I never learned their names or where they lived.
Here is the link to my most recent essay, published in the fall issue of Blackbird Online Literary Journal.
Pamela Gerhardt is the author of the memoir Lucky That Way: Rediscovering my Father’s World (University of Missouri Press, 2013), which won the 2014 American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) Outstanding Book Prize for Memoir or Biography. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, and The Sun. Her journalism has been anthologized by Greenhaven Press and Books International, and has been widely reprinted online. She has worked as an editor for both literary and consumer magazines, including Whittle Communications, the publisher of Esquire. She is a senior lecturer in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland.
When I was 21 my mom was in the hospital for yet another operation. Exploratory surgery. This was before fancy MRIs. This was the dark ages, when surgeons had to “open you up to have a look.” She was cut from her sternum, through her rib cage, to below her belly button. Organs were shuffled and tussled and perhaps even lifted out of her body as doctors searched for the extent of the cancer. I sat by her side in her room as she recovered from surgery.
During those weeks, those days, those hours, she had a roommate, a young woman from a poor neighborhood who had been shot in the spine in a domestic dispute. The girl (I believe her name was Cheryl) shared her story. She had been sitting in a kitchen, talking to a man. The man’s girlfriend burst into the house and accused the two of having an affair. The girlfriend had an automatic gun. Cheryl stood up to flee. She turned her back on the armed girlfriend. The jealous woman fired. In one second, Cheryl became a person who would be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of her life.
My mom and I listened to the Cheryl’s story. We listened to her softly weep into the phone as she talked to relatives. Later, when Cheryl was sleeping, my mom (who was half Italian) whispered to me, “If only the girlfriend had been carrying a spaghetti pot instead of a gun.” My mom and I talked about time. That split second. And we talked about logistics: If only she had slithered under the kitchen table instead of standing and turning around. Mostly, though, we thought about the spaghetti pot. You have to think when swinging an aluminum pot. You would most likely miss with your first swing. Even the second swing. It would be sloppy. There would be time to shout, to scuffle, to perhaps scamper out the door on your hands and knees. There would be time, in fact, to shift your reasoning, to become exhausted, to stop.
A kind of horror comes with the precision and absolute clarity of the gun, the definitive before and after. One second you are one thing. The next second you are something else entirely. A murderer. A cripple. A corpse.
Everyone in America has a gun story – from experience, from the news. Place names of mass murders are burned into our collective psyche: Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Isla Vista. And individual shootings seem as common as pumping gas. I live in the Washington DC area, and in 1994 the district hit an all-time high of 399 murders, nearly 70% of them via a gun. In 2012 the tiny district shaped like a baseball diamond celebrated a historic low of “only” 88 murders. This year, the rates are climbing.
Everyone in America has a gun story, not all of them, contrary to popular sentiment, involving the poor or young African American men or deranged young white men. A few years ago a university colleague of mine, a woman with a PhD, found herself in a similar Cheryl-type domestic argument. The PhD and her husband were avid assault gun owners and members of the NRA – they owned an arsenal of assault weapons in varying size and caliber. As a fight ensued, they both grabbed guns. The PhD was initially accused of murder, but the trail later revealed that the gun she fired was not the one that killed the husband. Rather, her husband shot himself. The PhD lost her job, was charged with the illegal use of an automatic weapon, went to jail, and was finally deported – back to her native country. She lost everything – her income, her job title and status, he husband, her house. When the police initially found her, she was covered in blood. That alone would require significant psychological recovery. If only she – and he – had grabbed just about anything instead of guns.
Cheryl eventually left my mom’s hospital room. I suppose they took her to a long-term physical rehab facility. Mom stayed and continued to struggle. Her abdomen would spasm, causing her to scrunch her face in pain. The dark ages — cutting people wide open to search for cancer, shooting people in the spine because you’re pissed off. We have come light years in terms of improving cancer diagnostics and treatment. But, if we watch the news, follow social media, if we absorb all sides of various arguments on the “gun issue,” it would seem we’ve made zero progress in understanding how best to address the problem of humans shooting humans in our society.
