Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Stages of Feeling

I write poems to commemorate special occasions or at times of deep emotion. For whatever reason, it's just how I process things. I am sometimes unable to let go of certain emotions until I write a poem about them. Often, not always, it is required that I show someone else the poem before the thoughts and emotions can be fully released. Since the recent death of my grandmother, I have tried in vain to write a poem that would honor her unique character and her place in my life. I lack the art to sufficiently encapsulate how I feel about her without just listing thirty-some years of memories and examples. Thus far, what I've managed is this. Three poems less specifically about her and more about my processing of her illness and death.

The first was written as she was deciding whether to undergo a surgery that may or may not have made her any more comfortable and may have made it worse. The second was written after my mother called to inform me of her passing. The third was written several days after the funeral.

After having written the first two, I assumed I would write the third. I assumed it would be, and set out to write it as, more celebratory than it turned out. I guess there's more that needs to be felt and thought about. Perhaps I will write a fourth in a week or two.


“She’s just wearing out, breaking down” they say,
and I remember the subtle bite of salt hidden
in each ideal chocolate chip cookie pulled down
greedily from the freezer.

I remember a time when she carried me home
from the Fourth of July parade. The time the heat
forced newly-patched asphalt to ooze tar. I walked
barefoot, because it was a small town and I was a child.

Her navy slacks set off the red accents in her mostly white
top and matched her navy orthopedic shoes. Before
the walker, I think, but after the bag of pills. She may
never have been able to carry me at all, but that’s how
I remember her. My other Grandma may have worn that top.

She would reel with laughter in her chair when Kirby
Puckett ran the bases. His relatively stubby legs pumping
like a cartoon, propelling his belly and endearing, goateed
cheeks in a surprisingly efficient arc, his talent and will
taming gravity on the field.

And after he left, the accusations came, tarnish added
to his bronzed fist pumping as he rounded third in Game 6.
Sense memory interrogated upon receipt, but only ever after.
The spontaneous trigger to elation cannot be disarmed.

And I remember her voice when I called about Grandpa.
She was steady. She understood that pain and liberation
and connection and loneliness are inextricably entwined.
She had seen enough of time to know its blank persistence.
I remember realizing we were both adults.

I remember the cards for every conceivable holiday. I remember
the increasing slant of her cursive, the humps squishing so low only
a practiced eye could translate. I remember my responses.
Short, pleasant, shy. Rarely diving much past, “It’s a busy time.”
and always returning with “...but things are good.”

Except one. She was in rehab after a fractured back
And I wrote claiming expertise, encouraging participation,
suggesting motivations and techniques, as though my month
in the hospital made us peers in disability.

But I recognized my own tubes and devices as some I had seen
connected to her on short visits to various antiseptic rooms.
Smiling and trying not to notice the smells and the veins
and the translucent plastic vessels marked in millimeters.

Her skin so soft and thin, stretched taut where the tape
secured the IV to her hand. As I first felt the blurry warmth
of opiates shiver through my system, I lived again the linoleum
and the sheets, the gown and the unfamiliar angles of flesh
and neckline.  All the small embarrassments of convalescence.

I remember standing at my mother’s side, speaking when prompted,
shying away from the discomfort. I was too young at the time
to recognize myself in that bed. I remember the evening
I understood we are all just bodies and brains.
We fall apart and heal and sometimes don’t.

I remember her on Christmas, surrounded by her family and piles
of brightly-wrapped packages, so excited to see how excited we were,
slightly wary of our disappointment.  I remember more 
than is necessary to mention.
I remember she asked for a copy of my wedding poem, 
because she thinks I am amazing.
I can offer nothing but to return the favor.



It's sunny here in California.
There's no reason it wouldn't be.
The meteorology calls for it and it is.
I've only once seen it rain at a funeral.
It came down briefly. Shimmering gray sheets
cutting across the cars caravaning to the grave site.
There was some talk of holding the ceremony indoors,
but the sun returned once everyone had parked.
The freshly turned soil wasn't even muddy.
The grass sweat as though it was early morning.
The green carpet surrounding the grave glistened
like the edge of a miniature golf hole water feature.
Our shoes were a bit damp as we walked
in twos and threes and fours back to the cars,
some craning skyward to check the clouds,
wondering if there was room in the garage
for all the folding tables if it came to that.

