A Confession – Postscript

In case you didn’t know, I’m in love with dragons, specifically the Western kind with talons of an eagle, spikes from head-to-toe, fabulous wings of leather, a tail barbed and arrow-tipped, a breath of fire, acid, or ice.  Think J.R. Tolkien or J.K. Rowling.

When adults used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the first answer I could remember giving, thanks to Anne McCaffrey, was a dragonrider!  Her protagonist, Lessa, continues to be the heroine I hope to be.

Naturally, the first stuffed animal my kids received from me was a dragon.  Both Kyra and Ethan believe that dragons protect them from the monsters under their bed.

Kyra sleeps on the back of a spring green dragon, a marvelous pillow complete with soft white spikes and a tail that wraps around her body.  She won’t go to bed unless I cocoon her with a How to Train Your Dragon blanket.

Ethan’s first word was dragon.  This clever three-year-old knows that he can wrestle a toy out of me at a store as long as it has anything to do with this magical creature.

So you can imagine my tears of excitement and sadness when Kyra came home from school the other day with this drawing.

Kyra Oh's first dragon, crayons, 2011


My initial reaction:  A teacher or classmate drew this for Kyra.  See Confession Part I and Confession Part II.  But after asking her a dozen questions about when, where, and how she created this masterpiece, I realized that somehow I had missed a major milestone in my daughter’s artistic development.

“Wow, did anyone help you with these details: the spikes, the talons, the teeth?”

“Nope,” she beamed. “I did it all by myself!”

When Kyra was taking art classes twice a week at the Pacific Northern Academy, her teacher Ms. Jaeger, had reminded me, “Encouragement is all kids need to be creative because when they get older inevitably they will have a habit of being self-critical.”

I showered Kyra with kisses and hugs and displayed her first dragon drawing proudly on our window sill, along with a red crayoned heart she gifted to me the day before as soon as she jumped off the bus, “Mommee, in art class, I made a gift for the whole family.”

Biting my lip, I resumed serving Kyra an after-school snack while pondering whether I should frame her first dragon artwork. I worried that it would always remind me that I had been absent.

Confession:  This summer, I never had time to make art supplies accessible in my household.  I’d like to blame it on the move, but perhaps the deeper truth is that I did not place artistic development as high on my list of parental duties as academic pursuits.

I figured that they could simply do art at school.  About a month ago, a caretaker at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Child Development Center hourly care had approached me and said, “We need more parents like you.”

When I looked surprised, she said, “Look what your daughter gave me?”  She pointed to the wall which displayed an elaborate 3D construction of a nearly life-sized eagle.

“Kyra, did you do this?” I asked.

“Yep, I’m making one for you too.”

The caretaker thanked me for raising two of the most delightful children to teach.  As she explained in detail the rapid artistic progress of both my kids over the summer, I forgot to breathe.

I did not deserve her compliment.  Teachers had made all the difference in my children’s art education.  Probably the only thing I contributed was the subject matter or artistic genes.

That evening, I wrapped a gift for a six-year-old birthday party with packing paper.  I invited Kyra and Ethan to decorate it.  To my astonishment, Ethan had graduated from lines to shapes.  He articulated that he had drawn Batman and his Batmobile.  Kyra whipped out several dragons, twisting along each side of the package.

This time, I made sure to contribute.  “Kyra, would you like me to show you how to add wings?”

She clapped her hands.  “Yeah!”

I only had time to outline five webbed “fingers” each ending with a claw when she grabbed the crayon out of my hand and said, “Got it.”

Kyra and Ethan were so proud of their creation that the next day at the birthday party, they toured their masterpiece and spun complex tales about Batman riding dragons to save the world.  When the birthday boy ripped off the wrapping paper, the three of us looked at each other with pouty lower lips.

In preparation for tomorrows show Young Artists & Arts Ed in Alaska, how have you been surprised by the artwork your child brings home from school?


