The Importance of Family and Reassurance that Life Does Goes On…

The Importance of Family and Reassurance that Life Does Goes On…

This past Saturday, the family celebrated Mom’s birthday by doing one of her favorite things.

We headed out for a day at the lake.
Independence Lake is one of those places that we would go to regularly over the years. Sometimes it was a Memorial Day or Labor Day. Other times it was for a birthday.
Last weekend was her birthday weekend. Dad and I planned the event, and my wife planned and prepared the meal (although I do admit that it was a bit strange not having Mom’s input as to the food or a strong reminder to keep it healthy). My Brother and Sister were there with their families, as was my own.
We are determined to stay close as a family. Mom had always wanted it that way, and even in her absence, it’s the one thing that we all work on maintaining. This picnic at the lake is a testament to that desire.
My wife Jean (as she’s referred to in Mom’s book) took on the bulk of the food prep and grilling and even made sure to have coleslaw the way Mom used to make it. Jean had been up to one or two the night before making delicious food, like her special hamburgers that were so big and juicy, they resembled meatloaf in a hamburger bun, but not as healthy as Mom would have liked (although no one complained). She even made sure to get Doctor D (My nephew’s gaming handle) some of those spicy sausages he likes, but I stole one of them. ;D

The kids spent a lot of time hunting around the shoreline looking for rocks and snails. Izzy even got herself a crayfish from under a rock. Dad brought some really nice fishing nets the kids used to sift through sand and pebbles to find the snails.
Dad and my sister took a long walk out on the boardwalk and around the perimeter of the park, just as he and Mom used to do.

We ate, laughed and had a great time, just as it was when Mom was there with us, and even though she wasn’t with us, it didn’t really feel like she was gone. It’s really interesting that even when someone is gone, there can be times when it still feels like they’re there, even when you can’t see them.
For us, the day was about having some fun, doing something that Mom really liked doing as a family, and creating new memories for all of us.

Happy Birthday Mom!

Happy Birthday Mom!

A lot of time has gone by, and yet, it really doesn’t feel like that long.

When someone that is close to you and you love dearly isn’t there anymore, there’s usually a void, a feeling of emptiness inside.
This past weekend, we were over at Mom and Dad’s house to visit, and still, to me, it feels somehow like Mom is still there. Perhaps she’s taking a nap upstairs. Maybe she’s downtown running errands, but the house still feels warm and comforting. Like her presence has never left.
I still expect her to come downstairs when we sit down for dinner. I just know she’s going to step out the back door as we sit outside enjoying the weather.
I know she’s really not there.
But if there’s one thing that I am happy for, it’s that Dad has somehow kept the house as it was when she was with us. He, in the usual stoic Koral manner, goes about his business, which includes moving furniture, spot-cleaning and doing a bit of gardening.
“I didn’t plant as much this year…” Dad says with a tired smile.
I help him change the storm windows over to screens, remembering all the years I’ve helped him do it when Mom was there. I look over at the patio, perhaps expecting to see her smiling as she sat watching us while sipping on an ice tea.
Today is her birthday. For so many years, we’d go and celebrate it with her. Usually, there’d be a Zingerman’s birthday cake. The family all around, and the most horribly out of tune rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung that would make her cringe every year.
I do miss her. She’s in my thoughts almost every day. I can’t just pick up the phone and call her.
I miss you, mom. Happy Birthday To You.
– Minh

The Year The Trees Didn’t Die [Last Blog Post]

The Year The Trees Didn’t Die [Last Blog Post]

