I wanted to write a short story today. I really did, something richly arresting, bright-toned but real. And almost did, as my writing habits are so ingrained a story would have let me shape it and set it free upon this page. Yet what sort of story would it have become?–for elegies of loss are lately becoming a deafening refrain.
But my sister-in-law passed away this afternoon from the damage wrought by that heinous thing, cancer. She has been one of my valued sister warriors. A survivor of life’s harrowing and strange times. A woman whose heart had such breadth and width, whose mind was tough, quick, coiled and ready to work. Any work–even work for abandoned or forgotten creatures. She stood steady amid the draining minutiae of living and knew how to yet find the glimmers of good.
We haven’t seen each other much in decades; we moved, they moved, days rushed us forward, took time away from us. We visited her and my brother-in-law last autumn in Michigan. She was frail then, and persistently alive. Quiet as in a cocoon yet available as she could be. We used to talk a mile a minute, smoking and drinking coffee. Laughing. Her eyes missed nothing, spoke of all she did not say.
I think she still missed nothing of importance. She listened well. But no more.
This is the second loss in a month. First, my brother Gary, now Sherril. The ache is a flame that cannot cauterize such pain; it can feel like danger, this diminishing of the heart’s natural fullness. The remainder after death: an abyss of a surprisingly darker sort. And in it the rising volume of sorrow. Tears can barely do their job, there are too many, and yet not ever enough.
I know, of course–how can we avoid knowing it despite attempts to do so? it waits in our personal realm, our daily news — that we live. And then we die. But each time a dying takes something out of us, a gigantic thing not a small one as it leaves the new absence. Like a drowning in the wake behind a mighty ship. We struggle to keep afloat despite the impulse to slip under. I think some days I am weeping for the world, not just my family, not just friends, but all of us.
There is this bone-deep yearning for more time, more love and stories, more moments when you even do no t one noteworthy thing…. but simply be with one another. Experience has such quality if we only give it its due. Nothing should be ignored or wasted, not the hurt, not bafflement or even outrage. Never the energy of compassion, the ease of simple appreciation. No words ought to be tossed here and there or out the window as if they are useless, or recyclable. They are not, not ever, not really. They are potent. Meant to tell us things we need to hear–and to say. Otherwise, we require the sort of silence out of which Divine Love, a harmony we do not even understand can rise. Inform us of more that needs to be known and done.
The words that she and I shared were quite good enough, even really good. Those conversations, those times are held close, pull me into them as if only yesterday…A dry wit. A rapid fire comeback. We exchanged lines that rang with our truths hidden in a raised eyebrow and fast look, little truths that swelled inside our words with balloons of life and respect.
We always wanted Sherril and my brother-in-law, Bill, to come to Oregon, explore the Northwest, share adventures and belly laughs and even music we might make right here, but it just never got to happen. So today I am posting pictures of the Pacific Ocean that Marc and I enjoyed Sunday for Father’s Day.
I am wanting sea spray to flick its feathery tails at Sherril, for glossy sunshine to slide about her being, the great blueness to carry her far and to whole soul joy. But she is already there, wherever she is. I’m just counting on it.
Let a hallelujah love transform you, be ever prefect as the perfection that fills each star and all gaps between. Oh warrior sister you’ve made it through this quick bitter this long sweet life and now it is done it is done
All I could think of was No, no, no. Who wouldn’t, unless they weren’t in their right good minds? It was our family place, our hand-hewn cabin enjoyed for decades of summers and week-ends, and now, recently, for me full-time. And Grandpa Hat wouldn’t be okay with the plan. But Jenks rarely listened to me despite my being ten months, fifteen days older. Anymore, I felt like a doorstop on his way in or out–I was there to make sure the way was clear for him and also to keep good air in or sweep bad air out, depending on his mood. He’d disagree but what does he know?
“I’ve got these buddies from work, “he said, “you know, the guys who like to ride with me on week-ends. I’m bringing them out for my birthday, so can you disappear for a couple days?”
I was holding the phone with one hand and scrubbing the porch with another. I’d let slip a whole plate of spaghetti when he called. I hated the wide planked pine boards to soak up any more stains.
“Not a chance, ” I muttered, phone pinned against my shoulder. “Marilew is coming over early Saturday with her son. You guys will be snoring away, hung-over and incapacitated until after least mid-afternoon. Try next week-end. Your birthday isn’t until Tuesday, anyway.”
“Tamson Louise, we’re coming. I’m turning thirty and I want to celebrate there!”
“I don’t even like your friends, Jenkins Harper.”
Jenks started talking to someone else. I could hear heavy machinery and people shouting. My brother was crew boss for a construction company. I was impressed with his success but not enough to feel generous.
