Julie A. Swanson

Purer and Purer Streams…

I finally have the last pictures I wanted for my first post on my dad’s transformation…

This is Dad in the middle of the summer (he died October 18th) looking thinner than he ever had but still with his playful spirit, able to enjoy his “replacement.”

And it’s funny because I notice in this first one, above, that he’s holding my nephew’s hand, or at least two fingers of it. Which reminds me of the title of my book that’s based on his dying–Going for the Record. I love that title. Wasn’t sure they were going to let me keep it. There was a suggestion during the editing process that maybe I should try thinking up another one, and I remembering brainstorming with Eerdmans on that awhile, but then they agreed we weren’t coming up with anything better.

For those of you who haven’t read the book, the title refers to the main character’s dad’s habit of holding her hand when they’re driving somewhere in the car–something she doesn’t like, but which he does as a joke. Leah is a star soccer player whose dad drives her all over for travel soccer, soccer camps, games, practices… Often when they’re driving, he plays this game of reaching for her hand when she’s not looking and holding it (tight; she has a hard time pulling away). Leah finds the game irritating–it gets so old; she’s not a little girl anymore. It’s just not funny. When she objects, her dad says, “What? You like setting records. Let’s go for the record and see how long we can hold hands. Maybe we can make it all the way home…” Later in the story, as her dad’s dying and she’s sitting at the side of his hospital bed holding his hand while he sleeps, she thinks how she and her dad are “going for the record” and she feels bad about all the times she pulled away from him and wishes they could keep on going for the record as they used to.

This hand-holding, hand-trapping game of “going for the record” is something my dad used to do with me on the way home from my basketball practices or games. I found it so infuriating! Did he never get tired of it?! But of course, like Leah in my story, I came to see it as a father just not quite knowing how to show affection to his teenage daughter anymore, and being creative and funny about it, trying to show and/or get affection somehow. And looking back, I, too, wish I’d had more of a sense of humor about his always wanting to “go for the record.” I wish I’d shown him more affection during that period of my life, and I can appreciate the awkwardness of the position he was in.

Having had my own kids, I understand that now. I remember when they went from the cute baby-and-little-child thing of telling me they loved me and how much, hugging and kissing me and holding my hand all the time, to not really doing that as much but still wanting to sit on my lap at times or hold my hand and kiss me goodnight or slump up against my shoulder sitting in church or reading stories or wherever, to that first time they pulled their hand away from mind, to that time when they no longer wanted me to even kiss them goodbye or goodnight because I was going to mess up their makeup or get my cooties on their perfectly cleaned faces. I remember feeling so much love for them at times when they were teenagers and early 20-somethings and not being able to show them the affection I felt and wanted to show them. It wasn’t just for me, a need I had; I worried that without the usual expressions of love they’d grown up receiving, they might not know how much I loved them, that I still loved them as much as ever. …My poor dad, he was just starved for affection, and bursting with it, maybe even thought I didn’t know how much he loved me. I did. Which makes me feel better about my own kids. Besides, they’re coming out of that period of their lives now. I can show them affection again, and they show it to me!

This is Dad a couple months later, nearing the end (but still looking good, much better than he did at the very end, when he’d stopped eating), in his hospital bed in the sunroom. His face looks a lot like I remember him looking healthy–in terms of fullness and coloring. But you can see by his expression, by the sort of vacant look in his eyes, how he feels.

Thank you to my sister for finding these pictures while cleaning out her closets!

On Becoming/Being a Grandparent

Dad in his last months with his “replacement,” the last of his grandchildren he was to meet (7th of what would one day be 11)

In my previous blog post (about my dad’s suffering and dying of cancer and how it transformed him, or how he let it transform him), I posted various pictures of my dad that I thought really reflected who he was. In looking for photos to include in that post, I’d wanted to find one of him during his final couple months, one that showed his physical decline, but that also showed how at peace he was. Ideally, I hoped my sister or Mom would have one of him in his hospital bed in the sunroom. I didn’t take any pictures of Dad at that time because I didn’t want to remember him that way, wasting away. I wanted to remember him as the healthy, strong, and vibrant man he’d always been. While we have home videos of him (that someone else took) in his hospital bed and hobbling around playing with grandchildren in those final months, I have no photos of him from that time.

But today my nephew texted a group message to a bunch of family members sharing a few photos he found that he considers “keepers,” and among them was the above, a picture of my dad 3-4 months before he died, looking thin and threadbare–and peaceful and happy (how he loved babies and little kids!). The baby in that picture is the grandson I wrote of in my previous post, the grandson we weren’t sure my dad was going to get to meet, the reason my mom chose to have a life-prolonging procedure done on my dad (he wasn’t lucid to decide for himself; he’d signed papers saying no life-prolonging procedures were to be done, but this procedure was in a gray area and Mom was sure he’d want to meet this grandchild, due any day). This baby was a delight to my dad. Knowing he didn’t have long to live, Dad referred to his newest grandson as his “replacement.” So this picture is the missing piece that completes my last post, and it’s also the perfect springboard into what I want to write about today–becoming/being a grandparent.

