Some stories just want to be told: healing and wholeness in everyday life
Author: Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Hello fellow readers and bloggers,
Writing has always been a powerful connector to diverse ideas and people. We each are a meaningful part of this beautiful, ever-widening web of life. Blogging enables more interaction, which I love even after 11 years of blogging posts on three different sites.
For thirty years I was an addictions/mental health counselor and also a manager of home care services for elderly folks. Now that I have hit 70 and am more devoted to a creative life! I've published online or in literary journals/collections several times, including fiction and creative non-fiction pieces and poetry over five decades. Additionally, I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for an excerpt of my novel-in-progress, Other than Words (the work gathering dust at present), about a mute dancer and her impact on her adopted community and a world-travelling photojournalist. I also am working on a connected set of stories about a close-knit town in northern Michigan.
On Wordpress I enjoy writing about living richly despite (or because of) life's setbacks and a diagnosis of heart disease at age 51. Posts tagged "memoir" share spiritual adventures, interactions with nature, the healing of trauma's impact and challenges of writing full-time. Short stories and creative nonfiction, and poetry are favorite genres but I enjoy sharing my photography as well
My hope is my offerings reflect a profound faith in God and our humanness which cloaks spiritual natures. I include myself as part of the diverse group of writers who discover and share the illuminating, positive experiences amid life's uncertainties and hardships.
Let me hear from you when you visit--I appreciate your comments a great deal.
Blessings and regards from
From the start, you can tell this is no ordinary walk in the woods. First off, there is the name, The Grotto. The history indicates that a young boy prayed for his mother’s life after she nearly died in childbirth and when she lived, he promised God he would build a shrine. Years later he joined the Servite Order and was sent to minister in the Archdiocese of Portland, OR. In 1923 he found acreage that was appropriate and work began on carving out a cave for an altar in a 110 ft. basalt cliffside. The 62 acre property was developed by the Catholic Church over time, including gardens and a Grotto Monastery of the Order of Friar Servants of Mary atop the cliff. There is daily mass held, retreats offered, weddings in the pretty church and many special events for surrounding communities. The Servites remain active in work and prayer at the monastery.
In order to fully enjoy the gardens and a view of the Monastery, as well as embark on a contemplative walk, we take the elevator up to the clifftop. The view upon disembarking is expansive, allowing one to observe parts of the city and the Cascade Mountains (on the Washington State side of the Columbia River).
On the Upper Level are opportunities for a prayerful experience with the Stations of the Cross, a Meditation Chapel, a labyrinth, the monastery and a few cultural shrines of Mary, as well as lovely green and floral garden walkways. There are ponds and flowers, a few benches to rest upon. The birdsong and towering trees are wonderful.
The labyrinth is designed to replicate France’s Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth. I had never walked it; it isn’t a quick or easy meditation to do. But I was truly awestruck by photos of Chartres as a young teen and later as an art student in college, and ever after longed to go there, to experience it scared beauty in person. But I may never do that. So this time, I walked this labyrinth and took my time. Though others came and went and a couple started then quit walking it, I was fairly oblivious. Soon the labyrinth pulled me in and I followed the complicated turns, step by step. I kept on, up and around and back and forth and toward to center again. I felt its quietude, its unique power. I can’t explain why. I stood in the center and felt deep calm. I followed the way out and as it ended I was deeply moved, with the surprise of tears arriving.
We completed the walk through the gardens in an hour, grateful for cool breezes and pervasive silence, the prayerful texts and the opportunity to contemplate the many ways God can be sought and discovered.
We had come full circle and decided to end with the Meditation Chapel before taking the elevator back “down to earth”. We chose to stay outside as many people came and went. There’s a wall of glass on the western side of the chapel and the view is excellent. It does make one feel like a small speck in the scheme of things. And yet, a part of the scheme and counted.
It was the heat, which had soared to new heights, then settled at an acceptable glow (punctuated by random sizzles) on the skin, and that swimming pool before me. They brought me thoughts of summer and body, confidence and a little uncertainty, a big dose of happiness. I witnessed the last before me: daughter, Alexandra, held close one toddler twin granddaughter (encased in a life jacket that bobbed at chin) and in they went. Splashed, squealing, as they sank into so-blue water (painted concrete a tropical hue) with bursts of gaiety. The other twin looked on, a finger to lip, head at an angle, wandered back to a chaise lounge, then back to check the water with tentative toes. I desperately wanted to jump in but was fully clothed so contented myself at the edge, feet dangling in soft, clear, cool water. Alexandra had been suddenly moved by the spiking temperature and inviting water when I’d visited, unprepared. But the duo in the pool radiate delight, voices raised in summer celebration. Soon those little girls will learn to swim.
