Monthly Archives: September 2018

Five Difficult Things

Whenever I skip a day in this blog, I hear from at least one, often more, of my friends who read my entries.  To them, now, here, I say:  Thank you so much for caring.

To you all, I make this disclosure:  Now and then, the words write themselves in my head but my body will not cooperate and record what my mind creates.  Last night saw that stubbornness.  I collapsed on my bed and read until I finally felt drowsy enough to turn out the light.  I woke at 4:00 a.m. with words rising from consciousness.  Now I should be showering and dressing but instead I’m letting them flow.  I might be late.

Here’s what I want to tell you — five difficult things about me.  I articulate this list to encourage you to turn to your spouse, or partner, or child, or sibling, or friend, and disclose five difficult things about yourself.  Take my example, only take it down to an intimate level. If the person truly cherishes you, the disclosures will strengthen the bonds.  If the person’s affection for you cannot withstand the disclosures you make, you will stumble past the encounter with an understanding that you must seek new relationships which can sustain your darkest hours.  I pray the former result for you.

Either way, you will strengthen your own faith in yourself.

So, here, then, are five difficult things about me.

  1.  At the age of eighteen months, I sat down on my bottom and refused to keep walking.  For the next several decades, I would suffer under a different diagnose with each change of health insurance providers.  Nobody believed my symptoms until a physician named Joseph Brewer at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City.  He saved my life and probably my sanity.  Every once in a while, less often now because of a new medication that I take, I became so ill that I cannot function.  That happened to me over the last few days, culminating in last night’s exhaustion.
  2. I’m afraid of people who shout.  My father shouted at my mother and all of us, all the time.  His shouting terrified me.  It opened wounds in me that have not healed.  His physical punishment of us did not frighten me as much as the sound of his raised voice.  I’ve begged people in my adult life not to shout at me.  I cannot endure yelling.  I become cold and closed.  I acknowledge that I often regret not resolving this fear and further, that professional help might have facilitated its resolution.  But I frankly consider my request that people not shout to be extraordinarily reasonable.  As with the fear of poisonous snakes or people with assault rifles, my fear of shouting helps me recognize dangerous situations from which I can hastily extricate myself one way or the other.
  3. I don’t like opening mail.  This distaste extends to all mail.  Bills, junk, birthday cards — all invoke queasiness deep in my belly.  I think in another life, my death sentence must have come by post.  I often push unopened mail in drawers and extract them one letter at a time over a period of days.  If I don’t acknowledge an invitation which you sent via mail, consider calling me.
  4. Oh — but wait.  I don’t like talking on the phone, either.  I can’t hear well and I depend on sketchy but constant visual cues to help me follow what a person says.  I watch their mouth, eyes, hands, and the way they hold their shoulders.  My ability to complete the dropped syllables which my brain did not decipher drastically declines over the phone.  (Try e-mail if you really want to reach me.  But not text; my clumsy fingers rebel at the difficulty of the virtual buttons.  Heh heh.)
  5. I cry at Hallmark commercials.  I can recount the script of most of them.  The one which gets me the quickest and the fiercest involves a brother coming home and slipping into a family group singing Christmas carols at the piano.  His younger sibling looks adoringly into his face.  I can’t say whether that’s the moment which I found so touching.  It could be the impossible scene of a family harmony that I never experienced.  Songs around a piano, for goodness sake.  Did people actually do that?  My tears mix joy with sorrow.  I’m happy for the young child whose beloved brother has returned in time for the holiday.  I’m crushed for myself.  I love my siblings.  I loved my mother.  And we did sing, I know we did; but never around a piano and never with that delicious abandon of the Hallmark family.

So that’s five difficult things about me.  If you don’t have a loved one to whom you can make your Five Difficult Things confession, you can e-mail me at  I’ll listen.  I’ll care.  I will be here.

It’s the thirteenth day of the fifty-seventh month of My Year without Complaining.  Life continues.

One Last Whisper

When my day has not gone according to plan, I reach for the words of other, better writers.  I leave you with this work by an exquisite poet, with a fond glance backward and my best wishes for a good night to you all.

