When he saw her coming he balked and almost turned around. But too late. There she was with her tidy hat and jacket, sensible shoes, white ankles exposed below faded purple leggings that inched up as she moved. Her hair…was flyaway in the salty breeze, longer, a surprising ivory hue. She always looked tattered to him; he likely looked flawless to her, as ever. But the truth was their looks were secondary, always were.
He adjusted his face. Better a bit surprised than too nonchalant. She knew he tried to hide but if he didn’t look at her long…it was locked eyes he’d regretted after they’d first met. Her faint grey irises and bottomless pupils got to him. If she wasn’t psychic she was plain spooky, he’d thought then. But she was an artist, for one thing. And also knew how to reach in and find him.
Two summers ago they’d stumbled into each other at Kyra’s Killer Coffee on Beach Road. Literally–he pulled out his chair and she caught her bare toes on a leg, fell onto the table top, clipped his expresso and forearm. He caught his coffee in time to save it. Hers flew up, landed splat on the weathered pine floor, made a rivulet. Then, with apologies, she sat down. He did the same. But really–as if he’d invited her when his buddy was seated across from her.
“You another spoiled boy or a new sort of… summerling?” she’d asked.
He’d looked at his friend, who gave him a bad look. “Summerling?” he’d repeated, and she just threw her head back–with its bad teal blue hair–and laughed.
“That’s one bold, very strange girl,” they’d agreed as they left.
But his head tingling. “Huh,” he said. Her eyes, rapid-fire dry wit, that nerve.
So they got together; he felt he’d hit the jackpot, despite her odd blue-gone-muddy-hair, her stinging sarcasm at the ready, her pronounced lisp when excited. Altogether, the wrong girl. But that underplay of wrongness, the friction and foreignness: too good. For the summer, anyway. She lived at the beach with her wheelchair-bound mother. He visited a couple months at his grandparents’ weekend house.
When he left at end of his summer stay, she was calmer than expected. But in his case, he’d been ambushed by her intelligence, super-x-ray mind vision, velvety lips, clear eyes. Nobody had ever had the right to get to him; he didn’t allow it. He’d let his guard way down. But away from her, he drifted.
The next summer he visited cousins in Germany. When in winter he went to the beach it was to space out at a window, watch the stormy foaming surf, sit by the fire, sleep. He missed her sharp laugh, a hand holding his loosely, how they’d walked in sync since she was also tall. But he never sought her out. He’d been seeing a girl who entering university next year, pre-med, just as was he.
This summer was different. His parents had split up; he’d totaled his car in spring. He planned to enter university despite the head injury, a slow healing femur. He felt this was a last time to loaf, play chess and rummy with his grandparents, explore tidepools, be pampered some.
So when he saw her, he was both anxious and relieved. At last, they met again.
She came around the bend, arms swinging, chin tilted up, eyes forward. The gap between them closed fast, too late to turn back. He felt suddenly unsure, kept eyes to the path as they moved forward, then when they were two feet apart he slowed.
But she smacked his arm with a soft fist, thrust an envelope at him, and kept right on. He stared after her. She was not turning back. He bent to retrieve and open the envelope. Pulled out the stiff watercolor paper card.
It was a little painting she had made, a radiant miniature seascape with two tiny people. A man–was that him? yes–was moving out to sea, afloat on whitecaps, and she–yes, it was her– was standing on the bluff, waving, waving with a poppy colored handkerchief, all that pale hair free like a kite in bright wind, and the sky was so, so blue it hurt to look at it. But he kept looking until he was able to smile.
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!
I am learning something new the past few weeks. I might not have to be quite as alone in my life as I crawl past the sudden death of a granddaughter. And worsened chronic illness, a year of my spouse’s unemployment, various troubles for five adult children here and there. And, yes–the pandemic, how can I note that last? The toll it has taken on humanity. On us each. That there might be care and aid for this woman–me, Cynthia–is amazing to me even after a fulfilling career offering help of all sorts to others. In truth, I was considering calling a therapist but put it off each week, waiting things out. You know…I can do this, it all takes time, I will get through this and be alright, I can tread water a lot longer….I know how grief fans open and closed and open…that sort of putting it off.
If you would, then, look above: the photo provides a semblance of what solace can be and do for me: losing self by creating an interesting scenario; meditating on curiosities and life’s beauty; being still; listening/watching/feeling. I could insert a photograph of the sea or mountains or a path winding through dense forest. Nature is clearly a focal point but not always. It might be playing favorite or new music or letting my own sudden singing flow; making a bit of art or dancing on my twilit balcony, hidden by trees. It might, then, be two lanterns, a solar kaleidoscopic sphere, and a flower. Sitting in the darkness as light sifts through it, seeing varied shapes amid softening colors. Birdsong in tiny bursts about me quieting at end of day, while the owl resumes its part with haunting calls. These cover me with ease, the simplest things. That presence of divine creation flows to and fro. I take it in, nourishment for my great hunger. I feel fuller, better.
Solitude–literally, figuratively–has been a close companion of mine for the duration of my life. Its arrival can be bittersweet, but first and last familiar, so an overall welcome state. Sometimes warm and cozy, sometimes cool and detached, it is like a second skin, a delight yet protective and flexible, as much a part of me as the blue myopia of my eyes.
I don’t think being solitary is completely a choice but an ingrained manner of living. A habitual behavior. I don’t readily stop to enumerate all options– and those that do come to mind are often due to being taught other ways. That one can have solitariness and connection with others–even though we are, of course, all by our human selves ultimately. But I apparently don’t have to expect always to be left to my own devices. A novel idea when first informed of it, and not quite accepted as truth. I am still working on it at 71; it seems that with age comes a bit of wisdom then greater leaps of learning.
Don’t get me wrong, solitude is a good thing much of the time; it appeals to the creativity I nurture, the writer and musician and thinker that stirs daily in me. I am at home with it in a myriad ways and for different means. And I was trained how to behave in the public at an early age, to interact with people in a civil, appropriately warm manner. It was a good thing. But solitude and being so much a solitary person–alone–are not quite the same, either.
Solitariness ceased being an action taken consciously–that drawing deep into self, figuring out how to endure then flourish alone, perhaps later with others –when I found myself alone as a child and desperately needed protection. But didn’t get it. Ever. Not even when my mother–a good mother but a mother constrained by societal expectations and her circumstances, her own fears– knew I was in need. I fended for myself and played my roles well enough. But then it was on to a turbulent and risky, oftentimes dangerous, youth and adulthood. Walking on a knife-thin edge while trusting my own intuition and sense of balance didn’t 100% pan out. Still, I developed survival instincts that, if not always physical rescues, were more emotional and spiritual saves. At a price. Surviving comes with a price one must be willing to pay. I have been willing. And able. That or give up,and never give up, I used to counsel myself, so outwit the victimizers, the everyday charlatans. Find the path through the world that allows you to stay alive, keep moving and keep sight of the Light.
