaho’olawe, we had to learn a series of rituals and chants. This morning, I’m reminded of the pre-dawn cleansing swim and sunrise chant for Haleakala, E ala e. As I stand next to Gail and watch the sun take over the sky, I think back, try to remember, and slowly, the words come out of the cadence of the chant I hear along the rim today.

As I listen, my mind drifts back a decade, across eight miles of ocean, to Kaho’olawe, to another pre-dawn awakening. In memory, I hear the group leader blow the conch shell, or pu, signaling it’s time for the day to begin. I rustle in my sleeping bag, and I reach for my flashlight but decide to leave it off–illumination will only upset the calm of the darkness, and will make it harder to see once I’m outside. I wake my tent-mate, Wendy, telling her I’m going to get Niccole and we’ll wait for her before we head to the beach. The last blows of the pu drift into the still-night darkness as I unzip the tent flap and step into the cool Hawaiian morning.

Rising before dawn is traditional cultural protocol. After the pu sounds, we are to make our way to the water, strip, submerge and cleanse ourselves of anything left from the day before or that crept into our consciousness during the night. The ocean will sweep away negativity, worry, guilt, exhaustion, anger, or distraction that will keep us from living this day fully. Wendy, Niccole, and I are alone at our scrap of beach, just yards from our tents. The water is shallow–ankle-deep, and the bottom rocky. We wade out as far as feels safe, knowing that darkness is not shark-safe, then kneel, dunk, and splash in the salty water. This ritual makes sense to me. I think to myself, “How can I awaken with such focused intention every morning?” The earth-based, cycle-of-life Hawaiian style of spirituality resonates in me.

After our dip, the three of us gather at the fire the kuas, or group leaders, have built. The sky is lightening, but is still some version of a blue-black-grey. After all of the group have made their way from tent to ocean to fire and are warmed and dry, we make our way up a shoreline ridgeline to watch the sun come over Haleakala, for the day to begin with purpose, as we chant our prayer for its climb from ocean to sky:

E ala e Ka la i kahikina (Awaken, arise)

I ka moana (The sun in the east)

Ka moana hohonu (From the ocean)

Pi’i ka lewa (Climbing to heavean)

Ka lewa nu’u (The heaven highest)

I kahikina (In the east)

Aia ka la. (There is the sun)

E ala e (Awaken!)

Just as these words weave into my memory, the Park ranger’s voice changes from the soft lilt of Hawaiian words to a tone of admonishment. His voice pulls me back to the present. I look at Gail and laugh, “And that’s the park ranger yelling at people not to crush the plants.” Haleakala is home to an amazing diversity of rare species, one of which is my favorite, the ahinahina, better known as the Haleakala Silversword.

As we turn away from the guardrail, the wind picks up and cold air hits us, and I realize I’ve forgotten to tell my friends it can be close to freezing up here. I have on yoga pants and a sweater, but am still cold. Gail is in shorts and a t-shirt. Jim runs back to the Jeep for our beach towels–Gail and I wrap ourselves in the hibiscus-print terry cloth, she in blue and me in red. As we walk back toward the Jeep, I suggest we drive the last half mile up, to the observation spot on the very top, to see the Silverswords.

The Haleakala Silversword grows only here, in these volcanic soils, on this volcano, on this island. The bottom of the plant is round and covered in silver-green spikey leaves that grow in a whorl. The flower stalk shoots up from the middle of this ball and grows to five feet. The Silversword lives fifty to ninety years, flowers only once in its life, then dies. The charismatic nature of this plant comes through in its bloom–the petals are a deep maroon and the hundreds of flowers on each plant burst open at once, engorging the stalk with life. The expansive grandeur of the bloom seems to represent the spirit of the volcano itself, seems to symbolize the sunrise, seems to elucidate the cycles of life in the islands.

Early visitors to the Park often picked the Silversword as a memento of having made it to the top of Haleakala. Local lore explains that it was the thing to do…not really a custom, but something like tossing a coin in a fountain for good luck…to roll the ball-shaped part of the plant into the crater, for sport. I have to admit, it does look a bit like a spikey bowling ball. And, before Haleakala was a National Park, the volcano’s slopes were used as rangeland. In addition to the picking and the rolling, grazing goats and cattle caused the plant almost went extinct. By the 1920s, there were just over a fourteen hundred plants left. Since the 1970s, Park rangers have re-established the plant’s population. Now, about fifty thousand Silverswords grow across this gritty cinder rock landscape.

