Hanging with Stu’s chickadees

Zippy and I are celebrating Christmas today with his siblings and mother. It’s the first Christmas without my father-in-law Stu. There will be a layer of sadness, but all his chickadees will be together.

chickadee

Maybe someone will fall asleep and begin gently snoring, and we’ll put a rubber duck on their head before taking a photo. Stu would like that.

 

 

 

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The best and most beautiful things

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.
~  Helen Keller

As per my last late-night post, yesterday we were evacuated due to a fire in the open space near our home. We hadn’t experienced that before. The only other time there was a big fire, we were out of town. (Our former neighbors took it upon themselves to come in the house to collect a crate full of framed wedding and family photos. They also put a sprinkler on top of our shake-shingle roof. Good neighbors.)

So last night as we watched the fire out our windows, we had to start thinking about what we should take in case of evacuation. Zippy and I believed it would be easy to grab the basics (the animals and the same framed photos plus passports, social security cards, etc and a few clothes) and get out. But by the time we received the automated call telling us to get out, we’d amassed more than that.

I gained some insights into my personal world view.

  • Jog bras (Bra shopping is a horrible experience, and I’d be damned if I have to go through that again)
  • An entire box of project notebooks and journals, including those containing quotes from young Wildebeest and Zebu plus one from my three weeks spent with Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
  • Every single photo album
  • Binder filled with negatives
  • Gratitude journal (that I’ve been actively resenting and willfully neglecting for the past couple months)
  • New container of raw cashews
  • New bottles of nutritional supplements
  • New bottle of tequila
  • Huge suitcase of family-of-origin photos recently brought back from Mom in Florida
  • Laptop, current fiction project notebook, current nonfiction project notebook
  • Camera and lenses
  • Binoculars, bird books, birding notebook woefully out of date re sightings
  • Medical records for Zippy, Wildebeest, Zebu, and myself

That list makes it seem as if I brought every single thing I owned. Not true. All sorts of stuff was left behind. Objects that caught my eye as I passed through rooms, shuttling stuff to the cars.

jesus-lizard

  • My brother’s gorgeous painting of a Jesus lizard walking on water.
  • The denim jacket that first belonged to Zippy’s sheep rancher grandfather and was passed down to Zippy’s father (Stu) and now Zippy.
  • Stu’s hat that became mine after he died last February because I’m the only one in the family with a head small enough to fit.
  • The metal rooster that sits on top of our piano in honor of friend Michelle Begley who died in January 2015, and which also serves as mascot for the monthly Writing Roosters critique group gatherings.
  • Books, many of them signed by the authors.
  • The ceramic penguin doing a power salute (and showing off underarm hair) made for me by Wildebeest in high school.
  • Zebu’s sticker-bedecked water bottle that’s been at his place at the dining room table since he left for Sweden in August.
  • The poseable Batman featured in many blog posts over the years.
  • An enormous plastic bin filled with photos that have been put in chronological order, but have not yet made it into albums.

But my decisions are a moot point. The fire was extinguished and we’re back in our house with all our stuff. Or, as George Carlin would say, all our shit.

 

 

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No Regrets

On Saturday we held a life celebration for my father-in-law.

I’d written something to be shared, printing it out in a large font to make it easier for the family friend who was facilitating the event to read: (Memory to share at Stu’s celebration)

I was teary as soon as I walked into the meeting hall, so when the facilitator asked if I wanted him to read my piece or if I preferred to do it myself, I hesitated. I didn’t want to regret not speaking, but I also did not want to fall apart in front of a roomful of people. We agreed to hold off on that decision until the time came.

The ceremony began and I had already accumulated a pile of damp tissues when my nine-year-old niece came up to the podium. Her father brought over a chair for her to stand on so she could reach the microphone, and then she took a deep breath before proceeding to read the thank-you letter she and her two sisters had written for their grandfather. The words she spoke were beautiful and funny and heartfelt, and I cried some more (as did Wildebeest, Zebu, and Zippy).

When she stepped down to a spontaneous round of applause, the facilitator turned to me. Without hesitation I stood, telling him that if my niece could be brave, so could I.

I’d like to say that I read my words in a clear, steady voice and that I maintained eye contact with the audience. I’d also like to say that all the family members caught my inside jokes and laughed. But that’s not how it went. However, I didn’t melt into a complete puddle and I did make it through what I intended to say. Thanks to a petite nine-year-old girl who showed me the way.

Life’s too short for regrets.
Zinnia for Stu

His Name Wasn’t Stu

But that’s what I called him.

The name change started about the time he and my mother-in-law traveled to Alaska to visit Zippy and me. I mentioned in conversation that he didn’t seem like a Steve, but more of a Stu. So later on when we were in a gift shop in Fairbanks and I discovered a STU coffee mug, it was a done deal. My father-in-law was forevermore Stu.

Yesterday, the family honored his wishes and let Stu die. The nurses did everything to keep him comfortable, and in the hours before letting go, Stu was surrounded by his wife and four children, two daughters-in-law and one son-in-law. The last thing he said after opening his eyes and seeing us all there was “My chickadees.”

Stu had accepted, once and for all, how much his brood loved him. Following a surgery in early December, his last three months were mostly spent in hospitals and two different rehab facilities, with only a handful of days at home. His health had declined on several fronts and it was incredibly difficult for him. But the gift of those months was that Stu spent time with his family and had conversations he’d never had before. Emotionally honest conversations. Pre-surgery, there’d been a standing joke that Stu’s favorite children were the three different West Highland White Terriers he had over the years. Stu didn’t do emotions. Stu stiffly accepted hugs, but never initiated them. Stu was a rock.

Except, the evidence said otherwise.

From the start, Stu made me feel welcome in the family. Despite our vastly different social and political outlooks. Despite our vastly different dietary habits. Despite coming from such different backgrounds that we were practically aliens to one another, Stu and I had a bond.

Yes, Stu was a rock. Except for that time vacationing in Puerta Vallarta with a six-month-old Wildebeest, when Stu and my mother-in-law babysat so Zippy and I could have a quiet dinner alone. Wildebeest of the mighty lungs wailed the entire time we were gone, and Stu patiently held him and walked round and round the hotel pool, ignoring the other guests’ groans of “Here they come again.”

Stu was a rock, except when we were in Hawaii when I was pregnant with Zebu and the twisty-turny road up to the volcano made me sick and he pulled over to let me throw up in the ditch and then allowed me to drive the rest of the way, even though Stu always, always was the driver.

Stu was a rock, except when putting in hours in his woodshop making toys for his grandchildren.

Stu was a rock, except the time I overheard him telling a nurse about his wonderful family consisting of one wife, four children, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild, and ending it by saying he felt very bad for people who didn’t have family.

Stu was a rock, except when he confided that the one good thing to come out of his lengthy hospital stays was that he and I had become better friends.

Stu was a rock, except when he asked the physical therapist to call him Stu rather than Steve.

Stu was a rock, except when I got to his bedside yesterday and he reached out his hand for mine.

I’m so grateful I got to be one of Stu’s chickadees. When I sat down to write this, I caught a flash of movement in the pine tree outside the window. I looked closer and wasn’t at all surprised to see a Black-capped Chickadee hopping around the branches.

Not this morning's visitor, but another Black-capped Chickadee.

A relative of this morning’s visitor.