july 9, 2020—a tale of one bunny

On my walk with Rocco early this morning, a block from home, we happened upon a tiny bunny in the middle of the sidewalk. Having recently added “tiny bunny window well rescue” to my covid-resume, I knew something was not right with this li’l bun, given its statue-like presence even as we got closer. But, I could see it was still breathing, its little body puffing in and out, in and out, in and out.
My hands were full of trash, and a poop bag, and a dog on a leash. My first thought was, “keep walking, there’s nothing you can do, Jen,” quickly followed by, “you can’t *not* try to do something,” followed by, “just scoop it up, put it back in the bushes, let nature take its course,” followed by a louder bossier thought: “open the fucking poop bag, stuff all the trash in it, free up a hand and bring the bunny home, figure it out as you go,” all of this in a matter of nanoseconds, as thoughts are wont to do.
Cupped bunny in one hand (my god did it stink!), clutched bag of trash and dog leash in the other, I quickly walked home, hoping my mask hid my crying face, thinking, good Lord, now what? I imagined eye-dropper feedings, harvesting grass from the front yard, little rabbit turds dotting my apartment, a bewildered Rocco wondering “what the hell kind of torture is this—invite my favorite prey into the house but don’t let me eat it??!!” When we got home, how still, how smelly, how matted its fur was, maybe a cat or something had tried to do it in, maybe it was already too late. I emptied a decorative box on my dresser, lined it with an old towel, and placed the bunny inside, propping the lid with a lotion bottle. It was still breathing, its eyes would grow wide then slide narrow, again and again.
I hopped online, to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center’s website, only to find out they didn’t open until 9 am; I had an online Zoom client at 9:30, another at 11. Things were not looking good for the fuzzy li’l dude, why didn’t I just mind my own biz? I thought, just as my phone lit up with a message from my first client, she’s not feeling well, needs to reschedule our morning session. I send up a prayer of thanks to the bunny gods, grabbed my purse, the box, and out the door we went, leaving Rocco staring out the front window, probably thinking, “wait! Where you going with my breakfast!”
Of course, I cried all the way to the center (this is why my husband wouldn’t let me watch Animal Planet—”why do you DO this to yourself?” he’d ask, grabbing the remote and flipping the channel to the Food Network), thinking what an idiotic thing to do, maybe the bunny’s mother was freaking out, maybe it’s all for nothing, maybe maybe baby bunnies are a dime a dozen and the WRC has bigger and better animals to worry about, maybe the bunny’s already dead. I kept flipping the lid of the box up to peek on the way to Roseville, its little belly still puffing in and out, in and out, in and out.
When I got to the WRC, I remembered another lifetime ago, when this place played a more prominent role in my life, when Bob and I lived in a nearby apartment complex early in our marriage, when Gretchen Hildebrandt and I had our sweet little Harmony Salon, not far from here. WRC is connected to the Harriet Alexander Nature Center, a lush oasis in the middle of the busting suburb, a spectacular place for birding, wild flowers and wild life, a true sanctuary in the city. I entered the building and was greeted by the staff, “Come on over, what have you brought us this morning in that fancy box?” A tale of one bunny tumbled out as tears started again, “I’m sorry, I’m such a crybaby,” I babbled.
“it’s okay, cry all you want, we see that a lot in here,” she said, her eyes crinkling into a smile behind her mask as she passed the box to another woman behind the desk, who disappeared behind a door with it.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” I rambled off all the options that ran through my mind, wondering aloud if they even took little rabbits, if it was the right thing to do.
“Trying to help another living creature is always the right thing to do,” the masked woman behind the desk assured me; immediately, her words flooded my veins with peace, and at that moment, became my official life motto. “We’ll check it out—maybe it’s just stunned—if that’s the case, you can bring it home and put it back where you found it. If it’s not, we’ll do what we can to help it.” A few minutes later, the other woman reappeared; as I suspected, it looked like the little bunny had a run-in with another animal, maybe a cat or dog (that explained the smell); it’ll be a few days before they’ll know for sure if it’ll survive. “It’s about the age that it’s ready to leave the nest—old enough to wander out on their own for food, but not always so savvy about predators,” she told me.
“Is there some way I can check up on it, see how it’s doing?” I asked, feeling kind of foolish, but also suspecting that like tears, the question was common in these parts.
“Of course—just call or email in a few days, we should have an update by then. Oh and make sure you take one of our bunny magnets, since you seem to have a bunny theme running through your life lately!”
I had some time to kill before my 11 am Zoom client, so I took a meandering walk along Harriet Alexander’s boardwalk trail, still crying as I absorbed all the sights, sounds and sensations of the world around me, the songs of redwing blackbirds, gold finches, chickadees, so many other birds I don’t know the names of, filling the air; swamp milkweed, cattails, arrowhead plant (which produce edible tubers, once an important food source for indigenous people), knowing the tears were more than just for the bunny. They were for a past life, a present life, a world that has unplugged me from so many loved ones, for a future unknown. I just let them flow.
At the end of the trail, a little bunny stopped me in my tracks; this one was larger than the one I brought in, though still small enough to be considered a bunny in my book. I crouched down and watched it for a while, it kept hopping closer and closer to me, chomping down grasses and other greens with abandon. Every now and then it’d stop eating, and flip a back foot up to its ear, furiously scratch for a few moments, before resuming its meal. I imagine the little bunny I brought in living its life out like this; not entirely safe, but at least in a more natural setting with far fewer dogs and cats, lawnmowers and garden rakes to contend with.

I know some people are not fans of rabbits—they destroy gardens and such—or think that saving a tiny animal is such a minor blip in the grand scheme of it all, a useless expenditure of energy, that for every tiny rabbit, or ant, or spider saved, actual human lives are lost, all of which has the potential to render me a sanctimonious, hypocritical asshole, I know … I hope people realize that’s not the point of all this rambling; I’m never really sure what the point is, other than we all do the best we can, with what we have at any given moment, and it all somehow comes back to the words of the woman behind the desk, “Trying to help another living creature is always the right thing to do.” xo.

july 6, 2020—four years later at Philando Castile’s Peace Garden: let justice roll down like water

Four years ago, Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, the horrifying event broadcast on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, while her tiny four-year-old daughter sat in the back seat. Bearing live witness to the egregious injustice, the Twin Cities erupted in protests. I think about Philando Castile often, especially when I drive down Larpenteur Avenue on my way to my bank, or to one of the best-kept secret dog parks in all the land. Falcon Heights was first, forever imprinted in my DNA in 1986, when I moved to the inner ring St. Paul suburb just out of high school. My friend, Jen Bochman and I shared a one-bedroom apartment at the intersection of Fry and Larpenteur, back in a time where my life was difficult for a lot of legitimate reasons that did not include the color of my skin. Thirty years later, directly across the street from that tidy, unassuming brick apartment building, Philando Castile was killed.

Without a doubt, this singular event (which was, as is everything, an inexplicable alchemy of endless forces and sources converging into a single a-ha moment), cracked me wide open. A shocking, yet necessary and long over-due bitch-slap to my consciousness—a sudden glaring awareness that there are two starkly different realities playing out in America. One I didn’t have to think about because by design, it took great care of me; the other, I didn’t have to think about because by design, it didn’t directly affect me. Membership definitely has its privileges; you don’t even have to think about them to benefit, all you need is the right skin tone. I was just another run-of-the-mill case of “you only know what you know,” a convenient, easy, yet rampant, debilitating malady—when you’re not forced to interrogate further, when you exhibit no overt symptoms, you get to claim innocent as the disease progresses, continuing to claim lives while hiding in plain sight in your life. Philando’s death forced an existence into my consciousness that I could no longer, easily or conveniently ignore.

I am not the first to experience or write about such epiphanistic (<–I just made that word up!) moments in a life. For Susan Sontag, it happened when she discovered photographs of WWII concentration camps: “One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, perhaps the only revelation people are granted now, a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July, 1945. Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Ever since then, it has seemed plausible to me to think of my life as being divided into two parts: before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after. My life was changed by them, though not until several years later did I understand what they were about.”

The universe continually present us with such profound, life-altering, teachable moments; it’s our responsibility as humans occupying this planet, to not just look for them, but once we find them, fashion a semblance of meaning from them. This work is not for the faint of heart. I wonder if this is why I abhor the platitude, “Everything happens for a reason,” because most people skip out on the hard, necessary work behind “the reason,” and instead use it as a cop-out, a distraction of sorts—if we’re victims (perhaps more accurately, beneficiaries) of circumstance, “the reason” can be brushed off as a mystery that no human will ever figure out, no need to interrogate further.

I consumed news coverage of Philando’s murder, which talked at length about who he was, how loved he was by his family and friends and his community at the JJ Hill Montessori school in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood where he worked, which was just down the street from where I was living at the time. Philando Castile became not just another headline or statistic; instead, he materialized as fully human, a decent, loved and loving, flawed being, as we all are, who did not deserve to be murdered over a traffic stop. I read the comments after the articles (I’ve since learned that if I don’t want to not just ruin my day, but completely obliterate all hope in humanity, DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS); I saw on social media what people—people I knew even—were saying about Philando and his girlfriend, about the newly emerging Black Lives Matter movement; that, coupled with the toxic energy that the 2016 election campaign was stirring up, added fuel and nourishment to my newly-forming awareness.

I marched in peaceful protests, I wrote to and called my representatives to express outrage and support, I read, and read, and read—newspapers, online articles, essays by known and obscure authors, so much reading…in the process, I am learning, piece by piece, about the systems of oppression that binds our nation tightly to a debilitating status quo. Even though I’d lived in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood for over three years, the first and only time I stepped foot inside the neighborhood’s namesake was for Philando Castile’s funeral. These seem like useless acts, but we have to begin somewhere. One of my favorite sayings is, “in order to be great at something, we have to start out sucking.” Right now, I have a blackbelt in sucking, as far as knowledge about systemic racism in our culture is concerned, but I’m working to change that. Each step I take moves me a step away from privilege, and closer closer to a more profound empathy and concern for people and reality I will never, truly understand, yet by the effort, increases my love for all of humanity exponentially. I’ve never been good at math, so you’ll just have to take my word on that equation.

I’ve developed an annoying, enormously inconvenient affliction over the years (that I think it’s always been with me, but took off in earnest after the death of my husband in 2011, and has been taken to new heights with Philando’s death, then the 2016 election, and then, and then, and then…), trying to trace connections between seemingly unconnected things; sometimes it takes a long while to untangle the threads, sometimes I think I’ll never get to the end, but it doesn’t stop me from trying, because the payoff is always worth it. It’s in the trying that life-altering events begin to take shape. My life has become a living testament to the wise words of naturalist John Muir: when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.

I quit drinking in January of this year, and by “quit drinking,” I don’t mean that something horrible happened to force me to this place; I mean, I finally acknowledged that things have been uncomfortably, inexplicably incongruent for a long time in my life; I mean, I decided maybe I should stop doing what I’ve been doing and see if doing something else might yield different results. I mean, I’ve done and continue to do behind-the-curtains work to face-off with my long-held beliefs about alcohol, to hold them up to the light of facts, which curiously, often results in these long-held beliefs disintegrating into vapor upon exposure, because they’re just that—beliefs, not facts. When exposed, they have no substance, no structure or scaffolding to hold them together; it is a magic show that I’ve conveniently, willfully played along with—pay no mind to the man behind the curtain, ignore the sleight of hand. To learn otherwise, that alcohol has really done nothing except suck the soul out of my life has been heartbreaking, heart healing, mind-blowing, mind mending, soul wrenching and soul-freeing work. In other words, fucking hard (because it’s everywhere), but the results continue to be profoundly worth it.

