Slice of Life
It’s my mantra for 2018.
If I were hiding the truth, I’d say something softer like simplify. Thanks to a bunch of silly horror movies, people think of mayhem when they hear the word purge. But it’s not chaos that I’m embracing this year; it’s the opposite. I’m chasing the calm that comes after a cathartic release of unwanted feelings, things, memories, and conditions that have kept me stymied for far too long.
There’s been a war inside of me over the safety of not trying and the desire to do the work I was meant to do. I know now that a lot of the barriers are of my own making. I’ve seen where I’ve wanted to go, even found the path, but I’ve been afraid of what could happen if I head there. Based on previous experiences, the journey could be really rough and uncomfortable. Rejection sucks. Period. However, the only thing I have control over is whether or not I head down that path.
For a long time safety won.
2017 was the start of a slow, reluctant burn. I knew significant changes were needed, but I buried my head in the sand. As long as I was focused on doing good things for other people, I still felt like I was making progress toward becoming what God needed me to be.
But like a sweater with an itchy tag, there was always a twitching between my shoulder blades. Most of the things that took a lot of my time only fed other people and their dreams. While I could ignore the niggling that my own dreams were getting sidelined, I couldn’t ignore the impact this was having on my family.
It took a trip back to Oahu, fan letters from kids, long swims at Waimanalo Beach, talks with the ancestors, the #MeToo #KidLit movement, introspection, and embracing my soon-to-be-empty-nester life for me to commit to throwing gasoline on the fire—to purge for real—and walk a new path. Call it a mid-life crisis, a post-child rearing phase, becoming a Crone Goddess—what have you—I’ve finally seen my real self and know that I’m too old and wise to stay enmeshed in the world’s shibai any longer.
Ain’t nobody got time for that.
As my husband reminded me, I’m not who people see. Who they see is really a product of their own experiences and expectations. Most can never see the real me. That doesn’t take away one iota of who I am.
It’s started with my home, with removing what doesn’t work, reimagining spaces that do, and making the changes happen. Late spring, I’m planning to park a 30-foot horse trailer in my driveway for a month. Seriously. It’s the only way to deal with the junk that accumulates when a family of pack rats lives in the same over-sized space for twenty years. The pre-sorting has begun, but we’re finding that stuff is surprisingly hard to let go. We have a lot of money tied up in stuff. We bought this once. We might need it again. Or someone else might. You never know. Better to have it and not need it than the other way around, right?
I’ve recognized that somebody does need these things, now and not someday. Anything we don’t need—high chairs, old rugs, old furniture, baby clothes—and still in serviceable condition is heading to charity. I’m throwing the rest out. I’m done pretending I’ll have a garage sale. That’s just more busy work getting in the way of real work.
But purging is more than getting rid of stuff; it’s getting rid of unwanted feelings and memories. The half-truths and lies we tell ourselves are like deep-fried crack cocaine rolled in cinnamon-sugar and topped with whipped cream. They distract us from understanding the why behind our actions. They give us a feel-good boost that only leads to addiction and diabetes; not the health we desire and deserve.
In my adult life, when things have been mostly safe, I’ve swallowed too many awful things in the guise of doughnuts and ice cream, burritos and burgers. I can’t any longer. It took a trip to the ER for me to figure out that at my hidden core I thought death would mean escape from the effects of childhood trauma, and my suicide weapon of choice is food. Addicts can live without cocaine. Alcoholics can live without booze. Everybody needs food. It’s frustratingly complicated. For now, I’m satisfied that I’ve named the beast. What can be named can be faced.
During a purge, all that’s ephemeral evaporates like smoke. What’s left is more precious than gold. If you’re still here with me, thank you. I promise I won’t hide any longer. Things will be real—battle-scarred and held together at times with spit and duct tape—but true. The words that are coming are those that I’ve held back in fear. But with a purge comes freedom. I no longer care if people see me, for I have seen myself.
Okay, everyone. I need you all to lean in close. I’m going to tell you something you don’t know.
Uncle Brad was a secret agent.
