Happy.

The other day, I realized I was happy. When the feeling visited me, I wasn’t doing anything particularly remarkable. I was sitting on my patio, reading a novel, drinking tea, the summer sun sinking low on the horizon, and I looked up and saw a monarch butterfly alight on the hedge near my outstretched foot. And as I watched her pause there, briefly, I realized something that was remarkable:  in that moment, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. And I thought to myself:  I am lucky.

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I have spent years chasing that elusive thing that people call “happiness.” Running off to Europe or running into therapy. Retreating to island hideaways in the South Pacific or in the Pacific Northwest. Trying every diet, every exercise regimen, every “feel good” prescription from self-help books to spiritual counseling to many, many failed attempts at mindfulness and meditation.

At times, I found that thing that I was seeking. I found it in the breach of a Humpback whale in the sapphire waters off Maui; or at the top of Malá Strana, gazing down with wonder on the red tiled rooftops of Prague; or in the cards of an eighty-six-year-old Tarot reader named Miss Irene in the back of a Voodoo shop in New Orleans.

But whenever those moments came, I always had the sense that – beautiful as they were – they weren’t meant to last. I had worked so hard to chase them down that it was almost as though I brought them into existence by the sheer force of my own will. And then, as quickly as they arrived, they were gone. Inevitably, the old familiar ache and its accompanying emptiness returned, followed by the persistent question, “Why don’t I feel any better?”

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I suppose that when I finally stopped running, I did so out of sheer exhaustion. I was tired of working so hard with so little to show for it. And I was tired of trying to fake it to make it. As my therapist told me, “Sarah, sometimes, there are situations in life that can’t be fixed. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.”

Shortly thereafter – after said beloved therapist took a new job and relocated to Oregon (sob) – life handed me just that:  the opportunity to do nothing. To take a break, to slow down, and to take some real time off. And I took it. And it is in this pause that I found something I wasn’t able to find in all of the running and searching and seeking:  I found comfortable footing upon the ground of uncertainty. I found that sometimes, it’s O.K. to be lost.

As I finish this blog post, I’m sitting on the patio of my one-bedroom bungalow on Cashio Street, the sunset casting its tangerine glow on the terra cotta tiles beneath my bare feet. I love this little cottage, love the way it fell into my lap when I needed it the most, love the way its four walls have sheltered me and kept me safe, allowing me to rebuild after everything around me had been smashed and shattered. But I also know – as I have always known – that this isn’t a forever place. It’s merely a rest stop on the way to something better.

But for now, for this moment, everything is perfect. Everything is exactly what I need. And the knowledge that I can be so at peace with not knowing what’s coming next, that I don’t need to know, is the biggest indicator of all that something powerful within me has begun to shift. And I wonder if maybe the thing that I was searching for so intently wasn’t happiness, after all. Maybe the thing that I was searching for was faith.  Not faith in the traditional, religious sense, but instead, faith in myself. Faith that no matter the challenge or change, I’ll be able to meet it head on. Faith that, after having been through the storm, and after having come out the other side, I’m stronger than I was before. Faith that no matter what happens, I’ll be O.K.

Until next time, friends.

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The Other Side.

“Have you ever had a reading before?”

“No.”

“Never before?”

“No.”

“That’s exciting.”

“Yeah.”

I try to keep my tone upbeat, but I can hear the nervous tension in my voice as I say those words out loud. Fleur must hear it too, because she offers me a warm, reassuring smile.

“It’s not scary,” she promises. “Let me tell you a little bit about how it works.”

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It’s Monday afternoon, and I’m seated across from her in a large, sun-filled living room. Even though the armchair she has offered me is plush and comfortable, I’m perched on its edge, the uncertainty about what’s to come rendering me unable to sit back or relax. Fleur is young (if I had to guess, I’d place her in her late twenties), and very pretty, with wide blue eyes and a delicate floral sundress to match. Her long twist of wavy golden brown hair is swept off her face and into a side ponytail. Her home is comfortable and decorated in minimalist California chic: no crystal ball, beaded curtains, or creepy talismans in sight. In other words, Fleur – and her home – are about as far away from the Hollywood stereotype of a psychic medium as you can get.

Yes, on the outside, everything looks pretty normal on this quiet Monday afternoon. What’s not normal is the reason I’ve come here: to make contact with the spirits of my dead relatives.

The day before my reading, butterflies swirling in my stomach, I texted a friend who’d seen Fleur a few months earlier. “Any advice?” I asked. What she proposed was simple, yet helpful: record the audio of the session on my iPhone so that I could refer to it later, come up with a list of questions that I wanted to ask, and – for me – the part that proved to be the most difficult: invite the people I wanted to see to show up.

It has been nearly four years since my mother’s death. My dad followed a few months after her, then my grandmother, and then, last fall, my grandfather. And in all that time – with rare, desperate exceptions – I have almost never tried to “talk” to them. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suppose it’s because doing so always made me feel awkward and silly. I never knew where to start, or what to say. But in truth, I think I have been holding back out of fear that it won’t work, that they’re not really out there, and that I’m just some foolish girl, sitting alone in a room, talking to myself.

