Grandma in Mourning

when my grandpa died
mom helped grandma sort her things
they found her hope chest

mom said what they’d found, grandma
said “you mean my hopeless chest.”

cedar hope chest

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Those Below

Pharaoh built, they say
giant monument to gods
in the desert sun

blood-sweat-tears of workers and
tool-maker, architects, scribes

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Martin Perl found the
tau lepton, a Nobel prize
many years of work

technicians like my father
made circuits, dug ditches, worked

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those up at the top
deserve what credit they get
so do those below

those below are foundation
without them nothing happens

Sleeping with Granite

Me in bed with my bipap mask on and a big hunk of granite on my belly.

Me with a bipap mask on and a big hunk of granite on my belly.

I sleep with granite on my belly
Because hard objects are comforting
In a way that soft objects can never be

I sleep with granite on my belly
Because my father knew he’d die by December
So he hand-picked rocks as holiday gifts

I sleep with granite on my belly
Because my parents chose this particular rock
Shaped like a heart, heavy like a grieving heart

I sleep with granite on my belly
Because its heaviness anchors me
And tells me where my body is

I sleep with granite on my belly
Because I sat with my family on mountainsides
Made entirely of granite as far as you could see

I sleep with granite on my belly
Because it sings me rough but soothing songs
About the feeling it gets in the noonday sun

I sleep with granite on my belly
Because granite made friends with me
Before I had human friends

I sleep with granite on my belly
Because it reminds me of the Sierras
And the Sierras remind me of my father

I sleep with granite on my belly
I sleep with a bag of stones
In a shirt pocket oer my heart:
Plain grey rock with indentations
Volcanic rock with lots of holes
Tiger’s eye, Lapis lazuli, Schorl, Jasper
Amethyst, Orange Agate, Spectrolite

And all of these
In their way
Tell me I’m home

Football (American football, if it has to be distinguished)

When I was a teenager
My father slept in his running shoes
To prevent me running away from home
In the middle of the night
He was autistic too
And has hyperacute hearing
So there was no possible way
To slip by his door unheard

He’d block my path
I’d head-butt my way past him
Pitting my 105 pounds
Against his 250+ pounds
And often winning
Because I didn’t feel the pain
And then he’d have to chase me
All the way down the sidewalk
Tackle me
And convince me to come home
Before my screaming
Made a neighbor call 911
Which would inevitably lead
To a mental institution

My father said
I’d have made a good linebacker
This always pleased me to hear
Not that I wanted to hurt him
But that he cared so little for gender roles
That he was willing to envision his daughter
As a football player

When I was young
I wanted to play football
He told me the girl
Was the best player on his team

This worried me
Because for all I wanted to play
I knew I’d suck
And I knew of no life path
In which a girl could play football
Unless she was the best of the best
And maybe not even then

I would not have been able
To see the ball
As more than
Fragments exploding
In all directions
Brown and white
But disconnected and unfamiliar
Just like in basketball

Give me ping-pong
Give me badminton
Give me a game with a small ball
Moving fast
A light ball that my arms could hit
Without bending backwards
And that would activate
My tracking instincts
And I would be able to
Coordinate everything unconsciously
Even stand a chance of winning

But I didn’t want ping-pong
And I didn’t want badminton
Not at school, not there, not then
I wanted football
And nobody would let me play

My arms were too weak
To throw a good pass
My eyesight too jumbled
To make sense of all the players
Moving in all directions
Or the ball, at al

Football is a game of strategy
Of multitasking
I couldn’t do either one

Not to mention social skills
Visual perception
Ability to perform under pressure
If there was a game that was built
For everyone but me
It was football

Still, I wanted to play
I wanted the opportunity
To play, and to suck
And to be allowed to play anyway
Even if not on the elite school teams
I wanted to be able to do this
Without the girls who came after me
Being told:

“Sorry, we tried a girl once.
It didn’t work out.”

I wanted to play badly
Without letting down
A whole gender

I wanted to be
Just another player
Who was always picked last for the team
But who at least got to play

“All we need is time, but time’s too damn unkind” (*)

my dad understood
the language that rocks speak
and befriended them

he was fluent in
mountain, rock, forest, star, tree
listened to them all

the week he died
I showed him my rock friends
he respected them

after he was dead
I received a package
full of granite chunks

granite connects us
sure as DNA and love
granite mountainsides 

my only regret
not sharing rock friends sooner
while we still had time

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Sun and Rain

I woke up feeling
Like a piece of glass
While the sun casts blinding rays
Through the middle of my soul

