The Mark I Chose

Photo courtesy Pennie Bisbee Walters
Photo courtesy Pennie Bisbee Walters

By Pennie Bisbee Walters

I tried to talk my sons out of getting tattoos. To me, tattoos seemed like something for circus performers or punk rockers: a way to mar lovely, pristine skin. They were ugly, in design or placement, sometimes both, like the one of a snake I’d seen creeping up the cheek of a man’s face at the beach. I’d been noticing more and more tattoos during our summer beach vacations. Military sayings like Semper Fi stretching across a young man’s shoulders, the black words stark against his sunburnt skin. An intricate lacy sleeve of bright flowers and ivy covering a barista’s arm from wrist to shoulder. The odd trail of pink stars on the calf of the mother holding her toddler’s hand.

Snakes. Someone else’s words. Flowers and ivy. Colored stars. They were all unnecessary and permanent, I told Tim and Sam. What design could you get that you’d never regret? Don’t forget. You have a tattoo forever. But kids are all about the here and now. Tim, who was sixteen at the time, talked about getting a tattoo of Pittsburgh’s skyline or the small black-and-tan outline of our family dog. Sam, who is nearly four years younger, wanted a tattoo of the Coca-Cola polar bear, but with a bottle of Mountain Dew instead of the cola, claiming to be a rebel. I didn’t know if they were serious or just trying to provoke me, but I hoped the urge would pass before they turned eighteen and could get one without my assent.

•••

The idea first came to me while skimming through a small tabloid newspaper while I waited at a restaurant. Maybe it was the colorful ads for punk band concerts and head shops or the small brown tattoo of an owl on the back of the hostess’s calf that my daughter Meg pointed out. Something made me turn to her and say, “I’d like to get a tattoo someday. One of Tim’s birthdate or name or something.”

Meg snickered, then said something like, “Oh you’d never do that.” But my sister Kim said, “Yeah, that would be a nice thing to do. To remember him.”

•••

After getting a haircut one bright afternoon in August, I walked the four blocks to a Starbucks for a mocha, a drink that, in my grief, had become a staple—something about the warmth of it in my hands and its decadence. Allowing myself that indulgence was, in a weird way, a self-kindness that was still hard for me. I had to remind myself I was worthy of it. Like I reminded myself kids with good parents were dying every day. From cancer or car accidents maybe, though not drugs. Maybe I had been a good parent. But despite the number of drug overdoses—in Pittsburgh and everywhere else it seemed—it was still something I didn’t believe.

Kayla was standing beside the tattoo parlor three blocks down from my hairdresser, her head shaven except for a small blue tuft above her forehead. One side of her skull boasted her newest tat: a black tarantula beside the pink open bloom of a flower. Weeks before, I’d seen her photo on Facebook and thought, as a mother would, Oh Kayla, what are you doing to your body? That tattoo was just the latest in a series that spread across her chest and legs and arms. What led her to get one after the other after the other? Wouldn’t she someday regret at least one of them?

“Hey,” she said.

“Hi, how are you?” I walked up and hugged her. I remembered the card she sent to me after. I remembered all of them.

“I’m good. You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m doing okay.” I noticed the blue lipstick around the filter of the lit cigarette dangling in her hand. Blue lipstick looked so natural on her. The tattoos probably helped with that. “Hey, I’m thinking of getting a tattoo. Of my son’s handwriting. Can they do that?”

“Oh, that is so cool. What a great idea.” She dropped her cigarette to the cement and ground it out with the toe of her shoe. “Come talk to Ed about it.”

Ed was tall and in his forties, with a long gray ponytail and tattooed arms. His stencil machine could make an exact tattoo of Tim’s handwriting for just fifty dollars—what seemed a pittance. Before the parlor door even closed behind me, I knew that I would do it. It would go on the inside of my right wrist because he was right-handed. I could peek at it whenever I wanted to. It would be my secret.

•••

I made myself go into his bedroom, hoping to find his handwriting on a school paper in his desk drawer or a page of his Narcotics Anonymous workbook, if I could bring myself to read through it again. I’d read it the day after he was found, but remembering anything from those first days was like pulling something out of the ocean’s center, bottomless and dark. Some memories were just gone. I was thankful for that.

As soon as I stepped onto the dark blue shag carpet, I took a deep breath. This room still held things from his good years, before he got sick, before things went so far they could never be the same. Baseball trophies, bobbleheads from Pirates games with his brother and dad. The faceless brown bear I’d named Bruno before Tim could talk. The thin white poster board covered in pictures of him. Of us all together. After the viewing, I’d propped it up against the mirror of his dresser, unable to pull the pictures off.

And now I wanted the tattoo there on the inside of my wrist. To look down and see it throughout the day and night. We had lost so much of him. He left his belongings on buses or at friends’ places where he’d stayed briefly those days he had nowhere else to go. And items I suspected he’d sold for drug money—his Xbox 360, my favorite Laurel Burch earrings, Meg’s nano iPod. Other things had probably been stolen by roommates when he lived at three-quarter-way houses after rehab, things we’d bought him before realizing just how much shit we were in, things that were cheap but desirable to someone who had little: the e-cigarette we bought him to keep him from the real, more dangerous kind, the black rainproof jacket with the warm fur lining, the silky soft throw because he loved the feel of soft things against his skin. All those things had gone missing, along with the son I’d known.

•••

When I couldn’t find anything with his handwriting in his room, I remembered the Mother’s Day card he wrote to me when he was seventeen and still living at home. It was a bright shade of yellow, an oddly cheerful color for him to choose then; he always seemed to be somber, even sullen. The front of the card read “from your son. Mom, because of you, I grew up a healthy, well-mannered person who always tries to make the right decision,” and the inside read “As far as You know anyway.” Those words mocked me, since I knew he was already smoking marijuana then. Arguments about it had replaced civil conversations between us, despite the therapists and doctors, despite my pleading. Below the typed words “Happy Mother’s Day!” were the handwritten words, “From Tim!” that he’d scratched out and replaced with “Love, Tim!” when my husband Ken pointed out “From” was unnecessary. Tim sometimes needed to be reminded of what was obvious, lost as he was in the outer-space regions of his teenage mind.

•••

My tattoo would be monochromatic and simple: the words Love, Tim! in black ink. What my son wrote to me. His printing. His words. I imagined seeing them whenever I turned over a soapy dish in my hands or spread lotion that smelled like oranges and ginger across the dry palms of my hands. I’d linger in those tasks, seeing the black, block handwriting that wasn’t yet there. I could feel him write the words, his hand twisted around the pen, face tight with concentration. He had hated his handwriting homework, even before the torture of writing cursive letters began, but now those shapes he hated drafting seemed to be all I had left.

•••

On my fifty-fourth birthday, I felt like a switch had flipped inside me. I had to get the tattoo that night. The urgency I felt was a wave pushing me along. I didn’t resist.

“Hey there. What can I do for you?” Ed said. He was the only one working at Jester’s Court Tattoo that night.

“Hi. I was here before. I’m Kayla’s friend. I wanted to have a tattoo made from this card.” I opened it and pointed to Tim’s words.

“Oh yeah, I remember. Just words, right? We can do that. It’ll be fifty dollars.”

We stood together looking at the card, and I explained how I wanted to include the exclamation point but not the thin underlining that Tim had drawn under his name. Meg and I had debated in the car whether to include those extra markings. At first, I thought I’d just include his name, but then decided that Love was an equally important word, since I knew in my heart that it was true. Despite how things had ended.

One of our last phone conversations had convinced me of that love, relieved me of a little bit of my guilt. That talk had been an absolution, a gift, though I didn’t see it at the time. Love, however powerful, was not, it turned out, strong enough to cure or rescue or tame. But love lived on in spite of death, of heartbreak, of a parent falling short. I had learned that much.

Meg liked the punctuation mark because it showed the exuberance and energy he had then. I liked the idea of a marker that showed who he once was, before the addiction took full hold. Thinking of him adding the exclamation point made me smile, although it made me feel sad, too. Every memory had those two opposing sides: happiness and sorrow. Glad to have known him, so sad that he was gone. I lived a dichotomous life now.

“Take a seat here and get comfy. I’ll be back in a flash,” Ed said, walking to the stencil machine. When he returned and handed the card back to me almost gingerly, like he knew its value, I slipped it carefully back into the plastic sleeve I’d brought it in and laid it beside me on the chair. He rubbed my wrist down with alcohol and then a milky lotion to help the stencil ink stick to my skin. He showed me the stencil first, then peeled the back of it off and held it parallel to my wrist, ink side down.

“I want it tilted so I can read it.”

He shifted the paper, waited for my okay, and then pressed it onto my skin for several seconds, rubbing it once with his thumb. When he peeled the stencil back, Tim’s words were left behind.

The needle, when he took it out of sealed plastic wrapping, was longer than I’d imagined and reminded me of the IV needle the nurse had pushed into my skin the night I went into labor with Tim nearly two weeks early. I’d felt so unprepared to parent him.

I watched Ed feed the needle into the top of the small machine and turn a stubby knob until the needle was in place. Holding the gun in his hand like a pencil, he dipped the needle into a cup of black ink the size of a thimble. I heard a thick buzzing noise as he tested the machine, operating it through a small pedal on the floor near his feet. He bent over my wrist and I heard the buzzing again as he began at the top of the letter L. I watched as the needle punctured the skin on my wrist, leaving ink on top of the purple stencil markings. When I asked Kayla what getting a tattoo felt like the day I stopped into the parlor, she said like a cat scratching your sunburn. For me, it was just a subtle scraping, dull and somehow distant, like it was imagined or in the past. Maybe I wanted to feel Tim so badly that I welcomed the feeling of his words being etched into my skin, my body that had held him for those eight and a half months, kept him safe. Maybe the tattoo really didn’t hurt much. Maybe it did, but I was too numb to feel it. Or maybe I wanted to feel pain to feel him again, I don’t know. I only know the needle felt light and quick.

When we left the tattoo parlor, my wrist wrapped with bright purple tape, I was euphoric, a feeling little known to me since Tim’s death. I felt lit and warm and accompanied in a way I hadn’t when I walked in. My skin was now home to a secret kinship, a shelter for a part of my tender, vanished son, suddenly found.

•••

When I’d seen him last, his hair had grown shaggy and wild again like when he first started using. He mostly wore black cotton t-shirts that hung on him like a tent and bore the silhouettes of Notorious B.I.G. or Big Pun. I’d grown used to those XL shirts that swallowed up his five-foot-eleven frame, his narrow hips and shoulders, as if he wanted to hide, his pants so long and wide-legged they billowed up around his bright green and white skate shoes. His clothes were more than a fashion statement: He didn’t want anything pressing in on him.

•••

For weeks, I babied the skin of my right wrist, following Ed’s instructions carefully: wash three times a day with an antibacterial soap, pat it dry with a paper towel, then rub in a fragrance-free lotion and let the tattoo get some air. I enjoyed the ritual of it, the patting dry with a gentle touch, the feel of the lotion, cool and soft.

•••

When I first considered the tattoo, imagined the script carved into my wrist, I kept going back to my penultimate conversation with Tim. I said before it was a gift, though I spent much of the call pleading with him to listen, to hear me, when—I see it now—he was no longer capable of it. The addiction had suppressed his ability to listen, the way that other diseases suppress your immune system, leave you unable to fight. Maybe if I tell you what he said, you’ll understand. Even without having been in my shoes those six years. Maybe it will be enough to recount his words that day.

I had been at my office with a stack of pages to edit, but I was getting little done. Most days were like that for me then. A struggle to focus, to care about work when my son’s life—and therefore mine—was becoming a natural disaster. He’d been texting me for forty-five minutes, seeking my approval, my acknowledgement that his plan for the immediate future held merit.

Here’s what he was planning to do just weeks after his second overdose and week-long hospitalization: move into an apartment with Jake, a young man about his age whom he met at rehab. Two addicts who thought the occasional use of marijuana or can of beer would be no problem. Two addicts still living in denial, unable or unwilling to face the reality of their disease.

When the phone rang, I considered not answering. I had so much work to do, and debates with him took a circular path, his reasoning so illogical there was no possible resolution. Afterward, I had trouble retracing the tangled branches of his thought. It was, I suppose, a symptom of his drug use, his brain struggling to follow its own thoughts, the connections numbed or diverted. But I knew I had to try.

“Hi, Tim,” I said, doing my best to not sound annoyed and probably doing a poor job of it. I was lousy at hiding how I felt, especially with him, especially when I felt afraid or angry—two emotions he always seemed to bring out in me.

“Hey, Mom.” His voice always sounded monotonic, flat and emotionless, his mind forever planted firmly somewhere in the middle of happy and sad. I wondered if he ever felt anything anymore without drugs.

“Tim, I think you need to go back to rehab now. It’s what you need. Not moving in with Jake.” When he didn’t respond, I kept going. “You almost died. Again. Tim, you need help.”

