Inked

tattoo gun

By DaMongMan/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

I could sort of make out the outlines of the tattoo on my husband’s arm on the small photo on my phone. He took it in front of our bathroom mirror, holding up his right forearm in front of his face. I had to turn my head to the side to see that there were sun rays and a sword and a heart—some Masonic symbols that I don’t understand and perhaps I am not even allowed to understand. The tattoo stretched from wrist to elbow and wrapped all the way around his arm.

When we got married thirteen years ago, Drew did not have a single tattoo. I don’t think we ever talked about his desire to have one. Now he has four, with a fifth one in the plans. The first ones were modest, easily covered up by shirts and forgotten. I was away on a business trip this time and I knew that it was “tattoo day,” but the size and scope of this latest ink caught me off guard. I scanned myself for a reaction: how am I supposed to feel when my spouse turns from a baby-faced, soft-haired man into a bald, tattooed dude? I know how his mother feels about his tattoos and, when I think about my own sweet, soft-skinned baby boy getting inked when he is older, I completely sympathize with her. But Drew is not my child—he is my husband. So I should be supportive, right? I want to be—and I am—but I can’t help but stop for a moment to acknowledge the unease in the pit of my stomach. Is it the tattoo itself that makes me pause? Or the change that the tattoo signifies? Does it signify a change? How do I know?

•••

Drew and I met at work a year or two after graduating from college. We were in the same class and, in fact, he is in some of my graduation photos, sitting a couple of rows in front of me. But we never met while in school. When he got a job at the same newspaper where I was working, I was dating one of his good friends. When my heart was broken, Drew was right there, ready to comfort me with late night conversations and trips to the mall and movies. We spent long afternoons in his car, driving around rolling Pennsylvania hills and forgotten small towns. We ate bad food at bad chain restaurants and then over drinks we shared the contents of our wallets. His: foreign currency—just in case—cash, credit cards, EMT certification cards. Mine: Hungarian ID, cash, and a handwritten note from my college roommate: “The map is not the terrain.”

I don’t think it was love at first sight—we even joked about how we weren’t each other’s soul mates—but it was definitely comfort and friendship at first sight. I didn’t want any more friends with privileges or long-distance boyfriends who never called. I wanted someone who was there and who wanted me. Drew was—is—a grounding force: solid, steady, warm. He has a way of simplifying life down to its essential elements: “You love me, I love you. We are a family. What else do you need to know?”

We first kissed on a summer afternoon in my apartment. He brought in a bowl of apricots from the kitchen and told me to close my eyes. He split the fruit in half with his fingers and slowly fed one to me, wiping juice from my chin with his thumb. I heard the clink of his glasses as he put them on the table. The next bite was not an apricot.

We got married in Budapest the following January. We giggled through the ceremony and our vows, and the next morning in our honeymoon suite overlooking the Danube, we drank champagne for breakfast and watched as people on the street below us hurried to work. We felt content and close and didn’t take this whole marriage business too seriously.

•••

What do we promise when we say “I do?” Sure, we promise for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. But life rarely comes down to such stark choices, especially early in a marriage. We never really have to make a conscious choice to stay married when the other person is seriously sick. Or when money runs out. Extremes happen, sure, but rarely.

When they do happen, it’s obvious that it’s one of those big, life-defining moments where one’s job is to stand by and be supportive. Your husband calls to tell you that he is in the emergency room because he burnt off half his arm in a firefighting accident. His father has a brain tumor. His father dies. He gets the job. He doesn’t get the job. These are clear-cut cases. You know what to do about them. You know the right amount of alcohol to pour into your evening cocktails. You know that a rare steak and chocolate cake will bring comfort. You know what words will spur the other person to action or to a different way of looking at the situation. You know when to shut up. Or take your clothes off. Or just get lost for a couple of hours. You know that whatever the thing is, it will pass.

What nobody mentions before marriage is the vast gray area between rich and poor, sick and healthy. That there can be shifts and trembles and almost unnoticeable movements and changes in your life together. When your spouse is going through something personal, a little crisis or journey—one that you are not necessarily invited to. And that’s okay, because you do not want to be invited to everything, but still. This person lives with you and you’d like to know where he is going. Will the tattoos lead to a Harley? To a girlfriend? A sports car? Or are they just tattoos? Does he even know for sure?

Looking at the picture of his new ink, the skin around it still raw and red, made me think about my own scars—the ones on my belly from an exploding gallbladder, the ones around my breasts from my breast reduction surgery, and we are not even going to go into the scars and flab and rolls of fat left behind by pregnancy and childbirth. It’s easy to forget about those, and even easier to forget about the invisible scars left behind from what everyone goes through in life: becoming a mother, losing loved ones, trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in a career, figuring out friendships, lost loves, family. It’s easy to not look at my own path, to just blindly go on, day-by-day, not glancing back at the big picture. It’s easy to not stop and consider how the shifts in my life made an impact on the person I promised constancy to. The heart and the dagger and the rays of sun on Drew’s arm made me look at all of that, and I realized that I am fooling myself if I think that he is living with the same woman that he married.

I also realized how it’s possible to know someone so well, and yet not at all. How everyone’s life is full of topsy-turvy roads and blind spots and how sometimes the person we think we know best is the one who will surprise us the most. Sometimes the person we love wants lots of tattoos.

•••

Our son is five and has a very vivid imagination and his pretend-play is very complex, detailed. He always wants us to play with him, but usually it’s hard to follow where he wants a particular scenario to go. He just wants us right there, sitting on the floor with him as he lines up his toy soldiers. I am really not playing with him; I just serve as the audience. He leans on me, touches my hair, or gives me a kiss between battles. He sits on my lap for a while, then just holds on to me with one hand while he rattles on and on. It’s obvious that he has a clear picture in his mind about where things are going, who will win the battle, who will capture the castle.

That’s how I’ve been thinking about our marriage lately. Our careers have taken off. We are out of the trenches—or in-between trenches—when it comes to parenting. We have a comfortable life. There are no life of death decisions immediately in our future—hopefully. But on any given day, I remind myself, one of us is on the floor, lining up soldiers. We are off, battle plans in our heads, fighting on, figuring out the next steps. All that we can do for each other is ask questions, listen, and sit there, in case the other one needs a soft, comforting embrace, a hand to hold.

•••

Even before his latest tattoo, Drew’s been gently teasing me about getting one too over a small scar on my right shoulder. The scar has mysterious origins—for a long time I thought that it was from a childhood immunization, but my mother told me that happened on my other arm. It looks like a pink bite mark—two distinct, uneven spheres right next to each other. I know exactly what my tattoo would be: a pink peony, the flower that bloomed every spring in front of our summer cabin when I was a child. They somehow became “my” peonies, and even after I moved far away from home, I would get timely reports from my grandparents and parents about the size of their early buds, their expected bloom date, their dark pink color, their fragrance filling up the garden.

So I would have this pink peony over my scar on my shoulder. I think about it every now and then, talk to Drew about it, but deep down I know that I am never going to do it. Whatever Drew is expressing through the pictures on his body is his alone and I know that eventually we’ll both understand their meaning in his life—what they are covering up, what they are exposing. I help him apply lotion on his arm in the evenings and make sure that he can be free to go for his next appointment with the tattoo artist to finish the work. That is all I can do.

In return, I know he will tuck our son in bed and bring me tea—or wine, depending on the night—so that I can write these words, perched in bed, listening to the two of them laugh and read. I know that later he will come to bed, smooth his hands over the scar on my shoulder, over my breasts, belly. The skin on his forearm will be still rough under my fingers as it heals. We’ll hold on tight to each other so we can battle on. “I love you. You love me. What else do you need to know?”

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Role Reboot, and Kveller. She has a son, a husband, and, as of press time, still no tattoos. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @hunglishgirl. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Pin It

The Getaway

By Sjoerd Lammers street photography/ Flickr

By Sjoerd Lammers street photography/ Flickr

By Andrea Jarrell

Susannah was murdered just before Christmas. I didn’t hear the terrible news until after New Year’s, when a friend called me on my way home from a family holiday out of town. The house where she’d been killed was just a hundred yards or so from ours, poking up from behind trees across the road. Nothing between us except our long driveway and adjacent pond. Not that I could have stopped what had happened, even if we’d been home. We probably would have been sitting in our living room watching TV or upstairs reading bedtime stories to our two kids. We probably wouldn’t even have heard the gunshots.

When it happened, the co-op preschool that her son and my son and daughter attended was already on the holiday break. My husband Brad and I had loaded up our SUV, bundled the kids into their car seats, and driven down to Portland—Maine, not Oregon. From there we’d flown to Michigan, to my in-laws’ house with its big Christmas tree and glittering ornaments. In the days before Facebook and Twitter, we’d remained blissfully cocooned and cut off from the rest of the world.

I didn’t understand at first why I reacted to the news of Susannah’s death the way that I did. Yes, there was the shocking violence of it. And the throat-catching sadness for her little boy, and the wrongness of anyone snatched from life, much less someone so young. But there was more to it than that. Especially when I admitted to myself that I hadn’t actually liked Susannah. Or, more accurately, I hadn’t allowed myself to like her.

The truth is, I’d always been a little afraid of her. After she was killed, I understood why.

Brad and I had been in Maine for a few years by then. In our early thirties, we were just starting out in our marriage and our life as parents. We’d always been city people before. Our move from Los Angeles to the idyllic town of Camden was the first of what we expected would be many adventures in our life together. Camden is the childhood home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the town where the movie Peyton Place was filmed, and, rumor has it, a haven for retired CIA spies. Locals looking to move know to put their houses on the market during the summer, when tourists fall in love with the quaintness of it all: the harbor, the lupine-covered hills, the age-old stone walls, the black and white Oreo cows. But Maine winters are for a hardy few, and the smart lookey-loos come to their senses before any money changes hands.

We moved to Camden knowing what we were getting into. Brad had been offered a two-year gig at the Institute for Global Ethics, to work on a project about running positive political campaigns. I saw the move as a way to leave my workaday life as the PR director of a small college—to trade in my pantyhose and suits for jeans and sweaters and get back to writing. Fully expecting to return to L.A. in a couple of years, we found tenants for our small house. But the two-year project turned into two more, and five years after moving we finally unloaded the L.A. house, unsure if we would ever head west again.

Moving to Camden felt a little like we’d entered the witness protection program—so far from everyone we’d known, plunked down into a new life. I took to that life more easily than one might expect, embracing it with “pinch me” elation: pancakes on Sundays, a fully-stocked pantry with an extra freezer for meat, trips to the pumpkin patch, red wagons in the driveway, rain boots and slickers, mittens and parkas. This was the stuff of ordinary families, which I’d carefully observed during childhood sleepovers. Having grown up in small apartments with my single mother, who was much more interested in books and travel than picket fences and seasonal door wreathes, I kept waiting for the residents of Camden to discover that I didn’t belong.

Oh, I knew how to look the part at Mommy and Me music classes, or when it was my turn to handle a baking project at the preschool, or while hanging out under a wide- brimmed straw hat at the local beach, my kids appropriately slathered with sunscreen and playing with sand pails and shovels. But I still felt inferior, the way I had as a kid when I would tell friends and their parents that my mother was a lawyer rather than a legal secretary. I told that lie right up through college, even though the thought of being found out made me queasy.

Certain people hatched such lies in me—in Camden, people like Kim Tate and her husband Jack. Kim was a tall, athletic blond who’d gone to Yale. She’d met Jack—also tall, but dark and handsome enough—on the train between New Haven and New York City one afternoon when they were both in college. With their good looks and money, the Tates were small-town famous. Other mothers at our preschool had a crush on Jack, one of them going so far as to tell Kim that she looked forward to receiving their photo Christmas card so she could moon over him. I had more of a crush on Kim, whose three perfect little children were spaced a year and a half apart, lined up like cherub-faced Russian dolls in hand-knitted sweaters she’d designed and made.