To my eleven year-old self, there was no other explanation. In the 1970s, he was double-o seven cool in his aviator sunglasses, slacks, slim-cut collared shirts, and pointed Italian loafers. His hair was always perfect, and there was never a hint of a five o’clock shadow. He wore a fancy silver watch and carried a cigarette in his hand like a sixth finger.
He even smelled good.
The summer I turned eleven, back in the -ee days when Ken was Kenny and I was Shelly, I shared my suspicions about our secret agent uncle with my cousins, Kenny and Lori, and my sister Heidi.
That summer, at family gatherings during Strawberry Days, 4th of July, and Pioneer Day, we spent a lot of time doing our own spying from the tops of Grandma’s maple trees and peering out from behind the lilac and bayberry bushes. Kenny was in charge of the notebook where we recorded our observations. We waited patiently for Uncle Brad to use his fancy watch to contact his superiors and disappear in a silent helicopter that we knew would land out by the apple trees.
But Uncle Brad was a pro. We never caught him doing anything more exciting than blowing smoke rings. Decades later, when I told him about that summer, he laughed and laughed. I found out last night from Aunt Susie that some of the joke was on us. He told her that he never liked wearing aviator sunglasses, but he wore them because he knew the nieces and nephews liked them.
To be fair, when I was even younger, I was convinced that Aunt Betty moonlighted as Doris Day in movies. As I child, I may have had an overactive imagination.
And while Uncle Brad wasn’t a spy, it wasn’t my imagination that told me he was something even rarer: a person who loved each of us unconditionally.
Human life is messy. No one understood that better or had more compassion for messy than Uncle Brad. He had the gift of seeing each of us as who we truly are. He cheered our successes and mourned with us through our trials. I know of several occasions when envelopes full of hope, sympathy, and cash simply appeared when times were tough for many of us. During one of the last conversations I had with him, when he was so sick that he couldn’t hardly speak, he wanted to know how one of the cousins was doing and what he could do to help.
From his deathbed, he wanted to help.
Uncle Brad was quick with a hug. There was a law that you couldn’t go to Provo Towne Center without stopping into Sears to see him.
Like a master spy, Uncle Brad worked quietly behind the scenes. After his retirement, at family gatherings, he was the first to arrive and the last to leave. A wiz at setting up tables and chairs, he never let me carry a box to my car.
He made Kevin do it.
Uncle Brad was never the center of attention, but he loved to talk with people one on one. He always wanted to know what was going on in our lives, and he showed how deeply he cared by remembering the tiniest details about what we told him. Years later he’d ask how something had turned out. If it was important to us, it was important to him.
But as much as he loved his nieces and nephews, his greatest joy was in his daughter Katherine and in his grandsons. He loved them fiercely. I remember the delight in his eyes when he told me about how smart Katherine was to be able to juggle so many things at work, how amazingly well Kyle sang at three, how Chaser learned to drive, or how naturally Gunny played ball.
Like many men of his generation, his focus was on providing for his family. He worked long, hard hours. He was a patriot who served his county in both the Navy and Army. When I asked him why, he told me that he just had to see how the other half lived–and who had the better food. I remember him golfing, camping, and fishing, but I think I was in my thirties before I saw him wearing a pair of jeans.
James Bond didn’t wear jeans, either. Just sayin’.
As his health deteriorated, we saw him less and less. Family celebrations became too much for him. During the last years, I know he dreamed of drinking a tall glass of water or an icy Coke—neither of which was possible for him to do.
Earlier this week Aunt Betty sent me this:
“I know that Brad’s cancer was a terrible disease, and I saw Heavenly Father’s love helping my husband to get through it. Because my husband was a kind and loving person, he chose to trust in our Father in Heaven as he faced such a grueling four year battle. I saw his faith and love for the gospel grow tremendously. He was able to receive his temple endowment and be sealed to me forever. In the last few days of his life, I asked him several times if he was afraid. He always said no. When I asked how he was feeling, he would sometimes ask for pain medication, but always told me he was fine. I am so thankful for him and the courage he showed. He is and was the bravest person I have ever known.”
I was there in the temple when he was sealed to Aunt Betty. He was frail, and I remember how physically difficult it was for him to be there. Just last week, Uncle Brad told my mother, the original Kathy, that he wished he’d had the opportunity to be a temple worker. He thought he’d be a good one.
