I am objectively a lousy father. Compared to my father, I am a psychotic crack addict trying to raise orchids in a toilet.

It started with a rose-colored memory of my family’s driving vacations when I was a boy. Swinging through the western states and the national parks. Driving from Texas to the arctic circle and back. That sort of thing. My wife and I had long discussed a trip like that, and we finally decided to do it: Dallas to Montreal and back.

Many lists were made, and my wife declared them good. We packed the necessities, like phones, computers, and some other stuff, maybe underwear. We got the house-sitter, and the person to come in multiple unspecified times a day to check on the cats, and new shells for the shotgun. We packed the night before departure. My wife would no more wait to pack last minute than she would kick a puppy over the backyard fence.

This morning, the day of departure, we loaded the car and did a cat headcount. We came up one head short.

That didn’t worry us much. This cat is a big baby, and he probably hid someplace because we were acting weirder than usual. We checked his usual hiding places. We searched unusual hiding places. We looked behind things and under things, in every cabinet twice and every closet three times. We shook cans of treats and containers of food while calling his name like the kid in Shane. He did not appear.

My wife felt sure he was hiding in some super-secret kitty spot. I thought maybe he had run out when we were loading the car. He could be wandering the neighborhood, dazed with hunger, staggering onto Crazy-Street, the six-lane race track behind our house, to be crushed like a cat-shaped jar of jelly. My fears were valid—we once had a cat that sneaked out the front door and never came back.

We searched the neighborhood. No cat. At last my wife reasoned that the cat was too much of a coward to ever go outside, so we should get on the road. I agreed, but I felt bad about it—like a rotten kitty-dad. We notified the people staying in our house to watch out for the cat and tell us if they saw him.

I pulled the car out of the driveway, certain that our cat was, at that very moment, dodging cars someplace down the block. I drove the other way though, because Montreal is in that direction. After five minutes I couldn’t stand it. I turned the car around and drove home. Our cat was laying where he always lays, on our bed, with a, “Holy shit, what are you doing back?” expression.

As we drove our first leg to Little Rock, I felt relieved and thrilled that our cat was safe at home, thinking bad thoughts about it. But all the way there a voice in my head said, “YOU WERE WILLING TO LEAVE YOUR CAT BEHIND TO GET SQUISHED BY A CAR, WEREN’T YOU? ASSHOLE.”

Little Rock is beautiful. Here’s a picture.

By the way, east of Dallas I found out there are no Buc-ees on the way to Little Rock, and I strongly recommended we go back home.

I’ve reached the age where I seem to be attending more funerals than weddings.

One of my uncles died this morning. Oddly enough, he expired in his doctor’s office. Right place, but evidently the wrong time. He was my mother’s older brother, but my dad called him “the closest thing to a brother I ever had.” My dad’s real brothers were a lot older, so I suppose to my dad they were more like uncles, or maybe Great Danes.

I’ve been thinking about a simple way to explain who my uncle was. This story may do it.

When my uncle was a young man, he and my dad framed houses. One time a third fellow was helping them–my mother’s fiance. This was before my dad became her fiance and the former fiance ended up crawling around in the front yard with a flashlight looking for the engagement ring she threw at him. That’s another story.

My uncle and my dad were nailing ceiling joists to the tops of walls. The fiance was standing around on top of the wall, talking, and paying no attention to the work. He wore cheap boots with soles that stuck out from underneath the uppers. As the fiance expounded on everything except work, my uncle tacked a nail through the exposed sole on both of his boots, nailing him to the wooden cap of the wall. He did it so casually that the fiance never even noticed. Until he tried to take a step and almost broke both legs.

That’s the kind of guy my uncle was.

My uncle at graduation with three of his many sisters. My mom is the one with attention disorder.
My uncle at graduation with three of his many sisters. My mom is the one with attention disorder.

Last night I looked up from writing my novel synopsis and eating peanut butter cookies, and I realized that this blog has achieved a phenomenal milestone. It has existed for 660 days. The significance may not punch you in the face right away, so I’ll explain. The numeral 660 is the area code for Sedalia, Missouri. That town is only a two hour drive from Branson, Missouri. I visited Branson once. I think it’s pretty much how Las Vegas would look if it were built by the cast of Hee Haw, and yet the place entertained me in spite of myself. Ergo, milestone. Don’t you feel silly that you didn’t see it for yourself?

