After the End

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Cameron Gearen

There comes a time when you’ve seen the underside of the bus too many times. When you stand up, brush yourself off, and decide you will not be near the bus when it comes flying by. That you’ll be beside it or away from there, but not under.

•••

Three days before our twentieth wedding anniversary, my husband told me he was leaving the marriage. He had talked of being unhappy for some time. We had spent years—weekly—in the office of a marriage counselor. But this time he meant it: he planned to leave. When I asked about the timing, he said he couldn’t stand to go through with the anniversary. I cancelled the hotel, the babysitter. I couldn’t return the custom gift I’d had made for him, a drawing I commissioned by his artist cousin depicting a note that was important to us both from our first months together. If you are wondering why, of two people in the same marriage, one would be commissioning art for a gift while the other would be planning his moment of exit, then you have a good point. We were not, as they say, on the same page.

•••

Before that, many good years.

Our two daughters and I would wait for him to come home at the end of the workday. Since I was a classroom teacher, I got home first. We would sit on the front steps of our house and watch the corner for his bike to come around it. Then there was a race and happy shouts, girls running toward their daddy, my husband: he would stop on the sidewalk and ruffle their hair, listening to their important stories about their days. Up the stairs together, all four, and into the house for dinner. Even as I write this, I can still feel how much his face, his smile, him, would melt me back then.

It’s palpable, the change. Slowly he started to withdraw his hand from mine. One day we finished an errand early and found ourselves without kids, near a favorite restaurant downtown where we had a gift certificate. I suggested we park and grab a meal, just the two of us with a stolen hour. He wanted to go back home and get our kids first. Not because the sitter had to go. Like the anniversary, he couldn’t face the meal alone with me. That’s what we did. We fetched the kids, let the sitter go, and ate as a family.

Say what you like. Maybe it was the brutal cancer treatment I did, coming on the heels of some difficult years as I recovered from childhood sexual abuse. But I’ve seen other couples with as much on their plate, strengthened by the challenges, bolstered by the hard work. I’ve seen it done—with nerve and with grace.

•••

It was probably already too late when we started couples’ therapy.

The pattern became familiar.

Our hour with the clinician began.

My husband would point out my flaw: You don’t fight fair. Something.

I’d agree with him and hustle to change my pattern. (Who doesn’t have a flaw or three?) I’d work on it hard with my own therapist for a week or two until I could shift, show progress. I loved him and I really wanted my treasured marriage to work, so I did it.

The next week he’d agree I had addressed the original flaw and improved. But he had a new flaw for me to work on.

Ad infinitum.

•••

I shouldn’t take online quizzes. I take them sometimes, looking for an answer. What changed? When I see that he gets a 25-out-of-25 as I score him for “behavior your spouse might show if he’s having an affair,” I’m sad for us. It doesn’t ring true—I don’t believe he would cheat. He says no when I ask. In my mind, I retitle the quiz “behavior your spouse might show if he has removed himself emotionally from the marriage.”

•••

Once we moved to Chicago, we would occasionally walk with our daughters by the looming stone building with gargoyles where we spent our wedding night almost twenty years before. I remember we’d had the penthouse suite that night and I’d stood by the leaded glass windows in the dark, watching the full moon over Lake Michigan. I’d felt full of magic and promise that night, like the luckiest girl in the world: sent off by my loving family into the arms of this perfect man.

Whenever we passed the building with the girls all those years later, in the thick of the crowd on the sidewalk, I would point my daughters up to that floor, to that night, where their parents’ official union began. He would shove his hands deeper into his pockets and walk on, ahead of us, silent. They knew not to ask me what was wrong with Dad. We followed in his wake.

There were so many signs, had I wished to read them.

•••

We married in February, my attempt to add something—our love, our anniversary—to a month that, with its gray end-of-winter, wasn’t my favorite. If I disliked February before, I now loathe it. November, the month our divorce was final, bookends the grief. The specific days within those months: February 26 the delirious beginning, November 2 the sober end. Time will return the months to me. Soon I will say to myself, What day was it again? And in this way be healed.

•••

He was livid that I sometimes took a sticker off a piece of fruit and, instead of throwing the sticker immediately away, affixed it to the side of the kitchen sink briefly until throwing it away later. Livid.

He was upset that he had to be the one to make coffee for my visiting, out-of-town friend when he thought I should have made it for her, should have gotten up a half hour earlier.

The bad years. The last ten.

•••

Under the bus. I lived there. Thrown or situated there of my own will. Even in that ditch, I remembered my spunky self who had lost her voice.

Among the signs, according to the Internet:

One partner creates a more private life.

The hours he stayed up with his computer after I went to bed.

His refusal to introduce me to his new friends. “I’ll be back late.”

His weekly poker game to which I wasn’t invited.

His solo appearance to his work holiday party.

His refusal to give permission for our couples’ therapist to speak to his personal therapist.

•••

Disclaimer: Yes, people do find they are in the wrong marriage. He did.

Disclaimer: People can also leave their marriage.

Disclaimer: I’m sure I have many annoying qualities.

Disclaimer: But I have great qualities too. Loving truly and never quitting are two.

Disclaimer: Yes, he can still leave. And he did.

Disclaimer: I don’t get to understand it from his point of view. But I know how I felt. I felt finished.

•••

On the day our divorce was final, almost twenty-four years after our wedding day, I had lunch with my mother. I think I had tuna sashimi and barely touched it, took it home. I think I had wine at two p.m. I kept insisting I was fine, but some iceberg inside me was calving. Later that day, I got an email from my now ex-husband. It was about dividing bank accounts. He said that all in court had “gone smoothly.” (In Illinois, only the one who files must go to court. I stayed home.) It had been so long and, since there was no going back or changing his mind, I did want to be free, but I couldn’t help splintering a little more as I read that note from him. We had undone what we did that beautiful, snowy, hopeful February day so long ago. He did not say there were many things I loved about being married to you. He did not say thank you for the love. I didn’t say those things either. He said that the divorce went smoothly and here are the forms I should sign to divide the assets.

•••

I stayed for my children and because I believed we were having a “rough patch.”

I am not religious, but I believed marriage was forever. At least I believed my marriage was.

I believed in our past. We had been happy. I believed that that husband would come back.

I stayed because I loved him.

•••

February 23, 2014. We were both watching an early hockey game on TV. The weak, February sunlight filtered in through the bay windows of our rented apartment in Chicago. Our pre-teen daughters were asleep. I was on the side of the couch closest to the wall, and he was on the side closest to the doorway. He stood and turned the TV off to make the room silent. Then he told me quietly that it was over and he was leaving. He said he was leaving.

•••

When he graduated from his Ph.D. program the year before that, a triumph even the girls had been involved in, he didn’t want us to fly and attend the ceremony with him.

Of course we would! I said. And I bought the plane tickets.

In his blue robe and cap, in all the photos, his disappointment is evident. He didn’t want to celebrate with us. Or maybe just with me. Like the anniversary, the meal out, birthdays. Like the night of Obama’s second election when I had two VIP tickets and I took a friend because he, a huge Obama fan, preferred to stay home on that same couch. My younger daughter saw me on TV that night. I was in the front row—with a friend.

•••

Once, when I was sobbing at the mediator several months after that fateful February morning of the hockey game and my husband was joking with her, turning on the charm, I asked him why he had filed for divorce.

At first he didn’t hear me over the laughter, so I repeated my question.

He said—smiling, directing his comment to the mediator—“Oh, you weren’t meeting my needs.”

Then they smiled together about it.

I got a lawyer.

•••

I’m embarrassed that I tried for as long as I did.

•••

Two years after my cancer diagnosis, I wrote in a journal that he had said to me that day: “I’m having a midlife crisis and I don’t know how I feel about you.”

It’s a tired old line. This exact line is #14 in the Internet quiz of twenty-five items.

Which doesn’t mean he was having an affair. But it does mean he was removing himself emotionally.

•••

I thought I wouldn’t survive it, his leaving.

The man I had planned to die next to, whom I had loved with all my cells, was gone—to his weekly poker game, his friends, maybe even to his sadness. He took the dining room table and one of the cars, and he was entitled to that. The kids and I were home after school and work, on weekends, and no one would be coming back from work by bicycle just before dinner.

I especially hated the weekends I spent alone when the kids went to his house. I wrote my way through them, pages I would make sure no one ever saw but that still got me to morning. I hardly noticed as it became less acute, as I didn’t need to call a friend or force myself to go to a movie, as I could sink into the evening and know that whatever it brought would be fine. I got to know myself again. I rediscovered my natural spunk, a ferocity that had been burnished during my married years.

The idea that we won’t survive something is a failure of imagination. Now I know: I might not have survived his staying. I’m sure I would have had all the trappings of being alive and fine—but my spirit. Being on my own gave me my spirit back.

•••

He liked to say, especially in couples’ therapy sessions, that he thought I suffered from borderline personality disorder. The first time he said it, I was worried and suggestible. That was a big claim, an incendiary one. He was “diagnosing” me with a disorder that doesn’t respond well to treatment or medication. I went back to my own therapist, with her Ph.D. and thirty years of experience, and I asked her. I asked her, crying, shrinking into the comfy green chair where I spent a lot of time these days. She laughed kindly. She said, “You have PTSD. That’s it,” referring to the fall-out of the childhood sexual abuse I suffered from. Later I asked my psychiatrist as well, my glamorous runner psychiatrist who vacationed in farthest south Chile, who was also a mom: warm and compassionate, worthy of respect, who knew me well. She also swore that that was not my diagnosis.

I was reassured by their confidence. I had confidence in their confidence.

But he and I had to discuss it many times when he brought it to the couples’ therapist over and over.

A marriage starts to unravel. So many things are said, and most of them are best forgotten. But this piece, this particular grenade he lobbed and relobbed. This “claim” or “concern”: it is outside the way I believe people should be treated. It’s the thing I’ll remember, sadly, more than the father coming home by bike, more than our happy years when he still enjoyed dining out with me. I will remember this little piece of cruelty—repeated and sharp. I looked at him and wondered what in the world, who in the world? And although I didn’t know it yet, I was looking at the end. And the beginning of my spunky, messy life. Hard-won. It turned out that I could survive his leaving. I imagined it, and then I stepped toward that life, my life, the one that had been waiting for me.

•••

CAMERON GEAREN is a poet and essayist living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Dame Magazine, Hippocampus, Ravishly, and elsewhere. She is the Writer-in-Residence at the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. In 2016, her book of poems, Some Perfect Year, came out from Shearsman Press. On Twitter she’s @camerongearen.

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The Kidney Who Came to Dinner

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Scott Gerace

“I just had my third kidney transplant.”

He revealed this fact to me on our second date, as I put a forkful of the insalata di frisee in my mouth at the Italian restaurant he’d recommended for dinner.

“I’m sorry?” I said, trying to swallow without appearing overwhelmed by the kidney that suddenly arrived at the table.

“Yeah, I don’t like to get into this conversation so soon after meeting someone. But I wanted you to know what’s been going on with me,” he explained.

Rick, or Rican Rick as he called himself on the dating app where we met, was forty-eight, one year older than me, Puerto Rican, balding, bearded, and four inches shorter than my usual preference in potential suitors. Scootercrunch, my online moniker, was newly single after a two-year relationship that soured, dissatisfied with his corporate communications job, and searching for “the real thing” by finally swapping out drunken hook-ups for serious dating.

I hadn’t expected “serious” to translate to a man who spent most of his adult life on dialysis, dealing with one failed kidney after another.

“What else you got?” I joked in an attempt to unpack all his baggage before the entrees arrived.

“Well, I haven’t really worked in seven years.”

And there it was. This attractive man, obviously thin and dealing with a disease, played his whole hand as my roasted chicken and his pasta nudged in between me, him, his kidney, and his unemployment.

The big revelations in gay dating usually consisted of HIV status, recent STDs, favorite sexual positions, and whether or not one of you suffered a serious porn addiction. On a recent date, a middle school English teacher sipped Merlot and plainly announced, “I like to come home after work, smoke a joint, and watch porn.” I immediately sensed I’d be third in line behind weed and over-the-top orgasms. Now that I was confronted with real life problems, I was unsure how to address my feelings about them.

“This is not the man for you,” said my friend James, when I told him about Rick.

“There are some serious red flags going on here,” said my sister during our weekly phone chats.

“Absolutely not! We’ve already had enough death and illness from cancer, let alone bad kidneys.” That was my brother, who begged me not to take on someone with health problems.

Cancer lurked in the shadows waiting to take the next member of the family—at least that was our fatalistic outlook. First our father from brain cancer almost twenty years ago and then more recently our mother after a brutally quick three-month battle with lymphoma.

Our working class parents weren’t the care-giving kind. The sympathy gene never made it to the next generation. You had a cold; you tried your best to go to school. God help you if you stayed home with the sniffles and spent time whiling away the hours watching television.

“If I come home and find you had that TV on, you’ll get the belt,” assured my father.

And he wasn’t kidding. He’d march upstairs to press his hand on the back of the TV to determine if any offenders had snuck into our parent’s bedroom and watched afternoon soap operas. The trick? Only keep it on until three p.m. so it had an hour to cool before his arrival home.

When our mother struggled with cancer, my siblings and I badgered doctors, questioned nursing home administrators and attempted to rally my mother out of her own feelings of doom. But we already loved her. She wasn’t someone new entering our lives.

