July 30, 2013


Yesterday, my husband and I returned to the nursing home where my mother-in-law lived for the last 15 months of her life. He went out to the desk to talk to the staff, to thank them for the care they’d given her.

I went to her closet with a large plastic bag. One by one, I took each item off the hanger. I’d bought most of the clothes, mainly nightgowns in her favorite colour — blue — although sometimes I’d added a pink or aqua for variety. I’d used to black marker to write her name on the inside of each gown, so I read her name over and over again as I folded each gown and piled it into the bag.

The wooden drawers held pants and shirts, already folded. Some I remembered from the days when she could still walk, when we'd pick her up for holiday meals or other outings. I found the coat she wore the Christmas before last, and shoes she hasn’t worn in more than a year. The bag was just about full when I finished.

The staff had already stripped the bed, covered it with a plastic covering. My brother-in-law had stopped in before the funeral for her rosary, her bottles of Lourdes water, and the photographs we’d propped up on the shelf by her bed. Her drawers held creams, lotions, pink mouth swabs. I took some framed prints off the wall, wrapped the clock radio with its own cord.

We were done in just a few minutes.

July 26, 2013

Be not afraid

When my mother-in-law was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia a week ago, we knew it would be her last hospital visit. She broke her hip more than 15 months ago, and she’d lasted longer than anyone thought, living in a nursing home where we could visit her daily.

On Friday, her three children and nine grandchildren gathered in her hospital room. My sister-in-law and her daughter drove in from out of state, a trip they’ve made many times over the last 15 months. Smiley Girl drove to the city where Shaggy Hair Boy has started his intensive grad program, and brought him back. Blonde Niece came: she knows my mother-in-law from all the time she’s spent at our house.

My mother-in-law could still whisper, and she could definitely hear them all, as they talked and joked, crowding around her hospital bed. She knew she was surrounded by family. When I arrived Saturday morning, after a long train ride home from my friend’s beach house, I asked if she’d enjoyed the party in her hospital room, and she whispered that it had been “loads of fun.”

We held the phone to her ear so she could talk to a long-time friend, who assured her that death was "going to be beautiful." My husband’s best friend from high school came up to visit. His cousin drove in from out of town to spend the afternoon. I got the idea of using the iPad to play music, and for the next couple of days, we kept using youtube to find the songs she loved — everything from Marian hymns to the theme from Hawaii Five-O.

She grew weaker. We stayed with her around the clock so that she wouldn’t die alone. My husband and I pretty much lived in her hospital room: my daughter brought us meals, and we used camping mats to sleep on the floor. The nurses stepped over and around us, and they always stopped to chat with us and help us figure out how much longer she had.

Her hospital stay lasted almost a week. The last couple of days, she was unresponsive, but I’m sure she felt our presence as we sat around her — her three children, her out-of-town granddaughter, and me. We used the iPad to play silly games — like guessing the names of songs. We looked up songs from our childhoods, everything from Gilligan’s Island to the folk mass songs from the 1960s. We knew the nurses by then, and they knew us.

Wednesday evening, we’d been keeping watch so long that we were all exhausted. My brother-in-law left to go home and get some sleep. My sister-in-law and her daughter left to buy her the blue dress she’d requested for the funeral. My husband lay down on the floor to take a nap.

I cleaned up the room, tossing away empty food containers. I brushed her hair one last time. I blew up some of the blue hospital gloves so that they looked like balloons and hung them above her head. (Blue was her favorite color.) I straightened the necklace and rosary around her neck. I sat down in the chair next to her with a book, hoping that reading would keep me awake. I hadn’t even turned the page when her breathing pattern changed. She took her last breath.

We are burying her today on the feast of St. Ann. She'll be carried by her grandchildren into the church she attended for more than fifty years. My husband and brother-in-law will be the altar boys in the church where they grew up. The organist will play her favorite hymns. We'll gather, the whole family, to say goodbye.

July 19, 2013

And he sang from his soul

Stark naked, the man stood on the deck of my friend’s beach house, preparing to serenade his wife as soon as she came out. He glanced at me over his shoulder, “Hey, grab my guitar.”

It wasn’t a metaphor. I hesitated for just a second. Then, with my camera around my neck, I reached over to grab the guitar. Thankfully, I managed to complete this task without touching any body parts.

I usually try to keep a discrete distance while I’m taking a photo of a naked man. I’ve always assumed that there’s some kind of etiquette that helps keep my photos in the category of art rather than sleeze. But this man, whom I’d know for less than 12 hours, seemed unconcerned with propriety.