I noted as a mental health/addictions counselor that such attitudes and behaviors are common for those who experience crushing, life changing events. If it soon is clear there is no rescue, no aid of any sort, clients devised creative ways to cope and survive. Or gave up. PTSD is brutal until it is understood and managed but in truth, there may be more harshness or (real or perceived) “punishment” and repercussions to cope with; life brings us a wide array of experiences. People can judge wrongly.
It takes arduous labor to move beyond this, years of praying (for me) and identifying markers or warning signs both within and without–to identify actual reasons for self defense and let go of misperceived experience. Then there is a pull back, and then construction of new coping skills. It is largely practical, not just emotional change. It becomes more natural to choose the healthy versus the unworkable response. And a person develops healthier perspectives, better decision making, freedom from past reactive or self destructive behaviors. It can be done, is being done by people every day. They learn to trust step by step–themselves first and, slowly, others.
If I know all this, why the persistent belief that I need to deal with life’s eruptions, twists and random barriers primarily alone? Habits are hard to change at the root. And they can seem comfortable, even when not the best. Change can be jarring, confusing, but it doesn’t tend to kill us; bad habits can and do. What can we do to save ourselves? Can I–can you–take new risks required?
Or, somewhat more complicated, can I actually “wake up” enough once more to see that I am being offered simple aid? We may think we are alert and smart enough….Consider how I had to pay attention anew, let go of old belief and practice other behaviors. It has just begun to sink in the past few days. The immensity of its impact has been worth musing over.
I shared this briefly before in a recent post, but there is a greater point to it. Skip this part of you need to but continue if you can…
I was grocery shopping on June 17 at 2:58 pm. when my phone dinged and showed a picture of my daughter, Naomi, standing on my front porch. I thought it was a weird joke she was making. I brushed it off and kept shopping, but my heart started to race. In a few moments I went outside to look at hanging flower baskets. And then I responded to her with disbelief: Is this real? Because Naomi lives in S. Carolina and only recently had driven to Colorado for the summer, where her guy lives–and I am in Oregon. When she affirmed she was standing on my porch, I nearly lost it. I raced home and found her and we hugged and hugged and I would have bawled if I wasn’t so excited. And then a bit worried about Covid-19, though we are both vaccinated. (That anxiety passed; we have been safe enough.)
Let me tell you something about her–besides that she is a sculptor, an award-winning educator, an international traveler, a brilliant woman (a talented/gifted-identified kid by 9, flew through college SATs at 11) who could flourish in any number of careers. Of course I am proud of her, as I am of all my children. But who she is can seem a true mystery and was from the start. Who creates block designs and buildings for a few hours without stopping, no distraction at just over two years? Then you get to know her more…although she explains almost nothing abut herself….And when she knows and cares for you, her loyalty is deep and wide. She has heart far bigger than her 105 pounds can keep to itself. She has soul, the kind that is hitched to the stars but swooped down here to see what she can learn and offer. She has a dry, quirky sense of humor, can offer lightning speed solutions to many conundrums, can be so quiet you have to look for her nearby. Is a workhorse when it comes to interests and passions. Self directed; don’t try to deter her. She shares characteristics with her equally individualistic–we are not so much a moderate or ordinary… if there is one of those–sisters and brother. But Na is, well, Na. (Those who know, understand this statement.)
So if she sent me a picture of herself smiling at my doorstep–“just in the neighborhood, thought I’d say hi”— it could be a digital joke, a forecast of the future, or a dream come true.
But who hops in a vehicle and drives across the country not only to see her guy Adam–but then her mother? Not for any particular reason, or so it seems at first glance…and without ever telling the mom–me? In fact, tells her she cannot make it out this year, likely. But then tells her siblings (and aunt and uncle who come later) to keep it a secret. Naomi does. But her sisters and brother are in on the plan. Maybe it was the fact the most of my birthdays the last ten years have been impacted by a family member’s death (and some of Marc’s family) and funeral. It happens so often, it is quite peculiar. Or perhaps it was that she heard something in my voice during phone calls she made sometimes twice weekly and daily texts for a couple of months–the weariness, spaciness, tears held back. And, without a doubt, she needed to see her family as much as coming for me/us. She could not make it for our Krystal’s funeral. To hug her sister Aimee beloved mother of Krystal…and share the love with everyone else.
Over the course of about ten days with us, Naomi slept on an air mattress in our living room without complaint. She did so many considerate things, it’s harder to recall what she did not do for me, for us. She made delicious food. She went out and picked berries in heatwave-blazing sun to give to us all though she has very pale, sensitive skin so must slather on heavy SPF to be outside too long. She joined Aimee and me for an indulgent pedicure even though she is not about pedicures. She scheduled and visited her siblings and their kiddos in safe ways (due to Covid). She visited Annie, widow of my brother, Gary; she’s an artist, too, so they caught up about their work.
Naomi also brought me a beautiful handmade ceramic cup; she knows I value unique ceramic mugs and cups almost as much as she does. She wants us to get a dog and kept showing me pictures, offering to go with me to a rescue center (declined, not ready for one–they die). We took walks together. Talked, talked, talked. Debated. We don’t always see eye-to-eye; both of us argue a point well and learn stuff in the process. She brought home a shiny green succulent for no good reason other than it is attractive, and not killable as it’s hard to keep plants alive in our shady home…its name is Bertha or maybe Jeanne, we shall see. She washed up dishes, cleaned some, kept her things tidy. And updated with Marc each night when he got home from work, shared anecdotes and laughter. She can talk to anyone, I think, I have seen it occur anywhere. This from a kid who rarely spoke unless absolutely required. Who hid, and yet has embraced the world and living.
When we went to visit her brother, Josh. It was a good time–we rode little motorbikes, crazy fun, gabbed. She gave him two huge walnut and metal sculptures that their father, a builder and sculptor, made decades ago. (He is deceased.) “The Guardians” are perhaps over four feet tall and heavy, but she drove across country with them in the back of her SUV. And there was a third that Ned, their dad, had never finished; it is now Josh’s to finish. (He makes art, too.)
For all I know, she also gave gifts to her sisters. This is her way, little surprises in the mail or hand delivered.
The night before she left to meet up with her guy in CA. and to explore the redwood forests –he was pausing on a meandering motorcycle trip–she insisted we have an “art party”. I was tired out from having so much fun, and was preparing for imminent arrival of my brother, sister-in-law and our sister, plus a couple of cousins. But Alexandra, her youngest sister, arrived on time as ever, and so we sat down at the balcony table. Naomi got things sorted out for us, then snip, paste, add some color, snip, position and paste magazine pictures on a small piece of watercolor paper. Little artsy collages began to take shape as we gave way comfy quietness with quips here and there. We were at it for an hour, then lined them up. Not too shabby. Yes, it was time I’m glad we shared!
