One more thing about grief

I’m sitting here filling up my Google calendar with appointments for those must-do things before the big move. It’s amazing to me how much has changed in my life over the last ten years…six years…year. I’m thrilled and terrified and missing my son so much. My father too, but today I miss my son more. I love that there are all these positive changes happening, but I wish my life wasn’t changing without him.

I thought about this the other day…
I miss being a mom.
I miss loving him.

I still feel love for him, obviously, but it’s more of a theory or a passive experience (that has the ability to gut me out of the blue.) It feels like he only exists in my head now. He’s morphed from flesh to memory.

I can’t hug him or laugh with him on the phone. We can’t argue or reminisce. I can’t recount some stupid human moment of my day with him and he can’t mock me for it. I’ve lost roughly 4,000 inside jokes that only he would get. I’ll never pass on another book to him or converse with him about a book he recommended. He’ll never read the end of the book I was writing. We’ll never sit on the deck in my new backyard and clink beers while fragrant meats burn on the grill.

In a few weeks I will never again turn down a road we used to live on and remember us as a family doing mundane stuff that only means something now because the memory of a son is all I have.

And don’t even get me started on those grandchildren I had imagined spoiling one day. I’ll end up spending the afternoon packing tears in boxes instead of books.

Death is a real asshole. Fuck death.

Unconditional Love

In grade school, we used to decorate shoe boxes with paper hearts and shiny bits of foil to set at the corner of our desk on Valentine’s Day (or the weekday nearest). Our teacher would set aside time on that day for her students to slip their personalized valentines into the boxes of their friends and crushes. Candice, with her long blonde hair, always had an overflowing box by the end of the day. Chris, who looked like an underwear model even in the second grade, always had little paper corners breaking free of the shoe box slot because there was no more room inside. You could shake my box and hear the valentines thunk the sides.

I always received those popularity-measuring slips from the kids whose mothers had made them sit down and fill out one for each of their classmates. There would also be one from my dad. He would secret an unsigned valentine into the box the night before, but he always used a leftover from the box I had bought to give to my classmates so it wasn’t much of a mystery.

I would upend my shoebox at home – spreading my preprinted love letters out to see the names of the senders as I crushed ‘be mine’ and ‘you’re a cutie’ with therapeutic chomps. I would check each name off in my head against the list of those who hit every box and somewhere in that tally my father’s anonymous valentine would shake loose. I would hold it up to my mother, roll my eyes, and say, “Lemme guess. Dad?”, then drop it on the table like an empty gum wrapper.

I was too young to realize – that paper heart was the only one that mattered.

valetines dad peeking

“Promises You Can’t Keep”

Brigit’s Flame post Week 2, June
Prompt: Promises
Genre: Non-Fiction, Reminiscence
Word count: 1,962
Title: “Promises you can’t keep.”

The last time I saw my father…well the last time he saw me, I’m not one hundred percent sure he knew who I was. He’d been in the hospital for a week following an aggressive surgery to remove cancer from multiple organs. It took twelve hours, the surgery, and it was twenty four from the time they wheeled him off until we were able to speak to him again.

 

He had always been a terrible patient. Even on that first visit, after a surgery that had seriously reduced the length of his intestines and esophagus and had relocated his stomach to a spot just under his shoulder blade, he was asking when they’d let him go home. For three days our time with him was measured. Fifteen minutes per hour, twelve hours per day, only two people in the room at a time…

 

But it was only for three days and then he’d be in a regular room; a week after that he’d be home.

 

Nearing the end of the third day they decided to keep him in ICU just one more day. There was evidence of a small internal bleed that they hadn’t been able to track down. It was nothing really, but after such a major surgery – and since he only had one kidney – they thought it would be smarter to monitor him closely.

 

Dad insisted I leave. I had a job to get back to. My son was missing school. Everything would be fine. He promised. We packed up the car and spent the final seven hours of day three on the highway home. I spent day four at work with reports from my mother that Dad had a bad cough so they may not move him to a regular room just yet. Just after dawn of day six an ICU a nurse called me at home.

 

“If he was my dad,” she said in a furtive tone, “I’d want to be here.”

 

It was pneumonia.

 

Even though my brain quantified the news with words like ‘only’ and ‘just’, I called out to work and school. We headed back to the highway for another seven hour drive. The drive took closer to ten – accidents, pile-ups, the metropolis-style rush hour where traffic stands still. We arrived and had to wait an hour for the proper fifteen minutes on the clock.

 

What an hour. It was like hell. Not from the worry – just pneumonia, it’s like a bad cold – but from the company. My mother’s sister had arrived – Ione. Never have I met a more loathsome person. Ione is one of those that not only forcibly hugs you, she doesn’t stop until you are blue-lipped and tapping the mat. This is a woman so odious, my tender-hearted father couldn’t stand her; she’d been pole-vaulting over his tolerance bar for thirty years. But as my mother often said, “You can’t choose your family.”

