Thursday, June 23, 2011


This is going to be my last blog entry for a while. I need to hunker down and get serious about writing the memoir of our cancer journey.

If I had to choose one thing I like best about going on vacation it would be the freedom. Vacations mean not being tied to a schedule, worrying about getting up at a certain time, fixing breakfast, shuttling kids to school, working, preparing dinners, or shepherding kids to the park.

Vacations mean going with the flow. You may have a daily plan--sightseeing at a particular spot--but the vibe is usually relaxed and open-ended.

Lest anyone think I am a hippie wannabe on vacation who floats around singing kumbaya and stares at waves lapping the shore, I have had my tenser moments. Several years ago, when Verna and I were engaged, we went to Costa Rica after she got her teaching credential. We stayed at some beachside cabins in Tortugero, and I badgered the gentle proprietors about when they were serving lunch so I could fit a run into my afternoon.

Verna was rightfully livid with me for not being able to appreciate our hosts' generosity and stop focusing on whether or not I worked out one day.

But, for the most part, vacations are about letting go, releasing most control, and seeing what surprises lurk inside every experience.

What follows is a selective travelogue of our recent trip to Hawaii, June 12-19.

Monday, June 13:

We decide to tour the USS Arizona Memorial. My father-in-law, Martin, a former Marine and Merchant Marine, says, "It's supposed to be the best memorial on the island."

I worry how kid friendly the memorial will be, especially for five-year old Maya. Martin and Miguel sharing the experience together is great inter-generational bonding and will teach Miguel some of our nation's history through the personal lens of a close relative who was about his age when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

But I am not sure about Maya. As soon as we arrive we pick up tickets for required video to sail over to the actual memorial site, a 10 minute boat ride away. I say to the attendant, "Is the movie appropriate for my daughter who is five?"

"Sure," he answers. "Though there's some bombing towards the end."

"OK," I say to him, Miguel, and Martin, "we'll just wait outside. Is that all right?"

"Certainly," the attendant responds. "You can meet them afterwards and then board the boat."

Miguel and Martin think I am babying Maya. "Are you going to raise her in a nunnery?"

"Her mother died last year," I say quietly. "She was traumatized enough. I'm not going to subject her to the movie."

On the boat ride over to the memorial, Miguel confides, "You were right. The movie was not appropriate for Maya."

The memorial is solemn, reverent, and somewhat moving. I think Miguel is bored, and Maya is just Maya. She has enough energy for whatever we are doing. We later climb atop and inside a submarine, which both of them think is cool. We eat dinner at Gordon Biersch, a brew pub fairly popular in the San Francisco Bay area.

Tuesday, June 14:

Beach day. Martin decides to venture out on his own, for he loathes surf and sand. The kids and I explore the Ala Mauna Park about 3 miles from our apartment. It is a nice but not spectacular Hawaiian beach--waves crashing against the shore, palm trees waving in the wind, sunshine, warm breezes, saltwater redolent in the air.

But I sense we could do better, so we return to the car and venture another three miles west to Waikiki. The beaches there are close to spectacular. There are far more people, the ocean is nearly bath water warm, and the waves have some edge.

We park the car outside the Rock Island Cafe, a 1960s themed eatery, filled with posters, knickknacks, bobbleheads, Life magazines, keychains, license plates, lunch boxes and more, all festooned with images from popular cultural icons of nearly 50 years ago, as sixties hits blare on the speakers. Miguel orders a chili cheese dog, Maya opts for chicken strips, and I get the veggie burger.

Then, with Hawaii 5-0 music screaming from the heavens, we hit Waikiki beach. Miguel and I immediately plunge in and start bodysurfing. Maya lolls about on the shore, afraid to come in much deeper than her knees. But as the surf's intensity increases, she is knocked down to the watery sand several times, twice completely covered by water, but each time she bolts up giggling and squealing in delight. Her smile is as bright as the sun.

"Dad, you are watching Maya, right?"


On the way back to the car, Miguel says, "Can I buy a ukelele?" We'd earlier passed a small store tucked around the corner from the beach.

"Sure," I say, and it turns out they offer free lessons every morning at 10. Prices range from $49-$3500. I purchase one that includes a tuner, DVD, a live hula dancer, and music book, all for under $100.

Wednesday, June 15:

We return to Waikiki with Martin, who plans to hike to Diamond Head, for Miguel's lesson and a full day on the soft sand of the beach. After Miguel's 30-minute class, we plop ourselves down next to three women. Miguel and I race into the ocean while Maya dances lightly on the edge of the water. He stays in while Maya and I lounge on our towels and engage the three women, obviously alone, whom we learn are scientists from Oslo, Norway. They work for Norway's Radiation Protection Authority.

