Hush, My Darling

petals
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Melissa Bauer

I.

“I think it’s bad,” my mother tells me, as she lies flat on her back. Her large abdomen hugs the crisp white sheet draping over her. She’s recovering from a cardiac catheterization, a procedure to assess if there are any blockages in her heart.

I put down my book. “Why do you say that?” Even though I know she is probably right. With severely high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and morbid obesity, my mother is living on borrowed time.

“I could just tell by the look in the doctor’s eye,” she says, and then adds, “plus he used a lot of dye.”

“Hmmm,” I muse, “well, hopefully not.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” my mother offers.

D for denial should be our family crest.

•••

But my mother’s fears are confirmed; three out of four of her cardiac arteries are between 85% and 99% blocked. They need to transfer her to a larger hospital to perform a procedure where they insert tiny tubes to keep her arteries open.

They need to transfer her now.

An ambulance is called.

The doctor warns us that the procedure can be harmful to the kidneys because of the dye, but she is not a candidate for bypass surgery because of her weight.

The doctor tells us she needs this procedure to save her life.

We don’t ask any questions.

We don’t seek a second opinion.

We just do as we are told.

•••

I ride in the front seat of the ambulance with the EMT driver. The siren sounds and we speed down the interstate, passing curious onlookers who appear safe and secure in their compact cars. The driver and I share the same birthday. She tells me she plans to go to nursing school, too. I nod in agreement and recall my first year in nursing school, when my parents were hospitalized at the same time, my father for emphysema and my mother for a stroke in her right brain stem. I cared for them both single-handedly; my brother lived in New York City. I cooked their meals, arranged physical therapy, organized their medications, and took a leave of absence from work. I was twenty-one-years old.

•••

Now, seven years later, my father has been dead for eight months and my mother’s life hangs in peril. I will myself not to cry, to be strong, to be a nurse, but hot tears trickle down my cheeks instead. A whir of beeps ring from the back of the ambulance breaking my thoughts and terrified, I turn my head, bracing for the worst.

“Is she okay?” My voice is shaky as I yell to the EMT that is sitting in the back with her. “What’s all that noise?”

My mother yells back through the glass, “I’m fine, Melissa!” And the EMT confirms that the beeping is normal.

I exhale.

I listen to my mother tell the EMT about how much I worry and about my father’s recent death. My mother has never met a stranger, and yet I have felt like a stranger to her most of my life.

•••

We arrive at the hospital and I’m standing by the rear of the ambulance, watching as they unload her stretcher. The two EMT workers leave us momentarily to give their report to the receiving nurse.

We are alone.

My mother has to lie perfectly still because of the catheter in her groin, so she motions for me to come closer; she wants to tell me something.

I walk over and hold her hand.

“Did I really need an ambulance?” she asks me fearfully.

“I don’t think so,” I lie. “It’s probably just routine.”

A few minutes later my husband arrives and my mother’s emerald eyes light up.

 

II.

For as long as I can remember, there was a war raging inside our home, the three of us against my mother. My father, brother, and I formed a united front; we shared a sensitivity that was lost upon her. Every day, during my childhood, we carried out a similar routine seeking refuge from the onslaught of her abuse.

On most mornings, my father would gently wake me up for school, rubbing my back and whispering in my ear, “It’s time to wake up, honey,” and then he would walk into the kitchen to make our breakfast. I would sit sleepy-eyed at the dining room table, eating my cereal as my father smoked his cigarette and wrote in his journal, the news humming softly from our TV in the background.

Then it would be time to get in the car with my mother, who would drive my brother and me to school. “Melissa, get back in the god damn car right now!” she would yell as I sat outside to wait. I hated being alone with her while she smoked one cigarette after another in haste. The smoke was suffocating. Instead, I would move to the rear of the van and inhale the exhaust. I liked the way it smelled and I’d let the toxic fumes fill my lungs breath by breath.

My mother typically drove us half way to school. We would walk the remainder of the way. I would sit in the very back and stare out the window, counting the minutes until we were free. She would drone on about how we always made her late for work in between puffs from her cigarette. One day I finally had enough. I pleaded for her to crack the window open, and I lectured her on the dangers of smoking. “Mom, Miss Smith said that second hand smoke is worse than first hand!”

But she didn’t. “You snotty, little bitch,” she said as she blew a big billow of smoke into the air. She abruptly stopped the car and forced us out, making us walk farther than usual.

“You fucking bitch!” my brother yelled at her as he slammed the door. I ran after him, dodging traffic, fearful to be left behind.

•••

My mother is in the hospital again. My father has been dead for twelve months now; this is her sixth hospitalization since then. I’m sitting in a stiff vinyl chair next to her, watching her chest rise and fall, in a deep sleep. An IV pole stands between us; the clear tubing wraps around her arm and into her hand, delivering medicine through her body in a rhythmic drip.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

My trance is interrupted by the sound of the blood pressure cuff deflating. My eyes drift up toward the monitor; 220/110 flashes across the screen in red, and an alarm sounds waking my mother. Startled, she looks over at the monitor, then at me. She smiles. Her plump lips flatten, emphasizing the gap between her two front teeth.

“This friggin’ thing!” She yanks on the cuff, which is tangled in with her gown.

“No wonder my blood pressure is so high!” She scowls as she tries to untangle it, but then stops herself and looks over at me, the elephant in the room. Having watched her abuse and neglect her body for years, we both know a tangled blood pressure cuff is not to blame for her failing heart, but I don’t say anything. I’ve grown tired of challenging my mother, of arguing with her, not out of obligation or out of spite, but out of love. Because deep down, buried beneath messy piles of fear and anger, I want to believe my mother loves me. That she won’t abandon me. That she will guide me when I can’t find my way. Because right now, I am needy and frail, and I feel small and helpless. I am lost. I part my lips to tell her this but then close them. Scared to reveal to her how vulnerable I feel, how raw she makes me, I swallow hard instead, clench my teeth and gaze out the window as the nurse enters the room.

“You look familiar,” the nurse says to me, redirecting my attention as she administers more blood pressure medication through my mother’s IV.

“I’ve been here a few times,” I say, my words sounding colder than I intended.

“Honey, can you get my red lipstick?” My mother changes the subject, and she smiles sheepishly at me as if to say sorry we’re here again, but I know that she is really only sorry that she was caught. Caught in denial and her time is nearly up.

Alarms ring in my heart as loudly as the blood pressure monitor.

I walk over to the closet and fish out the lipstick, hand it to her, and tersely smile back.

This isn’t my first rodeo.

•••

I am ten years old and staring at my mother’s fingers. Her long nail beds, yellowed from years of smoking, are shifting from yellow to white as she grips the steering wheel of our brown, late 1980s model Chevrolet station wagon, as she fights her way through Los Angeles traffic. George, as she named the car, is safely carrying us on this mother-daughter date to our favorite store, Pic ‘N’ Save, so that we can buy my first bikini.

She swings the car into park after cursing, in sign language, the other driver who narrowly stole our space.

“We’re here!” She gives me her sideways grin. Her lips are painted Cover Girl red, her staple.

I am so excited.

Just as we are about to get out of the car, our favorite song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” plays on the radio and we linger in our seats for a moment longer, bobbing our heads to the beat and singing:

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.

We croon in unison, building up to the chorus, and our favorite part of the song:

Wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh

We are shouting it now, singing with each other in sync, our bodies moving passionately to the music:

Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling, the lion sleeps tonight.

I look over at my mother, my lion, and her eyes are closed. Her eyelids are rapidly fluttering; she is fully present. Her hand is resting on my knee; her yellow fingernails are tapping against my skin with the rhythm of the music. I can feel her love; it burns as hot and passionately as her rage.

•••

I am sitting in the airport and, out of the corner of my eye, I notice her. A heavyset woman wearing a white t-shirt and purple slacks walking down the airport terminal with a younger woman, presumably her daughter. The backs of her heavy arms resemble the same shape as my mother’s were. Same shade of alabaster, too. Her gait is also similar, a sort of waddle and shuffle, as if her legs are going to give way any minute from the weight of her giant belly. I watch this stranger for longer than is polite, swallow hard, willing myself to look away.

She does not notice me.

Still I am nearly a puddle of tears, breathless from this small glimpse, this little reminder, of my mother.

And I know.

Regardless of how many books I read, of how many stories I share, of how many years pass; I will always be a motherless daughter.

I will always yearn for what I can never have back. And perhaps for what I never had to begin with: a mother’s unconditional love.

•••

Growing up, I always knew I was adopted. The picture of my birth father was missing, lost in the shuffle between foster homes. But I had pictures of my birth mother: three, to be exact. They were kept in an album labeled, “birth mother and foster home,” tucked away in my nightstand with my journal. I stare at these pictures now trying to remember her, but I don’t. I’ve studied her face, memorizing the gap between her two front teeth and the way her nose has a slight bump at the bridge, but I’m empty. Not a single memory of this woman, whose life is woven and welded into mine through our shared DNA, dwells within my heart.

Her brown, curly hair echoes my own. Our eyes are the same shade of gray blue. She was twenty-one years old when these photos were taken and, in these pictures, she’s sitting behind me, smiling brightly, while I pose for the camera in delight on my second birthday. But if you look closely you can see the clutter hiding behind her. You can see the tension in her smile. And you’ll notice her awkward grip on my waist; a mother who does not know her daughter, strangers to one another, posing for the camera in mockery at the nonexistent relationship between them. At the time of my adoption, two years after this photo was taken, my foster mother made this album for me, and included captions beneath every picture, “Anne and Melissa, second birthday, 1984.” It’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a baby book.

 

III.

My mother is recovering from her cardiac stents. She is just getting settled into her room, when suddenly she starts to vomit profusely. The nurse, wide-eyed and frantic, immediately turns to my husband and me and orders us to leave the room. But before we can exit, a swarm of doctors and nurses enter, pushing us out of the way. I’m watching from the corner of the room as the doctor assesses my mother’s groin, the site where her catheter was placed, and yells for the nurse to call the vascular surgeon. I hear the words pseudo aneurysm. My heart races as I steal one quick glance at my mother before we are ushered out of the room. Her green eyes are wide with terror.

My husband and I sit in the waiting room at the end of the hall. Suspended in time, we wait. I get up to use the bathroom then return to our post. Waiting. We are silent as we wait. Minutes stretch into hours until finally the nurse comes out and gives us the okay to go back into my mother’s room. The vomiting caused her to strain, pulling her lower abdomen, tearing the delicate surgery site, which led to internal bleeding. As we enter her room, I notice there are needle caps on the floor, empty vials of medication used to stop the bleeding, bloody gauze, and bandage wrappers littered throughout her bed. It looks like we are at the scene of a crime. My mother jokes about her luck. “If something is going to happen, it will happen to me!” I don’t tell her that the doctor said that it was the weight of her giant belly that caused the tear. I want to protect her. I am also afraid of her reaction. I realize I love and fear my mother in equal measure.