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But the evening before my meeting with Fleur, I decided to try. I waited until it was very late at night, and then, extinguishing all the lights in my apartment, I switched on an ornate Indian lantern in the shape of a star, filling the space with a soft, turquoise glow. Using a wand of Nag Champa incense (my mom’s favorite), I lit a small, scented pillar candle, and, my eyes fixed on its persistent flame, I began to speak. At first, the words came slowly, haltingly. But as I sat in the kitchen, bathed in the lantern’s blue light, I suddenly remembered my parents’ house in Olympia at Christmastime, sitting in front of the tree with my mom, drinking wine in the dark and marveling at how twinkling lights and tinsel could make an ordinary evergreen seem like something made of magic. That feeling of calm and safety, of not needing to be anywhere else but right there, with her, was such a happy memory that I wondered how on earth I could have forgotten it. Tears formed in my eyes, emotion rose in my chest, and the words I hadn’t known how to say came tumbling out.

I don’t know where I stand on the idea of an “afterlife.” I don’t know what happens to people when they die. Fleur believes, as she told me before we began our reading, that the soul doesn’t depart when the physical body does, and that her job as a medium is to simply allow the spirits of those who have “crossed over” to “step forward and make a connection.”

Did that happen during our reading? I can’t say with absolute certainty. The skeptic in me will tell you that there’s plenty of personal information about me and my family readily available on the internet thanks to this blog, and that much of what Fleur conveyed to me during my time with her was rooted in common sense, the type of things that anyone who was grieving would want to hear. But the part of me that’s open to possibility and feels humbled by the mystery of all that we can’t explain can admit to you that there were details that came up during our session that arrested me. Private, painful details about my childhood and the months leading up to my mother’s death that I’ve never written down and that very few people – if any – know about. And I can also tell you that there were many, many moments during our fifty minute session that I sat watching Fleur, her closed eyelids fluttering as she described what she was feeling and seeing, that felt incredibly real to me. Moments like when she described my grandfather and the infectious sense of delight he brought to the world, causing us both to laugh out loud. “He’s really funny!” she beamed. “He is,” I agreed.

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In the end, the thing that I had most been seeking from the session – a sense of peace and healing around my mother’s passing – was exactly what I received. As I sat in Fleur’s living room, she described a “feedback loop” of guilt and shame that I’d been stuck in, blaming myself for her death and reliving the events leading up to it over and over again in my mind, wondering what I could have done differently. “Your Mom wants you to stop doing that,” Fleur told me. “It is very important to her that you know that you could not have altered or changed what happened in any way. It was the path that she chose, and it’s not on you. You were the light of her life.”

When the session was over, not ready to go home and yet not ready to talk to anyone either, I drove to one of my favorite neighborhoods in L.A., Larchmont Village, and wandered the boulevard, losing myself among the hum of humanity in its sidewalk cafes and storefronts. Had my mother really communicated with Fleur, urging me to let my pain and regret go? And in the end, did it really matter? Whether Fleur could really speak with the dead or whether she was simply a kind, highly intuitive person who knew the words I most needed to hear, my heart told me what was true. In spite of her flaws and failings, my mother loved me more than anything and I know she wouldn’t want me to blame myself for her death. She’d want me to remember the parts of her that were about love, and let the rest go. She’d want me to allow myself to move on, and be happy.

It all sounds so simple as I type those words on the page: forgive myself and move on. I know the reality is much more difficult, much more complicated, just like my relationship with my mother was, just like love itself is. And yet – after Monday – I felt lighter somehow. The mere possibility that I might be able to let go of the weight I’ve been carrying these last few years filled me with a kind of hope I haven’t felt in a very long time. It’s the kind of hope that Dorothy must have felt when Glinda informed her, “You’ve always had the power my dear: you just had to learn it for yourself.” And armed with that hard-won knowledge, Dorothy bid farewell to the dear friends who had helped her on her dark and treacherous journey to the Emerald City, she tapped her ruby slippers together three times, and she went home.

Until next time, friends.

Me and Mom

P.S. * – If you’d like more information about Fleur, or are interested in booking a reading with her, visit: www.mediumfleur.com

I also recommend picking up Claire Bidwell Smith’s beautiful book After This, which contains a chapter about Fleur and is the reason that I discovered her.

*Please note: I received no monetary compensation for this post or for the information contained herein. I simply wanted to share my experience in case, like me, you are seeking peace and healing around the death of a loved one, and are open to exploring the mysteries of all the things we cannot know.

War Stories.

“It’s not love that’s complicated, it’s us. People.”

-War Stories

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

I have been trying to understand myself better through writing. I have been trying to understand the world better through writing. I think I have been doing this for quite some time without fully realizing that I have been doing it.

There are so many complex emotions that have been swirling through me these last few years. A jumble of feelings about love and loss, joy and fear, hope and regret. At times I have felt numb and detached, at other times so alive and present that everything around me seemed to buzz.

All the while, I have been chasing meaning with my pen. I suppose I figured that if I could somehow disentangle my thoughts and shape them into words, if I could articulate them in such a way that made sense not only to me but also to other people, that maybe then I’d be able to answer that big, nagging question: What now?

Writing is a lonely business. I don’t know any way around that. The only way to do it is to sit in a chair, in front of a computer (or with a notebook and pen), alone, and do the work. I hate that part of it – the lonely part – even as I crave the solitude that’s required to tame my racing thoughts into written form.

