Lucky Girl

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Lucky (Copyright Writing Wahine, Living off Island 2017)

 

Lucky was a strawberry blonde Cocker Spaniel. I bestowed upon her the title, “The Sweetest Thing God Ever Made.” She made me a believer in all the incredible, corny pet stories that people tell.

When my son was about eight years old, he wore me down asking for a dog, so one day during summer vacation, I took my son and daughter to a city animal shelter.

Lucky was in a pen with several other dogs that were dominated by an alpha female that would not let the dogs approach the gate to meet humans. A shelter worker brought Lucky out to meet with us at a grassy area of the shelter. He told me Lucky was two or three years old. Her recent adoption by a family with young children failed. Her spotted tongue and coloring might make Lucky part Chow Chow.

Shell-shocked by the circumstances that led to her stays at the shelter and by the aggressive barking of the alpha female in her pen, Lucky was friendly but subdued in her interaction with us. We went home, I talked to my husband about Lucky that evening, and the kids and I went back to the shelter the next day.

Lucky was still timid, but her sweetness won us over. As I was filling out adoption paperwork, a gentleman in a postal service uniform came to check on Lucky. I learned that he was also interested in adopting her. The disappointed look on the man’s face touched me, but I was glad the kids and I had come back that day.

Over the course of the next nine years, Lucky blossomed into a tomboy older sibling to my kids. She wasn’t a cuddler. She liked her space. She slept with her legs in the air like a dead bug. She was afraid of the ocean – I think it was the noisy waves moving toward her. She liked to herd us and watch us from a short distance. Unlike our current Cocker Spaniel, Lucky didn’t like swimming or playing fetch. Also unlike our current Cocker, she loved snow, navigating snowdrifts by hopping, sinking, and launching herself back out only to sink into another spot. She liked digging shallow holes in the dirt under shrubs and lying there when it was hot. Most of all, she loved to roll over on her back and ask for belly rubs.

In early 2012, we took Lucky to the vet because she had a persistent cough. Lucky’s vet noticed a heart murmur and ran tests. Then came the diagnosis that made my knees buckle: Lucky had congestive heart failure and could live a few more months with medication. Our son was in his senior year of high school, but our daughter was away at college, and I wondered if she would get to see Lucky again.

Three months later my daughter came home for my son’s high school graduation and saw Lucky one last time. After a long weekend visit, my daughter took an evening flight back to her summer job. Lucky passed away at dawn the next day. My son, my husband, and I were with her.

I like to think that Lucky needed to herd us one last time before she left us. Seeing us all together, she might have felt that we were safe, and if she needed to leave, we would be okay.

Believing in irrational, sentimental stories about the things that dogs do for their humans isn’t about believing in preposterous things, it’s about believing in love. Pets help us exercise our ability to love and to experience being loved.

So on this day, June 13, 2017, the fifth anniversary of Lucky’s passing, I celebrate The Sweetest Thing God Ever Made. I celebrate Lucky, I celebrate love.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

 

Adult Problems

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Less than two weeks ago, I went back to New York City for my 30th college reunion. I was more interested in reconnecting with my girlfriends than with my college and university, but I was pleasantly surprised by the wave of nostalgia that came over me as I revisited campus and some of my favorite off-campus haunts. This milestone reunion also gave me a chance to look back at a carefree and idealistic version of myself.

One morning as two friends and I were walking the short block from our hotel to the nearest subway station, I glanced to my right and saw a man under a blanket sleeping on the sidewalk up against the side of a building. It was around 11 a.m., the day was well underway, and a food vendor stood at his cart less than twenty feet away from the sleeping man. “How horrible and how nice that no one has checked on this man or shooed him away,” I thought to myself.

On my last subway ride back to my hotel the night before I was scheduled to fly home, a man boarded the train pushing a stroller. He announced that he was visually impaired and was struggling to provide for himself and his son. The toddler in the stroller stared at me, his big round eyes pools of weariness. His little face was dirty, as were his clothes. A tourist sitting across from me handed the man some change and told him, in his Australian accent, to get his son to bed because it was late. The man feebly replied that he was trying to do that.

