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I would like to dedicate this memoir to:
My children and grandchildren,
so that they may have my words and life stories
to nurture themselves with, and maybe
see my humanity (good and not so good) more closely
and know above all that love can heal anything.
To my husband, John,
who has lighted my path with so many gifts
I never thought I would ever experience:
unconditional love, loyalty, companionship, forgiveness,
humor and more political awareness and opinions
than I thought I would ever have!
To the family members
who have stood by me, rallied me and loved me.
And to my dear friends,
whose support, love and concern for my family and me
has been an unwavering, courageous and pure gift.
I have been the lucky beneficiary of all these gifts,
and with heartfelt gratitude and appreciation
give you all in return stories of my life.
I hope you enjoy them.
This thought popped into my mind yesterday as I was being given Reiki by a dear friend and colleague of mine. My life should be looked at as compost!
At first this made me laugh. Where did this idea come from? What this means, I think, is that the beauty of my life, of everyone’s life, is that we have stories to share, lots of stories, and that as we share stories our life experiences can be used as fertilizer for everyone else!
As I write these stories about my experiences and things I’ve learned, let them take wing. What I write I let go of to have a meaning of its own to whoever wants to read it. I have always felt that our lives can enrich the world.
I guess this is the time to introduce the elephant in the room. About two years ago I was diagnosed with what has come to be terminal cancer.
I was born in Rochester, New York, at 1:17pm on June 13, 1951. I was the youngest of three children. I think my arrival was a surprise for my parents because my brother is nine years older than I am, and my sister five.
In those days this was a fairly long time frame between kids. Add to that, my dear brother always taunted me with “You’re adopted! You’re adopted!” when I was as little as three or four, and, well, I kind of felt like I was an accident. The next rude trick of fate was that they named me Dale. I never, ever, felt this was my name.
I’ve been told that my brother named me after, of course, Dale Evans. Yikes! I was named after a cowgirl from a popular Saturday morning kids show who had a horse named Buttercup! My whole life has been overshadowed by this. First, kids made fun of me in school because I was Roy Roger’s wife. Then kids would taunt me about my horse being called Buttercup.
As an adult I ran into problems, because before people met me they would think I was a man. Or worse, when I’d call about credit card information or billing, I’d often be asked to put my husband Dale on the phone. Or when I’d use my credit card I’d get questioned with, “Is this your husband’s credit card?” This would elicit a huge rant on my part about being a proud, single, and self-sufficient woman named Dale, thank you very much.
We moved lock, stock and barrel from the city of Rochester to the suburb of Greece in 1957. 302 Fetzner Road was to be my home for the next thirteen years. Before we actually moved into our first single-family home, my father would drive us all out to see the house under construction on week.ends. I remember the smell of the raw-sawn wood and felt intoxicated by it. Our soon-to-be backyard was still pretty rough with weeds and construction dirt, but it seemed like an endless opportunity to explore and get lost in. The yard backed up to a huge swath of empty land that one day was supposed to be a six-lane highway connecting Greece to Rochester. It looked like someone had tried to excavate this land but then abandoned it. Large piles of dirt dotted the lot, and it was overgrown with weeds and spindly small trees trying to make a go of it.
My mother’s name was Isabelle but my father called her Liz. No one knows how she got this nickname except that, as I said, my father gave almost everyone he knew an incongruous nickname. For instance, mine was Daisy, Lynn’s was Barney Google, Gary’s was Tex; my son Joel was Jaybird, my son Adam was Atom Smasher, my niece Kelly was Calico.
I loved my mom’s name but almost no one called her Isabelle, except for one of my cousins from Connecticut who used to call Mom “Auntie Bell,” which was at least closer to the truth and very endearing.
My mother was a very sweet, refined and quiet person most of the time. I don’t think I ever heard her raise her voice, swear or talk behind anyone’s back. She loved to get her hair done, shop for clothes for hours, play golf and pray. As an adult I had wished that she had more serious pursuits because she rarely seemed to understand or have much of an interest in things that I was doing, such as writing, getting my bachelor’s degree and traveling.
