Wednesday’s Words/ Nonfiction: Thoughts on My Hometown During Historic Flooding

Flooded Farmer’s Market, downtown Midland, as taken by a DRONE; photographer unknown.

Since last Sunday, there was talk of flooding in mid-Michigan. Cautions and watches and projections were determined for the targeted counties and communities. There have been heavy rains, 4-7 inches, and rain run-off contributed to the catastrophe. Edenville Dam–long in need of repairs–failed, and then Sanford Lake dam could not contain the sudden onslaught of waters from the Edenville breach. Both were breached on Tuesday and by today there was more disaster as the Tittabawassee River crested.

It is being called a “500 year event.” And it seems unreal to me at this moment.

I grew up in the elegantly planned, inviting community–a model town for sciences and arts– that’s headlining news. Midland, Michigan, home to world headquarters of Dow Chemical Company. It is an unusual community for many reasons, not the least being all those PhDs and other innovators working at Dow Chemical and Dow Corning–and so many other capable persons hired for fine schools, community organizations and a private business college (Northwood University). These folks brought with them equally able-minded spouses and children. The future-thinking minds and a great tax base helped build state-of-the-art parks and recreation areas; public and private schools; an impressive performing arts center; libraries; community-wide programs for the less economically privileged as well as the well-to-do. It has been called the “city of churches” (over 100 in a variety of fine architectural styles) and has long showcased extraordinary homes. This is in part due to Alden B. Dow, who created contemporary, cleanly inspiring designs. Dow was a protege of Frank Loyd Wright and a son of Henry Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical Company, what has historically been the primary employer in the city. (The summer band which my father long had fun conducting was even called the Chemical City Band.)

It didn’t occur to me that I grew up in an unusual city–it was smallish, and population remains only 42,000 people, but is not a suburb to any metropolis. It was what I knew– until I began to travel a bit as a youth and become conscious of far greater diversity. Our town was primarily Caucasian with a considerable number of Asians and very few Hispanic residents in the mid-century. That made the culture usually similar from neighborhood to neighborhood. My curiosity was stimulated by broader experiences awaiting me by my mid-teens. I loved much in Midland–and family and friends–but there seemed much to be desired. Though excellence was the unofficial byword for all the city represented, I strongly desired to additionally avail myself of differentness. The unknown. (As an adult, I continued to hold admiring v. somewhat adversarial views of my hometown due to a few powerfully negative experiences–memoir shared in other WordPress posts and writings. )

It was, then, the rule not exception that those I knew were talented, ambitious and mostly well-educated. And it was to be that many are now heralded, even famous, persons. We were a city made of energetic leaders who intended to forge ahead. These were classmates of mine and my siblings, friendly neighbors. And also competitors, but that was the way we were taught from childhood and it seemed fair enough a long while.

When I left by 19, I was intent on getting to the Pacific Northwest and at 42, I got here and have been very happy in Oregon. Despite many of my schoolmates returning to this ideal environment, I had no desire to do so; we all find our preferred cultures and geography if we can. So it is clear that I have not had a stake in Midland’s fortunes or failures for a lifetime. My parents also passed away decades ago. I have not been back since 2001, even during a vacation in northern Michigan after that.

But the news came about the flood, and as small panic arose I blinked back flashes of tears. It was the undeniable visceral response to learning something I’ve long cared for is being harmed.

I thought, as I talked to my brother back east: our parents are buried above the river, under gracious trees, on a hill. The thought haunted me all night of their final resting places being soaked and worse.

I thought, oh no, the lovely Wixom Lake is being emptied out as floodwaters shoves and gathers its water along with it, carries it in a powerful thrust downstream. What of the fish and water plants, the boats and people left behind? Forgive me these sentiments. My childhood is reflected in large part by pictures whose backgrounds are water–small lakes, rivers and streams, the Great Lakes. Despite not having our own family cottage on a lake, friends did. My joys grew huge at any water’s edge–playing, swimming, water skiing, and boating in it. Dreaming, writing, singing by it. Falling in love, even. I learned how to make more friends at summer camps, grew strong in the wide outdoors each day. Gained passion for the intricacies and mysteries of nature.

Water–and woods–still figure greatly in what I do outdoors and write or dream about.