So I need to order a new swimsuit. I have an older one that I used when enjoying pools at hotels when tagging along on business trips with Marc, or on vacation. I’m ready for something comfier and fresher, admittedly perhaps done with a suit that displays greater jiggly parts, even the nicer ones. Though I stop to consider my older body less than the ageless spirit: just let me in that water, let me slice through it but gently. I have enough confidence to jump right in. I want to do a breast stroke, side stroke, back stroke, then float from one end to the other. I’d even dive in if I could.
I am not great at the simple crawl–partly, no doubt, because I must keep half-opened eyes above surface if I want to keep contact lenses intact, yet also see. I need prescription swim goggles if I take to water more. Still, swimming is not my best athletic activity. It might be one–I am a water lover from way back when we kids and adults all jammed into old Central Park swimming pool. But I’d need a pool more handy. If there also was no pandemic to beware. For now I need to find place and time where I’m able to swim without being bonked on the head with sudden flailing feet or a crocodile floatie. My own neighborhood pool is likely re-opened; part of a recreational center, it is indoors only, however. I want sunshine bathing arms, chest, face, legs–not a glare of overhead fluorescent lights.
I watch twins and daughter and decide I will buy a new suit, pronto. I will swim, too. Even if the thought of my flesh exposed gives me a a very minor pause. What can I tuck away, what can be freed up? Does it even matter to me? I go home when the fun is done and recall how it has been thus far to romp about in this body. It has been pretty much a blast.
Wasn’t it, isn’t it?
Overall. The higher points making up for the low, and far more often than not, anymore.
Okay, let’s get the hard part of the story over with. There are pictures of me I wish were never taken; many have been torn up and tossed. We all have those, of course. But for me they reveal several years of telltale signs of a life unwell. The sharp truth of things. I look into those bluely hollowed eyes and ask: Where were you? Who took over? Yet it was me, all along, only hijacked here and there. Taken leave of a full array of senses at times. Hungry even if unaware of it, often lonely, unfortunately rather angry though trying hard not to be, and tired. I often seem grim even when trying to smile, as if I begrudged anyone daring to snap the shot. And see the reality: Cynthia, surviving but struggling.
I was far too thin. I don’t think I knew how thin until I saw the photos. So thin that I had trouble finding clothes to fit without checking the youth section–finding a women’s size 0 or 00 was almost impossible. This is not preferred when you are an adult. Not when everything hangs from your spare shoulders and bony hips, as if you are a mannequin. Yet, how often other women remarked they wished they had such a “problem”… I must emphasize: it was a terrible way to live. I weighed perhaps 100 pounds, often less. I know this not because we had a scales; I mostly haven’t had one, at all. But my doctors weighed me every time w ith a shake of the head, and remarked on it as it dipped, fell and then rose a tiny pound or two–and it left me without much fat on my bones. I dreaded those scales.
I look, in those pictures, emaciated. I look, during those times, haunted. Exhausted. I’d be awake until 1 or 2 am, doing laundry, ironing, planning for the next day’s schedule for five children’s activities. Writing a bit. Then up by 6:30 am.
Which would have been alright in my twenties and thirties except that I could barely eat. I did sleep, wiped out each night. All young parents get tired. They just have more fuel than I had to get up and do it all over again. I was chronically ill but didn’t yet know how ill.
I had been diagnosed with colitis at 21, and the years following was given more related diagnoses. They all meant the same thing to me: challenges to overcome. A body that sometimes seemed to hate me as I grew up, one I have needed to love and care for. We had been in happy cahoots so long…not so much, anymore. I tried to be as strong as I needed to feel. It worked as long as I could act as if all was alright.
But I also sometimes drank too much; it took less than you’d imagine to do the job with little fat on my body plus a history of substance abuse as a teen. Two or three stiff mixed drinks gulped when everyone was gone, a quick shot in the shower. Believe me, even a few weeks of this impacted my life–and using up a great deal of energy. It didn’t improve things though it numbed part of the pain awhile. But not all. There were marital problems, kid worries, money challenges–all the time, all those years. Digestion problems had been in my life since childhood and then alcohol did more damage to my system.
I ate what I could manage; eating had long and often made me sick as if I had flu or food poisoning. It was a challenge to enjoy any entire meal that I prepared daily for our family. I ate a few scraps as I washed their plates. And a lot of bread with butter, jam, a dab of peanut butter as that usually settled okay.
Gastroenterologists gave me medications that were frankly addictive. I ended up in the hospital for substance issues and was seriously informed I was beginning to starve. It wasn’t pretty, it was first another ER and then writhing in bed feeling caged and too ill. I had severe gastritis, and the colitis had worsened. It was a shock to me, the near-starving part. I didn’t drink a lot, not as much or often as others; I took my prescriptions and had found them difficult to cut back, stop. The fact was, I ate the best I could and never could keep any good weight on. I smoked Newport cigarettes and drank too much coffee and I only learned later that these added to the problems.