As a photographer, I’m drawn to the Silversword’s Dr. Suess-world shape, prodigious bloom-stalk, and textures. But now we’re shivering. My hands are too cold to take more photos. Regretfully, the three of us pile into the Jeep and head down the s-curved, two-lane road. It was too dark to see much detail in the landscape on the drive up. What’s beautiful about the drive down is that the landscape changes again and again as we wend from the barren wind-eroded zone of the summit and through the trees along the slopes. Plants change, rock formations change, hill slope changes. Jack London called the landscape of Haleakala, “a workshop of nature still cluttered with the raw beginnings of world-making.” Both the North shore and the South shore are visible. I look across the water at Kaho’olawe, and smile.

As we descend, we watch the Maui awaken. It’s not quite 9 AM when we roll into Makawao Town, so early we have to wait for the coffee shop to open. Once inside, with warm cups in our hands, and almost unspokenly–in that way between friends of a long time–we decide we’ll go up again tomorrow.

Sugar Beach

By Neva Knott

I balance on smooth black lava boulders at the shoreline of Sugar Beach. I make my way just past the soft waves that undulate and dissipate. Ten yards out, the ocean meets the lava. There’s no surf, but enough water is hitting the rocks that they are slippery. I stop before I get to those covered in algae. I hold three flowers: a yellow ilima, a purple bougainvillea, and a red epidendrum. Behind me, my friend Gail picks her path so she can stand beside me, an orange bougainvillea in her hand.

Throwing flowers in the ocean is my Maui ritual. My partner, Adam, is buried in these waters. Each time I visit, I pick three flowers, of no special variety—I let them reveal themselves—one for Adam’s past, one for his present, and one for his future. This morning, I found the three in my hand while driving along the beach access road.

Adam and I had lived on Maui for a year in 2002. This island is a place to which people come and from which people go, and we were no different than others who’d left the mainland for Paradise. Work pulled me back to Portland, Oregon. Adam lingered on Maui for a few months, reluctant to leave. He made it back to Portland the summer of 2004, at the last possible moment to serve as his best friend’s best man. That fall, we decided I’d finish the school year and then we’d move back to Maui, for good. But Adam died in a car crash in January 2005. Our dream of the island life died with him.

***

This trip, I’ve come to Maui with my high school best friends, Jim and Gail. I moved to Portland a year after graduation. We kept in touch the first few years, until mortgages, professional obligations and adult life what-not allowed the 100 miles between our cities to stretch into twenty years gone by. We reunited at the fiftieth birthday party of a mutual friend. Recently, I moved from Portland to Olympia to remodel the house I inherited from my mom. Jim and Gail let me sleep on their couch, fed me, and volunteered themselves as my work crew. As we pulled carpet, tiled bathrooms, and painted wall, the gaps between the years filled. In appreciation for their help with the remodel, I hosted our trip to Maui.

Our third night here, we stood in the kitchen of our little ohana—a word that literally means family, but loosely translates as mother-in-law cottage and is the common description of small rental properties. Gail filled my wine glass and asked me about Adam’s accident. I’d forgotten she and Jim didn’t know the details. I sipped my wine and let the words roll out, giving the short version of the horror, but giving enough detail that my friends finally understood the magnitude. I’d explained my flower ritual to them while we were planning the trip. When I was done recounting the wreck and the days in the hospital, Gail said, “I want to throw a flower, and I want to say some words.” Later that evening, Jim sat on the couch and put his arm around me. He just kept talking, about anything and nothing, just like we did when we were teenagers, when we’d put gas in Jim’s car and drive around because we didn’t want to go home, until all the world’s problems were solved.

***

The spring after the wreck, Adam’s family and our group of Portland friends flew with me to Maui to put his ashes in the ocean. Friends who live on-island joined us. The dive shop Adam had taken scuba lessons through volunteered a boat and captain. I bought everyone flower leis. Niccole, a Maui friend, consulted a Hawaiian kumu, or priest, and prepared special leis for Adam’s younger brother, Wes, and me. She’d also learned the Hawaiian way to throw remains into the sea.

We launched with no destination in mind. As we moved away from shore and into the deep water, a pod of dolphins appeared. They escorted us to a popular dive spot near sacred native land. As the dolphins turned to leave, the captain cut the motor. Niccole explained what Wes and I were to do. The tradition is to throw a handful of ashes into the water, and then to dive in for one last swim with the deceased. Wes and I were to stay submerged until our ti leaf leis floated over our heads.

