Months To Years Winter 2018
By Kerri K. Morris
My mom’s last words were, “I want some Coke.” She sipped it through a straw and with each intake her pulse slowed. She paused drinking, eyes closed. I asked her to take another sip because we needed the numbers to drop.
A mucus plug in her post-surgery lungs cut off her breathing as she started to take another sip. She choked and then coded.
It’s hard to even remember what happened after. I don’t think she spoke again to anyone in the room. There were so many people in the room. Machines screamed, nurses and doctors shouted, a crash cart thundered in, followed by a pulmonologist on-call at the ER. He intubated her esophagus.
I was huddled in the corner of the room until someone thought to throw me out. At that moment, I fully believed putting the straw into her mouth and urging her to drink caused her to code.
For years really, my heart felt like I was to blame. My head knows that correlation is not causation. The pulmonologist came out of ICU to explain this and the fact that my mom was no longer breathing on her own. He took me by the shoulders and looked into my eyes, “This wasn’t your fault. It was mucus, and then we intubated her incorrectly and ran out of time.”
When the rest of my family arrived — I had begged to be left alone on the night shift to get some time with my mom — I didn’t know what to tell them. I just kept repeating the Coke story, cementing it into my heart and soul.
I never told them about her last words because they seemed too insignificant and small. But I will never forget her raspy voice, her weakness, and her eyes when she said, “I want some Coke.”
I suppose I didn’t know they were her last words until a week later. I hoped that she would recover, but after three days she did not and life support was removed. She died a few days after that. That’s when the words became her last words.
I had expected more. Not specifically from my mom, but, in general, I expected last words to have greater depth and meaning. I suppose if you know the words will be your last, then you might be inclined to make them count. But last things are hard to predict.
My 19-year-old daughter asked me the other day, “When was the last time you held me?”
The firsts are memorable. I will never forget her first breath, her first words, her first steps. But I don’t remember the last time I picked her up in my arms. On a specific day at a specific time I picked her up and she, perhaps, laid her head on my shoulder. And, on that same day a few moments later I put her down for the last time.
She asked as if I’d know precisely, as if there would be a story, a memory. I don’t think I could bear to live my life if I knew in advance about all of the lasts. I don’t want to have never picked her up again. I imagine if someone had told me, “Today will be the last time,” I’d probably have picked her up and carried her as long as I could and then picked her up again and again.
It seems wrong to put a child down and never pick her up again. But, it’s inevitable. It is the way of the world.
“Goodbyes” are mostly “see you laters.” At least for the optimists among us. For the pessimists, I suspect life is a series of imagined last times.
When I was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2012, I began attending a support group. Of the dozen or so regular attendees, seven died within 18 months. We experienced loss over and over again. It was excruciating to watch folks decline. One woman lost weight every week. Though she became frail, she never lost her energy. She drove herself to her last meeting.
I remember going to her to tell her how much she meant to me. I’d wanted to for weeks, and now it seemed time was quickly running out. She always said, “These last 12 months,” which became 18 months and then 22 months and then 24 months— “have been the best of my life.” It’s hard to believe someone when they say such a thing about a terminal diagnosis, but for MK it was true. You could see it was true. She accomplished everything she’d set out to do. She celebrated each holiday, shopped for birthdays for her children and grandchildren, took a long driving vacation to Florida on her own, ate whatever she wanted and savored wine.
When I went to her on that last night, she said, “Kerri, you know, it’s been a good couple of years, but I wish I could have kept working. I miss my job.”
No one, we’re told, says on their death bed that they wished they’d spent more time at work. But, apparently, people at their last support group meeting do. She had been a teacher of kids with disabilities and she missed the kids terribly. Over the year-and-a-half that I was there, she lit up every time she told us about volunteering at her old school.
“I miss my job” weren’t MK’s last words, but they were the last ones I heard her say.
I remember her coat, the feel of the brushed cotton when I gave her shoulders a delicate squeeze in lieu of a hug that I feared would crush her. I remember the tenor of her voice, the slight wobble.
Last moments channel all the worth and weight of a person. They become talismans. Wisdom is the aura of a last moment, except you have to add it in later most of the time, write it back into the story.
I always tell myself that I knew it would be the last time I saw MK and that she knew it, too. Somehow that makes it more momentous. But I doubt very much that MK would want me to remember her last words as being, “I miss my job.” She was an optimist to her core, wry and wily, but an optimist too. She would have wanted me—anxious, fretting me—to remember that her last months were the best months of her life. Regret wasn’t a dominant part of her lived experience. It was fleeting, that comment, wistful. Still, they were the last words I remember her saying.
It was a bit different with my friend B. She and I both knew that the lasts were piling up and to take note of them. On the last day of our visit with her and her family, she stood at the top of her driveway watching us back out in our rental car. Our eyes locked and we knew it was for the last time. She was too sick and I lived too far away.
She sent two emails out to a large group of us, both described as her “last.” In the first of the two, her penultimate sentence, the one just before “I love you all” was this: “I’m glad we got a new kitten.” In the second, a few weeks later, she wasted no words and simply invited people who lived nearby to come over and “recycle” her shoes and clothes and jewelry by taking what they could use. And, one last time, “With much love.”
Last words are sometimes ordinary, impersonal, pragmatic, and surprisingly small in scope. In a study of suicide notes by Dr. John Pestian, “neutral” content is second only to the emotional. Writers left instructions and to-do lists. He explained:
Secondarily, what you see most often is these practical instructions. Remember to change the tires. Remember to change the oil. I drew a check, but I didn’t put the money in. Please go ahead and make the deposit. *
Our lives come down to the prosaic and quotidian. Maybe not always, but often enough that we should take note.
People are made up of spiritual qualities, the emotional, the human connections, the thoughts and ideas. And we’re also made up of the material, the needs of the body. We spend our lives at work and running errands more often than we spend them meditating or reflecting. Our relationships are stuffed with life’s ordinariness as well as with its power.
We talk more about where we want to eat than we do about what we want to leave behind. If life is going to mean anything at all, I suspect we have to find it in the day-to-day, the routine, the ordinary.
My mom’s last wish was to drink some Coke. Not because it was the last thing she wanted to do, but because it was the last thing she was able to process cognitively. And in her last conscious moments on this earth she got to taste sweet syrup and bubbly carbonation. Maybe the bubbles went up her nose a bit. Maybe the syrup coated her sore throat. As I held the straw to her lips, I hope she saw me and knew how grateful I was to give her some Coke.
* “Analyzing the Language of Suicide Notes to Help Save Lives.” National Public Radio, Inc., May 15, 2013. https://www.npr.org/2013/05/15/184232472/analyzing-the-language-of-suicide-notes-to-help-save-lives
Kerri K. Morris is a writer and Associate Professor of English. She is the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Governors State University. Her blog, Cancer Is Not a Gift, explores living with cancer. She lives in the suburbs south of Chicago and has previously lived in the deserts of New Mexico and the tundra of Alaska. If she could have a different life, she would have chosen to be taller and play point guard for Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols. Instead, she delights in living her life as a writer, reader, teacher, student, cook, and bike rider with her husband, daughter, two cats and a dog.
By John Grey
There’s been another death.
A heart attack in the night.
May as well have been an intruder,
plugging Frank with a pistol as he slept.
More and more,
my life is like a crime scene
with my friends its unwitting victims.
Seemingly safe in hospital,
wasn’t Adriana the victim
of a bacterial semi-automatic.
And weren’t those stray cancer bullets
that smashed through Chris’s window.
And then David in a car accident…
a robbery attempt by a telephone pole…
he was in the wrong place
at the wrong time.
Every day, everyone I know
is trying to live
but the criminal element
They’re not after jewels and money.
It’s a heartbeat they’ve got their eyes on.
John Grey is an Australian poet and a US resident. Recently published in the Tau, Studio One and Columbia Review with work upcoming in Leading Edge, Examined Life Journal and Midwest Quarterly.
WRITING THROUGH CANCER
By Ali Zidel Meyers
Hardwood floors bathed in natural light and a dapper pianist greet me at the entryway of the Cancer Center. I haven’t come for drugs or surgery today. If not for the flurry of doctors, nurses, and patients ambling amidst the scent of sanitizer, I might forget where I am…or even who I am: a 33-year-old mother of two facing my mortality, trying to survive
“Writing through Cancer” meets on the second floor, across from the infusion center. I walk up the white marble stairway—30 steps or so—to see if I can do it. These steps become a ritual that serves as a barometer of my physical status on a given day; the oxygen and energy it takes to climb signify my blood cell counts, strength, and endurance. Today, I’m not winded.
The conference room door, propped open with a chair, points the way toward soft voices and laughter inside. I walk in and find Sharon standing at the head of the table, laying out handouts and pens. I know her face from the website. She is taller than I expected, a good foot above me, with neck-length auburn hair and a flowing silk jacket that hangs to her knees.
“You must be Ali,” she says, her warm smile easing my hesitation.
“Yes. Thank you for answering my email.”
“I’m so glad you’re joining us. Please take a seat anywhere; we’ll start in a few minutes.”
Five women and one man sit around the rectangular table. All of them over the age of 50. I expected to be the youngest person here, having attended a couple of support groups where I was the youngest by decades. “Keep an open mind,” I tell myself. I am not a joiner, and I haven’t written anything other than work-related articles or journal entries since college. My hands are clammy.
The women talk amongst themselves – sharing information about absent group members and their whereabouts. One of them catches my eye and smiles. She has gray-brown hair clipped close to her angular face. Her friend is plump, with large breasts jutting out and gray hair hanging in ringlets around her face. The bald man wears sunglasses that cover half his face. His jaw moves perpetually, as if chewing food, though his mouth is empty. He keeps to himself.
I feel drawn to a quiet woman at the corner of the table. She sits alone, her frosty blue eyes peeking out from long shocks of white-blond hair. Looking down, I notice her red shoes, like Dorothy’s from the Wizard of Oz, beneath layers of mismatched clothing. Her face is tired and kind. Our eyes meet; we share the tentative smile of two introverts.
“Welcome to the group. I see we have some new faces and some familiar ones. Let’s take a brief moment to introduce ourselves, and we’ll get started with our first prompt. Go ahead and say your name, something about the cancer you’re dealing with, and anything else you want to share with the group. Nan, would you like to start?”
“Sure. I’m Nan. I had salivary cancer two years ago—went through chemo and radiation, and am doing pretty well right now. I’m a caregiver for my husband who has Parkinson’s, so that comes up in my writing a lot too.”
“Thanks Nan,” Sharon nods as she looks to the next person.
“Sylvia Johnston. I did oral cancer in ’98, melanoma in ’02, and breast cancer in ’05. Did surgery, chemo, radiation, you know: slash, burn, and poison—the whole nine yards. I’m good now,” she says with a sheepish grin. She talks like a female Frank Sinatra.
We all turn toward the lone man in the glasses. “I’m Ron. I’ve got esophageal cancer. I’m also going blind in one of my eyes. I’m getting by.”
“Good to see you, Ron. I’m glad you’re back.” Sharon winked at him.
Ann speaks softly, looking down between phrases, at the table. “I’m Ann. I have a rare blood cancer. I recently left my job on early retirement and moved to a cottage in the woods.”
“Thank you, Ann. Glad to have you with us today.”
We finish introducing ourselves, and Sharon outlines the group process. There would be prompts followed by time to write, then time to share what we had written, if we liked. The only feedback we’d hear would be comments on what others liked, what resonated. I’m relieved to hear there won’t be critique.
“We’re writing from the belly of the beast here. It’s generative writing—in the moment, spontaneous, fresh. That means we don’t criticize or ask questions. We simply listen and honor what was written. I’ll ask you, ‘What stays with you about this piece?’ or ‘What did you like?’ We do this for the safety of the group and the freedom of expression. Any questions?”
The group shares a simultaneous head shake.
“Good. Let’s begin. We’ll start with a prompt about windows. Think of a window you’re looking through these days. It can be literal or figurative. Write for 15 minutes about what you see, what you feel, when you gaze through your window. Begin.”
I fumble to turn on my computer, scramble to mute the sound as it awakens. I don’t know where to begin; I type “My Window” at the top of a document, and stare at the screen. The other writers have busy hands—mostly with paper and pen. A couple of them type furiously on laptops. I take a breath and begin to write. The words flow surprisingly, and I lose myself in the image of my kids playing outside, just beyond our kitchen window.
It feels like seconds later when Sharon chimes her meditation bell, and we all stop writing. “Who would like to share what you’ve written?”
Edith begins. Her writing, which sounded like the start of a story, paints a picture of her backyard garden. Colors, tranquility, smells. I listen with pleasure. I remember the joy of being read to, one I’ve scarcely encountered since childhood. I disappear into the words.
“I love this piece, Edith,” Sharon comments. “The image of the birds of paradise fanned like peacocks, and the hummingbirds drinking nectar like wine—just lovely. What did the rest of you like?”
Nancy and Sylvia praise phrasing and tone. Say how the writing makes them feel at peace. I jump in with a compliment. This is easy. It’s restorative. A literary love fest. Sharon deftly transitions, “Who’s next?”
Feeling reassured by Edith’s reception, I raise my hand to go next.
“I wrote something,” I announce.
“Go ahead,” Sharon nods.
From my window, I see
you grown and strong
my brown boy shot up
like a sugar cane allowed to keep
going your dark hair shining
your impossible smirk
your bright eyes glowing.
