Saturday, August 30, 2014

Four Years. Out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the last verse of the song:

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

Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

When Mommy

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

I peak and see a Barbie book in her right.

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

“Which one?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was crying because I miss Mommy.”

“Me, too,” she says.

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

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

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

“And then you asked her to marry you?”

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

“When was your first date?”

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

“And what did she say?”

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

“And then you kissed?”

“Yes,” I say, “and then we kissed.”

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

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

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

“I love you, too, Daddy.”