I am not a destiny person. Or I wasn’t until now anyway. I’m still wary of signing off on that whole concept. But I dare you not to think of God or the afterlife, when staring at a body you once knew, loved, even relied on, hooked up to a life support machine. Questions of what the soul is, where the soul is, and where that soul will end up are likely to swirl around in your consciousness for weeks, if not forever, if you are like me.
So that is where I am now. As I write this, it is seven days after Dad’s passing. I am reflecting on how in those moments of great challenge with Dad, in those hours that I laid by his bedside in the hospital, I surprised myself by curling up in the presence of Something Greater. It didn’t feel good to pray and to surrender—nothing felt good at that time—but it felt completely necessary. The experience with Dad made me question my own faith, or what little there was left of it. This is all to say, you don’t need spirituality…until you do. And you will.
I usually cringe at statements like “It was meant to happen” or “It was all part of God’s plan.” Now there is a small fissure in the wall of my beliefs, where the narrowest slip of light can come in. I didn’t become a believer overnight. Or rather over those 36 hours between Dad’s accident (a fall from a ladder) and when we took him off life support. But my defenses did soften. Where else was there to turn, but to some idea of God? To some idea of an afterlife? I couldn’t just turn on the television and forget about it all, though they did, perplexingly, have a TV in the ICU.
How could all of this, I questioned, from work to play and everything else in-between be orchestrated? It had all been said by others before but, if it were all orchestrated, why would innocent people be imprisoned and tortured, people who love with all they have become broken hearted, and children be born, and die, on the streets? Why is there no justice on this earth?
If there was such a thing as heaven, I hoped there was justice there. The truth is, there is no conflict in heaven. So there needs to be no justice.
According to many, the answer to why there is so much pain and there is so much suffering is that the soul has a need for spiritual evolution. That each has their own lessons to learn in this life, on this earth. Without conflict, our spiritual selves cannot grow or evolve. In the days after Dad’s passing, people started saying things like, “His work here was done.”
Dad used to talk a lot about religion and spirituality. And now that he’s not physically here, I feel I owe him the respect of listening, of leaning into his beliefs, of opening my heart and mind to what he’d been saying all along. His teachings have never been more relevant. In the moments by his bedside, I experienced more than one “ah ha.”
The best I can do for Dad now is to breathe more life into those wisdoms and teachings that he’d had. In his obit, which I wrote, I liken him to Christ. It’s a bold statement, I know. But some people don’t realize the well of compassion that Dad carried within him. Just one example, at the time of his death there was, and still is, a man living on Dad’s property. When we approached him and asked where they’d met, the man said he met Dad at the Mission. He’d just been released from prison, and Dad offered him a place to stay. As a child, there was always one person, usually a convicted felon, living on our land. These are people who had been shunned from society, with no place else on earth to go. And Dad was there for them, as hard as that was for me at times.
“Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” Proverbs 14:31
I didn’t know that scripture, I don’t know any scriptures, really, but thinking about Dad’s ways, I did a quick Google search. It turns out there are a shit ton of scriptures just like that one.
When the doctor came into the room—Dr. Christie—he asked me, with complete respect, why I had laid a hindi blanket across Dad’s body. I fingered the white cloth with the red Sanskrit lettering and depictions of Krishna and Rhada.
“Dad is a Hare Krishna…and a Christian, and a Buddhist,” I told Dr. Christie.
He took a sidelong glance at the Bible I’d brought and placed on the table next to Dad’s breathing machine. He worshipped any God that was in front of him, I thought. But I can’t remember if I told Dr. Christie that or not.
A few days later, I was reading a book “Embraced by the Light” by Betty J. Eadie and came across this:
“I wanted to know why there were so many churches in the world. Why didn’t God give us one church, one religion? The answer came to me with the purest of understanding. Each of us is at a different level of spiritual development and understanding. Each person is prepared for a different level of spiritual knowledge. All religions on earth are necessary because there are people who need what they teach.”
It turns out that that book “Embraced by the Light” would help me access my spirituality through a side door: near death experiences or NDEs. I couldn’t come to that spiritual place head on, through the Bible or the Baghavad-Gita. I don’t jibe, and never have, with religious stories that read like fiction or with timelines that seem to counter science.
But I could get behind near death experiences themselves, I mean, Dad and I had both had one. His, we all believe, was what made him the way he was. But more on that later. I couldn’t possibly tell this entire story in one sitting. In my journal, where I have been laying down all the letters and words that have been helping me come to some place of understanding at this unimaginable crossroad in my life, my writing now shifts from addressing you, the audience, to addressing Dad himself. This change in style makes it difficult for me to continue the story and round it out in a nice, easy way, so I will share the next segment of what I have written in my journal, before closing this chapter and picking the story up in a different piece. If anything is to render me speechless, or wordless, it is Dad’s passing. So be it. The fact that I cannot finish this essay is a testament to my grief.
My next paragraph is, “I thought of how, since you were a boy, you’d had one foot in this world and one foot in another. You didn’t remember ‘what happened’ when you were in a month-long coma, or what happened to your soul in those moments that you floated lifeless on top of the water, having drowned, but it was clear that you’d met God.”
This is all to say that you don’t need spirituality…until you do. And you will. And also this: some things you just can’t write, or reason, your way out of.
Like all of us, I’ve always been of the belief that actions speak louder than words. But over the past several months, I’ve been thinking about how loud words do speak, particularly if you are a memoirist.
I’ve had many years of writing and publishing (mostly here on my blog) to teach me that those who are written about will read your words closely and they will take them to heart, naturally. I have also had the luxury–I humbly admit–of those characters showing me extreme grace and forgiveness.
My memoir writing journey began in my very early twenties, and because I knew virtually nothing about memoir, other than having read a couple of them, I approached my writing this way: I wrote everything about everyone and used all their real names.
Now, I look at my pages and I see the truth, yes. But I also look at those pages and see real live people with real live emotions, and I have to honor that. At this juncture, having written the meat of the story, and revised it several times over, I have a choice: Do I change names or soften the story? Do I painstakingly sort through and assign similar sounding names to key characters? Cousins, boyfriends and bosses? Or do I keep their names and speak as if they are there in the room with me: with honesty, integrity, and compassion?
Writers in the genre have all heard the same line, “If they didn’t want to be written about poorly, they shouldn’t have behaved badly.”
It’s a fine starting point, a line to help you get your pen moving across the page. But I am curious to hear from other aspiring memoirists if it’s that same sentiment they think of when crossing over the threshold into querying and publishing.
Because, after all, most books do not become overnight bestsellers. What if we memoirists, in the end, sell our books only to our family members. If your book subject matter, childhood trauma, wouldn’t make for some awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversation, well I don’t know what would.
But here’s the thing, when it comes to me, the majority of those who have purchased the books I have self-published are not my family. I haven’t had a Thanksgiving with my mother, ever, and abandonment, whether comfortable or not, is central to my story. I cannot untangle myself from the truths and tell some other story. But maybe I can tell my story with a balance of both transparency and grace. Maybe. That’s what I hope for.
Back when I first started writing The Poetry of Place, long before it had a title, long before I’d changed my mother’s name to Moonbeam, and long before I started dragging my pages through critique group, it was all about the therapeutic benefits of memoir. I didn’t think of it in those terms back then, but looking back I’d really, really, really needed to exorcise my story. I was always a writer, from elementary school on up. So my story–once I finally realized it’s potential–became viable subject matter. And my intention morphed from the therapeutic benefits of writing to the creative challenge it presented: Writing a book worth reading.
