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Angie’s Diary Loving Annalise

An Erotic European Romance By Gabriel Constans on Saturday, September 12, 2015. Angie’s Diary.

The morning sun opened our lust-covered eyes. Tomas pulled me near in my half-asleep state. The next thing I knew, we were engaged where we’d left off the night before. “Damn,” I exclaimed. “What a wonderful way to start the day!”
imagesAs I lingered in our pleasure, he threw on a robe and went into the kitchen to make breakfast. I stared at the outline of his behind, appreciating his graceful stride as he disappeared from view.

We’d spent months planning this honeymoon. The kids were with Mutti and Vater in Chicago for two weeks, and we’d rented the cabin in the beautiful Rockies three months in advance. It stood above a shimmering clear lake, about an hour and a half outside Boulder. The closest residence was a quarter-mile away, and we were well-stocked with every necessity. The most essential item we’d packed with care was our freedom—the freedom to explore our love without guilt or remorse. Our self-imposed exile was over.

The scents of fresh coffee, toast, and bacon, mixed with the sounds of pans, silverware, and clinking glass, drifted into the bedroom. I pictured Tomas, with a smile of contentment, squeezing fresh orange juice and setting a tray. His gentle humming, a rendition of an old English love song, mingled with the sounds and smells of the breakfast.

The sun’s rays shot through the window and reflected off my wedding ring. It had been Omi’s when she’d been married and her mother’s—my great-grandmother’s—before that. It was a small, simple diamond set in a silver band. The light reflected a thousand colors of the rainbow. I looked closer and was amazed by its brilliance.

Jens had been like that ring. He’d overwhelmed me with his worldliness and intelligence. But like a fake diamond, he soon lost his luster, and our love faded to a dull gray.

***

Loving Annalise An Erotic European Romance

The bike vibrated between my legs as my arms encircled Jens’ waist. I was scared, but also excited. The wind blew through my hair as we wound through country roads and back to the city, ending up at a party with Jens’ buddies. I was in the bathroom for half an hour combing out my snarled hair. When I emerged, they were drinking, smoking and talking about the World Cup and politics.

“Germany doesn’t have a chance against Brazil. Their forwards are too fast, and Germany’s defense can’t keep up,” said Jens’ friend Paul.

Jens shot back, “Speed isn’t everything, my friend. Germany has strength. They’ll wear them down. You wait and see.”

“Yeah, look where strength got them: almost annihilated!” replied Paul.

“Why do you always bring in politics?” questioned Jens. “World War II has nothing to do with soccer, you idiot. And even if it did, you’d be wrong there, too. Germany has rebuilt itself from the ground up and is one of the strongest economic powers in the world. And mark my word, someday the Wall’s going to fall, and they’ll be unstoppable.”

“You must be drunk,” snorted Paul. “The Wall’s never coming down. You and I will be dead before that ever happens. You think Khrushev is going to allow it? No way! Never! The U.S. doesn’t really want it to fall either. They’re scared to death of a united Germany. Who can blame them? It wasn’t that long ago that we were under their thumbs as well.”

“Paul, you have not only lost your mind, but your reasoning ability as well,” Jens grinned. “Who did you say was drunk?”

They laughed and raised their glasses. “Mark my words, NATO would love to see The Wall crumble, and by tomorrow night, you’ll see the new world champions of soccer celebrating in Berlin.”

The night went on. Everyone grew louder and more adamant about his position. I didn’t dare say a word. I was too afraid to open my mouth, and I didn’t have a clue about half of what they were discussing. I was happy to just be there and sit by “my man.”

Around one or two in the morning, we swerved back and forth to the hospital. Jens dropped me off by the maintenance entrance. I took off my shoes and snuck in like a burglar. Kristan was wide awake and insisted I tell her “everything.”

“There’s not much to tell,” I said. “We just drove around for a while and went to see a friend of his.”

Annoyed with my reluctance, Kristan exclaimed, “Not much to tell! Didn’t you even kiss him?”

“No, why would I?” I asked naively. “We just met.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re impossible.”

I told her I was tired and went to bed. I could tell she was annoyed with my answer and knew I’d kept a lot to myself. I pulled the cover up to my neck, felt my legs still vibrating from the bike, and thought about Jens. He must be the most wonderful creature on earth! He’s so smart and handsome! I’d die for him here and now.

Jens and I continued to escape the watchful eyes of my benefactors at least four to five times a month. We went to movies, concerts and parties and took long walks. Jens did most of the talking and usually decided where we’d go, but I was happier than I’d ever been. Part of me enjoyed being told what to do and being taken care of. As the oldest at home, I’d always been the responsible one. Now I was the youngest. Jens was seven years my senior. I didn’t need to make any decisions—he was my mentor. His presence in my life opened new vistas and possibilities.

Three months later, the inevitable question arose. When he asks me to sleep with him, will I? It wasn’t a difficult decision. I was sure he was the love of my life, and I had no reason to hold back. He’d suggested I start taking the pill a month earlier, when I’d turned eighteen. He’d obviously decided already. And since I’d taken him up on his suggestion, it wasn’t a matter of if, but when.

“When” happened on a cold, windy, Friday night, after we’d gone to see the movie Easy Rider starring Peter Fonda. Jens loved biker movies. I didn’t understand all the drug references or American slang, but the need to let loose and be carefree spoke to all cultures and languages.

After the movie, we went to Paul’s home and discovered that no one was there. I learned later that they had it all planned.

Jens was very sweet and restrained himself from attacking me the instant we walked in the door. I could see in his eyes that he was holding himself in check, waiting for me to “give in” and “let go.”

He kissed me hard, took off my sweater and shirt, but had trouble getting my pants down. I stopped him and did it myself. He took off his clothes. I’d never seen a grown man naked, let alone one this excited. I stifled a giggle, and we continued our play into the bedroom.

Kristan was right: it was awkward. All the sensations were new. It felt strange to have another person inside of me. But this wasn’t just anyone—it was Jens! I wanted to show him I was a real woman. I’d never felt so close to another human being.

That night I went home and didn’t whisper a word to Kristan; it was too personal. I associated sex with love and was sure we were moving down the yellow brick road to eternal wedded bliss, with adorable children following in rapid succession. My head hit the pillow with a contented sigh.

Two days later, Jens took me to a ritzy downtown eatery known as Pole-Nord. I entered with a waltz in my step and a glow in my heart. I’d borrowed a silver, shimmering, low-cut dress from Kristan and spent hours on my hair and makeup. My expectations and exuberance filled the room to capacity. I felt like Jacqueline Onassis; I could have dazzled kings and queens with my brilliance.

As we sat waiting to order, Jens asked how I was doing.

“Great. How do you think?” I winked.

“You look gorgeous,” he said, but without any spark.

“Thought you’d never notice.” I smiled coyly.

After a few more moments of my intoxicated admiration and fawning, he began to unravel.

“I’ve got to tell you something,” he hinted.

“Yes…,” I stated with intimate glee.

“I’m not sure how,” he hesitated.

Here it comes, I thought. It must be hard to propose. I couldn’t wait much longer or I’d burst.