Almost exactly a month ago today, I became a grandparent (I say almost because February only has 28 days. And exactly what constitutes a month, 28, 29, 30, or 31 days? Close enough). I should probably specify that I became a grandma, because I suspect it can be quite different, becoming a grandma versus becoming a grandpa. As different as it is to be the mother of a newborn as opposed to the father of a newborn. Why? Well, because of the nine months mothers spend incubating a little human inside their bodies, the physical labor and hormones they go through giving birth, and, for breastfeeding moms, that whole experience (while some love breastfeeding, I felt like a cow, a feeding machine on call 24/7). So some of the things I’m about to write about as a new grandma who just got the privilege of spending 16 days with her newborn granddaughter, well, some of those feelings may be more specifically grandmother-ish. Not every grandparent/grandpa may be able to relate. I don’t think my husband can. While he was excited to become a grandpa and excited for my daughter and her husband, he didn’t seem quite as gonzo as I was about the whole thing! I started getting excited the minute my daughter told us she was pregnant, knowing what she was and would be going through. While she was in labor for hours on end in the hospital, I was so nervous and excited for her and her husband (and myself!). And when our son-in-law texted us the first picture of that healthy baby (we’ll call her V), I was so happy I cried and I thought she was the most beautiful, miraculous thing. I stared and stared at that picture, studied each new picture texted to us.

My daughter and her husband invited me to come stay with them when V was just five days old. I’d been quarantining for a month so there was no way I could have the coronavirus and possibly bring it to them. Never had I been so happy to drive the 9.5 hours from Virginia to Michigan. I’d started packing my suitcase weeks before. Each day I’d consult the extended forecast for the states along my route and see when there would snowstorm-free days I’d be safe to travel.

On the drive there, I kept thinking how this baby was half her mom and half her dad, but also part me and my husband, part my son-in-law’s mom and dad, part of all of our parents and grandparents and great-parents… and back and back and back. It just really struck me that each and every one of us is a great big WE, with so many people that went into making us who we are. We are all like thousands of tendrils springing from the roots (or the branches) of this great big tree. How can anyone not see we are all one, connected, tracing back and back to the same roots…

People often say the best part of being a grandparent is that when the baby cries, you can just hand it back to its mom or dad. That wasn’t my experience, isn’t how I feel about it. I was there to help. When that baby cried and her parents were frazzled or exhausted, I wanted to try my hand at comforting her, relieve them. Give her to me, let me try what worked with you! And they gave her to me. And I loved it. And often, through a process of trial and error, I found something that worked!

V’s crying didn’t get to me the way my own newborns’ had, the way her crying obviously distressed my daughter and her husband when they were exhausted and didn’t know why she was crying and had tried everything and were ready to hand her over to me. Of course I wanted to stop V’s crying so that she wasn’t upset, so her parents could relax, but her crying was almost comical to me, tragical like it was the end of world when I knew all it would take was the passage of a bubble of gas or a replenished milk supply and in an instant she’d be fine again. And yet I remember how helpless I felt as the mother of a seemingly unconsolable newborn, how mothers are hardwired biologically to be very bothered by that crying. But as a grandparent, that crying isn’t stressful to me; it’s cute. The red distorted face, the trembling lips, the little tongue and gums, the strident squawk they make when they suck in for air mid-cry. It’s adorable. It’s a newborn baby. It takes you back.

Same with dirty diapers. Newborn poop smells sweet, seems clean. Don’t mind changing diapers at all. Let me do it.

Now of course it helps that I was well-rested, unlike V’s parents. I’d hear V squawk a couple times each night, but it didn’t keep me up. Evidently I slept through quite a bit; I’d find out in the morning there’d been more than a couple squawks and they’d lasted longer than I knew. So you have more of a sense of humor about these taxing things like crying and dirty diapers when you aren’t a sleep deprived young parent.

Most of the time V did not cry and we just sat around staring at her and marveling at the miracle of her, how cute she is, how soft, how perfectly formed. You forget how tiny and delicate, the slow-motion movements they make, waving their arms and hands about, curling and uncurling their fingers, arching into an S, making all sorts of faces with serious eyebrows and ever-changing mouth/lip shapes, the long yawns, the dream smiles, the disturbing little twisted looks with eyes half open, eyeballs flipping back into their heads. One minute she would look like a wise sage studying the universe out the window with her mouth in a perfect O, they next minute she seemed to be staring deep into my soul, a split second later she’d sneeze or fart or spit up on us and then go right back into her eerily quiet slow-mo awareness. It was like a form of meditation holding her and looking at her–such calm and peace and beauty, simplicity, newness, possibility/potential, mystery, no regard for time.