Our oldest kids—Kim’s and mine—were in the fours and fives class at the co-op preschool along with Susannah’s son. If Kim was on the elite end of the social spectrum, Susannah was on the other. Or at least that’s where—I admit now—I put her. Almost from the moment I met her, something about Susannah made me steer clear. When I saw her faded, rust-colored Toyota in the school’s parking lot, I stayed in my own car, behind darkened windows. I waited to go inside until after she and her son emerged from the school—their fingers laced, the day’s artwork flapping in Susannah’s other hand.

She was one of those pretty girl-women—twenty-one, twenty-three, twenty-five? If she hadn’t been a mother, she might have seemed even younger, like a teenager with her whole life before her. I’d seen fathers at the preschool watching her, trying to be nonchalant as they homed in on her. You could tell that she’d grown up attracting such attention and was no longer surprised or moved by it. At first, I wondered if my impulse to avoid her was simple jealousy because she was younger and sexier than I was. Her short skirts and angled beret over long corn-silk hair displayed a confidence that I’d never had. Then I noticed that she avoided me and the other parents as well—never lingering to chat on the playground.

She smiled but hurried purposefully, gathering her son’s lunchbox, backpack, and coat. My mother had projected a similar defensive smile when she attended school events or collected me from a sleepover. Just we two, she used to say. It dawned on me then that Susannah’s confidence, like my mother’s, was designed to let other parents know she was doing fine, even though we outnumbered her two to one. I could feel how tightly Susannah’s hand grasped her son’s as they exited the preschool, holding on to each other and their place in the world.

The only time that I can remember even talking to her was at my daughter’s birthday party. It was July; all the preschool parents stood around on our wide green lawn as kids took turns barreling down the giant yellow Slip ’n Slide my husband had set up.

I happened to be standing next to Susannah when the gifts were opened. Her son’s present was a wooden fairy wand that his mother had painted dark blue and topped with a glitter-encrusted star. She’d written my daughter’s name in silver along the handle. We watched as my daughter opened the gift and ran her small hand along the scrolling letters of her name. Susannah leaned sideways to me, our shoulders touching, and said, “I knew she would like it. She’s such an artist.” I imagined them together in the co-op preschool on one of Susannah’s days to help. I could see her asking my daughter about the painting she was working on. Susannah would’ve bent down to be eye-level, pushing her long blond hair behind one shoulder as she did.

Then one day, as I pulled into the preschool lot, I noticed a man sitting in the passenger seat of Susannah’s car. He was my own neighbor—a fit, tanned man named Craig. He operated a moving, refuse, and antiques business out of his home and adjacent barn. When we first arrived from California, my husband had hired him to help move us in. Admiring his Yankee entrepreneurism, my husband marveled, “He’s got it covered. He’ll move it, dump it, or sell it.”

I remember being inordinately happy to see my neighbor in Susannah’s car, happier still when I passed her familiar Toyota parked in front of his house. It intrigued me to think of how they might have met. Perhaps he had hired her to answer the phones for his business. Or they’d struck up a conversation in Cappy’s bar on Main Street. There was no question of why Susannah would appeal to him. But I could also see why he would appeal to her. In his late forties, he was attractive in a town where single men were few and far between. She might have said to herself, try older, try wiser. He would be a good provider, a role model for her little boy. I pictured them together—sheets rumpled, his tanned workman’s hands on her milky skin. I imagined him thanking his lucky stars each day to have such a lovely girl on his arm.

I’d once imagined such meetings for my mother: a new client or lawyer in her firm, who would appear one day and change our lives. I wondered what Susannah’s secret was. How had she managed to find a partner and step into a new, safer life when my mother had not?

•••

Kim Tate was the one who caught me on my cell as my family and I drove home from the airport. “I didn’t know you two were close,” she said. “I’m so sorry,” she kept saying as I sobbed after hearing the news. Sobbing that I didn’t understand at first because, of course, we were not close at all.

In my mind’s eye, I could see Susannah sitting in my kitchen, drinking coffee with me. I imagined her son playing with my kids on the floor of our living room, but that had never happened. I hadn’t wanted them at our house. As cute as her son was, I’d written him off as damaged goods. Damaged the way I’d been at his age. Jealous of what my friends had, prone to elaborate lies and petty thefts, hitting and hair pulling when no one was looking.

It hadn’t been Susannah’s youth or prettiness that made me steer clear of her and her son. It had always been their aloneness and my fear that if I got too close, that old familiar just we two aloneness might rub off on me.

Like a bedtime story, my mother used to tell me of our escape into the world from my father. She’d light a cigarette, press it to her elegant lips, exhale, and begin. Benign stories at first. Later, the stories about his venereal disease and his cheating and her black eyes. But even in her early, seemingly innocent stories, there was always a little violence. Singeing her eyelashes and eyebrows trying to light the stove in their first apartment. My father breaking his arm in an arm-wrestle on his birthday—the bone splitting right through the camel hair jacket she’d given him. “His muscles were stronger than bone,” she’d said with a trace of true awe.

Our neighbor Craig was a mild man, nothing like my father. And yet he’d acted on the same jealousy and possessiveness that my mother had run away from. My mother had also been a girl-woman. At nineteen, the day she first felt me move inside her was the day she began plotting how to leave my father. Scared of what this man who slept beside her with a gun under his pillow might do to us one day when my crying got too much for him or when yet another man admired her beauty. Somehow I’d given her the courage.

Was it her little boy Susannah was thinking of when she told Craig it was over? It wasn’t hard to imagine Craig’s desperate pleading as he tried to make her stay. My mother told me that my father did the same, how he threatened to commit suicide if she ever left him. I could picture Craig grabbing Susannah’s arm. She would have tried to shake him off, her blond hair flying as she tossed the few things she’d brought to his house into an overnight bag. She would not have known that he’d gone to the barn to look for a gun.

My mother’s getaway car had been a teal blue Corvair. She’d literally and figuratively strapped me in beside her from then on—her precious cargo. How I wished Susannah had just gotten in that rust-colored Toyota and driven as far away from Craig as possible. How I wanted to run to her now and wrap my arms around her.

He shot her twice, using an antique pistol from his shop. According to the papers, after he killed her, he called his grown son and left a message on the son’s answering machine. “I’ve done something stupid,” he said. Then he hung up and killed himself.

As my family and I drove down our road, past Craig’s quiet house, I remembered the last time I’d seen Susannah’s car in his driveway. The sense of relief I’d had, thinking she’d found her happy ending. Thinking she could loosen the grip on her small son’s hand just a little because they were safe at last.

Passing our pond—frozen and covered in snow—I heard the car’s engine labor as it climbed our long driveway and saw the ice crystalized on branches of barren trees. How I wanted to rewind the film and change Susannah’s ending the way my mother had changed ours.

As we pulled into the garage, firewood neatly stacked and dry by the mudroom door, I told Brad I’d help him unload the suitcases in a minute. My fingers were already tapping out my mother’s telephone number. I waited, still in my coat in the car, pressing my phone to my ear, listening for her voice, waiting for us to talk, just us two.

•••

ANDREA JARRELL’s personal essays have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column; Narrative Magazine; Brain, Child Magazine; Memoir; Literary Mama; The Washington Post; The Huffington Post, and the anthology My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friendships, among other publications. She is at work on an essay collection.

Modern Day Savages

By Phillip Chee/ Flickr

By Phillip Chee/ Flickr

By Andrea Mummert Puccini    

Maybe it’s nothing to be proud of, but tonight I felt my life coming together at a chichi grocery store. At home, things are in disarray, beyond disarray: the result of multi-front home improvement projects undertaken by my husband Stephen, perfectionist and reluctant decision maker.

Acrid fumes volatilize from newly varnished kitchen cabinets. The bathroom stands hallow, stripped of its porcelain fixtures. On the wide douglas fir boards where the tub once stood, the contractor applied an outdoor-only rot-prevention paint. Cursory internet searching vaguely links its ingredients to neurological problems. An oil-based primer seals off that toxic layer but simultaneously introduces hydrocarbonic vapors to the mix. A layer of dust covers the floors, ledges, and window sills. Mostly disintegrated plaster, but molecules of cancer-causing petrochemicals certainly encase each tiny particle.

All of this might be okay for us, but not, I think, for the developing lungs of our not-quite two-year-old son Nico.

We have already been staying at two other places, first a housesitting gig, then the rental house next door ours, until it was rented, which it now is. There is nowhere to go except Miriam’s, while she and her two kids are back east visiting family.

After work, I pick up Nico from his sitter’s and meet Miriam at her house to put dibs on it. If I feed her cats, we can stay there. It buys us a week out of our place.

Miriam tours me around, apologizing for the mess. She opens the door to her playroom, swinging it wide with a ceremonious ta da gesture. Behold. Here, a child’s plastic basketball hoop, the net torn, juts at an angle from a cardboard box sliding off a Navajo rug folded across the arm of a badly cat-scratched sofa. Nearby, a red and black checkerboard and two palm tree bookends are viewable in a thirty-two–gallon aquarium. Normally I don’t care anything about messes, but with this much chaos I’m concerned that keeping an exploring toddler out of trouble will be a challenge. I make a mental note to keep this door shut.

Cats are independent. This sink drain goes nowhere. The water gets hot quickly. The door is locked when the knob’s button is horizontal.

“This is Maya’s pet beetle.” A little roll of Miriam’s eyes. “It was one of those meal worms. Its name is Pepsie. I don’t know what she’s doing.”

(Assume it will die. Assume it won’t stay in the container.)

“Maybe,” Miriam ventures, “when we’re back, you could stay at the house down the street that’s for sale. You’d love it. There are so many kids around, and it’s nice to be so close to Whole Foods. We even memorized the dinner sales. Monday night is burritos. Wednesday, the rotisserie chickens are only six dollars. “

I say yes. Yes to the chickens. I bought a rotisserie chicken at the Co-op last week. It was the best thing I did all month.

She agrees. “My kids love it. I got three meals out of it!”

Our enthusiasm is delivered slightly deadpan, winking and grimacing to ourselves. After all, I once made a practice of pressing my own soy milk to avoid the non-recyclable foil lined packaging. But now I embrace chicken in a plastic bubble.

Miriam and I agree to meet up at Whole Foods after she makes a spare key to the house.

•••

Gleaming steel grocery cart, with a tray projecting in front of the child seat. In the style of a cookie cooling rack, the tray has narrowly spaced metal bars such that Nico’s little wooden Gold Dust Thomas Choo Choo can perch at an angle between two bars without falling through. Off to one side, a circular gap in the tray can hold his sippy cup. This thing was built for us.

Even so, it’s difficult to get through the store. Tired and hungry, Nico writhes in the seat, straining against the nylon seat belt. He grabs my coat collar and tries to pull himself out. He yells.

At last the checkout line. And there at the end I see just the set up I was looking for:

Tall tables, bar height, and stool chairs. Twisted cast iron legs and slate tops. Behind the table, a smoky-gray tinted mirrored wall, an attraction, engagement for a toddler. More wholesome than TV, like a fish tank.

I must have expected to look alright by that half light, because I startle at my first glimpse of myself in the mirror, dark circles under my eyes, my hair pulled tight with frizz escaping along the hairline. I do look how I’m always afraid of: old.

But, hey, the cart pushes right up to the table, the seat at just exactly same height as the tabletop.

Looking down at our browned chicken, condensation forms under the plastic dome. A paper ribbon seals the package. Everything would be perfect if I had a knife and napkin. I can’t muster the will to leave the table and venture to the silverware bar.

I pull the chicken apart with my fingers, but the avocado?

Nico screams, “AVO AVO!”

He is loud. People in line look at us.

One man radiates judgment. Does he think this is how we eat every night? An entire encapsulated chicken between us? Popping the airtight seal to tear meat from its bones?

I look over toward the counter of silverware, and there is Miriam, wondrously materialized, bringing napkins and forks and knives and Maya.

We take up a conversation that we, two mid-Atlantic transplants to central California, have been having since we met seven years ago. Without even mentioning any of it, we talk about the greenery, the rain all year, the architecture, the pull of home.

