Living with Loss


Part One

A snowstorm swept across the window of my mother’s room in the Good Samaritan, a nice room and well tended. Mother had chosen the bed closest to the window so she could watch the storms and the wind and the trains that passed at the bottom of the gentle slope beyond the fence where a plowed field lay. Her father was a depot agent so watching trains made her happy. She’d returned from a two-week stay in the hospital and was curled into her blankets. I lay beside her and curled around her back. We watched the wind batter snow in gusts. I’d planted a miniature lilac bush outside her window earlier in the spring, but it was hidden in the icy squalls.

The Good Samaritan Nursing Home is in small-town Wymore, Nebraska and where my elders go to die. That’s blunt, but it’s the truth. I’d seen it transition from an old time two-story brick structure to a modern one-story residence with gardens. The old structure sagged in decay across the street. Two of my grandfathers died in the old building and my Grandmother Sunderland. Dad died in a hospital bed. Grandpa Sunderland, too. They’d never lived there. I grew up on a Kansas State Line farm some seventeen miles south. Wymore is where we shopped, went to church, and where Mom and Dad retired when they left the farm.  Mom volunteered at the new place after they moved. Several of her friends lived there or worked there. Then Dad died and Mom when to live with my sister north of Seattle. “I never hear the wind up here,” she’d complained more than once.

I live in Kansas City, Missouri some three hours of driving from Wymore. A year before she died, she came to visit and I drove us up to the Wymore church where all the people she knew went. Mom had macular degeneration so when we got out of the car in the church parking lot and walked across the gravel to the front doors, she took my arm and said, “If someone comes up and I can’t see who it is, tell me their name.”

“What if I don’t remember their name,” I said. “I haven’t been here in years!” She drew herself up to her full four-foot eleven and a half-inch height and looked at me as if I were six years old instead of reaching for elder-hood myself. “Just ask them to remind you of their name!”

Everyone was happy to see her and kids who’d grown up in the church stopped to measure their growing height against her tiny frame. Adults bent down to hug her.

That afternoon, driving back to Kansas City, Mom watched the rolling fields of blood-red milo, nearing harvest time. I heard her sigh. She turned from the window and said, “It’s time for me to move to the Good Sam.” And just that quickly, a two-week visit turned into forever.

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Part Two

I watched the snow in an endless cascade across the window as if it had been snowing forever. Mom fell asleep, puffing her little breath puffs from between her lips that told me she was calm. The hospital stay had taken a lot out of her. Out of all of us. I carefully removed my arm from around her and rolled onto my back.

Three weeks ago, when the nursing home staff nurse had called to tell me of another seizure, this one stronger than the usual small ones, this one leaving her unconscious, this one sending her in an ambulance to the emergency room at the Beatrice hospital, my whole body clenched. I’d tossed a few things in a bag, called my son down the street, and started driving. It would take me four hours to reach Beatrice. I saw nothing as I drove except the black asphalt of road: not the wide rolling fields or the wide sky, not the line of windmills I liked seeing, planted in a straight line leading to a small museum at the curve outside Hiawatha. I didn’t notice if it was cloudy or clear. I didn’t stop for the usual break in Seneca. I drove.

By the time I got to the emergency room, she’d moved to Intensive Care. I found her, elevated in a bed in a single room, unconscious, tubes in her nose to help her breathe, tubes in her arms, heart monitor glued to her chest. The room still except for blinking lights and beeping. A doctor, white coat, gentle hands, came in and guided me out of the room. I leaned against the wall. “How is she?” I asked.

“She’s had a bad seizure,” he said. “And she hasn’t regained consciousness. It’s probably time to call the family.” My knees gave way. I slid to the floor, hunched over my bent legs, head resting on my knees. I couldn’t stop the tears. My knees were wet.

The doctor brought a glass of water and waited as I regained some kind of something. Composure it wasn’t but I could stand up. I began calling. My brother first. He was the closest. He’d be here in a couple of hours, maybe three, he said. I called my sisters, two in Oregon, one north of Seattle, one in Hawaii. One by one, they arrived. Jack or I drove to the airport to meet them. Mother had drifted in and out of semi-consciousness from time to time but she still lived. Finally, we were all together again, gathered around her bed. Jeanne, the farthest away, was the last to arrive. She brought sacred ti leaves with her.