“Mom, it’s okay. I’m done with that shit. Jake and me are gonna get an apartment and it’s gonna be fine. I got my job now, and he’s working. We can afford it.”

“Jake is an addict, Tim. He’s a nice guy and a friend, I know, but he’s not good for you. Remember what they said at rehab? That you need to change your friends, your habits, your hangouts. It’s the only way. You need to find friends who are clean and have been that way for a while.”

“It’s fine, mom. He does a little marijuana now and then, but that’s okay. We can do that. A lil marijuana or a beer ain’t gonna hurt. I’m off the hard stuff, I promise.”

I swung my chair away from my desk until it faced the window. Hearing him talk that way was scaring me. Most of my knowledge of addiction came from the Sunday family sessions at rehab, and I remembered what the counselor said every week: Addicts had to leave their old friends behind. Old friends led to old habits and old habits led to relapse.

“Mom, did you hear me?”

“Yeah. You know you can’t drink at all anymore, Tim. Or use any drugs.”

“Mom, it’s okay. I can do it once in a while.”

“No, you can’t. Mel was clear on that. You can’t. You have to stop it all. And you have to get new friends.”

“Mom, I can’t. And I don’t want to. I have a job now, and I want to be out on my own. I can do this.”

I stood up and looked at the sky, at the single bird gliding toward the building just a hundred feet away. Tonight, when I was locking my door and heading out, the whole flock, black and busy, would be gathering on its rooftop. “Tim, you can’t. It’ll happen again and this time—” My voice fell into my throat and I started to choke up, my voice suddenly thin and wispy. “Tim, you can’t. You won’t survive it again. You…you will die. And I can’t take that, I can’t.” I started to cry. “I can’t let that happen, Tim. I love you. You have to do what you can to stay clean.”

“Mom, I love you too, but it’s my choice. I can’t go back to rehab. I just can’t do it again. I’m gonna move in with Jake, after I get a few more paychecks.” He paused, and I watched the lone bird land on the rooftop, his black silhouette clear against the darkening sky.

“And Mom, no matter what happens…if I die, it’ll be my fault, not yours.” The quiet between us thinned and stretched out, but I was too terrified to speak. I could hear the ticking of my office clock, the blood rushing in my ears. I began to sob openly, holding a wet Kleenex to my face.

“Mom, I know you and Dad love me. You guys are the only reason I’m still alive.”

•••

Looking back, I knew. The way he was talking, there was only one way things could turn out. He wouldn’t go back to rehab. He wouldn’t stay clean. He would make what few choices he could, decide the few benign things that drugs had left him control of, like it or not, without my help.

Today I wonder, was he saying goodbye to me? Did he know it, too? To leave me with those words I’d cling to just weeks later, words full of his love for me and Ken, proof that he knew all we had done to try and save him.

I don’t know the answer. But the word Love—the way he wrote it—on my wrist above and just to the left of his name—is how I remember that call, his words, uttered to me with all the certainty his numbed heart could feel, a mark of his love for me, true.

•••

PENNIE BISBEE WALTERS, who works as a technical writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is currently working on a memoir about loving and losing a child who suffers from the disease of addiction. Her poems have appeared in Voices from the Attic.

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The Changeling

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

By Lillian Ann Slugocki

Lucinda shows up in Wisconsin, on September 25 by way of North Carolina—our half sister from another mother. She is the younger, better version of me in every way, but I’m the only sibling that she talks to—there are three others.

She arrives after a twenty-five-year absence in our brother’s life; a seeker, a philosopher, convinced she can carry the weight of his impending death, that she could, in fact, be his angel of death. Like Charon, she has the gold piece for passage in her teeth at all times. She is both midwife and doula for the dying. Our first night together, at the all-night grocery store, Mark wears flannel pajama bottoms, white socks, flip-flops. His eye sockets are purple under the canopy of fluorescent lights. She’s Martha Stewart on crack:

Pro biotic for your belly. Score! Fresh ginger, for nausea, Ooooh, I like this soap, it’s organic, it’s lavender! I love these fruit cups! I love mandarin oranges! We’ll have lasagna for dinner tonight.

And he’s in absolute thrall to her: a school-boy crush, for this paragon of love and light. My god, so much light, so much energy—it crackles from her skin like static electricity. This girl is lit up. I trail behind the two of them; so animated, so colorful, it’s like watching a passion play. He willingly hands over all his power to her. I am completely stupefied, silenced, erased. Back at his apartment, breakthrough pain! Lucinda calls her mother, who is not our mother. Mark takes the phone, turns his face to the wall. He might be crying. I don’t know. I can’t bear to see him like this. It unhinges me. I smoke at the window in another room. Lucinda enters, crying—she takes my hand. She wants to be the doula for my pain and grief, too. But here’s the thing. It’s not what I want from her, at all.

I want her to get out of my way; I need her to shut up, be humble, bear witness, and respect a bond she knows nothing about. But she’s too high on her mission to help, to fix, to redeem—and doesn’t see this, or if she does, chooses to ignore it. I’ve been dispossessed in my role as the oldest sister, his oldest friend. She is the changeling who replaces me, and then tries to help me. When he’s passed out on his pain meds, she wants to go to a salon and get a pedicure, go shopping for new clothes, sample cheese curds, go for a drive. I just want to curl up in a ball and sleep, too. This is not a vacation. And does it really matter if your intentions are pure, and your compassion is real, but your actions ultimately create even more chaos? Who can really tell when times are so fraught?

I can see her mind working: He’s a cool guy, after all, full of flaws, like we all are, but also charismatic and funny. And I see her guilt and her regret, for ignoring him all of her life, but I can’t fix it for her. I can’t fix it for anyone. And I don’t want to. I don’t have the bandwidth. I have my own path to walk—this is my mandala. Go find your own.

At the V.A. clinic the next morning, his doctor examines him. He sits on the table, emaciated, yet still very much in his power, in his body, and still very hip, a rocker—in his black hat, purple hair, and Tibetan beads. We’re in an air-conditioned, windowless room, beige walls and tiled floors. Lucinda and I sit on folding chairs, facing them, doctor and patient, as if it’s a performance. And he’s the star of the show. At one point, the doctor says to him, So yes, you could die in your sleep, and that’s when Mark got up and left.

As I leave to follow him, I hear Lucinda still with the doctor: He needs a higher dose of Fentanyl, now. Today.

In the parking lot, in the sunlight, Mark leans against her neon blue rental. His beads are loose around his wrist and his neck. We don’t say anything. It’s too much; I try to hold him, but we both pull away. What if Lucinda sees? But also the idea of his death is just too crazy. We try to square up to his mortality—the white clouds roil in the sky above our heads. It’s a perfect September day. The leaves are just starting to turn. We’re on the south side of town, in a neighborhood I don’t recognize. He has six weeks to live. Lucinda triumphantly emerges from the clinic,

The patches, she announces, one thousand milligrams, will be in your mailbox, tomorrow! Fed-exed, baby.

Back at his apartment, she draws up a complex schedule for his complex meds, puts it in a spreadsheet, gets it printed, and tacked to the refrigerator. Also tacked to the refrigerator are all her cards and letters to him—spanning the entire length of their relationship, almost six weeks, including a selection of her favorite quotes from their time together:

Screw break out pain!

You’re like a real sister to me!

And taped to the purple wall in the hallway is a hand-painted birthday card from her son. It hangs next to a Xeroxed copy of a prayer by Tecumseh, a Shawnee Indian chief, which reads:

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

•••

In the kitchen, she heats up the lasagna, and I pour vodka into a green plastic cup. Mark eats a tiny sliver of his dinner, and then they’re off to the dunes of Lake Michigan, so he can smoke his evening joint .I don’t go. It’s not my ritual. It’s theirs. I pour more vodka into the green plastic cup, which I drink in silence and utter confusion in his empty living room. The hospital bed is to my right, Tibetan prayer flags overhead, courtesy of Lucinda. When they get back, she kisses me on the cheek, says, I love you, and is gone. She sleeps at my aunt’s house. She’ll get her hands dirty, but not that dirty. I’m happy that I’m getting out of here tomorrow.

In the morning, I’m confident, at the very least, she’ll give me some space to say goodbye to him. I have to go home. I have a full teaching load. I have a dog. I pay New York City rent.I’m at the limit of how many classes I can miss before my pay is cut. In his bedroom, I’m packing; she arrives precisely at ten a.m. to take me to the airport. She picks up my hair brush, and pulls out a new one from Walgreens: Look! I got it for you on the way over! The old one is so gnarly. She marches into the living room, calls out his name:

Mark! Honey, hi, you up? Did you take the anti-nausea meds? Let’s look at the schedule.

He’s been avoiding me all morning, will not talk about how this might be my last morning on earth with you. I don’t want to go there either, but I do want five minutes at some point in the day, before I get on the plane, to say goodbye. Because it might really be goodbye. So, will you, Lucinda, will you give me that space? But it’s not looking good. I stand in the shadow of The Changeling, a sister he never really knew, who now controls everything. Because in the land of dying, everything is upside down. Everything is topsy-turvy. It’s like the circus has come to town. Lucinda and Mark make plans to eat lobster, in downtown Milwaukee, after they drop me off at the airport.

And I see as I get in the back seat, and they get in the front, that this is the way he wants it. He’s not going to say goodbye to me. It’s a much smoother ride with The Changeling in charge. It’s easier on him. He hardly knows her. He basks in her reflected light, as they talk cornfields and lobster rolls. I’m in the back still holding out hope—two minutes alone at the airport, that’s all I’m asking. This is all I want. And Lucinda is an exceptional woman. We’ve been friends for 20 years. She will honor this connection, which doesn’t include her, and step aside, but when we are pulling into the entrance for my airline, she says,

Let’s take a family picture!

She gets out, helping me with my bags, I whisper furiously to her,

I do not want to take a family picture.

And I can’t even manage to sound like a sane person. I’m acutely conscious that my head might explode. She wants a picture to post on social media? My brother looks terrible. I look terrible. I don’t want a digital snap shot, or simulacrum of any kind, of this day, this moment. This moment can burn in hellfire, the second I don’t need it to move to the next. Mark stands at the curb, says, What’s wrong? Lucinda, on the verge of tears, replies, She doesn’t want a family picture, and points at me. I pick up my suitcase and throw it at her. It’s too big and too heavy to make much headway, but I make my point.

I’m out of control.

Mark calls out to me, as I walk away, You’re coming back, right?

In the lounge, at my gate, I call my younger brother of the same mother, and tell him what has just happened. I stand in front of a row of floor to ceiling plate glass windows, overlooking a 747, illuminated by a brilliant afternoon sun. I’m center stage, on the red carpet, in the brightest spot in the room, practically blinded by the light, and I weep. It is such a relief to finally be the despairing, messy, breaking-down woman that I’d been holding back for so long and so hard. Everybody in the terminal watches me cry. It’s the happiest, and most satisfied I’ve been in weeks.

•••

The next time I fly back, The Changeling has vanished, for good, dethroned when my brother didn’t want to go along with their suicide plot. She said it was time, and he said, no. He texted me: She’s Dr. Kevorkian! Tell her to stay away! She got on a plane anyway. She called me from Atlanta. I knew her heart was breaking. I told her, don’t go. Turn around and head home. She didn’t listen. She didn’t know him. When he says no, he means it. She pounded on his door. Crying. Let me in. But it was over.

This long-lost half-sister brought him, for a brief time, what he needed—organization to the chaos of his dying. This must’ve been a relief, and maybe it even promised a different ending, a kind of redemption. But in the end, she didn’t prevail. She was banished. Two weeks later, I flew back into town, at his request. Left to our own devices, we watched movies and smoked pot with cousins and siblings, ate frosted cinnamon muffins for breakfast, and a candy bars for lunch. I didn’t try to fix him, redeem him, or help him.

I bore witness, and believe me, this is infinitely more difficult because it’s acknowledging that you are helpless, and power greater than you is in control. I tried to stay longer, but he said, no, go home. I knew better than to argue. He died a few days later.

He died like a hero going home.

•••

LILLIAN ANN SLUGOCKI has been nominated twice for Best of the Web, a Pushcart Prize, and was winner of the Gigantic Sequins prize for fiction. She’s been published by CCM, Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann Press, Spuyten Duyvil Press, as well as Vol 1: Brooklyn, Bloom/The Millions, Salon, Entropy, The Nervous Breakdown, Hypertext Magazine, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Manifest-Station, The Forge Literary Magazine, BUST Magazine, Angels Flight, literary west, and others. Her latest book is: How to Travel with Your Demons (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2015). She founded BEDLAM: New Work by Women Writers, a reading series @KGB Bar. @laslugocki

You Are There

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

By Jeanne Shoemaker

When I call, her voice sounds like a bird’s. She chirps “yes” to every question. I say, “Are you cold?” or “Did you eat lunch?” or “Are they nice to you there?” And she says, “Where’s there?”

Then I try something else. I say, “Are you wearing your night gown?” and she says, “Yes,” in that child/bird voice that trembles out the syllables.

