Folding time with the scent of the past

It’s been a long time since I wrote for this space. When my mom first passed, writing helped. I kept my words measured, each phrase carefully chosen for coherence. I kept a tight hold on sanity and reason by creating a world of carefully controlled sentences and thought. But all the while, behind the keyboard, I was screaming into the void, howling into a black sky where no moon ever rose, whirling lost in the chaos of hurt and raw anguish. Writing to try and find my mother in an emptiness I could not pierce.  Eventually, writing my grief exhausted me. 

It’s been six years since she passed. Grief has ebbed and flowed through those years. I have learned (sort of) to live without her, but it’s life with an emotional limp, a curvature in the spine of my splintered heart.

This week I was at my parent’s house, the family home. I woke up on Thursday morning with a song running through my head: Kermit the Frog singing Rainbow Connection. I have not heard that song in years, even when in the early months of the pandemic Kermit came out of retirement to gift the world a video of him reprising his biggest hit. I watched it Thursday morning and cried.

The weather has been unseasonably warm in California, and the soil around my parents’ house is already baking and cracking, dry and dusty instead of the usual February muck. “No use to plant a garden, “ my father insists. “They’re going to shut us down for water this year if we don’t get rain.”

In truth, he hasn’t gardened since the day my mother passed. What was once a blowsy, flowerful yard, a garden that stopped people in their tracks to admire and exclaim, is now bare soil with only a few deep-rooted shrubs that linger despite neglect. We have finally, my Dad and I, in the last year, begun to talk a bit about her death, and we’ve both agreed that all our heart for gardening left when she left. I know it shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

In the back yard, where she grew lettuce tomatoes, beans, cucumber, kohlrabi, strawberries, plums, and enough zucchini to frighten the neighbors, only two productive trees remain: a Santa Rosa Plum and a Meyer lemon.

The Meyer lemon produces prodigiously. Branches bow like prayers under clusters of lemons in various states of maturity. Old grandmother lemons, thick wrinkled rinds darkened by sooty mold hang in the interior of the tree, while a bit further out along the thorny branches grow middle-age lemons, ruddy orange and full of sugars. At the ends of the branches young lemons an innocent yellow tinged with green nod under blossoms that scent the branch tips.

I spent some time picking lemons, smelling the fresh scent, the light lemony essence that mingled with the perfume of a Bay Area spring. Star jasmine, Daphne, early roses, narcissus. In that barren back yard I felt the presence of my mother’s past gardens, the ghosts of bean rows and squash leaves. The wraiths of past tomato plants haunted by the buzzing of long-gone bees.

Can involuntary memory—startled into existence by a scent, a taste, a sound, just a few notes in a pentatonic scale—eclipse time, fold time as if the years are accordion pleats, gussets that close onto themselves and play two time-tunes so close that past and present nearly touch? Do we carry time in our noggins, the hours, days, and years resting along our corrugated brains? When those folds are squeezed like a bellows by scent, sound, taste, even sight, does the reality of the past leap like electrons across space and open in our presence like flowers scenting the air?

The mélange of smell followed me into the house, where it wound its way through the scents of laundry detergent, last night’s dinner, and the faint but still present smell of my mother. My dad watched a Western on the tv. In the distance the commuter train blew its horn, and a dog barked. Time slipped. For the first time in six years, I felt my mom’s presence at the house, as if she had entered with me, peeling off her gardening gloves and saying, “well, we had better get your father fed.”

I heard in my head Kermit singing, “All of us under its spell. We know that it’s probably magic…”

On that warm spring day I imagined the bellows of time closing for a brief moment as memory ran through time’s wet-tuned reeds. Past and preset merged. In the tree at the door a chickadee sang through the leaves, “hey sweetie, hey sweetie, hey sweetie,” and I got my dad some dinner.

Baking bread for my mother


Tuesday night I walked among mermaids, lions, demons, and witches who flooded the  neighborhood. The streets were closed to traffic and a volunteer police force guarded us in the smoky suburban streets. Kids clumped together clutching bags of candy, then scattered as they ran and spun into the falling dusk, imp-giggles trailing like pine smoke in the butter-warm Indian summer night.

