A Crow Visitation

Crow, etc. Irvington 011

Striding through the neighborhood, I felt cocooned by rich fragrances the morning rainfall had released. I eyed scenes to photograph and snapped at my leisure. My injured foot, taking months to heal, was holding me up but a slower pace afforded lingering observations. Autumnal changes are often subtle, marked by overlapping cycles of life and death, of dramatic shifts in light and shadow. I am fond of the season and felt at peace with the transformations. How fortunate to be walking at all.

Then suddenly there was a thwump accompanying a light smack on top of my head. Something soft but with some heft had skimmed my head. I heard a brief, slow slap of wings through air. I came to a halt. The mysterious offender had left as soon as it arrived and was now gone. I further examined my head for any clue; nothing hurt. All was unmarred beneath my sunglasses, an accessory added in the dim hope of sunshine. I searched the pewter sky and colorful trees.

There, not three feet away, sat an ordinary crow, fluttering its wings on a big leaf maple limb as it settled down. It looked at me long enough to be a strong candidate for the culprit. I couldn’t imagine why it would want to dive into my unruly, wavy mass of hair. In fact, I couldn’t think quite why a crow would bother with me at all, a regular person strolling, except to make note of my passing with cawing and flying from look-out to look-out.

There are scores of such sentinels in our neighborhood. Their posts change by their own design but they never vacate a block for long. The crows barely note me; I nod at them as we go about our business. My husband likes to talk to them, while I study and admire their ubiquitous presence at a distance. What I know is that they inhabit a lively existence made of intricate communications and a strong social hierarchy. That they are smarter than we imagine. Can even recognize people they have seen and don’t forget bad behaviors toward them. I have read little of them and understand less.

What I feel, though, is that they are powerful, exceeding our simplistic understanding or engagement. The creatures I have seemed most connected to have been wolves and coyotes (perhaps foxes, part of the same family), both of which I have encountered. What I was sensing during my crow visitation was that this bird meant something and I was slow to get it.

Not only had it made direct contact but as I trod on, said crow hopped to other branches, then flew to the next tree, perching on a lower branch. And watching me. Well, what? I asked it. Its head tilted back and forth but held eye contact. We each became still. It is a bit hard to see small black eyes in an ebony feathered head from several feet below it–and on a rainy day–but there was that energy meeting eyes spark. I felt seen and examined even as I started on once more. It flew to yet another tree, a swift ascent in the moist cool breeze. I paused to glance at it; it glanced back. The bird was remaining a couple of feet above my eye level. It was patient, and I was its object of interest. Its intelligence was as clear and certain a thing as mine. Was it considering more swoops upon me? Seized by an urge to walk closer to a stone wall surrounding an imposing two-story house, I fought the impulse to make myself smaller. Wait a minute, this was a foolish response. It was a bird, right? The tiny current of fear passed, and my fascination resumed. But I did not dally, kept forward movement in case it thought I was too long in its territory.

Was it considering another dive? Should I stop to chat like a madwoman? Engage in a stare-down? I thought better of that, as it seemed too aggressive. I wanted it to at least emit a conversational call-out.

The visual exchanges between us continued down the block. I came to a corner. The crow paused in a ginko tree, a couple of branches higher up this time. I crossed the empty street with limping steps as my offended foot began to smart. The crow rose, elegant and efficient, only to descend to nearby branches. I slowed my steps to watch; it matched my gaze with its own. Then looked away. Back to me again. I kept expecting my crow–for it had begun to feel paired with me–to speak its language so I could respond with mine. A deeper exchange of sorts. Perhaps I was just feeling possessive since we had been trying to interpret each other as if on personal terms. It had moved from random to…something more.

Or was I feeling as if insidiously possessed by this crow? I waited for it to notify others as usually happens, or to come upon a gathering of crows. To hear their chatter increase, indignant that folks were crossing invisibly demarcated territory or just unloading urgent information. They did speak with impressive inflection and force. Their presence could seem almost imperial. But this crow was silent. It didn’t appear to be ill or abandoned. Was it alone? Lonely?

I tarried and pondered, tossing thoughts toward my crow: What message have you for me? Did you not like how I moved between the trees? Or that I have my camera at the ready? Do you want something I have? Or are you playing, a wily shape shifter intent on teasing as I enjoy the autumn afternoon alongside your kind?

And then the dogged crow rose from the tree branch and claimed a spot on a telephone line crisscrossing corners. It bent its head to look down on me as I backed up a little, raised my camera, and started to shoot pictures. I captured it, whereupon it turned its back on me, perhaps surveying farther reaches since I was moving on.Maybe it didn’t like being photographed? And so I continued on, but my head still bore the odd sensation of that soft, strong body skimming my skull. It remained with me for hours.

I got a call from my son a little while later. He seems affectionately and well-attuned to animal, mineral, vegetable worlds and, like his mother, to other worlds defined by less tangible energies. He at first concurred that the crow was being playful while doing his work of scouting possible threats. Or an intermediary? Perhaps it could be someone reaching out to me with a message? Well, I do know someone who, now fled from earth, who might consider employing a crow to smack me on the head and say hello. I have read that many consider crows to be considered tricksters, as well as keepers of life mysteries and also magical. They also have often been thought to be harbingers of doom. Crows certainly have captivated the imaginations of many a thinker and dreamer.

My crow snagged my attention, an event not soon dismissed. But all the swirling tangents of leading to dark/light, good/evil–it is more than I care to ponder tonight. I am conscious it is close to All Hallow’s Eve; it may be the joke’s on me. A crow is a crow and I, a human, and we are neighbors. But, alright, maybe more.

As I made my way home, a simple idea came forth. I have walked this neighborhood every day for two decades but very little the last three months due to my injured toe. And since resuming shorter walks I’ve tended toward a different part than the blocks this crow inhabits. So maybe it was just telling me it was good to see me again. I like that thought. If so, ditto, and may our paths cross again (though my chances of recalling this particular crow will be minute while crows recall humans well). I will head out tomorrow, see what surprising things may happen. But my crow visitation–as so often nature’s events do–reminded me how we are aligned and connected to all God’s creature cultures, each meant for its own purposes and part of the miraculous design. I feel gifted with such a moment and such a life.