It was an unforgetable sixteen days for me, getting to spend that time with my daughter and new granddaughter. I’ll always treasure it. I wished my husband could have been there to see our amazing grandchild and what a great mom our daughter is, but he had to stay home and work. I wondered if he’d be a bit bored with all our baby-gazing, anyway. V’s dad did his share of baby-gazing, as my husband had with our babies, but it seemed my daughter and I could’ve done it all day, where they’d have had their fill after only an hour or so. My husband will have to wait a month or two to meet V. I can’t wait to see her again. I’m smitten. Our daughter sends me a picture every day. I don’t know how long that will last, but I’m grateful and enjoying it for now.

PS. I read this to my husband and he disagrees that he was any less excited than I was!

Going for the Record

I’m excited to announce that my young adult novel Going for the Record is coming out. Again! Originally published by Eerdmans Book for Young Readers in 2004, it had a very good run before going out of print about 12 years ago (I can’t remember when since it continued to be available online after that, and still is). But then Eerdmans contacted me last spring saying that they wanted to reprint Going for the Record and hoped to have it come out on their Spring 2021 list, slated for February (tomorrow?!). 

This news made me really happy, because Going for the Record, a novel loosely based on my dad’s dying of cancer, is a story I wanted to share with others so they could at least vicariously experience what I was lucky enough to experience first-hand. And now I get to share Going for the Record with a whole new group of young people.

How can I say losing my dad to cancer was an experience I was lucky to have? Well, I understand the reader can never really know who my real-life dad was, so my book can’t fully convey his incredible transformation. The experience of witnessing that and enjoying his new-and-improved person was what I was lucky to have. He set an amazing example of bravery, hope, faith, and selflessness. Being around him at the end, well, words that come to mind are sacred, awe, holy… And those are words that some people who knew my dad would laugh at!

I love this picture because it shows how much my dad and I enjoyed each other–you can just see it by the looks on our faces in this simple exchange. In this photo from 1969, I was 5, he was 36, and my cousin Alex and sister Marie were 2. I also like this picture because my dad LOVED little kids, and I think that’s quite clear in this picture, too.

My dad was a complex guy.

He was funny, warm, affectionate, spent a lot of time playing with us as kids: throwing a baseball or football around, shooting baskets, taking us swimming and water-skiiing and sledding, skiing and snowmobiling and skating, going on walks, playing cards with us, wrestling around on the floor, tickling, telling stories. I was the apple of his eye and I knew it–I’m sure my siblings felt they were each the apple of eye, too! He was so proud of everything we did. The way he looked at us, you just knew how much he loved us. And we loved him right back, thought he was so funny and cool.

I admired many things about him—his honesty and humility (you couldn’t find a more down-to-earth guy), how hardworking he was, how important family was to him (his mom and five brothers, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, my mom, us kids), his physical strength and athleticism, his creativity and cleverness as a builder, his ability to figure out complex things despite his lack of education. 

Dad being the funny character he so often was, working outside in his rural “open air” shop in his underwear.

But I didn’t always respect him (I don’t mean to his face–we always respected him to his face–but inwardly). I remember thinking that even as a kid.

I’d see my friends’ dads, a couple of them in particular, and think, “Now there’s a man I respect…” There were things my dad did that I knew were wrong, and others that I just didn’t admire. On the most trivial end of things, when he got sick with a cold or the flu, he was a baby. He’d come shuffling out from his bedroom and down the hall in his powder blue pajamas with white piping that he never wore otherwise. He’d look sad and mopey, act like he was to be pitied and lay on the couch. When my mom was equally or more sick, she’d smile through her sniffles, fever, and/or cough and soldier on as if nothing was different. She cooked, cleaned, and tended to us and the house like it was any other day. My dad had a bit of a cruel, teasing streak to him, too. He loved to get a rise out of people, poke in their tender spots. He’d tell cutting jokes with just enough truth in them to hurt a person, yet they were funny, so people had to laugh, while the poor person they were directed at stood or sat there, blushing in embarrassment. He liked to steal things, little things, candy at the grocery store, drill bits from ACE Hardware, way more fruit than we needed from the artistic cornucopia display in the hotel lobby. It was like a game to him. He had the money in his pocket to pay for the drill bit, but it was like he wanted to show that he could still do it, get away with it, prove that the store wasn’t doing enough to deter shop lifting. He’d chuckle and laugh and show you what he got, proud of his stealth. In many ways, he was a kid at heart, always a kid, not much older than 12 or 13 deep inside. He was a mischievous Robin Hood type. It was like he just hadn’t matured fully, like he was a wounded, charming pre-teen who thought it would always be cool to show you what he could get away with, that once a hellion always a hellion.