“How long have you been here?”

“Eight years.”

“You?”

“Twenty years. And you know, as recently as last summer thought I’d move back, but not anymore.”

“How old are you now, Maya?”

“Seven.”

I had been staying with Daniel while Miriam and her friend made the trip to bring Maya home from China. When I ask how she did it, I don’t mean it to be patronizing. I remember the autism parents who have said simply you would do it too.

But Miriam says, “I don’t remember. I felt called.”

I don’t remember her complaining.

She says she actually doesn’t remember much of the first couple years, when Maya was one and two, and Daniel was four and five. It was too busy to remember.

As we talk, I recall the stone statues of basket-carrying ladies just outside that adorn the exterior roofline of this grocery store and remember an essay that came through my writing group describing their architectural and mythological history. Remembering those moments of hearing that essay cinches that time together with this time at the table, the stitches of my life gathering tighter. The mirror behind the table reflects Miriam and I, where we have arrived through this more than half-decade of conversation.

And with these threads pulling through time, I am back in memory to a day in Virginia, snow flurries swirling out the window all day and late afternoon as dark falls, until I had to turn on the porch light to check if they were still falling. One year to the day after you died, Mom.

There in the kitchen, I reflected on Isak Dinesen’s writing about the pattern of a life, a pattern that can only be discerned with the space of time. As if looking down from above on a person’s life—the movements and places travelled—the pattern will emerge like a constellation shape. I believe Dinesen described the shape of a wading bird, but I never have been able find those words again. In the Virginia kitchen, warm and light with snow outside, I thought of your life. What was the bird pattern? Was there one, if you had trouble seeing it even at the end? What if the path never did arrive?

I think of you talking about the way you would watch your Christmas tree. Your childhood trees with real candle flames and weighted metal tinsel lametta sparkling. Shining silver balls hanging half hidden toward the interior branches. Light glinting between these and the ornaments with miniature scenes inside half-glass globes. On our oral history tape you said, I remember just sitting in front of the tree. The reflections of all the little lights. I could just sit there for hours and watch it, because the icicles would move because of the natural candles, because they would move. A door opened or some little wind would come, and it was going through the whole tree and it shifted all to one side.

I imagined your life as that tree, a web of moments, points, reflecting back and forth each other, amplifications and interferences. All the moments like tiny hanging mirrors.

The next day, when I get to Miriam’s, there will be a note on the container where Maya’s beetle lives. In blue crayon, in child’s variably sized lettering, it says:

Please chang apple every DAY (drawing of beetle) Two little sqeres of apple (heart).

Also labeled are Pepsie bed and Pepsies tunnel.

Most of the week, I ignore Pepsie. He has a chunk of apple, although it looks browned and withered on the outside. On the last day, I cut a small fresh slice and put it next to Pepsie’s toilet paper roll cave, and, unbelievably, he trundles out right away, and extends some sort of proboscis and sucks, sucks and sucks, on the apple.

I leave Maya a note: I think Pepsie missed you.

But this I don’t know yet as Miriam and Maya and Nico and I finish dinner together, and somehow it feels leisurely.

Before I head home, I pat my pocket and discover the change that I’d scavenged from my car the day before, when I’d planned to get some cocoa but then misplaced my car keys and missed the chance.

I walk up to the beverage counter to buy cocoa for the road. The young man tells me that Harvest Cocoa is the drink of the hour. I can get any size I want for the price of a small. I get a medium.

Carrying it in one hand, I push Nico out to the car. It is dark, and light sprinkles have started.

One of the first rains of the year in this place where we go months without rain. The rain feels like everything. The dirt, the leaves, the stomata, the dirt, even the sand in the sidewalk opens up. Like pores. Breathing. Drinking. Petrichor.

Driving now, I pull the car off the dark access road into an Amaco station, lit bright as an alien outpost. I swipe my magnetic strip and stand by. I try not to inhale too deeply the vaporized hundred million year old liquefied remains of giant reptiles as they are pumped above ground to burn in the furnace of my car, propelling our course home.

Tank full, I swing out and onto the highway ramp.

We drive the twelve straight miles on the highway. Through fine rain drops, red tail lights stream out in front of me and white lights trail the other way. And I am so surprised to register a net of connection around my heart as we slip along this path of least resistance.

•••

ANDREA MUMMERT PUCCINI is a mother, environmental biologist, and writer. She is a native of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay lowlands. She now lives in northern California with her husband and two sons, where she works with farmers and ranchers to improve water quality and create wildlife habitat on agricultural lands. She co-authored California Wildlife: Conservation Challenges prepared at the University of California, Davis, and her work has appeared in the Yolo Crow, Pilgrimage, River Teeth online, and a number of scientific journals. She can be reached at http://andreamummertpuccini.blogspot.com/

The Appointment

By Liz West/ Flickr

By Liz West/ Flickr

By Linda L. Crowe

I have a ten o’clock hair appointment with Barb, who lives a quarter-mile from my house. Before she moved here three years ago, I had to drive thirty miles for a cut. Now, as I walk down the leaf-strewn gravel road, the day is cool, but the sun warms my back under a crystal blue sky.

Barb is standing on her front deck, tapping on her smartphone. She’s wearing a nice dress, instead of her usual slacks and loose tunic. Her sister, Cindy, pulls up in her SUV, and she’s dressed up, too.

“Our father just passed away,” Barb calls to me, filling the words with her usual mix of calm and intensity, the kind that I always associate with an emergency preparedness drill. “Come on in.”

I halt in the yard and hold both hands up. “No,” I say, “No hair cut today.” I think of Cecil, the farmer, and how, if you closed your eyes, you’d swear it was Andy Griffith talking to you. The last time I saw him, he was stick thin, out mowing his field in the late summer sun. He waved to me from his tractor. I waved back.

In a way, his death is not unexpected. Everyone on our road knows that hospice has been on the scene for the last few months. I look up the hill toward Cecil’s house and picture him laid out on his bed, waiting for the coroner.

“There is nothing for us to do,” Barb says, “He’s dead now.”

“We don’t have anything else to do,” Cindy agrees.

“You have a million things to do,” I say from my place in the yard, hands till held in the stop position. “A million phone calls, a million arrangements. This stuff is hard.”

I figure that it hasn’t really hit them yet.

Cindy comes around from her side of the car. I put my arm around her shoulders. She puts her arm around my waist and guides me toward the steps.

“No, really,” I say again. But they act like they’ll be more upset if I leave, so I don’t.

“How do you stay so small?” Cindy asks me. Her father just died and she’s asking me about my figure?

I give her my standard reply. “Genes, I guess. I have my mother’s build.”

“You hold her down,” Barb says to Cindy. “And I’ll scratch her eyes out.”

We all laugh, and they escort me into the house. This feels wrong. Their father has just died. You can see his house from here. His house seems different now; it has a dead person inside it. But inside Barb’s house, it’s as though no one has died. She wants to cut my hair, just like always.

Cindy heads for the kitchen and Barb calls after her. “The cereal’s in the pantry. You’ll have to open a new carton of milk.” Barb ushers me into the bedroom-turned-salon, complete with shampoo sink and swivel chair. “What are we doing today?” she asks as she swoops the leopard print smock across my front and fastens it at the back of my neck. Someone has just died, I think. What are we doing, indeed?

I dissolved in tears the day my father died. He still felt so warm when I arrived at the Assisted Living, that I asked a nurse to double check, which she did. Then I sat crying and holding Daddy’s hand as his body gradually cooled, then stiffened.

I consider the mental anguish Barb must be feeling even though it doesn’t show, and the shameful part of me wonders—can she really concentrate enough to give me a good cut?

“My son is getting married in two weeks,” I say. “I still get compliments on the cut you gave in August. So let’s just shape it up a bit.”

She wets my hair down and begins. “A wedding. How wonderful.”

She runs the comb through my hair, pulls a damp swatch up between her index and middle fingers, and snips off the ends. “Where are they getting married?”

Just then, her Smartphone chirps from the counter and Barb steps over to tap it. A voice on speakerphone says, “Mom? Mom, is that you?”

“It’s me,” Barb says. We endure a five-second silence. Barb says, “What is it, dear?”

A sarcastic half-laugh fills the room. “Granddaddy dies and you text me?”

“Well, honey, I just found out myself.”

“You text me?” The disembodied voice climbs to a higher pitch. “At work?

I fiddle with my hands beneath the smock, and I consider stepping out to give them some privacy. But Barb put the call on speaker after all, so I figure I’m meant to hear this.

“Sweetie, I texted you as soon as I heard,” Barb says, by way of explanation.

More disbelieving laughter. This is how you talk to your mother on the day her father dies? I think. I try to imbue respect into the voice on the phone, using my powers of telepathy.

“Honey, I’m in the middle of a haircut right now.” A brief embarrassed pause follows, as if the daughter all of a sudden gets how self-involved she sounds. An attempt at recovery: “Well Mom, how are you? Are you okay?”

That’s more like it, I think.

“I’m fine, honey.”

“Well … call me when you get free,” the daughter says in a tiny voice.

Barb returns to the chair and the snipping. “Why the drama? She’s seen her grandfather maybe three times over the last year,” she says in her low register, with her calm intensity. “She told me not to call her unless it was a 9-1-1 emergency. Anything else, and she only wanted a text.”

I keep thinking that I should say something, but it’s not like I know Barb that well. She’s just a pleasant person who lives up the road who occasionally cuts my hair. Still, I feel as though I should address the situation somehow.

“You must have a lot of happy memories of your father,” I say.

“I don’t have any happy memories of him,” Barb says. “You part your hair on the left, don’t you?”

I nod.

“He tried to molest me,” she adds, matter-of-factly. She takes the two sections on either side of my face and looks in the mirror as she pulls them down, checking for evenness. “This length looks good,” she says. “Let’s just shape up the rest from here.” Then it’s pull and snip, pull and snip.

I think of Daddy, and how in his last days he asked me to marry him. He couldn’t remember my name, or even that I was his daughter. He wasn’t a child molester. He just knew that I was someone very special who he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. It only made me love him more.

“Besides,” Barb continues. “He’s not really my father.” She ruffs my hair, peers at it in the mirror, then combs it again. “He’s none of our father.” She uses a razor device now. It makes scritch, scritch, scritchy sounds as she carves layers on my head. The cut is really looking pretty good. “Mom confessed to that on her deathbed.”

I know how that goes. My mother made a few confessions of her own over the years—extramarital affairs, a child given up for adoption, family deaths that were really suicides—just your garden-variety Southern Gothic sorts of things.

“We’ll just tidy this up.” Barb takes the electric trimmer and shaves the hair up the back of my neck. “Our actual father lives in Kentucky. He was already married and had a family.”

“Is he still alive?” I ask. “Have you ever met him?”

“I know who he is,” she says, “but I’ve never tried to get in touch with him.”

“I have a half-brother I’ve never met,” I tell her over the noise of the blow dryer. “I just found him.” She swivels the chair around so I can look in the mirror. The cut is wonderful.

Barb nods. “Our mothers lived in different times.” She swishes the stray snippets of hair off the back of my neck with a big soft brush. It feels delicious. “There’s nothing like a good cut to take the weight off,” she says.

“The usual?” I ask as I take out my checkbook. The floor around the salon chair is littered with the damp brown spikes of my hair.

“Same as last time.” She makes notes in her haircut notebook, then she pauses and looks at me. “All I feel is relief,” she says. Her eyes do not fill with expected tears.

Suddenly I’m in mind of the day that my mother gave my brother-in-law her old .38 special. “This is the gun Daddy used to kill himself.” He stood wide-eyed and speechless, but Mama said this with the same lack of emotion she showed when heating up leftovers. She was just a girl when her father molested her.

“It’s different for everybody,” I say to Barb as I hand her my check. “Don’t let anyone tell you how you should feel.”

Because now I get it. Why the weight of her father’s gun did not drive my mother to her knees. How she must have felt when she got the call that he was dead.

