Gratitude List

Happy Halloween.

The photo is of a juvenile red tail hawk at dawn last month.  I took it with my iPhone.  This hawk, who I saw again on my walk this morning, is one of the things I’m grateful for today.

Last night Fred was returning from the Air Force Academy-Utah football game with my Dad.  After he dropped Dad off, he drove up I-25 and hit a bunch of debris in the middle of the interstate at about 75 mph.  Piles of wood or something that fell off a truck.  The impact sheered off the front license plate, dented and scratched up the right side of the car, did something to the alignment, ripped the side mirror and pushed some metal bar siding thing askew, but Fred was unhurt.  I’m so grateful for that, and that he took my big, heavy car down to the game instead of his Subaru.  I’m also grateful we are insured.

While Fred was at the game I went downstairs and discovered water coming out of the light fixture in the guest bathroom.  It could have been a broken water pipe.  I could have needed a plumber on a Saturday night.  But no, the drip was caused by condensation in the dryer vent which was packed with lint and a fire hazard.  The number one cause of house fires is lint according to my sister.  Easily fixable thanks to my brother-in-law Vince who came right over and pulled out the light fixture and used a flashlight and compact mirror to figure it all out.

I have so much more to be grateful for I can’t list it all here.  We are both employed and healthy, as is the rest of the family.  Bills are paid.  Election-related ads will soon be history.  And this might be the last, glorious autumn weekend before winter sets in.

But I’m sad today to learn of the death of my old friend Norm Patten, of cancer, on October 29th.   I’m thinking about his wife Christina, his daughter Emilie and his son Rewk.  I used to babysit Rewk back when he was called Rewkie.  Even at about 5 years old Rewkie was good at every sport he tried and a handful to babysit.  I also worked with Norm and Christina as a dishwasher and bus girl at the Elk Mountain Lodge when I was in 7th and 8th grade and I played softball with Christina on the Ruthless Babes.  They seemed so happy with my good work ethic-I was never late and even at 13, I felt compelled to sterilize every possible surface in the kitchen every day.  It was probably a sign of some OCD to come.  But by just showing up on time and wanting to clean everything with Clorox and a toothbrush I was clearly different from the average hungover hippy dishwasher.  My friend Tracey told me they took back-to-back river trips last year:  two and a half weeks in Alaska followed immediately by three weeks in the Grand Canyon on a paddle trip.

I think seeing the Pattens together as a family back when I was a kid was inspiring.  They were one of the few families in town staying together when all around me people were divorcing over alcohol, adultery, cocaine, money woes and the ubiquitous 70’s reason:  “needing space”.  I remember so few adult relationships that lasted or went unscathed by the turmoil of drugs, sex and rock and roll.  But the Pattens were a unit, a rare, solid family, and Norm was a good husband and wonderful father.  I saw that with my own eyes and it gave me hope.  I’m so grateful I knew him.

Rest in peace Norm.  Vaya con Dios mi amigo.

 

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Chinese Medicine

I started to see a Chinese doctor in New York City in the late 1980s.  His name was Dr. Fu Zhang and he had a busy, non HIPAA-compliant office off Broadway in Chinatown.  On one wall were shelves and drawers filled with strange-smelling herbs, dried flowers, sticks, and powders, like a prosperous, medieval apothecary, minus the guys in big floppy hats, velvet pantaloons and smelly tights trying to cure their boils.  On another wall were rows of hard, plastic chairs filled with sick people waiting their turns behind the thin curtain that separated the exam room from the rest of the place.

My friend Sanjay brought me to my first appointment.  Sanjay was a very hip, half German, half Indian man of great beauty, with thick, blue-black hair in a neat pony tail all the way down his back.  I referred to him as Klaus Kundalini after we started dating.  He was so beautiful that his thick-framed, Buddy Holly glasses had the reverse effect, and made everyone who saw him only stare harder at his face juxtaposed with those nerdy glasses.

It was through a smoky haze that I first noticed Sanjay sucking down one cigarette after another, squirming slightly in his chair, eyes darting nervously.  He drank cup after cup of coffee and was wearing khaki pants with navy blue converse low-cut tennis shoes, no socks and a navy blue v-neck sweater.  It was an Upper East Side uniform of sorts, but his darker skin and lush, mid-back-length shiny black hair made him seem less like a Farnsworth Biffington Blowhard St. Clair and more like a preppily-disguised outlaw, at least in my mind.  I stared at him for about two years before he showed up at my apartment door one night with red roses to take me to a play where one of the Redgraves would be tastefully naked on Broadway.

Since I thought we were buddies going to the theater as friendly neighbors, I was surprised he had roses.  I was less surprised when he told me I was under-dressed, but I was wearing the one outfit I had that was in between a herringbone suit and jeans and a stained sweatshirt.

I explained I had nothing else to wear other than my, yes, (it was the ’80s) black stirrup pants and untucked, shoulder-padded, flowery silk shirt unless I put on a suit.  Oh well.  Little did I know that soon enough I, too, would be clad in khakis, navy converse low-cut tennis shoes and a navy v-neck sweater, at least when I wasn’t going to the theater to see naked Redgraves.

We were neighbors on East 92nd between First and York, just four blocks from the DMZ at 96th Street, and ate breakfast around the same time every day at a nearby diner.  I lived in a grimy, rat-infested ground-floor apartment right out of a Willard movie and he lived across the street.  I didn’t keep food in my apartment except in the fridge, but that didn’t stop the rats from pouring out of the burners in the stove, oblivious to the steel wool I stuffed in the holes in the wall (they chewed right through it).  I finally put a big piece of plywood over the top of the stove, with a chair holding it down to keep the rats at bay.  Sanjay was fixing up his place and hadn’t paid rent in years because there were issues with the building, like an elephant-sized hole in the floor and windows that didn’t close all the way, no heat and intermittent electricity.   I think squatting was the word he used.

At the diner, he always ordered scrambled eggs “soft” so I started doing that too.  Naturally we ended up sitting at the same booth talking about our relationships and I took immediate dislike to his girlfriend, well, until I met her.  But after becoming friends with her, Sanjay and I started dating and I don’t think anyone let her know.  The drama that ensued foreshadowed the drama of my own breakup with him some months later under similar circumstances.

After a few weeks of increased neighborliness and dodging his girlfriend, I ended up with a bad sinus infection.  Drama can really make one run down.  Sanjay insisted I go see his doctor in Chinatown.

The good doctor took my pulse a few times, looked at my tongue and wrote out a prescription in Chinese characters.  In the next room, a tiny woman, not unlike one of the thumb-sized twins in the Godzilla-Mothra films, pulled powders, sticks, weeds and dried flowers out of drawers and off shelves and told me to boil the fistfuls of oddly-smelling dried stuff, strain it and drink the tea twice a day.  I think I paid $25.00 for both the appointment and the tea.

