“Training Wheels” by Amie McGraham

“Flow” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″

The Proposal

He proposed to me in a roomful of people, from the podium of the drab fellowship hall. Coffee brewed in the kitchenette; someone had brought a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies. “’Boy meets girl on AA campus,’” he said, the microphone carrying his confident voice across the room. “Will you marry me, Amie?” We had met in that very room at my first Twelve Step meeting four years before.

I wanted a Valentine’s Day wedding. Simple and small, no sappy white lace or roses. The free spirit in me needed the freedom of the outdoors, so we settled on a spot at the top of the hill where we’d trained together for the Boston Marathon a few years before. Our friend George, a mail-order minister we knew from the meetings, would perform the ceremony.

The week before Valentine’s Day, we drove to City Hall for a marriage license. “The Justice of the Peace is marrying another couple here in an hour,” the clerk informed us. “If you don’t feel like waiting.”

Marathon Marriage

He became a personal trainer not long after we started dating, ending a career in sales to pursue his lifelong passion for fitness. He spent months studying at the library, backpack heavy with physiology textbooks and anatomy charts, and passed the rigorous certification testing with high marks. I was the perfect test subject as he built his client list; he trained me for my first marathon in San Francisco at age thirty-five. “Cool weather and a postcard perfect course,” he told me. Never mind the relentless hills or the hottest July on record, I finished, sweat-soaked and wanted more. In just two years, he helped me qualify for the Boston Marathon, a runner’s Holy Grail.

***

Meanwhile, back at City Hall, spontaneity triumphed. Years of heavy drinking had resulted in a “do it now” kind of impulsiveness that floated just beneath the surface of our alcoholic personalities. Even sober, it often proved difficult to corral.

“The couple that trains together remains together,” he said. “Might as well tie the knot today.”

I nodded in silent agreement, the hilltop desert wedding fading into oblivion. An hour later, we exchanged vows before the judge and another couple, each playing the dual roles of witnesses to our respective jeans-clad ceremonies.

We had both been married before, but this relationship redefined our concept of marriage. We lifted weights together and shared a mutual passion for John Sandford novels. We preferred protein shakes to French fries; were addicted to Law & Order reruns. Together we discovered the electronic lull of trance music. We rarely argued.

We vacationed on the beaches of Maui, Miami, and Mexico; he accompanied me on president’s club trips to Hawaii and Banff for which I’d qualified through my sales job. As the years passed, we were known as the “power couple,” yet we never lost our own identities. We were one. And we were separate. We were sober. And we were still wildly, passionately in love.

Departure

I had always assumed he’d retire first, mainly due to our double-digit age difference. My career as vice president for a national insurance company was approaching the quarter-century mark, a once unfathomable achievement considering the half measures of my drunken past. Over the years, I’d moved thirty-odd times, across the country, across the street and across the ocean, drifting between various jobs and school, It had taken three universities, three coasts, a foreign country and nearly twenty years to obtain a bachelor’s degree in English.

Then, life took an unexpected turn and it was I who stepped down from my career.

Recovery

My family is small and intellectual to a fault. I am an only child. My parents divorced the same year I first drank alcohol—two glasses of warm Chablis at age eleven—and from then on, my life became a study in doing the wrong thing. It wasn’t intentional; I didn’t set out to get busted by Principal Johnson for smoking a joint in the locker room, or lose my driver’s license for a year because I drove home from a Christmas party in a blackout, or nearly drop out of high school with a 4.0 GPA.

At sixteen, I moved into a double-wide trailer with a boyfriend which led to a brief marriage as hazy and jagged as our cigarette-laden hangovers. At twenty-three, I ditched the waist-high snowbanks of perpetual New England winters for Southern California and its endless summer of surfboards and skaters, keg parties and cocaine. I never looked back. And I rarely went back.

Through my blurred teens and twenties and thirties I lived a hard, fast life and as long as Anheuser-Busch was still brewing beer, my world was complete.

My parents remained an ocean away and on my infrequent visits home, I logged more time in the bars of my past than I did on that island of my youth, where my mother had become something of a celebrity. On one summer visit, she’d just returned from promoting her recently-published cookbook in bookstores from Bangor to Boston with her second husband, whom I’d never fully embraced as a stepfather even after their twenty-odd years of marital bliss. He was seventeen years older; one of those eternally happy people you just want to shake; a Marine, for God’s sake. These were not people I wanted to hang out with in the self-centered orbit of my world, where life was a never-ending party. They did not drink.

For all the years I drank, I was a shitty daughter.

But, like anything that seems too good to be true, my self-proclaimed life of fun became fun with problems. Then, it was just problems. Too many times, I woke up in hotel rooms, the air thick with the stench of stale ashtrays and Merlot-crusted wineglasses, with no recollection of where I’d been, what I’d said, where I’d parked. I constantly sought an escape route through the anonymity of business trip cocktails only to return to the same unhappy life I’d left.

Eventually, I found a Twelve Step program at the subtle suggestion of a co-worker with a decade of sobriety. Staying sober was harder than running a marathon; harder than meeting million dollar sales quotas; and a shit ton harder than drinking. I struggled through the first six months, missing that cloudy buzz of a drunk, craving the high of irresponsibility, wishing for wine, beer, even the bitter sharpness of tequila shooters, any liquor-induced escape to avoid facing the suddenness of myself.

Motherhood

My mother is a woman of many talents. Artist. Writer. Gourmet cook. She’s witty, eclectic, creative, generous, and brilliant. She’s also rigid and uptight, conservative to the core. Reagan will always be her hero. Her childhood consisted largely of family gatherings around the hi-fi of the suburban Boston living room, listening to “Father Knows Best.” She got straight A’s in Home Ec, knew every book of the bible, and owned both ballet flats and tap shoes.

She was a stay-at-home mom, but not the Harriet Nelson kind. She worked from home, a freelance graphic artist. She drew fashion models for newspaper ads, painted landscapes and floral arrangements, designed layouts for magazines. As a preschooler, I sat alongside her in the studio, an aspiring artist grasping my own tiny paintbrush with watercolor-smeared fingers.

My mother is also endearingly naïve. The relic of a life largely lived on a Maine island, she was long insulated from traffic lights and shopping malls, immune to hijabs and border walls. The only gunshots she ever heard were from the occasional hunter in search of a deer in the back woods. For thirty years, she wrote and illustrated a monthly newsletter on cooking, traveled to England twice, published a cookbook and played the organ at her church.

She devoted her life to that church, a congregation of ten, which espouses temperance and faith-healing and forbids medicine and physicians. She has never tasted champagne or swallowed a Tylenol or drunk any caffeine but instant Sanka. She is a rules-follower, a people pleaser, the consummate good girl. “Daddy taught me to do the right thing,” she often reminded me. “I never disappointed him.”

***

I’m a quick study when it comes to book learning and business affairs. I know my way around every major city in the nation, I’ve closed thousands of sales contracts, and can craft a marketing campaign with my eyes closed. But with family matters, I’m a slow learner. For all the years I drank, the distance between my parents and me was not merely defined by geography; I had erected an invisible wall of self-absorption.

For all the years I drank, I was a shitty daughter.

When I finally realized I wanted to not drink more than I wanted to drink, living a sober life—eerily coherent and oddly enjoyable—became my way of life. So did the simple principles I learned in recovery: Trust God. Clean House. Help Others.

Gradually, I became better daughter.

With the selfless clarity that comes from sobriety, a few years ago I noticed my mother needing help with daily activities. Getting dressed was a task for two; following the steps of her favorite recipes, an exercise in frustration. Adrift on the time-space continuum, she was never certain of the day of the week, the season, or whether it was morning or night. “I’m having a little trouble understanding August,” she confessed and pointed to the calendar, now as perplexing as her windup clock.

And so I left the corporate career and moved back to the island home of my childhood to care for my mother.

I’ve never had kids other than those with tails. These days, I am a parent to two children: an eighty-seven-year-old who fancies himself the Casanova of the east coast, who still drives and can recite his entire credit card number by heart. Relentlessly self-sufficient, my father lives a quiet life alone in his New England cottage. I handle his finances and legal matters.

And an eighty-three-year-old with Alzheimer’s. For three years, I was my mother’s in-home caregiver, an unanticipated career with an excruciatingly fluid job description and no training manual. Other than the part-time high school job I’d had as a nurse’s aide in the local nursing home, my resume for this job was a blank page.

My first year as an Alzheimer’s caregiver felt a lot like the first year in sobriety, which felt a lot like riding a bike for the first time without training wheels. The control freak in me—long dormant after finally acknowledging that something bigger was in charge of the universe—reawakened like a fly on the windowsill in spring; the patience and tolerance I’d cultivated in recovery evaporating each time my mother repeated a question—which was often—or failed to remember what I’d just told her, which was more often. I was restless and irritable not just with my mother, but too, with the man I’d met in my Twelve Step group and later married, when even in our long-distance marriage, he’d been nothing but supportive. And I was resentful toward my new job: the dementia that had hijacked my mother’s brain.

In a dim corner of my mind, alcohol beckoned and I almost sought the escape route again. But, as I’d learned from my mother and in sobriety, I needed to do the right thing, even if I didn’t like doing it or want to do it. I am my mother’s only living blood relative. I couldn’t just walk away.

My life, sober or not, has often been one of all-or-nothing. So, in my second year, I vowed to learn as much as humanly possible about Alzheimer’s. I highlighted stacks of reference books. Combed through dozens of online research journals. Joined caregiving support groups on the internet. Met with friends who’d cared for parents with dementia. Shared caregiving tips in tweets and blog posts with caregivers as far away as Berlin. And I didn’t drink.

In my third year of caregiving, when depression struck with the force of a Nor’easter and I languished in lethargy, the escape route I sought came not from a bottle or a pill, but through therapy: a family counselor and part-time lobsterwoman who had converted an old B&B to a dementia care home. Each hour we spent together helped confirm that the rapid progression of my mother’s Alzheimer’s would soon require more care than I could give.

Today, my mother and I are closer than we’ve ever been. She’s in a memory care home five minutes from my house and I visit her almost every day. Moving her across the country from the comfort of the old island farmhouse where she’d lived for the past fifty years to a big city was not without multiple challenges. She didn’t sleep for days. She hallucinated the first week, one moment convinced she was being held against her will by foreign-speaking terrorists in a Bible-lined cellar, then in a panic over the man in her closet wearing her high heels. She’s never owned a pair of heels, and the building has no cellar. For the first two months, I obsessed about whether I had done the right thing.

Like most things in the world of Alzheimer’s, recollections fade. She has friends in her new home, and things to do. She may have lost her ability to draw, but she takes weekly art classes, her fingers now stained with watercolors like mine so many years ago. And although she can no longer bake a cake by herself, she’s teaching a friend’s young daughter how to cook.

To those outside the demented doorway which I stepped through a lifetime ago, this may not seem like growth. But as fast as the disease has progressed, my mother has taken giant leaps forward in a short time, and this I know in my heart: we have done the right thing.

I’m slowly getting my life back. I’ve been sober now almost as long as I drank. I find the escape route through putting words on a page, volunteering at an animal shelter and in an unlikely new job as a pet sitter. I still go to meetings and help others stay sober. I am still a caregiver, which turns out to be the ultimate act of service. And being of service to others—alcoholic or otherwise—is an essential part of recovery.

The parallel of our lives, my mother’s and mine, is like looking in a mirror. As life can be in dementia, mirrors are often terrifying; reflections unrecognizable. We both have a disease of perception that centers in the mind; we both have a disease of denial.

It’s been said that alcoholism is the only disease that tells a person they don’t have it. Most people living with Alzheimer’s face a dual battle of denial. To accept it is to confirm its relentless death-grip. To acknowledge it requires logic and comprehension, both missing in the ethereal dementia-drift in and out of reality. For my mother, it’s a trifecta of denial since her religion rejects the concept of disease or any form of sickness.

As Alzheimer’s—the ultimate identity thief—robs her of the prolific life she once led, she remains forever trapped in her mind. Yet I, through recovery, have been freed from mine.

Taking care of my mother has given me a deeper understanding of recovery, and of family. Until I got sober, I never felt like I was part of anything real. My relationship with a husband who loves me for who I have become teaches me how to be present, how to be a mother to my mother, how to accept my father’s stubborn independence.

My husband has been present for me, all along. He was there for me at my first meeting. He was there for me when I ran the Boston Marathon. He was there for me when I quit my job and stepped into the quagmire of Alzheimer’s, a reality as unavoidable as my own self. And he was there when I was no longer sure who that self truly was.

He’s still a personal trainer; I still run marathons. Dust gathers on the sales trophies lining my bookshelves; business suits have been swapped for yoga pants. This year, we celebrated our seventeenth wedding anniversary and a combined total of fifty years without a drink. Our sobriety is intact; our marriage is solid. But after my time away, some reassembly is required. “You’re a good daughter,” he said recently, after I returned from a day at the aquarium with my mother.

I’m working on the good wife part now.

 

Amie McGraham grew up on an island in Maine and now lives in the desert southwest. A freelance writer, family caregiver and petsitter, she received her BA in English from Arizona State University. Her fiction has been short-listed for the Fulton Prize, New Guard Review and The Offbeat and she was a two-time semi-finalist in Tucson’s Festival of Books Literary Awards. Her work has appeared in Exposition Review, Motherwell, Women on Writing, The Caregiver Space, Wanderlust Journal, Creative Nonfiction, Best Friends Animal Society and elsewhere. Her flash blog, “This Demented Life,” was featured by AlzAuthors and is read internationally.

“Cardiff by the Sea” by Patsy Creedy

“Tunnel Vision” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 24″ x 48″

I should have taken the hint the first time I tried to get into the surf, paddling furiously over the breaking waves that keep coming. Each wave I made it over a victory. At one point I even thought I was getting somewhere, only to turn around and see the shore still so close, the other surfers watching the waves. To feel the sand with my foot, telling me I had covered no ground. The ocean had effectively spit me back out. I walked north along the beach a few yards and stood watching the waves, trying to see a way in that didn’t look like I would get pummeled or totally exhausted just trying to get beyond the break.

I hadn’t gone into the water the day before. I couldn’t make up my mind and kept waiting for the tide to change something, something in me, something in the water to call me in. Sometimes the greed of wanting a surfing fix, the bodily high of being in the water, gliding down wave after wave makes for poor judgment or massive indecision. Even though I had stopped to surf on the drive down, my decision not to get in the next day felt like a cop out, driven by fear and uncertainty.

I wanted to get back into my surfing groove so badly. In the last year and a half, since my son died, I could not get into the water. I could not access the solace I knew it would bring me. I was inert with grief. I could not find the energy to load my car with my surf box, filled with a wetsuit, booties, wax and sunscreen, much less strap my board onto the top of my car, something I use to do almost without thinking, rushing like a dog ready for a walk. Now I was mostly numb, every cell in my body shocked, igniting with sorrow every morning as I woke up and re-realized he was dead.

