Season of Loss, Season of LIfe

A dear friend had a severe stroke over the weekend. She and her husband, who live near Fresno, had been out gardening in their yard early, to beat the heat. When they came in to get breakfast, she collapsed onto the floor. Her husband knew right away it was likely a stroke: the left side of her face sagged and she was paralyzed on her left side. At the hospital, doctors immediately tried a drug called tPA (tissue plasminogen activator), which works by dissolving blood clots. In this case, though, it didn't work, and they rushed her into emergency surgery.

That night, after surgery, doctors told her husband they'd gotten the blockage at the top of her carotid artery, but couldn't get to the one near her frontal lobe. It has been touch and go. Monday she moved her left leg and arm, and she was alert and asking for her phone and glasses Tuesday morning. Yesterday the report wasn't so good. We'll know more about the extent of damage in coming days and weeks, but we are all hopeful. She faces many months—perhaps a year or more—of recovery.

I've known these friends for more than 25 years. They just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, having married as youngsters on the eve of his going off to fight in Vietnam. He became a journalist and, later, a businessman. We met when we worked for the small daily newspaper in Redding, California, along with another friend. As couples, all six of us became close friends and have remained so to this day, though we all ended up in different cities far apart. We watched our kids grow up and vacationed together. We also supported each other when one of us was diagnosed with breast cancer many years ago. Last fall, her cancer returned. Her husband, meanwhile, struggles with rheumatoid arthritis. 

Earlier this year, my younger sister died unexpectedly, and another dear friend succumbed to ovarian cancer last month. Other friends are dealing with the sudden loss of his job; he is in his mid-60s.

This season of life for me has brought many joys—and, increasingly, illnesses, difficulties, sorrows, deaths. It is sometimes hard to remember that life is also death, and struggle. 

As I have gotten older, I find myself more introspective, seeking answers, looking for the reasons behind the events of our lives. I do not have the answers, but this I do know: None of us is immune from heartbreak or sorrow, and the only response to any hardship is trust, and gratitude for what is, and perseverance. And faith. I always come back to Julian of Norwich: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

Lisa Lenard-Cook: An Extraordinary Writer and Teacher, an Extraordinary Woman

My friend Lisa Lenard-Cook died on May 22, at her home in Albuquerque with her husband, Bob, by her side. She had fought ovarian cancer for almost two years, and at one point we thought she had it beat. But it came back with a vengeance last fall, and she ended up spending 40 days in the hospital. She went home in January, but in March she sent her friends a note none of us wanted to read.

"I know it's been a while since you've heard from me, but there hadn't been much to report, except that I wasn't recovering as quickly as we'd hoped. Now we've learned that the abdominal discomfort I've been because of tumors run rampant....

"This morning I was admitted to Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho, but after talking with my doctors, & with hospice, we headed back home late this afternoon. As I am unable to eat, & have lost a great deal of weight already, this isn't going to drag out for long...

"I'm sorry the news isn't better. I knew what I was up against from the outset, & I know you all hoped for a better outcome. But I'm 63 years old, & have lived a good life, thanks, in part, to each of you.

"Thank you for your love, caring, prayers, & yes, cussing. Love you all. ~L"

Lisa posted something similar on Facebook that week, and one more post a week or so later.

I met Lisa when I was the owner of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I was looking for new workshop leaders to add to our faculty, and my friend and workshop leader Catherine Ryan Hyde suggested Lisa. We hit if off instantly. Not only was she an amazing novelist (her books include Dissonance and Coyote Morning), but she was one of those people who has a gift for teaching and inspiring others. She was an extraordinary instructor, and the writers she coached and edited absolutely adored her.

She continued with the conference until last June, when she was in remission and came to Santa Barbara wearing scarves and wigs, always exhibiting her sense of humor and resiliency. She had pushed back against the cancer and forced it into remission in barely nine months.

In the fall of 2014 I moved to Santa Fe, and spent a night with her and Bob in their lovely home in north Albuquerque. Last August, Rob and I had dinner with them on our way to Santa Fe, and toasted the apparent triumph over the cancer. Sadly, it was not to be.

