Little Mouse

frozen scissors
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

Because they could not get everything they needed to get laparoscopically, they cut into him. They cut through his fatty tissue and his muscle to get into his abdomen where his gangrenous gallbladder was swollen and bloody and actively disintegrating. When Dr. Robinson tried to remove it, he told us, it fell apart in his hands. When he tried to clip off the bile ducts afterward, Steve’s abdomen was so swollen and bloody that the clips would not hold. They fell right off. Dr. Robinson used a sealant called Tisseal, and as he told us this, he swooped his hand down and back to mimic the motion one imagines using to seal off a hole. All I could picture was a driveway.

Steve had been wheeled into the operating room at one-thirty that afternoon. I had been expecting surgery to last about an hour and a half. While Dr. Robinson was pretty sure from the exam that Steve’s gallbladder was infected, he still believed he could remove it laparoscopically. After I kissed Steve goodbye, I went over to the surgery waiting area and introduced myself to the two volunteers who answer the phones. Steve’s name wasn’t on their official list of surgeries for the day, so they wrote his name at the bottom of the page and noted that I was here. “I’m just gonna run out and get something to eat. I’ll be back soon,” I told them.

I had imagined, as late as that very morning, that I’d be able to teach my classes that day, the day of Steve’s surgery. The hospital was so close to the university, and we didn’t know what time Steve’s surgery was going to be, so I’d just run back and forth, keeping my phone on me in case I was needed.

Walking the dogs that morning before we left, it hit me that my husband was having surgery and I was his next of kin and if I wasn’t there waiting for him, nobody would be. What kind of wife was I? Of course I wouldn’t be teaching that day! Later, when I told Steve’s stepmom Janet this, she laughed. “You’ve never had to do this before, have you?” I said I hadn’t. “It’s a steep learning curve, that’s for sure,” she said.

•••

I grew up in an abusive home, and the further I get from that environment, the more clearly I can identify the characteristics of it that have had a lasting effect on the person I have become. Two things stand out. The first is that I have an overabundance of empathy. This comes, I’ve recently figured out, as a result of being told again and again that it was in my best interest to identify with my abuser.

“Stay away from her,” my mother told me.

By telling me this, my mother was also telling me that the perspective on the world that mattered was my sister’s, not mine, that the person responsible for the abuse was me, not my sister, and that the way to remain safe was to take on the perspective of the other. Your perspective—that your sister is hitting you—is not the one that matters. The one that matters is your sister’s. Appease her.

One result of this overabundance of empathy is that, for a long time, I had trouble with friendships. Simply put, I gave too much and didn’t expect much in return. I took on others’ perspectives on the world and negated my own. I gave and gave and gave until, as happens in every life, a point came when I needed love and care and found that the friends to whom I had given so much were unable to reciprocate. This prompted essential self-care work, including reassessments of more than one friendship.

The second effect of growing up in an abusive environment is that I, as all children do, built my understanding of myself based on the narratives I had available to me, and those narratives I had available were that I was nothing, a nobody, destined to amount to nothing because I was no good, not worthy, stupid, fat, and ugly.

Because of this, I developed an early habit of calculating my chances at things as basically zero, not—as popular reasoning might have it—so that others might encourage me, but because it is what I believed deep in my body was true about me. This means that anything good that happened to me—that happens to me—is essentially icing. This has always gotten me out of existential dramas. I was persuaded early that I wasn’t meant to be here, so I don’t necessarily have a need to make some big meaning of my entire life, to feel that I was somehow meant to be here or that I have a purpose, to feel like I’m here to do something good. Anything I do that is good is better than the nothing I was supposed to have done. Some may read this and characterize me as a pessimist, but I think that those who have been abused could perhaps help me articulate why that’s not quite the case. It’s not that I expect the worst. Rather, I expect nothing.

One effect of this is the ingrained habit of imagining and preparing for my death. My oldest friend Hillary and I have been promising each other since we were kids that, should the other one become incapacitated in any way, the other would swoop in and take care of things. Neither of us is afraid to die. We grew up thinking we wouldn’t make it much past twenty-seven.

•••

Muscles provide strength. We get the word muscle from the Latin musculus meaning, literally, “little mouse.” Our strength comes from what we might otherwise perceive as small and insignificant.

•••

When I return to the surgery waiting area at two-thirty, I see that a few people are gone, but there are still probably ten families waiting for news on their loved ones. The electronic board tells me that Steve’s surgery officially started at 1:59. I settle in to a chair, take out my laptop, and begin working on revising the calendar for my rhetoric course. At about three-thirty, one of the volunteers comes to tell me I have a phone call. Steve’s nurse, Brian, tells me that things are going well and they’re hoping to be able to finish the surgery laparoscopically, but they may have to make an incision if they can’t get it all. This will mean three to five days in the hospital. “We should be done in about an hour,” Brian says. I ask if this would be a good time for me to run home and take care of the dogs. He asks how close I live and I tell him I can be back in an hour. He says yes, this would be the time to do that.

I tell the volunteers that I’m running home and I’ll be back in about an hour. They’re both elderly women dressed in baby pink hospital jackets. One tells me that they leave at four, so when I get back, they won’t be here. “You’ll have to answer the phone yourself.”

Sure enough, when I return a little more than an hour later, the surgery waiting area is nearly desolate. A man and I are the only two still waiting. At 4:45 the phone rings. I look around, as though somebody else is going to answer it. “Surgery waiting area,” I say as I pick up the phone. It’s Brian calling to tell me that they’ve had to cut Steve open and they’ll be working on him for about another hour. “Shit,” I say. “But he’s okay?” Yes, he assures me. He’s okay.

