Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Grand McPhee

One night, she wild and stormy be
He docked his ship, the “Grand McPhee”
And went ashore for brew and song
To sing and drink and dance along.
But old and slow he stopped for air
And in the light he saw her there
Dancing tip toed round and round.
Bowing softly to the ground,
He caught her eye, its ocean blue.
His heart so stopped and this he knew:
My love, a dancer she must be
One day, we’ll sail the Grand McPhee.
Not fear nor worry shook his stand,
He waltzed inside and asked her hand.
She looked into his grizzled face,
“No,” said she, to his disgrace.
“Many suitors spar for me
“I want no life upon the sea.
“One is rich with land and gold
“His worth is more than fish you’ve sold.
“One is strong with arms so wide
"He carries logs brought in by tide.
“One is young and fair of face
“He brings me gifts of Queen Anne’s Lace.
“But you, old man, pocket of sieve,
“You, for me, have naught to give.”
And as the storm had ceased to be
He blinked a tear, and back to sea.
As Spring, she sprung, the suitors came
And called out loudly, all the same:
“Dancer, will you marry me?
“Just think how lucky you will be!
“The envy of each and every lass,
“I am the best, all others pass.”
So came the young and fair of face
In truth, he brought his Queen Anne’s Lace.
But “No,” she said, “It cannot be.
“Not face nor flowers can protect me”
And as he left, in came the brawn
With muscles large and musk of fawn.
“Beauty be damned! That man is all wrong!
“You must marry me, I am giant and strong!”
Said she, “Yes, you’re strong and protection is good,
“But your muscles and grandeur cannot buy me food.”
As he left with a grumble, a coach came along
Filled with satchels of money, suitor, and song.
“Dancer, I’m wealthy, with land and gold, to boot!”
“Marry me, for I am best.  In truth, I am a hoot!”
But sadly still she shook her head
For “money can’t buy love,” she said.
And in the night she stood alone
Without a suitor or marriage sewn.
As clouds rolled in from off the sea
She danced once more and thought of He.
The lightning struck and thunder shook.
He, once again, put down his hook.
There she twirled and dipped and spun
But he still, for her, fine gifts had none.
Brave as before, he again took her hand,
His weathered old palms, rubbed smooth by the sand.
“Not rich?” she asked, and “No,” said he.
“My riches lie within the sea.”
“Not strong?” asked she, hand on her hip.
“The strength I need to steer my ship.”
“I see you’ve aged, I count the lines.”
“In my shadow, your beauty shines.”
Softened by his simple quips,
She placed a kiss upon his lips.
Peaceful as he left for sea
He called out from the Grand McPhee:
“I’ll marry you when next we meet
“With wine and song and fish to eat.
“We’ll dance and sail into the sun
“And laugh and sing ‘til day is done.”
Storm clouds caused the skies to dim
Angry waves swelled and swallowed him,
Never to return to his dancing sweet
Where first they met upon the street.
She gazed out from the cliffs in fear,
Blinded by a single tear.
She threw herself into the sea,
And was buried with the Grand McPhee.


I’ve known you for so long
I’ve never met you.
You sway and roll as I sing
But you’ll never let me sleep.
I wake, you sleep
I sleep, you wake
And now the pain begins.
Midwife Mary strokes my hair
A trance takes me far from home,
Warm water bathes my moans
And I writhe and sway a working rhythm.
My tongue is parched, I ask for juice
At home in my bed, a familiar smell,
Quilt sewn with loving hands of old
Wraps me in familiarity.
He paces, worried, wanting to take
The pain and labor upon himself.
But a mother’s work is deep within
And the rhythm floats on in colors.
Soft music plays
Or rock and roll,
Whatever helps me push the plow
Of labor pains in which I am drowning.
But Mary pulls me back again.
She brings my focus on the happiness
The pictures, the music, the pressure from my back.
And looking straight into my soul
“Now push” she says and I comply.
It’s easy, it feels better, I can.
The hours pass, but I don’t know
Through sweat and blood the world has gone.
My tank on empty, “I can’t” I cry
But Mary says I can.
A smile, encouraging
Again, she says to push.
Mother holds my hand,
He holds your head,
And frightened, pulls you into the world.
And all is gone except your face
A love ignited more than all.
My baby here within the circle of my grasp
On this your first day of life.

Homeschool Manifesto

My mother chose to homeschool me, with Dad as her support.  He taught 10th grade biology at the local high school, but still felt I’d be better off at home.  A lot of stigma goes along with homeschooling.  Everywhere you look, a “homeschool kid” is perceived to look, talk, and act a certain way.  You know the type: long hair, long skirt, bad at sports, doomed to be a cat-lady.  Well, I’ve never been much of a cat person, and prefer dogs, myself. 
With a degree in English, Mom favored reading and writing above all else.  By eleven years-old I had flipped through the Great Books, all of Shakespeare’s plays, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens (who I utterly detest), Louisa May Alcott, and most other classic authors.  When I could find a place to hide, I also had a stash of Larry McMurtry novels, and plenty other “grown-up” books from which I learned most of how the human body works.  Mom also taught me history and languages, while Dad filled in with science and math.  I took things at my own pace, and soon found myself ahead of my friends.  When the student-to-teacher ratio is 1:1, it’s pretty hard to get behind.
My hair might have been somewhat long, but certainly not long enough to sit on, and it wasn’t “big” in front as you might assume.  I didn’t own a single denim skirt, and mainly ran around in jeans and t-shirts.  I was well aware of the fads—what was in, what wasn’t—and I begged for designer clothes just the same as any other kid.  And that one name-brand shirt I got for Christmas, I wore to shreds—desperately trying to keep up with the Joneses.  If you saw me in the grocery store, I certainly didn’t fit that “homeschool mold.”  I didn’t wear tie-dye, I didn’t pull my socks up over my leggings, and I knew the importance of deodorant.  To see me, I could be anybody, and at eleven years-old that was really important.  As puberty creeps up, no one wants to stick out.
