The Case for a Little Madness


“In the interest of my sanity, I must come to the conclusion that my household is in the grips of something I can no longer control. I surrender.”

“Yes, do.”

“Enough is enough.”

“Yes, well then, he should be banished,” Father said, trying to downplay his amusement. “But it was only a water gun fight. They dripped mostly outdoors. They’re just big kids, themselves, I’m afraid. Soon they’ll be grown ups entirely with daunting or boring careers and flocks of their own.”

I could hear her slam the sun room door–not too hard–in response and wondered what he would do next. Likely nothing but continue reading his book and magazines. Mother would fume a bit longer then get out the china for dessert.

She was Mrs. Judith Lightness, wife of Charles Lightness, esteemed judge. Chic, civilized manager of house and garden. Our mother. Her words had floated outdoors. Their timbre rumbled like the engine of a tugboat, smallish yet still mighty. We heard them from the porch table. We had drinks after dinner, as usual, enjoying the way the garden brought us a sweltering sweetness of florals. My brother, Teddy. said nothing; he knew she was slow to expand her views when it came to impulsive activities. It was as if she had only tolerance for order, proscribed behaviors, despite the fact that she had only a moderate talent for the first and reportedly deviated from the second when she was younger.

Paul sipped a brandy and licked his lips, eyes on the giant trees that surrounded the garden. He was used to ignoring mother’s distress.

“Is that a black walnut?” He pointed. “I’ve always wanted to gather the nuts and make ink from them. I read how that can be done. I’d enjoy writing a smart letter to Meredith in walnut ink.”

Teddy laughed and requested more information. My ear was inclined toward the french doors despite a tiny upsurge of pleasure at his comment.


I looked up. Lillian poked her head through her upstairs window. She had her ratty stuffed elephant in hand and waved it at me. Then she pointed down below and made a face meant for mother. I thought she would drop the creature on Teddy but he was ignoring her, his head bent toward Paul’s. She had a habit of making it dive when someone was passing, tossing it down the staircase as company arrived. Leaving it in a pathetic heap so when I left my room I stumbled. It–Hildy, she called it–seemed to do things for her, a daredevil by proxy. Lillian was seven and a half years old. When could I slip it into the trash without igniting her fury?

“Meredith? What do you think?”

I looked back at the boys. They smiled as if something marvelous would be happening if I just gave them the go-ahead so I nodded.

“The ink? Why not? Or did I miss something? Whatever you say.”

“Splendid!” Paul swallowed the last of his drink and stood. “It’s settled. Tomorrow we’ll get supplies and begin immediately.”

“Wait! What am I being recruited to do?”

“Too late,” Teddy said with shrug, palms turned up. “We have a plan and you will help.”

Well, that was the problem. My twin and our adopted cousin developed schemes and often I was a part of them without quite knowing how it occurred. A few times I had spearheaded them, but generally I was more cautious, nicknamed “Merry Mouse” by Paul long ago. But their plans were like rumbas clothed as minuettes, and every time Paul arrived the music played on and on. I sometimes felt like a whirling dervish within days of his yearly arrival. Mother would have said we were struck by lightning, only to survive for yet another strike.

He was an adopted cousin because he was, in fact, adopted by my Uncle Joseph Dane in Newport (as opposed to Uncle Joey in Charleston or Uncle Joseph III in St. Louis). Joseph Dane, or J.D., and my Aunt Genisse tried to organically summon children but things didn’t take. They found an adoption agency operating out of New York while on vacation. They eventually found Paul at age five and the rest is history.

Ours, as well, I must say. Teddy and I were two years younger so Paul took the lead. In another couple of years the gap started to close. He was a curiosity with his foster home tales, long gaunt face and wide dark eyes that appeared surprised or befuddled. Neither of which was the case. Paul knew more about a room and its occupants when he walked into it than those who studied it at length. But the expressions, along with his horsey good looks, served him well. We adored him. He came for up to a month each summer. The habit stuck, except for the year he was at Harvard year around.

He had done well. We all had. I studied anthropology, uncertain of what direction was needed. Mother said anything with marriage as a secondary descriptor might be best. But despite being a female of twenty-two in nineteen sixty-four and typecast as a mouse, I had a secret hunger for adventure.

Lillian was dangling Hildy by one ear from the window she’d opened in her room. Teddy and Paul stood up. As soon as Paul headed toward the garage he passed beneath her window and bombs away, Hildy smashed Paul’s coiffed black hair. Teddy grabbed it as it bounced off and tossed Hildy to me, whereupon we were engaged in a rousing game of catch that elicited shrieks of protest from Lillian.

