Create Your Own Joy

I wrote this in 2006, one year after my mom died:

The year passed so quickly. Since Mom died last year, our lives have all gone on as busy as before, if not busier. The kids were all in school, Markus worked more hours than he spent at home, finding himself drawing closer to someone else that was not me. No friends, no family, what do I do for me? I can’t remember when I stopped smiling. But I had. I hadn’t even realized the year had passed to the day, until Annie reminded me that Monday was the day Mom had died. How odd it crept up on me, when I had been thinking about Mom so much in the past few weeks. Those weeks had been filled with my feeling nervous, trying to be brave and beginning something new among strangers. I had joined the Waikoloa Canoe Club, hoping to find something that could make me feel happier, fulfilled. To cope with the possibility of being left alone by my husband, everyone’s advice always seemed to be, “don’t hope for someone else to make you happy – make yourself happy.”

What do I know about paddling? Nothing. I didn’t even have the proper equipment or clothing, just a scruffy t-shirt and some shorts. Hunting through my closet before my first practice, I found a pair of red beach shoes – the kind you wear to protect your feet from sharp coral. The tops had been cut to enlarge the opening. Eyes widening, I realized that they were Mom’s – she had worn them towards the end of her life, when her feet were too swollen from her chemotherapy and steroid treatments to fit into her other shoes. I immediately slipped them on and went to my first paddling practice. The club members promptly put me into a canoe, handed me a paddle, the Steersman yelled, “Paddles Up! Hooki!” and we were off, headed for the most blazing sunrise. No time to think, only to imitate the paddler in front of me, remembering to breathe while pulling the paddle through the water, tasting the splash of saltwater on my face. We stopped in what felt like the middle of the ocean, and I looked around for the first time – we were surrounded by crystal clear water – you could see straight to the bottom. And the canoe rocked gently, and nobody spoke to break the silence; we all just breathed. Then, we turned the canoe around and paddled back to shore.

Once on the shore, the spell was broken, and everyone else began chatting with each other, all close friends. Feeling very awkward and out of place, I could only look down at my shoes. My shoes. Mom’s shoes. I smiled, thinking how ironic it was that I had worn her shoes out to the ocean. Mom couldn’t even swim. She hated being out on a boat. My only memory of being on a boat with her was when I was a little girl. I think we were on a cruise and I had just chewed a piece of chocolate flavored gum, and went to kiss her goodnight, and she promptly ran away to vomit. I remember thinking she threw up because of my kiss – Mom and I were infamous for not getting along. Now that I am a mother of a teenager, I know Mom loved me the best way she could. I looked up, smiling with those thoughts, and found myself smiling directly at a very nice teacher from my children’s school. Eyes lighting in recognition, she pulled me into her circle of friends and introduced me to more people than I could possible remember the names of. They were all so warm and welcoming, happy that someone new could enjoy their sport.

The head coach gave some brief instructions, and we were off again, “Paddles up! Hooki!” This time, I had room in my head for thought. I thought about what Mom would have done if she had been given more time to live, if she had been given those 15 years to live life with good health instead of fighting her cancer. I thought, maybe she would have been brave and tried new things. Maybe she would have learned how to swim; gotten her driver’s license, even! Maybe she would have traveled to Hawaii and played in the ocean with her grandchildren. She spent so many years waiting to get better, and the next thing we knew, she didn’t get better. I could hear her, then, in my mind. She was whispering to me, “Don’t let your life pass you by. Try this new thing. Meet these new people. So you’re scared…when has that ever stopped a Hess? Did our dragging you all over this planet to countless new places not teach you anything, girl? Do you know how many strangers I have had to meet in my life? Don’t you remember how many scary things I have had to face? Do this. I’m with you. Look at your brave red shoes. Feel the air breathe into your two healthy lungs, be thankful. Feel your strong back and arms pull on that paddle, be thankful. Raise your face to the sky and feel the sun on your skin, be thankful.”

Those red shoes have been on my feet as I learned how to paddle, as I learned how to “Huli” (flip over, flip back, bail out, and keep going), and as I learned how to be brave on my own. One day, I heard, “Go, Mama, Go!” and looked up to see Markus and Simon cheering from the shore – my whole team laughed and I was so happy. One day I got into the canoe without any horrible bruising. One day my paddle finally entered the water without a splash. One day we were sitting in our canoes on a sea of glass, and a pod of whales swam by, spouting and breaching. And during every night practice, we would paddle into the sunset, and I would ask Mom silently, “What do you think of THAT? Can’t beat the Hawaiian sunset, eh?” All the while, I smiled.

