Cemetery Days

 

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I swore I’d never do it.  I vowed I’d never live next door to a cemetery.  I was a fervent believer in ghosts, although I never actually saw one.  Even so, I thought that if I resided next to a graveyard I’d be in constant fear that I’d spot a spook or maybe a bunch of them…and they’d get me!

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No way, no how would I spend most of my time next to a bunch of dead folks who could come and get me!

In 2001, my then-fiance and I rented a hovel owned by a wealthy landlord who charged an obscene amount of rent.  The house contained mold all over the place, and it was truly decrepit.  When the rainy season arrived, the small backyard’s inadequate drainage allowed a bona fide creek to run through the moldering garage.

After we gave our notice at Chez Mold, the rich landlady kept most of our deposit, even though we left the house in better condition than we found it.  We were ecstatic to move on to a better place owned by a more responsible, ethical landlord.

A friend had informed us of a cute cabin for rent.  It was located below the Chaminade, a gorgeous five-start resort that had previously been a monastery.   We drove over to the property to take a look.  As with many rentals in our town, the landlords lived on the same piece of property as their rental.  The husband and wife seemed friendly enough, and the personal reference certainly helped us seal the deal.  There was only one problem.

The studio was situated directly next to Oakwood Memorial, one of the largest cemeteries in the county.

As I looked around the beautiful landscape I decided to make an exception to my no-cemetery rule.   The cabin had a peaceful view of trees, and in the cheery cabin there was no mold in sight, anywhere.  I had been so unhappy at Chez Mold and I felt pretty desperate – I wanted to live in a relatively clean, bright and airy place with a reasonable rent.  The cabin fit that bill.  I told myself I’d try hard not to perseverate about our very, very quiet “neighbors”.  Craig assured me it would be fine – he never was creeped out by cemeteries, the lucky guy.

We moved in and I started to relax about my cemetery credo more than I had expected I would.  It helped that cemetery grounds were truly lovely, with lots of green grass and old trees scattered throughout the property.  An avid reader of our local news, I read articles and obituaries announcing when someone had passed away, and I’d take note if the person would be buried at “my” cemetery.

Over the next few days when I drove by the cemetery on my way to work, I’d notice a new headstone and a fresh patch of earth.  I’d spot the multitude of flowers, decorations, balloons, and the mourners around that plot.  Watching such a display often made me appreciate being alive more than ever before, but the new graves also gave me the shivers.

When I reviewed the obituaries of these people, their deaths felt more personal to me since they were literally so close to my home.  The most disturbing and heartbreaking aspect of my proximity to Oakwood was when I knew a teenager or a child had died and would be buried there.  Those displays had the most flowers, the most balloons, candy canes, pin wheels, and stuffed animals.  But overall, what mattered most about those tragic deaths was that love permeated through those new graves’ decorations.  Love erased the macabre element of those gravesites for me.

I finally overcame my fear of cemeteries when I started walking around Oakwood on a daily basis. I needed the exercise because I was sitting too much in my job as an administrative assistant.  I strolled around Oakland in loops, noticing the historic headstones and reading the quaint dedications on them.  Many of these markers had been there for over a hundred years, and some were impossible to read.  I know this will sound a little New Age-y, but at first I was concerned I might pick up “negative energy” by being around so much death, both recent and of bygone times.  Fortunately I didn’t sense anything disturbing once I meandered through the fields.

After our first daughter was born, Craig walked around Oakwood with her in the Baby Bjorn on his chest.   I always found it poignant that such a new, little life wandered that landscape, blissfully unaware that she was around a lot of folks on the other side.

That cabin turned out to be a very symbolic place for me to live, apart from the “carpe diem” inspiration I derived from my cemetery walks.  We also literally lived two blocks away from the  hospital.  I drove by the locked-down mental health unit every single day and would look at it, thankful that I had no reason to be there.  During the time I lived next to Oakwood, a close friend of mine needed treatment at the mental health unit and he told me horror stories about the place.  Little did I know that I would admit myself in there several years later when my postpartum bipolar disorder struck.

I think back to my cemetery days with a bittersweet smile.  I don’t mean to make light of the enormous pain of the mourners and those who died.  I think they all would appreciate my take on that final resting place that I first vilified, and then I found peaceful and beautiful.  I lived by Oakwood before my bipolar diagnosis, when I was joyfully pregnant with my first baby, and when I was innocent of all the suffering that was to come.  I am grateful that I faced my fears of cemeteries, for in facing my fear, I found beauty in unexpected places and deepened my awe of life and death in the process.

