Elegy to a brother, part 2

[This is the second in what will be a series of not-stand-alone posts about my brother Mark’s death, which occurred on Sunday, August 2, 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Long-running, self-indulgent lamenting is what we’re talking about here, with a loose idea of building this lament in elegiac past/present prose couplets as a meaningless and misguided nod to meaningless classical forms. Because I think this last bit would have made Mark laugh at me, in wry puzzlement and love.]

I had plans to visit Mark and mom back in March of 2020, by myself. I had arranged the trip months earlier, before the COVID-19 pandemic blossomed. My intent was to take a short break from my own parenting responsibilities, going on 15 relentless years, and to provide some respite to Mark, who was surviving also-relentless years as mom’s caregiver. Mark had a couple heart attacks over the prior few years, and I could tell that he was emotionally bone-weary. He would often make comments about being okay with dying, being ready.

This was mildly terrifying.

I wanted to visit with Mark in person and offer some gratitude to him for the daily grind he put up with. I intended to give him some rest, and to spend some child-free time with him and mom. But the pandemic hit and no one knew what was going to happen. With mom’s age and Mark’s heart health, we couldn’t risk bringing the disease to them via air travel. (The first vaccines wouldn’t be available until late 2020.) After a brief discussion with Mark in February, I cancelled the trip.

—-

About half an hour after learning of Mark’s death, some five months after the cancelled trip, I start mulling the bitter fact that coronavirus took away my last chance to see him alive, my last chance to hug him, sit with him in the yard looking at stars at night or watching hummingbirds in the morning, make a good meal for him, potter in his vegetable garden with him. Even worse, I start thinking about whether a week’s respite for him, back in March, might have changed the outcome I was staring at: my brother collapsing in sudden death on the kitchen floor, probably after dipping into crank despite the state of his heart.

Foolish to imagine I could have made a difference, but I’ve survived half a century fighting off the sense, in the manner of OCD, that I’m responsible for everyone and everything that goes wrong on earth. Even worse is the simple fact that I can’t remember my last conversation with Mark.

—–

About that crank – not crack, but crank.

Meth, speed, ice, poor man’s coke. It was an addiction Mark faced off with for much of his adult life. When he was on it, he had what I called raccoon eyes, unnatural dark patches under his eyes that were a giveaway. I remember first noticing them at my wedding, then for some years they were gone, and then I saw them again the last couple times I visited him in person.

Meth is a really bad idea when you’ve had two heart attacks and need some repair work on your heart. Thus, I hypothesize that meth played a significant role in causing Mark’s death. But that’s a superficial, non-philosophical way of looking at this story. The more important questions are humanistic, not anatomical. Why did Mark turn to crank? Why did he struggle with addiction? Why would he use a drug that he knew could kill him?

In the last few years of his life (it’s still very hard for me to say that, so different from “recently”), Mark and I would dance around the subject of mental health. He was bound up by stigma, well-trained by my mom and our culture to evade the painful likelihood that depression, anxiety, stress, and maybe some other labels were in play whenever his life fell apart. I was walking a different path, following my daughter Jesse’s massive mental health challenges to a stuttering awakening about myself, my history of depression and anxiety and trauma, and my ongoing need for therapeutic supports. I didn’t know how to invite him to cross the bridge with me, without coming across as arrogant or bossy or smug.

I would occasionally ask Mark, as gently and indirectly as I could, whether he was doing okay emotionally. He would inevitably say, “I’m fine, I’m okay.” But he would yell at my mom over little things and then hate himself for it. He would pretend he was okay with his life, but I could see his self esteem was in the toilet. He lived a strange life, with a handful of half-feral rescued dogs to sleep with at night, fully dependent on my mom’s financial support. Instead of seeking the help of a therapist, maybe making some tough decisions to extract himself from a very unhealthy co-dependent living arrangement with my mom, I think he turned to crank. It was probably easier than the Herculean task of overcoming stigma and false shame. I wish I had been able to offer him a stronger hand to hold. I wish I could have smashed stigma for him, with him, before it was too late.

—–

Mark’s death during a pandemic, 2000 miles away, has us in a pinch. COVID-19 has made common things like travel and funerals difficult. Air travel is not an option – there’s not a chance my kids are going to make it through a 5 hour flight, wearing masks, without personality-annihilating emotional and behavioral explosions.

But I have an extraordinary husband who resolves all the questions. Monday morning, less than a day after Mark has died, Anthony announces that we need to make the 30+ hour drive to California to be with my family and attend whatever funeral can be mounted under COVID strictures. We’ll eat out of coolers along the way and stay in clean, national-brand hotels with safety protocols that meet our standards.

By the end of the day Monday, we’ve made boarding arrangements for the dogs, set up caretaking visitations to our gardens and fish, packed, and rented a car.

We have to rent a larger car because we will gouge each others’ eyeballs out if we have to spend 30 hours in our little station wagon, over the course of just three days. Anthony exceeds my expectations, which are for an SUV of some sort.  He comes home from the rental agency in an enormous minivan, with three rows of seats spaced so far apart that we can meet CDC social distancing guidelines in one vehicle. We fill available storage spaces with two coolers, one big suitcase, a bag of shoes, random sundries, pillows and blankets, 50 electronic devices and charging cords, and two Razor scooters.

The scooters are Jesse’s idea. There’s room for them, so we say yes instead of arguing.