Now Midland’s downtown and large swaths of nearby areas are now under water and farther beyond also smaller towns. Even now it spills over the snaking, meandering Tittabawassee River as it continues to rise and wreak havoc. The extreme watchfulness must be overwhelming. At last tally, around 11,000 folks were being evacuated from Midland County.

That wide, mostly tranquil river’s song was pleasant background noise to me once. I played on swings, monkey bars and seesaws as a kid at the 50 acre Emerson Park. It lies on a flat area alongside the river; the land about it slopes down from a train track and Main Street above. It was not my favorite park (there were at least a half dozen then, over a dozen now) though I liked to ice skate in blowing snow on a frozen pond with buddies. We picnicked there from time to time with family, friends and our First United Methodist Church folks (just a few blocks away). My dad loved playing horseshoes; there was basketball and baseball and volleyball, hockey in winter. A good, all-around city park. We could walk a few short blocks to downtown from there for shopping or a pizza and lime Cokes. And all that time, the Tittabawassee River hummed and flowed, almost unnoticed sometimes until it rose a bit high.

But we were always warned not to put one toe in that river; it was polluted even in the fifties and sixties from Dow Chemical, which was built at its edge farther downriver. Anyone who dared jump in would be watched for signs of illness and severely warned to not do it again. It was a double-edged reality: Dow had built the city up yet seemed to imperil it at times.

We had milder flooding of the Tittabawassee; I recall it happening but not being alarming, at least to us–we lived too far from it. In 1986, there was another bad flood–but not like this one. Not enough to order 10,000 of Midland’s people to be evacuated.

It is this river that crested at 35.5 feet today, and has swamped the downtown and a vast many more acres, flooding homes and businesses, sending residents fleeing for higher ground, shelter. I try to imagine where it has all gone and how. Of course, forceful water moves where it chooses; unimpeded it can get to surprising places and when powerful and immense enough it carries or plows down everything in its way.

Then I read that Dow Chemical Company’s containment ponds have now mixed with the floodwater. There also could be sediment from a downstream Superfund site (with dioxin contamination) displaced. So future hazards are largely unknown. As home base for a worldwide chemical company, Midland may be seriously impacted. Time will tell.

And all this amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unimaginable to me how this can be survived with clear, functioning minds so recovery can begin. Yet I am assured by old friends that massive efforts are gearing up.

As I write this, happier times of childhood in Midland come forward and recede. The day camp each summer for years, the long walks in Barstow Woods by my house, sunny days at Central Park outdoor swimming pool and inside the red brick Community Center where in winter so much fun was to be discovered within the two stories one could not be bored: the damp, sharp scent of chlorine that hung in the air as I practiced jack knife and swan dives in the indoor pool, swam laps. The outdoor rink where I practiced figure skating after school, sharp edges of my blades scraping, slicing the thick ice. The stages, bracketed by heavy black velvet curtains, where I warmed inside and out in the slow heat of stage lights, and sang, danced and acted or played my cello with orchestras–or solo, and when playing to win competitions.

No, the pictures I hold close are not those in the news as the unleashed water rises higher and higher. I think I want to know if the street I grew up on–over-arched by big oak and maple trees and encompassing several blocks of my childhood friends’ homes, my playground, my whole world then– is intact, yet I don’t look. Sometimes it is best to let good memories remain safely, orderly within life’s mental and emotional archives. Because what’s going on out there is not easy to contemplate. How do I consider the whys and hows of it, what such floodwater destruction may render things? It has long been a realm of creativity, industry and educational progress–right now, a far different place, at least materially speaking. Yet, surely, Midland can overcome even this and rebuild as it has had to do before.

I know this is also a sign of the reality as climate changes increase and graver challenges and losses occur. And we must withstand it as the best minds race to find interventions, and we gain more tools via which we can survive and adapt further.

I wonder what small, ordinary Snake Creek is up to in Barstow Woods right now. How often it provided me deep peace and pleasure. Is there still the sweet chiming of gentle water as it slides between pungent earth of shallow banks, winds past white paper birches and gatherings of tiny wildflowers–or has it been swallowed up, doomed for at least a season? Please keep running clear and bright.

Dear hometown,

From my heart I offer a prayer for rescue, recovery, and deeper healings.

Love, Cynthia.

