Wednesday, July 13, 2011


It’s quiet here now. No more messy faces to clean. No more chasing around the house. And while I relish it on many levels, I have to admit, I kind of miss the squeals, the stories, the barrage of questions, even the unintelligible gibberish. Not the poopy diapers though. I don’t miss those.

Last weekend I was treated to a little dose of parenthood when I agreed to take care of two children for three nights and four days. The one-year-old boy and nearly four-year-old girl in question are the offspring of two very good friends, who for all intents and purposes fall squarely into my “family” category. Meaning, of course I said, “Yes, I’ll take them! Go to Mexico. Scuba dive. Chill on the beach. Don’t eat raw fruits or vegetables.” Also meaning, they would do it for me too. I hope. And in all fairness, I didn’t have to go it alone, single parent style. My mom was on hand to help corral the little ones. It was a full, busy and mildly sleep-deprived four days and three nights. And other than successfully taking care of two kids, I got absolutely nothing accomplished. Which is okay, because I didn’t really expect to. But I did learn a few things during my temporary custody.

Kids are funny, really funny.

No need for a stint in front of a half hour sitcom to get a few laughs with Edie and Gray around. Seriously, these kids are funny. And they aren’t even trying, which makes it the kind of natural-born humor that is far more hysterical than even the best comedian’s ten-minute set. I spent a good twenty minutes completely amused at the dinner table one evening watching Gray attempt to eat grilled cheese with a spoon. I know it’s probably a little mean to laugh at the expense of a one-year-old. But in my defense, it was his idea to try and eat it with a spoon in the first place. And he would not let me help him. While he understood the general mechanics – food goes on spoon, spoon goes in mouth, the finer details were totally escaping him. Instead of turning the spoon upright so the sandwich bits would stay in on the trip to his mouth, he opted for the lick and stick method. Doesn’t work very well. But it’s damn funny to watch. Oh, and Edie, who is almost four and says the funniest things, had me and my mother doubled over in laughter when she explained to us, after a slightly messy trip to the bathroom, in a very serious voice, that “diarrhea just means excited poopers.” Comedians can’t make this stuff up. Nor can they deliver it with the genuine sincerity needed for a real laugh.

It’s both easier and harder when they don’t belong to you.

Taking over parenting someone else’s children can be a double-edged sword. There’s a lot that’s great about being Auntie Kii instead of Mommy. Hanging out with me is novel, special. At least for the one old enough to appreciate that she’s at a different house and that means doing some things she doesn’t normally get to do, like have a slumber party with me instead of sleeping alone in her own room. And of course, the obvious – I only had them for a few days, not an endless stretch through the formative years of their lives. Kind of takes the pressure off. And when you’re not the parent, I’ve also noticed that sometimes kids behave a little better. Oh, Edie definitely tested the waters with me, but when I was firm on boundaries, she backed down pretty quickly. I suspect she works a little harder to chip away at her mom’s resolve than she did with mine. You aren’t the parent. Yay! You can grant special dispensations, you can use a little fear of the unkown to your advantage, you can get away with sneaking them a treat or two that aren’t part of the normal repertoire. But there’s a flip side. You aren’t the parent. Which means, somewhere off in Mexico, or wherever they happen to be, there are parents of the little ones you are watching. And you have a responsibility to them too. To take care of their children the way they would, not the way you would if they were your own. You answer to those parents, at the end of the day. Heavy responsibility if you think about it. You might let your own kids stay up all night, swing from the chandeliers and eat Jello out of a shoe (this is a purely hypothetical example), but if that’s not how your friends’ roll, then when you take care of their kiddos, neither should you.