He moved his napkin on and off his lap several times, took a deep breath, and continued. “Well, there’s no easy way to do this.”

“What is it, Jens?” I asked with a shy grin, knowing all the while.

“It’s tearing me up.” He lowered his gaze and his voice.

A flicker of doubt crossed my mind. “What’s tearing you up?”

How could asking me to marry him be tearing him up?

“She doesn’t mean a thing,” he blurted.

I physically recoiled like a gun.

“What?” I mumbled. “She?”

“I was only eighteen,” he whispered. “Her father made us.”

“Made you what?” I asked, hoping against hope.

He looked up. “Get married, you idiot. What do you think I’m trying to tell you?”

Ashamed at my own ignorance, I continued to react like a schoolgirl who’d been attacked by the class bully. “Get married,” I stuttered. “You . . . you were married?”

Impatient and red-faced, he glared, “Not was married. I AM married. Why are you making this so difficult?!”

“Difficult?!” I exclaimed.

I couldn’t believe my ears were being defiled with such obscene hypocrisy. My outrage embedded itself in his floundering gills. “You’re married! You’re telling me you’re already married?!” He nodded. “You were married when we first went out . . . when you took me to see your friends . . . when you made love to me?!”   He looked away and nodded again.   “And I’m being difficult?!” I shouted.

I’m not sure why I didn’t stand up, kick him in the balls, and leave right then and there. I was paralyzed with shock; I simply froze and watched the crap pour from his lips.

“Yeah, I’m married,” he confessed, “but she doesn’t mean a thing. I’ve never loved her, and she knows it. It’s no big secret.”

They have no secrets, I thought. How nice.

“We’d have never have married if her father hadn’t threatened me,” he reiterated. “Hell, we’d only known each other for four months.”

“What’s her name?” a voice asked, as if it hadn’t come from my own throat.

“Julia,” he said with a hint of appropriate distaste.

“Julia,” I repeated. It felt sharp on my tongue.

“Yes, Julia,” he echoed.   “I’ve told her again and again that we’re through, but she doesn’t get it. She and Franz will do fine on their own. He’ll be much happier without us fighting all the time.”

Reluctantly, I asked, “Who’s Franz?”

“Our son,” he stated, as if everyone on earth knew.

My skin began to crawl. I felt the blood drain from my face. “Your son?” the mystery voice continued. “You have a son?” I asked, as the aftershocks continued to rock my world.   “How old?”

“He’ll be seven this March,” he said with a hint of pride.

My voice left me, and I sat in stony silence.

He whined on and on. “They mean nothing to me. Do you hear me? You’re the only one who matters. You’ve got to believe me! Don’t ever think of leaving. I couldn’t live without you!”

Grabbing my hands tightly, he continued, “You’ve got to understand!”

“A son. You have a son?” I thought my head would shatter. “Why didn’t you tell me?” My insides were screaming. My mind refused to believe the obvious, and I whispered with one last hope, “You’re joking, aren’t you?”

“I wish I was,” he said.   “I didn’t want to hurt you.   Can you ever forgive me?”

“No,” I said resolutely. “Never!”

“It didn’t seem like the right time,” he blundered. “I tried, but whenever you’d look at me with those beautiful blue eyes, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stand to make you cry.”

“And now’s a good time?” I replied rigidly. “After all we’ve been through?!”

“I understand,” he said gloomily. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

Understand? I silently intoned, continuing to stare with a porcelain face at the blue velvet wall across the room.   He doesn’t understand squat!

“Don’t shut me out!” he implored, squeezing my hands tighter. “Annalise. Annalise!” He shook my shoulders, and I returned to the pain of the moment. “Say something. Don’t just sit there; it’s driving me mad.”

“What do you want from me?” I asked flatly.

“Your love,” he lamented. “Don’t let a past mistake cut us down.”

All my insecurities rushed to the surface, as my need for affection and direction overpowered any reason left in my hollow shell of a body.

An unknown force removed the adrenaline from my muscles and mind; I calmly looked Jens in the eye and said, mysteriously, “I could never leave you.” I smiled unconsciously.   “We’ll work it out.”

I heard a sigh of relief exhale from his lungs like a gust of wind, as he suffocated me with kisses, hugs and reassurance. “I knew you’d understand. You’re one in a million, I tell ya . . . one in a million.”

I retained a semblance of misplaced dignity and insisted he divorce immediately. “If not, we’re history!” I exclaimed, thinking I was being assertive and strong.

I had a rabid case of snow blindness, and I kept crawling up Mt. Illusion, ignoring all signs of the impending avalanche.

The rest of the evening was a drunken blur. I doused the bonfire of my betrayed trust with an ocean of booze, demanding “one more” until I had to be carried home. Throwing up on the floor of his precious BMW was the only inkling of justice I could manage.

True to his word, Jens divorced Julia within the month and maintained contact with his son by buying him expensive gifts, which he delivered with his usual warmth and personal touch . . . by way of the Postal Service.

***

When I turned eighteen and finished nursing school, I jumped off the mountain’s ledge into the fiery pit: I irrationally moved in with Jens and his seventy-four-year-old grandmother, Rochelle. We inhabited the top floor, she the lowlands.

Rochelle was a little senile and talked as if we’d been married for years. With her failing eyesight and wandering mind, she often called me Netti, as if I were her niece. Honesty isn’t as meritorious as it’s always cracked up to be. There are times when fudging the truth a little—or outright lying—is the most compassionate course.   If I’d attempted to tell Rochelle the truth about her grandson and me “living in sin,” I would have drained her pious Catholic heart of all her saintly blood. She would have turned over in her grave—before she’d even died.

I never met Jens’ wife or son. Apparently, Julia had more wits than I’d expected and skillfully kept her distance.

The only persistent threat to our fragile happiness, other than the relationship itself, was my family. The thought of them discovering my living arrangement loomed over me like Godzilla about to attack Tokyo. They had to know sooner or later. And if the news didn’t come from me first, they’d hit the roof . . . and the floor . . . the walls . . . and then me. So Jens and I arranged a little visit. I told my family I was bringing my boyfriend, period.

The little visit went from disaster to disastrous.

Continues at: Loving Annalise

More stories and articles at Angie’s Diary.

One by One They Died

Life of Nane Alejandrez. Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

In photo: Nane holding photos of brother Tavo and Leo’s headstones.

naneOne by one they died . . . from drugs . . . from violence . . . from pain, hate and revenge. Nane’s oldest brother got wiped out when he was intentionally hit from behind on his motorcycle; his younger brother died from a heroin overdose; his uncle Pancheo was stabbed to death; numerous cousins succumbed to drugs or were murdered; and his father died from an accumulation of life-long exposure to pesticides, alcoholism and a blow to the head with a baseball bat during a gang fight. That Nane survived to tell his story is a miracle in and of it’s self. 