I’m not saying that this is an anti-alcohol campaign, I’m not saying that I’ll never drink again. Today, I have no desire to drink, even in the midst of the neverending shitshow churning around us (if that POS in the WH gets elected a second term, though, all bets—alcohol and otherwise—are off); today, I’m the curious observer, collecting new data in the form of new, alcohol-free experiences, taking copious notes about what my life can be like, pure as it was when I was a kid, it seems, before alcohol came into the picture. Today, even as alone as I am in the middle of a pandemic, it’s about as peaceful as it’s ever been in my head and heart, and for that, I’m profoundly grateful.

I’ve learned that addiction is not a hard line, but a continuum: if you can’t imagine your life without alcohol (I’m not talking about a 30-day “dry July” stretch; I’m talking for the rest of your living, breathing, heart-beating life), you are on that continuum. Simple as that. This is not a judgment call or fear mongering, it’s just a fact about how addiction works, that there are gradients to the fall. Maybe you don’t drink—if not, you’re not on the continuum; maybe you never move from your place on the continuum or you move so slowly it’s barely perceptible. Maybe something happens in your life that pushes you so hard, you lose your footing and stumble deeper into addiction or maybe nothing really pushes you, you just suddenly find that alcohol has insidiously taken your life hostage without you even noticing; maybe you live your life like everyone else, hovering around the “normal” or “not that bad” or “but I’ve never” or “I’m not an alcoholic because I took an online test/I quit for 30 days/I’ve never had a DUI/I’ve never lost my job/fill in the blank” territory on the continuum—if what you do is no different than everyone else you know, there’s no motivation to change. Maybe you don’t question why wine has somehow become entwined in every facet of your life, from birth (yes, you can buy wine-themed baby onesies), to mommy wine culture, (Laura McKowan, in We are the Luckiest, speaks of the special vitriol reserved for mothers who drink) to yoga class, to widow and other grief experiences. Maybe you fail to make the connection between alcohol and your insomnia, or your glucose or cholesterol levels, or your dried up sex life, or that strange stubborn skin issue or gut problem that won’t resolve no matter what you eat or don’t eat or what prescription you try to cover it with, or the undercurrent of low-grade depression that never leaves or the nagging dragging feeling that “this is all there is?” to life, even if you’ve accomplished spectacular things. Maybe you buy into the adage that all of that is just the inevitable consequence of a stressful life, genetics, getting old. Or maybe you really like things just as they are—don’t barge in here uninvited with your sanctimonious temperance bullshit, missy—because ignorance really, literally is bliss, and we all want to desperately believe that everything really does happen for a reason. If you take away alcohol, the real reasons might be exposed, all those beliefs you’ve held tightly to, that (barely) held you up, or hid you, will disintegrate in thin air. Then what? And by “you,” I hope you recognize I really, only mean “me.” Any resemblance to you is purely coincidental.

Words matter, significantly, in every aspect of our lives. For reasons I’m still working to understand and am not sure I ever will but I’ll keep working at it because I’m a persistent li’l missy, alcohol has been extrapolated from all other addictions and treated as its own separate thing, with its own separate language. Instead of recognizing alcohol as a toxic substance that’s potentially addictive to every single human (anyone who has ever been drunk or experienced a hangover, knows, at least implicitly, of its inherent toxicity; anyone, under the right circumstances can become addicted), we’ve divided the world into two groups—the majority who can drink, and those few who have a disease, or a genetic problem, or a weakness, or an allergy, who can’t, a dangerous dichotomy that keeps so many people from seeking help because they’re not “that bad.” We say that the alcoholic wages a lifelong battle against alcoholism. We don’t apply this twisted logic to, say, cigarettes, or heroine or cocaine; we don’t say that those substances are fine, hell even great! in moderation for most people, but not for a few select, flawed individuals who have a disease, or who can’t handle cigarettes, or hard drugs. Holly Whittaker posits that this has to do with the culture that’s been deliberately built around the substance; it’s so infiltrated every aspect of our lives, we don’t even notice it until God forbid should we challenge this culture and decided to quit it. Instead of saying the culture is the problem, and normalizing addiction, we’ll narrow it down to a few problematic individuals, and keep the party rolling.

Addiction arrives in our lives by many vehicles; alcohol is just one way. It shows up in other disguises—food, gambling, power, sex, internet, religion, exercise, drugs—the list goes on. Often, some kind of trauma precedes addiction, though it’s not a necessary ingredient; success can be as likely a culprit. I sometimes think of addiction as a protective measure gone haywire, a coping mechanism that serves its intended purpose but then didn’t take the hint to take a hike after the crisis had passed; instead, it settled in for a long stay. Addiction is a response to a desire that can never seem to be filled, most often, the root of addiction is a significant feeling of loss—of control, of connection, of peace, of love. I can see now that, given where I was at the time of my husband’s illness and death, drinking effectively numbed the horrific images of what I saw him endure—the fucked up side to fight cancer that no one ever tells you about, that might have very well killed me, too—and helped me stay by his side and fight for him, when he was unable to do so. I don’t know that I could have done what I did, where I was at that time in my life, had I not had that coping strategy. For a very long time, I harbored tremendous guilt about this, which only served to drive drinking even deeper into my life; today, I can look at that time with authentic forgiveness, grace and wisdom—that I did the very best I could with what I had available to me then, a significant turning point for my thoughts about drinking and my motivation to do different, and better, going forward.

The parallels between addiction and racism are at once startling and so obvious, it’s almost comical if it weren’t so deadly. I’m coming to believe that America is addicted to racism—that we’re all afraid we’re going to lose something, should we do different, whether that loss is a perceived loss of power, of a familiar life, of control (who wants to be exposed as an ignorant jerk? No one, that’s who)…we are all sitting at various points on this continuum and until we come to terms with this reality, it will continue, like a terminal disease, to destroy us. I’m still painstakingly making my way through this tangled mess of an idea—racism as an addiction—trying to find where I sit on the scale, what my role is in being a part of the change that is desperately calling out to us, what I need to do. Maybe Im completely off about it, but at least it’s giving me some traction to my thoughts…Awareness is a powerful tool to instigate action; I recognize I have a place on the racism continuum; that, like my relationship with alcohol, I still have a lot of work to do, that right now everything I do or don’t do is going to feel sucky. It’s exhausting, frustrating, infuriating, humbling, and foreign, but like quitting drinking, every step I take moves me a little farther away from sucking and a little closer to something more divine.

Today, a memorial garden has blossomed at the place where Philando took his last breath, an organic, evolving symbol of agony, outrage, grief, community and hope. While at the candlelight vigil last night at the garden, honoring and commemorating Philando’s life, I listened to his mother, Valerie Castile speak, in awe of how this woman has been able to take this epic tragedy and turn it into a living, breathing movement that’s taking on a life of its own. Still, I heard the agony in hers, and other speakers’ voices, over the most recent, senseless loss of George Floyd’s life, and too many others, by the same oppressive system that robbed her son of his. I’ve been reading WEB DuBios’ The Souls of Black Folk; I think about how his words, written in 1903, are the same age old laments and outrages forcing people to take to the streets today, and I understand, at least a little, why protests and riots happen. This compels me to join. I think how, for all the astounding advances in technology, medicine and other systems of our world, the systems of oppression of his times are still very much alive and doing better than well—they’re not just still running the show, they’re now in the white house, not much different than when DuBois was alive.

Still. I learned from Valerie Castile and others last night, that there are forty Black women on the 2020 ballot for various seats in our government, that a significant reason for the rage and the riots are that by the people, for the people, even today in 2020, does not include all the people. The city of Falcon Heights declared July 6 Restoration Day and July 7 Unity Day, community-wide efforts to start bridging the expansive gaps between residents that became glaringly apparent with Philando’s murder. In light of the loss of life, it seems like such small step toward unity, it hardly seems worth it. The only thing we can do is trust that it is.

 

 

 

july 4, 2020…no one is truly free until everyone is free

I was coaxed out of a book and onto my front porch tonight, while my thundeshirted dog hid in the darkened bathroom-cum-panic-room. I’d normally sit out 4th of July fireworks, but tonight, I sat on the front step in the dark, feeling neighborhood rumble in all directions, a garbled Morse code of sizzles, whistles, crackles, pops and booms…an occasional blossom of light unfolded above the treetops, baptizing the Earth in petals of fire, and through the smoke veil, a buck moon lunar eclipse shimmered rose gold. Yes, all of that, on my front steps tonight! The longer I sat on my steps, the explosions began to sound less like random noise, and more like an uprising of voices bursting in thunderous anthems and elegiac hymns of freedom, revolution, fury, joy, rage, elation, grief, sorrow, anguish, urgency, defiance, courage…

My husband used to sign letters to me with, “life is an emergency!” words that never felt more true than they did tonight, sitting on my front steps wrapped in the turbulent, urgent, prophetic night sky.

june 30, 2020—thunder and fireworks and cars, oh my.

Rocco’s new/used Thundershirt, 5$ Craigslist score over the weekend—sporty yet functional, the clingy fabric not only accentuates his chiseled physique, but seems to be helping with the poor fella’s fireworks/thunderstorm/car-induced anxiety—and I lived to tell the tale.

I told both my sisters, on separate occasions, about my recent fabulous find: about how Thundershirts are around forty bucks new, about how I tried one years ago which didn’t seem to do much for Rocco, about how evidently, the 4th of July starts in May in my new neighborhood, about how, between fireworks and thunderstorms of late, poor li’l guy’s a basket case and nothing has helped to settle him down—CBD oil, Rx drugs—nothing. Instead of buying new, I thought I’d give good ol’ Craigslist a try; it’s served me so well in the past. As luck had it, I found a few Thundershirts listed, sent off a few emails to the sellers, then took off for the dog park. Got a text from one of the Craigslist people who happened to live in south Mpls, close to where we happened to be at the dog park. After our frolic, we swung by the seller’s house, tried on the shirt; not a perfect fit, but hey, for five bucks, we made it work.

I hand the masked (yay!) woman a five, she asks, “Hey, how limber are you?” Not gonna lie—she caught me off guard with her curious question. But, before I can answer, she tells me that she was weeding her front flower beds and scared a baby bunny out from her hostas, which leapt into an egress window well and was now trapped. She walks me over to the window, we peer over the edge. Sure enough, down at the bottom, a tiny ball of fur sat motionless in a corner. “I’ve got bad knees and a bad back, there’s no way I can get down there to rescue it,” she tells me, as though she could tell that I am a climber of trees, a saver of turtles in the road and ants trapped in my bathtub and wasps in my bedroom and stray dogs on the street. Or maybe I just looked like the world’s biggest sucker. “Of course I’ll climb down and scoop the little bunny out,” I said, as I put Rocco back in the car.

When I get to this part, about lowering myself into the window well that’s almost as deep as I am short, about 5 feet, give or take a few inches, BOTH of my sisters, on separate occasions, interrupt me with a piercing shriek. “What the HELL is WRONG with you, Jennifer Kay Hildebrandt??!! What part of ‘how limber are you?’ don’t you understand?!” they both cry out. “That’s how people get MURDERED! Baby rabbit my ass—don’t you remember Silence of the Lambs—’It rubs the lotion on the body or it gets the hose again!!!’??!!! She was going to club you with the shovel and someone in the basement was waiting to drag you by the feet into the house through the window!”

I burst out laughing, “Well, I’m sitting here telling you the story, so obviously murder didn’t happen—I wouldn’t have done it if I felt at all unsafe! Do you want to hear how my story ends or not?” It’s anticlimactic, really, other than I had no idea that baby bunnies are so fast and have an astonishing vertical jump—the terrified li’l bun almost launched its own escape up and out of the window well a few times. After several failed attempts, I finally caught it in a dish towel and released it back into the hostas.