Mother came to the dining room’s double doors at the other end of the house, popped her head out and called out in a calmer manner. But she still meant business.

“Please return Hildy to her owner before the neighbors call 911.”

Paul had Hildy in his hands when Lillian buzzed him with her balsam wood glider. He ran inside to harass her, which she required.


It never ended. At this point one might think so. We were adults by objective criteria but Paul continued to find ways to subvert that reality. Teddy and I followed him at a leisurely pace. Mother’s head disappeared. I yelled back in passing.

“We’re coming, mother. I’ll have a small Dutch apple slice.”

Upstairs, Lillian’s pallid face was scrunched into her persimmon expression. Paul had squirted her once more with his water gun and dampened her bed. Teddy intervened, whereupon Paul hugged her and she squeezed back.

After they left she patted the bed for me to sit down. “Are you all going to do anything good this summer?”

“You mean, with you or in general?”

She shrugged but I felt the longing in that action.

“We usually do, with and without you. Expect nothing less this year.”

“Cousin Paul will be here awhile? Remember? I’m going to New York tomorrow. I hate seeing the doctor. The pokes and stuff.” She thrust out her lower lip but didn’t sniffle.

“Yes, unless mother marches him out the door, he’ll be here when you return. We have to be ready to defend him tonight when she fusses.”

Lillian tossed wispy blond hair from her eyes. “It’s all in or all out!”

I grabbed her hand and we went down for pie. That heralding cry had come from Paul–either do something full-on or don’t bother joining in.

The next day parents and Lillian had already left for New York when I awakened. Another check up. Lillian had energy-sapping anemia that curtailed her activities. They had tried a new medicine; every three months she had tests and an exam.


“What? Up way before noon? Did you have an attack of industriousness?” Teddy inquired of my presence.

Paul chortled and poured himself a cup of coffee. They were dressed in shorts, faded polo shirts and sneakers.

“How could I help myself? I have to see what you two are scheming.”

“Include yourself, Merry Mouse, in the undercover work. After breakfast meet us in the driveway. Tell no one you may see on the way.”

They left. I soon followed with my own cup of cream and sugar with strong coffee added to it. Breakfast could wait.

There was a small stack of lumber in front of the three car garage. Nearby sat four bags that looked heavy. A paint can and brushes waited in the shade. A large bench wrapped in plastic stood apart. They walked around the supplies as if they were as puzzled as I, then disappeared into the garage. It dawned on me what it might be when I found them searching through tools on the workbench and wall.

“I know you can hammer so grab one and come along,” Paul said and linked his arm through mine.

We worked well together. Over the years we had created forts, games and toys, sometimes poorly, other times with great success.

It took us longer than planned, nearly until dinnertime, and after showering off sweat and grime we re-convened for a meal.

“I hope it gets the right response,” Teddy said to me when Paul had left for a walk. “Otherwise it will have to be donated somewhere. We could have done better, I think.”

“How can it not? It turned out beautifully.”

“It’s reasonable to us but you know Mother might forbid it.”

“Please! Mother will have little to say when she sees how much fun it is.” I punched Teddy. “And don’t put it all on Paul. Anyway, Father will help. I hope.”

Paul suggested we go out for dinner to celebrate. When he uncharacteristically slipped his arm around my waist I thought he must be anxious. The night was balmy so we ate at an outdoor cafe, pleased in every way. Sloppy and a little rowdy, we walked arm in arm. It gave me pause to think how long we had been together, and scared me to think it might one day end.

When they returned our parents and sister were in improved spirits–the anemia seemed to be abating little by little. Her doctor was cautious but optimistic that Lillian would become more robust in time.

“But what’s going on in the back yard? Has someone constructed something? I saw several nails, which I narrowly missed and returned to the nail jar. Who to blame for that near-miss?”

That was Father. I thought we had placed our project far enough behind bushes and flowers groupings that it wouldn’t readily show, way in a back corner. There was no street view of the yard, so it was hidden from public probing–Mother would be relieved of that. Teddy and I stepped forward in concert. I made a sweeping gesture with my arm, pointing to porch and yard.

“I think we should go out and see the new addition to our yard.”

Mother made a clucking sound as she withheld questions. Paul led the way in the end but seemed slow-footed.

“Oh, you really did it! You made my wish come true!”