“The Red Hot Chili Peppers once performed naked with socks on their junk,” he said. “Want me to do that?”

When I showed him the photos I'd taken, his biggest concern was how his fingers looked. Yes, his fingers. “See, in this photo, you can see that I’m actually playing,” he said. For the record, he was singing as well. 

But there never seems to be enough time 
To do the things you want to do 
Once you find them 
I've looked around enough to know 
That you're the one I want to go 
Through time with.

His wife loved that his henna tattoo showed in the photo. It was a practice tattoo, he said. He was testing out the image — the outline of guitar, with his initial and his wife’s initial inside.

“I’m liking it,” he said, “except that our intials are N and J, and everyone keeps asking, why you got New Jersey tattooed on your arm?”

Once we’d picked the photo for the blog, I told him he could choose his own pseudonym. He didn’t hesitate. “I’ll be Mr. Tanner.”

I must have looked puzzled because he explained right away. “It’s a Harry Chapin song.” He sang the refrain:

But music was his life, it was not his livelihood, 
and it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good. 
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul. 
He did not know how well he sang; It just made him whole. 

That seemed just perfect.

Mr.Tanner You can read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

July 16, 2013

At the beach

Last night I slept outside. I'm visiting a friend whose beach house has a deck that opens from the second story, with tree branches crowding it from all sides. It was like sleeping in a grown-up treehouse. I planned to stay awake to gaze at the stars and think deep thoughts, but the train ride had left me exhausted. Who knew that sitting still could be so tiring? I fell asleep right away.

I woke up chilled through to my bones, shivering under a cotton blanket soaked with dew. I stretched and lay still for a moment, just to enjoy the coldness. We’ve had a spell of hot, humid weather at home, so feeling cold was a rare treat. It was still dark, but the birds in the trees were making such a racket that I knew it must be dawn. I could hear the ocean, making surf sounds that lured me away from the warm house.

I made my way to the beach, down the road of vacation homes, following familiar landmarks I remembered from my visit last summer. At one grassy corner, I glanced up to see life-sized statues of deer. “That’s odd,” I thought, “I don’t remember those huge statures.” I took another step and the statues whirled and leapt away, white tails swishing.

I kicked off my sandals as soon as I reached the sand. To my right, bank swallows swirled and darted into their little holes high in a bluff. To my left, the pink glow in the distance held the promise of another scorching hot summer day. A lone man far down the beach stood in the surf with a fishing pole. He smiled a hello as I went past, ankles in the ocean water, walking into the rising sun.


July 13, 2013

Naked kayaking

Every morning at camp, after we’d all eaten breakfast and were sitting lazily in lawn chairs, my mother would take out a cell phone and call my oldest sister to see how Blond Brother-in-law was doing. For the first time in years, he couldn’t join our gathering. He had surgery that week, something scary called spinal fusion. So while we were swimming and kayaking and playing bocce, he spent the week in the hospital, with his wife and sometimes his daughters at his side.

He’d been in terrible pain, even in May when he was orchestrating the secret dock building project. He’s so easy-going that it’s hard to tell when he’s in pain, but I do know he was on a whole lot of drugs. He had hoped to have the surgery earlier in the summer and be on the road to recovery by the time July arrived. He’d even agreed to pose naked on the new dock to celebrate.

But things don’t always go as you plan, and his surgery took place on the Monday of our vacation week. We missed his presence: not just his great cooking over the grill, but also his sense of humor, his easy-going personality, and his fun-loving spirit. My husband and Tie-Dye Brother-in-law both willingly helped out with the cooking, and my sons chimed in with extra inappropriate jokes to make up for Blond Brother-in-law’s absence.

Tie-Dye Brother-in-law made the ultimate sacrifice, “I guess I’ll have to take the spot of naked brother-in-law,” he said. We figured the best tribute to Blond Brother-in-law would be to show someone enjoying the dock he’d helped build. So I stood on the dock while Tie-Dye Brother-in-law stripped off his clothes, jumped into the kayak, and happily paddled about naked in the evening sun.

Naked Kayaking

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

Blond Brother-in-law is home from the hospital now, but still recovering from the surgery. We're hopeful that he'll be back to normal soon. Perhaps by Labor Day Weekend he'll be ready to pose naked on the new dock.

July 12, 2013



 My nephew leaping off the pier and into the icy river on a summer evening.