But this is not a funeral.
It's a Wednesday. The phone call has ended
and the intermittent static of a weak connection
has been replaced again by the oscillating wash
of the highway. The front door is open.
Sunlight sections the rug into rectangles and trapezoids.
My son has been napping and is now wake.
It's time for a snack and a conversation.



She lies there in slightly exaggerated makeup,
like an actress feigning death on stage.

I stand and watch, unwilling to indulge the illusion,
watching for the tell-tale rise of her chest.

The stillness of her lips belies the blush of her cheek.
Her perfectly folded hands. Her sweater,
fitted neatly at the shoulders, half-closed just so
over the black top underneath.

I remember pretending to sleep when I was younger.
I would arrange my limbs and clothes for maximum effect.
The perfect blend of realistic and precious. I would turn
my face to the car door or back of the couch
(to hide any irrepressible smirk) and imagine
my parents’ tilted head in the rearview mirror smile
or turn to say and then stop and shoulders drop and half smile aww
he must be tired like a tv show
where the conversation can wait for another time.

Leg half off the couch. One arm draped behind hip,
one tucked under the back cushion. Mouth hung slightly open.
Face slack. Overpowered by exhaustion, not curled to sleep by choice.
(I would often fall asleep in the car for real in odd poses, neck limp
and head bobbing forward or mouth wide to the roof,
which only lent my ruse believability.)

More often than not they or my sister would just repeat my name,
increasing in volume each time until they stopped with a sigh.
I held my eyes tight, breathing steady,
slightly more still than was authentic.

Her jewelry sparks beneath the church lights as I shift
to watch her hands. I remember their fragile softness,
but hesitate to touch them.

I turn away and join a group of aunts and cousins.
Laughter, sniffs, and conversations fade in and out
across the waiting room.

A red-faced cousin watches through swollen eyes
as my son tests his newfound ability to run.

I remember a photo of Grandma at my sister’s wedding.
She is sitting in a church pew in purple, turning to watch
something out of frame. I assume it is either children or grandchildren.
She wears the barest hint of a smile. Her eyes are soft, but not fawning.
She is comfortable in her pride and contentment.
She is humble in her well-earned confidence.

I remember leaning down to hug her. I remember potato salad
and her struggling to rise from the back seat to her walker.
I remember summer evenings and that giant maple 
scratching skeleton fingers at the window as I lay without covers 
in my Aunt’s former bedroom, a tender layer of Aloe Vera 
coating the sunburn on my over-zealous back and chest.
I remember her squinting, transformative laugh.
I remember her nasal, barking attempts
to be picked up by Grandpa’s hearing aid.
I remember the piercing, genuine concern
in her voice at every Christmas or wedding
when I mentioned my leg or how busy we have been.

I return to the casket, watching her hands and her blushed cheeks.
Too still to be sleeping. I lift my hand to hers.
I feel the softness and cold.

I remember the weight of her body, the strain of my wrist on the handle
as we maneuvered her onto the remarkably specific mechanism
in the back of the hearse.

I am so happy to have known her. I am so happy
so many did. I understand the practicalities of death.
I don’t know why I am still sad.

I don’t know why I pretended to be asleep.
I could have been with my family.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Five Years

Hello all,

Last year at this time, I was preoccupied with large, hypothetical questions. About Jack’s arrival. About the unspoken agreement into which one enters when welcoming a child into the world. About loss and acceptance. Over the last year I have found a parent has little time for such existential pondering. Concerns are more immediate. One thinks only a few days ahead. Is he fed? Is he tired? Are his clothes washed? Is he in any impending danger? How long will it take him to reach that cord and do I have time to get there first? Does he need a hat or does he need sunscreen? How cold out is it to a baby? Even at 3 am, squinting into the darkness, quietly singing and trying to discern whether he’s sitting up or lying down, I’m much more concerned with remembering all the words to “Hey Jude” than I am about what it might mean if he was taken from us.