I often teased my brother that when we got older I’d move in with him and spend our remaining days as brothers drinking and helping each other to the bathroom. “Look pal, it’s bad enough you’ll live here when you’re old, but I’m not taking in some guy with a bad kidney,” he concluded.

For Rick, an ongoing battle with renal failure combined with fear of romantic rejection seemed easily outmatched by my battery of questions and confessions of uncertainty on entering this relationship. In his former working life, he managed a career in the mental health field, so I was on the defensive from his comebacks to my questions.

“What would I do if you got sick again?” I inquired.

“Well, Scott, you could easily get sick anytime too.” Touché.

I told him to watch out as both my parents died of cancer, and I was surely the next one to be afflicted. He found my sense of humor troubling.

“What happens when I come home from a tough day at the office and I say you don’t understand because you don’t work?” I hoped being up front and honest would win me points.

“So it sounds to me like Scott would have feelings of resentment,” he suggested.

“What about a year from now when you’re still not working?”

“You’re assuming things will be a certain way a year from now, aren’t you?”

He made valid points as I learned how Medicare and a supplemental plan covered his medical bills and how he maintained a living. What I didn’t like was his therapeutic approach in response to my honest hesitations.

When he stumbled once in conversation, I joked, “You’re not stroking out on me are you?” A long pause filled the air.

“Don’t tell me you’ve had a stroke before?” I asked.

“Well, they’re not sure what it was,” he replied.

“Are you kidding me?”

He wasn’t.

During my last relationship with a guy six years my junior, we were dating only a few months when an evening of Mexican food resulted in him rushing to the restroom repeatedly with stomach cramps.

“You’ve got a sensitive stomach,” I proclaimed, chalking his boo-boo belly up to the spicy salsa we just ate.

“No, this is not salsa pain. It’s something more serious,” he said.

“You’re fine. Gosh, what are you going to do when you hit your forties like me?”

My poor attempt at a belly pain diagnosis backfired. The next day he summoned me from work as they wheeled him from the ER into the operating room to remove his swollen appendix. All the while he glared at me with an unspoken “I told you” from underneath the silly surgical hat crammed on to his head. Any ache or pain announced during the rest of our two-year courtship immediately ignited my fears, and I quickly encouraged him to see a doctor or head straight to urgent care.

Our love story already had begun taking shape when the appendix appeared right after that chips and salsa appetizer. And, that was not a chronic illness defined by stages and the possibility of failure. My former boyfriend’s appendix wasn’t making a comeback. Kidney failure, on the other hand, remained a possibility for Rick.

I started to question my goodness and whether I was a bad person for wanting to pass him over because of his maladies or lack of current career mobility. As a grown adult I confessed to ending brief affairs of the heart by ignoring calls or texts or coming up with transparent excuses. It was hard to hate yourself for following a dating blueprint adopted by millions of others. But meeting a truly genuine and honest person confronting real-life struggles and dismissing them outright seemed cruel.

I agreed to another date.

In between our meetings, Rick wondered aloud about sex and when we’d explore physical affection. I kept things strictly above the waist and insisted that somewhere between date three and date ten “something surely was bound to happen.”

But it didn’t.

Sunday brunch and casual shopping served as our third date’s agenda. He arrived fifteen minutes late, a pattern I noticed once the kidney and career conversations took a back seat. Before settling on a selection or deciding on a non-purchase, he subjected every waiter or retailer to a multitude of questions and follow-ups. He complimented my good skin repeatedly as if nothing else interesting about me stood out. My humor, Rick pointed out, wasn’t always necessary, and I needed to listen more and talk less.

I wasn’t a bad person, simply someone on a bad date … a third one of my own making. Forget the kidney, and possibly a stroke. No burning romance ignited inside my heart. There was a sense of emotional availability for sure; we certainly talked about his feelings and what he needed. What my brain forgot was why I started seriously dating again in the first place.

I yearned for a true meaningful connection with another man who complimented my late forties skin, yes, but also my wicked sense of humor and my ambitions. I didn’t need analysis—and while the thought of dialysis didn’t exactly excite me—I did need some stirring below the waist to know that sex wasn’t going to wait until date ten.

I agonized over how to tell Rick my heart just wasn’t in it. Friends told me to get over it and rip the band-aid off now, and early, before feelings took shape or sex slipped in to fill the expected next step I swerved to avoid.

We met a final time a week later, having already purchased theater tickets in advance. I waited between nervously devouring the guacamole and paying the bill to tell Rick that this felt more like a friendship than a budding romance. He listened, of course.

“How do you feel about it?” I prompted him.

He paused for a few minutes before replying. “You know. I think we have very different communication styles.”

It felt like the first real connection and mutual agreement we had since meeting.

After the show we chatted briefly on a cold, windy street corner and hugged goodbyes, promising to stay in touch. We haven’t. I watched him confidently walk down the street, moving on to the next adventure life held in store for him, and I did the same.

I was hung up on his physical ailments and lack of a job too quickly, which delayed my discovery of the real issue—our incompatibility. It wasn’t so much about health or career. Of course they mattered when taking in the whole of a potential mate. And yet, it really did come down to the fact that we simply had no chemistry. Rick wasn’t right for me or I for him. Someone needed to say it and save us both from grasping for companionship so blindly rather than patiently staying single.

Truthfully, the kidney mattered too. I wasn’t ready to love someone who brought renal failure as a possible third wheel in our relationship. But with Rick, I hope I did my best to take care of his heart while I practiced stretching mine.

  • ••

SCOTT GERACE is a corporate writer by day and an essayist by night. He currently resides in New York City. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post and Purple Clover. Read his work at www.scottgerace.com.

Spectrum

Photo by Ishwar/Flickr

By Fiona Tinwei Lam

RED (life)

My partner was brewing a pungent, murky brown concoction on the stove. The label on the box beside the stove listed burdock root, slippery elm bark, sheep sorrel, and turkey rhubarb root, but it gave me no clue as to the purpose of the ingredients.

“What’s it for?” I asked, sniffing the pot.

Ted mumbled something unintelligible.

“Is it a laxative?” I asked.

“Not exactly.”

“For digestive problems?”

He paused. “Nope.”

Puzzled, I tried again. As a custom cabinet-maker, he had been working long hours and weekends but seemed energetic and healthy. “Is it for your anemia?” Several months before, he had been diagnosed with a severe iron deficiency, but he’d been taking a supplement.

“Kind of.”

I made a few more failed guesses. Finally, he said flatly and quietly, “It’s for cancer.”

I stared at him. “Why on earth do you think you have cancer?”

He kept stirring the pot. “I’ve been passing blood.”

When I urged him emphatically to see the doctor for more tests, he shrugged. He carefully poured the steaming brew through a sieve into a couple of large jars, not spilling a single drop. “I guess I should.”

•••

Several weeks later, we sat with the gastroenterologist in a small examining room, looking at a color print-out of the images taken during an internal scan of Ted’s intestines. One image revealed subtle polyps that looked hardly more sinister than crimson crayon scrawls. Another image showed the slight bulge of a small polyp that resembled a small fleshy boil or pimple. But then there was the final image: it looked like a blob of gummy red gelatin encasing curled-up maggots. It filled a third of the intestinal tunnel and resembled a fetal mouse or fetal frog. I repressed an instinctive shudder.

“It’s cancer,” the doctor said without drama. “I took a biopsy, but I’m fairly certain.”

So this was what cancer looked like from the inside. Ted’s father had died over two decades earlier of complications following stomach cancer surgery. A decade earlier, Ted`s eldest sister had died of colorectal cancer at the age of fifty-seven. Years of gruelling chemotherapy, radiation and experimental therapies had failed to stop its spread. We were informed that people with a first-degree relative with colorectal cancer are at a higher risk of developing it. Being the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer after prostate cancer for men, it is the second leading cause of death from cancer overall, although if detected early, it is over ninety percent curable.

The doctor matter-of-factly went through the process that we’d be going through: staging to determine how far the cancer had spread, an ultrasound and CT scan, analysis of the biopsy results, a referral to a surgeon. He drew a diagram of the kind of bowel resection surgery that Ted could expect to undergo—it looked deceptively simple, a cross between plumbing repair and alterations at a tailor’s.

Strangely, neither Ted nor I was alarmed. Perhaps we’d used up our storehouse of apprehension during the weeks leading up to the colonoscopy From this moment on, he would go through the necessary tests and procedures with all the hoops and steps laid out for him. It was as if we were both buckled into the seat of a medical amusement park ride called “the oncological flow chart.” A positive result on one test might lead to a diversion down a more complex chain of procedures; a negative result might lead to a positive destination reached in a shorter time. None of the flow charts in the cancer brochures led to the word “death.” But it existed, unwritten, just over the edge.

•••

We arrived for Ted’s surgery at Vancouver’s historic St. Paul’s hospital on the first day of August. As we dutifully followed the painted red line on the floor through the body of the older buildings into the newer sections, we passed commemorative plaques about the nuns who had fundraised on horseback at mining and logging camps to raise funds to found the hospital at a time when the current downtown site was located on the outskirts of wilderness.

Little did we know how familiar we would become with that brick edifice with its threading red line. Advised initially that he might expect a stay of five days, Ted would remain there for over four weeks. I would be taking the bus there daily, sometimes twice daily, for the remainder of the summer.

 

VIOLET (spirit)

We’d prepared for weeks before the surgery, going in for Ted’s appointments with the surgeon and for scans, as well as to the pre-admission clinic to review hospital checklists, instructions, and test results which I gathered in a purple file folder on the kitchen counter near the phone. That file became both compass and hub through the summer and fall.

On the morning of the operation, we were the first to arrive at the day surgery department at what seemed like any typical waiting room—institutional chairs arranged against the pastel walls, a coffee table with outdated magazines. After he checked in at the reception desk, Ted changed into a hospital gown and we sat together until he was called. It didn’t seem to be a place of sufficient gravitas, of momentous, radical change, where your guts would be sliced open, dismantled, rearranged or removed—or where you could die.

Because the surgery was supposed to last three hours, I took the bus home while Ted got his abdomen shaved and epidural and intravenous lines inserted. Too restless, I returned downtown. There were booths and kiosks set up along Davie Street as part of a block party in advance of the Pride Parade the next day. At Bute and Davie I walked by the celebrated rainbow crosswalk, Canada’s first permanent rainbow-painted crosswalk added to the West End in 2013 to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the local Pride Parade. I went into a dollar store to buy a small rainbow flag to mark the festivities. Inspired by Judy Garland’s song, “Over the Rainbow,” the flag had been designed for the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco to represent the diversity of the LGBTQ movement, with special symbolic significance assigned to each colour.

Back at the hospital, I headed upstairs to Ward 10B to look for Ted. He was a bit groggy but conscious and smiling, and looked surprisingly normal except for the various tubes emerging from underneath his sheets that were connected to a catheter, an IV, and a patient-controlled hydromorphone dispensing machine known as a PCA that he could press whenever he was in pain. I pinned the rainbow flag next to the “Nothing by Mouth” sign that was turned face down on the bulletin board behind his hospital bed, wondering why each of the six beds in the room had bulletin boards with those signs and no artwork or photos.

As there didn’t seem to be any kind of bulging from his abdomen, I asked Ted if the surgeon had given him an ostomy. He wasn’t sure and hadn’t had a chance to ask. The whole idea of having your intestine protrude out from your body to expel feces into an external bag had made us both queasy and anxious, despite our having watched the obligatory DVD at the pre-admission clinic that showed gorgeous athletic men and women blithely unaffected by their ostomies.

With his permission, I gingerly lifted the sheets and then his hospital gown, bracing myself for the worst. We both peered down at his belly. There was a narrow tube leading from a dressing a few inches beneath his rib cage to a small disc-like Hemovac drain to remove the build-up of excess blood and fluids after surgery. On different parts of his belly were five neat sets of black staples along puckered, deep red incisions, with the longest row near the pubic area. Over the weeks ahead, the redness would soon fade to purple, and then eventually light brown, until the scars from the incisions were barely perceptible.

I put his gown and the sheets and blankets back in place. I felt like celebrating and considered heading out to watch the parade the next day to wave our little Pride flag. Ted had made it through surgery successfully. He was in good spirits. The cancerous tumor had been removed, with no need for an ostomy. Maybe this whole ordeal wasn’t so terrible after all?

 

BLUE (serenity)

Ted found it difficult to sleep on the ward. The blue PCA machine dispensing the hydromorphone and IV fluids ticked and clucked day and night without a break except when the IV or the medication needed to be refreshed. We pretended there were miniature robotic chickens trapped inside it, even tried to imitate the sounds. He had to take it with him to the bathroom, the IV pole draped with tubes and with electrical cords that had to be pulled out each time. But the PCA alleviated the discomfort, at least during those first few days. I fretted about the possibility of addiction, but he waved my concerns away and kept clicking the button to bliss.

When he’d been first diagnosed with colorectal cancer, I had wondered how I’d feel about the hospitalization, bed pans, diapers, catheters, the physical changes to his body, the possible ostomy. Although we had lived together and become more interdependent over the past four years, he knew that I still had some doubts about our relationship. He was concerned that his care would become a burden that I would resent.

“You don’t have to come every day,” he told me.

I looked at him in disbelief. “Of course I do!”

