Thomas Hardy vs. Grief

In Tenebris

Thomas Hardy

Percussus sum sicut foenum, et aruit cor meum.” —Ps. ci.

Wintertime nighs; 
But my bereavement-pain 
It cannot bring again: 
Twice no one dies. 

Flower-petals flee; 
But, since it once hath been, 
No more that severing scene 
Can harrow me. 

Birds faint in dread: 
I shall not lose old strength 
In the lone frost’s black length: 
Strength long since fled! 

Leaves freeze to dun; 
But friends can not turn cold 
This season as of old 
For him with none. 

Tempests may scath; 
But love can not make smart 
Again this year his heart 
Who no heart hath. 

Black is night’s cope; 
But death will not appal 
One who, past doubtings all, 
Waits in unhope. 

Long long ago in a dormitory not so far away — five hours — I was confronted with this poem. At the time my dad was in a nursing home in Colorado Springs, his life suspended between a reclining wing-backed chair and a coma. Most Fridays I got on the Continental Trailways bus which I caught at the terminal in downtown Denver. Thinking about it, I can still smell the winter air and diesel wafting from the cold garage into the bus terminal waiting room with its chrome-armed benches and light green plastic upholstery from which the original pattern of pale ice cubes remained only on the sides where no one sat. $1.85 to get to Colorado Springs. I always had that, whatever expenses the week brought.

I stepped up the three steps with my little blue suitcase carrying homework and underwear (backpacks hadn’t become “the thing” yet), and handed my ticket to the conductor and took my seat by the window. Sometimes there was someone sitting beside me with stories to tell, often not. I wondered if my boyfriend would meet my bus or my mom. Usually it was my boyfriend, a man I later married, but that’s a subject for a blog post that will remain unwritten.

“Go see your dad,” said my mom when I walked in the front door, as if I needed to be told.

Whatever I found at the nursing home, I stayed. If he were lying in a coma, I did homework. If he were sitting up, we talked. By that time his speech was very garbled and he often used a Ouija board (imagine!) as an alphabet board to spell out the words he wanted to speak. He would point with his finger — spastic though his hands were, frustrating though it was for this short-tempered Irishman — and we would talk, sometimes for hours. He would tell me what to buy my mom to give her for Christmas, birthday, anniversary from him. His gifts to my mom were always something lovely. I would go to the new mall, The Citadel, filled with importance, carrying the checkbook that was our joint checking account, make the purchase and buy a mushy card on which Dad would scrawl what he could of the words, “I love you, Bill.” I always hoped that a gift would fix everything. I wonder if my dad hoped that, too.

Then the day came when I learned once and forever that hope is not enough. That paradoxical human thing without which we cannot live, but which cannot, in itself, keep anything alive, except itself. Hardy’s poem, which had been completely incomprehensible to me when I studied it the year before my father’s death, suddenly made too much sense, but it had a message I’ve retained all my life, “Twice no one dies…” followed by, “

… But death will not appal 
One who, past doubtings all, 
Waits in unhope. 

I spent the next three months pretty much alone at school, avoiding friends, studying, trying to make sense of life without my best friend. My dad’s death was a rocket that shot me into a universe none of my peers seemed to inhabit. I could see them from a distance, but I couldn’t hear them.

It took a L–O–N–G time to understand hope, and, again, Thomas Hardy (whose poetry I had in a HUGE book, The Poems of Thomas Hardy, by that time, not just in my even HUGER anthology of Victorian poetry) spoke to me in his poem, “The Darkling Thrush”

I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
      The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.

Featured photo: Bus station in Colorado Springs back in the day… My dad had multiple sclerosis, diagnosed when he was 27, died when he was 45. I was 20.

“Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine.”

We were just kids, didn’t know our asses from our elbows, and were all about to take the big step into the big world where things were not ordered and interpreted by the deacons of First Baptist Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Some of us were excited for the BIG ADVENTURE of the REAL world which, in the late 60’s and early 70’s was a pretty flash place rife with sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. We were a close knit bunch, most of us honor students, and I had the supreme honor of being elected President of the BYF (Baptist Youth Fellowship). Unfortunately, I made some miscalculations about the motives of the church leaders and ended up being thrown out of my youth group but still “allowed” to attend church. Pretty damned white of them, don’t you think? You can read about that event here. My long ago post about an unctuous deacon at my church It’s a good story.