It wasn’t an aching goodbye the next day. I was distracted by planning the casual lunch here with more family the day after. Marc and I were also frantically trying to locate an air conditioner, something we never need in OR. but this June the historic heat wave had commenced with ferocity. (Found a clunky one at a “grow shop” of all places. If you don’t know what t that is….Oregon legalized marijuana.) Naomi noted she and Adam were going up the Oregon coast (he on motorcycle, she in car) and might stop at Cannon Beach where my brother, sister-in-law, Marc and I were soon headed. So, it was a cushy hug but not a last-of-visit hug.
This, then, was the first portion of my repeat lesson in being offered and accepting loving care. But you know how when, for example, someone compliments you and it slides off you until it catches you off guard later? That’s what happens to me. I am continuing to figure out how to acknowledge and be present with deliberate, genuine kindness. To be open to/accepting of love like that–yes, even with family.
The second part of my tutelage was about to happen.
My brother, Wayne, and his wife, Judy–came out to visit Marc and myself, our sister, Allanya, and other family members. Their trip was also cross country but it was planned to include taking photos at scheduled stops, as well as taking workshops with photographers throughout the states. This is one of their true passions, creating great photographs; they excel at it. So it was a first big trip to do that and see family in two years as the pandemic began to wane. They’d spend three days in the Portland area, then Marc and I would share a beach lodge with them for the final days of their visit.
How to describe a brother I knew minimally for 40 years or more? He is seven years older than I am, and one of four older siblings often busy and gone, then off to universities by the time I was nearing teen years. In this brother’s case, college led to the military for about 30 years. Then came marriages and children; we lived in cities far from one another. I didn’t know him at all. I recalled he laughed easily when young and teased me a bit, but far less so for years after Viet Nam. I was very affected by his new quietness and faraway eyes. I wanted to know him, but did not get a chance. He moved elsewhere.
I moved to the Northwest at 42; three other siblings lived In WA. and OR. I felt somewhat close to all three, more so very shortly as I was welcomed. (It was Allanya who persuaded me to leave MI. with two teenaged children and settle here.) Wayne and Judy lived another life back east. It was only when they flew out that we met up. I visited at their home three times: when my young brood and husband visited long ago, then for his 70th and my 60th. And at some point things changed, perhaps when Dad, then some years later, Mom both passed away. It was us five siblings, orphaned. He and Judy visited the Northwest more. They’d travelled the world often but when retired from the military, it became most of every year. So what a pleasure to see them here and there. I felt we got more familiar with each other, stayed in touch more regularly. With the pandemic, there were more check ins.
But I was not prepared for their response when Krystal died. They knew her minimally, for she passed at 28 but did not grow up here, had lived overseas for some time before returning to Portland. They reached out often. It meant so much to hear their voices, their sympathy and concern gently offered.
When Wayne–long before that– had emailed their plans about visiting this June, it concerned me a little. Would we be safe, even with vaccinations? Wouldn’t it be hard to relax inside our home with other people? It was a strange thought–mingling, talking in person! But when June crept up, I was looking forward to it. Arrive they did, first visiting Allanya who lives with her partner in an assisted living facility. She, to our confoundment, has dementia.
It was the day Naomi left and they arrived that I noticed something different. How the distance between us felt smaller. What a joy to welcome them even with the cloud of sadness around my shoulders and brain. Later, at lunch with our sister, conversation ebbed and flowed, food was tasty, the surroundings pleasant in an air conditioned restaurant as temperatures rose ever higher outdoors. Allanya, thoughts shared occasionally, seemed happy, too. They insisted on paying the bill. I thought Okay, next time but no; this continued.
Lesson here: be gracious. Pride is not all that helpful. Accept despite a cringing discomfort. Marc and I have tried always to pitch in, have taken good care of ourselves and family. But sometimes the life’s loads shift. We’ve helped others and this time we may need to appreciate being recipients. So I told myself. ( Marc is recently employed again, things shall improve–amen.)
Following lunch, we visited a classic car dealership with Allanya. She loves to see and touch the old polished, fancy cars–I took a picture of her posing cheerily beside a vintage turquoise Thunderbird. We all have admiration so took more photos. Then we ferried her back home, and fell silent. What can be said of gradually losing parts of a sister in plain sight…it is misery. We love her so dearly.
The following day, our lunch gathering took place. Our house was filled with expressive exchanges–we are a loquacious bunch–with burgers, chicken kabobs, hot dogs grilled and more. I oscillated between tending to needs, listening, smiling and feeling blank, staring out the window at flowers on the balcony as they slowly wilted in the 112 degree heat. Time passed, the place emptied. When might such a meeting of family happen again, all parties present? It went so fast. This thing called time!-it flashes by and before we know it…
Then to the beach–Wayne, Judy, Marc and me. Allanya had wanted to go until she decided not to go…disappointing but, too, she’d get dizzy on mountain roads and it might be too much being away from her partner and their dogs. Not only short term memory is lessening; she is much less apt to get out and go even with me. How fun it may have been, siblings hanging out at a pretty spot close to the sea. She once owned a weekend home on a bay of the ocean…we stayed there so many times. Followed furtive deer. Studied starry skies.
The next 24 hours were not easy, just as it had not been the previous week. I have been alone so long. Most of us have been. Yes, Marc and I have gone on outings, but mostly he tends to do his thing, I do mine, like any longstanding couple. Now he is employed again and the rooms are empty of other voices. And I can weep, write poetry, read, be deeply silent, leave any time. All by myself. People can be taxing. And they can be wonderful. But life and death, they move with us, like my hands at labor or rest, like my soul and mind.
The lodging was attractive: high ceilings with beams, many windows to encourage drifting sunlight, rooms a-plenty– it was giant cabin. I was still glad to be there despite tension in my shoulders, a nagging headache, a slight loss of internal balance. Did it show too much, I wondered? I had tried to be present for a week with family, even when the undertow of sorrow and exhaustion pulled hard.
So what was the 3.5 day schedule, the agenda? There was none, other than to eat when we got hungry, sleep when tired. Marc and I roamed the beach as early eve arrived half-golden, then blue, then on fire with sunset. The sea’s visual infinity, its music and the sand underfoot buoyed me. I opened my lungs, breathed in the air and wind arriving all the way from who knows where. It helped, but not entirely. Still uncertain of myself, my role somehow–who was I without our other siblings, who are we in the current iterations of life’s flux– we finally slept, fitfully, at a distance. The next day, a short visit from Alexandra, her husband and the twins for lunch–they drove out from Portland to see her aunt and uncle once more. Marc and I walked the beach for miles; knots loosened from my shoulders, head cleared more. And then he left for home for the work week.