And I did. The day after the operation, I ventured out to drift among the crowds in the intense August heat to get a glimpse of the parade. The noise and hoopla were fun, but ultimately it felt jarring to be surrounded by the teeming exuberance and staged goodwill. I rushed back to the hospital where it was quiet and cool and where I really wanted to be—with Ted.

Most of the time, after arranging plants and flowers and cards on the sill and getting him fresh ice chips, I’d gaze out the window by his bed. I’d look down at the shifting rhythm of traffic on Burrard Street and out at the glass towers that reflected both each other and a faceted sky. After drawing the curtains between us and the other patients so we could at least have the illusion of privacy, I would sometimes sit facing him on the bed, my back against the footboard, my legs alongside his, so we could hold or rub each other’s feet, which felt more intimate than holding hands.

Sometimes after the visitors had gone and if my twelve-year-old son was staying at his father’s, I’d remain to watch dusk fall across the city. I didn’t have to be social or chase down Ted’s frustratingly elusive leprechaun-like surgeon and his wandering medical team. The fluorescent lights would be turned off and everything would slowly become bathed in blue. I’d watch a DVD with him on the old portable player I’d brought, the light from the screen flickering across his face.

Other days seemed very long. I wouldn’t realize it until I returned home. Saturated from the hospital, I would want to collapse in bed, but I’d face a backlog of texts, voicemail, and email messages. My work, household chores, and tasks accumulated, undone. I had just enough energy to deal with Ted at the hospital and my son at home and not much left for anything else. But it seemed impossible for it to be any other way. Whether I was examining Ted’s stitches and dressings, helping out the nurses by changing his hospital gown or diapers, giving him sponge baths, massaging his feet, taking him for walks, or just sitting with him, it was important for me to be there. Our lives were entwined. Until then, I hadn’t been aware of how much. What bound us together wasn’t a yoke, leash or chain—it was a root.

 

ORANGE (healing)

Very soon after his surgery, Ted started receiving clear fluids. The little four ounce chilled plastic juice containers started to pile up: mostly orange, but grape and apple too. The inevitable hospital jello came also— yellow, orange, and red, laden with sugar, artificial flavours and colours, and probably made from gelatin extracted from the bones of factory farmed animals. Dishwater-like broths of questionable origin arrived as well. He downed them all willingly.

As his incisions seemed to be healing well, the type and level of foods swiftly advanced from meal to meal as the dieticians tried to speed his progress and ready his digestive system for his possible discharge from hospital in a few days’ time. He started receiving cream soups—broccoli, carrot, mushroom. When he started getting little cups of orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream, Ted’s eyes lit up as he devoured each one. His abdomen became increasingly bloated, however. We started joking that he was growing twins. Then rice with green beans and fish arrived, followed by a chicken sandwich, puddings. The stack of unopened juices grew taller. His belly ballooned out, painfully distended. The traffic jam inside his digestive tract became untenable. Intense, continuous nausea overcame him. He stopped smiling, his gaze turned downward and inward. The food was left untouched.

 

GREEN (nature)

Ted rejected the insertion of a nasogastric tube for two long days. But soon, it was impossible for him to think or sleep.

“Could I get more medication for the nausea?” he pleaded with the long-suffering nurse on the ward that day.

“You’re already on the highest dose,” she said shaking her head, disapprovingly. Her tone of voice shifted into persuasive mode. “Why not try the NG tube? You’ll feel better.”

Ted was fighting his body’s natural urge to reject the food. A scan showed that a gas pocket near his duodenum was causing the blockage. He finally agreed. It took five painstaking, arduous attempts by the nurses to feed the NG tubing down his nose into his stomach while he gagged and vomited on the floor. One attempt stopped him from being able to speak. He had to yank out the tube in order communicate to them that they’d threaded it in the wrong direction, toward his trachea instead of his esophagus.

When I returned later, he was sitting with his eyes downcast with concentration and discomfort. He seemed demoralized and exhausted. Green fluid was being suctioned out through his left nostril via a long tube attached to his nose that snaked into a large plastic canister attached to a wall unit. The canister was already half full. Canister after canister was filled and emptied that day. Ted’s nausea started to subside, but talking was kept to a minimum. I fended off friends from visiting.

“I’ll never look at a green smoothie the same way again,” I told him.

Over the course of the weeks ahead, it seemed almost everyone else in the gastrointestinal ward would be “producing” the exact same green fluid irrespective of what they were ingesting, as if the ward were some bizarre factory. The sound of vomiting was common. The cleaners were regularly called in to mop the floor of spilled bodily fluids of every type.

A number of patients came and went, part of the shifting social microcosm of the ward. We joked about pitching a reality TV show called Ward 10B. There was an elderly Danish man with dementia who was scheduled for a reverse ileostomy but kept pulling out his IV and trying to flee. Beside him was an outdoorsy young man who’d been airlifted to the hospital as a result of tearing his spleen after a dive gone wrong. After a few days, he was replaced by a wiry, grizzled fellow with keen, bright eyes, who swore and complained vociferously about the food. “What’s this shit?” The patient who had a bed next to Ted’s appeared to be a new immigrant. His chador-clad wife had her hands full trying to shush two young, precocious children. He was soon replaced by another patient whom we nicknamed “The Prince.” He conversed frequently and loudly on his cell phone in Farsi while his mother fussed over him. “More ice!” he commanded the nurses repeatedly.

The insertion of the NG tube did not end Ted’s problems. Just after his surgeon left for summer vacation, Ted’s temperature began to rise dangerously. His distended belly became tender and painful. The fluid in his Hemovac tube became pus-like and fetid, as if something were rotting inside him. A CT scan showed that there were air bubbles leaking from the re-sectioned area—infection had set in. He was put on an intensive course of antibiotics via IV and his vital signs were monitored every hour.

A peculiar foggy terror filled my throat and chest. My every movement seemed sluggish as if I were trudging through swampland, but certain thoughts flitted around in obsessive loops. I questioned the doctors, sent detailed emails and texts to his family members. I peppered the night nurses with questions when I’d get home late at night. Some would brush me off; a few would update me. If he deteriorated further, he would have to be admitted to the Acute Care ward for continual monitoring and more drastic medical interventions. A second operation could be risky, and if it occurred, even more of his colon might need to be removed with the likelihood of an ostomy, probably a permanent one. He might get another infection. Recovery would be longer, slower and more complicated.

Because his system had rejected most of the food and drink they’d given him, and because of the need for the re-sectioned bowel to heal properly, the doctor prescribed daily liquid nutrients, called total parenteral nutrition (TPN). A nurse told us that each bag cost $1000 to make fresh daily and had to be specially transported to St. Paul’s from another hospital laboratory. We named it the Crisco milkshake but it seemed more akin to breast milk. Chock-full of lipids, sugars, vitamins, trace minerals, and amino acids, it was a creamy white substance that was administered by an extremely narrow catheter threaded into a central vein in his chest. A nurse told me that the leftover TPN discarded at the end of each day supposedly worked well as plant fertilizer. (I took some home for the garden—our apple tree had a bumper crop the next year.) The TPN would sustain Ted for the next three weeks while he ingested nothing but ice chips. The orderlies with the food trays would stay away: the sign on the bulletin board was now turned face-up.

•••

The lounge in the ward had a small bookshelf with a few outdated magazines, several hospital foundation publications, and a number of dog-eared paperbacks. I noticed the cover of a single National Geographic magazine in the stack. The pristine copy was dated 1968 and its feature article described the plans for the first lunar landing. During those weeks in hospital, I sometimes felt like we’d landed on an artificial planet, a desolate sterile landscape with little vegetation, shifting inhabitants, its own unique language, hierarchies, protocols, and undeviating routines.

The whole ward seemed utterly divorced from nature: its windows wouldn’t open; the sliding glass door to the balcony off the lounge was locked; the concrete balcony itself was dirty and uninviting; there was no fresh air and little greenery other than a few limp, discarded bouquets and dehydrated plants left behind by discharged patients. I placed a hydrangea plant in the corner of Ted’s room so that he would awaken to their large blue clustered heads and rich green leaves every morning. As soon as they entered his room, the nurses and visitors would see something alive and beautiful and thriving.

 

YELLOW (sunlight)

Ted was supposed to have regular, short walks to maintain his circulation, increase his strength, and speed his healing. At first, it took immense effort just to get to the bathroom. He’d prepare himself with a shot of hydromorphone from the PCA, put on his special rubber-soled hospital socks, put on another hospital robe to cover his back, disconnect the NG tube during the days it was in place, clip the Hemovac to his gown, unplug the two electrical cords from the wall, drape the cords on the pole, pull himself up, and then try to walk step by shaky step without losing his balance. Getting back to bed meant going through the whole routine in reverse.

Eventually, he was able to get past the doors of the ward to reach the service elevators, next to windows that looked out onto the expanse of English Bay. He would pause there for several minutes, gripping a railing for support, before enduring the arduous fifty meter journey back to his bed.

“I was in better shape before the cancer operation,” he noted.

Right up to the day before the operation, he had been working full-time. He’d been full of vigor, tanned from a recent trek around ancient Haida villages up north, and ready to hop on his Yamaha motorcycle at any opportunity. Now he couldn‘t walk across a room without effort.

I thought of all those expressions—“gutsy,” “gut instincts,” “gut reaction,” “gut-wrenching,” “gutted,” “it takes guts,” “spill one’s guts,” “bust a gut,” and “no guts”—based on the word “guts” derived from the Old English word guttas for bowels or entrails. The adjective “visceral” comes from the Latin word viscera for inner organs also. It suddenly all made sense: the guts are located in our core, the elemental source of instinct, courage, determination, stamina, will, and strong emotion. The operation had hit Ted literally “right in the gut,” the stronghold of his vitality.

But as the days passed, his stamina gradually increased. We could extend his usual walk from the service elevators and back to include the ward down the hall. Finally, he was ready to try to take one of the notoriously slow elevators down to the fourth floor cafeteria and patio. As we waited, I could see how taxing it was for him just to stand.

The elevator finally arrived. Ted winced at every bump and jolt as we descended. The long imposed fast had eroded his body’s insulation. We made our way toward the almost vacant cafeteria. He steadily exited the open glass doors and was outside for the first time since his admission over three weeks before. As the late afternoon sunlight touched his skin, tears sprung to his eyes.

“It must be the medication,” he said.

My sister pulled up a plastic chair and helped him sit down. The plants in the concrete planters around us clearly needed watering. There were food wrappers and a few empty cups lying around, and some of the tables needed a good wipe. But it didn’t matter. We sat quietly while he closed his eyes and drank in the sunshine and the fresh air with an intense wordless gratitude.

“This is amazing,” he said at last, opening his eyes and smiling.

We talked about his progress to date. Ted had lost most of his muscle mass: his already slim 5’11 frame had been whittled down to 145 pounds. He would soon start a very cautious clear fluid diet. We stayed outside for about twenty minutes before Ted asked to return. This was the longest walk he’d taken since his admission and it had sapped his diminished reserves.

We would visit the patio again only once or twice more before his discharge; it was easier for him to take short unaccompanied walks on his floor. During the end of his stay, the monitoring of his vital signs grew less frequent, tubes were removed one by one, fewer and different medications were administered. He was even able to take his first shower. He was being released in more ways than one.

•••

Discharge day. Ted had filled out the necessary papers and questionnaires, been briefed on his diet and pain medication. He also was entirely tube-free at last. As he put on the jeans and shirt he’d arrived in thirty days before (much looser now), I removed my son’s school watercolours from the wall and the cards from the window sill and bulletin board, erased my daily list of questions for the doctors from the whiteboard, packed up the magazines, DVDs, and the rainbow flag. The room soon looked as blank and anonymous as it had been before our arrival.

“Good luck,” said the nurse who had dexterously changed Ted’s dressings, given him injections, and adjusted the IV over the course of the month, all with an artificial arm and hand.

We gave him the still healthy blue hydrangea for the staff room, and waved at the head nurse who was engrossed with paperwork. There was no one else to say goodbye to. Almost all the patients that we’d met in the beginning of Ted’s stay had been discharged earlier. Everyone was going about their business as if this were an unremarkable day.

As we walked toward the elevators, I wondered how many patients had stayed in that ward. How many had lived and how many had died as a result of their operations? Every bodily fluid imaginable had touched those floors. Every kind of person had lain in its beds, and every kind of emotion had been felt—boredom, irritation, anger, fear, despair, agony, exhaustion, relief, even joy—the full spectrum of human emotion and humanity.

The threat of a possible cancer recurrence would linger on the horizon for the foreseeable future, but it didn’t matter. Exactly one year and one week after his surgery, we would finally get married at a private family ceremony in our backyard. As my brother drove us out of the hospital parkade onto Burrard Street into the late summer sunlight, Ted teared up again. “It’s the medication,” he said. “Makes you emotional.”

•••

FIONA TINWEI LAM has authored two poetry books, Intimate Distances and Enter the Chrysanthemum, and a children’s book, The Rainbow Rocket, about a child witnessing his grandparent’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her prose and poetry appear in over thirty anthologies. Her past work has been shortlisted for the Event creative nonfiction prize and City of Vancouver Book Award, and she recently won The New Quarterly’s Nick Blatchford poetry prize. Her video poems have screened at festivals internationally. She edited The Bright Well: Contemporary Canadian Poetry about Facing Cancer and co-edited the creative nonfiction anthology Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood. She is the co-editor of a forthcoming anthology of creative nonfiction and poetry about marriage, Love Me True: Writers on the Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs of Marriage. Born in Scotland, she immigrated to Canada at a young age with her family. She practiced law briefly before becoming a writer and teacher at Simon Fraser University. www.fionalam.net

Am I Married?

