Friday, December 31, 2010


This year has certainly been the worst of my life, but I do feel grateful for so many things despite the trauma and tragedy we've endured.

I am grateful for my friend Bob Welch, a columnist for the Eugene, OR, newspaper and award winning author ( for inspiring me to also focus on giving.

Bob writes a column each year around the Christmas holidays about an anonymous donor who gives him $1000 to disburse to needy people in his community. Bob and the donor's example helped me this year after Kaiser Permanente adopted us and showered the kids with at least fifteen gifts each and a trove of gift cards.

So I bought twelve $10 gift cards at Starbucks, and Maya, Miguel, and I handed them out on Christmas Day and on the 26th.

My only instructions were to give a card to someone who seemed to be in need. To Miguel I said, "Maybe someone homeless."

"How can you tell?" he asked.

Maya gave one to a man seated a few tables away from us at Starbuck's. He came over a few moments later, smiling, and thanking us as he tried to surreptiously slide the card into my hand.

"I don't need this," he said. "Please save it for someone else."

"But my daughter gave it as a gift to you," I said.

"Well, thank you, sweetheart," he said to her.

Miguel gave one to a young man drawing caricatures on the sidewalk. I handed three to a trio of firefighters outside the station, and three more to some guys eating pizza at a local sports bar.

Pay it forward, I hope.

I am grateful to my father-in-law, Martin, for being one of the most generous people I know. He babysits for Maya most Tuesday afternoons, and he is always beneficent with his time and money.

I am grateful for my mother, Beverly, and her husband, Fred, for sending us bi-monthly checks and babysitting for Miguel and Maya in 2008 when Verna and I took our first (and last) vacation without children in 11 years. We had a glorious time in Cabo San Lucas.

I am grateful to my father, Marvin, and his wife, Joyce, for trekking out to California when Verna and I renewed our vows in late July, and seven weeks later for her funeral.

I am grateful to my brother, Scott, and his wife, Amy, for coming out to California many times just to help out.

I am grateful to my brother-in-law, Jim, and his wife, Liz, for being there with me when Verna took her last breaths.

I am grateful to my brother-in-law, Marty, and his wife, Donna, for taking our dog, Gigi, who was diagnosed with epilepsy in early August. After Verna's death, I really could not handle the extra responsibility of caring for her, so they opened up their loving home. Now the kids and I can still see her.

I am grateful to my friends Amanda and Mercedes for staying with me for several hours on the morning of Verna's death. Both came over almost immediately and sat with me on my kitchen floor, consoling me, listening to my stories, and helping to ease my pain with their presence.

I am grateful to our neighbors and friends who organized meals and cared for all of us, especially Miguel and Maya, which meant I earned some time to myself.

I am grateful to my co-workers at Drake Terrace Retirement Community for shouldering extra responsiblities all year, and for comforting me during my darkest days.

I am grateful to Hospice by the Bay of Marin, Jewish Family and Children's Services of Marin, and the Living and Dying Project for their compassionate and professional support and guidance for Verna, our family, and me during the last several weeks of her life.

I am grateful to so many member of BHS' Class of 1977 for their cards and FB wishes and contributions to Verna's Caregiver Fund. It's amazing to reconnect with people at such a difficult time and be supported so graciously and lovingly.

I am grateful to Miguel and Maya for entertaining me and frustrating me and challenging me to be the best father possible and for blessing me each and every day with their love and unique approaches to the world.

I am grateful to Verna, the best friend I've ever had, for giving me Miguel and Maya, and for setting the parental bar fairly high, but not too out of reach. Her examples will guide me as I strive continually to be the type of person and parent she asserted to Hospice that I was when she said goodbye to us a week before she died.

To 2011, upward and onward.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Liar! Liar! Pants On Fire

I've been lying to Maya a lot lately. Death, Santa Claus, nothing sacred is immune to the prevarications I'll serve to my soon-to-be five year old daughter.

The falsehoods began flowing several weeks ago when we were talking about dying. She obviously knows that Verna died and isn't coming back.

"But Daddy's not going to die," she said.

"Well, someday, we all will die," I said. "When we're much, much older."

She started crying. "I don't want to die. I don't want you to die."

Uh oh. So I quickly reversed myself and said, "No, we're not going to die. Daddy's not going to die."

She stopped sobbing and calmed herself down.

I never thought I'd lie to my children about death, though I never imagined they'd experience it so up close and personal at tender ages.

When I was about ten years old, I had several bouts of anxiety about death for no apparent reason. Existential angst, perhaps, or the fact that we lived about two miles from a sprawling cemetery. I would plop myself down on the lavender carpet in my parents bedroom, gripped with fear about dying, about not being alive anymore.

My mother soothed as she said, "Well, when you're older they will have a pill to take so you can live forever."

Yes, she lied. But it helped me fall back asleep and settle my anxiety. Would Dr. Spock or any other child expert approve? Probably not. I was grateful, though, for the lie and the sense of peace it brought me so long ago.

So I am not worried that I completely trashed the truth and told Maya that she and I and everyone else she loves is on the highway to eternity. She's lost her mother and there is no sane reason to heighten her fears now by being truthful about the nature of life (and death).

And this is the season of lying. By late October, early November at the latest, as holiday decorations and pre-Christmas sales emerge in public, I began spinning tales of the jolly old fat guy in the red suit who will be sliding down chimneys or walking magically through front doors to bring presents to all the good children of the earth.

Miguel believed in Santa until he was ten. Then he caught me in my web of deceipt. He wondered why there was lipstick on the glass of milk we'd left for Santa.

"That's because Mommy and I put out the milk and cookies," I admitted sadly, fully aware that the Polar Express moment had arrived.

"Aha," he said. "I knew it. But there wasn't any lipstick on the glass. I just tricked you."

But, under threat of never receiving a holiday or birthday gift ever again, Miguel complies with my order to maintain the magic for Maya. We believe in Santa again in our house, and Miguel actually seems to enjoy making the myth appear real for his sister.

So there we were on Saturday, Christmas Day 2010, as Maya gazed at her new, unwrapped bike, straight from the North Pole. The exact model she'd eyed at the local bikestore about 6 weeks ago. And there was Miguel, feverishly excited about his new Play Station 3, the very system he and I bought with Maya, who was completely oblivious, at Target two weeks ago.

"Daddy," she exclaimed, "look what Santa brought."

Miguel and I smiled.

Because of rain on Christmas, Maya didn't get to ride her new 20" bicycle until yesterday. Miguel waited patiently all day Saturday until Maya was asleep to destroy me in NBA 2011.

Christmas did not have the same oomph this year, but the kids, family, and close friends did make it special and bearable.

This morning Maya said to me, "Mommy came in the room last night and gave me a hug and told me she loved me. I love Mommy and Daddy. Did you see Mommy?"

"Yes," I said.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

So This Is Christmas

Warning: this blog contains stories about me celebrating Christmas. If you find it offensive for a Jewish person to do so, please discontinue reading. Some people were extremely bothered when I wrote about kneeling in Church with Verna on Easter in 2006, three months after she was first diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer.

Maya and I kicked off the Christmas holiday season this past Saturday afternoon. While Miguel was long-boarding with his buddy Chris, Maya and I were spooning homemade ice cream into our mouths at Silberman's in San Rafael. She ordered creamy peppermint, I went for egg nog.

"I love it, daddy," she said. "This is our playdate." Flecks of bright pink peppermint ringed her lips.

To be perfectly honest, I really, really wanted to skip the holidays and be magically transported to January, lying on a secluded beach and buried in an engrossing book. Thanksgiving was essentially hell. I missed Verna so much and I was so overwhelmingly sad that I moped around the house her family had rented in Lake Tahoe. I actually felt as if I was in the throes of the Jewish mourning rituals, where one removes him or herself from joyous living and concentrates on grief and coping.

I did not party in Tahoe. I did not go out gambling (which I hate) or drink to excess (I had one beer in five days and no hard liquor). I avoided singing Karaoke, a Wefald Family tradition that, even though we sound more like the Manson family than the Andrews Sisters, is always filled with fun and laughter. One of my sisters-in-law called me a party pooper.

But I did force myself then to live in the moment. I went running every day, even in an all-day snowstorm with limited visibility and icy roads. I took Miguel and Maya sledding twice, made snow angels, raced Miguel in two-foot deep snow, and threw several snowballs at my children and family. All that helped me to cope.

However, I was fearful that Christmas and all the build up to the world's major holiday would overload my emotional circuitry. Christmas had always been huge for Verna. She loved the lights, the smells, the trees, the giving. Christmas music blared in our home pretty regularly from the end of November until December 26.

How would I deal with my pain and longing and prepare for the holiday and give the kids at least a chunk of something to celebrate?

Hospice by the Bay came to the rescue. They offered me free tickets to the Marin Ballet's late afternoon performance of the Nutcracker last Saturday.

"Miguel, do you want to see the Nutcracker with Maya and me?" I asked son #1 early last week.

"No way," he said. "Count me out."

"But you saw the Nutcracker in San Francisco three times."

"Yeah, dad, that was when I was a little kid. A long time ago," he said.


So Maya and I had ice cream and bought a birthday gift for a neighborhood friend and ate an early dinner at home so we could get to the Nutcracker by 5 PM. One friend insisted I dress both Maya and myself up. I just wanted to warble, though, "But I gotta be me."

Maya wore a floral print dress over a long sleeve shirt and pants. Her usual array of necklaces and bracelets dangled, making her appear, to me at least, very stylish and festive. I had on blue jeans, a t-shirt and zippered sweatshirt, and a Giants World Series cap.

Maya had never been to any kind of show in an indoor venue before. She hasn't even yet seen a movie in the theater. So I was slightly concerned how she might fare during the performance. Would she talk and talk and talk, as she often does, when the lights dimmed, forcing me to rush her into the lobby?

As it turned out, she knew a fair amount about the Nutcracker because her ballet teacher was working behind the stage and had shared with her students just that morning details of Tchaikovsky, Petipa, and E.T.A Hoffman's creation. Her ballet school had sponsored and put on the performance. Maya told me about Clara and other characters. She seemed mesmerized. At one point she asked me if the characters lived onstage. It was very real for her.