I look out my window and see
you, my pixie-girl
your fox-hair jutting out
like flicks of fire
emerald eyes sparkling
your wicked smarts.
Self-possessed both of you
under the magnolia tree
laughing loud as its scent—
clean and untattered,
voluptuous with life.
And in the window
I see myself
alive and smiling
not a ghost
but still here and real.
I exhale quickly and look up, feel the group’s quiet like a cloak.
“A rich and illuminated poem,” Sharon breaks the silence. “The simile of the boy like sugar cane and the girl’s fire-hair—draw such sweetness and vitality out. And the synesthesia of laughing bright as the scent of the magnolia tree. The honesty of mother’s hope to see herself watching the scene—alive and well. I love it. What about the rest of you; what stays with you?”
Sharon’s feedback takes me by surprise. Whether the poem is good or bad doesn’t matter. I feel heard, seen, and understood. The other writers encourage me too.
The strength of that experience—reading what I wrote and having it witnessed and affirmed, feeds a nascent desire to write that has been with me since childhood. It teaches me that I might have something to say that can touch others. It’s the discovery of a wadi I will walk through in the barren territory of my isolation, at other times in my illness. It is learning to listen to myself and telling others what it means to be alive in this moment.
Writing also holds an incredible potency that I will try and understand but fail to discover until years later. It has the potential to heal and restore, and I will watch it wield its restorative power time and time again—first on me, then on others, and years later, when I become the facilitator of the same writing group that I’ve attended for the first time today. Through writing, something will dislodge itself inside me, open a pathway to another life and make me feel whole despite the fractured self I didn’t recognize through the worst days of my illness.
Ali Zidel Meyers is a writer, educator, and colon cancer survivor. She is passionate about the intersection of writing and healing (and helping others experience it). For over five years, she has led writing groups at Breast Cancer Connections in Palo Alto, California and for Stanford’s Supportive Care program at the Stanford Cancer Center. She is also a writing workshop leader at Project Koru. Ali’s work has been published in Survivor’s Review, Coping Magazine, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Her writing has also been featured in the art exhibitions: “Night of Inspiration in White” (Los Altos Hills, CA, 2010) and “Love Your Body” (North Carolina, 2007). She earned runner-up status in the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference Contest (2009) for her poetry. More of her work can be found at Holy Mess.
By Deborah Burand
On the day of my mother’s first chemotherapy treatment, the family crowds into a small, private room at the cancer center in our central Indiana hometown. My mother sits in the middle of the room enthroned on a vinyl-covered lounge chair that, aside from the hanging bags of dripping drugs, looks like the seatmate to my father’s favorite TV chair. Nurses advise us to keep a close eye on my mother so we can alert them if my mother has an allergic reaction to the chemotherapy.
My father, brother, and I, encircle my mother’s chair as the room grows hot. Is she looking flushed, someone asks.
“Aren’t we all?” I reply as I tug at the collar of my shirt, which inexplicably seems to be tightening around my neck.
The clock on the wall ticks loudly as if trying to compensate for the silence of my unusually quiet family. Every few minutes one of us asks my mother how she is feeling. “Just fine,” she answers, smiling. Then we all shift position — crossing ankles, stretching arms, and rocking back on the legs of chairs that we pulled into the small, airless room.
Chemo treatments, it turns out, can be boring. My brother starts a crossword puzzle. When he leaves the room to call his wife, I snatch up the puzzle and finish it. I then make a mental note to bring my back copies of the “New Yorker” and “The Economist” to future treatment sessions.
A woman wearing a head scarf shuffles by our room. She is wheeling an IV tree down the hall. A dangling tube stretches from the bag that hangs on the top branch of the metal tree to the woman’s arm. As we watch the woman’s slow progress, my mother says, “People work hard to live, don’t they?”
I am tempted to respond by saying, “Don’t settle for this sad place. Let’s go find more knowledgeable doctors and more effective treatments. Don’t count on miracles to happen here.” But I keep quiet. This is not the time or the place to start arguing again with my mother about her medical choices. I’ve already lost that battle.
Around noon a nurse brings a tray of food into the room for my mother. Nearly everything on the plate is white – white bread, mashed potatoes, baked chicken and vanilla pudding. The only color is the bright orange of carrot rounds. When I comment on how uniformly white the food is, my mother responds quickly, saying, “I like white food.” Mashed potatoes dribble down her top but she doesn’t notice.
Later I read in one of those “what to expect when you have chemo” brochures that bland food is best for patients undergoing chemotherapy. But that is not the point of my mother’s newly professed appetite for white food. Rather, she is warning me in “mother-speak.” She’s cautioning me to muzzle any criticisms that I might be tempted to lob at this place, no matter how veiled those reproaches might be. Neither my father nor my brother seem to notice the undercurrent in the room. My mother and I are sniping at a sound frequency that’s lost to male ears.
Pull yourself together, I tell myself. This is her life and her cancer, not yours. You need to back off. Let her call the shots even if you think she’s making a serious, even terminal, mistake.
Suddenly one of the largest German Shepherds I have ever seen bounds into the center of the room. Tethered to a middle-aged woman, the dog circles, sniffs crotches, and then settles down on the linoleum floor with a loud harrumph and flurry of dog hair. As my family moves our collective feet to make room for this large animal, the woman tells us that the dog’s name is Bear. Bear, she explains, is seven years old. He is one of the cancer center’s therapy dogs and visits the center every Thursday.
I start sneezing as a cloud of fur tickles my nose. I try to stem my sneezing fit by breathing through my mouth, but soon my tongue begins to feel so coated with dog hair that a comb seems in order.
The woman ignores my escalating snorts and sniffles as she brightly extolls the wonders of the animal at our feet. Bear, she says, is unusually sensitive to the emotional state of patients and their families. He can tell who needs comforting.
I stare at the dog who has now turned his back on us. His eyes are locked on the exit sign in the hall. It looks like Bear has decided that we’re all just hunky dory. No need of comfort here.
My mother, ever the hostess, asks the woman about the training that therapy dogs receive. My father thanks the woman for her service. I, on the other hand, am preoccupied with trying to find a place where I can put my feet without stepping on the plumed tail that seems to be expanding like one of those hairy chia pets marketed on late night television.
After the dog and woman leave us, the room goes quiet again except for the ticking of the wall clock. Finally, my father breaks the silence. “Now wasn’t that some dog?”
“What dog?” I ask barely able to contain myself. “You call that ‘some’ dog?”
With the words “some dog” echoing in my ears, it is as if we’ve somehow fallen into the pages of my favorite childhood book, Charlotte’s Web. But in this cancer barnyard, there are no sweet spiders spinning webs that extoll the virtues of a beloved pig, rather there’s just me – channeling Templeton the Rat as if he crawled out from under Wilbur’s trough to sneer at the therapy dog. I hear myself say, “Surely you don’t mean the dog that came into the room just now and then ignored us all. If that is dog therapy….” All heads swivel toward me. The crowded room suddenly feels even hotter and I bite my lip to stop my outburst.
Looking back, I have wondered why I, an avid dog-lover, took such an instant dislike to that particular German Shepherd. One well-meaning friend suggests that perhaps the chatty woman was right that the dog was unusually sensitive to the needs of patients and their families. “Maybe,” my friend says, “the dog knew that your mother and family were not in need of comfort and that’s why he turned his back on you.” She does not convince me.
A more likely explanation as to what was vexing me about that bear of a dog and his happy handler is this: they were the safest targets in the room. Better to complain about an indifferent therapy dog than to give voice to mounting fears over my mother’s choice of oncologists and medical treatments. Perhaps Bear was giving me exactly the dog therapy that I needed. Some dog, indeed.
Deborah Burand is an associate professor of clinical law at NYU. When not teaching, she is a freelance writer. Her articles, essays and short stories have been published in the Bellevue Literary Review, Utne Reader, Midwestern Gothic, Bear River Review, and various other magazines and newspapers. She is currently at work on a novel that she dreamed up while high on fertility drugs.
NEPTUNE NEPTUNE OMEGA
By Lisa Richter
I’m sitting in our garden wrapped in a quilt, my body warmly protected, my head exposed to gusts of chilled air. The weather has turned; a storm is blowing in. Adrienne Rich’s collection of prose, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence rests by my side. I’ve returned to this book several times over the past years; its pages are marked with comments, story starts, my own spontaneous poems. I open the book to find an oh! in the margin beside a passage I’ve underlined. The liar, it begins, leads an existence of unutterable loneliness.
I consider what part of my life might be a lie, perhaps to some degree most, for my body has lied to my mind, my mind to my body, and I think of Lyn during her years of treatment, how we never talked about the end, for it wasn’t going to happen, how her doc never mentioned the end for it wasn’t going to happen, and how my mind told my body that it wasn’t going to happen, though my body knew the truth, and hadn’t Lyn, too?
Lying is done with words, Adrienne writes, and also with silence.
Tucked between pages of the book, I find a loose-leaf sheet folded into a neat rectangle. It is wide-ruled, three-holed. Pale blue horizontal lines, one long thin vertical red. I unfold the paper, and with it the memory. Three simple words stacked one atop each other, a list written with care in loopy cursive, the p connected to the t, the t to the u.
The shock of these words. The uselessness of uncovering them now, six months later. I don’t recall stashing them here; how strange to have silenced them within these pages urging the spoken truth.
Her name was Marie. She’d had hair dyed the color of butter and shaped in a teased style—rolled bangs, puffed out sides smoothed stiff with spray—a look which dated her and made her somewhat unreal. She was the second try of hospice at our home; the first, Carol, had arrived with a pitying look and an “I’m sorry I’m here….” and was sent packing immediately.
The discussed plan was to use hospice just for a while, until Lyn recovered from the lung surgery, to eliminate for a couple days (maybe weeks) the exhausting drives back and forth to the hospital. It had been my suggestion, impelled by awaking to Lyn’s gasps for air in the middle of the night, panics which frightened us both. Just for a while, I’d promised Lyn, though our parents had been in hospice and our experience spoke otherwise. Just for a while, though for them, as for nearly all, it had been a one-way passage. Marie offered encouragement. “We have had patients who’ve entered our care,” she emphasized to Lyn, “then left, then sometimes came back in, then left again. It requires a little bit of paperwork, that’s all.” A sympathetic shrug, a tight smile.
Alone with Marie afterwards, outside where I am now, I remember pointing out a cluster of magnolia blossoms birthed just that morning, their velvety white petals falling open like bowls, cupping the sun’s glowing warmth. Marie didn’t look. She took a blank sheet of paper from a folder and uncapped a black pen and this is what she said:
When it is over, here is who you call.
Her tone was abrupt, but not harsh. She was, I reasoned, being professional. Death was her specialty.
“Neptune,” Marie said as she wrote the name of the mortuary following the numeral “1” on the lined paper, a sizable diamond and a diamond-inlaid wedding band flashing on her hand. “It was a family business once. Terrible sibling feud. They split, yet each kept the name.” On the line below she wrote a numeral “2” followed by “Neptune” again. “Either will do…” she said. She paused and then went ahead with the story. “Some of our patient families aren’t aware that there are two…and both local. It’s happened that they’ve called one for the pickup and accidentally been connected to the other for the ashes and been informed the body isn’t there, was never there.” She chuckled as she wrote Omega down as a third option. This was not funny. I wanted to tell her she needed to leave, but then Lyn called from inside and Marie got up to tend to her.
After a couple minutes, I followed Marie downstairs to our bedroom.
There had been many firsts, but metering out morphine in a syringe to my love came along unexpected. Roxynol, it was called. Marie drew a picture of a sucker and a bottle, using the same careful movements with which she’d written the names of the mortuaries. “Give her, when she needs it, .25,” she said to me, explaining its position on the gauge. “That is ¼ the way up. The center is .5.” She studied my face, touched my hand. Her job involved interacting daily with people like me, the numbed ones who loved, who stood by and watched and waited, who eventually nodded yes to the worst of news.
When Lyn died one week later, our friend Andy picked up the phone and called the local mortuary, McCormick and Sons, a fake stone façade building on a gravel lot with a small fountain in the front. It was to this sullen place we went the following day, he by my side, to sit in the office and discuss the options: the cost of Lyn’s cremation, when it would take place, which vessel would contain her ashen remains.
Who are you? The woman hovering in the mortuary’s vapid front room wanted to know. During the preceding years of hospital visits and chemo treatments, everyone had wanted to know. You a relative? A friend? “Her partner,” I’d say, and they’d nod – whether doctor, nurse, or undertaker—and they’d know that legally this meant nothing, but heart-wise it meant I was being ripped in half.
I filled out the cremation forms, signed them, spoke a couple yes’s and no’s, maybe a thank you at the end, Andy there, gentle witness, holding steady for me. I wrote a check, and we left, terrorized. “You did good,” he said.
Would Neptune, Neptune, or Omega have been any different? Any less harrowing than the goth woman who opened the door of the mortuary when I returned to pick up Lyn’s ashes? Black gypsy cloth, dyed raven hair, a face as bland and colorless as moon dust, the foyer in which she stood, an unlit gray. She slid the canister across a wooden desk toward me, pushing it with the tips of her fingers. The voice rasping in her throat said “Sign, and you can go.”
“I’m sorry,” Lyn had said just a week earlier to friends when they came to visit before departing on a trip; they’d brought birthday cards and candles for her 60th birthday which was, in fact, this day, the day I cradled the small canister of her ashes in my arms.