When my daughter speaks to her, my mother thinks it’s me, but me when I was young. So we have these conversations, when we can, when she’s more lucid and can hear me, and she speaks to the adult me—the one who’s worried about her and doesn’t know what to do—and then to the young me who was brave and reckless and didn’t think about her, at least not very much.

There is where you are, but not me. There is what I say when I mean where you are. My there is your here. Get it? No, I can’t say that. It doesn’t even make sense to me. I have to pose questions that are simple to get answers that may or may not be true. “Are you wearing a bathrobe?” My mother answers yes, but later says she isn’t. “What color is it?” I ask. “Blue,” she replies. I am not trying to trick her. I don’t think she’s lying. I know she’s not. The world swims before her like a blurry movie screen and she’s confused and it comes through in her voice.

In the South they speak in slow rhythms, let the syllables fall over on each other like old friends, intertwined, a filigreed pronunciation. But my mother is not from the South. She’s asking a question in every answer. “Yes” turns into three syllables because she is asking, “Is yes what I’m supposed to say?” She is not who she used to be. Or if she is, she is just hanging on to herself by one little filigreed thread.

•••

When I visit, she is in the hospital-like wing of her fancy, assisted-care “home.” She’s propped up with pillows, tilted slightly to one side, but she won’t last long. Soon she’s going to fall over and bang her head on the hard shiny rail of the hospital bed. As I get closer, I can tell that she can’t see me, and when I say hello she casts her eyes about, scanning the room.

“Oh, hi,” she says finally, but she’s faking it. She can’t see and doesn’t know who it is. I tell her it’s me and take her dry little hand. She looks in my direction and grips my hand like she’s afraid I’ll go away.

“I’m here, Mom. I’m going to stay with you a while.”

“When are you leaving?”

“Not for a while. I’m here now.”

“Good,” she says and clucks her tongue like a hen and looks around. When her eyes fall back on me, she sticks out her head. Now she’s like a turtle. I hold her hand with both of my hands.

I say, “Let’s have coffee. Want coffee?”

“Sure. I’ll have some.”

I pry her hands off mine.

“I’m getting coffee. Be right back.”

“When are you coming back?”

“In just a minute. Don’t worry. I’m getting coffee. We’ll drink coffee, okay?”

“Okay.”

I run out of the room—she can’t see me running—but it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t know what odd behavior is anymore. I ask one of the nurses where I can get coffee and she points to a buffet-like area in the back of the ornate lobby.

My mother’s “home” has an entrance like the Waldorf Astoria’s, but it’s all downhill from there. Each guest room contains a lost soul, cast out from their own life, adrift on an ice floe, though not dressed for the weather. And me? I’m standing on the shore, waving a white handkerchief. “Good-bye!” I say, over and over again. “Farewell!” I yell. “’Til we meet again!”

On a black marble counter, pitchers of juice and ice water drip with condensation. Next to them is a pyramid of cold muffins. Why is everything so scrupulously cold? Two thermoses, one for coffee and one for tea, sit on a silver tray surrounded by the sad pink remains of Sweet’N Low packets. Could anyone here be on a diet? My mother weighs ninety-five pounds. There’s a stack of extra-large Styrofoam cups, the size teenage boys drink Slurpees from. Everything is too cold, or too hot, or too large, and I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of dislocation. There’s an aura of impersonality, as though someone not quite human is in charge of this place. I splash coffee into the cups and run back to the room.

When I sit, my mother looks over with her blind eyes and I can see that the whites have disappeared— it’s all iris now. Did her eyes shrink? It doesn’t make sense.

“Here, I’ll hold it,” I say, steadying her cup.

We sip coffee and talk about the funny things I did when I was young. Her favorite story, the one she tells her friends over and over again, is about me. It is a fusion of fantasy and reality and, maybe, wishful thinking. My grandparents had a farm and four dairy cows, and I used to ride the cows. Well, not really. I used to sit on them when they lay down in the field, as cows do, and they never seemed to mind. Over the years, my mother embellished this event and I never corrected her. It made me seem like a daredevil, instead of a three-year-old looking for a comfortable spot to sit.

“Remember when I used to ride Grandpa’s cows?” I say, and we both laugh.

Later, I leave to get muffins and almost knock over an elderly man wearing a pink chenille bathrobe. Is he wearing his wife’s robe, I wonder? He’s as thin and fragile as a praying mantis, and I watch him struggle with the walker, hands shaking, as he attempts to regain his balance after our near collision. But I don’t stop. I run backwards, saying “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Then I turn the corner and sprint down another long hall—away from him, away from her. And, when I ask myself why I’m running, I don’t have time to answer. I’m in that much of a hurry.

My mother is different though she must still be in there somewhere. Are you in there, Mom? Age and Alzheimers have worked their deadly magic and transformed her. But I’m different too. I’m always in a rush when I’m around her and I don’t know why. It’s like I’m a contestant on that old game show, Beat The Clock.

•••

The night before my mother dies, I sit with her and play music on my laptop. My mother doesn’t have much time left, so everything I do feels contrived and weighted with import. I had turned off the lights, but the heart monitor glowed, the oxygen monitor beeped, and my computer cast a eerie halo of green light. It’s cozy, just my mother and me and these contraptions. But the vast universe is pressing in. The unknowable is just outside the room.

We’re listening to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” when the nurse barges in. She flips on the light, then pokes around the room. She fiddles with the IV, then glares at me because it’s after visiting hours and I’d turned off the lights. She knows my mother will die tonight or tomorrow, and she knows she should not ask me to leave. But she wants me gone and I imagine why. The nurses will play poker after nine p.m. or they’ll have a dance party. I can picture them limboing and mamboing down the halls, snapping their fingers and swaying their hips, swigging champagne and trumpeting, trumpeting with life.

“If looks could kill,” I whisper, and the nurse finally leaves.

My hand is drawn to the oxygen tube that snakes into my mother’s nostril, then to the IV that runs antibiotics and fluids into her stick-like arm. I play Louis Armstrong’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” then Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But my mother stares at the ceiling, never toward me.

•••

“Hurry up, hurry up” she says, again and again. And I think, is she talking to The Angel of Death? But I don’t believe it. I only know that she is not talking to me.

I find the crabby nurse. “We need more morphine,” I tell her.

•••

My brother and I have been trading off, not wanting our mother to be alone. We worry that in the time it takes to shower, or eat a pork chop, or park the car, that she will sneak away. I leave at eleven o’clock and then my brother spends the night sleeping beside her in a cold leather chair. In the morning, he drives her car, this big Buick, back to his house to change his shirt and to get me. We’re going to have breakfast and spend the day with her. But she dies minutes after my brother leaves, sneaks out the moment his back is turned, just as we feared. There had been a plan and now it is all goofed up.

Someone calls from the “home.”

“Your mother passed this morning,” says this person I’ve never met.

Passed is the P.C. term, but I don’t like it. It reminds me of passing gas, pass the potatoes, pass the buck. Why be coy? She died. She’s dead. There will be “arrangements”: cold storage, caskets, morticians, cemeteries, body bags with heavy zippers.

When my brother walks in, I hand him a mug of coffee. “Sit down and drink this,” I say, before I tell him.

•••

I remember my parakeet and the three childhood dogs I loved and lost. I buried my dead pets in the backyard, marked their graves with crosses made from Popsicle sticks. For the parakeet’s casket, I used an old metal lunchbox, filling it first with thick rolls of cotton, and sprinkling the tiny weightless body with pink and yellow rose petals and red cinnamon Valentine’s hearts. For the dogs, I used cardboard boxes covered with Christmas wrap, even a bow if I could find one. A shiny, boxed gift for God! Each pet wept and prayed over on one knee. I was only devout in my faith at times of death. For my dog Pearl’s funeral, I shot an air rifle into the sky—a 1-Gun salute—and wore a black armband for weeks. But my mother’s funeral will be modest by comparison, lacking the high dramatic flair of my youth. She will be buried in a strange place by strange people. I will not dress or touch the body. I will not shovel the earth, say the prayers, or fire the gun. I will stand squarely in the dirt, like a lump of stone, a tombstone myself.

•••

I call Diego and Sons Mortuary. I need to find out what my mother had pre-arranged for her funeral. She’d told me she had already done it—long ago when death seemed far away and talking about it was a silly thing to do. A man with just the whiff of an accent answers. His voice is silken, almost romantic.

I say, “Can you help me?”

“I hope so,” he replies.

I explain that my mother has died and that she had already arranged for the funeral, or at least I think she did. He asks her name and when I tell him, he repeats it.

“Dorothy,” he says, as though he knew her and misses her already.

He is so nice that I wish I could meet him, see him, but I know he is trained to be nice, like realtors, but not my mother’s nurses. Still, I wish I could talk to him forever, this exotic sounding man, this under…taker. Will he be the one to drive the hearse? Collect her from her “home?” Zip the bag?

I ask, “So it was pre-paid?”

“Let’s see,” he says in that beautiful, seductive voice. A pause. “Yes, she put it on her Visa card.”

I laugh. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. He laughs, too. We laugh together. I never want to hang up.

•••

Later, I attempt to write my mother’s obituary. “You’re the writer,” my brother says, delegating the enormous task to me. So, I try to produce something heartfelt, but my sentences are bad and sound phony. She lived here. She lived there. It’s too short. I freeze as if it is an extra-credit question on an exam that I’m ill prepared for. All I can think of are weird moments from my childhood, odd behaviour, hers and mine, and fights we had.

My brother and I sit on the sofa and look through the family albums. There’s a childhood photo of my mother with her six siblings taken in front of their gigantic house. Even as a child, my mother had a wary expression as if she knew what was in store for her. We stare at our parents’ wedding photo. They look so young and skinny. We keep looking, hoping to find a suitable photograph to run with the obituary I have yet to write.

Then, for some reason, I remember one of the last times my mother and I did something together, before she had Alzheimer’s, before she was in her new “home”— when she was still here. I’m in the car and my mother is driving that stupid Buick of hers down the Bayshore Freeway, going 30 m.p.h. though the speed limit is 65. People honk, one guy gives us the finger. The car is so old and decrepit that it won’t go any faster and the turn signal broke off, so my mother had made a new one with a popsicle stick and some duct tape. We’re a family of oddballs, cow riders, and duct tape mechanics. The obituary should reflect this somehow, shouldn’t it?

My brother and I can’t find a photo we like, and again I try to write the obituary. But, it’s all a big jumble. I can’t do it. I appeal to my brother to write it.

“You’re the writer,” he says again, managing to make the word writer sound both truthful and accusatory.

Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I sum up my mother’s life in a few simple paragraphs? I realize now, too late, that I should have asked her to write the obituary herself, when she was still lucid, and before the Alzheimer’s kicked in. “How would you like to be remembered?” I’d ask. But no one is that organized, are they? Must I have the final word?

Once upon a time my mother was young and hopeful, but then things happened. Her first born child died when he was a month old, and her marriage turned so bitter it was like a cancer spread through our home. But in an obituary, you’re only supposed to write about the wonderful things. I’m having trouble thinking of any right now. The recent past is so filled with tragic events, it blocks out all earlier years. At the end, my parents’ lives were, well, pretty bad. My father had a heart attack and later a stroke. My mother got Alzheimer’s, then broke her hip, and, over time, became so fuddled up that she had to live in that fancy assisted-living “home.”

Still looking for a photo to include with my mother’s obituary, I come across an album I’ve never seen before. Old and dust-covered, clearly it has not been touched in decades. The first pages contain my oldest brother’s birth certificate and many cards of congratulations—happy cards with bunnies and kittens and colored balloons—then his death certificate. I turn this page. More than fifty cards of condolence have been carefully pasted into the album by my mother’s own hand. With shock, I realize that this forgotten tome had started as my brother’s baby book. It was meant to be filled with celebrations, birthdays, Christmasses, graduations, and the progress of his life.

Two years ago, when my mother and I sat down to write my father’s obituary, she scratched out the sentence I’d written about their “three” children and wrote in the word “two.” She was already editing, rewriting her life, improving it, leaving out the bad parts. I guess I will do that too. Why not? My own life, if I look at it objectively, has nothing as tragic as the loss of a child, but there are moments of failure I’d rather not think about. Suddenly, I understand the form and its purpose—to call into high relief the events that can be celebrated. And those high points will, we hope, cast a shadow over the things we must forget.

For inspiration, I look in the local newspaper, and read the obituaries. I need a template. I see that a friend’s mother has also died. What luck! My friend’s mother and my mother are almost the same. They’re the same age, both mothers and wives. My friend’s mother even looks like mine in the youthful photograph they supplied—same blond pin-curled hair and pretty lip-sticked mouth. The obituary is beautifully written. Our beloved mother, etc. I have to change a few facts but not that many. I copy the words and the sentiment I don’t feel and pawn it off as my own. I don’t know how I feel. I’m not there yet.