Cheryl’s story was my personal introduction to a specifically American horror. I grew up in Missouri and come from a family of hunters. I also married a man from northern Minnesota who grew up hunting. Family members have killed deer, turkeys and rabbits, which we ate. There were a few “bad” outcomes: the time my husband, as a teenager, wandered too far into the woods and tried to haul a giant buck a few miles on his back; the time our parents served rabbit stew, and my young siblings and I gagged when we thought the black pepper corns were BBs. Maybe the point is this: not one of us has ever owned an automatic assault gun, and the rifles, stored separate from the bullets, are always cleaned, locked and hidden in a zipped bag in a dim closet until next hunting season. Maybe the point it this: As an American, despite an early introduction to the rather healthy idea that guns are for hunting meat for dinner and nothing else, I could not escape personal familiarity with the twisted horror of humans shooting humans. Over the past 30 years, I have thought about Cheryl often, my own personal introduction to America’s sorrow, and I hear her softly weep.
(Typing that headline above just cracks me up.) Really. I’ve never won anything, not even a raffle ticket at a Catholic fundraiser. So you can imagine my shock when I found out that Lucky That Way won an Outstanding Book Prize from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. The ASJA is a big deal in journalism circles. Going to NYC in April for the awards ceremony. Very exciting!
Random posts about the lives of teens.
Not long ago, I told a group of teenagers at my dinner table that I had been a member of a band in high school called Niki Knudsen and the No Nos. My kids and their friends laughed. Urged on, I explained that we were a punk-folk band. Even more ridiculous, right? The year was1979 (members fluctuated a bit, and I didn’t actually “join” as a keyboardist until right after high school). I explained how we used to crash weddings. I’d drive the lead singer’s mom’s station wagon, loaded with the four band members and acoustic instruments, and pull into the parking lot of a VFW hall. They would hop out, run into the hall, and play until someone kicked them out. My job was to keep the engine running.
I can’t recall why, when we were 17, we thought this was so much fun, but the teens at the dinner table were in stitches. I shared the few song titles I could remember: The MX Missile Song. Oh, I added, “And another song, a ballad, was titled, Mommy Made Me Love You with All Her Whips and Chains.”
My two teenagers and my husband and I sit down to dinner every night. I like to cook. I like the process. I chop an onion and garlic and throw it into a pan with olive oil (unsure, often, exactly what dish will unfold.) I place four white plates on the table and line up the napkins, forks, knives, and spoons. My husband usually walks in the door soon after and pours the milk, changes his clothes. He’s the one who calls the kids, who are either in their bedrooms, studying, or in the finished basement, goofing around. If friends are there, as they often are, we invite them to eat.
Apparently, our evening ritual is a good one. Even people without kids are probably familiar with the data that consistently correlates family dinners and well being. I first came across this body of work in 1998 while writing a piece for The Washington Post . I liked the term “well being” right away. It hits all the hot spots – the worries that might keep all of us, with or without children, awake at night. Will I be happy? Am I happy? Am I okay at work? Am I okay at school? Do I have healthy friendships? Do I feel as though I am a member of a community? Basically, all of the studies (Cambridge University, JAMA Pediatrics, Princeton, and so on) say the same thing: teens who sit down to dinner with their families consistently show higher levels of well being. According to JAMA, “Family meals offer routine and consistency and provide an opportunity to socialize children and teach them about communication skills,manners, nutrition, and good eating habits.” But that’s not all. Some research further finds that the frequency of family meals is inversely associated with tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use; low-grade point average; depressive symptoms; and suicide involvement.
Could this be possible? Cooking and serving steamed broccoli can save a kid’s life?
The studies do not mention “good” conversation topics. There are no guidelines for sharing past experiences. Born in 1961, I came of age in the 1970s. My peers and I, for better or worse, have stories. Maybe the key is not to dwell, but to keep the conversation flowing, letting it take its natural course.