I watch as my husband spoon-feeds my mother her dinner. She was instructed not to move for several more hours, but she has not eaten since dinner the night before. They both laugh and my mother puckers her lips like a baby, yelling, “More, more, more!

My husband taunts her with the spoon. “Here comes the airplane,” he jokes, and my mother opens her mouth wide. I glower at their lighthearted interaction with each other, my heart heavy with the pain of responsibility.

The next morning my husband returns to work and my mother and I are alone. A hospital volunteer stops by her room, an elderly woman selling magazines and candy.

“Would you like anything, Mrs. Devlin?” the kind old lady asks my mother.

“Sure, I’ll take the Snicker’s bar!” my mother excitedly says. “How much?” She digs through her wallet.

“No, Mom, you will not get a Snicker’s bar!” I scold and then inform the old woman she just had a procedure to clear the blockages in her heart.

“Well, you better listen to your daughter,” the woman offers as she leaves the room.

My mother pouts.

The nurse then enters the room to check her vital signs and my mother retells the story.

“Aww, you wouldn’t let your mom get a candy bar?” she chimes in, taking her side.

I stare at them both, but say nothing, befuddled and incensed by my alienation.

 

IV.

My mother died alone nine months after her cardiac catheterization. I received the phone call while I was at work. Her heart stopped beating. She was in her living room, sitting in her lazy-boy recliner, the TV blaring, when she took her last breath. I’ll never know her last thoughts, whether or not she gasped for air, or if she felt alone.

Hours after her death, my husband and I arrived at her house. We were greeted by a swarm of people, her friends from church, nosy neighbors, the coroner, the police, and animal control. Children played in the distance; their faraway joy broke my heart. I could see the very top of my mother’s head, her white downy hair peeking over the recliner from her living room window. I stood outside, afraid to go in, as I called my brother. I stared at the ground as we sobbed in unison thousands of miles away from each other, orphaned for the second time in our lives. Having buried my father seventeen months earlier, the formalities of her death felt familiar and foreign all the same.

“Mom, I’m scared,” I cried into the phone, raw and viscous with grief two weeks before she died.

“What are you afraid of?” Her voice sounded tiny and far away.

“Of losing you,” I choked out between breaths.

“Don’t worry, baby,” she tried to reassure me, but I knew the end was near. It was never far behind us.

Hush, my darling,

Don’t fear, my darling,

The lion sleeps tonight.

•••

MELISSA BAUER lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband. They are pregnant with their first child and due in November 2014. She works as a registered nurse and has been writing about her journey through grief, loss, and healing since the death of her parents in 2011.

Pin It

Rockweed

rockweed
By takomabibelot/ Flickr

By Jim Krosschell

The rocks we perched on still show at high tide. The rising sea has not yet taken them—as a refuge, or a memory, they may last our lifetimes. They peek out above the waves like a little archipelago, dry and safe.

When my daughters, Kate and Emma, were young, we ventured out almost daily, especially in the first blush of vacation. It was an exercise in re-bonding suburban lives fractured by schedules and performances. We could get to the rocks only at low tide, and we would not stay long, for the tide rises quickly on these shores, and the surf is unpredictable, and it would have been a little too adventurous, having to disembark—or embark for that matter—in the wet. No, we climbed up our battlements when the only barrier to access was the slippery rockweed littering our path. The tops of the rocks themselves were weed-free, un-colonized, suitable for timid people from cities south, exciting for two young girls, nine and seven, who liked to pretend they perched on unassailable islands, perfect for their father who knew better but hoped for a different future anyway.

The rockweed presented a problem, though. It looked irredeemably slimy. We stepped around it, in a crooked, almost drunken way, not brave enough to touch by foot and certainly never by hand. “Ewww!”, that totem word of childhood, afflicted my family too. I even warned my girls when we set off down the shore about less obvious dangers: the barnacles that would scrape your skin raw and those black or green mold-like patches on the boulders we negotiated. “Don’t step there,” I said, “especially if it looks wet. It’s very slippery.” Naturally then, I warned them off the rockweed, whose piles appeared bottomless and would suck them in—we were not to test it in our nice sneakers certainly, no matter what live treasures of crab and baby lobster lay all goggle-eyed underneath. In our early pilgrimages we avoided most things organic, which die and rot and stink; our special rocks were dry, clear of processes unknown, safe above the tide.

A few years later, we discovered tidal pools. The three of us had been progressing farther and farther away from home, and about a quarter mile down the shore, past the houses on the bluff and a long stretch of jumbled beach, we found classic Maine pink-granite ledge, smooth and worry-free. The pools were hidden, flooded at high tide, barely accessible at low. But we persisted, older now, less squeamish, contorting our bodies to peer into crevices, where the rewards were hundreds of snails and a score of exotic starfish. I even started combing through the rockweed a bit, lifting it up like great hanks of hair to show Kate and Emma the cute little green crabs hiding in the fronds. I didn’t know at the time that some of those crabs were invasives from the south, pleased to enter the warming waters of the Gulf of Maine and feast on lobster like the rest of us tourists.

We’ve progressed far in fifteen years. The world is hotter, and seems more violent, or at least more instantly connectible to disaster. Maine is now more than a refuge for me, now that my daughters are grown and gone, Kate still on the Atlantic but the wrong side, in Denmark, and Emma just moved to California, an hour from the ocean but the wrong one. Maine is an ark on the floods. This week after Thanksgiving, I sit in the house, staring at water, staring east in fact but both east and west in spirit. The solitude of the shore seems tinged with loneliness today, a place halfway between, and although I give thanks for new lives and exciting independence, I miss my children terribly.

•••

Seaweed is the icon of Maine least likely to star on a blog or a brochure. If you look closely, you might see a frond peeping out at the base of Thunder Hole in Acadia, or a strand or two on the great expanse of Old Orchard Beach, or a discreet pile artfully arranged around a lobster about to be boiled. The photographer or dreamer operates generally at high tide, when seaweed hides, when the lines between surf and stone are clean. Mess doesn’t sell.

But the stuff is everywhere, especially the farther north you go, where the shores wear it thick as an ill-fitting wig, not entirely useless but almost. It is harvested, to be sure, as fertilizer and thickener, and it has achieved a little notoriety as “sea vegetables”—the various kelps, for example, which have long been eaten around the world (the nori of sushi rolls in Japan, dulse as a cocktail party snack in Ireland)—but seaweed is down at the bottom of the roster of marine exploitables. Most Americans like their food familiar, bland, processed by Big Ag; seaweed has a strong taste, and smells of low tide even after drying and processing. The number of evangelists for seaweed, even in Maine with its riches, approaches zero.

When all the fish are gone, perhaps only then we’ll turn to Gouldsboro Bay, where I’ve read of a seventy-year-old man, probably crazy by modern definitions, who cuts kelp by hand, standing in a wetsuit on offshore ledges, buffeted by heavy surf. We’ll believe him when he praises kelp’s effect on his immune system, and we too will pray for the enlightenment of humankind: eat kelp, live long, for it will restore the seawaters whence we came and heal our guts and blood. We’ll believe the research and the analysis, the richness of kelp’s minerals, trace elements, vitamins, enzymes, high-quality proteins, and the ever-sexy phytochemicals, the claims of tumor inhibition and reduction of cholesterol and conquering of viruses. But not until we’re desperate, in the coming dystopia.

Rockweed, however, the most plentiful seaweed, is not very edible, not even by New Age humans, and has been harvested but minimally for fertilizers, advertising no sex appeal whatsoever. Until recently.

It’s one thing to see a man in a skiff scraping rockweed off ledges with a long-handled rake. It’s quite another to see a huge mechanical harvester in your cove. In the new age of peak oil, natural fertilizers look pretty good after all.

Rockweed dominates the intertidal zone of many northern shores. It grows slowly; after a normal life span of ten to fifteen years, its fronds may have reached eight feet long. It survives all but the heaviest of surfs by attaching to rock with sucker-like holdfasts. It sports air-filled bladders along the fronds, to lift it to sunlight at high tide. Scientists say that as many as one hundred fifty species of animals—birds and shellfish and minnows hiding out—rely on rockweed for survival. Thus, Maine’s fishing industry may depend on it. And rockweed protects not only commerce, but the whole shore. Not for nothing is it commonly called knotted wrack, as if to cushion the intertidal zone from the ruin of ocean storms.

I wish that, at the beginning of my years here, those very years while my daughters were growing into their own lights, I had focused us more, found one baby rockweed plant, say, marked its holdfast, and every week crouched at the shore, in the wet, in our old sneakers, to observe its progress to adulthood. That bit of shore would have become precious in an entirely different way.

Stepping back now from that edge, I can at least suggest that “knotted wrack” is a wonderful description of our current dilemmas.

Predictably, every living thing, even weeds, will be exploited eventually. Predictably, environmentalists find a bully pulpit only when the big machines arrive. It’s inevitable that the Rockweed Coalition (“no-cut zones”) will battle the Maine Seaweed Council (“the sustainable use of seaweed”). Our ecological problems are as local as ownership of the intertidal zone in Maine (nobody quite knows who can do what, the law is ancient and not clear); as knotty as livelihoods versus legacies; as intractable as feeding the stomachs and aspirations of seven billion people.

A few years ago in our cove, we could expect to see a moored boat or two almost every summer day. Rakers scoured the sea bottom for sea urchins to satisfy the craze in Japan, and in two years the urchins were wiped out. This past spring the price of elvers, baby eels highly prized in Asia, reached two thousand dollars a pound. I give the fishery maybe five years before it’s gone. An invasive red seaweed from Asia via Europe threatens our New England shores; it suffocates all life in its path, stinks when it dies, and ironically enough, might be controlled by sea urchins. Every day of every year, the U.S. loses five thousand acres of land to development. I listen to my daughters talk about climate change. There’s despair in their voices, a resignation to the inevitable.

The idyll in Maine may last longer than in most places; but we lucky ones have equipped only ourselves to survive, have equipped no descendants to adapt, and we survive mostly by dreaming, sitting on our rocks above the tides.

•••

Rachel Carson, in The Edge of the Sea, called it the underwater forest: “The trees of the forest are the large sea weeds, known as rockweed, or sea wracks, stout of form and rubbery of texture. Here all other life exists within their shelter—a shelter so hospitable to small things needing protection from drying air, from rain, and from the surge of the running tides and the waves, that the life of these shores is incredibly abundant.”

“Small things”: the plainness of prose can sometimes be devastating. The shore still calls out thrillingly, here in Maine especially, but Carson’s simple joy from just sixty years ago echoes today with the terrible probability of its loss. Even the simplest shore will be stripped. I look at it as if some kind of sympathetic pain, some horrible probe from the future is invading our days and fracturing our DNA and our children’s DNA, leaving but a moment or two, here and there, of fullness.