I had stopped on the way down south at San Onofre State beach, an old long board break. The park ranger station was closed, which I took as a good sign. I drove down the rutted road and turned the corner to waves breaking everywhere around the point.  It was late in the day, the wind was up but coming from the SE so it was perfect the young guy parked next to me said, smiling when I told him I had driven down from San Francisco. “You smoke pot then, I hear the pot there is woooh, everyone smokes.”

I laughed and told him I was clean and sober. His face fell a tiny bit, but then he told me, ‘That’s good, keep it up.’

I got in and caught a couple waves as the sun began to drop, the water was warm compared to up north. My pop up was sloppy, relying on that intermediate pause on my knees before standing that I used to judge as inferior in other surfers. Here I was crawling up to standing, smiling without even knowing it. The sunset sky was beautiful and the afternoon session cleared away the long drive and gave me a little confidence that I could still surf, even if my form sucked.

As I stood watching the waves at Cardiff a man came up to me and said, “If you’re looking for a way in you might want to paddle over by the lifeguard tower and then head out that way. It’s a little less brutal that way.” He had appeared out of nowhere and started talking into my ear like he knew a secret, like he was the one who knew what I wanted to know to get me safely into the water.

For some reason I took his sudden appearance as a good omen rather than a foolish one, again the greed welling up in my body looking for a way to get what I wanted from the ocean, never a good idea. Why wasn’t he getting in? He said something about a bad ankle and walked away. I watched a little longer and once I saw an opening I quickly started paddling, trying to get somewhere between the sets. I paddled out towards the lifeguard tower like the mystery guy suggested. I was getting out past the break and feeling a little confident. I paused to figure which direction to go when a wave came rolling towards me. I tried to go over the top of it with my board but its force surprised me as it knocked my board straight up in the air. I dove down into the water, letting my board to go, my ankle pulling hard where the leash was attached. I popped back up to the surface and quickly got back on my board trying to get some traction paddling out before the next wave came. I decided to paddle north and the waves kept coming with little or no break between.

I looked at the shore to see if I could ride in on the whitewater of one of the waves without getting too close to the cliff but the current was pulling me over and towards the shore, even closer to the cliffs. More waves broke over my head. I barely had time to get back on my board before another one was on top of me. The next wave that came pushed me down and held me there. I couldn’t figure out where the surface was as my body spun around. I opened my eyes to try and see the sky and watched myself as I took in a mouth full of water. I had reflexively opened my mouth for air, suddenly understanding how you drown, trying to breathe from muscle memory, take something in and hoping it is air. I managed to pop up to the surface and frantically looked round. I saw the cliffs now even closer and I saw a line of rocks that if I could get over to them I would probably be safe. I knew the tide was dropping and more shore would appear. I let the waves push me, mildly hoping my board would not be too damaged by the rocks, but not caring much by then, I just wanted to be out of the water.

I don’t remember exactly how I got onto the rocky lip of the cliff, only that I made it to standing position and my board was still in one piece, although I didn’t look for damage closely, my hands shaking too much to examine it, I felt too traumatized to care. I could look later, when I was safe in the parking lot, having successful avoided a coast guard rescue.

I was shaken and embarrassed at how I badly misread the surf and my own ability. I had only surfed maybe a handful of times since my son died. I was out of shape and I wanted something that I wasn’t going to find in the ocean. He was gone and yet so present in an unreachable and painful way, which I was coming to realize is how grief is. When you lose a child, it is never, ever, over or better. It is just different, the volume of grief oscillates but it does not leave, nor should it. It is the new normal of your being. Once I realized that its pain was part of my new reality, accepting its presence was even a little helpful, sort of like getting diagnosed with cancer, but being told it was the good kind of cancer. There was nothing to be done to alleviate the bodily pain of the loss of my son and to try to be better or over it was just asking for the grief and denial to come out sideways. This realization gave me something to hold onto. I was irrevocably changed and I was still here, in this world with a fearsome and beautiful ocean and clouds, and death.

 I stood there holding my board underneath my arm, panting and coughing as I looked out at the waves, the water that I tried to breath in making its way back up in rough, barking coughs. I knew I had to get calm and stay positive, fear was not going to be helpful in paddling back to the shore.

I watched the surf, remembering how high the water was on the beach even at a low tide this time of year. I knew I eventually would have to get back in to the water and paddle around the cliff I was perched on and please God, make it back onto the beach. I tried to quiet myself, saying a few prayers, calling out to my son, calling him forth as some kind of comfort, remembering his sweet young face, cheeks red with the summer heat as he proudly ran towards me with a frog he’d caught at his grandmother’s house. I saw his tall lanky man body, the scolding he would have given me, laughing at my predicament and calling me mama, something he rarely did near the end. Then I saw him dead, collapsed in the bathroom with a needle in his arm. When I reach this point I usually stop trying to see him, the fantasies taking a bad turn. I started talked to him that morning from where ever he might be now, watching me and shaking his head. The images fall away and it is just he and I, intangibly connected and stubbornly drifting at the same time.

My body stopped shaking and I keep watching the waves, looking for a lull between the punishing sets. I was waiting for my nerves to collect as much as I was waiting for the tide to drop enough for me to get back in the water, something I did not want to do. Finally I thought I saw my chance and I jumped down onto the rocks, which were smooth and round, the size of oranges and grapefruits, clattering loudly with each in and out of the waves. I hadn’t factored the rocks in as a problem if there was no breaking wave pushing them but as I stepped onto the rocks I was knocked down immediately by the undertow, my foot sinking ankle deep into the clattering rocks, my board flipping in the air and then down onto the rocks. I quickly looked out at the surf and grabbed my board as it landed near me. I hopped up on it and start to paddle hard, first straight out and then over, south towards the beach and the parking lot.

Turns out the beach was just around the cliff not nearly as far as I imaged as I waited there on the cliff stranded and sure I would die alone, trembling, feeling the wet rock wall crumble as I touched it for balance. I kept left and soon was able to touch the bottom with my foot, the sensation a ripple of relief pulsing through my entire body. I let the tide push me further in, lying sideways on my board, my feet keeping track of the ground. I was so relieved to step out of the surf, apologetic and humbled once again by the ocean, the boss, the queen, who might have been trying to warn me when she spit me out the first time earlier that morning.

As I walked along the sand and reached the parking lot I felt a small numb twinge in my left foot. I looked down at my toes and saw that the toe next to my baby toe was limp and splayed wide like a V, dragging along not connecting with the rest of my toes as I walked. It was hard to tell if it hurt or if I could bend it as I was wet and dazed.

It must have happened when I fell into the rocks trying to get back onto my board, getting thrown around with the clattering stones. I definitely did not feel it happen. You usually didn’t need a doctor for a broken toe, you just had to wait for it to heal, maybe a using a little tape to keep the damaged toe stable. My stark relief already minimizing the dangerous position I had put myself in.

A limp toe was but a small price for the morning and what could have happened to me out there. I felt like a lucky woman and a foolish woman. Lost but still living, without my son, the thought of him truly gone still such a shock to me, only I realized that I was getting used to living in shock, with this particular state of shock. The shatteredness of my being becoming a part of me, the reformation happening in my body that does not deny the day he fell or the ocean who is still the queen.

     

Patsy Creedy lives in San Francisco, waiting with dread for the next wave of millionaires to arrive. She has an MA and an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State. She worked for many years as a labor and delivery nurse helping women have babies at UCSF. She has published poems in Transfer Magazine, Dragon’s Leap and Inlandia. She has published some nonfiction work and recently completed a memoir about her brother who died of alcoholism. She co-leads an occasional writer’s workshop, “Writing the Way,” at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was a board member and speaker for several years at the SF Zen center for the Meditation and Recovery group that meets most Monday nights.

“A Healing Unto Death” by Laura English

“Transition” by Sydney McKenna, watercolor, 15″ x 45″

Enveloped by spring’s benevolence, the house has lost its chill. I’m sitting at the computer in the once frigid basement looking up how to load a gun and the best way to shoot so that I actually kill myself rather than paralyze my body for life. Silence surrounds me. The kids have just left for school. April has passed, but still—we must be in a cruel month because the light hasn’t penetrated. It’s as though a never-ending winter lurks beneath a superficial glow.

In the midst of these daily investigations, I drive myself to a free, community training on how to reach out to suicidal people. Maybe I want to heal from this illness of death, as I’ve come to call it. Maybe an insight will hit me when I listen to the social workers giving their spiel.

A man and a woman hand out booklets and fire up a Power Point. We role-play, and I get to be the one talking a fictitious, bankrupt farmer out of killing himself. I ask the polished and gentle counselor posing as farmer, “Do you have a plan?” And maybe I’m talking to myself.

When I get home, I leaf through the booklet and google Kevin Hines, the man mentioned at the training who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived to tell his story. “Suicide is never nor should ever be the answer.” Maybe I’m on the path to healing.

Healing, never cured. Recovery as unfinished work, like laundry or weeding.

Show me the shades of suicide. I don’t mean actual suicide but the thoughts of going through with it. One is bright but fades quickly, the fleeting idea, crimson turning pink then blanching. The dire attempt stains slowly like the indigo of dungarees.

How old was I when I tried to tie my first noose, and my brother found me out.“You’re not really going to do that”? Rolling his eyes, deflating my momentum.

My aunt also has a brain that betrays her and sends her into darkness, but she has never thought of suicide. “You have to be that type of person deep down.”

Pre-wired? Like an alcoholic? Suicide always sounded like a good idea to me. “Just do it, Hamlet!” I goad from the sideline. I knew, before I ever heard of Nietzsche, that the “thought of suicide is a solace.”

You have to want it to heal, and, I never wanted it. The world seemed heavy, and suicide light when I tried it for real the first time.

I have one foot on the gas pedal and one on the clutch. The garage door is closed, nobody’s awake in the house. I’ve eaten a full-sized Snickers bar without worrying that it will make me fat. I’ve also eaten a Pop-Tart. I won’t have to go running to burn off the calories. The maddening game with food and weight will be over.

As I wait for unconsciousness to overtake me, I remember the moment after the collision last week. My father is getting out of the car. The other driver is apologizing. “I saw you, but couldn’t stop in time.” I have just tried to make a left because I heard my father say from the passenger’s seat, “OK.” He meant, “Wait.”

My fault. No one is hurt. It’s just some dents. My father doesn’t even raise his voice at me. Accidents happen, especially when you just have your learner’s permit.

But, really, I deserve to be punished. In science we learned how the body takes in carbon monoxide easily, readily.

What saves me is a stab of sentimentality. I think of my mother. Tenderness and sadness command Enough! Also my leg is tired of holding in the clutch for an hour. Inexperienced driver that I am, I hadn’t thought of putting the Toyota in neutral. Behind my field of vision float purple splotches. I take the key out of the ignition, walk inside the house and collapse onto the couch. Fumes have slipped through the side door and filled this space my mother calls “the family room.” Later she tells me, “Cuddles was staggering.” Our mutt must have breathed the gas, and having a small body, became more intoxicated than I was.

In the arms of a counselor, who says people need more hugs, I smell the wool of his sweater, and am relieved when he pulls away. He’s supposed to be helping me, but soon he will analyze my parents’ marriage, and they will go to the sessions alone, baffled but obedient, trying to do their part to cure me. Every visit, he asks, “What is a happy family?” believing all troubles of youth can be traced to an unhappy home life. He calls anyone who would try suicide “selfish.” I think, “Isn’t it a good thing to do away with a daughter who only makes mistakes?”

Remission—a sending back or away. There were quiet times when I didn’t think once of killing myself, as if I decisively sent the illness away. Moments when my parents could sigh and say, “It was just a phase.”

I didn’t really send it away, but found substitutes for the illness. A sober alcoholic takes up street drugs. An eating anorexic takes up drinking. The obsession with suicide relented when I learned to cut myself.

I’m pressing the blade of a Swiss Army knife against my wrist, toying with the idea of bleeding to death. It’s the day before Valentine’s Day, and I fear no one besides my mom and dad will ever love me. By love, I mean pay attention to, send a flower to, prove I’m special because I think that’s how a person becomes real, some lesson I have perverted from the Velveteen Rabbit. I can’t seem to wield the knife with enough force. I only make a scratch. But the neat line of blood that appears on my wrist holds my attention.

I see a myriad of meanings in this red slit, but I can’t decipher them all. Understanding might lead to healing. I just want destruction. I make a second scratch and a third.

Knives give way to razors, then scissors, and one day fire. I still haven’t tried to understand it. I slash and burn because it feels good. There is pain, but it feels like relief. The irrational, the rational—none of this concerns me. To me it’s all bright red redemption.

What comes to replace self-mutilation? A darkness I can’t staunch in my twenty-first winter. I drop out of college and move in with my parents. I eat their food all day when they are at work. When I’m not bingeing, I lie on the couch. I want to stop putting everything in my mouth. My body gets heavier each day. The darkness is a broken levy. It gushes into my daylight. I open the Bible to Job and kneel on the living room floor. My face falls into the book. I sleep. I wake in a puddle of drool on the tissue-thin pages.

The “thought of suicide is a solace,” and in the mind of desperate person, it is the only way to stop the rising darkness. Now they have taken away my comfort in this hospital room with this tube shoved in my nose and this IV plugged into my wrist. I am forced to drink literal darkness in the form of liquid charcoal. The nurse explains, “It will bind with the poison in your system and take it out.” That is, it will let me live. I might be dead by now from the overdose I’d planned, but my mother called the house, and, stupidly, I answered the phone, sounding terribly drunk.

Even as I write about recovering from the illness of death, I still have the fantasy: End it all. Have I never been able to heal because I believe I can’t live without do-it-yourself respite? The escape pod has to be there when the Imperial troops are blasting the hell out of the rebel ship. R2D2 is the one with common sense, isn’t he? The droid who knows how to get out of a bad situation, not caring that the pod may land on some desolate planet, is the robot we love.

One day, still not knowing what cutting and burning meant, I fought the urge. It was the first time I wanted to heal. Maybe it was a way to grow up.

Because of a misunderstanding I hadn’t shown up to meet my father when he took my mother for a consultation with her oncologist. “Where were you? We waited!” Rare for him, this anger animating his words. Could I apologize and would that be enough? No, I had really screwed up.

The cutting would have taken the guilt and turned it into something clean. That much I knew. But for the first time in more than a decade, I didn’t reach for a blade. I let the ugly feelings come and cover me like a huge wave. I felt myself drowning. I was outside of my head, outside of the house in my father’s yard with my baby boy. I stared at the ocean green of the lawn, at the railing of the steps. Anything to keep from falling. It was unbelievable to me that the wave would recede, but die it did, and I hadn’t even touched the razor.

