Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Conference in Calgary

Pictures and posters of "Winnie."

For the first six months after Peter's death, I didn't feel able to travel. But I looked forward to the important, epochal, exciting conference commemorating my grandmother Winnifred Eaton (pen name Onoto Watanna) on the centenary of her Calgary novel, Cattle. "Winnie," as we call her, born in 1875, has become an increasingly fascinating academic subject. She was the first Asian American novelist, and adopted a unique strategy for publishing her novels: Half English Canadian, half Chinese, she took on a fake Japanese persona as a device for publishing the romantic Japanese-themed novels she wrote, beginning about 1900, with titles like A Japanese Nightingale and The Heart of Hyacinth. Later she regretted the deception, and after working in Hollywood in the 1920s as the first Asian American screenwriter, she ended up in Calgary as the wife of a cattle rancher and oilman, dropping the Japanese identity, and engaging in social and literary activities. After her death in 1954 her archives were housed at the University of Calgary, and a theater was built in her name there. That is where I spent time researching her life when I came to write her biography, which was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2001.

As her granddaughter and biographer, I was invited to be keynote speaker at the conference. Other family members (my son Paul, and cousins Frank and Elizabeth Rooney, all great-grandchildren of Winnie) would be there, and so would many of the academics I had known and researched with, twenty years earlier when writing my book. We called ourselves "Winniers," and were a happy, congenial, mutually helpful band, excitedly sharing our discoveries. I would see Dominika Ferens again, a UCLA graduate student from Poland, who basically taught me how to research, now a professor herself at the University of Wroclaw, and author of distinguished books. Karen Skinazi who wrote an introduction to Winnie's novel Marion, and was my good friend though we had never met, would be there too; when we worked together she too was a grad student and is now a professor at Bristol University and mother of three. There was also Professor Mary Chapman of the University of British Columbia, who had contributed so much to the growing study of the Eaton sisters, with her major discoveries and writings.  She was the wizardess behind this conference's inception and execution, along with brilliant Calgary literary historian Shaun Hunter. And a host of other vital and wonderful scholars, new to me, were attending this, the very first conference ever devoted to Winnifred Eaton! No one would have thought such a thing possible twenty years ago, but it was happening; and of course I had to go.

Just before my talk.
With First Nations elder Florence Kelly
Conference gurus, Sydney Lines and Professor Mary Chapman, UBC

When the time came, I was ready. You can see from my previous post about the loss of Peter, how devastating that was, and after the years of full time critical care nursing and grief, I had a lot to recover from. But I was getting better, though still somewhat anxious and uncertain about my capabilities, and Paul would be coming with me. I need not have worried!  From the moment of our departure I was my strong old self again, buoyant and eager, and the conference was so exciting, more than anyone even could have imagined, that I was in a state of exuberant exhilaration the entire time!  And I wasn't the only one. The Hong Kong academic and documentary maker Louisa Wei summed it up by saying that she had never been to a conference where everybody felt like family. It was true. Family was there, descendants and Winniers alike. The conference was so perfectly and imaginatively planned, that a look of euphoria was on all faces! It was a nice size too, about 60 participants, so everyone was presenting, interacting, and enjoying. Here are my notes on the proceedings.

Tuesday, July 25. Flight was a bit fraught. Our already late hour departure was delayed two hours by bad weather at the Calgary end so the plane arrived late. It's only a 2.5 hour flight, but they announced that there'd be "severe turbulence" descending into Calgary, and that kind of announcement always does comes true. As we dived into a cloud with the consistency of mud, the whole plane shook like an electric eggbeater. Half the passengers screamed, even Paul looked white and said he'd never known such bad turbulence, but oddly I, who hate flying and had feared an in-air panic attack, remained calm. We arrived at International House on the Calgary campus past midnight, but luckily we'd brought sandwiches, and thankfully settled down in our comfortable suite with the big sky dark prairie view.

Wednesday, July 26. In the morning it was hard to find coffee and food - the campus is large, my knees are bad, and it was the equivalent of several blocks walk to everything. But we got back in time to take an Uber to the rehearsal of our play reading, at the Chinese Cultural Center in Chinatown, a wonderfully flamboyant setting for anything theatrical and Winnyish. The play was an excerpt from a script Winnie wrote from her 1910 novel Tama, about a half-Japanese, half-white blind girl whose parents were murdered because of their mixed marriage. She wandered the woods, raiding villagers' food, and was considered to be a Fox Woman witch-like spirit. A visiting teacher, the American Tojin-san, was her friend and rescuer, and they fell in love; he arranged for an operation to restore her sight, even though he feared her ever being able to see him, because he was ugly. I played Tama, and Paul was Tojin-san! My cousin Frank was Prince Echizen, and Professor Colleen Daniher was the servant Junzo. The play was conceived, directed, and narrated by the brilliant Professor Rena Heinrich of USC. 

With Colleen Daniher entering the Chinese Cultural Center for rehearsal

Rehearsal. Cousin Frank Rooney (Prince Echizen), me (Tama), Paul (Tojin-san), with Rena Heinrich as Narrator and Colleen Daniher as Junzo.