In celebration, I devoted a few minutes to thinking about the posts in this blog, and the number of posts (176) made it hard to keep them straight in my brain. If my tentacular mass of prior posts confuses me, then it probably confuses more recent regular readers, not to mention folks who stumble across the blog.

And I don’t know about you, but when I find an interesting blog with a long history, I’m puzzled about how to locate the parts of that history I might be most interested in. I know that’s what categories and tags are for, but what does it really mean when a post is tagged “camel”? How to ride one? How to raise them? How do they taste roasted? Do you prefer regular or menthol? It would be nice if the blogger would do some extra work for me. I have my own work that needs to be done and cookies waiting to be eaten.

A quick survey revealed that while this is my general humor blog, it does often follow certain themes. Creativity, marriage, work, family, fear and confidence are common themes. In addition, 33 posts mention movies, 35 posts mention death, 17 posts include strong profanity, 7 posts mention snot, and immersion blenders figure prominently in 2 posts. Cats appear in a full 100 of my posts.

Okay, this is a perplexing mess, and I’m cutting through it right now. I’ve extracted eight general groups of posts and a few posts from each group. You can find them below, along with a sentence or two describing each group to help you decide whether those posts might be interesting to you in any way at all.

My Wife

In order to understand a lot of my posts, it helps to understand my wife. This group of posts describes about 10 percent of her being, but that’s the portion she employs daily, not the 90% capable of sinking you like the Titanic. We’ve discussed getting t-shirts that say “Bill will make you cry. Kathleen will make you disappear.”


These posts chat about a couple of our recent vacations, both of which almost killed us. Jamaica was romantic. Disney World was nostalgic. Both were horrifying in their own way.


My mother died last year, so these posts may not make you pee with laughter the whole way through. Some are a bit somber, but I tried to avoid maudlin.

Baron Yörg Goes to the Movies

My acquaintance Baron Yörg, a 500 year-old vampire Lord of All Things Foul and Unholy, provides the occasional movie review. I’ve been begging him to review Bambi, but no luck so far.


Employment and unemployment seem to weigh on everyone these days. In these posts I touched on employment challenges, with a subtext of living in a ditch and eating dirt, rejected by everyone with more than four teeth, and forced to count my lice to keep from going insane.


These posts contain a below-average number of chuckles, but they do touch on some real ways that death forces itself upon us.

Weirdly Philosophical

All right, maybe this shouldn’t even be a category, but these posts look at some odd aspects of living in the world, such as fear, failure, and walking around with a metaphorical stick up one’s backside.

Top 3

These were the three most frequently viewed posts that didn’t fall into any of the other categories. Yeah, I didn’t do any work at all to list these, but they seem cute to me.

I hope this presentation was helpful to folks interested in checking out some of the older posts. Putting it together helped me. I had no idea I’d never written a post containing the word “spleen.” Until now.

If we’re going to go back in time, let’s go all the way back.

I remember when I was eleven years old doing my very best to cut out my grandfather’s heart and eat it. He was trying to do the same to me, so it was all fair. Plus, it was on Christmas Day, so we deserved some kind of forgiveness, or dispensation, or something like that.

Here’s how it went. On Christmas morning my sister and I assaulted our toy-encircled tree like a troop of baboons, after which my family opened gifts. Then, before we could play with our new toys that made every other toy we’d ever owned look like cow flop, my parents made us get dressed and drove us to my aunt’s house. The entire extended clan ate the noon meal together, with us kids at the short tables. In this way my people broke the holiday bread, reaffirmed our family bonds, and in the afternoon, as the Good Lord intended, we played poker.

I don’t know why we played poker within spitting distance of the Nativity Scene, but that’s what my people did. I didn’t learn much about religion, but I learned that if you’re not playing poker to cut out someone’s heart and eat it, you might as well be playing with a wad of dirty newspaper and a stick. I also learned that faith is a wonderful thing, but don’t draw to an inside straight.

We played for cash. Nobody cared that I was eleven years old. If I was dumb enough to raise into a pair of aces, I must be too stupid to spend my allowance on anything good anyway.

