Note: this has become quite the novella, if not actually a tome.
It’s been another epic couple months. As you know if you’ve been keeping up on Dilettante Traveler, Ian and I went to Kenya in late November and had an utterly splendid trip. We were able to do everything we wanted to do (having decided before leaving to give Lamu, and roving Somali pirates, a miss).
I missed two editing classes while I was gone, both from the 5-week mini grammar course, and I was sorry to have done so, because I really liked the teacher, and I also really like grammar. I still don’t know what things are called—like a predicate nominative. I have a dim idea of what that’s referring to, but I’m not positive I could identify one in the wild, and my ability to connect designations and phrase types is only going to fade over time. Still, I have a pretty good innate sense of when grammar is wrong, and class was pretty much 3 hours of word puzzles every Wednesday. Fun, right?
When I got into the editing program last fall it seemed like I was finally on track to commence the perfect career for me, and I was relieved to be starting something that was going to lead to me, finally, having an easy answer to the inevitable question: “what do you do?”
Class was a lot of work, though, and that work cut into my enjoyment of the other things in my life. Which of the things I love am I going to have to put aside? I thought to myself on more than one occasion. Travel? Horses? Writing for my own pleasure?
The question of what I would have time for became more grave when we arrived back home after our trip. My mother-in-law, Janet, was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in late October or early November, and she had undergone a hysterectomy four days before we left. We had managed to see her in Bellingham the day before our trip, and she was out of the hospital and doing well.
While we were in Kenya, though, news of complications found us. Janet’s painkillers weren’t working right, and then she developed a bladder infection and a blockage in her intestines. After one particularly raw email exchange, we pulled out our cell phone, discovered we could call the US for 10 cents/minute, and I called my sister-in-law.
“Should we come home?” I asked from La Belle Inn in Naivasha.
“Oh, gosh, I don’t think so!” she responded with comforting assurance, and so we stayed in Africa, and loved our stay.
The day after we returned home though, 6 December, 3 weeks after her initial surgery, Janet went under the knife again, this time to deal with the intestinal blockage. She had been back into and back out of and back into the hospital in the 16 days we were away. The bladder infection had healed and the pain meds were working, but the blockage wouldn’t clear up, and finally her docs decided the best way to deal with it would be another surgery, and so they opened her up again to have a look around.
Well. Ian was in bed when I got home from class, exhausted and jet-lagged around 10pm, with a note in the kitchen to wake him up. It turns out that what was blocking Janet’s intestines was cancer, the endometrial cancer, and it had gone ballistic during the previous three weeks. It was inoperable, terminal cancer.
The surgeon patched a work-around into Janet’s bowels so that at least she could digest a little, and closed her up. Janet was given up to a month to live, and the next morning Ian’s dad and brother were with her when the doctor told her the news. I understand she took it very well, and gently teased D and N for their tears. “Oh, gosh, you don’t want to cry!” she said to them, or something like it.
Ian and I drove up to Bellingham on Thursday, 7 December, after my brain MRI and meeting with Jason (results: he was tired of watching spots slowly grow, and signed me up for more Gamma Knife). We were able to see Janet on Friday morning at the hospital and then again after she was transferred from the hospital to hospice, and seeing her, talking with her, calmed me—calmed us all—immensely. She was so interested in these last few steps along her path, so eager to experience her life down to the last sweet drops—that she took away a lot of the bitterness, a lot of the frustration, that the death of a loved one can carry.
I left Bellingham early on Saturday morning 9 December, to return to Seattle for a required Editing Course computer day. “I’ll see you again,” I had said as I’d kissed Janet goodbye the afternoon before, already thinking that it may not be on this same plane that we’d next meet, and it won’t be.
Janet died on Friday, 16 December 2011, around 1 in the afternoon.
I’ve included a polished version of the story that I told at her memorial service last Saturday, 14 January, at the end of this post.
And now, what do I mean by Legacy?
Janet did not have a career, either soul-crushing or joy-fostering. She was avidly keen on learning about the world, though, and various aspects of it, and she used her interests and intellect to learn by doing, by building vastly disparate skills. She spent time as a vet tech at Green Lake Vet, where our dogs have been patients of her old boss. She was a drum maker, learning the techniques for hand-crafting Native American drums (minus the decorative painting, as she wasn’t Native American). She was a Hellerworker, stretching and kneading the aches and pains out of other peoples’ bodies, until she started to recognize a worsening of her own physical health. She read voraciously and widely—I can only think she must have been able to scan pages very fast.