Many of the church leaders felt that “shunning” and “ejecting” me was unfair and attempted to bring me back into the fold. After all, I had a demonstrably fucked up family, dad rushing toward death from MS, mom on drugs and booze and a little brother who was headed for the dark side. There was every possibility that I could be saved from perdition. I clearly had a good heart, a good soul, knew my Bible, had made some big contributions to the church and the youth group from which I’d been ejected, and Jesus didn’t want to lose the members of his flock.

The local Baptist summer camp — Black Forest Baptist Assembly — needed counsellors and one of my “allies” talked my mom into letting me be a counselor for a week at a kid’s camp. I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, but I needed to be away from my mom. My mom, on the other hand, needed me at home to help with my dad. The Pastor came, talked to my mom about it and I got to go. I was 18, just out of high school, had suffered my first serious broken heart, was about to start college. It was 1970.

That week counseling a group of Jr. High girls at Black Forest Baptist Assembly in a primitive camp was absolutely wonderful fantastic life-altering and redemptive. I had never had a summer camp experience. I had never slept in a tent. I’d spent a lot of time in woods and hills, but had never had the chance to share that with anyone. The Pastor who ran that camp was great. He loved the outdoors, was generous-hearted, funny and the kids loved him. A few weeks afterward, I started college.

The next summer I was invited back. It seemed that in spite of my questionable allegiance to Baptist tenets, I was a gifted summer camp counselor. My mom was persuaded to let me spend most of the summer as a CIT, Counselor in Training, which meant that I would counsel a few camps, work in the kitchen preparing meals for the primitive camps, and share a cabin with a friend. I’d also have a chance to lead arts and crafts if any of the camp leaders wanted it.

I had my second run-in with “unctuous deacons” that summer.

The same Pastor who had been so great the year before ran one of the camps in which I would be working and he specifically asked if I would be counseling that summer. I didn’t know that in the intervening year, he’d become “born again” at a revival meeting. He’d experienced a visitation of the “spirit” and had spoken in tongues. His orientation to the camp experience had changed completely. Rather than games of “steal the bacon,” nature hikes, campfire songs and s’mores, the kids were rounded up and made to sit for HOURS in the ONE enclosure in the primitive camp while the pastor pushed toward a “charismatic” experience with the Lord. It was awful. The kids were junior high kids, not all from a church, some just there because it was truly the best camping experience in the area (usually).

Finally, one rainy evening, after dinner, as a thunderstorm broke all around us, a group of kids and I ran away to take a hike. As the storm ended, we climbed a ridge. The sun was dropping behind the mountains, hitting the mammatus clouds with golden light. The same light reflected on water droplets all around us. It was a shimmering, glimmering, light-filled, brand new world of sublime beauty.

“We should have communion,” said one of the kids.

“We don’t have any bread or juice,” said another kid.

“I’ll go down to the main camp and get some.”

“OK,” I said, equally enchanted by the beauty of the moment from this high place, the rapidly changing light and the authentic fellowship of a dozen kids (including me) on a hard hike. He ran down the hill, raided the kitchen, stole a pack of Chips Ahoy cookies and a bottle of fruit drink.

There on that hill we shared a spiritual experience in Nature’s holy light. Instead of Kumbaya or some other hymn-like thing we joined hands and sang a pop song…

“And then?” you might be wondering… Well the Pastor complained to the camp director who then called me in and asked me what happened. I explained it all, expecting to be ejected and shunned yet again but no.

“I agree with you, Martha. That’s what camp is for. Enjoying the beauty and blessings of nature, God’s gift to us. I don’t approve of this charismatic stuff. It’s not for everyone, and certainly not for children. As you know, a lot of our campers are not Baptist or maybe any faith. Browbeating them into believing something is wrong. I’ll talk to him.”

The upshot was that I worked two more camps that summer, and met the boy who might have been the great love of my life (last time I saw him was 2004). Then a day came when my mom showed up out of no where and said, “You have to come home. I can’t take care of your dad myself. We have to take him to a nursing home.”