I hug Barb good-bye and say so long to Cindy. I leave the way I came and walk back across the yard to the road. Behind me a car starts up and I turn to see the sisters driving up the road to Cecil’s house, finally relieved of their burdens.

Some names have been changed to protect privacy. —ed.

•••

LINDA L. CROWE lives in central Virginia.  Her work has appeared in Virginia Forests magazine, Slaughterhouse, Blue Ridge Literary Prose, and River Teeth’s Beautiful Things column. She blogs occasionally at www.lindalcrowe.wordpress.com.

Ripple Effect

handshearts

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Candace Kearns Read

I was driving around what seemed the perfect neighborhood, looking for signs, when I found the sprawling, two-story log house for sale on three park-like acres, filled with ponderosa pines and giant rose-colored rock formations. The location was ideal, with easy access to the highway, yet no visibility from the road. The price on the flyer seemed too good to be true.

•••

Our community is made up of a few small towns strung along U.S. Highway 285, which curls through red rock cliffs and rolling ridges of forest as it climbs two thousand feet in elevation, from the historic two-block town of Morrison, up through Tiny Town, Aspen Park, Conifer, Pine, and all the way to Bailey, Colorado. The speed limit on the highway is 55, but most people take the curves closer to 70. Once you start ascending, you can feel the wildness of it, from Turkey Creek Canyon through Windy Point all the way to Crow Hill.

•••

According to the news reports, on September 27, 2006, sixteen-year old Emily Keyes drove to school as usual, with her mother Ellen and her twin brother Casey in the car. The sun was rising over distant mountain ranges, and they turned the Red Hot Chili Peppers up loud as Emily navigated from their mountaintop home down the narrow twists of a dirt road lined with aspen groves. At the highway, she followed the winding path of the wide, rushing South Platte River. At 7:17 a.m., Emily and Casey got out of the car at Platte Canyon High School, and Ellen drove to work.

•••

The house we were living in, which I’d bought with my previous husband, wasn’t even on the market yet, but we were ready to sell it. It didn’t feel right to live there anymore with all those memories. We needed a new home, but we wanted to stay in this community. It was the kind of place where neighbors watch out for each other, and people still cared.

•••

The 285 corridor and surrounding areas are referred to as the Foothills of Denver, but there’s no doubt that we live in the mountains. In early fall, when the elk start to rut, we can hear the bugling for a mile, and months later, dozens of pregnant females take their afternoon naps in our yards. Deer eat our flowers all summer long, staring at us like the invaders we are. It’s not uncommon to see fox dashing, cat-like, between the aspen. Bears will rummage through our trash cans if we leave them out, and we live in fear of mountain lions snatching our dogs.

•••

Between 8:42 and 11:40 a.m., a dilapidated yellow jeep, later discovered to be the living quarters of a fifty-three-year-old homeless man by the name of Duane Morrison, came and went from several different spaces in the high school parking lot.

•••

I pulled up the long circular driveway on a mild day in October 2005 and there he was, standing next to a weathered gold Jeep Cherokee with a little red light on top. He wore a crisp cotton button-down, broken-in jeans, and cowboy boots; he introduced himself with that nice clean Irish name. The business of real estate can make me uneasy, but I felt instantly that this was a guy we wanted on our side. I was sure my husband would agree. He had a humble calm you don’t often find in sales people, and he mentioned that he had a lot of ties in the community. I later learned this was an understatement.

•••

We are what’s called a bedroom community; most everyone commutes to Denver about thirty miles away, and we run our errands and go to the movies down the hill. Up the hill, there are a few bars, a couple of gas stations, and some small specialty stores. Until recently, there wasn’t even a Mexican restaurant. Most of the businesses are family owned, and you always bump into someone you know at the market. The schools are ranked some of the highest in the state.  Crime is practically negligible, and the natural beauty surpasses that of most places. Some might say life up here is idyllic.

•••

At 11:40 a.m., Duane Morrison, who had been living out of his car but had a Denver address, calmly entered the school building, claiming he had “three pounds of C-4.” He was wearing a dark blue hooded sweatshirt and carried a camouflage backpack. Inside were a semiautomatic pistol and a handgun. Morrison headed upstairs to room 206, where Sandra Smith was teaching honors English. He instructed her to leave, and when she would not, he fired his gun into the air. He then told the students to line up facing the chalkboard and made everyone leave, except for six girls, of which Emily Keyes was one.

•••

In the course of our dealings with the realtor, we learned he was also a volunteer firefighter. When he wasn’t helping people buy and sell houses along the 285 Corridor, he was responding to accidents and other 911 calls, often saving lives. He’d pried toddlers out of crushed cars, fought forest fires, and evacuated the sick and elderly from deathly blizzards. He’d signed up nine years earlier for the excitement. He’d stayed on because it taught him to appreciate that, as he put it, “life is brief and precious and important.”

•••

A code-white alert—meaning a full lockdown—was sounded over the intercom. County Sheriff Fred Wegener began negotiating with the gunman. The sheriff’s son Ben, a junior who once had a crush on Emily Keyes, was in a classroom nearby. Morrison wouldn’t talk to Wegener directly—he used the girls to relay his messages. The only clear demand he made was that the police back off.

•••

I tried to imagine what it must be like to live with a high-frequency radio in your home. We awakened to acres of blue sky above pine-covered peaks, the sounds of an occasional dog, crows cawing and squirrels chattering. Our realtor and his wife must emerge from dreams to the beating static and cacophony of voices reporting drunks, families killed in car accidents, petty thieves, and the elderly having massive heart attacks in bed. Or one morning, as you’re writing up a carefully considered Inspection Objection—as our realtor might have been on the morning of September 27, 2006—you hear words reverberating over that crackling scanner that make you briefly pray you haven’t really woken up at all. “Six students have been taken hostage at Platte Canyon High by a man claiming to have a bomb. The school is being evacuated—negotiations are ongoing.”

•••

Morrison sexually assaulted all of the girls before releasing four of his hostages and keeping two. Fifteen-year-old Lynna Long later said that even though they were all lined up facing the chalkboard, she knew the other girls were being molested because she could hear “the rustling of clothes and elastic being snapped and zippers being opened and closed.”

After the four girls were released, Emily, who was still a hostage, managed to respond to her father’s text message, which asked, “R U OK?”

She wrote back, “I luv u guys.”

•••

In July, our realtor called, asking if my husband and I wanted to join him and his wife for a Rockies game. There was light rain that day, but our seats at Coors Field were sheltered by the overhang of the level above us, so even when it sprinkled, we were protected. We drank beer and ate hot dogs, basking in the relaxation of the ballpark. His wife and I went for a second beer during the sixth inning, but our realtor stopped at one, since he was driving.

“Seen too many accidents,” was all he said.

•••

By 12:10 p.m., all eight hundred students, except the two remaining hostages, had been evacuated. A four-mile stretch of Highway 285 on both sides of the school was closed. Ambulances were parked in the end zone of the football field.

All the parents standing outside the school were urged by authorities to go back to the sheriff substation.

At least twenty parents shook their heads at once and said, “No.”

At 3:20 p.m., the gunman told police that something “big” would happen at 4:00, and that it would “be over then.”

The Jefferson County SWAT Team had witnessed Morrison sexually assaulting the girls, and at 3:30, Sheriff Wegener made a decision. Later he’d say that he made the decision, “Because I’d want whoever was in my position to do the same thing, and that is to save lives.”

At approximately 3:35, the SWAT team stormed the classroom, and Morrison used the two girls as human shields. When she tried to run, he shot Emily Keyes in the back of the head before killing himself.

•••

Our realtor was just one of many who stood by and watched as Emily was carried on a gurney from the classroom to the Flight-for-Life helicopter.

Emily’s father, John-Michael, who had been waiting there all day, hoping to see his daughter, shouted out, “Is there anything I can do to make her more comfortable?”

Someone replied, “No.”

The helicopter took only a few minutes to arrive at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver, where Emily was pronounced dead at 4:32 p.m.

•••

The word community typically refers to many people, and sometimes it’s a group so large that it fills a whole highway. On October 7, 2006, close to six thousand motorcyclists rode the forty miles from Columbine High School to Platte Canyon High School in a show of compassion for the victims of the shootings at both schools. After a moment of silence and a balloon release, they rode off beneath an archway of pink balloons. Sheriff Fred Wegener was among them. Proceeds from the riders’ registration fees went to The “I Luv U Guys” Foundation, established in memory of Emily Keyes. This tradition has continued every year since.

•••

Emily’s life was full of accomplishments. According to those who knew her, she was trusting, kind, and fearless. She was active in speech class, worked on the school paper, and played volleyball. The day before she died, she had done such a great job on a world history paper that her teacher had read it out loud to the whole class.

Her boss at the restaurant where she waited tables said she was, “One of the nicest girls. Just a real sweetheart. Always a please and a thank you and a smile.”

•••

On September 27, 2006, our son was almost two, and we’d lived in our new home about five months. This was where we would parent him through his childhood and adolescence, and where, fates willing, he would someday graduate from high school. I mourned fiercely, almost inappropriately, for Emily, so consumed with shock and sadness that I could barely think of anything else for days.

It was as if I knew her, and in some ways I did, for we all drive the same roads, watch the same aspens turn to fiery gold each fall, and notice the same rise and descent of the trout-laden South Platte River, which feeds the same creeks we all drive alongside each day.

•••

Every year now, on the Saturday closest to September 27th, my husband, children, and I walk up the big hill to where our neighborhood meets the highway, carrying a cardboard sign that reads “We Love U Guys” written in bright red poster markers. We stand there waving at thousands of honking motorcyclists, our sign bending in the wind as they pass. From time to time, we exchange the international sign for “I love you”—thumb, middle and ring finger down, pointer and pinkie up, with a rider.

Up the highway a few hundred yards is the fire station, where the tallest truck is parked, emergency lights flashing like fireworks in honor and commemoration of the children killed in our schools and those who’ve leapt in to save them.

Throughout the hour that it takes for all those bikes to go by, I keep waving and smiling, stinging hot salt in my throat, doing my best to explain to our kids in choked-up stutters why we come here each year and pay tribute to a girl none of us knew, but we all remember.

I really do love these guys. I love that they show their compassion with a bike ride up a twisting mountain highway, I love that they all wear pink in honor of Emily, I love that so many of them see us here by the side of the road and answer our hand signals with a wave. But what I love even more is that when they reach their destination at Platte Canyon High School and join Emily’s family, whose foundation now helps schools everywhere enhance their safety, they’ll have carried our message to where it belongs.

•••

CANDACE KEARNS READ is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Morrison, Colorado. She is the author of the screenwriting guidebook Shaping True Story into Screenplay and a forthcoming novel, The Rope Swing. She blogs at lawomantologlady.wordpress.com, and can be found @ckreadwriter, candacekearnsread.facebook.com, and candacekearnsread.com.

How Can You Be Mad at Someone Who’s Dying of Cancer?

By AfroDad/ Flickr

By AfroDad/ Flickr

By Deesha Philyaw

How can you be mad at someone who’s dying of cancer? It helps if you don’t yet know she’s dying, if you think the doctors are just trying one more thing. It helps if she is your mother and if she’s just driven you crazy your whole life, but insists on a kind of love that leaves you unable to breathe and sick to your stomach from her phone calls or from the mere thought of her visiting you or you visiting her. It helps if she is obsessed with you, her only child, because she believes God sent you to her teenage self to love her since no one else did. It helps if she pours her whole life into you, but you never asked her to, and you would have rather she not, just so you could fucking breathe and dress conservatively and keep the pasta separate from the sauce and breastfeed your baby and buy organic, without her judging you from the valley of her insecurities.

All of that helps you to get mad at someone who is dying of cancer, especially when she doesn’t seem to be doing everything she possibly can to keep herself alive.

“The church was selling fish dinners today.”

“You shouldn’t be eating fried foods.”

“Oh, girl. I pulled the fried part off.”

