a kaddish for too many suicide victims—but it gets better!

This is a kaddish for too many suicide victims. Since suicide is a contagious disease, and it’s in the headlines again, I think it’s urgent for parents, friends, family, teachers, coaches, and vague acquaintances of young gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, and questioning folk to be on the alert in coming weeks.

LGBTQQ youth are statistically at extremely high risk for suicide, because, let’s face it—adolescence, middle school, and high school are awful to begin with. Teenagers are in the most oppressive, least supportive environment that most of us will ever face in our whole lives. For anyone who’s a little different, it’s a whole lot worse. For young folks who are dealing with all the usual adolescent crap AND are beginning to wonder if they’re even bigger misfits than everybody else around them, middle school and high school crap goes way beyond annoying and difficult to potentially fatal.

If you are LGBTQQ:

     

  • It gets better! Life sucks now, but it won’t always suck. Just get through it somehow. Live into adulthood.
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  • Look around for the people who see you—they can help. They might not be able to relate to everything you’re going through, but they will help.
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  • If your family is awful, that’s not your fault—get the support you need wherever you can, and maybe someday your family will come around. They probably will. If they don’t, they suck, and they’re not your fault. Move on. Save your own life.
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  • Grow into adulthood—because IT GETS BETTER. Life will be really, really good someday, and the stuff that makes it hardest now will be some of the stuff that makes it the most beautiful later on, but you have to keep yourself alive to reach the promised land.
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  • If what you’re hearing in a church or shul or mosque or temple or wherever isn’t that you are loved, worthwhile, and meaningful, then it’s those people that are wrong, not you. These places are all made up of people, and people get stuff wrong, but God isn’t taking orders from those people. Any god worth believing in loves you just the way you are. (And for that matter, any people worth believing in love you just the way you are, too.)

If you are family, friend, acquaintance, teacher, coach, or something to LGBTQQ kids:

     

  • It doesn’t matter if you understand or can relate to the LGBTQQ stuff. You don’t have to. All you have to remember is that these are young people going through difficult stuff on their way to becoming beautiful, loving, fulfilled adults, and they need love and support like everybody else.
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  • They’re getting all kinds of messages that something about them makes them not good enough, and all those messages are wrong. Give them the messages they desperately need to hear: that they’re good people, they’re worthwhile, they’re lovable, they matter.
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  • And IT GETS BETTER. It just does. They need to know that.
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  • If what they’re hearing in a church or shul or mosque or temple or wherever is part of the problem, remind them that this place is made up of people who get stuff wrong sometimes, and God doesn’t take orders from those people. Any god worth believing in loves them just the way they are.

My own adolescence wasn’t too bad. I grew up with parents and other adults who might have been clueless at the time about LGBTQQ stuff, but they had that unconditional love thing figured out. As a result, the crap I heard at school and church didn’t get far enough under my skin to do real damage—but I sure heard a lot of damaging crap! And I know way too many people for whom the crap they heard at school and at church and worst of all at home became overpowering, fatal messages, and they’re no longer with us.

We’ve lost way too many good people to fear, despair, and ignorance. Please do not let yourself or someone you see become yet another one of them. IT GETS BETTER.

A kaddish for all those, LGBTQQ and otherwise, who get lost and don’t live long enough to make it to the promised land.

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a kaddish for sigrid syltetøy vang, b. 2006, d. 27 February 2018

In August I moved to Montana, with a partner, a dog, and five Siamese cats.

I drove away from the house in the Montclair District of Oakland that had been my home for 18 of the 23 years I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. I had decided with great joy to move to Montana, to the city of Helena my partner Mira and I had just discovered and fallen in love with. Mira followed in her SUV, loaded with everything I couldn’t fit in my car. The day that we arrived in Montana, we first met my parents at a rest stop in Idaho, where we all watched a total solar eclipse—the once in a lifetime event that signaled to me somehow I had made the right decision, coming back to the Rocky Mountains, my beloved Missouri river, my homeland.

I finally moved into my new house here at the end of October, after three months of living in my parents’ basement in Butte along with my blind chocolate labrador retriever, Kjersten Kjøttkaker, and five Siamese cats. I spent the first few weeks camping out in my empty new house alone. After movers delivered my stuff, I brought Kjersti up from Butte and she camped with me a few more weeks. After we returned from a roadtrip in December to play some concerts in California, I finally packed up the cats and their stuff and we drove the final leg of our long, slow journey to a new home in Helena.

When we arrived that afternoon, I brought the cats in their carriers into the master bathroom of our new house, set up their litter boxes, set up a little dining room for them on the tile bathtub surround, put their favorite cushions on the bench between my sinks, opened the doors to their crates, and shut the bathroom door.

At bedtime I closed the bedroom door and opened the door to the bathroom. Slowly the cats wandered out, sniffed around, and settled down for the night on the bed and bedding that none of us had seen for over three months. For the first time since the movers had taken our bed, my senior cat, Sigrid Syltetøy, took up her customary position in the valley between two pillows, near my head, and I slipped one hand under her and my other arm around her, and she purred and squirmed until we both fell asleep.

The next day, when I opened the bedroom door, several of the microkitties darted out between Kjersti’s legs, so I didn’t close the door again—clearly they were ready to take on more of the new house. Those younger cats didn’t make it far before darting back into the familiar safety of the bedroom, but by the time I had brewed my morning coffee, Sigrid, the shyest and most skittish of my cats, had padded into the kitchen and was looking around for Kjersti’s water bowl, where she had a long drink before starting to explore.

The other cats didn’t emerge until the sun had begun setting. By that time, Sigrid had found her way around, tried out several napping spots, and seemed to be comfortable in her new home.

Sigrid, my shyest and most skittish cat, was also the first to emerge as new friends started dropping by for a meal, or a drink, or to do me favors involving trucks, extra hands, strong backs, patience, humor. She was the first to start napping on the dining table in its new location resplendent with morning sun. She was the first to start napping on the tall back of the living room couch, gazing out the picture windows at our view of the Helena Valley. She was the first to wander into my office and nap on the desk while I was hooking up computers.

