I had a long, hard day today for what seemed like six or seven unrelated reasons, but Steve’s flash piece, Love and Rockets, was published by Every Day Fiction, and I’m proud of him. I love this little piece and think it packs a nice punch. Here’s the link.
And here’s Steve on his 50th birthday–one of my favorite photos of him. I sure love it when he looks at me this way.
Congratulations, babe, on today’s publication. Sorry I’ve been so crabby.
He didn’t like for us to talk publicly about his cancer. It wasn’t because he was in denial, he just didn’t want to feel like people were feeling sorry for him. He was private and quiet and that was just fine. So, at his request, we didn’t talk about it all that much outside of family, and we certainly didn’t express any emotion on social media as he went through the past three years of his cancer journey.
Over the past three years, my mom, sisters,
and I all learned quite a bit about cancer–pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, to be exact, with metastasis to the liver, stomach, and eventually, spleen and bone. At the time of diagnosis in November of 2014, he was already stage 4, grade 2-3, considered inoperable, and terminal. We learned how Dad’s cancer was different than other types of pancreatic cancer, which is why he lived much longer than originally expected. We learned about chemotherapy and radiation and immunotherapy. We also learned to celebrate small things and not to allow the big thing–cancer–to trample our spirits.
Along the way, we learned–as if he and our mother hadn’t already taught us–how to live every day with gratitude and dignity.
My dad was a simple guy. He was a football and basketball coach who loved golf and fishing. After his diagnosis, he just wanted to make sure we were all okay. Dad worried about leaving us in situations where we might need him, and he wouldn’t be here anymore. He’s always been here–that’s what he does. He shows up and takes care of things. His death, to him, meant that he wouldn’t be here do that anymore. And how would we be without him? Would we be okay?
When we were girls, Dad wasn’t very emotional about things. He didn’t tell us he loved us. Hugs were what we gave to him, not what he gave to us. Two days before he died, I’d spent the night with him in the hospital room and he woke up early, at 5:00 a.m. or so, and asked that I adjust the bed for him so that he was sitting up. He felt “so-so,” which in Dad’s vocabulary, meant not good at all. By 7:00 a.m., he’d quietly thrown up an unfathomable amount of bright red blood into a plastic bag provided for that purpose as I sat next to him, holding him. The day before, he’d decided that he wouldn’t have any more transfusions. We sat together on the bed that morning after I’d cleaned him up, both of us a bit shaken, both tearful.
“You know what this means,” he said to me. I nodded. His eyes were wet. I was stifling sobs. We both knew Dad couldn’t survive the blood loss without transfusions, but the angry tumor in his stomach continued to erupt.
“I don’t know,” he said with a long pause, “If you three will ever know how much I love you.”
We three meant Kati, Susan, and Claire–his girls. We were always a unit, so I knew that even as he spoke to me alone, he was saying it to all of us.
“I wasn’t a very good Dad,” he said after my tears prevented me from answering him. ” I was too gruff…”
It was early morning then, January 9. Mom and my sisters were on their way to the hospital. Outside, it was cold, gray, and misty. There was no sunrise that morning, just the slow creep of light through fog. I leaned in to Dad on the hospital bed. I hoped to find the right words.
“God couldn’t have given me a better Daddy,” I said. We were both crying then, holding hands. Dad wasn’t the type to praise his children, or to congratulate us too much. He never showered us with gifts or affection. He expected us to succeed, to be kind, to do our best. He expected us to make good decisions and to be good mothers to our children. He expected us to work hard.
He nodded at me with his eyes closed.
Two days later, he died. Kati, Claire, Mom, and I surrounded him, holding him. Holding each other.
What does this mean? I’d asked my husband that night as I cried, struggling to sleep. Where has he gone? How can I sleep without my Dad in the world? I wasn’t comforted that night by much of anything except for my husband’s arms wrapped around me. I wanted my Daddy back–whole and healthy, standing on the bow of a boat, a small-mouth bass hanging by his crook of his thumb.
I wanted him on the beach, a cigar in his hand, one arm draped over my mother’s shoulders. I wanted to see him as a young athlete, running that sub-six minute mile, playing college football and basketball. I wanted to see him at 11 years old, after the death of his mother–second born, eldest boy–figuring out how to take care of his siblings and their father.