We invite Eva, Ingrid, and Tonje to lunch. They are all single (though Eva was married and has a six year old daughter) and they share the opinion that Norwegian women are choosy and independent. The trio loves to travel and has no need right now for a serious or sustained relationship.

We part ways after lunch, and the kids and I head to the beach. Miguel and I rent boogie boards, which make our version of surfing even more enjoyable as we glide atop the water.

Thursday, June 16:

I take the kids to a local water park, about 30 minutes outside Honolulu. Maya waits while Miguel and I quickly go on two bigger kids' water slides, before I take her over to the kiddie section where she frolics down several slides and in two wading pools for hours and hours and hours.

Every hour or so, Miguel checks in and he and I do a slide together, while Maya dutifully sits on the bench at the entrance/exit. Miguel seems happy, though, to be on his own. By the end of the day, neither of them wants to leave when the park closes at 4:30.

Friday, June 17:

We journey to Haleiwa, about 30 minutes from Honolulu on the island's North Shore. Haleiwa is a sleepy town, with a Hawaii-tourist-hippie-artsy vibe. Before our arrival, though, we make a 90-minute pit stop at the Dole Pineapple Plantation, and spend nearly one-hour inside the world's largest pineapple maze, searching for 8 stations with various icons we need to stencil onto our tickets.

Haleiwa is also known for being the sort of gateway to Hawaii's most famous surfing beaches, including the granddaddy, Bonzai or Pipeline Beach. Once we get there we decide to skip lunch and sample what one friend said is Hawaii's best shaved ice at Matsumoto's, where the line of hungry customers snakes around the store.

The shaved ice is good but very sweet.

Saturday, June 18:

I drive the kids to Hanauma Bay, a protected beach surrounded by massive mountains, dense forests, and blue-green water, which offers the island's only snorkeling. Miguel, Maya, and I suit up and he and I venture out toward the algae encrusted rocks, where we see a rich variety of fish--tang, surgeon, trigger, butterfly, parrot--in blurs of yellow, white, black, orange, blue, green, and gray.

Maya dons her snorkeling gear but swims close to the shore because, in her own words, "I don't want to sink."

While we are sunning ourselves on the beach, a cooling breeze whipping off the bay, I see two women, one much older, heading into the water. The older one snaps several photos of the younger one. I get up and announce to Miguel, "Watch me."

Then I step into the water and say, "Would you like me to take one of both of you?"

Gurjit, the mother, and her 19-year old daughter, Sevan, are visiting from London. I tell them that I was widowed last summer and this trip was planned immediately after Verna died.

"I lost my husband 13 years ago," Gurjit says.

She is a therapist specializing in the sexual abuse of children. Her husband had been en route to his mother's funeral in India when the taxi driver fell asleep. He died three days later thousands of miles from home in a village outside his natal home in India. She was left to care for Sevan and run the restaurant her husband owned (and was named Sevan's).

For eight years, Gurjit slept three hours a night and managed the restaurant and worked full-time as a therapist.

Sevan gazes at her mom as her mom shares the story, "She's my hero," says Sevan, who is in college two hours away but comes home every weekend.

"She's my hero," I say.

Sunday, June 19:

On the not quite five hour plane ride home, on Father's Day, as Maya sleeps with her head on my left arm, Miguel and I watch Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau, a fairly enjoyable and well-acted drama about love and fate and destiny. I think of Verna and how we always felt we were somehow destined to meet, fall in love, and create a family. We never anticipated breast cancer and her death five weeks before she turned 46.

I have tears in my eyes as the movie ends and Damon and Blunt are locked in an eternal embrace that basically alters the course of their lives and allows their fates together to prevail. I am sad about my loss but grateful for the 20 years we were together. Twenty years where Verna and I basically knew what the plan was, how we'd allowed our lives to be scripted and how our choices would unfold.

Oh, there were surprises, but none as exciting as when we went on vacation. Having learned from my rigidity in Costa Rica and one other vacation early, early in our marriage, by the time we stormed Cabo San Lucas in the summer of 2008, on what was our first vacation alone in 11 years and last one as well, we were a bundle of sublime bliss and relaxation.

On one hand, I wish I knew the plan for me for the next 20 years. On the other, though, the uncertainty lends itself to the possibility of daily adventures. Life will unfold for me and my loved ones, but for now I am content to treat it as much as possible as a vacation, not completely sure of the details, the direction, or even the outcome. Just enjoying the journey.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Life Goes On And On

I got married last night.