At the gorgeous Chinese center, the rehearsal went promisingly well! Rena was so adept at fine-tuning the nuances of our performances, in tone and manner. Though my Tama basically chewed the scenery and was great fun to play. I had lines such as:  

"It is I you want - I-I-I, the Fox-woman! [She holds out her hair with her hand, letting the glittering strands slip through her fingers. The mob see her. They shrink back.]  Look, look! See my face - my -hair, my body! Behold, I am the Fox-woman of Atago Yama. It is I you have come to take - not he! Not he!" 

As Rena wrote to the cast afterward, "Thank you for making this researcher's dream come true. A hundred-year-old script, plucked from the archive, and read by Eaton's descendants? It truly does not get much better than that." I know we all felt the same about what a remarkable event it was! I had been advised not to wear a kimono, as that might be seen as culturally inappropriate (though that was arguably a quality of my grandmother, perhaps part of the reason she was called the "bad sister" compared with her sister Edith Eaton, Sui Sin Far, who wrote about the Chinese and half-Chinese and was the "good sister"). But I wore a very pretty, vaguely Asian-style floaty black top for the performance. Paul later said, "You never actually got out of kimonos!"

Lougheed House 

With Shaun Hunter

So the rehearsal was fun and so was the next event, which I had been greatly anticipating. We Ubered over to Lougheed House, a grand old Calgary sandstone prairie mansion, built in 1893. Winnie had been friends with Lady Isabella Lougheed, and attended many cultural and literary events there. We toured the house, and then historian Shaun Hunter, author of Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers, conducted us on a thrilling walking tour to several of Winnie's residences and haunts. It was incredibly exciting and special, with shared historical and family anecdotes, and as the last word in luxury my cousin Elizabeth and I, with our lamentable knees, were even driven to some of the locations by kind conferee Jennifer McDougall! There was also an enchanting surprise when we were gathered at Winnie's main Calgary address, 801 Royal Avenue. A lady in 1950s finery sauntered toward us and was introduced as Laura Goodman Salverson, the author of a great Icelandic immigrant novel, The Viking Heart (1923) who'd had a fierce literary feud with Winnie. Of course, as I caught on right away, she was the talented performance artist Karen Gummo, whom I'd longed to see! Afterwards we happily gathered at a local brewery for delightfully congenial talk and food, though much later that night, Paul and I were hungry again, and ordered some excellent chicken tandoori delivered from a local Indian restaurant (Calgary has fabulous ethnic food!), before collapsing to sleep. 

Winnie's house at 801 Royal Avenue.

With Karen Gummo as "Laura Goodman Salverson."

With friend Karen Skinazi

Thursday, July 27. 

This was my big day, starting early, as my keynote talk opened the conference. It was at the campus library gallery hall, and we were welcomed by a First Nations elder, Florence Kelly. I don't know that I've ever seen or met a lovelier person. She spoke so evocatively and humbly about her life and experiences, growing up in a residential school where she was removed from her reservation and family and ill-treated, even having her teeth knocked out by a nun to keep her from speaking her native language. This only made her more determined never to forget her heritage, and she later graduated from the University of Calgary, studying English, and working with her people. To this day she visits her old home, and with her children and grandchildren travels in a canoe, eating native foods (beaver), and picking wild rice. When I asked about the rice she said she'd come back later and bring me some - and she did. I think I may cherish it too much to eat it!

Then I gave my talk, about my experiences learning about my unknown grandmother, and writing my book. Paul videoed it, and it's posted on Facebook, where to my amazement 500 people have viewed it so far! (We've also put it on YouTube, under my name.) It was warmly received, which was inexpressibly gratifying! I was followed by plenary speaker Spencer Tricker from Clark University, who gave an interesting and very complementary talk about Winnie and the equally flamboyant Sadakichi Hartmann's "Japanese atmosphere" in New York. 

We had a lovely relaxed fish and chips lunch with a happy bunch of conferees, including Rena, Dominika, Shaun, the performance artist Karen Gummo, Shoshanna Ganz, and my cousins. Next talk was a fascinating panel describing the digitalization of the Winnifred Eaton Fonds, the archive I worked with when researching my book. Then it consisted of many boxes of delicate, messily assorted documents, which have now been completely digitized. Jason Wiens of UCalgary chaired the panel with librarian Annie Murray, technical director Joey Takeda, and Sydney Lines (who was project manager and major academic discoverer - more to be announced later!) There was also a video talk from my old Winnier friend Jean Lee Cole. 

The next panel was chaired by Rena with Hedy Law and Sydney Lines of UBC, and Colleen Daniher (of Wilfrid Laurier University), discussing Winnie's performing heritage and Canadian theatre historiography. This was followed by a public lecture (some talks were only open to registrants, this was open to the public) by Nancy Yunhwa Rao of Rutgers, author of Chinatown Opera Theatre in North America, discussing the importance of theatre to Chinese immigrant communities.