On the way back to the car, Maya twirled and pranced with a mile-wide grin on her face as if she were a ballerina. I couldn't help but smile even though I wished Verna had been there to share the precious moments with us.

Hospice by the Bay came through in a way the following day as well. Hospice counselors and literature advised that creating new holiday rituals is one way to cope with the onslaught of grief and emotions during the festive times of the year. A few weeks ago, one of my friends and co-workers suggested we chop down our own Christmas trees this year, breaking with the tradition of purchasing one from a tree lot.

"I'll find the place for us," he said.

So we drove 20 miles north to Petaluma this past Sunday to a family Christmas tree farm, where you pay one price no matter how high the tree, $49.99. Miguel and Maya scouted out the Douglas firs as our friends Erik and Megan and their two-year old son, Brady, shopped for their ideal tree.

Miguel held the red saw as Maya and I pulled the specially designed tree cart. He set his sights on one tree, slightly lopsided and rising at least 15 feet in the air.

"No, Miguel, that's too big." I said.

"Yeah, Miguel, look how it's tilting," Erik said.

Miguel exclaimed that he wanted at least a 10-12 footer. I said six to seven feet max. Erik then chimed in yet again.

"Miguel," he said, looking at me, "Two words: honor roll," which Miguel had made a few days earlier.

"Erik," I said, "Two words: F.U."

Miguel and Erik chuckled. With my prodding, er, encouragement, Miguel and Maya finally settled on a tree that, with its star branch pointing upward, was about seven feet tall. Miguel knelt down and made an initial cut before he started sawing. It was slow going because there were several underbranches blocking him from leveraging his body against the saw and tree.

"Miguel, do you want some help? We could be here until tomorrow," I said.

"No," he said. He was a young man on a mission.

While Miguel and I postioned ourselves next to the tree and Erik and Megan contemplated which tree to slice into, as if they were deciding when to launch the Allied invasion of Europe, Maya and Brady strolled through the rows of trees.

"Let's hold hands, Maya," Brady said. "Let's hold hands."

Miguel only let me cut for thirty seconds or so. He insisted on doing the bulk of the work. Determination etched on his face, the tree succumbed and we loaded it onto the carriage. For an extra $3 you can have it shaken and bound in a manner not too dissimilar to what many are advocating for Julian Assange.

I loaded the tree into the back of our 2001 Chrysler Town and Country and we then hugged Erik, Megan, and Brady goodbye. Erik and Megan were also on a mission: get Brady down for a nap so Megan, who is 7 months pregnant, and Erik could relax.

We hauled the ornaments and lights up from the garage after we positioned the tree against the wall near our dining room table. I was completely unsure of how the decorating might go. So many of our ornaments were really mini-memory factories containing stories of shared moments with Verna.

There was the Baby's First Christmas one Verna and I bought before Miguel was born on a weekend outing to Monterey and Pacific Grove. Or the thin gold leafy one we bought at Multnomah Falls, where Miguel, Verna, her mom, and I hiked for 2 1/2 hours in 2002. Or the only remaining ornament from Verna's childhood, a vital generational link now for Maya and Miguel, a tiny bird with a feathered white head and a blue breast.

Miguel and Maya asked if they could go outside and play in the park. I later saw them zooming down toward the house, seated on Miguel's longboard, Maya's hair flowing in the wind, laughing, as her big brother grasped her tightly.

So I decorated the tree alone, and, strangely, I felt at peace. I felt as if I was carrying out Verna's wishes and acting as her earthly Christmas agent. When I finished putting up the bulk of the ornaments (I left some for the kids), I gazed at the tree and felt satisfied. Then I heard the tiny Nativity carousel Verna had inherited from her mother, that no one had touched for several days, twinkle three notes. I sensed Verna's presence, so I said, "Verna, I miss you so much. Thanks, I think I did a good job. For you and us."

Ho, ho, ho.

Monday, December 13, 2010

London Calling

Miguel entered the qualifier for the school's geography bee as a joke. His friend, Sam, said, "I'll do it if you will."

Miguel said, "OK." They both raised their hands and were entered. He never even told me.

Then he shared last week that he had qualified for the school-wide geography bee held earlier today.

"Miguel, that's great," I said. "How did you do?"


"How many questions were there?"

"Forty," he said. "I got 23 right."

"Wait," I said, driving dangerously close to the side of the road. "You missed 17 out of 40? Just better than 50%?"

While I was proud of his accomplishment, I wondered how someone, even my son, could qualify for a school-wide test of knowledge after only answering slightly better than half the questions.

"The questions were hard," Miguel explained with a hint of defensiveness in his voice.

He then explained that the top 30 kids automatically qualified for today's competition. So, conceivably, one could have missed even more than half the questions and still made it to today's final showdown. Sam was bounced from the preliminary round for talking too much.

"Miguel, you need to study. Did they tell you about some websites with sample questions?" I asked.

"I can Google them," he said.

Turns out that National Geographic, the main sponsor of the geography bees, has sample questions and test-taking advice on its website. There are three or four other free sites as well. We immediately went to them on Friday and Saturday.

"Miguel, the biggest advice is that the question often contains a clue for the answer," I said. As an example I read one question to him: which European country possesses oil reserves and is known for its famous fjords?

He was stumped. I said that the clue is famous fjords. He'd never heard of a fjord. So he didn't know the answer was the country from where his grandfather's ancestors called home, Norway.

I read him another question: which state's climate is suitable for growing citrus fruits, California or Maine?

"Maine," he answered.

"Maine?" I bellowed. "Maine?"

"California," he said meekly.

I then explained how the clue was in the question. Citrus fruits grow best in warm and sunny climates, which would lead one to answer California, a much more temperate state than Maine. I started thinking, "He's going to get creamed. I am proud of him for making the school tournament, but he doesn't know that much."

He did several practices tests and quizzes over the weekend. He said they were hard. They were. Questions such as Dresden, a city that has been rebuilt since WWII, is situated on what river? The three choices are the Darling, the Elbe, or the Thames River. The correct answer is the Elbe. Or name two large islands separated by the Strait of Bonifacio. The choices are Corsica and Sardinia, Corfu and Cephalonia, or North Island and South Island. The correct answer is Corsica and Sardinia.

Miguel went to school late today because he got just two braces and his headgear this morning. Within nine months his whole mouth will be glittering silver.

"I don't want to stay for the tournament," he said. It was held after school. "I barely studied."

"Miguel, you are staying for the geography bee," I said. "You brought your permission slip?"


I told him I'd pick him up outside school at five. He called me at 4:30 and said, "Dad, can you pick me up now? The geography bee is over."

But I couldn't leave work because I was covering the break for one of my staff. One of the teachers helping to proctor the competition volunteered to drop Miguel off.

Miguel advanced to the final round to determine the Miller Creek Middle School 2010 Geography Bee champion. The final question was in which European city would you find the Piccadilly Circus? Miguel thought it was an actual circus and he did not know the answer.

"I guessed the first city that came to me, London," he said. "The other kid, a 6th grader, said Rome."

Miguel was right and was crowned school champion. Next he competes in a regional tournament to decide who goes to the state bee in April in Sacramento. Each state winner will be flown to Washington, DC, all expenses paid, for the chance to win the National Bee and a $25,000 scholarship. Miguel said he plans to study, study, study.

He showed up at work wearing his winner's medal and proudly flashing his winner's certificate. He also got a gift card to Jamba Juice, a specially engraved pen, and a earth globe keychain, which he gave to Maya.

I beamed with pride as he walked into the retirement facility where I work and shouted to two of my colleagues, who were probably discussing work, "Miguel just won his school's geography bee." My voice had jumped at least three or four octaves.

"Miguel, I am so, so proud of you," I said, stunned and amazed and ecstatic.

"I was so nervous in the final round," he said, "I was shaking."

When we left the house a little while later, after retrieving Maya and one of Verna's closest friends, Joan, on our way to a celebratory meal at BJ's, a lone star twinkled just below the moon. We all looked up and greeted Verna.

"Miguel, Mommy would be so proud of you, too," I said, a rush of sadness mixing with the sweetness of his accomplishment.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Posters on the Wall

Farrah Fawcett's lustrous locks greeted me each morning when I was a teenager. As did Raquel Welch, clad in a torn and clingy-wet blouse, her bright eyes shining right at me.

Both Sex Goddesses and best-selling pin-up babes adorned my ceiling on two posters I bought at Treasure City, a local department store in Bloomfied, CT. Fawcett and Welch were the Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth of my pulsating teen years. My parents still joke that I've always had a fondness for the opposite sex. So slapping up the posters made logical and biological sense.

Miguel, on the other hand, has not shown much interest in girls at all. I've teased him a few times about potential love interests, even going so far as to choose my future daughters-in-law, but Miguel has basically and not so politely asked me to "Shut up."

I realized, of course, that if I continue to press or tease I risk alienating him and giving him ample reason to shut me out when he may need his father to lean on.

For the most part, though, girls have not been part of Miguel's social orbit. He never even approached anyone at the 6th grade school dance last year. In fact, he went out of his way to blend into his surroundings. He even ordered me not to acknowledge him in any way: no nods, no smiles, no waves, and definitely, most definitely, he said, no dancing. He also said I couldn't even tap my feet or sway to the music.

So, for Miguel, school and his social life have been about boys, sports, sports, boys, and video games, which is an extension of boys and sports.

Until now.

A few weeks back, Miguel mentioned Megan Fox, a name I'd heard but an exact person I could not picture. He reminded me she starred with Shia LeBouf in the Transformer movies.

"Dad, she's hot. Really sexy."

Huh? My son, the uber sports fan and player, expressing a serious, and most likely hormonally driven, desire for a female and turning into another kind of player? I felt the Earth tilt slightly off its axis. (And, yes, I smiled inward with pride as well. Not that I need a chip off the old block, but I will admit I appreciated his--for now--heterosexual longings.)

Then he asked me to buy two, not one, but two posters of her for his bedroom.

"Miguel, your walls are already filled up. Which ones can I take down?" I asked.

"Obama and the Red Sox World Series one (from 2007)," he replied.

Obama? Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Red Sox? Hey, his heart has never been fully part of the Red Sox Nation, so good riddance to my Yankee-loving teen-to-be.

So the posters arrived today, and I invoked parental my authority and decided not to remove Obama or the Red Sox.

