Seeing My Girls

October 29, 2021

One week ago, I pulled onto Interstate 5 at zero-seven to head south toward I-90, the Other Mother Road that spans northern states from industrial-area Seattle to Logan International in Boston, though I never seem to get that far.

Best Dad stood the watch in Oregon. It was a cold and hard time, but I’d planned this trip a while. There aren’t many trips these days. People are dying. As I all too often have, I’d missed Daughtergirl’s birthday. As I always will, I’d missed Parents’ Weekend, too.

It was time to see my girls.

The car was stuffed with gifts and overnight clothes, water bottles and about 30 pounds of road snacks. I used to pack last-minute, shoving in two shirts, two shorts, and optional jeans with a toothbrush and a couple of protein bars, but Pretty Wife doesn’t like to see me hie off even slightly unprepared.

I remembered saddling up for basic training, nearly 40 years ago, and how Mom rooted through my underwear without asking, marking my name into each pair with a laundry pen. I guess she thought it was like outdoor school, but they issued new skivvies there and we did our own, coin-op laundry with quarters fetched from the small PX on our chaperoned expeditions for Bic razors and discount Nikes. I remember spending $19.99 on pretty good sneaks but my G.I. briefs, drab brown like the others’, were never items of envy.

I wore them for years.

No need to tune in traffic reports. “Rush hour” ain’t what it used to be, and neither is anything else. The radio came on to the same classical station that I listen to in the shop unless I’m pushing weights, and then it’s prog rock for the inspiration, or hip-hop to feel like I’m lifting in the yard. I left it there. It would fuzz out as I rose into the Cascades, and then I’d latch onto classic rock for the duration.

You need a little 4/4 time to get you down the road and anyway, it’s that or country and western, and lately I’m dead-sick of flag-humping sentimentalists. It cuts me right in the patriotism every time they betray their animating bigotries. That steady, friendly, cowboy rhythm used to ease me down the road, though, out across the open land. It’s another thing stolen.

I miss my country.

This car is brand new, but familiar. We had a blue one, still well-liked at 130-some-thousand miles, but I totaled it the morning our Cougster was slated to drive off in her little silver Toyota, similarly over-equipped with fuzzy blankets and tire chains and literal crates of snacks, to finally attend university in person. She was an honor roll student, right from our sofa, throughout her freshman year. We privately cherished high hopes. I figured I owed her an apology for muffing her departure date.

Hurry up and wait pleases no one. I keep trying to rush past it, yet here I am.

The knee on my throttle leg was mostly healed from that catastrophic, driver’s-side broadsmack, but I dialed in cruise control, anyway. This car is kind of a high-speed living room, complete with a laptop-sized touchscreen, 97-way adjustable easy chair, and filtered air set to precisely one’s climatic preference. This one’s not blue but silver, like the Cougster’s car. Both would look proper with red WSU stickers, but neither sports one yet as far as I know.

Ellensburg is a good stop to make if you need to fuel your body or your vehicle, but this rig runs 450 to a tank with highway mileage and I had rations for at least a section, if not a platoon. Coming down off the mountain and flattening out into the big middle, I called Mom into mind or was called by her. The sun of the east shone straight into my eyes but it was short on glare and long on colors under the wide, dark clouds. It was a few days past when I’d seen her last. Best Dad hadn’t wanted me to show up the night before. We’d talked late into the night and agreed.

Sometimes it’s time to go.

That’s why I was jogging the highway, hundreds of miles northeast, instead of stroking her silvered auburn hair and singing, the way I had the previous week, grumble-voiced and uneven through my permanently tattered trachea. Never wonder whether I hold guilt over it; the answer is always, inevitably that I have guilt about all of it.

On that visit, the last thing I could do for her in person was to remind the nursing staff that her doctor said she could have more pain meds. The last thing I told her was that I loved her, and then she cried out when I hurt her, adjusting the bed. Broken spines are a right bitch. Before she drifted off, Mom told her charge nurse that I was a good son. Those would be her final words on the matter. Perhaps they were dispositive.

I have my doubts.