I followed directions, for once, and in no time I was better, without the help of antibiotics.  So I began to see Dr. Zhang whenever my health was less than perfect.

I was working full-time at a Wall Street law firm as a paralegal and attending law school four nights a week from 6-9 p.m.  Not exactly an available girlfriend schedule but I expected Sanjay to understand my limited time with him would have to do until I got out of school in another three or four years.  In my self-centered mind it didn’t seem like a lot to ask but it turns out it was.

So of course Sanjay broke up with me as gently as possible and started dating a beautiful, waif-like waitress about ten minutes later.  I was crushed.  Confusing heartbreak with an actual, medical problem, I went to see Dr. Zhang.

The waiting room was crowded with all kinds of New Yorkers, only a few of them Chinese.  I was sniffling away with my broken heart, trying not to sob outright and also not to touch asses with the people on either side of me (the chairs were clearly for tiny people from the Far East).  When my turn finally came and I went through the thin curtain and sat on the exam table.  Dr. Zhang took my hand to feel my pulse and looked into my eyes.  That simple act caused me to burst into loud sobs.  In spite of Dr. Zhang’s limited English, my story spilled out about Sanjay, the beautiful waitress and poor, poor, pitiful me.  I was blubbering with such force it was hard to catch my breath.  The waiting room became too quiet and a few people cleared their throats as if to let me know it wouldn’t hurt to take it down a few notches.

Dr. Zhang told me to stick out my tongue, probably to get me to stop blabbing on.  He said, in a too-loud voice, as if to comfort me, “No worry, he need different woman every night.”    With that pronouncement he held up his finger in the universal sign to hold on and disappeared through the curtain and out the door.

I lay down on the exam table wondering what the people in the waiting room thought and looking to see if I could exit through the window but there was no fire escape.  It was very quiet and Dr. Zhang was gone at least fifteen minutes.  When he finally came back in, he presented me with a milkshake and told me to drink it.  Then he patted my arm and said, “No charge today, bye bye.”

I made my way through the waiting room with my milkshake, not making any eye contact with any other patients.   Maybe it was the sugar, but once I was out in the crisp, October afternoon air, I had a strong feeling everything was going to be OK, and of course it was.

And now, twenty years later Sanjay and I are friends again, each married a long time to good people, but I sure wish Dr. Zhang had an office in Colorado because I still need a milkshake once in a while.

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Deciding Not To Be Rosie Ruiz

I ran in the Mt. Evans Ascent last weekend and a nice woman from Alpine Rescue told me, at mile 9 or so, that she wanted to take a look at my left leg.  Granted my gait resembled Dustin Hoffman’s in Marathon Man, minus the dental surgery, and I was in last place out of just under 400 or so runners, but still, it kind of sucked.  She had kind eyes though, and told me that if I continued, muscle could separate from bone and that would mean a very bad injury.  It sounded bad enough that I decided to stop.  As in DNF.  Oh well.

But for the better part of the last hour before this nice woman stopped me, I’d been mostly walking with a limp that became more pronounced as I went on.  I watched much older, sometimes fatter women, put distance between themselves and me as we fast-hiked up above timberline.  All the while I was tuned into Radio KFCKD.  Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, defines Radio KFCKD the voice in the writer’s head that tells her she is incredible, unique and brilliant or that she is void of talent, shitty at most things, including writing, and basically an idiot.  KFCKD is from Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, which I need to reread.

Early on in the race as I gasped for air, Radio KFCKD was telling me that 25 to 40 miles a week was not enough training, that my twenty-mile run a few weeks back meant nothing, and neither did my four runs over fourteen miles in the last six weeks.  The smooth-voiced KFCKD DJ said I was destined to fail in this race and that I was behind the hydration curve ball although I was dutifully taking my Endurolyte pills on time and drinking what I thought was enough liquid.

The DJ wasn’t completely wrong.  The main problem was that I came into the race dehydrated due to about 36 hours of, um, stomach issues, and those issues didn’t let up just because I was trying to race 14.5 miles starting at 10,600′ and ending around 14,200′.  The whole race was peppered with a certain evacuation-related awkwardness as well as roiling self-doubt, both of which gurgled too often and seemed to create an emergency about every fifteen minutes.

It’s true that with most races, I’m worried I may not have trained enough or as well as I should have.  This seems to always happen to me when I’m tapering before a race.  On the other hand I’ve never signed up for a race that begins above 10,000 feet in elevation and ends above 14,000 feet.  But this was to be my startlingly successful comeback after almost three years of no racing.  Granted I was often last in the races I did, including dead last in 2 marathons, but such ego-puncturing experiences were remedied easily enough:  I just started running races with thousands of people instead of hundreds; that way I wouldn’t be assured of last place.

You’d think if one were truly talentless at a certain sport she would give it up.  But I like running races.  I like the adrenaline and the competitiveness that exists, even in the back of the pack.  Towards the end of races I can sometimes pick off stragglers, usually the aged and/or obese or injured runners and doing so gives me a certain sense of satisfaction, even if it only means I am second or third to last place instead of last place.  But on Saturday, June 19, 2010, I was the one picked off by about a dozen or so older ladies in much better shape than I, or maybe much more used to running at altitude than I, or both.  The back of the pack hunter became the hunted.

I did train a little at altitude.  I live at 6,000 or so feet above sea level which should count for something but doesn’t in a race this high up.  The Mt. Evans road opened the Friday before Memorial Day weekend and I did get up there but it snowed the Saturday before the race and the road was closed for about five days.  Oh and I have to work for a living.  I did do a practice run near my house a few times that consists of 1,900′ of vertical in the first three or so miles.  But my training was not enough to prevent a DNF.

In the other ear KFCKD was telling me I was in the best shape of my life (possibly) and that I might win my age group (never).  I imagined sitting on Oprah’s couch, even though her show is ending, telling the heartfelt story of having overcome being last in several marathons to place in my age group in North America’s highest road race.  Alternately, in my other ear, KFCKD was droning on about what a complete dip shit I was to even consider running in anything other than an obese family-friendly 5K walk.

Meanwhile my stomach issues made attempts at ducking behind pine trees for the every-fifteen-minutes-emergency pretty challenging, especially because I was above fucking timberline. My left shin was locked up all the way down over the top of my foot, making it hard to roll my foot for running or walking.  I kept hearing my foot slap the pavement like a slab of dead catfish, and I didn’t seem to have any control over it.  Occasionally there was a twang of pain all the way up into my hip.