I set up an ofrenda, an altar, to my mom. On a bookshelf in the kitchen I spread a bright table cloth she gave me long ago, then set a photo of her taken on her birthday, a  2013 image of her smiling and pretty in a coral-colored suit jacket. Next to her photo I set a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream and a yellow Opal apple.


On Halloween I baked all day, making challah in the morning, and an apple pie in the evening. When I finally went to bed at midnight, my energy straddling the hour between Halloween and All-Saints day, the house smelled like her house—baking wheat, caramelized sugars, heat-softened fruit. Perhaps it would entice her to the ofrenda where she might drink the Baileys and taste the Opal apple. Perhaps she could reach through that veil and touch me.

Wednesday dawned warm and clear, fitting for All-Saints day, a day of remembrance for our loved ones who have gone to heaven. The time of year that the veil thins. A liminal time, a threshold, when one thing changes into another thing. In Mexico it’s the season of Dia de los Muertos, the time when the dead can come back to visit the living.

People tell tales of their loved ones visiting them. One friend told me she saw her mother standing in her bedroom, at the foot of the bed, the night after her mother died. Another saw her father in a cloud of cigarette smoke moving across her living room. Others see their loved ones in dreams, or hear their voices.

Today is November 2. I wept this morning because, despite the ofrenda (built, I admit, as bait to lure her into my home) I never felt my mom’s presence, save in the smells and tastes of the baking I began on Halloween. Perhaps that is all that’s left of her: The memories I can beg by dressing my life in activity; feelings I summon by making pie, bread, soups; remembrances of taste.

I don’t want a nebulous feeling, a drifting odor, a dream. I want to know that it’s her. I want a visitation.

And yet, I fear such a thing. Will she be angry that I didn’t do enough to save her? That we caused her pain as she died? That our efforts to keep her out of pain deprived her of consciousness?

That’s silly. My mother was not an angry woman. American culture’s fascination with horror has given ghosts a bad rap. Why would my mother be something in death that she did not embrace in life?

But she always kept her word. Long ago, she promised that if she could, she would come back to say goodbye. Which is more important to me now because death interrupted; we could not properly bid our adieus.

Fallow field 3.5″ x 2.5″ watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

It’s November 2nd. The ofrenda remains in my kitchen. The day is gray and chilled, and my loved ones hear me crying (my fiddler can hear me crying no matter how quietly I try to sob) and hug me. Perhaps today, or some time during this liminal season, my mother will reach across that thin threshold into the graying winter light, and give me some sort of sign. Then perhaps this grief can change into something else.



Conversations with grief


So, I haven’t been painting

There’s a story about painter Chuck Close that goes: When he was in the hospital, recovering from a paralyzing stroke, his wife said, for God’s sake, give him a paintbrush. If he doesn’t paint, he’ll die. In rehab, they strapped a paintbrush onto his hand and he invented a whole new way of painting that drew from his previous works, but did not —he could not—copy them.

He’s famous for the quote, “Art saved my life.”

I always thought I’d be like Close, creating art through any setback, drawing strength, sanity, and a sense of direction from the work.

Then my mother died, and I stopped painting.

I admit, painting had already scootched to the back seat last fall. As my mother grew weaker, I began spending as much time with her as I could, which meant I was away from my studio most weeks. I kept a sketch book, of course. I never went anywhere without a sketchbook.

This is the last sketch I made in my sketchbook.


I drew as she slept in the hospital bed. She woke up and remarked on the drawing, then asked for a drink of water. 15 days later she died.

Since then, I haven’t touched paint and brush enough to really even remark on it. In February struggled through a month of classes with my favorite teacher, Felicia Forte, but painting felt like swimming through pudding, without the chocolate, and I didn’t—I couldn’t—continue.

It’s not that I haven’t wanted to work. It’s just that I can’t seem to get started, somehow. That’s not like me; I always worked, in the mood or not. I believed—I believe—that chance favors the prepared.  If you’re not inspired, just draw something. Practice; inspiration will eventually come whistling through the door.