But what about fruits and vegetables? Whole grains? But I know the answer to that. Cancer is no match for five decades of emotional and cultural eating. So I shut my mouth because the last time I tried to talk about what was broken in me-her-us, she accused me of always using “big words and psychological terms,” when in fact I had used no words larger than, “I can’t do this with you anymore. I’m calling a cab, and I’m leaving.” My college education and my intellect were apparently weapons I wielded to intimidate her. One day out of the blue when I was in my thirties, she said, “I finally found the word to describe the way you made me feel your whole life: intimidated.”

I think the problem started when I was born. My mother said, “I thought you were going to be dark like me with chinky eyes and wavy hair. Like a doll.” Alas, I was born medium-brown, bald, with huge eyes not associated with a racial slur. “Your eyes were so big that for the longest time, they would just roll around because you couldn’t focus them,” my mother said. “I burst into tears when I saw you. And your hands were so tiny. Until you got pregnant, I always thought that meant you wouldn’t be able to have kids.”

Please don’t ask me to explain that last part. I have no idea what my hands and my fertility have to do with each other. I do know that I wasn’t what my mom was expecting. She wanted a dark chocolate doll that would grow up to make the same choices she would have made if she’d had the dolls’ options in life. A doll that liked all the same things she liked—bright-colored clothing, the right amount of condiments and paprika in her potato salad, makeup.

Oh, the makeup! So when I was in the eighth grade and about to turn thirteen, many of the girls in my grade wanted to wear makeup. About half their mothers allowed them to. The other half made up their faces in the bathroom at school in the morning and scrubbed it off at some point before getting on the bus at the end of the day. Lucky me, I had one of those makeup-permitting mothers. Unlucky for her, she had a daughter who couldn’t give two shits about makeup. It just seemed to me like a lot of effort and for no good reason. But as my thirteen birthday approached, my mom was stuck on the idea that a cute little pouch filled with my own cosmetics would make the perfect gift. Meanwhile, a stack of V. C. Andrews books was my idea of the perfect gift. But according to my mother, that wasn’t a “real” gift. To hell with the fact that this was my birthday. She was determined to get me a real gift and it would be makeup.

“I don’t want makeup. But thank you.”

“Don’t you remember how nice you looked at James’ wedding when I let you wear makeup?” I had been eleven when my uncle, my mom’s younger brother, got married, and while I hadn’t been made up against my will, I hadn’t asked for makeup.

“Yes, but I don’t want to wear makeup. Thank you, though.”

“But why not?”

“Because … just because I don’t.”

“Well, I wish my mama had let me wear makeup when I was your age.”

But. I’m. Not. You.

“I don’t want to wear makeup.”

“No, really. You should,” my mother said, fixing her eyes hard on me. “You should.”

And it was that last “you should” that did it. I don’t mean that I relented; I didn’t start wearing makeup regularly until around eleventh grade. But that “you should” crushed me. It crushed the microscopic part of me that dared to think that my “big for her age” self was maybe kinda a little bit cute and sort of not too fat. “You should” meant that makeup would make me look better, more presentable, less homely, more like I belonged to my gorgeous mother.

My mother was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. I actually preferred her without makeup. Her beauty didn’t need any help. She had a glorious ’fro when glorious ’fros were in, the first time around. And her smile … My Lord. The woman had perfect lips and perfect teeth, and together, they were brilliant. And until loneliness, depression, and her changing metabolism took its toll, my mother had what folks back then called a “brick house” figure, so named for the popular R&B song by The Commodores.

“You should” was my mother’s go-to tactic for shaming me into liking what she liked, and caring about what she cared about. As in, I should care what people would think of me if I didn’t dress or carry myself a certain way, i.e., like her. My mother cared a lot about appearances, literally. Overwhelmed by mother’s obsession with how others might find me lacking, I became ten times more self-conscious than your typical self-conscious teen. It was debilitating, and I was damn-near thirty-five years old before I realized that most people didn’t size me up critically the minute I entered a room; they were probably too busy trying to get free of their own mother-induced neuroses to care if my clothes were wrinkled or how my hair looked.

Twenty or so birthdays later, and a few years into my mother’s cancer diagnosis, I finally got up the nerve to tell her how much that “you should” had hurt and how I had carried that hurt into adulthood and how her shaming me over the years had contributed to us not having the kind of relationship she said she wanted us to have.

Her response? “Huh. I don’t remember that at all.”

Which is why I shouldn’t have been surprised by her reaction later to the whole stolen ring thing, which became Reason #14 Why You Might Be Mad at Someone With Cancer.

But before I get into that, this is the part where I pause to make sure you don’t think my mother was a horrible person or a bad mother. She was neither of those things. This is important and needs to be said because we don’t allow mothers to have done some shitty things in the course of their parenting career and still get credit for the good they did. In our cultural consciousness, either mothers are saints or we’re driving our minivan full of kids into the river. And in the final tally of who I am because of my mother, I believe she did far more good than harm. She was a loving mother who sacrificed for me, and I always knew that my needs and many of my wants were her priority. If I am generous, hard-working, hospitable, responsible, and a person of integrity, I owe it in large part to my mother’s example and guidance. Even in her flaws, she had raised me to do as she said, not as she did.

She also raised me, ironically enough, to speak up for myself. But I guess she just intended for me to do this at school and with other people besides her. At any rate, this knack for being my own advocate came in handy in sophomore year of high school when I got straight A’s for the first three grading quarters, and then all A’s and a B in gym class in the last quarter. I was livid. How dare the gym teacher, of all people, fuck up my 4.0!

I went to see the girls’ dean of students who had taken me under her wing, but she wasn’t in her office that day. Another administrator was there and she did her best to calm me down. She listened as I rattled off all the reasons that this B was some bullshit. Ultimately, my grade didn’t get changed, but what did happen is that this administrator remembered me and my righteous indignation. So a month or so later, when our local Congressman’s office contacted her to recommend a rising junior who was mature and academically talented enough to spend the first half of the coming school year living and working on Capitol Hill as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives, this administrator recommended me.

The day I was due to arrive at the page dorm also happened to be my sixteenth birthday. My mother had been eager for this day for many years, because it would also be the day that she gave me one of her prized possessions: a gold ring shaped like a rose with a stone at the center of it that may or may not have been a diamond. When I was five, a guy she had dated had given her this ring. I knew from overhearing my mom’s conversations with friends that this guy was a thief. And yet, for eleven years my mother had worn this ring and gushed to me about how when I turned sixteen, this stolen property would be mine, and then one day, I would give it to my daughter (if I had one … you know, with my small hands and all), and my daughter would give it to her daughter…

This was my mother’s attempt to create a family heirloom. But the things that my mother gave me that I want to pass on to my daughters can’t be placed in a ring box, or any box. They are things of spirit and heart. But my mother didn’t treasure these gifts. When she was dying, I told her how much I treasured them, but that only added to her grief that she had, in her words, “wasted so much time on us, on things that didn’t really matter.”

But she didn’t have that insight in 1987. So, as ceremoniously as you can be in the page dorm, my mother presented me with the ring. I acted excited because I knew that that was what she wanted, but all I kept thinking was, “This ring was stolen.” And I wore the ring for exactly sixteen years and nine months.

The day I took the ring off and never wore it again, I was in Florida with my kids, visiting my mother. About four years earlier, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. When she had called to tell me, I’d been a few months into a self-imposed hiatus from her. I’d finally decided that I couldn’t take her guilt trips and criticisms of my life and choices anymore. I needed a break from her. I told her not to call or email me, and not to expect to hear from me. Indefinitely. I can’t remember what the straw was that broke the camel’s back, but I do remember that a year or so before the hiatus, she’d sent me a pair of burgundy jeans (she was always sending me clothes that I never wore) and got upset when I said that I hadn’t worn them and had no intention of wearing them because I’d asked her countless times to stop sending me clothes 1) because I was an adult, and 2) because the clothes she sent weren’t my style. “But your style is boring!” she’d said. And this was the argument in which she denied ever being critical of me.

So. Something else happened after that, and I decided to take a break from her. And then she got the cancer diagnosis, and fuck. So I ended the hiatus and learned everything I could about cancer and how we could save her life. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t save her life; I couldn’t even get her to change her eating habits. So I began to mourn her while she was still alive.

June 7, 2005, was a ridiculously hot day in Jacksonville, Florida, which is saying a lot. But my mom wanted to take my daughters to the zoo during our week-long visit, and I agreed, even though I wasn’t really up for it. My mother had told me that her doctors were going to try one more treatment, but they weren’t sure if they could do anything else for her after that. My beloved grandmother, who had helped my mom raise me, had died from ovarian and colon cancer that January. I was in the middle of a separation, heading to divorce. And the last thing I wanted to do was spend the day out in the heat. Needless to say, I was miserable, but of course my mother wanted to invite a drunken neighbor and her grandson to go with us to the zoo. In the monkey habitat, the neighbor kept screaming at the monkeys to shut up. I wanted to push her into the tiger pit.

On the ride home, my period started, just to cap off such a glorious day. I had to stop off at CVS. I left my mom and my kids in the air-conditioned rental SUV, so that I could at least be alone in the store. I picked up what I needed and stood in line. Someone behind me tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, but you just cut in front of me in the line.”

“Oh, my god! I’m so sorry!” I said to the woman behind me. And when I said this, I grabbed the edge of the counter because I thought I would faint. How had I missed this entire line of people?

The woman looked down at my hand and said, “What a beautiful ring!”

It was the stolen rose ring my mother had given me. “Oh. Thank you,” I said.

The woman continued. “You know, I had a ring just like that. Back in the ’70s. I bought it with my very first paycheck, but …”

No. No. Nononononono.

“…somebody broke into my apartment and stole it.”

“Oh. Well…My mother gave me this one…”

I wanted to go outside and drag my mother out of that SUV and… And what? She had cancer. How can you be mad with someone who has cancer?

I thought about giving the woman the ring. “Here’s your ring, ma’am. My mother suffers from some kind of condition that made her think that not only accepting a stolen ring as a gift was a good idea, but that she should also give it to me to pass down through the generations of our family. Please understand.”

But I couldn’t risk getting arrested.

I felt like shit. I felt like shit and I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Except accept stolen property.

From my mother.

But it was only because I didn’t want her to feel bad.

The woman kept chatting about how she’d lived in Jacksonville until the early ’80s but then moved to Dallas where she was a nurse (I think). She was home visiting her mother, who, as it turned out, had cancer. I told her that my mother also had cancer, and we gave each other that knowing “Fuck cancer” look. And then she let me go ahead of her anyway in the check-out line and wished my mother well. I wished her mother well too and then headed back to the SUV.

“There was a woman in there in the check-out line who saw the ring you gave me, and it turns out your boyfriend stole it from her all those years ago. It was her ring!”

“Hmmm,” my mother said. “Small world.”

A little over two weeks later, I was back home in Pittsburgh when I got the call that my mother had been hospitalized. She was in so much pain that the doctors didn’t expect her to survive the night. But she did, and when I arrived the next day, having caught the first flight I could after getting my kids situated with their dad, I went straight to the hospital. When I walked into her room, my mom’s best friend was there, and my mom beamed at her and said, “Oh, look! Deesha came!”

As if there had been a question of whether I would or not, continuing the pity narrative that my mother had kept up amongst her friends that I was just too busy with my own life to be concerned about her. I found out later, after she’d died, that she had known her cancer was at stage 4 for several months before telling me. She had told everyone but me. But she didn’t tell her friends that she hadn’t told me. So when they asked why I hadn’t come down to see her, she’d say, “Oh, you know … she’s just so busy with her own life.” So of course I looked like an asshole of a daughter, and everyone felt extra sorry for my mother because she had cancer and an asshole for a daughter.

In the two months I spent in Jacksonville when my mom was dying, I had to contend with people thinking I’d been a negligent daughter, while also tending to all of my mother’s complicated affairs and trying to see my kids whenever their dad was able to fly them down to me. My kids were six-and-a-half and one-and-a-half at the time.

