It was a ten-seater Cessna and my dad thought it was the coolest thing ever, which is why he bought it, painted The Holly Jo in fancy script on the side, then hired Bill Ferber. Bill was old school (aka: no flight plan), a bush pilot with a big voice and long khaki-clad legs that had to be folded, origami like, into the cockpit, so he could fly us to a Mexican beach on weekends. Barely eight-years-old, I took my first flight, a pink vinyl backpack of swimwear and snacks strapped to my back. No seatbelts back then, or none that we cared to use, so I ran up and down the aisle, flapping my arms, scream-crying my excitement and absolute terror, “put me down, put me down! Let’s fly!”
I really expected to want to give 2017 The Finger after the grief and hardship she wrought, but looking back, what I see is the most amazing mix of joy-pain to ever wash up on my shore. Last Christmas was my father’s last. We all knew that, but no one was willing to actually say it. When he handed me a tiny box that held his college class ring, I was so overwhelmed, I had to run out of the room so the wracking sobs wouldn’t scare the nieces and nephews, happily tearing open a mountain of gifts. Growing up, one of my favorite TV shows was Get Smart. I used to pretend I was Agent 99, and the big lumpy ring I screwed off my dad’s finger was a secret “communicator” used for reporting spy missions to Maxwell Smart. It also came in handy at bedtime for firing death rays at the bad guys in my dreams and those nasty clowns that live under the bed. Every time we crossed a street and my dad grabbed my hand, I could feel the crush of it in my palm. I was so happy to have that magic ring and so pained that he was handing it over.
After he died on March 29th, I spent the months that followed driving up and down 101 listening to Podcasts and sobbing. Hey, it beats a bag of Funyuns (although there was some of that, too!) The story of a Marine snipper platoon in Mosul addicted to reruns of the Gilmore Girls forced me to pull over, the hammering in my chest making it hard to breath. Another story about a handful of prisoners serving life sentences, memorizing Hamlet and performing it for fellow inmates made me howl more. The kicker was the story of two political prisoners in Somalia, boxed in tiny cells separated by a concrete wall, who developed their own code by rapping their knuckles on the wall. After years of solitary confinement, one of them was allowed a book and it happened to be Anna Karenina (my favorite!) He taps out all 978 pages to his friend. Listening to this last one, I had to pull over at Seal Rock, press my fists into my eyes and cry for all of us. At the injustice inherent in this earthly life. At the ability of grace to return to us the very humanity that puts us at risk.
While other people’s sorrow, their struggle towards resilience was good distraction and offered much needed perspective, the greater comfort was the daily kindnesses: a neighbor brought over a small purple lilac bush because she’d read in a post that it was my father’s favorite. A client delivered still warm chicken eggs from her farm, another plucked a most amazing bouquet from her garden and yet another brought me a steaming bowl of ramen when I couldn’t get out of bed. My riding buddy forced me to get back on my bike and ride until I about threw up while she rang rang rang her damn handlebar bell like a maniac every time I topped a hill. (I think the clown under the bed is wearing that damn bell around his neck).
And of course, 2017, like every year, contained much belly laughter. During one of the million airport pick-ups my friend, Erin, made to bring me to my dad… I got in the car, long faced and depleted, so she reached into the backseat to, I thought, retrieve the eternal box of tissues, because I’ve spent many, many years crying in that Subaru. Instead, she whipped out a perfectly crafted, chilled martini IN A MARTINI glass. With two olives! We both burst out laughing.
Then, after my father’s funeral service and everyone settled in for the church luncheon, I sat alone at the graveside trying to make sense of that pile of dirt and flowers. I thought if I squeezed my eyes tight and held my breath, I might conjure him, like in the movie Ghost but without the pottery wheel…that would be weird. Instead, I opened my eyes to a Mustang screaming down the row of graves and coming to a screeching halt next to me. The window rolled down, dark smoke billowed and a hand reached out holding the biggest fattie I’ve ever seen. “Yo girl, you need a bump,” my cousin said. “Come on, take it.” The mature answer would have been, please leave, I’m trying to have a quiet moment with my father. Instead, I jumped up in my smart, black suit frantically waving my arms, “I have fucking asthma, you moron. Get the fuck out of here before I tell Mom!” Shrugging his shoulders, the arm recoiled back into the smoke. “Suit yourself.” The Mustang peeled out, throwing dust and grass. I knew then, my dad had nothing to do with that pile of dirt and flowers.
Now, in the final month of 2017, my first thoughts upon waking are the same: A) my father is dead B) Trump is still president. I purposely flew to New Mexico for the Presidential election because I wanted to be sitting between my parents, both life-long feminists, with a bottle of champagne, as history was made. But as the returns rolled in, instead of popping the cork, we made a dash to the emergency room. My dad went into congestive heart failure, a side effect of years of chemo. To get him to smile, my mom and I took turns whispering in his ear, “Don’t let Trump kill you.” There are more valiant stories of when a child realizes that part of being an adult means burying your parents. For me, it was simply watching my father get loaded into the back of an ambulance. “Lights and sirens, Dad, lights and sirens,” I shouted, trying to scare the ghosts away. “Now’s your chance. Make them go full boar!” But of course, he told them not to. Hated making a ruckus, that one.
The next five months after the election were a rapid downhill slide. After a stroke blurred his vision, my father would prod me to read him the daily newspaper, cover to cover, till my voice went raw, and then he’d lament the decline in civil rights, the rise of the alt-right and his fear of blinding nationalization, here and abroad. Brexit appeared to be the first domino. One thing I can say for Trump. He’s forced us to have hard conversations about race, about sexual assault, about science and the fate of the world. My dad and I had many of those conversations in his last days. One of those included a half-hearted urging to start using my married name, Sestrich, instead of Romero, so that I might stay safe. “I worry about the country I’m leaving you,” he said. I argued that was silly talk. Yet…last week, an acquaintance for the past 10 years declared, “I can’t believe you’re Hispanic. You’re so smart!” Then one of my brown-faced friends quit splinting his broken hand because several people told him that black velcro looked like a gun and he was likely to be shot. And one of my clients, looking out the window of the studio at the crew of men replacing the gutters, declared, “Jesus, Mexicans everywhere.” I know racism has always existed and that we all have different ideas of what it means to be an American. Now, however, the genie is out of the bottle.
Still, I can’t really give 2017 The Finger. Hiking Yosemite. Exploring the Siuslaw. Toasting the wedding of my 91-year-old uncle, dinners with friends where delicious food and lively conversation was the whole point, laughing with the Ranger, making fun of the Ranger, stripping the Ranger of his shirt. Then…after an epic trip to Ireland that included cycling the wild Atlantic coast, dancing with octopus arms and legs like Elaine from Seinfeld at the Galway Oyster Festival and hiking the rough terrain of the Buren, I sat with my teacher in Santa Fe as we discussed the nuances of yoga. “Keep tilling the soil of heart and mind. Otherwise, you just end up checking out. Feel it all. Nothing is fixed or set, everything is free. That’s why the tragic and the sublime can exist together.” Experiencing the 2017 eclipse from my front porch in jammies while sipping a cup of coffee, I can attest to the fact that light and darkness are equally important, if for no other reason than to blow your mind and make you see things differently. Or as my friend, Darcy says, “Sadness teaches you what you love.”
Maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about that long ago Cessna. How much I loved the stomach lurching push of take-off yet held my fearful breath on the other side as we skimmed the waves over the Gulf of Mexico, approaching a grassy landing strip the size of a band-aid. I will exit this year as I entered it, with perfectly red lipstick, scream-crying down the aisle, knowing I will have no choice but to embrace both the tragic and the sublime.