We know we’re failing the forests, yet we continue on raking, year by inevitable year. Which means that the human essence is now failing, which means that I, too, am failing to protect these smallest of things, a minnow, or a weed, or a girl’s touch. It’s so easy to sit by, stunned and timid, just because I can still find a primeval sense of life in Maine, because Maine can offer to my family and to anybody who believes in these words some kind of sanctuary, the way life used to be, a place where blood is still seawater. I respond to the seashore too often just for its beauty, or in fear of its slime, and do little about its exploitation besides manipulate words. And if that’s the legacy I’ve given my daughters….well, I haven’t shown them how to muck, how to see like an animal. We’ve gotten far too used to our lavish city comforts, to our ability to escape in our cars from the cars.

The very nature of our bodies is being altered—that essence of salt water in our veins, those proteins in our brains designed over millions of years to treasure sunshine and open space and the creatures, even the slimiest, of the shore. I wish now that I had taken Kate and Emma squishing and laughing into the forest. I wish we had gone a little crazy in the surf. It might have made these passages a little easier.

•••

JIM KROSSCHELL divides his life into three parts: growing up for twenty-nine years, working in science publishing for twenty-nine years, and now writing in Massachusetts and Maine. His essays are widely published (see his website).

Year of the Body

nude
“In the Flesh,” courtesy the artist Amy O. Woodbury. amyowoodbury.com

By Susannah Quern Pratt

She’s not thin, but she is not really Reubenesque either. Curvy—a nice hourglass in the lower half, nothing to brag about on top. Perhaps an exaggerated version of my own physique. She stands at an inviting angle, lingering unassumingly in front of a blue-green background. Her naked body outlined in a bright red line, her bare skin a light yellow. She is not an exhibitionist in our midst, but a companion.

I cannot help but look at her. I drink her in. And yet she is unknowable. Her face is hidden from view. She offers only her body. The peaceful, smooth, flowing, sanguine lines of her body. It is the body whole. The body beautiful. The body at peace.

•••

In 2009 the doctors found a large tumor in my husband’s brain. It’s not a benign tumor; it’s not a malignant tumor. They don’t really say such things to patients in so many words anymore. Which I appreciated. They assign numbers and suggest that those numbers have meanings that may, or may not, correlate to your ultimate life expectancy. Grade 2 this, Possible Grade 3 that…it’s all very coded, but it allows room for hope and healing, if you read the numbers in the right way.

The tumor made itself known though a violent thing called a grand mal seizure. Again, my medical terminology is outdated here—I think they are called by another name now, but there is something vast and ominous about the old French qualifier that I really love…grand mal. Big wrong.

This grand mal signaled the start of the John’s body odyssey—followed by six weeks of radiation and six months of chemotherapy. The entire process was a breaking down of the body—sidelining it while the proton beams and chemicals waged war against the offending tumor. John, the beams, and the chemicals did well; they emerged as victor and, for the time being, have vanquished that which would have taken him down.

Now, three years later, he is trying to rebuild in the body what was there before—musculature, stamina, health. He monitors his calves, searching for the return of the bulk and definition that he is accustomed to. He watches his hair—one of the first things to return—to check how the resettlement process is going. His body is a big country and lots of patience is required during this period of reconstruction.

While the battle was being waged inside John, my own body revolted. And while I didn’t end up in the hospital, I did make the rounds of an embarrassing number of doctors: gynecologists, gastroenterologists, cardiologists. At the end of many tests and well meaning tips from doctors who could find nothing seriously wrong with me, I surrendered to the notion that I simply had to acknowledge the weight of the whole experience. Those in the know, and by this I mean yogis, had predicted this state of affairs. Friends versed in yogic breathing and the importance of stretching watched my hunched shoulders ascend toward my ears. They noticed my arms constantly crossed, my neck tight and stiff. My chest concave and brow furrowed despite the presence of easy laughter and carpe diem resolve. My body was at odds with my spirit and overall orientation. In the head, I was all healing, all the time. In the body, I was slowly crumbling.

This feeling, the body at odds with the spirit or the self, was new to me, and in fact may be the best way that I know of to describe what was heretofore the abstract notion of aging. In this year of the body, my husband’s and mine were not the only ones to show a chink in the armor. Friends developed thyroid disorders, fistulas, glaucoma, breast cancer, and herniated discs. It’s a list that I mistakenly thought I would be making in retirement, but I am talking about those of us hanging out just on either side of forty. No one tells you this. In the age of extended life expectancy, of Botox and aging baby boomers, no one tells you that after a mere forty years, the body will make some of its wear and tear known. No one tells you that living with a chronic condition could mean forty more years of living with a pain or limitation. And no one could ever prepare you for the fact that chronic takes on a relative appeal when compared to the alternative of terminal.

And each of these maladies is discordant with the way my friends and I perceive our lives. In our minds, we are all just getting started. We have small children and newly refinished kitchens. We’re forming opinions about local elementary schools and starting college savings plans. Life looks long from where we sit.

•••

The nude came to us by way of a clandestine meeting between the artist and my husband in the preschool parking lot. We first spotted her in a dark restaurant over a good bottle of wine with friends. John and I sat facing her all night, and as we were getting up after dinner, I told him that I loved the painting. Somewhat surprisingly (there’s no accounting for artistic taste), he completely agreed. There is a simple symmetry to her that is appealing, a certain openness. She’s easy to be with.

After tracking down the artist’s name from the restaurant owner, John had to sneak around to secure the painting without my knowledge. This included a hand-off from the female artist while I was away at work, a meeting that turned the heads of more than a few curious preschool moms but resulted in complete surprise for me. I opened the brown paper wrapping and beheld the painting with great joy—a feeling of reunion.

Finding the right spot for her took some time. She is nude, after all. We flirted with a spot for her in the dining room, considered having her welcome people to the kitchen. For several weeks she ended up propped against our bedroom wall, and I got used to having her there with us. Ultimately she ended up on the bedroom wall outside my closet door, a situation that forces me daily to reckon my own form with hers. So far this has not resulted in despair, but rather further affection.

•••

I have been fortunate in my life never to have been in an extended argument with my body. In college, when girls were alternatively eating whole wheat bagels with mustard (no fat!) and then vomiting to shed excess weight, I happily ballooned up the proverbial fifteen pounds. After college, lacking access to free beer, the fifteen pounds just sort of fell away, and so did an extra five that had been with me since high school. Each of my three pregnancies have been kind—far more miraculous than torturous. And again my normal shape has more or less returned, slightly saggier but basically the same.

Given our long history of peaceful, reliable coexistence, this most recent series of tumors and chest pain and cancers shook up my world order. People speak about disease or illness as being “betrayed by their bodies” but that seems too melodramatic to me, and somewhat inaccurate. It’s not that our bodies have become foreign in their failings, leaving us to question whether we ever really knew them to begin with. Rather, they seem to simply be signaling that things cannot continue as they have. In this way, our bodies are more like unwelcome harbingers of what is to come.

And perhaps this was the biggest question for me arising from The Year of the Body: Is the body the victim or the aggressor? Are these cancers and tumors of us, or alien attackers to be fought off with force? In some cases—like John’s—the tiny clustering of aggressive cells seemed other, like it had no place in him. And yet in other similar cases it’s the body itself that seems to be the enemy. Like the bodies of friends testing positive for the BRCA genes, the genetic predictor of an almost certain eventual occurrence of breast cancer. The women I know who have heard this unwelcome news from their doctors have immediately flown the white flag of surrender and made their way to the nearest surgeon for radical mastectomies and hysterectomies. The tumors don’t yet exist, but their bodies are fundamentally coded for disease. In this case, the preventative mutilations feel strangely appropriate. Like the body is being punished. Pruned back so it might continue to thrive.

•••

Since the painting hangs in an area highly trafficked by our three boys, my husband is waiting for the day when our oldest son, now eight, is first embarrassed by it—and then fascinated by the fully exposed female body. I think this day may be a long way off. Three little boys still come in to talk to me while I am showering, my own body in full view behind a glass shower door, asking what time their grandma is coming over or whether they can watch another show before homework. If they have questions about things corporeal, they are asked in a matter of fact tone. No stammering awkwardness, just straight up curiosity. “Mom, do you pee out of your butt?”

For years I have appreciated that the boys are still in a stage of body innocence—willingly changing out of their wet swimsuits and into dry clothes right in front of any neighbors or friends hanging out in our backyard. They have no shame about their bodies, no desire to judge shapes or figures different than theirs.

But what I have just described is the kind of innocence that is freedom from body image. Lately what I have been appreciating is their freedom from body dependence. Their bodies run, perform, produce on command, without thought or concern. They slam into each other on the bed during marathon wrestling matches without fear of broken bones or other injury. Having pizza for three consecutive meals doesn’t phase them because they have not yet begun to do the exhausting math that haunts the rest of us—the work of eliminating partially hydrogenated oils, or adding Vitamin D and antioxidants to concoct an elixir that will take off a pound or two here or add a year or two there. John and I have given up meat in the wake of his illness; they continue to relish bacon with their breakfasts. They sleep when they are tired, and they sleep deeply and soundly in direct correlation to the amount of activity in a given afternoon. I love watching them sleep—three little bodies at rest—deep breaths, slow shifts, quiet sighs.

•••

A few months ago, John was riding his bike to work for the first time since the end of chemo. He came down dressed in his gear—Lycra bike shorts and shirt, helmet in hand. Calves once again respectable. It is a full ten-mile ride along the lakefront and into some intense city traffic before he arrives at his office. My former strategy for dealing with any anxiety this might cause was to pretty much ignore what he was doing until I got a text signaling his safe arrival.

I am newly cautious, however. “Are you going to ride all the way in?” I asked. That was his plan—just to ride in. He was going to leave his bike at the office and take the train home. This sounded reasonable enough to me so I turned a deaf ear to the whispery voices saying things like “seizure” and “exhaustion.” He departed, a triumphant blur speeding out of the driveway, serenaded by the cheers of three little boys thrilled to see their father in the saddle again.

Later that day, I got a phone call. He was going to ride home. That would bring today’s total to twenty miles, I reminded him. I carried a load of laundry upstairs to our bedroom and began to fold. A chore that, especially in times of stress, feels like a piece of stage business to me. I folded and called out answers to the boys’ questions about dinner. But the whole scene was suspended and surreal; my mind was on a parallel track, watching John navigate the myriad bikers, dog-walkers, and cabs in his path. I was following his body, rooting for it, praying for it. His body that I adore. His body that I fear.

Warm laundry in hand, I looked over at the nude, and in that moment it became clear to me what I like about the painting—what pulls my eyes to it again and again. There, on the canvas, is successful surrender to the body, unabashed adoration of its beautiful, fallible imperfection. No face, no separate self—rather, a reconciling. In the painting, the body is all, and the body is enough.

•••

SUSANNAH QUERN PRATT lives with her healthy husband and three growing boys in Evanston, Illinois.

My Best Friend’s Girlfriend

missing him
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

 

By Brooke Ferguson

My best friend Dan has a girlfriend. She’s tall, like me. She wears cowboy boots and has a lot of energy and almost a thousand followers on Twitter. She’s a talented artist, and is launching her own business, and is friendly and pretty. Dan says that he likes her very much, and he seems happier than he has in a long time.

