We sent a postcard to ourselves today, a reminder of secret afternoons spent in cool, dark caves. Curved into a comma, I lie on top of our blue Oxford pinstripe sheets, heart beating in rhythm to Buck’s beside me. The feather pillow dressed in softest butter yellow rises and falls over his chest, where he has enfolded it for warmth. One degree too cool and the air-conditioner is nothing if not efficient. I touch a freckle on Buck’s arm, and covet the thick fringe of dark eyelashes that tremble with each inhalation and exhalation. I watch his lean left cheek, the one I can see, as it blows out with each breath. Not a snore, but a musical rumble, a ripple of life.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –That perches in the soul –And sings the tune without the words –And never stops – at all –And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –And sore must be the storm –That could abash the little BirdThat kept so many warm –I’ve heard it in the chillest land –And on the strangest Sea –Yet – never – in Extremity,It asked a crumb – of me.
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
Most of us have heard the old chestnut that the trick in life isn’t getting what you want, it’s wanting what you get. Expectations shade our perception of reality. Here on the Gulf coast of Florida, we’ve had a series of mild, rather pleasant winters. Until this year. Birds skating on the frozen bird bath for days on end is not part of my world view of “how things should be” in our winters. I can almost hear my friend, Jeanne, laughing. She lives in Moose Pass, Alaska, although even she has dusted out of there for an adventure to South Africa. (Check her fantastic photos at Gullible’s Travels.)
The ice melted completely late last week and now we’re back to more typical winter weather: chilly for a day or two, then a warming trend with rain, then cool again. Repeat until spring. Some beautiful days are coming, I’m sure. Like lots of other folks around the country, we’re eager for some bright sun blue sky days.
Here are a few January scenes. I wish now I had roused myself from the warm house and gone to the woods to get some ice and snow photos, but instead was true to my hothouse flower roots and stayed by the fire with hot chocolate, Buck, and a pile of books.
Note: This is fiction/fantasy based on a writer’s prompt. Mention of the 20 year old granddaughter (whom I love more than life) was not an actual incident that happened that fictional morning, but only a stream-of-conscious thought about how much I would miss loving “distractions” such as visits or text messages or calls from her if I were on an ivory tower retreat for a year to write . . .
The security alarm was still set when I got out of bed. I disarmed it when I went to make coffee before walking into my study. Clearly, no one had been in the house. It must be from Buck! Our 30th anniversary is coming in a few weeks. We’ve talked about planning a small trip somewhere. Maybe this was related.
I reached eagerly for the envelope. It was sealed with wax in such a deep red color it was almost black. That took me aback. I opened my desk drawer and slit the envelope carefully with an old pewter letter opener given to me by my first mother-in-law. As I slid the thick card out, my nose twitched. What is that smell? Not perfume, exactly. Incense? Sweet, with a base note of . . . something. Decay, like the basement in an old building? How weird.
I looked at the card. Here is what it said:
Your desire to complete your novel and write essays has come to the attention of a benefactor who wishes to sponsor you for one year dedicated to writing. You may write whatever you like during this time. The benefactor will not only provide financial support during this time, but also meal and laundry service, plus distraction management.
This is the opportunity of a lifetime for a writer, as you surely recognize. One year under these conditions virtually guarantees you will achieve your goals. Thus, the small caveat that by accepting this generous offer you agree at the end of the term of one year, to never, ever write a single word again in your entire lifetime no matter how long you may live should not trouble you. Please make sure to read the fine print from the benefactor’s legal department before you accept so you will have full understanding of the consequences should you breach the agreement.
Please R.S.V.P. soonest. This is a once in a lifetime invitation.
The Benefactor’s Factotum
Damn. I mean day-umm. I put the card down and jogged to the kitchen for coffee. I stood for a few minutes to watch out the window as a doe and her spotted fawn grazed under the big live oak near a tall magnolia tree, grabbed up one of my notebooks and wrote a couple of sentences about the fawn’s ballerina elegance and the doe’s tenderness.
Stunned by the bizarre note, I almost didn’t hear my cell phone ring. It was my twenty-year-old step-granddaughter, calling to share a cartoon from the New Yorker with me before she went to class at our local university (it was the cartoon where the robots become self-aware and all they want to do is write novels). We had a good laugh, hung up, and I scribbled a paragraph about our conversation in my morning writing journal.
By this time, I’d had a chance to think about how the “life interruptus” problem I sometimes bitch about is what informs and enlivens my efforts to write. The meaning derived through daily interaction with my darling husband, nature, family, and even my old chocolate lab, Maggie (whose memory still takes up a lot of space in my heart and head), is the soul-stuff that made me passionate to write in the first place.
