I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Family reunion at our parents' home 1982
Taken almost thirty years ago, this picture shows our family and many of its offspring. The top row starting on the left, Pete and Norma Jean, and then Bob and my sister Markee standing next to them. My sister PJ's then-husband Ken and her two sons Joey and Jason surround Allison and my sister Fia in the next tier. Finally, the bottom five are my brother Buz holding his daughter Trish, me, and those two gorgeous hunks in the front are Peter, Norma Jean's son, and my long-gone son Chris.

At this moment in the early morning hours, I sit typing with my trusty laptop in the home of Buz and my sister-in-law Phyllis. Sleeping in the next room are Norma Jean, Allison and her daughter Lexie. Buz and Phyllis are asleep in their bed with their two little dogs Pixie and Bella. Counting me, we are eight souls starting our Sunday in Texas, on our way to a huge gathering on Tuesday of the siblings and our clan. This is all happening because Norma Jean has come to Texas to see her family after Pete's passing last month.

It is also the third trip I've taken in four months, with the longest hiatus in Florida with Norma Jean just a few weeks ago. I'm almost getting used to waking in a strange bed at all hours. I had barely gotten accustomed to being home when it was time to leave again. Hopefully when I return home on Wednesday, I won't need to be going anywhere for a while.

I arrived on Friday and had a chance to be with Buz and Phyllis for a day before Norma Jean, Allison and Lexie arrived yesterday afternoon. I went to bed early last night as usual and woke before everyone else, although I hear little Lexie beginning to make her morning sounds, so my Sunday will soon be consumed with family. Until then, however, I am thinking about the meaning of family.

The camera captured a moment in time that looks solid and real, but none of the people in that picture exists as they were then. Markee and Bob are parents to three teenagers now, and beautiful blond Fia is a grandmother, as is Norma Jean, and Allison (red and white shirt) is in her forties and the mother of a beautiful daughter. My son Chris died in 2002 of a heart attack. Peter is in Florida at Norma Jean's house dog-sitting and making home repairs. It's interesting that the person in the extreme upper left and extreme lower right are no longer alive, and I will always miss them both. It can't be helped, that's the way life is.

Family is important to me, I guess to most of us. Not many these days have as many siblings as I do, which makes for an incredibly large extended family. Years ago before the advent of email and the digital age, we sent around a family letter, with pictures and a hand-written or typed letter from each of us. When it came in the mail, you took your old letter out, read everyone's contribution and added a new one. Mama was still alive then and she also contributed a letter. This went on for a few years, before Pete decided to put together an electronic newsletter with everyone's contribution. We enjoyed that until Buz made us a private family blog on Wordpress, which he cleverly called "Sixlings," and everyone kept in touch there until the entire family joined Facebook. I now keep track of my extended family in that environment, complete with pictures and marveling at the exploits of my grand-nieces and -nephews.

At 68, I feel very fortunate to have the love and support of my five siblings and their families. We are all well and healthy enough to be able to gather here in Texas to celebrate and appreciate this moment in time, which is just that, a moment in time. I will capture it in pictures and will look at it in years to come, remembering this time and place, which will have moved on. My heart is full to overflowing with gratitude for this opportunity.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reunion on the horizon

I'm not exactly sure when this picture of me with my five siblings was taken, but I know Norma Jean had just rescued Radar, the dog in her arms, a month or so before. That should help to date the picture. It might be the last time we were all together, or not. It was a while ago. It might be in 2002 when we got together at Thanksgiving after my son Chris had died, but then again, maybe not. This time next Sunday, I will be in Texas and we will all be in close proximity once again. On the 29th, we will have a reunion at a restaurant in the area. Of course there will be plenty of cameras around, mine included.