“I’m sorry, baby,” was all I could think to say as I settled the canister in the car’s trunk, propped between books and boxes for the ride home. I’m sorry. Not an apology but an admission of utter helplessness. The ultimate surrender of nothing more to give.
A puff of wind descends in an exhausted sigh. I refold the loose-leaf sheet and return it to Adrienne’s book, its pages flipping softly beside me.
We never said goodbye.
How does one voice the inconceivable? Our farewells during the final weeks took the form of spontaneous guttural wails, begun by Lyn and joined in by me, indulged for a couple moments then halted as swiftly as they’d taken hold.
I’ve saved some of Lyn’s phone messages, listening to them when I feel strong enough, when the crave of their comfort is greater than the sadness I know they will also bring. Her faith was unshakable. In one of the last recordings, she confides in her characteristic sanguine tone that she’s just awoken and is breathing somewhat freer, the aches are somewhat less, perhaps things have finally turned around. She pauses, an intimacy. Then the whisper, I love you, her words absolute.
Lisa Richter lives in Laguna Beach, California. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have appeared in the Santa Monica Review, the Orange Coast Review, the Squaw Valley Review, Unbroken, and bioStories (online and print anthology), among others. In 2014, she was selected as a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters fiction contest. A member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, she holds degrees in creative writing (Antioch University in Los Angeles, 2010) and mathematics (University of Virginia, 1983). She is currently at work on an essay project (www.talismanofhappiness.com) inspired by a classic Italian cookbook once belonging to her grandmother and mother.
For my sisters, who died five weeks apart
By Judith J. Katz
Thinking about them is like
opening the door to the hall closet.
Things just fall out and I find that
I am too full; the old and new
are a jumble. The childhood
and adulthood a messy pile of memories;
indispensable and Goodwill ready.
What is essential to keep is obscured
by too much stuff. What do I love and
what loved me? What is the trash
of a lifetime that I can let go of?
The sisters were complex women
so different, so damaged, so loving,
so loved, so gone.
When I open that door
Things fall out and I have to
pick them up
and there’s never any time
to ask the question of what I still need,
want or love, because I’m in a hurry,
coming and going and I’ll think
about it another day. When it’s raining.
And then it rains, snows, sleets.
The chilled wind blows through my spine
and the day of cleaning arrives;
there is no avoiding it now.
It is a matter of my own life
and death; to separate
from the damage. To clean out
my closet. To put on my good coat
and find my own way home.
Judith J. Katz is the Lead Teacher for Creative Writing at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School in New Haven, Connecticut, where her signature courses focus on writing poetry. She is also the Lead Creative Writing Teacher for Yale University’s Summer Scholar Program where her work focuses on writing the college essay. Her work has appeared in Edify Fiction, The New Sound, Of Sun and Sand, and Sending Our Condolences. She was recently awarded an NEH grant to study Emily Dickinson.
By Sheryl Guterl
Like solar eclipse
dark shadow shows
back-lit on film.
Cells gone wild,
multiply with abandon,
hold health hostage.
Cut, soak, remove,
One cell remains,
Sheryl Guterl lives in New Mexico. She counts her six children and seven grandchildren as great blessings; she wishes she could erase the deaths of friends, parents, and her husband. But extensive travel in Europe and Africa has renewed her zest for life and new love has refreshed her hope. Writing poetry has helped reduce the dung hill of grief.
By Richard Sidlow
Tall and lanky with delicate hands, long fingers, and a thin face, Alvin had lost 80 pounds in the prior six months. Previously the size of a high school football player, he had transformed into a scarecrow. At 16, he was dying of a rare form of intestinal cancer.
I was his doctor during the last two months of his life.
As an attending pediatric hospitalist, I met Alvin a few years after finishing my residency in combined Internal Medicine/Pediatrics. I had not completed a rotation in pediatric oncology or palliative care and so had to rely on my experiences in adult oncology wards.
Besides the incessant pain, Alvin complained that he was always very tired, nauseous, and lacked an appetite. I promised him that I would try my best to keep him comfortable and relieve his symptoms. It was clear to me that I would need help, and a lot of it, to fulfill my promise I asked my colleagues in pediatric and adult oncology, radiation oncology, and pain management, to share their opinions about Alvin’s case.
Little did I know how challenging my promise would be to fulfill.
During Alvin’s first 24 hours in the hospital, the specialists offered unanimous opinions: Alvin would not benefit from further oncologic treatment—palliative care was the best and most useful care we could offer him. I agreed. Alvin’s cancer had already broken through two courses of chemotherapy, had proven to be insensitive to radiation therapy, and had already encased vital blood vessels in his abdomen making surgery an impossibility as well.
On the afternoon of his second day in the hospital, Alvin’s father arrived. I thought it odd that neither of his parents had been with him until then, especially given that he was so ill. I did not know what to expect.
I introduced myself to Alvin’s father, only to receive passing attention and a faint nod in reply. I asked if Alvin’s mother was going to arrive soon.
“Mom’s not around,” Alvin’s father matter-of-factly retorted, this time making eye contact with me.
“Will she be around any time today?” I queried. “I can work around your schedules.”
“When will she be available?” I asked.
“I take care of Alvin alone. Mom’s been out of the picture for a long time.”
“So it’s just you and him?”
He sarcastically replied, “Mmm hmm.”
“Ok then, let’s talk….”
My intent during this exchange was simple — I needed to share the really bad news with the family, and I needed the entire family present. I was not interested in prying, just doing the right thing. Yet I felt defensive from the starting gate. Was Alvin’s father’s curtness baseline orneriness or cultural quirk? Was he frustrated with questions having to do with Alvin’s mother, with any questions coming from doctors, or simply with his son’s situation? Where was this exchange going given its poor start?
The next ten minutes bordered on the surreal. A soliloquy on my part followed, despite numerous efforts to elicit a response from Alvin or his father. As I summarized the collective medical opinions, I noticed there was almost no interaction between father and son. When their eyes did meet little perceptible warmth was detectable between them. I ended with the statement, conveyed as gently as possible, that the concept of treatment for cure or extension of life was futile, and that the focus had to be on palliation.
Just as I finished speaking, Alvin’s father abruptly broke his silence and matter-of-factly stated that he wanted everything to be done for his son: chemotherapy, radiation therapy, nutritional support, and physical rehabilitation. He added, equally unemotionally, that he did not want to hear about palliative care or hospice again. Alvin was silent.
His insistence stunned me and prompted me to ponder to whom am I responsible? When the patient is a minor, must a parent’s wish prevail? I felt strongly that I would be breaking my promise to Alvin if I honored his father’s directive. Why were such scenarios not discussed in medical school? How does a doctor respect all parties and yet also “do no harm” to the patient? These questions swirled in my mind continuously during the next two months I treated Alvin.
I tried to stay true to my promise to Alvin while navigating the unreasonable demands of his father for aggressive treatment. It proved impossible.
During this time, the only witnessed emotional support Alvin’s father gave to his son was blandly telling others that “Alvin would be OK” in his son’s presence. However, it was painfully clear to everyone involved in Alvin’s care that he was suffering. Despite this, Alvin never articulated a syllable of dissent and deferred to his father regarding his care, whether out of fear or respect I was never able to determine, even when asked outside the presence of his father.
Soon after being admitted, we began experimental chemotherapy—Alvin tolerated it for only two days after almost dying from gastrointestinal bleeding and diarrhea. He had constant headaches, back pain, and rib pain. It hurt him to breathe, it hurt him to move. Physical therapy, despite Alvin’s father’s demands, could never be initiated.
The already reduced body mass with which Alvin had arrived continued to decrease since he had no desire to eat. Tube feedings of different kinds were attempted, again at the behest of Alvin’s father. They were uniformly unsuccessful.
In tandem with our pain management service, I tried to treat his pain with combinations of drugs at doses that would render a healthy person unconscious for days. This still only provided inadequate pain relief. My and the care team’s repeated efforts to convince Alvin’s father to invoke palliative sedation to relieve Alvin’s pain were ignored. He did not want his son to be made unconscious by our treatments. Any overtures to the hospital’s ethics committee to try and override Alvin’s father’s wishes were thwarted—Alvin was a minor, now with questionable and wavering decision-making capacity, and was completely deferential to his father’s wishes.
Over time, Alvin’s bones jutted out from his skin more and more. Pressure ulcers formed on his buttocks, heels, and elbows, despite the use of an air mattress and aggressive efforts by our nurses to prevent this very complication.
About six weeks into his admission, I noticed that one side of Alvin’s face was more flaccid than the other. This progressed over the next few days to him having problems pronouncing certain sounds, and then losing the ability to swallow. During this same time, his eyes began to slowly jut out of his eye sockets and lose their vital glint. I knew that metastases, the ones causing the incessant headaches, were causing this, too.
Alvin continued to deteriorate and his room took on an odor, not related to any bodily functions, personal hygiene, or substances used to clean the room. It could only be described as the smell of Alvin’s tumor burden eating him alive. Every time he exhaled, more of this invisible, foul humor emanated from his open, parched mouth, filling the room with a smell that was a cross between vomit and burning flesh.
Throughout Alvin’s hospital stay, any discussion with Alvin’s father about the status of his son was colored with a thick patina of unreality. I did not sense magical thinking on his part. At no time did he invoke any religious or spiritual explanation for his approach either, and he refused any visit from our pastoral care department outright. The best I could come up with was that simply, unexplainably, Alvin’s father was robotically able to ignore the very real suffering of his son and navigate his care accordingly. This, despite every effort the team made to prepare him for the inexorable to come.
The nurses who cared for Alvin attended to him with great compassion. However, we did not take care of many pediatric oncology patients on this floor, so the emotional toll of caring for this dying child, exacerbated by his father, took its toll on the nurses. Alvin’s father was often hypercritical of how the nurses cared for his son, often forgetting to say thank you but never forgetting to criticize them for trivialities. One nurse, tasked with his care, was a recent nursing school graduate who had chosen specifically to be a pediatric nurse and Alvin was one of her first patients. I witnessed the depletion of her emotional reserves day by day. Many of the seasoned nurses tried to bolster her up, but they were becoming emotionally frayed as well, particularly so as the final days of Alvin’s life rapidly approached.
About a week before his death, Alvin was suddenly more alert, aroused by a new pain that rose above the baseline din of his other pains. This new pain came with an insidious bonus—it made it harder for him to breathe. The new pain was located along his lower right chest wall, close to the bottom of his rib cage in the front. His ability to inhale was impaired now, this made obvious by the unevenness of movement between the right and left sides of his emaciated chest. I shuddered and paused—how much suffering could one person take? Now, a tumor mass engulfed one of his ribs and tore it asunder. It was making every breath an ordeal as the frayed ends of the once intact bone rubbed against each other and caused lancinating pain. All we could do was raise the absurdly high doses of his pain medications that remained inadequate. It was only now, as we kept increasing the dosages of the pain medications higher and higher, and Alvin’s breathing progressively got slower and slower, that Alvin’s father stopped ignoring our daily requests to change Alvin to “do not resuscitate” status. He finally agreed three days before Alvin died.
The night he died, Alvin was receiving hourly amounts of pain medication that were ten to fifteen times the upper limit normally given for someone his weight. His respiratory rate was six breaths per minute, enough to convey a tenuous connection to life and move enough air to moan. His left eye was jutting out of his eye socket precariously, the left side of his face was without contour. At about 11:30pm, Alvin’s breathing began to slow down, and his hands and feet began to turn bluish. After another hour, his yellowish skin became much paler and his breaths less frequent and much shallower. He died at 12:45am. His father was not there.
Later that morning I found out Alvin’s father consented to have an autopsy done on his son. While Alvin’s cause of death was clear to me, and I had already visualized in my mind’s eye the anatomic tumor invasions he had endured in his last weeks, I needed to be at this autopsy: I needed to actually see my cellular opponent and the damage it caused, this while the feelings of anger, disappointment, and despondency regarding this case still roiled inside of me.
I also found out later that morning that our newly minted nurse, whose emotional reserve was being particularly depleted while caring for Alvin, asked to be transferred to another unit, citing the emotional distress of this case as the reason for her request.
On the way to the morgue that afternoon, I saw Alvin’s father in the distance. Initially his back was to me, and then he turned around. Our eyes met, and in the couple of seconds that passed, I hoped that for a fleeting moment some shred of emotion would be communicated by him—sadness, anger, relief, understanding, anything. All I got was a blank stare in return. He turned and walked away, and I, not surprised but disappointed nevertheless, continued to the morgue.
After gowning up, the autopsy technician started his work. The tumor metastases were light tan, fleshy, with a pinkish tinge to their surface reflecting their success at achieving an independent blood supply. They were innumerable and ubiquitous, visible or palpable on every bony surface revealed by the technician’s knife or saw. The inside surface of Alvin’s skull was riddled with tumors, as were his eye sockets and the base of his skull: it was now plain to see why he had constant headaches and why his eyes were being forced out of their sockets. His spine was macerated and moth eaten by tumor in various stages of growth and regression, more like a cat’s chew toy than the pillar along which a person’s stature depends. I saw his rib cage, peppered with tumor masses that looked like barnacles stuck to the side of a ship, and the lower right tenth rib was broken by a solitary tumor several centimeters in size completely encasing the bone, no doubt the cause of the sudden rib pain that was the penultimate event prior to dying. The genesis of his ordeal, the tumor located in his ascending colon, encased and distorted it beyond recognition. It was plain to see that Alvin’s road to death was ineffably horrific, and that we were unreasonably limited and rendered impotent in our ability to mitigate even a small portion of his suffering.