On this, the fifth anniversary of the reason I write these emails, I find this trend applies to my thinking on the matter in general. More often than not, more immediate concerns take the place of getting caught up in memories of the crash. My sleep is rarely bothered by flashbacks to that night. I’m a great deal calmer when riding in the passenger seat. I’m less worried when Nissa is late that she is likely dead on the side of the road somewhere. Even vehicle crashes on tv and in movies are less apt to send me spiraling than they once were.

However, this distance from troubling thoughts makes those thoughts all the more affecting when they do come to the surface. Those moments reveal the deep, insidious nature of trauma and the wide-ranging consequences of one bad decision.. Now the already familiar pain is coupled with a feeling of, “Is this still happening?” and “How long does this last?” It leaves one feeling marked forever, that one will never be free of this knowledge or its influence.
feel the weight of my purpose there. I wish I had no expertise to offer. Each morning I open the door to leave for work, the blaring rush of the highway strikes me full in the chest, washing over me and filling my brain with its cold and tragic potential. And sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I just cringe at how loud it is outside our house. I can never know until I step outside how large or small the blow will be. Each time a car comes up behind me too quickly, each time a car cuts me off suddenly without a signal. Each time an ambulance passes me with lights flashing, I feel a twinge of recognition. Each time I pass an accident, I remember it could happen again. Each time I pass a serious accident, a body on the pavement or a stretcher, I am lost for a day or two. I dwell on how it felt, how it would feel again, if it were me, if it were Nissa. What would happen to the other of us? What would happen to Jack? What will happen to the family of the victim? How long will they think about it every day until it becomes a thing that has happened?

Some effects are less expected. When I apply for a new credit card and am rejected because my credit score was ruined when my hospital bills went to collection while I was waiting for the financial assistance program to kick in. When I look at our savings account. When I jog around the room while holding Jack to make him giggle and my knee hurts for hours afterward. When I step over the couch and tweak my joint so badly that it aches for days. When I’m on the floor doing stretching and strength-building exercises and my knee still can’t bend more than 80 or so degrees. When I watch Jack learning to crawl and stand and I realize that it was only five years ago that my movements mirrored his. When Jeannine casually mentions Alex in conversation and her voice suddenly catches, a tear glistening at the corner of her eye. When I watch Nissa cringe as she opens her birthday cards, because it reminds her of a time five years ago when birthday cards hung on the fridge and she was at home by herself.

It is in these moments that I come closest to anger, to bitterness, towards Joshua Blackburn, the man responsible. I hate feeling both of these things. It makes me upset at myself to be angry, which of course makes me all the more angry at Joshua. In last years email I wrote,

“I am in the relatively unique position of having one simple and identifiable cause for my immediate troubles, a cause with a face and name. The reason I am privy to these thoughts is not a mystery. It is not divine and it is not complex. However, the necessary response is complex. Joshua Blackburn made a horrific mistake, one that I know he will spend the rest of his life haunted by. He is not inhuman. He is not evil. He made a decision to drive, knowing he was likely too drunk to do so responsibly.”

While I am grateful for my ability to view the situation with a certain amount of balance and empathy, I can say definitively that such a measured response is not often satisfying. I sometimes long to act on my immediate reactions without filter, to lash out, to throw something across the room, to give into bitterness and spew my momentary pessimism and vitriol on Facebook. I come as close to wanting to punch someone as I can ever remember. But I know it is not productive. I do not want to be an example of bitterness, of fatalistic “Why me?” thinking. I want to respond with empathy and logic, to encourage others to do the same.

This is why I continue to give the MADD speech, despite its heaviness. To reveal the true consequences of one stupid decision and to inspire empathy in others. Not just empathy to the victims or to themselves and their immediate family, but to all of humankind. I hope with all my heart that they understand how much damage they are capable of doing another’s life, and how closely all our lives resemble each other’s, how easily it could be them. I want to make clear the idea that pain is universal. If one could knowingly prevent another from potentially experiencing pain, the effects of which one knows to be terrible, then why wouldn’t one do so? It is the understanding of our shared human frailties which can most meaningfully bring people from disparate backgrounds together. Our collective refusal to acknowledge the universality of tragedy as a human constant tends to preclude the idea of compromise, or decisions, for the greater good.