Monday’s Meander: Sauvie Island Time

Beautifully green Sauvie island: this was the place on Mother’s Day I wanted to enjoy a few choice hours. It was a great change from my usual mid-May visits to ocean beaches or Columbia Gorge, (both closed due to coronavirus). Here one can enjoy several bodies of water; smaller Tualatin Mountains west of island as well as three major peaks and Cascades in the distance; meadows and farms; and birds and other creatures all in one fell swoop.

Only about 20 miles from our home, this large river island is situated between the muscular Columbia River on the east, narrow Multnomah Channel on the west and the good-sized Willamette River at the south (which passes through Portland and close to our current habitat). The island is one of the largest of its type in the US, comprised of rolling grasslands, scattered woods and lush farmland over 24,000 acres. There are also 7 lakes I counted on a map; I only saw a couple when once in search of an uncrowded public beach.

The whole island can only be described as fecund and bucolic.

L., Mt St. Helens which famously blew its top in 1980 and R., Mt. Adams–both in WA. state. One can occasionally see three at once–the two above plus Oregon’s Mt. Hood.

Temperature was upper 70 degrees Fahrenheit; breezes were tender on the skin, grasses rustled and danced; birds vocalized their near- symphonic offerings. Horses, sheep, cows all grazed contentedly. We drove around and feasted our eyes; we normally stop at several sites within the large Sauvie Island Wildlife Area but some were closed off. This time we visited Raccoon Point. There were very few people there. We waded through sweeping areas of tall grasses but there was one beaten pathway to follow.

We saw red-tailed hawks and American kestrels while gazing into the treetops and water into near-blinding sunshine, but in prior visits have spotted sandpipers, herons and egrets there, as well as bald eagles.

Moving along via car, we enjoyed more countryside and then the channel, where dozens of houseboats are anchored, along with boats.

As the afternoon ended, I thought briefly how this time of year I am mindful of three family members who passed away so very close to Mother’s Day. It was for once a perfect day: to think of them with love and affection, to have gratitude for their lives as well as my own and more. We were both satisfied by varieties of sensory offerings and tantalizing though familiar scenes. All in all, I felt fulfilled on Mother’s Day, and this was on top of wonderful earlier visits–if rather distanced–with our adult children and a few grandchildren.

I hope you enjoyed our mid-May meander!

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Lessons from the Past

Yesterday I returned to our old neighborhood in search of abundant flower gardens. I found a few, but, honestly, it is only early May so those were rather high expectations. Lots of vibrant rhoddies and azaleas. I can’t say I was disappointed. The sights were worth revisiting as the warm, lemony sunlight of mid-day soothed and cheered me. But it was more than the flowers, I have to admit. Perhaps I was looking for our more carefree days before the coronavirus, my husband’s recent and surprising job loss, and the very unstable future in our country–and the world.

It was good to walk down those streets, to recall the years we enjoyed an overall comfortable, interesting life. To see people chatting on their porches–we have fewer porches where we now live–and see children playing on the street, even if at arm’s length, as they played basketball and rode bikes and drew colorful hopscotch diagrams. Our current environs rarely include big porches facing wide streets, and there are fewer children about–we live in condo country and also among wooded homes that tend to be more secluded in the hilly acreage.

As Marc and I strolled about NE Portland, pointing out changes and what has remained the same, I thought as I often do that one never knows what the future holds. I’ve long felt this is an aspect of being human that’s exciting: around every corner–every single new day–there is something about to arrive that will challenge or thrill or enlighten. There is new information to be gleaned, an experience worth embracing. At the very least, one that offers a glimpse into the kaleidoscope of our living, and potential wisdom for the next part of the journey. I am not the sort of person who hides (for very long) but who steps forward to see what is next. I want to know things. Despite it being a bit of a risky proposition at times to just step outside and wave hello, I’m doing it.

So I yet choose to welcome the new day. However, I’ve had to remind myself of this during the shut-down of our country, and as we seem to be considering a very gradual re-opening…which concerns so many of us. I admit my cozy blue-and-cream-flowered quilt is tempting to pull up to my chin another fifteen minutes. But I get up before too long. Get fully dressed. (I still take a a moment to choose clothes carefully as I like certain colors at certain times. Old habits…)

Yesterday while cleaning I came across a small journal. It was as if I was to review what I’d lived the past year. It is one of many journals begun and soon abandoned; after 40 I ceased to be an avid diarist so the vast majority have been repurposed, or completed ones tossed long ago. But not this one.