When I met her doctor there, we agreed that she could have stronger stuff “onboard.” Sometimes, there’s nothing left to treat but pain. Best Dad had known this for some time, and those could have been difficult talks, but somehow were not. Pretty Wife and I have had similar talks, just wargaming our futures.

We plan to lose and you should, too. As has been proven repeatedly by the most powerful military in human experience, no matter the sophistication of their weapons or the depth of their training, nor their organization or guiding strategy, no army wins every battle.

It’s an ancient idea, though “(m)ore honour’d in the breach than the observance.” The Tanakh told us for millennia that the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, and Sun Tzu predated that Ketuvim lore by centuries with his prescriptive solutions for seeking victory by avoiding battle altogether. Sun Tzu remains required reading for U.S. officers today and presumably Kohelet for IDF officers, even as our impatient cultures rush past those hoary lessons.

While to hard-assed, red-blooded Americans diplomacy may feel weak, womanish, and Orientally inscrutable, no force has ever won every battle – neither the world’s most powerful military, nor a medical system with historically superior technology.

Sometimes you have to lose.

I was a hundred miles past classical by then, tuned to a classic rock station broadcasting out of Wenatchee. Set to 4/4 time, 80s hair band standards are all the familiar comfort of country music with bigger amps and more obvious makeup, which is to say they get you down the road. So there I was, getting down the road and musing about my tired, bone-thin, run-out mother when some DJ (possibly a robot, because who can tell anymore?) offered up Van Halen’s “Jump.”

“Jump” is not a sentimental song. It’s a song about desire, just like “Ice Cream Man” and “Panama” and pretty much everything else David Lee Roth ever put his lips on. It’s not a song you listen to when you’re thinking about your mom, but it was the song that was on and, on that Friday morning, all I could think about in the wash of those loud lyrics was how maybe she could let go, like a nervous bungee jumper, and fall away from stolid endurance into the exhilaration of oblivion.

Might as well jump.

I was making pretty good time, but when the station phased from “Jump” directly into “Dreams,” I had to pull over and check the wipers.

You reach for the golden ring
Reach for the sky
Baby just spread your wings

We’ll get HIGHER and HIGHER, straight up we’ll climb
We’ll get HIGHER and HIGHER, leave it all behind

Yeah, I know. Pull yourself together, dude. “Dreams” isn’t about the passage of worlds. Dave and Sammy only had one topic and Eddie didn’t care as long as he could shred but to me, right then, it wasn’t the visual I had way back in the 80s, when I was squandering my potential as a sergeant at Ft. Stewart.

Left the 90 at Vantage, as one does, for swift delivery of the Cougster’s sandwiches. We could have eaten at the CUB or anywhere in town, but Pretty Wife knew what was missing from student life and that was mom-made food.

Against all fears and right in line with my most fondly insisted expectations, our youngest thrives in Pullman. Full of energy, hope and potential, her bullpen-style office at the Student Entertainment Board reminds me of nothing so much as the Daily Evergreen newsroom in the ancient days when I clocked in and out of there on a real, mechanical time clock, the bygone era of Mötley Crüe proving that a band could sell makeup and Aqua-Net just as hard without ever approaching Van Halen’s musicianship.

Yeah, I said it. Get off my Astroturf.

Honoring another college tradition of mine, we stole unpaid time in a campus parking slot to eat our sandwiches, catch up, and consider the future. Hers is bright. Mine is bonus time. This is how it should be.

Shopping for an interview jacket in Moscow, she learned two things. One was that, in Idaho, “business casual” means either a long, soft cardigan or a cotton chore coat with a fake hoody sewn in. The other was that a local store once threatened to sue our little student noisepaper after some cheeky punk (me) quoted its charming store jingle, with attribution, at the top of an editorial inveighing against regional racism:

We live in North Idaho, and it shows!

Some things change, but most things don’t. They just turn colors. Like the leaves in fall, they return every year with new vigor, long after the old leaves have blown down the road to molder in wet piles at the curb. We retrenched to Pullman and discovered that the local boutique wasn’t so expensive, after all. Fifty bucks scored an interview jacket, ideal for the Cougster’s application to a foreign journalism trip. She is so much better organized, so much more than I was.