Unfortunately she was also the first to start peeing in places other than her litter box. The only cat to do so, I hope, although that can be hard to work out. At first it was the cushions I placed in the bathroom for their comfort—I’d see a damp spot, do a smell check, and sigh in resignation.

Sigrid had begun peeing on furniture—the most expensive available, naturally—several years ago, back in Oakland, when her older sister Gudrun Gjetost began her decline into late-stage kidney disease. When I finally had to put Gjetost to sleep, there was a giant Gjetost-shaped hole in the house, but the stress levels dropped almost as fast as I cleaned up the last of her messes and put away the many extra litter boxes I had placed everywhere. I hauled some ruined furniture down for trash pickup, and the household was at peace. But the peace didn’t last. Before long, I found damp spots, then I caught her in the act. I was back to stacking ottomans on recliners when they weren’t in use. Covering sofas in yards of foil. Removing dog beds and other tempting cushions. Using a lot of Nature’s Miracle and those yellow microfiber towels that you buy by the bale at Costco. Adding litter boxes. Experimenting with different litters. More urinalyses, more inconclusive results, more antibiotics just in case, more months in between intermittent accidents. Hormone sprays. Hormone infusers. More Nature’s Miracle.

As much special attention as I could ever manage—almost always snuggling for a long time in bed at night at the very least. She would purr as I snored. I’d wake up, arms numb, Sigrid still curled up on my hands. Things would calm down. For a while.

Before the movers came to gather up our stuff last August, I hauled several more pee-ruined couches and chairs down to the trash. In Montana, I bought new furniture.

The thing about Sigrid is, and I’ve already said this despite evidence thus far to the contrary, she was my shyest and most skittish cat.

Her whole life.

I picked her up from her foster home and had to wrestle her out of the crate she was hiding in—her foster mom couldn’t get her out, but I managed to, barely. I held her in my lap as I drove us home to Oakland, and she squirmed but mostly allowed me to hold and pet her the whole way home. That was one of the last times she put up with that, though, for a long time.

Sigrid joined my household before Kjersti, when I had a black lab named Candy. Sigrid came to us with an ear infection, and when I went to clean her ears out with Epiotic for the first time, Candy came running to her rescue. She’d had ear infections her whole life and knew that smell. Epiotic. Her job was to lick it up. She licked Syltetøy’s head. Syltetøy flinched, then relaxed under Candy’s maternal tongue. And from then on, they trusted each other.

Candy and Sigrid

Candy and Sigrid

When Candy grew too creaky to walk far, I’d bring her back inside and then take Kjersti the rambunctious new puppy on a longer walk. Candy would climb dejected onto the sofa to await our return, and most days Kjersti and I would get back to find Sigrid curled up in Candy’s chest, consoling her big black friend. Sigrid was skittish, but she trusted Candy, and when Candy needed her most, Sigrid showed up.

Sigrid mourned the day I brought home only Candy’s collar from the vet. Kjersti carried that collar around like a teddy bear for weeks.

Sigrid was sweet, fun, goofy, curious; all the usual cat things. Silky and beautiful. The most beautiful cat I have ever known.

But she wouldn’t curl up on my lap. Wouldn’t let me pick her up, carry her around, even hold her. She would only occasionally hop up on the arm of my chair and pet herself by squirming underneath my hand—if I tried to do the petting, she’d hop back down. Petting was always on her terms. For her first five years with me, she was this way.

Then Mira came along. Mira and I got to know each other over the course of launching this “kaddish in two-part harmnony” project, as my marriage was falling apart. It wasn’t long after my divorce was underway that Mira and I realized we’d fallen in love. So Mira started being a frequent presence around the house, and one evening to my astonishment I saw Mira carrying Sigrid down the stairs. Sigrid looked every bit as blissed out lying on Mira’s chest, in her arms, as Mira looked carrying her.

Mira had paused to rub Sigrid where she was napping in the bedroom, and after a long while rubbing away at her (something nobody else had ever been allowed to do), Sigrid let herself be picked up and carried. And then Sigrid napped in Mira’s lap—the first time she had ever napped on any lap.

In coming weeks, Sigrid Syltetøy began allowing me to pet her, too. Then she took the briefest of naps on my lap. Then longer naps. Eventually she would even let me walk up to her and start petting her.

A few years ago, after Mira came with me to the vet to say goodbye to Gudrun Gjetost, Sigrid Syltetøy became the senior cat. She had always been the “jam” to Gjetost’s “goat cheese,” and now their “crispbread,” Kaja Knekkebrød, was junior. Gjetost had slept most of her last year’s worth of nights on my pillow, curled around my head, and now Syltetøy began taking up her own nighttime post as close to my head as her skittish self could manage: in that “pillow valley.” At first if I reached out a hand to pet her there, she’d flee, but eventually she began to allow gentle petting, and after a few months, she’d allow me to hold her, purring sometimes even—as long as I didn’t move her, or twitch any muscle in a way that suggested I meant to move her or pick her up.

Most of my cats have been equal opportunity snuggle-puppies. They were raised by Labrador retrievers, and by me, also raised by a Labrador retriever. They have been happy, cuddly goofballs. Not Sigrid. Sigrid has always been a loner, skittish, particular. A one-person cat. Her person was Mira—another skittish loner, particular, raised by Siamese cats and German shepherds.

I was Sigrid’s second.

My longtime housemate in Oakland, Audrey, lived with the critters perhaps more than she lived with me, even. My work often took me overseas for weeks at a time, and Audrey assumed responsibility for all of their meals, litter-scooping, meds, and attention. Over time Audrey became at least as attached to the pack as I was. Every time I had returned from one of those trips, she’d report on her adventures with Kjersti at the dog park, her many wonderful cuddles with most of the cats, and then inevitably a despairing comment along lines of “Siggyboo almost let me touch her one night, but then she bolted.” Audrey felt rejected, and so had I for so many years, but over time she came to realize it wasn’t personal. She just wasn’t Sigrid’s person, Mira—nor her distant second person, Erin. Sigrid only had one and a half people.