I must admit, though, that I picked up the pace when I saw the race photographer.  Even in the throes of diarrhea-induced dehydration and some sort of weird shin splint that was spreading to the top of my foot, I wanted a decent race photo.  See said fake smile race photo at: http://www.skipix.com/skipixv2/viewlargeimage.php?lang=en&photosetid=4189&filename=DSC_1108.jpg

By mile 6 or so my muscle issue in the front of my lower left leg migrated to my outer lower left leg and was constantly painful.  The road was sloped badly and running and walking on the left side of the road (race rules) at a steep angle seemed to be exacerbating the leg pain, although some feeling returned in my dead, slab-o-catfish-like foot.  Finally I gave up even trying to run and just tried to walk as fast as I could, except of course when I saw a race photographer.

I tried to listen to my iPod and ignore the nice man in the Alpine Rescue truck motoring just behind me, sweeping the course.  I thought about the small ultra marathon I just discovered that will occur practically in my backyard in July, a 50k and a 50 miler.  It is ideal for a first ultra and I’ve been secretly planning to do it.  Although there are cut-offs for the 50-miler, there are no cut-offs for the 50K, except that you have to finish by the time the 50-milers do.  That means, for me, I would have about 14 hours to run and hike 31.07 miles.  Almost anyone but a toddler could do that.  And then I would have an ultra under my belt, even though most ulrarunners think a real ultra is 50 miles and up.

Focusing on the ultra that I may or may not do helped a little, and a few more miles rolled by.  The views were beautiful but I was starting to lose my mind.  I couldn’t remember how many miles I had to go, in spite of the Garmin on my wrist and the simple math involved in subtracting how far I’d come from 14.5 miles.  I couldn’t remember if I’d taken my Endurolytes either.  This is the type of thing that might happen really late in a marathon, but I was only about 7 miles into a fairly short race.   So then I tried to focus on all that I have to be grateful for, like my husband.

Fred is wonderful, forgiving and understanding and he tolerates me, my wacky ideas, occasional whining and somewhat idiotic running goals.  He seems confident in me no matter what I do, including running.  He bought me roses the week before Valentine’s Day just for the hell of it so I had roses for about two weeks over that Hallmark-invented holiday.  It is weird to me that I accidentally married a prince who makes me laugh and appears to have a better vocabulary than I.  Oh and he’s really tall and can dance.

Other things that came to mind as I was trying to block out acute pain and avoid shitting my pants were my family and host of friends, my great day job, laundry facilities in my house, good health, (well except for the nagging leg pain and loose bowels) and my pets.

But once I was examined by a professional, the Alpine Rescue woman, and actually listened to her say something about muscle separating from bone, I gave up.  She knew my summit bag had to be retrieved and drove me to the top, the last 4.5 miles.  We drove in and out of runners and walkers up the switchbacks to near the summit parking lot, and she talked the whole way while her aging lab kept trying to crawl into her lap.  She was attending the funeral of a friend who died of cancer, later in the day.  She told me she didn’t believe in aging, that it was about energy and intention.  She offered me stale animal crackers that I was pretty sure were really dog treats after I tasted one.  And finally, she dropped me off about 50 yards from the finish line, behind a group of cars and a blind curve.

I saw the finish line, the spectators clapping, the chaos of cars coming and going and the shuttle vans piled almost on top of each other.  It crossed my mind that if I started running I could blaze to the finish line where the final race photo would be taken and the finisher’s medal hung around my neck.  It would have been that easy.  It was just the type of behavior I used to have back when I was having a few social drinks in the morning before work.

But lucky for me, I decided to literally take the high road where I found my summit bag and pulled on my fleece jacket.  I drank some water and looked at the mountain goats, but only because they were hanging out by the facilities I had to, um, sprint to use.  And then I found a seat in a shuttle van and headed back down the hill.  The men in the van (there were no women except the driver and I) were small, thin and apparently very fast.  As I listened to their conversations I realized almost all of them were sponsored.  By running stores, by nutrition companies, by The North damn Face, etc.  So I kept quiet, silently trying to flex my stiffening leg and foot.

As I drove home from the Echo Lake Lodge, a wave of familiar self-pity and self-loathing came over me.  I hate failing but, like most people, I seem to have a history of it.  So maybe I will go back to the Mt. Evans Ascent next year properly hydrated and stomach issue-free and finish it, we’ll see.

Just then, a few miles before the turn off onto I-70, I passed a small trout pond, the kind where you take the kids fishing for their first time.  Pulled up to the edges of it were some teens and young adults, all in wheel chairs, propped up by pillows, some not even able to hold their own fishing poles.  But they were grinning ear-to-ear and having the time of their lives, even though they weren’t catching any fish.

© Marie McHale Drake 2010

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20 Miles Running With A Nun

On Saturday, June 5, 2010 I ran 20 miles with a Catholic nun from the Religious Teachers Filippini.  Her name was Sister Mary Beth.  She is nearly 62 years old and running across America, as in 50 states in 62 days, in order to raise money for orphans in Eritrea, Haiti and the United States.  She runs at least 20 miles each day.  Colorado was her 39th state.  Her friend, Lisa Smith-Batchen, is running with her but doing 50 miles in 50 states in 62 days.   I had the privilege of running a bit with her too.  Lisa turns 50 this year, and is a well-known, champion ultramarathon runner.  She won Badwater twice and is the only woman, I understand, to have run the “Badwater Double”, where, after running 135 miles from Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney, she turned around and ran back.

Sister Mary Beth has pale blue eyes, silver hair and runs in her full black habit, including her cap.  These two women are something to behold and seemed lit from within to me, even through their fatigue.  They are not running for fame and fortune.  Their lights shine because they run to raise money for orphans.

I arrived at 5:00 a.m. in Clements Park in Littleton, expecting a crowd of people but hardly anyone was there.  I felt self-conscious because I’m not a tiny, skinny runner chick and figured the place would be full of those.  Mostly though, I felt a little nervous because I’m not a Christian or maybe my life is not as full of love and service as it could be.  I was worried they would figure me out or worse, try to convert me.  Plus I felt nervous about my somewhat angry essay about all the similarities between the Jesus story and Gilgamesh, Osiris and Dionysius, an essay I posted the night before my run with all these do-gooders.  After writing it, and trying to be funny, I felt a little exposed about the shallow nature of my own, somewhat fake Catholicism back in the 80’s.  I think I sometimes adopt the inter-generational resentment my mother had against the Church.  And although I’ve been aware of this for years, and once in a while even free of her shit which of course magnifies my own, holding onto either is exhausting.

So there I was, raw and a little teary, watching a glorious sunrise while filled with mixed feelings about Jesus.  In the back of my mind I wondered if I could finish 20 miles in the expected 90 degree heat, which would be my longest run so far in my 2010 comeback year.

