Saturday, November 14, 2009


I wrote this after the death of a neighbor in hopes of driving donations to a memorial account set up for her family. The day it was published Berke Breathed sent a note to me through the paper thanking me for including him in the remembrance. It's such a bittersweet thing that I'm still not sure that I fully appreciate it, but I'm thankful beyond words that he took the time to write.

Published Nov. 7, 2008, in the Keizertimes.

When I was a kid, probably not more than nine years old, I discovered the comic strip "Bloom County" through the collected editions my dad left at his bedside.

Opus, Bill the Cat, Milo, Binkley, Ronald Ann and Steve gave me a window on the adult world that never made sense until I saw it through their eyes. I usually didn't understand the subtext the creator, Berkeley Breathed, layered into the work, but it seemed I could find something to laugh about in each strip.

It was largely because of this discovery that I spent the next several years harboring dreams of creating my own comic strip. My abortive attempts at creation are contained in several partially-filled notebooks now divided between two states.

Years later, when a cousin was studying to become a teacher, he enthusiastically showed me copies of "Red Ranger Came Calling" alongside "Where the Wild Things Are," as two books he couldn't wait to start teaching to children.

"Red Ranger Came Calling" was Breathed's first non-Opus children's book and follows a prickly young boy's attempt to debunk Santa Claus. It's one of the most magically wonderful things I have ever read. Much later, my eyes filled with tears as I read it to my newborn daughter a few weeks before her first Christmas.

Throughout my life, Breathed or his work always seems to come up when I least expect it.

Four months ago, on a bus trip from Portland with several co-workers, I found out the person sitting next to me had fond memories of playing Luke Binkleywalker, from the "Bloom County" version of Star Wars, on her school's playground.

A little more than a week ago, my next-door neighbor, Tammy, died after complications arose from brain surgery to remove a cyst and tumor. She left behind four beautiful children, ages five to 13, and a loving husband.

Two days later, I bought "Pete and Pickles," Breathed's latest children's book. It's about a pig who is lonely – but doesn't know it – and the elephant that helps him rediscover what it means to live in the wake of great loss.

Breathed's wit, compassion, willingness to tackle harsh realities and gift for wrapping them in kid-friendly packages continues to mystify me. He, as much as anyone, had a tremendous influence on my path to becoming a writer.

I have almost always found refuge in solitude, but there has been no solace there this past week. Silence begets time to think about my own mortality, and what keeps me moving forward from day to day.

This world can be a cold and brutish place. Death almost always seems cruel, complicated and unnecessary. My drive is derived from discovering the threads connecting us to each other. Threads that lay below the surface. Connections that give us something in common to laugh about.

It was Breathed who first taught me to see those threads. How to deal with some of the worst parts of life before I understood what was coming. He taught me it was okay to laugh so that you don't cry.

I hope, in the coming months and years, Tammy's children have or discover as constant a companion as Breathed has been to me.

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