Now I was forever healing from the cutting and burning. I wanted it, and health could return.

Trickier to fight was the constant and sick urge to be thin. Finally I said yes to it at the expense of my health. As a mother of four in the middle of life, I refused to eat all but non-fattening food and learned to distract myself when I was hungry, making lists of forbidden foods or doing housework. The shorts that were too tight in the spring fell off my hips and slid to my ankles by the end of the summer. There should have a been a voice. You can stop now. But there wasn’t, or I didn’t want to hear it.

The doctor tells me I have to gain weight. “Drink two Ensures each day. That will give you 500 extra calories.” Simple as that. When I ignore her advice, she begins to scold and nag. She no longer lets me come to see her every four months for medication. Now it’s every four weeks. Finally at one visit she insists, “You must get help.” She has been known to drop patients for not complying.

The therapist, whose office is a converted bedroom of a quaint old house, wants me to heal, and she is a nice person. She keeps a glass bowl filled with dark chocolate in the waiting room. The foil wrappers are printed with inspirational messages. I seldom take one, fearing it will make me fat. I do workbook exercises for her, not wanting to write in the lines provided in the book, as if I can’t quite make the commitment to understanding my feelings and getting well. But I fill sheets of loose paper in the time between sessions, and I begin to eat more at meals.

My jeans are getting tighter. I can feel the flesh on my thighs squeezed by the denim whenever I sit. It’s a discomfort that voices itself in a whisper, then a shout: “You’ve failed. You’re out of control. Your body is about to explode.” I’m still thin, but all I can think is how a size 0 no longer fits me, and how I miss the anorexia. I miss it like a child who has died.

The plan is real this time. I’m not going to swallow pills. I intend to sneak my husband’s pistol out of the safe. I’ll never have to worry about getting fat again. When the kids are at school, I’m going to walk to the woods behind the railroad tracks.

It’s strange. A suicidal person is part bloodthirsty killer and part pacifist who couldn’t hurt a fly. I draft a suicide note, and it causes me to think of my family. My husband has a trip to Greece planned in August, which I don’t want him to miss. If I shoot myself in the head in May, I’ll spoil it. OK. Then, when he gets home from Europe. But school will be starting, and I’ll want the kids to have a good year. Maybe in October.

The counselor was right to say suicidal people are selfish, but he expressed it all wrong. “Selfish” makes them sound like inconsiderate people. They’re not. They’re swallowed by self. They have an inability to connect to the rest of humanity, a blindness to themselves as worthy the way they would see a loved one or even a stranger. To want to heal is to want to be part of the main, no longer “entire of itself.” I wanted the mother and wife to survive for her family.

To recover is to ask for help from others, but for some reason, it’s easier to enter the delicious solitude of escape. Once a psychiatrist told me, “Wanting suicide is as simple as wanting a vacation.” Just a human need to take a break, something that can be arranged. My therapist and I discussed the possibility of no longer keeping suicidal thoughts a secret.

After every serious attempt or plan, I promised myself that I wouldn’t do it again. As if I had found the cure.

Recovering is unfinished work, like growing.

Show me the shades of understanding a complex illness. First comes a vague sketch in pastel where I’m hardly a ghost. But as I go along, let my life be fleshed out and manifest in bold color, part of the web of common human need and remedy through fellowship.

Today I make no promises. The urge to take my own life will surface again and again. I know this. The best thing to do is translate the illness into healing. Wanting it. Visualizing less dramatic escapes. When disappointments are too much or darkness seems too thick, let it be a sign that I’m a person with needs, and as such I have a place in a vital network.

     

Laura English posts a daily blog called Eat More Life, a healing space for women living with anorexia. On Sunday afternoons, she teaches writing to people from all walks of life. Work has appeared in dozens of magazines including minnesota review, Sow’s Ear, Cider Press Review, Adanna, and Straylight. A chapbook, Graves Too Small to Be Red (Finishing Line Press) was published last year.

“My Father’s Ashes” by Don Minson

“The Last Stand” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 36″ x 48″

We know (for certain) little more than what we’ve held onto and then had to let go of.

Letting go of life does not happen easily. Neither for the living nor the dying. In his last moments, my father struggled to hang on with all the effort and energy he could summon after life support was removed. Until he could no more. And without mythology, or stories, but not without precedent, his heart stopped, as did his breathing, and the light in his eyes receded like a wave returning to the Chesapeake Bay, where he’d spent time growing up and where he’d met my mother, the girl next door.

The moment of death—apparent, immediate, and experienced by everyone in the room—shocked and emptied the hearts gathered around his bed—and time stopped, briefly. Immortality was interrupted for every one of us—living and dead—in that cold, fluorescent, and antiseptic little room in the ICU.

 To honor the passing of Albert Finney, I elected to watch Big Fish again. It was both an easy choice from among the films of his that I’ve admired, and a difficult one—because I knew I’d have to revisit the experience that made it so emotionally affecting and meaningful to me in the first place. I first watched it not long after my father’s death.

We revisit our grief guardedly, reverently, and cautiously. And it’s only easier when we feel we’re strong enough to bear it again in that safest of mythological places: storytelling.

Grief and trauma and healing are a magic circle, a mandala. At the heart of which is an ancestral story that unfolds the experience of all ages. The retelling of that ancient story to our grievous naivete slows time, concentrically expands into our being like the echoes of generations who finally have a voice to interrupt our childlike, defiant sense of immortality. To give us new ground upon which to stand, that we first experience in much the same way that beings of flight experience a hard landing from lofty enterprise.

Some films have a ritual character for us. We may only watch them when it’s appropriate to engage with their incantations, to bear their uncanny spiritual propensity to draw out from those ancient hiding places, those ancestral and traditional psychic containers of grief-cum-transformation built in to our being from before time. When death was a preface to life.

The stories these films tell us resonate with where we are  in our lives as we watch them anew, because of, or in spite of, our numinous experience of the loss of everything we’d known for sure, connecting with our lives or our grief. Repeated viewings of a film give us the opportunity to leap through time, engage with history and the future, and we’re offered the opportunity to remain beset by nostalgia and sentiment, or to alter the outcome of the future, risking that our old selves may not survive in the altered timeline, and that in our own story we may have to reinvent ourselves partially or wholly.

Among other places in time, Big Fish takes me back to confronting my father about his lies, his stories. Seeking resolution for all of the questions I’ve accumulated over the years, hearing the different iterations told to family and others. It was around the time of his first cancer diagnosis, over the telephone on our weekly call, and I’d had a few drinks and was feeling brave. I remember his voice conveyed an unexpected and genuine humility. He wasn’t defensive, but sounded hurt and contrite. He told me truths I believed. He also afforded me respect for having called him out. Something had settled between us, and definitely in me. Hubris would always be suspect after that and neither one of us could express it before the other. Icarus could now avoid the fall, and no longer had need of his father’s admonitions.

The loss of our first parent has the most impact, regardless of their hierarchical status in our life. When my father died, it was a choice the family had to make, in light of his wishes as discussed with our mother. He was in the hospital, on life support, and that was all that was, or could, keep him alive—and it was unsustainable. He was conscious and aware, and my mother had discussed with him his lack of options and his decision regarding his living will. There was no choice but to pull the plug, with his consent, as a willing and conscious participant. I cannot fathom, nor will I ever know his thoughts and feelings at such a prospect. But what I witnessed was a man both mortally acquiescent and fearfully relieved of all pretense of who he may have become through all the years of his life, by way of all the stories he may have told himself, or shared with others to have defined, in whatever way, the character he was able to create of himself. This also told me truths I believed.

As our family gathered around his hospital bed when the machines were turned off, I held his hand, I sobbed and told him how much I loved him, and our family did the same. But his eyes were turned to something beyond us all, unfocused, turned inward to something only he could know, and outward to some point beyond whatever horizon was available to him in that little room full of everyone close that he’d ever loved.

I looked at him one last time, and with my fingers I closed the lids over his empty eyes. Because immortality can only be suspended for so long before it’s unbearable.

Religious dogma would suggest that eternity is time everlasting. I think that’s a function of grief, of how memory works when death happens. Because that’s how we remember the moment of death not our own. It becomes fixated in our timeline. But I like the eastern metaphysical definition that eternity is timelessness. Time stops when you die. Time stops when someone dies in front of you. The notions of past and future die when life is accepted as an extended series of present moments. The look of a man facing the unknown, not focused on any discernible interior or exterior horizon, is suspended in awe of the mystery of being and is freer than anyone surrounding him locked into the moment of their grief. For all parties involved, there is little more than that present moment. And it exists outside of time. What goes on for what feels like forever is only memory.

The memory of my father’s death would go well beyond that week of dying and memorializing immediate grief.

I arrived home following the conventionally ritualized emotional chaos of grieving, and was wholly alone for the first time since the day my mother rang me from the hospital, the morning after I’d gone to the family home to get some rest, to inform me it was time to pull the plug. And after my childish recriminations, I cried uncontrollably in the safety of the shower. Wholly alone with my grief for a death that had yet to happen, but was unavoidably approaching. The child, the boy, the teenager, the young man, the adult, all wanted to wash it away, to rinse it off.  But I could not come clean. There was no ablution. I had to man up like the paratrooper my father once was and dive into this experience headfirst and hope I could pull the ripcord in time.

But back home, after all that—the week of the hospital, the death, the obituary, the eulogy, the family leave from work—I had to return to an empty house and begin a life ahead without my father. I was not lonely, but I had yet to feel alone as a man. Whole, for once. My own man with no living paternity. Like an orphan with some spiritual imperative that I had yet to understand.

It would be years before I would. Spirit is the dynamism of the human personality. The agent of transformation. It’s a generative force that moves through our mind and body. Instinctual and archetypal patterns of behavior that compel or inspire. It could belong to you, accumulated from your past experiences:trauma, memories, dreams, reflections. It could belong to the human race, or your family history, an accumulation of the experiences of ancestors bequeathed to you genetically or behaviorally, unconsciously. It could feel religious or divine:gods, devils, daemons, angels, demons, ghosts. Or psychological, as pathology, anxiety, neurosis, talent, or grace. But in any case, whatever its source, by its behavior, it becomes a resource to tap into, and by which we are compelled to act. When we are ripe or ready, spirit constellates as an imperative to act. To move us so that we may move ourselves along the path, to blossom or wither, for the next season of our being. It is by the creativity of nature, that by our own nature, we become creative.

Creative inspiration, so easy to recognize but difficult to harness,  bears before it the mask of repressed conflicts, trauma, and neurosis. That stands between us and the face of spirit and is the subject of much art. The process of creating is the same process by which our conflicts, trauma, and neuroses are removed as subjects so that we may experience the generative aspect of spirit and move beyond our present place into something new. And it may present itself in images or forms wholly unexpected or unprecedented in our lives.

That first night, as I was about to undress, I sat in the chair beside my bed, and it all came out. All the grief and the tears hidden behind the facade of the formalism, the ritual, the convention. Behind the telling of my father’s story to an audience of family, friends, and strangers.

And I did not grasp it then, but I would no longer be able to tell my father’s story—if ever I could have done it faithfully to begin with—except to an audience who needed to hear his myth through the eyes of his son. I could only tell my story from that point on. And that was frightening. For I had no experience to begin such an imposing enterprise.

Alone, with the last light left on in the house. In the chair beside my bed. My elbow on my knee. My forehead in my hand. I cried like I’d not cried since I was a child. And I closed my eyes. And I had a vision. An archetypal image rose  from the grief that had coiled around my heart. I saw from a point of view outside myself, a great serpent. It appeared from behind me, its great head above my head, and it planted a  fang, deep into my skull, reaching down into the reptilian part of my brain—where sensation and memory and emotion and instinct lay—and I could see the venom inside the fang injecting into me, the poison of grief. 

My father feared snakes pathologically. My mother, seemingly fearless of snakes, may have otherwise religiously assigned to them the evil of the Bible. I loved them as a child and had fantasized about raising them in an underground vault in the yard of the farmhouse we lived in when I was in the fifth grade—when my parents’ marriage was uncertain, where sexual trauma had happened, where we were poor for a while, and lived off of grace and ingenuity, where my father experienced his first midlife crisis, where I was sensitive to the anxiety and neuroses of mysterious parental secrets, and full of prepubescent fears and uncertainty, feeling like an outsider in so many ways. I would fantasize about milking the snakes to create antidotes. A meaning that became clear to me as an adult when I would come to know snakes to be creatures of healing and gnosis. Animations of the spirit rising from the dark places of the earth. Coiled around the staff of Asklēpiós painted on the side of every ambulance my parents ever rode in during their 10-year tenure as rural rescue squad volunteers.

The venom of grief was a transformative medicine preparing me for a life yet lived. I had a childish skin I would need to shed, and I could only do that by the inoculation of the spirit of the serpent. No apples, no devils, no temptation, no fear. No immunity. But I would gain some measure of resistance, to build up strength against grief to come. Most especially, against the coming of age of my own mortality.

Over the course of that week, something strange happened. I would go to bed, lights off, wide awake, mild anxiety, spiritual tension, mind full, house quiet, with a sense of all the negative space in the rooms of the house, like empty receptacles to be filled with whatever my mind might pour out into them. It was a new kind of feeling alone. A sensory response to all that was empty around me.

I would sense an intruder, an unwelcome presence in the house. In the next room. It would elicit fear and occupy my full focus. I would muster the kind of courage only a younger man full of fear could muster. The hyperbole of untested bravery. The adrenaline of fight over flight. And I would leap out of bed, armed with whatever blunt object was available, and enter boldly, yelling aggressively as I strode into the next dark room to fend off whatever adversary lay in wait. Then I’d switch on the light to find nothing but emptiness. This happened once or twice that first time, and maybe another night or two before it subsided.

I know some family and friends would speculate that it was the ghost of my father, perhaps come back one last time. A visitation of spirit to allay my grief. Or with some message from the afterlife. But I knew that would not have mustered my fear, it would have summoned my awe. And anyhow, I don’t believe in any of that. I have enough ghosts in my life. It was something very real, but It was something else.

Marie-Louise von Franz was hired at eighteen years of age by Carl Jung to translate medieval Latin alchemical texts. She would later become one of the first-generation Jungian analysts. Her intimacy with Jung’s ideas would make her an expert exponent of them. In one of her books, she intimated her inability to initially grasp one of Jung’s key concepts, that of Active Imagination. She expressed her frustration with the fact that others around her, some sharing my own temperament, showed more facility in their attempts.

