New Year, New Blog

BW Hummer

After keeping up this blog every week for three years (and less consistently for two years before that), I am taking a break. I’ve decided to start something new: weekly observations of birds, drawn and written.

I’m excited to write about birds instead of myself. I have spent my career focused on my own experiences and stories as material for art-making, song-writing and lately book-writing as well as blogging. Now, suddenly, I am ready to change my focus (at least in the blog-o-sphere) and see what I have to say about birds.

Birds are a fascinating expression of the wild world that we so easily look past. Because they can fly, birds don’t have to sneak around avoiding us predators, making them generally visible to us in any given moment. Sure I am curious about the rare, hard to find species that only live in the arctic or the rain forest, but I am more interested in the many species flying among us.

Living in Southern California I am lucky to be able to see a great variety of birds year round and I intend to highlight a different species each week. I am not a bird snob, so I will be covering the most ubiquitous as well as the exotic. Pigeons, crows, gulls and common sparrows are fabulous to study because they do not fear us. Try watching a group of pigeons fight over the best spot on a lamppost or flying in perfectly ordered chaos next time you are waiting on a street corner for the light to change. It’s better entertainment then most of the crap on my phone.

I am not a bird expert. I am just a self-taught birder who likes to observe. My new blog will be a platform for sharing and reflecting on the many things that birds teach me about life, love and survival.

More information coming soon!

Valley of Smoke

ChumashTerr2

The name of this post is stolen from Alex MacInnis’ website by the same name: http://www.valleyofsmoke.com/  

His site offers in-depth reporting on various topics (how artists survive, the history of healthcare, how we deal with urban wildlife, among others) against the backdrop of Los Angeles and it’s sorted history. The name “Valley of Smoke” was purportedly given to Los Angeles by the earliest Europeans who landed here and to me it’s beautifully appropriate.

I often think about the imported people, flora and fauna that pushed out the native tribes, plants and animals that thrived here for thousands of years. I like to imagine what the area must have looked like before water was pumped in and lawns and palms became ubiquitous signs of our city. The gargantuan San Gabriel Mountains, just a mile up the road from my house, offer great opportunities for hiking steep trails and looking down and imagining the land without the pavement and buildings that sprawl to the ocean.

Last week I hiked farther up than ever and took the shot above. My friend and I tried to decipher the outcroppings of tall buildings and argued over which were Downtown, Hollywood and Century City. Living here 25 years, I feel I know something about this town, but staring down on it is humbling. So many people. So many cars. So much creativity and talent. So much yoga and meditation. So much smog and smoke.

It was many years of living here before I learned a little about the natives who came first. The Chumash are famous for being a peaceful and prosperous tribe that occupied the central coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles, including the islands off of it. But the Tongva were the people who occupied most of the area we call Los Angeles today, including the San Gabriel Mountains. In fact the Tongva were sometimes known as the Gabrieleno, among other names. Due to the rich land, the ability to fish in canoes fortified with tar from the La Brea Tar Pits and of course the year round mild climate, the Chumash and the Tongva engaged in a vigorous trading economy and enjoyed an abundant lifestyle. The Chumash are known for their prosperity, crafts and art. The Tongva were a much smaller tribe, virtually wiped out by the beginning of the 20th century, so their history is not as well known or documented. But I imagine they were much like the Chumash and enjoyed a similar lifestyle that was easy going and productive.

Like most people, I regret the loss of the native cultures and people that the European invasion brought, but of course I would not be here had things worked out some other way. I take some solace in the idea that the rich culture Los Angeles is famous for bears a distinct similarity to what was here before.

I like this quote from Bruce W. Miller’s book, “Chumash: A Picture of Their World:”

The Chumash were also culturally rich, with their own music, art, astronomy, and mythology. They began making beautiful rock paintings, whose meaning is still in many ways a mystery today. They developed a strong sense of community and self. They endeavored to control their environment and the very contours of the universe.They had a highly developed sense of ritual and spiritual power which was manifested in their daily life. Above all they had a vibrant, bountiful and relatively peaceful existence.