That was three weeks ago. I have paddling practice 3 days a week. I can smile and chat with more than a few people on the team, and I feel strong and confident about this new skill. Sometimes Markus and the kids cheer from the shore, and sometimes I go alone – but I am not lonely when I go alone. I have purchased brand new clothing designed for being in a canoe and a wooden paddle of my very own. But my shoes remain the same. I still wear Mom’s old red beach shoes that are cut open on the top. They don’t match anything I wear to practice, but they are Mom, and she needs to come with me while I paddle out to sea. We have our first 10-mile race on May 13th. Go Mama, Go!

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Any night is apparently the night to partaaay in these here parts…and my new neighbors seem to live by this mantra. We lived 5 years in a little house in Hawaii, and then moved to Banff to live blissfully in a 100 year-old cabin in the woods for 3 years.  It has been quite the adjustment to live in an apartment with neighbors below our floor, now.  You either get lucky in the neighbor department, or you get crazy people.  I don’t recall ever having a neighbor in-between, and I’m not feeling so lucky here.

In Hawaii, I had a balanced mixture.  To the left of my house, a lovely little family of 4 lived, with a gentle-voiced, traditionally raised Japanese-American Mom, a laid-back Dad, and 2 precious girls.  The first day we moved in, Sweet Lady was on my doorstep with a freshly-made plate of mochi to welcome us to the neighborhood.  Of course my family, being the circus act we are, let 2 year-old Simon open the front door.  Buck naked.  It was hot; we’d just moved there from the cooler central coast of California, AND he was potty training.  Needless to say, we nearly lost that plate of mochi, but caught it just in time.  It didn’t help matters when Sweet Lady later invited my kids over to play.  I looked out my window to see Sweet Lady and her husband frantically hosing down the mattress of a queen-sized bed in their back yard.  Then naked boy appears out of nowhere and buries his face in my lap.  Turns out, naked boy was caught standing on Sweet Lady’s bed, PEEING.  Not the best way to make a good impression, but we are now 8 years into our friendship and still going strong.

On the other side of the house, lived the Scary Family. Let me start by saying Mom is a Hot Mess, Dad is tired out Mr. Italiano Americano chef guy, and children are absolutely wacked out beyond belief.  I’m not saying Mom is a Hot Mess just because I was jealous…while we were house-hunting in the area, before buying the house, we drove by her on 3 separate occasions, jogging in her black bra and tight shorts, tanned skin gleaming, long blond ponytail swinging. Stunning from behind. Shocking to find you’ve moved into the house next to hers.  Yes, I would like my husband to say, “Wow” if he ever saw me jogging 6 blocks ahead of his car.  However, up close and personal, the tanned skin was actually saddle leather, and the blonde 5 o’clock shadow on her chin and the low voice when she began to speak, startled us a bit.  Turns out, Hot Mess is a former bodybuilder, and I don’t think steroids completely leave your system—even decades after taking them.  Or maybe she was still taking them.  Anyway, Mr. Italiano Americano may have worn the pants in the family, but Hot Mess definitely wore the jock strap.

I am a Live and Let Live kind of a person.  You could live next door to me and make love to monkeys, for all I care.  As long as the monkeys seemed happy, I would let you go about your business and I would tootle away in my garden.  The problem with living next to Hot Mess was that her part time job at the hotel (yes, she worked for my furry guy, which ended badly and then she had more reason to hate me) gave her much time to get into my business.  I wanted to dig in my garden, read my books, and enjoy the peace and quiet.  Every single time I stepped into my back yard, I heard the slam of her patio door, and then her manly voice would call out, “SUSAN.  SUSAN!  I need to tawk to you!”  I lost count of how many times I had to tell her, “My name is Sue.  Just Sue.  My parents were lazy and maybe the name should have been Susan, but it isn’t.  It’s just Sue.” To no avail – I gave up after 2 years.  After calling me over, she would proceed to lecture me on whatever was her topic for the day.  My family has a little tradition of saying “I Love you” and kissing each other goodbye every morning.  Then whoever is waving goodbye has to wave until the others can’t see you anymore.  We’re just too wild and crazy, I know.  Well, Hot Mess told me one day, after the family had driven off to work and school, “You need to stop telling him you love him.  You’re a freaking doormat.  Men want a little mystery.  I don’t tell my husband I love him all the time.  In fact, I hardly tell him. Ya gotta keep ‘em guessing.  He’s gotta know that THIS fine package could walk away at any time so he’d betta treasure me.  Ya know?”  God, I wish I could say she smoked cigarettes, because everything about her was so loathsome to me that it would have been absolutely perfect if she had been taking giant drags off of her menthol cigarette and squinting her eyes through the smoke while she was bitching at me.

