The Heart Knows Its Way Back

 

Columbia River photograph by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

This grief is like a stone I cannot dislodge from the spinning center of my being. It makes my eyes small waterfalls. It is a rough hand in the night when I am in need of a soft touch. It melds me to melancholy, seeds my mind with memories. It makes me reach for something and forget what it is, my feet to stumble over the walk I know so well. The world seems so busy living, glad or mystified or angry about it, yes, full of retorts or words of sudden insights or the volleying about of various sorts of love–but at least not steeped in melancholia’s blues, greys. For me sadness is a pearlescent sheen of hurt that illumines day and night with somber beauty. Then the garish crimson of aching creases time, a slice into what I know and don’t know about sorrow. I bleed a little without you knowing it.

It is a relief to softly shout at God, a bold prayer that takes the air from me. It is made of words that only God knows so I cannot tell you what is said when I call out. Grief moans even when it is silent.

Why do we think we must move on, move on, keep up with the ticking of clocks in the midst of our losses? It is a ruinous thing to hurry forth. The river of sorrow takes with it everything and who are we to try to change it? Sometimes I get a foothold on the banks, pull myself up and tell myself, See, this is still the garden of human life on earth. I walk amidst a wilderness of flowers, I find wonder in the work of bees. I can speak to others and they speak back, eyes open. And seeing what? Is my heart showing, is yours? Is there a bridge to be made? We cannot walk across the chasms without help, without solace rendered by other souls.

But what often pulls me is the deep seat of my chair, the mug of tea that offers fragrant spice and sweetness on my tongue. What can soothe but the simplest things? Light that carries day into all corners of the rooms, the dark that sails me into night and beyond. Lessons of God as I meditate and pray. The strains of Debussy and Bach, Dexter Gordon’s jazz saxophone, the dance and drumbeat of Ireland, a wailing flamenco call. There are poems that remind me to be patient, art that reminds me of more to come. But whatever I see and hear, the surge of tears arrives. They are like warm water over the wound.

Some days I want to move on. I want to write things that are abundant in hope, notations of life that will bring to all more promise of fullness within the realms of Spirit. I want to be able to laugh without it being undercut by numbness or misgiving. But everything–the gym, the household chores, the forays into nature, the music and books and calls to friends who love me well, the family I call often, the spouse and others I tend to and who tend to me–everything I do leads me back to one thing: this is the thirty-second day my sister has not been living here, cannot be called, cannot be written or visited in the flesh. This fact is irrevocable within each twenty-four hours. It stares at me until I look back at it and see her face, hear her voice, know her beauty and kindnesses, want her back…perhaps then let her go a little more. But the crying remains, don’t ask me to try to stop it for it is a force that knows far more than I do.

It cannot be changed, grief. It changes us. It deepens and broadens everything, brings us closer to truth. Makes rich what felt paltry and empties what seemed full. It is a thread of grace wound about my being and stitches my longing to the heavens even as it stings. Grief tells tales of valor that end in loss and yearning that leads to more desire and hope that cannot brighten the lay of the terrain I must travel. It is what I hear and know, now, this moment.

So I thought I would not attempt to write today because I cannot speak of happiness, of wise acceptance of death and tenderest things that bring relief. But then I sat down and began, because this is one thing I must still do, let language shape feelings into something I recognize and can love. If we are fully human, we can and do feel it all, cannot ignore the ones that are hard or confusing, and certainly will not make them different than what they are. Not for long. They find a way to stake their claim on us, anyway. So I allow my innermost being to speak to myself, to others, for where is the value in making mute what wants to make a mission of great and small loves? This is the natural bent of the soul. And we have a heart both muscle and guide that must be heard and cared for in order to do its work. To be whole. But even when it falters, it has the greatest, the definitive say.

This heart, the one that beats within me and you. The one that stopped pumping in my sister after long suffering.

Let me give my heart its due, its authority, as did she, and feel the blessing of it. There is nothing else I can do today but let the rains come and breach the walls and in time, adapt, make a finer place again to be and do.

So please bear with my pensive offerings. I cannot hurry up. I have faith in this way and I will find my way back. I always have, God lighting my next steps. In time, prayer, tears, kindness, the glory of nature, creative work will all bring me to another rise in the path and help me see and long for the horizon once again. I do hope you find it in your life if your are sorrowing, too.

A scene from the last yearly Sisters' Trip taken with my two dear sisters.

A scene from the last yearly Sisters’ Trip taken with my two dear sisters.

 

Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, non-fiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Half-Invisible Man

Photograph by Helen Levitt

Photograph by Helen Levitt

I’d lived on the same street as Gene’s barbershop for years and the one thing I knew for sure about Gene Wilsey was that he couldn’t much abide animals. He might be polite but that was customer service.

“They’re usually dirty and smelly, crave attention, spontaneously bite you and cost too much.” His lips turned down in distaste.

“But still, how can you not at least feel for animals a little? Like this creature. Give the guy a break.”

I’d bumped into Gene, arms full of groceries. He was shooing away a stray dog with his ever-present broom. The Labrador mix would have loved a treat and long drink of cool water.

“Not all animals, per se,” he said as the mutt slunk off. “I’m okay with cows, chickens and pigs and so on. I like horses better than pigs, but they all do what they’re supposed to do and they stay where they belong.”

He leaned on the broom handle as I clumsily unlocked the back door of my sedan. Gene knew I could use help and, typical for him, he’d likely keep leaning on the handle until I said something. I wasn’t going to ask. I set one bag on the roof and yanked the door open. Then I stashed the groceries, closed it, and leaned against the warm blue metal.

“We picked up Chigger yesterday from the vet. Has an eye infection.”

“Nice. Let me guess. Cat cost you a couple hundred bucks.”

I just smiled. “She’s a lot better and ready to take up her duties as mouser again. I look forward to her antics and purrs.”

“You should move from that building. Probably can’t because you spent your extra on the cat. That townhouse, fancy or not, seems to be a rodent magnet. Your real estate agent was a crook. You need me to come over and set up more traps?”

“Thanks, but now that Chigger’s home, things will settle back down.”

He swept some litter from the sidewalk into the street in front of my car, then stopped. “Okay, the offer is open. Anything you need, you know. How come the cat’s named Chigger, anyway?”

“Danny named her when he was little. Had something to do with her liking to stalk things in the empty lot grass and weeds, I forget. I’ll ask him sometime when I see him.”