I will miss her ready smile and generous spirit, her love of literature and words and her dogs and the New Mexico landscape, and her absolute commitment to the writers she shepherded over the years. Rest in peace, sweet friend.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. June 11 at their home in Albuquerque. If you want to attend, let Bob Cook know, at

And if you'd like to remember her in a special way, please consider donating to one of these wonderful organizations, which she loved:

Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, Ramah, NM:
Animal Humane NM, Albuquerque, NM:
Ovarian Cancer Research Fund:

A Trip to France Begins with a Shock

My sister Molly and my niece in happier times.

My sister Molly and my niece in happier times.

Those persons then, who have passed from the world

are not non-existent, but they are absorbed in the attributes of God,

even as the star disappears in the presence of the sun. -- Rumi


Rob and I are just back from a two-week trip to Paris and the south of France. I had intended to blog during our travels, and also to post additional excerpts of my memoir, Face. But we got news upon touching down at Charles De Gaulle that my younger sister had died overnight.

It was a shock, and though we decided to continue with our trip, I felt an overshadowing of grief throughout. I said it was a shock, but it was not entirely unexpected. Molly had struggled with chronic pain and pain medication addiction for more than 20 years. She was rear-ended all those years ago while working as a rural route carrier for the Postal Service. Neck surgery to repair the damage actually caused more injury—and the chronic pain she battled for the rest of her life. The doctors had recently been trying to wean her off of the pain meds. It appears she died of a withdrawal-induced seizure. She was only 55.

I have to say we didn’t have an easy relationship. Her life was drama-filled, and I (unfairly) judged her. We had hardly spoken the past few years, though I always loved her dearly.

Two days before she died she sent me a Facebook message—one of those ubiquitous memes about admiring someone in your life, and if you agree could you send it to 10 (or 12 or 15) people in YOUR life whom you admire? I remember being a little surprised, and sent it back to her with a clipped “back at you, darlin’.” In retrospect, I wish I had said more, and I’m also glad at least I said what I did.

Since we’ve been home from our trip, her death has hit me harder. I’m so sad for the struggles she had, and particularly grief-stricken for my niece and nephew, who lost their dad 17 years ago.

My niece, Jayna, who lives in Nashville, flew back to California and my other sister and her husband drove down from Oregon to help make arrangements. My heart goes out to Jayna, who with her younger brother must now pick up the pieces of Molly’s shattered life.

She was such a beautiful young woman, bright and sprightly in the best sense of the word. Loved horses and her pets, and was beloved by her friends. Despite the hardships, she always had a ready smile and a willingness to help others. I only wish she could have helped herself.

As I think about this loss, and remember other losses—my mom and dad, grandparents, aunts and uncles—I consider how fleeting our time is upon this earth. The plane of existence may or may not be the only one we’ll know, but I’m reminded, once again, to let go of judgments and intolerances, and to try to embrace loving kindness—toward myself and all beings.

We are all worthy—we just have to remember it.

(The mortuary in San Luis Obispo has put up a web page with Molly’s obituary, for those of you who knew her. A memorial service will be held sometime in coming months.)

Remembering My Dad...

With my dad and my daughter, Kendall, just two weeks before he died in May 2000.

With my dad and my daughter, Kendall, just two weeks before he died in May 2000.

My dad’s birthday is today. He would have been 90 if cancer had not taken him. In my memoir, Face (see excerpts here), I write that I had a hard time bringing who he was, and what he meant to me, to the page. It was a struggle, and I still don’t feel I did it very successfully. 

Memory is a fluid thing. It moves and undulates and morphs with time. I knew him so well, knew that he loved jelly beans and golf, that his Catholic faith formed him and sustained him, that he loved my mother. That he loved me. That his love is perhaps the reason I was able to overcome the trauma I experienced throughout my childhood. But in the writing, I struggled to explain how very much he meant to me. Recounting the memories I have of him, it felt soon as if I were just reciting a long list, without really bringing him to life.

Perhaps my memory—my psyche—doesn’t want to go there. It’s too painful, just like all the hospitalizations and surgeries.  I couldn’t have determined which hospitalization happened on which date without the notes from my surgeon. Which time was I made to lie naked in a hospital crib under a large oxygen tent? Which time did I awake and believe I was somewhere other than the hospital, which frightened me to the point the nurses had to get permission to lift a corner of one of the bandages on my eyes so I could see? Which time(s) was I made to lie for hours, my arms strapped to the bed, as plasma dripped into my veins?

