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, February 23, 2014

Beginning my last skydiving season

Sandra, Hollis, Dana, Frankie, me, Louise: SOS record holders
Another Sunday rolls around. This morning I'm sitting in bed with snow falling gently outside the window. I peeked when I got up to make my tea, since I knew it was predicted for our area last night, and it's not much, actually, maybe two or even three inches on the ground. The temperature is right at freezing, so it probably won't make the roads all that bad.

I agonized over the decision about whether or not to get my skydiving gear in date and get ready for another season. Last April I went to a Skills Camp in southern California at Lake Elsinore, and last October I attended a record attempt for Jumpers Over Seventy in the same place. I met so many wonderful people at both of those events that I decided to go ahead and attend this year, once again. Although the majority of the people at this event will stay for the SOS record attempt (Skydivers Over Sixty), I will only attend the camp to get myself current for the much-smaller Women's SOS record. Last year six of us set a record, and this year I'm looking forward to being with my peers once again.

It's the only reason I'm going, actually. I've really enjoyed my years of skydiving, and I know that I have had more than my share of thrills and chills in the sport. I thought I would quit when I turned seventy, and then I attended that event last year and had so much fun and learned a great deal. I made fifteen skydives there last year, and made another forty at Skydive Snohomish over the summer season. I was happy to hang up my gear for the fall and winter and wondered if I'd ever use it again. For the first time in 22 years, I let my gear go out of date over the winter. (This means that the reserve parachute has not been inspected and repacked by a certified rigger.) I'll rectify that on March 8th, when I will attend Safety Day at Skydive Snohomish. I'll take my gear there and leave it so that it can be in date when I fly to southern California in early April.

I am truly ambivalent. So much has happened in my life during the past year, and skydiving has occupied only a small, peripheral part of it. There was a time when my weeks and months revolved around the weekends when I could skydive, but that's a long time ago now. It's been more than six years since I stopped teaching it, and I can hardly imagine that person who I was then, who looked forward to teaching a dozen people at Saturday's First Jump Course and then taking some of them out for a skydive. Who thought nothing of making twelve to fifteen skydives in a weekend! Who would return to work on Monday morning feeling well satisfied and just a little tired.

Yes, we all slow down, and our values change. I've gone on many wonderful hikes during the past year with people who have become dear friends. I've got the pictures to prove it, and we continue to enjoy the outdoors and each other's company. I lost one of my siblings this month, and I gathered with my remaining family to celebrate her life. Some of those people whom I hike with are dealing with health issues of their own, and they come and go from one week to the next. Amy is dealing with vertigo and announced that she will not be hiking with us until she gets better, although what is causing it is still unknown. I will miss her, but I know that there is the possibility of her return, and that makes me happy. That's not the case with PJ: since she was not part of my everyday life, I forget now and then that she is gone. And then I'll think of the last few weeks and remember anew.

As one of my blogging friends reminded me, grief is a process. Sharing my loss is part of what helps me heal, as I realize that it also is what I am beginning to do with my skydiving career. If you had told me twenty years ago that I would still be jumping in my seventies, I would not have believed it. I am trying to let it go before I end up getting hurt. And then I'd be required to stop and not by my own choice, but by having held on too long and not having listened to my own inner wisdom.

Spring is right around the corner now. It's the end of February and next Saturday, the first day of March, I'll attend a play with my friend Judy. The next day will be the Oscars, and I'll enjoy watching and admiring the gowns, hoping that my favorites will take home the statue. The following Saturday is Safety Day at Snohomish, and in early April I'll fly to southern California. The above picture reminds me that it's also WARM there, and I should come back with a bit of California sunshine on my cheeks. Not to mention many memories to cherish. It's a bit different now that I really do think it's my last season, so I'll be hugging my friends and savoring every last little drop of their presence.

Re-reading all this and thinking about how my plans are laid out for the near future, I realize that is all they are: just plans. And we all know about the best-laid plans, right? The quote is from an old Scots poem by Robert Burns: "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry," text from the poem To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with a Plough. I enjoyed reading the entire poem when I went looking for some information about it. That's where the link takes you.

