death

In Memoriam

My dad’s mom was the first person I told I wanted to be a writer, at least with any proto-adult sense of what that meant as an aspiration. I was 17, in a rented car on a winding road in Appalachia. I was, at that moment, technically a high-school dropout, but it was my graduation trip.

Grandma Plocher took each of her grandsons (and she only had grandsons) on a graduation trip after high school. It wasn’t a first trip with her for any of us. By the time I got mine, I’d already traveled with grandma on a jetboat through Hell’s Canyon, camped with her in what seemed like half the national parks west of the Rockies, and spent time taking advantage of her membership in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’d traveled with my grandma and brother, with my grandma and various cousins, but the Appalachia trip was the first time I’d traveled with just grandma.

We didn’t really get each other. I was 17, moody, and far from being a morning person. I didn’t need itineraries or specific plans…to a point that was probably annoyingly noncommittal. (I was really good at shrugging nonchalantly.) My grandmother was retired, an experienced traveler, somebody who—like my dad—wanted everything to go right now, precisely according to plan. The stays in the hotels were not always great, but that’s not what I remember. I remember being up in the mountains, mountains older and rounder than the Rockies on my youthful horizon, but still…a misty day on the ridge roads was a kind of magic.

So was eating at a weirdly fancy restaurant attached to the Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia. Restaurants, at least, I knew. We did Colonial Williamsburg. I pulled grandma to North Carolina, a quick detour to Kitty Hawk just so we could say we’d added another state to our trip. The Wright Brothers museum was much cooler than it had any right to be. We drove into Tennessee and ate at a McDonald’s just to say we’d done it.

The mountains, though, were the best part of that trip. We hiked, and didn’t talk all that much. Grandma got a number of pictures of my back as I walked or stared at the scenery. There are one or two that she convinced me to actually look at the camera for. Not many of those. (Most of the pictures of me from the trip  are of me reading plaques at the places we visited.) The longer conversations were in the car as we traced the Virginia border. I told her about Wales, about being at an international school, about what were surely my Deep and Profound Teenaged Thoughts. [Aside: the more time I spend with AP high school students, the more I realize how insufferable I probably was for spells when I was that age.]

I was bad at asking questions. I wish I’d asked more, or remembered any of her answers. We seemed to be in different worlds, from different worlds. I remember, not from that trip, but from other visits, the way she would throw her hands in the air, raise her eyes, and cry “Good grief!” Her grandkids inspired that reaction sometimes, but so did her own kids. So did the world.

She wrote, a few days into the trip: “…getting more comfortable. We talked about his school and his interest in writing. He reads much more than I do and more heavy stuff. More power to him.”

And that’s what made those trips so special: “More power to him.” She didn’t understand me, but she didn’t have to understand me to appreciate me. Grandma was great at appreciating the world and the people in it, even when she didn’t understand. She traveled all over North America, was active on Elder Hostel trips, and was constantly telling stories about people she’d met or things she’d seen. She was great at asking questions, at listening to the answers. Sometimes her only response to those answers was “Good Grief!”, but she didn’t stop asking questions. She didn’t stop listening to the answers.

Grandma Plocher died in her sleep this past weekend. Her health had been deteriorating for years; her memory was shot. The last time I sat down and talked with her, she needed occasional reminders of which of her sons I went with, and didn’t always remember that my dad was dead. It didn’t stop her smiling, though, to see my mom and my brother and me. We had a big party for her that summer, a belated celebration of her 90th birthday with all the kids, grandkids, and great grandkids. She held on most of the way to 93.

Death doesn’t get easier to deal with, even when you know that it ends a struggle. That makes it more complicated, sometimes, because part of you is relieved to see an end to suffering and an end to the complicated responsibilities that go with care. One of my first responses was a desperate sense of how unfair it was that I couldn’t help my dad through this, that he was already gone. Mourning grandma came later.

Grief is messy because life is messy. We only ever understand a small part of either, but we keep trying. And that is good, Charlie Brown exclamations included.

Rest in peace, grandma. The world’s a better place for having had you in it.

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The Brittleness of Happiness

This post started with my incredulity at how hard I was taking an overheating car. I’ve never been nonchalant about malfunctioning automobiles—I was once so upset about a broken radiator that I couldn’t even get myself to call a tow truck. The overheating, this time, was not a disaster. I was close to home. I added more coolant. Since then, the problem seems to have gone away (or at least not manifested during my spouse’s commute). Like a hypochondriac hitting WebMD, though, I trolled the internet for probable causes and priced solutions and worried for the umpteenth time how many more months we’ll get out of a 14-year old Dodge Neon.

Those are practical worries: Austin’s nearly impossible without a car. My wife and I are budgeting for a down payment on a house; that doesn’t leave much room for new car payments. My incredulity, though, was about how much this threw me off. It was a problem, yes. A grown-up problem. I happen to have solved many grown-up problems in my time as a grown-up. I fixed my washing machine…and barely batted an eye a week later when a hose came loose and I had gallons of water to get off the floor. Why was I so upset about a car? Was my happiness that fragile?

Sort of. I wrote a few weeks back that “my own personal demons don’t stay riled up about grad school like they used to. I’m working on keeping my eyes forward.” When I’ve hit lows the last few months, they’ve been valleys, not abysses. It’s harder for the little things to wake up the whole mess of I’ve-wasted-my-life-and-my-future-is-useless than it used to be. None of that means my happiness is complete, or that I’m comfortable, or that I don’t still hear Paul Westerberg keening “Unsatisfied” in the back of my head on a weekly basis. I don’t always get enough sleep, which exacerbates problems.

My happiness is more brittle than I’d prefer. You know what? That’s a non-problem. If it slides back toward depression, that is a problem. Not now, though. Grad school encourages us to make peace with being miserable, a kind of paradoxical masochistic Schadenfreude. The loneliness of the adjunct makes it worse. That doesn’t mean quitting the academy is a free pass to rainbows and unicorns. Mental gymnastics to sell ourselves on our own happiness aren’t any more worthwhile just because we’ve left the system that encourages them.

In, out, or in-between, academia inspires a weird self-absorption. At its best, this enables useful introspection. At its worst, well…one can find himself turning the question of intake fan vs. clogged radiator into something existential. It’s just a car, dude, not a referendum on your success as a human being. Perspective has to come back in one way or another. Having nonacademic friends helps. Having kids helps (sometimes—my seven-year-old has turned bedtime literally into a brawl lately).

Sometimes, perspective comes when life smacks you upside the head with something real. After a few days off, I am back at the middle school where I spent six weeks. Yesterday, I was there as one of four extra subs called in as reinforcements after the unexpected death of one of the school’s math teachers. The teacher was 29, in his first year of teaching, and had many layers of connection with the school. He’d been a student there. His mother taught history there for decades. He’d been part of both sixth and eighth grade classrooms this year. Staff and students were wrecked. It was my job to help fill in the gaps as teachers and students helped each other get through the day, whether that meant covering a classroom or escorting students to the crisis center in the library. After most of two months, I know these students. I know many of the teachers (although I knew the deceased only in passing). It hurt to see them suffer, to see one of my class clowns come into the library barely able to finish a sentence.

I ended the school day standing next to the makeshift memorial set up in the courtyard. Students added notes and cards to the ones already piled on it. (They avoided covering up the neck ties.) Many of them took pictures with their phones. One student, trailing the end-of-day exodus, sketched a sincere but embarrassed bow as she dashed to catch her bus.

When the building was clear, I signed out, got in the car, and drove home. When I got there, I didn’t quite collapse, but it was close. I was empty, drained by the day. I cried some. I made my kids give me hugs and explained what had happened to my son. He immediately wanted to make a card for the teacher’s family. I thought about what I could do, what it meant to be a teacher…what death meant to a 13-year-old. I thought about happiness and about grief and ephemerality. I was reminded that death is one of those things even poetry fails to touch.