At some point I thought I’d get stronger, enough to keep on, and so drank protein drinks once a day as well as a very ight meal and engaged in body building at the gym 4-5 times a week. I developed much better muscle and better peace of mind, but my 5 ft. 4 inch body was basically all muscle and lots of obvious bones…No one helped me with nutrition those years, and I knew too little to sufficiently address my needs. I had tried to trust doctors so turned to them again: Find me safer drugs, I have a busy life to try to manage! Eventually I got a bit better. Again, shuffled drugs to maintain some semblance of eating.
This went on so many years it was just life, the weight up and down–105, 100, 95 lbs., lower. (Once a little boy asked his mother if I was a boy or a girl when at the swimming pool. I was wearing a bikini but was so skinny it was apparently hard to be sure…) Because I was in chronic pain when I ate, but in chronic pain when I didn’t. It could fell me, bring on gritted teeth and blinked away tears and send me to the emergency room. I tried to hide it from the children, even hid myself until it passed; I did not complain unless it was too much. I had to keep going, that was all. It was just colitis acting up, it wouldn’t kill me I had been told. (At 21, when married the first time, I sipped on a bottle of paregoric gotten in an Appalachian pharmacy during our honeymoon. It was needed to keep on and eat at all; we were camping, I wanted to be alright. Six months later I was in the emergency room seriously ill with much blood loss but recall nothing of the week there except IVs and being nauseous when offered real food again.)
In any case, I had attended university and a decade later believed I needed to accomplish far more. So I got a nice job that started my human services career. And took care of the growing kids as my husband travelled more, climbing up his ladder of success. I exercised and worked on staying alcohol free and staying off prescribed drugs that were still problematic (being narcotic- and barbiturate-based). I was successful much of the time although that made the s symptoms harder to bear. Discouragement dogged me. One doctor suggested a partial colostomy as a final option. Or just live with it. I left in tears, yet was determined to find another way.
But how? It was what it was, and I did know it could be worse. I was not terminally ill as long as I stayed sober and clean. I still found much to appreciate in my life. It just took some work–except for my children, whom I loved beyond reason. For whom I so wanted to be well.
Years passed. There came a more committed sobriety, a couple of divorces, a move to Oregon, a new battery of doctors. Food intolerances, I was told, were the big bad extra culprit. I could learn to help myself more! Discovering I was severely lactose intolerant was a revelatory experience. It wasn’t the entire answer, but a major change in my well being. I learned about other foods I tolerated poorly. I discovered that it was a kind of genetic Achilles heel–most of my birth family had similar or the same diagnoses, I discovered when talking more with them. (Also, my children have coped with this to some degree.) I began to eat more healthily, a diet I could better live with, and began to gain a bit of weight. Even if I had the same diagnoses, I learned how to manage all more effectively.
I was in my early forties before I knew all this. For a short time I bitterly asked God why I had to lose so much time, be sick so long along with all other ordeals. But that attitude got me exactly nowhere fast except in a pit of self pity, as usual, so I looked forward to better times.
One day my young adult son told me after a big hug “hello”: “This is how my mother should feel when hugged!”
It stunned, perhaps hurt a little at first. Then I knew I had done some things right. We may not know what family and friends truly think, how illnesses widely affect them. They accepted me as I was, yes–they loved me. But they had worried a long time, too.
It took what it took. I figured out how to avoid some foods and cautiously eat others, and feel safer about food, in general. I have had ups and downs with this; I still have digestion illnesses to manage. But in time I began to add more pounds, and discovered more energy. I was excited about often being outdoors again–hiked, walked and more. Daily. I quit smoking. I got better jobs, went back to college. I learned to steer clear of abusive relationships. Soon I embraced my life in the Pacific Northwest and became more resilient and at peace as I enjoyed a healthier lifestyle. I was opening to more happiness. It took redoubled efforts if I failed my goals, a stubborn faith, and the peculiar dance of time. I still have to intelligently oversee health problems– there are a few at 71, but none I can’t recover from, so far. But I am not thin, anymore. I am closer to an average sized woman. I am so relieved and glad of it.
Close to thirty years ago, people began to tell me I was changing, even looked different. Some from my twenties and thirties told me they didn’t recognize me, at first. My face and body changed, yes. But I had long been such a serious person and a person who kept her head up even when it hurt to raise it, and walked hard with shoulders squared to keep from feeling beaten down and falling over. But I had begun to soften around internal and outer edges, smiled more readily. Laughed. And tears were not swallowed.
Well, I said, I am healing up…I got through some stuff. And I watch what I drink and eat–I never eat dairy that has lactose– and I hike!