A homeschooler is often classified as a kid with two left feet that shuns sports or physical activity.  After all, schooling at home impedes the ability to grow muscles, play team sports, and run without tripping on your shoelaces.  But I loved sports.  As the only girl in town to play in a boys-only baseball league, I had a lot of pride as well as a lot to prove.  My team might as well have been the “Bad News Bears.”  We were the team that had all the kids that didn’t make it through try-outs, and had to provide our own uniforms (namely sweatpants) and gear.  My dad coached us every day in rain or shine until we won a couple games here and there.  I’m not afraid to say that I was the best on the team, because I wanted it more than anyone else.  I had to work harder to achieve the respect they earned just by showing up.  I sat behind home plate and caught ball after ball, but I never could seem to see through the rusty old mask.  Each year I tried out for our town’s “major league,” but it didn’t really matter because I knew they wouldn’t let me through. 
As a homeschooler, I might have been doomed to play the clarinet in the local concert band, but that wasn’t for me.  Sure, I followed the homeschool crowd and took up the piano, but in the sixth grade I begged my dad to let me play the drums.  Being raised for so long in a conservative home, I was ready to rock out.  Dad bought me a pair of sticks and a drum pad, and in the fall I signed up for band at the local middle school.  Every day I walked in with my Beatles t-shirt (one of many) and played “Mission Impossible,” “Copa Cabana,” “Mr. Sandman,” etc.  Playing the drums made me feel almost “cool,” though being homeschooled set me apart.  But playing the drums also taught me something much more important than the music, itself.  It taught me that boys, and more importantly hormones, were all around me.
As much as I tried to deny it growing up, I was falling in love with boys.  Lots of boys.  Any boys.  It’s a heartbreaking, exhilarating time of life, and horribly confusing.  I started going to band for the music—the “street cred,” if you will—and continued going for that sweaty, heart-stopping moment when the boy of my dreams said “hey.”  Each day he patted my back, or poked me, or told me a joke, and I nearly died.  Certainly he had several girlfriends, but I figured we had plenty of time to sort all that out before we got married.  And though he was my “one and only,” I still found the need to drool over a few teen magazines before bed each night and hang posters on every square inch of my walls. Beautiful teenage boys surrounded me at all times, and I don’t really remember much because I think my brain stopped working at some point and started back up a few years later.
The biggest stigma that goes along with being homeschooled is that of social introversion.  As a homeschooler, it was assumed that I had no friends, lived in the woods with my twelve brothers and sisters, and stitched doilies all day.  I have one sister, and there is one apple tree in our back yard, but that’s it.  Growing up, I had plenty of friends for sleepovers, birthday parties, group date nights, and the occasional “par-tay.”  After school I went to ballet class with all of my friends, and danced until dark.  I danced because I loved dancing.  I wanted to be the very best and go on to bigger and better things, but dancing played a small role in why I took ballet.  Class didn’t start until 5:30, but we all showed up at about 3:30 to talk about boys, school, movies, make-up, who had started “Aunt Flow,” who kissed whom, and on and on.  We wore our leotards and tights proudly to the grocery store around the corner, where we bought take-out Chinese food, bacon burgers, and french fries.  Then, until class, we’d do cartwheels on the front lawn, whistle at the firemen from down the block, and live in our made-up world of just how fabulous we were.  On any given day, one girl would be your best friend, and the next she was your enemy.  Generally this depended on who dated whom, who wore what, who got the solo, who’s parents let them watch the latest rated-R zombie flick, who got their bellybutton pierced, and most importantly: bra size.  But these girls, loved or hated, were my friends and, like a flock of geese, we went everywhere together, loudly.  
Some of the important things about homeschooling are that you discover the world outside of books.  I could read Lewis and Clark’s journals about their travels to find the Northwest Passage, but words on a page hold only so much meaning.  As a homeschooler, I could jump in the car and actually go see the things about which I read.  I read Washington State History, and then I saw Washington State History.  I read about the Kings of Scotland and then I actually visited their castles and was able to see where great battles took place.  I didn’t read science so much as I got out and saw it.  I potted plants at the National Park Service and learned about herbs and noxious weeds.  I stood on the beaches of La Push and peered out at the gray whales feeding offshore.  I had jars of tadpole eggs that I monitored each day and recorded any changes in my little notebook.  During my health unit, I actually met with a local midwife and flipped through her photo albums as she told me amazing stories of the births she had attended.  I attended arts festivals, wooden boat festivals, tulip festivals, and holiday festivals, all while my friends sat behind their desks.
I wrote about everything I saw as a homeschooler.  Each Friday, I had an essay due on any given topic.  Sometimes this might be on Hamlet and the symbolism of “Poor Yorick,” or other times it could be a short story based on history.  The over-arching theme of each year changed, too, from the Pioneers to the Renaissance period, to Ancient Rome.  This meant that although I still kept up with all the normal subjects, all of my projects, art, writing, and field trips would be based on the theme of the year.  During the Renaissance period, I had to learn to oil paint, re-create frescos, and study all the patrons of writing and art, while memorizing monologues from Shakespeare.  In order to learn more, my family took a trip to Ashland, Oregon to attend the Shakespeare Festival. 