A few people did show up:  a mother and her college-age daughter from Castle Rock, likely Christians and very well-behaved.  I also met a woman who fostered 41 children over 24 years, along with raising her own kids.  Drug babies, she said, a few days out of the hospital and still withdrawing, needing to be held incessantly and fed at least every two hours.  She said this without guile or expectation of being lauded.  The opposite of the Pharisees, or, say, me because if I’d done that I think I’d want some recognition.  But she was just matter-of-fact about it and I liked her immediately.  Small and fast, she finished her first ultra, the American River Trail 50-miler, in April this year.  She said it was hard but she loved it.  Kind of like all those foster kids over the years.  We’re going to stay in touch since we’re both doing that race in 2011.

I also met Marshall Ulrich and his wife Heather, who were both very warm and welcoming.  Marshall was there to just be of service to Lisa and Sister Mary Beth in whatever way was necessary, including setting up the donation table by the running path, buying pancakes to go, helping with tired feet, pacing the women around the lake and handling the news crew from Channel 4.  Marshall, too, had no reason to be humble.  At 58-years old, he is a world-renowned genetic freak of an ultramarathoner and adventure racer.  He summited the seven tallest peaks on the seven continents, planting the flag of St. Anne on each summit, raising money for orphans too.  In 2008 he ran across America himself, straight across nineteen states, running fifty to seventy miles per day, averaging fifty-eight miles a day for fifty-two days over the entire 3,045 or so miles from San Francisco to New York City.  He’s raised several million dollars in his career too, for charities like AIDS Orphans Rising, and he didn’t even start running until he was in his thirties.

Ray Zahab was the other guy helping out Running Hope Through America.  Ray’s not exactly a slacker either.  He won some of the world’s most difficult and challenging ultra-distance foot races, and he didn’t even start until about 12 years ago, when he finally let go of his pack-a-day smoking habit.  Ray made history by running 7,500km across the entire Sahara Desert raising awareness for clean-water initiatives in Africa.  I didn’t know who I was meeting, except I’d read about Lisa.

We waited a bit because Lisa was off looking for coins dropped in parking lots, one of her favorite things to do.  Both Sister Mary Beth and Lisa are paying their own expenses for the 62 day trip running in 50 states.  That way, 100% of the donations they receive go to these three charities:

  • The Orphan Foundation of America –  Creates scholarship funds for teens aging out of the foster care system. This includes college scholarships, connecting with mentors and internships, and sending them care packages. Charity efficiency: 91 cents out of every dollar goes directly to support OFA programs and youth.
  • AIDS Orphans Rising – Supports children in multiple countries who have lost both parents to AIDS. “The program is unique in that it does more than just provide shelter and food to the orphans. The project teaches the oldest child the skills they need to be not only self-sufficient, but to be able to provide for their family while teaching the younger siblings in schools.”
  • Caring House Project – The foundation’s primary objective is to provide housing, food, water, medical support and opportunity for the desperately homeless around the world.  It also helps to develop a system of self-sufficiency for these communities.

We were milling around when my friend Jan drove up with “breakfast cookies” she made.  Sister Mary Beth accepted them gratefully, mentioning how nice it was to have some homemade food instead of “road food.”  It was good to see Jan because she doesn’t care a whit that I waffle between atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, believing in the Mother Goddess, or, on occasional Thursdays, Jesus, but only for a few hours.  She runs with me, laughs with me, trades recipes with me and, once in a while, tells me she’s praying for me.  There are some subjects we purposefully avoid I’m sure, but who cares?  Neither of us judge the other.

We took a few photos and then the 8 of us gathered in a circle and Sister Mary Beth said a prayer to help us get through the day, the heat, and to remember why we are doing this, that there are kids out there that need our help, that it only costs 4 cents to feed a meal to a kid in Eritrea, maybe not a great meal, but a meal.  I thought about the cost of a triple tall 1-shot vanilla latte.  With tip, about $4.00.  One hundred meals.  And I bowed my head to pray for orphans.

We all started out slowly.  Overall, I walked a lot, maybe more than I wish I had but it was so hot.  Lisa had a lot of people dropping by who wanted to run with her.  Some seemed to want things from her, and I could feel her energy withdrawing, conserving and trying to sustain itself.  I know people mean well, but they just don’t get she shouldn’t have to either listen to them, respond to their incessant questions about running, or anything else.  What she is doing is hard enough and I felt protective of her.  So I tried to just be quiet around her, silently encouraging her to keep moving.  Soon though, I fell off the pace and slowed down to bring up the rear with Sister Mary Beth, who began asking me questions.

She was delighted I had on my Garmin and said, “Oh good, we don’t have to do endless laps around the lake; we can wander around and still know how far we’ve gone.”  We watched the prairie dogs in the fields southeast of the lake, and, after about 8 miles of laps around the lake, walked up to the Columbine Memorial.  I’d never been to it and she’d just heard it was at this particular park.  The different-colored columbines were blooming and we slowed to a walk, reading all of the sayings engraved in stone, quotes from parents, teachers and students, including the ones who were killed.  I stood there in the beating sun, finally letting myself really cry.  Sister Mary Beth came up to me and I thought she was going to offer some nun-like words of wisdom and comfort.  Instead she nodded her head in the direction of some other visitors and said, “I wish those people would leave.”   Why?” I asked.  “Because then we could take off our shoes and put our feet in the fountain.”  I laughed.

We walked over to the grass and took our shoes and socks off and felt the soft, cool earth beneath our feet.  It was really getting hot, with no cloud cover and only an intermittent wind.  Twelve miles to go but my feet felt good after the break, and my spirit felt better after the tears.

We walked around the parking lots near the park and school and she told me how much Lisa loves to find coins to put in a big jar for the orphans, that she does that in every town or city, in every state they stop.  “How nice,” I muttered, and then she said, “You know, I sneak out before she leaves the RV in the morning and drop coins all over the place.  I do it because I know it makes her happy to find them.”  This was so funny and so sweet that I just laughed and laughed, then she laughed and we began to trot again around the lake.

Sister Mary Beth asked me about myself and of course I obliged by telling her my life story for the next few miles.  Mostly though, we walked and ran in silence.  People stared at her in her full habit.  I asked about her work and she told me about the orphans in Eritrea, orphans she’s spent 45 years helping.  Many of the heads of household are just 7 or 8 years old, with siblings to take care of.  The Catholic Church pays the oldest girl in the family to stay in school and learn a trade or business, otherwise they go into prostitution around age 10 to support their sisters and brothers.  I kept thinking you never hear anything good about the Catholic Church these days, but today I heard something wonderful.