During our time in Butte, my mom managed to break through Sigrid’s shell. Every time Mom saw her, she’d slowly bend over and hold her hand out for Sigrid to sniff. Sigrid would usually bolt, but after a few weeks, she began to allow Mom to pet her a little bit. I don’t think she ever quite brought herself to nap on Mom’s lap, but she trusted Mom enough that during my several weeks of business travel in October and then the six weeks that Kjersti and I lived alone in Helena, she managed to get enough attention that she only peed on the expensive furniture a few times. But Mom worried about her. She seemed sad, uncomfortable, unable to get warm.

Sigrid was at one time a burly twelve pounds. I can scarcely remember that time, she’s been thinning for so long. Eleven pounds. Ten. Nine. Eight and something. Seven. She became svelte, then thin, then frail.

Kjersti’s giant water bowl had long been the most important fixture in gaunt Sigrid’s world. A multitude of tests have not managed to reveal what’s been wrong with her, but something has been. She drank water constantly. She peed anyplace but her box. She huddled up to anything warm. She’d have a greasy coat for days, then suddenly be back to her silky beautiful self, only to get greasy and be a urinary recidivist. But her wonderful vets could never find anything in particular wrong with her.

Last night, yet another accident, yet another reagent strip that revealed nothing in particular, and finally the conversation I’ve never wanted to have, with Sigrid’s people: Mira and Mom. I think she’s uncomfortable. The destruction is escalating. I worry that she’s unhappy, and it’s not a kindness to continue being patient. Is there something I’m missing?

No.

Sadly, reluctantly, uncertainly, we all agreed. Our beloved Sigrid Syltetøy has not been having enough fun.

Erin with Sigrid on her last day

Erin with Sigrid on her last day

And so this afternoon, with nothing resembling certainty, I called and made the appointment. Come at 3:45. I put her in a harness, and we drove to our new vet, who had pronounced her labs all perfect only a month ago, but who also knew something was wrong. At her office, I spent a long hour cuddling with Sigrid, waiting. Waiting when a tech took her in back to insert a catheter and bring her back to my arms. Waiting for Dr Brenda to bring the syringe. Cuddling with Sigrid when Dr Brenda came in, rested one hand on my thigh and another hand on Sigrid while she quietly murmured loving things to both of us, then connected a syringe full of phenobarbital to Sigrid’s catheter and continued murmuring to us both while she pushed the relief.

I mumbled, I hope it’s the right time. Thank you for giving her a smooth exit. I hope someone will do this for you and me someday.

Dr Brenda fixed me with a long, sad look, and said, I hope so too.

Pause.

Stethoscope.

Nod.

Sigh.

“Take all the time you need. I’ll be right outside.”

Eventually I lifted her from my lap, set her warm, soft, silky body down on the table. Arranged her as she’d always arranged herself for her final nap. Gave her one last belly rub with my face. Nuzzled her cheeks. Sniffed her forehead and kissed her nose for Mira, as Mira would have done.

Got up. Wadded the pile of wet Kleenexes into my pocket. Gathered up her harness into my pocket, slipped her yellow tiger-striped collar over my wrist, crept to the door, and stepped outside.

Dr Brenda, despite what I could tell was a busy day, was standing nearby. She fixed me with another long, sorry look. I stepped toward her, put my arms around her, and said thank you. She held me tighter and longer than I can remember anyone doing. Another thank you, another long, sad look.

I went out to my car and fell apart. I texted Mira, again. She had been with us in the room, by text, by texted photos. I knew she was suffering at least as much as I had been. She wrote, “Farewell, little soft complicated one…I’ve always loved you best.”

And Sigrid always loved Mira best. Mira, big soft complicated one.

Mira and I parted in December. We have been in love with each other for eight years. We could never figure out how to live together. We had been breaking up in slow painful motion for years. Finally we admitted that we didn’t know how to be partners. Since then, we’ve been healing, coming back to the things we love, letting go of the things we couldn’t figure out. Falling apart. Talking, talking, talking.

When is it time?

It must be one of life’s most difficult uncertainties. I hope my timing was right for Sigrid.

Sigrid was always my most complicated cat, and she trusted very few people. Mira was her favorite, I was her second. And she liked my mom.

Mira was always my most complicated love, and she trusted very few people. Mira was my favorite, I was her second. And she liked my mom.

I am living in Montana now, with a dog and only four Siamese cats, and a yellow tiger-striped cat collar on my wrist.

A Kaddish for Sigrid Syltetøy. Rest in peace, sweet jam kitty, beautiful silky toy.

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guest kaddish: velvet marquesa flicka storm, 11 august 2005–9 april 2015

Dad (Paul F. Vang) wrote this remembrance of a darned sweet black lab, whom I named (see below) and will always remember as the best lap-lab ever. There was nothing quite like relaxing in a recliner with Flicka stretched full-length on your lap. We miss you, Flicka. 

If I had to summarize Flicka’s life in one sentence it would be, “She was a terrible pup, but a wonderful dog.”

Flicka came into our life in October 2005, after our then-current dog, Candy, blew out an ACL, less than a year after surgical repair on the ACL on her other knee. This theme will return.

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Flicka as a pup with big sister Candy in 2005

(c) Lieberman Photography(VSD 0026)

(c) Lieberman Photography(VSD 0026)

When we registered Flicka with the American Kennel Club, we gave her the handle, Velvet Marquesa Flicka Storm. She was our fourth Velvet Marquesa (all our Labs have been female, obviously). Our daughter, Erin, suggested Flicka, after opera singer Frederica von Stade, who is known around the music world as Flicka. We added the Storm to her name after her paternal grandfather, Sauk River’s Featherstorm, the star performer and stud dog of a Minnesota Labrador retriever breeder. Her father was Featherstorm’s Spare Change, so we wanted to keep Storm in the name. Her mother was Dakotah Rose, also the name of the Bed & Breakfast their owners operated along a bend of the Souris River in Minot ND.

For several weeks after we got her, she stayed home while Candy got in a few last hunts before Thanksgiving, when Erin asked to adopt Candy and give her a new urban life in retirement.

A couple weeks later Flicka started going with me on some late season pheasant and duck hunts. On December 16, 2005 she got her first good look at a pheasant. I wrote in my journal, “Flicka doesn’t quite know what to make of this big gaudy bird, but she’s certainly pleased about it.”

