Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Christmas Box

“Ah! How good it feels the hand of an old friend.”
― Mary Engelbreit

My favorite day of the Christmas season is when it arrives. Some years it has come before Christmas. Most years it comes a few days after. Only once in twenty years did it not come at all and I knew there was something wrong.
I can't remember how it started - this soulful exchange of boxes between Ann and me - filled with treasures.

The boxes' abundance or lack there of from year to year has reflected our respective financial states - some years the box brims. Other years it doesn't - but no matter - it's the friendship contained in it that counts. A long distance friendship that has endured over twenty years.
A friendship that began on a walk with strollers and bikes with training wheels - two young mothers colliding at the end of a driveway with four children between us -
Fast friends - instant soul mates - each sharing a love of the illustrator Mary Engelbreit, a hearty laugh, and deeply honest conversation.

Ann transformed our neighborhood with her enormous mid-western heart and joviality. Her two youngest children the same ages as mine - played dress up together and went to the same pre-school. They learned how to swim in my mother's pool. We trick or treated together, tugging a wagon behind us for tired little legs- and a six pack of beer. Ann organized neighborhood gatherings, dinners out, and lots of afternoon play dates.

Then, Ann moved with her family to Texas via St. Louis, her home town. As it happened, I was going to be in St. Louis for a conference that very summer, and so after she moved, I met up with her there - where she introduced me to the Mary Engelbreit store! I believe the box exchange began with Mary Engelbreit goodies - calendars, tea cups, ornaments, stationary - some years we even gave each other the same things!

Each Christmas, for over twenty years - UPS drivers in California and Texas have carried a box of treasures to Ann's and my front doors - and each Christmas, I wait until I'm completely alone - and then begin the joyous task of opening the box. Individually wrapped gifts - uncanny in their aptness - gifts that speak of the depth of understanding between us belying the long distance nature of our friendship. With each unwrapped treasure, a sigh - a smile - a tear - a giggle - a pause - a gasp - a memory.

Seven years after we said farewell in St. Louis, Ann and I met up again in Italy for a ten day excursion through Tuscany. The last time I laid eyes on her was in an airport in Rome seven years ago. Hopefully we will see each other again this summer. The T-towel I sent in her box this year bore the map of California. A note in her box to me indicated that this just might be the summer. It seems we have a pattern of seeing each other every seven years. We don't email. We don't facebook. We talk on the phone once or twice a year. But through the long periods of separation - and the ups and downs of our lives - the one constant connection has been our Christmas box exchange.

It seems we both outgrew Mary Engelbreit decor - or simply exhausted the inventory of potential Mary Engelbreit chachkies - but the box has always had a sense of magic about it. I think it is because it represents a commitment and faithfulness between two steadfast friends with an almost mystical - heart to heart connection. The Christmas box is a sacred tradition. It is a promise. It is a box filled with love.
It is a joyous celebration of the mystery of life. Each Christmas, as my hand digs into the bubble wrap and paper, it pulls out a wrapped package, big or small, that I know was touched by the hand of an old friend. And that is the greatest treasure of all.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Santa Claus is Coming to Town Again

The presents are wrapped, thanks to my son's girlfriend, who graciously offered to bail me out of a mounting pile of Amazon boxes and irresistible souvenirs from Hawaii. ( Why I thought that coconut shell soap dish would be a perfect gift, I have no idea!)
In the spirit of commercialism - no deep message today - I set myself to the nostalgic task of making a list of Christmas gifts I remember receiving as a kid....

1. I probably don't really remember getting this gift - but there are lots of pictures of me just shy of one year-old - with a great big stuffed hound dog with floppy ears. Mother looked like she was quite pleased - propping me up while holding the stuffed animal next to me.

2. Little Miss No Name - a pathetic doll in burlap and a tear permanently attached to her cheek. I'll bet I was about 7 or 8 years old.

3. A gold Schwinn bicycle with a banana seat, big handle bars and a white basket attached to the front with daisies. I was only allowed to ride in a circle in the cul de sac in front of our house.

4. My first guitar. My friend Susie got one too. There are pictures of the two of us in front of our Christmas tree, guitars strapped across us like a couple of folk singers. These pictures were taken minutes before we banged into each other and put a hole in the side of mine.

5. The 5th Dimension LP Up, Up and Away.

6. A 45 of Diohne Warwick singing Do You Know the Way to San Jose. I thought I was so cool!

7. A 45 of Peter, Paul and Mary's tear jerker I'm Leavin' on a Jet Plane.

8. Meeskite. Our Beagle. I asked Santa for a Dachsund after seeing the Disney movie The Ugly Dachsund with Dean Jones. I daydreamed of having a cute little weaner dog as my pet. Mother preferred Snoopy. It wasn't the only time Santa tweaked my list.

9. A Schwinn 10 speed bicycle. Now this one bears some explanation. I wanted a boy's 10 speed. The kind with the bar and bent over handlebars. On Christmas morning I awoke to a bright, shiny silver girl's 10 speed. It was slick. Santa wisely chose a girl's bike for me. That bar on the boy's bike my own version of "You'll shoot your eye out."
But unlike Ralphie, in A Christmas Story, my BB gun never materialized. I was secretly so disappointed. I never liked that girl's bike.

10. Clothes in I. Magnin boxes. I. Magnin boxes were similar to Nordstrom boxes. The problem was that I wanted wrapped packages in paper - but Santa clearly had other ideas. The bright silver metallic boxes glistened neatly under the tree. The spoiled "only-child-like" brat in me wanted paper, ribbon, and chaos like at the Shea's house.

Christmas at my house growing up was always a mixed bag. Mother was always mad. Dad would sulk. My brother would put in his appearance. A tinge of sadness hung over the house right along with the colored bulbs on the eaves. The tree was decorated from top to bottom - the balls graduating in an orderly fashion from smallest to biggest and Frank Sinatra played on the stereo.
Dad would buy Mother clothes that didn't fit. Dad would unenthusiastically open his tie box.
Bayberry scented candles with plastic holly wreaths lined the fireplace mantel from which fake stockings hung.
For some reason, Mother didn't fill Christmas stockings - so the tradition that my children have grown up with started the first year I was married - to this day, stocking stuffers are my favorite part of Christmas morning.

Some things about our childhood remain a mystery our entire lives. I don't know what it was that made Christmas so tinged with melancholy in my house - I yearned to be Heidi - but felt more like Klara. I suppose it was due to my parent's humble beginnings and their growing up during the depression rags to riches story - they showered me with the best and sheltered me from hardship. Funny how things stay with us. I still feel guilty about being disappointed on Christmas morning a midst the abundance of those I. Magnin boxes. I remember one Christmas in particular, when I opened the two piece cow-hide skirt and vest and leopard spotted coat. Mother detected my displeasure and told me she would give all my presents away to the Salvation Army for the poor children. I went into my room and put on every piece of clothing she'd bought - layered one on top of the other, to prove that I was grateful for them. I wince to this day at the scene.

My own anxiety attached to Christmas gift giving and receiving with my children must be traced to my childhood - Is there enough under the tree? Too much? Is it even? No matter whether the gifts were coming from Pic 'n Save - which they did in the early years of their childhood when we were cash strapped - or in shiny Nordstrom boxes - expectations and fantasy collide on Christmas morning. It's not easy being Santa Claus. So just for the record - Thanks, Mom and Dad. I know you did your best. You were right about the 10 speed. And Beagles really are cuter than Dachsunds.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Faithful Friends

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do during the Christmas season was to curl up on the couch in my parent's den next to the Christmas tree and listen to Frank Sinatra's Christmas album. A melancholy yearning would well up inside of me as I gazed at the colored lights on the tree particularly when the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" played.
Faithful Friends who are dear to us
gather near to us once more.
Through the years we all will be together
if the fates allow
hang a shining star upon the highest bough
and have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

There is something haunting about those lyrics.
Something prophetic.
It's the word "if".
The yearning, I suspect, was the desire to hold that if at bay -
Even as a young child, I knew life was fragile. I knew my secure slumber on my parent's couch next to that Christmas tree would not last. But "if" the fates allowed, maybe it would for just a little while longer.

Truth be known, I think I was lonely as a child - which is why my friends have always been important to me.
This weekend I spent time with some of those faithful friends. Childhood friends. College friends. Friends with whom no explanation is needed. We know each other's stories. We are intimate friends.

I took great solace in being with those friends this weekend. Here we are, fifty-somethings. Our faces have more lines. Our bodies are a variety of sizes. We are in various states of "shape."
We were young together and now we aren't.
We are peers
in the same stage of life.
Always have been of course -
but now, as we get older,
it matters.

These are friends with whom nostalgia is only a part of the picture. We do not live in the past. These are present tense friends. We're still making memories.

Friendship is one of life's greatest riches.
This weekend, as I gazed into the faces of such dear friends, my heart was full of gratitude for all the years we all have been together.

This weekend, I might just as well have been George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life."
I feel like the richest woman on earth.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

California Here She Comes

Yesterday, I closed my daughter's door to keep the cats out to spare her cozy, pink throw from becoming a blanket of white fur until she arrived on Jet Blue for her Thanksgiving visit to California. Yes, I said "California." Not "home." That's how she put it to me.

I'm coming to "California."
When I get to "California."
While I'm in "California."
Upon landing, I texted her "Welcome to California."

I guess that means she's a "New Yorker" now.
And I'm chopped liver.

I'm wondering if that means I can clean out her room. You know the one in California with all her stuffed animals, scrap books, mementos from childhood, high school, and college?

Do you suppose it would be OK to convert it to a sewing room? I guess it's a moot point since I don't sew. But you get my drift.

Of course she was wearing black. And boots. She looked quite sophisticated and as I watched her approach the car at Long Beach Airport I thought, "Well she really is all grown up."
After all, she has been living in New York for almost two years. She really is an Editorial Assistant and she really does ride the subway every single day. She really does have her very own apartment for which she recently purchased a chair that is more expensive than any chair in my house.

