The Viewing

My car speeds north along the nearly deserted two-lane stretch of Highway 101 towards Waldport. My muscles are stiff from my hike up Cape Perpetua, and I’m anxious to get back to the house where I am staying for a hot shower. The sky is grey with pending rain and the ocean crashes against the rocks, occasionally spraying the road.

As I round a curve, a flower cart is suddenly flung high into the air only two hundred yards or so before me, spilling flowers onto the road. How bizarre, I think, there’s nothing like flower carts around here. This small Oregon town caters more to loggers than to tourists. Then I see a white car sideways across my lane. A motorcycle splayed on its side. That was no flower cart in the air at all; it was the motorcycle.

I slam on my brakes and swerve to the side of the road up against the cliff. I grab my raincoat and run to the accident, my open car door ding-ding-dinging behind me.

The motorcycle is green. A sidecar is attached. A man in black leather is sprawled out in front of the white Ford. All this I see in a blur as I race to the middle of the deserted highway. I shove my arms into my raincoat as I search up and down the road for an approaching vehicle. For the first time in my life I wish I had a cellphone. The ocean sprays high across the road; the rain mists my face. I hop from one foot to the other, turning my head to the north, the south.

It’s the one thing I remember from my first aid training. Never assume someone will call 911. Make eye contact, point at them.

Finally, a pickup lumbers into view from around the curve. I stand smack in the middle of the lane and wave my arms, my raincoat flapping crazily. The pickup screeches to a halt just a few feet from me.

Do you have a cellphone? I shout at the driver, a big man, a logger maybe. I run to his window.

He nods quickly.

Call 911! I yell, pointing my finger at him.  It’s the one thing I remember from my first aid training. Never assume someone will call 911. Make eye contact, point at them.

Call 911! I yell. I’m up on the truck’s step, gripping his car door, just inches from his face.

He looks like he’s afraid of me. But I see his cellphone in his big hand. His grimy fingers press the buttons.

* * *

Usually when I head over to the coast for my annual personal retreat in Waldport, I leave at first light the Sunday morning at the start of my stay. That way I can get a beach walk in before 11, when my week officially begins. I’d been coming here for years: spending a week in late October by myself in a small blue house right on the ocean.

This time though, I went to Abe’s viewing first.

I would have read of his death in the newspaper along with everyone else, had the wife of one of his friends not called me at work.

“Abe died last night,” she had said. “I told Hank that no one would think to call you, and I didn’t want you to see it in the paper before you knew.”

I thanked her kindly; I knew it had taken a lot for her to call. Most of the wives had been wary of me, as though my love for Abe were somehow a threat to their own marriages. Rumors that we were having an affair had circulated for the ten years we had been together. Now, fifteen years after Abe and I had finally given up on it, apparently people still wondered about us.

His wife, Ellie, never uttered a single hint to either him or me that she knew. Maybe she was grateful for our discretion and thought if she didn’t acknowledge our relationship, she wouldn’t have to do anything about it. She was distant towards me, but never unkind.

Abe was not the sort to have an affair. Neither was I. We met not long after I left my violent husband in Colorado and moved to Oregon. I had no trust left for men. Abe was safe, easy to talk to. When I saw him with his wife, they were obviously happy; they had that laid-back, teasing way of being together. He was the kind of dad who worried over his daughter’s middle-school problems.

Anything I can say now about his sweetness, or the way he championed me in each one of my causes even when he disagreed with me, will only sound like I’m trying to justify my behavior.

Yet we let our friendship cross the line and then did nothing to try and bring it back to the right side again. Anything I can say now about his sweetness, or the way he championed me in each one of my causes even when he disagreed with me, will only sound like I’m trying to justify my behavior. I’ll not give myself that.

I’m not proud that we had an affair.  And I would never again do that to another woman. Or to myself. Because you never come first when you’re in a relationship with a married man. Face it, a daughter’s volleyball game will always trump your birthday.

In fact, I guess you could say the years Abe and I were together were really nothing more than ten years’ worth of one-night stands. Because if one of you can’t commit, it comes down to the same thing. When I said that to Abe during an argument once, he cried.  I never said it again.

*     *     *

I run back to the man splayed on the asphalt. The man and the woman from the white Ford stand next to the car. The woman is crying, the man has his arms around her. The ding-ding-dinging from my car door pierces the pounding of the ocean.

I drop to my knees. The man’s body is encased in black leather as though the skin of a dead animal could have protected him from a white Ford. His head is not even two feet from the car’s left front tire.

I unfasten his helmet and then remember that I’m probably not supposed to move his neck, so I don’t take it off. Instead, I lift his goggles to his helmet. His eyes are almond shaped. Ice blue.

I try to remember how far we are from a hospital. Newport is at least twenty minutes away, even at ambulance speed. I can’t remember if Newport has a hospital or not.

The woman’s crying sounds far off even though she is standing right there. The asphalt digs into my knees. I take off the man’s gloves. Rough, square hands with wide short fingers. Broken blunt nails. I rub his hands. Once, when I was a child growing up in Miami, my mother took us to the Sea Aquarium. There was a manatee in a pool and I got to pet it. I think of that leathery crackled skin now as I rub the man’s hands. My car ding-ding-dings.

The man makes a moaning sound.

Shhh, you’re going to be fine, I tell him. His eyes are ice blue. Shhh, everything’s going to be just fine.

The ocean pounds against the rocks, spraying the road. The rain mists all around us.

The man moves his head. I can tell he wants his helmet off. I shake my head no, and knead his manatee-skin hands. It’s going to be okay, I say. You’re going to be okay.

The woman from the white Ford is crying. The man from the white Ford says I didn’t see him I didn’t see him.

He squints his ice blue eyes at me as though he is trying to remember where he knows me from.

I hear other cars stopping. A man, maybe even the man who called 911, yells. Help me with the bike! The fuel is running all over the place!

The woman from the white Ford is crying. The man from the white Ford says I didn’t see him I didn’t see him.

I rub the man’s square manatee-skin hands and stare into his ice blue eyes. He wants his helmet off. Shhh, I say, shhh. Everything’s going to be all right. The man’s face is damp with ocean spray and rain mist.

From far away I can hear the ambulance screaming. The man darts his ice blue eyes back and forth, back and forth. Shhhh, I say, shhhh. I rub his hands.

*     *     *

I used to wonder if I would love Abe as much if he were available. Back then I was still afraid I would turn back into my old self if a man tried to manage my life. I didn’t trust that my new confidence would stick. That if I got battered again I wouldn’t be too scared to leave and start my life all over.

Abe didn’t know about the violence, though he could have guessed. One night early on in our relationship, when we were playfully wrestling with our lovemaking, he held me down by my wrists. He weighed over a hundred pounds more than me, and I squirmed, trying to get out from beneath him. We had been laughing, but I became afraid. A dark voice from somewhere deep inside me growled, “Get. Off.” In my sudden fury, I could have sunk my teeth into his cheek and ripped his face off.

Abe rolled off immediately. “I’m so sorry,” he kept saying. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” I should have told him then, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to put my past life behind me, pretend it hadn’t happened. He never brought it up, not even after I started working at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence.

We stopped seeing each other so many times I lost count. When it was Abe who ended it, it was because of a poem he had read about a man and a woman who had an affair. When he died, she could only watch the funeral from behind a tree, while his wife received all of the town’s sympathy. He didn’t want me to be that woman. When I was the one who broke up with Abe, it was because it was too late. I already was that woman.

It was me who finally ended our affair for good. I couldn’t sneak around anymore; I no longer cared whether anyone knew or not. Even then, I didn’t expect him to leave Ellie; I would have lost respect for him if he had. But I wanted to be the woman who came first. I wanted to be the woman he planned on sailing around the world with after his retirement.

 *     *     *

A woman kneels next to me. She leans into me. Our shoulders touch. I can tell she’s a strong woman, capable.

Her voice is husky. I’m a registered nurse, she says quietly at my ear. I almost don’t hear her over the crashing of the ocean.

I’m not, I tell her, not taking my eyes away from the man’s.

She removes the man’s helmet. Ah, I think, so I could have taken it off after all. The man’s hair is grey and matted.

I can take over now, she says. She takes the man’s rough manatee-skin hands from me.

I knee myself out of her way, still looking in the man’s ice blue eyes. It’s going to be all right, I tell him. Everything is going to be okay.

My legs tremble as I stand. My car has stopped ding-ding-dinging; it must have finally run down, like an alarm clock. Or killed the battery. I wobble past the man with the ice blue eyes, to the other side of the white Ford.

Then I see her. Laying face down, arms and legs bent in impossible angles, face into the asphalt. As though some pissed-off god had snatched her out of that sidecar and slammed her down on the asphalt in a fury.

Even I can see she is dead.

 *     *     *

I ran into Ellie at the grocery store a month or two before Abe died. I hadn’t seen her for years. She looked so happy to see me and I was surprised that I was glad to see her too. We chatted in the produce aisle, occasionally stepping aside while an irritated shopper reached around us for an onion. As she told me about the grandkids and what Abe was up to, I realized that there was a real affection between us. Maybe, because we had loved and been loved by the same man, in some curious way we were bonded. Abe had loved us differently, neither of us ever a real threat to the other. Or maybe it was simply a matter of enough time having gone by that we could appreciate each other as individuals rather than as extensions of Abe.

During the fifteen years we were no longer having an affair, Abe and I talked often on the phone. Sometimes in the middle of the day, he’d call me at work. “Do you remember the time …” he’d start to say and I’d finish his sentence and we’d both start laughing. We’d always seemed to know what the other was thinking.

Occasionally he’d drive over to the town where I worked and take me out to a nice place for lunch. We’d talk about our days with the easiness of two people who had known each other at both their worst and their best, or lapse into comforting silences. On the way back from the restaurant, Abe would drop his hand, as big as a baseball mitt, palm open, onto the console between us. I’d place my hand in the middle and he’d fold his fingers around mine. We’d drive back to my work like that, my hand in his.

At Abe’s viewing, I waited in the lobby as the man in a black suit instructed me to do. The family was still with Abe; momentarily they would be leaving and then other mourners could go in. But Abe’s daughter saw me through the glass door and waved. She turned to her mother and Ellie came out to embrace me.  She cried and we rocked each other back and forth.

 *     *     *

Two paramedics leap out of the ambulance as it coasts to a stop. One turns the woman lying face down on the asphalt over and takes off her helmet. Her grey hair spills over the wet black asphalt. The other paramedic slits her black leather casing open, exposing her plump white middle-aged chest and belly. He snips her brassiere at the center and her breasts, large and round, spring free.

The woman’s nipples stand hard and erect.

The paramedics attach the pads for a defibrillator and shout things like Clear! at each other. But I know she’s dead. Even the registered nurse had walked right past her, instead coming to the man with the ice blue eyes.

My home, just over the coastal range in the Willamette Valley, suddenly seems far away and exotic.

The woman’s body jerks with each shock. I think of the frog I dissected all those years ago in high school. If you poked your scalpel in just the right place on the frog’s spine, you could make the legs move.

The woman’s skin is white against the black leather flayed open at her sides, the wet black asphalt. Her body looks like it has been carved in marble. Only her nipples strain for life.