Out of all the subjects I studied, I loved languages the best.  To clarify:  I loved French.  However, Mom said that in order to be a true scholar, one must know Latin.  To me—and the rest of the world—Latin is a dead language.  No one is even sure of how to pronounce the words.  But Mom tried her best.  We had Latin class every week with other homeschooled kids, and studied translations out of “Ecce Romani” and the Cambridge Latin course.  We kids couldn’t stand Latin, but that didn’t matter to “the mothers.”  We were forced to join the “Junior Classical League,” which meant attending conventions with other school-aged kids from all over the Northwest.  Some parts of the Latin convention were okay, I guess.  There was a gladiator battle, and a game show called “Certamen.”  But we didn’t really stand a chance in either of these arenas.  Our “school” had five students—everyone else seemed to have about sixty or so.  But every year Mom would drive us to the JCL to compete.  I have to say, there were plenty of greasy, hygienically-challenged nerds that attended, but they went to public school.  We were still fighting to be “normal.” 
In high school, I dated boys, went to proms, and even ended up with a royalty crown.  I worked for the radio, hung out with friends, went to concerts, and sang in the school choir. 
In a nutshell: I was a homeschooler.  At home I studied French, Latin, penmanship, classic literature, Saxon math, hands-on science, English, ancient history, Modern American history, European history, piano, drums, writing, and speeches.  I participated in baseball, ballet, soccer, Girl Scouts, Key Club, Light Opera, and Community Theater.  I published two poems and I achieved high scores on my placement tests.  The school board presented me with a cake that said “Congratulations National Merit Commended Scholar.”  I had boyfriends and was “dumped.”  And some I dumped myself.  I made good choices and a few bad choices.  I applied for colleges and traveled the world.  And while my friends sat behind their desks—waiting for roll call, waiting for their papers to be passed back, waiting for the last person in class to finish—I was reading, and learning to cook, and going out for a run. 
I don’t pretend to know why homeschooling has a bad reputation.  I am a product of homeschool.  I’m not damaged, closed minded, molested, fundamentalist, or the least bit crazy.  I am not a stereotype, label, or stigma.  I write, I read, I enjoy my friends, my family, my husband, my daughter.  I have goals and I will meet them.  And I still love sports. 

It is you who have a problem with me
As a homeschooler, I don’t have a problem with myself.

I am a homeschooler. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Unwelcome Stranger--A Story of Cancer

Young, athletic, cross-country coach, middle school science teacher, referee, Mariners fan, dad.

 It was late spring 1989 and my father was 39 years-old—still rising to the peak of his life.  No one expected anything different from him.  He was the handsome, idyllic leader of a happy family living on the Olympic Peninsula.  Our well-kept lawn framed a beautiful vegetable garden, carefully weeded and loved, teeming with vines and blossoms that would become dinner all winter long.
Baseball season had just begun and, outside of his family, Dad loved nothing more than to watch his beloved team attempt not to lose a game.  In those days, we didn’t win much, but there was no team with more heart than ours.  We had a new pitcher, Randy Johnson, and although we didn’t know much about him, he was tall and people remembered us for that.
That spring, Dad started having trouble breathing.  He had always been a healthy guy and proactive about going in for check-ups, teeth cleaning, eye exams, and the occasional mole-removal.  But this was something new, or rather, very old.  He hadn’t experienced breathing difficulties since his days as a child in central Montana, when his lungs gave up after thirty degrees below zero.  No, this wasn’t the same.  It might have been a cold, or the flu, but he didn’t feel sick, and as week after week went by, nothing seemed to change. 
I remember that day, driving the old Ford pickup with Dad and sister to the hospital.  He assured us that the x-ray would show that he had something called “pneumonia.”  This, he explained, would be gone before we knew if, after only a few rounds of medicine.  So, we played in the waiting room, reading each other funny stories, eating carrot sticks, and molding things out of our colored modeling clay.  When he finished, Dad came and got us, still smiling, but worry-lines that I hadn’t seen before creased around his forehead and the corners of his eyes.
We went to the movie store that night—a very special treat, as Mom was one of those “kill your TV” crusaders.  With popcorn and grape pop in hand, we sat down to “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” while Dad and Mom quietly talked in the bedroom.  If we had been listening, we would have heard Mom’s soft sobs while Dad rubbed her back and reassured her, or tried to, that everything would be just fine.  He had been diagnosed with “Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,”—cancer of his lymphatic system—and had an inoperable, softball-sized tumor settled between his lungs and heart, pushing them out of the way. 
Over the next few days, things moved very quickly.  Grandma came from Montana to stay with us while Mom and Dad visited the Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle in order to develop a treatment plan.  Little did we all know, but Grandpa would be diagnosed with stomach cancer only a few weeks later.  Still, at this point my sister and I knew nothing and were just pleased to have Grandma there as yet another special treat.  To us, life was improving daily.  We had never had so much junk food, TV time, or fun visitors in all our lives, and we had a hunch that gifts were just around the corner. 
Mom and Dad came home the next day, looking tired, especially Dad.  His face was a little green, and he wouldn’t eat much but he still had his big bear hugs for both of us.  Then, with Grandma and Mom in the room, he sat us both down and explained everything that was going on.  He left nothing out, because he knew we had strength enough to handle it, but he worded everything as gently as a child’s heart could understand.  We knew the word “cancer,” from library books and the news, but we knew nothing of chemotherapy, tumors, or the lymphatic system.  Then he unbuttoned his shirt.  On his chest, just above his heart was a long scar, stitched shut—maybe the size of my hand. 
“Did they take out the cancer, Dad?” I asked.  He shook his head and explained that if they took out his tumor, his heart and his lungs might get hurt.  So the doctor opened him up, took a good look, and sewed him shut.  It all seemed a little silly to me to have an operation that accomplished nothing.  But, I supposed, there is only so much one can see from a fuzzy x-ray, and there is nothing quite like the real thing.  While I felt scared, I was also very interested in the medicine of it all.  I liked the idea of looking inside someone’s chest and seeing a world I knew only from the World Book Encyclopedia.  Still, I didn’t think I would ever like to look inside my Dad’s chest.  There are some places even the most inquisitive mind won’t go.
