Laughter is the Best Medicine

Of course there is sadness in death. But there is laughter, too. At weird moments gallows humor slips in and you find you’re laughing so hard your stomach hurts.

Before my 97 year old grandmother passed away a few years ago from Alzheimer’s – and generally being 97 years old – she was living with my parents. We were all gathered in my parent’s living room and grandma was sitting next to me. It was loud. But it was always loud. My Dad had been nearly deaf all his life after a childhood illness took most of his hearing. As kids, we weren’t allowed to play music in the house because he couldn’t hear over it. And on this particular day there was the usual talking at high volume that blanketed my childhood.

I felt a hand on my arm and I looked into the face of my frail, miniature grandma. She almost never spoke at that point and usually referred to me as ‘That Girl’ because she couldn’t remember my name. But she leaned over to me and whispered. ‘You were smart to marry a quiet man. Most men are always so loud and they never shut up.’ She pointed at Jeff with her crooked finger, and then she sat up straight and went back to her stoic vague self.

A toast at The London

But she was right. Marrying a quiet man has it’s advantages. When Jeff says something I listen intently. So on the day my Dad died I wondered what we should do. I felt at lose ends, not knowing how to send him off. My Dad liked scotch – A LOT. Whenever we visited him, Jeff made sure to stop off at an Oregon liquor store and bring him a bottle of something good, not the rot-gut stuff he usually drank. So we went down to a local place that has pretty good top-shelf scotch and we raised a glass. After our toast, I mused.

‘Where do you think my Dad is right now?’ I asked Jeff. I knew he couldn’t possibly know, but he knew I was looking for comfort. Without hesitation he said ‘He’s in a hospital.’

I was shocked. ‘He’s dead. He’s not in a hospital.’ I said, a little taken aback.

‘Yes he is.’ he said with confidence. ‘He’s a baby being reborn.’ As though Jeff couldn’t believe I wouldn’t think that too.

‘So you believe in reincarnation?’ I asked. Surprised we’d never had this conversation.

‘Of course.’ And he took another sip of the good stuff.

I hardly knew what to say. ‘Assuming you’re right, you think it happens that fast? They don’t give him some time on a celestial beach or a debrief session or something?’

Jeff seemed very sure of what he was saying. ‘Time is relative. Our perception of time is linear. It’s not that way in every place in the universe or the multi-verse. We can’t perceive it any different than this. But it is different.’

This was very Jeff.

‘So you think my Dad is a baby being born right now?’

‘Yup. I think he’s already been born. He has a bunch of things he learned here. But he has a lot more to learn – based on all the stuff I saw when I knew him.’ Again, totally confident in what he was saying. It made me pause.

Any American of my age will remember when the show ‘All in the Family’ premiered on US televisions in the 1970’s. It was a sensation in the era of the Vietnam war and it chronicled the story of the Bunker family in Queens, NY. The father, Archie Bunker, was a bigoted (aka racist) working class white guy who fought in WWII. His wife, Edith, was a typical wife of the time who was there to wait on Archie hand and foot. Archie called her ‘Dingbat’. It means he thought she was stupid. Their only daughter was married to a college grad student (to evade the war) who was against the Vietnam war, and he was active in his disapproval of Archie’s bigotry, misogyny, and his abusive treatment of his wife. When the show aired we all watched it in our house. My Dad didn’t get some of the jokes since he was Archie Bunker. Only on steroids. It’s why I have no patience for racism, xenophobia, ethnocentrism. Call it what you will.

When I was small, my older brother and sister had friends in school who were Italian or Latino. They came to our house a few times and my Dad referred to them as ‘Wops’ or ‘Degos’. Those are old-timey derogatory terms for Italians or Hispanic people in the US. My sister dated an NBA basketball player at one time. When she brought him home to meet my parents I wanted to sell tickets to my friends. Not because he was a famous guy, but because they were all interested in seeing the look on my Dad’s face. They knew. The guy was 6 foot 9 and big. And he was African American.

So when Jeff said that my Dad was probably already a baby. I had a thought.

‘Well, if karma is the fickle mistress I know her to be, then my Dad is either Italian, Hispanic or Black now. Maybe all three! What an interesting thought.’ And it was my turn to take another sip of that smokey, peaty liquid.

‘Nope.’ Said Jeff. ‘Chances are – statistically speaking – he’s been born in China.’

I smiled, wide eyed. ‘Holy moly! My Dad is a Chinese baby boy!’

Jeff just chuckled. ‘Who said anything about him being a boy?’

At that I spit out my drink. I was laughing so hard I cried. I couldn’t stop.

I reiterated this conversation to my Mom and she made me laugh again.

‘Well, Jeff’s such a genius.’ she told me. ‘So it’s probably true. Dad as a baby. Already? It’s a lovely thought.’

