Monday, December 7, 2009

Portland to LA...in the RV!

There is nothing like facing your fears -- and overcoming them -- to make you feel alive. Back in October I suggested in my post "8 Reasons to be Happy" that I would take our RV and drive to Crater Lake National Park, to honor the memory of where Marcus and I met. Seeing that I've never driven the thing and the idea of driving it fills me with terror, I procrastinated on that idea until the mountains were too full of snow to drive there. I came up with another way to torture myself instead. Drive the RV from Portland to LA. It was a practical concept. With the RV I could not only have my own place to stay in LA, I could use "The Beast," as Marcus and I called it, to transport my stuff from my storage unit in LA up to Portland. (I have only one small goal in life right now and that is to have everything I own in one place!) Never mind that I would go from never having driven The Beast to taking it on a 2,000 mile road trip across several mountain ranges and into the city with America's worst traffic. To use Marcus' term, I was "pregnant with the idea." Meaning, I couldn't get the thought out of my mind. And when I make up my mind....look out.
Step One: Pick up The Beast from the RV dealer where Marcus left it in August, in hopes of selling it. The thing was just sitting there, unsold, unused. Someone needed to drive it. Why not me! Step Two: After losing three nights' sleep from the anticipation/anxiety of getting behind the wheel of the RV, my friend Alison drove me down the dealer. "Oh, it's a lot bigger than I remember," Alison commented. Gulp. She rode along for my practice drive around the neighborhood -- so far so good -- then she followed me in her car home on the freeway, rolling along at 50 mph, sitting as high as the semis and school buses.
Step Three: I packed up The Beast with some food, clothes, two dogs and a new set of tire chains, praying that I will never have to use them. I drove 400 miles the first day, from Portland to Lake Shasta, and parked at my first RV park. "We have electrical outlets. You can plug in," the campground manager said. "That's nice but I don't have a power cord," I replied. He raised his eyebrow as if to say, I can see you are ignorant about RVing, and then said, "Let me show you where to find it." Sure enough, there was a built-in cord. I plugged in to the power and therefore enjoyed the luxury of having both lights and heat. I could get used to this kind of camping. I discovered hiking trails the next morning and walked for hours in the California sunshine with the dogs. I was so relieved about making it this far -- and appreciated the chance to relax -- so I stayed an extra night.
PHOTO: Have shrine, will travel. Memories of Marcus fill the RV.
I made it safely to LA and now The Beast is parked in front of my friend Melissa's house in her swanky Santa Monica neighborhood. For all that I resisted Marcus buying this thing, and then refusing to drive it all that time we traveled in it together, I have come a long way. I have faced my fears. I am no longer afraid of driving the big rig now. I haven't felt this alive or this invigorated since Marcus died in August. I'm ready for my next adventure. Where to next?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Seven Thanksgivings

I spent the last seven Thanksgivings with Marcus. Throughout the tumult of our marriage, often living apart on different continents, his job moving us to three different countries, our standoffs and stubbornness with each other, me threatening to leave him too many times, always finding our way back to loving each other... Throughout all of this only now in the wake of his death can I see there was one consistent thing we shared and never missed, something sacred and rich: we celebrated every Thanksgiving together. It was always my favorite holiday, and though Marcus was German he embraced the day -- and the overeating -- as if it was his own.

As this year's Thanksgiving approaches the despair and panic of missing him have already begun to overwhelm me. To keep myself busy and to "focus on the good memories, not on the regrets" (as my grief counselor wisely recommended), I took some time to search in my photo files until I found a picture from each year we spent the holiday together. Not that these "good memories" take away the pain and intensity of the loss, but in looking at the pictures and reminiscing I see the goodness, the love, and the connection we shared during our time together. And that is something to be grateful for.


Marcus and Beth's Thanksgiving Retrospective

2002 - Lehnigen, Germany
Marcus and I weren't married let alone engaged yet. I was trying to impress Marcus and my future in-laws with my cooking skills and pies --I even hauled cans of pumpkin, bags of cranberries and pecans, and Karo syrup over from the US -- but instead they impressed me! Their free-range turkey weighed 40 pounds and it was roasted to perfection in their traditional Backhaus. The oven was first heated with a wood fire, then cleaned out, and the sand in between its walls stayed hot for hours. I wouldn't have believed it was possible if I hadn't seen it for myself. The turkey was moist and delicious.

2003- Lehnigen, Germany

We got married in August/September and before we even went on our honeymoon it was already Turkey Time. Marcus' coworkers were so envious about our American feast the year before we invited the whole Daimler team. The aprons were a gift from Marcus' mom. Germans don't eat sweet potatoes so they are hard to find. I finally paid something like $10 a pound at a gourmet market for imported yams from Israel.

2004- Marina del Rey, California

This was Marcus' first Thanksgiving in the USA. We went to my parents' house in California and were joined by two of my four siblings. Below is Marcus, who had become an expert Thanksgiving sous chef by now, whipping the cream for pumpkin pie.

2005 - Oberdiessbach, Switzerland
This year we fulfilled a promise to my dear friends in Switzerland to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for them. They loved everything except for the pumpkin pie. "Next time make more apple," they said as they scraped the apple pie plate clean.

2006 - Lake Oswego, Oregon
When Marcus got a job transfer from Germany to Portland we promptly rented a cozy lakeside cottage and made a nest for ourselves. No matter that we didn't have furniture yet when Thanksgiving rolled around, my brother in Seattle (center), his wife (left) and his family of four kids drove down for our turkey feast and an overnight. For dinner we sat on lawn chairs and balanced the plates on our laps. For sleeping, the kids rolled out their sleeping bags on the carpet.
2007 - On board a Lufthansa flight to Germany
With the unexpected passing of Marcus' grandmother we gave all the pies and cranberry breads I had made to friends and boarded a plane bound for Bremen, Germany. We flew business class on Lufthansa and were happily surprised when we were served turkey and all the fixings during the flight.
2008 -- Saltillo, Mexico
I could have never EVER imagined that this would be my last Thanksgiving with Marcus. We had moved to Mexico for Marcus' job five months earlier. The boss of the new truck factory was American and he very thoughtfully organized dinner for the American expatriates. Lucky that Marcus had an American wife or he wouldn't have qualified! The dinner was held at a popular Mexican restaurant and we speculated on what kind of food they would serve, what would be the Mexican interpretation of Thanksgiving. We were impressed with the attention to detail, they got everything right down to the cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

2009 -- Portland, Oregon
This year I have never had so many Thanksgiving invitations. I was very touched that so many people reached out, but early on I had decided I would stay in Portland and join our friends Alison and Thomas and their parents from Ohio and Boston. Alison and Thomas have been so good to both Marcus and me, sharing backpacking trips and barbeques over the years, and now they share stories of Marcus while propping me up.
In spite of being in good company I know it's going to be hard. I tell myself I won't be there alone. Marcus hasn't missed a Thanksgiving yet, so I know he will be there with me in spirit.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Letting Go of His Stuff...Or Not

Marcus died three months ago today. When is it time to let go of his stuff? Six months? A year? Ten years? Never?

We kept a storage unit here in Portland and I gathered up the nerve to set foot in it last week. Actually I went only to look for a tax document and stayed three hours. I organized all of clothes he had with him during his vacation in August, clothes that our friends tossed into garbage bags in our rush to make funeral arrangements.

Marcus took good care of his belongings, he folded every shirt, sock and pair of underwear with painstaking precision. He wouldn't have liked his things being treated this way. So I folded everything and placed it neatly in the large plastic tubs -- though I admit I smelled every item before putting it away, burying my face in the armpits of his shirts and the crotch of all his pants, longing for any hint of his scent.

I talked to Melissa that evening and she said, "Why don't you just pick ten things to keep and give away the rest?" To which I snapped angrily, "It was enough for me just to organize. I'm not letting go of anything!"
PHOTO: Dress for success. Marcus looked gorgeous in these shirts and always ironed them himself.