Later that night, I discovered the kids had knocked our iPad to the floor and stepped on it, cracking the screen. It didn’t worry me.

Six Years Later: In Memory of My Father

Six years ago (almost to the hour as I type this), I was sitting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, about to get on a plane to Boise. I know that, but only because I know the date and remember when that last direct flight left. At the time, I was skimming the surface of everything, because getting past the surface meant hurting and confusion. It had only been a few hours since I’d been sitting at my computer, swapping virtual crafting items on WoW with my brother, when he abruptly typed “you need to call home.” That was weird, and I asked some question about it. My brother re-iterated that I needed to call home. I did.

My dad was dead.

Aside from hugging my infant son a little harder than he liked, I sort of managed to hold things together for forty minutes until my wife got home from work. I needed to get back to Idaho more urgently than I had ever needed to get anywhere. I made phone calls and booked tickets. I remembered to find somebody to cover my music history sections. We packed in a hurry, and left in such a hurry that we forgot our dress clothes for the funeral. (Our landlord was kind enough to go get them the next morning and overnight them to Idaho.) Surface things. We got to Boise and…went to a hotel right next to the airport. As much as I wanted to be home, it was nearly midnight and the roads were icy. Nobody was in shape to come pick us up. We went out to the house the next morning when my brother and aunt came in.

I won’t rehash the next few days. People filled up the house. I made it through the eulogy without dissolving wholly into tears. My son—a week short of his first birthday—charmed everybody and reminded us all that life goes on. It did. Soon enough I was back in Minnesota trying to catch up on Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Nattiez and teaching Renaissance polyphony. I cried. I worried about my mom. In the arbitrary way that songs get stuck to events in our heads, The Killers’ “Tranquilize” (featuring Lou Reed, who’s now dead too) stuck to me for the next few months.

We get good at the surface things. It is how we make it through our days—commutes, work, the dirty dishes in the sink. Looking past surfaces isn’t always the window to desolation it was that night six years ago, but I still miss my dad whenever I think of him. The first time I visited my mom’s house after she’d moved to Nebraska, I walked through it after everybody had gone to bed. And I cried and cried because there were pictures of my dad and some of his things, but there was nothing of him there. It was a house he had never set foot in, and he never would. The pictures were only there for the rest of us.

Both of my parents read to me, but it was my dad’s books that hooked me. I may have gotten the words from my mom, but my stories owe a lot to my dad. I tried his Louis Lamour westerns. The Hobbit really got me, though. He read it out loud over weeks of bedtimes when I was little. I read it myself around second grade and, the following summer, cajoled my grandmother to find me a copy of The Two Towers, since I had only brought The Fellowship of the Ring to California with me. From there it was off to the races bookstore, and soon after to the keyboard to try my hand at my own stories. My reading habits were more like my mom’s: I read fast and often skip around (habits that carry over to my writing). My dad didn’t read like that. He read slowly and meticulously. He always read the end last. He digested books.

Years later I’m still working on digesting his absence. I feel it a little every time I have to drag my family out of bed in the morning (I was just as hard to get out of bed when I was a kid). I feel it when I cook something I’ve never cooked before, or when I’m trying to explain something that I picked up in years of watching him at home and at the restaurant. Tonight I walked my sister-in-law through roasting pork loin and potatoes, and a pan of brussels sprouts. We tested the doneness with our fingers, and I had to dig for an explanation that was clearer than “it feels done.” I think he would have appreciated it.

I also think he would have liked to come visit us here. It’s easy for me to imagine taking my dad downtown and sampling food trucks before catching some live music. I can almost hear him in our living room, holding forth a little too loudly on something he’d seen on Food Network. I remember him reading Green Eggs and Ham to his infant grandson and know his granddaughter would have charmed him to pieces. I know how enthusiastic he’d be for the stories I’m working on.

Mostly, though, I just miss him. I just miss him.