She has a nonchalance about her that can only come from living in the most frenetic city in the world.

Gillian left home.
I never did.
Mother left home. And came to California.
Where I still am.

It's an interesting phenomenon - leaving home - going to the big city - taking a risk - uprooting.

I'm still adjusting to having moved from North Orange County to Long Beach! Every time I go back to Anaheim, it feels like home.

Maybe that's why my daughter is just coming back to California. Maybe it's because we moved away from her childhood home a long time ago. Maybe Long Beach will never be home to her.

Well, never the less, as they say, "Home is where the heart is." I'm glad my girl feels secure enough and independent enough to live out her dream and adventure in New York City. And if New York is home then she knows she can visit California any time she wants to. I'll be here waiting with open arms to greet her - but not to hold on to her. No clinging allowed. I'm a big believer in letting go - no matter how hard it is.

It's Thanksgiving. My girl is snuggled into her pink blanket. Soon, the aroma of the turkey cooking in the oven will fill the house. The table will be covered in linens of gold, orange, brown, and green to match the fall leaves on the ground around my one deciduous tree. It may not be Central Park. But it's home.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Magic of Mayo

On my wall hangs a cross stitched verse from a song that reads:
Not often enough
We reflect upon the good things.
And those thoughts always center around those we love.
And I think about those people who mean so much to me
and for so many years have made so very happy.
And I count the times I have forgotten to say
Thankyou and just how much I love them.

Made by Mayo.
I am thinking a lot about my friend, Mayo.
Mayo who is everywhere I look.
On my walls.
On my shelves.
In my books.
In my kitchen cabinets.
There isn't a room in my house that doesn't have a piece of Mayo in it.
Even the guest bathroom has a watercolor from Priest Lake.
On the way to the garage there are pictures of our sons, as children in cowboy hats riding wooden stick horses and as young men ready to graduate high school.
My home is filled with pictures of our two families intertwined in good times and in bad.
On my dresser, in a small brass frame, there is a photograph taken by Mayo of my father in a familiar pose on the beach in San Clemente digging a sand castle with Mayo's daughter, Melissa who was no more than four years old.
Mayo's photographs capturing every gathering, every party, every important moment are everywhere.

Mayo was one of my first calls when Daddy dropped dead.
And Mayo was the last person with me by my Mother's bedside the night before she passed.
Mayo took the last pictures of Mother and me together.
Mayo was the first one at my door the day I got a sudden and shocking phone call that my beloved student Ben's father had killed himself two weeks after Ben had started college.

Mayo can turn a trinket into a treasure.
She helped me with every Tri-School Theatre show creating "gift items" to sell.
Countless trips to Shinodas
Inspired descriptions of keepsakes -
a Beautifully faceted acrylic violin for Fiddler.
Customized Noah's Ark gift cards for Children of Eden.

The Brian Shucker Inspiration Award was created in Mayo's living room.
Mayo's home holds memories of my first bridal shower over thirty years ago - a kitchen shower at which my ignorance of kitchen utensils became obvious with each opening. At that shower, Mayo gave me a recipe box filled with hand written recipe cards, a trifle bowl, and a cook book holder. I still use them.
My children now grown, still fall asleep at Christmas time on special personalized pillow cases made by Mayo. My Christmas tree is full of Merry Crismon ornaments.
When I put together the Beatrix Potter themed nursery for my first born, Mayo made matching accessories.
A framed cross stitched Beatrix Potter picture with the name and birth date of my daughter stitched into the image.
September 16th - a birth date shared by our two eldest.

I met Mayo in the assembly hall at Rosary High School on book buying day my Freshman year.
Turned out, Mayo was my French Teacher.
Mayo was my Drama Teacher.
Mayo was my Typing Teacher - even though Mayo couldn't type.
Mayo moved away in my junior year. My cedar chest is full of letters from Mayo.
When Mayo returned the next year, she was expecting a baby.

I remember sitting in English class on March 9, 1977 when Sr. JoAnn announced over the loudspeaker that Mrs. Crismon had given birth to a baby girl. The announcement was to the whole student body - but I knew something they didn't. That baby girl was named

I remember getting a phone call when I was away at college, that Amy had had a cerebral hemorrhage. Amy went on to be involved in Tri-School Theatre. I sang at her wedding
I remember getting a phone call just before Mayo was headed in to have a premature C-Section on December 23, 1986.
She asked Steve and me to be baby Jake's Godparents.
Jake and Brendan have grown up like brothers.
Mayo is Brendan's Godmother.

From Clarkston to Cayucos
from Washington to Maine
from souvenir shop to souvenir shop
My life memories are melded with Mayo.

And now, my friend, Mayo, is having a double mastectomy.
Breast Cancer may change Mayo's cup size
but it cannot change the warmth of her bosom.
Mayo has three children, but
Mayo is and will always be the loving, nurturing Mother for whom we all yearn.

That is the Magic of Mayo.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Best of Times

It really had nothing to do with the death of Steve Jobs. I was eligible for an upgrade. My iphone 3 had started to freeze up on me causing my blood pressure to spike as I punched at the touch screen in a futile attempt to text, scroll, or email. Perhaps most irritating of all was my attempt to hit snooze at 5:15 a.m. when the marimba hammered its staccato melody into my morning dreams. The frozen screen, combined with the occasional skip in the marimba beat - like a stuck needle on a vinyl album - was making for a less than peaceful beginning to my day. So, I'd had it. I marched myself over to Best Buy and placed a pre-order for the new iphone 4s. Very cool. Very with it. Very early adopter of me.

I put my $50 deposit down in return for a plastic Best Buy Gift Card that I could use toward the purchase of the new phone - a step I thought rather silly and a waste of a good gift card. Why in the world couldn't they just apply my $50 to the purchase right then and there, I wondered. But, in the new world order where the young and techno-savvy sales clerks rule, who was I to question this practice?

I received a call mid-week from one of those techno-savvy kids to set an appointment time to come in to Best Buy on October 14th to pick up my new iphone 4s. They were trying to control the flow of the crowds that were sure to descend on the store. We who had wisely pre-ordered our new phones would get priority. Very cool. Very with it. Very in the know of me, I thought. My nephew, who is a true earlier adopter, is one to get in line on the first day of the new release of whatever the new technology is - but this was the first time I'd ever been in the "get your new iphone on the day of its release" category.
So I made my appointment for 6:30 p.m. on Friday October 14th.
Did I want to trade in my old iphone? Sure, I said. What use is it to me? How much money would I be able to apply to my new phone? Depends on a number of variables (my word not hers ...she said things)
Did I want the shield?
Harder question. The shield is one of those things that irks me. Why do they make a screen on a $700 phone that needs at $16.00 shield that has to be rolled on ever so carefully with a damp sponge? Were it left to me to apply the thin plastic shield, I'd have one holy mess on my hands - being all thumbs - so this task is best left to the techno-savvy kid.
OK. I guess I should have it.
Do I want the non smudge or the original?
The smudges did bug me as did the fact that over time the shield started to peel off at the bottom.
Well, which one is better? I ask.
The new smudgeless screen makes the iphone harder to read, she says.
Forget that, I think. I'll live with smudges. I have a hard enough time seeing the thing as it is.
Give me the original.

All done. My order complete, I waited for the big day to arrive.

So last night, Steve and I drove directly to Best Buy. The balloons around the center of the store told us that we were headed in the right direction - the balloons - an empty promise of a festive time.
Let's just say the balloons contrasted with the blank, non-expressive - no affect - faces of the techno-savvy kids waiting on a few forlorn looking customers who sat or stood at the registers, some slumped over looking as if they'd been there for hours.

Oh no, I thought. Why had I made this appointment before dinner?

I have a 6:30 appointment, I say, obediently, as if checking in at a doctor's office. I followed the rules, I think. I am not one of those people who thinks they can just waltz right in and walk out with their new iphone 4s. I pre-ordered. I have an appointment! I think to myself. I'm a little early, I add, apologetically.
It was actually 6:15 but I am always a few minutes early for an appointment, a habit drilled into me by my years of theatre discipline.

The flat voiced techno-savvy kid didn't seem to care. My appointment didn't really seem to matter.
She needed a key to get into the cabinet where my prized new iphone was waiting.

Finally, out comes the little white box with the silver apple logo.
Do you need a case?
Yes! I want one that is rubbery so it won't slide off my car seat.

Gel cases are no more. And my old one of course won't fit the new iphone 4s because it is a different shape.

I search the aisle for one that I feel I can live with. There is something called an Otter Box - so if I drop my iphone 4s it won't break. But there is a hard plastic front cover that changes the touch screen.
No way. The touch screen is the whole point, right?

I settle for a blue case without the rubberized finish. I know this is going to drive me crazy.

So now we move to the register, where the expressionless techno-savvy kid stares into a computer screen and punches her keyboard over and over. The protection plan on my old phone had to be canceled. The new one started up. She had to call Best Buy (from Best Buy) on her cell phone to do this.

Then it was time for the trade in. Oh boy I think. This is like turning in your old Buick for a new Volvo!
She punches the keyboard. Stares at the screen.
Looks up expressionlessly and says, Your phone has no trade in value.


I am actually sort of glad that I won't have to turn in the old phone. I'm still a little skeptical that all of my data would be cleared from it. Like an old computer hard drive - best to leave it in the garage with all the other discarded devices that we don't know what to do with.

Then it was time for the data transfer. Off my techno-savvy kid goes to get some other computer thing that she hooks to my new and old phones. She stares down at it. Punches a bunch of very little keys. It's running slow, she says.

Of course it is.

Anyone who says that all of this technology makes things more efficient is crazy. Half the time, I can't take roll, print, or get on line because my computer is running slow. So we wait.

I look more closely at this kid. She is pretty. Fair skinned. A small diamond piercing her nose. La De Da De Da - we wait. She is from Northern California. Moved here a year ago. She shows me a picture on her phone of a dog her parents have just adopted after her family pet had to be put down. I sympathize and ooh and awe over the picture. She is going to graduate from college this spring. She wants to travel in Europe. Maybe teach English. Good idea, I think approvingly. So you want to do something other than data transfers at Best Buy? Yes, this is her college job. She has considered a Masters in Communication.

