Counting Stars, Time, and Remembering Jerry: Everyday Magic, Day 880

10801514_10152411963826315_5462935666005367948_nLast night, I stood on the wet back deck of our house in my leopard-print fleece bathrobe late at night, head tilted back, counting the seconds between falling stars. It was late, the sheer clouds dissipating after a day of enormous rain. Inside, the clean house hummed its happy song after the warmth and light of the Hanukkah party, the air still enhanced by what frying potatoes and onions can do for a home.

All day, I had been thinking about a year ago when our dear friend Jerry died after either a short or long illness, depending on how you count. I heard the news in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s in Kansas City, just after leading a writing workshop at Turning Point for people living with serious illness. Hanging up my phone, I was shocked although the doctor in Jerry’s intensive care unit told us it would be a roller coaster when it came to knowing if he would survive. I remember walking into Trader Joe’s and putting various things in a shopping cart, but not whether I actually checked out or just wandered out of the store.

At our Hanukkah party a year ago, another way to count the time from there to here, still in shock about Jerry’s death, we sang two of his favorite songs–James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and Chet Powers’ “Get Together.” This year, right before we lit the candles, we had a moment of silence to remember Jerry and/or whoever we loved who was gone or far away.

Yesterday, the Turning Point writers gave a public reading where they shared startling images and enduring stories of what it means to find courage, meaning, even joy in the web of mortality. The reading, held on a Saturday, resonated with Jerry dying on the Saturday I was with these writers, another way to count time. Like the Turning Point writers, Jerry struggled with serious illness. Unlike them, he didn’t go on to share his story of coming back from this brink.
Considering Jerry in the year in between his death and now has brought me surprising joys, such as finding friendship with Jerry’s sisters and brothers (he had six!) after we bonded in a hospital waiting room, telling stories of him as a boy and10858644_10152644832843208_4356927544652366850_n man around a fake fire while drinking mediocre cups of coffee. I’ve seen them at his moving memorial (“Jerry on the prairie!“), and for meals and even some music several times in Minneapolis. I tell them that we’re each other’s Jerrys now.

At the same time, it hurts when someone you love dies, especially in a scenario that, had any of us known all the pieces of the crazy-quilt puzzle, we might have prevented. I’ve ferried my guilt through many layers of rationalization, disappointment in myself, and big-picture framing, understanding both that he chose this, and I still wish I had intervened more. I’m beyond grateful for the days we had during his last week, especially the night I played James Taylor and other songs I knew he loved from my phone, held his hand, told him I loved him, and chided him, despite and because he was on a vent at the time, for not holding up his end of the conversation.

Yet the conversation doesn’t end. Shivering but determined to see more falling stars, I scanned the sky, wondering where best to aim my eyes, and how to better open my peripheral vision to catch the ride of a particle of dust from the stars to the earth. “You didn’t fail me,” I dreamed Jerry said after his death. The Geminid meteor shower didn’t either although there was a long stretch between the first two falling stars and the next. Just as I was about to give up, a large white meteor flew east to west, dissolving in the dark. I wrapped my robe tighter and went back into the warm house where sleep and the rest of my life awaited me.

Travels with Jerry: Everyday Magic, Day 862

Ready for another trip with Jerry's suitcase
Ready for another trip with Jerry’s suitcase

Since my sweet and dear friend Jerry died 12/13/14, I’ve been traveling with just a bit of him. No, not his ashes — a small baggie of those are on my shelf next to his picture, to be scattered in the field near our house that he loved at right time (and after chigger season). It’s one of his suitcases, which I’ve been packing my stuff in and out for its excursions to Vermont (twice), Minnesota (twice), Iowa, Missouri, both Carolinas,  all over Kansas. and the far reaches of West Texas.

The dark green suitcase with the rainbow yarn tied on the handle has been to 13 presentations of Chasing Weather, my book of poetry with weather chaser/photographer Stephen Locke, and also the last book Jerry bought at the last place I saw him a month before his death. It’s rattled in the backseat of a rental car zooming from the Davis Mountains in West Texas over the ridge into beautiful Alpine, TX, and eventually, along the Rio Grande during one of the best wildflower seasons in decades on our way to Big Bend. It sat without complaint in the passenger seat beside me as I drove through South Carolina to North Carolina to the poetry 36 hour cialis no prescription therapy conference. It’s been checked in on planes or stuffed into overhead compartments. It’s rested on luxury hotel beds and cardboard-like motel beds while I rifled through it, looking for my toothbrush. It’s reclined happily in the backseat on the way home from Minnesota in April, leaving the snow for the lilac weather, and it’s never fussed at being overpacked or zipped too fast or accidentally knocked down a flight of stairs.