And she was loved, honored, admired, and respected. Ian, contrary to wishing she’d brought more money into the household, was so proud of the way she delighted in all that she did, and the stories of her life that all the Taylors shared at her memorial helped 160 people learn how to live their own lives better.
And so, the other night when I was struggling with School (class started back up last week), and Commitment, and Responsibility to be a Contributing Member of Society, and all that, Ian—and Janet herself—helped me step back and take a look at my life a different way.
School, and class, had been bothering me in all sorts of aspects of my life. First of all, the classrooms at the UW were designed decades ago for kids with pencils and notebooks (the paper kind) and that’s it. They’re full to bursting with students and they’re populated with desks barely wider than my arm—and we’re carrying around 2 or 3 bricks of textbooks, so it’s physically uncomfortable and tedious to be squoze into these rooms. I have to leave my lovely home in the evening, in the dark, in the cold, in the wet, and I have to park and I have to walk, and so I need to navigate streets and traffic and all sorts of stuff I’m not used to doing. And my hair is thin, and I’m self-conscious about that, and the longer I sit in a classroom, the more uncomfortable I feel because I know people are noticing the back of my head and my bald spots. In day-to-day life, I don’t really care so much (I care a little, just not SO much). Also, the on-line, on-going information about the program has been poorly organized (and is full of typos and grammatical errors, and, therefore, irony), and I still don’t know if we actually have a classroom portion for spring, or if it’s just the practicum, where I spend 3 months working with an actual writer and fostering a manuscript through the entire editing process for real. And if that weren’t enough, at the end I’ll have this certificate, and then I’ll have a responsibility to go out and spend more of my time sitting alone at my computer looking to see if someone’s (likely) mediocre writing is, at least, correct.
And, the fact that I started taking weed as a cancer therapy right around the time I began class? Probably not the most productive juxtaposition ever.
Anyway, sometime after my weed kicked in two nights ago, I started in on my frustrations about class. Ian pointed out (for the zillionth time) that I was free to do what I wanted, which included quitting class, and, as always, he would support me completely in any choice I made. I still didn’t really get it, though, and I was still having sobbing jags when I finished brushing my teeth and made it in to bed (at, I believe, around 8:30pm. It’s been a long, exhausting several weeks). Ian came in to make sure I was okay, and began to speak.
“Sweetie-pie,” he said, or something like it, “the most important thing to me is that you are happy. We don’t need any more money. I like my job. We don’t need you to have some job . . . “ and then Janet was in my mind, filling my mind, yelling to me “Take it!” Take Ian’s offer. Ian was offering me complete freedom, from work, from guilt, from my own self and my habits of self-sabotage. He was offering me complete freedom to do what I wanted. Not what I thought I should want because I was passably good at it. Not what I would settle on doing because I thought I might like to have more money someday. Not what I thought my mother would be most proud of. My dad floated into my conscious mind just above Janet, and reminded me that he’d died and left me an inheritance, and that I brought that to our marriage already. I didn’t owe Ian anything but my best self, and that’s all he wanted, and both Janet—who recognized and encouraged a bosom dilettante soul when she saw one—and my father, wanted to be extra clear that I understood that I owed nothing.
And I do, finally, understand. I UNDERSTAND. On several newly discovered layers of soul-depth, I finally understand that all I need to do to fulfill my purpose in this life is to do what I most want to do at any given time. And it will never be Full-Time Editor. It will likely never be Paid Editor at all—but that’s okay, because I don’t have to be anything.
Yesterday morning, having not forgotten my stoned realizations from the previous night (I wrote several down to be sure), I called and withdrew from the Certificate Program in Editing. I then wrote to my teachers and thanked them for doing such a realistically alarming job of describing the life of an Editor. I then made a big pot of stew, which I’ve done a lot, and then I made focaccia, which I’ve never done—and it was delicious.
I am completely thrilled with my new life. I can embrace everything that I love, and if I don’t love something, I don’t have to touch it, let alone draw it into my heart. I don’t have the words to describe how free I feel, how deeply connected to and supported by Ian, and how humbled by my good fortune.