That was last week. I went back to the storage unit today to collect Marcus' dress shirts and wool trousers. My youngest brother wears exactly Marcus' size and I suggested I give him Marcus' cashmere sport coat as he just started a new job. He said yes and added that he was in need of more business clothes. I decided the rest of Marcus' work clothes would go to him, keep them in the family as a win-win. Marcus would approve and I wouldn't feel like I was truly letting go of them.

As I rummaged through the tubs I noted Marcus' abundance of hats, gloves, socks, fleece jackets, and sweaters. In my recent manic desire to clear out all clutter from my life, to simplify, to downsize (if one can actually downsize from a studio apartment), to lighten my load, I considered giving away Marcus' warm clothing. "Think of all the homeless people out there who could benefit from this pair of fleece gloves or this great hat," I thought.

Oh, but he wore those gloves to the park when he threw the stick for Jack. I bought him that hat in New York, in Little Italy. He looked so cute in it. We had so much fun that trip...

No! No, I couldn't do it. I couldn't give this stuff away, HIS stuff.

With tears streaming down my cheeks, I put away the hat, gloves and everything else except for the dress shirts and trousers and snapped the lid shut on the tub. I pulled the door closed, locked the padlock and left the rest of Marcus' belongings where they were, secure, unused, and waiting for some distant day that I might be able to let go -- or at least go back and smell them again.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

You Seem Better...

PHOTO: Returning to familiar territory. Our old house (right), my new house (left)
“You seem better,” my dad said to me when I saw him this past weekend.
Really? Am I better?

Is better when you take the dogs on their nightly walk in your very quiet neighborhood, inadvertently get scraped by a thorny blackberry branch and let out a blood-curdling scream yelling “FUCK!!!” at the top of your lungs, collapse right there in the middle of the sidewalk at 11PM and sob so hard you scare your dogs, let alone the neighbors?

Is better when you call Marcus’ cell phone number and feel your heart race because you actually think there’s a possibility he’ll answer?

Is better when a friend brings over a box of fancy cupcakes and after she leaves you eat the whole box in ten minutes trying to fill the un-fill-able deep, cavernous, terrifying void left by Marcus?

Is better when you lie on the couch for two, three, even four hours just staring into space?

Is better when you eat a bowl of rice pudding – Marcus’ favorite – and raise your spoon toward the ceiling, offering him a bite, even making sure the spoonful has a sprinkle of cinnamon on it?

Is better when you climb to the top of a 3,000-foot mountain during a rain/snowstorm and in a fit of exhaustion and rage scream “MARRRRRCUSSSSSSS!!! I MISS YOUUUUU!!!” to the sky and just lie there on your back wailing in a wet puddle of snow?

Is better when you move into the apartment right next door to the house in which you used to live together so you can be closer to him, so he knows where to find you, and then turning the place into a shrine to Marcus by filling it with pictures on every wall and every shelf so each direction you look you see him?

Is better when you spend hours looking at photos of Marcus on your computer? Is better when you spend extra time looking at the pictures of him lying in his casket?

Is better when you go to the library and check out every single book available on the afterlife? Is better when you consult with three different psychics to try to communicate with your husband, to understand why he died, to find out if he is okay, to let him know you are so very very sorry for not being more loving, more patient, more respectful toward him?

I want to be better. I want to have a productive life again. I want to be able to accomplish more in a day than just staring into space. My grief counselor advised, “Grief is hard work. Even staring into space is doing the work.”

My friend Ann also said something helpful: “Give yourself a break, you lost your husband just a second ago in the scope of things.” A “second” in this case is three months. Three very long, painful, confusing, exhausting months. Three months of which I have very little memory as the shock has made time seem like a big blur.

Sorry, Dad. Someday I hope I am better. I’m not better. Not yet. But I’m working on it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

My Life as a Tree

A block from Thomas and Alison's house in Portland, this maple tree stood out as the most vibrant in the whole neighborhood. I stopped to take the picture because, in between the storm clouds, the sun illuminated its leaves to blinding shades of red and orange. Mainly I took this picture for Marcus. He would have insisted on stopping to document this stunning site. I could just hear him saying, "Look at the colors! Look at the light!"and then fiddling with his camera to get just the right shot. I used to feel alive and vibrant like this tree. That was when the world was normal, before Marcus died, before I knew what grief felt like.

BEFORE


AFTER

Now, with my so called leaves blasted off my branches, I try to remind myself that life mirrors the seasons. For every ending, a new beginning. For every winter, a spring. And so, I will take a cue from nature, hibernating -- and healing -- until the buds force their way out and open up into blossoms. And, yes, that's the same tree as above, just one week later, proving once again that the only thing constant in life is change.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

8 Reasons to Be Happy

When I am able to stop my tears long enough to look around and appreciate what goodness remains in life, there is actually a lot to be happy about. After pouring all my grief out to all you loyal readers, let me share with you the little rays of positive sunshine that have managed to penetrate my shell of sadness in the past week.
One: Three puppies and Melissa's two little girls showered me with affection during my stay in LA. We walked to school together every morning and the girls skipped on the way. It's impossible to be sad when you're skipping! This innocence and enthusiasm of these kids is a big reminder about the circle of life. Life does indeed go on.
Two: My parents are hip, healthy, young-spirited, and very caring people. Even if they don't know how to talk about death or about my difficulties over losing Marcus, they are always right there. I'm lucky for that, lucky for them.

Three: Friends can show their care in the most unexpected ways. My friend Cheryl from high school sent me roses in LA and they cheered me up immensely. They opened perfectly and fully during the week. I haven't seen Cheryl in several years (she was at Marcus' and my wedding in Seattle) so her gesture was especially touching.























Four: It's great to be a house guest where upon arrival (after a 1,000 mile drive) you are greeted with a PIE straight out of the oven! A big thank you to Alison who has the easiest, quickest laugh -- along with the most beautiful, biggest smile. Though her veggie pie was delish, it's her laughter that's the best medicine.
Five: Fall is here and fall is my favorite season. Why? Because it's all about pumpkin pie! Tip: I get my recipe off the label of Libby's Pumpkin can. But if you can't make your own, Costco makes a very tasty and large pumpkin pie and sells it at a bargain price.
Six: The sun is shining! In spite of managing my expectations for all rain all the time, Portland greeted me with four consecutive days of sun. Even better, it was warm enought to sit outside at Marcus' and my favorite French bakery, St. Honore, and eat an almond croissant. I have to say, that little tasty respite was good for the soul! And yes, it does feel comforting to retrace the steps of our life here together.































7: Marcus had put the RV up for sale but it hasn't sold, and now it's begging me to drive it to Crater Lake National Park before the snow sets in. (Crater Lake Lodge is where Marcus and I met, eight years ago, on September 29, 2001.) While I always hated the idea of owning this beast, I learned to enjoy the comforts of camping with a bed and an espresso maker. Marcus always drove, since I refused, but now I will have to face yet another fear and get behind the wheel.Eight: Last but certainly not least, I have a new boyfriend! His name is Nolan, he has six teeth, and still wears diapers. Okay, so maybe 15 months old is a little young for me, but he sure is charming. Like Marcus, he's German. What is it about those German guys that is so attractive?! Unlike Marcus, however, Nolan doesn't have a seductive British accent. But that's because he can't talk yet. I can't wait to see this sweet little thing grow up. He's a special boy, happy and always smiling. Nolan came to Marcus' funeral in Portland and during the reception wanted to play Peek-a-Boo with me. Even in my darkest hour, this little creature knew how to bring a bit of lightness.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Death: Just Talk About It!

Another road trip, another Motel 6. I am in Red Bluff, California, half way between Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. It has been 51 days since Marcus died. I just spent ten days in LA, ten days as Melissa’s house guest, ten days of having very little time or space to cry. Ten days of wearing my "game face," a mask to trick people into thinking I'm "just fine" now. Which I am not. Which is probably why yesterday I cried for nine solid hours, all 541 miles of my drive.

Crying – deep, heavy, loud, guttural bawling – is not the safest thing to be doing while driving. It’s surely safer to talk with a cell phone attached to your ear or jam a messy Big Mac in your mouth than cry the way I was, my glasses fogged up and streaked with tears, my eyes filled with blinding tears. Driving up I-5, the potential for my Mini Cooper to become a semi sandwich, me the glob of tuna salad mashed between thick slices of Freightliner or Mack trucks, was extreme. But in spite of myself, in spite of my death wish, I made it. Yes, I said death wish.