I’d like to say the drive goes smoothly. But Jesse in a car for 30 hours in three days is impossible to describe, bordering on unbearable. It is a test for her and everyone around her. Verbal and physical tics, emotional jags, anger and fear and rage, sorrow for the loss of her uncle, cruelty and loneliness and desperate need are all bound up in one little volcanic wisp of a 15-year-old body. Add two exhausted and grief-filled parents and one pissed-off little brother, and it’s not pretty at times.  

There is much yelling. Everyone feels awful afterwards.

Still… at some level, it does go smoothly. All eyeballs are accounted for by the time we reach Stockton, California. The scooters pay off, because the kids use them at longer rest stops to loosen up and get rid of some energy.  We never get lost, and we find good hotel stops along the way. We drive through extraordinary western landscapes. The weather is good to us. We keep trying to get along.

It almost feels like a mini-vacation at times, though that fiction always fizzles for me. We’re on our way to bury my brother.

Elegy to a brother, part 1

It’s a Sunday evening in the summer of 2020, in the heart of the COVID pandemic. I’ve called my mom because I’ve just gotten word from my brother Ted: my brother Mark, who lives with and looks after mom, is being rushed to the hospital after collapsing. I need to find out what hospital Mark’s being taken to.

Mom responds to my query with clarity: he’s not going to the hospital, Carla.

I’m confused.

“He died.” She blurts the two words out in a gasping whisper. Her voice is so quiet I can barely hear it. Mark died, he’s right here, he collapsed in the kitchen and I couldn’t wake him up. He was warm and then he got cold, the paramedics tried to wake him up but they couldn’t.

“Oh no oh no oh no.”  I hear the words but don’t quite know that my own body is speaking. I gag as I push down sobs and the crushing feeling I remember from 19 years earlier.

——————

In 2001, two days after 9/11 and on my birthday, my dad died. He had endured an emergency heart surgery and several weeks in the ICU. Mark hated seeing him that way, suffering and hooked into a phalanx of machines in a corporate complex full of strangers, wires and tubes and whirring and beeping and everything that isn’t human and home. When dad finally experienced full systems crash, Mom and Mark rushed to the hospital and quickly signed whatever needed signing to remove life support, and sat with dad while he took his last breaths.

A few moments later, Mark called me from the bathroom in dad’s hospital room, where he had taken refuge from whatever weird things mom and an uncle were doing. I thought he was calling to wish me a happy birthday, but no. When I finally understood the message he was delivering, grief engulfed me with heaving animal noises. Mark waited me out peacably. For years after, he would remark on my reaction with what seemed like bemused wonder. It always surprised me that he recalled it so clearly, through the filter of his own loss in that moment. He would mention it, shake his head, and laugh ruefully. “Dude, that sucks that dad died on your birthday. That just sucks.”

———-

These memories flick through me in a heartbeat, 19 years later. I know I have to be present and calm for mom, because she’s more than 2000 miles away, an old woman in her house with her son’s dead body, paramedics doing paramedic things, her closest family more than an hour away. So I push it down.

Mark showed me the way. I’ve got this.

Mom and I manage a moment of shocked, shared grief, and then we agree that I need to call Ted and Eric, my alive brothers who think Mark is still alive. I hang up and gather myself, sitting alone in my bedroom, leaning into the corner of the house so I don’t fall down. I know Anthony and the kids can hear me from downstairs, I know that they know something is terribly wrong.  I heave with sobs for a few minutes, breathe deeply and slowly in the way years of therapy have taught me, and successfully avoid vomiting.  I push it all down and wipe my face off.

My mind is racing as I make my first call to Eric, who is just 14 months younger than Mark. Eric and Mark are tight.  I’m remembering how hard it was for Mark to get me to understand that dad had died, how much that frustrated him; and so I won’t be using euphemisms like “gone” and “passed” and “at peace.”  I have to get the message through quickly, like a Deacon Jones head slap off the line.

Eric answers the phone and busily lets me know he’s busy getting ready to go down to Stockton for Mark and mom, and I think he asks me about hospitals.  I can’t remember all the words, because I’m pushing so much down emotionally. I think I ask him if he’s in a safe place so that we can talk, and then I tell him. Mark isn’t going to a hospital.  He died.

“WHAT?”

Mark is dead. He died. He’s in mom’s house right now, in the kitchen.

Eric breaks into feral, grunting sounds, animal noises of suffering grief that I recognize. As my heart shatters for him, I finally understand Mark’s remarks through the past two decades, about my own reaction to the news that dad died. It wasn’t bemusement Mark felt. It was responsibility – for a moment when he caused me so much pain. I hold onto that connection and it calms me. Mark did so many hard things. I can do hard things too. I need to cause another brother pain now.

I call Ted next.  He’s on the road to Stockton already, still believing Mark is alive and en route to a hospital. I deliver the news.  His grief expresses itself quietly, like a shift in the breeze, a whisper; but it’s still a sledgehammer. He pulls over to the side of the road.

I keep pushing it all down, and we get to the practical business of dealing with the messy fact that Mark is lying dead in Mom’s house.

———-

I loved living in Seoul, Korea as a little girl. It was a vibrant, third-world urban mess with family and a grandma who doted on me.  I hated living in Stockton, California, where we moved when I was 10. I never felt like I fit in there, and I was very lonely.  Life was complicated because of my parents’ volatile marriage, financial insecurities, and sibling challenges. Belatedly, I see that racism also played a heavy hand in my youthful American experiences.  So I went across the country to college, and other than a brief year after getting my undergraduate degree, I left California and never looked back.