My hands shook, I fumbled, I began to sweat as I untied the bag of ashes. Finally, I submerged my hand into the container and pulled out a substance that felt reassuringly similar to sand. I threw my handful of what used to be Adam’s body into the water and dove in. The others followed suite. I lingered in the water and an ancient green turtle joined me. I felt Adam’s presence. The turtle looked at me, nodded, and submerged. I swam back to the boat. After our swim, from the boat deck, I watched garlands of white plumeria and those of green ti leaves slide along the swell of the water and float away.

***

This morning, Gail and I threw our flowers. I gave the yellow conical ilima to Adam’s past, the perfect funnel shape a reminder of his passage. I let the purple bougainvillea—the fullest bloom and softest of the bunch—signify his present. The epidendrum—a waxy, firm, sturdy burst of red and gold—will serve as the beacon for his future. They left my hand, one at a time, offered up with a silent prayer. The ilima was nudged by the waves and lodged between rocks. The epidendrum floated out along the point of the lava flow toward open ocean. The bougainvillea floated back and forth between rock and shore. Gail threw in her orange bunch. It landed next to my purple clump and undulated with the waves.

Jim and Gail and I walked along the tide pools and collected shells. Then I took my one last swim, again. While in the water, I overheard two women talking, their voices floating across the surface of the water, propelled by the soft Hawaiian lilt of pidgin, “When I was a little girl, my grampa tell me, you feel bad, you go to the ocean. It fix everything.”

My Mother’s Hydrangea is a Nostalgia I Cannot Cultivate

By Neva Knott

Not much has made me feel alive lately. The recession knocked me hard, in a way I didn’t think it would. You see, I’ve been working since I was 14, have always had a least one job, often times two–teaching during the year and bartending in the summer. Unwittingly, on the day I was laid off in 2009, one of my students said he felt badly for me, to which I–this is the unwitting part–said, “It’s okay; I bounce pretty well.

I used to, to bounce. On Wednesday I’d decide to change my life a little, try something different, move here or there, and by Thursday it was done.

I could write out the particulars of what followed for you, dear reader, but I won’t. I’ll spare you, because really, another person’s drama is really their own ordeal. I’ll spare you the details of the horrible abusive boss at the bartending job, of the round two break-up with an ex (but I will tell you, that adage that giving someone a second chance to love you is like giving him a loaded gun to shoot you with). I’ll spare you the details of moving to a town I left at 18, vowing never to return because it makes me feel like a huge fish in a small, stagnant, boring fishbowl.

I will give you the scene of how now came to be, though. Rock bottom looked like this:

I was sitting on the couch in my apartment in Portland on a Monday night in May. With the loser ex, wondering yet again why I hadn’t kicked him out yet–which was a sure signed I’d lost my bounce. It was about 10 PM. That day, I’d taken my dog to the vet to generate his pre-quarantine blood work so we could move back to Maui at the end of the summer, when I was done with graduate school. Jason and I were watching TV, probably an episode of Burn Notice. The lights were off, the dog at my feet, and my cell phone rang. The screen announced the caller, Uncle Dick. Without answering, I knew. My uncle works early so turns in for the night around 8 PM. The only reason he’d be calling me at 10 PM was because mom was–well, I knew it was bad.

She’d fallen and her legs wouldn’t work to draw her back up, to standing, sitting on the floor, or onto the couch. Thankfully, she’d had the phone on the couch with her. My cousin had had a baby that past Friday, and mom was anticipating updates. So she called her brother, Uncle Dick, who called the medics–they beat him to the house. He took care of the rush of the emergency, and told me not to come until morning.

I got to Olympia–two hours north of Portland–the next morning, damned early and low on sleep. My aunt drove in from the coast. We met at Starbucks, bolstered ourselves the best we could, and headed to the hospital.

Long story short, my mom had lung cancer, and it had metastasized to her brain. The scan later that day showed she had 26 small tumors in her head. Five weeks. She lived five weeks, and it was my job–with the help of my sister, aunt and uncles–to commandeer her care. And then to execute her estate. The days and weeks were a constant swirl of conversations with rushed doctors in white coats or with touchy-feely grief support personnel.

That first night, the one I’d been on the couch watching Burn Notice, letting my mind float between my plan of returning to Maui and the nagging question of why I was putting up with Jason, the medics had told Uncle Dick that, given the conditions mom was living in, she most likely would not be allowed to return home. Harsh news, but, what I’d suspected, maybe even feared.

Let me pause here to explain that my mom and I were not a good match. I don’t know if it’s harder to watch your mom die when you are close to her, or to watch your mom die when you tried and tried and couldn’t save her from herself, nor could you have a regular mom and daughter relationship with her. It’s been two years, and I still don’t know the answer to that question.