And here’s the thing: All my life, artwork energized me. My fiddler says it makes me glow. But since my mother passed, painting and drawing exhausts me. Even when drawing the figure, an exercise I purely love, my arm feels like lead, my charcoal feels like a gritty lump of dirt, the paper wrinkles and cockles, and every mark I make is awkward, as clumsy as if I’d never before drawn in my life.

The conversation

A few weeks ago I told a friend of mine, painter Chuck Waldman, that I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I hadn’t been painting. “I just didn’t have the ganas to paint,” I whined.

“It’s the grief,” he said, matter-of-factly. “You’re having a conversation with grief instead of with the paint. You have to have that conversation. When you’re done, you’ll paint again.”

He spoke about grief in the most natural way, as if we were discussing the weather, or gardening. He didn’t try to drown me in platitudes, he didn’t try to make me feel “better.” He didn’t try to fix my grief. He acknowledged it.

That acknowledgement came as such a relief. I didn’t have to defend my grief, or feel guilty about it; he didn’t make me feel like a Debbie Downer, he didn’t make me talk about it, or try to shut me up about it. Grief rose and fell in our conversation like trout in still water. And I appreciate that so much.

Chuck’s words lifted something heavy from my heart. It was as if he lifted a stone that had collapsed onto my soul. Still trapped, but I can see some daylight.

Soon after, I started attending life drawing sessions again. I’ve made a few small paintings, mostly of my friend’s kittens (they are cute, non-threatening, happy). I’ve been working on a series of illustrations based on fantasy sketches I made in the wee hours last year, when I could not sleep.

Most days are still too painful for painting. On those days, I need activities that occupy my whole brain. Being busy is good. I throw myself into my job, focus extra sharply on the task at hand. I immerse myself in words, writing reams that will mostly never see the light of day. And I admit, I’ve sunk into the quagmire of social media, that soporific of outrage and cute-overload.

I now know that I won’t die if I don’t paint. It’s okay to rest a bit. To have that conversation with grief. And gradually, I hope, I’ll start to work more regularly, and once again my brain will fire like sparks from a Roman candle. I have to trust that will happen, because there are days when the brush looks like a weapon rather than a tool.

Meanwhile, I try to strap the brush to my wrist, and invite grief to a three-way conversation with art. Will that conferencing change my work? I don’t yet know.

Grief and art? If they’re talking, it’s behind my back.

















The brave butterfly on the map

Fire Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

Kowana Valley is shaped on the map like a butterfly, two wings of golden-brown floating in a sea of GIS-forest green. It’s one of my favorite places on earth, home to friends who are central to my music family. For the last two days, I’ve been glued to the internet, watching red and yellow circles on the Current Wildfires Map creeping towards that little butterfly-shaped spot. To the south and east of it a massive wildfire approaches. At the time I’ve posted this, roughly 50 homes have burned.

Set in the oaks and pines of the Sierra Foothills, Kowana Valley is a heavenly piece of land, a wide valley set between mountain, split by a creek that sports two swimming holes, Native American grinding rocks, wildflowers, blackberries and willows. Any time I’ve spent there has been idyllic. I’ve slept outside on the lawn under stars and been woken by bees buzzing in clover; I’ve plunged into the cold waters of the creek; I’ve walked the perimeter and nearly stepped on a rattlesnake. Once a year for the last 20 years, it has been the site of a three-day camping party for folkmusic lovers; we play, dance, sing, swim, laugh, and eat. Many of us have played tunes together for decades; the party reunites those of us who have moved away from our original roots. Families come in all shapes, colors, and tones.

Since the fire started, I’ve been thinking about loss.

Two years ago my county burned in the Butte Fire. The fiddler and I were lucky, spared from losing our home, our town, our little housing development. But friends of mine were not so lucky. They lost everything but what was in their cars when they sped away from the crackling flames in abrupt evacuations.

In the mountains we take precautions to save our homes from wildfire. We rake away pine needles, trim away tall grass, cut back brush. But we live in a forest. A forest that traditionally burned often before Europeans arrived. Fire, like shit, happens.

Red Sun #2 Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

No matter how hard we try to build safe places, it’s sometimes not enough. One friend who lost her home said, “We thought we were safe. We had a rammed earth house, a metal roof. We didn’t think it would burn. Yeah, people in stick houses, they had nothing left. But us? We had rubble!”

