Cowboy Heaven: The Passing of a Patriarch

cowboy_heavenI drafted this piece four years back, just found it in a neglected folder and cleaned up the rough patches. Mostly.

My grandfather didn't die on my shift. I was back in the city. He died in the ranch house, horses milling about just outside his bedroom window. The aunts stood around him, hands on his ankles, his cheeks, weeping softly, making strange, tight faces, or so I imagine. I'm told my grandmother held his hand, curled up on the bed beside him like a cat.

Two weeks before death, when I entered the scene, he looked bad enough. My giant beast of a grandfather shrunken into the body of a frail old man. Low grumbling voice. Eyes of Caribbean blue darting glances sharp as icicles. Smiling at me. Barking at his daughters.

The aunts are four varieties of neurosis. I came often to relieve them of their posts.

“Get some sleep,” I'd say. They'd pile into pick-ups, Volkswagens, or jeeps and fly down the hill, finding even a trip to Safeway to pick up a prescription or to the sub shop for sandwiches more enticing than spending another slow minute in the quiet house.

My grandmother transformed into a whirlwind of energy, watering plants, feeding the horses, sorting piles of bills and hospital paperwork. My mother sat outside in a plastic lawn chair, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Drinking coffee. Not making sense. Both women jittery and over-tired.

I brought my daughter to float among them all like a wild hummingbird. She talked about dogs. She ate some of the cookies that had been dropped by. She stalked around my grandfather's bed to jump out by his pillow with a giant boo and make him laugh so hard his oxygen tubes would come askew and the aunts would descend in a flurry of deliberate hands.

Another week into the glorious countdown, I tucked daughter away with other family. My grandfather no longer laughed. Nor did he eat or drink or even open his eyes. An army of cousins paraded through his bedroom, the color draining from their faces when they approached his bedside. The aunts stood around like sentries. Twisting necklaces. Timidly reaching out to touch his arms or legs, then pulling back quickly, unable to forget a lifetime of terror in final moments. All business, they could roll him, dress him, wash him without hesitation. But not one could bring herself to place a loving hand on his brow.

I was not his daughter. I was never struck. His berating bounced easily off the thick shield of love and assurances my mother had woven around me. When in my youth I did win his tirades, whether from running the nags too hard, or leaving a gate not quite closed, he would redeem himself with magic tricks and utterly adoring looks when I came to cry in his arms.

I called in to my city job. Told them not to miss me for a while. I hung my leather jacket in the closet, stood my heels by the door between all the pairs of muddy pasture boots and silenced my phone. I sat in the ranch house for long hours and did what the aunts could not do. I held his hand and stroked his face. I mashed up the white pills, mixed them with water and slowly dripped them into the soft tissue of his inner cheeks. I talked about when he pushed me off the hill to teach me how to ride a bike, about that night we all slept on top of the camper in Yellowstone, about how he gave me the name for my daughter. I sang cowboy songs and talk about sufferin' and down by the river.

The aunts hovered behind me. Crying. Not crying. Trying not to cry. Crying. So desperate to touch him, to sing his name. My grandmother flitting in just long enough to fluff the pillows, adjust the blanket, then rush out again.

“I didn't know you remembered those songs,” she said to me, quietly, in the kitchen. “We haven't had a campfire since you were ten.”

My grandfather didn't die on my shift. I was down the hill, back in the city, checking in on my daughter. The aunts stood around him, hands on his ankles, his cheeks, weeping softly, making strange tight faces, or so I imagine.



My Summer of Boys

summer-of-boysThe clock hits noon. Time to wake the dragons. With a deep sigh, I do my best to wrap-up whatever contracting project I'm working on and close my laptop. Fortified with a big gulp of cold coffee, I start my rounds with a knock on the 15-year-old's door. Though his alarm has sounded every nine minutes for the past two hours, my knocks and gentle greetings are met with deep, moaning growls.

"Good morning," I say. "Time to get up and go have some fun."

"Grrrr, hmph. Agh."

On to the next...

This summer, I volunteered to play ringmaster to our extended brood of kids. My daughter, plus my husband's three sons. The youngest kid is eleven, the oldest fifteen. I work from home and convinced myself I could complete all required contract work by noon each day, leaving us the rest of the hours for grand adventures and happy family bonding experiences.

These are amazing kids. Smart, funny, remarkably conscientious, they arrest my attention and affection with ease. For the summer, I constructed grandiose plans. Perhaps we'll start our own reading club, or volunteer two days out of the week, or maybe decide on a subject we all find interesting and spend the summer visiting museums and experts to learn all we can about it.

We're one week in.

What a week it's been. I have learned that the boys' beautiful empathy and manners extend to everyone but each other. Two meals out with this hungry crew drained my entire entertainment budget for the week. My goal yesterday narrowed to simply getting out of the house before 3pm and to convince them to stop referring to each other as retards.

Now I review with great skepticism the activities I planned for next week. A trip to the museum. Yeah, right. Cross that one off. Wild Waves? Even if I can find the money to afford the entry and snacks, how will I possibly manage to keep them from shoving each other off one of the slide towers to splatter on the cement below in gory spectacle?

I haven't written in my novel for five days. I'm tired of explaining how deriding your brother by calling him gay diminishes us all. I'm tired of passive aggressive tactics meant to stall our departure so someone can spend just twenty minutes more on their online game campaign. I'm tired of constantly trying to find food to keep the boys full while working within the confines of their incredibly limited palettes.

Did I mention we're just one week in?

