Friday, December 23, 2016

My Best Christmas

I have waited more than a month to make what will probably be my last post of this terrible year. Since its subject is Christmas, I am at least closing on an upbeat note.

I think Christmas is about memory - as much to do with what we did with Christmas in the past as what we do with it today. Like birthdays, however, it's hard to single out any specific year as especially memorable. I recall Christmases from 1974, 1995, and even a few from the years I have spent here in the Philippines. But the one that stands out for me as My Best Christmas was in 2005. Here's why.

I had been living in Des Moines, Iowa since 2001. A failed marriage took me there, and almost five years later an engagement that fizzled out resulted, eventually, in my having to get out of town. Actually, it's what happened to me after the collapse of my engagement that forced me to leave town. Because of the cumulative effects of heavy drinking, I lost two jobs and, realizing, in mid-December, that I was in the perilous position of not having enough time to find another job to pay the next month's rent, I had to find someone who would give me refuge. It was that or end up homeless in Des Moines - in January.

First I contacted some of my closest friends. Only one was willing to take me in. The rest were very involved in complicated domestic arrangements of their own. Then I contacted my brother in Denver. He surprised me by suggesting that I call my sister in Alaska, whom I hadn't seen since 1998. My brother gave me her number, and I called her.

After telling my sister about my predicament, she told me that she would only be too happy to take me in, that her door was always open for me. I couldn't speak over the long-distance line for several seconds as I wept for joy, and she kept calling out my name and saying "Hello?" fearing the line had been disconnected. After regaining my composure, I thanked her copiously and asked her when I could come.

I first thought of renting a van and driving the distance north through Minnesota and across half of Canada, which would have been a difficult drive in July. In December, at those latitides, the hazards were unimaginable. So my sister laid out the only other plan of action that would work - to gather up everything that I couldn't part with, pack it into boxes and ship it to her using "Media Mail" - the cheapest method available through the U.S. Postal Service.

She sent me enough money to ship about a dozen boxes, which I carried from my apartment in downtown Des Moines to the Post Office a few blocks away. Some of them weighed thirty or forty pounds, so the trudge to the Post Office every day was strenuous.

Once the last package was mailed, I turned in my key at the apartment manager's office, called for a taxi and caught a flight to Anchorage. I left behind in my apartment all the furniture I had bought for a married life that never transpired - a queen-sized bed, a big screen TV, book cases, and a desk. I owed nothing for the furniture, since I had already gone bankrupt in August.

It was nine years ago to this very day - the afternoon of 23 December. I flew first to Minneapolis, and then onward to Anchorage. All I could see in the starlight from my window seat was a world of white below - whether clouds or fields of snow I couldn't tell.

On the approach to Anchorage, I looked down on Cook Inlet covered in ice. The Inlet was named for Captain James Cook, who "discovered" it whilst looking for the mythical Northwest Passage. Coming in for a landing, I saw snow, snow, snow . . . and at last the black tarmac. The plane touched down, I deplaned and collected my luggage. It wasn't until I walked out of the main terminal that I heard a voice yell, "There's my little brother!" I saw a woman approaching me and thought for a split second that it was my mother - who had died in 1998. It was my sister, who had become at that moment my whole family in one person.

The air was frigid. Everything was covered in snow. My sister took me to her burgundy Ford Explorer, that she had long since named "Victoria," and drove me across Anchorage to her house at the nub of a cul-de-sac, where she lived with her two dogs and several teddy-bear hamsters. It was a relatively new house with a garage, a large downstairs living room, adjoined by a large kitchen, a front room by a big front window (where an untrimmed Christmas tree was standing). The steep stairs led to three bedrooms and a loft. My fold-out bed occupied the loft (right above the garage), and I don't remember much else from that night except going to bed.

The following day - Christmas Eve - was clear, crystalline. My sister decided that I should buy a few gifts for her, so she took me to Dimond - not Diamond - Mall and handed me a hundred dollars. Everything was on sale for the few crazy people who had waited so long to shop. I bought my sister a big (rather vulgar) crystal perfume dispenser and a wine decanter in the form of a chef.

Upon retruning home (such a beautiful word), we ate too much and watched some television. And when the sun went down at about four o'clock, my sister got out the boxes containing all of our family's old Christmas tree decorations, some of them decades old, and together my sister and I trimmed her fat artificial Christmas tree. As we removed the decorations from the boxes, I recognized many of them and we shared memories of Christmases past. Finished, the moment came to light the lights. Standing there beside my sister, gazing at the exquisite tree with blinking lights, with the frozen yard and icy street visible through the front window, I felt something I hadn't felt since I left my parents' home: I felt the speechless joy of being with my family.

During the night, more snow fell and we awoke on a gloomy Christmas morning (with sunrise at about nine). I put on a CD of music by Vince Guaraldi composed mostly for the 1965 TV Special "A Charlie Brown Christmas." After breakfast, I helped her load numerous wrapped gifts into the back of her Explorer, and she took me around to the homes of all her friends to give them their gifts. She invariablty introduced me as her "little brother" (I was 47 years old), and they all told me how she had told them so much about me. Driving away from one house, my sister hit a curb and flattened a tire. With the temperature at what felt like zero, her friends came out and helped change the tire.