My ex had known me, and by extension, my mother, since I was eighteen years old. He knew better than anyone how much grief my relationship with my mother had caused me over the years. When she had contacted him behind my back during the hiatus, hoping to make a surprise visit for my birthday … during the fucking hiatus … my then-husband had gently explained why that would be a terrible idea. “It’s like when you hold a bar of soap in the shower,” he’d told her. “If you hold on too tightly, the soap will slip away.”

And I had slipped away from my mother, long before she slipped away from me in death. But then I came back, in the ways that I could, in the time that she had left. On a yellow legal pad, I made long lists of things she wanted and things she wanted done after her death. How to distribute the vast contents of her costume jewelry collection, who to give the canned goods in her pantry. A big party at the hospice center for her and a hundred of her closest friends. Directions to pay her best friend’s utility bills for a year. Permission to give her brothers absolutely nothing since, in her estimation, she had given them enough money already over the years because she’d felt guilty telling them “no.”

“Don’t let them or anyone make you feel guilty for doing what you want to do,” my mother told me. “Live your life.”

I had waited my whole life to hear those words from my mother. I ached that they came too late for us to both fully enjoy the aftermath together, but I’m so very glad they came. Her words freed me.

My mother was lucid for most of her time in hospice. And not just lucid, but often hilarious. There was that a-hundred-person party at the hospital adjacent to the hospice center. My mother insisted on doing her own make-up and having a decorative cover for her colostomy bag. Someone alerted the local news, and they sent a camera crew and a reporter who asked my mother, “How does this celebration make you feel?”

And my mother, her voice heavy with Dilaudid, said, “Popular.”

And there was that day a childhood friend stopped by. He told my mother that he’d always had a crush on her, growing up. She’d been skinny and asthmatic as a kid, but he thought she was beautiful. “And you still are beautiful,” he told her.

After he left, my mom said to me, “Fine time for him to tell me alla that. But girl, look. I’m on my deathbed, and I still got it goin’ on.”

This is why I felt my mother would not mind how I dressed for her funeral. I had become obsessed with not sweating at the funeral, so I found this cocktail dress, above-the-knee, sleeveless, more “after 5” than “your mother’s funeral.” And I wore backless heels that were anything but conservative. And I think I strutted up to my mother’s casket because you can’t do anything but strut in heels like that.

And I’m pretty sure my critics among my mother’s friends did not approve of my attire, but I didn’t care. I didn’t sweat and I didn’t faint and I survived the day. And I’ve survived the many days since then, knowing that my mother died fully aware of how much I loved her, how much I had always loved her, despite all of the fights and frustration.

I wish that I hadn’t needed my mother’s permission to live my life. I wish that I had just been able to live it and ignore her criticisms, without having to hold her at arm’s length. I wish I had been strong and confident enough in myself to do that while she was alive, instead of having that strength and confidence ushered in by her death.

My mother’s death hasn’t changed what I remember about my relationship with her, but it has caused me to filter the memories through a lens of understanding, gratitude, and humility. I have to show my mother this grace if for no other reason than I hope my own daughters will do the same for me. My mother’s utter obliviousness to her parenting missteps forces me to recognize the likelihood of my own misinterpretation of my parenting actions and intentions. What I see as well-intentioned and helpful, my daughters could very well experience as overbearing and judgmental. What I offer as guidance might feel to them like pressure and shaming. I can’t dictate their experience, and I won’t tell them how to feel. I can only communicate my desire for them to be free to be who they are, even when I can’t relate. And I can keep the lines of communication open so that they can tell me what they need from me in order to thrive, even when it’s hard for me to hear. I can do the very best I can with what I know, which, I believe, is what my mother did.

•••

DEESHA PHILYAW is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. Along with her ex-husband,, she is the co-founder of co-parenting101.org and the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Essence and Bitch magazines. Deesha’s other work includes contributions to anthologies such as Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined; When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made; Motherhood Memoirs: Mothers Creating/Writing Lives; Just Like a Girl: A Manifesta; Women’s Work; and The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat.

End of the Road

wings tattoo

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Dina L. Relles

The beat-up Volvo station wagon hummed softly. It idled in the vacant parking lot of the sports stadium at the far corner of campus. My hands lay in my lap, my legs folded underneath me against the tan leather interior. We weren’t touching; I could feel his familiar look of desperation from across the console. Even in the half-light, I glimpsed that endearing gap between his two front teeth.

The clear New England night tapped at the windows, but the air that hung between us was stagnant. Heavy with the weight of our weekend away, it held the closeness of two people who’d traveled together. I fiddled with the fraying fringe at the bottom of my jeans as he spoke.

“Which is more likely?” His voice cracked. “That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”

There it was: our impasse. It was just like him to cut to the heart of the matter.

•••

There is a framed picture on my parents’ mantel of my father holding my face in his hands. We’re both crying, though he is not a man of tears. He was whispering the traditional blessing parents give to their children every Friday night—and there was something else too, words I can’t quite recall. But what remains in the sieve of memory is the sound of relief mixed with hope.

Moments later, I walked down the aisle to someone I’d long known but waited until adulthood to love. We shared a common past, a summer camp, and now a cup of wine under the huppah, the Jewish wedding canopy. The room rejoiced. It was just as I’d always pictured it.

•••

A phone rang in my freshman dorm room in early October. He’d sat three rows in front of me in the massive lecture hall with his perfectly tattered baseball cap and freshly pressed prep school charm. I’d noticed him instantly, and every day thereafter.

An innocent request to borrow a course packet was quickly followed by an invitation to meet for coffee one evening. Easy, endless conversation flowed over my grande house blend and his hot chocolate with whipped cream that stuck to his top lip. First kisses on a dimly lit dorm porch led to nighttime snowball fights in Roger Williams Park and private flights in the campus Cessna.

One February night, my right arm dangled off the edge of the top bunk in his dorm room. A thin white undershirt separated his skin from mine as we exchanged pre-dawn confidences. He told of the time he sang to a dying pigeon as a child. Then, propped up on one arm, he looked down with aching eyes that ripped right through me. “I hope this doesn’t scare you,” he said, “but I think I’m falling in love with you.”

He sailed in regattas, sang a cappella, piloted planes. He was the captain of the squash team and several numbers punctuated his last name. His parents were Republicans.

He was Episcopalian. I was the rabbi’s daughter.

We had nothing in common.

We fell in love.

I shouldn’t act so surprised. It was, in a way, inevitable.

•••

Something about winter stirs up memory. Tiny reminders drift down like snowflakes, settling just long enough to make me shift with unease.

It was winter when I first stepped foot in a church. On a family trip to London, I’d insisted we visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. Religion had become academic for me; I was endlessly curious, inevitably skeptical.

St. Paul’s was dark, quiet, ornate. Candles cut through the black and cast strange shadows on the coarse granite stones underfoot. It was silent, save for shuffling feet and serene hymnal music. It felt thrilling, almost scandalous somehow, to be there, and with my family. As we stood in its echoing, cavernous belly, I was struck, above all, by how familiar it felt.

•••

I’d long stayed the course—years at Jewish day schools bled into summers at Jewish camp. Synagogues were second homes where I’d spend Saturdays sneaking around back hallways and swelling with pride at my father perched on the pulpit, masterfully holding court.

But even the most charmed childhood is no match for coming of age. My small, unconventional high school encouraged critical thinking about religion in a way the Orthodox schools of my youth had not. Long after class let out, I spent late nights sprawled on my gray carpet, a telephone cord tangled in my fingers, debating and dissecting faith with provocative friends. Questions led to more questions with answers that all ultimately led to God. It felt cyclical and unsatisfying, and I hungered for proof that wouldn’t come.

The quest itself became a kind of creed, and if I believed anything at all, it was that we were all connected in our shared uncertainty. I felt suffocated by the singularity of perspective, the smallness of my world. I still followed, more out of familiarity than faith, but it grew harder for me to reconcile religious practice with my steady skepticism. Doubt became my dogma, and I set out for college drunk with desire for diversity and distance.

Even in the earliest weeks away, I’d stopped observing the Sabbath and avoided eager solicitations from the Jewish groups on campus. I drafted term papers disputing the divine and touting the relativity of morality and truth. I rolled the word agnostic around on my tongue.

Now my safe, inner explorations had propelled me into the arms of another. Now they lived outside of me—in pleading eyes that reflected back my deepest doubts.

•••

I hear a knock on the bedroom door and I throw on a damp towel, droplets from my hair tickling my arms. My middle son stands on the other side, gripping a glass perilously filled with electric green smoothie.

“Daddy made this for you.”

Ours is a different love, no doubt. No two people love the same. Not even the same two people over time.

Ours is no forbidden affair and our first kisses have long since faded. We share a mature love of burden and responsibility, of bearing other people who fill our hearts and hours.

Ours is a love not of questioning, but constancy and comfort, of leftovers and lights left on. It’s routine and real, not sexy, but sturdy and sure. It is as it should be.

•••

I was the one who subconsciously sabotaged our secrecy over winter break. He’d given me a single iris on the night before we left campus. I’d brought it home, openly clutching it so as not to crush it in my carry-all. Never one to lie outright, when my parents asked its origin, I uttered his Anglican name. On a sleepless night, through streaming tears that distorted the once familiar fixtures of my high school bedroom, I sat opposite my mother and father as they drew their line in the sand—and I was too close to home, in age and at heart, to cross it.

We returned to campus that winter with renewed resolve to plot our relationship’s untimely death. Our lips locked, but our hands were tied. Come summer, we vowed, we’d end it. In the meantime, we busied ourselves with letting our love linger longer than it should.

•••

One October afternoon, my high heels click-clack on the uneven Philadelphia pavement as they carry me home from work. I clutch my cell phone with my free hand, catching up with my mother en route.

Our conversation is casual as we chat about my husband’s sister and her strong interfaith family. But then, with a carelessness more misguided than malevolent, my mother flippantly remarks that perhaps she could have made peace with me ending up with a non-Jew.

My reaction is not my standard-issue irritability, but a searing blood boil that turns me inside out until words form at my lips.

“You’re not allowed to say that.” I choke out. “It will never be okay.” And it isn’t. I hang up and hurry home, holding back tears until I cross the threshold of that cozy first marital apartment on 24th Street.

•••

By late spring, under the pretense of a squash tournament in the neighboring state, we set out on a secret road trip to Concord, Massachusetts. I’d shifted uncomfortably on plastic bleachers as I watched his lithe, lean body flit back and forth across the court. I impatiently awaited our evening reunions, our no-frills dinner fare. We wandered Walden Pond in late afternoon light and spent nights on dorm room floors of dear friends. We’d driven ourselves deeper into the heart of the thing.

Upon return, unwilling and unready to reenter campus life, we hid out in his old station wagon at what felt like the edge of the world. In this makeshift refuge, we talked of our incompatible faith and future. We imagined a world where our love could live, where it could defeat difference.

“I believe in the god that brought us together,” he whispered into the darkness. As if that settled everything.

•••

It’s nearing bedtime on a visit to my parents’ home, and eight o’clock finds my mother and me jockeying for access to toothpaste, sink space, and my two older sons’ mouths. The boys are wound up, and I steel myself for the inevitable resistance to lights out.

My well-worn “time for bed” speech is met with their most fervent protests until the volume in the little bathroom reaches a fever pitch. My mother, a panacea always at the ready, offers up the Shema—the daily prayer—if the boys get in their beds. They dutifully file out of the bathroom and climb under covers, my mother trailing behind.

Instead of turning right, with them, I duck left into my old bedroom so they wouldn’t see the tears forming.

I could hear my mother’s soft voice sending the ancient words of the Shema into the night—Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.

An innocent profession of belief and devotion. But also, unavoidably, a pronouncement, a tribal rallying call, ushering my children off to sleep as it once did me.

•••

I leaned against the car seat, exhaling deeply. My mind wandered back to the open road, to that stretch of New England highway that rose and fell while Fields of Gold played in the background. Where we could quietly consider a different life.

