Freedom is Coming

I was looking over the produce selection at the supermarket yesterday and I found myself whisper-singing: “Freedom is coming, freedom is coming, oh yes I know . . . “ I stopped singing when I caught the eye of the construction guy in coveralls checking out the bananas. I smiled. He smiled. Hopefully, he realized I wasn’t a homeless person looking for attention. He probably said to himself, “Oh that lady’s just got a tune in her head and it won’t let go.” And he’d be right. One of the songs we’re singing in the choir I belong to is: Freedom is Coming.

But I’ve had other songs stuck in my head before. For a few years, at odd moments, like when I was boiling eggs or sorting through my book shelf, I’d hum this weird little melody I didn’t know the name of. It sounded vaguely classical to me, a little like that song Flight of the Bumblebee. The melody builds relentlessly like Bumblebee, toward its last notes. Finally, I approached one of the members of my choir and asked:

“Hey Carolyn, do you know what the name of this song is?” Then I stood in front of Carolyn and hummed it, my eyes wandering up toward the ceiling as I tried to get the pitches just right.

“Oh, that sounds like (she paused thinking)… well, it has something to do with a mountain king–no wait!” she snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it. It’s called In the Hall of the Mountain King. Yes, that’s the title.”

I had to look the title up and make sure this was the song I couldn’t get out of my brain. And indeed, it was In the Hall of the Mountain King, a song composed by Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian composer in 1875. In-the-Hall was the music played in a popular play of the time, Peers Gynt, about a troll king threatening a young man who’d ravaged his daughter. Where in the world did I hear this song before? I certainly have never seen the play, Peers Gynt. Then it hit me. I got hooked on this classical piece of music at the same time I became familiar with most of the classical music I know: Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1960’s. Not only was I introduced to In the Hall of the Mountain King playing as a background track for Bug’s shenanigans, but I also first heard The William Tell Overture in a cartoon where Bugs was being chased through the forest by the mighty hunter, Elmer Fudd.

Is there a reason certain music catches our attention and erupts out our mouths over and over again as if we were broken bots? Whenever I’m around my mother and we’re driving together in the car both she and I have been known to break out into that old Baptist hymn: Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine. I’m not sure whether it’s the melody or the lyrics of various pieces of music that burrows so deeply into our psyche. But I think I know why I’ve been so stuck on Freedom is Coming the past couple weeks. Not only is it a beautiful, hopeful melody, but I think it has special meaning for our family just now. My 97-year-old father-in-law finally passed away this past week. Unsurprisingly, he’s wanted to die for some time now. He’d been imprisoned in a frail, sick body and it was time to let it go. For Wes, freedom has come—oh yes we know.

Happy New Year! Our Pipes Burst! (essay)

I was cleaning the first floor of a little rental house we own, getting it ready for occupancy. It felt good to dust the flies and cobwebs off the walls and counters. I thought about Annie Dillard’s quote: “The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives”–and though I didn’t relish the thought of spending my days cleaning, there’s something about tidying up a living space, making it sparkle and be beautiful, that is so soul-satisfying. So many problems I deal with each day are in my head and nonphysical, like paying bills or negotiating relationships. Turning a dirty window clean by simply washing it with a rag and some vinegar water is so doable, so refreshingly easy. In fact, I’ve read that some mental health professionals tell their depressed clients it can be therapeutic to make their beds first thing in the morning. Apparently, just the act of ordering the environment can make us feel better. It’s one small way we can exert control in our lives and be successful.

While I was dusting the rental house, control though, suddenly became a big problem. I heard a loud thud upstairs followed by my husband barreling down the stair steps. As he ran past me and out the back door I yelled, “What’s wrong?” –but my words were literally drowned out by a torrent of water pouring through the ceiling and on my head like a cloudburst. He’d been working on the plumbing and a brittle pipe had burst so he’d ran to turn off the pump. I quickly grabbed a broom and tried to sweep the raining water now flooding the laminate floor out the back door he’d flung open. By the time the ceiling stopped raining, I was soaked and completely disheartened. A quarter of the main floor of the house was a damp mess. If only the fun I’d had cleaning this morning had just went down a drain instead of settling on the floor, a floor that now needed to be moped up.