The late afternoon sunlight glazed everything with a golden cast as it began its descent. Gene looked a little yellowish which made me worry, even if it was just the light. He had had skin cancer three years ago. Was he hanging out in the sunshine again? I could hear mom fussing at him, informing him of the right vitamins and minerals, that he should wear a wide-brimmed hat in all weather and heavy duty SPF. She had affection for him even though they had a history rife with arguing, too. Now she was in a nursing home, too early but too ill, and Gene was in his late sixties and still working.

“How’s Estella? I have to get up there this Sunday.”

“She’s complaining about the tomato juice, says it’s watery. I have to get her some V8. And she said her bed has a sag in it–that’s true, it does.”

“We need to get her something good–a chocolate muffin or a piece of that fancy lemon pie. Even if she just nibbles at it.”

He was done sweeping. The skinny black dog emerged from between a couple of cars and barked at Gene, then threw me a pitiful look as if he knew I’d be moved to do something for him. I checked my purse for cellophane-wrapped crackers I’d filched from a restaurant, but Gene swept the dog off his piece of sidewalk again. He barked back at the mutt and guffawed.

I got into my car, disconcerted. He waved me off ith a grin, then went into his barbershop.

I thought how Gene had visited my mother every single day as she was dogged by cancer and rallied with her when she got better. I had been eight when she first got ill, twenty-six years ago, but his presence had been a steady comfort in the evenings. There had never been anything formal about their relationship, no real indication they were a couple with a “C”. Mom was widowed when I was four and she remained a widow, while Gene had never married. Mary, mom’s oldest friend, called them “frenemies” since their arguing was as standard as their laughter. But I saw more.

I was about twelve. I had finished homework early and went downstairs for lemonade and a snack. I heard the creak of the porch swing and the low murmur of voices as I filled my glass and peeld apart slices of American cheese. It was late spring, and a breeze that swept through the screened door was laced with lilacs and something else, something with a tart edge that made my nose wrinkle up a bit. I went to the door and peered out.

Gene was sitting by my mom, his arm stretched out around her shoulders, hand hanging off the back of the swing. They were pointing at something in the yard, probably talking about her prized irises and he chortled, then leaned closer to her. She turned her head so that they were almost nose to nose. I held my breath. Bees were buzzing away around their feet. Traffic had stilled and nothing moved but the bees and that swing, a slow, easy movement as their feet pushed off and then lifted, pushed and lifted. Mom slowly turned her head back and looked across the lawn but Gene still focused on her, as if dazed. In a sudden shift, she looked as if she might put her head on his shoulder.

I felt everything tighten, my forehead wrinkle. That weird smell was cologne, men’s cologne, and Gene was tidier than usual, a nice blue shirt with tie and black pants, polished shoes. I wondered where he was going, why he had stopped by. I slurped the cold lemonade but it didn’t get all the way down. I coughed.

They turned my way just as I stepped back, then ran up to my room, lemonade spilling with each step, the cheese slices sliding off and sticking to the wall. When I got to my bedroom, I put everything on the floor and grabbed my pillow, my face squashed into it. I laughed and laughed but before I knew it I was sniffling with a few tears. I didn’t know why. I just felt scared and happy and uncomfortable all at once. Gene had been a neighbor (two blocks away) and a hair cutter when I was little, a handyman when we needed it. Definitely a good friend to my mom and like an uncle to me. But it didn’t make sense that he’d be sitting so close to her, arm around her back. Or maybe it did. I couldn’t get it straight in my head. It was like he belonged with us but apart, need to be there in a way that wasn’t quite as close as that.

Plus, they didn’t get along half the time. They had different politics, mom had said, as if that explained everything. Mary said he was “a Catholic plus too damned conservative” but mom shushed her. We were Methodists and mom voted independent, she’d said, and that was the end of any more questions. But they played canasta every weekend and he mowed the lawn sometimes, things like that. He took her to doctor apointments when he could. He was just around.

I still smelled the acrid but sweet cologne; it made me want to wash my face. If I pushed against the screen window in my room, I could see the edge of the porch so I took another peek.

Gene was in the yard and mom was walking him toward the little weathered gate in our fence. He reached for her hand and she let him take it. Then they laughed and it was dropped like a hot stone and he left. I saw him look back as he walked but mom was already on the porch, then I heard the screen door slam. I thought she might come up to talk to me but she didn’t. I got a towel and cleaned up the spills, took the cheese off the wall and carpet, and deposited it in the garbage in the kitchen. She was whistling, something she often did, and smiled at me, making me feel right and warm again. But she didn’t say a word about his cologne or anything else.

Later I learned from eavesdropping on Mary’s conversation with mom that he’d had a wedding to attend in a neighboring town, a second cousin’s. And he had asked mom to accompany him.

“There’s little more I can’t stand than going to an event, especially a wedding, where I know not one soul!”

“You would have known Gene, Estella. And it was a chance to dress up pretty.”

“That would have been a little odd, don’t you think, going like we were a couple?”

Mary raised her eyebrows at mom. “Well…”

“Well, nothing. Don’t start. I’m done with all that.”

I was on the couch reading. Right then my chest expanded with a huge intake of air, like there was more room inside again. But all afternoon I wondered what their talk had meant. Finally I decided it was grown up talk riddled with secrets I wouldn’t get even if they was spelled out. It did make me think of her differently, as if I saw she was a person beyond being a mother. Someone I didn’t know as well as I’d thought. Gene, too, which was almost more strange. Life went forward, mom got sick and better off many times, Gene was here and there.

After I’d chastised him about the dog that day I ruminated about his life. If he was lonely. If he had a good retirement saved. If his skin cancer was really gone and if he planned on working until he’d drop over. He loved his barber shop. Despite all the salons that had sprung up over the years, he’d seen barely a dip in revenue. The old men wouldn’t abandon him. They loved gabbing about sports and yard care, cars and women and grandkids. There were newer customers, though, even up and coming businessmen. The shop had a clubby air to it, a little dark with leather chairs, smokey. Coffee on tap, cold beers for later in the day. I had seen a few young women come and go but Gene’s spot meant old-fashioned shaves and haircuts. I had liked visiting him when I was young.

Since then I had become a lawyer, been married briefly and divorced and Danny was in college. I saw Gene maybe every month or so, usually running into him on my days off. Things were different between us, sure, but also the same, I thought. I hoped.

One Saturday morning I paused on the sidewalk, checking the To Do list on my phone. I stood across the street from the barbershop and was drawn to the sound of Gene’s boisterous laugh. I ran between cars stopped for a light, the stood still at the edge of the sidewalk. Gene was bent over, gingerly reaching out to a cat on a leash.