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In an effort to quell the loneliness, I took a break from writing non-fiction essays and returned to my roots: theatre. I wrote a play. I created characters to keep me company and guess what? I fell in love with all of them. And then I went out to try to find them in the real world. What an adventure that turned out to be.

In just a few days the play that I wrote, War Stories, will no longer be something that exists only in my imagination or inside of a rehearsal studio. It will be a real, tangible thing, on a stage, with actors (including me) breathing life into the story in front of an audience. My friends will come see it, and so will reviewers. It’s one of roughly 300 shows at Hollywood Fringe Festival, the largest theatre festival on the west coast of the United States. Talk about turning the lonely writer thing on its head. Talk about getting vulnerable. Because you see, while this play is a work of fiction, it’s a work of fiction I never could have created without looking inward and asking myself what I thought about one incredibly personal topic: love.

I wrote a letter to the play’s audience that will be published in the program, and I’ve shared it with you below. If you happen to be in Los Angeles during the month of June, I’ve also included a link at the bottom of this post with info about where you can see it and how to get tickets. And now, about War Stories:

There is no script about love that hasn’t already been written. No wisdom about the inner workings of our hearts that hasn’t already been put into a song, or a poem or the brushstrokes of a painting. For as long as humans have been telling stories, they have been telling stories about love. And for that same amount of time, they have been asking themselves one question: Why? Why do we love who we love?

War Stories was my attempt to answer that question. To be honest, I’m still writing my way toward the answer (a not so subtle plug to like the show on Facebook so that I can update you on the next, two-act iteration of this piece). They say that all art is autobiography, and though this play is a work of fiction, it would be impossible not to put something of myself into a topic so vulnerable, so personal. In some ways, all of these characters are me.

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I set this story in Los Angeles because it’s the city where I live and it’s the city that I know, but aside from some inside baseball jokes about dating actors, it really could take place anywhere and be written in any language. Our search for love and the crazy things we do in pursuit of it are universal.

But there is something about this city that makes it fertile ground for this type of story. There’s something so optimistic about a place jammed full of creative people, living one break away from making their dreams come true. The sense of possibility is real and it’s intoxicating. Yet it can also be an incredibly lonely place. Countless hours of one’s life lost stuck in traffic jams, or working dead end jobs to pay the bills. How many people spend years existing on hope alone, always one step away from getting that thing that they think will make them happy?

To paraphrase a line from George Orwell’s famous essay Shooting an Elephant, if you wear a mask for too long, it becomes your face. This play is a cautionary tale about just that: the perils of pretending. All of these characters do it, and all realize at some point that they no longer can, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. In the end, they’re all looking for someone who, as Chelsea says, will “See them, really see them, and not run.”

But then again, aren’t we all?

Until next time, friends.

P.S. – For War Stories tickets & info, visit: hff16.org/3476

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Strong in our broken places.

“Sometimes the people around you won’t understand your journey. They don’t need to. It’s not for them.”

-Unknown

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I spent Mother’s Day on a boat. The morning dawned with overcast skies and I was afraid that the marine layer would wrap itself around the coastline and not let go. To my surprise, the sun broke free from the fog’s grasp and by late morning, it was casting gentle rays of light out across the water, creating a perfect spring Southern California Sunday.

We never left the harbor. The boat was borrowed and expensive: a sleek, beautiful vessel complete with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a spacious deck. Far too valuable for any of us to pilot, even if we did know how, which of course, we didn’t. Besides, there was good food to eat and tequila to drink and – most importantly – girl talk to be had underneath that shaded canopy on the sea.

How do you celebrate a holiday when the person that holiday is built around celebrating is no longer with you? How do you continue to embrace gratitude for all that you’ve been given on an occasion that can’t help but remind you of all that you’ve lost? How do you keep moving forward, heart open, even on days when moving forward feels impossible?

I don’t know what works for other people, but here is what has been working for me, as a strategy for dealing with the difficult days: 1.) Surround yourself with your tribe. 2.) Do what feels good. 3.) Don’t apologize.

So this past Mother’s Day, that is exactly what I did. The three friends I shared that boat with are all brilliant, creative, generous, tough as nails, women. They also – like me – carry the scars of having lived on this planet long enough to have had their hearts broken. All of us have been humbled by the difficult days. And yet, it is in those difficult days that we have found our strength, our grace, and our empathy. We are, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Strong in our broken places.” These friends – and others like them – are my tribe. And these days, they’re the only people I feel like spending time with.

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One member of that tribe is my friend Sam. Sam is someone that I’m not sure that the old Sarah – the Sarah from before all the bad stuff happened – would have been friends with. Sam is a fiercely talented actress, and she moves through the world with an authority about who she is that the old me would have found intimidating. In truth, I still occasionally do find her intimidating, but mostly, I recognize her as a kindred spirit, someone that, through her own example, has given me permission to be the bolder, braver person that I know I am, deep down inside.

Not long after I met Sam – before we’d become the friends we are now – she invited me to a screening of a short film she co-produced and starred in, called Life Grows On*. It’s a twelve minute movie that follows the cycle of one woman’s life, illustrating how she responds to her own difficult days (and her joyful ones, too) in a way most women can relate to: by changing her hair. It’s a beautiful film, and I cried when I watched it. And I also knew that I wanted to be friends with the person who made it.

