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.

 

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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.

The Appointment

By Liz West/ Flickr
By Liz West/ Flickr

By Linda L. Crowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s more like it, I think.

“I’m fine, honey.”

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

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

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

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

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

I nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

The Cupcake Man

girl on bed
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kate Banigan-White

The Cupcake Man was, at first, innocuous. He was part of an activity my daughter Charlotte devised with two girls—children of dear friends. For several years we had been spending time together as families: dinners at each others’ homes, throwing birthday parties, working on political campaigns, and eventually vacationing together. We camped on Cape Cod one summer and then took a holiday to Washington, D.C., over spring break. We stayed in a large glass hotel in adjoining rooms, taking the Metro into the city each day. It was then, I would later learn, during some interlude between Washington Monument and Smithsonian Museum touring, that the Cupcake Man was invented. It would take the aftermath of tragedy for me to understand this.

Many parents know that children can be captivated by something borne by a group of kids, but for one child, it can take hold and take longer to let go. It’s a benign experience, this, but it can make you cringe: soon your daughter may see that she has held onto the Cupcake Man longer than the others. She might face the hurt that she is now alone with her love for this character, this game.

One recent night, I told Charlotte that we’d be having dinner with her friends Lisa and Ellie, and she lit up, collecting materials for the Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration. She said that it was an event the three girls had been planning for late January. Today it was January 24: perfect! She found the bags of balloons that we had purchased weeks ago, plus other signs and stories they had written during recent dinner get-togethers. She even cried when she thought she had lost the illustrated story, one I could picture but had never really read. We found it, and still I hoped that the other girls were as into this as Charlotte.

We kept our same basic dinner routine that we’ve had for years: the girls ate together in the kitchen at the high table, chattering and devising an activity culminating in a show. The grown-ups sat in the living room, eating vegetarian pasta out of plates on our laps, splitting a bottle of red wine. We could now talk, unencumbered by children’s ears. We knew we’d ultimately be thrust in the middle of the Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration, but we’d stave that off as long as possible. I felt mild relief at the buzzing in the other room, with Ellie stringing up streamers and Lisa creating makeshift cupcakes out of buttercrunch ice cream globs, graham cracker crumbs, and candy bits. Charlotte was not alone in this. Whew.

•••

Six months before the Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration, my husband Dave—Charlotte’s father—died suddenly one summer morning at home after having an acute cerebral aneurysm. Only moments earlier, he was peeling plums and toasting bagels with Charlotte at the kitchen table. We had just returned from a vacation in Maine and were gearing up for a day of settling back in. Before taking our dog out for a walk and picking up the Sunday Times, I reached over Dave’s shoulder and took two casual bites out of his bagel slathered with cream cheese. I failed to kiss him then or say goodbye.

I returned from my walk and began playing a game of pretend with Charlotte as I had promised. Nothing seemed amiss and Dave was apparently upstairs. When he did not appear downstairs after a period of time, I checked on him, gasping at what I saw: my once vibrant husband, whose profile I had admired on a mountain just days before, was lying on our bathroom floor.

“Something’s wrong with Daddy,” I said to Charlotte as I raced to the phone. “I have to call 9-1-1.” As the police, paramedics, and fire truck arrived moments later, the only clear-headed thought I had was that now permanent memories were being formed in my eight-year-old daughter’s heart. I had to protect her. “I’m very worried,” I said, my voice shaking. “This is very serious. But we are going to be okay.”

•••

This is the charge, after all, of a parent who now presides over her grieving child: to make it okay. To let your child be a child amid a tragedy, knowing that her mourning will be the mourning of little girl and not the grown-up sorrow that is accompanied by planning a funeral, re-negotiating work schedules, selling the car, applying for survivors’ benefits, and arranging a make-shift child care and dog walking schedule. My grief is consciously ebbing or flowing as I find a way to have a decent supper preceded by saying grace, draw a warm bath, and tuck Charlotte into bed at night, now without my mate, her father.

In the early weeks in particular, just a day or two after Dave’s death, Charlotte needed to play, and play hard. Quickly, she surveyed the sudden influx of weeping visitors armed with flowers and food and books on grieving children, and she was having none of it. She was grateful to be scooped up by friends and family to go swimming, visit an art studio, and run around in various backyards. Meanwhile, I stumbled through the fog of the constant doorbell, the hugs, and the tears, alternately collapsing alone in the heat of summer on my bed, fan spinning above me. Each of us, then, did what we had to do.

