Backtracking. Everything that could go wrong and didn’t.

Here's the back of the truck from 3 weeks ago. Add to it most of my mother's clothes and a few odds and ends.
Here’s the back of the truck from 3 weeks ago. Add to it most of my mother’s clothes and a few odds and ends.

Burt and I perched an hour from the border between the USA and Mexico. Tomorrow we plan to meet Rosemary and Ed and cross over into our winter in Baja. More and RR and Ed later. Today I want to try and cover a subject that was set aside when my mom died: What could have gone wrong working in Virginia and did not.

When we agreed to take on the rehab and remodel of a home in Alexandria, Virginia we did so with a couple of caveats. One, we bid the job high because we had no idea what we would find when we physically arrived on site. We had a home inspection report but those are not reliable and certainly not geared towards home remodeling and repair. They are for home sales and negotiation. Burt and I are not impressed with the industry on a whole. Both of us have had home inspections fail to turn up fundamental flaws and over blow minor problems. Two, we could get kicked off the job at any time by either the building department for not having permits or the police for illegally camping on the street. A quick perusal of Fairfax county building codes revealed only a couple of areas where permits were required. Small, inconspicuous areas. When we learned that the most disruptive and visible work (replacing all windows) was permit-exempt we thought the job was a low risk enterprise. Still, we can’t guarantee a neighbor won’t turn us in. Our client was ready to take that chance. She knew we were fast and reliable. Her efforts to manage local builders from 2,000 miles away had been frustrating and expensive.

Dear readers might wonder why the owner didn’t simply get a permit. It’s not that easy. There are many reasons. Permitting a kitchen remodel can add significant time. Time means money. Also, permitting required an application by the actual owner. The boss on the job was the owner’s child. The actual owner is 89 and in poor health. No chance the owner was coming to Virginia to fill out paperwork. The only work requiring a permit was minor electrical and plumbing for the kitchen. Demolition, cabinets, windows, floor, painting, cleaning….all of this did not require a permit. Weighing the options it was worth the risk to the owner. Remember, a permit issue is the owner’s problem. We can legally work for anyone, anywhere. But as responsible business people we don’t want to knowingly get a client in trouble. We let them make the choice.

So there we were enjoying our season of no work when this job offer came our way. Consciously we debated the sanity of taking a job in a place far away with cold weather coming. A job in a place notorious for rules, crowds, Type A personalities. We discussed my mother’s health. We knew we could tack on a visit or two to see mom and dad. My brother and his family were near. The job was in a new area of the world. Google earth photos showed room for us to camp in the back yard. We could say we worked coast to coast. Mom’s health and our interest in the area tipped the scales over to, “Let’s go!”

Here’s what we worried about:

The camping situation.

Building inspectors.

Ordering windows, cabinets, counters, appliances. How long would it take? Could we get done by Christmas? Could we do it under budget?

Disposal of debris.

The size of the job.

How much could I work on my new heart meds?

On this job, nothing went wrong.

At first it looked like our camping situation was destined to cause problems. The Google Earth photos didn’t show the fence around the yard. For the first two weeks we parked road side. It felt like everybody was staring at us. The neighbors were watching but they were watching with delight as we made the worst eyesore in the neighborhood look clean and welcoming. They were thrilled we were in town and on the job full time. After 2 weeks we took a week off and towed away to visit my folks. This was the last time I saw my mom. Our timing was good. Some might say miraculous. After the visit we figured out a way to pull into the driveway and become less conspicuous.

Building inspectors never showed. Happy neighbors? Discrete work? We kept all debris out of sight and hauled it away frequently. We were quiet. The job was mostly unpermitted work.

After decades of working in the wilds of Montana and the intermountain west the ordering of supplies in the east coast megalopolis was a revelation. Everything is seemingly available at your finger tips. Things that take 6 weeks in Montana take 10 days in Virginia. Half the windows we needed were in-stock. The furnace had to be replaced and they had a new one in two days. Granite counters showed up five days after the cabinets were installed. This job had a coefficient of efficiency we never imagined possible. We had time to play bridge.

The job was just big enough and not too big for two. My heart meds slowed me down but I could work. Overhead stuff is really hard with low blood pressure. I grew frustrated changing light fixtures when my hand and arms didn’t have enough blood and I was gasping for oxygen but I got most of it done.