Communication?!! Good heavens, this must be a case of opposites attracting. At the very least, this kid needs to learn how to speak with some inflection - and occasionally show some expression on her face.
I wish she would speak with at least some melody in her voice. She needs a drama class, I think.
She stares down at the computer thing.
It's still running slow.

In the world of Best Buy where the mocking presence of balloons heralds a good time - I was descending into the abyss.
It was 8:00 p.m. Almost two hours had passed. I was hungry.

My 562 photos successfully transferred. My 265 contacts transferred.
We were finished.

Good thing it is the weekend. Because now I get to re-set my alarm, the weather in NY, Pittsburgh, Seattle and all the other cities where loved ones live, figure out how to make the photos come up when someone calls, select my apps, add my screen saver, set up my email and sync my calendar. Fun times.

But I am so cool. So with it. So early adopter!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bitter Fruit

This morning in the Wall Street Journal, Andy Crouch's essay, The Secular Prophet, asserts that among Steve Jobs' many qualities was his ability to "articulate a perfectly secular form of hope." Referring to the iconic image of the bitten apple as a sign of "promise and progress," Crouch claims that "all technology implicitly promises to reverse the (Biblical) curse (referring to the Fall of man) easing the burden of creaturely existence." He goes on, "Technology is most celebrated when the machinery is completely hidden combining godlike effortlessness with blissful ignorance about the mechanisms that deliver our disburdened lives."

Crouch takes a critical look at the text of Jobs' now wide-spread Stanford speech referring to it as Gospel of Self Fulfillment requiring stability and privilege. He takes a shot at Jobs' conversion to Zen Buddhism, and with this, the true subtext of his essay bubbles to the surface. By comparing what he claims to be Jobs' brand of evangelism as secular hope to that of Martin Luther King's - whose hope did not rely on self fulfillment, but rather to reach the promised land - Crouch's comparison between the two draws on the idea that one is essentially of a higher call, more noble, and while not overtly stating this, divinely inspired. It is an unfair and inappropriate comparison made through Crouch's use of the word "evangelist." While acknowledging that our troubled world needs hope and the hope that someone like Martin Luther King offered was a hope centered on God while Steve Jobs' hope was one centered on self-fulfillment and the empty promise of technology - the argument is in itself empty . Asking, "Is technology enough?" is a ridiculous question.

The suggestion that listening to one's inner voice or intuition on the quest for self-fulfillment is somehow a rejection of social responsibility and that technology is merely an empty promise of hope in the face of the world's ills, seems to me to be a distortion of Steve Jobs' legacy, words, and creative genius. Compare this essay, to an article in the LA Times quoting Stevie Wonder.
"The one thing people aren't talking about is how he has made his technology accessible to the blind and the deaf and people who are quadriplegics and paraplegics. He has affected not just my world but the world of millions of people who without that technology would not be able to discover the world."

Stevie Wonder sheds light on the immense good that came from Steve Jobs' following his "intuition." Where Andy Crouch calls Steve Jobs' message a "limited gospel of secularism, offering people of a secular age all the hope they need. People of another age would have considered it a set of beautifully empty promises not withstanding all its magical results."

Crouch says that "upon close inspection, this gospel offers no hope that you cannot generate yourself and only the comfort of having been true to yourself. In the face of tragedy and evil this is strangely inert."

Tell that to Stevie Wonder. Empty promises? Inert?

This is where self righteous over simplification cloaked in religious language is not only misleading, but dangerous.

While Jobs' Zen Buddhist beliefs may have kept him from claiming a higher power beyond his own genius, does that change the result of his work? Or lessen the impact? I think not.

I firmly reject the notion that Jobs' speech to those Stanford graduates was full of empty promises - or that by listening to one's inner voice somehow lessens the potential for good. As Stevie Wonder puts it,

" I'm just hoping that his life and what he did in his life will encourage those who are living still and those who will be born, that it will encourage them and challenge them to do what he has done... That will then create a world that will be accessible to anyone with any physical disability..."

So, because Steve Jobs was a Zen Buddhist, does this make his life less meaningful? Was his creative curiosity, iconically captured in the bite of the forbidden fruit, used as an agent of good? Are we as a society - as a world - better for it? I think one must argue that the answer is yes.

Is technology the answer to all of the world's woes? No. But to insinuate that by following what Crouch cynically calls the "gospel of self fulfillment" is an inert and empty promise, is purely religious propaganda and a shameful distortion of the good that comes from what I would assert as God's call for each of us to use our gifts and talents for the greater good.

That's my language, not Steve Jobs'. The fact that death motivated him to make "a dent" in the universe while he was on the earth, is what matters to me - not whether he believed in a heaven or not.

The result of his actions was the same. He made a difference. Crouch can discredit the form of hope Steve Jobs may have provided - but as far as I'm concerned, "Actions speak louder than words." Jobs lifted "the burden of creaturely existence" for many disabled human beings like Stevie Wonder. His technology has brought them more than hope. It has made them part of the conversation and given them unprecedented access.

To some, like Andy Crouch, who cling to a distorted religious rhetoric, the apple continues to be a threat to those who view self fulfillment and following one's intuition as reason to be cast out of the garden.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Job Well Done

It was 5:30 p.m. today during my rehearsal for The Diary of Anne Frank, that my stage manager announced, "Steve Jobs died today."
My reaction startled me. "What?" I barked. Then, to my complete surprise, I started to cry. There, in the middle of my rehearsal, with kids who never knew a world before Apple, never listened to music on anything but an iPod, who take smart phones for granted - I cried.

"Steve Jobs changed the world," I choked. "How many of you have iPhones? An Apple computer? An iPod?" They all raised their phones and iPods in the air. "Steve Jobs' creative genius made as much difference as Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell. Steve Jobs revolutionized how we communicate. Kids, we have all been witnesses to history."

I cried some more. "I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm just so moved that this man has touched us all with his creativity."

My students then immediately swarmed me with a group hug. And then, we said a prayer. "May he rest in peace," I said.

What in the world happened to me?

I mourn Steve Jobs. I mourn our lost future. But more than anything, I am grateful.
I was late to come to Apple - but Gillian was such a huge fan, she converted me into an Apple person. I am writing this blog on my MacBook. I love my Apple. Love it. Apple changed my life. Maybe that's why I feel Steve Jobs' death as if he was someone I knew personally. He impacted my life in a very personal way.

As I stood with my students in the middle of my rehearsal, Steve Jobs' death at fifty-six somehow made me face my own mortality. There in the midst of youth, I paused to consider that a life of such impact had come to an end. I felt sad for all of us. What more might he have invented had he lived? On the other hand, one could argue that he did more than his share with is short life.

I had never heard his speech to the Stanford University graduates. But hearing his prophetic and profound words, made me realize once again that we must live our lives every day as if it was our last.

I am in awe that I have lived in the same time as Steve Jobs. And I am sorry that his time has come to an end. "Your time is limited, so don't get caught living someone else's life, " he said to the Stanford Graduates of 2005.

Those are words I will try to live by.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Empty Nesters

"It's just you and me, kid," I said to Steve after it was clear that Brendan wasn't going to be coming home this weekend for dinner. We left the Coliseum after the USC football game and pondered our next move. "Let's go to El Cholo's," I suggested. This, a throwback to our college days of post-game festivities.

Where did thirty years go? I know this question hits everyone at some point, but as my thirtieth college reunion approaches, I'm simply flabbergasted at the passage of time.

Friday, on my way home from school, I had an overwhelming sense of longing for Gillian. It was four o'clock our time. I texted her. "I always seem to miss you at 4:00 on Friday afternoon." The weekend looming, I yearn for mother -daughter time.
A one liner in response.
"I miss you too."
It's finally sinking in.
We, are empty nesters. Our "children" have flown the coop. They have lives distinctly separate from ours.
Their bathroom sits, frozen in time for weeks on end - the towels untouched - waiting. There is no need to stock the fridge with their favorite foods. I air out their bedrooms and notice the piles of stuff left untouched in corners and it hits me. Their rooms are like mini-storage for what they decided they didn't really need. Their rooms have a temporary feel to them awaiting a visit - they are mostly uninhabited.

This week, I began to notice just how much time Steve and I are spending together, especially since we commute in the same car most days.
We wake up - have our first cup of coffee. Glance at the headlines in the newspaper. Get into the car and head off by six fifteen in the morning.
He drops me off at school.
After my rehearsal, he picks me up, we drive home and report to one another about the twelve hours we were apart.

Next, we tackle dinner - if I was proactive over the weekend, there are tuppers filled with hearty soup, a stew in the crock pot, or something marinating, ready to be thrown onto the grill. If I was lazy - we hit Islands, or Super Mex, or Mimi's Cafe for a bite before arriving at home.

By this point in our evening, we've already talked about the day - so conversation turns to politics, the poorly maintained sidewalks in our neighborhood, the collapsing seawall, or some other topic of interest.
We clear the table, clean up the kitchen, and set out for a walk. We come back, sit on our front patio and take in the salt air, happy to be living near water.

We used to treat ourselves to the occasional frozen yogurt from Golden Spoon until the shop closest to our house closed its doors this summer.
Our ultimate goal is to have our heads hit the pillow by nine thirty as a defense against the five- fifteen in the morning alarm.

On the weekend, we often go to the grocery store together. We kayak, read the newspaper, and watch our favorite shows that we have DVR'd during the week like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, or watch CNN and complain about Anderson Cooper - or pop in a DVD of Madmen or a Ken Burn's documentary . Lately, it's been Baseball. Before that, Jazz.Before that Civil War. We fall asleep to Frasier.

Our two cats, Hobie and Lido, who we fondly refer to as "the boys" are always happy to see us. Bounding down the street at the sound of our car, they greet us as if they were dogs. We talk to them as if they were people. This, I'm quite sure, is a direct result of not having children at home.