I climbed out of the window well, unscathed, shook hands with the seller, sanitized my mitts in the car, then headed for home, happy in the knowledge that Craigslist is still a source of strange joy for me. In these challenging days of covid-19 and righteous revolution, most of us are trying to stay as safe as we can, while staying as connected as we can, helping each other whenever we can, however we can. Keep on keepin’ on, y’all. And don’t forget about Craigslist for all your household, yard, creative and thrill-seeking needs. xo.

june 20, 2020—catching my breath

(author’s note: I wrote this essay shortly before my dad’s death, in 2007; can’t believe I was only 39—I’m 52 now. It’s been hiding in a file on my desktop for years; I’d forgotten about it,  until I was reminded of it tonight when I went looking for photos to share for Father’s Day. It’s a long one, guess I have a lot to say about my dad. He was a good man, with a rough exterior. For all of our differences, there was never a day in my life that I didn’t believe my dad loved me. Happy heavenly father’s day, Pappa D. xo)

I’ve become obsessed with the act of breathing. I ponder the mundane: the scientific, mechanical, repetitive act of gases exchanging via the various components of the respiratory system, replacing carbon dioxide with oxygen by inhalation and exhalation. I marvel at the divine: a wondrous, miraculous, cyclical act of filling up then wringing out the lungs; waves of refreshing, renewing oxygen rushing in to dispel dirty, spent carbon dioxide, like washing clothes in a good old fashioned wringer-washing machine. In and out, all day, all night, over and over. An involuntary, monotonous act I’ve performed without previous consideration, much less, gratitude, for 365 days a year for the past thirty-nine years of my life. That’s roughly 14235 days (not figuring in leap years), and counting. A thoughtless act, so to speak, the ability to breathe. You don’t have to think about it to be good at it. Until your lungs start to fail you, and you can no longer breathe on your own. Then, all you think about is: how the hell am I going to catch my next breath?

My father was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease nearly thirteen years ago, at age 51. COPD is an umbrella diagnosis that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis and asthma, I read in the literature that describes my father’s disease. I break down the acronym: Chronic – unremitting. Obstructive – disruptive. Pulmonary – the lungs and all that is connected to them, from the mouth down to the alveoli, the tiny air sacs deeply embedded in the lungs, at the very end of the line. Disease – an impairment of health. The opposite of ease – dis-ease. My father has been in a state of dis-ease for over a decade. His condition will never go away; he will never recover from this. His lungs and the components that make up his respiratory system are deteriorating, disrupting the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of his lungs. In other words, he is slowly, very slowly, suffocating.

The diagnosis of COPD was traumatic, though not a real surprise. At conservative estimates, he was a three-pack a day smoker at the height of his smoking career, which lasted over thirty years. He told us that he started smoking when he was 13 years old. I recall sitting shotgun in his red and white Ford pickup as a child, trying to catch the packs of cigarettes that slid across the dashboard and tumbled to the floor when he turned a corner; the smell of his truck that filled my nostrils and clung to my hair and wool coat was of dust, grease, smoke. Cartons of smokes stashed on the kitchen counter alongside the Rice Krispies and Cheerios boxes. Full flavor, 100’s: Kools, Winstons, Marlboro. My father was an indiscriminate smoker, impartial to any particular brand. He bought whatever was on sale. Over the years, the colorful boxes were eventually replaced by the bland packaging of generics he switched to when the prices of smokes dramatically increased. 

Regardless of the brand, he was never without a cigarette pinched between his lips or dangling dangerously from his fingertips. My father could work on a car engine, pitch on his summer softball team, fix loose bicycle chains, haul five kids in his black-green Chevy Impala to the lake to drop a line in the water, with a smoke in hand or in mouth. He would do everything he could without putting his cigarette down, as though it were as necessary as his hands to completing any action. On the rare occasion that he simply couldn’t perform the task at hand with the cigarette attached to him, he’d turn to whomever was closest, adult or child, and say, “Here, hold this while I tighten this bolt,” passing the burning cigarette like a torch. He’d finish the job and in a singular, fluid movement, retrieve the smoke, take a long, deep drag to make up for lost time, drop the burning butt on the gravel, crush it with the heel of his dusty work boot and reach into his shirt pocket for a fresh one.

When we were young, he’d send one of us kids down to the grocery store or gas station with a fistful of bills, calling ahead to let the clerk know one of the Hildebrandt kids was coming down for his Kools. Fights erupted over the task because there was always change left over for a Baby Ruth, a can of soda, or a pack of candy cigarettes that puffed chalky “smoke” from the end when you blew on them.

After a double shift at the Land O’ Lakes plant in town, my father would crash on the sofa in front of a “horseshit-and-gunpowder” show blaring from the TV, a cigarette burning down to the filter in the ashtray that spilled over onto the armrest with stubbed out butts. The fact that my father didn’t kill all of us in a cigarette-initiated house fire is itself a miracle. The armrest of the sofa was pock-marked with blackened holes, edges hard and rough like a scab, from cigarettes or ashes that didn’t quite make it to their final resting place in the ashtray. Often, after my father had nodded off, I’d quietly and carefully pick up the smoldering cigarette and push it deep into the pile of ashes and lifeless butts until the smoke disappeared. I’d carry the ceramic ashtray to the bathroom, dump the dead butts into the toilet and flush, then scrub my hands with the bar of Zest at the sink before returning the dish to its rightful place on the armrest of the sofa. 

If he could have, my father would have smoked in church. Maybe that’s why he didn’t attend. On road trips, my mother sat in front with my baby sister in her lap as the smoke from his cigarettes trailed to the back seat where three of us kids were lined up along the black Naugahyde seat of the Chevy Impala and later, as the number of kids increased, various station wagons. Winter was the worst, with windows closed and the heater on full blast—at least in summer, the open windows carried some of the smoke out into the countryside whizzing by. We complained loudly, with well-rehearsed dramatics thrown in for effect: coughing and gagging, opening windows, falling across one another’s laps. He’d holler back at us, “Close those damn windows, for crissakes—I’m not heating the goddamned countryside!” 

Four out of five of my father’s children became smokers as adults. I started smoking when I was maybe eighteen. Smoking was my appetite suppressant, my stress-relief, something for fidgety hands to do. Funny, that the act of smoking mimics the relaxation breaths of yoga or other holistic practices. Deep inhalations, slow, intentional exhalations. I was a “real” smoker for nearly ten years – through my college years and beyond, though I never thought of myself as a real smoker. I never had to have a cigarette, never graduated to more than a half a pack a day, maybe a pack on finals weekend. I made many excuses for my smoking: I’m not a ‘real’ smoker—I can quit any time, I just don’t want to yet. . . I don’t need a cigaretteI’m not one of ‘those’ smokers who is running out for a cigarette every other minute . . . I enjoy smoking.  

August 2005
For the past few years, my father has lived in a subsidized apartment complex, a non-smoking development, dictated by the city of North Mankato. Violators of this law can be evicted after three warnings. My father is the most vocal complainer of the smoking transgressions that occur at his building. “Those goddamned smokers sit right outside my window – the smoke drifts up into my apartment. I can’t even have the windows open in the summer. They’re supposed to be out back, twenty-five feet from the building – that’s the rule.” 

We’re having lunch in his tiny, one bedroom apartment– pizza delivered from a local joint. I’m sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter, looking across the tiny, cramped apartment at my dad, who sits at his cluttered desk where he’s cleared a place for his plate and coffee cup. 

“—and I know that that horse’s ass, Jerry from down the hall, sits in his apartment and smokes – I can smell it when I walk by. Too damn lazy to go outside – thinks the rules are for everybody but himself.” He shakes his head. His breathing becomes more shallow and labored as he gets worked up about the situation.

Dad, chill. Take some deep breaths through your nose, out through your mouth. Remember that ‘pursed lip’ exhaling exercise your therapist taught you— 

“I’m having my doctor send another letter of complaint to the managers,” he ignores my directive and continues to rant, stabbing into the air with his fork. “If they don’t do something about those smokers soon, they’re gonna be sorry they didn’t listen to me the first time.” He takes big gulps of air through his mouth while fumbling for the inhaler he keeps in the pocked of his shorts. A few quick shots and he’s settled down for the time being. Perhaps too many years have passed for him to realize the irony of his statements.

It was Easter, 1994, when my father was diagnosed with his illness. My parents had been divorced for over ten years. It was our holiday ritual, at that point in our lives, to celebrate the holidays with each of my parents separately; all five of us kids had traveled to Mountain Lake to be with him. When we walked in the front door, I was startled by his appearance. He was sitting backward on his chair as usual, but his skin was ashy-grey, sagging like burlap bags under his eyes. He could hardly keep his head up or his eyelids from dropping, as though he hadn’t slept in days. I cried out when I saw his blue-purple fingertips. Almost in unison, we insisted he be seen by a doctor, now.

“It’s just that rib bothering me again,” he weakly protested, referring to a rib that had been dislocated in a car accident several months prior. “I’m seeing my chiropractor again this week.” We weren’t convinced. Instead of helping him with the traditional ham dinner, we helped him into the car and off to the ER.

~~~~

Take your hand and place it firmly over your mouth and nose. Make sure it’s clamped down good and tight. Now try to breathe. Take in deep breaths and fill your lungs, if you can. Then, try to expel all the air from your lungs. ALL of the air. It can’t be done, not without enormous amounts of straining, not without starting to feel lightheaded, maybe even a bit panicky, until you remember, feeling kind of silly, that you don’t have to breathe this way and you remove your hand with relief. 

This is how your father breathes all day, every day, one of my father’s nurses tells me. He can’t inhale enough oxygen to dispel the carbon dioxide that is taking up precious space in his lungs, nor can he completely empty his lungs of carbon dioxide when he exhales – the alveoli, tiny air sacs embedded into his lungs, where the gas exchange occurs, are weakened, the elasticity gone. If left to his own devices, the carbon dioxide would build up in his lungs and quickly kill him. That is why he has a tank of oxygen at his side all day, every day. 

If he exerts himself at all, if he simply becomes agitated or excited, he has to work even harder to try and get air into a respiratory system that simply won’t allow for it. Even if he simply breaths through his mouth instead of his nose, his breathing becomes even more labored and challenging. Circumstances that leads to panic attacks, vulnerability to every virus and bacterial infection floating around, revolving-door trips to the ER, week-long stays in the ICU at St. Joe’s until the medical team can re-regulate all the affected systems in his body. He is then released from the hospital to go home and wait, until it starts all over again. It’s a slow suffocation that can last for years. 

~~~~

The fact that my father lived with this disease for this long is nothing short of a miracle, though, I feel “miracle” is too holy a word to describe my father’s experience. Miracles happen to people who’ve suffered unfairly; miracles are an unexpected interlude after struggling with circumstances beyond one’s control. Miracles are for those receptive to suffering, because they’ve acquired the knowledge that suffering is necessary in order to create change and move to another, higher, purpose in life. My father’s suffering has not been unfair or necessary, nor is he receptive to the opportunity for change being demanded of him. It is the result of lifestyle choices he made over the years. He has done nothing to change his lifestyle after his initial diagnosis of COPD. How many near-death experiences is one allowed before God decides enough is enough? Maybe God doesn’t decide any of this.

