When Pigs Fly


I know these places because they are engrained. Engrained like the sand that makes fossils.

You go to a place like Petrified Forest National Park and you learn that the “petrified” wood is not actually wood, but the minerals that flowed through the logs, fueled by salt water, when the high desert was buried in prehistoric oceans.

So it is with the home of Heidi’s grandfather and grandmother.

The placement of the couch, the tube television, the table tucked neatly into the side of the kitchen. The screen door, with its hydraulic pump leading to a kind of double-rhythmic close, the basement, with its collection of, well, a lifetime of collections.

Clocks for Heidi’s grandparents, something different, most likely, for yours.

These are things that seem real; the homes that were my homes, the homes I grew up with.

The homes that make sense.

These homes don’t exist anymore – well, they do – and every so often I stumble (settle, comfortably) into one of them. But for the most part, they have been replaced with “Facebook” homes – lots of perfection on the surface, lots of trauma just a couple inches deep.

The first time I went to Heidi’s grandparents’ home, some 15 years ago, before Beckett (and then again just after he was born), it was easy to fall asleep in the cool June air.

Upstate New York in June isn’t Phoenix, but it wouldn’t matter. The cool late spring air was a bonus. The soft double bed, the desk lamp, the narrow bedroom, the lived-in quality of the place – these are the things that made it easy to fall asleep.

Not the temperature.

No, it’s not like the stucco exurban neighborhoods that ring my city, where so much of everything has so little soul, so little depth.

In the old places, the places where people have been, it’s the soul of a place that gives you comfort.

Grandma and Grandpa’s had soul.

I slept there just fine.

* * *

If only I could sleep in my home like that.

At least over these last couple days.

Just before Christmas Eve, we said goodbye for the last time to Heidi’s grandfather, Paul. He was a myth of man – a reformed smoker, drinker, veteran, family man, who was so goddamn cool, he taught scuba diving before scuba diving was a thing.

He and his wife, Marion, would manufacture scuba diving equipment in their home – piecing together fabric into diving suits, fitting tanks and taking people into the depths of Lake Ontario.

Lake Ontario with its wild Nor’Easter tides, and algae blooms and deep, dark nothings. Forget the clear blues of the Caribbean – this was scuba diving in the wilds, in New York. And they did it before there were how-to web videos that made it all feel safe.

They were trailblazers.

I came to know Paul well beyond those days. When the drinking and smoking had long since stopped; and the scars from those actions had largely been healed.

For 20 years, as part of Heidi’s family, I came to know a man who had found a certain 2/3 peace – 2/3 of your life clearly gone, and grandkids and great grandkids as the reward.

Paul was a joker; a guy who lived beyond the “standard guarantee of life” and a guy who never took that bonus round for granted.

Loving to an extreme; he laughed often.

He told his favorite stories frequently: how he attached a dab of Limburger cheese to a light bulb in his WW II barracks, and silently took pleasure as the Army guys tried to figure out the source of the smell.

Or, when later in life (when he owned a slew of gas stations in Rochester, NY), he told a group of guys the problem with a particular vehicle was the Fallopian Tube. (You can only image the laughs that came when the guys went home and told their wives the car Paul was working on had a problem with that.)

In the days before Internet, jokes like that were easy.

But they also required patience.

A kind of patience we’ve long since forgotten.

What a shame, really.

Because life is always about patience.

Especially, in death.

* * *

Heidi, her mother, her uncles, her step-father needed much patience these holidays.

The march to our maker – or whatever place you think you’re going – can be slow.

They endured the initial rounds of sickness – high-fevers, infections – only to watch the type of rebound a guy who lived to 93 would be (in retrospect) expected to make.

But in the end, after all the false starts and stops, he ended up in Heidi’s mom’s house, lying in a bed, Hospice care initiated.

Can we say enough about Hospice?

Where do these angels come from? This organization that carries a family through a process that is both natural and difficult?

Finally, free from the reins of the hospital care, thanks to Uncle Walt, we scrolled through photo album after photo album of 100 years of family history.

Beckett and Brody got to (attempt) to share their favorite movie (Elf) with him.

And he and I had a long, long talk about what one thinks about when they know death is near.

They’ll be no revelations here, because that conversation was … well, exactly what you’d expect it to be.

You think about your family. You think about your wife. You think about, how, mentally, you’re still 22.

It’s not the mind that fails all people who live to 93. It’s the body.

Paul wanted his body to wake up.

He wouldn’t have said it like that.

But he would have said: it could happen … if only pigs could fly.

* * *

Pigs … flying … I don’t know.

But I know that one of the best things that happened was Heidi’s insistence that we get up on Sundays, drive close to 20 miles to east Mesa, pick up her grandparents and take them to breakfast.

We did this for the good part of the last half-year, or more.

Always the same restaurant, always the same table – close to the bathroom so grandma knew where to go – always the same meal. Most times, always the same waitress.

In the midst of work and my master’s program, this was painful.