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sue Fagalde Lick

I arrive at Timberwood Court carrying our wedding album. It’s our twenty-fifth anniversary. I sign in, punch the code, and walk into the activities area. Fred is sitting on a sofa in the front row of the residents listening to an accordion player and a guitarist. He’s leaning forward, neck muscles straining as he sings along, making sounds that aren’t exactly words but close.

He looks at me, then looks away. An aide brings a chair and I sit next to him, but he doesn’t acknowledge my presence, even though I smile, say hello, and kiss his bristly cheek. He continues to focus on the music, occasionally glancing at me with a look that seems to say, “Who are you and why are you sitting so close to me?”

My husband lives in a memory care facility in Albany, Oregon, seventy-two miles inland from where I live on the coast in the house we bought together twelve years ago. He has Alzheimer’s disease. We’d been getting along at home with occasional twenty-dollar-an-hour aides until he fell and hurt his back. Suddenly he couldn’t stand up on his own, and all the doctors said I could no longer take care of him. He dominoed from one institution to another until he landed at Timberwood Court. He can walk now, but he shuffles and stumbles. His cognitive functions have deteriorated to the point where even if he could run, he could not live with me.

He doesn’t know my name anymore. For a while, I wore a nametag. But it was just a collection of letters. It didn’t really matter as long as he still knew we loved each other.

The first time he didn’t recognize me happened a few months ago. He looked at me with the eyes of a stranger. I bit my lip and pretended to be cheerful, struggling to find funny stories to tell him about the dog or something that I saw on the road. He thanked me for coming as if I were someone he had just met. I held my tears until I got to the parking lot.

The following week, he knew me again, but I can’t count on it anymore.

Now the activities director hands me a card that Fred’s son sent to him. I show it to Fred. He traces the words with his stubby index finger. They have no meaning for him. I explain that it’s our wedding anniversary. He seems confused.

“I’m married?”

“Yes. To me.”

It doesn’t register. He goes back to singing while I fight to hold back my tears.

The music seems to go on forever. When my thigh touches Fred’s, he moves away. I stare at his left hand on the arm of the sofa, the ring that matches mine shining gold in the soft light.

“Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…”

Pauline, who spends all day wandering like a ghost, brushes past me and walks straight toward the musicians, easing between them like ectoplasm. Sometimes she’ll lift a foot in a quick dance step as she goes by, but most days she’s like a windup toy that goes until it hits something, then turns and goes again.

“I been workin’ on the railroad…”

Usually I sing along, providing harmony to the guest musicians and to Fred’s rich bass voice. Today I can’t move any sound past the lump in my throat.

“Roll out the barrels…”

Finally they finish. Fred applauds while I nod at the musicians and watch them fold up their music stands. Now what should I do?

I tell Fred I have something to show him, and we go to his room. Sitting in his mother’s old mauve easy chairs, I open the photo album and start going slowly through the pages, explaining everything.

“This is our wedding day. Remember, we set up canopies in the back yard? See, here’s your folks.”

He nods, yeah.

“Look, here we are.”

He points to me in my white dress, a crown of white flowers around my curly hair. “She’s pretty.”

“That’s me,” I whisper. He looks at me, disbelief in his eyes.

I keep turning the pages. He puts a finger on my mother’s picture. “How is she?” he asks.

I swallow. “Honey, she passed away.” Eight years ago. He was there.

The hours here are dog hours. I thought about bringing a cake, creating a party for everyone, but now I’m glad I didn’t. When an aide brings us plastic bowls of vanilla ice cream, I’m grateful for the distraction. Snack time. Halfway to dinner and my escape.

Fred glances at the anniversary card I picked out for him but shows no interest. How different from those years when we would exchange cards, softly kiss and promise another year together, when we would dress up and go to a fancy restaurant, feeding each other bites of lobster and chocolate cake, so in love it was disgusting. One anniversary he picked me up at work and took me to a posh hotel where he’d filled our room with roses and photographs. We made love… Oh God, I can’t think about that now.

I just want to go somewhere private and cry. I’m about to leave when the woman who runs the facility hands me a form to fill out. POLST: Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. In English, it’s the form that asks what we want done in case of a medical crisis: CPR? Transport to the hospital? Tube feeding? Life support? Of all days to make me answer these questions. Struggling to control my hand, I try to remember what Fred wanted when we filled these out before, right after his diagnosis. He was only sixty-five. I had just turned fifty.

I leave the form at the desk and hurry out the door. Usually I make it to the car but not this time. Sobbing in the car, I startle as the director knocks on my window. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” she says. I missed a question. I don’t care what I write. Pull the plug. Kill me, too.

I cry so hard on the way home I’m afraid I’m going to crash the car. I feel as if my chest is going to crack from neck to crotch, as if I could not possibly survive this, as if I ought to park and call 911. But I can’t stop on this mountain road. It’s getting dark.

•••

Returning a week later, I see Fred long before he sees me. I see his balding head, his white goatee, his neck stretched awkwardly forward as he sits on the couch watching a black and white TV show from the ’50s. Beside him, Jean is slumped over sideways, sleeping. On the next sofa, Rachel babbles to herself, shaking her massive bony hands at me. From one of the bedrooms, a woman cries, “Help me! Somebody help me!”

I ease into the empty space beside Fred, saying, “Hi.”

He looks up, blinks for a moment. I hold my breath, praying he will recognize me today. He smiles and begins to laugh. He holds out his hands like a child wanting to be picked up. I lean into him, kissing his soft cheeks, putting my arms around him. Heat comes at me from the thin undershirt he wears. I can feel bumps on his back. He smells of sweat, urine, and decay. But for this moment, I sigh and let myself fall back into being Fred’s wife.

He introduces me to his new friend Beverly. “This is my wife, Ann.”

That’s not my name, but I guess it doesn’t matter.

•••

SUE FAGALDE LICK is a writer, musician, and dog-mom living on the Oregon Coast. Her books include Childless by Marriage and Unleashed in Oregon. A former newspaper reporter and MFA graduate from Antioch University, Los Angeles, she is working on a memoir about her journey with Fred through Alzheimer’s. Fred passed away a few months after she wrote this essay.

 

Head Inside the Head

Photo by Stefan W/Flickr

By Hedia Anvar

It’s summer of 1996. At twenty-seven, you are a child but don’t realize it. You go away on vacation. You go away to vacate your life, your job, your worries. You go to vacate yourself. But Italian anarchy turns your trip into the kind that keeps you inside your head, dealing with difficult baggage and train schedules and hotel reservations.

You’ve been to Rome time and time again. Rome is like a hidden-away dirty lover you obsess about while going through your proper daily motions. This time you max out your credit card and buy the trip for two, hoping to save your relationship with Emanuel, your boyfriend and real lover—although less frequently now.

You’ve always had a secret prerequisite—if they don’t love Rome and black licorice, then they can’t love you. But already, he’s not into Rome. He finds it polluted and chaotic. For you, it’s a divine chaos. Think of the Pantheon and Fontana di Trevi in the middle of bus-strike induced traffic. So you rent a Vespa, deciding to make him love Rome by handing it to him in ribbons of asphalt.

Emanuel is more the obscure Wagnerian opera type than a motorcycle guy, so you don’t bother deferring to his maleness, and drive the Vespa yourself. He clutches your back in terror. You discover a natural knack for Italian driving, you just go—at roundabouts, making turns, whatever. No need for mirrors, signals, or brakes. You ride by cobblestoned piazzas where tourists and young Italian men on the make sit at tables drinking espresso, and caricaturists collect money for drawing misshapen versions of passersby. You whiz past ancient ruins plopped like stage scenery right there amid urban excess, mobile communication and designer transaction.

You’re an extension of the Vespa, and through the friction of the road, the asphalt is an extension of you. Speeding along its routes, you are Rome. This is the best way to get a place under your skin and troubles out of your hair. Noise and exhaust fumes whirl around the Roman baths, dose after dose of the sublime co-mingling with the cosmopolitan to have a narcotic affect on your perception. You’ll always return to Rome like an addict, except on the Vespa, it’s you flowing through Rome’s arteries. And there to the right, twin babies Remus and Romulus of legend, raised by wolves to become founders of Rome, spout water out of stone mouths.

You drive Emanuel’s stiff, white-knuckled body for the greater part of the day. Circling the Vespa around the Colosseum, your skin sheathed in warm air, you come closest to leaving yourself on this trip. He pleads with you to stop, but you pretend not to hear over the motor.

The reason you eventually park in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral, that immense and intricate monument to god, is only because it’s a dead-end. The off-limits Vatican City lies behind it. Unfortunately, now your boyfriend’s pleas reach your ear with no more room for doubt and you can’t very well turn around and whiz off again. Not right away.

You’ve never been big on visiting churches. And when staring up at the biggest one of all, which apparently took one hundred fifty years to build, the image that comes to mind is not of thousands of worshipers but thousands of tourists. You briefly think of the slaughter that has gone into religion over the centuries in the name of god—your kind and equitable god. But mainly your thoughts linger on the Vespa and getting back on it as soon as possible.

Emanuel can barely stand. Creases blackened with exhaust fume mark the tension in his forehead. He looks plucked. Later in the hotel room, you’ll observe his narrow buttocks to be covered by two flower-shaped sores from the moped seat. You decide to do something on foot for his sake—visiting St. Peter’s is an act of mercy on your part. Anyway, you’ve been anxious to cram all aspects of Rome into him.

The guards won’t let you into the cathedral because you’re wearing a tank top. You’re pleased with the tank top, because riding around in the sun has made your shoulders glow nicely. You feel cozy. But after the Vespa, you also feel unexpectedly weighted—it’s weird to be slowed down to your own two feet.

You and Emanuel step to the side and alongside the bohemian types proceed with the business of undressing and exchanging clothing. He takes off his blue button-down shirt then the tee-shirt underneath, and standing bare, white and slim-chested in front of St. Peter’s, he hands you the latter and puts back on the button-down—no way were you going to wear the dopey blue shirt. So, instead stinking of Emanuel’s terror in his tee-shirt, you walk into the cathedral and wonder if god finds body odor less offensive than bare shoulders.

Inside it’s dark and enormous. There are probably magnificent statues and stained glass, but you won’t remember them. You will vaguely recall extremely tall vaults or apses or columns. You recognize the cross-shaped floor plan of cathedrals from college art history. So this is where Charlemagne was crowned, according to the brochure. At least Emanuel is impressed.

Once outside again, you notice a line of people. It turns out you can take a lift into the actual dome and climb the basilica to the view from the top. Now that’s worthwhile—seeing all of Rome at once. Up there you’d inhale the city in one gulp, whereas with the Vespa, you wrapped it around yourself. Up there, instead of an ant crawling along Rome’s edges, you become a bird hovering over it. Rome, doing Rome, your favorite city in the whole world from all positions…

A sign next to the ticket window for the dome warns that after the lift there are 326 steps to climb. You are young and suffer from no heart conditions that you know of, and proceed.

This is what happens on those 326 steps when you have an uncertain relationship and a messy head.

You are in a dome, like in a head, inside a skull, the way you are inside your own head. There are dozens upon dozens of yellow, narrow stairways as if out of a Dali painting. There isn’t simply one set of 326 steps leading to the top—there are as many sets as fit around the inside of the rotunda, and the enormity of the rotunda just doesn’t compute through your human senses. The ascent itself is more a zigzag than a climb. The bizarre placement of the incline must be due to some unknown structural requisite and throws off all equilibrium, winding widely around other sets of stairways, then slanting narrowly into the inward curve of the dome head. There the concavity hovers over the side of your head—one head against the inside of another.

The stairways are like suspended bones, forming together an intricate skeletal system without visible support—the Vatican’s Chamber of Horrors. You wonder who cleans those steps, when, and how often. Is this where they send sinners? Maybe as punishment they leave food for prisoners in a different spot every day, trading one set of dizzying steps for another and causing the victim perpetual circular confusion. Emanuel does not laugh at this speculation.

The nightmarish quality of the stairs reminds you of a book you read in grade school in which a handful of teenage-orphans-turned-lab-experiments were trapped in a space of apparently infinite stairways leading nowhere but to other stairways. Except while the series of stairs in the book implied space, the stairs in the dome are a claustrophobic’s Orwellian fear. A mind might grasp multiple—straightforward—sets of steps spiraling up into the same space and narrowing with the ascent. But inside the dome, there’s no room in your head to sort it out as you swing around one corner and then its opposite, on to the center, then back to the side, all the while bypassing haphazard stairways overhead or walking at a tilt to avoid collision with the dome head.

There is the metallic odor of the steps themselves, mingled faintly with vomit from the weak-constituted and dizzy. Emanuel has a green tinge rising in his own complexion, but the thought of his outburst on your cherished Vespa leaves you unconcerned with his queasiness. He wanted to be on foot and on foot he is.

