Thursday, December 08, 2016


How My Sister Saved Her Own Life and Acted F-A-S-T

It was 1:50 p.m. “Ten til two,” said Gayle when the emergency room physicians asked her what time the episode occurred. She knew the time because she had a hair appointment and the boys, who had borrowed her car, planned to pick her up at 2:00. She had ten minutes to get ready, and the so-called episode began as she brushed her teeth.

“With my face bowed toward the sink and a toothbrush in my mouth, suddenly it felt as though my teeth were crumbling,” she recounted. “It was the oddest feeling, and actually, one of my worse nightmares.” Gayle raised her head to look in the mirror at her teeth and immediately noticed that the right side of her face had fallen. She then tried to bring her hand to her face, but she couldn’t lift it. Her arm would not function.

F. Face
A. Arms
S. Speech
T. Time to Call 9-1-1

FAST. This is an acronym for stroke. And Gayle knew it. Just a couple days earlier she had heard a program aired on NPR about stroke awareness and the acronym came to her at once. Thankfully she knew exactly where her cell phone was—on the charger in the kitchen—and she called 9-1-1. That’s when her legs gave out and she sat on the kitchen floor for ten minutes until the paramedics arrived. Her boys showed up at 2:00 as planned, and by this point, her speech had disintegrated to garble.

Yes, it was a full-blown stroke.

The FAST acronym is what everyone needs to know initially about how to detect a stroke and what to do, which is to immediately call 9-1-1. The victim’s FACE falls or smile becomes uneven.  She either can’t lift her ARMS or one is weaker than the other. She is unable to speak or her SPEECH is slurred. TIME is of the essence.

Why? If a stroke is detected within three hours, doctors can issue a treatment called tPA, which is a super clot-buster drug. This medicine can mean the difference between life and death, or between full recovery and severe disability. Unfortunately, according to the American Academy of Neurology, 14 percent of strokes occur while people are sleeping and they have no idea what time they happened. These are known as “wake-up strokes.” If you wear a Fit-Bit, it may record the episode; however, tPA administered after three hours may prove to be fatal.

So don’t wait, thinking your smile will straighten or that you’re just having some kind of dizzy spell. Thankfully, Gayle received the tPA, which broke up a big clot in her brain, straightened her face and corrected her speech. She looks perfectly normal now, the beautiful girl we have always known her to be. Her speech is clear, however, it’s quite slow and she often loses her train of thought or struggles to find the right word to complete a sentence. It’s impossible to say if this will go away or if this is her new normal as a result of the brain injury.

What exactly is a stroke?
A stroke is a “brain attack” and it can kill you. In the United States, stroke is the number one cause of death and disability. African-American and Hispanics are at higher risk, and while more men have strokes, more women die from them each year. Chances of stroke increase with age, but one in four stroke victims are under the age of 65.

My sister was 54. And it’s important to note, she was otherwise healthy. Do take note of the risk factors, however, which include: family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, poor circulation, Atrial fibrillation, obesity and lack of exercise.

Eighty-five percent of strokes are “ischemic,” brought on by a blocked artery. Another type is a “hemorrhagic” stroke, which occurs when an artery bursts and causes brain bleeding. Gayle had neither. She had a clot form in her brain, which the tPA broke up, and an installed heart monitor indicated her heart was not the source of the clot. She, therefore, had what’s known as a “cryptogenic stroke,” which means the cause is unknown, and they usually affect people under the age of 55. While that’s not exactly comforting, research has indicated that these type of strokes don’t often re-occur.

December in Lake Oswego, OR
Gayle is hoping to eventually make a full recovery, but for now, she is dealing with the effects. She cannot work. She cannot drive. She can’t eat in restaurants or be in noisy atmospheres because the cacophony triggers migraines. She wears noise-cancelling headphones 24 hours a day and talks about her daily headache as if it’s her right arm. Because Gayle is a middle school teacher, it’s highly unlikely she’ll be able to return to a full, noisy classroom anytime soon—if ever. She’s looking into a one-on-one tutoring position hopefully available in the Portland School District next fall and having to make due with 60 percent salary while on disability. Makes it tough to cover the mortgage, not to mention the expenses of three kids in college.