And she’s right – it is a lovely thought. Hang on to your baby bonnet, Dad. I don’t know anything about being Chinese, but this girl-thing isn’t quite as easy as it looks.

The Last Gift

My father dying has hit me much harder than I would have thought it would. I loved him. But that never mattered. He wasn’t the fairy tale dad from TV or books. He was cruel and brutal – for nearly the entire time I knew him. But here I sit today and I’m broken up by his passing. Seeing him diminished at Christmas gave me no pleasure. Perhaps that’s more a reflection on me as a person, than him as a man.

As a child he kicked me as I played on the living room floor. He called me ‘stupid’ and ‘dummy’ and mocked me when he found me utterly ridiculous. I wasn’t alone. He showed no kindness to any of his children. After I took a test in school to identify genius kids, they put me in a special room with 4 other children to ‘maximize our potential.’ They all attended Harvard, Columbia or Stanford. I did not. My older sister told me they were shocked I was actually smart because they all assumed I was an idiot.

‘We always thought you were slow. You were so happy-go-lucky as a kid. I mean who could be happy here?’ she told me.

But, there is a beauty in growing up in such darkness. It makes it so much easier to find the light. And I’ve always looked for the light. Hope was forever my friend growing up.

I remember as a kid, at 10 years old, walking the ‘March of Dimes’ charity walk in Portland with my best friend, Karen, to raise money for crippled children. Her Dad met us at every check point over the 20 miles and had water and snacks for us. I couldn’t believe a father would care enough to do something like that. Show his child kindness. Like an alien landed on earth.

My Dad was a 95% – 5% person. 95% brutal and 5% unexpectedly kind. And the 5% didn’t show up until I was an adult. I remember when my son was a year old, I was going through a terrible divorce and I was hanging by the very last thread of a very long rope. I was completely broken and while visiting their house with my young son, I broke down. My Dad took me into his office, shut the door, and told me to sit down.

‘Listen, kid.’ he said. ‘Don’t listen to anyone else. You listen to yourself and find happiness. None of these assholes know what that is.’

I was speechless. This man who had never shown me a moment’s care suddenly had the words I needed to hear. Right at the moment of my deepest despair, the person I couldn’t possibly expect to help me did. I had no words.

At our wedding, I walked down the stairs at my friend, Curt’s house. I was holding my son, Nicholas’ little 5 year old hand getting ready to marry my best friend. And at the bottom of the stairs, there was my Dad. I was shocked. He offered me his arm and he walked with us the rest of the way. As I put my arm through his, he leaned over and said ‘I’m proud of you, kid.’ It was like he had socked me in the stomach. I couldn’t breathe, and I struggled to keep it together walking the path down to the rose garden. He had never said that to me before.

Jeff has been patient with me as I’ve gone through the grieving process. Today, he walked with me for hours in the rain. He didn’t ask me to explain, he just walked beside me in silence as I cried and held my hand. And it was Northwest rain. Not mamby-pamby drizzle. Even heaven was crying on me. I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful person to walk beside me through life. I’ve always known he married me against his family’s wishes. They’ve never liked me. I was divorced, with a child, after all. I wasn’t Catholic and I’ve always been a little outspoken. OK. Maybe more than a little. I was sort of used goods from the marriage fire sale. But, through thick and thin, Jeff has stood by me.

The final few weeks my Dad hallucinated. The hospice people said that’s normal as people venture to the end. He saw people crowded in his room and, although not religious, he talked about Jesus and God, a lot. I hope his Mom and family are waiting for him, where ever he’s going.

The other day I was taking a walk and I heard church bells ringing. I’d been walking for a while and I decided to go in to the church and sit down. I’ve never been religious but I find churches move me. I looked up at the alter and said a prayer for my Dad. And then one for myself. I didn’t really know what to ask for. ‘Help’ is all I could think of. I figure if there is a God, She’ll know what that means, even if I don’t. She’s heard me ask for it more times than either of us can count.

And then I decided that I would do one more thing. I decided to forgive my Dad. For everything he was. And for everything he wasn’t. And to wish him the peace he never found in this life. We all deserve that – no matter who we are. It may be insignificant, but it’s the last gift, as his daughter, I have left to give.

Dia de Los Reyes

We are back in Valencia, and like most people I know back home, we brought the plague with us. The flu is raging there. But we arranged to have seats at the big 3 Kings parade so we braved the cold and dove into the fray down near the Plaza de Ayunamiento – town square.

Calle la Paz

In the US we are all over the Santa thing. Reindeer. The North Pole. Elves. But in one glorious night it’s all over. As kids we got another week of winter break and then it was right back to school after New Years. Here in Spain it’s not like that at all.

Here the song of The Twelve Days of Christmas comes back as a handy little guide to what the season of the nativity is all about. Kind of like those School House Rock songs from Saturday Morning cartoons as a kid. They still enable me to remember the pre-amble of the Constitution and how bills pass through Congress. Our civics education in the US being so lacking we require cartoons to imprint it on our brains. But we won’t go there today.