I turn 40 this year, and in some ways, it feels like the first year of my life. I am so happy. Thank you, Ian, thank you, Dad, and thank you so much, my role model and second mother, Janet.
My story (probably familiar) about Janet:
Hi, I’m Calin, Ian’s wife.
With Ian came his parents, and though I was a bit taken aback when, before we’d been dating longer than a month or so, they moved into cohousing and brought me (Ian, really, but he was just renting a room in a house nearby and had no space) a ponderous rolltop desk—which could only be moved through my house (still just mine, not ours yet)—by removing the interior doors—which Dan and Janet rapidly proceeded to do without even a by-your-leave—I quickly realized that the luck I had in finding Ian extended to include his parents.
Janet and Dan were never just parents-in-law, but almost from the start were true friends, interested in joining me in some of the pursuits that I love.
Every summer for about the last decade I have gone to housesit and, more importantly, HORSE sit, for family friends in northern Idaho. These friends have three horses, and their land borders National Forest land and logging company land—land criss-crossed with hundreds of miles of maintained service roads, and logging roads in various stages of returning to nature. Some of the logging roads are lovely, wide, grassy avenues curving around wooded hillsides or valleys, and some of them probably were like that decades ago, and now are only found through the underbrush and scrub because my favorite horse knows the way home. From anywhere out there.
I often invite friends or relatives to come visit me in this country idyll—it is a unique place, and the experience of nature can be breathtakingly beautiful, but can also just be breathtaking. I try to stick to the wider, grassier trails when I’m leading trailrides for guests, but one grassy intersection looks much like another out there, and even after 10 years I’m still getting lost. Occasionally with guests.
I quickly learned that Janet and Dan were relatives who would like to come visit. They had spent a week at a Wyoming dude ranch some time ago, and jumped at the chance to get back on horses in the wilderness. For our first ride together, and with the help of a giant satellite photo, I planned a substantial loop trail that I expected would take us about 3 hours to complete, and would cover new territory for me as well. A neighbor, relatively new to horses, joined us on her very young, pretty palomino. Dogs ranged back and forth into the trees and up and down the trails, occasionally falling panting into step just under a horsetail, then catching their breaths and taking off exploring again. Dogs, people, horses, it’s heaven for us all out there.
Leading this ride was like chaperoning a group of seventh graders. Every time I blinked, they were taking off at a gallop, none of the three of them (the neighbor was a recent transplant) with any idea where they were going or what kinds of complications they may encounter on the trail ahead.
I, too, however, didn’t really know where I was, and our ride ended up hours and miles longer than we had intended. We finally found the right road when I told Dan to let his horse, Shadow—my favorite—have her head at the next crossroads. It was 10:00 o’clock at night by the time we ate dinner—Taylors eating four hours past their feeding time—and yet they came back to Idaho, time and again, and got lost with me at least as many times as we stayed found.
Some summer later, one of the horses was out of commission, so I went out on two rides with the inlaws during their short visit, with Dan in the morning and Janet in the afternoon.
“Who’s liable if one of us falls off and gets hurt?” Dan asked me from Shadow during the morning ride. “Is it you? Is it your friends?”
“Geez, Dan,” I said. I was riding Sikem, who is the one male in the small herd and tends to be jumpier than the others. He’s the sentinel, making sure danger doesn’t sneak up on anyone. “Well, I wouldn’t want to put liability on my friends, so I guess I would be, if you really wanted to go after someone. But don’t even think about it. No one is falling off any horses, no one is getting hurt, and certainly no one is going to sue anyone.”
Later that afternoon, I was out with Janet on a trail that I love. It’s along a little draw called Lost Creek, and the long, virtually flat trail is of the grassiest sort. The trail runs along one side of a gully filled with interesting trees—no monoculture there—and then back along the other side. There is a slight decline on the way out, and a slight incline on the way back—perfect for a meander out and a gallop—organized, discussed, planned for and then executed—on the way back.
On our way out, Janet asked a question. “What do the horses do,” she asked, “when you fall off out here in the middle of nowhere? Do they wait for you to get back on, or do they just go home? Because if they just go home, I’ll never find my way back.”
