Friday, September 28, 2018

Elaine: A Pillar of Spiritual Strength to The End

Copyright © Kim Roberts

Every time I drive down the hill of Acadia court to Dan’s and Elaine’s house, I relive the images of myself walking up the hill to the main street and down the hill to Chabot boulevard then moving along for two miles before reaching a bus stop that took me to Hayward for classes. That was in 1976. When I was at home, outside my room’s window, Elaine would be pitching for the ten-year-old Brian to bat. Her petite figure was bending forward with left hand in an oversized mitt pressing on her back. With her right hand, she gripped the baseball, wound it up, then cocked, and accelerated it like a professional. At the time, I thought she made the cutest pitcher I had ever seen. When she appeared concerned that I had walked such a long distance to places I needed to go since she was not able to give me a ride all the time, I said that she had given me the strength to reach my destinations and complete my goals and that was all that mattered. I told her, “In martial arts, the best fighters have to go through brutal training to build strength and hone their skills. If I look for an easy way out, how far can I get?” It was never the distance, it was the motivation that made a huge difference in my life.
The first time she and I had lunch in SF in 1976, I asked her about public transportation to go from downtown SF to SF State University for an appointment. I had intended to sign up for classes there. She offered me a ride. I had no idea that she lived about thirty miles away and there was a huge traffic problem going across the bridge. On the day of my appointment, she took me to SF State and waited for me.

When I got out, she asked, “Did it go well? What do you think about this university?”

I answered, “Very well. The school is fine. The man I spoke with for thirty minutes or so was fine. He was the nicest man. First I asked, ‘May I call you Sam?’ He smiled, ‘Of course and may I call you Kim?’ After our talk, his secretary gave me a catalogue and all the class schedules and information I needed.”

“Who is Sam?” asked Elaine.

I casually said, “Sam Hayakawa.”

Elaine cracked up. “You really don’t know who he is, do you?” she asked.

“Should I know who he is?” I was totally curious. Elaine explained and we laughed the whole time on our way back to my place.

When I found out how far she had driven to take me to places, I apologized and she said, “It’s not the distance, it’s the goal. As a Christian, I live to serve the Lord by helping others. If we have met your goal, I met mine.”
Today, as usual, I picked up Dan and Elaine for lunch after my work in the morning. On the way to the restaurant, we passed by John George Psychiatric Hospital. I told them the stories of my work there. “In one suitability for release hearing, the judge asked the patient if the patient would continue to take psychotic drugs prescribed by the MD, the patient answered, ‘I am not crazy any more. I will find people who are crazy and give them the drugs.” We erupted into laughter. When I came to see Dan and Elaine I brought them a small bag of my special variegated mint from my garden. Elaine said, “I still remember you growing mint in the back yard and you went out there to pick them.”

Then I told them the story of my morning elderly client with depression problems after being assaulted. I had advised him to start a small herb garden. He did and now it is his one and only hobby that truly relieves his depressive moods. I could see the delight on Elaine’s face. She loved it. “There’s so much life in a garden,” said Elaine.
When we left the house, Elaine walked independently with no walking cane. She waltzed about strongly, gracefully, and she even opened the door to the Pho An Hoa Restaurant in San Leandro for me. Elaine has been at her end-stage (stage 5 CKD) of renal disease for nearly three months. The doctor has put her under hospice care. So imagine my surprise when she even looked more beautiful and healthier than most of elderly people at eighty-two years of age.

During our meal, she was completely lucid and quite articulate when she recalled the work she and Dan did in Argentina from 1992 to 1994, mingling with Argentine prisoners and later their work in China, as they consistently faced scrutiny from the Chinese government. "The Lord takes good care of me. How can I be worse? Right now, once in awhile, I got cramps on my left shoulder and left leg. Otherwise, I feel fine," laughed Elaine. 
Then she asked me to tell them my stories—work, book, blogs, and other stuff. I did. I also mentioned my close friends who have passed away, including Dr. Jameson. Once, I offered to purchase a book from the Vatican for Andy assuming it was just a book. When the bill came it was $6,000. I was in shock. As it turned out, the Codex B in Greek was, and still is, worth over $25,000. We kept cracking up and lit up the restaurant with laughter. Other diners were eyeing us as though we were having a celebration. The servers smiled at us and kept bringing us tea and anything we needed.