Paul and I (the former Miss Reeve!) at the Reeve Theatre

Cousins Elizabeth Rooney and  Frank Rooney, with me and Paul by the dedicatory plaque

Onstage, on the backstage tour of the Reeve Theatre

This already packed day was capped by what was for us an incredibly thrilling event - a tour of the Reeve Theatre, which was funded in part by a million-dollar donation from the Reeve Foundation, by Winnie's husband Frank Reeve. It's a beautiful performance space, and my pride is partly due to (full disclosure) my having once been a Miss Reeve - as a matter of fact I was born Winifred Diana Reeve, though I reversed the names as a teenager. Now I wish I could change back to Winifred again!

After the tour (during which I longed to borrow a long golden wig displayed backstage, which was eerily identical to the book illustrations of Tama!), there was a lovely reception. The buffet included a fabulously imaginative and artful display of shortbread cookies baked in the shape of some of Winnie's books! Socializing, eating, book signing - and then we retired exhausted and slept the sleep of the just (and busy). 

At the reception, cookies in the shape of Winnie's book covers!

At the reception, me with Dominika Ferens (Wroclaw University), Yuki Matsumoto (Kindai University), and Karen Skinazi (Bristol University).
Backstage:  I wanted that wig for Tama!

And here is why!

Friday, July 28

First up was a scholarly panel on Winifred Eaton's Alberta novels, with Dominika Ferens from Wroclaw, who talked about the cultural politics of "unfeeling," comparing the brutish bully in Cattle with Thomas Savage's The Power of the Dog. Joey Takeda of Simon Fraser University talked about the reinvention of identity in Winnie's final novel, His Royal Nibs. The second panel was "On Affect in Eaton's works", chaired by Shoshannah Ganz of Memorial University. Xine Yao of University College, London, spoke on Asian Diasporic fiction and coquettes and seduction in Miss Nume of Japan, Shelley Hulan of Waterloo on the heroine of Me and her "strategic naivety." And Karen Skinazi talked about "Suicide Girls of the Progressive Era."

After a quick fish-and-chips lunch, Paul took part in a Transcribe-a-thon, "Transcribing Texts in the Winnifred Eaton Archive," organized by Joey Takeda and Sydney Lines. In the digital lab, participants tried their hands at transcribing Winnie's gossippy Hollywood correspondence, and a fascinating and jolly time was had by all. I enjoyed watching the youngest conference participant, Professor Lily Cho's daughter Hattie, an incredibly precocious, deft, and enthusiastic transcriber! 

Hattie and I, youngest and oldest conferees!

Next was a panel on "Winnifred Eaton in Hollywood," chaired by Louisa Wei, with Vito Adriaensens of Columbia University and Karintha Lowe of Sarah Lawrence, who talked about the ephemeral melodrama of Cattle, which Winnie hoped would be a film. This was followed by an enjoyable public screening of the 1925/1929 Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera, a draft of which script Winnie worked on, though uncredited. Afterwards Paul and I wanted a light dinner and Shaun and her husband kindly dropped us at the Chinese restaurant Ginger Beef where we picked up some wonton soup and dumplings. And then to sleep.

Descendants with Mary Chapman, holding a new book by another descendant, cousin Jamie Stephen.

Saturday, July 29. Events were held today not on the UCalgary campus but at the beautiful, bedragoned Calgary Chinese Cultural Center, and it all began with our play! The reading went very well and we were most enthusiastically applauded, to our delight. It was filmed, and will be posted when available.

Taking our bows!

Afterwards our nerves were dispelled by a thoroughly imaginative and delightful event dreamed up and hosted by Colleen Daniher. Winnie and her sister Sara Bosse wrote a very early Chinese/Japanese cookbook in 1914, and Colleen arranged for participants to try their hands at cooking two of the dishes! Cooking equipment was set up, and everybody had enormous fun following the instructions. The dishes, a noodle dish and scrambled eggs, turned out quite nicely.

Pointing out photos of Sara Bosse and Onoto Watanna

Trying my hand at the scrambled eggs dish!

I missed the next session of three talks, because I was being interviewed for a documentary by Louisa Wei of the University of Hong Kong, and I enjoyed the experience very much! The panels I missed were one on Chinese genealogy by Linda Yip, and another was "Have You Eaten Yet?" about food in Winnie's works, with Koby Song-Nichols of the U of Toronto and Shuyin Yu of UCalgary talking about Winnie's cookbook, chaired by Kesia Kvill, curator of the Heritage Park Historical Village. The third talk was Teaching Winnifred Eaton's works, chaired by Karen Skinazi, with Christena McKillop (UCalgary Library), Yuki Matsumoto of Kindai University, Japan, and Shoshanna Ganz of Memoria University. 

Paul and I had lunch with Shaun and Karen at a nearby Korean barbecue restaurant in a Chinatown mall, which was delicious and great fun. Then back for a public lecture by Lily Cho of Western University, "Mass Capture and Chinese Canadian History," about the issuance of documents (CI 9s) to determine citizenship among Chinese immigrants following the passage of the Chinese Immigration Act.