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How Sixty Seconds Made A Difference

 on Valentine’s Day

Today I received an extraordinary Valentine’s Day present from beyond. 

 But let me back up a bit…

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It was 1999, I was twenty-nine years old and I owned a standard answering machine.  Remember those?  Ancient machines like mine used tape cassettes.  I grew up with tape cassettes instead of DVD’s, and I still have forty tapes of my favorite band recordings from the feel-good seventies and the big-hair eighties era.

When I was twenty-nine I was a fan of the bestselling writer/artist SARK (www.planetsark.com) I’ve written about her before:

https://dyaneharwood.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/meeting-a-fave-author-sark-the-inspiration-line-juicy-pens-thirsty-paper/

SARK now has over two million copies of her books in print and has gazillions of fans, but it wasn’t always that way, of course.  I discovered her when her fan base was still modest.  Over the years SARK has maintained an “Inspiration Hotline” (415-546-EPIC) that she has offered free to the public.  SARK uses the line to record messages sharing her unique views. You can hang up after listening, or leave her a message. 

  Before SARK became a bestselling writer, she claimed she listened to every single message she received from her fans. In 1999 I contacted her to arrange an interview for an article I was writing about her latest book.  SARK called me back and left a message on my answering machine.  I loved her message so much, in which she said she considered me a friend and she would always return my calls, that I kept the tape as a memento.

I meant to listen to the SARK tape again, but for whatever reason, I just didn’t do it. 
  On a whim, today I took this cassette out of my drawer for the first time since I listened to it 1999.  I placed the tape in my old Suburu Forrester’s cassette tape player.  I drove to the girls’ school to pick them up, and arrived in the parking lot with some time to spare.  I took in the gorgeous day’s cerulean blue sky and smattering of puffy clouds drifting above me.  A brisk wind blew gently, hinting that spring is on its way.

I noticed the majestic redwoods which served as a stunning backdrop to the school, and I popped in the tape.  First SARK’s sweet voice rang out of the speakers.  She spoke at length, bringing a big smile to my face.  A long beep sounded out after she finished, and then a male voice came out of the speakers that I didn’t recognize.

“Who the hell is this?” I wondered for a few seconds, and then it dawned on me.

It was the clear, melodious voice of my Dad.  He died five years ago, and his death was the end of a nightmarish, drawn-out illness.  In his last couple years, his once-magnificent, rich voice was transformed into a quivering, weak voice full of fear.  He always told me he was terrified of dying.  When he realized he was on the decline, his voice was affected by that knowledge both physically and emotionally.  That depressing version of his voice stayed with me since his death in 2009.  When he died alone, I became so devastated that I slipped into bipolar depression that caused me to become suicidal.  I asked to be hospitalized for treatment.  I had been resistant to all the psychiatric drugs I had tried so desperately for my bipolar depression.  Feeling like I was at the end of my rope, I requested ECT treatment (electroconvulsive therapy ) that, ironically, my Dad had done at UCLA for his own bipolar depression…to no avail.

As a result of my week-long hospitalization, I missed my father’s memorial service, but the ECT did help me lift me slowly out of the depression.  I now have no regrets for doing it, although I don’t know what the long-term effects will be on my brain until I am older.  I didn’t have a single adverse side effect from the ECT such as memory loss, although I was scared shitless to go for it.

I heard firsthand about others’ ECT experiences at the hospital.  One I called “J. Lo”.  She was a beautiful Latina who took great pains to put on full makeup in the locked-down unit each day.  Before I had my first ECT session, J Lo told me that after her ECT she couldn’t remember her wedding day or the births of her children.  Undaunted, I was so low, I didn’t give a damn.  I just told my psychiatrist to flip the switch without a second thought.  I’ll never forget the amazed reactions on the faces of the other patients in my unit when I was brought into our community room after my first ECT session – they were impressed with my improvement after just one treatment.

I felt at that time that ECT was a miracle and after each treatment I felt a buzz as if I had a really great Italian espresso.  The hospital staff was top-notch and my medical team was compassionate and humorous. I looked forward to my ECT treatments, and it didn’t hurt that the anesthesiologists who put me under each time all looked like GQ models.  Maybe the hospital planned it that way.