A couple of hours and a lot of sore muscles later, our little rental house was finally drying out and looking considerably better. Before the flood, I’d washed the dust off a drip coffee-maker I’d found in the cupboard next to some filters and a can of sealed coffee grounds. I decided my husband and I deserved a cup of coffee after all we’d went through. As we sipped hot coffee we watched the oscillating fan move back and forth, blowing air across the floor, both of us too exhausted to talk. Annie Dillard was right: the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives, each one full of ups and downs, joys and challenges. It’s a good thing to remember at the start of a new year. The days to come in 2019 probably won’t be smooth or effortless, but in the end we can still be okay. Floors dry out and life goes on.

Wes is Dying

Wes is Dying

My father-in-law Wes, is 97 year old and dying. It’s time and maybe, past time. He was born in November of 1921, three years after WWI ended (when everyone was in the mood to celebrate), and two years after Prohibition began (when it became illegal to celebrate—at least with alcohol). But none of that mattered much to Wes and his family because they were abstainers, pacifist Mennonites, and farmers.

I wonder what Wes remembers about his early life now that he’s 97? I once read a short story, The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, about an old woman on her death bed floating in and out of consciousness, remembering events and people in her life, most notably George, who had jilted her at the wedding altar decades before. One of my earliest memories is holding my mother’s hand, walking across busy Lusher Avenue to the store to buy a Reese Cup and a bottle of Pepsi.  I was worried I might get run over by all the fast cars.  Will this be a significant memory at my death bed?

Listening to Wes talk recently, it’s clear he’s rapidly losing most of his memories. It seems like in an attempt to fill this void in his mind, his imagination has taken over and began creating all manner of fiction.  With the head of his mechanical hospital bed moved so he could sit up, he told me over and over again some wild tale about how his nurse had gone missing. She was supposed to come back and take care of him—but she didn’t. Wes thought she must have been in a car accident.

Wes’s doctors tell us his dementia is a many-faceted phenomenon that can cause certain unintended consequences, like losing the ability to track your thirst. In fact, Wes could die of dehydration. Which seems so curable in comparison to all the life-threatening cancers floating around us. It could be that when you’re as old as Wes and have fought as hard as he has to survive, your immune system is well girded for the big diseases. It’s the small, innocuous thieves, like a lack of thirst, which can steal your life away.

Wes has asked to come home to the farm to die. It’s important to him. Farming may be the only occupation I know that attaches itself so deeply to the psyche that you can’t live or die without being in some fashion immersed in it. Accountants don’t want to go to the office to die, nor truck drivers to their trucks. Farming though is more than work, it’s a way of life, and for Wes, also a way of death.

This talk about where Wes wants to die has caused me to consider where I’d like to die. I’ve always loved the rich, sensual experience of being outdoors, feeling the sun on my face or smelling the rain. I imagine myself near death, laying in a bed that’s been wheeled onto my back patio.  Looking up at the deep, blue skies above me, I breathe my last breath into the atmosphere. Such a fanciful, romantic notion. Much of the time, people aren’t very clear-headed at the time of their death. They’re either too sick or too drugged to care about the best location to slip these earthly bonds.

Our greatest hope is that Wes can die peacefully, without anxiety. It’s an event that by its very nature is momentous—yet ironically pedestrian also. I hope death comes for Wes easily, as if that long-lost nurse he thought was in a car accident, finally shows up. She’s kind and soothing, like nurses can be. Then she helps him climb out of his hospital bed and gently leads him out of his room—and out of his life.

Remembering Niagara Falls

Niagara (personal essay)

I’d never been to Niagara Falls but I’ve been to Shoshone Falls, and how different could they be anyway? Shoshone Falls is spectacular despite the fact it sits in the middle of the Idaho desert. But my mother and father honeymooned at Niagara Falls, and on a trip back East near the Niagara area, I decided I couldn’t miss seeing the attraction.

I’m not sure why geological spectacles are considered romantic places, but my husband’s parents honeymooned at Crater Lake, Oregon, another natural wonder. Niagara Falls has a long history as a honeymoon destination. I saw an old movie once staring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton about a honeymooning couple at Niagara Falls. That movie, Niagara, came out in 1953, the year I was born and a year after my parents were married. So this trip to the Falls was special. It was a trip about beginnings. About my origin. Likely somewhere close to all the spray and mist generated by the Falls, I’d been conceived.