Now I know I’m not fond of the pope, the hierarchy, the entrenched patriarchal oppression of the Catholic Church, especially their stance against condoms in places like Africa, but this news of what was happening in Eritrea moved me.  Yes the pedophile crisis is beyond evil to me.  The whole sex-is-only-for-procreation doctrine seems absurd.  And that the Church is investigating thousands of American nuns who came out in support of the healthcare bill astonishes me.  But so what?  Does any of that really matter in the moment?  Thinking about all of my problems with the Catholic Church only made me really, really tired.  Thinking about orphans and all the love and service emanating from these women made me pick up the pace of my run, even in the heat.

Probably to make the miles go faster, Sister Mary Beth gently prodded me with more questions about my origins.  I thought I’d given her the light and fluffy Leave-It-To-Beaver version of my childhood, the one where there are hardly any issues except maybe that Wally was occasionally selfish or perhaps the Beav had a misunderstanding at school, but really, everything is resolved perfectly by the end of the show, with Ward and June smiling at each other over a cup of coffee after Ward tucks the Beav in at bedtime.  Sister Mary Beth, who I thought might not even be listening, slowed to a walk and turned to me, sweat dripping out of her little black cap and said, “Marie, you have really suffered.”  I just looked at her, and then of course, burst into tears.  She saw right through everything I was trying to hide.

So I told her about my mother and her conversion to Catholicism in the 1950’s around the time she took a bus from Tuscon to New York to protest the Rosenberg’s executions.  I told her about Mom’s little drug habit, the divorces, the violence, and her ending that started me into a new life.  I also told her about the healing sweat lodge ceremonies Mom used to do, and that I was still doing them, almost weekly.  She just looked at me and said, “Those aren’t different gods, they’re all the same god.”  She kept asking more and more about my mother.  I told her everything I could think of while the miles fell away.  And then she said, “You know what Gandhi said?”  “No,” I said.  “Forgiving is a lot more important than being forgiven.”

No wonder I was dehydrated, losing all of that salt through my tear ducts.  Then Sister Mary Beth said she was stopping for a while, that she was in no hurry, and wanted to make sure Lisa was OK and didn’t need anything special.  I went on ahead and surprisingly, kept running faster and faster, a crazy energy engulfing me, even in the blazing heat.  It was easier running than walking, but then I walked in the last 50 or so yards of my 20 miles, high-fiving Lisa in front of the Channel 4 News crew.

I thanked everyone for the privilege of running with them.  I donated money.  I walked to my car feeling all of my tired muscles but also feeling grateful, thinking I’d just met some incredible people, especially Sister Mary Beth, who just showed me that grace is real, that orphans get fed, that resentments get lifted, and if I’m lucky, that I, too, can believe in something for a day, because it’s all the same God.

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You Can Never Go Home, But I Keep Trying

And yes, I’ll be trying again this weekend.

The first time I learned we were leaving Crested Butte was the morning after my mom was on the phone to my Dad in the middle of the night again.  Dad was stationed in Thailand.  For months the whispered calls at 3:00 a.m. were full of tears or raised voices, or both.  It was 1973 and the war was winding down, and with it, their anger at one another for how each felt about, and reacted to, Vietnam and each’s various affairs, probably not in that order.

Mom was tired of trying to raise three kids with no money and no help.  Jobs for unreliable, somewhat heavy drinkers who took a lot of drugs weren’t easy to find and always harder to keep, especially in a tiny resort town.  Paying for groceries at Stephanic’s with food stamps always made me feel ashamed, and I know she felt the same, or she would not have sent her ten-year old to do the shopping.

Mom said Dad was the youngest full Colonel in Southeast Asia, barely forty and already a decorated squadron commander.  He was still in love with her and, I believe now, missed all of us in his own way.  But I was a suspicious ten-year old, full of worry about the future, and this pending reunion did nothing to sway that.

Still, whatever I did or didn’t do, they were remarrying one another in Denver and we moving to the Philippines.  Their decision was fortified when he arrived in Crested Butte directly from Khorat Air Force Base in Thailand, or as directly as one could at that time.  That meant a C-130 to Guam, refuel, land at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, refuel, land at Travis Air Force Base in California, catch a civilian flight from San Francisco to Denver, then a tiny plane to Gunnison.  When he finally made it to the Gunnison Valley, still in his uniform, two straight days after leaving Khorat, it was just as summer began its shy foray into the high country, around the time when the glacier lilies bloom so quickly and die even faster.  Hopeful days where summer passes in a blink of an eye after nine, long months of winter.

The two of them disappeared into the greening hills up Kebler, near the Beckwiths, for almost a week.  I don’t remember who took care of us; it might have been Mike at age thirteen.  Mom brought some freeze-dried food from the Alpineer, fruit and a lot of LSD.  Somewhere in the West Elk Wilderness they made camp near a rushing creek, and she built a sweatlodge.

She said you should never kill anything to build a lodge, and she didn’t kill anything then.  She bent the willows growing out of the ground over on one another and tied them, until she had a tiny shelter.  Then she covered that with Indian blankets, their edges anchored with stones.  With her Swiss Army knife she cut large, eagle-wing-sized sage branches from the sage bushes everywhere.  A big fire was built with deadfall and those dangerous, explosive river rocks were piled into the coals.

They were tripping and naked and hardly any food was eaten.  They drank big gulps of water from the tin camping cup right out of the rushing stream.  Mom said they filled the pit in the sweatlodge with glowing river rocks, and then placed the sage branches over the rocks so that if one exploded, which inevitably happened, the river rock shrapnel would be stopped by the layers of branches.  Also it made everything smell so good.

She said they both needed to cleanse their souls, especially him, to go back to, and be forgiven by, Mother Earth.  She was sure he knew deep down he must have killed women, children and old people, dropping all that napalm on Vietnamese villages.  After the sun set they lay under an astonishing canopy of shooting stars until the acid wore off and they passed out.  In the mornings they took more acid, drank freshly picked chamomile tea and stirred the coals until they had another raging fire, piling it once again with river rock.  Years later, even in the worst shit storms of their relationship, Mom would say, if she remembered, that, no matter what, there was a week of healing in the West Elks neither could ever forget.

When they came out of the mountains, they came out together and for a little while they seemed happy.  We all piled into our 1971 Toyota Landcruiser and drove to Denver where they were remarried in a tiny ceremony at a church I don’t remember the name of.  Dad left to go back to Thailand.  Khorat Air Force Base was closing, and he would be stationed in the Philippines soon, where we would meet him.  For us kids we had just a few, precious summer months left in the mountains, but the living was easy because he was giving her money again.