Alvin’s death was the only modicum of closure achieved by anyone involved in his care. All that remains from this experience are haunting recollections that I was part of an exercise in unnecessarily flogging a dying teenager, leaving a large hospital chart and bad memories in its wake.
Richard Sidlow is a practicing Pediatric Hospitalist and seasoned medical volunteer. His work has been published in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Blood and Thunder, and New Theory.
On Bugs and Golf balls and reality
By Kathie Giorgio
While waiting for surgery to remove a malignant tumor from my right breast, a wait that lasted for 28 days from diagnosis to knife, I listened to healing meditation recordings. In one that I favored, I was told to place my hand where I was hurting and I was to picture what needed to be healed.
I wasn’t hurting. There was no pain. Yet I was still being told I was sick. With my eyes closed, headphones on, sitting in my recliner, I placed my hand over my right breast. I placed it at the 10:00 position, as I was told that was where the tumor was. I couldn’t feel it, I never did feel it. But I pictured my breast as if I was looking straight at the face of a clock and I put my hand over the ten.
I collect clocks. Thinking now of my breast as a clock, I meditated on how much I wanted to keep this particular piece in my collection.
Following the melodious voice’s gentle orders, I pictured what needed to be healed. The skin on my breast opened and peeled back, like the videos I’ve seen of buds bursting to flower, I looked through layer after layer of undulating pink, satin pink, and then suddenly, there was the startle of bright blue, round and smooth, like a marble. A gem.
I don’t know why I pictured the tumor as blue. But it was. And not an ugly blue, but a sky blue, a robin’s egg, tucked into the pink nest of my breast.
And then the robin’s egg sprouted legs. It was actually an insect of some sort, with six hairy blue legs reaching out and digging into the pink.
Of course, my imagination took off and I braided it quickly with reality. I decided this wasn’t a tumor at all. It was a tick, maybe, or some sort of spider, that managed to get so deeply under my skin that my skin closed over it. It had been living there, inside of me, for who knows how long, until it became engorged enough to show up as a tumor on my mammogram. Why did it test positive for cancer in the biopsy? I had no idea. Maybe insect cellular make-up is the same as cancer. But it was a bug. A parasite. Not a tumor at all.
As the meditation went on, day after day, I no longer listened to the voice, but pictured what would happen in the operating room. The surprise of my surgeon and her attendants as they peeled back my skin like a flower in bloom, went to excise the tumor lost in layers of pink, and discovered wiggling hairy blue legs! My surgeon would shriek, then reach in with a gigantic set of tweezers, the size of salad tongs, unplugging the bug from my depths and throwing it across the room, while everyone around her shrieked and tap-danced in horror. And then a brave attendant would raise his blue surgical-slippered foot and stomp on the bug, and my blood, my blood stolen from me for who knows how many years, would splatter around the room in a way they weren’t prepared to see. Some attendants would throw up in their masks. Some would faint. My surgeon’s hair would turn gray.
All while I lay dreaming non-dreams on the operating table.
I decided that when I woke, my surgeon would be waiting for me and she’d tell me this story and, through our shock, we’d laugh. Laugh over everything I’d been through, a gone-south mammogram, ultrasounds, biopsies, an MRI, a radioactive seed planting to mark the tumor who was actually a bug, fear for my life, fear of my death, everything…all because of a bug that buried itself in me. A bug that could be squelched with one stomping foot. And then I could go on with my life.
What a nice story.
Every day, when I meditated, I came out of it smiling, my hand on ten o’clock, because I didn’t have cancer at all. I had a bug.
Just like every day, in that month leading up to the surgery, I thought every phone call was going to be the doctor telling me there’d been a classic mistake, files got mixed up, and they gave me someone else’s results, not mine. That was a nice story too.
Of course, that’s not what happened.
On the day of surgery, I thought about golf balls. I don’t golf, but when I was a kid, I lived next to a golf course and at night, I wandered the woods and the roughs, looking for abandoned golf balls and whole tees. I collected these and then I set up a stand on the ninth hole, where I sold all that I found, along with yellow and pink lemonade.
Some of the balls, I kept. Titleist. Bridgestone. Callaway. Srixon. Rumor had it that if you peeled away all the layers of a golf ball, you would come to a liquid center that was so poisonous, your whole hand would disintegrate from touching even a drop of it. So of course, I had to peel away the golf balls. Back then, I flirted with potential disaster. I didn’t run from it. I didn’t imagine it away.
As I was wheeled on a gurney through the hospital hallways on July 25, 2017, I pictured my breast, no longer like a clock, but like those dimpled golf balls. I peeled and peeled so many, cutting through the skin, then slicing through what seemed like thick tendons of rubber bands, digging and digging and digging. Every single time, I was disappointed to find, not a liquid poisonous center, but a small pink rubber ball. Dimpled, like the white skin.
How strange, I thought, as I was rolled through the operating room doors and I saw the bright lights and my smiling surgeon, the joking anesthesiologist, the tap-dancing eager attendants, how strange that after all these years, I was finally going to find that caustic poison.
How strange, that it was inside of me all along.
Not a nice story at all. But reality without imagination.
Kathie Giorgio lives in Wisconsin and is the critically acclaimed author of four novels, two story collections and a poetry chapbook. Her fourth novel, In Grace’s Time, was released in September 2017. She is the Director of the AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Write Well Award, the Million Writer Award, and for the Best of the Net Anthology.
By K.R. Van Sant
The first thing I remember from that night is watching a Woody Allen movie on a borrowed TV.
We girls had begged endlessly for our parents to buy a TV. But our parents stayed firm in their opposition. They didn’t want us wasting our days cooped up inside in front of an electronic box.
Woody Allen, however, was deemed worthwhile. So when they heard his film Sleeper was to be the NBC Sunday Night Movie, our parents invited the neighbors to come watch it at our house, and to bring a TV as well. They set up the television facing the couch, and the whole family, the neighbors, plus a few extra friends (of which there were always some around) watched. They turned off the lights and everyone busted up laughing at the famous comedian’s ingenious jokes.
We girls—only five and six-years-old—didn’t understand a thing. However, happy to actually be able to watch TV with our parents and not behind their backs at friends’ houses, we insisted on staying up until the movie was over. We laughed with our parents and their friends, pretending to know why, hoping to affirm our maturity by showing that we understood grown-up things. We both fell asleep before the movie ended. My sister and I lived that day like we lived all others: functioning nearly as a unit because of our closeness in age.
When it was over, our parents carried us off to bed without waking us. We dreamed of the images we’d seen before falling asleep – a man dressed as a robot lost in the woods, a woman with a lot of makeup drinking water with her friends in a glass house.
Suddenly, our parents interrupted our dreams by urgently stirring us awake. It was not morning yet. But our parents were dressed and our mother had her purse. Something had happened, they told us, and Mommy had to go. Daddy would tell us about it in the morning, they said. Still half asleep, we accepted our parents’ kisses without questions and returned to our dreams.
The next morning we woke up with the sensation that something had happened. Or that we’d dreamt something had happened, but couldn’t remember what. When we saw our father frying eggs for breakfast, we remembered that our mother had left during the night. Knots formed in our throats.
“Where’s Mommy?” we asked.
Our father said he’d explain it all after breakfast. Nothing like this had ever happened before and we could not calm our imaginations.
“When will she be back? Why did she leave at night?” we asked between sobs.
Our father realized that he couldn’t wait until after breakfast. He turned off the stove and set the spatula down on the table. The three of us went outside and sat on a bench in the backyard, one daughter on either side of our father. He took off his glasses, took our hands into his, and began to cry. When we saw the tears slide down his cheeks and disappear into his beard, we cried too. We still didn’t know what had happened, but we could feel his deep pain.
“A terrible thing has happened,” he began. “Last night two men went to your grandparents’ house and they shot Pop-Pop with a gun.”
“That’s why your mother left,” he continued. “She’s in Florida with Mom-Mom.”
He sighed and seemed to forget he was speaking to his five and six-year-old daughters.
“It’s horrible to think that humanity is can be so sick,” he said. “Pop-Pop was a great man. That they could have done this to him makes me…”
He couldn’t finish his sentence.
“Why did they do it, Daddy?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Sweetheart,” he said. “I don’t know.”
“What about Mom-Mom?” my sister asked. “Is she okay?”
“Mom-Mom is in the hospital because she’s hurt,” he explained. “They stabbed her in the back.”
As he said these words, his voice broke and he buried his head in his hands.
“But Mom-Mom is going to be okay,” he assured us.
We didn’t ask any more questions.
The truth is, we hardly knew our grandparents, who lived far away. They had been to visit, but not since we were quite little. Nonetheless, we cried and cried there with our father. The entire family’s suffering flooded our bodies.
We imagined our mother in the hospital with our grandmother, bravely waiting for her wounds to heal. We imagined our grandfather, fat and pale in his coffin. We thought about how our mother must have felt when a voice on the telephone informed her of her father’s murder. We thought about our aunts, who had also said good-bye to their kids in the middle of the night.
Victims of a cruel attack that both debilitated and strengthened our family, my sister and I held hands. And that physical contact joined us not only with each other, but with our relatives we had never met, crying at the same time in distant parts of the country.
Our grandfather’s blood defied space and joined the hearts of a dispersed family. Some of them had only met him a couple of times, and like us, didn’t know him well, if at all. But now that the aunts, uncles, and cousins were all simultaneously living the same horrific reality, we felt close to them all.
For my sister and me, everything was so big, so far, so incredible, but at the same time so real. We didn’t understand the tragedy the way the adults did; we simply felt the sadness and suffering caused by it. We listened to our father’s words. The facts he spoke did not produce an image, but rather a feeling. Those facts only took on meaning many years later. At that moment, at that young age, we were incapable of assimilating it. We could only feel it.
We went back into the kitchen and ate our breakfast. Then we walked to school where we learned and played just like any other day. But we both knew that something had changed forever. We had encountered death for the first time.
K.R. Van Sant is a writer, single mother by choice, and a full-time Spanish interpreter in criminal court in Oakland, California. She is writing a novel. She originally wrote “Pop Pop” in Spanish for a writing course while living in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1997 when she was 24 years old. Many years later, she translated it into English so her mother could read it.
By Sara Kirschenbaum
I spot the bird on Pebble Beach. I’m scanning the beautiful rounded rocks of my favorite beach. The tide is coming in and splashing the dusty finish of these giant smooth rocks, turning the light grays into color: dark green, yellow stripes, pink speckles, a sash of quartz white. I am on a two-week solitary retreat to work on my writing and stop worrying. About my grown children who have moved to bad neighborhoods in faraway cities, and about my father’s ongoing, seven year, battle against heart failure. About him recently becoming a hospice patient.
Each day I set out with a large cup of coffee to climb another section of rocky coast around Monhegan Island, Maine, my favorite place on the whole blue green earth. And today, I spot him. A seagull with a traumatically injured wing. Not survivable, I think to myself.
He has a creamy white head with a shy brown eye. The mottled brown coloring starts at his neck and gradually darkens toward his all brown tail. His wing looks ripped out of its socket and dangles loose, a few inches below his shoulder. His head is pulled in close to his body. He looks vulnerable, confused, stoic. When I pass him, he jumps to a new rock to maintain distance. His wing drags.
Further on, I run into two birders on the path and ask them if they saw the injured seagull and if they know of a veterinarian on the island. “We saw him. There’s nothing that can be done for him. Hopefully an eagle will get him and put him out of his misery.”
Two days later I’m back to Pebble Beach to collect rocks. I’ve successfully put the injured seagull out of my mind. Until, unbelievably, I see him, still alive. “Hello there fella. You’re still here!” I decide to come back soon with something to eat. I murmur to him, “I’ll be back.”
It is October and the island is shutting down its tourist amenities for the season. The one vacationing veterinarian has gone home. Only 55 people live here year-round. Their one store is closing because it’s lost its lease; the owner wants to turn it into an art gallery by next summer. The island community is scrambling to open a new, cooperative, grocery. But I came prepared, with two blue IKEA bags filled to capacity with groceries from Trader Joe’s.
The next morning I put a half-frozen single portion of Trader Joe’s Broccoli and Cheese Quiche in my pocket and head straight to Pebble Beach. When I emerge from the forest path, I can’t see him. I pace back and forth on the trail that circles the island. And find him, alive, 50 yards north of where he was. “Hey!” I chortle, so happy to see him. I run toward him almost expecting him to be glad to see me. But he runs away to the next rock, dragging his wing. I pull the limp freezer-burned quiche out of its wrapper and toss him a piece. It falls between rocks, out of his reach. The next lands near him and he hops toward it. He stares at it, turning his head to look more closely. Then he opens his beak and grabs it, raising his head and gulping it down his gullet in jerks and swallows. I throw the rest of the quiche in chunks, with most of it falling between rocks. He maneuvers to get what he can. I feel rewarded, deliciously so.
On the way back to my cabin I gain determination to do something for this poor dear seagull who has been out there in the weather and eagle territory for at least four days. But what can be done?
Google leads me to wildlife sanctuaries. The closest one is an hour ferry ride and 60 more miles away. Avian Haven in Freedom, Maine, takes my call without laughing at me. They are caring and methodical, asking me to describe the bird and the injury. I tell them I’ll go back the next day and take a picture and text it to them, if he’s still alive.