My aunt–her name is Darlene and she’s my mom’s sister–went to the hospital, saw mom, helped her talk to the doctors, and asked our own probing questions. Mom had to go for more tests or scans or some sort of prodding, so we left for a bit to get some lunch. And to swing by the house. By now we’d talked to Uncle Dick and had heard his horrific description. I had sneaked mom’s keys out of her purse so we could let ourselves in.

Oh my god. After my step-dad died in 2000, mom had taken the “fuck it, it’s my house” attitude and had started smoking inside. Shortly after, she had stopped letting family come over. I think the last time I was in the house was 2003, and it was so smoke-filled I had to wait outside, for fear of a migraine. Because of that memory, I stepped into this hellish version of mom’s previously beautifully kempt house with a cloth over my nose.

Oh my god. She hadn’t dusted forever. The nicotine had mingled with regular house particulate matter and had formed inches thick dreadlocks that dropped from bookshelves, lampshades, figurines. The kitchen counter was piled with peanut packets and cookie wrappers. The area she nested in–previously the family room–was scattered with clothes and papers. She’d taken to using a dinner plate as an ashtray. It was full, and small trash bags–the kitchen size–of cigarette butts sat on the kitchen counter.

Oh my god.

My sister arrived from eastern Washington the next day. She came directly to the hospital, and then went to the house. In her nervousness, she began to clean. Later, she sent me a text with a picture of a microwave and a couch–I was confused, was she shopping? No, she’d gotten through layers of the mess at mom’s.

I have to let you in on the secret–we’d sworn to mom that no one would go to the house. She even made me take her credit card and buy her the hospital necessaries–robe, slippers, face lotion. It was our big scam. By day we’d sit in the hospital room with mom, and at night we’d clean.

Flash forward. We got the house pretty well cleaned but then had no idea what to do with it. I didn’t think anyone would buy it with the smelly carpet from 1984. Even the kitchen cabinets were saturated with nicotine.

I’ll shorten the story here–I moved in. I’d didn’t go to Maui, I didn’t dump Jason until during the move, when he decided to sit in a bar and ignore his phone for two hours while I packed and cleaned. That was 2012 and I’ve been working on this house since. Most days I want to light a match and drive away.

As my work year ended, I proclaimed this the summer of the yard. I traveled a bit first, to Cork, Ireland and then to Boston. I got home, slept off my too-early departure, and dug in.

Literally. And that’s how I began to feel my vitality flow back in.

When I started, the front lawn was really just scratching dead stuff mixed with dandelions. Planting beds encircled it, and were full of overgrown heather and rhododendrons–the state flower, but are better in the forest than a yard. There were some tough old azaleas, too, and one huge pink-flowering cherry tree. And hydrangea everywhere, under the windows.

My mother’s hydrangea is a nostalgia I cannot cultivate. I want the modern yard–low maintenance, water efficient. I’m more of the grown food, not lawns mentality.

So I dug in. I called an arborist to have the cherry cut out. I hacked and pulled until all the heather and azaleas and rhododendrons were gone. I spent two days rototilling and then called the yard guy to clear, haul, level and lay sod. Not much different than after Adam died, not much different than how I dealt with that upset. I realized that I was stuck in my own metaphor, this perpetual trauma cycle. Here’s the thing about trauma–normal falls away because the traumatized person (me) is always dealing with a crisis, with some big event and the little stuff, like pulling weeds, is shoved aside until the crisis is averted. Then, there’s a huge pile of daily living to catch up on.

All I really want to do is grow vegetables. So, I used the yard project as a way to begin to normalize. And that’s the story I really want to tell here…

***

Food security is a level of self-sufficiency I’ve aspired to even before it was a thing. One morning over coffee this summer in Boston, I thumbed through a high-end cooking magazine. One article was full of pictures of pretty girls, clean girls, in fun dresses and cowboy boots, each holding a basket of the bounty of their labors. I looked at the friend I was visiting and said, “The articles made growing your own food all about the dresses and boots…that’s not really what it takes.” Bryan replied, with a hump of a laugh, “I know.”

The day I began rototilling, I wore ripped, paint-stained Levi’s and my graduate school logo t-shirt. After about an hour, I had sweat in my hair and down my face. Rototilling is dusty work. I spat. After the first pass across the front yard, I looked as if I’d never seen the inside of an Aveda salon. Next task was to rake up the old grass and dandelions, really, it was dandelions with some grass mixed in, and dispose of them. I hadn’t really planned that part of the job. So, I raked all the debris into piles, then put three or four piles per load into the wheelbarrow and walked down around the corner to the place between our houses and the schoolyard where everyone dumps lawn clippings. It took ten trips, and then my old front yard was a semi-circle of mounds.