“Sorry–I’m working, Tam, but don’t think I didn’t hear that. We’ll be up there by around seven. How about you and Marilew hang out at her place? We’ll be gone by tomorrow night.”
He’d told me, I heard him and that was that.
“Don’t dare bring any girls,” I shouted over the background noise.
Jenks laughed. I like his laugh. It leaps up from an easy place and usually makes me feel better. “Don’t worry. Five fools will be enough for one week-end.”
“And me, that’s six because I’m not budging.” But he’d hung up. “But I’m no fool,” I said to Aster, my recent boarder, a stray grey cat who seemed done with travelling. She yawned and studied the river about one hundred feet from the cabin’s porch, or the bugs hovering over it.
My brother Jenks isn’t a bad guy, but he had trouble becoming what you’d call domesticated. He’s more settled since he’s worked steadily. It took a couple years to get himself on the right path after he got out of prison. It wasn’t so dangerous what he did, just ignorant, wild and ill-conceived, as Grandpa Hat kept saying, a robbery of the local gas station that went awry within the first couple minutes. Jenks was waiting in a getaway car and that was bad enough. Tom Harkins, owner of the station, had a heart attack when the two guys in tiger masks barged in, one with a loaded shotgun in hand. Tom about died on the spot, for six hundred dollars in the till. Jenks had an attack of conscience and called 911 as the other two took off, then were apprehended. It wasn’t the first time Jenks had done something stupid but he was seventeen. Tom decided to forgive him. The jury did not. Three years and two months later, Jenks got out, hitched a few rides and broke into our cabin. He waited for Grandpa Hat to come home from grocery shopping. That was a mistake.
Grandpa Hat comes by his name because he will not now or ever take off his fisherman’s hat in the company of others. He says he can’t fish or think without it on. It makes him look sweet-faced but he is not quite that. So when he arrived home and Jenks was dozing at the table, Grandpa Hat grabbed his fishing pole and hooked Jenks on the collar. When Jenks startled awake, Grandpa Hat reeled him in tight. He made certain Jenks knew he didn’t want to see him there until he’d made something decent of himself.
My brother did that but they’re still not on the easiest terms, so I consider telling my grandfather about the week-end plans. Even though Marilew would have me, it was point of principle. Last year I’d unofficially staked my claim to the cabin. He didn’t appreciate it at first but he wasn’t the one who took care of the place. My mom and I did. Mostly me. Grandpa Hat was staying in town due to worsening eyesight and gout. So I thought of the cabin as mine for the time being. I’d been the one to give it a name as a kid: Hat’s Haven. It was the one place I could stand to be alive, anymore.
By Friday evening I’d tidied things up even though I knew it would all be undone. I made a big kettle of beef stew because Jenks liked it. I had a card and a gift for later. I thought about telling our mother but, well, let’s just say she doesn’t have much room in her life for Jenks. He reminds her of my father.
They arrived at seven forty-five. I could hear them long before I even saw him front of the line, his Harley leading the way. It almost made me miss riding with him. Aster’s ears wiggled about, then she raced off the porch and up the big oak tree. I waved at him and thought there were just too many of them. Inside I set the table. He flung open the door and gave me a brief hug.
They lined up and sat down, a solid wall of men, the kind you’d expect on a construction crew, the kind you’d look for a trail of ill-begotten deeds behind them. I acted as if they were invited guests, because they were. My brother’s. He introduced everyone. I knew two, Walt and Cole. The new guys looked tougher, Lonnie and Mag. I hated to think what Mag was short for, but he beamed at me like I was a love goddess with my stew and clean cabin. He was the oldest, in his forties. Knees of his jeans all ripped out, had a graying goatee and mustache, grimy shoulder-length hair. I avoided eye contact. and tried to be tolerant.
“Hey, this is some crazy good stew. Did you kill the bear and potatoes yourself?” he asked, cackling. “You got magic in that pot–I’m under your spell, girl!”
Everyone agreed, though Jenks gave him a hard look.
“Tam, it’s lookin’ good here! Place has never been so shined up. Did you make all these new curtains?”
I smiled back at him. I’m a costume designer– was, that is, in another life. Jenks always praised me for my skills when I was a kid. He brought me old clothes I could redesign, interesting buttons he’d found at a flea market. A high school play he was in got me started on the road to success. He’d liked acting before he got in trouble, but after two roles he said things moved too slowly. Guess he thought he liked acting the thug better.
Walt and Cole had joined us for dinner out in the city once. Cole had acted interested but I was not, having just divorced. I still wasn’t but he was a friend of Jenks’ I liked, a carpenter who made furniture on the side.