During our funeral for Dave, Charlotte bent down her head and drew pictures on a clipboard of paper while I sat rapt, clinging to every person, word, psalm, and hymn. All throughout the reception, she ran around with her friends and cousins, making up games. I was front and center in a receiving line of grievers, embracing hundreds who endured the awkward wait to search for the right words, the gentle touch. I needed to be there, and Charlotte needed to be elsewhere. She seems to have such fond memories of this that she has asked me several times when her cousins can return to finish the game they played in the church basement. That was so much fun.

•••

I know that most grievers think that their lost one is special, that he or she possessed qualities that will be unsurpassed by any other living being. For Charlotte and me, this is beyond truth, the very reason we miss this man. He was the great creator of stories, mostly as a way of transitioning to the next fine thing. When Charlotte was a toddler, Dave would wake her up to “cat stories.” They would sit on her bed for long stretches, and he would tell an ongoing tale of the many stuffed kittens Charlotte had collected. Meanwhile, I was downstairs grinding coffee beans and scrambling eggs, so that the three of us could sit at the kitchen table for a cozy breakfast.

Dave was the inventor of games at all of Charlotte’s birthday parties, gathering the kids around the playroom floor, introducing musical hula-hoops, pin the whiskers on the kitty, What’s Different, and scavenger hunts. He also took Charlotte sledding on a huge hill near a local college. As they flew down the slope and marched back up its snowy paths, Dave made up a story. There would be a narrative flowing and this would guide their journeys as they made the arduous walk uphill. All this for the glory of the flight to the bottom. Whheeee!

•••

Charlotte’s way of mourning is mysterious to me. It’s evident in her anxiety at night, when she asks me to feel her heart and mine, making sure they are beating well, and when she staggers into my room, asking me if I am alive. In the early weeks, it poured forth in the deep dark of night when she would all of a sudden let out a wail like I’ve never heard before. Mostly though, it’s tucked away someplace, in her foul mood on a Saturday morning or in her defiance over small things: brushing her hair, locating her socks, completing her nightly homework.

The Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration might possess clues into Charlotte’s broken heart, and also, perhaps, her path through the loss of the man who invented him. The night we had supper at our friends’ house, the swirl of activity over the character picking up speed, my friend Jill said, “I think this whole Cupcake Man thing is intense.”

This is when I first realized that this game had special significance. My initial instinct was shame at the exposed neediness, my daughter’s sorrow as well as mine. Jill said that her daughters played the game now because they thought Charlotte wanted to, but they didn’t mind. She reminded me of its origin: it happened during some transitional period along the Washington Mall, where we had been the spring before. Maybe it was when we were waiting for the double-decker bus tour—though my memory then is of Dave organizing an impromtu soccer game with the three girls on an open green space. It was sunny and warm, and he had, somehow, carried with him a soccer ball, just waiting for time between activities.

Perhaps the tale was told just before we entered the cool marble space and gazed up at Abraham Lincoln on his throne. I had barely noticed it because my beloved was always inventing stories during down time. I adored that he did this, but paid precious little attention to the details.

At first, I thought it was odd, too. I suddenly fancied this ongoing game as a problematic expression of grief, a resistance to letting go of something and someone forever gone. Now this once-benign character took on an ominous tone, like a creepy clown. As we, the grown-ups, one of whom was now missing, reluctantly filed into the kitchen filled with streamers and balloons, eating the ice cream globs and singing Happy Birthday to the Cupcake Man, I thought I would die of sadness, right then and there. I cried silently to myself as Charlotte and I drove home in the dark. She, on the other hand, chattered happily in the back seat. She had had such a good time.

At bedtime, after Charlotte had me feel her heart and mine, making sure, once again, that they were beating well, she told me that she loved the Cupcake Man. “Why?” I asked. “Because he’s fun,” she said. “Because he’s all about celebration, and that’s fun.” I kissed her goodnight, and went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. Standing at the counter, I lifted a paper there, one that had been evident for weeks and weeks. I had seen it, but never read it. The paper included the by-lines and introduction to the Cupcake Man. It was written in Charlotte’s tell-tale perfect penmanship with sprinkles of misspellings. It read:

Cup Cake Man

By: Charlotte lisa Ellie

And help with Jill Sam and kate

An arigenle started

by Dave

Cup cakes all over the world have been sold Vanila too, Chocolate

too blue red purple

and orange and yello

and green and brown

and White

But, the Cup Cake Man — Yea, Yay.