"How about if put the Megan Fox posters on the ceiling?" I asked.

"That's fine."

I am not ready to visit the wider implications of the Megan Fox posters, one of which displays an ample view of her breasts. About objectifying women. About objectifying women's bodies, especially breasts. Verna would never have allowed these posters into the house, not even the garage.

At some point in the next year or so, Miguel and I will have many conversations about young women, sex, how to treat women, how society portrays women and all that.

But, for now, I am going to let him revel in having Megan Fox on his ceiling as a adolescent symbol of lust and confusion and powerful feelings and emotions.

Farrah Fawcett and Raquel Welch's images above me didn't hinder my social development too much. And I turned out pretty well, well enough to treat Miguel's mother for more than two decades with all the respect she deserved as a woman and a person. And he witnessed that for 12-plus years. Those lessons will be the ones he absorbs most.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Texting God

"Text God," Maya blurted out the other day.

"What would you say?" I asked.

"Text God," she answered with an impish grin.

"But what message would you say to God?"

"1,2,3,4," she replied.

"What message?" I asked again. I was really curious. Not that Maya was ceding me much.

"1,1,1,1," she said. "That's God's numbers." She obviously has a firm understanding of the nature of monotheism, God's oneness.

"But you can use words to talk to God," I suggested.

"Give me a present," she said.

"Isn't that what Santa does?" I asked.


"What does Santa do?" I wondered.

"I don't know," Maya said.

"I don't either," I agreed.

Maya had the final word on this topic: "God brings out the stars."

My daughter, the budding philosopher, clearly primed to take Heschel's leap of faith into the sublime. Maybe she's already jumped. What also fascinated me was the notion of texting God. I know people leave crumpled notes to God in the cracks and crevices of Jerusalem's Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, but texting God is so 21st century.

I don't text anyone. I am not a neo-Luddite, but the idea of punching tiny buttons to send messages to someone seems silly. What's wrong with using another completely modern invention, my cell phone? Then again, talking in public or the car with a radiation-emitting device balanced between shoulder and ear is hilarious.

I know, I know, eventually I will have to join the human race and succumb to the world of texting. As Miguel inches towards being a teenager, the only mode of communication available to us as parent and child might be texting.

But, still, I resist. I am usually quite late to technological innovations or improvements. When I was a sportswriter for the college newspaper in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I wrote out all my articles in long-hand and then punched them out on a metal typewriter, a wildly ineffecient use of my time and energy.

After my editor forced me to type an article inside the newspaper's office, one the filled the entire back page of the Columbia Daily Spectator, I was hooked on the value of the typewriter, which lasted until it also went the way of the dinosaur as computers entered our world.

Now I can't imagine ever using anything but a computer and the ease it provides to create articles, blog entries, and other assorted documents. I mean, what would I ever do without cut and paste and spell-check?

Texting, I feel, is part of today's generation. I had one student two years ago tell me that she sent out (or received) 15,000 mesages in one month. AT&T informed me today that the average teenager sends out about 3500 per 30-day period. I have resisted this form of communication that I see as highly impersonal (what's wrong with cell phones or writing letters?), but I also know I am a hypocrite because I occasionally use Facebook's IM.

I also know the day is fast approaching when I am going to need to reach Miguel at school or a friend's, and texting will be the simplest way to communicate. He'll ignore my calls, but easily tap in a few words to say that he is OK, will wear his skateboard helmet, and no, is not drinking Pepsi or Coke.

Miguel, like just about everyone else under 30, is completely enamored with the technology of cell phones and iPods. He actually said, when informed that iPods and cell phones are relatively new technologies and were not part of my childhood, "How could you have lived back then? It must been really boring."

You can't miss what you never had or knew about. Hey, we had Pong.

Maya just wants to be like her big brother. She owns three or four toy Disney cellphones, and hears him and me talking about texting, or in my case fighting off Miguel's pleas for a texting plan on my phone. So her desire to text is normal.

But texting God? Where did that come from? Maybe she is onto something. Reinvent an impersonal but convenient technology by connecting to the Divine. Call it prayer for the generation[s] on the go, go, go. A possible direct line to an obviously over-worked Deity? I wonder if this kind of thing is covered by the unlimited texting package?

Monday, November 8, 2010

I Am Missing You

"I ain't missing you since you've been gone away
I ain't missing you at all
No matter what my heart might say."
~John Waite

"What's up honey?" I said into my cell phone last night as I joked with our neighbor who was expecting Maya and me for dinner. Miguel was already at their home.

"Was that Mommy?" asked Maya who was finishing up her first dinner with other neighbors. She thought if I said 'honey' it must be Verna.

"No, that was Corinna, wondering where we are," I answered. "But that'd be really cool if we could talk to heaven. But we can't."

Miguel, Maya, and I know Verna is gone from this Earth forever, but that doesn't make the reality any easier to swallow. And I know our devastating sense of loss will eventually evaporate and be replaced by a constant ache in our hearts. For now, though, the sadness and pain I feel is heavy and weighs down everything I do.

Not that I'd want it any other way, but everything seems to remind me of Verna. On Saturday afternoon, as I walked to the neighborhood park, where Maya was waiting for me with yet another neighbor and his two kids, I passed Matt, who was pulling apart the rollers on the bottom of his vacuum cleaner.

"Well, the reason it got stuck, honey," he said to me in mock anger directed at his wife, "is because of your hair."

His comments immediately reminded me how strands of Verna's hair, which was waist long before her initial cancer diagnosis, clogged our vacuum and spilled onto the sink, toilet bowl, and floor of our bathroom.

I wanted to say to him, "At least your wife is still alive so she can shed." But I didn't. Nor should I have gone that far over the edge to hurt a neighbor and friend.

Then late last night, as I was walking our epileptic miniature poodle, another neighbor walked by with tears in his eyes.

"Hey, what's up?" I asked.

"Oh, it's J----," his wife, "she's missing. She and I fought pretty hard a few days ago. She just left tonight, went somewhere without her wallet or driver's license."

He'd repeatedly phoned her cell, but she wasn't answering. He'd also called her first cousin and close friend, but he wasn't picking up either.

Frankly, while I certainly felt sorry for him alone with four kids, ages 5-20, I couldn't really handle the personal drama, nor muster up enough emotional energy to share his pain and truly empathize. I wanted to say, "At least your wife is still alive to run away." But I didn't because even in pain I am not that cruel.

Verna is gone but memories of her are everywhere. When I cross the Golden Gate Bridge, I think of how we biked across it in 1990 when we'd been dating for a couple of weeks. We left San Francisco, Verna on her mountain bike, me on a freebie I'd inherited from a friend whose husband probably should've donated it to a scrap yard.

We breezed into Marin County on a 40-mile bike ride (OK, Verna breezed while I chugged) that Saturday afternoon more than 20 years ago, looped around Paradise Drive and into Tiburon before our ascent through Sausalito and back over the bridge, urban pioneers, exercising our hearts and bodies on two wheels amid the freshness of our nascent relationship.

On Saturday afternoon, I stopped off at the video store for Miguel and me and ran into the director of Miguel's preschool. Just seeing her flooded me with memories. She mentioned how Verna was the best treasurer the school had ever had.

"She was so organized and efficient and dedicated," she said.

"That was Verna," I said, a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

The thing is, I don't want the memories to fade or stop; I just want to feel better and have this deep, dark sense of emotional emptiness, which I know is raw grief, to subside. I happily summon Verna's memories. It's just that I miss her so much, and therefore the memories are also laced with sadness.

But I still punish myself by confronting those memories and testing my ability to handle them. On Saturday night, after Maya and Miguel went to bed, I watched When Harry Met Sally, a movie we'd enjoyed and was in Verna's instant DVD NetFlix queue.

Of course, as I watched Harry and Sally's animosity for one another grow into love, fondness, and deep friendship, as Meg Ryan brought herself to fake orgasm in a diner, and as Rob Reiner featured actual married couples waxing romantic over their long-term unions, I kept thinking, "All of them get a happily ever after except Verna and me."

Not fair. Not fair at all.

Well, tonight I channeled Verna with memories meant to honor her (and sustain our children). I made her pasta with spinach cream sauce, a dish she and the kids renamed green pasta. Miguel and Maya have been asking me to make the recipe for weeks.

It was probably the healthiest dish Verna made, culled from an issue of Vegetarian Times. You prepare the pasta of your choice and top it with a sauce made from cottage cheese, garlic, broccoli, spinach, and milk. You swirl the ingredients in a food processor. I never liked the dish because the broccoli and garlic gave it a overpoweringly pungent aroma. A former boss of mine banned the dish when I brought it in for leftovers. She said the smell permeating the funeral home was not good for the customers.

I was nervous as I poured the broccoli-spinach sauce onto the pasta and began to stir. Would this dish hold up to the high culinary standards established by Verna, who always adored food and cooking?

It certainly was green, and looked just liked Verna's. "How is it?" I asked.

"Good," said Miguel with a smile. He liked it. Miguel liked it.

"Good," said Maya. "Just like Mommy's."

I almost reached over and smeared her face with a garlic green broccoli spinach kiss. But I stopped and just gazed at her smile. It reminded me of Verna.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Love and the Cathode Rays

At some point in the next week, I will finish watching season 6 of The Office on NetFlix and part of my connection to Verna will dissolve. I’ve been half channeling, half mirroring Verna since she died, and at the conclusion of season 6, the last one available instantly, I will probably stop watching the shows Verna viewed for the last several months of her life.

Shortly after she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2006, family and friends brought her DVDs to watch while she recovered from her biweekly doses of chemotherapy. We were reformed TV addicts at the time, but Verna quickly renewed her habit out of necessity.

A cancer memoir that appeared shortly after Verna first got sick captured Verna’s state of mind. Cancer Made Me Shallow Person, an illustrated narrative by another woman who ultimately lost her battle to cancer, is funny, irreverent, poignant, and a brash statement of identity amid a terminal illness.

Verna loved the book (which I also read) and used it to defend and rationalize her sedentary lifestyle. So she watched Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, The Sopranos, 24, The Medium, Curb Your Enthusiasm, MI5, both the original British and later American versions of The Office, countless movies. She said she just didn’t have the energy or ability to concentrate long-term on reading books, though she still devoured them, albeit more slowly.

