Goodbyes

Friday

Getting to Ashland is always an adventure. This journey, to attend my stepfather’s memorial service and spend time with family, required three flights and took about fifteen hours, door to door. If Beth hadn’t remembered the night before we left that she’d left the car at the Metro station in the morning and accidentally taken a bus home from work that night in time to retrieve it, we might not have even made the first flight. The second one was nearly cancelled because the crew was close to timing out and then on boarding it Beth discovered another passenger in her seat whose boarding pass had the same seat assignment as hers printed on it. Luckily, they found another seat for her and we didn’t have to decide whether to all get off the plane or to split up and proceed from St. Louis to Portland without her. (She says that’s what we should have done.) After the third flight, to Medford, Oregon, we discovered both Noah’s and June’s luggage had gone astray and in different ways. Noah’s got left in Portland and June’s went to Chicago instead of St. Louis. But on the bright side, no one got a migraine or threw up (despite some sickening turbulence on the second flight). Mom picked us up at the airport and after saying a brief hello to my sister Sara and her boyfriend Dave at her house, we crashed.

Saturday

In the morning, we socialized with the many relatives who had come to town for the service. All my mother’s four siblings and their spouses, plus her cousin Sue, and my cousins Blake and Emily and Emily’s almost-eleven-year-old son Josiah were there. Some of them were camping at nearby Emigrant Lake and others were staying with mom’s friends, so no one had to spring for a hotel, even though my family was taking up all of Mom’s guest space. Whenever we all got together it was a big crowd, and deeply divided one, politically speaking, so I was grateful that everyone kept quiet on that topic. It’s not always that way with my mom’s family so I didn’t take it for granted.

The airline delivered our wayward luggage in the afternoon, after many phone calls from Beth, and June was reunited with her stuffed monkey Muffin. (His absence troubled her more than that of her clothes.)

We had a family birthday party for Sara’s daughter Lan-Lan who just turned four (she’d have a party with friends the next day). There were many presents—art supplies were a popular choice—all received with enthusiasm. “Oh, my goodness!” Lan-Lan exclaimed with each new package.  The two big gifts were two light green, kid-sized, metal patio chairs and a red wagon. Lan-Lan wanted a ride in the wagon right away so Sara took her around the block and June and I tagged along. Then we had cake and ice cream.

The whole crowd went out for pizza and we took over a long row of tables. Beth and I split one with mushrooms, truffle oil, and microgreens. Lan-Lan got restless during a longish wait for food, and Sara, Dave, June, and Josiah (in varying combinations) took turns taking her out on the patio to play hide and seek. While we were eating, Sara asked me if we had any plans for the next day and I said, “Other than your daughter’s birthday party and our stepfather’s memorial service?” and she said, “Yeah, other than that.” So we made plans to go to the playground in Lithia Park in between those events.

Sunday

While Sara, Dave, Lan-Lan, and her friends were hunting Easter eggs and playing pin the tail on the bunny at her party, the rest of the group went out for brunch, and after that Sara, Lan-Lan, June, and I went to the playground. When I saw the big rope climbing structure June has enjoyed on previous trips to Ashland, I said, “It’s a shame you can’t climb that now,” because she’s still in a lace-up ankle brace on one foot and an orthopedic shoe on the other. Can you guess how this story ends? With June at the very top, while Lan-Lan circled the perimeter at the bottom, wanting to go higher and having to content herself with waiting until she’s older.

Sara, June, and Lan-Lan also played Switch, a game they invented then last time we were in Ashland, two Christmases ago. Sara and June push Lan-Lan on the swings from behind and in front and then someone says, “Switch!” and they change places. Sometimes one of them will say, “I feel a switch coming on,” to build the suspense. It’s as hilarious now as it was when Lan-Lan was two and a half, even with June walking instead of running to her new place. And now Lan-Lan will say, “I feel a switch!” to get them to do it.

The memorial service was in the evening. It was held in the tasting room of a winery, surrounded by pear orchards in bloom and mountains. There were beautiful views from every window in the room. The room sat sixty at tables of various sizes and several more people sat at the bar. There were spring flowers, daffodils and tulips my aunt Peggy had arranged, on all the tables. She also designed the program and helped Mom with a lot of details of the ceremony (she arrived a couple days before we did). Josiah greeted people at the door and asked them to sign the guest book. There was a slideshow of photos of Jim and a blown-up photo of him on an easel near the bar. Peggy distributed blank cards and markers so people could share memories of Jim for Mom to paste into the guest book. I settled on a story about how when Sara and I were teens we used to keep a tally of how many of his corny jokes were actually funny, complete with fractions for partial credit, and how he was always a good sport about this ribbing from his new stepdaughters.