I wasn’t conscious of the staff reaction to this growing gathering. They came and went, checked machines, adjusted the flow or one tube or another, left us alone. Jeanne placed the ti leaves around Mother, circling her in a giant lei like a tiny jewel set in white sheets. We held hands. We sang. Our voices rose and fell, quiet harmony in a quiet room. We told her we understood. We said it was okay to go.

And then we held vigil. Waiting. No idea how much time passed. Mom’s hand twitched on the covers, opening and closing her fingers. Someone went to get carry-out and brought it back. Maybe she smelled the food, who knows, but we heard her clear her throat and her eyes opened.

We laughed about that later. How with all her kids home, she had to do something and that something was usually food. Little by little, she came back to us. In a couple of days, they moved her into a room with an extra bed so one of us could always be there. Usually, we were two or three. Jack had to go back to work, and Jeanne to Hawaii. Jolene stayed for a few days then went back to work. That left Julia and Judy and me. Mom got progressively stronger, still weak, but she could finally get rid of the bed pan. One morning, as she sat hunched on the portable pot they’d brought to her bedside, she looked up. “Am I having another baby?” We laughed. No, Ma. You’re not. “Well, good,” she said. And soon, Judy and Julia left.

Now she was back in her bed at The Good Sam. I felt her stir beside me. I heard her smack her lips, a sometimes sign of a Petit Mal seizure, but no, her mouth was dry. I got up and brought water.

I went around her bed to the window side and sat on the edge, facing her, to help her drink from the straw. She drank and pushed the straw out of her mouth. She sighed a sigh all the way to her toes, which wasn’t that far. But I saw her brow furrow as she recognized the room. “I’m still here?” Yeah. You’re still here.

I set the glass on the window sill and leaned over her, brushed my hand across her lovely white hair. What prompted my question, I don’t know, but unplanned, I asked, “Mom, are you ready to go?’

She smiled a half-smile. “Oh, my yes. They’ll be people to laugh at my jokes on the other side.” One of her frustrations at the nursing home was that so few of the other residents understood her wry humor. I stroked her head. I’d started crying again and my nose was running. Lifting my arm from her head, I swiped my sweatshirt arm below my nose.

She glanced up. “How old are you? Forty?” No. I’m almost sixty I reminded her. “And I never taught you not to wipe your nose on your sleeve?” I laughed. “Yeah, Ma. You did.” At least her kids understood her humor.

I had to go home. I’d been sleeping the last couple of nights at the little roadside strip motel, old enough that I remembered it from my childhood going to church years, and I needed clothes. My cousin had brought a couple of changes to the hospital for me, but even they were dirty. I told her I’d be back soon. She nodded. “I’ll be okay here,” she said.

I got behind the wheel of Dad’s old blue Pontiac. I’d had it for years since my brother gave it to me when I moved to Santa Fe. I’d renamed it Old Blue. After five years in New Mexico, it had moved me back to Kansas. Mom loved riding in it when she’d come to visit. She’d pat the dash. It was the car that moved her to The Good Sam. The car we took when we went shopping. She’d paid for a new paint job and it looked the same beautiful sky blue as it had always been. I drove, back onto Highway 36, back toward St. Joe and home. I was still crying.

As I started up the long rise to the blinking light at the Beattie corner, an old truck stopped at the sign on the right. The truck reminded me of my uncle’s Chevrolet Apache. I grinned. I sworn that if I ever bought a pickup, it would be an Apache.Twenty-five yards ahead, the truck pulled onto the highway. An old man’s head framed by the truck’s side window, a dog beyond him. The man was looking in the opposite direction. Not at me in a car hurtling toward him.

I slammed on the brakes, jerked the wheel hard left, some part of my car shuddered against his front fender. When the car stopped, I was in the far left ditch and the truck had spun corner to corner. Shattered glass lay across my lap. The passenger side window gone. Traffic at a standstill. In the distance, I heard a siren. I wondered if I’d blacked out for a bit, but I could stand after I pushed open the car door. I braced myself on the trunk and walked around the back, worried about the old man and the dog. I saw someone helping him out of the truck. Somehow, we’d all survived. Except for Old Blue, deeply scored on the passenger side. I was losing Mom and now I’d lost Dad’s car.

Police arrived; a tow truck; I still had my phone and called an aunt in Marysville. The police took me there. I seemed to be functioning if rattled. I sat on my aunt’s sofa and called the insurance company. My uncle took me to a local used car lot, Route 36. “I know the perfect car,” the dealer said. “A Chevy. We just got it in. Owned by an old lady. Not many miles.” It was dark blue. I signed papers. I had a New Blue. I drove to where the tow truck parked Dad’s car and cleaned out the glove box and the trunk and the papers scattered in the back seat. I patted the dash and said good-bye. By evening, I was headed home again. But I cried as I passed the Beattie corner.