PHOTO: My mom packed some snacks for my road trip, including a piece of berry pie. Eaten while parked. The pie stopped the tears for a few soothing minutes. Thanks, mom.

Whoever says grief doesn’t make you suicidal is wrong. What other way is there to escape this pain? This intense, endless, life shattering pain. Pain that curls you into the fetal position, writhing on the floor of the bathroom or in the car (pain does not discriminate in its choice of location, it can strike anywhere, anytime). Pain that shoots razor blades through your heart, slashing, cutting, tearing, ripping you apart. Pain that leaves a gaping hole inside you, a hole so large that nothing can fill it, a hole so wide that is impossible to repair. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross writes in her book ON DEATH AND DYING, that a surviving spouse’s reaction to loss is fear of their own death, fear that God will retaliate and take them too. Huh??? This is not my reaction. Do I fear my own death? No! Quite the opposite! I wish for it every day.

Of course this is a topic that makes others VERRRRRRY uncomfortable. It’s not a conversation that one can have with even the closest friends or family. It’s not a conversation one can really have period. I know my mother and sister, for example, would much rather talk about shopping than death – be it Marcus’ or my own wish for it. And it’s obvious my friends would rather talk about their kids or work or decorating their house. Death is a subject that I am noticing everyone is going to great lengths to avoid. Almost no one will talk about Marcus’ death with me unless I bring it up and insist on staying with the subject. My own family can’t even mention Marcus’ name. Hello, is there an elephant in the room?

There is only one person I can talk to about death – and I mean the real issue of death, death as beast, demon, torturer, inflictor of pain, inspirer of rage – and it is Maggie. Maggie’s husband, Paul, died of the same thing as Marcus (hemopericardium due to ruptured aorta) in February, so she is six months ahead of me in the grieving process. “I think about suicide every day too,” she assured me. “It’s the only way to stop feeling this pain.” Well, there you have it. Maggie thinks about suicide and she is still alive. I think about it and I am still alive.

The point to this is to remind everyone JUST TALK. Talk about death. Talk about pain and grief. Don’t avoid the conversation. Don’t be afraid of it. Everyone has to deal with death at some time in their life. Death is unavoidable. So don’t avoid discussing it. We can all help each other and learn from each other. And as long as I’m lecturing, I should also add, don’t drive while crying! It’s advice I plan to follow myself.

Today is a new day, my eyes are dry for the moment (albeit exceptionally puffy!), the sun is shining, and I-5 is calling me further northward. Tonight I will be staying in the beautiful Portland bungalow of my good friends Alison and Thomas. Next week I will be starting my nine-week grief support group. I also plan to look for a part-time pie baking job. And seeing as I will be staying in one place for the next two months, I am happy to report this will be my last Motel 6 for a while.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Back in the Saddle Again...Well, Running After the Horse

When I was 8 year old I went to horse camp -- one full week of learning to groom, saddle and ride horses. I was so excited. One of the first things our horse instructor told us is that there was an award given to anyone who fell off their horse and got back on to ride again. It was called the “Spurs Award.” That sounded nice, but I wasn’t going to fall off my horse. Of course, I did fall off. I don’t remember how or why I ended up on the ground – those horses must have been the tamest animals in the world to be putting little kids on them -- but what I do remember is that I wanted to win the Spurs Award. I was going to get back on and ride again. So I went running after my horse, chasing it so I could get back on, immediately. At the end of the week, at the closing ceremonies for camp, when all the awards were granted – for archery, for team spirit, for cleanest cabin – I was called up to receive my award, a paper certificate with my name on it: The Spurs Award. The horse instructor handed it to me and said, “When we said get back on your horse and ride again, we meant sometime during the week, not ten seconds after you fall off.”

I am reminded of this episode, this “award,” as I move through the days following Marcus’ death. Friends have written kind words telling me things like: You’re a survivor. You’re resilient. You’re resourceful. You are brave. You are a strong woman.

I don’t want to be strong. I don’t even want to live anymore. I’m tired. I’m not 8 years old anymore with that kind of determination to get back on my horse. And yet, I’m still here. And, like it or not, life keeps moving forward.

I am moving forward – at 75 miles per hour, to be exact. I packed up my beloved writer’s cottage in Terlingua, loaded the dogs in the Mini Cooper, and am currently heading West -- to Los Angeles first, to visit my family, and then to Portland, Oregon, where I will stay for at least two months to get medical treatment for my hyperthyroidism (when you see the goiter in your neck growing to the size of a grapefruit, you know something needs to be done about it!)

Portland is where my trusted endocrinologist practices. But Portland is where Marcus and I lived for a year and a half (for his job). And Portland is where Marcus died one month ago.

Portland is the place I fear being because of All Those Memories. I fear the St. Honore Bakery and Caffe Mingo because those were our favorite restaurants and to not be able to go there with him, meet him for lunch, go out for dinner -- that can only add to my sadness.

I fear driving on the Fremont Bridge as that’s the route he took to work and to think how much he was looking forward to his new project – that can only give me more heartache.

I fear hiking in Forest Park because that was our backyard and where we rode bikes, and to remember how much he loved biking and how he isn’t here to ride anymore -- that can only make me feel worse.

I fear the American Medical Response ambulances, ubiquitous in Portland, with their sirens blaring, because one of those took Marcus to the hospital that fateful morning.

And thus I fear passing Emanuel Legacy Hospital because that is where he was pronounced dead.

I fear all those people – neighbors or coworkers – who haven’t yet heard about Marcus and will say, “But we just saw him a month ago…” or “He was so healthy” or “I cannot believe it” -- that will just send me further down into my abyss of grief.

Portland is my horse. I have learned that you don’t need to run after the horse to get back on and ride. Besides, real life doesn’t give out Spurs Awards. I will take my time. I will try to remember and to BELIEVE all those kind words – survivor, resilient, resourceful, brave, strong. I will pack those words in my saddle bags to help me confront my fears when I arrive in Portland. I will cherish the good experiences Marcus and I had there and I will be grateful for those memories. I will eat at St. Honore Bakery and Caffe Mingo and order his favorite dishes. I will ride my bike in Forest Park and sing to Marcus in the trees. I will drive across the Fremont Bridge and shout Marcus’ name. I will see the AMR ambulances and the Legacy Hospital and I will thank them for trying so hard to save Marcus’ life. (From reading the hospital report, it's clear they did everything possible.) I will eventually get back on the horse and ride. Like it or not, the saddle of life awaits me.

Giddy up.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Pie Fixes Everything? I Wish!

My trip to Austin was short, less that 48 hours short. What was I thinking going there at a time like this – “this” being one month since my husband died. Of course Grief came along with me, like a hitchhiker, sitting right there next to me in the passenger seat. I had to pull over quite a few times to quiet the bastard down, pull over and cry and cry and cry to subdue its backseat driving. Anyway, what I could see of Austin, through the cloudiness of my sad and puffy eyes, was spectacular. Austin appears to be a sweet city with an eclectic combination of funky farm life, youthful university vibe (all that promise for the future!), stuffy government (just think, W lived here…), athletic energy (all those runners and bikers along the river trail), and downtown sophistication with elegant bistros. And then there’s the music scene. At 10PM on a Monday night there was live music blaring from every bar in the six-block radius I walked. I liked everything I saw, though admittedly I didn’t see much. I’ll be sure to return when I get my energy back….at least one can hope. On my drive back to Terlingua, I stopped in Fredericksburg, a German town right here in Texas. Even the street names are in German, including the German word Strasse for street. There was Friedhelm’s Bavarian Restaurant, Der Lindenbaum, and the Altdorf Biergarten. Naturally, this reminded me of Marcus…but that was okay, in fact it was good, nice, cozy – or gemutlich, as long as we’re using German words here – and made me feel closer to him. The thing about Fredericksburg is that is not only German, it is also famous for its pie! (Maybe this is where Marcus and I should have settled.) This Texas hill country is fertile with peaches and pecans, both exceptional pie fillings.

