Friday, September 04, 2020

Mr. Pollak

Can you remember a certain person from your past who entered your life and forever changed it for the better?

My mother did. His name was Mr. Pollak.

There are a couple of things you need to know about Karin, my mom. She was accidentally dropped on her head as an infant (no, really), and for many years she was convinced that this incident had caused some kind of brain damage, because she couldn't learn to read. While all the kids around her were working their way through "See Jane run. Run, Jane, run," little Karin was just trying to figure out how the marks on paper were connected to the words people were saying, and failing miserably. As she struggled through early grade school, still trying and failing to understand the mechanics of reading, she became more and more certain she was too dumb to learn anything. And her fourth-grade teacher didn't help matters; she too was convinced Karin was stupid, and actually told Karin's parents not to expect very much from their daughter, as she simply didn't have the mental capacity to succeed in school. By the end of fourth grade, after having been mocked and neglected in class all year, Karin had actually lost ground in her education.

Then came fifth grade. That year, Karin got a teacher who was brand new to her school, a young man who was friendly and kind and played the guitar. His name was Mr. Pollak, and it didn't take him very long to notice that Karin was struggling. One day, early in the school year, he asked her to stay after class. I imagine Karin was terrified. But this time, she wasn't put through another round of being told she was stupid, of having her textbooks taken away and given to another child, as she had in fourth grade.

"Karin," said Mr. Pollak. "You can't read, can you." It was a statement, not a question.

Karin burst into tears. Not only was she stupid, she'd been found out -- and by the teacher she liked the most. But Mr. Pollak insisted that Karin wasn't stupid, and that she could learn to read. In fact, he would teach her himself.

German alphabet
And for many after-school sessions running, that's just what he did. The standard reading method being taught in mid-1950s California wasn't working for Karin, so Mr. Pollak chose other methods. Since phonics made no sense to her, he taught her different word attack skills, how to recognize short, recurring words first, and how to move straight to sight reading (some 95% of adult reading is sight reading, not phonetic -- we only use phonic attack skills to conquer unfamiliar words).

By the time Karin finished fifth grade, she was reading at grade level -- and it's not an overstatement to say that finally learning to read changed the course of her life. Not only could she read capably, but when one of her younger sisters also showed signs of struggle with reading comprehension, Karin created a "play school" over the summer and taught her little sister the same word attack skills Mr. Pollak had taught her. It was the first time Karin realized she was good at teaching.

It would still take a good part of the next decade for Karin to realize that she really was intelligent and capable -- but by then she'd graduated from high school and made it into college, where she developed a passion for history and geography. She went on to teach high school history, geography and general music, then got married and had a family of children who all learned to love reading. (We were the kids who were constantly trying to check out our own weights in books at the local library.) Later, when her husband died and Karin went back to teaching school, she certified to teach special education. For the rest of her working life, she specialized in teaching kids who struggled just as she had in school -- kids with learning disabilities, kids whose teachers were convinced they were nothing but trouble, but also kids who just needed the right kind of nurturing to learn and improve. I'm convinced Karin was such an effective teacher in part because she empathized so strongly with her kids. (I remember she told me that one of the first kids who came to her for one-on-one reading assistance had dyslexia and struggled to sound out every word. "At first I had to sit behind her every time she read out loud," Mom said, "because I'd start remembering just what it was like to struggle so hard and still not understand and feel stupid, and I'd tear up. I didn't want to have to explain to this girl why I was crying.")

Mom also developed a personal, lifelong passion for reading. Her love of history led her to discover all kinds of first-person histories and historical novels, but she also loved children's literature -- whether it was the classic books she hadn't been able to read in childhood, the more recent Newbery Medal winners, or the hugely popular Harry Potter series, she'd gladly devour them all. Diabetes ravaged her eyes, but Mom had surgeries to fix the damage and carried on reading with the help of large-print books and audiobooks. She was a member of a local book club that met once a month for spirited discussion, and although near the end of her life she was often ill and homebound, she rarely missed a meeting. (This month the group is reading a book Mom loved and recommended: Before We Were Yours, a historical novel by Lisa Wingate.)

Last year, after decades of reflection and gratitude, Mom decided that if Mr. Pollak were still alive, she would write to thank him. We searched online and found someone with the right name, who was about the right age, living in another state, and Mom wrote a letter thanking him profusely and letting him know how the course of her life was changed by his efforts. But then she never sent it. I'm not sure if she was worried she might have the wrong Mr. Pollak, or that this letter out of the blue might seem too forward or too gushy, or if she simply got cold feet, but the letter was still there, dated late 2019, atop her writing desk when she died last month.