We strive to create a narrative of our lives that makes sense, and when events don’t make sense, or fall along the story line, we make things up. I am sure I am guilty of that. But the individual events I write about in my memoir are as concrete and vivid as if I were living them today. The memories just as jagged and piercing, just as white-hot with emotion, as if my insides were searing with grief.

I wonder sometimes how long trauma lingers. I spent many years stuffing it into a very deep place, thinking if I did it would no longer hurt me. How wrong I was. Excavating that past has been devastating. Also clarifying, opening—my chest feels cracked open; I am breathing again, but damn it’s painful.

How I miss my dad, and wish he could be here to see his daughter step into her life, finally, authentically. Terrifyingly.

Review - The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars.jpg

In John Green’s lovely and poignant 2012 novel, The Fault in Our Stars, (soon to be a major motion picture) two teens with cancer meet at a cancer support group. Hazel Grace Lancaster, 16, has been battling a particularly nasty thyroid and lung cancer for several years, but has been kept alive by an experimental drug. Augustus Waters, 17, is a former basketball player who is in remission after losing one of his legs to an osteosarcoma. They are introduced by mutual friend Isaac, who has already lost one eye to cancer and is about to lose his other.

Hazel and Augustus fall in love, and end up going to Amsterdam under the auspices of a Make a Wish Foundation-type organization to meet the reclusive author of a book the two of them love. The only problem is Augustus’ cancer has roared back with a vengeance, and Hazel, who thought she would be the first to die, is confronted with her feelings for Augustus in light of the fact that he will soon leave her.

Green captures all the angst of being a teenager and expertly layers on the sadness, anger and fear that accompany fighting a life-threatening disease. Hazel, Augustus and Isaac are as real as your next-door neighbor’s son or daughter, or your niece or nephew, and the reader is drawn into the heart-rending struggle all three kids experience with cancer and with death.

This is not an easy read, but it is ultimately a life-affirming one, full of all the emotions – love, sorrow, disappointment, anger – attendant to life itself. I highly recommend this book, even for those who typically would not be drawn to a young adult novel. It is well worth the read.


Life, Death and Celebrations

My birthday was Thursday. Some people think birthdays are overrated, but not me. I think birthdays should be huge celebrations, probably because for most of my life my birthday got subsumed by the biggest holiday of the year. So several years ago I changed my birth celebration date to July 14, and it’s one of the better decisions I’ve made. Even so, Thursday’s occasion turned out to be more than I expected, a celebration of both life and death.

You see, a friend of mine’s husband died suddenly and unexpectedly last Sunday, and his service was held Thursday afternoon. So I spent the better part of the afternoon mourning a life cut short, but also celebrating an extraordinary man, and realizing that while we mourn, we also acknowledge life.

I did not know Roy Mankovitz well. His wife, Kathleen Barry, is an extraordinary person in her own right, and we have become acquainted through a women’s association. At his graveside service, I learned this man was a rocket scientist (really!), an inventor, an author, a genius. Also, a husband, father and grandfather of the first order. As his children spoke about what he had meant to them and their lives, I found myself feeling as if I had been cheated because I did not get to experience the man they described.

The graveside service, given in the Jewish tradition, drew many friends and family members. As I stood and listened to the cantor chant, and looked out over the cemetery’s green expanse through the trees to the ocean, I was struck by how uplifting it is to be surrounded by people who mourn. As the rabbi said, it is in our memories that those who die still live. In Roy’s case, he will live on for a very long time.

In celebrating Roy’s life, and in mourning his death, we affirm life – and our own lives in particular. As I left the cemetery, I felt such gratitude for this moment of clarification – and deep sadness – on the day I choose to celebrate my own life, my birth day.

Both of my parents have died, and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of them and wish I could touch them, give each a warm hug. I miss my dad, who always made me feel as if I were the only person in the world who mattered, who offered advice when asked and whose unconditional love created a cocoon that helped me get through some very difficult times in my childhood. I miss my mother, whose emotional distance I am still trying to understand. That sorrow is complicated by hurt and regret. But I still miss her every day.

My friend Kathleen is gifted with many friends and a close and loving family, and all will help her move through her grief in the weeks and months to come, in her own time and pace. This giving to each other, this helping when help is needed, is another way we celebrate life. In the end, any observance of death is a celebration of life. It was one of the most powerful and uplifting birthdays I have ever experienced.