The only entry was written on 2/1/19, a month before we moved from our established city area home to a SW Portland suburb. I read it over slowly.

It seemed I’d had a difficult dream the night before, and during it I felt we were being pushed out of our home, intruded upon by strangers, and sent packing to unknown lands. I couldn’t figure out how to orient myself via four true directions of the compass in my mind, a strange occurrence as I tend to use an instinctive sense of direction. But it had panicked me and I came to a startled awakening. This does seem a most obvious dream to have about moving. And I wrote:

“How odd to feel so lost in that dream… I came to waking too late after being suddenly jarred to consciousness three other times: the ceaseless planning, the work of it, the new locale and its issues, the costs of moving, the details to manage alone while Marc works. Disruptions and requirements that seem a tsunami of change. One more month until we must start afresh–yes, among tall pine trees on a high ridge. It will not as before. The suburbs have always sent me hightailing it in the other direction…

“What does a woman need to live a rich and fulfilling life, regardless of upheaval? Far less than one imagines, materially. I look through my books; surely they are one essential good. I must choose wisely for the smaller space. I finger scores of pictures, tons of old CDs, small treasures here and there…what matters now?

“It is only a change of house. I have done it so many times in my life! Yet I sometimes tremble as I prepare for this one. Why? Does one habitat mean more than the next? I will go simply forward, find my way, as always. Oh, dear God, I surely hope.”

Did I sense any of what lay ahead? I thought we were moving close to our daughter and son-on-law so when they had precious twin girls–high risk for various reasons– we’d be only five minutes away instead of thirty due to traffic jams and distance. But it seemed like something else was afoot despite all the reassurances we had. There came upon me a weight of dread at times, and an urgent need to get our lives in good order. To deal with whatever was coming: it felt as if I was preparing for something far bigger than any of my ordinary plans.

I didn’t know my daughter would suffer from nightmarish postpartum depression for three months, and that a good, solid recovery would take another three. She recently published an essay on her experience; it was harder and scarier than I, her worried, praying mother, even witnessed and I saw a great deal. The beautiful twins’ arrival and first months’ was not to be that happiest of all events during which we’d share energy and time and love in a simple, straightforward, constant manner. It was, in truth, harder than anything I’d ever thought it could be. To see my daughter sink and struggle day in and day out with her mothering and her perfect babies was so painful I couldn’t speak of it…only weep privately. We were not able to be the easy going grandparents in and out of their lives effortlessly as I had experienced with other grandchildren. Yes, I was there for hours several times a week, and my husband and I took care of each other, too. And the babies thrived. In time, life started to slightly brighten and if shadows fell again, the horizon was more discernible; more illumined ways and means came to us with each day’s coming.

And my daughter got better; she labored at it with intense energy, used every resource available, sought support and welcomed daily help. We all learned and adjusted even as there were times of deep pain and worry. I found I understood fewer of my son-in-law’s parenting perspectives as I helped with the babies three days and more each week. In time, since he was not working , he was able to leave and get other things done, or get a needed respite. My daughter had returned to work but sometimes I just glimpsed her on my way out. She was worn out and determined to settle back into routine. I sure had to learn about caring for twins and their family needs on the run; we sometimes compromised a little. The babies were snuggled, fed, diapered and adored. I saw how incredibly strong my daughter–and her husband–were and are. To parent requires courage; to parent with extraordinary stresses requires a warrior spirit and hope beyond hope.

Adversity can do damage but it can also make one very strong, can expand and enlighten person; it can make one tougher yet more tender, at once. I think we each experienced some of that as we plunged on, got past the hardest weeks.

I discovered things about myself as a mother, and as an individual–how much more I was willing and able I was to endure greater fear and uncertainty, how much more love came forward when I felt tapped out, how much deeper my faith in God would become. How I will not give up my belief in better times, even now in my later years after sorrows galore, not give in to fear or worry or pain for more than a small time. But I let my deepest heart feel it all.

There was nowhere to run, after all. I was living it with them all, was smack in the middle of our real lives. I was not going to turn away from not only the crises but the miracles.

There are times we must, I think, allow ourselves to feel our brokenness, to admit our frailty so that we can be ready for more healing once again. Because it comes if we embrace the process. If we are ready to grow further as individuals. And looking back can only help us understand a bit more. The rest is staying steady as we can in the moment and moving on.