For the past few weeks, Elaine had told me she couldn't eat and kept losing weight. Today she ate the whole shrimp roll and a small bowl of “pho.” She looked at my surprised expression and laughed, “It’s the company that gives me energy and an appetite.”
Before we left the restaurant, I told her I too had such a high spirit. I felt as if she had given me so much strength and inspired me with hope and purposes. Elaine had healed my broken spirit and she still brings me love, joy, laughter, and solace. I thanked Dan and her for this opportunity to experience such an amazing power of giving, receiving, and empowerment. We had a blast and I am still shaking my head with amazement. How does she do it? I don’t know. But I know all along, she is an endearing tower of inspiration and a pillar of spiritual strength.

Copyright © Kim Roberts

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Lemon of Life

Copyright © Kim Roberts

September 26, 2018. Life Is a Lemon. Realistically, I do mean an oval citrus fruit of about 5% to 6% citric acid, with a pH of around 2.2 in its acidic juice, giving it a sour taste. A lemon is what it is. It gives its juice as an ingredient, but it offers neither a recipe, nor a finished dish. So it’s up to the individuals to create whatever they wish with this heavenly fruit. The choices are lemonade, lemon meringue pie, marmalade, lemon curd, lemon liquor, lemon zest, including baked goods, puddings, rice, and other dishes.
Meyer Lemon
Ideally, one may wonder what a lemon has anything to do with real life, real people, and real human emotion. But it does, in a big way. At least it is in my case.

On Christmas day in 2016, I received a giftwrapped holiday present from my beloved niece. Inside was a beautiful Meyer lemon carefully boxed and wrapped. For a sentimental value, that was the sweetest lemon I had ever received. For years, she had difficulty growing a Meyer lemon tree. Finally, she had the first and only lemon and she dedicated it to me. How unique is it? I was in tears. It was truly special when someone was thoughtful enough to offer me the honor of having her first lemon—as gift of love.
Kumquat blossoms
That brings back memory of my childhood in my garden in Sadec, especially, the middle plot of land surrounded by three creeks where I often tiptoed on dead leaves, carefully moved about without making noises as they might wake up my grandparents in their graves. On top of my Grandpa’s tomb, I lay on my back and looked up at the lemons dangling on branches that drooped over the graves. The tall, slender lemon tree among other large fruit trees was delicate but it brought us gifts throughout the year. “Kim pick me some lemons, I am cooking fish for dinner tonight,” my sister Kiem would call out. And Mother would tell my cousin Thuong, an MD, “Look, Kim ruined her teeth by sucking on lemon. Then she makes lemonade daily and broke so many jars of sugar by dropping them on floor.” Cousin Thuong responded, “A small price to pay. She got good bones by getting so much vitamin C.”
Juice vesicles inside a caviar finger lime
Sweet memories brought back images of my family, of my parents and sisters, and neighborhood friends. It was a peaceful environment before the Vietnam War exploded into a full-scale war. The good time that had gone forever like water departing our canal to join the sea but the lingering effect still remains in my heart. More importantly, a lemon always reminds me of our tree in Sadec where I picked lemons often and visited with my grandparents’ graves—the tree of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. With warmth in my heart, I felt a connection with the dead—an unique feeling of being transported into bygone time—years, months, weeks, days, and moments. As time passed, my surrounding environment evolved, I moved on, and my feelings changed. But, like water in the creeks that was drawn out by the tide but magically returned with some new water that replenished the creeks, there’re always some remnants of the past--the old water. I am a sucker for a belief that I have designed, created, and lived moment by moment throughout my journey in life. I have evolved. I have changed. I have transformed. But, beneath it all, I still have some fundamental ties to my roots, the place I left—connections I could never break—as my emotional and mental reactions to lemons or limes have shown.
A variation of the Buddha's Hand Lemons
Over time, I have carried out my passion for lemon and lime by growing practically any rare citrus species I could find. My very first one was a gift from a man who later became my husband. He gave me a Meyer lemon tree and a shovel. “Why a shovel?” I asked. “ So you cannot use the excuse of not having a shovel and kill my precious Meyer lemon tree,” he laughed. It has been thirty-five years since that day and the tree has always been loaded with fruit. Then I grew Buddha’s Hand lemon, Rangpur lime, Persian lime, Mexican lime, Variegated Pink lemon, Kefir lemon, caviar finger lime, and two kinds of Kumquat.