But my dad had a darker side, too. He lacked confidence, felt very uncomfortable when he was out of his element. He was highly irritable, had no patience, got in dark moods. So many mealtimes, he seemed like a tornado trapped in a Ball Mason jar, rattling around at the other end of the table; he never got out but there was always the worry he might. His bad moods would get triggered by who knows what, by things that seemed way too small to warrant such orneriness. When he was in such a mood, he was prone to yelling and his temper would flare. He’d get so angry he became irrational in his line of arguing. He’d blame things on people in ridiculous ways, contradict himself from one minute to the next, get things all mixed up and misspeak, just in general be out-of-control in his yelling. I often cringed when he was like that, not just cringing out of fear (he wasn’t violent, never hurt us or broke anything, but his yelling was scary enough for me) but cringing because I was embarrassed for him.

I love this picture of our family (1973), although you can see some of Dad’s “orneriness” on his face here. It may just be the sun in his eyes, but that’s what it looked like!

Dad was proud to have been a “hell-raiser” as a kid. His ONLY advice to us growing up was, “I don’t care what you do, just don’t get caught.” He said it quite often. He might smile while saying it, but he seemed to really mean it, too! Even as a young kid, I’d think to myself how strange it was that this was THE only verbal guidance he ever gave us. I’d think how wrong it was, for him not to care what we did, if we did bad things, but that what was important to him was that we not get caught. Great parenting, Dad!

Of course, now I see that there was some dry humor in that—of course he cared what we did, wanted us to be good people. He took us to church every Sunday and he tried hard to be a good person, went to confession regularly, wouldn’t take communion if he’d sworn or done something he hadn’t had a chance to confess yet. I wouldn’t doubt it if he swore around the men he worked with, or when he was around just my uncles, but at home, other than shit/hell/damn, we rarely heard him swear (which to me means using the Lord’s name in vain–God, Jesus, Jesus Christ), and I never heard him use the F-word. When he got so angry that “goddammit” slipped out, I could tell by his face that he would need to go to confession again before he could take communion.

But his faith (in my growing up years) seemed to be something engrained in him by his upbringing, not something genuine and heartfelt. He’d gone to Catholic school and been a altar boy, but he and my grandma told stories about how he terrorized the nuns and priests and picked on kids. [In his dying days, he had a recurring dreams about a circle of fire closing in around our house, threatening to consume us, and he said the only person in the dreams who could put the fire out was some kid he’d picked on in high school. He would tell my mom about the dreams. Finally, she said to him, “Why don’t you try telling the kid you’re sorry in the dream?” He did, and the dreams stopped. So he obviously felt guilty, obviously had quite a conscience, for those high school transgressions to be haunting him so many years later on his deathbed. Although, who knows what he did to the poor kid!] But at church, and at home when we lit our Advent candles and said the prayers that went with the lighting of each one, when we put Baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas and said the prayer that went with that, when we went to church on holy days and got ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, when we didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent…, he seemed to just be going through the motions. He often nodded off in church, or told us beforehand we were going to skip out early after communion so he could get to his Sunday morning round of golf. I never heard him say a prayer that wasn’t rote. He never said our bedtime prayers with us when we were little (my mom did that).

Before his diagnosis of cancer, I never saw him read the Bible or talk about God or Jesus, never heard him discuss anything spiritual or religious with his friends, brothers, mom, even with my mom. I never saw him say the Rosary once, when my Grandma said it daily. The only thing Dad did that touched me and let me know he might truly believe in God was that every night before he went to bed, he’d come in our rooms while he thought we were asleep and draw the sign of the cross over our foreheads with his thumb. I saw that through my eyelashes on enough nights, saw him do it to my sister and me, that I knew it was a regular thing he did and that he no doubt did it to my brothers in their room, too. But his faith was a very private thing to him, and from what I could see, his church-going and our prayers before meals were more of a habit guilted into him from his strict Catholic upbringing.