I alternately resisted and embraced her TV viewing. I preferred reading, but TV is so mindless and, yes, watching a show together meant being together even if it was a very passive form of connecting. Sometimes I would read on the landing leading to our garage, huddled against the first step while Verna, resting in her recliner 20 feet away, cackled at some comedy or was engrossed in a tense drama. And at other times, I employed a can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em approach and sat on the couch and watched with her.

When we were laughing together or nervously awaiting the outcome of a show, I still preferred to be engrossed in engaging fiction or non-fiction, but it wasn’t as if Verna and I had no prior TV viewing history.

When we were first married, Thursday nights were Cheers. Then we drifted to Mad About You, a show that resonated because it was, like us, the story of a Jewish guy married to a non-Jewish woman. Tears of laughter streamed down our faces at the various family situations, often involving Paul Reiser’s neurotic Jewish relatives, Paul and Jamie navigated.

Then we had Miguel, and TV became less and less important. Verna went back to work, I did some writing, and we spent our evenings cleaning up or relaxing with books, magazines, or the newspaper. We still watched movies, pretty faithfully every Friday evening and often on weekends, but we avoided the boob tube (no pun intended).

So, now as season six winds down, and Jim and Pam just got married, escaping their own ceremony to secretly wed in the mist of Niagra Falls, I feel wistful and miss Verna so damn much. I sit in her electric recliner and, like her, have the computer propped on my knees, and I imagine myself laughing at the same scenes and instances in The Office as she did.

And that is why the soon-to-be conclusion of season 6 is so sad. In some ways, I feel Verna is with me when I watch her show. Once the show ends, I will have to confront in even starker terms what I have been living with since August 30: Verna has died and is not coming back.

Then, again, another one of our shows, the surprisingly witty and often hilarious How I Met Your Mother, season five, is now available on DVD. Verna and I watched seasons 1-4 together. I’ll have to see this one alone.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Technicolor Salvation

It's official. The family bed has been revived at our house. I am now sharing my California king-size bed with Miguel and Maya. Eight years after Miguel left our intentional family bed, both kids are sleeping with me. Maya joined me two weeks after Verna died after waking up two nights in a row in a state of terror. She would not be comforted until I came to bed and she was tucked next to me.

Miguel signed on last week in that casual and coy preteen way. "Dad," he said, lying next to his sister as I read to her, "your Tempurpedic mattress is so comfortable."

"You can stay here anytime you want," I said.

"OK, I'll just stay."

And he did. Given what has happened to him this year I was surprised he didn't express the need to be closer sooner. He was mugged in the late spring; his mother died at the end of August; and not quite two weeks ago one of his friends, a 13-year old eighth grader, committed suicide on October 10 (10/10/10).

Miguel spent that weekend with his best friend, who lives two or three houses away from the boy who killed himself, so Miguel saw him all three days, including his last day. I saw the boy twice, once on Friday when I dropped Miguel off on Friday and tossed the football to the boys, and on Sunday when I picked up Miguel. The boy jokingly and harmlessly put a neighborhood cat on top of my car before we left.

When I found out on Monday the 11th what had happened I was shocked (as was everyone in the community), but I was also concerned about Miguel. Would the roiling emotions swirling inside of him surge out of control? He and I talked, though I wasn't sure exactly what to ask him.

"Miguel, how are you feeling?"

"I was a little depressed when I found out about-----"

"Depressed enough to hurt yourself?"

"No," he said.

"Would you tell me if you had anything planned?"

"No," he answered. "But I am not planning anything."

Whew. There have been two parent meetings with school officials, group counseling, grief counseling, interventions, including having several students taken into psychiatric custody, and an open door policy at the school for the community. Miguel's home room teacher phoned me to say Miguel was being watched. I spoke with the principal and the school counselor. I met with Miguel's therapist, spoke to her twice on the phone, and Miguel saw her once.

A full court press of assistance is in place. Everyone says Miguel is doing fine. And they will alert me immediately if he changes. He is eating well, playing with friends, participating in sports, and doing well in school.

But, still, a nagging fear gnaws at my shaky psyche. What if reverberates over and over in my mind. So I bought two tickets to tomorrow night's National League Championship Series game in San Francisco because Miguel (and I) deserves the bubbling excitement of a playoff game in our backyard.

I am not normally pessimistic, but my optimistic nature has been battered this year. So it was Maya, as usual, who provided me a measure of comfort. She came to me last week and said, "Daddy, I had a dream last night about you and Mommy."

"What was it about?" I asked.

"There was green. And red," she said. "It was beautiful."

I still don't know what nocturnal images Maya saw in her sleep, but the coupling of colors was oddly comforting. The smile on her face and twinkle in her eyes made me feel that, yes, this too shall pass and the beauty of a preschooler's dream can conquer all and provide me strength to cope. Something like that.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Birthday Blues and Revelation

Tuesday was Verna’s 46th birthday, so I feel compelled to share something about her. Though she was generally quiet, she possessed a finely tuned sarcastic wit. One time, at a party where we dressed as grown-ups, Verna in a long, low-cut black dress, me in a striped suit with a floral-print tie, we capped on each other so much that by the end of the evening our excitement levels had soared into the stratosphere. We traded barbs all night long and the result was a combination of verbal competition and lust.

I miss Verna. I miss being able to joke and tease and cuddle with her.

I celebrated her birthday by talking to her more during the day. After work I went to the cemetery. A few of our neighbors had left flowers. Our friend Amanda left flowers and a postcard, which ended perfectly: “Wish you were here.” I felt tears well up in my eyes.

We celebrated her birthday as a family at a local brew pub. Verna’s father, my mother and stepfather, and Miguel and Maya joined me at the Broken Drum, though I was feeling like the Broken Heart. I ordered my meal as soon as we arrived. I had to dash out for my first support group at hospice: Spousal or Partner Loss.

Our friend Tony said, “Don’t stay in the group if it doesn’t work for you.”

So I got there early and watched people enter the bereavement wing of the hospice building, thinking, “If I am the youngest person here, I am not coming back next week. I can only relate to people in my situation, those with young children.”

I sat in a large sofa chair, lips pursed, arms folded across my chest, just expecting everything not to work out.

Once the group settled in, I was clearly the youngest griever by at least ten years. We began by briefly sharing our stories. Of the ten people there, half had lost their wife, husband, or partner 8-12 months ago, and half of us had lost someone within the past 4-6 weeks. One woman’s partner, a man, died in early September.

On an intellectual level, I know that loss is loss is loss and that age is unimportant. On a visceral level, though, I felt I’d be unable to connect to people so far beyond my age cohort.

I was wrong.

As the evening wore on, I saw and felt how similar we all were. One woman spoke about crying outside the Safeway, unable to go in because she’d always shopped there with her husband. Another woman said how sad she was now just going home to an empty house and having no one with whom to share her day. A 61-year-old man talked about the double loss of his wife’s death in late August, a week before Verna died, and seeing his 18-year-old daughter off for her first year in college.

So I realized something deep inside of me that I already knew inside my foggy brain: loss is loss is loss. We are all grieving, together, apart, and this group of strangers, I knew, could come together and ease each other’s pain.

Another woman, in her early 70s, spoke of feeling lost without her mate of 55 years. “I just don’t know what to do anymore.”

We also shared what have been our hardest challenges since our loved ones have died. I said telling the kids that Verna had died, and now it’s balancing my overloaded life as I am back to work 30 hours a week. One woman, a corporate officer in a bank, said she may working too hard too soon. Her husband died two months ago.

As I scanned the room I saw and felt the loneliness and sadness, emotions that are part of my daily existence. Through grief and pain and moments of joy and blessing I felt extreme kinship to those people. When the facilitator asked us why we’d joined the group, I said, “Misery loves company. And being to share with people who really get it.”

Almost everyone nodded.

I guess it was fitting that I began my support group on the evening of Verna’s 46th birthday, as the raw emotions of grief still bubbled on the surface. I am not much in the mood for sarcastic repartee, but I’ll get there slowly.

Happy Birthday Verna. I love you.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Way We Were

I tried to kill Verna the day after my brother got married in 1996.

We were at the Sunday morning brunch, saluting the newyleds, just a few hours before Verna and I were to fly home. There were two chairs in front of me and it appeared she was going to sit in the one to my left. So I pulled the one to the right toward me, the seat she was aiming for. She hit the floor hard, wrenching her neck and back. We spent our remaining hours in Boston in the emergency clinic as Verna was heavily sedated for the flight home.

Our marriage, like everyone else's, was a collection of memories, some funny, some poignant, some happy, some sad. One of the most painful parts of the grieving process for me is that I basically only remember Verna from photographs. I've been inundated with pictures, ones I've dug up or have been sent or given to me, and those images are the ones I now see in my mind's eye. What did she really look like? I'm afraid, very afraid, I will only see Verna in the two-dimensional images captured by a camera.

But, fortunately, I have memories, plenty of them, and I can see an endless loop of Verna caught live and up close over the twenty years we were together.

There was the time after work in 1990, when we were counselors at summer day camp in San Francisco, when Verna leaned over to me, a week or so after we'd started dating, and said, "How can you stand it? Don't you just want to kiss?"

So we did. And then one of colleagues walked in and immediately left, embarrassed that she'd interrupted our private time in a communal office.

Or the time in Israel when we'd eaten in an Italian restaurant in Jerusalem in 1992. I had pasta sauteed in oil and heaps of garlic. Verna went out for drinks with one of the women on our tour while I went to bed. As soon as Verna returned and opened the door to our hotel room, she shrieked, "Ohmigod, you reek of garlic."

Or the births of both Miguel and Maya.

Or the time she ran a 5K race in San Francisco just days after she found out she'd miscarried in 2004. She crossed the finish line, sweaty, in a light drizzle, and collapsed in tears about what her body could and could not do. Eight months later she was pregnant again with Maya.

The memories come to me at all hours, but often at night as I sit alone while the kids are asleep. Sometimes the memories trigger powerful emotions. This past Sunday, right before the start of the Race for the Cure 5K in San Francisco, the announcer said, "We'll be led today by so-and-so a breast cancer survivor..."