Active Imagination is a therapeutic technique, an exercise in creativity, whereby one allows the contents of the unconscious to flow unrestricted, through the imagination, and express themselves in some artistic and imaginative creative form, more especially in a form that the subject is not well versed in, to enable the ego to engage in a kind of Platonic dialectical relationship with the objective Other within. The idea being that there is more of an opportunity for mistakes to be made, to find chinks in the armor, to allow that inner voice which was otherwise assiduously overlooked or repressed, to make a statement in whatever unfamiliar creative language alleviated the restrictions of habit and form. The key is that it must be emotionally provocative to consciousness, to the ego—the imaginative construct must elicit the same emotional reality as we would experience if we encountered it in real life. You may imagine meeting up with a lion, but if your experience of that encounter does not elicit the same tension and trepidation and trigger the same instinctual fear, then you have not achieved Active Imagination, just pedestrian fantasy. 

Sometime later, von Franz found herself alone in her cabin in the mountains of Switzerland at night and heard a sound outside. There had been reports of local intruders with violent intent. She found herself fearful for her life and entirely convinced that someone was trying to get in. She, a potential victim of violence, responded by grabbing a staff or a gun to meet the threat—full of adrenaline and fear, fully engaged in defending herself, only to discover that she had engaged finally in an act of Active Imagination. To encounter a projection of her own unconsciousness so engaging that her rational, thinking mind would submit to the irrational, emotional image. This was profound.

For a while, I thought what I experienced was an encounter with death personified. What else could it be?  I mean, my father had just died, right? But after reflection I understood it was the spectre of my own mortality. Imposing upon me a long-forgotten secret from a time when death was a preface to life. Once the threshold of my unconscious idea of immortality was breached in that hospital room, through my grief, through communal convention, there was no passing back through that door. I would have to live, understanding that I would die, not just knowing that it would happen to me. To live against this new backdrop, this scene change, this sea change, I would have to live differently. I would experience living differently. The experience of time would be altered, against a backdrop of timelessness, eternity, and mortality.

I would spend the next few weeks processing my grief by engaging in the ritual of cleaning house, literally scrubbing and reorganizing all those “empty” spaces in my home. Reaching the kind of catharsis I couldn’t in the shower that day of my father’s death. My imagination was full, and my dream life so active, it became necessary to start a dream journal to process it all.

Our imaginations are always active and adaptive. Whether we’re remembering events in our lives, reexperiencing a film or book or story, reimagining our future, lying in bed unable to sleep, processing our grief by whatever means, or attempting to confront our past in the hopes of a better outcome. Accepting the present moment as the death of time, allowing the past and the future to die to a succession of present moments, allows us the opportunity to alter the timeline. Just because trauma has the potential to fix our emotional development in a particular place and time, does not mean we are stuck there without hope of rescue. Anamnesis, is the active opposite of passive amnesia—the remembering. Indeed, sometimes that’s enough, but if we allow ourselves to actively engage emotionally, outside of the conventions of nostalgia or repression or sentimentality, we are free to pick up where we left off, and start growing again.

Big Fish isn’t the only film I associate with my father’s death. Indeed, there is another, more synchronistic, more immediate, and possibly more potent film experience.

The evening of my father’s memorial at the church, my mother and I sat outside, had a long talk, and she allowed me (this one time) to drink alcohol in her house. It was a strange kind of release and contentment, our talk. For we had rarely ever gotten along. But life would be different now. A future less circumscribed by past relationships. The hard part felt finished. She was tired, I was wide awake. And she went off to bed.

Quite decidedly I would stay up with a movie. And as I perused my father’s DVD collection, I found a few he’d burned to disk. One, a film I’d wanted to see but hadn’t. There it was, labeled in his own handwriting, transferred by his own hand, and handed to me by circumstance or coincidence on the evening of the end of that difficult week: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. A movie about awe in the face of death, the universal and instinctual reach for immortality, the search for meaning,  acceptance of mortality, and that “death is what makes us special” vis-a-vis our eternal maker..

The film’s themes were resonant, potent, and impressive: time shifts; the earthy v. airy archetypal themes of an ancient past and fantastical future flanking a central and transformative present, heavy with portent and difficult emotional subject matter; themes of regeneration, acceptance, resignation, grief, hanging onto and letting go of. In the final scene, the protagonist finds and plants the (empty) seedpod of the sweet gum tree on his dead lover’s grave. By happenstance, I’d later find one or two of these seedpods.

My mother created a memorial to my father, gravestone included, in the side yard of their house, even though he’d been cremated. We added tokens of our memory and our love, scattered and buried some of his ashes there, gathered a year later and sang songs with guitar.

Later it was less well tended, like our memories and our love. I would tend to it, in honor of my father on one of my later visits. Because nature had taken over and absorbed all the immediacy and hard lines of our experiences and given them curves and growing things that would subsume the potency of our grief. But I got a chance early on to plant one of those sweetgum seedpods in a nod to the unexpected gift my father had left me for that quiet night alone in his living room with The Fountain, sitting in his chair, after his memorial service. That weird, rare opportunity to grow into something, to have my experiences converge upon these themes like nature converges on the opportunity of death to fertilize new life. Like in the film:  when the flowers sprout out of the heart of the protagonist in a violent and fecund blossom of life after his tasting of the sap of the tree of life. But also, like at the end of the film, my seedpod, planted, was empty of seeds. And nothing could grow from it that wasn’t already in my heart. It would never show up on the landscape next to the house, but it might grow into a story. Perhaps my own.

The Fountain felt more transcendent in dealing with the acceptance of grief and mortality. But Big Fish is the film that touched so strongly on that sense of being happily led on and ultimately deceived and betrayed by those “dad” tales, whose exaggerations and flourishes keep you both entranced and suspicious of the truth of who your father was, for many years to come, and the possibility of what your past may become to your future self. Somewhere in there was the potential that the conflict between the two may end up leaving you in awe of what  your own life could be, given the latitude to write your personal story. 

I’m midway between the age I was then and the age my father was when he died. Up to now, those experiences have felt like an empty seedpod. Reflecting on them has offered me a medium to tell my story. Milking the serpents. Writing it felt sometimes like trying to wrangle the rushing volume of splashes, spritzes, and spray from a spring fountain gushing up out of the earth, and then directing them to perform a play for an audience of one, without getting wet. But getting wet isn’t such a bad idea. If all you have is your bare hands, you have to risk the serpents’ bite, climb into the fountain if you want to catch the fish. And then you have to let them go. But sometimes, if you embrace something in the right way, it feels just like letting go of it.

The feeling I’m left with after having embraced the process of telling this story, is reminiscent of the feeling I felt after receiving one of my father’s hugs. Transformed, unmasked, regenerated. And after letting go, perhaps happily unresolved.

     

Don Minson is a UVa alumnus, works in Business Administration, and lives in Charlottesville, Va. He’s an accomplished music festival photographer who shoots under the pseudonym Wiley Quixote, and has previously contributed photographic illustrations to the r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal. In his spare time, he enjoys listening to music, watching films, drawing, painting, writing poetry, playing guitar, Jungian psychology, and learning how to write prose.

“Detox Unit – Day Zero” by Chris Jansen

“Daybreak” by Lisa Boardwine, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel, 12 x 12.

Thank God things are quiet. I guess it’s medication time everywhere in the hospital, the same way it can be Christmas everywhere in the world. All the mental patients of Cottage C are lined up at their own medication room. They may be crazy, but no one is crazy enough to skip meds. There is the same weird half-light as last night, the same chairs lined up around the open dayroom, which reminds me now of a sad, empty dance floor; a lonely disco ball throwing fake starlight around the room would not seem out of place.

            Behind the glass wall, I see the Tear Woman sitting on the edge of her cot, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her gray WELLESLEY sweatshirt. The only other patient who hasn’t disappeared into the medication room is the regal-looking man in designer pajamas, still sitting there like a monument in front of city hall, staring into space. With his strawberry beard and refined features, he looks like a lost professor. His broken, one-eyed eyeglasses still sit precariously atop his aquiline nose.

            Like the professor, many of the other patients here look almost normal, but there’s always one crack in the egg, one weird tattered edge that sticks out, as if they are struggling mightily to contain it, yet the madness is bulging inside them like an overstuffed suitcase. [In case you’re wondering, you can easily spot crazy people in the wild because they are crazy about accessories. Especially hats. Weird hats, glasses, mismatched gloves = crazy. Don’t even get me started on shoes.]

            I slink around the dancehall, a curious wallflower, a tourist in the strange country of insanity which lies just over the border from Detox. I spot a battered bookcase against the wall and I’m magnetically drawn to the leaning-a-little shelves.

            Books. Reading. Books have always been my anchor in troubled times. When I was a depressed and lonely teenager seeking answer in religion, Jesus didn’t help me, but reading the Bible did.

            I finger through the paperbacks, picturing myself a scholar in the professor’s library, grateful to be able to gently peruse something rather than be behind that glass wall like the Tear Woman, crying into a cup.

            The books are in even worse shape than the patients. I assume they only put bland, inoffensive stuff in here because they don’t want to trigger a reaction in some brittle psychotic. Or maybe it’s just that nobody gives a shit. The collection is mostly science fiction and fantasy novels that pre-date the 1980s. Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie. The few that still have covers show fanciful 60s-style artist’s concepts of moon colonies, astronauts with crew cuts. Robots. Monsters. Most of the books are yellowed, torn in half, or drop a few pages when I pick them up. The only book that looks brand new is a paperback copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I grab Best Science Fiction of 1974 even though I don’t know if I’ll ever read it. It’s a pacifier. It’s a book. It’s something to clutch in my hand and walk around with, like the memory of my former life.

            By now the Suboxones are starting to dissolve under my tongue and I’m afraid of what they will do to me. I hold the science fiction book to my face, as if focusing intently on the text, and discreetly spit the pills between the middle pages, and walk back the way I came, pushing the heavy metal door open with my shoulder as I hustle through the dark hallway back over to Detox with the book tucked under my arm. I feel like I’m getting away with something. I have some control now. Addicts love to get away with things.

            I pass the medication room, noticing the last of the junkies are at the window. I feel like a shoplifter. I pass Jonah-the-Joker in the hall, tossing away his own medication cup.

            “Hey, do you know anything about precipitated withdrawal?” I ask, with my book full of Suboxone tucked under my arm. “I mean like, is it over in a few minutes?” I’m asking this like I’m asking how bad cancer is.

            Jonah’s joker-mask dissolves into a look of concern. He shakes his head. “Hours, homey. That shit lasts hours,” he says, and shuffles down the hall after Lindsey, the cute blonde. I hear him calling after her, “And how was your medication tonight?” in a voice as smooth as top-shelf whiskey.

            Back in my room I sit on the bed and open the book. The half-dissolved pills have left a chalky paste on the yellow guts of the pages. “The sentinel passed Jupiter on its way to Io while Captain Danby slept in his cryochamber…”

            I close the book and look around. I open it again.

            I’m worried about everything as usual. The combination of tranquilizer and anti-seizure meds I’ve been given has blunted whatever feelings I am capable of feeling and left only a shape-shifting dread where my soul should be. The opiate withdrawal, as inevitable as the sun coming up, has not been as vicious in its return; I’m still frantic and terrified, but so far I’ve received a small dispensation. A little grace. Yet I know there is no way to cheat the dopegods. They were always watching, waiting for one little slip-up to rain down pain and misery on mortal junkieflesh. Vengeance is mine saith withdrawal.

            I sit up and flip to the chapter containing my pills. They’ve turned into four clumps of stuck-on moondust.

            Given a choice between taking something and not taking something, addicts will always choose the taking. Every time. It doesn’t matter if it’s just Tylenol. We are frantically empty. There’s a poem by Galway Kinnell which says ”that enormous emptiness / carved out of such tiny beings as we are / asks to be filled.” But that poem is about love, about the need for human contact, not drugs.

            I fold back the pages of Best Science Fiction of 1974 and scrape the Suboxone moonlumps into my mouth. It tastes faintly sweet. I press the book close to my face and tongue the last of the powder off the pages, the moldy, decaying-book smell burning in my nose and lungs.

            My thirsty cells drink again, as if straight from the mouth of a wild red poppy, and I see the world, the actual physical world, transform in front of me. The harsh light of the hallway is suddenly a warm glow beckoning me to life again. My dry veins fill with warm saltwater, the waters of the sea from which we were born. Though it’s still mercury-lamp gray in here, I know the sun is out somewhere in the world above me because I feel its rays penetrating down, down through the ceiling and walls of the hospital, down to hold me close and keep me safe in its warm embrace. It feels like going home. It feels like love.

            I’m. High.

            Now my strength is returning, my limbs loosening. I’m no longer shot-through with terror and anger. I can’t believe it—I’m really high! My problems seem manageable now. It’s like an actual answer to prayer, a love letter back from God. I hear talentless, awful Bob Marley singing in my ears—“…every little thing / will be all right.” My heart pumps the beautiful warm blood inside my chest. I think of Yeats: I am blessed and can bless.
            Yeehaw fuckos, your boy is high! 

The tattered and dry-rot science fiction book is a lot more interesting to me now. I leaf through it, amused, smiling to myself. I wonder what will happen to brave Captain Danby when he gets out of that cryochamber! What a wonderful book with a wonderful author about a wonderful place—the moons of Jupiter—which I must remember to visit sometime on my next swing around the universe.

            I hear the bell do its ding-ding dance again. It’s time for…who cares what it’s time for, I’m up for it! I shuffle out, doubly happy at being high and at my good fortune at being high in this terrible place. Haha, screw you, friends and family and coworkers. I do what I want. I don’t have consequences. I’m that fucking special. I’ve always been that special.

            “Dinner time,” calls the sour-faced woman. Her nametag says Pamela, but in my mind I call her Nana because she has a busybody grandma thing about her. Her bitterness doesn’t bother me now. “Thanks for calling us to dinner, Pamela,” I say, a gentleman’s gentleman. I think about a happy time in New York while I was sitting at Bemelmans Bar, waiting for my friend Tracy to join me for dinner. “Would you have Ellis make us an Old Cuban?” I ask her. 

            Nana is not amused. Because she isn’t high and I am, and I am a junkie and I bet she is too, or she was before she got caught. “Just regular dinner,” she says, without looking at the annoyance.

            This is the first time I’ve been calm enough to take interest in who my fellow Detox-mates are. I don’t know enough yet to tell the new people from the old—“Old” being anyone who has been here for a couple days. The veterans.

            We shuffle down to the end of the hallway, children following our Nana.

            I’m standing next to the surfer kid, a tired-looking middle-aged presumable housewife with a tiny frown permanently weighing down the corners of her mouth, a trembling-at-middle-age ex-sorority girl who looks beat up but a little too good to be here, and there is a new zombie, a plump little daddy’s girl with a pink shirt, sweatpants and flip-flops, like she just came from the yoga studio. Jonah the joker is standing next to Lindsey, the blonde nymphet with the green-stars-and-moon tattoo behind her ear, who is looking into a small hand mirror and adjusting her lipstick.