My father didn’t play poker with us. I didn’t think about it then, since he pretty much minded his own business and nobody bugged him about it. But yesterday he explained to me why he didn’t play. When he was in Korea during the war, neither he nor any other marines got paid. The Corps held onto their money, since they sent men to places where there wasn’t a damn thing worth buying anyway. The Corps finally shipped them home on an actual ship, which stopped in Japan so the men could get their back pay in real, U.S. cash.

Poker games broke out in every unused cranny of that ship. Not every man played, but a lot of them did. After all, there weren’t many recreational activities on a ship crammed with marines. However, the main point is that by the time they reached San Diego about six guys owned all the money, and hundreds of fellows were broke.

My father did not play poker. When he got home, he bought a new car.

This is all fantastic evidence that poker is a game of skill, not a game of chance. Here’s a fun fact for you. If you look around the poker table and can’t tell who is the least skilled player at the table—you’re the one whose heart is about to be cut out and eaten. Now that I think about it, that’s true of a lot of things in life.

My grandfather died when I was 15. The family drifted, and after a few years the Christmas dinners stopped. We didn’t play poker anymore. But by that time I felt like I was a pretty good player. In my twenties I decided to see how good I was, and I started flying to Las Vegas to play poker. I won a little sometimes, and I never lost much, so I kept playing.

The crazy point came when I landed in Vegas, went straight from the airport to the casino, and played for 40 hours straight. At the end of that time I was $10 ahead. I thought, What the hell? I’d won a lot of hands, and I hadn’t lost too much money on any hands. Then for the first time I paid attention to something I’d seen thousands of times. Every time someone bet, the dealer pulled out ten percent and dropped it in a hole in the table, where it went to pay for electric lights, and Wayne Newton, and hookers for Japanese high-rollers.

It wasn’t enough to be good. You had to be supernatural. I never surrendered poker money to a casino again. I played other games like craps and blackjack, and I lost my ass because I hardly understood them at all.

To wrap this up, jump forward in time to my wedding. I’m not the wildest guy on my block, and my bachelor party was an event of less than thermonuclear festivity. Instead of strippers and tequila, my best and oldest friends came over to my place for the evening, and we bonded by drinking beer, smoking cigars, and playing poker.

I took all their money. I cut out their hearts and ate them. Hey, we were playing poker. Screw ‘em. If my grandfather was fair game, what did they expect?

My dad in Not-a-Damn-Thing-Around-Here Korea, 1951

I have read that when men are dying they call for their mothers. I can’t swear that’s true, but I can say that some women call for their mothers. At least my mother called for hers when she was dying, not caring that her mother had been dead 50 years.

After my mother died I distributed a dozen copies of her death certificate to interested parties like bankers, and claims adjusters, and government bureaucrats. Each time I picked up a copy I saw her cause of death, which was “necrosis.” That means her body tissue died, which seems a little obvious, I suppose. It’s something a doctor can write on a death certificate that sounds better than, “I have no fucking idea.”

In the days before my mother died, her doctors talked about transferring her to another hospital, and they almost came right out and said it was because they weren’t as smart as the doctors over there. I’d have been impressed by their near-honesty if they’d suggested it a month earlier, when it might have done some good.

But they didn’t transfer her. Instead they brought in a carnival of specialists who each said the problem wasn’t in his specialty and then handed things over to the next specialist. That went on for several weeks while parts of her body proceeded to die. I probably don’t need to explain that it hurt. Her doctor dangled her deeper and deeper into the ocean of painkillers, until she was taking enough morphine to vaporize a spider monkey.

The day at last came when morphine was no more effective than Mountain Dew. The doctor decided to tie a heavier weight onto her, one that would drag her deeper into painlessness, and the nurse brought the pill to make it happen. It transformed pain from a shark that was biting her in half into a shark that was rolling her around in its jaws to savor her. That was about as good as it was going to get.

My mother fell unconscious that night. On the continuum of becoming unconscious, she didn’t slip into it, nor did she drop into it. She did the equivalent of falling on her face into unconsciousness. The new painkiller had been a poor choice. My mother lacked the full complement of working kidneys, and this drug considered dialysis nothing more than a veiled suggestion to leave her body in a timely way. As the nurses gave her more doses, the stuff packed her body like it was Labor Day at the beach. Instead of just reprimanding the shark it started draining the ocean.