I woke up feeling
Like a piece of glass
Ground down into tiny shards
That dazzle the eyes unpredictably
In the glaring sun

I woke up
With an awful taste in my mouth

I woke up
With clothes like sandpaper on my skin

I woke up most of all
Knowing something was gone
That I couldn’t replace
That I couldn’t even remember

When I was a child
I thought myself a monster
When I couldn’t cry
When I should have been crying

I used to lick my hands
Spread the spit over my face
And make sobbing noises
Then feel even more a monster
Because they were only fake tears

I’d feel so exposed
Just the way I do now
Like the piece of ground-up glass
In the sun

Even though I’m alone
And no one can see me
I feel transparent
I feel overrun

Sometimes when people cry
They say “It’s raining on my face”

I think it’s raining 
Deep down in my soul
Where nobody can see
And there’s no path
From the rain 
To my eyes

Owl Eyes

IMG_0048.JPG

I was born
In the doorway of the delivery room
At change of shift
My mother had to lift the sheets
To show them I was here

I didn’t cry
I just stared
With big eyes 
And big pupils

“Owl Eyes”
My dad nicknamed me
As my parents wondered
“Who the hell is in there
Behind those big black eyes?”

I guess they found out
Slowly enough
As I learned to communicate better
But I feel like my father and me 
Never fully understood each other
Until he was dying

Because there was something he feared
About opening up to love
But he trusted me enough to do it
And I trusted him enough to do the same
And suddenly it was as if everything in our hearts
Was known to the other
On a level too deep for words

I was born during so many transitions
But death is the biggest of all
And I know my dad was scared
But I told him:

When it gets to its worst
Or when the pain gets too much
Lean on Love
It will not let you down
And he did
And we could see more
In each other’s eyes
Than we’d seen in a lifetime before

And my mom said when he died
He trusted us enough
To walk into the Light unafraid

Owl Eyes I was at birth
And Owl Eyes I was again
When my father took me out at night
To listen to the owls in the woods
And my eyes got big every time
I heard an owl hoot

And when my father was dying
All I wished was that
My Owl Eyes could get big enough
To see, and capture, his soul
In my memory
Forever

Continue reading

Why I want to be like my mother.

It was 10:06 pm in California
1:06 am in Vermont
When my father took his last breath

At around 1:25 I got a phone call
I knew it could only mean one thing
Especially when it was my mother
Sounding shaken
Refusing to tell me another word 
Until I gave myself a stress dose
Of dexamethasone

Remember: 
She had known my father
Since she was 15
She was now just barely 68
They’d been married for 50 years
Engaged for most of the other 3
They were best friends
And soulmates 
And had weathered
Some of the worst storms
A marriage with children can offer
And come out stronger for it

Knowing all that —
What does it say to you thatl
Less than half an hour 
After my father passed, 
She said:

“I know this kind of precision 
Means a lot to you
So I’m letting you know
Your father took his last breath
At exactly 10:06 pm.”

Her soulmate had just died
After months of her being his primary caregiver
At great risk to her own life and health
And she was thinking about
Whether I cared about precision or not

She’s the sort of person
Who always thinks about others
In ways I can only try and fail to emulate
I see her do it every time she interacts
And I don’t know how she does it

If I could wish for anything from my parents
It would be my father’s practical skills
His ability to do things with his hands
And it would be my mother’s social skills
Her ability to not only care, but show she cares
Even minutes after losing the love of her life

Deathbed Triptych (RIP Ronald Baggs, 1941-2014)

I.

Early days
Just diagnosed
Will he live out the week?

I wanted to make a sacrifice
To show him how much he meant to me
And I knew
Though will never understand
That the sound of my voice
Is everything to him

So I
A functionally nonverbal autistic
Practiced all day, all night
Called him on Skype

Typed “Listen closely
This is hard
It will only happen once”

Said out loud
Halting
Brain-rending
“I — love — you — Ron.”

He cried.

He cried again when I told him
My brother was trying to find
A way to get me out to his house
So I could see my dad
One last time

He cried hard —
We both knew it wouldn’t  happen
Just like during his last visit to Vermont
We cried our eyes out when he left
Because despite no diagnosis or even symptoms
We knew it was
The last time
We would see each other alive

And this time
We both knew
I would never make it
To the Siskiyous
In time to say goodbye

II.

I told Ron in a letter
I was packaging up all my love for him
And storing it outside of time
Where he could always perceive it

I lamented all the things
That I would leave unsaid
Until it was too late
All the questions unasked
And unanswered

But I knew the most important
— I love you —
Had already been said
So many times
But never too many

We Skyped that day
And he told me
I didn’t need to say anything
He could read all my thoughts
Through my eyes
So nothing, nothing
Nothing was left unsaid

He said he could see a glow
Around anyone, including animals
Who was experiencing love
I opened my heart to him completely
Without even thinking about it

He laughed
He said
“…and you can do it on purpose!”