I’ve talked to people who still forget, turn up their old road to what was once home. It’s a shock to them once again, to find nothing there. Some people are rebuilding, replacing what they lost; others moved away; many have found rentals and stayed in the county, unsure of their next steps.

It’s been seven months since my mom abruptly ceased to be. I am still not used to her absence. If my mind is not occupied with work, writing, podcasts, conversation, it drifts to my mom. These days I’m beginning to think of happy times we shared, but more often if drifts to that last month of her life. One minute she was talking to me, complaining about politics, laughing at the funny papers, making plans to come to my house, and then the next minute her blood pressure tanked and she drifted into incoherence, then a coma.

She died, not because of irresponsible actions by anyone, but because she was sick. She had fought a long battle against her disease. She outlived the prognosis for most people diagnosed with it. She was a good patient, following doctors’ orders tightly, giving up things she loved—wine, salt, bananas, leafy vegetables, dairy, broccoli—until in the end the list of things she could eat was very short. Her deprivations no doubt helped save her life. But at last, the wall of safety, the medicines, the diet, the antibiotics—none of it could save her life. Her poor body was ravaged by the disease, and death, like fire, is an element of this planet.

My mom built a family that was home, and she was the heart of it, the house of it, the metal roof and packed soil that protected it. Her death hit us like a fire. We are left with rubble. I’m not sure what kind of family we’ll rebuild; I’m not sure what it will look like. The loss of her is so great that perhaps we’ll simply stay fallow, leave the emotional rubble to eventually be swallowed by the overgrowth of time. That remains to be seen.

Yesterday I choked my way through dense smoke to the grocery store and bought the foods that I love but don’t usually eat because I’m always watching my weight. You know, trying to be healthy. Macadamia nuts, ice cream, kettle corn. And I ate them last night—yes, a binge— while watching fire circles on the map roll towards Kowana Valley. I sifted through memories of the valley, of my friends who not only own the land but are stewards of the land.

The butterfly shape of the valley is slightly bedraggled looking, but on the map the image is flying directly, bravely, hopelessly into the future towards the fire. Because that’s all it can do.

Kiss a bee in the morning

Disclaimer: I do not receive anything but love from the folks who own Kowana Valley. You can read more about Kowana Valley at their website: and you can stay at their lodge (after the fire, of course, and please keep your fingers crossed, pray to whatever God hears your supplications, or just keep cool, wet thoughts coming towards the Central Sierra.)






Cleaning out my mother’s closets

My mother’s red duster


I wrote this three months ago. It was too soon for me to even proof read it. Now, after 6 months of the numbness of grief, I am able to read this, correct the spelling and the grammar, and put it out there for the world to read. I have been sorting clothes, and trying to figure out what to do with them.

My father asked me to clear my mother’s clothes from the closets and drawers in the house. Seeing her things hurts him. The loss is too fresh. Three months ago she passed; it’s the longest my parents have been apart in nearly 60 years. Her clothes are reminders of her absence, tangible pieces of the person who has ceased to exist.

I can’t stand to see my father in pain, so I taped together boxes with multi-colored duct tape I found in the garage and I started to empty the closets. My dad studiously made a salad for dinner. He’d prepared a full meal of all my favorites: meat loaf, mashed potatoes, Momma’s home canned green beans. It was the first full meal he made for the fiddler and me since my mother left us. He didn’t turn around as I taped up boxes.

“Your father, he’s a clothes horse,” Momma used to tease, but her own closets were packed with clothes hanging neatly from wooden hangars. Pants and shirts crisply ironed, seams straight, collars arranged properly, cuffs square, buttons done up, everything ready to be worn. As I emptied the closets, hangars clicked and fabric whispered. I fumbled with the origami of sleeves and shirt tails—I never did learn to fold clothing properly—and I apologized to my mother as I pressed each shirt and trouser into a dry smelling cardboard box.

Joan Didion in A Year of Magical Thinking says that, after her husband’s death, she kept his shoes. Surely he’d need them when he came back, when he returned from the temporary journey he’d taken the night he died. Because surely, she thought, he was coming back.