The sheriff’s deputy is here now, scribbling in his notebook. He asks for my name and address. My home, just over the coastal range in the Willamette Valley, suddenly seems far away and exotic.

The nurse is kneeling by the man with the ice blue eyes. The driver of the white Ford and the woman who is crying talk to the deputy. A group of men stand around the motorcycle doing whatever it is that men do to motorcycles.

The motorcycle looks like a bike you would expect to see in a movie about World War II. A Russian-made bike I hear one of the men say. It has Arizona license plates and is covered with little travel stickers: Rocky Mountain National Park, Mount Rushmore, Oregon Sea Lion Caves.

Someone has made a pile of the belongings of the man with the ice blue eyes and the woman. Things that I mistook for flowers when I first saw the white Ford flip the motorcycle into the air: a little notebook with a rubber band around it, maps, several small canvas bags.

I bet it was the woman who packed everything in those little bags, I think, as I walk towards my car. I do the same thing when I travel; everything has its own canvas bag: my hiking clothes, my books, my art supplies. They had probably planned this trip around the country in their green Russian-made motorcycle for years. I imagine him smiling down at her cocooned in the sidecar with all her canvas bags, his ice blue eyes crinkling at the corners behind his goggles.

Someone has closed my car door. That’s why the ding-ding-dinging stopped. The inside of the door and driver’s seat are wet from where the rain misted in. I take my raincoat off and reach in to drape it over the passenger seat. Then I get inside and shut the door. I sit in the sudden silence a minute with my eyes closed.  Then I slip back onto Highway 101.

 *     *     *

The viewing room was empty when I entered. Lights dimmed, soft non-committal elevator music playing. Abe would have much preferred strings of sparkly blinking lights, and some jazzy piano music, Scott Joplin maybe. I peered into his coffin. He wore the same little boy smile he always got when he saw a puppy. I placed my palm on top of his folded hands. Other than the cold hardness, they felt the same. Coarse and kind. “Peasant hands,” he called them. “Artist hands,” I’d always reply.

My chest tightened and my throat went hot. I had been so relieved when our breakup dance was finally over that I never once thought about how much I missed him.

*     *     *

It’s raining for real now, not just misting, as I back into the driveway of my little rented house. I sit there watching the greyness of it. Then I bend down and wriggle my jean leg up over my right knee. Little bloody pits from kneeling on the asphalt dot my leg. I push my jean leg back down and press my head into the steering wheel. I think of the hot shower I had been looking forward to after my hike. But I’d have to walk up the steps, unlock the door, take off my boots, get undressed, step into the shower.

After a minute, I get out of the car and walk towards the roar of the ocean. I have forgotten to put my raincoat back on and the rain soaks through my turtleneck, my jeans. My skin shivers alive with it. I stand as close to the edge of the ocean as I can, the waves shlushing just short of my feet.

You can barely see where the horizon lies—the ocean and the sky are so nearly the same shade of grey.  After a while I can’t tell if I am wet from rain, ocean spray, or tears.

Mary ZelinkaMary Zelinka lives in the Willamette Valley in Oregon and has worked at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence for over 22 years. Her work has previously appeared in Pilgrimage, The Sun, Open Spaces, and CALYX, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

CancerLand

Fact: My hands are too short to reach mom’s cancer.

How Cancer Changed Me: My logic is the safest thing I have. I write lists about logic. I make everything neat and ordered. There is a careful, measured safety in lists. I can see how far they stretch. Nothing sneaks up on me. I love a good list.

I tell him that I can’t know what he’s too much of a coward to tell me.

What the Doctors Said: The doctors tell me that my mother’s cancer cannot be erased by how big or small my hands are. They don’t tell me that my hands can make a difference. They tell us to have hope. They tell us she’ll die. When I ask what we should do now, a doctor tells me to take her on a cruise, medical code for we really have nothing left for you. He calls me after she dies and screams at me. He tells me that I should have known what he was saying. I curse at him. I tell him that I can’t know what he’s too much of a coward to tell me. It’s all over his demeanor: It’s not my job to tell you or to fix what breaks. His parents are alive. He’ll hang up and get lunch. I sit still for hours and finally there is nothing to do.

What It Is (From Back Then): It is 2005, I am 27, and my father has just died. In the twisted, are-you-seriously-fucking-kidding-me-God way of dark stories heard around the office, my only remaining parent—my mother—has cancer. A year before, it was in her lungs. She went through chemo (she was a cheerful patient, the kind that everyone wants to be, and I suppose that’s why she was the kind that wears hats for holidays and brings in cake for everybody). Then my 75-year-old dad fell down the stairs and spent four days yelling at me and pissing himself. Then he went into the hospital and died. It is two months later and her headaches have turned out to be stage four. I don’t know it then, but my mother’s clock is already ticking. It runs out in 2007.

What I Wished: I wished I could hear this dark story around the office and then shake my head. It would be so nice to walk over to someone else, listen tenderly to her shit story, and then leave after an hour, feeling grateful that the life lived around that story is someone else’s.

Books I Read: I read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. I read The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Women. I read books that should tell me what a roadmap looks like and how to recognize it. Mary Lennox and Sara Crewe survive without parents. In Little Women, Beth dies. American literature never quite recovers from the blow of losing the sweetest March sister.

Fact: My mother is not a story or Beth March. All the reading I do does not matter, and does not save.

What My Mother Was: 5’6”. Brown/brown. Vaccine scar on upper arm. Pink painted toenails. The place between her eyebrows sometimes raw when she tweezed too much. Happy. Secretly scared of her entire life, even before the cancer, a fact that I pretend I don’t know. Never went out after dark. Vivacious laugh. Caught between her parents (my alcoholic grandpa and my lovely, hurt, spoiled grandmother) when they violently and brutally divorced because he was fucking grandma’s best friend at a time when most of America couldn’t spell divorce. Scorpio with a Taurus moon. All my friends want to come over and read tarot cards with her.

What My Mother Does Before Cancer: Goes shopping when she has enough money. Tells my dad to fuck himself when he yells at her. Wants me to be more girly, and secretly wants me to think tall, Jewish boys are my soul mates, instead of tall, boyish girls. Reads Walden. Reads The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Calls Lady the beagle her soul mate because Lady has large brown eyes and is a Pisces and mom is a Scorpio. Avoids calls from her sister, who seems to always be angry with my mother for not protecting her or my uncle when they were children, but from what, I don’t know. Tells me stories when I am a child about getting very small, and climbing on the back of a leaf, and flying to China, and to Heaven, and inside tree trunks.

What My Mother Does After Cancer: Paints random words all over the backyard: love, laugh, brave, sex, hide (on the underside of a chair), seek (on the fence next to the chair), daughter, mother, father, dog, happy, live. Loses long, curly hair and cries. Then, shaves off what is left. Talks about suing the doctor who misdiagnosed her and never said it was cancer until cells became cells and the thing started to eat her from within. Slowly dies but pretends she isn’t. Slowly dies but tries not to.

Who Saves Me (During and After): Friends, the kind that show up in books, show up here. My home—the one that I throw at the sun as hard as I can—is filled to bursting. Friends make quilts, curry, cookies, cd mixes. They hug me, some kiss me, and I sleep with one of them the night after the funeral, because I can’t tell where my grief ends and another body starts, but somewhere in the middle is something I can’t quite call joy.

I threw the whole house, it seems, toward the light. I have bought things that belong to me.

What It Is (Now): My childhood house is mine and I fight with it daily. It has taken years of grief therapy and slow growth. I threw the whole house, it seems, toward the light. I have bought things that belong to me. I have trashed old pictures, smelly couches. I wrestle with the house as though I am trying to kill what happened to the family that lived here. It is easier to write it like that, instead of “my family that lived here” because two out of three—my mother and father—wound up dying, and I, the one that was left, grew, because there was nothing else to kill me at hand. I, too, have been flung at the light, and forced to grow.

What We Cannot Do: With cancer, my mother and I cannot get very, very small. We cannot shrink to leaf-traveling-size. There is no flying away on this one, and nothing big enough to carry us away. We are here, and rooted, and trying. Now, I am here. She is not. I am rooted and trying.

Marissa CohenThe late poet laureate of Florida called Marissa Cohen’s (www.marissacohen.com) work “powerful.” Her writing has appeared in countless publications, including The Cancer Poetry Project 2 (as featured in The New York Times), Gather Kindling, and Wilde Magazine. She’s twice been interviewed on CBS Radio and also works in higher education and publishing.

The Beetle and the Wind

On the morning of June 26, 2000, I awake with a weird pain in my right side. I stretch, take a deep breath, and assess the situation. No other symptoms. “I must have slept funny,” I think, as I take my dog Lancelot out to pee.

It’s a Friday. A glorious Vermont summer day. My girlfriend Jess and I have been dating for about 6 months, and this is the first time we’ve arranged to have a few days off of work together.

My truck is loaded with our trash. The plan is that I will drop the garbage off at the dump before meeting Jess and her kids, Sam and Tessa, and heading to Lake Shaftsbury for the day.

I don my sunglasses, roll down the windows, and blast Bob Marley. If this had been a recycling trip, Jess would’ve joined me. I would have sorted the paper, plastics, and metal. And, though we both love the thrill of shattering glass in the huge metal bins, I would’ve let Jess do that part.

I used to have rules about who I wouldn’t date: Don’t date anyone who’s married. Don’t date a coworker. Don’t date anyone who’s more than seven years older than you. Don’t date anyone with an addiction problem. And don’t date anyone who’s in the closet.

Jess pursued me and, because dating her would involve breaking every single one of my rules, I resisted for several months. Until the day she cornered me behind the register at work—in the area where employees gift wrap items for customers. I’d kneeled down to pick up a piece of ribbon. She slipped into the closet-sized room, put her foot on the stool beside me, and pretended to be adjusting the strap of her high heeled Mary Jane. She was wearing a short black skirt and knee-high stockings.

“You need some help in here?” she asked.

“No, I think I’m fine,” I said, but the desire to softly slide my hand up the back of her calf as I stood was irresistible.

Rules are made to be broken, right? And if you’re gonna break one rule, why not break all of them at once?

Rules are made to be broken, right? And if you’re gonna break one rule, why not break all of them at once?

Jess had worked at the bookstore for over ten years. She was the manager of, and book buyer for, the children’s department. Later, she would confess that she knew she wanted me from the moment we met. She could even provide a detailed description of what I’d been wearing on my first day of work.

When I arrive at Jess’s house after the dump, she says I look pale. I confess to having a weird pain in my side but insist I’m okay.

On the way to the lake, we stop to get some cash. I feel woozy as I cross the street to the ATM. When I reach the entry to the bank, I have to kneel over and put my head between my legs for a moment to keep from passing out. I wonder if maybe I’m lightheaded because I didn’t eat any breakfast.

Jess and I find a spot on the lake’s beach, and Sam and Tessa charge off into the water. In addition to a book, Jess has also brought a journal. Periodically, she pauses from her reading, writes secret notes in the journal, and slides it over to me. Though she’s left her husband, she isn’t ready to be open about our relationship.

Later that afternoon, I almost pass out again. Finally, I confess that I really don’t feel well. A guy whose kids attend the same school as Sam and Tessa is at the lake, and Jess asks if he’ll keep an eye on them while she runs me home. When she drops me off, she promises to call and check on me in a couple of hours.