Anyway, for some inexplicable reason, she hated Sweet Lady.  It was odd, because her Psycho Son was known to do really fun things like locking Sweet Lady’s girls in garden sheds and torturing small animals with the knife collection that Mr. Italiano Americano supplied (“My BOY.  My boy is a MAN and real men have GUNS and KNIVES”).  If anything, Sweet Lady should have hated her.  No worries, though, that ended up happening soon enough.

Hot Mess was very much into her Chardonnay.  So much so that she had a rendezvous with an entire bottle of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay every single evening.  It HAD to be Kendall Jackson – she was sooo proud that she could call herself a wine snob.  For Kendall Jackson, no less…go figure.  On some days, depending on how Psycho Boy was acting out, her evenings began at 3pm.  The neighborhood kids would play outside on the cul-de-sac, and she would sit on her back patio and sunbathe.  And drink.  And drink some more.  Psycho Boy had a little sister who had the misfortune of sporting a little black moustache.  Moustache Girl was Hot Mess’ PRECIOUS and God help you if you scorned her mustachioed Precious.  Moustache Girl liked to drive her battery-powered hot-pink Barbie Jeep all over the neighborhood, doing her best to run over every child she could, screaming and cackling.  Sweet Lady’s girls and my younger daughter Hanna (who later earned the nickname Assassin, but that is another story) would ride their bikes around the neighborhood and do their best to avoid becoming Barbie Jeep road kill.  One evening around 5, when Hot Mess must have been down to the bottom of her bottle of  oo-la-la Kendall Jackson Chardy, Moustache Girl went running to her mommy to scream that all the girls were SO MEAN cuz they wouldn’t play with her.  Sweet Lady and I are standing in my driveway chatting, watching the kids play, and Hot Mess comes tearing out of her house, resplendent in her animal print bikini, boobies bulging, her diaphanous genie-pants billowing, and her words slurring spectacularly.  She heads straight for the girls, yanks them off of their bicycles, and starts screaming, “YOU little girlz are bitchezzz.  BISHHHEZZZ!  You are NOT allowed to play with each other ever again – ever!  How can you be so mean to my baby?  She juz wanz to drive her car for Chrissssesake!”  You should have seen Sweet Lady morph into Protecto Mom in 2 seconds flat.  She runs over, plants herself between our girls and Hot Mess, stands up straight and tall and starts shaking her finger in Hot Mess’ face.  All I knew was that I was too scared to put myself between those two women, for fear that Sweet Lady would scratch out my eyes and Hot Mess would punch me in the face.  But I used my words, convinced Hot Mess to return to her bottle, and hugged Sweet Lady until her adrenaline rush had calmed down.  Desperate Housewives had NUTHIN’ on us, let me tell ya.  It was like I lived for 5 years with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.  The scale finally tipped when Hot Mess was so horrible at work that my husband had to ask her husband to find a way to convince her to quit before she got fired.  Then venturing into my backyard got so unpleasant that I had to buy 2 dozen poplar trees to plant along the fence line so we could enjoy our time out there without the acidic looks and snide comments floating over to us.

Wait.  I started out by complaining about my current neighbors.  They are CAKE compared to Hot Mess.  Now I just need to shut up and calm down about their cigarette smoke coming up through the heating vents, their complaints that my children talk in the morning on their way to school…yeah, children talking – outrageous, right?  I need to be thankful that we live above them, not below them.  I need to be thankful that I can look out my windows at an unobstructed view of Lake Mildred and the Rocky Mountains.  I have no mochi and I have no Sweet Lady, but I also don’t have to hear, “SUSAN.  SUSAN!!!!! I need to tawk to you!”  And Kendall Jackson Chardonnay?  You have been replaced by Blasted Church Hatfield’s Fuse.  Cheers!

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