“That’s the way to do it, keep this pretty critter leashed!” he said. The owner smiled down at her orange tabby. “I was attacked by one, you know. Just a runt of a boy when I visited my aunt in Louisiana and her cat, who didn’t like anyone but her if even that, just up and jumped me when I was sleeping! Scared the crap out of me! Had scratch marks all over my face and shoulders. I was allergic, I guess, because those things itched and hurt, all at once.  My aunt aorried I’d fgfet cat feveer but nothing more happened. I was just traumatized for life.”

The woman on the other end of the leash was looking impatient now rather than sympathetic. Who stopped a cat owner and told them he was traumatized by cats? She didn’t know Gene or she would have come back at him with something.

“Gene!”

“Well, here’s my girl, what’re you up to?”

The cat led the woman away.

“Never thought I’d see you so near a cat.”

He gave me a hug. “Lots of things you haven’t seen and that isn’t even the most interesting, I’m sure. Come on in, have a beer and a chat.”

We entered the shop. There was a little boy waiting to get his hair cut, his father sitting with a magazine.

And that’s when I saw the stray dog lying on the floor, chewing on a toy. His coat shone.

Gene picked up a comb. “Ready for a fresh look, buddy?” he asked the boy, and the child hopped into the chair.

“Gene, you have the dog now. I mean, he’s really yours?”

“More like he got me by default. He wouldn’t leave me alone and no one else would bother with him.”

“You, either!”

“Oh, I fed him a little then more and more. Beggar! But I had to. Rocky was so skinny and pathetic.” He ruffled the boy’s damp hair and the two grinned at each other in the mirror. “He cleaned up nice, though, right?

“Rocky. Like the old movie?”

The dog got up and came forward for a sniff of my hand.

“Yeah, it suits him, a survivor. We look out for each other. I’m getting old, can’t hurt to have more friends!”

I got a beer and watched Gene work with the boy, chatting about video games and comic books, Rocky wagging his tail at me until I petted him at great length. The dog was spoiled from all the attention. More customers arrived and joked with Gene, ruffed up Rocky’s handsome head. I finally stood up and tossed the half-empty beer can in the trash. Rocky grabbed it, started to lick it.

“Rocky, no.” Gene came to the dog and stood, hand on hips. Rocky looked at him from under a scruffy brow, teeth locked on the can. Gene stared hard at him, and he then released it and sat, panting lightly. “Good dog. No beers before eight o’clock.”

Everyone chortled as I slipped out.

Gene called after me.”Let’s go see Estella tomorrow, okay?”

I nodded in agreement. But when the tears prickled my eyelids I wasn’t ready for them. The bright blue-sky day, the hum of his barbershop, Gene’s new dog friend, Rocky–it felt golden and righteous good. It was a moment I’d keep with me, like when he and my mom swung on the porch swing during a good, healthy spell, when life for me was transparent and mysterious all at once. It still was. Here was Gene and his small kingdom, his surprising kindnesses, his gift for welcoming other underneath the gruffness. How could I forget?

I resolved to spend more time with him, invite him over for dinner, go for walks on days off, whatever he’d like to do, even fish. Not just for mom or him, but for me, the kid who was given love by a good man who was just always around, when I didn’t even yet know it was love. It was high time to let Gene Wilsey know I saw him but also wanted to know him better. I was a grown up now, had changed some. But he still mattered to me. He was such a humble and worthy man it shook me up to think I might have taken him for granted. I figured Rocky might feel a bit more loyal to him and I wasn’t going to let a dog–even a good street dog– outdo me. I had more to share with Gene, more to appreciate in him. I suspected he had been waiting for me to just remember.

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Mad Charade

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The rotund cigar was positioned between index and middle finger of my right hand, while the left was positioned on my blue-jeaned hip. My friend, Bev, was standing nearby, waiting for her turn. The cigar had been filched from her father’s stash, which was the first thing that had made me nervous. But, hey, I was far from home, hanging out in Pontiac, Michigan, a city north of Detroit that felt as foreign to me as Detroit, itself. Gritty streets were jammed with honking, revved up vehicles, smog laced the air, and people yelled from their porches at the traffic jams and passersby. Even the extrenally more pleasant neighborhoods gave off a disgruntled air, as if the houses themselves would just as soon be elsewhere, and the stores would rather close up shop and migrate to the tranquil northern forests, even for a brief respite.

This was Bev’s town. I lived in a much smaller city in mid Michigan replete with lush lawns, a plethora of well designed parks, a major architect, Alden B. Dow, whose influence was seen everywhere. There were more churches per capita than almost anywhere. Situated there, commanding the services of everyone from renowned scientists to line workers, was the world headquarters for a major chemical company that Jane Fonda, in person, protested. The arts and sciences created their own complex and impressive culture. Beauty reigned, as well as excellent education. But clearly there was a significant lack of population diversity. All I had to say was “I’m from Midland” and Michiganders understood–or so they thought–what that meant. To me it was home for eighteen years, sometimes inhospitable and other times a seeming paradise.

It was true that in Pontiac I was out of my element, but this is one reason I liked to visit Bev. I had done some travelling but at fourteen I hadn’t yet experienced a wide variety of environments. My family travelled by car on vacation each summer. I had been to various summer arts camps and met people from all over the world, yes; at one I’d become friends with Bev, a talented pianist who wanted to be a composer. For world experiences I couldn’t quite count a week-end summer shopping trip to Chicago or Detroit when my parents and I would also attend a symphony concert and visit art museums. Pontiac gave off a slightly dangerous, exciting vibe. I thought this could be where authentic people lived, not just those who presented as perfectly well-groomed and mannered and appranetly free of the growing angst I felt. It was nineteen sixty-four, and the world sure was changing, per Bob Dylan and so many others. I was restless.

Since I was caught in the maelstrom of adolescence I had begun to try on different styles of fashion and types of behavior. Different personas, to see what might fit better. If I was out-of-town, that is, where it was safer to do so. And Bev seemed of my ilk, ready to push limits just enough, interested in deeper meanings and unusual possibilities, at least philosophically. We both had read Hermann Hesse and Ray Bradbury, Albert Camus and Kierkegaard and Jung. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Buffy St. Marie and Joan Baez were guides as well as Bach, Stravinsky and Handel. Ensnared by “teendom” and also the impulse toward adulthood, we explored life with a boldness shaped and at times undercut by an intrinsic sense of responsibility and well ingrained conscience.