Next was the screening of Golden Gate Girls, award-winning Louisa Wei's documentary about groundbreaking Chinese American filmmaker Esther Eng. 

The day's finale was a truly spectacular ten-course Chinese banquet, traditionally served, with some dishes inspired by Winnie - with her book titles on the tables!  It was a fitting fireworks of a conference ending with eclat, and pictures will describe the event better than words.  

The ten-course banquet menu

Our table, Elizabeth Rooney, Mary Tate, Frank Rooney and Paul, with Winnie looking over the table, whose book card was "Cattle."

Most jolly banquet!

Peking duck

Duck soup 

Shaun Hunter waves goodbye

Still, this wasn't the end of our trip, for on Sunday, Paul, Elizabeth and I picked up my nice little cobalt blue Toyota rental car and drove, ready for adventure, into the Canadian Rockies for a couple of days! We've enjoyed many hiking trips in the past to the spots Winnie knew and loved - her ranch was halfway between Calgary and Banff, and she used to visit Num-Ti-Jah Lodge at Bow Lake. That is such a beautiful place, with so many family associations (Peter, Paul and I stayed there with cousins Tim and Mary, Elizabeth and Frank's parents, years ago), that we longed to see it again. As it happened, it rained the evening we arrived, and although the lake was still lovely, we couldn't hike. So we proceeded to our hotel, The Crossing Resort on the Icefields Parkway, for a comfortable steak dinner.

Bow Lake in the rain

Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, a favorite of Winnie's in the 1940s, and of ours too.

Peter, Paul and I on a visit to Num-Ti-Jah with our cousins Tim and Mary Rooney, early 2000s

Monday was brilliantly sunny, and we returned to Bow Lake for the hike. Paul and I made it halfway around the lake, about a 2-mile hike (pretty good considering my knees, but they don't hurt on a dirt trail, only concrete), and we reached the far spot, a sandy beach which Peter particularly loved. The big surprise was encountering Karen Skinazi and her husband on the trail, for a happy reunion and farewell.

Bow Lake in the sunshine. 

Me and Paul halfway round the lake, at the place Peter loved

With Karen and her husband Elliot Ludvig

After a short rest and a bit of internet at The Crossing (most of the region was a wifi black-out hole!), we had our next adventure, driving 50 miles to the hamlet of Nordegg, where my friend Nancy Vermette of the Lord Peter Wimsey group lives with her husband Dennis in the most beautiful mountain log home I've ever seen. Nancy and I have known each other for years, but hadn't yet met in person, and it was such a delightful and happy encounter and evening! We admired the house and the beautiful art structures Dennis has created in the garden, Nancy took us on a short tour of Nordegg (Paul especially wanted to see the new library), and then - Dennis, a chef, prepared a truly delicious and memorable meal for us. Venison roulade (stewed with bacon, pickle and red wine), with baked polenta, and ratatouille, followed by his homemade apple galette! A perfect meal, and perfect company. We drove back to the hotel watching a blood red moon setting; apparently that color due to recent wildfires, though the air was clear.

Tuesday morning we drove from the Icefields to Calgary, rather speedily as our flight was to leave at 2:30 PM, and it was a 175 mile drive! In fact, I did it in 3 hours flat. Then we had to wait an hour at Customs, the result of it being high tourist season. But we made the flight, and were soon whisked happily home, after a truly wonderful and memorable Canadian trip. 

Paul and I both felt that it had all done us so much good: I'd been anxious and uncertain before, not sure if grief had somehow rendered me incapable of doing so much - but I was completely reassured on that score! My talks went well, I was so happy with friends old and new, family, celebrating, and being given such absolutely royal treatment, and Paul said he was so proud of me. But I'm happy now to be back with the cats, in the dear and quiet home that my darling Peter and I made together. 

Friday, February 3, 2023

In Death and Dreams



Most of December was a good month for Peter. In November he’d been in hospital for a week, at UCLA Santa Monica, with a “small” pneumonia, quickly wiped out with antibiotics, and some dialysis issues. He was released the day before Thanksgiving, and although I was pretty tired from all the stress I made a bang-up Thanksgiving dinner for just the three of us. Peter gobbled it heartily and said he believed it was the very best one I had ever made – and he’d had more than half a century’s worth of them! I cherish the pictures of him shoveling in that last Thanksgiving meal.


We’d had a golden reprieve following his dire illness at the start of pandemic three years ago, which was weeks of hospitalization with six pneumonias, six transfusions, and kidney failure. The wonderful UCLA pulmonary team saved him against all odds, and he was put on dialysis in June, 2020. This basically kept liquid away from heart and lungs, and gave him a new lease on life. Of course dialysis is hard and our lives became more limited, all the more because of pandemic!  I became a full time caregiver, which got harder when he fell and broke his hip in September 2020.  But he recovered from that too (as he seemed to rebound from everything - it was always said that he had more lives than all our cats put together), and the next two and a half years were what we called “golden time.” We appreciated everything more than ever before, rejoiced in being together, and enjoyed the small pleasures intensely. Peter would come home from dialysis tired and in pain, I’d have difficulty getting him upstairs and onto his day bed, but I’d bring him iced espresso and poppyseed cake like his grandmother used to make, then a delicious dinner, and he’d watch and relish his videos (political rants, the situation in China, hiking and camping in winter wilderness, cat videos, travel videos – he used to say he didn’t mind not going anywhere because the world came to him!). The cats would romp around him on his day bed, and soon he’d be feeling better again. We even did manage to go places – only last June, 2022, we were in Sequoia, at 7,000 feet, Peter eating an ice cream cone at Lodgepole, on oxygen!  He’d go out to the coffee shop occasionally, sit in the sunshine, enjoy his books, and spent a lot of time sorting his poetry to decide which ones were to go into which desired collection. This was very important to him and he was so glad to be able to do this work.


Peter with ice cream at 7,000 feet, June 2022

But on Christmas Eve, I was all ready to get started with another turkey, when we realized that Peter, who’d been feeling under the weather, had to go back to the hospital. We never thought it’d be for the last time. The ER was fairly empty due to the holiday and there was no wait for him to be given a room on the geriatric floor, for observation. It soon was discovered that his pneumonia infection was back, and he was put on strong antibiotics. This was expected to subdue it as before, but every morning I’d wake up at home, check the UCLA online portal to see his overnight numbers, and the white blood cell count would be no better. I’d hurry to the hospital and sit with Peter all day, until bedtime. The main trouble seemed to be that they were unable to perform dialysis well – there were possible clots in the port graft, and none of the technicians could do it. And with less dialysis, he grew sicker. He became delusional, and they had to put mittens on him. No one was overly concerned about that, because “hospital delusion” is a very common problem with older patients, and indeed, when they gave him a port in his leg and were finally able to do a good dialysis, he snapped out of the delusions quickly. (Though they weren’t bad delusions; at one point he patted my nose thinking I was his cat Pindar.) He was able to chat and be read to, and I read him from Ulysses which he enjoyed. He was looking pretty well, like himself, with good vital signs, and no trouble breathing.

Then they decided that his arm portal was clear, so they’d try to give him dialysis in the arm. If it worked he’d soon be able to go home, as the pneumonia drugs were the “right” ones, even though taking longer to work than before. But the arm dialysis was extremely painful, and here’s what happened next, as I wrote to a friend: 

“January 2. Well, things have turned sour again - Peter now has afib. 

This morning he came out of the confusion and was lucid again. Really best he's been since he went into the hospital, and he and Paul and I enjoyed chatting together and figuring out how to work the TV news, etc. Then, the doctor said he'd have dialysis, and they'd try the arm because the scan showed it was OK; if it works, then they can take out the temp catheter in the leg. Fine. But the technician finds it has some clotting. She can get around it, put the needle in higher up. However, it was very painful, and Peter had not asked for Lidocaine which he always gets in dialysis because he assumed he'd get it. The pain triggered his trigeminal neuralgia (facial pain), so he got worse. He asked for pain medicine, hydrocodone. The nurse prevaricated, said she'd ask her superior, etc., but she never came back. I took matters in my own hands and went looking for her - she's not there. I saw a male nurse who had Peter last week, and told him the situation. He acted quickly, got the medicine (the girl had asked her nurse practitioner and then gone off). He gave it to Peter, who soon felt better, relaxed, and dozed off as the dialysis continued as it should. Paul and I left for me to drive him home to get his suitcase so he could return to the island. When I got back - there was Peter with heart arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation. The pain had given him afib disordered heart readings. Apparently pneumonia can push you into afib, as well as the level of stress. They scurried around giving him EKGs and getting blood samples and loading him up with Heparin. Peter was so exhausted, and when dialysis was done he had a little to eat and went to sleep. 

 What next. I think I can guess. 

 Afraid Peter’s systems are shutting down and doctors only making it worse.

 Maybe I should go back and sleep in chair.”

 Next morning. January 3.

 “Got to the hospital very early. Happily his heart returned to normal rhythm during the night and has remained so. Whew. They want to do the procedure to clean up his arm graft today but the catch is that his hemoglobin is now very low, 5.4, because the heparin may have caused some internal bleeding, so he'll need a transfusion first. This we've seen before however and they know how to handle it. Not as scary as new heart problems developing. So perhaps we'll get him home to the cats before too long, after all. Here's hoping.

 I've got a nice cappuccino and warmed chocolate croissant this morning. Peter's sleeping and I may have a doze in the backbreaking recliner. We're having a rainy week here, I like it. And if Peter only remains to delight my eyes, that will be good.”

 Next letter a few hours later, to my friend:

 “Jan, Peter died at 5:50 PM today. Code Blue was called and doctors paddled his chest and put him on a vent and I held his hand and told him we'd publish his poetry and take care of his cats. It was that awful dialysis that the pain sent him into arrhythmia and next morning after asking for some ice cream and pain medication, his heart numbers went crazy and 30 medics ran into the room while I stood crying in the hall and then they took him up to the ICU where he was on a vent a couple of hours and then his kind pulmonologist told me they couldn't bring him back anymore and his pressure was dropping, so was it all right, and I said yes, and he pronounced it at 5:50. 

Paul managed to close library, announce a bereavement leave, and be on the last boat out before the storm. I was with Peter when he died, and Paul is with me now.”

 I posted the following picture and caption on Facebook, and was overwhelmed by so many kind messages from so many friends, who seemed to understand what Peter and I meant to each other and did for each other. And I did have the feeling of a good job well done.


Peter Charles Birchall, January 20, 1944 – January 3, 2023

My darling Peter.

“In death and dreams the world revolves, a sea

Where gulls and lovers drown, and then are free.”

   -Peter Birchall, 1965 


Snippets from various letters and notes:

 Paul actually had me laughing during my first day of widowhood, though he is more deeply affected than I thought and is having a hard time - I think partly worrying about how I'll be when he goes back to the island after his bereavement leave. He told people I was In Shock (because I was sitting next to a rainy window and shivered) and indeed I was, during the Code Blue, shaking while they were flattening Peter with the heart paddle, but it soon ended (for both of us). Today my half sister and her husband drove out here in the rain with a ton of deli food to have a little wake, or shiva, with us. This was incredibly kind, all in the old family tradition of bringing food so the mourners won't have to cook, and to keep them company. Afterwards Renee helped me to throw out Peter's drugs and useless hospital paraphenalia, which was a good thing to do as looking at them made me sad (Paul threw out the much hated commode himself). It was harder to put away his poor clothes...he had to wear short sleeves for dialysis and most of them were blood stained. 

Tomorrow we go to the pretty green little local cemetery, Woodlawn, where suffragette Christabel Pankhurst is buried (she had a crazy California phase), and try to arrange for the cremation. He won't have a funeral or burial but in the spring, we will scatter his ashes at Sequoia National Park, which was his favorite place and where we did all our hiking. We know the spot, Peter and I decided on it many years ago because it's only a quarter-mile from the road and we figured we'd still be able to get to it when we were old crocks and it came time to scatter! 

 It is day 4, and I am still processing things and tending to cry when I see cookies I bought for him that he can't eat because you know, but I am here. Paul and I went to the cemetery, and they were so sweet, said they'd get transport and have Peter there that very afternoon, and soon do cremation and give me the ashes to take to Sequoia in late May. That was exactly what Peter wanted and where he wanted to be, and Paul and I felt so at peace for having set it all in motion. To our surprise everybody seems to think it's a lovely idea, and some dear relatives want to come, which will be wonderful. We’ll have a short hike and a poetry reading. I’m absolutely overwhelmed by letters, messages, flowers…I’ve had nearly a thousand Facebook messages, so kind and comforting. (Just a few who come out with jaw-dropping zingers like "To say you are a Widow is the worst thing I can imagine, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy!")

At Woodlawn Cemetery.

 So Peter is gone. He couldn't help it, I couldn't help it, though we tried as hard as we humanly could, and beyond; but he was so very sick, and then too maybe warehoused a bit by being sick in holiday time. I don't know. I do know that when people say their dead person will always be with them it sounds unreal, but after 55 years spent together, never ever getting tired of talking to each other, well, I think he always will be there in my mind, and yet...a door has opened.  It's exactly as if you had a cat in a carrying case and you open the door and the cat’s not sure if it's really possible to go out of the case and it sits bewildered there for awhile. That’s where I am!


Photo courtesy of Elspeth Scott

We're better than I ever imagined or dreaded we might be after such a earthquake of a catastrophe in our lives. I remember my grandfather dying three months after my grandmother of a broken heart (both when I was eleven; they brought me up and I was essentially orphaned then) and have heard that widowed people have a high death rate following loss of a partner. I feared I might crack up or something, having been enveloped in Peter’s love and support most of my life: could I survive it being taken away, would I return to being a numb waif again? But no, I feel surprisingly strong. Getting lots of rest, because I had such broken anxious sleep for the last few months. I have hardly fully realized yet the extent of the burden that round the clock care was for me - and that the load has been lifted. For the first four days I cried on awakening: where was Peter? oh dead. I don’t want to live like that, and hope it will abate. For now I am just in one day at a time mode, can’t see any farther ahead. I immediately knew I wanted to get rid of everything medical in sight, and I did that. Five 33-gallon trash bags were filled with pads and creams and inhalers and bandages - and half-sister Renee kindly took them away to donate. Tomorrow, Monday, the hospital equipment companies are coming to take away the rented hospital bed, three oxygen machines, a tank, and a CPAP. We're throwing away three of the five walkers, and so on. When the day bed in the living room is gone I can start doing three years worth of refreshing and make this a pretty place to live. Most important decision I've made yet: I'm going to move my work place into Peter's study, the only room in the house with sunshine and a view of trees and squirrels that he loved! His favorite books and family heirlooms are in there, and a lovely Turkish carpet, and I will feel Peter's best presence all around me. The cats are already learning to sleep with me on Peter’s bed that I have turned into a cat bed, and not waiting forlornly all night for Peter to return.


Cat bed

I don’t think I’ll write much about my widowed experiences, don’t want to dwell on that past a certain point, and I don’t want to become a receptacle or repository for the subject. Can’t think about projects yet anyway. Fixing up the study is as far as I can see just now. More will come, I'm sure, and I didn't cry even once today, though I had an odd moment when I realized that since I never read all the heavy books Peter does (did), I probably knew only a small amount of his thinking. Did you know he'd become an admirer of the Tao?  I guess that was how he prepared himself for his oncoming death. But I didn't know anything about it. I just comforted him and pushed his walker and researched medical questions and brought him everything he liked to eat. It was enough. 

Peter and I lived the life we chose and wanted: he wanted to write poetry, I liked working and we both wanted to read and write and be left alone. So we did, interspersed with lots of hiking and other travels. Never had to report to anyone, could be our own contrarian selves all we liked: nobody cares in California. He was saying just that a few weeks ago, what a good life we had. And we had a lot of it, with nothing but mutual affection and support from start to finish. To die at (nearly) 79 when he was so sick and clearly couldn't go on much longer, is not as bad as it might have been. People say I kept him alive for far longer than he’d have had without me, well, me and UCLA!  I can't help grieving but I don't want to spend the rest of my life an emotional mess. I know I'm going to miss him horribly though, having him to talk to all the time and he knew so much, had such certitude, thought for himself. I've never been single and don't think I'm going to like being alone; but Paul is such a blessing. 

 Tomorrow will be a week, and we have hardly recovered from all the shocks - the shock of actually seeing him die, most of all. I hope in time not to be assailed by moments such as when I see the soap I used for his showers and it brings back images of how hard he struggled to walk into the shower. That kind of thing. It's why I am desperate to clean out everything that brings back the sick times. 

Finally, to a Facebook friend who was an elementary school classmate of mine, who commented on how I was in the vanguard of what many of us would have to face, the burden of being the survivor of a mate, I started to answer but it turned into the account of the death, and I didn’t post it. Here it is now. 

“Surprisingly, I don't feel I'm carrying any weight at all. Peter and I were together for 55 years, our every experience and thought intertwined; we pursued interests separately but they were similar, all about reading and writing and traveling. We both always considered that a thousand years together wouldn't be enough. Yet surviving isn't a burden, not for me. As his sole 24/hour caregiver I did not only do all I could, I did far more than I ever dreamed was even humanly possible for me to do! The last few months I hardly had a relaxed breath. I pushed a 200 lb. man sitting in his walker seat (I couldn't push a wheelchair, got a slipped disk from that, thankfully repaired with physical therapy) up hills through parking garages and medical corridors, got him into the SUV seat singlehanded when he couldn't walk and simultaneously juggled his oxygen and several sets of tangling cords; we both tripped on them numberless times, they were a torment. But I made Peter as comfortable as my imagination and capacity could conceivably contrive, at every and all moments, whenever it was possible. When I brought him home from dialysis three times a week he'd be exhausted and miserable; I had the food he liked, he had his YouTube videos and books and cats and soon he'd feel better and we could just enjoy being together again. As his COPD and pulmonary fibrosis got worse he couldn't walk to the bathroom without me walking beside him holding the 25-foot oxygen cord and seeing he didn't fall. When he did fall down or sat down on the floor because he was too wobbly to stand, I could not get him up; 200 lbs. (That man adored eating until the end, no kidney patient starvation did he have!) But he couldn't pull himself up. We had at least 20 paramedic visits in the last year; they'd kindly pull him up and put him in his bed. I was never a slave to Peter, but I was most certainly a slave to his illness. He was so stoic, sweet and patient, and never complained. There was no other option that was acceptable. Peter's stepfather was spending $300,000 a year in a care home, with round the clock private nurses, but such was hardly possible for us and the local “homes” available were not places I would ever willingly "put" Peter. He had me, and I could take care of him. Never mind my age and knee osteoporosis – I could do it, and that was that. I got stronger. He was going to enjoy life as much as he still could, and get the best attention to his needs medical and physical. So I don't feel any “burden” in being the survivor. I feel I did my best, and now I can breathe. 

He'd had many hospitalizations and always recovered, with remarkable resilience; but this time after ten days in the hospital things weren't going well. The antibiotics weren't knocking out the pneumonia; they weren't able to give him good dialysis, the pain of it gave him afib, and the blood thinners for that probably caused internal bleeding. He was waiting for a transfusion to stabilize him but there was a blood shortage, and it didn't come. But he was quite comfortable while waiting, no thought of dying, and his last words were “Can I have some ice cream?” Then he dozed off. Then suddenly the heart monitor went wonky, the nurse ran into the room and screamed “Code Blue!” which meant that thirty medical people raced from all over the hospital and were doing chest compressions and all sorts of emergency measures. They told me to wait outside, and I had a glimpse of Peter flailing like a fish and hastily complied. Out in the corridor I was shaking and crying while the milling crowd kept well away from the Family Member, except for a chaplain who kindly stood beside me. 