The next morning I set out in bright autumn sun with another quiche. This time I find him right away and he starts running toward me! I throw the pieces of quiche and he gobbles them hungrily. I snap a photo. How is it I am a recognizable figure to this wild bird?
Avian Haven texts back after they get the photo. They say he looks like a male juvenile Great Black Backed Gull, the largest gull species in the world. They can’t determine the extent of his injuries from the photo. But…if I can catch him and put him on the ferry, they might be able to get a volunteer to meet him at the mainland and drive him the hour and a half to Avian Haven where they will take care of him and see if he can be helped.
The whole point of my trip is to be alone and write. But one week in, I’m feeling lonely. A pesky fly is my only companion. Next door to my cabin is a rental home. A large extended family is staying there and having nightly dinner parties. They know a local lobsterwoman, Lisa Brackett, and have suppers of her freshly caught lobsters downed with lots of white wine and guitar playing. I feel pitiful in my silent cabin and daily Cambozola sandwiches. Like scrooge peering into the parties of Christmas past, I approach the door and knock.
“Hi,” I say, “I’m staying next door. Sorry to bother you. But I’m trying to save this seagull that’s injured. And I think I can catch him and put him in a box but I can’t figure out how I will put the top on the box.”
By the time I finish my sentence, they are all pointing to the tall patriarch sitting at the head of the table with a large glass of wine in his hand. “He…He can do it…He’s your man,” they say.
He may be my man but he is reluctant and practical. “There are so many things wrong with your plan. It can’t be saved. And there are laws. It is not legal to capture a wild bird…”
“I talked to Avian Haven. They said I could do it. They get seagulls all the time. They said to put him on the ferry.”
“The ferry?!” Mr. Patriarch says. “I doubt it will be legal to put it on the ferry. You’ll have to talk with the captain. I could catch the bird. I run a company that sponsors 187 bird watching trips in North and South America. Picking up a bird is nothing. But I’ll only do it if the Captain agrees.”
When I’m on Mohegan, I try not to bring any attention to my subpar tourist status, but trying to save this seagull is getting conspicuous. I call the captain of the Laura B. ferry. He says he’ll transport the seagull. No charge. He’s shipped a lot of odd stuff in his day. Although never a seagull. I look in people’s backyards for a box to put the bird in, and find a banana box someone is willing to give me.
The next morning Patriarch and I head out in the sideways morning light with my last Broccoli Cheese Quiche and one of my parents’ towels. When we get to Pebble Beach, the seagull is nowhere to be seen. Christ! I feel so foolish. Mr. Practical starts to walk away. I climb north on the rocky shore and find my fella standing on a rock. I call out and retrieve my doubter.
I throw the towel. He grabs the bird. Holding him, he says, “He’s so light. Very undernourished.” We get him in the box and I carry this feather-light load to the dock, grinning to myself. I quietly put him by the outgoing luggage. I offer him the rest of the quiche through the handle hole in the banana box. My bird gobbles it with gusto. I whisper, “Goodbye little guy. At least someone cared.”
That night Monhegan Brewing is having an end-of the-season party. I’m standing around a bonfire shyly chatting with lobsterwoman Lisa Brackett. I confess to her, “I’m a nutcase: I put an injured seagull on the Laura B. today.”
She says, “Oh I know. Everyone on the island’s talking about it.”
I admit, “He probably won’t make it, but I had to do something. He was out there for at least five days.”
“I can’t tell you how many injured seagulls I’ve seen, but it was a nice thing to do.”
“My dad just went on hospice so I guess I have two in hospice.”
“You’re not a nutcase. In my mind, if it feels right to you, it’s worth it.”
Later that night I get a call from Avian Haven. They have received the gull. He has a necrotic compound fracture of the elbow. “Did you smell the necrosis?” They can’t save the bird. They are not allowed to amputate: federal regulations. But he’s resting now. They are going to feed him trout for dinner. Let him sleep the night, safe. Tomorrow they’ll release him to his final flight.
Sara Kirschenbaum is a writer and artist in Portland, Oregon. She works in clay, on paper, and with photography, as well as with the written word. She has been published in Calyx, Fiction International, J Journal, Kalliope, Mothering Magazine, The Oregonian, Poetica, Portland Parent, the Portland Tribune, and other publications. She has been a guest commentator for NPR’s Marketplace and has published on Salon.com and the Tin House Blog. She has written a memoir about postpartum OCD. She can be reached through her website: sarakirschenbaum.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your Mother Said
By Donna Wallace
Her new oncologist responded to your email. You, the good son―
honest, direct and medically trained— likely know
she will undergo imaging on the fourteenth of April
and learn results on the twenty-first.
Your mother said she likes him―he is young,
has two children, and is from Brazil.
They speak Portuguese in Brazil, she said,
but you probably knew that.
I know these things because I asked.
Don’t call back.
Donna Wallace lives in Lewisville, North Carolina and is the president of Winston-SalemWriters and the director of Poetry In Plain Sight, a state-wide initiative placing poetry in public spaces. Her work appears in Camel City Dispatch, Poetry In Plain Sight, and in various faith publications. Retired from nursing, teaching and stay-at-home-parenting, Donna enjoys cycling with her husband Hugh and writing poetry with her critique group compadres. If you spot a JAVANUT license plate, make haste to the nearest coffee shop—she’s right inside.
Dead Man's Socks
By Richard King Perkins II
I’ve been wearing a dead man’s socks for three years now.
His wife was young and still could barely believe she was
selling all his clothing, belts and hats at a garage sale. The
small collections of things they’d put together in their few
years of marriage. Seahorses and dreamcatchers and healthy
eating cookbooks. And a beer-flat box full of rolled socks
planted upright, asking five dollars for thirty pairs— but she
just really wanted them to be gone so I got them all for two
bucks. I imagine some of them were still from his days as
a single guy, nearly worn through, elastic shot, frayed
around the outjutting of an anklebone. Others were newer,
barely used, perhaps a literal stocking stuffer from his
practical-minded wife who knew he’d keep wearing the
oldest pairs until his toes burst through the end caps. And
the Kelly green socks, a living island amidst the greys,
browns and blacks, I’ve made sure to wear them the last few
St. Patrick’s days, just like I’m sure he did, hiking up my
pant leg just to let a few people see that I’m part of the gang.
I knew when I bought the lot I’d been entrusted with a great
responsibility: to wear them nearly as well as the man before
me. But still, despite my best efforts, each year a few more
unmatched socks get placed in the back of the drawer,
stagnant, alone; doubtful at being properly mated again.
Richard King Perkins II is a state-sponsored advocate for residents in long-term care facilities. He lives in Crystal Lake, IL, USA with his wife, Vickie and daughter, Sage. He is a three-time Pushcart Price, Best of the Net and Best of the Web nominee whose work has appeared in numerous publications.
By Tim Gordon
Friend, listen to each bud beneath birthing,
Caressing cold into color, into texture and form,
Into green-leafing-life under snow and ice and frost,
Under red-clay earth, blossoming into what it was
Each time before each unfolding self, each time back
Whole notes, Sounds, and sweet airs, each time back
Spring, like nothing else in this world, or other—
Tim Gordon is a poet who published his seventh book, From Falling, in April 2017. His work has appeared in various journals including AGNI, Cincinnati Review, Kansas Quarterly, among others. He has received National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) fellowships. He divides his time between Asia and the Desert Southwest.
Photo by Jim Zola
Jim Zola is a poet and photographer living in North Carolina.
Jane's final Adventure
By Betsy MacGregor
When my younger sister, Jane, hit adolescence, she became a full-fledged rebel, getting into every kind of trouble teenagers can find: smoking, drinking, driving fast, doing drugs, insulting her teachers, and playing hooky from our staid New England high school. After graduation and a futile six-month attempt to buckle down at college, she joined the entourage of a popular blues band and headed for the bright lights of the big cities where the action was. She rarely made the effort to be in touch with our parents, which was probably just as well. Her lifestyle would have worried them sick, saturated as it was with shady and hazardous behaviors.
At 22, Jane’s love of living close to the edge led her to heroin, and as happens frequently to those who are tempted to flirt with that seductive drug, thinking themselves strong enough to avoid getting caught in the spider-web of its allure, Jane quickly found she couldn’t live without it. For it takes more will power than most people have to wrestle themselves free from heroin’s soul-devouring grip, and many of those who engage in frequent use become junkies, irrevocably addicted and trapped in wrecked lives. Finally, she made the mistake that’s all too easy for drug users to make: she overdosed.
When the paramedics found her, she was unconscious and barely breathing. Her resuscitation was a difficult one, and she remained in a coma for a week before regaining consciousness. When she did, she related an unusual experience. She had found herself floating up near the ceiling of her hospital room, looking down at her body lying in a bed with the side rails up. She saw how beaten and depleted the poor thing looked, and she felt a sense of sadness for it. Then she noticed a window in her room, with sunshine outside and green growing things and blue sky above. The vibrancy of this scene beckoned to her, and she drifted toward the window, feeling an immense peacefulness waiting for her just outside.
Yet as she neared the window, something tugged on her attention, drawing it back to the scene below, where her body lay pale and still. Several people were bending over her body, tending to it, trying to help it recover, and their concern touched her deeply.
Suddenly, Jane understood that she had a choice. She could continue toward the window and float out into the peace that waited for her there, or she could return to her body that was being kept alive by these caring attendants and pick up the thread of her life again. The outcome had not been decided yet. It was up to her, with one caveat: if she chose to stay, she had to change her ways fully, or she would fail.
Without hesitation, Jane made her decision. She said yes to living and starting over.
Instantly, she found herself waking up inside a cold, pain-riddled body that was as stiff and uncomfortable as a suit of armor. It was an immensely unpleasant sensation, but with it was the awareness of being alive, and the sweetness of that awareness made the discomfort bearable— just.
Within a few days, Jane was weaned off the respirator, and, to the surprise of her doctors, she had no neurological or cognitive deficits whatsoever. Though extremely weak, she expected to recover fully. But there was one final hurdle that she had yet to overcome, and it came in the depth of the night: an ink-black figure that appeared at the foot of her bed. The featureless shadow-figure stood and gazed at her silently, filling the air with ill will. Looking back at it was like looking into a bottomless pit of darkness, devoid of any hope.
As the figure stared at Jane with its icy-cold presence, to her horror she felt herself starting to slide, ever so slowly, down the bed toward it, as if the thing possessed an irresistible malevolent power. Fear seized her, and she gripped the sheets, trying to keep herself out of its reach, but she continued to slide. With enormous effort, she reached for the nurse’s call bell and pressed it frantically.
After what seemed an interminable amount of time, the night nurse stalked into the room, shined her flashlight into Jane’s face, and asked impatiently what she wanted. When Jane tried to explain, the nurse scoffed.
“What a whacked-out druggie you are,” she grumbled. With a derogatory wave of her hand, she walked briskly out of the room, leaving Jane realizing that she would be on her own when and if the sinister presence came back for her.
And it did, the next night. It stood as before, full of menace at the foot of her bed. And again, Jane had to strain with all her might to resist its insistent pull. She fought hard, pitting her will against its strength, fighting with gritted teeth to keep from sliding – until the figure eventually faded away, leaving her heart pounding wildly against her rib cage.
The third night was the worst by far. The dark presence exuded scorn for her success in resisting twice and made her strength seem a pitiful illusion. Tonight, the presence seemed to promise, she would not get away.
That night the sheets were more slippery than ever. She couldn’t seem to get a good grip on them, and as hard as she tried to hang on, she felt herself losing ground. Still, she refused give up. She had gone far enough into darkness in her life. She wanted to return to the light. So, as there was no one to help her, she called on the only resource she had: herself. She called on every cell and every fiber and every ounce of energy in her being, and she called upon them fiercely. She summoned every dream and every drop of hope and happiness she had ever possessed, and she hung on to them and would not let go. And—slowly, slowly—she felt the presence losing its grip on her, until finally it began to fade. And then, like a puff of smoke, it was gone.
On the fourth night, Jane waited with dread for the dark figure’s return, but it didn’t come. Whatever that experience had been – whether a trial to prepare her for the huge task she was undertaking of starting her life completely over, or a test to see if she had the strength she would need to resist the temptation to turn back—it didn’t matter. Her ordeal was over, and she had endured.
By the time I learned about Jane’s overdose and flew across the country to be with her, she had made good progress in regaining her physical health and recovering from the acute stages of heroin withdrawal. She was able to get out of bed into a wheelchair, and she seemed to be basking in a state of wonderment. When I took her for short strolls by wheelchair around the grounds of the hospital, she would reach down to stroke the grass, or finger the leaves of the bushes we were passing, or peer up through the branches of the trees and let her gaze linger on the clouds in the blue sky above, as if she were seeing it all for the very first time.
Over the next several years, Jane fought mightily to rebuild her life. She bent her rebellious spirit to her will and entered a residential drug treatment program where she lived a strictly regulated life for three years before she was pronounced “clean.” After her graduation, she married the man who had been her counselor and greatest support in the rehab program – a man who had also freed himself from heroin addiction and thus knew her as no one else ever could—and, together, Jane and her husband Leonard set about building new lives.