At that point, tears started streaming down my face. I remember when Verna ran this race in 2007 and hadn't really trained, but still managed to finish 4th in the Survivor's Division, only two or three minutes behind the winner, who earned roundtrip airfare courtesy of Southwest Airlines.

"If I train," she'd said at the time, "I could win this thing."

She never ran the race again.

So when I heard "survivor", all I could think was, "Verna is no longer a survivor, and it's not fair." I hugged Verna's brother Marty, let out a loud sigh, and rubbed Miguel's head (he was in front of me) as we waited for the horn to blare and the race to start.

And, yes, the memories are mostly wonderful, Verna in bright colors, smiling, funny, zany, adventurous. Like the last vacation she and I took in 2008 to Cabo in Mexico. It was our first vacation without kids in 11 years, and it was an amazing week of food, relaxation, snorkeling, drinking, meeting fascinating people, and waking each morning to say, "What do you want today?"

"I don't know. What do you want to do?"

We toured the real Hotel California, met an awesome Mexican artist, partied late with four sisters from Louisianna, sailed at dusk on the ocean, swam on the beach, played in the resort pool during happy hour, walked 4-5 miles each day, and never, ever felt more relaxed or at peace.

The memories, which also include Verna's face, indeliby frozen on my brain, as she took her last breaths, comfort me and haunt me and provide me solace for they are real and they were our lives. Memories of the way we were.

Misty water-colored memories
Of the way we were
Scattered pictures,
Of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another
For the way we were

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Tale of Two Children

“Mommy made the moon for us,” squealed Maya, looking at the Harvest Moon shimmering in the sky. “Look, Daddy. Miguel said so.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I said, happy that Miguel was initiating conversations about Verna.

Not that I have the energy or desire to wade into the nature versus nurture debate, but both our kids, like everyone else’s, are proof positive that they do come to us with at least a broad set of biological potentialities. In other words, we are not completely blank slates when we are born. To what degree we are influenced by culture is for graduate school. All I know is that Miguel and Maya have distinct personalities, and that reality has informed how they’ve reacted so far to Verna’s death.

Miguel is more like Verna: quiet, stoic. But unlike Verna, who fretted about so much and internalized her anxiety and then pondered it for days, he doesn’t process what he is going through in any measurable way. He has actually said to me, “Dad, I don’t want to deal with what’s going on,” just not in those exact words.

Miguel copes by being preoccupied with sports, friends, music, watching movies, or chilling on the Internet, which often includes finding funny videos on YouTube or episodes of Zack and Cody on NetFlix.

Maya, like her father, articulates all her feelings right away. Three days after Verna died, as I was pushing her in her stroller to school, Maya said, “I dreamed about Mommy last night.”

“Oh,” I said. “What was your dream about?”

“I dreamed that Mommy came back. I know Mommy isn’t coming back, but I made myself have the dream, just pretend. Do you have dreams like that?”

“Not yet,” I said. “But I hope I do soon.”

All I could think was: how did I ever help make this highly evolved four-and-a-half year old who shares my last name? And I immediately knew the answer: all credit to Verna.

On the day of Verna’s funeral, as Maya and I were walking our dog in the early morning, Maya glanced up at a cluster of clouds and said, “I see Mommy in the clouds. She speaks to me in my heart.”

She said that again tonight and Miguel actually said he was blown away. He added, “Where does she come up with that?”

“I think Maya is a living angel who came down here to help us,” I answered, and I more or less believed what I said. Really.

Miguel will grieve in his way, even if he chooses to avoid, deflect, and preoccupy. I will not force him to talk or open up. I will always be there for him, as I was when he had a mini-meltdown just before Verna’s funeral.

Maya opts to voice her feelings directly and through games in our garage, bedroom, and with her play therapist at the hospice office. Tonight as I carried her home from the park, she also said, “I see Mommy in the house. She comes to sleep in our bed because she loves me and you and Miguel.”

As autumn dusk settled on the chilly evening, I was slightly spooked by our daughter, a soul whose wisdom is both comforting and scary. She may be as gregarious as her father, but thank goodness she possesses her mother’s insight and empathy.

But what really topped off the evening’s magic for me was Miguel. As he and I tossed a baseball, I said, “Check out the full moon. Maybe Mommy sent it to us.”

“That’s what I told Maya,” he said.

Miguel may not be processing Verna’s death very much, but he is processing and progressing. And being a sweet big brother.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A High Degree of Visibility

Verna sometimes felt invisible next me to me, her loud and gregarious husband. Her sense of being indistinguishable may have been on her mind a week or two before she died when she told me, “Let anyone who wants to speak at my funeral, speak.”

St. Raphael’s Church’s rules, however, precluded a litany of family and friends singing her praises, but a standing room only crowd of more than 400 people filled the San Rafael parish cathedral on a windy day last Wednesday as we laid Verna Mercedes Wefald to rest.

Verna need not have worried that she was ever invisible. The packed church, with overflow crowds snaking out front, was a veritable This Is Your Life gathering that included the woman who ran (and still runs) the daycare program Miguel attended at the City Attorney’s Office in San Francisco when he was 10 months old, Miguel’s preschool teacher, attorneys and paralegals Verna worked with for 11 years, a priest from Southern California who knew Verna’s brother, Marty, but hadn’t seen him in 35 years, a woman I’d never met but had corresponded with via a political chat room, and countless family and friends.

Six days before she died, Verna had a reading done by an internationally known forensic scientist who claims to have psychic powers. She is a medium. One thing she said that I will never forget is that, “Verna, you have touched the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. You don’t realize what an amazing impact you’ve had on so many people.”

I believe the medium’s words were quite comforting to Verna as she neared death. As I scanned the crowd on the day of the funeral I knew everyone was there to honor Verna, the woman who bravely lived her life so well before and after her cancer diagnosis.

Ten minutes before the ceremony began, I was standing in the aisle greeting people when I looked over at Miguel, seated in the first pew. He was crying, bent over, head hanging against his hands, in one of the few outward expressions of emotions he’d displayed for Verna in five years. I sat down next to him and pulled his head to my lap. He was actually bawling.

“Miguel, do you want a Kleenex?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“That’s OK, you can cry on my pants. What’s a little snot?”

A few minutes later he asked for a Kleenex, and one miraculously appeared behind me. I stroked the back of his head and was glad to see his release. He sat up, I put my arm around him, and then he resumed joking with his first cousin, Dominic, who is 17.

At just about noon, Father Paul, the senior pastor at St. Raphael’s, gathered all of us—Miguel, Maya, Verna’s family, my parents, my stepparents, my brother, and the two others who were also pallbearers—at the back of the church. The six pallbearers (Verna’s two brothers, Marty and Jim, her first cousin, Jim, my brother, Scott, our dear friend, Tony, and me), all selected by Verna, descended the steep steps in front of the 19th century church toward the hearse. Once we carried Verna’s casket to the lobby, Father Paul said some prayers and sprinkled holy water on the coffin.

Unlike when I served as a pallbearer in 2008 at Verna’s mother’s funeral, and cried so hard, I was in a state of shock as we gently pulled Verna toward the church’s altar. I was so focused on carrying out my sacred mission that no tears fell as I marched with the casket.

The first part of the service was a blur of Father Rossi, holy church music, and scriptural readings. Tony did the first reading, one I selected from Genesis. When I’d met with Vicki, Father Rossi’s pastoral assistant, she suggested I choose something from the Old Testament.

“We want to make you as comfortable as possible,” she said. “And be sensitive to your Jewish faith.”

I immediately chose something from Chaye Sarah, the life of Sarah. Chaye Sarah is Maya’s Hebrew name and was my grandmother’s actual name when she grew up in Poland. I just didn’t know if there’d be verses that would resonate with me.

But Providence shined down on me—something like that. I found a portion inside Chaye Sarah that deals with Abraham sending his servants back to Haran to find a wife for Isaac. The servants knew that Rebecca was the maiden for them because when they met her at the well she offered water to them and their animals.

Rebecca in these passages is seen as compassionate and caring, traits that Verna certainly possessed. I was ecstatic that Chaye Sarah presented me such a worthy portrait of a Biblical character to link with Verna.

Amanda did the second reading, something from the Book of John. Then Father Paul talked briefly about Verna, but in the context of explaining the significance of the Biblical texts.

Miguel, Maya, and I carried the Communion wine and wafers from the back of the Church to the altar. When Vicki had invited me, during our planning meeting a week or so ago, to participate in the service by carrying the wafers with Maya, I said, “But what if we drop them?”

I could clearly see the headlines in the Catholic Times: Jewish Mourner Carelessly Drops Host on Floor of Church.

“They’re not holy until Father Paul blesses them,” Vicki said.

See, even I learned something new about transubstantiation.

After Communion, Verna’s brothers together shared reminiscences of her. Moments before they began, Jim whispered in my ear, “I hope it’s OK if we poke a little fun of you.”

“It’s not a problem,” I said.

Jim mentioned how Verna and I were polar opposites in many ways: she was a carnivore, I am a vegetarian; she was Catholic, I am Jewish. She was athletic, and then he paused without saying another word. It was very funny.

The carnivore-vegetarian split reminded me of the first time I met Verna’s family at their fog shrouded home across from Ocean Beach in San Francisco’s Richmond District. Her parents hosted both her brothers and their wives and two grandchildren, and Verna’s aunt and uncle. Because Verna was so accommodating (and I was inflexible about my diet), she lovingly prepared a vegetarian lasagna. At several intervals during the meal, both her brothers chimed in, “Verna, this lasagna is so delicious.”

But Jim also spoke about how Verna and I shared core values about parenting, the world, and life in general, and that helped forge the close bond between us. Then I got up and delivered the eulogy I have already posted.

After the service, close to a hundred of us gathered graveside at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, also in San Rafael. Father Rossi shared more prayers, and then several of us placed flowers on Verna’s casket as it was lowered into the ground. Maya chose to toss in two bracelets, one for Verna and one for her mother (as they are buried in the same plot) that she’d bought with her Auntie Donna a few days earlier. My brother, Scott, then invited people to shovel some dirt into the grave, according to Jewish tradition whereby mourners ritually honor the dead.

I’d be lying if I said the service, the graveside ceremony, and the reception afterward outside our home were anything but surreal. Yes, Verna is gone, but the reality has not fully sunk in. It’s still so very hard to grasp viscerally what I know intellectually to be true: Verna died.