So rather than “If they didn’t want to be written about poorly, they shouldn’t have behaved badly,” how about, “Hurt people hurt people.”
Most people agree with that statement, and I believe the message is being conveyed through my memoir. Therefor I cannot take responsibility, or blame, when expressing, in so many words, something that we all agree is true, that “hurt people hurt people.”
But that’s what it all comes down to, responsibly. Because memoirists aren’t just airing our dirty secrets, but in some cases the secrets of others, too. In turn we have the potential to create a significant portion of someone’s legacy. And that is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Ever.
As I cross over the threshold into querying (that’s the long process of landing an agent or a book deal), and as I refine its final pages, imagining its bound version, I weigh my options. I am trying to strike a balance that honors both what I’ve endured, and protects the inherent innocence of those surrounding the story itself. Because none of us are perfect. Not even close. I think the most helpful advice I have heard is to be as hard on myself in the story as I am being on others. I assure you, given my nature, that my flaws will come across strongly in the final story. No matter what version you get.
This pandemic has given me something: the ability to identify what truly matters to me. What I need around me and what I don’t. Who matters to me. What brings the most joy. How to uplift myself. What to keep. What to let go.
This morning I signed a document for publishing services for a children’s book that my grandmother illustrated and we both co-wrote. The book “Dreams of a Rocking Pony” will be in print sometime during the spring of 2021!
Several months ago, pre-pandemic, Peggy (Peggy is my grandmother’s name, which I’ve always called her by) and I loosely inquired about getting “Dreams of a Rocking Pony” published. Peggy is a fine artist by trade, who works with acrylic, and she’d sent Autumn a book she wrote and illustrated (pictured above) around the time of her birth. I got to fiddling with the wording some more and the next thing you knew we’d created a children’s book together! We didn’t pursue the book contract at the time, we weren’t sure how much we wanted to pay for our little project. And then the pandemic happened, so it was like whatever.
Fast forward to now. The long, drawn out months of the pandemic have given me more time than usual in my writing den (an office Steve and I share overlooking the sheep in the meadow). I kept coming back to the “Rocking Pony” project. Publishing a book with Peggy, what a neat thing that would be! Peggy, who is 86 now, still lives near Tucson. But we talk just about everyday.
So now, without her knowledge, but with her previous blessing, I reached out to the publishing house in Eugene, again. Only this time I submitted the illustrations, text and contract for the publication of a children’s book!
This surprising turn of events is inspiring me to think outside-the-box more. To try to see what’s already there. To celebrate the accomplishment that sat right in front of us: a playful exchange of art, morphing into a marketable book for children. A thing to reverberate our love out into the world. To prove that we were here, together.
You may not know, but along with my stacks of personal essays and boxes of memoir, I have two children’s books. Those manuscripts were written during a passionate period of writing in my twenties, and I hope to someday find an illustrator to complete them for publication. (But more on those later.) I know Peggy won’t be that illustrator. In the past four years alone I have seen her eyesight and mobility escaping her more and more. The “Dreams of a Rocking Pony” painting series (the illustrations are copies of a larger work) may end up being one of her last.
Between now and the end of our three month publishing deadline, I am sure to be dreaming of the joy I hope will come after revealing this surprise to my grandmother. (Of course I couldn’t get it together in time for Christmas. Doh!)
More about “Dreams of a Rocking Pony” when it’s published! NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) has been good to me this year, I’ve been extra focused on editing and publishing, and have another title in the works. Send a prayer for Peggy, this pandemic has been unkind.
Motherhood is complicated. Before I became a mother, my goal was to try to not become one of the moms who changed her social media handle to “Autumn’s Mommy” or who, when talking to non-parent friends, only talked about parenting. Popular opinion seemed to say that moms like that had “lost themselves” and that losing yourself, or changing, was a negative thing. But I want to point out now how very strong those mommies are, and how necessary their transformation was for their child to thrive.
The truth is that there are all different types of moms out there. And the mom who proudly displays her love by saying she’s “so-and-so’s mommy” is probably a really good one. There are moms out there who can manage a household of four kids with grace and a genuine sense of happiness, and others for whom one child seems plenty. There are Scary Mommies (whose “confessions” can be downright frightening) and there are women who have never become moms at all. I think that those women, too, deserve recognition.
I’ve meditated a lot on the things I think women should know before they become parents. I’ve found there are two types of women who I believe shouldn’t have children at all: those who cannot take care of themselves, and those who have a lot of exciting personal or career opportunities going for them that they don’t want to give up.
Of course that’s a generalization, but I’ve found that idea that parenting is mutual now—that dads will step up and meet you equally in the household—is an idealistic one. Statistics point to women taking a huge hit economically when becoming moms, and have even linked becoming parents to the wage gap. (See the “Explained” episode on wage gap which describes the 1-5 years that women take off to manage the household the actual reason responsible for the difference of pay in men and women. Mind blown.)
So as I line up fifteen blueberries in a row on the countertop in hopes of occupying Autumn for fifteen seconds of peace and introspection, I think about Mother’s Day and what it means to me. One aspect of what it means to me is having honest conversations with women about what parenting is and isn’t. And making this information accessible to young women, who may have idealistic visions of what modern motherhood will look like for them. Another meaningful aspect of this day for me is the opportunity to point out how important the work a mother does really is. (See: unpaid work of women in a society that equates high monetary return with success.)
Becoming a mother is such a deeply personal choice, dependent on factors like your current career possibilities, your ability to communicate effectively with your partner, your marital status, your ability to pay for childcare, or your access to free childcare (i.e. grandparents), or not.
I know for me the last factor really impacts my choice to not have any more children. It’s easy for a mom who has both sets of grandparents in the same city to feel that one should have a second child because “no childhood is complete without a sibling.”
But that logic just isn’t going to work for a mama like me.
Many of my readers know I have an estranged relationship with my own mother. Yesterday, I was driving my minivan and I was doing this ultra-mom move where I was throwing french-fries to Autumn in her car seat, which was facing away from me in the back. It dawned on me that my natural mom and I never had a relationship on even this level. The ease of communication that I have with my one-and-a-half year old is the first time I’ve experienced this natural state of a mother-daughter relationship.
“Didja get that one, babe?” I asked Autumn.
“Yea!” She responded, and I could imagine her shoving the salty stick into her chubby face.
A few nights ago, we both started giggling uncontrollably and couldn’t stop. Love joy. A similar warmth like the closeness I’d experienced with the french-fry incident enveloped me. Autumn has become an extension of myself.
My own mother, a nineteen year old, hadn’t made the transition to mommy in time for me to experience it. Luckily, when my brothers were born, she did.
I think one misconception is that this transition happens naturally, and for some women, I’m sure it does. But for many others (maybe more than we know), it is a choice.
So if you know an “Autumn’s Mommy” or an “Emmett’s Mommy” or a “Marigold’s Mommy,” consider yourself blessed. It means that despite the world wanting to preserve her “coolness” or “sexiness” or “youth” or whatever it is they don’t want to see change, the woman stepped into her role. And she makes that choice every single morning she wakes up.
A friend invited me over for a visit but I know it’s all I can do to just put the three square meals on the table, support Autumn through her toddler learning, keep our house picked up and in order….and maintain some sense of inner peace and sanity today. I may even proudly call myself “Autumn’s Mommy” and hope that my man sees how hella sexy—and important—the title really is.