In December of 2008, we were all in Texas except for Norma Jean. She and Pete stayed in Florida, and the rest of us gathered to walk a half marathon together. My sister Markee instigated that trip, and it was a good one in many respects. It sparked my desire to find a way here in Bellingham to find some sort of exercise that would require concerted effort over several hours. I found the Senior Trailblazers, which now provide a high point in my life, with every Thursday reserved for our hikes. In the winter we stay close to Bellingham, but in the summer months we carpool up to the Mt. Baker wilderness. We start at 8:00 in the morning and are sometimes not home before 4:00 pm or even later. I'm always tired and renewed at the same time. I treasure the friends I've made, as well as the familiarity with the beautiful mountains so close by. And it all started because of the need to train for a half marathon.

The three weeks I spent in Florida have now settled into their place in my memory, although Norma Jean and I spend a fair amount of time with the video chat feature we have on our iMacs. Now that I've been there, when we visit on line, I know exactly where she is and can easily slip myself into the room with her. I usually wait until I know she's got a glass of wine (it's three hours later there) and I can enjoy being with her at the beginning of her evening. Technology has changed things so much. It's almost as if I were sitting in the room with her, and even though our hugs are virtual, our tears are not. We can laugh and cry together for as long as we want.

My heart aches for her losses. Yesterday she cleaned up the motorcycle on which the three of them spent all those many hours and days together, in preparation for selling it. They covered somewhere around 70,000 miles on that motorcycle in just a few short years, and now Norma Jean is the only one left behind. She is struggling to find her way and figure out what she wants, for the first time in more than four decades. Or even more, really, since I remember telling her what she wanted as her big sister. And I felt I knew the answer, better than she knew herself.

I was a bossy person back then, always thinking I knew the answers to everything. My world was colored in bright certainty, with no shades of subtlety. I didn't even know the meaning of nuance. I can't help but cringe a little as I look back at the confident and imperious person I was then. I've grown, no doubt about it, and a lot of that growth has been accompanied by the pain of self-knowledge. Slowly, over the years and decades, I have come to realize there is truly no way one person can know what is good and right for another.

Norma Jean gradually morphed from being a shy and reticent teenager into the assertive, competent and powerful person she is today. She did that without my influence, too. She raised two wonderful kids and dealt with a creative and (in some ways) difficult husband. I know Pete would agree with that statement. And now she stands on the threshold of a new life. Next week's reunion is the last obligation she has to make to her family, as we gather next week to honor Pete's influence in our lives and open our hearts to our sister. I love you, Norma Jean.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Reentry and change

Thich Nhat Hanh
My life is beginning to return to normal, after a fashion. There are permanent changes but they are not yet fully integrated into my mind and heart.

While I was in Florida, I was reading Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Peace Is Every Step: the Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. It is a deceptively simple book, but it calmed me and I spent some time thinking about the interconnectedness of all life. I am still reading the book, curiously unwilling to be done with it. He talks about "bells of mindfulness," seeing a red light when you are driving as a bell to remind you to return to the present moment, or any sound or light as a reminder to become peaceful. He is an 84-year old Vietnamese monk who has fascinated me for years. So nonviolent that he would not even strike a bell, he says he invites the sound of the bell to come out. You can see that in the picture. Whatever he is doing, he does it with his entire being.

I miss my sister much more than I thought I would, but it surprises me that I am so surprised. We started our lives together, and whenever we are in close proximity, our thoughts and lives begin to merge. It was so wrenching to be in the airport and start the process of moving away from her, away from our life of the past three weeks. The first few nights I woke in confusion, wondering where I was, but that has faded as I've gotten back into my usual routine and reconnected with my partner. I have also had the chance to video chat with Norma Jean and find it very much more comforting, now that I've spent so much time with her, it allows me to feel really connected.

As I wrote on my other blog, I had the thyroid biopsy on Friday and, although it wasn't exactly pleasant, it is done and behind me now. Next week I will hear what they found and am hoping for good news. The practice of mindfulness and coming to terms with my fear has also been helping me integrate the experience. Today I think I'll go to the Y and swim laps in the pool, hoping that I will be able to add that exercise to my current practice of aerobic classes, hiking, and walking. It will also allow me to feel connected to Norma Jean in yet another way.