The doctor employed some vigorous and red-faced medical gymnastics, which brought her back to consciousness a day or so later. That should have been a good thing. But since the doctor had almost killed the shit out of her with the better-than-morphine medication, he was afraid that any other painkillers would shove her right into unconsciousness, breathlessness, and lifelessness. So, he refused to give her any painkillers. Not even aspirin. It was the ultimate cold turkey.

Over the next two days my mother rarely responded to anything we said. Maybe she wasn’t too aware of us. If so, I hope she wasn’t too aware of herself, either. She cried for help throughout the sleepless days and nights, which is worth remaining unaware of, if you ask me. She called for her mother a lot, who was dead and couldn’t help her. She often called for my father, who was there holding her hand, but he couldn’t help her either. A little hand holding isn’t much help when your body is dying and you have to participate in such an intimate way.

I guarantee that two days can seem like a long time. I feel silly now bitching about weekends being too short.

At the end of two days we could see that things were not going to get better. My father insisted that the doctor at least give her morphine, and he did. She went to sleep. She died the next day.

Looking back, I recall sitting there when the nurses first brought in the ill-behaved painkiller. I looked it up online before they gave it to her. I looked up every medication because I’d learned not to trust doctors any farther than I can fling a chimpanzee that’s flinging its own poop. I didn’t see anything that concerned me, other than the usual giant list of horrific side effects, so I didn’t object.

After my mother died, I looked that drug up again for some reason. At the very bottom of the page, under pharmacokinetics, an unambiguous statement warned never to give the stuff to renal patients or people on dialysis. I hadn’t checked that far. I’d allowed my vigilance to wander away.

It’s crazy that it falls to the vigilance of an untrained dope like me to catch unruly medications, but it does, and I knew it. Growing up with my mother encouraged vigilance. You didn’t want to get caught not paying attention at the wrong time. I find it ironic that the quality she unintentionally ground into me is the quality that failed at the end.

Now that Christmas over and everybody’s holiday cheer has been poisoned by bitter relatives and travel reminiscent of a bad peyote trip, I’d like to talk about all things Yule. I’ll hurry, since I ought to be editing right now.

I rate this Christmas as bizarre.  It was far stranger than the one at which every child in my extended family had the flu, and Christmas morning found them lying scattered around the couches and rugs like victims of a grenade attack. One of them would lift his head an inch and flop it sideways to look at a new toy before collapsing back onto a pillow, and another might barf on a poinsettia, but they whimpered at the suggestion they go back to bed.

This Christmas was more peculiar than that. It was the first one without my mom, and Christmas without my mom is like the circus without monkeys. She loved Christmas more than any person I’ve ever met, so without her the festivity index was low. Also, we gathered a couple of days before Christmas, which seemed odd, but as far as my father is concerned Christmas Day is now no more significant than August 7.

But I don’t want to talk about all that.

I spent much of Christmas Eve fixing my in-law’s wireless network, which was more festive than it might sound, once everyone went away and stopped talking to me. I love them all, but my brain does one thing at a time, and answering questions counts as one thing. It occasionally appeared that I might fail, and comments about the need for bigger brains were overheard, but at last, on Christmas morning, I drove a victorious stake through the son of a bitch’s heart in the spirit of the season.

But I don’t want to talk about that either.

I want to talk about coconuts.

When I was a boy, my father always bought a coconut and put it under our Christmas tree. He never explained it. I never asked. Why would I ask? You have tinsel, you have gifts, you have a coconut. It’s the way things were done. On Christmas morning, once the gifts had been opened in turn so we could all appreciate every revelation, my father smashed open the coconut with a 22-ounce framing hammer. Then he drank the milk and ate most of the meat, since the rest of us didn’t care much for coconut. I think my mom ate a little for the sake of politeness.

When I grew up and started talking to my friends about holidays, I realized that not a single one of them had a coconut burrowing under his Christmas tree. My family was unique. I asked my father, hey, what’s with the coconut? He said he had no idea. In his childhood, whenever his family could afford a coconut, they had a coconut. He guessed it was a family tradition, like cooking ham at Easter, or following young men who leave town after trifling with their daughters and then quietly murdering them.

This puzzles me a lot. Five generations ago my people were hanging around North Texas, felling timber and farming and making trouble. They’d have to ride a horse two weeks to find the closest coconut trees. Getting a coconut must have been a significant effort. Catching a bobcat and strapping it to the floor under the tree would have been a lot easier.