Her friend Molly started a Gofundme page, enabling friends to make donations of any size to help get her through this recovery. Please know Gayle is very touched by your donations as well as all your warm wishes and prayers. She urged me to write this piece to help give back to you with information, citing that her knowledge of the FAST acronym is what saved her life.

So now you know it. Please share this information and help save your own or someone else’s life. And if you would like to donate to help Gayle, and I hope you will, here is the link:

Any amount is helpful. Thank you so much.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

A Letter to My Daughters


It’s daybreak and there’s frost on the eaves. The western sky is red and the color reflects upon the mirror that is the lake. There is no wind and the birds are not yet awake. The only sound is that of a ticking clock.

It’s the morning after the Presidential election and I feel alone and empty. I miss my children. And yet, I don’t think I can face them without offering an apology for the world into which we brought them. It’s a world that apparently tolerates hatred, bigotry, misogyny and hypocrisy. A world where surface-level information poses as knowledge, and intelligence and truths remain buried and inconsequential. A world where the concepts of hope and change are mocked and regression poses as progress. A world where the masses are mesmerized by a reality TV star as they stare into their screens and devices, while actual reality and the beauty around them goes unconsidered and unnoticed.

I’m sorry.

As low and sad as I feel on this serene morning in my quiet and peaceful surroundings, I want you to know I believe there is still hope for this world, and I beg you to hold onto it. I hope you will both do your parts to make this world a better, more loving, more tolerant place.

I want you to spend the majority of your time LIVING your life rather than watching it on TV or your phone. I want you to continue to recognize bigotry when it presents itself to you and implore you to reject hateful, judgmental and degrading acts or speech. I want you to be prepared to defend yourself and others against these things. If you are rejected, I want you to understand why and realize it was not the right option for you. I want you to find a peaceful path that not only makes you happy but also makes the world a better place.

Be kind to the earth. Continue to recycle and pick up trash when you see it. When you buy your next cars be sure they are fuel efficient. Conserve water. Install solar panels on your future homes. Grow food. Take care of your bodies and maintain healthy diets—heavy on the veggies, my dears. And should you have your own children one day, please take my mother’s best advice and just LOVE them.

I don’t know what the next four years will bring to the citizens of this country and the world in which we live, and I don’t think I want to spend any more time trying to guess. I was so wrong in my predictions and so let down by my community. So, I’m going to get back to focusing on my lovely little lucky life and the family I love so dearly—especially the two of you.

All my love,

Sunday, July 19, 2015

My Brush With Death

I walk or run down Sandy Point Lane at least once a day every day while residing in our house in the woods. I know the route well--every speed bump, every curve, every slight change in elevation. There are fluorescent green moss banks on either side of the worn asphalt, and it’s lined with ferns and columbine, clover and mushrooms, birch, poplar, oak, balsam, white and red pines and too many shrubs to name. It’s one-quarter mile to the mailbox and one-quarter mile back.

Monday morning after Father’s Day was partly cloudy, a little cool. It was blustery, perhaps a little windier than usual, but it didn’t feel ominous.  My husband asked me to walk with him and our dog to the mailbox. I didn’t hesitate to say yes. It was a stroll like any other day.

At the first speed bump, I remember the wind came up and a long twig fell upon my arm. I thought that a storm might be brewing, but we kept pace down the lane chatting about nothing important. Then, just past the second speed bump, a violent gust of wind came from the east and caused a tree limb to crack. In a split second, without ever seeing anything come toward me, I experienced a thud and crumpled to the ground.

Mike said I didn’t make a sound.

I didn’t lose consciousness and immediately knew I’d been hit. My second thought, as I lay in a heap on the asphalt, was a realization that I couldn’t get up. And then I saw panic in Mike’s face. He punched 9-1-1 on his cell phone before I could stop him. “There’s blood, Michele,” he said. “I need to call an ambulance.” The last thing I wanted was an ambulance. “Honey,” he said as he rolled me over in order to help me to my feet, “trust me. You need an . . . ” I spied two large puddles of blood on the crackled asphalt as he said the word “ambulance” again.
I realized I was in trouble.

The branch that hit me
Mike helped me to a bench on one of our disc golf tee-pads while he ran to get a vehicle. But sitting there alone as the wind blew twigs and branches around me, I felt like a target. I didn’t want to be hit again. So I got up and walked down the lane toward our house. I didn’t think about anything other than getting to shelter. As the blue pickup roared toward me, I waved my arms to get Mike to slow down, and to show him I was okay.