•••

JEANNE SHOEMAKER graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, the Iowa Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

Cleaning Girl

By Allen Goldblatt/ Flickr
By Allen Goldblatt/ Flickr

By Rebecca Weaver

Oh my god … what is that smell? My boss and I had just crossed the threshold of his house. Dark, shades drawn. Bikes and skateboards in the corner and hanging from the wall. A couch converted into a bed in the living room. He had a greasy brown ponytail and pale blue eyes, one of which would twitch unpredictably. The second you thought it was done, it started up again. Mostly he kept his eyes on the floor.

“So, yeah. It’s been a while. I lost my last cleaner a couple weeks ago.”

An orange cat with matted hair strolled across the back of the sofa to me. I reached my hand out to pet it. It sniffed and backed away.

“Yeah, they’re shy,” he said to the floor.

“I like cats,” I said.

“Oh!” My boss looked around. “You have more!”

Across the living room, two were lolling around on the couch atop what looked like a baby blanket of cat fur. Polluted cream clouds against navy blue cushions. In the slants of daylight I could see wisps of hair floating. It had to be at least a year since any other human had been in this place. My eyes watered. I’m not even allergic. By the time my day was over I would count six cats, but there may have been more.

“Well, give us a tour!” my boss said.

•••

I started cleaning houses in 2011 a couple months after I graduated from college. I had moved to the Bay Area with my older boyfriend, and I—along with my degree in Dramatic Literature—couldn’t get a job anywhere. The recession and the boom in Silicon Valley were chewing up San Francisco and even the coffee shop baristas were really out-of-work professionals in their thirties and forties making latte art. The hipster cafe (we still called them hipsters then) was getting into full swing. I’d only worked in shitty coffee shops earlier in the 2000s when they were grungier, less sleek, with more couches and board games and plants, java vibes held over from the nineties.

I didn’t want a job but I needed one. I mostly wanted to be left alone. It was a relief to clean. My dad had just died two years earlier from cancer and I saw his face all day long. Sometimes he was healthy and laughing, and sometimes his face was gray like cement and his hair was growing back in mousy patches after the chemo.

My motivation to begin a post-college life was unpredictable. I kept making to-do lists to start an acting career or to write a novel, but the lists just made me feel like a failure. I’d set up auditions then wouldn’t show up, unable to imagine how I could ever speak in front of people again. I had panic attacks where it felt like my blood was carbonated and I was afraid I might start screaming any moment.

A funny thing that happens when you’re in deep grief: you forget why you’re depressed. I spent years waking up and reminding myself that my dad was dead. Later in the day I would forget and try to remember why I wasn’t able to drag myself to the dentist or wash the dishes. And then I would have to tell myself: Your dad’s dead, he died from cancer, he was white and skeletal the last time you saw him, he looked down at his hands when the hospice nurse spoke, he was embarrassed when he knocked his coffee over at Christmas because he was less than a month away from dying and he was weaker than anyone knew or could understand.

And I would think, Oh, that’s right. I would then collapse and crawl into bed and click around on health websites or read books on how not to get cancer.

I didn’t have any friends in the Bay Area and, while I wanted them desperately, I couldn’t handle people my own age, their happiness, their bored wit. I had nothing but emptiness; even my laugh sounded false and far away to me. I had studied acting in school and I wanted nothing more than to be invisible.

•••

My boss—I’ll call her Dani—was a springy soccer mom with wiry hair, zero body fat, and the best, chipperest, can-do attitude I’ve ever seen. She wore sweatshirts with the neck cut out like in Flashdance, leggings, and white Reebok sneakers. She once injured her back in yoga class because she wanted to be the best. We found each other on Craigslist and I started cleaning the day after she hired me.

Sometimes Dani would meet me on the road in front of the house and we’d tour it together, but other times I’d be on my own. People showed me their cleaning supplies and told me how they liked certain things done. One woman had a typed up list for every single surface of her home and a specific cleaner required for each item, including faucets and light fixtures. In a Berkeley apartment an old cat swatted at me and meowed sourly like it was sick. It stalked me around the apartment and couldn’t be deterred even when I threatened to hit it with a chair. I got it behind a bathtub and had to call my boyfriend. He came and chased it out with a broom and it screamed its way into the guest room I’d already cleaned. We locked it in and, when I left, I opened that door and ran. One house had two heavy metal musicians that had gargoyles for knobs on their kitchen cabinets. In their bathroom they had essential oils and Chanel products and in their basement they had a thousand dollar sauna.

My boyfriend and I were living in an in-law apartment in the hills of El Cerrito—the cheapest place we could find with some of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen and an incredible view of San Francisco. We didn’t have a couch so we hung out on the futon mattress on the floor or on a blanket on the carpet by the TV. At night we’d look across the bay at the city we couldn’t afford.

Our landlord, who I’ll call Jim, was a skinny Carradine brother–lookalike in his sixties with a gray bushy mustache and wild eyes. He liked to chitchat and once caught me for two hours by describing at least five different episodes of Ancient Aliens and bringing down a photo album with photos of his old girlfriends and his fiancée who had been a model and had died tragically from cancer. Once I had to go up into his home to deal with the WiFi, and he had Playboy covers from the eighties in frames on his wood panel walls.

Another time he wanted to show me an option for a refrigerator he had in his garage. The garage was filled to the ceiling, three quarters of it full, with boxes stacked haphazardly on top of one another. They looked like they hadn’t been moved in a long time and the cardboard had softened over years of fog rolling in across the bay. He pointed at the boxes. “My mother’s wedding dress is in there. I can’t bear to go through her things.” His mother had died the same week as his fiancée. Almost twenty years ago.

•••

My boss and I toured the rest of his home, a bungalow on a dead end street in Oakland. The cats scattered as we walked the rooms and then softly tiptoed behind us. The kitchen at the back was surprisingly neat, just a couple crumbs on the counter. The bedroom seemed all right although the air was suffocating. As it turned out later, there was solid mass of white and gray cat hair under the bed an inch thick, like a secret rug.

He brought us to his office, a long narrow room running the length of his living room on the opposite side of the house. There was an enormous desktop computer setup with speakers and a soundboard where he would later sit almost the entire time I was cleaning. The smell was pervasive in here, sharp and unwell. In the corner was a closet without a door, a bright light overhead. He nodded toward it. “So the real part that needs to be cleaned is over here.” We walked over and hit a wall of ammonia and stench I’d never experienced before nor since.

Twenty-five square feet of cat piss. The two boxes of kitty litter were overloaded and the cats had taken to going on the floor where he’d spread newspapers. It was clear he’d waited maybe a year, maybe more to clean this closet other than a quick scoop of the kitty litter and another layer of newspaper which was now about one to two inches thick. I could see cat urine shining on some of the rotting floorboards where there were holes in the paper. A cat hopped out and ran past us, leaving wet paw prints through the office.

“Wow! Oh! Okay!” Dani clapped her hands and turned away. She smiled wildly, blinking hard, her knuckles whitening in front of her chest. I kept my face neutral and held my breath. We looked at each other a second. The room was silent as her mind ticked. She’s getting me out of this, I thought. This is not part of the job description.

“Well!” she said finally. “She’s gonna need some gloves!” She pointed a finger at the sky, triumphant.

“Yeah, I got some,” he said from the other side of the room. He’d never even come with us to the closet but instead watched us from afar, testing the waters.

“Well, how about she leaves that”—she stepped delicately away from the closet and I followed—“to the end, cause that’s a big job!” I’m from the Midwest and I can tell you that there was practically a “dontcha know” at the end of that chipperest of statements. It was all well and good. We’d take care of it—meaning me.

“Yeah, well, that’s the main thing I need done.” His eye twitched as he looked around at his walls, his fingernails, anything but us.

“Well, it’s a whole house cleaning we agreed on, so that will wait to the end.” Dani pinched her lips, firm, and he agreed as he walked her to the door.

A few minutes later she was gone and I was cleaning, sucking the hair carpet and kitty litter crumbs off his couch, dusting tables and shelves that hadn’t been cleaned in a year. He barely had enough rags for the job. I eventually resorted to vacuuming his shelves of cat hair and dust before using a cloth. He worked at his computer, some unknown alt-rock playing on his speakers. Every once in a while he’d laugh asthmatically at something online. He sat five feet away from the cat closet. I had to step out to his backyard regularly just to breathe.

•••

Recently, back in Wisconsin, my mom had had to put down our dog Hans. Hans was a huge, fluffy Golden Retriever that would lie on the bed with her when she cried for my dad. The dog would rest his squishy face by hers and let her release her tears in a torrent and wait patiently for her to let it go. His legs had always been weak and one day they stopped working and he couldn’t carry himself any longer. She was on her own in our family home and I was in California, cleaning houses. When she told me Hans was gone, I fell to the floor in my kitchen and sobbed uncontrollably until my neighbor knocked softly on the wall to please stop.

It occurred to me once that cleaning people’s houses felt as if I were helping to prevent their homes from rotting. The moisture on the bathroom ceiling, the dust on the bookshelves. Dead skin cells everywhere. I cleaned and thought about how we were all trying so hard not to die. Stainless steel in the kitchens. Everyone wanted it and yet the stains were sometimes impossible to remove. It reminded me of fingerprints on iPhones, but permanent. A polished lifestyle that had no room for human dirt and oil. Touchscreens that aren’t meant to be touched.

•••

I once wrote a script for a short film about this experience. I wrote the Cleaning Girl working her way through his home with one eye on the guy the whole time. Petting the cats when she could for comfort. Avoiding turning her back on him for too long because sometimes she could feel his twitching eye on her body. Texting her boyfriend out on the back stoop so someone knew where she was. The Cat Guy passive aggressively bringing up the closet two, three, four times as a reminder that “that had to get done,” while she insisted every time that she had to clean everything else first. Only in this version the Cleaning Girl found her courage and stood up to the Cat Guy, called him “disgusting,” and threatened to call Animal Services, eventually storming out. She even gave a cupcake to a homeless guy on the way to the freeway at the end because what the hell, why not.

I never made that short film.

This story is not like that one. This is the story of how I did the job.

I had the gloves. I should have had goggles. The air was thick with dander and urine. Stinging, acidic, ammonic in my lungs, I imagined them raw and red like the back of your throat when you’re sick, though really I have no idea what lungs look like other than drawings from textbooks. My entire chest hurt and my eyes watered and my nose burned all the way up through my forehead. I closed my mouth and worked as long as I could without breathing but then I realized I had to and breathed under my shirt which kept slipping as I carefully picked up flat, inch-thick pads of newspaper, soaked in cat urine and shoved them into plastic garbage bags.

The cats watched me from around the corner, eyes wide in that pointed, appalled way that cats have, glancing down at their soggy, rotting bathroom and back up at me.

•••

I drove home without the radio on. Rush hour from Oakland to the Berkeley Hills. My head throbbed all the way to the back of my skull. I didn’t know if I could tell my boyfriend or my mom or anyone. I had taken my shoes off and put them on a newspaper I’d found on the floor in the back. Soles sticky with cat piss.

I got home and scrubbed myself raw in the shower and crawled into bed. It was six o’clock on a Friday and I would spend the entire weekend sick in bed with head and body aches. I clicked around on my computer and found a movie on Netflix and waited for my boyfriend to come home. I was sick and I hated myself but I really didn’t mind. I was grateful for a reason to fall apart. My dad had been dead for over two years and my mom was alone and I was doing the wrong thing in the wrong place and it felt exactly, exactly right.

•••

REBECCA WEAVER is a writer/director/actor raised in Wisconsin and living in Los Angeles. Her first feature film, June Falling Down, is currently playing at film festivals around the country. Visit JuneFallingDown.com and SilverLeafFilms.net to learn more about her work.

Leave Her Alone

By Alyssa L. Miller/Flickr
By Alyssa L. Miller/Flickr

By J. Lin

It was a sick joke between me and my two closest friends.

“I know you’re busy, so you don’t have to call. Wouldn’t want you to feel obligated.”

“I know you have a ton of stuff going on, so don’t feel obligated to come to my kid’s recital.”

“Don’t feel obligated to attend my birthday party.”

“I just broke up with my boyfriend, but don’t feel you have to check on me.”

I don’t remember how the joke started. Somewhere in our college years, but it always made me vaguely uncomfortable. They were my best friends. Weren’t we supposed to go out of our way, not out of obligation, but out of love? Every time Fran or Karen cracked that joke, I wondered if that was their way of asking for space. It was no secret that I could be intense. I loved them fiercely—and wasn’t afraid to show it, which could be unnerving to most folks. My desire for sisterhood was borne out of having no close girlfriends in high school. It was from years of growing up with an older sister whom I yearned to emulate and befriend but learned to outshine when I realized how much she resented my existence.

So when teased about obligation, I held back. I was not the first one to arrive at the party. I did not call after a break-up. When Karen’s mom was diagnosed with cancer, I waited. But I may have waited too long.