I decided to call mom and get more details about her and dad’s 1952 trip to Niagara Falls. She reminded me they didn’t just go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon.  The trip was also part of a job dad had. He’d contracted to drive a traveling religious exhibit of the “Lord’s Last Supper” to the Toronto, Canada National Exhibition (CNE). The CNE was located within fifty miles of Niagara Falls. Mom described the big exhibit truck. She said it had a side panel that could be rolled up to reveal a life-size diorama of wax figures of Jesus and the twelve disciples sitting at a long table.

“What’d you think of Niagara Falls, mom?” I asked her.

“Hmmm. I don’t remember very much. That was so long ago. A lot of water. You know we wrecked the Lord’s Supper exhibit near there, don’t you?”

Mom probably forgot much of Niagara Falls in the aftermath of her and dad’s big accident. After sight-seeing Niagara, dad drove the truck carrying the exhibit through an underpass with a low clearance and sheered off the top. I had visions of Jesus and the disciples decapitated heads rolling along the highway.

Though mom didn’t tell me much to prepare me for the spectacle of Niagara Falls, I was still excited to see it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It is awe-inspiring. A gigantic curtain of water from Lake Erie plunges over a one hundred and sixty-seven foot precipice in a large horse-shoe shape. To compare: Shoshone Falls at flood stage, tumbles 20,000 cubic feet of water per second over its falls. Niagara Falls runs at flood, 202,000 cubic feet per second.

As I stood at the rail and gazed through the mists at Niagara’s plummeting water, I tried to imagine mom and dad here sixty-six years ago, a young couple, slim and dark-haired, with all kinds of hopes and dreams for the future. But the day I visited, it was cold and windy and my jacket got wet from all the falling water. Sometimes, try though you might, you just can’t fully capture the significance of an historic moment. I stood at the edge of Niagara Falls maybe a half hour, thinking about my parents and myself.  Then I took some pictures of the Falls.  Behind me was a Tim Horton’s coffee shop.  I strolled over, got a hot cup of coffee, and pulled out my iPhone.  I was so thankful for my Map App. Finding the quickest route out of the Niagara Falls park and back onto the freeway would not be a problem.

Getting Comfortable with Work

Getting Comfortable with Work

“Chop wood, carry water,” Ed told me sitting in his office. Ed was a colleague of mine and a Buddhist, so this was his response to the trials and tribulations of the workaday world. To me work was a much bigger venture. It was your career and your destiny. When things went wrong at work, it was a major crisis.  My thinking was how can I make this better?

But Ed was more matter-of-fact about the whole idea of work. He was a low-keyed educational psychologist that believed in energy chakras and hypnosis as much as Jungian theory or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Work was just one part of living to Ed. Work was not a gift, it was a necessity, and like food, water, and air, you didn’t think about it much, you just did it. In the big picture, work moved everyone and everything, forward.

I wanted to ask Ed, what about all those people who are passionate about their work? What about those people that say they can’t believe they get paid to do what they do, because they love it so much? Some people don’t just chop wood and carry water. Their work defines them and gives their life meaning.

Yet, if I was honest with myself, and thought about all the different kinds of work I’d done in my own life, I’d have to admit much of my work was in fact, chopping wood and carrying water. How many beds have I made, dishes have I washed, and meals have I prepared in a life time? I spent way more time doing these menial tasks than anything I did in my career as an educator.

I read a book many years ago by Carol Shields called The Stone Diaries.  It was about a woman at the turn of the century who’d worn a path leading out from her back door to her garden and root cellar.  That path happened because every day she walked it to gather the fruits and vegetables needed to feed her family. It was mind-numbing, walking this same route on a daily basis.  But if she didn’t do the valuable work of food gathering, who would?

I know people who actually are happy doing mind-numbing work.  I also know someone who got burned-out doing work he thought was a passion. My friend Steve was a postman for more than thirty years delivering mail on the same routes over and over again, but still he felt content and happy with his job.  Mike, on the other hand, a gifted woodcraft artist, abruptly quit carving wood last year and moved to Seattle. His comment: “The art took too much out of me.  It just became work. Frankly, I dreaded doing it.”

As I sit here typing on my computer I’m wondering if writing has become my work. Has it moved from a passion to chopping wood and carrying water? Maybe it’s not so bad, doing something you know and that feels comfortable.  It doesn’t hurt either, when your back rest is a pillow.