Lillian clapped her hands, then ran to the cheery orange sand box and nearly sat right down in it, floral dress be hanged, white shoes tossed onto the grass. But Paul hadn’t yet taken off the plastic from the bench or sand box in order to p[protect both. He did so, then suggested the parents sit down and relax. Lillian sat down with a sound plop. I had found a drapey coverlet to use as a canopy and Teddy and Paul had painted it. We had hung a string of colorful plastic flags on the bushes behind the bench.


“A sand box? Lillian, out of there at once. You have the wrong clothes on, in fact the whole thing is in unreservedly poor taste, the bugs, the mess, the possibilities of animals creeping into it and–”

“My darling Judith, hush for once! Let it be. They have done a very good thing here. A tiny play area right in our back yard. Her little friends will enjoy this, too.”

Mother turned to her husband, mouth agape, and then did as suggested. They watched their late-in-life child, their great surprise whom they adored piling up sand on her lap, digging with a toy spade and filling up plastic glasses and bucket we’d placed there, her toes seeking coolness below the surface.

“It was Paul’s idea,” Teddy started.

“Yes,” Lillian concurred, “he has the best ideas. Every time you guys do things, it’s good.”

Mother moaned. “Ridiculous, unnecessary things. My lovely yard…! Of course it has to be Paul. Why, dear nephew, must you always shake the boat? Visit every summer and give us such a time of it?”

He went to her side and took her hand. “It’s rock the boat, Auntie Judith, and it’s because I love you all so much,” he said, then kissed her cheek.

And that was that. Mother patted his arm and sat back. Lillian demanded I get Hildy and a few others to join her. Teddy brought out a tray of iced teas. Mother and father sat back on the attractive wood and wrought iron bench to watch Lillian play with Hildy and new sand tools.

Paul stretched his legs out and tapped my sandal with his shoe under the table. His eyes traced my face. “Well, gang, what next?”

“More fine madness, I expect,” Teddy answered. “Maybe we should build a swing set? Add another fountain? I saw a big one at the hardware yesterday.”

I was so pleased our Lillian could be given such simple fun; she had a challenging time of it. But I knew what Paul meant. I gazed at the summer sky as if nothing at all had occurred to me. But as a budding anthropologist I clearly had more real life research to do.


(My photographs are of a Greek Revival mansion built in 1911. The White House is a beautiful historic bed and breakfast inn, located in Portland, OR.)




Summer Play: Olly Olly In Free!


I find myself yearning to play putt-putt golf and Frisbee and know they’ll happen before fall. But, even more, I’ve been thinking alot about “Kick the Can”. It’s summertime and children periodically flood sidewalks and streets around here. Released from regulations and many constraints, they’re eager to skin knees, acquire grass-stains and tans, to race, dive and leap. They want to play, whether six or sixteen, an impromptu tag around the house or rigorous basketball on a court. I know that feeling, still.

Games of many kinds have always drawn me. The more inventive games captivate my intellect though simple ones can be just as exciting, particularly when played with others who share my enthusiasm. I’m not a serious card player (rummy is my speed but we like Yahtzee and Uno, too). Many in our family appreciate board games. Grandchildren have had no choice but to learn Scrabble, Parcheesi, Checkers (regular and Chinese) and Balderdash. Games teach cooperation, encourage friendly competition, enhance independent problem solving. But mostly, they’re fun.

Earlier in the summer two of my grandchildren and I were shopping when they spied a bag of cats’ eye marbles. Since they are nine (grandson) and twelve (granddaughter), I resisted the urge to cry out and jump up and down. Marbles! I hadn’t seen a decent bag of such beauties in far too long. The grandkids enjoy playing various games and they also found the marbles curiously attractive. They’d seen them before but didn’t recall having played a game. How could I have not exposed them to the fabulosity of marbles? I promptly put them into the cart.

Once home I dumped out all the shooters and mibs (the target marbles), then arranged them on the carpet. I noted I had owned a few steelies in my well-rounded collection. The action was about to happen when I got stuck in the process. This was one game I hadn’t played since sixth or seventh grade. We looked up rules and game variations, then played several simpler rounds. They bumped and jumped the mibs but kept all in good order. I wondered at their restraint, remembering how fierce and strategic good marble players were. It was a happy couple of hours though I informed them it would be more engaging if we had a big hard patch of dirt or large cement expanse on which to attack the mibs. Living in an apartment now, we have few outdoor spaces for children.

Being outside calls me to different undertakings. I recall all the games I still enjoy as well as those I once played. Born before electronic devices dominated peoples’ every waking hour, I was part of a generation entertained by free or cheap entertainment that easily included neighborhood friends.