Mr. Alejandrez is now director of Barrios Unidos (Communities United), was instrumental in convening a national gang summit for peace and has received countless awards and recognition for his work in teaching and living non-violence. Barrios Unidos is a multi-cultural program whose mission is to prevent and curtail violence among youth, by providing alternatives such as the Cesar E. Chavez School For Social Change; outreach to youth clubs, parent groups, juvenile hall and kids on the street; and community economic development by operating a full service, custom silk screening business called BU Productions, where youth learn production, sales, marketing, design and administration skills.

NANE:

I’ve seen so many families get torn apart and so many men, especially men, go into hate and revenge and take somebody else’s life. Not thinking about what it’s going to do to the rest of the family. All the violence and anger . . . and a lot of us being brought up to not show any pain . . . to not let people know . . . so we act out, even at times when we don’t want to.

When I acted out I didn’t really want to, but I did it to show that I was looking out for the neighborhood; for the honor of my family. It felt like I wasn’t punking out. If you didn’t do nothing then someone else would think, “Oh well, kill one of those family members and nobody will do anything about it.” So the family would look at each other and say, “Who’s going to do something about it?” – That whole system of payback; trying to keep an image that causes a lot of pain. It’s easier to do that then to deal with your pain.

One thing I’ve learned throughout the years, is I wish somebody would have talked to me about pain and how to deal with it; how to not inflict pain. I learned how to numb it by using drugs and violence, which removed me from feeling it and kept my feelings busy on something else. That worked for a while, but what began to happen was the addiction started taking over. No longer was it about feelings; it was just being well. Surviving and the excitement of breaking the law and running with the home boys . . . you know . . . rebelling, not conforming. I didn’t know anybody that was dealing with it.

People would say, “It’s OK, everything’s going to be all right.” I’d say, “How do you know everything’s going to be all right, when I’m feeling like shit?! You tell me everything’s going to be all right, but that guy over there’s laughing at what he did to my family. Why shouldn’t I go do it to his family?” And then other people would just say, “Go out and take care of it.” They think, “Why isn’t he doing anything? Why doesn’t he take one of their people out?”

There’s that whole thing of not believing in a higher power. I said, “How can this God take my loved ones away? How can He allow it to happen . . . to take my heroes?” The heroes in my life were taken away in a short period of time. The heroes to me were my father, my Uncle Frank and my oldest brother.

After losing all these relatives I was still using drugs a lot of the time. When my father had his operation I was strung out and unemployed. Here I was having graduated from the university with honors and I was really down. When I went to see him in the hospital I was loaded. I went into intensive care. My aunt was there and we went into see him. There were five individuals in intensive care and you know a lot of people that go in there don’t come out. They told me he was all bandaged up and swollen and it would be hard to recognize him. I go in there and start to talk to my father and tell him how much I love him, how much I care about him, my aunts at the end of the bed rubbing his feet. I’m saying, “You’re going to be OK. I love you Dad.” Then my other aunt comes in and says, “Alejandrez is over here.” I look and say, “Wow man!” I was talking to the wrong man. (laughs) I was talking to another man two beds down from my father. My aunt let go of his feet and yelled! I could hear the rest of my family laughing, even in a situation like that, they were laughing. They were going, “Nane’s over there talking to another man.” I swear to God I felt like disappearing. If my father could talk he would have said, “I’m over here stupid!” or “Pendejo en estoy!” So I had to move from that bed to my Dad’s bed and repeat everything. That’s how fucked up I was. That’s an example of the madness. It took me about a year after my father died to really let go of that.

After all these deaths, when I really wanted to clean myself up, I was able to see a friend of mine who was clean. He’s now one of my best friends. We had used together in the past, so when I saw him clean I saw the possibility. He was looking good. I’d gotten busted and was going to court and he would show up in the courts. Every time I had a court date he’d be there supporting me.

Finally I just couldn’t do it no more. My family . . . my children . . . I wasn’t doing anymore talks. I couldn’t hide it anymore. I’d gotten so deep I couldn’t maintain. And I didn’t want to be doing stuff when I was loaded. I hid my addiction a lot. When it got to the point were I couldn’t do that anymore I asked for help. When I asked him for support he was there. Once I got clean and got the drugs out of my system I started to feel a lot of the pain.

I think I was always a spiritual person but I got side tracked. I got more involved in my traditional ways . . . my indigenous background . . . knowing that it was OK to pray. I’d go around with a lot of Native American teachers and prayer was always there. So I started to pray and go to NA (narcotics anonymous) and they always ended the meeting with a prayer. I began to feel different. My work started coming out again and I was really happy. I was seeing the faces of children and I told myself, “If I’m going to do this I need to do it right.” I need to be clean and I can’t be backsliding. I got more involved in my work and my self. It took a long time to do that again.

I’ve been gifted, you know, in certain situations where things were going to happen . . . by me being there . . . and the respect they have for me. Because I have been through a lot and they could sense it, it stopped it from happening again. People know that this is what I’ve been talking about for the last twenty years. “Stop the violence! Stop the violence!” Even through my madness I’ve stuck with it. People my age always tell me that that’s what they admire about me . . . that I’ve always stuck with it. It’s been hard. There’s been a lot of pain. People ask, “Why would you want to stay in a situation where you’re dealing with so much pain?” But at the same time there’s so much hope . . . the smiles on the kids. They’ve got this place, they’ve got a job, people that look like themselves running it. They got inspiration that maybe someday they’ll be doing it.

More of Nane’s story, and others, at: Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

The Know-It-All Priest

586613838e010d433bacb209ce65ea56c69e859e-thumbA dumbfounding excerpt from Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

After years of losing students to Master Toshiba, the local priest of another Buddhist sect could take it no more. He walked to Master Toshiba’s training hall and challenged The Master.

“You have many students,” the priest said, with his ego hanging on his sleeve. “What do you have that I don’t have?”

“I’m much better to look at,” replied Master Toshiba.

The ensuing laughter further infuriated the priest.

“Seriously,” he exclaimed. “You are not the wisest, nor have you studied the longest. Your words are shallow and your promises cheap.”

Some of the students became agitated at the priest’s belligerence, but Master Toshiba motioned for them to be still.

“Which of my words have been shallow and to what promises are you referring?”

“Well . . . well . . . ” the flustered priest hesitated and then said, “Everything! But, if you want specifics . . . here’s one.” He raised his finger, pointed it at The Master, and mockingly said, ‘You get out of it what you put into it.’ “That’s not Buddhism, that’s just common sense and even that isn’t always true. Sometimes, you don’t get anything out of it, no matter how much you put into it.”

“Is that like your teaching?” Master Toshiba inquired. “You’ve put everything into it and your meditation hall is empty.”

“How dare you? I still have students. There may not be as many as you have, but mine are tried and true. They practice day and night. Their understanding deepens and enlightenment is theirs to have and to hold.”

“Since when did it become possible to own enlightenment? How do you hold it? Where is it?”

“You know what I mean. Quit turning my words around and trying to make me look like a fool.”

“There is no need to try,” replied Master Toshiba. “Your actions today have revealed your true self.”

The priest was suddenly overcome with shame. He kneeled down.