Minh was over the moon. “She knows how to cook Korean food!” We were standing in the kitchen as I put the kettle on for tea.
“She seems like a nice person.” Ken said, level headed as usual.
”Just don’t jump into anything too soon.” I of course had this worry. Wasn’t he going too fast? He’d just met Jean and they were already cooking together! Id seen him go though unimaginable heartache and pain, and I was scared that he was just like a moth to a buglight.
“It’ll be OK, mom.” He said as he ran out the door to pick her up. That was his usual answer. The one that turned on all the alarms in my mind. I watched out the window as he jogged out to his little back Honda Civic.
That car was the car of his dreams. It didn’t thump like the last one, and was fully paid off, unlike the Red Cavilier that had been repossessed. This one was fast. It was low to the ground, and it was his baby. “I guess that he’s doing better these days…” I said to Ken as he pulled down the driveway.
”Yup.” Ken wasn’t mincing words over this one. Where did all the time go? Minh had grown up, and as much as I tried, I could not protect him from pain or the harsh cruelness of this world. Even living here in Ann Arbor had not protected him from the evil that lurks in the shadow.
It was about 12:30 AM when I heard his civic pulling into the drive. “He’s home, love.” Mumbled Ken, barely cracking an eye open.
“I wonder if he’s ok…” I said. Ken sighed and got up. “Ill check.” He said and wearily went down the steps.
“Hi Dad!” It certainly didn’t sound like he was any worse for the wear. I nodded back off to sleep, relatively certain things were going to be alright.
“So, apparently Minh and Jean were out having a late meal.” Ken had brought me tea in bed the next morning. I glanced at the clock. Sunlight was streaming in the bedroom window. “Is he here?” I said, taking a sip. “Hah… can you believe it? He said he was leaving to go to church with Jean!” I looked over at Ken. He was chuckling as he got back into bed and picked up the paper.
“We’ve bed trying to get him to go to church for years!” I laughed sleepily, rolling over. I lay there for a while thinking about our life. Chandler, Broadway, our lives and our children, Minh, Anita and Sung. I remembered the first time Ken and I met Minh. Getting off that plane in the social worker’s arms, smiling at us. Laughing. Accepting us for who we were in that year the trees didn’t die.
I closed my eyes, and for once, I felt like everything was right with the world.

Struggling With Comparisons

Struggling With Comparisons

I have always struggled with comparisons.

Am I as smart as person X? What about the house I live in, is it okay? What about the life I have, the job I have? On and on and on.
Not a charming habit at all. I could blame a childhood living on the wrong side of the tracks (literally) or anything else I can think of. But, in fact, it is long past time that I learn to be grateful. Just that. And, I think I am learning, at least some rudiments of it.
Today I go for a PET scan and tomorrow I consult a specialist in liver ailments for the side effects of chemo treatment, not so fun. And I am not at all a sunshiny person. Well, I like humor, sort of semi dark humor, but that’s not sunshiny. Anyway, what can I think of? Well, I can be glad that the cancer seems to be tamped down, my oncolosit’s words. So, the PET scan should I hope, I hope, provide no negative surprises. Also, I am constantly amazed at the hopes of women on the advanced breast cancer sites. They are not whiners!

But I still come back to this, what I am really grateful for, not just what am I supposed to be grateful for?

Hmmm. I feel profound gratitude for my family, for Ken, for the children and their families, for my extended family. I threaten to go off to a Buddhist nunnery and their days I do feel that, but I am so grateful for the love. All that love that I did nothing to deserve. People can’t deserve the love they receive anymore than they deserve the grief they receive. We like to think so. We like to think that fair is fair, justice is rewarded. Well, it can seem like that, but truthfully I think it’s way more complicated. Karma is complex and who am I to say, “I deserve that these people should love me, after all, I took them to Zingerman’s?”
I am grateful for friends, friends who call, who come to visit, who send cards, who just extend themselves. I am grateful for neighborhood. I actually know people in my neighborhood and I am certain they would help me if needed.
But it gets so complicated. Today’s New York Times (support your papers!) has a photo of a young fifteen year old girl being led to marry a man more than twice her age. Her face is one of grief and fatalism. So, stay with me on this. What does it mean? Am I grateful that did not happen to me? That it won’t happen to my grandchildren? Of course. Of course. But such gratitude leaves me feeling squeamish. Like I am setting myself apart. Maybe gratitude is something that we are supposed to do something with? That makes sense to me. We can’t hoard it. We have to do something with it. What that is, is individual.
OK. So I will try to be grateful for the PET scan and the specialist. Even though I am still a person who would eat roots if that would help rather than go into a machine and stay there for a half hour.
I will practice gratitude for the moment, for friends, for the finches at the feeder, for Netflix, Facetime, the movies (Hidden Figures, Lion, United Kingdom, Fences…)
I am pretty certain I will forget and obsess again. Will I be around awhile? That’s the question, and just having that question (normal, I know) obliterates the moments in time that I do have.

Weeks Later: It’s been a looong eight to ten weeks.