But, then again, Maya and I see Verna every night as she shines brightly in the nighttime sky before millions, if not billions, of people.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Eulogy For Verna

Delivered today at Verna's funeral:

There may only be three good things about this nightmare. One, Verna is no longer suffering or in pain. Two, I get to be surrounded by the love of family and friends. And, three, I get to say whatever I want for the next few weeks and most of you will let it go.

I do want to acknowledge three service providers whose amazing care helped sustain us these past several weeks. Hospice by the Bay, which tended to Verna and our family with such love and dedication. Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Marin for their wonderful caregivers and support. And the Living and Dying Project out of West Marin for spiritual support and comfort for Verna and me.

There are loads of people I could also mention, but I want to focus on Miguel and Maya. Miguel and Maya, Mommy did not want to die, Mommy did not want to leave us. She fought as hard as anyone to stay alive for as long as possible. But she died. She died because of cancer, an evil, evil disease that all of us must work to eliminate in quite possibly our lifetimes. She did not die because she wanted to, or because she didn’t pray hard enough, or because she didn’t think positively enough. She did not die because she gave up. She died because her breast cancer was stronger and it killed her. But the breast cancer did not crush her spirit and could never erase our memories of her.

Mommy was so brave and so amazing during her entire ordeal. I truly hope that during your lifetimes, Miguel and Maya, when you are faced with adversity or other hard times, whatever those instances may be—having to speak before people, going to a new school, applying for a job, dealing with a break-up, playing sports or participating in ballet—that you will remember Mommy and how she never, ever stopped living as she fought her cancer. How brave she was and how hard she tried to be there for you and me even when she was in such pain and so scared about her future.

I also want you both to remember what Mommy said to you when she said goodbye a week before she died. Mommy said, “Be passionate.” That means find things to do in life that you love and enjoy and pursue them, do them. Being passionate about life can bring you much happiness.

Another important thing Mommy said was, “Be good. Do the right thing. Treat others the way you want to be treated.” You both know what this means, the difference between right and wrong. Let Mommy’s voice be the voice inside you that gently reminds you, when you are faced with a choice, to do what is right. I, of course, will be there as well to guide you, nag, er, prod, er, lead you to the path of goodness and kindness. But I don’t think I will have that much work to do. Both of you, Miguel and Maya, are kind and sweet people. Mommy and I are so proud of you, and we always will be.

Miguel and Maya, Mommy will always, always love you. She loved being your Mommy more than anything. Miguel, before you were born, Mommy read more than 20 books to prepare us for becoming parents. She used to get mad at me because I didn’t read as many as her, but that was Mommy: super, super organized. She was ecstatic, Miguel, that you were and are our firstborn. Maya, you came to us when Mommy was already sick with cancer, but having you, our daughter, helped Mommy feel so much better and gave her a reason to put her energy into healing and dealing with her sickness.

Miguel and Maya, you are here on this planet because Mommy and I love each other so, so much. You are alive as an expression of the love Mommy and I shared and will share forever. Mommy may be a star in heaven, but she will always, always love you, and be proud of you. And Mommy will always be with us. As long as we remember Mommy in our hearts, she will never go away. We keep her alive by remembering her and honoring her memory.

Miguel and Maya, Mommy will always love you, and I will always love you. I am not going anywhere. I am here for you, and I am supremely blessed to be your father. Being your father brings me happiness and joy every single day. I love you so, so much.

Verna, I am eternally yours. This is not goodbye. I love you.

Monday, September 6, 2010

This Is Not Goodbye

I don't believe in spirits from beyond or ghosts or ESP or telekinesis or mediums or any of that hocus-pocus mishmosh.

Until now.

I was slumped in Verna's electric recliner chair on Friday night, past midnight (so it was actually Saturday morning), after having just watched Date Night. (Why I chose a romantic comedy just days after Verna's death is beyond me.) A wave of sadness washed over me and I could feel a creeping sense of despair. I missed Verna. I thought, "I'll never see her again. I'm alone. The kids are alone. I'm scared."

So I got up and decided to fill one of the photo albums I bought for the kids as memory books. I chose Maya's, which has Disney princesses on the front and back, and started putting in about 50 photographs, mainly of her and Verna.

When I finished I walked into the kitchen to clean up a bit before going to bed. It was 12:30 am. Suddenly I heard an alarm, so I rushed into the living room and stopped right in front of our entertainment center, the one from Sear's that took me several years to build after deciphering the instructions.

I cocked my head to the left, thinking the alarm could have been coming from upstairs in Miguel's room (he was at Lake Tahoe with a friend and the friend's family). I thought, "I've got to silence that alarm so it doesn't wake Maya."

As I looked to my left I saw that the screen light on Verna's iPod, atop the entertainment center, which hadn't been played or touched since the night before she died, was on. I saw the black strip highlighting a song and I did a double take. "No," I thought, "it can't be."

The light disappeared, so I pressed the middle of the button, the spot that turns the light on only, and saw that my eyes hadn't failed me. The song showing was This Is Not Goodbye (by Melissa Etheridge), which Verna used in her DVD photo tribute to her mom and is the first song--chosen by Verna--in her DVD to be screened at her funeral this Wednesday.

And as soon as I pressed the middle of the click wheel, the entire docking station turned on and the song started playing. I pressed the pause button, because, frankly, I wasn't in the mood to hear the song, but nothing happened. I pressed it a second time. A third time. A fourth time. Finally, I got the message: listen to the damn song, Steve, Verna is communicating with you:

Bravely you let go of my hand
I can't speak yet you understand
Where I go now I go alone
This path I walk these days of stone
And the angels are calling
I must go away
Wait for me here
Silently stay
And don't ask me why
Only believe
This is not goodbye
All of my strength all of my desire
Still cannot melt this breath of fire
I go to meet some kind of test
Bury the truth that scars my chest
And the angels are calling and calling
I gathered all my courage
I shaved off all my fear
With this banner on my shoulder
I hold your essence near
And the angels are calling and calling
As the song ended and my breath had skipped a few beats, I knew for certain: Verna was speaking to me, reaching out to let me know that everything would be OK, and that this is not goodbye. We will see each other again. Go in peace.
I felt better, much better. I thought I was the last person who would ever, ever believe in anything remotely otherworldly. Even though I told Maya that Mommy is a star in heaven and we locate her every night before Maya goes to bed, I didn't really believe it. I just wanted to offer my sweet four-year-old something tangible to relate to after she lost her mommy. I don't believe in Santa, but I would never burst Maya's beliefs. Tonight I even told her she could ask Santa for a bigger girl bike this year.
But after Friday night, I am a believer. Do I believe in Santa? No. But I do believe with all my heart and soul that Verna spoke to me. And I now believe that the spirits or souls of our departed do exist somewhere in the universe and do connect with us through electrical devices and other ways.
Verna's message--This Is Not Goodbye--has brought me a sense of peace the past two days, a sense I know will be severely tested on the day of her funeral and for many days after. But just knowing that she is here and can communicate with me is comforting enough for me to battle the demons of despair.
As for that star in heaven, the one twinkling above our house each night? Verna, Verna, Verna. For sure. Absolutely.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Farewell, My Lovely

Verna, my wife for slightly more than 19 years, died this morning peacefully in her sleep at 12:07.

For the past ten days or so I had been going to bed between 11 pm and midnight and then leaving Verna with a nighttime caregiver. Her two brothers, Jim and Marty, and Jim's wife, Liz, alternated sitting vigil each night since this past Tuesday.

But I sensed Verna might die some time in the middle of the night, so I decided to remain downstairs with her. I climbed onto her hospital bed and lay down beside her. She was very warm. I clasped my hand into hers and told her how much I love her, will always love her, will send all our love with her on her journey, and be enveloped by her love after she is gone.

"Verna, when you are ready to go," I said, "and join your mother in heaven, you should go. She is waiting for you."

Hospice had urged me to remind her several times during the day that I released her. I did. But I also knew that Verna, on some level, had to be aware I was her unconditional advocate because I administered alarmingly high doses of several pain medications--as prescribed by hospice--when some people wavered as she slipped into a deep, deep sleep Friday evening just before 11 pm.

I fell asleep for ten minutes next to her with our apricot-colored miniature poodle, Gigi, atop my stomach. Gigi jumped off of me onto the floor, waking me up. I looked over at Verna and stroked her hair and lightly touched her face. Gigi started to growl-moan as if to say, "OK, I took my late night pee already, aren't you going to give me my treat and put me to bed?"

So I got up and led Gigi to her kennel, where she beds each night, and carried her up to our bedroom. When I came back down, I could hear the Verna's breathing was more labored and her chest was heaving.

It was close to midnight, so I went to the kitchen to prepare her medications for the night, while the caregiver, Faye, sat by her side. As I was loading either liquid morphine, methadone, and ativan into various syringes, Faye said urgently, "Steve."

I bolted into the living room. "You didn't have to run," said Faye. Verna's chest still heaved and the gaps between each breath were a few seconds. She was very pale. I knelt down almost diagonal to her chest and knew she was about to die.

"Faye, please go upstairs to the bedroom on the right, and wake up her brother," I said.

Jim and Liz padded downstairs and minutes later Verna exhaled for the last time. We watched her chest rise and fall, rise and fall, and then stop. She was gone. I buried my head in her left arm and cried. Jim and Liz, each seated above her head, cried. Faye, who later said she was experienced with client death as a caregiver, sat quietly, a stunned look on her face.

Jim left the room to call Verna's other brother, Marty, who was resting at his hotel room with his wife, Donna, one of Verna's closest and dearest friends. He came over and sat with us. He and I held hands and cried over Verna. Marty then phoned his father, Martin, and told him Verna was gone. Then Jim and Marty drove 25 minutes into San Francisco to bring him here to honor his daughter and baby girl.

I phoned hospice and the on-call nurse, Robert, said he would arrive within 45 minutes, by 1 am. He also said he would request that the mortuary come to take Verna's body away at 3 am.

Verna's father arrived at 1:45 am and rushed to her hospital bed, wailing in disbelief. He, too, buried his head against her.