This Mother’s Day, I ask that we embrace—celebrate!—the natural changes that come when women adapt to their new roles and realities. Because the truth is that (with the exception of a few) dads change a little bit, but mamas change a lot. And the second that your household mommy stops doing what she’s doing is the second your world becomes unmanageable, messy, and chaotic.
Women of my generation are educated and have more opportunity than ever before yet many have adapted to become someone’s mommy. I want to point out the absurdity of expecting them to not lose some aspects of their earlier selves during the transition to nurturing, teaching, and raising our young. I raise a strong mug of coffee to Somebody’s Mommy today. You sexy as hell.
I did a double take when I heard
you were just two months old
(heard from myself no doubt)
it feels like we’ve been together
I seek your forgiveness
for the sand on my nipple
worry of your ingesting rocks
the size of glitter
on my skin
But more than that it pains me
to watch you cry so I bring you
to my breast
You’ve turned me into a fountain no doubt
“chocolate milk next time if you’re lucky” I joke
in my sugary, sing-songy voice
Papa points out that I’m using
‘too much baby voice’ but I
no longer mind what he says,
which is new, welcomed
They don’t say
‘Mama knows best’
This morning you
were content nursing
for over one hour
because of the holiday
I had the luxury of shutting the door
on the dishes, the chores and
the unmopped floor and
as you suckled I marveled
Also I read
“We Need to Talk”
“What to Look for in a Horse”
“The Only One She Told”
which made me feel
swooney and romantic
and inspired to write
and when I broke your half-hearted suckle
you endearingly suckled on my elbow
as I gently stroked this poem
You have changed me,
only time will
reveal the many ways
I pray for the wisdom to shape
that change in ways that will
benefit us both
you, a budding baby, a honey comb,
to which all things stick
me, not just resigned to motherhood
but still blossoming with potential myself
the burning desire for more more more
never intended for the likes of me
almost withheld from me
(but that’s a story for another time)
I pray for the wisdom to shape
this change in ways that will
benefit us both
We will learn together
We will thrive together
We will not merely survive together
Not you and I Baby Bird,
I bring you to my chest again
You seem to need me more today
I accept that
I resign the afternoon to you,
the Sun Magazine,
and a single
drop of water
in my mug
A glistening symbol
as if to say:
there’s something here
it isn’t much
but it is something
a single drop
of the truth
is all that is
October 12th, 2018
Riverbend Hospital, Springfield, Oregon
For the next few hours, I am still a girl. A daughter. A grand daughter. A girlfriend. A fiancé. A young woman.
At some point after, I hear, an incredible amount of intensity or pain (whichever school of thought you prefer), I will become a mother. A guardian. A protector. A womb-an. You, child, will make sure of this. And for that, I thank you.
For the next few hours I will continue to wonder Who Are You? Are you like your father? Outwardly wild and rambunctious, inwardly steady and responsible? With big blue eyes, an easy smile? With confidence unparalleled. A thinker. A do-er. A boy. A male?
Or are you like me? A Tiny T, as your father says. A girl. Are you a female?
You are too comfortable inside of me and don’t want to come out. That’s why we’re here at the hospital for an induction instead of laboring naturally at the birth center. The midwife inserted a cervical softener about two hours ago. I feel fabulous—no change. The nurse joked she’d have me “frowning by morning.” I feel so good I was tempted to do cartwheels on our walk around the labor and delivery unit. I am only a girl for a few more hours, after all.
Your due date was ten days ago—ten days! By current standards, that’s too long. I would’ve been happy letting you gestate longer but there are these scary reports—online and in print—about the risk of still born and meconium (that’s poop) inhalation and all these things I don’t want to read about or think about but have to.
So all this brings us to the Riverbend Hospital, in one of 325 other labor and delivery rooms. Would you believe we ended up with a room with a view? It’s not the best view available (those rooms have a view of the mountains) but it is the second best view: a clock tower. Three bells hang within its open brick walls.
Like I mentioned before, you were supposed to be delivered in a freestanding birth center. In a four post bed. Once we went a week past your due date, however, it was required that we transfer to the hospital.
What I like about the hospital:
It’s fancy and modern
I still receive the care of the birth center midwives, including during delivery
the ice machine
the bathtub (with jets!)
when we arrived there was a live pianist in the lobby playing “The Circle of Life”—I hadn’t cried much in pregnancy but I did when I heard that song, given the circumstances
Things I don’t like about the hospital:
Hospital gowns with a cute pattern but an awful cut
We had dinner (fish for me, spaghetti for Papa). We received another dose of misoprostol to soften the cervix. Other than the miso, we’ve had no other method of induction. We took a thirty minute walk through the labor and delivery unit. As we walked, we talked and joked. It’s what we do best.
We are mainly excited because the miso is working. After our walk, I began my “bloody show.” I won’t bore you with the details of all that but we are hopeful that you will be born tomorrow.
Believe it or not, little one, things got so intense after my last entry that I wasn’t able to keep up with the journaling. I expected this, of course, I’d just wanted to get the story (your story!) started.
Luckily your papa took notes. Well, that is until he got so swept up in the labor that he couldn’t take notes anymore either.
The last entry I made was at 8:22 p.m. on Friday night. Papa and I were so excited the contractions were starting. That’s probably the last time I would describe being excited about contractions. (Remember, other than being artificially induced I was laboring naturally with no pain medication.)
We’re not sure, but the miso seemed to make the contractions come on strong and frequently. Your papa asked the nurse quietly while I was in the bathtub if they were supposed to be this frequent. “She’s hardly getting a break between them,” I overheard him say. This didn’t make me feel worse, it made me feel better. Your papa cared, and I’d rarely seen him with the opportunity to share his sensitive side. (Side note: now that you’re here, I’ve seen it a lot more.)
From a clinical standpoint, I was two and a half centimeters dilated. Your heart rate was steady, excellent even, and your head was down, doing its work of opening my cervix.
October 13th, 2018
The hospital bed bothered me. Too much light, noise, and movement, so I curled up on the bed reserved for guests. It was a flat, large, vinyl double bed tucked into a dark corner. The nurses didn’t really want me on that bed but thankfully they didn’t push it. As the contractions grew stronger and stronger, I felt best lying on that cool surface, covered in blankets, with soft music (Yoga Sanctuary on Pandora) playing in the background. I developed a song, a hum, a howl to accompany every contraction. It was all I could do to stay centered and sane through the pain I was experiencing. My songs went something like, “ho, ho, ho, ha, ha, ha,” or “ho-o-oooooo! ha-ah-ahhhhh!”
This went on for hours. At one a.m., my water broke. I cannot tell you the relief and excitement of this happening. It was what I’d been wishing and hoping would happen since October 2nd, your due date.
Earlier in the night the nurse said they would wipe the smile off my face and replace it with a frown. We’d laughed about it then. See, that was the goal. Well, now we were winning.
The midwife, Kanya, responded when my water broke. She confirmed that it was brown with meconium, common in post-date babies. There was a fear that you’d have inhaled this meconium and would need immediate attention from the NICU. I had also read that babies exposed to meconium could come out green-tinged. Your hair. Your skin. And that it would take a while to go away. Compounding these nagging thoughts were the ever frequent and incredibly painful contractions. There, I said it: painful. You see, I’d read every book by Ina May Gaskin, and within it’s pages were testimonies by women describing childbirth as intense but not painful, their contractions as waves or rushes, and the whole experience as psychedelic.
