Last Call

lastcall
Mood: Pensive
Drinking: Water

Last Call

Years can be rough on voices
can wear them down
to the tiniest sounds.
His voice
like his frame
has shrunken with age
and the weight of regret
and has grown
so small now

even hearing aids
cannot help me
find it. Only the sound
of his breathing
survives the long miles

struggling across the frozen shards
of empty Illinois cornfields,
catching on the ragged claws

of the Rockies, blowing through
the dusty Californian cities
until it finally reaches me

on the other end of the telephone.
I don’t know where to begin
so I speak of insignificant things
like forecasts and geography.
I am soft and careful, listening

for the rasp and rattle that tells me

he’s still connected. But the
Tootsie Rolls are my undoing.
I mention them to remind him
of sunny days when I was small
and his voice was as big as a canyon.
I remind myself, instead

of his endless parade of feathered fedoras

and secret cigarettes out behind the
horse barn, the one he himself
hammered with bent brown hands,
of the certainty of years’
worth of twisted candy wrappers,
the chewy chocolate sweetness
melting slowly inside sandwich baggies
stuffed into grandfatherly wool pockets,
always proffered with a whistle and

a Polident smile. I am so much taller

than he ever was, now. And
it’s my voice
that echoes back across state lines,
traveling along snowbound freeways
and forgotten shortcuts,
spilling across his bed sheets and
pooling gently around his ears. “You can

go, if you need to. You can go now,”
I whisper and the silence slips in

and he’s gone.

-Lo, in remembrance of Grandpa.

In Honor of Henry

Mood: Mixed Up
Drinking: Hot Chai

My Grandpa is dying.

His body has grown tired and gray, but I never remember him that way. I always picture him spry and whistling, pulling into our gravel driveway in his navy blue Oldsmobile, a red feather perched in his jaunty fedora.

Every day of my childhood, Grandpa was there. He always came bearing a ready joke and a baggie of Tootsie Rolls. (Even now I can’t untwist the wrappers without remember his endless sticky candy offerings.)

I know the years have passed us by, but it’s still so hard to imagine that the Grandpa Hank who built my sister and I a horse stable out of scraps of old lumber, clambering around with hammer in hand, nimble as you please, hiding a cigarette behind his back whenever us kids appeared (as if we couldn’t see the smoke winding up, wreathing him from behind)… it’s hard to equate the Grandpa of my childhood, joking and jovial, with the Grandpa of my adulthood, feeble behind his walker. And now lying so quietly in a hospital bed.

So today, in honor of Henry Witmer, I’m sharing a story my sister wrote about him last year. (She has a way with words, too.)

A True Glimpse of Grandpa
by Johanna Witmer Baldwin

Everyone wants a second chance, a chance to be redeemed, to start over. I just never thought Grandpa was one of those people. To me, Grandpa was my hero, invincible and un-aging, without fault. Or so I thought, back then when my world was so small and perfect.

More than President Reagan, Johnny Cash, or even Daisy Duke, I wanted to be like Grandpa when I was little.

After retiring from the steel mill, Grandpa began driving the 10 miles to our house every morning at about 6:30. By the time I crawled out of bed, Grandpa had already finished his cup of coffee, hammered out a few carpentry projects, and probably taken a break with his morning smoke.

Except I wasn’t supposed to know about that smoke. He diligently tried to hide it, even around Mom, who told him that she had known about the smoking for years. She even offered to buy him an ashtray.

Even so, he continued to slink behind the garage, barn or the garden to light up. I can’t remember how many times I walked up on him smoking and nearly gave him a heart attack. After regaining his composure, Grandpa would cough out the smoke from his last drag and pop a Vick’s drop into his mouth to drown his ashy breath. Then he would stand with the cigarette behind his back, in a futile attempt to look innocent while the cigarette smoke slowly curled around his ears grew into a hazy wreath behind his back.

“Oh, hey there! Did ya just now get out of bed?!?”

I played along, but spent more than one afternoon combing the gravel for his cigarette butt, so I could pretend to be a rebel smoker like Grandpa.

So why was Grandpa the secret smoker such a perfect icon in my childhood mind? Because only a few of my memories are of Grandpa pretending he never inhaled; the rest remind me of the selfless way he showed his love for us.

No one ever asked him to show up and work at our little farm, but there he was every morning, whistling a raspy tune while he invented an economical way to convert a shed into a 4-stall horse barn for my sister and me.

In addition to his carpentry skills, Grandpa was the only adult to recognize that I honestly COULD handle an entire Big Mac (minus the middle bun) and strawberry shake at McDonalds instead of a mere child’s Happy Meal.