What was I going to tell Mom?






Where’s Home

Night comes to the prairie.
Night comes to the prairie.

When someone asks me where I’m from, my stock answer “Tell me a year and I’ll tell you where I was,” works pretty well. In this case, the prompt was very specific: describe the house you lived in when you were twelve. But if someone were to say where did you live when you were thirty, for example, I’d have to add thirty years to my birth year and then I’d know where I was. That’s why tell me a year is more effective. I know where I was each year. Otherwise, I have to add. I just added. At thirty, I was living in Germany in Army family quarters.

However, twelve? That’s easy. By the time I was twelve, I was only on my fifth residence. By thirty? I’d have to make a list. We moved to the farm when I was nine so by the age of twelve, I’d stayed in one place for three years and would be there for another five.

In those years, the house we lived in was built in the late 1800s by Grandfather’s father. The farm, a hundred and sixty acres of original Kansas homestead, had only one owner before Grandfather’s father and that for only three years. Probably a Carpetbagger (did Kansas have Carpetbaggers?) who claimed it during the land rush and sold it at a profit. We still have the farm and the original land grant deed.

The high plains were built for spectacular storms, wide stretches of grass which often became prairie fires, high winds, and a lot of sky. The first grandfather, however, found the only hill in northern Marshall County and built his house there. Tornadoes rolled to the south and down a draw (a gully) or around the north side of the hill. Never over the top. Tornadoes, for all their fierceness, are lazy. We could see ten miles in all four directions which is about how far it is to the horizon, and storm days, Dad would stand at the back fence and watch. I only remember being herded into the cellar twice. I hated the cellar. Shelves lined both walls and the door opened from the ground like at Dorothy’s farm in The Wizard of Oz. An awful place where being sent to the cellar to get….well, whatever: a jar of canned meat, beets, beans, or potatoes from the sack at the floor made me imagine rattlesnakes at every step and giant spiders hanging from the rafters. Neither of which I ever saw. Hated the place nonetheless.

The house: no don’t imagine 1870s antebellum columns or colonnades of trees on each side of the road. Imagine tar paper, thick, scratchy, and pebbled, in a brown-to-look-like-wood siding. And the staircase? No wide sweeping curve up from the foyer floor, rather an enclosed narrow and steep flight of stairs that grew up the kitchen wall and made a sharp left turn three-quarters up. You could imagine the occasional spider or mouse if you like, but that’s a little creepy. As were the stairs. Did I mention steep? At the bottom the door opened onto the kitchen and at the top, opened into two bedrooms, one on the left and one on the right. Grandpa slept on the right up two steps off the top landing. We girls slept on the left. I guess that’s how it happened although I’m not sure how we got four girls in one bedroom. We probably fought a lot. But I’ll stick to house. Which makes me wonder how our bedroom over the kitchen ceiling was lower than Grandpa’s bedroom over the living room. Maybe the house had settled.

My older sister went into high school, however, when I was thirteen, and Dad built a separate room for her off Grandpa’s room in what was the old attic. He put up wall board and painted it blue. The room had one window that looked out over the yard and the lane leading down to the road. It’s the room I graduated to. Perfect for a teenager. A sanctuary. No one could go in without permission–my sister started that and hung a blanket across the door for privacy. When she moved to the attic room, there were only three of us in the bedroom with the gas heater for cold winter morning. In that room, we had to lie on the floor and look out little windows that tipped up to find out who was driving up the lane.

Downstairs, a big kitchen, a living room, a south porch perfect for sleeping on hot summer nights, and an east porch that served as a mud room and a separator room (a separator separates cream from milk) and a place to store milk buckets after they were washed and eggs we’d gather each morning and evening. The east porch is where we cleaned eggs – a task I never cherished – and stored five-buckle galoshes for trips to a muddy farmyard.

I don’t remember when Dad added the bathroom on the north side of the house. It may have been a few years earlier when his mother was ill and couldn’t go outside to the outhouse. She died before Dad and Mom married so I didn’t know her. But the outhouse was still usable if you were desperate. By the time I was twelve, I guess we were six kids since Mom and Dad had birthed another girl, so with five girls and one boy, desperation time could come at any time. Grandpa often used the outhouse. Probably just for a little peace of mind.

The south porch was my favorite room–well, not so much in the winter since it wasn’t insulated and winter put frost on the bed–white with windows that stretched around three walls. Maybe not antebellum but close.

I wish I had a photo I could attach, but all the photos are stored in big albums at another sister’s house. So instead, I’m attaching a view from the window on the west side of the Little House. We tore down the old house when Dad bought a new double wide for mother after we all left home. She was tired of living in an old house. I’d moved back from Germany and helped with some of that. I remember pounding plaster off lathe in the upstairs bedroom where I once slept so we could take the house apart board by board and save what was salvageable. After they set up the double wide, he built on a 21’x24′ extension room attached to the west side of the mobile home so there’s be a place to put us all when the six kids and their kids descended for one reason or another. That’s the building that’s still standing and we call The Little House. He built it out of the salvaged timber after digging a full basement just in case for some reason a tornado decided to come over the hill, and in one corner he built a fruit cupboard.

That’s the cupboard I had to clean the pack rat nests from if you’ve read earlier posts. Or maybe that’s in the memoir I’m writing. Words are getting mixed up from one deal to another.

Anyway, this summer we’re building an addition on the addition. An eight foot extension with a composting toilet and a shower and a corner kitchen inside the little room. We’ll have a year round house. Not that we’ll live in it all the time, but it’s there.

You see, you can go home again. It just takes some work to get there.




A Moment from Three Perspectives

Paul jerked his hand away as they passed the bench. Sharon saw him swipe at his face. “You okay?” People on both sides of the path were playing in the grass, and she didn’t want to be obvious. Was he crying?

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m fine,” he said but he inched sideways away from her.

This was one of their favorite walks and they always held hands, didn’t matter where they walked. His eyes were leaking and he swiped the back of his hand across his face again almost as if he were angry—or sad. She didn’t know.

“Baby, can I…..”

“No!” he said, emphatic but quiet, and walked faster, out-pacing her, his shoulders, even from the back, curved and defeated.


Paul saw the woman, her hands filled with yarn and knitting needles, on the bench as he and Sharon were about to pass. His whole body stiffened and his mind shouted, “stupid purple sweater…everyone laughed…” He jerked his hand away from Sharon and swiped at tears that had sprouted, stinging, running down his face.

“You okay?” his wife asked.

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m fine,” he said. He shifted sideways, not wanting her to see, not wanting to tell, not wanting to evade another question.

“Baby, can I….”

“No!” He didn’t want to remember, didn’t want to tell her he’d lied, didn’t want to her help, didn’t want didn’t want didn’t want… he walked faster.


Sarah saw her son enter the park from a block away. She knew his walk, the way he swung his arm, the way he held tight to the woman’s hand. He was safe, that’s what mattered.

The woman laughed at something he said, and Sarah saw her head tip back as her mouth widened. Sarah couldn’t hear what he said, they too far away, but she remembered how he used to make her laugh. That wry sense of humor she’d somehow lost along the way.

How many years? Must be going on to twenty. Let’s see, she thought. I was paroled after fifteen and it took nearly five more to find him. She hoped he didn’t hold a grudge; hoped he’d forgotten the day she’d shot his father when he was going after the boy with a butcher knife. She shook her head. She didn’t want to remember, either.

Sarah started up to leave but they were too close. He’d see her. So she ducked her head and studied her hands knitting. They shook a little. Used to knit him sweaters all the time…said he liked them…all but that purple one. But he probably didn’t remember.

She kept her head down as they passed. She heard his wife ask, “You okay” and his voice, older but strong. Still strong, say he was fine. That was all she needed. To know he was safe.


Minus Adverbs: Before First Light

Before first light, tea brewing, I pull an old and favorite friend from the book shelf: Centering by M.C. Richards. Holding it, the cover renews visions of my own history: clay, hands, pots, the teachers who taught me, the sideways and broken pieces, clay creating life and life-holding, art school, metal pots, fire and iron and hammers and life, and liquid silver cooling into leaf.

In the forward, Matthew Fox writes, “M.C. warns the artist that art can become merely [sic] a ‘trade’ if the artist too is not bent on a spiritual journey and has lost the sense of art as a ‘bridge between the visible and invisible worlds.’ Art serves. ‘Here the importance of centering seems emphatic.’ The artist is in touch with ‘the joyful breathing at our source.'”