Long, long before all this, I was a child and youth at ease in my skin, my body filled with energy and my mind confident of much. Enthralled with life’s offerings even with hard times coming and going. I was engaged in a variety of physical activities. So here I was about to enter middle age, and I’d begun to think I was undewrgo8ing a true transformation. It seemed a bit like a return to that more whole part of myself. Step by step, prayer by prayer, more knowledge each day.
I was no longer anxious about seeing myself in a photograph. I looked in a mirror on tough days and felt compassion–for the woman I had been and the one I was becoming.
I early on felt I was born fortunate, given a life to live that had a plethora of opportunities and good times. My parents taught me gratitude, about being humble; I learned it also at church. Counting blessings was something done every night during prayer around our dinner table. And I was thankful for people in my life, for different kinds of abilities, for opportunities to enjoy learning and wondering–and in a pleasant city. I deeply appreciated our yard and fully utilized it, as if it was a few acres for continual exploration, not just a moderately good city yard. It was one of many spots I grew up with a basic optimism and my “companion” of curiosity.
And I sure didn’t think one thing or another about how I looked or came across to others. I wore glasses by the second grade as I was very near-sighted. I may have been teased a bit about the thick lenses, but it rolled off me. I was average in size, perhaps leaning toward thinner, and nothing special. My mother sewed most of my clothes–expertly but, still, they were seldom bought until I was a late teen. Everything seemed okay, good enough. Mom rarely said anything about my appearance– except that I ought to keep my bangs off my face or get them cut short so she could see my eyes and I could see the world. One of my sisters teased me at times about being thinner than she was, as she liked to eat more than I did (I’d already had a few digestion concerns), and carried some extra weight. But to me she was just my closest sister– until she explained how that was for her years later. What I knew as a kid was that she was a fantastic softball player, a good musician, sometimes hard on me but often fun.
I loved to engage in creative pursuits from a young age (a family proclivity)–music, art, dance, writing– but I was equally passionate about getting physical. Riding my bike, swimming, tree climbing, running races, playing “Kick the Can” at twilight, ice skating, sledding and tobogganing, croquet, badminton, hopscotch and jump rope, baseball and basketball, water skiing and snow skiing, volleyball, tennis, a little boating–well, you name, I’d try it. My parents didn’t like to fish or seriously hike (though we camped in a pop-up) or I’d have done those, too. They were a bit athletically inclined: Dad played tennis, loved to cycle and enjoyed sailing; Mom was on a girls’ basketball team in school (unusual for the mid-1920s), had terrific energy and stamina. By the time I was born they were forty years old, far too busy to play a game with me often.
I got a charge from the slow mastery of skills with new active endeavors. That sense of gradual confidence was powerful and pleasing. Plus, it was fun, even thrilling to feel muscles stretch and grab, the heart pump, senses sharpen; to reach new goals, to help a group win a competition. I didn’t feel inferior to other girls or boys I knew and don’t recall being harassed for being a girl on any team or for “playing like a girl” in its negative connotation. I played hard, worked to gain better skills and had a great time doing it. A competitor at heart, it was easy to get in there and push myself.
I had a basic physical confidence. I simply had the drive to move (even when playing my cello or writing or drawing). Despite not always feeling well. Despite wearing glasses until I was 14–when I became a cheerleader at school, why not? (Despite childhood abuse, which hadn’t quite caught up with me.) Over the years I studied and faithfully practiced figure skating, and ballet and modern dance. There were times I thought I wanted to be an athlete–or a worldwide adventurer–or at least a dancer–when I grew up. There was simply not enough time to do all of what brought me joy. I wanted to fully inhabit the pleasures of strength, competence and power that came from moving within my body, with purpose, for fun or serious goals.
Being alive struck me as a fantastic chance to do and learn more, human senses vibrant and responsive to all. Every nerve woke up with me as I awakened and stood up: a new day. It was pure magic to smell the flowers beneath my window, hear the babble of voices downstairs mingled with music, see the honeyed light fall across my toes. It was youth, it was being present in flesh and soul. It was simplicity of ordinary happiness.
None of that had much to do with what society thought of me, how my body or face were viewed, what I wore, how I fit in with the rest. What mattered was learning well and then doing. And just being me, living among the great span of humanity, feeling part of and also accounted for in the infinite universe. I believed in myself even if someone doubted me. I felt I could do things and so I got started and did them. My parents supported this spirit–usually.
