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five from the land of first and forgotten things

The first bell rings. There is a slam of a heavy door somewhere that echoes through the church. It's probably not part of the service, but what do I know? Everything is symbolic here. I do not understand most of the words and I do not know these songs and I do not even want to be here, no one does, but the alternative is that he would be suffering, somewhere, in a bed, staring into a corner or sedated or throwing a keychain and refusing to submit to an injection. And I do not have a choice and neither did he, so we are a few feet away from each other and he is colorless and still and bedecked in finery. I stand for hours and listen to the men sing for him, sing him home, beg forgiveness on his behalf.
*
Winter blew in and froze everything and it feels like Winnipeg again, cold as Mars. I forgot my gloves on Saturday. The wind blew through two layers of pants and two layers of tops and a massive parka, through my skin. It turned my bones blue. My hands barely escaped frostbite. I shoved them into my pockets and paced until the bus came. Fifteen steps east, fifteen west. I stop the processing and grief for a minute because I cannot think of anything else except the cold and how my brain has forgotten it from last January. What else have I forgotten? What was first? 
*
I send an email: It's kind of amazing how some things never change I say, and I know the woman getting it will hear the fury beneath those words, even though they sound almost winsome out of context. I send an email: I love you and am glad I do not have to talk about dementia with you anymore and these are true things, but I do not trust brains anymore; they feel capricious and half magic and I wonder if I even remember how to talk about other things. I send an email: I was up in the middle of the night so I have been Bowie-sad since then. It is just a further thumb-press on top of the already existing FIL sadness and I do know the difference between the two and I am the kind of person who loves to press her thumb on bruises, so here I go, pressing.
*
First was this: When I was little, two years old, I asked my mother: Daddy come home now? Daddy come home now? When? She was 22 and had to explain over and over that he was not coming home, what dead meant. And I would get sad and then I would ask again. When? At some point I stopped asking and maybe it was a relief and maybe it was worse, maybe it was all downhill from there.
*
At the newspaper office, Myron drops off the obituary and a photograph. A woman tells him that the year ahead will be a year of firsts. First Easter, first birthday. You know. The first without. And yes, she is right, but to have watched Papá change over the past years--from the first time I saw him pray, at our wedding, until he became the man who played with my hair when I stood beside his hospital bed--is to have been clocking firsts all this time. The first time I lost my temper with him, the first indignity of an aging body, the first time I was sure I knew the difference between the slipping of memory that comes with aging and the slipping of self. Each one rang their own bell. I remember their pitches and their trailing tones, first, first, first, again, first.

these are pearls

Full fathom five thy father lies; 
    Of his bones are coral made; 
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
    Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
                   --from Ariel's song, The Tempest

That quote is too on the nose. But if there were ever a time for noseness like this, it's the last day of a long year, while I am thirty-six hours stunned, while his eyes are still so clear in my mind. I can only remember life with a dead father; now Myron is in the club

The thing, the truth, the cliché about dementia (one of so many), the one that you remember over and over again as if you're learning it the first time, is that the person you love is both there and not-there, playing peekaboo and juggling your love with a pair of fireballs. Or maybe not playing peekaboo but surfacing after longer and longer periods full-fathom-five below, not waving but drowning. When Papá showed himself after a period of not-there, I would seize on it and try to enjoy it as much as I could, because it was as ephemeral as everything else in the world is. But though these moments felt desperate to me, they didn't feel that way to him; he didn't gasp for air like a drowning man because he did not remember there were sharks circling. 

We brought him to the hospital not because of the dementia, but because he had fallen and couldn't walk. His heart, lungs, and other necessary systems were doing fine, especially considering his age. Between us and his doctors, we were planning for recovery and much more time with him. And when I say I am thirty-six hours stunned, it is because I still cannot believe that he is gone. How does it make sense that I thought I had more time with a ninety-one-year-old man? I did, though. And so another cliché, the one where I say it does not yet feel real, because it doesn't.

To face death at the end of a year is to do it with the knowledge that everyone around you is looking ahead to arbitrary freshness and possibility. (This is not my first time doing this.) Instead, I ponder the cool, quiet silence full fathom five might bring to a man whom you could believe might just have gone deaf in self-defense, to shut out the things that didn't make him happy. I ponder the pearls that were his eyes because they twinkled, blue like a baby's. I am considering the necessity of sea change, for all of us, and wondering what can possibly be more rich, more strange, than what we are already doing here, year in and year out. I am working that piece of verse like a good English major and trying to find some solace before the fireworks go off.

I hope 2016 brings you loveliness. And largeness, and wonder, and the company of good people, and laughter. I hope it brings you insight and nerve when it brings you pain, because it's bound to do so. I hope it surprises you, and brings you pearls.