No need to shop for school supplies, school clothes, school shoes. No need to calendar all the sports schedules or back to school nights or plan the trip to parent weekend. We are not only empty nesters, we are post-graduate parents - the days of college visitations that dominated our lives for years - behind us. Now, we just open the mail and groan at the student loan hangover. I don't think I'd realized just how all consuming parenting was. I am only now realizing how strange it feels to no longer be "head coach" of our children's lives. Now they have to carry the ball and run to the end zone on their own. We are relegated to the side lines - cheering them on.
We watch our children from afar and wonder where their lives will take them. What choices they will make. Where their careers will lead and where they will end up living.

The empty nest is a new stage of life for us. In some ways it is a return to the beginning - when it was just the two of us. I suppose our parents wondered the same things about us thirty years ago.

In some ways the empty nest is freeing. I just haven't quite gotten used to it yet. All I can say, it's a good thing Steve and I like each other, because for the next thirty, "It's just you and me, kid."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fall Season

I don't know about you, but I am so relieved it is finally fall. Now don't get me wrong, I live for summer. I count down the days till the end of school just like I did as a child. I love the feeling of utter freedom and joy that comes with the long, lazy days of summer.

Growing up in Southern California, summer equals beach. Nothing stirs my sixteen-year-old sense memory like a sunny day at the beach. And on those overcast, gray mornings - "Do you think it will burn off?" is still my favorite question.

I love sand. I love sand in my shoes. I love sand between my toes. I even love sand on my hardwood floors.
I love the feeling of salt on my skin and the bristle of my hair after swimming in the ocean and sunbathing on the beach for hours on end. Summer sun draws me outside - beckoning me to sit in my white adirondack chair, lay in my zero gravity lounger, or just recline in my Costco aluminum beach chair. When I see the sun break through, I feel my skin sizzling with Vitamin D. I feel tan, healthy, and alive!

Summer days at the beach hold nothing but happy memories for me. On a hot, sunny, day at the beach I'm Gidget all over again. Without the bikini.

Still, I'm relieved it's over. All that pressure to relax. All that expectation of doing nothing. The stress of vacation planning. Behind me. Summer days come with a price. As I get older, there seem to be fewer of them, so each one feels inordinately valuable. Deciding how to spend a summer day creates so much anxiety, that sometimes it can be paralyzing - evidenced by the many projects still left undone, unfinished, and piled up in my guest room. "Should I spend today cleaning out closets, finishing that memoir, organizing the garage, painting the cabinet? Or should I go outside and enjoy the sun?" So goes the song, "Summertime and the livin' is easy."

More times than not, the sun wins.

When fall comes and school gets into full swing, my life takes on a familiar, comforting equilibrium. Rehearsals begin again. Syllabi need reformatting. The school year brings that wonderful sense of beginning.

I'm more aware than ever that the experiences my students will have in my classes and productions are going to make up a part of their high school memories. Their roles, their dreams, their opportunities, their futures are impacted by me. As I get older, my students get younger.
And their hearts seem all the more tender. Just this week, the girl I cast as Anne Frank, threw her arms around me and said, "Thank you, Mrs. Barth." In that moment, I remembered why I love what I do.

I suppose all that time relaxing in the sun contributes to my enthusiasm for returning to the daily chores of teaching and directing. By June, I will most likely be counting down the days again. I will most likely return to that pile in my guest room and the whole cycle will begin again. Sun or sort?

But for now, it is fall and with it brings another season out of the sun, in the darkness of a theatre where my soul gets its injection of whatever the creative equivalent is to Vitamin D. Call it passion.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Worried Mother

The ultimate anticipatory anxiety - waiting for Hurricane Irene to hit New York City.
The ultimate letting go - I can't do a darned thing for my daughter except to send her annoying text messages about getting batteries, peanut butter, water, and flashlights. As if she couldn't figure that out for herself!
She is in an evacuation zone so after battling her way through the little hardware store down the street in the east village, she has headed to the upper east side to hunker down with a couple of friends from NYU.

I had a conversation with my mother. If there was ever a time for her to intervene, it is now. I do that. Whenever I have to perform, I talk to my brother, Bob. When I'm worried about Steve, I talk to my Dad. But this one is for Mom. Her practicality, sense, and preparedness all of my life is definitely what we need now. "You never know when you might be invaded," she would say - thus our cabinets were always full of canned goods and her gas tank was never lower than a quarter of a tank.
Driving home last night from school, I noticed that our tank was lower than half and I nearly pulled into the Mobile station until I remembered that I live in Long Beach, California, not Long Beach, New York and that the hurricane was hitting the east coast not here. (I do plan on sorting our our emergency supplies again, though. I'm almost scared to look at that food I put into those plastic containers a couple of years ago. It's time to rotate the stuff and reorganize. Now that I'm commuting, our trunk needs to be ready with more supplies than our home.)

Not only am I worried about Gillian. There are a lot of people I know in New York and on the east coast! Our friends Teri and Darcy with whom we just spent a few days snorkeling in Hawaii have just taken their daughter Emma to Washington DC for college. They managed to fly right into the middle of this. The week started with an earthquake! What a beginning to Emma's college experience! And then there is my cousin Erin who is in North Carolina. I have a lot of former students in the New York and New Jersey area.

What did we do before the weather channel, Facebook, CNN, and twitter? Here I am sitting in my den in California, experiencing this event moment to moment. The great thing about social media and cable TV is that when you want the information it is right there waiting for you.

News alert: The trains, busses, and subways in New York are going to shut down in an hour. I'm sitting in California, but my anxiety about this news and that the city will essentially come to a stand still until the wind and rain hit is a visceral experience for me. There is a strange sense of isolation that I feel thinking of my girl in the middle of this. I've never had to ride out a hurricane in my life.
I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not riding this one out either.
Gillian is.

Mom - I'm counting on you! Take care of our girl!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Thank You, Mr. Sondheim

I have been slowly making my way through FINISHING THE HAT, Stephen Sondheim's instructional memoir about musical theatre. I say slowly, because each chapter is an in depth analysis of a different musical, complete with lyrics, anectdotal stories , biographical information, commentary, confession, and cautionary tales. I'm reading this book one chapter at a time.

Now this is less a review of the book (I'm only half way through - having just finished DO I HEAR A WALTZ? ready to jump into COMPANY) as it is a reflection on what I've learned thus far. I figure, as an aspiring writer, former musical theatre performer, lover of musicals, and all out musical theatre fanatic who has thus far failed to successfully create one of her own, I might as well learn from the best, right? Each chapter of FINISHING THE HAT feels like a master class taught by Mr. Sondheim.

There is much to be learned about rhyme scheme. He has strong feelings about what he calls the "sin" of the misplaced stress in lyrics. But, the one line in the book that hit me between the eyes, made me close the gigantic blue cover, sit back, desire to argue, and then force me to face my own conceit, was that writers "should not direct their own work."

He uses his experience with ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, the show that he and Arthur Laurents created, and Laurents directed as the basis for his warning. While arguably the first "absurdist" musical, it was by all rights, a commercial failure with some great songs.

Sondheim says that a writer, "creates." A director, "interprets."

"Yes," I thought. "That is exactly right. I am more of an interpreter than a creator." Now grant it, my directorial experience has primarily been in the field of educational theatre, thus it comes with the many layers of "teaching" along with interpreting. In fact, getting to the interpretation is itself an educational process. Through my directing, I teach how to analyze. Because it is my job to encourage young artists, my work with them is often their first collaboration.

There is so much for them to learn. I have never been a director who spoon feeds. At the point I'm forced to spoon feed, I have become desperate. It has happened only a couple of times in my career as a theatre educator.

No, my way is the way of digging, questioning, working with the actor to come to some understanding of the playwright's intent. It is my job as the director to make that clear - moment to moment -through physical and inner action, stage picture, pause, and delivery. As a theatre educator, each one of these aspects of an actor's performance includes teaching - the degree to which depends obviously on the innate, intuitive ability of the student. Sometimes the job requires a lot of "undoing" particularly with the "highly experienced" student whose background includes a lifetime of children's theatre.

More often than not, students come with no training, only performing experience. Moving them from "performer" to one who appreciates the "craft," is a process that requires immense patience and an understanding that the awakening of the artist may not occur until long after the rehearsal and performance experience is completed.

The young, new, actor is blindly trusting me to mid-wife their own artistry without realizing that that is what is happening. Through a uniquely individualized, nuanced process, the student, grows to understand that in acting, he is the instrument. A musician learning to play the violin must know how to read music, commit to a discipline of practice, and develop the technique of bowing. These skills ultimately move the player into the world of interpretation and artistry.

It is the same thing for an actor, only in his case, the instrument is himself.

Interpretation of a musical includes understanding the plot, characters, and story - "the book", the lyrics of songs, and the orchestration of the score. The role of music in a musical may seem the obvious distinguishing feature of the genre - but as a director, I spend as much time listening to what story the music is telling me through its style, melody, tempo, rhythm, crescendo, decrescendo, and structure as I do analyzing lyrics. The music often conveys a character's motivation, decisiveness, uncertainty, and feeling. How the lyrics fit with the music and how they interweave with the book are also part of the interpretation.

In FINISHING THE HAT, I have learned that the process of creating what, as a director, I interpret, takes enormous skill. It's not that I didn't know that. Nothing in art comes easy. But it is important to recognize in one's self, where one's expertise lies.
A writer "creates." A director "interprets."

The desire to create may be a driving force. Whatever the motivation to do so, wisdom, and Mr. Sondheim, dictate that there be someone with some aesthetic and emotional distance, to interpret what you have written.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Not Much to Say

The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.
George Bernard Shaw

Recently I've found that I have had nothing to say. Have you ever felt that way?

In conversation with others, I've had virtually nothing to contribute. Oh, an idea might flash, an opinion might come to mind - but the energy required to formulate the opinion into something more than half baked has been more effort than I've wanted to invest. Thus, the thought hasn't made it passed my lips. In a word, I've been lazy.