We have lived in our woodland home now for over a year. It is a place that has come to so well suit us. I see how important it has been to have vast reserves of nature’s wonders right outside our door; how much more healthy to have miles of sinuous trails for walking or short hikes; how soothing the river with its timeless flow of waters; how cleansing the winds from the western mountain range and foothills. It is quieter in all the right ways, and birdsong never ceases to bring a smile as I awaken. It is gentler here, and we have needed that.

I feel gratitude daily, even moments of joy despite these chaotic times, and deep grief for those who are suffering. It'[s all of it, isn’t it, our human living? And we will keep on, until we do not. I have come close to death several times, and each time I wonder how it happens that we each leave or we stay. But today remains the gift right now.

I don’t know if we will live here beyond next March. Who knows where we all will be this time next year? It has always been unclear, hasn’t it? This time it is a viral scourge, next time it may be something else entirely we must face and cope with. It depends now on how COVID-19 rules our culture, economy and health, yes. And if my husband will find another good job or if we can or simply must retire sooner than later. If we can remain fit and able as we have been, overall. But every place I’ve had to move– despite challenges– knowledge has been gained, fun has been had, friends made. I hope I have left some good will. Wherever we are, we lug ourselves along, as the saying notes. So I best take care of my soul, mind, and body–this life I still have depends on it. So I draw nearer to those I well love. I still offer my kind greetings and support to friends and neighbors–and you, dear reader, if you will have it via my weekly stories.

Blessings to you, do not despair but find the good in the living you do.

Monday’s Meander: An Oregon Riparian Wildlife Refuge

On Saturday we returned to a place we explore each season, the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge. The riparian forest, wetlands, and lowlands comprise over 1800 acres that are home to over 200 species of birds, 50 of mammals, 25 of amphibians and reptiles and a large assortment of insects, fish and plants.

We had our ears attuned to birdsong as eyes sought out critters among lush greenery. We heard more than saw wildlife–a snort of a black tailed deer, the sleek fat body of a river otter, the rustlings of perhaps a snake through the tall grasses. I was hoping for a bobcat but have never seen one, and may have sighted a coyote and beaver.

It was a peaceful mosey among groves of old great white oak trees, which support 800 kinds of creatures there. We missed the bigger groves but there are many other trees to enjoy along the paths. Small lakes amid the wetlands were luminous, dramatic as the sky darkened and brightened with sunshine alternating with rain clouds. The river itself was hidden much of the time–several areas are off-limits to humans to protect migrating birds.

Rain became a fickle companion, the sky feeling low and then high again.

Rain increased but it was a mild day and we are Oregonians…we kept on. At the end of our walk, the small lakes and swooping vocalizing birds captivated me. I could have set up camp there right through dusk and nightfall.

Clouds scudded off; the landscape flushed with honeyed light once more.

It was a soothing while also stimulating afternoon, and I always feel happy photographing nature. We will return when more paths are opened to our eager feet.

Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Waste Not Love,Want Not

Who saves us from ourselves as we work for and pray for the healing of bodies and minds across this country and the world? As we honor those leaving us and uplift those who need just one kindness shared? Let me tell you about two friends, without whom these days and nights would be more confounding, tiresome and menacing…who help make the long wait worth every small, good effort at making time more meaningful.

******

B. was smart, sarcastic and tough when we met in 1993 and worked with gang youth, but she had a heart and I right away saw it. She thought I was a sort of innocent, a fussy woman with good instincts who could handle her snappishness, anyway. She was right about “handling” her attitude. But she got a clearer picture of my own untidy past and counseling skills soon. We made a good team in our work and would at other agencies to come. Yet from outer appearances, who’d have predicted we both loved opera and blues?

Now, after decades of surviving crises at work and home, it feels like we are getting close to danger of wildfire, one we have tried to avoid facing as her health has declined.

“Well, you’ll never guess where I ended up last night.” She coughs hard, once, her words struggling to get into the air and to me.

We had just talked two days prior; I can guess. B. was very sick with pneumonia well over two months ago. She has lupus and weakened kidneys, a scarred liver, and degenerative arthritis despite being ten years younger than I am. So, it has been a halting recovery, at best; breathing and energy have remained unimpaired. She has tried to work remotely but is a counselor for an addictions and mental health treatment program in a women’s prison. Not very convenient to work from home. It seems unlikely she will return during the COVID-19 crisis. Maybe not after. We have talked often each week as I have waited for events to unfold. She has been taking her 91 year old mother to the store– until finally she agreed to not do so at my pleading. Now, deliveries are made. She helps care for a niece on week-ends, at times, still.