But I wasn’t okay.

Once inside I sat on a firm chair while Mike and our girls tended to my head wound, which was bleeding profusely. I don’t remember feeling pain. I only remember the sensation of a mouth full of chipped tooth particles. “My teeth! My teeth!” I cried. I think I was channeling my mother, a woman who placed a very high value on all of our precious smiles. And over the years I’ve had nightmares involving crumbling teeth and this was a nightmarish reality.

The sheriff arrived in quick time and the ambulance crew shortly thereafter. We recognized two of the crew, a local restaurant owner, and a dining room server from Lake of the Torches. Once I was in their brand new ambulance, I learned my blood pressure was 173/93 and then 179/95, and ultimately 181/97 at the hospital. I was terrified that I was going to be the middle-aged woman who got hit by a tree and had a heart attack. But everyone assured me it was only due to shock and pain and that it would come down.
They were right about that.

In the hospital
I endured a series of CT scans to rule out skull fracture and/or brain injury and then passed out during my third set of neck x-rays, when they asked me to tilt my head back. They had to clear my neck before they could stitch my head. So, it was hours before my bleeding, “heavily vascular” wound received treatment.
I never really felt the head wound, even though in addition to the 1-1/2” gash, I had developed a hematoma the size of a grapefruit. (Not kidding—my palm wasn’t big enough to cover it). But it was my neck that caused the most pain.

Results of all tests in addition to the head wound were a small fracture in the jaw area, affecting my alignment, but not requiring surgery; A minor compression fracture in my T1 vertebrae, but not requiring surgery; Concussion/Post concussion syndrome; and eight chipped teeth. I received five internal stitches in my head and seven staples, along with some anti-nausea medication, muscle relaxers and pain pills.

Nine hours later, Mike made the $250 emergency room co-pay and they released me.

Civil War Patient with ice on my head
Two days passed and Mike removed the bandages encircling my head and face. By this time, an “I’d rather fight than switch” Tarrington cigarette ad black eye had developed on my right eye. I looked like a Civil War patient, or as my niece described, a half-unwound Egyptian mummy.

Many of us know that in times of tragedy, life goes marching on, indifferent to our sicknesses, injuries, grieving or other circumstances. In addition to dealing with a business in its high season, we were in the midst of selling our house in Tucson. Two days after the accident, we had to go to town to sign/notarized the closing papers.

I remember floating into the bank that day, sitting down and explaining to our banker that I’d had an unfortunate accident with a tree.  She immediately said, “Oh my gosh, you were in the news!” Thankfully, the story didn’t use my name (or my age) and simply identified me as a “Vilas County woman.”
Local television news report

Our daughter, Willow, who had planned to stay in her Madison apartment for the summer and complete her summer school classes, opted to complete her classes on line and stay at home. Willow’s and Camille’s help and caring were both loving and invaluable. I am so proud of my daughters for rising to the occasion and taking care of the business and me in my incapacitation. I love them so much and will never forget the looks on their cherubic faces from inside the ambulance as it hauled me away.

Right side bruising beginning to heal
Nearly four weeks later I am better. I had only one setback, a complication of the spinal injury that caused swelling, nerve pain and an inability to breathe. But after another trip to the emergency room, where the ER nurse asked me if I was “the woman in the news,” and a face-to-face meeting with the x-ray tech who (along with Mike) scraped me off the floor when I had fainted during the first visit, I find myself on the road to a full recovery of all injuries.

I have even gone for a short jog where I flipped OFF the log that hit me and cried two miles in because I felt so good . . . I am confident I will make a full recovery and continue to praise God and all the healing well wishes that came from loving friends and family who supported Mike and me during this freak, dramatic period of our lives.

Made it to the Dead Show
I just need to wait until August when my new Obamacare insurance kicks in (because of the move) to get my chipped teeth fixed. Our insurance on the Arizona exchange will ONLY pay for emergency room visits, but no follow-up care in Wisconsin. Thank goodness for affordable health INSURANCE; which is NOT the same as affordable health CARE, which will honor “pre-existing conditions.” I’ll be out-of-pocket a minimum of my $5000 deductible via the premium we were forced to take on as of January 1, 2015. And the first hospital bill (not including ambulance service) was $12,000.