While Leonard created a construction business, Jane worked days and studied nights, eventually earning herself a college degree with honors. Propelled by a strong desire to do something for others in gratitude for the help she had received, she then set her sights on becoming a nurse. Having, as she did, a father who was chief of surgery, a mother who was director of a corps of hospital volunteers, and two siblings who had recently obtained their MD’s, it wasn’t surprising that she would choose to pursue a career in the health care profession—but the health care profession was far from welcoming. Of the twenty nursing schools to which she applied, not a single one would accept her because of her history as a narcotics addict.
Yet Jane refused to give up. Determined to prove that she was free of the pull of drugs, she persuaded a pharmacist to let her work for him and thereby show she could be trusted. After a year of work, the impressed pharmacist wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation. With his letter in hand, Jane applied to nursing school again and, to her great joy, was accepted. Once having earned her nurse’s cap and RN degree, she went on to work as a visiting nurse, tending to home-bound elderly patients: “my children,” as she affectionately called them.
With the freedom she had gained, Jane created a home for herself and Leonard and made good friends until life tested her courage again. Leonard became ill. An infection with so-called “flesh-eating bacteria” started as an innocuous red spot on his skin and grew with lightning speed into a conflagration that sent his body into shock. As a team of specialists worked round the clock, trying to save his life, Jane sat unflinchingly beside the bed where he lay unconscious in the ICU, whispering, “Fight, Leonard, fight!”
But the hope of Leonard’s surviving steadily faded, and, by the end of the week, Jane conceded defeat. Bending close to Leonard one last time, she whispered in his ear, “It’s all right, my love. You don’t need to fight any more. You can go.” By the time she had driven home from the hospital, the phone was ringing with a call from the ICU to give her the news that her husband was gone.
The weight of Jane’s grief was huge, and the ache of it reverberated painfully through my own heart. Without her long-time partner by her side, I feared she would finally go down. And indeed, she did later confess that she had considered the idea of ending her life then and there. But after a time of wrestling with it, she had rejected the idea. The reason, she said, was because the prize she had fought so hard to win—having a life that was hers to live—was not something she was ready to throw away, even after suffering a wound that terribly deep. And so, with the undefeatable determination of which the human spirit is capable, my brave-hearted sister picked herself up and went on, selling Leonard’s construction business and focusing on tending her small but flourishing garden. It was a choice she never regretted.
Many years later, when Jane was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 61, she called and asked me if I would be interested in spending time with her and helping with her care. Since I could think of nothing I wanted more than to accompany my one and only sister on her last adventure, I took a leave of absence from my work as a doctor and went to be with her. And thus, it was that I came to witness the finale of Jane’s life, including her curious release from her oldest wounds.
Understanding that she had a prognosis of only a few months to live, Jane declared she was not about to let the medical profession take control of her life and fill up her remaining time with futile treatment protocols. Besides, she said, she was ready for death to come. She had lived as much life as she needed to and was satisfied with all she had done. She had faced her greatest fears and stayed the course, and there was not a thing that she would change. No, there really wasn’t any reason she could see to hang around, especially with Leonard gone and the emphysema she had developed from years of cigarette smoking slowly beginning to suffocate her. She was clear about the matter: she was not afraid to die.
So, with Jane’s agreement, I helped her enroll in hospice, and she soon found herself being cared for at home by a steady stream of attendants who carefully bathed her, massaged her, coaxed her to eat meager amounts, and kept her house neat and clean. This helpful arrangement allowed the two of us plenty of time in which to set her affairs in order, reminisce about our past adventures, and mull over the mystery of living a human life.
Of all the valuable things that hospice did for Jane, the most significant – and the most paradoxical, as it turned out – was the relief they provided her from the gnawing pain of her cancer. The paradox lay in the fact that the medication they prescribed in order to give her such needed relief was a close relative of the drug that had nearly stolen Jane’s life away. Morphine, a sister drug to the heroin that Jane had had to fight with all her might to free herself from, came in those last three months to ease her discomfort and smooth the path of her dying. The hospice team instructed her to use as much of the drug as she needed in order to remain comfortable. They assured her that the benefit of the drug’s powerful ability to relieve pain far outweighed concerns about addiction for someone who was dying and wished to meet the end of their life without undue suffering.
So, with a weary smile, Jane accepted the offering and used it with a moderation upon which she herself decided, living through those final months with both her hard-won sense of dignity and her persnickety sense of humor intact. Right into her last few days, she was clear-eyed and conscious, commenting on the curious course of her life. The peace she had fought so hard to find shone through her more and more clearly, until, on the day my darling sister died, lying in a hospital bed that we had set up in her living room, it seemed to suffuse her entire being. Not a trace of effort or illness remained to be seen. Only a look of absolute serenity lingered on her face, and a hint of amusement at the upturned corners of her mouth. Perhaps, I thought, she was enjoying the satisfaction of having made a radical adjustment on the balance sheet of her existence. She had certainly come out well ahead in the end.
Betsy MacGregor is a retired pediatrician and author of In Awe of Being Human: A Doctor’s Stories from the Edge of Life and Death. She worked nearly 30 years as a senior staff pediatrician and Director of Adolescent Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. There she founded and directed the Pediatric Pain Management Program and the hospital-wide Program for Humanistic and Complementary Health Care. In addition, as a George Soros Faculty Scholar with the Open Society Institute’s Project on Death in America, she designed and directed a three-year research project entitled Dying and the Inner Life, aimed at learning from people with terminal illness about what it means to face the reality of one’s own dying. She lives with her husband of 49 years and their puppy, Zoey, who insists on sleeping in their bed.
house Empty Now
By Catherine Anderson
Before my mother died that August, she gave us the words we needed to talk about her death with my adult brother, Charlie, who has severe autism. Tell him this, she said: “Mother loved Charlie very much, but Mother got sick and couldn’t come home again.” She phrased it in the idiosyncratic grammar my family uses when speaking with Charlie—direct, to the point, and without personal pronouns like “you” or “she” because these are words he doesn’t seem to understand.
Our mother also didn’t use the word “death” when telling us what to tell my brother and she didn’t raise the expectation that we take over his daily care. Years ago, she and my father had made sure he was placed in a group home with other disabled adult men. She did expect me to become my brother’s legal guardian once my father, who survived her, passed away. And she expressed a hope that Charlie’s life would continue without change. Over the years, I’ve tried, with effort, to fulfill that promise. I am the eldest and only daughter in the family. My arms permanently open to catch whatever falls.
Our parents brought us up in suburban Detroit until I was almost fifteen, Charlie twelve, and my brother Bill, six years old, when we moved to Kansas City, Missouri. It would be four years later before my parents arranged for Charlie to move from the Michigan institution where he had been living to our home on 63rd St and then later, a group home nearby. As an adult, Charlie uses few words, sometimes speaking rapidly and loudly, with one hand raised in the air as if he were a TV host. He seems to understand what we tell him although conversations are often one-sided interviews because like many people with severe autism and language deficits, Charlie cannot predict what another person may be thinking. He does not initiate speech unless he is really confident in the response he might receive. The short monosyllabic phrases he uses were learned from our mother in the years before he was institutionalized at the age of eight. Doris Anderson was trained to be a teacher and a “speech correctionist” as it was called in the 1950s and 60s. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Florida State University and started her career by breaking segregation laws to provide speech services in all-black schools. She left the South to marry my father, and continued working in the schools of urban Detroit, until her second pregnancy with Charlie.
One of the things I miss most about my mother is her lilting Southern cadence, a speech given to generous descriptions and well-turned metaphors. Our mother loved the beauty of the human voice, as expressive vehicle or musical instrument. This love led her to assist people from all walks of life—children born with cleft palates, wounded war veterans, refugees new to the English language. The shape of the tongue reaching for the letter “r” or the stop of breath required for the sound of “d” at the end of a word were movements whose perfection she knew instinctively, the way a dancer knows the forms of the bolero or the saraband. One of the central ironies of my mother’s life was to give birth to a child who would only learn to speak in halting tones, a child who required all of her maternal patience and vast intelligence. More than once she rose to the occasion: in addition to teaching him to speak by singing songs with him over and over again, she calmed Charlie’s temper tantrums by rolling him up in a blanket like a cigar and placing him down on her bed, immobile and peaceful for the first time in twenty-four hours, his penny-brown eyes finally closed.
Our mother was also an addicted smoker for almost forty-five years. She had tried to quit several times and succeeded months before we heard the dispiriting news of her terminal lung cancer. She claimed that nicotine took the edge off her nerves, and throughout my childhood both parents filled ashtrays throughout the day, the house dense with smoky dust motes. In January when I flew from my home to be with her in Kansas City the night she was diagnosed, she told me, “Don’t feel sorry for me. I loved smoking.” It started as a form of rebellion in the conservative south of the 1940s. With her girlfriends in tow, my mother used to drive down Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard with four or five cigarettes hanging from her mouth, a stunt to razz the more sedate onlookers. In her last days, she breathed with the assistance of a portable oxygen canister, her voice still melodious between outbursts of coughing.
The evening of our mother’s wake, Bill, my youngest brother, and I picked up Charlie from the group home where he waited for us, holding his good clothes on a hanger. Back at the house, the one he knew as his family home, we helped him put on his shirt and suit jacket, we clipped a few fingernails, buzzed his chin with the electric razor, just as our mother would do on Sunday mornings before church. A funeral home was not a church, but its close resemblance would make it easier for him, Bill and I reassured each other. There would be people he knew, candles, hand-shaking, flowers. Charlie likes to follow rituals, to imitate what others were doing. But would he understand that his mother had died? We didn’t know if Mom would be laid out in an open casket because our father, who had made the arrangements, didn’t remember. This could be a problem, Bill and I realized. We repeated as carefully as we could the words of farewell our mother had told us to tell him. He frowned, eyeing the road ahead as we drove. Entering the visitation area of the funeral home Bill and I soon saw the open casket, our mother laid out in a blue Swiss-dot dress. In silence, we each walked up to her and gave our parting words. When it was Charlie’s turn to say good-bye, he stood over the casket, looked into his mother’s face, and then raised his hand toward her, speaking in a loud voice, “Good-bye Mummer, good-bye Mama, good-bye Doris Anderson.” Finished, he turned to join the rest of us, watching, in wonder.
When Charlie turned six few doctors and no educators knew how to diagnose, treat or teach someone with autism. Special education classes were offered to children with mental retardation, but because a doctor and the school system assumed my brother had a mental illness in combination with mental retardation, he was barred from public school classrooms. After countless evaluations and rejections, my parents realized that the only solution to this double denial of education and health care was to place him in a state-sponsored institution. One morning in March they drove him three hours away to the Fort Custer State Home in Augusta, Michigan. On a summer visit I saw Charlie’s new neighborhood for the first time—block after block of mustard yellow army barracks overgrown by weeds and cattails. On the way home without him, the highway became filled with mirrored puddles that appeared on the horizon and then vanished the closer we got. My father calmly explained the mirage: a bright pool of water in the distance, a small shimmer of hope, yet as soon as you arrive, it disappears. In truth, it was never there to begin with.
These were sharp cruelties. They resemble the cruelties of neglect, though my family wasn’t poor or underserved. In another generation, my brother could have been locked away in a closed ward for the duration of his life. Instead, he came home to our family house on 63rd St. in Kansas City and grew up to be a calm, gentle adult, not the seven-year-old who roller skated in his bedroom. Not the child who chewed paper, then flung it to the ceiling where it stuck. Not the boy who hoisted a garbage can at his mother, the boy who kicked the kindergarten teacher, the boy who kicked me. Years later he has a sheltered workshop job in Kansas City, a city with many parks and recreational activities, a place in an adult group home where he is loved, and a chance to prove himself as a bowler and a Special Olympics champion.
Six years after my mother died in a rented hospital bed in the family living room I took my father to Armour Home, an assisted living center and nursing home not far from the house on 63rd St. It was a Saturday morning in April, and the redbud tree he loved to view from his kitchen window was in full bloom. A day earlier I had explained to my Dad that the decision we had made together for him to move was now real. We packed a few things in a suitcase. I explained again what kind of room he would have, where he would eat dinner, how often I would come to visit. My father showed me the small army green rucksack he had owned since his discharge from the infantry at the end of World War II. In this bag he had packed the items he wanted to take to the nursing home: a comb, his checkbook, eyeglasses case and a pair of pliers he used to open jars and bottles. My father had rheumatoid arthritis, his hands curved into claws that grasped clumsily at doorknobs and chairs. He had been a newspaper reporter for The Detroit News, and his hands once typed on an Underwood manual at 60 words per minute, typing through the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. As a kid, I told my father I wanted to be a writer, like him. “What should I do?” I asked. He said, “Learn how to type.”
The story of a parent’s decline is the sound of ripping cloth and quiet tears, of choked back anger and sighs of relief. My father lasted one week in the assisted living center of Armour Home before he had to be moved to the home’s nursing unit. Within that time, I needed more money to pay for his care and began the process to sell family house, the one Charlie knew as home. Everything in the four-bedroom house would have to go, all the papers sifted, all the pots and pans boxed, all the beds unframed, the rugs rolled. One morning I began with the kitchen, taking down the stainless-steel frying pan whose handle my mother had cleverly mended by winding ordinary cotton string around and around, then coating it with Elmer’s glue to seal the grip. Next were the blue cow-shaped cream pitcher, the wooden spice rack, the line of flour sack-shaped canisters, the roasting pan, the nested mixing bowls, the plastic cup measures, all packed in large boxes.