Then I realized I didn’t have the tools to level and grade the front yard or to roll out the sod–which has to be done quickly so that it doesn’t dry out. So I called a guy. Two days later, I had a level green and grassy front yard. And a row under the living room windows for my own kind of flowers, and a row between the grass and sidewalk for trees. The side yard was down to bare soil. My plan was to make it raised vegetable beds.

Each day, I’d complete a piece of the schematic I’d drawn. The logic of the work kept my mind soothed and engaged, vibrant even. The physicality of it allowed my body to let go of strains and tightness. Together, the planning, thinking, mind-work, and movement of the execution made me feel vital. For the first time since I’d moved to Olympia two years ago when this whole mess fell into my circle of responsibility, I felt like I was living my life. Each night, I’d shower and the dirt would run off my skin. My hair was matted and held together by sweat and dust. I had blisters. And I was connected to the earth and my own sense of being.

A month later, the yard was filled with blueberry bushes, herbs, flowers, a copse of new birch trees, two paper-bark maples and a bit of shrubbery. I put in river rock for edges and flag stones as a path to the back yard. I have garden space enough to grow a bounty, enough to share, to freeze or to can. When that work is done, I’ll put on a fancy dress and my cowboy boots. Until then, I’ll dig and plant and spit, and sweat and feel alive.

First Friends

By Neva Knott

The moving truck was loaded. We all paused and looked in. Four lives organized, boxed, and packed for the move across country. I took pictures, and then just stood there, in disbelief that this day had really come. Other friends came and went to say goodbye. The next morning, Bryan and his friend would drive off, taking the Fisher family’s possessions on the road–destination Boston. Theresa and the kids would spend the night at her brother’s and fly out the next day.

Around nine that morning, I was back over there, to spend the morning with Theresa and the kids–Aidan and Cora. We were going for donuts and a walk, and I was going to help T. clean any last nooks or crannies of the house that now stood so empty.

We all stood around, trying to drag down time. Finally, Bryan said, “Let’s go.” Aidan grabbed on and hugged his dad in that fierce way of a six-year-old, in that way that makes the world stop, in that way of never wanting to let go. I could see Bryan’s back, and Aidan’s small face nestled into his dad’s shoulder. Cora was sitting in the bean bag, playing Angry Birds on her mom’s iPad. At two, this was all too much for her, so she was controlling the small universe on the screen, flinging bird after bird into a pole. Her language came in the form of a little girl grunt of irritation. No words. She’d hugged her dad, too, and was now back at her game.

After the truck pulled away, T and I put shoes on the kids and walked up the couple of blocks to Alberta Street, one of Portland’s neighborhood hubs. That’s where the donut shop was. Cora, usually on the look-out for food, was disinterested. Aidan got his pick of the store, and came out with a bag of four donuts, and ate them all, one by one, patiently. Theresa and I sat and drank coffee and talked of nothing much at all. In my head though, the conversation was unending and loud. They’re moving, my mind yelled over and over.

The clock ticked away our last minutes together. Finally it was unavoidable–we walked back to the house, and I helped T check drawers and closets, decide what to do with the remnants of cleaning supplies. Then, there was no way left to hold on to time. I knew I had to go. I told Cora good-bye; she was back at the Birds, and just mumbled in reply. I picked up Aidan and gave him a hug, trying not to let him see that I was crying, and told him he was still my favorite little boy. He’s not much of a talker. He looked at me and smiled, gave me a fierce hug, and sat down in the porch swing. I hugged T, something she and I rarely do, and exchanged all the usual pleasantries–have a good trip, call when you get there, I can’t believe you’re really going, it will all work out, I’ll come visit.

Then, she said, “There are all kinds of things I want to tell you, but I just can’t say them.” I choked back my tears again and said, “I know.”

But what she did manage to get out was this, “You were my first friend here, you know.”

I hadn’t know, or realized. When I met Theresa she lived across the river in Vancouver, with a room-mate. We met as new teachers at a local high school. At the end of that school year, Theresa’s father helped her buy a house in Portland. She and I had been spending time together, going to street fairs and poetry readings, hiking on weekends. I began inviting her to barbeques and Sunday dinners. Eventually, she met Bryan, who lived with my boyfriend, Adam.

