Saturday, August 30, 2014

Four Years. Out.

Verna died four years ago today. I clasped her left hand in both of mine and watched her chest rise and fall, rise and fall, until she took her last breath at four minutes past midnight. Tears filled my eyes as I lowered my head to her hand. I was numb.

Four years later, I am still numb and shocked and sad without Verna. I am also blessed with two children I adore, a supportive family, and a village of friends who have simply been amazing.

Four years later, I can honestly say it’s been the best and worst of times. Watching the kids grow up and hit those memorable milestones without Verna always brings me to tears. I constantly wish Verna is at my side most during these moments. When Maya “graduated” from preschool and shyly said into the microphone that she hoped to be a “doctor someday and a rock star.” Or when Miguel walked proudly down the aisle during middle school graduation and I furiously snapped pictures of him.

The older they get the more the impact her absence has on me, and I constantly wonder how it affects them. I wish she’d been here to celebrate with Miguel as he got his driver’s license and first job or when Maya rode her big girl 24” bike around our park. She’d have been proud of Maya, who has struggled somewhat with reading and math, when she came home yesterday
with a perfect score on her first spelling test in 3rd grade.

Last summer, as Miguel, Maya, and I biked 150 miles in the altitude of Colorado from Silverthorne up to Vail Pass and down into Glenwood Springs over five days, I thought of Verna, who loved cycling, all the time. At one point, as Maya was riding on the trailer bike behind me, she said, “Why did Mommy leave the planet so soon?” her profound words filled with such melancholy that I almost cried.

Most days, though, there are no tears, just life. I put my head down and just barrel forward as I go through my daily routine of making meals, working, chauffeuring kids. I wish I could say I have learned some deep lessons about life. Yes, I know it’s important to make each day count, but the reality is life is hard and frustrating and maddening and some days you just want to curl up on the couch and stare at Sports Center.

What I have learned about myself is I constantly need to monitor my moods. When I am tired, especially after work, I need to count or breathe before I react to my kids. I’ve also learned that life is a blessing. Verna used to same thing even after she was diagnosed. Even with all the crap she dealt with, being robbed of breastfeeding Maya (as she’d done with Miguel), losing her breasts, and having such an acute sense of mortality, Verna still felt blessed. And I do, too.

But I can still see Verna frolicking with me in the crystal clear blue-green waters off of Cabo or biking across the Golden Gate Bridge in the summer of 1990, two weeks after our first date. I can hear her laugh, see her smile, remember her soft skin, and almost feel our hands clasped together.

It’s probably just a coincidence that Verna picked as our wedding song “Unchained Melody”, from the movie Ghost, about a young woman, Demi Moore, who is able to contact via a medium her recently murdered husband played by Patrick Swayze.

Moore aches for one last moment with Swayze so the medium, Whoopi Goldberg, channels Swayze as the couple share cosmic intimacy. I would give anything for that opportunity.

From the last verse of the song:

Oh, my love, my darling
I've hungered, for your touch
A long, lonely time
Time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?
I need your love
I need your love
God speed your love to me.

Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28, 2014

Twenty-three years ago today, on a typically fog-shrouded San Francisco summer day, before 105 people, a few of whom actually crashed the ceremony at Golden Gate Park’s Rose Garden and reception at the Cliff House, I exchanged marital vows with my best friend, Verna Mercedes Wefald.

I am flooded with memories without having to watch the video, shot by my friend, Brad, who is now the director of technology at San Domenico School in San Anselmo: Struggling to tie my bowtie and swearing, “I don’t need this shit,” before my brother calmly stepped in and hooked it together; stretching the plastic runner across the grass with my father before the ceremony; gazing at Verna as she nervously recited her vows. We’d written humorous and serious ones. In one I promised to only buy three unique ties a year and she vowed not to always eat off my plate.

Verna looked—as always—gorgeous, and I couldn’t believe how blessed and fortunate I really was. Quiet and determined, she was a perfect complement to my gregarious and obnoxious side. And she was passionate about politics and dance and exercise. And fun to be with.