For me, these last few years have been a journey toward self-acceptance, of learning to give myself permission to be who I am. I’m not there yet, but I’m a lot further down that road than I used to be. And that is thanks in large part to friends like Sam:  friends who are teaching me that it is in our broken places where often, we are the strongest.

Surround yourself with your tribe. Do what feels good. Don’t apologize.

Until next time, friends.

*P.S. – You can watch Sam’s film Life Grows On by clicking here. I think you’ll be glad you did.

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The month of May.

“Time is the school in which we learn.”

-Joan Didion

Mom Wales

I don’t want to write about my mother. I don’t even really want to think about her, which, of course, I feel immediately guilty for saying out loud. It’s also not true. I do want to think about her, and write about her, I just don’t want those thoughts and words to be sad or painful anymore. I don’t want to be possessed by grief, or by the unanswered questions surrounding her death. I don’t want to pen another depressing Mother’s Day missive, tinged with longing and regret.

But as I think about all the motherless daughters (and sons) out there, facing the onslaught of greeting cards and flowers and an entire industry built around trumpeting “Mom’s special day,” I also feel that it’s important to be honest. I feel that it’s important to say that for some of us, Mother’s Day is just a day we have to endure, a day we need to get through. And there’s nothing shameful or wrong in admitting that.

My mother is everywhere lately. She’s been showing up in my dreams on the regular, uninvited, in places where she normally wouldn’t be, in places that don’t make sense.

They’re not bad dreams, not scary or unpleasant. Most of the time I don’t even remember them; they fade from view as soon as I wake up. I only know that in my subconscious mind, my mom and I have been spending a lot of time together lately.

Maybe it’s because the calendar has flipped to May, which was always her month. The month of Mother’s Day and her birthday, but also the month when spring flowers bloom, after those proverbial April rains that never seem to fall in Los Angeles. My mother was an avid gardener. She loved planting things and watching them grow.

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So maybe it is the season. Or maybe it’s just the place I’m at in my life – one of uncertainty and change – that has me craving maternal guidance. There are so many questions I want to ask her, so many things I want to say. There’s something about losing your parents that propels you into adulthood in a way that simply getting older never can. There’s something strangely disorienting about no longer needing to seek permission or approval, of having to own your life choices – both good and bad – because they are yours, alone.

The Jacarandas are blooming in Los Angeles. All over the city, trees burst with purple flowers, blossoms spilling onto the street, leaving a trail of vibrant lavender. I’ve always loved the color of Jacaranda purple, even before I knew Jacarandas were a thing. It was the color of my high school bedroom, and I remember feeling cheerful and happy inside of those walls. Even now, there’s something soothing and dreamy about those bluish violet flowers filling up the sky. Some days, a walk through my neighborhood feels like stepping onto the canvas of an Impressionist painting.

But as pretty as they are, Jacarandas are also a real nuisance. Their flowers float down from the sky in droves, blanketing the streets with purple carcasses. And as they turn brown and die, they leave a sticky, slippery, gelatinous residue on everything they touch. Park your car underneath a shedding Jacaranda tree for more than a few minutes, you begin to hate the things.

I suppose, like everything in life, it’s about perspective. If you look up, the Jacaranda trees are beautiful. Look down, not so much.

I’m trying to keep that in mind as I approach this Mother’s Day. On difficult days, looking up toward the sky doesn’t always come naturally. But when you do – if you can – it’s bound to be more beautiful.

Until next time, friends.

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Idaho.

I have been putting off writing about Idaho. It’s a childhood memory that I have long suppressed and that only came racing back a few weeks ago, as I was innocently scribbling stream of consciousness notes into a journal about the backstory of one of the characters in the play I’m writing, and then boom, there it was: a moment in my life that I had completely forgotten about. This is a phenomenon that has been happening to me more and more as I continue to put pen to paper, this act of remembering.

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For a long time, I deluded myself into thinking that writing fiction was “safer” than writing memoir, because the story wasn’t mine and I had made up characters and imagined storylines to hide behind. Except that isn’t true. I’ve realized that though the circumstances may be fictional, it’s impossible for me to write anything that matters without putting myself into it. Especially not this current piece I’m battling with: a play that revolves around a tangled web of Los Angelenos trying and failing at love in all sorts of toxic and dysfunctional ways. There’s no way to hide when writing a piece like this, a piece that – fictional or not – puts the writer’s heart under a magnifying glass. Surprise, surprise: it turns out that writing about love is dangerous as hell.

As the author of this play, I am ultimately the architect of all of my characters’ bad choices. So naturally I have to ask myself why? Why would otherwise intelligent, sane people make such crazy, irrational decisions when it comes to love? And like so many other things in our lives, the answer to that question can be traced back to the formative years of childhood. Which brings me back to Idaho.

Both of my parents were alcoholics. My father was open – almost to the point of being proud – about his drinking, while my mother hid her addiction. When I was growing up, the period between the end of the workday and the start of dinnertime often dissolved into a nebulous, lingering happy hour. Sometimes it passed in a saccharine haze of laughter and love, and other times, it escalated into full on war between my parents. Looking back on it now with the wisdom that only hindsight can bring, I am certain that I grew into an adult who became far too tolerant of bad behavior because I was a child that recognized the soundtrack of screaming, yelling, hurling insults and slammed doors as a part of normal, everyday life.