The Ablation of Grief – Part III

Before the day heats up, Ethan and I slip on our Bogs, still caked with mud from the mouth of the Kenai.  We inch our way down the steep incline behind our house.  Ethan marches confidently ahead of me.  His raspy voice bounces between the trunks of oak trees, “Where did the Mommee deer go?”

Thomas had left hours ago for his first day of work.  On our way back to the house from Kyra’s bus stop, a white-tailed deer froze in the middle of the street studying our every move.  Ethan and I stared at our first animal sighting in Virginia.  Then, the deer flicked her head and two fawns appeared out of the woods. The three of them ran into our backyard with their tails raised, white underside flickering.

Still in our pajamas, we follow the deer into our backyard and check out the areas that had been underwater just a few days ago.  We are outside for no more than five minutes when Ethan screams “Spider” and hides behind my back.

Nearly every tree is linked by fine strands of spider silk.  Some hang elaborate orb webs, glistening with dew.  Others are so fine; you can only see the fat body of a spider twisting in the wind.

Putting on a brave face for my son, I use my camera bag and fling it ahead of me in hopes of taking down some of these webs to create a path for us.  The hike is not fun.  We’re brushing whispers of webs across our faces.  Our feet trip over roots and mushrooms.  At one point, I turn around to check on Ethan and the boy has one tiny mosquito on his forehead and another one on his neck.

With arms folded across his chest and his lower lip sticking out and a red bite swelling to the size of a nickel on his head, Ethan says, “Mommee, let’s not EVER do this again.”

Back in the house, Ethan deals with our setback by slipping on his Batman suit.  While I’m scratching irritably at three new bites on my back and arms, he sits down and starts his daily routine.

I wish adults could adapt that easily, too.  My mentor, Elaine Abraham, Naa Tláa (clan mother) of the Yéil Naa (Raven Moiety), K’ineix Ḵwáan (people of the Copper River Clan) from the Tsisk’w Hít (Owl House), encouraged me to “feel the earth.  If you go into the woods and just sit there and rub your hands up and down on a tree or put your hand on the soil, there’s warmth. The spirit of the land is warm. You can make connections with the earth anywhere anytime because today we are travelling people.  Now, we can adapt.  You have to have a real strong spirit to adapt.”

Looking out my ceiling to floor windows at the maze of webbed trees, I can now appreciate the strong spirits of my military friends, who had to leave Alaska.  Keilah Frickson, who moved to Eagle River, Wisconsin, last year, says she misses “the smell of the mist on the mountains on cool, rainy days, the texture of the landscape, the road trips through breathtaking vistas, and the constantly changing moods of the mountains.”

Alaska taught her to slow down and take breaths regularly.  “I tried things I never thought I would do, and I loved it!  The broad, ruddy foundation of the Chugach range still grounds me. The fierce winds whipping off of the ocean and through my hair still remind me that I can weather any challenge in life. The cool mountain air still helps me stay calm under pressure. The muddy bottoms of every shoe and sandal I wore in Alaska still remind me that ‘it’s just dirt and it won’t hurt anything.’”

The Conaboys, who left in 2007 for Japan and currently reside in Massachusetts, still fill their bellies with Alaska Amber, salmon, and halibut.  Jed has managed to return to Alaska every summer on business trips and charter a boat with his squadron.

The Registers, who left in 2008 for Florida and currently reside in Texas, say that Alaska is their “measuring stick” for every place they travel.  “Plus, our first child was born there. We will always have a connection to Alaska, especially through her.”

I know that eventually I must adapt too.  After all, I have survived the death of my mother, brother, both sets of grandparents, and my father-in-law.  And I will always have to chase down my Alaskan babies, who ablate grief in seconds.

But for now, change is not my friend.

A loud THUMP-thud-thud-thud skips across our roof and lands on our deck.

“What’s that?” Batman asks.

“It’s an acorn,” I tell him about every hour, when this disturbing sound echoes through the house and makes my heart skip.

“You want me to stop it?” Batman throws two punches into the air.