On the walls there’s unimaginative black graffiti—idiots leaving their mark. Funny, you’d inject Rome into yourself intravenously if you could, but others feel compelled to scribble on it. As if anyone cares, god or otherwise, that they hauled themselves up 326 steps with a black magic marker. Really, it’s the only place all day where god hasn’t been present. God definitely rode the Vespa with you around the Colosseum. Until, of course, Emanuel’s sour lack of enthusiasm kicked him off. Climbing inside his house now, you wonder what god would think of you tormenting your boyfriend with the force-fed gift of Rome. Isn’t that like religion, doing bad things in the name of good?

You and Emanuel curse the stairs all the way up. The only solidarity the two of you share nowadays is during times of mutual complaint. There are inklings of the paranoid in you while inside the dome. What if you get trapped in there? Seriously, what if? More pestering, why do you feel like you’d deserve it? Your head spins as much with your thoughts as with the winding stairs. You are the head inside the head, the little person sitting inside the big person and orchestrating thoughts, poking away at the hapless giant from the interior. What happens to love, where does it go?

Panting and sweating, you and Emanuel finally reach the 326th step. You pat each other in meek triumph. Then you link arms, step out of the dome, and onto unimaginable release.

No brochure can capture that specific unburdening once you step out and find yourself standing on the narrow terrace encircling the dome tip. Let’s say the interior of the dome and its stairs are the equivalent of Dante’s first and second circles of the Inferno. Outside on the tip then, with its offering of light and relief, equates the foot of the Purgatorio.

You’re both incapable of speech. You just can’t be so high that you see all of Rome and its haze-lined orange rooftops, ancient limestone and shimmering traffic at once. You certainly can’t have gotten there via that round interior, defying all orientation. You always associate this sort of height with modern engineering—airplanes, the Empire State Building. But this is old. And round. Height is supposed to come from length. Even the climb up wasn’t up—it meandered. Leaning over the low railing, you see the tops of birds in flight instead of their bottoms—you are higher than birds fly! You and Emanuel breathe greedily like the air might be made up of tiny diamonds, and indeed, your pores feel the way aqua minerale sparkles.

Above the city, there is a sort of quiver expanding over the pollution and concrete. It reaches beyond the old stones and gingery shingles, and extends farther than the scaffoldings of excavations and restorations. It’s somehow separate from and in addition to the immediacy of present day Rome and its undercurrent of the ancient, as if this Rome of modern decay, even conjoined to the past, is more than the sum of its parts.

Of course, back in New York, in a matter of weeks the two of you break up. But on that terrace, god who rode with you on the Vespa, joins you both in one heavenly flicker. It’s as if god had his eyes shut while you clambered in the darkness of the dome, but opened them outside along with yours, and so shedding light on all the world.

Graced with that one perfect moment, you are now vacated.

In the next twenty years, you will not visit Rome again. A whole generation will have passed, and more astounding than the changes taking place in you is all that remains the same about you. You’ll still be self-absorbed but now you will know it.

Nothing will dismay you like the description of the new Rome—not the burden of two decades on your skin, not your failures. Over a catch-up coffee, it will be your ex-boyfriend who tells you about his recent visit to Italy and how he finally loves Rome.

After the two of you discuss the Vatican’s progressive new Pope, Emanuel will speak of gleaming facades, glistening cobblestone and a newly closed-to-traffic pedestrian walkway around the Colosseum. Your mouth will go slack, as if hearing the junkie artist lover of your youth has become a Wall Street executive.

All those worlds away, when you were young and found tragedy romantic, you could have overdosed in the arms of Rome with a smile on your lips. Instead, you’ll smile above your decaf cappuccino at Emanuel without really seeing him.

What you’ll see is you on a Vespa, riding the Colosseum before they scrubbed up Rome.

•••

HEDIA ANVAR is a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles by way of Iran. In between, she lived in France and Italy, which either expanded her world-view or culturally befuddled her. She is currently working on a novel and writes about her case of “chronic dichotomy” gunmetalgeisha.com. You can find her on Twitter at @ravnah, on Instagram at @hediaanvar, and at facebook.com/gunmetal.geisha.

 

Fear-Biter

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sue Granzella

The first bite was on my front lawn. When a six-year-old poked her shoe near his nose, Cody darted out and bit the rubberized toe. When the shoe moved and I yelled, he seemed confused. The little girl scooted toward her mother, unhurt. It was over in seconds and left me confused, too, unsure what had happened.

The second time, a friend retrieved Cody’s toy and he nipped her heel. He broke no skin, but this time I knew what had happened.

On Mother’s Day, Cody charged my toddler nephew; I scooped him up just in time. When friends came to dinner, Cody rushed up the back steps and bit Alison’s heel. Eight weeks, two nipped ankles, and a torn pant leg later, it was clear. I had a problem.

•••

Back at the SPCA, where I’d gotten Cody weeks prior, the stern-looking manager and I sat on the grass in the shade. Cody leaned against my leg as I stroked his black and gold softness.

“He’s only nipped friends, so he hasn’t been reported,” I told Joe.

“That’s lucky. Is there a pattern?”

I sighed. “Four women, a guy, and a kid.”

“Yeah, kids are unpredictable, and they’re loud and fast. But it’s not just kids with your dog.”

Joe patted his thigh, and Cody approached slowly. But when Joe reached toward the dog, Cody flinched and retreated.

Joe sat back, his face grim. “An aggressive and dominant dog doesn’t respect the owner. But fearful dogs don’t trust the owner. Your dog is fearful.”

Humiliated by Joe’s implied blame, I searched his unsmiling face for hope.

“So what do I do?”

His furrowed eyebrows met in the middle, scolding me. “Don’t let that dog off leash. You have to protect people, and you have to protect him.”

It sounded like Cody’s problem was my fault, and I had no idea how to fix him. I drove away from the SPCA more dejected than before I’d come.

•••

I’d loved dogs forever, and I’d decided on the name “Norman” six years before I got my dog. But when I read the card on the cage and called out, “Hi, Cody!” his plume of a tail wagged as he turned toward me with his big dog smile. I was smitten. I couldn’t steal the name that had been his for only two days. He would be Cody. And he would be mine.

The fantasy dog I’d dreamed of would lie at my feet on a Saturday morning at a sidewalk café, his tail thumping in sleepy pleasure when strangers patted his head. My real-life Cody was beautiful, a collie mixed with Bernese mountain dog, large and black with splotches of gold and white. His eyes were honey-brown, their warmth accentuated by natural black eyeliner. With his tail waving like a flag in the wind, he sashayed when he walked. I loved my smart and playful dog unreservedly.

But he was not my imaginary café dog. Cody radiated gentleness and submission with me, my boyfriend David, my cat, and all dogs. But his nervousness around other people grew, and I became increasingly tense about keeping his mouth away from human skin. The fear cycled through my brain, the leash, his brain, and back to me until I had no idea which of us had spawned it. All I knew was that I had to make sure he kept his teeth to himself.

And then David’s cousin visited, and we all went hiking in Oakland’s Redwood Park. The cousin was uncomfortable around dogs, so I kept Cody away from him. In the car, in the coolness under the towering trees, and in front of my house, Cody was leashed at my side, safely out of reach.

Then as Ryan was leaving, he stepped in front of me. With neither warning nor sound, Cody darted forward and bit Ryan’s calf.

Ah!” yelled Ryan.

NO!” I shouted, jerking Cody back. There were only six inches of slack on the leash, but Cody had found them. For the first time, he had broken skin. The bite mark welled with blood, and a bruise already showed.

I heard a roaring in my ears. Stumbling up the driveway, I put Cody in the yard. Then I returned and saw the car door still hanging open, as if time had frozen. With a difference of just one inch or one second, there would have been no bite. It had so nearly not happened that it felt as if it hadn’t, and every time I remembered that I’d failed to keep everyone safe, my stomach dropped with a thud. Despite the exertion of a three-hour hike, I felt cold.

“Get a washcloth and some peroxide,” ordered David, attending to Ryan, now sitting on my cement front steps. I did, then wandered from the open car door to the back gate where Cody peeked through the slats, panting with his big dog grin.

“Oh my God,” I kept saying to Ryan. “I tried to keep him away. I’m so sorry.” My hands shook and I felt dizzy, as if I were floating away.

Ryan and David barely spoke to me as they left, each with lips pressed tightly together.

•••

Though I was on vacation from my teaching job, for three mornings it was hard to get out of bed. Seeing Cody meant admitting that I had a dangerous dog. I couldn’t envision how a future with him could look, yet I couldn’t imagine getting rid of him. Oblivious, he was the same as ever—wagging, obeying commands I’d never even taught him, panting and eager and sweet. Seeing him made me feel sick.

I called my most dog-knowledgeable friend and asked if I should have Cody put down. Was that what a conscientious dog-owner would do? David offered to drive Cody to a Utah ranch for animals who’d failed in society. I hired three trainers over the next few months, each of whom gave me conflicting advice. All they agreed on was that Cody’s motivation wasn’t dominance or territorial aggression. They said he was simply afraid, repeatedly pushed to do more than he was ready for. My dog was a fear-biter.

•••

In desperation, I took Cody to U.C. Davis’s vet school. At the labyrinth of hallways, I froze. There were ankles everywhere I looked. Acutely aware that dogs can smell fear, I tried to stifle my terror and start weaving through the people-choked passageways. But my feet wouldn’t move. Finally, a vet tech brought me a muzzle. Snapping Cody’s jaws shut was the only remedy for my paralysis.

We arrived at a windowless room with bare walls and metal furniture. The scent of Pine-Sol masked any residue of urine that had been puddled by years’ worth of neurotic dogs. The behaviorist sat near Cody and me, across from two vet students. One of the students fetched a less restrictive muzzle for Cody, and for two hours, the three demonstrated methods of desensitization and positive reinforcement.

Then the vet handed me an instruction packet.

“He’s afraid, not mean,” he said. “You can live with this. He’s very gentle when he’s not scared. But remember—a fear bite hurts as much as a dominance-aggression bite. Your job is to make sure he never bites anyone again.”

•••

Wearing his new plastic basket muzzle, Cody could bark, drink, eat, and pant. But he couldn’t bite. And for the next three years, lightweight plastic came in between Cody and all people, everyone except for my boyfriend, David. Cody adored David. It was a huge relief that the muzzle prevented him from biting everyone else.

The muzzle that helped both me and my dog branded him as a fierce beast; people looked at him suspiciously, warily. Then their eyes traveled upward, regarding me with similar distrust. I just patted his head and we continued down the path, a solitary team, a dog and a single woman in her forties.

•••

I’d always felt solitary, even when I had a boyfriend. Instead of actively searching for the kind of partnership I craved, I stagnated in relationships and yearned for what was missing. When I was thirty-seven, three years before I found Cody, Jeff was my boyfriend, a kind man with warm golden eyes that matched his curly hair. He was tall, with muscled arms that encircled me when I was sad. Jeff made clear his desire to marry me, but when he proposed, all I could say was, “I don’t know.” So he gave me time and space, only bringing up the topic every few months. And when I’d sniff it coming, I’d snap.

One afternoon, despite my panicky efforts to push away all relationship conversations, I was trapped.

“I still don’t know! If you can’t wait, just break up with me!” I flung myself onto the bed in our dank basement apartment.

“I don’t want to break up.” He lay down beside me, his gaze steady. “I just want to know.”

“But I can’t make myself know! I can’t!”

And the bi-monthly ritual played out. My stomach knotted, he asked for an answer, I sobbed, and he felt bad. Then we rose from the bed, my eyes swollen, his jaw set in quiet resignation. I was nauseated, but I’d bought myself another few months before my next snap.

•••

Eventually Jeff moved on, and I went out with David. He seemed the most unlikely partner I’d ever had. He had fifteen years on me and a waist-length ponytail. Slight of build, he wore frayed jeans with a tissue-thin white tee-shirt. Back when I was playing hopscotch in Catholic elementary school, David was dodging the Vietnam draft. In the summer of ’68, he was in Czechoslovakia during the Soviet invasion, while I was wearing a homemade cat costume and playing my accordion in Napa’s Fourth of July parade. A few years later, he met people in the Symbionese Liberation Army. That’s when I was the left-fielder for my own army—the Sparrows, of Napa’s Junior Girls Softball League.

But together we laughed until we ached, and his intellect thrilled me, the charge between us electric. I hoped that underneath the differences in age and life experience, we were soul mates.

Over time, David began to accuse me of not respecting his need to be a traveling free spirit, on the road for months at a stretch. I lashed back, reminding him that though he’d said he wanted a partner, all I saw was his retreat.

But there was a semblance of the love I longed for, and I was too afraid to let it go. For years I deflected my friends’ concerns and hung on tight.

•••

When David still wasn’t ready to move in with me after five years, I told him I wanted to break up. Promptly, David announced that he wanted to move into my Craftsman bungalow. I feared that he didn’t mean it, so I waited three weeks before agreeing to his plan.

Two months later, there was still no sign of incoming boxes, suitcases, or furniture. When I asked about the delay, David said I’d misunderstood. He hadn’t meant that he would live in my house with his belongings. He’d meant that he’d move in “emotionally.”

Apparently there would be no need for a U-Haul.

A few days later, David was in my cozy living room, with its warm wood paneling and built-ins. I paced from the living room through the French doors into my bedroom. Cody was curled up between us, his black, gold and white fur matching that of my calico cat, who gazed at him with disdain from atop the couch.

From ten feet away, I faced David, my arms waving in reckless punctuation. “Are you kidding me? You really thought I’d assume that’s what you meant by ‘move in’?”