I was determined to stop in Fredericksburg for a piece of pie. And like I did with my yoga session last week, dedicating my practice to Marcus (you know, let him use my body to enjoy an hour of yoga, like Patrick Swayze used Whoopi Goldberg’s body in GHOST), I planned to dedicate my pie eating session to Angelika, Marcus’ mother. Angelika has been on my mind every day since Marcus died. I am not only grieving for Marcus, I am grieving for her. Marcus was her only child. And even from my bottomless pit of pain, I cannot begin to fathom what it’s like to lose a child. If grief were a contest, I have no doubt a mother would win every time. Which is why I thought a pie dedication to Angelika was needed.
After asking a local woman for a pie recommendation, her face lit up with a smile. “Oh, that’s easy. The Fredericksburg Pie Company. It’s just around the corner.” Are you sure it’s open today, I asked, having noted that although there were a number of tourists strolling the sidewalks nearly every restaurant was closed. In Germany this is called a “Ruhetag” or rest day, though a Wednesday seemed an odd day for everything to be closed. “I’m sure it will be open,” she insisted.With buoyed hopes and a hungry belly, I drove around the corner and there it was in its kitschy, cute, touristy glory: The Fredericksburg Pie Company. An old white Craftsman cottage with a front porch, covered in vines, perched on a pert green lawn. It was picture perfect. I could already taste the peach pie, or maybe pecan, or maybe both. I would have one piece for Angelika (pecan is her favorite) and one piece for me (peach is one of my top 5), and, if necessary, a third piece for my hitchhiker, Grief.
As if my mission wasn’t clear enough, I saw a sign hanging from the rafters of the house. “PIE FIXES EVERYTHING,” it promised. In my broken state, I was desperate for pie. (Well, no, I was desperate to have Marcus back, but….) “Pie is better than a psychiatrist,” I thought. And then I saw another sign. “CLOSED,” it said. “And you thought putting your life back together after Marcus was going to be that easy, did you?” said the voice inside. “Easy as pie? Ha!”
I got back in my car, pulled over a few more times to cry, and eventually ate a stale croissant I had been carrying around for 3 days. I will have to think of other ways to help Angelika with her grief, while still dealing with mine. My goal is to spend Thanksgiving with Marcus’ parents in Germany. I will bring all the ingredients to make pecan pie -- and I will make every effort to leave Grief behind.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Our Sixth Anniversary...On the Floor, On the Road

If your husband has just died and if you are anything like me, which I hope you are not, this is how you “celebrate” your sixth wedding anniversary.
PHOTO: Walking toward the light. Our wedding in Alpirsbach, Germany, six years ago.

You start the day by opening your eyes, struck once again with searing grief at the realization that your husband is gone. Gone as in no longer a resident of Planet Earth. Gone as in deceased. Deceased. Deceased is the word the Medical Examiner used when he called you and told you that you were listed as the emergency contact for a Marcus Iken. He used the article – “a” – as if your husband was an object. A car. A watch. A book. A husband. A deceased husband. “Your husband is deceased,” he said, his voice deep and gravelly like a military officer. These are the words from The Phone Call you wished had never come, The Phone Call that you makes you wish you could turn the clock back a few years, a few months, even just a few hours. The Phone Call is what you remember each morning you open your eyes to reality. Harsh, painful reality. Reality that you are alone, that you don’t want to be alone, that you want to wake up next to the man you married, the man you loved, the man you still love, the man you would sell your soul to have back in your life, back in your bed. You want to close your eyes again, but you cannot. You cannot sleep even though you wish you could sleep forever, sleep and never wake up again.
You have two dogs that need to go out so you have to get up. You put on your husband’s bathrobe, the red plaid one that still holds a bit of his scent, the one you sleep with every night like a security blanket, pressed up to your nose, your faced buried in the cotton, your tears soaking it. You wrap his robe tightly around you, as if to wrap yourself in your husband’s body, his strong, manly embrace, the embrace that comforted you, made you feel safe, so many times. When he was alive. You open the door for the dogs, holding your hand over your eyes to ward off the blinding bright morning sun.

You say to your husband who is not there, “Good morning, my love. Can I make you a latte and toast with Nutella?” And you do. You make coffee and toast for both of you. And then you remind yourself, “You know, if you keep pretending Marcus is here with you, you will need to see a psychiatrist.” You don’t care. You need to keep talking to him. You need to believe he is with you in your desert cabin. You need to make him his favorite breakfast on your anniversary.
You’ve lost 15 pounds from the stress of losing your husband, your best friend, your confidante, your soulmate, so you figure you should just eat his Nutella bread and you drink his coffee, you need the calories.
After breakfast you take a shower. You use the Verbena soap you bought for him at Whole Foods, which you found when sorting through his belongings, it was still in the little sack on which you had written “Enjoy,” which makes you remember the day when you gave it to him, when he took an afternoon bath that you ran for him in your Venice apartment. The soap reminds you of just how much he left behind, how much he had been looking forward to, how instantly he vanished. You start crying. Not just crying but sobbing. Deep guttural sobs. You drop into a heap on the shower floor. You are crying so hard you sound like something primeval. Like an animal. Like a cow that has been hit by a car and is laying in the middle of the road moaning in pain from the impact, wishing someone, anyone, would come by and shoot it, put it out of its misery, end its despair. You are that cow, injured and broken, moaning with pain, writhing from despair. Strange sounds emit from your body, wailings that define the brokenness of your heart. Loud, desperate cries that you hope the neighbors can’t hear. If they hear you they will know how bad off you are, they will not let you be alone. You lay there in the fetal position for an hour, water streaming onto your body. Your back heaves up and down with each sob, each gasp for air. Somewhere inside you are aware that you live in a desert and that you really should be more conscious about saving water. But you tell yourself, “If a long shower is what will keep me from driving my car off a cliff into the Rio Grande, then let the water run.” The water runs and runs, as hot and steady and constant as your tears.

You’ve become an expert at crying. You have sobbed hard like this every day for 33 days now. You are used to looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing puffy eyes. Permanent puffy eyes. You don’t care. You don’t care about much. You don’t bother to brush your teeth. You don’t shave your legs. You never put on makeup or lipstick, not even lip balm on your dry, cracked lips. You don’t care that your jeans are two sizes too big from losing all that weight, uninterested in food, uninterested in life, unable to eat, unable to swallow with grief living like a rock wedged in your throat.

The phone rings so you raise yourself off the ground, slowly. You turn off the shower and crawl to the phone which sits on the bathroom cabinet. It is not The Phone Call. It is Melissa, your best friend in LA, the only person who seems to be able to rub any salve on your shattered soul. She hears your voice and KNOWS. She knows you need help. “Come home,” she says. “I will give you my bed. I will take you swimming in the ocean and walk with you on the beach. We will find you a place to live in Malibu so you can still be in nature. You need to come home.”
You say, “Okay. That’s a good idea. But first I’m going to check out Austin for a few days, as long as I am still in Texas.” You dry your tears, blow your nose, and pack up your Mini Cooper, setting off a day early on your road trip. You know that driving is better for you, safer for you, than staying home alone in your quiet little house with sharp knives too close at hand. Leaving today gives you a destination, a purpose, a chance to find greener grass.

You load up the dogs – “Team Terrier” you call them – into the car and drive through Big Bend National Park. You choose this route even though it will add two hours’ driving time and cost you a $20 entrance fee, because you have been meaning to do this for several months and you still have not done it and your husband’s passing has shown you, you cannot wait. “Do it now!” you hear him telling you. “Don’t wait another day!”
You recognize the friendly face working at the national park entrance booth. It’s Blue from your yoga class. You can tell from the way she looks at you with sympathetic blue eyes she knows about your husband. “You heard about my husband, didn’t you?” you ask her. She nods with compassion. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she says. “I need to get out of town,” you tell her. She nods. “I understand,” she says as she runs your credit card through her machine.