In less then two weeks I will travel to Texas to be with my family for five days, and I'll see Norma Jean, Allison and Lexie again. It will be the first time that all six of us siblings will be together since 2002, when they all came at Thanksgiving after my son Chris had died. We will be having a family reunion of sorts, with such an extended group there will be some who won't be present, but the "sixlings" will all be there. My sister Markee is flying in from Alberta without her family, just to see Norma Jean again and allow us all to be together. As the oldest, me, is nearing seventy, I hope that it won't be the last time. It's amazing that although both of our parents died in their sixties, we are all still here. I am grateful.

I can hear rain outside, just a light patter, nothing like the huge rains I saw in Florida. Yesterday, however, when I thought about going on the Saturday walk, it was a downpour with a howling wind. I decided to skip it, since I was also still feeling quite sore from Thursday's long hike with the Trailblazers. Today, after a good night's sleep, I finally feel rested and raring to go. After this Sunday morning meditation, my world feels bright with possibility.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Creatures of habit

It's amazing to me that I got up this morning and talked with Norma Jean over coffee for an hour or so, read my usual blogs through Google Reader, went to the pool and swam 36 lengths, came home and took the dogs for a walk, all without even the slightest recollection of the fact that it's Sunday morning and I hadn't written my usual post here on the Eye! Here's why:
Norma Jean with Babe and Chester
We not only have adopted a dog for Norma Jean (Babe), but she has taken in a dog as a foster mom, Chester, a "junk yard" chihuahua (meaning mostly chihuahua but with something else mixed in). Babe is just under ten pounds, and Chester is just over. They fill the house with love, and wait in the window when we go outside and howl with delight when Norma Jean drives up after going out for errands.
Although you can't see it in this picture, both tails are wagging with anticipation of her return. It makes both her and me happy to see the life added to this house. When Allison and Lexie left last Monday, we decided on Tuesday to head to the pound to rescue a dog and returned with Babe. I wrote about it here.

We grew up with dogs and cats all around us, and although I have owned cats in the past, Smart Guy never had any pets during his childhood. When I started skydiving, I spent so much time away from home that it never occurred to me to become a pet owner. But Norma Jean has always had a dog, and although she really grieves over the loss of each one, she gains a huge amount of enjoyment from their unconditional love. When I return home Tuesday, I realize that the feeling of pet ownership I feel now will fade away as the plane takes off and I turn my thoughts toward home. Maybe one day I will own a cat again, but not while I'm feeding the wild birds!

The real benefit I've received here, other than connecting with Norma Jean again during this terribly hard period, is learning to use swimming as a form of exercise. As I swam in the pool this morning,  I realized the true meditative aspect as I breathed out my nose into the water and in through my mouth as I took a breath every other stroke. Even counting laps is meditative. I was able to swim 36 lengths, a true half mile, before stopping and getting into the hot tub. I wrote about my breakthrough in swimming laps here.

My visit has been beneficial in other ways, too. Learning to be with my sister as an adult, I flashed a few times on the two of us walking the dogs this morning. I saw a possible future of us together as little old ladies with our swimming and our doggies living in a retirement community like so many seniors do. But of course I still have Smart Guy around, and if genetics has anything to say about it, he will outlive me by many decades.

Which makes me think of the thyroid biopsy I will have when I return home. Before I write in here next, I will have it behind me. The appointment is on Friday the 11th. Although they didn't consider a biopsy before, once they did a second ultrasound, I received a call from the doctor's office suggesting it. Fortunately I have the ability to see the results of the ultrasound on line, and once I read it and noticed the word "hypoechoic" describing the nodule, I of course looked it up online. It means that the largest nodule sends a different sort of echo in the ultrasound and so they will follow up with a biopsy. This means I will know without any doubt what is going on with my thyroid. So I should be happy but I am a bit apprehensive.

I think it will be a little lonely here once I leave, but the doggies will help immeasurably, and in less than a month we will all be together again in Texas for a few days to have a family reunion. This was promised when the family decided not to descend on Florida after Pete died. I will leave Washington again on March 25 for five days to attend, and then I will probably not travel anywhere too far away for a while. I need to rediscover my own beautiful part of the country, as well as reconnect with a certain missing element in my life, my partner.