I’m sure I saw the same types of things when I went to college in New York City back in the 1980’s. Maybe seeing such things made me feel badly for a moment. Now these images won’t leave me. Back then I could hide behind the excuse that I was still a kid and these were adult problems for the adults to worry about. My job was about classes, homework, papers, and exams. It never occurred to me that I would inherit the task of dealing with homelessness, because the grownups would handle it. Thirty-four years after I started college, the issue of homelessness looms over many-most-all big cities in our country; adults have not handled it. There is no shortage of intelligence to harness for solutions, only a shortage of willingness to prioritize solutions and to work together to implement them.

It’s true, school days are to be relished because the grownup world is hard. Adult problems like homelessness, poverty, bigotry, racism, and war seem impossible to fix. I don’t think we’ll fix them until we fix the root of all these problems – adults.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

The Teddy Bear

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A woman I’ll call Ana was tried for the murder of her 18-month-old son in Sacramento, California. A teddy bear should have been the least of her concerns, but it was always somewhere in the back of her mind.

Ana was the breadwinner of her household. She supported her infant son, the boy’s twin sister, their older sibling, and her boyfriend who was the children’s father. Ana worked in a restaurant in San Francisco where the minimum wage was higher. Because she didn’t own a car, commuting from Sacramento to San Francisco would have entailed a costly, twice-daily, six-hour ordeal involving the Sacramento light rail, a commuter bus, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), and walking. Ana made the difficult decision to sleep on friends’ couches and commute home to Sacramento only when she had days off – two to three times per month.

The coroner determined that when he died, Ana’s infant son had pneumonia, sepsis, and broken ribs that had healed. The infant was also malnourished. Police investigated for almost one year before prosecutors charged Ana and her boyfriend with murder.

After Ana and her boyfriend were arrested, social workers from children’s protective services removed the two remaining children from the home. As often happened with abandoned units, Ana’s apartment became an easy target for break-ins.

At trial, the prosecutor argued that Ana and her boyfriend were negligent in failing to get their son medical care that would have prevented the malnutrition and infection that led to his death. Ana’s attorney presented evidence that Ana saw the baby for only a few days each month, pointing the finger of neglect toward Ana’s boyfriend as the primary caretaker.

There was also testimony from experts that Ana was a battered woman who was not psychologically capable of standing up to her boyfriend’s decisions regarding the care of their children. Like most battered women, Ana had unconsciously recreated her past; her boyfriend was not the first man to abuse her.

Ana and her boyfriend were ultimately acquitted of murder, but her boyfriend was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sent to prison. Ana was released from jail but would not be reunited with her two young children who were now living with a relative in another state.

Weeks later Ana was at a store and saw a man and a woman who were her neighbors at the apartment complex where she lived in Sacramento. She approached them and asked if they recognized her. Not only did they recognize her, they were excited to see her. “We have your bear!” they told her.

What this couple really had was the urn containing the ashes of Ana’s son. Knowing that the urn was inside the teddy bear, the couple had taken it from Ana’s abandoned apartment for safekeeping. These neighbors never visited Ana in jail and never took time off from work to attend her trial, but they managed to perform an important act of kindness that brought someone who had been through hell a needed dose of comfort and happiness.

Long after Ana’s pain, anguish, excitement, and joy have faded, she will need hope to rebuild her life. Whenever Ana looks at her teddy bear, she will think of her son. She will also be reminded that goodness and kindness endured as she went through hell. And she will remember to hope.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

 

 

 

Hungry Boy

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One of the errands my husband and I ran this past weekend was bringing his laptop to the Genius Bar at an Apple Store in one of our local malls. While my husband took his computer in for a software fix, I killed some time shopping and then found a seat at a lounge area of the mall.