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It was around the age of ten that my mother started talking to me about Idaho. We’d stay up late, long past my bedtime and after Dad was fast asleep, sitting in the darkened living room of our home in Anchorage and Mom, her eyes welling with tears, would make her sales pitch.

“Let’s pack everything and just go, Sar,” she’d urge. “I promise, you’ll love it there.” And then she’d fill my head with visions of crystal clear lakes tucked into the bases of purple mountains and fields of wildflowers in the summer and ski resorts in the winter and endless blue skies puffed up with clouds and starry, starry nights. Idaho became a place that both embodied hope and promised redemption, a beautiful dream made all the more beautiful because I believed, as she did, that my mother would finally be happy there.

We never made it to Idaho. My mother never worked up the courage to leave my father, and it wasn’t until many years later that I realized that she never really wanted to. Their relationship, toxic and infected by addiction as it was, endured because they loved each other desperately. My mother loved my father so much that when she found out he was dying, she drank herself into an early grave, preferring to leave the earth first rather than live without him on it.

I have penned rough drafts of nearly every section of my play, but the section about Idaho, where one of my central characters tells the story of a haunting childhood memory to a lover she barely knows – a lover she experiences far greater intimacy with than her partner of many years – remains unwritten. I know I need to write it, even if it never makes it into the final version of the script. And I also know that writing it will cost me something.

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I strive to be as honest as I can on this blog, and I think, for the most part, I am. But there are still topics I run from, still things that feel too exposed, too vulnerable to speak about.

This is a step in that direction, a step toward that more exposed, more vulnerable me. So thank you, Idaho. Thank you for reminding me of the dreams I’ve had that never came true, and the knowledge that it’s okay to grieve them. Thank you for encouraging me to be brave enough to go into the places that scare me, and to shake off the dark secrets that are weighing me down.

And thank you for giving me hope: the hope that the truth, if I really do tell it all, will be the thing that ultimately sets me free.

Until next time, friends.

P.S. – the stunning photos of Idaho pictured in this blog are from www.visitidaho.org

Doesn’t it look glorious? Someday I’ll go there. I promise.

 

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Gerry.

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

If you can use some exotic booze

There’s a bar in far Bombay

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

The tide is high on the morning of Halloween. So high, that the magic rock is hidden from view. “Where is it?” someone asks. “Underwater,” I say.

Grandma and Grandpa

As we reminisce about Grandpa’s daily swims in Case Inlet – the way he circled that tall, narrow, granite rock formation as though it were his prey, his snorkel mask strapped on, swim fins slicing through the water – I realize I don’t know the answer to the most basic of questions: “Why is the rock magic?”

No one seems to know. Finally, the only reply that makes sense: “Because Grandpa said it was.”

My grandfather, Gerald James Popelka (or “Gerry,” to those who knew him), lived a whole half century before I met him. There are so many things about his life that I don’t know, but what is clear to me as we gather on this Halloween morning, a group of twenty or so family and close friends, the hospice chaplain, and a Vietnam veteran who will honor Grandpa for his service as a Navy court reporter during World War II and the Korean War, is this: it was more than just a rock that he made magic, it was this whole place, this handful of acres tucked away on western Washington’s Case Inlet, a place that has been known to my family for the last five and a half decades simply as “the beach.”

The beach isn’t special simply because of its picturesque setting on a saltwater bay framed by tall banks of evergreen trees, Mt. Rainier towering above, keeping watch over us all. It’s special because over so many years, during all those summers spent boating and swimming, digging clams on the rocky beach, building great big bonfires, roasting S’mores and telling stories under the stars, this place has always been infused with the same spirit of delight with which my Grandfather undertook everything he did. As my Uncle Glenn said during closing remarks at Grandpa’s Navy blessing, looking around at the place, at all of us: “All of this is because of you, Dad.”

July 2005 Joyride

My Grandpa Gerry was a spirited Bohemian whose sense of humor and zest for life were utterly infectious. He was a lover of the lexicon, honing his skills by working daily crossword puzzles and ever ready to stump some poor unsuspecting victim with an impossible-to-figure-out vocabulary word. He was a practical joker, often following up a witty wisecrack with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. The bold striped t-shirts he favored matched his perfect shock of thick white hair and his larger than life personality.

Grandpa was tremendous fun to be around, but above all else, he was kind. To me, he was a bright light that illuminated the dark corners of an often sad and lonely childhood. He was the one person with whom I never fought, never exchanged a harsh word. In fact, I can’t remember him ever saying an unkind word about anyone.

On October 12th, I received word that Grandpa – at 89 years old – was terminally ill. After a recent series of what can only be described as traumatic experiences with death – my mother, my father, my grandmother – this sudden turn of events felt unnecessarily cruel. After so much loss, how could I possibly be expected to say goodbye to my beloved grandfather too? It wasn’t fair. I needed more time.

Hospice prepared us for the worst, telling us that given Grandpa’s failing liver, intense pain, nausea and heavy bleeding were all likely to happen “near the end.” As the social worker cautioned, “People hope their loved ones will pass away quietly in their sleep, but that rarely happens. Dying is usually quite an active process.”

Sarah Grandpa Black and White

I wasn’t ready, but I went to the beach anyway. For sixteen days, Grandpa and I sat together. We looked at old photos and reminisced. We shared secret jokes, poking fun at those who weren’t in on them. We counted the Canada geese that glided serenely across Case Inlet and congregated on a neighbor’s lawn.