Our ceremony started nearly an hour late, because of a mix up with the flowers, but by then it didn’t matter. After nearly losing it over the bowtie, I was basically relaxed and excited. And just a little nervous.

More memories: my great-uncle Norman shouting out, “Don’t do it,” as Verna and I signed our wedding license in the park after the ceremony; my mother downing two glasses of champagne on an empty stomach at the reception and giggling her way through the cocktail hour, which is sadly ironic now given that she has severe Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, wears diapers, and can longer walk or even feed herself.

The reception was a non-stop party filled with endless dancing to classic rock, Dom Perignon (for Verna and me), delectable entrees, a carrot and chocolate wedding cake, and both of us being hoisted high in chairs as people circled us to Hava Nagila and other Jewish melodies.

After our final song, Stevie Wonder’s Jungle Fever, we retired with several members of the wedding party to the upstairs bar at the Cliff House. An hour later, I was ready to leave and be alone with Verna. She didn’t want the magic of the evening to end. When we finally got home, we shared a bath and I pulled out at least 100 bobby-pins from Verna’s hair in what was one of the most romantic moments of my life. We reminisced about the entire day as I piled up the pins on the edge of the tub.

For the next few years we celebrated our anniversary with dinner at the Cliff House. In 2009, not quite seven weeks before we found out her cancer had returned, Verna and I sipped drinks in the remodeled Cliff House and then walked down the hill for Taco Tuesday at the Park Chalet, where we celebrated with Miguel, Maya, and Verna’s father. It was the last time we went out for our anniversary.

Just a year later, with the original wedding party, except Verna’s mother, in attendance, we renewed our vows outside our two-bedroom townhouse. Miguel was the co-best man; Maya was one of two flower girls. Verna recited her vows and then had to sit during the outdoor buffet we’d sponsored on the street near our home. By seven o’clock she was asleep for the night, exhausted by the cancer that had riddled her body with constant pain.

Five weeks later Verna was gone and July 28 would never be the same.

I started today by saying goodbye for a week to Maya who is with family outside San Luis Obispo and ended it by playing nine holes of golf with Miguel. I ache for Verna, but I am still very blessed.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

When Mommy

Arms behind her, Maya holds one book in her right hand and one in her left. “Pick a hand,” she says.

I peak and see a Barbie book in her right.

“Left,” I say and she pulls out two books.

“Which one?”

I pick the one on top, When Mommy is Sick by Ferne Sherkin-Langer, about how a ten-year old girl copes with her mother being in the hospital again. It was one of the books recommended by Maya’s hospice therapist after Verna died in 2010.

I start reading about how the girl is sad because her babysitter slathers the jam on too thick and cuts the bread in triangles, not squares like her mother; how she refuses to draw or participate in class but, at her teacher’s suggestion, draws a picture of herself and her mother; how she loves having her friend’s mom push her on the swings, but still misses her own mother; how she makes a calendar and counts off the days until Saturday when she and her father will get to visit her mother.

The story ends as the mother comes home and pushes her daughter on the swings, makes her a sandwich with just the right amount of jam and cuts the bread in squares, and later reads her a bedtime story.

I am happy for the girl but sad for Maya. I start thinking of Verna and all the special times she and Maya spent together in four-and-a-half years: blowing bubbles in a park in Arizona, the smile on Maya’s face stretched a million miles; snuggling in bed to read; cuddling on Verna’s hospital bed to do sticker books together.

A tear rolls down my cheek as I realize yet again that Maya’s Mommy won’t be coming home. I finish the book and Maya looks over at me.

“There’s water on your face,” she says.

“I was crying because I miss Mommy.”

“Me, too,” she says.

“Mommy loves you so much,” I say. “I think she loves you and Miguel more than anything. She was so excited to be a mommy.”

“I am so glad she found you,” she says. Then she pauses. “How did she find you?”

“We worked together and I asked her to go see Wynton Marsalis with me (something Maya and I are going to do in March),” I explain.

“And then you asked her to marry you?”

I giggle. “I couldn’t ask her to marry me after our first date.”

“When was your first date?”

“July 21,” I answer, and I remember, of course, that it was in 1990, not quite 24 years ago. “I asked her to marry me two months later.”