“Kick the Can” was a favorite warm weather activity we undertook in the freedom of the outdoors. A cross between tag, hide and seek and capture the flag, it can be played nearly anywhere outside. My favorite place was down the block at the Hensons’ huge side and back yards. One of my best friends, Bruce, and at least a half dozen others converged around dusk. As the sun went down, we revved up even more. The evening was punctuated by easy laughter, occasional squabbles that ended in an altercation we took care of on our own, and the metallic bashes of a tin can being kicked high by tennis-shoed, sandaled or even bare feet. We played until our breath was ragged, sweat flowed in rivulets down our backs, and muscles tired. Or until we got hungry or were called home one by one.


Kick the Can goes like this. Any empty can (or one with a rock in it for more noise) is set up in the middle of an open area. The person who is “It” counts as the others hide, then looks for them while keeping an eye on that can. “It” spies someone, calls out their name and they both race to the can to see who kicks it first. If the hider kicks it first, he or she gets to hide again. If the “It’ person kicks it first, the hider is sent to a designated area called “jail.” Any hider may risk being caught and race to the can to kick it–this can free those jailed. When successful, the runner calls out “Olly Olly In Free” and the jailed mates run out into the yard.

I have heard the proclamation originates from “All Ye, All Ye, Out and Free” way back in the late 1800s, but we never called that out. There are several interpretations, such as “Olly Olly Oxen Free” which also is likely a garbled version of the original. I always felt the phrase we shouted was a vital part of the magic, words that sprung the prisoners and got us going for a new game.

We were attached to the game and each other. During the school year we might not cross paths as often; some might be a couple years ahead, others could run in different crowds. But from June through August, the neighborhood was our kingdom. We made alliances, realigned, made pacts, promises and teams that could alter night by night, only to re-group for another time, another year together. It was being at home in our small world. It was being an integral, impactful part of a familiar whole.

My father loved games, even designed and crafted a few. Two sisters, two brothers and I–and sometimes my mother–joined in. There was always something to do when my friends came over. After snows melted and thunderstorms abated, we hung around in the back yard. It was not as vast as the Hensons’, yet seemed big enough for most things. Hanging from an overarching maple was a wooden seated swing dad had hung when I was a toddler. A basketball hoop on the garage was worn out by us all. A small cherry tree bloomed in the middle of the lower yard; we tramped a path that circled the pretty tree just playing tag. The back of the yard was bordered by tall evergreens and bushes good for hiding.

We couldn’t play baseball or kickball well unless we crossed our property line and entered the tree nursery grounds into a meadow. We did play horseshoes, croquet, badminton, dodgeball, red rover, tag, red light green light, waterballons, bean bag toss, ring toss, Mother may I, horseshoes, hopscotch and held hula hoop contests–to name a few. And played marbles on the sidewalk that led to the garage and yard or on a bricked area where we later set a round table for summer barbeques.

Bored? I don’t recall the feeling much. If I was and bravely voiced it, there was no sympathy.

“Find something to do,” my parents said. “Use your brain and get busy.”

So I did.

If I close my eyes, I can smell the fresh-cut grass and stirred up dirt, hear the susurration of leafy branches overhead as shadows striped the yards. Shadows creep across the Hensons’ lush lawn. Grown-ups call out as they check on us from doorways and porches. My siblings or friends rush past, reach out to tag me, call my name. We conspire to save our buddies from the jail, furtive hand signals allowed only. We each live in the cooling, egalitarian shimmer of summertime, inside the present moment. All for fun, for the shared cause of a game.

All for one, one for all: “Olly Olly In Free!”



Queen Sheba Steps Down

Photo by Robert Frank
Photo by Robert Frank

The place felt like an oven already so Hugh put the tea kettle on one of the three working burners and adjusted the flame. He was making iced tea without being prompted for once. Sheba was still in bed, the sheet pulled up to her eyebrows. It wasn’t likely she’d rouse before noon.

He looked out the window to check on their daughter. Delilah was swinging from the maple, her tanned bare legs stretched toward the next lowest branch so she could push her toes against it. Sheba thought the swing should come down since a neighbor boy fell and lost consciousness a second. But no one blamed anybody but the boy. He’d been stupid enough to stand up and try to jump off at the highest point. Trying to impress Delilah, Hugh guessed. Lucky he didn’t break anything.

“There’s a clue of what’s to come,” he’d said, “when Del grows up. There’ll be bodies at her feet.”

Sheba had pulled back her still-luxurious brunette hair, piled it on her head and stuck a pencil in the topknot.

“Yeah, been there, had that situation.”

“Don’t I know it. Still true, honey.”