In Kansas City, I work for an organization that resettles new refugees. At the time of my father’s move, a group of Somali Bantu families had just arrived. Most had been warehoused in a camp in northern Kenya for over a decade. Of course these refugees arrived with nothing and had to learn about stoves and refrigerators, microwaves and cell phones. Highways, airports, speeding cars, trains and busses were all new to them. They had to learn English, get jobs, support their families. They needed warm clothes to wear to work and school. To learn how to cook they needed my mother’s plates and cups, her pots and pans, including that mended frying pan. Ishmahan, one of the interpreters for the refugee women, told me that some days, after cooking class, the women lingered in the training kitchen, enjoying each other’s company. Young and old, the women would lean back, sip coffee from my mother’s tea cups, and think of her, an elegant, kind lady, watching them. “In Somali culture, we think that way about those we love who’ve died,” she said. “They’re somewhere, looking at us, watching us. Do you believe that, too?” My answer was yes.
After only five months since his move to the nursing home, my father died. I was with him at the time, late at night in his nursing home room. I had now seen both my parents’ dying mouths form an oval ring to shape the breath they left me.
At my home after the funeral, Bill and I marveled at the different approaches to death our parents had taken. Our father resisted going gentle into that good night, while our mother accepted her diagnosis of terminal cancer almost fearlessly. After our mother died, our father had lived for another six years with multiple illnesses. He had experienced so many brushes with death, we concluded, he couldn’t stop fighting, even when the odds were stacked against him. The list of near misses we knew about included five major battles in World War II as an infantryman, a plane crashing right beside his car as he traveled the expressway home one morning after working midnights, a gasoline truck exploding in front of him on that same Detroit expressway, and a metal projectile to his car windshield in Kansas City. He was eighty-one when he died from natural causes.
That afternoon Bill and I decided to take Charlie for a last look at the old house before it would be sold and out of our lives forever. The late September air was brisk, with leaves scattered by strong winds riding down from the Rockies. It was a quick stride to 63rd St. and Charlie gained speed as we approached. We let him walk ahead to the back steps, the path he knew so well. At the door, I turned the key and said, “The house is empty now.” When the door opened, Charlie bolted past us through the kitchen, opening closets, cupboards, announcing aloud over and over, “House. Empty. Now. House. Empty.” The words became softer and softer as he wound through the other rooms, until his voice was no more than a whisper to himself, “house empty now.”
A sheer surprise, his quiet echo. Bill and I then realized that to Charlie, losing the house meant the same thing as losing his father and mother. And it was our own deficit of understanding, our own inability to predict what Charlie was thinking that made it hard for us to perceive his range of feelings about death and loss. For a few more minutes Charlie, Bill and I stood together with our own thoughts in that empty house. Then we left, locked the door, and trudged through the afternoon’s ephemeral, fallen leaves.
Catherine Anderson is a writer living in Kansas City, Missouri. She has published three collections of poetry as well as essays and poems in journals and periodicals ranging from the Southern Review to the Boston Sunday Globe. Much of her creative and professional work touches on the intersection of culture and language. She trains new refugees in the field of spoken language interpretation.
beyond the confines
By Sarah Bigham
In the light-shorted days of deep
winter I dream of spangled green
through a shattered eye of glass
made whole by memories from
before the squalor of pain
the husk-making of illness
and the sickness of loneliness.
meant to divide
inside / from / outside
echo and crumble under cooling dust
and the drifting, desiccated
smell of dry rot.
Or is it my bones?
Sarah Bigham teaches, writes, and paints in Maryland where she lives with her kind chemist wife, their three independent cats, an unwieldy herb garden, several chronic pain conditions, and near-constant outrage at the general state of the world tempered with love for those doing their best to make a difference. A Pushcart nominee, Sarah’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of great places for readers, writers, and listeners. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.
Photo by Jim Zola
Jim Zola is a poet and photographer living in North Carolina.
rolling the stone away
By Edna Cunningham Horning
Until I was nine, my family lived on Mary Street in Gadsden, Alabama. A widow lived directly across from us. I have no memories of interacting with her but considering the proximity of our homes, we likely at least saw each other.
Her last name was pronounced JEE-ro, and that was all I knew of her. Mrs. Jeero had died, or so my child’s ears had heard the adult voices say. Not until I was older did I learn that her death was not discovered for a day or two and that her body was found in a bedroom (presumably in bed).
I don’t think she and my parents were close, but my mother, nonetheless, planned to attend the funeral. I begged to be taken along.
Against her better judgment, Mother relented, and we headed for Collier-Butler Funeral Home on South Fourth Street. It was a large, white, columned building that looked more like an antebellum slave owner’s mansion than a mortuary.
My attendance turned out to be a mistake.
While time no doubt has shaped my memories of the actual scene, I recall the room as dark save for bright illumination around Mrs. Jeero’s unnaturally still body where it lay in a casket banked by flowers. Music, creepy as only an electronic organ can make it, emanated from somewhere.
In the weeks and probably months that followed, I often woke up screaming from nightmares. This was new behavior and Mother concluded that the funeral was to blame. I was simply too young for the experience. Hindsight, then as now, remains twenty-twenty.
Which raises the question: exactly how old was I? I had pondered this over the years and finally decided to find out. The dusty archives of the Gadsden Public Library, in combination with the glories of cyberspace, gave me an answer. Several answers, in fact.
To begin with, the phonetic spelling of her name did not match the actual. The lady’s full, correct name was Ela May Gero, nee Oakley, and the date of her own death was given as April 16, 1953. So, after decades of mild curiosity, I finally knew that I had been six years and two months old. This surprised me as I thought I had been younger.
But while my nightmares faded with time, someone else’s began.
If my parents shared only a passing acquaintance with Mrs. Gero, there had existed another relationship that meant far more to them, particularly to my father. I grew up hearing Daddy speak fondly and often of Wilson Parris, a friend who died in the early spring of 1950 when I was barely three and my brother, Bruce, was not yet one. But occasionally until I was ten or eleven, usually following Sunday church, Daddy would insist on driving the family to Crestwood Cemetery to visit Wilson’s grave. The frequency with which we did so is difficult to say. Perhaps once or twice a year. Perhaps less or more.
I don’t remember dreading these visits. Having been admonished that it was disrespectful to step on a grave, I carefully meandered here and there to truly dreadful music, worse than the funeral home’s, coming from a tinny outdoor sound system while I read names on headstones and asked the occasional question. By that age I fully understood that dead bodies were buried beneath, but Sunday school had taught me that people’s souls live on beyond death. Childlike, I accepted this.
One detail that caught my attention was that certain headstones had a photograph embedded in the granite. For me, this left no doubt that the people buried in that place (not just the ones with pictures but all of them) had been real individuals who lived and died in history and not imaginary creations of fiction. This realization did not particularly distress me, but I was a serious child in any case, and it made me even more pensive. Eventually these visits to Wilson’s grave became fewer and faded entirely when we moved farther away.
During this period in our lives, Mother and Daddy were still as busy as young adults typically are. Young adults’ days are dedicated to getting an education, scrambling for jobs, buying homes, and both starting and rearing families. Once they securely establish themselves and began the slide into early middle age, these same adults often find themselves with greater opportunity to mull the meaning of life. Maybe they realize they chose the wrong career-–or not. Maybe they decide they love their spouses more than ever or are prouder than ever of their children-–or not.
Maybe they continue to believe in an afterlife-–or not.
This last possibility befell Daddy, and it did not play out to a happy resolution. In his forties, my father began a slow descent into alcoholism, chaos, and despair. I was then, and am still, persuaded that while his increasing awareness of death’s inevitability was not the sole cause of his escalating pain, it certainly played a role. And this awareness was coupled, not coincidentally, with a loss of religious faith.
And so, in tandem with his drinking, Daddy’s mid-life crisis expressed itself most forcefully in his increasingly derisive and vociferous attacks on religion and religious belief. If he never stated flatly that he no longer believed in the existence of God, his behavior certainly suggested so.
Yet Daddy’s prior religious and other values were also mine. In particular he valued education, having struggled mightily as a poor boy to get one at the University of Alabama during the depths of the Depression. Bruce and I happily, and unquestioningly, followed in his and Mother’s footsteps on that score. There were no academic dropouts in our family.
But as for his no-God, no-future-life, religion-is-bunk positions, I’ve taken a different path. I was a founding member of my parish, have attended church regularly throughout my life, and praying daily. But I make no claim to an unshakeable faith arising from a numinous experience of God’s presence and guidance. And if my faith leans a bit to the rote variety, it nonetheless has been shaped by science as well as spirituality.
When I was little, Uncle Allen gave my family a copy of Religion and the New Psychology by Alson J. Smith, first published in 1951. In my early teens, I found it on the shelves in the den, and I still possess the same worn copy, held together by an elastic band. It instigated the beginning of my lifelong interest in psychical research and parapsychology.
I learned that the earliest psychical researchers (beginning with the Cambridge Ghost Society which ultimately morphed into the Society for Psychical Research, or SPR) were focused on the question of survival: whether consciousness and personality survive physical death. The triumphant scientism of their day smugly declared survival to be impossible and the query itself absurd. Death is the end, so no point in wasting thought or ink over the matter. Case closed.
As psychical research became parapsychology and moved from the séance room to the laboratory, it was inevitable that this earlier focus was regarded as, if not exactly an embarrassment, something that needed de-emphasis. Extrasensory perception and psychokinesis in the living became the new epicenter. Zener cards and dice throwing machines edged out mediums.
But as Freud reminds us, the repressed idea returns. Thanatos, certainly no less than Eros, cannot be denied for long. If survival research (or, as it is properly termed, survival-related research) was déclassé for decades, it is respectable again, and researchers are once more listing it on their CV’s. A good sign, I think.
All of us fear death, but simple observations from everyday life reveal that many have a greater fear than others. Reluctance-–and outright refusals-–to draw up a will, buy pre-need burial plots, attend funerals and memorial services, and so forth often betray this dread.
Daddy, however, did not noticeably display these rather obvious signs. Wills, life insurance, burial insurance, paid-for cemetery space and all the rest he had taken care of. But even so, his fear was boldly betrayed by his words rather than his actions.
Frequently, he admonished, “When you’re dead, you’re dead!” And once when the two of us were in the yard while he mowed the grass, he declared, pointing at Tippy, our pet collie, “The same fate awaits you that awaits that dog!”
True enough. But exactly what is the fate that awaits us? Daddy didn’t bother to finish the thought and no doubt figured he didn’t need to. As he saw it, the answer was obvious to anyone with two brain halves to rub together.
I have collected fifty or so books on extrasensory perception, psychokinesis, near-death experiences and related phenomena. All are authored not by cranks and crackpots but by prominent scholars and researchers. I have delved into far more than those fifty, and will continue reading in future. Those by physicists are usually too difficult for my understanding, and I slog my way through as best I can.
I wish Daddy had done the same because long before he died at age 74, he was a tortured soul, bent double by the fear of extinction. The literature on survival, like the subject itself, is particularly vexed and complicated territory. I have read and re-read Alan Gauld’s Mediumship and Survival with partial comprehension and explored other sources.
All this has provided me a rational, evidential, empirical basis for my expectation of a future life, the expectation that at the death of the body our minds, memories, and personalities-–our consciousness-–continue. Scoffers who assert that consciousness is a purely physical/mechanical/materialistic phenomenon, nothing more than electronic impulses fired off by brain cells, have some tall talking to do in the face of telepathy, remote viewing, precognition and psychokinesis.
Uncertainty is the human condition, and my expectation is not and cannot be 100 percent. It falls somewhere on the continuum between pure belief and pure certainty, but exactly where varies. On good days, my ratio of hope to despair is 90/10, on bad days 51/49, but unlike my father’s, it is never zero.
I doubt that my father ever read anything by Jacques Monod, the 1965 Nobel laureate in biology, but he would have assented to Monod’s bleak assessment, paraphrased as follows:
“Because nature has no intention or goal, we must accept that we are alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe out of which we emerged only by chance. Neither our destiny nor our duty is anywhere spelled out, and our very existence is pointless and absurd. We are merely chemical extras in a majestic but impersonal cosmic drama—an irrelevant, unintended sideshow.”
Daddy would have been better off by far (and, for that matter, so would Monod) to have paid serious attention to the writings of Charlie Dunbar Broad, internationally renowned philosopher and author, professor of logic and epistemology, don of Trinity College, Cambridge, president of the SPR 1935-36 and 1958-60, and lifelong model train and yo-yo enthusiast. Broad once told an interviewer, “Don’t you see? Because these phenomena are real, they change everything! Everything!”
I cast my vote for Broad’s perspective on this issue and am at leisure to ponder the delicious paradox that the rationally-based anticipation of a future life changes absolutely nothing while it changes absolutely everything.
Faith stronger than mine may well have no need for any of this, and individuals so favored might advise that I read the above-referenced literature less and the Bible more. I understand and respect their viewpoint, but not everyone has been privileged by unalloyed union with the divine. For such as us, empirical backup is most welcome. It rolls away the tomb’s sealing stone just enough to admit the beams of a star shining brilliantly against Monod’s–and Daddy’s–dark, dark night.
Edna Cunningham Horning is a retired reference librarian living in Columbia, South Carolina. She is a native of Alabama and attended college and graduate school in Virginia and Georgia, respectively. Her novella, “God Has One, Too” was published by Bewildering Stories and one of her short stories has also been accepted there.
love and death in the icu
By Linda Hansell
There were nine family members camped out in the ICU waiting room at Boston University Medical Center, our bodies and our backpacks taking up half of the room. We had been summoned to Boston urgently by my sister-in-law Andrea when my brother Jim went into septic shock.