But I had that sunset and it lit my heart forever.

A story on this subject you might enjoy is Langston Hughe’s “Salvation.”

Michael J. Preston

Daily Prompt Mentor Me Have you ever had a mentor? What was the greatest lesson you learned from him or her?


At the top of the third flight of stairs was an office looking out on the campus. An arched window faced west. The floor was piled high with neatly stacked punch cards and books. In front of a big desk, also piled high but this time with papers, books and a pair of large Wellington clad feet sat a lanky red-haired man with a very British/Nordic face (kind of like the real Lawrence of Arabia), a large nose and very blue eyes. He looked to be in his twenties — but to me at 18, he was a GROWN UP a PROFESSOR, a little scary, even. I’d never sought out or spoken to a professor. Hell, I’d only be at college two days.

“Excuse me. Are you Mr. Preston?”

“Yes. How can I help you?”

“I want to take your class, Middle English Verse Romances, but I don’t have the prerequisites. I’m just a freshman and I haven’t taken Intro to British Literature.” Already at 18 I had a resistance to survey courses…

“Do you have your paper?” He swung his feet off the desk and turned around in his creaky old swivel chair.

“Yeah.” I handed it to him.

“Why do you want to take this class?” he asked as he signed it.

“I’m interested in Middle English Verse Romances.”

No I wasn’t. I wanted to take the class because I didn’t think I needed any freshman courses. I was the shit. I was smart and advanced and perceptive and a great writer and I didn’t need to jump the hoops. I could take a senior level English class my first semester of college and ace it.

“OK,” he said. “There’s a lot of reading. So who are you?”

“I’m Martha Kennedy,” I stuck out my hand to shake. He took it in his giant paw.

“All right, Martha Kennedy. You’re in the class. Go turn this in.”

Thinking back on that moment now, I also think of the innumerable students who walked into my classes over the years. I remember uncountable first days. I remember the shining eyes, the undaunted expressions, the certainty that they’d ace my class and go on to the next thing NO PROBLEM. I don’t know how many times I warned them, “Don’t set your sights on an A. Set your sights on learning something. You have no idea what’s going to happen during the semester. I do. Some of you are going to lose interest — you’re sophomores and there’s a verified phenomenon known as ‘sophomore slump.’  Some of you are going to have skate-boarding accidents and break something. Some of you are going to fall in love and some of you are going to be dumped by your lovers. Some of you will have family problems. Some of you will get mono or something.” I know somewhere inside I was remembering my first and second (and third and fourth) years of college and university.

I didn’t know how I would be my first time away from home. I didn’t know I’d miss my family, that dysfunctional assemblage that I had been so eager to escape. I didn’t know I’d get a very dangerous case of bronchitis and need to be in the health center hospital for almost a month. I didn’t know that my heart was still broken from the summer before. I didn’t know that rebelling against everything was stupid. I didn’t know I’d have horrible roommates (I did).  I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know…

Mr. Preston was always there, in that office with the afternoon light, the books on the floor and the computer punch cards. He was in the process of making the first ever computer generated index to a literary work — he was compiling a concordance to Chaucer.

At a certain point in the semester, realizing I was lost, I started following him around and he let me. When I was in health services, he was alerted to the fact that I was missing class because I was desperately ill. It was he who was there when I was discharged and took me for coffee, sitting and talking with me about my life and my family. That afternoon — blustery and Novembery — I went with him to the biology lab where he picked up a dozen pullets that he’d be taking to his farm between Longmont and Boulder. His black jeans were always covered with cat hair and feathers and now I understood why.

We carried the chickens to his car and he said something useful to me that I no longer remember, but it had something to do with ignoring everything that didn’t really matter. What might that have been? I’d just been in a play and gotten the only mention in the local paper for the role I played. I’d declared an art major, but wasn’t doing very well in that area, in fact, my first sculpture project had ended in my being pulled into the president’s office to give an explanation. I’d taken on an immense project for anthropology, one I couldn’t possibly do. I was always trying to find marijuana because I was determined to be a hippy. I wanted a boyfriend, but didn’t want to sleep with anyone. I yearned and yearned and yearned in vague and inchoate yearning, but? I was pushing the envelope as hard as I could without knowing why. If I had seen myself as the teacher I became, I’d have been Mr. Preston, too. In fact, I can think of several students to whom I was “Mr. Preston.”