And, maybe I am mistaken about my father’s role on this earth. Instead of student, perhaps he is an unwitting, accidental instructor. Maybe we, as his children are his students.

~~~~

My father continued to smoke after his initial diagnosis of COPD, even after being prescribed continuous oxygen administered through a tube in his nose, and a laundry list of prescriptions to treat his symptoms, symptoms of his symptoms, and side effects of medications, as well as to keep him alive. He’d just unhook his nostrils from the nasal cannula and step outside for a quick one. He continued to smoke until he wound up in the hospital, shortly after his initial COPD diagnosis, this time hooked up to a ventilator. A long plastic tube entered his body like an alien tentacle, through his mouth, down his throat, to his lungs. His eyes were closed but his eyelids fluttered spastically, his facial muscles contorted continuously in what looked like painful grimaces and winces. His limbs, bound to the bed frame with buckled straps, shook and shuddered periodically; his large, swollen abdomen sharply contracted then released, over and over. Occasionally, a nurse appeared to mop up blood and saliva that pooled, then spilled from the corners of his mouth. They constantly reassured us that he was in no pain, that he was on very strong sedatives to keep him in this induced coma until they could regulate his oxygen and carbon dioxide levels and fight the pneumonia infection raging in his lungs. The wincing, grimacing and muscle contractions are coughing responses, they told us, his body’s attempt to expel the mucous and phlegm built up in his lungs. The straps were necessary because even in a highly sedated state, a reflexive reaction to coughing is for the hands to go to the mouth and try to pull out the ventilator. 

The other end of the tentacle led to a box at his bedside, a collection of dials, buttons and red LCD numbers that changing constantly, lines that jagged up, down, sometimes spiking sharply before leveling off again. The numbers and lines meant nothing to me, but told the hospital staff all they needed to know about my father’s condition. For the time, this machine had to take over my father’s ability to breathe on his own – forcing oxygen into his lungs, drawing out carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide had built up to dangerous levels in his system, the doctors told us. He doesn’t have the strength or lung capacity to expel the CO2, nor can he draw in enough oxygen to dispel it on his own. The CO2 was slowly suffocating him. The machine will do the dirty work until my father’s body can take over the job again, if possible.

 During one of his early hospital stints, my father had an other-worldly experience that he’d only mentioned once, a visit by his deceased mother, which set him on the not-exactly straight and narrow. He was eventually awakened from an induced coma and taken of the ventilator, almost a week after his admission. Once coherent, he asked about his mother coming to visit him in the hospital. 

Dad, you know Grandma isn’t alive — she couldn’t have been here. He looked at us each of long and hard, then looked away, shaking his head. What is it? What did you see, Dad? “Nothing. Never mind.” He quit smoking for good after that visit.

~~~~

Since that first extended ICU visit so many years ago, my father has been to the ER and to the hospital in Mankato more times than I could ever try to count. Some have been quick, in-and-out visits, to adjust medications, to treat a new symptom of his illness. Others have been repeats of that first extended stay, with the ventilator taking over his body until the CO2 levels can be controlled and his feeble breathing ability can take over again. We joke that he has a frequent patient’s club membership, that they know him by first name and greet him like Norm on Cheers. He winks and says he does it on purpose, so he can have those cute little nurses at ISJ fawn over him and give him sponge baths. I am told these health crises are just a part of dealing with COPD, and that as the disease progresses, the visits and stays will get longer, more frequent. 

The National Emphysema Foundation tells us that emphysema is the fourth leading cause of death in America. An estimated 16 to 30 million people suffer from the disease – the vast discrepancy in those numbers is because emphysema is a silent, slow-moving yet stealthy invader, symptoms stay well-hidden until the disease has progressed to a debilitating degree. In other words, by the time a diagnosis is made, the disease has taken a stronghold on the respiratory system, and symptom management is all that can be done. A cure is not available. The only hope is to find temporary relief, to find ways to catch one’s breath, or in my father’s case, to simply get by.

My father is a pro at getting by. He has trudged through the past decade-plus with a portable tank of oxygen at his side and a pocketful of inhalers. He sleeps with a mask strapped to his face that is connected to a machine which delivers a strong, constant stream of oxygen into his respiratory system at night. I’ve learned to call the machine a Bi-PAP like he does, though I don’t remember what the letters mean. Another acronym to add to the alphabet soup sloshing around in my head. The machine hisses and whirrs as it forces oxygen into his compromised lungs while he sleeps. I have read that breathing with a Bi-PAP is like trying to breathe with your head out the window of a fast moving car. How this method of vigorous, mechanical therapy can possibly help anyone with compromised lung function breathe better makes me short of breath just thinking about it. Yet, without it, my father would unlikely survive the night. When he is reclined, in addition to the lack of strength in his lungs and diaphragm, it’s quite possible his airway could collapse under the pressure of his huge belly. Sometimes when I call him in the morning, when he’s just woken up, I can tell that the mask is still strapped to his face. The person who answers sounds hollow, nasally and raspy, nothing like my father’s clear, booming voice.

~~~~

My father is nothing if not tenacious, which is probably why he’s so good at getting by. Everything he has done in his life has been done with the gusto and ferocity of a pit bull. He is barely five feet tall, but despite his short stature (or perhaps in spite of it), he was a Golden Glove boxer, bantamweight, back in the early sixties. In a photo album stashed away somewhere is a yellowed newspaper photograph of my father at nineteen, his stocky, muscular frame draped in a baggy suit, arms squared up, fists curled, his hair greased to the side in a perfect coil at his forehead. He is standing next to a man who towers over him by nearly a foot, clad in similar attire. The caption, if I remember correctly, reads something to the effect of, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” a quote by my father, taken from the article that accompanied the photo. 

Several decades later, his reputation still holds strong. I met a man at my salon a few months back, the husband of a client of mine. Late 50’s, he’s a few years younger than my father. His wife told him that I’m also from southern Minnesota, near where they were originally from. When he asked what my last name was, I replied, “Hildebrandt.” 

“Hildebrandt,” he cocked his head to one side and repeated the name slowly. “Say, are you related to Duane Hildebrandt by chance?” 

I smiled. “That depends on what you know about him.”

“Is that your old man?” He broke into a wide grin. “Well, by God! Me and your dad used to run around with the same crowd back when we were a few years younger, got into a little trouble here and there.” He chuckled and slipped into reminiscing about my dad, mutual buddies and the good ol’ days as I continued to cut his wife’s hair. 

“He was a Golden Glove, wasn’t he? I tell you, nobody messed with Hildy back then, that’s for sure – not unless they wanted to get a beating they’d never forget. I remember one time, outside of the Fox Lake Ballroom—” I smiled as he continued his story. “—a bunch of rowdies decided to pick on your dad, not sure why anymore – knowing your old man, probably a woman involved,” he paused to wink at me before he continued. “Anyhow, they didn’t know he was the Golden Glove champ of the area,” he chuckled, talking more to himself than to me. “Man, three guys against your ol’ man – they thought they had ‘im, he was so damn short, but your dad came out swinging like the Tasmanian devil and no one could stop him till those three assholes were running for their car . . . those were some good times.” He looked back at me and asked, “Say, how’s he doing these days?”

I asked my father why he quit boxing after a few years, when he seemed to be so good at it, and had such an impressive reputation. 

“I woulda had to give up whisky and women,” he says with a wink. Boxing was replaced with booze and carousing, both of which he approached with the same gusto and bravado of his former athletic pursuits.

After his short-lived glory days in the boxing ring, my father retreated to the world of blue collar workers – working hard and playing hard. He got my mother, a seventeen-year old high school student, pregnant, and they married in June of 1964, after she graduated and my oldest brother was born. Four more children in less than ten years followed. My father was the embodiment of the “good ol’ Midwestern work ethic.” He worked in factories his entire adult life, where racking up overtime was a worthy cause. He worked at the local Land O’ Lakes plant for nearly twenty years, throughout most of my childhood. But weekends were for getting out, cutting loose, losing control. For a short while in between the factory gigs, he farmed. After seventeen years of marriage, working hard, playing hard, cutting loose and losing control, my mother divorced him. He responded by quitting drinking, but working even harder. Left the farm to work at a local meat processing plant, where the wages were rumored to be the best in the area, with plenty of overtime. That was followed by a gig as a materials handler at a paper product plant. 

He took masochistic pride in the fact that he worked 60-plus hour workweeks, racking up as much overtime pay as his employers would let him get a way with. He continually had the biggest overtime check of all his co-workers, he’d proudly tell me. Ten hour days were a light day; he preferred double shifts, when the overtime really piled up. He was constantly exposed to chemicals, dust, vapors, powdery substances, fumes, paper fibers, pollens. If the smoking didn’t get to him, environmental conditions would surely to do their work eventually. 

We’d come to visit on weekends home from college. You kids are spoiled – you don’t know the meaning of hard work, he’d chastise us through the cigarette pursed between his lips when we’d shuffle downstairs nearing the noon hour after a late night out with old friends. Other times, in more introspective moments, he’d tell us, Keep up the studies, finish that degree. You don’t want to end up like me, working in some goddamned factory the rest of your life.

~~~~

This is the man who taught me to fight. When I was ten years old, I came home crying because a neighbor boy had hit me. I was seeking sympathy from my dad, hoping he would march across the yard and give the kid hell. My father sat me down and said, “Listen. If you’re gonna to run with the big dogs, you gotta piss in the tall grass, Jen.” He held my head with one hand as he wiped the dirty tears from my cheek with the sweatshirt sleeve of his other and continued, “Don’t ever take the first swing, but if it comes down to it, make damn sure you’re the one who has the last hit.” And one last bit of advice, “Next time, whatever you do, don’t ever let that little bastard see you cry again. Ever.” That bit of advice carried me well into my college years, when drunk, groping young men in the bars would grab my ass as I passed by. I considered that “taking the first swing,” and usually answered it with a swift crack across the face. 

This is the man who took me to take my driver’s license test when I turned 16. After I passed, I drove to the insurance agent’s office so he could add me to the policy. I was giddy with thoughts of road trips with girlfriends and carting carloads of friends to football games as I floated along side of him into the insurance office. I must have been thinking of that and the many other things having my license would bring me when we got back into the car to head home. In other words, as my dad would have put it, I had my head up my ass.

I slowly pulled out of the parking space at the agent’s office, carefully checking my rear-view mirror as I backed out. Ignoring what was going on to either side of the car, I heard the crunching of metal on metal before I realized the front end of our station wagon was carving out a deep gouge into the passenger’s side door of the car next to me. “Stop the car! Stop the car! STOPTHEGODDAMNEDCARJENNIFER!” My dad’s booming voice filled my ears, but I had lost all mental and physical functions at that point. The car kept rolling. Dad flung his cigarette out the window as his foot shot over to my side of the vehicle and stomped down hard on the brake. He grabbed the wheel and jerked it to the left, then jammed the transmission into “park” and emitted a long string of expletives.

“Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!” My hands covered my face, I began to hyperventilate. “I can’t believe this – I just got my license! Ohmygodohmygod, I can’t believe this is happening!” 

My father lit up another cigarette, took a deep drag, then exhaled long and hard, sending a stream of smoke swirling inside of the car. “Stay right here.” He glared at me with the fury of a Baptist minister. “Don’t touch anything. I’ll be right back.” He got out of the car, slamming the door so hard that the car shook. “Christ almighty, can’t even leave the insurance office without getting into an accident,” he muttered as he marched across the parking lot toward the agent’s office. When he returned, I was sitting in the passenger’s seat, still sobbing into my hands. He yanked my door open and barked, “Get the hell out of that seat.”

No!” I shook my head furiously. “I’m not driving – ever again! You drive home.”

“Jennifer. Kay. Hildebrandt.” He said my name slowly and deliberately, each word driving a spike into my heart. “Get your ass back behind that wheel. You will drive home and you will get us there in one piece, if it’s the last thing you do.”

He stood at my door until I finally slid out of the car and slunk around to the driver’s side. When I got in, I turned the ignition on with trembling hands, tears burning my eyes.

“Now. This time, check all your mirrors, check behind you, check to the side of you. Check your blind spot, and do not pull out until you’re absolutely, positively sure there’s nothing in your way, on all sides. And when you’re think you’re clear? Check again.”