Interesting, I thought, that both of my inlaws, on the same day, are suddenly giving me the third degree about falling off. “Honestly, I’m not positive,” I said, “but I think the horses wouldn’t go far. They know you’re supposed to be on top when we’re out here in the woods.”
On the way up the other side, the foreshadowing came true. We had discussed and decided to have a bit of a gallop—controlled, so I let Janet and Shadow go ahead and kept Sikem well back, so as not to let the two mounts think they were going to have a race. Everything was fine, then all of a sudden, Janet tipped over to the left and off her horse.
I had just a split second to note, horrified, that my 60-year-old mother-in-law was not on her horse, who had continued around the corner, before I was on the ground as well. My horse, who evidently assumed that, since Janet had come off she must have been yanked off by something evil in the woods, decided to save his own skin and stopped short. From a gallop. I somersaulted over his head in a perfect arc and landed hard on my bum, biting my tongue in the process. Oh no, I thought as blood filled my mouth. I’ve bitten my tongue in two. I heard Janet moaning though, “HUHHNG HUHHNG HUHHNG” and I yelled “Janet! Are you okay?” my tongue is whole, I thought.
“Yes,” she said between moans.
“Okay, don’t move. I’m going to get Sikem and I’ll be right over.” I turned my jittery self away to see my jittery horse snorting at me from a few yards distant. I pulled a handful of grass and started forward, only to be arrested by Janet’s sudden silence. Oh my god, I thought, she’s dead. We were about 3 miles from home. Which was 40 miles from a regional hospital.
“Janet!” I yelled, turning back. “Are you okay!”
“Yes,” she responded, “I am.”
Sikem let me catch him and I led him over to Janet to assess her state. Shadow was nowhere to be seen.
“I’m sorry about the moaning,” Janet said. “It just felt so good to do it, but then I thought maybe it was scaring you, so I stopped.”
“Nope,” I said, “when you stopped I thought you’d had a seizure or died or something. The silence was NOT better. Where are you hurt?”
“Here,” she said, “in these big muscles,” and patted herself on the side of her rump.
“Does your back or neck hurt?”
“Can you stand?”
“I don’t want to yet, but I think I’ll be able to.”
“Okay, then, you rest a minute longer, and I’m going to look around this corner and see if Shadow decided to stick around.”
“Do you want me to hold your horse while you look?” asked the woman lying in a heap on the ground.
“No, that’s okay, I’ve got him,” I said. “You just catch your breath. You don’t need to worry about being stepped on along with everything else.”
Sure enough, Shadow was grazing right around the corner, unconcerned, her saddle swiveled 90 degrees around to her port side. She stood calmly while I approached her with Sikem, and was only slightly reluctant to be taken away from her snack.
Back around the corner, Janet had sat up and was taking stock of herself.
“Do you think you can get back on?” I asked “It’s a long walk if you can’t, and I’m pretty sure the dogs won’t go get help, nor will they stay with you if I go to get help.”
“I can get back on,” she said, and creaked to her feet.
I adjusted the saddle and tightened it—Shadow is notoriously plush and has no withers to speak of—the part of the horse that helps hold saddles on. We remounted gingerly (strangely, my tailbone didn’t hurt until about 3 months later, and then it took me more than a year to stop feeling it) and headed back toward home, Janet continuing in front (Shadow likes to be in front). Near the end of the Lost Creek draw Janet and Shadow broke back into a gallop and we hurried to catch up; I guess that was more Shadow than Janet, but Janet held on and stayed on.
And the next summer she and Dan came back, and we got lost again.
The next day Janet was sore, and I think it did take some time and some bodywork and probably some medication before she really felt truly healed, but she was—for real, and that is the thing about her that was so cool to watch for me—excited about having had a fall far from anywhere—and survived it.
“You fear these things,” she said, or something like it. “You build up the awfulness of these events in your head, and you hope you never experience one, then you do, and you survive, and you’re FINE, and it’s so cool to know that you can! Boy will I have a story to tell at cohousing!”
The experience didn’t change her trust in me or in horses or in herself—she didn’t think “maybe I shouldn’t get on a horse again, maybe I’m too old.” She thought, “Yep, yet another awesome thing I’ve done.”
A woman to emulate. And a friend to miss.