Spring turned into summer, and Dad’s cancer treatment was in full swing.  Almost overnight, the symptoms started.  Normal canker sores turned into ten, then twenty, and thrush spread throughout his mouth, making it impossible to eat and even harder to talk.  But even thrush couldn’t affect his smile.  One night, I woke up with the flu and ran for the toilet, expecting to be alone in my misery.  There was my dad, hunched and sweating, pale and tired, sitting where I should have been.  I could handle it.  I had thrown up plenty of times in my life, but this was something that I didn’t want my dad to handle.  He didn’t need to be there.  He didn’t need to feel sick. I could do it for him.  So we sat there all night long, one at the toilet, and one with a bucket, and kept a tally sheet of who did it the most.  Funny, how even in our worst moments, the Leinart competitiveness and love of the game came through, and we actually enjoyed ourselves.  Or at least Dad made it seem like fun, though I don’t know how he truly felt. 
Though tired and weak, Dad never let life change much.  We still went to the movies, walked on the waterfront trail, fed the horses around the corner from our house, and spent plenty of time at the library.  And when Mom’s back was turned, we even got to go to the gas station for corn dogs on Saturday—something her wheat germ-loving soul would never have tolerated.  And Dad, tired and pale, never missed a day of school.  He scheduled all of his treatments to be either in the evenings or on the weekends, so that he would be fresh for his students, to teach them the Punnett square and poke his finger for blood-sample slides under the microscope. 
Symptoms, though awful, were tolerable.  But maybe I’m wrong, because we were not the ones that “tolerated” them.  Dad got thrush, Dad gained weight from his steroids, Dad threw up, Dad got tired and sweat through his sheets every night.  It was not us who was “tolerating” anything.  But we felt that we were.  We honestly thought that we had all the symptoms along with him and were there as a team.  And, I suppose, that’s the way it has to be if a family can survive cancer.   But one morning, it got to be too much for me.  Dad had gone off to school in his usual routine, and Mom called me into the bedroom.  She was changing the sheets—as she now did daily—and pulled out a lint brush, handing it to me.  I looked at the pillows; and there in the crease where my dad’s head had been, was a handful of hair.  Dad had explained that this would happen, but it had been several months, and his dark brown hair and mustache that made him look like Magnum PI, had remained thick and full on his head.  I thought maybe we had dodged a bullet, and no one, outside of our family, would ever need to know that Dad was sick.  I couldn’t handle it if people teased him.  After all, when Josh Butler got leukemia and lost all of his hair, kids started asking a lot of questions.  I never asked him a single one.  I knew that he felt sick, and tired, and just like my dad.  I left Josh alone.  But this morning, Dad’s hair had begun to fall out.  There was the evidence right in front of me, and I was being asked to nonchalantly wipe it up.  Seriously?  Just like that?  But I did it.  I didn’t let the tears fall because Mom had to be strong, so I did too.  Only my teddy bear saw my tears, and it was soaked through.
Though I read books, I never really understood “cancer.”  After all, from what Dr. Widen had told me, each cancer had its own name.  There was leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma, neuroblastoma, and on and on.  So what was this “cancer?”  Is it like calling the food we eat “supper,” when it could be meatloaf, grilled cheese sandwiches, or tuna noodle casserole?   Or was it like music?  We listened to classical, big-band, folk, and rock and roll at our house, but I suppose they are all “music.”  Still, I couldn’t wrap my head around the individual diagnoses of the term “cancer.”  At seven years-old, there is only so much your brain can do.  That being said, I didn’t understand.  All the books I had read were either too dumbed-down to a child’s level and spoke of things like “when a flower gets sick, the sun and rain make it better,” or were so full of adult medical jargon that I had too many questions and my poor mom didn’t know the answers.  Of Keets and Shakespeare she could answer anything; but of this, she didn’t know much.  So, over time, I developed my own, misinformed theories, the worst of which devastated my dad. 
Growing up, I had always been “daddy’s little girl.”  For whatever reason, I shunned dresses, dolls, and the color pink, in order to play in the mud and do anything that my dad did.  He and I were inseparable from my birth, and the only time we spent apart was while he was at work.  Even then, at three or four years-old, I would miss him terribly, so Mom would rub Old Spice on a pillowcase and I would carry it around all day to remind me of him.  He took me on class field trips, to his Kiwanis meetings early in the morning, and on basketball tournaments.  Even at two years-old, I could spend the whole day with him and never be lonely or tired.  But then cancer came to my house, and I didn’t understand.  Dad got sick, then Grandpa got sick.  I knew that my mom’s mother had died from cancer, and with each headache or stomachache, I thought I would die, too.  My folks always talked with my sister and me about what it was to have cancer, how it made Dad feel, and how it affected us.  But no amount of explaining would convince me that I couldn’t catch cancer from Dad.  I was so afraid that it was contagious and that I would “come down with cancer,” that I stopped touching him all together.  I wouldn’t hug him, I wouldn’t hold his hand, I wouldn’t kiss his cheek.  I still loved him dearly, but at a distance.  This was the man with whom I “roughhoused” every night after dinner, with whom I rode cardboard-sleds down the hill at the high school track, and with whom, I secretly read “Shoeless Joe” and “Lonesome Dove” before bed each night.  And now I could only look at him and see sickness.   I knew he was the same person, and that he loved me, but I felt that he couldn’t protect me.  The big, strong coach that had always pulled me out of the way of danger, now was the danger.  He pleaded with me to come sit with him and read stories, or play “goop” (cornstarch and water) at the dinner table, but I couldn’t.  I wouldn’t.  And he never cried either, at least not in front of me.  But I think he did sometimes. 