And then the real miracle. As we closed in on the last week of work my mom began to die. She could have gone mid-job and caused a ruckus. Surmountable but logistically hard. She could have waited until we were three weeks down the road. When turning back would have been costly and time consuming. Nope. She died two days before the job was done. Mighty convenient mom. Thanks for thinking of us. Living this wandering life makes traveling easier and harder. Timing a person’s death and the upheaval it causes is never convenient and always troubling. My mom could not have made it easier for us. It’s crazy that way back in August we thought about how nice it would be to be nearby and we could visit. We even thought about the end. We wondered if she might die while we were there. Someone somewhere was listening. Mom heard us? We heard mom? Our client heard that thing called god? I’ll never know.

 

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Safe in Portal

It's an 80s Christmas
It’s an 80s Christmas

Mourning a person so long lost to us is strange. I was told by more experienced people that the real work of grief lay after my mother’s death even though the brain has long since said good-bye. I remember the day over 6 years ago when my mother pointed to a picture of her husband and three kids and asked who they were. When I gently said, “Those are you kids,” she responded with, “I don’t have kids.” Mom was adamant. I tactfully did not try to convince her I was one of these dirty rotten tricks someone was playing on her. This negation of my existence was a step in the disconnection. When she stopped responding to mom and I started calling her Patty was another. It was all very painful. Add to that the years of her being paralyzed and non-verbal, years of no free will and I had to turn away and tell myself she was gone. This shell of a human was not her. I could not bare to believe she was in there. So, of course, I thought my work was done and death would be a peaceful release. And while I was right mom’s passing is a release and I know it is good I have it all wrong. Our suffering continues. It’s a new loss. As some say, Grace isn’t there on demand. We wait for it. It comes.

The first twelve hours I felt euphoric. Flying, light, giddy. I was so glad mom had finally left her tortured body I felt guilty for feeling good. I embraced it despite the guilt.  Maybe mom was picking me up. Soon though I was immobilized by despair.  Burt carried me through the shock. The wallowing, snotty bawling  didn’t last long.  By the time we reached dad’s I knew how to do what needed to be done. Now I am jobless and without tasks. Our truck is in for repair and we are in limbo. I can remember the euphoria and it makes me smile. I am glad I noticed. I’m hopeful it’s what we feel when we finally let go. Now I merely burst into tears for about 30 seconds when anyone asks me how I am. Burt says that’s a good thing. Release, compose and repeat.

Pat and Til
Pat and Til
Mom's poem
Mom’s poem
Pat and Til Wedding
Pat and Til Wedding
This is 21 years after their wedding.
This is 21 years after their wedding.
Pat Ryan at age ??
Pat Ryan at age ??
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Saw Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad and me.
Mom and Dad and me at their favorite restaurant.

It’s been 14 years since I first realized my mom was having troubles with her memory and analytical abilities. Fourteen years since I noticed her repeating questions. Fourteen years since she struggled to drive a stick shift. Fourteen years since she couldn’t read the map of Yellowstone National Park and thought a field of hay bales were sheep marching in formation. It’s been more than five years since she last recognized me. This last visit she no longer seems of this world. She seems like she’s departing. Mom still eats without too much trouble. She had a bad week last week and we were all having the hard talks but she’s rebounded a bit since then. During our visit she ate well. Drinking was a struggle. When I bid her good bye and leaned in for a kiss she took a nibble out of my cheek. Funny and no so funny. Dad was holding up well in person. We get emotional over the phone. I feel okay but threw my back out and caught a cold so that tells you I am not really down with this. I never hurt my back and nobody else had a cold.

I guess we’re all bracing ourselves and wondering how this will go down and how long it will take. I feel like my mom has had a terminal disease for over a decade but only now is she actually dying. My cousin Cara was visiting and we both laughed and groaned with fear at how we both hope she doesn’t choke on the morsel of food when we happen to be the ones feeding her. It’s a grim kind of humor. At times mom’s breath is raspy. One time I gave her a bit of juice and she started to cough a bit and I just had this moment of too much science and imagines little aerosol bits of juice heading to her lungs. Pneumonia? I hope not today. It’s hard to hope for a peaceful end and hope it doesn’t happen on your watch. I’m not sure the anticipated relief will come when mom finally dies.