Look, I’m all for positive imagery. I’d come to your birth armed with a Himalayan salt lamp, a handmade sculpture of a mother and child, a book on childbirth by Deepak Chopra, and at least six essential oils. I had lavender, the calming herb, on speed dial.
Your papa and I submitted our birth plan, prepared weeks in advance, heeding the advice of the nation’s most beloved midwife, Ina May. Hell, I even had a vision board, “I am doing a fantastic job!” it read on onside, and, “I accept this pain to bring my baby into the world” on the other. Your father had my favorite soothing music dubbed on his cell phone, only by this time I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear a thing. I even asked the nurses to turn down your heartbeat on the monitor, it was reassuring, yes, but it was static-y and loud. I had them turn the monitors away, facing the wall (too bright).
By this stage I requested that your father not touch me (I would recoil), he could not talk to me (what did he know about birthing babies, anyway?) but he needed to be there. It was just he and I, with the occasional visits from Kanya and the PeaceHealth nurses (who only wanted to adjust your heartbeat monitor). I was vomiting profusely. I was still wrapped in blankets, lying on my side on the guest bed. I continued my chant of “ho-o-ooooo! ha-ah-ahhhh!” and every time I wanted to moan “noooooo!” I moaned “yeeaaaa!” instead.
Kanya was scheduled to leave at six a.m. When it became apparent that she would not be delivering you that Saturday morning, I brought up pain management. That’s what they call schedule I drugs in a clinical setting.
Kanya had wanted me to sleep through the night but the only rest I’d gotten were strange little blips between contractions. One to two minute naps as my womb rocked and rolled in anticipation for your arrival. I experienced the lightning bolts and thunder of labor. In retrospect, I’d needed a little guidance. I never felt better during labor than when a midwife was talking me through a contraction, but that only happened once or twice.
“Somethings gotta change,” I explained to Kanya between contractions. Her response was Fentanyl, which I understood was synthetic heroine. Was there no in-between? No extra-strength Tylenol? “It won’t take the pain away. And it will make you feel funny,” she told me.
I declined the Fentanyl.
I retreated, naked, back to my dark corner on the guest bed. My limbs were shaking like leaves. Kanya checked my dilation, which was stalled at 5 centimeters. Though the contractions were regular, I’d somehow stopped progressing. I continued my chanting and moaning. When it felt right, I squatted, walked, and used the yoga ball. Your head, dear child, was not dilating my cervix like it should. The positioning needs to be just right to be effective. Despite my walking and forward positioning over the past night, days and weeks…the midwives kept saying that progress was stalled.
The sun rose and I barely acknowledged it. I was writhing in pain in my dark corner. The concept of an orgasmic birth (see the documentary titled Orgasmic Birth) was laughable now.
“I would not recommend this to ANYONE,” I told your father. I even had the fleeting thought that he should, effective immediately, hit the streets and start warning women, “No, really, DON’T DO IT! Child birth. Don’t do it!”
Six a.m. to 10:30 a.m. went by incredibly fast. In fact I don’t remember much except the hoo-ing and haa-ing. The new midwife Pauline, an elder, came in to check my dilation. No progress. I was in such intense pain I could hardly navigate the room or a conversation. Pauline wanted to try a different position and asked me to get on my hands and knees on the hospital bed. But once I did, your heart rate dropped below 60—a dangerous low.
“Get her back up, get her back up!” Pauline pleaded, and your papa and a nurse helped turn me back over. “Whatever you do, stay on your back or side. Absolutely do not get on all fours,” she told me.
Pauline also indicated that my pelvic bone was uniquely shaped, a particularly narrow V. She thought this oddity might be preventing your head from descending properly. She said something about a c-section, almost under her breath, maybe it was to a nurse.
I touched Pauline’s arm, demanding her attention and croaked out, “If this is going to end in a c-section anyway, I request that we do it now.”
Then I told her what I’d told Kanya, “Something’s gotta change. This is too intense,” I told her, keeping with the Gaskin language but not the Gaskin morals.
The sun was gaining on noon, I could tell from the picture window behind Pauline. It had been twenty some hours since we came in for the induction. I was a woman who popped an Ibuprofin at the onset of a headache (then again I was prone to migraines) and here I was in the throes of a medication free labor. Pauline swiftly responded, “I’d like to try all the tools in my belt before opting for a cesarean. I’d recommend an epidural for pain relief followed by Pitocin to get things really rolling again.”
She was the midwife, an experienced one, and I trusted her.
“Okay,” I managed to say. “Let’s do it.”
What happened next was not at all what I expected. What happened next was neither an orgasmic, natural birth like I had hoped for nor was it a series of invasive interventions from a menacing male doctor, like so many of my natural-leaning mama friends had warned. What happened next is that Pauline got the anesthesiologist in the room in a snap (in less than five minutes). He was a kind, pleasant man whom I felt reassured being in the care of. What happened next is that through the cries and moans I could hear the anesthesiologist telling me I would soon experience complete relief from the pain.
Your papa gave me reassuring nod as I felt no more than a pin prick at the center of my low back. Ten minutes later, as promised, I felt pain-free, like new, and I was downright chipper. I could sense a collective sigh in the room. The nurses gained a pep in their step as if to say, “Thank god we don’t have to deal with that whole natural childbirth thing anymore!”
Your papa sunk into the guest recliner pulled close to my hospital bed and we both, per the midwife’s recommendation, fell into a deep, much needed sleep. When we woke it was more than two hours later.
Pauline and I shared a knowing smile as I roused to wake from my epidural-induced slumber. Unlike Fentanyl, the epidural only affected my lower body—most importantly it didn’t affect my headspace at all. I felt clear as the bell outside the window.
The only struggle was the weight of my legs. It took all the nurses and your papa to lift them into the stirrups so Pauline could check my dilation. “Time to start pushing,” Pauline said. I was fully dilated at ten centimeters!
Your papa and I looked at one another with amazement. I was thinking, “All that walking up and down the gravel lane, all that walking the corridors of the hospital, all that Evening Primrose Oil and spicy food, all that time on the yoga ball and all that active imagery—the lotus flower opening up—only to konk out for two hours, completely not conscious, and it’s then that my body works its magic…or was it the Pitocin?
Nonetheless, Pauline said it was time to push.
I held your fathers hand, a nurse rolled a full length mirror to the foot of the bed, and the midwife called for the NICU team should we need backup in the event of, well, any number of things. As it turned out, the NICU didn’t come in time.
I looked into the full length mirror. The sun was shining bright behind Pauline’s head as you began crowning. A sliver the size of a mango pit revealed my child, you, cocooned between my legs.
Every time I pushed through a contraction your papa yelled “Yeah babe! Go babe! You’re getting so close!” I’d rarely seen him so enthralled and excited. Well, once, river rafting. And who could blame him?
In my mind I was only warming up. In the births I’d witnessed (two), the “pushing phase” lasted for one and a half hours, maybe two. Later your papa said my face was so red and puffy it looked as if I would explode.
After just a handful of contractions, Pauline pushed the mirror aside and replaced it with a tray of stainless steel instruments, scissors and who knows what else. Then she said something to the effect of “this baby’s coming now.”
We all did a double take, though I couldn’t see anything now that the mirror was gone.
