This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on September 12, 2004.
My desert tortoise, Speedy, slowly made her way across the backyard, headed for her
burrow, when I went out to check on my garden late on a summer afternoon. It had been a
hot day and I worried that the tomato plants I transplanted into plastic pots had dried
out. The big pots were gopher insurance. They sat above ground – safe from the vermin but susceptible to drying out in the sun.
Though gardeners delight in the work the garden requires of them, it is just that – work. On that summer afternoon I picked three tender zucchini and a perfect cucumber. I decided to prepare a zucchini frittata for breakfast tomorrow morning and eat the cucumber with some feta cheese tonight.
Since early spring I had concentrated on my vegetables and was richly rewarded. Walking back to the house I saw the sorry state my flowers were in. I had not dead-headed my carnations and they were way past their prime. Their shriveled brown blossoms hung low. The zinnias had not been dead-headed either. Had I paid attention, they would be at the height of their summer splendor. Then there were the weeds, springing up where water spread forth from the soaker hose, which had several tiny plastic heads gone awry – shooting little fountains of water to all the wrong places.
Extra hours at work, trips to see my sick mother and a lousy head cold kept me from my favorite place on earth for way too long. When I retire I will become a full-time gardener, but until then I must do the best I can on weekends and holidays.
When I neglect my garden, I neglect my soul. I deprive myself of the joyous solitude that gardening bestows on its practitioners. Most gardeners are introverts; gentle people who can discuss mulch with zeal and know every inch of their yard, be it container gardens in a desert home, or half an acre in a suburban neighborhood.
Every gardener knows the rhythm of his garden, the songs of the birds, the pests that ravage the roses. A gardener sees life at its most basic, from the pesky slugs that devour the Coleus, to the Ladybugs who feast on aphids, to the lizard who races up the block wall.
After a day of deadlines and cranky co-workers, traffic that enrages and demands of children and spouses, the garden beacons. Neglected or not, it waits patiently for attention, offering peace and harmony to those who don garden clogs and venture forth to the buzz and hum of nature.
Although it isn’t perfect, it makes sense. Although it has its pests, it has a place for
them. Although it isn’t tidy, it is serene.
One Sunday morning I got out of bed at 6:00 a.m. and headed straight for the garden with only my morning tea for sustenance. I cut the roses back and then headed for the flowers with pruning shears in hand. I dug out weeds that had long gone to seed and pulled up the spent spring flowers. After three hours I was satisfied, though not pleased.
I promised myself, once again, I would return the following weekend and not let weeks go by without tending the garden. My track record suggests that I may not keep my promise. The garden will wait, even though it will get shaggy and overgrown. The patient garden will wait for me to return and replenish my soul.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on August 3, 2003.
She couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was Friday and she’d worked hard all week – 24/7. She didn’t belong to a union, she didn’t speak English, and she wasn’t particularly attractive.
Rescued from the dog pound, Cassie went on to a distinguished career as a therapy dog in a board and care home for elderly and frail people who need a lot of attention.
My mother is one of those people. Nearly eighty years of age, Mom brightens up every time Cassie enters her room. She is in a hospital bed with an oxygen concentrator by her side and stays in bed most of the time. When she does sit up, it is with the aid of her Medicare lift-chair.
Cassie’s owner, Gail, was compelled to open the board and care home after she looked for a facility to care for her beloved aunt. The institutions she visited were just that – institutions. She wanted her aunt to be in a real home with a living room and family room. She wanted her aunt to eat meals that were prepared in the family kitchen, by loving hands.
Gail bought a home in a residential neighborhood in Scottsdale, Arizona and set about the business of meeting codes, health standards and licensing requirements, while picking out cozy furniture and lovely accessories.
She and her husband went to the animal shelter to find a dog. It was late, Gail was tired and hungry, and she hadn’t bonded with any of the desperate dogs. Her husband urged her to go to the last cage at the end of a long row. She reluctantly agreed.
There she saw a large, mangy dog with long, coarse hair. She appeared to be a Collie/German Shepherd mix. The dog had Valley Fever, which was curable, but she would not be released until she had a clean bill of health. The animal had little to recommend her.
Gail gave a soft whistle and the dog responded. The couple asked to have a closer look. The dog walked out, head down, and then plopped down in front of the cage of another dog, as if to say: “We’re all in a bad situation here. Sorry, but they picked me.”
Gail was moved by the dog’s compassion. In spite of her illness and desperate circumstances, Cassie sought to give comfort to another dog. Gail knew she had found the perfect companion for the board and care home.
After Cassie recovered, she went to her new home and went to work. The day I was visiting my mom, Cassie was pacing around, circling Gail, itching to get out of there. She had put in a long week’s work and was ready to go to the mountains where she could run free and jump into the creek. She knew it was time to go, and she couldn’t wait.
“Cassie,” Gail said, “Go outside and pee.”
Cassie flew out the door, did as she was told and tore back into the room, ready to go. We all laughed at her antics as we as we marveled at her intelligence and dedication.