This is the man who gave me a tool belt and power drill for Christmas the year my husband and I bought our first home, who eagerly dispensed DYI advice whenever I’d call. When he’d come to visit, he always honed in on something that needed fixing—a leaky faucet, a temperamental light switch, a door that didn’t fit quite right in its frame. Instead of doing the work for me, he’d stand off to the side and tell me which tool to use, how to hold it, and guide me through the process. He always asked for photos of projects I’d done when he wasn’t around—the new storm door I’d installed, the kitchen cupboards I’d repainted, the pedestal sink we put in.

~~~~

In my early days as a hairdresser, I read in a trade magazine that one of the top ten reasons clients don’t return is a stylist who reeks of cigarette smoke. Made sense—even for a smoker, the idea of working so close to others, breathing dragon breath on them was a huge turn-off—I’ve been subjected to the funky breath of fellow hairdressers of which this article spoke. I wanted to succeed at my new career, so it was enough to get me to quit smoking at work. Money making pursuits, not my father’s struggle with getting through life with a tank of oxygen, became my initial motivation to cut back.

~~~~

My father was diagnosed with his lung disease shortly before I was married in 1995. My husband was not a smoker, but never hounded me about my smoking, even though he was a childhood cancer survivor. The only thing he said to me, early in our relationship, was, “I would have a very hard time feeling bad for you if you got sick because of your smoking, because it would be the result of a lifestyle choice you made, not some random illness that you had no control over.” I never smoked at home, and only rarely around him, maybe after a few cocktails with friends.

My dad’s diagnosis and subsequent dependence on forced oxygen were still a new adventure for all of us. He was extremely self-conscious of the breathing apparatus he now had to lug around, and he experienced frequent anxiety attacks that morphed into terrifying episodes of gasping for breath, that could be triggered without warning, sending him to ER and Urgent Care. My sister, Jill, quit smoking right after my wedding. I cut back to “social” smoker” status (which meant I became one of those annoying people who wouldn’t buy cigarettes, but bummed them from others), and kept that act up for another several years. Just a few with the girls when we meet for after-work drinks isn’t “real” smoking, I easily convinced myself. I can go weeks, hell, months without a cigarette. I’d feel like shit after a night of drinks and smokes – short of breath, dehydrated and tired—but I exercise and eat well on days and weeks in between, so I could easily ignore the errors of my ways.

In spite of my father’s precarious condition, lung capacity and quality of breath are topics that didn’t occupy my thoughts or enter my conversations with others to any great degree over the past decade. Until recently, I’ve been blissfully and voluntarily ignorant of my lungs and their monumental occupation until recently. Why this newfound curiosity and obsession of a bodily function that jump-started humankind? Why now, when I’ve watched my father trudge through the past thirteen years with a portable, two-liter tank of liquid oxygen slung over his shoulder, liquid oxygen that is pressurized into gas which travels through the tubes to his nose, and forced down into his lungs, administering life-giving, artificial breath that keeps my father alive? That, and a laundry list of medications that he must take several times a day: Albuterol, Atrovent, Serevent, Flovent, potassium chloride, Fosimax, Prednisone. Primary medications to treat his immediate health concerns, secondary medications to thwart the side effects of the primary medications, tertiary medications to supplement the gaps that the other medications don’t treat, stand-by medications that come into the picture as needed, supporting actors in a long running drama. Why do I care now? Why didn’t I years ago?

~~~~

My father rides shotgun with my oldest brother and his family to our house for Thanksgiving dinner last November, an hour and a half drive away. When he walks in the door, I am alarmed at his whitish-gray skin tone and swollen face. The skin around his eyes seems looser, sagging even more than I remember; his chin bulges out of the top of his t-shirt like a bullfrog’s throat. He makes his way to the head of the dining room table, pulls the chair out and turns it around, straddling it backwards, his large belly pressing against the spindles of the chair back, as he always has, for the past thirteen years. It takes pressure off his legs and supports his breathing, he’s always told us. He sits at the table for several minutes, his large belly rising, then dropping sharply as he quietly focuses on catching his breath.  

When dinner is served, he loads up his Chinet plate with a glob of mashed potatoes, turkey, dressing, baked corn, cranberries, a heap of sweet potatoes. He drowns the entire heap with thick brown gravy, and tops it off with a dinner roll. The stiff paper plate bows under the weight of his meal. This is the way this man has eaten his entire life, sick or not, as though every meal were his last. I scowl at him, tell him to go easy on the food. Why must you pile on the food like that, I snap, as I do at any meal I bear witness to his eating habits. You know what your doctor said. He looks at me over the rim of his glasses and says nothing as he puts the dinner roll back. I feel like an ass. I‘lll shut up. Just take the roll, I say repentantly.

Several hours later, after dinner, card games and visiting has worn everyone out, after the last of the pots and pans are wiped dry, everyone is saying goodbyes, in various states of leaving. My father lumbers out to my brother’s van in the sharp, bitter November wind. He makes it to the open van door, where Mike already has the van running and warmed up. My father clutches the inside of the door handle and stands, gasping for air. I am standing outside, without a jacket, at my father’s side. He is looking straight ahead, eyes glossy, gasping. I urge him to get into the van where it is warm. We’ll help you dad – just a quick jump up – it’s better than standing out in this cold – the cold is what’s making it hard for you to breathe— my brother and I count to three and heave him into the front passenger seat. I stretch the seatbelt across his stomach. He automatically grabs the belt and pulls it toward the clasp, but doesn’t buckle it. I don’t think he can buckle it across his swollen belly. Call me when you get home, okay, Dad? Make sure you call me before you go to bed tonight . . .    

~~~~

It was this last visit that made me quit my “social smoking” habit for good. I am still very healthy and active, but I’ve suddenly developed an ability to fast forward my life ten, twenty years from now. Will my own smoking history eventually show up like it has my dad’s, like the Devil himself, and rob me of all the things I currently take for granted? I can’t continue to make excuses. The evidence is right in front of me. My husband does not know the man who played slow pitch softball, who helped me and my siblings move countless times while in college, who worked as a heavy laborer for decades, who could fix anything. He only knows a decrepit older-than-his-years man who seems to always prematurely end a family gathering by a frantic health crisis. The other man, also my father, is a stranger to my husband.

No doubt, I miss it. I enjoyed smoking. The ritualistic elegance of the act of lighting a cigarette. The coupling of weekend cocktails and a smoke. The calming, soothing nicotine weaving through my bloodstream. Smokers are always the fun ones in the crowd. Take a look at any party or gathering – they’re the ones laughing the loudest, telling the raunchiest jokes, staying the longest, while the non-smokers huddle in their pocket of pure air, snidely commenting about the smokers contaminating their lungs, that all restaurants and bars should be smoke-free, about their right to breathe clean air.

~~~~

As time goes by, the effects of even my part-time habit are starting to appear. I notice that even just one beer and a smoke or two has the same effect as an all-night bender. I wake up short of breath, dehydrated, foggy-headed. Tiny lines around my lips match exactly the act of pursing my lips around the filter. Squinty-wrinkles radiate from the corner of my eyes, that may have been deepened as a result of peering through a cloud of smoke. 

My obsession with the act of breathing has found me observing smokers at various ages. People in their teens and twenties are cool and casual with a cigarette at their lips. Young women are elegant and carefree, men more dangerous and wild. But something seems to happen to people who smoke as they reach their 30’s. I think it’s the coloring of the skin that gives it away, a subtle ashen quality to the skin tone of smokers. Faces are either gaunt or puffy, but definitely showing more wrinkles and depressions than non-smokers, definitely lack the healthy glow and elasticity of a non-smoker. Many of my friends who are in their 30’s and still smoke seem to have a constant catch in their throat, as though they need to clear something from it, but the something never clears.  

As smokers reach their forties, the consequences are even more evident. The ashen tone is more pronounced, skin appears parched, puffing and exhaling of smoke etches deeper lines and wrinkles across the face. Coughing and hacking is constant, shortness of breath is clearly detected even in such benign activities as carrying on conversations. By fifties, smokers can be painful to look at. Often inconsistently overweight, especially thick through the middle, spindly limbs, wheezing and labored breathing while reaching for another smoke. Many women who smoke into their 50’s appear so frail – painfully thin, no muscle tone, with skin that has lost all elasticity, hanging like delicate fabric draped over bones. I’ve decided that smoking in one’s twentiess is indeed, cool, sophisticated, wild. But unfortunately, by the time it becomes a habit, the “cool” morphs into deterioration that becomes more apparent with each decade.

Vanity, more than quality of life, became the main motivator for me to quit smoking for good.

February, 2006
My father has just been dismissed from a two-week stink in Immanuel St. Joseph’s Hospital in Mankato because his potassium levels are out of whack, his oxygen levels drop dangerously low at night when he sleeps, the causes are unknown, his doctor says.

I have elected to join my father at his follow-up medical appointment, to hear first-hand what the doctor knows about my father. According to my father’s primary physician, it appears that his condition is getting progressively worse (as though the past twelve years haven’t been bad enough). At four feet, eleven inches tall – my father has always been very short, but he’s shrunk at least an inch or more over the years – he is also morbidly obese, weighing well over two hundred pounds.

I stare at him, shaking my head. “Are you kidding me? Look at my dad. Look at his health history. How can you even say that—of course you know what’s causing this.” I’ve gone round and round with this doctor before, when I’ve accompanied my dad to other appointments. I’ve been reading up on COPD and what can be done to manage the symptoms. I’m convinced that with dietary guidance, if he can lose some weight, it will help with his quality of life—breathing, sleeping, his bad knee, he’d have more energy to be more physically active. His doctor isn’t convinced. 

“Your dad needs to exercise to lose weight—he’s got to burn more calories than he consumes—but he can’t because of all his health issues,” the bespectacled, disinterested doctor says.

“That’s ridiculous—you could at least try to be proactive, instead of just pumping him full of medications while you wait for the worst to happen. Addressing his diet would make a significant difference—my dad doesn’t know how to eat well. He needs help.” We’re talking as though my father isn’t siting right next to me. My father sits silent.

During his hospital stay, a test reveals an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Because of my father’s precarious health, he is not a candidate for surgery. However, we’re told the Mayo Clinic in Rochester performs a non-invasive procedure for abdominal aneurysms and my dad might be a candidate. We set up an entire day’s worth of appointments, to meet with doctors, specialists, anyone who might have some say as to whether or not my dad could benefit from the procedure. Our trip to the Mayo Clinic verified the aneurysm measures six and a half centimeters in diameter (surgery is recommended for aneurysms five centimeters or larger), located very close to the renal arteries. However,  though the aneurysm is at a size that needs immediate attention, because of my father’s precarious health, he isn’t a candidate for any type of surgery, no matter how minor. 

I am overcome with emotion at this news. I vacillate between deep sorrow for him, when I see the look that settles on my father’s face after the team of specialists tell him that, regrettably, there’s nothing they—world-renowned miracle workers—can do for him, and acute fury at him, for allowing his health to deteriorate so severely, for dragging us along through his self-induced hell all these years.

On our drive home from the Mayo Clinic appointment, I can’t hold back – he is my prisoner for the next hour as we drive back to Mankato. I hear my husband’s words in my own, as I tell him that it’s hard to feel sorry for him because 100% of what is wrong with him is his own fault and that he’s had all the chances in the world but has done nothing to make his situation better in the twelve years that he’s lived with this disease. I call him a hypocrite because he made his children suffer for years on end from second hand smoke and now he’s writing letters and complaining to the apartment manager about the smokers below his window. I ask him why I should care so much whether he lives or dies, because he doesn’t seem to care much himself. I tell him that when he decided to be a father, he should have known that every action he does to himself directly affects five other lives, not just his own. Let’s not even talk about what you’ve done to your own mother, sisters, friends, over the years I spit words at the windshield. The agony of every single ER visit and ICU stint and hospital stay seethes from my body, hanging in the air like a smog. It’s like all these years, you never once gave one shit about us, I heave the words into what little space is left between us.

He sits quietly as I rage on. My mouth is thick with saliva, my eyes pool with the tears that I’ve been fighting to hold back, blurring the road in front of me as I speed down Highway 14, toward Mankato. A throbbing at the base of my head builds with intensity, my eyes burn hot and wet. After miles of unmemorable miles, my ranting begins to lose steam and finally, I’m reduced to sobbing, as I speed along the two-lane highwaay. After more miles of telephone poles and farms and empty fields, my father reaches over and places his hand on my shoulder. I’m gonna be okay, baby. This time, I’ll work harder to get better. Don’t worry about me. I can’t look at him because I know what will come out of my mouth if I do, and I can’t do that to him, even in my justified rage: You don’t get it, do you? You will never get better. You are going to die soon.

My husband is a tertiary victim in my father’s health saga. I slip into bed after the long day spent in Rochester, wheeling my father through the arteries of hallways that lead us from one doctor to another, each one performing a specific test on my father as they try to piece together the puzzle of his health situation. At the end of the day, at home, I lie in bed, my body exhausted, my eyes still puffy and sore, my mind spinning wildly, unable to slow down. I try breathing exercises. I try visualizing my body calming down. I try to focus on the rhythmic breathing coming from my husband next to me in bed. I fidget in bed. I finally get up and go out to the sofa, so he can get some sleep.