I felt the same way. Despite all logic to the contrary, I was awash in guilt as I packed away her clothing. How could I take away her clothes, the things she was so proud of, the shirts and pants in which she looked so cute and so pretty? What would she wear when she finally returned home? When she was over this death thing and came back to us?

In my anguish, I imagined her, unseen, gesturing to me, waving her hands and saying stop that! Or worse, I imagined her weeping for the loss of her elegant slacks and sweaters, her comfy jersey shirts and her capris with the stretchy waists. My mother had grown up during the depression, so poor that my grandmother made her clothing from patterned flour sacks. Momma loved clothes. They made her feel safe.

I wondered, what will I do with these clothes, to honor her? Where can I take them, how can I make it bearable to part with the only solid, touchable things I have left of her?

I imagine I’ll keep some of the clothes. They fit, I am short on clothes-buying cash, and we wore the same size. They are quite beautiful. I don’t feel ghoulish about this at all. Pre-modern times it was quite common to leave clothes to survivors. Clothing was hard to come by and in short supply.

What I don’t keep will ultimately go to a second hand store, and that saddens me beyond measure, to imagine her freshly-laundered, sweet-smelling slacks and shirts and skirts and robes and pajamas jammed into the racks of the sour, mildew-reeking aisles of the local thrift shop. Or worse, just thrown away or ripped into rags because nobody wants them.

I know my mother was—is—not her clothes. But as I searched through her things, seeking some sign of her—a diary, a journal, a day book—some words in which I could hear her voice, it became clear that one of the few impressions I had of her were her clothes. They still smelled of her, the clean of laundry soap and the faint scent of who she was. They still held the shape of her body, the stretch across the shoulders, the push of her bosom, the set of her hips and the angle of her legs. If I put laid them out on the bed, could her ghost fill them and sit up and go make dinner or come out for a walk with me?

Shedding the clothes of one who died is a tough row to hoe. As I went through the closets, I kept finding clothes of my grandmother (dead these 20 years) still hanging, ready for her to wear. They appeared like anachronisms in an archeological dig as I sifted through the clothes: a fur cape; a ruffled rayon shirt; a plaid wool jacket. My mother used to ask me, “what should we do with Granna’s things? We can’t just throw them away.” I never had a good answer, except, “I’ll take them, Mom.”

At my house I have my grandmother’s cedar chest, full of her treasures. For the last three years my mother planned to visit me, and together we planned go through the chest, unpacking, sorting, identifying the provenance of each item. Momma never made that visit; she was never well enough. Now I have to go through my grandmother’s cedar chest and my mother’s cedar chest. Alone.I have no children or female siblings. My mother’s grand daughters live far away, and are busy with their lives. I screwed up. I should have had a daughter to help me sort through the clothes of my mother and grandmother, to bear witness to their lives, to cry with me as I remember their lives, my own life. There is no one to care about these clothes with me, to listen to stories they tell. Someone who would treasure at least a few items—Momma’s wedding dress (used three times by her, my aunt, and me) maybe? Or the fur coat my grandmother made for her. The handmade square dance dresses she twirled in back in her prime.

Instead I cry alone until the fiddler hears and comes to hold me. And he makes plans to cart all these clothes to our house so I can go through them as I can bear it and decide what to keep and what to discard.



Speaking with the dead


It’s been four months since my mother left us. I get along most days with few and brief teary episodes. But a friend emailed today to tell me her mother had entered into hospice care. What a shitty thing to happen in spring, when life is shouting and exhulting and bursting into blooms and babies and renewal.

But winter is a shitty time to lose your mother too. All seasons blow when it comes to losing the important people in your life. My friend’s news brought back that white-knuckle feeling I had when we made the decision to let my mother go, that terror of skidding out-of-control over a cliff into a chasm deep and cold, where you know your heart will be dashed and shattered on hard reality below. A sharp edge of panic sliced through my composure and threatened to cut my day short with sorrow.

Instead, I tried to collect myself, kept myself busy. I worked extra hours and extra hard to ignore her absence, to forget that I haven’t spoken with my mother since December.

Four months. It’s the longest I’ve ever gone in my life without talking to my mom. Even when I lived abroad, or was traveling in a camper van for months on end, I called her as often as possible. And when I couldn’t call, I wrote.