As soon as I’m alone, I start to panic. Lancelot looks at me with extreme distress. Something is really wrong. I get an intense stabbing pain in my right side when I take a deep breath.

Jess calls, and I tell her I’m worse and I don’t know what to do. When she arrives at my apartment, she says, “Melba, you look like the gray E.T.” Because this was one of my favorite childhood films, I know exactly what color she means—and how dire this situation might be. The way she looks at me also makes me think that she and I share the same kind of love, the same kind of symbiotic relationship that Elliott and E.T. did. It’s like Jess and I can feel each other’s feelings, and this feels like the truest thing I’ve ever known.

On the way to Mary McClellan Hospital in Cambridge, New York, I try to act like I’m fine because the kids are with us and I don’t want to scare them. But by the time we arrive, twenty minutes later, I can hardly breathe.

Jess drops me off at the emergency room door. I stagger up to the nurse’s station and am immediately whisked into an exam room.

A nurse takes my temperature, pulse, and blood pressure. She listens to my lungs and whispers something to another nurse.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“We need to get some x-rays,” she says.

She offers a wheelchair, and I insist on walking.

I try three times before she tells me to stop. She brings in a wheelchair and takes me into a very serious looking room in the emergency room.

The x-ray technician takes a couple shots of me standing with my hands at my side. Then she asks me to put my hands over my head. When I do this, everything goes black and my legs buckle. As my arms fall, there’s light again, and I manage to catch myself against the wall. I try three times before she tells me to stop. She brings in a wheelchair and takes me into a very serious looking room in the emergency room.

They hook me up to all sorts of wires and give me oxygen. The thing that clips onto my finger and measures my oxygen level reads 78. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

“What is going on?” I ask for what feels like the millionth time.

“Your lung has collapsed. We’ve called a thoracic surgeon. He’ll be here as soon as he can.”

The word “surgeon” sends me into total panic.

Jess insists on calling my mother, but the only way I’ll tell her the phone number is if she promises to tell my mother not to come. “My family is not comprised of the kind of people you want to be around in a vulnerable state,” I say.

The surgeon describes my collapsed lung as a spontaneous pneumothorax and shows me a diagram. “This is the lining of the lung. And this is the chest wall. The area in-between is called pleural space. The pleural space has negative pressure. Some people are born with a congenital defect called blebs. Blebs are like blisters on your lung. And if they pop, then air gets into the pleural space, and it causes the lung to collapse. We most often see this in tall, thin people in their twenties. And it often happens while they sleep.”

“Blebs?” I think, “Seriously?”

In an attempt to figure out why this has happened, I confess that I used to smoke and ask if that could have caused this. “Well, smoking is bad for everybody,” he says, “You shouldn’t smoke. But, no, there’s nothing you could have done to cause this. And there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. In fact, once a person has a spontaneous pneumothorax, there’s a 50% chance it’ll happen again. After two collapses, the likelihood increases to 75%. So, if you have another pneumothorax in the future, I’d recommend surgery to staple the lung. But that is serious surgery that can sometimes be avoided.”

For now, he explains that he needs to insert a chest tube, which he will attach to a vacuum to suck out any air and fluid and restore negative pressure in the pleural space, in order to help my lung re-expand. I will have to be hooked up like this for several days to enable my lung to heal. He will do the chest tube here, but I’ll have to be transferred to a larger hospital in Albany for the recovery period.

I ask if I can be knocked out for this procedure. “No,” he says. “Your blood pressure is too low. We can’t put you under general anesthesia.”

I feel really cold. I hear a nurse yell, “I think she’s going into shock!” And I think, “Well, this whole thing is rather shocking.”

It’s a tiny hospital, and I’m the main attraction. The entire ER staff is watching as the surgeon injects me with local anesthetic a couple of inches below my right collarbone. He says, “Let me know if you feel anything, okay?” I turn my head away and look as hard as I can in the opposite direction—staring at a blank spot on the wall. He explains every little thing he’s doing. “I’m going to make a small incision and then…”

“Dude,” I say, “can’t you tell I’m trying my best not to be aware of what you’re doing?” A giggle ripples through the onlookers.

The procedure doesn’t really hurt. It’s just gross to think about having a plastic tube hooked to a vacuum inserted into my chest. But as soon as it’s in, I feel immensely better. I can breathe again.

The surgeon examines the froth that is being extracted from my chest. “Hmm,” he says, “I expected the fluid, but you’ve got blood, too. When there’s blood, we call this a spontaneous hemo-pneumothorax. ‘Hemo’ means blood. This is more common when there’s been trauma. Are you sure you’ve only had symptoms for one day?”

“Yeah,” I say, “I’m pretty sure.”

Actually, maybe this is when I go into shock.

I wake up and don’t know where I am. A woman’s voice says, “It’s okay. You’re in an ambulance. Your lung collapsed, and you went into shock. We’re taking you to a hospital in Albany.”

I’m jostled about on a gurney. The fluorescent lights are too bright. I close my eyes.

My hospital room is at the end of the hall. It’s long and narrow, and there are several empty beds to my left. My bed is closest to the door and the bathroom. Plate glass windows run the length of the room, offering a nice view of the city.

There’s an intercom over my bed. When I ring the call bell, a nurse’s voice asks what I need, and I explain that I need help to get to the restroom. My chest tube remains connected to a vacuum, which is attached to the foot of my bed. No one comes. An hour later, I ring again. Same thing. Three hours later, someone finally appears.

The next day a new doctor says that he would’ve put the chest tube in my side instead of near my collarbone. He says we’ll give it a couple of days, but that he’ll probably want to do it over again.

I have to pee frequently, because they still have me on IV fluids even though I’m eating and drinking normally. After repeating the infuriating intercom scenario numerous times, I watch how the nurse unhooks and re-hooks the chest tube and decide I can do this.

“Oh, I’m only going to read you the sexy parts because you seem a little defeated, and I need you to stay fierce.”

“Move over,” Jess says, as she slips into bed beside me that evening. She pulls Michelle Tea’s Valencia out of her purse and begins reading to me. A few pages in, she starts skimming and skipping ahead.

“What’re you doing?” I ask.

“Oh, I’m only going to read you the sexy parts because you seem a little defeated, and I need you to stay fierce.” As she says this, she slides her hand up my thigh.

And it hurts horribly when I laugh.

That night there’s a lightning storm. We turn out the lights and watch the city strobe elaborately before us.

“I’m sorry my stupid lung ruined our weekend,” I say.

“Shhh…” she says, “This is amazing.”

I do just fine managing my chest tube…until day three when I get tangled in the bathroom…and as I stand up from the toilet, the tube goes flying out of my body and blood splatters…and I yell, “Oh, holy fuck!” And Jess goes running…

The doctor returns and says he’d been planning to do another chest tube anyway. “I’ll do local anesthesia, but this is going to hurt. You need a bigger tube, and you are small, so there’s not much room. We’ll have to spread your ribs.”

They bring a gurney into my room and tell Jess to wait outside.

How many nurses does it take to hold down a 95-pound, 23-year-old woman who is screaming and kicking wildly while being stabbed between the ribs? Six.

When I’m discharged a few days later, a nurse tells me not to lift anything or drive for a couple of weeks so that my lung has time to fully heal.

During this “healing” time my mind begins processing, trying to figure out what this near-death experience means. Instead of feeling lucky to be alive, I begin to wonder if maybe I should have died.

I started smoking when I was sixteen. I once read an article that said each cigarette I smoked would subtract about 11 minutes from my lifespan. Instead of being a deterrent, I relished this bit of trivia. I’d exhale and think, “Awesome, 11 minutes less of this bullshit.

I think maybe, by smoking all those cigarettes with such a death-wish attitude, I’d brought this on myself. Yet, somehow I’d dodged fate. I also find it especially ironic that death would come for me in the first moment I’d ever felt truly happy. I was wildly in love. And this is the price I would pay for breaking all my rules.

Kurt Vonnegut espoused smoking as the only legal, classy way to commit suicide. I first encountered his novels when I was in high school, and I loved Vonnegut so much that I adopted him as my imaginary grandfather.

See, my own family—riddled with mental illness, substance abuse, and religious fundamentalism—left much to be desired in the realm of role models. So, in my teens, the concept of an imaginary surrogate family evolved.

Here are things I told myself: When I’m in need of comfort, all I ever need to do is allow Grandmother Maya Angelou’s deep molasses voice of God to hum through me. When I’m in doubt, Mother June Jordan will hand me her torch of outspoken resistance and hope. When I’m overcome by cynicism, Aunt Dorothy Allison will blow me to bits, then put me back together again—better and different and filled with revolutionary zeal. When I’m stuck in a rut, I should commune with Uncle Tom Robbins, who is sure to zing me with a zany metaphor. When absurdity has me reeling, I can turn to my twin brother, Augusten Burroughs, who will remind me that he, too, often experiences things that are most hilarious and most heartbreaking as one in the same. And, when the darkness looms, all I ever need to do is borrow sizzlingly sinister Sister Sylvia Plath’s lyrical stun gun.

But my collapsed lung has triggered a crisis of faith. I begin to wonder if having non-reciprocal relationships with imaginary people is enough.

There are unsettling complications as my lung heals: sharp, random, shooting pains. My doctor explains that there’s scar tissue in the area where the second chest tube was inserted, connecting the lining of my lung to the chest wall. Part of the healing process involves this tissue tearing, so that the lining of my lung can once again slide against the chest wall.

But since there’s a 50% chance that my lung may collapse again, and this healing pain is virtually indistinguishable from the original collapsing pain, I don’t know how to interpret these signals.

Years earlier, I’d suffered a bad case of pink eye. Long after I’d recovered from this ailment, when I’d begin to fatigue, I’d first feel it in my eyes. Even though the rest of my body would feel fine, my vision would weaken, and it would become impossible to keep my eyes open. It was a strange new litmus for exhaustion that I had no choice but to recognize.

A similar thing happens with my lungs. But instead of being triggered by fatigue, shortness of breath results when I become anxious. Seemingly out of nowhere, I feel like I can’t breathe. I become aware of stressors that hadn’t even been on my radar before. Some reactions make sense: It’s stressful to go to work when Jess and I are fighting. Other reactions seem irrational: I can no longer breathe in the grocery store.

Everyone knows that they might one day get struck by lightning or hit by a train. It’s one thing to understand this intellectually.

Everyone knows that they might one day get struck by lightning or hit by a train. It’s one thing to understand this intellectually. It’s another thing entirely to experience such a reality in one’s body. My anxiety rapidly becomes irrational and debilitating, but it’s grounded in a very real and legitimate fear. There’s a 50% chance that my lung could collapse at any moment—and there is nothing I can do to prevent this.

My therapist tells me I should learn to meditate. She writes a mantra on a slip of paper for me, but I think it’s stupid. So, she suggests I create my own.

I ask myself what words feel expansive and think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Flare.” The final section of this lengthy poem is particularly inspiring:

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,

like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.
Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

Live with the beetle, and the wind.

I try to memorize this but find I can never get the sections in the right order. Plus, it’s way too long to be a mantra. I think hard about what this poem means to me and decide that it’s all about reconciling the opposing forces of the beetle, which in my mind is a diligent dung beetle, and the wind, which is totally unpredictable.