 

Aunt Ione sat across from me and Adam in the family waiting room and said something like this:

“You both need to accept that Larry is not going to recover. Even now God is calling him home. All of the actions the doctors are taking are prolonging his pain, just like you are postponing your own pain by continuing to believe that he will live. The good news,” at this she smiled her version of beatifically and turned her palms up to the ceiling, “is that I’ve spoken with him and he has assured me that his love for God is real. Trust that Our Lord knows best and is taking him to a better place.”

 

I put my arm around my thirteen year-old’s shoulders and held tightly to one of his fists. The hug was a multi-purpose thing. I wanted to comfort him and myself, but I was also preventing someone from punching Aunt Ione in the face. It was a toss-up which one of us would have done it first. My mother always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Seemed like an ideal time to apply that rule.

 

I looked passed the aunt barricade at my mother. “What’s changed since I got on the road this morning?”

(It was 2002, none of us had mobile phones).

Almost breezily my mother replied, “The pneumonia is bad and they’re not sure about giving your father stronger medicine to combat it because he only has one kidney and it’s working overtime. They still haven’t found where he’s bleeding from, but they’re worried that coughing might make that small hole a bigger tear. Also, the pneumonia has caused a relapse of his Malaria. You might not remember how sick that makes him – you were a toddler the last time he relapsed – he gets delirious. His fever is really high and they can’t bring it down.”

 

She was working on a jigsaw puzzle through the last half of the explanation. It was one I had bought a few days before when I thought I was leaving her alone for a few days until he could be moved to a normal ward and then released – a Thomas Kinkade. She held the box top in her hand as she sifted through for pieces of a lemon-chiffon sky striped with clouds the color of pink lemonade powder. A Country Time day over an English garden and the thatched roof of a cozy little cottage where no one was dying.

 

I was baffled. The medical information sounded negative, but not dire. My mother was acting like it was just another day and my aunt was already writing his eulogy. Ione forced her way into my personal space again for a strangling hug. She pressed her face against mine. My skin crawled at the feel her chill skin against my cheek as she tried to rock me like a baby. My mother snapped pieces of the sky together with a satisfied smile and Aunt Ione encouraged me to let go of something. My father? My tears? My anger?

 

Then she fed us the tidbit my mother had left out.

 

“The doctor is putting him in a coma today to ease his suffering. They waited this long to give you a chance to say goodbye.”

 

I wriggled until I got my hands on her shoulders and forcibly pushed her off me. “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?”

 

My mother nearly dropped her puzzle box and immediately shushed me, looking around to make sure I didn’t disturb the other families. “They are just giving him something so he can sleep for a few days and really rest. They think the pain and stress are causing him to move around too much. They want him to be completely still so the little perforations he could be bleeding from will heal themselves. There’s just too much going on and he’s so anxious to go home. The doctors have had him on kidney dialysis to help him process all of the medication. He’s having the Malaria dreams… I told you they make him delirious.”

 

I stood up as Aunt Ione reached out for me again. I was way too taut to be respectful and ignore her bullshit, but I was also in a large room full of people who had someone they loved in a boat similar to my father’s. Grinding millimeters off my back teeth to keep it together, and one more ‘praise God’ away from a full on meltdown, I sat in the chair next to my mother and pushed the puzzle box out of her line of sight.

 

“Why would we need to say goodbye over that?” I asked.

My mom’s eyes strayed from my face to the colored bits of cardboard strewn across the table. “The doctor said they could put him in the coma and they would wake him up, but if he gets worse instead of better they won’t. It would be cruel. The goodbye is just in case.”

 

When my fifteen minutes came around, Aunt Ione jumped up and said she’d just be real quick. She wanted to blah, blah, blah. I cut her off and told her no. Under no uncertain terms was she to be allowed back in that room. I looked at her husband, my mother, and the elderly Pink Lady in charge of the waiting room, nobody jumped to her defense. When she tried to protest and treat me, a 31 year old woman, like an unreasonable child I pointed out that we had just driven nine and half hours to get there. My son and I were going to spend the full fifteen minutes with him – we were his blood and she was too inflammatory to be around a man who the doctor was instructing to lie still. Ione made that comment again that he was going to a better place.

 

“Stop saying that!” I snarled. “He would be the first one to tell you that there is no better place than with his family. My father would choose us over ‘heaven’ any day of the week!”

The nurse in the ICU room was not the one who’d called me. This one was just coming on shift and taking his vitals. I was surprised to see that Dad already had a tube down his throat hooked to a respirator. When we walked up to the bed the nurse was saying something to him about his stats, he turned to us and met my eyes. There was some message in the look he gave me, but I don’t know what it was; not for sure. Seeing us upset him. I know that because the nurse was watching his vitals on the monitor and gave me a warning glare.