Mr. Preston was somewhat like my father. He was brilliant, individualistic and iconoclastic. He respected things done well. He was too alive to be called an intellectual, but he definitely had an intellect. He taught class sitting on the back of a chair, his feet on the seat, a cup of coffee sloshing as he gestured. I thought he was wonderful.

I couldn’t really read Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight or anything else assigned in the class, but I managed to write a decent final paper and Mr. Preston let me take his next senior class, Restoration Drama. Second semester was somewhat better. Going home for Christmas helped; not smoking pot helped. I was a more sober and focused girl than I’d been in fall, but I was also sad and scared. My dad (who had MS) wasn’t doing well. My brother was not at home much, even though he was only sixteen. My mom? All I can say is we fought constantly and viciously.

My dorm mother (who’d decided I was anti-social, depressed and insane) had the college send me to see the school psychologist. He was a nice man and he asked me concrete questions about my life and my family. At the end of the session he said, “I don’t think you need to come back. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your family has some real problems. I think you’re scared for the future and sad for your dad. I think you’re worried about your little brother and you’ve been carrying a big load on your shoulders. You need to take advantage of being here and not at home. You have an opportunity here to learn and you should use it. Come back any time you want to talk.”

He was right, of course. I immediately went to see Mr. Preston and told him about it. He nodded in agreement through my whole recitation. He said, “Your dorm mother thinks that because you’re young you can’t have any real problems. But you have some real problems. Next year, find another dorm.” I did find another dorm, but I also remembered that being young doesn’t mean “trouble free.” That right there made me a better teacher when my turn came.


I discovered that at my school (Colorado Women’s College RIP) I could take any class I wanted. All I had to do was find one other student who wanted it and a professor qualified to teach it. I wanted to learn Greek so I could read Homer in the original language. I found another girl who wanted it and I went to Mr. Preston who said he’d teach it.

Back then, photocopies DID exist but they were expensive and the machines were few and far between. He had his text from the Jesuit school he’d gone to as a boy, and had three copies made.

“I can only do this at 8 am.”

“OK,” I said. He knew I slept until noon.

“You’ll have to be there because it’s going to mean I have to get up at 4 to take care of the animals before driving in from Boulder.”

“I can do it,” I said.

“XXX (the other girl) said that works for her. All right. We’ll meet Mondays through Thursday mornings at 8 am.”

Looking back, I know Mr. Preston was — among other things — trying to get me to learn self-discipline, to put learning something above staying up all night and sleeping half the day. I also know, now, that that those habits seem to be a common among post-adolescents. Most of the kids I taught over the years thought a 1 pm class was a morning class…

Fall semester rolled around and I moved into a new dorm, which I loved, had my own room, which I loved. Other things had happened over the summer and I was a more settled girl, more focused on learning something, more focused on the future that was becoming clearer — my dad was now in a nursing home and that meant that however much longer he lived, it would not be long. MS is not a deadly disease, but it does weaken the body and the immune system as organs and muscles stop functioning as well as they should. My mom no longer had a burden heavier than she could carry. I could only hope she’d begin to build a life of her own because she’d need one soon.

Greek was great — though very difficult. We read the Odyssey. We didn’t study grammar or vocabulary, we just read Homer. It was a good way to learn. It was the way Mr. Preston had learned. Every day I went back to my room and translated Homer. I liked my classes that semester, I made friends, and moved quickly along toward that vaunted goal of graduation. By the end of my second year, I was classified as a second semester Junior.

My father died in February of that school year. After the funeral I kept to myself. I studied a lot. I spent time with Mr. Preston and quietly digested these events that most people at age 20 have not experienced. I don’t remember anything Mr. Preston said to me, I only remember having lunch in the cafeteria with him and other teachers and some of my friends, of listening to them debate ideas and laugh, of following him to his office and sitting in a comfy chair and trying to read Greek.