Neither of these forces is bad or good. The dung beetle’s responsibilities on any given day could become a surprising pleasure—like taking trash to the dump for the woman you love. The wind could knock a limb in your path, or it could suddenly be at your back—making the rolling of the dung ball feel effortless. A collapsed lung. A stunning lightning storm.

It’s not about control. It’s not even about balance. The challenge is acceptance.

I begin listening to a relaxation cd given to me by my yoga instructor, who tells me to focus on my breathing. “You don’t understand,” I argue. “If I focus on, or even think about lungs and breathing—my own or anyone else’s—my chest tightens and I can’t breathe.” She tells me it takes practice, and I decide to fake it by replacing any thoughts of breathing with my mantra: “the beetle and the wind.”

Breath in: the beetle.

Breathe out: the wind.

With these words, Mary Oliver earns a place opposite Maya Angelou as an esteemed matriarch in my family tree. Over the years I find myself returning to these words again and again. They become a practice, a foothold. Though my lungs would remain intact, there would be times when my life would collapse as spontaneously as my lung had.

During a particularly bad week in 2006, my Jeep would break down. Lancelot would die. And I would find out that Jess, who I’d thought was my soul mate, had flown cross-country to cheat on me.

Grief will be my sister. I will know the stump of sorrow. I will scatter flowers over the graves and walk away.

But learning to rise like the green leaves will take quite a long time.

It has now been thirteen years since my lung collapsed. A ferocious looking reddish brown horned beetle, preserved in clear acrylic, sits on my desk. An emerald beetle dangles from my keychain. A scarab carved from onyx, which was a gift from Jess, still holds a prominent place in my meditation area.

They are constant reminders of a single aspiration:

to live with the beetle and the wind.

Melba MajorMelba Major holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she currently teaches writing. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review and the Southern Women’s Review.

 

 

Nature Lessons

Grandmother’s house nestled at the edge of a wild wood. In the summer, my parents left me with her while they traveled north for my father’s job. He worked part-time for logging companies, clear-cutting forests, harvesting pulp and timber near Grand Marais and Stonington in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Those were summers of tanned bare legs scratched by blackberry brambles, bee stings I hardly felt, and staying up late on the back porch with Grandma Kate watching moths, sometimes as large as my hand, cluster around the light cast from the oil lamp.

Grandmother, in her late sixties, lived like a pioneer. She had neither electricity nor running water and heated her home with a wood stove. She cooked her meals on its heavy, cast-iron burners. Every morning, she cleared ash from the stove’s belly and hauled it in a bucket to the ash pile beyond her house. She stocked her cupboards with homemade blackberry jam, apple butter, jars of thick, spicy pickles, and green beans from her garden.

She taught me the names of flowers, trees, birds, and the habits of animals. On those long summer days, we sat for hours on the porch in the shade of the oak that grew bent, twisted, and cast long shadows to cool us. Grandmother sprinkled seeds across her palm and held her hand out carefully. I leaned into her bulky frame as I watched the sparrows creep closer, until a brave one finally snatched a kernel. It was difficult for me to stay still for too long and sometimes my jerky movements sent them wheeling into the blue sky and back under the eaves of the barn roof where they nested.

A large field stretched out into a wooded area beyond her cabin and sloped into old growth forest, where a pond slept in partial sun and shadows. On early June mornings, we walked through drifts of orange hawkweed, Queen Anne’s lace, and patches of goatsbeard and daisies to the pond where cattails grew in abundance. I bounded ahead of her on my long, gangly legs, scattering field crickets and meadow katydids before me. The grass filled with clacking as grasshoppers rubbed their legs together and their singing echoed inside my head. Clouded sulphur and copper butterflies, delicate cabbage moths and swallowtails darted from blossom to blossom.

“Slow down,” Grandmother often scolded me. “Look, even the downy woodpecker is leaving now.” A small woodpecker with black and white checkered wings abandoned his perch in the nearby oak, and all I could see was the flash of red from the patch at the back of his head as he flew away.

Now that I am older, I know my grandmother’s most important lessons were about patience.

As a young woman, I used to think my grandmother’s lessons were about nature and learning how to appreciate the stillness found in the natural world. Now that I am older, I know my grandmother’s most important lessons were about patience. As a child, this required stepping carefully without flattening the grass and crunching dried leaves beneath the soles of my blue plaid Keds. It meant lowering my voice to a whisper, like that of morning wind slipping through needles of a Norway spruce. And when we sat on the back porch under the afternoon sun, it meant keeping my body still, holding my arm out, fingers open so I, too, could coax the shy sparrows to take seed from my hand. For a child who was constantly hopping on one foot, twirling to imaginary music and talking loudly, stillness was not an easy state for me to obtain.

“Someday, you’ll understand about quiet,” Grandmother said. “How restful it can be to just sit in the sun and contemplate nothing.”

“Is that what you do, Grandma?” I asked.

“Often,” she said. “There’s so much to think about.”

Grandmother knew the names of many birds, and recognized their songs in all seasons. During the winter months, when my family moved back to Wisconsin, she often sent me pictures of birds clipped from magazines, and once she sent me a perfectly woven robin’s nest abandoned by its family. Birds were plentiful those summers. I recall the killdeers circling overhead in early evening calling out their distinct kill-dee, kill-dee, cedar waxwings preening in the juniper bush, and yellow warblers singing dee-diddly-dee! Dee-dee-dee-diddly-dee! Several purple martins nested in the tall wooden birdhouse near the porch.

“The Martin is viewed in the Christian faith as serving God, being God’s ‘bow and arrow,’” my grandmother told me. “The Martin brings good luck to any home where it nests and rears its young.”

“A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage”

She quoted whenever a robin landed nearby. Later, when I studied English literature in college, I learned those lines came from the poet William Blake. She was delighted if a blackbird built a nest on her roof. “This is a sign of good luck,” she said. If we walked down to the pond and encountered a hissing duck, Grandmother would say, “Rain is on the way.” In the evening as we lit the oil lamps, sometimes we heard an owl at the edge of the woods. “If an owl flies around the house at night, it means that death is near.” She lowered the pitch of her voice. “If you see an owl during the day, it’s bad luck.”

I shivered and stood closer to Grandmother, listening to the distant cry of a screech owl as it echoed through the night.

One morning we walked to the pond, Grandmother moving slowly as always, quietly pushing branches out of her way. I walked behind her, trying not to trample twigs and rustle leaves, proud because I was not running wildly ahead in a hurry to arrive as I usually did. I was practicing patience and the way to walk through nature like my grandmother often showed me. When we reached the pond, she lifted a hand to stop me, and then I saw the bird. It stood regally at the edge of a cluster of cattails on its long, slim legs.

“I think it’s a sandhill crane,” she whispered. She lifted her binoculars and let me look through the lenses. The bird was a soft gray color with a plume-less head.

After a second look, she bent down close to my ear.

“No, it’s not. It’s a Little Blue Heron.”

We watched the heron for a long time then furtively turned back and retraced our footsteps.

When I was about nine, I decided I wanted to study butterflies, moths and other insects when I grew up. The name I discovered for this type of scientist was a lepidopterist. My parents bought me a butterfly net and my father made a spreading board out of cork and balsa wood. All that summer, I used the patience my grandmother taught me to sit in the field waiting for the perfect Tiger Swallowtail to land on an orange hawkweed blossom or a Painted Lady to stop and take nectar from a milkweed, then I would catch one in my net, gently find the butterfly’s thorax and hold it between my thumb and index finger to still the fluttering of its wings before I carefully placed it in the killing jar. My collection grew all summer, but my grandmother was disappointed.  She shook her head when I left in the morning carrying my net.

“I didn’t teach you patience to kill such treasures,” she said. “It disturbs the fragile balance Mother Nature intended. Someday, the butterflies that are so abundant now will become scarce.”

“But I want to be a scientist. I want to study butterflies. I’m keeping them beautiful forever,” I told her. I collected butterflies for only one summer. Then I quit. I realized I hated watching them struggle to breathe in their glass prison, until finally they grew too weak and died.  I decided to become a geologist and began collecting rocks instead.

 *     *     *

I realize I have not seen one butterfly all summer like any that flocked to the fields behind my grandmother’s cottage.

Many years later, I sit on the back porch of my own home in the small town where we live at the edge of a larger city. My daughter is playing with our dog in the yard, and her laughter echoes as she tosses him a ball and he catches it in mid-air. It’s August, and bumblebees buzz around the bee balm in my butterfly garden. I realize I have not seen one butterfly all summer like any that flocked to the fields behind my grandmother’s cottage. Back then, there were red admirals with distinct bands of red wrapping their wings, tawny crescents, and mysterious dark purple mourning cloaks. Brown elfins fluttered over blueberries and willow catkins, and the Great Spangled Fritillary perched jauntily on clusters of black-eyed Susan. I recall Grandmother’s words, and I realize she was right. Although she did not know what it would be called, global warming is slowly killing all the butterflies, and it is a privilege now to encounter their ethereal beauty.

The patience my grandmother taught me has served me well through the years. While my daughter was growing up, I took her for long walks through the wooded area behind our home in Northern Michigan, naming the fields of spring flowers, or sitting on a rock by Lake Superior explaining how the great glaciers shaped and carved our land. We pressed wildflower sprigs between pages of her picture books and glued bright autumn leaves into a scrapbook. I consulted my Trees of Michigan guide, and we sat cross-legged on the floor matching the leaves to their names.

Senara is seventeen now and living with her father up north. As she entered her teenage years, her interests centered more on clothes, television shows, and spending time with her friends.  When she comes home for visits in the summer, she sits for hours in front of a computer screen chatting online, or curls up on her bed with her cell phone, texting messages back and forth to her boyfriend. I worry she is forgetting my teachings about nature and no longer noticing or finding harmony in the beauty surrounding her: spring rain, a full moon sailing above the trees at night, the first red-winged blackbird swooping down when there is still a trace of snow on the ground.

She attends high school where we used to live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The other evening she called me as she was driving home. It was late at night and dark along her road, so she kept the speakerphone on until she reached her dad’s house safely. When she got out of the car, she was suddenly silent.

“Are you still there?” I ask. I could hear the soft rustle of her clothes and crunch of her boots in the snow.

“Yes,” she says. “I was just looking up at the sky. Mom, it’s so beautiful. The stars are so brilliant tonight. It’s amazing!”

I turn off my kitchen light and go out on the back deck in the chill air. The constellations are not as clear as up north due to the nearby lights of the city, but she is right – the sky is filled with stars.

“If you wait a while, you might see a shooting star,” I tell her.

“Maybe, you will see the same one,” she says.

As we stand waiting patiently, separated by distance, in different latitudes, I feel my grandmother’s presence. I remember her sending me sky charts during the winter months and naming the constellations when we sat on her porch in the summer dark.

I visualize Senara, hair tucked under her Stormy Kromer hat, one hand covered by a wooly mitten shading her eyes as she tilts her head back. I wonder—if I were with her, would I see her the same way my grandmother saw me? Does my daughter hear me the way I heard my grandmother? There is, however, one thing I do know: Grandmother’s teachings are alive tonight as we gaze up at the stars.