After dinner, Jenks had me take a picture of the group. He was on the left, then Walt, Mag, Lonnie and on the other end, Cole. I couldn’t get them to smile; Jenks fully repressed one. He, Cole and Walt went to the shed to look at some fishing poles and to get camp chairs. I headed to the river with Aster, who had come back down. I looked back and saw Lonnie and Mag settling in with their beers and a deck of cards. Mag caught my eye; I turned, walked faster. I truly hoped they’d leave for the bar before long.
Burnt River was part of the beauty of Hat’s Haven. It had taken me into its beauty as a child. I’d sit on my haunches and cast stones or a fishing line into the black-blue water and daydream about horseback riding and fairy glens and our dog Henry talking to me. Or maybe he did. Jenks would creep up and push me in the water but I’d get him back. We’d grab a couple tubes and float in the sun’s golden heat. Once we built a raft from old two-by-fours and cracked inner tubes from the shed. We made it almost a half mile before we sank but what a ride! The world passed us by, a silky summer mirage. We swam ashore and doubled over with glee at our questionable triumph, then made a better one. Jenks and I did have our good years.
I now listened for Jenks’ voice, hidden by bushes and grasses, then stuck my toes, sandals and all, into the cool, dark water. In the distance, thunder. I wondered how it would feel if I went swimming in a rippling spring current in the rain and I leaned toward water’s edge, then stepped in, my jeans getting wet, toes mucky.
Then his hand latched onto my arm and pulled me back, tight to his belly. His other arm went around my waist.
“Well, well. What sort of sister does that Jenks have here, hid away from everyone?”
I pulled hard but his grasp was too much.
“Let me go, Mag. I’m enjoying the river, and want to be alone.”
He pressed into me, his breath sour and hot on my neck. His hands shot to my hips. I wasn’t surprised he’d followed but he moved so fast. I tried to yell but nothing came. Aster meowed twice from under some bush. The water was rushing past. Sunset cast a peach and tangerine hue behind the trees while my heart was thumping hard. I felt his thoughts and was terrified. Mag let loose a low cackle as his hands crept to my chest and groped, but then he jumped back.
“What the-? What are you, anyway?”
He had met that sweep of emptiness, my changed flesh, that place where my breast had been, now gone six months. The cancer gone with it, maybe, but percentages meant nothing to me after this second bout. My horror was followed by relief and nausea. I fell forward into Burnt River, let my body be taken into it, legs sinking, arms half-heartedly attempting to keep me afloat. Maybe best to let them fall and my body disappear into the strange and damaged night. To join angels or faeries, the great starry deep, the only sanctuary where bodies were no longer needed. Where I would be free. I sank through the shimmering surface, saw the sun hide beneath the rim of earth. Nothing but water knew me.
Shouts, arms, hands yanking me. Head to my chest. More people running and yelling, the sickening sounds of fists and feet meeting muscle and bone. Sharp cries. Aster, I thought irrelevantly, has surely left me. Not even a stray would stick around for this.
“Tams!” Jenks pulled me up out of the water and close to him. “Don’t worry, it’s okay. Tams, I’m so sorry, more sorry than I can say! Tamsie, do not leave this damned world without me! I’m here, I’m here now!”
He carried me into the cabin. The others left, their bikes an explosion of sound. All but Cole, who had seen us, then taken Mag down and put him out before Jenks might kill him. I changed my clothes and Cole put on the kettle. Jenks built a fire; though it was too warm for that my teeth were chattering. We sat in silence. I let the tears fall but refused comfort other than Jenks hand atop mine. Soon I fell asleep in Grandpa Hat’s rocking chair. The next morning they were on the floor covered with blankets, the fire cold. Cole brewed coffee, Jenks whipped up eggs. My gift was to him was two tickets to a play. Jenks made a fool of himself thanking me ten times. But I was glad.
Can I tell you everything was fine after that? I cannot. I can tell you that Jenks really came back home, in the right way, that night. That Cole has come around and we have floated the river and talked. That I have come to be at peace with it, the lost breast, and my lost belief in life happily ever after. You might think it a small thing that Aster left for good but I haven’t the courage to seek another creature. The summer was too hot and dry and Burnt River ran so shallow fish died, then it stormed and it rose to the porch steps and washed away the shed. Grandpa Hat finally lost his sight. We read to him and share jokes. But he never knew what happened. No one did but those who were there. It was bad enough, but I know what worse is and that wasn’t close. Not keeping on is, and one thing my family does is just keep on. So here we are: Burnt River running fast or slow by Hat’s Haven. Family, a few friends. Me, and the future as it comes to us.
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