We celebrated by filling out the ballots I had packed along in an old, brown leather portfolio. Probably should have left the portfolio for her. It’s good solid kit, but nobody wants too many crusty parental leftovers and anyway, her world has always been digital. Yellow pads are as forgotten as tissuey leaves of maple and oak, drifting down the gutter.

We agreed on most of our choices, talked about the others and finished up, feeling a little hope in the process. While she was sealing up her three-part voter envelope, my uncle called to tell me his big sister had died that morning, right around the time I’d been blazing head on into a sunrise prismed by tears.

Might as well jump.

The Cougster wasn’t close to Mom and I haven’t made it easy to be close to me, but she is kind and always has been. We decamped the CUB to her dorm, where she toted up a crate or two of snacks from the car, then brought out a few plants to carry home in a vegetable rescue op. The “fitness center” of dorm living is handheld transport and at WSU, it works: every building and sidewalk is steep. After a quick hug, I was off to gas up in Colfax, where there is a cemetery on a ridge.

It’s easier to drive past, except that it’s impossible. We talked for half an hour, me filling in the gaps. She was nowhere near quiet as a baby, but she’s been silent ever since. I don’t really believe they’ll see each other, nor I them one day, though I have to hope that my dear ones are seen.

Surely, they earned that.

I have a buddy who isn’t friends with most of my friends, nor I with most of his. Our families were so close when we were kids that Buddy and I have been friends for 50-plus years now, always planning fishing trips that I never show up for. It reminds me of a line from that Tim McGraw song no one should listen to while drinking:

All the sudden goin’ fishing
Wasn’t such an imposition
And I went three times that year I lost my dad

Only Dad went last year around this time, and I haven’t been fishing the whole time since. Maybe after his memorial, which needs to happen soon. People are going missing. Things are stacking up.

So I called up Bill, from somewhere between Dusty and Walla Walla, but getting cell reception in that bumpass region is like running ground surveillance radar in most parts of Korea, which is to say range-limited and unreliable. Never got a word in, but my oldest friend figured out why I was hitting the squelch button and decided he’d tell his mother, just not right that minute. Aunt Judy and Mom were besties before bestie was a term, and she had people over; some of her friends that are not our friends. No need to stir tears into their tea. We’ll all have time for that, those of us still holding time, and we’ll try to spend it wisely on each other because no matter how fast you ride, you can’t save time; only negotiate what you buy with it.

Over in Walla Walla, Daughtergirl is mortgaged into a house of her own now, much earlier in life than her dad pulled that off. At her age, I was commuting from a housesitting gig to grad school in an 800-dollar Spitfire with a frame but no canvas. It’s only pure luck I didn’t kill her, me, and everyone around us with that thing, but she always giggled like the little deathtrap was some kind of righteous adventure and I guess I must have thought so, too. We dodged among the ominous, full-height vehicles, debating the aesthetics of truck undercarriages; we wore furry hats when it was cold but when it rained, just sped up and hunkered under the slipstream. A little carpet mold never killed anyone.

She’s a force of nature, the Daughtergirl. So is her own high-speed, talkative daughter, who was at pains to remind me how imagination works and how it needs to be practiced, in endless iterations of each scenario, until it is made perfect. My own life has limped along more on blind chance than practical magic, but increasingly I find myself trusting Feisty Granddaughter’s vision. She is so very sincere, and possibly unstoppable. Tomorrow, on Halloween, she’ll be a bat.

Don’t imagine that this is some mere costume.

Daughtergirl’s primary work is in a womens’ shelter where it’s a poor idea for random men to show up, but I did get to see her at Whitman College. Ensconced on the fourth floor and opening onto the uppermost balcony of a lovely atrium at the heart of an intricately detailed, neoclassical building dubbed “the Princess Palace” by Feisty Granddaughter, Daughtergirl’s office incorporates a conference area and is easily the size of our living room. I was pleased to realize that she who is the best of me reflects, amplifies, and improves on her old man’s instinct for admin-jamming – and that’s all we need say about that. She is so much more courageous, so much more than I was.

After declaring defeat on installing a GFCI onto an ungrounded circuit (more study is required), I managed to salvage a particle of honor by replacing the float valve and flapper in the toilet that’s been running steadily since she first looked at the place to buy it. We ate local tacos backstopped with a birthday cake of Pretty Wife’s key lime pie to celebrate Daughtergirl’s 30s, and a swallow of Jameson in a toast to Mom.