If I was the prodigal daughter, running as far away as I could, Mark was the son who stayed. Stockton was the place for him, near my mom and dad and his childhood friends.

With Ted, Eric and me in more distant locales — I the furthest away — Mark carried on best he could with the increasing obligations of caring for aging parents.

Mark visited dad every day in hospital at the end.

When mom had a stroke some years after, Mark was the one her husband John called. Mark called 911, got her to the hospital, tended her through her recovery, managed her medications and doctors and therapists.

When mom fell out of bed and broke her hip, and John was too out of it to know what to do, Mark was the one who figured out something was wrong and, once again, called 911, got mom to the hospital, took her through another long recovery.

Mark was the one mom called when John died in mom’s home — the same home where Mark would die. Mark gave John CPR until the paramedics arrived, though the effort could not save John’s life anymore than the EMTs could safe Mark’s.

Mark was the one who moved in with Mom after John’s death, because Mom couldn’t successfully live alone anymore.  

When mom was hospitalized for two or more weeks during the pandemic for fluid around her heart and lungs, Mark would drive to the hospital every day and just sit outside by the entrance. He wasn’t allowed in, of course. When I asked one day why he went there anyway, he replied, “I don’t know. Maybe I can get in today. I need to be here.”

Mark wasn’t perfect and he dropped balls and he had lifelong addiction issues. But he was always there. The rest of us came when we could, and left when we needed to. Mark’s world was with dad and then John and always mom, in a cycle of co-dependency.  It was a burden and journey that I imagine broke his heart.

——–

Back in Stockton, Mom’s at home with her dead son and a couple paramedics, and Ted is still more than an hour out.

A paramedic has told me they’re going to leave before the coroner’s office gets there, so mom will be alone with Mark’s body and needs to not touch it. I try not to lash out as I explain the obvious to him: you can’t leave an elderly mother alone in a house with her dead son and expect her to leave his body alone! What are you thinking?

I make some calls, Eric makes some calls, we start working all the things out. I ask my alive brothers to please drive safely. I can only lose one tonight.

For decades, Mark has been the one who navigated with mom through the impossible moments. Who will do it now?


Conversations with little grandma, #3: apple picking

Mom, let’s go apple-picking. Have you ever been apple-picking?

Mom looks at me with curiosity. “What, apple-picking?”

Yeah, apple picking. We go to an apple orchard, and we pick our own apples. We do it every year.

“Yah, let’s go apple-picking!”

Nick and Anthony aren’t very interested this year, so on a Friday when Jesse doesn’t have school, the 3-gen girls hit the road, two daughters and a mother, all of us no taller than the 5th percentile of height in America.

Mom is enthusiastic about doing something new. “On Hildreth [her old street in California] someone every year had this, you could go pick apples, but I never did it.”

88 years she’s waited for this experience. I am providing. It’s fun, I tell her, low key but fun. The apples are so fresh, pick one and bite into it, even a bad apple fresh off the tree is better than the best apple at the supermarket. Mom nods. We make plans to pick way too many apples. She can give some to the workers painting her house and to church friends.

I’ve read news on the website for the farm we’re going to: the Honeycrisps are ripe and ready for pick-your-own as of Thursday. I love Honeycrisps, and this is Friday. We’re getting there before the weekend so the pickings should be good. But when we arrive at the farm, the lady handing out bags tells me that, in fact, the Honeycrisp harvest stinks. There’s almost nothing on the trees.

We adjust. Pippins are nice. We drive down the dirt lane, past several other apple varieties I’m not interested in. The Pippins are at the very end, two rows of trees, and just one other car is parked there. Mom looks very curious as we pull up.

The trees are dripping with ripe apples. Mom is ooh’ing and aah’ing. Jesse is sixteen, so I have to tell her to put down her phone and grab a bag. We march down the row of trees, at least half way down so we can get to trees that fewer visitors have touched.

Mom starts out quick, pulling the closest apples she can reach and muttering ruefully about the apples that have already fallen to the ground. I haven’t seen her this young in decades. She’s laughing out loud about the abundance of apples, chattering about how she never got to do this before, how beautiful it is here. I suggest she slow down — choose the biggest, best ones, be picky. Mom, Jesse and I take juicy bites out of a shared apple and stand still under the blue sky for a bit, savoring the fresh tang.

As we gather apples, we take note of the often-paired ones, nose to nose – you pick one, the other of the pair falls off. So you have to take them both, or what a waste. Like twins, I say. They’re married, Jesse says. Like brother and sister, little grandma says.

We wander slowly up and down the row, trying not to pick all our apples from just one tree. I manage a couple pictures, but it’s an extremely low priority. Our hands are full of apples most of the time.

(Those aren’t Jesse’s natural cheeks by the way. Those cheeks are absolutely stuffed with apples in this picture. It was just too delicious for her to stop eating for the photo op.)

I walk away with purpose and spy from a distance. What a wonder my bookend girls are, my mother and my daughter. Jesse gets maternally protective, giving me the occasional stink-eye for not watching over her little grandma more carefully. The henpecking is gentle, responsible, loving. Grandma, be careful. Grandma, don’t go in there. Grandma, let me hold that for you. Grandma, what are you doing? Little Grandma seems to enjoy the attention. Jesse looks bemused as mom walks right into the center of a tree, among the branches, and comes back out laughing and carrying too many apples the size of softballs in the crook of her arms. Jesse helps pick them up and put them in the bag as little grandma drops them here and there, giggling all the while.