“And what did she say?”

“She said, ‘Sounds like a good idea’,” I say.

“And then you kissed?”

“Yes,” I say, “and then we kissed.”

I picture the moment, lying together on my bed in a four-bedroom flat on  19th Avenue in San Francisco, after an evening with my mother, who was not happy that Verna was Catholic, and thinking about asking her to live with me but knowing she never wanted to do that again. So I blurted out, “I was thinking of asking you to marry me.”

I shut off the light. I get my book light and clasp it to the back of Thank You For Your Service, about physically and emotionally wounded veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before I start reading I say, “Mommy loves you and Miguel so much.”

Ten minutes later as I get up to leave, I hug Maya tightly and say, “I love you so much, Maya.”

“I love you, too, Daddy.”

Sunday, November 3, 2013

World Series Seriously

Of the Red Sox’ three World Championships since 2004, I have only shared one of them with Miguel, this year’s last-to-first bearded barreling to the top of the heap.

In 2004, inexplicably, Miguel rooted for An-Evil-Empire-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. As the Red Sox became the first major sports team to roar back from a 3-0 deficit, he and I could not share the joy together. As the World Series began, I was understandably nervous, and, while I am not at all superstitious, I did believe in the power of the Curse.

I remember Bucky ‘f***ing’ Dent in 1978 and being one strike away in 1986. In 2003, Verna, Miguel, my late mother-in-law, and I were in New York for a vacation and my niece’s bat mitzvah during the American League Championship series. The three of them were asleep in our midtown Manhattan hotel room during the latter part of game seven between the aforementioned Evil Empire and the Red Sox when Aaron Boone slugged a homerun off Tim Wakefield in extra innings and broke my Red Sox-loving heart yet again.

I stared at the TV screen in utter disbelief, Verna curled against me. She must’ve heard me sigh.

“Did the Red Sox win?” she asked.

“No, they lost,” I said, my voice halting.

“Are you OK?”

Tear welling in my eyes, I said, “Would you just hold me?”

I was teaching a Jewish cooking class in the high school program at a local synagogue in 2004 when the Red Sox were on the verge of capturing their first World Series title in 86 years. I kept running back and forth from the synagogue kitchen to the cramped office of the maintenance team, where Jack had the game on his portable television. By the 8th inning, most of my class and I were watching together.

My body shook and shivered as Keith Foulke tossed the final out to first base and the Red Sox were victorious. I immediately called my father in Florida and said, tears in my eyes, my voice staggering, “They did it, dad. They did it.”

“Yes, they did,” he laughed.

By 2007, Miguel was rooting for that team, but when the Red Sox made their playoff run I asked a former student of mine, who works in the ticket office, if I could purchase two tickets to the World Series should the Sox advance, which they did. So Miguel and I were at game two that year and he was behind the Red Sox’ opponent, the Rockies, until we walked into the largest Red Sox souvenir shop on the planet, the Yawkey Way Store, a commercial retail sensory overload of Red Sox t-shirts, pants, jerseys, jackets, trinkets, mugs, hats, banners, pennants, jewelry, watches, baseballs, bats, gloves, scarves, toys, lunchboxes, baseball cards, license plates, placards, posters, and more.

“Dad,” he said to me then as we strolled in the store, “maybe I can root for the Red Sox and the Yankees.”

I was flabbergasted and elated. My son and I would be cheering for the same team, together, at the World Series. He even got two batting practice balls before the game, choosing to give one to his school’s bus driver, an avid baseball fan.

But for some incredibly strange reason, I was not home during Game Four that year when the Red Sox completed a four game sweep of the Rockies and won their second World Series title in four years. I was in the back row of the 3000-seat Marin Veteran’s Auditorium watching Peter Frampton at the same venue where he’d recorded portions of Frampton Comes Alive in 1975.

Miguel saw the game with Verna, and shouted and pounded the air and then the ground and jumped on top of her when it ended, his own personalized victory dance when one of his sports team wins a championship. And I was not there to share the moment with him. And then the Red Sox aura faded for him by spring training 2008 and he was back with the team from the Bronx.