I remember back to when I had a dream of taking an ax to my mother’s head an all her thoughts spilled out. These days I don’t get the sense that there are any more thoughts trapped inside. Dad will disagree. He feels her love and I believe that is still there for him. I hope she’s not suffering but I can’t be sure she isn’t. As always I am grateful my dad is able to do this as he sees best. The choices are his.

Dad and his mini-me.
Dad and his mini-me.
Not a deep moment. Just enjoying the sunshine.
Not a deep moment. Just enjoying the sunshine.

 

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Photos of our work

Burt working hard
Burt working hard
Me picking the pear of a big pawpaw.
Me picking the pear of a big pawpaw.

Demolition can make a person nostalgic or philosophical. I spent a lot of time today pondering the transience of all we do. Mentally easy but physically demanding work makes a space in the mind for important thought.  My friend Bruce is living out the last of his days in the wide eyed awareness that he is indeed dying. We are all on the same path but his is foreshortened and the end psychically imaginable. I have some things I want to say about Bruce but he’s asked me to hold off. This is his death and so I will. I won’t wait to say this though, this is the first loved one in my life that is facing the end without denial and I hope I can learn from him. I’ve known others (know others) with a terminal diagnosis but none acknowledged the end was near with me. So here I will say, thank you Bruce for not sparing us and sharing with us your thoughts as you consciously near the transition point. I can say this too because I told you when I saw you: You have been a positive influence on my life. A huge and positive influence. You are a positive influence still. You always will be. And I know you can appreciate the work we are doing here in VA since you so recently had an entire estate to manage.

Tear down
Tear down
Torn down.
Torn down.
Power washing
Power washing
New deck, maybe?
New deck, maybe?
Elvis is mad Burt fixed teh gate.
Elvis is mad Burt fixed the gate.
Water trap makes mold and rot. This is gone now.
Water trap makes mold and rot. This is gone now.
We take turns with the power washer. Burt goes high. I stay low.
We take turns with the power washer. Burt goes high. I stay low.
Here's a roof height and pitch I can still work.
Here’s a roof height and pitch I can still work.
New windows will be installed.
New windows will be installed.
More spray activity.
More spray activity.
This is my pile of demo debris from the play house and most of the swingset.
This is my pile of demo debris from the play house and most of the swingset.
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Day of the Dead

Woodpecker feathers. Not just a scuffle.
Woodpecker feathers. Not just a scuffle.

I’m in a mood. Perhaps it’s just low blood sugar. Two days in a row Burt has been gone at breakfast time. I am totally dependent on him feeding me to get out of bed. Yesterday some leftovers eventually saved me. Today the refrigerator is bare. Candy corn leftover from Halloween might get me dressed but I have a meeting in half an hour. Ack. Look at me procrastinating.

On Halloween we went for a walk up the South Fork of Cave Creek. The drainage is wildly overgrown after our very wet summer. My goal was to see if the maples were turning red. So far no. I found a small stand that the bugs had drained of vitality. Those trees went straight to brown but Burt and Carol found a tree with a twinkle of red high up in the canopy. Maybe in a week or so there will be red maples enhancing the already formidable beauty of this place. What I did find was a recently eaten woodpecker. A friend suggested a Cooper’s Hawk. She’s seen the Cooper’s relentlessly chase woodpeckers to exhaustion. This poor soul only left some feathers and the upper mandible of its beak behind. A little while later I noticed a scrum of jays harassing a large raptor. Perhaps the perpetrator of the dinner was being brow beaten by the loud jays?

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with the new data on mouse trapping. Candy corn works. Cool weather has soured my mood (hitch itch) and brought the rodents into the gNash. Burt has been finding mouse traps licked clean day after day and no mouse. Yesterday he hit the jackpot with new irresistible and clunk bait. Candy corn is not good for anybody but we all find it irresistible.

Candy corn kills mouse.
Candy corn kills mouse.
Woodpecker beak. Somebody left the hard bits behind.
Woodpecker beak. Somebody left the hard bits behind.