I learned from her. She and my grandmother were great letter writers. When I was a little girl, we got a letter from my grandmother every couple of weeks, and my mother read it to the whole family at the dinner table.  I know my mother wrote back to her often as well. They had to write; long distance telephone calls were expensive and dollars were in short supply. Stamps were cheap.

Their letters weren’t particularly poetic or erudite or filled with abstract thought; the folded writing paper, so thin it was almost transparent, was filled with stories about the neighbors, or the garden, or what was for dinner. I wish we had some of those letters now, but I have so far not been able to find any. I long for anything bearing my mother’s or my grandmother’s voice, even if it’s just a laundry list of chores, or that they heard a particular bird singing in the trees.

These days it’s hard to believe in a time when you couldn’t simply poke at a screen and connect with your loved one. But in those days, what we now take for granted—skype, face time, Messenger—seemed impossible. Science fiction.

Now I talk to my dad every night. I wish I had talked to my mother every night. We had the capability; it’s the age of miracles and wonder after all. But I let work, tiredness, stupid Facebook, and sheer laziness stop me from calling her. And the calls I did make, we didn’t record. Who ever thinks to?

I wonder. Will we ever conquer the distance that death puts between us? Will someday some tech company make gazillions of dollars patenting a device that will let you talk to your dead mother, and let her answer?

If so, I’ll mortgage everything to buy it.


Why do we cry and how can I stop?

Tear crystals
Tears of Timeless Reunion
©2013 Rose-Lynn Fisher
Used with permission

The history of tears

As the days roll on, ferrying the memory of my mother farther down the dark river of loss, I’m surprised that I can go whole hours without crying; even, on rare occasion, a whole day goes by with few or no tears.

Of course, it wasn’t that way in the beginning. My tears started before my mother passed away; they started during the long journey she made towards death, as we accompanied, passing milestones we tried to ignore.

We didn’t want to recognize those milestones, those way markers pointing to a place we all feared. Instead, we talked of the future, what she would do when she got “her legs under her.” She’d get the garden back into shape; she’d visit me in the mountains, swim in the lake; she’d balance her checkbook, give the house a good cleaning.

Meanwhile, we did what we could to help her. We supported her as she struggled to breach the barrier where carpet met linoleum; we spooned soft eggs and applesauce into her mouth; we laughed with her at yawns that preceded sudden mid-sentence sleep;  we reasoned with her as she hallucinated in the ICU; and we apologized over and over and over as she grimaced and moaned in pain at home as we shifted her in the rented hospital bed.

At first, not wanting to upset her, I wept in secret; then it was no longer a secret and I wept wherever I was. Washing dishes. Sitting on the toilet. Going to the bank. At last, caring for her in her last days, I no longer knew that she could see the tears, and I often sobbed as I gave her morphine to ease her pain. We all wept, the whole family, faces chapped from tears.

The Parting

When she finally left her body, I thought I would be relieved. The weeping would stop.

But I wasn’t and it didn’t. The sudden howling loss of her was an atmospheric river that stalled over my heart and threw buckets of hurt at me.

Now, nearly two months after she left, I no longer feel like I’m drowning; it’s not in the present tense. It happened. The flood filled the valley. Past tense. I’ve drowned. I sink under fathoms of grief. And, although it happens less regularly, I still fall into tears at a moment’s notice.

How is it that I’m still able to cry? Is there no end to these tears?

Topography of Tears

Online I searched the oracle Google to find a remedy for crying. I found a photography project—The Topography of Tears—by artist Rose-Lynn Fisher. You can see one of her pictures at the top of this post. Fisher photographed tears through an optical microscope, translating various emotions through the crystalline structure of water shed from eyes. She took pictures of tears of laughter, grief, hope, and even waterworks from that most mundane of routine jobs: slicing onions. The black and white images read like photographs taken from an airplane of the landscape far below.

I asked Fisher what she had noticed about the difference between tears of grief and tears from other emotions. She wrote to me: “In the course of the project I saw that there are not inherent categories of how each emotion appears via its tears; there are many variables that influence the image. For me the point was what I could see in the tear, how I found visual symbols and associations that somehow spoke directly into my heart, that gave me solace at some deep level; these are the mysteries I don’t understand but do appreciate.”