•••

When someone tells you to leave her alone, you comply. Especially when that person’s mother is dying, something no one has said explicitly, but it is strongly implied. Despite your instincts or concerns, you stay away. It would seem cruel otherwise.

But if you joke about obligation, it could mean the opposite; it could be a cry for attention. Or it could mean what it implies: you are welcome to come, but not too early, and don’t stay to clean up. With Karen, I could never be too sure which way she was leaning on any particular day.

Fran and I got her mother’s initial cancer diagnosis—and subsequent update—from Karen over text. It became her preferred method of communication, which was understandable. She could cry while typing. She could sit by her mother’s sleeping side and send updates. She could be as terse or verbose as she needed or wanted. Luckily she had upped her data plan before her mom’s diagnosis. I was always very careful with the amount I texted her, the memory of the time she chided me about my multiple texts, explaining her data plan could not support me. I felt as if my mom had slapped my hand but only after offering me cookies from the cookie jar.

Of course I wanted to call Karen. I wanted to call every day, but I didn’t. I held back. I checked in with Fran instead. “Have you heard from Karen?” She had not.

Instead I stalked Karen on Facebook and Instagram. She infrequently posted about her parents, given her natural private tendencies. Out of the three of us, Karen was the least dramatic, the most pragmatic, and the least likely to overshare—or even share. When she first started to date her now-husband, she casually informed us that she would share all her problems with him, not us, thank you very much. She made it clear that it was her and him, no longer her and us.

Her posts showed an otherwise happy family, daughters in swim meets, plays, concerts, horseback riding—and trips with other families, two in particular. That gutted me in a way that made me feel nineteen years old again. After years of living on opposite coasts, I finally found myself in the same state as two of my best friends. And one of them had dying mom and asked for space, yet seemed to be hanging out with everyone but me.

•••

The three of us have seen each other through every major milestone in our adult lives. We hung out in Karen’s new condo the night before her wedding. We were bridesmaids for each other. They called me from their hospital beds after the birth of their first children, often waking me up in the dead of night. Karen was the second person I called (after my husband) when I unexpectedly went into labor. She drove straight to the hospital and stayed with me for hours until my husband could fly home. It was the most amazing thing anyone has ever done for me. I had always doubted her love for me throughout the years, but after that, to doubt would have been offensive. And when I returned home with my new bundle and a huge case of post-partum depression, she and Fran were waiting for me with food. They washed my dishes, folded my laundry, and helped me through my fog.

•••

When I moved back East, I had fantasies of hanging out every weekend with my friends, becoming an aunt to their children and watching their kids become best friends with mine. Only part of that came true.

We managed to establish little traditions such as annual apple picking and group dinners and the like. As the kids grew older, we became busier. My children became invested in their school activities and I became head of the PTA. Still, we were never as busy as Karen seemed to be. Maybe it was because her children were older. Maybe it was because she was keeping up with the Jones, the Smiths, and the Reynolds. Whatever the reason, every query to meeting up was met with hesitation, a glance at the calendar, and then a litany of what they already had planned with other families. Sometimes we would get a “no” only to see that the week after, they had gone somewhere with someone else.

It was hard not to be jealous, especially when it seemed to be the same families. I found myself justifying the actions, but at some point, Fran plainly stated, “They don’t make time for us. It is just the way their life is.” Unlike me, Fran is accepting, calm, and Zen. Or maybe she already figured out what Karen needed and was waiting for me to get on board.

Instead I went on the defensive. I stopped making Karen and her family a priority, giving their time slot to new families in our community. I stopped asking if Karen wanted to join whenever we saw Fran’s family. It was easier to assume she was busy than to hear once again how she could not fit us into her schedule.

Her mom received a bone marrow transplant. She seemed to get better. Then she got worse. Then she did not leave the hospital at all.

•••

The end came a little over two years later. I had received scant details: little bits I could glean from the occasional conversation. Maybe she thought she had told me. Maybe she did. I felt intrusive even asking how her mom was doing. Sometimes we had whole conversations about everything but her mom.

A couple of weeks into the new year I received a text from Karen’s husband, Sam. He said Karen had been by her mom’s side continuously; her brothers were flying in. The end was near. I waited by the phone for days. They said it would probably happen on Monday. Nothing. Tuesday passed. On Wednesday I texted Sam, not wanting to bother Karen. When I finally heard from Sam, her mom was gone. The funeral would be early next week.

•••

My husband was out of town, and my sitter offered to stay late. I drove north to meet up with Fran and her husband Josh. I didn’t have to ask; Fran automatically waited for me in the parking lot to walk in together.

Karen and her brothers were standing by a white casket in the front with their father. I hadn’t seen them since her wedding almost fifteen years ago. I reintroduced myself, but they remembered me. Or if they didn’t, they faked it really well.

Karen smiled through her tears. She had curled her long hair and wore a very flattering dress that I learned later was on loan from a neighbor, who had marched into her house, like the Today Show ambush makeover with stack of garment bags. I had assumed Karen had the ubiquitous little black dress to wear with the standard black cardigan. I was startled to learn that she did not—and uncomfortable that I was learning about it so late in the game. We used to swap shoes and clothes all of the time in college. Karen’s friend Jane made some comment about how she wanted to bring dresses over, but her dresses would’ve been too large since she was so much taller than Karen, yet she should’ve known Karen needed a dress because she had been in Karen’s closet so much over the years, blah blah. Jane looked at me as she said this. I wanted to punch her in the mouth.

Josh and I hung out with Karen’s sisters-in-law and their children and Karen’s daughters in the back room. We made jokes, helped one of the girls find a lost earring, both of us uncomfortable with not knowing what to say or do. Probably more me than him, since Josh lost his own father ten years prior.

There was no eulogy, per Karen’s mom’s wishes. Just well-wishers gathered to pay respects to the family. The family invited everyone across the street for a Korean style wake. They had reserved several tables: older generation on one side, younger on the other. I sat with Fran and Josh with Sam’s friends and their wives, whom had become close to Karen; the group included Jane and their friend Mel. We had all known each other in some capacity since college. I love Korean food, so this was a treat, but today it felt wrong. I noticed both Sam and Karen picked at their food, glancing every so often at their daughters eating with their cousins at the next table. In comparison, Karen’s dad ate and drank, the onset of loneliness not fully felt until everyone left town a few days later.

It was Jane who reminded me of how much space I had given Karen—and that maybe I had given too much. Jane had known Karen almost as long as I have. They met the summer between our freshman and sophomore year of college at a Korean American program in Seoul and stayed in touch even though Jane was in Indiana and we were in Pennsylvania. It was during a time when Karen and I were on one of our “outs.”

As a result, there seemed to be an unspoken competition between Jane and me. I saw Jane an interloper, always trying to be closest to Karen, jealous of the bond Fran, Karen, and I shared—and making sure I knew it. In hindsight, we were both insecure, but at the time, she was annoying. I remember especially during Karen’s wedding, there was a showdown of sorts among the bridesmaids. Out of the five of us, only Jane had attended a different college. Jane, who had been chosen as the maid of honor because anything else was Sophie’s Choice, was in charge of the bridal shower. But two weeks prior, we still had yet to hear from her. As it turned out, Jane was on vacation and had arranged for a friend of hers to contact us, including soliciting money for a shower that we were sure had not been planned yet. Naturally the rest of us leapt into planning mode, and it resulted in many hurt feelings; Jane went on the defensive, and we wondered why she just didn’t tell us about her plans and ask us to help. In the end, we all agreed to keep this from Karen, least the poor bride become more stressed. We college pals did not want Karen to feel badly that her besties were fighting, but Jane told her everything the minute Karen returned from her honeymoon. Jane explained she wanted to be transparent. I said she wanted to cover her ass.

I always suspected Jane wanted to fit in, desperately. She dated two of Karen’s good friends and later went on to marry one of Sam’s best friends. There was always an unspoken competition between the two of us: who knew Karen better. At Karen’s mom’s funeral, she was winning. And she let me know it. After all, she was not the one who gave Karen so much space that I was practically shouting over the chasm.

•••

Karen’s recollections started small. Soon they increased in page count, emotion and frequency. They became missives with an agency of their own. I had reminded her of the memoir type narrative she had sent me two months after her first daughter was born. She had been in the throes of post-partum depression, something I hadn’t realized when I was childless and living in California at the time. A couple of weeks after her mother was laid to rest, I sent Karen what she had written. She obviously remembered the events, but not writing it—or even sending it to me.

Each of her emails carried the weight of grief mixed with the pressure of moving forward and holding her remaining family together. She didn’t want me to respond, just wanted to send it out there, she said. It was another variation of “don’t feel obligated.” I tried to say something each time my mailbox filled up, a penny for her thoughts, a wish for peace, but I knew she wouldn’t want something long. So I kept it short. In some cases, I said nothing at all.

The most recent missive chronicled her mother’s last days. I couldn’t read it—at first. I started to, but by then I had moved back to Seattle, a place that had unhappy memories, and I was mourning the wonderful life I had smashed in order to chase some dream of extended family that probably would never come to fruition. I couldn’t handle any more sadness. Seeing my sons’ faces filled with disappointment and longing was already too much.

When I finally made myself read Karen’s most recent email, I knew it would be the last of its kind. It was not only the last of her mother, but Karen’s way of purging those feelings to make room for her father’s growing complexities. Perhaps that is why I resisted reading it. Or maybe I was just being a bad friend. I told myself this was space. I was giving her space. Or maybe I was withholding to punish her for pushing me away. When I finally read it, it was raw, but very detailed. Calm, a little haphazard, but very Karen. It was straightforward, chronically. I read it and felt ashamed. Sorry that I still had a mother and Karen did not. Ashamed that I was not there for her. Angry that others were there instead. Bitter that they knew what was going on and I did not because I had been asked to give her space. Did others not give her space? Or maybe she only wanted space from me?

Grief is a funny thing, but one can say that about friendships as well, especially the long, old kind that never forgets, always forgives, and is ever-changing. I don’t know the depths of Karen’s grief; there is no way for me to know. I understand there is a mother-shaped hole in her being, a devastation that she will never recover from. She will instead find a way to live with it, alongside it, accept it as a part of her new life.

There are other things she is accepting too, some better than others. Some welcome, most often not. When I sat down with Karen at a diner somewhere between our homes on a rainy summer day, two weeks before I left for Seattle, I wanted to ask her about us. But only an asshole would be so petty to bother a grieving person. Yet, here I was about to embark on my own journey of grief, mourning the happy life I had created that I was about to leave behind.

Strangely enough Karen had a story about three neighborhood friends who had been close, but were now feuding. Choosing one over the other, friends who had been together for thirty years. They sounded very much like us. In the parking lot, I asked tearfully if she thought that applied to us.

“Are you worried that will happen?” she asked incredulously. I don’t know why she was surprised. She knows me well enough that I would worry about this. She hugged me. “No! That’s not going to happen.”

You could say we’ve been friends for too long. You could throw every cliché in the book at us and say it applies. But it’s true. We have been friends too long for this, but space is also the nature of old friends.

•••

What does one say when one reads her friend’s broken heart on the page? I couldn’t ask Karen out for coffee. I couldn’t help her choose flowers to plant on her mother’s grave. I couldn’t bring her a casserole. I was already—physically—so far away.

I had asked Karen to be my oldest son’s godmother, a position she gladly accepted. After we moved to Seattle, she flew out for a whirlwind weekend to participate in the ceremony. It was rainy, but that did little to dampen our spirits. The baptism ceremony was lovely, and the dinner after was lively. Karen and I stayed up late at night to talk and talk and talk. Drink tea and talk. It was then I had my friendship epiphany.

Apparently I wasn’t the only person who felt Karen had abandoned them. Jane and their friend Mel had felt slighted over pretty silly reasons. Karen had missed a few of their outings and they felt rejected. They were being petty and jealous. Karen felt defensive and exhausted.

I practically shouted that they’re the ones who see her all of the time, but I should have realized that social media lies. They were the ones posting about the amazing times they had. Karen’s priorities—her daughters, her husband, her father—hadn’t changed. All of us had misread her, horribly.

It turns out that space was what Karen needed. And wanted. She was thankful that I had given that to her, to allow her to navigate this new, unwelcome existence without her mother.

Karen left Seattle with an uncertain future and I watched her go, worried about her, but I felt the most secure in our friendship ever. So now I call her. I call Fran. We text, sometimes we group text. Sometimes Karen calls me. And we never ever mention obligation.

•••

J. LIN has been a twice resident fellow at Hedgebrook and a waiter at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. Her work has appeared in the book Philly Fiction, SoapNet.com, ABC.com, Seattle Weekly, MetroKids Magazine, York Daily Dispatch, AsianAvenue.com, haveuheard.net, and forthcoming in 2017 Women of Color Anthology: All the Women in My Family Sing. She was also part of the Emmy-winning writers’ team at “One Life to Live.” She lives in Seattle with her husband and two sons.

Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly

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

By S. Craig Renfroe, Jr.      

