“Grief doesn’t have a plot. It isn’t smooth. There is no beginning, and middle and end.”
A year ago today, we lost Crescentia Yolanda Hernandez – known as Yolanda, Yoli or Nana, never her given name Crescentia which she hated. Technically, her death wasn’t unexpected – she suffered from a rare, unusually virulent cancer. Statistically, her odds were poor but Yolanda – who came to the US from El Salvador in her early twenties and earned her citizenship – was a fighter. She wanted to live so desperately she endured chemo, radiation, experimental treatments, anything for a little more time.
There were so many things she wanted to do. She voraciously collected, clipped or copied recipes to cook someday, unaware she was already almost out of time. She longed to visit her family in El Salvador but postponed it until she completed her current course of chemo, when she was in better health. She didn’t know – none of us did – it was already too late.
Not a day goes by that my family – who embraced Yolanda as a vital part of that family early in the 32 years she lived with us – doesn’t want to share something with her. She wouldn’t be happy the Clippers traded Chris Paul and Blake Griffin but she’d definitely want to know. I’d like to say things I should’ve said more often and sooner. How she changed our lives for the better, how much we love her and how we’ll always miss her. There’s an empty space in our lives where Yolanda lived. Her bedroom is always, only, Yolanda’s room to us. As long as we live here, it will be Yolanda’s room.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not get over the loss… you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, (emphasis mine)
We offer this video as a constant reminder of the love and joy Yolanda brought to our lives.
I didn’t know Don Martin well – certainly not as well as Jon Crane, his best friend, or Christine Vanderbilt, his girlfriend. All of us lived together in the Law House at USC for six months in ’75. After John and I moved into our own apartment, Law House friends like Don and Anne Kurrasch came by to play bridge.
John and Don shared a semi-friendly rivalry – their regard and respect for each other was secondary to their burning desire to win – to be more successful. John could beat Don (and two or three additional opponents) at chess playing blindfolded, which impressed the hell out of me. Don’s academics were stronger. John had an edge; his parents were supporting him for three years of law school (this was renegotiated when we got married but that’s a story for another time.)
Don’s family couldn’t afford to fund his education. Fiercely ambitious, competitive and determined, Don worked his butt off and paid his own freight. Given his struggle to reach Law School, Don wasn’t about to slack off and blow it. Don stayed home and studied when everybody else chugged pitchers of Margaritas at El Cholo’s – although, to be fair, Don was a charter member of the “How many Tommy Burgers can you eat?” Club. He had the self-discipline to defer gratification.
At the time of my diary entry, our circle of friends took Don’s recovery as a given – until Don died. His iron will was useless. Everything he learned about law went to waste. Would he have chosen differently if he could’ve glimpsed the future? Of course. What about his circle of friends, John and myself included? Did his death inspire us to live better today?
From what I can tell, not much. We convince ourselves that what happened to Don won’t happen to us. We’ve got all the time in the world.
Yolanda moved in with us in 1984. She loved Chris, Sam and Alex with everything she had – especially Sam, although she never admitted favoritism. The tip-off? She always referred to Sam as “the princess.” Alex was Ahni and Chris was Goose because that’s how the princess pronounced their names. Yolanda balked at calling us John and Kathleen; we were forever Mr. John and Mrs. Kathleen.
She confided her cancer to the princess, who stepped up. She drove Yolanda to all of her doctor’s appointments, sat by Yolanda through every chemo, visited every day when Yolanda was hospitalized. The rest of us pitched in but the princess earned Yolanda’s second nickname for her – my angel.
On Friday February 10, Yolanda’s doctor estimated she’d live thirty days. She had thirty hours. When she drew her last breath at 1:30 AM, we all understood it was for the best. Her pain was excruciating, cancer terminal, death inevitable. No surprises. We knew where this road led.
Except we didn’t, not really. We’re in shock. All day I shushed our dogs so they wouldn’t awaken Yolanda – as if anything could. Three fat cats looked increasingly concerned – where’s our Fancy Feast? ‘Where’s the human who opens cans?