My father, who loved nicknames, had his own as well. His sister and other family members on my mother’s side called him Tommy. Where did that come from? No one seems to know. His name was Henry Bernard but what he really liked being called was Big Hank.
He also liked the idea of being called Big Daddy, and I remember that a few times he called our mom Big Mama, right out of a Tennessee Williams play. In fact, Tennessee Williams’ characters were uncannily like our family, especially Stanley Kowalski.
As a kid I watched a lot of movies. I loved Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor were such hot tickets in that movie!
But A Streetcar Named Desire often went over my head. I understood Stanley Kowalski well enough, but Blanche DuBois took me years to figure out because her story paralleled my mother’s to some degree and it is written with a lot of metaphors as well. It was too close to home.
My sister and I went to St. John’s elementary school in Greece, NY. It was a dour place with dark cavernous hallways and black-habited nuns who wore long black veils, smelled like a box of Kleenex and clicked like clocks when they walked because the oversized wooden rosary beads that hung from their waists rhythmically clicked with each step. They kind of sounded like the crocodile who ate the clock in Peter Pan. Tick-tock, tick-tock, you always knew where the nuns were, but it would also send a chill up your spine.
One of the nuns that taught me was Sister Clothilde. She was shaped like a dumpling and had a white doughy face with hands to match. The nuns were totally covered up by their habits, which were almost like a burkas, except their faces and hands were in full view. Everything else was covered in black, except for a halo of white starched cotton wrapped tightly around their heads and necks that also formed something like a bib on their chest. If a nun bent down towards you to help you with your schoolwork, you could see under the black veil and check out more closely this white tight-fitting head and neck gear. It always made us kids wonder: did she have hair? Was she bald? Have a crew cut? Did she wear this when she took a shower? Our imaginations went wild.
Catholic high school didn’t last long for me. I only went for my freshman year. The school was much more permissive than St. John’s because it was high school, but it was still a weird place to be. The school was coed. The boys went to class on the right side of the building and the girls on the left. We were separated by a cinder block wall but were allowed to eat lunch together. The classes were okay but nothing exciting. I did like taking Latin and loved experiencing a real art class, but everything else was boring.
My sister had bucked the Catholic school trend by not passing the entrance exam. She ended up at the local public high school, Greece Olympia, instead.
Lynn was a cute and very popular cheerleader. She had a great time going to school there. I wanted the same freedom and fun. So when my parents started arguing relentlessly about money, I put a bug in their ear, “ Mom, Dad, since money is so tight, why not send me to public school? Lynn went and she’s okay!”
I didn’t have to work too hard to convince them that I would also be fine at the public school. This was a big coup for me!
In my junior year in high school, I decided to get a job at a local catalog store. The store was called Naum Brothers. It was a new retail model that didn’t last long. All their products were shown as samples on the selling floor. If you wanted to buy anything small or large, you had to get a pick up slip, pay for it at a cashier and have it sent by conveyor belt into the store from the warehouse.
I worked in the downstairs customer service office. I answered phones, helped customers and filed invoices. I was a terrible file clerk. I often inverted numbers and lost paperwork. Not a good thing.
It was a fun place to work though. The employees were young and partied a lot. Not that I went to the parties, but the young guys and the old ones were flirts and made me laugh.
I worked there after school and weekends from 1967 to 1968. It was my first job with a paycheck.
In June of that year, a young brash twenty-two-year-old guy came to work for the president of Naum Brothers. Rumors swirled about him before he even arrived. He was a graduate student from the University of Rochester. He was there to do an internship and help the business grow. A small desk was put into the corner of Bob Naum’s office that faced my desk. We were separated by only a thin door.