“Push,” she instructed when I sensed the next contraction. And when I did she said, “Here come the ears!”
I felt the warmth of your skin coming through my labia. I felt the weight of your body, a helpless, delicate thing but full of life and spirit. I scanned your face for reassurance that you were breathing and well.
“Well, what’s the gender?” Pauline nudged at your papa, who was just as amazed as I was that you were here.
“It’s…it’s a girl!” He stuttered.
I held your liquid warm, just-birthed body to my chest and kissed your head. There was no reason to whisk you away to the NICU. You were not green-tinged or chord-wrapped. You were, and still are, a perfect baby girl; earthside.
You were born at 3:44 p.m. on October 13th, your great great grandmother’s birthday.
I have the ideal life
please don’t mess with it
the bow is straight
the self centered
after years, decades,
almost a lifetime of
uncertainty and whim,
certainly the train is rolling now,
the one I’ve been engineering for
some time, piece-by-piece, move-by-move,
lesson-by-lesson, man-by-man, through peaks
and valleys I Am Here now
Course I fear car accidents
and fire and, worse than that,
untapped demons and fury
but then again maybe things can be OK,
the one where children
get driven to their bus stops
warm in their mittens
lunches in their bags smiles on their faces (!!)
This love, no longer longing but
This home, no longer empty but
This body, no longer just mine but
part of something bigger,
him or her?
October or September?
Can you love her enough
to not fuck it up?
This ideal life,
I command you to stay
the opposite of
a blessing, a gift
Mother wasn’t there
when I bled in the JR high bathroom
I looked at the gray stall wall for reassurance
I found none
Mother wasn’t there
Mother wasn’t there
when I needed feeding
in the beginning, in the middle, nor in the end
Mother wasn’t there
Mother wasn’t there
when I was felt up under my red primary school dress
Mother wasn’t there so it happened again
and again and again
As it will happen, inevitably,
when a Mother isn’t there
Mother wasn’t there
when I cut my own hair
Mother wasn’t there so
“cut it like Dads” I told the barber,
uncertain of my role in the world,
girl of boy or boy of boy
cause Mother wasn’t there
Mother wasn’t there
but when she was there she covered me
in slobbery, 9-years-over-due kisses
They smelt like smoker’s saliva and
how I hated them and how she always
showed up just under one decade
At 30, that makes it three times mother showed up,
only the third time it didn’t happen
Mother wasn’t there
Mother isn’t there
I regret that someone I so despise personally
can leave a love wound this big within me
like a boy who never, ever deserved it
only not, because this is like the Grand Canyon,
(if I am being honest)
and the boys just leave a rivet in the sand
some laughable could-have-been
I regret the biological yearn for mother, father, whole
I regret, I regret, when Mother wasn’t there
I capitalize her name, the sick parts the sad parts,
she imparted to me insatiable love and passion
and now I can’t get no satisfaction
I am free child, free woman, wild baby, always have been
I built a shelter in my heart, for refuge from the wind
I learned to withstand life’s letdowns on a whim
I laugh in the face of pain, but I still fear it so
Mother wasn’t there when learning
all there is to know
First, she started peeing on the mat outside the litter box. Next, on my boyfriend’s pillow. Then she stopped sleeping in the bed with me. For three months or so, she “yowled” at night. Then, shortly after we got a puppy, she stopped doing that. We thought she was improving–but maybe she just didn’t have it in her to yowl anymore.
Fast forward to today. At 8 a.m., I drove to the new veterinary clinic in town, health record of Minnie the Mooch, DOB 2000, Breed Siamese, Sex F, Markings Blue Eyes, tucked into my purse; Minnie in her carrier–blue eyes glazing over, orifices excreting foul odor and liquids. Before we left the house, I told her “this is your home, baby girl, we love you so much. We love you so, so much.”
A beam of light was gathering on the hardwood floor, possibly her favorite thing ever, so I put the carrier there, opened it up, she lifted her face to the sun, and I cried. She looked at me concerned, not for her but for me. Because she was like that. Because that’s exactly what she was like.
At the vet, after we (the vet, Katie, and I) decided that euthanization was the appropriate route to take, I tried to give her a treat I had brought, a greenie, but she wouldn’t take it. That affirmed how bad it had gotten. Just one week ago, I’d say “treat” and Minnie and the puppy would both come sit and receive their treat. Minnie got two treats, because I knew she was dying.
I set the greenie aside and rubbed behind her ears. I noticed all the blinds were closed in the clinic and I opened them up, the room was facing the east and sunlight filled the crematorium. Minnie lifted her head once again. She purred, if lightly.
“I love you Minnie, I love you Princess.”
By now, I was waiting on the form to sign which authorized Katie to euthanize my cat.
Katie came in.
Minnie and I had spent the last hour together, so I felt that it was time. Plus, she was suffering–which was the whole point of the euthanization. Another gal, Jill, arrived too, to help hold her down.
“You don’t have to witness this if you don’t want to,” Katie told me.
“No, no. I want to be here. I want to give her lovin’.”
Katie and Jill nodded.
I stood in front of Minnie, got down at eye-level.
“I love you so much. I love you so so much.”
I’d tried giving her one more greenie a few minutes earlier, while we were waiting, and she’d eaten it. I didn’t manage to get the steamed milk from the pull-up coffee shop. Now that we were here, I just wanted it to be done with. Minnie had been shivering all morning, which was unlike her. It was eighty degrees out. Her body ran a gamut of issues, none of which I could afford to treat, if I am being honest.
One hundred and sixteen dollars later, I was escorted out a side door. Jill carried Minnie’s body in a white cardboard box. White boxes are reserved for animals with the purest of souls, I imagined.
In the summer of 1993 I was eight years old.
Our second favorite thing to do (second to swimming in the Smith River) was going to the Drive-In movies. Our second cousins ran the Drive-In, but we still popped our own popcorn, storing it in brown paper grocery sacks. Dad would buy us cokes and Red Vines when we got there. A lot of the time, he’d take as many kids as could fit in the camper of our pick-up truck. I was an only child, but the neighborhood kids, some of whom had 5 or 6 brothers and sisters, adopted me as a sibling and my Dad as a fill-in Dad. We never knew when we were going to the Drive-In and we rarely knew what was playing, but it didn’t matter. As soon as Dad said “Drive-In” we’d all be putting our long pants on, begging for popcorn, and gathering as many neighborhood kids as we could find.
One evening, I’d been helping the Philpott’s get their Drive-In supplies together–blankets, pillows, ninja-turtles. Sleeping bags were a thing and every kid owned one. I’d hoisted a sleeping bag up over my shoulder, like I’d seen my dad do with hay bales and bags of dog food. We needed to be at the Drive-In by dark, and the sun was already escaping behind the mountains.
I walked through the Philpott’s sliding glass door, perpetually dirty with handprints of boys; I couldn’t see as the sleeping bag was smothering my head. I just needed to make it down the few short steps off of the porch and into the bed of the truck.
Something crunched beneath my foot. I lifted my heel, I lifted the soft, but heavy, sleeping bag, craned my neck, and peeked behind me.
Beneath my heel lay an orange tabby kitten, writhing with pain.
The Philpott’s Mom was upon me immediately, not angry, just concerned.
“Go get your dad. Go get your dad. Go get your dad,” she told me.
The cat convulsed, its head seemed to be glued to the porch, while its small, bony body tried to get away but couldn’t.