The Importance of Great Alpha Waves

 

The Importance of Great Alpha Waves

My adult son, John, came home for a visit and told me, “Ignore anything I say that sounds off—it’s my suppressed-narcissistic-rage talking.”

“You’re what?”

“I’m reading this book, The Divided Mind by John Sarno about how you can be this kind, nice guy on the outside, but inside you’re really pissed. You want to be special and loved and dependent and independent all at the same time. People around you just aren’t giving you what you need.”

We both laughed because someone had created such a big term for what is basically, the human condition. I’d not read the book, but John said it was about psychogenic illness.

“Is that like psychosomatic illness?”

“No. Psychosomatic is like partly in your head. Psychogenic says the illness IS ALL in your head.”

John acted like the book was mildly entertaining, but my interest was piqued because I’ve experienced psychosomatic illness in the past. It could be a family mental health issue. My mother always claimed Aunt Gertrude was a complete hypochondriac. If anyone mentioned an illness they had, Aunt Gertrude had that same illness and worse. Her nerves were shot, her back too, as well as her eyes, ears, and female parts. Miraculously, Gertrude lived into her 70’s.

My psychosomatic illness started probably with the death of my brother when he was ten and I was twelve. But symptoms didn’t show up until I was in a potentially fatal car accident when I was twenty. I only had a mild concussion, but I’d never come that close to death before. Suddenly I realized my body was fallible. For the next year, I found myself in one emergency room after another begging for help. I had heart palpitations, headaches, and vague feelings of pain. I was listening so closely and carefully to my body, every hitch or tremor was evidence of deadly disease. Something had to be wrong with me.

Indeed, I did have a problem but it wasn’t exactly physical. I’d been traumatized by a couple of life events and needed help dealing with the anxiety. The doctors though, put me through a gamut of needless x-rays and blood tests. I even had an electroencephalogram, searching for a possible brain tumor. During the procedure, I remember looking at my reflection in the dusty window of Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was sitting at the end of the examining table in a hospital gown, my head strung with wires and electrodes. In the window reflection, I looked like Medusa.

“Well,” the technician told me when I peppered him with questions about the findings of the encephalogram, “I’m not supposed to say anything . . . but I will tell you this: you’ve got great alpha waves.”

Great alpha waves, huh?  I guess that’s a good thing.  So, I took some small comfort in his prognosis, at least until the next wave of anxiety over my health hit me. It wasn’t until I read a book called The Well Body Book by a couple of hippy doctors in the 70’s, that I finally calmed down and started having a little faith in my body. I’ll never forget their discussion of what they called “the three-million year old healer,” your own body’s defenses against disease and illness. They talked about how really rare the bad diseases are, and that most infections are viral and therefore survivable.

That’s the thing about reading, whether it be The Divided Mind or The Well Body Book: reading changes you. Though I read The Well Body Book forty years ago, I can still quote it, and it’s still meaningful to me today. Maybe John will someday say this about The Divided Mind.  Who knows?

Hey Teacher! Leave Those Kids Alone!

“Hey teacher? Leave those kids alone.”
(memoir)

In 1960 my second-grade teacher was an older woman named Mrs. Peterson. Sometimes she’d stand over me as I worked at my desk and pat my shoulder like I was her best student.

One morning she stood in front of the class and said, “Now children, some of you will not be going out to recess because you failed to do your homework.”

Some of us turned out to be two of us: me and this other kid.

“Diana, I am very disappointed you didn’t do your work,” Mrs. Peterson reprimanded me. “I hope this isn’t going to be a trend.”

“But Mrs. Peterson,” I pleaded, “I did turn in my . . . .” She shut me up with a wave of her hand.

“I don’t want to hear any excuses! You’ll stay in class this morning and do the work you were assigned yesterday while your classmates go to recess. That should be a lesson to you,” she said looking at me like I was the lowest life form found on our planet.

How could she accuse me? I distinctly remember writing the answers on my worksheet with my #2 pencil, trying not to go below the blue, mimeographed line. What happened to my paper?

The kids in my class lined up single file to go out to the playground. Mrs. Peterson left the room too, probably to get a cup of coffee in the teacher’s lounge. In an instant I was up foraging through the garbage can at the front of the room looking for my worksheet. I didn’t find anything, so I went over to the stack of graded papers sitting on the side shelves underneath the big plate glass windows. Then I saw it. It was my paper, all right, the one with the big, loopy lettering. I’d always had poor penmanship. But my name wasn’t on the paper. Danny, this kid in my class, had erased my name and wrote his own instead.

“How could you do this, Danny?” I whispered, tightly gripping my worksheet so no one stole it from me again. But I guess I knew how. Danny was flunking school and he just wanted to pass second grade. I didn’t blame him, but I also didn’t want Mrs. Peterson to start thinking I was a goof-off either.

After recess Mrs. Peterson sat at her desk gathering her lesson plans. I was so nervous, I didn’t know if I could explain to her what happened. Before I could make Mrs. Peterson understand, she might send me to the principal’s office, the office with the wooden paddle hanging by the door, waiting to spank kids that caused trouble.

“Mrs. Peterson,” I stood at her elbow staring at her gray-streaked head. She was bent over her desk writing something.

“Hmmm? Yes, what is it?”

“I . . . um . . . wanted to show you that I really did do my homework yesterday,” I said.

I laid my paper on the desk in front of her. “Here’s my worksheet from yesterday . . . .

She glanced at it and looked up at me annoyed, “That’s Danny’s paper! Sit down now before I put your name on the board to stay in at afternoon recess.”

“But Mrs. Peterson,” I pleaded with her, “Look closer at Danny’s name. Look! Don’t you see my name under Danny’s? It’s really faded because my name’s been erased.”

There was a box of tissue on Mrs. Peterson’s desk. She took one out and wiped her eye glasses so she could see better. Then she held my paper so close to her face it was almost touching her nose.

“Daniel! Daniel, come up here immediately!”

I saw Danny’s head jerk up from his desk and then watched him walk down the aisle. He looked straight at me standing next to Mrs. Peterson’s desk, and I knew, he knew. He sauntered slowly, his turned-up blue jean cuffs scraping together with every step.

“This is not your homework is it Daniel?” Mrs. Peterson was really mad. Danny just stood there in front of her desk with his head down, his skinny shoulders drooping like he might melt into the ground at any moment, like the bad witch on The Wizard of Oz.

He barely shook his head no.

“You erased Diana’s name and printed your own name over hers instead of doing your homework yourself, didn’t you?” she spit out the words.

Danny still didn’t say anything or look up. He just nodded a little yes, and for a minute I thought he was going to cry. “Don’t start bawling Danny!” I thought.

Mrs. Peterson abruptly stood up from her desk chair and grabbed both of us by our elbows pushing us in front of the classroom.

“Class! Class!” Kids looked up from their library books wondering what was going on.

“I have an announcement to make,” Mrs. Peterson began. “Daniel was the one that didn’t do his assignment for today, not Diana. She has been wrongly accused. Daniel erased Diana’s name on her paper and wrote his name instead.”

Mrs. Peterson stared angrily down at Danny. “Daniel,” she said, “you will now apologize to Diana. You heard me. Say you’re sorry.”

Danny whispered, “Sorry.”

“I’m not sure that’s good enough Daniel. After what you did, I think you need to get on your knees and beg Diana for her forgiveness.”

Things couldn’t get any worse. I mean, in a way it felt good to get off Mrs. Peterson’s bad kid list, but in another way, I felt sorry for Danny. The whole thing was embarrassing and Mrs. Peterson was being so mean to Danny.

Danny dropped to his knees like a prison convict with chains on his legs begging for mercy. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and said once again, with his voice breaking, “I’m sorry.”

I didn’t know how I was supposed to respond to Danny. I kept looking at the floor and then finally I managed, “That’s okay.”

The rest of the school year Danny and I avoided each other and I kept clear of Mrs. Peterson too. Sometimes she’d still stop at my desk and pat my shoulder, but I’d freeze up. I wanted her to leave me alone. A year after my brother died I went into eighth grade and found out what it felt like to be a Danny, somebody who failed at school.

Breast Lumps and Food

Comfort Food (Essay Finis)

One morning I woke up, brushed my hand over my chest, and felt a lump on my breast. It was a shock. Where did this come from? Could you grow lumps overnight? Maybe it would vanish as quickly as it came. But it was a persistent lump and after several fretful days, I decided I needed to check it out.

At the time I was living by myself during the week in a tiny apartment in the back corner of a rickety old house. It was the price I paid to go to school and get that final college degree. I loved learning, but I hated being lonely. Every night I called my husband.