So we did a few things that we told no one.

Earlier in the day we had wandered stores as we did on occasion, speaking in extravagant accents that undoubtedly fooled no one while garnering a little attention. I had a  habit of trying to speak in another language even though I had barely begun the challenging task of learning French. Bev spoke what sounded like passable Spanish but I had no idea what she was saying to me. So I invented my own languages, utterances rolling off my tongue without self consciousness. I also wanted to indulge myself in even a barest imitation of how I imagined Anouk Aimee, Catherine Deneuve or Jane Birkin might be in their own cities, laughing and sharing secrets, gesturing eloquently and swooping about the aisles with eccentric, self-possessed grandness. I wanted to have that sort of magnetism, to be as confident as they were. And I wanted to play.

I might wear a floppy hat or bright head scarf with bell-laden, dangling Indian earrings my mother would have forbidden. I preferred black boots with bell bottom jeans borrowed from Bev or long gauzy skirts if we could find one at a second-hand store. It was costume time, an activity I missed from childhood. (At home I still wore slacks, matching skirts and sweaters with Capezio flats; my own trendy jeans, loose chambray shirts and love beads came a couple of years later. But never in school.) We bought a token something now and then–matching enamel butterfly pins for our jackets, a fancy pair of “natural tan” pantyhose, a bright bangle–to lend our forays more shopping authenticity and as momentos. I doubt that sales associates or shoppers fell for any of our raucous, amateurish attempts to appear like exotic European visitors. They likely were laughing behind our backs as we made our way from department to department or cafe to shop.

Never mind. We were having too much fun. Bev and I saw ourselves as romantic idealists. We vowed to live industrious, imaginative lives and thirsted for adventures that tested our intelligence, conferred high value on fledgling talents. We were powered by the zest and foolishness of youth, moved by a desire to make the world better but also more vivid and dynamic, as if we were worried it might not hold enough of either without our help.

Secretly, I wanted to be a stage actress and playwright–secretly because that sort of vocation would not do in my family. The best I could hope for was to perform in a few school musicals and plays, so I did. But I read all novels or memoirs (including Moss Hart’s remarkable offering Act One: an Autobiography) about acting I could, behind my closed bedroom door or in the big maple’s treetop branches. I was not a huge movie goer–it was not encouraged, as I had academics, church, cello lessons, dance, singing and figure skating to devote myself to first and last. But I might still see them on a group date or when visiting Bev or another friend out-of-town. Every now and then I was allowed to go to a Saturday afternoon matinee for a quarter at the Circle Theater.

But how unbelievably powerful to write a play (I’d tried a childish few), then direct it with characters placed about a bare stage, turning it into a pulsing, riveting piece of life lived before one’s eyes. How much better to be the actress who is given choice words to enliven a moment or an hour, to move an audience with a shrug of a shoulder or a lowering of eyelids, a small space of silence or a bellow of grief or joy. And, oh, to be someone else, anyone else but myself for just a little while…the freeing beauty of that!

So, you can see I was already at risk that spring day for something unexpected and untoward. I was perhaps overzealous in my passion for the arts, in my longing for exotic experiences, and molded by a certain naiveté that one develops living in a small near-cloistered Midwestern city. If Bev showed some restraint as we lolled about a street far enough from her house to both feel like visitors, I did not.

I smelled, then I lit the cigar. And inhaled. The fragrance and taste of the hot smoke hit me. I consoled myself with the thought that this was different and different must mean better. And then I choked, blew out a rapid stream of smoke. I felt light-headed, pleasantly so. Disoriented, perhaps, but not enough to raise alarm. I handed the cigar to Bev and she puffed away. I suspected she had done this before, had a small stash in her room along with marijuana and found this possibility awesome. I noticed a few people staring at us as they walked by, a couple of guys poked their heads out their car window and whistled. I reached for the cigar again and inhaled more deeply and slowly, tossing my hair back and adjusting my sunglasses. Exhaled more slowly. And began to feel as if I was on a merry-go-round and as if I was floating away, then turning upside down. I wondered if it might be laced with something bad. I wasn’t ignorant of some illicit substances but neither was I any expert. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling; I had thought it would be a little like cigarettes which I had tried once. A green wooden bench was to my left. I sat down and leaned back, inhaling a last time.

That was a mistake. I felt immediately nauseous and leaned over in time to vomit. Only I didn’t. I hadn’t eaten in a few hours and the dizziness seemed to stay and swirl inside my head, not quite upending my stomach. My heart raced and I began to perspire. Bev came over and spoke to me but I put up my hand.

“Okay, Cyn, what’s going on?”

“I think I’m going to die,” I whispered.

“Not possible. It’s only a cigar.”

“I am definitely going to die. Call 911.”

“Well, I don’t see a phone booth anywhere so just relax. Breathe.”

She sat down and rubbed my back and I jerked away.

“Don’t touch me, I’m going to be terribly ill.”

It was like being in some sort of tobacco hell, so nauseous and whirly-headed I couldn’t see straight, yet I was unable to divest myself of the sickness that consumed me.

“You inhaled, didn’t you! Why did you do that?”‘

I turned my head enough to see her accusatory look, her irritation.

“Why didn’t you tell me not to inhale?”

“I figured you would know that much.”

“I’m going to pass out. I have to get help.” I eyed a police station across the street and felt much sicker. No, not there.

Bev looked around. A couple of passersby slowed to gawk. I put my head between my knees when I heard a woman offer to assist us. Bev was talking to her and then her arm went across my back and her hand under my armpit with presure enough to lift me.

“Get up. We’re taking you across the street.”

“The police? No!” I wanted to stop talking and thinking, go to sleep, just wake up tomorrow.

“Yes, police department,” the woman said as she took the other side of my body and we crossed the street.

“No! I’ll get in trouble…”

“Already are,” the stranger said, cackling.

I loathed her help more than being ill.

The policeman who came out to meet us in the hallway took one look. “Drugs? What kind did you take?”

“None! I smoked a cigar. I’m so sick.”

“Right.”

He turned to Bev as the helper slinked out.

“She’s right, we shared a cigar. I don’t inhale but she did.”

“You do look pretty green, no kidding,” the policeman said. “You’ll survive. Lie down, I’ll get some water. You kids!”