“And as far as promises,” Master Toshiba continued. “There is no such thing. The only promise I’ve ever made is that I can make no promises.” She paused. “Well, there was one promise. When I was young I promised my parents I’d never leave them, but I did. Oh yeah, there was also that time . . . anyway, as far as our spiritual practice, the only promise I can make is that the sun will rise tomorrow, that we have all been born and that we will all die.”

“I beg you Master.” The priest prostrated himself on the floor. “I am not worthy, but I ask humbly that I be allowed to be your student.”

“You probably aren’t worthy,” The Master replied “and I doubt you’ll learn anything, but you’re welcome to join us.” The priest stood and bowed repeatedly. “Go see Brother Peacock next door. They’re leaving on holiday tomorrow. Tell him I said you could tag along. Come see me upon your return.”

“Thank you. Thank you.” The priest continued bowing as he walked backwards. “I will see you as soon as we return.”

“Promise?”

More upside down wisdom at: Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

Stop Execution of Torture Victim

Dear Gabriel,

W1305EAIAR1_2Please help Amnesty stop the imminent execution of my brother, Abdullah Al Qahtani.

This week my brother’s life could be taken for a “confession” he was tortured into making. Abdullah was beaten, burned and asphyxiated by Iraqi security forces into “confessing” to being a member of terrorist organization al-Qaeda.

Now our fear is that the Iraqi authorities will execute Abdullah without even allowing him to have a fair trial first. It could happen at any time now.

Please do what you can to stop this execution.

About a month ago, Amnesty called on you to stop my brother’s execution. Together, we have been successful in buying some time. For that, I would like to express my family’s heartfelt thanks and gratitude to you, Amnesty supporters, for your precious help and support. It has brought much needed attention to Abdullah’s plight.

However, Abdullah’s time is once again running out. If the Iraqi court agrees with the prosecutor that Abdullah should not get a new trial, then a deadly chain of events would be put in motion. In less than 24 hours — without fair trial or even a phone call to us, his family — Abdullah’s execution could be carried out.

Abdullah needs an opportunity to present his case fully and fairly. He deserves the chance to exercise his human rights.

This risk of execution has placed our family under great stress. Abdullah is in poor health after enduring both torture and the effects of a hunger strike. Our parents are suffering. I don’t know if our mother has the strength to survive if Abdullah were to be executed.

We plead with Amnesty and its supporters to do everything possible to stop Abdullah from being treated inhumanely and for his rights to be restored.

Please take this action now. Help me save my brother’s life.

My deepest thanks,

Brother of Abdullah Al Qahtani, Saudi man at risk of execution in Iraq

The Barking Seal Admiration Society – Part 2

From short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby by Gabriel Constans

The Barking Seal Admiration Society – Part 2 (Conclusion)

Joanne put her bag in the trunk of her partially rusted Volvo station wagon and closed the beige trunk with a thud; sealing the contents for a safe trip home. She’d just called her husband and kids to let them know she was on her way.

“Drive careful little Sis,” I said sarcastically, both of us knowing she was probably the safest driver in North America. I used to tell her she drove like an old granny when we were teenagers. She’d sit at a four way stop, for what seemed like hours, making sure there weren’t any cars approaching within a hundred miles!

“You big Dufus,” she grinned. “Have I ever been in an accident?”

“No.”

“Have I ever gotten a ticket in my whole life?”

“No.”

“Then shut up already and give me a hug.” She grabbed my arm, pulled me close, put her arms around my back and squeezed hard. I squeezed back. She squeezed harder, as did I, until it felt like she’d break my back.

“OK! OK!” I gasped, pretending to be out of breath. “Man! You’ve gotten strong in your old age!”

“And don’t you forget it!” she teased, as she got in the car, closed the door, strapped herself in, adjusted her mirrors and rolled down the window.

I leaned in and kissed her. “Love ya. Take care.”

“Likewise.” She kissed me back.

“Remember,” I kidded, “it doesn’t matter how you feel as long . . .”

She shook her head, having shared this joke a hundred times. “Yeah, yeah,” she completed the line, “as long as you look good.”

I jerked my finger, like shooting a gun and blew away the smoke, completing our leave taking ritual. She waved and rolled up the window, then suddenly rolled it back down. I leaned in.

“Call her,” she said.

“What?”

“Call her tonight.”

“Who?” We’d been talking about Robin every since we’d left the beach.

“I mean it Rueben. There’s something between you two, something special.”

I’d planned on calling the minute Joanne was out of sight.

“Sure,” I grinned.

“Promise?”

“Promise,” I said and crossed my heart.

She rolled up the window, checked for oncoming cars, for what seemed like an hour, then slowly eased onto the highway. She looked in her rear-view mirror and waved one last time.

I stood and waved to my beautiful little sister. As she drove away, I remembered telling her once, after she’d interrupted my cowboy game once to often, “Leave me alone! I wish you were dead!” The memory filled me with shame.

“Hellooo stranger,” Robin answered, with a seductive, languid drawl.

“Is this Robin?” I asked, “The surfing consultant?”

“Rueben! I knew you’d call.” Without skipping a beat she said, “Can you come over tonight?”

“Tonight?” I think . . .”

“Think!” she interjected. “There’s no time to think.”

“Well . . . sure.”

“Can you pick up some wine and flowers? I was thinking about you all the way home and plum forgot to . . . oh yeah! Make sure they’re . . .”

“Fresh cut,” I finished her sentence, “right?”

“You devil. How’d you know?”

“I don’t know.”

“That place next to . . .”

“Shopper’s Corner,” I surmised. No problem. It’s right on the way.”

“You sure?”

“No problem, I’d love too.”

“Love too,” she repeated. “Isn’t that a great word – love?”

“Yeah, it’s a great word, but don’t you think we’re moving a little fast here?”

“Fast?! Are you going to wimp out on me before we even get started?” She quietly added, “We’re mates and you know it.”

“Mates?”

“I may not know a lot, but I know when I’ve been thrown a pearl.”

“A pearl?”

“This kind of thing is rare,” she went on. “Some people don’t know when it’s come up and bit them in the bud and others keep thinking it’s somewhere they’re not.”

“That may be true, but . . .”

“I’ve only felt this way once before,” she said. “I may be about to die, maybe not; but I’m not about to let your fear screw things up.”

She got that right. I’d been burned before. In my early twenties I’d fallen in love with a slim, nineteen-year-old redhead named Francine. We were stupid enough to get married. It lasted about a year. I was so dependent on her approval I would have leapt off a cliff if she’d asked. She had to literally jump in bed with my best friend before I crashed and burned. That experience had embedded its tentacles deep under my skin and been tediously removed, one by one, year after year.

“You’re right,” I said. “I felt that way before and this feels like the real thing, but…”

“No buts about it. The only butt I want to see is yours.”

I don’t know where she got the courage to be so blatant, but she was right on the button. Something in my chest had been cracked open like a safe and she had the combination.

“I’ll be there in an hour.”

“One more thing,” she said. “I love you.”

“Likewise.”

“Likewise?” she teased. Is that the best you can do?”

“Robin,” I paused, “what can I say? I love you too. Be there soon.”

“Not soon enough,” she whispered.

I started to hang up, then quickly brought the phone back to my ear. “Robin! Robin!”