Hugh found the second-best glass pitcher, its red and yellow painted flowers half-erased by years of handling. Sheba would complain when she saw it, not vocally but an eyebrow raised high and lips pressed hard in distaste. She preferred the clear glass and gold-rimmed pitcher with matching glasses. They each had gold running along the edges, worn but visible.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “They were fully golden once and they still look pretty filled with iced tea, lemonade or Boone’s Farm.”

The tea kettle started to shriek and he grabbed it fast so as not to wake Sheba. There weren’t enough regular teabags so he rummaged and found a couple stray mint bags back of the cupboard. He sure hoped she’d be happy with it, not soured by it not being just right.

The front door opened then banged shut. He shushed her.

“Daddy,” she whispered, “can I go to Thea’s for a blue popsicle? She’s waiting outside and it’s dripping down her neck.”

Hugh handed Delilah a kitchen towel and shooed her out. “Come back soon.”

“I want to play with her Barbies. She got a new one that can ride a bike!”

“Come back and we’ll see how mom is when she gets up.”

Delilah came up to him and put her arms around his waist to give him a squeeze. He had one hand on the pitcher and the other on the kettle but he let go of the kettle and patted her back.

“Go on but bring back the towel after Thea wipes her neck.”

Del ran out and the door slammed again. He’d have to fix that today. He heard the girls giggle, then Del tossed the towel inside.

“What’s going on? Not yet ten and I’m yanked out of dreams by the sounds of a scream and a bang. Can’t even get enough rest around here. I’ll have to check into Dawn’s Motel just to get fifty winks’.”

Hugh glanced at her and got back to work. Sheba pulled her filmy pink robe about her and shuffled to the round table by the window. She pulled the plastic shade down. Massaged her head as she lowered into a chair.

The steaming water in the pitcher made the tea bags pop up and float. Hugh stirred them with his index finger, then put the pitcher in the refrigerator.

“You’ll thaw everything in the freezer doing that. Steam’ll rise right up and get through cracks, make the frozen chicken legs soft.”

“Bad headache again?”

“When do I not have a headache? It’s my bunched discs, that’s all. Ever since that night….”

A couple flies had sneaked in so he hung another sticky fly-strip above the table after he took the old one down, examined the tiny bodies it had collected since yesterday morning–eight–then threw it away. She watched him as he poured a cup of coffee, then carried it to her. He waited to see if she was going to ask for iced tea, but when she didn’t he took a big breath, let it out and opened the door.

“Close the door tight or we’ll have a gang of flies. We’ll have to move out just to give them enough room.”

He almost laughed, relieved she could still joke, then closed the door behind him, gently so it didn’t jar her.

She thought he said something but it got lost in the hot, dry wind. A heaping spoonful of sugar melted into her coffee. One more night and then to the hospital for tests. MRI, blood tests, things she couldn’t even pronounce. It might be something scary or it might be just her neck whacked out-of-place, which was bad enough.

Still, she was being tough on Hugh. The pain had eroded her will and patience. It wasn’t his fault she’d been mugged. Took her license, one good credit card and forty-eight bucks. He hadn’t even been at the bar with her. Rarely was. He was a steady man, a caring father, worked hard as any man could. But for too long a time now she couldn’t get enough distraction out there. Not so much cheap drinks, but all the activity–pool, darts, music and dancing, the passing flirtations. The attention. Years had flown by. Here she was, brushing shoulders with forty. Paying the price for self-neglect. Neglect of him. She should have left long ago, spared them her impulsiveness. The misery that came of it. But he still wanted her there. She needed him. The wanting had settled a bit awhile ago.

Sheba looked around. They all kept it clean, tried to fix things as they broke. There were touches of better days. The sofa sleeper, brass lamps and a fancy glass vase filled with paper roses. She was proud of her embroidered pictures on the walls, had won a blue ribbon at the country fair for her second-ever quilt. This hadn’t been the plan, any of it. Not the trailer, not the jobs at Hargood’s Lumber that were promising but amounted to less than she deserved. Not the bars. She’d thought she’d do more, be better. Hugh was twelve years older and showing it finally. He still had the sweetest smile, a kindness she craved. He had a touch with the kids. And her. He was one in a million just born good.

“Hi Mom,” Delilah said as she ran in, pulled out a cupboard drawer, then stepped on it so she could get a clean glass from the dish drainer. She filled it with water.

“Is your head better? I got a blue popsickle. Thea said they have a big box in their freezer so any time I want one to come over.” She smiled, took a big gulp and sat at the table.