He seemed tickled by my foolishness, though, and laughed so hard he clutched his stomach, another police officer coming out to see what was up. The longer this went on, the more I wanted to throw up. I gingerly lay back on a bench in the hallway and closed my eyes. I wanted to caution Bev to not give him our names or addresses, but figured she knew better. Everything was muffled as my head reeled and pounded, my stomach endured its stormy unsettling. I heard the man offer a paer cup but shooed him away. Breathe in, breathe out, think good thoughts, I told myself.

In a few minutes the spinning slowed some. I squeezed my eyes shut. I could feel Bev’s warm thighs under my outstretched calves and ankles. She kept drumming her fingers on my boot. I suspected she was practicing some piano piece she had to memorize, or she might be dreaming up something new. It irked me, then was calming. I fell into a light, woozy sleep, and dreamed of the open air stage of the music camp where Bev and I had met. It held rows of neatly seated cigar smokers.

In real time, a man and a woman came in arguing, followed by a teen-aged boy cursing at them both. My eyes flew open.

“Any better yet?” she asked.

I sat upright bit by bit. The spinning had stopped.”What time is it?”

“We’ve been here twenty minutes, maybe longer. You dozed some. I’m hungry.”

“You always are…maybe I could manage a pop.”

“Well, I guess you aren’t a born smoker.” She grinned, then hung her tongue out at me and widened her smallish hazel eyes.

“Stop. Not cigars, for sure…”

The others took the next bench, still going on about rent overdue and a car that had to be towed “or else” and tickets the boy had. I glanced into the office where police officers were milling about. They were paying no attention to me. I marvelled that I hadn’t been arrested for underage smoking or sent off to emergency for nicotine overdose. I wondered why they were so blase about a young girl nearly passing out on their turf. But I suspected this was the least of their worries, so stood up and tested my first steps. Success.

“Thanks,” I shouted into a hole in a thick glass window.

A guy who was studying paperwork looked up, gave a lazy salute.

We bought two soda pops in a machine down the hall, exited the building and waited for the city bus back to her folks’. I took off my hat and wiped off pale lipstick. It had been a heck of a day, and a painful mixture of relief and disappointment welled up. I put my arm around my friend’s shoulders. She elbowed me as we started to giggle. We both knew the next time I was in Pontiac there would be another caper.

I caught a Greyhound to Midland the next day. No one heard my tale at home. It was back to the routine, learning how to be a musician, reading and researching for school, hours on the ice rink and stolen moments with notebooks where I recorded the ins and outs of growing up. And my stories of brave girls and seriously beautiful romances, poetry of despair and passionate longing for more of life. I heard from my hometown friends that I was too earnest and sensitive, but I couldn’t seem to be otherwise.

The last I heard Bev ended up in L.A. and made a good living as a pianist and songwriter. That gave me happiness. We were true friends for a couple of years when we needed some zaniness as well as loyalty and respect. I found ways to grow into myself; it took time, endurance and better creative thinking. There were false starts and odd scenarios, a few leaps of faith. I had to admit that becoming whole and authentic was far harder than playing elaborate games of pretend, and the lessons of those times helped point me the direction I needed to go.

But lest you think that day was just a lark and had no real impact: I still cannot abide the barest whiff of cigar smoke fifty years later. Later, surprisingly, I did take up cigarettes for thirty years, and I regret every one smoked. But I was appreciative of a wise policeman who gave me a safe place to recover, put things into a right perspective with his good humor, then looked the other way. And lastly, you never know when what you’re looking for will turn into something else entirely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized, WPLongform, creative nonfiction, non-fiction, prose, memoir | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Needed: Job for Budding Musicologist

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She thought it would be a fun change to work around more glamorous people than waiters and cooks, so she wondered how she could get a job at a hair salon. Elan, the one on the boulevard, attracted her most. When she passed the window and doorway, Helene was tantalized by the gold and blue decor, the warm lighting that made everyone inside look dewy and healthy. She saw a wall of wallpaper with white roses and blue bird cages with their doors flung open. The salon had a soft garden feel, nothing like she was used to experiencing at work.

She had looked for a new summer job since March but most were snapped up or she was underqualified. Helene was eighteen; she had only washed dishes at After Six, her uncle’s mediocre dinner club. She’d had enough of heavy lifting, stinging hot water and harsh soaps, rushing from start to stop, her uncle’s rude attitude and sometimes unsavory remarks behind the staff’s backs. When he commented on her own ragged T-shirt, she quit at the end of the shift. He yelled at her as she walked down the alley and hailed a cab. Enough, already, she thought, enough and then some.

“He runs a good place, he gave you a part time job at fifteen, works around your schedule. Yes, he’s my errant brother, poor fool, but he means no real harm. You know how he is, runs off his mouth too much.” Mom was darning the heel of Dad’s crew sock and knotted an end of thread with deftness.

“Mom, he actually said I must still be growing or my T-shirt had shrunk–as he glanced at my chest! He’s just disgusting sometimes, more than you might know. Doesn’t he get it?–there are sexual harassment laws! And my biceps are getting too big from hoisting dish racks a hundred times each shift. Its so tiring. I want something different before I start college.”

“All you have experience doing is restaurant work. Tell Uncle Toby you’re ready to hostess this summer, he’ll give in. You might get one of those nice black and white uniforms.”

“Mom…no.”

“Ellen, I’ll tell your brother Toby a thing or two! It’s about time someone in the family spoke up,” Dad piped in. He was half inside the refrigerator. “Good for you for quitting, Helene! You’re going to be a terrific musicologist, and it’s time you moved on.” He yanked himself away from more tantalizing leftovers, hands already clutching containers, and gave her a sharp nod.

“What does that have to do with summer work? But not a good idea, Jim, you confronting him. It will only fan the fire. You won’t fare much better, Helene. Good luck trying.”

Mom was the diehard family pessimist–“realist” her mother corrected–but Helene was going to find something else some way. She felt a prickle of embarrassment that her father overheard, but was relieved he was as mad as she was. Her mother could be too dismissive of things, she had found, as if life was full of rips and trears and you just made do. Helene didn’t care if she ever saw her uncle again even after four more weeks of submitting applications and getting only one interview at a meat counter that resulted in nothing more than a salami sample. But at least she graduated high school in the top two percent; that gave her and her parents a sense of triumph more a silly summer job. Still, money was needed.

It was a late May day when the light took a bronze cast that Helene felt a surge of courage. She came upon the hair stylists taking a break at the cafe next door to Elan. They were circled up like imagined creatures, faces giving off sparks of health and well-being, smiles teasing their lips. She knew the blond, a girl who had been two years ahead of her in school. Eva had been remote, too poised and fashion savvy for Helene’s group. Except for one who styled her hairdo for the spring gala a year prior, no one else was known to her. Maybe she should leave but she had to try.