David’s deep-set green eyes usually crinkled into laughter, melting me. But that night, they were flat, impenetrable.

“This house is so small,” he said, his hands marking distance the length of a pencil. “It’s too crowded for us, plus a cat and dog. Besides, I’m not wild about living with them.”

“But I’ve had them for years! You’re just now telling me that?”

I didn’t know if I was more furious at David or at myself. The animals were just an excuse. How could I have been stupid enough to believe he would ever live with me?

Cody snored quietly. David left within five minutes. And when I called him later and told him we were done, David was gone for good.

•••

I ached for months. At age forty-four, I’d never had children, and could no longer pretend that I ever would. David was the first person I’d ever believed I could marry, and for much of our time together, I’d foolishly imagined that maybe we would. What was wrong with me that I kept choosing the wrong people? Either they didn’t want me, or I didn’t want them.

This break-up felt different, though—worse than those past. Bygone boyfriends paraded before me, and at the end of the parade was a huge banner proclaiming, “You will never be loved again.” I was damaged goods. There was my string of failed relationships. Plus, I’d recently been diagnosed with a chronic disease. Though its effects on me weren’t visible, a potentially debilitating condition wouldn’t help attract a mate.

Cody the fear-biter was strike three. I could not envision my dog ever reaching the comfort level he’d had with David, and I couldn’t picture myself living with the fear that he would bite a partner of mine. I felt doomed to an unwanted solitary existence. My imagination was as paralyzed as my feet had been at U.C. Davis.

•••

That spring, I couldn’t bear to sleep in my bedroom, so I holed up on the fold-out futon in my spare room. When sadness overwhelmed me and I cried into my quilt, Cody whimpered, prodding and pawing me until I raised my head. On weekends, Cody and I trekked for hours along the Iron Horse Trail. Under the gnarled oaks with my dog padding along beside me, I thought about David while feeling my leg muscles contract and stretch, over and over. I repeated inside, “I am strong. I can get through this.”

As the months passed, I started to think that maybe I could. And after more months, I found myself browsing on Match.com, though I didn’t truly believe that behind one of those little pictures might be a man who could love me. Looking was a step, though. They were all just searching for love, too, and most looked normal enough. Maybe I wasn’t all that different from everyone else.

Then one October evening, I was lying on my bedroom floor ruffling Cody’s abundant fur, on the phone with an easy-going man named John. After many weeks, I’d chosen his profile out of the hundred-plus I’d read. He was funny and intelligent and unapologetic about wanting a long-term monogamous relationship. I was drawn to his dream.

In our conversations, I’d mentioned my rescued feral cat, and we laughed about her antics. But all he knew about Cody was that he ran to the phone when it rang.

We met on a cool November morning. I pulled my red coat tight and watched the long-legged man striding toward me. John wore a fuzzy gray pull-over, and extended a long stick-like object toward me.

As his slim build, engaging smile, and bright blue eyes came into focus, I felt a stab of disappointment. This could never work. He was too handsome. If he had looked this good in the online photo, I never would have clicked on him. I then saw that the stick-like object was a cellophane-wrapped, long-stemmed red rose, with a fun-size pack of plain M&M’s tucked alongside.

I took a deep breath.

We entered the cafe, blanketed by the warm aroma of roasted coffee beans and the tinkling of spoons against coffee cups. He had iced tea, I had hot chocolate, and our conversation flowed like honey.

“So did you reach your grandmother yesterday?” I asked.

“Yeah, she said she’d been getting birthday calls all night. And, hey—she won money from the Publishers Clearinghouse!”

“You mean that’s real?!”

We traded stories of his relatives in remote mountains and of my third-graders. He talked about his college days, and I confessed to my baseball obsession.

When I listened to him, I found that I could muffle the voice whispering inside, saying that someone so handsome couldn’t be a match for me. The longer we spoke, the more I liked this dark-haired man. I knew it was too early to discuss past relationships, and I wasn’t going to bring up my health until later. So I told him about strike three.

“My dog has bitten some people. He’s really sweet, but he’s afraid. He’s a fear-biter.” John already knew about my hostile cat. Had he figured out that the common thread between these two messed-up creatures was me?

He just shrugged. “I’m a UPS delivery guy. I can do dogs. I throw the ball, and they’re fine.”

I was convinced that John just didn’t understand how disturbed Cody really was.

•••

Two weeks later, John and I approached my back picket gate, and as soon as Cody glimpsed the long-legged stranger, he unleashed a torrent of barking. I felt sick to my stomach.

But John didn’t flinch. “Cody! Get your ball!”

Cody’s ears perked up and he shot off, returning with a slobbery bald tennis ball. John reached his fingers between the slats, I yelped, and Cody dropped the slippery ball into John’s hand. Back and forth they went, toss and retrieve, the barrier always between them. I started to let myself hope that Cody might one day understand that John was safe.

•••

A few days later, John wanted to touch Cody without a fence between them. He waited out front while I went inside and strapped the basket muzzle on Cody. Then I led him out the door.

When he saw John, he paused on the top stair, but he didn’t bark. We headed down to the grass. Emboldened by the bark-free reception, John quickly approached.

Cody rushed forward with snapping jaws, the plastic muzzle ramming harmlessly into John’s slim leg. I felt the strength drain from my limbs. If not for the muzzle, John’s ankle would have been toast.

I sank onto the steps and dropped my forehead into my hands. “What’s wrong with this damned dog?”

John appeared undisturbed. “He’ll come around. He just needs more time.”

•••

With each day, I was falling for John more and more. What had been weighed down with David now floated free. I laughed at home, with my third-graders, in my car. People at work were startled by how happy I looked. I was determined to never again feel the despair of my last relationship, and that gave me freedom. Instead of re-shaping myself into what I thought John might want, all I wanted was to be me. I would show him exactly who I was, because if that wasn’t what he wanted, I’d rather know sooner than later.

And as I showed myself to him, I found that I really liked this man. Kind, steady, and honest, he could go in seconds from brilliantly analyzing politics to giggling helplessly over South Park. He was tolerant and hilarious. Not only did I like him, but I liked myself better with him. He made me a more patient and appreciative person. My fear that I was unlovable? I was beginning to relax my grip on it. To envision that one day I could let it go.

•••

Every time John came over, we stood at the gate while he tossed the ball. Then one day he threw it without me standing there. Then he stood inside the back door and stuck his hand out for the slimy ball.

Finally, John declared that it was time to remove all barriers. He sat on the couch, and I led my dog inside by the collar. From where Cody sat, he could see in a straight line through the kitchen, dining room, and living room, right to John. Cody was obediently in the “sit” position. My plan was to walk him sedately into the living room, gripping his leash so that I could yank him back at any sign of teeth.

But before I could leash him, Cody took off, bounding straight for John, racing the full length of the house at top speed. Helpless, I ran after him, the leash swinging from my hand. I was terrified.

When Cody reached John, he jumped up and laid his head on John’s chest, panting and wriggling and jaws open wide in his big dog smile. He whimpered and whined with joy, his plume of a tail waving from side to side in soft brushes of ecstasy. John laughed, and ruffled Cody’s fur. I dropped to the floor and cried. My dog, the fear-biter, had conquered his fear of John. It had just taken longer than it takes most dogs to fall in love.

•••

John and I married when I was forty-seven. It was the first marriage for us both. I still feel my heart quicken when I come home to him, and I still laugh with him every day. Since we met, I hear it echo in my head: I get to be happy.

Some used to tell me I’d only find the “right person” when I was ready. I always hated the condescension of that, and I still do. All I know is that with John, I never felt obstacles between us, and before, they were always there. Did I choose the wrong partners before because I was afraid to really try, fearing I couldn’t be loved? Before John, I used to wonder. Now, the answer doesn’t matter. If it ever was true, I guess I let that fear go.

After the night Cody raced through my house, he never demonstrated any fear of John. He knew he was safe, and he trusted John. I do, too. I feel at rest with him in a way I never before had.

•••

Cody’s time with us ended five years ago. He was fourteen, and though he had stopped eating, he was still chasing John’s tennis ball two days before he died.

When the house-call vet knelt down by Cody, Cody stunned us. He raised his head, and nipped the vet on the heel.

“Did Cody just bite him?” I was confused about what I’d seen after so many years of not seeing it. Did it really happen?

John nodded and shrugged. Then we led him outside, into the yard where for so long he had barked at birds and dug holes and chased squirrels and napped in the sun. With our hands ruffling Cody’s fur as he lay on his side, we said good-bye.

Afterward, John and I held each other and sobbed. Then he asked me how I wanted to spend the day, and said he’d take me anywhere I wanted to go. And just like that, I knew.

So on that January morning, John and I drove to the mountain retreat where we had married. We stood at the edge of the huge heart-shaped lawn. We sat together on the cold cement steps. We walked hand in hand under the redwoods, shrouded in mist.

And all day, holding the shards of my broken heart, I was wrapped in the soft comfort of gratitude. Despite all of my rough edges, John has chosen to walk with me. That day, feeling so sharply the loss of our dog, I was also filled with a sense of how lucky I am to have found this person with the willingness to love me, the patience to help me get through my own fears, and the desire to find rest with me.

I don’t think I let go of his hand all day.

•••

SUE GRANZELLA is a third-grade teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing was recognized as Notable in the 2016 book of Best American Essays, and she is the new judge of the “Humor” category of the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her writing has received numerous awards in that same SMK Competition, and she won second place in a Memoirs Ink contest. Sue’s writing appears in Full Grown People, Gravel, Ascent, Citron Review, Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Crunchable, and Prick of the Spindle, among others. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, hiking, road trips, and reading the writing of eight- and nine-year-olds. More of Sue’s writing can be found at www.suegranzella.com .

Read more FGP essays by Sue Granzella.

Trying to Have Sex With My Husband

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Tatyana Sussex

This very evening. Right after I get home from work I will take my husband by the hand, walk him into our bedroom and have sex with him. I’ll unbutton his shirt, spread my fingers over his swimmer’s pectorals, the perfect spread of chest hair, a mix of brown and silver. I will place my lips there and the salty hairs will prickle my nostrils. I will unbutton his pants. He will stand above me rubbing my shoulders and try to kiss me, but I will be busy doing other things to him.

This plan develops as I drive home from work on a Monday. I head south on I-5 with a glittery Lake Union to my west, the sun pushing gold against the clouds, sprays of light landing on the shiny dynasty we call Downtown. Sex on a Monday, after work, what a fun surprise! It will get us out of our slump!

I change the radio station, from news of a suicide bombing to a piano sonata. My stomach growls. The idea of dinner pushes its way in. Maybe we’ll eat first, and then the sex parade will start. And this, of course, is my first tactical mistake. A full stomach does not lead to sex in our household.

Earlier that morning, five a.m., I watch the beautiful back of my husband rise out of bed. He doesn’t see me turning my owl head to watch him. The swimmers shoulders rolling up and away from me. The ruffled silver hair. A hand stretching back to pat me. “Good morning,” that patting hand says.

While my husband goes off to swim, I lie in bed and stare out the window, at the clouds hanging like an old man’s eyebrows in the sky. I spend a half hour thinking about the sex we didn’t have all weekend. We weren’t too busy; there were no arguments and no body-part problems. There were two straight days of rain, a lot of cozy time in bed, plenty of napping and cuddling and binge-watching our favorite British mystery. And no sex.

•••

I’ve counted. I’ve kept score. In the beginning there was so much regular sex for middle-aged people, something sexy popping and fizzing every day, every night despite my bladder infections, the new sensitivities, despite the doctor’s visits, the antibiotics—we powered through. And then. It whittled down. Normal, right? First, a few times a week, then two, then the weekends for sure. But there was always an element of playfulness even as the snap-crackle-pop evened out. Sometimes I’d roll over in the morning, say, “Quickie?” and my husband would wolf grin and come my way. Or when we both worked at home, I’d send a text with the word “nooner?” Ten seconds later, footsteps stomped down the hallway.

We held at twice a week then fell to once, on the weekend, still able to blame my delicate sex organs, the sensitive bladder, an inability to bounce back so fast. Consecutive days were pretty much out for us. I saw naturopaths, shifted my diet, and took my “estrogen poppers” to settle some of my womanly discontent, and things did improve.

Then I just got lazy.

•••

I need to address something. Did you know that a woman’s vagina atrophies? Did you know that the general story arc of our orgasms—timing, intensity—can change with age? I guess it makes sense. Our skin loosens, our boobs sag; the butt drops, our muscles soften, the joints ache. And our vaginas are part of this aging ride. It’s different for everyone, of course, but this is how it went down for me.

Let’s say you’re a woman in your mid-forties. You’re single. You’ve had a relatively inactive sex life for that decade and then suddenly—you meet a man when you’re forty-seven. You’re ready to rock and roll.

You could be in for a few surprises.

After a succession of bladder infections, I eventually went to see a urologist. This is the kind of doctor I thought specialized in the dick problems of old men. My dick doctor, as it turned out, was a woman, about ten years younger than me. She was petite and no-nonsense, and she gave me a precise de-briefing on what my body had been up to while I was mindlessly careening through my forties.

“Your vaginal wall gets dry and droopy just like your skin as you age,” she said, pulling on her perfectly smooth forearm. “Gravity gets it just like everything else.”