I work in the Provo Temple in the baptistery. I testify to you that the veil has two sides. Without a shadow of a doubt, I know that he is there, loving us all unconditionally. Heaven is full of guardian angels. He is still here, supporting us through our trials and cheering our successes. If you close your eyes, you can feel him wrap his arms around you in a hug.
Aloha ‘oe, Uncle Brad. Until we meet again. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Two days ago, I was on my way down Provo Canyon, a hour-long drive that I can do in my sleep. Flipping through the satellite radio stations, the car swelled with Merry Christmas, Darling by the Carpenters.
It’s too early, I thought, reaching to spin the dial.
I love this song.
It’s cheesy. It’s early November.
I don’t care. No one else can hear.
I opened my mouth and sang.
There was a time in my life when my hours were filled with music, when singing was about rehearsal and performance, about colors and tones and harmony. I don’t sing much any more and never where I think someone can hear me.
I know what I sounded like then and what I sound like now. My middle-aged voice is hoarse with fall allergies and the damage done to my vocal chords more than twenty years ago. Following Karen Carpenter’s melody line, my pitch was flat of true and my breath control left me sucking wind on most of the phrasing.
Alone in my car, I sang anyway. Really, really loudly.
The next song was O Holy Night.
Sang that one, too, cheering as big, fluffy flakes melted to death on my windshield.
I hate snow. Despite what many think, snow and Christmas are not synonymous. Give me a green Christmas at the beach any day.
Which got me thinking. To me, Christmas music should start in October.
Now I don’t work in a mall or a bank or any place that sells Christmas decorations or forces people to listen ad nauseam to holiday cheer. I’m not talking about full-on Christmas pre-Halloween, and certainly not in public.
I’m talking about a more private introspection.
October is when rehearsals for holiday performances start. Choirs and symphonies pass out sheet music for everything from complicated classical pieces to popular pop medleys. Performance schedules are announced. Television timeslots secured. Many years ago, every October for a couple of hours on weekdays, longer on weekends, I’d practice the more complicated phrases on my flute and memorize all the first soprano descants and hallelujahs.
Not a snowflake in sight.
Alone in the car it didn’t matter that my voice was no longer a stratosphering pure soprano. As I sang songs I knew well, I realized my voice was now an off-key smoky contralto, challenging me to fumble for harmonies and thirds when the melody soared past my now less than ideal range. I sounded awful. But for once I didn’t care.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ve grown past comparing what was with what is, with mourning the loss of spotlights and applause to find my way back to the joy of music again.
Maybe I’ll dust off my flute and pull out some sheet music and play to an empty house while the neighbors are all at work. My fingers curved around the steering wheel with muscle memory, flickering through patterns of runs and skips, my lips pursed in anticipation.
An hour of singing Christmas music in early November changed my entire perspective.
And maybe, just maybe, this new idea that’s brewing will give me the freedom to write what I want without worrying about publication, confusing an audience, or building a brand.
Maybe writing will be fun again.
Last night my husband got in my car and turned the key. Christmas music filled the air. He scowled. “Lehua, you can’t be listening to Christmas music.”
“Sure I can. My ears work fine.”
“It’s the first of November. We still have Halloween candy and pumpkin seeds to roast.”
“Not my problem,” I said.
“Lehua, we have a deal.”
“It’s been more than thirty years. You trying to back out now?”
“I promised no Christmas music in the house until after Thanksgiving. What I listen to in my car is my own business.”
He rolled his eyes and changed the station.
Whatever. With the holiday music station on a preset, it’s not hard to tune in again. Tonight I have another hour plus drive to Salt Lake City. I’ll be the one in a red SUV learning the alto parts to Handel’s Messiah, singing alone, loud, and slightly off-key.
You have been warned.
I am sitting in a too small hospital gown thinking about Schrodinger’s cat. There are two possibilities before me. Empirically, only one is true, but at this moment of unknowing both are alive in my head.
I’ve been here before.
