something in the marrow: a tip for writing memoir

Earlier today I was deep in the mine-shaft of memory and ancient blog posts, looking for one thing but finding ten others, when this one-sentence post from 2010 stopped me in my hunt.

Even when you have picked over the family bones for every scrap of meat, every scent like a starving hound, something in the marrow waits to tell you more.

Grieving a Lost Son Never Ends

 

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Strange, the power of these mixed media pages done on the fly. I thought I was sticking bits of paint, tissue, words and even the grainy contents of an unused herbal tea bag to work toward some essential point about one of my characters, Jackson Celestine Harper, and his feelings about the loss of his wife to ovarian cancer several years earlier.

But when I went upstairs to take a picture of the page, I was stunned to feel an emotional wallop and understand that this page conveys some of my own feelings about the death of my stepson, Darryl. He was 45 and died of a massive heart attack while sitting in a lawn chair on the patio of his apartment, apparently immediately after eating lunch and smoking a final cigarette.  It happened thirteen years ago: October 6, 2005.

I won’t show this post to Buck. He said at the time, “I can’t live long enough to get over this.”

Darryl told me once he was the black sheep of the family. I said, “No, you may be slightly gray, but you’re a sheep of our fold, and always welcome to come home.” He knew we always had a candle in the window for him. Still do.

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Two brothers and a sister: Richard, Darryl, and Adele

MEMOIR

Remember everything. Make a record when you can. It’s a way of connecting the dots. No one else has been where you have been or will go where you will go. Your memories stand against the days of loss. They are stepping stones across an ocean of meaning to a continent of understanding. #blogcategories

How Does the Light Get In?

WHEN I turn on the cold water tap and water warm enough to shower in hits my toothbrush, I know it’s August in panhandle Florida without consulting a calendar. We are the only residents in this Longleaf pine forest. When the house was built a narrow water line from the main road was run roughly a third of a mile and buried in a shallow trench; a connection to the Farm Hill water source so slender for such an oversized dwelling as to remind us of the impermanence of large objects that appear to be solid, eternal. The water which emerges from the small line reflects ambient temperatures more than a line buried deeply would.

I know the hot temperatures have reached their maximum range for this summer and can almost hear a seasonal “ding!” that marks the end of this round. In a few weeks, I won’t pop out in a sweat five minutes into a simple walk to the gate.

Seven hundred and eighty five of my medium-sized woman steps bring me from our front door to the listing old farm gate out by the main road where the newspaper is tossed each morning. The premier joy of this journey is to visit with the hawk pair who live in the ancient spreading live oak tree just inside the gate.

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I’ve been listening to the audio version of Anthony Doerr’s wonderful book, All the Light We Cannot See. Zach Appelman is a stellar narrator with amazing range and subtlety. Janet Maslin wrote a superb review in the New York Times this past April. Read her review here.

The heroine, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, is a young girl who is blind. The setting is France during the Nazi occupation in World War II. Doerr’s counting, listing, and number of things in the natural world and the way in which Marie-Laure navigates, thanks to her father’s loving miniature models and her great-uncle Etienne’s storytelling and friendship, has me thinking in a different way as I navigate my own way through my life. Doerr’s lyrical prose sings. I hear it in my head long after the pause button on my iphone’s Audible.com app has been pressed.

morning light on tree trunk

Morning light always has a surprise or two up its sleeve. I have photographed this tree near the stream bed many times over the years. It makes me smile, maybe because I’ve always thought it looked like a man trying to get to China the hard way.

sunset at the sanctuary
sunset at the sanctuary

At the end of the day, this time after a late thunderstorm, a glorious sunset draws me outdoors again. The moment is gone in minutes. The key to experiencing it was to get up off the couch and run outside soon as I got a glimmer of that special light.

Buck: my inner light
Buck: my inner light

It happened like that the first time I saw my husband. We’ve been together now roughly thirty-three years. The day I met him, I knew. Inexplicable, and yet I knew. He stood to speak at a meeting. He spoke about taxes. How romantic. Can’t you see how my passions were inflamed?

I was broken then, thirty years old and ending a failed marriage. Buck was the light that came in through the shattered bits. He still is.

 

Facing our (Aging) Face

Success in shooting pool is a matter of geometry. The angles for shooting an aging face are even trickier. Especially with a cell phone.
Success in shooting pool is a matter of geometry. The angles for shooting a selfie of an aging face are even trickier. Especially with a cell phone. Taken Sunday, August 17, 2014.

I know a real estate broker who continues to use a photo in her newspaper ads that was taken thirty years ago.  It might work if she never met her prospects. Makes it much harder to establish trust. We wear the years in different ways. I see something in my eyes, a weight, a fatigue,  that wasn’t in earlier photos. It’s subtle, perhaps invisible to the casual observer, but hard for me to look at because I know from whence it came.