And then again, sometimes our plans come to fruition and we look back with joy and happiness at them, glad we made the leap. Well, in my case anyway, I would be leaping from an airplane. Here's to another wonderful spring and summer ahead! (Lifting my cup of tea and offering a toast to the possibility.)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Back home, recovering from travel

Norma Jean, PJ, and me
At the celebration of PJ's life, the slide show of pictures of PJ's 63 years also included a few where Norma Jean and I were included. This one brought back memories of an Easter Sunday when we were in southern California visiting our paternal grandmother and Daddy's older brother and sister-in-law. Mama made our sweaters and probably our dresses too. PJ was born in March, so she was either two or three (I think two), Norma Jean seven, and me nine and looking to be right at the end of childhood's journey. All gangly and awkward.

It's painful to think of Mama working so hard to have us look so perfectly turned out, because it meant, in my memory, that she was anxious and requiring her children to be impeccable, and I was anything but. Daddy took the picture using his camera and Kodachrome, which he probably didn't develop himself. He was a bit of a camera buff, and when we were growing up he had his own darkroom for developing his black-and-white pictures. I remember once when he let me stay inside in the darkroom during the development process. The smell of the chemicals was very strong, and I was careful not to disturb anything. Maybe Daddy hoped I would want to become a photographer.

Not long after that, I was given my first camera, a Brownie, which used 127 film and advanced the film by turning a knob on the top of the camera. If you didn't advance it, the camera would simply take another image on top of the previous one. I ended up taking quite a few pictures with that camera and wonder where they all ended up. I don't think any of them have survived. Of course, it was partly because we were a military family and moved every few years for most of the time I was growing up. One period, when Daddy was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, we stayed for quite a few years. PJ was born there, and this picture is from that time period.

In many ways I wish I had taken up photography at that time, because then I would have preserved many memories that are simply gone forever. When I look at that picture, I can remember that back yard and the time we spent there, even though it's more than half a century ago. Now that everything is digital, and film has gone the way of the horse and buggy, I have plenty of pictures. Not many of them are ever printed, but I could if I wanted. I've got numerous albums on my computer, some filled with old scanned pictures from the past, and many taken since we moved here, six years ago.

How quickly time passes. It's been six years since I retired from my job, and I culled my belongings, getting rid of much of the detritus of everyday life that I felt I no longer needed. This is a habit I developed as I was growing up, knowing that when we would move to a new location, I would only be able to take a small part of my previous life along with me. Some people are born and grow up in one place, and I can only imagine what that would be like.

When my father retired from the Air Force, the family moved to Fort Worth and bought a home on Lake Worth. My three youngest siblings all had the advantage of growing up in one place, while the three older ones didn't. They were all young enough to start school there, and they had the same childhood friends throughout their entire lives. I can hardly imagine it, and they are my siblings.

Some of PJ's childhood friends were present at the celebration of her life. They were strangers to me, because I had left home before Mama and Daddy had moved into their lake home. Of course I visited, and once when I was experiencing a particularly bad time in my life, I lived in Fort Worth for several months and even got a job in a downtown office. I remember that I was required to wear dresses, no pantsuit allowed, along with  heels and hose every day. My brother and his friend Victor and I decided to take evening karate classes during this time, and Victor, who came to PJ's memorial, reminded me of that time. It must have meant a great deal to him; I had completely forgotten it until he mentioned it.

As I sit here in the dark, partner asleep next to me, laptop throwing light into the room, I think back over the past few weeks. When I decided to travel to Florida for a ten-day vacation, I had no idea what would really transpire during that time. I was sitting here in this bed at this same time two weeks ago when the phone rang, and it was Norma Jean telling me that PJ had died. Last Sunday when I wrote my post, I was in Buz's home and we had gathered the day before to say goodbye to my sister PJ. Now I am back in my own environment, one that is familiar and reassuring, and the past week is beginning to fade.