When our bags are overstuffed, we walk back down the row of trees to the car. We’ve picked 60 pounds of apples, no exaggeration. Mom wants to carry a bag holding about 10 pounds, and Jesse fusses about this decision. After a moment, she marches next to Mom’s wobbling form and gently insists on carrying the bag for her, but mom refuses to give it up. I invite them to each hold a handle on the bag, so Mom can carry it with Jesse’s help. This solution hits the spot, and they walk slowly, side by side to the the car.

In my world, filled with noisy emotions and needs and conflict, and years of mental health challenges and dangers and struggles for my kids, It’s all so strangely peaceful for this moment in the apple orchard. There’s nothing for Jesse to scream at. There’s no one to goad her. There are no triggers. There’s nothing to fail at. There’s just… apples and Little Grandma.

We spend the next couple hours being together. We make plans to come back to the orchard in a couple weeks for more apples. We get gas. We get lunch. We go to the grocery store. We get ice cream. It’s all slow and easy.

We take Little Grandma home. She wants to keep 20 pounds of apples. Before I think, I argue gently and unnecessarily. What are you going to do with 20 pounds of apples, Mom? They’ll go bad before you finish them.

“I love apples. I can eat them all.”

Conversations with Little Grandma, episode 2: visitation

I startled awake from a strange dream this morning.

I was at a family gathering of some inchoate nature, in a house that was an amalgam of several homes I’ve known. My brothers were there. I looked up from the living room and saw all three of them – Mark, Eric and Ted – standing outside on the deck chatting happily. I stared at them; it took a moment for me to realize what was amiss.

Eric came inside, looking excited and relieved. “Mark’s back! He didn’t die. He just went somewhere, and now he’s back.”

Ted joined him, looking slightly irritable but also very happy. “Mark just went somewhere. He’s not gone. He’s back now.”

I didn’t understand. I knew they were wrong. After an awkward moment, I replied, “But… Mark’s dead.”

Ted and Eric cheerfully insisted to me. No, he’s here, look. We were mistaken.

I shook my head in disbelief, but there Mark was, standing right there, looking at me sheepishly, in a stained t-shirt and beat up shorts, just like he always looked. I started to feel excited myself. We approached each other, and I saw that his eyes were the wrong color, a pale eerie blue unrelated to his own gentle brown eyes.

I said aloud, “This can’t be. Mom saw the body. She saw Mark die. Mark, you’re dead.”

But there he was. We embrace each other in a bear hug. I was holding my brother again, tight. Could it be real?

And then his solid substance dissolved. My embrace passed through him. He stood looking at me quietly, a wraith, and I said, “It’s okay Mark. You can go. We’re okay.”

*********

As we drove to physical therapy this morning, I told mom about the dream. I cried a little as I got to the end. Mom stared impassively out the window, and we had a little conversation. I tried to get her to tell me about Mark as a baby, but I think the dream had thrown her for a loop. She struggled to engage and pull the words.

It wasn’t a sad dream, Mom, while I was in it. I’m crying now because I miss Mark, but the dream itself, I didn’t feel sad in it.

It’s a nice dream. Mark hasn’t come to my dreams.

You don’t dream at all anymore, do you.

No, I don’t dream anymore, not one dream.

I don’t know if it was a nice dream, Mom. It was weird.

You’re lucky Mark came to your dream.

Why was I lucky to dream about Mark?

Because you got to see him again.

Conversations with Little Grandma, episode 1: Ah-Nak

Hey mom, did you have a best friend when you were little?

Yes, but I can’t remember her name.

What did you guys do together?

I don’t remember.

Where did you live when you were little?

It was called Ah-Nak, in Hwang Hae Do, what do you call it, the area Hwang Hae Do.

Like a region?

Yeah, yes, that region.

We pull up North Korea on google maps and hunt. There it is still, the town of Ah-Nak, close to Pyeongyang, the current capital of North Korean — but just a dusty farm village back in 1932 when Little Grandma was born.

Oh. I thought you lived much further north.

No, that’s where I grew up.

Who did you play with back then?

I don’t remember.

Her brow furrows. The questions are tugging at something, deep memories. Words are starting to come out, but it requires patience.

I know your family eventually went south. When did you leave Ah-Nak?

When I was seven.

Tell me.

My mother, your grandma, came and took me to Incheon.

I remember the story. Tell me how that happened.

She had polio and had to go to a hospital for a long time. And then my sister, Soonja, became very sick. My mother came back to be with her in the hospital, and then Soonja died.

Do you know what she died of?

Nooo, they probably knew. I don’t know. But it was something that was going around. She was five years old.

I didn’t realize Grandma came back to your village because Soonja was sick. I thought she left because of polio.

Yes. I was seven, Soonja was five, and your Uncle Sung Joo was about 3. Soonja died. Then my mother said she was going back to Incheon and taking my little brother with her. All her family had moved there. I remember they got in the car and she said good bye to me. I was screaming and crying, Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me behind, how can you leave me! I took of my shoes and chased the car and threw my shoes at the car, I was so angry. And they left. I was in first grade.

Oh my God, I never knew it all happened at the same time, Mom. I never knew Soonja died and then grandma left with your brother right after. And Grandpa didn’t pay any attention to you, did he?

No.

So you were suddenly just completely alone. You must have felt abandoned.