~~~~

I am becoming adept in the medical world of abbreviations, sounding important and informed as any seasoned social worker or medical professional as the acronyms fly off my tongue. COPD, CO2 and O2 levels, MA, Medicare part A and B, SSI, Bi-PAP, DNR, MRI, C-PAP, EKG, ENT, ICU pepper the alphabet soup that has taken over my language. I visualize my conversations in capital letters and find myself retrace my dialogue, filling in words that have been reduced to letters. I am an armchair social worker, can spew out the basic qualifications of someone on disability who is applying for Medical Assistance. I am learning what Medicare will cover and what it won’t. It is becoming apparent to me that Medicare is a reactive program, not proactive. It will not pay for many preventive services my father could benefit from, yet it has no problem paying the thousands upon thousands of dollars of emergency room visits, week-long stays in ICU, when his health state plummets to critical stages. I am beginning to see that our health care system is a system so screwed up, highly reactive rather than proactive, I don’t know if there’s even a way to change it in this lifetime.

~~~~

Lately, I’ve become acutely aware as to how I breathe, the quality of my breath and how I breathe under various circumstances. My breathing is barely perceptible when I’m deeply engrossed in something, such as reading the newspaper or working on my laptop. If I eat too much, my lungs don’t have room to fill completely, and I feel the discomfort of obstructed breath. When restless at night, I quiet my mind by taking slow, deep breaths that stretch my lungs followed by long, cleansing exhalations that slowly release my lungs. When I run with my dogs, my lungs expand and contract deeply and fully, they are pliable and elastic. I wonder about my lung capacity and the quality of the air sacs buried deep within my lung tissue, at the tips of the bronchi that spread like tributaries of a river across a continent. What do mine look like, I wonder.

I think about the quality of the air that I breathe. As a hairdresser, I am in constant contact with volatile chemicals: ammonia and its countless deviations, peroxide, acetone, formaldehyde, sodium hydroxide. Hairdressers are blissfully ignorant to many health-hazards of the industry. We tell each other and clients confidently, “If our industry was so bad, every other person in this business would be sick.” But, what are the statistics, really? I know many stylist who have severe  seasonal allergies; my favorite sales rep (who, incidentally, had to quit doing hair due to severe product-related dermatitis) was recently re-diagnosed with breast cancer. Have my ten years’ exposure to these chemicals begun to eat away at my air passages? Am I inhaling tiny bits of cut hair into my lungs as I cut and clipper my clients? I have a mental image of my lungs during an autopsy, that they look like porcupines, spikes of hair embedded into chemical-atrophied tissue. Ah, yes, the forensic scientists will say. She was a hairdresser. 

I wonder about my own years of smoking. No, I wasn’t a “never without a cigarette” smoker as my father was, but the severity and susceptibility of COPD and related illnesses affect people differently. I think about people who are diagnosed with lung disease, or lung cancer, who never smoked a day in their lives. I think of people who are diagnosed with the disease who lived with smokers, the victims of second-hand smoke. I think of people who smoke their entire lives and live to the ripe old age of 99. I think of my dad, who, at 64 years old, would have a far different life right now, if he had quit smoking, or better yet, had never started. I wonder what my dad thinks of at night now, when he’s alone with only his thoughts. Is he filled with immense grief for the pink lungs of his younger days? How do you go to sleep with such a death sentence hanging on you.

I think of the man I encountered while walking my dog last spring. He was getting his mail from the road-side mailbox as we walked by. I couldn’t tell if he was 50 or 80 – he had weathered, leathery skin, white razor stubble sprinkled across his chin, and was hunched over and shuffled as he walked. But beyond the leather skin were young eyes, handsome, even. Beautiful dog, he said to me in a tired, gravely voice. I stopped to let him pet my 110-pound Alaskan malamute. I had a dog, till just last year. He speaks to my dog more than to me, gazing at Gaia as he scratches her ears. A Golden Retriever. Died of lung cancer. He turned his intense gaze toward me for just a moment. I killed her. Smoking. I sucked in my breath sharply as he turned and shuffled back toward his house.  

June 13, 2020—stay with this

Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 1.51.40 PM

The skies are quiet in my neighborhood these days. The incessant throbbing of helicopters have disappeared, the sirens have scaled back to everyday ignorable background crises, the stunning graffiti-art-political-statement plywood is coming down from storefronts. Phase 3 of reopening MN is here (I think, I might have lost count somewhere along the way), which apparently means the pandemic has been called off because of good weather and bad hair, based on the absence of masks, shoulder-to-shoulder gatherings and all the snazzy new ‘dos. People are anxious and antsy, I get that. This is the most unnatural, uncomfortable, abnormal state most of us have ever known, every variation of sheltering at home comes with its own unique set of challenges. People are defiant or suspicious of Fauci, Walz, BLM, et al—I’ll never get that, but some battles are worth more energy than others. Maybe it really was all a hoax, or a bad dream. Maybe everyone’s finally succumbing to the fact that we’re all gonna die anyway, so we may as well take our chances with corona. Where other people’s lives are concerned, I’m always going to err on the side of caution and care.

I’m sad more than inspired, tinged with suspicion, about the plywood removal, the quiet skies, the absence of masks. The virus is still very present, and it’s only been three weeks since George Floyd’s murder, followed by marches and fires and looting and choppers and sirens tearing open the collective unconsciousness of the Twin Cities that quickly tore across the globe…our cities burned as a fury of bodies raged along Lake Street, Longfellow, Midway, Broadway, so many neighborhoods bear fresh, gaping wounds on top of centuries-deep scars that no one except the ones who live there, along with the scars, notice or really care about. How quickly we, without generational scars, can forget, so desperate we are to resume our lives that were so rudely, inconveniently interrupted first by a bullshit virus that’s been dragging on far too long for our comfort or patience, then a murder that has nothing to do with us in spite of the truth that everything leading up to the murder has everything to do with every one of us. And by us, I should be clear, I’m really only talking about myself here; any resemblance to anyone else is purely coincidental.

I was jarred awake in the middle of one of those nights of the past three weeks, when a helicopter’s throbbing broke into my dreams, so thunderous I though it was landing in my backyard. As I sat upright in bed, my heart rattling against the cage of my chest, my first impulse was to run—where would I go? Then, the words “sit with this” shimmered into my abruptly-awakened cells. I got out of bed, still rattled by the too-close-for-my-comfort helicopter, found a pen and paper and wrote those words:

sit

with

this

again and again, until my heartbeat smoothed out and my breathing slowed, until I could write without trembling, until the essence of the words: sit with this grew into something more familiar and clear, something strong and meditative, like a mantra, something I have known before, but not in this form.

Sit. With. This.

I’ve been sitting with the memory of this rattling, for the past few weeks, wondering what it would be like to be on high-alert like this, every day of my life: reading, listening, watching, talking, aching, thinking, breathing, seeing, connecting, examining, crying, feeling, marching, observing, asking, protesting, learning, loving (the collective consciousness broken wide open), gasping, working, cleaning, writing, digging, sitting, sitting, sitting…

I’ve been sitting with this, the impact of a pandemic, for even longer, wondering how comical and easy the universe can be with her prophetic metaphors, like she’s literally giving us the answers to the universal SAT, yet here we are, still smack dab in the middle of the metaphor and everyone’s giving up already: listening, masking, worrying, isolating, loving (from a distance), Skyping, thinking, dreaming, calling, working, hand-washing, reading, learning, texting, breathing, observing, questioning, connecting, longing, reframing, crying, hugging (trees), redefining, sitting, sitting, sitting…

I’ve been sitting with this, what it means to be sober for nearly six months, while eyeballs deep in a global shitshow smothered in WTF sauce, astonished at how different (and ultimately, harder but for all the right reasons) it is to be clear-minded and connected to all my senses, rather than numbed and cut off while in crisis mode: learning, reading, aching, confronting, challenging, replacing, listening, crying, reflecting, feeling, sleeping, watching, breathing, moving, unearthing, planting, recognizing, dismantling, reframing, replanting, nourishing, hydrating, walking, observing, sitting, sitting, sitting…

I’ve been sitting with this for far too long, as I continue the hard work to bring love and connections, compassion and grace, forgiveness and understanding back into my life after the senseless loss of my husband: grieving, hurting, crying, hurtling, reaching, moving, thrashing, grieving, reading, raging, running, gasping, crying, writing, walking, talking, learning, questioning, shifting, running, raging, moving, stopping, starting, falling, grieving, reading, rebuilding, learning, stumbling, fumbling, trying, raging, denying, grieving, bartering, raging, redoing, destroying, uprooting, reinventing, writing, reading, growing, sitting/collapsing, sitting/collapsing, sitting/collapsing…

It’s only been by sitting with all of this, that I am able to see the connections from my personal experiences to the larger picture…this might be why I’ve always had such a visceral aversion to “everything happens for a reason” platitude; because it’s used more like an excuse to not do anything different, rather than a call for real growth (which requires real, hard work).

Prior to Bob’s death, I didn’t sit with much of anything for very long. I’m 100% certain I believed and vehemently proclaimed, “everything happens for a reason” back then. I’m also certain that I’ve said things like, “I don’t even see color/I don’t care what you sexual orientation is!” or “I’m not racist/homophobic,” or “I don’t understand why blocking a highway is going to change anyone’s mind—they’re only pissing people off.” If it was too uncomfortable, too complex, too overwhelming, too humbling to reveal how little I knew, too embarrassing to admit when I was wrong—where/how/why do I even begin to confront the beliefs? My answer to conflict has often been the opposite of sitting—any variation on the verb run (it’s stunning and sometimes sneaky, the various forms that running can take. It can look like silence, or obstinance about opinions, or staying blissfully, willfully ignorant to things that don’t directly affect you; it might be overworking or over drinking, or eating or medicating, or dismissing or going to church or any other possible incarnation). I learned my running/turning away skill at an early age, a coping mechanism to a turbulent upbringing that included not just my own immediate family but the community in which I was raised. While it did well to protect me as a young child, this well-honed skill became more of a liability as I got older. It took the death of my husband to initiate a rite of stillness, the ability to stay with something instead of bolting at the first sign of discomfort. But it didn’t come easily. It still doesn’t. I have far more experience running than I do with staying. I will forever be a dilemma of motion and stillness, but I’m also coming to recognize that staying is essential if I really wish to be a part of the change that is desperately presenting itself to us/me right here, right now. In spite of all that, I’d still bitch-slap anyone into next week (metaphorically, of course) if they told me my husband’s gruesome death was the reason I came to this stage of enlightenment.

It was crawling-out-of-my-skin excruciating to sit with Bob’s death; I would have done anything to escape the rage and sorrow that engulfed me. God knows I tried. I’d never known such a great and gruesome loss, I was a one-woman riot, full of anger (never at God, for the record—you have to believe in God to be mad at such an entity; at that point in my life the only thing I believed in was my righteous, if at times, misdirected fury at the U of MN medical center, and basically everything else in the world, and my God is 100% okay with that), fueled by grisly images of what I watched my husband endure—that I was a willing participant of—that dirty little secret of “fight cancer” hat no one talks about. I wanted to destroy everything, including myself, it felt like the only way to purge myself of the experience. I’d go out to my back yard in the middle of the night and scream until I was hoarse, I’d barrel down I-94 at 90 mph, wishing the 18-wheeler in the opposite direction would sway into my path. I’d down bottles of wine to blur the sharp ragged edges, collapse night after night in a pile of tears and nightmares, lash out at my family, cut friends from my life. I’ve moved six times in the past nine years, always on the run. I wished and cursed the worst kind of loss on everyone I knew and didn’t know, I wanted the world to know, intimately, what it was like to experience such a loss. Maybe then, they would stop saying and doing the stupid shit everyone says and does when they’re not even trying to understand what this was like. Maybe then, I wouldn’t have felt so alone.