“I’m right here,” she replied calmly. “It would help if you had my address, right?”

“Yeah.”

“6427D South Cliff Drive. You know where that walkway is by the harbor?”

“Sure.”

“A half mile from there, off Seabright, take a left on Surry.”

“Got it.”

“You got it all right; you got it all.”

“See ya.”

“See ya?!” she protested. “I hope you’ll do more than that.”

“You know what I . . .”

“Of course,” she interrupted. “And you know what I mean.”

“Sure do,” I said, twisting the smooth phone cord tightly around my index finger.

Beyond all logic, the magic continued. We spent days and nights “being in our skin”, as Robin would say; listening to the rhythms of the world; the sensations of our bodies; touching, sensing, smelling, gazing upon one another’s human form, with mournfully explicit awe and delight.

Entering her small, cozy apartment by the sea; felt like committing myself to a religious sanctuary where all our prayers were offered and received.
She talked openly about dying, but more about living. She wasn’t afraid of death, but she loved life. She loved here mother, her brother, her nieces, her eighty-year-old grandmother and her friends and colleagues. She’d worked in public relations for the Santa Cruz Visitor’s Bureau for over fifteen years and was missed by her peers, who often stopped to visit. Indeed, public relations, was an apt description. She had an uncanny ability to put people at ease.

Her best friend, Bessie, told me about a bigoted movie producer visiting from Los Angeles, who’d locked horns with Robin’s supervisor, Mary Lou, a tall, intelligent woman, who’d been born and raised in Texas. During a meeting with Robin, Mary Lou and Bessie, the movie producer had made a snide remark about cowboys and rednecks all being “stupid hicks.” “Mary Lou’s cheeks turned fire red,” Bessie explained. “Her jaw was tighter than a vice. If this guys company shot their film here it would bring the city a couple million bucks. Mary Lou was just about to let the jerk have it when Robin smiled and said, ‘You’re right. There are some stupid cowboys.’”

“Well,” Bessie continued, “Mary Lou and I gasped and stared at Robin in disbelief; until she added, ‘There’s idiots everywhere, aren’t there?’ ‘You got that right,” the producer said, shaking his head. ‘I must say’, Robin continued, ‘I’ve said some pretty stupid things my self. I bet there’s a lot of lame producer’s in Hollywood.’ “The producer jumped right in and said, ‘You have no idea,’ and started telling us about one ‘incompetent ass’ after another.”

“Needless to say,” Bessie concluded, “we made the deal.”

Robin’s charm remained intact in the midst of purgatory. You name it, she tried it: medications, transfusions, intravenous therapy, diet, herbs, detoxifications, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, hormones, prayer, meditation, visualization . . . but the cancer kept chipping away.

The last weeks found me sinking, looking for a branch to hold onto. I was being pulled under by emotional quicksand. There was nothing solid to stand on. Her face had turned black, blue and yellow, as if she’d been in a bar room brawl. Her skin was translucent, stretched over her frame like a sheet of white plastic; her arms as thin as straws. She struggled to take in a full breath. The body I loved was disintegrating like melting snow.

“I hope I’ve made a difference,” she said softly, one gusty morning.

“Without a doubt,” I assured, with a lump like a clod of dirt stuck in my throat. “You’ve given so much love.”

“Yes, I have.” She stroked my cheek. “That’s been the best part.”

“What now?”

She turned away, looked out her large window and watched a mother and daughter lean against the cliff side railing, their hair being blown by the wind.

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“What do I think?” I wanted to run, jump off the earth, find a black hole and hide. “I don’t know, but you can’t leave.”

“Nice thought, but just a wee bit unrealistic.” She rolled her eyes and grinned at my naivety.

“It’s just . . . I don’t know . . .” I struggled to find the right words. “How do you keep this up?”

“I have no choice,” she said, without hesitation.

“I know we don’t always have a choice,” I blundered, my mind racing with useless, crazy thoughts. “If it was me, I’d be screaming and yelling.”

“I don’t have a choice,” she reiterated. “This is who I am.”

We heard someone knocking. Our intimacy departed, as we turned our heads. The door flew open, pushed by gusts of cold air and Robin’s mother, who entered the tiny living room with the electric hospital bed looming in the center. She struggled to close the door behind her, pushing against the tenacious wind and patting down her gnarled hair. She took off her floor-length wool coat and placed it on the corner chair. With a forced cheerfulness that belied her dread, she exclaimed, “There’s my girl.”

“Hi Mom,” Robin smiled, holding out her shaking arms.

Joanne was making a return visit in a few days. We’d kept in touch. She knew the story. I wish she was here. She’d know what to do. She’d help her big brother learn how to say goodbye to the Barking Seal Societies lifetime member. She would know how to say “I love you” without clinging to hope. She and Robin understand life from a place I do not know. They know that “take one day at a time” and “seize the day” are not cliches; they’re the essence of our reality.

If only Joanne was here and Robin wasn’t leaving. If only . . .

THE END

Part 1

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The Barking Seal Admiration Society

Story from Saint Catherine’s Baby by Gabriel Constans

The Barking Seal Admiration Society – Part 1

My sister Joanne had come, for respite, from our hometown of Modesto, a land-locked metropolis eviscerated in the the scorching Sacramento Valley in Northern California. We were spending the afternoon on the wharf in Santa Cruz, a city on the edge of the Monterey Bay, just a touch south of San Francisco by way of Highway One; a scenic, precarious strip of pavement, hugging the coast like a black snake.

I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for twenty odd years, but you wouldn’t know it by the looks of me. My usual slacks, short-sleeved dress shirt and wide-brimmed Fedora, to cover my receding brown hair and shade my ever paling skin, stands in stark contrast to the shorts, wet suits, Hawaiian prints and Birkenstocks worn by most of the tanned, beach-faring home grown crowd. I don’t surf, the ocean’s much too cold for my liking; and I hate it when sand gets in my socks and shoes, grating roughly against my skin. To top off the oxymoron of my seaside existence, my work with an advertising agency in San Jose, though personally rewarding is not something I flaunt in this liberal college town.

Holding her floppy white straw hat, Joanne skipped down the old wooden peer, her right arm swinging freely. The pier stood on creaking stilts of old oak pylons that had been driven into the sea floor at the start of the last century. A space in the middle of the pier had been created for tourists to feed the seals. Joanne stopped at the railed opening to see the gluttonous sea creatures lounging on the braces below. As I caught up, she barked, clapped and laughed loudly, imitating the chubby, sumo-wrestling otters’ boisterous demands for food.

She was laughing like she had when we were two little toe heads. I remembered the times she interrupted my Lone Ranger play, as I made serious sound effects of guns firing and bullets ricocheting past my head. I wore my plastic red cowboy hat and holster and she’d be outfitted as a petite ballerina; her blond pigtails held to the side by bright pink, silk ribbons.