Jerry, your suitcase made it through baggage again!
Jerry, your suitcase made it through baggage again!

Every time I see that suitcase, especially the rainbow yard, I can’t help but think of Jerry, and wonder if he would enjoy the adventure of the day — climbing a long trail through the Chihuahuan desert mountains in Texas, eating a large amount of hummus and gyro meat with some of his family in Minnesota, or wandering the streets of Montpelier, Vermont to marvel at lilies in bloom.

The sad part is the obvious: it’s just a suitcase, and not Jerry himself who is who-knows-where. Sometimes, like all of us who love a lost one, I just miss him. But it feels good to touch the yarn he strung together and tied into the handle, and to think of the found places where this talisman of his has traveled, me in tow.

Jerry on the Prairie!: Everyday Magic, Day 850

IMG_3741On Saturday, we scattered the ashes of Jerry, called the “cremains,” on the prairie with family and close friends. Gathering mid-day on the Akin Prairie — a place Jerry loved intensely — we followed the Kansas Area Watershed (KAW) Council water ritual that Jerry had participated in dozens of times over dozens of years. This ritual, which ends most of our KAW Council gatherings — whether on the prairie Camp Hammond (between Lawrence and Topeka), where we’ve held weekend gatherings every spring since 1982, or beside Castle Rock in Western Kansas or other places we’ve explored — is a way to honor where we’ve traveled, where we’re going, and most of all, where we are. We stand in a circle, begin with chanting three Kaws (kind of like om but to the tune of Kaw), and then each person, as he or she feels moved, can step into the center and offer up a prayer, song, gesture, poem, memory or wish.IMG_3749

Along with what people say or do, we invite everyone to bring water from their travels to pour into the center, and this time, we had the water from Jerry’s travels. Danny found several bottles with water that Jerry had collected from the Southwest, his home state of Minnesota, and within and beyond Kansas. His daughters brought a box containing baggies of his cremains we could scatter right in the center, out in the prairie, or in other places.

The skies danced panoramic of storms to come, and the prairie was alive with blossom and sharply-green grasses. Jerry’s family, superb at both speaking from the heart and self-organizing, instantly started coming into the center, from the oldest to youngest siblings and their families, then his oldest to youngest daughters and their families. Then friends and other family member stepped into the center. One sister invited us to turn to the person next to us and dance for a moment since she had promised Jerry they would go dancing soon when he took a short-lived turn for the better in the final days in the hospital. One of his daughters asked us to open up our arms to the sky as she had seen her father do countless time. Some people told stories, like how he attached a camera to a kite, bringing together two of his passions, to get some aerial photos. One friend sang out the word that speaks to her most of Jerry: sweet.IMG_3754

At the end, many of us scattered ourselves through the prairie to leave some of his ashes or say our own goodbyes. I didn’t realize how incomplete his leaving was last December until I watched his family and friends fan out across the luscious green and blooming prairie, and earlier, right at the end of the circle, how we all called out, “Jerry on the Prairie!” This is where he is, and he’s also right here with us, alive in the stories we told later at the Unitarian Fellowship for a celebration of his life and spirit, the next day on our porch that he built, and for many days to come.

Our porch that Jerry built with a heaping portion of his sibs and friends.
Our porch that Jerry built with a heaping portion of his sibs and friends.

Jerry loved the wind, and as I write this, back on the porch, I’m surrounded by wind, birdsong, frogs are chirping, and one owl just called out, just like the one owl we heard while in the water ritual circle on Saturday, singing to us despite it being the middle of the day. We’re now in the after of Jerry on the prairie, landed in beauty, loss, sweetness, and something beyond mere knowledge that my friend Kat Green wrote so perfectly about in this poem:

After

Sometimes knowledge is not enough.

Nor is knowing in your bones.

We make our choices.

We live or die.

Yesterday

We scattered Jerry’s ashes at Aiken Prairie,

The crest of a hill by the Aiken family cemetery

but not in it.

We encircled his large family with unfamiliar ritual,

his ashes in the center.

We cawed, three times.

They looked a little uncomfortable.

But then we began the water ritual.

Dan had found a bottle of water

Jerry had collected on his travels

throughout the Great Plains:

Minnesota, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico,

The Texas gulf and other places.

We took turns stepping into the center.

We spoke from our hearts

took a little of his ashes

and poured a little of the water.

His brothers and sisters stepped into

the circle with their families

from oldest to youngest.

Did I mention many of them wore cameras?

His daughters and their families spoke next.