I still didn’t want to leave Crested Butte, but Mom didn’t want to hear that from me.  When I told her I didn’t want to go for the millionth time, it was in an ill-timed moment while she was scrubbing the bathroom in Matt Kapushion’s old house on First and Whiterock.  Her back was to me so I didn’t see her flicker into one of her rages until  she whirled around red-faced with crazy eyes, grabbing at me wildly.  I was cornered in that small space, and she grabbed my arm so hard it left her purple hand print for days.  With her other hand she grabbed the Mason Pierson hairbrush on the sink and hit me on the head so fast and so hard the hairbrush broke in two after the second blow.   I stopped talking about staying after that.

As the day of our departure neared, Mom said we weren’t going to get to take our dog Bofer, a golden retriever-Saint Bernard mix who was only about a year old.  I didn’t understand and the anticipation of that parting made my heart ache every night while I tried to fall asleep, worrying about the unknown, about life on an Air Force Base where all the boys would have crewcuts and the girls would probably be prissy as hell.  And not like me.  I didn’t understand Mom was out of options, desperate and overwhelmed.  And hoping that this time with Dad would be different.  I hope I understand that now though.  I remember she just kept saying Bofer wouldn’t like being a big, giant, furry boy in the tropics of Southeast Asia, that he would be miserable, that there were no Saint Bernards in the Philippines.  I wanted to scream I’d be miserable without him, that he was only half Saint Bernard, but I didn’t want to face another hairbrush beating.

Even though I was only ten, after a year in Crested Butte I felt I was finally in a place I really belonged forever and ever.  A beautiful, magical town where all 63 school kids, from kindergarten through seventh grade, got to go skiing every Tuesday afternoon on the mountain.  Season passes were $50 but even the poor children whose families couldn’t afford it, and the ranchers’ kids who had to do ranch work instead of ski, were bused up on Tuesdays, fitted with rental equipment and broken out into ski groups based on ability.  It was a blast.  On Thursdays we had the afternoon off to go cross-country skiing with the marshall.  He taught us survival skills like what to do if we had hypothermia.  Our pot-smoking, LSD-dropping parents were naturally suspicious of him, making constant jokes about dosing his coffee with some “loaded” sugar cubes.  But every Thursday afternoon he made our lives really fun and adventurous.

In my ten years on Earth at that time I’d lived in Weisbaden, Germany, Chicago, Illinois, Norfolk, Virginia, Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, Winslow, Arizona, Misawa, Japan and Flagstaff, Arizona.  I’d been to a few different preschools, three kindergartens, two second grades and again changed schools from third to fourth grade.  I just wanted to stay somewhere for a long time and not be the new kid again.  And that somewhere was Crested Butte.

So my friend Melissa and I hatched a plan.  My friend Kitty may have been in on it too.  Since it was summer, and we were not town-bound and could roam almost anywhere except down the highway to Gunnison, we decided I should run away just west of town.  With a loaf of bread and an old canteen, we pitched a tent overlooking town, just west of my house off Kebler Pass.  I could see the Don and Adele Bachman’s house and maybe go knock on their door in case of an emergency.

It’s funny now to think I didn’t think anyone would find me.  Melissa agreed to bring me food.  I thought Bofer could move with me too.  I didn’t plan as far ahead as winter.  Or even the fall, because I was a little scared about hunting season.  A few years earlier, in 1969, a hunter shot a couple of kids riding a small motorcycle, killing one of them.  He might have been drunk.  Otherwise how do you explain blowing the head off a six-year old while he’s hanging onto his older brother on a little red motorcycle?  Word around town was that the hunter got off with probation.  It was a highly political case and the judge and jury didn’t want to discourage out-of-state hunters from enjoying the Colorado high country.  I don’t know what happened to that poor family.

As August settled in and the date of departure for Southeast Asia loomed, Melissa and I tried to get more organized about my running away.  Then a grown-up got wind of the plan and the tent was taken down.  And I thought about the hairbrush and of course kept quiet, resigning myself to what lay ahead.

The movers came to pack the house up, drive our belongings out to San Francisco and load them on a ship bound for the Philippines.  Bofer was tied up in the back yard on First and Whiterock, with assurances a nice family was coming to get him.  Melissa told me later he howled and howled for days in that back yard before she came and got him.  I hate to think Mom just left him.  I’d rather think there was someone coming to get him who flaked out, and hippies were famous for flaking out.  I will never know the truth, except that she was overwhelmed and trying to patch up a shitty marriage and worse divorce with this new marriage to the same man.

Eventually Melissa’s aunt took Bofer to Aspen where he lived a long, happy life, dying in the early 1980’s.  I’m so glad I got to see him one more time in the spring of 1976.  He was a good dog.

So yes, we moved back to Crested Butte in January 1976.  Left again in 1978.  Came back for full summers in 1978, 1979 and 1980.  But by then Mom had cancer, and she moved to the Mexican border for her controversial, natural Gerson Therapy cancer treatment.  I came back to Crested Butte for visits in 1982, 1988, 1990 and 1992.

Then in September 1992, I moved from my tiny, studio apartment in New York City back to Crested Butte, this time as an adult.  I thought I might be a tweedy country lawyer there.  It had a nice ring to it.  I landed a weird little job at a weird little law firm in Gunnison, but I had no place to live, no car and no money to live on.  It seemed harder to be there without money than even Manhattan.  I left again in 1996, heartbroken for other reasons but determined not to let any of it show, and exhausted from my self-induced struggles, financial, emotional and otherwise.

A year later, in 1997, I moved back with the love of my life, and he bought a house in Crested Butte South.  We agreed to a two-year experiment there in the Valley.  But at the end of that two years, he was not offered a job as a teacher, even after all the substitute teaching and coaching basketball.  I was not yet working as an attorney.  It was over, but I was finally ready to really leave.   I think.

So we moved to a place where we could be self-supporting, build careers and really start our life together.  Neutral ground.  It couldn’t be Crested Butte, my hometown, and it couldn’t be Bath, Maine, his.  Now I’ve been in one place for nearly 11 years, for the first time in my life.

Still, Crested Butte remains my hometown, a place where I get to mythologize my childhood, adolescence and even my thirties.  But sometimes I get to tell the truth about it too.  And the town is different every time I go back, with more real estate offices and t-shirt shops, and less empty lots where kids can play.  The cars are more expensive, the houses nicer, the restaurants pricier, and I don’t know everyone anymore.

Still I go back, and I love it there.  The people who do know me, have often known me nearly forty years over the patchwork of my comings and goings.  Even my friend Melissa, who helped plan my escape into the field near Adele and Don Bachman’s house back in 1973, is still there, now with her own family.