“She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways”, by William Wordsworth

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

My Aunt Dode on the left and my mother, Lucy, on the right. “Dode” was our name for my mother’s sister Joyce.

“I’m Still Your Mother”

Stop me if you’ve heard this story.

On 18 August 1985, my mother spoke the last coherent words which I would ever hear her say.  Although she did not die until three days later, I had to drive back to Kansas City on the evening of the 18th because an opposing counsel would not accept my verbal assurances that my presence would not change anything.  I needed a continuance.  He would not ask for one on my behalf.  I appeared in Jackson County at 9:30 a.m. on the 19th and made it back to St. Louis late that day.  By that time, my mother’s mental state had deteriorated to the point of incoherence.

But on Sunday, she asserted herself into my psyche with her usual aplomb.

I strove to coax her weak pituitary gland to function.  My brother Stephen had taught me to liquefy her pain medication; I didn’t question the source of his knowledge.  I put it down to his nursing school experience.  With the pulverized pill dissolved in water, I stood over my mother’s frail form, letting the solution trickle into her mouth. I stroked her throat, trying to avoid the obvious parallel to the cat whom I nursed in the last days of feline leukemia.

Swallow, Mama.  Swallow. I kept my voice soft and gentle.  Come on, Mama.  Swallow for me, please, Mom.

My mother pursed her lips.  The focus in her eyes tightened.   She fixed them on my face and snapped, I’m still your mother. Don’t patronize me.

The order startled me and I dropped the spoon, spilling the medication on her gown.  She didn’t flinch; she had already subsided into her vague trance.

Yes ma’am, I whispered, too late, always too late.  I got  fresh nightclothes and started the process over again.  I stumbled through the administration of the drug which kept her calm and eased the anguish of the cancer in her brain and bones.  She slept.  I put the New World Symphony on the turn table and held her hand as the morning waned.  I left around two.  I never heard her voice again except raised in a heart-breaking wail when I got back the next night.  She died on Wednesday, August 21st, a victim of medical malpractice and the failings of men.

My mother died two weeks before my thirtieth birthday and not quite three weeks before she wold have turned fifty-nine.  I miss her throaty laugh, her cheerful skip, her sharp tongue when she perceived injustice, and the knowing look in her bright brown eyes.  I miss her reassurance, her intelligence, and her willingness to take on impossible causes armed only with her tenacious spirit and prayers to Sts. Anthony and Jude; and to Theresa of the Little Flower.  I miss the sight of her many wrap-around skirts, all made from different fabric but the same pattern.  I miss her denim pocketbooks, similarly created.  I miss the comfort of knowing that if I stumbled, she would hasten to my side with a quiet word, a plan of action, and a humorous story to ease the tension.

For all of her virtues, my mother made mistakes.  Some went with the times.  She stayed married despite the awful conduct of her husband because that’s what Catholics did in those days.  As I sit here, I can’t think of too many other examples of my mother’s imperfection, though I will concede that time has blurred the lesser memories in favor of the tender times.

My mother took us to musicals, ballets, picnics, and her work.  We cut EKG strips and pasted them on the forms for the patients’ charts.  Especially for the three younger children — myself, Frank and Steve — my mother made time for learning and enjoyment.  She read my scribblings, though she encouraged me to pursue “a real career”.  She forgave us when we trespassed and held us when we grieved.  She cleaned the blood from her bathroom floor when I lost my first pregnancy in a miserable flood of tears late one January night.  She never judged me.  She tucked me into my old bed and brought me hot tea and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup with Saltines and Vanilla Wafers.  She let me cry.  She did not demand an explanation.

I know that I have some of my father in me, but I carry my mother’s stamp.  My goodness comes from her.  She taught me to value other people and to give them a chance.  She did this by example.  But she also taught me not to take any guff from those who would judge me.  Her tart tongue would lash out at anyone who asserted themselves against one of her children in ways that she found untenable.  She would defend the weak and helpless. She would harbor the weary. Ask my older brothers’ friends, they’ll tell you.  They often sought refuge in my mother’s home.