More than that, he always knew the perfect time to offer me a Tootsie Roll to brighten my mood. Like on the days he drove me to school when my fake stomachaches had not convinced anyone that I was dying and needed constant bed rest.

Amazingly, the Tootsie Roll always healed me instantly. At every school program, Grandpa wandered in half an hour early, in order to get the best seat in the house.

In almost every corner of my childhood memories, I find Grandpa in his feathered fedora, flashing his false teeth to gross me out or standing proudly somewhere nearby.

Last summer, I flew back to my hometown to see Grandpa, whose heart was failing. Maybe all those years of hidden smoking had finally caught up with him. He had been in and out of the hospital every few months, and Dad said Grandpa “might appreciate” seeing me. In other words, Grandpa was dying.

The first night back in Illinois, my Dad sighed as he talked about my Grandpa’s health problems, “He spends all his time complaining about this ache and that pain, how he’s getting too old and might as well die. And he wonders why I don’t always want to come visit him. He forgets that he missed most of my childhood. I mean, for crying out loud! He was a horrible father! He’s never admitted all the affairs he had, or how he disowned me for years after he divorced Grandma. He said terrible things to me back then, things I don’t even want to repeat.”

He rubbed his brow in frustration, as if to erase the painful memories, “But he seems to have forgotten all of that now.”

I was still thinking of this new side of Grandpa the next day when I saw him. He appeared to have shrunk over the past six months and was so frail as he shuffled into the house with his walker, a mere shadow of his former self. But he didn’t seem like the playboy who once had abandoned his family, either.

What was Grandpa really like, and why hadn’t I seen the other side of him all the years when I scampered around in his shadow?

As I was deep in thought, Grandpa’s ashen face lit up and he interrupted my reverie, “I always think about how you used to run around, following me everywhere when you were just a tiny tyke…” A smile tiptoed across his weathered face, then cautiously crossed to mine.

At that moment, the foggy doubt about Grandpa lifted. Grandpa did remember all the hurtful years he lived as a father, and he had spent the next few decades trying to make it up to the following generation of family. I was Grandpa’s redemption. I was his second chance at fatherhood.

Sometimes I just want to go back to the way things were before, when I was little, swaying in the swing he built for me and listening to his stories of surviving through the Depression. Before I knew. Before I could read between the lines of our family history.

But maybe it’s better this way. Because now I know that all Grandpa wanted was redemption. One chance to make things right.

-Lo, who could use a Tootsie Roll or two right now.

Two Weeks

Mood: Teary-eyed
Drinking: A toast to the Yodes

When the phone rang yesterday at 4 p.m., and the display said my sister was calling, I knew even before I answered that something was wrong. Call it sixth sense, sister sense, women’s intuition, whatever. I just knew.

My sister’s teary voice confirmed it. She was sitting in her car in the parking lot of a vet clinic, calling with the worst news any dog lover can get. Her dog was dying.

My sister’s dog is not just any dog. And I know all dog owners are prejudiced in favor of their furry beasts. But seriously. You haven’t known adorable-gentleman-giant-pig-dog until you know Yoda.

My sister met the Yodes in October of 2004. She was a newlywed, and her husband had been shipped off to Iraq just weeks after the wedding. She was living in a new town, alone, far from family, with few friends. I told her she needed a dog.

As my dog LeeLoo’s favorite auntie, my sister was well acquainted with the Boxer breed, so she began scouring pet rescue websites for some sort of Boxer-ish pooch. In one of her searches, she discovered a picture of a big ham-headed white Boxer/American Bulldog mix named Yoda.

Even though he weighed in at a good 110 pounds, the Yodes was living with a slew of thimble-sized Chihuahuas at a Chihuahua Rescue in Burbank, CA. He had been there for two years, since nobody in LA-land comes to a Chihuahua rescue looking for a husky galoot of a Yoda dog.

Yodes’ story was a sad one…his previous owner had died suddenly, and Yoda, being the delicate flower that he is, was so upset, he lost all his hair. The relatives of the deceased owner didn’t know what to do with a bald, chubby sad sack, so they dumped him at the pound. Enter Chihuahua Rescue Lady, searching for unwanted pocket-sized dogs. She felt so sorry for the big grieving Yodes, she packed him in with the tiny dogs and away he went.

Two years in purse dog rescueland were not kind to Yoda. In addition to his depressed state, loss of hair, and all around tubby condition, he also had a thyroid problem that went untreated for a long time.

So when my sister showed up at the kennel to meet him, Yodes wasn’t looking his best. He was bald in patches, had icky sores between his toes and big goobers in his eyes. But in spite of all that, he had the love. And my sister saw it. She called to tell me about the gentle giant she had discovered, and on a roadtrip south a couple of weeks later for sister weekend, I saw him for myself.