My heart rate back to its usual medium-slow, steady beat, fresh cup of coffee in hand, I returned to my study to respond to the note. I wrote on the bottom.
“Please thank the benefactor for this invitation, but I must refuse. The price is too high.”
No sooner had I put down the card than it popped into a small flame, and in seconds nothing was left but a teaspoon of ashes.
I grabbed my point-and-shoot camera, spiral notebook and pen, and headed out for a walk in the woods, content in the knowledge that I would be writing every day for the rest of my life.
“One in six men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime. Most of them will die of something else before the prostate cancer would have killed them.” The urologist sat on a swivel stool and looked at my husband, who was perched on the edge of the examination table. “But here is where it gets tricky,” Dr. G. continued. “How long are you going to live?” He glanced over at me, flashed his steel-blue eyes. I felt like he was gauging my reaction to see how open he could be, whether I would get up and run out of the room. He looked back at Buck. “Because that’s a big factor in determining how, or whether, we treat it.”
Buck doesn’t have prostate cancer, or at least if he does we don’t know about it. Yet. But his Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) numbers have turned erratic. A chart he and I made last night from 2008 to December of 2013 looks like a nascent Bull stock market beginning to make a run. And the doctor’s question goes to Buck’s age. “You’re an unusually healthy guy for 76,” he said. “Extremely fit. No meds. Most likely good for what? Ten to twelve years? Maybe more?”
My ears began to buzz, and I had to concentrate on breathing to keep my hands from clenching the chair arms, to keep my face impassive when I wanted to scream. I felt like an atomic clock was in the room with us, counting down seconds.
Buck laughed easily. “Oh, more, I think. Maybe a lot more.”
We talk about death sometimes, and he makes me swear to stay healthy and safe. I swear. I make him swear to live forever. He promises to try.
The urologist explains to us that Buck’s PSA numbers aren’t alarming in isolation, but have begun to show a certain velocity that can be a danger sign. He wants to be sure if there are any cancer cells present, he knows which type they are. Apparently some are quite aggressive and some are not. The doc recommends an ultrasound examination and biopsy. Buck agrees and a time is set for next Wednesday.
We’re back home now. It’s raining and dark, with deep, nearly continuous rumbles of thunder. Buck is downstairs in a room we call “The Lodge,” writing away on the revision of a book he has just completed. I’m upstairs in an open area we dubbed “The Treehouse,” drinking spiced Chai and writing too many words in a bright circle of light. The curtain of rain outside the windows when it hits the concrete patio below makes a sound like tin foil crinkling.
A woman acquaintance warned me once that I was unwise to be so close to my husband; that in time it would bring me grief. Can you believe that? Foolish woman.
Besides, grief has been my close companion since I was 13, and I am unafraid of it. It is like that inner part of a ripe tomato skin, the part I call the velvet, the part where meaning dwells. You can only get to it by dropping the ripe tomato into boiling water for thirty seconds and then lifting it out with a slotted spoon. The peel slips off, revealing the gem-like velvet. Grief is always in the room with us. Grief, I think, is also the kernel of love.
A happy postscript: Dr. G’s nurse, Patty, called Friday morning, to advise us there were no aggressive cancer cells, no passive cancer cells, not even any passive-aggressive cancer cells, none at all. When I looked at Buck, he suddenly seemed years younger. When I caught my own eye in a mirror later in the day, so did I.
The three-inch-long smooth, dolphin-shaped basalt stone I picked up on Back Beach in Bernard, Maine a few years ago sits as a paperweight on the open page of a pocket-size Moleskine 2014 hard cover diary in Antwerp blue that was a gift from a friend. Just to the right is the screen of my big old HP desktop computer. While I boot up, my eyes go to a strip of paper with a typewritten quote taped to the top of the screen’s plastic border: “To write well, you must be able to hold your finger in the fire.” Dylan Landis (author of “Normal People Don’t Live Like This.”)
I taste the memory of yesterday’s hibachi coals in the scalding black Komodo Dragon coffee, but smell hints of spiced Chai from the dregs of a mug still sitting on my desk from yesterday afternoon. A stack of old New Yorker and Poet and Writer magazines supports a messy pile of the first 112 pages of my novel in progress. The last sentence so far, “Claire tied a piece of surgical rubber around her upper arm, and picked up the syringe,” stares me in the face. An M. Hohner Blues Harp sits in its case beside the stack of magazines and papers.