I have loved spending my adult life in L.A. I find the community of artists that flock here to work in the entertainment industry and who are pumped out of the best art schools in the country to be a great one. I have always felt the art world in Los Angeles as a cozy family of players and wannabes who easily share a beer or end up at the same meditation retreat. I love the vibrancy of the artist/design communities that flourish here with relatively low rents that allow people to actually have work space. And I also love the relaxed vibe that is so much a part of this town. Yes it gets tense in rush hour on the freeways, but Angelinos know how to use their New Age know how to decompress and relax better than most. And even though few of us make it there with frequency, we know we can always hit the beach.

Fortunately / Unfortunately

wall

Looking back on this year and forward to next, it feels like I’m on the brink of a whole new phase with my career as a writer. I love calling it that because I know I may never make a dime from writing, but it is still my primary vocation. Fortunately I have always hated the word “hobby” and would never use it for an artistic endeavor because I’ve always taken my work seriously, and I take writing more seriously all the time.

I’ve always liked writing but unfortunately I had a college professor my freshman year who told me my writing was terrible and insisted I have an English major tutor me in basic grammar. Even though her criticism may have been purely technical she made me feel I had no talent. Unfortunately I was so insecure I wasn’t willing to work hard at anything unless I was already good at it, which meant playing it safe and sticking to visual art, which I had a natural propensity for.

Fortunately art teachers are in the business of pushing their students to take risks and my work ended up spanning many media and disciplines over many years. Writing often found its way into my work and I gained confidence in my abilities over time. Fortunately landing my vocation in middle age turns out to be a good thing. Since I haven’t spent my life pursuing writing I bring a freshman’s optimism and willingness to the craft. And being almost fifty-two means I don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks.

Unfortunately, I’m not that young anymore. The passage of time is not negotiable and I probably don’t have enough years left to write all the books I’d like to. It’s just not that easy to learn how to write something complex and good.

It took a few years for me to feel really confident about what I’m doing and it’s taken even longer to get to that point with my book. At the beginning of 2015 I decided my goal was to find an agent, or at least someone who believed in my book enough to help me make it more palatable for the general public. I educated myself about the market and managed to find that person in a freelance editor. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with someone who is professional, knowledgeable and believes in the project. When I started, I had no idea how to write a novel and yet I was willing to take a stab. And many editors and readers later, I am finally in the hands of someone truly great, who is willing to lead me down that last stretch of road. I can’t wait to get started.

 

 

 

Fiction: Aurelia Stands Accused

gallows

Aurelia couldn’t feel her feet even though they had taken her shoes. They were bare, holding her up on the coarse wooden platform that was now serving as stage. It was as if she were in a theater play, which was something small groups of people in this town did in winter to pass the time. But it was summer, and there was no time for play acting.

Her body shook. Not so much that any one of the people staring at her could see but she could feel it. A quickening under her skin, she felt it most just above her wrists, under her ribs and at the points of her knees. She believed firmly that it was her soul visiting her because the same thing happened when she saw a baby be born or knew deep inside her that someone who was missing had been killed. It was her soul’s way of talking. Waking her to the presence of something that had always and would forever live on. She didn’t believe in the devil as many did. That was nonsense folks made up to judge one against another. She preferred her conversations with God to be private, at her bedside or before the hearth as she prayed for what she needed to survive. She never asked for any more and God had never let her flounder.

She still had faith. She knew she had done wrong and that there was a price to pay and she was happy to die. Many didn’t live as long as she had. Four of her eight siblings for instance. Aurelia was twenty-five years and had much to show for it. But she had done wrong. She had a loved a man that was not hers.

She didn’t like the word witch. Didn’t believe any of it. The fever that had taken over her town was nothing more than gossiping lit up into flames. Excuses to kill innocents who someone more important had a line on, like her. Then they had concocted some treachery and gotten small girls who knew no better and sisters who were jealous to testify.

The noose around her neck she could feel, itchy against the tender skin there. Much of her skin was calloused from the work but her neck was most often hidden from the sun and the skin had remained sensitive. She wished the rope around her wrists was as loose and she could scratch to relieve it.

Even as her sister Charlotte stood and accused her, going so far as to say Aurelia had flown on a stick, Aurelia managed to convince Charlotte not to tell her baby, when she was old enough to talk, that her mother had been hanged a witch. She had no assurance Charlotte would keep her promise, but belief was all she had.

