Some of My Favorite Subjects

LAUGHING IN THE DARK gets into some of my favorite subjects: old friendships, California dying styles and the dread of getting Alzheimer’s. Here’s some of what I’ve written for newspapers and public radio.

FRIENDS NEVER GET AWAY

The California ex-pats have settled into the Pacific Northwest just fine. They have a cozy house and interesting friends and a new life in Port Townsend, Wash. They had been living with the rest of us in Sonoma County, the chosen spot on earth, as far as nature is concerned, as stated by no less than Luther Burbank. But was it chosen enough for them? No, they had to go and find a new paradise.

It’s bittersweet when old friends move away. You finally identify all your closest friends and then somebody breaks up the old gang – goes off on a vacation, finds a dream spot in a charming village, comes back, sells the house and too bad about you.

But you do the going-away parties and wave goodbye with a touch of envy, admiration and hope that they haven’t made a hasty leap. Selfishly you think, if it’s a flop they’ll just have to move back.

The good thing about friends of long-standing is that even when the location changes the people don’t. I’d know it was their home no matter where they lived. There would be at least two cats hanging around. Old family photos on the wall of three boys. There’d be her funky living room lamp with the thick fringe that looks like a giant Vietnamese sunhat. He’d have a truck. There would be home-made trail mix on the counter, Cooks Illustrated dinners, old roses and sweet peas in a lush garden and plenty of strong coffee.

Gretchen, Me and Missy

Gretchen, Me and Missy

It is reassuring to know that people in late middle age can fearlessly pack up and move on to a new adventure. They have thrived in their corner of the Olympic Peninsula. They have become sailors. She did her first triathlon, urged on by new friends she met at the gym. He became a crabber. She plays her cello in a community orchestra.

This is a photo of my friends and me on Whidbey Island, Washington, in Gretchen’s new corner of the world.

Their new home is a lovely old seaport town but it is not a strange, exotic land. The Saturday morning Port Townsend farmer’s market is almost a match for the Sunday one in Sebastopol with people hawking everything from lavender to tamales, talking up the joys of slow food and tabling for Democrats. One delicious difference is their vendors bring in huckleberries and salmon chowder.

Our friends didn’t have to adapt to a new dress code, except to add a couple more layers and serious rain gear. Casual outdoors trumps high fashion in their corner of Washington, just like in our part of Northern California.

We brought them two loaves of Sebastopol sourdough. In exchange they provided sightings of bald eagles, a hot tub that looks into a forest, a film festival, a side trip to glaciers, crab cakes and an introduction to Working Girl White, the local wine.

It hurts when good friends move away. But the pain is lessened if their place comes with a guest cabin.

HOW I CAME TO BE CALLED THE QUEEN OF DEATH

I knew it would be a good read. An ongoing interview with a dying woman on how she was orchestrating her dying and planning her funeral. An example of how our generation was altering convention, from marriage to childbirth, to now dying – the ultimate break from tradition.

I knew the story would be controversial. I knew my editors at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat might squirm. I knew readers might be shocked. I didn’t know how much I would get involved.

I met Michele, a 52-year-old woman with pancreatic cancer living in western Sonoma County near the Russian River, through Jerri Lyons who I was doing a story about. Jerri established the Natural Death Care Project (now called Final Passages), a kind of do-it-yourself way for a dying person and her family to make plans without using a funeral director or a mortuary, including caring for a body at home and driving it to the crematorium.

I asked Jerri if she had a client who might tell her story and she arranged for me and a photographer to meet Michele. The original idea was that Michele’s account would add texture to the story on Jerri and her program, maybe a few paragraphs worth.

But it ended up that Annie Wells, the photographer, and I spent five months off and on with Michele, taking photos and writing about this woman who was taking control of the whole dying experience. She wanted to die at home and be in charge of as much as possible, from interviewing the crematorium director to editing her obituary. She told us, “I was in control of my life and now I want to be in control of my death.”

Annie and I would drive out to the river to the cabin with the red door under the redwoods where Michele and her husband lived. Sometimes I would take notes. Sometimes Annie would shoot photos. Sometimes we would just sit and talk about gardens and mothers and children and Michele’s new Mary Kay grape-colored nail polish.