 

Exodus from Tattler Falls

Photo by Pierluigi Praturlon
Photo by Pierluigi Praturlon

At the end of the season–ending in August for some, late September for others–people left in droves so that the town felt like an over-inflated balloon losing its shape. Then finding a new one. The outward flow left the population at a measly 897, a number that jumped to about 1300 via magic arithmetic each summer. They noted the changes each summer and fall, then soon readjusted. Tim Melton, age 9, didn’t give it a lot of thought but found himself counting the days until they all disappeared. Then he could get back to his own business without all the “foreigners” interfering.

Once it had been a nondescript wayside requiring three turns off I-75. The road might be missed if you didn’t pay attention to the small green and white sign at the last turn. Tattler Falls had been voted one of the “Twenty Most Popular Great Lakes Tourist Spots” in the state’s tourism magazine. That was in 1978. The only reason it hadn’t grown a lot more is that there were very conservative zoning laws set in place by Garver T. “Tommy” Melton, Tim’s grandfather, and his crew back in 1950. Little had been altered despite occasional heated debates so there was only so much land to go around. The developers compensated for that by building upwards as much as possible. The fancier houses and a couple of hotels poked above the treeline and were eventually tolerated like warty growths.

Almost two-thirds of the year-around residents were third generation or more. They weren’t well-off but held the power because they held the land. Everybody feared a last family member dying off, as who would the will leave their land to? Often enough, it was bequeathed to friends or the Congregational church or the newer (1989) wildlife refuge at the far edge of town. It was a safety feature, something that folks had dreamed up back when Tommy ran things, more or less. Now he was faltering and staving off a nursing home. Tim liked to visit with him since he could still play a mean game of slap jack from his wheelchair. He also told him interesting things about the woods and lake. Historical stuff.

Tim, like his grandfather, wanted to run things but he was still in training. He knew he was smart but apparently not smart enough to get everything he wanted when he wanted it. Patience was not something he favored, as his mother said, but something he would eventually find.

He pulled up to their long oak table.

“Gosh, I don’t want chicken again, Mom. I want some yummy grilled steak, the ones you bought today.”

He poked at the plump piece of white breast meat that was huddled between mashed potatoes and canned peas. He hated canned peas. Who had come up with that idea? He might have to learn to cook one day.

“Sorry, the steaks are for tomorrow when everyone comes for our end-of-season party. As you well know. Oh, and Gus will be coming. I think.” His mother raised one arched eyebrow high, her mouth pulled into a crooked shape.

“Uuuh.” His mouth was stuffed with potatoes or he might have said ‘ugh.’ Gus was now thirteen and a menace. That’s what Gus’ dad called him when he got mad. Tim could have told him that long ago. But they’d grown up together; he used to be like a big brother. “Nice. I like the end-of-season parties.”

“I do, too, son. Except for all the preparations!”

He studied his mother from under his longish hair and worked on the chicken. Lynne, thirty-six, married to Adam, his dad. Only his dad was downstate working on some bridge construction for a couple more weeks. He was gone more than Tim liked. But his mom was a great one to have around in more ways than he’d admit in public. He peeked up at her. She looked pretty, too, in her blue and green plaid blouse and her reddish-blonde hair held back with a golden headband. Her freckles had been shared with him.

Just this morning she had gone out in the canoe with him. It was early with translucent fair skies. Since so many had left, the water was still and smooth near land’s edge. Quietness floated over the water and them. They watched eagles and red-tailed hawks dip and soar. She had taken pictures, her favorite thing besides fishing and her family.

“I like how empty it feels again. How things go back to the right places,” he said.

“You always say that–always so serious.” The words lit up in light laughter. “I know what you mean. We all do. Like everything is jostled around when the summer people come, things feel close and tight, even the trees feel off-kilter.”

Tim nodded and attacked the whole piece of chicken, put one end of it into his mouth and bit hard before she frowned at him. It tasted good and he kept nibbling away.

“I wish your dad was back,” she said, then bent over and kissed his forehead so softly he barely felt it. But he did feel it and this time did not complain.

“Me, too. He should be here for the party.” It came out as resentful but he couldn’t help it. He was usually scolded for being disrespectful but this time she didn’t say respond.

He finished his meal and carried the plate to the sink. His mom was humming to herself, counting the days until Adam returned–three–and thinking over her “To Do list” for the last big cook-out. If only Adam could be there. He’d been gone most of the summer. Tim saw her face set itself to the Things aren’t easy but I will get on with it and be fine mode.

“Mom?”

“Hmm?”

“Is Charlene Young going to be there? At the party?”

She turned to look at him, her hands in mid-air and dripping soapy water. “I think so, yes, she said she’ll try to make it. You remember to be nice to her, especially.”

Tim nodded, then left the kitchen and picked up his Frisbee. He stepped into their wide enclosed porch, pushed open the screen door and let it slam, heard his mom yell after him to “let it go easy not so hard!” He ran down the steps and stood gazing out over the lake. The air was laced with damp pine, chilly water, rich earth and far off winter smells. He took it all into himself like a powerful energy needed to recharge. There was a rustling movement to his left and Gator, their half-Lab, half-shepherd, dashed out of thick bushes and jumped up on him, eager to play. He threw the disc to Gator but thought about Charlene and June 21, then his dad being gone and for a moment he forgot he was happy.

********

It had been a perfect summer day. Tim and Missy had taken the rowboat out earlier and fished a little with homemade poles. Then they went swimming by her big old cabin.

“I can out-swim you any day!” She swam out to the floating dock.

“Beat ya!”

He took off after her. They were neck-and-neck until the last few feet when he burst ahead and he called it.

“Victory!”

Missy dunked him and they tussled in the water, gulping some lake, coughing and laughing. She dove deep and he followed, grabbing her toes. The plants waved at them as they torpedoed by. Fish grazed their legs and arms. They resurfaced, pulled themselves up, caught their breath as they leaned back.

“I’m getting my hair cut before school.” She pushed it back from her face now, long dark strands catching on chin and nose.

“So? We always get our hair cut for school. I don’t know why. I’d rather keep mine long.”

“No, I mean, I’m getting it cut really short. Like this.” She pulled the wet mass back so it looked like her head was a seal’s or a wet puppy’s.

Tim tilted his head, wiggling his index finger in his ear to get out the water. “That’s too short.”

“I need something new.”

“Why?”