He was a good, good man.

 

I can see him now: dancing around a fountain with the kids, near lunchtime, when we are idle. Abraham Lincoln presides over us at the end of the mall, on his throne, and words inscribed in his shrine tell us a story. Nearby, there is a place filled with soldiers’ names etched into a low-lying wall—each has a narrative all of his or her own. People file through to read the names and pay respect to the unspoken histories.

Meanwhile, Dave’s forty-three-year-old self is smiling, his graying hair is sparkling, his imagination brimming over. I could have been anywhere, really, which may account for my dim recollection of the Cupcake Man’s creation: stealing away for a solitary look again at Julia Child’s kitchen, the Greensboro lunch counter, or the sculptures of Louise Bourgouis. Maybe I was seeking stocking-stuffing treasures in some museum store, while my mate distracted our daughter. Most likely, I was right there, watching the whole character unfold and without seeing the specifics; I simply saw Dave, Charlotte’s father, leaping around the gleaming water. All I felt was unfettered joy. Maybe.

For my child, grieving over the inventor of such a sweet presence, I wish for her an ongoing celebration, without the burden of it being strange. Cupcakes all over the world. Monuments, history. He was, indeed, a good, good man.

•••

KATE BANIGAN-WHITE is a clinical social worker living in western Massachusetts with her family. She grew up in Louisville, KY.  She has had essays published in The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Hampshire Life, Patchwork Farm Journal, and the anthology Not What I Expected, published by Perugia Press.

Sixteen Days

clouds
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Allie Smith

Standing at the podium, I felt numb with shock. I thought my grief would have subsided a little by now, because three weeks had passed. Three weeks. I had that lost feeling you get when you dream, where you know it can’t be real, but you’re still going through the motions in an altered world. There I was again, in front of a crowd of mourners whose eyes were all focused on me. My palms were wet and my heart raced. I shook, as if pure caffeine were running through my veins, and then in the next moment, I shivered from a cold that only I could feel.

Here, in Pennsylvania, the audience was more familiar to me than it had been at the funeral in Michigan. It was filled with my brother’s closest friends, members of our family, and my children, who sat in the front row. I hadn’t brought them to the Michigan funeral. At the time, they were still in school, and I was in no condition to be a parent. I was doing this all again for them. It was the least I could do; I’d kept them away from their uncle for almost two years.

Edmund had adored my children. Although he didn’t have any of his own, he truly loved kids. He spoiled mine with attention and presents, until he couldn’t anymore. Even after circumstances changed for him, I don’t think that the kids ever really noticed that the gifts and the attention slowed. To them, he was still their loud and gregarious uncle. He remained a steady presence and influence in their lives, until his demons got in the way. Until he didn’t look the same. Until his speech became incoherent. Until their mother made her decision.

In the months prior to his passing, I’d had a feeling that perhaps time was running out. There had been previous hospital stays, and during the last one, doctors suggested nursing care. I had no idea that things had gotten so dire. I called a friend who’s a nurse and she was brutally honest, and I panicked. I was familiar with Edmund’s disease, because it was the same one that had afflicted my parents. It’s the one you get from having a good time. From being the life of the party. From being the person everyone wants to hang out with. That is, until the disease flips the script and no one’s having a good time. And family and friends no longer want to hang out with you. I knew what the outcome would be, although I’d imagined years not weeks. I called my brother and planned a trip. As soon as school got out, the kids and I were headed to Michigan.

During the last few years of my brother’s life, I grew accustomed to late night phone calls. I didn’t enjoy waking to the ringing phone in the middle of the night, but at least I heard his voice and knew where he was. When the calls started, I would wake with fright, instinctively reluctant to pick up the phone, remembering the old adage about bad things happening in the middle of the night. The relief that I felt upon hearing his voice and the he’s okay feeling would soon turn to sadness when I realized that I couldn’t understand anything he was saying.