Flicka&Duck

Flicka’s first (or at least most photogenic) duck

A week later, she learned about ducks, when I dropped a drake mallard in an irrigation ditch. The duck was still quite alive, however, and swimming in the water. Flicka saw it and ran up to it. The duck swam off, with Flicka in pursuit. Flicka forgot all about the fact that she was getting wet and went plunging off after it. She got quite exasperated with the duck and at one point sat at the edge of the water, barking at it. Finally, she tried to pull the duck out of the water by pulling at the duck’s tail feathers. It wasn’t exactly a classic retrieve but it was her first.

While Flicka was off to a good start as a hunting dog, the following months were difficult. She did not want to be trained. She didn’t want to listen to directions from us. When spring came I took her with me for a few fishing outings, and every time I made a cast she’d make a mad plunge into the river to retrieve my fly. Honestly, I feared I’d never again catch a fish. The last straw was when, she found a rather ripe deer leg bone and started chewing on it, and when I tried to take it away from her she’d run away. She had figured out at that early age that she, on four legs, could run a lot faster than I could, on two legs. She followed that with a roaring case of diarrhea for the next few days.

We started calling her by a new name, Monster Mutt. I got to the point of considering we’d have to give her away and start with a new dog.

Finally, I decided to try an electronic collar, so that we could give her some negative reinforcement when she thought she was faster and smarter than us. It worked! Within a couple weeks the Monster Mutt became a good citizen. She even learned to leave deer bones alone when I zapped her on another fishing outing.

Once she became a good citizen, the training went well.

Incidentally, in the spring of 2006 we were in Minot and we went over to show her to her breeders. I related we had to use the e-collar to get her attention. The breeder chuckled and said, “Yeah, her mother was like that, too. We had to put a collar on her to get her to settle down.”

Dad and FlickaHer serious hunting career began that September, first with big blue grouse, on the high mountaintops and ridges. It was a down year for grouse, but I managed to get one and Flicka ran off and came bounding back with the bird, holding it firmly but gently in her mouth. She just made her first real retrieve.

In the next month she also learned about ruffed grouse in the foothill aspens and, in October, really learned about pheasants, and we collaborated on a limit of three pheasants on opening day. At one point during that day she let me know in a touching way that she loved her work. I’d stopped on a hillside to sit down and take a little break and give my legs a rest. Flicka sat down next to me and leaned against me as hard as she could, as if to say, “Thanks, I love doing this.”

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Flicka demonstrating lap skills with Erin.

As a puppy, she loved to sit on our laps and she learned to crave her daily “lap time.” After breakfast I’d sit in the recliner to read the morning paper, and Flicka would stay on my lap until Kay got up. Then she’d move over to her lap.

That lap time became almost a lifesaver for me. In December 2007 I started treatment for Hepatitis C. It’s a long story, going back to 1986 when I had a bleeding ulcer episode and had blood transfusions. 20 years later, after donating blood, the local blood service sent me a notice saying, “You’re infected with Hepatitis C. Go see your doctor, and never give blood again.”

Treatment for Hepatitis C involved lots of pills and injections that cause a raft of side effects (the standard treatment has changed since then), and I had most of them, usually feeling chilled and rundown, i.e., crappy. I don’t know how she sensed this, but she spent hours and hours on my lap, keeping me warm. The upside to all this was that the treatment was totally successful. After completing the six-month course of treatment the Hepatitis C virus was gone and I felt good, and haven’t had a bad day since.

The seasons progressed. From spring through the summer, she was my fishing companion, and then every September we’d start hunting, following the seasons of grouse, pheasants and waterfowl. If we were between seasons she loved long walks, and also insisted on a daily retrieving session. She was more than a hunting dog. She went with us everywhere, ready for any adventure.

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Granddaughter Bronwyn has traditionally posed for a picture with the Vang family dogs whenever a chance presents itself; this time, she’s sitting with her family’s Chloe, Flicka, and Erin’s Kjersten.

Flicka wasn’t a perfect dog. She certainly had traits that we tried to tame though we never succeeded. Unusual for a Lab, she thought she was a guard dog and always had to go charging after people that suddenly popped into her sight, such as the Culligan man (who had her figured out and usually came with a puppy treat) or UPS or FedEx drivers. Most people figured her out for a total fraud, such as the young woman, last summer, who was setting up a lawn chair to watch her husband fish. Flicka bounded up, barking and growling and the woman turned and said, “Well, hi, sweetie!” That was followed by an immediate love-in.

The day before Thanksgiving 2009, we were off on a hunt. We stopped at a tract of public land next to a highway. A person drove up to check mailboxes across the highway and Flicka went woofing off to check him out. Satisfied, she came trotting back, oblivious to an SUV coming down the highway. The driver wasn’t able to stop in time and hit Flicka. Flicka came, screaming with pain, back to me. I was afraid I was going to have to get out my shotgun and put her out of her misery. Surprisingly, she was able to get in the truck on her own power and the only obvious injury was a gash on her chin.

I talked to the driver of the car and he had a broken grill. I wished him well and assured him it wasn’t his fault that he hit Flicka. Then, before hitting the road I called home and asked Kay to alert our veterinarians that I’d be bringing Flicka in for emergency treatment. I got her in and they checked her over and concluded that aside from the gash in her chin, she was just bruised and banged up. They sutured her gash and after a few hours of observation sent her home with instructions to keep her relatively quiet for a few weeks while she recovered.

That was a horrible day but also a miraculous day, considering a 75-pound Labrador retriever colliding with a two ton SUV and the SUV comes out with more damage.

Considering that day, the fact she got another five hunting seasons was a true miracle.

Earlier that year, Bronwyn’s most-populated family-pups shot to date, with Chloe, Kjersti, Flicka, and Candy

These last few years we could see that she was aging. You’d never guess it when we were on an outing, because she, like most Labs, willingly put every last bit of energy into a hunt. I knew she was aging when, after completing a long walk for pheasants, she’d lie down and go to sleep at the truck, completely zapped. Before, she’d get a drink of water, beg for a treat and then start barking at me to go for another walk.