She could get sicker fast. With corona-virus. Anything. So I am prepared, maybe.

“You landed back in the hospital. Lungs?”

“Not that. I got shocked.”

I take that in. “Heart, you mean? They shocked your heart?”

“Yeah. Heart was at 180 bpm. A-fib.”

“Wait–your heart? You mean the suspected anxiety attacks were maybe A fib events?”

I know how that is, the alarm of it, a rapid up-sweep of heart rate, breathlessness, tightening chest. But never at 180; 130-140 is too high for me as a heart patient.

A sharp tingling covers me feet to head with the knowledge of B. in pain, heart a runaway creature she cannot control.

“Guess so. It hurt so went to ER.”

“Lungs?”

“The doc said good news is my lungs look healed.” She takes a shaky breath. “Always something for us, eh? My body is falling apart.”

I think how most people would have said that even 20 years ago as she racked up surgeries for various damaged joints from feet to hips to hands. But this is a new thing, as if finally giving up a charade of “doing okay” and coming to terms with it all. She does not complain, whine, groan. It has never occurred to her to nurture self-pity. But she is worn out by buckling organs.

“Yeah, we get through one thing…. but we played and lived hard, we pay the price. You get up, I get up.”

“Yeah, but I’m a mean ole possum so won’t stay down.”

I laugh with her softer chuckle but all of a sudden feel in my bones how ill she really is. She doesn’t even like possums. White pet rats, that was a thing once. A wild cat or two. A parrot. Mongrel dogs, for sure. Possums and raccoons, no.

“On medicine now for this thing. How are you?”

“I’m okay, hanging in there. Are you–“

“I’m out of it. Just wiped. Have to go. Talk later.”

She hangs up.

B. has talked more of surrender to God over the past year, this woman who fought with fists in her youth, spit in the face of a twisty fate, protested with loud voice against injustices, swaggered across streets with her cane and stopping traffic to meet me on the other side, picked up life’s shattered pieces countless times, reached her hand to others in need without any questions.

My best friend, B. who I’ve long teasingly nicknamed Brenda Starr, the ace reporter from the old comic strip who chased after adventure and hunted down evil ones and rooted out truth at great risk to herself, all the while her beauty unfazed by the grit and sweat. The last part B. would loudly hoot over. She is not the glamorous type. At least, not since she was in her 20s and dressed in a leopard print dress and spike heels…though her hair, light golden auburn, long and voluminous, still is fabulous. But she is brave.

I stare at the phone as I lean against the wall and try to pray but no words come out. My throat threatens to close over and my husband calls me to the table for reheated pasta.

******

This chilly afternoon, a fine steady rain splashing against the windows–it is back again after stunning brilliance of springtime–I know I am fortunate. My current greater solitude since the rabid, often deadly virus has left me musing even more. And lately I consider the friends I enjoy– despite not having dozens at this point in my life. Meaningful ones seem to have crystallized, become denser, sleeker, deeper. Crucial even more than before as so much else becomes irrelevant.

I feel gratitude well up, a happy balloon floating within my being. I have family who cares, yes. But my friends–they are the once-hidden treasures I never planned on caring for like this, day in, day out. No, when a young woman I believed I was more the person who was there today, gone tomorrow: “love the one you’re with.” And I certainly did. But that foolishness was revealed to be what it was, of course, when I met people to truly love for the sake of who they were/are–not for whatever could be useful, for a thrill in the moment, the sharing of a drug and a suffering poet dream.

First, risk; then attachment; then devotion and loyalty. It was rather hard back then. I had to learn better. But not now. It has come easy for along while; the rewards are great.

I have two non-blood very best friends and that is plenty. It is like amassing spiritual and emotional wealth to know them every single day.

******

E. and I check in at least once a week, often after midnight as we both have insomnia. She also has been ill with a less serious respiratory illness but since she has asthma she is high risk for the worst virus. Her doctor has determined she must remain at home from work now. Her work isn’t sure they will need her to go back. But whatever happens, there is too little protection being in an office setting. Or, for that matter, even going to the store for bread and milk.