Whenever anyone chastises me for being overly conscientious with my manners, I shake my head.  “I’m sorry, this is is how my mother taught me.  If I didn’t let you go first, my mother would roll over in her grave,” I tell each one.  “And my mother had a hard life.  She needs her rest.”  They laugh and let me hold the door, or pay the check, or whatever it is that I think my mother’s version of courtesy would dictate.

Nobody told a story like my mother.  She’d stand and gesture, roll her eyes, and mimic the cadence of the story’s participants.  My personal favorite involved someone asking her for directions to the lab at the hospital where she worked.  Accustomed to guiding patients who often needed simple instructions, my mother said, “Okay, you go way down the hall.  Way, way down the hall.  It seems a long, long way but KEEP GOING.  You’ll pass a room that LOOKS like a lab but it’s NOT A LAB, it’s a BLOOD BANK.  Then you come to a set of DOUBLE DOORS, that’s TWO DOORS TOGETHER.”

And the person said, “Doors.  You mean those things with handles?”

My mother was about to say, “No, these are swinging doors,” when she noticed the stethoscope around the man’s neck.

I laughed until I peed my pants every time my mother told this story, waving her arms as she said, “WAY, WAY DOWN THE HALL!”

Doors.  I feel as though many doors slammed in my mother’s face.  She quit nursing school to marry the dazzling Irishman who turned out to be an alcoholic.  She bore eight children but had to go back to work without a college degree, for a dollar an hour, because her husband could not support the family.  She endured his drinking, his fists, and his nasty tongue.  She shielded her children as well as she could, though of course, it could not be enough.  Just when she got her life together, with her sad wreck of a semi-sober husband, she started having symptoms which her doctor should have, but did not, recognize as uterine cancer. He diagnosed “female troubles” and gave her Premarin, a known aggravant of the imminently curable cancer which afflicted her.  It caused the tumor to metastisize, almost certainly hastening or even causing her demise.  Ah, life.

She died too soon, but in the state to which her ravaged body had declined, not really soon enough.  She needed to be free of the pain which no amount of liquid Demerol could ease.

My mother liked Dvorak, Willie Nelson, the Grateful Dead, Livingston Taylor, and Broadway show tunes.  I hope there’s a damn good sound system in heaven.  Maybe Anthony Newley and Willie Nelson would sing a duet of Happy Birthday for her.  She’d like that. Afterwards she would walk down to the banks of the River Jordan with her youngest son Stephen and her granddaughter Rachel.  They could sit beneath a willow tree, and say nothing at all.

Nothing at all.  Nothing at all.(n)

It’s the tenth day of the fifty-seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  For Lucy’s little girl, life continues.

Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley and yours truly, at the Bissell House, c. 1971. My favorite picture of me and my mother.  Rest in peace,Hot Lips Mama. See you on the flip side.



09/10/26 — 08/21/85



(n) For those who don’t know:

In the Gillespie, Illinois cemetery there’s a stone chair on  a grave near the street.  My mother would ask us, “Do you know what that chair says when you sit on it?”  Of course, we’d shake our heads.  Then she’d intone in her very best spooky voice:  “Nothing at all.  Nothing at all.”



Survival by Default

As my strength returns, I begin to sense that I had been ailing for some time.  Though the doctors never found the source of the bleeding, one theory credited my interruption of the blood thinner for the swift correction.  Finding the polyps and cutting them away came as a happy bi-product of the mysterious malady.

I picked my way along trails on the bluff above Seal Cove and in the forests above the sea.  I can walk to the garden again without a cane.  My morning stretches again invigorate me.

One of the young folk staying at the hostel greeted me on my birthday by asking how I fared.  “Any day that I awaken counts as a gift,” I told him.  I gave a short version of a twenty-year survival by default.  “On 14 February 1998, a doctor gave me six months to live.  I told him that I had other plans.”

Putting my best foot forward, accepting each day that dawns, never forgetting to breathe; my strategy seems to be working.  This evening I sauteed chard and zucchini which I had a hand in growing.  I cleaned Delta silt from the leaves of butter lettuce from the community garden and nibbled Thai basil flowers culled from a bountiful plant which stands adjacent to the broccoli.  I feel my mother’s DNA fighting for ascendancy.  I’ve been an Irish Corley long enough; my  sturdy Austrian blood mingled with the passion of  Syria can carry me for the next thirty years.