I am standing behind the trunk of a tree. My fingers are in my mouth–a nervous gesture–and I am horrified. The kitten is on a tree stump used as a chopping block, and my father is raising an ax to the sky. It’s been so little time since I stepped on the kitten that it isn’t even dark yet. I do not remember now if I “got my Dad” like Francine had asked me, or if somebody else did. One of the boys probably beat me to it, because that’s what boys are good for. They come in handy in times like this.
My first love was a kitten named after our property manager, Kitty Rose. My father brought her home not long after my mother left. To fill the void.
Dad taught me how to hold the cat, by cradling her bottom, not by holding her under her armpits. He told me that cats don’t like to be petted when they’re eating. We kept her food and water by the garage door. This was when we still lived in town, before we moved to the mountains.
By the time we moved up-the-hill, Kitty Rose was my confidant. Kitty Rose is my best friend, I wrote in my dairy. Kitty Rose was also full grown and not spayed. It wasn’t long before she became pregnant.
“Your cats a slut,” one of my older, more in-the-know friends told me. “I saw her over at our house, and then I saw her at the neighbors house across the street.”
“No she’s not,” I defended her.
But from then on I kind of thought that she was. Kitty Rose was very pretty, with her full white collar and striped fur, and with the limited knowledge that I possessed, well I thought slut and pretty were synonymous. Or at least closely related.
I tried to push it out of my mind when, after Kitty Rose prematurely gave birth to a litter of kittens behind the tool shed, Dad told me he thought she’d eaten a couple of them.
Did not, did not, I told myself. I stored it with the very few things down in the basement of my mind which I just could not, would not accept about the world. I moved on. I kept my cat calendar fixed to the month with the cat that looked just like Kitty Rose. It was my birthday month, and the kitten sat in a pumpkin patch.
At least one of Kitty Rose’s kittens survived. Dad named him “Junior Rose”. I was kind of peeved that Dad named the cat without me, but I had to give it to him–he always picked good names. Junior Rose had identical markings as Kitty Rose, but he was short-haired. He wasn’t nearly as sweet. He was a “wild cat,” Dad said, and he only came around to eat and when he did he wouldn’t let you pet him, just scampered off into the trees.
I tried not to think too hard on why Kitty Rose didn’t run around with him or lick him or care for him. He was still young, though pretty big. Everyday Junior Rose got stronger and more independent until eventually we rarely saw him at all. Hardened as he was, physically and emotionally, we didn’t even think to bring him when we moved back to town. Junior Rose was his own thing. His mother’s abandonment had made sure of that. Though I truly believe she’d done her best. It was a narrative I knew well.
The family was splitting up. Dad was going one way and I was going another. We weren’t sure who to blame it on but I blamed the pastor of his new church. I toilet papered the pastor’s house in protest. In retrospect, the pastor actually had a whole lot to do with it. “Let her find her own way,” the pastor had said. I was just fourteen years old. So my dad left town.
Kitty Rose was stuck in the middle. I was a teenager, and she was no longer my best friend. My boyfriend was, because I was stupid. Stupid in that young kind of way. Not surprisingly, my boyfriend had no interest in hanging out with my cat, who lived at my Aunt Julie’s house–a neutral location. Someone will come for her, Dad and I decided, when things get sorted out.
Things did not get sorted out. In my absence, Kitty Rose wandered off into the woods behind the house and never returned again.
I guess I figured Minnie would do the same. Abandon me for a better life. Retire. Expire. You hear of people who say their cat slept under the porch or in the closet for a few days and then just died. In their sleep or while you were at work. Nice and easy. No ax.
I assumed that would be me. I was wrong. Never assume, how could I forget? It’s one of my favorite tenets.
Things got busy. She got worse. She is still eating and drinking, I kept saying. But then I noticed her food dish remaining fuller and fuller. Her water dish too. She stopped coming in to eat as much. She stopped coming in at all. She slept outside for 2 nights, but she didn’t die. She didn’t whimper either. Very quiet. Very still.
“I don’t know how to do this,” crept into my mind but I quickly stowed it down in the basement. I put my work boots on, kissed Minnie’s head, said she’ll either be fine or she’ll die when I’m gone. Nice and easy.
Bad got to worse in a matter of a weekend. By the time I recognized her agony, it was too late. It was then I realized, being the fighter that she is, she wasn’t going anywhere easy.
“Baby girl,” I told her, “I love you so much. I love you so so much.”
More than words, I touched her. I petted her like I haven’t done in years. Maybe like that time she licked my tears away and I felt like I had a soul-companion. I held her close and stroked her, amazed.
Minnie, do you remember when you first came to my house? You were so curious, round, and loving.
And then there was when we lived on the outskirts of town, near where you lived with your family before me. You knew all the streets still, and you’d go and visit the neighbors. “Minnie! Minnie!” I would call and you’d come galloping down the road like a dog, the bell around your neck ringing, signaling your return. You were in your prime then.
Next we moved to Oregon. It was the biggest move of our life together, a huge shift for me. We whittled our belongings down to fit in one 2-door sports car–and we traveled for one month in California. Every house we stayed at, you were The Nice Cat. You didn’t pick fights, you located the litter box, and when we stayed in hotels you peed in the bathtub drains.
In the redwoods you stalked a snake, but I picked you up before you could pounce.
When we got to the ocean, I took you out to the sand. You didn’t love it, but I did. We didn’t stay long.
Everywhere you went you were loved. Everywhere you went you were love. You. Were. Love.
Minnie the Mooch
Markings Blue Eyes
My last love.
It hurts, it hurts. I want to tell someone.
It hurts, it hurts. She wanted to tell me.
Does anyone feel that the sky is falling? Some parts of the world are burning, other parts of the world are drowning. We are all turning to steam. A cat dies, a baby is born. You make a buck, you spend a buck. You get it together, you fall apart. You anchor to hope. “Hope’s just a word that maybe you said and maybe you heard, but that’s what you need man and you need it bad.” You quote Bob Dylan. You call a friend. You make something new when destruction surrounds you. You bury a pet and try to unearth her essence.
The sky wasn’t pouring, but it was crying. I decided they were happy tears. Happy tears for our happy trails. The sky wasn’t black yet either. No black clouds were present, but it was loud. The storm will pass, I thought to myself as we marched, our eyes squinting at the rain drops, marching beside serpentine outcroppings lined with manzanita shrubs and pine trees.
My dad was telling me about the painter from Eureka who he had found dead on this trail a couple of years back, a woman, he told me. Of course I remembered the event. It had been him, Brandon, and Miran who had found her. Brandon and Miran had taken off when they’d found the body, practically running, to tell law enforcement. But my Dad kept on hiking. Later, Dad was briefly considered a suspect in the case but quickly dropped based on his reputation: harmless.
Now my dad hiked in front of me, in his efficient hiking-boots (one of the only luxuries he allowed himself) and his ancient exterior-framed backpack that he’d written Hare Krishna on with a thick black sharpie. As we hiked he told me the story again–deeper than he had the first time–which had initially been over a telephone conversation when I was in college in Arizona.
“Brandon found her first,” he said, “then we all saw her. The bugs had gotten to her. Her head was up here in the brush,” my dad pointed, “and her legs were over here, on the trail.”
We were standing looking down at the spot with our hiking boots turned toward where her body would have been.