I text the friends who are waiting to hear how Steve is doing. The news that they’ve had to cut him open isn’t good, as it suggests things were more serious than even the doctor had anticipated.

This is not the first time I’ve imagined what my life would be like as a widow. Mostly when I imagine this, I think about how others will respond because I know I have the constitution to be okay. I’m self-sufficient. Icing, remember?

The hour passes without a phone call. It must be because they’re finishing up and they want to call me when they’re finished.

Meanwhile, two friends come to visit for a little while and distract me with hilarious stories about their early vacations as a family. I can’t help but envy them their stories. But they have to leave before too long.

The phone rings. I answer it, “Last one standing.”

“Amy?”

“Yep.”

“It’s Brian. I know your voice by now. We’re still working. We’ll need about another hour.”

Deep sigh. “Okay. Everything okay?”

“Yeah, he’s okay. Things were messy.”

I sit back down in the waiting area. It’s seven. He’s been in surgery for five hours. The lights go out in the waiting area.

I’m sitting alone in the waiting area. In the dark. My husband has been in surgery for five hours. I’m beginning to get scared.

Instead I get angry. I think about all the love and care and empathy I’ve given over the years since I arrived in Illinois. So much love and empathy. And none of it is coming back to me right now as my husband is lying cut open on an operating table and I’m all alone.

Later, with a clearer head, I’ll think back on this moment and say to myself, well, what could you expect? Your friends didn’t know you were sitting there alone in the dark.

And the answer, of course, was nothing. Of course I could expect nothing.

•••

As he recovers, Steve needs to be reminded every so often that Dr. Robinson cut through his abdominal muscles, so things he used to take for granted are going to be hard for a while. The first time he sneezed was particularly painful. He’s sneezed a total of five times since the surgery.

Cutting through muscles is, I imagine, a gruesome task. As they heal, muscles that have been severed settle differently.

As I walked the dogs the morning before Steve’s surgery, it hit me that I could no longer rely on my own habits of thought, on my own muscle memory, to get me through this kind of situation. I couldn’t just maintain my identity as some kind of teacher hero who manages to teach her classes even while her husband is under the knife. I had to accept that, despite the earliest and most profound lessons of my life, I am important to people and that this recognition brings with it responsibilities that I cannot simply brush off with claims that my students need me. Until Steve’s surgery, when I was the one person in the world responsible for the well-being of another human being, I had never had to puncture, let alone cut, that muscle memory.

I don’t really trust myself to be that person for Steve or for anyone, really. I have never wanted to be the one solely responsible for anything, but especially another person’s life.

My muscle memory has been cut, just this once. It may not be enough, but it’s a start. The cut will send the little mouse scurrying just a bit, into cracks and crevices of my constitution that I don’t even know are there, settling perhaps the tiniest bit off-kilter, surprising even me.

Things I’ve taken for granted may be harder for a while.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She and her husband Steve are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley Field, and one named Essay. They all love the Cubs.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

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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.

Year of the Body

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

By Susannah Quern Pratt

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

•••

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

To the Pain

crystalball
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Dina Strasser

Mandolin? Mandoline? I’ve never been able to figure out the pronunciation of this device or how it connects to music. I have angered it. It has just sliced lengthwise through my right thumb.

I have been battling a series of small but debilitating injuries since I hit my fourth decade—an ankle orthoscopy, plantar fasciitis, arthritic knees, unexpected bursitis in my shoulder. It’s old hat now. Maybe this explains why my first thought is the purely prosaic: “Fuck. Now I can’t finish dinner.”

But there the potato sits, half scalloped; there is the mandoline, so swift and clean in its retribution that I do not bleed until several seconds after I hang my thumb under the running faucet.

The water begins to turn a deep shade of rose. Anthropomorphizing the mandoline is a bad idea. Inaccurate. I turn my hand over, gingerly, and see that there is no flesh behind a portion of my thumbnail.

The shaking starts.

“Honey?” I call.

•••

I have slung my teacher’s bag onto my single shoulder, often dozens of pounds, unprotected, for over a decade. In a misguided fit of back-to-nature, I spent a summer in “minimalist” sneakers, not realizing that my tendons weren’t strong enough to handle the strain. And what preventable loss of focus drew me away from noticing where my fingers had gone today?

Surely, as with all truths, the reality is a confluence of things both within and outside of my control, but I realize as I clutch the bloody paper towels around my hand that this doesn’t matter. I have already decided that I have not earned the right to cry.

I take deep, shuddering breaths over and over as I sit in the lobby of the urgent care facility. “I can’t scare the kids,” I keep thinking, although the kids aren’t there.

My husband negotiates the paperwork.

“You have to sign these,” he finally says, grimacing.

“Seriously?”

The irony makes me laugh, softly, and then a little hysterically.

I grip the pen between my index and middle fingers and, by the fourth form, I have managed something like my name.

•••

“I am not going to be your friend right now,” says the nurse and briskly dumps a syringe full of saline onto my thumb. I am glad my husband is still outside finishing up the papers, so he doesn’t hear my swallowed scream.

A doctor pauses only long enough in the exam room to assure me that I have not damaged any nerves or tendons, that nothing drastic is needed for healing, and to explain that they will place a special foam on my thumb to stop the bleeding. “Okay?” he says. His mouth smiles, and his eyes say, “Now is when I need to smile.”