We both laughed
I tried not to cry
I had put forth so much effort
To speak out loud in his language
Now he was becoming fluent in mine
Finally
On his deathbed

III.

He was almost too weak to talk
And could not read the words
I typed in the Instant Message window

I could not repeat
My original feat of speech

So I trilled
The way a momma cat trills to her kittens
And they trill back
Like a voiced purr

“I wish I could do that,”
He said

I opened my heart
As wide as it would go
And trilled, and purred
And purred,and trilled
And poured all of my love
Into each sound

I know he felt it
Even through the pain
Even though I could tell
How much effort it took him
To even attend to my purring
How much his body just wanted to rest
I’d been there
I knew the signs

I knew it would be
The last time I saw him alive
So I wrote a goodbye letter
With everything I’d ever wanted to say

My mom wrote back to tell me
When he heard my name
His eyes opened wide
And when she read the letter
He tried hard to smile

I love you. And I understand what it’s like when you’re just too exhausted to take visitors, or even to think about other people. When your mind recedes inside itself because there’s no energy to think, and your brain is overworked just running your body.  I Skyped you last night to say goodbye to you.  I couldn’t say it out loud of course, but I did purr at you an awful lot. I know your brain can’t handle a lot so I’ll keep this short. You’ve been the best father I could ever hope to have. I wish you luck wherever you are going when you die, if you go anywhere at all. Remember I have put all my love for you into a place you can go whenever you need it, before or after you die.  I love you more than I can say. Remember to surrender to love and you’ll be fine no matter what happens. And in case I never Skype with you again, goodbye.  I could say more, but I’ve been saying it all with my eyes the last several times we’ve communicated. You know what I mean. I love you. Goodbye.

So she read it to him twice
She said it was a good start to their day

I felt as if I had dropped a rock
Into a bottomless lake
Then turned and walked away
Without looking back

Not looking back 
Was the hardest thing
I’ve ever done

IV. Epilogue

There would be no more letters
No more video chats 
No more sent from me to him
Except the blazing white-hot love
That he said he perceived from me
Every day now
As if I was right there in the room

I had learned to kythe with him
So late in his life
I once said I wished we had learned
To love each other this way
And perceive each other’s love
When we were younger and healthier

He said maybe the time wasn’t right until now
Death made him wise 
Beyond even his considerable years
Death can do that
If you open yourself unconditionally
To the Love that is the other face of Death

I was bursting with pride
That in the months since diagnosis
He had progressed from terrified of Death
To embracing Love
And conquering his fears

So when the time came
He crossed over so fast
It startled even my mother
Who had been holding his hand
Coaching him through
The last phases of dying

But as for me…
I never spoke to him again alive
My letter really was goodbye
And it took everything in me
To press the send button on the email
Because I knew I would never be around
To hear the stone hit the bottom of that lake

Walking away
Never looking back
Only looking forward
To await the news of his death
Was the hardest thing I’ve ever done

That’s what saying goodbye
The final goodbye
Means, when you’re 
Thousands of miles away
And trying not to show him
How weak you get under severe stress
With adrenal insufficiency

(The day I got the news
He was going into hospice care
I got so weak I needed
My bipap as a makeshift ventilator
But he had enough on his plate
I wanted him to die knowing
I was finally safe.)

I will continue to write you letters
For my sake more than yours
Wherever you are, you don’t need them
But I do
And so do others 
Who have a death in the family
I need my letters and poetry
Because it takes the turmoil inside
And turns it into orderly strings of words 

Goodbye Ron — God(s) be with ye
Lovbye, Ron — Love be with ye 
In our family God and Love
Mean the same thing
That’s what you and Anna taught me
I love you 

And every time I see Love in action
I’ll know you are a part of it
And I’ll kythe to you the knowledge
That it’s good to see you again. 

The White Institution (circa 2002)

I walked down the street
With my eyes on the building of white
I knew they were like me
Autistic and trained not to fight 

They rocked behind bars and
I knew I belonged there not here
Not out on the streets
With the ones who had never known fear

My body moved forward 
To ocean with sand and with stars
But my thoughts, they went back
To the white institution with bars 

As slugs we might be
But the world it had fashioned a shell
Not home anymore
Not here, not on earth, but in hell

[Events 1999, first written circa 2002, written from memory 2014, May contain errors.]