Dreaming a New Mountain Dream

Tom and I both woke up this morning with the conviction that we’ll be returning to our beloved western North Carolina mountains. That’s why I changed the name of this blog from Kicked By a Mule to Writing to the Sunrise.  While we did indeed feel “kicked by a mule”  after getting a mantle cell lymphoma diagnosis and going through all the changes the past two months have wrought, optimism is deeply rooted in both our natures. Plus, with an indolent and localized strain of MCL, caught early, and one of the best medical teams in the world at Mayo Clinic Florida, there’s ample justification for optimism. So we’ve begun to dream again. And if history is any guide, when the Harpers start to dream, the earth moves. I should probably start stockpiling packing boxes!

Our home near Asheville, NC from 1997-2004.
Our home, (designed by Tom), near Asheville, NC from 1997-2004.

We spent all day yesterday surfing real estate for sale in Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Hendersonville, Arden, and Fletcher. All we have to do now is finish two more cycles of R-Benda and roughly a month of external radiation. If the docs are right, and Tom continues to do well, we could be back on the ridge tops by late spring of 2015.

We were only weeks away from putting “the mansion” — our fond name for our home here near Pensacola, Florida — on the market when Tom was diagnosed, so the house is polished and ready for listing whenever we are in a position to pull the trigger. Right now, however, the “biosphere” — one of the nicknames given to the mansion by the grand-kids — is a place of clean, quiet serenity in the middle of a hundred acres of pine woods, where whitetail deer and wild turkeys are regular visitors. Can you imagine a more wonderful place to heal and dream a new dream?

Respite

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 Tom’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 Tom’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.

The KBAM Kitchen

KBAM is a just-right acronym for Kicked By a Mule, and the mission of the KBAM Bar and Grill (also known as the Longleaf Bar & Grill) is one tool we have for kicking back.

Buck and I were already hard-core by many peoples’ lights when mantle cell reared its ugly little head. We haven’t darkened the drive-through window of a fast-food joint in more than twenty years. Except for a day boat fresh mullet run through the skillet of a local marina restaurant every blue moon, fried food has been off our list for decades, as well.

We’ve eaten more than our share of grilled and roasted beef and pork over the years. It was great. But our final hunk of roast beast on a plate came last Christmas. Leftovers sat. And sat. The final pork tenderloin, rubbed with garlic, rosemary and olive oil, sat. And sat.  Before 2014 dawned, Buck and I realized that we had lost our taste for beef and pork. And that was it. Seven months later, and neither of us can imagine ever going back. Buck’s long-standing IBS has almost gone away.

We eat plenty of turkey, chicken, and fish, but the emphasis has totally changed. My trusty old Cameron stovetop smokes fresh turkey drumsticks, and then I use them to flavor a pot of beans or collards and kale. I flake off the meat and make sure all those little cartilage swords are discarded, then return the turkey to the pot. That (+beans or +greens) becomes the protein course. We add a pan of cornbread, a baked sweet potato and maybe a sliced tomato or some yellow squash, and have a wonderful, simple dinner.

Ultimate comfort food plus a nutrition powerhouse: "Magic Mineral broth" pot liquor, baked sweet potato, collards and baby kale, and beans.
Ultimate comfort food plus a nutrition powerhouse: “Magic Mineral broth” (thank you Rebecca Katz) pot liquor, baked sweet potato, collards and baby kale, and beans with house-smoked turkey.

Special challenges to ensure Buck gets enough calories and nutrients have arisen now that he is experiencing the immuno-chemotherapy of Rituxan (rituximab) and Treanda (bendamustine) every 28 days. Our trend toward whole grains and mostly-organic vegetables and fruits has accelerated. Our kitchen has become a first line of defense in our determination to be part of the team that restores Buck to health, and (oh by the way) keeps me strong and healthy along the way.

Strategies and tactics, baby. We got ’em. Would love to hear about yours. What helps you make it through the chemo?

Solo, Solo

“Solo. Solo,” the women called in subdued, but urgent tones.

“Well, okay,” the old man said, rounding a time-softened gray fedora in his thin, elegant fingers. “I don’t know how it got to be five years from now.”  He sat on a low ottoman in the parlor room of the small community library, surrounded by four calm-faced women of indeterminate ages. A single ray of sunlight cut through the morning shadows and fell onto his scarred arm.

It was a dream. I stumbled out of bed shortly after six to my study, found a mechanical pencil stuck in an antique heavy glass “flower frog” and began to scrawl on a legal pad. Didn’t even turn on a lamp. You know how it is with dreams. Even the most vivid ones. If you can write down a scrap of it, or in a pinch say it out loud, you stand a chance of capturing an exotic bug in a bottle.

Buck came in, found me in the darkened study, standing up, scribbling furiously.  I wondered what he was doing there. This is not a man who has ever voluntarily gotten out of bed before the chickens. He moved on toward the kitchen and returned balancing half a slice of bread on a short glass of skim milk. He eyed me curiously. I mumbled something, held up my left hand in an inarticulate “wait” signal, but continued to write.

“I’m going back to bed,” he said, and was gone. Nausea, I thought. It’s still hanging on from last week’s chemo, and he’s trying to smooth it down with milk and bread and put together enough sleep from the fragmented night. Between my restless dreams and his discomfort, a solid six or seven hours of sleep is rare as precious myrrh.