“Okay,” I say, and he has left before the second syllable hits the air.

The nurse, my husband, and I joke about “Carrot Guy” who came in just before me (now dubbed “Potato Girl”) as the nurse binds me tightly with a pressure dressing and compliments me on my pain tolerance.

I’m grateful. Really. I’ve seen a few doctors recently, and I’m grateful for them all, no matter how busy they are. I try to catch the nurse as we leave, but he wishes us a cheerful goodbye, determinedly eye-contactless, and starts rapidly wiping up the drops of blood I have scattered on the floor. It’s six o’clock, and the office is closing.

My husband scoops up the mandoline the minute we get home. It was expensive, but I don’t feel the slightest bit unhappy about watching him pitch the whole thing into the garbage can, scalloped thumb slice still stuck to the underside. We agree that you’re better off with a plain old knife. You can see where it’s going.

•••

Three days later, I find out what I did to myself officially. It’s Ingrid who tells me, my primary care doctor. She’s unhappy, in the way doctors are unhappy who don’t want to besmirch their colleagues.

“They didn’t give you bandages that wouldn’t stick to the wound?” she says lightly but frowning. The nurse who took me in said something similar but far less diplomatically.

Ingrid has just come back from seeing the patient scheduled after me, allowing me to sit in an examination room and soak the dressing off my thumb in warm salt water. It takes almost an hour. I’ve had to work at it, pulling gently, literally asking my skin aloud to let go of the material and hoping that no one can hear me. The wound is reopened and throbbing out little tendrils of blood into the water by the time it agrees.

I’m disoriented by Ingrid’s question, because she’s staring right at me and typing into her health care software at the same time, without looking at her fingers. It hits me belatedly that she’s doing this on purpose, to make sure I don’t feel sidelined by what her hands are doing.

“It’s called degloving, what you did,” she says. I laugh until I realize that she is using an actual medical term. I am struck by its poetry.

She fills a bag with non-stick gauze, soft antibiotic ointment, and magical bandages that are impregnated with Vaseline, and she redresses my hand. She takes her own right hand and wordlessly rubs my knee for comfort.

•••

I am turning in a tight circle, flapping my arm around as I try to shake off my bathrobe.

“Ah! A penguin in need of assistance!” says my husband, in the plummy tones of Superman.

I grumble wordlessly as the robe drops off my wrist just as I was about to take him up on his offer. As a pair mismatched almost exactly by a foot (I’m five foot three), we have evolved a silent vocabulary of gestures to indicate when I could use a taller person to step in. Standing forlornly in the kitchen with my hand floating in midair means, “Please get that damn coffee mug off the top shelf,” for example. Approaching him silently from behind with a light bulb is also effective.

Today, though, I unequivocally need him not because of my bathrobe, but because I can’t hook my bra straps together. It’s one of those tasks, I discover, which demands working opposable thumbs. I am more and more aware of these kinds of minute movements. I collect them, the way I used to collect small semiprecious gems in grade school. The heel kicks back to close a door when my hands are filled. The fingers hook the collar of a t-shirt to toss it up over the head. The shoulders, astonishingly, comply. Garnets. Rose quartz. Fool’s gold.

My husband, with fingers too large for these delicacies, is fumbling with hooks and eyes. “How do you people do this?” he mutters.

But he was the first to gently pull away the bloody paper towels and just as gently shoo the kids to the neighbors’ house and bundle me into the car. He reached across the seat and buckled me in with the same calm as when he held my hand, almost a decade ago, while I contracted blindly and endlessly to bring our two babies into the world. He saw both resulting c-sections performed behind the curtain placed in front of my head. He was too tall for it to obscure the view.

I finish my ablutions in the bathroom, wrapping up my thumb, lower palm, and wrist with the magic Ingrid bandages, then gauze, then cloth tape.

When I am finished, I open and close my four free fingers over the resulting thick tube for several moments, as if I am making a shadow puppet duck. This shape is reminding me of something, but it takes a while to bring it back.

It’s mittens. I remember suddenly, out of nowhere, how I would stay out for so long on snow days that ice would coalesce into small hail-like balls on the knitted wrists, with strands of wool as their nuclei. I remember the gritty feeling of the wool scraping across my mouth as I took off the mittens with my teeth.

•••

My eleven-year-old daughter has just ripped open a package of litmus papers we’ve ordered for her school science fair project—she’s cleaning pennies with solutions of varying acidities. Once she discovers the rainbow of results, however, she becomes an unstoppable cyclone of litmus testing.

“Oh! Orange juice!” I hear her gasp, and the fridge door rattles open.

I am deciding at our laptop, after a long internal debate, that I’m going to post about my accident on Facebook. I’m preternaturally sensitive to sounding like I’m whining on social media.

I don’t define “degloving” in my post on purpose, hoping people will feel its weird beauty as I did. This turns out, amusingly, to not have been the best idea.

“WORST.GOOGLE.IMAGE.SEARCH.EVER,” a friend responds.

“What else, what else?” my daughter ruminates out loud. “Hair spray!”

“Oh god, it’s not that bad,” I type back, after seeing for myself what “degloving” brings up.

“Bleach!” my daughter sings out.

“Wait, hang on, you don’t have—” I call to her, but she’s already flung herself down into the basement where we do our laundry.

I lurch up from the computer and down into the basement after her, thinking to find her some latex gloves to use. She’s perversely saddened that we don’t have enough corrosive bases in the house for her to get the deep plum shade of the higher numbers of PH.