I think I’ll be pretty okay at this when it’s my turn.
I know it’s a tough and often thankless job. And it involves basically a lifetime commitment and a lot of time wiping something off of somewhere. But to be honest, I really do think it’s all worth it for the treasured moments. I spent a long weekend with Edie and Gray. And between the diaper changes, the messy meals and a few minor and thankfully short-lived temper tantrums, I got so much love and laughter. And sweet moments. With Gray, first thing in the morning, when he would nestle his little head down against me as I carried him from his crib, and just before bed, when I would rock him as he quietly sucked his thumb. And all the smiles and giggles and baby joy. With Edie, when she would curl up against me as I read to her before bed, and when she would sweetly and generously offer to help me clean up a mess or share her chicken nuggets. All the questions and fantasies of a little girl growing up. When they’re my own kids, I won’t be perfect at it, though I don’t think anyone is. But for four days and three nights with two little ones who only temporarily belonged to me, I did good. So when the time comes, I got this.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

It's Not my Party and I'll Cry if I Want To

At about 7:45 yesterday evening, we pulled up in front of a bar in a Dallas neighborhood I haven’t been to in years. We snagged a choice parking meter right outside the doors, a lucky break with another rain shower threatening, and seized the chance to unload all of our spare change. A quick check in the mirror told me my lip gloss was still in place and my bangs were losing their battle against the humidity. I stepped out, smoothed my dress and took my precious cargo out of the backseat. Armed with two large and unwieldy picture frames, an inner monologue of pep talks and a good friend by my side, I made my way into the reunion. Stepping into the cool, dry air I simultaneously wanted to be no place else and anywhere but there. Because it was not my 15 year reunion. It was not my party. This class belonged to my sister, Wendy. And the only reason I was there last night is because she’s gone.

About a week ago, I was touched to receive an invitation to attend Wendy’s reunion, and even more moved by the effusive response to my acceptance. A reaction that was multiplied tenfold that night. The hellos, the hugs and the “thank you so much for coming’s” kept, well, coming. I started to realize that my presence there meant as much to her classmates as it did to me. If not even more. Which made me think about it from their perspective. Wendy and I went to a small, private girl’s school. A hard school, the kind that either chews you up or spits you out as an Ivy leaguer. You don’t just get a degree from Hockaday, you fight for it, earn it. The girls in your class are your teammates, your allies and your strongest survival asset. My graduating class totaled 84 and I think hers wasn’t much larger. And they had lost one of their own. It’s a big hole in a class that small. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

Throughout the course of the night, and fortified by more than a few glasses of wine, I listened to stories about Wendy, caught up with bright, successful women who I had last seen when they were just girls and watched as her class raised almost $1000 in a raffle to win one of two signed reprints of Wendy’s artwork. Money that will be going to our school, to help promising art students pay for supplies. And then a moment came in the evening, sometime after my early bout of nervousness and discomfort and before to the effects of the wine had rendered me comfortably numb, when I found myself alone, sitting on a barstool, watching the class of 1996 swirl around me, chatter and laughter drifting over the music. In that standstill I suddenly tried to imagine what the scene around me would look like if Wendy was there. I pictured her, head thrown back in laughter, arms gesturing freely as she described her latest adventure. Ever the social butterfly, I could see her making her way from group to group, hugging and kissing with gusto. Later, when the band went on, she would dance with wild abandon, even though if the music was terrible.

And then I desperately wanted to see her at 33. I wanted to know who she was, what she had become. Just like I was seeing with the rest of her class. But I couldn’t, because in my head, she is always 22. She will always be 22.

It wasn’t until today that I realized that Wendy never made it to any of her class reunions. She was killed in the fall of 2000 and her first reunion would have marked five years in the Spring of 2001. She was never there to mark these passages of time with her class, gatherings that until today, I took a little for granted. Reunions are kind of a context for where we’ve come from, who we are now and where we are headed. Like mile markers or checkpoints. I suppose that might not be the case in a bigger school, or one that isn’t fraught with the same level of stress and academic challenge. But for anyone who went to Hockaday, those years are a defining piece of our personal history. An experience only shared by those who survived it next to us. And our lives are still marked today by relationships that started in the trenches with those girls around us.

So, not for the first time, and probably not for the last, I willingly took her place last night. Did my best to walk in my sister’s shoes even though they are too big for me to ever fill. Did my best to help her be at her reunion with the rest of her class. For her. For them. For me. I laughed with her friends, some of whom have become dear friend of mine, knocked back more than my fair share from the bar and partied like it was 1996. And then, today, I cried.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Unforgiven

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word forgiveness as “to grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offense or debt.” Just let that percolate for a minute.