Wagner College was an exciting place to be in the fall of 1969. It was located at the top of the tallest point on Staten Island and had a fabulous view of Manhattan directly across the bay. I could see the big city skyline from my dorm room window. It was a quick bus ride down the hill to the ferry terminal. The twenty-five-minute, fifty-cent ferry ride took me right to Battery Park in downtown Manhattan. Every ride was a chance to pass the Statue of Liberty and feel lucky all over again for arriving in New York. It was then an easy subway ride to the Village, Soho or any other place in town. I had the best of everything right at my door.
College life was just what I had hoped it would be: an adventure. Going to classes was secondary to all the other things going on. Weekends were spent in the Village hanging out with other college students, going to record stores, thrift shops, bead stores, coffee houses and clubs.
After I got married, I kept going to school part-time at the local community college because getting my degree was important to me. I decided to get a job then too. I worked in the medical records department at Staten Island Hospital from Au.gust until October 1970. I hated my job. I was a file clerk. The file shelves were thirteen feet tall. The ladder I had to climb up wobbled as I struggled with stacks of files tucked under my arm. Between my tendency to transpose numbers and my fear of heights, it wasn’t a good match.
The job filled time until something better came along. After leaving Wagner College and getting married, my life be.came much quieter. I still went to the city a lot and immersed myself in the museums and Broadway shows. I’d meet Len for lunch, catch a matinée and then head home.
Gone were the days of campus life, political protests and all-night coffeehouses. At nineteen I was a wife and a daughter-in-law. Most weekends we would go to Sam and Lil’s apartment in Queens for dinner or Sabbath. I was settling into my new family.
Being a mother was better than anything else I had experienced in my life to that point. I was hooked on the continual flow of love that I felt every day and every time I held my son, looked into his face or inhaled his baby scent traveling in waves off his little head. I felt pure unconditional love. I had never experienced this before, not from my parents, my siblings or Len. I was addicted to this love drug. My son’s smiles or laughs could turn me into butter. I always wanted more. It filled a spot in me I rarely acknowledged that was dark and empty. Baby love filled it with ambrosia. It was bliss.
Motherhood changed me forever.
This is when my life stopped being about me and became about my son and my husband. It is where I shifted from the identity of Dale to that of wife and mother. I now had a purpose and a calling, motherhood, but it was also fraught with identity trade-offs that eventually got the best of me.
California felt different. We now lived three thousand miles away from everything and everyone I knew and loved. I had had no idea this would make me feel rudderless and homesick, no idea California would feel like living in another country!
Len, on the other hand, had arrived home. He loved everything about it. He started to run every day for miles at a time. He loved the smell of the air, the warm weather, Marie Callender’s restaurants, Laguna Beach, the avocado trees that grew in our yard, and Taco Bell.
It certainly was an interesting place to land, but it wasn’t home for me. I was used to the quaint country roads in Westchester, narrow lanes with no street or traffic lights, and driving through hills and fields and by houses on two acres. I had liked the fact that our neighbors could only be seen through clumps of trees, that a fire in October smelled like woody perfume in crisp air, and that we had a white Christmas. Everything was different there. Our stores were not chain stores like in California, but mom and pops. People were kind but reserved. You voted in a regulation voting booth, not in someone’s garage with black garbage bags as privacy dividers. The hospitals back home didn’t have cameras that broadcasted your baby’s face from the nursery into the main lobby like a TV show, and neighbors welcomed you to the community and did not allow their kids free reign to put dog poop in your mail box or rummage your garage for bikes and toys.
We moved back to Westchester in October of 1979, to the rolling hills of North Salem, New York, where horses out-numbered people. There I felt like I was able to provide my children a safe, rural, wholesome place to live. Our house sat on two acres of land and abutted a hundred acres of fields, streams and horse trails. The kids were free to romp around, explore the outdoors by themselves, and hang out with the neighbor’s horses that lived in a corner of our property. I loved being able to provide this lifestyle for my children. It felt like we had dodged the bullet of California and returned to normalcy in our lives in a place we could settle into and call home.