With that many citrus trees, the scenes of butterflies, bees, insects that came to enjoy the blooms were always spectacular, festive, and moving. I could describe the details of a citrus blossom, but I can never adequately convey to others some magical aspects of the scent. It’s a heady aromatic fragrance, which makes a lemon and other citrus fruit special. Those who have the experience would relate to my passion for citrus blooms.
A butterfly enjoys the nectar
My best friend in the old days, Linda Anton, a writer, once told me, “John and I are so embarrassed that this is the first time since we moved to Kentfield, we had to buy a lemon. Our tree is sick and that makes us sick not seeing and smelling these blossoms.” Her husband was a multi-millionaire entrepreneur but he preferred to be called “Farmer John” as he enjoyed cultivating his plot of land on the beautiful hill on Acorn Street in Kentfield. Linda was loving, kind, and caring throughout the years I knew her. In 2002, I had a major surgery and my husband was unable to look after me. She came, spent time in the hospital and at home to care for me. Then she brought me flowers and a card. I asked, “What for? I am the one who should do that.” She answered, “The gift bestowed on the receiver can only be given when the person at the receiving end accepts. I thank you for allowing me to do something for you.” That’s truly a heart-felt gift—one that no money can buy. Later, she spent precious time comforting me when I lost my husband and in return, I was with her when she lost hers.
A variegated Pink Lemon, pink in the inside.
Last week, when I gave Elaine, the lovely lady with a kidney failure, a variegated pink lemon and she cracked up, she reminded me of Linda Anton. Elaine has given her life to serving those in need and comforting the sufferers. Like her, Linda inherited a lot of money after John’s death but instead of going back to be a writer and enjoyed an easy life, she found her calling. She went to the Pacific Divinity School, got another master degree in religion and went back to Utah to become a pastor in a church. Like those who love to serve, she wanted to make a difference in other people's lives. There is enough kindness in the world for broken souls because life is a lemon and these individuals have taken it and made something delicious, beautiful, meaningful, and magical of it.

Copyright © Kim Roberts or

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Elaine: The Epitome of a Courageous, Loving, and Good-Hearted Lady

Copyright © Kim Roberts

September 19, 2018. What’s the best way to face Grim Reaper? With good-hearted laughs, I would say. Today I stopped by to see Dan and Elaine on my way to work. I told her, when my time is up, I hoped I would have the courage to face the inevitable with faith, love, peace, and good laughs, as she had shown me. However, she had also proven to me that miracle did happen so perhaps I would miraculously live forever. Of course we all laughed at my remark.

As usual, I made her laugh with something from my garden. Today, I brought her fresh rosemary and a large pink lemon. As I took a photo of the lemon, Dan, and her, she cracked up, “I’ve posed for photos with many things but never with a lemon.”
Taken today 9/19/18 with Elaine holding a Pink Lemon from my garden
She commented on my outfit, which has a white top. I said I was going to jail, the San Quentin State Prison in San Rafael, so I had to dress appropriately. Three of us erupted into laughter and couldn’t stop. In fact, I was going to work in a parole hearing. So naturally, the prison has a dress code that I must follow. Over the years, by working at these hearings, I’ve learned so much about inmates’ criminal activities, not only before the prison terms, but also while serving time in prison. If there’s such thing as reincarnation from previous life, or lives, I must have been a cat before since my incredible curiosity has led me to many strange jobs that others would try to avoid. That said, I always have a kick at endless stories I have to share with people who wanted to hear, like Dan and Elaine. Entrepreneurial inmates who become drug dealers or business operators in prison are among these stories.

Last week, Dan took Elaine to the doctor. Her kidney function is now 4% or under and the primary care MD put her under hospice care. I cried upon the news. I had imagined that this delicate, petite lady would be so feeble and sickly when I saw her. It made me sick to my stomach to deduce from her physical and medical changes that she was suffering pain and discomfort. On the contrary, to my surprise, Elaine looked marvelous when I came to the door today. Dan opened the door as she tried to pull back Tomo, their dog. The moment we sat down, she gave me the usual graceful, sweet, engaging, and high-spirited look. If I did not make an effort to see her skinny legs or visualize how thin she was underneath her thick jacket, I would consider Elaine the same lady she was four decades ago. Her vitality has been intact and she looked peaceful. “I have no discomfort. My left leg hurts a little on the side. Other than that, I feel fine. Just can’t eat. Everybody keeps saying let’s go out but I can’t eat,” said Elaine with her usual smile.

Then Dan and she asked me about my book. “Why is this one different than previous versions?” asked Dan.