I inherited the desk from my husband, who brought it home when he retired 17 years ago. It’s a big hunk of ugly: L-shaped, with skinny tubular aluminum-looking legs, sliding black panels over maple drawers, and a surface big as a door that we covered with matte black laminate. Books are scattered around to the left of the omputer: “The Language of Fiction: a writer’s stylebook” by Brian Shawver, “3 a.m. Epiphany” by Brian Kiteley, Jeff Vandermeer’s “Wonderbook”; “The Art of Time in Memoir” by Sven Birkerts, Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Scraps of half-written paper everywhere. Stacks of old notebooks on the steel blue carpet.
Birds fly by the window in a downward trajectory toward the nearly empty, raccoon-raided feeder below. Shadows on the tree trunks outside my second story window slip down and puddle on the ground, melting away in the bright sun. I hear the drone of small planes, the icemaker dropping cubes, water running through pipes that tells me Buck is up, and the dull, rhythmic popping sounds of a pistol-shooting neighbor half a mile away.
28 degrees and clear.
I awoke and slipped out of bed, mouth achy and stiff with the canker sore on the inner skin of my mouth up against my lower teeth, right in front, and the threat of another one blooming on the tip of my tongue. Saw lots of tiny striped birds, a male cardinal, and a large fluffed-out white dove on the ground by the feeder. That’s when I remembered dreaming about huge fluffy blackbirds that wanted to show Buck and me to their babies as though we were strange and benign as cows.
They made me smile, too. Funny how dusty old objects that have been living in the back of a cupboard for years can spring to life in a camera’s eye.
These figural liquor bottle stoppers are going to a new home in a few days, along with all sorts of other clever, or pretty, or delicate, or antique bits of someone else’s (sadly long dead) memory banks.
We have been the curator of their collections, but believe the statute of limitations on our responsibility to maintain their treasures has passed.
Buck and I have found a couple of nice gentlemen who are experts in the business of antiques, collectibles, and the accidental “stuff” that someone acquires when somebody dies and leaves it to them. We don’t want to burden the next generations with silver to polish (or not), crystal to wash, and gew-gaws to dust.
I don’t really need to make photos of everything that’s going out the door. The fellows will provide an inventory. But it feels right to preserve the memory, essence and a sense of time and place, and so I began photographing each item before wrapping it in tissue or bubble wrap.
I’m sure all the pictures won’t be evocative like this one, but I’m enjoying the process. Each has a different mood, depending not only on the object itself, but the time of day, angle of sun, or no sun at all. I think the description for this process I’m searching for is contemplative. I like preserving these objects this way. It’s mysterious, but I can see them becoming more than they are, achieving an added dimension, and beginning to reveal their stories.
REMEMBER A FEW DAYS AGO WHEN I POSTED A PICTURE OF AN OLD DEER BLIND that I declared I was going to turn into a tiny writer’s hut steeped in splendid isolation?
Buck did his part. He hacked a path to it with his antique 60 horsepower Case tractor. I took loppers and trimmed away undergrowth and overhanging branches. My romantic’s heart was going pity pat all the way. Then I removed the tiny lock and opened the door. Cockroaches leaped out. The smell coming from the old sculpted shag carpet that Harold and Buck had glued to the walls for warmth and soundproofing years ago was, um, how shall I put this? Disgusting. Yes. If I’m shooting for precision, that’s the word. Then there is that charming bright blue object that appears to be secured to a wall with string. Oh! It’s a homemade urinal. Wonderful. Aren’t boys delightful? I left the door open, took a step back on the landing and pondered. Nothing wrong with this a little elbow grease can’t fix! Hey, I’ll even bring over that pot of fragrant orange mint I have out in my herb garden. If I put it right under my nose, this could work. Or, I could strip out all that yucky carpet and paint the walls and floor in Day-Glo colors. I walked back to the house wondering whether I could link a bunch of outdoor extension cords together so I could carry the shop vac out there and vacuum up all the bugs and spider webs.
Dreams are fantastic. I always pay attention to mine and enjoy them, even though I hardly ever have a clue what they might mean beyond that I ate too many cut red peppers on my veggie pizza or too much dark chocolate before going to sleep. But the Snake Dream I had that night was something special. Memorable. Have you ever been bitten by a snake in a dream? Wow. That will stick with you. It was a diagonal slash across my poor left index finger. Fortunately, it’s still numb on one side from my biscuit/knife encounter. The weird thing — well, the whole dream was weird — is that the wound produced a cut that bled chartreuse. Ha!