The nurse looked at my chart. “I see you’re allergic to Basilhefflinne?” Basilhefflinne is a made-up word because to this day I don’t know what she actually said.

“No,” I said. “I have no idea what that word is.”

She wrote something on my chart. I was afraid she wrote, “He doesn’t know what that is.”

“Should I?” I asked. “Know what that is?”

She didn’t say.

“How would I know if I was allergic to that?”

She wrote something else on my chart.

I quit talking.

She prepared me for the surgery. It was a simple procedure, they had said—outpatient, performed in the doctor’s office. I had something on my lip, embolus, cyst, something, and they were going to remove it. Simple.

So simple I hadn’t cancelled my afternoon classes. I was teaching composition at a small private liberal arts college. In the South. In North Carolina. In a large city. In Charlotte. It’s Queens. Queens University. Queens University of Charlotte. Though technically at the time it was Queens College. Without the “of Charlotte,” which they added when they upped it to university, afraid students would think they were in New York, I guess.

The doctor came in. I had been referred by my GP, which was mainly what he did, that and told me to bike to work. This doctor was also a cosmetic surgeon—he told me this so that I wouldn’t be concerned about the effects of the operation on my face, any fears about disfigurement. I was instantly afraid of disfigurement.

Simple.

“We’re going to use another anesthesia,” he said, “because I see from your chart that you’re allergic to Basilhefflinne.”

“I’m not. I have never heard of that. At least I don’t know if I am.”

He wrote something on my chart. And then he stuck me with a needle in the mouth, the lips, and the face. The nurse put on Motown. I was instructed to lie down. There was a little towel that he put on my face at the nose and above—“to keep the light out of your eyes.” There was a contraption that went in my mouth. My face was numb. The doctor tugged on my lip. It was only when something warm ran down my chin onto my neck that I realized it was blood and he had been cutting me.

I’m not sure how long it lasted, but I was in and out in around an hour, so not long. Right at the end, he gazed at his handiwork and said, “Perfect. No one will know once it’s healed. Beautiful job.” And he was right, no one does know now, but saying that out loud was still kind of arrogant, right? “You’ll need this for when the anesthesia wears off.” It was a prescription for hydrocodone. “You’re not allergic, are you?”

“No.” Was I?

•••

Dorothy Parker, Algonquin Round Table wit, left Martin Luther King, Jr. her estate without ever having met him. After King was assassinated, the estate went, again according to her wishes, to the NAACP. In that same will, it said she was to be cremated but failed to spell out what was to happen to those ashes. Lillian Hellman, her friend and executor, not wanting to pay fees to the funeral home for storage, had them moved to the estate lawyer’s office. Dorothy Parker’s ashes remained there in a filing cabinet for seventeen years. Today, they are interred next to the NAACP’s headquarters.

•••

While filling my prescription, I marveled at my face in the pharmacy bathroom mirror. It was horrible. I was disfigured. My lip was black and swollen, and the stitches made me a kissing Frankenstein. I was not going to teach my classes later that day—this decision I made strictly out of vanity before realizing taking the hydrocodone meant I wouldn’t be doing much of anything.

I called the College of Arts and Sciences admin. She was one of the kindest people in the world, but she also refused to learn Excel, and so she did classroom assignments by hand using some arcane hand-drawn charts on taped together legal paper, which meant we spent the first two weeks of the semester moving classrooms. She also had a habit of God blessing her/him/it, which meant that person or thing was not living up to expectations. I told her I had outpatient surgery, and it took more out of me than expected (God bless me), and could she put notes on my classroom doors saying class was cancelled. She was happy to and told me to get better.

Then I made one more stop at the library. I had recently discovered you could check out movies for free from the public library, and so I freaked out several story-time-going young children with my face as I looked for a video I hadn’t seen. I was on a personal mission to see every single one of the “Greatest Films of All Time” (as defined by anyone who happened to make such a list) and figured I could use the drugs to help me get through some of the tough movies that I had been putting off. So I took the copy of Singing in the Rain and the hydrocodone back to my apartment.

•••

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of that high school student bedeviler The Scarlet Letter—that is, used-to-be bedeviler; as I understand it now, they mostly read business emails. Hawthorne died in his sleep in the White Mountains, the same day his son was initiated into a fraternity by being put blindfolded into a coffin. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the pallbearers, wrote of Hawthorne, “I thought there was a tragic element in the event, that might be more fully rendered,—in the painful solitude of the man, which, I suppose, could no longer be endured, and he died of it.” For a man who wrote an essay called “Friendship,” Emerson was a real jackass of a friend. Though I guess the two weren’t actual friends, but neighbors. There are lots of journal entries of Emerson dissing Hawthorne’s writing and reports of Hawthorne hiding when Emerson would be headed down the path to his house. Emerson was buried in a white robe.

•••

My frenemy came to visit me at my apartment that afternoon. We’d met when I started as an adjunct at the university where he was a lecturer. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is huge, at least to my reckoning, with over twenty thousand undergraduates. It is a monster of education, a bloated blob of learning. The English department had to staff all the English 101 and 102s for all the first years, though their class numbers were actually ENG 1101 & 1102s—that’s how big they were. I started as an adjunct but was offered a lectureship there and Queens at the same time. Ultimately, I chose Queens, and it has made all the difference. But for a while I taught at both—six to eight classes in total.

Before I left, I had gotten to know my frenemy around the office. We’d see each other at the coffee shop or at the bookstore or at the arts district. And then, somehow, we just hung out.

He was the worst kind of handsome man, the kind that hadn’t realized it until recently. Free of a long-term relationship, he was terrorizing women like a condo-bound lab unleashed in a dog park. Before this breakup, we used to watch Blind Date in his apartment, a reality show where snarky potshots were taken at couples on blind dates. Now I was watching Singing in the Rain on hydrocodone alone.

“It doesn’t look so bad,” he said. He said it with part disappointment and part aggravation, as if I’d misled him about my disfigurement.

“You didn’t have to come over.”

“I wanted to bring you some bread. It’s banana.”

The only kind of bread I hate is banana bread.

“And it was on my way to the shelter.” He taught creative writing to the homeless. He used orange juice on his cereal like milk because he was vegan. He was unbearable.

“Thanks for coming,” I said.

“I know you’d do the same for me.”

•••

Sherwood Anderson died from accidentally swallowing a toothpick. I could never get into Winesburg, Ohio. Tennessee Williams supposedly choked to death on the lid of an eye drop bottle but actually died instead from a drug and alcohol overdose. Writers seem prone to that one. Poe, for example, allegedly died a drunk—but it turned out that was an invention of a prohibitionist, using Poe’s celebrity as a warning. We can only guess at the real cause, and speculation has included anything from rabies to cooping, the practice of voter fraud where victims are drugged or forced to drink and then made to vote over and over—these repeat voters sometimes dying in the process.

•••

My other friend wanted to come over as well—I had the capacity for about two friends at the time, this being before Facebook, which has increased my capacity to around seven hundred. She wanted to bring me things, like soup, and she was very insistent on a vitamin E rub. For the scarring.

I didn’t want her help because I had been raised on twenty-one acres in the rural underbelly of North Carolina by people who believed in doing it all themselves. I had interpreted this self-reliance to mean: if you don’t do anything for me, I don’t have to do anything for you. I’m pretty sure that’s also what Emerson meant. I shared my theory with my frenemy, who was a big Emerson fan, but he only sighed. Then I told him Emerson was buried in a white robe and was a real jackass to Hawthorne.

So I didn’t want my friend bringing me soup and vitamin E because then I would have to bring her stuff when she was sick. I already owed my frenemy a visit and some kind of bread he didn’t like.

•••

Mark Twain died twice. The first time was a mistake. Foreshadowing our own media outlets that rush to report without any verification, a newspaper printed Twain’s obit when it was his cousin, also a Clemens, in London who had died. Twain responded to a member of the paper asking about the mix up: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Only later, polishing his rejoinder for retelling, did it take it on its more famous form: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

•••

The email came later that night. I read it, I think, between getting up from the recliner, the TV blank from the autostopped VCR, and going to bed, leaving the TV on. Or maybe I read it in the morning after turning said TV off. Either way, I didn’t respond.

The subject line read: The rumors of your death…

The message said: Are greatly exaggerated. People thought you had died. The dean had to get involved, but we straightened it all out. Hope you’re well.

It was from the director of composition—my immediate boss. When I returned to Queens, I would suffer through the Mark Twain quote innumerable times. But it was apt, because the rumors of my death had been significantly exaggerated.

Here’s what happened as far as I could piece together: the admin put up my cancelled class signs. Groups of students eager to learn gathered by the signs in disappointment. Among this group, one student—and I know who, or I assume I do, to be a terrible person, one of those students who makes you wonder why you’re bothering to teach at all, other than to barely survive—this person said something to the effect of: “Class is cancelled because he’s dead.”

I tried to put a positive spin on this: “He’s such a dedicated teacher that he’d only cancel class if he were dead.” Though, I suspected it was more in the spirit of: “I hope they cancelled class because he’s dead.”

Another student, someone with less guile and not attuned to sarcasm, overheard this line and believed I had died. In her next class, she was visibly upset, God bless her. I imagine her with fat tears rolling silently down her cheeks. At the time, my death would have been a “That’s so tragic,” as opposed to now which would be more “That’s too bad”—I’m hoping to get to a “We all have to go sometime.”

The professor of the grieving student asked what was the matter.

“My English teacher died.”

“Who’s your English teacher?”

“Renfroe.”

“Renfroe died?”

Queens is still a small place, but then it was tiny. A thousand students, maybe. Class size at ten to fifteen. Everyone knew everyone. If UNCC was an impersonal educating machine, Queens was a learning family, with all the good and bad that implied. I was shocked when I first realized that Queens students knew one another outside of class. Back at the behemoth, I had to spend time getting them to know one another, but here I was having to deal with their social lives infecting the class, all the fights and romances and gossip. Lord, the gossip. It spread like gossip.

So that first professor, concerned about my wellbeing and/or eager to gossip, asked other faculty who in turn asked people in the English department, until someone finally asked the admin. She, God bless her, must have taken medical confidentiality very seriously and thought for some reason I wouldn’t want anyone to know about my outpatient procedure. So when asked if I were dead, she said, “I can’t talk about that right now.” Which, of course, meant, yeah, he’s dead.

The dean was finally consulted before the admin would tell them I had called in sick. It was an embarrassing way to draw attention to my flub, especially considering I hadn’t been working there very long. Here I was called out in front of the entire college for not planning ahead or possibly playing hooky.

The dean didn’t hold it against me though—he was formerly a philosophy professor and I had impressed him by talking about Jeremy Bentham’s headless mummified body, which is actually just his skeleton in clothes padded with hay. Bentham, one of the founders of utilitarianism (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”—the Spock doctrine) and also an atheist, willed his body for dissection on the condition the remains be preserved in an “Auto-Icon,” still housed by the University of London. His mummified head was deemed too grotesque a topper and so the Auto-Icon has a wax sculpture head, the real one sitting covered between his feet. For a time, I was obsessed with the death of writers and philosophers.

The dean had pictures.

•••

Shakespeare is supposed to have died on his birthday. Twain, when he died the second time for real, fulfilled a kind of prophecy because beforehand he had said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” A couple days after Halley’s Comet’s closest pass to Earth, he died of a heart attack.

•••

I told my frenemy the whole story about my death misunderstanding as we graded comp papers in the strip-mall Starbucks.

After taking it all in, he said, “Why do some women want to talk dirty in bed? Isn’t regular sex good enough?”

“I don’t know. Pretty crazy though, right? Over a minor operation.”

“It’s barely noticeable,” he said. “I wouldn’t even notice it.”

“Right,” I said. “That’s why the story. Strange, right?”

“I wouldn’t even bring it up.”

I don’t anymore. And I also don’t see my frenemy anymore—we’re not even Facebook frenemies.

My other friend brought me the vitamin E despite my protests, and I used it and the scar went away. And I let her call me late at night, three or four in the morning, whenever she had insomnia and we talked. She was worried about death and knew I was too. I’m not sure she was specifically worried, as I was, about the story aspect, every life having to end like every story. There are lots of ways to stop, some intriguing, some forlorn, some bizarre, but some just end.

•••

S. CRAIG RENFROE JR. is an associate professor at Queens University of Charlotte. His work has appeared in Puerto del Sol, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can follow him @SCraigRenfroeJr.

My Dead Father Shops at Trader Joe’s

ocean man
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By C. Gregory Thompson

I see my dead father. Not in dreams, but physically, alive, out in the world. He’s always alone. I’ve seen him numerous times. He seems at peace, not lonely or struggling to understand his fate, his new whereabouts. Not laboring to return to the earthly plane. Problems endured alive, resolved; no longer important. On his own, no one else to answer to, to provide for, or support. Children, ex-wife, and wife number two no longer a responsibility or concern. Mistakes made, unmet expectations abandoned and not rectified. Unfulfilled and incomplete duties not complete and not fulfilled. Pain and sorrow, remorse and apology, lifted. A freedom he didn’t know in life. An aura of wonder surrounding him. He died on April 23, 2009, at age seventy-four, his cremains now interred at a cemetery in South San Francisco.

I saw him while on a Caribbean cruise in 2015. The ship docked at St. George’s, Grenada, and we had a half-day to explore the island. Walking back from Grand Anse Beach I noticed a man sitting on a pylon looking out to sea—my father, Ed. At least, it looked exactly like him. The bend of his back, the slope of his shoulders, the side-view of his face, his gray hair, even the clothes—K-Mart Bermuda shorts, a well-worn tee-shirt, brown leather fisherman sandals; his favored outfit. My father, Edward Willis Thompson. I did a double-take. I stopped and stared, studying, wondering, wanting, and needing. I wanted to go to him, but I did not. I wondered if it could actually be him, knowing—in my rational mind—it was not. In my fantastical mind, wishing it to be truth. I needed the healing that didn’t happen when he breathed.

He sat alone; no one else on the beach or near him. The way he gazed out at the water—as if he was there, on that pylon, permanently. Like he’d found his place to rest, to live out his eternity. Possibly, I was meant to pass him, to discover him there, at his final resting place. So I’d know he was okay, now at peace. The sereneness of my vision of him led me to believe this was the case—a communication from his beyond to my within. And it could have been him. Who’s to say it wasn’t? We don’t actually know where the dead go. Maybe “Heaven” is a favored place from life. The beach—any beach, especially a tropical one—Dad’s favorite place in the world.

Before the Caribbean sighting, I’d seen him a handful of times: in a Home Depot parking lot; in a crowd at the mall; on the street in Glendale, California, where we live. Each time I had the same experience, I thought: Jesus, that man looks exactly like my father. After the third sighting, I didn’t question whether it was or was not. For me, it was. Even if it’s as straightforward as me seeing my father’s corporeal doppelgangers, it was still him. This is not something ghostly. It is something else. Ghosts are fine, I like them, I have no problem with them, but these sightings are not phantasms. And it’s okay. I’m not sure I need to understand or label them. They simply are. I find them soothing and calming. Is he reaching out to me? Possibly.

•••

I was never all that close to my father. My parents divorced when I was five. He left the family and wasn’t around much when my sister and I were growing up. We’d see him on summer vacations, spending a week with him staying at a cheap motel in Avila Beach, California. The days filled with sun, sand, and water—and a whole lot of fun. He seemed to enjoy the time we spent together. He spoiled us rotten by buying us everything we wanted: ice cream at all hours; any toy we pleaded for; cash to spend ourselves. Standard absentee father conduct—making up for ever-present guilt. At the end of the week, he’d drop us off at home, our white skin now a dark brown, temporarily happy, father-sated yet sad all the same. We wanted him to park the car and come inside, return to our mother, to the family.

The vacations ceased when I was eight, the moment he married his second wife, Mabel. She wanted as little to do with us as possible. He went along with what she wanted. A strong-willed, opinionated woman married a weak-willed and lazy man. A mama’s boy, he wanted to be taken care of—the way his own mother had spoiled him. Mabel provided a clean, comfortable home, three squares a day, and her body at night. They had an unspoken understanding. He did what she wanted, and, pretty much—sadly too—only what she wanted. From that point on my interaction with him was sporadic at best.

•••

When he was sick and dying of lung cancer, I visited him in the hospital. A shell of the man I once knew, he recognized me despite his dementia; he knew I was there and was happy to see me. Dying in a hospital bed at the VA facility in Palo Alto, California, his six-foot-four frame, legs twisted yet still gangly long, slid down the hospital bed so his feet dangled uncomfortably off the edge. I only spent a couple of days visiting; there was little to do except be in his presence and pull him back up the bed so he didn’t dangle off—over and over. He’d move, or wiggle, or shift his body, and down the bed he slid. Due to dementia, his stage four lung cancer, and the medications he was on, holding a conversation with him was not possible. Expressing my anger and displeasure for the way he treated us—his two children—would not be happening. Instead, I sat close to the bed and held his hand, or helped him eat ice cream or his lunch or dinner, feeling sorry for him in so many ways. I hurt for him and for myself. I did my best to do the prescribed things a person does for another, a relative, a father, who is in the throes of dying. I told him I loved him. I wish I’d done all of it because I truly felt love for him.

And, I can’t say I felt much either when he died. Mostly, I was saddened by what we were unable to achieve: a loving father and son relationship. A seemingly ethereal idea foisted upon me by societal expectations, out of reach, a dream in our family—but something I still desperately wanted. I didn’t mourn his loss in the accepted ways one is supposed to when losing a loved one. My grief was tied to lost possibility, to what would never be, not to losing my “father,” my “Daddy.” I hadn’t spent enough time with the man for the type of familial intimacy to develop that would warrant true and deep feelings of grief over his loss. To add to my confusion and misery, his wife cremated and interred him without telling my sister or me. There was no viewing, no service, and no burial—at least none we were invited to. Even in his death, we were treated the same as when he lived—excluded like we didn’t belong or exist.

•••

A recent sighting took place at our local Trader Joe’s. Dad was putting groceries into the trunk of a car. I found myself thinking, there he is again. Like before, it looked exactly like him—the height, the build, his movements, the clothes, all Ed Thompson, my father. A rote calmness emanating from him—a task as mundane as grocery shopping joyful. Not a care in the world. Similar to the island pylon resting place, I’m left thinking he’s still in that Trader Joe’s parking lot, still loading groceries into his trunk, over and over, on a continuous, never-ending loop, stuck in time and not unhappy about it in the least. A chore no longer a chore but a happy task. A final resting place or action could be malleable, or exist in multiple places, couldn’t it? The world of the dead not curtailed by human, earthly barriers of time and space.

Observing him, I wondered if he was buying groceries for us. Like this father, the version I saw in the present day, might go back in time, and do the right thing. Was he going to bring groceries to help feed my sister and me? To add to our food stamp-supplied coffers? To remove some of the burdens on my overworked mother? To ease her financial strain? He’d bring the groceries when he came to pick us up for a weekend visit. Like a good father and ex-husband, he’d hand the bag of groceries to my mother and then help us with our suitcases. We’d drive off with him to a motel for another spoil-us-rotten weekend, momentarily forgetting how he wasn’t in our lives. Or, would this be one of the numerous occasions when he didn’t show up?

One of those times, my sister and I, dressed, coats zipped up, suitcases ready, waited patiently by the front door. Then, the allotted time passed and no Dad. Hours went by, still no Dad and no phone call. Our mother tried to locate him by making a series of calls. Her anger with him—for us, for herself—palpable. Coats removed, suitcases stashed, she wiped away our tears, and finally, a phone call came days later. He didn’t have money for gas, or his car broke down, or he had to work, or who knows what the fuck else of an excuse he’d come up with. Not once, but over and over this took place. Our childhood a never-ending, continuous loop of disappointment.

•••

How to explain simultaneous love and hate? Or concurrent joy and anger? Recently, since seeing my dead father out and about in the world, I realized how I felt about him: I loved him and hated him; he made me happy and so fucking mad. I now see my entire involvement with him existed on a yo-yo continuum. He could be the most charming man—father—in the entire world one day—bringing us gifts, taking us to the movies, showing us a good, fun, time. Through a child’s filter he loved us, he brought us happiness, and we loved him back. Followed by a long absence, a cancellation or a no-show when he was supposed to take us for the weekend, or some other equally injurious hurt. After one of these, the tears, the anger, and the hatred bubbled to the surface, polluting the prior felt love. This up and down, love to hate, joy to anger went on all through my childhood, into my adulthood, up to his death.

Buddy—the nickname he earned growing up with four siblings outside Oklahoma City—was a jokester and a kidder; a big, overgrown kid. Bighearted too, generous of spirit, he was kind to small children and animals. Without question, I know a gentle soul resided within the man. Social, he loved people, he loved his family; he had Okie and country blood in his veins. He used to sing Merle Haggard’s lyrics “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” over and over. And he meant it. From him, I learned to appreciate my Okie heritage. The salt of the earth, hardscrabble people my relatives were and still are; survivors. People and a place he evolved from.

But, there was another side to the man that didn’t jive with the Okie-identifying, softhearted big kid version. Life kicked him in the teeth over and over, and he took the hits. He didn’t fight back. His divorce from my mother. His unintended abandonment of his children. His failed career—stuck in middle management after earning an MBA. His second marriage to a horribly controlling woman. A woman who cut him off from his siblings, from his children, from his friends. The parts of him I hated were the results of him quitting, giving into life: his confusion about right and wrong when it came to us kids, his passivity, and laziness in not doing the right thing or allowing others to decide what he wanted, or even what he felt, and the selfishness all of this manifested. He ended up a depressed, inadequate, and indolent wimp, and he knew he was. And I hated him for it.

I now see the hatred overrides any love I may have felt. It is the stronger of the two emotions, and I don’t know if it is changeable. I have often wondered if it would have been easier not to have a father, to not know there was a man out there in the world, living and breathing, who was my so-called “father”—the man who gave me life. The mere fact he existed and ignored us feels more problematic, difficult,­ and painful than if he simply didn’t exist or had permanently disappeared. The hurting hurt over and over and over, and it still does. And, once dead, no going back. A door slammed shut, hard, in my face. I’d forever believed there would be enough time to fix it. Then, there was not.

•••

I have a French friend who, when she was a young girl, lost her mother to suicide. She once told me a story of walking along the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan where she lived during her early twenties and passing a woman who looked exactly like her long-dead mother. Her mother she hadn’t seen since childhood. She stopped and turned around to look for her, and when she did, the woman wasn’t there.

I understood why she told me the story. It gave me chills then, it still does now. Was the woman she saw her mother, a ghost, something else? Who can say? It’s not important. For her, it was real. Somehow, the woman who brushed past her and then vanished was her mother. I feel the same about my fatherly sightings. He can be real for me, there in the flesh, if I decide he is. He hasn’t ever come to me in my dreams, not that I remember or am aware of—only in these sightings. Unfinished business, it could be. I suppose we have quite a bit. I wanted something from him he could not give, and I know he was aware of failing my sister and me. I know he felt guilty and remorseful but not enough to fix it. That’s the unfinished business.

No matter the explanation or understanding of the sightings, they bring me comfort. These are unanswerable questions. I accept he might be somehow trying to reach me. Why would I ever not? Why would I cut myself off from that possibility, from any possibility? I wouldn’t and I won’t. After all, who truly knows the truth of what is out there, of how these things work? The dead versus the living. We should all be open, like a conduit, to all of it, to any possibility. Shouldn’t we?

•••

C. GREGORY THOMPSON lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes fiction, nonfiction, plays, and memoir. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offbeat, Printers Row Journal, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Every Writer’s Resource, and 2paragraphs. He was named a finalist in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s 2015 Fiction Contest. His short play Cherry won two playwriting awards. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert. He is on Twitter as @cgregthompson.

D Is for Daughter

flying
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Tamiko Nimura

I am the straight leg of a capital D: leaning towards the curved window and wall of an airplane, insistent, staring at the arc of the horizon. I’m in between deep space and blue sky and white clouds and brown earth. I have to tell myself to stop holding my breath. The sun keeps setting faster as I fly east, towards the hospital where you, my niece, are about to be born. It’s getting darker and darker.

•••

Last week your uncle Josh called me, walking to his bus stop in Seattle after work. He was on his way back to Tacoma, where we live. His voice was uncharacteristically high and tight, and he was slightly out of breath. “My grandpa died,” he said.

“Oh, hon,” I said. Exhaled. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, but he hesitated.

I took a deep breath, too. From the first time I met him some twenty years ago, Grandpa Dave greeted me with an exclamation point, every time, every year: “Hey, Tamiko!” he’d say, and give me a big hug.

•••

What it has meant for me to live in this space where death and birth follow each other so closely? It has felt like both parts of a capital D: the straight rigid line, the soft curving out, both lines working together to create an open space. Something like a mouth. Something like the halves of an ancient chapel door. Something sacred.

•••

I’m flying from Washington State, where I live with my family: your uncle Josh, your cousins, who are my daughters. All of us can’t wait to meet you for the first time. I’ve had your first picture, a fuzzy ultrasound, on my desk in our kitchen. I’m flying down the West Coast to the Bay Area, where your mother and father went to school. From there I’ll take a different plane that travels south over Monterey, where your parents were married, then make a left and head farther south and east into Texas. I’ll return to Seattle after that. The round trip looks like a D on the map. D for death? I think and quickly push the thought away.

•••

The day before my flight, I was on a freeway ramp, racing back from a meeting to pick up your cousins from school. I got a series of texts from your mother. She was going to the hospital to be induced, she said, because a number of risk factors indicated the increased possibility of stillbirth. My anxiety skyrocketed. I started to make myself breathe deeply, calling on every single mind-trick that I knew from yoga to calm myself down.

•••

Maternal deaths in childbirth are much less frequent these days, but somehow I can’t help but project into the very worst-case scenario. Your mother and I already lived through some of the worst together, when our father died so many years ago. She was six years old, and I was ten. If I am facing the prospect of your death or your mother’s, it is because your mother and I met death intimately as children. The worst and unthinkable has already happened to us, and so death never feels very far from me.

•••

During the first part of the trip, I can’t think about very much else but you. I don’t know just when you’ll arrive, but I know you’re really on your way now. On the plane ride I sip plastic cups of ginger ale, refuse the snack mixes. I’ve just turned to a chapter in the book I’m reading. Believe it or not, the chapter is called “It’s A Girl!” But as it turns out, the child in the book is stillborn. I breathe out. I close the book, put it in the seat pocket in front of me. D is for daughter.

I don’t want anything like stillbirth hovering close to your arrival. But the word’s been mentioned by doctors often enough that the specter’s there anyway. Until now I haven’t known that kind of haunting, the specific terror that your uncle Josh felt during both of my pregnancies: the terror of something bad happening to mother or child or both. He hid it well. I was too focused inward to notice, towards growing and welcoming life.

•••

On the plane I’m thinking about a character from a TV show that your mama and I both adore: Downton Abbey. In one episode, a much-loved sister dies of complications from her daughter’s birth. In my mind I am watching that episode, watching a loop of that endless minute, watching that character shudder through a violent seizure and die.

•••

Our grandfathers died before your mother and I were born. Adoptive grandfathers were special to us. So Grandpa Dave was one of the only grandpas I knew, even though he was really your uncle Josh’s grandfather. At ninety-two, Grandpa had lived a beautifully long life. He retired some thirty-five years ago, spent most of his retirement at his own house and at his daughter’s house in the very last few years. He lived to see many grandchildren and even several of his great-grandchildren.

Grandpa Dave and I connected very early after we met, most often through food. Cooking food with him and for him—he loved to watch me cook with Josh, together—was one of the greatest pleasures of our trips home. He cured his own olives, grew and harvested his own avocados. His daughters and grandchildren used to call him every Christmas morning to talk about how many raviolis they’d made together at their houses. Grandpa Dave loved trying sukiyaki and egg rolls from our family’s New Year’s gatherings and he loved my family’s recipe for teriyaki sauce. Food was central to his life as it has been in mine, good simple food. He grew up with very little, but savored so much.

•••

Caught one plane, about to catch another, I am still tense. I don’t watch the news on the TV screens. Only later do I find out about the attacks in Paris and Beirut. Instead, I walk miles in the airports so I can walk through some of that tight energy. I am taut like a bow before it’s released the arrow, I am the arrow flying towards you. Are you here yet?

•••

At the end, Grandpa didn’t have any prolonged suffering or hospital stays. He woke up one morning feeling badly. He had difficulty breathing. He just didn’t come back from the emergency room that day. And in the grand scale of deaths, his was as good a death as might be wished.

For the holidays we will go to California to visit our families, as we do every year. But I can’t believe I’m not going to be able to hug Grandpa in his flannel shirt, watch him take off his glasses, see him rub his forehead, hear the exclamation point in his voice.

•••

In storytelling rules, this is where I should probably talk about your mama—my little sister—and how much I love her. I can tell you about her first cries, all the way from the delivery room and in the elevator and into the nursery. I was four years old. I can tell you where I was sitting on the couch in our childhood house when I held her for the first time.

I should tell you more about what and who is at stake if she dies. But I can barely write those last three words. There are not enough words to tell you about my love for my little sister. This is where my words leave me.

•••

I am talking about Grandpa’s death as a “good death,” as if I can manage my grief away by talking about his loss as something good. And there’s a part of me that thinks I’m a terrible aunt for mentioning his death in a letter to you. Death and a newborn baby? As if any mention of the two in the same pages, much less the same paragraph or sentence, will tarnish this new life for you. The hard truth is that they’re not so far apart, after all.

•••

Once I had to say goodbye to a yoga teacher, a teacher that I really loved, without her knowing I was saying goodbye. I hadn’t realized just how much I loved those classes until I knew I wouldn’t see her anymore. I knew she was leaving before anyone else in the class. In fact, I don’t even think she knew I knew. But yoga is one of the best places to hold space, and this teacher was so good at creating and holding space for her students to feel deeply. She talked about the strength it takes to let go. So I sat, allowing myself to feel a deep sadness for an hour and a half. Not trying to escape it, not trying to fix it or numb it.

That hour might have been the first time I welcomed grief. Now I can think back to that class, that teacher, that shadowed room with its pale yellow walls, and I am grateful. I wonder how many are able to hold space for the hard questions. How do we say goodbye to a life? How do we welcome a new life? To keep the heart open enough and long enough to do these things with love? I think part of the answer’s in the breath.

•••

It’s early evening and I’ve left the sunset far behind on the West Coast. I’m here at the Austin airport, texting, trying to find out where you and your mother are. I check Facebook, and somehow, there’s a green dot, saying that your mama is online. “Oh,” your mama writes. “You’re here early. Baby’s not here yet.”

•••

These last couple of weeks have felt like living among the raw edges of death and birth. But maybe this is how we all live, so many of us unaware most of the time.

When you choose to feel your emotions, a wise woman has said, you can’t just choose to feel the good ones. You have to feel the good ones and the bad ones. I am learning how to un-numb myself, then, even as I write this sentence to you. Feeling a deep grief at Grandpa Dave’s death, I can feel that kind of deep joy over you. They are all tangled up together, my grief and joy. I wish you could have met him. He would have welcomed you, too.

•••

It’s Saturday morning, the day after I’ve landed in Texas. Several hours in the waiting room, a couple of hundred feet from where you are. Other fathers are coming out from behind double doors, being greeted by family members with balloons and flowers. Your grandmother and I are still waiting, jumping every time those double doors open.

At last, a picture appears on my phone from your daddy. And there you are, little one. You are all soft curves, sleeping. To see your face: the faces of my babies. A few hours later, holding you, I see your mama’s face: my baby sister’s face when she was a baby. How incredible just to watch you breathe.

On your first day, I am finally bending after so many waiting hours of sitting straight. I am curving towards you. We are breathing together and I am whispering to you: this is life, this is life, this is life.

•••

TAMIKO NIMURA is a freelance writer living in Tacoma, Washington. She is a contributing writer for Discover Nikkei, the International Examiner, and the Seattle Star. Recent writing has appeared in HYPHEN, The Rumpus, and Full Grown People. Find more of her writing at tamikonimura.net.

 

Read more FGP essays by Tamiko Nimura.

For Now, the Pond Is Still

poet
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

Meeting My Mother in Her Poems

By David Ebenbach

My mother burned all her appointment books. It was a ritual, something she did at the end of every year; she would sit with the book—usually a spiral-bound week-by-week one with a nature photo on the left side and the dates on the right—and she’d look through all the appointments and commitments she’d had, taking the time to reflect on the things she’d done over the previous year. Then she’d burn it. I don’t know how or where she did that—in the bathtub, out in back of her house—but I suppose I do know why.

My mother wasn’t at home in time.

What I mean is that she struggled with time. My mother struggled with the present moment, for example, because it was generally a disappointment, characterized as it usually was by isolation, too much work, and not enough money. The future, on the other hand, was promising but often hinged on improbable things, like a windfall from who knows where. The future never seemed to arrive, or at least not the promising one she was hoping for; instead it just turned into a series of disappointing present moments. And the past—the past was worst of all.

My mother didn’t like to think about the past, let alone talk about it, and, on those rare occasions that she did talk about it, you got the sense that you weren’t supposed to ask too many questions—sometimes she said so explicitly—and you weren’t supposed to bring it up again later. “Anyway,” she would say, when she wanted to change the subject to something more comfortable. This was the psychological counterpart to the annual appointment book ritual: One’s personal history sometimes surfaced, but it was best to turn those memories to ash afterward.

And so my mother was homeless in time, disconnected from past, present, and future—or so it seemed to me.

Naturally, when my mother died in 2013—in November, a month she hated for its darkness—my sister and I weren’t expecting her to have left behind a tell-all memoir. There were memories in the form of photos—old photos of our childhood, for starters, and, from more recent years, some very beautiful nature photos that she’d taken herself—but we figured what little she may have written down about herself would be long gone.

We certainly weren’t expecting to find, among her things, a folder labeled “Poetry.” But that’s what my sister did find, one day when she was looking through things; she was looking to see if there was anything in there that I might want to keep as a remembrance.

I’d been having trouble imagining anything I’d want to keep. I wasn’t sure there was any object, any thing, that was going to mean much to me. What can an object mean? Your mother’s gone and, in the face of that, the things—all the things—are actually nothing. But then Karla found this folder.

The folder—a regular manila one—held a bunch of poems on pages and partial pages torn out of newspapers and magazines and a couple printed out from the web. Wislawa Szymborska, Jorge Luis Borges, Rosanna Warren, Yehuda Amichai, Richard Wilbur, Anna Akhmatova, others. There was even one poem—“The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy—that I’d given to her, because it meant something to me at a time when things were dark for me, and I thought it would mean something to her, too. Apparently it did. She had plenty of her own dark times, of course. It struck me, too, that there weren’t any of my poems in that folder. I think my poems would have changed the collection, made it something it wasn’t supposed to be.

What really arrested me, though, were the ones that were in her handwriting—the ones she’d written. My mother wrote poetry. And I’d had no idea.

Think about that: I’m a poet myself; my mother had been watching me write poetry since I was a kid, had been listening to me talk about it for years. Meanwhile, here she was, writing her own poems—and she never shared them with me. Never brought them into any of those conversations about poetry. She never even told me they existed.

They say you often learn new things about people after they’re gone; you keep getting to know them. It’s true.

When I got the folder, I read all the poems with feverish attention—the ones by other people and, especially, the ones by her. I read hers many times. I wrote about them in my journal. I typed them up so I could (almost) feel what it was like to write them myself, letter by letter, word by word. I savored and inhabited them.

And for sure I recognized the woman who did the writing. There’s sadness there, for one thing. She writes:

the wind finds its way

through every crack in this

old house

And:

the loneliness

spreads through

my body like a

massive ink blot

I know this woman. Honestly, I know those feelings. Sometimes the wind does find its way in.

And there’s my mother’s familiar desire to relocate to a particular kind of future—pleasant, better, and out of reach, though in these poems not necessarily impossible:

I

think I would feel better

if I could sit under a tree and

look at the mountain….

I’d wait for peace

to come down the mountain—

Or:

Anything green would be welcome,

a patch of grass would do.

I am waiting for spring

in its own good time

But it’s not all yearning, my mother’s poetry. There’s something else there that I didn’t expect. She wrote about nature, mostly, and moments of stillness—and what she did is she froze these things in place. She looked right at the present moment, in other words, and held on to it.

For now the pond is still.

Even the frogs are quiet.

And:

shadows of

clouds on the

wooded mountainsides

Even when the moment was complicated, she held on to it:

Gloriosa daisies and

Day lilies

Long shadows on

the lawn.

the aching beauty of

August

Even when the moment was hard, she held on to it, and sometimes transformed it:

there’s a slight

feeling of melancholy but

there is a sweetness to it.

Most surprising, sometimes she actually wanted to keep the past with her:

On leaving.

trying to remember

it all.

There’s one pair of poems that especially move me. They’re both about the same moment where she was outdoors and a rabbit hopped out from beneath a hedge. Something about this touched my mother profoundly. She wrote about it in a beautiful eleven-line poem. Then, on the next page of her notebook, unwilling to turn from the instant—needing, in fact, to go further into it—she wrote the experience over again, this time in twenty-nine even more attentive lines.

Right, I thought. This is what we do as poets, I thought. We see something and we can’t bear the idea of losing it, so we write about what we’re seeing in order just to hold it. Richard Wilbur’s blackberries; Rosanna Warren’s mother between the bed rails; Thomas Hardy’s blast-beruffled thrush. We’re the people who don’t let go.

And my mother was one of us.

For my mother, any given present moment was tough, if she stepped back to take it all in. Things generally hadn’t turned out the way she expected; she was living alone, working too hard, post-dating checks, eventually ailing, watching November come in with its shorter and shorter days. The big picture was sometimes understandably hard for her to look at.

But what if the focus was smaller? Closer?

In these poems I met a woman who made peace with time, a woman who managed to split minutes and seconds into instants tiny enough for her to embrace them—tiny enough to allow her to be at home. I didn’t really know this woman when she was alive. I have to say I’m upset about that; there’s a loss there, beyond the original loss of losing the mother I did know.

But I’m glad she didn’t burn these poems. I’m glad that I’m starting to know her now—starting to know a woman who over and over again did make herself a home, who was able to make it out of what she had at hand.

I am sitting, just

sitting and aware

of everything

and wide awake

•••

DAVID EBENBACH is the author of five books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved (Tebot Bach) and the short story collection Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House). Ebenbach has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.