But in retrospect, I look at those Sunday mornings as the best moments of the last couple years. We held Heidi’s mom, and stepdad, and grandparents close.

The kids got to know – really know – their great-grandparents. And it wasn’t in a stupid, superficial way.

Paul gave the kids dollar coins; and oftentimes we just sat, slowly appreciating each other’s company.

There was no need for words, just presence.

How I long for those moments now – when he could walk, when he could defy the odds. Make mockery of the situation. Get his ass up and walk to the car, regardless of how fearful his daughter was that he couldn’t.

That’s a man, defining himself.

That was Paul.

Always living.

Always saying: I got this.

Straight ‘til the end.

* * *

I wasn’t there for the finish.

I was alone, in my home, while Heidi, and her mom, and step-dad, and Uncle John, stayed by his side.

I was trying to maintain a “normal” Christmas.

The kids knew that – they knew Mom wasn’t there.

So we made marmalade, we wrapped gifts, we did our thing.

And then they went to their aunt’s to sleep.

And then Paul went.

To his maker, to his final spot, to the place he wanted to be.

And we celebrated.

Christmas Eve, and Christmas.

Pigs flying, in spite of it all.






Then, there’s you


“And how my dreams they spin me ’round.

And how my dreams they let me down.

And how my thoughts they spin me ’round.

And how my thoughts they let me down.

Then there’s you.

Then there’s you.”

– Greg Laswell, “And Then You” (2008)


I’ve waited so long to write, absorbed so much of … it all … that sometimes it seemed as if I could never write again.

It’s all gotten so nasty. What could I possibly add to the dialogue that already hasn’t been said? What could I add to the daily story line: us versus them, the idea that democracy is falling, the idea that rural vs. urban demarcation is so set is stone that our demise is inevitable?

So I waited and waited to understand, to process, to somehow “get it.”

But I’m not getting it.

I’m swimming in a sea of highly intelligent people disagreeing about where we’re going. I’m watching a world disagree about basic facts.

I’m watching a world where if you’re not one or the other, you get berated. Grayscale, be damned.

I’m living with a family that just wants to live – to go to school, to go to work, to come home and make dinner and fall into the safety of each other – without being beat into oblivion about the fact that it also wants all people to be treated equally.

Somehow, regardless of our political bent – blame the media, if you like – this makes us feel like an oddity among comrades these days. So we keep quiet.

The wrong response.

Goddamn it, the wrong response.

I know this.

* * *

My house is alight in Christmas cheer.

Christmas tree in front of me, as I sit in the dining room, Christmas tree behind me, right where you’d come in the front door – a symbol of the spirit we try to embrace. This season, we make an effort to come together. To recognize our blessings, to remind Heidi, Beckett, Brody and I: we have each other.

But this season, I don’t know.

Since I was old enough to read, I read the paper. First the Newark Star-Ledger, delivered daily to our house. Now, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN, Slate, Breitbart, Drudge. I read them all, searching for a kernel of truth. Digital, yo.

I used to say: sports scores, the weather, the stock market numbers – these you can trust. All the rest is opinion. It feels that way now.

No one agrees on anything.

There’s no source of honesty.

Where are we to turn?

* * *

My house’s heater is broken. It turns on and off, on and off.

It needs to be fixed.

Tomorrow, someone will come to fix it, at a cost of $1,600; and we’ll write a check. Right in the heart of the holiday.

Poor timing, but we’ll be alright.

So many won’t.

I’ve given the last decade plus to those who can’t; for whom one simple bad break can make or destroy them.

I’ve been a big believer in the safety net. That somehow society should pick you up.

But we’re moving away from that.

It’s a “fend for yourself” world out there; a place where all of a sudden it’s okay to belittle the person who’s not like you.

We talk about White, Black, Muslim, Jew as if we’re all different.


Have you people interacted with others?

Have you not realized that a) If all 2 billion Muslims were all terrorists – hell, if 0.001 percent of them were – we’d all be dead (pretty simple math) and b) most of us – regardless of our background – are just trying to live the life I referenced earlier: work, come home, raise our kids, go to sleep in peace.

What happened to common sense? Where did the basic understanding of math go wrong?

Why are the airwaves so filled with anger?

* * *

So, I move forward from this.

Every waking second, really. Hoping you’ll get it. Really get it.

99.99 percent of us want the same thing: safety, respect and a little bit of dignity.

This ain’t dipshit O’ Reilly claiming the left “wants power taken away from the white establishment.”

Because, really, what is “the left?”

Does “the left” meaning caring enough about people getting paid a wage decent enough to put food on the table, or your neighbors being treated kindly, or your kids getting access to basic medical care? I thought we all wanted that.

Why is that left, or right, or any label? How does that divide us?

We leverage our wealth and our common goodwill – or at least we used to – to give all of us a fighting chance.

I’ve been down the road of despair.

Have you?

It turns out, the best way back home is via a highway paved by people who care; not by those enamored with our differences.