 

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Another Friend Gone: Linda Atwood

I have no picture with me. Hard copy photos of my life before the road are stored far away. I remember a particular photo I took in Yellowstone of my friend Linda sporting a chemo cap from two summers ago but that year’s photos got lost in the electric universe. Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer just over two years ago. From what I can tell from here she didn’t have a chance. I’ll save my inventory of friends, family and co-workers dead of breast cancer for another day. The numbers stagger. The closeness of these women to my life is unbearable. Someone recently told me they thought this cancer was one of the more survivable ones. From where I sit it does not appear to be true.

My friendship with Linda had an awkward start. It’s funny even today. A previous husband and I were avid boaters 25 years ago. In 1992 we moved to Montana. We were young. Pretty soon we met some boaters. One of my favorites was Paul. Paul was very safety conscious and had tremendously developed leadership and communication skills. His wife, Linda, didn’t boat so I rarely saw her those first few months. But I did meet her right off. Our paths would cross in what was then a very small Helena (smaller still when you consider the youthful professional bracket) and she would always say hello. She was always very nice and friendly. I had no idea who she was. I would make panicked aimless conversation and wonder why this person knew my name. Over and over I had to ask her name or ask my husband, “Who is that person?” He would always say, “Paul’s wife.” It wasn’t like Linda was an average person with nondescript looks. Linda was a tall dutch blond with a sweet voice tinged by her mother’s midwestern accent. She was taller than me. You’d think I could remember this person. But Linda wasn’t the only person this happened with. I do this still. There are scores of people I cannot get entered in the databanks but rarely do they wind up becoming integral parts of my life.

I remember the moment Linda turned into a human being for me. She became real when I showed up at a gay rights rally in our state capitol rotunda one cold day. This was probably the fall of 1992 or winter of 1993. Gay rights were just beginning to be spoken about and the gathering was not enormous. Political activism was new to me. The small scale of Montana politics gives a person a chance to make a difference or at least be heard. I knew nobody. Or so I thought. Then Linda came over and said hello. Again. She would not let me forget her. The thing was Linda was also fairly new to town and did not know many people either. Now the jolt of kinship and subversiveness (of the dominant straight paradigm) welded her face and name into my consciousness. We were now friends and she was no longer just ‘Paul’s wife.’

I hadn’t had many female friends by this time in my life. Being an only daughter and spending my youth in engineering school, rock climbing and boating made me more comfortable with men. Linda was one of my early female gateway friends. One of her great gifts was accepting people as they are. She never took it personally that I could not remember who she was. She was comfortable with my disinterest in home and children. We had little in common but a love of the outdoors and liberal politics. And food. We liked food. It turned out to be more than enough.

Paul and Linda and my former husband and I were all actively interested in wolf reintroduction to the Northern Rockies and Yellowstone in particular. The four of us talked about this issue many times over dinners and on boating trips. Soon we were vacationing together and taking week long float trips in Idaho and Montana. When the wolves were set free in Yellowstone (20 years ago this winter) we were among the first to make the pilgrimage to see them. Paul’s unbounded enthusiasm and love of wild life watching infected us all. He was so enthusiastic one time he parked too close to a snow bank and bounded out of the Subaru and left the three of us stuck inside. The child protection lock kept the driver’s side passenger stuck, too. Paul was out watching the wolves for a good twenty minutes while Linda, Hunter and I laughed and laughed and laughed. Surely he would notice he’d trapped us all in? No. Eventually he came back wondering why we hadn’t bothered to join him.

I could go on and on. I guess I will. When I was 32 I tore my ACL. The ACL is a ligament in the knee. Paul had torn his just the year before and I knew I was in for a long haul of surgery and rehab the moment it happened. I remember thinking when I heard the pop that this is a life changing event: pay attention. My life was changed but not for the worse. After I made it through the months of rehab a wise Rolfer suggested I take up trail running as a means of developing the balance and reflexes diminished by the injury. I hated running roads in Helena. And winter running. Ugh. Trail running? I wonder what that’s like? One sunny day in August I started running and walking the Helena Ridge trail. This almost 8 mile long trail undulates on a long gentle descent into Helena from a parking lot out of town. I found it pretty easy to do the trail and it turned into a gateway drug of long distance running.