I don’t find gloves. She could care less. She brightens when she discovers that at least in the PH world, there appears to be no difference between slamming a glass of cranberry juice or one of red wine vinegar. This is good to know.

On the way back up from the basement, I pass the shelf where we store our less-used cooking contraptions. My eyes pass over the standing mixer, the apple peeler, the cherry pitter, and I shudder. I realize that I have now renamed this shelf in my head “Things That Can Hurt Me Really Badly.”

What is getting older but a yawing, a slipping and widening, of that shelf to hold more and more things? Pots. Pans. The stairs. My ankles. Ice. My blood pressure. My brain.

I look down at my hand. How on earth am I going to do this?

My daughter tears off another strip of litmus paper. “Maybe I can spit on it,” she says thoughtfully.

I can’t help it. I laugh, loud and long, and she joins me.

•••

Just before I go to bed, I notice there’s a new comment on my Facebook thumb post. It’s from Rachel, an old college friend, whipsmart and wonderful.

“This is why we don’t own a mandoline,” she writes. “Or a mandolin, which is what autocorrect wants me to own.”

At least I’m not the only one. As I settle down to sleep I picture a clueless, cartoon Autocorrect and I, with a potato in one hand and a mandolin in the other, looking confused.

I cradle my bandaged hand in the crook of my left arm. I’ve re-wrapped it once more, once a day, as Ingrid showed me. “Don’t roll over on it,” my husband says sleepily, already in bed. My daughter is reading quietly about bacteria cultures in her room. The ibuprofen kicks in.

You’re not always going to see where the knife is going. Sometimes you’re going to look for a stringed instrument to make music, and find it is a bloody blade instead.

But what else is there to do? You reach out. You strip off your gloves. You play.

•••

DINA STRASSER is a language arts educator of many stripes. She has been published in the New York Times, The London Times Online, and Orion Online, and she runs an award-winning blog on education at http://theline.edublogs.org. This is her second essay for Full Grown People.

Twinogram

twins
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Marietta Brill

When my sister’s doctor recommended that she get a mammogram, Karren called me. “Do you want me to make an appointment for you, too?” she asked, as though scheduling a pedicure. I immediately agreed. She rarely needed medical interventions, and this might be her way of asking for support. And I was way overdue. As busy New Yorkers—Karren, at the time, an advertising creative director and yoga teacher, me a freelance writer and Brooklyn mom of a teen—unpleasant procedures weren’t high on our to-do lists. I also knew that going with Karren might make it seem a little fun.

We arrived together. It was a rainy Thursday. Wearing sweaters and jeans, my sister and I looked more alike than usual. “You ladies,” the doctor said when he looked up from his chart, “you look a lot alike—you could be twins.” Tall, dark-haired, and olive-skinned, Karren and I were often mistaken for twins. I noticed that the doctor could be Matt Damon’s stunt double.

“Thank you!” we replied in unison.

“We’re just sixteen months apart,” Karren said.

Like Borscht belt comedians, we had our routine down over years of telling. I might describe how my husband once confused us. Karren would joke that our mother couldn’t tell us apart on the phone. “That’s because,” my sister, who’d once been an actress, would continue cheerfully, “we have the same voice box.” This expression always baffled me. I imagined tiny, identical gramophones in our throats. But lately I thought it was a great way to explain what made us alike—something indefinable, as intimate as breathing, which our voices expressed.

•••

Looking at the doctor’s immaculate mahogany-grain wood desk reminded me of a similar room at Sloan Kettering Neurology Unit two years earlier where Karren, my husband Peter, and I had waited for a good hour to look at my brain scan. I’d been having seizures that left me temporarily speechless and with auditory hallucinations. On the neurologist’s wall were framed nature prints and an eye chart.

Like many doctor’s offices, it had the fake cozy vibe of a Holiday Inn. Pre-diagnosis, it was a neutral purgatory, the zero-point baseline where nothing was yet decided. We would stay in this innocent safe zone until the doctors arrived—and then with a diagnosis I’d either leap above the line into my treasured normal life or drop into some ring of hell.

We had run out of conversation and our worry hung in the air with the buzz of the fluorescent lights. With a sharp tap on the door, the neurologist burst in with his entourage of five interns. Insanely, I felt like I was in the middle of a Marx Brother’s movie (the neurologist was a little short), and I half expected someone to honk a horn. He did the usual double-take and made a tepid joke about our similarity (“Which one’s the patient?”).

In front of this audience of family and doctors I was asked to perform tests. The doctor read a list of random words for me to keep in the back of my head and repeat later. Then he asked me to walk a straight line. The crowd watched as I minced, heel to toe, along blue paint-tape, like a DUI suspect or a trapeze artist. I was told to count backwards by sevens from one hundred, a task I couldn’t handle reliably in my most sober moments. “What’s the name of the Vice President?” he asked. I couldn’t remember and almost began to cry. When I couldn’t replay the random words from ten minutes ago, through a blur of tears, I saw Karren mouthing the answers. We all practically cheered when my knee jolted from the reflex tap.

Finally, the doctor tacked a film up on a light box and we gathered around the image. It looked like a Google satellite map of two shadowy divided galaxies, with a white dot on the left side, lighting up like a population center. I wanted him to zoom in, to give me the details, to orient me. “It’s an enhancing lesion in your parietal lobe,” he explained. None of us knew what it meant. Karren gasped and reached for my hand. My husband Peter squeezed my shoulders. I thought the word “enhancing” had a soothing, upbeat sound to it. I was wrong (again).