But, they were just grateful it didn’t happen to them, I could hear it in their words. I was furious that everyone else got to keep moving on, when I was stunted by the thick sludgy shitpile of my loss. But I did other things, too. I went back to school, I began writing, for real. Even though my experience was so myopic,  when I started talking and writing about it, it plugged me back in with the larger world; my experience nurtured a new form of empathy and compassion, a “same but different” perspective that I hadn’t been aware of before. Even though it’s been nine years (and this is an almost insultingly condensed version of the long, ugly, mistake-riddled process), it’s easy to invoke the memory of those intense, early feelings, if I sit with it long enough; I hope I never forget those raging emotions; while I didn’t know it at the time, they are still the catalyst and connection for immense changes of perspective, and ultimately action, in my life.

I am not comparing my loss to the collective loss of whole generations of people who have been grieving and raging, trying to play by mysterious rules that forever change without warning, begging us to listen for generations (clearly we haven’t done any of that, given the events of the past few weeks). Or maybe I am. What else do I have to go by, other than my own experiences, that inform and guide (or prohibit growth by reinforcing old ways—they have the capacity to do that, too). Our personal experiences have the capacity to transcend and connect with others who have a very different life experience than our own, if we finally stop running and learn to sit with what they have to teach.

I think my sadness and fear about the plywood and masks coming off is encapsulate by the succinct yet profound words of a physical therapist I follow on social media, Dr. Jpop, who just this morning wrote, “when the mania dies down, the work will still be there and our voices will still be needed.” I fear the new phase of reopening, the silence in the air, the removal of the plywood and masks might give us (remember, I’m talking me here) permission to slink back to the safety and security of our old lives and ways. I know too well, the immediate relief of running. But I now also know the profound, sustainable, life-changing power of staying. The issues never go away, no matter how far or fast we run. They will keep reappearing in new forms, offering endless opportunities for growth. Running is way easier than staying, but for all the effort, it never yields much. The rewards are far greater in the staying.

After all these words, I still don’t really know what I’m saying or what it means or looks like to stay, or what it’ll inspire me to do, but curiosity and interrogation is also part of dirty work. Today, I’m going to sit with it, and see where it takes me.

 

may 9, 2020—walking in the woods

Weird day today. Not bad, just weird. But aren’t they all some variation on weird lately, even the good ones? 4 months and some odd days alcohol free for me; today is the first day I was hit with very strong cravings that I just couldn’t shake.

This morning, my two sisters and I, along with a baker’s dozen or so others, got together for a Zoom celebration for an acquaintance’s college graduation, an amazing story in its own right—I don’t know this this young woman well; she’s the first recipient of a scholarship my siblings and I set up in memory of our beloved mom who died just after Christmas in 2018; in the 80’s, our mom was a single parent and poet, in her 30s, hardscrabbling her way through her BA and MA at the same university; by a series of serendipitous events, thirty years later, the scholarship recipient is also a single mom in her 30s who’s also endured mindboggling hardships, an emerging poet *and* weird coinkydink, hails from our hometown—if one didn’t believe in divine intervention, one might suspect the scholarship dealio was rigged…

Anyhow, I was honored to be invited to this gathering this morning, to watch the pre-recorded commencement ceremony, part of which included my gifted friend’s commencement speech. At 9 am, most of the attendees were already celebrating with mimosas and bloody marys, laughing and toasting the guest of honor with laughter and joy. I didn’t know anyone except my friend and my sissies, and suddenly, I felt conspicuously like the odd woman out, as I toasted the new graduate with my lame plain black coffee, startled by my visceral reaction…

I’ve invested enough skin in this game to recognize that this kind of discomfort will show up again and again in my life—a call to grow, as Victoria Valli calls it—and I need to just stay with it and work through it, unsettling as it can be…but I’m also still green enough to think, “Fuck it. I’m a grown-ass woman. Why didn’t I grab a bottle of prosecco and some OJ, and join the party like a real woman…I could call it a data point and move on…” As the morning celebration continued, most of it us talking about nothing and everything; it really was a joyous occasion; though the cravings never really subsided, I held on tight as the waves carried me along. About an hour into the gathering, a woman drinking mimosas cracked open another bottle of bubbly, the group cheered her on. Laughing and bantering back, she filled her glass, all bubbly this time, no OJ…

Toward the end of the gathering, I noticed the bubbly woman was no longer bubbly or engaging with the group the way she had been at the beginning of the event. She was listless, withdrawn, looking off-camera, her eyes flitting from one unseen thing to the next, her smile now tightened into a flat line. I didn’t think much about it, a fleeting notice is all, but it struck me deeper than I was aware of at the time…

After the event was over, the cravings were still front and center in my brain, so with a big bottle of water, I tossed (not literally) my dog in my ol’ Jeep and headed out to a state park just beyond edges of the metro area where I live, and we hiked for a good couple hours. In that time, I breathed in deep cool spring air, exhaled long and warm. I felt the rough ground underfoot, hugged a tree or two (have you ever, literally, hugged a tree? I swear to God, you will feel its strong spirit move through you when you do), listened to bird chatter and wind song and smiled back at the occasional fellow hiker.

As I walked, I asked myself, “Okay. As much as I know that alcohol doesn’t do any of the things I used to think it did for me, clearly, there’s something about today that struck a sour chord. What’s up?” I walked myself through a process that Annie Grace calls the ACT (Awareness, Clarity, Turnaround, inspired by Byron Katie and others): obviously, I still associate celebrations with alcohol. Being so new to the alcohol-free world, and smack-dab in the middle of a fucking pandemic, too—we can’t forget this very critical element—it didn’t feel quite like any other celebrations, since we were all sitting in our living rooms, all dressy on top, pjs beneath, so maybe that’s why it ambushed me. I realized that I had yet to be in a celebratory setting, until today. Of course old feelings would come flooding back in, because all of my life, alcohol always went along merrily with a celebration. Always. Even as a young kid, I remember relatives’ booze-soaked weddings and other gatherings—everyone laughing and dancing and having the time of their lives, it seemed to this kid (we were whisked away for bed before the fights and the DUIs and such ensued). I couldn’t wait for this to eventually become my life as an adult…I recalled my own college graduation, some of it, anyway. Photos of the time reveal a young face already leaking signs: puffy cheeks, glassy eyes, a vacancy in my smile. But I still recall the times as mostly fun, surrounded by friends I loved, proud of my accomplishment, an electric mix of fear and excitement for what lay ahead…

Today, as my feet pressed into a blanket of flattened prairie grass and my hands slid against rough bark, I acknowledged that, until I collect a few more AF celebrations in my brain, it will defer to the deeply grooved, familiar path. I thought about the bubbly woman, and suddenly I knew why she affected my subconscious so powerfully. She was too familiar, like an out of body experience with someone else’s body, watching her morph from cheery and joyful, to withdrawn, disengaged, disappearing expression…

I know this is conjecture, I can’t know anything for certain except what I observed, still, I imagined how the rest of her day might have played out, based on my own experiences. That she continued to drink after the zoom session ended. That she got into a ridiculous argument with her mom, or a sister, or someone—maybe the asshole cable company phone technician, that she wouldn’t remember. That she eventually passed out in the early afternoon, waking hours later as the sun was sliding down the horizon groggy, in rumpled clothes, sticky make-up still on her face, sour, pasty mouth. That she didn’t get anything done she’d wanted to get done for the day; maybe she’d eat crummy junk food, or she’d be too nauseous to eat at all. The rumble of voices that would begin: “How can you get so out of control at 10 am?! In front of all those people? Do you think you’re in college again? God, you’re a grown ass woman, for fuck’s sake. This day wasn’t even about you, but without even trying, you went and made it about you. Again…” I know I’m transposing here, using “she” instead of “me,” because I still want to defer this to other things. How may celebrations have I attended in my history, that ended on a variation of this theme? Hell, how many times have I decided to open a bottle of wine or prosecco, or an IPA or pour a tall gin and tonic on the first warm day of summer, or because I don’t have to work the next day, or because a friend called, or… too many to count.

My mind then wanders over to the territory of envy: that my friend has a beautiful, powerful network of friends in her life, who have surrounded and supported her on her journey, bubbly woman included. They’re all clearly very close, and have been rock solid anchors for each other through various waves of life. How my own journey of the past several years has been so different—that after my husband died, I imploded and cut myself off from everyone, except the bare minimum. My mom, my sisters, a very few select friends. That this self-imposed isolation became a driving source of my own drinking—an unbearable loneliness unwittingly made more unbearable by drinking.

Life is a delicate balance of so many things that are always shifting and reshaping and sliding and settling, things  known and unknown, seen and unseen. It’s a beautifully tragic shapeshifter, incomprehensible and infuriatingly simple at the same time. I know this today, because I am not drinking. Even in the middle of a fucking pandemic, I feel my life shifting from disconnect to connected, from running to staying. From imploding to expanding, like the stand of aspen bowing in the wind, we are stronger and more tender than we appear.

If I had given into my cravings today, I would have taken the simple path that only leads to the incomprehensible. I would have missed walking soooo close to the geese and their fuzzy little tennis ball goslings sliding into a pond in the reedy wetlands, I would have missed the stand of aspens glowing raw and green as I am, and the tiny anemone, a deceptively delicate spring wildflower, defiantly push tiny pink faces through deep layers of winter detritus. I would have missed hugging a tree and feeling spirit move through me…I wouldn’t have known that I can, authentically, celebrate a friend’s spectacular accomplishment, without alcohol. I wouldn’t have known that I could offer grace and empathy, rather than judgment, toward a woman I don’t know. And get more from the day than I could have imagined.

please, don’t ever give up. xo

may 3, 2020—lucky man

My husband was a lucky man. Even with smart phone reminders, I still manage to not remember birthdays or anniversaries or hallmark holidays, so I never got bent out of shape on the rare occasion that he’d forget. He’d say something like, “Oh shit, I’m so sorry—I forgot our anniversary!” and I’d say something like, “Huh? It was our anniversary?”
Which is probably why I don’t get too bent out of shape on the anniversary of Bob’s death (“Bob who?” I tease my sister when she mentions it; she’s always mortified, I think I’m hilarious and so does Bob. My mom just rolls her eyes and says, “oh that old joke again…”). Of course, I always remember the day, though the pale green halo around trees this time of year, more than a date, reminds me. Yes, there’s a cascade of feelings to be felt and memories to remember, but it’s not a day that throws me off kilter with a particular dread or sorrow—not any more than any other day might.
The day he died, May 3, 2011, was achingly beautiful, a day much like ones we’ve had lately: the sun was slowly sliding down the sky, dragging reluctant shadows with it, washing the world with a golden-pink glow that photographers call sweet light. In a long-ago life, the kind of day that would entice him to sling a camera bag over his shoulder and slip into the woods or a tall grass prairie, and capture luminous trees, pasque flowers, bloodroot, sunsets burning through big bluestem. If he were lucky, he might find a pair of great horned owlets huddled together on a low branch, or a fresh fawn curled tight beneath a pine.