The last couple years a daily pain pill was also part of the routine. In the mornings, she’d often whimper before starting up the stairs from the basement where she slept.

Still, she never let her aches and pains get in the way of looking for birds or retrieving.

It’s amazing what a good dog can do with their sense of scent and a desire to retrieve. A couple years ago I shot at a pheasant. The bird kept flying, but I had this feeling I’d hit it lightly. It flew into a corner of the farm that had tall grass, weeds, willow patches and cottonwood trees. When we walked up to the cover I gestured to Flicka and said, “Go get it.” Flicka trotted off into the jungle and disappeared. For the next five minutes or so, I’d occasionally hear some rustling in the brush and once she circled within about ten feet of me. Finally, she emerged with a live and somewhat angry rooster pheasant.

I figured she’d earned a year’s worth of kibble with that retrieve. For her part, she didn’t quite understand or appreciate that this completed our limit of three pheasants for the day and that we’d have to quit.

Our son, Kevin, who first found Flicka in Minot, commented, “She was phenomenal. Every time she hunted, it was like she was putting on a clinic on how to hunt pheasants.”

Towards the end of the 2014 hunting season Flicka’s left knee started causing problems. On December 19 we went on a hunt. We were looking for pheasants, though this time we didn’t put up any roosters. We did put up a covey of Hungarian partridge and I managed to scratch one down. Flicka followed the scent trail up and over a hill, and came back with her partridge. She was limping quite a bit after this hunt and when we took her in the following week for shots, the veterinarian figured she’d strained her left leg ACL, and to keep her quiet for a couple weeks to let things heal.
Flicka's last retrieveHer last hunt was in mid-January, when we went out at the end of the waterfowl season. We didn’t see any ducks that time. We mainly went out to give a “thank you” gift to the ranches were we did much of our hunting. That December partridge turned out to be her last retrieve.

IMG_0309We had an extremely mild and dry winter, and we had our first fly-fishing outing of the year in mid-January, and the next in mid-February, and then almost weekly in March. She always went along and enjoyed herself, though after a day along the river we could see that her left leg was increasingly giving her trouble.
We had been trying to figure out what we should do with her. There is a surgical procedure to fix canine ACL injuries, but we were reluctant because of our previous experience with Candy. We were thinking we’d just retire her from hunting and start looking for a new dog to take over the hunting duties. Yet, as much as Flicka lived to hunt, we knew that would be really hard on her.

On April 7, Flicka was playing with the neighbor’s dog when she suddenly pulled up, holding up her right leg. I had the sickening feeling she’d blown her right knee. While she didn’t cry or whimper, I could see that walking was difficult and painful, as she really couldn’t put any weight on either back leg.

The rest of the day and the following day, we wrestled with what we could do to help her, as we watched her hobble, painfully, to move around. Finally, and with a heavy heart, I called to schedule an appointment with the veterinarian, and on April 9, we shed tears, caressing Flicka, while the veterinarian gently helped Flicka along on her last adventure.

This past week, starting when Flicka blew out her right knee, to saying goodbye to her, and adjusting to this great vacuum in our lives and home, has been hard. If I’ve been out, I keep looking at her doghouse, waiting for her to come out and bark at me for being so long in coming home, or coming home from an evening meeting and Flicka’s not there to greet me at the back door. I see her water dish in the kitchen and think I need to fill it, and then remember that Flicka’s not here anymore. When we’re eating a meal, she’s not curled up at my feet, hoping for something to fall her way.

IMG_6633The day after she died, I went fishing, needing some peace and solitude on the river to sort out my thoughts and emotions. It was one of the few outings in the last 45 years when I didn’t have a Labrador retriever at my side.

Oh, Flicka, your absence hurts.

Those first couple days after her death we could barely function, though we both had commitments to keep. But, every day, it gets better. We miss her, but we know she isn’t in pain, and hopefully she’ll be waiting for us when our time comes.

“May He who makes peace in His high places grant peace upon us.”

And if one chapter has closed, another is about to open. On the day Flicka left us, Kevin located yet another litter of black Lab puppies, and in May one of those puppies will be coming home with us. Over the years, I’ve counseled many people dealing with the grief of losing a dog, “The best cure for a broken heart is a new puppy.”

We’re taking our own advice.

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the stones I cannot place

My mother’s ‘passing’  has crippled my writing.  And apparently that’s not all. It would be unfair to blame her, per se, because that would be rude.  But I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that she’s had a hand in it.  Some lesson left to teach.

I thought what would be fitting (I had this brilliant idea last spring, when it had to be submitted), would be to handle it as I handle all things I don’t understand (the ‘it‘ in question being the writing paralysis, I suppose)—with academic distance and a sense of humor.

Ok, she stopped me cold. She stopped me flat. What was it she didn’t want me to say?

On Thursday I’ll be presenting my treatise on her miraculous exit from the physical world and ascension into something so clearly elevated, that it leaves me breathless (but hopefully not speechless).  I have been writing the piece.  It’s just still a little clunky. And this is Tuesday.The Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association are being held in my own beautiful City by the Bay, San Francisco this year, thank god. The conference starts tomorrow.

Our session is entitled The Boundaries of Consciousness: Visions, Delusions, Mind, and Brain.  And I named it such a) in keeping with the theme of the meetings (boundaries) and b) so that I could deal with my mother’s passing while surrounded by friends who might be looking at the same or similar phenomena.

It’s been a terrible year of death and dying, actually.

My wish had been that my mom’s departure (14 minutes into New Year’s Day) be the last death of the year.  That, apparently was way too much to ask for. As of today, not one, not two, but three friends and colleagues from the Anthropology of Consciousness have passed on into the vast nothingness of death (or if that’s wrong, wherever else they might find themselves). That would be: one terrible terrible suicide that I keep playing over in my head; one sudden heart attack and gone just-like-that, and one cancer of some sort.  Three very different ways to go.