“If it shows up bright on the scan, it’s active.” This was at once not enough and too much information. I couldn’t think of anything to say. The critical, investigative part of me shut down. I looked down at my kitten-heeled Mary Janes. Those Aerosoles were so darling and comfy. They had gotten me through our mother’s funeral a year before, through our father’s funeral the year before that. They were not lucky shoes. But they were the perfect mid-life shoes, cushioning me from the hard bricks of life. Comfort is what I sought more than anything.

The neurologist said that the lesion was pressing up against the speech center in my brain. It explained why I’d suddenly lost my ability to speak and started talking like a caveman a few weeks ago. And the auditory hallucinations. In one type of hallucination, everyone had a French accent. Another expression was the echo of voices and sounds. Once I heard a stroller clanging down a stairwell for close to half an hour, as though the stairs were endless and haunted.

The centimeter-sized dot shining hard in my brain suddenly became the center of my universe. I kept thinking of the palindrome, “rats live on no evil star.” It wasn’t true, I thought; awful things could live anywhere.

The doctors agreed that the lesion was too dangerously close to my speech nerves to biopsy. No surgery. They would watch it with MRIs and give me anti-seizure drugs for the speech and hearing problems. Desperate for any good news, we almost cheered again.

Somehow, we were starving after the appointment and found a coffee shop called, amazingly, The Silver Star. Karren and Peter sat across from me in the booth. I was the focus of their searching, gentle looks. They were waiting to follow my lead. “Well, at least I don’t have to get my head drilled,” I said.

They laughed a little. Peter put his hand on mine.

Karren looked at me, intently and kindly, and said, “I know you are going to be five hundred percent!”—a mantra she would repeat in the months to come. I didn’t want to argue. I wanted to believe that she saw something inside me that I couldn’t, some other force that could outshine and blot out the enhancing dot.

The waiter came. Pete ordered a western omelette. Karren said, “I’ll have two eggs over easy with whole wheat toast, and a slice of tomato.”

I said, “I’ll have exactly the same thing.”

Karren promised she would be with me at every appointment. And she was. We ate a lot of eggs over the next year until the dot faded, and we had no more use for the Silver Star.

•••

Ever since we used to eat TV dinners in front of Patty Duke Show reruns in our suburban split-level house, Karren and I have been charmed by the idea of being twins. Back then we looked nothing alike. She was petite and I was tall; she tanned and I burned. She had big brown eyes, and mine were hazel. But the closeness of our age and our dark hair gave our mother enough reason to push the likeness. She ordered matching haircuts—pixies as toddlers and Beatle cuts as tweens. She duplicated our smocked Peter Pan–collared dresses, mine red and Karren’s yellow.

I did not appreciate my little sister then. I saw her as an interloper. I resented having to watch her in the playground, help with her homework, slow down for her when we were riding bikes. Once, when she was two and I was four, I aimed a rock at her head and surprised myself by hitting her dead on. My satisfaction wilted within minutes. It was my first experience of guilt, and to this day, I can see her lying there in bed with a cold pack inches from her Bambi eyes.

I continued to resent and ignore her until I was about thirteen when I realized that not only was she very sweet and loved me, she was wise and hilarious. As we got older, we got closer and looked more alike. We became the sworn keepers of each other’s secrets, protecting our nervous mother from my pack-a-day habit and her relationship with an older man.

Sometimes our similarity almost got us into trouble. When I was nineteen, I went out with an acquaintance of hers who called me “Karren” all night long, but I was too embarrassed to correct him as he introduced me to his sophisticated friends. He was mad when he finally figured it out. Another time, Peter and I had been on just a few dates before he went on vacation; when he returned, Karren was standing at the top of the steps of our walkup apartment. Pete loves recalling how he saw the red-lipsticked smile and dark hair and thought it was me—but eerily different. He was ready to go with it until I stepped onto the landing beside her. “Hi!” we said, doppelgangers in stereo.

For the next two decades Karren and I moved in lockstep through life, sometimes criss-crossing and sometimes following the same paths, reflections of the other in an imperfect mirror. Karren moved to New York City after college, and I did too. She led me to my first writing job in advertising, and I led Karren to hers. I introduced her to her husband and to yoga. We lived together in a sky-lit Chelsea apartment where we threw great dance parties. More importantly, Karren and I had a strong spiritual curiosity that drew us beyond our Jewish background. Over the years, she inquired into Kabbalah and Kundalini yoga. I was suddenly the tag-along.

•••

Throughout the yearlong ordeal of trying to diagnose and treat my brain tumor, Karren kept her promise. She saw me through seven spinal taps and countless CT scans, brain scans, and MRIs. She was by my side during day-long infusions and anxious waits for lab results. Once, in a panic, I felt my eyes swimming in my head: the dizziness that forewarned of a seizure. Karren held my face in her hands and said, “Look at me, and breathe.” I stared into her sweet brown eyes and followed the slow count of her breathing, inhale and exhale, until I felt that her air was mine and, sufficiently infused, relaxed.

When the panic attacks recurred, I visualized her eyes, tuned my voice and breath to her frequency to guide me back to balance.

In Dr. Matt Damon’s waiting room while Karren was inside, I couldn’t believe how nervous I felt. Praying she would be okay gave me a sense of how she’d felt all of those months when my fate was in question. After it was over the doctor admitted, laughing, that he still wasn’t sure who had which appointment. It didn’t matter. The doctor read the results, giving us both a clean bill of health.