It’s the eighth day of the fifty-seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.


Life Among the Weird

In the catalog of impressive birthdays, yesterday stands strong.

The celebration started the prior evening.  Snug in my normal place in the kitchen of the Dolphin house, I speared caramelized plantains from a common plate, a birthday treat from Kyle, an artist/songwriter lingering at Pigeon Point between stages of his journey.  The conversation flowed around me. i made occasional interjections and laughed at some of the funniest unintentional one-liners that I’ve heard in a Hunter’s moon.

I meant to photograph sunrise on my birthday, but the low mist clinging to the sea impeded the task.  Instead I started a pot of coffee and assumed my spot with a view of the ocean to the west. I watch the light slowly rise across the endless expanse of the sea.  One by one the resident tribe emerged from the dorm rooms.  Some accepted my offer of coffee.  Others made their tea.  A woman working as a substitute teacher in Half Moon Bay slipped away before anyone but me had awoken.  I watched her form pass by the window, my heart heavy with the knowledge that she bore a shroud of sorrow on her narrow shoulders.

Then the noise started.  Jung from China, Genevieve from Australia, Rosario from Sicily by way of New York, Devon from Vancouver, Marc from Switzerland, Lauren from Houston — each of them with a different drive that brought them to this way stop.  Fruit fell into bowls; eggs onto plates.  Plans began to emerge.  People disclosed their departure times and exchanged e-mails.

Devon brought out a game which he acknowledged inventing.  Intrigued, we opened the box of Fluster and began learning more about each other.  Pledging to honestly answer the questions posed by each card, we let our defenses slip as travelers do in the anonymous realms — hostels, hotels, the Internet.  Our revelations weakened our facades as they strengthened our connections.  We determined that more rounds would be needed — but in the evening, over glasses of contraband wine in the comfort of Dolphin’s living room.

Genevieve mentioned that she intended to see redwoods.  As I had the same journey in mind, we joined forces. We compiled a cooler of assorted food and set off for the woods above Pescadero.

The sensation of walking among ancient trees and sharing the events of one’s life with someone whom one does not know has no compare.  By the end of the afternoon, I had acquired a friend.  We ate our lunch straddling a fallen tree, feeding broccoli to a squirrel in accidental defiance of the anti-crumb rule.  The squirrel did not seem to mind.

We came down from the mountain and spent an hilarious hour looking for Gen’s keys in the hostel parking lot.  A few minutes after the AAA guy had opened her car, the keys materialized in my little bag.

Then the young folks grouped around the campfire, spent an hour in the hot tub under the stars, and gathered back in the kitchen.  We adjourned to the couches and opened the box of cards.  Questions got asked.  Disclosures eased from one or the other of the company.  Revelations stilled us and drew gasps.  We murmured our understanding.  We interjected our agreement or dispute.  Genevieve identified her superpower as being able to identify someone by the sight of their hands, and we tested her ability.  She proved herself to our great delight.

At 11:00, the manager came into the building.  He gave mild rebuke for the forbidden fruit of the vine but forgave us when I mentioned the anniversary of my birth.  He cautioned us to whisper lest we disturb others.

The gathering soon ended.  We carried dishes into the kitchen and Devon set himself to washing.  We dispersed to our rooms, and then to our beds.  In the female dorm, I spoke with Jacqueline, a late arrival who had not played our game.  she told me that her work brought her to California.  I asked, of course, what she did.  She disclosed that she trained grief counselors and had been retained to help with survivors of the Carr Fire in Redding.  I felt a sense of awe which I shared with her.  You meet the best people in a hostel.

Gen came to the room and we wished each other good night.  I shut off the lights, even the red ones provided for sleeping.   Quiet descended.  Soon the sound of the ocean filled the air.  I slid into a happy sleep.

It’s the sixth day of the fifty-seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.


The Walking Stick

Years ago, I read a novel about a young museum curator with a disability.  Oh, that’s not completely true.  I did not read the entire novel; I read the “Reader’s Digest Condensed Books” version of it. Moreover, the word “disability” had not yet been coined.  She described herself as “crippled”.