Here – as in so many other countries around the world – gifts giving isn’t so focused on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The children of Spain are laser focused on Twelfth night or Epiphany Eve, and then King’s day. This is the day when the 3 Kings who visited Jesus to bring him Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh show up with their chests full of presents for all the children of the city.

The malls have lines – not to sit on Santa’s lap – but to sit on the laps of the Magi to ask for gifts. Children don’t write letters to Santa. They write letters to the Magi who will bring them what they desire. Let’s face it – the Maji have a proven track record of delivery. At the parade, the letters were collected by special people on the route and they were all marked ‘Urgente’ in a bold adult hand.

And in Valencia they’ll leave their shoes by the door with food and drink for the Magi and their camels hoping for what they asked for. The 3 kings are called Gaspar, Melchoir and Balthazar. And they are pretty much an old white guy in a long white beard. Then a younger white guy in a dark beard. And then an Africa guy who’s in his 20’s. I heard they’re supposed to represent the ages of a man’s life. But they also represent the continents of Asia (the Oriente in Magi parlance), Africa and Europe.

Float after float went by with kids and adults on them throwing candy by the barrel. Children brought bags from home to scoop it all up. Some threw so hard it hit us in the head with force. The Valencia Futbol Club threw Adidas socks and I got Emilie a pair. The balls were a big draw in between handfuls of projectiles of candy. But I was most impressed that the push we’ve seen on tv for recycling in the Communidad de Valencia played a big role. Very smart in getting kids on board with cutting back on waste and getting their parents to recycle. They were every where in the parade and I got a new composting bin and recycling bags that I filled with candy. I’m not immune from gather free 🍭

Like any major Spanish procession, there seems to be the heroes (the magi) and the bad guys (the Romans). In this case it’s Herod who tries to steal the children’s candy while taunting the crowd walking the parade route – accompanied by his Roman henchmen. It’s all pantomime and the crowd loves it, booing loudly and giving the man the thumbs down. He played it up and the children cheered when a 3 year old fended him off.

Boooo…!!!

The 3 Kings start the night by coming ashore at the port at 5pm. Then they’re escorted by the police to the parade starting grounds at Alameda. A helicopter records their progress on tv. Some of the floats are amazing feats of engineering. Dragons. An Automaton Ballerina. A stained glass Peacock. Stilt walkers and acrobats.

Finally, the 3 kings will arrive at the city hall in the Auynamiento, where they will be received like, well, Kings to the cheers of the waiting throngs of children. They will proceed to the balcony where they will expound on a few old chestnuts – ‘Be good children.’ ‘Obey your parents.’ ‘Clean your room and eat your veggies.’ Then they’ll sit on thrones in a room inside where the children file in to receive gifts before heading home to put out their shoes.

Today, King’s cake (Rosca de Reyes) will be eaten. This is a special cake that contains fruit and cream and a coin. Whomever gets the coin has luck for the rest of the year. We always did something similar on New Years with our kids.

It’s so different than what we’re used to in the US, so watching these kids excitement a full 2 weeks after our Christmas is pretty cool. Between US kids and Spanish kids, I think children here got the better deal.

And after all the stores being open on a Sunday yesterday, I lament one thing about the end of the holiday season here. The clock starts over for the year, due to laws that went into effect in 2019, and now we’ll have to wait until summer for an open grocery store on a Sunday – they only allow it for the last half of the year. Even the Valencians I know hate it.

And now it’s only 53 days until the season of Fallas kicks off. Yay! We’ll just have to rest up until then.

Intentions for a New Decade

For years now we’ve used December 31st as the moment to take stock and reflect on the year gone by. And then to set our intentions for the following year. We’d write this down and then seal it to be opened one year later; marveling at how much this practice set the tone for the year.

I’ve heard this called many things. Living with intention. Jeff calls it ‘The Power of The List’. We would sometimes post this in our bedroom to be looked at it on a daily basis. But for me it’s evolved into a daily mantra that helps guide my life personally. I will take these intentions and reformat what I’ll say every morning in the form of ‘I want’, ‘I have’, and then ‘I’m grateful for’. This states what I want to have happen. Then stating it like I already have it. And then finally, stating it in the form of gratitude that I already possess these things.

Here’s to clear skies and beautiful views in 2020

When I say ‘things’ I don’t mean stuff. Things to be purchased. It’s usually states of being, and experiences. Or accomplishments. It’s the idea of ‘Energy flows where attention goes.’ If I can’t see it, I can’t direct all my energies there. In reviewing my mantra for 2019, I’m amazed at how much I can check off. And how much I have to be grateful for. Some things have rolled from past years – most things don’t just fall into our laps. They take hard work and time – like a fine wine. But with persistence and gratitude I find most things are achievable. And there are those things that I will always want to focus on and will never leave the list.