But after sixteen days, without a dramatic change in Grandpa’s health, I headed back to Los Angeles with a plan to return in two weeks. It was only four days later that I got the call: Grandpa was weak, bedridden, and asking for me. Back to the beach I went.

I arrived on a Tuesday night. Friends and family were gathered in Grandpa’s room, and outside, the wind howled and rain poured. Grandpa drifted in and out of sleep, but he opened his eyes long enough to look at me and squeeze my hand. He tried to speak and couldn’t, but I told him that it was OK. I already knew.

I awoke the next morning, Veteran’s Day, to the sun streaming through my window, the clear blue skies and calm winds an unexpected gift after such a long and miserable night. Grandpa was sleeping peacefully, so I took a break to do some work. Around lunchtime, Glenn informed me he’d just gone to see Grandpa and told him that my mother was waiting for him to start cocktail hour. “Don’t be late,” he said.

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Now this next part will sound like I’ve made it up, because it’s the type of Hollywood ending a writer like me would invent, but I swear on everything that I am that it’s exactly what happened. I took my laptop to Grandpa’s room, and as my Aunt Sandy searched through his decades’ old collection of compact discs, I pulled up an iTunes playlist of standards. I tried a few oldies before I settled on a Sinatra classic. I sat next to his bed and turned up the volume:

Come fly with me, let’s float down to Peru

In llama land there’s a one-man band

And he’ll toot his flute for you

Come fly with me, let’s take off in the blue

Grandpa’s breathing slowed considerably and halted for several beats in between breaths. This was different, and we knew it. We called Glenn, who appeared in the doorway of Grandpa’s room somewhere around here:

Once I get you up there where the air is rarified

We’ll just glide, starry-eyed

Once I get you up there I’ll be holding you so near

You may hear angels cheer ’cause we’re together

Before Sinatra had finished singing, my grandfather quietly, gently, drew his last breath. As we hovered around his bed in a sort of reverent silence, waiting, knowing, yet not quite ready to speak the words out loud, I imagined Grandpa sitting with my Mom in the cozy living room of their old West Seattle house on Beach Drive, sipping martinis, enjoying the view of Puget Sound, Ol’ Blue Eyes softly crooning in the background.

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I inherited my love of language from my grandfather. And I believe that a wordsmith like him would understand better than most that there are times when words simply aren’t enough. After all, how could I possibly explain to you that after all of my fear surrounding what would happen when my grandfather died, that what actually did happen was so beautiful that it somehow made all the other deaths a little easier to bear? How could I express to you the depth of my gratitude for an exit so gentle that it helped restore my faith that sometimes, good things do happen to good people? And most importantly, how could I possibly capture in words the essence of a man who meant so much to so many, so that you could know him as I knew him, love him as I loved him?

I can’t. Words are not enough. I can only tell you that my grandfather, Gerald James Popelka, was the best man I ever knew.

And he made us all believe that a rock was magic, just by saying it was so.

Weather-wise it’s such a lovely day

You just say the words and we’ll beat the birds

Down to Acapulco Bay

It’s perfect for a flying honeymoon, they say

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

 Until next time, friends.

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Limbo.

Grandpa sits in his usual spot in the living room, staring out the picture window at the placid, silvery surface of Case Inlet, framed by evergreens that have turned an early November shade of amber. His yellow-tinged eyes reflect the vacant gaze of someone who’s looking but not seeing. “What are you thinking about?” I ask, patting him on the shoulder. I expect his typical response: “Nothing.” Instead, he intones softly, “I’m thinking about how quickly the time has gone.”

I’ve been at the beach for fifteen days, though of course, that’s not the measure of time that Grandpa is referring to. This evening, barring a catastrophe, I will leave, and board a plane headed back to Los Angeles. It is staggering to me that my time here has passed so swiftly, and yet, has contained so much within its rapidly elapsing days. I feel as though I’ve been moving in slow motion for weeks, traveling from joy to despair to fear in the space of a single hour, sometimes in a single minute. There is always another hospice appointment, another phone call, another email, another problem, another difficult conversation. And in between it all, I’ve been working, straddling two worlds – here and there – with the aid of an unreliable Wi-Fi connection.

I’ve never been very good at living in the moment, but these last couple weeks, the moment is all I’ve had. It’s no wonder my sense of time is so screwy, with Grandpa’s feeling borrowed and mine suspended. What a strange sort of limbo it is to sit with someone you love as they face the end of their life. The question that looms before us is when? It is the question he asks of everyone: his caregivers, the hospice nurses, the chaplain, the social worker, and of course, his family. It is the question that no one has the answer to, least of all me.

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I am prepared for what’s coming in a way that I wasn’t able to be with either of my parents, and for that I am grateful. I am grateful for all of the time I’ve been able to spend with him. But after fifteen days, there is little for me to do but wait.

Twenty-four-hour care is in place; contingency plans have been made. And the look Grandpa now sees reflected back in my eyes is one of someone who’s watching his every move, searching his face for signs of what’s to come. I can’t do this any longer. I can no longer sit around this rain-soaked place – beautiful as it is – waiting for my 89-year-old Grandfather to die.