Maya hopped out of the bath, as I held up her black and red with white polka dots Minnie Mouse towel, and kissed me on the lips.

"Now we're married," she said.

"Sounds good to me."

We'd spoken on the phone earlier that morning because I'd been away since Friday. "I am so excited because Daddy is coming home today," she sang into my ear. I was beyond elated.

I was actually not surprised about our sudden nuptials just a little over nine months since Verna died. I did scoop up the garter last weekend amid a cluster of guys who exhibited as much enthusiasm for the exercise as sloths doped up on sleeping pills at the wedding I officiated at in Seattle. So I was just fulfilling my destiny.

Maya and I made may have sailed, though, into the turbulent waters that confront almost all newlyweds. She told me this morning that, "I wish I didn't have a daddy."

My crime? I said she needed to finish her entire breakfast, a tiny swatch of quesadilla and a few pieces of scrambled eggs.

Yes, I can be too demanding and that may have doomed our happily ever after.

Tonight, at what turned out to be Miguel's final baseball game of the season, she admitted the bitter truth. "We're not married," she laughed. "That was just pretend."

A dagger to my already wounded heart, a dose of reality upside my head and heart? Hey, the short-lived matrimonial union had its upside. I brushed her teeth, read her William's Doll, and tucked her under five layers of sheets and blankets. Then I had an hour to myself.


Last Thursday night I took Maya for a walk around the park in our neighborhood. She wanted to stroll outside in the evening light while Miguel watched the NBA Finals. While she played with her preschool friend, Mackie, and his younger sister, Emma, I gazed at a group of mostly Mexicans engaged in a friendly basketball game on the hardtop. I noticed a friend of ours, N, whose real name I will not use for he is not in this country legally.

We met N and his then girlfriend, T, and their then two year old son, N, about two years ago. N, the son, and Maya loved to play together, and N, the father, and T treated her as if she were their daughter. They pushed her on the swings, took her on long walks around the perimeter of the park, and bought her ice cream and popsicles in the summertime.

N, sweaty and flushed after an intense game, came over and hugged me. He is a landscaper who works at least 40 hours a week. He is also a hands on father. I've seen him pushing Maya and his son on the swings, tossing a baseball to his son, and kicking a soccer ball with him.

"Hello Maya," he said.

"How are you Senor?" I asked.

"Good, good."

"Where are T and N?" Maya asked.

"Home." He paused. "T is not well. She is..." Then he moved his hand 180 degrees from mid-chest to belly.

"Pregnant?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, as his lips curled upwards.

I hugged him again and said, "That is so wonderful. I am so excited." I felt tears wet my eyes.

T is due around Christmas, a true holiday miracle. The three of them are very special to me because early last year or late in 2009 I officiated at their wedding ceremony, a hastily arranged event right outside my home on the eastern edge of the park.

N and T are Jehovah's Witnesses, both from Mexico and both undocumented immigrants. Until she got pregnant again, T worked evenings as a waitress. She has gently frosted hair and a beaming smile. After I told them I did weddings they asked me to perform one for them.

"How much?" they'd asked.

"Nothing," I said. "Just get the license." I snagged two passersby and conducted a short ceremony for two loving people who are always present for their son (and daughter to be) and toil hard in this country.

A week later they brought us a home baked Mexican cake. It was delicious. N left a message on my cell phone weeks after Verna died last August. I hadn't seen them in a couple of months or more.

"I am so sorry for your loss. Please call me anytime," he said and left me his number. I phoned and we spoke briefly. We didn't see them for a few more months, but we hugged tightly in the parking lot of a department store as they again expressed their condolences.

Somehow I have this powerful feeling that their daughter, the ultimate Christmas gift of life, is going to be very, very special. I believe she has at least one very potent angel looking out for her.


My mother has a first cousin, Renee, who lived home with her parents all her life. She always had friends outside the home, went on trips, carved out her own life, but she also spent vacations with her parents, my Uncle Max, the brother of my grandmother, and Aunt Irene.

Irene died a few years ago, and Renee continued to care for her father as his health declined until he died at the age of 95. Renee still lives in that split-level home in West Hartford, CT. Renee, my mother informed me, attends synagogue regularly. Not only does she recite the traditional prayers of praise to God and in memory of her departed loved ones. But Renee, who is in her 60s, chauffeurs older members of the community on routine errands.

She still has a full social life with friends she's amassed, but she also embraces her role as caregiver to those in need. I think she's amazing for how she copes with profound loss.

Love, life, death. Life goes on and on.