Petrouske headshot

Rosalie Sanara Petrouske lives near the Grand River, the longest river in Michigan. A writing instructor at Lansing Community College, she has published essays and two chapbooks of poetry, the most recent with Finishing Line Press. Last November, she received a first honorable mention in the Abbie M. Copps Poetry Competition.

Submission

You’ve been writing for only six years and you’re almost sixty. You’ve outlived your mother by five years; you’re feeling the press of time. It’s like the last stages of labor, you know you’ve got to push and birth something. Anything.

So what if one of your writing teachers says of your stories, “Two or three sentences, that’s all, and it’ll be perfect,” and the other teacher says, “But why does this story matter to me?” Maybe the editors won’t notice.

One day you make this notebook, see? It’s white with a printed piece of paper in the plastic holder that says, “What’s the point of writing if you’re not going to submit anything?” and now there’s this sense of urgency and responsibility about it.

You make a little chart that looks like this:

Date               Story          Publication Yes/No

That takes a good two hours that you could be using to write stories that are making your brain feel like a plastic bottle of fermented orange juice. Like the story of the day that your dad beat your brother in the back yard or the time your aunt got raped by her fifteen-year-old cousin and his friend. She was eight and his dog stood guard at the door to the shed. She was a little big for her age she told you, and you thought what in the fuck does that have to do with anything?

You’re amazed that they all want something slightly different and they all want you to read their magazine, of course, so you know the kind of thing they like to publish.

But after you finish the chart, you take out the list of possible publications that your writing teacher gave you and begin looking them up on the internet, printing out their submission guidelines. You’re amazed that they all want something slightly different and they all want you to read their magazine, of course, so you know the kind of thing they like to publish. This takes all of one day and part of the next and half a pack of paper. When you have it all three-hole-punched and put in the notebook, you go through and highlight the important parts so you don’t get confused or mess anything up. (One magazine even says to put only one space, not two, between sentences. Do they count every line to see that you’ve followed their rule? And why on earth do they care?)

You think you would be doing your writing group a favor if you printed them out a copy of this valuable information on submitting so you stop by the office supply place on the way to work and buy a couple of packs of cheap paper. The copier jams at least ten times because of the paper. There’s a lot of cussing and you’re glad your boss is on vacation.

On Wednesday, your day off, you set a goal of submitting three stories. The one about September 11 that you’ve been working on since, well, September 12. The story about the prisoner that turns everyone’s stomach when they hear it. The story that you couldn’t publish until your dad died, and this year he died a terrible death that you’re still mourning; Sundays are almost unbearable.

You choose the magazine that’s published right in your backyard. The one that you sent a color picture of a sunset to the first time you ever submitted anything. You probably didn’t notice that every picture in the magazine is black and white, blurry and abstract, or of old people or children glancing askance at things just out of range of the camera. Hopefully they’ve forgotten your faux pas—the editor tells you on their web page that he gets nearly a thousand submissions a month and it may take a while for them to get to yours. It’s the longest shot you can think of, but it’s important to aim high, right? And if they reject you, you’re in the company of 990 or so writers that month.

You write the letter, using every tip your writing teacher gave you:

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Include the title of your work.
  3. Tell them of all your previously published work. Make something up if necessary.
  4. Tell them in ten words or less everything they need to know about you.
  5. Spell-check, spell-check, spell-check. The letter, the manuscript, the envelopes.
  6. Get the editor’s name and the address right.

Every morning when you read the magazine in the bathroom—it’s not a bathroom kind of magazine, mind you, but that’s just when you read magazines—you picture him at his desk on his farm in the country; it’s early in the morning.

This magazine you’ve chosen. The Sun. It’s edited by a guy that comes across as hard to please. He writes inspiringly, disparagingly, nostalgically every month in his “Notebook” at the back of the magazine. Every morning when you read the magazine in the bathroom—it’s not a bathroom kind of magazine, mind you, but that’s just when you read magazines—you picture him at his desk on his farm in the country; it’s early in the morning. He hasn’t exercised yet because he’s putting it off until later. Maybe he won’t exercise at all today. Or tomorrow. He’s wondering what to write and just starts in with his pencil, his pen, his fingers on the keyboard. He somehow knows that his ramblings are good and reader-worthy. A guy with that kind of confidence? You want his approval.

Everything is finally ready to mail: the letter to the editor with its simple information, the manuscript that you’re sick of reading but needs two sentences, the envelope to the magazine and the one to send back to you. You’ve put it all on the postage scale and weighed it, checking it once, checking it twice, more earnest than Santa Claus the week before Christmas. You hope you’re not going to be disappointed like you were that Christmas you were seven when you wanted roller skates and got a doll family.

You go to the drive-up mailbox at the post office. Wait behind eleven or so cars until you get to the front of the line. Hold the envelope in your hands, reluctant to let go; the person in the car behind you honks at you to move on. He probably has a tax return to file; it’s April 15. You certainly didn’t want to wait in a long line of taxpayers but it’s your dad’s birthday, lucky day, and you need all the luck you can get right now.

The whole way back to the office something is niggling at your mind; you don’t have that wonderful feeling that you usually have when you’ve accomplished something big. You decide it’s beginner’s jitters and that after you’ve submitted a few times you won’t worry so much, you’ll just throw the package together and wait patiently for the response.

On your desk is the copy you made of the letter and the manuscript. You look at it, worried, knotty. You close your eyes and groan.

The editor of The Sun is unlike every other editor of every other magazine in the world, you’ve heard. He actually wants to see the letters that come with the submissions. Let’s name him: Sy Safransky. A funny name you always think and how could anyone forget that name in a million years? You’ve read it so many times in the bathroom, read the anecdotes about his wife and his daughter and just recently about the birth of his granddaughter, and that he gets up at the crack of dawn and how he feels about getting old. You’ve imagined him as a chubby Santa kind of man, white hair and white beard, but harder than Santa Claus to please. You saw a picture of him once, his thin face a shock. This editor, Sy Safransky. Sy Safransky.

You’ve addressed the letter, “Dear Mr. Syfransky.”

Still you wait at your mailbox each day with the hope that he has a sense of humor, that your story is so good he’ll overlook this little mistake, that the story fits the theme of the month in such an artful way that he has to have it, that those two sentences were just an unrealistic expectation from your writing teacher.

And when the envelope comes, your handwriting on the front, fat with your rejected manuscript, you open it up and see the same form letter that accompanied your reddish picture of sailboats in the sunset, the same letter that says it’s just not right for them, they can’t say why. “Dear Writer,” it starts, cold and impersonal. And at the end, “The Editors.”

You have to have thick skin, your writer friends tell you. You try not to take it personally though you’re in love with your flawed stories. You get down your notebook and write “No” on the right side of your chart by the name of the story doomed by a salutation. You sit at your computer, open your documents, and peruse the titles for another to send Mr. Sy Safransky.

Mamie Potter photoMamie Potter’s stories have been published in several print and online journals including Prime Number and Law and Disorder (anthology due fall, 2013).  Her most recent project brought together twenty-one writers who gave new stories to found photographs and was exhibited in The 1880 Gallery in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Rebecca, First Semester Freshman Year

There’s a girl in a broad-striped shirt with her hands in the back pockets of her Daisy Dukes, legs crossed, one tan knee over the other. She’s standing in front of a fence in front of an apartment complex whose name you do not yet know. Her right knee, creaseless, is the one you can see. The fence is chain-linked, the apartments brick, the sky dark and glossed with stars. Somebody somewhere inside’s got speaker troubles, but this doesn’t stop them from turning up Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” as loud as it can go. Her knee shines beneath the streetlights on either side of the fence, makes you think of lunar mornings not so long ago: a pale disk aglow in the purple-blue wash of spreading dawn just outside your parents’ house.

She simply stands there and your heart hurts. She simply is. And you no longer know where you were born.

Your brain has probably stolen this image from an episode of Seinfeld, which, in turn, stole it from the movie JFK, which, in turn, stole it from the collective memory, however warped, of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

In your memory of this moment, you are partially obscured from her line of sight by a crop of bushes. Your brain has probably stolen this image from an episode of Seinfeld, which, in turn, stole it from the movie JFK, which, in turn, stole it from the collective memory, however warped, of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. If anyone’s being assassinated here, it’s you, by her. Because she flips her hair and your spine goes wishy-washy. Because she uncrosses one knee from the other and your bones turn to powder.

Her friends join her. A few guys walk up. They are upperclassmen—as it worked in high school, so too in college. Experience is everything. The guys are saying things and the girls are smiling and laughing, and you wonder how something that has so much power over you can also be yours to control. These girls—this girl—whose “like” has reduced you to idiotic blubber in the past, is now blubber herself. She and her friends will go with these guys even though they know the guys are after only one thing. They’ll go with these guys and drink whatever they’re given, and some of them—all of them, maybe only one—will do whatever the guys require in order to be reimbursed for the first-class treatment. Maybe some serious making out, perhaps something potentially more dangerous.

Then the guys turn, and the girls turn, and she turns, and you’re looking at the back of them, at the back of her, at the back of her Daisy Dukes and the back of her legs, and those legs are moving. They’re moving away from you, taking her with them, through the opening in the fence, toward the apartment complex whose name you do not yet know, toward “Yellow Ledbetter” and the brighter side of the moon. And before you are even aware of having moved, you’re moving like the oceans: pulled. You open your mouth; you yawp; you’re a bloody drunk barbarian screaming into the void of existence; you’re Whitman; this is your Leaves of Grass; you’re writing it on your first night of college—in college, you’re in college, goddamnit; you’re proving it now; you’re writing it with teeth and bones and blood; this is your masterpiece, your moment; you’re making it; you; you; you; you yell her name:

“Rebecca!”

“Are you fucking insane?” your buddy asks, grabbing you by the arm, yanking the drunk version of you back from where you were heading, bringing you back to earth.

“Rebecca!” you cry again.

You call out her name one last time, third time’s a charm, and give it the ol’ college try, and this time not only does she look back but her friends and the guys who are leading them away look too.

She glances over her shoulder, sees you, you’re sure of it, but she can’t seem to connect you with the person who has twice called out her name. Or she does make the connection but doesn’t care—there is always that. You call out her name one last time, third time’s a charm, and give it the ol’ college try, and this time not only does she look back but her friends and the guys who are leading them away look too. These guys are obviously football players or bodybuilders, something that requires one to be big and hard and tough. They can take you out in a heartbeat; they can erase you, more so than you already are, from the collegiate landscape of which you are so trying to be a part. The guys look from you to the girls to each other then back at you. It’s clear they’re not sure what to do. They’ve got pussy on the brain, but they wouldn’t mind pulverizing you, especially if said show of masculine bravado could help put said pussy somewhere closer to their dicks.

“They’ll fucking kill you,” your buddy says. He’s gone from pulling you by the arms to pushing you against your chest. Holding up an open hand in their direction, he’s giving them the universal sign that he doesn’t want any trouble, that if they leave it to him, there won’t be any trouble.