The light is on in Yolanda’s room. For a second, I think she’s there. I haven’t been in her room alone in years. Everywhere, pictures of our children – framed on her bureau, taped to the wall, stacked in photo albums. She carried their photos in her wallet. She loved it when strangers thought they were hers. Was I jealous, did I worry she’d spirit them off to El Salvador? No. If anything, it endeared her to me. If I couldn’t be there, who better than someone who loved them like they were her own?
On a sheet of paper tacked above her bed she drew a cross and scrawled, “Please god please god no cancer. Please god no cancer.” A purple spiral notebook was scribbled with recipes. She saved expired coupons for things she didn’t buy. A few of her clothes trailed price tags, waiting to be worn. Whoever clears my room when I’m dead will find comparable artifacts.
The photos we leave behind show what we did. Fragments of incomplete projects remind us of all left undone, bits and pieces of Yolanda. I should have known her better, more deeply, sooner. I don’t know her sister’s name or phone number in El Salvador and I don’t speak Spanish even if I did.
So what did I know about Yolanda? She made the LA Times her own personal illustrated blog. She drew devil’s horns on basketball players she hated, basically everyone but LeBron and the Clippers. She trapped a rattler outside our door by slamming a concrete slab down on its head. (I would’ve been dead from heart attack.) She didn’t drink, smoke or party. Her modesty did not permit her to wear shorts, swimwear or sleeveless blouses – ever.
She loved our forays to Costco – “the big store” – but recently I was too busy to take her until she was too weak to go. There are so many things I meant to say – should have said – but didn’t. I hope she knew – I think she knew – how much her kindness meant, how her patience and loyalty changed our lives, how many others – my sisters, parents and friends – grew to love her like we did and always will. How much we’ll miss her smile, her red coat, her curly hair, her commentary on current events (you thought she’d stop at sports?) in the LA Times, all part and parcel of the boundless heart and infinite capacity for love we knew as Yolanda Hernandez.
We’ll meet again, Yolanda.
(I’m not trying to make a political point about immigration. However, since Yolanda was an illegal immigrant when I hired her, here are the facts. She always worked, either caring for the elderly or children. She neither asked for nor received welfare. She became a US citizen in the early 90s. For the next twenty years plus, she paid taxes like everyone else. In other words, she writes checks to our government without cashing checks from them. Our country gave her something more valuable than food stamps – a chance at a better life. The way I see it, she was lucky to get into our great nation – but not as lucky as we were to get her into our family.)
On days when nothing much happened to me – and there were many – I recorded stories about my family, about my roommate’s family, people I didn’t even know, if they intrigued me. Looking back, these got-to-fill-up-the-page entries are frequently the most interesting because – since I’m not in the story – I’ve forgotten most of the details.
Why not just leave the page blank? Please. Do you really think someone who kept a daily diary from 1964 until the present could tolerate a blank page? Maybe it’s a tad obsessive-compulsive but for me the effort has been more than worth it. Why?
I never would’ve remembered my father’s anecdotes about the old folks home if I hadn’t written them down. When I reread this diary entry last year, it was particularly poignant because my father was near the end of his life, about to be admitted to the Lutheran old folks home where he once preached. How did it happen so fast? Would anyone remember, if it wasn’t written down? Why does it matter?
For one thing, how else would I know what it’s like to preach to elderly patients with dementia? More importantly, revisiting his stories brought his spirit back to life for a minute. I could hear his voice, his gentle laugh. That old lady had it right. He was so beautiful.
Three days before she died, I received a letter from Natalie. Uncharacteristically, I wrote back immediately. I don’t remember what I said but at least I wrote back. Her brother found my letter, unopened, on the kitchen counter, when he arrived in Ukiah after she was dead. My name was on the return address. That’s how he knew where to contact me and let me know she was gone.
Fall, 1961. “A family with a daughter your age is joining our church,” my father says. Natalie is short and round with blue eyes and blonde hair in a Prince Valiant cut. I’m the fourth grade giraffe, tall and skinny with wavy brown hair. She’s an outdoor-oriented extrovert, a born entertainer. I’m a sullen sedentary introvert longing for center stage despite my lack of talent.
Obviously, we’re destined to be best friends.