I got a clue and conceded the obvious: the whole point was to do nothing. The trip to Cannon Beach was to gather loosely, unwind, take it easy, enjoy whatever desired. Have a respite. To hang out with Wayne and Judy, sometimes do things on our own, other times shared. Wayne offered information about photography and camera functions, nicely gave me items I could use with my Cannon. Judy and I caught up at length; it was lovely getting to know her better. To feel the time, miles and experiences that separated us move aside so more connecting points might be made. They are intellectually stimulating, responsive, accomplished and cosmopolitan–and caring people. More independent and driven than am I, they know their way about the wide, mad world. Yet we are only people trodding the paths; we each have our own.
I slept better, dreaming my way through nebulous panorama of night. Awakened later than planned. It didn’t matter. We whiled away the morning, slipped into afternoon. Naomi and Adam arrived and joined at the table. Joshua (who, days after Krystal’s funeral, came upon a gruesome dead body on a remote hike; remains distressed, in addition to our own loss) and his wife and stepsons joined us awhile. We enjoyed beach time then dug into a decent meal; more talk, then off they all went. We had a carousel of family get togethers over a few days. Naomi and I resolved to see one another before another year passes…and so, farewell, firstborn daughter.
That night I slept as I hadn’t in weeks. Just as I had eaten and savored food as I had not in far too long. Up early the next day, we packed and left and that was the end of that side trip. Wayne and Judy went on to other states, seeing friends and photographing more landscapes and architecture or whatever pulls them in for a closer look. Saying goodbye to two more family members was warm, sweetly sad.
“Sister,” my brother said as he hugged me.
“My brother,” I managed.
The two weeks were a sort of magic. No, more–they were restorative, a start of healing. I had prayed for help and yet everything given me was a surprise, a reveal of mysterious powers of love. I have been paused and re-set–I have come back to my more balanced self a little more. Since I was able to try to accept these gifts, I regained a clearer, broader viewpoint. It took some defense shedding; there have been fewer, though, since mid April. I imagine God has more work to do with my participation, in any case. I am an eager student once more.
For every death of a loved one, there is a doorway that takes us back to all others we mourn and it begins to feel like nakedness in the world, and as if we must protect ourselves more. We are helplessly laid bare in sorrow. We are like children, or like souls whose bodies are useless. So it took more willingness to receive and also give back–attention, trust, time, compassion, empathy.
You might think it would be natural; I do know much about helping others gain human skills and strengthening attributes. But I have limits as we all do. I was struggling before my daughter and brother arrived–with the powerful weight of life amid the subterranean anchor of death, with exhaustion from too much happening too fast. With the strangeness of juxtaposition: beauty and wonder with shock and horror. The day Krystal died was the twin granddaughters’ second birthday. It was a bright and joyous day…and we got the call and raced to her apartment building. Saw the medical examiner at the door. Aimee and Alexandra and I saw our loved one, suddenly gone unbelievably still. It stays with us every day and night. My daughter Aimee struggles with her grief as anyone would who has lost a child, wants to hide away–though she and her partner came to our family luncheon, unexpectedly. I can only stand by, powerless except for my love and that pains me though I understand it.
In my birth family circle Wayne and Allanya and I are who we have now. That ole fast talking, laughing, insightful Allanya we knew best and longest recedes a little with each visit. We have lost our parents, a brother and sister, a nephew, a brother-in-law–there is no pretending things are otherwise. But I have the blessings of my children, the grandchildren still alive including Krystal’s brother, Tyler. Things happen when you least expect it. Yet one greets each day as it comes. We culture our hope like a pearl, the abrasion of living polishing, turning it over. And we aim for goodness in ourselves and others. Open our hearts as much as possible so we can take a chance on love. Even happiness.
I know when I am stuck in that cave made of “I can manage, I am praying, I am greeting each day with a hello” typical of my solitariness, my family can bring compassion, perhaps food, some tears, some laughs. Yes, I can do it alone, find solace in my own company more often than not. I’m a writer, for one thing. But I was taught: chin up, stand tall, always do well. But I don’t have to do it that way. There are others who do care and how much of an unanticipated rescue is that? It can be everything. More so during these times. I will rejuvenate–then be better here for them. For all that I can do.
The summer dug in its heels and often seethed with heat, so that languishing on the patio was only good in morning or evening. Not that Jeanette languished much, what with her calligraphy projects, currently five in various stages. She was content to work at least 4 hours a day. The nature of it enabled deep meditative moments within the larger design and details, the beauty of it appearing beneath her pen as it slow-danced across paper.
But Lenny craved the outdoors and socializing, so he took off for hours some days, gone to who knew where. Sometimes he alerted her to plans if they were going to make and eat dinner together. Other times he slipped away, came back quietly is her head was bent over her desk. He was not such an intrusive roommate, al thing considered, she grudgingly admitted.
But if he was there he dove right into conversation, as always.
“I was thinking, I painted the bench a sage green, so why not yellow for the patio table and chairs re-do?”
She had been listening to a book at the time but she noted his mouth moving, so took out the ear buds. She gave Malloy a pat on his big furred brow, noting his tongue dripping saliva onto the floor. She had to ignore some things. He licked her chin, which made her shudder.
“Lenny, yellow screams at you, don’t you think? A blue house, a green bench–now add yellow? Make them sage green, too.”
“You have to admit yellow is cheerful. Maybe I should’ve pushed for a yellow bench, then…” He took off his Oregon Ducks cap and ran a hand over his sweaty face. “But whatever you say, Lady Boss.”
“Oh, stop it. I appreciate it, but too much alteration is…. too much. I can get you a big canvass for you to paint if you love color so much.” Her eyebrows rose involuntarily at the thought of him making any serious art.
Stroking his chin, he nodded. “I might try that. My grandfather was a painter. Well, he painted signs and such–still, he was good at it. I liked to watch him, hand him brushes. He managed a farm supply store but made signage on the side. he wanted to teach me but I had little patience for it, I was just his admirer, his steady hand and careful ways, but my dad would have nothing to do with that business. I sort of regret not learning from him, now.”
She didn’t answer, as it would keep him talking on and on about his grandfather, nice man that he likely was. It was too hot. She moved to the slider door. It was warm even with air conditioning–though she liked to keep it less cold than more. Lenny thought that odd when the whole purpose was to chill out in A/C. She opened the slider, gazing at the bench and then the table, and went out. He rummaged in the refrigerator, found his leftover ham and cheese sandwich, then joined her.
“Sage green, that’s final– for now. Do you really want to paint?”
“Okay,” he said and took a large bite. “I never tried it except for little projects. I like creating things, you see. I’m not just a factory worker.” He focused on eating, slipping a bite or two to Malloy under the table.