Until the end of the 2009, which was strange considering the Yankees had just won their 844th World Series.

And while I was very excited for the Giants in 2010 and 2012, and believe me his victory celebrations were borderline dangerous—for him and anyone around him—it’s just not the same. The Giants are my second favorite team, and I started rooting for them once I moved to San Francisco in 1987, but the Red Sox have been my team (for almost my entire life), and my father’s team, and my mother’s team, and my grandparents’ team, so I have this patrimony-DNA thing going. Rooting for the Giants and being a Red Sox fan for life is like having a close friendship with a woman you’ve known for a long time while happily married to your true love, the one with whom you’ve weathered Titanic highs and lows.

So there Miguel and I were last Wednesday night, only six days after we’d been at Fenway Park again for a World Series Game Two, this time with two of my nephews, as Koji Uehara wound up to throw a two-strike pitch to Matt Carpenter in the top of the ninth. I’d phoned my father moments earlier and put him on speaker phone so we could share the game together.
As the game ended, I said to my father, “Can you believe it? Three times in our lifetimes?”

“No, I can’t,” he giggled.

When our conversation ended I realized Miguel had not broken into a celebration at all, though he was clearly happy that the Red Sox had clinched.

“Miguel, how come you are not going crazy right now?” I asked, somewhat surprised by his muted response.

“The Giants are my team,” he stated matter-of-factly.

Ah, baseball is a strange game.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

To Remember...Always

Sometimes I can only remember what Verna looked like from an image of an actual photograph, not from a picture in my head. That happened fairly soon after she died. I remember our wedding day, for example, but the images that float in my mind are from our photo albums or framed photographs on the walls of our home.

Tomorrow is the 3rd anniversary of her death. I hearken back to that day and the images are both clear and fuzzy, like fiddling with a binocular or camera to bring an image into focus. Hospice provided special assistance during Verna’s final days, and someone came over at least every other day to bathe her. They asked me to dress her in old t-shirts, ones they could actually cut off her body and disturb her as little as possible. She still had ones that were from her early twenties, which had been more than 20 years earlier.

I can see the t-shirts, one from El Salvador in the early 80s when the right-wing government assaulted civilians almost daily, and it said, “Yo soy periodista,” which means “I am a journalist,” and it showed someone fleeing the marauding tanks of El Salvador’s army and death squads (partly financed by the United States), proclaiming their innocence. But I can’t see Verna’s face. I remember what she looked like, but only from the photographs we took during those last days, one of her face, puffy from steroids and water retention, cuddled on her hospital bed against Maya.

I remember that after she died one or two people suggested I gave her too much pain medication, kept her foggy on purpose so she was unable to communicate lucidly (or at all) with family and friends. I found some Hospice documents earlier this year while cleaning out the electric recliner chair in our living room before we gave it to my sister-in-law’s aunt during the last months of her life. The documents vindicated me and showed how our Hospice nurse had ordered rapidly increasing amounts of medication—Ativan and morphine. At one point the nurse, Lacey, said to me, “I can’t believe she is able to handle so much medication.”

I remember that I was sometimes impatient when I squeezed drops of pain medication into Verna’s mouth, against her cheek, causing her to choke and cough on the liquid. I can actually see Verna, still, in my mind, her hair matted against the pillow (green cover), as her body went into spasms if I rushed the medication in too quickly.

On Friday evening, August 27, 2010, I remember I gave her medication from a syringe and she had close to a 30-minute coughing fit. My brother-in-law, Jim, and his wife, Liz, were with me. Verna’s body thrust forward with every cough, her eyes squeezed shut in almost agony. She finally calmed down and went to sleep for the night.

She never woke up.

On Saturday afternoon, the hospice nurse said she was in a deep sleep, not a coma. I continued to give her medication orally four times a day and twice as a suppository. I remember the exact moment before Verna died when her breathing became labored as her chest rose and fell, and the amount of time between each breath grew longer and longer. And then she stopped.