July 11, 2013

Summer of the Yellow Kayak


When With-a-Why and I went for the first test paddle of the yellow two-person kayak, I took the stern seat without even thinking. He’s youngest of my four kids, the baby of the family. In my mind, he was still a little kid, who would go in the front of the kayak like ballast. We weren’t even halfway across the bay when I noticed that I’d made a mistake. The person sitting in front of me wasn’t a little kid, but a young man, with long legs and strong arms: bigger than me, stronger than me, smarter than me. 

So we switched places. With-a-Why spent about thirty seconds figuring out how to use the rudder, and he’s been in charge of steering the kayak every since. We went out in the yellow kayak almost every day last week, training for the week-long trip we’ll be taking down a different river this August. It’s a Hobie Cat kayak, which means that in addition to paddling, we have the option of using foot pedals that push us along.

We couldn’t use the foot pedals in our shallow bay, because the thick weeds made even using a rudder impossible. In the deep water of the river, though, the pedals worked great. The bulky design of the sit-upon kayak that had been such a disadvantage in the shallow bay proved to be very stable in the waves and the wakes of passing boats.

Smiley Girl and Shaggy Hair Boy, watching us from a nearby canoe, yelled suggestions as they watched us paddle. “Move your hands closer together on the paddle,” Smiley Girl said. I could feel the air moving past my head as With-a-Why experimented with his paddling technique. “Um, you might want a helmet,” Smiley Girl said helpfully.

When we decided to deliberately capsize the kayak to see if we could climb back aboard, family members gathered happily at the edge of an island to watch. “No cable television here,” Taekwondo Nephew, “You’re our entertainment.”

With-a-Why had no trouble pulling himself back in, but it quickly became apparent that I don’t have the upper body strength of an eighteen-year-old. Most of the family enjoyed watching me flail about in the icy cold water that slowly sapped my strength. They all yelled conflicting advice. With-a-Why eventually pulled me into the kayak by grabbing my life jacket and yanking me aboard: unfortunately, the maneuver sent him flying off the other side of the kayak, much to the delight of the cheering spectators.

“It’s like that brainteaser where you have to get the fox, the chicken, and the corn across the river,” With-a-Why said as he climbed back aboard. “I have to fall out to get you in.”

It was my father who came up with a better solution: he designed a simple rope ladder – a bit of clothes line and one rung – that I could attach to the side of the kayak. Getting my foot onto that rung gave me the purchase I needed, and during our second emergency drill, I climbed back aboard on the first try, much to the disappointment of the family members who had gathered to watch.

Towards the channel marker We learned other lessons over the week as well: we now pack a wrench in case the pedal mechanism stops working. With-a-Why learned the hard way that he needs to re-apply sunscreen after swimming. I figured out that work-out shorts with mesh paired with the top of a bathing suit was way more comfortable than a one-piece bathing suit.

The yellow kayak was stable enough to paddle out into the deep channel of the river, where it felt odd to be in such a tiny craft. With-a-Why sang while he paddled, and his voice carried across the water. When we passed an island where two older folks were sitting in wooden chairs in the sun, they both looked up and smiled at me.

At the end of each kayak adventure, of course, we had to paddle back across the shallow, weedy bay to reach the camp dock. Our paddles kept throwing up weeds, which fell down on us, dripping water and mud, and the afternoon sun that we paddled into was hot. It always seemed wholly appropriate for With-a-Why to sing the song from the opening seen of Les Miserables, the one where the slaves are pulling the ship in. “Look down, look down. Don’t look him in the eye. Look down, look down. You’re here until you die." Through the lily pads

July 09, 2013

Early morning at camp

My father, heading out

My parents are the first to wake up. My father, who is 82, had to give up his sailboat but he still heads out to the river in an old aluminum boat with a little outboard motor. He wears a bright yellow rain slicker and an odd hat. He'll return with news. "The wind has shifted," he'll say, "It's going to be warm later."

My mother makes coffee and mixes pancake batter, dropping in handfuls of fresh blueberries. At the little wooden table built by my father, she feeds family members in shifts. They stumble out of tents, one at a time, rubbing eyes and muttering at dogs, stopping at the outhouse before making their way to my parents' cabin. The last person to eat is usually With-a-Why, who arrives at the table with his hair standing on end and looks half-asleep as he slides onto the bench and grabs a fork to tackle a stack of pancakes.

  Early morning at camp