            People talk about the fragility of civilization, how a war or natural disaster can turn us into primitive animals. It turns out Detox does this too. Everyone looks tired and sick and desperate except for Lindsey and a tall guy with long dark hair and a white v-neck t-shirt pulled tight over his rippling, fatless physique. I notice a gold football-shaped St. Christopher medallion shining in the deep valley of his chest.

            With his boiled-corpse skin, Jonah looks no better than the rest of us, but he seems to be driven by some inner reserve of social energy. “Cassie dear,” he calls to the sad-faced housewife, “when we gonna turn that frown upside down?”

            “Pauline, you have to stop smoking,” he says to a pudgy zombie with wavy brown hair down to her ass, who looks like she just abandoned her register at the Gas ‘N Go.

            “Oh gaaawwwwd, not noooow, Jo-naaaah,” she whines back at him, her smoked-through voice sounding like she just got done crying buckets or is about to.

            He turns back to me. “Chris, you met Scotty-too-hottie yet?”

            “Me?” Other than Nana no one has spoken directly to me in hours and I feel invisible. Addicts often think they are invisible.

            “No, the other junkie named Chris standing behind you.”

            I limply shake Mr. Handsome’s mighty, handsome hand. He looks like he belongs in a body wash commercial instead of a Detox chow line.

            “You look pretty together, man,” I offer to this giant among us. He shrugs and shakes his handsome locks. He could easily be cast as Jesus in a Bible movie, if Jesus was also ripped and huge.

            “Oxy, man. Oxy,” says Jesus.

            Nana’s enormous keyring is swinging and turning in the lock. She cracks the heavy door open and we pour out into the sunset. This is the first time I’ve been outside so I take note of the grounds for potential escape routes. We are surrounded by a dense forest of trees that goes along the perimeter of the hospital grounds and up to the ridge rise. I can’t see a road or any real civilization from here. I guess they have to keep us mental patients hidden away so we don’t frighten any sane people.

            The cracked cement sidewalk makes a hard left turn and slopes down back under the building we just came from. A large magnolia bows along the walkway, its branches bent low under the burden of its sweet-smelling blooms. Our little group follows Nana as she walks with her keys jangling out of one pocket and a small walkie-talkie clipped to her belt. We are silent except for Jonah, who never stops talking.           

            “Okay, hurry up people, I want to eat. Come on Cassie, vamos Eduardo, Scotty-too-hottie, go long.” He grabs a pinecone and hikes it like a quarterback in the shotgun. “Get open, Scotty. Go long, I said.” Scotty laughs and catches the pinecone pass behind his back. This is silly stuff I used to do when I was a kid, but I’m still glowing from my high so I laugh at the class clown too, grateful that someone is bringing life to this death house. Nana walks ahead of us and doesn’t even bother to look back. I guess she sees idiots all the time. The walkie-talkie on her hip crackles.”Cshhhhhh….10-4. Dr. Hush to admissions…Dr. Hush…cshhhhh.”

            Jonah hikes another pinecone and drifts back in the pocket, scanning ahead for the pass rush. “Dawgs are in an I formation,” he growls, ”He’s looking for his receiver. Scottie get open!!!

            “Y’all need to quit plaaayying,” cries Pauline, in her weepy baby-voice. “Y’all are gonna get us Doctor Huuuu-shed…” Kerph, kerph, kerph, cough.

            “What’s ‘Doctor Hushed’?” I ask.

            Cassie the depressed housewife perks up. “That’s when you cause trouble. ‘Doctor Hush’ is code for all male staff members to wherever you are.”

            “And then you get the booty juice and they put you in a rubber room,” says Jonah.

            Oh. I’m not sure if that is horrifying or attractive right now. At least you get a shot.

            We reach the end of the walkway at another set of security doors that lead to the cafeteria, which is tucked underneath the main building. It reminds me of a dream I had once where I was in a swanky hotel in Manhattan but was stuck in the kitchen, which was in the basement. In my dream, food came and went through holes in the wall, but I couldn’t eat anything, just look at it.

            “It’s nice to be outside,” says Cassie through her tiny frown. “The magnolias are pretty.”

            This seems more like a wish than an observation. I’ve never seen the beauty in flowers. They just seem like monstrously swollen genitals to me. When I look at the natural world all I see is suffering, decay, and death. I’ve always thought the love of nature was a form of mental illness. Stockholm syndrome. But this is a mental hospital, so…

            “Yeah, it’s nice,” I say.

            We make a single-file line going into the cafeteria. The smell of dinner cooking, the hollow ringing sounds of kitchen workers banging pots in the steamy air—this is all reassuring. Someone is expecting you and they have made you something to eat. We file up to the counter where a big bitter-faced woman scowls at the assembly line of junkies.

             Jonah throws his tray down, still laughing at his own football antics. “And how are we doing this evening, Miss Gayle?”

            At the site of Jonah her bitter face breaks into bloom like the magnolias outside. “Pretty good baby, pretty good.”  

            “Your grandson do okay?” he says to her now-beaming face. How does he know her? How long could he have been here?

            “He did fine, Jonah, passed all his studies.” I’m not sure if he really cares or is just doing this to get an extra dessert. It doesn’t really matter though, does it? Jonah grins and takes his tray, now heavy with side dishes and desserts, and moves down the line.

            “Hi Miss Gayle!” I say. In my mildly intoxicated state I think I can imitate Jonah’s bouncy joie de vivre. She frowns again like I’ve insulted her and drops a square, gray meat-ish patty on my plate. You ain’t Jonah. I take my tray and move on. Just like airport security, the only unforgivable sin in a mental hospital is holding up the line.
           
            The cafeteria is small but airy. Even though it’s in the basement, the ceilings are high, likely designed for summers in the South before efficient air conditioning. Spiky, star-like fixtures dangle from the beams in what must have been imagined as a “space age” look back in the 60s. It reminds me of the decaying science fiction where I hid my Suboxone. I think how everything in the world that was once futuristic and full of promise is now hopelessly dated. Even me.

            The seating area is a set of Balkan nations. On the far end there is a long table that looks like it came out of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. There are young kids, teens and even younger, sitting with a strawberry-blonde minder in too-tight jeans who looks barely older than her charges. The only way I know she’s staff is the keys on her lanyard and the walkie-talkie attached to her hip like a barnacle.

            Seeing kids here is depressing, even with my chemically reinforced happiness. There’s a tiny African-American boy with huge square-framed glasses and a basketball-themed shirt that’s so long it looks like a dress, holding in his small hand a hamburger that’s bigger than his little round head. There’s a husky, fat-faced kid with red cheeks and his head cocked to one side in a hangdog expression that looks like pain and malice simultaneously. I recognize the ugly demeanor of every bully I had in middle school, and though I am a man and he is a boy, I hate him. There’s a young girl with straight black hair and black clothes and little red lines all up and down her arms that at first I think are cute little smiley sticker tattoos, but when I look closer I see they are razor cuts, and not just a few, but a dense red rose-thicket of wounds. She holds a cardboard milk carton in one of her razored arms and laughs next to a fat girl with curly hair and braces who is wearing a pink sweatshirt emblazoned with four fiery gold letters: L-O-V-E.

   

Chris Jansen grew up in a notorious shithole called Albany, Georgia. He has been a nursing home janitor, a paramedic, an IT guy, and, up until recently, a very dedicated heroin addict. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia, where he teaches boxing and cares for a disinterested guinea pig named Poozybear. He has a degree in molecular biology from the University of Georgia.

“A Fundamentalist Girl’s Guide to Cussing” by Bethany Hunter

“San Angelo Verde” by Lisa Boardwine, 40 x 40, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel.

Middle school is tough on everyone. Middle school in Arizona is especially tough on a chubby fundamentalist girl who wears long skirts every day and can, at first glance, be mistaken for a teacher.

In eighth grade, John D. asked me if I cursed. I let him know that I did not. Still suspicious that the fundy girl was that innocent he pressed, “Do you curse in your head?” I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) lie any more than I should cuss, so I conceded that yes, I did curse in my head.

My friend, Nicole, a fellow fundamentalist, had the perfect solution, fake cursing (slightly more hardcore than Mormon cursing), and she was more than happy to show me the ropes. “Don’t be such a bench!” “Funk you!” There was even lifting your ring finger as a faux bird. It was the height of rebellion.

Summers in Arizona are about as close as one can get to hell. There are jokes about how hot it is: “go to hell” someone says, “I’m already there” you reply; and you get to tell your friends and family in other states that you live in hell adjacent, just north of hell or in a little suburb of hell called Arizona.

The one that never gets old is, “Hot enough for you?”

Laughing it off shows how tough you are at surviving inhumane temperatures while silently agreeing and pondering your location choices. It can easily be 110 degrees in the shade and yet you’ll walk an extra fifty feet just to park in it. It may be a dry heat, but dry heat doesn’t prevent second degree burns when poolside.

Arizona and its climate provide a great opportunity for doomsday pastors to remind their congregations every Sunday, “If you think this heat is bad, just think about how hot eternal damnation is.” To this day, that statement pops into my head whenever I burn my hands on the steering wheel or scald my fingers on the seat belt buckle: only hell is hotter.

It was on one of those exceedingly hot days that I was in the backyard feeding the semi-feral, neighborhood cat that had adopted us. While standing on the patio, I spotted a creature that terrifies me to this day: a black carpenter bee. Research tells me they are one inch long and do not sting unless molested. I disagree. They are six inches long and armed to kill from ten feet away. When I saw this supposed gentle giant of the bee world, a phrase came out of my mouth that was shocking even though I was alone. It was, “Oh, my gosh.”

I was nine and had just said my first curse word. Disappointment followed shock; how could I have let the Lord down? I immediately asked for forgiveness, there in the blasting heat, a bag of cat food in my hand. “Jesus, I am so sorry, please forgive me. I’ll never say another bad word again.” Appeased, I went inside where the air conditioning and bee-free environment soothed my guilt-ridden soul.

I’m pretty sure I stayed true to my word through the rest of elementary school. Third through sixth grade wasn’t especially taxing and growing up in a majority Mormon area, rough language wasn’t even on my radar. Not that it wasn’t there, but the company I kept was interested more in friendship bracelets and Big Stuf Oreos.

In high school I came into my own. Seeking sophistication and hoping to sound like an adult, the word that would define my freshman year was bastard. Everyone was such a bastard, I would say as I flipped my uncut waist-length hair over my shoulder. I felt safe enough to use it around my friend Amber (also a fundamentalist, but open to scoring cool points). She said it wasn’t that bad of a word, but that I shouldn’t use it in front of my mother.

My mother was (and still is), without exaggeration, the judge and jury of the language court. “Awesome” is only meant for God’s creations. “Butt” is a no-no. “Gosh” is obviously a hair short of taking the Lord’s name in vain, as are “gee” and “golly.” A proper and acceptable exclamation would be, “Well,” prefaced with a tsk of the tongue and then dragged out for a few syllables, “Weeeellll.”

When I was little, I remembered her saying “rats” fairly often, as in “Oh, rats, I forgot to get bananas at the store.” Later she felt such a strong conviction about proper language she even repudiated rats; too close to meaning shit, I guess. In an emotional and heated exchange with my mother I once let her know something was such crap. She demanded to know when I had started cussing.

During high school, my parent’s marriage fell apart. No one thing was to blame for it. Perhaps it was the small church congregation they pastored growing smaller every Sunday, taking their much needed tithes with them. Maybe it was that my parents married too young and grew apart. It could have been my mother’s lack of sympathy or understanding for my father’s lifelong struggle with depression; her commands for him to just get up out of bed only added to his paranoia and anxiety. More than likely it was his extramarital affairs.

At home, my father wandered around the house muttering to himself, having imaginary exchanges with my mother, cursing her up one side and down the other, laying into her for years of frustration and disappointment. I would invariably walk by the bathroom and see him, in a cloud of citrus scented room spray, surrounded by the gold foil shell wallpaper, leaning over the shell-shaped sink, glaring at himself pointing in the mirror. Those mutterings didn’t have much clarity, so most of what I would hear were the staccato pulses of “uck and unt.” The words sounded mean and dirty but his secret mutters kept me safely in the innocuous curse word territory.

My home now a place of tension and silence, I invited myself to dinner with any friend that would have me. On an especially emotional day of general teenager-ness and family upheaval, I shared a dinner of McDonald’s cheeseburgers with my two best friends. They stared at me in bewilderment while I ate and then asked about my recent commitment to be a vegetarian. “Fuck it,” I said taking another bite, though it probably came out sounding like “fughgit.” I didn’t hang my head in shame and I didn’t have that nagging feeling in my chest the way I had when I was younger. I said the granddaddy of all cuss words and I was okay with it.

From there my confidence grew. Things were shitty. People were motherfuckers, assholes, asshats, shit-for-brains and total dicks. A month after I graduated from high school, my parents finally divorced; they had promised each other to be miserable until then. My mother and I moved out of our house and into a third floor apartment where she became an emotionally distant roommate that I saw in passing. I spoke to my father as little as possible. Life was totally fucked up. “Vulgar” words gave me an emotional outlet. It was a way to reach in and give my feelings the words I hadn’t figured out how to give them. I was depressed goddammit, confused and heartbroken that my family was no longer together.

More than two decades have passed, and in that time I have grown and matured. I’m not a foul-mouthed adult who can’t identify and express emotions; most of my cursing now comes after insult or injury, primarily the latter, and I’m just as likely to use a more creative turn of phrase. Unfortunately, my father isn’t around to read the latest research that shows cursing is actually a sign of high intelligence and dropping an “F bomb” really can relieve pain and stress. My mother remains uptight and ever careful to never offend the Lord. She probably thinks evil scientists are doing the devil’s work by encouraging cursing. I just wish I could have participated in the study. My cursing was modified after becoming a mother and the “F word” became flibbertigibbet or fluffernutter or whatever nonsense word eased the pain or frustration of the moment. My daughter is a teenager now; I don’t need to sensor myself anymore. She hears me and rolls her eyes when someone cuts me off in rush hour traffic, “Fuck you and your piece of shit car, asshole.” Science backs up what I’ve felt to be true for a long time, now: a little cussing can be good for the soul.

   

Bethany Hunter is a recovered fundamentalist who adheres to the old adage that writing is cheaper than therapy. She writes for and about the girl who needed to know she wasn’t that weird and that even if she was, she’d have good stories to tell later. Her first essay, “Barbie’s Going to Hell,” was published by The Furious Gazelle and “Behind the Pulpit” is upcoming this spring in The Other Journal.

“Graft” by Laurie Saurborn

Painting by Anna Rac.