During the recent evening with the teens around my table, my husband and I asked about friendships, possible colleges, and school. My son shared a story about the Black Student Union presentation at his high school that day. We talked about the importance of the emergence of black student organizations in the 1970s. And that lead to the topic of my high school punk-folk band.
My senior year, the band played at the school’s black student talent show. Niki Knudsen was the only white act in that evening’s line up. The black kids booed and threw wads of paper at the performers. Some girls stood up and shook their fists. “It wasn’t a racial thing,” I explained, eating my salmon. “They hated the band because they were so lousy.”
If there’s a lesson here, it’s not intentional. If I caused some kind of damage, I regret it. We were just…talking and laughing. After dinner, I half worried that the friends would go home and tell their parents that I was weird. I half worried I would get a phone call. Crashing weddings? Whips and chains? Are you crazy?
All I know is that teenagers are some of my favorite people in the world. And I like to cook. And I like to feed people. The odd times when we don’t sit down to dinner, my day lacks closure, especially as the kids have grown older and have more to add to the conversation. And if sitting around my table adds even a pinch of foundation to the fragile lives of teens, I’ll keep passing the grilled salmon.
Here’s a salmon recipe similar to mine that teenagers love because, in the words of my 10th grader, “it’s sweet.” In the winter, bake it in the oven. In warmer months, throw it on the grill.
The day after my sister’s open-heart surgery she said to me, through the fog of morphine: “You were crying in your sleep last night.”
I had slept at her house. She had slept in the ICU. Even if I had cried, she certainly could not have heard me.
“I don’t think so,” I said. She nodded and closed her eyes. “You were crying,” she said definitively. “I could hear you.”
Growing up, we shared a bedroom for 17 years. A nearly telepathic intimacy comes from that experience. We understood each others’ fears. Children who share bedrooms learn to comfort, especially in the dark. My sister was a jittery child, easily influenced by that afternoon’s ghost story or seance. Many nights, she asked me, the younger sister, to move into her twin bed. “I’m scared,” she would say in the dark. Other nights, I was the one in need of comfort. The evening our little brother was hospitalized after a serious accident, Barb surprised me later that night when she whispered, “Don’t cry. It’s going to be all right.” I thought I had been concealing my sniffles into my pillow. Sometimes, we both needed comfort. Our mother died when we were in our 20s, and the night of her death Barb and I slept together, again, in one of our old twin beds – with the light on.
A few days before the surgery, I drove eight hours to South Carolina to be with her. She was ill – she could barely breathe. She had survived lymphoma 15 years earlier, and the treatment had scarred her heart. Still, we managed to visit a friend’s lake house, take a ride on a boat, shop for discounts at her favorite department store. We were trying to have a good time, despite our fears hanging over us like a tarp. It didn’t help that a few days earlier I learned that the realtor who helped me buy my house died right after the same surgery my sister was about to undergo. I didn’t tell Barb this, but she knew the risks. She had asked the doctor if he ever lost patients. Yes, he said. Two. We woke at four in the morning the day of the surgery and drove wordlessly in the dark to the hospital. They were going to remove her heart from her body, replace a valve, replace two arteries, then put the heart back in. When they wheeled her away, I said, “See you in a few hours!” cheerfully, as if she were getting her hair done.
At this point in my life, both of my parents and dozens of relatives had passed on. You get better with death and serious illness the more often you face it. You learn to prepare. You learn to lose.
You even learn to plan a bit. Paperwork must be filed. Houses sometimes must be sold. At the department store with Barb the day before surgery, I fingered silver bracelets on the jewelry rack and allowed my mind to briefly flutter on a negative outcome – would her 24-year-old son come live with me, up in D.C.? How would I muster strength to comfort him? Who would comfort me? But during the six-hour surgery I slammed the door shut on those questions. I read People magazine. I sang pop songs in my head. I wandered in and out of the building, clutching the pager nurses had given to me – the kind you get at Outback Steakhouse, except you don’t want this one to buzz. My sister’s friend mercifully showed up and distracted me with chit chat.
You learn to lose, but on this hot summer day in South Carolina I was not ready. I had prepared nothing. I had no plan, other than to fall out on the floor of the cardiac unit and wail like a banshee. I was not ready to lose. Not again. Not this time.