“Because…I want to, because…it will look better shorter.”

“That’s stupid. You’re not even ten. You don’t have to change anything. Or ever.”

Missy scooted to middle of the slick wood surface and brought her knees to her chin. “You can change for no good reason. Or for fun.”

“Yeah, I guess do what you want.” He looked at her sideways. “Makes me think about Annie Young.”  He’d wanted to talk about Annie for once.

Missy’s head whipped around. “Annie? Why? Anyway, I’m not sure she’s having fun. You’re joking, right?”

“Maybe she’s having fun her own way but not such a great way. We hear stuff and I wonder.”

Missy sighed and stretched out white, bony legs. “I know. I mean, we live in Tattler Falls! Not the humongous city. How can she get that stuff? She’s just fifteen…”

“Dad says drugs just travel from downstate and before you know it, it infects all the best places and people. I agree. It’s awful when  nobody needs that stuff for anything good. Ridiculous!”

Missy shivered. “It’s gross. It’s spooky, too. If it can get to Annie, who’s next?”

“It won’t get us, right?”

“Right.”

Tim leaned toward her, shoulders making contact for a second, then kicked the water hard. They dove in one after the other. Missy won the race to shore by a length. They ambled ashore talking about playing badminton when Missy’s mom rushed out with big towels and wrapped them up. She burst into tears.

“Come in the house, kids, okay? I have bad news about Annie Young.”

********

“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a smart ass,” Gus said, toothpick bouncing between his lips.

“I didn’t mean anything by it.” Tim tossed a flat stone into the water and watched it skip.

“Well, then keep it to yourself.” He smacked Tim on the back so it stung.

“All I said was–‘

“I heard you the first time. You told Missy you wondered where I was the afternoon Annie died. Everybody knows I was out on the dirt bike. I get so sick of everyone pointing their fingers at me!”

The lake rippled as the rock punctured the calm, burnished water. Dusk was gathering about the trees, and the sunset had left its afterglow upon the lake’s mirrored surface. Tim wished Gus would go away. He could smell the steaks about ready. There was a bonfire and he knew Missy and the others were finding good spots. But Gus had called him down to water’s edge.

“I’m going soon, anyway.” Gus picked up a knobby stick and tossed it into the lake where it floated away.

“What? Where to?”

“Maybe Ohio. My dad’s parents. I need a breather. Just because I like weed and tried a little meth…I’m good now but mom and dad…” He turned Tim around to face him, then drew himself up before plunging in. “Look, I of course saw Annie that day.  We were…more than friends, so I thought. That’s what I told the cops, too. I saw her with Jubal– they were on his BMW–when I headed to the trail. I knew Jubal was up to no good but Annie didn’t listen to me… So when I heard about the crash, I was as shocked as anybody, I was freaked out if you want to know the truth because I told her to stay away from him. He’s totally no good. So now he’s in jail after they found the drugs and good riddance. But Annie!” He covered his eyes, then stared into the distance. “I need to get out of here.”

Tim felt frozen to the stony earth. “Why are you telling me all this?”

Gus picked up a rock and threw it so hard Tim couldn’t see where it arced in the fading light. Laughter and loud voices overtook the soft shusshshusshshussh of lapping waves. Tim felt himself drift a moment. It would get windier soon, rain, then snow. He knew the fire was blazing and wished Missy would come down with some of their friends.

“I’m not sure, buddy. You’re pretty smart and I guess I thought you’d understand but maybe you’re too much of a kid, still. Yeah, you’re just a runty, snotty-nosed kid.” He backed away, then turned toward the house and rich smells of food and the bonfire. Stopped.

Tim watched the older boy’s face as the orange glow of the flames fell upon his face. Gus used to look so much bigger. Now he just looked worn out, a lot skinnier. Was it that meth drug or was it Annie leaving? Okay, the truth: overdose and death.

“But I kinda get it. You want to leave that day behind. Maybe the whole summer. And Ohio might have an answer…or something.” Tim dug the heel of his shoe into the dirt and rocks. “I wish that day had never happened, too, it’s like a nightmare took over our town and nothing is really the same.”

He was afraid he was going to let it jump out, the sharp-edged sadness, the fear that had crept into his life. New worries about his dad going so far away for work; why couldn’t he stay home? His mom feeling lonely sometimes, he could just tell. The summer people could come and go as they pleased, make things better or worse for the rest of them. But this was their own place, and it had been so right and good for so long. It was home. There were new things every year Tim didn’t understand. Or even want to. And this summer had been the hardest so far with Annie being taken.

Gus didn’t look at Tim but hung his arm loosely around the younger boy’s shoulders. “Yep, you’re a genius. A decent kid.” They started to walk back.

“Gus, I never told anyone, but the week Annie’s funeral took place? Her mom, Charlotte, saw me in town and she put her arms around me, squashed me so tight I thought I was going to choke. It scared me. All I could smell for hours was her perfume, something way too sweet…I’ll never forget it!”

“Yeah, that’s grief, buddy, that killer hug. I don’t know much about perfume yet.”

Missy saw them then and trotted down to grab onto him as Gus drifted into the boisterous, milling group. Tim thought for sure he was seeing things when his father’s face moved out of the shadows and into the beautiful October firelight but no, he was back. He had come home early, just for the party. Just for them. Tim started running, Missy calling after him to wait up.

 

Sidekicks: My Galloping Sister and I

Allanya, our sister Marinell (now deceased), and me, Cynthia- 2010

One more time: back in the hospital. It’s been a year spending time in one or another of them. First my oldest sister’s passing. Then I landed in two different hospitals. Next, my dear friend. Now Allanya, my last and only sister.

I sip my coffee and give her a smile. It isn’t every day I get to assist my older sister, the empress of all fundamental operations, the executive of primary and unexpected life events, the person with whom I would trust my very life when you get right down to it. I look at her length beneath the shapeless gown and try to imagine her without that defining crooked gait that barely slowed her despite years of discomfort. She is about to be given a new hip. After, I will accompany her home so I can give her a week of assistance.

When she asked me to sign her will the night before surgery it was as if my very blood stopped in my veins. I thought of our older sister, whom we just lost in April. I cannot lose this one, too, not now. I pray for an unerring, clean surgery, for a spectacular recovery.