January, 1967. Natalie and I are sophomores at different high schools. We claim to be cousins and people believe us despite how little we have in common. Natalie’s in Choir and Pep Squad. She’s secretary of the Future Teacher’s Club and wins a speaking role in the school play. The Beatles reign on my stereo while she remains loyal to the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.
We graduate from our respective high schools in 1969. She and her future first husband Bobby are voted Cutest Couple and featured on a full page in Fremont’s yearbook. I leave Wilcox as anonymously as I served my time. She goes north to college, first Pacific Lutheran in Washington and then Chico State. I head south to UCLA. Natalie majors in PE and Education, I choose Film Writing. We get together briefly every summer but during the school year we forge new friendships.
Natalie and Bobby divorce. The next time I hear from her, she’s engaged to the man of her dreams. She doesn’t ask me to be a bridesmaid in either of her weddings. The outdoor ceremony takes place on a blistering August day at the Ukiah ranch where they live
Summer, 1988. Natalie, her husband and their daughter spend two days with my family on their way home from Disneyland. Natalie’s jumpy, a restless bundle of uneven edges and darting eyes, nothing like the laughing Natalie I remember from childhood. She smells the same, a summer collage of rose-scented soap, saltwater or tears, sunblock, healthy sweat and new mown grass. She tries to hide the small scaly patches engraved on the skin on back of her hands and elbows. She isn’t any smaller, but in some profound way she is fading before my eyes.
Not long after, she gets divorced again. In the spring of 1994, Natalie’s mother – in many ways her anchor – dies. Natalie spirals down, then goes into freefall.
While at work as a kindergarten teacher, she passes out, drunk, in the ladies room. She’s fired from her dream job. Next, she loses her driver’s license. After that she loses custody of her daughter.
Fall, 1995. I hate it when she calls late at night. She rambles, repeats herself and slurs her words. I make excuses to get off the phone.
March 26, 1996. I open Natalie’s last letter. She never learned to type so it’s handwritten like all the others. The round, precise cursive lines of blue ink on the first page remind me of the tight, controlled perfection of her record acts.
Her writing deteriorated with every line, crazily sloping out of control by the time she signed her name. I wanted to believe her but I didn’t. Even so, I never thought alcohol would kill her at 44.
I hope she knew I loved her. I know you can’t save people who don’t want to be saved but I wish I’d tried harder. Whenever her name is mentioned, I still tell people she was my cousin. She’s buried next to her mother in Massachusetts instead of Ukiah. I’ve never been to Massachusetts but one of these days I’ll go.
Introducing his brilliant song “Losing You”, Randy Newman explains it was inspired by parental grief at losing a son. While it’s far more typical and expected for children to lose their parents, the lyric speaks to me. My mother was ninety years and four months old when she died on Saturday, March 12th. Assuming I live as long, there still won’t be enough time to get over losing Geneva Alayne Knutsen.
This is not to imply she was a saint or that our relationship was perfect. If anything, as the eldest daughter – and the one who most clearly carries her genetic profile – I was a miniature version of her and her expectations of herself were high. I know because she shared every one of them with me – a lot.
As a rebellious adolescent, I fought to quiet her voice. Smile. Be friendlier. Ugh, look at those fingernails! You’ve gained weight. You’d look so much prettier with a little make-up. Is that what you’re wearing to church? Nobody likes to vacuum, Kathleen, but we all have to do things we don’t like to do. You’d better get rich or marry rich because you’re going to need a maid. Straighten your shoulders. Smile.
It was enough to drive a sensitive soul crazy. It was more than enough to obscure the motivation behind these advisory bulletins. I heard a meddling mother picking on me, I didn’t see it was her love for me overflowing – far too much love to maintain a respectful distance.
She got too close; we bruised each other. We disappointed. I said things I regret; I carelessly broke a few of her dreams because they weren’t mine. We hurt each other. You’d think I couldn’t wait to escape her voice but it was never an option. Her voice is my voice as my face holds her face.
Beneath the admonitions – Smile. Be friendlier. Straighten your shoulders – lives the real message, flowing like a river. I love you, I love you, I love you. I want the world for you. You’re my world. She’s the enduring voice and breath in my world. How could I ever get over losing her?