I turned to my friend and mentor, Google, who guided me through a lot of Christmas coconut cakes, Christmas coconut cookies, and Christmas coconut balls before I found I’m not the only child of the coconut tradition. At least two other people in the world grew up with coconuts in cozy nests under their trees—and neither of them has a shade of an idea where this behavior came from or what it means.

I could create a crackerjack story about the Christmas coconut tradition. No one seems to know a damn thing about it, so who could say I’m wrong?

The coconut represents the sacred heart of Huldah, the cow in the manger that stepped on the second wise man’s foot, causing him to spill some frankincense, and whose heart shrank in contrition, and who afterwards gave vodka instead of milk on the Sabbath. So we put a coconut under the tree to remember her. And then we smash it and hope there’s vodka in it.

It’s tradition. Don’t mess with it.

Don’t strap this little dude down under your cheery Christmas tree–adopt the coconut tradition instead.

Photo by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)

Released under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License and the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License

Today is my parents’ first wedding anniversary since my mom died a few months ago. It’s also her birthday. Yes, my mom got married on her birthday. She never saw the point in two or three small celebrations when you could have one big blow out. She liked everyone together having a good time, and she loved presents more than a junky loves crank. At a celebration she turned into an eight-year-old girl, instead of an elderly woman who needed to tell you how terrible everything was.

If she were alive, my parents would have reached their 54th anniversary today. I’m not sure what I would have given them. There’s no traditional symbol for the 54th anniversary, unlike the 1st (paper), the 50th (gold), and the 10th (tin). By the way, modern gift-giving experts have redefined the 10th anniversary as diamond jewelry, which is a far better deal for the happily married couple. The 50th is gold and the 55th anniversary gift should be emerald, but my folks wouldn’t have quite reached 55 today. I might have given them gold rings with crappy emeralds to balance things out. I bet she would have loved hers, regardless.

One of the websites I checked for gift ideas threw tradition out the window and recommended that movies are an appropriate theme for the 54th anniversary. They suggested that a framed poster from the movie Dial M for Murder would be a great anniversary gift. I am not fucking kidding you; check out the link. In case you don’t remember, this is a movie about a guy planning to kill his wife.

My dad lives in the house they shared for 52 years. He spends a lot of time in their dim front room, where they sat side by side in recliners from WalMart for the past 20 years or so. When I visit him I sit in my mom’s recliner, which feels weird as hell, but that’s where he wants me to sit. Sometimes he tells funny stories I’ve never heard—whenever my mom was in the room it was hard for us to get in on the conversation. He cries sometimes. Sometimes we talk about work, or politics, or broken air conditioners. I haven’t visited him as much as I should, so I need to rectify that.

Sometimes my dad tells his version of stories that my mom told. My dad’s version doesn’t even resemble my mom’s version. I mean, it’s clear that they’re supposed to be about the same event, but things happen in different ways, different people are there, they may happen in different places, they may even happen two or three years apart. These events seemed a lot more interesting and dramatic the way my mom described them, so I suspect my dad’s versions are more accurate. I’m starting to feel that my past is far different from what I thought it was, and much more boring as well.

My mom would be 76 years old today had she lived. It’s a respectable age, but still a good ways short of the average life span. Her cause of death is a bit mysterious. Her doctor wrote “necrosis” on the death certificate, which basically means that your body died. I’ve considered going to his office to say, “Well, we could see that, motherfucker!” but I doubt that would improve anything except the tight muscle in my shoulder where I’ve been holding myself back from punching him in the throat.

So, Happy Anniversary and Happy Birthday, mom. Everything ends, but I’m thinking about you today, so I suppose it hasn’t quite ended yet.

I used to have some pretty cool retirement plans. They would have required a whole lot of strenuous not doing much. I figured I’d go to movies with my wife, ride my bike around the neighborhood, play a video game or two, cruise the Danube River, and all that kind of stuff. Take it easy and appreciate life. But I was kidding myself, just like some movie producer who’s out there planning to make money on Highlander V – in 3D.

Life rubbed my face in this fact recently. A while back happened to have some time on my hands. My regular work scaled down for a while, so I found myself in a mini-retirement. I thought to myself, this will be cool. I’ll kick back and have some fun. It’s been a tough year, so look out world—the fun train is rolling!

