Wednesday, June 30, 2010


If you see someone sitting in a park on a blanket, surrounded by all his belongings, you know the story isn't going to be a happy one.  And yet that doesn't diminish its light.

Ron is sitting on a blanket, his thin legs covered by another one, near the shore of Ellis Lake in downtown Marysville, California.  His two dogs, Poodle and Hank, are close by, chunky chow-and-boxer mixes ("They're also part wild, part timberwolf," he tells me).  Ron's face is thin and stubbled with white beard; tattoos blacken his arms below his t-shirt; on his left shoulder sits a blue-and-white pigeon, tied at the ankle with a shoestring looped through Ron's belt.  The pigeon, Ron explains, isn't tied because the bird might fly away (it can't, with one wing paralyzed and a mended broken leg).  It's tied because, the day before, while Ron was busy repairing his leaky canoe with some silicone, he'd turned around to see a fat white cat with the blue-and-white pigeon in its mouth.  He had just spent weeks repairing the bird's broken leg with a series of popsicle sticks.  He wasn't about to let some cat have it.  So now he kept it leashed.

"I'm not like some people.  I don't see why you should have a pet if you're just going to ignore it."

Ron's canoe is perched at the edge of the lake, with a fishing rod and two life jackets stored inside it.  He makes money by renting the canoe to visitors to Marysville's little oasis, which lies in the center of this Gold Rush town, surrounded by traffic and low, historic buildings.  Ron has no home, although he does have a storage unit, he tells me when I sit down next to him, where he keeps a few things.  "I could go live in my ex-wife's garage, but she's a drug addict.  And she's raising my five kids to sell drugs.  I can't bear to see it.  But when I call social services to check on them, she finds out it was me, and then I'm not allowed to see my kids.  Things aren't so good right now."  He straightens the blanket over his legs.  Ron has bone cancer ("my marrow is drying up"), and after a moment he pulls the blanket back to show me his bare, reedy ankles, and how one of his legs is longer than the other.  MediCal had paid for two rounds of chemo and one of radiation.  But now he was back on the street.  He'd been living by the lake for months, with his canoe and its trailer and his bags of dog food and bird seed, getting by.

He seems to be a familiar sight to the locals; people pass him and smile and wave, then walk on.  Ron calls out, friendly, smiling back.  The bird rides his shoulder.

We talk for a while.  "Have you always lived in Marysville?" I ask while stroking the big, friendly dog beside me, Hank.

"No.  I'm a native Californian, but I've lived all sorts of places.  I used to live in Houston working for Brown & Root.  Once I lived up in Utah in the ski areas, and fixed snowmobiles.  Have you ever been to Salt Lake City?"


"That Mormon Temple there, that white building.  It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life."

All at once I felt something burning down my side.  Hank had hiked his leg and was peeing on me.  And my god, this was no ordinary dog piss.  It was fierce, it smelled wild, of the woods, wolves, packs.  And as strong as skunk.  I leapt up.

What rattled me more than being marked by Hank was the look on Ron's face.  White with shock and shame, every line along his thin mouth was saying:  Someone finally sits down to listen to me, and this is what I let happen . . .

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he kept saying, abject. "I don't know why he did that, I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry."

"It's all right, really, it's no big deal.  I have dogs."  I pointed over to my motorhome, parked on the other side of the street.  "He probably smelled them.  It's all right, really, really, I have a change of clothes right over there."

"I'm so, so sorry.  Hank . . .  Hank . . ."

"It's really nothing."

But the shoulder that had been hoisting the pigeon is sagging.  Ron is ducking his head, pulling Hank to him, and doesn't seem to want to talk anymore.  The moment, hardly begun, has broken.  Confidence is gone.  I'm stinking of Hank, and know I have to go, and clean up.  At the edge of the tame lake the canoe tugs.

I look back.  The last I see of Ron he's sitting, a thin letter 'L' on his blanket, his two dogs standing guard beside him.


Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Call To My Father

Dear friends, today I am going to try to do something I don't know that I can do in the context of a blog, though I very much want to. I am going to try to write about my father.