It is enough. The football players turn away and Rebecca’s friends turn away and Rebecca turns away, and for a long time you’ll have yourself convinced that she hesitated before she turned away, that she held you for a moment in her gaze and tried to see you for what she was too, what you really were together at this moment, no different, just a couple of kids packed up and shoved off by their parents and forced into this brave new world, that she looked at you and tried to remember you, tried to make a memory of the boy who wouldn’t stop calling her name on her first night of college, first semester freshmen year.

Flanked by her friends and following the guys, she walks away.

You stand there with your buddy and watch her withdraw. Your buddy is still holding on to you but he’s no longer holding you back; he has a hand on your shoulder and one on your hip. He is holding you up.

Strangely, you’ll never be sure if you ever actually see her again after this night. You’ll see girls you think are Rebecca, follow girls who look like her, talk about girls you’ve seen or followed as if she was Rebecca, but always you’ll doubt that this was so. Her features, down to the kneecap, so prominent this night in your mind, fade as the days go by. The idea of her, however, does not weaken. In fact, as one month follows the next, one year another, it seems to grow stronger; the more she becomes lost to you, the more you wish it wasn’t so, the more this night with Rebecca in the moonlight—perhaps the only night or day of your life with her—means.

Grasping at straws leaves you holding on to substance.

And just like that, she’s yours. Forever, she’s yours.

Cliffton Price photoCliffton Price’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, Waccamaw, Rio Grande Review, Ray’s Road Review, MARY, Love Poems and Other Messages for Bruce Springsteen, Inside Higher Ed, and r.kv.r.y.  His short story, “Only the Good Die Young,” published in Artichoke Haircut, was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Conversations I Can’t Talk About

In the spring of 2007, my father and I are discussing something important when the guy in the car behind us at the green light raps his horn. In the passenger seat, my father, a polite man of eighty years does not flinch, just glances in the rearview mirror and says, ‟Hold your horses, buddy. Life is short.” I want to say something to my father, but when I look again, he is gone.

Of course he is. He had been dead by then for about six months.

I did not have any telephone conversations with my father in the fall of 2006, between the time I last visited him in the hospital, 2,700 miles from my home, and the time he died there seven weeks later. I told myself it would be better not to call. Since I could not visit in person, I did not want to confuse him on the telephone with my voice. If my voice meant nothing to him, he might get upset—or more likely, I would. Or he might ask me to come. I did not want to have to remind him that I was, in fact, back at my own home in New Jersey and not still in Las Vegas, taking care of my mother in the house they had shared there for twenty-five years.

Take care of your mother, he had said. And the house, and the garden and the pool. It had been a shock to hear my father, for the first time in my life, ask a girl to do these things. He was half out of his head by then, I knew. I also knew I liked the sound of it, his asking, his asking me. He gestured with his good, unstroked right arm, pointing to his arthritic knees and atrophied hip, and said, ‟I can’t do any damned thing anymore. I’m a sad sack. You’ll have to take care of everything now.” I lied and said I would, that I would stay with Mommy, that I would make sure everything was all right. But I didn’t. I flew home a few days later.

The truth is, I did not call him because it was easier for me not to. It was easier if I remembered our last conversation at the hospital, the one where he reminded me to always tip generously and to lock my doors, as the last conversation, though it wasn’t.

The conversations, it turns out, go on.

*     *     *

During the winter directly following my father’s death, I work at my desk in my well-equipped home office while my sons are at school, the way I have for 17 years. Only now, nearly every day, I wear one of my father’s sweaters: a cable-stitched cotton V-neck in blue or gray, an itchy-scratchy wool crewneck in brown or black, or the one that is my favorite—a zip-front tan cashmere cardigan so warm it sometimes makes me groggy. Wearing his clothes is maudlin, I know, but it makes me happy, in a sad way. These days I’ll take happy any way.

My father was a slim man and a sharp dresser and I don’t recall him ever wearing baggy sweaters, but these fit me and I am a large woman: I am fat. Maybe he did not in fact wear them much, or at all, now that I think about it. Maybe they were gifts and too big to begin with. His armoire was always stacked with new-looking clothes. He had his favorites from years and decades past, and he tended to wear them over and over. These sweaters are not attractive on me, and when I walk past the hall mirror on the way to the bathroom, I startle myself.

And yet, before I start work each morning that winter, I reach for one of these sweaters. I remember a time when he was wearing one of them, the blue V-neck with the white stripe, when he was visiting us here, about two years before he died, and I was telling him that I had decided to change some things, to change my life.

‟I’m going back to school, Dad.” I was 44.

‟Good for you,” he’d said. ‟Hey, that’s going to cost a pretty penny.”

‟Not so bad,” I lied, and waited to see if he’d offer one of his low-interest loans, but by then the Alzheimer’s had taken a tenuous hold and he demanded, ‟Why? I think you went to college already. And you don’t need a new car. You drove that blue car back then. Remember?”

I remember.

*     *     *

In the mornings before I open my laptop with one hand, I find my other arm hugging my father’s sweater to my torso.

My father was not a hugger. He was not a satisfying hugger. He hugged me and my brother and my sister and my mother, but always with just one arm. We all gave up trying to puzzle out why. Sometimes I figured it was because he often had a lit cigarette in the other hand. Once, when she was in college and prone to spouting psychobabble, my sister speculated it was a passive-aggressive gesture—that he didn’t want to be lashed to us, that he was too smart and worldly and needed a wider life. My mother, who quit school in the eighth grade, just shrugged and said, ‟He’s hugged that way since we were both sixteen.”

My father’s half-hearted hugging did not stop him from being my protector, though the truth is, I rarely found myself in need of his protection. I was a wiseass, know-it-all child, a fourteen-going-on-twenty sort of teenager who, for a few years, treated her father badly, mocking and alienating him with her petulant attitude and snotty rejoinders.

I find myself apologizing to him for this in a conversation we have in those first few months after his death, when he appeared next to my desk while I was shredding another draft of a too-predictable story.

‟Forget it kiddo,” he said quietly, cuffing my shoulder. I could almost feel it through the soft thickness of his sweater.

*     *     *

For the first six months after he died, I have trouble thinking in the past tense. No, that isn’t it exactly. I have trouble thinking about the entire year that has just passed—illness, resignation, all of it. It’s during this time that I notice my arm getting tingly, or falling asleep whenever I am writing in longhand. One day I make a mental note to ask my father if that is how his arthritis started; I curse. I circle an item in The New Yorker about a new book I think my father might like. I even scribble in the margin, ‟Birthday for D—” and before even lifting my pen, I feel idiotic. On the Internet I see a report of a merger of two multi-national corporations and wonder if my father, the uber biznews consumer, has heard about it yet. Then a wash of stupidity and anger sluices over me. He’s dead, you silly girl.

When he was alive, my father and I butted our stubborn heads, yelled across holiday dinner tables, and looked at one another as if the other were not only wrong but also stupid.

When he was alive, my father and I butted our stubborn heads, yelled across holiday dinner tables, and looked at one another as if the other were not only wrong but also stupid. If you ask me today what sorts of important issues we saw differently, I could not think of one thing. I know that this is sentimental of me, and maybe smacks of revisionist history. I know that I am protecting myself as well as the dead we should always speak well of. I can’t help it. He’s here, and here, and something about his being gone keeps him present all of that winter.

*     *     *

My two sons called their grandfather PopPop, and for the six weeks each year when my parents stayed at our house, my boys followed him like ducklings. I have pictures of them, at ages two and six, crawling on top of my father like lapdogs, just after he’d awoken on the sleeper couch in our family room; and at six and ten, sprawled on the bed alongside him; and at eight and twelve, sitting on the floor at night beside the bed’s grey metal framework. Those pictures tell me I did not just imagine it: my sons loved their PopPop. This is important to me, that my father meant something to the generation of men in our family who will come of age at a time when no grandfathers are likely to be around.

As soon as I get back to New Jersey after my father’s wake, I think about my father-in-law, who lives nearby and is eighty-seven. He has a Pacemaker that acts up. He has high blood pressure, an enlarged prostate and congestive heart failure. He and my mother-in-law, who is eighty-nine, live two miles away and they both still work, still drive, and together they put in twenty-seven tomato plants that June. My husband and his father are best friends. My husband does not understand how precious and unusual this is, or maybe he does, but he does not understand what awaits, does not want to think about it, and he never wants to talk about it. That’s fine except I remind him (don’t I have to?) that he and his father have things they should discuss: jointly owned property, a business partnership, how the old man feels about life support. My husband waves me off. He thinks there will be time to talk about all of that. Let’s not and say we did.

For months after my own father’s death, I ashamedly nurse a seething, petty anger and when my husband says anything about my father—like how my father could never understand the rules of any board game (which he couldn’t)—I think, Shut up. My father is dead and yours is alive. This is a terrible thing to want to say to the husband you still love after twenty-one years of marriage, even if you know you will never say it out loud, though I do say, ‟You have no idea what it’s like to lose a parent.”

*     *     *

My father’s 84-year-old brother Nunzio gets married for the second time less than two months after my father dies. Some people used to mistake Nunzio for my father, whose name was Anthony, but everyone called him Tony. I couldn’t see it then. Tony was tall, elegant; he had 1940s movie-star looks and a 1920s gentility. He was polite, well-spoken, well-read. Nunzio was shifty, shorter. And he swore. Yet as they aged, my father’s humped back made him appear shorter, and they both had heads of grey hair. Widowed at eighty, Nunzio called his brother every week, sometimes every day. My father sent him money, folds of cash in plain white envelopes. When the invitation comes for the wedding, I see it at as a healing opportunity. Weddings and funerals and all that.

But sitting in the church, I cannot look up to the altar, and I can hardly look away. It seems as if my father is standing there, marrying a stooped woman with red hair. Later, at the reception, I have a hard time hugging my uncle with both arms. I have always liked this uncle, but I look away when he clutches my freezing hands and tries to tell me how much he misses my father and how he wishes his brother could be there. A nasty loop starts in my head: So if you loved him so much, why didn’t you fly out there to see him, one last time? All that money he gave you, and you couldn’t buy a damned airline ticket? I dismiss my uncle’s health issues, his claim that his doctor had warned him not to fly. I dismiss him. Why are you still here?

I came to the wedding because I thought Nunzio was the closest I could get to my father. For a time, I said that I would give anything to have my father back. Then I stopped saying it, because really, would I? It’s a ridiculous notion, a stupid expression. We wouldn’t give anything; we would only give something.

The next time I see my father, one night at about 2 a.m. as a hot flash pulls me awake and I go to the bathroom to fling off my sweaty nightgown, he doesn’t want to talk about Nunzio, or weddings, or anything much.

‟Feeling okay, Dad?” I ask.

‟Very funny, kiddo,” he laughs.

*     *     *

My father was part of the last generation for whom it was possible to be a self-made man. With a tenth-grade education, he started businesses and employed dozens. He earned a million dollars, sent three kids to private colleges. He read his entire life, and he passed on to me this great love of words and books when I was so young I can’t even remember.

I knew he wrote too because occasionally he’d show us one of his short stories. In my teenage intellectual superiority, I dismissed them all as so much pap: the underdog naturally prevailed, justice and order was always restored, the dejected doubter always in the end engaged joyfully with life.

None of his writing was ever published; his life dream, forever deferred, was to be a doctor, not a writer. But he was a son of Italian immigrants who needed his wage-earning hustle, not his cerebral muscle, to help feed seven siblings.