She diagnosed me with Sensitive Bladder Syndrome, recommended acupuncture and gave me a list of foods to avoid. Her philosophy around having sex with an atrophying vagina was bold. “Really go for it—pound away!” she said banging a fist into one of her open palms. “Get in there and see what works.” Then she handed me a prescription for painkillers.

•••

My husband and I weren’t young when we married. I was forty-nine; he was fifty-seven and a widow. It was his second marriage, my first. The ceremony took place at a friend’s house. My parents walked me down a sprawling lawn to an open-air altar. We stood before our friends and family, beside a small lake populated by the white blooms of lily pads. Three days later we went on a road trip to the Canadian Rockies.

We didn’t have a lot of sex on our honeymoon. I started my period, the beds were so soft that my back hurt, and I was also having some of my sensitivities. Instead of waking up mid-sleep to make love with my new husband as one might imagine, I woke up and reached for my Kindle to continue the science fiction trilogy I was obsessed with.

During the day we sat at the mountain town cafes and watched people go by. We explored the ice blue rivers of Banff, stood with hung jaws before the crystal green of Lake Louise; we hiked through wildflowers and past the high glaciers of Jasper. At night we cooked dinner in our wooded cottage, and I stared out at the small lake giddy with the fact that I never had to answer the question of whether I would find a mate and who that mate might be ever fucking again. We rifled through the collection of DVDs and glommed on to a long-running British series we became enamored with called Midsomer Murders. The show falls under a genre I call “gentle garden mysteries.” While bodies fell and the investigation heated up under the charge of fifty-something Chief Detective Inspector Tom Barnaby, I was lulled into a deep state of relaxation by the comfort of the mature cast, the bursts of trees and bushes, so much Eden green, like the worst calamity the universe can conspire is the death of a water colorist.

We went to bed tired and content, spooned our warm bodies in the soft bed, my husband’s breath on my ear. His hand on my breast, my foot stroking the bone of his shin, and in my right hand my Kindle, where I blissfully continued on with my sci-fi drama. It rained at night, the scent of sage breezed through the open windows, the air was cool against our shoulders and arms, the rest of our bodies snug under the comforters. There was nowhere to go, nobody waiting for us. We were so happy. I was home.

•••

It’s Monday morning. As my husband swims laps in the pool I lie in bed imagining him next to me later that night, and I choreograph: how I will open my legs, throw one over my husband’s resting, unsuspecting body; put my hand on his chest, move my mouth over his neck, over the light brown belly hair, down his body, the lean legs. Move around the canvas of his body slowly—kiss here, kiss there, swirl a body hair in my tongue, rub my teeth against his rough skin—and then spend the other half of the night returning to the home of his lips.

But here’s what really happens Monday after work.

I drive into our garage at five-thirty with a hunger headache from too little for lunch. Visions of seduction are long gone; they fell away somewhere between Lake Union and merging onto I-90.

“Lovergirl is home!” my husband exclaims in his usual way, popping his head out of the garage door. He walks toward me opening his arms, right to my car door. When I stand up he gives me his lips, a full kiss. Every night I come home, he’s there for me right on the lips. I lean into him, my cheek against the tee-shirt he’s been gardening in all day. I breathe in the smell of bark and branches. He grabs my bags and we go into the house.

All the overhead lights are on, the news blaring. I see the crumbs and salt flakes in clumps on the small kitchen island, and pick up a sponge to wipe them off. Why do I make cleaning the stupid island more urgent than seducing my husband?

We have dinner, watch an episode of Midsomer, and go to bed where I don’t make one tiny move on my husband. Tomorrow, I think. Tomorrow, I’ll be on it. I won’t get side tracked; I won’t look at any kitchen surfaces; I’ll stay focused on those blue eyes, the swimmer’s hips. Tomorrow!

•••

Tuesday morning I wake up slowly, next to those pillowy lips and the bent, crooked nose I love, those arms that reach for me, after an argument, when I shout in my sleep. I think back to how it was in the beginning. What I remember are flashes of body parts over the bed, under the covers—yes, we’re conventional, but so what? I remember him inside of me, his fingers on me, feeling lost among my own body parts, the undulations of narratives building and bursting in unexpected waves. We were a story—a romantic thriller—unfolding beneath a tangle of sheets.

We get up and go swimming together. I am filled with resolution. Tonight, I tell myself as I swim sets of two-hundreds in line with my lane mates. Tonight, I tell myself as I speed over the express lanes of the I-90 floating bridge. I am determined! When the day is done, I’ll drive into the garage, greet him with a kiss, grab him, pull him by the crotch of his pants down the hall to our bedroom, take off my shirt with the other hand. First my jacket, then my shirt, then my camisole, maybe keep the bra on for him to remove—I’ll position myself on the side of the bed, ass down, legs up and parted and wait for him.

“Do anything,” I’ll say, and he will and it will be exactly what I expected. Over dinner he will turn to me with a gooey smile, the blue of his eyes will darken and my husband will say “Thank you,” which I still find strange. I will look back at him, put my lips in a kiss position and respond point blank, “You’re welcome.”

After making love he will be so content! He will take my hand as we glow in the reflection of our day’s end Midsomer Murders. It will be the episode that features a hospital for troubled people in one of the villages, and a spate of “suicides” that were really murders committed by a trinity of jealous children.

“There’s no way all three of those kids would do that!” I will exclaim.

“Oh, it keeps the old folks on their toes,” my husband will say in his soothing voice. Then, at the moment of reveal, just as Barnaby confronts the nymphomaniac mother of the murderous children; just as I’m concentrating on the British-accented dialogue, those blue eyes will turn to me and proclaim, “You’re my love.”

He’ll move in closer, stroke my cheek with his gardener’s fingers. “Oh my love,” he’ll murmur, coming in for a kiss.

I’ll miss the climax of the show and I’ll try not to be irritated because—and I have to remind myself of this—we can always rewind the scene and play it later.

•••

TATYANA SUSSEX is working on a collection of stories about being a late bloomer. She writes, swims and coaches big dreamers from the watery city of Seattle. You can visit her blog at Everyday Creative Coaching.

 

 

Know Thyself

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Tanisha Wallace Porath

I don’t know who I am without Peter. I’m lost on so many levels without him. He’s been dead as of 12:01 p.m., April 2, 2013. I know I’m a parent, a single parent. I know I’m a woman in love with several men. I know that I’m a widow, a word I have grown to hate. But who am I? Without my best friend and husband, who am I?

In an effort to know myself, I have taken every step to ground myself and seek deep spiritual knowledge. I have mined the wells of my soul and gone to the deepest and most powerful source. Not therapy. I’ve been there, done that. Not rehab. As they say, rehab is for quitters and I am no quitter! I have nursed at the teat of the most omnipotent place in the universe. The internet.

I’ve discovered a whole world of quizzes on the interwebs. I’m excited to delve in. Social media sites are the perfect place to seek knowledge and enlightenment—right? This exploration began as an innocent Facebook quiz several hours after my planned bedtime, and it was a doozie.

“Which Golden Girl are you?” I have always maintained that I was Dorothy and I would punch someone’s heart out if they disagreed. So I already know what the test results will be. The quiz is over and I have answered every question to the best of my ability; the little spinny thing moves in circles and the test is calculating. Beep, boop, beep. The results are in and I don’t even have to look at the screen but I do. “You are Blanche!” “Blanche!” I scream at my phone at one a.m.

OH. MY. GOD. I am Blanche. The description goes on to explain to me the qualities of Blanche, which I already know because I watch The Golden Girls every night as a pacifier to insomnia. Blanche is quick witted, as am I. She excels at one liners (well, not to brag), and she’s driven by a need for attention, which, the test informs me, is why I’m always late. I need attention, of course. Blanche makes every boy fall for her and she has the fearless tenacity to back it up. Yep! I have slept with several men since Peter died. Once again, OH.MY.GOD. That must be why I am so sad losing Peter—I’m obsessed with men and sex. I am a quick witted, fast talking slut that needs attention from men to survive. What a relief! Now I can proceed to the process of grieving as Blanche would grieve. Or should I say the way Blanche did grieve because she is also my neighbor in the “widowhood.”

The next day I walk around in a sleepless haze but confident in the knowledge that I’m a Blanche. My whole world has changed from black and white to color, just as I now imagine how men feel when they meet me. I’m more flirty with my boyfriend. I’m happy to openly acknowledge that I enjoy the company of boys, or as Blanche would call them … men. I need more, now! I need to know more about myself, pronto! Facebook is such a tremendous way to find these life changing quizzes, so forward I go, desperate in my need for more self-awareness. Luckily, I don’t sleep anymore. This is a spectacular life decision for me.

Every woman thinks she’s Carrie and, really, she is the Carrie of her own life. But armed with my new Blanche diagnosis, I fully expect that just like with the Golden Girls quiz, I’ll be wrong and I will indeed be Samantha. Twelve questions and three minutes later, I discover that I’m correct. Samantha it is, she is me. I wonder to myself, “But am I really proud of my sex life and my newfound sexual freedom?” Well I must be. The Facebook quiz says I am. I can’t get enough of this newfound insight.

Back to Facebook, but this time I need in-depth quizzes, something that speaks to my very core. I search for more; I casually ask my best friend if she has seen any fun or interesting quizzes anywhere. Lorie doesn’t skip a beat and casually mentions a few fun quizzes that she’s seen on Buzzfeed. Now we both take quizzes on Facebook and Buzzfeed, and since we can never do anything alone, we ask each other the questions and score each other’s tests. Man! What a blast! Look at me, talking with friends, doing something! I really am Samantha!

I’ve learned so much about myself, and these quizzes are the main reason. I’ve done an amazing job of avoid the impending pain and the sleepless nights that accompany the anniversary of my husband’s death. Screw being horizontal, crying on a therapist couch—I never really laid down anyway.

Maybe this should be my new career, creating quizzes for social media. I could start with “Which Facts of Life girl are you? Blair or Tootie? Do you enjoy motorcycles like Jo?” Then I could move on to more complex quizzes like “Are you and your best friend really secret enemies?” This is genius!

I’ve learned so many things about my newfound single self that I do a quick run-down. I know that my Ennegram personality is a loyalist and I thrive on love and my intuition. Interesting. I learned that if I were to be a yogi, balance is crucial to my well-being. Fascinating. I now also know that I will get remarried at the age of thirty-three. I am currently forty-three. I know that I am a slut that thrives on attention, especially from men, and Claire from The Breakfast Club is my spirit animal, which fits because I have always wanted to fuck Judd Nelson.

My newfound interest in the internet has provided me with the perfect distraction. I get to escape life for a brief time. I get to postpone the devastating heartbreak that accompanies the anniversary of my husband’s death. I get to pretend that I’ve found meaning in my new life without him. What could be better than that?

•••

TANISHA PORATH was born a poor black girl in…well, actually she had a pretty middle class existence in Anchorage, Alaska, where she was born and raised. She studied photography at an art college in Seattle, the name of which, try as she might, she can’t quite remember. Soon after she graduated, she moved to Portland, Oregon, with her husband and started her career as an editorial photographer. Some of her clients have included Willamette Week, The Oregonian, and several other periodicals. She has two roommates that she happens to have given birth to, her daughter, fourteen, and her son, seventeen. She became a widow on April 2, 2013. She became a writer on April 3, 2013.

You’re My Only

Photo courtesy Linda Kass
Photo courtesy Linda Kass

By Linda Kass

On the day my father turned eighty-eight—just over six years ago—my mother shuffled down the hospital corridor to visit him after surgery. Her five-foot stature diminished by degenerative arthritis and a series of falls, Mom had been the needier of my parents; my dad her loyal caretaker, driver, friend and, most of all, loving husband. She slowly pushed forward her walker, a metal substitute for my father’s arms that until then had always been there for her. This was the first time in their sixty-two-year marriage that she had to manage without him.

At the elevator, Mom stopped to sign a birthday card my sister bought for her to give to my dad. My husband gave her a book to steady the card and a pen.

She grasped the pen and, without pause, began to write. I looked over her shoulder and read her words.

You’re my only.

•••

I watched Mom sit in the chair at Dad’s bedside and gaze at his face. His decision to get knee replacements was part of his plan to keep the two of them together, to live independently. His bowed legs were failing him. By getting new titanic knees, he could continue taking care of my mother. As he slept, Mom held his hand in hers.

They were always holding hands. I’d often meet them for lunch at our neighborhood cafe. After we kissed goodbye, I’d watch them shuffle along the sidewalk to their car, Mom bent over, her eyes focused on the ground; Dad, a foot taller when they were younger, stooping to clutch her hand and support her weight. This image always left me wondering if it would be the last one I would see of them together.

•••

My parents were born within six weeks of each other in 1923, both to Jewish families—my father in the “waltz city” of Vienna, my mother in rural eastern Poland. Dad’s family immigrated to the United States in 1938, narrowly escaping the Nazi take-over of Austria. My grandmother wanted to live in the mainstream of American life, in a university town, in a place of opportunity. Dad was fifteen when they settled in Columbus, Ohio.

He finished high school and was halfway through college at Ohio State when, in 1943, he was drafted into the army. He served first with the ski patrol in the 10th Mountain Division located at Colorado’s Camp Hale. He contracted rheumatic fever there and, because of his understanding of the German language and culture, was transferred to an infantry unit and placed into military intelligence school at Camp Ritchie in Hagerstown, Maryland. His unit was redeployed to a military camp in Manchester, England, and assigned to the 63rd Division, with which he remained throughout the war.