Just the day before, we’d slipped into a diner on the side of the road, flushed with the promise of two more hours together. We sat across from each other, laughing and coloring on the backs of our menus with kid crayons. We were stealing time. Eventually, our casual conversation stuttered, giving way to the familiar desperation that followed us everywhere. To the outside, we must have looked so normal, I thought. Like a regular couple.

I stared straight ahead. There we sat. Steeped in the thick, black night. The station wagon. Our impossibly idealistic love.

“Which is more likely? That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”

His words hung there. I didn’t answer. I didn’t know.

•••

Winter again, and I’m sitting on the scratchy den carpeting surrounded by the smiling, soft-skinned loves of my life. They watch kid TV while I sip afternoon coffee. A silly bit flashes across the screen featuring cartoons introducing the Chanukah holiday to their wide-eyed audience. A character turns to the camera and simply says, “Chanukah celebrates the miracle of light.”

Yes. I look out the back deck door and up to the gray afternoon light of a quiet December day. For a moment, I let out the breath that it feels I’m perpetually holding and my shoulders slacken. Maybe I could do this, I think. Extract morsels of meaning and weave a tradition that could draw me back in, make me whole.

It’s true—it remains where I am most at home.

In the smell of freshly baked challot on Friday afternoon. At an evening prayer service overlooking the lake at my summer camp, where I now return to work. Familiar melodies float up in the open air; I mouth the words without intention but through force of habit.

And yet. If I let myself think, I no longer belong. Familiarity, even love, cannot foster faith.

I tiptoe through the hallways of my childhood home. I sit with secretive silence and summon a smile. I’m an outsider looking in, faithful to a faith in which I only have doubt, belonging to a life that accepts only almost all of me.

I will forever be stuck in the stagnant air of that station wagon, staring into the darkness, searching for answers.

•••

We stayed late on campus, a week past semester’s end—he to sing a cappella, me to be with him. Both of us to savor and suffer a relationship that felt far from over. Our months had become minutes, but we kept our vow. We left for summer separate and single, admitting—only to each other—that the love lingered on. Of course it did.

Still, we ended it. A choice made when there was none: a promise to a faith I no longer had and an inability to imagine traveling the unpaved road that lay ahead.

•••

I collapse on the bed one night after tucking in my boys. I can hear my husband clanking around in the kitchen below, fielding a few last phone calls as he readies his evening tea.

New impossible questions follow me: “Maybe God is like the wind?” asks my oldest after lights out. “Invisible and everywhere.” I hum a non-response, then softly step into the baby’s room to stare with longing at his simple sleep.

In this season of life, the day’s demands leave little room for worry or wonder. I welcome intrusions—endless child chatter, babies stirring in the night. I’m uncertain, yet content. Winter’s restless reminders, the grounding weight of home, the not knowing—it’s who I am now. It’s what’s left.

He finishes his work, climbs the stairs, and settles at the edge of the bed. I wedge my feet under his legs for warmth and finally drift off to sleep.

•••

DINA L. RELLES is a lawyer, writer, and mother of three young sons. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and writes regularly on her own site, Commonplace. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.

On My Watch

house in mist

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Joyce Tomlinson

My only job for the next few hours is to stay in this small home in the outskirts of Seattle with my ninety-one-year-old father and make sure he doesn’t start a fire in the kitchen or wander away from the house he built himself, but now doesn’t always recognize. Every other Thursday, I show up here to give my stepmother a break. Dad seems more confused every time, but his wife, Donna, says that he has good days and bad. I like to take him out to lunch or for a drive, but today Dad is tired and wants to stay home. He’s asleep now, his recliner tipped back and a quilt covers his long legs, even with the thermostat set at eighty-five degrees. A scrawny slippered foot dangles out from under the blanket; a gnarled hand grasps the quilt’s edge. From the sofa across the living room, I look up from my book every few minutes to watch his chest to make sure there is still movement. I’m petrified that he’ll die on my watch.

Behind Dad’s chair is a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking North Seattle’s Thornton Creek, and a forest of alder trees. My father designed this A-frame house for Donna soon after they were married in 1965. The small rooms are uncluttered: my stepmother’s piano against one wall, a few stacks of books. A seashell collection is arranged next to pictures of their thirty-eight-foot sailboat on the coffee table. Although for years a visitor would find no evidence of my father’s children here, these days, there are also photographs of my sister Linda and me on the kitchen counter labeled with our names, so that Dad will be able to place us in case we stop by.

Dad’s normally thin frame has become skin and bones, his slacks cinched in at the top with a belt on the last hole. When he goes outside, he uses a cane, or sometimes a walker, but in the house he hangs on to the wall or the back of the couch, lurching from one stationary object to the next across the room. Around noon, when he rouses for lunch, I’ll watch each precarious, rickety step he takes from his chair to the kitchen table, and whisper under my breath, don’t fall, don’t fall.

Dad can still recite stories from his distant past; snatches of childhood are sometimes clear in his mind. More recent information becomes confused, bits of one event merging with another. Faces become indistinguishable. One day he might see his deceased brother in the room, or I might register in his brain as his mother or his wife.

I wait for the moments when I’m me. Over the years, I’ve longed for time alone with my father. I’ve called him on the phone once or twice a month for decades, but Donna invariably picks up the extension to join the conversation. Back before his mind went, he and I occasionally arranged to meet for lunch at a coffee shop. She came along. Now, when I finally have my father to myself for a few hours, he will no doubt wake up from this nap today, look at me quizzically and ask, “Who are you?”

•••

Before my parents divorced in 1961, my family lived in this same neighborhood, the one where my dad and Donna live. On the way here this morning, I took a detour and stopped in front of my childhood home. Dad built that house, too, overlooking the same creek and woods. For years I’ve avoided driving by the old place; too many memories. But on this day I felt compelled to see the home where our family started out.

Back in the 1950s when we moved into our house in the suburbs, this was a new development teeming with young families. I ran with a pack of kids around my age, splashing in the creek and racing on our bikes. Our dads, mostly salesmen and small business owners, barbecued out on the carport, while our housewife moms sipped cocktails on the patio.

I remember my mother in an apron, singing as she cleaned the house. Showing me how she walked the runway as a part-time model for the Ship ‘N’ Shore Blouse Company. My dad, the jokester, hung our clothes in the branches of a tree outside our house if my sister and I left them on the floor. He owned a construction company, and between jobs he took on the task of packing our sack lunches and getting us to school. On those days I peered into my brown bag with apprehension, expecting to find a raw potato or a lemon, waxed paper between the bread of my sandwich. He didn’t like to discipline; instead, he commiserated with us behind our mother’s back after we’d been scolded. He was stingy with that part of himself, and with his time, away for long stretches working in other cities or out on his boat alone.

If I turned left and headed west down a short hill, I’d end up where my mother’s lover Bruce once lived with his wife and their three children. Back when I was seven, when I was eight and nine, I was oblivious to any friction between my parents, though plenty existed. My mother’s infidelity might have triggered their split, but based on the rigor with which she clung to her bitterness toward my dad, I believe she had her reasons for being unfaithful. All her days, she held fast to anger, the only emotion between my parents for a good forty years.

My sister Linda severed her relationship with our mother ten years before Mom died in 2001, and, in the last few years, has done the same with our dad. Maybe Linda can’t face our parents’ aging. Or she may have decided peace of mind is possible for her only if she’s shed of her family. She’s lumped me in with our parents and refuses to speak to me about it, so I have lost my sister, too, at least for now.

On this day, as I drove to my father’s house to face the deterioration of his brain, his slow fade from life, I asked myself why I still try to connect with him. Do I think caring for him will fill a hole in me, created when I was ten, twelve, fifteen, and he repeatedly left me behind? Am I bound to him by blood, no matter what has happened in the past? Why can’t I turn away like my sister has and wash my hands of the whole sad and messy process of death? Am I still the child who wants the thing she can never have, or is what I feel simply a daughter’s love? The only way I know to find the answers is to look hard at my memories of the fifty years since my parents’ bitter divorce.

I drove on then, east toward my father’s place, past houses where my playmates once lived. There are no signs of children in the old neighborhood now, no bikes in the yards, or basketball hoops mounted above garage doors. I should have expected these changes, after so many years. But I was surprised to see those barren streets, the graveyard of my childhood. I stepped on the gas, and looked at the road ahead.

•••

When my father wakes, I watch him try to figure out where he is. His eyes scan the room, and he blinks and shakes his head slightly before he asks the inevitable question, “Who are you?” Once I say my name, he smiles at me, relieved. In ten minutes he might decide that I’m Donna or his mother. He’ll need to be told many times why I’m here, that his wife is out shopping.

I take the sandwich out of the refrigerator that Donna prepared for him before she left—she knows better how to make it the way he likes—and warm up some canned soup. He ambles over to the kitchen table and lowers himself into his chair. I put his lunch in front of him and kiss the freckled top of his bald head. He smells of Old Spice, same as always. He thanks me, calls me “honey” so he won’t have to conjure my name.

While he eats his lunch, I show him pictures of my children’s families—his great-grandchildren—and try not to be hurt when he recognizes no one. He points a crooked finger toward a hummingbird hovering at the feeder outside the kitchen window. Along the windowsill are cards that he and Donna have saved, with pictures of boats on the fronts, or special notes inside, mostly from relatives. All but one or two of his friends have passed on.

I ask him about building this house all those years ago on what the city considered an impossible lot; the place sits on a steep hillside and is supported by wooden braces. He’s pricked by memory and recalls details that surprise me. He tells me that he built two houses in this neighborhood but lost the other one in his divorce. “I guess she sold it,” he says, forgetting that “she” was my mother, that our family lived in that house together.

I mention nothing about the past; instead, I pull my chair around to sit next to him. I lay my head on his shoulder and take his hand. We sit for a time. The only sound is the creek rushing past, the occasional birdsong from the woods. I point in silence to a fat squirrel, and we watch him scramble up the side of an alder and fling himself like an acrobat at a neighboring tree.

Then Dad clears his throat and says, “You know, honey, your ma and I didn’t plan for things to turn out the way they did.”

Startled, I lift my head and look into his momentarily lucid eyes. I find myself willing him back into his fog; the memories he might dig up are painful, and in that moment I want him spared. Or is it me I want to shield?

“I know, Dad,” I tell him before he forgets again. “I know.”

•••

JOYCE TOMLINSON is the mother of four and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband of forty-three years. She received her MFA in Creative Writing for Pacific University, and her work has appeared in The Gold Man Review and in We Came to Say, a collection of essays. She is working on a full-length memoir about learning to accept human flaws and frailties, including her own.

Sips of Air

walk

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Antonia Malchik

Some premature babies, the Neonatal Intensive Care nurses tell me, can’t afford the calories it takes to swallow. The first time they take my skinny, three-point-three-pound son off his IV drip to give him real food, they ask me not to watch. They have to run a tube through his mouth down to his stomach—babies this young also have no gag reflex—so that the calories go directly where they are needed, rather than being wasted in tongue and throat action, a method called gavage feeding, the same way foie gras geese are fattened. The instinct to rescue him from this specific invasion comes as a relief: my days are otherwise filled with fear, helpless and enormous and without direction.

•••

The entrance to our nearest hospital butts against a curved driveway where people pick up and drop off patients or take advantage of the free valet parking. Behind it, before shifting into pure concrete and asphalt, is a landscaped grassy area with benches clustered around a fountain and picnic tables set at angles near the walkway to the parking lot.

It looks innocent enough, inviting, but it’s not. The first time I stepped on that walkway, I was looking down and jumped to the side as if it burned through the soles of my shoes. It was paved with bricks, most of them carved with the dedications of donors, bricks given in honor of someone whose name was usually followed by a date of birth and a date of death. What made them unusual was how close the two dates were—sometimes days or weeks, sometimes the same day. I wondered how long those babies had lived. Hours? A whole day? Minutes? Where were their parents now? Did they wake up on that date every year to face the grayness of loss?