She emitted a little huff. “Of course not, I never intimated such a thing… Anyway, I’ve decided to go on a walk with you as suggested. The woods are cooler now. I do miss those trails some days. Might as well get back to them.”
Lenny was swallowing but the food stuck for a second. He’d asked her countless times to walk with him–he liked to share nature with others, why not Jeannette? She was so used to being alone; it had made her sort of crusty. He thought he had gotten fusty but since the pandemic-caused layoff, he realized he truly enjoyed more people, places and activities than he had had time for before.
“Well, one more thing settled, Malloy. Tomorrow morning, three of us go walking.”
Jeanette entered a kind of dream state as they moved deeper into trees. The greenness covered her, seemed to enter her pores by osmosis. It was disorienting. But each step brought her closer to an easier surrender. It was the heat, she told herself, many strong scents permeating the air, or her allergies leaping to life. But in fact, she was becoming more enchanted by earth and sky, plant and animal life. Lenny knew much about these things so he talked, explaining, for example, differences between Queen Anne’s lace and its poisonous look alike, water hemlock. His voice almost blended with the surroundings–full of nuance, light and shadow, a rumble of earth’s underlying energy brought to the surface. It was soothing to her ears, unlike at the house when he talked voluminously, sometimes without particular direction.
They dawdled by a tinkly creek, its musical flow steady and sweet. He stood with hands clasped behind his back, and beamed all around as if he had found a secret garden and was introducing it to her. They saw fat skittish rabbits scurry off, a garter snake rippling between grasses; heard vesper sparrows, juncoes, tanagers, woodpeckers and she thought she heard a Cooper’s hawk call out. Lenny agreed. It thrilled her that she remembered. But other than his identification of things–she let him go on, despite the fact that she’d lived behind these woods for twenty years–they were quiet, their footsteps light.
Why hadn’t she availed herself of all this more the last few years? Because teaching had worn her out. Week-ends required more labor without her ex-husband to help, and when she retired, she wanted to do what she loved and rest and not be bothered by compulsory conversations or additional agenda. Still, here she was. They were. And it was a sort of revelation–despite passing others on the trails, or hearing cars in the distance, or sweat streaming down the back of her light cotton shirt, it was good. She needed to walk more, explore again more of what lay beyond her closed door.
After twenty minutes they came to a meadow with tall, silky grasses. She spotted a brand new bench; she had enjoyed a pause there when it was still splintery, long ago. They sat down in the shade of a mammoth white oak and she pulled two bottles of water and two bananas from her rumpled paisley backpack. Offering one each to Lenny, they then satiated their thirst and hunger. She noted wild roses stirring in the breeze as their perfume came to her and Lenny. He got up and picked one to sniff more closely, then handed it to her. They chatted about nothing of note, then fell silent again, eyelids drooping under the veil of early summer heat.
A sudden country song filled the quietness, and Lenny pulled his phone from a back shorts pocket.
“Lenny here.” He pressed his ear closer, his eyes widening. “Wait, slow down– just what exactly happened?” he barked, sitting upright, ear pressed closer.
Jeanette sat forward, alarm shaking her from reverie. Was it something or someone at his house? His best friend?
“Oh, no. When was this…? Where is he now? And what do they say? What does that mean? Hold on, I can’t understand–yes, alright then…” He wiped beads of sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, took a long intake of breath. Let it out. “Yeah, yeah, of course. I do want to come! Give me a half hour and I’ll get back to you!”
Lenny turned to her, his face drained of color, void of calm.
“That was my brother, Joe. It’s Willy–remember, my nephew? A terrible car accident. I’m getting a plane ticket to Pittsburgh.” He grabbed her forearm.
Willy, the nephew who was like a son, and always would be.
She grabbed his arms in both of her hands and they sat there a moment, face to face, Lenny’s eyes alive with fear, hers wide open. They got up and took off at a fast pace, Malloy running between them.
Lenny let her know when he arrived safely. Then it was 2 days before Jeanette got a brief update via text. Multiple organs injured, head injury, badly broken leg, fractured pelvis. It was bad. But he was alive, so far. Intensive care, a group of specialists working on things. He couldn’t see him, of course; no one could due to the pandemic. It was hell to not see him. He and his brother, Joe, and sister-in-law, Ellie, were holed up at Willy’s house with his wife Meredith, their two kids. It all was just crazy. He’d text her again tomorrow if he could.
She found herself unable to concentrate well, losing her place in her calligraphic work, starting chores, then stopping halfway through. Malloy and she sat, listened to the radio, then slouched out to the patio, then returned indoors where they watched television together, Malloy’s head on her bare feet.
Lenny texted again late on the fourth night. “Long night here, can’t sleep. They’re still assessing things, keeping him going. They can fix. thank God, the pelvis, leg. Can they fix kidney and pancreas damage? Will his heart ever calm down? Can he even respond much? No new answers. My brother is a wreck, his only son….Willy’s kids are freaking out but his Meredith is a strong mother to them…Hug Malloy for me. Give him treats, walk him, of course– please and thanks.”
She said of course she would, hung up. Gulped down a small lump in her throat. Got on her knees and hugged Malloy.
So walk they did, just around the neighborhood, mostly, at least twice a day. When he whined at the slider door, she opened it and he romped a bit, did his business, lay down in the cool grass under the trees’ great, leafy branches. Once she found him under the bench, another time, he was sitting on it as the sun went down.
She sat beside him, stroking his long back. “I know I’m not the guy you want. But we do alright, don’t we? It’s family, you know–for Lenny, it’s all about family, and almost anyone can be family.” She laughed softly at that. “But this time it is blood ties, you know, and that’s big. His pack. So we will just wait it out until he gets back.”
Malloy held her eyes with his deep brown ones that never looked miserable or empty but, rather, calm, perhaps often wondering, and simply kind. Could a dog be kind? Malloy had had a good teacher in Lenny; he had been raised right.
As no doubt suffering, beloved Willy had been.
One morning she plugged in the coffee pot and made coffee. Malloy’s long nose sniffed deeply of the aroma as it dripped into the carafe. She poured a small mug of it and put half and half in it and a little sugar and carried it it onto the wrought iron patio table. She sat down and took a sip and spit it out.
“Tell me. Malloy, how do people drink this dreadful brew? I have to make my tea now.”
Malloy grunted and stretched out on the still-cool flagstones.
When she came back with tea, she left the mug of coffee at the place opposite her. As if he was coming back shortly from his early morning breakfast with his best friend, smiling and carrying fresh pastries or bagels for them to nibble on.
On the eighth day, Lenny texted as she was making a snack of apples and cheese for herself, and bits of cold chicken for Malloy.