I have always had this longing to be from somewhere, and once I was from Crested Butte I had that, a place that called to me and mountains that healed me, that still heal me.  So what pulls me there still is not just seeing all the old friends and acquaintances, laughing about the latest small town gossip or sitting next to Coal Creek on a sunny afternoon having an icecream cone.  No, it’s those mountains.  And I like to think of my parents in those mountains, healing each other in a sweatlodge by a river, letting go of that goddamned war and what it did to them, and whatever shit they did to each other, finally willing to walk their road again, hand in hand, even if it wasn’t going to last.

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A Partial Bucket List

Travel Europe.  I did this while living in Paris 1983 to 1984, even going down into Morocco on an epic adventure.  I went back a few times in the years after, once for an ill-fated semi-blind date with a Mr. Wrong.  We made the best of it though, driving from Brussels to the border of then-Yugoslavia and Albania (and back), alternating between screaming at each other and nodding off in drunken stupors.  Heaven it was not.  I want to go again, this time with Mr. Right and he wants to go too.

Live in Paris. Well I did this but I want to do it again, even if it’s just part-time.  I love it there.  I am the giant Ugly American who sticks out like a circus freak among the tiny, chic women of that city.  I want to walk all over the city and sip espresso and write.  It’s not that I don’t love Paris in the springtime but I especially love it in the dark, rainy winter when there are few tourists and all the side streets seem full of mystery.

Own a dog rescue place. This makes traveling to Europe and/or living in Paris problematic.  It would also mean moving out of my townhome and possibly my town, given the municipal ordinance that limits domestic pets to 3.  But I go to the website “Big Dogs Huge Paws” at least once a week and wish I had 17 22 or so Saint Bernards to take care of.  Naturally I would outsource the dog shit cleanup.

Kayak Prince William Sound. I did this once with a nice man.  It was 1992 and I thought he might be The One but after we rafted a fly-in glacial river 100 or so miles it became pretty clear we were not all that compatible.  Also when he and his friends drank they tended to pitch forward into the campfire singeing off eyebrows and other facial hair and I tended to be the only one to pull them out of said fires.  I would like to go back there, again with Mr. Right this time, and maybe kayak again and see that amazing place.  Might skip the 100 mile rafting trip because after a few days in a dry suit romance is the only thing that is sure to evaporate.

Raft the Grand Canyon from Glen Canyon Dam to Lake Mead. I got to do this a year ago and it was amazing.  Even all of the Mormon Eagle Scout guides were wonderful.  Not a polygamist among them.  My brother, his wife and their daughter were the best part of it, oh and the incredible healing that occurred while we were completely unplugged from computers, cell phones and electricity of any kind.  Something about being deep in the great gash of Mother Earth’s holy crotch split us all wide open.  I connected there with something that moves me 12 months later and I will always love my brother Mike for taking me on that trip.  I want to go again, this time with not only them but my sister, her family and Fred.

Tell each and every family member how much I love them.  I try to do this as a matter of course as much as possible but I can always do it more.  It is the truth, even in the complexity of our dysfunction and I hope they all know that.  I will just keep saying it.

Show it too.  This is the great rub of it all isn’t it?  So I need to do the little things.  Offer to pick up my nephew when my sister is pressed for time.  Empty the dishwasher instead of plotting how to manipulate Fred into doing it.  Listen to my dad instead of plying him with solution after solution of what he should do and be doing for his knee replacement.  I am supposed to be of love and service.  That is the great launching point, and one I forget the fastest.

Run a railroad. OK, I just like the way this sounds.  I don’t really want to do it.  Seems like a big hassle and kind of a dirty job.

Run for president.  Well I did and it was a disaster.  I was drunk with power from the get-go, arbitrary and capricious, Kim Jong Il without the giant standing army and all the starving civilians.  You see, some years back I was president of my homeowner’s association.  I pulled a Sarah Palin to everyone’s relief  and bowed out after completing only 2 years of my 3-year reign of terror.  In my 16-town home community those 2 years are still known as “The Dark Time.”

Be a Rockette.  There are no 6’1″ 47-year old Rockettes except on Halloween.  I didn’t say I wanted to do high kicks at Radio City now did I?  I also understand the window of possibility regarding me doing high kicks at Radio City may have closed some time ago.  Besides, the tallest ones are shrimpy 5’9″ types.  Bastards.

Sky dive.  Fred does not like the idea.  Also when I’ve mentioned it to the Colonel he tends to raise his voice and say, “I’VE HAD TO POUR GUYS OUT OF THEIR BOOTS BECAUSE A ‘CHUTE DIDN’T OPEN SO KEEP THAT IN MIND.”  Thanks dad.

Do something in a band.  I am unable to sing except off-key and do not play an instrument although I owned castanets for a short time as a child.  Maybe being in the First Annual Crested Butte Air Guitar Contest in 1978 counts for something.  During that award-winning performance (my band was the only entry), I, as the drummer, fell backwards off the flat-bed semi truck stage nearly pulling off a Keith Moon but I didn’t die from my alcohol poisoning.  The lead singers, my sister and Brenda Bundy, were wonderful.  Our signature song was, “You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee” which was perfect for Crested Butte at the time.

Run from Gothic to Crested Butte on the 4th of July.  I may be walking a bit of it but I will be doing this on July 4, 2010.

Run the Chicago Marathon.  I’m signed up for this 10/10/10 race.  I managed to get to only mile 18 in 2007 when the mayor and the race director called the race due to heat and over-flowing hospital emergency rooms.  Pissed me off.  I have the stupid medal but it’s like a Barry Bonds medal, with a giant asterisk from a Sharpie because I couldn’t stand having it say “26.2 miles”.  So I’m going to finish it this year.

Cook a perfect souffle at high altitude.  This sounds good too and my mother did it once, in the fall of 1972.  The chocolate souffle blew our minds but as she was lifting it out of the oven she dropped in a big pan of dirty dish water.  Her reflexes were like that of a cat, or at least a cat who wants chocolate souffle, because she snatched it out of the water, rinsed it quickly, dusted it with powdered sugar and served it up.  I remain impressed by this feat and hope to repeat it, minus the detour in the sink.

Travel through Southeast Asia.  We spent two and a half years in the Philippines and went to Thailand during that time but I was a kid so I want to go back.  Maybe skip Thailand until things calm down there.  Also they just discovered a new species of monitor lizard on the main Philippine island of Luzon, and this spotted, fruit eating creature averages 6.5 feet in length.  I’d like to see one in person.

Scuba dive.  I was certified at 12 and went with my dad and brother to the South China Sea for 3 days of diving in another epic adventure I will never forget.  Somehow I let 32 years slip by without donning tanks and a respirator so I’d like to give it a go again.  Scuba is an expensive sport though.  Also I may have to get re-certified even though I still have my PADI card.  I think equipment may have improved in the last 32 years.

Be really good at something. I know I need to be more specific here.