I told Linda pretty quickly about this new thing. Linda had always been a runner and now she wanted to try this, too. Soon Linda and I were running the trail two or three times a week. Next thing we knew our beloved friend Kris asked to join us. The three of us continued with our regular ridge runs until we turned into actual runners. One day one of us said, “Oprah did a marathon. We could do one too.” Then Kris brought her friend Dori in. Or Dori came and then we thought up a marathon. Winter was leaning in and the ridge was fast becoming unrunnable, or so we thought. There were now four of us and we were branching out. The trails and dirt roads of Helena became our training ground. Linda was the steadiest most even tempered person of the four. She was always ready to drive, walk, run, eat…whatever helped the group needed for group success Linda was ready to provide.

One of our long standing frustrations and points of humor was that only Dori lost weight while we trained for our first marathon. None of the rest of us lost an ounce. Linda gained weight. unknown to us and her there was a reason. Linda became pregnant in the midst of our training regime. I remember where I was when she told me. Linda and Paul had been back in Eugene, Oregon visiting family. While there Linda completed her first twenty mile training run, solo, and she did it by running back and forth on a one mile stretch (with a hill in the middle). We were sitting at the deli in the Real Food Store and she was telling me about how she did this mind numbingly boring 20 mile run all by herself and unknowingly pregnant to boot. That’s how mentally tough she was. Linda had endurance and grit.

I remember being happy and sad. Linda and Paul really wanted a child so it was great news. Me, being happily childless, selfishly pondered the change in our relationship with a child on the way. Immature, yes, but the truth. I feared the loss of my running companion, my friend with time to do what we liked to do, the loss of connection because I wasn’t a mother. Immediately I was sad because our little running group (five now with the inclusion of my workmate and now friend, Berna) had lost one of its steadiest runners on the cusp of our first marathon. But while Linda stopped running the big miles with us she stayed by our sides mentally and physically and carried us through to the finish of the Portland marathon. She was there with Paul and her baby bulge cheering us all on to the finish. And now I am crying. Dori, Kris, Berna and I all finished our first marathon under the loving gaze and happy cheers of Linda.

Next up in this too long memorial is the birth of Emma. Paul and Linda asked me to participate in the birth of their baby. I had attended the birth of another friend’s baby and I guess the rumor on the street was I had comported myself well. That and Pail and Linda loved me and I loved them. I was blown away when they asked. It was one of the greatest gifts I ever received. Linda in the act of giving birth was transformed into a goddess. She was beyond this world in her power and presence. I stood between her legs and held one end of a towel while she pulled on the other while Paul supported her shoulders and talked to her. I saw light radiate from her face. She was on fire. I was using every fiber in my body and all my mental strength to keep hold of the towel as she pulled and screamed. I saw the other part of her. The inside, the spirit, the soul..whatever you call it, it was beyond the physical realm, it transcended her body and mine. We were connected. There was light all around. And then there was Emma. Emma born into that light and love.

This Sunday is Emma’s fifteenth birthday. I take great comfort in knowing that there is more to Linda than her physical body. She and Paul shared Emma’s birth with me and allowed me to see something beyond the physical act of giving birth. I saw love and eternity. I saw Linda’s foreverness. She is here with us all and she will always be in our hearts cheering us onward until we meet again. And I know that what I saw in Linda is in all of us. We are all connected.

That’s enough for now. I love you Linda. I love you Paul. I love you Emma. I wish I could be there with you now.

P.S. Linda went on to run and run and run. We finished many more long runs and marathons together.

 

 

 

 

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House Concert Complete

Priscila joining in with the Gypsy Carpenters
Priscila joining in with the Gypsy Carpenters

The house concert is over and now only the Spring Tennis Tournament stands between us and our journey north to work. I’m sad. I like living here. I’m also sad because a good friend is slipping away. I’ll never hear her voice again. We’ll never run together or play pinochle or go boating again. Breast cancer is taking another of my loved ones at a tender age. I’ll share more details of our friendship soon. All I can say now is Linda was a better friend to me than I deserved and I am grateful for every kindness she ever showed me.

Taco Maven sits in on Blue Bayou and Hang Me.
Taco Maven sits in on Blue Bayou and Hang Me.
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