He was my mentor, but he did his mentoring by being himself and never closing the door to me. I am sure he gave me good advice and useful life lessons. I’m sure I used them for my own well-being and later for the well-being of the students who came my way, equally fucked up, confused and scared. The one thing I can say for sure is that his presence in my life during those troubled years was a beacon of light flashing the words, “Be yourself” against the uncertain firmament of my dark sky.


The photo above is us in 1966or 1967; not sure. My brother looks to be about 12, maybe thirteen. I didn’t get that dress until I was 15 (1967), so it’s a little confusing. We’re in Montana, visiting my grandmother. We were still pretty happy until 1966, then things went rapidly down hill. 

In 1969, Dad’s still at home. My brother, too, mostly, and me, of course. It’s hard, really hard there, so I stay away as much as I can. That isn’t fair to my mom, but I can’t stand the fights. I can’t stand her. My brother? He’s dropping out of school. We all know it. He says he’s going to the “Street Academy,” a legit school, as it happens, opened up to give runaways and street kids an education, in downtown Colorado Springs, but he’s not. He’s doing drugs and panhandling. At least I know where to look when I need to find him. It is the first year of “Go find your brother!” A long refrain that turns out to be. At least I know he eats. He shows up at the drive-in on his new red ten-speed for baby burgers.

Dad spends most of his time on the end of the French provincial sofa that really WAS nice once upon a time. Since he’s not walking at all any more, they decide to carpet the living room; olive green, of course. When I looked at houses here in Monte Vista last summer I saw many empty houses decorated a lá 70s something. He spends his days there, watching TV and sometimes trying to read through prism glasses. At 9 o’clock we put him in his wheel chair and take him to his room and help him go to bed. He has a hospital bed, now, because it’s higher and easier to get him in and out of. When he needs to “use the facilities” we bring him a urinal and often hold it for him. Twice a week he gets an enema and a shower. MS. The party never stops. When we fight, my mom wins by threatening to “send” my dad to a nursing home. I’m terrified to live there without him.

Gwen — a Mennonite and a day care nurse — comes every morning in her little tan VW Beetle to care for my dad. She’s wonderful and I like her very much, she also likes me and we have lots of fun talking. My mother thinks she’s a lesbian and won’t let me go visit her.

I have a nice boyfriend. He has a small Suzuki motorcycle and a Willys Jeep he and his dad built themselves. For a while I have a big, red dog, Avis, but I don’t train him so my mom makes me take him to the pound where, of course, they tell me he will go live on a farm. The Stones come out with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I listen to the radio a lot; don’t get a stereo until 1970 and high school graduation. I make my own clothes (really). My mom goes to Denver and buys me a prom dress to wear to Eddy Bailey’s senior prom. I hate it. It is turquoise and white and frou-frou. I wear it to make her feel good, a hopeless effort, actually. She can’t feel good. Not surprising, but still…  Even I know there’s more to life than my dad (whom I adore).

I work at A&W with my good friend Glenn. We both cook. I hate car-hopping and there’s more money in “the back” than in “the front” making drinks. I cook burgers, fries and chili and all that stuff, even deep-fried chicken. I learn to make root beer. That’s right. Back then A&W MADE its own root beer onsite.

I spend as much time as I can out with my friend Kathy and her dogs and horses, hiking in the hills. One Sunday, on a hike in the bluffs, I find my tree. It gives me instruction about how to deal with the hell in which I live.

None too soon, either.


Dusty and me, Thanksgiving 2014 at my tree, the one I found while I was hiking with a friend in 1969.

The One Reader

Daily Prompt: Singular Sensation: If you could have a guarantee that one, specific person was reading your blog, who would you want that person to be? Why? What do you want to say to them?