Alex was highly empathetic. He was not always the most tolerant or the most understanding person, but he had a way of locking in and being completely present in a conversation. If he decided you were worth it, he was dedicated to honoring your existence. He was warm and funny and honest and clever. I don’t know that I ever met a man more capable than he, certainly not any at his age. I only knew him for a year and a half, but I think of him as one of my closest friends. I know that my deep connection to his death gives him a special and permanent place in my being, but in life he was as close to me as any friend I’d ever had. I don’t know if I always responded as well as I could have. I have never found it easy to make friends and I have always struggled to be open. Once when I was visiting my parents in Minnesota, Alex texted me “Listening to William Elliott Whitmore and reading your blog. I like you.” William Elliott Whitmore was a musician I had recently recommended. He sang dark folk ballads about farming and prairie life. I had told him about it a few days before about my blog, which at the time, featured a story I was writing in short, serialized chunks. I’ve always been upset at myself for my response to his text. I wrote simply, “Awesome!” I wish I had said, at least, “me too.” I have often beat myself up for this. But I realized something, Alex had always liked me for the person he knew me to be. He liked me. I don’t know that he was expecting anything when he wrote that. He just wanted me to know. This year I find myself thinking, when listening to music or watching movies, “Oh, Alex would like this.” I don’t even know if it’s true. Alex and I often disagreed on music. I think just want to be able to share things with him again. I liked Alex.

I don’t particularly want to write any of this. I do not write it to ask for pity or for help.. Each year in the days leading up to April 14th, the ever-present whirlpool of crash-related thoughts grows wider and more rapid. It pulls me in and weighs me down, until I have to expel the thoughts into these rambling emails and poems. I appreciate very much that you are all out there to read it if you like. (Let me know and I can take you off the list if you prefer.) Sometimes one just needs a wall to splash with whatever’s inside. Seeing it up there allows some reflection and distance. Having others see it allows the burden to be shared. I appreciate the opportunity to share my burden. I know I am a very lucky man to be able to ramble like this I’m doing well. I’m stronger than I’ve been in years and grateful to say so. I thank you for being there to listen.

This poem is kind of mess, but it is what it is and it's written as it came out:

It's just too loud outside sometimes.
The highway washes over us
like shattered glass, like crooked
limbs, like Tequila and Star Wars laid out
on the coffee table next to his
dusty motorcycle boots. Gluten free
and piled high and served like family,
slouched deep in the sofa, feet up and
talking open -- nonsense and some not
and how could he find a woman like
my wife. A real woman, he and my
wife agreed.
My wife who sat alone waiting,
Who stood alone in the kitchen
surrounded by birthday cards.
Who will open her cards each year
remembering what it will feel like
eight days later. Who remembers
what if felt like five years ago.
He laughed from the sofa, nodding.
He was twenty six. He had spent
his whole life learning how to make,
how to forge and create and self-sustain.
He built his own tools to build his
own guitar. He cobbled together his
motorcycle, which leaned on its kickstand
outside our front window. He left
it there that night. Walked home just
across the highway, over the bridge. He
was always completely responsible about
things like that. If he could help it
he would never jeopardize another.
Why couldn’t he find a woman like
my wife?
My wife who held bedpans under me.
Who lotioned my chapped and useless
feet. Who looks at our son each day
knowing full well how Alex’s mother
feels. Our son who never met
and will not meet our friend.
A different night, months later, Alex
left his motorcycle leaning in his
parents’ backyard and drove to
Oakland for band practice. The
motorcycle stayed there gathering weeds
and cobwebs for years until it was
removed. Until it was removed
leaving a matted depression of
tall grass like a scar across the
yard, along my left titanium knee,
across the asphalt of the highway,
scraping metal on metal on road and
sparking dead and fading grasses each
year at this time. It’s too loud outside.
we sit and listen to the road. My wife
and I.
My wife who built her own business.
Who shopped with Alex for wood to
mount her visions in a coffee shop.
Who stopped her life to make sure my
life did not stop. Who sat there waiting
To hear if I was alive.
We sit and listen and remember we
all still need to drive sometimes.
Sometimes we forget what happened and
remember Alex.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Companion Thoughts

You think more about the blinds.
You squint and watch him to do the same and wonder
if he understands how action follows instinct.
Will he shift a fraction of an inch into the shade
or will he just blink and cry?
If asleep, will he wake?
Is he hot?
Just how fragile is he?
You don't remember not knowing what to do about the sun.