Yes, I know I was born fortunate and that made a big difference. And I continue to enjoy discovering opportunities to embrace new skills, expand my limits, experience something from another perspective. Pushing the limit. Heart disease? I’ll walk faster, longer, harder. Gut troubles? I’ll take the pill if I must and step out in the sunlight, go on the best I can. I am relieved to be able to welcome life. To live it also amid heartache and hardships. To do this, that and the other as attentively as possible. And I have learned to accept, too, the reality of limitations when it is clear they are to be heeded. I can gain focus and restfulness by sitting out a hike or swim or dance, as well. Patience brings insights, more peace….as long as I go along with the natural rhythm and order of things. The mind and soul remain active. We have this time to take it in, accept some assistance, and give some back. And soon I am back on my feet, one way or another.
Hopefully into a new swimsuit and into the water. I want to play in the pool with our fabulous twins, help them learn to float. I want to abandon all and drift upon the lulling surface, dive to the bottom and rush back up. So I have a bit of weight on me these days, my hair has streaks of white and ordinary scars and lines map my face and body with human travels. I am not impressed one way or the other.
I think of what has been endured thus far, how my human trajectory across time has been punctuated by divine interventions, beautiful surprises. I have taken–dragged, lifted, tolerated, ranted at, had mercy for— this body with me for the long haul and it, me.
And I am not ashamed of, or embarrassed by, this loosening fleshy envelope within which I live my life. It was given to me as a grand opportunity to do what I could and still can. I have treated it much better than when I was still uneducated. fearful, lost or too ill. And my body has served me with a certain flair, and has granted me grace more often than I can count. So even with the pain: I thank you, my earthly transport across time, for carrying me still. We’ve got this–so let’s swim!
Each season embodies exquisite offerings and certain places show them off well. Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden is a good example. I visit this garden in SE Portland three or four times a year. By Mid-July, the rhodies’ and azaleas’ bright, voluptuous blossoms are gone, but other native flowers, abundant greenery about the spring-fed Crystal Springs Lake and many waterfowl (some varieties were “missing”–migration, perhaps?) bring beauty to the fore and entice many visitors.
Once a test garden, the first rhododendron was planted in 1917; there are now over 2500 varieties of rhododendrons, azaleas and other plants, all of which were donated (or bought with monetary donations). Rocks used for water features and other displays came from Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams. Gently winding pathways make for a leisurely walk through lush landscaping. Weddings also can be conducted on the property–a reception was about to commence as I walked through. (Temptation was strong to take photos of the elegantly dressed women and men…but privacy, after all!)
I hope you find the sights as delightful as I did firsthand. I will return in autumn if not before.
Another peaceful outing that made a good difference in an ongoing journey of healing from life’s bruises…even as they seem to keep coming. Have a week of similar good moments if you can.
When Merle plummeted from the ladder while trying to work moss off the cedar shakes roof, I was sure he’d be a goner. He’d been doing that for near forty years but there comes a time when a man has to tell himself no. He isn’t great at that. And despite breaking his back, he’s not so good at quitting. He got surgery and recouped, and before I knew it, was back on his feet. I caught him eyeing the ladder and I locked it up. But he sits more, takes rests on our big bed. Usually there’s a sharp knife and a few pieces of wood nearby or he’s studying our weekly newspaper, acting like he can see the fine print. But the carving he can mange fine–he was born with the talent.
I can’t say he’s keeping things up so well, he uses a cane more often than not. I’m good sized and strong. As my father always told me, “strong as a mule”. (“Sly as a fox,” Mom said, as I solved problems pretty good.) That’s why he had to name me James, he thought I was to be a boy and when I was coordinated plus was strong I often was treated as such, dressed for the woods. Mom added a second name, Marie. Weirdly. I can take or leave dresses and other fancy things but like a pretty blouse and a full skirt for special occasions.
Merle says, “You never need paint on your face, you’re fresh as roses to me.” The first time he said that I about smacked him–I never had heard such a thing in my fifteen years and couldn’t figure it out–or him. But it sounded better over time. He could be generous with his admiration then. Now he says “Roses” if he’s trying to make me smile.
“Jimmie,” Merle asks me this morning as he often does, “is this a day we go or a day we stay?” He leans in toward me, two hands on his cane, the one with the eagle head for a handle.
He asks that–some days with a flip in his voice, sometimes all serious– mostly because I foretold the miracle of May Cousins. (The other reasons is because he’s just one who thinks on dying more as he ages. Not me. ) She was drowned a short time at eight but I was sure she’d come back, live and eventually be alright. Which she did, and still is, and teaches kindergarten in the next county. But I haven’t made a habit of such things, in fact, keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to be blamed when things go sideways. Don’t care for the limelight, either.
But I’ve been right about a few other things kept to myself. I have been right about Nelda sometimes. For sure about Merle getting injured (it may have just been the odds) but wrong about him dying and that’s good. I made plenty of stink about it long before he fell. Later I reminded him of it once, when he was lying there and I worried he’d never get up. No matter, he knew he had paid the price of pride. He even apologized, to my amazement, as they carted him off in the ambulance, siren blaring its alarm through woods and village. His friends lined up at the hospital until they knew he made it.