When the board and care first opened, Gail and Cassie provided the day-to-day care for the residents. They went on rounds every night, checking on everyone, making sure they were OK. Gail now has a staff to watch over the residents. Cassie still makes her rounds, delighting and comforting the residents, Monday through Friday.
On Friday afternoons, Cassie waits by the front door for Gail. She’s eager to return to her dog’s life, carefree and simple. On Monday morning, she returns to her post, refreshed and ready to give her special kind of love to those who need it most.
On behalf of all the grateful residents, and especially my mom, I say, “thank you, Cassie,” and “thank you Gail,” for providing a caring home and loving heart.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on November 21, 2004.
I was shocked when my husband told me that my mother’s physician returned my phone call. As soon as I got on the line, the doctor told me I was close-minded. Surgeons can be arrogant, but this one was over the top. His name closely approximated that phrase so I bestowed it on him: Dr. Over-the-Top.
In the last ten years I consulted many doctors while my sister and I cared for our elderly parents. Some were good, some were bad and some will remain forever etched in my gratitude gallery for saying the right thing at the right time.
My father was diagnosed with colon cancer in the summer of 1998 and beat it, but contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma of the cervical spine late in the summer of 2000. One month after entering the Medicare Hospice program, he died at home in his sleep.
In the last two years of my Dad’s life, my sister and I consulted with several physicians: a neurologist, cardiologist, oncologist, internist and ophthalmologist. We learned how to talk to them and speak their language.
Those physicians helped us gently guide our dear father to a peaceful end. They listened when we said we wanted to stop the radiation that we knew would not save his life, but would prolong his suffering. The doctors helped us let him go.
Much too soon we were on that weary path again, after our mother got weaker and sicker and moved from a from walker to wheelchair. Our hard won knowledge of how to care for a soul in need of rest was not lost when our mother began her journey home.
Enter Dr. Over-the-Top, telling me I was close-minded because I questioned the need for more tests to prepare my mother for a surgery that had some serious risks. After her fourth hospitalization in three months, on the week-end, the brash young Dr. Over-the-Top entered our lives with all the bravado a recent medical degree can bestow on a vascular surgeon.
He took one look at Mom and decided she needed a really nasty test that required the insertion of a tube into her groin so dye could be infused into her carotid arteries. The test was to determine what we already knew: both arteries were blocked.
Two bouts with pneumonia be damned, the diagnosis of dementia be damned, the loss
of stamina be damned, the grief of losing her mate of 56 years be damned – this woman
Dr. Over-the-Top scheduled the test for Monday morning, unbeknownst to my sister, in
spite of her twice daily visits to the hospital. It wasn’t until I called my Mom to say goodnight that she told me she was going to have the procedure “first thing in the morning.”
I called the floor nurse, who said she’d page the doctor. I thought that would be the end of it. When my husband handed me the phone I engaged in a conversation with the most ignorant, highly educated man I’ve ever encountered. My experience with good doctors helped me battle this viper.
He, after all, had spent an hour with my mother. He thought he knew his patient better than the daughters who had stood with her during the last harrowing days of her husband’s life, helped her bury him and then moved her to a new retirement community. His one-hour assessment made his judgment superior to ours and rendered our opinion “close minded.”
When we ended our conversation, both of us were mad for different reasons. My vigilant sister arrived at the hospital early the next morning and found that Mom’s cardiologist, a physician with education andwisdom, had explained the risks of the test and the surgery. He discerned her true wishes – to return to her retirement community in time to have dinner with her lady friends in the dining room.
My mother died peacefully in her sleep three years later. She was in hospice care for more than two years and lived comfortably with palliative care. Neither my sister nor I believe the surgery Dr. Over-the-Top recommended would have added any additional time or quality to our mother’s life.
When we reflect on our parents’ lives, we know they spent their last days far from
possibly unnecessary but certainly agonizing medical tests and procedures and went on
their inevitable journey with their daughters by their side.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on July 29, 2001.
“Be careful, Mom,” cautioned my daughter. “Read the directions, Mom,” said my son. “Don’t chop your arms off, honey,” came from my husband. Considering the comments were from those who knew me best, I had to take heed.
I am my father’s daughter – a lawn cowgirl who loves to chop and chip, weed and feed. Growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s a man’s house was his castle and his yard was big and long and green. Dad had a great lawn and all the kids pushed the mower back and forth for endless hours, keeping the turf neat and tidy.
Early on Saturday mornings the sweet smell of grass permeated the air, along with the roar of lawn mowers moving across the green sea of dew drenched grass. Occasionally I get a whiff of that special scent and it takes me back to lazy summer days under the willow tree.
After Dad retired, my parents moved to Arizona and built a house high on a stubby Arizona mountain. No great green expanse of lawn framed his dream house. Instead, there was scrub, brush and trees that begged to be trimmed. A little stream ran through his property, meandering past some giant gray boulders with patches of soft green moss. It was quite different from the flat green lawn but it was his paradise.
He bought some great yard toys – a chipper/grinder and a chain saw on a stick. He was very proud of his new toys and seemed to enjoy watching my mother cringe as he demonstrated his prowess. He wasn’t a young man anymore and she worried. Still, it kept him out of the house and busy during his long retirement years.