Two of Jerry's sisters and one marvelous brother-in-law o top of the world, or at least Wells Overlook near our place to see the aerial view Jerry loved.
Two of Jerry’s sisters and one marvelous brother-in-law o top of the world, or at least Wells Overlook near our place to see the aerial view Jerry loved.

We wept.

We listened.

We remembered a stubborn, kind man

noted for leisurely and complete story telling

and exquisite photographs of the natural world.

We surged into the center of the circle and back

out, three times

And scattered.

~ Kat Greene

The Things of a Life: Everyday Magic, Day 831

One of the photos his daughters found
One of the photos his daughters found

The shortest day of the year included taking apart, packing, hauling away and other redistributing the things that compose a life, in this case, the life of our friend Jerry. Yesterday, a bunch of Jerry’s friends, his daughters and their husbands all squeezed ourselves into his tiny apartment to point at, ask about, and then shift or lift lots of boxes, furniture, small appliances, photography supplies, shoes, books, clothing and more.

There’s something very tender, surprising, and even familiar about going through the things of someone’s whole life. I spent a long time in the bathroom, packing up bandages, thermometers, unused aspirin and matches (to take to live at my house); sheets, cleaning products, and spray adhesive (to donate); and occasionally special tokens (a ring that was perhaps Jerry’s wedding ring for his last marriage, to give to his daughters). What the family wants time to consider goes to a storage unit. All else either went home with one or another of us, to the Social Service League or recycling (did that man never throw away a box?), or to the trash.

What this looked like was people carrying out shelves and office chairs, bags and boxes, piles of well-read or never-read magazines, all of us dancing past each other in the apartment or backing up in the hallway. In Jerry’s kitchen, I found myself a pot and pan, and drank a bottle of water from his refrigerator, thinking about how it might feel to bring his stuff home to my kitchen, where I cooked up lots of meals for him over the years. I also found, a day after my blender died, a new blender, likely hardly used, among Jerry’s stuff. Carrying it and a scratchy pink wool blanket to my car, I imagined Jerry among us, divvying up his stuff. “You want this?” I might ask, holding up three wooden plates. He would shrug, gesture for me to take them, and tell me that he’s not going to need it anymore, which is practical but also very sad.

Besides discovering that Jerry’s propensity for buying high quality stuff and avoiding junk applied to most of his possessions (and not just his work clothes and cameras), I happened buy generic cialis 10 mg upon many notes he wrote himself. In the middle of the biggest piles of neatly-organized clutter (including saving much of his mail for a long time), his daughter held up a note about the value of decluttering. On the back of a pharmacy receipt, he wrote about seeing a flock of geese. Two calendars I took him so I could use them for collage were actually filled with his writing, listing all his plans, crossing out what he didn’t end up doing, and writing notes in the margins. He wrote on the bottom on one page, “I am going to live to age 98,” which he obviously missed by 35 years. I had no idea that he was dealing with so many health issues, often listed in the daily squares of the calendar, or that he recorded his daily weight, probably trying to encourage his slight body to put on more pounds.

Within a little over an hour, thanks to the work of over a dozen people with assorted vehicles – from compact cars with roomy hatchbacks to trailers – everything was carried out but what will move to the storage unit. It felt strange to be done so quickly when his place had previously been stuffed with so many objects holding within so many stories: all the unused framing supplies for his photographs, books on computer programs and the wisdom of the Native American grandmothers group he followed, photo albums from when his kids were young and guides to the rivers of Kansas, dress shoes hardly worn and hiking shoes well-loved. I realize he’s not there anymore, and that he doesn’t live in his things, but his things do convey the layers of his life.

Wherever he is, I know he’s traveling light and free. I wish him great joy, love, and homecoming as I sit here with one of his hair ties holding my wet hair off my neck. Soon I’ll do some cooking for our Hanukkah party, using some of his things in lieu of having him show up, as he’s done for many years, always late but smiling, ready to hug me in my kitchen in the middle of the the press of friends and friendship.

Jerry: Everyday Magic, Day 829

10858376_10152644835063208_4719828656362117011_nWe were unlikely friends. He talked slow, walked slow, thought slow and deep. I tend to run fast. I can’t even say when I met him, although I know it was through the Kansas Area Watershed Council, our local and long-lived bioregional community, and sometime, somehow, we became great pals. By 2001, we were doing the lion’s share of the work to organize the Continental Bioregional Congress on the Prairie — Jerry in charge of bookkeeping, travel arrangements and registrations, and me in charge of the program, publicity, and the overall coordination. For the next two years, we spoke on the phone or emailed often 4-5 times each day, just about finishing each other’s thoughts about how to handle any issue that arose.

