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Many times I was sitting in the back of the red Oldsmobile Delta 88 as my father drove us to Grandma’s Christmas Eve. When I was a kid, it seemed to take forever to get there. When I was a kid, Meridian, on South Hill in Puyallup, was still lined with trees. I remember listing to Christmas music on KOMO AM 1000 on the way, and many times, to our delight, a special song would play. This song was ‘Stop the Cavalry’ – the version played by The Cory Band. This was a time before YouTube and MP3s. It was the time of the tape recorder. My Grandma got this song on tape, I listened to it many times, and just at the end you can hear the radio announcer say something like: “OK, you can stop recording now.”
Arriving at Grandma’s house we entered to the heavenly smell of cooking ribs. Spare ribs made in a stove top pressure cooker that made a loud whistle. From these ribs also came the best gravy that has ever existed in this universe. I had the gravy every Christmas Eve, but I don’t remember having the ribs until I was much older. (I spent many years of my youth being picky about meat.) When I finally did eat the ribs, I was upset with myself for all the years I missed out on eating those ribs. Eventually, the pressure cooker stopped working. It didn’t explode, it just quit. The ribs were still good, but never quite the same after that. I am planning to experiment making ribs in my Instant Pot, hoping to find something close.
The Christmas tree at Grandma’s house always had the big ceramic hot-like-hell lights, a big star on top, and a particular clip-on bird ornament with big eyes. This ornament is now on my tree, as well as others, to remind me of Christmas Eve Past. I have big colorful LED lights. They don’t get too hot and I don’t worry about my tree catching on fire.
Once I was older, after Grandpa was gone, I spent many years going with Grandma to get the Christmas tree. We would decorate the tree together. I remember a time she had me drive the truck to a place not too far from her house, Tom’s Greenhouse on 152nd street. Thankfully, we didn’t have to get on Meridian. We got there just fine and picked out our tree. A nice fellow sawed off the bottom and put it in the truck. As we were leaving, the truck died in the middle of the road. Grandma laughed. She said it had been doing that. She hadn’t mentioned it before we left. That is why she was laughing. We laughed about it for all the years to come.
Grandma was my rock. Her house was home base. I realized this as I was thinking about all the Christmas Eves Past. Thinking of all the other times coming home meant going to Grandma’s House. Now that our home base is gone, I hope we don’t lose our connection. A lesson I have learned in my 44 years is that instead of yearning for that perfect family to love the imperfect family that you’ve got.
Today is the day you would have turned 92. But, you didn’t want to. You told me about not wanting to live anymore, not seeing the point, not feeling useful, not being able to do the things you loved to do anymore. I told you it was okay to want to go. I told you about some of the times I’d heard this story before. I don’t know if anyone else told you it was okay to welcome death. We never talk much about these things. Sure…it is okay to welcome death…but just not yet, just a little longer, just a few more days or weeks or months. Just a little longer? No, the angel came for you on the day before my own birthday. You almost made it to my number 44. But, on March 22, the day before my birthday, just as I was arriving home from work, my phone rang. My phone indicating MOM was calling. I knew it was bad before I answered because MOM never calls my cell phone. It was Dad. So, I knew what it was before he told me but we chatted a bit about how’s it going before he blurted out “I’m calling to tell you Grandma died.”
I didn’t make it back down there. I was going to go back and take her somewhere for fun, for a drive, maybe to the water. I didn’t make it back down there. I never mailed the chocolate bar. I never opened the package of large envelopes that I intended to use to mail things for fun. I had thought she might enjoy getting something fun in the mail. She hadn’t really been enjoying life much for some time, since before Thanksgiving. Maybe even since the last broken hip. No more fishing at the river. No more climbing on the ladder to hang the suet. No more long car rides or camping trips. Life had become a trap in the home with steps at each exit and a hill down to the mailbox. Life had become dependent upon others for help with getting groceries, getting books, getting to the doctor.
She had a life of adventure and love of the outdoors. Working on the railroad. Dogsled racing in Alaska. Camping and fishing. Skiing. I have often wondered if she would have been happier had she never married a second time and had children. I wondered if she would have been happier with a life of adventure on her own. She told me once, that after going to Alaska, she realized she could have done it without getting married, she could have gone on her own. Of course, if she hadn’t met and married my grandfather later I wouldn’t exist. My father and aunt wouldn’t exist. I’m at the end of the line. My aunt didn’t have children, my father had only me. My grandmother was an only child. There may be some distant cousins descended from one of her aunts, but other than that, there is no one. So, if people die off oldest to youngest, I’ll be the last of the line from my grandmother and her mother. It is an odd thought, being the last.