We got through it all–many months of it, surgery we couldn’t really afford, rehabilitation trials, misery—and we still get on alright. It takes some work. But he had quit drinking at 49, so most things had already automatically improved. Now we’re just settling more deeply, two ole dogs by the hearth. His ornery back, my creaky knees.
“I guess we’re stuck here in paradise, it’s another good day. You got half the beaver carving done for Ted– and another one started, right?’
“Don’t know what the second one is yet.”
“It’ll reveal itself, always does, the wood talks at you.”
He let go of the cane with one hand, pats my arm as I make breakfast, then clomps out to the round blue table put on the screened porch in summer. I have a little song humming in me and put another sausage in the gravy running richly over hot biscuits. He’ll eat well and feel better and get right to that unknown carving.
Long before he broke his back and soon after he quit drinking, things were far different. I stopped and gazed out the window above the counter, over Nettle Creek to the house beyond.
“You coming with the coffee?” he calls out, a touch of crankiness setting in. You’d think caffeine was more potent than Jim Beam the way he acts. But I know he has pain and needs those jolts of coffee pleasure, and thank the good Lord every day and night he grasps his steaming mug and not the bottle. And so does he. Or this would be another story.
While he naps, I finish chores and sit on the porch. I’ve been trying to stick with a book about Hawaii, a fat novel from a yard sale. It about makes me want to see that exotic place but I’ve not been anywhere for more than a few days. Just here in the mountainous, forested areas around Nettle Falls, our town, and Nettle Creek. I’ve known most of my neighbors–such as they are, scattered here and there–forever. I know this Northwest haven like my own face; it’s in my blood, three generations of it. Our son Tate, he moved, but he’ll be back one day.
Nelda, now, she’s the same as me in that way. Never wanted to pull up roots and find another place to roost. Never wanted to travel any farther than the coast to stick her toes in the salty sea, which we did many times, Merle and me, her and Gerry before he died. We stuck together, like small town folks do. I always have a sense of what she’s up to, even now. For one thing, I can mostly see her house kitty corner from ours, the whole thing when the leaves fall and only conifers stand tall and more sparse between us.
Her house is bigger than ours with a deck across the back facing the creek. (Always thought that a poor idea; mosquitoes–we do get fewer than imagined–can get you.) I could see her raising her three kids, note right off how they changed fashion and friends and how much beer they stole and drank, hear her and Gerry’s arguments and happiness when the breeze was right. We could walk over mossy rocks in the creek to visit each other in a minute. It was like having a sister, which I’d not been given, only we were best friends, too.
Then Nelda put up a half-wall right after she made the biggest mistake of her life. She paid a pretty penny for Hermann and Sons to erect it. I watched it being made and was baffled that she left it at shoulder height; I could still see over the top pretty well as we are on a rise in the ground; I could still see much. It was as if she wanted me to see her life go on as it did. To see how few people socialized with her, her kids less around.
I made a habit of keeping an eye out less after all was done. I doubt she wasn’t much looking our way, either. It felt wrong, for the first time. Why bother with someone who did what she did? Everyone felt like that if you listened to the gossip, for a good year. Then no one said much at all, but they were leery of her, some more than others. As for me–I eventually had sympathy and grief to contend with on all fronts, and all that near drove me over the edge more than just the terrible error. I refused to shun her, and told the others they’d better think twice before they carried on with it. I half-nodded at her when we passed each other, no eye contact. But that was all, so maybe it was close enough to shunning.
And yes, it was Merle’s grave error, also. Let’s face it, he had equal blame though many were quicker to release him of guilt, and who knows why? Because Nelda was a woman, though a widow woman just over eleven months? Because we were best friends and you don’t do that to friends? Maybe because Merle was newly sober just nine months? But not soon enough, as he’d already lost his good job at the post office over in Scappoose (got it back a year later; retired after his back stayed bad)–so he couldn’t be judged too harshly. That was it–finding his way with no whiskey or beer? Well, I said, yes, true, he was a blind man feeling his way though the dark alleys of his life–and he found his way right into Nelda’s tanned and glowing arms.
Was I really all that surprised?–a few of the women asked me boldly. Merle was good looking, strong-built and even though quiet he radiated a sort of warmth that drew in everyone and still does. Sure, girls admired him when we were still in school and beyond–and the boys had an eye on me. Looks are no good excuse, he was a family man, and I found it shallow of others to suggest there was a way out of his part.