Not much needed to be said about that; not yet. We who knew her best were few; we who knew her well were none. Her story remains unassailably intact, invulnerably burnished against open discussion, just as she demanded, right to the end. Let her have it, then. Peace on her terms harms none.


I didn’t leave early on Sunday because I couldn’t stand to, but everyone let me pretend it was to humor Feisty Granddaughter. Grandchildren are cool like that, and offspring who will tolerate their parents are an uncountable blessing. Off to Oregon then, where Bill talked me most of the way through the Columbia Gorge as we reminisced about two-family trips to the beach cabin and I gave him weather reports and counted off the winter steelhead boats clustered near John Day Dam.

Mom’s father worked that project, driving east from Milwaukie for days at a time. “Working remotely” had a different meaning then. They had no data links. Long distance was charged by the second, but gasoline was water-cheap. Nobody phoned it in. You showed up halfway out the Gorge, on time and ready, or were shown the door.

It was mid-afternoon-plus when I eased into the cul-de-sac of their Willamette Valley home. We sat in the half-lit house, going over her death and plans for what happens next. Best Dad, no sentimentalist but at pains to be humane, asked if there were anything I would want to take from the house. There was.

Some forty years ago, while spending my junior year failing out of Lincoln High School, I showed my mother a full-flow eruption of teenage volcanism. I was angry and rudderless and disappointed, mostly with myself, and – despite being the mama’s boy I always was – nowhere near strong or together enough to be kind.

I gave her everything, full-blast and unedited. By the time I stomped out, she had stopped screaming back and was only crying. I felt like she had nothing left and I had nothing good left, and I had to leave. It’s a pattern in my life: make yourself untenable, then flee. I hadn’t recognized it yet. I would need a lot of help for that, and the help would all come later.

With neither plan nor purpose, I wandered around downtown Portland for about ten hours. My feet ached, my jeans jacket was soaked through. Here in this century I admitted to Best Dad that at some point, I’d seen a little silver unicorn pendant, sitting in the window of a non-franchised jewelry store, and bought it for her as a peace offering.

I had no idea whether she’d allow me back in the house, but she did and we had one of our better talks. I will always miss those ranging, hyper-loquacious, college-style discussions, but then I started missing them several years before I first realized they were lost to me forever. The clouding of mirror neurons seems a non-negotiable disability of aging, and I can feel that darkening across my own eyes now. It ain’t just the cataracts, people.

Best Dad asked me if I knew the name “Gerstner,” a producer of renowned machinist chests. I reminded him that we’d occasionally discussed them and I’d even bought him a used one, one Christmas during the time I worked at Hardwick’s, formerly the best damned hardware store in Seattle. He smiled and unearthed a small treasure chest, brimming with costume jewelry.

The outer detailing on the box is fancier than a machinist chest and there’s no lozenge-shaped mirror under the lid, but the drawers are built and mounted the same. It’s full of paste, jade, and enameled bead necklaces; wristlets and pendants; sturdy, clip-on earrings that could pass for cuff links. With a reverence that startled me, I ran my fingers through my mother’s jewelry like the thief I am, taking her story for my own now that she can no longer defend it. In the inner-left compartment of the third drawer, hiding behind a bagged pendant chain, was the little unicorn. After Best Dad sealed it into Mom’s last methadone baggie, I slipped it into the watch pocket of my dad-bod Levi’s and haven’t changed jeans since.

At the first darkling of incipient twilight, he pushed me out the door and told me to go home to Pretty Wife. While I still had thoughts on post-mortem tasks, Best Dad offered a right-sized fragment of the practical wisdom for which he’s renowned.

“There is no emergency here, Jack,” he said, in the quiet voice of practiced certainty. “We’ll have time to figure it out.”

We will, at that. With some of that time gripped tightly in my shifting hand, I rolled north under October skies, heading toward the big river bisecting the northern reaches of Cascadia, but stopping just short.