She is packing her several rooms full of stuff, off and on; her plan was to retire and move to Arizona near her brother by summer’s end. She has lived alone since I met her 25 years ago, after her drawn out, life-shaking divorce.

“Now who knows? I might just stay inside until I kick the bucket. I’ll knit myself a huge cocoon and stay put, how’s that? Might retire at last, if I can stop buying yarn. And books…well, could build a house with those, too!”

E. is guffaw-prone–both B. and E. make fun of defects of character and life’s travails–so lets loose her light, rippling peels of laughter. We vow not to go down gnashing our teeth

“I imagine you have blankets, scarves and socks galore stacked up in there, maybe tilting pyramids. The books you can give to me if you want.”

Her knitted pieces are evenly made, colorful. She adores soft, bright skeins of beautiful yarn and they take up space on floor, couch, table and bed. I can see her hands fly, the thing she creates growing by the minute.

“Want some socks? Yeah, adding to the mess. Oh, well, I have more boxes. I’ll get by even if I stay here. I’d just like more sunshine, my family closer.” She wheezes a little but assures me she is okay. “How are you? I’m so sorry Marc lost his job.”

“Yes, well, it has happened to millions. We sure aren’t special in this time and place…I’m working on a new budget. Well, scrapping it and starting anew…”

“Tell me how it’s going, you know to call me any time. It stinks for things to not end up as we’d planned, who could have known? We had such confidence! Sort of.”

“Well, what else is new? Nothing is what we thought and we’ve lived interesting, curious lives.”

We talk a bit more about our oddly reduced circumstances. But I’d rather not. It is what it is. And we are there for each other. She is also in recovery so understands each day needs to be met with humility. Acceptance and strength. Faith not fear–our mantra. And I intend on utilizing my practical ability to problem solve, keep heart to endure, adapt. Keep my vision aimed upward and outward. We both are Taurus, for what little that’s worth–but we do tend to think more alike and that can be comforting.

“Miss going to the movies with you,” I say. She adores films and all the arts. We have enjoyed plays together, dance concerts. “We’ve seen so many good ones, and there are always more.”

“I know,” E. agrees, “then getting lunch or dinner out and catching up in person. We know how to have a good time.”

We talk about what we are watching on small screens. My home no longer has cable TV to save money–we do have streaming apps. But I don’t miss things that are not essential, not much. Maybe immediate access to lactose-free ice cream and tons of chocolate chips for cookies to bake, sure, but not pricey steak or 160 TV channels or new clothes for spring or even another shiny hardback book. I have more than enough stuff. I miss movies and dinner out with E., though.

“Let’s meet up for coffee at a drive-through place and sit in a parking lot, 6 feet apart, just gab a little,” I say. “I’ve done that with my kids a couple times. Hard to not hug, but just seeing each other…”

“I love it–tell me where and when. We could dress up, bring cake!”

We commiserate about the tarnish on our “golden years”, share a funny story or two and finally hang up. The residual richness of her voice works like healing balm. her longtime job has been in accounts receivable in a health care system, weirdly considering things as they are. But I realize she is so good at that because her voice emanates her real personhood– warm, honest, empathetic and deeply kind, with a gift for finding gentle humor in hard moments. And that touch of lingering New Jersey accent makes it even better. Much better. I can see her scurrying along a clamorous New York City street, headed to Broadway for a play’s opening. Something I had hoped we might yet share.

I don’t want her to move to Arizona, ever, but if she does I’ll be visiting as soon as I can. I already have my invite.

I text her at midnight. “We could have been Broadway stars, you know, just bad timing, sketchy men. Booze. Good night, Ginger.”

She sends me an emoji–herself dancing with that still- red shock of hair, her purple glasses, mouth wide, eyes gleeful as ever.

******

I just read an extraordinary book called Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. By the end of the novel you emerge slowly from the story with the main character as if coming into the sheerness of dawn. Edward is a youth who was the only survivor of a devastating plane crash that took his family and the others. He muses on how love must not be wasted, time must not be wasted.

I wept as I read the last lines of that story. I have felt a slow burning inside of these truths my whole life, like a brightly lit candle that has guided me every step, even as I have gotten lost. Time and love, not to be wasted: the only rules worth minding. We must inhabit these fully, use these well, give these to others freely.

I feel it more every day, the desire and need. To be that present. To better ensure that love is known when I speak and move in this world.