When the last call came, I wasn’t asleep. It was late, but I’d been restless, tossing and turning, my mind racing over all I had to do in the weeks leading up to the end of school. I jumped out of bed on the first ring, but I also rolled my eyes as I reached for the phone. I assumed he was hoping to get a “Happy Mother’s Day” in, just under the wire. But then I saw Kelly’s number. Kelly, my sweet sister-in-law who never called in the middle of the night. A lump formed in my throat as I answered. Adrenaline started pumping through me because it wasn’t Kelly’s voice that I heard, although her tears echoed in the background and pricked the surface of my skin as an unfamiliar voice said, “This is Lisa, Kelly’s neighbor…”

Almost two years before, I’d made the decision to keep my kids away from my brother on the heels of one of our many heart-to-heart discussions. During Edmund’s last visit we sat at the breakfast bar in my kitchen. He had become a different person and it scared me. He’d lost weight and moved slowly. He looked like a young man, but his gait was labored and wobbly. His speech was hesitant, as if pronouncing each word was difficult. His once bellowing voice was reduced to a hoarse whisper and he was uncharacteristically gentle.

I made my case and used all the clichés you do when you feel helpless. “I’m very worried about you.” “You have to stop.” “I don’t understand.” “You know what can happen.”

He was a master of deflection; he didn’t want to talk about the elephant in the room. Instead, he wanted to talk about my kids. He told me how much he loved them and that if anything happened to me or my husband, he wanted them. Then he took a slow sip of his poison, claiming it was innocuous because it was beer. I was nauseated as I felt the inevitability of history repeating itself. He was going to lose the battle, just as our parents had. With a shaky voice, I tried to explain the fear I had of having to tell my kids one day that he was dead. He promised me, “No, no, you won’t.” But he didn’t look at me and I did not believe him.

The year and a half that followed was a roller coaster, one that I navigated on the fly. There were rough moments, many of which led to months of radio silence between us. The kids would talk about him, but less frequently. Bear broke his foot and appeared on television with his class. Hunter graduated from elementary school and learned to play the trumpet. Audrey was accepted into the Company Ballet Program and received her First Communion. Camden learned to talk and joined a soccer team. Our life went on, minus Uncle Eggie. It was quieter, for sure, but also drama-free.

But when things deteriorated with Edmund’s condition, I had second thoughts. I changed my mind.

My kids missed the reunion with their uncle by sixteen days. Sixteen days.

I didn’t bring them to the funeral. I just couldn’t. I’d never felt grief like this before. Never. I cried constantly and was so dehydrated that no amount of water could satisfy my thirst. I lost ten pounds in four days. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop shaking. I was heartbroken. And angry. And guilt-ridden. I wanted to be alone, and yet people were everywhere. I had to help plan my baby brother’s funeral. There was no way that I would have been able to comfort my children, and I didn’t want them to see me in that condition. I knew that seeing my brother at the funeral would haunt me forever, and I couldn’t risk letting that happen to them.

When I learned that my brother’s friends in Pennsylvania were having a memorial service, I decided to take the children. I wanted them to have an opportunity for closure, although I didn’t know what that would mean.

Edmund was a Marine and a Gulf War veteran. His funeral and memorial service were attended by an honor guard. Watching the Marines fold a flag and ceremoniously give it to his widow wasn’t any easier the second time. As the mournful melody filled the room, my son Hunter sat straighter, filled with pride. Audrey crumbled in tears. Cammy, wide-eyed, stared at the soldiers, not fully comprehending the significance, but watched the ceremony with the awe that only a five-year-old can possess. Barrett, my child with autism, was on a computer in an adjoining room and occasionally made his presence known with giggles.

When I spoke during the service, I felt a stab of pain each time I made eye contact with my children. Hunter had the anguished expression that he gets when tries not cry, but Audrey made no such effort. She was weeping in my Aunt Ginny’s arms. Cammy looked around at me, his siblings and his aunts with profound confusion. As I spoke, I was desperate to connect my kids with Edmund. I reminisced about how each of them reminded me of him in their own ways. Barrett exudes his innate cockiness. Hunter is emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve. Audrey possesses his dance moves and the need to be the center of attention. Cammy has his charm and his way with the ladies.

I was so worried about the kids. I wanted them to feel the loss, but not the pain. As I watched their carefree innocence at the reception, I knew they were going to be okay.

I’m not okay. Grief aside, I still have much to resolve. If I could do it all over again, knowing how and when it would end, I would do it so differently. I would answer every phone call, I would visit every chance we had. I would say, “I love you” over and over again. I would accept that it is what it is—sometimes people can’t get better and it’s not their fault. I would make the most of the time we had left with him.