Helene thought of Eva’s reputation as an ice princess and walked to the other side where the other familiar face was. All girls’ eyes were lowered under the serious beams of high noon sun. It felt as if she should whisper.

“Hello there.”

No one responded except one who sighed; another uncrossed her ankles. Perhaps she would stir up bad will by intruding on their reveries. She was nobody while they were well paid Elan employees, enjoying the quiet company of each other on a swoon-worthy day. She was wearing old shorts and a tank top while they managed to look crisp and almost elegant in pale blue or white aprons and shirts. Helene put on her sunglasses back on and turned away when a voice stopped her.

“Don’t I know you? Are you possibly my next appointment?”

The brunette with the pale blue oxford shirt shaded her eyes and squinted up at Helene.

“No, just passing by. I recognized a couple of you. Eva went to my school.”

“Ah.” The stylist closed her eyes again.

“Right, I know you, too.” Eva sat up and smoothed back her perfectly colored champagne hair. “You sang at various school events, right?”

Helene looked down at her sandaled feet; dirt had somehow when walking the Pix, their terrier. “Um, sometimes. You remember?” Her voice had turned high and thin. She adjusted her sunglasses before they slid all the way down her nose and swallowed to open her throat.

“So good! Still singing?”

“Well, I graduated. I sometimes sing at the coffee shop on Saturday nights but you wouldn’t know–”

“Take a seat. Your name is…Helen, Helena something?”

“Helene.” She fumbled with the metal chair, managed to sit down without toppling. Why was she feeling so inept? They intervened on hair, not the soul. They were harmless young women; she had just been complimented.

“Helene. I noticed you all enjoying the sunshine but I’m looking for employment and have about exhausted possibilities. But never give up, right? I start college in the fall, so I need to save up money this summer.”

Eva sat up and smoothed her skirt, then checked her watch. She glanced at the others, all of whom were now paying close attention to the intruder. Helene thought this might be a signal for her to leave; they had only so much time for breaks and she wasn’t a customer or a chummy addition to their circle. She rose.

“Oh, don’t go.” Eva turned to the others. “We just lost an employee. Maybe you should fill out an application right since you’re here.”

She smiled at Helene, even teeth gleaming, dimples softening her appearance. It was as if she was bestowing a small blessing.

Karin gestured at Helene’s head. “I remember you, your hair is so thick and luxurious I had to thin it to get the shape you wanted. And it turned out well, right?”

Helene nodded and returned the smile although it didn’t seem likely this person recalled her after a year. Maybe she had a photographic memory for hair types and faces the mass of hair surrounded. Odd, being a hair stylist, when she thought about this.

The others were checking their mobile phones but seemed accepting of her presence. What sort of job, she wondered, could she do at Elan? Check people in? That would be marvelous after working in a sweltering kitchen all hours. She’d prove her mother wrong, dash home to inform her she was now an actual receptionist at fabulous Elan where hardly anyone they knew could afford even a monthly shampoo and blow out.

“I’m Karin,” the brunette said, and Helene nodded. “We just lost someone due to pregnancy and impending delivery. ” The girls assented with an admiring tone as if this was an unimaginable feat. “I think Eva should put in a good word for you and then you can fill out the form. If she likes you, we all like you.”

They turned to her in concert, their coiffed heads like something delicious, faces so pale and smooth they could be in dermatology ads. It was a little frightening but she returned the scrutiny. Helen was used to the vintage-wearing, rather sloppy and offhand artsy type.

She wanted that job. Nothing was worse than facing summer without pocket-money plus a growing fund for college expenses.

“So, Eva and Karin, what is the job?”

“Housekeeper.”

The other two girls looked up from their phones. Eva glanced at a good-looking guy with a retriever. Karin kept Helene in her sight line so Helene took off her sunglasses and hoped she looked glad about this announcement. But what did this mean? Emptying trash? Sweeping up dirty or damp hair that had accumulated on the floor beneath their feet? Washing walls, windows, bathrooms? Check, check, check, she was sure.

“You know,” Eva said with a languid air, “keeping things tidy and fresh for our customers, helping us out as we slave over heads all day long. A good housekeeper is a real asset, believe me, especially when they are easy to be around, too.”

Helene tried to see herself with broom and washrag and sensible shoes, sweeping around strange feet. Women who gossiped and drank bottled water as their terrible or inhumanly gorgeous hair was shaped, primed, redirected and renovated into something maybe or maybe not worth so much money and their slice of free time.

She sat up straighter. “Sounds like I’m a decent fit. I washed dishes in my uncle’s restaurant for years so I have stamina.”

“Yes, you’d need that, at least,” Karin agreed.

They led her into the shop and introduced her to their boss, who acted as if she was desperate for anyone who could wield a broom and a scrub brush and hold an adequate conversation if needed.

On the way home, Helene thought about what it meant to work with beautiful girls in a high-priced hair salon.

It meant a paycheck.

“Hi Dad,” she said as she entered the  house. “I got a job.”

“Good. Doing what?” he asked as he slipped off his school jacket. He transformed from math teacher to still-nerdy, loyal and loving dad with one quick motion.

“Housekeeper at the salon down the road.”

“Uh-huh. “He took the lid off the pasta pan on the stove and inhaled.

“Fantastic!” her mother called as she headed up the stairs. “You’re moving up a tad. Lots of good gossip, no doubt.”

The first day Helene was introduced to everyone, then found her way among dust bins and cleaning supplies with some help and support from Eva.

“Just smile if you greet people and try to be invisible the rest of the time.”

She cringed but it made sense. No one liked going to a classy salon and thinking about all those dead ends on the tile mingling with everyone else’s, bacteria that accumulates on combs and brushes, then soaks off in cloudy disinfectant. She swept and emptied trash and cleaned the lavatory and washed windows and mirrors as unobtrusively as she could. A sweet herbal and flowery scent of hair products interplayed with cleaning supplies and won due to majority rule. She liked the click-clicking of scissors, the punctuation of different voices, the low roar of hair dryers. People came and went and were happy here.

There were snippets of life scenarios that made the time pass as her feet grew tired. It was like being on a movie set but better, with real people offering glimpses into their lives.

“I told her that unless she gets straight As there will be no dates. That is the main rule. She’s just fifteen. Who can manage top grades and a male of our species? Unreasonable and unnecessary at this time. She needs to have a life, first, you know?”