As we went our separate ways, Karren said goodbye one more time and I heard my own voice echoing back, leaving a doctor’s office with one less worry. I realized that I turned to Karren to connect with an essential part of myself that went deeper than illness. Hearing her voice, so similar to my own, had nourished my vitality. She helped keep my brain scan serenely unlit.

•••

MARIETTA BRILL lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and teenaged son. She writes poetry, essays, and articles about books, art, health, food, and parenting. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic.com, Parenting Magazine, and The Daily Forward. She blogs about cooking at swinginginthekitchen.blogspot.com.

Catching Up with Dad

gloves
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Lisa Lance

“You don’t have cancer,” my sister, Katie, says slowly, with certainty.

“Are you sure? A few weeks ago you thought you had a stroke because the side of your face felt numb,” I say. (The “stroke,” as it turned out, was a pinched nerve from spending too much time in front of her computer.)

“Yes, I’m sure. You’re the healthiest person I know.”

“No, I’m not. But thanks, I needed to hear that. I’ll talk to you later. Love you.” I hang up the phone. About twenty minutes later, I receive a text: “Stop worrying. You don’t have cancer.”

About once a month, my sister and I have a conversation just like this. Sometimes I think I have a brain tumor. Other times she’s hysterical and convinced that her “number’s up.” This anxiety about death is a constant undercurrent in our lives, and it’s grown stronger as we’ve both entered into our thirties. It lies in wait until one of us notices some minor change in her body or reads a news story about the latest health concern. Then it swiftly attacks, aided by an army of medical websites and online symptom-checkers, and the panic sets in. Whichever of us thinks she might have a fatal disease calls the other, and we take turns calming each other down. We are our own little support group, reassuring each other that we still have plenty of life left to live.

•••

On an ordinary Monday in March, I step out at lunchtime to mail a couple of birthday cards. I pull my car into the post office parking lot and sigh when I see the sign that says it’s closed. As I drive through the suburban streets toward a nearby Starbucks, my thoughts begin to work their way from the cards on the passenger seat next to me to the upcoming anniversary of my own birth. I will soon turn thirty-three. It may not be one of the traditionally important birthdays like eighteen, when you’re officially an adult, or even thirty, when you realize you’re actually supposed to be an adult, but to me, thirty-three has its own significance. To me, it means I might only have one year left.

This fear originated in the summer of 1987. I was nine years old, and it had been a year of changes. We had moved from Minneapolis to Fargo, to a new house where I had my very own room and no longer had to share my personal space with my little sister. I was a junior bridesmaid in my aunt’s wedding, and I wore a grown-up pink satin and lace dress just like the one my mom, the matron of honor, wore. I was looking forward to a new school and new friends. I was about to be a fourth-grader, and life was good.

But on the morning of August 18, I woke up to chaos. My mom found my dad collapsed in our basement laundry room, and by the time I realized what was going on, an ambulance had already taken him to the hospital. It was too late; he died. Just two weeks earlier, we had celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday.

His death was sudden. One night he was there, and the next morning he was gone. At the time, the circumstances of his passing were mysterious to me, and I didn’t find out the official cause of his death—heart failure—until many years later. Because he didn’t have a history of heart trouble, my mom suspected radiation poisoning from treatments he’d received for Hodgkin’s Disease in the early 1970s. I was never given a clear explanation of his death, and I still don’t quite understand how it could have come about so quickly.

My memories of that day are fragmented, like I’m looking through a kaleidoscope in dim light with all the pieces jumbled around. I know my grandparents were there, and I clearly remember sitting on the edge of the tub in our guest bathroom with my grandma and sister while my mom was still at the hospital. My grandma, a farm wife whose need to control life led her to the point that she ironed washcloths so wrinkles could not infiltrate her linen closet, sat on the edge of the tub and told us we should be prepared in case he didn’t make it.

Then the scene swirls in my head to Katie and me sitting on the couch in our basement family room, crying as my mom explained to us that he wasn’t coming back. A pastor who lived in our neighborhood was standing next to her. We’d never seen him before, but apparently someone thought a strange pastor was better than no pastor at all. Then the scene shifts again as my dad’s parents arrived, my grandpa climbing the stairs in our house carrying his brown leather portable liquor cabinet. And my dad’s sister, who was six months pregnant with my cousin, arrived on our doorstep without her husband. Everything else about that day is a blur.

Since we had moved so recently, and many of my dad’s family and friends lived in the Twin Cities, we had two funerals. We drove the four hours to Minneapolis for one, which was held at the large Lutheran church where I had been baptized, attended preschool, and carried a palm frond to the alter with the children’s choir each year on Palm Sunday. The church was usually such a comfortable, friendly place, but this time, as I walked to the front of the sanctuary with my mom and sister, wearing my new white and navy funeral dress, I could feel the pitying stares of the people sitting in the rows of wooden pews. We made our way to the open casket in the front where my dad lay so still, as if he were sleeping. I reached my small hand up and touched his lips. Their coldness confirmed the reality of his death—although the figure in the casket looked like him, he was not actually there.

After the funeral, we drove north and did the whole thing all over again, this time at the church where my father and mother were married, in the small town of Rustad, Minnesota, where my grandparents lived. I think the universe has shown me a great kindness, acknowledging that two funerals for a parent might be just a bit too much for someone so young; I scarcely remember the event in Rustad at all.