This is great. All I want, I’ve been saying to anyone who would listen for the past two years, is for him to be happy. He’s a great guy and he should find a great girl and be really happy. Great!

Except now I’m miserable.

Two years ago, my best friend was my boyfriend and we were living together in an apartment in San Francisco. We were indeed best friends, and roommates … and it kind of felt like that was the extent of our relationship. We were both pretty depressed and in bad situations at work (that is: we hated our jobs). We stayed in and binged on pizza and TV and movies. We didn’t really have any other friends. Everything was almost a flatline. Dan and I were both so easygoing, so low-energy, that if there was a problem we’d just shrug and go bury ourselves in a book (him) or the internet (me). When I told him I wanted to break up, he kept saying, But we get along so well. I don’t understand. I said that was true, that we were great friends, but there was something else that was supposed to be there. A spark that was lacking. An intensity. Just a little passion. For our own lives—to get out of our awful jobs, to go surfing and hiking and take trips like we always said we wanted to—and for each other. I was sorry, but I was firm. It was over.

The next three months were some of the worst of my life. We were both trying to find a place to live, sleeping in the same bed at night but not touching, except sometimes when I was crying and he would hold my hand. We’d mope around the apartment until one of us said something funny, and we’d laugh until we remembered we were breaking up. Then we’d grow sullen again.

We never really took a break. I knew that I wanted Dan to be in my life forever, but I said it was up to him if he wanted to remain friends. If he needed some time and space away from me, I totally understood. But he didn’t, and we moved right into a close friendship. Even though we were broken up, we were still each other’s “person.” We picked each other up from the airport. He watched my dog while I was out of town. He was the one I texted when something funny happened or I heard a stupid joke about Willie Nelson. We went to movies, took surfing lessons, went camping and hiking. We did all of the things we’d talked about doing when we were dating. And I kept saying, I just want him to be happy! We both got better jobs. He dated a few girls, but those relationships just seemed to make him stressed out. I dated a few guys, but that went nowhere. None of them made me laugh like Dan did. And we went on, going to museums together, going to concerts, eating hot wings… Until she showed up.

At first I was genuinely glad for him. And then I was not. Then I was a wreck.

I was hurt, too. Hurt that he didn’t have as much time for me, hurt that he might enjoy another woman’s company as much or more than mine. All the time that I’d been encouraging him to move on, to let go, I didn’t really understand what that would mean, what it might feel like. It felt like a cannonball to the stomach.

I began to feel jealous. Dan and I would spend a great day together, riding our bikes to the beach and getting lunch, browsing second-hand records, laughing and joking the entire time. And then we’d ride back and he’d break off to bike to her house, to spend the night with her while I went home alone.

Choose me, I began thinking at him when we were together, when he would text me that he couldn’t hang out because they were going to some party or some pop-up fashion show or something else so cool and exclusive it would have never even appeared on my radar. Choose me. Choose me. The thing was, he had chosen me, and I had ended it. Somehow I managed to turn his moving on into a rejection. He was leaving me; he was breaking my heart. Somehow I had to prove I was the better woman; I was the right choice.

Oh, come on, you selfish asshole, leave him alone and let him be happy. You just want what you can’t have, were some of my first thoughts as, I’m sure, they are your first thoughts.

And to that I will say: fair enough. Except. Except.

I’m not completely sure that’s true. It’s never been easy just being Dan’s friend. I still believe breaking up was absolutely the right thing to do. We’ve become more active, much closer, and a lot more honest. When Dan and I were together, I had a lot of secrets. I was alarmingly preoccupied with my previous relationship. I was a raging, obsessive Grizzly on the inside. I was so stuck on how this other guy had wronged me that I couldn’t be present for the guy who was in front of me, who took care of me when I had a scratched cornea—waking up every three hours to give me pain medicine, feeding me pizza, washing my hair while I soaked in the tub and cried. But I was too afraid to tell him about the beast in my head. How would that conversation go? Sorry I’m acting so weird. I’m just completely obsessed with my ex-boyfriend. Well, yeah, maybe something like that. At least then it would have been out in the open, and we could have talked about it and maybe I would have been surprised by the result. But I didn’t give us that chance. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him. I was so afraid I would lose the relationship that I didn’t speak up to save it. And then, after a while, I just gave up.

So what? I had my chance. What was I doing during the two years before the great girl (G.G.) entered the picture? Well, I was alone for a long time, trying to figure out what kind of life I wanted. I was dating other people and realizing how rare it was to connect with someone so deeply. I was getting the proper help for all the bullshit that I was carrying around from my other relationship. I was discovering that intensity wasn’t love, and that Dan’s way of showing love was maybe not flashy, but it was heartfelt. Over the past year I would sometimes look at him, and feel both a warmth and a sadness, wondering if things would be different now. Would I still feel that lack of spark, or would I find it now that I could be really, truly honest and vulnerable with him, now that I was no longer keeping a piece of myself tucked away like a demented squirrel with a rotten nut? Now that I could accept him for what he was, instead of critiquing all the ways he wasn’t my psychotic ex?

I didn’t get a chance to find out. He moved pretty quickly from a tumultuous, six-month relationship into one with the G.G. He told me about her right away, and said he wanted me to meet her. All right, I thought, he’s finally found that great girl! And she is great, actually. We’ve met a few times, and she doesn’t mind if Dan and I are friends. (I honestly can’t say I would be cool with my boyfriend being such good friends with his ex, but maybe that’s because I have a treacherous mind, and she’s a G.G.).

So why am I suddenly not okay with it? I don’t know if it’s because he’s becoming someone else’s person and I’m mourning the relationship that ended two years ago, doing the grieving I didn’t really get to do because we moved so quickly into a friendship. It might be that things are shifting and changing, and that a lot of times that really hurts, even if it’s a good thing. Maybe eventually it will stop hurting, and I can truly feel glad for him without a sting of pain in my heart. I have to accept that we won’t spend Christmas or Thanksgiving together. We won’t go visit his dad in Texas. But that’s what a break-up means, and maybe we’ve just been putting it off. Maybe I feel a sudden, fierce need for him because he’s moved on, and I haven’t yet, and I don’t know what the future holds. I do know what the past holds—someone who believed in me and treated me kindly. And also someone who didn’t have a lot of ambition, who didn’t touch or hug me often or show affection in public. There’s no face on my future. It’s completely unknown. If Dan isn’t my person, then who is?

One night as I was sitting on my floor, crying and listening to Billy Bragg records, I wondered if I my dilemma had ever been represented somewhere. Had I seen this before? Was there something I could look to for guidance, for comfort? I realized that yes, there was something, and it wasn’t very flattering: I was a less charming Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding. All this time I was feeling sorry for myself, but I had not been wronged. If anything, I got what I asked for. And if I took things further, if I started to try and pry them apart, to highlight all the ways I was right for him and she was wrong, I was going to be the villain in the story. It doesn’t feel great to realize you’re the bad guy, even if you aren’t trying to be.

So, what am I going to do? Nothing, really. All this confusion requires no action except that I back off and keep my mouth shut. I will not spill to him about my internal struggle. I will not tell him that when they post Instagram photos of their adventures together I want to punch a wall. I will not say, I think maybe I might want to try again? Because as it stands, he’s unavailable and I am unsure. Even if I were sure, I would have no right to interfere with his new relationship. His happiness is, in fact, very important to me, and so is our friendship. What I am going to do is keep working on myself, and figuring out what I want, and keep moving forward. I will wonder, and be sad, and write about it, and just be his friend. Part of me thinks I’m a terrible person for even having these feelings, but then, they’re just my feelings. If I’ve learned one thing from sitting in a rut, thinking isn’t doing. I can dissect my thoughts to the atomic level and no harm is done. Like I said, there is nothing to be done, unless he becomes single and I am certain I want to risk our friendship for another shot at romance.

Who knows—maybe she really is his person and their relationship will finally close the chapter on whatever it is Dan and I have been doing the past two years. Maybe her arrival will be the best thing that ever happened to our friendship. Maybe I’ll send her flowers.

Maybe not.

•••

BROOKE FERGUSON lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her dog. Her work has appeared in The Hairpin, Index/Fist, and Sparkle & Blink, and she was recently a writer in residence at Starry Night Retreat in New Mexico. She blogs about movies at http://tallbrooke.wordpress.com/

Family Secrets

nestandlegs050
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Beth Armstrong Leahy

One night, a patron waves me over to her booth in the restaurant where I am working my second job as a waitress. She’s blonde and attractive and dining with her husband. We are both in our early fifties. Her face is square, her hair wavy, almost curly. She introduces herself as Debbie. She has six children and three grandchildren. She shows me a photograph. And she tells me that she is my cousin. Her mother and my mother are first cousins. I have never heard of this person before now.

•••

This isn’t the first time I’ve learned something about my family that has been kept from me. Just after my father died thirty-two years ago, when I was twenty-one years old, I picked up the ringing phone at the same time that my mother picked up another extension. I eavesdropped. It was the life insurance company needing to know if there were any previous wives or children who might make a claim on the insurance payout. To my complete surprise, my mother said yes—he’d been married before but there were no children, and it had only lasted a year.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I shared this bombshell with my sister, Sarah, who at twenty had already been divorced. She wished she’d known, she told me, so she wouldn’t have felt as ashamed to tell my parents of her own impending divorce.

What other family matters did I know nothing about? What about that uncle in Oregon who no one ever talks about? Are there other secrets, a collection of skeletons in the attic closet? When another uncle was divorced I never saw his boys—my cousins—ever again. All this uncertainty and mystery in one small family. Was this just the tip of a family iceberg, an iceberg with pieces breaking off to float away from us?

A few years later, when I was thirty-two years old, my older brother told me that our maternal grandmother, who died when I was three and he was ten, had died by her own hand. Or as he put it, “She blew her head off.” Wow. Just wow. Quickly scanning my memories for any clues that I might have missed, I couldn’t come up with anything. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandfather had never slipped. I recalled the only time I’d asked about her, when I realized that I didn’t know how she had died or much else about her for that matter, my mother’s answer was “cerebral hemorrhage,” spoken in a tone that didn’t invite further probing. This answer was not a lie but neither was it the whole truth.

To this day, I have never revealed to my mom that I know the real cause of death. I feel that if she didn’t want Sarah and me to know, then I should honor that wish. I did, however, tell my sister. We both, along with my brother, have been diagnosed with and take medication for clinical depression. Since learning of my grandmother’s suicide, I have spent no small amount of time pondering this information, wondering how she could have done it to her family. I know that she and my mother were close; we lived next door to her and my grandfather. She had eleven grandchildren; some of us were toddlers and have no memories of her. They had horses. Why did she do it? Once, I heard my mom arguing with my brother on the phone—we were middle-aged by then—and she vehemently said, “My mother was the sanest person I know!” My brother could only have expressed doubts about her mother’s sanity to evoke this response.