I wanted to protect him from anything that could hurt him. I wanted to keep cancer away from him, and I wanted him to still be with us. I wanted everything to be okay.
I also wanted to understand the man my father had been. I wanted more of him–I wasn’t finished with him yet. He wasn’t finished with us, either, of course. He was looking forward to his grandchildren’s graduations and pending engagements and their future successes. He was looking forward to vacations with my mother, watching ballgames with his brother, afternoons by the fireplace with his sisters as they filled in him on the goings-on around town.
Nothing was left unsaid. He died peacefully, not in any pain, and with a dignity that I didn’t expect. I’d opened the shades of the window so that the pink light of sunset streamed into the room. Together, we four held him as he drew his last breath.
I’m so thankful that Chili Ishmael was my father. And I know that he was thankful we were his girls. Each of us so different from each other, yet smart and strong like our mother and kind and athletic like him.
Are we okay? Dad needed to know that in a crisis, we would be. And the answer is, “Yes.” We’ll move with the same gratitude and dignity as he would want. Dad used to joke that he’d lived a charmed life. Everything he’d needed had been provided. A wife who loved him deeply, a family who supported him, and daughters who drove him crazy and made him laugh and in the end, who took care of him. If we all are so lucky, we can also feel that way at the end of our lives.
My Dad taught me a lot throughout his life, but in his death he taught me the most: that life is a gift, and love is worth it all.
The first ten days of September were one achingly long crescendo of anxiety here in Florida. We watched Hurricane Irma churn from the African coast to the Leeward Islands, devastating Burbuda, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and on to Puerto Rico and Cuba before crushing Miami and the Florida Keys, Marco Island, and Ft. Meyers.
Here in Tampa Bay, we waited.
Since we aren’t in an evacuation zone, Steve was comfortable in staying. He knew how to prepare for a hurricane, and I followed his lead. We were ready in every way possible with 40 gallons of drinking water, plenty of provisions, medical kits for various degrees of injury, and a secure house. On Saturday, Steve rode his bike two miles to check on his sons, his mother and sister, and his ex-wife. Everyone was well. We were all as prepared as we could be.
On the morning of September 10, we learned that instead of following the east coast of Florida as expected, the eye of Irma was to pass over our tiny home sometime around 2am the next morning. I’d lived through a direct tornado hit in 2012, and weirdly expected a hurricane to feel like a 12-hour tornado. Instead, it was an excruciating exercise in patience. For the entire day, I struggled to stamp down the panic rising from my gut. As the gentle and steady rain began falling, Steve and I built over 50 sandbags by digging a hole in the backyard and filling plastic grocery bags with Florida sand-soil. We brought our plants inside: a hibiscus and two small papaya trees Steve had been nurturing since they were tiny shoots. We made afternoon espresso, which felt both satisfying and scary: as though it were the final coffee we’d ever share, as though “before Irma” and “after Irma” would be markedly different. As the details of Irma’s strength and trajectory were updated, we made tough decisions. If the roof were to blow off of our home, or if 140 mph winds blew out our windows, what were the most important things we wanted to protect?
We had a small safe and two large army-issued waterproof cases to fill. Passports, love letters we’d written each other, Steve’s fountain pens and his father’s pocket knife. My daughters’ shot records and social security cards. Small toys from his sons that they’d snuck into his rucksack before deployments. The wedding rings from our first marriages, still poignantly tender to both of us. A Bible, dated 1871, that a Park ancestor of mine had received as a teenager.
How do you measure your life in the weight of one small waterproof safe?
The army-issued waterproof cases, we decided, were for our favorite books (how to choose favorites?), our diplomas, and photographs of us and of our children when they were small. We tried not to be sentimental about our short courtship and six-month marriage, but holding our marriage certificate, a few photographs, and seeing the 20-years of history that came before our union felt significant. We are brand new at this marriage, this blended-family thing. I felt a moment of hopelessness, that our future wasn’t in our control, that one storm could erase us and everything we loved. Things are only things, mementos of living, small reminders of where we’d been. As we filled the boxes, all I wanted was to continue moving forward with this man that I love so dearly, and for a few moments, I was gripped with the terror of losing him. Things don’t matter, truly. They are only things.
