With Alicia’s wedding coming up this weekend I was remembering Debbie with our children. I’ve been working on my toast for the wedding and I didn’t have time to write. But I found something I had written about Debbie earlier, so I thought I would share a couple memories with you.
We were in church one Sunday when our son, Andrew, was little. Debbie was holding Andrew while she and I talked with some friends. Our daughter, Alicia, stood patiently waiting for us to finish. Suddenly Debbie realized she couldn’t see one of our kids and her mother instinct kicked into high gear.
“Where’s Andrew?” she said in an almost panicked voice as she turned and looked left and right trying to find him. I had an initial moment of panic based on Debbie’s voice, but it passed as I knew where he was.
Alicia came to her rescue, “Mom, you’re holding him.”
A funny little story, always a bit embarrassing for Debbie. It does illustrate her mother instinct. If something was wrong with one of her kids she would suddenly step into high gear.
The most panicked and flustered I ever saw Debbie was the time she thought Alicia was missing. Alicia had been invited to a concert at the Xcel Center with two girls from the Waldorf School and the parents of one of them. I dropped her off in St. Paul across the street from the arena and went home. A couple hours later we got a call from her friend’s parents. It was intermission at the concert and they were wondering why Alicia hadn’t come and there was no answer on her cell phone. Debbie went into panic mode assuming the worst.
I didn’t hear the full conversation because I went downstairs to get my cell phone to see if there were any messages on that. When I picked up the phone downstairs it sounded like she must have been pretty intense. As she was with me about how could I just drop her off and drive away without waiting until she had got into the arena. She calmed down a bit when I explained how Alicia had gotten out of the car at the corner where I stopped at the light and to wait for her to get into the arena would have blocked traffic.
At one point, I tried to comfort her. A hand on the shoulder and saying, “it will turn out alright.” But she didn’t want to be comforted and shook me off. We ended up getting in the car and driving around downtown St. Paul looking for her. Then going to the arena where we asked them to make an announcement for Alicia to contact an usher if she was there. They said they would, but not until the end of the show. That set me off and I went in quest of a higher up to make an announcement earlier. “No,” the performer wouldn’t let them I was told.
Further argument became moot as the concert ended. They made an announcement. A bit later they told us that Alicia had been found. She had gone to the wrong entrance and waited for her friends. After a while she realized there was a problem. But her cell phone battery was dead. As she stood there trying to figure out what to do someone offered her an extra ticket so she could go in and look for her friends. So, Alicia went in and watched the show.
After the show, she didn’t hear the announcement. But she was looking lost, so an usher asked her if she was Alicia Hillar. When she said yes the usher brought her to us.
Debbie was a tiger when it came to defending her kids.
When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer we started a Caring Bridge site that we used to keep people updated on Debbie’s condition. After receiving compliments on the site I decided that I would like to try to write more. So when Alicia asked me what I wanted for Christmas I mentioned a writing class. She got me a gift certificate which I used for a class. Unfortunately as I took the class Debbie took a turn for the worse and passed away.
I took another class about getting into the writing habit. I wanted to keep writing but sometimes my grief left me without the energy to spend time on anything. However, I wanted to get into the habit of committing to writing and actually doing something. So I started writing haikus. They seemed like something I could write and actually accomplish something without putting in a long time.
Haikus are a Japanese form of poetry. A haiku consists of three lines. The first and last lines are five syllables each and the middle line is seven for a total of seventeen syllables. It seemed like something where I could write one poem in sitting without taxing myself.
Starting haiku was hard at first. I later wrote the haiku below about that feeling.
The Haikuist’s Lament
How can I express my fee-
It’s not nearly e-
As I worked with the form I realized it was helping me to focus my thoughts. You can’t have anything extraneous; there’s just no room in the poem. It helped me to get my thoughts and emotions on paper. It allowed me to express my grief and deal with my memories.
Some of my earlier poems were titled. It was a way to sneak in some extra syllables. After all, “Celebration of Life Service” would take up most of the poem leaving me with no room to say anything about it. Eventually I stopped titling the poems, it felt a little like cheating to get the extra syllables. As I kept working with haikus I found the answer to the Haikuist’s Lament.
You may find out that
Seventeen pieces of words
Can say a whole lot
Several months after I started I was reading a book of haikus. I read that haiku poems have a season word in them. My poems also had seasons. But not the annual seasons of nature, rather they were the seasons of illness and death. I arranged them into four seasons with an introductory haiku for each. The Season of Before is our life together before Debbie’s cancer. The Season of Cancer tells of the time Debbie’s symptoms started to appear until she died. The Season of Mourning is the story of my grief journey. The Season of After is me envisioning my future. I'll be posting each season on the blog at a later date.
Every grief journey is different, but being able to express grief in some way is important. Being able to write things down was an important part of my journey which still continues.
I’d never traveled over the Christmas holidays before. Why would I want to travel away from family? But, with my daughter Alicia spending a year volunteering in Mexico, my wife Debbie, my son Andrew, and I were travelling to be with family. So, there I was learning about life in Mexico.