My sister and I read the letter and, after getting a bit verklempt over it, decided we'd send it to Mr. Pollak anyway. We weren't sure whether he would remember Karin from so many years ago, or even whether it was the right Mr. Pollak, but we sent it off with a little note indicating that Karin had passed away, but had always wanted Mr. Pollak to know how he'd changed her life for good.

About a week later, a handwritten letter arrived in Mom's mailbox. Turns out it was the right Mr. Pollak. After I opened and read it, it took me a while to stop sniffling and transcribe the letter so the rest of my siblings could read it. I haven't gotten his permission, so I hope he'll forgive me for sharing this transcription:
Dear Ms. [Soozcat],

I fear that I might not be able to fully express my gratitude to you for forwarding your mother's letter to me. The effect was like standing beneath a waterfall of sunshine.

I want to express my heartfelt sympathy to you upon the untimely loss of your mother. I hope that you have the support of many loving people who will nurture you during this time of grief and mourning.

Perhaps it was because it was my first year of teaching (age 21) that I have a clear memory of a number of students in that class, Karin among them. Now, at age 87, after a 40 year career in the profession, much of the time is spent looking into the rear view mirror of memory. You can't imagine how gratifying it is to know that I was of some help to your mother. Whatever it is that I may have contributed, it is your mother who deserves the credit for all that she has accomplished during her lifetime for it was she who did the hard work that made the many gifts she bestowed during the years she was on this Earth. Please take comfort in knowing that she did indeed leave the world a better place than it was when she entered it.

Thank you for your very thoughtful gift. My prayers go out to you and your family.

All the best,
Ken Pollak
Thank you, Mr. Pollak. You might not believe your contribution was significant, but it meant the world to Mom and to everyone who learned from her. And like her, you have left the world a better place than it was when you entered it.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The minefield

I don't know what your experiences have been or if you've dealt with grief in your life, but if you haven't, let me say this: grief is probably not what you think it is.

In the first world, almost every event runs on some kind of timeline. There's even a timeline in the way we handle the mechanics of death and burial: the time of the memorial service, the interment or cremation, the paperwork to be filled out, the people to inform, all fit a kind of macabre schedule. But grief doesn't work like that. It's not something that can be scheduled, like a vacation or a work meeting. It's not something that runs like a season, ending promptly at an equinox. It doesn't hew to any particular time frame. It is a force unto itself.

Grief is like being forced to march through a minefield. The mines are randomly scattered everywhere, just under the soil, and there's no way to tell by looking whether an open stretch of ground is safe or strewn with mines. The only way to find out is to move across it. Whenever you step on a mine -- because you will -- and it goes off, a blast of grief overwhelms you and shuts you down. And at first, this happens a lot. At first, the ground is particularly treacherous and any patch of ground could be harboring a mine. But as you continue to traverse the minefield, more and more of the mines are gone because you've already blown them up. Still, the greater the love you had, the more intense the grief is, and the more likely it is that you'll step on another mine, even long after you think the field is empty.

German "S" mine cutaway diagram
Right now I'm dealing with a lot of land mines. I went into QFC today intending to buy a few things, but I saw something in there that made me leave almost immediately. I didn't want the other shoppers to think I was crazy for standing in front of a display of Australian licorice, bawling like an infant under my disposable mask. I didn't want to explain to strangers what was going through my mind ("Ooh, I should get some of those for M--") just before the mine went off. So I went and sat in my car for a while, and cried until I was hollow.

It'll be a while before I can look at soft black licorice without thinking of Mom. It'll be a while before I can catch the scent of rose perfume without feeling that hollow emptiness of loss. It'll be a while before I can sing the hymn "How Great Thou Art" without thinking of my brother Dan, who hates to cry, choking up on the final verse. I think most people know this instinctively, even if they haven't gone through grief themselves, and that's why they often give those who are grieving a wide berth. It's uncomfortable, not knowing what to say or how to deal with people who might break down at any moment over some little thing that reminds them the grief isn't done with them yet.

If you see this behavior coming from me or any of my family, please be patient with us. We're trying to work our way through a minefield, and it might take a while.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Kari Sue says hi

If you missed my mom's funeral service, you can see it here. (Don't worry, it's closed-casket.)

[Posted to social media; worth preserving here.]

There are lots of things you can do to memorialize someone. People with money buy buildings and put the loved one's name on them (e.g., "the George Q. Zannini Wing of Memorial Hospital"), or start some kind of trust fund or scholarship in the person's name. And that's all very well and good, but such memorials don't give anyone else an idea of what the person was really like. The same holds true with book dedications, works of art, etc.