Last Tuesday evening, I plugged the address of a downtown Dallas parole building into my navigation system, still relearning my way around a town that has changed and grown in the eighteen years I’ve been gone. This part of South Downtown Dallas has always been around, but until last week, I’ve never had much cause to be in the area, nowadays a hodgepodge mix of dicey streets and artists lofts. In short order, I would be sitting down at a long table in front of somewhere between 40 and 50 convicted offenders, now out on parole and required, because of the high degree of their crimes to participate in what is called a “victim’s impact panel.” A chance for them to listen and talk to some of us who’ve been on the receiving end of crime, and hopefully learn a little something.

I honestly wasn’t nervous. I’ve spoken many times before about my sister’s murder at the hands of a nineteen-year-old girl. I’ve spoken to large crowds from a microphone on a podium, on panels and in small intimate circles. I’ve talked to other bereaved siblings, to politicians and celebrities. And to defensive, heartbroken bereaved parents who don’t understand why their surviving children won’t speak to them. I’ve got this, I thought to myself as I swung into a parking lot slowly filling up with parolees. No problem. Even the size of the security guard who was as almost as wide as he was tall, taking up the majority of the height and breadth of the hallway, didn’t set me on edge as I walked with him and the panel facilitator to a waiting room where we would stay until the everyone had arrived and was seated. Together with two other women and the moderator, I filed into the room and took my seat. These women next to me would tell heart-wrenching stories of violence and abuse, time spent in hiding and pleas to the parole board to keep a husband hell-bent on murder safely tucked away in prison.

“You are here tonight because you have to be here. It’s a condition of your parole,” the moderator began as the audience rustled and adjusted, some leaning forward and listening, others sizing us up and some clearly wanting to be just about anyplace else.

“I’m here because I have to be here too, it’s my job. And he has to be here, because it’s his job,” she continued, pointing to the security guard. “The only people who don’t have to be here tonight are these three women, who have given up their free time to come and talk to you. Remember that.”

I listened quietly along with the audience as each of the other women spoke. And then it was my turn. As I looked out at a sea of faces and wondered what each of them had done to another person to end up in that room listening to me, my voice began to stick in my throat. My words came out slowly and I was surprised by the effort it took to form the shapes that make the sounds and then push them out of my mouth on a current of warm air. I chose my words carefully, laying out my story. All the while, trying to be mindful of this particular audience. What I could say, what should I say to a group of offenders, many of them with multiple stints in prison and all of them currently walking free. Don’t be too specific, I reminded myself over and over again. No last names, no exact dates, no detailed locations. But really make them think. They had heeded the moderator’s opening words though and were quiet and respectful. I was lucky that night. I had been warned that isn’t always the case. That next time they might be rowdy. Offensive. Thoughtless. They might act like criminals. It was during the question and answer session that things really got interesting. As the moderator opened the floor, the hands started to come up.

“Have you forgiven the person that did this to you?”

“If you can’t or won’t forgive them, then how do you live with that in your heart?”

“Forgiveness is a blessing and it’s what you are supposed to do, don’t you agree? Cause forgiveness is a gift.”

It became clear to me that these offenders were seeking a very specific response from us. Something along the lines of “Yes,” and “Of course I forgive him. Her. Them.” It was intriguing, to suddenly be put on the defensive by a room full of parolees. Tables turned. On the issue of forgiveness. It was obvious what they were looking for. If they could hear that we had forgiven the men and women who had hurt us, then each person in the room could infer that their victims had forgiven them too. They could be let off the proverbial hook. And I wasn’t okay with that.

I drove home and looked up the definition. Those words “to grant free pardon and give up all claim” leapt out at me. Free pardon. All claim. Serious business, this forgiveness. Is it really a gift? Forty some odd criminals would like me to think so. Do I just hand it over, like a pretty package at a birthday party? Hand over free pardon and give up all claim so we all can feel better and move on? That girl took my only sister away from me for good. My first thought? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. My second thought? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. There might be some people in the world who are that magnanimous, but I am not one of them. And I’m okay with that.