As the evening progressed, the winds grew louder. Peyton sat quietly, engrossed by her phone, tracking the storm and reassuring friends and family in Texas and Kentucky that we were fine. We hadn’t lost power, so I made us a meal. Steve set up the chess board, thinking we might play, but by 10pm I was obsessed with following Irma online as she slammed into Ft. Meyers. After losing the wifi we agreed to turn off our devices, and so while Peyton took a shower, Steve and I sat together on the couch and read the T.C. Boyle story, “Peace of Mind” aloud to each other, alternating sections.
Soon we moved to the hallway to sleep. Pey was on one twin mattress and Steve and I shared the other one in a cramped tangle. Fitfully, we slept.
At 2am, I woke to silence.
I got up, walked through the house, confused. The power was on. No windows were broken. Our roof was exactly the way it was supposed to be. My dear Florida Cracker got up behind me and calmly said, “We must be in or near the eye now. Let’s get out of this hallway and go to bed.”
There was no tornado-moment of shrieking wind. Our dogs slept through most of the day and night like any other day and night. And thankfully, unlike 60% of Hillsborough County, we never even lost power. We’d slept through the worst of it. Bullet dodged.
The things we carried were totems of little value to anyone but us. What are a few books, a few documents, a scattering of photographs? Of everything we sealed in boxes, only the love letters, the fountain pens and pocket knife, and the 1871 Bible were irreplaceable. The things that matter were in that cramped hallway: my daughter, our pets, my new husband and his prepared, calm ways. We weathered Irma no worse for the wear. We’re thankful.
In the hot, waning days of summer 2016, I visited the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky to walk the grounds with a friend. The world felt at peace, and my friend and I–both writers, both recently divorced, both mothers, both spiritual seekers–had some important catching up to do: after both of our decades-long marriages ended abruptly and painfully, we’d each found and been startled by new love.
It was a sweltering August day, not unlike my first visit to the abbey almost a decade prior. I wore a cotton tee shirt dress and she wore an old shirt and hiking pants. I had a stainless steel canteen of water and she carried a Diet Coke. We walked together and talked about our lives and our novels (hers, published, mine, not) and our failures and our joys.
We soon found ourselves at a place that historically has been forbidden to women at Gethsemani: Thomas Merton’s hermitage, a concrete block cottage with a wide expanse of porch. The front door was locked, and so we sat in the rocking chairs on the porch and kicked off our shoes. We forgot about rules for a few moments. Instead of worry, we talked about life and how messy it is. We talked about love and how glorious it can be, if we are brave enough to choose it. We talked about our own pain and about hurting others, about saving ourselves from drowning in our own sadness, and about starting over.
As we talked, a moth flew toward me and land on my calf. Then my shoulder. At one point, it landed on my hair. “Merton’s touch,” she said. I sat very still, imagining this brown moth’s beginnings as caterpillar, and thinking about the journey this small creature had taken to arrive at this moment, and the courage it took to fly freely, to land on the body of another creature, to flutter away, only to return.
We were surrounded by woods that hummed with cicadas and we could hear the rustle of the hot wind through the trees. We agreed that writing was hard work, that pain made us stronger, and that love was almost always worth whatever fire you had to walk through to find it. We gave each other the grace and permission to speak of things that are often left unsaid.
As we were leaving the Hermitage, I stood and stretched, and then leaned against the supporting beam for the porch. We kept talking and the moth returned and landed on my fingertip.
My friend grabbed my camera and said, “This is too much.” She stepped back to take in the Hermitage. “Hold still.” Then she snapped this pic of me and Merton’s moth, a creature determined to sit gently on the tip of my finger.
Sometimes, if we just get quiet enough, and still enough, moments like this can happen. my Merton moth became a quiet champion for what it looks like to survive a brutal transformation. This photo symbolizes what rebirth looks like to me: a winged, delicate creature trusting the kindness of my hand. It’s also a photo of me–content, at peace, with the ability to marvel at the world and the love that I’ve found here. My friend has found it, too. Sometimes, a moth lands on your fingertip. A novel comes to fruition. New love arrives with surprise. These gifts seem to say: enjoy me. Embrace joy. I trust myself in your hands, and I trust you as my landing place. Let’s hold still together for a few moments.