Allanya is five years older than I am and naturally that shaped our relationship from the start. What can you do when you are doomed to not only be the baby of the family but also the third daughter and default underling to the second sister? The only logical response is to memorize the lay of the land, observe the family power structure and then take your chances navigating the maze of home life that’s revealed step by step. Soon it was apparent that I would be the one to fetch and retrieve, support and defend as required. Oh, yes, also commit petty thievery (another cinnamon roll, for example, or the National Geographic someone else was reading; a quarter or a good pen left on the table). I tried to locate clues to her intentions in order to be prepared for all circumstances. Other things might get tricky, like being left with the corner of our shared bedspread or being forgotten at the community swimming pool. (I’m near-sighted so it was a cautious, blurry trek about the huge pool.) And I, of course, was a keeper of secrets, as we all know littlest kids see and hear the most.

Yes, better to be a strong ally, to be the right hand girl. Or get creamed. A few sisterly punches or verbal blackmails straightened right out.

Now she is much older…no surprise that I am, too. But things have a way of re-balancing. After all, life brings with it not only rewards–she became a real executive director and I became a counselor and writer (another sort of keeper of secrets/pilferer of experiences)–but we also have suffered apart and together. We moved and tried out lives in different places, only to reunite over twenty years ago in the Pacific Northwest. We had lived together in the Seattle area after I exited high school (while she was a high school teacher). I knew I would be back one day as mountains, forests and sea beguiled me. I just didn’t expect it to take me so long.

When I did consider following Allanya out to Oregon, I was in exodus from what felt like the hardest half of my life–I hoped it would soon be put behind me. She offered me one of her rental houses and my relocation became immediate. And this sister–who had filled the place with all necessities and left fresh flowers on the dining room table–made the house a sheltering place. She was only a few minutes away. I recall standing in that lovely house feeling overwhelmed as warm honey-hued light burnished the space. Wondering how I deserved a sister so loving and generous. Such faith in me helped enable a new beginning.

Year after year our experiences elicited often happy, sometimes tart and tender moments; we’ve stepped forward and back in that dance that siblings choreograph. And that day in the surgery waiting room I felt I was right where I wanted to be, close at hand. Her legs, as needed. Her cheerleader, a purveyor of all things good and hopeful. For Allanya, it meant relinquishing control, not an easy thing, to say the least. For me, it meant being ready to give what was asked. It meant being love in action, just as she has been so often for me.

She waited until the pain of an awkward gait forced her to do something about it. Far too busy for years, she kept saying, to take the time to get repaired and mended properly. Now that she has, I find myself in a familiar position, back to fetching and retrieving, and aiding and abetting–but being a most willing sidekick.

After two and a half days in hospital, she is recovering from the hip replacement operation. And this time I also get to call a few of the shots. Or, so I wish.

“Slow down with that walker, you’re going to run over the dogs!” I call after her as she disappears around a corner.

Allanya listens with a nod and a smile–she is nothing if not diplomatic yet also direct–and then does as she pleases much of the time. It is not in her nature to watch life parade by. She wants to be leading any parade and then does a heck of a job of it; it’s what she knows and what her talents afford. Even if sometimes she can be blustery. Controlling. Well, we all can err on the farther side of our best nature and stubborness is in our DNA.

And so, she comes and goes, back and forth past her devoted but disabled partner who also tends to her. Allanya fusses over their dogs, gives me orders and takes breaks to read, doze or watch television but she is often in the doorway when I turn around. I get food ready and store it and shine up the kitchen, get the mail, hang out, pet, let out and bring back the doggies, do laundry, clean more, help her get ready for bed, help her with her shower, empty the portable commode, put on and take off her socks, run errands and so on. All the things we each need to do every day, life basics we tend to accomplish without much concern as long as we are able to do them. She accepts the help with good humor and a dash of her ingrained managing. I don’t stray far enough for her to get into much trouble those first five days. But I can’t make her stay on the couch, either.

She is, in fact, surprising us, feeling much better each day. I find she is already straining at the bit, acting as if healed entirely–as if she can and will commandeer her entire body’s complex operations. I suggest she have patience and slow down. No, she has to enter the kitchen and help with the meals or find her books or get her own water. She trundles from room to room, the walker sliding and thunking along the wooden floors. I try to be everywhere at once but feel I am losing ground.

“I’m good, I was their star patient, I’m quite strong,” she reminds me.

“I know, but you’re still a human.” I feel like wagging a finger in her face but control myself.

She grins at me, a broad-shouldered, white-haired imp, a woman who has overseen people and events. She is not so easily directed or distracted from her goal. Her gaze is clear as I stare back. Oh, right, I am still a bit of the little sister here, white stands in my hair or not. But I am on my feet so can and will do more. Because I do so want her to get healthy again, and safely.

Then on day four, the day before I am to leave, her body finally rebels and crashes. Energy fizzles and she is dizzy, faint, enervated. Blood pressure too low. Sweaty. Back to bed–and finally she embraces real rest.

I search her eyes. See the veil of weariness cloud them. A little fear. It has taken years to come to this point. Years of laboring, of tending to others, of living with the sort of energy that gives the word “gusto” its essence: a small force of nature. And years of chronic, even debilitating pain ignored as she has served others, her relentless spirit pushed forward by the momentum of sheer will. I get it; we’re family so share some traits. And being slowed, then stopped is uncommon.

I think of how she always wanted to be a cowgirl, how she dressed up in fringed vest and boots and a cowgirl hat. Feet set hard on the ground, legs apart, hands on hips. Dimples deepening as she smiled. How she loved horses, once lived on a ranch in California. She’d always seemed able to do whatever she wanted, to refashion a whole life, to conjur money from a mere good idea, to handle external injuries or internal losses with faith and confidence. Allanya is a mistress of reinvention; it has saved her again and again.

I pray as her eyelids lower, almost expect her to rise from the bed as if nothing has happened. But no, her body is still calling the shots so she needs to surrender, to be truly watched over. And we do. By the end of the afternoon, she is better and up again awhile–then soon to bed after dinner. I sense she will be fine but more prayer never hurt anyone. I dream of families converging, children leaving, sisters reappearing. I feel our other sister, Marinell, nearby and I know she is shaking her head as she laughs, smiling a radiant smile.