We had cemented our bond at the start. And we two couples had enjoyed such good and bad times together; there was faith in our friendship, we were growing older together with ease. We had real trust. But when Ger had an aneurysm and that was that, it was a sea change. Not only missing him. We three felt like a wheel without enough spokes, and our friendships stopped rolling on quite right. Then it slowed, limped along. Sometimes we just sat by the creek, a stunned trio, then faded into a “goodnight.”
For all the unbalance, I was with Nelda, of course I was– right till the moment I found out. And it did not take a detective. I saw them. There they were on her deck, having pie and coffee when I was recovering from a bad summer cold. That was okay with me. But it was the way they were sitting side by side, their heads put together, shoulders touching, his hand moving to the small of her back. Then their lips locked. But quick-like and they peered across the creek, its rushing waters frothy and golden with early evening light. They had dearly hoped I was still in bed, sleeping, too hot and achy and snuffly to move. But I was standing at our bedroom window, paused for what reason?–to see if Merle was outdoors. Still having coffee and then checking her new umbrella clothesline’s wobble. I had been on my way to the kitchen for water, felt a need to look out. If truth be told, had a feeling. That feeling that tingles in my stomach, strikes me as something.
At first it seemed like a fever dream. I blinked, looked hard again. Merle and Nelda got up, took plates and cups inside, and shut the door against the languid heat. Or to keep it in. They didn’t come out until darkness fell and I gave up hoping for different, leaned back. Was exhausted by tears and drifting into sleep before I heard his footsteps in the dark, then porch steps. By the time he got to our room, I was plunging into an abyss of heartache. He slithered out to the couch.
Sleep pulled at me. My falling thought: Damned traitors, bet those sheets smelled bright as sunshine, mine all twisted around body and heart, hurts deep…
It took time, as all things do, with Merle. I am stubborn even if enraged. Do you throw out an entire lifetime together when one of you fails to stick to the rules? How much weight does sexual commitment–with its duty and occasional boredom–carry in the long run? Is it everything, is it the soul of a marriage–or actually a smaller part than you believed at the start? What mattered here? What do you deep in your gut want, I asked him over and over? It wasn’t the surrender to desire, that basic act. It was what we all fear and loathe: trust shaken, torn, hard things to mend. We made choices together once we got through the thorns.
The reason I stayed is that we took our time healing, made no sudden moves. He remained here despite regret, his shame. It’s love, that’s all. The kind of love that had long ago put its stamp on our hearts and carried us through near every sort of weather. And Nelda—she was heart shocked about Ger. She gave in to greater needs. Maybe he did, too, though I didn’t and won’t ever ask that. I didn’t need all the sorry facts, just solutions. besides, I about reacted to his failure by doing the same. Then stepped back right in time. No one knew–but I did.
No, it was Nelda who I lost the hardest, the worst, the biggest, and who with a desperate kiss lost me. Even though I pitied her, I could not entirely, sincerely forgive someone I had so long called Sis. Not even after praying for her all those years. Twelve of them.
So I watch her deck and house because she has not come out in eleven days. Well, she came out because once I heard her car leave and return. But no sitting outdoors. No hanging out laundry–she still liked to hang her sheets and towels, yes, that sun and wind. I know it is eleven days because I count as I used to in the old times and worried about her. Because Nelda gets depressed. Not just like after she and Merle had the fling and Ger had passed on which was quite bad but her daughters helped her then, and even her stuffy pastor, I heard, gave her some good advice so she got counseling. Got back to more living, got a job in the office at Dean’s Hardware.
No, this is something I don’t anticipate, though I feel concern as the days added up. I sit an hour and with each second sense her more. It builds up until it hurts my chest and rings in my brain: help.
“Merle,” I said, sticking my head inside when I hear him rustling around for a snack. “I’m going over the creek.”
He thumps his way to the door as I run down the steps.
“What did you say?”
I give a short wave backwards and keep on, my tennis shoes seeking hold on the flat and rounded rocks, trying to avoid mossy slipperiness, finally sliding into cold water running about my shins, the bank seeming far off. But when I make it I run to the back of her house, around the fence, to the gate, and find it locked. I rush to the front door, throat constricted even as I call out her name.
“Nelda! Where are you!”
The front door is unlocked, not too unusual, and so I enter for the first time in over a decade to find heaps of magazines sliding to the floor and piles of clothing on the couch and a few used paper plates with plastic forks on the coffee table. The television is on, sound muted.
I rush to the large airy kitchen but she’s not there–then the bedrooms, one by one. Not there. Where?
“Nelda, it’s Jimmie! Where are you?” My voice cracks; I gulp air.
I open one bathroom door, it’s acrid, stuffy, empty. Then another one.
And there she is sitting on the toilet lid in faded knit shorts and a baggy, stained pink tank top. Her longish, once-blonde-going-white hair falls over her hands, which barely hold her head, her head which dips to her knees as I enter. On the floor is an open prescription bottle, pills spilled and rolling all over the black and white tiled floor.