Brevity Please

Exube

I’m celebrating today so I’m going to keep this short. Ever since I decided to restructure my novel it has been a marathon of organizing, rewriting and editing. I had a limited amount of time, so I had to push my other jobs aside for the month and just write.

It was heaven. There’s nothing I like more than an excuse to ignore social media, cut back on exercise and have a reason to order takeout. It was a marathon without the pain. I’ve actually never run 26 miles but I imagine one loses perspective and there are probably hallucinations of the worst possible outcome. But the finish line must be glorious.

Even though I went through all those things, for the most part it was extremely satisfying. Like running, writing is a matter of plugging along, no matter how tired you get. This book is an ultra-marathon in terms of the amount of hours I’ve put into it, (thousands) and at this point it’s easy to see what it needs. The manuscript practically talks to me  and I just have to listen. If a paragraph feels dead or has an associative shrinking feeling, it probably needs to go. And if it feels alive and full of possibility, it stays. The more I follow this simple test, the easier it is to let the text lead me through the process.

In order to be ruthless with my cuts, I have to remember that every thing I delete is really still in there somewhere, reincarnated into better phrases and word choices. A book is a living thing, in many respects, and I’m better off letting it lead me down the aisle. The finished piece is now about two thirds the length it was before, but for most writing, I say, less is more.

 

My Favorite Job

Drops

There’s really nothing I like better than talking to a friend who is grieving. I wonder if that sounds strange. It has always been pleasurable for me, ever since I can remember. And I am so grateful that people often seek me out to talk to when they are in that state. Sometimes it’s people I don’t know. I can’t count the number of times I have sat down next to someone at a dinner for my husband’s work and found out minutes into the conversation that the person I’ve just met is grieving. I guess people can feel my willingness to talk about it and they just naturally share it with me. And maybe the frequency of that happening is just a coincidence. Maybe I’m just lucky.

Talking about grief is important to me because it’s something we all share. A point of connection. It’s like a club that everyone has to join at some point in life. And when I’m not in the middle of it, I can help someone who is. I can be a big solid tree limb to grab onto when the tsunami hits.

Everyone needs a lifeline sometimes. In fact, we all need a little lifeline every day. We need others to anchor us, get us out of destructive habits, help us remember to have faith in ourselves, and our situations. We all need at least a small branch to hang onto every day. But sometimes, we are so deep in our emotions, like when we’re grieving, or terrified of dying, or losing a relationship, in those times we need to reach out and ask.

Today I took a walk with a friend who recently lost someone. Walking is such a great way to approach grief because you don’t have to look at anyone if you don’t want to. It’s a way to make space and allow yourself to feel sad and also keep moving. And that’s really what grieving comes down to.

Toward the end of our walk I was reminding my friend, who is also a mother, to take care of herself. Just then we noticed a whole pile of white feathers on the ground. The site of some poor pigeon’s end. We gathered up a slew of them and I told her that I often see white pigeons on our street.

Years ago, when I was grieving my baby, a friend and mentor urged me to pay attention to the timing of things. I told my friend to make a little altar at home with the feathers and to keep her eye out for white pigeons and let them remind her to take breaks, to meditate for a few minutes when she needs to, or just remember the person who died.

There is no shame in asking for help. There is certainly no shame in giving it. I am so proud to call myself a healer. To know that doesn’t mean I’m special or different than anyone else. All it means is I am willing to walk down the scary dark alleys with people. I am willing to hang out in the windstorm and stick out my branch. I’m willing to look at anyone’s grief, to call it what it is (a natural process), to pick up a few feathers and toss a lifeline to whomever needs it.

 

 

July 27 1978

ansels tray

Another excerpt that got chopped from my book:

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

Too weak to write. I would like to die now.

Sue drops her pen onto the hard hospital mattress, the line just written reverberating. She wonders at how neutral she feels about dying now, compared to how worried she has been. There is a sense that everything is okay, and will be okay, forever. It has always been there, alongside or maybe underneath all the anxiety, but now it bubbles to the surface. She always knew it was the truth but had chosen instead to worry about things, and about time, a habit learned from her mother. Physical pain and emotional suffering were the big worries, and of course logistics. How would her husband get along? What will happen to the children’s scholarships? Her own games of fussing had provided a necessary distraction.

Sue sees herself falling in the kitchen, like a rerun on TV. Her greatest fear was being that helpless, that burdensome, and it infuriated her to have it realized. She felt like a whale, drowning on that kitchen floor. Her insistence on calling a car service was just her irrational fear of being that far gone. Then again, she couldn’t have planned it better. The fall had gotten her to the hospital, which is where she wants to be. Safe to die. She never wanted to die at home, with the kids around. Or Seth. Or anyone she loved. She feared them staring at a gray stiff body on the bed, her bloated belly taut. She wants a nurse for that scene.

She hopes she will die tonight. She lies with her eyes open, closed, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. Her mind wanders off. It feels good to be rid of the anxiousness that has lived in her chest for as long as she can remember. It had grown worse over the last four years, her “battle” with cancer, which really did feel like a war of the worlds at times, obviously the culprit. Now that the fight is over the anxiety is gone. She senses it close by, wanting to get back in and have her worry about dying and what will happen after, but she’s not that weak. It’s all over now and she is ready. Her chest empty and light. The relentless pain that has been so busy eating away her life finally fading. The sun sinking into a watery horizon. The old hope for “improvement” that came to hold her life hostage finally snuffed out. The suffering that made the last weeks of living so intolerable has gradually spilled into pure exhaustion. The pen really is too heavy to hold. Her body feels something like a sponge, saturated, pure weight, absorbing the last bits of life and sinking, into the bed. Her prison home.

Her death sentence came in May when the cancer reached her liver, but it took a while for everyone, including Sue, to catch up. As her looming demise became clear to her, Seth and Jane, and even Kate, there was only the business of getting through each day. The tasks of brushing teeth and getting dressed became gargantuan chores. Two weeks ago she sat on the toilet, unable to lift up enough or bend over to wipe her self. Seth had to put on a raised toilet seat, which only worked for a few days before she needed a commode next to her bed. Sleeping pills and pain pills had to be crushed to get them down her swollen esophagus. She had blown up like a balloon.

She can hardly feel her body now. The days of worsening dysfunction just bad memories. Even the dull aches and sharp pains that have been her torture are losing their hold.

July 27th, 1978 and she is finally at death’s door. Her mind no longer grabs aimlessly for something to do. The task of working things out. What else is it good for? She notices a new kind of freedom she’s never felt. A fresh feeling beyond being untethered. Was she always tied to something before? What people thought? Ideas of the world and what it’s all about?

She is somehow floating, disengaging from the bloated weight on the bed. She is not dead. She knows that. She has no idea how to look into the abyss. Where is it? Is this her last choice?

She loves her life, her family, her friends. Already it all seems far in the past. It hasn’t been an hour since Seth left but it feels like days since she looked at his face. Goodbye in his eyes even though he said he’d be back in the morning. Sue hopes she will die tonight, but she has no more control over her death than she had over her life.

Forty-five years old. It was a decent life, short, but she’s not a child. She accomplished every goal she had. She married the man she loved, had a big family, contributed to the community, was creative in her work. What else is there?

The mind in free fall, she starts to see faces. The odd look on the doorman’s as Seth wheeled her through the lobby this morning. Jane’s teary eyes as she kissed Sue’s head. Dr. Farley and the visit with him a month ago, after which he was on vacation until today. Funny how the doctor she trusted most had disappeared in the end. His absence made her need to see him before she died. She still isn’t sure why. Maybe she wanted to see the recognition on his face that the war was over, but it didn’t happen. Farley wanted to do an X-ray. He couldn’t acknowledge her choice to face her own death. She suspected he wasn’t used to it, but that he respected it. He never came back to the room. Maybe he will, but she doubts it. She imagines him talking to Seth after she’s gone, telling Seth things he hadn’t been able to before. Or maybe Farley will brush by him like a stranger. That seems unlikely but at this point Sue is beyond guessing other people’s behavior. It might have mattered to her before, but no longer. Everything has that lovely quality to it of being supremely perfect just as it is.

She’s satisfied that she got rid of a lot of her things. Her clothes are still hanging in the closet, very few of them any use to her recently. The darkroom is all put away in case someone wants it and she’s left only a few of her files in the bedroom. Beyond her jewelry box and her books and photo albums, which she assumes the kids will want, she has nothing.

The slideshow stops. I’m ready, her mind says. Who am I talking to? She has no idea. I guess if there is a God I’ll find out soon enough. She smiles at her own joke and considers the possibility of a soul. She sees her own face, clear as a photograph in her mind. Not the round fuzzy mask with the sunken eyes and hairless scalp in the mirror. Her face. The one that disappeared slowly. Her brown hair curly and cropped close to her head, her soft blue gray eyes, her straight nose and full lips, her high cheekbones and smooth skin. That face seems to possess an image of her soul, she thinks. “That’s me,” escapes from her dry lips and gently startles her. She thought she was only thinking and yet she just spoke out loud by mistake, as if waking from a half-dream.

If she is dozing then she might also be dying. She lets that possibility sink in and feels a cool shudder course through her as she drops into the black.

Radiation Treatment

enlarger_darkroom_07

 

I recently gutted the book I’ve been working on for five years and with that process comes the sometimes (not often) painful act of discarding scenes I’d grown quite attached to. It wasn’t how long I had worked on them or fought to keep them in the manuscript that made me reluctant to let go, it was something harder to quantify. The scenes that were hard to part with were the ones that held some mystery for me. The one that worked in ways I didn’t quite understand but knew were effective. The following is one such scene that I feel deserves some semblance of a life, now that it has been taken from its original home.

 

_________________________

Radiation Treatment

 

“Today they will mark you up,” says the nurse as she has Sue lie down on the table and open her gown. Dr. Larkin comes back in the room with an assistant who holds a measuring tape against Sue’s bare skin. The assistant draws two large overlapping rectangles on Sue’s chest under Larkin’s careful direction. One rectangle is made with black marker, the other in red. She can feel the line go high up onto her neck and wonders how she will cover it up. A scarf perhaps, though she rarely wears them.

“Don’t let it wash off,” Larkin warns as she gets up off the table. “They need to stay for a month until the treatments are completed.” Marvelous, Sue thinks, a month of washing my hair in the sink.

On the way home, Sue spontaneously gets off the subway at Canal Street. She’s been wanting a little Rollei camera for some time—and there’s no rush to get home. On the subway she was reading a book written by a cancer survivor, her picture on the cover made her look healthy and vibrant, her brown hair lively and full against the bright blue backdrop. The writer advised living in the present, being grateful for each day and enjoying every minute. Sue agrees. Not always easy to do but it was enough to inspire her off the train.

Camera Barn is loud and full of men in black coats even though it’s hot inside. Finally, after several minutes standing at the glass counter trying to get someone’s attention, a man with a long grey beard nods at her. She asks to see the Rollei and he brings over two used cameras in good condition. Sue chooses the cheaper one, playing with the functions on it to be sure it’s working well. She likes the way the lens pushes back inside the body so that the whole thing fits neatly into a leather case no larger than a pack of cigarettes.

Outside she bounces down the crowded hot street as if it were a beautiful spring day. Her treatment is finally under way, her body feels healthy and she’s got a great little camera to try. As she descends back down into the subway headed for Brooklyn, she makes a promise to herself to continue with her photography, for as long as she can.

A week later she goes back to the hospital for her first treatment. When she arrives back home late in the afternoon, no one is there. Sue moves around the apartment, the doors echoing against the silence when she moves from one room to the next. She considers calling Seth at the office, perhaps catching him before he leaves to tell him how she panicked during the radiation but thinks better of it. Opportunities to be alone are rare and she wants to enjoy her time. She prepares a simple dinner of leftovers and with the earlier promise in mind, sets up the darkroom.

She opens a cabinet and takes out chemicals and trays, clearing space for them in the utility room that doubles as a laundry and storage area. She has to put away a pile of Kate’s clothes before she can pull out the enlarger. She opens her binder of negatives and looks over the contact sheets with the magnifier. There are pictures of Annie, taken at the beach, a portrait of Shep she’d made him pose for, and some fairly abstract images of stones and seaweed. Her eye is drawn to a crab she had photographed in the sand. The claws sharply focused and the body a blur.