None of his writing was ever published; his life dream, forever deferred, was to be a doctor, not a writer. But he was a son of Italian immigrants who needed his wage-earning hustle, not his cerebral muscle, to help feed seven siblings. And so he ran a gritty junkyard with his father in the 1940s and 1950s. He built polyester factories in the 1960s and opened a recycling center in the 1970s. He retired early in 1981 at age fifty-five, to read three newspapers a day on the patio inside the cement walls of his Las Vegas backyard, to lose badly at craps and then quit gambling.

I thought he had stopped writing years before, but after he died, I found dozens of stories in his slanted printing. Some were on the stationery of hotels in cities he traveled to on business. These and more of his writings were in a brittle-paged scrapbook on the highest shelf of the closet in his den in the sprawling custom-designed house he and my mother had built on sand and a polyester fortune.

There were awful, lovesick poems dating back to meeting my mother in 1942; nimble, light verse about each of us kids; and sing-song Valentine’s Day dribble. But there, too, were artful prose poems about fatherhood and time, and a few sophisticated short stories about searchers and sinners with equivocal endings. Two imaginative lyrical essays made me shudder and say ‟shit” through my tears, as every cruel thing I had ever said to him came back to me, along with every encouraging, exaggerated piece of praise he had ever heaped upon even my worst high school newspaper drivel.

‟Dad, how come you never showed me any of this?” I asked him once in a post-mortem meeting on my living room couch. ‟I never knew you were a real writer,” I said and immediately regretted the tone, my indecorous literary guise. He simply smiled.

Eight months after he dies, when one of my essays is published in the New York Times, my father sits on my patio, newspaper folded back just so, a glass of lemonade at hand. But when I try to talk to him about it, he waves me away. “I’m reading.”

*     *     *

For that entire winter, my dead father and I have long, fatty conversations, devoid of the angling and defensiveness that once drove my mother crazy when he was alive. There isn’t time for all that. I never know when these unplanned, haphazard meetups will end. I know, it reads like a Lifetime TV movie script—grief-stricken daughter talks to her dead father. But that is all right, that is allowed, even for smart, supposedly sophisticated daughters who agreed philosophically that cremation was sensible, but then sobbed like a sick sow when her father’s eyeglasses were accidentally incinerated along with the body.

I want to know why, in his big house with a large den of his own, why did he keep his easel, pastels, and paper—everything he asked for as retirement gifts—in the closet?

“Why didn’t you go back to art, Daddy?”

He doesn’t answer, just wrinkles his lined forehead and holds up his arthritic hands. My stupidity astounds me. I ask about the gifts still in boxes, lined up in rows along two deep closet shelves, given to him by me, by my sister and brother, over decades of birthdays, Christmases and Father’s Days.

“Dad, why didn’t you ever take them out of boxes and use them? Didn’t you like any of it?” I ask.

‟Oh, I appreciated all of it honey. But there was so much stuff.”

‟But you must have used some of them once in a while because I used to check, every summer when I came to visit. And the last five years or so, there was less, and things were moved around,” I say.

‟Oh, I was giving things away. The Mexican gardeners, they have nothing.”

*     *     *

Sometimes I can’t think of any questions. But he has questions for me, questions he might have asked in life, and which I would have heard then as criticism, as judgment.

‟What are you going to do about your lack of retirement savings?” my father wants to know. I tell my husband that my father asked me this in a dream, and suddenly it is something the two of us can talk about without my screaming that he’s a lousy provider or his yelling that I’m too controlling. I tell my husband I saw my father in a dream because who knows, maybe it was a dream—and anyway, if I said that my father and I were talking on Tuesday afternoon while I was waiting for the kids in the carpool line, well, that might sound absurd and then we’d have to talk about how I’m coping instead of about the retirement account.

When my father was alive, most of our conversations were limited to phone pleasantries, truncated by, ‟I’ll get your mother.” This made sense, didn’t it? Weren’t my mother and I more alike? Now I see it clearly: it was my father I took after. I was the child who must have reminded him most of himself. The one who, during his lifetime, acted as if we couldn’t possibly have anything in common.

*     *     *

My friend Dee, who believes death is not an end, tells me that my father’s visits make sense. ‟You have unfinished business. Pay attention,” she says.

So I pay attention, but sometimes I can’t tease out what unfinished business we could be completing when we sit silently on the patio together watching my sons shoot baskets in the driveway. Or when we gesture at the TV and huff about ‟damned politicians” while watching CNN. But I pay attention. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe, I decide one day, the point, the message from my father who refuses to reside in any part of my consciousness that holds dead people, if there is any message at all, is this: pay attention. Period.

And I do. When my sons come in from school, I hug them tighter, and I notice how much darker the hairs lining my older son’s upper lip have gotten, and I register that I can rest my head on the top of my younger son’s head and that when he hugs me, tight, both of his arms clasp neatly behind my back.

*     *     *

For all his engagement with the world, my father wore an enigmatic separateness. My father enjoyed his colleagues—but rarely invited them home. He took care of his aging parents—but made it clear they would never live with us. He loved my mother, my sister, my brother, and me—but kept us at one arm’s length.

Deeply compassionate but always a little detached and world-weary, my father supported with pure, pragmatic gestures. He said, ‟I’ll take care of it,” and wrote checks and rented apartments for struggling relatives, underwrote school fundraisers and mayoral campaigns, cosigned loans and dispatched hired hands, called in favors for jobs or theater tickets.

‟I gave my word,” my father explained once when I questioned him, twenty-five years ago, why he was paying my cousin’s college tuition. Yes, I wanted to say, but you gave that word ten years ago, when his mother couldn’t pay her phone bill, and now they live on the beach. But since my own tuition at Syracuse University was paid in advance every semester, and the account holding my horse’s monthly board and horse show fees was always full, I couldn’t think of a reasonable way to argue. He said he had once promised that he would put his nephew through college and now he was doing it. Period. This boy was a favorite cousin of mine when we were kids, but when my father died, he did not take the morning off from the medical center he directs to come to the wake or the funeral, or to the repast lunch, and he did not call or even send a card.

My father and I discuss this one dreary winter day. ‟He didn’t come, can you imagine?” Of course, I must script his answer, but not out of nothing.

‟He’s busy,” my father says.

‟But after all you did for him!”

‟Forget it, kiddo. There’s no time for that.”

*     *     *

I am not naïve. I know that once dead, a parent’s memory gets to slough off the legitimate, grating flaws that once accompanied its corporeal form. My father was a frustratingly rigid man who did not think it impolite once to ask a new boyfriend of mine how much he earned and to tell him it wasn’t enough. He thought he knew everything and when he didn’t, he made up something that sounded plausible and let everyone believe it was true. If what you were saying did not interest him, he would click on the TV or walk out of the room. His college-dropout son could do no wrong, and his two high-achieving daughters, for all their accomplishments, were still just girls.

Once, years ago, when he called me in New Jersey to be sure my husband could pick him and my mother up at the airport when the red-eye landed, I said I would be there instead. My father rattled off alternatives—a car service, taxi, Uncle Nunzio. Finally, I yelled into the phone, ‟Dad, believe it or not, I can pick you up at the airport even though I don’t have a penis.”

He must have blushed, deeply. I knew his chivalric nerve would sustain damage, which is why I aimed for it. I was in my thirties, old enough to know better, young enough to still want to land that arrow deep enough to be noticed, not so deep to draw blood.

*     *     *

Over time, our conversations grow more one-sided, for the most part, unless I am dreaming. But that seems okay, right even. Neither of us is exactly who we were when he died, or even who we were in the hospital a few months before that, talking at cross-purposes about loans and tipping and who could or should take care of what. We are not even anymore, today, who we were the last time we talked, or maybe I should say the last time I imagined we talked. I have to remember this, that this father I talk to who is dead is also someone other than the one who would not let me drive his car when I visited. He is someone other than the person who once insisted that antibiotics could cure a virus, even after I showed him the truth on WebMD.

I know that, for reasons I don’t completely understand yet and maybe never will, I’ve constructed this father to fill in for the one I could not talk to before. Was it Emily Dickenson who said, ‟Absence is presence compressed?”

I know that this is not even the same father who, decades ago, handed me lit sparklers on the Fourth of July and stayed close by with a pitcher of water, or the one whose trusted hands held me in the hashing ocean of Miami Beach when I was scared that a riptide or a jelly fish, or my brother, would hurt me.

This father lives not in the real world, and likely never did, but in my imagination, dwelling in the interstitial byways between memory and hope, standing beneath the connecting gambrels of grief and gratitude. This father is gone, never was, and he is sitting right next to me.

Lisa RomeoLisa Romeo teaches at Rutgers University and The Writers Circle. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; literary journals and collections. She holds an MFA from the Stonecoast Program. Lisa lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons, and she blogs at http://LisaRomeo.blogspot.com.

 

Transgressions

Sticky Skirts

Fearful of showing more skin than was appropriate for my grandmother’s funeral, I pulled my black lined skirt downward for the hundredth time. The problem was, no matter how hard I pulled I couldn’t help but feel like the skirt was still riding up. I blamed my obsessive thought patterns on the humidity. I pulled at the skirt again. Couldn’t we sit down already? Christ, it was hot.

When the heat index reached 120 before the 2 p.m. service, the ushers went in search of four oscillating fans. Two were stashed at the front corners, between pews and walls. The other two fans lined each side of the casket, oscillating between Grandma and us. I watched with envy as the plants surrounding the coffin shifted in the breeze.

One Christmas morning, a pea-green, skintight skirt awaited me under Grandma’s sparsely-decorated artificial tree. The tree, occupying a small corner of her living room, was decorated with red garland and sparkled with gold, silver and red bulbs. Unfolding the skirt, I stood up and placed the pea-green fabric against my twelve-year-old hips, wondering when I would be able to fill out those contours.

“She is not wearing that in public,” I heard my Dad say. He was sitting at the dining room table, surrounded by my uncles. Crushed, I quickly folded the skirt back up. Really? Could he be any more embarrassing? I sat back down on the living room floor with the rest of my aunts and cousins amidst the discarded wrapping paper and bits of ribbon.

“It’s just a skirt, Wayne,” said Grandma, coming to my rescue from her recliner beside me. “She’ll look great.” She placed her thin, weathered right hand on my shoulder, giving me a gentle squeeze.

 

Living to Sit

“At the end of life,” the pastor said, “one must consider the sins we have committed, the wrongs we have done others, and the forgiveness necessary to reach that safe haven of heaven.”

What? Why the focus on sins? Is this what happens when a pastor’s too busy to write a sermon? In ninety-three years, Grandma had done her share of sinning, I’m sure, but for the past seventy-seven years or so, she’d also done her share of sitting right here, in this congregation. I would hardly consider that sinful.

Was it because Grandma sat towards the rear of the church, seven rows from the back, always on the left-hand side? It wasn’t exactly a front row seat, a tuned-into-God, feel the pastor spit from the pulpit kind of position. Maybe God only saved front row sinners. Inside the Missouri Synod, maybe those at the back of the church miss God’s divine purpose. Or was it just our particular pastor’s God who hated, discriminated, and judged us differently?