 

“Is this your daughter, Larry?” she asked in that tone people use to ask questions of dogs and the elderly. “And you grandson came to see you. What a handsome boy. Remember to stay calm, okay. We don’t want to raise your blood pressure.” This last she said to him, but was really for us. “No emotion,” her eyes said.

 

I looked back at my dad, the look was still there. He was waving his hand a bit, as if trying to shoo us out of the room.

 

Adam caught his hand and said, “Hey, Pop.”

 

Dad’s eyes softened as he looked at Adam for the first time since we entered the room. I was back to gritting my teeth again, but that time was to keep from crying. I was surprised by my son’s casual way of just sitting next to his grandfather, holding his hand, and talking to him about some school thing that had happened the day before. I knew Adam was just as confused and hurting as much as I was, maybe more because he’d never lost anyone this close before.

 

I don’t remember saying much of anything to my father in the last 15 minutes I really had with him. I told him that I loved him, but we never significantly exited each other’s company without saying so. That strain was still in his eyes. It may have been the Malaria or the pain, or maybe he didn’t want us to see him that way. Being who he was, it might have been as simple as he disapproved of our traveling all the way back after he sent us home. I belonged at work. Adam shouldn’t miss any more school. It was just like him to worry about us as he lay there unable to breathe and operate his own kidney without a machine.

Maybe he was thinking, “Everything could turn out fine, but your mother always says not to make promises you can’t keep.”

 

I don’t remember saying much of anything, but before I let go of his hand I did tell him this:

“Don’t listen to Aunt Ione. You’re not going anywhere.”

“In My Time of Dying”

Brigit’s Flame post Week 1, July
Prompt: Tie-Dye
Genre: Sentimental Fiction
Word count: almost 2,966
Title: “In My Time of Dying”

Partially inspired by songs by The Be Good Tanyas including one titled “In My Time of Dying” which is quoted in part of the story.

 

“Why couldn’t it be winter? Everything dies in winter.” Maizie dropped the gauzy curtain, turning away from the window. She hugged her wasting frame and studied Pappa’s lined face.

“What is your objection to summer, Love?” he asked Maizie softly. Pappa caressed her shoulders gently and smoothed the top of her hair.

She leaned into his chest and played with a thread escaping his sleeve. His arms felt so warm around her; he smelled like dryer sheets and the cheap aftershave she’d been buying him since she was eight. Maizie realized she had never really liked the scent in the bottle, only the way it smelled on Pappa and how it seemed a part of him; a part she’d given him.

“I’m sick. I feel like I should be wrapped in blankets. I’d like the comfort of a heavy quilt and a soft cardigan that’s a few sizes too big. But it’s hot,” Maizie pouted, “I look out there and I see half-naked Brach twins running through the sprinklers and getting sticky from melting popsicles. They make me sweat just watchin’ ’em,” she grumbled.

Momma called from the kitchen, “Then don’t look out the window.” She came into the living room with a cup of tea and a squeeze tube of honey. “Sit down and drink your tea,” Momma ordered.

Maizie flopped on the couch (because Momma hated that) and glared at the tea cup. “I don’t want tea. It’s too hot. I want lemonade,” she pouted, eyes drawn again to the light through the curtains as the twins squealed at their fun and carefree lives.

“If you aren’t ready to go, Bluebird, wait for the winter. We don’t mind having you,” Pappa said as he pulled the heavy drapes across the sheer curtains. Maizie watched his darkened silhouette over the back of the couch and smiled sadly.

“Maury, what are you doing?” Momma asked in that way — blending stern and resigned in the form of a question that she always knew the answer to before asking.

“Turning the summer off for a little while so Maizie can get some rest.” Pappa shrugged at Momma. The spoken answer was a courtesy they always practiced even though the shrug should have been sufficient.

“Maizie, please drink the tea,” Momma said, placing emphasis on each word.
“Maury, you cannot just pull the drapes closed and call the summer off. And Maizie can’t just decide to stay. It’s not a semester abroad, it’s leukemia.”

Maizie had been squeezing the honey bottle’s contents into her mouth, she tipped the bottle back to upright and watched Pappa’s reaction to the conversation incursion by the ‘L’ word. For a moment he looked so lost and alone, and angry.

He pointed a finger at Momma that looked like an accusation, but when he found his voice all he said was, “I’m gonna put the A/C down to sixty and find a quilt.”

Momma huffed, but before she could verbally protest Pappa’s voice came floating down the hall in a rant, “Bluebird wants to be comfortable then she damn well will be! What am I paying the electric bill for anyway? I provide the money to keep my family happy and comfortable, and since my money doesn’t seem to be doing a damn thing to keep my daughter healthy then I’ll spend it to keep her happy!
“Semester abroad,” he grumbled. “Talks to me like I’m the fool. It’s just tea, Cheryl!”

“You and your father,” Momma said, shaking her head, “It’s like you don’t even need me in the picture.”

Maizie sat forward and put the tea cup to her lips. “I was just waiting for it to cool, Momma. I’m still hot from the car ride.”