•••

So now before me is this lovely woman who has just revealed our relationship. And I believe Debbie instantly—she looks like us. I, too, have a square face and blonde, wavy hair. In the middle of this restaurant, with my co-workers rushing by me and customers gobbling up their lobsters, I learn from her that my grandfather’s half-brother, Kingsbury Bragdon, engaged to another, walked into the family home after some absence, saw their young housekeeper for the first time and was completely smitten. He broke his engagement and married the housekeeper, Eleanor—Debbie’s grandmother.

The Bragdon family was one of the founding families of this town here in Maine. My great-grandfather was one of three men who founded York Hospital. The Bragdon Insurance and Real Estate Agency, started in 1901, is still in business all these years later. The Bragdon clan belonged to the Country Club, owned horses and boats and fancy cars. Even today their children go to private schools and to the best colleges, and they vacation in tropical locations. There are buildings all over town that bear the Bragdon name.

The turn of events with Kingsbury was apparently not taken well. This suspicion is borne out by the rest of the story. When the lovely former housekeeper was pregnant with their sixth child, Kingsbury dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of forty. Our family splintered. Eleanor and her children were not taken in by the rest of the family. They were nudged aside, not included in family gatherings, and eventually pushed to the far fringes of the family. A very few slender threads were left to tether this woman and her children to the clan she had married into. When I asked my mom about this, she told me that she and my grandmother did bring Eleanor and those six children hand-me-down clothes on occasion.

I feel ashamed and outraged at this news. How could they do that? How could they be such class snobs? How could they dishonor Kingsbury that way? How could they basically turn their backs on those fatherless children? I feel like, so many years later, I should apologize to this descendant of theirs. And what do I do with this information?

Apparently her branch of the family has been well aware of what happened two generations ago all along and has come to accept it. Why I have never been told of these people, I am not sure. Clearly, that generation had a problem with the housekeeper’s family background and pedigree, or lack thereof. Maybe, once that piece of the family was pushed away, the following generations couldn’t find a way to repair the breach and their shame about what had happened made it easy for them to just let them keep drifting away. And so it would have been simpler to not bother telling my generation anything at all about it.

Debbie certainly doesn’t seem angry or hurt or resentful. She is just telling me, very matter-of-factly, what happened and why we don’t know each other. She plucks a photograph from her purse and proudly shows me her grown children and young grandchildren. They are all smiling and beautiful, and I feel pride, too. She named one of her sons Kingsbury. We make promises to keep in touch. I want to hug her, this woman, this stranger with whom I share bloodlines and history and secrets. And, as it turns out, an occupation: just as Eleanor did, we work as house cleaners.

•••

BETH ARMSTRONG LEAHY still lives in York, Maine. She has two grown children and tries not to keep any secrets from them.

What Living Feels Like

ocean cliffs
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

 

By Susan McCulley

My husband, Frank, and I read about the island of Dominica in the travel section of The Washington Post. The article touted the island as relatively undeveloped without much tourism, but with uncommon natural beauty and variety—from beaches and rivers to rain forests and volcanic hot spots, spectacular hiking, and snorkeling in Champagne Bay, a warm cove bubbled by an underwater hot spring. We were intrigued. After our first visit, we were in love. At the end of our two weeks of exploring the island from beach to mountain, we sat in the tiny open-air airport, drinking local beer, absolutely furious that we were leaving. I had been sad and even a little depressed to return home after a vacation before, but at the end of our time in Dominica, I was pissed.

We scheduled our return trip almost immediately.

One of the things that makes Dominica special is that the two sides of the island are vastly different. The west coast is on the Caribbean Sea with calm waves and smooth beaches. It’s great for snorkeling and it’s where cruise ships dock to briefly discharge their passengers for trinket shopping, beer drinking, or whirlwind three-hour touring. The Atlantic Ocean is on the east side and has inlets of craggy beaches with wild, crashing waves. We loved the east side. On our first visit, we played in the rough, exhilarating ocean until we were waterlogged and breathless. When we planned our return, the east side was where we wanted to go.

We rented a small cottage at the top of a tiny east side village. There really wasn’t much there except the astonishingly riotous beauty of the steep, rocky island plunging into the sea. We could not wait to be in it.

The moment we arrived, we ditched our bags and followed the path to one of the beaches near the village. Even the walk to the ocean was intoxicating. The green in Dominica is not just green but glossy, luminous, achingly vibrant green. In back yards and along the road were trees heavy with fruit that we were used to seeing in mesh bags at the grocery store: bananas, mangos, grapefruit, and avocado. Most houses had a garden of (mostly unfamiliar) crops that betrayed the generosity of the soil. Every inch was fragrant, lush, and full of life.

As we walked through town, a boy bounced along with us. Skinny and excited, with huge brown eyes, he looked about ten years old. “Are you going to swim in the sea?” he asked.

“Of course,” we said, and when he asked if he could come along, we were happy to have him join us. He ran ahead, occasionally looking back to make sure we could follow the steep path down to the ocean whose deep, rumbling waves we could already hear. As we wove down the trail, we caught glimpses of deep blue waves edged with white froth against jagged black rocks in the cove below. We could barely keep up with our impatient child of a guide.

As we wound down and around, we could see a small curve of black sand tucked into an imposing rocky coastline with a fresh water river snaking down from the mountain into the sea. The Atlantic crashed, rhythmic and thunderous, against the rocks and sand. It was just as we’d remembered. We dropped our towels and ran into the water.

The water, sharply salty, cold and churning, felt like something alive. We dove into the relentlessly pounding surf, shouting to each other over the roar. We stayed just a few meters from shore in waist-deep water so we could keep our footing on the constantly moving sand. I kept my eyes on the open ocean to evaluate each wave. In the raw power of the ocean, I knew that one unexpected breaker could toss me ankles to armpits, completely disoriented in a swirl of sand and sea. Even with my vigilance, I was knocked off my feet and caught a nose-full more than once. It was thrilling to scout each wave, one after another, and make the split-second decision to jump up and over it, or dive into its base. The three of us hooted and swam, diving and jumping over each successive wave, then coming up again to look out and see what was coming next.

It happened fast. So fast, so suddenly. All at once, I realized I couldn’t touch bottom. I looked toward shore and saw that we were too far out. Way too far. Frank and the boy were just beyond me, also unable to touch. Frank clasped the boy’s hand and started swimming hard toward shore. I turned toward the curve of beach and swam as hard as I could against the harsh pull of the rip tide.

I’m a strong swimmer. I’ve been in the water my whole life and have taken lessons, done laps, and completed life-saving courses. I’m competent in the water, and I’m strong and healthy. But this? This was a whole different thing. Enormous waves kept pounding over my head, leaving me coughing and blind. A pause from kicking and stroking for even a second whisked me quickly even further away from shore. I watched as Frank struggled with the boy. I poured myself into every stroke but the beach kept getting, little by little, further away.

Frank and the boy were just a few feet away from me but I had to shout. “I’m not getting anywhere!”

Frank looked at me with wide eyes. Glancing at the boy, he screamed, “He can’t swim!”

We were in a powerful rip tide that was shredding us. The waves were impossible to swim in and threatened to throw us onto the rocks on either side. Swimming as hard as I could, I was getting nowhere. And now, this child, this boy we’d brought out to the sea with us. This boy can’t swim. “You’re the stronger swimmer,” yelled Frank. “He’s pulling me down. You have to take him.”

The boy shrieked in terror and pleaded with Frank, “Don’t leave me out here!”

Frank got closer to me and shifted the boy in my direction, “I’m not going to leave you, I would never leave you, but she’s a stronger swimmer than I am!” What he didn’t say, and what we both thought was, “I would rather drown than to have anything happen to you.”

I know what to do with a frightened non-swimmer: hook your arm under his armpits, and swim on your back, pulling him using the strength of your legs and the opposite arm. It’s the most efficient and powerful way to swim someone to safety and prevents the panicking victim from pulling you under. I knew what to do … and I didn’t do it. As Frank handed the terrified child to me, I had this thought: “If I take him in the life saving tow, I’m admitting this is a full-on emergency. I’m admitting that this situation is really, really bad.” I was already scared. Admitting how bad it really was was more than I could take in. So I grabbed him by the forearm and dragged him through the surging water with everything I had.

There was something in the deafening sound of the waves and the jagged dangerous-looking rocks on either side of us that gave the ever-smaller beach straight ahead a hypnotic pull. A wave would crash over the boy and me, and I just kept my eyes on that little crescent of sand and kept pulling. Frank called out, “We’re supposed to swim to the side!” He was right. I knew that when caught in a rip tide, the way out is, counter-intuitively, to swim parallel to the shore to get out of the current. But here, in this narrow, rocky cove, to swim parallel to the shore meant to go straight into the teeth of rocks on either side. I squeezed the boy’s arm and swam harder. But as a concession to the whole “swim parallel” thing, I aimed on a slight angle: rather than directly at the beach that I so desperately wanted to get to, I oriented us a just little to the left. I pulled and pulled the whimpering boy behind me.

It didn’t seem that I’d moved at all but as I made a big scissoring kick on my new, angled trajectory, I felt sand. Incredulous, I dropped my feet and found solid ground. My body and heart surged with relief as I stood and pulled the boy’s body into mine. I could feel his warm, slippery, skinny limbs, his pounding heart. And I could feel my own heart hammering hard against my ribs. I squeezed the boy even tighter, looked to my still-struggling husband, and shouted, “Frank, put your feet down!” He told me later that at that moment, just a few feet from me, he couldn’t touch the bottom. He desperately reached his long toes and felt the sand, then swam another stroke and stood.

The waves were still deafening. The water surged around us. The rocks were dangerously close. But we were standing. In a small, staggering line—woman, boy, man—the three of us walked slowly and unsteadily in to the little black beach. We wrapped the trembling and silent boy in our towel, and he sat on the sand and ate a crushed granola bar. Frank and I stood behind him shakily drinking water and watching as the disinterested waves continued to pound the shore.

The days that followed had a paradoxical combination of feeling both dream-like and surreally vivid. Mangos were some kind of crazy, sensuous, cacophony of sweetness. The sky was so beautiful we could barely look at it. The water tasted like life itself. We would squeeze each other tight and say, “We’re here. We’re okay. We’re alive.” My mind would reel and I’d look at him and say, “Frank, we had that boy with us. What if…” I was unwilling to complete the thought. Frank just shook his head. And then, in his precise way, he would say, “I was seventy-five percent sure I was going to die.” We mostly just held onto each other. We were dumbfounded to find everything from the papaya trees to our land lady’s garden so perfectly normal and yet so extraordinarily extraordinary. The vivid island landscape felt simultaneously unreal and hyper-real. This is what living feels like.

Word of our brush with death flew through town before we even made it back to our cottage. God was praised. Prayers were said. We were invited to church. We nodded and agreed and wore our best clothes on Sunday—the only white people in that pink sanctuary singing praises. We were grateful. We were so deeply grateful for being alive, but also for every taste of food, every bird song, every wave from someone on the road. In a way that I never had before, I felt the intense sweetness of living and the absolute connection we have to each other. In some ways, that day is with me every day. The reverberation of it isn’t as intense, but it’s still there. I still remember. I’m still awake to the wonder that we have every day.