The next day, day six, I come upstairs from my basement bedroom and hear “Good morning!” ring out, so I know she is close to being back in business. I am feeling a bit tired, even cranky so take a long walk, grocery shop, pay bills. I need to write but my computer is being fixed. But we watch television shows (some I have never heard of before) until bedtime.

By the seventh day, we are working almost side by side. I take a moment to step outdoors to smell the freshening breezes, note the autumn leaves curl up on the deck around the bird bath. I return to find her nowhere around, call out her name. The echo of her voice careens up to me from far below.

She has left her walker at the top of a flight of steep, shallow stairs, has somehow made her way to her office to work on various pressing matters, I presume. She has avoided catastrophe but given me a twinge of pain in my chest as I run downstairs.

“What are you doing? Trying to create havoc?”

I find her gazing at the computer screen. It is open to Ebay. She is cheerfully eyeing turquoise jewelry, one of the interesting things she has a knack for collecting.

“No problem. The occupational therapist showed me how to do stairs. I’m fine.”

We admire jewelry and she makes a purchase. She stays longer as I work on more laundry. When she is done I follow her up the stairs with the walker-how did that get down there? did she throw it?–and find her footsteps sound.

It must be time for me to go at last.

Later I pack up, then complete chores. I find myself being inclined to stay for lunch and then dinner. There is more I can do. We three watch a reality show that veers between terrible and touching, and chat and snack. My sister’s partner says we’ve been in a girl’s club all week. We’ve talked about books and God and therapy and our children and more. I have found my rhythm within the context of theirs, and the overall peaceful atmosphere has begun to fit like a slouchy, warm sweater.

Now it is time to change gears and re-enter my separate life. I wonder how they will manage. Likely as well as before I arrived. And they have good friends who will stop by and call. Allanya will be released of her chronic pain and stand fully on her feet sooner rather than later, find more intriguing experiences, projects to spearhead, rocks to paint (another hobby), estate sales to take me to, people to help.

I imagine her back in charge as she likes to be, life realigned with healed hip, legs striding together rather than against one another. She’ll work up to a full gallop. I’ll be trying to catch up with her to share a cup of coffee, go treasure hunting or attending a chamber music or dance concert. But, Lord, thank You for this opportunity to be of simple use, to serve. For healing her so well. What a pleasure to be a sidekick, a privilege to help out my big sister when she is in need and to be assured we’ll soon be in cahoots once more.

 

My Reformation (and My Dangerous Aunt)

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I was there, yeah. If I had to get technical about it, I’d say I was across the foyer messing around in the music room. That’s where the records are organized and shelved. I was looking for an Eartha Kitt LP. I had a good stack of tunes selected so was only half-listening to the action across the way. Then I turned off the phonograph. Because my Aunt Adriana was involved in something pretty strange across the foyer.

That’s Adriana Whelton, the woman who married Nathan Clees, that’s right, the same Clees who was charged with art fraud. So she divorced him–but she’d never changed her family name. Why would she? “Whelton” means power and money, and the name unlocks doors, then locks down. That happened before I, her niece, was old enough to care. We’ve moved in different circles, as my mom puts it, so it’s taken time.

It was long before this thing happened. I got involved in her personal situation when I was in need of some help.  Things would have been different if I hadn’t gone along with her offer. I’d have missed a lot.

Aunt Adriana and I got closer after my father, her brother Grant, died. I was eight. She’d send presents for my birthday and Christmas and she visited between boarding school, then college and travelling. Then came charity work. It seemed odd my father, Grant Whelton, and she were related. He was an odd limb on that tree of royalty, some said. So much Whelton money was disappeared by him that he got cut off the year he married my mother. It occurred to me much later that the Whelton family probably didn’t approve of Mom, either. But Aunt Adriana was her own person and we were okay by her.

Dad had been a gambler, so was possessed by that itch to blow more in the blind hope of winning more. I vaguely remember he had a way with people and me, of course. He took me ice skating on the city rink and pushed me in many park swings. He loved music more than anything and played drums in a pick up band The Haven. He was good, I  guess, and his beats sneaked up on my mind now and again. Music might have cemented our bond if he had lived. But no, there was the car accident and that’s all I have to say about that.

So. Aunt Adriana was there. We got tighter. She’d take me out for lunch, not a fancy sit-down place but delis, downtown grills or steak houses, places I loved to eat but seldom did. We went to concerts and museums for “edification” and to open air markets and garden parties for “socialization.” I was a quick study. We’d shop, too. She bought me fire engine red Mary Janes one time. Mom got mad.

“What on earth goes with red?” she asked. “I appreciate it but black or brown ones, please, Adriana.”

“Everything Leelee likes has some red. Plus, it’s more versatile than you think. It pairs well with tan, black, white, grey, navy, yellow, green–”

“No yellow!” I objected.

“Not green, not Christmas combos,” Mom murmured.

“Exactly, she can wear them many occasions. You love them, yes, Leelee?”

“Her name is Leeann, dear.”

“Leelee.” I put a hand on a jutted hip, made a face and was lucky my aunt was there so I avoided a slap on the behind.

Aunt Adriana tried to smooth my edges so I’d “grow up congenial, not just grate on everyone”, but by the time I was fourteen I had stopped seeing her much. I had things to do, new friends to make. Friends who understood my underground anger and newfound laziness, who joined me in small acts of rebellion. Nothing big, just nighttime trespassing on country club grounds (the same one I’d been inside of many times) or stealing objects that fit neatly in pockets like drugstore lipstick or gum or a necklace.

We’d take turns trying to steal celebrity magazines. Only one girl got away with it, and then the pharmacist started after her as she left, magazines rolled under each arm. Three of us were across the street on a park bench so just watched her run like a rabbit. She wasn’t caught. But I wasn’t so keen on reading them later. I kept seeing that man, leaning over with hands on knees, shaking his pale bald head, panting. I knew all the filched stuff cost him. You have to know right from wrong to grow up in one piece. I wished I could be somebody seriously good. But meantime I tried out a wilder side; tough girls weren’t boring. It distracted me from my mother and her new guy. I felt you had to check out things not so good for you to be clear about what’s better. You have to take risks to learn, right?

I asked that of Aunt Adriana. She pressed her long finger tipped with a silvery nail into her dimpled cheek, then squinted at me. “I think you’re looking for a reason to justify behavior you shouldn’t be doing.”

“What?”