“I thought it might soothe your stomach.” Momma opened her mouth to say more then looked away, considering. She started again, keeping her voice low. “Maizie, I don’t just assume…I mean, there’s no reason to think that the treatments won’t work. Remission is a reasonable assumption at this stage. Even Dr. Keel says he is hopeful. I just… …your father’s a dreamer. I don’t have to tell you that, you are his daughter –”

“You can’t tell a man what to dream, Cheryl,” Pappa interrupted gruffly. “Bluebird, I’m not sure we’ve ever had a quilt, but I found this old sweater in a box in the closet.” He held it up. It was her grandmother’s sweater.

It was definitely too big for Maizie and there was a hole near the elbow and another at the place where the arm was attached. Maizie was transported to the memory of how that hole was made. They had lost Gams when Maizie was eleven. The grieving child had worn it for months; she had even slept in it. Momma eventually insisted the sweater must be washed but Maizie had fought her on it. She knew that washing it would change the smell and Gams wouldn’t be there any more. The fight escalated into a juvenile tug-of-war that ended abruptly when the sweater popped a seam.

Momma recognized the sweater, too. “Good god,” she said, “I thought we gave that old rag to Goodwill.”

Maizie crossed the room and accepted the sweater from Pappa with a smile. “Thank you,” she said softly as she hugged him tightly for a beat.

“Thank you for the tea, Momma.” Maizie gave her a quick peck on the cheek before walking down the hall to her old room.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

The next morning Maizie waited until Momma had left the kitchen to tell Pappa, “I had a dream about Gams last night.”

Pappa smiled over his coffee mug. “I miss that old lady. Best mother-in-law a man ever had any right to. Why are we whispering?”

Maizie glanced around conspiratorially. “I don’t remember much of my dream, but I woke up with this image of Gams holding something and I’d like to make it. Will you help me?”

Pappa nodded with a wink as Momma walked in to make sure Maizie was eating her oatmeal and had taken her pills.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

For phase one of the project, Pappa helped by buying all of the supplies and tools needed. Then he set up his workshop for Maizie’s use and installed a second air conditioner. Maizie was still wearing Gams’ old cardigan for comfort and to hang on to the feeling that Gams was with her.

Phase two had father and daughter pleating fabric squares into various shapes and securing them with rubber bands. Pappa lined up a row of plastic bottles filled with a rainbow of dye colors and two work stations comprised of cookie cooling racks balanced across tin foil pans. They talked easily of music and art, and reminisced together over Maizie’s childhood.

Over the days they worked on the dye, the duo kept the windows open in the workshop to vent the fumes. They had each plugged their playlists into an old laptop attached to high output speakers. Father and daughter sang with each other through rousing versions of songs in their playlists, from Pappa’s Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr to Maizie’s Suzy Bogguss and LeAnn Rimes.

Momma stood outside their clubhouse sneaking cigarettes and weeping silently at the amazing voice her daughter had been blessed with. She wondered, not for the first time, if it had been the compensation for such a short life. Nineteen years was certainly not enough.

During a song Momma didn’t know, she fumbled her cigarette as Maizie sang out:
“Well, well, well so I can die easy”
Then found herself folding toward the boards of the porch as the words, “And if these wings should fail me lord won’t you meet with another pair,” floated to her across the Oleander. The very real possibility that they might lose their little girl struck her square in the chest and wouldn’t let her breathe. Momma wrestled with her emotions, not wanting to make a sound that would alert the family to her spying and early grief. The struggle to keep it together pushed her through the house to the front room where the drapes were still drawn in protest of summer. Momma knelt on the sofa and bawled into the cushions.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Once the fabric had been prepped, Maizie and Pappa cleared a large spot on the floor and laid the vibrantly colored squares out in a pattern that, once nudged, pinned, and tweaked, formed a scene. At Maizie’s insistence, Pappa climbed up on one of the work tables to take several photographs of the layout. Then Maizie numbered the squares from right to left with a fabric pencil and stored them in a ziplock bag.

The first few days of quilting the squares together went very slowly. Machine sewing was not a skill Pappa had ever honed and Maizie feared she had taken on too much trying to sew the composite pieces by hand. When they only had a few days until Maizie’s next treatment, Pappa enlisted the help of a local quilter’s club. He had barely finished his story when the ladies, many with wet cheeks, swooped in to help them.

Maizie sat with the group on the first day answering questions about her vision for the piece and learning techniques she’d never known existed. Two of the women were school teachers from different points in Maizie’s education, another had been her piano teacher for a number of years. They talked to her about their own memories of her growing up, bringing smiles to Maizie and Pappa’s faces and distracting them for a time with stories of a bold girl with hands on her hips and a song on her tongue.

As part of the original payment plan, Maizie sang for them; taking requests as they pushed their needles in and out of her carefully planned art and kept time with their clicking thimbles and tapping toes.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

“We spoke before the procedure about how radiation could help, but that it was also an aggressive approach,” Dr. Keel stated somberly. “The tests we took this afternoon are not positive. We killed a great deal of the blast cells, but Maizie’s immune system took a major hit as well.”