Len and I seemed to be doing well even though we had just gone through the toughest year of our marriage. We picked up where we had left off before our move. We had our Sunday ritual of reading the New York Times together, eating bagels with the kids, and taking long walks. Len kept a peripheral connection to the kids by going to some school meetings and events, but he mostly was consumed by his work.
No one in my family or in Len’s family ever got divorced. There was no precedent for it. Besides, I loved Len and having to put up with his difficult nature was not enough of a reason for me to cut and run. I viewed him as a cactus flower, prickly to get close to but full of heart if the needles didn’t get you first.
I thought he had some good qualities. He worked hard and provided well for his family. When he was able to put work aside, he could be funny, witty and clever. If there was big trouble brewing like when Joel was falsely accused of shoplifting in New Canaan, or when my mom needed a psychiatrist pronto because she was in a psychotic meltdown, or when we were in Indonesia and found out Adam had had an emergency appendectomy and we needed to get a flight home ASAP, Len always came through when no one else could. He helped minority business owners, doling out free advice and setting them up with corporate contacts to help their businesses flourish. He won awards for this. He helped young entrepreneurs learn skills to create sound healthy businesses. He was committed to immigrant business students, helping them overcome language and cultural issues so they could become more competitive. He helped his brother-in-law switch careers from teaching to IT work when he was in a financially perilous situation. He bought his parents a condo so they could be close to family in New Jersey. He had a good sense of humor and could laugh at himself.
Adam and I moved to Portland, Maine, on December 26, 1996. I rented a U-Haul trailer; hooked it up to my dark green Ford Explorer; filled it with our clothes, books, beds, and pictures; and off we went. My sister Lynn came with us to help.
I left all the furniture with Len. I wanted a fresh start, a new home, new people, and new things. Portland, Maine, was a breath of fresh air compared to uptight, status-driven Connecticut. I had never liked living there. It was conservative and pretentious even if everyone read the New York Times and thought of themselves as liberal.
The year 2000 arrived with a whimper. I celebrated the New Year with my daughter and her partner in Machiasport, Maine.
Machiasport is a remote town about as far Down East as you can go. It is in the middle of nowhere. I bought a house there in 1993 with Len because it was beautiful, wild, and affordable. I had hoped it would give Len and me some pleasure after his stroke and be a place to heal our lives.
Rachel was staying at the house in 2000, finishing college classes for her BS at the University of Maine at Machias. The weathered Cape-style house sat on sixteen acres of wild blueberry fields rambling down to Holmes Bay. It was a feast of sky, fields, and salt water. Eagles often flew overhead with fish in their talons. Fox, bear, and moose roamed about and outnumbered people. The population was 1,100. It wasn’t a popular vacation area even though it sat close to the water and was full of wild areas to explore. I liked that it wasn’t a tourist destination.
In 2005 I was fifty-four years old; living in Charlestown, a waterfront neighborhood in Boston; and working in Marblehead twelve miles north of the city at my store Piari Luna Design. By then I had had three failed attempts at romance and was reevaluating my life.
By the time I divorced Len in 2002 we’d been married thirty-two years. The silver lining of this relationship gave me my three wonderful children and two gorgeous grandchildren and taught me how to be self-reliant, take care of my finances, and educate myself through travel and meeting unique and interesting people. I also loved Len deeply but had learned that loving someone cannot heal their wounds no matter how much you try.
The first four years of our marriage were the happiest of our lives.
Oh, we also had many challenges, and they came right away. But now we faced them together with the unconditional love of a soulmate for the first time in our lives. We knew whatever came up we could get through together.
In July of 2013, out of the blue, I started to have panic attacks. The first one happened at five in the morning, and John called our neighbor Alicia Powell, a psychiatrist, who came over to comfort me.
The only other time I had a panic attack was when Len had his stroke. That experience lasted for a few days. I just felt waves of fear that were so intense I almost fainted from them.
But these panic attacks were different. They made me feel scared, nauseous, and illogically worried about money and housing.