Her phone dinged and she read: “Pelvis surgery went well two days ago. Willy is responding better to interventions. His heart rate is steadier, lower. He can nod a bit, blink and tries to talk but part of his face was fractured so he can’t talk…he may look different, but who cares, he gets surgery for that. And the leg in two days if all goes well enough. Wires and tubes, they say, doing their work. Joe and I are spending more time together than we have in twenty years…sad, huh? But good, too. He’s so shook up. I have to go, Ellie needs me to do an errand.”
Usually Jeanette responded with something like: “Thanks for update. Keep your head up. Willy is in my thoughts, hope for the best for him and your family. Malloy is just fine.”
But this time, she wrote: “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you, for all. I’m saying a prayer each day. Malloy misses you, I can tell, but he likes our woods walks. Hang in there, Lenny, just hold onto hope, okay?” She felt as if tears were possible as she said these things, and it felt strange.
He answered: “The woods, good! I can use all the prayers you got. Glad Malloy misses me, but glad he is with you.”
“Willy will get better, I can just feel it.”
“Yeah…he has to.”
Feel it, why did she say that, what did that mean? It might not be true. It was up to the doctors and Lenny’s nephew. Willy had to strive the best he could to stay alive. So many factors went into recovery from a catastrophic accident. But she meant it. And believed it. For Lenny’s sake, if nothing else. He just could not lose his nephew who was like his son.
That’s when she knew. Their partnership meant something. Lenny meant something, after all. She’d never expected an unknown, down-on-his luck tenant to become an honest-to-goodness, real-as-life friend. It was something to wonder over. A sudden good fortune. But with that came everything else, too.
After that, they texted two-three times a day, check-ins about Willy’s progress and how the family was faring, and what it was like in Pittsburgh in June. Sometimes they chatted about what they were watching on Netflix, or what her work was currently, how he had projects on his mind for when he returned, especially her yard if he could have at it. The city he described sounded quite marvelous. She’d visited Pittsburgh once in her late thirties, and recalled a sense of progress, the beautiful setting against steep hills and its two large rivers.
She looked forward to their talks. But it was a surprise when he called one morning, two and a half weeks after the terror of severe crisis had waned just a bit. Willy was beginning to make some tangible progress, and surgeries and treatments seemed to be working.
Lenny was keen to talk about a botanical garden he’d visited. His descriptions enthralled her and he sent pictures to her phone.
“You should see this place, one of the prettiest I’ve seen. Not that I’ve been to many but I sure would like to take a tour of more. You would love it, so lush, colorful, and the orchid collection and the butterflies! It’s very old, too, still going strong. What a paradise.”
Just to hear the pleasure in his voice made her feel better. “You went with your family?”
“Naw, alone. I let them be more, now. Joe and Ellie just went back to work. Meredith as you know took leave from her job, is home with the kiddos. I’ve begun to ping pong between the two houses a little. I think I’ll give it a few more days, see what’s happening with Willy. But they say he looks better–I can’t imagine when he came in–and every day brings a small improvement, so far. They saved the kidney; the pancreas will take more time healing. Special nutrients are helping, too. He’ll be there awhile.”
She could hear him clear his throat, cough.
“I’m so truly sorry this happened to Willy…I can’t say it enough. You and your family must worry every minute.”
“Yeah, a drunk driver, didn’t tell you that before.” His voice cut the space between them, then diminished. “Thank goodness he made it, though. The other guy, unfortunately, did not…”
She could think of nothing more to add; the silence fell hard between them and held. She decided to break it.
“Well, at least during this time Malloy has gotten more comfortable with just me. Though he whines on your bed at night, it is heard to hear but he barks at me to take him for walks. Drags his leash over when he’s good and ready. So off we go!”
Lenny laughed readily. “Good job, both of you.”
“Yes, I agree,” she said. They wrapped up the conversation with their respective weather reports. It was a signing off they did each time they connected.
“Lenny?” she said as she answered her phone. She and Malloy had moved into bright sunshine as they left a meandering wooded trail and she put on her new aqua sunglasses.
“I might just come back. But I hate to leave them. But what else can I do? Kinda in the way now. None of us can go to see Willy, just daily updates. Then, yesterday we finally got to see him on a video call, and again today for a few. He looks…Jeanette, he was so good looking– but he’ll be alright. It looks like he’s starting to heal much more. He can’t talk, jaw wired shut, but he seems to get all we say. We just yak at him for ten minutes. A total relief to finally see my nephew… Joe and Ellie are working to keep sane, I think. I’m at loose ends, spend time each day with Willy’s Meredith, bless her, she’s a good gal, and I play with the kiddos. We swam in their great swimming pool a few times–dang, he worked so hard to get where he has gotten… They all seem some better. There’s hope, a continued, slow progress. I should let them live their lives, not have them fuss over me, which they do. I don’t want to be overstaying my welcome.”
She imagined him worrying each night as he tried to sleep, wondering if Willy needed him to stay even though he couldn’t be with him. If he’d done enough, if he could do more. She saw how he was like that, mindful of others, putting others first more often than not.
She had lain awake often, herself, thinking of the situation and everyone affected. It impacted her more than she’d expected. She didn’t know them, had known Lenny three months. But how upset he was about Willy, how brave he had been to get on the plane, offer his help, face the bleak unknown.
Feeling his absence, if she was honest, though it took her awhile to figure out that was the discomfort in her own home.
“Maybe ask them if they need you there now? Maybe you can go back later when he gets home, help out more then.”
“That’s a very good idea, Jeanette.”
When they hung up, she got back to her calligraphy, more settled than she had been in a long while. She loved her work, how it blossomed into more than she planned, the words scrolling elegantly across the pages as she gave her all to each stroke.
He called an hour later. “They said to go on, they’re managing now that Willy is improving, and they’d love to have me back another time.” But he sounded sad if somewhat relieved. “I guess I can do video chats with him when he’s unwired. I’ll tell him farewell till next time– and I definitely will be back.” He paused, then added, “But man, will it be nice to be back in that familiar bed.”
She laughed at that. “Sounds good. I knew you’d do what was best. Malloy will be happy.”
“Yeah, ole boy, sure have missed him. It’ll be good to be home again.”
Home? She repeated that in her head and aloud a few times after they ended their chat. He said it. She guessed it had become true, then. How odd a thing. How it touched her. And unnerved her– but that feeling vanished as soon as it arrived.
She put the medium-sized portfolio bag on the end of his bed. It was stuffed with painting supplies–brushes and tubes of gorgeous colors and disposable palettes and small canvasses, along with a couple of books about painting with acrylics and watercolors.
And closed his door again. He’d be walking into the house in about one hour.
He’d roughhoused with Malloy awhile, they were both way beyond pleased. Then put away his things, and came out pf his room with the art supplies in hand, mouth wide open. She smiled and waved his thanks away, taking their drinks and a cheese plate to the patio.