“My head is fussing at me, but not as mean as yesterday. What have you been doing, Del? Come, let me fix that ole crown.”

Sheba bent over her, the robe falling open so frayed silky tank top and shorts showed. Her skin was pale and tight against her bony legs and chest. She smelled like Jergen’s mixed with sweat, just like she should. The crown was crooked, held in place with bobby pins that Delilah had tried to get in right. When it was straightened, Sheba smoothed back her daughter’s flyaway hair and gave her a fat kiss on her forehead.

“You’re my heart, Delilah Corrine. Ever since your sister left for the city you are all I’ve got and boy, am I lucky.”

Delilah pulled back and squinted at her mother, the same one who’d yelled at her last night to sit still and not make a squeak until bedtime. They’d been watching a talent show. Her mother wasn’t so easy to be around sometimes, that was for sure.

Sheba held her by the shoulders. Looked her up and down. “I know I forget to tell you that, but it’s still true. You have my old crown because you absolutely deserve it.”

Delilah sat down again, hands atop the sparkly curves. “I forget I have it on. I didn’t let Thea try it out. I’m careful. One day I’m going to get my own, anyway, you’ll see.”

“Get your own what? Popsickle truck? A house without bugs?” 

Hugh caught the door before it banged shut and sat at the third chair.

“Naw, my own Summer Festival crown. When I’m sixteen. Like mom did.”

“Well, that’ll be a day to celebrate,” he said. “I won’t hold you to it but I’ll look forward to it if it happens.”

Sheba looked at Hugh funny and he returned her gaze. Her wide-spaced blue eyes were red-rimmed, bleary. The imprint on her cheeks left by the sleep mask looked like deep wrinkles but the fact was she just had a few lines on her forehead that deepened when she was mad and laugh lines that he loved to kiss when she’d let him. Her hair…ah, he loved her hair even when it was a tangle, even when she couldn’t fix it, how it cascaded aorund her shoudlers and flew away from her face when she was working around the place. At work she looked great, confident, head high like a lovely queen, the way she did when he first set eyes on her. But mostly he loved that she knew him–his stubborn streak and forgetful ways, a penchant for quiet and addiction to old kung fu movies–and took him as he was. He tried to do the same.

Delilah saw the signs–soon he was going to say silly things, forget she was there–so she slipped away after she found her Nancy Drew book.

“I want to say how sorry I am for disappointing you, Hugh.” He shook his head. “No, really. All this headache mess has me taking stock. A little late. I’ve got to tell you I’m done with foolishness. Thinking I’m high and mighty. Just because I was good-looking once and was told I’d go far I got this attitude, like I’m owed something. I don’t know why you put up with me. I’m not the woman I wanted to be…”

She never cried. She railed against things or got stoney or got busy. She drank a little too much, went dancing. Sheba was not born to be a whiner, not even when Hugh was laid off for two years now, not even when the doctor said there might be something else going on besides a bad knock on the head. Now, a tear escaped.

He watched it roll down her cheek as if it was on its way to somewhere far away but didn’t want to go. He reached out and touched it so it rolled onto his own skin. Sheba let more out and he just waited, surprised.

Delilah peeked around the corner and saw what looked like tears. She crept up to her mother, took off the crown, then placed it just so on her mother’s head.

“I crown you best mom of all the world. Ta da and amen!”

Sheba stopped crying and her shoulders quivered with laughter. She took the crown off and set it on the table. Sunlight barely lit it up, it was so old.

“How about we just be who we are right now? Just leave it at that?” Delilah looked puzzled, unconvinced, but sat in her mother’s scrawny lap.

Hugh slapped his thigh and stood up. “I’ll add an amen to that. And I’ll make lunch. We can eat at the picnic table in back. May as well relax. Tomorrow is another day, a long one for mom.”

Joshua’s Fourth of July

Fourth Of July Fireworks

For most Americans, the fourth of July is a beloved national holiday, a time to once more note pride in our “can-do” attitude as we kick back and bask in the pleasures of summer. Families and friends make merry and enjoy an age-old thrill in firework displays that remind us of our country’s hard-won independence. But for my family, this date holds other meanings.

In summer of 1997 my son, Joshua, and youngest daughter, Alexandra, had already arrived in suburban Detroit to visit family and friends. I flew from Oregon to join the clan. We gathered together my five biological and non-biological children plus three grandchildren. A photo shows five children (most in their twenties) who grew up together squashed on a couch, smiling, a motley beloved crew.