The second day after surgery, Barb was still in the ICU, but more fully awake. I told her, “Yesterday, you told me you could hear me crying in my sleep while you were here in the ICU and I was at your house. Isn’t that bizarre?”
“That wasn’t morphine talking. I swear I heard you,” she said.
Maybe what she heard was just a memory–a little sister sniffling into her pillow–lodged somewhere in her brain, released by anesthesia or stress or the body’s terrified reaction to its blood flowing through a machine rather than its own heart. But I think something more was at work. Despite the adult brave face I had worn in the days, hours, and minutes before surgery (See you in a few hours!) the person I had shared a bedroom with for 17 years must have known: my heart too was in need of attention.
Random Posts on Aging Parents
“There goes another one,” Dad says, nodding toward the doorway. “Look.”
We’re in his room in assisted living where he is struggling through physical rehab after his stroke. I am staring stubbornly at the blank TV on the wall. I refuse to look. I am not playing his game.
“Look,” he whispers. “Hurry.”
I look. A woman hunched over in a wheelchair in the hallway moves past the door frame, glances in, then moves on, silently, out of the frame.
“Night of the Living Dead,” he says.
“Let’s get out of here,” I tell him.
I have to think hard about how I might do that — move a partially paralyzed man out of the building.
After dad had a stroke, one of the first things he said to me in the ICU at a hospital in Las Vegas was, “Remember how I taught you to drive a stick shift?” How could I forget? The task requires a subtle, intricate pattern of hand-foot-brain connections. When we drive, especially a stick, we use just about everything we have: sight, hearing, touch. No matter how many times someone explains it you just have to eventually FEEL it: one foot gives gas while the other eases off the clutch until you hit the magic spot that makes the car go.
We reverse roles in aging-parent land. Our parents who coached us to hold a cup to our lips without spilling – to SENSE it– often now need similar instructions. I remember reading about this role-reversal, but it takes you by surprise when it’s there in front of you.
I push his wheelchair down the hall, unsure if we can accomplish this or if someone will stop me or if an alarm will go off. He hasn’t left the building since an ambulance brought him there a few weeks earlier. Like so many people my age with ailing parents, you suddenly find yourself standing on the edge of a new frontier. You wing it.
I park him out front, get my car and pull up near the front door. I come around and open the passenger side car door. I position the chair as close as I can get it.
“Maybe we better get help,” he says, then adds, “Do we know how to do this?”
I tell him to put his right hand, his good hand, on top of the open door. “Pull yourself up,” I tell him and grab the waist of his pants from behind. He stands.
“Okay. Pivot. Right foot. Left foot.” We chant together. He moves until his back side faces the seat.
“Now bend your knees.” He bends them. “Watch your head,” I tell him and place my palm on top so he doesn’t hit it. I realize I have never touched the top of my father’s oddly tender head. I swing in his legs. He looks up at me, clearly surprised. “Not bad at all.”
We shake hands like two business partners closing the deal.
I ease the car away from the building. It feels illegal. I have kidnapped an invalid.
He gazes at the blue sky. “Let’s just high-tail it for Mexico,” he says.
I want to tell my sister we have managed a new skill. I rummage in my purse for my cell phone, holding the wheel with my left. I see Dad eye balling me. Dad, the man who taught me to check the oil, change the air filter, to turn your body around when backing up (“you’ve got to FEEL the car”). I see him eye balling me. And then I know he is going to say it. He was going to say the thing, the old-school thing, the thing that used to drive me nuts, the thing that makes me feel better than anything else that day.
Dad says, “Better drive with two hands, babe.”
As we make our way onto the endless highway I think about how far he’s come since the ICU. I think about motor skills, and motors, and the blustery afternoon when he taught me to drive, the gut-wrenching grinding of gears. As the sun began to set that day, he got out of the car and said, “You’re ready to go it alone.” I remember finally, finally getting to the top of the hill in my “vintage” 1972 powder blue Volkswagon Beetle, the first car I ever bought, turning the car around triumphantly and seeing Dad at the bottom of the hill, in his flannel jacket – winter was coming – clapping his hands.