When all the chemicals are poured into the trays and the sink is set up for rinsing and the drying rack is plugged in she turns out the lights. The black reminds her of the void she experienced under the radiation machine. What is she really afraid of? Death has never scared her before but on the table the fear was terrible. She turns on the enlarger to set up the easel where the paper will go, the square of white like the irradiated rectangles on her chest. She stares down at the light considering how it oxidizes silver into grays and blacks to make a satisfying image, marveling at the power of it to change things. She carefully places the negative into the metal holder, lifts the lever that opens the enlarger and slips the plate in. When she closes it the room darkens enough for an image, upside down and backwards, the whites black and the blacks white to appear.

Ouch!!

Bruis

I’m not sure what happened. I know I was frustrated and in a hurry. I wanted to finish taping up the tarp I was fitting to our trampoline. I was tired and hot, and like a child had worked myself up into a frenzy to get it done when I ran out of tape. I was getting off the trampoline to fetch another roll when something went wrong. The crate I was using as a step spun away from me, I slipped off the trampoline and fell a full four feet, the dry grass rising in a spin to meet my face and my back slamming against the hard edge of the crate.

I lay on the drought-dry-as-cement dirt in the backyard and yelled my husband’s name.

I didn’t even try to move. I knew I couldn’t. My daughter came out to investigate. “Get Daddy!” I yelled and next thing he was hurtling down the steps and racing toward me. “I’m okay!” I yelled out. “I just can’t get up.”

I have never hurt myself this badly before. I’m too cautious. I play it safe, always have, and maybe I’ve been lucky too. But the only other serious injury I have sustained was a broken foot. That wasn’t as bad because it was one bone with a small fracture. Enough to warrant a cast and crutches, but at least it was all in one spot.

This time I bruised several ribs and countless muscles in my back and side which makes many things hard to do. Sleeping, standing, reaching, walking and sitting were all suddenly painful and difficult tasks. Driving was out, and so was laughing and, God forbid, coughing. Even burping hurt. It was awful. But my husband did everything as I laid in bed and took the time to heal. He kept telling me, you’ll get better, and I did. It will take weeks, maybe longer to heal completely, but after four days of rest I’m back to doing most things.

The timing is interesting. I always assign meaning to events like this. Especially when there’s no one but myself to blame. I tell myself, “this is actually a good thing!” and in many ways I believe that’s true.

Every part of the body is symbolic and the back, for me, is history. What’s behind me. My past. I have been housing some very old pain in my back muscles since I was in my twenties. I’ve tried stretching and massage and both help a lot, but if I really wanted to heal my back I would need to get serious about Yoga and have regular massage therapy. No, I have not done either.

This injury ignited all those tight muscles on my right side and then added a bunch more for good measure. The mild back pain I have suffered for years was suddenly in-my-face debilitating, along with a lot of new pain, but I knew I had it coming. I mean, here I am, putting more and more energy into getting my book out into the world, the book that tells the story of that old pain, the pain I’ve been carrying all my adult life and I’ve basically stomped on it with all my weight, all hundred and thirty pounds of me, landing on it hard. And I added a bunch of new muscles and threw in some ribs to get pounded on too, because life isn’t that neat and confined and if you’re going to get serious and stomp on old pain, you’re going to make some new injuries. All of it shows me how to live, how to jump off the trampoline with my eyes open and be ready to land on my feet, or fall and get hurt again, maybe even mangle myself worse next time. I know I’ll survive, and that it’s worth it to get this story out, let myself be seen, and set me, but more importantly my history, free.

Aho!

How To Be Successful

Water

The modern light-filled entrance on First Avenue was impressive. I pulled hard on the smooth silver bar and the large glass door opened so easily it threw me off balance. Luckily I righted myself and entered Belleview hospital on my feet.

When I was a kid Bellevue was known as a decrepit hospital, so the new entrance looked to me like a high priced facelift on the aging brick complex that eats up three New York City blocks between 26th and 29th streets in Manhattan.

All sorts of elderly people, young parents with small children, heavy slow movers and hyper young men in polyester business suits were flowing in and out of the many glass doors along with me. A big ramp that curved around fed us all into the sprawling lobby that seemed to have a cafeteria of some kind, maybe it was a café, at the far end and otherwise was a large empty space with hallways and elevators funneling off of it to different areas of the hospital. There were color-coded letters to guide you, and by looking at a large directory stationed in the center of the floor I determined I needed to follow the E in a green circle for what I was after: The Department of Personal Property.

I followed the green circle E signs, one after the next, through large rooms and odd passageways far less impressive than the renovated entrance. Eventually they led me to a long dingy hallway at the end of which was a window with three people stationed behind it like a post office or bank. Over each window was a sign. Two of them read “Metro Cards” and one said “Personal Property.”

There was a rope line with stanchions but no one waiting except for a woman with a stroller and two children, who didn’t look as if she was ready. She was getting something out of her purse for the toddler so I stepped around her to stand at the front of the line.

The older black woman beneath the Personal Property window said, “Can I help you?”

I was armed with a piece of paper that had taken three days of relentless pursuit to obtain. I pulled it out and said, “I am here to pick up my uncle’s belongings.”

My uncle is eighty-three years old, just a year older than my mother would be. If she were still alive, she would have been standing at the window instead of me. When her brother ended up in the ICU, I had flown in from California to try and sort out what might be the end of his life.

The letter in my hand was my golden ticket. It consisted of just a few typed lines with a long crooked pen mark across half of it, which was my uncle’s recent attempt at a signature.

When I first arrived in NY, I went the hospital to see my uncle and found his condition was poor. He couldn’t talk and was barely awake. Two weeks earlier he had fallen in his apartment, been taken to the hospital by ambulance, and been found to have pneumonia. He was recovering from that at a rehab center/nursing home when he had a heart attack and was resuscitated. Now he had a feeding tube up his nose, a ventilator attached through a trach in his throat, and many other tubes and monitors I couldn’t understand.

I stayed with my Dad and stepmother in Brooklyn, but I was determined to keep them out of it. I knew they felt responsible but at ninety-one and eighty-three, they really are too old to be taking care of anyone but themselves. After talking with them we decided my objective was simply to get into his apartment, find his will and hopefully his Living Will.

I went to my uncle’s building determined to talk my way in. I had no idea his little apartment was part of a huge coop complex that is corporate owned and operated, and that the rules in place are steel door tight. No one gets in. The head of security made it clear I would need Power of Attorney, which no one has for my uncle, or guardianship, which requires a court date. I begged her to consider my situation: A loyal homeowner was in the ICU and needed his healthcare documents. We didn’t know of anyone who had keys to his place. Finally she agreed that a notarized letter from him, granting me permission, would do.

Meanwhile it occurred to me that my uncle might have had his keys with him when the ambulance took him to the hospital. How else would they have locked the door? I guess someone from the building could have been there, like a security guard, but I had a feeling that since he was taken to the hospital after a fall, and not something more dramatic, that he would have grabbed his wallet and his keys.

The nurses I asked at Lenox Hill hospital said his chart stated that he arrived with nothing. I had to verify that fact by tracking down the security department and they confirmed that there was nothing of his in their possession. I spent the rest of my second day in NY calling the other three hospitals, in reverse order of his arrival to each of them, trying to find his wallet and keys. It took one entire day to negotiate each institution’s particular bureaucracy, find the right department, the right person to talk to, and leave messages for people who never called back. I was a pit bull going after the information by being obnoxious and persistent, until I finally reached the right people. Of the four hospitals I had to call, Bellevue’s phone system was the worst. The computer would hang up on me every time I tried to get to the Personal Property Department. Eventually I got around the problem by insisting people transfer me directly and got to the right person and her answer was music to my ears. “Yes, we have his belongings.”

“Hallelujah!” I said on the other end.

“But I can’t just give them to you. You’re going to need a notarized letter granting you permission to pick up his things before you come down here.”

“Can you tell me what you have?”

“No.”

“Getting a letter from him is going to be very difficult. I don’t want to spend a day doing that to find out all you have is some clothing.”

“It’s not clothes,” she said. “It’s valuables. But that’s all I got to say.”

As soon as she said valuables I felt a blooming in my chest, a rush of relief. Valuables. It had to be his wallet and his keys.

My uncle’s life was a mystery to me at that point. He lives, or lived, a very quiet and solitary existence in his one bedroom coop in Chelsea. All I knew was that when I visited him a few months ago, I asked if he had a will and he said yes.