I explained the best way I could think of. “... If I can write something and someone says that’s me. And I agree. Then I know I have the skill to tell a story. A montage is not good unless it has a spirit, a soul, which penetrates through images and impacts others. Recently, a well-known editor who read my summary and said she saw how I have lived my life. I was very happy. She knew who I am. That’s my goal. What a humbling experience. Now I can work on the craft.”

Despite my difficulty of explaining, Elaine was very attentive. As I talked on about other miraculous phenomena that happened to me, she was amused, touched, and completely absorbed. She wanted to hear more. I promised her the following week.
I looked at her and wanted to tell her that she inspired me and gave me a straightforward storytelling idea. It didn’t matter how physically deteriorated she was, her spirit held everything together and it shines. That’s a force she called “God’s will.” A faithful Christian, Elaine always believes that the Lord would provide and take care of everything. But I saw the goodness, kindness, and patience in her that cannot be found in other Christians. She’s unique. She has a Christian brand of her own. As a born and raised Buddhist, I had been introduced to Christianity before. But others, who told me about God and Jesus, left me alone to explore. Elaine stayed and showed how that worked. I met her at a time I needed healing. Her gentle, caring demeanor, her praying power, her soothing and comforting words, and her relentless effort to help others and me remind me of Mother Teresa and other saints. During the years Dan and she gave up a good life and comfort in the U.S. to serve as missionaries in Argentina and China, I read every monthly newsletter they sent. I often visualized her petit figure moving about talking to people, smiling, praying for or with them, or just socializing with them. Yet I admit, the faith she instilled in me is not a wholly religious faith. She showed me humanity, love, and faith in my principles and myself. With a genuine smile, she said she knew I have lived my life with a clear conscience. I humbly say that I hope I have.

We then talked about hospice care and what to expect. I was sharing with them my knowledge and experience as a former hospice board member. As I listed all available hospice services, Elaine said she had not yet needed them. Dan, Elaine, and I had a good light-hearted chat about these things as if we were talking about someone else’s final stage in life, not hers. Finally, I told a story and we all laughed until I was in tears before leaving for work.
During my husband’s final stage, he was at home, in a room looking out to my little garden filled with mums as it was in October when he passed away. Two weeks before, the hospice social worker, Angie, visited him for the first time.  She was concerned that he might have a bad temper or perhaps negative reactions toward her as he had gone to a demented stage. I assured her she would be all right. I mentioned the week before, our friend Kevin Starr paid him a visit and talked on for over an hour about the club activities and just about anything. As a historian, Kevin could go on for hours. My husband would nod, comment, and smile as if he understood everything although we knew he did not. Feeling better, Angie went into his room. He perked up, gave her the most flattery compliment on her appearance and spoke with her as if she were his long lost friend. Angie was in tears when she came out. She was completely choked up. She said her role was to come in to make him feel at ease but he ended up comforting her as she became too emotional. She did not expect to meet someone with such bearing during his final stage.

During his military days my husband often talked about Martha Raye and her voluntary performances to entertain the troops. “She was completely drunk after dinner. I thought someone would have to carry her on stage. But the moment they called her turn, she got up and like a different person, she was lucid and completely in control of her performance. And the troops roared and cheered. I never knew how she did it,” he told others about Martha’s greatness. From that, I knew, like Martha Raye, he always rose to the occasion and he was a good performer during the last phase of his life.

On October 11, 2005, at four o’clock, my husband’s RN came upstairs to tell me he had stopped breathing. Immediately, Angie appeared at the front door. “How did you know, Angie?” I asked.

“Know what?” Angie asked. Then she cried, “Oh, no!”

Life is what one makes of it. Likewise, for some courageous people, death does not just happen accidentally.

Copyright © Kim Roberts
www. or

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Labor Day 2018: The Purpose of My Writing and Elaine’s Art of Dying

Copyright © Kim Roberts

September 3, 2018. This is not a normal blog I would write on a major holiday. But it is indeed about labor—a labor of love. I’ve spent years writing a story. But I got nowhere with a ton of writing I have produced but with no real purpose. So I kept writing, writing, and writing. Then on August 10, 2018, Elaine, who is dying of kidney failure (stage 5, kidney function less than 5%), said, “I want to read your book.” I love her so much I would do anything she asks, anything but showing her a book. I must be kidding myself to call what I wrote a book. I need cutting, trimming, editing, and years of more work before it looks decent.