The next morning, Danny the air-conditioning guy, came to replace a no-longer-functioning thermostat. Buck was outside fiddling with his pick-up truck. I waited for Danny to come in the house. He didn’t. I kept on with whatever I was doing. Then I looked out and saw that Buck’s truck was gone. Danny’s van was empty. They came back in about 15 minutes. Buck’s rifle was on his shoulder. Danny had seen a 5-6 foot rattle snake in the road near the stream bed where I walk every day. They didn’t find the snake. Buck likes snakes; understands generally how they behave, and is not quick to kill one. But a big rattler and my bare ankles traipsing up and down that path every day worried his mule. I thought of my dream the night before. I thought of the old deer blind. I thought of the brown and black widow spiders that I’ve photographed around here.
And then I had an epiphany. And I laughed.
Our house has a second floor with a guest room and covered deck, two unnamed storage rooms across a sort of bridge (I’ll post a picture sometime), and an open area at the top of the stairs that was originally planned for Buck’s work space. He even put an old desk he bought from the company he worked for and had the top refinished with smooth black laminate. So, in my mind, this has always been Buck’s space, and I essentially forgot about it. But you know what? He’s holed up in what we call the “Lodge.” It’s the original part of the house. It’s not exactly a “man cave,” but it’s a place where he can leave all his papers out and know no semi-OCD individual who hates dust will move his motes around. I come in and hang out with him there when we collaborate on editing decisions on his manuscript, or when we want to have lunch together and shoot the breeze. I keep my jogging shoes in there under his work table. Sometimes I entice him out for a walk (like today).
I asked him if he minded if I used that space. He said he’d be very pleased if I could get some use out of his old desk. I spent an hour cleaning and organizing (no snakes or spiders), and have been working up there every day for the last week. At night, I eat fig newtons and drink a glass of milk while I read, and listen to owls through the open window. No computer or phone allowed. It’s like being in a tree house. A big, beautiful, clean, good-smelling tree house with its own pool table. It sings.
“MR. WESTMARK, ARE YOU EXPERIENCING ANY PAIN?” The nurse’s round, pink face and pear-shaped body makes me think of a giant bunny. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a fluffy cotton tail beneath his scrubs.
“No,” Buck said.
“Would you confirm a few details for me?” Once Nurse Hare has Buck’s full name and our phone number, his computer screen fills up with personal archival information from every encounter Sacred Heart Hospital and Buck have ever had, except maybe for his birth, but that happened in 1937 at the old hospital over on 12th Avenue.
“And can you tell me why you are here today?”
“Well, it’s probably nothing.”
The nurse tilts his head, waiting.
“It’s a funny feeling, right here, where my heart is. Like a wave. Doesn’t last long. Doesn’t hurt. Feels electrical. Kind of like what I had a month ago, but those just felt like extra thunks. Lasted about a day and a half. This is different.”
A white hospital bracelet materializes in Nurse Hare’s hand and he has Buck’s wrist ensnared within it quicker than a New Orleans’ cop making a wee hours arrest. I watch his smooth professionalism from where I stand two feet away, leaning against a file cabinet. He continues to puff out questions like soft clouds, all the while taking Buck’s temperature, pulse, and blood pressure, looking without looking, assessing. “Are you feeling that sensation now?”
“No. I feel fine.”
“When did it start?”
“When I got up this morning. Happens every five to 20 minutes. Umph. There’s another one. So, around lunchtime, I called my internist, and he wanted me to come over here and get an EKG.”
Nurse Hare completes his intake and gives Buck a paper with a number on it: 94 — not such a bad number to have, since it’s based on a triage designation. He points to a room visible through a transparent plexiglass wall on the other side of the main reception area, and tells us to watch the screen and listen for a doorbell sound and that number being called. We move in that direction like obedient, slightly confused, sheep.
By this time it’s nearly 2:30. A TV suspended in one corner is set to the Weather Channel. We and others in the room gawk at the image of a large tornado that has touched down near Gulfport, Mississippi. The storm is headed our way. Great. When a tall young guy in blue scrubs calls #94, (no doorbell sound, nothing on the electronic screen), we meet him at swinging double doors. I tell him I am going to run out and move the car from the Emergency Room’s 15 minute zone and will be right back. He explains that Buck will probably be back out by the time I return, that they are going to do an EKG and get some blood, and then it will probably be an hour or so until they can “kick somebody else out” and have a bed ready. Did he say bed?
They disappear into the back-shop.
Out front, several city police cars have two men and a woman sequestered within their bulky circle. The woman wears cut-off jeans and a green tank top that shows tattooed cleavage and rolls of fat between where her top ends and the shorts begin. That scene, plus the scudding clouds and swirling wind, add to my sense of unease. I run to the car and drive across the street to park at the very front of the shopping mall parking lot. It’s a lot easier than riding around trying to find a parking space on the hospital grounds. I feel strange and exposed while I wait for the walk signal to cross 9th Avenue back to the Emergency Room. The sky looks like it’s in a bad mood. I smell rain. Where is that tornado now? I know Buck is okay. Isn’t he?