Little Grandma nods sadly, remembering. I wait a moment but she doesn’t speak, so I poke a little.

That’s incredibly traumatic. I don’t know if a person ever really heals from that.

Little Grandma nods in agreement, still without words.

Who took care of you after that?

You know, people.

What people?

House maids, house boys. We were rich.

Did you have any other relatives in Oh-Nak?

Sure, my father’s family. I went to first grade there, in my village.

I remember you telling me a houseboy would give you oh-boh-bah [piggyback rides] to school.

We laugh together, imagining this abandoned yet spoiled little girl, too rich to walk to school on her own feet.

Grandma came back for me after about a year.

I remember you telling me about seeing her next to a fence.

The story is a little different than I’ve heard before, but the feelings are the same.

Yes, I had to come home from school one day, about a year after grandma left with Sung Joo. That particular day, I had gone to school with no underwear on, and everyone could tell through my skirt fabric.

What the heck, Mom. Why would you go to school without underwear on?

I have no idea! So I had to go home. I remember I fell into some water on the way. There was water next to one of the fields, like extra water for emergencies? And I fell in that. And no underwear on.

Mom! What the heck were you doing?

I have no idea! A nice farmer saw me and pulled me out, and helped me.

So I walked home from there, soaking wet, and when I got home my mother was there. And that’s how she found me. She told me she had come back for me and she was taking me with her to Incheon. We took the train. When we got to Incheon, my mother realized I couldn’t read or write.

But you were going to school. How did that happen?

I don’t know. I was the rich man’s daughter. Maybe they just didn’t bother. My mom was shocked. She said, you need to read and write! So she taught me how.

Grandma taught me how to read Korean too; it’s one of my earliest memories.

She was a good teacher, wasn’t she? So Grandma taught me how to read and write in Korean and Japanese, because remember, the Japanese occupied Korea, and we were strictly forbidden to use Korean, except at home we did. By second grade, I could read and write, and by third grade I had become such a good student that they made me class president. That’s also the year, third grade, when I was given a Japanese name to use, because we were required to have Japanese names.

We look at the map of Korea some more.

Didn’t you end up in Busan at some point?

Yes, eventually, I think in 1941, we fled from Incheon because of the war. We took a boat down the coast.

Did you have family in Busan?

Sure we had family there – but they were also refugees, like us, like thousands of Koreans who fled to Busan.

The conversation winds down. I ponder her story as I go to sleep, and I have an unexpected insight. The next day as I sit with mom, I tell her about my blog. I tell her I want to have conversations with her, and tell my little world her stories. I tell her that these stories are for me, and for our family, so we never forget. She’s enthusiastic.

I share my insight. I tell her, as I choke back unexpected tears, how I finally understand why she was so relentless with my brothers, no matter what shit they got into, what trouble they caused, how cruel they were to her. On any given day, she might have been dysfunctional, she might have yelled and screamed, she might have been a lot less than perfect, she might have done more harm than good. But she never let go. She always tried to find a way to help, even if I thought she was insane in how she went about it.

I used to wonder why, but now, finally, I know. She would never pass on the legacy of what her family did to her, when she was seven. She would never abandon us.

Mom looks at me without blinking, straight in the eye as we sit side by side on the sofa. She can’t cry, but I see a tenderness in her stare. She nods gently. “That’s right,” she whispers.

Conversations with Little Grandma: prologue

My 88-year old mother moved to Wisconsin in March to live 300 yards down the street from my family. In the two months since then, I’ve probably spent more time with her than I have during the past 25 years combined. 2021 was our first Mother’s Day together since, I don’t know… 1989?

Mom’s move here was essential to her meaningful survival, for reasons I don’t want to talk about right now. I think her move may well turn out to be essential to my family’s survival too, in some as-yet-to-be-determined way. My children are still processing what it means to have Little Grandma (Jesse coined the moniker years ago) living so close, and I hope these times will leave them with a deeper understanding of the joys and challenges of love, family, and responsibility.

Mom has had a really tough run. A handful of years ago, she had a stroke that affected her cognition significantly. She lost her rage and her caustic humor and her executive functioning and her career as a really kick-ass realtor. Something went blank. She lost a lot of English and continues to experience serious aphasia in her ability to pull up words and speak. She lost the ability to cry.

When her husband John died two years ago, her inability to cry expressed itself fully. Though her throat burned and her heart ached, not a single tear came. She didn’t understand why.

Last August my brother Mark died at 58, collapsing in Mom’s kitchen. She held him and cried out to him as his spirit fled the flesh. No tears came, not a single one. Around the time of his funeral, she confessed it to me and wondered aloud if she was even grieving. I interrogated her like a lawyer would. Does your heart hurt? It is being crushed, she answered. Do you long for your son? Every moment. My heart is broken. She clutched her chest as she spoke, her face etched with pain. That sounds like grief to me, I replied.

And now here she is, 300 yards down the street from me in her own home, getting by with a lot of help from my family, and holding onto the tendrils of independent living and self-respect as she continues her long, long journey. My goal is to fight back her loneliness and help her live as happy a life as she can, retaining as much dignity as she can as the twilight advances.

Here I am, 54 years old, with the unexpected and extraordinary opportunity to see my mom every day (minus respite moments) for the foreseeable future. We’re building a new story together as we settle into new normal. I eat breakfast and dinner with her every day. She’s connecting with my kids and husband in beautiful ways. We’re gardening together and exploring her new world in Wisconsin together. She is showing exactly the kind of courage she’s always shown as she faces seismic changes in her life.