“She wasn’t very old. But she wasn’t young either. I guess she hurt her leg and couldn’t make it back out. She might have starved to death,” he said.
We continued down the cream-colored trail, there were dark polka-dots where rain drops had hit. I’d traveled fifty miles today to go on this trip with my Dad to Doctor Rock.
We will reach Doctor Rock, rain or shine, I thought to myself and tried to shake the thought of a poor woman dying here all alone.
Eventually, the clouds lifted. We watched the sky turn blue upon blue. Jerry sang Jack-A-Roe in my mind as we watched the sky turn to blue. My dad was telling me about the rocks now, the same jade-colored serpetine rocks that I had to dodge while we drove up the “go-road” to reach the trailhead. My Chevy Cavalier had scraped the heads of those rocks one too many times. I wouldn’t be surprised if my oil-pan sprung a leak. Still, I wouldn’t change the day for anything. I shook it off, but it wasn’t easy.
We stopped at an overlook. We saw hill after hill after hill and valley after valley. We saw ridge after ridge, the fog hugging them loosely. The fog hung over the streams, providing a clue to a water source that would otherwise be overlooked. I felt like a Yurok Indian. Only because I knew it was a scene that more Yuroks viewed than any white man ever did. The white men liked town. We were white men, but we were different somehow. Dad made sure of that.
I was surprised to find the trail wasn’t as long as I’d expected. It only took us an hour and a half to hike in. Dad had been here plenty of times before, I never had but I’d expected it to be a long hike for some reason. Even though the hike wasn’t all that much of a challenge, I could see the appeal in coming here. Out here, the solitude was so great that Rock Creek, where I was raised, seemed like a bustling social center. We hiked at a fast pace, stopping only to drink water. We watched the shrubs and pine trees as they turned from green to scorched black. Shortly after the woman’s body had been found and the authorities had removed it, a fire ran through. And as we kept hiking, we saw that every tree was scorched. We were walking over ground that crunched.
“It’ll all be back in no time,” my dad said.
I nodded, already there were bushes sprouting up. Hope.
In no time, I thought as I pictured the shrubs growing three feet tall in thirty-seconds flat, sprouting hearty trunks and growing and climbing right before my eyes. I laughed inside—trippy.
Soon, the scorched ground gave way to a few hundred feet of rocky slope.
“Yeah, this up here aint a good spot for the handicap or elderly to be walkin’ on,” my dad said.
I didn’t bother to mention that the elderly most likely wouldn’t be out here hiking at all. I kept it to myself but was slightly irritated inside. I was twenty three years old. A college graduate. I had lived in and been to more cities and places than my dad ever had. In short, I was foolishly overrating myself. I knew nothing. I stretched to keep my mind open.
Then, when I thought about it more I remembered my dad saying that the Native elders liked to come out to Doctor Rock to meditate and practice rituals. I humbled myself. I watched my feet hit the path.
About that time we heard some noise coming from above us, coming from on top of a strait, granite slope. It sounded like a person jumping to their feet. We looked at each other. We’d both heard it. We looked up at the slope but couldn’t quite see to the top. We waited a few moments, shrugged at one another, then kept on going. I could see greenery up ahead, and a large outcropping of rock. My dad pointed at Doctor Rock. Then he pointed at Chimney Rock. They were rocks like you would see on the ocean, right off of the shore. They were giants, rugged, looking like two heads protruding from the miles and miles of bushy, coniferous forest.
“Tell me more about Doctor Rock,” I asked him.
“It’s sacred. The Yurok’s don’t like no one comin’ here but the Natives. No white man. But I know that the creator doesn’t discriminate against no one based on the color of their skin. It’s what’s in your heart that the creator sees–it’s what’s in your soul. He don’t even differentiate between who’s white and who isn’t. That’s a human concept there, and it aint right. But I know where their comin’ from wanting to keep the white man out. Some white men don’t belong here. I’ve had loggers tell me stories about them getting a bad feeling up here. A feeling like they’ve never had before. They must not be in-tuned, in-touch with the area.”
“Who made this trail?” I asked, ignoring the thought to mention that the woman from Eureka was white.
“They?” I asked.
“They, the Natives.” My dad said.
Soon we were upon patch after patch of morel mushrooms. There was an entire ravine filled with them. We stopped, put down our packs and picked about forty mushrooms, storing them in a plastic Safeway bag.
“Let’s pick more tomorrow Dad,” I whined, “I want to pick a bunch but I want them to be the best that they can be, the most fresh. Let’s pick them on our way out.”
The thunder started roaring in the east.
“We’re not far from the cabin,” my dad replied. His expression said my decision was fine with him.
Soon there was a clearing and the cabin. We stepped inside and ate some snacks. I etched my name on the wall, next to roughly fifty others. Outside the rain poured down, down, down. T. Van Dusen ’09. We ate trail mix and cheddar popcorn, listened to the rain fall, and watched the tin roof of the cabin leak. The rain let up soon enough.
“You wanna go to the Golden Staircase or Doctor Rock?” My dad asked.
I didn’t really know what the Golden Staircase was. He’d never mentioned it until now. My dad continued to tell me.
“Goes all the way down to the mouth of the Klamath.”
“A staircase made of what?” I asked him.
“Gold!” He told me with a toothless grin he couldn’t withhold. I knew he was kidding. I also knew I wasn’t going to walk all the way to the Klamath Glen tonight. That would mean hitchhiking back to my car which was way far out of anyone’s way. Either that or hike against the mountains tomorrow, up hill. Besides, we came for Doctor Rock.
“Doctor Rock,” I said to him.
“Alright,” he said, and we were on our way.
It wasn’t much further and we were there. We hiked through massive fallen, burnt cedars. We hiked through a meadow with pink, white and wine-colored blooms. It started raining again. We were at the base of the rock, facing its beautiful, moss carpeted body. Rain was running off the top of the rock like a woman going at some serious crying. We started scaling the boulders on the bottom. I immediately lost my footing on a slippery rock and smacked my face strait into the boulder in front of me–solid rock to my cheekbone. It would leave a bruise. We reached a clearing; the rain was coming down harder.
“Dad, we really shouldn’t even stand up at this clearing.”
I was thinking of the lightning, even though we hadn’t seen a bolt all day. He knew what I meant.
“Yeah, I agree,” he said. “See that moss over there?” He pointed to a ledge covered with heavy moss.
I gave him a nod.
“That’s where we climb up.”
“I don’t know Dad, it’s too slippery, don’t you think?”
The ledge was steep and very high. I knew that traditionally that’s where the Native’s would go–to the very top of Doctor Rock–but it really was very high and I wondered if there would be shelter for camping.
“Don’t you think it’s too slippery Dad?” I continued.
“Ohyeah,” My dad said, concurring that there was danger.
We made our way out of the clearing. We were at the base of Doctor Rock in a cocoon of rock and shrub-like trees. There wasn’t much wiggle-space, and it had started to rain harder.
“You wanna stay here while I find us a better spot? We’re not going to the top right now, and you don’t want to get your bag wet.”
He went on and I crouched under a rock overhang. Calmly, I sat down between our two backpacks. To the left of me was a rock crevasse, and a huge crack. I could see a clearing next to it. I knew if I did a little crawling I might find a grotto, where the crevasse and the clearing meet. I traveled a little ways, cautiously.
“Terah!” My dad’s voice echoed from inside the crevasse, from where I would have found the grotto. “I’ve found a much better spot!”