Joshua (23), Alexandra (17) and I then travelled to mid-Michigan to my mother’s. My father had passed and my mother, in her mid eighties, was considering selling my childhood home. We enjoyed one another and reminiscing. Joshua was going to visit his father farther north when Alexandra and I left. He would be water skiing, boating, doing all the things he loved outdoors and catching up with his father and paternal grandmother.

It was two days before the fourth of July. We had finished eating another good meal at the round, umbrella-topped table in mom’s pleasant back yard. I was sad to leave but my vacation days were few so I readied for the airport.

My son and I briefly embraced. He said good-bye, his engaging smile a flash in the sunshine. He was twenty-two, tan and toned like the natural athlete he was, at ease in his skin. Clear blue eyes glinted with liveliness and mischief as they had since he was born. He wished me a safe trip and I, the same for him. Then, deep within me I felt a deep quiver of fear, an alarm. I studied him, held his gaze, spoke again the words I often said to my children, a mantra, a prayer, a blessing: “Be wise, be smart, be safe.” I shook off the anxiety and left, wondering. Praying as I flew home.

Two days later in Portland, Oregon on the fourth of July, my home phone rang. It was Joshua’s paternal grandmother. There was an accident. A motorcycle accident. Joshua was riding, not even that fast –his father heard it happen from the house–but as he rounded an easy curve on the gravel road, the motorcycle had slid, hit an electrical post, then flew up so he was thrown from the bike.

In critical condition. Taken from the rural hospital by ambulance to a major city trauma center well over an hour away. He had many unknown internal injuries, had a crushed jaw, tongue bitten almost in half. But the helmet had protected him from more grievous ruin. She didn’t know more yet but it was so much it barely sunk in. I suppressed a scream.

I got on another plane, numb, trembling, then calmed as I prayed, my mind filled with images that I tried to banish. I knew he was hanging on at that time. I didn’t know how he would be if he survived.

And when I first saw him, he was my son and yet not exactly, his broken body not yet as familiar to me, while his inner spirit held on, even severely shaken. He lay in the intensive care room strapped to a bed that was in an elevated position, his lean length swollen and bruised, his jaw barely moveable. I understood specialists were waiting to see what would develop, that a clear prognosis was not offered. There were lost and broken teeth, chin and jaw; the rest of the damage was internal. His eyes were changed by pain and confusion that rolled out in waves to me. I touched his hand, shared all the love of my heart, carried in a message from my soul.

In the waiting room everyone was together again. My children but also two ex-husbands, Joshua’s oldest friends, my mother, other family members. We embraced. Wept. Mostly we were devoid of words, beyond expression of feeling. We were terribly still, then restless. Prayerful and stunned.

I thought over and over: I should have warned him. I knew something was not right as we parted ways. I thought: Joshua, you must bear this and you must recover. I thought: I will be here no matter what. The prayer was simple: Hold him close, save his body, salvage all who he is.

Anyone who has had to keep watch over a loved one in a hospital for a long period knows the contradictory features, how time vanishes yet feels like molasses. How misery takes turns with a stalwart calm. Fear runs high only to be overcome by love and hope. And when the days become weeks, it becomes a familiar routine, oddly adaptable, a pattern imprinted so all that exists is those rooms, that child, the patience you gain in order to endure and have faith can go forward. Beseeching God, accepting there are things you cannot comprehend. Each moment faced as it arrives. The soothing moments melt away in sorrow. Peace finally arrives when one more day passes without more bad news.

Joshua, the child who had boundless vigor and curiosity and high spirits, was altered partly by his own stillness. We talked a bit but often we all just sat, watching a little tv. Massaging his feet. Helping him drink water. I would read to him, hold his hand. Music sometimes played. My mother came every day she could manage to be there. Joshua’s father and ex-stepfather visited daily. No one left him alone any longer than could be avoided.

Over the next few weeks Joshua hung on, went through rounds of x-rays, MRIs, blood work, IVs, endured indignities and countless consultations. There had been damage to the spleen, a bruised pancreas, a kidney injured that was now dying. He had fractured and lost many teeth and his jaw required surgery and a metal band to hold all together. His tongue healed more quickly. But after three weeks he was wasting away, weakened, his blood sugar haywire due to pancreatic malfunctioning. He was unable to walk alone more than a few steps. If he didn’t have more sustenance, did not metabolize better, he would grow even weaker. His doctors and surgeon didn’t speak of the future, much less with optimism; they were surprised he had survived, at all.

I was not. I knew his fiery stubbornness and passion for life, how he felt God. And I knew God’s healing power never stopped working. Many prayed for his recovery, kept vigil. The presence of Christ was about us; I felt the warmth, that strength of love.