Now I’ve started going to boxes of pictures. Old pictures. Thank you to the people who wrote names on the back of these photos. It answers the question: “Who the hell are these people?” Of course, some of them I recognize, some of them I only recognize the name. Some of them have no names and will remain a mystery. For many of them, after my death, it won’t matter if the name is written or not. We will all be gone then. That isn’t stopping me from looking through photos and trying to figure out the family tree. Wishing I had asked more questions. I started asking questions when it was too late.
Every year of my life, until now, my grandmother Marion has been alive for my birthday and her birthday. This year, she died. I know she was ready to go, wanting to go. She gave me golfing lessons (which I don’t recall being very excited about), she gave me skiing lessons (which was great!!!), she used to take the bones out of my fish at dinner, she bated my hook when we went fishing, she took me on camping trips many years ago when grandpa was still alive. We used to go to Northwest Trek to see the animals. We did a lot of fishing on rivers and at the lake. It was nice just to be outside, even if we didn’t catch anything. She and I tried to cheat playing pinochle but we weren’t very good at cheating and it usually backfired.
She liked making family dinners, right up until the end. I wasn’t present at that last dinner. My last memory with my grandmother was just she and I when I stopped by for a surprise visit. She wasn’t feeling well but was happy to see me. I’d asked her if she wanted to go for a drive. She said she didn’t feel up to it but maybe another time. I never made it back down for another time. I remember when I was younger and got into mountaineering, alpine scrambles. I remember she shared my excitement about this. She would ask, “Are you going mountaineering?” Yes, I’m going mountaineering. So today, I want to tell her: Yes, Grandma, I’m going mountaineering. Do you want to go with me?
Thinking about Cooper. Been gone almost three months now. Was with me for twelve years. Twelve years for the poor beast with an unstable leader. I got him from the humane society in Tacoma. His age estimated to be between one and two at the time. He never knew that he got older, although his body began to fail him near the end.
That first day when I met Cooper I played with him for a while in a small room at the humane society. I was in there with him for quite some time…so I went out the door with him, then he peed on the floor so we went back in. We waited for the humane society human to come back. Then I confessed it was him that peed. Of course, I took him home. In the car, Cooper got into the back seat but quickly moved to the front. Then, while driving home on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, he tried to get in my lap.
Cooper wasn’t a lap sized dog, but he didn’t seem to know that. He got in my lap and the laps of others many times. He liked to curl up on the old yellow chair that curved around. He once got into my whiskey barrel of plants, curling up and smashing them. I took a picture and it is still on my mother’s fridge. One time he got on a beach chair, did a few circles, and managed to lie down.
Cooper loved the water and sometimes the mud. I remember taking him to the dog park in the summer when I lived in Tacoma. He would run and run and run until he couldn’t run anymore. I knew when he was done because he wouldn’t give up the ball, he would just trot around with it. There was a concrete slab for the water bowl. Surrounding this slab was usually muddy water. Cooper would lie down in this muddy water to cool off, looking delighted with himself.
Walking with Cooper required much more effort than walking alone. Cooper easily walked twice as far as I did every time. This is due to his zig-zag-circle-around style of walking that seemed to be great fun for him but made me crazy and caused me to have more than one freak-out. I am not proud of my freak outs, but they did happen. One time I was so irritated with the dogs walking back down the trail from the hike up to Kendall Peak that I dropped the leashes (more like threw the leashes down in a fit of rage) and went ahead. Of course, I didn’t just leave them, there was another human with me to pick them up. As I said at the beginning, I was an unstable leader.
Taking Cooper to the water was great fun. The smell of the salt water would always make him start whining as we neared. The hike to the water usually made me feel a bit crazy but once we made it to the water, Cooper’s excitement and delight erased my irritation. He would run around to find a stick and drop it at my feet. Sometimes he tried to get a stick that was actually a small tree still in the ground that slid down the cliff at Point Defiance in Tacoma. Cooper would swim for the stick and sometimes decide it was time to bury the stick. Cooper would dig in the sand with both front paws at once, so happy to be digging. He loved digging almost as much as he loved the water. One time, looking out the kitchen window into the dog yard, I saw Cooper and our rat terrier, Spike, digging together. They were taking turns digging in the same hole. I didn’t holler at them to stop, I just watched their cooperative effort for a while. They were so happy to be digging.