#scintilla13: the kids' table

Many   of our fondest memories are associated with food. Describe a memorable   experience that took place while preparing or eating food.

www.scintillaproject.com/prompts

This is not a story. This is just a scene.

For days people had brought food. We ran out of space for it and left some of it out on the porch in the March cold, occasionally picking at bits of it here and there. I thought I was hungry, from time to time. Some autonomic system was. And then I would try to eat, and fail. People kept bringing it, though, tray after tray, and eventually we hit the point in the process where people would leave us alone with our grief. Our grief and our cold cut platters and enough overcooked industrial pasta to feed a family much bigger than our dwindling one.

The four of us went back to the house: my brother and his wife, Myron, and me. We sat at the dining room table and ate. Myron remembers my sister-in-law saying something funny to break the ice. I don’t remember much of anything. There was a tall and very fancy layer cake, one so festive and grotesquely inappropriate that it felt like someone had meant to celebrate something, hadn’t had the heart (or nerve) to do so, and passed the cake on to us in our hour of need. I think it was festooned with tiny chocolate curls. We made conversation, but there is always too much to say and no good way to say it.

So no, I don’t remember much, not enough for a story. I remember the four of us, talking like adults at the dining room table, a place heretofore reserved for special occasions and long, lingering conversations that were not for little ears. Talking like adults—we were adults; there were no children anymore in that house and we had claimed the dining room for ourselves. We were old enough to have been through this before and to remember how much better the food had been last time around, when the death was a different kind of tragedy. I remember the decorative glass of the light fixture, the tablecloth, the china cabinet displaying my mother’s good dishes. The way the coat closet doorknob was hard to close. The view through the window at the backyard. The way it hurt. My God, the way it hurt to not fall apart. There’s a time and a place for falling apart, and it’s not at the dining room table.

#scintilla13: distance is a long-range filter

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I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 3 prompts, Talk about a time when you were driving and you sang in the car, all  alone. Why do you remember this song and that stretch of road? We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

(First, and importantly: When I thought of this prompt I almost rejected it or smoothed it out, took out the song request, took out the “all alone.” Maybe I should have. I didn’t want to be too prescriptive. But then I thought that if you had one of these memories, or something close enough—maybe with someone else in the car, maybe without remembering what was coming out of the speakers—you would know why I wanted to write it, and more importantly why I wanted to read your story of being on your way somewhere, simmering in dread or happy anticipation or simple enjoyment of the moment. We don’t usually talk about why we chose the prompts or where they came from, but since it’s so specific, I wanted to give it some background. Now, on with it.)

I was a hesitant driver at first, and frightened of accidents. My family had been in one when I was a kid and it had lasting repercussions. So I panicked through learning to drive, panicked through the day I got my license, and then eventually worked through the panic by driving. A lot. I had an old used Escort that I drove all over the valley and to work and into Pittsburgh, with friends and on my own. Gas was so unspeakably cheap back then. I remembered a day when my aunt Ramona picked me up and drove me across the state to stay with her family for a week in the summer (when this happened) and she told me how she just got sick of driving, that it wasn’t fun for her anymore. Instead of feeling guilt that she was in fact doing just that for hours in order to bring me to her house, I was astonished. How did anyone get sick of driving? It was the time when I felt most in control of anything.

I traded up, to a 1992 Geo Storm in Bennington Blue and put more miles on it, more and more. I commuted to college through snowstorms and sunshine, half an hour each way, and then the last year I moved to my college town and commuted to my retail job, selling shoes on commission. I loved the people I worked with even when they worked my last nerve; we were family in a way that I never found at any other job I held. I didn’t mind the drive either way. Through those years, that daily hour of solitude centered me, rebuilding any parts of me that had been rubbed raw by the day. Even today, when I stream NPR from the United States, I stream it from WPSU. That last year, the one where I wrapped up stray GenEd credits and sold nine pairs of the most expensive sneakers in the store to an entire basketball team in one record-breaking transaction, I haltingly put together my plans to leave Pennsylvania after graduation and head south. Winter was for suckers.

Problems: I had no job. English lit degrees do not prepare you for the most lucrative or in-demand careers.  I knew no one there. “Heading south” encompassed an enormous swath of the US and I wasn’t particular about where I landed. I wasn’t afraid of having to meet new people, but I was afraid that this new start would take more imagination, money, or determination than I actually possessed. I had never been tested, not yet. And I had read enough contemporary fiction to teach me that freedom and control were meant to be seized half an hour at a time behind the wheel of a car, but in the rest of life they were often illusions.