My husband Ian and I called it the Dead Baby Walk and kept to the grass after that. We spent a lot of time at the hospital, sitting in Neonatal Intensive Care next to an incubator holding our premature son. He was so scrawny that he weighed less than our smallest cat; he’d been born seven weeks too early, and his lungs weren’t functioning properly. There was no way that I was going to start the day’s visit to him by being reminded of the fragility captured at the beginning of life and how frequently it can end in the opposite of hope.

•••

“I don’t think I can go in,” I told Ian. We could see the birthing center, on the fifth floor of the hospital, from the parking lot. It was seven days after John’s unexpected, extremely early arrival, and I was leaving emotional shreds of myself all over the county as we made our daily drive up and down the New York State Thruway from our home to the NICU. There, locked away from rooms where real people, with normal babies, bore and laughed and kissed and nursed, my son took sips of air from oxygen tubes while another tube tried to clear an air pocket from around his lungs. He had air in all the wrong places and a hole in his heart and had never yet eaten anything not given by IV. The NICU—short for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the place for undercooked or sick babies (ours was both)—dragged on me like a small planet with its own gravitational pull, a force nonexistent for people whose babies had been born full-term and healthy.

Every day after being buzzed in the locked door and scrubbing my arms and forearms at the NICU sink (premature babies are also extremely susceptible to infection), I paused just outside the bright room, trying to arm myself against tears that were of no use to anyone. The incubators were shrouded with small homemade quilts made by a charity organization. John slept and blinked and cried under a pattern of cats sitting against a green background while Ian and I read to him from a book of traditional English fairy tales that I’d picked up in London. We sang the “Mockingbird” song over and over, and described the room that was waiting for him: the special mobile his grandparents had sent from England, the fairy tale–themed mural a friend had painted on his wall. I choked when telling him about the blue rug and striped curtains we’d bought. The care that we had put into those everyday details sometimes overwhelmed me.

Today I couldn’t get to the blue rug and striped curtains. Today I couldn’t even get as far as the NICU door. I couldn’t even get out of the car. Today the neonatologist had called early in the morning to warn us that John needed another chest tube to clear a second pneumothorax—an air bubble that prevented his lungs from expanding—and I’d curled up between my bed and the loathsome breast pump and sobbed as if tears could dissolve the pain and me at the same time.

In the parking lot, Ian brushed tears back into my hair. Neither of us had any platitudes. “Can you?” Another nod. A deep breath. A final wiping of nose and face. I swung my legs carefully out of the car and hauled myself up using the handle above the door, heading for the longer path around the curved driveway that avoided the Dead Baby Walk. My skirt brushed over the massive numbness in my abdomen, hiding a healing scar I’d never intended to have.

Two weeks before, I’d been grimacing every time I folded myself into a car and thinking that I couldn’t possibly stand the discomfort of pregnancy for the two months I had left. Three weeks before, we’d been hiking on a remote Scottish island, where the hospital was over an hour’s flight away from the island’s cockleshell beach—an hour if the weather was clear, a day’s wait or more when it was overcast. If my body had turned against me earlier, neither John nor I would have made it. The nearness of the timing still makes my breath short and my hands cold.

•••

I had HELLP Syndrome. A vicious, rare illness that’s caused by pregnancy, with no cure except delivery. It hit me fast, progressing from slightly elevated blood pressure to nearly unbearable abdominal pain within twenty-four hours. By the time my obstetrician performed an emergency C-section, my liver was failing. When my son and I came out of the operating room, Ian was on the phone with my older sister. He froze, not knowing whom to follow as they whisked us each into our own intensive care units.

That first day, I sat in shock in the ICU, smiling automatically at the nurses because being nice is such a deeply ingrained habit that it’s almost pathological. I’d jerk awake when the oxygen monitor screamed to tell me I’d stopped breathing again. My fingers shook as they stroked the streaky Polaroid photo taped to the bed rail. John Henry, a thoughtful nurse in the NICU had written, 4 lb 3 oz, 17 in. I didn’t see my son until thirty hours later, when I was transferred from the ICU to the birthing center’s Mother & Baby section, surrounded by women with full-term newborns and visitors armed with balloons and flowers. Ian and I, three thousand miles from our families, navigated phone calls and inedible hospital food alone, no baby by the bedside.

That first time I met John, at some dark hour of the night, a NICU nurse lifted him, tubes and all, out of his incubator and into my arms. Our IVs tangled; Ian held an oxygen sniffer to John’s nose; I murmured happy nonsense, a normal new mother for a few minutes, ignorant of the month to come.

•••

A week later I sat once again on the high stool next to John’s incubator. I hadn’t been allowed to hold him since that first day, due to the chest tubes, oxygen sniffer, and IV lines, so Ian and I took turns resting our index fingers in his little hand, living for the moments when he squeezed. We couldn’t do more than that. Premature babies are also extremely sensitive to touch. Stroking a preemie’s head or skin can drive him crazy.

The nurses—our friends by now—looked at us anxiously when we walked in that day, the day I gave up on hope and struggled to come in the door. They’d seen parents go through this before, and worse. The neonatologist wrapped us in her professional sympathy as she showed us the second pneumothorax on an X-ray and said John might have to be transferred to a tertiary care unit closer to New York City. I envisioned weeks of three-hour commutes to spend scarce minutes with him, and it seemed unbearable.

After seven days, two pneumothorax, a hole in the heart, and an extra bit of heart valve where it wasn’t needed, there was only one thing that hadn’t been tried: John had not yet had food. He’d lost slightly under a pound—a quarter of his body weight—while my pumped milk had been piling up in the freezer, the only offerings I had to give the gods.

The next day they decided to start feeding him. One milliliter of milk went down the tube to his stomach. The next time it was three, no calories lost to pesky swallowing. His breathing became less erratic, and they turned down the whispering oxygen. Within three days, John had recovered so well that it startled even the neonatologist. He was a full month old before his lungs were strong enough and his heart repaired enough for him to be discharged, but two weeks into his life he was tube- and IV-free for the first time and learning to eat on his own.

•••

Those of us who have faced the potential loss of a child will never bear the pain of those for whom the potential became a fact. We may have stepped on the Dead Baby Walk, but we haven’t bought a commemorative brick. All I can say is that the fear has come close enough to unshroud itself, to touch the heart. Every parent fears losing his or her children. The physical hazards and accidents—cars, drug addiction, sudden peanut allergies, a million unthinkable possibilities—haunt us. It is something else, though, to have that fear cupped in your hand, to acknowledge it by name. To be warned: “Prepare yourself.” Because once prepared, once you know, the Dead Baby Walk’s existence stalks your footsteps. Like all traumas, it becomes embedded in our physical bodies as well as our psyches.

Before his third birthday, John was hospitalized twice for asthma. The second time was the same day we brought home his new baby sister. I held her while Ian drove away with John strapped in the back, his chest caving to expose ribs and diaphragm while he fought to inhale oxygen. His lungs had been too weakened by their early struggles; a simple summer cold caught his alveoli in a tight grip and laid him flat.

He’s seven years old now, and, if all goes well, on his way to being diagnosed asthma-free, despite the incessant coughing that exhausts him every time he catches a cold. I yell at him on a regular basis—brush your teeth! turn off the TV! please stop whining!—something I couldn’t have envisioned doing either during the NICU-month-of-hell or his later asthmatic episodes. He plays Minecraft, rides his bike, does his math lessons, throws a fit when I ask him to pick up his Legos. He’s a normal kid.

But I don’t feel normal anymore. Or maybe it’s that I have been normalized. Maybe avoiding loss, pretending death doesn’t exist, is the abnormal state. I’d hate to believe humanity’s fate is to walk shadowed with grief, sorrow slipping into us painlessly like milk down a gavage tube to a premature baby’s stomach. But on our hospital visits for John’s chest X-rays and to his pulmonologist, and when I returned there for monthly visits to the high-risk perinatologist during my second pregnancy (being at a 25% risk of developing HELLP or various other complications again), the Dead Baby Walk still made me jump like an animal that’s seen violence. Its existence reeks of trauma and fear. It’s a reminder of how linked we are: We clutch at the good moments, the small joys, while the greater sorrows, the losses that eat us alive, lie waiting beneath our feet.

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK’s essays have appeared in a variety of publications, and are forthcoming from The Washington Post, Orion, STIR Journal, and The Atlantic. You can read more of her work at antoniamalchik.com, and about her experience with HELLP Syndrome on BuzzFeed Ideas. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Counseling

yarn

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Seema Reza

We go to see a counselor. Karim will not accept that he should see someone for his anger, but he agrees to couple’s therapy. I’ll take what I can get. Based on the bio on the office’s website, it appears that the primary focus of this therapist’s career has been on issues of gender identity and homosexuality. But she is available on the day we need, and I don’t want Karim’s compliance to dissipate. Lainey has short hair, thick wire-rimmed glasses, black socks, and orthopedic shoes.

Karim tells the story of spanking Sam with a shoe in our hotel room on our vacation. Of telling me, when I stood between them, I have another shoe for you. In his retelling, Sam pushed his brother and sent him flying headfirst into the wall. He could have seriously hurt him. It was unacceptable.

I see, Lainey says. So you wanted to make a strong statement.

Yes. And then Seema challenged my authority in front of the kids. I got mad. I shouldn’t have said that to her.

It seems so simple, so reasonable explained this way. I wonder if I’ve been overreacting all along. Maybe we’re not so badly off. Maybe we just have a few little issues.

She asks Karim, Why do you want to stay married?

Because of the kids. And she can’t afford to be on her own.

She turns to me. Seema, what do you think about that?

My teeth are white, my hair is thick. I know this man, know that he loves me. I laugh. That’s bullshit. I’m an excellent cook and the sex is fantastic.

•••

For the rest of the summer and into the fall, we see Lainey nearly every Monday evening. Lainey prods us to say kind things about one another and encourages us to implement date nights.

In October, after the push that changed my perspective, that shook me from my slumbering pretense, we go back to see Lainey. I’ve decided that I’ve outgrown the fight. Now, he begs me to visit the therapist one last time. I agree, taking along a ball of wool and knitting needles. We sit in the now familiar office, meeting at our regular time, but days are shorter and the room is darker than usual. He begins to talk, and I begin to knit. He catalogues my crimes: making him jealous at seventeen, rekindling a friendship with an old boyfriend at twenty, disliking his mother from the start, dancing with another man at a nightclub one night. He tells it chronologically, has clearly been rehearsing this narrative—collecting the evidence.

Several times anger rises up from my core, forces my mouth to fall open, but I knit more furiously, shut my mouth. I am determined to give him this opportunity. After thirty minutes, Lainey interrupts him. The clock is ticking; he needs to wrap up. He moves to my most recent crimes: not believing him when he said he didn’t make romantic advances toward my friend, forcing him to have to push her because he felt backed into a corner, because he thought we were ganging up against him. Forty of our fifty minutes are up.

Lainey looks at me. Seema?

I look up from my knitting. I let it fall to my lap, push my glasses up. I take a deep breath. I’m done. For a moment, I consider responding to the accusations he has made, defending myself, reminding him that he has left out his responsibility in all of it. But the feeling evaporates with my exhale. I don’t want to do this anymore.

Okay, she says. Let’s talk about divorce counseling.

•••

Afterward, Karim is livid. How could she have given up on us like that? What kind of counselor is she? It’s your fault. Why were we seeing a social worker anyway? He goes to see a therapist on his own, and he tells me that therapist said we shouldn’t get divorced. That therapist thinks that Lainey was wrong to have told us what to do.

She didn’t tell us what to do. I told her I was done.

You told her you were done after she told us to get divorce counseling.

The order of things is always uncertain with us. He remembers it one way; I remember it another.

•••

SEEMA REZA is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, D.C., where she coordinates and facilitates a unique hospital arts program that encourages the use of the  arts as a tool for narration, self-care, and socialization among a military population  struggling with emotional and physical injuries. Her work has appeared The Beltway Quarterly, HerKind, Duende, Pithead Chapel, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. When the World Breaks Open, her first collection of essays, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.