“Don’t ‘what’ me, Leelee. You’re up to something sketchy. I don’t see you enough.”

“I’m fine, Aunt Adriana. Good friends, doing fine in, forming my own identity!” I knew that sounded good.

“Nonsense. Your grades may be okay for now but word is your friends are trouble. How can you go to a school that has nearly two thousand students and pluck out three who are bad apples?  You have no good reason for this. Your mom’s boyfriend, while not the man I would choose for her, is okay and she is not your problem, either. You are. Time’s wasting, Leelee. I need you near me this summer.”

“Summer? That’s when I can actually have fun, when my friends and me–”

–friends and ‘I’–”

“–we can play tennis, swim every day, hang out, uh, maybe study boys.”

“You’ll do all that at my place. It’s settled. You’re coming to the city and after you demonstrate the capacity to revert to a more courteous, mentally engaged, capable young woman–only then will I consider taking you somewhere fabulous.” She winked at me, a thing we did. “You know I play great tennis and swim. We’ll go to the club. There are a few good-looking boys there, too, if you care.”

“Really, they’re mostly stupid. But…I guess.”

My aunt informed her. “Leelee needs firm but gentle correcting, not harsher rules. Hand her over to me and I’ll see to it.”

I was surprised it was that simple, my mom fed up then my aunt taking control. There was no good way out and frankly, it was a relief. I had dreaded nothing much good happening, getting in more fixes in the end. But I sulked about it, anyway.

And I loved her spacious, pretty house, though I never made a fuss about it to her face.

“I can manage without your help.”

Aunt Adriana crossed her arms over a crisp white blouse–she looked so good in something that simple–swept up to the armchair I was wedged in and loomed over me.

“You’re about to learn finer points of living well, Miss Leeann. It starts June 26 and ends August 26. Sit up straight. I’ll get us iced teas with fresh lemon. We have plans to discuss.”

Seventeen years older than me, youngish but also old enough to take an upper hand and get away with it. She worried about me, showered me with attention as she saw fit and encouraged me. My old friends wished they could have such an aunt. The new ones thought she was snob who wouldn’t recognize real life even if it was spelled out in bold letters.

We had over two good weeks of outdoor activities. I helped her with a charity event, too. We went out for breakfast every couple days and she loaned me grown up books. We both had the start of sweet tans from daily swims in her pool. I wondered why I’d avoided her for a couple of years and she wondered why she’d let me. I even listened to her advice–she had ideas, experiences that were fascinating. But I didn’t understand one thing she said.

“Leelee, you are the kid I will probably never have…I just couldn’t do this full-time…and you know I love you. So keep in mind that we have to bear with each other sometimes, be patient with our faults.”

I was in the pool so shaded my eyes to better see her face. There was a shadow of sadness making her forehead crease, but it passed.

Then one more carefree, bright day arrived and brought with it a man. Douglas. He picked her up for lunch. She hadn’t warned me. In fact, she’d only mentioned him in passing, one more name among others on her contacts list. I was working on some dance moves in front of my closet mirror when the door chimes peeled out. Muffled voices drifted up.

I peered down from a curved balcony above the foyer. A man with a gaunt face and wide jaw, wearing tan slacks, a black polo shirt straining against his pecs, black loafers on big feet. He took up the whole doorway. Who was this clown? An eyebrow rose as he glanced up, saw me, put his arm about her waist. Obnoxious, the whole thing.

“Come down, Leelee–meet Douglas!” Aunt Adriana called out to me with a cheery voice.

Too chirpy for her, I thought, but dutifully descended the staircase and held out my hand. He shook mine as if it was a man’s. You might say he was a caricature, aka “right hand thug of mob boss but better manners”. Better dressed. As he walked I noticed as he had a sort of natural, wild grace; I imagined he was athletic. But he smiled at me without showing teeth.

Douglas felt all wrong being close to my aunt and eyeing the place.

They saw each other every Tuesday and Thursday for lunch after that, and sometimes Sunday nights. I didn’t mind her being gone–I had things to do. I didn’t trust him. Not with my aunt.

So why did she?

She told me after the third time they went out: “He’s a tennis pro at Westside Club but he also has an economics degree. He is trying to start up a business. For now he’s a hoot to hang out with.”

I looked up from the magazine I was reading, gave a big fake smile. “He’s, um…different. Not right for you.”

Her mouth twisted as if she was biting back words but she only said: “It’s a summer thing, Leelee, a few laughs. I can do that; I’m a grown up.”

“But maybe he has another agenda.” I liked getting to use that word.

“How frank of you to allude to money right up front.”

“Well? Big surprise!”

“You know so little about the male of the species, Leelee.”

“And I should watch you and learn all about it?” I really wanted to tell her she was stupid to spend one more minute with him, he was a goon, so felt good about holding back.

“Don’t be rude! He’s just a…well, he’s a very attractive man!” She flounced off, coral and white dress swishing as she hurried up the stairs.

Time passed. They got chummier. I felt like chunks of our family time were falling off the calendar. That man was sure trying to get on her good side. But I had sports, a couple of friends at the club, three books to read just because. It was a huge gift to be there. How could you not love so much free fun? Except for golf, which I truly and deeply resented despite my aunt wanting to convert me.

Aunt Adriana seemed distracted a little more after each date but said nothing. She had her private life despite my claim on her. It was another world she inhabited; I was a visitor in it. But an anxious feeling trailed her at times. I worried, then let it go. I was only the Teen-ager; she, the Adult.

One Sunday night Douglas came by and I chatted with them before they left. He seemed impatient; she seemed bothered. Up close I noticed he had a dark half-moon scar on his right cheek; his tan was too tan, as if covering up more. On his right hand was a gold ring with a chunky diamond. Had that always been there? I wondered if she’d given it to him.

They took off. I reheated spaghetti and meatballs from the night before. We had gone to Salvatore’s. Aunt Adriana and I had talked over where we’d go before school since she determined I’d improved my ways. She’d suggested Chicago for school shopping and I was floored.

Then I asked her. “How’s it going with ole Douglas?”

Her blue, hooded eyes blinked. “Why? He’s fine.” She took a taste of her wine, then a gulp. “Just dandy.”

I backed off and she chattered about how glorious “windy city” was and soon we’d be there for a whole week-end. That was serious cause to keep behaving.

