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Here’s an excerpt from
Benchmarks: A Single Mother’s Illustrated Journal.

Happy Solstice!

I wrote this piece a number of years ago, when my dad was dying. It was an odd sort of comfort back then, but comfort, nonetheless. I find myself taking comfort in it again this year, when so many of us again stand surrounded by death…and life. Happy Solstice!

We stand, my son Patrick and I, on a knoll high above the Columbia River. The bluffs roll golden above us to the hard blue sky. Below us lies the river, ruffled blue by a baking wind. This is a respite, a hiatus in a day-long car trip to my parents’ house. I wonder if my father will be able to eat the corn chowder I have packed frozen in the ice chest in the trunk. I wonder if he’ll be able to walk. I wonder if he’ll be able to sit up. I wonder if he’ll still be alive. He is dying with the year, fading as the trees fade from their July green to their late August grays and tans.

Facing his death is  in some ways easier than facing his life, a fact that shames and saddens me, but it is true, nonetheless. I do what I can, which is not much. I drive the eight hours from my home in Medford to my parents’ home in Pendleton. I make corn chowder, one of the few things my father can still eat with some pleasure. I clean the house. I talk to my mother. I help my father to the bathroom. I try not to wince when he touches me. I hug him back instead. And at night I lie in my childhood bed in that painful house and I read into the early morning hours because even though I’m a grown woman with a child of my own I’m still afraid to turn off the light.

We have turned off the freeway, crossed the Columbia on the delicate, spindly bridge that spans the river at Biggs, and followed the winding road up the hill, turned right, then turned right again onto a small side road, and then turned right one more time onto gravel. Few people come here, and those few were usually brought by someone else in the beginning. I was brought here myself years ago, and now I am bringing my son, although to be honest the trip is more for me than for him.

It never changes here. Grass ripples tawny and amber around the massive stone circle. It looks like savanna grass, the kind from which lions might spring. But this is Washington, and there are no lions here. There will be no heart-stopping roar, no tawny mane, no gaping, powerful jaws, no sabre-tipped massive paws. There will be no drama, no last-minute rescues, no animal savagery. Which is not to say that death does not live here. We stand above rimrocks rising like ziggurats from the river to the sky. A miss-step, a stumble, could send us plunging into the abyss. Diamondback rattlesnakes love these places. They take refuge from the sun’s heat in the myriad tiny caves and grottoes, slithering out in late afternoon and evening to hunt and sun themselves in these very grasslands. And then there are the standing stones, silent sentinels to the memory of local boys for whom death came far away, not on a sun-baked grassy hilltop, but in a muddy trench, a heaving ocean, a roaring sky. These stones and row upon row of white crosses in red-splashed fields are all that mark their lives these days. They died young. I doubt many left wives or children.

I look around me and feel the emptiness of the place, and think that death can come in many ways, most of them small, quiet, and mundane. I think of my father, lying in a hospital bed in the living room, waiting for death to claim him, and suddenly the grassy mountaintop with its savanna grass and rattlesnakes seems like a pure, clean, and safe place. I look down at my son standing beside me, tanned knees bare below his shorts, feet shod in sturdy leather boots, honey-gold curls tossing in the wind. I wonder what he’s thinking. Surely he’s not standing here thinking of death, as I am. Patrick tucks a hot, sweaty, slightly sticky hand into mine and we scuff wordlessly through the waving grass to the center of the place.

There are others here. A middle-aged couple in golf shirts and white shorts moves quietly from stone to stone, reading the names on the brass plaques. A man poses his wife and three children beneath one of the massive, empty stone doorways—“Smile nice, kids…not like that, smile nice,” he commands. “There, that’s better…just one more for Grandma…” His children bare their teeth as he snaps and snaps. A lean couple in skin-tight rivet-studded bellbottoms and slinky black shirts stands entangled, hands shoved deep into each others’ back pockets, heads slanted, mouths devouring each other, at the edge of the drop-off to the river below. I see a flash of tongue before I avert my eyes. “Look, Patrick…see the stones?” I say, hoping he didn’t see the tongues, too.

We wander from stone to stone, reading names unknown to us, as dead now as the boys who bore them. None of us here today are old enough to have known these men, to feel their loss as anything but a vague regret. These men are as lost—and as unknown—as the builders of the original stone circle an ocean and an age away.