In the story, the woman met a man who seduced her into believing that she was beautiful.  He made vague love to her in the way of novels.  You inferred a lot from the veiled references.  Over time, she grew to believe in his affection.  The walking stick with which she had navigated her days fell into disuse, idle in a corner.

Then, of course, the entire charade crumbled.  The museum for which she worked and about which she had been rather more free than prudent in her pillow talk suffered a devastating  robbery.  The fellow disappeared from her life.  She realized her immense folly in believing herself to be loved and lovable.  At the end of the story, she grasped the walking stick and resumed her tentative wobble through her days.

After I read this novel, I became obsessed with insuring that I never used a cane to ambulate.  At the same time, a creeping nugget of fear began to germinate deep in my soul.  You might see that fear as self-pity, but if you did, you would be over-simplifying the complicated relationship which I have with my immutable imperfection.

As the differences between how my body worked and how the bodies of other females work became more marked, I began to notice that people, both men and women, responded with caution to me.  This observation first asserted its little gnaw into my awareness early, and deepened as I entered adulthood.  I talked about it with my mother late one night.  The conversation sticks with me to this day.  She urged me to ignore the tauntings and jeerings of young boys who followed me down the street.  But she also gave practical advice.  She vouchsafed that no one would ever want to marry me.  She told me to be sure to get a college degree and pursue a meaningful career.  She actively discouraged my pursuit of a writing career; in her mind, it would not afford me the kind of support that I would need as a single woman with “a walking problem”.

Yet she must have had hopes that her prediction would fail.  During her last illness, she made a teddy bear like ones she  had made for her grandchildren, so that if I did have a child at some point, he or she could have a teddy bear “from Grandma Corley”.

As I aged, doctors urged me to use “an ambulatory device”.  In all honesty, doing so poses practical difficulties because of the peculiarities of my CNS deficit.  Coordinating a stick challenges me.  I’ve told doctors this and they shake their heads.  Physical therapists seem to understand but those pesky neurologists caution me every time to employ some device for stability.

I know my resistance has stronger underpinnings than the near-impossibility of coordinating yet another appendage which does not communicate with my brain.  The cane took on its putrid symbolism when I read that novel, fifty years ago.  Like the woman whose false lover coaxed her into taking his arm to stroll down the city streets, I saw the cane as symbolizing eternal solitude.  Others see it as simply a device that might prevent falls and corresponding breaks, and I understand their consternation with my resistance.  But still:  that’s how I feel.

I brought a walking stick with me to the coast for this visit.  I’ve had to use it more recently, since I live in a park with gravel roads and a meadow with uneven ground.  My recent hospitalization and corresponding procedure weakened me; I have been tentative in my recovery and admitted that even with the awkwardness of coordinating the device, I would be safer.

Yesterday, I went exploring in the area near the hostel where I am staying.  I found a state park and walked in the forest.  I sat on a bench provided by the parents of a man whom the commemorative plaque described as dying at age thirty-five.  The tribute noted that he had found peace in the surrounding woods.  I sat on the bench and wondered about his life.  What personal challenges plagued him, that he needed such intense silence in order to calm his soul?

Later in the day, I felt the need to walk.  I had treated myself to a restaurant meal and it weighed heavily in my stomach.  But my legs felt wobbly, so I did not wish to wander far from the hostel and potential help.  I found a narrow path amid the ice plants on the bluff overlooking the cove.  I followed the trail to its end, where its creator had formed a switchback to meet itself and carry the walker back to the point of beginning.

I walked the length of it and returned.  I used the cane.  I could not have completed the journey without its support.

When I logged into social media  today, a plethora of birthday greetings overwhelmed  me.  The slowness of the internet access here inhibited my easy response to all of them.  But I felt appreciated.  I felt honored.  I felt loved.

In my e-mail inbox, I found a survey from the ME/CFS clinic at Stanford which treats my viral condition.  I don’t usual complete those surveys because the questions do not feel authentic.  They seem to be geared to the person who lies helpless in her bed, succumbing to the overwhelming fatigue which this virus inflicts on its hosts.  But I know that the research helps myself and other patients, so I went out to the page and answered the clumsy queries.