I've felt shallow. Boring. Uninteresting. Dull. Blank. My responses have amounted to a lot of "hmm's and huh's." Unfinished sentences left dangling. Questions left unexplored. Mental shrugs of "I dunno...."

For example, last night the question of why people research their ancestry arose. Why do people need to look into their past? I listened to the conversation feeling overwhelmed by the question. The answer seemed quite obvious to me. Our need to understand who we are - to come to know ourselves - is one of the driving forces of human nature. Identity and self may be defined in any number of ways - but coming to know our story - the narrative of our lives- the evolution of our family history within a greater context of time, place, culture, society, and circumstance gives us insight and perspective. The "then" is contrasted with the "now." By looking into the family history and genealogy, pieces of ourselves become clearer - our personality, our level of determination, our addictions, the patterns - Isn't this why adopted children go in search of their birth parents?

The diagram of a family tree, each branch bearing names and dates of distant relatives - strangers really, also contains their untold stories. The stories of survival and loss. The stories of joy and heartbreak. The stories of courage and cowardice. Their dreams, their hopes for a better future, their failures. Boom and bust. Black sheep and golden. Robust and sickly. The unlikely and predictable. The stories that shape the trajectory of a family against the back drop of chance, luck, fortune, opportunity, and instinct.

The desire to know begins, I think, with curiosity. It is sustained by a love of story. It is fueled by imagination. It is deepened by a need to understand.

I guess it is no surprise that I am to the core, a dramatist.

But last night, I didn't say any of that.

Sometimes, conversation is just too much energy. Thoughts emerge. The thread of one thought connects to the thread of someone else's. A debate may ensue requiring defending one's position, the parsing of words, the recitation of statistics, the retrieval of a fact buried deep in the recesses of one's mind - the frustrating feeling of "I used to know that."

There's a lot to talk about these days. The economy. The achievement gap in education. The budget. Nutrition. Technology. The state of healthcare. There's a lot to feel bad about. How one parented. The choices one made. The passage of time. Getting old. Whether to get a colonoscopy or not. People getting sick. Terrorism.

I just don't want to talk about it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

In Gratitude

It has taken me seventeen years to complete this portion of my memoir. It has gone through numerous stages – beginning with the raw outpouring of emotion in my journal. Sometimes wildly scribbled on unlined and lined pages, it first began to take form during a writing workshop I took in Idyllwild, taught by Cecilia Woloch, the summer my brother died. I have Cecilia to thank for first drawing the story out of me and then, fifteen years later, editing it. I owe it all to Cecilia, for affirming me as a writer.

The journal became a collection of individually typed essays and poems. As a theatre director, I began a collaboration with a colleague and friend, Chris Winn, who set some of my poems to music. Over four years, we created two theatrical collages during the Lenten season at two different church communities, St. Matthew Church and St. Paul Lutheran Church. I have both those faith communities and the individuals who publicly gave voice to my words to thank for believing and supporting what was still an embryo of an artistic creation. As a writer, I was still not sure what form the story should take. Should it simply be a loose collection of poems and essays? I even flirted with turning it into a play, a musical, an oratorio, and an opera.

As the years passed, my spirit began to heal. With the passage of time came an aesthetic distance. I tucked the pages of my unnamed work away in a binder, in a filing cabinet, in a box. I moved four times between 2003 and 2007 and each time, the box came along – tucked up in the garage or under my desk. Most of the time it stayed unopened.

In 2005, I began teaching a personal journal writing class to older adults through the community college district continuing education program. My journey with this incredible group of writers sharing their life-long lessons of grief, loss, joy and sorrow was inspirational. Their generosity of spirit put my own story into perspective. I came to realize that while my journey was particular to me, it was not unique. Grief is a natural part of life. On the day that my mother passed, March 20, 2007, I spent the evening with this group of writers at a reading we had organized months before. There was nowhere I’d rather have been on my first night without my mother than with them. I watched the audience respond to their stories and I knew that in time, I too would need to share mine. It has taken me seventeen years to name this work as a memoir.

While I wrote this memoir out of my grief and revised it out of my artistry, it is first and foremost for my family. For my nephews, Rob and Matt, my brother’s sons who are as close to me as brothers themselves. It is for their wives, Joanne who entered our family with a platter of cookies on the night Bob passed and it is for Marisa so that she may know the story.

In my classes I often quote, “Our life is our journey, our journey is our story, our story is our legacy”… it is my hope that this story will one day provide my brother’s grandchildren, Hannah, McKenzie, Elise, Reid, Madeleine, and Jacob an understanding of their fathers’ courage and a glimpse of the beautiful complexity of our family and the legacy of love left by their grandfather, Bob, whom they never had the chance to meet. It is for their Nana, Peggy, who is and has always been the closest soul mate in my life. It is for Lenny and Linda - each whose place in our family tree is firmly rooted.

I have often lamented that at forty-eight years old, with the passing of my mother, I became the only survivor of my family of origin. This is a difficult concept for me to grasp and in time I will come to accept it. But I am also aware that my nuclear family is my family. This is for my children, Gillian and Brendan who have grown up with this story and are the most important part of my family’s story. And it is for the person who completes me - my husband, Steve, the steady and able captain of our little ship for whom no words are adequate. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for getting us through. I owe him my life.

I have many other people I wish to thank for companioning me through various parts of this journey. In particular, I would like to acknowledge my friend and spiritual advisor, Mary Loyola for being their at the hardest times, to Celine Miller who rescued me from the depths of depression and generously counseled me during some of my darkest times, to Gayle Hartell who mid-wifed me into being and to my life-long friend, Mugs for being herself and for giving me Cayucos. And to my many friends and colleagues who’ve supported me along the way over the years – Mayo Crismon who is always the first at the door in times of heartache, Susan Wuerer for her creativity, Tricia Homrighausen for being the vessel, Judy Jones for her faithfulness, Mary Barth for being a sister, Katie and Tony Bomkamp for their tenderness, Camie Booker for being at my mom’s bedside on her last day, Diane Bock for her perspective, Teri Rice for rescuing us, Ellen Wright for showing the way, Susie Smith for being my oldest friend, Deb Langhans for her honesty, Kathy Cleary for her generosity in my early days of grief, Virginia and Dan Knowles for their compassion, Darcy Rice for his support of my writing, Michael Kavanagh for being my kind “God-brother”, Giovanna Piazza, for her wisdom, Laurie Julian for her spirit, Corrine Bailey for first breathing life into these words, Peter and Mirella Hickman for their loving, prayerful support, Cindy Warden for making my dream come true, Randy Hills for our partnership and especially to Chris Winn - for the music, for the music, for the music.

This story is meant to be a loving tribute to my brother, Bob. Since it has taken me so long to finish it, I have matured and gained perspective over the years. My writing process often mirrored the stages of grief, remaining in the anger stage for a very long time. I can say with certainty, that I no longer have any anger – only compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, and appreciation for every part of this story, written, and unwritten. The title, Aria – seemed only fitting for a beautiful, tragic story that took on operatic proportion in our family. While through most of this story, Bob’s voice was muted, it will always sing out in my memory.
Finally, I wish to salute my mother, whose courage and strength in the face of tragedy and loss may be the greatest legacy for us all. When I asked my mother years later how she was able to endure watching Bob die, she told me, “I’m just glad I could be there for him.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

Aria- A Sister's Journey With AIDS

I've never been good at reading graphs. But this one was personal. There, on the page of the Los Angeles Times, was a graph beneath the headline AIDS at 30. My eyes scanned left to right and landed on the year. 1994. Deaths from AIDS in the US had exceeded 50,000. My brother was one of them. And there right next to the column read 1995: Introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy. Missed it by that much.

To read my memoir
Aria- A Sister's Journey With AIDS
from the beginning, please go to June 5, 2011

A Message to Caregivers

I never thought I’d know my brother. I never thought it would come in the last month of his life. I never thought I could do what I did. I never thought I’d recover from it. I never thought I’d be a caregiver. Death put everything in perspective for me. I know now that it is not the great, profound experiences that give meaning to life, but the tiny moments, the slivers, the details. The paying attention. The caregiver’s life is full of details … most of them unpleasant. Where does the strength come from to do what must be done?

When everything I had named as “quality of life” and relationship had been stripped to the core as my fifty-three-year-old brother lay helpless in bed, dying of AIDS - incontinent, unable to turn himself, scratch himself, feed himself -my life became nothing but the details. It was the easiest thing I had ever done. It was the hardest thing I will ever do.
When the need is real, the job is clear. Not profound. Basic and real. When my brother’s hair needed combing I combed it. His pillow as often damp. A head against a pillow sweats. He sweated. I turned his pillow. I grew to love his body with my care. Instant intimacy. He stared while I circled the bed. And somehow, through those days of watching, of waiting, of tending, the days mattered. Moments counted. Time was finite. There was a clarity and focus. The death bed dance. Days of ache, of tears, of purging grief; teaching me to let go; teaching me to accept; teaching me to say thank you; Teaching me to live. Teaching me that we are all capable of more than what we think.

Grief Poems


A word I will never hear again
A name
My name
My loss
Sister died with brother.
Brother lives in sister.
Only brother.
Only sister.
Only surviving child.

I Feel My Brother

I catch little glimpses of my brother in Rob's hands.
How his fingers taper or move.
How his breath is caught or sighed.
How he chuckles.
I see my brother in Rob's hands.
I hear him in his laughter.
I feel my brother in my face.
Across my brow.
On my lips.
Behind my eyes.
Heavy on my lids.
I feel him in my frown.

I feel my brother in my walk.
I find my brother in places I never looked before.
In my work.
In the thrill of a new idea.

I do not need to search for him.
I feel him everywhere.

12/17/ 1994
The Bill

I meet my brother again
He is on the page in front of me.
CT HEAD $162.75
UPPER GI $112.25
CHEST CT $226.75
CT ABDOMEN $267.00

His body now with prices attached.
Tests to find answers to the unasked question.
Denial sits on my dining room table.
The tab $804.25

I stare at his body on the page. Chest and abdomen the priciest.
Each line of the bill reminding me of those days in the waiting rooms.