But now we border on the political, which I vow not to express in anything I write, share or opine on social media.

So, bottom line? We had 30 dead trees taken out yesterday, all located on vulnerable areas of our 45-acre ranch. It cost us $6,000.

Finally, people keep telling me that I was lucky, that it could have been so much worse, and I understand this. I AM lucky and know that the knock on the head I received could have definitely killed me. It is, however, difficult to philosophize the fine points and question why I happened to be in the exact wrong spot and the exact wrong time, next to my husband and 3-1/2 pound dog (who weren’t touched).

But fuck it. I lived.

Praise. God.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tailgate Time at Hermosa Montessori School

Each year in February Tucson residents are accustomed to seeing an influx of visitors from around the world move to town with their campers, trailers, popup tents and rolling suitcases for the world’s largest gem and mineral show. And each February, residents of the Ft. Lowell and Soldier Trail community on Tucson’s far northeast side also witness an influx of visitors from around the county infiltrate their neighborhood with campers, trailers and popup tents. Are they looking for gems? No. They are hoping for a chance to enroll their children in the Hermosa Montessori School.
Located at Ft. Lowell and Soldier Trail Rds.
Hermosa moved to the neighborhood in 1983, completing its first building in 1985. What started as a private preschool and kindergarten, blossomed into a tuition-free public charter school serving K-6 grades, and more recently it grew to include a middle school. Total enrollment is now 300. 
The school has mixed reviews, both published online and through word-of-mouth. It continues, however, to be highly desired by newcomers—as evidenced by the consistently growing number of campers parked in the neighborhood—my neighborhood—each February.

It’s usually a tolerable albeit annoying period lasting two or three days where parents with first-come, first-served numbers show up and hold their spot by camping on Ft. Lowell Rd. until, as I understand it, their numbers are called on late Friday afternoon.
"Just make sure the recycling truck can get to the barrel."
This year, however, the campers, rented vans and popup tents showed up far earlier in the week, and they have turned our peaceful neighborhood into a blocks-long tailgate party.
“Someone pulled the trigger last Sunday,” said one camping parent, who sat in a folding chair with a book while her toddlers played where the Ft. Lowell asphalt met the gravel road shoulder. “There are only 20 spots this year so we had to get here just as early.”
I asked her if she had the permission of the homeowner to setup camp on her property and she informed me that the property owner only asked that she not get in the way of the recycling truck that was due today.
The generator buzzed loudly as I ran by
Another young couple, with two little kids and a dog packed in a small sedan, however, was not as welcomed in their chosen spot, east of the school. I happened upon the property owner confronting them this morning when out for a run.
The couple blamed the school for the policy/procedure and said they’d move. The property owner, Zach, told me he had asked them and their next door neighbors in the big ass camper “six times” since the previous evening to turn off their generator and move. He didn’t mix words expressing his annoyance. He had already called the sheriff.

Our biggest complaint each year is that the line of cars parked to the east and west of our subdivision entrance blocks our view of Ft. Lowell traffic when trying to exit the neighborhood. Some of our neighbors don’t like the influx of people strolling through our small and familiar “Neighborhood-Watch” roads. I mean, one does have to wonder where they’re going to the bathroom?
Hermosa's parking lot has plenty of room for campers
But it had always been just for a couple days a year, and for the past 18 years we’ve been here, we always just get over it. Unfortunately, this year it’s out of control.

Hermosa Montessori School administrators used orange cones to block off all the area on its own property to prevent camping, and it has an enormous empty parking lot included with its 16 acres. I can’t help but wonder why don’t they allow these parents to park on their own property instead of imposing on their neighbors?
“They don’t want to appear to the State Board as though they’re giving preferential treatment to anyone,” said a camping parent.
Huh? Instead they make them impose on the neighbors/neighborhood and camp on the street?
It appears that school administrators perceived the wrath or consequences of their neighbors’ annoyance as the lesser of two evils. In other words, let’s piss off the neighbors because they don’t have a say where their tax dollars go, but the State Board sure does.
I don’t understand why they gave out the numbers so early in the week. Can’t they set a date/time on Thursday so parents only have to camp one night? Better yet, why can’t they just use an Internet lottery system?
Don’t they teach modern technology at the Montessori school?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Direct Descendents of Pocahontas? The Answer is YES.