You drive through the park, looking at the scenery but not really seeing it. The park feels so big, so empty. You cannot wait to get out of its confines, its wilderness only magnifying your loneliness. Once you exit the other end you drive into a half blue, half gray sky. It is a cloud burst. “That’s Marcus,” you say. “He is expressing himself. He’s mad that he was yanked away so soon.” You understand. You would be mad too. You are mad. You are angry with how life works, how unfair it is, how you can’t control things. You continue driving east and soon you see a rainbow. “It’s Marcus again,” you note. You drive toward the rainbow, thinking you are getting closer, but the closer you get the more it eludes you.
PHOTO: Chasing, but not catching, Marcus. Heading east on Highway 90, Texas.

“Oh yes, that’s just like Marcus,” you say of its unattainable-ness. You drive for more than an hour into the rainbow, its colors growing more intense, deeper, richer, stronger. You think you can finally touch the rainbow, that you’ve nearly arrived at its pot of gold, that Marcus will be there waiting….until the rainbow gives way to a thunderstorm. The rain begins to pelt the roof of your car, gradually at first, but soon becoming stronger. The noise grows as the drops come down bigger and faster. “That’s Marcus,” you explain to the dogs who are wondering why it has become so loud inside the car. You keep driving, driving straight into the middle of the storm cell. The storm grows, the wind intensifies, lighting strikes in bolts straight to the ground, thunder rattles the earth. The rain falls so hard you can barely see the road. You hold tight onto your steering wheel to keep your little car, yourself and your dogs from blowing off the highway.
“What are you trying to tell me, Marcus?” you ask. “What is it you are trying to say?” You cannot make out his message -- you don’t understand how or why the lure of his heavenly rainbow has led you into this stormy hell. But you don’t have time to dwell on this theme as you are running out of gas, so in spite of the dangerous conditions, you keep driving in hopes of reaching Langtry, the tiny town on the map, the one where Judge Roy Bean held his court.
You put on your hazards and move at 40 mph and finally hobble into the filling station, the one with the lone pump, a pump that doesn’t take credit cards. You discover the gas station is closed and will not open until 8AM -- the next day. You realize you will have to wait out the storm and also wait for the gas station to open in the morning and you wonder how your sixth anniversary came to this. You were heading to the campground at Amistad Reservoir, the place where you spent three blissful days camping with your husband only nine months earlier. You were going to drink an anniversary toast to him in this special spot.

PHOTO: Our special camp spot. Amistad Reservoir, Del Rio, TX, Dec. 2008.

Now you are going to sleep in the back of your Mini Cooper, curled up in a tight ball with your knees jammed against the door. You are sobbing yet again. “What are you trying to tell me, Marcus?” you ask for the tenth time as you lay there in a new form of misery, lightning striking all around, rain pelting your car. “Are you telling me to slow down, to stop being so impetuous?” You admit you left in a bit of a hurry, panicked by touching the depths of your grief, needing to run away from yourself. You acknowledge that he was a helpful anchor to you, like a necessary, stabilizing tether to your hot air balloon which constantly threatens to float away without warning. “You cannot get away from yourself,” he seems to be telling you. “You need to stay still and I am going to make sure you do.” That he had to create a tempest to get you to stop and listen is not lost on you.

Still unclear about his message, you sit in your car until the storm passes. The stars appear in what is now a deep black night sky. You open the car’s sunroof, staring at the stars and talking to Marcus, until you fall asleep. You wake up to the sound of a truck engine roaring next to your window. You look up and there is a large, handsome black man with a gun strapped to his belt. Your mind wonders what kind of danger you are in until you see he is a Border Patrolman. He asks you why you are parked at this gas station at 2:00 AM and after you explain – minus the part about your husband and his elemental messages – he escorts you to the next town where there is a 24-hour gas pump. You make it there, touched by this officer’s kindness, fill up with premium, and drive until you find a Motel 6, because Motel 6allows dogs.

It is 3:30 AM when you settle into your room. Finally, you pour yourself a small glass of sake, from the expensive bottle Marcus bought at Whole Foods, the same store where he discovered the soap that you bought him. You couldn’t possibly have known how much this bottle would come to mean to you, but you somehow had the foresight to bring it with you from LA to Texas. At last, after surviving the storm, surviving yourself, you raise your glass and say, “Love of my life, Happy Anniversary.”

You shut your eyes and pray that when you open them in the morning you will have a little less pain, a little more will to keep living. That you will keep remembering the man you love, and to keep appreciating what time you did have together, even if that time was cut short. You vow that you will keep celebrating what you had with him and what you still have without him. “Whatever else you want to tell me, Marcus,” you say, “I am here. I am listening.” And with that, you fall into a deep sleep. Wrapped in your husband’s bathrobe. With his scent. With him.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dos and Don'ts to Help a Grieving Person

When someone (and by someone I mean me) is grieving there are certain things that can help – and other things that don’t help at all. This grief thing is a new experience for me (oh, and how it SUCKS!!!!), and knowing that many other people may too at some point suffer such a tragic loss -- like losing their 43-year-old husband without warning -- I thought a list of Dos and Don’ts When Helping a Grieving Person (GP) would be useful. This is based on real things people have said to me and/or done over the past four weeks -- some excellent, some worthy of a David Letterman list.

DON’T
1. Don’t say to the GP, “Well, you were getting a divorce anyway, so I don’t know why you’re so broken up.”
2. Don’t say, “The timing of his death was good. If it had been in October it would have interfered with our big party.”
3. Don’t say, “I lost my mother/husband/dog last year and, let me tell you, it’s only going to get harder.”
4. Don’t hesitate to call, even if you think the GP is overwhelmed. The GP will remember that you reached out, even if she couldn’t take the call at the time.
5. Don’t treat the GP as if they are on Suicide Watch. A GP needs to be alone for more than five minutes to go to the bathroom, have a good hard cry, or both.
6. Don’t force the GP to take sleeping pills. If the GP wants to stay awake all night hoping for a visit from her dead husband, let her!
7. Don’t say, “I don’t believe in an afterlife. When he’s dead, he’s dead.” That’s not helpful!

DO
1. Do get on a plane and fly to the funeral even if the GP says you don't need to come. Bonus points for arriving before the GP and meeting her at the gate.
2. Do make jokes – like Nan who, when we used Marcus’ credit card to pay for his funeral reception, told the restaurant manager who insisted Marcus sign the receipt, “Oh, he’ll be there, he just can’t sign.” It was very funny at the time.
3. Do drop off your adorable ten-week-old puppy and have the GP dog sit for a day. The smell of puppy breath alone will do wonders to ease the grief.
4. Do invite the GP (upon the GP’s return home from the funerals) over for dinner two nights in a row, and BAKE THEM A PIE! (Thank you, Mimi. Your Key Lime Pie was delicious.)
5. Do keep calling and emailing and sending cards to the GP, as point #3 above is indeed correct – it only gets harder.
6. Do stop by unannounced and suggest going for a walk at sunset. Even if the GP doesn’t change out of her pajamas, the walk is slow, and no one talks, it’s a baby step in a healthy direction.
7. Do remind the GP about some of the less positive points of the lost loved one so the GP doesn’t try to canonize them and turn them into a saint.
8. Do have supplies ready at hand: Kleenex, chicken soup, and water are key.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Poem for Marcus

PHOTO: Marcus (left) with my brother, Michael. Germany 2005

My brother, Michael (we call him Miguel), wrote a poem for Marcus. Michael read it at the funeral in Portand, and my friend Alayne read it in Germany. The translation is included below.