My Nuclear Family in Innocent Times – Kathleen, Geneva, Joyce, Vance and Janet
On the morning of March 18, my sister Janet called and told me my father passed away earlier that morning. When my daughter and I got into our car to drive to the assisted nursing facility where my mother now resides and my sisters would be gathering, the very first notes of a song called I Believe (from the Broadway hit Spring Awakening) pierced the car. The words are simple. “I believe – All will be forgiven – I believe – There is love in heaven – Peace and joy be with them – Harmony and wisdom – Oh I believe.” A chorus repeats these words for the duration of the song. Before that day, I considered it one of the least memorable songs from the play but on that desolate early March morning, I was a river of tears all the way to the retirement home. Now, it moves me every time I hear it.
As a teenager, I used to think the songs that played on the car radio held personal messages for me from God, fate or the universe. I outgrew this naïve (and incredibly narcissistic) idea eventually, but it resurfaced when I Believe was the first song to penetrate my shell-shocked grief. In fairness, I had been playing the Spring Awakening CD in the car, making the odds of hitting I Believe significantly higher than on the radio. Still – the CD is about an hour long, of which I Believe takes up all of 2:31. Intellectually, I know I’m constructing meaning out of a mere coincidence. Emotionally, I choose to hear it as a message. (My father was a Lutheran pastor, which is why those particular words resonated so strongly)
A couple weeks ago my sister Joyce gave me a CD she called SONGS OF SOLACE – music that expressed the grief that accompanies a great loss and the perfect soundtrack for a good long cry. These are the songs she selected, which I recommend to anyone who has recently suffered a loss and – like me – finds music helps to process painful emotions.
I’ll comment on some of the other songs in another blog since this is running long. If you know a great song about grief, I’d welcome suggestions for a SONGS OF SOLACE 2.
SONGS OF SOLACE PLAYLIST
I Believe…..from the cast of “Spring Awakening”
Sand and Water……Beth Nielsen Chapman
Silent House…..Dixie Chicks
Flock of Birds…..Coldplay
Beam Me Up……Pink
Brothers in Arms……Dire Straits
Company…..Ricki Lee Jones
My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose……Eva Cassedy
Quarter Moon……Cheryl Wheeler
How Long Will I Love You…….Ellie Goulding
He Lives in You…..from the cast of “The Lion King”
Leader of the Band…..Dan Fogelberg
Texas Girl at the Funeral of her Father……Randy Newman
10,000 Miles…….Mary Chapin Carpenter
Further and Further Away……Cheryl Wheeler
Theme from the film, “About Time”
Just a Closer Walk With Thee…..from Dixieland Hymns CD (for Vance)
My young, handsome father towing his three daughters on a toboggan.
I lost my father on March 18th. The truth is, I didn’t “lose” him, I know exactly where he is. I’ve been to his grave at Forest Lawn. But even now, more than four months later, it’s hard to write “my father died” because I don’t want to believe it. I cry when I talk about him. I think about him every day and every night. I miss him more than I can say.
I spoke briefly at his funeral. I shared an amusing anecdote that illustrated who he was as a father. I’ll reconstruct and post it at a later date. My daughter delivered a more moving eulogy which I am reprinting here.
“When I think about my grandpa, the strongest thing that comes to my mind is Love. My grandpa truly loved. Not just his family or his friends, but everyone and everything around him. He saw the beauty in everything… when there was darkness, he always found light.
Grandpa believed in us, every one of us, no matter what. He loved without judgment and without fear. He trusted in us, each of us, to hold the heart he gave so freely to us. And when we faltered, he forgave us.
When people talk about strength, often they think of the strength of the body, or a heart made impenetrable to emotion. To be strong, you must fight the world within and without, prove your domination over others and yourself. To be strong, you cannot care.
I think, instead, that it takes great strength to be kind. It takes great strength to forgive. To be vulnerable. To trust others and try to understand. To have empathy even when you’re strangers, to have sympathy even when you’re hurting. To look past darkness and ugliness to find light and beauty. To look at the world around you and try to make it a better place, any way that you can.
To try and fill this world with love.
He always said it was our greatest and most powerful gift.”