John recognized the panic attacks as a crisis of faith: being caught between my family legacy of fear and money and the new spiritual world I was birthing. But I knew there was something else also going on, something biological. Sometimes it felt like a dark evil figure attacking me, telling me I should die. I thought I was losing my mind.
To calm myself, I would walk over to Jamaica Pond, lie under one of the maple trees, and breathe in mindful meditation.
Looking back, I realize I began searching for Dale from the moment she took her last breath. The first thing I did was to look up from her body, hoping to see her spirit rising. I didn’t.
Dale's Interview: Excerpts from an online interview by Kay Adams at the Journalverse, recorded February 6, 2015.
Listen to the audio version of the interview:
About the memoir:
"I have been writing on and off for at least twenty-five, maybe thirty years, and I would call myself an autobiographical writer. I’ve also wanted to write about my life, but have always found so much of what I went through difficult to write about. I have always been looking for a way to frame my writing so that I could write from it more objectively instead of emotionally. And I was reading a lot of David Sedaris. I really love his writing and his wry sense of humor.
Last year I was diagnosed with an inoperable form of cancer. My children, particularly my youngest son, and my husband asked me to write my memoir for them.
I just didn’t know how to approach it because now things were even more emotional. But, I woke up one day with a gift from the universe that said, “Why not call it My Life as Compost?” And from that perspective, I was able to frame a memoir because I have always believed that our lives are the rich loam of soil that we give each other and that we don’t have to say anything more than what happened to us. Just to give that as a gift to other people, and they can take from that what they will.
So, that’s what I did, and it was like a gift from the universe because it helps me frame things in kind of a humorous way that sometimes weren’t so humorous. It gave me that distance I needed."
What’s Your Writing Process?
"It actually feels very empowering to get to that question in terms of self-publishing, because I send each chapter to a list of about sixty people and I’ll get immediate feedback from fifteen to twenty people on a regular basis. It really gives me the juice to keep going forward because people tell me how excited they are, tell me they had a similar experience, we share ideas and thoughts. I think that as a writer that’s what you want—that immediate feedback that makes you feel like that’s why you’re writing. You know you have an audience and they’re writing back to you.
I’d say my process currently has been very organic and stream of consciousness. I think because I had written for a lot of years as a journal writer and a non-fiction writer, doing personal essays but also poetry—there was a level of discipline in there that I learned (that I wasn’t even aware of) that allows me to take my stream of consciousness and then rework it.
I usually start in the morning after I wake up. I usually say a meditation or prayer before I go to sleep at night to give me the inspiration for what I need for the next chapter. I usually wake up with that chapter in my mind. And I’m working it on some level. And then I sit down at the computer and then usually for four or five hours will write something out.
So each chapter has been around 4,500 words and it takes me about a week to write that. I’m also married to a writer who’s been my copy editor! I’m really fortunate."
Any tips for other aspiring memoir writers?
Well, I’ve been doing this in a very unorthodox way. It truly is coming out of me. I’ve never had a writing experience quite like this. Often, if I wrote something—particularly poetry—I’d write a rough draft, edit, edit, and edit it. And make notes! But this, this is just flowing out. It is.
I really feel it’s been a gift and it might be because of my heightened state of life at the moment. Knowing that things…I have no idea how long that things will go on. But, it’s just allowed me to write and I don’t take notes and maybe that’s a convenience in and of itself. Free flowing and letting it out. And I go back and edit it. I just don’t…I don’t restrict myself in any way with what I want to write.
How are your children responding to your story?
I have a forty-three-year-old son who has two sons himself (my grandchildren). And I have a forty-year-old daughter and a thirty-six-year-old son; neither of them have children. But they’ve all been very supportive, except that the forty-three-year-old (who is a well-tattooed, hard-driving house builder)—he doesn’t want to read anything that I write about sex in my memoir. (Laughter) So that’s actually a very funny thing.