From September of 1944 until April of 1945, Dad was part of a regiment in Paris during the time when Germans had infiltrated that city after the Battle of the Bulge. Reaching the level of staff sergeant, he assisted in the Alsace Mission, top-secret work involving the translation and analysis of captured papers on the German V-2 rocket, and helped locate installations at the Ziegfrid line, the defense demarcation between Germany and France. For his war efforts, he received a Bronze Star. Back in the U.S., he finished college on the GI Bill.

During this time, my mother’s family was fighting oppression—first, at the hands of the Soviets, then the Germans. When Mom was sixteen, her mother was deported to a Siberian work camp. Later, my mother and her father hid in a bunker underground to escape a Nazi concentration camp. Mom’s family reunited after the war, travelling to Krakow then Vienna, where my mother spent a year in medical school. Finally receiving affidavits of support to sponsor them, Mom and her parents set sail for America and settled in Atlantic City.

Shortly after their arrival in 1947, an aunt and uncle from Columbus invited my mother to live with them. Mom could resume her education at Ohio State, they said, quickly adding an even more persuasive argument to the parents of a single, twenty-four-year-old Polish daughter: a nice and handsome young man from Vienna finishing his degree at the university worked for them in their small office supply business.

A match was made.

•••

Other than feeling self-conscious about their foreign accents, I never thought much about my parents’ dramatic entries to the only country I knew. I took for granted their journey toward freedom and didn’t grasp the struggle that must have been part of their legacy as I was growing up in the late 1950s and ’60s. Now, I can only imagine the challenges for an immigrant woman still wrestling with a new language and culture, married with two young daughters—a former medical student turned Midwest suburban homemaker in an era when the work of being a wife and mother carried such urgency and social expectations.

I grew up thinking my mom hadn’t accomplished anything, all those afternoons she was waiting for me at the door, fixing me a snack, and making sure my sister and I understood the importance of an education. I watched my dad strive to build his business and spend many evenings doing volunteer work, part of his commitment to repay the kindness of a stranger—a Chicago businessman—who took a calculated risk on a Jewish family and sponsored their entry, a journey from Trieste to Ellis Island that spring of 1938. I didn’t know then that in the coming months and years, the war they barely escaped would destroy my father’s Viennese home, along with so many other residences, businesses, and synagogues.

Like most children and teenagers, I was in my own world and trying to fit in as one of very few among my peers who were first-generation Americans. I went on to college unaware of the deepening renewal of my parents’ commitment to each other. Their union seemed an anachronism back in the early seventies. During my twenties, while developing my career, I lived in Detroit and New York and was in a marriage that produced a son and ended in divorce. After I remarried at thirty-three and returned to Columbus, I was able to see my parents with fresh eyes. I used my journalism background as a license to ask detailed questions about their pasts to collect family history.

Over time, I gained a different lens, one that revealed two young European immigrants who found one another through quite distinct journeys but shared a deep desire for a safe haven in the middle of their new country. Shutting one door, opening another, and never looking back.

•••

Two years before Dad’s knee replacement surgery, my sister and I helped my parents move out of their condo to an apartment building with assisted-living and dining services. My sister was already at the condo when I arrived on the first day of what became a six-week process of thinning out the belongings of a lifetime. Mom sat in a chair wrapped in a white linen shawl that had turned up earlier that morning.

“Don’t be so quick to throw things out,” she said, watching my sister rummage through papers in the kitchen drawer. “Let me see them first.”

As I scanned the handwritten lists of names and phone numbers covering the desk, and the brief reminders scratched out and rewritten, my vague observations morphed into a troubling realization of the secret that our father had kept from us. It was confirmed as we later found Dad’s cell number scattered throughout the condo, neatly written on no less than three-dozen pieces of paper.

Mom had also saved countless birthday, Mother’s Day, and anniversary cards. Dad came through the kitchen as I was trying to gauge the sentimental value of one particular card. “Throw it away. It’s from our neighbor.” Muttering, as he walked away, “He’s dead.”

As we uncovered photos and albums from as far back as the early twentieth century, my sister and I realized that Mom had kept every card, every photo, every newspaper article, every memento. To her, everything mattered and she wanted to remember it all.

On the afternoon I planned to wade through Mom’s closet for giveaways, Dad went with my husband to watch the Buckeyes play Northwestern. My dad never used to miss Ohio State’s fall football season; I remember attending games with him throughout my childhood. But as Mom’s needs rose, attending a football game moved farther down his list of priorities. Left alone for hours with my mom, I took her to lunch and looked at old photos. I wasn’t prepared for the greeting I witnessed when Dad’s key turned the doorknob. Their eyes lit up for one another as if they had been separated for months.

•••

While Dad’s knees were like new, Mom’s physical condition continued to deteriorate. She had frequent falls. Her memory lapses became more numerous, although she continued to call forth the most obscure details of decades past. Dad still drove, played bridge, and voraciously read magazines and books—and continued as Mom’s loyal custodian. But in the fall of 2015, both of them ninety-two, he began admitting that taking care of my mother—something he’d considered a life’s mission—was no longer sustainable. For the first time in their enduring union, they would need to live apart.

A new memory-care facility opened just fifty yards from their apartment building. Mom became its first resident. For nearly a year, Dad visited almost all day, every day. I’d often come by and find my parents in Mom’s sizable room—she in her wheelchair and he sitting on an ottoman close beside her. They were holding hands and watching television, the sound blasting down the hall. She cared little for what was on the screen. The man at her side was the source of her happiness.

When she left this world last May, eerily on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mom and Dad were one month shy of celebrating the sixty-eighth year of their love affair. Instead we celebrated Mom’s life, and buried her on Mother’s Day. Dad had brought over Mother’s Day cards that he’d picked out weeks earlier, one for each of the moms in our family. I found a sealed envelope among his stack with my Mom’s name front and center, a heart drawn around it. I slipped the card from the pile and, later, unsealed the envelope, as if opening it for Mom. After the printed message from husband to wife—that she was the woman he would marry all over again—came three words in Dad’s shaky handwriting: “To my treasure.”

While Dad was heartbroken, he did what he always did in life. He pressed on. At Mom’s funeral, he told my best friend that he needed to “reinvent” himself. He added a fourth bridge game to his week, attended a few more Columbus Symphony concerts with friends from his senior residence, and even took a trip with my husband, our daughter, and me for part of my book tour in the Florida Panhandle. He engaged more deeply with friends and family. Always a realist, he knew life was precious and was determined to live fully for whatever days he had left.

When a nodule showed up on a lung CAT scan during an ER visit prompted by a fall last October, Dad handled the news with his usual pragmatism. He was uninterested in pursuing medical interventions.

“I’ve lived a long life,” he said. “A good life.”

By November, pneumonia and a lung infection left him weaker, and he developed an uncontrollable cough. Still, he’d get up around seven a.m., shower, put on a nice shirt and pants, a handsome sweater, and go down to breakfast. He continued to play bridge and would win most games. He read when he could. Right up to his last days, he possessed his gift of connection, a fellowship he’d built for a lifetime: with his business associates, with innumerable colleagues encountered through volunteer work, with his growing family from whom he took great pleasure, and with his network of friends.

Just eight days before he died, Dad had a nonessential physician appointment on his calendar that he had made months prior—to see his ear doctor. He seemed bent on making this visit to get his ears cleaned and have his hearing aids checked. He was extremely weak that morning and had trouble standing up with his walker. I told him I didn’t see how I could take him out that day. He was terribly disappointed—the appointment was on his calendar and Dad always showed up for every commitment he made. This one was no different.

So I called the doctor’s office and asked them to let me know if they had an opening in the afternoon. The receptionist phoned two hours later. They had a 3:45 p.m. cancellation and I took it. Dad rallied, as he often did, his will and determination pushing through. My sister came over as reinforcement and, together, we took him to the appointment. In the waiting room, we laughed; we shared personal stories. Dad voiced his impatience even though we were early and told him so. We laughed more. When finally in the treatment room, he chatted with the doctor and staff. My rather fast driving even got him back to his residence in time to have dinner with his friends. He was happy, grateful. He’d had a victory—one more in a life that he saw as so full of them.

•••

I keep going back to that March day of Dad’s first knee replacement, our trek with Mom to the fourth floor of the hospital. Except for the slightly glazed look in Dad’s eyes from pain medication he preferred not to take but did, he was alert, lying in a slightly reclined position, a serving table hovering over his lap. We placed his favorite Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream pie in front of him. On cue, the nursing staff came in to sing happy birthday. As they filed out, Mom handed Dad her special card, bending to kiss him. My camera in hand, I automatically pointed and clicked to capture the moment.

•••

LINDA KASS worked as a magazine reporter and correspondent for regional and national publications, such as TIME and The Detroit Free Press, early in her career as a journalist. She currently serves as an assistant editor at Narrative, an online literary magazine. Her debut novel, Tasa’s Song, inspired by her mother’s life in eastern Poland during World War II, was published in May 2016. She is working on a novel of linked stories, this time inspired by her father’s life. She is the founder and owner of an independent bookstore, Gramercy Books, in Bexley, Ohio.

Falling

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Betty Jo Buro

Yesterday I ran into my mother at the mall while I was waiting for the elevator outside the food court. It was midafternoon, and I had just finished eating for the first time that day.

I’m going through some stuff. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat or even if I wanted to eat, so I settled on turkey soup. After the first bite of salty broth and soft noodles, I realized I was starving. And since I had just overspent on a pair of ripped jeans, I decided it was time to go home. When the elevator doors parted, the usual crowd of mothers with babies rolled out, a teenage couple—obviously and thoroughly in love—and then, the very last person to walk off was my mom. And I was surprised to see her because my mother is dead.

I’ve been in love a bunch of times. There is really nothing like that free-fall into desire. The whole world seems friendlier, more sharply focused, like when I got my first pair of glasses in fourth grade and I could suddenly see each individual leaf on the maple trees, and the sharp letters on the street signs felt like precise miracles. Falling in love warps time, making it speed up then slow down and it’s difficult to sleep or concentrate.

I’ve fallen out of love, too. It’s happening to me now. And it’s not nearly as much fun as it was going in. There is that sense of falling, but into darkness, into a mysterious place that may be cold and lonely. The butterflies in my stomach are more like panic. Sometimes insomnia wakes me at four a.m. I imagine the imminent scene where we’ll tell our daughters. I picture the For Sale sign piercing the grass in front of the house where we’ve raised our family, where our bones have settled into a quiet routine. On the days I’m especially sleep-deprived, I wonder if I’ll die alone.

My husband and I saw our first of many marriage counselors twenty years ago, when our oldest daughter was still a baby. We brought her with us to our appointments in her infant carrier. We went at night, in winter, the baby bundled into a tiny snowsuit, the black cold biting through our coats. I remember, on our first visit, the therapist told us we had an opportunity to change not only ourselves but generations to come. We quit her, like we quit all the therapists that came after, and I wonder now what kind of disservice we’ve done to our children, and our children’s children. How many generations have we fucked up?

We plan to tell our girls over spring break, since the college student will be home and in a rare alignment of schedules, we will all be together under the same roof. The date looms with a dread similar to the one I felt traveling to Boston two years ago, to sit with my mother while she died. Anticipatory suffering lodges itself under my sternum, and accompanies me wherever I go, an uninvited guest. Yesterday, while tossing a pair of sneakers in her room, I catch sight of my high school daughter’s desk calendar. SPRING BREAK!! is written across an entire week. I look away, quickly, but my body has already registered the all caps, the bright pink sharpie, the joy in the exclamation marks. Later, it will occur to me that this may have been one of the saddest moments I’ve ever experienced, but at the time it’s visceral. A punch to the gut. My knees go a little weak.

My mother left my father when I was the same age as my oldest daughter, and I was angry with her in vague and selfish ways. It’s disturbing how accurately history is repeating itself. My mother stepped out on her own in the late nineteen-seventies, when divorces where rare in my predominately Catholic hometown. What is commonplace now, was for her, an act of fierce independence. Maybe, I think now, my mother was setting an example, modeling for her daughters the kind of strength we might someday need: this is how to be courageous, this is how to walk into the face of the unknown, this is how to take care of yourself.

In the elevator, there’re just two older women and me. After a couple of minutes, they tell me, in the kindest way possible, that I need to push the button to make the elevator descend. I apologize and say, “That woman reminded me of my mother,” and then I start to cry on the elevator in the mall with the strangers, holding the bag with my ridiculous jeans. “It’s hard,” they say. “It’s never easy,” they say, and “Have a nice day,” when the door finally opens onto the floor where the overwhelming scent of Abercrombie blankets the air, where the fake greenery rings the fountain in perfect rows, and a new batch of stroller-moms wait to get on. I wonder if this may be a sign, that my mother is going to help me, that she is going to send me surrogates, glimpses of her to remind me to be strong, and kind ladies in elevators to comfort me.

•••

BETTY JO BURO holds an MFA from Florida International University. Her work has appeared in Cherry Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Hunger Mountain, The Lindenwood Review, The Manifest-Station, Compose Journal, and Sliver of Stone. She was a 2016 finalist for Southern Indiana Review’s Thomas A. Wilhelmus Award, and a 2016 semi-finalist for American Literary Review’s Annual Creative Writing Awards. She lives and writes in Stuart, Florida.