This smallest room in the house, the room where I brew and drink tea, journal, write, read, think, stack books and papers, papers overflowing tables and stands and file folders as if my life, my words, my spirit overflowed in a continuing flood of paper, has a small bookcase above the desk, and so, on the edges of the shelves, wise sayings and bits of poetry, more words, reminders of words and wise reminders.

Romare Bearden said, “Artists are like mice. They need old houses where no one can bother them and they can just go about their business and do what they have to do.”

My mother’s experiments were always with jello.

Now work that into a story!

Time and again my work is to bring myself back to center so I can work again. These times seem to lend themselves to scattering more than centering, but right now, this day, the demands on my time, my teaching, preaching, counseling, farming, family-ing, have unfolded a quiet time to sit and brew tea and center in unfolding consciousness.

“A new age seems to be seeking birth. Much in the new birth will be rebirth of ancient vision; much will be still in the proportions of infancy. We are poems in the making: Logos at work.”

M.C. Richards 1916-1999

Chef Mo And A Family Wedding

“What’s next”? I asked, weaving my way through the kitchen between two waiters hired for the party, Rebecca at one stove, and Mo loading a tray for the dishwasher. “That one,” Mo pointed with the spatula in one hand, sprayer in the other.

I ripped the aluminum foil off the pan and carried it out to the patio. The wedding was over, a wedding in a downpour next to the ocean, and I took the tray of skewered chicken out to the pu-pu table (pu-pus: appetizers in Hawaiian) for the hundred and twenty or thirty or forty hungry guests we were feeding at the reception.

“You’re a good priest,” he said, waving another spatula or fork or whatever he held in his hand that moment when I circled back for another tray. “I watched you.” I grinned and nodded. From Mo, born in Morocco and educated in Paris, that was quite a compliment.

I met Mo two years ago when I went to visit. “He doesn’t like guests in his kitchen,” my sister had warned us, we sisters who always gather in one another’s kitchens and cook, “And he doesn’t like to touch women. He’s Muslim,” she added.

Well, kitchens are second homes to me. I’d inched my way into his confidence by brief references to my years working in restaurants as a server and a bartender, but I didn’t force the issue. Little by little, he’d told me stories of working in four star restaurants, his face shining with the memory as he swiped at the counter where lunch was laid out for the workers. I’d offered a couple of times to carry things out to the buffet for guests’ lunch and I’d carried things back in after lunch. “Is this in the right place?” I’d ask as I put things away. He’d give a quick nod.

On this visit, on the first night, he made sautéed eggplant. “I remembered you sisters liked this,” he said when I thanked him. The eggplant he’d picked from the garden and cooked succulent in oil and garlic. Mo only worked breakfast and lunch, riding his bicycle home each afternoon, so one evening, with a bowl full of eggplant I’d picked from the garden, I’d done my best. My brother-in-law, who had cringed when he first looked in the pan, said at dinner it was good. The next morning, I told Mo and he refined my memory. “First you peel the eggplant, (I hadn’t peeled it – it was fresh from the garden) then you saute in olive oil with garlic,” he added. “How much garlic?” I said. Expecting exact from a master chef is not necessarily what you get. “Whatever you want,” he said, his shoulders shrugging in an interesting mix of Moroccan and Parisian. “Then you add water, some salt, and oyster sauce.” Ah. “That’s what Robert added and it worked!” I said. He beamed. Over the next few days I was in the kitchen a lot as preparations ramped up for the wedding. “Where’s the chicken to skewer?” He’d point with whatever he had in his hand, a knife, a spatula, tongs.

But the night of the wedding, the kitchen was bedlam. I’d changed my clothes from soaked to drier and warmer and headed straight to the kitchen. “What’s next” was about all I said. “That,” was about all he said. Later, as the young ones danced on the lanai, we carried dishes back to the kitchen, loading and reloading the dishwasher. “Thank you,” he said, several times. “You were so much help!” I felt adopted.

“I’ll miss you… and I’ll miss your kitchen,” I said a week later as I prepared to leave. He grinned. And told me how to make quinoa. “It’s the perfect food,” he said. “Best protein there is!” And then he told me a story about his father who was a surgeon in Paris and how he’d operated on someone and put them on quinoa and took them off bread. “White flour’s not good for you! You don’t have to rinse quinoa. It says to but I don’t. I put it in the pot with water and cook it until the little white tails come out. Add garlic or vegetables… chop up some onions and saute them. Put them in.”

And that’s what I do.