Frank says he took the boy back into the water, just for a few minutes so he wouldn’t fear the sea, but I don’t remember it. I don’t remember speaking at all as the three of us picked up our clothes and slowly walked back up the trail to the village. I don’t remember anything about that walk except placing one unsteady foot in front of the other. If I ever knew the boy’s name, I don’t remember it. But I do remember, as we came to a turn at the top of the trail how that boy, our boy (and he will always be our boy), turned and waved almost imperceptibly and disappeared into the village.

•••

SUSAN MCCULLEY is a mindful movement educator and a Black Belt Nia Instructor who has been dancing and moving, traveling and teaching since 2000. Her blog, Focus Pocus: The Magic of Inquiry and Intent (www.focuspocusnow.com), is dedicated to taking body~mind practices from the studio into life. Her essays have been published on Elephant Journal, and she is working on a book. She lives with her husband in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Persuasion

god encounter
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

 

By Nicole Walker

Max, three and a quarter years old, wakes up in the morning, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, asking, “Do I have to go to school tomorrow?”

“You have to go to school tomorrow and today.”

“Today?”

He is crushed. Tears. “But I want to stay with Mama.”

Who doesn’t? I’m lots of fun, staring at my computer all day and complaining about the news.

I’m making his sister, Zoe’s, lunch. He comes out wearing shorts, a long-sleeved shirt, red cowboy boots, gloves, and a helmet. It’s thirty-three degrees outside. “Too cold for shorts, bubba.”

“But I want shorts.” If this kid wins any records, one of them will be able to sustain the word want for forty-five seconds.

“Fine. Freeze.” This is not a good thing to say to a three-year-old and yet, it’s a good thing to say to Max because you will not win. You will not offer him candy to change. You will not threaten him with punishment. You will not carry him and forcibly change him. Even if you manage to physically restrain him, he’ll run into his sister’s room to put his shorts back on.

“Grandpa’s wearing shorts.”

“Grandpa is not even here.”

And then he sees his dad, who is wearing flip-flops. Off go the boots.

I tuck his regular shoes and a pair of pants into his backpack. It seems cruel to make the preschool ladies fight the battle, but trying to convince Max to do something he doesn’t want to do is like trying to convince a pig to understand about the greatness of bacon.

Max’s teachers probably won’t take up the battle. He will be cold, but he won’t die of cold. It will warm up by noon, I tell myself. It’s perfectly normal to wear shorts in February, I think. He’s really quite warm-blooded, I say to myself.

I can go to great lengths to change my own mind.

•••

Farm-to-table has become tail-to-snout kind of dining. This works best when you’re talking about a fish. I love the whole trout. Hamachi cheek is my favorite food group. I can make good progress with a chicken. All the meat. The guts and bones for broth. I have eaten chicken feet before. The whole cow? Tongue. Sweetbreads, the thymus gland. Oxtail soup. I have made a lot of progress on the cow.

The idea behind the eating of the offal is to let nothing go to waste. It stems from a kind of environmentalism—if you’re going to do the evil of eating meat, you should at least have the sense to make use of all. It’s tied to a respect for indigenous cultures—Native Americans used the whole animal. It’s tied to the DIY food movement—butchering, cooking, smoking, and curing your own meat is a sign of self-sufficiency. It’s a sign of respect. You have to believe that eating the whole animal is for the greater good. The greater good becomes a kind of religion. This religion, like all religions, comes through the stomach and convinces through intestinal satisfaction. You have done the good work. You have ingested the good thing. Transubstantiation. Voila, animal is God in the belly. Voila, you are at once person, cow, and God. To make it all the way to heaven, you have to be a stubborn convert, eat the ears of a cow in the form of the ears of cow, not in the easy form hotdog. One is not born into the church of nose-to-tail gastronomy. Becoming a lover of all food requires conversion.

•••

When I pick Zoe up from second grade on Wednesdays, I bring her a smoothie so she has some energy before gymnastics. I make one for Max, too, and pick him up after I finish my grading during Zoe’s class. One Wednesday, I had a late meeting. I couldn’t get home to make smoothies. I picked up some Pirate’s Booty and Strawberry Monster Odwallas at the grocery store. This was good for Zoe. She loves Pirate’s Booty. This was not good for Max.

“But I want my yellow cup.”

“Look Max, this is better. It’s got more sugar!”

“But it’s not in my yellow cup.”

“Pirate’s Booty! Full of salt AND sugar,” I try to convince him. “It’s delicious.”

“It tastes like Styrofoam.”

Lesson to take from this: do not teach your kid to eat the edible packing peanuts shipped with Apple products. Do not teach your stubborn kid the word “Styrofoam.” Only stubborn kids will learn the word to use against you. Do not indulge your kid with a yellow cup every day. Maybe just every other day. Kids love rituals, but they should love sugar more.

•••

A farm-to-table restaurant in Boston called Estragon serves a whole pig head. A server brings the head to your table. The pig’s head has been roasted. Or, rather, a chef stuck a pig’s head in an oven. It looks like Luau pig. The skin is crispy brown. The head is small. It’s a baby pig. “Look at that.” (Many syllables on the that). “Hello, baby,” someone says. A table of four cannot be expected to eat an adult pig’s head elegantly.

A table of four cannot even be expected to eat a baby pig’s head elegantly. Fingers will be involved, but not at first. At first, feign utensils. The cheeks come off easy enough. Slice them like chicken breasts off the bone, then slice them crosswise. Serve a slice to the diner to your right. The other cheek, let your friends on the other side of the table carve for fear too much reaching will soak your fancy sleeve with grease. What is it like? Carnitas. The most carnal carnitas you’ve ever head. Shredded pork has nothing on pork cheek. This cheek is not just on-the-bone but this cheek is braised not only near bone but in pig fat. There is a lot of pig fat. Do not bother to wipe your hands between head parts. There is nothing better than pig fat. There is more. You go on. Tongue first. Can’t be worse than the tacos de lengua you order quietly when they order carne asada. The skin? You’ve heard of cracklins. You suspect this is what they taste like although admittedly, you’ve never had cracklins. The snout? Iconographic pig is the cutest part of the pig.

You take a tiny bite for the collective cause. The brain? You know you’re not supposed to eat cow brain, for fear the bovine spongiform encephalopathy. You pride yourself on knowing what’s new in medical news as much as what’s new in foodie news. There is no porcine encephalopathy that you have heard of. You take a bite. The fattiest pork fat. The closest thing to foie gras. But the eyeball. You just close your own eyes and put the pig’s in your mouth, gnash it quickly. Most religions rely on a cross between knowing and not-knowing which is sin and which is not and you don’t want to know too much about the chewing and swallowing of eye. The sin is in the popping.

•••

“I want to wear my cowboy boots.”

“You are wearing your cowboy boots.” Max is indeed wearing his red cowboy boots.

“I want my cowboy boots.”

“Come here.” Max walks over to me. I pick him up. He puts his head on my shoulder and pats me on the back. He’s sorry that his mama is so confused. So is she.

The boots fall off one by one. He points to them on the floor. “See. I am not wearing my cowboy boots.”

Reality conforms to those who want it most. He wants it so much he makes it happen. I am proud of his rhetorical skills in an exhausted kind of way.

•••

Do you have to talk yourself into eating pig’s head? Do you have to talk others into joining you? What words do you use? When you ask the diners what they thought about the experience, they say, “It is a lot of work.” If you ask them, “Would you do it again?” They say, “No. Lobster’s a lot of work but I know where the cache of meat is. With the pig, it was too much work to get to the stores of meat. Same with crab. It’s too much work.”

You cannot eat a pig’s head alone. The first rule of a religion is that, if you do it alone, it’s not a religion, it’s a psychosis. You are going to have to find a way to bring the pig to the people. If you can eat bacon, which is the fat and muscled layers of a pig’s belly, then you can eat a snout! But we must make the word sound more beautiful than snout. To sell it to the less adventurous food-lovers, you’re going to have to rely on some words that convey a happier reality. Try “liebe.” The Germans won’t mind. Martin Buber, a major Austrian-born philosopher, promoted immanence. Austria is practically Germany. Love, love, love is everywhere.

•••

“Hey Max,” I call from the other room. “Zoe wants to go to sushi. You want to go?”

“No. I do not want to go to sushi. I want to stay home.”

“Why do you want to stay home? We’ve been home all day.”

“Stay home. Stay home. Stay home.”

He wins this one because for sure we don’t want to go to our favorite sushi place and have him scream, “Home. Home. Home. I want to go home.”

I turn on the oven. Put some potatoes in to bake. I quick-brine some chicken thighs. Seven minutes before we sit down to eat, Max looks at me and says, “I thought we were going to sushi.”

I would like to stick my hands into his head and turn his brain around. I would like, at that moment, to massage some consistency into his head. But then, if consistent, he would not be Max.

•••

How do you talk people into doing things? How do you convince three-year-olds? Is the process the same? Think of the poor vegetarian. He wants to convince you that eating animals is disgusting. It’s bad for your health, for the planet, and for the animal. You’d think the best way for him to start was to serve you a pig’s head, make you confront your demons, your evil, your sin. But something happens to the human mind. It resists conversion, at least when it comes to fat and meat. The stomach that a moment ago churned against the idea of popping an eyeball now somehow sends signals to the salivary glands to make them water. The vegetarian is aghast that you are chewing on an ear right in front of him. You offer him the other ear. He does not take a bite. You are at an impasse. No converts this night.

•••

I spend my life trying to convince Max to do what I want him to do. To put on shoes. To eat some broccoli. To go to sleep my god please go to sleep. But the point of having kids in the first place is to be converted unto them.

“Yesterday, there was a bird on my bed who told me I should be Spiderman and he gave me webs. I should take my webs outside and fight the bad guys.”

“Who are the bad guys?”

“There are no bad guys, mama. Come outside and see.” And Max takes me outside to show me where he would shoot his webs if there were bad guys but now there are only hummingbirds.

“See? No bad guys. No webs. Hummingbirds.”

“You like hummingbirds, Max?”

“I love hummingbirds.”

And thus, the religion of Max.

•••

If you name the pig snout “liebe,” you have a naming strategy akin to religion’s. Eucharist for cracker. Wine for blood. If you make eating pig head something you do every six weeks when Bob and Sue come to town, you have the routine of Sunday church-going, Easter, Christmas. If you repeat it in the right order. If you anoint the pig’s head with olive oil, if you say Grace in the form of, oh my god, I can’t eat that, and then do, you will have your Christ. Your farm-to-table religion. You are leading by example. While everyone else eats bacon, you are sacrificing by crunching an eyeball between your teeth. Transubstantiation. The idea of transforming yourself is what religion is really good at. Conversion is as satisfying as eating pig’s fat. It’s even better that you had once been so confirmed in your original morality: no eyeballs for me! And yet now, you wake up some nights craving the jelly pop of eye.

•••

Max convinces me every day, not by the power of persuasion but by the power of naming and ritual. Those are not cowboy boots. I want juice—not in a cup but in a cup. My face is not dirty. This is not even face. It is dirt. And dirt should be dirty. “Mama, you should sleep by me.”

