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.)
My father rarely talked about himself; he preferred listening. He had a gift for asking questions people wanted to answer (maybe all clergymen or psychology students master this technique).
Invariably, when a boy came calling he found himself seated opposite my father, awaiting my entrance. My dad charmed them all. “Your father’s a great guy!” they’d enthuse – surprised, because he was so much more amiable – so much easier to talk to – than they assumed a religious figure might be.
None of them realized how skillfully he drew them out, inspiring them to excited monologues while he revealed nothing. I like to think I learned from his example, although self-publishing my diary entries argues against it. If this isn’t talking about myself, what is?
He didn’t dwell on himself at home either, preferring to draw my sisters and me out about our feelings and interests. On those rare occasions when he did, I wrote his stories down in my diary. This one had a profound effect on me.
I miss his calm wisdom and understanding more than I can express. Publishing my memories of him is as close as I can come to letting him live again.
I used to have this theory that everyone has one Great Love in their lifetime. A Great Love is not necessarily who you end up with (in fact, more likely not IMHO) but it’s someone who changes you profoundly. Author Andrew Sean Greer (“The Confessions of Max Tivoli”) takes it a step further. “We are each the love of someone’s life,” he writes. I love the quote, but I question the math. What if one gorgeous man or woman is the great love of five people’s lives? Doesn’t that leave four people without an available great love?
I believe that in addition to a Great Human love, people with animals also have a Great Dog or Cat Love. Sure, I know you love all of your pets, but wasn’t one just a little more special? Didn’t one of them speak to you, make you feel like you and he/she forged an almost mystical connection?
Deeter was my Great Love in the feline world, high praise indeed as I’ve had a lot of great cats. Deeter was different, though. We could communicate. He shared my loathing of all things rodents and like the ruthless assassin he was, he racked up an impressive number of kills. His homicidal instincts were not restricted to rats. A friend of Sam’s brought a kitten into our house when she came to visit. Deeter went ballistic, stalking and terrifying the little intruder so much it chose death-defying leaps from one outside balcony to another rather than face Deeter’s wrath. Eventually, Deeter’s patience was rewarded and he trapped the little girl downstairs when no one was watching. He slashed her stomach so badly she required surgery (which I felt required to pay for. Not such a cool move, Deeter.) Don’t worry, the kitten survived and – equally important – Deeter made his point. No new cats would be moving in, not even on a temporary visa, not under his iron rule.
Deeter was a character, a personality with a strong life-force (read death force for rodents, birds and lizards.) According to my next-door neighbor – not one of Deeter’s fans for reasons which will soon become apparent – Deeter heroically held a rattlesnake at bay while my neighbor sought help.
For a merciless killing machine, Deeter had a surprisingly babyish side. He loved to toss rubber bands in the air and then pounce on them. He loved to lie beside me and knead my flesh. He loved to jam his head deep into J’s smelly tennis shoes and inhale deeply. He loved howling cat fights with our next-door neighbor’s Russian cat Micki, a psycho KBG agent (I can’t prove it, but strongly suspect.)
For weeks after Deeter died, Micki wandered by our windows like she did every day to tempt Deeter into a frenzy. Now, though, she was searching for Deeter – and she looked sad. Well, as sad as a psycho cat can look. Beneath their violent vicious hatred, I believe they were deeply in love. I guess we’ll never know.
I have another terrific tuxedo cat now – Gatsby (below). I’ll always have a tuxedo cat in my life, in memory of Deeter but there can never be another feline Great Love for me. I’ll miss Deeter till the day I die.
If you had a Great Love – Dog or Cat – please post a picture and their name. Surely I’m not the only one.
I dimly recall a Louis CK routine about how getting a pet is like putting down a deposit on heartbreak. (His version is funnier.) Odds are high you will suffer through the loss of several pets in your lifetime if you’re an animal lover like me. Losing Nicky was a heartbreaker.
Nicky was a golden retriever mix, around 4, when we took him home from the Glendale Humane Society. I can’t imagine why anyone would give him up. His nickname was Nick Mellow. He used to plunk his rear on the sofa like a person while keeping his paws on the floor. I’ve never seen another dog do that.
Then he stopped eating and we began the round of vets. Their best guess was that something or someone poisoned him (apparently antifreeze tastes sweet and is fatal to dogs). He kept getting worse. Finally, we hospitalized him in West Los Angeles, hoping a definitive diagnosis might lead to a cure. He spent two full weeks there.