You think more about bottle caps and wires.
That tiny, muted tink of metal on wood echoes in your head,
the world suddenly gone slow motion, as you whip towards the sound,
leaping from the sofa to snatch it up before he ages several months,
learns to crawl, and happens upon what looks for all intents and purposes
to be some new and fascinating candy tucked in a nest of extension cords
that demands immediate oral research.
Then you’re there in the back of the ambulance,
clutching that ridiculous pastel blanket as though human life
can be bound by your pathetic preferences..
You don’t remember not knowing what is and isn’t food.

You think a bit more about money,
how necessary it seems, and whether or not it really is.
Where are lines drawn between need and want and privilege and childhood?
How much more and how will that happen?
What is required and what does that mean?
Just how old is too old to lose oneself in the dream of not doing
what needs to be done?
And there’s that question of need again.
He’s so vulnerable to everything. How much does it cost
to keep everything away? And if I knew the price, would it matter?
So much of life is found in figuring out what you do and don’t need.
You don’t remember ever needing so much.

You think more about history and of the future,
what people have done and will be.
How does he maintain optimism when you tell him how hard it will be tested?
How do you prove the value of decency when its currency appears suspect?
How do you instill pride in a world built on the actions of terrible people?
How do you explain hardship for him may still seem relatively easy to others?
What do you say when he asks why it had to happen and why we didn’t do more?
You want him to believe he can do what he wants.
You want him to understand struggle.
You want to teach him the boundaries of selfishness and altruism, but you honestly can't say you know what they are.
You don't remember not knowing how complicated life becomes.

You think more about bones and vision and milestones and screens
and thoughts and focus and time.
You don’t remember not being a part of the world.

You can’t remember the world without thinking of him.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Four Years

Hello All,

It's that time again, when the universe gradually attaches sandbags to my soul while simultaneously overloading my emotions until I have to stop and think and write some stuff in order to shake off some of the weight and calm my brain. Four years ago today our lives were changed forever by the thoughtless action of a man who momentarily forgot that his immediate priorities were no more important than anyone else's. Since that night, much time, energy, and money has been spent in muddling through the aftermath. And, while we have never once stopped moving forward, the heaviness of what happened remains, though it has evolved.

Over the last four years, I’ve experienced periodic bouts of sleeplessness, when images and sensations of the crash are so insistent that I can’t close my eyes until I’m so tired I can’t help but fall asleep. Over time, those experiences have decreased in frequency and intensity, and, with the help of my therapist, Craig Toonder, have essentially faded away, as has much of my fear when driving. However, in the last few weeks, the sleeplessness has returned, filled not with remnants of the crash, but with images of Alex. As inconvenient as theses sleepless nights are, and as haunting as the images can be, I take it as a sort of slow progress. My brain has shifted focus from my own physical and mental traumas to the loss of my good friend. My immediate transfer from the side of the highway to an extended hospital stay filled with pain and narcotics left little room for traditional mourning of Alex. I think the fact that he has become the focus signifies a move away from the relatively frantic survival mode in which I had found myself and into a more concrete sadness and recognition, a sadness for the loss of my friend, and a recognition of what that means regarding the upcoming birth of my own son.

I imagine most of you reading this already know, but for those who don’t, our first son, Jack, is estimated to be born in just over a month. I am happy and excited for his arrival, but there is an undeniable edge to that excitement. I am concerned about how worried I will be when driving with Jack in the backseat. How much will knowing he is back there amplify my already significant concern over the driving choices of others? Will I be unnecessarily cautious? Will I be crippled with worry? I imagine this is not a unique feeling. I know nearly all parents share these concerns, and that it is largely just nerves in the face of the unknown. Of greater impact is the more existential idea that, in welcoming Jack into the world, we agree to the possibility of losing him. The grand human contract we all make is that we will continue to walk out our doors each day knowing our return in not inevitable. We have all likely wrestled with that concept at least once in our lives. But, it is thrown in much sharper relief when one imagines the love and expectation one puts into a child, the hope and adoration. I have sat with Jeannine and Sean and seen them cry and listened to their moments of hell, but it was not until Jack began to grow that I began to understand more fully the weight of their loss and what it means. I don’t dare to claim I know how they feel and I don’t think it lacks empathy to say I do not want to know. It is a consequence of loss to recognize what more can be lost. But, in doing so, one must also recognize what all is left. It is a consequence of life to know loss is possible and continue on.

Please don’t take my somber tone as pessimism. I do not like the idea of sob stories or bitching about personal injustice. My goal in examining the full truth of what happened is to learn how best to move forward while maintaining an open and understanding view of my place in this universe. I am in the relatively unique position of having one simple and identifiable cause for my immediate troubles, a cause with a face and name. The reason I am privy to these thoughts is not a mystery. It is not divine and it is not complex. However, the necessary response is complex. Joshua Blackburn made a horrific mistake, one that I know he will spend the rest of his life haunted by. He is not inhuman. He is not evil. He made a decision to drive, knowing he was likely too drunk to do so responsibly. No one reading this can say they have not been in that position, and very, very few can likely say they haven’t also made the decision he made. Joshua’s second bad decision, to make a 90 degree turn across five lanes of highway because he realized he was going to miss his exit, stems from the first decision. I imagine he was a reckless driver when sober, maybe even a skilled reckless driver when sober. But, sober or no, one’s actions have consequences. Even if a 90 degree turn across five lanes didn’t result in the death of an extremely capable and intelligent and funny young man, it scares the hell out of everyone else on the road. It makes parents with young children in the backseat flash to unimaginable horror. It makes angry people angrier and it makes fearful people less confident. Drunk or no, to assume one’s immediate priorities over anyone else’s at any given time is the worst mistake one can make. The consequences of one selfish act ripple out through the lives of countless people just trying to make it back home each day. The response ripples out forever. It is tempting to demonize Joshua, to hate him. But, he is a human being that made a mistake. It would be easier to hate him, but I can't. I can only respond with patience.

I am so incredibly lucky to be here to respond, and I am so incredibly lucky to have all of you out there reading this. Your support has made all the difference in the world. Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I get sad. Sometimes I get worried. But, I am so grateful to be able to do so.

Take care and drive safe,

P.S. I’ve included a couple poems I wrote recently. The second is actually meant to be a song. I hope to share the final product with you soon.

Upon Seeing Alex

You were standing at the bottom
of the footbridge steps
as I passed, hand in hand, with my son.

I affected a swagger
and thought to myself,
“This is one thing I’ll always have over you.”

You paused, stone-faced,
and then erupted in a signature
bout of resonant elation,

just as I remember you
striding down Telegraph, barking
about my particularly dark Nazi joke.

The pavement stood starkly white
against the aimless blue sky,
the scene set in that uniquely Californian saturation.

You in your boots,
permeated with dust,
black, sleeveless tee and multi tool,

your heels struck the concrete
like a muted woodblock.
I don’t remember what I wore.

We grinned to the car
with our remaining flyers,
both pretty sure very few would show up.

And there at the bridge
you grinned as before.
My son tripped and skidded to the curb.

You chuckled and shouted,
“Your son is a drunk.”
Then jogged across the street to help.

Leaning over, you froze,
eyes, still locked in honest concern,
fading to gray.

My son sucked his breath
and I turned to help him,
just the two of us beneath the aimless blue sky.

Don’t Know Much

Simple things get simpler
when you know how hard it gets;                 
and all the times you floundered
get put firmly into context.

Well I know I don’t know much,
but I have touched upon
what knowing more might look like.

Memories have consequences
stacked and building down;
but regrets dilute a little
when your friend is in the ground

The weight always remains
but can displace the heaviness
of all the rest of it so you can carry on

I can’t handle the news.   
Tragedy comes two by two
to all the ones that least deserve it.
I know it’s doesn’t make it better,
but there’s some microscopic solace
in the fact that pain is universal
to the human race.


Melancholy’s easy when perspective is ignored;
and it’s easy enough to say that when
the point of view’s not yours.

The more we see we need
the same essential things
the more we can unite to find them.

I know I don’t know much,
but I hope that I have touched upon
what knowing more might look like.

I know I don’t know much...