After he died, I purchased my own chipper/grinder. Early on an overcast Saturday morning, I cut the huge box apart and carefully laid the parts out on the patio. First, I read the directions from cover to cover, to reassure my family as well as myself.
I sat on my haunches next to the monster machine as a slight drizzle began to moisten the instruction booklet. While I struggled to fit the heavy metal parts together I felt my Dad around me and it gave me comfort.
The chute for the chipper was long and narrow, designed to jut out at an angle from the base of the machine. Attaching the chute seemed impossible at first, so I read the directions several times. They instructed me to reach deep into the chute with one hand and hold the nut while I tightened it on the outside with the other. This put my back in a position that even a yoga instructor couldn’t assume
After struggling interminably, I finally got both wrenches in the correct position when the nut came off and fell, along with the washer, into the housing that contained razor sharp blades. I heard them clink as they landed far beyond my reach. Oh, no!
I imagined my Dad, reclining in a lawn chair on a great green lawn high in a bright blue heaven, watching me struggle – all alone and wondering what to do. I remembered his admonition to do a job right, or don’t bother to do it at all. Another of his axioms was – never quit in the middle of a job.
Two hours later, I had disassembled the chipper/grinder and started over. I tilted the heavy base of the machine toward me till the nut and washer fell out. I grabbed them and began to reverse the process, re-assembling it – safely and carefully.
Four hours later, I go the machine assembled and pulled the cord to start the 6.5 horsepower engine. I struggled to get it to work, realizing how Dad made it look easy, I tried to shove a branch in the shredder side, but found I had to push hard to make it catch in the blades. Finally, the great crunching sound was followed by a whoosh into the mesh bag. Success!
After much practice, I have bonded with my chipper/grinder. Now I toss the branches in and feel satisfaction with each whoosh and crunch. I wave at people who walk by, some stop to watch.
My mulch bin is bulging with chipped and shredded branches and leaves. My yard is now a renewable resource and the scent of chopped evergreen branches, as well as memories of my Dad, are as sweet as new-mown grass.
This piece was published in The Pasadena Star News on March 24, 2002.
So few are the sweet moments in life that we savor forever. Most often they
occur unexpectedly. Rarely do they occur by design.
Take, for example, wedding ceremonies. By design, they should be the happiest
day of a young couple’s life. It is the moment they make a lifelong commitment in front of loving friends and family. Yeah, right.
Most of the moments we civilized humans engineer are fraught with pitfalls, pain and
misunderstanding. Rarely does the highly anticipated and over-planned ceremony
result in the magic moment young adults dream of.
People who have attended a ceremony or two can describe a racooned-eyed bride with
mascara that wasn’t waterproof after all, a drunken brother-in-law who pawed the
nieces at the Bar Mitzvah party or an ugly scene between the mother-of-the-bride and
the mother-of-the-groom at the rehearsal dinner.
Once in a great while a ceremony brings together a group of people who, for a tiny
moment, become one with the celebrant. The ceremony envelops them with a spirit
that sweeps in and holds them together. Such moments are cherished.
I will long remember a conversion ceremony. We were rather surprised that our friend
was converting, as she had been married to a Jewish man for almost twenty years.
Although the couple had raised their three children in the Jewish faith, our friend was
just now making a formal commitment to Judaism.
We were a small group, less than 20 people, gathered at the front of the synagogue.
The rabbi invited us to stand close by, on the bimah. It was an August evening, at the
end of a hot summer day. Soft light filtered through the stained glass.
The rabbi talked to us in a quite, intimate way. She spoke from the heart as she talked
about community, commitment and love.
Then she placed the Torah in the arms of our friend and asked her to recite Sh’ma, the
prayer that proclaims there is one God. As one who converted 17 years earlier, I
recalled Sh’ma as the first prayer I memorized. When my friend spoke it for the first
time as a Jew, her body shuddered, she caught her breath and recited the words
through her tears.
Most of us had tears as well, as we listened to her recite the ancient prayer. Everyone
held their breath.Surely the rabbi was reminded of why she chose her profession. A
moment of spirit was felt by all as a new Jewish soul found its place.
The conversion document had to be signed by two witnesses. The first witness was her
husband, the second, her best friend. Both of them were so moved they had trouble
writing their own name. At that profound moment, all of us felt part of the tribe of Sarah
The word Israel means “struggle with God.” As she held the precious Torah in her
arms, among friends and family, the convert determined to continue her struggle as a
member of her adopted tribe. Jews do not proselytize, indeed, they do not encourage
people to convert. However, once a person has demonstrated her unfailing
determination to take up the struggle, she is welcomed and supported.
I will always be grateful for that transcending moment of spirit and love. I wish more
ceremonies would bestow upon its participants a time of reflection and joy.Such ceremonies do not require a cake, a DJ or abundant bouquets of roses. All that is
needed is an open heart, a commitment to faith and a joyous gathering of family and
Kathleen Vallee Stein