I’m not sure I know anyone from any faith tradition who could say otherwise: to be human is to question existence, and to have faith is to believe blindly that the narratives we’ve known since childhood are true. That those stories are real. Then we relearn those narratives, and we add to them, and we question the givens in our lives. Along the way, we suspend our reason in order to embrace, revere, and worship an unknowable creator. We trust and we place hope that goodness will prevail. On this day last August, I stood on Thomas Merton’s porch and felt the rush of who I’d always been and who I was about to be melding together and finding solace in the same space. It was both a pinprick of realization and the infinite universe, in one. We all can be the moth, if we are strong enough to survive our own metamorphosis. What’s waiting on the other side is glorious, you know. You just have to believe.
While applying for a marriage certificate in Lexington, Susan and I were asked to identify our race. We agreed we’re tired of that question on every government form everywhere, so we entered the word “Human.” The clerk was not having it and insisted that we properly categorize ourselves by skin color. We complied, yet it felt right to push back, just a bit, and peacefully, against an anachronistic regulation. If and when the government asks me to declare my religion, I’ll enter the word “Liberty.”
Last night in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Senator Elizabeth Warren to stop speaking as she was reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King. The letter, written in 1986, denounced Jeff Sessions, the senator currently nominated to be the Attorney General of the United States, as unfit for a federal judgeship. When Warren continued, McConnell pulled a move called “extraordinary” by the New York Times: he evoked a little-known rule to silence her. He said:
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Shut up and sit down. How many times have I heard that in my life? Unfortunately, more times than I can count.
In my anger and frustration, I spent a good amount of time this morning feeling helpless. I wanted to share with you two some advice about how to react when people tell you to shut up and sit down. And so I’m writing this letter not only to encourage you to speak out and to stand up, but to give you guidelines for how and why to use your voices. I have high expectations for you, and I am holding myself to those expectations as well. Perhaps if we all structure our resistance with some good, old-fashioned “mom rules” we can accomplish more together.
My advice? Be kind, speak out, tell the truth, and to fight to win.
I still believe in kindness, even in this very unkind season. Be kind when you stand up. Be kind when you protest. Be kind when you disagree. Kindness doesn’t mean to be passive, or to be weak, or to be compliant. It doesn’t mean to speak softly. It is to pull from your deep empathy to attempt to understand others. It means that instead of name calling, you use language that constructs rather than demolishes. Your empathy is a light that shines in all that you do. It forms connections and builds bridges between different ideas. It it what makes you human. Active kindness is a choice. When you don’t know how else to react to something rude or unexpected or provoking, choose to be kind.
Speak out. Your voice is powerful.
Speak up for those without a voice. Stand up for those whose rights have been stripped. March for those who cannot march. Do not listen to those who may tell you that your voice doesn’t matter, that you don’t count. You are valuable beyond measure, and you were created with purpose. I’m not merely encouraging you to speak out: I am expecting it. Speak, even when you and I might disagree. Speak when you’re told to shut up. You cannot be silent when others are persecuted. This goes for both bullies in your school and bullies in the White House. Your voice is your birthright and your responsibility. And you have far more power than you may know.
Believe that truth matters.
We are living in a world swirling with propaganda. When the man in the highest office in the land not only lies every single day, he lies about his lies, supports the lies of his employees and followers, and spreads fake news with wild abandon in order to create fear and chaos, you must hold firm to what is true. You are smart young women with gifts for discernment. I’ve watched you both as you’ve stood up for truth. You’ve each demonstrated strength when you’ve followed your hearts, when you listen to your intuition. Back up your feelings with facts. Research. Find confidence and solace in what is true. When you’re unsure, go to the root of the problem and seek the truth. Then speak it.
When it’s time to fight, remember that winning matters.
When the times come in your lives when you are seeking a promotion, or running for public office, or building a case for what you believe, don’t listen if someone tells you “it’s not worth the fight.” Don’t back down when faced with challenges. Hold firm to your principles and to truth, but fight to win. Winning is important. Winning gives you a platform and a responsibility. Winning gives you power. (And there’s nothing–by the way–wrong with women who have power.) And with power, a platform, and responsibility, you become leaders who stand for good. That’s when the real work begins. Those who lose go home. Those who win get to work.
And when, in your fight for what you believe in, you are told to shut up and to sit down? Remember these words from me: Speak out. Stand up. Remember the women who’ve gone before you who’ve paved the way. “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I hope, at the end of my life, that you will count me as one of those women. And I hope that you will count yourselves.