Buck is back in his seat by the time I return. “The tech said he didn’t see anything that would raise any flags on the EKG.”
“Good. What happens next?”
“We wait, damn it all. Here I rush us down here and take up the whole day and nothing’s wrong.”
I smiled. “I can live with that.”
He laughed. “Yeah, well, I take your point.”
He pulls a full legal pad stuffed with several stapled inserts from his black zip-up case and goes to work editing a section from his manuscript draft. I flip open my Kindle Fire and read a few chapters of Natalie Goldberg’s latest, The True Secret of Writing. Between the Weather Channel’s doom-like forecast, the cop scene outside, people-watching and eavesdropping, I don’t get far in the book, but far enough to read her description of visiting Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, and noting that Death in the Afternoon is one of her favorites. I have specifically, maybe immaturely, avoided that one because I think it’s about the glorification of bull fighting. But now, my fingers moving as I watch that tornado on the flat screen, I find I have instantly downloaded Death in the Afternoon into my Kindle library.
I hear a child call “Mama? Mama?”
A woman speaks. “Here it is, Mama. Here’s that cheeseburger you wanted.” A shapeless old white-haired woman slumped in a wheelchair falls upon the greasy package like it was her last meal.
A Chinese man walks in with quick, short steps, his face set in worry lines. Heads straight for the security guard standing almost at attention beside the reception desk. “O.R.? O.R.?”
Finally, the guard comprehends. “Third floor.”
The man spots a nearby elevator and starts walking. He turns back to look at the guard. “Here? Three?”
“Yes.” The guard nods.
I’m at the desk to ask a question and overhear this exchange. “You get some of everything here.”
“Yes, we do.” He is a tall black man, mid-fifties if I had to guess, with a baritone voice, military bearing and wise eyes.
We have been waiting for about an hour when a man in jeans overalls and a brown t-shirt comes in, accompanied by a large woman in baggy fuchsia shorts with her blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. She walks to an empty row of chairs in front of us, but he stops and sits down beside me. She calls to him and motions, but he says, “I’m wore slap out. I’m taking a load off.” Her eyes dart around, but when she sees he is not going to get up, she walks back and sits by him on the other side. The unmistakable odor of fresh excrement wafts over Buck and me. We don’t look at each other, but silently, simultaneously gather our things and go around the corner where we spy four empty chairs right beside the automatic front doors. They open every few seconds, bringing in a new wave of humanity on a tide of fresh, humid air. It is the best seat in the house.
A man arrives by ambulance, covered in hives, unable to breathe. His wife stands in the front entrance, explaining this to someone on a cell phone. She sounds calm, almost nonchalant. When she walks by, I catch a fragrance of fresh soap and strawberry shampoo.
Buck writes, strikes over, writes again. I start reading Death in the Afternoon.
A disparate gaggle, two women and a man, comes in the door and stands a foot away from us. “I was callin’ and callin’ her cell phone and she don’t answer it. Finally, she picked up, and I got her talkin’ to me but she was talkin’ real slow. When I got over there, she was gone, and they cain’t find her. ” The man mutters something. I smell nicotine and booze. A nurse herds them to a far corner, where I see her explaining something to their bowed heads.
Technically, Buck and I are violating the rules of the way the ER is organized. We’re sitting in Reception, rather than one of the three holding pens set aside for those who have already been “received.” I see the battle-weary woman, an efficient traffic director, exchange a look with Roosevelt, the tall security guard, but they don’t ask us to move.
Shortly after 5:00 p.m., a tech fetches us and we follow him to Cubicle 9. The obligatories follow: shirt off, gown on, lie down, blood-oxygen, blood pressure and heart monitors up and running, messy stab for an unneeded port in his well-muscled right arm, and several Residents come in to talk. By this time, Buck and I both are more than eager to get out of there. Knowing we had to come. Knowing he really is fine.
There’s talk of premature ventricular beats which are generally benign, heads nodding in the right direction about the cardiology appointment we already have upcoming, and discussion of his great-looking runner’s legs, and overall fitness. The patient doesn’t take any meds; has an athlete’s slow heart rate. All good. They leave.
We yank off the EKG sticky pads. Buck gives me one of his trademark sharky grins. “Well, Twitchy Baby, looks like it was one ping only. Let’s go home and get us a good drink.”