26 October 2005

afternoon drive.

I woke up to Jeremy nudging me, “Look Kierst, all the leaves are changing.”

We were flying over Tennessee on our way home from Texas last Friday. As usual, I had dozed off on the plane.

Fall is our favorite season. It’s the time of year when we fell in love, and we always welcome the sweet elements of cool air, colorful crackling leaves, and warm sunsets bright as a bonfire flame.

Yesterday I drove around our neighborhood with the windows down and gathered up all the beauty of a new season and simple pleasures. I love our neighborhood. This time of year especially, it truly feels like we live in a little town full of rustic cottages and friendly faces.

A stop at the new floral shop on 16th Street yielded two white pumpkins for our front porch, and eleven strands of lily grass to twist in a vase on the table. I’m not sure why I passed up the rich blue hydrangea blooms or the huge cheerful sunflowers. I just felt drawn to simple, earthy beauty, and long blades of green seemed perfect.

I made it to the cozy local bakery next door just minutes before their 2 o’clock closing time and chose a miniature loaf of sugar-dusted banana bread to split with Jeremy, and a gourmet peanut butter dog bone for Sam.

Driving along, I noticed all the porches overflowing with potted mums in rust and gold, and gourd collections toppling down the steps. I glanced at the street names as I passed, some I had never seen before, like one that was actually called Fall Street. After Fall was Benjamin, and Bronte, and Katherine. Our neighborhood feels literary for lots of reasons besides its street names. A mixture of characters mull about, some waving with their dog leashes in hand while others keep their heads down---young boys who might be up to trouble as they hurry down the very center of the street.

I found Shelby Park at the end of the road. The ducks were all out in the pond, swimming and quacking to signify their approval of autumn, and I listened to the leaves scraping the ground beyond their chatter.

At home, we are nurturing ourselves with home-cooked meals, good red wine, and tasty squares of chocolate that Jeremy bought from the organic food market a few blocks away. We’ve been burning a harvest-scented candle that glows and warms the house all day long. I have embraced a need to make lasagna and have everything clean and organized…every drawer is being sorted through, things being put into place.

It’s a good time of year, full of memories and sadness and peace moving through the air…while orange and yellow leaves drift down onto the lawn.

24 October 2005


I didn’t realize until now that it is possible for certain moments to move too fast and too slow, both at the same time.

One month with my dad was far too little time. Every day but two was spent in a hospital room, with nurses shuffling in and out to take blood pressure, hang a new IV bag, or deliver a tray of lunch that rarely got eaten. All except for the cup of frozen sorbet, which dad always welcomed with wide eyes. If I lapsed too long between strawberry mouthfuls, he’d muster enough strength to sweetly but eagerly say, “come on,” and motion at the spoon.

On good days we'd talk, remembering back to our father-daughter trips from years ago: snow-skiing in Tahoe, a tour of Napa Valley. We also attempted to tie up loose ends using a bag of his mail and my laptop—some days I was his stockbroker, other days I made phone calls or balanced his checkbook. One afternoon, he even had me post feedback on his month-old Ebay auctions. That was my dad…even though he knew he had days left on earth, he wanted to make sure he checked every single thing (urgent or not) off his list.

Some days I just sat and held his hand while he slept, my smaller fingers cupped around his. His hands were soft and barely scarred (the hands of an accountant), with just a few calloused and creviced places (from the time he spent working in the yard or fixing things around the house.)

Mostly I cherish the moments toward the very end, when he’d peek out from sleep and look around to find me. And the moments when he would say something utterly childlike and funny, still with a layer of dignity underneath. I found it so fascinating that the weaker my dad grew, the more he seemed to revert back to a much younger version of himself. He was so blatantly honest, but never harsh. He would just say what he liked and what he didn’t in the most efficient way it could be said. It was as though even his vocabulary knew there wasn’t time to waste.

One day when he was on a soft food diet, the nurse sneaked him a chocolate chip cookie, and his eyes lit up for the first time in awhile. He literally said, “A COOKIE!” in the tone of an eight year old who had just won first prize.

Another morning, we came in to find him struggling with his radio and earphones. He was fumbling to find a station. Jeremy scrolled around for a song and put it up to dad’s ears telling him he’d found some country music. The earbuds were barely in place before dad plainly blurted, “It sucks,” in the most matter-of-fact kind of way.

Those days just flew by way too fast. And you’d think that sitting in a hospital room all day would drag on and on, but it always seemed the minute hands had grown into two or three hours every time I glanced at the clock.

The time also went very slow. A month was a long time to be away from our home, from our pets, from our daily routine that's not quite as routine-- (park the car. take the elevator to the 4th floor. walk down the hall. pump two squirts of hand sanitizer. lay today’s newspaper on the table in case he wants to read it. pull the blue vinyl chair close to the bedside. sit. talk. look. weep. pray. talk some more. kiss forehead. say goodbye…maybe for the night, maybe forever.)

But more than any meager sacrifices Jeremy and I might have made, it was a long time...a slow time...to watch my dad go through such a thing as cancer and be helpless to do much of anything except to sit and hold his hand.

I was still holding it the moment that he passed away, and it’s a moment I will never forget. I didn’t let go for a long time after that. I’m not sure if it was five minutes or thirty, but I know it was a long, long time that was over in just the blink of an eye. And that was the hardest part of all.

11 October 2005

Family Tree

I suppose it’s not very Texan to not be particularly proud of being a Texan. And I guess that’s why I still consider myself to be a Californian. It isn't that I don’t like Texas, because I do. Having grown up here from the age of three, I can certainly appreciate the diversity of people, the bigness (of everything), and even the beauty of certain parts. I just don’t have that blaring sense of LONE STAR PRIDE that makes me want to display a bumper sticker or own a cowboy hat, or feel the need to tell everyone I meet that I’m from Texas.

Though I was just steps beyond a toddler when we moved away to Houston, California is still the place that feels the most like “home” to me. Anytime I’m there to visit relatives, which has been often over the years, I instantly feel like I’m back in the place that I truly belong. I love the fresh, cool air, the rocky beaches, the smell of cracked crab legs and sourdough bread, the honey-scented flowers, the scenery that stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Hollywood sign, and the general pace of life. I get homesick just thinking about it.

Today, California has come to visit me.

My aunts and uncles from the west coast are all here in Houston, and we spent the afternoon telling stories and looking at old photos on the wall at my dad's house. He is the oldest of five siblings, each of them distinct and fun to know:

There’s my Uncle Robert, whose laugh I can always hear in my head, even if it’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen him. He’s a writer too, and a really good dad, and someone who I remember always sending me interesting toys when I was small--- the kind you’d buy at a children’s museum instead of Toys ‘R Us. I'm not sure if I was seven or thirteen, but there was a year back then that I decided to start calling him Bobert for awhile. (My own little nickname for him that I don’t think he particularly liked, but he was a good sport about it.) I always think of him in crew-neck sweaters, blue jeans, and broken-in loafers. Like a page torn from a Gap catalog. Maybe he's only worn that actual outfit once in his life, but it's how I think of him: comfortable and familiar and someone nice to hug.

My Aunt Maryanne actually lives in or near Seattle (not so far from California) and sends smoked salmon every year for Christmas. She works for 911 dispatch, and was my hotel roommate last April when my Aunt Jeanne got married. When I was very young, my family took a Winnebago trip up to Washington and Vancouver, and I remember not only getting my fingers slammed in the Winnebago door, but once we arrived at Maryanne’s, my fingers got caught and pinched in the lift-up car door handle outside in her driveway. That was not a good trip for my hands, but I'm sure the rest of me had a wonderful time.

My Uncle Phil reminded me today of the time we went to see ET, and I sat in his lap at the end of the movie when ET starts to fade away and his nubby alien finger begins to flicker out. I also remember when he worked at a record store (Uncle Phil, not ET) and he showed us around the shop after we’d gone out for pizza. I thumbed through all the white plastic dividers printed with the names of each artist in big black letters. I remember one section was for a band called Big Pig. [I consider that to be a curious use of my brain space, the fact that I have chosen to hold onto Big Pig in my memory for no particular reason at all. The pizza and ET though…definitely worth remembering.]