  Since I had ECT done I have taken Nordic Naturals fish oil, which has seemed to boost my brain in some way.  I can remember details from my childhood and eighties song lyrics that I couldn’t sing to you five years ago if my life depended on it.

However, 

I digress.

When I heard my Dad’s vibrant voice ring out and tell me that he was hanging out in his hotel in Santa Cruz, I was transported into remembering him at his very best. He sounded happy and full of life.  He said he was off to go play his violin.  (He was a professional violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for over twenty-five years.)

“On second thought, I think I’ll go take a walk!” he proclaimed. “I’ll see you at dinner!” The tape quality was perfect – he sounded so clear it was as if he stood right in front of me.

Right there in my dusty car in the school parking lot, I began to cry.  I rarely cry in public, but these were tears of joy that I couldn’t hold back.  This was one of the best Valentine’s Day gifts I could ever receive.

Mom and Dad had been married for forty years and while their relationship was quite difficult, especially because Dad had bipolar one disorder, they loved each other very much.  Mom nursed Dad through his decline with incredible dedication and she was his powerful medical advocate with the hospital as well.  After Dad died, Mom very reluctantly sold their home of four decades to a young couple and she moved into an apartment five minutes away from her former home.  She put up pictures of Dad all over her apartment, and also had a vase of his ashes in her room.  From that point on, anytime we’d talk she would always mention how she missed Dad a great deal.  Mom expressed that despite having a close circle of friends, she often felt lonely without Dad.

As soon as the tape ended, I queued it up at the start of Dad’s message.  I called my Mom on my cell.  She answered her phone and I told her I had a surprise for her.  “Mom, you are not going to believe this!” I said as unchecked tears continued to trickle down my face. “What?” she replied with slight irritation in her voice.  I knew that her tone would change in a moment for the better.  “Listen!” I implored.  I played Dad’s voice for her.  She was quiet throughout the minute-long message. “I can’t believe it!” she said. “This is the best Valentine’s Day gift you could give me…I fell in love with Dad’s voice. Thank you so much, sweetheart!”

I knew then for sure, although I had suspected it for a long time, that our loved ones are around us, watching us, and once in a great while they will send us a reminder that their love for us remains strong and everlasting.

Listen to Luka Bloom’s song The Man Is Alive from his “Riverside” album

A beautiful song by my favorite Irish singer that reminds me of my Dad.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hpr7qj2cDtE

INSERT AMAZING MATT SAMET QUOTE INTO BOOK THAT’S IN EPILOGUE AND ASK PERMISSION

How Sixty Seconds Can Make A Difference

Something quite extraordinary happened last week that was a wonderful Valentine’s Day present from the universe.

Way back in 1999, I had an answering machine. Remember those?  Yes, they contained classic tape cassettes, not CD’s, DVD’s, or MP3’s in them!

When I was 29 in 199, I had already become a huge fan of the bestselling writer/artist SARK (www.planetsark.com) who now has over 2 million copies of her books in print.  The San Francisco-based SARK has maintained a Inspiration Hot Line (415-546-EPIC) which she has offered as a free public service for many years.  SARK (which stands for Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy, a name that came to her in a dream from the author Henry Miller) records an inspirational outgoing message whenever she feels the urge to share her quirky, profound views with her fans.  You can simply hang up at the end of her talk, or leave your own message.

SARK listens to every single message she receives.  I had contacted SARK in 1999 to arrange an interview for an article I was writing about one of her books, and she called me back and left me a message on my answering machine.  I loved her message so much, in which she said she considered me a friend and she would always return my calls, that I kept the cassette tape as a record of her wonderful call.  I have been meaning to listen to this tape to lift my spirits for almost 14 years.