One or two questions aimed to determine how isolated patients with ME/CFS feel.  Asked to rate the applicability of each statement to your own feelings, you have a choice of gradation between “This is true of me” to “This is not true of me”.  One of the statements said, “When I am surrounded by people, I do not feel that they are with me.”  I did not hesitate to click the most definite agreement.  Then I thought of the walking stick and the woman who wanted to desperately to believe that she could be the object of someone’s desire and affection.  I reflected on that yearning for a few moments.   I went back to Facebook and read a few more of my birthday greetings.

Then I poured myself another cup of coffee and went to stand by the window.  The voice of my Pacific called to me.  I let myself get lost in her song.

It’s the fifth day of the fifty-seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.



The voices of travelers drift into the living room.  I’ve put my nose into a novel, one translated from its original Norwegian.  I still find myself drawn to crime fiction but I can’t abide clumsy writing, so I venture further away from American shores.

But this shore, the Pacific, holds me.  Her voice calls when I come into the kitchen before the other occupants of the dorm awaken.  I raise the window to let the air flow around me.  I lean down and draw the deepest breath imaginable.  A bird calls, the sharp notes rising over the eternal song of the sea.

I struggled with a bout of self-pity just before dawn.  I wanted to cross the parking lot and climb to the eastern point.  I had in mind to photograph sunrise over the small cove at the base of the park.  The realization that my clumsy legs would not make the trip angered me.  As I struggled from the bunk, other maladies asserted themselves into my day, sad reminders of my body’s vulnerability to careless treatment.

I hastened from the room, made my way to the kitchen and started coffee.  I stood at the window and willed myself to hear the ocean’s voice.  Letters which I wanted to write, accusations which I longed to hurl across the miles fell away.  I needed only to heed the call of my Pacific to release those urges.  That which occurred cannot be undone; that which has not yet happened can still be shaped.  My feet can walk any path.

The first pungent pull of dark coffee rolled on my tongue.  As the light rose in the long stretch of western sky, my spirit settled.  The house remained silent around me but outside, the eternal reassurance of the mother sea called from her shores —  I am here.  I am here.  Fear not.  I am here.

It’s the fourth day of the fifty-seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Looking, Seeing

I owe my desire to capture the phenomenal sights of the coast to the three photographers who have most inspired me.  Penny Thieme, Scott Anderson, and Genevieve Casey turn their lenses to the world, creating breathtaking images.  I will never attain the level of artistic sophistication that I admire, but I enjoy the process.  I yearn to see the essence of what I behold. I hope you will take pleasure in the results.

It’s the third day of the fifty-seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

To My Son, On the Anniversary of My Birth

We need our anniversaries.  They serve as guideposts so we can evaluate our lives.  We have endured another year.  We have navigated the murky waters flowing from then and bringing us to now.  Each of our anniversaries evokes a version of the emotions which the initial event drew from us.  The grief, the joy, the horror, the glee.  What we felt then flows back into our conscious selves, morphed though it might be: Rounded stones worn smooth by the flow of water or sharp splinters dashed against the concrete and left to pierce the tender skin of our timid steps.

But our birthday draws special memories because we mint the symbolism.  We accumulate milestones of promises we make ourselves.  “I’ll finish college before I’m 21,” we vow.  “I’ll get my PhD  before 30.”

Marry before I’m legal to drink.

Make my first million before forty.

I broke most of the commitments which I made to myself.  I won’t recite them.  I’ve forgotten most of them.  I remember a few, of course; but they would bore you as intensely as they trouble me.  It does not matter, really; the only importance of these plans is in their making, and in how we handle our disillusionment if we fail.

I truly cannot recall if this is my third birthday spent at Pigeon Point Lighthouse or my fourth.  The sea stretches beyond the dark horizon.  I could not see the sun set for the low mist.  Pale grey deepened to indigo.  We had no other sign.  Now I sit in my customary chair in the corner of the kitchen.  I’ve raised the window.  I can hear the voice of my Pacific.  She reminds me that time passes but she remains, steadfast, nurturing, calm.