But I want to do more than just live in the now. Mom has had an epic life. I’d like to capture some stories of it before it’s too late. Not for sale, not for any venal reason, but just to hold them, and savor them, and treasure her.

An old friend Camille suggested the title of this blog: conversations with Little Grandma. She imagined it as a podcast, but Mom would likely be embarrassed by that. Sometimes it’s hard for her to pull up the words, and she shifts between English and Korean as she finds them. Sometimes she loses the thread and needs a little help rediscovering the path to the story she’s telling. So I hope to do what any good daughter would do: be an aide and guide to her history and her meaning. I will no doubt learn much about myself along the way.

Will the stories she shares always be factually accurate? Certainly not. But who asks that of poetry? Will my translations always be perfect representations? Certainly not. But who asks that of family?

We settled to our first little conversation this evening. I’ll just give you a teaser, and I’ll be back soon with the rest of it:

Mom was born in 1932 in a small farming village called Ah-Nak, in the region known as Hwang Hae Do, just southwest of Pyeong Yang in what is now North Korea. There were no cars or paved roads. In that village, the son of a rich landowner married a poor village girl beautiful enough to earn her an arranged marriage to a rich boy. They met on the day they married, and the first-born child of their union was a little girl who eventually gave birth to me.

A month of grumpy gratitude 2020: days 12 through 14, movies, lots of movies

There were long stretches in our 20’s and 30’s when Anthony and I watched at least 10 new-to-us movies a week, no exaggeration. We would probably still do it if we could, if jobs and children and living in Wisconsin didn’t intervene. We saw nearly every movie available in every theater in the Washington, D.C. area, including the art houses and foreign film venues. We rented movies with and without friends, drinking and ranting. We stayed up into the middle of the night watching oldies on rerun channels. We marathoned Bogart, noir, Kurosawa, Eastwood, rom-coms, Merchant Ivory, Bergman, trash action, Japanese anime. We didn’t worry about previews; we avoided them if possible. Even a bad movie is pretty good if you have no idea what it’s about before it starts.

I’ve searched my blog and it appears that, incredibly, I’ve never shared this story here: we watched The Matrix blind, having never seen a single trailer for it. I remember simply hearing that a new Keanu Reeves movie was out, called Matrix. Anthony rolled his eyes as I keened excitedly about Keanu, and then he grudgingly went to the theater with me. We had no idea what was going on plot-wise, and it was spectacular. (Anthony’s guilty pleasure is Point Break, and we both enjoy John Wick, so it looks like Keanu finally won him over.)

Oddly enough, my kids don’t seem to be very into cinema. They don’t even want to watch Christmas movies with us, which we’ve been doing relentlessly since Thanksgiving. I don’t get it. Movies offer so much escapism and imagination, and dramatized opportunities for cathartic release. Jesse and Nick don’t seem to want much to do with that scene.

But today Jesse came out of school, flopped into the car, and announced, “I wanna watch some Jim Carrey films.”

In parenthood, you learn to roll with the inexplicable punches.

She had seen a youtube vid during a break at school, showing Carrey’s best improv moments in films. I told her a bit about his weird sense of humor — I thought of Dumb and Dumber, The Truman Show, Liar Liar, In Living Color. I know he made some reasonably good films, and I used to be really entertained by him. But he’s a particular brand of strong cheese, like Will Ferrell or Eddie Murphy, and I eventually wearied of his style.

We got home and looked him up on IMDB. We settled on Ace Ventura Pet Detective, for a first watch. Anthony rented it on Amazon and… I couldn’t do it. I didn’t feel like watching that kind of stupid tonight. I hung out in the kitchen for a while and then went upstairs and lay in bed, playing stupid casual games on my phone.

But I couldn’t avoid the sounds. First there were the weird noises Jim Carrey himself makes, which, without visual inputs, are truly bizarre. And then… there was Jesse.

Just a couple hours earlier, she had told me she was sad for no reason. This is very common for her, a function perhaps of clinical depression, anxiety, the alienation and loneliness that accompany her mental health disabilities, being 15, the year 2020. When she says it – “Mom, I feel sad for no reason” – it doesn’t come across passionate or desperate. She seems more fatalistic, wistful even, and tired.

I should have grown used to her expressing this feeling by now, but it still kicks me in the gut every time. It feels like there’s nothing I can do for her. But I have a mantra, when she’ll listen. Go do something to distract yourself. Go outside. Look up. Read a book. Draw. Make music. Watch a movie. I love you.

Tonight, the movie magic happened. She wandered around the house in embarrassment during the most humiliating scenes. I lazed on the bed, listening to her giggle, comment, groan, squeal, and laugh. The sound of her light-hearted enjoyment landed on my ears like a soft snowfall that leaves me smiling, but with a small sense of awe – just a little bit bracing, peaceful, and very beautiful.

A month of grumpy gratitude 2020: days 8 through 11, because efficiency and consolidation are good

When I sit down at my computer, I always start with the same thing – open the news and scan. It’s not a healthy habit. I usually hit up WaPo, NY Times, NPR, and frequently BBC and the Guardian; and at least a few times a week I visit Fox News, just to see how the other half hallucinates. I would keep an eye on the Wall Street Journal, but they have a strict paywall and I don’t want to give them money.