A few weeks ago I took the cassette out of the drawer fort he first time since I placed it there in 1999, and I brought it into our old Suburu Forrester “Raindrop” (yes, all our cars have names…I grew up with “Baby Volvo”) Raindrop has a cassette tape player.  As I waited in the carpool line at Marilla’s school last Valentine’s Day, I had some time to spare.  It was a gorgeous sunny day with a cerulean blue sky and a smattering of puffy cumulo nimbus clouds hovering above me, with a brisk wind gently blowing that foretold that Spring was on its way.  I stared out at the magnificent redwoods on the Santa Cruz Mountainside that provided a stunning backdrop to San Lorenzo Elementary, and popped in the tape.  First SARK’s sweet voice rang out of the speakers and she spoke at length, bringing a big smile to my face.  A long beep took place after she finished, and then a male voice came out of the speakers that I didn’t recognize.  “Who the heck is this?” I wondered for a few seconds, and then it dawned on me.  It was the clear, melodious voice of my late Dad at age 69.  My father died at age 82 in 2009, and his death was a nightmarish, drawn-out descent in which his once-magnificent, rich voice was transformed into a quivering, weak voice full of fear.  He had always told me he was terrified of dying, and when that time approached, he knew he was on the decline and his voice was affected by that knowledge both physically and emotionally.  That depressing version of his voice stayed with me since his death in 2009 in which I was so devastated that I slipped into bipolar depression that caused me to become suicidal and I asked to be hospitalized for treatment.  I had been resistant to all the psychiatric drugs I had taken for bipolar depression (totaling around 14 medications compete with horrible side effects) so I requested ECT treatment (electroconvulsive therapy ) that, ironically, my Dad had done at UCLA long ago to no avail for his own bipolar depression.

As a result of my week-long hospitalization I missed my father’s memorial service, but the ECT actually did help me lift me slowly out of the depression.  I now have no regrets for doing it, although I don’t know what the long-term effects will be on my brain until I am older.  I did not have a single adverse side effect from the ECT such as memory loss, although I was scared shitless to go for it.  One patient, who I referred to affectionately as “J. Lo” for she was a beautiful Latina who took pains to put on full makeup in the locked-down unit each day, told me that after her ECT she couldn’t remember her wedding day or the births of her children. Undaunted, I was so low, I didn’t give a damn and just told my psychiatrist to flip the switch.  I’ll never forget the reactions on the faces of my fellow mental ward patients when I was brought into the community room after my first ECT session – they all looked amazed at my improvement after just one treatment. I felt at that time that ECT was a miracle and after each treatment I felt a buzz as if I had a really great Italian espresso.  The staff at Community Hospital of the Monterey Hospital was top-notch and my medical team was compassionate, humorous and all-together fantastic.

Moreover, since I started tapering off lithium last year and started taking Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega Xtra liquid fish oils, my memory has come back very strong. I am remembering details from my childhood that I thought were gone forever, and old song lyrics that I couldn’t sing to you five years ago if my life depended on it!

I digress.  It’s a bad habit!

So when I heard my Dad’s vibrant voice ring out and tell me that he was hanging out in his hotel in Santa Cruz, I was transported into remembering him at his very best.  He sounded happy and full of life.  He said he was off to go play his violin, and that he was a little sleepy, although he didn’t sound groggy at all.  “On second thought, I think I’ll go take a walk! He proclaimed.  “I’ll see you at dinner!”  The tape quality was perfect – he sounded so clear it was as if he was talking right in front of me.  Right there in my car at the front of the carpool line, I started to cry tears of joy.  This was the best Valentine’s Day gift I could ever imagine being given, aside from the beautiful present my husband gave me later that evening.  As soon as Dad’s voice disappeared, I called my Mom on my cell.

Mom and Dad had been married for 40 years and while their relationship was quite difficult (especially because Dad had severe bipolar disorder from age 18 on; 90% of marriages in which one spouse has bipolar end in divorce and they beat those odds!) they loved each other very much.  Mom nursed Dad through his decline with incredible dedication and she was his powerful medical advocate with the hospital as well.  After Dad died, Mom very reluctantly sold their stunning home of four decades to a young couple and moved into an apartment five minutes from their home.  She put up pictures of Dad all over her apartment as she missed him dearly.  Four years later, at age 77, anytime we’d talk she would always mention to me how she missed him a great deal and she expressed that she often felt so lonely despite having a close circle of friends and keeping up an active social life.

Mom answered her phone and I told her I had a surprise for her.  “Mom, you are not going to believe this!” I said as unchecked tears continued to trickle down my face.  “What?” she said with slight irritation in her voice.  I knew that would change in just a moment for the better.  “Listen!” I implored.  I put Mom on my cell’s speaker played Dad’s voice for her.  She was quiet throughout the minute-long message.  “I can’t believe it!” She said. “This is the best Valentine’ Day gift you could give me…I fell in love with Dad’s voice.  Thank you so much, sweetheart!”

I knew then for sure, although I had suspected it for a long time, that our loved ones are around us, watching us, and once in a while they will send