Since nobody cared whether I accomplished anything or succeeded in any way, I gathered up my high spirits and took on a small, fun project. That was so much fun that I moved right into a big project. And while that was going on I tacked on a huge project, which was also fun but really damned huge. By now I’ve given up all the leisure activities I had before my mini-retirement started, and it’s common in the evenings to hear me say, “Sorry sweetie, I can’t watch that movie with you tonight. I need to get some work done.”

So, you can see that mini-retirement didn’t work out for me. My retirement plans were as solid as the prediction that the Lost City of Atlantis will rise, and that UFOs will tow it to Disney World while Godzilla rides a unicycle through its streets.

My dad is retired. I’m pretty close to my dad, but something has gradually separated us. When I was younger we worked closely together for thousands of hours, and we did it comfortably and with a like mind. My dad made his living in the construction business most of his life. Before construction, he climbed out of helicopters and shinnied down ropes for a living. Before that he shot at young Chinese men for a living, and their friends shot back at him, as you might expect.

My dad lived his life in a world of things, of doing things and of making things. A very smart guy, but he didn’t graduate with the rest of his high school class because he failed English. He wouldn’t read the fiction books because he hated reading about things that weren’t true. But he unofficially attended graduation so he could receive all of the sports awards. Like I said, he’s a “doing things” guy. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve dealt more with “non-things” like numbers and words, and my life has moved gradually farther away from his.

Circumstances forced my dad to retire pretty young. A bunch of broken bones from his days of jumping out of helicopters caught up with him. His ability to do things and make things dropped to almost nothing. He never displayed much emotion—when his mom died he didn’t show much grief. One day not long after he stopped working, the city was repairing streets in his neighborhood. You could hear the construction equipment moving earth around. My dad walked outside, and he stood in his front yard and wept.

I don’t understand much. But I’m getting a sliver of understanding of what my dad’s world became once the doing of things and the making of things were taken away. I hope that separates us a bit less. Also, I guess I’d better get my shit together in case the things that my life is about disappear for me someday.

My planned career in retirement – selling sites on which to build bowling alleys.

Just to let you know, this funky piece is pulled from my e-book Bring Us The Head Of The Velveteen Rabbit. All the other essays in the book are far better than this one. You’ll be shocked. I chose this one because I didn’t want to build your expectations up too much. You might particularly like”The Least Romantic Man in America,” and “Days of Wine and Mammoths.” Check it out at either Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Now I’m going to take my unapologetic, grasping, mercantile ass home and mow the yard.

Once you watch a few people die, you realize that death doesn’t give a damn about your dignity. Dignity is a human invention, and if we want someone to have dignity in death we’d better manufacture some. I’m writing this with the assistance of my friend tequila, but we’ll try to produce some dignity without too many structural defects.

My mom died last night after a long illness, if you consider 20 years a long time. The illness itself was elusive. She had lots of symptoms, some debilitating, but together they didn’t seem to mean anything. Every year or so a new doctor assured her that he’d flush out her illness like he was some kind of highly educated English Pointer with a huge ego. They all soon slunk away, ears down.

After a decade-plus of this she was put on dialysis. I’d heard about dialysis—it was something you went to a couple times a week to get your blood cleaned. I soon found out it’s really an endless ass whipping that devours your life. People generally last about three years on dialysis before they die. My mom lasted almost six. No one who was with her when she started dialysis is still alive. She reacted to the grueling routine of dialysis by making friends with everyone at the clinic, both patients and employees. Whenever she arrived, three times a week, she wheeled all the way around the room visiting with each person. The employees soon fawned over her to an embarrassing extent.

A few months ago my mom broke her leg. Describing the subsequent cascade of physical failures would hardly preserve her dignity, apart from saying it was like a bridge collapsing girder by girder into the sea. My mom proved to me that someone really can crumble to sand while you watch them. She died in the hospital. She would have preferred to die at home among her stuff. She loved her stuff, even more than I love my stuff. But it didn’t work out that way.

She raised me, of course, and our relationship was sometimes problematic. The fate of parents is that children ignore the lessons their parents try to teach, and embrace the things parents do without thinking. My mom taught me by example to be thoughtful. She taught me to be vigilant out of necessity.

My mom had the normal complement of faults and strengths, and I could describe them. I could make fun stories and sad stories from her life. But I don’t think any of that would particularly celebrate her dignity. I’ll just relate one event. A few months ago I visited the hospital to find her and her pulverized femur in bed. Morphine had hit her like a feather locomotive, and the room reeked with the question of whether she’d walk again. In the midst of this, she fuzzily berated my father about bringing a particular painted wooden box from home.

He brought the box the next day, conjuring squeals and smiles from my mom. My mom showed my curious self that the box was full of greeting cards, as organized as any filing cabinet. She explained that she always sent birthday cards with a few dollars to the children of her friends at the dialysis clinic, and the idea that she might miss some birthdays distressed her. Her morphine-assisted handwriting looked like someone had sneezed ink on a page, so I made out the cards and sealed in the money for my father to deliver. Accomplishing that seemed to give my mom more relief than morphine.

Towards the end, my mom’s doctors banned morphine and all other painkillers, for reasons too arcane to express. They did not at the same time ban the broken places in her body. When your body is dying and the pain sits fully upon you, with no chance for relief, your dignity faces a great challenge. During those days, she only asked for help from her husband and her mother. Since one of those people was in fact alive and present, that seems a pretty dignified act of will to me. In a similar place I might just call on beings who are dead, or even imaginary.

Part of our dignity grows from how we face the idea of our death. A lot of people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. My mom was spiritual in a heartfelt, disorderly way, and she despised religion as something that leads to shouting about Hell and to spiteful old women gossiping in the pews. She believed that she’d go on after death in some form, although the details always seemed fuzzy to me. She certainly didn’t believe that her new form would be much like the one she just left, with sneaky diseases and lots of stuff to love. She asked to be cremated, so that my father’s ashes can sit beside hers, and she made us promise there wouldn’t be any funeral or memorial service.

Everything ends, even us.

When a bull gores you, you always lose. It doesn’t matter how tough you are, how hard you’ve worked all your life, or how independent you consider yourself to be. You’re screwed. You’re doubly screwed if you’re 80 years old, like my mom’s uncle was when the bull caught him looking the wrong way. He then spent the last three years of his life in a nursing home. Those places are called “skilled nursing facilities” now, but 30 years ago nobody felt like taking the “skilled” part for granted.

Over those three years my mom wore out a new car visiting her uncle every other day. She brought him all kinds of things he wasn’t supposed to have, like candy and a shaving razor and his pocket knife. Among my people, if you don’t have a pocket knife then you’re more crippled than if you can’t walk. He used his knife to take apart the TV remote one day, in order to see what made it work. He wasn’t able to get it back into working condition though. The nurses took his pocket knife away, along with his candy and razor and about every other thing that gave him a little pleasure. He was known to tell his nurses, “I know I’m going to hell. The only thing I regret is that all you god damn nurses are going to be there too.”

On to the next tenuously connected observation…


I grew up hearing the phrase “knocked on the head.” I never heard anyone but my family members say it. I gather that it’s used in some circles today, and it means things like to be smacked on the head so as to leave a bump, or even to have sex with the partner of your choice. In my family it meant only one thing: to kill someone. Actually, it meant to kill someone deader than hell. It’s not that my family killed indiscriminately, but knocking someone on the head is a mighty efficient way to kill a person, not to mention tidy. One of my uncles expired in short order after being whacked on the head with a beer bottle. And my father told me the story of his cousin who was put in a family way by a fellow who left town soon after. Her daddy then left town with his ball peen hammer and returned a few days later without the hammer, but with a satisfied expression.


When I was 24 I tore my knee up in a magnificent fashion. Well, the way I did it was as stupid as anyone can imagine, but the actual wreckage was spectacular. After completing his symphony of pins and sutures and blood, my surgeon gave me lots of warnings about a careful recovery. I ignored them all right away. I threw aside my crutches and just hopped on my good leg everywhere I wanted to go, and I only crashed into a wall two or three times a week. Since a gigantic cast encased my right leg, driving was impossible. So of course I drove all over town using my foot’s pathetic range of motion to mash pedals as it poked out the bottom of my cast. Don’t even ask me how I handled the clutch. I told my body, “shift or die,” and then I headed for places like the mall and Dairy Queen.