With all the turmoil, I caught a cold and am recovering. My sore throat is beginning to let up a little, and the sneezing and coughing are at a minimum. I slept last night without taking any cold medication and think I've turned the corner. Although I am still not completely well, I am taking good care of myself; my diet is back to normal and all my favorite foods are in the fridge, thanks to Smart Guy. By this time next week, when I'm hopefully sitting here writing, the cold should be a memory along with all that has transpired in the past few weeks.

Until then, please take care of yourselves, and I'll do the same, I promise. And don't forget to give your loved ones a hug, or a phone call, because you just never know...

Sunday, February 9, 2014

My sister PJ

Patricia June Stewart Merrill 1950–2014
Yesterday we held a Celebration of Life for my sister PJ. I learned many things about her that I didn't know, and was reminded of other aspects of her life that although I did know, I had forgotten about. My two sisters Markee and Fia, along with PJ's sons Joey and Jason, arranged this event and I have to say it was just about perfect in every aspect. We laughed, we cried, we shared, and we began the healing process.

PJ's eldest son gave a eulogy in the form of a letter he had written to his mother, which he read to us while interjecting little asides that usually brought us to laughter. Then we were treated to a slide show with pictures of her life, pictures we all contributed, with the addition of a hilarious video that her son Joey took many years ago of PJ and her husband Stewart, who didn't know they were being recorded as they sat in a photo booth mugging for the camera. The venue for this event, Lucas Funeral Home, was packed, standing room only, with people from PJ's life who began to come forward to share their favorite memories of her. I have been to other events like this where a half dozen people might share, but a long string of people whose lives PJ had touched or changed walked up to the podium and told stories about her for over an hour.

I already knew that PJ had a strong Christian faith and that she always took the side of the downtrodden and unfortunate, but I didn't realize how it all played out in her life, until yesterday. Before she got sick, she had worked for the past eleven years at Hub International Insurance, and her wonderful boss Anita came forward to tell us what Pat meant to her. (She was Pat to the rest of the world and PJ to her family.) She also gave us a copy of her remarks afterwards, with an excerpt here.
Pat started working for me at Hub International as my assistant April 15, 2003. ... She often stated that we must have been searching for each other for many years, and I felt the same about her. She obviously had the gift of gab and was a storyteller at heart, which reminded me of my dad. We were a little hesitant to hire Pat, thinking she might not be productive, considering how much time she would spend talking. We took our chances and found that she could be one of our most diligent workers, especially when it involved spreadsheets.
She said that PJ's initial interview lasted more than three hours and only stopped because it was late and time for dinner. PJ wanted to continue their conversation and suggested that they go out to eat together. This was their first meeting, and it was a job interview, which might give you an idea of how personable she was. The words "gift of gab" and "storyteller" were repeated over and over by those who spoke. That was PJ, all right: she could meet a person and become their best friend instantly.

Years ago, she and a lifelong friend, Belinda, started an organization, Head and Heart Foundation, to provide computer facilities for the disabled. I remember when they began this, because PJ had discovered a paralyzed young man, Travis. From the website:
Travis Bigham had been a young singer/ songwriter when he suffered a brain stem stroke which left him paralyzed and speechless. He had been given a life expectancy of just six months but lived on for twelve years with minimal mental stimulation. He had virtually turned his face to the wall, given up all hope and was relegated to the hospice program. With the help of Head and Heart founders [PJ and Belinda] and the financial backing of others, Travis acquired a computer system. He was then able to write short letters and poetry, express his most basic needs to his caregivers and even write music again. Subsequently, he was taken off the hospice program and, exceeding all expectations, lived five additional years!
When I think of the difference she made in just this one person's life, I know that her relentless persistence in the face of all odds is a hallmark of my sister's legacy. In family gatherings, she was able to persuade those of us who didn't particularly like to play games to participate, and there were many times when playing one of those silly games that I remember laughing uproariously with my siblings. I learned that she was still recruiting people to play "Scattergories" when confined to the hospital.

She loved to tell stories and jokes, and it was obvious that it wasn't just with her family, because friend after friend came forward to share their favorite memory of PJ. I didn't know that PJ liked to dance and sing to Greased Lightning and managed to get shy people to perform karaoke (where you lip synch to songs). One family gathering a while back I think I was persuaded to play. It was fun.