The liver enzymes went up and we decided to watch and see. It became unnerving. I still don’t know the full story until Tuesday, but this past Tuesday, I began yet another treatment. I AM grateful for another treatment and it’s not going badly. Some extra fatigue, a fussiness about what I eat, but hey, what’s really to not be grateful for? On the worst of the days of the long wait, I had a bone scan, a Cat Scan, blood draws then had to go back to get another scan for the bones. (The radiologist was being super careful, so blessings on that radiologist!) But that day I found myself saying, “This isn’t living.” Not a remark to make Ken feel any better. That was the worst day.
But then there was the day we had our youngest son’s wife’s baby girl shower at the TEA HAUS on Fourth street in Ann Arbor. It was completely wonderful. Family came from all over. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania. At the end of the party, big brother Sean burst in on the scene and I was struck with what I do have in life, awash in gratitude. So, here’s to family and caregivers, doctors, nurses, neighbors, friends, and the stranger on the street who calls out, “I think you dropped your glove.” I am, at least for this time, grateful for all of you.
PS Liver markers better. So that’s easy to be grateful for! Also check out the children and their children. Another easy-to-be-grateful gift!

Reflections On Stage Four Cancer

Reflections On Stage Four Cancer

It’s not a group anyone would join willingly.

…But, it is a group I have joined and see every week. There’s age range and a mix of male and female. There’s a group leader. We talk and talk and sometimes we leave uplifted and sometimes we leave feeling worse than when we came.
If it sounds like an AA meeting, it isn’t. It’s a cancer support group and the goal of every person in the group is to stick around.
Everyone wants to be walking upright on this planet of ours, to write another book, sing another song, act in a play, or knit a scarf. Cancer changes the way a person thinks about time. Cancer changes every single thing in your life. So, we sit and talk about that. The group is varied. We have a range of cancers: lung, breast, brain, prostate, you name it; we all know something about all kinds of cancer from sharing our stories. We are older and younger, male and female, and we all try very hard to help each other. Many weeks I wonder what we have in common that took us to this place. Did we all drink from too many plastic bottles of water? Did we fail to exercise enough? What, oh what, did we do to end up in this group?

Sometimes I don’t want to make the turn into the driveway to be in a cancer support group again, to sign in as the Patient. I am anything but patient. I want to do what I planned to do at this stage of my life! I want to hike ten miles, write another book, work with refugees. But, I know that what I have, is now, at this moment, in this group, right now with these people that I truly care about. I have this and if I throw it away because I keep looking over my shoulder at the life I had or imagined, then I have nothing at all.
I wasn’t sure that I’d talk at all about this part of my life. But I am talking about it because I feel that people do not know much about Stage Four Cancer. It’s not their fault that they don’t know very much. There are not droves of research dollars that go into Stage Four Cancer. I admire the hard work of researchers. I am grateful for good treatment and health insurance and support. I am grateful to be able to be writing this.
I am grateful to be here.

The plea of people who have a Stage Four Cancer is: Stage Four Needs More! (Meaning funding, of course.)

More attention is good too. And hopefully, this is happening. Meanwhile, I am scouting every site, every new trail, anything that seems feasible. I listen to my oncologist and either nod in agreement or choke back fear.
Most of my friends and the people I meet are kind and respectful when they refer to my diagnosis. But sometimes, people will say, “Didn’t you have your mammogram?” I understand that it’s very hard to know what to say to someone in my situation. I understand the need to protect yourself by trying to come up with a reason that a person has cancer, in my case, currently incurable, hopefully chronic.

But, please don’t think that it’s someone’s fault that they are living with cancer.

Don’t assume that if someone has lung cancer, it is because she or he smoked. I, myself, used to think that was the case. It is not. Most lung cancer diagnoses are for NON SMOKERS. (Lung Cancer Rates Surging For Non Smokers)
Consider this, even if they smoked a carton a day, would they deserve cancer? I don’t think so. Reject the idea that if that woman had only gone for a mammogram on time, she would not be diagnosed with Stage Four. Nearly thirty percent of women with breast cancer will have Stage Four disease at some point. (Breast Cancer.org) Is it because they didn’t live right or have bad genes? Oh, if only we had a map, a road to follow!
I, myself, believed in good living, exercise, diet, (plus the bag of chips from time to time). I still do. I really do. But I am at a loss to know how I got to Cancerland. I could consider genes, but my dad lived to ninety-nine. My mom lived to be eighty-three. And not one of my six siblings, even the two who both smoke and drink, has cancer. Scrub that idea!
It’s not horrible to want to cheer the winning team, not the struggling team. It’s not horrible to believe you will evade Cancer somehow. Surely I thought that too. But, that was before I had my diagnosis. Now, I live with cancer; now I try to value the time I have.
I want the people in this group to survive. I want them to be able to grow old, to have grandkids. At least, I want them to be around and to have a good quality of life two or three years from now. Then maybe five? Is that even possible? Time would be great.
I want the people in my group to be vocal in asserting themselves and advocating for more funds. I want the mentality of silo thinking (researchers keep their findings to themselves) to be gone. Oh I want so much! Then I need to remind myself yet again to be where I am and do the good it is possible to do. (Some days it seems like not very much.)

Anyone can receive a diagnosis of cancer and wonder how they got to Cancerland.

They were never planning to go there! Their plane must have been plane hijacked! The place they wanted to go was Italy. This place, Cancerland, is like a very bad Motel Six next to a strip mall. Who would want to be in this place at all? Heck, even the corner party store would be better… if we could only say once again with surety in our voices, “Yeah, I plan to do that in a few years.” But here we are. We make the best of it most days, some days it is much harder. Still on any given day I think the following: Yeah for life. Yeah for the cancer support group! Yeah for caregivers and family and even the gray Michigan sky!

Ken, Roo and the Groundhog

Ken, Roo and the Groundhog

Ken is a gentle person. He rarely yells.
He expects decency from people and tries to reciprocate, but he does have his quirks. He CAN get angry.
Let him see a groundhog in our yard and he goes berserk. He’ll run out of the house, waving his arms and shouting. He’ll chase it until it scuttles under the fence.
“There,” Ken says to me. I stare at him. I don’t know what to make of this. Surely he knows he can’t win?

Ken Battles the Groundhog

Now I do understand that planting collards and kale only to have them eaten by the groundhog is frustrating. Yesterday we went out to get collards and most of them were gone, gone, gone. Then, later in the day my sister who was visiting looked out the kitchen window and said, “What is that trying to jump up your tomato cage?” I knew only too well what it was.
Fortunately (both for me and the groundhog), Ken was at the University of Michigan football game. So my sister and I shooed it away. But what was the point? I knew it would be back. And, it was.
It’s a waddling slow kind of creature at times. Eating the grass, which is fine, looking around. But then it gets greedy and heads for the garden and it eats whatever it wants. It can climb up the tomato cage, dig under the fenced-in collards, and decimate the lettuce. Whatever is there, it eats.
“I’m going to throw a rock at it, “ said Ken one day in a fury. All his kale, the second new planting had been chewed to the ground. “You can’t, “ I said. “That’s cruel. And it’s bad for the grandkids if they know about it.”
“Don’t tell them.”
“You can’t throw a rock at any living thing!” (I sounded obnoxiously righteous.) He didn’t throw a rock. But he went out to the yard and started hauling big stones from the back woody area. He searched for every entrance point he could find.
He enlisted our young grandson Roo when the Mid-Michigan Korals came. Ken and Roo walked around the fence that separates our yard from out neighbors. They prowled the back woody area, lugging stones and using them to block entry points.
Roo is just a little kid, only nine, but he hustled to be with his Grand Ken. Bella and Lex turned out to help too. Lex is eleven now and Bella is seven.
I refrained from pointing out that it was hopeless. Or at least, not very hopeful. If you block one entry point, the groundhog will seek another. We would have to cement the entire back yard to keep that groundhog out.
Well they got enough stones to line the fence, about fifteen feet or so. Ken heaved a sigh of satisfaction. He and Roo and his siblings downed ice cream and discussed how great it would be to not have all the tomatoes eaten. They could make BLT’s with a combination of those summer-ripe tomatoes, the crisp lettuce from the garden combined with the crunch of bacon (turkey bacon in our family) that makes it good. Roo and his siblings nodded and planned to go out and pick the biggest tomatoes, the ones that needed only a few more days to ripen.
Once they brought the tomatoes inside, we’d toast the bread and we’d have those sandwiches with ice cream for dessert. Drumsticks are the current favorite, the vanilla ones with chocolate topping.
The Mid-Michigan Korals left for home after hugs and kisses and Ken congratulating the kids on a job well done. “ See you this weekend,” he said. “I’ll make sure everything’s ready.
We read late that night. I was engrossed in a book by Asne Seirestad, a Norwegian journalist. It’s a book about the Bosnian war, With Their Backs to the World. Ken was finishing his Henry James, a dark one where the main character suicides at the end of the novel.
You might remember that another grandson of ours is staying with us while he attends Washtenaw Community College. He gets up early to make class and he took the this photo one morning.
We will get our tomatoes from the Farmer’s Market.

A Pointless Reading

A Pointless Reading

Do I mean the reading was pointless?

No. If you look at the picture you see me with a person I admire and like to be with, Tori Tomalia.
If you are in the Ann Arbor area, chances are you might have read about Tori and her husband who opened an improv comedy venue, called Pointless Brewery & Theater. It has regulars who perform on Friday and Saturday. But the two of them are dedicated to community. So, Sunday is open mic night. You can read (which I did) sing, do an improv, play an instrument… whatever you come up with. It’s a welcoming place! I had a great time reading once I realized that I would need to focus on the page and would not be able to see people because of the stage lighting. Jason, Tori’s husband, crafts great beers that are for sale.
Find you way to Pointless and try open mic.!


Pointless Brewery & Theater

3014 Packard
Ann Arbor, MI 48108
http://www.pointlessbrew.com/

The Free Library

The Free Library

The Free Library is up at 1643 Broadway.

People are taking books, magazines and DVD’s.  They are leaving books and magazines and an occasional DVD. So, I am excited and happy. I have wanted to do this for at least two years since I first heard about it but I dawdled.  I checked online for prices. Not so cheap.
This year, Ken said, “Do it.”  We are living  with gratitude. I am still here and pretty healthy for Stage Four Cancer.  Ken hired our great neighbor (who will be moving) Jan to dig the post hole and our grandson, a great guy who is living with us and going to college, made and painted the post. We picked out our library on line.  One summer day Dante, the live-in grandson, and Ken put it up. I was thrilled. I thought we should be dancing in the street.

It’s in the photo above.

I sent out a notice to our neighborhood group and hoped for the best.  These are books after all., not audiobooks, not on a tablet. Would anyone want one?  I waited. I looked out the window the next morning and the little library was there alright, green with a gray roof and a sky-blue post.
Ken came into the bedroom with a cup of tea and said,  “I just saw the greatest thing.  I was heading out to get the paper” ( Another fading icon. But it IS the New York Times.) “and saw a little girl opening the door to the library. She put in a book and took out the Golden Books you had there. She ran to the car where he mom was waiting with blinkers on and calling out what she had. I didn’t want to scare her, so I stayed back”. ( He was wearing his orange robe, a sunhat and pajama bottoms, a site alright!

I took the girl as a good sign.  And it seems to be true.

There are numerous free libraries  in Ann Arbor. For them to work best, they should beon a street with lots of foot traffic. Fortunately, Broadway has lots of foot traffic. What do you find of you look in one?
Well, it’s like of like hunting around at a thrift store. You never know. It changes from week to week.  There is literature, Erdrich, Ondatjee,… murder mysteries, always popular, commercial lit, Ann Tyler, kids lit, and picture books from time to time.

Why do it?

I grew up with a mom who gave meter readers ( which we had then) coffee and home made bread with apple butter.
I was one of seven kids, four uncles and my parents living in a three bedroom- one bath house. I had plenty of people who would stop to listen to what I had to say. ( Being verbal I always had a LOT to say.)  It wasn’t perfect, but it WAS connected. I had no idea when I went off with Ken far from St. Mary’s in a place where I knew almost  no one that I would not have community. How could I know and it would not have made a difference anyway.
I made my choice, likety split.  Only afterward did I realize that Ken and I had different views of what connection is. He is happy with a few people and his science.  He doesn’t need to talk all that much.  (He is a super guy. Don’t get the wrong idea! He brings me tea EVERY morning. I am crazy about this guy who almost never needs to talk that much)
Me?

I crave neighborhood.  I love connection.

Free libraries allow for people to stop in front of your house. Maybe you will get to exchange a few words. Maybe the person will just pull a book out and go on.  But it’s opportunity for connection through the books you offer and the chance to stop a while and be part of a group.
So, I put notes on some books, telling people what the book is about. I consider leaving treats, but my Grandson says that’s over-the-top.  I think I am going to do it anyway. Wrapped hard candies maybe, something that will allow people to feel safe eating them and not melt.Hershey Kisses would be best but I have to wait for cooler weather.

So I write a blog.  I have a free library.

I, in the words of Joseph Campbell, learned to let go of the life I imagined ( Did I think a research physicist would find a job in a small factory carbon town.?
Probably. How naïve. Did I think I would live without hassle? ) I am making room for the life I have. Yeah for readers and neighbors and strangers who stop and become neighbors.

Yay for Free libraries. For life.

High Seas and Hurricanes

High Seas and Hurricanes

In the last blog post, “Getting Ready To Go Home“, I suggested that I should have suspected things would not go easily.

We were travelling around southern Ireland.

But, Nooo. I was certain that once we were on our way home, life would be straightforward again. No more cringing when sirens went off. No more jumping at the sound of a blast. No more dread. Everything would be wonderful.
It’s true, the trip around southern Ireland was great, there was nothing to fuss about.
We overate on scones and soda bread and every high tea we could find. We examined The Book of Kells, sat in pubs unafraid and listened to terrific music.

Ten pounds heavier and sated, we boarded the car ferry to Liverpool.

Once there, we drove our car off the ferry and started the drive to London where we would drop off our car to be put on the ship and board for our dream, at least my dream trip, home.
The drive to drop off the car was not so easy. It was, in fact, horrible. Lots of roundabouts which we had not yet encountered at all. There was the London traffic, and finally a desperate searching for the right building at which to leave the car. I kept trying to find signs to help us. Usually it was too little, too late. I’d spot something, but Ken would have driven past by then. Driving with the steering wheel on the “wrong” side had been an issue ever since we imprudently took the car with us to Ireland. But on the country roads we drove on, the worst thing we encountered were sheep or cows. All we had to do was to wait until they crossed the road. So, the driving was not bad at all. London was a far cry from the country roads. At the first, pretty complicated roundabout, Ken said, “What’s that?” We had never seen one before. He managed it. What else could he do?

That drive into London and the docks was HARD. We were both grouchy and wiped out by the end. Still we had made it and the rest, would be easy, right? A nice sail home. We’d eat our meals, sun on deck, read, talk… Nothing but time and togetherness. That’s what was supposed to happen. That’s what the brochure promised or at least implied. Oh, I was always one to believe in words!

We boarded the ship and were greeted by the captain.

I thought that was a nice touch, a sort of good omen of good things to come. What did I know? A crew member showed us to our room. It was a small room, but it had a porthole which I counted as a plus, a small round window. No private bathroom though. That wasn’t good. Still, the trip was going to be great, great, great. We stowed our belongings and went up on deck. We could, of course, still see land, the docks, mostly. No confetti or waving people sending the voyagers off. I guess that doesn’t happen when you sail on a freighter.
We met a couple from London, St John’s Wood. They claimed there was to be a swimming pool put up eventually. They were taking the freighter all the way to the Pacific. I was impressed.
“This is, fun,” said Ken.”Let’s go forward and look at the spray.”
We did. We were fine. We had boarded later in the afternoon, so it wasn’t that long before dinner was announced.

There were linen tablecloths and napkins. The food was plated and served.

Pork chops, French fries, salad, rolls and some kind of dessert. Probably ice cream. We ate it and declared it good. We strolled around the deck again and then went to our room. I looked out the porthole into black. The beds were bunk style. Ken took the upper bunk. I took the lower. We slept and woke to a gray day. I would have preferred sun, but who cared? Still exulting at the idea of a sail home (it seemed mighty romantic in my mind) we went to breakfast: toast, scrambled eggs, orange juice and coffee. Fine. Lunch was soup and sandwich. No complaints from us or the other passengers. This was all working out just as I hoped.
However, when we sat down to dinner, it was the same menu from the evening before, pork chops, French fries… you get the picture. We diners looked at each other. Someone inquired of a server. The server explained that the cook knew how to cook pork chops and French fries. The crew liked pork chops and French fries. Pork chops and French fries would be served the entire voyage.

This was a freighter, not a passenger ship.

Oh. 
There were pork chops on the plates every single dinner from departure in London to arrival in Baltimore.
After supper, what had been a gray day turned rainy. Rain started to pelt down. We went to our room and tried to read. The ship started heaving.
Up and down. Up up up and down down down.
I opened the porthole to get some fresh air. Wind blew the spray into our cabin.
“Breathe the fresh air,” I said. I had a bad feeling that things were not going to be easy.
About half an hour later, Ken left the room looking green. He came back pale and ready to leave again at a moment’s notice. I didn’t last much longer.