The other two don’t really care and they encourage me to write what comes to mind. But I did a very explicit chapter on my sexual exploits when I turned fifty because I thought it was really important. I got married at nineteen and I never really had relationships outside of my marriage until I was fifty, so I kind of went crazy! What you do when you’re seventeen…but when I did it at fifty, it didn’t look as pretty.
So I talked to them about that, and my oldest son will just avoid that chapter because of course his mother never had sex. That’s how he likes to keep it.
And then when I do write something that I think is important—(my youngest son did cross-dress at a time when it was not a popular thing to do, and it brought us very close to each other, and I thought it was a really important thing to write about), I did let him read the chapter and comment before I sent it out. He’s still a little uncomfortable with it, but I told him I think it happens to a lot of people and that it’s a very healing thing to be that honest and forthright to put that out there, and he 90% agrees with me.
So I’m trying to keep them in the loop of what I’m writing. And I try to keep my writing honest. And I try not to write the sensationalism or anger or emotion but to simply try to really capture who I am.
What do you want to tell us about the power of writing for healing?
Well, the first thing that I would say about the power of writing is that I’ve told a lot of [the] stories to friends and family members, and they’ve heard them before. So has my husband. But, once I wrote them down, they had a completely different affect on people. It was almost like they heard them for the first time.
So I’ve really become aware of how spoken word and spoken stories have one ability to share experiences, but when you write it down and you’re seriously looking to give a gift of remembrance to your family or to put it out there in the public view the written word is even more powerful, not only because you have something to hold on to and go back to, but [also because] somehow there’s an expression that you get out that way that you can’t by just telling a story.
As far as the medical establishment goes, I think it’s been interesting that the psychiatrist that I go to once a month has told me she and the palliative care doctor are avid readers of my blog, and I think they want to do something, perhaps with me or Dana-Farber, using memoir as a tool for other people going through what I’m going through. But, I would say—as a western culture, particularly in the United States, we don’t have a good handle on how to talk about death and dying. And that’s where I feel the most neglected in terms of how to connect with other people. It’s a very isolating place to be.
I think what we need to do as a society, as a culture, is to see what’s really happening and give us some choices and control over our lives. I think the dialog is growing. I just read in the New York Times this morning that Canada just passed legislation for dignity with death. I’m hoping that we can see that for human beings death with dignity is not just a scary way to transition, but give us care and sensitivity.
How has writing helped you reclaim yourself?
Well, it has been a very deep and, on some levels, spiritual process. I’ll just share with everyone...last year when I was diagnosed, I was totally healthy. I really hadn’t had any major health issues, and I went in to see my gynecologist and found out that I had a large inoperable tumor. And that there was very little that they could do for me.
It was a sucker punch in my gut—and everything that I had thought [about] and felt left me, and I started slowly breaking down until I had a full breakdown. And I didn’t really know how to reclaim myself. I had to go to the psych ward for three weeks. I had to figure out how to live with a terminal diagnosis, and then in order to get out of the psych ward I had to go through ECT treatments, and it was pretty hard for me to digest that I had to do that. I slowly but surely got my footing again and started writing.
I literally was inspired by waking up with this idea, which was probably six months after I came out of hospitalization. And I began to see it as a gift that I could leave my family, because that’s what they asked me for. And, as part of that, I really had no ability to deal with the cancer head-on. I was angry, I was hostile at the professional world that I was connected to: psychologists and psychiatrists and oncology doctors really…don’t have a big dialog with patients when you get to this level of fear and [this] sort of dysfunction.
And so the writing helps. It started helping me. I had written a journal before when my first husband had a stroke and that’s what got me through the days and nights as I cared for him, and through the fear of loss around our life and our relationship. This time it did the same thing only in a more critical way, because now I have less control of my life and it gave me some control to be able to tell people my story.
And so my desire is to really live, just like compost, and put myself out there warts and all. To put my life out there to have the meaning of giving other people a sense of support and a story that can perhaps move somebody else and support them if they are going through a difficult time.
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