I took Cooper to the beach for the last time late in the summer on a cloudy day. It was a good day since the beach is less crowded on a cloudy day in the morning. He was excited to go somewhere in the car. He didn’t go places much the past few years because I had to lift his back legs in and try to stop him from leaping out and falling over. This day at the beach, it took him a while to remember he liked the water. When he did remember, he was very happy and he did find a stick. I didn’t throw the stick very far because I didn’t want to have to go in after him. I remember thinking at the time, that it was probably his last trip to the beach. There were fighter planes circling, a few other beach walkers with kids and dogs and lots of birds. Cooper slept in the same position all the way home. He was exhausted.
There was a time in the late summer that I actually thought he was dying and I sat down on the ground with him. It turns out that he was probably drunk from eating too many fallen pears. It was a stroke that happened to Cooper in early October. It was a day I happened to have off work and the day he happened to have his routine geriatric dog visit scheduled at the vet. I managed to get him to walk down the ramp to the car but I had to get help to get him in. He managed to stand up on the ride in, he was happy to be in the car. Once at the vet I had them get a stretcher to take him in. In talking to the vet about his condition she said there was a chance he could recover. So, I took him back home, and gave him a chance.
He didn’t recover. He got a worse instead of better. But, he was still happy to sniff me and lick me and eat and drink. He couldn’t stand up or walk or control his bladder or stop his eyes from wiggling or keep his head from veering off to the left. I sat on the floor with him in the dog room for an hour or so. We shared a beer and went back to the vet in the afternoon. They placed blanket on the table so it would be warm and soft under the stretcher. They gave me a whole bag of treats to give him. He was happy eating some treats and licking my face until it was time to go. I felt his heart stop.
This animal was with me for twelve years. We rode all over the place together. He went camping up and down the west coast. He went to the top of several peaks in the Cascade Mountains. He slept with me during the year I spent alone. He went to the blessing of the animals during that year. The priest blessed him and told me that this dog would help bring me patience. Patience and more over the years. He has joined the animals that left before him. I like to think they welcomed him. I like to think he will also be there to welcome me.
For the past few Tuesdays I have met a goal of 10,000 steps by noon. I have also gotten up before 5:00 am and gone to the gym…on my day off. This may seem crazy but I really like the 5:30 am barbell class. Soon will be gone these Tuesdays. Next week I will start a new job. Monday through Friday. 8-5. No more weekdays off. Probably no more 10,000 steps by noon. Thankfully, I will still be able to go to the 5:30 am class.
On my walk that late morning that got me to the 10,000 steps I carried no phone. Just me, my Fitbit, my thoughts and the painless clicking of my left knee. No wallet. No ID. At one point I thought maybe the black VW that turned around at the end of the road and was planning to run me into the ditch. Then I would be dead in the ditch with no identification. The black VW did not run me into the ditch but turned onto a side street, driving slowly. I wondered…why turn around at the end of the road? Why drive so slow?
It was a foggy morning and it was cloudy until late afternoon. September nearing has now arrived. It already smells like fall. Sweet smells of overripe berries and fallen fruit along the side of the road. Some leaves are already changing color and falling from the trees. My garden is also falling over, sunflowers tipping onto the fence. Some of them seem to be hanging their heads while others are still smiling. Much of the garden is at its end. A few more potatoes to dig up and the tomatoes will keep going a while longer. The cucumbers are done, beans are done, peppers mostly picked. The pumpkins are turning orange and in many places the weeds have taken over. There are still some beets and the carrots can wait in the ground until I want to eat them. One new thing I have done this year is a second planting of lettuce, arugula and spinach. Hopefully, I will get more than the slugs.
This time of transition from one season to the next has come upon us abruptly this year. Suddenly cool and wet, the darkness is coming and my thoughts wander to Halloween and Thanksgiving. There is still much work to do in the garden and the kitchen to keep the harvest. I find myself wondering if it will stop raining long enough for me to roast the green chiles over charcoal outside. I wonder if I will do better this dark season since I will be going to the gym. Exercise really is a natural antidepressant, but I already miss the sun.