Most of my difficulties boil down to the fact that despite having lived part-time with these bonus boys for the better part of six years, I still don't know them very well. When we first started dating, their dad and I waited a full year before we started "blending" our kids for joint activities. Even when we eventually moved in together, I still treated them cautiously, with removed respect and interest.

My father shuffled through an entire deck of girlfriends. Some of them I loved, some I reviled. He even married a few of them. These women drifted in and out of my life with every passing season. I learned to keep my heart closed, guarded, least a bit of leave me as well at their hurried departure. When I first met these boys, I promised myself that I would not hurt them. I would not court their affection and loyalty when I was uncertain about the permanence of my place in their father's life. I would be a friend, and not a very close one. Yet always nice and welcoming.

While this may have been a good approach in the beginning, it doesn't work anymore. These aren't my boyfriend's kids. These are my step-sons. My family. Yet now that we've spent years establishing remote relationships, building greater trust and intimacy proves difficult.

Without trust, my disciple is timid and rare. I still worry about them "not liking me" and hold back in moments when I should be calling out bad behavior and shutting them down. These brothers act out complex power struggles every moment they're together. When I fail to intervene, these battles may become horrifying ugly and destructive.

My daughter and I are reduced to gawking. How can people treat each other so mean? As I am one of six sisters, I actually know this is normal. My daughter, an only child for many years, regards the boys as though an invading alien species.

In thinking through this post before I wrote it down, I came to the realization that not only did I remain aloof to protect the boys and spare myself the guilt of breaking young hearts, I did so to protect my own heart. Did I mention that these kids are amazing? If I love them a little, I can't help but love them truly, madly, deeply. Nothing is ever certain. If I lost my husband, I'd suffer three more losses in the same terrible moment.

The time for hesitation and reserve has past. These kids are my kids now. I open my heart. How they respond is up to them. I'm leaving the museum off the list, but I'm keeping the volunteer work, hard-labor if I can find it. We'll ask their grandma to come to Wild Waves with us. Reinforcements.

Noon tomorrow, I'm going to do the rounds once more. "Good morning," I'll say. "Get up. I can't wait to go have some fun with you."


Proper Introductions: The Evolution of a Wallflower

proper_introductionsMy twelve-year old daughter and I stood at the edge of the wedding pre-party. The crowd of barely knowns and complete unknowns jumped and seethed with motion and noise. Happy. Dancing. Talking. My daughter's eyes grew wide watching the crowd. She pulled herself straight and leaned back away from the room as though reeling from a sour scent.

"Mom, can I go run outside?"

"Uh huh," I said.

One blink of the eye and she vanished, racing around the giant estate my husband's family had rented for his sister's wedding.

Damn, I thought, there goes my plus one.

Today, my husbands beautiful sister marries. This marriage brings together a Persian family and Indian family. Both the bride and groom are of the first generation born in America. Both are doctors. The celebrations started months ago, on the east coast, where the Indian contingent threw a lavish party complete with bright costumes and choreographed dance routines.

Last night we experienced the rehearsal dinner, hosted by the Persian side. Today begins with a Catholic ceremony at a church, followed by a Persian ceremony at a waterside resort, followed by an after-party that from all rumors will likely surpass that of the grammys.

Epic. Excellent. Extraordinary. But back to my problem. Me, bewildered, at the edge of crowd of barely-knowns.

Through the glass on the expansive front doors, I could see my daughter scaling the neighbor's fence to drop down and disappear into a field thick with scotch broom. Lucky kid.

While my husband and I have been together over six years, it was just recently that we decided to tie the matrimonial knot. Even more recently came his family's acceptance of my place in his life. Ours is a second marriage. Divorce does not play well with families from the old country. The beginning of our relationship a nano second after his first marriage ended did not start us off on a good foot with his parents. Rule breakers may be fed to the exclusion dogs.

Standing there, watching grandmas and aunts and uncles merge and separate and mingle and mix, I took deep breaths.

These are good people, I told myself. Give them the chance they never gave you. My husband locked eyes with me, sending me a helpless, sympathetic smile from his position at the sound board where he had been roped on arrival into playing DJ. Whatever happened, I was going to have to face it alone.

And then it began, the first pulling on my hand.

"Oh hello! You must be Ali's wife. I am his mother's best friend from Texas. I heard so much about you."

Another gentle pull, "Oo la la, look at Ali's wife. So beautiful! Would you like wine, my dear?"

Directed by a bevy of manicured hands, I made my rounds and introductions. Relatives flown in from California, from Texas, from Iran, from New York, from India. I dined on a plate loaded half with ghormeh sabzi and half with curry. I danced with the ladies in pastel suits, flicking wrists and twisting hips. I even sat for a few minutes with my husband's father, on the balcony, trying not to push too hard in a friendly argument that raced from immigration, to Iran, to privilege, to gay rights, to my husband's exercise habits.

By the end of the night, even my wild daughter had worked herself into the crowd. Her party clothes hung damp from her dashes through the landscaping sprinklers. Small sticks and organic bits and pieces stuck her hair. She laughed with the ladies, eating the endless stream of treats pushed into her hands. She enchanted two younger girls who followed her around as though her adoring minions. Only after exhaustion caught up with her did she pull out her book and settle into a forgotten nook.

By the time pans of pie and baklava replaced the platters of meat and rice, and the music evolved from bouncy, upbeat Persian pop to even bouncier, louder, more upbeat Persian pop, I could mangle at least eight new names with ease and work my shoulders on the dance floor as though I'd been doing it since I was knee-high. Best yet, I learned I could confidently interject myself into any family cluster with the utterance of the one phrase sure to win me favor.

"Hello. I'm Ali's wife."

I figure it will only be a matter of time before I may simply introduce myself as Kelsye.