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

Running friendship

We’re grayer now, and longer in the tooth. Well, Elena is grayer, and I would be too if I didn’t still color my hair, which probably means she’s more honest than me, or at least a little less vain. But there’s no doubt we’re both older, owing to the passage of time and the things that keep on happening in our lives, tap-tap-tapping away at our sense of security but deepening our resolve to delve into life’s deeper mysteries with eyes wide open. 

That’s what we do when we run together: talk, wonder, laugh and listen. Elena and I have run thousands of miles side by side over the last six years, and that’s a lot of conversation. I don’t know if there’s a topic under the sun we haven’t taken up, and we try really hard to give each other equal, or near equal, air-time. If something important is on my mind and I go on for more than half our run, whether it’s five, or eight, or sixteen miles long, I try to remember that the next time we hit the road. Same for her. There have been days when a problem I’m stewing over has needed an entire hour for its full hearing; ditto for Elena. Continue reading

Year’s end

Christmas is over, and I’m grateful that it is.

“Comfort” and “joy” were supposed to be the watchwords of the Santa and sensory overload season, yet neither seemed to apply. Now we turn the calendar page, where the traditional literary harbingers “anticipation” and “opportunity” point us toward what the New Year might, in the best of situations, turn out to bring. We’re encouraged to reflect on our lives and resolve to do better, act better, parent better or perform better at our jobs. Any one of those will do, yet I find I’m unable to buy into the zeal.

Our living rooms are littered with bits of wrapping paper whose Scotch-taped corners cling to the carpet where the vacuum won’t reach. Even though the tree has been dragged out the front door, pine needles linger like the liquored breath of the last bad holiday visitor, stale and unwelcome.

Sadness, punctuated by fleeting moments of peace, saturates the silence. We trudge on.


Filtered staccato sunlight fell on the roadway during my morning run today. It was the first sun I’d seen in more than a week, and it fed me as I loped along, trying not to slip on the mossy inclines or trip on branches that have fallen from oaks and maples in the early winter rain and wind.

I’m different now, and so is my running. The impact has compressed my vertebrae and made me shorter. I used to be five-foot-three and now I’m five-foot-one, a little more wobbly, slightly bent over, slower. In all probability I’ll never again run a Boston Marathon qualifying time or break four hours over 26.2 miles. All of that’s okay, I tell myself as I push my body forward, reveling in the movement despite the sub-40 degree wind against my face.

Afterward, I reluctantly crack the front door of our neighborhood bakery and see Max standing there. “Hey — how are you?” I greet our grizzled, wisecracking 80-something Jewish professor friend. “Above ground,” he quips in his usual, sometimes-but-not-all-the-time off color manner.

“Yep, that’s where it starts,” I reply, bantering with him.

“But not where it ends,” he retorts, both of us knowing that is most certainly true.


A little boy once was asked what he thought about the way life was going for him so far. “Mostly good, some bad,” he responded after a moment’s consideration.

Even though I’ve come to subscribe to the Buddhist principle that life is suffering, in recent months our family has endured just about all the Some Bad we can take. As we continue to struggle to find our equilibrium beneath the crushing weight of 2012, we search the sky for signs of gentleness and unrelenting goodness in 2013.

Continue reading

Something has shifted

Something very significant has shifted. We can all feel it. The whole world is rousing itself awake this morning, with people taking great pains to get out of bed when the covers somehow feel like the only safe haven available in a place filled with shadows.

Birds, bugs and human beings, whether they want to or not after yesterday’s carnage in Newtown, Connecticut, are rising — across four time zones — and doing what they must do: feed their children, give presentations in board rooms, sit for chemotherapy treatments. They’re trying to figure out how to pay the bills, how to make it through the week or even the next day, when, as the President said on TV last night, the nation’s heart is broken. Continue reading