My mom’s death feels like the only reasonable one.  She was, after all, on the near-side of 85. She grabbed that number by the hand and yanked it to her with all her might, celebrating that birthday a fortnight early. Her preemptive proclamation of 85 year old status needs to be credited to her account.  She was close, very close. Give it to her.  The quibble side of me, the side that likes precision and detail, says no.  The side of me that watched her go, says what the hell?

I’ve changed.

I let things go. I let them slip. I say, what do they matter?

I’m wondering what’s important and what’s not. I quit my job (but got called back again for one last emergency go). I’m lecturing without notes, without precision, sticking to the larger point, always the larger point.  I don’t care if they the students don’t remember detail. I can barely write them a decent exam, let alone grade it. I don’t care whether they use MLA or Chicago, or who gives a — I’ve let it go. I used to care.

And I’ve slowed down. I’m just not willing to speed from place to place. For anybody.

And I’ve sped up. There’re things I’d like to finish that have been left undone. That maybe matter for somebody.

Mrs Tzaddik has passed on.  I’ve sold her house to a family of Egyptians. Her objets d’art are distributed among hundreds, if not more, by now.  She’s blowing in the wind, blowing in the wind.

But here’s what I’ve held on to. The line I have not crossed.

A stone. A plaque. A something there. A marker for my parents’ graves. This, the hardest thing I’ve ever never done—as if the placement of that stone will hold them down and seal their tombs and fates, and keep them from ascending. Keep them from just rising back into my emptied life. They were large, those two. The holes in my heart are deeper than I thought could happen.  I thought this would be easy. Dr Efficiency, PhD.

My mom hated that side of me. Well now it’s gone. And because of that, she doesn’t have a stone.

But she’s not nagging, and neither is my dad. They’re not complaining. Yet.

Okay.

I’ll hold somebody’s hand, and do the deed. I promise.

And what’s the fear?

That if it’s done I’ll never ever, ever-ever, see them live again.

They will not rise. They will not speak. They will not teach or argue.

But even then, I’ll probably handle it as I handle all things I don’t understand.

Probably write a paper about it. The ‘it‘ in question being the completion of a ‘closure’ ritual, I suppose. With academic distance. And very likely no sense of humor at all.

 

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oh amy, how could you — a kaddish for amy smith

Amy in joy

My plan was that nobody else would die.  Ever.  My plan was to leave the death-and-dying biz to someone else; give someone else a turn.  My plan was that enough was enough. At least for this year. My plan was that only the elderly die, and that sometimes it’s a blessing and an end to pain.

But this kind of pain comes to all ages. How could I have forgotten that?  It’d been some years since I’d had a friend with suicidal ideation.  One of them was successful at it. And one of them suddenly snapped out of it, just like that. Awoke from the nightmare, and there he was—suddenly fully alive, vibrant, and whole.  With hope and joy in his heart instead of bitterness and despair. Finally.

But not Amy.

Yesterday she sent the terrible email.  Suicide note by email has the strange immediacy of someone hitting SEND and the word goes out, well, everywhere.  And hers began with an apology and said without flourish or beating around the bush simply that she was ‘gone.’  And spoke about her pain and what she had done.

Whatever she did—she had already done it.

We tried to find her. The police were slow.  Treated it as a ‘Missing Persons’ for a while. Facebook was slow (she’d posted an edited version of her email there)—because of the privacy issues involved.  The whole planet felt slow.  But a few hours later she was found. By the CA Park Service. By the rocks at Stinson Beach.

Amy was always meticulous. She was thorough. She got the job done. You could depend on her—but she did it her way. Whatever the task was, she could stick to it. Those are the qualities it takes to get a PhD in Anthropology or any other subject, for that matter.  They were also the qualities it took to put on our conferences for the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness. To keep up our mailing lists. To remind us when it was time to vote (or run for office). Remind us to submit abstracts to present at conferences. Remind us to register.  She was good at herding cats.

Being meticulous is how Amy handled her own demise, too.  She was thorough. She made sure that these obligations were taken care of—without letting on that that’s what she was doing.  This time, procrastination might have served her better. But Amy, when she set her mind to it, she got things done.

She asked me to help put on next year’s spring conference—and I agreed—not to do it myself, but rather to help her with it. To do it together. But now I see, that wasn’t what she had in mind.

Last week she asked me to get together. We live, after all, not that far from each other. But each date didn’t seem to work for her. She was going away on vacation, she said. She wanted to see me before she left. I wanted to see her after. Only looking back can I see the urgency in her words. I missed it at the time. I wonder if she would have talked or listened if we had had that time together.

I would have told her about L who felt himself beyond hope, redemption, or any rehabilitation. He’d go to the Bridge, and the waters below the Golden Gate would open and invite him in. We kept a watch on him. Took turns bringing him food.  As long as that frig was full he wouldn’t be so wasteful as to jump into the icy water.  We kept him alive with a frig full of groceries. Perishables kept him from perishing.  One day at the bridge, when he looked down—the waters below had shut their gate. He was no longer invited in. No longer welcome. And that was it—after so many months, his suicidal episode was over.  He’d call us each year on the anniversary of that day. He was downright unrecognizable from the agony he had carried. He’d worked it out. Worked it through. Worked with it. Worked around it. I think the point may be that whatever it was, it worked.

I wish I could have told Amy about L, his pain, and his ultimate survival. For if L could find his way out of the wilderness, even Palestine has a chance of finding peace.

“I love you, honey!” Amy signed her penultimate message to me. However she may have meant that lovely salutation (formulaic or heartfelt), I’ll treasure it. I’ll keep it with me always. Thank you, Amy, for all your gifts. What can I say, but that you’re sorely missed.

For Amy, with the beautiful smile—a kaddish.

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guest kaddish: Gudrun Fossum Vang (16 June 1905–3 April 1972)

Dad wrote this remembrance of his mother on her Yahrtzeit in an email to the family last week, and he agreed with my suggestion to post it here. I wrote what little I could remember about her last November in daily kaddish: making lefse the way my grumpy gramma did. —Erin
I had to look up the date for Easter 1972 to come up with the date of death of my mother and your various sorts of grandmother.