I’m so afraid that my kids won’t remember their uncle. I carry the burden of wondering if this will prove to be even more difficult because of the two years they lost with him. I thought I’d made the right decision for my children, to keep Edmund out of their lives. But was it? Or was it my ego and forty-one years of sibling history that drove my decision?

I have beaten myself up for this, talked it to death, forgiven myself, and then repeated the cycle all over again. I have been down the road of unsaid apologies and good-byes that were too late before.

I can claim that events, unfortunately, played out in the manner that I predicted. I knew that he was going to die from the disease, and I was right. Yet I so wish I hadn’t been right. I honestly, naively, thought it would have taken longer for him to succumb, but his body was done. At forty-one years old. In the immediate aftermath of my brother’s passing I doubted my choices. With the passage of time, I’m not so sure. What would have been the cost to my children if I had? What if he’d collapsed in front of them, or been incoherent? Would they have been scared? Or what if they’d laughed at him, not understanding that he wasn’t trying to be funny? As it is now, they smile when they talk about Edmund, which they do quite a bit. Would that have been the case had they seen him at his worst?

I followed my gut and did what I thought was best for my kids. Maybe I did the right thing, but it still hurts and that’s a pain I’ll have to live with, but at least they won’t.

•••

ALLIE SMITH lives in suburban Atlanta and is a wife and mother of four children, with twins and special needs in the mix. She writes about parenting, autism and the journey of motherhood at www.thelatchkeymom.com. She also writes book reviews for Chick Lit Plus. During the summers, Allie takes epic road trips with her children, exploring the wonders of our country. These adventures are documented in a travel column for My Forsyth magazine.

Learning to Live as the Last of Five in Four/Four Time

alive
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jessica Handler

Last winter, my friend Pete gave me a pair of Vic Firth 5A drumsticks. They were beginner’s sticks, but this would be my first drum lesson: he the teacher, me the novice. I was ready: I’d diligently watched You Tube videos demonstrating Ringo Starr’s and Stevie Wonder’s drumming and listened closely to the drum parts on my favorite CDs. The sticks were surprisingly light, awkward to hold, and pleasantly dinged up. They made me nervous.

I’d agreed to spend a weekend participating in a rock camp for women, a fundraiser for national group empowering teen girls through playing music. I’ve always been a music lover: my very first concert was The Beatles at Shea, even though I was five and the frustratingly sonically obscured objects of my adoration sang from my parents’ portable black and white Zenith television. My younger sister Susie and I listened to our recording of “Peter and The Wolf” on the turntable and acted out the roles. At six, I was the bassoon grandfather, and she, not quite two years younger, the clarinet cat. As I grew, I learned to lose myself in vocals; first John and Paul’s tricky harmonies and later, Mick Jagger’s sneering whine.

My youngest sister Sarah played Satie gymnopedies and Bach for four hands on the piano with Mom. Dad bellowed Dylan as he drove. As a teen, I played guitar reasonably well, piano terribly. I learned all the words to “Stairway to Heaven.” In my thirties, I auditioned once as a singer for a local band; I wiped out not because I couldn’t sing, but because I can’t read music.

And all along, I secretly banged on things. Hard. Usually myself. In elementary school, I beat my head on my bedroom floor until I was dizzy. I tore out handfuls of my hair to distract myself from the way my skin felt, rippling in anger. Enraged and inconsolable in my teens, I punched plaster walls and slammed car doors. In high school, I quietly broke my own finger in an effort to suppress boiling rage and brokenhearted sorrow. And no one ever knew.

My sisters were dying and then dead; first Susie, at eight from leukemia, and then, Sarah twenty-three years later, from an illness related to the rare blood disorder she’d been born with. Our father muted his sorrow with anger, drugs, and alcohol before he left for a job in another country and then a new life. Mom remained determined, loving, and honestly joyful about the best moments of our lives.

When I checked the box beside “drums” on the camp registration form, forty-four years had passed since Susie died, and twenty-two since Sarah’s death. Dad died in 2002, and Mom two years ago. That frantic and sudden need for a physical outlet for my pain and sorrow still lurked close to my surface. I know that self-harm, like hitting or, for others, cutting, is an attempt to seek relief for emotional pain: simple reading tells me that, but I sensed as much when I was ten. Now that I’m grown, reasonably competent, and happily married, my hitting myself until I bruised, or once, driving so fast that I pinned the red on my Honda’s speedometer, freaked my husband out. I didn’t blame him. My periods of desolation were awful for me to live with, too. But banging on drums in a band scared me almost as much. I worried about what I might unleash.