Saying goodbye isn't easy, but everyone does it differently. Since I feared Verna might die over the weekend, I phoned the parents of Miguel's best friend and asked if he could stay there on Friday and possibly Saturday night. Miguel had already told me he did not want to be home when Verna died. I said to him, "Miguel, I know how much you love Mommy and you know how much Mommy loved you. It's OK if you don't want to be home. I am happy that you are making the choices."

His friend's father lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 13.

Maya chose to engage with Verna. She climbed into her hospital bed many times to stroke her arms and hair, and say, "It's OK, Mommy, you will feel better."

I finally got to bed at 4 am and heard Maya rustling at 7. She came over and I pulled her into bed with me. "Maya," I started, "Mommy is now a star in heaven. She is with Grandma Chela," Maya's late maternal grandmother who died in 2008.

"No," she said, "You're joking."

"No, she died," I said. "But she's a star in heaven and will always be in our hearts."

"I'm going to check downstairs," she said.

But the hospital bed had already been stripped clean of its sheets and air mattress. Maya came back moments later.

"Oh, I am sad," she said. "Mommy died."

Then she climbed back into bed and said, "Poor Daddy, I will take care of you." I hugged her tightly and felt such immense love for her, for Verna, for Miguel.

"Maya, you have a playdate today with Annika after school," I said, hoping to keep her daily routine.

"I don't want to go to school," she said.

"What about your playdate with Annika?"

"I just want to go over to Annika's," she said.

I spent the day with two close friends, Amanda and Mercedes, and Verna's brothers, sisters-in-law, and Verna's father. I dropped Maya off in the parking lot of the school so she could go with Annika and her mom, who is from the Faroe Islands, which lie northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway.

After a 35 minute ride on the LifeCycle to sweat out some of my shock and anxiety, which I know cannot so easily be discarded, I showered and then drove to pick up Miguel. I was waiting for him on the sidewalk near his middle school as he strolled up eating a Ben and Jerry's bar. I put my arm around him.

"Hey, Miguel," I said, my voice wavering, tears clouding my eyes, "Mommy died early this morning just after midnight. I think she was peaceful. She just stopped breathing."
"You were there?"
"Yes," I answered.
He looked sad, but revealed no other emotion. He'd called last night and asked if he could spend a 3rd consecutive night with the Allen family. His friend's mom said he'd been much quieter during the day. I said, "Sure." His friend's parents drove over and picked up a change of clothes for Miguel.
"I put $10 in his shorts' pocket for snack," I told them.
On the ride home this afternoon I shared some of what happened with Verna leading up to and including her death. Miguel said very little. I'd given him three choices: return home for the night, return home to have dinner with family and then bed down at Casa Allen, or dash over to the Allens as soon as he finished his homework. He chose door number three.
"Can I spend the next few nights with Chris?" he asked.
"Yes." I reiterated that he could choose how he wanted to spend his after school and evening time amid this nightmare. I repeated my line about his love for Verna and hers for him. "Just make sure you communicate with me what you need."
Communicating her needs has never been Maya's problem. She played for three hours with our next door neighbors before going to Annika's house, then returned to the park with the neighbors and to their house for dinner after she got home. By the time she came trudged up the front steps after 7 pm, she was exhausted and, I knew, very sad.
After her dinner here of two cupcakes (hey, I can spoil her on this day of all days), we went outside and looked at the night sky.
"Tell me which star is Mommy," I said.
Maya pointed to a very bright one that was twinkling right above our home. "That's Mommy," I said. "And look how she's smiling down on us."
"We can go out every night and look at Mommy," Maya said.
I gazed at the shining star and said, "I love you, Verna."
"I love you, Mommy," Maya said.
Verna, our lovely mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend, may be gone, but she will never, ever be forgotten. I believed she willed herself to die at a time when Maya was fast asleep and Miguel was away and I was right beside her.
Farewell, my lovely. I am eternally yours.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Part of the Plan?

Maybe the Azande had it right.

A water tower collapsed, killing two tribespeople, while anthropologists studied the north central African tribe. The Azande blamed witchcraft. The social scientists surveyed the water tower and concluded that termites had eaten through the wooden posts and weakened the entire structure, causing it to fall on the men. The Azande thanked them for their explanation, but asked, "Why did it happen to those two men at that particular time?"

Whether life is a series of random coincidences or is fated one way at the most profound times, as the Azande clearly believed, has occupied my thoughts since Wednesday.

Shortly after Verna was first diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2006, she commissioned a photographer (thanks to our dear friend Christa), who specialized in mothers and their newborns to take a picture of her and Maya before Verna had her double mastectomy. In the photo, Verna reclined on our bed, virtually bald, naked from the waist up, her full breasts supporting the back of Maya.

A year later she had the same photographer shoot Maya and herself in similar poses. Maya the toddler smiled at Verna, sans breasts, and her full head of black hair.

The framed dual photos adorned the wall above our bed for nearly four years until Wednesday. I'd noticed a slight gap in the frame about a week ago but thought it could easily be repaired once I made the time. But when I went into the room Wednesday morning, two sides of the frame were dangling off the photo.

Again, I don't believe much in signs or messages from beyond, but I did pause to wonder why the frame ripped apart at this time? As Verna battled between a state of hallucinations and semi-lucidity, was what happened to the frame some cosmic communique or an explainable coincidence that was bound to happen at some point given the weight of the photographs and the cheap frame?

I know what Verna's answer would be if she could offer me anything. She believed in signs and portents with utmost conviction. She suspected she might have had something wrong with her before her original diagnosis after a series of dreams in which a poisonous spider lowered itself onto her chest.

But she cannot look me in the eyes right now and shout, "Aha! I told you so. The breaking of the frame clearly represents or is a message from the universe." Or tell me that it symbolized the damage we are witnessing to our beloved Verna and to our lives. Or that I am no longer supposed to have the framed pictures in the house.

She cannot speak because since last night, about 24 hours earlier, Verna has been asleep and, I fervently hope and pray, comfortable beyond measure after hospice upped her pain medications yet again.

I don't have the answer to the dilemma of the dangling frame and wires. And I don't believe the Azande's superstitious notions of the world make them primitive versus the rationality of trained scientists. I just don't know how to explain what happened here. Maybe the Azande were right.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Heart of the Matter

Yesterday was Terms of Endearment meets the Twilight Zone meets the Wefald and Friedman household. Verna basically said goodbye to Miguel and Maya. And, like the moment when Debra Winger addresses her children from her hospital bed, buckets of tears gushed forth.

It all started last week when Verna asked the spiritual support counselor in a barely audible voice, "I want to say goodbye to my kids."

So hospice arranged for a social worker and a bereavement counselor, who is also trained as a therapist, to help Verna facilitate the conversation. We decided on yesterday because Miguel was still home (school started today) and Maya returns from preschool in the early afternoon.

Prior to the meeting Verna asked me, "So hospice thinks I'm going to die?"

"Yes," I said. "But they don't think it's imminent. They just wanted us to schedule the meeting sooner rather than later."

Verna was pretty alert on Saturday, but dazed and slightly confused most of Sunday, so I was worried how coherent she'd be when she spoke to the kids. But she was surprisingly present once the gathering began.

Our social worker Deborah Schwing started by asking the kids to assess how Verna was doing through their eyes. Miguel said, "She's been getting weaker and is in a lot of pain." Maya parrotted Miguel's view.

"Maya," I said, "What's happeing to Mommy?"

"Mommy's going to die," Maya said.

"And then how will we see Mommy?" I asked.

"She'll be in star in heaven like Grandma Chela," Maya said.

Deborah then asked Verna to describe her feelings and how she understood her situation.

"Well, I'm dying," Verna said. "I'm angry that I won't get to see the kids grow up, won't be there for so many milestones--graduations, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings. I am sad I won't ever meet my grandchildren."

Tears were flowing freely down Verna's face and mine. I felt intense anger and sadness as well that we and Verna were being robbed.

Deborah asked Verna to talk to the kids and share her hopes and dreams for them.

"I want you to find your passion in life. Always be good," she said. "Do unto others as you have them do unto you. Work hard. Work hard in school. Always do what is right. Be a good role model."

Miguel was quiet, head down, and preoccupied with a booklet near him on the recliner chair. Maya moved from the hospital bed, snuggling against Verna, to my lap. She was growing restless. At one point the beareavement counselor, Andrea, who will soon see Maya for play therapy, took Maya upstairs to play.

"The two best days of my life," Verna said, "were February 9, 1998, when Miguel was born, and January 19, 2006 when Maya had to come early through a c-section (so I could start cancer treatments)."

Maya and Andrea returned. "I love you both so much," Verna said. "And I will always love you forever and ever."

Deborah asked Miguel how he was feeling about Verna dying. Tears welled in his eyes, one of the few outward expressions of emotions he's allowed himself.

"I've been thinking about how I'm going to be without a mother," he said. I lost it again and rubbed my wet, wet eyes.

"And it's OK for you to be angry sometimes, Miguel, with your dad for not being your mom," Deborah said.

"I could wear one of her dresses," I said as Deborah and Miguel smiled.

"Just be gentle with each other," Deborah added. Then she turned to Verna, "Is there anything else you want to share?"

"Miguel's 12 so he'll have memories of me, but Maya is so young. I am worried she won't remember me as she gets older," Verna said, tears streaming.

"That won't happen," I said. "We will always remember you."

"No, Mommy," Maya said, "I won't ever forget you," a look of unconditional conviction on her face.

We will never forget Verna. Her life will always be a blessing and a legacy for the children, me, her friends and family. I truly hope our session brought her comfort. As her pain increases, she needs that positive energy to cope and rest.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Cosmic Stars

Our emotional roller coaster continues.

Maya sat on the living room floor this evening with me next to her and Verna's sister-in-law, Donna, on the couch. Miguel was at soccer practice after having spent the day with me and a buddy of his at a water park. Verna was asleep on her special recliner chair right behind us.

"Mommy's going to die," Maya said, lying on her back.

I got on my knees and edged towards her. "Yes, she is," I said. "But she will always love you so much. And she always be able to tell you how much she loves you. She'll be a star in heaven--"

"--Just like Grandma Chela," Maya interrupted. Verna's mother died in October of 2008, and we've always told Maya that she is a star in heaven illuminating the cosmos (but not in those words).

