The Art of Gratitude


When I go see my father’s grave, it’s not something I mention much but I almost always pay my respects to other family members who have passed.

At Willamette National Cemetery, it’s not only to lay next to where my father’s body is buried, but also to say hello to my grandma and grandpa, his parents who were so good to me growing up. They were cremated so there’s just a placard on a wall for each of them. Not as personal. You have to find a unique way of getting the roses to smoosh right between theirs and other placards if you don’t want them to be on the ground below a long list of dead people. I talk to them about what I’ve been doing, thank them for the memories, tell them about my life.

At the same cemetery, in the section from ten or twelve years prior, is the gravesite of my third grandmother. She was the mother of my mother’s first husband, biological grandmother to my older siblings who I share only half of the same DNA with. We spent frequent weekends at her home near Peninsula Park growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, and she treated me just the same as the other two. Unlike my family, I wasn’t so-and-so’s kid, I was just another one of her granddaughters. I remember the week she died when I visited her on my own in the hospital. The wig was gone and her long hair that she hid was cascading down her shoulders. We giggled at all the marks in her arms and I hugged her and told her I loved her.

Across town, there are two more cemeteries. Mt Calvary, up in the hills, is a beautiful drive up Skyline Boulevard and the first gravesite I ever visited. My great grandmother on my father’s side, the mother of my grandfather, is one I went to with my father and cherish, as she was the one great grandmother I spent the most time with as a very small child. My memories of her consist of big hugs, carob stars, cigarettes (she died of lung cancer), my dad having long conversations with her, and the overwhelming love everyone had for her. No one told me she had passed, instead I found her obituary in the newspaper at the age of six. Yes, I was a very young newspaper reader, and remember seeing the same last name as me while I sat at my aforementioned non-biological grandma’s kitchen table one Sunday, and calling my dad to ask if that was her. I never understood why they hadn’t told me she was gone. It was the first in the string of not including me in big events, with later that being both parents getting remarried and not inviting me to the weddings. With my father, I learned decades later that not only was I not invited, the entire rest of the family was, and it was right across town (my mother had married my stepfather out of town).

Down the slope along the Sunset Highway is the last cemetery I visit, Sunset Hills, which now has the unfortunate background of freeway noise. There I don’t need directions, and instead look for a large tree and a row of hedges. Next to the hedge are the gravesites of three people – my grandparents on my mother’s side, one who died when I was fifteen and the other who was the first of the annual passings I was to deal with on my return to Portland. My grandfather took me to the duck pond and told me about his five dollar gold coin he won in a spelling bee. I remember laying on the carpet in their living room watching Circus of the Stars with my sister and he in the corner. And at 4 or 5 in the morning, the crack of light in our room as I heard the sound of my farm-raised grandfather up making waffles. I wonder what he thought of then. In later years he lived with us for a short time and I saw a side of him that drove my mother to a place I’d never seen her, and it changed my vision of him in many ways. I had never been close to this grandmother, and perhaps I should have done more, but was fortunate in that the very last time I saw her, nearly twenty years after his death, while she was living in a small home with other elderly women, I saw a woman at peace who was funny and interesting. She was 93 and I never had the chance to see that again, but it left me curious as to what she was really like – you know, outside of family life.

The third grave belongs to that of David and is what spurred me to write today. Over the years I often refer to David as my second big brother, someone who this year would have turned fifty, and wondered what that would have been like having two brothers. He was my mother’s second son, and died in a car accident that was so excruciatingly painful for my mother that it changed her forever. I learned about him from my sister as an adolescent, but as for my mother, she only spoke of him in one sentence to me, and I never learned anything more. Not just about him but about her, which always crushed me.

You see, here’s the thing I realized at this last visit to his grave: he isn’t a second big brother. He was a baby boy of a year old who was intended to be the last of their children. A wife, a husband, and two sons. A year after his death my mother had her first daughter, and some time after that she divorced that first husband and married my father. Two years later I was born.

Do you see what I’m getting at? If he hadn’t have died in that tragic accident, I would not exist. All my memories, all my words, all my love, none of that would be here. I am living, because he did not. I have to find gratitude for my life that began because of the death of another. The circle of life presented its strange path on that fateful summer day in 1965 and one winter morning in 1974.

How does one come to grips with that?

The first reaction many have is about my mother. What she’s been through, the “no wonder” response. That almost five decades later, the event that day which forever changed her should also indelibly stamp how things were handled. I look at a bunch of childhood art I had made for her and rather than think warmly about them, my first thought is, ah, yes, that was in the pile she dumped on my front porch a few years back. No note, just a pile of what seemed to be every reminder of me she had, in an old plastic bin left in front of my house.

I think of this coming year where my husband and I want to start a family, and the natural instinct is to think about the two people who brought you into the world. We talk about our dead fathers who never will get to hold their grandchild, and we talk about our alive mothers whose narcissistic behaviors have forever created a rift that neither of us care to return to. My side is perhaps a bit softer than my husband’s as his situation has been recently much more dramatic and I’ve had time to let the years soothe my heart. I see the danger of trying to rekindle very similar to how I remember getting back together with ex-boyfriends, in that once you are around that person again, you are instantly reminded of why you left, that the ten or fifteen percent you loved so strongly was not enough to overcome the majority of experiences that left you feeling unloved.

Getting remarried this year has brought up a lot of emotion on so many topics. How will I deal with challenges this time around? What is and is not worth arguing over? Who am I this time around and who do I want to be as time goes by? Am I repeating the same mistakes? How do I deal with my fears and frustrations and failures? Will I be a good parent? Will he? When will I ever fucking relax about this kind of stuff? 🙂

I had a tremendous experience last night which told me exactly who I was and how much I bring into this world.

You know that fierceness and smile Uma Thurman’s character Beatrix Kiddo had as she drove away at the end of Kill Bill Pt 2? That was me. I fucking roared as I trusted my instincts and it was definitely an event (which I’ll write about soon) that reminded both my husband and I that our walk through this life together is and always will be a powerful one. This love is beyond beautiful. I have come into this world to shake it up, fight for the underdog, and expose the gorgeousness of it all in my words and actions.

I’m the hero of my own life.

“I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you,and that you will work with these stories from your life–not someone else’s life–water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom. That is the work. The only work.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype


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