My uncle never had children and outlived his wife by forty years, so his list of living relatives is short. It’s just his half-sister, my Dad, and my three siblings. None of us are close to him. None of us ever spoke to him regularly. He was agreeable, always happy and never complained. We worried as he aged and developed diabetes and gained weight, but that was about all we did.

The next morning I Googled mobile notary public and up popped Christopher Santucci, on the upper west side. I called and he agreed to meet me at the hospital. I told him my uncle couldn’t talk and didn’t have any identification with him. He said it was fine, that he just needed my uncle to make an x on the paper, and two nurses who could identify him. We made plans to meet that afternoon.

When I got to the ICU my uncle was better, more awake than the day before, but still sedated. I wasn’t sure he would be able to sign something. I tried talking to him, explaining what I was trying to do without making him anxious or stressed. He agreed to give me permission to get his belongings from Bellevue and to go to his apartment. But I didn’t think he would be able to stay awake to sign his x. I canceled the notary, hoping my uncle would be better the next day.

In the morning I went uptown early and was pleased to find my uncle more awake. I called the notary who said he had other appointments but would try to make it. I called another mobile notary service as a back up and they said something that scared me. “We don’t do that. If your uncle can’t speak we can’t notarize anything for him. It’s a liability issue.”

I had a terrible sinking feeling. All the obstacles I had overcome meant nothing if I couldn’t get the letters signed. Suddenly defeat seemed sure. My aunt had said, “They’re never going to let you into his apartment,” and I had bristled at her pessimism. But maybe she was right. Maybe this was impossible. I could hear my stepmother telling everyone how I had tried, “bless her heart,” but failed to achieve anything. I could hear myself on the plane ride home, wondering what I was thinking.

But I had too much momentum and too much at stake to give up. I called Christopher back and he said he could come at 11.

Hallelujah.

I looked at my uncle and he smiled his big bright smile. He was looking pretty good despite the stubble getting long on his chin, and all the tubes and machines pumping everything in and out of him.

I explained the two letters again: One for the hospital and one for the building. I asked if he wanted to practice signing his name, but he shook his head no.

Christopher arrived and I pulled out my two typed up letters and walked over to the bed.

“I need you to sing here okay?”

I put the pen in my uncle’s hand but he couldn’t hold onto it. He was frustrated. I felt victory slipping away again. Christopher said all he needed was an X but what if he couldn’t do that? He grimaced and gripped the pen and scrawled his crooked line like it was the declaration of independence. It seemed to have taken all his strength and after both letters were signed, he collapsed back into his pillows.

Christopher asked two nurses to witness and confirm his identity. One had no problem doing it but the second nurse wasn’t sure. She was worried about liability issues, but Christopher had a way about him. He put her at ease. “It’s nothing sweetheart,” he said, “You’re just saying you know who he is, all right?”

And she signed.

So when I slid my driver’s license and the letter for Bellevue under the glass partition it was with great satisfaction and trepidation. At the hospital, I noticed a tan line where a watch should have been on my uncle’s wrist, and it occurred to me that the “valuables” might just be his watch and some cash from his pocket.

The woman took the letter and my ID and told me to have a seat. I sat next to a large man who needed my help when it was time for him to stand. He was big and it took all my strength to get him up. I stood holding him until he was steady on his feet.

The line behind the rope and the stanchions had grown to ten people in just a few moments. I felt incredibly lucky to have gotten there when I did and lucky to have found Christopher, the best notary in Manhattan.

When she came back the woman had a manila envelope with my uncle’s name printed across the front. My heart started pounding. She opened the envelope and pulled out an inventory list, and then a plastic zip lock bag. I practically fainted. It was his wallet and his keys.

I soared out of the gargantuan building and made my way back across town to his apartment. I knew he would be so happy to have those two things back. I knew they would make him feel a sense of security, which he needed and deserved. And I knew they would get me into his apartment and I would find his will and we would all rest easier. I stopped in a little Japanese restaurant to celebrate my success. As I slurped miso soup I realized I had never felt more gratified before. There was something about helping someone else, but also how hard it had seemed, how bad the odds, that it made winning incredible. I’ve never played on a team but this was what I imagined winning a big game might feel like. I had set a goal, and I had achieved it, and that is the key to success.