“Get out of the way!” I’d yell, pointing my six-shooter at the bad guys. She danced closer. “Stop it Jo!” I’d yelled again, using the form of Joanne she hated. She danced closer still, twirling, curtseying, falling and playing dead; her square-toed, laced ballet shoes sticking straight into the air. Everyone knows ballerinas and cowboys don’t mix, but she would keep jumping up and falling down, giggling and laughing, with total disregard for my need to save the land from desperados. Unable to keep a straight face, I’d holster my guns and clap at her performance, just like I’d seen our mother do before she’d died of cancer.

Joanne was still barking at the seals when a skinny woman wearing a blue-green scarf joined in. Momentarily startled, Joanne stopped and stared. Realizing the stranger wasn’t any crazier than herself; she smiled, laughed and resumed her barking and clapping. hey were like mimicking mimes imitating an innocent bystander.

The new addition to the barking seal admiration society turned and clapped towards Joanne, who eagerly returned her applause. They both bowed, barely avoiding knocking each other in the head. The woman’s scarf slipped forward and fell, revealing a shiny hairless scalp. She grabbed the cloth by the corner before it hit the pier. She stood grinning with the brilliance of a sparkler and quickly wrapped and tied her silk scarf. Joanne took off her hat and briskly rubbed her short soft brown curly tufts.

Feeling somehow drawn to this barking skeleton with no hair, I moved closer and listened to the enraptured duo, as the lady pointed at Joanne and said, “Chemo?”

Joanne nodded. They hollered, squealed and embraced; as if they were long lost sisters.

“Robin,” the woman exclaimed, bowing slightly.

“Joanne.” She curtsied.

They hugged again. Joanne, holding the sleeve of Robin’s full length, blue print dress, turned her in my direction. “This is my big brother Rueben; my great protector and occasional pain in the butt,” she snickered. “This is Rob . . .”

“Robin,” I interjected. “I heard.”

Dispensing with my usual reserve, I took Robin’s hand, knelt on the wood planks and kissed the back of her thin wrist. “It’s a pleasure, Ms. Robin.”

She bent her knees and bowed her head formally. “The pleasure is all mine Sir Rueben.”

I stood, offering my hands as their princely escort. Joanne, on my left, placed her right hand on mine, as Robin did the same on my right. With her free hand Robin lifted her dress a few inches, as Joanne pretended to do likewise, though she wore pants. We walked regally towards the bench at the end of the pier, with our noses turned theatrically skyward.

I brushed off the bench, pretended to place a cloth upon it and invited them to sit on their royal throne. They sat, squished comfortably together, as I descended onto the thick weathered wood next to Robin.

“Come closer,” she said, grabbing my pant leg and pulling. “It’s chilly out here.”

I snuggled closer. The waves thumped against the pilings below. We watched the surfers, as they drifted around the rising swells, waiting for the crest of a perfect wave. When their experienced eyes saw nature’s roller-coaster approaching, they began paddling and stood bravely on their miniscule pieces of wood; daring the foamy, curling blood of the sea to give them a thrill before extinguishing itself on the sandy shore. I thought about trying it once or twice, but the idea of swimming in freezing water, sharks, stinging salt-water in my eyes and the possibility of drowning; made my fledgling desire vanish faster than a crowd of punk rockers exiting the concert of a polka playing accordion band.

“Was it breast cancer?” Joanne asked, breaking the comfortable silence.

“Still is,” Robin said, matter-of-factly. “It’s such a happy camper, it’s decided to pitch tent.”

“I’m sorry,” Joanne said; her face transformed into a Japanese Kabuki mask of sorrow.

“Not your fault,” Robin replied dreamily, looking past the horizon. “Not anybody’s fault.”

“What a rotten deal,” I said.

“Yep, a rotten deal,” she said softly and exclaimed, “I’m starved.” She stood, took hold of our hands and tried pulling us off the bench. Her grip was surprisingly strong. “Sir Rueben,” she bowed. “Lady Joanne,” she bowed again, “Queen of the barking seals. Let us partake of some fine delicacies at the great dining hall of fish and chips.”

Turning our backs to the sea; Robin promenaded, with her two newly aggrieved squires, past the barking seals and tourists snapping pictures, towards the castle of greasy potatoes and dead fish meat.

After finishing a second order of fried breaded cod at Barcello’s Fish Fry and stacking the grease stained, white and red checkered throwaway containers in a heap; Robin grimaced and lurched forward.

“I think I’m going to be sick!” she covered her mouth.

The waitress behind the counter, who was as worn and painted over as the pier itself, noticed Robin’s distress and came as fast as her arthritic knees would allow.

“You OK?” she barked, with an urgency that implied, “You better be.”

Robin put her hand on the spotted Formica top and rolled her head from side to side. I placed my hand between her shoulder blades, moved my fingers up her spine and massaged her neck. Leaning closer, I heard her laughing under her breath. She looked at me and smiled, then jerked upright, “Just kidding!”

Joanne rolled her eyes with relief. The waitress was not amused. “Ha. Ha,” she scowled, lumbering back to the other end of the counter, muttering silent obscenities.

“Why’d you do that?” Joanne admonished, “It wasn’t funny.”

“Hey,” Robin replied, “When did you turn into the queen of pathos?”

Joanne’s frown turned into a smile, as she pushed Robin’s shoulder.

“Ouch!” Robin yelped, clasping her shoulder and grimacing with pain.

“Oh no,” Joanne’s face contorted once again. “I’m so sorry.” She looked at Robin with alarm. “Are you OK?”

Robin’s mischievous grin returned. She winked, letting Joanne know the joke was on her.

“Why . . . you!” Joanne waved Robin off good naturally and pushed her on the shoulder again as Robin renewed her painful grimace, then laughed hysterically, almost spitting with pleasure.

Robin turned discreetly in my direction and whispered, “I’ll act sick more often, if you promise to rub my back like that again.” I started to look away but couldn’t. She took my hand like a precious jewel and stroked it as gently as a soft kitten. “You have beautiful hands,” she purred. I glanced over her shoulder and saw Joanne watching out of the corner of her eye.

As we headed towards the car to pay the meter, not wanting to pay thirty-five dollars for a two-hour stroll, because of a parking ticket, it seemed as if the three of us had been together all day.

Reluctantly, we took our leave, as Joanne was driving back to Modesto that afternoon and offered Robin a ride.

“I’ll walk. Thanks,” she said, looking admiringly at the sky then back at me. “It’s such a beautiful day. I don’t live far.”

Joanne gave her a long hug. “Thank you,” she said.

“For what?” Robin asked.

“For reminding me how good it feels to laugh.”

“What else is there?”

They held each other’s hands, one on top of the other. Robin gently extracted her fingers from Joanne’s and turned her luminous eyes on mine. I wasn’t sure what to say or how. It felt like I’d known this woman all my life.

“Let’s go Rueben,” Joanne broke in. “I’ve got to get packed.”

My lips parted and crackled a stifled, “Goodbye.”

Robin stood quietly, nodding farewell. I started to walk away, when a desperate surge of adrenaline turned me around. Robin hadn’t budged. I hurried back.

“Could we . . . ah . . . get together sometime?” I said.

“I thought you’d never ask,” she smiled suggestively, reaching into her shimmering dress pocket and handing me a card.

Lowering my hat against the sun’s glare, I read. “Robin Magnolia. Consultant.”

“Consultant for what?” I wondered out loud.

“Surfing,” she replied, taking my hand in hers and kissing me on the cheek.

“Surfing?”

“Life surfing,” she whispered. Call me.”

“I will.”

Joanne shouted, “Come on Rueben! I’ve got to go.”

“See ya,” I said, letting her hand drop and heading towards the car. It took all my strength to not spin around and take her in my arms.

Part 2 (Conclusion) Tomorrow

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Nicholas Lives On – Part 2

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

In the fall of ninety-four, Reggie and Maggie Green were on holiday in Italy, driving peacefully through Messina with their children Nicholas and Eleanor (seven and four years old) sleeping soundly in the back seat. Out of the dark night a vehicle creeps alongside. They hear angry shouts and demands to pull over. Terrifying gunshots slam into the body of their car. Reg outruns, what turns out to be, Calabrian highway bandits. Upon arriving safely at their hotel they check the children, who they believe have slept through the traumatic incident. As they try to arose Nicholas they discover a horrible gunshot wound to his head. Two days later Nicholas is pronounced dead.

Without hesitation the Greens decide to donate his organs. This act, which to them is the only choice imaginable, soon catapults them into national and international attention. Nicholas organs go to seven people. Organ donations increase dramatically. Surprisingly, revenge is not in the Greens’ vocabulary, only the reporters ask about retribution. Reg Green says, “There is no sum of money that could give me back my son. Whereas justice heals, vengeance just creates new problems.” The Italian Ambassador Boris Biancheri tells them, “Your names and the name of Nicholas have become for Italians somehow synonymous with courage, of forgiveness and compassion.” Upon their arrival back in the U.S. they continued to advocate for organ donations and speak frequently in public about the importance of turning personal tragedy into life for others.

Nicholas Lives On – Part 2

REGGIE: And we both spend a lot of time with books. It’s through books that I learn about life. They tell you how life was and how it should be; what was foolish and what was effective. Those things get inside you I think and cause the reactions, which become instinctive.

When people say they thought that Nicholas was the brightest star in the sky or they saw him in a grove of trees or as an angel . . . I like to hear that . . . it shows their compassion . . . that they went outside themselves to find the most comforting thing they could think of and wanted to pass it on to us.

Such comments don’t convince me in any way, shape or form about any spiritual realities however. I have to look for concrete things which continue to do good. For example: organ donations are up in Italy by more than fifty percent. That’s hundreds of people walking around today who would have died by now. There’s a real sense of something good coming out of it . . . real hard physical good.

Life is a complete mystery to me; I’ve got to say. Death is a complete blank. I really don’t know about it or even have a hypothesis. What I’m trying to do in my life then, if you don’t understand death or the purpose of life, is deal with it on the level that I can and I know there are certain things to me that seem to be better than others: kindness is better than cruelty; full stomachs are better than starvation; making a joke is better than hurting someone. Those sorts of things have always struck me as I’ve grown up.

I’ve tried to concentrate on the things I can understand and handle. And this was one of them where one could palpably see good come out of it. We’ve since met all the people who received Nicholas’s organs. The difference in them is quite astonishing. The thought has come to me since, “We saved those people from going through the devastation we’ve gone through.” And you know, if you can’t do that then, come on . . . it seemed so obvious at the time.

We go to a lot of organ donating meetings and I have never met anyone who’s ever said they regretted it. Most people say it’s helped them a lot. In fact, most meetings we go to someone will come up and say, “I wish I’d done that.” Because they sense that somehow we got something back from it.

The worse thing about Nicholas’s death, besides the loss, which is terrible, is that he never reached his potential. To me that’s the most awful thought. It does subside after awhile, though it’s always there. The fact that he never got that chance is the thing that I find most difficult. It’s not just one’s own dreams having been unfulfilled; it’s the fact that his dreams weren’t fulfilled. To me that is the worst thing about it. He never got to live to his potential. But . . . we have all the memories and he was a wonderful little boy and because of that I think we can deal with it.

As you know I’m a father late in life and I always wondered what would happen . . . that I might not get to see him as an adult or know how he’d turn out in the end.

People that have helped have tried to give what they could. Whatever they’ve done seems to be the best possible. If they’re budding poets, and every Italian turned out to be a poet, they write a poem. Someone wrote music, part of a piano sonata to Nicholas. Somebody else did a full-scale choral work. People reached down inside and found the essence of what they wanted to do. That is very comforting; that it made people feel that way. One man sent us a book about Eskimos written in Italian, of which we don’t speak a word, but that was what was important to him.

And we’ve been very active in all this. Whenever the flame dies down I pour some more gasoline on it. What I didn’t want to happen was have everybody very sympathetic about it for a couple days and then comes along the next tragedy. I was determined to use whatever resources I could. I was a journalist and dabbled in PR for a time so I had some skills. My idea was to make it stick; to etch it on people’s minds; to not have it forgotten. We’ve written articles by the dozens, traveled all around the country, spoken to all kinds of audiences. The universality of the response was not just from mothers and fathers, but from admirals, writers, police.

I think there are a lot of elements to this response, a sort of mixture that’s made the alchemy . . . an innocent child for one thing. I think we were able to get across a sense of what he was like. We had a photograph of him in my camera and that picture was sent around the world , so right from the beginning people knew what he looked like. And we’d tell stories . . . Maggie would tell stories. People built a picture about him fairly early on. The fact that we were foreigners in their country and they didn’t “protect us”, as it were, also struck a chord.

All those factors came together. And though neither of us are Catholic, the Catholic Church has been hugely supportive. The Pope blessed the central bell that’s in the memorial bell tower. Catholicism itself, at some level, probably has a theory about all this. The official position certainly is very supportive.

MAGGIE: One reason has to be that Reg was a journalist and therefore had no fear of the press. Some people are afraid to talk and don’t know what’s going to happen. We were willing to talk to people right from the beginning. The day after we got back to the states we were on all three morning shows (television). It’s hard to be willing to do that about organ donation because it’s always the result of a loss and some families aren’t up for it. A good part of it is being willing to be in newspapers and on TV. All the stories we’ve encountered talking to other donor families . . . they always have some cruel twist or the child had a lot of promise . . . any of them could have been that sentinel.

Reg was on the phone from the hotel room to the London Times as soon as we found out Nicholas had died. They did a terrible story and got three-quarters of the facts wrong, but he still thought of talking to them like that.

REGGIE: That’s right. Many people will say, “Not now, we need to think about it.” Or, “We’ll get back to you.” The press isn’t like that. They want immediate information and if you haven’t got it the story will get written anyway, so you might as well get it accurate.

I made a conscious decision when we came back that, “We can do some good here.” I really made a point of going out and trying to get as many people interested as possible. I saturated the market. As a result there are very few talk shows or magazines that the story hasn’t been in. Of course, there’s always the feeling when you go on television or in a newspaper, wondering if your doing it for self advertising. I try to examine myself closely and although the attention is flattering, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was doing some good. I can’t get rid of the fact that I’m pleased if Barbara Walters wants to talk to me but I’ve tried to do a rational assessment of whether it will help or not.

And we’ve been on all kinds of shows. You know that one called The Other Side? A guy on the day before us was a private detective whose job was to track down vampires. You wonder if this is the right kind of an audience, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s the very people who wouldn’t otherwise consider it. The National Inquirer called and one always has to worry . . . because they do distort the facts . . . tabloids have a tendency to do that. We talked for an hour and a half and a very sober article came out of it. So, a lot of people read this that might never even think of organ donations.

MAGGIE: In a way it helped too. Those first numb days . . . when we visited the Prime Minister and President of Italy and went on the Italian equivalent of the Jay Leno Show . . . that helped prepare us for the future when we were talking to The Rotarians. There was a sense of, “We did that” and nobody’s looking for the bad in us, so we can deal with it.

REGGIE: It doesn’t bother me if people are looking for the bad and as far as I can tell there isn’t any of that here . . . on this particular topic. As far as this is concerned our motives are clear. Whatever people make of that, that’s fine. And if at the end of the day people decide they wouldn’t want to donate their organs, I for one wouldn’t want to change their minds. People have really strong beliefs. For some people it’s wrong. They should not be forced into it.

I was in Italy last week talking with a journalist and he said, “You know, not everybody sees it like you. My grandmother, for instance, is terrified of donating organs because she thinks she wouldn’t go to heaven.” And a chaplain I met said, “A lot of these splinter groups in Italy, these fundamentalist groups, are against such things.”

I don’t like coercion. I’d like it to come from the heart. The use of coercion just raises the whole tone of society. Being agnostic I can’t rule out the fact that these people may be right. I know it seems ridiculous now but it was a very strong belief at one point. A week before his death we were in a church in Switzerland, with Nicholas, and there was a painting of a man who wouldn’t get into heaven because he was deformed. Of course that doesn’t occur to me, but if somebody believes that, it would be terrible to try to force that person into something. I much prefer the other method, which I see is working, of information and raising awareness.

All polls in this country show that something like ninety percent believe in organ donation, almost nobody is opposed to it. When it actually happens of course the actual decision is much more difficult. The key to it therefore is giving information and that approach is much more likely to get results than coercion or pressure.

The bell tower is a part of all this too. It was made as a memorial for Nicholas. It isn’t anything I would have thought up myself. When I first heard about it, it took my breath away. A sculptor in Italy wanted to produce this tower; at first with the idea that there would be only one bell. He was designing a bell for the United Nations Fiftieth Anniversary, which was a private venture and made from melted firearms collected by the police. He said he wanted to design it and wouldn’t charge anything. In addition to that he put in innumerable hours trying to get the right kind of steel structure, the right stones for the wall. He drove all around California looking for what he needed and just wouldn’t take a penny. Once we mentioned this in Italy and got one of the big magazines to support it, bells started to appear. People would rush into their house and come out with a hundred-year-old bell they’d give us. Sometimes they’d be from people who’d lost a child or some other loved one, but often just people who were touched by the whole idea. There are church bells along with cow bells on it now, and we keep getting them. There are over a hundred and thirty bells and we have no more room. Now we’re having to think about what to do next. There’s a real sense that people have taken to a lovely idea . . . which is the preciousness of life.

The Papal Foundry, which has been making bells for a thousand years, offered a bell. It’s a very big bell. The Pope blessed it before it left Italy, even though neither of us are Catholic.

It’s there for the children and a way to remind people of the power of organ donation . . . that it can save lives. And, on a more spiritual note, it reminds people of the impermanence of life . . . of using life for whatever good you can. You know, I think that’s a thing about both Maggie and I have come to separately . . . even though we don’t believe in any particular cause to go out and say, “You’ve got to do this or that.” We prefer to say, “This is what we believe; what we’ve done.” Maggie leads by example. She doesn’t talk about it much; she’s very diffident about her capabilities. Her example is the thing that struck me when I first met her. I’ve never known such honesty, gentleness and purpose . . . they sort of transmute themselves.

If you go back to what has influenced me most, it’s the example of people doing their thing; not telling you about it, but doing it. I always knew about death. It wasn’t a strange concept. And if you’ve got a set of beliefs, you should stick to them. Don’t throw out a whole lifetime of thinking or believing just because something happens.

I always knew there was violence in the world. I always knew there were catastrophes . . . but because it then happened to me doesn’t mean that suddenly the whole world is wrong or different than yesterday. Now, it may be a good world or a bad world, but it’s there all the time. If you believed in God before you shouldn’t stop because he’s not being “good” to you in this particular case. Or, if you don’t believe in God, you can’t all of a sudden start inventing one. I never believed in deathbed repentances, especially someone else’s deathbed. Certainly you’ve got to let events modify what you believe and indeed they may revolutionize it, but it’s not something that ought to be done lightly or wholesale in an emotional state. I don’t know exactly what it is that gives Maggie her strength, but she has continued, as far as I can see, as far as her religious beliefs are concerned, to not be very different than how she was before. I think this is bigger than religion . . . it’s about all life.

I’ve always known there was violence and poverty. There is a random quality to these things . . . if I’d gone left instead of right this might never have happened. I get strength from the belief that people are fundamentally decent. I’ve seen a lot of cruelty as a journalist. I’ve seen miserably self-centered behavior, but I think people in their core are decent and they want to do the right thing. I also think people are very lethargic. They want to do something but never get around to it. In general though, there’s a wellspring in most people of wanting to stand up tall. I’ve experienced hundreds and hundreds of people who have that human sympathy. They’ll write to us in order to be comforting in some way. The letters have been such an outpouring of compassion and sympathy. A lot of them say, “I’ve never said this before” or “I don’t know how to say this . . .” and then say something with simple eloquence and depth.

I’ve learned a lot going through this about people I already knew. It turns out that a very good friend of mine had lost his brother and family but never spoke about it. And I never knew that before; even though I’d known him for over thirty years! I realized that there is a lot more behind peoples’ faces then we give them credit for. They’re often harboring the memory of some terrible thing that happened. They hide an enormous amount of death. It makes you more sympathetic to life.

Tolstoy said, “To know all is to forgive all.” I always thought that was a real nice idea. To be fair to myself I’d say I knew it before, but Nicholas’s death intensified it. The more you know about yourself . . . I’d say if there’s one key to everything it’s to “know yourself”. Just to understand yourself. If you know your own workings then you understand others much better.

In a sense though Gabriel, what I find is that to give people a “how too” in this kind of thing . . . I don’t see that there’s a kind of recipe you can use. It takes a long, long time to create who you are and how you react to whatever. If I was going to try to preach to anybody it would be on those kinds of lines.

MAGGIE: This is one of those situations where getting information out there helps. I suspect that one reason the donation rate is so low in Italy is because you’re expected to be prostate in grief . . . screaming and shouting. We were forgiven for not acting like that because we were foreigners. They would be made to feel guilty for appearing to be rational enough to make such a choice at a time like that. They now see there are many ways to grieve and choices that can save lives.

THE END

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