It seems that tears from great emotion differ from a mere watering of the eyes. Research indicates that tears from sadness brim with hormones, chemical compounds that resemble natural painkillers. Certainly these tears of intense grief are like no tears I can recall shedding. Gummy and thick, they coat my face with a sticky veneer. They interest me. Is there something wrong with me that I observe their nature as they fall?

If there are painkillers in the tears, I’m not sure what help they are, sticking to my face like jelly; that isn’t the part of me feeling the hurt. The ache is in my chest, a hollowing, an erosion into my throat, my arms and legs. The pain goes nowhere near my face.

Do I absorb tears through my cheeks, through my eyeballs? Are they so potent that when these drops roll into my mouth, they ease my pain? That would be strong medicine indeed. Should I collect these tears, decant them, and drink them down in great gulps to quell the hurt?

Shifting simile

Or have I already imbibed them? I imagine myself as a hollow torso, fronted by clear glass. An aquarium of tears through which orange-gold fishes swim, fading in and out of murky water, nibbling at limpets and snails stuck fast to my ribs. And there I am, buried like a flounder at the bottom of the tank.

Sometimes I wonder if the tears I shed—the tears the whole family shed—created a river that helped wash my mother away. Do the dying need our tears? Do they ease passage, reducing the friction that holds the soul to the body? Or do tears help only the bereaved? This aquarium of grief reduces noise, keeps at bay the hubbub of the world.

As the days pass, I find I’m no longer always like a flounder, hidden under sand and googling life from eyes that flow with tears like an underwater spring. Life means I have to dislodge myself, engage with the world.

These days I’m more like a diving bell spider that lives under water, surfacing to trap a snifter of oxygen, then sounding to the bottom where I hide. I’ve built a little bubble in this salty aquarium, a pocket of air where I can work and eat, and even play. A little.  It’s not much of a simile shift, but it’s something.













Someone left my heart out in the rain


As my mother’s liver failed her and she floated away from us (was it on the river of our tears?), the long drought broke in California. While mama died in the living room, outside the rain sluiced down soaking ground that only a few months before had cracked into geometric flakes as it shrank away from itself. So much rain fell that the ground swelled back into itself as particles of soil—clay, silt, loam, and spongy organic matter—soaked up moisture and became a semi-solid mud. Christmas was wet; we couldn’t go outside, even if we had wanted to.

Or did we go out? I can’t remember. It seems like perhaps we did. Did we walk out in the Baylands?  It seems unlikely that we would have left her. But it had been a family habit for a long time, to walk by the Bay on holidays, even in rough weather. Did we go on Christmas day? My mind is a blank; I’m losing the last days my mother was alive. My brain is darkening the jangling nightmare of the hospital, blurring the memory of slow, frightening days at home as we waited for her to go. I’m not altogether ready for that amnesia.


Since my mother left, rain has fallen every week, sometimes every day. The big creeks and rivers in the flats are above flood stage; rills of silver water lace through the pastures in the foothills, and as I drive through the mountains, I surge through sheets of water that flow across the highway. Waterfalls cut the canyon walls and bring rock and dirt tumbling across both lanes.

I approve of this rainy weather. California needs the water; during the last few summers we’ve gone from being the Golden State to being the Slightly-Gray State, the tawny grasses that grow across the state charcoaled by heat and dryness. We need the rain. And I admit, it suits my mood. Grievous weather.

The rain does keep me inside, which I don’t like. I sit at the dining table and look out through the branches of the bull pine, admiring the water that drips down the grooves in the needles and forms chains of wet round drops along the slender green lines. Clouds often blow across the mountain, and the view through the tree shifts and fades into white so that I can’t see the grove of tall ponderosas at the base of the little valley we overlook. Then the wind picks up and the clouds evaporate and I watch the trees tilt from the wind. They are so tall that I worry about them falling, but the long line of them so far has held.

As have I, surprisingly. When my mother first passed, it seemed like a black wind ripped me off my pins, weakened my fastenings to the earth. Not being as strong as a ponderosa, I feel to the ground quite often, a rubbly pile of sobs. But I got back up. I had to.