Nonetheless, her dying words have haunted me and prompted me to do something meaningful with my writing. I began to write a detailed chapter summary—not a germane summary to be included in a proposal package, but one that tells the whole story. My intention was to tell Elaine, who is at end-stage renal disease, my stories, one-by-one until her time is up. When I was a child aged seven or eight, I already read voraciously. Among my reading, I was mesmerized by the Arabian Nights. So this is my chance to apply the 1001-night-format to my stories.
On Friday August 31, 2018, I picked up Elaine and Dan and we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. I have been amazed how well she has been holding herself. To cheer her up, I brought her something from my garden: a caviar finger lime, some cuts from my Kefir Thai lemon, or Chinese celery. I always cracked her up with my humble produce. She has shown signs of the renal disease with muscle ache and pain, weight loss, and fragility. But, the usual Elaine was still there, vibrant, gracious, warm, and loving. She still gently moved about with ease like a breeze over a wave of weeping willow branches. As we went out, she had to lean on a walking cane but continued to be very poise, stable, and independent.

At the China Garden restaurant, we began by ordering food. Elaine appeared confused about the lettuce wrap minced chicken I ordered. Concerned, Dan and I tried to explain to her until it dawned on us that she actually read the menu and we only assumed. The word “minced” on the menu was misspelled and it showed as “mined” chicken so she had no idea what it was. We had a good hearty laugh. Then I began telling both of them my story, first, with the premise, then the short version and the long version, and the details. On the table, there’re placemats with Chinese Zodiac symbols. Pointing at the tiger, I started my story at my birth. I was born in 1950 under the astrological sign of three tigers—of year, month, and hour of birth. Elaine giggled as she elbowed Dan, “Dan get her two spare placemats to take home.” Dan went to the corner and brought back some placemats and said, “Here’re three placemats for three tigers” We laughed and laughed until I was in tears.

Elaine knows a lot about me. I lived in her home for several months in 1976. Although she’s only fifteen years my senior, she always introduced me to others as her “adopted daughter.” She was so trusting that she immediately wrote me a blank check in case I needed money. I was crazy enough to keep it un-cashed in my wallet to remind me of her humanity and that restored my faith in American kindness. I called her my “healer” because of the amazing healing power she possesses. I love her but there’re things about me that I haven’t told others or her. So I began with certain details of my story that Dan and Elaine did not know. She was in awe and was completely absorbed in every tiny detail. She was intrigued, moved, amused, and occasionally, deeply touched.  When I ended the first increment, I promised to see them again the following week and I would tell more. Her eyes lit up. “Yes, I can’t wait. Amazing stories. I want more,” said Elaine. With that expression, I found the purpose of my writing. All it takes is one person to give me meaning and purpose to write.

Before we left the restaurant, she said, “Kim, I don’t know how to die. I was supposed to die a long time ago when my kidney function was under 5%. But there are so many people praying for me. So I am still here.”  I answered, “You’re here because it means to be.” Everything that happened, happened for a reason. There’s a purpose for everything, with or without human’s intervention or plan. When I first moved in with the Jues, Elaine had a canvas on which she roughly sketched and applied some colors but never finished. She gave it to me as a reused canvas. Instead of painting over her sketch, I decided to finish it with my imagination what she was trying to do. When she came home that day, she looked at the painting and acted as if she had seen a ghost. She took the painting, pulled me to her car and drove me to her friend Sandy’s house. Inside, she put my painting up next to another floral painting on the wall. I cried. She attempted to copy that painting and never finished it. Without seeing the original, I had finished it for her as it was meant to be.
Elaine and I have a kindred spirit. We love art but never had time to hone our skill and become professionals. But in our hearts and souls, we do things in an artful way without being aware of it. In 2006, my late sister Nhu Chieu died and left two bags of gold in Vietnam, a very corrupt socialist country. I masterminded a plan and robbed the gold. During our run from the scene and with the gold money, I told my bodyguard/driver about the art of robbing gold.  I said, “… Like in a rhythmic dance, you don’t think how your feet should move. You let your body go, float, fly, and traverse. You let the spirit sing and dance to a harmonious stream of a positive Zen flow. And that’s what I call arts: the art of gardening, of cooking, of robbing gold, of living life.” Elaine just taught me a new art: “the art of dying.”

She also inspired me to find a purpose for my love of writing. If I could make someone like her enjoy my stories and feel connected with me, I have been rewarded. And if some reader, like her, could find meaning in my art of living my life, I have succeeded.

Copyright © Kim Roberts