The spot was an elongated grotto, four to eight feet wide and over two stories high. Rain trickled down the walls, streaks of it. The streaks were so peculiar looking that I took off my damp mitten, touched the wall and licked my finger just to make sure it was what I thought it was.
The grotto was stocked with a pile of firewood, dead oak. That was nice of whomever, I thought to myself, very nice of them. There was a fire-pit. I built a fire using damp papers from my notebook. It was already late-afternoon, early evening and given the rain, we weren’t going anywhere. Might as well warm up by the fire, I was thinking. The smoke billowed right out the open roof of the crevasse, like a chimney, not once getting into my eyes. I am thankful, I thought to myself. Meanwhile, my dad was moving the firewood pile closer to the fire.
“Dad,” I said, slightly annoyed, “I’m sleeping there, remember?”
“Well, you’re not gonna take up this whole spot are ya? You’re not that big,” he said, joking as usual.
“No, but I don’t want to sleep right next to it,” I said, sounding like a kid again. I did not love this side of me. This side of me that struggled to connect with my father. This side of me who carried around annoyance and resentment from childhood. The rigid side of my otherwise free-spirit.
But I also didn’t want to attract spiders by spooning with a log.
“We’ll just get up and gather more wood from the pile as we need it,” I finished.
My dad raised his eyebrows and said, “Hey, you don’t wanna be walkin’ all the way to the wood pile when it gets dark in here. Interesting things happen out here. Scary things. Whhooo-oooo!” He howled.
This is why I like my dad, I remembered, because he knows that I like to be scared. I am his one and only child, and I am thankful. I am his world. Always have been. Always will be. It’s not every kid who can say that.
It took me an hour or two to get dry. Cave fires don’t get very large, pushed up against the wall like they are. I was happy to find something to occupy my time, if an odd source of entertainment. It was something and nothing all at once–getting dry.
Furthermore, I thought about Dad and I, driving out to these mountains, just to walk around. Hoping we don’t see a mountain lion, or rather that a mountain lion doesn’t see us. Building fires and warming our food. Sleeping with only the sound of the water dripping from the trees. Getting closer to God. That’s what I viewed it as–closer to nature is closer to God. Whatever God is. If God was anything like nature, well I could dig it.
My energy had been all wound up. Tight like a braid. I was here to unravel, to grow, to accept, to get closer to my soul. Seems selfish, doesn’t it? In a grotto, a cave which truly belongs to the Yurok Indians and here I was thinking of me, me, me. I needed to talk to God. I wrote in my journal, and this is what I said:
Dear lord, trust me when I say the journey was the sacrifice, the rain. Now I pray for many things. I am one of them, yes, but so are you. By coming here I have developed a story. It has to do with your gods and your world. I will share it and it will spread like a fire. People will read it, and remembering you, will forget about the material world for a moment, they will join me in your cave. And I will remember you, the land as it was, and the people as they were, before all the chaos and the cities. The essence of what it really is to be human, animal, or something in-between. And I will be thankful. Come to me in my dreams, dear lord, Be With Me Like Light. I will see you for what you are, so long as your gods are pure and good. I am on your side, Doctor.
The sun set at eight but it might as well have been at seven because that’s when the cave got dark. My clothing was dry, my dad and I had exchanged words and dinner but I was heading quickly to bed, if early. I retracted into my sleeping bag. I always like to go to sleep early back in childhood when my dad and I camped “under the stars.” Sleeping outside was my favorite place to sleep. Soon, I was in a dream…
“Dad, dad, I think someone was just in here.” I said to my dad (in my dream). He was a few feet away in his sleeping bag and I was mummified in mine. “Dad!” I said again, he was still sleeping. It seemed so real.
“Well, go and find out who it is,” he said back to me, which is exactly what he would’ve said in real life.
It was daylight out. I slowly scrambled out of my sleeping bag and started walking out of the crevasse, toward the paper-white sky. When I reached the outside I was up on top of Doctor Rock. There was a shallow bar of sand amidst the blackened rock. There was a set of child’s footprints in the cream-colored sand and the imprint of a ball. The child had been bouncing a ball. But the child was gone, and the ball was gone.
Suddenly there was a hard tapping on my forehead, on my third-eye. Three or four times it knocked. Bang-bang-bang. I was trying to pull myself out of my sleep. I was trying to pull my head out of my sleeping bag to see who it was–to face the spirit. I expected to find a deer’s hooves, a wooden peg-leg, or a medicine stick—that’s what it felt like was tapping my forehead.
When I finally awoke, when I was actually awake and my head was out of the sleeping bag, the thumping stopped. Once my eyes adjusted all I could see was the wall of the grotto and a single black centipede a few inches from my face.
“Dad. Dad.” I said, just like I had in my dream.
“What.” He said back, not very warmly—more of a statement than a question.
“I…I need you to put some wood on the fire,” I said frantically. The fire was still smoldering, but barely. I was cold, but most of all I was kind of scared. The dream had been so vivid and intense. “Please, just put some wood on the fire and don’t go back to sleep until I go to sleep, okay?” I asked him, clearly alarmed.
My dad knew that I had gotten scared over something, a dream likely, and he got up and did what I said.
“Not until I’m completely asleep again, okay?” I asked again. I could be such a child. But the ball, and the boy, and now this centipede was in front of my face who I knew had tapped my forehead and who I knew actually wasn’t a centipede at all but an Indian Medicine Man with his medicine stick who was waiting for me on top of Doctor Rock. And the only way I could see him would be to climb up there but I wasn’t about to do that. It was dark and cold and slippery and I’m not a grown woman at all, I’m still a child, I thought in my sleepy oblivion.
The Medicine Man knew I was a coward. He didn’t have to come down here to see me shiver in the presence of him. He could watch me from the translucent ball that sat on top of his medicine stick, the ball that—like a gypsy’s—told him the future or the way things were or the way things had been.
Only his were truer, and more ancient, more meaningful, deeper than the average gypsy’s crystal ball. He watched me through his crystal ball medicine stick and he didn’t see my ugly sleep encrusted eyes or the knots in my hair like an old-man’s beard. He didn’t see my frumpy clothes or my clumsy character. The Medicine Man saw my soul and that’s why he reached out to me as I lay in the cave. My soul was brave when I’d said that prayer earlier and he’s noticed a hint, just a hint of curiosity as I prayed, mentioning his God and his World. I asked for him and then he came, but then I got scared and ran away.
Awaken my third eye. That was the message I got. I can still feel the reverberating tap tap tap on my forehead as I write this. And the boy? I haven’t found out who he is yet, I don’t even know how I know he is a boy—but he is. I guess that’s what spirituality is. You know, but you can’t prove or explain it. For some of us, that is enough. That is something. It makes one thing ours and ours alone. Like our own unique journeys are. Explainable things are overrated sometimes. They hold no mystery or soul. Plus, there are one billion true things in this universe that cannot be seen—yet. My dad has always taught me to get out of my head and into my heart—only without ever saying that.
God Bless the woman who’d died here, I thought to myself as I lay down like a mummy in my sleeping bag, having just been visited by a Yurok spirit, clenching my eyes shut, holding myself tightly, and drifting back to sleep as my Dad generously stoked the fire.
I am not a grown woman at all, I thought, I am still just a child.
Foot note: Here is an alternate experience which I find deeply moving, written by the members of the Yurok Tribe near Klamath, California.