We took LeeLoo along to the kennel to see how Yoda would react. LeeLoo took one look at him, walked over, sat next to him and leaned up against him. They both sighed. My sister and I looked at each other, wide-eyed, and I said, “You have to get this dog!”

It was easier said than done. Turns out that Rescue Lady was also a wee bit crazy and liked collecting dogs more than she liked letting them go. So even though my sister filled out all the paperwork, had proof of good dog ownership qualities and everything else, she didn’t get to take Yoda home for three more months.

Finally, in January of 2005, Yoda became part of the family. He got a bath, a trip to the vet, medication for his various skin conditions and thyroid issues, and some nutritious, yet delicious kibble. Over the next year, the Yodes only got healthier and happier, taking walks to the beach and trips to San Francisco to hang out with his cousin LeeLoo. My sister’s husband returned from Iraq in early 2006, and Yoda was there to greet him at the door.

Over the past two years, the Yodes has provided endless entertainment, usually beginning with a phone call from my sister, “So, guess what Yodes did today?”

The list of things he tried to eat just kept growing, ranging from tea bags to styrofoam to a Duraflame log. In person, he was like a walking cartoon, a giant marshmallow of a pooch who wanted nothing more than to lean his head against your leg, slobber all over your knee, and get in some sloppy tongue kisses.

The Yodes had many talents. He could blow a drool bubble like it was bubble gum, poop in a perfect circle, and snore in an exact imitation of a giant pig.

He’s the sweetest beast to ever walk the earth, having nothing but love for everyone he meets. He has friends all over my sister’s town, from the elderly residents at the nursing home, to the toddler down the street, to the homeless guy on the corner. Everybody loves Yoda. And he loves them back, no strings attached.

Which is why it’s incredibly unfair that he has only two weeks left on this earth.

The phone call yesterday came immediately after the vet told my sister and her husband that Yoda has an aggressive form of untreatable cancer. There’s nothing they can do to treat it, they can only make him comfortable and give him the best two weeks any dog ever had on this earth.

As any dog person knows, the dog who shares your life quickly becomes more than a pet. They are your friend, confidant, your baby, your pride and joy. So the news that Yodes is not long for this world is unbearably heartbreaking.

As my friend S put it,
“He’s such a big, goofy canned ham of a dog, and it’s just not fair. I do know that Yoda’s last weeks are going to be the happiest, steakiest, up-on-the-furniturest, most spoiled-rotten weeks any dog ever had. I’m going to miss his bald patches; his hard breathing and huge grin; the way he used to follow Leeloo around like an enormous, lovestruck linebacker. Yodes, we hardly knew you.”

So here’s to you, Yoda… We love you. We will miss you terribly. There will never be another pig-dog like you. We’ll always remember your smile, your stinky breath, your gigantic pink belly, and the way you brought unabashed joy into our lives every single day. May your last weeks be heavenly. And may dog heaven be even better.

And when (god forbid) the LeeLoo’s turn comes, please wait there for her at the Rainbow Bridge. I know you’ll take good care of her.

-Lo, who thinks that a world without Yoda is a very sad world, indeed.

Can’t Rain All the Time

Mood: Persistently Wobbly
Drinking: Diet 7Up

Do dark clouds need a reason to descend? Do they require flames or wind? Do they have their own secret almanac, their own private entrance? Do they listen to a mad-hatted psychic who tells them that now would be a fortuitous time to bring the rain down on me?

I’ll never know.

But I am far too heavy for my little world. Not just today, but for the past several. I cannot point a finger and make it land on a rational excuse. I am just here, and glowering.

Yesterday on the street, a strange man walking toward me bent and said, “Very beautiful woman.”

And I said, “That’s easy to say when you don’t really know me.”

But he cheered me up, anyway. Yes, I am that superficial.

Then I wandered on home and watched Howl’s Moving Castle. And when Howl bursts into tears because his hair is all the wrong color and throws a mighty wizardly tantrum (complete with oozing green goo) because he no longer feels beautiful, I allowed myself three minutes of self-righteous hypocrisy.

“Stupid ass.” I thought. “Blubbering because he thinks his hair looks stupid. What a pussy!”

Meanwhile, bombs are heedlessly obliterating Beirut and I am a silly American girl, letting the mirror dictate my day. Who’s the ass now?

Boy said he’s worried because I’ve been sad for weeks.

But the clouds are familiar, and I’m not afraid. I’ve been happy for so long now. A little rain never hurt anything.

Right?

-Lo, who has drawn maps of the doldrums.

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