The Cozzens family now has a tome of evidence proving its long-held claim to be direct descendents of  Pocahontas. Thanks to Uncle Todd, my husband's brother, who hired an official research firm, ProGenealogists, we can say with confidence that the proof is in the pedigree.

From The Things I Wish I'd Said, published 2004.
I first learned about the relation to Pocahontas shortly after I was married and working as a newspaper columnist. In fact, I wrote a column titled "The Descendents of Pocahontas," published on September 10, 1991, claiming that if I should someday have children, they would be related to the Indian princess who married John Rolfe on April 5, 1613. The column reappeared in my book, The Things I Wish I'd Said, published by McKenna Publishing Group in 2004.

Mentioning this relation has often raised eyebrows and invited skeptics to question the claim. Anyone who has dabbled with ancestry research who hears this tends to scoff in disbelieve and even pity what they deem to be our naivete. I'm not sure why this is the case because it's not like I'm claiming my kids are reincarnated versions of Pocahontas--just the great 10x grandchildren of her. Both our girls had Pocahontas at the roots of their family trees for their fourth grade and eighth grade family heritage projects, and most people just thought it was "cool."

Apparently the skepticism comes because of many, many people who have made this claim--most of whom may have a "Rolfe" somewhere on their family tree. According to the pedigree, however, the name Rolfe disappears after one Jane Rolfe, who was born October 10, 1650 and died on January 26, 1676. She was the only grandchild of Pocahontas (Rolfe and Pocahontas had one son, Thomas), and she married Col. Robert Bolling in 1674. Robert and Jane also only had one child, Col. John Fairfax Bolling, born in 1676 and died in 1729.

Cozzens Family Crest
The prominent names on the Pocahontas tree as it relates to the Cozzens, and as depicted by our family crest (another gift from Uncle Todd made for us a dozen years ago), are Bolling, Fleming, Bernard and, of course Cozzens. BTW: My husband's middle name is "Bernard." Meantime, studying the pedigree chart, it is far more likely that people with the name "Bolling" on their family trees are related to Pocahontas than those who claim a "Rolfe," as Col. John Fairfax Bolling and his wife, Mary Kennon, had six children. 

I could list a lot more information, but I won't out of respect for the family and for Todd's (I'm sure) very expensive efforts to have this research completed and published. A big, illustrated book came to us in the mail the other day, and the amount of work that went into it is in a word, impressive. And it's not for sale.

The Things I Wish I'd Said, however, is still available for sale on You can probably get it for a penny.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Power of the Red Bird

I'm not sure how else to share this other than to reprint a excerpt from my 2004 book, The Things I Wish I'd Said. (scroll down). Hopefully, you're in the mood for reading. Regardless, let me explain the brief genesis for this post.

I just checked Facebook for the third time today and this photo and message appeared on my HOME page:
A cardinal is a representative of a loved one who has passed. When you see one, it means they are visiting you. They usually show up when you most need them or miss them. They also make an appearance during times of celebration as well as despair to let you know they will always be with you. Look for them, they'll appear. 
(Photo posted by Facebook user: Gordon Matson/shared by Karen Gardner).

First of all, thank you Karen, my dear friend, for sharing this post. I believe she is aware that I, along with my sisters and brother have associated the cardinal with our mother, who passed in 1999. We, in fact, often give one another the gift of a cardinal in various forms--especially photos and ornaments--and share cardinal sightings at personally appropriate times. It keeps our mother alive. 

But our mom and the cardinal were especially on my mind because Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 (Martin Luther King holiday) would have been her 95th birthday.

Have I seen a cardinal recently? Except for this lovely photo on Facebook,  no. Not yet. It'll be several weeks before the cardinals are back in Tucson. And to date, I've NEVER seen one in the Northwoods. I thought I heard one once--shortly after she died, and I even checked with a naturalist who told me they were migrating further north--however, the cardinal has eluded me in northern Wisconsin. But this photo of multiple cardinals along with its message really touched my heart.

Gordon Matson, whoever you are, I think you're right.

Here's the excerpt from my book. It was the second book I had published and is a very personal account of my life. I was a newspaper columnist in the San Francisco Bay area during the early 1990s and this book, published in 2004, contains a collection of my original columns coupled with responses or followups written a decade later. As this excerpt ultimately explains, the book was inspired by my mother, her death, and the collection of my work I inherited upon her death.