I feel selfish for craving a way out, for craving warmth and palm trees and cheap, delicious Mexican food, and a hike in the hills and the sight of the Pacific and a desperately needed session with my therapist, but I do. I crave all of these things. I even crave the to-do list that awaits me upon my return, because it represents routine, and the opportunity to pretend, for a little while, that everything is normal.

So back I will go, for now. My return to the beach is already booked, but every ticket is refundable, every plan changeable. This type of freedom, it turns out, is expensive. But it’s the price you pay when you’re in limbo. When you’re left with nothing to do but wait.

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The God of Death.

“What do we say to the God of Death?”

“Not today.”

– Game of Thrones

Today, I think I will swim. I announce this to Grandpa first thing in the morning, and he looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind. “It’s too damn cold!” he sputters.

It is too damn cold. Especially without the aid of vodka to warm my blood, which, today, on my seventh day at the beach, I’ve decided to stop drinking.

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It’s sort of shocking that I would drink at all, really, given the fact that it’s what killed my mother, and given the fact that here I am again, confronted with another family member with another failing liver. This time, the organ occupies the body of my 89-year-old grandfather, Gerry. But drink I have, vodka tonics every night as soon as the clock strikes five, with Grandpa’s symptoms on full display before me like some sort of ghastly cautionary tale: jaundiced skin and eyes lit up like a neon school bus, distended belly covered in bumpy red scabs, swollen ankles, flaking, itching skin and eyes that burn and sting and scratch like sandpaper. The dark, blood-colored bruises that cover his bony arms are the things that scare me the most, for they foreshadow the potential horror a hospice nurse warned us about: the bleeding. The tremendous amount of bleeding that can occur “when the time comes.” I think I can handle just about anything but the bleeding. “If that happens,” the nurse tells me, “Call hospice immediately. You shouldn’t have to deal with that.”

There is comfort in hospice, in knowing that they exist. There is less comfort in the “comfort kit” they provide, equipped with drugs I hope we won’t have to use. One of Grandpa’s caregivers tells me she’s not comfortable administering morphine, because she doesn’t want to “do it wrong.” “I’m not trained for that,” she says. Right, like I am, I think, but instead, I just say, “Thank you for telling me.” And I mean it. The business of dying is full of surprises, so the fewer we can avoid up front the better, as far as I’m concerned.

It has been a busy day. There is an appointment with a social worker, then another with a nurse. I send emails back and forth with a chaplain who’s arranging a small ceremony at Grandpa’s home to honor his years of service in the Navy, during both the Korean War and World War II.

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Throughout all of this, Grandpa is tired and intermittently naps, but stays mostly upbeat. It is amazing to me how open he is, how willing he is to talk to the strangers entering his home, to do his best to answer their questions. He keeps asking how he can help them, which they find endlessly endearing. Though he’s confused and groggy, he seems aware that these people are trying to make him feel better. He even accepts a blessing from the chaplain, which shocks me as he hasn’t practiced his Catholic faith in decades. Maybe he’s starting to make peace with what’s coming. At least, I can hope.

Every morning that he wakes up – his razor sharp wit and perfect head of thick white hair still intact in spite of his failing body – feels like a miracle. And every evening that I go to bed, I pray that the next morning, he won’t wake up. It’s not that I don’t want him to live; in fact, quite the opposite. It’s just that I know this won’t get any better, and for every day that remains, the fear of decline into the horror that may come – the pain, the hallucinations, the blood – becomes more real.

So I pray. I haven’t prayed in years but it’s amazing how quickly you can pick it back up, if you’re desperate enough. I know the thing I’m praying for – the quick, easy death – is unlikely. All the nurses say so. But I pray for it anyway. I pray that this kind, gentle man who has been through so much in his 80th decade – a debilitating stroke, the deaths of his daughter, his son-in-law, and his wife of sixty years – will be allowed to slip quietly away, in his sleep.

I don’t know what is coming. And the not knowing is terrifying. But today, on my seventh day at the beach, I decide to face it without the aid of vodka tonics. After all, they’re not working anyway. They aren’t enough to numb this out, or to help me pretend, as some other members of my family would like to do, that this isn’t happening.

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So instead, I wait. I wait for high tide and a break in the rain and then, like the California girl I’ve almost become, I slip on a mismatched bikini top and bottom under my clothes. I find Grandpa, who is seated at his dining room table, looking out the picture window at Case Inlet, as he does during most of his waking hours. I give him a quick hug and then I tell him I’m going for a swim. He gives me a confused look and I’m not sure that he understands, given it’s close to his bedtime and the meds are kicking in. I go outside, strip down to my swimsuit, and grab the faded orange Sears brand flippers that I scribbled my name on years ago with a sharpie (as though anyone else would want them). Fins in hand, wrapped in a towel, I walk down to the water’s edge.

I know that – in late October – the steely grey salt water will be a shock. I also know that the only way to do this is to plunge in quickly, before I feel ready. I’m not ready, I think, just before I hurl my body into the sea. I hit the water with a scream as the icy cold sears through me. But it doesn’t matter because I’m in, dogpaddling through the sound. I only last a minute or two before the shivering overtakes me, but as I make my way toward shore, I see Grandpa, watching from his seat by the window, a grin spread across his face.