Alicia was living with a family in Tepoztlan, Mexico and working with young children for an organization called La Jugarreta. Tepoztlan is about an hour and a half south of Mexico City, close to Cuernavaca. Parts of the film the Magnificent Seven were filmed there. Hills around the city seem to rise up like the sides of skyscrapers. Alicia had already told us that she wanted to take us to ziplining. Or rather that we would take her - - and pay for it. She sent us an email with a link to a YouTube video of the zipline along with a note; “Mom, don't be scared. It's gonna be crazy fun.” Alicia kept up her sales job with Mom when we got there, including explaining the concept of YOLO or You Only Live Once. Debbie didn’t seem to be too fazed, however she did make some comments to me about the differences in safety regulations between the US and Mexico.
We went to the Ocotirolesa (Oh Co Ti Row Lay Sa), which I thought was Spanish for Eight Ziplines. But i was wrong, it's the name of the area where the zipline is. Then we were there. We got our protective gear and had to hike up to the start of the ziplines. First, there were a few short zip lines that didn’t have much of a drop beneath them. Then we had the BIG one. Debbie went before me and did fine. After a couple minutes, I was next. I had a short moment of thinking what am I doing, but I let it go and jumped off. The line wasn’t too high up in the air at first, but then it came to that skyscraper side of the hill and suddenly I was WAY up in the air. The brochure said the line was over 800 meters at the highest point. Half a mile up. The same height as a 35-story building.
As I flew over a soccer field, I thought this was as close to playing quidditch as I would ever get. As Alicia had said it was “crazy fun.” After we were all across the valley we had to climb up to the zip line that would take us back. Grabbing onto the cable that had been strung up the hill we pulled ourselves up. You Only Live Once, but we got to do the crazy fun zip line twice.
We were invited to an English language church service in Cuernavaca. My wife, Debbie was especially interested in seeing Cuernavaca because she had been there before on a trip when she was a Girl Scout.
We took the bus to Cuernavaca, took a taxi to the area the church was in, and then walked a few blocks to the church. We were slightly behind schedule (alright, we were late). On our walk to the church, Alicia realized we wouldn’t be late for the service when she saw the pastor running from the church to his house. He was looking for his copy of the sermon that was missing. It also turned out that only the bulletins for the later Spanish language service had been delivered. They were missing their English language bulletins with the order of service and the list of songs that would be sung. They worked around not having the bulletins. The Pastor’s English version of his sermon wasn’t found. So, to give the sermon he had to use his Spanish version and translate on the fly. It was all going well when suddenly – electronic beeps and music. Someone’s cell phone was ringing. The Pastor sagged against his pulpit, shook his head and said, “Ahh, go ahead and answer it. What more could go wrong today?” Once the music stopped, he gave a little aside that I remind myself of from time to time.
“You know”, he said, “there is a technical term for this. When you have everything planned out and nothing works the way it should. It’s a little word, only four letters. It’s called life.” And then he went on with his sermon.
After the church service we spoke with some of the other people there. Debbie found out that the Girl Scout camp that she had been at was only a few blocks away. We started walking there and soon made our way to the compound. A high wall surrounded everything. We walked up the guard booth and explained that we wanted to see inside. “I’m sorry, there’s nobody inside. They’ve all gone on an outing to Tepoztlan.” We took a few pictures in front of the gate and slowly trudged away. Standing on the other side of the street we tried to hail a cab. We weren’t having any luck when we suddenly saw the guard running in our direction. “I found someone inside! You can go in!”
We went back in and were given a tour by a young English woman who worked at the camp. On the tour Debbie would see something, give a smile, a nod and tell us a memory she had. As the tour ended we walked into the administration building.
Our guide pointed to a wall full of books. “Each visiting group of Scouts does a page for our scrapbooks.” Debbie remembered making a page. We asked the guide if they would have her page. “We should,” she said and then asked Debbie what year she had been there. “Hmm, that far back is going to be in the basement.” She left and then came back with three books. Paging through the books Debbie found her page. It included a picture of her group and each of the girls had signed their name. With a grin Debbie showed us her picture and explained the background of some of her friends in the picture. You only live once, but signs of your presence can turn up in unexpected places long after you’ve been there. And gone.
My tale is a tale of doom. It was a little first grader who doomed my plan. Or so I thought before I learned what doom really felt like.
Let me explain my plan to you. In my writing class at the Loft before Valentine’s Day as part of an exercise I had written a poem.
Here, take my heart of stone,
let me be your rock.
Here, take my heart of glass,
but don’t break it.
Here, take my heart of cotton candy,
I’m sweet on you.
Here, take my artichoke heart,
it’s good for you.
Here, take my heart of gas,
let’s refuel ourselves.
Forgive me for not giving you my heart of water,
you don’t need any tears.
Here, take my heart to heart
and let me know what I need to know.
Here, take my heart of the matter,
I love you.
It was a first draft and while I liked some lines as a whole I wasn’t very pleased with it. Still, I thought maybe with a few changes it would make a good Valentine’s Day card for my wife. I planned that on Friday morning, Valentine’s Day, while I was out on the other side of the Twin Cities I would stop at a certain store. I’ve shopped there before and my wife always liked the cards I get her from there. My plan was in place. Get the card, rewrite the poem into the card and give it to her at dinner.
