December 09, 2018

Born To Die, A Christmas Gift

December 10, 1957, my dead sister was born. She'd be 61 now, and each year she is a part of my Christmas Advent—as surely as the Christ Child of so long ago. For it was her life and death that put me in the front row seat with a view into eternity and first-hand experience with the grace of God.

Heather Wilbee, Christmas 1959
She’d been born to die, Heather, a Christmas gift wrapped in grief. The year, 1957. Me, six. My mother returned from the hospital without my baby sister. My father explained. Heather had been born with a hole in heart and was not expected to live. He lifted me into my high yellow chair for supper and scooted me in. He did the same for Linda and Tresa. Seven, six, and five, me in the middle, I stared into the night and at our reflections in the large window on the other side of the table, wondering if the glass might fall in from the weight of sadness pressing against the house. Unable to eat, I pushed the food around on my plate. Dad cornered off some mashed potatoes. "Eat this much and you can be excused.

“Leave her be,” said my mother and I burst into tears.

But it was the grief, like sunlight through stained glass, which made Heather’s fragile life so lovely. She stayed with us for three years and how we loved her, my other sisters and I.

Wilbee sisters, 1961
The first eighteen months of her life we only knew her through hushed whispers and the occasional trip home. But when Mum and Dad brought her home for good—after her second open-heart surgery and not expected to survive the trip—one look at this frail little sister, so weak and so blue, and looking for all the world like me, my terrible grief eclipsed into magical wonder. God had hung a smile from the stars.

Heather Wilbee, 1960
For a long time we were not allowed into our parents’ room where Dad set up Heather’s crib under an oxygen tent. Exceptions were made if we donned surgical masks and scrubbed our hands just about raw with Fels Naptha. We didn’t mind; we could kill her with germs we didn’t know we had. We could, however, peek through the door all we wanted. Sometimes I just sat on the cold tile floor and watched. Mum usually had her propped up in a corner of her crib, and Heather amused herself by watching the butterflies Mum had made from candy wrappers, hung from a coat hanger. She also had Aunt Grace’s “Puppydids,” a mink shawl of heads and tails that she’d fallen in love with. When I softly opened the door lest I startle her and inadvertently kill her, she’d smile a weak soft smile that came mostly from her eyes. “Hi, Heather,” I’d say. What I meant of course was “I love you.”

Heather Wilbee 1960
She blossomed in the warm rays of family sunlight. She learned to sit up, to talk, and, delightfully, to sing—a clear sweet voice that floated through the house like bird song at dawn. Mum began taking her outdoors on sunny days and let us push her gently in the baby swing.

When she gave a Heather a bath out by the clothesline, we were allowed to pass the soap and help dribble water over her pale blue  skin—as delicate and translucent as a poppy open to the sky. It hurt me to see her scars, two zipper-like marks that ran horizontal around her rib cage, one under each arm. I’d distract myself by showing her how to wiggle her fingers in the water and make a splash; and I’d wonder at the courage she possessed.

Heather's shoesBy two-and-a-half she'd learned how to pull herself up despite the doctors' prediction, and could walk by holding onto our fingers in front of us. How she came by her black patent leather shoes I don’t recall, but the three of us didn’t begrudge her the shoes we had no dream of ever owning for ourselves. And as much as we loathed our Buster Browns—shoes so ugly and uncomfortable we had to stick our feet in an X-ray machine so the salesman could tell if a new pair was too big or too small—we took pleasure in Heather’s good luck. At eight years old and seeing her shoes, I understood that prayer was not a waste of time.

She had a bedtime routine. I might be busy doing cutouts, or playing a game with my other sisters, or coloring or reading to myself, but I found comfort in the schedule unfolding around me. Her jammies on, she first had to have her blue may-he-dun, then her pink. Never the reverse. Once when Aunt Grace was visiting she got it backwards. What a hullabaloo. We of course sprang to the rescue and explained the error, and prayed that the upset wouldn't stop Heather's fragile heart. After her mayhedun, she had to be carried about the house, shutting all the cupboards and drawers, everything tucked into place and put properly to bed. Jamie Boy had to have his bird cage draped and the counter wiped. Finally, sitting down on the yellow rocking chair before a fire, Mum had to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and two verses of “Silent Night.”