I saved Aunt Jeanne for last because I know I could write pages of entries just about her. It will take some mental editing to narrow things down a bit. My temporary nickname for her was "Miss B" and I was "Mini B" (her sidekick I suppose.) So many of my favorite moments in life were spent in her old apartment in Palo Alto. I learned to crack an egg without breaking the yoke in her cozy kitchen that always had a soft stick of butter resting on the counter instead of in the refrigerator. Much easier to spread this way. She also had a little office room where she grew small ferns and house plants under a special kind of light that stayed on at night. [That last sentence sounds kind of scandalous but I promise, they were just regular plants. She is really good at gardening.] When Jeanne went to work, I’d brush my hair in the pink-tiled bathroom, skip across the old wood floors to the apartment door, and turn the lock and doorknob at the same time because that was the only way to open it. Out I went to stroll down Emerson Street, darting among a slew of stray cats, sniffing the crisp air and gazing at the overhanging trees. Several easy blocks later, I’d find my way to the art supply store to choose new colored pencils, or to the old public library where I’d find a little corner and plop down with a stack of books. On the weekend, Jeanne and I would climb in her light blue VW bug, the one that now sits in my garage in Nashville, and zip down to the Peninsula Creamery for thick chocolate milkshakes (the same ones my dad drank when he was a kid), or down to Santa Cruz to amble along the boardwalk. There was always Cat Stevens or James Taylor or someone soothing in the tape player. And there was always Ghirardelli Square for chasing pigeons or watching the jugglers outside the chocolate shop.

It’s no wonder California still and always will feel like home to me, even when I’m 2000 miles away.

06 October 2005

Cherry Popsicles

Apparently my dad likes popsicles very much. Yesterday he gobbled down a purple one, then immediately asked for another (orange), and even while his lips were still brightly-stained and cold, he reached for a cherry-flavored, biting at the stick like a cob of corn to get the frozen red ice loose. He also had a popsicle stuffed under each of his armpits, attempting to lower his fever of 104.

When I was younger, my father and I had a ritual. Many summer weekends were spent in our garden, just the two of us, landscaping the flower beds, trimming the hedges, pulling weeds, and adding more mulch. My favorite time was when the fresh dirt arrived...a big dump truck would deliver two huge piles. To my young eyes, they looked like two giant mountain peaks right there on our driveway, the perfect size for me to climb. One hill was just regular dirt, light in color. The other was a rich, smelly, damp sort of mulch the color of espresso, with bits of torn bark and earthworms wiggling inside.

We had a green wheelbarrow. I helped my dad shovel the dirt into the wheelbarrow in heaps (he used a big shovel, I used a small one). We'd scoop and scoop until the wheelbarrow was full, and then he'd let me help him push it, weaving up the driveway and across the lawn where we'd dump it and spread it all around the pansies, begonias, and azaleas until our kneese grew sore and dirt-caked. He always spent the most time on his rose bushes. I think he was the proudest of them.

At the end of our tiring day in the sundrenched yard, we'd hop into his Jaguar...not the kind of Jaguar that you see today in country club parking lots, but a Jag from the 60s. British Racing Green. A convertible. My dad's first car. We'd zoom along with that engine revving so loudly that everyone knew we were coming, and race to 7-11 for slurpees. My dad liked cherry-flavor back then too.

For many of my early growing up years, I often felt like it was just me and my dad...our own little team of two. Maybe that was just part of having an older sister who was allowed to bake cookies and go to the mall and do things that I couldn't yet. But my dad always made me feel like I was important, even in my smallness. When I started softball, he practiced throwing and catching with me in the yard. I remember the day clearly that we went to Oshman's to buy my first mit. Truly, I had the athletic aptitude of a potato chip, but he came to my practices anyway and drilled me on catching fly balls.