Patrick and I finish the circle of stones and wander out into the grass, seeking the heel stone, touching the tall obelisk to the east, then ambling back to the altar stone at the center. He is silent and still sleepy. I keep an eye peeled for snakes while I try to explain a mystery that has puzzled archeologists and historians for centuries. The afternoon ages. The circle slowly empties until at last our car sits solitary in the dusty parking lot, and we stand alone by the massive stone altar in the center of the circle.

I lift Patrick to sit on its flat top, then lean beside him. A cooling wind cuts the baking heat the stones reflect. A hawk screams high overhead. Patrick drapes an arm around my shoulders and we gaze around at the massive worked stones, the dark brass plaques bearing the names of men as surely dead as my father will soon be, the waving grass, the heel stone, the river far below, and the blue, blue bowl of sky overhead. I realize that in my years away—in the flight from the pain of my childhood—I have missed this clean, open space where my soul can stretch. I have remembered the pain, the blows, the shame, the browns, the grays, the dust, the wind, the heat, but I have forgotten the campfires orange against black fir forests and diamond-studded night skies, toasted marshmallows and frogs going courting at sunset, the ice cream sandwiches on hot afternoons, and how it feels to stand on a high bluff with nothing between the golden grass and blue sky but myself and the wind blowing through me.

I stand anchored by the little arm around my neck, and lift my head and pull the day into my lungs, and a part of me that has been bound lifts its head. I tighten my arm around my son and tell him about Stonehenge far away, about how the stones mark time, how the sun rises around the circle as the year turns, about how each midwinter day, as the sun rose above the special stone, the people rejoiced not because spring had arrived, but because they knew it was coming. Through the remainder of the winter, through blizzards, ice storms, endless gray days, starvation, disease, and death, they clung to the circle’s message. Spring is on its way. Life will triumph. The cold, bleak days will end. Stonehenge was more than a calendar. It was hope, set in stone.

I fall silent. Patrick sags against me. I look around me and see the stones with their brazen reminders of death standing tall and silent against the tawny hills and the blue sky, and I realize that as surely as the stones with their brass plaques surround me today, death surrounds me—but I am not confined by it as long as I can see the world beyond the stones—the tawny grass, the blue sky, and the sun. The circle goes round. Summer, autumn, winter, spring. Better times are coming. I think of my father looking out over the hills and valleys, dying on a hilltop far away, and I know that I have not reached midwinter yet. It will be worse before it gets better. But it will get better. I may never know what the standing stones said to their creators, but I know what they have said to me today—and I am grateful to the depths of my soul for their voices. The hawk screams again, and together Patrick and I watch it soar high above the stones, over the rimrocks, beyond the river, and into the blue beyond.

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I write books. I write a lot of books, and I write them at the same time. I do this because I’m a storyteller, and because I use writing as a way of escaping to another place, time, and life. And all that’s great–but it really doesn’t result in good books.

This is because while I am a storyteller, I tend to get lost in minutia. My readers might enjoy my storytelling, but they tend to have a hard time following the big story–the overarching narrative that ties all the little stories together, and makes them more together than they are apart.

A few days ago I posted a request for people to weigh in on which of my current writing projects they’d like me to focus on next. The answers were pretty much divided, but then fate took a hand. A book I’m typesetting about helping loved ones who are facing death included a passage on the importance of “both/and” thinking, rather than “either/or” thinking.

The writer explained that it was particularly important in circumstances where “ambiguous death” was involved–missing persons, Alzheimer’s patients, and as in my case, where my father’s terminal illness brought up a whole scorpions’ nest of emotions, memories, and history. His death was incredibly complex, and I found myself wishing for the false simplicity of an either/or answer to the questions he left behind.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve been weighing those days, and I’ve come to see that the question of whether we would be either/or people or both/and people really was the defining question we faced. How we answered that question is what determined how those terrible days played out.

Recognizing this has given me something I never have had before–a clear theme for a book, one that governs every aspect of how I will put this book together. I have the stories–lots of them–but I’ll be retelling them, editing, shaping, and pruning to explore that central, vital question the manner of Dad’s death posed for us–would we be either/or people, or both/and people?

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