“Hi, Dad.”
“Hi MAK. What’s this?”
“Remember how you used to tell me that someday computers would be as small and as common as toasters?”
“Oh yeah. I remember.”
“Well this thing is my computer.”
“You’re kidding.”
“Nope. That isn’t even the smallest one I have. Here,” I hand him the iPod my friend left in my car. He ended up giving it me after search after search failed to turn it up, and he had bought a new one.
“That’s great, MAK. That’s really wonderful.”
“It’s everything. It plays music, works as a camera, I can run slide shows for my students from it. I can use it to write, keep track of expenses and there’s a thing now called the Internet. We’re connected to people all over the world if we want to be. We can even use it as a picture phone, you know, like on the Jetsons?”
My dad looked amazed, but also a little troubled. “I bet Big Brother is watching all the time.”
“He might be but the interesting thing is that people just give it away. It’s pretty easy for Big Brother. I think we’re heading toward a thing I’d call ‘Social Totalitarianism’ where everyone happily jumps into the soup of homogenization they call ‘connectivity’.”
“So what’s this? Is that you?”
“Yeah, when I was 30.”
“Did you do what I asked? Did you keep writing?”

Oh man, I hate these stress driven “right-before-the-semester-starts-am-I-getting-those-classes” dreams. I roll over.

“So?” Damn. The dream is on the other side of my bed, too.
“I did, Dad. It hasn’t gone anywhere.”
“What do you mean it ‘hasn’t gone anywhere’?”
“You were right, you know, when you said if you don’t have your career in place by 35 forget it. I didn’t.”
“I didn’t know everything. I coulda’ been wrong.”
“No. I don’t think you were. I was pretty confused much of the time. And, you know, I got married.”
“How did that work?”
“I warned you about that, didn’t I? I sat you on my knee and played ‘We’ll Sing in the Sunshine’.”
“Well, Mom said…”
“You need to be free, honey. Are you free?”

In my sleep I feel like an abysmal failure. Yes, I had a strange dad and a strange “dad situation.” He died at age 45 of complications resulting from MS. I was barely 20. The Christmas before he gave me a beautiful pen and pencil set. The tag he wrote in his own scraggly hand-writing. “Keep writing. Dad.”

He knew he didn’t have long to live; he didn’t want to live much longer, either. He was in and out of comas, strung with IVs. That Christmas tag was my dad’s last bit of instruction to me. Keep writing.

“I have been writing this whole time, Dad. Writing and writing and writing and teaching writing. That’s one thing I never wondered about, whether writing was a good thing for me to do or not. It’s always been a good thing.”

“Do you write poetry? When I died you were writing poetry. Good poetry, too.”

“No. Poetry is, well, poetry is,” I paused. How in the world could I explain to my Dad all that poetry has been to me in the intervening forty years? How life itself is poetry, how he is one of the lines that runs through my life-poem? Maybe THE line? I never thought of this before. “I write stories, Dad, and non-fiction stuff. Here, Dad, read this. You’re in it.”

“I’m in it? A story about me?”

“Yes, in a way. A story of the echoes of you, my looking for you all through these years, and finding you.”

That’s enough to wake me up. This is one thing I’d like him to read. It’s a story — a true story — from the early ’90’s when I was living in a “mixed” neighborhood in San Diego (City Heights) and hanging out with a bunch of boys who rode BMX bikes. They were “at risk” kids and, for some odd reason, our lives converged for several years and we were friends. The boys are Jimmy and his little brother, Mikey, and their friends. At the time of the story, Jimmy is fifteen, Mikey ten or so. They used to ride with me in my truck to the BMX jumps at Mission Trails Regional Park. They jumped while I hiked with my dogs.  Jim is my ex-husband.

Born to Be Wild

After he gets beaten up, Jimmy’s mom sends him to live with his uncle in IB, but Mikey is living with his mom, the twins and his little sister in the rickety squat in the alley nearby. When I get home from school the afternoon of the concert, Mikey and his friend Marc are sitting on the front porch, their bikes sprawled across the lawn.

Mikey“What’s up?” I ask, knowing perfectly what’s up. The little boys, age 10 or so, want to go to the jumps. They hope I’m going hiking. I’m always afraid to take them without the big boys who will watch them and care for them in that dangerous playground. I usually turn them down, and this time I have a reason.

“Are you going to Mission?”

“Not today. Jim and I are going to the Del Mar Fair.”

“Can we go?” Mike asks.

“We won’t get home until after midnight. That’s kind of late for you.”

“Why so late?”

“We’re going to a concert.”