Looking across the Strait of Juan de Fuca at 6 a.m. Canada was just a low dark stretch across the water.

Rain is falling tonight as I write this, a heavy warm rain that’s melting the snow in the high country and tickling the tree frogs in the valley so that they sing songs of lust and love every night. The rain softens the sharp edges of my hurt.

Saturday we are supposed to have sun. I’m a little worried about what that might do to my equilibrium; I’ve got a shakey balance going on between how much I grieve and how much rain is falling. I’m afraid sunny skies might tip the balance. Fortunately, there is more rain in the forecast.


The scent of grieving

Labrador retriever
This is Kayla, who—with her person Marie—goes to the hospital and gives doggie love to nurses, doctors, and students. She’s not part of the blog post, except that many times I have sat on the office floor petting Kayla, and I know how generous a dog can be when you need love.

If I were a dog, I’d be a Labrador retriever. I live by my nose; I smell things that are apparently invisible to other humans. From my perspective as a hyper-smeller, the rest of humanity’s noses are blind. I see with my eyes, but I orient by my nose. Scent has color, form, description.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into my parents’ house after two weeks away was that I could no longer smell her.

When my mom was alive, the house always smelled like somebody was baking something yummy—apples, cookies, pie, cake—even after her illness forced her out of the kitchen and she stopped cooking. While she was alive there was a clean vanilla scent to the house, even when I marked the sour yellow of infection in her blood; even when her breath gave away how ill she was (although she masked how bad she felt with smiles); even when, at the end of her life, the sickly sweet purple smell of the poppy told a story of pain. The dominant scent in her home was of vanilla, butter and sugar.

In her life, she wore no manufactured scent (we’re all allergic) other than her soaps and lotions and creams (all scentless). The apple pie smell was simply her scent, a soft buff orange-pink color, a scent with a coral hue

Now, a month after she left us, the house smelled like my dad. It wasn’t a bad smell. It was just different. Masculine, sharp, more pungent. A brown and green scent. It makes sense. He’s filling space that her death left empty.

My home was built on the architecture of my parents, two pillars that held up my childhood and to be honest, much of my adulthood. Now my father is the only thing holding up home; he’s trying his best, but it’s new to him. He grieves mightily, and to assuage some of his pain, he made a space in the house where he can’t see her traces and tracks all the time. Her shampoos and crème rinses and lotions disappeared from the shower. Her magazines: recycled. Her bottles and bottles of medicines: gone. He moved her clothes from their bedroom to the guest bedroom.

That first night back, I couldn’t fall asleep in the echo. In the guest room I ranged like a dog, searching for her scent, whiffling desperately in the closet where her clothes hang. I felt that if I looked hard enough, I could track her, find her and bring her home. But all I found was the lingering faint scent on her clothes, and like some kind of crazed junkie, I tried to huff mom.

Insomnia drove me outside; when the panic of grief squeezes my innards, being outside under the sky calms me. The night was warm; the streets shone from recent rain, and mist halos webbed together streetlights under arching elm branches. In the distance I could hear a train—sound carries when the air is damp—and the white noise of the far away freeway.

I inhaled, slowly settling the wet, heavy vapor in the back of my throat, and I smelled…something. Not her. But yes, her.

Like sound, scent carries on damp air, makes it easier to sort the threads of odor that skein and yarn in the world. I smelled these things: the charcoal blue bass of wet pavement, the maroon sigh of wet earth, the green trace of snails in wet grass, the faint pale greenish-yellow tang of cats, a paisley crumple of crushed geranium leaves, and over the top of it all, the cream-colored layer of February flowers blooming. It didn’t smell exactly like her, but there was enough there that was like her, that smell of being, of quiet, of stillness and the grace she brought to our lives.

I’m not going to lie and say that I stopped crying in the dark. I’m not going to make this a tidy blog post with a neat transformation at the end. Because grief isn’t like that. At least not for me. But I will say that, just for a few moments—the span of time it takes for a bird to sing itself back to sleep in its nest—I was able to find some kind of comfort in the warp and weft of odors woven into this place where I grew up, a tapestry that smelled, ever so briefly, like home.