Eva completely agreed.

“If I hear one more comment from that music teacher I’m going to have to remind her where her bread and butter come from. Who does she think she is, informing us our son has a voice like a foghorn? He’s finally growing up, his voice is having temporary spasms! She ought to know better. She has to teach him everything he needs to get a music scholarship or his well-known composer grandfather will absolutely disown him–and me. Period.”

Helene stifled a giggle, moved on with broom, then was pulled to another conversation.

“It’s spiritual action, don’t you think? Having things fall together or not? Like finding money in her mailbox when she cannot pay the rent? No return address, just a generous donation from nowhere. I said, ‘Get on your knees, sweetie, and thank God.’ Our needs are met. Not our wants, usually, but our needs. If we stay humble and faithful, you see? It is simple, really. And she’s a dear one, deserves so much more.”

Karin nodded at the woman’s reflection in the mirror as she massaged oil into her scalp. Helene could tell they had been long connected at this point of intersection, that they were even friends of a certain kind in a place where differences were suspended.

“I would say you know what you’re talking about,” Eva said with seriousness.

Helene noted the woman was slight and had a half-inch of fuzzy hair, some white and some black. The client had deep wrinkles around her eyes, thin pale lips and wore a silvery necklace with a diamond studded heart. She wondered if the woman had cancer, what she did for a living, if she had placed that money in the mailbox for the “sweetie” she’d mentioned.

There were unanswered questions like these all day long. She would never know the whole truth likely. It was the one thing that got to her as she cleaned and sweated, yet it was one reason she felt glad to be here and not at Toby’s place.

“How’s it going?” Eva asked. “Ready for a break?”

They sat at the table drinking sodas and iced tea, right where Helene had first spotted Eva and the others. She marvelled that one week she was scared she wouldn’t get any work and the next she had a paycheck coming. She flashed back to the woman with the flashy heart around her neck: spiritual action, she’d called it.

Eva checked her mobile and Helene took off her shoes and massaged her feet.

Eva sipped her tea. “I plan on becoming the best stylist in town. One day I’ll have my own salon. I have a mind for business or so Frederic says.” She leaned her head on her hand. “My new boyfriend. He’s got an entrepreneurial spirit of his own–he’s developing computer games. You?”

“I’m not into dating now. I’m all about going to college and making a life of my own.”

Eva’s perfectly arched eyebrows rose and hovered there. “No dating? I mean, college isn’t all work, from what I hear. You can’t hide out!”

“For me, more work than play. I want to be a musicologist one day.  It’s a passion. Not that guys can’t be but…this is my first love, at least now.”

“Is that a sort of musician that specializes… in something…?”

“Sort of. It depends on what you’re most interested in. I want to be an ethnomusicologist and study the cultural influences of music and vice versa. I’m also fascinated by music and healing, body and soul.”

“Wow, that sounds like a big topic to study. I never knew someone who loved that sort of thing. I’m impressed. You’ll have to explain more to us when we all go out sometime.”

Helene shrugged and thought how easy it was to talk with Eva, after all, how helpful she had been. She must have changed but, then, high school was not the best place to be your true self. She found it satisfying to sit there and cool under the awning, to listen to Eva as she enthused about Frederic. She liked that her new friend was aspiring to establish her own business; she felt mutual respect bloom. Who would have imagined such a pairing, the two of them?

The fourth day after work Helene recognized Uncle Toby’s lankiness and his large hawkish nose from a half block away. She turned the other way, ducked into a drugstore and bought a pack of gum. When she came out, there he was, waiting with a man who wore a Detroit Tigers baseball cap.

“Here is my niece Helene! This is the one who worked for me for almost three years as dishwasher and one day she just takes off without a decent explanation.” He leaned into her, then gestured to the man. “Oh, this is Mr. Levinson, my new chef.”

“Glad to meet you,” Helene said and took a step back as if to leave.

“So hold on. I still haven’t found a good dishwasher since you left, just lazy ones. You need a pay increase? A uniform? Better hours? Let’s talk.”

“I have a job.”

“Oh, I see, you’ve already sought loftier heights. Retail? Is it waiting tables at a hot spot? Or have you risen to assistant to the dean of your awaiting two year college, perhaps?”

Helene felt her blood heat up but she steadied herself, shifted her weight on the tender balls of her feet as if readying to fight. She wanted to walk away a last time but she could handle this despite the smirk on her uncle’s gaunt face and a quizzical look on Mr. Levinson’s. Uncle Toby had decided to have more fun with derision, or he was regretting his attitude. They were family, still.

“No, I work at Elan, where my aunt, your wife, gets her hair done.”

“Shampoo girl? That’s what you have in mind for college prep, Helene?”

“No, I just clean up after the stylists, keep things in order. It’s a good job. It will get me through summer.”

Uncle Toby laughed so loud it attracted attention from passersby.

“Yes, Uncle, it is much better than working for you. It’s better than hearing you bully your staff and humiliate female employees with off-color jokes and lascivious comments.” His face fell and began to generate a reddened hue. His chef frowned at them both. “You were a good uncle once. I don’t know what happened. Or maybe I grew up and discovered that your so-called humor was just an excuse to put down others. I’m sorry to tell you, but sweeping up hair from the scuffed floor is a much finer position to be in. I have decent co-workers. And in another few years I will be an ethnomusicologist and long gone. Maybe I’ll be in China or Iceland.” She swung around and stepped away, then pivoted. “But I hope things get better for you, too, really.”

And with that Helene left the block and headed home. She had been saving up those words for so long that she was surprised they didn’t crash one on top of another, that she said it with such easy resolve. As she turned another corner she looked back. Uncle Toby was standing alone, his new chef wandering elsewhere. Somewhere deep inside her was a sharp ping of sadness. She broke into a measured run that soothed her and heard the music stored in her mind to keep the beat of her feet, and she wondered what good thing she’d hear and learn tomorrow at Elan.

 

 

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

I Still Have Tulips for My Heart

 

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How does any one of us live knowing he or she will eventually die? And how does a family plagued by a genetic predisposition to a particular disease say farewell to those who pass on, recognizing our own ends yet to come?

Looking at several pictures taken recently, I linger on one photograph. A familiar woman is bent over in the glare of intrusive sunshine, shoulders rounded, holding on to her youngest daughter’s arm and clutching her husband’s hand. A sister wraps her arm around her black-jacketed waist from behind. The woman’s brown hair is streaked with silvery strands, her face creased with sleeplessness and sorrow. She looks unlike I imagined, haggard in the daunting heat of a Texan afternoon.