Back to the green tiled wall, I watch the surgeon apply clamps to a patient’s fingertips. Unrolling a length of gauze, he winds it through the clamps and then the loops of a cloverleaf mounted at the top of a metal pole. With one pull, the arm is lifted. In a blue hairnet, blue shoe covers, a mask, and a giant white onesie—a “bunny suit”—it looks as if a cloud swallowed me. When I modeled it earlier for the patient in pre-op, they laughed, asking if I was married because my husband would certainly find the sight of me hilarious.

From an uncovered leg, a long, rectangular strip of skin is peeled away with a tool that looks like a potato peeler. Surprisingly gray, the skin is dropped into a stainless steel basin filled with sterile saline. A resident removes it and passes it through a device that looks like a pasta machine. The resulting skin mesh is applied over an injury that was prepared by washing, cutting, and cauterization.

Under my bunny suit I wear bright red scrubs that mark me as a nursing student. Thinking of my students in the creative writing classes I taught only last spring, the list of what I have lost runs through my mind: my house in Texas, my poetry and art books, my cat, my cameras, my marriage, my job as a lecturer of creative writing. This is the second surgery I have witnessed at the university hospital and when the arm is finally lowered I think not, Why am I here in an operating room? But: How did I get here?

 

“You’ll be the one who’s blamed,” my therapist says. “The one who left.” In Texas I found my way to her office more than four years ago after an outburst of frustrated anger during an argument with my husband left me shaken and unmoored. During our sessions I learn that expectations of people in our lives are “premeditated resentments.” Outside her office, my reading of Buddhist practice teaches me of the option to have no expectations, which feels like trading the twins of hope and despair for a flat, lifeless line.

The closer I get to my husband, the more I lose my frequency to a fog of static, and so when I return to Austin from Ohio on semester break I stay at a hotel. At my therapist’s office I comment on the new landscaping. Pale, heart-sized river stones now line the space between her office and the next building over. “I was worried the deer would be unable to navigate these rocks,” she says. “But they aren’t having any trouble.”

As I stumble through a new state of re-positioning my life over a Mid-western landscape, the metaphor of animal experience continues to appear. Through late summer and into fall, geese come and go from a pond near my apartment. But one remains, swimming, eating grass, honking at intervals when I walk past with my dog. A lone heron stalks along a small creek and I wonder if the two birds find any company in one another. Is the goose injured? Mourning? Two days later the goose is still there, maybe: there are now six geese, all standing and eating, and I cannot tell if the possibly heartbroken goose is among them.

 

Synchronicity is unconcerned energy. It does not ask what you imagine of the future: Who you will marry, where you will live, if you will have kids. What I experience in leaving Texas for Ohio is not serendipity, that fateful pull a friend and I recall as having too much influence over our younger lives when we wanted to believe everything had a meaning to decipher. Synchronicity is worrying over my accumulating out-of-state student debt and the emotional cost of my destabilized marriage, and in moments of peak anxiety looking at the clock on the stove, the car stereo, or my phone, to see the time as 4:44 or 3:21 or 11:11 or 12:34. On some plane—mathematical, chronological, invisible—I am walking the right track even when most days feel like a series of falling overs as I learn how to take blood pressures, how to assess levels of consciousness, how to cleanse and pack a deep wound.

Usually I do not turn on the TV during the day, but when the Kavanaugh hearings are aired, I take a break from studying pathophysiology to watch. For the second time, I have left a marriage to a successful man. Again, I see how easily people—female, male, gay, straight—take sides on a split and how commonly they lean towards power. Sometimes knowing yourself means being alone with yourself, means letting go of everyone you thought you loved and who you believed loved you. How did I know my marriage was over? Not while sitting in Al-Anon meetings struggling with my desire to fix the unsolvable. Not when I convinced my husband not to throw me out of the house by having sex after another argument that escalated. Not when I scanned his cellphone text-log in the years before, and the months after, I left. When we are still speaking, he recounts another encounter with a tearful female student who thanks him for making her feel safe in class. Over the phone, I feel him glowing. It takes a month of not speaking to him to wonder why making me feel secure was not his priority.

How I know: Another month passes and I begin to wake up happy. Or what registers as a close approximation to the feeling as I begin to live without daily storms—mine and his—crashing through my life.

 

To save what I can, I buy most of my furniture at Ikea, unpack it in the apartment parking lot and carry it upstairs, piece by piece. The couch, however, I have delivered, and the men who carry it in are friendly even in the rainy later-summer gloom. After they maneuver the box into the living room, one guy looks at his hands, covered in mysterious black dust (which soon covers my own hands, as I begin to cut the cardboard away from the couch), and instead of shaking my hand bumps my forearm with his own. He’s a type, the sort of guy I see in Ohio—skinny white guy with piercing blue eyes, tattoos that cannot be hidden, a missing tooth or two. We are ground zero of the opioid epidemic; men who perform manual labor are stuck the hardest. These blue eyes I see later in the semester in patients who lose significant amounts of skin and muscle tissue, possibly from injecting drugs. I attend a training session where I learn how to administer the antidote to opioids, a drug—naloxone—that rips the high right out of the synapse. “Don’t expect a thank you,” the organizer warns.

Over the past years I have struggled with my own addiction to believing I have the answers and to the belief that making enough effort guarantees success. With this sometimes self-destructive desire to help comes a corresponding addiction to men in pain. Men who blaze and require a continual re-application of fuel. When I first met my husband, his attention was a fire unlike any I had experienced. Passionate letters, gifts of books and jewelry, calls at all hours. It did not register then that there was someone else—or several someone elses—building the heat from the other side. That the circle would shift and I would be the one not pursued, but sustaining.

 

Earlier in the semester I witnessed my first surgery while wearing another bunny suit. Watching the process of removing pins from bone, I learned they can be closer to the size of writing instruments than sewing needles. When the patient awakes in the post-anesthesia recovery unit, they appear disappointed to find a wound vacuum—designed to speed healing—in place. Before I can catch myself, I say, “I’m sorry.” But I do speak from a kind of experience, years ago having seen the same sadness on my husband’s face when he woke from anesthesia with this very device tethered to his body.

What got me into therapy and then into Al-Anon in 2014 was a wooden spoon. I was cooking, my husband and I exchanged words, I threw a spoon and it hit him in the chest. This isn’t you, my nurse practitioner said. See this therapist. I made an appointment. As I moved into my later thirties I began to see how anger ruled me, how it was a legacy passed to me, how trying to avoid anger only made it grow. Yet I also saw how women were not allowed to be angry, in the world or at home. With reason, or without.

A central tenant of Al-Anon is that in focusing on the self, by stepping back from the urge to control and monitor the behavior of a loved one, a positive change can result in the relationship. I found the gains, in terms of the health of my marriage, to be one-sided. Maybe every relationship is meted a set amount of certain things. The less I drank, the more he did. The less I lashed out, the more furious he became. Living with chronic anger and alcoholism—whether yours or someone else’s—is like walking on the surface of a funhouse mirror. It is a destabilized, warped landscape.  

I have read that life is one long room, containing everyone who has played a part in your journey. It is not just the people in the space, though, it is the spaces themselves: the yellow kitchen in my house in Austin, the church basement where I first went to Al-Anon, my office in the English department at UT, my apartment office in Ohio, the patient rooms and operating rooms I move through in school. It is the women I worked with at the mental health clinic at twenty-two, connected to the post-surgical wound care I did for my husband at thirty-two, connected to the patients I cared for with skin infections and burns at forty-four. It is the North Carolina house I grew up in, the upstate barn I lived in for a New York winter, the red house my husband and I rented for several consecutive summers in Berkeley. It is this last house I keep our marriage in, a space in which we were happy, where Pacific coast fog drifted through the cypress trees every afternoon.

 

How I got here: My aunt died and left enough money for me to envision paying for at least one semester of nursing school, wherever I was accepted. Although I loved teaching I was not prepared for the politics and leveraging required of academic life. I wanted to love a job and to be paid a living wage. To not be caught in the current circumstances of the artistic economy. Becoming a nurse practitioner was a dream I put to the side while I earned an MFA. As nearly every week my husband threatened to quit his job, it seemed that if I wanted a safe place to write, psychologically and financially, I would have to make it myself.

When my sister and I visited our aunt in France, the winter of her death, we remained neutral in our expressions as she showed us her house in Bram sitting within sight of the highway rotary. It was a world away from the medieval battlement she and our uncle spent years repairing, in Banyuls with the Mediterranean in view, where a large lizard roamed the walls, where my uncle sat on the patio under the jasmine drinking boxed California rose like the Americans he professed to hate while the hunters tracked wild boars through the vineyards. Now my aunt’s head was swollen to twice its normal size due to radiation treatment for lung cancer that had spread to her brain, her blonde hair long gone and replaced with a crooked wig and worry about her pets. After our week’s visit at a rented country house, we returned her to her home and husband, promising to see her again even though it was unlikely. As we moved through the door I turned to see her face, knowing we were leaving her the only place we could, a place of her making, one of writing, travel, alcohol, and anger.

In my apartment hang two pictures, one of the house in Banyuls and the other a charcoal of nearby Collioure. These I crammed into my car before I left, before I pressed on and did not heed my husband’s pleas to return. This stings: I chose not to turn around. To not go back when he asked. Perhaps this is another addiction, to pushing through. But a life cannot be made in an avalanche. I released as much as I could in an attempt to level the land, but when he drained the bank accounts over several years I had nowhere else to go but away. I could use my inheritance to bail him out, or to shore myself up.

Recently I read a report from the CDC about suicide risk and occupation. Among men, those who work in manual labor—men who deliver furniture, men who build apartments, houses, offices, and hospitals in booming Austin and Columbus—have the highest suicide rates. Among women, those who work in the arts are the hardest struck. I cite the statistics not to imply I was suicidal, but to illustrate the importance of realizing there are choices women can make that will provide an option other than enduring. My husband and I are both writers and artists and we had a system that worked, one that I could depend on, for a while. Teaching requires the control of emotion, response, and expression, as does recovery. But it is impossible to hold everything in: My marriage fell apart when I began to teach at UT for much less than he made, and the self-management I had to do to survive bled over into my creative life. He kept writing. Living in a life of compartmentalization and blinders, I nearly stopped.

 

A relationship ending is being lost from what was, and if there is anything to hang onto it is the connection between how things were and what they will become. The space between is far from empty. In one of my first Al-Anon meetings, someone said it is not how far you have to go, but how far you have come. My apartment windows face a wooded area.  Now that the leaves have fallen I can see the empty swing sets in the backyards of the houses in the adjoining subdivision. Hanging curtains would interrupt the light moving in and out of the windows. I am not sure how I feel about waking up happy; about not living around the drama of another person’s choices and in the safety I found in living apart from myself. In my bunny suit, I take steps, some giant and some small, and learn what I can from where I end up, from the people I meet, from how I navigate—successfully or not—the hazards and confusions of the daily human condition. Our stories, our lives, were connected, but even in marriage they were never the same.

Commenting on the absence of female road narratives, Vanessa Veselka writes that when women on journeys are encountered, they are not asked, “Why are you doing this?” but, “What thing happened to you to make you want to go off on your own?” As time passes I continue to discern the difference between being reactive and having a reaction. A reaction can take time; it does not bear the expectation of immediacy. Staying in my job in Austin, taking prerequisite classes for my applications, going to therapy, sleeping on the couch or asking my husband to: those were reactions to living in a marriage I could not rescue.

How did I get to here from there? I learned to ask for help: how to frame a difficult conversation, how to make it through the holidays alone, how to remove my spouse from my car insurance. When it was offered, I learned to accept it: non-skid grippers for my shoes to prevent falls while walking my dog in the snow; notes from a missed lecture; calls and texts from friends who continue to check in.

 

In my mind spins a loop of all I have gained: space, loneliness, my eyes steady on my own in the mirror when I can finally look at myself again. Moving states has not removed me from anger, but it has decreased my reactivity. If, as Virginia Woolf wrote, there is a line running through each story to which everything cleaves and cleaves—runs to and runs from—what is the line coursing through this layered breakage and regeneration? As winter moves in and it is colder and darker earlier every evening, I walk past the pond less. The last time I see the goose it moves from the bank into the water as my dog and I come closer. This bird is not the woodpecker I found the week before I left Austin, lying on its back on the dog bed we kept outside. Not the woodpecker that clutched my finger with its feet and pecked at my hand, refusing a perch on a branch and instead settling into a stockpot lined with towels. That was small enough for me to catch and hand over to someone else. Synchronicity is not about how things will turn out, but how life carries on while we adjust.

“How do you like Ohio?” A woman asks as she scans my groceries later that day.

“It’s gray, I say,” surprised I miss the sun.





Laurie Saurborn is the author of two poetry collections, Industry of Brief Distraction and Carnavoria, and a chapbook, Patriot. An NEA Creative Writing Fellowship recipient, her work has appeared in publications such as jubilatstorySouthThe Cincinnati ReviewThe Southern ReviewThe Rumpus, and Tupelo Quarterly. Previously, she taught creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, where she directed the undergraduate creative writing program. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychiatric mental health nursing at Ohio State. Find her at lauriesaurborn.com.  

“Deconstruction Room” by Moe Kirkpatrick


Photo Credit: TL Sherwood

Now we call it “the back room.” It occupies the basement corner next to the boilers, a small, unfinished room, blanketed by the stench of my father’s hockey gear. As I remember, it had two desks, ten chairs, the top of a dining room table, an old TV cabinet stuffed with unfilled notebooks, and whatever else was too big for the family to fit in the upstairs junk drawer. The air tasted like the word spare. A stranger might have described the room as “odd,” or “cold,” or even, “defensive.” It was dangerous to sit on the floor. The mangy beige carpet was half-installed and didn’t cover all of the concrete and the extra carpet left a huge roll along the back wall, a bulge like scar tissue, that pushed up under the chair legs as my best friend and I sat those summers ago and tried to write. This was the room I spent most of my time in from ages eight to twelve and, last winter, was the room my parents asked me to spend a few hours in, organizing the Goodwill piles.

For the years that the back room was mine alone, it was a different place. The walls were bare. There were no tables set up but the top of one, oak and polished, laid in the back corner on a bed of creased plastic. The overhead lights—two exposed lightbulbs nestled among the piping—were unreliable. At least once, unable to make them work, I sat there in the soft grey light, which no one was around to tell me would ruin my eyes.

I came down to the back room for more land, especially land of my own. I was an architect. Out of chairs, stools, and stackable white baskets, I built elaborate cities for my Webkinz and Beanie Babies. Feudal villages with disproportionate castles and steampunk garbage-ridden Victorian labyrinths and futuristic totalitarian military academies all littered the carpet. The back room was not large, so buildings were multiple locations at once. On the table top, I built different castles, mansions, Academies of High Magic, hospitals, fortresses, apartment complexes, army barracks, and once, a shopping mall. Sometimes, these changes occurred within the same story. Sometimes, within the same afternoon.