“Nelda, what have you done to yourself?” I cry out and fall to my knees.
I take her head into my hands, pull her to my shoulder so that she crumples, slides down to the floor and falls hard onto me, her once-full body light like sticks in my sturdy arms. I look at her and see a once-velvety forest woman now a sad one with her insides turned out, her fineness ripped and frayed.
“I’m going to give up,” she whispers, “why are you here…go home…”
“Did you take too many? Tell me!” I reach for the bottle and see that its an antianxiety medicine. “How many?”
“Four, five or dunno, not counting…”
I hold her head up so I can look at her. Red-rimmed, half-open eyes in shadowy sockets; sunken cheeks; pale lips gone slack; unwashed hair that sticks to her face, neck. She needs a shower. A meal and coffee. A new life.
She first needs a doctor.
I pick up the bottle, then lift her and nearly fall over as my knees complain. I carry her to her bed. Then I pull out my phone, call the number on the bottle. Can the pharmacist tell me what to do? Yes, go to urgent care or if she breathing is shallow and is less responsive, her eyes closing, call 911.
“Jimmie? Jimmie…you real…” Her words are slurring. She rolls over, nearly falls off the bed. I grab her and sit by her on the edge of the mattress which, I realize, has no sheets.
“I’m here, we’re going to get help.”
I call Merle and tell him to to get to the car, drive over fast.
“Nelda, I’m right here. We’ll get you better.”
“You’re…” she says as tears stream from the corners of her eyes. Which begin to close.
“Nelda, come on, wake up!” I shake her but her eyes remain half shut, her mouth opens, her silver fillings dully gleam.
I call 911 and carry her out the front door and Merle sprays gravel as he halts in the driveway. I sink to the ground with her limp body clutched to my chest. He shoots out the car door, limping to my side, hand over his mouth.
Two months. That’s how long it’s been since Nelda had her stomach pumped. Then monitored, then in inpatient treatment for severe clinical depression with suicidality and generalized anxiety. That’s what they called it, as if she has a fancy predisposition to some alien thing when it was in fact a close decision to end it all. I can’t abide the psychobabble but glad they helped her. She was released after three and a half weeks, and seems much better.
Was, that’s the word we can use now. Was going to die, not now going to die. She is back in therapy, on different medication and on her feet–what a way to put it but quite true. She’s even thinking of taking a dance class at Jody’s Studio in Scappoose; she loved ballroom dancing when Ger was alive, so why not? I’ll likely cheer her on.
I don’t understand it, not all of it. Neither does she, she says, just that she can get so low and then goes to the pits and needs help but waited too long. I can’t abide thinking that I about lost her once and for all. Nelda insists this is quite true, I was there in spirit all along and that helped her hang on. Really? I shake my head. Maybe, though my sense of things was too slow to alert me quite soon enough. Wasn’t there in person until near late and how do I get over that? By living and being better, I guess.
I’m right sometimes with my feeling about people, wrong other times, and that’s just how it goes. I have no special power, that’s for sure. Just love, I guess.
It was a wimpier, half-lonely time without our friendship. Like I’d been so hungry but got used to it though I was craving more. Maybe we can both finally fill up more, a little at a time. It’s not about forgiveness, it’s time passing and time found, and life knocking off more of my edges. I’m freer inside my mind and spirit.
Still, I’ve felt the burden of my neglect since I found her in the depths. It sliced a gash inside me. My not being there all those years–knowing what I know about Nelda– is the real crime here. I want the bleeding to stop, the wound scab over–as she wants hers to close. Her old humiliation, that lingering shame. The only way beyond it is getting up. going on, and learning each other again. We’ve begun to share tales and news in person over coffee a couple days here, a couple maybe there. Merle gives a brief, hearty greeting then disappears. One of these week-ends I hope and pray–I pray for everything, that’s the way I do this– we’ll grill a fine dinner in summer’s green beauty, all together. It won’t be like old times. There is no going back. We’ve been ignorant. Suffered the hurt. Left each other, found each other. We’re getting whiter, gimpier. Maybe wiser. What a saga we have woven. But in the end there’s just what lies before us this day. And we want more peace.
We keep an eye on each other from across Nettle Creek, our creek, where I never got much of a nettle sting yet and love to hear the water running, cascading no matter what goes on. It feels about as good as it can. But I’ll aim for better, I tell myself when I feel whipped by the upkeep of our acreage and house and Merle gets cranky. Then I up and call Nelda Sis, it slips out, isn’t that seeing the bright side? I’m still just Jimmie, best friend, or as she says Jimmie Marie which gets on my nerves– except when she says it anyhow.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson