Night out

At 4:30 in the afternoon, they walk into the restaurant holding hands.

“Is it too early for dinner?” the old man inquires of the host, a little too loudly. His hearing is going.

She stands in her flowered top and pedal pushers, her feet an unlady-like distance apart. Her hand is still clasped in her husband’s and she’s staring at the young man, who tells them they’re right on time. Her face is innocence and curiosity and glee.

The old woman doesn’t move. Continue reading

In searching for answers, we can try for connection

A sad, bewildering saga that continues to invade our nights and dog our days started with a familiar buzz on my husband’s cell phone one morning just after the New Year. It ended with a terse, painful cut-off.

I don’t like you, a member of our family asserted by text, passive-aggressively and out of the blue. You’ve let me down, her words inferred. You should have done more of this, and less of that. Then came the one-sided, über-controlling clincher: Don’t even try to talk to me about this, she warned, spiking the ball over the net. Continue reading

Mother’s Day, three days early

Dear Mom:

If you were here to sit with me and listen to a litany of everything I should have understood about us long, long ago but really couldn’t have because only time allows perspective (so I should just let that go), I would tell you so many things. I would do it looking straight into your fading eyes and gently grasping your blue-veined hands with their pale white parchment-thin skin, the ones I touched a final time last May, when I sat on your bed after you died and noticed someone had placed them one on top of the other across your chest, like the Madonna in repose.

You looked so luminescent and peaceful.

Your hands were still warm, I remember. Your eyelids were closed, and I felt, as young Mattie Ross observed in “True Grit,” that your spirit had flown. It was too late to say what I had thought about in the middle of the night, an hour or so before I got the call that you had gone, the oh-god-please-don’t-leave-me silent pleadings of a desperate middle-aged woman with tear-stained cheeks who was your middle daughter all grown up, but also a frightened little child again in the face of your mortality.

Continue reading

Writing my mother in paradise

The last time I was on the island, my mother wasn’t dead yet. She was living in a facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease, and as far as I could tell, for three long years, everyone who worked there tried their best to tend to her multiplying physical and emotional needs.

At first mom was able to walk, haltingly, down the wide hallways, holding onto a chair rail to keep her balance. One time she let go and fell — scraping her knees and bruising her hip — and after that she was confined to a wheelchair and finally a Geri Chair, a version of a wheelchair in which the person lays down rather than sitting up. The last year of her life mom lost her ability to speak and control her bodily functions. She slept most hours of every day. We did not know what, if anything, was going on inside her head, because dementia’s plaques and tangles had ravaged her brain and rendered her mostly unable to communicate. But once in a while her eyes would flutter open, light on one of our faces, and she would smile — and that was enough. She ate less and less as the spring of 2013 grew older, and one night she could no longer swallow. The hospice folks, who have lots of experience witnessing these mysterious things, told us she was “actively dying.” Our family gathered around to hug her, whisper loving things in her ear and let her go. As I touched the cooling skin on her forehead and smoothed the shock of silky white hair above her eyes a final time, I felt peaceful, as if she would somehow always be with me. Continue reading

Be brave, be bold … and get back

My neck itches, I’m nauseated, and I finally had a bowel movement on Sunday after four straight days of constipation. Too much information? I blame it on the drugs. Right now, in the early post-surgery stages back here at home, oxycodone is paradoxically my best friend (I’m really not that into pain) and my worst enemy (mush-brain is not my preferred state of mental acuity).

The moral of this story is to resist the temptation to go running when your neighborhood streets are frozen, particularly when temperatures have dipped into the single digits for several days in a row. Believe me, giving in to your compulsion to exercise isn’t worth the price you could pay out there on the roads. Maybe you haven’t logged your usual 50 miles yet this week, but simmer down, Sparky. Have a second cup of coffee, switch on the Christmas tree lights and savor their soft glow, pack a lunch to carry you through your work day so you won’t wind up at 7-Eleven, chowing down on beef taquitos or a chili-cheese dog. Continue reading

Fear and self-loathing in the Internet age


It’s a story a thousand writers can tell a hundred times over. Sitting at your kitchen table in the wee hours of the morning, a steaming cup of coffee on one side of your laptop and a soggy leftover croissant on the other, you’re tapping the keyboard, waiting for the Next Good Idea to begin putting itself down on paper. 

Only there is no paper. Just a faint blue other-wordly glow emanating from the screen because, in the interval between pushing the “on” button and getting serious about creating something cool, the computer has gone to sleep. Your misbehaving monkey mind came up with a few other things to do first: vacuum, start the washing machine, let the dog out, floss. Finally, before desperation sets in, you take a deep breath and begin. Continue reading

Dream weavings

When my husband dragged in at seven this morning from his first experience working back-to-back twelve-hour shifts at a pair of area hospitals, he reported two things to me. First, he confessed that between 4:05 and 4:15 a.m., he’d taken a ten-minute catnap in a folding chair near a large glass window overlooking the Portland skyline, even though according to his new employer’s security department policy handbook, that wasn’t really allowed.

Second, in order to make it home without falling asleep behind the wheel of his truck, he had continuously pinched himself and shaken his head from side to side, with the air conditioner on full-blast. Continue reading

Village people

It’s been twenty years since I was the mother of young children, living in the land of binkies, disposable diapers, regular visits to the pediatrician and 24/7 vigilance. My babies are grown now, and as of this week, even the youngest has left the soft-landing confines of his father’s home, sporting a shiny new badge of independence. 

The fact that it often takes him two or three days to respond to a text or voicemail tells me, by omission, that he has his own life to lead and prefers that his mom not continue to ask, ask, ask what he’s up to and whether he has something more than ketchup and beer in his refrigerator. It takes a nearly super-human effort on my part not to go all Lois Lane on him, but I occasionally succeed in masking my pesky reporter-type tendencies when I get him on the phone. He’s appreciative, I’m sure. Continue reading

Always and finally, love has won

My mom, Lucile Lashbrook, in Banff in 2005.

Their love blossomed in the hallways of a high school in a small Iowa town where her father was a Lutheran minister and his father worked for the local road department.

A raven-haired, dark-eyed beauty, mom graduated from nursing school in Chicago in 1954, the year after dad joined the Navy and the one in which the two of them tied the knot and promptly set out for his first duty station in Washington state to begin what would turn into sixty years of love, adventure and uncommon commitment. Continue reading

Breathe, dance

Shawn Marie Howe and her father, John Pihas, who passed away just last month.

The pain in my throat shifts from side to side, depending on which way I turn in the bed. I’m hot, and there is a sick smell in the room. All the muscles between my shoulder blades ache. It’s a bother to fully open my eyes, which are swollen but still sunken, and they sting, as if I’ve spent several hours in a chlorinated pool. I pry them open with my fingers, slowly, because the lashes are stuck together with goop from last night’s restless sleep.

I want to flee my bedroom, but at the same time I want to stay, burrow deeper under the comforter and turn toward the wall and the fading darkness. But I have to use the bathroom, and that decides it for me. Up I go. Continue reading