“Who?” asks Mikey.


They start jumping up and down and singing, “Born to Be Wild!”

“You know the band?”

“Yeah. It’s my dad’s favorite.” I should have thought. Mikey’s dad is a biker guy who lives in Nevada. It’s clear from looking at their mom that she spent many tough biker-babe days on the back a chopper.

“You have to ask your mom, Mikey, and I need PROOF you asked her so tell her to call me, OK? You won’t get home until maybe 1 a.m., depending on the traffic, and it’s a school night.”

“Yay!” They jump up, grab their bikes and spin home. Minutes later, I’m on the phone with Mikey’s mom.

“Are you sure you want them? They can be a handful.”

“It’ll be fun.”

“What time should they be ready?”

“We’ll leave as soon as Jim gets home from work. Two hours?”

“OK. Do you want me to send them down?”

“No. Jim’s unpredictable. We’ll come get them. I’ll call you first.”

“Great, Martha. Thank you so much. I appreciate everything you do for my boys. I don’t know where they’d be without you.”

I have a lump in my throat. There is nothing generous in anything I do “for” the boys. We’re in it together. Whatever I might do for them, they do ten-fold for me. “It’s nothing. I love them.”

“They love you, too.”

“I know. I just think they’re great. I love their sport. Have you seen them?”

“No. I’m too scared to watch. I saw it on TV once. Still, I think it’s better for them to do that than all the other things around nowadays for kids to get in trouble with, but I don’t want to watch it.”

I laugh. “I can understand that, but it’s very beautiful and they are very good. See you in a bit.”

At 7:00 we go get Mikey and Marc. I knock on the door of this unbelievable house. It’s a white Craftsman cottage from the twenties. The stones and bricks that once held it off the ground have disintegrated or been kicked out of the way. It’s held up, literally, with whatever solid scrap rock and concrete block the boys have found lying in the alley. At one point a plastic milk crate has been pressed into service I’ve contributed some concrete paving stones I found in my back yard to this task. I have never been inside.

I knock. Colleen opens the door leading directly to the kitchen. The room is lit by candles, to save money on electricity. “They’re almost ready.” Marc is ready, standing by the kitchen table in clean jeans and a plaid shirt, grinning, his pale hair wetted and combed flat against his head. Normally, he has a “Dennis-the-Menace” cowlick. When his hair dries, the lick springs back up. Mikey comes out. My eyes are by then used to the dim light and I look around. The room is neat, as neat and clean as it could be. This is a one bedroom house in which a woman and at least five kids are living. The walls are covered, literally covered, crawling with, German cockroaches. I think of an article I read of terrible infections from cockroaches crawling into the ears of the sleeping children, dying there, rotting. I’m simultaneously nauseated and moved to tears over this unnecessary poverty. I’m shattered with respect for this woman who holds her family together and opens the little space she has to all the kids who want to spend the weekend up here with her sons and with me. I feel guilty for never opening my much larger house to them, but then I think it’s enough I have a truck and keep the kids from getting into trouble by taking them to the jumps. It is her joy to offer a home.

“You guys ready?” I swallow the lump in my throat.

“Born to be Wild!” they say together, little fists thrust into the air.

“Their dad loves Steppenwolf. I’m sure they told you.” The year before, this elusive all-but-vanished male progenitor had sent them money to visit him in Nevada. “Me too,” she smiles, and sucks deep on her cigarette.

The drive to Del Mar is the customary mess by which we all earn the right to go to the fair. The stage is set up on the race track and we stand behind the fence, as close to the band as we can. The long summer day drifts into dark; the stage lights come up, and John Kay and Steppenwolf take the stage. The little boys jump up and down in excitement. It’s not only their first real, grownup concert, but it’s Steppenwolf.