Bryan, Adam, and a couple other guys moved to Portland together from Indiana. Bryan and Adam had been friends since first grade. Adam’s death was such a loss for Bryan, and Theresa, too. After, we held each other together by having dinner, watching The Sopranos on Friday nights, going to breakfast on Sundays. They, too, threw handfuls of Adam’s ashes into the ocean. His accident was on a Sunday, and we’d had plans for dinner, the four of us, on Monday–they were going to tell us Theresa was pregnant.

As Jack Johnson sings, One life goes out, one comes in.

After Theresa and Bryan got married, and Aidan was on the way, they moved to the house we’d packed up and cleaned yesterday. I’d help paint the walls, shop for curtains, and had since spent countless evenings around their table for dinner. Now they were moving to Boston, to be closer to family. And soon I was moving to Olympia, to execute my mom’s estate.

I drove home, Theresa’s words loud in my mind.

Every Step A Prayer

By Neva Knott

My mom has cancer, and she’s going down fast. You’d think I’d be used to death by now. My dad died when I was 15. All of my grandparents are gone. My partner, Adam, died suddenly in a car crash seven years ago. I’ve lost a few friends along the way to drugs–not so uncommon, given my generation. Still, my heart breaks as I look at my mom in her hospital bed.

The first fissure is for my mom. She said to me the other day, “I didn’t want this to happen.” I don’t even know what she meant. We all die, some time–as my dad explained to me when I first encountered a death in the family, my great-grandmother Blanche, “everything dies, even the oldest trees have to die.” I’m sure it was not the issue of death to which my mom was alluding.

My mom, in her grace, has a huge heart and is generous. She can also be difficult, and I have struggled my whole life to find an inroad with her, having often been slapped down in childhood by her harsh words, her inability to understand me. Yet, she has triumphed over more than one woman should have to–divorce, the loss of two husbands to death, rape, abuse, addiction. At times, these last few days, she has even seemed incredibly strong to me. This is why my heart breaks for her. I think by “like this” she meant she doesn’t want to die having so many regrets, having such a burden on her soul. She attunes to beauty, and I think this is how she would prefer to die.

The second crack is for my family. Both sides, the paternal Knott and maternal Cooper, have fallen apart. There is no center, just memories of a time before. The time when dad was alive, when Grandma and Grandpa were still here. When holidays mattered, when we marked each other’s birthdays with cake and pictures and laughter. My mom values family so much, but the dirty little secret is that she drove a lot of us apart with her drinking, her high drama, and her vicious tongue. I should have known how to fix all of this, but I didn’t, I don’t.

And then there is the crevice within myself. I have never had an easy time with my mom. She has never had an easy time with me. We are completely different people, except for our love of beauty and family, books and travel. We are the kind of different so that we rub against each other until raw. Even so, I would have done anything for her these last few years as she lived alone, unable to keep up her house, cloistering herself in the darkness. At least now I have the chance. I have the next few weeks to be a daughter to my mom. Gone are the hopes of the mother-daughter teas, of the long heart-to-heart talks, of having her guide me when I’m lost. But at least I can hold her hand, give her a warm washcloth for her face, bring her myself as many days as she has left–as we have left.

It has been said in my family–and maybe in yours–that we’re great with weddings and funerals. Everyone drops everything and shows up, somewhat remorseful that it’s been so long. In the past few days I’ve reconnected with everyone I love, and it makes me sad. I want them to be part of my life, not just my disasters or at obligatory major life events. From all this I’m learning lessons–of what I have inside me to pull people together. Of what I am willing to set aside to be present for my family. Of what I need to feel connected, whole, and grounded.

Today, I came to the realization that in death, sometimes, come the lessons we cannot learn in life.

II.

Just a few days after we moved mom into the nursing home, I had the nurses dress her so that my aunt Darlene and I could take her outside for a stroll in her wheelchair. We walked the grounds, each of us commenting on the flora along the way. Mom had a memory of she and dad walking with me as a very little girl along the adjacent road–the nursing home is very close to the house my parents build as newlyweds.

As we walked, I paused in my mind to consider my mom sitting there, in a wheelchair. Dressed in striped grey jersey pants and a zip-front cotton top—matching, of course—and her new head turban. She’d grumbled today that when I’m not there the nurses just throw any old thing on her, “They just don’t know how to put together an outfit,” she’d said. There she sat, no longer the Olympia High School Homecoming Queen, but definitely lookin’ as good as good gets with brain cancer.