For whatever reason, the one thing I didn’t fear doing with my dad, was playing the piano.  Our old Hardman passed hands from Great-Grandma Daw to Grandma Leinart, to Dad when he was a boy, and then to me.  Seth Thomas tick-tocked a steady rhythm that, in my imagination, protected me from the cancer.  Music protected me.  It made me stronger, and wiser, and wrapped a sheet of cool hands around me.  Grandpa taught me “Heart and Soul” as my very first piece, and I would like to think that I had much improved by age seven, though that is doubtful.  But Dad and I would play simple duets on the weathered keys, stopping only to pull on a sticky D.  For Dad’s heart, and my fear, these times pulled us through and let us know that there truly would be an end to all this, one way or another.
During the “cancer years” money all but disappeared.  We didn’t have a lot to begin with—Dad being a teacher and Mom staying at home with us girls—but penny-pinching was the name of the game in the Leinart household and we never went without.  But no amount of wishing or insurance can cover the cost of saving someone’s life, or attempting to.  I don’t think either I or my sister noticed the overall belt-tightening.  My folks carefully made do with home-made toys like rubber-band guitars and yarn dolls, and we always had plenty of paper grocery bags to do our vibrant “water paintings.”  Although these disappeared as they dried, we knew the bag remembered what they looked like, even if no one else did. 
I think my parents worried about Christmas that year.  Fortunately, our extended family goes on for miles, and when someone can’t, someone else always can.  Grandma and Grandpa, though they were dealing with things, as well, had plenty of money in the bank and made everyone feel like kings.  We went to Fort Benton that year and, in the burning glow of Grandma’s “tinsel only, no needles” Christmas tree, we opened more gifts than we had ever had before.  I think about half of what I opened ended up being Barbies—something that I would definitely be swapping for a baseball mitt later on.  Mom and Dad had never gotten my sister and I Barbies before.  I’m not sure if it is the whole idea of body image, the fact that they are not based on any children’s book (a must for my mother), or just that they are plain useless.  But no mind, my favorite gift that year came from Mom and Dad.  Using a library book as a reference, they had built me a violin out of wood, rawhide, and real strings.  They had even soaked and bent the wood for a bow.  I had begged them for three years for a violin.  I knew that the violin in the window downtown cost one-hundred dollars, and my pennies never seemed to get that high.  So here I was with my very own—albeit unique—violin.  I don’t know that the rest of the family appreciated my new toy, but I made sure they all got a concert before dinner.
Love and support are funny things when you’re going through something hard.  While Dad was sick, everyone tried their hardest to make up for anything that they felt we were lacking.  Aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends, and neighbors poured on the extra love.  I found this funny, because it wasn’t love that we were lacking.  Our family loved each other more than we ever had before.  We were learning how strong each one of us really was.  I learned that my sister—who was pale and skinny, and I always thought of her as “feather-like”—was a pillar of strength.  When Mom and Dad weren’t there to protect me, she grew to a giant and stood in front with her arms out wide, shielding my heart from everything in the world that could hurt me.  She read to me when Mom and Dad couldn’t, she helped me bake cookies, she brushed my hair, and she chased me around the yard.  Those were her “mom years,” and though she was only eleven years-old, I saw her with an Amazon-like quality.  So I always felt, amidst the smothering, over-nurturing, nearly breast-feeding quality of the rest of my family, that I was just fine.  I had everything I needed, thank you very much.
At seven years-old, I felt as grown as I would ever be.  Certainly, I wasn’t a baby anymore.  I could walk myself to the bus-stop, I could make a bologna sandwich, and I had several unwanted “grown-up” chores.  But as the rest of the world knows, at seven, I was a baby.  No one in the first grade needs to know the meaning of “responsibility,” at least not on any significant level.  I did my best to quell that notion, and take care of my family.  But I suppose, in any “hero child” role, there is an element of loneliness.  I had plenty of friends at school, around the neighborhood, and even a pen pal or two.  But if my little friends did not have a sick father or mother, or even a sick aunt or two, there really wasn’t much to talk about.  I had other interests in my life, but all of them were permeated with the diagnosis.  I like baseball, but my dad has cancer.  I want to build a fort, but my dad has cancer.  Happy birthday!  But my dad has cancer.  Going to slumber parties with my little friends showed me their perfect lives with their perfect parents, toys, and pets.  I wasn’t asking for much; I didn’t need American Girl dolls, or video games.  But I needed my dad to be well, and then I would figure the rest out. 
Each week or two, our family attended a cancer support group called “Operation Uplift” above the eye clinic.  I’m not sure if it was meant for children to attend, but we always went.  Sometimes adults were sick, sometimes kids were sick; but it seemed that every time, someone was missing from the time before.  Mary and I didn’t dare make friends, because they were sick friends.  We already had sick at our house, we didn’t want anymore.  Plus, if our friend died, that meant that our dad could die, or would die.  So, no, we didn’t want any friends, “uplifting” or otherwise.  But each session led to a family talk explaining where so-and-so went from last week.  After a while, we learned to stop asking.
Much of the time while Dad was sick and away at the hospital, we stayed with classmates and family friends.  Our relatives all lived far away and came as much as they could, but it wasn’t enough for cancer’s schedule.  This meant that we always kept a sleep-away bag packed and ready for doctor days or emergencies.  I was never one of those kids that loved sleepovers.  The concept rang well, but as soon as bedtime hit, I longed for my squeaky little bed with my books, blankets, and teddy.  I never dragged teddy along or my little blanket made by Grandma Swenson, for fear they would get left and then I would never sleep again.  So I laid there awake in strange bedrooms all over town, counting the minutes until I would be home.  Usually, if my friend had a big sister, my sister came too.  It being a small town, everyone knows everyone, and there are children in all shapes and sizes for matching up.  But on the off chance that we hit up a one-child family, then I would be all alone, making up stories about the little people who lived in the popcorn ceiling as I lay there awake at night.  Inevitably, loneliness set in and planned on staying a while.  I had always felt that my imagination left no room for loneliness.  I had imaginary friends, stories, other lives, and ghosts in my closet, all nestled away in my thoughts, just waiting for a rainy-day moment.  But over the long months, I cycled through the same old thoughts of owning a pony, marrying “Bob Farmer,” living in a coral reef, and flying away, over and over again.  Sadness can dry up even the most active imagination and leave it crumpled like an old raisin.  I had to come up with a plan or I’d go crazy.  That’s when I started talking to God.
To me, God was the best of invisible friends.  I had been to church and knew all the Bible stories by heart from the books-on-tape I got at the library, but I felt that what I knew about God and what He knew about me was special, and outside of everyone else.  I told God about my good days and bad days, I sang to Him, I wrote Him stories and jokes, and I thanked Him when we got pizza or hamburgers for dinner.  I knew He was strong and protective of me, and I knew no matter how much I begged, He had a plan for my dad that didn’t hinge upon anything I had to say.  I wasn’t afraid of God, thus never bound to be a Catholic, and I told Him so when I was angry.  I’d yell at Him or complain to Him about Him, and all the while I distinctly heard Him laughing from very far away.  God was my secret and my safe place.  I felt selfish about Him and didn’t share Him with anyone.  I figured that He was designated to me, as my helper, and so should not be bothered to visit with anyone else.  Again, laughing.  And so it went on for many months in many homes, that God became my mom and dad, when they were away.  And I was okay with that.
Over time, after many rounds of treatment, CAT Scans, check-ups, what have you, my dad started to get better.  His tumor shrunk from a softball, to a baseball, to a golf ball, to nothing.  And one day, Dr. Widen said “It’s time to go home.”  Dad was in remission from the thing that held us so tightly for over a year.  Check-ups were weekly, monthly, yearly, and one day, gone.  On that last check-up, Dr. Widen, now old and wizened, showed me the crayon drawings from all those years ago, that decorated his office.  My seven year-old hands exuded happiness even in time of fear and sadness.  There I was, a little pillar, myself.  Was I stronger then, than I am now?  It would seem so.
Dad never had a bad check-up, and never got lymphoma again.  Grandpa healed, too, and proudly, they showed each other their scars.  I learned to hug my dad again, to play catch, to drive a car, and eventually left for college, got married, and had a child of my own.  But my old dad still talks to me daily, and we never forget what cancer was to us as a family.  The scars are still there, physically, mentally, good, and bad.  I have never, yet, been able to sleep alone in a strange house; but to this day, I have never stopped talking to God.  I am a little less selfish and have learned to share Him with the rest of humanity, but I still think He likes me best and knows me better than anyone else.  My fears have changed over time.  I am not afraid now, and will not ever fear cancer.  As I grew into a woman, I knew that, take me or leave me, I am stronger than a diagnosis.  Cancer riddled my family in the form of skin cancer, breast cancer, lymphatic cancer, thyroid cancer, stomach cancer, and throat cancer.  It might happen to me, it might not.  I really don’t care, because I know how to fight, and I’m better than you, Cancer.  But if you come near my family, only then am I afraid of you, Cancer.  Take my legs, my arms, my breasts, my brain, but leave my family alone because I am the strongest.
In later years, it was discovered that pesticides caused lymphatic cancer.  Having a wheat farm in Montana, we were all too familiar with pesticides.  Apparently those “family get-togethers” of piling into the grain truck, driving up to the wheat, and pouring poison down gopher holes, was not the best decision.  My mother makes all her own household cleaners and weed-killers now, and refuses to buy anything with a label.  Dad is retired and substitute teaching in the Port Angeles School District.  My sister, Mary digs up history, as an archaeologist on the east coast,  And me? I am here writing to you.  So I guess we healed up just fine.  Tragedies and joys have come and gone in our lives, but strength remains despite all.  I suppose we have cancer to thank for that, but I don’t think I ever will.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


     For the first few years we grew up in a dogless home, not for lack of begging.  When they first married, Mom and Dad had a little Jack Russell named “Sugar” before taking on a two-year teaching gig in Melbourne, Australia. The thought of ever having to give another pup away sort of put them off of the whole idea.  Not us.  Mary and I brought home every stray we found running down Peabody Street and across the high school grounds.  I seem to remember a couple basset hounds, a black lab, a golden retriever, and probably one or two others here and there.  We brought them home with big weepy eyes and promises to bathe, feed, and scoop up after their every golden drop.  A few groans, grunts, and one phone call later, our highest hopes went home with their distraught owners.
My sister wised up before I ever did, and her focus changed from fruitless promises to financial strategy.  Pretty soon, Dad couldn’t watch the news without putting a few pennies in the jar marked “dog fund” that sat atop our old brown TV.  Jars started popping up all over the place: on the dryer, over the refrigerator, and even on the back of the toilet.  After a while it seemed very reasonable to pay only five cents for a bath or twenty-five cents to use the car.  We wore Dad down enough to say he would consider buying a dog, if we could come up with half the cost.   Penny by penny, month by month, we saved.  We said “no thank you” to trips to the movies, the Clallam County Fair, and ice cream.  We asked for nothing at Christmas (though Santa still came) and tried our best not to waste any food or electricity.  And eventually, after many extra chores, several baths, and every allowance we could afford, we had saved fifty dollars.  Never in our lives had we seen so much money all at once.  A small voice in the back of my head (I can only assume it was the devil, himself) said, “Fifty dollars will buy a lot of ‘Archie’ comics.  Fifty dollars will buy an Upper Deck complete set of baseball cards.”  It was true. I didn’t know when I would see this much money ever again, but it was half my sister’s and she was better at quieting the evil thoughts in her head.