“But this is not my bed,” he says, trying to convince me I should sleep there. He points to his bed. “It is your bed.” He pats the pillow. “Sleep by me.” I lie down. I can sleep in my bed tomorrow, I tell myself. Perhaps conversion is a daily thing.

I used to think I was a bad mother for Max. I had been, to my mind, a good, patient, not-argumentative mother with Zoe. But lately I’ve been thinking that Zoe converted me first to her own religion. She wanted to keep the tent up in the front room for six weeks on end. We let her. She made me and Erik lie down on the floor so she could cover my face with washcloths and say “go to sleep.” We did. She only ate food cut into the shape of squares. Max has a whole different list of jobs for me. How do I become the better mother?

•••

Max asks for hot juice.

“You mean cold juice.”

“Hot. Juice.”

“I do not think you would like hot juice.”

“I want hot juice. Please.”

The “please” convinces me. Maybe hot juice is the new thing. I get out the orange juice from the fridge. I take out a pan. I pour some juice. I turn the heat on low. At what temperature should one heat juice?

I drain the warmish juice into a sippy cup. He takes a sip. Hands me back the cup. “I don’t like it.”

Ha! I’ve won, I think. But then who is the person getting out, pouring out the hot juice, replacing it with cold? Converted again.

The pig, too, with its hot, juicy fat wins the argument. Pig is persuasive.

•••

I read something the other day about a woman getting her family’s priorities in order. Love god first, then love husband, then love children, she wrote. If you take it to the next level, what you love keeps spiraling. Love eyeballs. Love pigs. Become a vegetarian. The vegetarians lack pig fat, ritual, and the renaming of products for other products. Even mock chicken they call “mock” chicken. The chef work involved to make vegetarian food is mostly chopping, not digging in or butchering or rendering. I love the hard work of finding crab meat even in the tiny tendrils of legs reminiscent of insects’. Maybe, though, work isn’t the way to get to God. Maybe, the easiness of tofu is.

Convert means to turn and look the other way. Max says, “Look here,” so I look. It’s easy. The doing is as easy as the saying. What do I see? I see the lilacs he calls birds and the squirrels he calls punch guys and the hummingbirds with spiderlike webs and I am born again. I call my pig cheek, pork. That is easier too.

•••

My friend Jesse called me the other day. Jesse’s a former tow truck company owner, former bouncer, former meth head, present adventurer. No one really grins anymore, but Jesse grins.

“I found one.”

“One what?”

“A pig’s head.”

“From where.”

“My friend. He raises pigs down in Camp Verde. He’ll give us a baby head.”

I had mentioned to Jesse that I wanted to cook a pig’s head but now I’m having second thoughts. Jesse knows everyone. Even pig farmers, apparently. I should have told someone who had no friends in Camp Verde who grew pigs. I should have told someone who had no friends.

But if that Jesse and I were going to do this thing, we had to convince others to join us. We couldn’t eat one pig’s head between the two of us. It would be wasteful. We wanted to start a movement. We needed to persuade some people this was a good idea. Not just flavor-wise. Not just adventure. But that it’s a good thing to do. Head-to-tail. Hard to do. Confront what you’re eating. Literally face-to-face. If we’re going to do this thing, let’s do it. Let’s make the big bigger. Come on. Come with us. One of us isn’t enough to achieve critical mass. But two is enough for missionary work.

•••

When Erik brings Zoe home from school, he and she find Max and me in our cowboy boots with gloves on. We are drinking hot juice. This time, apple. Out of a yellow cup. We are eating packing peanuts from Microsoft—the kind that are made out of corn starch. We offer some to Zoe. She tries, one. Says it needs salt. Max and I nod and shake salt onto the Styrofoam. We sing Styrofoam, Peanut, Styrofoam, Peanut until we convince Erik to try one.

“Tastes like Pirate’s Booty,” he says. We’ll see if we can convince Erik’s mom to try some next. She’s a vegetarian so I don’t have hope she’ll join the pig-head-eating sect but the Styrofoam-peanut sect—a good back up choice, if all other bacon-y persuasions fail.

•••

NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg  (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Runaway Mom

snowglobe
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Angel Sands Gunn

As I drive around the blind corner past the red barn, gravel shoots behind the wheels of my car. The kids clamor for the radio to be louder, and then they descend into bickering. Clinging to the steering wheel, I am suddenly struck by the notion that my life seems surreal. Like I am not even here. When a school bus appears at the turn, I swerve. A cloud of dust envelops my car. I stomp the brakes.

“Don’t fight while I’m driving.” I pant towards the back seat. “It’s dangerous.”

The problem is not with my family. It’s with my thinking. I have been frustrated trying to re-enter the world after ten years home with children, and I feel guilt for my desires. Like I have to choose between achievement and family. However, even my family feels on the edge of a breakdown.

•••

Valentine’s Day was a disaster. Edward and I fought and decided not to bother going out. Since then, we can’t talk about even the most mundane topics without fighting.

“Orange tiles? For a bathroom?”

“You said you liked the ones in the subway.”

We’re renovating the house. It’s a big project, and I keep resisting. With kids in school full-time now, I don’t like the house to be my main project. Even thinking the word “housewife” makes me cringe. I imagine our house sitting atop my chest, like I’m the Wicked Witch of the West. The house contains all the mundane tasks and chores that never end and seem to be my sole purpose in life.

Edward tells me how the tiles used in the subway are different from the product called “subway tiles,” that the name came from another association. When he slams his computer shut, I wonder how we got here again. I tell him that I’m not fighting. I don’t even care. He can do everything his way. Count me in. The girls come into the room demanding a snack.

“Please get it yourselves. You aren’t toddlers.”

After a few minutes, they start fighting, too. I send them to their rooms and lock myself in the bathroom. Suddenly, I’m throwing things: saline solution, toothpaste, lotions. Perfumed liquids splatter on the wall, the floor. I smell the sticky sweetness of beauty products. I throw them out thinking how useless they’ve been.

Gray hair hangs in my eyes as I sprawl on the cement floor. There was a time when I was an actress, scholar, professional. I won awards and scholarships. Didn’t I? Now, even my meager volunteer efforts doing grant writing for the kids’ school have been thwarted. A paid position became available, and the administration didn’t even ask if I was interested. Not that I want that kind of work. I don’t know what I want. But it still hurt.

My heart pounds against the floor. I think of the burden of unfulfilled potential. I remember a college class I took called “Sociology of the Sex Roles.” We read Naomi Wolf, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan. I never imagined I could be like one of the women profiled in Friedan’s study of housewives, The Feminine Mystique. I remember thinking those women unenlightened, living in the shadow of husbands and forfeited careers, aspiring to nothing but successful children and domestic harmony. The study showed that many of the women suffered from depression, despite their domestic good fortune—their healthy children and pampered life. Friedan called it “the problem that has no name.” I never thought it could happen to me, but today, lying on this bathroom floor, I know. I’ve got it.

•••

I get up, clean the mess, and let Edward in the bathroom. He supports the idea of my taking a break. We decide that I should go to the Catskills, where we spend the summers. Five days will be the longest that I have been away from the family since my oldest was born, ten years ago. Since then, I haven’t really worked, except writing, which is more than work to me. It’s my lifeline.

My younger daughter, Beth, tells me she will not hug me when I return. She juts out her bottom lip, making the saddest face I have ever seen.

“You can’t go.”

“I’ll miss you.” Harper, my older daughter, sighs. “Did you tell Dad about piano…and soccer?”

•••

After I take them to school, I follow iPhone directions to the Catskills. It feels good to be on a road trip. I used to drive eight hours alone from Memphis to Chicago during college. I savor the thought of having hours and then days, alone. I listen to Grand Ole Opry recordings, research for my novel, set in the 1930s.

Somewhere in West Virginia, I stop to get gas. A man glances at me, and I see myself as he must, a woman on the highway alone, traveling with a little dog. Beth wanted to keep the golden retriever, her best companion, and it was the least I could do. But the Jack Russell in the passenger seat offers me no protection. I refrain from my habitual smile and return the nozzle to the pump. The sky looms heavy and gray. Snow is forecast for the region after five, but surely I will be there by then.

“Three hundred eighty-six miles on I-81 North,” the robot-female instructs, as I take the ramp back to the highway. My dashboard dings, and a snowflake appears next to the temperature reading. Thirty-eight degrees. Clouds gather over white-tipped mountains in the distance. I pass over dry pavement through Maryland to Pennsylvania when my iPhone beeps.

A low battery warning appears on the screen. I drive with one hand and search the glove compartment, doors, console, and back seat pockets. I picture the car charger, still new in the box, sitting on my closet shelf.

I get off at a Starbucks somewhere near Chambersburg. They might sell chargers. Haven’t I seen them alongside the coffee presses and CDs? The warm coffee smells like burnt cinnamon. I push my lips through steamed milk, fluffy and dense like snow clouds. I ask the clerk, but there’re no chargers for sale here. She sends me down the commercial road, looking for a large gas station or maybe a Radio Shack. An hour later, after buying and returning two incompatible chargers, I panic. It’s already four. I’ve lost too much time. I plug the third charger into the lighter outlet. Finally, a lightning bolt illumines the screen.

Back on 81, I drive thirty minutes, and traffic stops. An Oversize Load has fallen off a trailer. Police and several bulky men wearing orange vests wave flags and clear debris. Apparently, somebody thought it was a good idea to move an entire house from one place to another, rather than buy a new one.

As I progress into the mountainous region of Pennsylvania, I listen to news on the radio and notice snow on the roadside. The pavement seems wet but not icy. Cars keep up their usual pace, and I continue with my cruise control at seventy. However, it’s getting dark, and clouds seem to descend from the sky. Fog appears on the road.

I reassure myself that salt trucks have certainly already done their work. I am in the North now. They are used to this kind of weather. The temperature on my dashboard registers thirty-three, and traffic slows. I put on my hazard lights and search for my fog light. I turn off the chattering radio and listen to the sound of my wipers. An icy film develops on my windshield.

Taillights disappear into whiteness. I slow to thirty. I don’t see cars ahead of me, but occasionally an eighteen-wheeler appears from behind. I think how these heavy trucks can’t stop quickly downhill or on turns and, especially, on ice. I search for an exit. Coffee still coats my tongue. Patches of ice appear, and fog threatens to swallow my car whole. I grip the steering wheel and stare into the blinding white.

Then, it occurs to me. I am running away. I think of my grandmother crawling out the window, leaving only a note behind. “You’ll be better off without me.” I never understood how she could leave my mom and her two young siblings. I have wondered what urgent desire, need for self-preservation, or depression propelled her over that windowsill.

I remember a black and white photo of my grandmother from around the time she left. She leans against a rail, in a tailored suit. She has coiffed dark hair and a broad smile lined in lipstick. Her pale eyes beam and her body is posed like someone she must’ve seen in a magazine. She kicks her foot out to the side, lifts her chin. She must have been young, maybe thirty, perhaps on her way to work at the department store. Nobody would know from looking at her that she had abandoned her children.