•••

When I think about scenes from his life, the memories develop like Polaroids in my mind. “Puff the Magic Dragon” will always be one of my favorite songs, because it reminds me of the times he would play the guitar and make up funny words to familiar songs. He would help my sister and me produce concerts on the stage of our fireplace hearth, providing the tape-recorded background music and audience applause as we sang doo-wop along with the Manhattan Transfer into our hairbrush microphones. Even though he had a job as a salesman, I picture him working with his hands. He had built that fireplace, as well as the deck on our house and a new roof on our lake cabin. He took pride in his work and in his workshop in our garage, but he didn’t say a word when he discovered I put Hello Kitty stickers all over his big red toolbox and wrote, “I love you Daddy” in black marker on his workbench.

But he wasn’t perfect. My dad abused alcohol in an attempt, I suppose, to deal with the remnants of a childhood with his own alcoholic father and enabling mother who dreamed of having a doctor in the family but instead wound up with a son in medical sales. He had a favorite bar near our house, Sandee’s, and our family would often have dinner there. I was allowed to feel like a grown-up with my own kiddie cocktail, and we would spread cheese on rye crisp crackers from a basket on the table while we waited for our food. The place was full of people, bright and cheerful on those nights, but I also remember visiting in the afternoon, when I knew we shouldn’t be there. On those days, it was cold, dark, and empty except for my dad and the bartender, and me sitting in a booth with my sister, impatiently waiting for him to finish up so we could go home.

Even from my limited childhood view, he and my mother didn’t seem to have a happy marriage, and many nights I’d wake up to him yelling and her crying. I alternated between hiding under the covers with my stuffed animals and venturing down the hall with the hope that if they saw me, they would stop. As much as I would like to only remember the happy times, I was too aware of the dynamics within our house to simply file away the more unpleasant memories in the archives of my brain.

But the most vivid memories of my childhood, and of my dad, are of trips to our two-room, yellow log cabin on Little Toad Lake in northern Minnesota, about an hour’s drive east of Fargo.

It’s at the lake where I spent the most time with my dad, and where I most felt his presence after he died. It’s where he taught me how to fish. I loved the quiet hours in our battered red and silver Lund boat, drifting among the lily pads as he showed me how to bait the hook and cast my line, and the thrill of riding in the bow with the wind in my hair as we sped back to the dock with our freshly caught dinner. It’s where he taught me how to build a campfire, stacking logs in a teepee formation with just the right amount of birch bark and newspaper underneath for kindling. And it’s where he showed me how to toast the perfect marshmallow for s’mores, helping me rotate them over the smoldering coals until they turned golden brown. To this day, I feel most at home—and most alive—outdoors, listening to the soft lapping of water against a shore, breathing in the earthy scent of pine, or getting lost in the dancing flames of a crackling fire.

•••

About once every three years, I travel back to the Fargo area for a family reunion, and I take a trip out to the country cemetery where he’s buried. All of the grave markers are flat, which makes it easier for mowing and other maintenance, I’m sure, but more difficult for visitors to find individual plots. I always wander through the rows for a while, silently acknowledging the graves of other family members who have passed on, most of whom were in their eighties or nineties when they died, before finding my dad’s resting place. His stone is a small rectangle engraved with my birth flower, lilies of the valley.

The last time I visited the cemetery was for my grandmother’s funeral in 2009. My mom’s cousin Curt, who had been one of my dad’s best friends, told me a story I had never heard before about one of their many hunting trips.

“I wonder what he would think of me now,” I said, and then I laughed. “I’m a vegetarian.”

I realized how different my life is from the one he lived. While he would skin deer in the garage and freeze the meat for our winter meals or teach me how to gut a fish for dinner at the cabin, I can no longer bear the thought of killing animals for food. Although he could be great fun to be around, he also kept his feelings bottled up and, when he was drinking, would explode in fits of raging frustration. I love to relax with a glass of red wine or a few beers with friends, but I consciously limit myself. And I write to work out my emotions and practice yoga and meditation to ease stress. He was unhappy in his medical sales career, and, as far as I know, didn’t have the chance to explore something that truly interested him. I am lucky to be able to further my passion for writing through graduate school. As I worry about my own health and my own decisions, I can look back at his and learn from them.

•••

On this sunny afternoon in March, I sift through these memories as I drive from the post office to the coffee shop, and I think about entering the last full year before my own thirty-fourth birthday. I wonder what my father might have done differently in that year if he had known it would be his last. Tears stream down my face as I finally understand just how young thirty-four really was—is—and just how much life he should have continued to live.

Did my dad understand on some level how much time he had left? Seeing him every day, it was difficult to notice the signs of his declining health, so physically apparent in photos from the summer of 1987. It’s clear to me now that he quickly went from tan and muscular to a gray, gaunt shadow of himself. What did he want to do with the rest of the life he never had? Was he happy with the choices he made along the way? I’ll never have the chance to ask.

In 2002, when I got married, I tied my dad’s wedding ring into the white satin ribbon of my bouquet so a little piece of him could walk down the aisle with me. My sister did the same at her wedding. Nearly twenty-five years after his passing, I continue to carry the memories of my dad with me. For good and bad, his choices have influenced mine, and his death has shaped my life.

I may always have those phone calls with Katie, needing her to help calm my fears. We don’t know if we’ll live to be thirty-four or one-hundred-and-four, but every birthday marks the gift of another year lived. It’s a struggle to stop all the worrying and just enjoy living. But I think of my dad, and I try.

•••

LISA LANCE is a writer and communications manager living in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of the M.A. in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University, her articles and essays have appeared in publications including Baltimore Magazine, National Parks Traveler, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Seltzer, neutrons protons, Bmoreart, and Sauce Magazine. Learn more at www.lisalance.com.