“What’s the next step, Dr. Keel,” asked Momma stoically as Pappa rubbed calloused hands down his face.

“Maizie will have to be kept in a ‘clean room’ until her body restocks the antibodies. Until then she is critically vulnerable to even the smallest infection.”

“Can we be in the room with her, Doc?” Pappa asked. “Can we bring her anything from home?”

“You can visit with her individually, but you will wear clean scrubs, masks, and gloves. Nothing from home for now, but we can revisit that in a few days after we test her blood again.”

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Momma and Pappa spent a month sleeping in shifts at the hospital. Hopeful every time a doctor came in to discuss the blood-work. Disappointed and heartbroken every time they left.

Pappa found some comfort with the quilters when he wasn’t at the hospital. During his days away from Maizie he would work on the project with them. If he had the night off instead, he would find himself invited to dinner at one of their houses or at the bar or bowling alley with one of their husbands.

Momma had her sisters and a group of society friends she worked on charity committees with. She and her husband passed each other in hallways and parking lots like strangers. They shared information on Maizie’s condition, but found nothing else to say.

Maizie tried to stay bright for them. She would scribble silly poetry on pieces of paper from the nurses and fold them into little origami shapes and paper airplanes for her Pappa. With Momma she would watch adaptations of the classics like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice or TV shows like Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge and make an effort to talk about the shows and appear engaged.

Then a morning came when Pappa kissed Maizie goodbye through his mask and Momma squeezed her hand with a gloved one in greeting, Maizie was exhausted by the effort it took to accept and return these two simple pleasantries. When the nurse took her vitals, Maizie could barely move her arm to proffer her wrist or move her chin to allow the nurse to feel her glands. Maizie’s eyes were hot with fever and her throat too swollen to swallow.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

On an overcast morning when the wet air promised Autumn was on her way, Dr. Keel sat with the family and explained that Maizie was dying. It was no longer a possibility, but a fact. She would be moved to a private room where family members could come to say their farewells.

Momma and Pappa were bookends to Maizie’s deathbed as the parade of condolences came through the door like dry leaves on the wind, piling in the corners and crunching under foot. Maizie tried to smile and be gracious as faceless aunts, uncles, and cousins hugged and kissed her. She felt like a corpse whose eyes hadn’t died yet and whose ears were still picking up distant transmissions. After what seemed like a lifetime, the relatives stopped blowing through the door and Maizie whispered hopefully about a nap. Pappa asked if she could please stay awake for one more group who would like to say hello. He helped her to sit up a little more comfortably while Momma fussed with Maizie’s scarf and adjusted Gams’ sweater to a more refined frump.

The ladies from the quilter’s club filed into the room and stood at the end of Maizie’s bed in a line. Maizie smiled as wide as her energy would allow. She felt a spark of something inside that wanted more than a nap and more morphine. The ladies recited their greetings from the end of the bed and introduced themselves to Momma. Then Mrs. Rhodes, Maizie’s former piano teacher pulled a bundle from a large bag and handed it down the line as she hung on to a piece. Together the women lifted Maizie’s quilt high and let it unfold to the floor.

Bordered in a dark brown micro-suede, the quilt depicted a watercolor sunset over a tie-dyed barn and a patchwork field of greens, yellows and browns. In the foreground was a large, mottled, yellow-brown hen with a brightly dappled bluebird tucked under one wing. In front of the barn was the silhouette of a man sitting on a haystack, hunched over a guitar.

Maizie clapped like a child and her smile overcame the fatigue to spread across her face. Pappa exclaimed over the finished quilt and thanked the quilters with hugs for their perseverance. Momma, confused about the whole thing, stepped forward to thank the strangers for their kind gift. She was perplexed as to why anyone would give the dying a quilt, but there was certainly a lot of work involved and that should not go unremarked.

“This is such a lovely gift, Ladies. It seems to have made Maizie very happy. I’m sure it will be quite a comfort.” Momma smiled tightly. “I recall that only two months ago Maury and I were searching for a quilt around the house at Maizie’s request. So this is a timely coincidence. And lovely…” Momma’s eye was drawn to the bluebird under the hen’s wing. “Such an odd subject,” she thought, “yet it’s somehow…personal.”

“Do you like it, Momma?” Maizie asked hoarsely.

“Of course, Sweetheart,” Momma replied. “It’s wonderful with all of its color and swirls.”

“We made it for you. Pappa and I started it together, but we had to get the quilters’ help pretty early on. We were in way over our heads.”

Momma glanced at Pappa who looked proud of either the accomplishment or keeping it a secret.

“I’ve kept working on it while Maizie was in the hospital,” Pappa said. “There have been days where finishing this thing has been the only thought that gets me moving in the morning.”

Momma looked back at the quilt, but the churning colors blended into a Monet puddle under the well of her tears. “For me?” she repeated in almost a whisper.

The quilt ladies decided the family needed some privacy and quickly folded the quilt and handed it to Pappa. Maizie accepted their warm goodbyes and thanked them again for finishing the quilt for her.

Maizie flopped a hand towards her and Momma took it. “You always feel left out of my life. I don’t know why but it’s just easier for me, sometimes, with Pappa. That doesn’t mean that you are less important or less a part of me. I saw this picture in a dream and I knew it was us. I decided on sewing it because at the time I wanted to sink under a quilt for comfort and I thought, if things didn’t go well for me, you might need some comfort of your own. It’s a really nice flannel on the other side.”
Momma sat on the edge of Maizie’s bed and let the tears slide down her face. There were a million words trying to climb over each other in her throat. The only two that made it out were, “Thank you.” But a little while later, “I love you,” burrowed through. Pappa scrunched himself onto the other side of the bed and handed Momma one side of the quilt to tuck around her and their daughter. Together the family of three laid together in comfort as Maizie explained the imagery of the quilt in a fading dialog that ended in a soft snore as she slipped into sleep.

“Forty Stories To Go”

I was at the end of my rope.
I don’t mean I was frustrated at the end of a long day and looking for the Cuervo. I was not underappreciated, overworked or even moderately put upon. This is not my way of saying I was ready to give up on life. I most definitely did not want to die.

I was quite literally at the end of my rope. I was holding it with both hands, had it wrapped inexpertly around one leg, and was pressing the little twenty centimeter knot into the front of my ankle with my other foot to try to keep a grip on it.  I would have held that bitch with my teeth if I’d thought it would help.

It was one of those times a lying man would have told you, “I knew I never should have got out of bed that day.” or “I’d had a bad feeling ever since I woke up that morning.”  But the truth is I woke up that day happier than I had ever been.  I say wake up but really, I never went to sleep.

About 10 months before, Sierra, down at Earl’s Suds Shack, finally said yes to my weekly-repeated requests for a date.  One week later I cooked her my famous Four Alarm Chili and we danced under the stars. A month after that we signed a lease together and the night before I found myself dangling over my grave, she said yes to my final request.  I asked if I could cook her chili until death do us part.  Sierra nodded with pools of tears gleaming above her lower lashes, then we folded ourselves into a blanket on the wicker bench out back and talked about everything from space travel to ancient Greeks.  She fell asleep with her head tucked under my chin.  I was too uncomfortable to do more than nod off here and there, but she felt so good in my arms I wasn’t about to let her go.

I could feel the knot slipping and my fingers were so cramped from holding the rope I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to straighten them again. An icy gust blew the promise of rain into my face.  Firetrucks had turned up below. My brain provided a cartoon of me letting go of my lifeline and twelve firemen running back and forth 40 stories below with a trampoline trying to gauge my trajectory.

It occurred to me that I should be panicking.  What could the firemen do to save me? I was too high for any of their ladders and platforms.  I thought of Sierra’s eyes and the tears breaking free as she nodded “Yes.” to my proposal.  Ever since the first time I sat down in front of her at Earl’s and asked for a ‘Giller Might’ I knew she was the one.  Sierra took my word fumble and turned it into a good-natured game.  I spent the night drinking slow and finding excuses to make those big brown eyes crinkle at the edges.  Then I spent the next three years and four months trying to win some time with her outside the bar.

The most amazing woman in five counties said yes to being my wife and I die the next day? Not happening! I tried to adjust my grip on the rope and wrap it around my hands. I bent my knee first and tried to stand on the rope to keep it from slipping.  I’m not a climbing expert. I almost lost my morning coffee and biscuit when the rope sizzled through my hands and I dropped another foot.  Once I realized that I was still holding the rope and not yet a man puddle, I did toss the Dunkin’.  Then I almost laughed when I wondered if the firemen would use that puddle to determine where to put the trampoline.  Or one of those big, blue, stunt-man, pillows.

The foretold rain spattered against the windows behind me like a fistful of gravel.  I closed my eyes against the stinging drops, then quickly reopened them to ward off more nausea and what I can only imagine was vertigo.  For just a second I could not determine up or down and the back of my head felt that spin you get when buzzed goes bad and drunk kicks in.

Where the hell were those firemen? About seven ladder trucks and four ambulances were taking up the street, but so far not one of the ants below had made a move toward me.  “This requires decisive action, Men!” I yelled into the wind, “Let’s get moving before the window-washer goes splat!”

Aahhh, there was the panic.  I knew it would turn up eventually. My upper arms had been burning for what felt like hours and the thought of touching Sierra’s soft brown hair again was not injecting the strength into me that it had two minutes before.  I was going to die today. Like it or not.

I heard a soft sound behind me and turned my head the three inches I felt I could spare. A man’s foot was just visible in my peripheral. Just then the gust threw more rain at me and I reflexively closed my eyes.  Back was the nausea and the head swim. As I blinked it off I felt something touch me in the vicinity of my harness. The words, “Don’t let go yet,” floated to me from my left side.  I couldn’t turn my head. The three inches I had given up to look over my right shoulder had locked me into a kind of whiplash that felt cemented over.

I very nearly passed out with relief as I felt the hands of multiple people securing me to other ropes and lines.  Then one man wrapped me in his arms, pulling me into his body the way I had held Sierra to me the night before., and told me to let go.  I couldn’t actually unclench my fingers, but some message must have gone from brain to extremities because the rope zinged through my hands and I did not fall. There was something under my feet.  They must have pulled me onto one of the other washer platforms.  I couldn’t look around because my neck was made of concrete and I was tangled into the best man-hug I have ever experienced in my life.

An hour or a few minutes later I was being lifted off the platform and onto the roof of the building.  Clips clicked and clinked, ropes fell away and my fireman angel was still holding me.  My legs had no strength at all, I could barely feel them. The vertigo returned as my body was tilted horizontally and laid on a gurney. In the elevator I looked at the faces of the men who’d saved my life and could not tell which was My Guy, but someone was holding my hand.  I tried to squeeze it, maybe I actually did. “I love you,” I declared to the elevator’s occupants and then I guess I passed out.

I don’t scale buildings and wash windows anymore.  I have my wife and children to keep me on the ground – in a good way.  But that’s why firemen always drink free here at ‘Forty Stories to Go’ Bar & Grille.  I owe them my life and the last 10 years with the most amazing woman in five counties.

 

What The Trees Told Me: Part Two – “Indian Summer”

It must have happened during that odd heat wave twelve years ago. Remember the Indian summer in the middle of October? Wick and I packed up the car and headed northeast to clear our heads and rejuvenate. It had been a difficult time for us, inside and out. Not the worst of times, because by that year we had passed the worst and come out the other side. Still, there were days we couldn’t bear to be in the same room and others when I knew I would wither and die inside if we were ever parted.

We were married our senior year of college during this crazy May Day celebration…we had such dreams. Wick would take the architectural world by surprise (or force, if necessary), and I would put my gold-medalist arguing skills to good use saving the world one disenfranchised underdog at a time.

We would have two children in our mid-thirties and keep the door open into the first few years of forty for one last blessing to surprise us. There would be a dog – yellow Lab or Golden Retriever, depending on the mood of the day – at least two goldfish, and possibly a ferret if the children were responsible and the dog was well-trained.

For the early years of our careers, we would be metropolitan city-dwellers, but once there were children in the picture we’d head out to the suburbs and commute like good little yuppies.

Looking back, I can’t help thinking that marching into full-fledged adulthood with such a structured plan was a mistake…that fate saw it as hubris and decided to smack us around with a little reality. Our careers happened as we’d envisioned, but the children kept eluding us.

We spent five years actively trying, but had stopped <i>trying to prevent it</i> years before that. Of the 60 months when making a baby became our mission, we spent about 40 pursuing various fertility assistance programs. In addition to the baby-making doctors, we eventually started seeing professionals about my frame of mind and our relationship – neither were thriving.

After the final failed in vitro attempt, I checked myself into a mental health rehab center. I felt a desperation about my inability to conceive that extended beyond concern for my marriage into an even darker place. In my nightmares and daydreams I had become convinced I could not conceive because <i>I</i> was not meant to be. I was some kind of human anomaly that should never have lived into adulthood. When I closed my eyes I felt as though I were made of ash and just the wish for a breeze could end my illusory life.

Wick agreed to a temporary separation (and to pause all fertility attempts) when I explained this vision to him and could not provide an answer when he asked if I wanted that breeze to blow through. We had lost sight of each other. I had lost sight of myself. Having a baby had eclipsed all of our other goals and our promise of “not before death will we part”.

I lingered four months in rehab before I called him and asked him to drive up for a weekend so we could talk. We spent almost eight more getting to know each other again before resuming our cohabitation. I honestly never thought our marriage would survive. But it did. The key was letting go of the dream to have children naturally and to assert that we were a family together, regardless of offspring.

On the first anniversary we celebrated, but never named, the unexpected heat and typical pressures of the city were bearing down on our relationship again. We fled for rural vistas and the hope of a little romance to bind us together for another year.

I remember driving through a particular valley, in the blaze of that Indian summer, where the red and gold leaves of trees seemed more like a forest fire than Fall in the forest. The cicadas song even resembled the crackle of flames. I repeated this sentiment aloud to Wick and he commended me on my poetic thoughts. He always calls me ‘Counselor’ when he mocks me like that.

As the sun set behind a distant mural of mountains, the tires crunched gravel on an overgrown lane. What little light had been infusing the sky for the last hour was instantly gone as two, long rows of hoary Chestnut trees drew us into darkness. Some distance later the crispy, scraping, bumpy tunnel spit us out into the clear night of a surrealist’s canvas.

In the center of the drive, what upon first look appeared as a copse of trees, was revealed by our headlights to be a single, ancient oak. Deep-seeded arboreal ambition and seclusion had allowed the oak to stretch its limbs so far from its massive trunk, gravity had pulled the lower boughs back to earth before they reached once again for the sky.

The house, a restoration project of Wick’s colleague, seemed to spiral up into the star-filled night. From the wrap-around porch with its bookend gazebos, to the peaks and turrets of the second floor, to the terraced tower extending beyond the bounds of a third story to gouge the indigo sky with its weather vane. I wondered aloud if the old Victorian had aspired to beat out the tree in size, or if everything in this rural patch grew so plenteous when abandoned.

That night we slept downstairs, on a bed that sagged like a hammock and smelled like mice feet. Despite the heat, we kept the windows and doors locked tight against the vast, unexplored space outside our retreat. There weren’t enough stars or floodlights in that pitch-black wilderness to explain the shapes and scrapes twisting and bowing an arm’s length from the porch rail.

Our rented Keep was not fortified against the sounds of all that terrifying nature. There are things in a country night that don’t have the courtesy to simply bump. They scream like tom cats being torn apart by mountain lions and caw like 50 foot crows. There are other sounds, all the more unnerving because your brain cannot classify them. No similes or metaphors spring to mind when the song of the crickets and katydids stops abruptly to allow an undulating snort-cackle-thud-rend-crack to pass over the lips of the wild.

The first hours of the first morning in our ghastly resort were spent making plans to find a Hilton or even a Howard-Johnson’s; then maybe a diner. In our haste to arrive, we had not considered this old house would not have coffee, eggs…a continental breakfast. My search of the kitchen turned up two old-fashioned milk glasses and the dim possibility of a clean towel to wipe them out with.

Luckily, the faucet was new. Water slipped out of a graceful goose-neck in a sparkling stream that danced in the light of another belated summer day. I felt myself strangely drawn to that shaft of liquid sunshine. Sliding my hands into the cool flow, a moment of pure peace whispered over me. Then a flicker of movement through the window caught my eye and broke my trance.

The morning breeze was making an apple tree dance at the edge of a grove just a dozen yards away. From where I stood, I could see at least two fat, red apples hiding in the upper branches and an odd little ladder. Calling upstairs to Wick to join me, I pushed through the backdoor and stopped short at the edge of the porch steps.

Behind the house, stretching for miles to the base of a small ridge, were thousands of trees. Some had colored completely for autumn, some were browning or shedding from the recent frost, but a few – like my apple tree – glowed green in the morning light. The delight I felt was indescribable and eclipsed all of the irrational fears that had come to me in the night. I skipped down the porch steps and sprinted to the leaning ladder, calling out again for Wick.

As I propped the ladder against the tree I’d seen from the window I noticed two beautiful apples on a lower branch, dappled with shade but otherwise unblemished. One rung up, a gentle twist and I’d just resolved our breakfast issues. In my giddiness at finding the orchard, I thanked the tree for her fruit and bobbed a curtsy. I wanted to wait for Wick, but my stomach grumbled and my mouth started to water just a bit.

It crossed my mind to polish the apple on my shirt first, but it seemed rude and my shirt wasn’t necessarily all that clean considering how the bed had smelled. The skin of the apple snapped under my teeth and the juice ran down my chin in a surprising gush. That fruit was so perfect, I actually closed my eyes to increase the input of my taste buds.

I don’t even remember taking a second bite, or the last bite, but before long I was standing there with nothing but two cores in my hand. Wick stood in front of me with a wondering look. I grinned at him like I had that May Day seventeen years before, when we had a whole life ahead of us and improvised vows of sacrifice and serendipity on our tongues.

“Don’t judge,” I implored. “You promised in your vows to me that if ever we were lost and starving and there was only one apple left, you would let me eat my fill before you took your first bite. Did you sincerely and literally pledge that oath?”
Wick stepped forward and rubbed his thumb over my sticky chin, “I do, Counselor.”
In one small movement between a stride and a lean I was standing in the circle of his arms. “You mean you did?” I corrected.
His lips hovered over mine, “Don’t lead the witness. I said, ‘I do’,” he whispered.
As his mouth brushed me, I felt a tingling elation. Inside my chest a wall broke open and I wanted to run. Not to run away like I had two years before, but to run into the unknown with Wick at my heels or at my side.

I would run with him anywhere. On that day, we ran together through grove after grove – from shade to light to shade again. And when we couldn’t run anymore, we laid down in the cool shelter of a venerable tree whose name I did not know and made love like it was the first time.

It turned out to be a first of sorts, we just didn’t know it right away. Eight months and three weeks later, Emmaliene was born. I had always thought it was a miracle; one we maybe didn’t deserve. But it would seem now that our little girl was a gift from the trees.