It didn’t escape me that he chose not to send us to Catholic school, even though there were two Catholic schools as close or closer to us than the public school we attended, both associated with local churches we attended. And neither of my brothers became altar boys as my dad had. If he’d thought a Catholic education valuable, or being an altar boy, wouldn’t he have had us follow in his footsteps? Yes, a public education is free and Catholic schools are not, but tuition at the Catholic schools near us wasn’t expensive, and I doubt that would’ve been the reason he chose not to give us the Catholic education he received. I felt my dad’s continued church-going was something he did mostly because he knew he was supposed to, because my grandma who was the strong matriarch of the family was still alive (and living with us from the time I was 9 until after I graduated from high school) and watching and wanting all her boys to be good Catholics. His faith and religious practices seemed to be based more on a fear of not doing those things than on any true belief or yearning to be close to God. No one knows what’s in another person’s heart, so I knew it wasn’t fair to judge him for that even then, but that was my take-away as his daughter, who was watching him closely and hoping to see more than that for 20-some years.

Dad at our wedding in 1987, three years before his initial diagnosis of cancer

When he was first diagnosed with colorectal cancer (he was 58, I was 27) and I heard he’d need surgery and probably radiation and chemotherapy after that, I thought, Oh, no, poor Mom; he’s such a baby when he doesn’t feel well. She would be the one playing nurse to him and I was sure he wouldn’t be an easy patient. Though Dad had mellowed a lot since we were kids, he could still be difficult, get so ornery! Months of chemotherapy and radiation?

But I went to visit him shortly after his surgery, took our eighteen-month-old up there to be with him and my mom for a week or so, and I was surprised by what I saw. At least in front of me, he was a good patient! And his diagnosis was not so rosy that he had reason to be overly relieved or hopeful. The doctors said they got all the cancer but they had to remove so much of his rectum (and anus) that he’d permanently need the bag they’d attached to him via a port, a bag that collected him bowel movements. In addition, they found cancer cells in the lymph nodes in his groin, so they knew cancer cells had gotten out into his bloodstream and there was a chance it might spread or already have done so in undetectable ways. As many people do given such a diagnosis, my dad turned toward his faith in a more personal way. I saw the Bible lying around, devotional and religious books like The Imitation of Christ. Even if my mom hadn’t told me about their discussions, I could see he was thinking about God and Jesus more than just when he was in church, just when he felt he had to in order to fulfill his obligations as a good practicing Catholic. And there was none of the “pity me” or “why me” attitude I might’ve expected, no anger. It was more like, Why not me? His dad had died of cancer at 58, his grandpa and grandma had died of cancer, so I think it sort of made sense to him that he might’ve gotten it, too.

At first I thought, OK, maybe for now he’s just overjoyed to still be alive, he’s glad they haven’t said he only has a couple of months or years to live, he’s really appreciating all my mom’s doing for him, he’s grateful for her care, he feels too weak to make a fuss or get angry or yell. But when he starts feeling stronger, or when the chemotherapy starts making him feel really crappy, the stuff will hit the fan. But that never happened. He suffered through the treatments in a way that amazed my mom, bearing it all bravely and without much complaint. 

He got better and endured the bag that made him have to wear his pants either way too high or way too low (he chose high), the bag that sometimes stunk like a charcoal filter disguising you-know-what, the bag he had to empty. He was able to return to golfing and enjoying life, traveling.

Dad at my sister’s wedding in June 1993.

He had two-and-a-half good years before the blood tests he periodically got showed cancer was again growing somewhere in his body, that it had indeed spread and taken root in a new area. More tests, more worry, not feeling as well, not as much energy, finding out the cancer was in his lower back, tentacles reaching around his bones/nerves there, intertwined and too close to the spinal cord to try removing it, which meant all he could do is try to hold it at bay with more chemotherapy. 

Dad was still an amazing patient. He seemed almost saintly to me. He acted hopeful. After we left from our summer visit, all the reports from home were good.

We lived in New Hampshire at the time and had two little girls, so we made the long trip to Michigan and back only a couple times per year, maybe a few times now that Dad was sick. So we’d see him in the summer, over the holidays, maybe at a family celebration in between then. Not often enough.

When I saw him in November at a wedding, it had only been maybe three months since we last saw him, but I instantly knew things were not good. That my mom had either underreported things, not wanting us to worry, or that because she saw him every day and saw things happening gradually, she didn’t notice the difference in him like we did, in stark contrast to how he’d looked in the summer. He was thinner than I’d ever seen him, his face had a gray pallor to it, his giant fingers had shrunken and felt soft in my hand (Dad had always prided himself in his calloused hands, said you could tell a lot about a man and how hard he worked by shaking his hand; he poked fun of men who “pushed papers” for a living and had hands “as soft as a woman’s”). Dad just looked weak and old, the first time in the three years since he found out he had cancer that he looked sick and like he might be dying. I think we all knew. And yet he was only getting sweeter and gentler, more patient, more selfless. He was so into his grandchildren (preschoolers and babies then), smiling at them and talking with them, wanting to hold them and play with them, watching them with that “beam gleam” he’d always watched us with. It broke my heart to see my strong dad looking feeble at the wedding. But Dad seemed strangely happy and peaceful, glad to be alive and with his family. I marveled at that. No worry, no stress, no sign of pain, no orneriness? Was he hiding it or had things happened gradually enough for him, too, that he truly couldn’t see it in the mirror, like we all could? Surely he could tell it in how his clothes fit?