Maybe diving into the frigid waters of Case Inlet during this overcast, rainy fall day does make me a bit crazy.  But as I approach the beach cabin, dripping wet and trying not to shake, I see Grandpa flashing me a thumbs up sign through the window, just before his caregiver wheels him off to bed. Maybe I am crazy. But maybe I’m his kind of crazy. And maybe – in spite of what lies ahead – that’s why I’m here.

Until next time, friends.

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Three years.

I’m perched on a paint-splattered stool, located downstage right, in a darkened forty-seat theatre. We’re well into the second act of Barenaked Angels, a show that’s a sort of hybrid between solo performance and an ensemble piece (I wrote about it here). My fellow cast mate Phil is standing on the opposite side of the stage, recounting a story about his niece Sam, a young girl who died after a battle with Mitochondrial disease. Sam had an affinity for butterflies and ladybugs, and in this particular story, Phil tells the audience that on the day of his first big acting job, a ladybug appeared next to him on set during the filming of his scene. The ladybug remained in the same spot for several takes, and Phil was convinced that the ladybug was in fact Sam, turning up in the form of the creature she loved, to let him know that she was all right.

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This is not the first time I’ve heard the story of the ladybug, but during this particular performance, something is different. As I sit on my stool, listening, I’m transported back to an evening in late September: the night that followed the long day during which we eulogized my mother. After most of the guests had gone home, I sat on the deck of my grandparents’ beach cabin, staring out at the sea. The sunset was slowly shifting into twilight, and a huge full moon hung high in the pink and purple-streaked sky, casting a rosy glow over Case Inlet, which was so flat that it seemed a great mirror, reflecting the heavens back onto themselves. As I sat there, the silence so loud it was nearly reverberating, warmth filled my core and spread outward, tickling the tiny hairs on my arms. Stillness enveloped me like a blanket and the moon and the sea and sky seemed to be speaking directly to me, whispering words of calm and comfort, telling me that my mother was at peace, and that everything would be OK.

Almost immediately after that night, the world as I knew it came tumbling down. Illness. More death. Identity theft. A move. A break up. The pace of life was frenetic as I moved from crisis to crisis. The magic of that September evening and its tranquil, perfect moment all but vanished from my memory.

That is, until this night – nearly three years later – as I sit on stage listening to the story of the ladybug. A warm vibration floods my center, goose bumps rise on my legs and arms. The quiet audience, intently listening, the hum of the stage lights – everything feels more somehow. And suddenly, I’m right back there, possessed of the same calm, all-knowing that visited me on that September night.

As quickly as the moment arrives, it is gone. Phil finishes his story and I snap back to reality, knowing it’s my turn to speak. I choke back the lump in my throat and rise from my stool, crossing downstage center to find my light.

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Today, September 23rd, marks three years. Three years since I received the worst news of my life: my mother – my best friend – was dead.

If there is an emotion that a person can feel, over these last three years, I have felt it. Crushing sorrow. Denial to the point of delusion. Blinding rage. Crippling guilt. Red-faced shame. Paralysis-inducing fear.

I have spent much of the last three years trying to feel “better.” It is only recently that I have learned – with the help of counseling, writing, and the passage of time – that I am not meant to feel better. I don’t even know what better means. Life has changed, and I am changed in it. And in this new reality – a reality where certainty is no longer certain – I am awake and alive to every moment, knowing the weight and import of each one.

A few weeks ago, I found myself sorting through some boxes from my parents’ old house that had been in storage for the last two plus years; boxes that I had only recently been able to bring myself to open. Among the assorted mementos, I found some treasured photographs – taken before everything went digital – that I had feared were forever lost.

The photos were from a trip my Mom took to visit me in England, after I finished a college semester studying abroad. We spent a few days in London, and then traveled to Wales. Craving luxury, I booked us into a fancy hotel in Cardiff. But Mom wanted something a little more rugged. She wanted to see the natural beauty of the countryside.

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After asking around, we took a train to Swansea and then boarded a small bus bound for the Gower Peninsula. When we arrived, we stood on jagged cliffs, looking out in wonder at the vast sea before us, feeling as though we had come to the edge of the world. Among the handful of photographs we took that day, my favorite is of my Mom, pretending to drive a golf ball (she was an avid golfer) over a cliff, a huge grin spread across her face.

I had forgotten how full of life my mother had been on that trip, how adventurous she was. That memory is such a departure from the mother I became used to in the years leading up to her death: someone who mostly stayed at home and avoided crowds, contenting herself with simple pleasures like gardening and cooking. Someone who gradually became more and more anti-social as she clung to memories of the past, slowly disappearing before my eyes.

It is so easy for the worries and the fears and the anxieties to grab hold of you and to keep you from moving forward, as they did my mother. It is much harder to know how much life can hurt you, and to throw your arms around it anyway, embracing it with all you have.

Three years is an awfully long time. It’s an awfully long time to miss someone, and it’s an awfully long time to feel stuck and lost and searching in their absence. But it’s a short time too. Elapsed so quickly, in the blink of an eye.

I have felt it all these last three years. Every dark, impossible, hopeless thing. But today, as I think of my mother, I think of the woman who insisted we travel by train and bus to the edge of the world so that we could gaze out at the sea, sensing all the possibility that spread out before us. And I think of that serene September evening after we said goodbye, when I knew in the core of my being that she was all right.

She is all right. And I am all right too.

Until next time, friends.

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