“I wish you could,” I answer. “I wish you could.”

The Ablation of Grief – Part II

Two weeks after moving to Vienna, Virginia, Tropical Storm Lee kills at least seven and forces tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes.   A fifteen minute drive home turns into several hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic, something I’ve never had to deal with in Alaska.

This is where Thomas parks to take the bus to work. Photo credit: Washingtonpost.com

My windshield wipers cannot keep up with the rain pouring at a rate of four inches per hour from the skies.  Every detour that GPS offers routes me back to the same closed road leading to my neighborhood.  Meanwhile, Thomas, Kyra, and Ethan, dry inside our rental home, call me on my cell to report that our neighbors and their horses are being evacuated.

Stuck only a mile away from my family, I have a lot of time to ponder the wisdom of resisting change.

Kyra and Ethan ride change like champions.  On our last day in our Eagle River log cabin, Kyra woke us up in the morning with, “Come on guys.  It’s time to go to D.C.”

Whenever I look down, Ethan asks, “Are you sad Mommee?  Is it Alaska? Do you need kiss?”

Starting first grade was rough for me, but not Kyra.  The school encourages all kids to ride a bus to school.  Since Kyra has never ridden a bus before, I begged her to let me take her to school on the first day.  I was worried about her transition from a tiny school with one classroom of kids in her grade to one with five classrooms of first graders.  The school is so large that the four of us got lost during open house.

Kyra said to me, “Mommee, I’m not scared.  If you don’t let me take the bus, I’ll be mad.”

I ask Kyra, “Tell me everything that happened on your first day of school.” Kyra answers, “Nothing happened.”

The kids ask me from time-to-time when we are going back to Alaska.  They will even say that they miss our house, but I can tell they have moved on, something I’m not very good at.

To be honest, I’m still at Patricia (“Trish”) Opheen Redmond’s Celebration of Life, the eve before we depart Alaska, grieving about my loss of Alaska and Trish, a colleague of Thomas’ who always made me feel loved.

With the rain beating down all around me and the shrill of passing ambulances with boats strapped to their roof, I remember that Trish’s best friend of 40 years, Carolyn Bettes, encouraged all of us to “move forward” in her remembrance speech.  She offered a list of moving forward ideas, things that Trish used to do: prepare an amazing meal and share it with friends, send a postcard to a best friend about your day, walk a dog, be a mentor, volunteer, live up to your own potential, live out loud.

Mike Redmond, Trish’s husband, defined Trish’s attitude towards life as a woman who could never cook the same thing twice, “no matter how strongly I pleaded, because there were so many other recipes to try.”  If it was a sunny day, she would cancel whatever they had planned for the day.  “Even if we had planned something for weeks, nope, she would change the plan so we could be together outdoors: hiking, biking, backcountry sledding.”

Trish enjoys a sunny day with Harry above her cabin in Resurrection Bay.

Adapting, letting the waters of life sweep you off your feet, moving on.  I grip the steering wheel and force myself to move.  Approaching the cop car that blocked my road, I roll down my window and plead with him.  I tell him I need to get to my family, that I am driving our only form of transportation.

The cop says, “Well, you can go around us, but do so at your own risk.  Your street might be underwater.”

With images of Trish coasting down mountains lit by moonlight with the engine turned off or sipping a glass of wine to the sunset on the landing of their Resurrection Bay cabin, I maneuver around the cop and make my way slowly down the slick street.  I’m the only one on the road and I can see a lake where the road disappears around the bend.

Fortunately, the entrance to our rental is still above water.  I drive into a forest of trees, where my friends joke that I managed to find the only Alaskan cabin located in Northern Virginia.  Thomas is waiting anxiously at the front door.

“This is not good,” he escorts me into the house and points out our glass sliding doors facing the backyard.  Through the dense trees, what used to be roads and homes is now a lake as far as our eyes can see.

Our backyard turns into a lake.