Today, I can look back at that day, and say it was a perfect day for Bob to take leave; nine years ago, however, I would have said it was anything but perfect. I was gutted, by the nineteen months that lead up to that day. Nine years ago, I stared out the patio doors into our wooded backyard, aglow in sweet light, bewildered, that something so exquisite could exist at the same time my husband was dying. My grieving mind couldn’t reconcile the incongruence—that breathtaking beauty and breathtaking sorrow could coexist peacefully, equally, at the same time, in the same space. Nothing in my world had prepared me for the intensity of this truth. For a long time after, horror would overshadow beauty.
Three days after Bob died, I hastily assembled a celebration of life service, at the same reception hall that, a year earlier, my youngest sister had been married. To the casual observer, the scene might have looked like a celebration—hundreds of people milling about in good clothes, a curious blend of Elvis, Steve Vai, Lucinda Williams, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bob Mould, Mozart, Weird Al wove through the murmuring bodies. A long table set with an impressive spread of what? I don’t know—sandwiches, salads, expansive trays of fruit and vegetables, likely. In the center of the table, I do know, was a bouquet of Tootsie Pops.
You wouldn’t have been able to pick out the widow in the crowd; I stood in the middle of the room in shiny red stilettos, the ones Bob called “fuck me pumps;” a Mardi Gras-worthy flower print dress of crushed satin and black lace hung from my body, an eruption of watercolor splashes of red and pink and orange. I didn’t feel like I was celebrating my husband’s life, as the dress might have implied; I felt like an implosion, all that was left was fragments of color, the edges burned black; the dress was both evidence and a feeble attempt to defy the repelling label, widow, that now clung to me. At least that’s how I remember it.
No one took pictures of the day, as far as I know, and for that, I’m grateful. I’d rather not have hard evidence of the hollow woman I was, trapped in the snare of the second receiving line of the day, an endless assault of hugs and condolences—no one told me there’d be goddamned receiving lines at a funeral…I wanted to writhe from the arms that held me. I wanted to run and lock myself in the bathroom, or better yet, keep running. I wanted the day to be over. I hated the dress and the shoes and the reason I was wearing them. I hated what my world had suddenly become, and there wasn’t anything that any of the hundreds of people could do or say that could change this, no matter how hard they hugged or what they said. But that didn’t stop them from trying. All I could do was stand there and take it.
A woman stepped in front of me and grabbed both my hands. Before I could speak, she began gushing exuberantly, as though at a wedding, “Oh, Jen! Think of this as a time to reinvent your life—how lucky you are! We all wish we could have a chance at a re-do like this!”
My body instantly seized with fury that was quickly deadened by a new, lead-heavy lag-time. I stared at this woman, who stood next to her very alive husband, shaking my head slowly. My husband was just here—less than three days ago—now he’s gone. The skewed landscape I was standing in was familiar but unrecognizable, the conversations I was having in plain English were incomprehensible. I stammered, “No, that’s not right—” but I didn’t have the right words to counter hers.
Of course, this woman was right, but she was also so very wrong. Sure, if given the chance, we’d all love a redo at life, if—that “if” is the condition most would insist on—we’re given a say in the matter. A forced reinvention is not what I’d call lucky—not then, not now. If I’d been in a better frame of mind, I might have told this woman to take her lucky redo and fuck off. Lucky for her, I wasn’t, so I didn’t.
But her words had staying power in my mind. Over the years, I often wondered why hers, more than anyone’s, struck me so viscerally that day. Even deeply grieving, I knew that she, like everyone at the service, only wanted to help ease the pain of my loss, but I also knew, at the time, no such words existed. Deep in the heart of a great loss, there simply are no magic incantations or switches to flip or wands to wave that can suddenly make everything better. As much as we’d desperately wish it otherwise, it’s not the way things work—the timing of her message couldn’t have been more off. Maybe three years after Bob’s death, I’d have eased into that enviable shift in perspective, from gutted to #blessed!, but three days after? That expectation is impossible, if not outright cruel to suggest, even for the most put-together of us.
Sometimes, I fantasized about tracking that woman down, so I could tell her face-to-face, in vivid detail, what this lucky re-do has looked like for me. Sometimes I’d fantasize that everyone I knew would be forced to go through something like this, so they’d know, first-hand, how hard a lucky re-do actually is. Maybe it would stop people from saying insensitive things at funerals, and instead simply say, “I’m sorry.” Maybe it would help people be better prepared to face their own lucky redo, if and when it shows up in their own life.
My lucky redo involved losing not just my husband, but a career and a business, our life savings, our house, one of our dogs, most of our friends, a lot of my hair, and definitely all of my mind, and it required that I somehow salvage a life—that “new normal!” everyone’s so smitten with—out the few scraps that remained. Like one of those cooking shows, where chefs are given strange and random ingredients, and are supposed to create something not just aesthetically appealing but palatable, from an incomprehensible mess. I didn’t want new, I wanted my old life back.
My redo involved trauma and an eventual diagnosis of PTSD, a condition I thought was reserved for combat vets and survivors of violence. Who knew caregivers (and others) are susceptible, as well? I resisted therapy for a long time, and instead, coped by drinking—to quell the nightmares that kept me from sleeping, to blur the sharp edges of grotesque memories of Bob’s illness that filled my days, to quiet the incessant rage I had for Bob’s medical team, to lessen the shame over losing our house, to mute the incessant, internal critics that told me again and again that if I had done things differently, my husband wouldn’t have suffered so terribly, or that I should be doing a better job at this re-do that’s taking way too long—why wasn’t I happily remarried and nestled into a new life by now? Why do I have to do everything the hard way—I could stay in this haunted house, I could go back to doing hair, but nooooooo—instead, I’m wasting so much time and money going to grad school and monkeying around with a new career that probably won’t make me any money, and cutting off friendships and moving more times than I can easily track anymore. I’ve made so many mistakes at reinventing it’s not even funny, but sometimes it struck me as exactly that, not just funny but downright ludicrous—that anyone would wish for this chance that I’m blowing at every turn. “Lucky” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think about these past nine years. “Shit show” is more like it.
Fast forward to nine years after Bob’s death. I’m beginning my fifth month, alcohol free (I could say “sober” or “recovering” or whatever, but I don’t, which is another essay for another time). When I stopped drinking in January, my life was pretty ho-hum (which is a big part of why I decided to stop—not because of an epic, rock-bottom crash and burn, but because I felt like I was slowly decaying, from the inside, out). I didn’t just quit; I’ve done and continue to do a shit-ton of ‘behind the scenes’ work to get here—again, another essay for another time…toward the end of my first AF 30 days, I wondered how I would handle a crisis without alcohol—not that I was looking to stir up drama to find out, just wondering is all. Didn’t see that fucking pandemic looming on the horizon, that’s for sure. But here we are, and here I am, four months free of the substance that stunted my growth for a very long time. I’m not saying my life is all puppies and rainbows over here in AF Land, in the middle of a pandemic—let’s be real, things are pretty scary. I’m alone, in unemployment limbo, I have no idea what I’m going to do with my life going forward—I can’t even go back to doing hair if I wanted to—these uncertain times are the stuff that makes us want to crawl out of our skin. But instead of running to squelch the discomfort with a bottle of wine, I am learning to sit with it, let it burn over me, the way lightning strikes a prairie, burning old growth that chokes, to make breathing space for new. Allowing horror and beauty to exist in the same space.
For the first time in my life, I can look at the past nine years and see beyond the darkened edges, and find flashes of color—big patches, even—evidence that not everything I’ve done has been a complete failure, as I’d believed for so long. “Holy shit—I did all of that?” Instead of being awash in shame or embarrassment at how long everything’s taken, or what I did to cope, I recognize, with truth and grace, that alcohol did exactly what I needed it to do for me during a time of searing, relentless pain—it anesthetized me. Until it didn’t. But frankly, I don’t know if I could have withstood the ordeal otherwise. We do the best we can, with what we have at the time…once we know different, we can start to do different.
Today, nine years after Bob’s death, I still don’t know that I’d define what I’ve gone through as lucky, or blessed or anything, really. I’m okay without confining it to a label, and instead, just sitting with it, on a day that is so much like the day that he died, and revel in the mystery and magic.

April 29 2020—pandemic parade

It’s not every day you get to have your birthday smack-dab in the middle of a #&%*ing pandemic (I’m taking this time of isolation and reflection, btw, to not just clean my living space but my mouth, too, and let’s be real. It’s not fucking easy. And my home hasn’t seen much improvement, either). But anyhow, that’s what happened to my dear, oldest niece, Amanda, whose 33rd birthday was yesterday, and I’m sure she thought that her special day would blur, undistinguished, into any other ho-hum day of late, given the current state of the world. I’m also sure she probably forgot who she’s related to, given she hasn’t seen any of us in at least few months…

We are happy to report that even smack dab in the middle of a #$@*ing pandemic, Hildebrandts are always up for a party, even if it has to be drive-by parade style. (and I’m still over here, trying to do the math—how the $#%* can Amanda be 33, when I’M still 33…)

 

april 28, 2020—your table awaits, madame

I live next door to my cousin, Erin, and her lovely family in Minneapolis. Last fall, I moved into the apartment where her mom, my beloved Auntie Pattycakes, lived, until her death almost exactly a year ago, just a few short months after her only sister, my own beloved mom, took leave of this earth. Little did I expect, when I moved, just how essential being close to family would come to be.

Every now and then, I’ll get a text from Erin, something to the effect of, “hey, we’re having tortellini soup tonight, want me to bring some over?” to which I’ll reply, “hey, yes, please!” because one less night of cooking for one is, well, one less night cooking for one, which is a welcomed reprieve when you’ve been cooking for one not only while quarantined, but for a good nine years now, which gets to be a drag when you have no one to blame when the cauliflower goes to mush or for the mess in the kitchen, so maybe you opt for cereal or popcorn more that you care to admit.

Erin’ll alert me via text when she’s dropped the goods off in my entryway; lately, when I open the door, I’m met with the comforting aroma of disinfectant before I smell the soup, because those conscientious neighbors of mine take the shelter at home protocols seriously, which is more than we can say about a certain arrogant, willfully ignorant VP who visited the Mayo today.

So, last night was one of those nights. Erin’s text comes in: “Hey, we’re making ribs on the grill tonight, want some?” My answer is the same as always” “yes please!” thinking she’ll wander over with a carefully sanitized container at some point. Then I get a phone call from her daughter, Elise, who tells me in that endearingly nonsensical way that only a 9-year-old can execute, something about tables and ten feet and food and such, and from our convo, I come to the conclusion that they’re setting up a ten foot buffet-style table and I’m to bring my own tupperware to pack my own food. Cool, I thought, works for me.

Image may contain: one or more people, people sitting and outdoorBandana across my face and tupperware in hand, I wander up the drive and turn the corner to their backyard, scanning the setting for the buffet. Instead, I see a small card table set up, draped in black, topped with a candle and plate of ribs. I’m confused—surely they’re not expecting company?
“Hey Jen!” the whole family—Erin, Kurt and their two kids, Quinn and Elise—already seated, joyfully greets me from their table, a good ten feet away, “Your table is ready, complete with your very own tub of Clorox wipes!” I stand, dumfounded, taking in the scene, with probably the biggest, dumbest smile on my face and maybe a hint of a tear at the corner of one eye. I gratefully take my place at the table set for one. In spite of feeling like the only kid at the kid’s table on Thanksgiving, I couldn’t have felt more connected in such a disconnected time, here at my neighbor-cousin’s impromptu backyard gathering. And that is how we stay sane, safe, and connected—by being Image may contain: one or more people and fireinventive, not dismissive.

And just wear the #$%# mask, okay? Whether or not you’re the VP of the US. Whether you’re in a hospital or any public place. Not just for yourself, or the love of God even, but for your fellow humans. xo