It suddenly occurred to me that this was the second time in a week that the issue of forgiveness had come up and I looked back at a recent email from someone who’d committed some significant wrongdoings against at me one time. In it, an expression of hope that perhaps my forgiveness might be offered someday. My first thought? Doubtful. My second thought? Okay, possible in theory, but what have you done to earn the right to ask? Which begs another question. Is forgiveness less like $10 you get from your aunt on your birthday and more like $10 you get from your parents for cleaning the kitchen and taking out the trash? Maybe. But if you can earn forgiveness, does it becomes an absolute, something you can lay claim to if you complete some prescribed set of tasks? A chance to buy or work your way to absolution?

So as not to knock myself out of the equation, and lest you think I’m coming at this from a holier than thou approach, I thought about times when I was seeking forgiveness. Because I screw up too. And I’ve learned over the years from my own mistakes that a genuine apology can go along way when you’ve committed a minor transgression. And those unrequested words might be all it takes to garner true forgiveness in some cases, like drinking the last of the milk, but most of the time a little extra effort is in order. A replacement for a broken item that you’ve borrowed or lost, dinner and movie to make up for a forgotten plan, flowers and a kind card to show that hurtful words were spoken out of turn. I’ve tried pretty hard to live a life where I can usually clear something up with a genuine apology and possibly the help of a cookie bouquet. And would I forgive someone in those cases? Grant them free pardon? Give up all claim? My first and only thought? You betcha. Which makes me think forgiveness is really most like the $10 your dad suddenly hands you to spend at the store when you’ve done a little extra around the house that wasn’t asked of you. Maybe you asked for it, or maybe you didn’t, but he saw the extra effort you made, not because you had to, but because you wanted to.

I’m not sure I have a solid conclusion to offer, because for me, this seems to be a question that mostly begs more questions. And on the great sliding scale of forgiveness, sometimes it comes easy, sometimes really have to work for it and sometimes, to be quite frank, I just can’t even figure how it’s a viable option or why the matter should even be coming up. And when you’ve done wrong by someone, there’s no guarantee that you can make it right. That’s the kicker. No one can tell you how to ask for forgiveness, to earn it, or if you’re ever gonna get it. Because what it takes for someone to grant “free pardon” is different for every person and every situation. Plus doing something to make amends without being asked is kind of the point.

I sat on a second panel last night in the same parole office and one of the offenders wrote in her evaluation that if she had the chance, she would tell her victim she was truly sorry. She also wrote that she didn’t think her victim should forgive her for what she had done. I don’t know what she did, but I can safely assume it’s not something that could be rectified with the extra-large cookie bouquet. But I applaud her honesty and her willingness to own up to the choices she made and the consequences of her actions. Which is probably the best first step anyone can make down a road that might or might not lead where you want it to go.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Writing is a Beach

In retrospect, I should have gone the other way first. Or just stayed inside. It was the windiest, coldest day out of a week of cold, rainy and altogether less than picture-perfect days in St. Petersburg, Florida. Leaving me questioning the “Paradise” part of the name of the workshop I was in town attending. “Writers in Paradise” had just drawn to a close and I had a few hours before I was due to meet new friends for dinner and then head to the final literary reading and farewell reception. Drained from an intense week of reading, writing, learning, listening and critiquing, I wanted a chance to clear my head and was in need of some fresh air and a little exercise. Plus I was staying right on the beach and had only had time for one stroll down the sandy shore during a mid-week day off.

Perhaps not quite this much fresh air, I thought as I turned south, against my better judgment, and began to make my way along the water’s edge. I knew in the back of my head that the strong wind that was nearly propelling me along was going to be pushing against me every step of the way once I turned around to head home. But it felt so easy to be carried along by the wind that I dismissed my practical notions and allowed my body to be guided further and further away from my warm hotel room. My thoughts drifted as I watched the waves rush up on to the packed sand. It looked like hands, with fingers crawling frantically up the shoreline. Each time the tide pulled back out, the wind would whip the foamy remains and send it skittering along the sand in front of my feet.