We all went home to be with him for Christmas that year. He seemed tired, looked even grayer, but not really any thinner. It was a great Christmas. We all watched Little Women (Dad was actually watching a movie like Little Women, sitting through the whole thing?!) together on TV one night, tears streaming down our faces at the scenes of Beth dying, even Dad. It was poignant and awkward—I wanted to look over at Dad and smile, to watch him crying (I’d only seen him cry one other time; the night he got home from taking my oldest brother to college, he came into our room to do his sign-of-the-cross thing over our foreheads. After he did it to me, he sat on the end of my bed and cried for a while.), to go over and hug him. I’m sure everybody did, but we just sat there and watched. 

Dad really went downhill that spring. The growing tumor was putting pressure on the vessels in the lower part of his body, making his legs swell and his kidneys not be able to drain the urea out of his body. In May his thinking grew cloudy as his brain got affected by that. It was alarming for my mom; he began to hallucinate and have periods time where he wasn’t lucid or didn’t make sense. There were difficult decisions to be made. Bring in hospice or not? Do this procedure or not? He’d been deemed terminal at this point and didn’t want life-prolonging procedures that would just string along his suffering and buy him time where his quality of life wouldn’t be good anyway. He’d signed papers saying that. If he has this procedure, he’d be able to urinate again and his mind would clear, he’d be able to see another grandchild born, my sister’s first child, he’d live a couple to a few more months than he might, but he’d no doubt suffer longer, worse. Maybe it was best to let nature take its course, let there be an end to his suffering. Dad’s mind was not clear enough to say for himself if wanted to do the procedure and see this new grandchild or not. It fell to Mom to make the decision. It was hard for her, for all of us, but she decided to do it, to have the stent put in so that he’d no longer be poisoned by the urea building up in his body and affecting his brain.

Dad got to meet and enjoy his new grandson born at the end of the month. Instead of focusing on his own suffering and what would happen to him, he continued to think about Mom and how she would manage once he was gone. He asked us to help him get quotes on a new automatic garage door opener to replace the garage door they had that wasn’t working well. He’d sold off the spare lot next door to give her more of a nest egg. He tried to put everything in order to make things easier for her. He made it through the summer and into the fall… He was suffering, more and more, much in the way detailed in Going for the Record. His pain looked excruciating. We watched him battle it. Mom sometimes regretted her decision to do the procedure in May.

But Dad had began to lose all self-consciousness when it came to his faith. Whether that faith was always in there like that but had been kept private, or whether it had grown due to his illness and suffering, he was very open about it. He talked about being ready to die, being at peace about it, how he looked forward to getting to see his “pa” again and that he’d be the first of his brothers to get to do so. He had favorite Bible passages that brought him comfort. He prayed out loud, not just at mealtimes and not only rote memorized prayers or prayers read out of books, but heartfelt prayers he made up in his own simple words. At first it was awkward to walk in on him when he was in the middle of a prayer, but then when he didn’t seem embarrassed and continued, I figured either he wasn’t entirely lucid, or he just didn’t care if I heard, maybe even wanted me to. When he asked me to pray with him, I knew. He bought my sister and I matching gold pendants like he’d already given Mom, a modern art Jesus on an invisible cross, his arm outstretched with the necklace passing through his hands. He talked to us about how God is the most important thing, our faith in God. He wanted us to know that. For the man whose only parental advice to us before this was the irreverent, “I don’t care what you do, just don’t get caught,” this was uncharacteristically serious! He suddenly seemed like a wise old sage.

When I said goodbye to him for what I knew might be the last time at the end of September, I broke down crying over him while hugging him in his hospital bed in the sunroom. I didn’t know what to say besides I love you and goodbye, but it seemed like something way bigger and better was called for, was in me wanting to come out. Just saying the word “goodbye” seemed so big, though, in that moment. I finally managed to say it and broke down crying even harder, but Dad just chuckled and said, “Don’t say goodbye, say, ‘See you later.’” Then I laughed and said, “Ok, Dad, see you later then!” I liked that so much better than goodbye, and it was funny how Dad had said something so simple and down-to-earth yet so profound and other-worldly, as he was trying to get me to see the situation. 