In 1972, Easter Sunday came on April 2. We had gone to Glendive to have dinner and spend the day with the Selvig/Vogele side of the family. We got back home to Miles City in early evening. Later that night, my brother, Carl, phoned, saying they’d called several times during the day trying to contact us. Our mother had collapsed that day and went by ambulance to the hospital in Red Wing, where she was in a coma. He called again in the wee hours to report that she had died.

We (Mom and I) didn’t get much sleep the rest of the night as we tried to plan out what we needed to do before we could get ready to hit the road for Minnesota. I remember going into the office for a few hours to wrap up a stack of work while getting an oil change on the car half a block away. I recall that we were able to hit the road by late morning and we made it to Moorhead MN, where we spent the night before going on to Zumbrota the next day.

After seeing my mother’s death certificate later that week we understood that she had a cerebral hemorrhage that I viewed as a merciful end to a long, slow deterioration in her health, as the ravages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) gradually made her a prisoner of her own body.

It was a battle that she couldn’t win, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. She and Dad had made a round of doctor-shopping trying to find someone who could offer some hope. When that didn’t work they went to various preachers who billed themselves as healers.

Dad said they offered some hope “if they had faith.” With a sigh of resignation he’d say, “I guess we didn’t have enough faith.”

He had nothing to apologize for. He’d cared for her throughout her decline and they’d gotten to the point where her care would be more than he could handle. The end came at a good time.

Gudrun Fossum was the first child of Carl and Sophie Froyum Fossum. Her father was a farmer/businessman and evidently relatively prosperous, based on the house they’d built on the farm in about 1912.

She graduated from Wanamingo high school and put in a year of piano, organ and voice study at the old Red Wing Seminary, a Haugean Lutheran school later absorbed into St. Olaf College. She often maintained that St. Olaf bought out the Seminary to get their grand piano.

She returned home to the farm between Zumbrota and Wanamingo and made money teaching piano. She also told of playing piano and theater organ for silent movies at a local theater.

I never really heard any stories of how she and Henry Vang got together. It was likely inevitable from the standpoint of the social connections in the lutefisk ghetto of the area. Henry was a working fool, as he tried to accumulate enough money to start farming on his own, so worked for various farmers in the area. His sister, Ragnhild (Ragna) married a brother of Sophie Fossum, so the hookup of the spinster piano teacher and the Norwegian bachelor farmer was probably only logical.

They married in 1932 and moved onto a farm east of Wanamingo, where Carl was born in 1936. They later moved to another farm a little farther east, north of the little crossroads of Hader, and that’s where I was born in 1939.

In 1942, they came up with a down payment on a farm just north of Zumbrota and moved there, and that’s where Carl and I grew up. We went to a one-room country school a quarter mile away (seemed like a long walk back then), until we were able to transfer to “town school” in Zumbrota.

Music was a continuing theme in Gudrun’s life, as she continued to teach piano lessons to a never-ending line of kids with various degrees of musical talent. Some of the kids were pretty good (or so I thought) as they would be accompanists for musical groups at the high school. I was one of her failures, though she kept pushing one thing or another until I started playing horn in the summer between 6th and 7th grade (the transition period between country school and town school).

She would occasionally play the organ for church, though that wasn’t often. She often sang solos for funerals, with “Den Stor Vid Flok,” a traditional Norwegian dirge that’s still (in translation) in our Lutheran hymn book, a seeming favorite.

Besides music, she was hooked on whacko conservative political ideas, and faithfully listened to a bunch of right-wing commentators on the radio, the Joe McCarthy-era spiritual ancestors of Rush Limbaugh. In addition to her conservative politics she also (remarkably for a life-long Lutheran) would rail against the Lutheran church, and especially against Lutheran liturgy.

Back in the early 1970s, the church where I grew up, United Lutheran Church, went through a merger with the Lutheran church a block away, Redeemer Lutheran, to form United-Redeemer Lutheran church. She and Dad joined a splinter group that refused to go along with the merger and they were among the group of families that formed Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, a so-called “free” church.

That church was under construction during her last couple years and hers was the first funeral to be held in that church.

In spite of her right-wing views on politics, if she were around today she would have some fervent disagreements with some current conservative politicians. For one thing, she long felt that we should have socialized medicine in the U.S., as she thought the existing health care system was only good for lining doctors’ pockets. She would be aghast at the likes of Rick Santorum and his views on birth control. She really thought that big families were ridiculous and that some of these women who had one baby after another should think in terms of some Lorena Bobbitt-type solutions (and said so, too).

So, what did she think, then, of her second-born who went off to St. Olaf, became a Democrat and then started a career with that bastion of the hated New Deal, Social Security? She did once say something to the effect that that was better than if I’d become a Lutheran minister (at least in the establishment-type of Lutheran church).

So, there you have it, a look back at a person who would be just a fading memory for Kevin and Erin and totally unknown to the rest of you.

She was an intelligent, well-read person, with a lot of musical talent and some really strange political views. She died too young, at not quite age 67, even if it was a merciful end. We still have her piano, which came into our home the summer after her death. Incidentally, that wasn’t the piano I took lessons on. She got a new  piano after they built a new house after Dad retired from farming.

Requiascat in Pace (though she’d hate that papist Latin, too). That’s another good reason for living long past your parents—you can be a little insulting and there’s nothing they can do about it.

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occasional kaddish: for Josephine Selvig Anderson (11 April 1915– 22 January 2012)

Play

My great-aunt Joad died a few days ago, of wicked old age. My family—the family on Mom’s side, at least—has a bit of a longevity problem, especially on her dad’s side. Great-grampa (Herman) Selvig didn’t get around to dying until he was 102. I’ll never forget the day we visited him at the nursing home (which he didn’t enter until the tender age of 99!). A nurse came by, all upset because she couldn’t get him to stop smoking his infernal cigars. “They’re bad for his health!”

My mom had the only sensible reply I can imagine:

“He’s a hundred years old! I don’t think they’re killing him. Besides, it’s one of the few pleasures he has left! Let him enjoy his cigars.”

“Hrrmmph. [Grumble, grumble.]” was the reply, as I recall.