The routine was soothing as oil, a serenity that became as much my goodnight schedule as Heather’s. Her stints at the hospital left the house empty and I didn’t sleep well and I rattled around with a hole in my own heart. When she returned, the house filled back up and I shut my eyes at night to a world very much at peace.

Linda and Heather Wilbee 1961
She spent her third and final Christmas with us at home. We decorated our tree with her butterflies and I kept an eye on her, thrilled to see her open her stocking and smile with each surprise.

One night some time later I awoke from a deep sleep sensing something was wrong. I threw back the covers and crept into the hall. At the far end a sliver of light slipped through the crack at the bottom of my parents’ door. An eerie glow washed over Mum’s well-polished tile floor. I sprinted, bare feet cold against the tile, and inched open my parents’ door. Dad was sitting on the edge of the bed with Heather, carefully keeping the oxygen mask a few inches from her mouth. Put too close, she’d panic. Years later, I understood. Rubber suffocates.


He looked up.

“May I come in?”

Heather Wilbee just weeks before she died in June 1961
He motioned that I sit beside them. The bed sank a little under my weight. Heather startled. I reached over and took her blue fingers in my own and was happy it calmed her. Mum paced at the end of the bed. In front of me stood the oxygen tank.

In the terrible tension and rushed tiny gasps of my sister, I became fascinated by the gauge needle slipping closer to the red empty mark. I gave Dad a running commentary. Finally, in uncharacteristic abruptness, he said, “Brenda, it would be better to pray than to chatter.”

I instantly let go of Heather’s hand, and bowed my head in agony. I’d been caught pretending she wasn’t dying. But she was. I did know this. And I knew that if she didn’t regain her breath within minutes, before the precious oxygen was gone, the sun would rise without my sister in its light.

Frantically I prayed. I begged. I watched the needle sink into the red zone, like the spinner in Shoots and Ladders settling on the line between six and one. I reminded God of all the other times he'd saved her. Do it again. Please. The hiss of the oxygen tank suddenly sputtered out. I slid my eyes sideways, afraid.

She was asleep, her lovely translucent skin the soft pink of sunlight at dawn.


He looked at me with bone-weary eyes.

“She didn’t die.”

“No, she didn’t,” and he reached with a smile to ruffle my bangs.

She died two months later while I slept.

Did it hurt to die?

Portrait picture of Heather Wilbee just weeks before she died in 1961
“She just went to sleep, and woke up in heaven,” the preacher said that dull day mid-June, 1961, while I stared with stinging eyes at the little white box in front of the church. How did he know she just went to sleep and woke up in heaven? He wasn’t there; no one was there... Her third open-heart surgery and she’d been left in her hospital bed, needles sticking out of her, alone under the plastic canopy and surrounded by her beads, her Ned the Lonely Donkey which was really mine, her string of red monkeys looped across the crib bars—and her Puppydids, of course, kissing her face while the oxygen pointlessly hissed. Had she cried out? Found no one there? While I slept? 

God’s smile hung from the stars came crashing down, and I stared at the white box in mounting panic. I did not know where to find the scattered shards.

Over the years I've stumbled across them, finding her in my own suffering and finding, too, assurance that God gives us grace in the hard times. And so while I've spent my life missing my sister, I've never once regretted her birth. I'm so grateful she was ours, that our parents saw fit to allow me—and my others sisters—our eye-witness access to the fragility of life and it's exquisite beauty when reflected so clearly through the terrible prism of compromised life. A baby born to die, yes, a Christmas gift wrapped in grief. But a gift of life, too. 

Wilbee family 1961.