We still had several months until school would be out for the summer and we would head off to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  Dogs cost a lot less in Montana, so we gave all our money to dad for safe-keeping and made plans for the new puppy.  With highlighters in hand (Mary with pink and I, blue), we scribbled through our tattered “Big Book of Baby Names,” page by page.  I liked things like “Jasper” or “Max.”  Mary said we would get a girl dog because dad had to make back his fifty dollars by selling her pups. I couldn’t think of a single girl name I liked—including my own—so I gave up the reigns and went out to play.  Mary had been on a General Custer history-kick that year—she always seemed to get caught up in one era or another, and her life focused on little else until the obsession passed.  We heard again and again the stories of the Little Bighorn, and how we “white folk” completely lost that battle due to our own dumb pride.  Therefore, Mary coined the dog “Libby,” to be named after General Custer’s wife.  I didn’t hate the name, but I had never heard it before. 
Summer came, and along with it, our expectations.  Dad and Mom planned a big family trip to—where else—the Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Grandma and Grandpa, aunts and uncles, and plenty of cousins piled in and spent the week in Miles City looking at Great-Grandpa Baba’s childhood ranch (made famous by a visit from painter Charlie Russell), a museum of human hair, and the Little Bighorn National Monument.  Mary click-clicked her little red camera wherever she went, her eyes gleaming with the glory of it all.  To stand on the place where your hero (albeit a total dunce) met his maker was nearly more than she could handle.  But at last, after several 100-degree plus days in tiny motel rooms, we packed up and headed north on highway eighty-seven. 
We found our next destination off the beaten path, in a little place called Lewistown.  We’d been driving all day, but wouldn’t let dad stop for anything short of emergencies.  And now, here we were— months of anticipation all just a memory.  The old wooden sign out front said it all: “Pete’s Beagle Farm.”  Mary and I raced to meet old Pete, in his red ball cap and worn-out overalls, sitting peacefully on his porch.  He hadn’t a tooth in his head and his thick glasses made it very hard to see his expression; but he seemed happy to see us.  From the look of things, no one had stopped by in a very long time.  Pete opened the gate and led us back to his dogs.  There appeared to be about a hundred beagles all over the place.  The males had their own yard filled with stumps and barrels to climb on, while the females slept peacefully with their pups.  We peered in, kennel by kennel, wondering just who would come home with us.  Mary asked for a little girl and Pete said there were only two: one with a hernia (but he “would sell ‘er for fifty”) and another he was keeping to breed.  We held the little girl, but she was awfully sick and dad said that we needed to take home a healthy dog. 
Circling the yard, we came to a kennel at the very end.  The puppies all slept in a tiny black and tan mound, hidden under their mother’s protective paw.  “Will they always be black?” I asked.  Pete said he supposed they would develop their colors in time, but “a black beagle is a dead beagle.”  People in those parts didn’t buy dogs for pets, but for hunting or for show.  No one wanted an “imperfect” show hound.  I frantically scanned the puppies, looking for one doomed to be dark, but no one could tell at this age.  Who knew what they would become. 

That’s when we met George.

Mary reached into the soft, earthy-smelling pile and grabbed a tiny nugget with a birthmark on his bum.  He didn’t even wake as she held him to her chest, cooing and singing softly to his little head.  Mother Beagle looked up but showed no concern—she knew we would be gentle.  No, he certainly wasn’t a “Libby,” but that wee little lump walked away with a large moniker.  “Puppy” was now “General George Armstrong Custer.”  He would have to become a much bigger dog to live up to a name like that.  But I almost didn’t mind my sister’s eccentricities.  After all, who needed a “Rover” or a “Fido?”  The second we yelled his name, only one dog would come running. 
Almost immediately, “General George” became “Georgie” because he was just so dang cute.  We placed him, still sleeping, in a little cardboard box filled with blankets that smelled like his mom.  Under the old pillow was a clock shaped like a big pink jewel that steadily ticked, reminding Georgie of his mother’s very own heartbeat.  And with that, off we drove to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, with the newest Leinart sleeping softly in the back seat, unaware of all the little hands that would be holding him in just a few hours.
That first night at Grandma and Grandpa’s could have been a little easier, had the weather been kind.  But Montana in the summertime is prone to violent thunderstorms, and this was no exception.  Our poor pup whimpered and yelped from his box between the twin beds.  We dipped our hands down beside him but he didn’t know us.  We didn’t smell like Mom; we didn’t look like Mom.  Dad opened the curtain that separated the two rooms, and lifted George out of the box.  Downstairs, he took our scared little dog out into the stormy night.  Sheet-lightning lit the outdoors like midday, and George shook as dad stood over him saying, “Go, dammit!”
At summer’s end, George came home with us to Washington.  Excitedly, he bolted through the yard, heading straight for the garden to pull up the veggies.  Only then did we learn that his favorite food was carrots.  That dog would do anything for carrots.  With one or two in his mouth, he whipped back to the porch to meet his new nemesis.  Our old calico, Coko, had no need in her life for anything small, cute, or friendly.  Coko looked at us with disdain and jumped onto the roof to sulk in the shadow of the chimney.  George, caring little for Coko’s opinion, ran into the house to sniff every square inch of furniture and to “claim” it before being tossed back outside.  There he found his new favorite place underneath the old apple tree in our back yard.  He nibbled at the rotten ones and scratched his backside against the bark.