Job/no job. Scholarship/no scholarship. Pregnant/not pregnant. Broken/not broken. Like the cat in the famous box, each time the verdict was already decided; I just didn’t know it yet.
When I say I’ve been here before, I really have. I know the mammogram drill. With a mother as a breast cancer survivor, I don’t fool around. Yearly check-ups. Seven initial years of suspicious call backs for a second series of images, followed by three years of one painful smoosh visit each and done. As mammogram imaging improved and with my previous records to compare, the chances of false positives were drastically reduced.
The seven previous times I came back for a second, more thorough diagnostic mammogram ended with the technician popping back in the room to deliver the verdict: “You can get dressed. The radiologist reviewed the new images and says it’s light refraction/dense tissue/a blur on the original —there’s nothing to worry about. We’ll send the results to your doctor. See you in a year.”
I always nodded and thanked her and got dressed after she left. I learned early not to wear buttons. Too hard to fasten when your hands are shaking.
In the early years I asked, “What happens if it’s really something?”
“We do an ultra sound, then a needle biopsy.”
She sighed. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, okay?”
I don’t ask anymore.
This year, after three years of passes, I’m back for a second diagnostic mammogram. Before we begin, the technician shows me the images. “See this? That’s what we’re going to take more images of. You can see it in this view and that one, but not this one.”
In the middle of mother roundness is a hard little white spot on the screen. “It’s about here?” I point to an area near my nipple.
“Yes,” she says. “It could be a refraction. But I wanted you to see.”
Seeing it makes it real.
She looks at me and pats my shoulder. “I’ll have the radiologist check the images as soon as we’re done. I’m not letting you go home without an answer.”
I nod and we start.
She’s gentle, but the machines hurt. She pauses after the usual three shots and says, “I want to take a couple more.”
This is new.
“You think the radiologist will want another view,” I say.
“Yes,” she says.
“Better now than later,” I say. When I am already dressed and waiting, I don’t say.
“It’s quicker if I have it when he asks,” she says. “Besides, why not if I can?”
No one takes more images than they need. She’s seen something.
“Let’s do it,” I say. This time tissue is rolled and twisted before flattening. I suck air through clenched teeth and try not to think. What I wish is to not feel.
“Be right back.”
The cat is in the box. It has been since before I climbed into my car to drive to the hospital.
How many times can you beat the odds? The average woman’s lifetime risk is one in eight, and I am not average. I count friends, family, and acquaintances in multiples of eight. The math tells me the odds are not good.
I also know that these odds don’t matter. At the individual level, it’s zero or one hundred.
I remind myself that I am crap at statistics. It’s voodoo mathematics.
I look at my wedding and engagement rings and wonder if I should leave them to my son for his someday bride and give my diamond solitaire earrings to my daughter. But what if my future daughter-in-law prefers her own ring instead of one weighted with a mother’s love? Maybe I should give my daughter my ring, too, and leave my daughter-in-law one of my gold bracelets. Granddaughters! I need to figure out which heirlooms to reserve for them. I guess I could have each pick her favorite on their sixteenth birthdays. Sounds complicated, but fair. I better leave a note with the jewelry in the safe.
I have tons of photos and scrapbook memorabilia stashed away in drawers and folders, none of it organized and waiting for the day when I finally get my act together to create books for each of my kids. I calculate how many good vs. bad chemo days there are in the coming months and realize I need to get cracking. No one, not even a future loving stepmother will do this job the way I will. I hold the memories, after all.
Closets. Dejunk and de-clutter. No one should have to deal with those messes. Empty the downstairs freezer.
In the box the cat both paces and lies dead. My eyes flicker from the closed door to the images left up on the screen.
The air conditioning’s a little cold. I clutch the ends of the gown closer, forcing them to meet.
When the door swooshes open, the technician thrusts her thumbs up. “We’re good,” she says.
I remember to breathe.
“Come see,” she says. She shows me the new images, how in one the spot appears, but in the titty-twister, it doesn’t. “The radiologist says it’s a milk gland. Nothing to worry about.”
Seeing makes it real.
“You can get dressed. I’ll see you in a year.”
I thank her as she heads out the door. I zip up my shirt. The cat jumps out of the box.