His son, Mom’s dad, my Grampa (Morris H.) Selvig—my hero, my Tzaddik if you will—managed to die sooner, at 89, but that’s only because he was in line for the Parkinson’s that took Great-gramma (Martine) Selvig in her nineties, a good ten years after most of her marbles had gotten misplaced. Like her, he spent his last several years sensible only part-time, but he was still himself despite the increasing fogginess.

Joad was Grampa (Morris)’s sister. She died this week at the age of 96, having been getting foggy and frail only for the last year or so. Survived by three generations, Joad was old but mighty. Her obituary reports that her great-grandkids referred to her not as “Great-gramma” but “Gramma the Great.” Sounds about right to me.

She was born in 1915, five years after her brother, my grampa, Morris. In a day when women didn’t tend to become something, she became something—as did another sister of theirs, Effie Selvig. Effie was a schoolteacher in the storybook’s one-room schoolhouse, and a bunch of other things in her long, varied, never-married life. (One of my real ancestors? Who knows? I’ve often wondered.)

Joad went off to college and had a career of sorts going when she…

…well, that’s when she got married and raised kids and did the stay-at-home mom thing. Until hubby died, and she was back to career woman.

I didn’t know her all that well, to tell the truth, but here’s what I know. She was smart, kind, and imperturbable. Tough in that understated Norwegian way—soft smile, reserved unsmile, quiet comment, that sort of thing. No creating ruckuses, raising eyebrows, going off in a temper tantrum about much of anything. That’s not the Nordic way. She was the type to stand sturdy through it all.

Picture the crooked, leaning trees that nevertheless grow tall and broad—they spend their whole lives buffeted by winds. They survive blizzards and floods and tornados and fires, and you know they’re not going anywhere. They’re not beautiful nor particularly impressive, and that crooked, bent-over strength is easy to underestimate. But there they are, shading your picnic. Keeping your fields from blowing away in a dustbowl. Holding the hill up off your road.

She didn’t say much, either, not that I remember, anyway. But like Grampa and everyone else I ever knew on that side of the family, when she did have something to say, it was worth listening. And if she got to telling a story, it was worth listening hard.

She was the last of her generation. Another one to miss.

I didn’t record a kaddish for her tonight. Instead, I recorded some traditional shofar calls. I just had a tutorial from Mira, using primary sources of course (you can find the damnedest things on YouTube now, you know), and in true brass-jock fashion I needed to demonstrate that I’d learned.

The four traditional calls—Tekiah , Shevarim, Teruah, Gadolah—are, in order, Awakening, Broken ones, Alarm, and the Great Awakening. I do each one a few times, then I cycle through all of them again.

I think Joad would approve—don’t mourn her, wake up and live, darn it!

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and death is so much closer than it was—a kaddish for rebecca fromer

The house is empty. I’m not sure what to do
and death is so much closer than it was—

The phone isn’t ringing
starting 5 AM
and every ten minutes or so thereafter

Even the delusions have stopped
having culminated in one final coup de gras

She ascended, ascended to Jerusalem.
I got calls from what they call the Holy Land
affirming her ascent

“She’s here! She said she’s here—”
her friend in Sefat affirmed
long distance
from the mystics’ town
above the Sea of Galilee

It’s quiet in the house. It’s palpable her absence.

But then there’s only stillness—
—still here to pay her bills
—still find them both a proper stone
—a million stills to figure out
—recite her tale to those who still don’t know

I’m alone for the first time in my life
with neither father nor mother
nor surrogate of any kind

It’s way too quiet here.

Quiet inside and outside—
Just quiet.
No demands and no delusions
No glaring fierceness in her words or silence
No words from him of guidance

She the poet of the wordless stare
Our Lady of Severity
Lest you forget
The Holocaust—

Seductive la Culevra de Aragon
La grande dame de Calle Sefardiyah
La reina in her castle
Villa Narcissus
it’s really called that
really really called that
and so is she

My mother’s gone and left me
—still here to pay the bills
—to answer phones
—to tell her lover she’s not home
—and this time she’s not lying.

And when the breezes reignite
And sounds return, and breathing
I’ll know she’s here, I’m not alone—
just more afraid of dying

 

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easy come easy go: a kaddish for adrienne cooper

I hadn’t thought about her since we were kids. Hadn’t thought about what might have become of her. What her contribution might be to the world. All I remember is that she was a prima donna when I met her. In 5th grade.  Unreachable. Unapproachable. Two years my senior, and yet we were in the same Hebrew School class. For years. Years and years. Years and years and years. And I don’t think we once shared a single conversation. Not a single sentence did we exchange.

But a video of her singing crossed my FB feed tonight. And I thought, Adrienne. Well, wow. Well done, Adrienne. There you are on stage and I feel exactly the same. Like a little bug in the distance watching the artiste. Would I ‘friend’ her? Would I, at long last, get to know the larger-than-life Adrienne Cooper?

I made some comment about how she didn’t seem to have changed a bit since we were kids.

And my friend who posted the video informed me about 10 seconds later that Adrienne Cooper died just a few hours earlier. On Christmas.

Not possible!

And I, little bug that I am, will never know her anymore than I already do.

Hebrew School at Temple Beth Abraham. Lessons with our beloved Rabbi Schulweiss. With debates on large, unanswerable questions. Adrienne always having a ready, articulate answer. And good posture.

And I, little bug that I am. Would think very hard. Slouch. And keep my mouth shut.

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nyt remembrances—a kaddish for departed strangers

Today’s online New York Times, front page and center has a spot reserved for readers to place a picture and their remembrances of those who died during the year. It’s an overwhelmingly simple tribute, moving to the core. Each photo is accompanied by a short paragraph. The pictures are from all stages of life, from childhood to the deathbed. And the paragraphs are candid and filled with love and idiosyncrasy. Check it out here.

The thing about newspapers, though, even online ‘papers,’ is that tomorrow—like those commemorated in the piece—it is all likely to be gone.  Still. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

What struck me, looking at all those faces, lives, and tales, is how comforting it is—yes, comforting— to glimpse all those departed lives. Comforting in that each one is being remembered. Memorialized. In the New York Times, no less. For the whole world to remember them, and know them, if only for an instant.

A kaddish for all those departed strangers throughout this, our kaddish in two-part harmony year.

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