Heather Wilbee's grave marker
Merry Christmas to all, and may God bless us, Everyone!

December 01, 2018

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Curious Animal and Petroglyphs

Snarling Bobcat
Post-traumatic stress is a curious animal, like a bobcat lurking in the shadows, snarling, pawing the air. It circles, keeping you in its sights. Sometimes you can stick your fingers in your ears and go la-la-la-la-la and it goes away, but eventually the yellow eyes of the past don’t slink into the shadows anymore. The pointed tips of its ears instead lay straight back, and the beast crouches and crawls across the stones of time toward you. You hyperventilate on the fear but you know if you run, it’ll leap out of the past and take you down.

A few years ago and finding myself mired in a dark place of emotional and creative paralysis, I remarked to my youngest son, “I wonder if I have some kind of PTSD.”

Blake Kent, 1999Blake was twenty-nine at the time. He has blue eyes. When he's happy, they lighten to a bright, translucent color that reminds me of an Arizona swimming pool. When thoughtful, they turn a deep navy, and you can almost see his prodigious mind pulling data from every nook and cranny as he thinks and the color deepens. The day I blurted out my rather off-the-wall and oh-so-casual comment—"oh, BTW, maybe I have post-traumatic stress"—he slid his eyes toward me. They were a deep navy blue. “Perhaps in more ways than one,” he said. Ah…a circle of bobcats. And so I went to the Arizona desert to see what they would do.

They ganged up on me, that's what they did.

So much so that I checked out two books on post-traumatic stress disorder from the Glendale Public Library.

Have you ever been in a natural catastrophe? the authors ask.


Were you ever sexually assaulted?

Check, check, and check.

As a child, were you physically maltreated with excessive beatings or spankings?


Have you ever been kidnapped, abducted, raped, burglarized, robbed, or mugged?

Check to much of the above—if we count my ten-year marriage from hell and the seventeen years of single parenting that followed.

Were you ever injured in an accident?

Check. And more checks.

Have you ever been involved in a situation in which you felt that you would be harmed or killed?

Do I have to answer this?

A single “yes” is enough to tuck me snugly into the DSM-IV’s category of PTSD. No wonder I was overwhelmed. There are other questions in this list, of course, and my continued “yeses” should have alarmed me, but I instead felt relief. The circling chaos, closing in on me in the Arizona desert where much of my pain lived, actually held a said the books. A kind of dot-to-dot, if you will, that I, and anyone else traumatized, can find comfort in for all its tragic commonality. Night Sky with Big Dipper outlinedThe books went on to say that by learning to recognize these patterns I, and everyone else, could gain mastery. A bit like learning how to parse a night sky, I think, into Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper, the North Star--that glimmering beacon of hope that led the oppressed out of a slavery to the past into a future unfettered.

My first observation upon recognizing that I actually did suffer multiple traumas was that not all my trauma carried the same import. For instance, my crippling anxiety over tornadoes is only triggered by certain weather conditions. Most of the time, I don’t even think about them. I only fall into hapless panic when the barometric pressure plummets a certain way. This simple discovery that I can sort and perhaps prioritize was a godsend. Because in the desert heat it had become clear that my sexual molestation of forty years before had become the lead bobcat of my original metaphor. Gain mastery of this crouching beast and I might, just might, find a way to contain them all.

So I came up with a plan to tackle at least this one cat. On the 40th anniversary of my initial sexual assault, November 11, I made a list of everything Dr. Don Mattson had ever done to me, burned the damning evidence, then got my high school BFF to take me up South Mountain, sacred to the Hohokom, where I could leave the ashes of my past in symbolic gesture and sit alone—and just “let” all those panic-instilling memories at last “intrude.” Sit and wait, see what happens. See if the bobcat, ears back and crawling across those stones of time, pounced and took me down.