Darlene and I wheeled mom back to her room and stepped out to the corridor to let the nurses get her back in bed. Mom’s cousin Marvis was coming our way—the family resemblance undeniable. I hadn’t seen her for years, and every time I do see her, I attach the memory of her mother pinching my cheeks a little too much at church. Marvis is a sweet woman. She and mom, the parallel daughters of Elmer and Hazel (my grandparents) and Alfred and Hazel (grandpa’s brother and his wife). Two Montana farm boys, two Hazels, and the little girls Lenice and Marvis, starting a new life mid-Depression. Coming to Olympia to set down roots and raise families. Today, it’s clear that mom’s and Marvis’s lives are much like the Robert Frost poem, “two roads that diverged in a yellow wood.”

I talked with Marvis for a long time, sitting on a bench in the hallway. She didn’t pinch my cheek, but she did hold my hand for awhile, as if I was still small. At first the talk was, expectedly, about mom’s condition. Then it turned to what was in Marvis’s heart. There lay a sad tale of how hard she had tried to befriend my mom in recent years and mom had both acted badly and shunned her cousin’s attempts. As Marvis told her story, I began to see in front of me the cousin of my mom. A woman who has stayed true to her Lutheran upbringing; a woman who has had the usual struggles of life but who has borne them gracefully because of her faith and belief in family; a woman who sets her day to give to others; a woman who is the center and centrifugal force within her family; a woman who has cast a wide net of caring and compassion.

My mom says she talks to God every day, but sometime in the recent past when I suggested she go to church, replied sharply, “NO!” I encouraged her, at both the hospital and here at the nursing home, to meet with the chaplain. Again, “NO!” She says family matters, but has let all her ties to siblings, her nephews, any extended family, fall away. She’s a woman who sets her day on misery and holding on to the past and the pains it inflicted cruelly upon her. She is a lonely woman, isolated, alone. She, too, has cast a wide net—a net woven tight around herself by pushing all of us away so that she could stay in the dark with her ghosts.

When I saw this comparison in my mind, I immediately thought of Frost’s poem. Marvis took the more traveled path–the traditional Lutheran life, and my mom chose the road less taken. She did not intend for it to lead her to misery, but somehow, by setting aside her beacons along the way, it did. As Frost says, “way leads to way.”

I inherited, from both my parents, a love of the path less traveled. As I write this, I am coming to realize that it is not the path so much, but how it affects the traveler. It takes work in this modern world to stay true. I’m sorry for my mom, really.

III.

From her hospital bed, mom forbade us entry to her house, but we disobeyed–all of us, me, my sister and her husband, her sons, my aunt and uncles. On breaks from sitting by her bed, we snuck in and cleaned.

The outside didn’t look so bad, presentable, even, except for the bed-sheet that’s served as a living room curtain for a few years now. The inside was horrific. I don’t know what was more horrifying–the filth or that mom had sunk so low. She was always house-proud. I have childhood memories of her oiling the furniture every Saturday while my sister and I napped. Her house was once the place of family gatherings. Now…now is a time when a writer makes a choice–write the raw truth, or keep the secret so you don’t embarrass anyone. I can’t bring words to the page to describe what I saw the first day my aunt Darlene and I walked into the house. But I will explain that mom had been smoking, heavily chain smoking, in the house since my stepdad died twelve years ago. I will explain that she had not cleaned house in probably that long. I will tell you that, after walking through the wreckage, I gagged and then cried. My aunt and I left the house and drove to the closest bar, shaking, and had a drink before we returned to the hospital. So, as soon as my sister arrived from the other side of the state, we took shifts dealing with the whole 1800-square-foot mess.

She’d lived there since 1984, and it was chock-full of stuff. Beautiful, ornate, hand-crafted furniture from our travels throughout Asia and the Pacific in the early 70s. The daily living kind of stuff like sheets, and camping gear, and toys, books, and left over pieces of no longer complete sets of dishes.

The first weekend, members from both sides of my family were here–from my mom’s side, and from my dad’s. The men took out some overgrown trees, my older sister culled through professional paperwork of our father’s and sorted books into piles. My younger nephew pressure-washed the deck, while my sister, Rachel, and I went room by room, pulling stuff to donate to our aunt Mary’s rummage sale for an animal rescue.