“Let’s go to my sister’s house.  Pack your bags,” Thomas announces.

Kyra and Ethan erupt into excitement at the prospect of playing with their cousins.  “Yeah, I’m Superman!” Kyra yells, then starts to run in circles around me.

Ethan chases her and says, “I’m Batman!”

My heart is pounding and my knees feel weak from “moving on” and I can do nothing at the moment but lie down on the carpet where I stood.

The Ablation of Grief – Part I

I never thought that one day, I would be sitting in front of my wood burning stove with the heat warming my back against an emptied house, not just any house, but the first I ever owned.  A log cabin my husband and I chinked every summer.   Maple hardwood floors carved by my kids learning how to walk. A weathered porch where I surrendered the things I couldn’t control in life to the roar of Southfork Eagle River.

It’s my last night in Alaska and I am weighed down with grief.  Tomorrow, we will board a flight to Washington, D.C., where Thomas grew up, where his extended family and college buddies still reside, where we first met and married.

We are returning to a place that once made us happy and yet, all I could think about was the calving of events that started last year when Thomas’ dad was suddenly killed in a metro accident.

Many Alaskans return to the Lower 48 due to a death in the family.  I have certainly uprooted myself in the past due to MaMa and Jon-Jon’s death.  And yet, this time, I resisted.

I think I wanted death to take pity on us, just this once.

A week before the movers arrived at my house, I attended a potlatch, a gift-giving ceremony to honor a clan member who died and a naming ceremony, in Yakutat.  I told Thomas I had to accept this invitation even though the timing was terrible.  At the potlatch, I heard a translation of something Tlingit Elder Jessie Dalton had once said:

Does death take pity on us too?
It does not take pity on us either,
This thing that has happened.

Death does not take pity on anyone.  I let those words sink in during the 20 hour long potlatch.  I let them sink in as Yakutat soaked me down to the bones the few hours I had before returning to Anchorage to face my remaining two weeks in my beloved Alaska.

I walked and collected some Yakutat flowers for Kyra and sat on the earth until the anger and resentment I had towards all the forces working to uproot me seeped away.  I had not expected to come to any peace about this move in Yakutat.  I thought it would make me miss Alaska more.  Instead, I realized that I learned a great deal about balance.

In the potlatch, every action was thoroughly discussed and planned out years in advance.  Each sad song balanced by a happy one.  Each sad story balanced with a happy one.  Each person’s contributions no matter how big or small remembered and repaid.

I learned that everything has its turn.   That  things never happen when I want them to.  That I can be stronger than I think.

And I was strong for the most part, until the movers drove away with all our possessions.  Faced with an empty house, all these words of wisdom floated beyond my reach.  I knew what I needed to do when I was ready.  But now, I simply wanted to mourn.

Leaving Alaska was equivalent to a loss, a death to the good life we had here, where my kids could strap on crampons and hike glaciers, where we could scoop salmon out of the ocean.

A time to say how grateful we are to the people who have become our family these past seven years.  We form these tight bonds with adventurous adaptable souls.   We give and give, even though we know that like the plucking that occurs in glaciers, we might lose this family at any time.

Shehla threw a farewell party for us even though she was just as upset as I was about the move.  She lent us air mattresses, pillows, and sleeping bags.  She took my calls no matter what time of the night and told me to look for the positive aspects of the move.

Erica brought me meals and held my hand in the park while my kids played and told me everything happens for a reason.  She promised to keep my fridge stocked with salmon.

My neighbor, Lian, whom I met only a year ago, snuck into my house after the movers left and cleaned my nasty fridge. She lent us a car when ours were shipped out and babysat up my kids so that I could focus on the move.

Even Thomas’ colleague, Patricia (“Trish”) Opheen Redmond, who died unexpectantly a few days ago, inspired  everyone to live life to its fullest at her Celebration of Life, which we attended today.  When the pastor urged us to examine our reflection and see that Trish still lives in us, I wondered whether Alaska will always live in me too.