Back home, we watched, of all things, Home Alone 4, a film I didn't know even existed. Watching it, I learned why. Dinner consisted of a small turkey, cooked in a rotisserie oven, a ham, and the usual side dishes of stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes. I don't recall exactly what we had for dessert. It was probably pastries bought from a bakery. When we were done, we watched Turner Classic Movies, which my sister watched religiously, long into the dark night.  

My sister knew, as the saying goes, how to keep Christmas well. I got about ten gifts from her that year, including a remote-control model helicopter. She had read somewhere that every man wants a toy for Christmas. I didn't want a toy for Christmas, but who was I to argue? After such a frightful year, in which my dream of being married again blew up in my face, and after a bankruptcy and losing two jobs to alcohol abuse, it was the happy ending I could only have dreamed of having. And I owed everything to my sister, who (once again) saved me from my life.

Merry Christmas, Bibbit, wherever you are.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Hyper Life

Elizabeth Jane Moreno Gueci Eichner Roberge Michaels, née Harper, was born 22 July 1951 in Stuttgart, West Germany, the second daughter to George Wesley and Alice Jane Harper. He was a career soldier and she was a homemaker and nurse's aid. 

Elizabeth, who went by Liza in her later years, graduated Cardinal Newman High School in Columbia, South Carolina, Class if '71. She briefly attended the University of South Carolina. The first of five husbands, Ricardo Moreno, son of political science professor Nestor Moreno married her in 1971. Her only daughter, Amanda Cristina, was born in 1972. 

Her other husbands were Joseph Gueci of New Jersey, Edward Eichner of Lincoln Nebraska, Robert Roberge of Denver, and Shane Michaels of Anchorage, Alaska. The third, fourth and fifth survive her. She explained to me that when she falls in love, she feels like she's inside a beautiful, protective bubble, but that, soon after she marries a man, she finds that the bubble has somehow burst. It is entirely outside her control.

When our mother had a stroke during pregnancy at the age of 40, I was brought home alone by our father. Since career soldiers made very low salaries at the time, he could not afford a nurse. Elizabeth, aged 7, became my surrogate mother until, after months of physical therapy in which she had to learn how to speak, walk, and write all over again, our mother returned from the hospital. Having known her prior to the devastating stroke as a loving and gentle woman, my sister was introduced to a woman who was emotionally unbalanced. The slightest stress would send her into hysterics. Elizabeth never recovered from the shock, and thereafter her relationship with our mother was close but strained. Upon our mother's death in 1998, Elizabeth moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where she spent the remaining eighteen years of her life. She loved Alaska, the snow and the cold. I invited her to come and live with me in the Philippines, but for several reasons, one of which was her intense dislike of hot weather, she wouldn't come. 

Elizabeth's profession from the early 1990s was medical transcriptionist, at which she was perfectly proficient. But in 2006, technological advances and outsourcing slowly eliminated it as a reliable source of income. In Alaska she took up designing and creating hand-crafted crystal jewelery, offering her work for sale at various bazaars in and around Anchorage until she became physically unable to set up her tent and the tables inside. A home she mortgaged through Wells Fargo became another victim of foreclosure in late 2007 during the collapse of the American real estate market. She lived in apartments from then until her death on 27 October at the age of 65. She is survived by her two brothers, her daughter, two grandchildren and three surviving ex-husbands. The exact cause of her death has yet to be divulged to me. A medical checkup a month prior to her death lists among her complaints a longstanding depression and suicidal thoughts. On three occasions since I left the States I had to call the Anchorage Police Department to check in on her. Lately I have even enlisted the help of some Facebook friends who are considerably closer to her than I am. Their help was above and beyond. 

On the two occasions when my life hit a wall, in 1995 and in 2005, my sister took me in without question or criticism. Even if I set about paying back all the money I owed her in monthly increments, I would never have paid it all back even if she'd lived to be 100. What I owe her emotionally and psychologically is inestimable. 

She was a force of nature - a ball of nervous energy that she expressed in utterly unapologetic impulsive behavior. I could never keep up with her. I would accompany her somewhere, like WalMart, and upon leaving the car the race was on. By the time sje was in the middle of the store and turned to say something to me, I was usually a hundred yards behind her. 

Her health was failing last Spring and she spent a month in the hospital. Aside from the physical trauma, I don't think she quite recovered from the shock of her body betraying her. The wrong combination of a variety of new medications may have contributed to her death. I just don't know for sure and may never know.

When you lose someone who has known you all your life, it is as if a wonderful road into the past down which you were once able to travel freely has become suddenly impassable.  Losing my big sister leaves a giant hole in my life that can never be filled.

Elizabeth Jane Harper - who was and will always be known as Bibbit to my brother and I - July 22, 1951 - October 27, 2016

In the words of Johnny Mercer, 

I should be over it now I know
It doesn't matter much
How old I grow
I hate to see October go.