Luskey, Robert L
DOB 1/31/41
Sex M
Acct # 104855

Balances due.
I write
"Deceased. No assets."

Un Bel Di
One Fine Day

This town is for lease.
The emptiness is vast here.
It echoes in corner storefronts.
Masked in vacation beauty, brilliant sky and rocky coast
it mocks me.
I recognize what lies behind the vacant shops;
There is a heavy sadness in the cool sea breeze;
I feel the dullness of an overcast heart as I walk the brightly colored streets.
"Where are the shuffling men," I wonder as I pass the Jolly Rodger restaurant.
The limp arms, jutting heads, ashen faces well hidden from publich view;
Living in the underbelly of Laguna Beach were the sun doesn't shine.
Through the windows, I see a festival of death invisible to the naked eye,
I see my reflection in the glass;
I hear waves beat the rhythm of lost art.
I miss my brother.

Grief - My Muse

The wither'd frame, the ruined mind, the wreck of passion left behind:
A shrivell'd scroll, a scattered leaf,
Sear'd by the Autumn-blast of grief


I sang for Bob's memorial service.
His fraternity brothers flew in from all over.
When we played the duet from Bizet's opera The Pearl Fishers,
they looked grief-stricken.
Cards, letters, tributes poured in.
The Artistic Director from Long Beach Opera, Michael Milenski, delivered the Eulogy.
Bob's Cremains were placed in Jamie's grave.
Mother tossed a rose into the hole where her two sons had been laid to rest.

Mom's den was put back in order. The hospital bed was gone. The couch was moved back into place.
Gillian and Brendan swam in the pool.
It was summer.

On the television, OJ Simpson's slow chase in the white SUV dominated the news.
Jackie Onassis had died May 19th.
Richard Nixon had died April 24th.
I had missed both news stories.

We cleaned out Bob's condo in Laguna. As I sat on his bed, I held the unopened video tape, AIDS What is it and How Do You Get It? I remembered the day I'd gone down to his condo to bring him to the AIDS doctor. He had given me a list of names of people to call. He spoke of various friends and family members.
"He's a prince," he said to me about our cousin, Jimmy. He told me to call his boyhood friend, Gary. The list contained the names of people Bob had worked with in the yellow page industry.
"There's no reason people shouldn't know, " he said.
As I thought back on that exchange, I realized how remarkable it was.

Exhaustion set in. Aids Services Foundation sent their bereavement team to check on us. They told us about grief counseling and said to call if we needed it.
I tried to return to my life as usual
but the heaviness of grief made everything harder.
I was barely functioning.

Three months later - I couldn't get out of bed.
Overwhelmed with grief, I called ASF, who referred me to a grief counselor.
After one session, she recommended I come twice a week for six weeks.
I kept going to her for two years.
I went to a support group made up mostly of mothers who'd lost a son to AIDS.

Mostly, I wrote.
I filled journal after journal.
Writing became my salvation.
My healing.

The Mortician

By 8:00 a.m. I was back home. The guy from Hilgenfeld Mortuary arrived at the hospice around 7:30 a.m. or so to pick up the body.
Rob stood at attention, a private salute to his lost father.
And he gently reached down and swept a lock of hair from Bob's forehead as the body bag was zipped over his face.
Rob, Matt, and I emptied the hospice room. We handed stuff over the patio wall instead of carrying it through the hallways. Rob drove my van around to the back of the building.
We loaded the framed picture collage with Bob healthy and the rest of us laughing at parties at Christmas at birthdays at Easter at the pool;
the patio chairs I'd brought;
my suitcase with my clothes in it;
my toothbrush;
the vase with the sunflower in it;
the family portrait;

We left the diapers.
We left the sween cream.
We left the wipes.
We left his comb.

Later that day, Rob, Matt, and I met at Hilgenfeld Mortuary to make the "arrangements."
We got the giggles.
The mortician was taken aback by our behavior. He even scolded us.
"I'm not accustomed to people laughing at a time like this."

We didn't care. The sales pitch for the "merchandise" set us off.
Sleep deprivation, release of tension, gallows humor - it felt good to laugh.

We all knew had Bob been there with us, he'd have been laughing too.

Last Breaths

My brother died at 5:07 a.m. on June 10, 1994. Rob said people often die at dawn so not to have to face another day. He was right.
Those breaths. Those last breaths. Breathing labored for so long.
So many hours of up down up down. Of watching a chest go up down and waiting for the breath to stop and wondering how it would be. How does one take the last breath? And we sat and watched and stood in a circle around the bed. Around a body so cold and purple that it was hard to imagine he was still alive and yet he was still breathing and yet so resembled a narrow, pointed, grey corpse. And the breath, relentless and fast as if he were running a marathon - Oh God and wasn’t he and we wanted to relax him so his breathing would be easier, calmer, quieter it was so loud and frantic . Pounding its way through the long night of vigil what were we waiting for?
His last breath.
We wanted to be there and to see it and, to what? Hear it? We so curious and loving, wanting to be a part of every aspect of his life, we had to see his death. How does one die?
Now as I remember those last breaths, he slowed. It slowed and his body so cold and purple I could no longer stand to hold his hand but I did
And I stared at his chest and his face and his breath grew into shallow exhalations
As if he were a fish out of water.
Was he suffocating? Being robbed of the breath? Or was he letting go of life?
He drew in his last breath after a wince and began to suck, almost vacuum in the air
Bottom teeth showing.
It was strong and loud and tight and desperate.
And then he exhaled. And as the breath left his body, the color left his face - from his chin up over his lips and his nose, his cheekbones and eye sockets and forehead and he turned a waxen yellow as his face collapsed around the chiseled features of his bones. And I held my breath as with that one breath, he expired. Perfect word for what he did. Expired. And then I gasped. Mother sighed. And Peggy said, “He’s passing.”
And then it was so quiet.
Breathing that had been so labored . Laboring for what?
To give birth to his spirit? And then there was peace.
Oh God the breath that was the focus for so many hours and the heaviness of that time. My heavy heart, carrying the breath. I tried to breathe for him. I did.
I sat and breathed trying to make it easier.
And in fact there was relief.

The Vigil

And so our vigil began. A family gathering. Rob, Matt, Peggy, Lenny, Mom and me. Rob asked if he could bring his girlfriend, Joanne into the room. We said yes. Joanne carried in a box of chocolate chip cookies lined with foil and then sat a respectful distance from her future father-in-law who would never know her. It was staggering, all that Bob would not know. Two daughters-in-law, six grandchildren, the internet. At fifty-three there was so much future ahead.

The hospice room had two beds in it, a sliding glass door which led onto a patio and typical hospital furniture. We moved in. I brought chairs from home, a photo collage, sunflowers, Bob’s tape player with his opera music, an ice chest filled with beer. As the night wore on, we lined the wall of the patio with the beer bottles. We prayed Hail Mary’s. Visitors came to the door to say goodbye. Fr. Peter administered the Sacrament of the Sick. We sang Be Not Afraid.
We prayed the Hail Mary over and over.
Holy Mary
Mother of God
Pray for us sinners
Now and at the hour of our death

2:20 p.m. Journal entry
The nurse tells us that we are very close.
His coloring is very pale.
His breathing is irregular.
I wonder why it takes so long for the body to die.
Il Trovotore is playing.
His legs are bluish – especially his knees. His feet are ice cold. His hands are still warm. We must die from the feet up.
We are all shifting around the room. Mother never leaves the bed.
His eyes are slightly rolled back.
Mother just sits and looks at him. Another labor.
Rob is taking care of Mom. He is attentive and gentle.
Matt is flailed on the cot.
Lenny and Peggy sit on the patio.
Steve brings us food then goes back home to be with Gillian and Brendan.
Someone needs to be there for them. I’ve not been much of a mother these past few weeks. I wonder if they will remember their Uncle Bob before he was sick.
Brendan just graduated from kindergarten.
Lenny left to be with his support group. Now it is just Peggy, Rob, Matt, Mom, Joanne and me. Waiting.
What are we waiting for?
No. We are waiting with him.

4:20 a.m. Journal Entry
Is this the death mask?
His hands are cold now.
I feel him leaving.
His face so gray, so narrow –
There is a cold energy mass vibrating just above his body. I wonder if it his spirit? His body is ice cold. The coldness keeps moving up – his head is still hot.

4:30 a.m. Journal Entry
Peggy decides to massage his chest to make it easier for him to breathe.
We beg him to go. His breathing begins to slow.
He thrusts his tongue, parched, cracked, hideous mouth and gives a shallow weak cough.

The Hospice

On Wednesday, Matt and I spent the night with Bob at Orange Grove Hospice.
Bob snored.
Thursday, the hospice volunteer came to give him a bath.
She tenderly washed him. Her hands were loving and gentle.
She called him, sweetheart.
He was so thin. His face gaunt and gray.
He reminded me of the body of Christ.
The hospice nurse listened very closely to his heart through her stethoscope.
I remember her laying her hands on his legs and on his feet.
I remember she lifted his lids and looked into his eyes.
They did not dilate.
I stood – staring-waiting for her to tell me.
Was he in a coma?
This was the question of the morning.
She pinched his neck. He did not respond.
She nodded.
I nodded.
“How long?” I asked.
“He’s close.”
“How close? Days? Weeks? Hours?” I’d never seen death before.
“Hours” she said.
Oh my God, I thought. What should I do?
“What should I do?” I asked.
“Call your family.”
(Aria - A Sister's Journey With AIDS continued in next post - The Vigil)

The Last Day at Home

His last day at home he had his eyes opened some of the time. He didn’t speak. I was there all day. Peggy came. And Rob.
I remember sitting on the edge of his bed, crying.
He just stared at me.
He lay there, La Boheme blasting Rudolpho’s aria about Mimi’s cold little hand.
I played every record album he loved.
La Traviata
Il Trovotore
Madama Butterfly
I played Mary Poppins and High Button Shoes.
I wanted him to hear every piece of music he loved.
And I wanted him to hear it in our mother’s den.
That den where so many parties had taken place.
Where those records had been played over and over
Where he and I never put them away
Where toasts were made to ring in the new year, on birthdays, graduations, opening nights and closing nights, and where he now lay in his hospital bed.

