Happy 50th, Regan Marie Montano

I remember that moment distinctly—the first time I heard of your impending arrival.

We seven O’Hara siblings were playing after dinner out in front our ramshackle Southern California rambler on an early spring evening in 1966.

Mom and Dad were unwinding over evening drinks. “Kids,” we have some news!” Mom announced excitedly. She invited us to offer up guesses about what the news was.
“A new station wagon!” “A pony!” “Disneyland!” No, no, and no.

She paused, and then smiled and announced happily: “I’m having another baby!” Maybe some were glad. I couldn’t have been more underwhelmed.

Then you were born; a beautiful baby girl after three brothers in quick succession. And then you grew, and so did my love for you.

50 years later, I still count you among my most favorite people—and friends—on the planet, and am eternally grateful to have you in my life.

Happy 50th, Regan Marie Montano!

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Remembering the “Big O,” always and forever

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Anticipation was building.

In the months leading up to it, you couldn’t escape it. Every time you’d turn on the TV, invariably a promo would run.

“The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults,” a live 2-hour special hosted by Geraldo Rivera, was scheduled to air on April 21, 1986.

Much of America was drawn in by the hype, including my father, Thomas Joseph O’Hara–”The Big O.” He had been born in 1921 in New York, a time when Al Capone dominated the news and ultimately became “Public Enemy No. 1.”

My father had turned 65 the year prior, and had retired from his job as corporate VP of contracts and pricing at Lockheed. He’d absolutely loved his work, and didn’t want to retire. But those were the rules.

Sometime in the early spring of that year, “The Big O” was admitted to the hospital. He had polyps on his colon; “like Reagan,” he quipped. I was 26 that year.

I remember visiting him one evening after work. It was terrifying, seeing him lying there in the hospital bed with the IVs, tubes and monitors, looking so old and frail.

One of my brothers happened to also be visiting, and they were bantering back and forth. “Dad, he said, be sure to leave me all your Lockheed stock when you die.” They both laughed.

The “Big O”glanced over at me, saw me blinking back tears, and knew what I needed to hear. “Lefty,” he said softly, I’m not gonna die.”

He was released from the hospital a few days later. I visited him that Sunday afternoon, April 20th.

I’d brought him a loaf of sourdough bread from a little shop near my duplex in Silverlake, where I was, as my dad would say, “shacking up” with my boyfriend. The “Big O” absolutely loved bread, and I delighted in bringing him freshly baked loaves when I’d visit.

He was relaxing in one of his favorite spots, a scuffed-up ’50s-era Ethan Allen chair at the big wooden table he’d had made years prior in the “eating room” (the O’Hara term for the dining room). A Raleigh cigarette was smoldering in the amber-colored ashtray. His silver Zippo lighter was nearby, along with a glistening tumbler of scotch, on the rocks. As usual, something delicious was simmering in the oven.  The”Big O” loved to cook big roasts with 50 (or so) potatoes, and have them simmer for hours in the oven. You could count on that every weekend afternoon.

His eyes lit up when I walked in, and we both beamed. He looked healthier, relaxed and happy. “It’s great to be home,” he said.  “Didya’ eat? How ‘bout some roasted chicken and potatoes?”

He served me up a plate, along with some of the bread I’d brought. He, too, had a hunk of the bread, along with several slices of cold, hard butter. It was the only way to eat bread in his book.

We chitchatted for a while, and then I needed to go. My boyfriend was playing music nearby, I needed a ride. As I was saying my goodbyes, he winced a bit. “My back,” he said. It’s been hurting since I got out of the hospital. (If it had only been his back.)

The next evening, Monday, April 21st, he, like much of America, tuned in to watch “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults” on live television. After several hours, all that had been unearthed were a few dusty old bottles.

“Big O” had seen enough. “This is bullshit. I’m going to bed,” he muttered, then made his way through the eating room, down the hall, into his room–and out of this world.

Thirty  years after that massive heart attack took him from us all, he’s still in my thoughts pretty much every day–and will continue to be, until it’s my time to go, too.