Those of you who have held retail jobs know there were certain times of year that you just can’t take days off. In the shoe business, Easter is one of them. Hundreds of white patent squeaky t-straps come in the store, destined to be scuffed as soon as they’re put on children Easter morning. A Saturday shift during the lead-up to Easter is commission gold; the shoes haven’t hung around the store long enough to be marked down and commissions are epic. If the child is old enough to wear adult sized shoes, all the better. It’s insane to ask for time off around Easter—you’re putting pressure on your coworkers, you’re missing out on the best money you’ll see until back-to-school, and you put the manager, a 28-year-old moppet of a Deadhead named Todd, in the position of having to tell you no. But I needed to spend spring break driving south and getting lost in new cities and figuring out where I wanted to spend the next part of my life. My apartment lease would be ending a week after graduation. I didn’t have time to waste. So I turned in my two weeks, selling as many tiny wingtips as I could before I left. And then there was nothing else to do but head out for the road and find a place that spoke to me.

I was petrified. Somehow—and you see this buildup, these years of traveling between places, these years where my cars brought me to places of my own choosing—I was always driving distance from a home of some kind. My jobs. My apartments. My family. My friends. Even if I felt the need to get lost until I was driving on fumes, I had a place to go when I turned off the car. I felt spoiled, coddled. Even though I knew I was hardly taking a huge risk, I had never done anything like this before.

I took that Geo to the highway and put in a mix tape. It was one that my then-mostly-ex boyfriend had made. Side B, first song. Rush, of course, always Rush.

I knew all these songs, his songs. That’s the pleasure of a mix tape, that someone else has made choice after choice for you.. Sometimes in the midst of a dizzying blast of freedom, you need someone to make a choice for you, even a small one. And there is no better song to start a roadtrip with than “Dreamline,” and there never fucking will be. 220 South to 80 East, faster, faster. We’re only at home when we’re on the run. I sang it and was no longer doing this alone.

list two: uprooting

  1. There were boxes everywhere, but mostly in a large stack in the middle of the basement, our books and papers and heavy, sturdy things. And then the closets, where I stacked our clothes and the things from my desk and the top of the dresser, heavy glass candles and dishes my grandmother made during the war. Myron came home late at night, exhausted after working all day and flying for hours.
  2. Every time he goes away for more than a few days, there is a moment on his return when I look at his face and don’t recognize him. Then the truth of him reappears and I cannot remember what it felt like to be empty of it.
  3. The next day, we packed and packed. I left too much of the kitchen to the last minute. We used more rolls of tape than I can even tell you, more boxes, more paper. He constructed two-box hybrids to encase mirrors, artwork, and even the plant he nurtured from tinydom into almost-treedom. Before eleven, we were done.
  4. It was the first time ever—ever, in all my moves, and there have been so many—that I finished at a reasonable hour on the day I meant to, instead of staying up all night. Still I woke up needlessly early the next day, frantic and tightly wound. No matter how many times you go through this, I can’t imagine that it ever becomes routine and unsusceptible to gigantic error.
  5. We slid our suitcases into the bathroom and tried to stay out of the way of the movers, who were everywhere. More snow had fallen the night before, and the door stayed open all day. We ended up hiding in the bathroom, devices in hand, while the heavy boots and low voices echoed through the rapidly emptying house. I thought to take pictures, but the scene was nothing I’d want to remember, so I left the camera in its case.
  6. We cleaned. Scrubbed. I polished the refrigerator shelves and freezer bins and the cooktop. Myron cleaned the bathroom, swept the basement. The last thing I did was spray the almond-scented cleaner and buff the hardwood one last time. While I pushed the velvety mop in little circles, I invented and sang an impolite song that made Myron smile. No, I won’t sing it for you.
  7. We caught a bus to the city. I dragged my massive suitcase behind me, mounted my backpack on my shoulders, wrapped myself in gloves and hat and coat. The cold was unbelievable. I stopped twice to cough and cough and cough. I walked along the highway for the last time, mostly on an unpaved shoulder. After about ten minutes I stopped feeling my legs, but somehow they kept moving. The hot breath trapped by my scarf clouded my glasses with steam. I counted breaths until I made it to the intersection, crossed the street, and then counted breaths some more. The suitcase lolled on its cheap wheels and I let it fall and picked it up again. I couldn’t speak the entire ride. In the hotel that night—the same hotel where I stayed my first night in Ottawa, the place where I said yeah, I could stay here—I slept like the dead.
  8. Friday morning we signed a few papers and split up. Myron went to the national archives and I went for my last haircut with the astronomically talented Kim. I wonder about these curls and how they’ll fare in the hands of someone less talented. These days, they bounce and swoop and I should really take a picture of them before they grow out.
  9. And then we left, and I feel like I should have felt more, but maybe I had spent so many weeks feeling so damn much that there was nothing left to feel. Instead, there has been gentle quiet in my temporary home, and no pressure, and sleep, and coconut sorbet, and a bit of transplant shock, and tabbouleh.

For a while now I’ve been wanting to do a year’s worth of lists a la hula seventy. Let’s see how long I can keep this up.