I did need my BFF, though, to execute. In the old days Wayne had been the one to take me to the doctor. I’d get through by going "elsewhere" in my head, knowing he'd have me laughing before I could wobble outdoors into the beastly heat of the old days we shared. The whole idea of sitting alone in the desert, all by myself with those memories, was so scary I couldn’t imagine doing it without him. What if I started to keen? To howl? What if I couldn’t find my way back? What if all those memories took up residence and never left, leaving me forever crazy? Yes, I needed Wayne.

He agreed.

On the morning of the 11th I was crying before I ever got to his house thirty minutes away.

“How are you this day?” he asked when I pulled up. He was standing in the driveway.

“I’m okay."

We climbed into his car, a Saturn I don’t mind telling you I’d fallen in love with. Part of my trauma is the on-going saga of car troubles and I have, from time to time, had to borrow Wayne’s. Climbing into his bells-and-whistles vehicle was like climbing into the lap of a familiar and over-indulgent lover. “We’re going to make a stop first,” he said, “a surprise.” I love surprises. He knew this and grinned.

While we wandered through the lovely streets of Ahwahtukee in South Phoenix, he gave me a history of South Mountain rising up beside us and of the Native Americans who go back as far as the Hohokam, an ancient civilization that built multi-story apartments and ran miles of irrigation ditches that far surpassed anything Europe was doing at the time and which the city of Phoenix, to some extent, has appropriated.

Fr Marcos de Niza carving on Arizona stoneBy the time we reached a small parking lot of the world’s largest park, and were ascending by foot a short trail his friend had put in, Wayne was talking of Marcos de Niza and look, here’s his name etched on the stone, with the date of 1539. I was amazed. Wayne’s summation of the various interpretations of history, the various debates regarding the name’s authenticity, where he himself weighed in on the argument, fueled my delight. “There’s more,” he said, and I trotted excitedly along after him down and around the trail to a rock face that took my breath. Petroglyphs of unknown antiquity.

“There is no Rosetta Stone for this,” he said. “We have no idea what the symbols mean.”

Arizona petroglyphsSquared-off spirals, “lizard” men, boxes in boxes, concentric circles, squiggles all scraped into the desert “varnish” of the stone. What did they mean, these symbols? Perhaps they were simply names; perhaps warnings; maybe marks of possession. Or maybe they told a story. A sad story? I didn’t want a sad story. Yet if sadness stood here, wasn’t the narrative testament to survival? Or perhaps these markings were here to celebrate a victory, some kind of triumph, a document of achievement.

Gradually I became aware of Wayne telling me about the descendants of these now silent story tellers, people who live on the Gila River Reserve and who still make forages into the many hidden parts of South Mountain where white men are properly banned. They go, Wayne said, to practice their ancient rites, to seek the ancient gods. They take their own relics and leave them. I thought of Chief Seattle’s grave in the Pacific Northwest and of the many relics found there on any given day. “Just like you’re doing today,” Wayne told me. “Come on. Now that you’ve seen this and I’ve finished my lecture, we can go find a place for your ashes.”

South Mountain Park, ArizonaWe went to two more spots before he was happy. It was Veterans’ Day; the trails were busy. I needed privacy. We ended up where it was easy to duck off the main trail and scrabble up into the crevices of South Mountain just as the Hohokam must have done hundreds of years ago. I had no idea where we were on the map, but kept after Wayne as he climbed up higher into a hot seam that, when I turned around, opened onto the desert and Phoenix sprawl. Forty years ago it had been nothing but cotton fields.

“Is this good?” he asked, balanced atop a boulder. He pointed out numerous small caves and tiny hollows in the rubble of stone where I might leave my relic.

“It’s good,” I said, my palm sweaty from the plastic bag I carried.

He disappeared. I was on my own and found a hollow, hardly reachable, and scraped my skin leaning over to dump the ash from my bag into the basin of this small enclave. Not much substance, I thought, looking at the ash…for the damage it represented. For some reason, I suddenly felt protective, as if the ash was the girl who’d been so wronged, the girl who’d been me and was all burned up and now being banished. But the ash was not me; the ash was Dr. Mattson and his dark deeds. I leaned over and blew. The ash swirled deeper into the stone. I blew again, driving it up against the pocket wall. Let the Hohokam spirits take it, let God have this. Leave it in this sacred place that reaches back in time and still survives.