"That's right, Mommy will be a star in heaven," I responded. "I hope not too soon. But then we can go outside every night and see which star is Mommy shining down on us."

Maya looked up at the ceiling and said, "There's Mommy. Let's pretend Mommy died." She waved. "Hi Mommy."

Verna suddenly woke up and said, "Hi Maya."

Our hospice social worker said when these moments occur to take extreme advantage, which is why I engaged Maya and affirmed for her that, yes, Mommy is going to die. I tried to maintain an almost light or humorous demeanor as she and I talked. Donna, however, turned towards the window with tears in her eyes. Later, she and I held hands and I admitted, "I almost lost it out there with Maya."

But Maya knows what is happening even if she can't fully digest what death means. Last week, on the day Verna and I found out she might only have a few days left, I was driving Maya to her 1/2 hour swimming lesson after preschool.

"When we get home," I said, "we can see how Mommy's feeling."

"Mommy's going to die," Maya said. "And I'm going to be sad."

I reached for the proverbial brass ring and said, "Yes, Mommy's going to die. And we're all going to be sad. But we'll always have Mommy in our hearts, and she will always, always love you very, very much."

Yes, Verna is going to die. Sooner rather than later. Just not yet. Today her pain level hovered at a seven (on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the most pain), she said, and didn't subside very much even with all her pain medication. Aside from insisting on going out to help Donna bath our dog who'd thrown up on herself in her kennel last night, Verna slept or was in a foggy state for most of the day. So tonight, just before I helped her upstairs to bed (she still prefers to sleep in our bed mainly because Maya, who shares a room with us, wants her around), I said, "Verna, where's your pain level right now?"

"Seven," she answered.

"Is it unbearable?" I asked.

She clearly shook her head. We have an agreement that once her pain becomes unbearable, she wants me, as her healthcare agent and POA, to instruct hospice to steadily increase her pain medication and cease the steroids, both measures that will hasten her death.

But tonight she did not hesitate to move her head quickly from side to side against the hospital bed pillow. Sometimes non-verbal communication is a beautiful thing.

Monday, August 16, 2010

What The !@#$&%?

Verna picked out her casket today. Yes, that's right. I wheeled her around a room filled with steel and wood caskets, ranging from $3200-$11,000, and she chose a dark wood one with the Pieta (Mother Mary cradling Jesus) and the Last Supper etched into the metal moulding around the perimeter of the coffin.

Surreal beyond the Twilight Zone would not begin to describe the swirl of emotions we experienced today at Montes Chapel of the Pines in San Anselmo (we get 10% off if I mention him in a blog--just kidding), about five miles from our house.

As I pushed Verna in her wheelchair to the front entrance, the door opened and two friendly beagles greeted us. Verna immediately smiled. I was worried for many reasons how our appointment might go. As hospice has increased her medication she has grown foggier and drowsier, so she spends a chunk of the day sleeping on her hospital bed in the living room. Would she even be awake or semi-lucid?

I'd promised Verna months ago that she'd be able to choose her casket. Knowing that her situation was becoming graver by the day, I called the mortuary this morning. The receptionist transferred me to the voicemail of one of their intake counselor's, Ed, who we later learned is the funeral director, owner, and sole fulltime employee. He also drives the hearse.

"I've worked here for 15 years," he told us. "And I bought it two years ago from the family that'd owned it. Mr. Montes still works with me parttime."

Well, my fears about Verna's cognitive condition were unfounded. I haven't seen her this alert in at least two weeks. She chose her casket, guest book, and prayer card scenes and poem, and decided to forego embalming and a rosary service on the eve of her funeral.

And as I sat there amazed yet again by my wife's unshakeable spirit, I also kept thinking, "This is not happening. This is not happening. When will our nightmare end?"

We shared that crushing anxiety with her father, brother, and his wife before we left the house for the funeral home. Maya was at school, Miguel at baseball camp. In the presence of a hospice nurse, the five of us kissed Verna's forehead, rubbed her arm, and cried. She cried, we cried, and all of us not so silently railed against how unfair it is that we are days, weeks, months away from Verna's death.

"The hard part is not knowing," Verna said to the hospice social worker as tears streamed down her face. "I just wish I could know how much longer I have."

The social worker nodded and then said, "I know."

In the middle of our appointment with Ed, the phone rang. "You can take that if you need to," I said.

"It's the Humane Society," he said. "I have to."

It turned out that either Ed or his assistant left the door open after we wheeled in and one of the beagles ambled into the neighborhood, where he was found by a Good Samaritan who'd called the Humane Society and left her phone number. While Verna and I surveyed the caskets, Ed walked a couple of blocks away to retrieve Fletcher.

Although we found out last Thursday that Verna could be dead within a few days, according to hospice and her oncologist, she seems to be doing pretty well after hospice adjusted some of her pain medications. "And I still have things to do," she has said.

She's been writing cards to the kids for all the birthdays, graduations and other special occasions she will miss; she's helping plan her nephew's wedding in mid-September. He and his fiance, who have a gorgeous 20-month old daughter, decided to take the marital plunge sooner in order to accomodate Verna. Today was also part of Verna's process of accomplishing tasks and creating more peace of mind for herself, and another of example of how she controls as much as possible in a situation that has mostly spiralled beyond all control.

"Well, we took care of that," she said as we left the mortuary.

Yes, we did. Verna picked out a casket today and I still can't f@#$%ing believe it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll

The bride wore a non-traditional black and white floral print dress. The groom, sans jacket, wore black dress slacks, a blue shirt, and a multicolored silk tie bought by the bride in Italy. Almost 19 years after they were first married on a typically overcast San Francisco summer day in 1991, they renewed their vows before 60 family and friends this past Saturday.

There were already tears in my eyes when Verna’s father guided her, gripping her cane, along the sidewalk outside our home. “Now that you really know me,” I said to her father as they arrived in front of me, “are you sure you want to let her go?”

He sort of smiled, and I clasped Verna’s hand in mine as we walked closer to Marie, our dear friend who also officiated at our wedding ceremony in Golden Gate Park’s Rose Garden on July 28, 1991. Trailing just behind Verna and her dad were our daughter, Maya, clad in a green chiffon dress and holding a bouquet of roses, and our son, Miguel, who was one of my best men, the ring bearer, and the DJ, ‘DJ Miggy’.

The weekend had been a whirlwind for all of us, as family streamed in from Arizona, Central California, Florida, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. I was concerned that all the activity would adversely affect Verna, who tires easily because of all the medication she’s taking from hospice. So, prior to the ceremony, I spoke to the crowd before Verna and her father walked to the strains of “Here Comes the Bride”:

“First, I’d like to thank all of you for being here and sharing this special day with us. Also, since we want to preserve Verna’s health, I ask most of you to use the bathrooms in the park,” about 300 yards away, “or go like Gigi (our dog)”, who was at that point sniffing around the bushes.

As it turned out, Verna and our sister-in-law Donna (wife of Verna’s eldest brother, Marty) sequestered themselves upstairs during the day prior to the ceremony at 4:15 pm. Verna took two naps, got a pedicure and manicure from Donna, and more or less relaxed without anyone bothering her. Maya occasionally squeaked through to be with her mommy, but we’d ordered everyone else to stay away. And they listened.

Marie briefly introduced the ceremony and then shared a story that, she said, aptly demonstrated our strength as a couple. Several years ago, residents in Bernal Heights (a neighborhood in San Francisco) claimed that the stone relief of the Virgin Mary, outside a Church, was crying. Verna, Marie, and I went to investigate, and, sure enough, both Verna and Marie saw tears gently streaming down her eyes. I said, though, “No, it’s the light hitting the wall.”

Marie said that even though Verna and I often had two ways of seeing the world, we were of one mind and heart in terms of our love and commitment and willingness to accept our varying perspectives.

Then in a nod to something we included in our original wedding ceremony, Marie shared some humorous vows I’d written earlier in the week. “Steve, do you promise not to swill any more of Verna’s liquid morphine?” And, “Verna, do you promise to let Steve hop on the back of your wheelchair with you in it and coast downhill in the park?”

While both Verna and I acknowledged her cancer in our renewal vows, we also said almost defiantly that we wouldn’t let it define our relationship or family. Love and our bond are stronger than Verna’s life threatening illness. So the humor was our attempt to accept reality and also playfully attack the incurable enemy that is ravaging her body.

Next we jointly lit a candle our dear, dear friend Amanda recently sent us from Lourdes, a Catholic shrine in France, where many believe the waters are healing and Bernadette saw a vision of Mary, that Verna and her mother visited in 1993 as part of holiness tour sponsored by a local church. She and her mom also toured holy sites in Portugal and Italy, which is where she purchased my tie.

We shared our renewal vows next, with Verna going first, and, unlike 19 years ago when she was nervous and no one could hear her, confidently pronounced how I was still the one for her and how our love has grown stronger amid the past four often horrendous years.

With tears brimming in my eyes and, surprisingly, words catching in my throat, I said, “It took your cancer for me to be able to surpass you on a bike.” I also said, “I am forever yours through all eternity and beyond”, which was similar to Verna’s vows.

Miguel then handed me Verna’s wedding ring and I moved to place it on her finger. But suddenly Maya grabbed the ring and slipped it on Verna’s finger. People giggled at Maya’s gesture. I then gave my ring to Miguel and he imitated his younger sister and put it on my finger.

Marie said, “Then by the power vested in me by this community of love I pronounce you still married.” I leaned over and Verna and I kissed twice as our family and friends clapped. I felt a mixed wave of sadness and profound joy. There was nothing better than renewing vows with my soul partner and the mother of our children while our Miguel and Maya had such active roles in the ceremony. But I also wondered if Verna and I would celebrate together our 20th wedding anniversary next summer.

Verna and I admitted to each other in 1991, weeks before our ceremony, that there are no guarantees in life. We wholeheartedly pledged ourselves to each other, but knew that love ebbs and flows and only time would tell if we’d survive the journey of love and life. We acknowledged, though didn’t really expect, that our love might someday cease. Yes, we said over and over, there are no guarantees, but we’re going to try, try, try and work, work, work.

We just didn’t know then that cancer would prove us right in a way we never expected.

To love and life. And to eternity and beyond.