One day I came to visit and Joshua shared something that changed everything.

“I had a vision, mom.”

“You did? What sort of a vision? Or was it a dream?”

“A vision,” he said firmly. “I was in the desert. I met a shaman who offered me a peace pipe. We sat before a fire and he told me I needed to hunt for meat. I can’t just lie here. I have to change things. In order to heal I must eat meat and other good foods, not just what I am given. I have to tell the doctors I need meat and vegetables. I must gain strength to get up and walk or I won’t make it.”

His eyes were weary with chronic pain but luminous. He was adamant about the vision’s instructions. He had been fed via IVs, more recently had some soft food and more liquids–that was all he could manage, they said, due to damaged major organs, mouth and jaw. When his doctors came again, Joshua informed them he would now be eating what he knew he needed. Or he would leave. I didn’t say anything to discourage him. I knew all his life he seemed to display unusual capacity to heal himself and that he prayed for his own and others’  healing. He was so certain. I believed, mostly, and I definitely trusted in God’s wisdom.

He also refused surgery to repair injuries to pancreas and spleen and to remove what they insisted was a dying, shrivelled-up kidney.

He contradicted them. “My second kidney is hurt but alive. It’ll function fine again someday. No cutting. Let my body heal itself. Let me eat.”

The surgeons and internists listened. They debated and then they agreed. When do hospitals accept that a young man has a vision of healing? But they did not refuse to use regular menus. They pureed and blended ingredients and he fed himself. Each day he seemed more energized. The room lost its shroud of sadness.

Within less than a week he stood on his own, walking with difficulty but with determination, IV stand in hand. Slowly he made his way up and down the hall, longer and farther each time. I witnessed one moment as the full reality of his injuries hit him, tears coming, questions about his choices voiced. And I was overcome with my private grief about not insisting he not go up north that day. I knew I couldn’t have stoppped him but it haunted me. He was living in the present yet worried he might not manage all he wanted to do in the future. But it was clear he was on his way back.

I left when he was eating and walking more confidently. He told me he expected to be back in Oregon before the end of summer and his doctors began to see it his way. After five weeks in the hospital, he was released and after recovering a bit more at his father’s, he returned to Portland.

There were a few phone calls between us and his surgeon. She told me they had never witnessed such an event before, how Joshua simply stated his vision and what to do. The faith. His healing. She said they all admired his spirit and she expressed sincere caring and best wishes.

This is not quite the end of the story.

Before Joshua’s accident he had worked as a commercial painter at a big company. But he had also been pursuing his dream of becoming a well-known skateboarder for years. Constantly active since childhood, he was attracted to individual sports such as snow and water skiing, BMX biking and karate. He had practiced tricks on his skateboard when it was not yet a mainstream sport but considered an edgey rebel’s way of life. He had made great progress, his name ws circulated, but not as much as desired.

After he came home, he stated he was going to become an outstanding skateboarder. He planned on being sponsored by sports companies, competing all over the country and being in skate videos. It gave us pause. It seemed less than likely he could carry on with life without further health issues. He’d had a head injury. More surgery was due for jaw, teeth. He was still healing internally. (We wouldn’t know about the badly damaged kidney for years until he had a minor snowboarding injury that required an x-ray. They found both kidneys, though one was a little smaller, functioning well.) He had a great deal of strength, balance and flexibility to regain, in time.

But my son took charge of the dream and succeeded. He has competed many times, has sponsors including Nike, ACE Trucks, Roughneck Hardware, OJ Wheels, Diamond Clothing, 151 Skateboards. He has appeared in countless skateboarding videos. Photographs of him skateboarding have appeared in over forty national magazine issues. He has had nine skateboards emblazoned with his own name. He still skates today and is, yes, a residential and commercial painter. And a devoted father, a music and art maker, a nature lover. One who still prays for others’ healing, too.

So another Fourth of July is coming up, seventeen years later. We don’t much speak of it though I see him often, so I asked him if I could write about all this. He was fine with it. He has lived other interesting experiences. Life goes on. And whenever an alarm goes off within me, I pay attention. I speak of it. If I am wrong, it matters little. If I am, it might save someone regrets or worse.

My son, who goes by Josh Falk, is getting older but not slowing down much. When he teetered on that precipice above life and death he found a way back to solid ground. I know all prayers upheld him. His faith in Divine Love has deepened as it has informed his living day by day. And his heart? Strong as a warrior’s, tender when it matters most.

Joshua's smile