MY GERMAN BROTHER

You were an adventurous soul
DEINE SEELE WAR IMMER AUF ABENTEUTER AUS
Always looking for something new
IMMER AUF DER SUCHE NACH ETWAS NEUEM
A far away place to visit, a different site to see
FERNE ORTE, VERSCHIEDENE PLAETZE
Your motto seemed to be – whatever, whenever, wherever
DEIN MOTTO SCHIEN – WAS AUCH IMMER, WANN AUCH IMMER, WO AUCH IMMER
Sometimes serious but always gracious
MANCHMAL ERNST, ABER IMMER MIT STIL
Your welcoming smile and bear hug embrace
DEIN EINLADENDES LAECHELN UND DEINE BAERENSTARKE UMARMUNG
Had a way of erasing the amount of time
HATTE ETWAS AN SICH, WAS DIE ZEIT STILLSTEHEN LIES
Between our last visits
ZWISCHEN DEINEN BESUCHEN
I liked the words you used
ICH MOCHTE DIE WORTE, DIE DU BENUTZT HAST
To describe the things you liked – “That’s cute” and “Cool”
UM SACHEN ZU BESCHRIEBEN, DIE DU MOCHTEST – DAS IST SUESS UND COOL
With your unique accent it had a comforting ring
MT DEINEM EIGENEN AKZENT, ES HATTE ETWAS BERUEHIGENDES
I’ll miss hearing you call me “Miguel”
ICH WERDE VERMISSEN, WIE DU MICH “MIGUEL” NENNST
Your stubborn side seemed to melt away
DEINE STURE SEITE SCHIEN ZU SCHMELZEN
Once you had a cold beer in hand
WENN DU EIN KALTES BIER IN DER HAND HATTEST
And your impressive barbecue skills
UND DEINE BEEINDRUCKENDEN GRILL FERTIGKEITEN
Made it so everyone had a full belly
HABEN ES GESCHAFFT, DASS JEDER EINEN VOLLEN BAUCH HATTE
I admired your knowledge of the world
ICH BEWUNDERTE DEIN WISSEN UM DIE WELT
And your eagerness to share your experiences
UND DEINE BESTAENDIGKEIT DEIN WISSEN ZU TEILEN
In such great detail that often left me feeling
DURCH DIE DETAILS HATTE ICH OFT DAS GEFUEHL
Like I had made the journey myself
DIE REISE SELBST GEMACHT ZU HABEN
So its good bye for now, I’m wishing you well
AUF WIEDERSEHEN FUER HEUTE, ICH WUENSCH DIR GUTE REISE
Your memory will live on in all of us
DIE ERINNERUNG WIRD IN UNS ALLEN WEITERLEBEN
Enjoy your new adventure
GENIESSE DEIN NEUES ABENTEUER
I’ll miss you, my German brother.
ICH WERDE DICH VERMISSEN, MEIN DEUTSCHER BRUDER.

For Marcus Iken
Written by Michael Howard
8-23-09

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How – and Where – to Grieve, to Move Forward, to Start Anew

Can a place to grieve be too quiet? After three weeks of non-stop activity, travel, funerals, and hundreds of well-wishers imparting their condolences, I am back in Terlingua, Texas. Instead of being in the center of the funeral whirlwind, I am now surrounded only by nature, pure and silent -- the Chisos Mountains, prickly pear cactus, and huge blue sky dotted with puffy clouds and blazing sun. I loved this place before. Before Marcus died. I loved my wide open big Texas space here having come directly out of the madness and density of Venice Beach, California. I loved my time alone to write, to read, to walk the dirt roads through the empty desert with my dogs. I loved my outhouse, the thunderstorms, the power outages, the local radio station that plays 3 songs in a row, the yoga classes in the old church, the afternoon dips in Terlingua Creek. I loved baking pies for La Posada Milagro’s coffee shop. I loved all this before Marcus left so suddenly and unexpectedly. Now the silence and solitude threaten to consume me, the void of humanity providing me with too much time alone in my head, too much room for thoughts of “what if” to take over.

WHAT IF if I had let Marcus come here to visit me in August like he had wanted to, had planned to? When my dad was here visiting he said repeatedly, “Marcus would love it here.” Yes, he would have. What if we hadn’t been filing for divorce? What if we could have worked out our differences, stayed married, had our happily ever after that we dreamed of, strived for? What if he hadn’t had to spend his Portland vacation moving our furniture and boxes into the storage lockers? What if he hadn’t ridden his bike 30 miles two days before he died? What if he had known his bicuspid aortic valve put him at high risk for a ruptured aorta and resulting death? What if he had learned that the persistent cough he’d had for several months might have been a warning sign? What if he was still alive, would we have signed the divorce papers or would we have at the last minute, like we did before, look at each other and say “What are we doing? We love each other. Let’s make this work.” What if, what if, WHAT IF… (Marcus' last photo taken...after his 30 mile bike ride. Lake Oswego, OR)

Yes, I know these are not healthy, productive thoughts and that I cannot – should not -- blame myself for his death. One friend was particularly direct about this: “You have an over-inflated opinion of yourself if you think you have some control over who lives or dies in this world!” he said. Ouch. Another said “There was nothing you could have done to prevent his death.” And yet another friend – actually more like four friends – said, “The decisions you made about Marcus were the right decisions at that time.” I am trying to believe what these friends are telling me is true. All I know right now is that no matter how much sadness and regret I feel, I cannot bring Marcus back, I cannot fix things. Or so I am trying to convince myself. But who am I kidding. I still want to fix things. I still want him to be here.

I have, in a way, found a way to keep Marcus here.

“Talk to him as if he is in the room,” Victoria, a life coach/psychic in LA, has instructed me. “Most importantly, write him a letter telling him things that you appreciated about him and how he may have helped you in your life. Small things are just as important as the big things. They read all these letters. Every single one of them. And if there are things that you are still angry or upset about with him - put that in the letter too. It helps the ‘spirit guides’ decide what areas he's going to be working on first. Really. I'm not kidding.”

I never believed in an afterlife before Marcus died, but now I am hanging on to Victoria’s every word like a lifeline, to keep from drowning in my sorrow, and using her advice like great gulps of air. My letter to Marcus is at least 50 pages long already. Her suggestions provide hope and a way to keep from wanting to follow Marcus on his new journey. To this point she had some additional advice. “Your trip to Texas was the beginning of your new life alone. Keep following your gut, your heart and your path.”

My gut, my path, it appears, is telling me to leave the quiet and solitude of Terlingua and get to a place with more people around, more stimulus, a place with collective creative energy. My gut wants to take me on a path forward, not back. Not back to Portland, which is so full of Marcus’ memory and, let’s face it, too rainy and gray to meet my Vitamin D needs. Not back to LA, where in spite of the hiking trails and beaches to walk, its big city vibe is too aggressive for my current state. In order to go forward and not back and, also, to avoid standing still (which is my greatest fear of all!), I am planning a scouting trip to Austin, Texas, where I hope to find a little house with a yard for my dogs, a lake to swim in, a coffee house with good espresso, music and free WiFi, a writing class, new friends, new adventures, a new beginning. For my journey, I will try to leave my guilt, my sadness, and my “what ifs” behind. But I will bring along my writing paper to keep those letters going to Marcus. And, to brace myself for my return to city life, I will be sure to bring along my ear plugs. And, of course, my pie baking supplies.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Three Weddings and Three Funerals

Marcus and I got married exactly six years ago. We have three anniversaries for three different weddings on two different continents: August 22, September 6, and September 20. First was the “Standesamt,” where we got the German version of our marriage license at the Rathaus (city hall) in Tiefenbronn, Germany. It was a small ceremony with just his parents and his friend, Hannes, who served as my translator. Next, we had a ceremony on a farm near Seattle, Washington – a sort of elegant picnic – for my American friends and family. Two weeks after that we walked down the aisle of a famous thousand-year-old church in the tiny village of Alpirsbach in Germany’s Black Forest, where Marcus’ parents, grandmothers, cousins, coworkers and many others joined in our black tie celebration.