They play all their old hits, the long version of “The Pusher” and “Monster” and some songs from the album that came out after the Berlin Wall fell. John Kay was born in East Berlin and had gone back in 1990 and played a concert on the rubble of the wall. Then, the sixth song, “Born to Be Wild.” At the very first chords, the crowd goes nuts. It is iconic. It is Easy Rider, it’s the beginning of heavy metal, it’s a generation of people for whom Strawberry Fields are NOT forever, people who wanted something raw and loud with a throbbing bass line. I was such a one, and at one point in my first marriage, my abusive husband threw my Steppenwolf albums in the dumpster, saying, “There’s more to life than a 10 minute drum solo.” Whatever that might have been, I don’t think he had any idea, none that he demonstrated to me beyond pushing me down stairs and kicking me in the crotch as I lay on the floor. Well, either you like Steppenwolf or you don’t. I do, and I am surrounded by paunchy middle-aged men playing air guitars, young guys who raise their fists in the air, and everyone singing along, badly. I look back at Mikey and Marc, who found a place to stand where they can see better, and see two small, freckled faces, singing ALL THE WORDS at the top of their lungs, absolutely happy. Stunning.

“This was the best night of my LIFE!” says Mikey.

“Mine too!” shrieks Marc.

They’re still jumping up and down as we thread through the carnival to the exit.

“You wanna’ ride something? You wanna’ ride that?” I point at the Bayern Curve.

bayern curve“Is that a roller coaster?” asks Mikey.

“Kind of, but faster.” I realize it’s a LOT like a very fast ride on a BMX bike over several jumps, one after the other.

Jim never rides these things, so we hand him our jackets and packs and give the carnie our tickets. No one else is riding. “Sit between us!” says Mikey.

“You don’t want that. The guy by the door gets smashed. It’s better if you smash me than I smash you. You’ll understand when the ride gets going.”

“Pull the bar down, guys,” says the carnie, and the little boys pull the bar down. “OK kids, hold on!” The carnie shouts switches on the ride. The first circuit is slow, the next a bit faster then the ride gets going, faster and faster. The little boys’ bodies slam against my side. Their mouths are open in huge scared-happy smiles; their cheeks are pulled back by the spinning force. Their carefully combed hair stands up and back from their foreheads. They scream and yell and we go around and around and around. Too soon, the ride comes to a stop.

“You guys wanna’ go again?” asks the carnie. No one is waiting for the ride. “I’ll let you ride for free.” This is some kind of perfect night, Steppenwolf and free rides.


The ride starts up again, slow, faster, fast. This time, the boys know what to expect and anxiously wait for that first fast loop. The ride runs for a full ten minutes. I am loving it as much as the boys are. Fighting the “G-force,” I turn to look at them. Somehow, my dad is reflected in their freckles, their grins, their joy at the wild ride. My dad loved a roller coaster, but I never rode one with him. By the time I was big enough to ride, he was too ill.

My heart skips a beat. I had recently dreamed about the boys, and, magically, about my father. In the dream, I sat on the tailgate of the truck on a Friday afternoon, waiting for the boys to show up. They came down the street, whizzing dragonflies on their bikes, brightly colored jerseys, white-painted cardboard with black numbers fixed to their handlebars with twist-ties. Jimmy rode up to me and said, “I made a new friend. He wants to go with us.” A kid with dishwater blond hair was behind Jimmy. He rode the same put-together bike the others rode, with a homemade race number,  wearing shin guards made from a thrown away diving suit.

“Sure. There’s room in the truck,” I tell Jimmy in the dream.

The kid looked up at me from under his baseball hat. I recognized his snow-shadow blue eyes, the curl in the middle of his forehead, the freckles; I knew that face, but whose face was it? He smiled. The broken front tooth. “Hi, MAK,” he said. It was my dad. It was my dad as one of these wild boys. “Well, of course,” I think later. “This is just the kind of boy he was, a boy who ran away from his brutal, drunken dad at 13 and hopped a freight to Canada. If he were alive now, here, and this age, he’d be Jimmy, or Mikey. Another wild Irish boy lost in America.” I woke up from the dream realizing that I was nearly the age my dad was when he died and that the life I would live would be years, a part, a transition, my dad had not lived, and that, miraculously, I’d been given the chance to live this wild boy part, too.

As we spin around the Bayern Curve, I feel my dad is in the car with us. “Live this with all your heart, MAK,” he says inside my heart, “this is the part of life I never had.”
My Dad finishes reading and looks back at me. “Oh MAK,” he says. “Thank you.”