While I was scrolling through my phone, someone sat next to me. I looked to my left and saw a teenage boy whose face was still soft with baby fat. His small Tommy Hilfiger cross-body bag hung over his left shoulder and rested at the top of his long, skinny legs. I wondered why he hadn’t taken the seat on the other end of the sofa and left us both with elbowroom in the middle, but I noticed his plastic bag with take-out boxes on the empty seat to his left.

He took a Styrofoam box out of the plastic bag, opened it, and smelled the contents that filled half the box – orange chicken and fried rice. I eat leftovers that have been sitting in my car for hours, so I was impressed by the boy’s careful inspection. “Maybe I should worry more about food poisoning,” I thought to myself.

“I gotta eat,” I heard the boy say to himself, so I decided to let him eat in peace and not strike up a conversation.

When I saw the boy get up, walk to the nearest trash can, and empty the chicken into the trash, I thought the chicken must not have smelled okay, because I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like sweet, fatty, deep-fried orange chicken. He returned to his seat and ate the fried rice. He then took the second Styrofoam box out of his plastic bag, opened it, smelled the food, and ate the contents.

When he was finished, he took both boxes and the plastic bag to the trash can and disposed of them.

He then began to rummage through the trash can for beverage cups. He took lids off, sniffed, sipped, and decided what he liked and what he didn’t. He fished out a small empty cup, filled it with liquid from a bigger cup, and walked away with his drink of choice.

My eyes followed him as my brain scrambled to understand what I just saw.

The boy’s careful inspection of food suddenly made sense. He wasn’t smelling his own leftovers; he was smelling – and then eating – other people’s trash.

The boy was clean, well groomed, and decently dressed. He looked like any other teenager hanging out at the mall on a Saturday afternoon.

When the boy said, “I gotta eat,” he wasn’t speaking of his hunger. He was psyching up to eat trash.

I looked up at two surveillance cameras that must have captured what this young man just did, as if to ask some security employee watching a wall of monitors in a room somewhere in the mall, “Do you see this regularly? Is this not a big deal? Do you ignore him as long as he doesn’t make a big mess or bother people?”

If you’re like me, you live with the common misconception that the majority of hungry people in our communities are homeless and mentally ill. As I’ve learned since watching this hungry teenage boy eat and drink out of trash cans at a mall, the majority of hungry people are families who need assistance with food so they can afford rent and utilities. Some of these families are headed by adults with jobs. Some are headed by primary-caregiver grandparents whose fixed incomes don’t even cover the cost of their medications.

Unlike homeless and mentally ill people, hungry people aren’t as easy to spot. They don’t stand out. They hide in plain sight by blending in and looking like they’re doing fine. They look like teenagers hanging out at the mall, like children walking to school, like productive members of society doing their jobs, like elderly people picking up their prescription medications at the drug store, and like disabled veterans who appear capable of taking care of themselves.

These are the people we don’t see when they’re standing in line at food banks. These are the people we still think of as the lower end of the middle class. These are the working poor whose incomes don’t leave enough for food after they pay for rent, utilities, medical costs, and other expenses like gasoline, bus fare, diapers, and baby formula.

The hungry boy at the mall never said one word to me, but my glimpse into his life spoke volumes.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

 

Nature Therapy

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Sunset at Ocean Beach. Copyright Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017. 

Northern California has had so much rain this winter that it’s been in the national news. After five years of drought, the last one finally bringing water use restrictions, record-setting rainfall has caused flash flooding and has compromised the dam at the state’s second largest water reservoir.

This past weekend brought a welcome break in storm systems. People, my husband and I included, came pouring (pun intended) outdoors to enjoy the sunshine. Ocean Beach in San Francisco was busy with people strolling on the sand and dogs chasing seagulls. We were soaking up the sunshine and storing away vitamin D as fast as we could. At the end of a wonderful day, we were treated to a spectacular sunset.