“Well, here we are, back on this dull but loved patio. How did we get so lazy that this is our daily thing? I have to get at it, paint this table and chairs. Maybe we should plant more flowers, how about zinnias, they’re pretty when they get tall, colorful. And we need to find more trails to walk–hike that is, if I can ever get you to be more adventurous. Plus, I was thinking of having a barbeque soon. Invite my buddies, you invite yours, we’ll cook up some burgers and franks, maybe barbecued chicken! Sound good, Malloy? Yes? Of course you can have a taste!” Lenny rubbed his exposed belly and looked up at Jeanette. “Alright by you?”
Jeanette gawped at him. He was surely back, bigger than life. Overflowing with plans to put into motion, to push ahead. Anxious to make the days and nights peppier, more interesting–as if life wasn’t interesting enough already. But he added an extra bit she had missed too long.
Zing. Pizazz. Oomph.
“Yes, it is alright with me. As long as you leave me in charge of detailed planning and we execute things together. Just because I missed you a little, don’t get big ideas of huge changes and sudden good will spread all about. And I’m not about to have a man push me around again, you know, I am perfectly able minded and self-directed. I was thinking the other day that we’ve managed to become friends and I’ve missed you a little despite our differences and a certain lack of interest on my part, so let’s not–“
“Wait, you missed me?” He leaned over the table toward her, reached for a hand which she pulled back.”You missed me. Well, feeling has been mutual, Jeanette, my friend.” He patted her hand, anyway, then sat back again and held both palms up to the treetops. “But try to take over here? Never considered it! Why, that would be disastrous, I’d be out of house and home, and Malloy and I would be running back to my poor old place with tails between our legs. No, ma’m, we’re going forward arm-in-arm. If that suits you, that is.”
She raised her iced tea glass and he raised his beer bottle, clinked them together.
“And here’s to Jeanette MInthorn, who has the gumption and generosity to get me art supplies. Me, soon officially a painter!”
“Yes, no excuses. I expect you may have talent, the way you talk about beauty and color and–“
At that he got up and went over to her. Put an arm around her shoulders. He couldn’t help himself, he squeezed her close to his side so that she had to say, “Enough! Don’t you push the limits, Lenny Grimes! You might still be on semi-probation as a roommate!”
He doubted that, but he just sat back down with nary a quip. He was so glad to be back, and they talked until both of them–more accurately, he– ran right out of words. For the time being.
Jeanette had hailed Lenny from the side door at last minute but to no avail, he drove down the street, Malloy’s furry ears flopping in the wind. They were off to the store for bagels and lox and dog food and who knew what else. She’d wanted to add a few more things to his list, the basics. She felt he overindulged in certain things, such as butter, half and half, honey. And much of everything else. That’s what she got for renting a room to a stranger without first devising a questionnaire about criteria such as eating habits. Plus, simple agreements regarding cupboard and refrigerator space.
She’d said so a couple of weeks after he’d arrived. He’d gotten masking tape and wrote on a few strips: Lenny’s, Jeanette’s. He promptly plastered them on various shelves, checking to see if his choices were okay. But still he availed himself of large amounts of items such as butter. Did that mean there was some sort of deficiency that he had to address? A need for fat? She’d had the odd thought that it was almost like being married again. Men had a way of assuming things, and consuming things. Maybe she should have found a female roommate, after all. Too late; expectations only needed greater clarification.
He just that morning took issue with what he felt were her generalizations about people, men in particular. He wasn’t rude about it. In fact he laughed a little. Perhaps at her. How she pegged people before she knew the whole story. Well, she had good judgment, overall. His words irked her. She’d reminded him he was a tenant for a bit over three months but they didn’t exactly know one another, so no presumptuous mind reading was allowed. This was after he thought she meant one thing when she meant another about the lawn being mowed. She’d not renewed her contract with the landscaping company and the yard was looking shabby so tried to put a new plan in place.
“Well, none allowed by you, either, then. The mind reading. For the record, I couldn’t delve into your mind even if I had xray vision, no worries there.”
She grunted. Was he perhaps like her past elementary students, needing simplified explanations? “Then what about the lawn? I thought I said all that aloud–it’d be helpful if you’d mow it once a week to save money on lawn care as the landscaping company overcharges plenty. That’ll even save you money on your rent over the course of months.”
“I see. I deducted that you were thinking it over, not locking in a decision.” He looked out the window, assessing the overgrown backyard. He guessed she’d let things go because she’d just expected he’d get the mower out and have at it as if he was the yard man. “I’ll do it if you take thirty or forty dollars off my rent.”
Jeanette studied him openly. Lenny leaned against the living room door jam, arms loosely crossed, one ankle and foot crossed with the other. A stocky man, he had an easy grace that belied his bulk. It wasn’t much for him to ask, a few dollars deducted. He was at least willing to do it, a pleasant surprise. She sometimes was tired out by three quarters the way through. The yard was big, by her energy’s estimation.
“How about I will try to get it done twice a month and you do the other two weeks? And I’ll take fifteen off the rent.”
“Fifteen? Such a huge amount! But if it’s harder for you as summer gets going, you do it once and I do it three times. Never mind taking more off the rent, I suppose.”
“Well.” It sounded too good to be true.
“I mean, it’s the principle of it: I’m not an employee. I live here now. I’d do it for nothing if you asked.”
“Oh–” he lifted up a forefinger”–we made a deal. Just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I love to muck around a yard any more than you like to cook and dust.” He flashed his lazy grin. “I’ll do it early Friday,” he added as he headed to his room.
She frowned as she turned to an email about a new calligraphy project. It was going to be a hard one. But a fascinating one. But she thought, I am a decent enough cook, how would he know? He, after all, cooked his own meals; they looked passable. Dust did have a way of escaping her attention. She might hand him a dust cloth and polish sometime. Or just keep ignoring it and him.
When Lenny returned from the store, he carefully sorted and put away each item. She got a look as she filled her cup with more hot water for tea. Butter, she noticed, and half and half. She said nothing and neither did he. Honey wasn’t needed right that moment. She’d make a store run, too, didn’t she do so every week when on her own?
“And by the way– that bench in the corner of the yard? I looked it over. It sure needs help.”
“Have at it, nobody uses it. I was going to have it hauled away, ” she said, hunched over her computer.
The lawn was mowed but left at a far greater height than Jeannette would have chosen. Still, it pleased her happy to have it done at last. She’d not really appreciated how severe the yard people were, truth be told, whacking off this and that, rooting out every little thing that had the misfortune of sticking out of odd spots. They made the place look as if inhabited by an obsessive-compulsive. She was orderly but unworried about things going a bit awry. It was nature, for heaven’s sake. Character was something she appreciated, which is why her simple but attractive ranch house was blue. It had been stark white with black trim when she was married and the first thing she had done after he disappeared was get it painted.