Our son works a shift lead position at his Portland plant, cutting and moving and stacking and heat-treating aluminum parts. He’s not one of my girls, but then titles are often meaningless. For instance, he inhabits a foreman’s responsibilities, but doesn’t have the title or the paycheck to match that. He always shows up, though – six days every week, and sometimes seven. He works an immigrant’s job and is thereby drastically underpaid, but time-and-a-half puts some heft in his check. We ate mediocre food from a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop , discussed his company’s inconsistency with scheduling PTO, and planned his next visit to the house. Our son may not be burning up the executive suite, but he’s rock-solid and I’d trust him with my dogs, time, tools, or wallet. Our son is so much more durable, so much more than I was. On that reassuring fact, I headed north to sleep with his mother because Conan the Barbarian was wrong: what is best in life has never been destroying your enemies. What’s best is stroking the hair of your dear ones.

Following the best possible worst weekend of my life, I’ve been here a week now, phoning relatives, fielding calls, ignoring social media, and failing to write an obituary for a woman who precisely resembled my mother but was never once her actual self, not out loud where I could see her.

No matter. I loved what Mom exemplified through her doppelgänger: be kind, don’t gossip, stand up for those who need you, stay clean, build capabilities, exhibit relentless loyalty, never hold a grudge, and be of service. Reconciling this vision against my lived experience is an unvolunteered-for project that seems likely to consume more cycles than I can spare. It will fuel my dissociation for some while yet.

Again, no matter. There is no emergency here. We have time, me and I, and she. There is no one I’ll ever love more than the woman who stuck cartons of Band-Aids to my chronically shredded knees, took my temperature, washed out my sports gear, and taught me to read before kindergarten. I can’t see her right now, not past the hoarding, the insults, or the bitterness of a second parent cursing me for a disappointment. Still, the adult in me insists those were more signs of her decline than they were insights into my mother’s nature. This is how we get our stories straight because it’s never about what happened, is it?

It’s about how we talk about it.

Once that alleged adult resolves these blazing contradictions with my shell-shocked inner child, we may yet fill our share of buckets with hot tears.

I hear there are few more effective cleaning solutions for scrubbing away regret.

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  1. May you have the time to work the rest of your memories into blessings, and may you enjoy the hell out of the time you have left with the people you have left… and may that time be as long as you want it to be.

    I’ve missed your words…. you’ve still got it.

  2. Kevin Kelly says

    I’m old enough to have lost my mom, your essay resurrected some my of my own sense of loss and sadness. I’ve always felt that there is beauty in closing the circle. It just takes a while to see it through the grief.

    I miss your columns, you write from my perspective albeit more eloquently than I ever could.

    Growing old is painful and wondrous 🙂

  3. Hadn’t previously seen this one. Master work, Master Jack. As another aging raging maniac, coming to terms with these passages is consuming a lot of my time and failing brain power these days. Thanks for musing out loud for us.

  4. Capwombat says

    Well done, Jack. It’s tough to lose them. Think I may take a short drive in the Spitfire tomorrow after all.

  5. Carl Lincoln says

    Thanks Jack; Ya got me thinking, as ever you do. I loved my Mom, and 6 years on now I love her more all the time. I too have a piece of her jewelry, a neclace that I didn’t her give but when all The Stuff was presented by The Sisters it was the piece that spoke. I wear it, and it reminds me. I blackened it so it no longer pops. Subtle is better for me. Yeah, a great lady for sure. A Star Trekkie to the core she was always jealous that I saw a UFO and she did not. She’d visit my back of beyond redoubt from her slice of Phoenix AZ and never believe that yes Mom that is the Milky Way you say you’ve never seen. It’s right in front of you. “No that’s just a cloud”…..Towards the end my Mensa no shit Mom felt unmoored like she was losing it. She was and Altheimer’s can kiss my tanned skinny ass; the ritual was I’d tell her the same joke and when she couldn’t remember the punchline we would know. Trouble is we already knew she and I and when it was time to say g’bye, she was long gone. Got the necklace……Love the shit out em while you can.

  6. Sometimes I wish I could find the tear switch too. For now I’ll distract myself looking up the new literary references you’ve provided me with or finding a Webster’s unabridged (damn the electrons).
    Thanks again for making me think and feel; the definition of true art.

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