“I don’t know. The lump fairy left it on my chest instead of under my pillow,” I told him. “I’ll call the doctor tomorrow. I’ll probably need a mammogram too.”

Of course the doctor was booked up for the entire week and I didn’t think I should schedule a diagnostic mammogram without her go-ahead. So I was stuck waiting—waiting and wondering and worrying. I checked my lump several times a day, testing to see if it had grown and if so, how much. I tucked a wooden ruler under my chin and tried to measure my lump. I was becoming attached to it. I even thought of a nickname: Bubby. I had a Bubby on one of my boobies.

Google had all the information I needed to know and some things I didn’t, about breast cancer and breast cancer treatment. During the day I’d convinced myself it was merely a cyst, nothing to worry about. But at 3 a.m. in the morning, my new wake-up time, I planned my funeral. I needed to find someone eloquent to read the poem Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant: “When thoughts of that last bitter hour come like a blight . . .”

Finally, I found myself sitting in a blue-flowered hospital gown on the edge of the examining table waiting for the radiologist’s verdict.

“It’s a spider bite,” she pronounced.

“What?” At first I wasn’t sure I heard right. “A spider bite?”

“Yes, or some other mildly venomous insect. You’ve had a reaction.”

My breast lump was a spider bite. I almost felt cheated. Then I thought about the old house I was living in while I went to school, the spider webs I saw in a couple of corners of the high ceiling. I’d chose to ignore them, fancifully believing if I couldn’t reach those spiders, they couldn’t reach me.

Walking down the tree-shaded street to my car after my doctor’s appointment, I felt so light and free—and thankful. I was one of the lucky ones. I whispered a prayer for all those battling breast cancer who weren’t so fortunate. I realized I was hungry, ravenous even.  It felt so good to feel hungry again. There was a new restaurant in town I’d heard about, gourmet dining, called Doughty’s Bistro. I needed to reward myself, comfort myself after all this needless suffering. What would I order? I’d begin with a chicken satay appetizer and then for dessert, maybe a chocolate torte. I was already looking forward to licking the icing off the spoon.

Eating for Comfort During WWII

Comfort Food (Essay, Part 5)

Eating food that brings you comfort is not the same thing as overeating. One is a reward and the other is a punishment. Believe me I, like many women, have dieted enough to know. A craving for rich, fatty food though, is natural. We’ve evolved with a taste for it; the calories were needed in our distant past to prevent starvation. I personally think every famine survival kit should include chocolate butter creams.

My dear mother has always had a sweet tooth. She told me during World War II when three of her four older brothers were stationed in war zones, her mother, Grandma Verna, made a treat with rationed sugar called “sweet cakes.”  Mom described sweet cakes as somewhere between a cookie and a cake.  Often Grandma and mom sat around the wood stove in the evening eating sweet cakes while they read books like Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, or Jean Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost.

Sometimes Grandma would set her book down and walk over to the front window, staring worriedly out at the dark valley below. Then one awful evening in 1943, she saw car headlights moving jerkily down the rough road leading to their house perched on a West Virginia hilltop. A telegraph had arrived. Her son, my Uncle Ray, had been grievously wounded on a little-known island in the central Pacific: Tarawa.

Funeral Potatoes

Comfort Food (Essay, Part 4)

Life would be so much easier if we could eat all we want—of whatever we wanted. I think cows live like that. It’s in their bovine nature. One time a friend treated me to something I didn’t want, a healthy salad luncheon. I remember chomping through the lettuce like a buck-toothed mule. Evidently, my friend was worried I might get as fat as a pig. Of course, I’d rather look graceful and swan-like. But swans, unlike cows, are bad tempered. Maybe swans never eat what they want.

I have a recipe I got from the mother of one of my daughter’s old boyfriends. The dish is called Funeral Potatoes, which I assumed meant it was a standard potluck dish to share with grieving families. Funeral Potatoes are the very definition of comfort food, the basic ingredients being hash browns, soaked and baked with a half cup of butter, two cups of sour cream, and two cups of grated cheese.

I found it sadly ironic when my daughter told me she’d heard her old boyfriend had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and wasn’t expected to live very long.

“He wasn’t even a smoker!” my daughter cried, trying to understand how a brain tumor could happen to someone still relatively young and healthy.

“He may not have been a smoker, but he’s a human being,” I told her. “We’re all prone to mortality.”