I worried about being intrusive. I was asking some pretty nosy questions. Do you believe in an afterlife? Yes. When do you think you will die? When I stop. What will you miss? Seeing my grandchildren grow up. What does the pain feel like? Like a hot rock that burns through me, even into my toes.

It developed into much more than the usual relationship journalists have with people. I crossed a few professional lines. When Michele said she was giving away jewelry to friends and insisted I also choose a piece, I didn’t protest that it would be a conflict. I didn’t balk when she asked me to light her pot pipe to help with the pain. I wrote a sample obit for her and let her change some of the words.

Before meeting Michele, I had written a series of interviews with a man with AIDS. I did a story on a woman who was making coffins out of plain pine boards, which could be used alternately as a blanket chest or, stood on end, a book shelf. I interviewed a woman who belonged to the Hemlock Society and was accumulating pills to end her life. I talked to another woman on one of her last days who willed herself to die by stopping to eat and drink. I was pretty fascinated by the subject. So, it was no wonder that one of my editors started calling me the Queen of Death.

A copy editor at the New York Times, which put some of our stories on its wire service, said, “Oh, you’re the one who writes all those weird California stories about death.”

Michele chose her goodbye clothes like she was going on a trip. On her bedroom wall was a long black velvet dress along with her grandfather’s wristwatch and a beaded necklace that belonged to her mother. Michele told her mother she wasn’t getting the necklace back. After Michele died and a day of viewing the necklace and all would go with her body into the crematorium. She told two friends what kind of eye shadow and makeup she wanted.

After Michele lived through the winter and saw spring she said maybe she could live long enough to taste her own home-grown tomatoes. That didn’t happen. She died on a July night and I got the call as I was getting ready for bed. Annie and I drove out to the river to chronicle this last stage.

I felt almost as shy around her then as I did the first day we met. Her husband made peppermint tea for everyone, including Michele’s friends who helped bathe and dress her body. Jerri invited me to say goodbye to Michele. I walked over to her colorful coffin, held her hand, wished her good luck on her journey and thanked her for teaching me about dying.

For more info on Jerrigrace Lyons, death midwife, educator and home funeral guide, go to Final Passages. www.finalpassages.org

LOVE AND MEMORY, A REAL HORROR FILM

The part where I lost it in the movie Away from Her, was when Fiona and Grant slow dance in their living room to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. Their bodies settled so comfortably into each other, moving in a familiar way as intimately as a love scene. And then we see Fiona going off to the nursing home, carrying her own bag and checking herself in at the front desk.

The only thing I was really looking forward to in the film was the chance to watch two favorite actors, Julie Christie and Olympia Dukakis. The rest was going to be one big horror film.

My good friend Miriam and I went to see it together. It was like watching a film in a language that we both know better than some. Call it Immersion Alzheimer’s. My mother and her father had the same disease.

We came home and drank lots of wine to toast her brilliant father and my delightful mother and talk of where they ended up, inside sad places with cheerful names full of people with vacant eyes and bad sweaters.

When my mother was diagnosed in the 1980’s people didn’t know much about Alzheimer’s. Now it and cancer take turns being labelled the most feared disease and likely most people can name a person in their family or circle with Alzheimer’s. Plus, there’s been more movies in which Alzheimer’s plays its familiar role of predator and terrorist, like Still Alice, the French movie Amour and The Leisure Seekers.

The night we saw the movie, a Bruce Springsteen film played in the adjacent theater. The raw energy of the music pounded against the wall, as if it might break through the quiet lost world of Fiona and give us all some relief.

Miriam and I were not the only ones in the movie theater to groan when Fiona puts the frying pan in the freezer. Anyone who has spent time with Alzheimer’s knew this was not just some silly and excusable “senior moment.”

We don’t really know what it’s like to be a person with Alzheimer’s. Maybe it’s like a movie itself running inside your head. With voice-overs and scrambled flashbacks, quick scene changes, bursts of music, and you, alone, suddenly standing in the middle of a set you don’t recognize. Then lights, camera, action. Cut.