I lost my dad on June 20, 1995, when he was fifty-five years old, and I was thirty-two. For years he had suffered from heart disease. A week before he died, knowing only that he wasn't doing very well, I went out to North Carolina to see him; I asked his doctor the prognosis, and was told my father had six months to live. My dad and I spent a wonderful week together, talking. Then I went home to check on things, telling him I would be back very soon. As soon as I got home to Texas I began looking into the possibility of a heart transplant for my father, something he had never wanted to do ("What if I get the heart of a bad person?") but was now, at long last, beginning to consider. I called him to tell him what I'd found out, and this is what we said to each other:

"Daddy, what are you doing?"

"I've been working."

"Daddy, why are you working? You need to rest. You work too hard."

"But if I don't work, I start thinking . . . about . . ."

"Daddy, Daddy, listen to me, I don't want you to go. I want you to stay. Please, I want you to stay. You have to fight to stay. You have to fight."

"I know, I know, but I don't know how."

"You need a new heart. Daddy, I would give you my heart if I could. Do you hear me? I would give you my heart."

At this point we both started crying, and my mom had to take the phone away.

I have to stop here now, for a minute.


We were able to get back on the line together, and talk about a transplant. He had been looking into this, too (this was all so much harder in those days before the internet). The last words we said to each other were, "I love you." Twenty hours later my father went into cardiac arrest. I flew to North Carolina, and fell into my mother's arms, telling her I should have stayed, my last words to my father shouldn't have been over a telephone. No, she told me. You know how he loved to talk on the phone. You know how it was easier for him to talk on the phone than to say anything face to face. You know you would never, never have had that conversation any other way.

And she was right.


My dad loved phones. Before he died, every Wednesday afternoon he would call me. Every Wednesday he would phone me to see how my writing was going, and every Wednesday I would tell him how hard it was, how I was struggling, trying to find the right words and sentences, trying to make the story come alive. My father, being a businessman in the shipping and transportation industry, didn't quite understand why I couldn't just slap the words down, box the pages up and send them out into the world. But still, every Wednesday he called, to see how my work was going . . .

My father died before any of my books were published. Before he left us, I didn't know, I didn't feel how real life was, how much it meant, and what it was: brief, exact, vivid. When he died, I wrote his eulogy, and it was the first piece of exact writing I'd ever composed. It was the first time I understood that a writer's responsibility is not just to make pleasing shapes and sounds and tales, but to capture with blunt honesty the life of a human being. Within six months of my father's death I finished my first novel. Within twelve it was accepted for publication. My mother gave me my creativity, my love of stories, my joy in people and my thirsty imagination. But my father, who till the end got up every time he was knocked down, knew how to go it alone when he had to and knew what it was to stare at the absolute, made me a writer.


When it came time to write my second novel, I wrote it for and about my dad. This is something I've never talked about publicly, until now.

My father didn't live to see me published--but he never had any doubt that I would be. That last week we spent together before he died, he told me story after story, and I made sure he saw me write them down, so that he would know: I will try to see that your stories will not be forgotten, that they will not disappear. He told me about hiding under a table and secretly scrawling a sentence into the wood. He told me how during the war he had wandered the ruins of Rotterdam, and found a bloody shoe. He told me how his father, a Nazi collaborator, was later caught, and how the entire family was punished, including my small father, only six years old. He told me how, as a fifty-year-old businessman, he was invited one day to lunch at a Rotterdam hotel--and didn't realize until he got there that it was his childhood prison, renovated. He told me he ate lunch in a daze, unable to speak of it with his colleague.

But when The Deadwood Beetle was published six years after my father's death, and dedicated For Carl, only those closest to me knew it was for and about my father. Because I was unable to speak of it. Six years after his death I still couldn't talk about him; I knew that if I tried, I would have to be led from the stage, or the bookstore, or the university hall, a wreck. And so I told no one. The stories were what mattered then. The telling of them. The recording. But I will say it now. The Deadwood Beetle is for and about my father.

My mom told me that once my dad said, frustrated, "She wants to be a writer so badly. And there's no way I can help her."