Grandma sat beneath the balcony where my family always sat. She’d look up through her large skin-toned glasses to see if we’d made it. Once she spotted us, she’d return her attention to the pulpit for a few minutes, then, when Mom and Dad weren’t looking, she’d glance back up to smile or wink at me. Then she’d pull her tan cardigan closer to her body and tune back into the pastor’s message.

“Only the privileged are allowed access to heaven,” I heard the pastor say. What about the rest of us, I wondered, as I doodled across the communion acceptance slip, blocking out the oath to God that condemned us to eternal damnation, if we consumed the body and blood of Christ without faith. Would I go to hell for using it as a blank sheet of paper?

After the church service I would wait for her in the narthex. Those who sat closer to God exited first. When it was Grandma’s turn to leave, she would pause in front of the pastor, repeating the required pleasantries like, “great sermon,” before moving on to encase me in a hug.

 

Plucking Swearing Chickens

“Swearing,” says pastor, “is a sin.”

No shit. Oops, now I had sworn in the house of God. This sermon was a sin, I thought defiantly. Grandma never swore. Swearing in her presence might land one with a meal of Ivory soap instead of the usual chicken dinner.  We ate a lot of chicken, probably because grandma raised her own.

“You gotta stop those chickens from running,” Grandma yelled from her position across the yard, supervising the steaming hot dunk tanks and cutting boards shaded by oaks. “We don’t want bruised meat.”

Two of my uncles and my dad rotated positions between the chopping block and the coop, retrieving chickens. Six of the oldest cousins lined the plucking station, a contraption that looked like a makeshift clothesline, shoved over by the barn. Three of my aunts and my mother circled the dunk tanks and cutting boards. My job was to pluck the feathers from the course, prickly skin. The rusty iron smell of blood loomed like a heavy fog with a quarter-mile visibility. Wet feathers clung to the skin of my legs, between my shorts and socks. Bringing my shoe up, I slid the sole across my leg, but none of the feathers fell to the ground. I hate chicken feathers. When wet, they smell like musty cardboard brought up from a damp basement.

Swiping the sweat from my brow, I tried not to think of the chicken separated from her children and friends at the coop. Or of the thwaping sound of the ax as it penetrated the tiny necks, lodging itself in wood. The head lay motionless while the body jumped up to run. My uncle, swooping down to catch the bird, missed yet again.

“Catch that damn chicken,” Grandma bellowed.

 

Coveting Skittles

“Coveting thy neighbor,” says pastor, “is the second unforgiveable sin we partake of in life.”

Grandpa died of heart complications long before I was born, leaving Grandma to finish raising six children, half of which were still in school. Grandma was fifty-eight when she took over the fieldwork, the pigs and the chickens.

Shifting in my seat, I wondered what Grandma might have coveted. Grandpa died of heart complications long before I was born, leaving Grandma to finish raising six children, half of which were still in school. Grandma was fifty-eight when she took over the fieldwork, the pigs and the chickens. I suppose she could have coveted a different outcome, except she seemed content to be alone. Maybe her lack of a second marriage, or her inability to turn over the reins of her farm to another man, made her a sinner. Instead, she’d held her farm in safekeeping for her sons, assisting them in the fields from 1976 until her retirement in 1992. Maybe independence was a sin. Maybe the pastor was insane. As for the seventeen grandchildren, we coveted her stash of Skittles hidden within the belly of her crystal rooster stored upon her buffet.

Grandma was notorious for saying, “There will be no spoiling dinner, so only take two or three Skittles from the rooster.”

I often wondered, why only two or three pieces? Why not a handful? Does it really matter? But it did matter. She obsessed over it. Grandma could hear the rooster’s back being lifted off its base from anywhere in the house.

Plenty of times my cousins and I waited for her to head up the stairs to go to the bathroom before we’d break into action. Tiptoeing across the shag green carpet, we’d head straight for the crystal rooster, our puzzles or books abandoned, tempted by the promise of unsupervised rainbow-colored candies. Gently, we’d lift the lid. We knew the slightest tap of glass on glass would land us a punishment like dusting or vacuum cleaning. From somewhere above, we’d hear, “Put those Skittles back!”

 

Problematic Glass Birds

The final unforgivable sin awarded to my grandmother at her funeral service was that of holding a “need to harbor ill feelings towards another.” As I stared down the pastor, I harbored a few of my own. Sweat ran down the sides of his face. He enunciated every word of this sin, twice, believing this would somehow change us.

When Brett’s department store in Mankato went out of business, I was in grade school. Grandma and I sifted through rows and rows of tables set up with clothes, knickknacks and shoes. A small red bird, about three inches high, with a white underbelly, long red legs, red neck, and a peacock tail, caught my eye. She encouraged me to pick it up. The cool softness of the glass bird caressed my hand. Mom never allowed me to touch glass items, but Grandma didn’t seem to mind. She grabbed a different glass bird. Hers was short and stubby, with a blue head, green body, and red tail; it looked like a small robin, standing maybe an inch and half tall.

“Let’s take these,” she said. We walked to the counter. The lady behind the register wrapped the birds in paper, placing them in a bag while Grandma paid for them.

In the car, I immediately unwrapped my little glass bird. Grandma suggested we should swap birds. I did so reluctantly. That chubby blue-green bird was not the one I wanted. He was so ugly.

“Why?” I asked, struggling not to pout.

“So we can remember each other,” she said, putting my bird back in her bag.

When we got to her house, Grandma placed my bird on a small wall shelf in her living room, where it remained right up to the day she entered the nursing home. Returning home to Morton at the end of the week, I made a place for the stubby bird on my dresser, inside my glow-in-the-dark nativity set. Mary and Joseph stood only an inch taller, keeping watch over their ends of the manger, Jesus, and the bird. At least he wasn’t alone. Jesus loves everyone, even ugly little birds.

 

Blueberry Pie Obituaries

When the pastor finally got down to the intimate details of Grandma’s life, he read them from her obituary. She wrote her own obituary during the late 1990s after a combine accident claimed her right arm, forcing her into retirement in ‘92. My revision on the day of her death, in July of 2011, consisted of trying to decipher the crimped writing of a newly left-handed woman: a long-standing member of our Lutheran church, employed during World War II as an accountant clerk for Montgomery Ward, a marriage to Grandpa, late to motherhood, six children, the Ladies Aid, the PTA, widow, hog farmer, crop farmer, long-standing Blue Earth County 4-H open class judge, a grandmother, and, finally, nursing home resident. While she was active in all of these positions, none of them truly defined her.

Cursed with temporary insanity during my sixteenth year of life, I asked Grandma for a blueberry pie, forgetting she’d lost her arm in a combine accident two years before.

“Are you insane?” my mother asked earlier that morning, when I had excitedly rattled off my expectations for a home-cooked birthday pie. “She can’t make her blueberry pies anymore. How the hell is she going to roll out the dough?”

Disappointed and ashamed by my lapse of memory, but unwilling to believe Grandma couldn’t do it, I waited outside the door for her to arrive. I could almost see the blueberries swelling out of the crisscrossed crust, golden brown with white sugar sprinkled across the top. Grandma’s silver pie tin would still be warm from the oven. More than anything, I wanted Grandma to prove to Mom she could still do it.

An hour later, I ran down the sidewalk to greet her. Opening the passenger door to her ‘88 Buick Regal, I smelled the sweet blueberries before I saw the silver pie tin. Kissing her on the check, I grabbed the pie tin and ran for the kitchen, yelling, “Mom, I got a blueberry pie.”

 

Final Goodbyes

When the front doors of the church swung wide, a dense, hot fog of humidity assaulted us, pressing us to wait until the pallbearers navigated the steps.

As I stood for the final song, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” my hands automatically began to pull on my skirt. The start of the final verse was our signal to follow Grandma out of the sanctuary. When the front doors of the church swung wide, a dense, hot fog of humidity assaulted us, pressing us to wait until the pallbearers navigated the steps. As the casket was loaded into the hearse, I heard someone say, “That was a great sermon.” I didn’t look for who made the comment, even though I wanted to. I wanted to scream, “Bullshit. Her life wasn’t a sin.”

Six months after her funeral, on a crisp autumn Sunday morning, I went to my grandmother’s house for the last time. The aunts and uncles were assembled. It was their last day to go through Grandma’s things. Her bird collection was all that remained. I asked for the red, long-necked bird; it was the only thing of hers that I wanted.

When I entered her house, my nine-year-old son, pointing to the floor, commented, “That’s some green carpeting, Mom.”

While my children spread out to inspect the house, I noticed that all the tables were covered with birds. Almost all were robin-looking red birds, a few blue glass birds, and a green bird, but the majority of her birds were red. I mentioned this to my mother, but she was all business.

“Pick out your bird,” she said. “None of us can remember what it looks like.”

I scanned the dining room table and the two card tables extending out into the living room. For one paralyzing second, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to recognize it. As I walked around the backside of the dining room table, I noticed the long pink neck of a glass bird with a white underbelly. Was that really it? As my fingers clasped the long-legged bird, its cool texture caressed my hand, telling me that this was indeed the bird, and yet, it wasn’t red, it was pink.

“This has got to be it,” I said, “But this bird is pink. Mine was red.”

“It’s been over twenty some odd years since you last saw the bird,” she said. “It faded.”

 

Liberational Roses

After the funeral service, my two boys and I rode with my sister in her air-conditioned car to the cemetery. We got out of the car and headed for the steep embankment, which descended down to Grandma and Grandpa’s stone. Once by the gravestone, we noticed the image of a walleye engraved into the red-gray granite. We were told Grandpa loved to fish up at the Lake of the Woods. It didn’t appear as if there were any personal markers on the stone to signify my grandmother’s passions, only her name. There was a small cross in the upper right hand corner. Was that her emblem?

The last time Grandma and I talked, we were in the hospital emergency room, shortly after her heart attack. For having Alzheimer’s, she was fairly lucid, aware of who we were, my uncle, mother and I, as we sat in the small room around her bed. At first I said nothing, unsure if I were just a passing memory to her. Multiple bones in her chest were crushed. Violation of the “do not resuscitate” orders had resulted in severe internal bleeding. Her second death would be harder. My mom and her brother talked to Grandma like she would recover, but we knew she wouldn’t. Did she know?

My mother jumped on me: “Talk to her like you used to.” What kind of comment was that?

“I’m in college now,” I said. Fourteen years ago, Grandma and I had disagreed over my decision not to go to college. “Forget about those barns,” she’d said. “You need an education.” She couldn’t understand why I’d work for the factory hog farms. “They crush small farmers.”

“I know,” Grandma quietly said. “I’m glad.” Seconds later, we were strangers to her again.

Once the final words at the interment were said, my aunts allowed the grandchildren to each grab a flower from the casket spray. I stayed back, while my eleven-year-old son, escaping my attention, wove through the crowd of cousins, heading for the casket’s flowers. He plucked one of the few red roses among the pink and white carnations. When he returned he said, “Here, Mom,” handing me the rose. “It’s from Great-Grandma.”

Microsoft Word - Sampson Bio and Photo.docxHeidi Sampson received her BA from Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she majored in creative writing and gender & women’s studies. She is a freelance writer for The Free Press, a reporter for the Albert Lea Tribune, and owner/editor-in-chief of the feminist online literary journal, Silent Revelations Press.