The first part of this excerpt (in italics called "Summer of Old") was written circa 1993. The followup ("Summer of the Redbird") was written for the book 10 years later:

Summer of Old

It was a summer day in a suburban backyard. Sitting in lawn chairs on a cement patio were neighborhood mothers drinking coffee and talking mother talk. Their young children kept the swing set squeaking in the distance, their shouts and giggles blending with the buzzing drone of Midwestern cicada.
        Two young girls, one eleven, the other twelve, competed to see who could swing the highest. Their skinny legs worked hard as they pumped their way into the sky, and with each arc the metal legs of the swing set lifted off the ground like a rocking chair. When the girls finally reached their limits, they let go of the chains and plunged into the soft green grass.
        It was a draw.
        “I bet my mother is smarter than your mother,” said the twelve-year-old suddenly.
        “No way,” said the other girl. “My mother is older than yours. Everybody knows that older means wiser.”
        “Naugh aw,” the twelve-year-old cried. “My mother got out of school last and that means she remembers more stuff they taught her. Your mom is so much older than my mom that she’s probably forgotten everything by now.”
        This sort of made sense to the eleven-year-old, but she wouldn’t give in. “I think my mother’s smarter than your mother,” she said.
        “Okay then,” said the twelve-year-old, “we’ll prove my mother’s smarter by giving them a test. We’ll ask them both how many miles it is to go from here to Philadelphia.”
        The eleven-year-old, thinking this sounded like a fair test, agreed.

        Leaving the pendulating swings behind, the two girls marched toward the patio where their mothers sat next to each other cross-legged. Wasting no time in proving her mother was the smarter; the eleven-year-old quickly asked her how many miles it was to Philadelphia.
        “I don’t know,” said her mother, who sipped her coffee and failed to see the look of disappointment on her daughter’s face.
        “My mother knows,” bragged the twelve-year-old. “Right Mom?”
        “Well, I think it’s about 750 miles,” she said. “We’re planning a trip there next month for my cousin’s wedding.”
        “See!” shouted the twelve-year-old. “I told you so.”
        The eleven-year-old, not realizing that the test was rigged, walked back toward the swing set feeling ashamed because her mother had failed her.
        Her mother was fifty-three. At the time, the eleven-year-old-girl figured that was more than half of 100 and that was too old. She had never even known her grandparents and figured that if she were to have children some day, they probably wouldn’t know their grandparents either.
        She felt gypped.

        Thirty years ago it was rare for women to bare children past the age of forty. (One exception: My Catholic family. Numbers five and six were conceived by “accident,” and I was one of them.) More commonly, women bore their children early and certainly lived to see their grandchildren.
        We’ve all seen this trend change in recent years as women have become more career-oriented and now tend to wait longer to start their families. The eleven-year-old with the over-fifty mom is no longer considered unusual.
        Today, however, I’m a thirty-one year-old with a seventy-three year-old mother. That’s not too common. I feel like I only recently got to an age where I could relate to her and my dad as people rather than Mommy and Daddy and now I’m watching them age.
        It seems to have happened over night. Suddenly I find myself calling them “Pop-pop and Na-na” just like their nine grandchildren. And I also find myself tuning out while this white-haired man recalls yet another World War II story and this small, wrinkled lady tells me about an upcoming trip to South Carolina for the third time that evening.
        “How many miles away is that?” I want to ask.
        I feel, suddenly, like grains of salt falling in a three-minute egg timer are measuring my time with my parents. And I feel guilty because I think of things I’d rather be doing instead. I feel angry because they’re getting old and there’s nothing I can do about it.
        I feel like that eleven-year-old girl walking toward a swing set wanting only to fly off into the sky.
        I feel gypped.

A cardinal ornament shared between siblings.