I’m at the beauty parlor (when did we start calling it a “hair salon?”) with my 11-year-old daughter and am confronted with a long row of seated women draped in plastic getting their hair colored. They range in age from 18 to 70, and they chat amicably with the stylists, also women, who stand behind them and paint pieces of hair with acrid paste, wrap them in foil, and move on to the next section as rapidly, efficiently as women in Central America making tortillas.
I’m there for a simple cut.
I am lazy. I am impatient. I am an epic fail. I have chosen to let my hair go gray.
The gray started when I was 26. A few weeks after my mother died I was standing in a smoke-filled, packed bar in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a guy, no one I knew, exclaimed, “My God! You’ve got a gray hair!” “Get it,” I told him, and he plucked it out. I thought the stress of my mother’s death was the culprit, but the gray persisted, and over the next decade I stood in front of the bathroom mirror every morning and plucked gray hairs, right along with brushing my teeth. Surely, I would eventually lose this battle.
Ten years later, I was sharing a beach house Thanksgiving weekend with my husband, two-year-old son and four friends. After a second martini, my friends convinced me to let them color my hair. We went to the drug store. “This one?” I asked Patrick, holding up a dark mousy brown that I thought matched my color exactly.
“No,” he said. “Way too dark. Everyone secretly wants to be blond or thinks of themselves as blond on some level, so the marketers name the colors to sound lighter than they really are. If it says ‘Honey Blond,’ you really are getting a very light brown.”
On some level, this was my first discomfort – the first of a series of inherent untruths.
He picked Toasted Honey Almond.
The results were stunning.
Until I realized a month later I had to do it all over again, and Patrick and the martinis were several hours away in Philadelphia.
I would fight this war solo.
Throughout that winter, every few months I noticed my roots, sighed, and–completely sober–pulled out the bottle of color, squeezed my hands into the plastic gloves, and went to work until my arms ached.
Second discomfort: The following summer I learned I could no longer swim laps in chlorinated water without washing out the color or (worse!) making it turn a hue of rust. I whined to women friends as we bobbed in the heat with our faces and hair, foolishly, above water, moving our arms and legs in some semblance of exercise. According to “Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity and Everything Else That Really Matters,” about 65 percent of women over 40 color their hair. Clairol says it’s higher — 71 percent. My bobbing girlfriends accepted their fate with grace. All in the name of beauty. Not me. I was pissed.
Third discomfort: I realized over the years that as my skin aged a bit and my face shifted, the color began to look tinny. And it made my complexion look funny. Like a corpse. I had become a member of the undead with Toasted Honey Almond hair.
Next phase: highlights/lowlights. Done professionally. All of my girlfriends swore by this. Looks natural. Lasts longer. More chlorine friendly. Three hours in a chair. $100. I could not stop squirming. I nearly blew a gasket. I had a panic attack thinking of my short life here on this earth and everything else I could be doing that afternoon: writing a novel, hiking Sugarloaf Mountain, drinking a Bloody Mary with my husband on a sunny deck somewhere. I suffered through it maybe three times until one day, looking in the mirror, approaching 50, I pointed at myself at asked, “What kind of woman do you want to be?”
“Gray,” I began to warn my family and friends. “I’m choosing to go gray.” Just Say No to Foil Wrap. Women in France were doing it. Kate Moss was doing it. Smart, cool women like Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovits had always done it.
What kind of woman did I want to be? Me. I wanted to be me. This past summer, my first at going gray, I experienced euphoria (Seriously. Every. Day.) from swimming laps. No more bobbing in the shallow end. And my Saturday mornings were free from bottles of color and plastic gloves and arm aches.
At the beauty parlor I watch my daughter eye the rows of women. “What is that on their heads?” my daughter whispers. I laugh, but then I sigh. Oh, the choices she will have to make, the pressure she will endure. Color versus gray. Heels versus flats. To eat or not eat. She adds, “They look a little like aliens.”