I clambered away, up the seam to a new place, and sat down into a place of three stones, a chair of sorts, the heat of the earth a cushion beneath me.

Can I name my thoughts? Describe my feelings?

Wayne came to check on me. Quietly he went away.

For the first time ever I didn't fight to keep tears at bay. Let them come. Let the bobcat take me down. But they didn't. Sitting alone in the desert, staring down the beast that circled, yellow eyes on me, I kept harking back to the petroglyphs. Something seductively new. My curiosity called me away from Dr. Mattson. Perhaps the ancient symbols of unknown meaning on weathered rock were a mixed bag of good and bad, triumph and defeat, momentous and mundane, and why not? Is this not life? Were they any different, I wondered, than what had been scraped into the patina and varnish of my own psyche? And how, I wondered with a terrific jolt, could one excise the tragic without marring the rest? How could I sandblast the "lizard" men without damaging the boxes-in-boxes and squiggle lines?

I stood up in agitation. Had I really hoped to cut from my mind this horrible piece of my past? Cut it out as a surgeon cuts cancer, throwing out body parts and leaving behind devastating mutilation? How could I expect to do this without destroying everything attached to it? For despite all its hellish aspects, my first year in Arizona was hands-down the best of my life. A Charles Dickens’ “best of times, worst of times” sort of thing. Did I really want to rid myself of it all? In almost a state of panic I started back down the seam.

But where was Wayne? My heart started to pound. Where was he?

I descended farther, out to the open.

He was sitting atop a high stone about fifty yards off, guarding the entrance to my place. Down below bikers wheeled along the trail. I began picking my way over. He spotted me, started toward me, directed me this way, that, until only a sheet of stone stood between us. “Are you all right?” he asked when I stepped over.

I was not. Trembling, I took hold of his shirt and pulled myself into his arms, nose in his chest. “No,” I whispered, so agitated I couldn’t think.

He tucked me in. “But was it worth it?”

I think it took all of twenty seconds to figure it out. The bobcat had not pounced.

It’s been a few years since I tethered that bobcat to the sacred seam of rock in South Mountain of Phoenix, Arizona; where I looked past the yellow eyes of my pain to see instead a whole wall of symbols written on my soul. The disfiguring damage from Dr. Mattson remains, true, a cruel and deeply offensive marking that can make rock weep. It claims its space alongside other trauma I’ve endured and will one day be forced to sort through. But there are the other symbols as well, labyrinths, spirals, wheels--and the concentric circles that to me speak of friends and more friends—not only my bet buddy Wayne whose wisdom and kindness is a North Star in my life but all the others who made that year so wondrous: Gwen, Jeff, Rita, Tom, Jon, Rachel, Rod, Uncle Bob and Donna, Rachel, Jody, Nancy, Carol, Linda, Cherry, Marie, Jamie, Peter, the little church we all attended, McClintock High where I graduated, Legend City, Big Surf, Jonathon’s white ’59 Chevy pick up truck, drive-in movies, and scorpion hunting…

Sandblast Dr. Mattson out of my life? No wonder I'd been agitated. To do so would forever mar the surrounding etchings that better define me. I am all of these things and they're connected.

Sonoran Desert outside Phoenix AZ“What?” said Wayne. I’d stopped. The desert was sooo beautiful, and I just had to stand and absorb, and stare into the horizon. Other layers of my PTSD lurked off the skyline, I knew. More bobcats on the prowl.

"You okay?" Wayne asked.

I nodded. When they did, I’d drive a stake into their ashes and tether them too, in this place where demons have always been left in God's hands.

"I am," I said. And I was.

(see my statement on Dennis Hensley, 2018, another bobcat who made its appearance 19 years after this.)