 

@ awkward intersections in my brain

0280_0065117080 (2)When talking about my family,  siblings and birth order invariably come up in conversation.

Ever since my older sister Ellen died suddenly two years ago,  so much has changed. That includes the “birth order” convo.

Now, when it comes up, I now find myself reaching an an awkward intersection inside my brain–every time.

I’ve always been interested in the subject of birth order, and eventually bring it up with all my friends and colleagues. (How could you not be?)

“I’m one of eight kids; five brothers and two sisters. I was fourth,” I say. Sometimes, I’ll add in a p.s.—“I was the quintessential bitter middle child.”

Other times, when reminiscing about my father, I’ll share this anecdote: “My dad was a lawyer, and absolutely loved it. He wanted all eight of his kids to be lawyers, too. He’d tell me, ‘Lefty, there are so many f**** a******* who are lawyers. You can be one, too.’” (Was that a compliment or an insult?)

I then go on to say that he ended up with four lawyers out of 8— 50%; not bad at all. And it’s at that exact moment that I now  pause and mull it over in my mind:  Should I add the caveat?

I am one of eight—but now we are seven. He did have four kids who grew up to be lawyers–but now there are three.

A little over two years ago, our sister Ellen Marguerite O’Hara, died suddenly. Getting used to speaking of her in the past tense?

It’s taking longer than I’d anticipated.

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I’m easing in this rainy Saturday morning. Sifting through bills, sipping on an underwhelming cup of coffee and adding tasks to my online to-do list. (Latest entry: ”Buy quality coffee beans at Cafe Lladro in Bothell.”)

My phone buzzes with a new post alert. I glance down and read it. It’s one of the those Facebook messages, alerting me of a friend’s birthday.

“Today is Ellen O’Hara’s birthday.  Reply to post a wish on her Timeline of reply with 1 to post “Happy Birthday!”.

I sit, motionless, listening to the pouring rain. Memories of that last horrific day in March of 2014 return.

It was late afternoon on the 10th floor of Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital–the cancer floor. A harpist from the hospice had just finished up playing at the foot of my older sister’s bed. Two former colleagues of hers were knocking on the door, having ignored the “no visitors” directive.

I let them in. Ellen awoke. They had no idea how bad off she was, and spent a few minutes trying to banter. “Ellen, are you gonna come to St. Patrick’s Parade this weekend?” She shook her head slowly, back and forth. It was a “no.”

They continued on with their attempted chit-chat, about what I can’t really recall. After a several  more awkward minutes, I told them that she was exhausted and they should probably go.

The second guy had one more question: “Ellen, any words for everyone at the office?”

Ellen stared intently at them both for several beats. She was heavily medicated; pain meds administered every 20 minutes, with one simple click. On this, what would be her last day of life, even when she was asleep, my younger sister and I made sure of it (especially after the night prior, when Ellen’s pain meds ran out for an unthinkable 20 minutes).

Yet now, she was all all there. She slowly, weakly lifted up her arm and waved her hand back and forth, once. Just once. I could hear what she was saying: “Buh bye!” 

The two former colleagues departed. Ellen died hours later.

I return to my tasks at hand. Two years ago, I would have added “Call Ellen and wish her a happy birthday.” Today, I have only old photographs to study, vinyl records to play, candles to light, beer to drink, and memories to mine. (Such is life…and death.)

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The day those five trusty words finally failed me

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Five words have managed to get me through most of my life: “It could always be worse.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve said that phrase, and it always managed to make me feel empowered and strong. Until the day it no longer applied.

It was that horrific week in March of 2014, when my older sister’s scheduled hysterectomy never happened. Those nightmarish five days when the truth was finally revealed, and we discovered that her stage 4 uterine cancer had spread unabated.

I’d had a sinking feeling when I first heard about the hysterectomy a month prior. My younger sister, Regan, the eternal optimist, did not appreciate my negative attitude. I’d just witnessed the rapid decline of several family members of a close friend from ovarian cancer. I couldn’t shake my feelings of fear and dread.