Every day, either John or I drove 45 minutes each way to visit Nicky. We coaxed him to eat with chicken strips or treats and hoped our presence reassured him he’d be coming home. After a series of tests and surgeries, racking up a bill of almost 2K (not a bad deal today, but a fortune in 1985), they sent him home on November 12, no clearer about what the problem was than when he was admitted. They said maybe he’d get better. The next day he crawled down our stairs to be with us again. Less than 8 hours later he died.
As a result of this experience, I promised myself I’d never take extreme measures to save another pet. The tests and surgery only caused him more pain. Nicky was miserable caged away from us in a hospital; we should’ve kept him comfortable at home. If we hoped by spending a lot of money, we’d increase his odds of survival – we were wrong. In retrospect, we should have accepted the inevitable and made his last two weeks at home as comfortable as possible.
This day magnified how much hinges on small things. If J and I had lived on the west side – closer to LAX than to Burbank – he would’ve been on the plane that went down. Since we lived in Glendale – primarily because we couldn’t afford to live on the west side – he flew out of Burbank instead. He was driving out of the San Diego airport – heading for his court appearance – when he saw the plane explode.
If I’d been widowed in such a shocking way in 1978, I can’t imagine what my life would’ve been like. I know it wouldn’t be anything like the lives J and I got to share for the next 38 years. (For one thing, two of our children don’t get born.)
If I stopped to consider how many near misses with death might occur in any given day, let alone month or year, I’d be too paralyzed with fear to leave the house (which, of course, is no guarantee the house won’t fall down on my head when the Big One hits California.) Every time I’m stuck in traffic for hours, I’m lucky not to be one of the fatalities that triggered the sig alert. If the 9/11 terrorists targeted the Empire State Building instead of the Twin Towers, I would’ve been two blocks away instead of two miles. So far, I’ve stayed healthy while friends who took better care of themselves struggle with terminal illnesses.
In 2001, Nassim Taleb published Fooled by Randomness which argues that modern man overestimates casuality in an effort to believe that our world is more rational than it actually is. If we can convince ourselves we’re alive due to luck or destiny, we don’t have to worry quite so much about getting hit by a bus.
I have no answers; only questions. A quote from Taleb’s book:
“Reality is far more vicious than Russian roulette. First, it delivers the fatal bullet rather infrequently, like a revolver that would have hundreds, even thousands of chambers instead of six. After a few dozen tries, one forgets about the existence of a bullet, under a numbing false sense of security. Second, unlike a well-defined precise game like Russian roulette, where the risks are visible to anyone capable of multiplying and dividing by six, one does not observe the barrel of reality. One is capable of unwittingly playing Russian roulette – and calling it by some alternative “low risk” game.”
This entry is a perfect illustration of the tricks memory plays. I would have sworn that my father came to LA to inform me of the call to San Diego and that today was the first time I was aware of the possibility. I was even more certain that it was on this day, at LAX, that he dropped the bomb – it was a done deal, they were committed to moving and I had no say in it. This, too, is apparently false. Who am I kidding, apparently? If the battle for truth is between my diary and my memory, the diary scores a knock-out.
If I hadn’t written everything down in my diary, I’d buy my own fiction in which, not so coincidentally, I am cast as the hapless victim. Until I came across this particular entry, I believed my version was 100% accurate. It turns out none of it is factually true.
In my defense, my version was emotionally true to my feelings about abandoning Santa Clara for San Diego. I felt blindsided and betrayed. When I left to attend UCLA, I expected to return to Santa Clara every Christmas and summer – where else would I ever want to go? I didn’t remember any other home before Santa Clara. The shocking realization that – aside from a quick dash to box my earthly possessions for a move to a city I’d never seen and where I knew no one – aside from that, I could never go home again. The house I grew up in would be occupied by strangers.
If I ruled the world, my family would never leave Santa Clara (or age, for that matter). My parents would live in our old parsonage which would look exactly like it used to – but that hasn’t been true for 47 years now.
And I’m still not completely over it.
DEL MONTE THEN – We didn’t own our house; Hope Lutheran owned the parsonage, we just lived there. The new pastor thought it was too small (no duh) and the church sold it in October, 1970, for $27,700. It was your basic three bedroom two bath Lawrence Meadows tract house. My thanks to Lester Larson who posted this 1956 Lawrence Meadows brochure, below, on Facebook. The floor plan depicted in the brochure was ours; I think that may even be our house in the picture.
DEL MONTE NOW – This is what our house looks like today. Apparently it now has six bedrooms and three bathrooms and the estimated value is (gulp) $1, 308,597.
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?