Being a stupid and contrary gave me one advantage. Rehab hurt like a cast iron bitch, so out of meanness I embraced the pain. After the nurse cut off my cast, she turned her back to put away the saw, so I stood up to test my leg and plummeted straight to the floor. But apart from that, I spent three weeks bending my knee, lifting weights, riding the bicycle, and getting some sweet, healing electricity passed through my leg. If smacking my leg with hammers would have helped, I’m sure I would have done it. Every day I couldn’t walk was a day I couldn’t make any money. It was about to be July in Texas, and electricity might soon become an unaffordable luxury for me.

A fellow in rehab with me had wrecked his knee the same time I did, and to the same degree. He made zero progress while I was working on mine. He couldn’t even bend his knee. This concerned me quite a bit, because I feared I might hit a wall in my rehab or something, so I cajoled some whispered gossip out of the therapist. It turned out that the guy just couldn’t take the pain. He went to the point of hurting and then stopped. That knowledge relieved me a bit, and I asked the therapist how the fellow had suffered his knee damage. I myself always lied when I was asked that question, because the truth sounded so ignorant. I might instead say that I fell off a house, or that I tripped over a dog, or something reasonable like that. In any event, the gentleman with the negative pain threshold was a karate instructor, and he’d massacred his knee doing some karate move. When I walked out of rehab, the sensei was still trying to bend his leg, and the surgeon was preparing to anesthetize him again and bend the thing for him.


Almost four months ago my mom broke her leg. A powder-blue carpeted floor can’t intimidate you the way a bull can, but it did the job on her leg just fine. I wouldn’t say that it snapped her leg. That’s too mild. Shattered is a better description, but not quite there. Let’s say that her femur was somewhere between pulverized and obliterated.

My mom’s surgeon put her leg back together with enough titanium to armor a guided missile cruiser. Then, despite the fact that she’s owned this femur for 75 years and it’s way out of warranty, my mom set out to walk again. She’s moved through a variety of hospitals, rehab centers, and “skilled” nursing facilities since her surgery. For hundreds of hours she’s lifted weights, stretched, cycled, and done stupid dexterity games involving pennies and Play-Doh. She’s smarter than me and doesn’t embrace the pain, but if a therapist lies to her about how many minutes she’s been working so far, my mom will keep on working until she craters.

But—she will not god damn eat.

My people like their food. Their food is almost a religion. If the bacon’s not crisp enough, then it’s inedible. If the potatoes don’t have enough salt, they might make you sick. If the soup has weird spices, then your mouth will just refuse to open and let you eat any of it. This is inconvenient for three days. For three weeks, it’s aggravating and concerning. When it goes on for three months, you’ve reached “concentration camp victim about to die of malnutrition” territory. Literally everyone she comes into contact with tells her she must eat, including me. “Eat or die.” That’s the message. If I could tattoo it on the backs of her fingers I’d do it in a minute.

Like any two family members, my mom and I disagree at times. We have issues that may be a little out of the ordinary, but that’s not really pertinent here. She has demonstrated to me that someone can crumble to sand while you’re watching them, and that frustrates me. It causes me to not want to visit her too often. But when I consider that she drove all the way across creation every other day for three years to visit her uncle, I can’t stand thinking that nobody might do that for her.

Yesterday my mom’s surgeon read her tea leaves, otherwise known as interpreting her x-rays. My mom did not get the interpretation she wanted. She got, “Your leg hasn’t healed at all. It’s probably not going to heal, and you’re not going to walk anymore. Stop your therapy, go home, and live your life the best you can. And Happy Fucking Holidays.”

That news disheartened everyone, except maybe for the guy who’ll be selling my mom a new wheelchair soon. I feel a bit guilty for thinking that things might be different if only she’d consumed a little more protein for healing, rather than trying to rebuild bone on seven grapes a day and all the chap stick she could absorb through her lips.  I feel less guilty than I might, since every other person who knows her is thinking the same thing. But it may not have mattered anyway. Her leg might not have healed even if she’d eaten an entire codfish at every meal. Who knows?

So Monday my mom will go back home after an enforced holiday of 15 weeks—over a third of the time it takes to hatch a baby. If it had been a real holiday, it wouldn’t have been the kind where it just rained all day. It would have rained white-hot razor blades and insane scorpions trained by mean old church ladies. She’ll need some help at home now, so I’ll try to keep a few things in mind as I help out. She’s not 24 years old. When you get down to it, what she does or doesn’t eat is none of my damned business. And I ought to give her a pocket knife.