That's the thing: it was fun, and PJ wanted everyone to have a good time, being very tuned in to the importance of laughter and levity in one's interaction with others. I am so glad she was my sister, and we will all suffer from the lack of her presence in our lives. Tonight the remaining siblings will gather here at my brother's house, before Norma Jean and Markee return tomorrow to their own worlds. I know that if PJ were here, we would be playing a game together. Maybe we will anyway, in her honor.

I will travel back home to Bellingham on Wednesday, when I would have been returning from Florida, but that was simply not to be. This interlude has been very healing, and I am grateful to be here with my family. You will never be forgotten, PJ.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Life cycle musings

Deception Pass bridge in the rain
You might almost think this picture was taken in black and white, it's so colorless. That was our view of the bridge last Thursday during our Senior Trailblazer hike. We also didn't spend as much time as usual walking along the beach, because the tide was at its highest level for the day. Plus it was just plain wet and we were ready to get out of the elements. Still, I enjoyed the day for many reasons, not the least of which was because of the fine companions who joined me. We always hope for the best but go out anyway. I'll miss next week's hike because I'll be in Florida.

I've been thinking about the cycles of life, ever since I learned that last Friday begins the Chinese New Year, this one with the same animal that was in the sky when I was born: the Horse. I also learned, for the first time, that each animal is also associated with one of five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). I was born during a Water Horse year. I found this interesting article on Wikipedia that contains a chart comparing the sixty-year cycle of the Chinese lunar years for 1924–2043 to find out what occurred in my life during previous Horse years.

The first really interesting thing that stands out to me is that when I was almost sixty, in a Water Horse year, my son Chris died. That was an event that changed the trajectory of my life quite dramatically. Suddenly I was no longer a mother of any living children, and I remember the sense of loss that permeated my days during that time. Grief, like any other part of life, is strongest at first and gradually begins to release its grip as other aspects of life take over. It's been long enough now to look back at his life with love and appreciation for the years we did have together, rather than at a deep wound that hurts to touch. I notice that I can look at pictures of him and remember times we shared without pain, and I marvel that I didn't even realize it until one day when I was smiling at a picture of us together.

The last Wood Horse year was 1954, which was when I was a young girl entering puberty. I discovered boys around that time. The next twelve-year cycle was Fire Horse in 1966, which was a very memorable year in the United States: among other events, Medicare was begun and the first Star Trek episode was released (and I'm still a fan). Now I am a Medicare recipient. Not much happened to me that I remember during the Earth Horse year in 1978. Both of my parents were still alive, and I had discovered the joys of outdoor exercise. I lived in Boulder then and had started running and climbing mountains.

During the Metal Horse year in 1990, I discovered skydiving and my life changed dramatically. I ended up making more than 300 skydives during that year, and every single aspect of my days revolved around the sport. I met Smart Guy in 1992 and we married in freefall in 1994, so I guess you could say my life trajectory changed completely during a Horse year. And as I said before, it was 2002 and a Water Horse year when I had another major change when Chris died.

And now we are in Wood Horse year 2014. You will not believe what just happened as I was writing this post about life cycles: I received a call from Norma Jean that my sister PJ died during the night. Several flurries of phone calls later, and it's been decided that I will go ahead and travel to Florida tomorrow and she and I will then travel to Texas to be with our family. PJ had a massive stroke last night and was rushed to the hospital, where they were unable to revive her. She died at midnight. Her husband Stewart said she had just had the best week since her heart attack last fall, and she didn't suffer. She was scared of being on machines at the end of her life. I am reeling with the shock of it, although we really all knew it was coming eventually. You hope it will be far in the future, though.
Patricia June Stewart Merrill 1950-2014
I was seven years old when PJ was born. I remember the day, because I climbed a tree and said out loud that my sister was born that day and I was seven years old and I would never forget the moment. Funny how certain memories stand out among all the others. PJ is now with Mama and Daddy. I'll end this here, since I can't find any words to say; nothing is adequate. In time I will write about her, about her special gifts, but not today.