If I was a pulled-together buddha-person, I would set aside a specific time each day when I allow myself to read the news, so that the rest of the time I could be peaceful and emotionally blank. Instead, I’m a disheveled masochist. These days, reading the news all day long means feeling angry, anxious, and slightly terrified all day long. I have long internal ranting monologues about COVID-19, voters being disenfranchised, the gaslighting of America by the GOP, all the lies of the right-wing conspiracy machinery, global warming, universal access to healthcare (or more rightly, the lack thereof), poverty and wealth disparity, the fact that Americans no longer seem to remember that capitalism and free markets aren’t one and the same thing, police brutality, gun culture, racism, on and on and on.

The last few days have been especially focused and bad for me, as I watch things go down with the presidential election. Gaslighting is a word that rattles through my head over and over. “Stop the Steal” indeed. Some A-hole in Texas – who happens to be under federal indictment – thinks he should have the right to cancel my vote in Wisconsin and give the choice instead to the GOP legislature that has gerrymandered itself into permanent power here. (side note: the GOP legislature here wants to give itself the power to decide who gets a COVID-19 vaccine and when. Hey, yeah, that’s not politicizing public health.) Almost a quarter of the members of our national House of Representatives, and seventeen state attorneys general (that’s a full third of our states), have joined the Texas A-hole in this quest. It is literally shocking to me. They have come out: their singular goal is for Trump to be president come February, no matter what, democracy be damned.

The threat to our nation and constitution isn’t from some mythical monster the GOP and Fox News imagine and brandish, some apparently giant brain capable of manipulating a nation-wide election to give the Democratic presidential candidate a fake 7-million-vote lead but unable to wrest control of important state houses out of the hands of the GOP. There really is a threat, but the real threat is the GOP’s willingness to do and say anything, literally anything without reference to reality or truth, to hold onto power. Complacency is not an option right now, and yet folks all around me are all chill, hey it’ll all work out, we’re winning, the election will hold and the Supreme Court …

Do you remember Kavanagh? You trust the future of our republic to a guy like him?

And why is our federal government, aka OMG-that-man-is-our-president, rushing to execute people?? Is it an implied threat? Is it just… mean? It’s certainly not pro-life. It’s brutal and awful and I hate it.

Tip of the iceberg. I can’t go down this rabbit hole right now. How am I supposed to hunt gratitude? It feels cloying and false today, as it did yesterday and the day before and…

Well. Today I will reboot. I will make gingerbread and mince pies. I will smile and bake. I will hug my kids and watch Christmas movies. I will take a nap.

I will be grateful that, for now at least, I still live in a nation where I can still say these things without having too much fear that I’ll be jailed or killed for saying them. I guess we’ll see if that holds true in the years to come.

A month of grumpy gratitude 2020: day 6 oopsie, day 7 chainsaw

I’m certain I was grateful for something yesterday. It was probably (once again) that I don’t make a living with this blog, and my 17 followers are understanding when I let them down. Or maybe it was the tacos I was grateful for. Tacos always qualify for gratitude.

Well never mind. On to day 7.

The back half of our property is part of some woods that run through the neighborhood. Sadly, a vast majority of the trees are stately ash, and the emerald ash borer plague has killed them all.

There they stood, towering for decades, tall and slender, being perfectly happy ash trees and offering homes to whatever creatures came, and then the miserable little invading bug came along and did this to them, just under the bark:

That ribbony damage completely destroys the tree’s ability to deliver nutrients and water up the trunk. Ash trees attacked by the emerald borer typically die standing, and quite suddenly. There’s no evidence they’re dying, until they’re dead.

This year the ash in our yard finally gave up their ghosts. As summer came into full bloom, they offered no leaves. They just stood there, tall and proud and naked, and dead. Before the leaves fell off our other trees – a couple oaks, a handful of maples, maybe a walnut, a few I haven’t bothered to identify — I went around and marked the dead ash with spray paint. Look at all the trees that have died.

It turns out yellow spray paint doesn’t stand out as well as neon pink, but maybe you can make out the exes.

Look at this enormous beauty (a badly placed owl box is about 10 feet up its trunk) that has been a centerpiece of our woods. The photo doesn’t do it justice. It’s about 80 feet tall and probably over a hundred years old, ramrod straight with an enormous canopy. Also 100% dead, thanks to a tiny pest.

We got estimates to take down our dead ash trees. It will cost us $5000 for the three really big ones between our home and our neighbor (look closely and you will see one of them leaning hard left, up by the houses). Large equipment will be involved to protect the houses from total destruction. It will take an additional $10,000 to bring a crew for three days’ labor in the back woods, and see how much they can get done.

[insert whatever “shock and awe” emojis work for you]

So we bought a chain saw. We aren’t newbs, at least. We used to have one when we owned 18 acres of woods, our first home. Using the chain saw was terrifying even when we were 30 years old, but it allowed us to take down dead trees and collect firewood. I never actually peed my pants from fear, but I came close several times.

We agreed not to touch the trees around the houses, or the big beauty with the owl box, which is at least three feet in diameter — pros are needed for that. But we figure we can fell trees that aren’t in danger of falling on houses or power lines. We started small and did okay. (“Small” is a term of art here, referring to trunk diameter and not height. Each of the trees we’re taking down is forest-grown to at least 60 feet tall.)

So far, we’ve felled and bucked two trees successfully. Firewood for the future!

Just a dozen or so more to go.