Those were our last words. After that I only spoke to him through Mom over the phone, or I wrote him letters (yes, old-fashioned handwritten letters). Priests were often at the house, and Dad’s friends. They prayed over him and with him. Less than a month after I’d last seen him, on October 18th, a bunch of people were gathered around him saying the Our Father out loud together as my mom held his hand and tried to comfort him while he struggled. She said he wasn’t lucid but had become restless that day, would startle and grab the sidebars of his hospital bed, rattling them, so she knew he was fighting it, in pain or scared and struggling to breathe. While they all prayed, she told him it was OK to let go, and he did.

The amazing thing about my dad’s death was not so much the realization of the depth of our love for each other—his and mine, his and my mom’s, his and my siblings’—but it was the awe of watching him take his suffering and let it transform him (and those around him). He became a better man, the best version of himself, an inspiring example to us all. We watched him go from a man who had a hard time seeing past his own frustrations to appreciate the feelings and needs of others, to a man who put his own suffering on the backburner to think of those around him and how he could make what they were going through easier. His acceptance of his fate, his bravery, his hope and faith, his newfound patience, the peace he exuded in that last year… I fear I’m making it sound like he gave up. He didn’t. But he fought a quiet fight, unlike the loud and yelling one he waged so much of his life that made others suffer with him. And he knew when it was time to stop fighting. In fact, one of his favorite Bible passages at that time was:

2 Timothy 4:6-8

6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 

7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 

8 From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

When I remember Dad from that last half year, I see him lying there peacefully in his hospital bed in the sunroom, smiling, listening to beautiful music as he stared up at the skylight, his eyes moving back and forth in an edgy way like people’s do when they’re listening to someone speaking on the phone, only it was like he was listening to God (and seeing something invisible to us: a stone staircase into the sky, I imagined, hanging down from the sky to him, lower and lower each day), getting encouragement and instructions from Him on what was next, what he was to do, what was going to happen, how it was going to go… 

I can’t believe it’s been over 25 years since he left us. His memory is so fresh, our love for him just as strong. Even stronger than it might have been had he not set the amazing example for us that he did in his dying.

Ronald Jude Polakowski (1933-1995)

Misogynist Tomboy

Just wanted to share an article I could really relate to and that I thought was very good.

Me Peonies!

Just had to share these before they are done (unfortunately, they don’t last long). The color is so vivid.IMG_1094

Another Good Post from Entheos…

Sharing another one I’ve been saving and reading over every so often in the past months; http://www.entheos.com/ideas/guy-finley/1254/7-ways-to-increase-your-spiritual-strength)…

(Entheos is a great online newsletter you can sign up for; they send you several daily articles/essays (? I’m not sure it’s that regular, but sometimes it seems I get them everyday) written by people who teach classes or put on virtual conferences they offer, which they also describe. I enjoy reading the ideas presented and the quotes they choose, find them to be inspirational and thought-provoking.)

7 Ways to Increase Your Spiritual Strength

What is spiritual strength? To put it simply, it’s knowing you don’t have to compromise yourself in any way — with anyone, over anything — in order to be content, confident, and secure in life.

Here are seven proven ways to increase this special kind of strength. Study them with the wish to uncover their secrets. Practice at least one every day. You’ll discover that by disconnecting yourself from the fears and doubts that compromise your life, you are re-connecting yourself to a new kind of power that never abandons you in your hour of need.

  1. Refuse to revisit your own past for a way out of any present problem.
  2. Say no to anyone or anything that you fear saying no to.
  3. Never explain yourself to anyone out of fear they may misjudge you.
  4. Learn to see your own defensiveness toward others as an offense against your own right to be fearless.
  5. Whenever possible, realize that the person you are about to argue with is in as much pain as you are.
  6. Never accept any negative reaction within yourself as the only possible answer to your present challenge.
  7. Remember that everything you resist in life increases its weight by the magnitude of thought spent in not wanting it, so accept all that you can and quietly drop the rest.

Persist with these spiritual practices, and you will see old doubts turn into new certainties, and dark fears replaced with a bright fearlessness.

Something Good for Me (All of Us) to Remember

What follows (from www.entheos.com/profiles/steve/posts/9283) is a great thing for me to remember–as an author who hates self-promotion, but who’s writing something that I think will help a certain niche of people/kids/girls (thank you, Steve Chandler and Entheos! Too good not to share): 





“When self-promotion is done right, it’s help.
Help everyone.”

~ Peter Shankman

There is a village and you are its newest resident. You have just moved to this village.

You are a doctor.

You don’t tell anyone you are a doctor because you don’t want to come across as looking superior to the other villagers. So you settle into your small home in the village. The neighbors like you because you are humble and self-effacing.

One night you hear a disturbance in the cottage next to yours. Human voices. Some yells, then silence. You look out your window. All seems quiet. All seems okay.