On this last day of the decade- the last day of 2019 – I wish you all the things your heart calls out for in 2020. The gratitude to realize how much you already have, and the peace that come with it. May the next decade bring us closer to each other as we tackle the big issues of this world together. And bring more connection and community. We have a great many things to do together. Let’s get started.

Mind the Gap

During the holidays it’s hard to know what to buy for people. So many of those we know have everything they really need. So purchasing this or that is just more stuff they have to find places to put, or time to use. But there are gifts that are more precious than gold.

Jeff and I have been married a long time, and together longer. I’m 100% sure I grate on his nerves more than once a day. Nagging him about taking his meds, and what he puts in his mouth (because the Dr. said no red meat and to cut back on salt – Just sayin’). And he can grate on mine too. But then there are moments when his thoughtfulness makes me stop in my tracks and I hope he knows how much I appreciate him every day.

On Christmas Eve he was on the roof in the rain cleaning out my Mom’s rain gutters, as medical personnel came and went from my parent’s house. It rains a lot in Portland (on the West Coast of the US). And the yard is full of Douglas Fir trees, so the needles get under the roof shingles and clog the gutters and downspouts. This can make the roof fail and get soft. Jeff looked out at the gutters spilling over. Then he got out a ladder and took all the downspouts off and cleaned out the gutters and hosed off the shingles. He know’s my Mom doesn’t have my Dad to climb up on the ladder anymore.

Jeff rehung her shower door because she no longer needs to worry about getting a wheelchair in their bathroom. And he fixed her lawn mower. Things she couldn’t do herself and would have had to hire a service to come and take care of, when she had the time. Jeff replaced her windshield wipers on her car and put Rain-X on her windshield to make it safer for her to drive in winter weather (with glaucoma – oh no).

Sometimes I can get whiny. I know this. But Jeff is a good guy and I didn’t need anything this Christmas but the gift of him helping my Mom take care of little things. Even things she might not have known she needed help with.

Since moving to Spain we’ve been learning Spanish. One of the first things that struck Jeff is the word ‘sin’. It means without. The lack of something. Sin gluten is important to me. Without gluten and I look for it in everything I purchase to put in my mouth.

We are not religious people. yet Jeff immediately seized on the word and we’ve repeatedly mused about it. What if we got it all wrong? What if ‘sin’ isn’t committing incorrect acts or doing bad things as written down in a book. What if ‘sin’ is what we don’t do? What we fail to give to ourselves and others when it’s in our power to do so? Compassion for a person who is struggling. Forgiveness, whether we deem it deserved or not. A helping hand when all it requires of us is to reach out just a little farther. Maybe we should turn sin on its head and think of it more as opportunities lost.

I remember standing in a Walmart store in the US more than a year before we moved to Spain. There was a woman who was in front of me and her cart was packed with food and Christmas gifts for small children. She completed the bagging process, and then went to pay but her card wouldn’t go through. She tried another one and it wouldn’t work either.

Now I was tired that day. I just wanted to get done with my transaction and I was frustrated it was taking so long. I’ll never forget the embarrassment on her face. She was furiously texting her husband and trying to call him. The cashier had her step to the side so she could check me out. During my transaction I decided I would pay for her things. I knew I should have stepped in when the cashier asked her to step aside, yet I hadn’t. I didn’t like that I hesitated in my frustrations to get home. When I finished, I realized she had abandoned the cart and was gone. I can still see that woman’s face even today. The confusion, embarrassment and then fear. It was in my power to provide her relief but when the moment came I blinked.

This Christmas, Jeff didn’t let the little moments slip away from him. He took full advantage, in his quiet way, to do what he knew he could do. To give of himself at a time when it might mean more than any other. This year he committed the opposite of sin. He filled in the holes and gaps where he could. To try, in small ways, to make a big difference.

Perhaps I’m thinking this way because I’ve watched the end of someone’s life. A life – if I’m honest – that was filled to the brim of ‘without’. Opportunities lost than could fill an Amazon warehouse, and can never be recovered. Along with the accompanying regrets associated with piles of choices over the course of 9 decades. Perhaps.

The last thing my Dad said to Jeff was to thank him for taking care of me. He wasn’t like Jeff at all. but he knew a good man when he saw one and he was grateful I had someone so good to fill in my gaps and to walk beside me on the way. And so am I.

In 2020, hug those close to you. Tell them you love them every day. And let them know that even though you nag them, you do so because you love and appreciate them. And for me? I’m committing to paying more attention to the little moments. The opportunities to fill in the ‘without’ when it’s in my power to give it to another – whether strangers or friends. Because, its seems to me to be the reason we’re all on this big blue ball floating in the vastness of space in the first place.