My wife, Debbie, was teaching first grade at the Minnesota Waldorf School. A unique approach that Waldorf Schools have with their teachers is that the teacher moves grades with the class. Debbie had just finished taking a class from first through eighth grade and was starting the cycle anew with first grade this year. Over the summer she began a battle breast cancer. She went through chemotherapy and radiation treatment with good results. After Christmas, she was back to working full time.
That came to a halt at the beginning of February when she went to see the eye doctor who discovered she had a detached retina. To fix this they had to do surgery. They put a permanent band around the eyeball. Then they went into her eyeball with tools so small they don’t need to make an incision and fixed the retina. Finally, they put a gas bubble inside her eye to hold the retina in place. For the next day Debbie had to look down so the bubble would float to the back of her eye where the retina is. Being able to see clearly out of one eye and fuzzily through a bubble in the other eye was disconcerting. So, Debbie was taking time off work to recover.
In the meantime, the first graders had been doing a block of lessons based on circus acts. This would culminate in a performance for the school and parents on Friday afternoon. The day before the performance a teacher heard some first graders talking. One of them said, “Wouldn’t it be great if Mrs. Kane could see us do our circus?” Debbie, aka Mrs. Kane, heard about the comment. Of course, she then had to make the effort to go. And this is what doomed me.
My wife was still unable to drive and enlisted our daughter to get her to the school for the performance. Unfortunately, that day our daughter was with me in the morning on another end of town. I could get her back in time, but would be unable to stop at the store to pick up a card as I had planned.
Now a first grader had unknowingly thwarted me. Was I to be doomed to looking for a Valentine’s Day card in the remnants of Target’s card section, prowling through the picked over cards at Walgreens? Not to mention that I now had to get to work and between getting home and getting dinner, I would have time for only one stop to get a card. How could I escape this doom? Then I realized, the Co-op has a good selection of cards. I could stop there, buy food for dinner and look for a card. If they didn’t have any Valentine’s Day cards I could always get a good blank card. My plan was saved.
When I got to the Co-op I discovered the card selection was much bigger in my memory than in real life. They didn’t have a section of Valentine’s Day cards. And what’s more the only blank cards that would work were ones we had already bought and used in the past, so Debbie had already seen them. I was doomed to a substandard blank card and there was no time to go anywhere else. There was nothing I could do. I picked the card that was the least bad for my purposes and did the rest of my shopping.
The Co-op has three cash registers. That day all three lanes were full. There must be a Murphy’s Law for checkout lanes. Something along the lines of: As soon as you pick a lane the other open lanes will fill with people and someone in your lane will cause a problem that the person on the register will be unable to solve by themselves. That day was not an exception to that rule. I stood in line waiting and surreptitiously eyeing the people in the other lanes who had gotten in line after me, but had edged closer to checking out than me. Tiring of that I started reading the checkout magazine covers. That was brief because, of course, the co-op doesn’t carry the trashy tabloids that we all read while we wait in the checkout lines. Meanwhile the problem shopper still hadn’t resolved anything, so my gaze wandered around the store. Inevitably I was drawn back to the Card Racks of Doom when what to my wandering eyes should appear, but a red card with perhaps a heart on it. Merry Christmas! Maybe this card could work.
Still in the cycle of doom I went back to the racks and looked at the card expecting something weird that would in no way fit with what I had written. Instead I found a card that could not have been better.
The front of the card was a picture all in red of flowers forming a heart shaped frame. In the frame are two birds facing each other. One bird has a branch in its beak as if to give it to the other bird. Below the picture there was a verse by Pablo Neruda. The inside of the card featured a smaller version of the bird from the outside holding the branch in its beak. The inside caption read, “My heart is yours”. If I started looking a year in advance if I could not have found a card with a caption that would fit my theme of “Here take my heart” better than that. My plan was saved. I bought the card and wrote the revised version of the poem inside the card.
Here, take my heart of stone,
let me be your rock.
Here, take my heart of glass,
but don’t break it.
Here, take my artichoke heart,
it’s good for you.
Here, take my heart of the matter,
which is that I love you always.
When you’ve taken my heart
don’t think me heartless because
it’s full of the love of you.
So, here, take my sweetheart
and be mine.
I gave her the card at dinner. Because of her eye surgery I had to read the card aloud to her. After I explained the circumstances of how it came to be written as an exercise in my class she smiled and said, “You can practice on me anytime”.
Unfortunately, she was wrong. That’s when I found out what doom really feels like. Eight days after Valentine’s day I brought Debbie into the hospital emergency room. The cancer was aggressively attacking the lining of her brain. While there were some glimmers of hope they turned out to be just grasping at straws. It became clear that we should focus on keeping Debbie as comfortable as possible in her remaining time. Debbie entered hospice care and came home to be surrounded by love and family.
The card ended up being Debbie’s last valentine. I found myself stunned at how quickly anytime turned into out of time.
Tim Kane's memories, musings and updates.