So, then. That night it was about ten o-clock when I headed to the music room. I searched through my aunt’s huge collection for Eartha Kitt, a forbidden singer in my house where Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney reigned or, worse, cheesy classical. I had developed a taste for classic jazz and blues due to my aunt’s interest. It spoke to me lately. I was studying liner notes when the front door opened and Aunt Adriana’s high heels clicked along the marble floor. I thought about going out to say hello. The room’s French doors were partly open and I didn’t hide, I was just looking at records. They moved toward the formal living room, a surprise since they usually went to the library or kitchen. His voice was a bass rumble. Hers was louder as she asked a question–her words ended on an upswing. Then silence. I found my LP but realized it was Billie Holiday I was looking for, after all. The song, “Good Morning Heartache.” A winner.

Their voices rose as I turned on the vintage stereo so I stopped. Douglas was yelling at her and she yelled back, her voice a sharp stab in the air. It was a shock to hear her; for a second I thought another woman had slipped in the place. I moved to the doors, opened them more and was still.

“I am not giving you any more. You make your own. You will have to invest your own. I have my priorities and you are not one of my charities despite your delusion. And I am not a loan officer.” Aunt Adriana gave each word weight, as if explaining something to a kid.

“But from the start you knew the situation. You knew I needed more to move forward. You were interested! You kept me on a leash all this time? And now you’re going to tell me to sit and beg–or kiss off?”

“I have had better behaved dogs–you’re totally incorrigible!”

“You listen to me, Adriana Whelton–my time is well overdue!”

“Absolutely not.”

There were muffled sounds, a pause, massive thud against a wall. My skin prickled. I opened the doors, entered the glossy foyer.

“A deal is a deal!”

“Douglas, I did not plan on this, was barely even an interested party!”

“But I owe too much!”

“Oh, well! As I told my brother, tough luck, not one bit is that my problem. Not one cent.” Her voice came out a growl, and it carried across the foyer with gale force. As if she was the mob boss in this scene.

“Aw, come on!”

I decided I should just let her deal with him. She knew plenty about money and gambling and men; she could handle things. But Douglas scared me more, his size, his anger. Then the crash came, objects breaking, then Aunt Adriana’s scream. Another thud, another crash. My heart squeezed as I grabbed a candelabra from a side table and dashed across the slick marble floor, sliding right into the wood-floored living room and nearly falling. I caught myself and stood strong as I could.

I thought I’d find her sprawled on the floor. But it was him. In her right hand was a big shard from a tall heavy glass vase, the one that had held white peonies and blue hydrangeas atop the fireplace mantle. He lay moaning opposite her, one leg falling off the sofa, head bloodied. Fear snagged my breath.

“Aunt Adriana!”

I pulled at her forearm, the one being tatooed by thin red lines of blood. But she stood as if deaf. Pale high heels set apart as if cemented to that spot, lacy sweater falling off her diminutive shoulders, chin pushed up. Her mind and body were prepared for a charging beast but there were none. He now sat on the Persian carpet next to the ruined vase, holding a handkerchief to his forehead. He did not look near death; his face bore astonishment.

This was a woman I did not know, either, even when she turned her head to me, until her mouth formed a tiny acknowledging smile. I shivered, felt a bit faint with relief and shock.

“Do not call the police, dear Leelee. Douglas is leaving the premises of his own accord.”

He got to his feet slowly and backed away from her, shouting things I will not repeat. My aunt tossed him a black shiny wallet which apparently he had taken out in gleeful anticipation. He glowered but was glumly silent as she pointed to the front door, her injured hand aloft as if dripping with fine family jewels, not rivulets of life blood.

That was it. I helped her clean and bandage her hand, less serious than it had looked. She reassured me Douglas would go home and do the same, then lick his proverbial wounds; he wasn’t a complete fool. She was rid of him, she had the power and influence to get him fired, to puncture his dreams of being an entrepreneur if she chose. She was so certain of her victory that I relaxed. My aunt soon calmed, seemed herself as we drank tea on her bedroom balcony.

She smoothed my hair back from my face and sighed. “I have a weakness for trouble, too, Leelee. Well, for men who can be trouble…There you have it. I haven’t learned all I should yet. I suspect it takes a lifetime.”

But in bed that night I lay wide awake, wondering about her. Who she really was. How she managed to do what she did. I hadn’t quite sorted it out, the right and wrong of things. But she had stood up for herself, warded off danger. I wanted that confidence at the very least. She’d been so good to me and others but she could be that badass as needed, right? Well, that’s my Adriana, and I’m her niece so we share genes. This is part of our story, thus far. I sure am ready for more.

 

Love and Excisions

By Vladimir Volegov
By Vladimir Volegov

Tomorrow I’ll roll out of bed before 6:30 so I can pick up my dear friend on the other side of the city, then ferry her back my way to the hospital. I’m doing this because I have so cared about her for fifteen years. There is a grab bag of chortles and sighs to sort through as I consider what’s ahead for her. She lives alone now. How few people we might call upon; our neighbors are usually not the first choices for such events. Just as she has been with me through upheavals and victories, I am for her. For one thing, she extended herself immediately at a women’s recovery meeting when I was in need of a particularly female place of both daring tales and ready kindnesses. It became obvious the meeting was exceptional and her rhapsody of laughter and open-heartedness made a real difference. We remain close, checking in with each other, enjoying a meal, attending movies or plays. Life has thus far been pretty darned good to us. She and I haven’t had one fall-out though we are quite different in many respects.

But tomorrow I know it will be humbling, even taxing, to pull on one of those visually defeating, chill-inducing gowns, then to lie back and submit to various drugs and tests. Then wheeled into the room where medical staff organize and implement surgical procedures. They try to reassure you as full consciousness fades. Still, you are left stripped down to vulnerability, set sailing into a narcotic-tinged land from which you emerge an amnesiac. If lucky.

It’s not a situation to be wondering why you are somehow left alone. It is not what anyone of us would want to be doing, at all. The smells, the sounds, the equipment and the faces you don’t even know but must trust…well, we do what we have to do.

She is having a lumpectomy, whereby a discovered but not yet scientifically identified mass will be removed from breast tissue and sent to pathology. I’m not certain just how the rest works after I remind her God is watching over her now and always, and I am with her, too, only in the waiting room, then give a small wave.