I think about my son as the anniversary of my birth nears.  If I could turn back time, I would urge him to take greater risks.  I would let the tether go and encourage him to float.  I thought I had given him the gift of license, but now I am not so sure.  Whether or not I met the challenge which I set for myself of encouraging him to roam, I would do so with even greater force.  If I could turn back time.

If I could turn back time, I’d tell him more about the beauty and less about the bogey man.  I would quiet my own fears with a firmer hand.  In fact, looking back, I daresay that I should have spoken not at all of my own terrors.  Those of childhood loom large enough.  I prided myself on being strong despite the suffering which I had endured.  As I stand on the bridge of today looking back into the misty depths of yesteryear, I realize that I wore my pride rather more proudly than might have been prudent.

If I could turn back time, I would have made some practical changes too.  When I headed north from Arkansas back to Missouri, I would have turned right at the interstate and replanted my son and myself in St. Louis.  I had the great privilege of spending  my childhood among people related to me by blood.  I denied that to my son.  He had a whole plethora of cousins in St. Louis, but I strapped him into his car seat and drove us and our belongings back to Kansas City from which I had more recently come.

I know why I avoided St.Louis.  Though I pretended to be drawn back to Kansas City for a job, I could have gotten one just as easily four hours east.  My true motivation lay in a misguided belief that returning to St. Louis meant admitting defeat.  It didn’t matter.  Everyone knew the extent to which I had faltered.  In fact, they loved me anyway, and would more than likely have welcomed my son and me in that unique way that only family knows.

If I could turn back time, I’d get more help with raising my son, more often, and more willingly.  I would ask more questions, of more diverse people, and listen to their advice.  I might even follow what they recommended.  In the very least, I would make note of it, and weigh their suggestions against my own instincts.

What did I know of children?  I gave birth two months before my 36th birthday.  I had three and a half decades of living outside of parenthood.  My only information came from an alcoholic father, a desperate mother, and distant siblings who seemed too perfect for me to even approach in performance.   I did not fear falling short of their excellence so much as being exposed for the fraud that I knew myself to be.

If I could turn back time, I would set the calendar long before my son’s birth.  In fact, I might turn the clock all the way back to my own.  Labor Day, 1955.  I would set the clock for a minute before 9:05 p.m., the exact hour when I eased myself from my mother’s practiced body.  I would start my own life anew.  I would live with more grace, and more joy, and more serenity. I would eat more chocolate, climb more trees, and stand more often in the spring rains with my face lifted heavenward.

Every year as my birthday approaches  I find myself yearning to write a letter to my son.  This longing first rose in my breast in 1998.  I had been given six months to live on Valentine’s Day that year, and I had not expected to celebrate my 43rd birthday.  Because of a shrewd and confident infectious disease specialist, I surprised everyone but him by living.  However, as September approached, the outcome of his treatment had not yet been assured.  I still feared that my son would be an orphan before Christmas.

So I composed a letter to him, though I did not give it to him.  As I recall that first missive had far too much rank sentiment.  In fact, anything I could say would be so maudlin even now that a twenty-seven year old young man might judge my words to be unreadable.

If I could write the perfect letter to my son on the anniversary of my birth, I would tell him that giving birth to him evoked in me an extraordinary sense of wonder. But I had so little faith in my ability to nurture him that I sometimes fled outside in the night and wrapped my arms around myself.  I scolded myself.  I bargained with the Universe to keep on track.  I did not trust myself.  I did not believe in myself.

I believed in my son, though.  I had faith in his resilience, his humor, his gentleness, and his intelligence.  Even today, I turn to my son for an explanation of anything which confounds me.  I think he got his cleverness from my brother Frank.  Wherever that gene originated, my son received it.  I saw the keenness of his mind, and I relied on it.  I rely on it still.  I often fear that doing so places an unreasonable burden on him, but nonetheless, I do.

I have written dozens of letters to my son. My words seem feeble.  I want to tell him to sing more often, and to take more chances, and to  put aside any fears that he might have.  I want to urge him to embrace the virtues which I see in him, and to forgive any mistakes that he might believe he has made.  Of all my failures, not forgiving myself casts the deepest shadow.