The Sexy Problem

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By nvk_/Flickr

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

New to Zumba, I love the chance to channel the jump-around-like-crazy energy of my late twenties again—here at fifty. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had with exercise in a very long time. Unlike the pleasingly prescriptive yoga, which makes me feel serene and strong and slightly, hopefully elastic, Zumba is freeing. I jump on my two left feet. I sweat. I even unleash a few long-dormant “woot”s during class.

I’d never imagined the Y to be a sexy place. Others bring the sexy in; I certainly do not. I pretty much jump up and down when hips are supposed to unleash juicy moves I can’t imagine I’ll ever make—or have ever made, for that matter. I am far more at home with that crazy aerobics class energy of my late twenties (late ’80s and early ’90s) than anything so bootylicious. I’ve made it this far as a rounded (physically and metaphorically), strong, terribly self-critical woman.

Other people follow directions better. The class ranges from teen (almost always the good-girl daughters accompanying their cheery moms to class) to white haired ladies, with a few men, gay and straight, sprinkled in. Attire runs the gamut from Ts and shorts, to workout gear, to one woman’s “uniform” of a sundress and bare feet. Like my town, the Y—and the Zumba class—runs casual. At the same time, the most canned of the Zumba songs not only instruct participants to “move your body,” but to “shake your body,” and to feel and inevitably be—or at least channel—S-E-X-Y. The choreography orchestrates hips to shake and gyrate and suggest … things I’m not about to do during or right after class in the non-privacy of my very own kid- and teenager-filled home.

While I don’t want to make those signature moves, I don’t mind them. I’m especially tickled when the twentysomething instructors lead the class—and unleash their playfulness in shiny workout costumes with glitter on their faces. One spacey man half-points and gestures and magically enlists each participant to stand in as leader, like a Zumba whisperer.

In fact, the only time the make-it-sexy aspect of Zumba makes me terribly uncomfortable is when the class is taught by the middle-aged white ladies a.k.a. my peers (neighbors, fellow moms). Yesterday, for example, the teacher wore her carefully blown-out, long hair down. She wore makeup. She wore an ’80s-style cut-up T accompanied by black bike shorts and black Zumba shoes. I wore a skort and tank. Skorts are fun and flippy but decidedly not sexy. During class, I expended my energies in nearly equal parts between exercising and perseverating over the notion that to try to dance sexy at the Y in midlife could be fun, appropriate—not weird, not desperate.

I reminded myself how much I hate the judgy part of me. This woman’s wardrobe, hairstyle, or sexiness is neither my call nor my problem: my discomfort with her is all about me. And my unease isn’t new. Nor is it entirely about age. My peers’ aggressive delivery of sexiness has always made me squeamish. That’s because I’ve never been at ease with any sexy edges in myself. I grew up heavy enough to feel self-conscious, and regardless of pounds on or off, my self-consciousness has never fallen away. I wouldn’t have worn glitter—not in my twenties, not ever. I barely attempted makeup before I had kids. But I’ve never been prim, either: my cardigans aren’t buttoned up to the top and my skirts aren’t necessarily below the knee. Even before the mom-style overtook me, I liked cute clothing that aimed for cute, sweet, innocent sexy—and never a step further. My vanity has always had very strict bounds. I’ve never worn long hair down to an aerobics class. Practicality always won—with flat shoes over heels, clothes that never bind, and silver hair.

When I’m in Zumba class, I feel pretty … fit. After all, I can push myself to jump around for pretty much the entire hour even if I will not shake my booty, merely “jump and bounce.” Here at fifty, a healthy and fit self is my aim—in public. I want to feel pretty. I like to feel capable, or at least strong enough. I want to keep going.

I only want to let sexy out when and where I’m comfortable doing so. That’s in bed with my husband. We’ve got teenagers, teenage sons. Sexy has no other berth here. With teenagers around, my self-image is all about chill, or at least cool enough, slightly batty, and available to help if you need me.

But I’d like to experience the middle-aged ladies’ bids for sexy just as I do the twentysomethings’ bids—as theirs. I’d like to believe that my limitations in class—more jumping and less shaking—could feel as if they aren’t signs of a cop-out. I don’t know that any part of me wants to cultivate my inner-sexy, but I’d like to strut my stuff, on my own terms. If I felt as if I exuded strength and competence and had utter certainty of my beauty… I don’t feel that way, though. The problem with my ideal terms is that they involve a self-confidence that I do not have.

Despite the fact that I don’t possess that self-confidence—and by now, I imagine I might not ever find it—I don’t entirely feel that way. I’m too hard a worker to ever give up entirely. And I do long to experience that exuberant inner-something—if not sexy, then something close. So, as I obsessed about the teacher’s sexy aspirations, I asked myself whether I think that you must check your adult sex-having, sex-seeking, sex-loving self at some imaginary gate when you have children. I don’t. I asked myself whether I believe that you have to give up upon channeling a certain kind of sexy vibe when you reach a certain age. I might, I realized, even though maybe I haven’t even begun to try. I’m not at all sure what sexy looks like at forty-five or fifty-five or sixty-five. I don’t know how it translates in this world that equates youth with beauty and sex appeal and power. I wasn’t even thinking I’d contemplate these issues all that much—and certainly not during exercise class at my local Y. But here I am, wondering whether I will surprise myself one of these days—and shake that body.

•••

SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children. Her work has appeared recently in the New York Times, Salon, and Brain, Child. Follow her on Twitter @standshadows.