My bones ache, and I panic at the thought that maybe I am programmed for flight, genetically doomed to do what my grandmother did, despite my best efforts to the contrary.

I have tried to be a good mother but, now, with my daughters in school, not needing me like they once did, I’m flailing. Edward supports what I want to do but no longer needs my financial contribution. At this point, I think I’m more useful to the family at home, and I want to write anyway. But I feel like a dependent, a child myself, and I can’t see the road to my future. It feels impenetrable. Like this fog.

Suddenly, a truck appears behind me, close to my bumper. I accelerate, afraid to move into the other lane, the one on the edge of the road, overlooking the valley. The truck passes and disappears again, like an apparition. A bell rings, and a digital snowflake blinks on my dash. On the road, a yellow sign reflects my headlights.

“Bridge May Be Icy.”

I cross onto wet steel. I can picture moisture freezing to crusty white ice, propelling my car into the cold river below.

I imagine the dog going down with me under icy waters. Perhaps trapped in the car. I wonder at what point we would look at each other and give up, conscious but unable to escape.

I’ll do better. Please.

The prayer slips out, a plea to God, in exchange for my life.

I try to focus on the road, which is no longer visible. I drive in a cloud, feeling motionless, though my dial says twenty miles per hour. I slow to ten, searching for pavement, for a sliver of grey.

An exit sign pops into view. The shiny, green metal points me to a side road. Finally, I am motionless, for a moment, at a stop sign. I heave a gasping cry. My relief is replaced by anxiety again as I drive, still in mountains, still swallowed by fog, until I finally come to a restaurant.

Inside, the waitress leaves the bar where truckers sit with beers and tells me about a motel nearby.

“It’s so foggy.” My speech feels slurred, and my knees shake, but I’m glad to be talking to another person.

“It gets like that here.” She wipes the window and points the way.

In the motel room, I call home. I tell them about the fog and not to worry. I’ll be back in five days.

•••

Later, in the Catskills, I re-read The Feminine Mystique. In one chapter, Friedan discusses an article written for McCall’s in 1956—“The Mother Who Ran Away.” It was after the war, and people idealized domestic life for women. When the story of a wife leaving her family earned the highest readership of any article the magazine had ever run, the editors were shocked. They had no idea so many women identified with the heroine’s discontent. One editor proclaimed, “It was our moment of truth.”

This moment is mine. Alone in the Catskills, I put down the worn paperback. Snow falls outside the window, adding to the blanket of snow that already rises above the porch. I consider how Friedan faced criticism for expressing the plight of only some women—the white, heterosexual, educated upper-middle-class ones. Feminism changed, somewhat, through the sixties and seventies, to be more inclusive and to address a broad range of women’s issues. Despite Friedan’s omissions and the differences in our times, I am surprised at the similarities I share with these women, interviewed fifty years ago.

“I have talked about it being an American woman’s problem, how you give up a career for children, and then you reach a point where you can’t go back,” Freidan wrote. “It is frightening when a woman finally realizes that there is no answer to the question ‘who am I’ except the voice inside herself.”

Her advice speaks to me, and I know I must answer the question I have buried for ten years. I am not my grandmother or the women from Friedan’s book or even the young woman I once was. But, now that the fog has cleared, I can see a path.

The lamp penetrates the grey day, casting a circle of yellow light. The smell of coffee wraps around me. I open my computer to my sprawling novel. I focus in, editing. The tapping of keys soothes me, words falling like footsteps across the page.

•••

ANGEL SANDS GUNN lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband and two daughters. She has been published on Literary Mama and The Voices Project. She also writes for Edible Blue Ridge Magazine and recently attended the Appalachian Writers Workshop. She is working on a novel about a West Virginia family during The Great Depression.

Seafoam Salad

greenleaf187
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Gayle Brandeis

Seafoam Salad is on the menu. If I were dining someplace fancier, I might picture this as a feat of molecular gastronomy, an expensive cloud of brine, but I have no idea what it might be here. I ask the server to describe the dish. “It’s like green Jello with stuff inside,” she says. I pass and ask for a regular green salad and buttered noodles, the only vegetarian items offered tonight.

I am sitting with my ninety-three-year-old dad in the dining room of the Olive Grove Retirement Community. This is where I landed after my husband and I decided to separate. I’ve reserved the guest apartment here for ten days as I look for a more permanent place to stay; today I’m three days in. This morning, I had breakfast with my dad and a man named LB. My dad warned me that his friend tells everyone, by rote, “LB stands for Lover Boy, but my wife says it stands for Lazy Boy.” Apparently I make the old guy shy; over our poached eggs and Malt O Meal, he said, “My wife says it means Lazy Boy, but I think it stands for,” and he paused, choosing his words carefully. “I think it stands for something much better.” He blushed and looked away.

•••

“Are you sure that’s where you want to start your life as a fun, single lady?” my nineteen-year-old daughter asked me before I moved in here. She’d just started her own fun, single life in New York a few months ago.

“I can’t imagine a better place,” I told her, and it’s true. This separation is not about being fun or single. It’s about being real, and where better to do that than amongst people confronting the end of their life? Plus it’s safe and clean—a lot safer and cleaner than the fleabag hotel where my three-year-old and I camped out the first two nights after I left our house. And it’s sweet to have my dad as my neighbor, my dining companion.

•••

My dad moved here a few months ago. He broke his hip last year, and after he got out of rehab seventy miles away, I moved him to an assisted living facility near my house. He’s recovered well enough to come to Olive Grove, a more active senior community, although he still requires care, and the loss of independence has been hard for him. He hates to rely on me for rides, to rely on caregivers to help him in and out of the shower.

“I wonder what life would be like if Mom were still here,” he often muses. He imagines he’d still be in Oceanside, that she would have snapped out of her delusions and taken care of him after his fall. I gently remind him that she wasn’t herself three and a half years ago, that she thought he was poisoning her and that he had sent a legion of minions out to attack her; she had come back from delusional episodes before, but this one was different–she was completely gone behind her eyes. A point of no return. She must have known that, too; she killed herself one week after I had given birth. Four months after my wedding.

•••

An apartment complex named Golden Oaks sits a block away from Olive Grove. I hate driving past it. The first time I saw the sign for Golden Oaks, I lost my breath; other times, the name made me cringe so hard, my muscles cramped. After my mom’s death, we learned that the random parking garage in South Pasadena where she had hanged herself was attached to a luxury senior apartment building also named Golden Oaks. There is nothing luxurious about the Golden Oaks in Riverside—the place looks more like a cheap motel than a permanent residence, and somehow that makes its presence even more upsetting. When my dad first considered moving to Olive Grove, I wondered how I would survive seeing “Golden Oaks” on a regular basis. Over time, however, it has gotten easier; the sign has become a homeopathic remedy of sorts, an inoculation—taken in small doses, the name of the building has less power over me.

•••

Not quite four months after my mom’s suicide, my husband’s mom died of an unexpected heart attack. Friends marveled at how well we were coping at the time, and I suppose on the surface we were. We poured our energy into buying and renovating a house and into taking care of our baby, whose joyful presence seemed the perfect antidote for grief. But fissures were opening beneath us—after my husband’s mom died, I didn’t feel supported as I continued to grapple with my loss, and my husband didn’t feel supported as he grappled with his own. Unspoken resentments built up inside us, growing toxic. We both lost respect for each other; we both felt drained by one another’s presence. In a strange bit of psychodrama, we each projected annoying aspects of our dead mom’s personalities onto each other—my husband started to see me as selfish, like my mom; I started to see him as weak, like his.

We didn’t acknowledge any of this was happening until six months ago when I entered a charged long distance communication with another man, and my husband discovered it, and everything blew up in our faces. We went to counseling, we promised to live our lives in a more “brave, open, and honest” way, but it wasn’t working; our house became more and more tense and claustrophobic, and I became more and more despondent and restless. When we broached the possibility of a separation, such a deep sense of relief washed through me that I knew it was the right thing to do. We realized we each need our own space to reconnect with ourselves, to do the inner work we neglected when we were picking out our recycled glass countertops and reclaimed wood floors.

•••

I can breathe more fully in the guest apartment at Olive Grove, with its musty fake flower arrangements and its big wooden console TV, than I’ve been able to in ages. The space isn’t buzzing with conflict. The walls are empty of history—at least of my own. I can crawl under the cabbage rose bedspread and know no one will be seething next to me. And on the days my son is here with me, he loves it, too—the couch has become a great mountain for his action figures to climb, and there’s a pool, and many long hallways to explore.

I feel like we’re in a sitcom sometimes as we walk down the halls—someone should pitch that to a network: single mother and child move into retirement home and wreak havoc. Not that we’re wreaking havoc here, at least not much; the residents generally smile as Asher runs past them in their walkers and wheelchairs and motorized scooters, seemingly grateful for the burst of youth he brings to the place. And at forty-five, I feel suddenly young and vibrant, myself, thankful for my strong and sturdy limbs, my freedom of movement. Being here reminds me that this won’t always be the case. I usually wear board shorts over my bathing suit when I swim, self-conscious of my thighs, but when I go to the pool in the building’s courtyard, I keep my shorts off. Here, I have nothing to hide.

•••

Last week, I led a seminar called “A Year to Live” at the MFA program where I teach. The class was all about using awareness of our mortality to write our most urgent and meaningful work. We crafted our own obituaries and made lists of the things that get our hearts pounding so we’d remember to infuse those passions and fears into our work. We talked about how to live our writing lives so we won’t have any regrets when we come to the end of the road. I warned the class that such explorations can be dangerous—they force us to look honestly at how we’re living our lives, and if we’re not happy with what we see, that can force us to make some uncomfortable changes. Preparing for the class helped prepare me for this separation. And living here at Olive Grove is like a continuation of the class, extra credit, reminders of mortality everywhere I turn.

•••

The servers deliver trays of Seafoam Salad around the dining room and it’s actually quite beautiful, bricks of opaque pastel green gel. I almost regret not ordering it as I watch my fellow residents dig in, but I enjoy my leafy greens and my noodles, and the Fruits of the Forest pie I order later for dessert. The residents here tend to eat with gusto—and complain with equal passion when they’re disappointed in their meal. Food is one pleasure still within their grasp. I look around the room at all the folks with their white hair and stooped shoulders and varying degrees of vitality, and I think about how much life every single one of them has experienced and endured. How many stories live inside their skin. And I am filled with a sudden surge of resolve; they’ve survived a lot, and I can, too.

“Are you full enough, honey?” my dad asks me, and even though I find myself hungrier for life, for experience, than I have in a good long while, part of me does feel satisfied, even at peace. I turn to him and say “Yes, Papa. Yes I am.”

•••

GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young people, My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award. She released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an ebook in 2011. Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and is mom to two adult kids and a toddler. She was named a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer magazine and served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014. She and her husband reconciled after a several month separation, and are looking forward to moving to the Lake Tahoe area this summer.