Good thing she was amenable to some variance. Lenny was lax about his room, that became obvious fast, but it was none of her concern as long as food didn’t rot there. He kept the door shut, a relief to her. He earned the full right to privacy by paying on time his rent money. It was the second biggest bedroom, meant for children she’d never had, and if he managed to utilize every crannie–well, to each his or her own. She’d never considered how empty the room was all those years there; it was a guest room. That is, not until he brought up having a nephew as they relaxed one evening on the deck. They’d gotten into a semi-habit of meeting up in early evening and he’d start gabbing while she tried to find and savor stillness.
It was warm, and the fragrance of lilacs teased her nostrils so that she inhaled deeply several times, emitting sounds of delight. As did he. Even Malloy raised his nose in the balmy breeze.
“Nephew? One only?”
“Yeah, one and he’s like, um, a default son. My brother’s son, but that’s what it always seemed to me. Willy’s the kind of guy everyone depends on, but as a little kid he leaned on me growing up. His mom and dad, my brother, divorced, and soon he was at babysitters a lot. Joe, his dad, was often gone on business though he lived nearby. I was the available and single uncle, never got hitched, so was around a lot more. Willy runs a software business now, and likes to travel to distant shores so he’s this restless person, the pandemic cramping his style. His wife is a smart one, too. Two sweet kids. Haven’t seen them all since 2018, though.”
“You ever do a video chat?” She reached for her phone reflexively, pulled her hand back. She used it for news and keeping in touch with a couple old co-workers and even more so her best friend in Arizona.
“Not too often. I don’t know why.” He scratched his neck, swatted at a bee. “You never talk about family.”
“That’s because I don’t have any.” It came out sharp-edged; it was a jolt to be asked.
“Everybody has family.”
“Not likely true. And I don’t, so stick to your own story.”
Lenny rocked back on the chair’s back two legs a moment, set it down again with a thud. Jeanette examined the cactus plant on the table. Why was he making things personal? He tended to go in that direction so she had to head him off. It was like a tick or something; he had to get talking, right to the nitty gritty. Some people liked to lay open their private lives, they went on and on. She wasn’t one of them, never had been.
“Well, I have wondered if you had your own kids, not just students.”
Jeanette narrowed her eyes at the small potted cactus in front of her, then slid a long glance at Lenny. He looked down. After the moment had passed, he got up and went to the weathered bench that languished in the corner of the yard. Mallory lifted his head, groaned contentedly, then lay it down again.
“I can fix this up real fine. How about I sand and paint it?”
She got up and joined him, pushing stray hair from her hot face, glad he changed the topic. “What did you have in mind? Not something garrish.” She sat down on it, tested the slats of its seat. “It’s held up a long time. We used to sit here sometimes at night, look at stars. My husband–my ex–and me.”
Lenny looked at her curiously. He had little doubt she had known more carefree times, and that her marriage was…interesting. Jeanette had spirit, intelligence, passions of her own, even now. He, did, too. One was working with wood. Fixing stuff.
“That’s great. I’ve been to a couple of dark sky reserves….what an experience. Put me in my place, you know? I mean, in the universe. But as a very tiny speck…”
“We went to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in Idaho. It’s the third largest dark sky reserve in the world. No words can adequately describe it. Have never forgotten it.”
Lenny whistled at that. Malloy had dozed a bit but got up and trotted over to him, nudging a leg with his furry head. “I’d like to see it someday. We’ll both just get in the car and go, huh, Malloy?”
Jeanette got up, too, went over and patted Malloy. “You pick a few paint swatches. It might be nice to fix up it up back here. Wouldn’t hurt. I used to have a garden, too.” She gazed at the old plot that was near the cypress trees, remembering tomatoes and snap peas. Their acidic red and sweet green tastes, juicy on her tongue.
“Yeah, well, was thinking that your table and chairs need a touch up.”
She looked at the patio set. Black cast iron and glass. Worn out black. Heavy and dull. She should have dumped it all. “What color do you suggest?”
“How about yellow?”
“No, no–too much. I’ll think about it. The bench is enough for now.”
She started toward the sliding glass doors and turned. Malloy had followed her so she petted his head and thick coat a moment more. She had an urge so broke her guiding rule to stay more or less congenial but impersonal. “You should see your nephew soon and his family. Your brother. You never know.”
Lenny settled into the bench, an arm along the back, and tilted his head. It was cloudy but he could imagine the constellations up there. Pulsing and shining in the giant canvas of sky. He could imagine anything if he let his mind roam. He imagined the back yard all brightened up with lights strung, a fire pit, meat sizzling on a grill, people coming by. She had such a sweet home.
His was perched atop a sloping lot and it ended in a hollow that was flooded every winter and spring. The house was more than he could handle. It had been an investment he was proud of once, but he’d had bigger hopes than brains and it showed the years of wear and half finished projects. He’d been lucky to be able to rent it to that family. No, this was a fine place. He wondered if she knew what she had. It was a smart move to come here even for a few months. Here he felt almost useful for once since his job being axed. And he was getting to know her some even though she had barred and bolted the door to her insides. He didn’t understand that attitude. He liked people, he naturally went out to them with an open mind.
Jeannette got her thick botanical art book and retreated to her room. As she passed the small round mirror above her dresser, there she was. If she was honest, she was too lean, close to gaunt, grey hair coming in wiry and wispy, her tired eyes bloodshot too many days. She smiled at herself but was not convinced–it, too, was tired– so began to wash her face.
“He’s annoyingly nice, isn’t he?” she muttered into soapy hands. “He fills up that room as if it was made for him.” She stood bolt upright, face dripping suds and water. “But it wasn’t– he’s here for only a while.” She submerged her face again. Just helping lessen respective financial pressures. I can barely stand it when he gets personal. He is too direct. Sloppy at times. But he’s a an alright guy. Malloy, much better company, though he tracked in dirt along with odds and ends from their walks. She might go along sometime to make sure he didn’t get into anything worse. Good dog, he was.
The bench was one thing, she thought as she settled into her green wingback chair, book open on her lap. But if he started on the table and chairs what might he be up to next? It felt intrusive even though it was a generous gesture. Or seemed to be, who knew. How could it be both? She didn’t desire many changes. Her life had been run smoothly by habits and will, her own understanding. And all had gone along well enough.
Oh, but she was glad there was more butter for thick slices of toast–the best things in the kitchen were starchy or creamy– and half and half for her tea in the morning. And his coffee.
Through the wide open window came the buoyant sounds of Lenny calling out and roughhousing with Malloy. The mutt’s excited barking swirled about with his laughter. The early summer night was alive with their happiness. And it sneaked right in and settled on her.
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