10858644_10152644832843208_4356927544652366850_nHe went from Jerry Sipe to Jerry to Jer, aka #7 (his and my favorite number) on my speed dial. He was around us often, and quickly became the only adult my three children — through teenage years and beyond — always hugged. I hugged him a lot too, both of us close to the same height, as I felt his heart beat in mine.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, I discovered what many already know about wandering through the world of serious illness: some people fall away, and some people run toward you, ready to help in any way possible. Jerry just about moved in with us, joining us so often for dinner that when I fetched groceries, I aimed for his favorites along with our own. He was quiet, patient, and utterly present. The night before my final surgery, he called to find out what time I was going to the hospital. “But don’t you have to work?” I asked, knowing he had taken off a lot of time already for my previous surgeries. “Work? There’s no way I can go to work tomorrow,” he answered, and sure enough, he was there with other close friends and family, praying, singing, chanting and lifting me through surgery and its aftermath.

From there, he built our front porch with Ken. The project that was supposed to take a few months took over two and a half years, and although it was slow-going, the craftmanship is superb as was his installation of our pellet stove, which kept him hanging out at our place for months. There are signs of Jerry everywhere, not the least of which are the photos he gave us over the years,IMG_2135 each visionary and perfect in what he shows us of wind, spider webs, the moon and sky.

Jerry seemed quiet from a distance, but up close, he could be a regular chatterbox, although not in the conventional way. When he started to tell a story, like the time he went AWOL in the early 1970s because he no longer believed in the Vietnam War, it was advisable to get comfortable because he had a lot to say. When it was his turn in the circle — at KAW Council or other bioregional gatherings — he often had a lot to say about what the earth and sky were saying to him. It was obvious he had long conversations with the natural world. He often told me of fields, including the field just south of our house, that he was friends with, and how, in the presence of such places, he entered into deep communion.

10858388_10152644834493208_8539725373344188220_nEach morning, at least for many, many cialis online with no prescription years, Jer would step outside, lift his arms overhead, close his eyes, open his heart and then his arms out wide, asking the living earth to tell him what its will was for him today. “Thy will be done,” he answered the call.

For many years, I counted him as one of my besties, yet in the last three or so years, we were at a bit of a distance. To be honest, I was pissed at him for not getting all possible medical and other healing help for what sure seemed like major memory issues to me. I wanted him to put up a good fight, reach out for support, and be relentless in his own healing. Like others close to him, I was also worried about him living alone and how, in time, he might be found close to death in his apartment. I didn’t understand that he, being himself and not me, was making his own choices and/or that his health issues may well have precluded him from choosing differently. A man close to the earth, he basically, as one dear one of his remarked to me recently, went to the woods to die. He was found last Sunday in his apartment, profoundly dehydrated, having lost close to a third of his body weight, and suffering from double pneumonia and other issues.

This last week, any distance dissolved. I’m eternally grateful to Jerry for this gift of forgiveness, intimacy and friendship. He held tight to my hand while, in his hospital room, I sang prayers and chants, off key and scratchy-throated, to him. One night, I sat close to him for a few hours, sharing song after song from my phone. When I got to James Taylor, particularly “Blossom” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” — music I knew he loved — he opened his eyes, lifted his eyebrows, and looked for moment, even while on a ventilator and in ravaged body, peaceful. He also looked into my eyes as well as into the eyes of many of us who visited with a kind of intensity I’ve only seen in the eyes of my son Daniel right after his birth and in the eyes of my father a few months before his death.

I remember telling Jerry about that moment with my father, and how my father asked if I recognized him. “Yeah, you could have said, I finally recognize you,” Jerry told me. With Jerry, it wasn’t an issue of “finally” recognizing him or being recognized by him. Jerry was born to see, evident in his photos of the prairie as well as his friendships and family connections.

10347556_10152644834623208_7289269370764009355_nHe was also born to make it rain. He once told me that according to a native person he knew, each of us had to make it rain at some point in our lives — we had to save lives and land in some small way. Jerry said that shortly after learning this, he was marching with others to save the Haskell Wetlands when a car sped through the intersection toward the marchers. Jerry saw that the car was about to strike a woman and her baby, riding in a  stroller. He left his slow ways behind and raced into action, positioning himself right in front of the car to save the mother and child. Then he stared into the eyes of the driver, who hit his brakes in time. “I made it rain,” Jerry told me.

Tonight, a little over a day after he died, he may be making it rain again, in the hearts of many of us who love him and also all around us as a very unusual December thunderstorm moseys on in, slowly. It hurts so much that he’s gone, but I’m so grateful for this rain, feeding the parched earth and and reminding me that love heals, always.