I found, when clearing out an old notebook for salvage, the remnants of construction-paper advertisements I had drawn for the shopping mall. I don’t know what I had intended to do with them. It wasn’t as if the table had actual walls I could hang them on. But I can see in my mind how it happened: I was arranging the mall. Halfway through, I thought of the ads and picked across the room to the art box, so I could make them before I forgot. Halfway through, I thought of the wedding invitations I had stolen with the intention of cutting tiny wings out, and scrambled to find the scissors… Safe to say, there was never a building in the back room I ever completed. This did not bother me. I saw the world halfway between an architectural blueprint and a finished city. And moreover, I had an odd memory, like grey kneadable eraser, that just didn’t stick— In the back room, what I did not remember I could always rebuild, maybe on a different chair with a different stuffed animal, but similar enough to go on.

Then my chairs were swapped for the kitchen chairs, which had grown creaky-jointed. The Webkinz and Beanie Babies were sold at a garage sale when I was eleven. Everything had grown too old. I had grown too old. The back room had changed.

In fact, when I trusted my best friend enough to let them come downstairs, it was no longer the back room. We called it “the haven” or sometimes just, “Haven.” Posters hung on the wall: movies we hadn’t seen, middle school art projects with discarded aliases, and post-it notes with terrible quotes. We added two tables, a lamp, and a blue mini-trampoline, on account that our neighbor’s actual blue trampoline—our previous den of plotting—had broken. We had also been banned.

It was on the mini-trampoline that I sat for three hour shifts while Hazel got the desk. We alternated chapters. When we were done, we would push the laptop at each other and say, triumphantly, “Your turn!” I would inevitably get up mid-chapter and wander around and close the door and bounce on the trampoline while Hazel—steadier Hazel, medicated Hazel—watched and rolled their eyes.

I remember the door being a big deal for me. I remember insisting it always be shut, because the walls of the house were thin, and the hallways were short. Everything said in my bedroom was heard in the master bedroom, even with the door closed and the TV on. On sleepovers, I insisted we hang out in Haven until we went to bed. There we could yell “FUCK!” with a hope of plausible deniability. We could talk about our novels or questions of sexuality, gender, depression, and attention-deficit disorder, which Hazel, who was diagnosed, just called ADHD. Having ADHD meant Hazel needed to take notes when we discussed our novels, because they wouldn’t remember the next day. It meant I walked with them to the kitchen in case they forgot they went for a glass of water. The notes that Hazel sometimes took kept their memory steady. It was a place to come back to where everything was left the right way, understandable even to tomorrow’s new eyes.

Even now, I cannot define the fear that made me seek thicker walls and longer distances. It reminds me of our post-Narnia stories, when Hazel and I were convinced a different world could exist within an object, and we named the giant pear tree in their front yard “Cascadia,” for the world hidden behind a knot in its bark. I can see why the idea appealed to us so much. To disappear somewhere no-one else could know. To build a home within a home and only let in those you can really trust, whose word you can believe.

There is little left of that back room now. The trampoline has moved. The old toys have been divvied up, the tables swapped out, the posters rolled up for the dumpster. The light does not flicker when I pull the string too hard. The concrete is cool and grimy on my bare feet.

I spend several hours separating the blocks of my cities into various trash bags. The work is pleasant drudgery. Sitting there, on the carpet where I built my childhood, I cannot differentiate between the stories I tell about the place and my memories of it. Which are real? Did my kneadable memory stick to facts or just emotions? It is all so vague. I wish I could walk back in time and know for certain what happened or, at least, have another pair of eyes more trustworthy than mine to tell me how time passed in this one room, which I am still not capable of capturing.

Perhaps it never existed. Perhaps the back room I remember is entirely reconstructed, details arranged and mangled, out of time and context and emotion, because my mind decided it was easier to remember that way. Perhaps it was not two weeks before the big trampoline broke when Hazel and I sat on it—that is all I know. It was not yet broken. My face was scrunched up in thought.

Then I said, “Yeah, I’d die for you.”

“Cool,” Hazel said. “Me too.”

Hazel looked, as always, too serious for their age. It had not yet occurred to me that we were ten and we should not have felt the need to make that promise. That perhaps other kids didn’t ask their friends that and didn’t forget about weeks as soon as they had passed and didn’t worry about a nameless, imminent danger that seemed always outside the door, the danger that we would look away and no longer remember what we had built.

Later, I tell Hazel about this. I ask if they remember that time we sat on the trampoline and promised we would die for each other.

“No,” they say. “But I believe it.”

 

 

Moe Kirkpatrick is a queer writer from Cincinnati, Ohio. Currently, he is pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. His work has received multiple Scholastic Writing Gold and Silver Key Awards and can be found in Artemis.

 

“Still Born: Finding Madeline” by Suellen Meyers


Photo Credit: Cady Guyton

There is an application that’s been on my desk for a few weeks now. How to Obtain Certified Copies of Stillbirth and Fetal Death Records. I’m intimately familiar with it at this point, yet, I am taken aback each time I read those words. It tells me to send in $24, and an archive database will be searched all the way back from 1905 to the present. I write out a check and tuck it inside an envelope with the form. The stiff, white paper feels cool and reassuring between my fingertips. I rip the security strip from the back, press the sticky flap shut, then add two small pieces of scotch tape for added protection. In my left-handed scrawl, I spell out “California Department of Public Health Vital Records” with the street address underneath as neatly as I am able.

Walking to the mailbox, my throat tightens. I grasp the envelope as if it could speak the answers I seek, and I almost don’t want to let it go. It’s been thirty years. Back then all I wanted to do was forget, now I burn with the need to know specific details that I’d long ago buried. I wanted that certificate, I wanted something tangible. On one hand, I felt concerned there would be no record, on the other, I was certain that would not be the case. I had been in the hospital, I had given birth, I had named my daughter, surely there had to be documented evidence of that.

I stand at the bank of mailboxes for a minute, breathing in the hot, heavy air. Summers in Las Vegas can be suffocating. I place the envelope in the slot and turn toward home.

~

It is 1988, and I remember clearly various parts of that day, although I cannot for the life of me recall the actual date. By the time I hoisted myself out of bed, Doug, my husband at the time, had already left for work. I stared out the bedroom window taking in the view. Our rented apartment outside of San Diego overlooked the Escondido freeway; it was perched high enough atop the hillside that any traffic below was out of earshot. Coastal sage scrub, tipped brown at the edges from the sun, hugged the landscape, which was punctuated by big gray boulders situated just so between the multitude of sprawling ranch style houses. Southern California’s version of a modern-day Fred Flintstone’s Bedrock. I looked down, rubbed my stomach, “We’ll be living in one of those houses someday. Or better yet, at the beach.”

In the kitchen I made toast, eating it quickly and washing it down with Diet Coke. After showering, I wrestled with my impossible hair. Roseanne Roseannadanna, the similarly coiffed character played by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live had nothing on me. The humidity made my hair look twice as big, all ringlets and frizz. No amount of Aqua Net could contain it. I pulled on the maternity jeans I’d bought long before I’d actually needed them, walked to the full-length mirror turning sideways to admire the burgeoning bump, slipped on ballet flats and a light sweater, grabbed my car keys and drove ten minutes to the doctor’s office. There was no reason to think this would be anything other than a routine ultrasound.

“All right, let’s take a look,” the technician said once I’d been ushered back to an exam room. “I should be able to see if this little one is a boy or girl. Would you like to know?” I jumped slightly as she squirted thick, cold conducting gel on my exposed belly, lowered the paddle and began moving it around trying to locate the necessary measurements and appendages. Before I could answer, she removed the paddle, stood up and said, “I’ll be right back.” I lay there, bewildered. Goopy liniment adhered the paper drape to my stomach.

Thirty seconds later Dr. Maresh opened the door, his nurse following behind him. Babies need amniotic fluid to develop he explained. Pinprick leak, extremely uncommon he said. Maybe fluid could replenish he said. Go home and don’t move, UCLA specialist consult, he said.

“Can you tell me the last time you felt any activity?” he asked.

Oddly, I couldn’t. Was it not that very morning as we gazed out the window? All I could think was, no way am I losing this baby.

~

My own mother had a precarious relationship with pregnancy, having several miscarriages both before and after delivering me, my older sister Chelle, and our younger sister Margi.

“Ech, that doctor, what did he know?” She’d tell me. “Had I listened to him Rochelle would be an only child. What’s meant to be is meant to be. Sure, I had you three months early but I looked you over and you had all your fingers, all your toes, you even had eyelashes. That’s when I knew you’d be okay. Well, except for your eyesight, but that was from being in an incubator so long.”

~

That very night, shortly after Doug got home from work, I went into labor. Perched in a sterile birthing bed, I’d felt uncharacteristically small wrapped in a maternity gown large enough to cover the extended abdomens of full-term mothers-to-be, the pregnant equivalent of one-size-fits-most. Splashed with pastel-colored baby animals, perhaps the garment was meant to evoke a gentleness, a last sense of calm before the mayhem of parenthood set in. A fetal monitor stood next to the bed, although I am not sure if it was hooked up to check my progress, or silent of the typical blips and beeps that happened with routine deliveries.

Labor was not the physically painful experience I saw in the movies. Mine didn’t hurt. Instead, deep down my abdomen churned with little pricking sensations, coming closer and closer together until one was almost stepping on the other. I knew from reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, this meant it was almost time. I dug the heels of my feet deep into the stirrups attached to the bed, thinking this might stop my knees from knocking together with the shivers. “I don’t think I want to do this right now,” I said, as if I were about to cancel an appointment for a pedicure instead of bring a human being into the world.

The nurse, who had her hand between my legs checking my cervix, interrupted my trepidation. “I think we’re ready. What I want you to do is push on my command. Can you do that?”

I nodded my agreement. I do not recall what my husband was doing. Was he holding my hand? Was he worried? Nor do I remember if there was a doctor in the room.

“Okay sweetheart,” I heard. “Here we go. One, two three, PUSH!”

My body expelled my daughter as if she were a splinter. There was no robust cry. Afterward, only the insistent, albeit well-meaning nurse trying to shove a dead baby into my arms, smiling forcefully while attempting to push her agenda. “Go on sweetheart, hold her, look at her. It’s the only chance you’ll have and if you don’t you’ll regret it.”

What the hell did she know of my regret? Was she the one who had just given birth to a lifeless newborn? Had she been forced to name it, the mandate of some California state law that had me cursing the lawmakers, all of whom (I imagined in a rare fit of condemnation) were men?

I caught a glimpse of Madeline’s red, shriveled form but I refused to look at her. Someone offered a Polaroid. She’d been wrapped in a pale yellow and white crocheted blanket from the Women’s League, which was meant to be a celebratory keepsake. They took her away, and left the photo on a table near the birthing bed, as well as the blanket, which now hung limply across my barren stomach. I regarded both with the same welcome I’d reserve for a rabid dog. I picked up the blanket between my thumb and pointer fingers as if it contained a deadly virus, then flung it into the trashcan next to the bed. Turning my head, I whispered to my equally dazed husband, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Sue, you have to sign your release paperwork first.”

There are no words to describe what it is like going into the hospital pregnant, and leaving empty-handed. “I want to go home.” And with that I stood up, wobbled slightly, grabbed my maternity pants and pulled them on as tears streamed down my face.

~

“Hey, Doug. Thank you so much for calling me back. So, this might sound weird after all these years, but I need to find out what happened the night we lost the baby. Like, am I remembering it right? I sent away for a stillborn certificate but they couldn’t find anything for her, and I was wondering if—”

“That’s bullshit!” he said. “She was born in a hospital. How could there be no record of that?”

“Well, there could have been a misspelling on the hospital paperwork we didn’t catch at the time, or the laws of reporting might have been different then. It was a long time ago. It doesn’t make sense to me, either. But they can’t find her.”

I explained the extent of my detective work. How I’d sent three separate applications to the State of California, as well as San Diego County and they all came back with nothing. Then I called the doctor’s office, but Dr. Maresh had retired. I tried the new Palomar Hospital, where he typically sent his patients, because the old one wasn’t there anymore, and I even called several funeral homes in the area.

“Everyone was really nice for the most part but no one keeps records from that long ago. They looked me up anyway, though, just to see if they could find anything, but no such luck. I was hoping you’d be able to fill in some of the blanks. Do you remember any of the details, do you remember anything at all?”

“We were young, Sue, and we were traumatized, you know? I mean, that hurt us. They wanted us to love on this dead baby. They had her all swaddled up, I remember that. I remember we cried together. I didn’t want to hold her. That was tough, man.”

“Do you remember me telling you about what the doctor said when you came home from work that day? Do you remember what car we took to the hospital?”

“I had that black Scirocco. We didn’t get the Jetta until later. Then that damn car got stolen before we even made the first payment!”

“Yep, found it down in Mexico,” I said. “I can’t remember how we spelled her name. Or the date, or how far along I was.”

“We spelled it like Madeline Kahn, the actress. M-a-d-e-l-i-n-e.”

“Oh, right, how could I forget that? I was thinking like Madolyn Smith from Urban Cowboy.”

“And you were twenty-two weeks. But I don’t know the date. It was a long time ago. We were young. We were traumatized. We cried about it together. We did,” he said.

It was hard for me to envision us being close enough to grieve together. I had loved him once, but the divorce and subsequent years afterward had been contentious, and while time had softened that, nowadays we hardly had any interaction. The fact that Doug was willing to contact me back and able to validate my recollections gave me solace, and I felt a stab of grateful softness for a past that, until this very point, had been tainted with hurt feelings. He was the only person on the planet with whom I shared the experience, and there was solidarity in the fact he had almost the same blanks and the same certainties from that night as I did. That was more than enough closure for me.

~

When I am asked how many children I have I always say two. But that is not true. Max was born in 1989, Jake followed in 1990. The boys were ten and eleven when they found out they’d had a sister. We were coming home from seeing the movie, My Dog Skip, when Jake said out of nowhere, “When we were with Dad last weekend he said we had a sister and her name was Madeline. Mom, is that true?” It had never occurred to me to tell them.

Madeline was born sometime in the spring of 1988. I don’t know if she ever showed signs of life outside the womb, although I doubt it. I don’t know for certain what hospital I was in when I had her. I don’t know how there could not be a record documenting her existence, however fleeting it was.

What I do know is she was loved. I held her in my body for over five months and her loss was so enormous it took me thirty years before I could face it.

I am the proud mother of three children. I’ll carry all three in my heart until I take my last breath.