The next morning you see an ambulance pull away from their door. You step outside and ask what happened. A little girl died last night. She had a seizure and no one knew what to do. The nearest hospital is 100 miles away. She died.

You could have saved her life. Rather easily. But they didn’t know you were a doctor.

Self-promote? I’d rather die. Or let other people die.

It is a service for people to know who you are and what you do. It is not bragging. Stay focused on whether something is a service. Not on whether you will be “liked” or not.


What in the World? (Don’t touch if you see one of these)

IMG_0816This caterpillar-like creature was crawling across our driveway yesterday. It was about an inch long and the brightest fluorescent green. Doesn’t it look like it’s wearing some sort of fringed horse blanket? Never in my life have I seen anything like this. I had to laugh.

Talk about creative! God has such a sense of humor, and such flare.

I didn’t dare touch the little burr-like things or pick it up. One time when our oldest was about three, we found a caterpillar that was brightly colored and covered with these spiny black hairs. She asked me to pick it up for her and put it in her hand, and when I did, she started screaming and said it had stung her. Her palm hurt for quiet a while afterwards. Admire but do not touch hairy caterpillars was the lesson we took away.

I searched for this beauty on google and found an image that matched it (go to this link for Caterpillars that belong in Outer Space: the 15 Most Alien Looking Caterpillars on Earth, http://www.socialphy.com/posts/pets-animals/9418/Caterpillars-that-belong-in-Outer-Space.html) but under the picture of the caterpillar that matches the above, it said it’s a native of the Phillipines.

Butterflies and moths are at their most vulnerable stage as caterpillars because they can’t just fly away and escape. Therefore, they have developed some interesting, one might even say bizarre, defenses. These include blending in with the environment, false faces with bright eye spots, mimicking other insects, and bright colouring that warns potential predators not only that they taste bad but could also be poisonous.
This green alien is a native of the Philippines and seems to have taken the fake eye spots to an extreme, making its “face” quite large and scary. Normally, a caterpillar’s face is much smaller and not on the second abdominal segment.”

On another site with a picture that matched (http://www.gityasome.com/blog/tag/green-and-brown-caterpillar), it says it’s called a Saddleback Caterpillar (so I guess my thinking the green looked like a horse blanket wasn’t so far off), and that it can be found from Massachussets to Mexico, and that if you touch it, it has a poison sac at it base, and that if you brush up against it, it can produces ‘a multitude of stings’–pains that shoot from your hand or finger up your arm, and that burn like fire; “It was like someone had poured scalding hot water up my arm.”

Glad I didn’t touch it!

For those of you who have Flying Dreams…

and love and can never find enough on these intriguing things–

Here is someone’s take(s) on flying dreams that’s pretty interesting. It reflects what I’ve come to know and think of my own flying dreams. Always nice to find another kindred spirit and fellow flyer, if only online:


I found this in working with a dream I had last night in which I was driving around in a ‘magic carpet’ mobile type car. Read the rest of this entry »

Oceanside Glass Mosaic Mirror Frame

IMG_0802 (1)I made these mosaic mirror frames out of Oceanside Glass Tile’s Tessera ‘Beach Blond’ mosaic blend, peppered with a few seashells. You can’t really tell how cool the iridescent tiles are in this photo , but when you hang them in a place where the natural light hits them right, they come to life.

I’ve gotten really into making mosaic mirror frames and tabletops, mostly out of glass tiles I pick up at tile stores, in the ‘artist bins’ they keep out back, where they sell random leftovers and old samples for next to nothing. But sometimes I splurge when I can find Oceanside glass tile in the colors I want on sale (go to www.xsstudio.net/info.html for discount Oceanside tiles). I also use non-glass tiles if they are a great color, polished stones, shells… It takes forever to make these things, to crack and cut tiles, to polish sharp edges, fit them together in a pleasing design… ‘glue’ them down, grout it when it’s done… Sometimes I go random in design and don’t plan it out and just ‘glue’ them down as I go. Other times I plan and set them down ahead of time for a less abstract/chaotic look or if I want to make recognizable symbols or pictures. But I tend to be stiff in my artwork and find the random mosaic designs are a good exercise for me and turn out better anyway.

It’s really fun and satisfying to play with the colors, designs, and shapes. Oceanside glass is such gorgeous, high-quality stuff, the best I’ve found (but sharp! Watch your fingers). I like their Tessera line for its rustic irregularity and artsiness (in the mirror  frame on the left); their look lends itself better to mosaic. The mirror on the right has Oceanside’s ‘Muse’ line of tiles in it, which are more uniform in shape and surface finish, and have slightly rounded edges.