As we worked, someone would come across an item that prompted a giggle, or a memory, or some other sort of shout-out. I found, while pulling fake flowers out of a basket, the last remaining green and white noodle bowl, and it prompted a round of story-telling with Rachel and our nephew Andy about the hot sauce eating contests the three of us used to hold. We’d each have a noodle bowl full of ramen and, dash by dash, try to out last the other two in increasing spiciness. Fishing rods reminded me of how Andy and I, when we were any age under 6, would try anything on a hook to fish from our dock at the Chambers lake house–raisins, cheese. We figured if we liked it, the fish might, too. One of the big treasures excavated for the day was the manuscript of the story of the county in Iowa where our grandmother Neva grew up– prairie living in the mid-1880s. The loudest laugh came from the finding of peg-legged, acid-washed, elastic waist pants and matching jacket in mom’s closet. And then there was the noodle strainer that I couldn’t let go to rummage, since it is the object by which I learned the word “colander,” and with which I learned how to make mac and cheese from my Dad. As I pulled it out of the box, the image came to me of my mom veiled in steam as she poured spaghetti from the boiling pot into it. That strainer is coming home with me.

After a couple of hours, I remarked, “This is about the point that, when I’m here alone, I cry, and then I get mad, and then I get sad, and then just keep working.” Rachel said, “I know.”

It seems, on the surface, such an onerous and dreadful task to clean out a dying person’s home. Especially in this case, when our mother insisted on her isolation. When there are so many good memories, but they seem so distant, so in the past. But also I’ve come to feel that this is an act of honor. Of honoring the life my grandparents lived (some of the stuff is theirs), of the blending of Coopers and Knotts, of the life my dad so diligently built for us, of the life lived in that house, of the two families my mom and step-dad brought together, of the blending of generations.

I don’t know where I learned of this concept, but I attribute it to Tibetian Buddhism, and I think I might have gotten it from watching Seven Years in Tibet. No matter, it worked for what was on my mind as I dug through the rubble at mom’s: that every step is a prayer.

I was brought to tears on occasion because I couldn’t do this for my mom while she lived here, but by doing it now, I know that caring for her precious artifacts is, in a way, sending out a prayer on her behalf.

IV.

After mom died, I moved into the house, to manage the estate and the remodel. I’ve been doing a lot of digging lately, in drawers and boxes and files. She’d not sorted much of my dad’s stuff, so even his check registers from the 1970s were still here. She sorted even less of what my step-dad left behind. She did tell me, while in the hospital, I’d find his guns, and I did—between the mattress and box springs of the no longer used king sized bed in the master bedroom. There they lay, unloaded, like steely metaphors for that marriage gone so wrong.

My parents planned a good life for us. The evidence in is the big drawer of dad’s desk. A folder for each category of his accomplishments that, one after another, lead him to jobs abroad, or overseas. First to Micronesia and then to Bangkok. We traveled frequently and to many places in between. While recently digging in that drawer, the magical drawer that can bring me close again to my dad who has been dead for 35 years, I found that he’d had even the next adventure planned at the time of his death. It seems he’d been investigating Costa Rica, even down to the detail of school choices for my sister and me. I don’t know what stage of planning, or dreaming, or spit-balling it was in, but the brochures are still alive in a manila folder, all these years gone.

I remember listening, long after I was supposed to be asleep, to my parents planning the house they’d build, using my painted wooden blocks to map it out on the dinette table. I know my mom was ruined by those plans, the ones that never came to fruition, because I watched her rot in her memories that were more alive to her than her own daughters living out their own dreams, or at least trying to.

All of this digging and sorting has been painful, but poignant, too. I found love letters my dad wrote to her. He was 44, mid-career and newly, painfully, divorced. I know that divorce was bad because my older half sisters, his daughters from that marriage, described it in vivid detail. Dad met my mom at work–he was the Land Chief for Washington State Department of Game and she was a phone operator there. Mom was 24, the beauty, the belle. Wrapped in with the letters from him, I found just two letters from her. Dad’s spoke more to his loneliness when she was away, and hers more to the future. It saddens me to think of my dad in some crummy little duplex, writing away his loneliness like that. I only knew him as larger than life.

I liked my step-dad. He shined some hope on the whole dreary situation that was our life after dad died. He was always up for fun, and really cared about my sister and me, though we were young adults when he came along. He made it bearable to be around mom again. He was a really different man than my father, something my mother never stopped running him down for.

I spent hours one day going through a huge pile of photos of my step-dad’s that had been left to accumulate in a chair. As I flipped through each packet, I saw the years move forward, and saw the evidence of all of that hope for a re-built family, and then saw all of it fade away. It was as if a line had been drawn in the sand. On one side of the line was an active, playing at happy family, boyfriends becoming husbands, grandkids coming along. Then nothing.