 

 

Suellen Meyers is agoraphobic, and not afraid to talk about it. Currently, she is obtaining an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bay Path University. She writes true stories about family involving themes of loss, addiction, anxiety, agoraphobia, and resilience. Her work has also appeared in The Manifest-Station. She lives in hellishly warm Las Vegas, Nevada, with her husband Gary, Zoey the Elf Dog, and new addition to the family, Abby the Wiggle Butt. Contact her at https://www.suellenmeyers.com/

 

“Now That I Was Unquestionably Single” by Geoff Graser


“Free Flying” by Kathy O’Meara

1

I’d been to the stadium several times, but somehow never noticed the building I’d eventually call home. It emerged beyond the right-field wall, beyond the crowd, beyond the freight train rumbling and whistling. The brick stretched an entire city block with its eye-catching, if not pretty, Dijon yellow paint job. On the roof, I saw a helix of smoke spiraling from a grill into the cloudless dusk. From my seat down the third baseline at Frontier Field, where the Rochester Red Wings play, I could also make out tiny figures in ball caps on the roof. They took in the game from silver bleachers.

“Now that’s how to watch baseball,” I said, pointing out the fans to my friends. “I wonder how much it costs to live there?”

They answered with sounds instead of numbers—“Jeesh” and “Wow” and “Hmmn.” Whatever the price for paradise, we all knew I couldn’t afford a place overlooking a stadium—not even the minor leagues.

2

            More than a decade earlier, in 1997, Rochester’s leaders envisioned the picturesque minor league stadium as the spearhead for a downtown renaissance similar to what Baltimore, Cleveland, and other cities experienced after building new stadiums for their major league teams. A slew of bars and restaurants opened in the abandoned factory buildings around the stadium and spectacular High Falls (waterfalls high enough to have taken the life of 19th century daredevil Sam Patch shortly after he became the first to jump Niagara Falls). In the late 1990s, this nightlife scene drew lines out the door. However, these establishments were cavernous, loud, and glitzy—places with a bathroom attendant pushing cologne for a tip—and Rochester is a pub-town not a club-town. After the novelty faded, few ventured there during the six months the stadium sat dormant. The gigantic bars and restaurants couldn’t afford a full year of rent on half-a-year’s income. By 2005, the once-lively destinations had either given way to office space or had been deserted. I sometimes wonder how I neglected this omen.

3

At first, I envisioned the picturesque building by the stadium as the spearhead for my own renaissance. Two years after ogling Buckingham Commons with my friends, it had become clear my marriage was over.

We had lived in a two-story colonial my wife discovered on a relatively quiet city street, but I never felt settled there. Perhaps because I didn’t feel settled with my new family—Julie and my stepsons Aaron, 11, and Kevin, 8. I’d fallen in love with each of their unique and bold personalities, yet daily battles ranging from bedtimes to visitation with the boys’ fathers (they were half-brothers) spun us farther away from what I considered a healthy family dynamic. To complicate things, Julie’s mom, who suffered from chronic depression and myriad other ailments, would often stay for days uninvited. By no means a tiny house, it never felt like enough space.

We tried family counseling, but it provided only temporary solutions to what I eventually deemed an untenable situation. After three years of marriage, I moved into a basement studio in a modest apartment complex. I saw the boys sporadically but had almost no contact with Julie. After more than a year, I missed her. I initiated reconciliation. The first month or so came with forgiveness, open communication, and renewed hope. Everyone, including my two stepsons, were on their best behavior. On our first family outing, we paddled canoes through marshes in a park. When the boys took a different path in their canoe and lost us for 10 minutes, nobody fought. Julie and I snuck passionate kisses.

I slept at our house many nights, but still kept most of my belongings at the apartment. “Maybe it’s the secret to marriage,” Julie quipped about our separate dwellings. After a couple of months, though, familiar issues arose. I wanted a child of our own. Julie wanted to stay at home with the baby I desired. I couldn’t see how I’d make enough money to support a wife and three children. I started noticing women without children and contemplated a life without my current responsibilities. The holidays approached, and I couldn’t fake my way through them. I returned to my basement studio full-time.

4  

The following fall, I decided to find a place I really wanted to live. I researched loft apartments like an advanced scout planning for a draft. I’d fantasized about a building like the one by the stadium even during my marriage. Once, I made the mistake of sharing this daydream with Julie and she prevailed before we even made it to the expense. “The boys finally have their own rooms,” she said.

The loft by the ballpark cost less than I first expected—$1,000 a month. Sure, $300 more than my current monthly rent wasn’t a pittance, but with my big expenses—family health insurance, for instance—now eliminated, I decided to live the high life. I’d turn 35 in a few weeks, and I thought this might be my last chance.

A maroon banner trumpeting “Buckingham Commons” spanned the front of the building from the second floor to the seventh where I lived. The banner proclaimed a residence fit for royalty rather than a guy who wrote letters for a payroll processing company. Oh well, my new job as a cubicle clone earned more than any other position I’d held. It also catapulted me from the subterranean studio I first rented after my separation to the top floor of a building with the best view in the city—a perch I thought guaranteed the eradication of any doubts about my current lot in life. I had doubts about staying in Rochester, doubts about my career, doubts about true love.

During my first few days at Buckingham, I’d stroll through the lobby, replete with leather couches and modern art, and sing “The Jeffersons” theme song (“Well, we’re movin’ on up”). I’d learned the building started as a railroad equipment factory in 1898 and closed nearly a century later as an optical manufacturing company. Another decade had passed before a real estate mogul—on a mission to revive the once-bustling downtown—resurrected the idle warehouse into a nouveau, urban, mixed-use building with offices on the first three floors. So here I was in 2009, relishing the Industrial-era vestiges of exposed air ducts, pipes and wiring. At times, I would run my hand over a grainy wooden pillar in my apartment as you might a tree. I saw the loft as an opportunity to rediscover my roots and reclaim things I loved. Like baseball.

5

When I told people about my new apartment, I bragged about the ballpark first. As a child, I loved baseball most, and it’s the one sport I played until varsity. My view of Rochester’s Camdenesque grounds offered a daily reminder of youth, my life before adult responsibilities. Every morning of my first month there, I soaked in the view through windows more than twice my size. AM radio broadcasts of ballgames crackled in my imagination, and I swear the smell of fresh-cut outfield grass and my oiled mitt wafted into the apartment.

Baseball requires both deep concentration and split-second reflexes. Playing shortstop, I’d glance at the pitcher in his wind-up and then lock in on the hitter. With men on second and third, one out, I planned where I’d go with a hard hit grounder in the third base hole. Or a soft roller just past the pitcher’s mound. In the batter’s box I’d gently rock on the balls of my feet, anticipating a lefty coming with a backdoor curve after an inside fastball meant to back me off the plate.

If only I knew marriage like baseball. After our failed attempt to reconcile and subsequent visions of moving away, I chose this apartment so warm nostalgia and spring revival could ease my pain. Only one problem. The Red Wings season had ended the month before I moved into the loft.

6

A few days after landing my dream apartment, my laptop’s hard drive fizzled. The $1,000 I’d planned to spend on furniture went toward a new computer instead. And once I’d drained my savings, I discovered the meaning of “house-poor.” Except for bookshelves from my dad and a couple of rickety bar stools from the thrift store, the living room remained empty. At first, this didn’t stop the party.

On a crisp early October night, I invited friends over. We drank beers on the rooftop paradise I’d once envied from the third baseline. We couldn’t watch baseball, but at least the roof had a place to sit.

From the aluminum bleachers, we surveyed the stadium and other landmarks, including the 19-story Kodak headquarters that dwarfed its neighbors. Above the gold “KODAK” letters, the tower culminates with the semblance of a church steeple. The story goes that after the Times Square Building (directly behind us) eclipsed Kodak as the city’s tallest, George Eastman, the founder of the camera giant, added another three floors and a spire to reclaim top-dog status. Whenever I caught a peripheral glance of the Kodak building, I reminisced about gawking at the Empire State Building from my friend’s Chelsea apartment a decade earlier. I didn’t live in the Big Apple anymore, but my thin slice of the high life seduced me into feeling in league with Eastman and the city’s powerful. My past apartments had all been livable, but slanted floors, peeling walls or dour roommates usually thwarted my urge to entertain. This was the first apartment I wanted to show off.

“Is this where you’re gonna bring all the ladies?” asked one of my friends.

“Sure hope so,” I said.

Most nights after that, though, I headed to the rooftop myself. There were no buildings obstructing the view to the West, so I’d stand at the railing and watch the sun slip down the expressway out of town. Trains chugged below me and then into the distance. This was where I’d figure out what to do with my life, now that I was unquestionably single.

In baseball, a single means success. The crowd cheers at the crack of the bat. A single sends the hitter in the right direction, toward home. In our society, being single is not applauded. While many people relish the independence in spurts, it lacks the value given to something bigger, being a part of a couple or family. Discontented couples should always scrutinize the hue of green on the other side of the fence before leaping. Perhaps even more than I did.

Pink autumn dusks on the drives home to my new loft eventually darkened. And opening the door didn’t feel like coming “home.” My fancy apartment hadn’t burst into the swinging bachelor pad I’d envisioned. The ballpark remained lifeless and the security measures at Buckingham Commons were the modern equivalent of a mote. Guests would have to call me to open the gate to the parking lot. Call me again to buzz them into the building’s front door. And then wait for me still to open a locked door after the elevator brought them to my floor.

“It was easy once I made it past the guard dogs,” said a friend who visited.

As winter loomed, it started to feel like my studio apartment. Higher, sure, but just as lonely. As I looked past the unlit stadium onto the once-happening High Falls neighborhood night after night, the chorus to a David Byrne song sometimes played in my head, “With glass, and concrete, and stone / it is just a house, not a home.”

I’d struck out. In baseball, you get a break, a seventh-inning stretch. In life, it’s no given.

7

Two months before moving into Buckingham Commons, I’d made one final effort to save our marriage. Julie met me at a coffee shop near my office. She dressed in business casual, too, but her lips glistened and she wore enough make up to look ready for a date. I knew it wasn’t one. I’d recently heard from a friend that Julie had been seeing someone for several months.

We sat at a table outside, far enough to prevent anyone from eavesdropping. I felt at ease, friendly. We chatted about her volunteer church trip to Peru with the boys. She was still tan.

“I’ve been thinking about you,” I said.

“I shut the door back in December, Geoff,” she said. “I can’t do it anymore.”

I nodded. I didn’t want to argue.

“I miss you,” I said. “I’m lonely.”

“You should get a TV.”

I laughed. I’d stopped watching TV. I read books now. Within a couple months, though, I couldn’t look at the living room wall in my loft without envisioning a flat screen.

8

At times, I would gaze upon the caricature painting of Franz Kafka above the desk in my bedroom. My heroes had become writers instead of ballplayers. Still, I sometimes second-guessed spending that $500 the previous year. That could’ve been a flat screen TV, I thought. I’d fallen in love with Kafka not because of “Metamorphoses” but instead a lengthy letter he wrote to his father. In this 40-page correspondence, Kafka ostensibly seeks reconciliation rather than retribution. Nevertheless, he attributes his ineradicable self-doubt to the harsh upbringing by his father. In several instances, Kafka describes with stunning accuracy the same feelings of insecurity, timidity, and despair I’d experienced as a child but could never articulate. Sometimes, I admit, I still suffer these emotional handicaps.

The impetus for Kafka’s letter to his father was the unraveling of his third and final engagement. Kafka called marriage the “pinnacle of life” and saw himself as a failure for never marrying. Likewise, I believed the end of my marriage was a failure. I had wanted to make the boys’ and Julie’s broken family whole. I’d failed.

Kafka’s writing originally provided solace, but the more I read his letters and stories, the more I worried about looking up (literally) to a man whose gifts as a writer and intellectual seemed to offer little reprieve from his emotional anguish. I began to see Kafka and his trapped characters like “K” from The Castle as a cautionary tale. Similar to Kafka, I always craved time away from my day job to write. I was well aware that my passion for individual pursuits like writing and reading had factored into the undoing of my marriage. And now, without a family, I had all the time I could ever want to write. So why would I sit at my desk staring at the empty ballpark?

Maybe I needed a TV after all.

Early in December, like a Christmas miracle, a friend texted me to say she’d driven by a couch on the sidewalk. The next day, I hauled the abandoned treasure into my living room. Now that I had a place to sit, I went online and shopped for less than an hour before buying an early Christmas gift for myself —a 49-inch flat screen.

9

The cable guy was a 6 foot 3 hulk whose boots clunked across my living room floor. He turned down my offer of Christmas cookies.

Later, however, as I worked at the desk in my bedroom, I heard him say, “Mmm. Wow.” I went to see what was up. Maybe he’d changed his mind on the cookies. Before I said anything, though, I found him with his back to me looking out the window. Snowflakes fell so slowly they might have melted before reaching the ground.

“Reminds me of back home,” said the cable guy whose name I’d learned was John.

In spite of the darkness, I could make out the shape of the stadium’s grandstand and the field covered in snow from corner to corner. It hardly matched the idyllic image of America’s pastime I first saw when I moved in, but the smattering of city lights proved enough to illuminate John’s memories.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“The Bronx,” he said, and tilted the blinds for a better look. “Right by Yankee Stadium.” Maybe he saw the tracks below and remembered the subway rattling the windows of his childhood. I saw the glow of the TV as I fell asleep to a late-night Yankees game.

“You’ve got the spot,” he said, laughing and shaking his head.

“I’m splurging,” I said. “Don’t know exactly how long I can—”

“Only live once, man. If I didn’t have kids, I’d be spending a lot more on myself.”

“Oh, you have kids?”

“One’s 18. About on her way out.”

Had we met before this apartment, I probably would’ve told him about my stepsons and shared a couple of “kids-do-the-darndest-things” chuckles, but I was trying to move on. I went back to work and he did the same, but before he finished he asked me something from the living room. I thought he’d asked about having a TV.

“Haven’t had one in two years, ” I said, almost boasting.

But then he walked in with a cable coiled around his wrist and asked again if I’d be putting a TV in my bedroom, too.

“Nah, don’t want to become a junkie,” I said, before he hinted at giving me the cable for free.

“Never know. I have one in my bedroom, just for company.”

Had this behemoth of a man just admitted his loneliness to me? His face looked peaceful, as if he could doze off standing up.

“When I’m not at my girlfriend’s,” he continued, “I’ll watch for a couple hours to get to sleep.” I pictured this giant under the covers eating cookies and giggling at “Simpsons” reruns.

“You know,” he said again. “Just for company.”

It was as if he’d sensed my loneliness. I had no choice but to take the cable and smile. Until baseball awoke the stadium in spring, I would probably need some company. Now that I was unquestionably single.

 

 

Geoff Graser writes nonfiction and fiction. He holds a Master’s in Journalism from Syracuse University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. His work has appeared in USA TodayWashington City Paper, Rochester’s City Newspaper and Democrat and ChronicleMedium.com, Santa Clara Review, Timeline and The Big Brick Review. He is currently working on a book about the life and art of Rochester, NY, graffiti artist Bones.