I wasn’t sure where this remembrance was going when I started. I also remember one of my favorite photographs of Verna and me, taken in 1990. We are standing in the kitchen of the four-bedroom flat I shared with roommates on 19th Avenue in San Francisco, where a constant flow of traffic always rumbled by on one of the city’s major arteries. My left arm is around her shoulder, and I am wearing a white dress shirt with thin blue and red vertical stripes and navy blue pants. Verna has on a black dress with a buttoned v-front. It is August or September, and her normally olive, half-Hispanic skin was even more golden brown after a summer outdoors as a day camp counselor for young teens (which is how we met). The smiles across our faces are wide and bright. We clearly looked as if we belonged together.

Tomorrow I will go to the cemetery with my good friend Amanda, and maybe her daughter, and tidy up the gravestone area and then replace the old artificial flowers with new ones we picked out yesterday. We will go there, to remember. Always.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Not 22

Verna was almost always right. She used to say we should wait at least a few years after we got married in 1991 to have kids.

“You’ll thank me later,” she said. “For the time we had to ourselves.”

First she said she didn’t want kids until she was at least 30. Then at 30 she was in the middle of a job transition, so she said no kids until her employment situation was settled. Then another six months until she passed the probationary period at the City Attorney’s Office where she’d begun as a paralegal in 1996 or 1997.

I protested, argued, attempted to cajole, whined, sulked—all to no avail. And Verna was right. Having children has been the best thing to ever happen to me, but waiting six-and-a-half years after we married on a foggy late afternoon in San Francisco's Rose Garden on Sunday July 28, 1991 was a very good decision.

Verna and I had time for hilly bike rides in Napa that included stops at wineries, lazy Sunday mornings with the newspaper sprawled out in front of us, dashing to the movies on Friday or Saturday nights, or bopping at dance clubs with friends.

And then we became parents, first in 1998 with Miguel, and then in 2006 with Maya, days after Verna’s initial cancer diagnosis. Both Miguel and Maya  enriched our lives more even if our time was no longer just ours.

There were several times during Verna’s illness and subsequent recurrence that I would get angry or petty or just plain stupid and Verna would retort, “Someday (when I am gone) you will appreciate me!”

And she was right.

I can’t go back and undue my pettiness or anger or stupidity, but I do reflect back on certain moments and scenes from our life together and wish I’d acted differently.

But I can’t alter the past.

So on this sunny Sunday, on what would have been our 22nd wedding anniversary, I am sad and wistful.  Maya asked me if I was going to the cemetery. She said, “You should bring a flower.”

She’s right.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Spam, spam, spam used to be an all-purpose food or a great skit and song by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Now, it’s also a boatload of crap that filters into an email folder.

Occasionally some worthy, important emails are sent to our spam folders, but mostly it is just plain junk. I don’t ever open the real spam, for fear of unleashing an incurable virus that will shut down the entire company’s computer network. But just by reading the subjects and senders I get a healthy dose of humor.

Sex is a big spam topic. I’ve received an endless supply of spam emails about erectile dysfunction, and even though I am in my mid-50s, I am not sure I can ever go the Viagra route. Not that I am judging anyone else. One spam advertised, “Enlarge with sample…larger is stronger is better.” Shouldn’t one see a real doctor  for problems south of the proverbial border? But just in case, there is a Canadian pharmacy that offers a bulk discount on Cialis. Let’s hear it for socialized medicine.

Today spam emails popped up from Female Seduction Services about a video that would make women want me and another about techniques to “bed chicks”. Not to sound too much like Andy Rooney, but I am not sure I would be attracted to those kinds of women. OK, correction: I would definitely not be attracted to those women. And not to sound too confident, but I think the women I want to want me already do. Cue Cheap Trick—I Want You To Want Me.

Companies are not just selling sex. There are Disney vacations, low-cost loans, luxury jewelry, as in replica Rolex watches (I don’t even wear a cheap watch), and pain medication (that probably doubles as a penile enhancer).

And my spam folder, which I don't empty regularly, only has twenty-four emails as of right now. It usually grows (no pun intended) to a couple hundred or more before I get around to deleting everything. I am sure I inadvertently erase an email from someone I know or a company I’ve used, but that’s just how it goes in this Internet age. I can only keep track of so many emails, for larger is stronger is better is not always true unless…

Never mind.