My uncle Doug made the opening remarks and introduced speakers. He’s a retired minister so officiating comes naturally to him. He spoke about Jim as a brother-in-law (he’s married to my mother’s sister Diane) and as a friend. Then Sara gave the eulogy, which began with a line she ran by me at the playground earlier in the day, “Jim M. could be a real pain in the butt.” (I’d approved it, but suggested she soften the wording from “ass.”) She then described how a simple question like “Should I get snow tires?” could lead to a dissertation on the history of rubber. She went on to describe his helpful, friendly, outgoing nature, noting that it was impossible to get anywhere on time with him because he always wanted to talk to everyone he met.

I was up next. Because one thing Jim and I had in common, besides a love for my mother was a love for the ocean, so I read this poem, by Pablo Neruda. I chose it for it mostly for the first two stanzas:

Ocean, if you were to give, a measure, a ferment, a fruit
of your gifts and destructions, into my hand,
I would choose your far-off repose, your contour of steel,
your vigilant spaces of air and darkness,
and the power of your white tongue,
that shatters and overthrows columns,
breaking them down to your proper purity.

Not the final breaker, heavy with brine,
that thunders onshore, and creates
the silence of sand, that encircles the world,
but the inner spaces of force,
the naked power of the waters,
the immoveable solitude, brimming with lives.
It is Time perhaps, or the vessel filled
with all motion, pure Oneness,
that death cannot touch, the visceral green
of consuming totality.

Next June spoke about Jim and sang this song. The chorus goes:

Dig deep and don’t be afraid
Dig deep and live
Dig deep and don’t be afraid
Dig deep and live
Everyday

The song seemed appropriate because at Peggy’s suggestion, my mom had deemed the service “a celebration of life” and asked people to wear spring colors instead of black. Six years of musical theater camp and a few months of voice lessons paid off here. People kept coming up to June and us afterward to tell us how impressed they were with her voice and her poise, because at the beginning she was a little teary but then she centered herself and threw herself into the song.

After June sang, my aunt Peggy and Uncle Darryl read original poetry, “Words from Jim,” and “Our Love is Not Transcendental.” Darryl’s poem was about memories of Jim during good times and during his last days, and Peggy’s was about love over long years of marriage. (My mom’s siblings have a lot of experience with this. Mom and Jim were married almost thirty-three years and being a second marriage it was the shortest of the bunch. My uncle Larry and Aunt Berni have been married fifty-five years.)

Several more friends and family members, including Mom’s brothers Steve and Larry, and Jim’s nephew Chuck, spoke.  The service ended with six members of Mom’s peace choir singing a Nigerian folk song about sending the dead on their way. It was lovely.

There was a dinner buffet with lasagna, chicken cacciatore, salad, bread, and three kinds of dessert (cupcakes, brownies, and baklava). I made sure to get a picture of Mom with all her siblings, because they aren’t all together very often. Mom said it went just as she wanted.

Monday

The next day was hard for Mom as her siblings, brothers and sisters-in-law, niece, nephew, and grandnephew all left after a short morning visit and she no longer had ceremony preparations to occupy her. Before Jim had his stroke, she used to watch Lan-Lan on Monday and Friday afternoons and she’d decided to resume after the ceremony, but it turned out she didn’t have to do much other than pick her up from preschool because June entertained Lan-Lan for four hours straight. When it was over June said it was “exhausting” and that she never wanted to hear the word “why” again. But thanks to June, Mom and I could hole up in her room and have a long talk.

June and I went with Mom to get Lan-Lan from her school and I enjoyed seeing it. I have such fond memories of my kids’ preschool and it had a similar vibe. When we arrived, the kids were sitting at an outside table finishing up a lunch of chicken, broccoli, and rice from wooden bowls. Then they got out their cloth napkins and sang a napkin song, designed to get them to wipe their faces.

The yard was small and mostly covered in mulch, with a little garden plot with lettuce growing in it, and a tree house. It’s a Waldorf school, so it’s just a little further down the crunchy scale than the Purple School, if one can judge from so brief a glimpse. (One detail in support of this thesis: one of the one younger siblings at pick-up was named Magic.)

It was Dave’s last day in town (after a two-month stay with Sara helping out during Jim’s health crisis and in the aftermath of his death and with the rental cottage Sara was having built in her yard) so I suggested we have dinner with Sara, Dave, and Lan-Lan. We went out for Chinese. Lan-Lan was overcome with excitement at the prospect of dumplings and she let everyone, including the waitress, know it. Sara and Dave have been dating for almost two years, but we’d never met him before this trip so it was good to have a chance to spend a little time with him in a somewhat smaller group.

Tuesday

We thought we’d said goodbye to Dave, but he delayed his departure by a day to put some finishing touches on the cottage. Jim, Sara, and Dave worked on it for months and it’s turned out nicely. It’s an airy little two-bedroom house painted a cheery yellow. The idea is Sara will rent it until Mom needs to be closer to her, and then Mom will move into it.

So the day after our goodbye-to-Dave dinner, we had a goodbye-to-Dave lunch, where June opened her birthday presents of clothes from Sara, and then Sara and Dave went back to her house, while Mom, Beth, the kids and I proceeded to a tea house so June could have bubble tea. Mom was taking her out shopping for a birthday present and June loves bubble tea so it made sense to start there. She got a hibiscus-mango tea that was quite tasty, but everyone else was too full from lunch to order anything. There was a branch of the tea and spice shop I frequent in Rehoboth across the street and I spoiled Beth’s plan to sneak in and get me some loose hazelnut and chocolate tea for my upcoming birthday by getting the idea first and buying it for myself.

Then we went browsing for Mom’s present for June. She settled on a Harry Potter cookbook. We were going to get hair dye, too, so Sara could dye June’s hair the next day but we didn’t have time, because we were going to Beauty and the Beast. Other than the central problem of any version of this story—which Noah identified as the fact that Belle suffers from Stockholm syndrome—I thought it was well done. Emma Watson was well cast, the other actors and the effects were good and they didn’t mess much with the music.

On the way home, June endured a lecture from both moms about how you shouldn’t get into a relationship with someone who mistreats you in hopes that your love can change him. When that was finished, we discussed which part she might try out for this summer at musical theater camp when they do the play. The beast? That would be casting against type as she’s usually one of the smallest kids at camp. (The director keeps shifting the age range up so it’s largely the same group of kids, which includes the director’s two daughters and June’s always at the young end). Mrs. Potts? Chip? Lumière? Something that utilizes her gift for comic timing would be good, the adults agreed. Once home, she shut herself up in her room and sang songs from the movie for a long time.

That evening Sara threw an impromptu party in the cottage to christen it before renters move in this weekend. Mom, June, and I went, met some of Sara’s friends and neighbors and said a third goodbye to Dave.

Wednesday

In the morning, Beth and June took a walk so Beth could admire the mountains that ring Ashland. We’d hoped to make it up to Crater Lake on this trip, but it was overcast and Mom says it’s prettier on sunny days when you can really see the blue of the water, so we didn’t go.

One thing we did do was see a play. Ashland’s a theater town and though this was our third trip, this was the first time we’d been to the theater there. We’d hoped to see Julius Caesar because Noah just read it for school, but it wasn’t playing any of the days we were free, so went to Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. It’s about Korean and Korean-American identity, and barriers between people, generations, countries, myth and reality, and the living and the dead. I recommend it if you’re going to be in Ashland any time between now and October.

Sara came over to Mom’s house later in the afternoon to dye June’s hair (we picked up the dye before we went to the play). She gave her mermaid green streaks in front and red ones on the sides of her head. There was blue in the back, too, but it came out fainter than they intended and it’s hard to see what with the fading dye that was already there. I think the red streaks looks nice, though, and it’s a new color for her.

We went over to Sara’s house after the dye job and made tacos. Lan-Lan’s babysitter was there giving her a bath as we arrive and soon there was a tiny streaker in the house. She did consent to put on underpants to dine. While we ate, she kept up a running commentary about how she is bigger than baby but June is bigger than her. She’s very chatty and even more full of energy than my kids at that age, though it’s been a long time since I’ve had a four year old, so maybe I just don’t remember. We said our goodbyes to Lan-Lan with a big group hug and then went back to Mom’s house where Mom, June and I watched a PBS documentary about wildlife conservation in Puerto Rico after Beth fixed a glitch with the television. (Earlier in the day she fixed Mom’s lazy Susan, too.) As we watched it, Sara called to see if she’d said goodbye, because she couldn’t remember if she had said it when we left. Beth joked that she must want as many goodbyes as Dave got.

Thursday

Mom drove us to the Medford airport in the morning and we said our curbside goodbyes, but not for too long, because Mom, Sara, and Lan-Lan are all coming to Rehoboth Beach to spend a week with us in late June. I’m looking forward to it. Time with family is always precious, but even more so right now while we’re all especially aware of how unpredictable life is.

  • Nicole MacPherson

    I’m glad you got to spend so much time with family, but the trip to get there sounds very arduous! I laughed about “do you have any plans?” “Other than your daughter’s birthday party and our stepfather’s memorial service?” Too funny.

  • allison

    Sounds like a really lovely service. Lan-Lan sounds adorable, and I love that June climbed to the top even with her hindrance. I’m with Nicole – I just flew to Hawaii and back, which was long enough, but your trip was worse.

  • I’m sorry for your loss. Glad you had such a lovely goodbye. It sounds right. Time spent with family is always worth it – but that travel time there really did test it.