A handful of kite-surfers were skating across the top of the waves and then alternately being yanked into the air or dunked into the water beneath their kites, depending on which way the wind took them. Brave souls. Or stupid. Willing to risk a little cold and perhaps an injury to take advantage of the ease of flight provided by the day’s conditions. As I watched them and continued down my path, I wished for a big, strong wind behind my writing pen. I felt like it could be that easy, for the words to just flow and for some higher power, if you will, to send my hand in the direction it should go. I don’t write, I type, but that’s beside the point. I had been thinking about my writing and talking about my writing and learning about my writing all week, and I was good and ready to write. Come on wind, get behind me and let it rip.

I had been walking at what felt like a brisk pace for a good bit, lost in my head, when I came up to the first dead bird. It was then that I realized the colorful kites were far behind me, and that I appeared to, at least for the moment, be the only person on the beach. Partly buried in blowing sand, the sea bird was twisted, like it had been desperately avoiding a crash landing. A few paces beyond it, I passed another one, in much the same position. And then a little further down, another bird was in my path. This one alive but happily munching on a dead fish that had been washed to the shore by the violent waves. An opportunist if there ever was one. By the time I passed a lone yellow child’s beach chair, sitting next to a large pit that had been dug in the sand, my calming stroll on the beach had lost its charm. I was nowhere near sunny St. Petersburg. I was wandering in some post-apocalyptic landscape. This was the place ideas came to die. I was terrified that would be me. That I would come home from this conference and sit down, ready to create and nothing would come. That I would hold my fingers over the keyboard, ready for it to be easy, for the words to flow, and all I would have was dead carcasses and empty chairs and unexplained holes.

I pressed on. A glimpse of more kite-surfers farther down the beach gave me renewed hope and then the little timer on my iPhone rang, telling me I had been walking for thirty minutes and it was time to turn around. The brunt of the wind hit me full-force in the face. I had to pull the hood of my thin sweatshirt over my head and tie it tight under my chin to keep the wind out of my ears. The top layer of sand was dancing and swirling like angry fog over the packed earth beneath it, coming at me, pelting against my sunglasses and looking for openings in my shoes, trying to find any way in. Every step was its own journey. I tucked down and leaned in, pushing back as hard as I could at the wind. Try and stop me, I thought, digging my feet in. I suppose I could have cut between the hotels and made my way to the street, where the buildings would have blocked some of the force, but by then I was in it to win it.

The dead birds became landmarks and I scanned for them regularly as I pressed forward, knowing that passing each one would be an accomplishment, steps closer to home. The bird with the fish was long gone, having either finished his meal, or lost it back to the ocean, surely to be re-gifted by the waves to some other lucky bird farther to the south or north. I averted my gaze as I passed by the fallen, not wanting to see their twisted forms, thinking that they had lost the fight that I was going to win. As I got closer to my hotel, I passed a person. And then another. Idiots, I thought, counting myself and as one of them, wait till you turn around. You should have gone north first and gotten the hard part out of the way. I imagine I looked like an overwrought alien, my giant sunglasses protruding from my tightly-tied hood, which was no doubt pressed close against my head. My body hunched forward and my lips pressed in a tight line in a largely unsuccessful attempt to keep out the sand.

When I finally turned inland, the finish line in sight in the form of a large hotel, I allowed myself to revel in my victory. The journey back had been so much harder with the wind fighting me each step of the way. But I had made it. I was a little sweaty, despite the cold, I would be sore the next day and I would be taking home an inordinate amount of sand buried deep in my tennis shoes as a reminder of the day. I looked at my timer. It had seemed like an age, but it had only taken me eight extra minutes to make it back against the wind. Writing is like this, I realized. All of this. Sometimes the wind is at your back, and the going is easy. Roll with it. Sometimes it’ll be in your face, possibly blowing sand up your nose to spite you, but you can still keep going, and it really won’t take you much longer to get there if you just dig down and put one foot in front of the other. Maybe, don’t try to fly, just settle for a good slow pace. If a fish washes up on the shore, by all means, eat it. You know what I mean. And sometimes, all you will have are dead carcasses and empty chairs and unexplained holes. All I can say then is keep scanning the horizon for your proverbial kite-surfer. And when in doubt, try just turning around.