From that very first day, until the day I left for college, George slept under the covers at the foot of my bed.  He became my closest confidant and pal.  Mary, who quickly saw the drawback to owning a dog, decided that she preferred being a “cat-person” and did her best to coax Coko out of her perpetual mood.  But for me, I had a friend and tag-along for life who sat with me while I did my homework, pawed at my toes for a secret snack under the dinner table, and sang while I practiced my piano lessons.  Yes, George was the dog for me. 
Over the years, George grew quite popular with everyone in town.  While I went to school, Mom walked him down to the waterfront and around the neighborhoods.  In the early mornings, George sat with my school friends at the bus stop, eating pumice stones out of old Mr. Stevens’ perfectly manicured lawn.  No one could figure out why he loved the crunch of pumice so much, but he downed several pounds over the years and lived to tell the tale.  But he almost didn’t.  One day, while out on one of his adventures, George swallowed a rock that he couldn’t digest.  My cheerful, happy, excitable mutt held his head down and moaned.  I offered him a can of tuna—a treat for any dog—but he merely looked away.  I told dad that George looked sick and he mumbled something like “sure, always on the weekend…” but our vet came in to take a look.  Dr. Mowbry felt poor Georgie’s sore belly, took a few pictures of his insides, and gave the diagnosis.  A rock.  A $400 rock, to be exact.  Apparently, it was small enough to fit in one end, but just too big to come out the other.  Dad said there was no way he was spending four-hundred bucks to pull a rock out of a “stupid dog,” when the dog cost only a hundred bucks to begin with.  Mom, Mary, and I cried and pleaded.  He was such a good dog.  How could we let such a good dog die?  There would never be another good dog like him. Please dad! We convinced him—or he had second thoughts about going home with three females who would hate him ever after—and dad wrote the check.  But to this day, we have a little pill bottle on the mantle above the fireplace, and inside that little bottle is a small stone.  Dad keeps it there because he says it’s the most expensive thing in the house.
Each December, our family would pile into dad’s truck to go find a Christmas tree up in the mountains.  As a member of the family, George always came along.  He loved not having to be leashed and ran up and down the trails, marking every stump and twig as “his.”  My mother always fretted that he would be eaten by a bear or get lost in the snow.  Dad said he “hoped so,” but George found his way back every time.  If he did get stuck, we heard the pathetic baying ringing through the trees and dropped everything to rescue him.  On the way down the mountain, dad thought it was fun to let George run.  Mom, Mary, and I would, again, beg and cry, pleading with dad to let George back in the truck.  But Dad, laughing hysterically, would pile us in and take off, as if he was leaving George forever.  George would barrel down the mountain in a tiny little ball, legs above his head, frantic to catch up.  Never had that dog run so fast.  About a mile later, dad would pull the truck over and let our poor, shaking dog inside.  And every time, George would have a smile and would wag his tail in forgiveness, before collapsing into a well-deserved nap.
All throughout my life, I could rely on George to understand whatever I was thinking.  For some reason, he always knew my mood.  If I aced a test, he sat waiting for me, looking out the window, full of life and excitement.  He knew that something great had happened, and was prepared to go jumping around the house with me.  Still too, if a boy dumped me (and believe me, a few have), George knew it.  He would head straight to my bedroom and curl up next to my head, licking my tear-stained cheeks.  If it took all night long to stop crying, he would never move until I moved first.  I tried to return the favor.  Some of his worst days were spent cowering in the closet.  Generally this occurred only on the 4th of July (or if the red-neck neighbors got a little crazy), but I always tried to make him comfortable until he felt safe enough to come out.  Other times, when he got in big trouble for eating Grandma’s Parisian chocolates or peeing on the photo albums, he would hide behind the couch, fearful of my dad’s yelling and stomping around the house.  On those days, I climbed behind the couch, carrot in hand, and we held a little pow-wow until the moment had passed. 
Before I graduated from high school, the silver streaks lined George’s soft face.  He still got excited when the moment warranted, but a little more slowly each time.  For fun, I would bring him to history class with me, where he would spar with Mr. Rennie’s basset hound, Ralph.  Ralph was often dropped off by the local police after escaping from his back yard.  He always headed straight for the bread aisle at Albertsons, where a clerk would call an officer, who knew to bring him straight to school.  They never wrote a ticket because this was routine and almost happily anticipated. 
Our loved puppy dog grew older, slower, and quieter.  He still followed my every move, but preferred sitting.  When I would stand up, he looked at me as if to say “please, let’s stay a while.”  The sweet old beagle who grew up with me, who watched every baseball game with my dad, and who did his best to protect all of us, was fading away.
I dreaded going away to college.  I had always known that life with my pal would never be the same.  Dad brought him to school a few times, for overnights in the dorm.  He would smile sleepily and crawl under the covers to the foot of my bed, just like he always had.  Mom still took him for walks, but he limped a little now, and couldn’t go quite as far. 
One day, I got a call.  Old George, blind, deaf, and without the nose that defined his breed, had no quality of life.  He still responded happily to soft pats on the head or a scratch on his bum.  He still sat under his favorite apple tree, squinting at the sunset behind the mountains.  But he was saying good-bye to all of us. 
“It’s time,” my dad said.  I waited until after work to cry, but told him to hang on until I could get home.  I packed my clothes into the back of my clunky Subaru, and gave dad one more call before hitting the road.  “It’s done, Ellie,” he said softly.  Angrily I told him he should have waited for me.  George would want me there.  But dad said that it needed to be quick, for George’s sake.  Even our poor old vet cried the day George said good-bye.  She had given him his baby boosters, and he knew her and loved her. 
George died in 2003.  Dad buried him under the apple tree in his favorite spot.  It was there that he could see the whole world from atop his little hill.  I go and sit out there on warm days, leaning against the trunk where he would scratch his back on the bark.  I see the rotten apples he would nudge and nibble, and I shut my eyes and pretend that he is still here.