Summer of the Redbird

     I didn’t include that my mother’s favorite word was “shit.” But I wish I had. She had never used or even heard the word until she was married and had her first job. One of her coworkers said it and my mom “liked the way it sounded.” She especially liked the way it sounded in multiples. “Shit, shit, shit,” is what I usually heard when she was mad or frustrated.
        Now I’m a forty-something year-old girl and my mother is dead. She’s been dead for five years and that pang of feeling ripped off continually creeps up on me without warning. I am a motherless child. At any age, that’s a painful title. You know what it feels like?
        It feels like shit.
        Not long ago my husband told me I haven’t been the same since my mother died. “You’ve lost your passion,” he said. It was a rotten thing to hear—worse than “you’ve lost weight” when you haven’t changed the number on the scale in years or “you look tired,” on a day you’re feeling particularly well. It was not a surface comment I could easily brush aside like a stray hair on a wool sweater. It cut deeply into what was left of my invaded spirit, especially because I understood what he meant.
        My mother always knew me to be a passionate, spirited person. There was rarely an in- between where my moods were concerned and Mom never failed to point out this fact. She often sent cards illustrating her opinion of my spirit: A little mop-headed girl throwing her arms open wide and a smile glistening toward the sky. Or a ballerina in a perfect, beautiful pose with a caption reading, “follow your dream wherever it leads.”  In tirades about war or the disappearing middle class, for example, or through discussions over hormone-injected dairy products and our need to grow organic vegetables, there was very little question where I stood. But ever since my mother died, these issues have lost their importance for me. As part of me died with her, my focus has shifted inward and remains more on my immediate family than on bigger issues I’ll never fully understand. I still have opinions, of course, and go out of my way to see that my girls drink organic milk, but my passion for life issues outside my little realm has faded.
        In my material life where I’ve lost seemingly important things like wallets, address books, and computer files, each has found an adequate substitute to serve its purpose and satisfy my need. With the loss of my mother, however, I can’t find anything to replace the hole in my heart that opens each time I think to call and ask her a question, or share with her something my daughter said that reminded me so much of her. It’s an odd, brief pang, and before my instinct to call her develops into a full thought that might lead to the physical movement of picking up the telephone, I push it aside. Silly me, I think. And it’s over.
        I guess we all find ways to cope with our losses. My dad, alone after fifty-six years of marriage, uses the phrase “Mommy left me” so often that it sounds more like a case of divorce rather than death. Some people talk out loud to their deceased loved-ones. It’s been suggested to me more than once that I “talk to her” on the days I feel like calling. But speaking out loud in an empty room isn’t something I do.

            Knowing Mom was an avid reader of my weekly column, I sent copies to her each week. She kept the long, narrow clippings folded into accordions and tucked inside a small, flower-covered photo album. It was a brag book she filled not with pictures of the grandchildren I put off delivering, but the recorded meanderings of my life three thousand miles away from her nest. Each piece was lovingly filed according to date and they were interspersed with other feature articles I had written for various publications. I didn’t know she had this album until just days after she died and my siblings and I combed through her lifetime of possessions, where we found piles of books filled with photos and clippings, and collections of papers keeping track of the lives of her five children. When one of my sisters found the brag book of my columns on display inside Mom’s red secretary, she suggested I take it. But I didn’t. I was happy to confiscate her 1940s Hummel of a little girl and a deer, (and I know two of my sisters have their eyes on that red secretary), but I didn’t feel ready to take the brag book.
            After my husband made the comment about my waning passion, however, I felt determined to somehow get it back. And so, as a first step, I asked my dad to send me the brag book. I was ready to review my past—to see my former self through a mother’s eyes.
        The exercise resulted in this book.
        I confess that the above column, “Summer of Old,” was not a part of her collection. (I found it on an old computer file.) I didn’t have the courage to send it as I felt it would insult my mother, and even though aging and growing (and commenting on aging and growing) is an enormous part of a parent-child relationship, I would never knowingly or willfully insult her. In my current stage of the relationship where I play the role of parent, I make most of the comments. (“It doesn’t look like you brushed your teeth;” “Comb that hair! You look like a ragamuffin;” “Do you really want to wear those pants with that shirt?”) These types of comments are my entitlement as a mother and they fall out of my mouth like drool on a pillow. I’m parenting with my mouth open and I simply can’t help it.
        My children’s comments on my appearance are limited; however, I count on them to rush toward me when I’m dressed to go out and tell me I “look pretty,” just as my sister and I did on nights when White Shoulders perfume intoxicated our senses and we knew Mom was “gizzying” up. We watched her cascade down the front hallway stairs like a Hollywood movie star and crooned, “Ooh, Mommy, you’re so beautiful.”
        Today my daughters have become my sister and me in the wafts of White Shoulders anticipation and while I relish their positive comments, I’m not sure how I’ll feel when they start commenting on the deepening lines in my face or curly gray hairs spouting from my scalp.