Write a book.  I thought I did this but all I did was get a draft on paper.  So really I’m at the very beginning of this one.

Become completely debt-free, including the mortgage.  We’re on track to have this happen in 7 or 8 years which seems unbelievable.

Not be an asshole.  I was on track to be this for a while and then I was an ass to a fellow ass on the other end of a case yesterday.  He started it, the sexist bastard.  OK, I will continue to work on this one.  I would like to point out that it’s 5:45 p.m. and I have been a non-asshole so far today.

Have excellent posture. This is getting better with yoga and also because now I know how much of a visceral reaction I get standing tall from short, sexist assholes like the one I dealt with yesterday.  So standing up straight is a weapon of choice against these misogynistic throwbacks I run across in my profession.  Have I mentioned how much I love size 11 designer heels lately?

Be accepting with the way my body looks.  I’m not there.  I don’t think I ever have been there.  I don’t know how to get there.

Live in the moment for more than a moment. Again, I’m not there.  I don’t think I ever have been there.  I don’t know how to get there.

Run Marathons on all 7 continents while I’m still continent. I just like the way that sounds.  Also it would mean a lot of interesting travel.  I am not planning on ever losing control of my urethral sphincter.

Paint something I’d like to hang on a wall.  This, like writing, requires a lot of practice, meaning more than 1 Bob Ross wet-on-wet painting class at Colorado Free University.  I hope it happens.

Win trials without second guessing myself. I win a lot but not necessarily because I’m very good, I just have good facts.  Afterwards I always feel like I suck or at least could have done a lot better.  I wonder if I’ll ever just have the easy confidence of, say, a TV litigator like Glenn Close in Damages, minus those pesky ethical problems that follow her around.

Run an ultramarathon. This is just a race that is more than 26.2 miles long.  So there are 50ks, 50-milers, 100ks and 100 milers.  I decided there’s no time like the present so I am eyeing the American River Trail 50-mile race in California in April 2011.  I will have trained for 16 months by the time it rolls around.  I have read ultras are much more mental than anything, which bodes well for me since I am a slow, somewhat shiteous runner.  I do like having that ultra goal in the back of my mind plus the race is near where my brother and his family live.  Although they don’t know it yet, I’m planning on making them crew the race for me.

Do backbends without feeling afraid. I remain mystified why opening my chest and, ultimately, my heart, in this simple yogic way, feels insurmountable and even terrifying at times.  But I will keep trying.  There are lessons there for a tall, stiff woman who sometimes hides her true heart even from herself.

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Filed under Here and Now

Other Mothers, Other Days

There were so many but I guess I’ll start with my Aunt Gloria, my dad’s older sister who will be 80 this year.

She is my godmother.  Goddess mother.  My oldest living female relative.  Funny and smart, she seems almost always filled with a deep sadness that never really dissipates.  She had 10 children in 11 1/2 years and her oldest died at 28.  You’re not supposed to outlive your children, but she outlived Patty, now for nearly 30 years.

Aunt Gloria found out she has breast cancer about a week ago.  Because they caught it very early and and she is very old (she’s been known to sign her emails, “Love, Methusulah”), her prognosis is excellent.  Still, I wish she didn’t have cancer.

Aunt Gloria went to graduate school in psychology in her 50s and 60s, and became a certified Jungian psychotherapist in her 70’s.  She recently told me she’s thinking of retiring this year but doesn’t want to retire just because she has cancer, so she might work for a while longer.

When I came to Chicago for a visit in December 1978, my dad hoped I would leave having changed my mind about staying in Crested Butte no matter what.  He wanted me to move in with him on the Front Range .  I stubbornly held on to my Crested Butte dreams, even though I was living on my own in a trailer behind Takeaway, a small grocery store in town.  I’d been living alone for months and I was just a freshman in high school.  My mom had long since moved to a tiny, 1-bedroom, eight-sided log cabin outside of town, owned by her new boyfriend John Newberry.  There was no room for me and although I never let it show, my feelings were deeply hurt.  I didn’t want to move and I didn’t know where I fit anymore.  Kate lived with dad already and Mike left the state earlier in the year.  I was the one holdout, clinging to Crested Butte like it was the last piece of floating debris in the sinking wreckage of my family.  Plus I knew people in Crested Butte who loved me.  People who had known me longer than anywhere else.  And I felt glimpses of something like spirituality there, especially if I was hiking above town in my beloved mountains.

But at 14 I’d already been drinking in the bars for about 2 years.  I had a job dishwashing 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., but I still ran out of money all the time, didn’t have enough warm clothes and monthly rent on the trailer came due too often for my wages to keep up.  I slept in my down sleeping bag because I didn’t own any sheets.  I was stubborn and tough on the outside, but I was still just a kid, trying to act older than 14, but really scared shitless and eating a lot of ramen noodles when I didn’t have a restaurant shift.

So with hairline cracks spreading through my tough facade I agreed to fly to Chicago to see the shrink my dad and his family kept saying I should see.

He turned out to be a defrocked Jesuit priest-turned psychologist with, luckily for me, a predatory penchant for young men.  He also had  a deep hatred of all things female and it wasn’t hard to peg him as a mysogynistic asshole.  Still, everyone in Chicago seemed to hold him in high regard and there I was.  What he told me after an hour was that I would end up a junkie and a whore, just like my mother.  But since my mother was neither, I didn’t find him particularly credible.  I was coming around though to the idea that I was going to have to leave Crested Butte.

When I met with Gloria’s kids, the Weiss cousins, I was quiet, overwhelmed by the noisy mob of them.  Aunt Gloria told me her kids thought I was a snob but she explained to them after I left that I wasn’t aloof, just shy.  I was glad she stuck up for me.

At Grandma Marie’s, Aunt Gloria came into the guest room while I had my suitcase opened.  I don’t know why but she noticed I didn’t have any bras and I only had 1 pair of raggedy underwear that was too big for me.  It sounds pitiful now, but I just wore that one pair right side one day and inside out the next and then every other day I washed them and hung them up to dry overnight.

Aunt Gloria took me shopping at JC Penney’s then and there.  She bought me a few training bras and enough underwear to last a few weeks along with some regular clothes.  I offered to pay her back and she looked at me hard and just said she’d talk to my father.  She tried not to say anything bad about my mother but I could tell she was mad at her that I had just 1 pair of underwear.  She was mad at her for a lot of things.

I remember looking at all the new, white underwear on Grandma Marie’s lumpy twin bed with the nubby cotton coverlet and it felt better than Christmas.  By Aunt Gloria’s simple, protective, motherly gesture, I knew, even with her 10 children, full-time job and graduate school, that she had my back.  And now, even with cancer, it feels like she still does.

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