I don't have a bazillion dollars, and even if I did, I wouldn't want to create a meaningless memorial to my mom. She was the kind of person who would have been horribly embarrassed if anyone commissioned a statue of her, and I don't think she would have been impressed to have her name on a building.

But Mom loved people. She was constantly looking for ways to help others, even when she lost most of her mobility and became home-bound. And if there was something she could do to help someone else and make that person's day a little brighter, she would do it.

So here's what I'm gonna do. I'm going to start actively looking for ways to show kindness to the people with whom I come in contact each day. I'll help wherever I see a need. And if people ask, as they sometimes do, "What can I do in return?" I'll say, "When you do something kind for someone else, be sure to tell them 'Kari Sue says hi.' My mom would have liked that."

That will be Karin Buck's viral memorial. And through it, people who never knew my mom will get a little glimpse of what she was like, and how the world was a better place with her in it.

You're more than welcome to join me in doing little kind things and telling people "Kari Sue says hi" if you like. Mom would have liked that too.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Let me help you

My sister-in-law and I drove together to the mortuary. I talked nervously most of the way there, trying to keep my mind busy with trivia so I wouldn't think about what was coming. I'd been successfully dodging that mental boulder for several days, ever since Tuesday evening when my brother called to tell me Mom didn't make it. Even staying at my mom's house, looking through her photos and papers, sleeping in her bed, I could defer the dread by pretending she was just in the hospital again. She'd been so close to death on so many other occasions, and she'd pulled through each time. It was easier to imagine this was just another one of those times. Even standing in the mortuary foyer, talking to the mortician, walking down the hall, I was fine.

But then we turned left and went into the room, and there was her body.

If you've never seen a dead person, let me destroy a common trope for you. A dead person does not look asleep. A dead person looks dead. There's no gentle rise and fall of breathing, no soft muscular movement in the arms or legs, no subtle changes of expression in the face. Everything is completely, impossibly still. The shock of it is realizing that this person who once moved and thought and talked and laughed and loved is now a still, cold object, like a figure made of wax, and she will never move again.

I didn't want to touch her at first. But that was why we were there: to dress her body and prepare her for burial.

It was easier to touch the top of her head, her hair, first. That felt pretty much the same as it always did. Someone had parted her short, straight hair on one side and brushed it back, the way she might have done it herself, and there was something calming about that detail.

Her feet were the kind of cold you don't usually experience with living people, unless they have hypothermia. We started there, working carefully -- "Her skin is very fragile," warned the mortician -- to clothe her. It was oddly like trying to dress a very large doll; we needed help moving her to one side or the other, carefully raising limbs that would not yield, pulling articles of clothing up and around and otherwise into place.

And then I was pulling up the long sleeve of her dress. There was nothing special about that sleeve; it had a simple, straight cuff on the end. I just had to pull it up around her fingers to her wrist. But as I got it into place and smoothed it down, I could hear my own four-year-old voice saying,

"Tighter, Mama! Make them really tight!"

My mama was bent over one of my shoes, trying to tie the shoelaces as tightly as she could. I was already in kindergarten, already reading, already able to do a lot of things on my own, but I couldn't tie my own shoes. And I lived in dread of them coming loose on the playground because I wouldn't be able to tie them again, and I didn't want my classmates to know.

"If I tie these any tighter," Mama said, "I'm going to cut off your circulation." But she pulled them a little tighter, made the knot a little firmer. She was 30 years old, after all, and had boundless energy. "There you go," she said. "I need to teach you how to do this yourself--"

--and then I was suddenly back in the room with the body, with those hands that had tied my shoes, lying so still. And the grief hit me full force, with no way to hold it back -- and I sobbed so hysterically that it must have sounded like laughter.

Those hands that willingly tied my shoelaces so tightly, that changed my diapers, that fed me and washed me and cared for me when I was a tiny infant incapable of doing anything for myself, that did countless loads of laundry and sinks of dishes, that made thousands of meals, cleaned scraped knees and dried tears and patted cheeks, dialed my phone number and wrote loving letters and did a myriad other clever and wonderful things -- couldn't move.

She could do nothing for herself. She couldn't sit up. She couldn't ask for help. She couldn't even make sure her body would be treated with care or dressed with dignity for her own burial.

But she had taught me through years of example how to care for other people, and now I could do this one final thing for her.

It's all right, Mama. I'm here. Let me help you.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020


My mother, Karin Suzanne Eriksson Buck, died this evening. She was 76 years old.