I also remember the tragic day that my hamster died. Daisy was her name. I brought her downstairs cupped in my hands. She was just barely moving. I was gushing tears of course because that hamster represented my entire life at the time, and my dad just sat with me and cried with me until Daisy the hamster stopped breathing. We buried her in a little box in the backyard. I remember thinking at the time that my dad must really love Daisy too, much more than I'd realized, because I had never seen him cry before.

I am not sure how many years later it was that I finally understood the real reason he was crying, and it wasn't over a hamster. Well, it was and it wasn't.

These past few weeks, sitting in the hospital room with my dad, spooning vanilla pudding into his mouth, and holding his hand so tightly because I don't quite know how not to, I caught a glimpse of that again. It's funny the things you remember in life...the memories that creep in and hang their hat and never seem to leave. I know that I will never forget the day that my hamster died, even though I went out and bought a new one just a few days later. And I know that from now on, any time I eat a cherry popsicle, I'm going to think of my father.

02 October 2005

I am caught...

...I can explain it best by saying that I’m somewhere between where I exist in actual reality, and where I was from the ages of 17 to 27.

Being in Spring lately, the area where I grew up, I’ve realized how many things have remained the same since I left home for college in 1991. On Friday while I was working at a coffee shop, a girl walked in wearing my high school colors...blue and gold from head to toe. Her spirited costume included striped Pippy-Longstocking socks, a blue bow in her ponytail, trademark yellow Converse high tops and a gold polo shirt with STANDLEADER stitched across the back. Her uniform was almost identical to what the Standleaders wore nearly fifteen years ago. (I can’t believe it’s been that long.) The Standleaders were comprised of about twenty guys and girls who wore the fabulous ensemble described above, who performed skits at pep rallies and stood in the bleachers during football games getting the crowd excited. They were kind of like cheerleaders, minus the gymnastics stunts and teensy skirts, and just like every other senior at my high school, I desperately wanted to be one (sort of.) I wasn’t picked though, so I lived vicariously through my friends who were, and filled my extra-curricular schedule with Student Council and the newspaper staff.

A few hours later, I left the coffee shop and drove home. I noticed that the skater kids are still hanging out with their skateboards and black T-shirts on the cement lot at the edge of the neighborhood. When I was seventeen, there were popular kids, there were skaters, and there were lots of groups in between. Amazing how the same cliques that existed years ago to rob us of our true identities for the sake of fitting in, still manage to endure today and probably always will.

[So it’s almost like I’ve been plucked from what I think of as my normal life and am floating around with one foot in my past and the other foot reluctantly in the present. I think part of it is just being here (where the past is all around me) and part of it is that my experiences these past few weeks have bent me toward reflection.]

Today I let my floating lead me downtown. I had to get away. If I can be honest, I find that the suburbs start to suck my spirit dry after very many days. I am a city girl usually…other times I love the tranquility of a small town where faces are all friendly, or escaping to the mountains or a beach. But the suburbs feel like purgatory to me. I can’t breathe here for very long.

Downtown (Houston) is where I lived for most of my middle twenties, and it was a time rich with memories. I found myself tracing a lot of them today, riding through the years in my father’s shiny red pick-up truck (which I must say I feel quite ridiculous driving.) I wandered for at least six hours with no sense of time, paying no particular attention to which direction I was steering, but ending up in places that felt like home and connected me back to myself.

I drove past my old apartment at Three Fountains II, where I lived for a few years with Lisa. It was like our own little less-scandalous Melrose Place, because several other close friends lived in the complex too, and we’d hop between apartments and cook dinner for each other. Those apartments had an oldness to them that was really comfortable. Lots of dark wood and built-in shelves and the smell of nostalgia that is hard to describe. It was a time that we all seemed to burn a lot of incense for no particular reason, and had deep theological discussions, and shopped at thrift stores for old cardigan sweaters that made us feel like we had the wisdom of saints (or at the very least, scholars.)