It seems fitting then – or so people commented – that we had three funerals on two continents. First, on August 23, we had a simple-but-elegant ceremony in Portland, Oregon – the city where Marcus and I had lived for a year and a half, and where he died of a ruptured aorta on August 19 during the last week of his 3-week vacation. Secondly, on September 1, we had a formal church service in the tiny, picturesque German village of Muelhausen, surrounded by roses and serenaded by a quartet of French horns as Marcus’ parents, cousins and coworkers and many others joined in the “Abschied” (Farewell) – minus the grandmothers who both passed away last year. The horns played Dvorak’s “The New World” as a tribute to Marcus’ bi-continental lifestyle. And lastly, on September 4, we had a burial of Marcus’ ashes at a quiet cemetery 3 kilometers from his parents’ home. Out of all the draining, devastating events of these past weeks, that moment, acknowledging that his fit, gorgeous, sexy body, a body I had made love to and always adored, was reduced to ashes that fit in an urn, and then lowered in the ground, his gravesite covered in roses and marked by a simple wooden cross bearing his name…that was by far the lowest of the low points.
That same day I was required to go back to the Rathaus in Tiefenbronn, where we signed our marriage certificate, the place where I first signed my name as Beth Iken. I continued to use my maiden name during our marriage, but on this particular day, I was required to sign my married name, for the last time, as Beth Iken – on Marcus’ death certificate.

What neither of us ever signed were the divorce papers. We almost did – twice -- once in spring of 2008 and then this August. With the papers prepared, peaceful agreements made, both times we shared our regrets about our marriage being so difficult to manage, due to his corporate career (me being disgruntled for his long hours at the office and for following him around for his international transfers) and my freelance wanderings (him frustrated with me for my incurable wanderlust and lack of concern about health insurance and retirement funds). We got all the way to where the dotted line awaited our ink on paper. But it seems we were meant to stay married. In 2008, our divorce discussions were so loving and caring we just looked at each other and said, “What are we doing? We love each other. Let’s make it work.” We tore up the papers and I followed him to his job posting in Saltillo, Mexico. However, as the long days alone in our Mexican house wore me down I took a job in LA and left. We knew how to maintain a long-distance relationship. We talked every day. We emailed. We visited each other every month. However, the distance became even greater when Marcus got transferred back to Germany, a place I said I couldn’t live again (I blamed the difficulty of learning German). He was so busy with work there wasn’t even a chance to visit him. My job in LA ended (due to the economic climate) and I soon found myself in Terlingua, Texas, a good place to write a book. The last time I saw him was May 1, for a perfect weekend together in Portland. Time marched on until it was the longest we had been apart and, thus, the question was raised again: What is our future? How can we sustain this? The answer, Marcus concluded, was that we are two people trying to fit into one marriage, and that although we love each other anger was created by trying to change each other to fit into this one institution, that steadily all the good connections between us were pushed out of the way.

I summarized my own conclusion in pie terms: “Our marriage is like overworked pie dough,” I wrote. “You can only knead it so much, too much and it gets too hard, so you have to throw out the dough and start over. We should have known that mixing a free-spirited California girl with a German automotive executive was an exercise in futility, like trying to whip meringue in a greasy bowl where, with even the slightest presence of oil, turning the beaters up to a higher speed still isn’t going to accomplish the necessary lightness of being. We need to throw out the dough, chuck the egg whites, and wash out our bowls so that we might fill them again.”

Marcus died before we signed the papers. I cannot make sense of why he died. The shock and sadness of losing him is something I fear will never fade. But as I search and search and SEARCH for reasons and answers, the only comforting thought is that it seems we were meant to stay married. I am grateful we are still married. I said I would only marry once in my life and I married Marcus. I will continue to honor him, to respect him, to love him and to remember him. And on September 20, the anniversary date we chose to celebrate, I will open a bottle of Champagne and make a toast to all the goodness, the passion, the adventures, the fun and even the struggles we shared. “Love of my Life,” I will say, raising my glass to the stars in the black Texas night sky. “This wasn’t the way I wanted to stay married to you, but I am trying to accept everything, every gift, every loss, every breath. Happy Anniversary.”

And that’s where our story ends. Three weddings, three funerals, no divorce, and eternal love.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

In Loving Memory of Marcus Iken


Marcus was my husband. He was fit. He was smart. He was stylish. He was funny. He was many things. He was also a very good pie baker. And that's about all I can say right now because I can't see the computer screen through my tears. I loved him and will miss him so very much.

From the funeral program:

Marcus Iken was born in Bremen, Germany on July 2, 1966. He was raised in Lehnigen (just outside of Stuttgart) by his parents Marulf and Angelika. He got his first motorcycle at the age of 16, which gave him the freedom to meet girls! He got his master’s degree in engineering, and afterward spent several years in London, where he perfected speaking English with a beautiful British accent. Upon returning to Germany he got a job at the Fraunhofer Institute, which eventually led to a position at Daimler. His work took him from Stuttgart, to Portland, to Mexico, and then back to Germany. In 2001, he met Beth Howard at Crater Lake National Park. They married on August 22, 2003. Their life was a great adventure with motorcycle trips through Italy, scuba diving in Turkey, backpacking in the Alps, and road trips in the US. They equally enjoyed gourmet dinners and luxury hotels. Marcus developed a love for road and mountain biking, as well as yoga. He loved hot saunas and ice cold showers. He loved watching the History Channel, drinking cafĂ© lattes, grilling, and throwing the stick for his dog Jack. He was a very dedicated employee — they called him a rock star at work. He was a loyal husband. He lived his life to the fullest, diving into everything with discipline and enthusiasm. He died on August 19, 2009 of a ruptured aorta due to a congenital heart condition. He was 43. We will miss him very much.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Snake Obsession Overtakes Pie Obsession

Jim Carrico returned to Terlingua and brought with him another batch of fresh rhubarb from his Colorado garden. In anticipation of his delivery I made a shopping run to Alpine for strawberries. Though the rhubarb cream pie I made from his last batch of the celery-like vegetable was a success I couldn’t get excited about making another one. It was missing something…. I was convinced it was the strawberries.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a 90-mile drive to the grocery store. That is how determined I was to get the berries to go with the rhubarb. But 90 miles is nothing compared to the 750-mile journey Jim Carrico made with the rhubarb. Anyway, I don’t mind the drive. I love my Mini Cooper and in it I can cover the 90 miles in an hour…or less.

With three pints of strawberries shriveling up in the back of my car in the 100-degree heat, I drove 40 miles over the speed limit to get my groceries home from Alpine to Terlingua. Speeding down Highway 118 with the stereo cranked, I saw something ahead on the road. Could it be? Yes! A snake! This time it wasn’t a dead Red Racer, but instead a full-size live rattlesnake, it’s tail distinctly marked with black and white stripes. Like Betty did last week, I stepped hard on the brakes, turned around, and drove back to the spot where I had seen the snake. Not only did I NOT get out of the car to touch the thing, I was too afraid to even roll down my windows! I watched it wiggle, raise its head, stick out its forked tongue and wave it at me (the horror!), and then slither off into the grass. I snapped a few pictures, but my hand was shaking too hard to hold the camera steady.

I resumed my drive home and about fifteen minutes down the road I spotted another object on the highway. Yes! Another snake! This time it was a green and yellow one, and also very much alive. Not a rattler, but still possibly poisonous. Again, I stopped the car (not easy to do when going100 mph), turned around, and snapped a few pictures with the windows closed – my hands still shaking.

I made it home before the strawberries died from heat exhaustion and was greeted by an email from Betty. The subject line read: “Yikes! A Rattler!” I opened the email to find a photo of a very mean looking rattlesnake attached. She, too, had spotted a snake on the road. Betty’s picture, unlike mine, was not blurry. Clearly, she has more snake courage than me. Her email said, “I took this for you.” Gee, thanks, Betty! “Never never never try to touch one of these.”


It may seem like I am even more obsessed with snakes than I am with pie. When you live in Far West Texas, a place that moves you a little further down the food chain than you might be used to, you start to pay attention to anything that moves, creatures that could end your life or at least inject you with enough poison to make you very, very miserable for a while. So, yes, I suppose pie does take second place to that.

That said, I’ve got $25 worth of strawberries and three pounds of well-traveled rhubarb waiting in my refrigerator. Baking a few pies (one of which will be for Jim Carrico and his wife) should take my mind off of the snakes – and, hopefully, for a few relaxing hours while cleaning berries, chopping rhubarb and rolling dough I will forget about the spiders, scorpions, centipedes, coyotes, javelinas, and mountain lions too.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Facing Fears

For those of you worried about me, you have Betty to thank for not only getting me out of bed as well as getting me out of the house, but Betty – not one to mess around – took it one big step further. “It’s time for you to face your fears,” she said as she drove us to breakfast on Sunday morning. First of all, I have never once been out for breakfast in Terlingua. So this alone was a big occasion, forget that the reason was to pull me out of the darkest depths of my self-dug pit. We were two miles into the five-mile drive to The Chili Pepper, where Huevos Rancheros awaited us, when she stepped hard on the brakes, turned the car around, and pulled over.