        I didn’t notice my parents turning old until I moved to California. While they were always older than the other parents in the neighborhood, this didn’t make them any less attractive or really any different from the other creatures stirring around in the alien world of grownups. But when I put together a collection of photos as part of my mother’s eulogy, I saw her look changed gradually with the decades, just as it was supposed to. She evolved from a dark-haired, wide-faced beauty to a small, almost angular woman, who clearly preferred not to have her picture taken. She became the woman I picture in my head when I think of her today.
        My mother was a tiny woman. Small by the standards of most, but tiny by mine. As I grew tall and shot past her while still in elementary school, I remember her quoting her height as five-foot-three and a half. That “and-a-half” was her little exclamation point. No one or nothing but age and osteoporosis could take away that half inch from her chart. I imagine she was five-foot nothing by the time she died. And according to our dad she weighed about eighty-five pounds.
        She may have been small, but she had an enormous impact on my life.
            She was eighty years old and she died doing what she loved: Water skiing. She didn’t get up on her old, wooden ski on her last day, but gave it another valiant effort and suffered a stroke, a massive hemorrhage to the brain stem. With the help of his neighbors, who were out that morning taking coffee on their dock and looking forward to watching Mom’s morning ski, Dad performed CPR until the ambulance arrived, and by helicopter, she was taken to St. Louis University Hospital and kept alive long enough for her children to arrive and kiss her goodbye.
        The day after my mother died and I found myself in the sweltering July heat in the front yard of her home, I stood next to her favorite redbud tree. In the years just before her death my annual visits were always in April, which is when the redbuds in Missouri explode with small purple blossoms. I have many photos of my daughters and their Nana taken in front of that purple tree. In July, however, its leaves were full and green and there were no signs of any buds, purple or red. In the furnace of the afternoon, I stared at the tree as if in a trance and wondered if the intense heat had caused my mother’s stroke.
        All at once a cardinal landed on a branch of the redbud and pierced the thick air with a shrill whistle. This bird snapped me to attention with its second, repetitive call, and then sucked me in like a worm as it sung a recognizable, rhythmic chirp. If you’ve spent any time in Illinois or Missouri as a child, you recognize the call of a cardinal the same way you know the sound of your mother calling you to dinner.
        But I’ll never forget that particular bird.
        Although it was male, the cardinal in the redbud tree was just like my mother: It was beautiful, familiar and comforting, and it came when I needed it most. Behind its chirp I heard not only every cardinal that had ever sung for me before, but I also heard lyrics telling me that everything was going to be okay. I couldn’t help but attach to this bird a spiritual message, which is repeated to me again and again by all the redbirds flying in and out of my life. And that message is: Life is beautiful and it flies by quickly. Remember not to lose sight of your passion.

        It also sounded a little bit like my mother saying, “shit, shit, shit.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Twin PactTwin Pact by Eleanor C. Horner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Starts With a Suicide . . . Ends With a ??
This story follows all the rules of good storytelling and I was riveted from the first page. Told from the perspective of a 24 year-old woman, she copes with the aftermath of her twin sister's very public and quite spectacular suicide. Margaret (Maggie) and Michelle (Shell) were identical, mirror-image twins who shared a life and a language, and even though they had been apart physically as young adults (one in NY and one in LA), in spirit they were inseparable.

The surviving twin, Maggie, is a Juilliard-trained violinist. She uses lyrical reference to disclose her feelings about her sister, an accomplished artist, and the suicide. The author writes in present tense to follow Maggie from LA, where her sister lived, to Moon, Alaska, where she intends to spread her sister's ashes. Connected so closely with her sister, Maggie appears to believe that her own suicide is now in order and she plans it. The author switches to past tense throughout Maggie's journey to tell a series of anecdotal stories about the twins' life together growing up. We come to know the twins intimately and they are fascinating. With each page I fell more in love with them and wondered and worried, would Maggie follow suit and commit her own suicide? I turned pages at rapid rate to find out.

Unfortunately, the version I read had an inordinate number of typos; however, I must say, the writing was so good and the story so powerful that I wasn't distracted by them. I mention it only because material this good demands a decent copy editor prior to its next printing.

Very well done and I highly recommend this book to readers looking for strong storytelling and character development.

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