Mickey and I met and fell in love shortly after my sister Sarah died. I was working as a production manager for television programs, and he wrote and produced promos. We didn’t work together, so he only heard from me about the time I blew up and threw a stapler at an assistant. (I missed, thank heavens.) He already knew my reputation on the job as a screamer and a yeller. With him, I was never those things. He calmed me and made me feel safe and loved enough. Music mattered to him, too, even though he never remembered lyrics.

The camp took place over three days on a Valentine’s weekend. The schedule would be full, leaving no time for flowers or chocolates (neither of which I wanted) or a good dinner out (which I did.) My husband and I like Valentine’s Day, and I felt that I’d cheated us a little by the commitment I’d made to occupy myself without him that weekend.

In an empty middle school classroom, five other grown women and I met our loaner drum kits; bass drum and kick pedal, high-hats, snares, floor tom and rack toms, and our own sets of sticks. After running us through the basics of our grips, keeping time on pancake-sized practice pads, the instructor—a rock drummer with indie cred—put on a recording of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” We had to follow along in four/four time. The first two beats came from the bass drum. I stepped on the kick pedal, and the drum responded timidly. This irritated me, too, and the child who flailed in anger and sorrow rose up in me. With her foot, I stepped down hard twice, making two deep, satisfying thuds. With her hands, I snapped my right-hand stick onto the rack tom.

Some rhythms are as simple as breathing, but others require perception far beyond the usual. Children dying before their parents is a peculiar rhythm called reverse order of death. The terror and grief of the surviving sibling was rarely addressed when I was a child. As an adult, behind my first drum kit, I created a basic, steady pulse. Hitting the toms, the snare, stepping on the kick pedal, I pounded out a steady groove. I heard no sorrow; just myself, playing in time.

Camp ended with a raucous showcase at a neighborhood coffee house. While bands played, I slipped my arm through Mickey’s, and we drank our beer and bobbed along to the music. When the time came for my makeshift band to take the stage, I kissed my husband and clutched my drumsticks, fighting the urge to careen alone into the night. I’m ridiculous, I thought. I can’t really channel my thumping anger outward, make music with it, or learn to maintain an even pace on which I can rely. But I took the stage with my bandmates, and in the blinding candy-yellow of the spotlight, held my loaner sticks over my head and counted us in. The bass player responded in time, then the singer, then the two guitarists, just as we’d rehearsed. For about two and a half minutes, I hit and I kicked objects built for striking, and as terrible as I’m sure I sounded, I didn’t feel the way I usually did at a moment of impact. I didn’t feel like weeping. I wanted, instead, to shout with glee.

When we finished, the applause was loud and not unexpected—everyone there was friends or family with someone in a band—and from behind the drum kit, I searched the audience for Mickey. He was at the lip of the stage, his hands raised in victory.

Six months have gone by, with me occasionally practicing to videos, my loaner drum sticks beating couch cushions. This year, I turn fifty-five, and I’ve promised myself to keep my hands and heart away from my own skin during my dissonant outbursts of grief. Mickey bought me a birthday present. I’m starting drum lessons. With Pete, who says it’s time for me to keep those drumsticks he loaned me last winter.

•••

JESSICA HANDLER is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) was named by the Georgia Center for the Book one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Atlanta Magazine called it the “Best Memoir of 2009.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Brevity.com, Newsweek, The Washington Post, More Magazine, and elsewhere. Honors include a 2011 and 2012 residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. www.jessicahandler.com.

Hush, My Darling

petals
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Melissa Bauer

I.

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

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

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

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

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

D for denial should be our family crest.

•••

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

They need to transfer her now.

An ambulance is called.

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

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

We don’t ask any questions.

We don’t seek a second opinion.

We just do as we are told.

•••

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

•••

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

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

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

I exhale.

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

•••

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

We are alone.

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

I walk over and hold her hand.

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

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

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

 

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t my first rodeo.

•••

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

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

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

I am so excited.

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

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

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

Wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh

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

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

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

•••

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

She does not notice me.

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

And I know.

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

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

•••

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

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

 

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother pouts.

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

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

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

 

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hush, my darling,

Don’t fear, my darling,

The lion sleeps tonight.

•••

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