******

“Hello? Don’t text me. I can’t read without my glasses.” B. chides me.

Her voice is weaker than yesterday.

“Okay, got it. We’ll talk. How is it going now?”

“Feel worse, maybe. Thinking should finally retire… prison doesn’t need me.”

“Well, it does. But of course you should retire. You work too hard. Now you will be in the hospital several days, to get things in order, your heart rested and healed more. I know, my friend, that all of this is hard on you.”

“Tiring. So listen, I talked to my mom. I want you to know”– an eruption of a cough—“I want you to have Spook’s Pendleton blanket. It is clean, it’s folded on the end of my bed at home.”

For a second I thought she had said she saw Spook, an old friend, in her room and it scared me.

“Spook”, now long gone, was a Native American elder, a man she was bonded with for decades. B. is part Native American and the woven woolen blanket he gave her from Warm Springs Confederation of Tribes is unique, special. I knew and respected him. He always had a corny crack, a smile for me. We worked together awhile in the fight against addiction’s ravages on the Native community. He liked that I gave the Native women a chance to dance, to sing their languages, to tell their stories. And he may have known they touched me in my very bone and blood. He seemed to feel for a white woman I was okay. Because I was B.’s friend, no doubt.

But his blanket, to be given to me? I cannot imagine such an honor. I am deeply stilled. Everything holds collective breath– outside, inside, wherever Spook now resides, in the bed where B. struggles to live. From her place in the life constellation, mine and so many others’.

“Okay. You feel Spook will be okay with it. You see him there?”

She laughs a little, coughs. “Naw. It’s mine, anyway. Blanket. I mean it, may as well say these things. Nothing morbid about it. You’re my sister. And I love you.”

I cannot speak again. Why do es language, even easy syllables, keep falling away from me? But she has never said that aloud… “sister”… though such intimate words have not been needed. It all feels bigger than a sum of many parts. I know she has thought about leaving the earth for a long time. She has been that terribly ill, and too often. I close my eyes against the sunshine at my window, and there are flashes of orange behind my eyelids. A riot of pain and grief. And happiness for who she is.

I answer her. “I’m so very glad to be your sister. I needed another true one. We know what we’ve shared all these years.”

“And money, I have money to give you and Alexandra’s babies, not much, but something. And go to a Bonnie Raitt concert for me when you can. We have to hear Bonnie even if I’m not there in the flesh. Take her and Marc, too.” She half-gasps for breath. “They’re good nurses here, I tell them so.” She gives a kind of sputter. “Bonnie, our girl…”

I want to say something else but can only listen, try to take it in, her mind going here and there– so just talk like we always talk, as if this is a conversation we always have.

“Yes–a beautiful power she has. Lots more music, too. What does the doctor say?”

“Trying to get more damned water off my heart.”

A deep intake of breath a sigh from her. Does she know what this means? I know it is congestive heart failure; my sister died of it, my brother–I saw my own brother die. But she won’t say the diagnosis or prognosis out loud, that’s how she is. Or not today.

“So I told Mom these things–don’t forget.”

“You can pull through this. We’ll be meeting again, why not?”

“Yeah…just in case, had to tell you. People need to say things. I should find a priest.”

“You aren’t even Catholic. Talk right to God.”

“Can’t hurt.”

“I hear you, my old friend…sister.”

“Have to go, tired now.”

“Alright, I love you. Praying for healing.”

“Love you.”

******

I haven’t heard from B. today. I may call or I may not. Her breath is precious, she is weak. She will contact me sooner or later. Somehow. I don’t know for certain if she is leaving this world or not. I feel she expects she may. She is more and more enervated by this burdensome body. Her spirit is strong; it will always be. But I sense her drifting more with every moment, and feel the burden of her ill body in every unspoken thought as my own heart keeps beating hard and slow, a reminder that I am truly here, that I am so alive.

Why is mine beating so strong and well now? Why me? Brenda Starr, why?

******

What matters the very most as a life is lived? I will be 70 in a few days. I am not living as I thought I might, but more and less, different. One surprise after another. I am full amid sorrows and strife. As we all have to cope with daily. And we can determine to face it and hold on.

So, good fortune is mine–these friends, their love shared. And another day given me, sweet and tender, aching and resilient, persistently beautiful.

But I wait for B.’s voice once more.