For me the day was a metaphorical respite from the current political climate in our country. With each day bringing heart-stopping headlines and Twitter battles, it feels like ominous clouds never give way to blue skies. If only our country could catch its collective breath like I did. My beloved land of the free and home of the brave needs a day of sunshine.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

The Pedaling Shepherd

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Sister Libby Fernandez of the Sisters of Mercy is legendary in Sacramento, California. She has been the Executive Director of Loaves and Fishes, a private charity that serves the hungry and the homeless, for 11 years. She joined Loaves and Fishes in 1985 as a volunteer. In the 32 years that she has been with this organization, it has blossomed to have a budget of six million dollars, 80 employees, and 12 programs with services that include hot meals, restroom facilities, showers, day and overnight shelters for women and children, medical and mental health care, and a school for children between the ages of three and fifteen.

It’s not Sister Libby’s prodigious work with Loaves and Fishes that recently caught my attention, however. She has announced that she will leave Loaves and Fishes to start a new ministry called Mercy Pedalers. On an adult electrical tricycle, she (and volunteers, in case you’re interested) will go to meet homeless individuals where they are instead of waiting for them to come to Loaves and Fishes, something which may never happen for some.

Unfettered by the administrative duties of being Executive Director, Sister Libby hopes to bring people more than needed supplies. She wants to build connections and trust. By helping people to build self-respect, she hopes they will decide to move forward with their lives and trust her to link them to the services that will help with that next step.

Imagining Sister Libby on her tricycle searching for people who feel forgotten or unwanted in order to help them believe that they matter and are loved, I can’t help but recall the parable about the lost sheep and the shepherd. Jesus taught that the good shepherd leaves his flock of 99 sheep to find the one lost. I get it, Sister Libby. Ride on.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.

 

Man in the Vestibule

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This photo of homeless protestors outside Sacramento City Hall appeared in an article by Steve Milne in Sacramento Capital Public Radio News on January 26, 2017. 

A homeless man died outside Sacramento City Hall the other night. He was the second man to die outside City Hall in a week. It has been a wet and cold winter so far, and homeless people have left their campsites at the river’s flooded banks. Some of them, like this man, found spaces to sleep under the well-lit overhangs of City Hall.

The paper said the man had nothing but the clothing on his body to keep him warm. This immediately brought me back to a homeless man my husband and I were startled to find sleeping in a parking garage two weeks ago. We had dinner downtown and were returning to our car, parked on the roof of a public parking garage. The elevator doors opened inside a tiny vestibule that offered some shelter from the cold and the rain. Our laughter was abruptly cut short as we stepped out of the elevator and saw a man sleeping on the floor to our right.

The first thing that struck me was how long his body was. He had to curl up into an almost fetal position to fit into the space between the elevator door and the door that led to the garage roof. His face was light tan. His skin was clean and unwrinkled. He was clean-shaven and handsome. His black hair was streaked with long strands of white. His pants and coat were dark.

I didn’t want to wake him. It was well before 8 p.m., but how was I to know if this would be the only rest he would get that night? I didn’t stand over him and stare – it felt invasive to catch the glimpse that I did – but I saw so much in the few seconds it took me to walk past him.

“He had nothing,” I said to my husband when we were a few steps beyond the door that led out to the roof. “He had no blanket, no backpack, no bags. Nothing.”

And then came the silence in the car as we tried to process what we just saw. Wrestling with helplessness and guilt, we started to make our way down to the first floor of the garage. We spotted a young man carrying a broom and a dustpan. The wet spots and smell of urine in the elevator when we arrived; the wet, washed floor of the elevator when we were leaving; the man sleeping in the vestibule; and the anxious look on the attendant’s face as we passed him – it all made sense. Would the police come to escort the homeless man from the garage if the attendant called? Would the attendant let the man sleep there as long as no one complained?

I felt sad when I read about the second homeless man to die outside City Hall in a week’s time, but the sight of that man sleeping in the vestibule that night was personal. If you don’t want to be racked by helplessness and guilt, look away from the homeless. But if, like me, you happen to glance at a homeless person and see this person – really see this person – you’re screwed. You might be haunted into action.

 

©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2017.