I hastily called Paul and said "I think it's happening now!  Come home!" and Paul ran to the next boat (the last, as it turned out, as a storm hit and the rest of the boats were cancelled for a couple of days). Then I realized that despite hearing all the shouts of “I think it’s stopped, no, get another compressor, I can’t find one!” Peter was still alive in that room and I had to be there. So I went and knelt by him, held him and told him I loved him and would get his poetry published and take care of the cats. The chaplain said he saw him react when I touched him, and it was true, I could feel him relax as I spoke and that he knew I was there. Just then the doctor said there was a pulse: did I want to try some more or let him go? There were no instructions, but I said I knew them, Peter had told me.  I said "Peter wants to fight if there’s any chance" and the doctor said "You got it."  I told Peter the doctors would take care of him and I wouldn't leave him but the best thing he could do to help himself was just relax and sleep and he'd be all right. They took him up to the ICU and I sat with him for a couple of hours, he was breathing on a vent, but still warm and alive looking. I recited to him the two love poems he wrote me when we were twenty, but even though they sounded wonderful, this time when I spoke I felt sure he didn't hear me. Finally his blood pressure went down, the doctor and nurses looked at each other, and I asked was that it? The doctor said it was if I said so, I said so, and the doctor pronounced it at 5:53. Then the doctor (who was Peter's pulmonologist that had saved him three years ago and happened to be on hand to lead the fight for his life) kindly sat with me and told me how, when end stage renal disease patients can't be dialyzed, it’s like a cascade of breaking parts, and the heart stops. That was what happened, and nobody could have done anything. At 6:30 our Paul reached the ICU. Peter still looked just like himself, sleeping, and Paul closed Peter's eyes. We stayed an hour and then went down to the cafeteria where friends were waiting for us; got some Thai take-out and went home, now a family of two not three, with three cats, one Peter's very own Pindar. Peter will always be with me in so many memories and associations, and I have all his books and his cats and will fulfill my promise and get his poems published.

Peter and some of his poems on one of his last coffeehouse visits, November 2022.

The first few days I was in shock, and cried when I woke up in the morning: "Where's Peter, what does he need...Oh, that's right, he isn't here. Wait - he never will be again! - He has, he has DIED!" Sob. But mercifully that grew less intense. I hated it happening so much that I reminded myself briskly how sick he had been, that he could not live long no matter what, and that we'd had a lifetime of happy years, living exactly the life we chose and wanted and loved; so I could not wish for more.

 So now I’m in my work place in Peter's own study, the loveliest room in a dark house, with sunshine and a view of trees where you see giant crows disporting themselves all day and the cats carry on longing chirrupping conversations with them. Peter loved that view and the wildlife until he had to move to the hospital bed in the living room; and now I shall sit there and work, amongst his things. And I’ve turned Peter's bed into a cat bed, so I would never sleep alone, and our three cats are continuing their good work as caretakers and consolers. Pindar has her place right by my side. So that is what widowhood is like for me so far, and based on my informal survey of my friends who've already been there, every widow is different as every woman, and every relationship, is different. I've just now realized how profound that stereotype is. And he wasn't heavy: he was my husband.


Blanket poster designed and given to me by Natasha Zwick

The two poems he wrote for me when we were in our early twenties, that I spoke to him while he was dying:


To the Onlie Begetter:


 Come gentle darkling of my mid-night world,

Dark child and mother of illicit dreams,

Breathe passion in my ear, till passion furled,

Unfurls itself, and as a zephyr seems


To waft away those sorrows and the griefs

That press upon me ever when awake

Forcing my course between the tortuous reefs

Of here and there, and life and death: I quake.


Love's nightly chimaeras do not deceive;

Sleep is no balm to soothe the troubled mind

Of one who prays, and yet cannot believe

That in life's search there is something to find.


   Life's desperate affirmations but confirm

   Death's power over life, - and the grim worm.



Incony Denny, sweet nectar of my lips

Incantatory dream, an incense haze

Of raptured nights that dawn into short days

I pray devout between your sacred hips.

Your child-stretched stomach and your child-stare eyes

Illuminate the grayness of my gloom

I am a bird, bereft, without a plume

That soared to heights only to drown in sighs.

In death and dreams the world revolves, a sea

Where gulls and lovers drown, and then are free.



Death certificate cause of death:

Cardiac Arrest

New Onset Atrial Fibrillation

Right Lower Lobe Pneumonia

End Stage Renal Disease, Acute Anemia


Some pictures from our life together...First, recent ones, from Peter's last months (though we didn't know it).

Last time at the coffeehouse, December 5, 2022

Coffeehouse with friend Carl, November

With friend Ken, November

And some favorite pictures, happy memories from past times:

Me and Peter in Catalina.

Peter enjoying Paul working at Catalina Library 

Peter in King's Canyon 

Peter on the Snake River, Wyoming


Peter in Alaska

Skara Brae, Orkney

Peter in Venice

Peter in Turkey

Peter and Paul in the Village

And in the after times...

Pindy grieving 

Me grieving, with the ashes

Darling Peter.