Tomorrow I will walk on the cliff above the Pacific and contemplate what I can say to my son on the anniversary of my birth.  I’ll be sixty-three on Wednesday. For twenty-seven years, I’ve been searching for the right words to give him.  Perhaps the sea can tell me.  I am prepared to listen.

It’s evening, on the second day of the fifty-seventh month, of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.



I took the Cabrillo HIghway beyond Pigeon Point Road, bound for Whale City Bakery and breakfast. I had come through a heavy layer of mist in San Mateo, a rolling bank of fog to which the ashes of a thousand Redding homes clung with a desperate vigor.  The Carr Fire, the Mendocino Fire, even the nasty little brush fire that tortured the foothills in Vacaville — these all raged for so long that our very astmosphere hangs thick with the debris of their destruction.

Highway 92 took me through Half Moon Bay and onto  Route 1.  I floated south, nodded to the lighthouse, and pulled into the parking lot of the seaside restaurant at ten o’clock, just three hours after leaving the Delta.

I can’t say anything good about my breakfast or my waiter, so I will mention only that a painfully sweet woman in a shiny transfer wheelchair admired my cane as I passed her table on the way to the accessible bathroom.  I stood online much longer than I desired, with just one restroom available to a flood of Labor Day tourists.  The same lady winked at me from her chair as I left.  Her care giver shook a weary head and smiled.  I paused outside long enough to wonder about their story and then got back into my car.

No one will believe that I spent a half hour photographing stained glass and statuary in the Catholic Church, but I have the pictures.  A woman came out and asked me where I lived.  I told her, “The Delta”, and she turned her head to one side and contemplated me for a few minutes.  Then she asked me from where I had come, as though I had the look of an out-of-state interloper.  I confessed as much, identifying Kansas City as my home town.  I didn’t go into the discrepancy between the first thirty years on the east side of the state and the next thirty.

Her face lit.  “My husband was from Arkansas,” she said.  I thought about that.  I couldn’t see the connection but I made one.  “My son was born in Arkansas,” I told her, and we had a moment before a woman with limp grey hair and a fancier walking stick than mine emerged from the back room.

“Enjoy the church,” the first lady instructed, and I said I would.  I asked her if my flash would be allowed.  I told her that my siblings would find my choice of tourist attractions sufficiently astonishing that I would need to send proof.

“Why?” she asked.  “What religion are you?”

I hesitated, then admitted that I had been raised Roman Catholic.  Again the tilt of her head.  She wondered outloud what I was now.  I gave her the only word that seemed to fit:  “A survivor.”

She went away without smiling again.

I drove the wrong way on Bonny Doon Road and found myself at the back door of Santa Cruz.  I didn’t care.  I needed batteries or a new flashlight, and gas.  I went into the CVS where a woman who looked exactly like my friend Susan Lynn Hogan told me that the only flashlights for sale in the entire store could be found behind the counter, safe from the nimble fingers of the local homeless population.

“They need to replenish their light source  often,” she explained.

With two more hours to squander before I could register at the hostel, I drove beyond it again, north this time, into Pescadero.  I had in mind a trip to the thrift store to find a computer bag more compact and lighter weight than the one I had brought.  I did.  For six dollars, I got a San Francisco Chronicle messenger bag.  I could not have been more pleased.

At the parking lot on the ocean at Pescadero, a bride patiently held her face beneath a make-up brush.  Her groom stood nearby, in a royal blue tuxedo and leather sandals.  I skirted around a Mini to snap a few pictures of the ocean, closing my eyes afterward to let myself luxuriate in the soft sea air.

Then, without so much as a careless thought, I made my way to Pigeon Point, to the hostel, to the lighthouse, to the rolling waves and the twinkle of Michael, the perennial steward of my retreat.  “Dude,” he said, from the roadway.  “You’re here for four nights!  I have your bed reserved!  Dude, what a state the world has gotten itself into, dude.”  He stopped for a minute, waiting for something, perhaps some thought in his head.

And then he said, “Happy birthday, Dude.”

I had come home.

It’s the second day of the fifty-seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.