I rolled his bed out onto the porch by the pool in the yard.
Expressionless, he stared.
Could he think? I wondered.
Did he keep his eyes open that day because he wanted to talk?
Weren’t we talking?
The music – our eyes – my tears?
I poured the music into him as my tears poured out of me.
His last day at home.

Mom sat by him,
a mother losing a second son. I didn’t know how she endured it.
I stepped away briefly from the bed
When I came back he was still staring and Mom was still crying.
And then the most amazing thing happened.
He looked at Mom who was looking away because she couldn’t stand it any more
And I was staring at the two of them, and I saw
his lips, without a sound, slowly mouth a single syllable –

I believe it was his last word.

I saw it. She did not.
Certain words are unmistakable.
The word “mom” silently spoken is very clear. The lips close gently
Open for a split second to form the vowel and close again.
The gentleness of the moment
This word
This moment
This silence
Sang out over the aria being played.
In that moment
My brother lived.
And I watched my mother saying goodbye to her son -
Her son whose last word, I believe,
Was “Mom”.

The ambulance arrived about three o'clock in the afternoon to pick him up.
As Bob was wheeled out of our mother’s house, his favorite opera singer, Jussi Bjorling blasted in the background.
(Aria - A Sister's Journey With AIDS continued in next post - The Hospice)


By 1994, Laguna Beach, the artist colony that had once prided itself on being a safe haven for gay men, had been ravaged by AIDS. It felt like a ghost town.
According to an article in the Los Angeles Times on June 16, 1993, the percentage of AIDS deaths among the male population in Laguna Beach was 78% .

When Bob was released from the hospital, we'd decided to bring him to Mother's house in Anaheim instead of to his condo in Laguna Beach because Lenny was dividing his time between Laguna and Las Vegas. Lenny's mother had just died the month before and his father was in ill health. It made more sense to bring him to Mother's. She only lived two blocks from me and the house was on one level. Bob's condo had three levels.
Lenny visited on the weekends.

Lenny, Bob's partner of twenty-five years, companion, and friend, had already nursed several friends at the hour of their death. He chose not to do that for Bob.
This angered Mother. It puzzled me but on some level I understood it. The complexity of our family, the unasked and unanswered questions about my brother's private life now put on display as he lay dying of AIDS in Mother's den was too much to bear.

There was no one to blame. Each of us bore responsibility for the silence we'd kept. Now all that mattered was loyalty.

There is a fine line between denial and loyalty. Loyalty to family can lead to secrecy and lies. I knew there was something wrong with my brother in October of 1993. But I chose not to say anything. Partly out of fear. Partly out of respect. Partly out of loyalty. Partly out of denial. After all, I was his little sister. We'd never talked openly about Bob's sexuality. He wasn't exactly "closeted." He did after all live in Laguna Beach with Lenny.
But it was Bob's life. His choices had caused pain for his family but he was, after all, entitled to his choices. No one judged him.
As Mother would say, "Live and let live."
But now, Bob was dying and AIDS was forcing our family to face its denial for the first time.

In the closet of my brother's bedroom in Laguna Beach, I found a video tape entitled "AIDS what is it and how do you get it?"

It was unopened.

(Aria - A Sister's Journey With AIDS continued in next post- The Last Day At Home)

Lamentation of the Days

Journal entries May 23, 1994 - May 30, 1994

are these days.

These days of ache, of tears, of purging grief
of love.

Oh to cradle you, to rock you to your death
Oh my brother

My heart shouts. Bursts. Scared of what wil die with you.
Oh my brother, how I longed for you in my life.
How I long to be your sister.
I will be
your ears
your mouth
your brain.
I will listen
to your eyes and I will speak
what I know to be your heart
if you will let me.

A whisper of you.
Brother of mine.

These days of staggering generosity.
Teaching me humility.
Teaching me to let go.
Teaching me to accept.
Teaching me to say thank you.
Teaching me what love is.

Conversations with my brother
Reading his eyes
When they close, when they tear, when they drift, when he is engaged, when he is engulfed in music

I want to remember
Our talking
Our laughter
your rapid fire delivery at a podium, at the dinner table, at the bar
your voice deep and resonant
your creative mind
your sense of humor
your point of view
your leadership
your stride
your feet turned out slightly as you walked across our office
your delight
Ordering a Smirnoff Vodka Martini on the rocks with one olive
Sipping a glass of Cabernet
Listening to the opera
Wearing a sweatshirt
Wearing a suit
Calling me honey

All of this halted.
Now, mouth agape, trapped
All I ever knew of my brother is gone.

His arms are thin.
His limbs are rigid.
Oh God to realize these days
these days
each one.

Oh my brother
My brother
How precious are these days

Those days in Laguna
Those slow, slow days
I did not know.

Count down.
The doctor says a month at most.
If he were conscious, I wonder what my brother would do with a month?
What would any of us do?
I am exhausted.
What more do I need to say to my brother?
Here is a chance to say everything and at this moment I can't think of a thing.
So I will sing.
Sing for my brother.
(Aria - A Sister's Journey With AIDS to be continued in next post - Denial)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Hospital Bed of Honesty

We were a family with our share of secrets.
Until the day I took my brother to the doctor and asked if all the tests that ought to have been taken had been taken, Bob and I had never discussed the fact that he was gay. Our family danced around this truth my entire life. Denial of catastrophic proportions, a dissolved marriage, two sons left to sort it out, a life partner HIV negative and a sister, eighteen years younger, left to tend to the deathbed. I was angry. The doctor had presented us with an option to shunt Bob’s brain. A tube would be inserted to drain the fluid that was creating the pressure on his brain. Relieving the pressure, might possibly restore Bob’s ability to communicate lucidly – for a while. The fact that Bob had no insurance was an issue. So the doctor concocted an elaborate plan for us to take Bob into the emergency room in the middle of the night when they could not refuse treatment. The idea seemed far -fetched but we decided to talk it through as a family. Although the doctor could not guarantee the results, the most positive outcome could give Bob a few more months. His condition would be uncertain. He could be blind. It might prolong his suffering. The family gathered in Mother’s living room to discuss the pro’s and con’s of the shunt as Bob lay in a hospital bed in Mother’s den unable to speak for himself.
We sat in a circle. A complex, family portrait. Mom sat on the couch. At seventy- five, she had already buried one son and her husband. How she was able to withstand this agony was beyond me. And there were Bob’s sons, Matt and Rob sprawled on the living room floor. And there was their mother, Peggy, seated next to her partner, Linda. Bob’s partner, Lenny sat by Mother. And my husband, Steve, who would continue to carry the mantle and burden of a family business left in ruins sat, quietly supportive with me on an oversized footstool. With a steady hand and just enough distance, Linda, facilitated the discussion and counted the votes of whether or not to go ahead with the shunt.
We talked as if we could bring him back. It was tempting. He’d slipped from our grasp so quickly and suddenly. If we could only have another chance to talk, to hear him laugh, to see his eyes sparkle again. But what would he do with more time with AIDS? His mind was flooded with infection. Drowning in fluid from the hydrocephalus. If he slips into a coma, then what? No food, no water? Or do we bring him back from this death- like dementia?
We voted on whether to shunt his brain or not.
Lenny voted no. Mother voted no. Matt examined the choice. What might his father do with more time? Rob wasn’t sure.
Mine was the only yes vote. Yes, I thought, bring him back. Let me talk sense with my brother just one more time. Let me take him to the opera one more time.
A selfish vote. I wanted my brother back.
The family agreed not to shunt. It was a vote for death.

The next morning, to my surprise, Bob awoke alert. I looked into his eyes. We decided to let you die, I thought to myself. Do I tell him? Do I ask him?
“There is an operation,” I began, “that might give you more time. But we don’t know whether you would walk, or talk. The risks are blindness, deafness, infection, incontinence…none of us know how long we will have here on this earth, but what we do know is that every moment we have with you, Bob, is precious.”
My insides were raw.
What is your vote, brother, I thought. Please make the decision so that this does not rest on our shoulders. I look into his eyes, “Do you want to have the operation?”
“I suppose not,” he said.
I stroked his face.
We were exhausted. Lenny, his friend from New York, Murray and I sat by the pool as I agonized over what to do. It had all gotten to be too much. We had decided for Mother’s sake, we had to move Bob out of the house. It had been a constant revolving door of nurses, caregivers, social workers, friends and family. The nights were long. Bob’s night sweats meant his gown and bedding had to be changed through the night. Mom wasn’t sleeping and neither was I. The decision was made to move Bob to a hospice.
(Aria - A Sister's Journey With AIDS continues in next post Lamantation of the Days)

Brotherly Love

Toxoplasmosis is the most common infection of the central nervous system in patients with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. The classic presentation is that of a single or multiple focal lesions with mass effect. Hydrocephalus due to cerebral toxoplasmosis is a very rare condition with headaches, dizziness, gait disorders, weight loss, and intermitten chronic diarrhea.

Where did the words go? His memory drowned. His brain flooded with infection. No power of speech. No expression in his face. His once vibrant eyes had lost their sparkle. Nothing danced. Mouth agape, he trusted me with his thoughts and left me speaking the words he could not say. Would not say. Never did say, even when he could. HIV – three letters bonded us. Blood brother. Eighteen years my senior. I was his sister at last.