The cabin boy, Santos, knocked on our door and said we had moved into hurricane weather.

Ropes would be stretched along the hallways and stairs, plates would be anchored. He looked at us, assessing the situation. “No good,” he said. “No good. You need to get up and find your sea legs.”
Well that wasn’t going to happen. We lay miserable all night long. We kept wondering if it would be possible to somehow get airlifted off the ship. Anything! Maybe jumping overboard?

The hurricane gained force. Books slid off the shelf. My hairbrush flew across the room.

Eventually, a pale gray light filtered into the room. I had no idea what time it was. I just kept lying there. I could hear Ken moan from the top bunk. Wind and rain were still coming into the room through the open porthole. If the whole sea had come in, I doubt I would have cared. After a while, I had no clue how long,
Santos knocked on the door again. He had tea. “This is not good,” he said. “You must eat.” He thrust tea and some French fries into the cabin. “Lunchtime,” he said. “You eat.” Ken groaned. Santos looked grieved. “ The ship will be fine,” he said in a comforting tone.
“In the Pacific we hit a typhoon where we had to drop anchor and the ship spun around for two days.” I blanched. Again he urged us to get up. But the most we could do was find the bathroom and try to keep our eyes focused on something in the distance.
Why did we have no Dramamine? Chalk it up to thoughtless youth. Chalk it up to dreams of a sea voyage. Hurricanes had not been in my picture of what the trip home would be like.
The ship heaved, over and over. It would hit a trough, go up, then come down. I went up on deck to try looking off into the distance. I encouraged Ken to come with me, but he was past that. He, for one, was convinced we were going to wreck.

Death at the bottom of the Atlantic.

I didn’t think that. Not yet, anyway. The couple from London were nowhere in sight. I held onto the ropes and made my way back to our sickroom.

Seven days. Seven long interminable days.

Santos kept knocking and bringing tea and sometimes toast. But neither of us could keep it down. Poor Santos. He grew worried. He said the captain wanted us to eat. We needed to eat. “You eat, get sick and then better,” he said. I didn’t think so. I had plenty of sick by then. I pressed his hand and shook my head.
He was so kind, so caring. One afternoon, I don’t know when it was, he came by and just talked about his family, his wife, his children in the Philippines. I listened and tried to respond. He went beyond what he was required to do and I remain grateful to him.
Finally, finally, we moved out of hurricane waters. We were approaching the shores of Delaware. Oh joy. Oh heaven. We slept deeply. We smiled. We considered eating, but we knew what the menu was and scotched that idea.
On the last day, the captain said farewell to everyone. He chided us for not eating. “You are thin,” he said. “This is not good for my ship’s reputation.” I looked ashamed. Chastised. But I shook his hand and told him that Santos has been wonderful. He liked that. I found Santos standing off to the side and gave him a hug.
We went down the plank and waited around for our car to be delivered. Ken was like a new man, ebullient. “I might just kiss the ground, “ he said. I laughed and understood; the solid earth was a gift all around us.
We drove off down the road. Glad to be going home. Glad to be on the road. Land! Green! Sun! No hurricanes and (I thought, but didn’t say) no bombs.

Suddenly, Ken said, “I’m starving. Do you want to stop and eat?” I did.

We pulled into a mom and pop restaurant and I remember what each of us had. Ken had chicken potpie. He ate as though he were starving, which I guess he was.
Seven days with no food had caught up to him. He downed one potpie and ordered a second. I had a tuna fish sandwich, and, incredibly, French fries. They tasted great. I couldn’t imagine how I had scorned French fries only a day ago. I licked salt from my fingers. Ken reached over and helped himself to a few.
We laughed over nothing and everything: the year in Belfast, the journey around southern Ireland, our young ignorance.
We laughed the laugh of two people who believed they had, if not conquered, managed to survive.

Getting Ready To Go Home

Getting Ready To Go Home


So, I made it clear after the guns clicked as we walked home in the dark.

I reiterated the message after we endured more bombings, one in which we lost a friend.
We were LEAVING! LEAVING ! LEAVING!
Ken said he didn’t feel that afraid.
He was willing to stay on for one more year. It was Ireland after all. There was great music, Guinness, and we could get to Dublin by train.