“Did you see the snake?” she asked. Yes, I did. It was, a long, pink slimy looking thing stretched out across the opposite lane. “It’s a red racer,” she said. “They’re good snakes; we like them.” I interpreted this to mean they are non-venomous. “I think it’s dead.” It didn’t look dead to me. Its eyes were open. It looked like it was just sunning itself on the traffic-free highway.

“Come on,” Betty said as she got out of the car. “Let’s take a look.” She trotted over to look at the snake while I lagged way behind. Before I had even got both feet out of the car she was already touching the snake, tugging at its tail. “BETTY!” I cried. “Are you crazy? What if it’s not dead?!”

“It’s dead,” she said, still touching it. “Now you need to touch it.”

“No! I can’t. I don’t want to.”

“It will help desensitize you,” she promised. “Come on. I’ll take your picture.”

My heart was pounding, my pulse racing, as I stepped closer to the snake. I handed Betty my camera. We stood in the middle of the highway, void of cars, void of anything except the snake. The Sunday morning silence filled my ears. The only sound was the morning breeze traveling across the empty expanse of the desert. As Betty waited, I gave myself a little pep talk: It’s dead. It can’t hurt me. It’s dead. Nothing is going to happen. It’s dead. I need to do this. I need to get past this fear. It’s dead. It’s dead. It’s dead. I’m going to be fine. It’s dead. And then it occurred me: Oh, that Betty is very clever. She knows exactly what she’s doing. This isn’t about the snake. This is about my marriage. This is about the death of my relationship and the fear of going forward into the unknown, alone. “OK,” I said at last. “I’ll do it.”
I am not proud of my snake-touching performance. I couldn’t touch it without making a face, displaying a look of distaste as my fingers stroked the rough, scaly skin. My heart continued to pound against my chest as I had visions of the snake springing back to life. But no, the snake was as dead as my marriage. The car that ran it over ensured its end was as definitive and final as the judge’s stamp on my divorce papers.

We continued on our way to The Chili Pepper, and once there I went straight to the Ladies’ Room to wash my hands. I let the water run over my hands for a few minutes, rinsing off the past, the fear, the grief, and the creepy feel of the snake’s skin that still lingered on my fingers – and I watched it all disappear down the drain. And then, at last, we ate breakfast. “I’ll have the Huevos Rancheros,” I told the waitress. “And bring the spicy salsa.”

Betty looked at me. “I thought you couldn’t eat the hot salsa.”

“Normally, I can’t,” I said. “But today is a new day. Today I'm facing ALL of my fears.”

Bring it on, I say. Bring it on. And next time maybe I'll even be brave enough to touch a Mojave. As long as it's dead.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pigmy Will's "Pie Day"




I’ve been getting some random emails lately from people who have found my pie blog. One was from a local Terlingua resident who felt sorry for me after my last post, in which I stated that I spend a lot of time alone. He wants to introduce himself. (Well, good luck breaking into “Fort Betty,” my landlady’s compound over which she keeps a very protective watch.) Another was from someone offering a gluten free crust recipe, which, from its list of ingredients (including potato starch, vinegar, and xanthan gum) sounds so vile I wouldn’t bother trying to make it, let alone post the recipe. (My advice to the GF crowd: Stick with flour-free pie variations like apple crisp. And anyway, what the hell is xanthan gum?!) Most recent, and dare I say most random, is this: a Pigmy Will cartoon entitled “Pie Day.” (Who the hell is Pigmy Will?)

Normally, I might have just looked at it, thought “Oh, that’s….hmmm, what could you call this besides odd?….cute?… maybe cute in an odd way” and forgotten about it. (Guaranteed with my memory I would forget.) But today was one of “those days” when I couldn’t – and didn’t – get out of bed as I have been bawling my eyes out over my divorce (having just finalized the settlement yesterday) and am still nursing the subsequent hangover from 3 margaritas last night. So instead of finishing the brilliant essay I had started yesterday on Pie versus Cake (which you will see when I am more fit), I am taking the lazy blogger’s way and repurposing someone else’s brilliance. Please note, I didn’t have the energy to research who is the artist behind this video, what their mission is, and WHY PIE, so at the risk of promoting something I cannot stand behind….here you go.

As for me, “Pie Day” provided 28 seconds of distraction. Now that that’s over, I’m taking my headache, my heartache and my box of Kleenex and going back to bed.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Patty Griffin is "Making Pies"



I spend an inordinate amount of time alone here in Terlingua, Texas. If not for bumping into my landlord when she walks her dog in the mornings I could go for days without any human contact or conversation. And apart from the chirping birds and the occasional clap of thunder, it’s also incredibly quiet here. (I’m not complaining, as I am hardly longing for the sounds of honking horns and sirens!) But there is a need for some kind of “noise” to provide stimulus. When Kurt Vonnegut died, National Public Radio’s obituary said “Vonnegut believed music is the meaning of life.” I took note and have allowed more music in my life ever since.

It is for these reasons I love listening to the radio. But a radio station in Terlingua, Texas is not your ordinary radio station!

KYOTE-FM – whose irreverent slogans include “Perhaps the best radio in Far Out West Texas” and “Community supported radio, strangely enough for THIS community” -- plays a diverse range of music. Unlike other radio stations that would have an hour (let alone an entire station) devoted to one genre, here on 100.1 FM, you can hear Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Foreigner, Dave Matthews Band, Dire Straits, Jackson Browne, Grateful Dead and some cowboy honky tonk – all within the same hour. The exciting thing is you never know what you’re going to hear next. Some days they play the same song three times in a row. Other days the power goes out and you hear nothing.

There is one artist – a female folk singer -- they play over and over. Her voice is distinct, somewhat haunting and sorrowful, but pretty, a voice that sticks with you. I didn’t know who it was for two months as they never announce the songs. (The upshot to this, of course, is that there are no interruptions – and no ads.) I finally emailed the radio station, which is run by a blind man who calls himself “Uh Clem.” Yes, it did occur to me that a blind man isn’t going to be able to read my email, but I sent it anyway, describing a few lyrics I had remembered, and asked if he could tell me who it was, and in return, as an avid listener, I would be happy to help support the radio in any way I could.

To my surprise I got a prompt reply (KYOTE radio is apparently not running on Terlingua Time!). “Patty Griffin is the artist you are hearing. To support us, you can buy t-shirts and bumper stickers at the Leapin’ Lizard art gallery. And in the fall we want to have a fundraiser for the station.” Fundraiser? My first thought is…..bake sale! Or maybe a pie auction! (Stay tuned.)

Meanwhile, I run into my neighbor, Ralph, who hosts his own radio show on KYOTE-FM on Thursday nights. “I am hearing you play a lot of Patty Griffin songs on your show,” I tell him.
“Yeah, she’s great. You know she has a song called ‘Making Pies,’ don’t you?”
“What?! I have to hear it!” I practically run home to get online and look up the song. I find it on You Tube, I go to save it in my “Pie” favorites folder, and wouldn’t you know it – it is already saved in there. This is one of the reasons my husband wants a divorce – my memory is terrible and it usually takes hearing information two or three times before it sticks in my little peabrain. Apparently, this annoys him.

Well, I won’t forget it now. I not only have two copies of “Making Pies” (which, sadly, is not the most uplifting song -- see the lyrics) on my computer, I now have an entire Patty Griffin album on my iPod. That way, the next time the power goes out and KYOTE-FM offers nothing but dead air space, I’ll have someone to keep me company and remind me there is indeed a meaning to life.

NOTE: KYOTE radio is doing a 30-day trial on shoutcast.com. To tune in online, go to www.shoutcast.com and search for KYOTE or Terlingua.