Ellen suffered terribly and died unexpectedly on March 15 just after midnight.  On that last day of her life, Regan and I had left the hospital around 11 p.m., after our eldest brother Tom arrived from California with more family on the way.

Ellen had been asleep, but still moaning intermittently despite powerful IV pain meds she was receiving. We debriefed him–most importantly to ensure that her pain meds absolutely, positively did not run out.

The prior evening, her nurse had been busy with other patients–and Ellen went 25 minutes without any painkillers.

It’s truly unfathomable, the suffering she endured. Even with the potent cocktail of opiates and who knows what else she was getting every 20 minutes on demand, she still frequently said her pain was “off the charts.”

Tom was standing by Ellen’s bed as we left the room. We arrived back at Ellen’s house on Spokane’s South Hill around 11:30 p.m.. opened a bottle of wine, collapsed into her couch and stared at each other, silently.  

The blur of the past week? None of it seemed real, even now. We sipped our wine and sat quietly. Then, Regan reached for her phone, checking for text messages.. We’d asked our brother to send an update after we left.

“We haven’t heard from Tom.” She dialed his number, and winced as he delivered the news. “I think Ellen just died.”

Later that morning, around dawn, I awoke, unrested and bleary-eyed. The dream I’d been having faded to the background; the nightmare was all too real.  

Those trusty five words?  This time, they most definitely would not apply.

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My minimalist “spice girl”

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I loved the show “Bewitched” as a kid–and especially envied the instant room transformations Samantha managed to achieve with one twitch of her nose. Perhaps that magical power impressed me the most because the house I grew up was eternally messy.

The residence at 4571 Encino Avenue was a sprawling rambler in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. Graceful old oak trees provided a glorious canopy; shelter from the blazingly hot summer sun. It was home to eight kids, two parents and an ever-changing menagerie of pets.

It was also usually a mess. I remember being amazed at the homes of some of my friends and neighbors–clean, pristine, everything in its place.

I was reminded of Samantha the other day. I’d returned home after a day of work, and wandered into the kitchen to make a snack. I opened a cabinet to get some salt, fully expecting to have to sift through an unorganized mish mash of random spices.

I stared in amazement for several beats. Spices jars were neatly lined up in perfect rows, carefully arranged on a shelf that allowed for maximum visibility.

Then Bree emerged from her room, beaming. “Do you like it, Mom?”

Things are looking up in here in “Bree’s Company.” (Who needs Samantha when you have the help of two minimalist millennials?)

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“Bree’s Company”

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I’m living a sitcom life.

It’s called “Bree’s Company,” and it features a colorful cast of quirky characters.

Let’s start with me, a young-at-heart freelance writer, former “Valley Girl” and bonafide late bloomer. (At least, that’s what I like to tell myself.)

The cast also include Gio, my ex-hubby. We divorced 8 years ago, right when the Great Recession was taking hold. Our daughter, Bree, was going to start 10th Grade, and after renting expensive apartments for a while–we decided to pool our resources and buy a modest rambler. The plan was for all of us to coexist until she went to college, at which point I’d move out, he’d stay and we’d continue gaining equity over the years.  Plans didn’t quite pan out that way, though. (I’ll explain more later.)

Gio has a great relationship with his girlfriend of several years, and most nights stays at her place. But all his stuff (a lot of stuff!) is here in this little 3 bedroom/1 bath rambler with no garage and limited storage options. He and I both have accumulated way too much stuff over the years — but happily, downsizing is in full swing.

Then there’s the star of our show — Bree. Her full name is “Gabriella Mary,” and she also answers to “Gabby.” She’s a senior at Western Washington University, a creative writing major with a psychology minorr. She and her fiancee, Jeshua, moved in last month. he’s taking two online classes this summer, and will finish up in December. Jesh is busy looking for a job in tech. Their entourage also includes two cats, Giles and Charlie, who have fortunately settled in peacefully with our Jake.

Last night’s revelry involved an abundance of red wine and a magnetic poetry smackdown followed by an hour’s worth of wrangling over where to order pizza — and you know what? It was a great Saturday night.

It’s “Bree’s Company”– and so far, it’s working out swimmingly.

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