It is myself I study.

Our large family was standing prayerfully by the church’s columbarium, a wall with recessed areas for urns filled with cremated remains. It would soon hold my oldest sister’s ashes. And it felt almost unbearable to reckon with the truth of it. Marinell, my oldest sister named after our two grandmothers, passed from the serious effects of a massive heart attack. She rallied, failed and rallied again for ten days. She had a pacemaker, had had a heart valve repaired years ago, but developed congestive heart disease. She was only seventy-eight.

I have lived sixteen days of nothingness and dreaminess, of times racked by weeping so deep there were no tears, and tears that fall without sound and with thunderous outpouring. It is simple grief. Nights of wrestling with sheet and quilt, Marinell’s face coming forward, then fading. I awaken feeling she is a phone call away and go back to bed whispering her name. Her lush, eloquent cello playing arrives on a sigh. I felt her hands slip onto my shoulders and her soft smiling as I wrote a poem for her memorial service. I know she has gone on ahead of us. She is just not really here now.

The woolen rug in my room has a contemporary design of mauve tulips on it, edged in Wedgwood blue. I stand in the middle of it for moments at a time, remembering when she handed it to me. It had graced her light-imbued home, now is in mine, so is a comfort each morning under my bare feet.

I have resisted writing. What can I write about death, about loss, that makes good sense? We each know the ache of it, that indefatigable longing that follows us around. What can I tell of Marinell that would reveal her not only to your mind but soul? You will never know her as I have and so it must be. Sisterhood is a rich palette of colors, a strong weave of emotion and deed. It is far too soon to share the unique quirks of her personality, the intimacies of her creative, gracious, energetic years on earth. Her loving impact on me, on countless others.

But what I can write about is the matter of shared blood. About our physical hearts, their fantastic and wayward ways, how they act up without provocation and despite tending to their needs. Maybe this way I can face it again, then put it back in its place.

The history of heart disease killing my family members is considerable. My maternal grandmother passed from a cerebral hemorrhage. My paternal grandfather had a fatal stroke. My mother’s days were ended by congestive heart failure at ninety-two and my father died following complications of a quadruple bypass at eighty-three. I have two brothers and a remaining sister with high blood pressure. One brother has had two ablation procedures (one in a Bangkok hospital when travelling) that are to improve and possibly quell a potentially fatal rhythm problem called A fibrillation.

My heart problems reached a critical mass at age fifty-one as I was hiking in the Columbia Gorge. (I have written of living with heart disease in this blog’s “Heart Chronicles” posts.) A crushing sensation sent me to my knees. Before I knew it, I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. Two stent implants were placed in a major artery to prop it open. I was plagued by tachycardia, a too-rapid heartbeat, before the mild heart attack and various arrhythmias after, one being the dreaded A Fib. I have taken various medications with mixed results, one a common statin that caused severe muscle toxicity. In the first years I was in emergency rooms often. But over the years I have continued to exercise daily, decreasing inflamation, strengthening the heart muscle and, so far, outliving my prognosis.

At the memorial service I noted how much we all have survived of life. Everyone in my family is a “doer,” eager to learn and accomplish things. We do not fit the typical heart disease profile, for the most part. We are physically active, even rather daring. It is fair to note we are intellectually engaged and creatively oriented, with spiritual beliefs that keep us resilient. No one could accuse us of being disinterested in or lacksadaisical about living. All are happy travellers; college educated to various degrees; eat well and healthily, overall. We have had our share of bad habits to overcome, but my cardiologist still thought my smoking years prior to the diagnosis could not have been enough to tip the balance.

Genetics are the common denominator. The family tree is hearty and adaptable as many, if not most, are. We have been seriously ill only to rebound countless times. Being of the mind that attitude makes a significant difference, and prayer guides and even heals, our essential modus operandi is to live lives of full immersion, with faith and hope.

We live with heart, how else would anyone choose to live? Not without errors or some regrets, certainly, but with an expectation of joyful moments shared. Compassion and common courtesies are both important. And there is a belief in vigorous, positive change when there are snags in life to address.

But we get heart disease despite all this. We are getting older, all of us in our sixties and seventies. It seems impossible to me. I don’t feel like the woman in that earlier photograph, nor do my brothers and sister feel slowed by health issues. My various siblings travel worldwide, perform music and shoot and exhibit photographs, go hang gliding and hot air ballooning, ride motorcycles; collect unusual items, make crafts, enjoy an entreprenurial bent and manage real estate. They also engage in quiet volunteer work and entertain friends and family with care and a joi de vivre.

I stop here and realize I am writing like mad in an attempt to stop the inexorable advance of this illness. To at least impede it, to put it off with my words, a fortress against loss. I tell myself: see how people can live despite the heart’s glitches, its failures? How can it harm us when we love life this much?

But, indeed, why not? This is the way of the human body: it is born, it is an instrument of wonder and navigates us through our complicated lives, it gets hurt and heals, it gets loved and reviled, it brings us to one another and separates us. It does its work day in, day out, exquisitely made, harmoniously humming most of the time for the majority of us. Until it cannot. We all pass this way and then, pass on.

It hurts me to say it. Truth reaches into that tenderest place when every bit of life is known to be mighty yet fragile. It is a precarious balance, more than we know–if we realized how delicate, how thin the veil between life and death we would be awestruck as well feel fearful to get up each day, making elaborate plans that can be erased in a breath, a blink. But we do, and too often forget how fortunate we are to have the will and means to do so.

So how does a family–how do I–live with the knowledge of heart disease, the potential for ending our days too soon? We can’t have surgery to excise the heart. We can undergo only so many procedures, in the end. So the conditions are acknowledged. We call and email to check in when we live far away. We come to the hospital when we live nearby. We rally for each other and share information, reassure and embrace one another. We pray and offer healing love. We will likely attend more memorials. But we don’t belabor it, nor do we gather around to bemoan mortality. We must enter this moment with a finely refocused appreciation of all we still can discover, do, be.

I loved Marinell in ways no language on earth can ever entirely and accurately illuminate. It is alright. How little time we have with one another, how we are charged with caring, must practice such love. Let the heart have its due, feed it, fill it, make it your first priority, listen to its music and wisdom and honor it with who you are until it has danced all dances with you, then leads you into a final bow.

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Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, non-fiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments