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.

Pin It

We Carry Our Losses Inside

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

By Sarah Meyer

The new Executive Director’s father is dying. Her name is Angela; she moved here from northern Virginia and has brought him with her. She holds his elbow, and together they learn this small town in North Carolina. They walk carefully over the cobblestones in the parts of downtown still cobbled. They examine the construction, having never seen the slender strip of grass that used to be where these cement blocks and this mound of dirt now sit. In a year or so the block extending east from the obelisk will be a bigger expanse of grass, a real park: with benches, one of those water spouts for kids in summer.

Her father is old and has dementia. She wears what she can of his condition inside her own body and it shows. She worries, calls her new rental house from the office throughout the day to make sure he answers. When he doesn’t, she drives home and back, reports that he was asleep. This is how she learns her way around.

The Asheville Citizen-Times and the free weekly run articles announcing her hiring. I watch her try to fix her hair for the photos: she stands in the gallery next to a banner I’ve never seen, retrieved from the basement. It has our logo on it. Asheville Area Arts Council: AAAC. Our town is glad she’s here. We shake her hand with both our hands. Sometimes we clasp her forearm. We nod our heads, tell each other Oh, her father. We say to ourselves, It’s so sad. We say, She has so much on her plate. So much to do. We’re a town of artists and college students and retirees, and we have been waiting for her. We radiate excitement to watch her try to live. We love seeing her walk her dad across the street from the office to get ice cream.

•••

In Florida, in the ’90s, families that we knew and did not know were buying tarps and specialty fencing and in other ways trying to prevent this thing that took over like a wave, like an accidental fad. It was the thing that kept happening: people’s children were drowning in their own pools. My dad, a pediatrician, was interviewed on the local news and my sister and I felt famous by extension.

One family we knew bought a pool fence to prevent this exact thing from happening, but their baby followed a cat through the crack between the latch and the rest of the nylon fencing. A grandparent was babysitting and had fallen asleep.

And another: my third grade classmate’s baby brother, a fat toddler who accompanied us on school trips when his parents chaperoned. He was famous for this wiggly dance, probably the product of just having learned to stand upright, that was like the chicken dance only shorter and unplanned. The memory I have, that I return to every few years, is of this baby wobbling around in a diaper outside the Arlington Street pool. We had gone on a field trip. My friend’s brother did his dance and our whole class stood around him, and his dad was there and we laughed.

These things did not happen in public pools, though, only in the carefully planned backyards of the people who loved their babies. And so, weeks or months later, my friend’s father fell asleep while his baby was awake and curious. It was the first funeral I ever attended. I sat with another classmate, and I don’t remember if my parents were even there. The baby’s dad stood at a podium and sobbed. He said he would miss that little dance so much. He held tight to the podium and we watched the rest of his body try to collapse and he shook. His hands were the only still parts.

•••

Four days after Ryane’s dad dies I email all of our friends. “I wanted to let you know that Ryane’s dad died on Monday morning. If you have a chance and are inclined to send her a note, I know she would appreciate it. We don’t yet have email at the house, but the physical address is…”

He died three weeks after his fifty-first birthday. Ryane was twenty-five. Three of our friends respond to my email, telling me to tell Ryane they are sorry. One person delivers Tupperware ravioli while we’re in Indiana for the funeral. One sends a note in the mail saying she wishes she could give Ryane a hug.

•••

At funerals, the idea is to look around: to see the group you’re given to grieve with. A temporary family, or an actual family. A room full of people with similar, complicated feelings.

The idea is once you walk out of that room, away from those people who understand what you feel because they also feel some version of it, subsequent acquaintances are less likely to understand. They might not understand at all.

A friend drops off a Tupperware of ravioli while you’re out, never to mention your loss again.

A friend asks, within months, why it’s still a topic of discussion.

People extend birthday party invitations, or they don’t extend them at all. Both situations feel the same.

No one mentions it.

Or a few people mention it, asking, How are you? when there is no answer. Thinking about you, xo.

I study the grief around me to understand my own, which technically hasn’t happened yet. I grieve a family that still exists, parents I can call on the phone today, who were always just themselves instead of the people I needed them to be.

Waiting to actually lose someone can become confused for actually having lost them, after a while. We humans float around each other in so many ways.

•••

Angela has moved her father back into his house in Florida. At first he manages with the help of nurses whom she pays to stop by. But he falls, forgets who they are, becomes upset when they unlock his front door one by one and enter as though it were their house. He calls her at work, and through the drywall separating her office from mine, I hear her whisper insistent Spanish into the receiver. Mira, Papi.

She has him transferred to an assisted living facility somewhere east of Orlando where he has limited telephone privileges but nurses sometimes call with updates. Every six weeks or so she flies on Allegiant air—tiny planes to tiny airports, something like $86 round-trip—to Sanford, rents a car and drives to visit him. She flies back frazzled, calls from the car on the way back from the airport, asks questions the answers to which she does not hear and says she’ll be in the office later.

•••

“Thanks for coming,” Dad says to us at our gate, before we board. My sister and I are in the Montgomery airport. Because Mom and Dad flew up early, we’re on separate flights and they don’t leave until tomorrow. When he says, “Thanks for coming,” he refers to our attendance of his mother’s funeral. Breast cancer. “Thanks for coming”: we hadn’t thought it was optional. We board our plane and return to high school. Our friends say, “Sorry about your grandma,” and we say things like, “Thanks,” and “She was old,” because we don’t know how else to respond.

She’d been sick for a while, in and out of the hospital, and when my dad wasn’t addressing her by her first name in exasperated tones over the phone he was arguing with my mom about the money he was sending to his brother to care for her. This serves as a reminder to us that it is always possible to walk around something too vast, to fight about something like money instead.

•••

We’ve just moved into a new house and are sleeping on the floor, on a mattress exhumed from the pullout couch. It is seven-thirty in the morning and Ryane is dreaming that her father has died. In the dream, she’s misheard someone. At first she thinks her grandmother is dead. Then she realizes her grandmother is alive, that her father has died instead. She asks again to make sure. Yes, he’s dead, someone tells her. In the dream she cries and cries and cries, and when she wakes up she thinks she’s been crying in real life but hasn’t been. She wakes up because my cell phone is ringing. The light outside is lazy. Did we set an alarm? The phone is plugged in, ringing next to the bed on the floor. I look at the area code. It’s Bloomington, Indiana. I hand the little phone to her and know.

“Hello?” It’s her grandfather. Her phone is dead and he’s been calling it for hours. I watch her start to cry and I hold onto her shoulder. “This morning?” she asks into the phone.

When she hangs up she says, “I dreamed that he died!” She is wearing a white men’s undershirt and she sits upright in the bed, hunched over like another broken thing.

•••

There are the religious concepts. Let us confess the faith of our baptism as we say I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,

They do not help. Rather, I do not know whom they help. Rather, they do not help me.

At the funeral of a man who had waited for his wife and children to leave for work and school, walked to the shed, grabbed a shotgun and sat down under a tree in his backyard to shoot himself in the face, hundreds of us pour into a Western North Carolina hillside chapel to hear the minister say, If God is for us, who is against us?

This was when I dated Zoe. The dead man was her coworker. I had never met him or his wife or his children. The day before, after the body was removed and the grass under the tree was cleaned and the shotgun destroyed and the widow and her children had gone to her parents’, Zoe and her coworkers and I drove to the widow’s house with boxes and duct tape and markers. Into the boxes we put his clothes, their photo albums, framed images taken from the walls and coffee tables of their wedding, vacations. We took the sheets off the bed. We collected anything that seemed like his and wrote things on the full boxes like “clothes,” “photos.” Half the house went into storage for when she was ready to come back. She would look through the “clothes” and “photos” when she was ready.

That was over a decade years ago and I wonder how long it took her to be ready. Has she retrieved those boxes yet? Has she sold the house? Did she even ask for us to do that? All I remember is being invited to join.

If God is for us, who is against us? The packing day and the funeral day: one felt like prayer, the other just something to be done.

•••

After we found out Ryane’s dad had died, there were logistics. We needed to drive to Virginia to pick up her mom and youngest brother, and from there go to Indiana where her dad’s body and Ryane’s grandparents and middle brother were. But first I had to do two things.

When I called Angela to say I wouldn’t be coming to work for a few days she said, Oh my God I’m so sorry and Can you drop those prints at the framer’s before you leave? Ryane and I had been moving from the house on Arbutus to the one on Larchmont, and were supposed to finish cleaning out Arbutus that weekend. Instead we were driving to Indiana. After hanging up with Angela I called the Arbutus landlord and told him we needed more time. He said he had renters moving in on Thursday and couldn’t give us any. I told Ryane I had to run errands before we could leave and she said that was fine even though I knew it wasn’t. She sat very still in the deep-cushioned yellow chair I’d gotten at Goodwill the year before. “I’ll pack a bag,” she said, but she didn’t move.

During the drive to the framer’s I held two thoughts in my head: I’m doing the wrong thing by running this errand and This absolutely has to get done right now. The Arts Council had contracted with a new Hyatt to provide art for the walls, and it was a disaster. The artists were being underpaid for their work and asked to sign away rights of ownership. Because Asheville is a town of struggling artists, they all said yes but hated us for suggesting they do it. For the last week I’d been taking call after call from frustrated painters, trying to calm them and failing. And the framer, who’d agreed to take on the project at a significantly reduced rate, had been waiting for Angela to bring the prints all week. On Friday Angela had finally just stuffed them all in my car and told me to do it Monday morning.

“I have other customers, you know,” the framer said when I got there.

“Michelle, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know why Angela didn’t drop these off.” I suspected she’d just forgotten. Sometimes grief takes over before the person you’re grieving has gone.

Afterward at Arbutus I stuffed everything I could from that house into my car. In the years that followed, every once in a while Ryane and I would realize something else left behind in that basement.

On my last trip to the car I stopped in the front yard. We’d planted sunflowers along the fencing and walkway that spring, and few had bloomed. The soil wasn’t very deep and elms shaded our corner of the neighborhood. But next to the mailbox a mammoth sunflower had been growing up and up. When we’d last left Arbutus, Ryane’s dad was alive and the mammoth’s face had appeared but not opened and Ryane was wondering whether she should go up to Indiana for a while to be with him. I stuffed some loose kitchen utensils in the trunk of the car and stood there. Ryane’s dad was dead. We would never live in east Asheville again. Peter was dead. Later I would see his body. I would need to know the correct things to do and say this whole week. I would need to say the soothing things and first I would need to think of what those things could be. And I would need to say goodbye to someone who had started to become a parent to me.

The sunflower had opened overnight. Half of its fingery petals extended from its face, and the other half still held to the big center circle. It was an eclipse. I convinced myself our one sunflower had opened part way because Peter had died. I texted Ryane a photo and left to pick her up for our drive to him.

•••

At a gallery opening Angela has one glass of red wine and yet appears to be deeply intoxicated.

“Have you seen The L Word?” she asks me, because I am a lesbian and the show is about lesbians and because she is newly brave and apparently has been waiting for the moment to ask. She leans across the sales counter behind which I stand. Patrons mingle around us. Here we are, the only two staff members left. Everyone else has quit.

“Yes,” I say. “But it’s not a very good show.” She agrees and then switches topics.

“Have I told you I have fibromyalgia?” she offers.

“No,” I say.

“For ten years. I’ve been to many doctors.”

What I know about fibromyalgia is that it’s contentious, that some doctors don’t even believe it to be an actual medical ailment, that rather some believe it to be a psychosomatic manifestation of emotional problems: physical repercussions to psychic issues. I know that it presents as a series of seemingly unrelated pains, sometimes diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, other times as the flu, other times as fibromyalgia, other times as depression. Fibromyalgia has no cure or known cause.

What I now know about Angela, as I stand at the sales counter watching the minglers adjacent to her slack body, is that she takes painkillers and occasionally mixes them with alcohol. What I know about Angela is that certain chemical reactions are happening in her bloodstream in possible parallel to the bodily emotional stress of preemptive grief. I know she is suffering in a number of ways.

•••

Of course it’s hard to know how to close the gaps between us. We spend the most trivial moments together: at work, in classrooms, splayed on couches talking on the phone, and when the inevitable happens we look each other in the face and don’t know what to say. We are suddenly strangers and this is how we lose each other in little bits. When my grandmother died, I wrote letters to my mother and her three siblings saying how sorry I was, that I couldn’t imagine their grief at losing their only mother, and none of them responded. I assumed writing the letters had been the wrong thing to do. When Peter died, our friends waited quietly at the edges of Ryane’s grief for her to return to real life. But the place she was in was also real life. Our friends were so patient with their furrowed brows and genuine concern, waiting. Eventually everyone forgot they were waiting. Eventually everyone but Ryane forgot that her father was dead. Inside our little house on the steep hill on Larchmont Road, inside her grief, Ryane and I talked about how what they were doing was the wrong thing.

But how do we do this?

What is supposed to help?

What is the right thing to do?

“Tell me how you’re feeling,” I say to Ryane as she sits upright in bed sometime later, after everything has been moved into the new house. She has tears on her face, but new ones have stopped coming. “You can just feel however you feel about this,” I say, because granting permission for the things I can’t control seems like a possibility somehow. She hears me, and doesn’t respond. She sits propped against two pillows, her shoulders tilted inward, and I rub her back as she looks out from opaque blue eyes toward nothing.

•••

SARAH MEYER is a writer and illustrator who lives in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in VICE Magazine, Paper Darts, and The Manifest-Station.

Regarding the Sorrow of Another

bluegrass
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Stephen J. Lyons

A man with a two-day beard unloads his clothes from a four-door Cadillac with Texas plates and tells me something I will never forget.

Hooked on his index finger and draped over his right shoulder on hangers are a handful of short-sleeved, snap-button, western style shirts. He says he’s been coming to this part of the Arkansas Ozarks every spring for decades to hear the music at the Mountain Home folk center. He says Mountain Home is only an eight-hour drive from his home in east Texas.

The man nods toward the cabin next to mine as he tells me about his wife who always makes the trip with him. Been married thirty years. Some ups and downs but they get along. Raised good kids. House paid for. Did it the right way.

I picture her unloading the suitcases, stocking the mini-fridge and maybe checking out the dismal selection of channels on the television.

The man switches the shirts to his left shoulder and looks straight into me. Something has shifted in his face. There is an unfocused vacancy around his eyes, where there are deep, topographical wrinkles like rivers seen from the air. But there are also shallower creases. New tributaries. I cannot imagine I will ever see someone as sad as this man from Texas.

“This time we brought our daughter,” he says, pointing back to the cabin. “Hell, she needed to get away. A month ago, her husband and her two boys, eleven and twelve, were killed in a head-on with a semi. An awful thing.” He shakes his head. “An awful thing.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell him. This was more than I bargained for when I stopped for a friendly chat. I tell him again, “I’m so sorry.”

I try to feel the man’s loss as a father, grandfather, and husband. A man who comes to the Ozarks simply to hear jam sessions on the square, where the old-timers pick music as old as this country. But this time the trip is different. This time he brought his wife and daughter here to be healed by music. Or so I want to believe.

I follow his gaze to the cabin where the family rests after their long drive across Texas. “My daughter just needed to get away…from everything. We’ll only be here a few days. Have to get back. My son’s having back surgery.” He nods a goodbye and carries his shirts inside.

My stay transforms into one of anticipation. Will I bump into the man’s daughter? What will I say to her? What will she look like?

I cannot bring forth a face. The only face I know is that of the man’s, the grief deepening the creases around his eyes. A tragedy like this should not happen to a person at his age, or at hers, or to any of us at any age, but it does each and every day, to someone. To dwell on this thought for too long is paralyzing.

I try to stay focused. This town feels like an outpost. Somewhere else. Against the grain. Outside this nation’s boundaries. Yet I am not far from the geographical center of America, which is just north over in Missouri.

I loaf at a music store and listen to some old timers pluck and sing “But I Didn’t Hear Anyone Pray.” Authentic is what I think I witness, but I don’t really know. In the town square are empty chairs arranged in circles for jam sessions. Mockingbirds pick through trash. Hound dogs sleep under porches.

Despite the distractions I cannot shake the feeling of loss. It’s as if the man’s sadness poured into me like a virus. He has sent his family’s grief out into the world through me. There is no quick cure for this virus. No antibiotics. It has to run its course.

I search the aisles at Wal-Mart for wine or beer, but the clerk says with a laugh that the county is dry. If I want a drink I will have to drive to the next county. Miles over twisted, steep hills of oak and hickory. In the dark. I stay put.

In the morning at a local restaurant I take my eggs and bacon with grits. Several cups of weak coffee with powdered creamer that will not dissolve. I look out the window and watch baby armadillos graze below a bird feeder. I’m not sure there is a cuter animal than a baby armadillo. A family of raccoons appears next at the bird feeder. Then a cat. A turtle. None of the animals seem skittish.

I buy a hickory hiking stick with a bearded face carved on the handle, made by a man named Bubba. I lean on my stick and walk into the dense forest. Soft forest light filters through. Bright blue, orange, and crimson birds flit in the canopy. The extinct ivory-billed woodpecker was resurrected not far from here but then faded back into rumor. Alligators have wandered up waterways from the Gulf of Mexico. Cougars are spotted but never confirmed. Monkeys would not seem out of place. The great reshuffling of the animal world continues.

Down the road a wood frame house advertises two kinds of handmade dulcimers. Inside a man chooses an anniversary gift for his wife. The clerk plays “Amazing Grace” on a mountain dulcimer with hearts carved on the front. She plays beautifully as if at a funeral.

For the next two nights the Cadillac sits in its parking spot outside the lighted cabin. The blinds are drawn and, from a distance, the blue aura of the television screen gives the room a neon glow, like a tavern. I hear the clinking of glasses; silverware scraping across plates. But I do not hear voices, and I never see the man, his wife, or his daughter. I am tempted to knock on the door, yet I have nothing more to offer.

On the third morning I wake up early. I look out the window. The Cadillac is gone. The air is cool. Birdsong fills the air. In the distance I can hear bluegrass playing. I begin to feel better, more hopeful, as if a weight has lifted. Still, I know that anything can happen.

•••

STEPHEN J. LYONS is the author of four books of essays and journalism. His most recent book is Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times. You can get his books through your local, independent bookstore, or online at Amazon.

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.

The Little Man

By frankieleon/Flickr
By frankieleon/Flickr

By Sobrina Tung Pies

It was May 22 when Alan died last year. Everyone around me was amazed by how well I managed, but that’s because they didn’t know the whole truth. By June, a little man had set up shop inside my chest. To be clear, the little man doesn’t live in my chest—he doesn’t have groceries in the refrigerator or put his feet up on the coffee table at the end of the day. To say he works there would be more accurate. The most surprising part of it all is when I look in the mirror: My husband is gone, my body harbors an invader, and I hardly look any different for it. I can see why people might think I’m fine.

I have never heard the little man say anything, not even a sigh, but I feel him. He’s the busiest when I miss Alan the most. I don’t know what his full job description states, but I have a good idea. His job is to ensure I feel everything I can’t show: the homesickness for a place I can never return, the crushing weight underlying the finality of it all. To get his point across, he launches intermittent campaigns throughout the day—“grief attacks,” I call them. Sometimes the attacks are big and violent, forcing me to crumple onto my couch, blinded by tears. Sometimes they are small, squeezing all the air out of my lungs. At first, living with the little man frightened me, but over the past nine months, we’ve learned how to co-exist. When he wages his attacks, I can only let him.

I alluded to the little man in the very beginning, back when people were still dropping off casserole dinners. They nodded with their mouths turned upside down and tried to imagine what it must be like. But after a while, everyone went back to their normal lives. I couldn’t blame them. I tried to, too, but nothing felt normal anymore. People stopped asking about the little man wreaking havoc in my chest. They wanted to know about my vacation plans, work, my new haircut. I brought him up less and less until I eventually stopped talking about him.

•••

This morning, the little man is very busy, making it hard to get out of bed. My body feels twice as heavy as normal, as if long, lead bars now occupy space in each of my limbs. The bars don’t take up all the space in my arms and legs, but they don’t rattle around either. They’re heavy, after all. The little man shields his eyes with his hand, looks up, and frowns. Dark clouds are in the forecast, threatening rain. They’ve been brewing in my head over the last couple of days. I roll over onto my side, summoning the energy to get ready for work, and feel the lead weights follow a second later.

•••

I work at a mid-size tech company in Mountain View, California, where I do B2B marketing. Mostly that means putting together PowerPoint presentations that the sales team use to pitch solutions to clients. It sounds straightforward enough, but somehow my days are full of back-and-forth email exchanges, meetings, and rough drafts. Everything takes longer and involves more people to complete than you’d imagine. For instance, this morning I am in a meeting with eight people to discuss logo designs and venue possibilities for an upcoming event. Two people present in the meeting, one person makes the decisions, and the rest of us are just along for the ride. The meeting eats up an entire hour of everyone’s day. Normally, I would get antsy thinking about the other things I could be doing in that hour, but it’s hard to care with the little man going on as he is.

It’s strange being at work in the middle of one of his violent attacks. All my Alan memories, the sad ones reserved for when I’m alone at night, bubble up dangerously close to the surface. I look around the room in a slight panic, but no one is paying any attention to me. All eyes are focused on the screen at the front of the room. I sit back in my chair and try to focus on the presenter’s explanation of this particular logo’s type treatment.

After the meeting, I go back to my desk, and, in an attempt to keep the grief attack at bay, I scroll through the endless emails that have poured in over the weekend. I delete the ones that are spam, ignore ones that require nothing of me, and flag the rest to respond to later. Some emails are marked with an exclamation mark to denote the urgency of their contents, but after reviewing them again, I decide they can wait and begin making my list. Every day I make a to-do list. First, I write down each task that I need to complete. Then I go back through the list, writing a number next to each item according to its deemed priority. Priority assignment is based on the project requester, the deadline, and the number of people depending on it. These are just loose guidelines, though. Sometimes I’ll assign a task a higher priority just because I feel like working on it at the time. It’s funny because they’re just numbered items on a piece of paper, but as soon as I finish making it, I can focus. Without it, the fear that I’m overlooking something else more important that I should be working on creeps in and paralyzes me.

I have only prioritized about half of my tasks when I can feel my resolve crumbling at the edges. I catch myself slipping and hope the little man doesn’t notice. The little man, however, doesn’t miss a beat and seizes the opportunity to make inroads on his attack. He pulls me in, and I am helpless to stop it.

•••

I am back in our living room on that last day. Alan is lying in his hospital bed, next to the fireplace. He’s moving his arms and muttering words under his breath, as he has been for the past week. This morning his lips are the slightest shade of blue, his breathing has changed, and his knees are purple. Everyone else had missed it when they’d left for my sister’s college graduation that morning. But I saw it. I knew everything was about to be different.

I call hospice and talk to the nurse manager, explaining the changes in his condition. When I mention his purple knees, she pauses. Purple knees, I learn, are a sign that your time together is almost up. I ask the million-dollar question we’ve been asking ever since he was first diagnosed: How long? The nurse manager tells me she’ll send someone who’ll be able to assess the situation and give me a better timeframe. I hang up the phone. I don’t know what to do, so for the moment, I do absolutely nothing. I have never known Alan’s knees to be so telling.

After I gather myself, I break apart again, crying in the chair next to Alan’s bed. I’d been preparing for this moment, but I’m not ready. I don’t even know if now is the right moment. If he has hours left, I should say goodbye now, but if he has days left, shouldn’t I wait? The silence settles over us like a heavy layer of dust. I decide to say goodbye now, just in case, but everything that comes out sounds stupid. My voice isn’t my own.

Finally, I lean into his ear and whisper. It sounds better when I don’t have to hear that voice that isn’t mine. I tell him how much I love him, that I’ll be okay, that he can go if he needs to. I read in one of the booklets hospice gave me that it’s important to “grant permission” for your loved one to let go. I don’t believe myself when I tell him I’ll be okay, but I hope they might be the magic words to bring him comfort. I sit back down and stare into his face, convinced I’ll see something register. But if it does, I can’t tell. His expression is unchanged, his arms still moving—

•••

A steady stream of people walk by my desk. I look at the clock in the corner of my computer screen. Lunch is fifteen minutes late. It’s normally served at eleven-thirty, and if it’s not served within ten minutes of that, people go crazy. That’s a slight exaggeration but not by much. Fearful that we might never eat again, people begin lining up in the cafeteria as if somehow that might help. I check the lunch calendar I keep pinned to my wall. Today we are having lunch from a restaurant named Pizza?. There is an actual question mark in the name.

The food finally arrives, and I can hear the soft roar in the cafeteria from my desk. After enough people walk past me with salad and pizza slices piled high on their plates, I walk to the kitchen to see what’s left. I place two slices of veggie pizza on a paper plate, fill a cup with water, and head to the lunch table where I usually eat with the rest of my team. At the last second, I think better of it and make a beeline for my desk. I don’t have the energy to make conversation today.

It makes people uncomfortable when you just sit and listen. Most people need to fill the empty space with some kind of noise. In my experience, it’s only a matter of time before people run out of things to talk about. They start asking questions they already know the answer to or bringing up inconsequential topics. I find myself repeating things I already said or feigning interest. Short of wearing a tee-shirt that says “I don’t feel like talking, but I like sitting with you,” the only thing I can do is watch more movies. Whole worlds unfold in front of me, and I don’t have to say a word. And sometimes, though not always, movies can make me forget the little man’s even there.

My favorite movie genre is science fiction, especially those of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic variety. People think it’s somewhat strange, but when your husband dies at thirty-one, the idea of everyone else dying en masse, holds a romantic allure. Almost every night, I watch a movie—sometimes even two or three. A part of me wonders if I’m abusing them, like an illicit substance. I’m sure a psychologist would ask if my movie-watching negatively affects my everyday life. I suppose it doesn’t really, except it irritates me to participate in conversations when I would much rather have them play out in front of me like on a movie screen. That might be one negative impact. But you never hear about movies ruining someone’s life, do you?

If I could only watch a movie right now, it might help me deal with the little man. But, being alone at my desk with only my veggie pizza to occupy me, I know he won’t let me off easy. As I chew, he taps around my right lung like he’s testing the quality of a cantaloupe. When he hears a sound that pleases him, he uses one hand to mark the spot and, with his other hand, removes a tiny straw from his back pocket. He raises it high above his head, then swiftly brings it down, puncturing a hole in my lung. I let out a small gasp. It’s a small straw, but I can feel the air escaping through it.

I wonder if this is how it feels to have a collapsed lung. I know two people whose lungs collapsed: my friend Sue and a co-worker’s boyfriend. Neither of them even knew it had happened. Sue found out during a check-up the day after getting a lung mass the size of a golf ball biopsied. She says she didn’t feel a thing. The co-worker’s boyfriend was in college at the time, partying at a hotel in Mexico. He fell off the third-floor balcony and, if you can believe it, was picked up and carried back to his hotel room where his friends tucked him into bed for the rest of the night. It was only the next morning, after he’d been taken to an American hospital by medevac, that his collapsed lung was discovered and a steel rod was placed through his body. Still, I think the average individual would feel something if his lung collapsed. Shortness of breath to say the least. So maybe it’s like this: You feel a collapsed lung, unless you have bigger things to worry about. Like the possibility of lung cancer or a broken back.

Speaking of bigger things, the little man has finished with the straw, content with its placement, and is walking around with an Allen wrench. I’m impressed by how much he’s able to store in those tiny pockets of his. I watch him scramble around, kneeling down to tighten screws in three separate places, knitting my ribs closer and closer together. When he is satisfied, he slips the wrench into his back pocket where it disappears with the rest of his toolbox contents. He wipes the sweat off his brow and admires his handiwork. The tightness in my chest is even more pronounced now. I swallow my last bite of pizza and it settles like a lump in the back of my throat. The combination of the straw in my lung and the bolts in my chest makes it incredibly hard to sit up. I want to writhe around, to shake the little man loose. Or at the very least, I’d like to lie down.

Maybe I will just keel over and die. You hear about that, don’t you? It happens all the time with older couples: After years of marriage together, one dies and the other, perfectly healthy, save for the usual creaks and aches that old age brings, follows shortly after. I used to think maybe I could be so lucky. I’m sure my friends and family worried for a while that I might do something stupid to harm myself, but I’m afraid of pain and suffering. I’ve seen enough of that. However, if I could somehow relay the message to my heart to just stop beating one day, that wouldn’t be such a bad deal. Nice and neat. To pull off such a feat must require a tremendous amount of trust and coordination between organs, the kind that only comes after spending a lifetime together. That’s the only way I can explain why only older people die of a broken heart. Young people just aren’t there yet with their anatomy. Even if they tell their hearts to stop beating, there’s no way for their hearts to know how serious they are.

Sitting at my desk, I can’t move around too much or lie down, but I need to do something or else I might implode. I could cry. I’ve cried at my desk before, the kind of tears that are hot and silent. But I don’t trust the character of these tears today. I feel them swell inside me, a water balloon the little man has filled too full. It threatens to burst at any minute. I throw the rest of my lunch in the trash and try to get it together.

“Sobrina?” My boss Lisa calls me from two desks away.

“Yeah?” I look up. The little man pauses.

“Can you come take a look at this?” Lisa asks.

I get up and walk towards her. Because I don’t know what else to do with it, I bring the water balloon with me, gingerly carrying it in my hands.

She whips around and smiles at me. I nearly drop it.

“I thought that meeting went well today. Do you?” Lisa asks.

“Yeah, I thought it went well, too,” I say.

The water balloon is shaking. I look down and realize my hands are trembling. I want to tell her everything—that I can hardly breathe today, that the water balloon might pop at any minute. I open my mouth, but before I can get a word out, she turns back around to face her computer screen.

“I’m just recapping the discussion in an email to the group. Am I missing any next steps here?” Lisa asks.

I swallow hard. The water balloon in my hands creates a space between us so I lean in closer to read her screen.

“I think you got it all,” I say.

“Thanks.” She smiles warmly and goes back to finishing her email.

•••

I have one more meeting before the day is over. This one is with my marketing communications team, a sub-group within the larger marketing department. We meet once a week, usually on a Monday, to provide status updates on our projects. Sometimes we’ll show each other what we’re working on. We go in a circle, one by one. I try to focus on what my teammates are saying, but it’s hopeless. I sit quietly, taking shallow breaths in an attempt to keep everything inside.

“And how about you, Sobrina? What are you working on?” Lisa asks, pulling my attention back into the room.

A lump rises in the back of my throat.

“This week…” I trail off. I look down at the to-do list I’ve been working on all day. Just read off the list, I tell myself. “I’m working on the positioning for the new media product.”

Lisa nods and jots it down in purple ink on her clipboard.

I shift in my seat.

“And I’m working with the design team to finalize the retail brochure,” I say.

The water balloon has stopped quivering quite as much. I place it on the table next to my notebook so I can read through my list faster. I’m surprised that it stays put and doesn’t roll off the edge.

“I was hoping to share our editorial ideas with the PR team this week. Did you get a chance to review those?” I ask Lisa.

“I’ll make sure I look at those,” Lisa says, circling a note to herself.

“And that’s it,” I lie. I need to get out of the room. I can feel the little man boring holes in my chest, and I’m certain everyone can see my discomfort. When I look up from my list, though, everyone is buried deep in their laptops. Lisa retracts her pen and places it back down on the table, concluding the meeting.

•••

Nobody can see the little man like they would a scar on my forehead. But he’s there in my chest all the time. So it’s just me and him. Me and him and the lonely thought that Alan would know but will never know. He would understand in the same way that he understood when we watched the movie about the retired couple visiting Paris. They go away together in the hopes of sparking romance in their tired marriage. It’s just a movie, of course, but watching them wandering through the cobblestone streets, arm in arm, made me feel a terrible pinch inside. I wanted to be in the middle of all those lights, walking on those streets, feeling Alan’s arm wrapped around me. I wanted all of those things I thought we would have. I hated the old couple.

I looked at Alan asleep next to me, his face and body a shadow of what it used to be. He looked so peaceful, even though I knew seething pain waited for him just around the corner. The tumors in his pelvis ate away at his sacral bones, and physical activity as simple as shifting his weight had become a burden. It hit me that we would never adventure to a new city again, at least not in this life. Bitter tears rolled down my cheeks in disciplined silence. I was Alan’s cheerleader, his eternal optimist—that was my job. He could never know about my fears and doubts.

As I cried, hating that old couple—hating all old couples—Alan’s hand reached out for mine. I turned, surprised he’d woken up, to see his blue eyes fixed on me. I tried to stop crying, but I couldn’t. He held onto my hand, patiently waiting.

After a minute, I told him, “I just always wanted to go with you.”

“I know,” he said softly.

•••

SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley.

 

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.

 

Birds

watch birds
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Daisy Alpert Florin

When my mother found out she had cancer, she said she wanted to do two things when she got better: learn to play the piano and get a bird.

“A bird? Why?” I asked, remembering the nasty parakeets I’d had as a child who kicked feathers and birdseed shells into my underwear drawer.

“Well, I have a friend who has this really beautiful bird, and I’d like to have a bird like that.”

I rolled my eyes, a childish act, that, at twenty-seven, I was probably too old to still be doing. It was so typical of my mother to want something simply because it was beautiful: bird as objet dart. Her desire—requirement, really—for things to be aesthetically pleasing was not a trait we shared.

In the emotionally chaotic days after her cancer diagnosis, it still seemed reasonable to make plans for the future. My mother would stagger her chemotherapy treatments with her schedule at work. We located the city’s best wig store. She ordered shelving for her new apartment. And she was going to break up with her boyfriend, Steven, because, although he was nice, she said, “Nice is not enough.” She would stop postponing joy and make the time for things she always seemed to be putting off. So if a bird was part of the life she imagined for herself in her post-cancer future, who was I to argue?

•••

Can we ever think of our mothers as unfinished? When we are children, they are whole and entire. Everything that was meant to be for them has come to pass because it has brought them to us. But in time, we come to see our mothers as women with paths not taken, connections not made, choices left somewhere in the dust of the past. After my mother’s death, I often imagined the turns her life might have taken had she lived: a new man, maybe not so nice but right; weekly piano lessons in her apartment surrounded by her lovely things; a beautiful bird inspiring her. It was all so close, and yet beyond her reach.

•••

I walked into the garage to grab a box of waffles from the freezer. The birds—barn swallows, we’d learned from Google images—were flying in and out, tending to the nest they built in our garage each spring. My children and I loved to watch their life cycle play out, while my husband, Ken, was less tolerant of the feathers and the mess. Every morning he ran out in his suit and tie with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towel tucked under his arm to clean the poop off his car. But he softened eventually, as he did with most things involving his family.

On this particular morning, the baby birds were chirping frantically, opening their tiny beaks so wide the nest looked like one big mouth. There were five babies this time, the most we’d ever had, and the parents seemed more agitated than usual, if such a feeling could be ascribed to barn swallows. Every time I walked through the garage, they swooped down at me, coming so close I was afraid of an Alfred Hitchcock-like encounter.

I stepped over a pile of desiccated dragonflies and saw that one of the baby birds was lying on the ground. I was surprised to see it there, like I’d somehow forgotten that these birds weren’t here for my family’s amusement alone; this was the circle of life, the universal struggle for survival writ small, the real deal. The bird looked dead, so I grabbed a shovel to scoop it up. But as soon as I touched it, it scooted away. Fuck, I thought. A sick or injured bird seemed far worse to me than a dead one. If it were dead, I could toss it into a bush. But a bird in crisis: That shit needed to be dealt with.

I went inside and Googled, “how to get bird back in nest.” I read that birds don’t always fly straight from the nest. Sometimes they need to hop around for a few days on the ground or on low branches while getting acclimated to flight. Since the parents were still around and the bird was fully feathered, I should just leave it alone. Leaving things alone and letting them sort themselves out—that I could do.

When I returned to the garage, the bird was still on the ground. I looked up at the nest and saw the four tiny faces of its siblings poking over the edge, the tips of their beaks joined together in a line of collective worry.

•••

My mother learned she had cancer on a Monday. A colonoscopy she’d had the week before had revealed a large mass in her colon, and she was scheduled for surgery that Friday, the day before Memorial Day weekend. Looking back, the speed with which her surgery was scheduled, plus the fact that it was happening in a New York hospital the day before a holiday weekend, should have clued me in to the urgency of the situation. But, like most things involving my mother’s illness and death, I only made sense of things later, when everything was over.

My mother spent the week before her operation organizing and making plans as if she were getting ready to go on a trip instead of to the hospital for a bowel resection. I stopped by every night, bringing Chinese food, which only I ate, and searching endless iterations of “stage three colon cancer” on her computer while she sat on the couch with our cat, Firecracker. What I read scared me: The five-year survival rate for my mother’s disease was low, less than fifty percent, depending on how many lymph nodes were involved, which we still didn’t know. But if my mother was concerned, she kept it to herself, placing the bulk of her worry on the cat instead. He was lethargic, not eating that much. She brushed him over and over until the wire bristles were matted with thick tufts of silvery grey hair. Then she would throw the wad in the trash and start again.

I had burst into tears when my mother first told me, over the phone, that she had cancer. I could tell my reaction had frightened her—such an outward display of emotion was uncommon in my family—so I pulled myself together and tried to ask clear-headed questions about next steps. I decided to act as though everything was going to be fine and that this was just a temporary inconvenience, something to get through. My mother acted the same way, as did the rest of our small nuclear family: my father—from whom she was separated but still close—my younger brother, my mother’s sister, Marianne. If privately we were frightened, we kept it to ourselves. We worried about the cat.

One night, as I walked to my mother’s apartment, I saw a dead pigeon lying in the middle of the sidewalk. It was in a fetal position, although I wasn’t sure that term could be applied to pigeons. What did they look like as fetuses anyway? All I knew was that in all my years living in New York, I had never seen a dead pigeon. I thought immediately of the bird my mother had just spoken about. I didn’t believe in omens, but I was convinced this was one. I looked at the bird for a few moments and then continued down the block. I didn’t tell my mother about what I had seen.

•••

An hour after I found the first baby bird, all five were on the ground, huddled together near the freezer. I called Ken.

“Can you get them back in the nest?” he asked. I could hear  street sounds in the background placing him in the city, far away from the life-and-death struggle taking place in our garage.

“Are you kidding?” The nest was a good ten feet off the ground. “I’ll kill myself getting up there. Besides, they’re fully feathered. They’re supposed to be flying.”

After my mother’s death, I became extremely sensitive to birds. If I saw a dead one lying in the road, I would become certain that something terrible was going to happen. Ken would have to grab me and say, “It’s just a bird, Daisy. It doesn’t always mean anything.” And after a while, I convinced myself he was right: It was just a bird. And yet, standing here with broken birds at my feet, that feeling of doom flooded over me again. Perhaps Ken sensed my old worries surfacing and was trying to calm me down.

But there was also a part of me that was annoyed by the entire scene. I wanted the birds to do what they were supposed to do, without my help. They were supposed to jump out of the nest and fly, not cower pathetically on my garage floor.

“Well, what do you think we should do?” he asked.

“I don’t think we should do anything. If they can’t even make it out of the nest, they have no chance in the wild. There’s nothing I can do.”

•••

When I was nine years old, I found out that my mother had been engaged to someone before she’d met my father. His name was Leif, and he was Swedish, like her. “If you had married Leif,” I said to her, “I’d be Swedish!” This felt like magic. If only I could be Swedish like her, I’d know how to knit and crochet and speak Swedish, that secret language she spoke only with my aunt or with the au pairs who lived in the room off our kitchen. If my mother had married Leif, I would finally have access to the part of her that had always been a mystery to me: the her that existed before I did.

“If I had married Leif,” she said, bringing her long, thin cigarette to her lips, “you wouldn’t exist.”

•••

After ten days in the hospital, my mother came home. The surgery was grueling, but she didn’t have to wear a colostomy bag, which pleased her. She wasn’t well enough to return to work or to begin chemotherapy. She didn’t talk about getting the bird anymore, and Steven—poor guy—was still around.

We were taking things day by day, absorbing one bit of bad news at a time, nibbling on it like a dry biscuit, and then opening our mouths for the next bite. The mood in her apartment was somber. My fifty-six-year-old mother, who a few months earlier had celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends in St. Barth’s, needed help getting in and out of the bathtub.

“You have to get her over to Sloan-Kettering,” her friends told me, certain that the right doctors would be able to help her. They didn’t understand how sick she was, I said. She didn’t have the time or strength to doctor-shop. The ways things were going, it didn’t seem like anyone could make it better, maybe just different versions of bad. I was tired of listening to these pushy New Yorkers who thought they could control everything, that I could control everything. I didn’t want control, not over this. I wanted someone to tell me what to do. So I focused on managing her pain medications and sticking to the doctors’ instructions. Try this, then that, they said, and I did. I was always good at following the rules.

One night, while Marianne was visiting, Firecracker, the cat, collapsed.

“Do something!” my mother shouted, so Marianne shoved him into his cat carrier and raced across town in a taxi to the emergency vet. He was dead by the time she got there. Marianne, always so fragile, was traumatized, weeping as she told us how she had looked into the carrier and seen Firecracker lying on his side, his eyes bulging, tongue protruding from his mouth. I wanted to kill her.

“I think he died instead of me,” my mother told me the next day, a shadow of hope passing across her face. Her high cheekbones were as hard as rails beneath her pale skin. I was surprised to hear her speak so magically, surprised also to hear her mention the possibility of her own death. But maybe she was right. Maybe Firecracker and the dead bird hadn’t been bad omens but offerings. This made perfect sense.

•••

After school, I took Ellie and Sam to the garage to see the baby birds. They were still on the floor, tucked beneath the curve of my car’s tires. I could tell, although the kids couldn’t, that two of the birds had died. The once-charming experiment was no longer so charming.

“Why won’t they fly?” Ellie asked, her eyes wide with concern.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But they have to. If they don’t, they’ll die.”

When Ellie and Sam went back inside, I tossed the dead birds into a bush. I wasn’t sure what to do with the other three. If I left the garage door open over night, the parents could tend to them, but I was worried about predators. I decided to close the door and hope for the best. Would they really starve in one night? I brought out an aluminum tray of water, although I wasn’t sure if they needed it or if they could even reach over the lip of the tray. I watched them as they sat there, not even moving toward the water, and I decided I didn’t like them anymore. I wished in equal measure that they would leave or die, anything so that I didn’t have to deal with them anymore. I just wanted it to be over.

•••

By July, my mother was back in the hospital. After several tests to determine why she wasn’t getting better, the doctors discovered that the diagnosis of colon cancer had been wrong. She had neuroendocrine tumor, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that had spread throughout the lining of her abdomen, including into her colon. We had lost precious time fighting the wrong cancer.

During this time, Ken and I left my mother in the hospital to go to a Yankees game. My mother was on the phone with J. Crew ordering a birthday present for Steven, and I lingered in the doorway listening to her chat pleasantly with the woman taking her order. I doubted she had any idea my mother was calling from a hospital room or that she would die so soon after the clothing arrived that Steven would be too shaken up to ever wear it. I worried for a moment about leaving, but my mother waved me off. “Go,” she said, the phone tucked between her shoulder and her ear. “I’m fine.”

Ken and I took the train up to the Bronx and, as we walked down from the subway platform, we saw a pigeon lying on the stairs with its wings spread open like a book. The crowds of people on their way to the stadium stepped carefully around it.

I stopped walking as soon as I saw the bird, tears streaming down my cheeks. “Oh, Jesus,” I said to Ken. I doubled over, suddenly out of breath. “What the fuck is that?”

He calmed me down, and we stayed for part of the game. But when we walked back a couple of hours later, the bird was still there, still breathing, its tiny chest rising and falling with great difficulty. Someone had propped a piece of newspaper around it, a tiny version of a hospital curtain. I wanted to smash my foot down on its ribcage. It was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen.

We went straight back to the hospital and found my mother talking to one of her doctors, the only one who had known her before she got sick. The steady drip of pain medication had improved her mood, and she seemed closer to her usual, upbeat self. On his way out, the doctor pulled me into the hallway.

“Do you know how serious this is?” he asked, and I think I kind of nodded, although I really have no idea. And then he apologized to me, either for what had already happened or for what was still to come; I think he had tears in his eyes. But he didn’t go any further. Perhaps he could tell that I couldn’t grasp what he was saying, that his words had barely touched the protective net of my consciousness. Everything I came to understand about that conversation, I filled in later.

•••

The next morning, I walked into the garage brandishing a snow shovel. I tapped the ground next to the birds and shouted, “Let’s go!” It was a beautiful, sunny spring day, and I had decided it was time for them to fly.

With me and my shovel behind them, the three birds hopped out of the garage, across the driveway and onto the grass. Just seeing them against the backdrop of green, with a little sun on their faces, made them look better. One of the birds kept moving away from me, picking up speed until it was off the ground and flying. Not very high, and not very strong, but flying. I watched it cut a jagged line across the lawn and out of my view.

I crouched down next to the other birds. They looked terrified, shocked, their spindly feet as delicate as toothpicks, their coats more fluff than feather, and I realized I wasn’t scared of them anymore. They weren’t a bad omen or a harbinger of death at all. If they represented anything— and I wasn’t sure they did—it was the future my mother had planned for, the one in which she got an exotic bird and redid her kitchen and lived to see her grandchildren. It’s just what we do, plan for a future we know is not guaranteed because we can’t live any other way. And look how fucking fragile it is.

•••

Shelley was the astrologer for British Vogue and a friend of a friend of my mother’s. When she came to New York, my mother sometimes went to her for a reading. A couple of months after she died, Shelley offered to read my chart, gratis. I asked her if she had been able to see my mother’s death on her chart during her final reading. I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear what Shelley would say.

“Not exactly,” she said. “We might be able to see that there will be a transition, but we can’t tell if that transition will be death or not because in astrological terms, everything is continuous.”

•••

Despite everything, my mother’s death, when it finally came, surprised us all. Just the day before, her oncologist had ordered a course of chemotherapy. A young resident had come by earlier that week to refill a prescription for the eye drops she used to control her glaucoma. Now they were telling us there was nothing else they could do.

It was evening, about eight o’clock. The hospital air-conditioning was on full blast, and I was freezing. My mother lay in bed, unconscious, surrounded by photographs I had taped to the wall behind her, proof to everyone who cared for her that she really had once been a person. One of the pictures had been taken on New Year’s Eve. In it, my mother stood with one foot crossed in front of the other like an actress posing on the red carpet. Her painted toenails peeked out of her pink, sequined slide.

My mother was really gone by then, her breathing labored, the smells appalling and vile. We had already sat in another room with her doctors and hospital administrators who had reviewed her DNR orders. I was the only one who spoke. I signed whatever it was we were supposed to sign. My father seemed folded in on himself, my younger brother shocked into silence.

We went back into her room. Steven and Marianne were there; Ken, too. There weren’t enough places for all of us to sit so I leaned awkwardly against the side of the bed, stroking my mother’s hand. I wondered if I was supposed to stay there until she died. I became acutely aware of the woman she was sharing a room with and thought how terrible it must be to room with someone so close to dying. Then I was annoyed with myself for worrying about her when I should have been thinking about my mother. The thought of staying in that room until my mother died became unbearable. My teeth were chattering, and all I wanted to do was lie down. So I kissed my mother goodbye and walked out into the hot, humid July evening. I planned to come back in the morning, although by then she was dead.

•••

The birds didn’t seem in any rush to go anywhere, so I sat there, letting the weak spring sun warm my back. I thought about how tenuous our hold on life is, how easily the thread is snapped, despite everything we think holds us here. We fall from the nest, unable to fly, powerless to fight the gravity that pulls us down; if we’re lucky, our parents stick around to feed us dead insects. Perhaps there are no omens, nothing to let us know that bad luck—or worse—is around the bend. Nothing had prepared me for my mother’s death; the only signs were the ones I had chosen to ignore.

Then I stood up and walked away, leaving the birds on the grass. I needed them to do what they were supposed to do, without me, just as I had needed my mother to complete her journey so that I could continue mine. She never got the bird she planned for, but I got five of them, birds that grew in the cradle of my garage. Some died early, others clung to the earth beneath their feet. But one flew.

•••

DAISY ALPERT FLORIN is a writer and editor. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Halfway Down the Stairs and Brain, Child, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her family. Read more at www.daisyflorin.com.

The Stars Are Not for Man

space guy
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Joelle Renstrom

“All the earlier changes your race has known took countless ages. But this is a transformation of the mind, not of the body. By the standards of evolution, it will be cataclysmic… It has already begun.”

—Arthur Clarke, Childhood’s End

 

On New Year’s Day, I huddled next to a space heater on the porch as snow piled up on the windowsills. It was four p.m., that dead time between day and night. The utter lack of change blanketed everything, much like the snowflakes that dropped from the sky, unhurried and sticking fast, piling up like days, weeks, and years. It had been a year and a half since Dad died, since I moved back to my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Eighteen months seemed like an arbitrary measure of time; I had been there forever—perhaps I had never left.

I spent some time that day putting together a syllabus for a class I’d be teaching that winter called “The Evolution of Science Fiction.” One the works I most looked forward to teaching was Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End. In the book, a mysterious alien race called the Overlords descends upon earth and eliminates famine, war, and crime, ushering in a utopia. The humans don’t know the Overlords’ ultimate objective, but it becomes clear they’re trying to prompt an evolutionary leap in the human race—a leap that the Overlords themselves cannot make because although they’re technologically superior, they’re otherwise limited, or, as Clarke puts it, “trapped in some evolutionary cul-de-sac.”

“Evolutionary cul-de-sac” described my feelings about Kalamazoo. I’d already lived nineteen years of my life there, and when I went to the grocery store or to work, I ran into people who’d known me since I was a kid. Even though everything was different now, it was hard to escape the powerful orbit of history. On New Year’s Day, my thoughts solidified into a single goal: I needed to leave Kalamazoo. I needed to continue evolving. The stakes were immeasurably higher than the first time I left home, college-bound, still a kid. In a few months, I’d be turning thirty.

I started a blitz, applying to jobs from California to Cairo. I sent out at a dozen applications each week, waiting for the tiniest nudge in any direction. None came.

Toward the middle of February, we started reading Childhood’s End in the science fiction class. Another line echoed ceaselessly in my mind, an admonition from the Overlords: “The stars are not for man.” I seemed to be sending my CVs into a black hole—most of the time I didn’t even get the courtesy of a rejection. Is the universe telling me that the vast expanse out there isn’t for me? I wondered.

The day Arthur Clarke died, I spent hours in my dad’s office, sometimes spinning around slowly in his desk chair. The shelves were almost empty. I hadn’t yet taken down the pictures that showed us the way my dad had seen us: backlit against a campfire, laughing over a board game at the table, stuffing our faces with chocolate while dressed in soggy Halloween costumes. The family on the wall seemed unfamiliar, as though it could have come with the frames. In the third drawer of Dad’s desk, I found a stack of my own poems. I read them all, as though I’d never seen them before. If I concentrated, if I pushed my brain back through the quicksand of time, I could picture who I had been when I wrote them. That person was gone, yet like the family on the wall, she haunted any space still open to the past.

Clarke’s death felt like an omen. The death of a visionary felt to me like the death of a vision—the death of my vision. I’d expected the job search to be rough, but I hadn’t expected to be still entirely unacknowledged almost four months into the process. Unless I went to a random place on a wing and a prayer, I might not go anywhere at all. Come late May, contracts for the next academic year here in Kalamazoo would arrive; what if I signed one after the other after the other? I envisioned another year, or five, or ten, of unlocking the door of Friedmann Hall’s third floor and entering the same hallway that smelled of sneakers and White Out and microwave popcorn. A universe folding under its own weight.

The months rolled by. Kalamazoo was the last place I’d expected to be when I turned thirty. I still had no leads on a job or a new place to live, no indications of the change I’d been pursuing with increasingly frantic abandon. Was it okay that at age thirty, I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, that I was as clueless as a child? Even though I was back at the starting point of my personal history, I felt way off the map. On my thirtieth birthday, I drove to a cabin in the middle of the woods even though I knew my life and everything I wanted to leave behind would find me in the end.

I shivered under my birthday moon and pulled the drawstrings of my hood until it was a small circle around my face. I thought about how Arthur Clarke gave a clipping of his hair to a company that sent it on a three-week suborbital ride to space and then returned, ready for another mission—perhaps a longer, more permanent one. Clarke’s DNA has and will travel to places he wrote about; theoretically, an alien civilization could reconstruct his genetic code. Either way, the stuff of Arthur Clarke could exist indefinitely and infinitely. Could the idea that one’s DNA can be perpetuated far beyond one’s physical body explain the many times I’ve felt Dad’s presence, sometimes uncannily enough to prompt me to look around?

If they have the ability, the sentient races in Childhood’s End evolve to a transcendent state in which they join an infinite consciousness, the essence of all things—the Brahman. When they do, they transcend reason, corporeality, time, and space. When I first read the book, I wasn’t sure what to make of Clarke’s fusion of spirituality and science fiction. Later in life, he ceased believing in what he called “superstition,” but I found my trajectory to be just the opposite.

What if life and death as we think we know them are only two stages of existing? What if spirits or essences can exist in an infinite number of forms not limited to corporeality or to conventional conceptions of an afterlife? Between what we think of as life and death, there might be countless planes of existence or realms where anyone departed from earth could dwell, neither alive nor dead, in some form unrecognizable or unconceivable to us. What if there are actually seven dimensions, or eleven, or twenty-eight, and what if some of them are places or spaces we go when we die? What if Dad, or Arthur Clarke, lingered in such interstitial spaces, uncategorized and uncategorizable, defying nothingness? What if the sense that he’s around me isn’t just me unable to accept that he’s truly gone—what if it’s me sensing his particle waves, the way one senses that a radio is on in an adjacent room?

•••

After my birthday, I redoubled my efforts to move, keeping in mind Arthur Clarke’s second law: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” My dad’s diagnosis and death had thrust me into positions I never would have chosen for myself: caretaker, custodian of information I didn’t want to possess, watcher of death. Everything felt impossible, and in some ways still did. But as I became a person I didn’t want to be in a place I didn’t want to be, I also became something I’d had no need to become before—the architect and guardian of hope.

If the universe gives us what we need, rather than what we want, then the story of my life—or at least my perspective on that story—changes. There had to be a moment that changed everything. There had to be a place to leave, a life to leave, a me to leave in order to go back to Kalamazoo. And there had to be a Kalamazoo to leave in order for me to rebuild and evolve. There had to be a time and place for me to decide to make my life about something other than Dad’s death.

•••

At the end of May, I got an email from Emerson College about an adjunct teaching gig. I booked a ticket to Boston and sent my resume to every college and high school in the city. A week later, I got on a plane and then spent five days lugging a suitcase to job interviews and to apartment showings. I put all my eggs in that basket. One doesn’t make it to the stars by playing it safe.

Dad would have been excited at the prospect of my moving to Boston—he had taken us there on a family vacation when I was nine. I allowed myself a brief fantasy of walking down Massachusetts Avenue with him, past Harvard and MIT, pausing on the bridge to look at the sun glinting off the State House. Whatever place I next inhabited, he would never visit me there. That thought slayed me, but at the same time, I felt curiously liberated. For the first time since he died, I felt like a real person with hopes and dreams and a future that made my stomach buzz with excitement. Was it possible that after all this time dizzying myself with the unanswerable why, Dad’s death could take on meaning if I looked at it as a catalyst for evolution?

Childhood’s End depicts the evolution of children into something beyond human. My evolution wouldn’t be that dramatic, but I had the distinct sense of being catapulted beyond my parents, especially my dad. And ultimately, isn’t that the point? Aren’t our predecessors supposed to pave the way for substantial movement, for progress? I hadn’t merged with the Brahman, but I was no longer the person I had been and was afraid I’d always be.

The day before I moved to Boston, where three part-time jobs and apartment awaited, I finished cleaning out Dad’s office. I boxed up the pictures and slid the nameplate out of the holder. The empty office seemed not to belong to this world, as though it was a place in limbo, waiting to be filled. It wasn’t clinging to my dad, his belongings, or his memory. It was time for Dad to inhabit some other place, and it was time for me to do the same.

On Wednesday nights at the Boston University observatory, I look through telescopes at Venus, Mars, and sometimes Jupiter and Saturn. I imagine Arthur Clarke’s DNA on an endless voyage. As I look at our solar system, a tiny parcel of space, it’s clear that time and space have only as much sway as I allow them. They, like everything else, can be modified and adapted. Arthur Clarke is right—death can beget life, and extinction can be evolution: “There lay the Overmind, whatever it might be, bearing the same relation to man as man bore to amoeba…Now it had drawn into its being everything the human race had ever achieved. This was not tragedy, but fulfillment.”

In this universe, my dad still exists. In this universe, there is room for the me that is six years old, still sitting on my dad’s knee, the me that tangles with the transition between life and death and back again, between then and now, and the me that believes that three dimensions are only the beginning.

•••

JOELLE RENSTROM is a freelance writer based in Somerville, MA. Her collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in August; a version of this essay appeared in it. She maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen, about the relationship between science and science fiction. Her work has appeared in Slate, Cognoscenti, Guernica, The Toast, and others. She teaches writing with a focus on sci-fi, AI, and space at Boston University.

Read more FGP essays by Joelle Renstrom.

Ordinary Artifacts

subway
By slgckgc/ Flickr

By Samantha Vincenty

My gym bag’s zipper is broken. The crinkled fabric’s worn through at the bottom and it’s time to throw it in the trash, but I can’t. Not yet.

My boyfriend finds me in a daze on our bedroom floor, my hands on the empty bag in my lap like I’m clinging to a dead pet.

“You don’t have to throw it away,” he says, crouching down to look at me. He knows what it means, why I hold the receptacle for my sweaty socks in such high regard.

My mother died four years ago, but I’d cleaned out her apartment a few years before that when it became dangerous for her to keep living alone—she was one more forgotten stovetop fire away from harming herself and the other tenants in her building. I’d held on to the bag, among other things, ever since.

The bag is bright fire-engine red, not auburn red like the hair I was born with and the hair my mother dyed to match mine. Mom bought it at New York & Company, that bastion of career separates, as uncool as (or marginally cooler than) Ann Taylor. The zipper pulls resemble MTA subway tokens with an identical “NYC” cutout logo and the words “The NYC Style Authority” wrapping around the circle. I wonder if these details are why she wanted the bag. Maybe the faux tokens reminded her of riding the IRT by her childhood home in the Bronx, or commuting to her nursing job at Columbia Presbyterian before she gave birth to me and we moved to the suburbs that made her so restless.

The New York City subway stopped accepting tokens in 2003. My mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis came into full, horrific bloom that same year. I quit my job to become her part-time caregiver, using subway tokens to ride from Brooklyn to Grand Central. Three times a week I’d take a commuter train to Yonkers so I could take her on walks, clean up all of the nonsensical piles and mysterious stains she’d made around the apartment, and cook us steaks on her George Foreman grill. The oven was now officially off limits, and it was important to stay on-message: Never ever turn it on.

In 2003 my mother, an artist for most of her life, cried because she could no longer sketch or paint realistic likenesses. She forgot to love some of her favorite things (Pet Shop Boys lyrics, romance novels, tweezing her immaculate eyebrows), but I liked how she also forgot to refuse things that she’d previously sworn off (cream soda, sushi, a ludicrous soap opera called Passions). I was twenty-four and envious of the career pursuits my friends described over syrupy-sweet cocktails at happy hour. I drank more than I needed. I drank quickly, too, to forget how exhausting it all was but also to make sure I was having the fun I thought I so richly deserved. In those days my mother would call me constantly to ask when I’d be back, sometimes just hours after I’d been there. Her thoughts were getting foggier by the day, and she hated being alone with them. She still remembered who I was.

By 2004, subway tokens were out of circulation, and I used a Metrocard to get to Grand Central. Mom didn’t want to move into a nursing home, but at twenty-five I had burned through my savings and needed to find a job. Worry, about my future and hers, stole hours of sleep from me at night. My mother needed full-time supervision—in addition to the stove fires and sink floods, she had started wandering the streets alone, forgetting where she lived. So I returned to Yonkers to sort my mother’s things into three piles: Discard, donate, or keep. I kept the red bag because I wanted something she’d used in her normal, pre-illness life. It served me well for a very long time, but now the bag’s demise feels like another ending.

I know I’m not alone. A colleague who lost his father two years ago recently told me that he rummages through his parents’ drawers just to touch his dad’s folded clothes. “I like, lay on his side of the bed and try to smell the pillow and shit, even though I know it’s been washed.”

We’ve talked about that connection we all yearn for, between a lost one’s tangible things and their memory. We need the artifacts. No, I don’t want my small New York apartment to be a Dead Mom Museum. But should I let go of something if it feels like a fresh burial?

I’m still not sure. So the bright red bag remains on the floor, unused and un-useful, while I figure out what feels right. I may turn one of the subway-token zipper pulls into a keychain, as a functional monument to a time that fundamentally shaped me as a person.

There are two zipper pulls, actually, and I’m keeping them both: One for me and one for the woman I remember.

•••

SAMANTHA VINCENTY is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Hairpin, Fuse.tv and BUST, and she is currently at work on a memoir. She tweets about music, pop culture, and weird stuff she finds on the street as @shermanther.