But you did, Daddy. You did.


As my father lay in the hospital on a breathing machine at the very end, his heartbeat fading away, we "talked" by phone one last time. As I raced to an airplane I stopped and sent him a fax--there was no internet, no email, no texting, then--and my mother, because the nurse said he might still be able to hear, read my words into his ear. I want to shout them out now:

"I am so proud of you, Daddy. And I am so proud of my love for you."

To fathers everywhere: you make us, even when you don't know that you do.

Thank you. Thank you. Daddy.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


I chat with Becky as her puppy, Nala, rolls on the ground between us, that round little body savoring every position it can get into: left, right, head up, head down, on back, on stomach, nose to tail, tail to nose, up on all fours, strutting, tumbling, squirming, panting.

Becky adopts and trains Golden Retrievers, and at any given time has three or four of them. Some of them are bright and happy; others led hard lives before she took them in and have only slowly learned how to move through the world.

"Tango," she points to the shaded kennel behind us, "is still so afraid of people. Of course. That's what being locked in a tiny shed for the first year of your life will do to you. For the longest time she couldn't even extend her legs. She didn't even know how to run. How do you forgive people that? Is it any wonder she's afraid to look you in the eye?"

We were sitting at the edge of a park in Maybell, Colorado, surrounded by dogs running, racing. Some of these too, I knew, had come from unhappy pasts. But now they were pouncing with joy.

Nala, the puppy, was one of the lucky ones. She'd found a good home right from the beginning. She was still lolling on the ground in front of us, chewing my shoelaces.

When Becky isn't running with her dogs, she teaches special needs children. I ask her how her year has gone, and if she's teaching summer school.

"No," she shakes her head. "I love my kids. But I need a rest, too. It can be . . . intense."

Then, without my asking, she begins to tell me a story. As if it's so important, now that I've asked about her work, she has to tell it. It's the story of an eleven-year-old boy, Ellis.*

"At the beginning of every school year," she says, "I ask my students what they would like their goal for that year to be. What they want to accomplish. What they would like me to help them with. And Ellis, he raised his hand, and he said,

"'I want to walk.'"

It didn't seem a realistic goal, just then. Ellis had spent most of his young life locked in a small closet. His muscles, not allowed to move, had never grown or elongated properly. He had never been able to walk. He'd only recently been rescued and placed in a foster home--a wonderful and loving foster home, thank goodness. Now he wanted to learn how to walk. But he didn't want his family to know he was going to learn to walk, he told his teacher. He wanted to surprise them. That was the goal.

It didn't seem something that could be done in nine months, but Becky told Ellis: "Okay. If that's what you want to do, that's what we'll do."

And then she marshaled his other helpers, his therapists and his fellow students, and every school day they took time out from class to go out in the hallway and begin teaching Ellis how to walk.

Sometimes, in writing this blog, I am startled by the simple beauty of what people tell me.

As the months of the school year passed, Ellis made progress. First he could stand, aided. Then he could take steps, aided. Then he could walk a bit down the hall, aided. Then he could walk all the way down the hall, aided. Then he could walk from wall to wall, grabbing on. Then he could walk down the hall with spotters beside him.

As May drew closer, Ellis told his teacher he was ready to spring his surprise. He wanted to surprise his foster mother on Mother's Day. Even now the goal seemed uncertain, but Becky agreed it would be done. At this point Becky enlisted the help of Ellis' two foster brothers, who were let in on the plan. On Mother's Day, May 9, 2010, Ellis asked them to call their mother into the living room and sit down. She had no idea why. She sat down.

Ellis' two foster brothers then went and stood on either side of his chair. As they spotted him, Ellis got up and walked across the room to hug his weeping foster mom.

I'll mention in passing that most of the people I meet who train dogs are stoic, tough, and completely unflappable. Becky, with her closely cropped hair, strong legs and arms, determined chin and steady eyes, is no exception.

Her story over, she wiped her eyes quickly and stood up to get Tango out and run him.

"When I first met Tango, she couldn't do anything. Now look at her. Let's go, girl! Let's go go go."


*Ellis is not his real name.