However, I do recall some of what it was like for me in 1977.

It seemed the room to which I was sent was right inside the exit of the small hospital. I think there was greeness seeping through curtains, undulating shadows of branches. Then the rudeness of a light so huge it swallowed me up. Or was that later? It was mainly like swimming in dreams, peculiar yet exquisite, memorable enough that I wrote a poem about it two years after the excision, at age 29. This was way back when I used the name Cynthia Guenther-Falk. It was published in a small college lit journal, Wave Two. 

How is it that beauty sprang from overriding fear as my eyelids fluttered and fell? My husband at that time had brought me to a small city from the country–we were rural then–but I don’t remember his being near in other ways. We were at odds then and our teeth were set hard as we faced this new ordeal. There was a love that exhilarated us with its creativity, the countless possibilities between us, yet we could not keep steady footing for long. Before the atmosphere grew heavy, passion woven with recurrent patterns of resentment and disbelief. A sculptor and carpenter, he was an echoing force without uttering a sound. I, a writer and singer who needed to excavate obscure meanings, a lost and elegant measure. I wanted happiness to take deep root but it grew spindly, in the end. Failed us even as we held on.

And in the midst of this snarl of warning signs was that well-defined lump, left breast. An unyeilding bit of matter that made life more strident. What were we to do if it was–trying just not to think it– cancerous? What would be left of me even if not? Would this bring us together, like two feet walking in a pair of shoes as meant to be? Or would there be one more expanse taut between us as we moved into opposite positions?

There was and has still not been any breast cancer in my family–in fact, very little cancer of any sort. There is heart disease that kills in many ways; it got hold of me at 51. But before then I was horrified of that three-inch mass, how it dictated the tone of my daily life, threw long shadows onto any future. For a while. When it was sliced, tested and certified benign we were released of staggering options that would have brought more grief. But I remember how the sudden hug hurt as he pulled me  so close. That after the winter I nearly subsisted on air, stress and a foolish, stubborn hope. His father was dying. The air thickened with angst. We were unable to say to one another the saving words. Then finally one late spring day he passed the children and me as we drove away from that life, and he shouted from his truck that he had already filed for divorce, anyway. How that made me cry out as if another kind of knife had rent the skin of my soul.

But the breast tissue healed. The scar was not too big, was even tidy. Sometimes I felt guilty knowing things were not fine for so many other women. I had been a hippie mom, nursing long and well, and would again. My biology had often felt easy; being female even felt irrelevant as intellect worked hard. Yet being female also had hindered and hounded me. Still, although that life was not one fitted with sturdy happiness I was able to reclaim it as my own when the diagnosis came.

In youth we feel it all but understand–indeed, can barely claim the truth–much less. I don’t today live in fear of breast cancer and the spectrum of experiences I did then. Even though anything could happen that is worse than imagined. Even though some things have. I am much older now, older than I thought I wanted to be when only 27. But I know the veil between this life and the other is nearly transparent. I have slipped through it, have even been comforted. Amazed. Life reconfigures us and we, it. I am most fearful of not living in truth, with enough depth. Not seeing the kaleidoscopic beauty of this current life. Not finding enough of God moving among us. Not loving enough, without one regret.

The physical scarring that was left me has remained visible; it has been tagged at every mammogram,  explained as partners’ fingers have found it. There was another biopsy but less invasive; decades have passed and there is so much more knowledge and good treatment. But women still suffer and die way too often from the proliferation of treacherous cells. And, I know, from treacherous lives.

My first husband, he who accompanied me to the breast surgery, passed away this year. I dream of him and say his name without speaking. We had something rarefied as an orchid though it also needed more or different nourishment. He died from long-ignored cancer, which haunts me (though he would have said: it can be anything, anything that gets us, it matters little). Maybe that is why I was able to locate the poem; it longed to be recalled, the caring and errors of caring. I went right to it, found it wedged beside greater volumes on crammed and dusty bookshelves.

When my friend told me she had to have a similar procedure as I had once had, it came right back as if it was yesterday: that day, that year. And when the page was opened I felt again that disassociation, the weirdness of biopsy. But also how much any kind of love can elicit moments rare and unsettling and crucial. Friends, lovers, children, husbands. We find the intersection of such moments and take them with us or are the lesser for it.

We know how much we care for others and our very lives by how our hearts keep close their names–and the fierce and tender ways we continue living.

This is the poem from 1977. It tells a portion of that surgery’s story and what surrounded it.

Friday/Excision

I am swung high into whiteness
as voices skitter beyond.
In the chrome-ringed sun–
is this Saturn, have I come
this far?–
is my head, hair spread out
over shoulders in silken
riverlets, my neck
smooth as a moonstone.
Breath is drawn somewhere
near my toes,
vaporous breath and sensibility
rippling about veiled flesh
and mind.

Soon the singing comes
even though I have not called it,
bird-voicings, light sounding
the whiteness through a tangle
of vines. Wings
of many colors,
eye of jewels,
flowers like plumes in the wind.
Your shaman hands dipped into
sweet waters, my throat.

Whirling, we lose our legs
to shadows, lengths of light.
And stop. See here?
My forehead bears our imprint
and more,
and less; nothing is lost.
But we migrate to the certainty
of earth, changed and unchanged
together.
And I become
mountainous, my narrowness
overcome with leaves and blossoms,
blossoms and leaves.
Wind.
I try not to sing aloud

now it is done. I see that
from my breast has come something
as large as a pigeon’s
egg. The pocket of
skin is embroidered shut;
I am covered with a new breast
of soft gauze.
And rise with quivering sight,
the knowledge of so much
fine-edged steel in a lifetime,
your fingertips dreaming
in my shoulders

(from Wave Two, published 1977)

So, tomorrow morning I will sit and read, pray for my friend. I may even recall my own experience but will accept my past self as I was, a young woman filled to the brim with intimations of good to come yet blinded by wrong assumptions, too. But for my friend I will be present. Will hope against hope that she comes through this without any weeping but if weeping is needed, I will hold on to her. Love shared is that easy–it comes from a place of grace, thanks be to God. I want her life to be reinvigorated by joys. Balanced by peace. If difficulty is ahead may I take that road with her. The light we seek and find is always there. We are charged with keeping it bright. May it fill her being and body now and tomorrow.