But we don’t discuss it for long. After all, with just a cut, we are out of there in 15 minutes. As we scramble off to do something fun, I think: If every woman in the world would just agree to not color, we could end this discussion–and gossip/stress over more important things, like whose gray is the prettiest?
My most recent story in The Washington Post. LOVE the art work!
Assisted living facilities may be wise to appeal more to men
– By Pamela Gerhardt, Published: August 1, The Washington Post
I noted the doilies and chintz while searching for a suitable assisted living facility for my father. Right away, I knew I was up against a powerful force.
The female problem.
Every place I visited, I was overwhelmed by potpourri and teddy bears with bows. A typical day’s activity? “Manicure afternoons.” I was reminded of my son’s experiences with elementary schools, where teachers ask antsy boys to sit at desks and read books about ponies.
It strikes me that we don’t have a good model for taking care of men.
Where’s the bar?
“Someone needs to open an all-male physical rehab place,” I tell my friend.
She thinks about this idea and says, “They could call it He-hab.”
It’s tough to fit any individual into an institution. And we navigate dangerous waters when we start generalizing about certain “types” of individuals — men, women — and their collective needs. But this much is clear: We need to think harder about men’s needs as they age and their numbers increase.
Enter the baby boomers. Last year, the first wave of boomers turned 65. According to Census Bureau figures, 22 of every 100 Americans is now 65 or older. The National Forum on the Future of Aging at April’s colossal annual Aging in America Conference stated that over the next several decades the number of Americans over age 60 will increase by 70 percent.
“We certainly can seek ways to make facilities more gender-friendly,” says Steve French, managing partner of Natural Marketing Institute and a frequent speaker on aging.
Boomers, as expected, are making plans. The Aging in America Conference included 600 workshops, 100 posters, 3,000 participants. One popular topic: creating non-generic, non-institutionalized care environments for specific groups of aging boomers. Gay boomers. Green boomers. Korean boomers. You get the idea. Some of the buzzwords are “aging in place” and “the village movement” — caregiving communities, rather than institutions, that allow folks to live independently among like-minded people.
“We found that 90 percent of boomers say they want to stay at home when they age,” says French. “But 48 percent have no idea what they want to do when they are no longer able to stay at home.”
Meanwhile, the Census Bureau finds that 6.5 million older people need assistance with daily living, and experts predict that number to double by 2020.
So what, specifically, do men want? Forgive a few generalizations, but men, according to experts, are tough customers.
The interiors of most facilities — built under standards known as universal design — are “not always aesthetically pleasing,” says Maddy Dychtwald, the author of three books on aging and a co-founder of AgeWave, a consulting firm on population aging. Universal design produces buildings, products and environments accessible to people with and without disabilities.
“Women tend to just go with it. Men don’t. It’s that same old story with doctors.” Women will continue to see a doctor they might not like. Men won’t. They’ll find another. Or they just won’t go at all. “Men tend to go into assisted living kicking and screaming. They don’t like to utilize the system. Women are more likely to say, ‘I can see how this place is helpful to me.’ ”
“It’s the same reason men won’t ask for driving directions or won’t consult the manual when putting together a barbecue grill,” says French. They resist. “For men, the assisted living issue is most complex in terms of attraction rather than retention. It’s easier to develop plans for a guy once he is in the facility than it is to convince him he has to go.”
The upside: Men, according to studies, benefit significantly from “the system” once they agree to use it. “At home, men are more likely than women to live a solitary, lonely existence. In a facility, they become socially engaged and benefit quite dramatically,” says French.
The challenge is to make these places more attractive to men, experts say. Floral window treatments won’t cut it. First and foremost, “men tend to gather in places where they feel physically comfortable,” says Adler. Second, we probably need to think more about how this generation of men grew up immersed in media and became savvy consumers who took their first bite of the marketing pie by singing advertising jingles along with Howdy Doody (whose show was created, in part, to sell color TVs).
“We have to change the name,” says Dychtwald. “Assisted living? There must be something else we can call it.”