He argued that I was overreacting.

“Bombs, dead people, guns and soldiers; that’s what there is,” I replied. “I mean it. We need to go home. I can’t take this anymore.” Ken frowned. He had accepted a two- year position. Leaving was not going to make him any friends or look great on a resume. I was hard hearted about it. I didn’t think what the consequences for his career would be, what position I was putting him in.

I wanted out of Belfast. ASAP.

The week that I told Ken I was determined to leave, there was to be a general round up of all suspicious people. At least that was the rumor. Everybody was talking about it. Peter asked if we would allow him and his wife and child to stay with us. How could we say no?

But, I knew that if he were seriously involved, if they found him at our house, we’d be in trouble too. Still we had them come over. They slept on the sofa and a pile of blankets on the floor. That was all we had.

Sirens wailed throughout the night.

Then there was a knock at the door around eight in the morning. Peter slid into the closet under the stairs. Ken went to the door. Briad and I held our breath in the kitchen. It was only a neighbor who brought our paper by. It had been delivered to them by mistake. Peter and Briad left to go back to their house. They wheeled the baby in a carriage and turned around to wave to us. Ken looked at me. “And, that’s why we are leaving,” I said. “This is no way to live.”
So Ken told his boss he wasn’t staying on another year and, of course, it caused a furor.
People didn’t leave positions like that. And, of course, his boss was not too understanding. His pride was injured. Two young Americans saying they wanted to go home?

What about all the crime in New York City?

In most cities of the US? “Tell them at least you can plan for that,” I said. “I have no idea when something will explode here.” Ken shrugged his shoulders and seemed to agree. Maybe he didn’t want to be responsible if something did happen? I don’t know. I do know that when people ask him, even now, if he would have stayed on another year, he says he would have. My eyebrows go up and I wonder momentarily about his ability to process danger.
We packed up the car; we didn’t have all that much. We gave away our furniture (what there was of it) to Peter and Briad. It was May and we planned to drive around the coast of Ireland camping, then take a ferry to Liverpool, and drive to London where we’d catch a Greek freighter to take us home. It sounded good to me.
The first night we found ourselves headed to Donegal, a place I wanted to see. It was the last of old Ireland. Some of the people there still spoke Gaelic. There were actual thatched cottages. I was eager to see them. We found a farmer who let us pitch our tent in his field for a couple of pounds. True he wore the IRA scarf around his neck. This was IRA country, but he was perfectly kind to us.

It rained. Then it rained harder.

There were horses in the field that kept racing around. They came pounding up to our tent and stopped. Ken jerked every time he heard one pound toward us. Water started seeping in the edges of the tent. By now, there was a solid sheet of water coming down from the sky. We got up to go crawl into the car, a very small Fiat. We were wet, chilled and a tad miserable crouched together in the back seat. It wasn’t possible to use the front seat. Then somebody knocked on the car window. I rolled it down and peered out.
“If you want you can stay in one of my trailers. Nothing fancy, but it will be dry. I rent them out come summer.” We fell over ourselves in gratitude, slogged over to the trailer and put what blankets we had, that were not sopping wet, on top of the two of us, and slept curled together. Next morning, we went to say thanks and the owner was nowhere in sight. “I hope he isn’t off to blow something up,” I said. “I like him.” We left a note and an address. Would you believe we got a note back saying, “To the wet American couple. It was a pleasure to help you.

I still have the note.

So, we drove around Donegal, camping, occasionally staying at a bed and breakfast and taking in the part of Ireland that was not exploding all over the place. I loved it. “Too bad the university isn’t here,” I said to Ken. I was looking at green quiet hills, the sheep, the cattle crossing the road. We were eating soda bread and cheese for lunch. But of course that was nonsense. It wasn’t that the university was in the wrong location. It was that the space between the Ulster coalition and the southern Irish was huge. They had years of grievances between them. And the Catholic population in the north wanted to air those grievances, to merge with southern Ireland. But then the Ulsterites had their view, which was that their loyalty was to the British crown.
What a mess! However, all the bombing and tension was being pushed to the back of my mind while we drove round the coast of Donegal, ended up on the opposite coast, took a ferry across to Liverpool, and found our freighter in London to make our way home.
This was the life I could manage. But, I had no clue yet what the freighter ride home would be like.