I don't have much else to say about this right now.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Pandemic: really. Take it seriously.

[I originally posted this on social media, but after a set period of time I deliberately delete posts there. This one I thought was important enough to keep.]

ERE'S the one thing I want you to know this week: you need to take coronavirus seriously.

SARS-CoV-2 is not a hoax. It's a real virus that has caused and is causing a real pandemic. It's sneaky, it's dangerous, it can spread through people who are asymptomatic or not yet symptomatic, it can cause strokes, blood clots that require amputation, long-term debilitating symptoms and permanent damage to the lungs, and it's unpredictably fatal.

I live near Seattle, Washington, where the coronavirus pandemic first hit hard in the United States. As such, our family and many of our neighbors take COVID-19 very seriously. The death toll in King County has been high enough that nearly everyone in this area knows somebody who has died of COVID-19.

When scientists, doctors and public health officials tell you you need to stay home, wear a mask if you must go out, wash your hands regularly and maintain appropriate social distance, they're not trying to ruin your fun, nor are they trying to be political. These are basic public health measures to avoid spreading a virus we can't yet vaccinate against, to stop making more cases of a disease we can't cure, to try to keep our hospital ICUs from being overwhelmed with desperately ill COVID-19 patients. And these officials are not trying to take your rights away. They're trying to make sure YOU STAY ALIVE to exercise those rights after the pandemic is over.

People from Seattle, from New York City, from New Orleans who have been warning the rest of the country for MONTHS about how bad this stuff can be are getting used to feeling like Cassandras. There are too many people outside the hot spots who are convinced that COVID-19 isn't real, that it's "just like the flu," that it only kills old people and the sick (and even if that were true, don't you have someone you care about who's old and/or sick?), that those of us who advocate for public health measures are "living in fear," that it's all a political stunt to steal your job and/or your freedoms.

None of these things are true.

You don't want your town to get like it was here in March and April, where we heard ambulance sirens every night. You don't want it to get like it was in New York City, where at least 18,000 people have been confirmed dead of coronavirus (there are certainly more) and many, many others are living with permanent damage from their bout with it. You don't want it to get like it was in New Orleans, where Mardi Gras was probably a super-spreading event that passed the virus all over the city. And you don't want liberal passage of the virus to allow it to adapt to its host, mutating to become ever more virulent and capable of seriously sickening or killing even more people than it does now.

We've seen what this virus can do. But there were precious few people able to spread the word to us that the pandemic was already here. You don't have to go through what we did.

The measures may be annoying, but they're not hard: Stay home if you can. Wear a mask if you can't. Keep at least 6 feet away from others. Wash your hands. Don't touch your face. Stay alive until we get a cure or vaccine.

Please. We love you.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Pandemic: inciting incidents

I posted this on social media a while back, but I keep thinking about it. There's a long history in children's literature of war, disease, natural disaster, or some other catastrophe providing inciting incidents in stories, often within the first ten pages. A few examples:
  • In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie siblings leave their home in London to stay at Professor Kirke's relatively safe house in the country "because of the air-raids" of World War II.
  • In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox is sent from her home in India to the house of an uncle she's never met in England after both her parents die in a cholera epidemic.
  • In The Borrowers, the unnamed Boy who has lived in India gets rheumatic fever when he comes to England for the first time; he is sent to a great-aunt's house in the country to recover.
  • In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale doesn't make it to the safety of the cellar in time and a huge cyclone carries her and her Kansas farmhouse away.
  • In the Tripods novels, Will Parker is about to be Capped when he hears about a society of humans resisting the alien entities that have enslaved the Earth.
  • In the Series of Unfortunate Events books, the three Baudelaire siblings are cast into -- well -- a series of unfortunate events when their parents die in a mysterious fire that burns their house to the ground.
  • In The House With a Clock in Its Walls, Lewis Barnavelt goes to live with his Uncle Jonathan after his parents die suddenly in a car accident.
I could cite more examples, because there are gobs of them. But I wonder: how many kidlit books of the next 20 years will use the COVID-19 pandemic as an inciting incident? It would definitely work as one. Kids being stuck inside, masking up to go out on necessary trips, parents being out of work or being forced to work in dangerous conditions through the pandemic, not being able to go to school or visit friends, having to jerry-rig all kinds of things to keep them working, getting sick, family members getting sick, parents or grandparents sickening or dying, etc., all sound like plot points that create the sort of change that pushes Our Heroes into action. I don't think it's a question of whether the pandemic will be used, but how often.

The Secret Garden book cover