I cut down a third tree, but apparently did not place my starting wedge in the right direction. It looked like a perfect wedge to me, a nice pacman removal on the correct side of the tree. But when I cut the final cut from the other side, the tree missed my directional goal by at least 30 degrees, tipped barely over, and nestled itself snugly against another dead ash tree. Why. After we stared in dismay for a bit, and waited to see if the weight might just naturally crack them both over (it didn’t), and scratched our heads, Anthony went over to the second tree and went at it with the chain saw until it cracked under the weight of the tree leaning on it.

The sound of their mutual collapse was so loud that our neighbor came out to make sure we were okay. Physically, we were fine. But the emotional scars will never really heal. I was standing about 30 feet away from Anthony when he cut far enough through the second trunk that both trees went down, starting with really frightening crunching and snapping and cracking noises, and terminating with a sonic boom when the trunks hit the ground. As this short series of events commenced, Anthony turned toward me and we made eye contact, both of us radiating quiet terror. I waved him toward me in a small panic, but it was a useless gesture. He was already trotting with high-stepping feet through the brush toward me. We watched in mesmerized distress as the trees (slowly at first, but with really impressive acceleration) crashed to the ground.

Here was what we saw when it was all over.

It looks so innocent in these photos, so simple, just some trees down in some woods. Don’t be fooled. It took a lot of incompetence and fear to achieve this look. Our chainsaw is 18 inches of pure terror.

Working with a chainsaw is frightening, period. The good news is, I’m less afraid when I use it myself than I am when I watch Anthony using it. Love is a powerful source of fear and perspective. And each time Anthony comes away from a cut in one piece, all limbs and head still attached, physically unharmed, I am filled with profound, sigh-inducing, relief-filled gratitude.

A month of grumpy gratitude 2020: day 5, refi

Three weeks and two days ago, Anthony and I were chatting about how low interest rates are and how we should really refinance our home mortgage. Anthony, the real estate finance professor, said, “We should try Rocket Mortgage.”

This meant nothing to me. He explained that it’s a Quicken loan product. He got sort of hummy and bouncy, the way he gets when he’s enthused about something. We would pay a little bit more for this mortgage and we might not get the absolute rock-bottom rate we could hunt for through a human broker, but it was supposed to be extremely low-hassle, and almost exclusively on-line. He wanted to check it out and see how it works.

So I googled Rocket Mortgage. It was fairly easy to navigate the webpage and identify options and see how low the rate could get by paying points, but then we had to decide what product to select. I threw up my hands and shrugged, because how am I supposed to know? Enter the college professor. “Hold on!” announced Anthony in a hummy, energized sort of way as he ran downstairs to his desk to retrieve his massive Texas Instruments T-800 human-cyborg financial calculator.

He quickly conducted an incremental cash flow analysis, barking out questions to me as I sat in front of my laptop, blinking. “What’s our remaining principal! What’s our current interest rate! What’s our monthly payment! What are the estimated fees and closing costs! What’s the interest rate offer with no points for 15 years! Is there any relationship between the quantum description of reality and the reality we perceive! How long will we remain in this house!” His fingers moved in a blur over the human-cyborg calculator, as he ran some equations and determined what the return on investment is for refinancing depending on how much in points we pay and how long we keep the mortgage and fees and the holding period —

(Yes, Anthony is standing next to me right now, dictating that. Well, most of it. Incremental cash flow analysis, pffffhthfhttht, Carla’s retention level = .001 percent)

— and then he announced, “PAY THE POINTS.”

Five minutes later, we had completed and submitted the initial application. A few minutes after that, I got an email telling me what to do next. By the next day, I had received a text from some lady in another state who was managing our application. I uploaded and entered all the documentation and information they needed. It wasn’t much. It took Anthony and me about half an hour of effort, over the course of several lazy days, to get it all done. The hardest part was calling our insurance company and having them hand-hold me through accessing an on-line account so I could download a declaration sheet to give Rocket – and the only reason that was hard is because I’m an incompetent fool.

That was it. No appraisal (all that’s on Zillow now anyway, isn’t it?), no demands for bank statements and asset lists and photos of our children and dogs.

Then we waited while Rocket verified Anthony’s employment and did whatever a mortgage lender does. We got occasional texts and emails telling us about how things were going, what we needed to do or look at, and so on. Then I got a text telling us to schedule our closing, and a link to the closing agent’s website. There, we created accounts and were able to peruse all the closing documents well ahead of our formal closing date and time. We’ve closed on seven mortgages, I believe, and have never been given closing documents ahead of time in a way that allowed us to review them meaningfully. It was a definite first.

This morning, we e-signed all the closing documents, and then a closing agent came to our house with the few things we needed to reality-blue-pen sign. She was masked, we were masked, and it took literally five minutes. Done. Three weeks and two days, from application to closing.

I know this reads like a product endorsement. And I suppose it is, but that’s inadvertent. And just to be clear, I won’t know that this was a success until I’m certain our prior mortgage has been properly paid off. I also believe that we ended up paying more than we might have through a traditional broker. But boy, was it worth it, because I only had to be in the presence of another human being for five minutes. I didn’t have to endure sales pitches, or numbers being thrown around that meant nothing to me, or an hour being handed 300 sheets of paper I’d never seen before containing numbers I’d never seen before, or an appraiser coming into our house and poke around in our figurative underwear drawers. It was glorious for an antisocial beast like me.

Having my husband get weird with his calculator was an excellent bonus.

Grateful.