Dawn of a New Birthday

Dawn of a New Birthday November 12, 2012


Birthday Dawn


The dawn of this day began with a flight west.

Headed home.

Home used to be the place where my mother lived, but that was decades ago. Before she up and moved off West. She was trying to stay a step ahead of grief. She thought if she could walk faster, move quicker, stay busier than everybody else, then that emptiness that is sorrow would not catch up to her.

She could cry for others. Those sick and dying in her care, and their families left behind. But never for herself, never for her loss. There wasn’t time for that. She had children to attend to, patients needing tending, yards to mow, beds to make, meals to cook, cars to clean, flowers to plant, dogs to train.

An introduced me to a veteran outside Froggy Bottom Pizza where VietNow was hosting their annual thank you party to veterans.  She told me he teaches at George Washington University.

Oh, I said, what do you teach?

Grief, he said. I teach a class on grief.

Mmm. Do you have a difficult time getting people to sign up?

No. It’s crowded, he said. A lot of people cultivating a career in the medical arts register for the class.

Ahh. Of course.

Do you use a lot of the Kubler-Ross material?

No, he said. Grief is a lot messier than Kubler Ross allowed for.


I came to Oregon because that’s where what I understood as home — my mother — moved to, but I discovered home was no longer the place where my mother lived.

Home became the place where my happiest memories resided — back in Georgia. Among the community of Rose Hill Baptist, which was the safest place I found comfort in the chaos that was my life as a teenager.

Until I made new memories, with the man who is still my partner after 34 years. Then home became the place of diapers, and burp rags, squeals of children delighted, and the gentle rhythm of babies rocked to sleep.

Where do you live? General Barry McCaffrey asked me.

I’m in Seattle a lot these days but I teach in Ellensburg.

I’m in Seattle too, he said. We love it there. Where do you live in Seattle?

He meant Ballard or Bellevue.

I don’t really live there, I replied. Mama is dying so I’m there a lot.

So where is home? he asked.

It shouldn’t be such a hard question to answer. But the truth is I don’t know where home is anymore.

The Wall can feel like home to me. It is the place I go to embrace and be embraced by people who understand that grief is always messy but there is comfort in accepting that. If we could just acknowledge that hey, there’s a huge emptiness that can come with loving others. Disappointment. Rejection. Loss.

Running from grief only leaves a person exhausted.

Gordon’s Angela read her father’s name at the Wall. She couldn’t speak of Gordon, the wounded man her father, the medic, had pulled to safety before being hit by the sniper bullet himself.

She knew Gordon only such a short time before he died of cancer, as did I, but some people leave crater-sized holes when they die. Some people can fill us up while leaving us empty at the same time. Gordon filled empty places in Angela’s life, in mine, but then, like our fathers before him, he died too, leaving now another empty place next to our fathers.

For awhile Gordon’s sunroom felt like home to me. Sitting there with Gordon, watching the squirrels and the birds fetching food in the hickories and pines, as we swapped stories of people we knew, experiences we’d had. I’ve never meet a better storyteller than Gordon. He had this way with words. This turn of the phrase. Old-timey language. Don’t stand there peeing on my leg and tell me it’s raining.


I met a boy from Daphne, Alabama at the Wall. He’s five years in the Navy now. He came to read names, although he has no family member on the Wall, no connection to it. Landis Fouts earliest memory is of his father waking him up, taking him down to the Bay of the Holy Spirit for a Jubilee.

Can you imagine your earliest memory being of something so miraculous as  Jubilee?

Daphne is one community over from Fairhope, Alabama, which felt like home to me the first time I walked under those Live Oaks down to the pier. I have nothing but good memories of Fairhope and the people there who embraced me the same as the veterans at the Wall.

But for today, this day, home will be seeing Mama again and standing alongside Sister Tater as she welcomes her first grandbaby into the world. That’s if Landon Barnes cooperates and arrives according to schedule.

If not, I’ll celebrate my birthday quietly, feeling blessed that no matter where I travel, someone is always willing to make me feel like I’ve just arrived home.

Where do you find home?



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  • Happy birthday, Karen.

  • Home is where those you love are. Happy Birthday Karen and thanks for all you give us.

  • Margaret

    fascinating–a class on grief. Very much needed today.

  • Eddie

    Happy Birthday gal. It’s been too longs since Miss Judy and I have seen you.

    • I agree, Eddie. When the fiction is released next fall, Ms. Judy will have to arrange for a visit to a book club for me. 🙂

  • John in PDX

    Happy Birthday

  • Pauline Laurent

    Karen, thanks for this beautiful writing and happy birthday. So glad you were with family at The Wall this weekend. Howard’s definition of home was “Home is when we are together whether we stay or whether we go.” I’ve had to find new homes without him. It must be so hard with your mom.

    • Good to hear from you Pauline. Charlie and I were speaking of you this weekend. And yes, it is hard.

  • AFRoger

    Happy belated birthday! Arrived back at PDX last evening to be greeted by my wife who had just arrived from CA and our future son-in-law, also up from CA. Home. Because I’ve been away from that Nebraska home essentially since graduating college in 1969, it hasn’t felt like home in decades. We tried it for several years after returning from overseas, but that didn’t work. Neither did the Dallas area. Portland has been home, has always felt like it. With my mother now no longer on this earth the connection with siblings in Nebraska has lost something too. With our daughter in CA again and looking ahead to marriage, a new phase of life begins. The definition of home is changing yet again. Life is never on hold.
    Home in a sense is where love is. It will be with my veteran buddies and homeless folks at Bible study tonight. But sometimes home is loneliness also.
    Thanks for giving me the chance to read in DC and introducing me to Diane. Please tell Howard Berkes how much I have appreciated the warmth of his voice and the humanity in his stories that I’ve heard over the years. Blessings on new life. Glad I got to give you a real hug this weekend. Peace.

    • Great to see you in DC, Roger. Loved your poetry. Thank you for being willing to share it. You never told me your daughter was getting married. You left that detail out. Congrads!!

      • AFRoger

        Didn’t know about the proposed wedding (it’s not official yet) ’til shortly after landing in PDX.