Four months earlier, in December 2012, Jim had been diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare disease caused by a build-up of abnormal proteins in the body’s organs. He underwent chemotherapy at Boston University Medical Center for ten weeks in early 2013. At the beginning of April, he had a stem-cell transplant, the most promising treatment for amyloidosis. While he was immuno-suppressed from the chemotherapy, and before the new healthy stem cells could take hold, he contracted the H1-N1 flu virus. On April 12, he went into septic shock and was transferred into the intensive care unit.
Andrea called at 6:30 AM that Friday morning.
“Jim crashed this morning, and they’re taking him to the ICU,” she said. “The doctors are saying that anyone who wants to see him should get here right away.”
Implicit in her words was: ‘see him before he dies.’ I assured her I would get there as soon as I could. Terrified, I hung up the phone.
I couldn’t focus on the concept that my beloved brother—a vibrant man pulsing with life and enthusiasm–was on the brink of death. Jim was a loving husband, father, brother, son, psychologist, professor, mentor, musician, and soccer coach who was much-loved by his family, friends, colleagues, students, and patients. His broad smile under his bushy black mustache bore witness to the joy he derived from teaching his psychology students, planning conference workshops with colleagues, and accompanying his son and daughter on runs and bike rides. Jim embodied a life of helping others, of expanding possibilities, of putting more love into the world. Death seemed contrary to his very nature.
I packed frantically in my home in Philadelphia that early morning and called a friend to drive me to the airport, not knowing how long I would be away. When I arrived at the hospital in Boston, Jim was struggling to breathe. I got there just in time to say “I love you” before they intubated him. Later that day, other family members arrived—my father, my older brother and his partner, my niece and nephew, and Andrea’s two brothers.
Over the course of the next week, we watched Jim’s body in that hospital bed transform from a robust middle-aged man to an old man. He was unconscious, so he did not know that his hair turned from black to gray, his kidneys failed, his eyes became swollen and unable to see, and one by one his organs and systems shut down as his body succumbed to septic shock. Towards the end of that week, the nurses put pads over his eyes so that we wouldn’t have to see the frightening, monster-like bulging orbs they had become. It is a horror that will never leave me.
But amid all of this dreadfulness, there was love. All through the week, my family and Andrea’s family kept vigil over Jim, our hopes rising and falling with each new development in his condition. We took turns singing his favorite Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones and Alison Krauss songs to him, talking to him, and holding his limp hand, not knowing if he could hear us or sense us. I told him how much I loved him, and about my newly discovered favorite bands. “We’ll listen to them together when you get better,” I said. “I know you’ll love them, too.”
We encircled Jim in this caring sphere, trying to block out the beeping of the monitors from the numerous pumping and filtering machines he was connected to, and trying (but not succeeding) to follow the nurses’ advice to not look at the numbers flashing in red, green, and yellow on the monitors showing his vital signs.
Andrea set a tone of caring and compassion, not just for Jim, but also for the intensive care nurses who took exceptional care of him, and for the doctors who brought us increasingly worrying reports as the week went on. There was no anger at the doctors or nurses, no blaming or recrimination for Jim’s worsening condition, no judging or yelling or keening. In the face of the calamity that was unfolding before us, despite our exhaustion, our worries, our grief, we loved each other, and everyone around us, hard. We supported each other as best we could. We hugged, we spoke gently to each other, and we looked after each other’s needs for sleep and food. We took turns doing food runs, bringing back take-out sandwiches, salads and cookies for the group.
Being in the presence of death and dying can bring out the worst in people, or it can bring out the best. Somehow during that wrenching week in the ICU, we embodied our best selves, and showed appreciation and gratitude to the people around us, both in our family circle and outside it. This circle of love grew to include Anne, a young woman from Haiti I befriended in the ICU waiting room. Anne was there by herself, day after day, in support of her mother who was very ill. We shared our food, and shared stories about our loved ones who were sick. I learned about her devout faith in God. She told me she was not worried about her mother, because God would not let her mother die. I envied her faith in a good outcome.
It was a time out of time. Surreal and sacrosanct. Connected by our deep love and care for Jim, we created a form of beloved community there in the medical ICU ward of Boston University Medical Center, with death and dying all around us. In the cheerless, heartrending, anxiety-filled space of the ICU waiting room and Jim’s hospital room, where all present were keeping vigil over a loved one at the threshold of death, I felt a sense of community and love unlike any I had experienced before.
When it became clear Jim was not going to survive without the aid of the machines he was connected to, and the time came for us to instruct the nurses to turn off those machines, we formed a circle around his hospital bed. With the room quieter without the whirring and pulsing of the machines that had been keeping him alive, we sang him off to the other world with “Tender Shephard” in a three-part round. There was a searing sacredness in that moment.
The initial sharp, stabbing pain of losing Jim has transformed over time into something more bearable, like a burl on a tree trunk around which the tree grows. The sadness is always there, in equal measure to my love. But there is also the memory of the circle of love we created. There is the knowledge that even when our hearts are cracked open with grief and fear, even when we are faced with losing the people we love most in the world, we can choose love over anger and bitterness.
The circle of love we created while keeping vigil over Jim in the ICU was the most sacred experience of my life. Out of that circle emerged a truth that I keep close to my heart: love transcends death.
Linda Hansell is a writer and educator based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She holds a B.A. from Williams College and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. She has co-authored two autobiographies and has published several journal articles and essays. When not working on her creative nonfiction, she enjoys singing, playing the banjo and walking in the woods.
By Ron. Lavalette
Half of these people are already half dead he thinks, watching them watch each other stare out the tall plate glass of the hospital’s east pavilion solarium into the rapidly fading mid-March sunset; the other half is already further gone than that, but remain resolutely unwilling or merely incapable of simply accepting facts.
He goes down two levels in the oncology elevator and sits silently with the waiters and worriers, sees how long he can hold his breath waiting for a specialist to find and read a chart, to suggest a cure or announce an imminent demise, or to otherwise free him from his tedium and chafe. Here, at least, two levels down, where the truth is at last both known and spoken, there is far less opportunity for being blinded by the false light from above, as there is no such light to be found. Here, at least, everyone knows.
There are, he knows, many other rooms; many other even lower levels, most with even far less light. This he knows with certainty. Armed with this awareness, he contents himself with his current level of twilight.
Ron. Lavalette is a widely-published poet living on the Canadian border in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, land of the fur-bearing lake trout and the bilingual stop sign. His work, both poetry and short prose, has appeared extensively in journals, reviews, and anthologies ranging alphabetically from Able Muse and the Anthology of New England Poets through the World Haiku Review and Your One Phone Call. A reasonable sample of his published work can be viewed at EGGS OVER TOKYO: http://eggsovertokyo.blogspot.com
the last bumblebee
By H.S. Deurloo
Joey hated hospitals more than canned tuna, but more than anything he hated cancer. When he was finally allowed in to see Grandpa Rusty, he expected someone half-dead from the way his parents spoke in hushed voices drinking the hospital’s lukewarm coffee.
He met Grandpa’s bright eyes under bushy brows and smiled. “You’re gettin’ everyone riled up out there, Pa.”
“Ha! Let ‘em whisper and talk,” Pa said. “I’ve got a job for you back at the orchard.”
Pa’s voice was low and his lips were cracked.
“You’re still givin’ me chores?” Joey asked. “Shouldn’t you be worried about the tests and all these things?” Joey motioned to the IVs and bags dripping clear liquids of unknown concoctions into his grandpa’s veins. Pa looked like an alien experiment.
“Nah, there’s bigger problems- world problems- that need tending,” Pa said.
“World problems?” Joey asked, puzzled.
“I need you to get my notebook and keep up my records while they hold me hostage here.”
The door opened revealing Joey’s mother, pursed lipped in a floral print.
“Joey get yourself home,” she said. “This isn’t any place for kids.”
Nodding, Joey glanced back at Pa who gave him a thumbs-up before the door closed.
The next morning Joey jumped on his ten-speed bike and raced to Grandpa Rusty’s farm his fat tires keeping grip on the dirt road. He knew the notebook Pa had mentioned. Joey had never saw him without it, always checking and tallying things. He found the spare key inside the dinner bell hanging off the front porch and let himself in. He checked the kitchen counter first but found only empty pill bottles. Next, he checked the desk. It was covered in homemade seed packets, Pa’s scrawling writing impossible to read, but no notebook.
“Come on,” Joey said to the tomb-quiet house. He raced up the creaky wooden stairs pausing only a moment before turning the handle to Grandpa Rusty’s bedroom. Pa’s room smelled like aftershave and looked just as messy as his own room except for overalls on the floor instead of jeans. Then he saw it, in a puddle of sunshine, on the bedside table. He picked it up. The leather was warm and faded – the color of dry dirt. With the journal tucked under his arm, Joey retraced his steps downstairs and out to the front porch. Sitting on the swing he opened the journal, searching for the world problem Pa wanted him to help with.
A Catalog & Count of Bee Activity by Rusty Skinner
Joey flipped through the pages. Each section started with a clipped photo of a bee and a description followed by several pages of tallies from every May for the past twenty-six years. He found the last set of tallies about halfway through the book.
“He wants me to count bees,” Joey said in disbelief.
Wandering down the two-track past the old silo Joey looked over the blooming apple orchard rolling down the hillside. Joey started looking for bees while he walked deeper into the sun-drenched trees, searching for matches between each frail page.
The bees were fast, and Joey found himself spinning in circles trying to keep track. Finally, plopped down on the ground surrounded by white clover, Joey found the bees coming to the blooms around him, and he watched them work mesmerized. Moving from bloom to bloom the little insects kept moving, like Grandpa Rusty always had. Joey’s throat caught tight and he blamed the dusty air.
Joey counted bees all morning before returning home to make himself some lunch. His mom had left a hasty note, I’m at the hospital, then headed to work. I left you food in the fridge. Joey opened the refrigerator door and the smell of tuna wafted out, he slammed the door looking for the peanut butter instead. Eating his sandwich, Joey felt like he should be with Grandpa instead of wasting his time counting bees. He downed a Pepsi, grabbed his bus pass, and headed into the hospital.
Joey approached Pa’s bedside, sitting in the empty chair waiting for some acknowledgment of his presence from Pa.
“How goes the count?” Pa asked unable to open his eyes from all the drugs and chemo he’d been given.
“It’s difficult. They all look alike.” Joey said adding, “What’s the point?”
“It’s like an invasion out there, people taking over the land, diseases, invasive species, and pesticides. They are all drumming toward the bee’s downfall. If we ignore it, well it can kill ya.”
Joey looked down the length of the bed, seeing how each breath barely made an effect on Grandpa’s chest.
“Bees don’t kill, cancer does,” Joey mumbled.
“I’ve known somethin’ was wrong for a while but I didn’t do anything ‘bout it. But the bees still have a chance,” Pa said. “Without them crops don’t grow. Famine and hunger. I don’t want that for you later. So count the bees, send in the data, push, petition, use that internets you like to make people listen.”
“I’m just a kid,” Joey protested.
“No, you’re Rusty Skinner’s grandson, you’ve got the gumption, so go get it done.”
Joey nodded. In his hands, the notebook felt slippery from sweat.
“What about you?” Joey asked. “Me, I’m the first of the bees to go.”
He cleared his throat.
“Don’t let it happen to the rest of ‘em,” he continued.
A doctor came through the doorway with a quick knock.
“It’s time for another round,” the doctor said.
Joey headed back to the orchard. He had to find as many bees as he could, for Pa.
He spent the next three days tallying up bees as he saw them. Some were burrowed deep into apple blossoms, others flitting between clover blooms, and occasionally they seemed to hover before him as if he was disrupting their daily commute.
Flipping to the last page, Joey saw a clipping of the fattest bumblebee he’d ever seen. It didn’t even seem possible that the wings would be able to lift such a fuzzy body. Under the photo was the name “Rusty Patched Bumblebee.” He searched the flowering apple trees for two straight days. His neck was sun burnt, and he was desperate to find just one.
As the sky changed to lilac in the east, Joey sat on the stump of a maple tree staring at the notebook, wishing he’d been able to do better. Looking up, he saw the headlights of a car coming down the dirt road. It stopped in front of him, and his mom got out. Her cheeks were flushed and her makeup was smeared. She didn’t have to say anything. He wrote a zero under the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, closed the notebook, and slipped into the backseat of the car.
Joey stood stiff legged in the breeze that whirled through the cemetery. He couldn’t focus on the words being said, he just stared at the flowers covering the box that held whatever was left of Grandpa Rusty. His hand was clenched around the notebook in his pocket like the last lifeline he had to Pa, and he’d failed to find all the bees on the list.
Trying not to cry, his gaze caught a slight movement burrowing into a white lily on top of the casket. It emerged and Joey could see the rusty colored spot on the back of the fattest bee he’d ever seen. As it flew away, he opened the notebook to the last page, crossed off the zero, put a tally of one and smiled.
H.S. Deurloo enjoys writing, reading, and fishing around West Michigan and when not doing those things she can be found exploring nature with her kids. In addition, she manages and contributes to a creative lifestyle blog QuestType.com, is active on Twitter’s writing community @HSDeurloo, and co-leads a local writing group.