I read his face with my intensely focused gaze. A Braille-like sign language only I could speak. It was subtle, silent, slow, hidden. I watched his eyebrow. It could talk. From his bedside I interpreted its movement. Up a little meant yes. No movement meant no.
I tested his lucidity. “Where are you?” I asked.
Ever so slowly his eye would reach up to the left corner in an attempt to remember.
“I’m in upstate New York, I know that.” He responded.
My heart sank. In the den of our Mother’s California home, I patiently, calmly, desperately tried to sift out the tiniest speck of thought. Of memory.
“What year is it?”
“1985.” It was 1994.
“Who is president?”
“Jimmy Carter.”
“Where are you?”
“At Aunt Angeline’s.”
“What year is it?”
On one occasion he looked worried.
“Are you wondering something?” I asked always with the undaunted belief that one of my questions would liberate him.
“I’m wondering…” he paused. I waited, urging him to complete his thought with my nod.
“Whether or not,” he continued, “I’m pregnant.”
Stunned, I looked down at myself and the absurd conversation I’d been carrying on. I cringed with embarrassment at my own denial. Denial: the accusation I was so quick to heap upon him for not taking the test sooner, for believing it was depression, for waiting too long, for not having insurance, for the unopened video tape, “AIDS What is it and How do you Get it?” In that moment, I was slapped in the face. There was a fine line between false hope and denial.
My brother was dying of AIDS, but denial was what was killing him.
Without flinching, I said to my fifty-three year old brother, executive, businessman, publisher, mentor, trainer, teacher, salesman and opera lover -
“No Bob. You are not pregnant.”
And with a relieved sigh, he said, “Good.”
I leaned over and kissed him on the forehead and walked away. I hadn’t realized that, for as long as it had taken him to formulate that thought, I had been holding my breath. I heaved my own sigh as I reviewed the pathetic scene in my head.
My brother who could not remember, could not use words effectively, could not control his bowels, could not sit in a chair, could not scratch himself where he itched, could not hold a pen, could not turn himself, could not lift his leg, could not bite a sandwhich, could not wipe his face with a napkin, could not remember what his glasses were or what they were for –
And me, whose life had become turning schedules, medication charts, night sweats, HIV, AZT, Diflucan, Mycobutin, Sulfa, Sween Cream, Periwash, diapers, chux, attends, pull sheets, keeping the egg crate dry, bending his leg when I rolled him, wiping him, bathing him, brushing him, shaving him, stroking him and guarding him against the indignity of it all.
Only one day did he cry. It was when I returned from seeing Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, SUNSET BOULEVARD. I came to his bedside with the program, ready to begin my critique anxious to share with him my conceptual differences with Trevor Nunn, the director. Bob’s face twisted. His eyes grew wild, panicky, and filled with tears.
“I wanted to see that,” he said. “There’s still a chance I will have the opportunity.”
“Yes,” I lied. “There’s a chance.”

We listened to musicals and the opera that Sunday afternoon at Mom’s. My brother who couldn’t remember the year, could remember every word to “I Still get Jealous” from the musical HIGH BUTTON SHOES and could name every aria we played. I sang, “Papa Won’t you Dance with Me” and my brother’s trembling hand conducted.

At the end of the day, my face close to his, I whispered, “I love my brother.”
And he said,
“And he loves you.”
(Aria -A Sister's Journey With AIDS continued in next post Hospital Bed of Honesty)

My Big Brother

My brother was eighteen years older than me. Born in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1941, he was a senior in high school when I was born in 1959. I grew up with stories from Bob's childhood - which were essentially the stories of the early years of my parent's marriage. Stories, captured in black and white photographs of a life on the road. My father was a traveling city directory salesman with RL Polk and Company.

Bob, or Robin, as he was called then, was their first born. A fictitious anniversary date concealed the true circumstances around his conception. This secret went to the grave with my father, uncovered only by a series of innocent questions posed by me to my mother as I put together a "Grandmother Remembers" book for my own children. The truth surrounding my parent's marriage and Bob's birth only added to the rebellious image of my mother and the colorful family mythology that accompanied my father's rags to riches story.

The early photographs of Robin tell a story of an only child whose parents traveled throughout the southeastern United States, my father's sales territory, setting up housekeeping in apartments for mere weeks until the directory sales season closed and they moved on to the next town.

One photograph that always stood out to me was of my mother and father in Virginia Beach. In the photograph, Dad is wearing a fedora, Mother a tailored suit. Dad is holding Robin. It is December 7th, 1941.

During the war years, when my father was overseas serving in Salisbury, England, Mother and Robin lived in a trailer. They returned to Cincinnati to be near family. Eventually, the little family settled in New Orleans, Louisiana in a trailer park when Robin was school age.

Bob used to laugh at the sparsely decorated Christmas trees from his childhood captured in the photographs.

I always thought that Bob had the look of a little French boy in the photographs. Wide eyed in his short suits, his legs starkly white against the dark shoes and socks. It had to have been a lonely life for a little boy though he never said it was. In fact, I don't remember Bob ever complaining about his early childhood at all.

In 1949, the family moved to Southern California, to Flower Street in Anaheim, to one of the first post-war suburban neighborhoods, to start their own directory business. They sent Robin, now called Robby, off to military boarding school - blocks away from home.

This detail is one I never fully understood, except in light of the demands my parents must have felt from starting up a new business. Or perhaps they sent him to what they believed to be the best school available. In any case, the portrait of my brother as a lonely, adolescent boy always tugged at my heart.

At twelve, Robby became a big brother for the first time. Jamie Reid was born in 1953.

The family moved off of Flower Street to a 1950's ranch-style house on Resh Place, built a swimming pool, den, and bar.

I grew up with home movies of pool parties and fun.

Tragedy befell the family in 1957, when Jamie died from a botched tonsillectomy. Robby was fifteen.
Stories of my mother throwing herself across Jamie's coffin and driving with his sweater in the back seat of the car only reinforced the image I had of my brother Bob's lonely life - now as the surviving sibling.

At Mater Dei High School, he wore horned rimmed glasses. He wrote for the Anaheim Bulletin Sports page covering high school sports. He developed a love for the opera. He met his future wife, Peggy. I was born his senior year. By then, he was called Robby only by aunts, uncles, and cousins. My father called him "son." I only knew my brother as Bob.

My earliest memories of Bob were those of a baby sister being happily tossed around by my big brother. He tickled me, teased me, and kissed me. He made monster sounds and grabbed me while we watched spooky movies. When Bob joined the National Guard, we visited him on trips to Fort Ord in northern California.

I adored him and developed crushes on the fraternity brothers he'd bring home from Theta Chi at USC.
And I was jealous of Peggy.

When I was six years old, Bob and Peggy married. I had a loose front tooth that my mother would not let me push with my tongue so it would not fall out before the wedding. I was the flower girl in a velvet, avocado green dress.

After a brief time in an apartment and the birth of my first nephew, Rob III in 1966, Bob and Peggy moved eight houses away from us on Resh Street.
Bob worked for the family business. In 1968, my second nephew, Matthew Christian was born. I loved being at their house. So close in age, my nephews were like brothers to me.

Peggy played games, talked to me like I was a grown up, let me climb trees in her back yard, and cut sandwiches into the shape of sail boats. It was magical. Where Peggy's prominence in my life took over, my brother grew more distant. More mysterious.

This time in my life was a confusing one. The adults whispered at the bar in the den. I was shooed to bed by my mother who seemed particularly cross.

In one short -tempered outburst she scolded me in the same breath as she blurted out that Bob and Peggy were separated - "Don't you know that?"

I did not. Nor did I want to believe it. I snuck into Bob and Peggy's bedroom and opened their closet. There were no men's clothes. I remember being heart broken and asking Peggy if she would still be my sister-in-law. She assured me that she would.

Bob moved to Laguna Beach with Lenny.

Peggy and the boys remained on Resh Street. Bob was always present for all the family gatherings - birthdays, Christmas Eve. He normally came to our house for Christmas dinner without Peggy or the boys. He never stayed long enough and Christmases were always fraught with tension. My parents fought. There was an unspoken sadness. It seemed to weigh heaviest on my father.

A burden fell to my brother on August 17, 1981 when our father dropped dead of a heart attack while jogging to the office. Bob was just arriving to tell Dad about his trip to Roanoke, when he discovered him flat on his back just inside his office door. He delivered the devastating news to my mother and me and then Bob took over the family business and assumed his role as head of the Luskey family. Nine months after my father's death, Bob walked me down the aisle to be married.

Bob remained one of my greatest cheerleaders. As my theatrical talents emerged, he delighted in my performances. My room was full of clever, expensive presents - a brass bed for my role as Molly Brown, an etching of Sarah Bernhardt, and beautiful music boxes that played familiar tunes from the musicals I loved.

Bob shopped in the quaint shops of Laguna Beach. Our houses were full of local artisans' work, funky tie died scarves, and cut- crystal jewelry. We were awash in leather bags and luggage from the shop he and Lenny opened in Laguna - named for the aria in Madama Butterfly - Un Bel Di.

Easter brunches, fancy dinners, trips to the theatre and the opera followed by late night, expensive suppers - Bob's joie de vivre enlivened our existence.
A big bellowing laugh, quick wit, and sharply critical opinions emanated from any table he hosted. He rose to great heights as a directory publisher, industry leader, and sales trainer. It was during this time, shortly after my marriage, that I became Bob's collaborator and business partner of sorts. I joined the family business to help him. We worked together on developing a sales training video series that was widely adopted by independent and utility yellow page companies alike. He mentored me. Trusted me. Depended on me.

He loved taking us all to the opera . Peggy, the boys, Mother, Lenny, and me - where we would dutifully stand in the lobby while he told us the complicated plot lines of the elaborate stories. He flew to New York regularly during opera season to attend the Met and traveled to Europe on the QEII. My brother looked handsome in a tux and demonstrated the manners and grace of a cultured gentleman. Custom-tailored suits to fit his square build completed the picture of a successful executive and patron of the arts.

Bob was extravagant. The extravagance caught up with us all as the yellow page industry began to falter and the economy began to plunge in the late 1980' s.

Just as the AIDS epidemic began to take its devastating toll on the gay community.

(Aria-A Sister's Journey With AIDS continued in next post- Brotherly Love)