I drove past a lot of our favorite hang-outs…Mama’s Café where we’d all gather for late night talks and bottomless cups of cinnamon coffee. It was the kind of place, and the kind of time, that you know when you’re in it it’s something special and it’s not going to last forever. I drove past General Joe’s Chopsticks (or what used to be it), where I always ordered Moo Goo Gai Pan and met friends for lunch. I drove by The Blue Hand, our favorite shop to buy earrings and candles and anything with an ethnic flair.

I crossed town and drove slowly past my West Gray apartment, where I lived by myself for a year or two after Lisa went to the Czech Republic to teach. I loved that apartment, and that time in my life too...my alone period, I like to call it. Our group had kind of scattered into wisps by then. We still saw each other, but it took more intention. I lived in the more eclectic part of town now, and my bedroom had a little room attached to it that I used as a miniature art studio. Saturday afternoons were my favorite. I’d sit in my Art Room with the bamboo blinds rolled up to let in streaks of sunlight, and I’d sketch or paint or write for hours, listening to Garrison Keillor whistling through his nostrils on A Prairie Home Companion. Down the street was a little French bakery, and the River Oaks Theatre which showed independent films.

Today I kept going though, past the bakery, past my old apartment, turning onto Montrose toward the museum. The last time I was at the museum was with my dad, a couple of years ago. It was during a Christmas visit and we had a date--just the two of us. Out to lunch and to the art museum, and I bought a Picasso print for Jeremy. I passed Ming’s Café where I used to go for solo dinners (good grief I eat a lot of Asian food!) and I’d sit out on the deck with a plate of stir-fry and a bottle of Rolling Rock. It’s so funny to think back to that…something I can’t imagine doing now, having a bottle of beer by myself. I wasn’t depressed or anything---it just went really well with the Hunan Chicken and the humidity.

I made a turn and passed The Menil, a smaller museum where I took Alexandria. I was a nanny for the summer when I first moved to the area, and worked for a very wealthy family with an only-child named Al-ex-an-dri-a (emphasis on each syllable.) She was a very sweet little girl whose parents were busy attorneys, and I made it my goal to show her some culture. This was a child whose favorite food was couscous and who had never seen a Barney video, so it wasn’t a stretch really. I took her to see the Menil Collection, and we studied the sculptures and jotted down sketches. Then we bought hunks of grey clay from the art supply store and attempted to recreate what we had seen. Truth be told, I think she'd have much preferred playing Barrel O' Monkeys, but she had learned to fake things pretty well.

Curving around the three billowing fountains on the rim of Hermann Park, I got disoriented where the road forked and ended up in the Medical Center. At the stoplight, I looked up to see a familiar sign for Scurlock Tower and realized that I was right next to Methodist Hospital where I had back surgery in 1991.

I found my way back to more welcoming sights, like my favorite music shop to browse with Jenni--Cactus Records, and a jewelry store--Fly High Little Bunny--that I always liked the name of. I ended up at Diedrich Coffee. They no longer carried my favorite chocolate biscotti, but amazingly, they were still featuring artwork by a painter whose print I bought seven years ago. After finishing my tea, I walked between the buildings through a small alley with a cobblestone path. It has always seemed so out of place there, like something that belonged in Italy instead. There used to be potted rosemary plants edging the walk, and I’d pinch some off when I passed and hold it to my nose. Today the rosemary was gone, replaced by a long stalk of basil that I had to hunt to find. I plucked off a couple leaves just for the sake of habit.

Another thing I noticed while driving today is that I kept passing bright hibiscus bushes. I am not sure if they just grow plentiful in Houston because it’s so hot, or if it was meant to be symbolic that they were everywhere today, jutting out of storefronts and window boxes every place I looked. Hibiscuses are my dad’s favorite, and he has them all over his garden.

As I drove along, letting my mind wander through intersecting strands of my life, I flipped the radio stations too. I heard a lot of Journey, which I found sort of funny...ironic maybe. I also let it linger on a few old country songs, remembering back to when those songs filled my house and my father’s collection of records.

A song came on that I had never heard before…it was called “Walking In Jerusalem Just Like John”…and I listened to the words and drove and drove, letting everything outside the windows fade into a blur and letting the inside start to matter again, just until the song ended.