Little Spy

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

The haggard man of indiscriminate age slumped over, then lay on the wooden plank seating as he did every morning. He had had his pint already. On a green bench three women who acted as if they were glued together were a newer sight, had taken to coming here with a mangy little dog held tight one wide lap. The other two clutched shopping bags or purses, it was hard to tell which the voluminous objects were.

The girl was there, under the tree. She came and went from Angle Park, a good-sized slice of public space at Hammond and Right. She scrunched up her eyes at passersby; this gave her a mean look though she wasn’t always aware of it. It was part habit born of seeing less clearly than she ought. The other part was because she could be troublesome. And ruled by distrust. Why deny it? She stared at The Triplets, as she called them, and wished they would move on soon. They had dozens of things in those bags, pulled them out and spread them between themselves as if counting treasures. The girl had nothing but what fit into her pockets and a well-used backpack she’d found in a dumpster. The contents were hidden unless there was real need of anything, like the worn toothbrush or a second pair of socks.

Across the street Marlene puffed on a slim cigarette, her one luxury. Perched on the top step of stairs belonging to a crumbling brick apartment complex, the neighborhood’s work and recreation were noted with roving eyes. She worked, not as often as she’d prefer, as a cleaning lady. It was good money if she got four or five jobs in a row. Her ex-boss, her mother’s friend, recommended her for some that were too small for the company so she had gratitude. She put her name and number on bulletin boards and in the weekly rag. Things had slowed, though; rent was due. She had called Sal to see if he could loan her three hundred. He might stop by after nine that night. Or not.

He was a fickle one, that man, but he had a way. They had long ago been school chums. Now he had money and could make things happen. Marlene found him repulsive even as she was mesmerized, that teardrop tatoo on his cheekbone, hands calloused and powerful, words like spun honey spiked with vinegar. In a far better time and place he might have been the mayor, she thought, but he was “Boss” around the neighborhood. She loved to hate him, she smiled to herself, then wondered what he’d demand in return for the loan.

That girl, KZ, was sitting still as some yogi, Marlene thought, as she lit another cigarette from the burning tip of her first. Not even moving, eyes closed, head bowed like she was a saint. Caffeine withdrawal was setting in and if Marlene had five extra bucks she’d get the girl as she sometimes did, tell her to run to the coffee shop for a latte, then give her a few dollars for a tip. That could buy her a cheap burger or a pair of socks.

She lived somewhere around here, Marlene thought, but beneath that thought was a shiver. Where? The girl showed up off and on all day. She was a thug’s messenger, drug runner or thief–or what else? People knew about her but didn’t care to know more–live and let live. Whereas Marlene did think about things like the weather and her flimsy, grungy hoodie or that bad hair, as if she had hacked off the top in a fit of spite. Or that steady silence. She spoke as little as possible: “yeah, naw, dunno.” Didn’t she go to school at all?

“Hey, KZ! Wake up, come here!” she called out as she walked across the street, cigarette dangling from her thin, Solar Pink lips.

KZ didn’t open her eyes. She heard Marlene but didn’t want to be disturbed. She was trying to get somewhere else, to her grandfather’s, to the mountains where they used to visit him, or just to sleep. Could she sleep sitting like this? It had happened once. That would be handy.

Marlene stood over her, breathing as if she’d been running when she had just walked fast. Her lungs felt heavy and noisy; she had to stop smoking. She knew KZ felt her there so tapped hard on her shoulder, then wiped her fingers on navy capris. Looking down onto her spiky head, she thought she saw something move and took a step back.

“I need a coffee. If I get a small, you could get one, too. Or an oatmeal cookie. I only have seven bucks, so it’s a tiny tip or a treat. What say?”

“Can’t go, halfway to Mt. Ferron.”

“That’s a long way,  it’ll take you more than one little yogi sit.”

“Bother The Triplets.”

“Who?”

“The Triplets. Bags full of junk. Over there.” KZ, eyes still closed, pointed in their direction.

“Why would I ask them when I can always get you to go? I don’t know them; they’d take my coffee.”

“They just moved in.” KZ breathed all the way from her tailbone to her chest, then let it go, a slow hiss. “Go.”

“How long will it take you to get to the mountain and back?”

“Ten minutes.” KZ turned her whole body toward the tree and away from the woman.

Marlene sat down in the dappled shade. The alcoholic was sleeping already. The three women were boring, cards in their hands, playing a game where no one seemed to be winning.

“How come you’re always here and alone? Don’t you have nobody?”

KZ’s shoulders didn’t even rise or fall with her breathing. It was possible the kid was a yogi or something, she seemed to know things no one else did, and she could disappear without a trace. It had been four months since she’d arrived. Marlene had been taking groceries up the steps when she had heard a swift movement behind her and planted her feet, dropped her full bag and got ready for a fight. But it was just the girl, her grubby hand out.

“Got a dollar?”

Marlene blinked in the street light glow and tried to assess what else was coming, then dug into her pocket and pulled out a dollar. Then she grabbed a package of donuts and tossed them to the child.

The blazing grin that broke across her grim, pale face erased any ill will Marlene might have had. They had been half-friendly since, but from a distance, without exchange of personal information. Or at least, not much from KZ but a name and a few other less personal comments. Observations, Marlene had come to think of them. About the neighborhood, but also about life. Like the time she said something that shook her up.

Marlene had had a fight out back with Sal over how he treated her, nothing the kid would know about, and afterwards KZ had come up to the porch and stood in front of her.

“That man is a greedy dark dragon; you’re not for him. Let all death-seekers die hard, alone!”

“What are you talking about?” It scared her, such words delivered with the sound of authority, KZ’s voice a wild wind. “I’m no fantasy lover and don’t believe you half the time. I’m just… well, about him, stupid! Go away.”

“You do believe, just wrong things.”

And KZ ran off. The night enveloped her slim, short figure so that she seemed to dissolve into its depths.

The Triplets threw their cards down, then one stuffed them into a bag. They got up, hooked arms and walked to the corner where they waited for a bus. The little dog trotted along. Marlene stretched, fidgeted, ready to get her own coffee. She just hated to walk before she got that charge of energy to all systems.

“Alright.” KZ opened her palm and money was placed there. “And Sal won’t be around tonight.”

“Sal?”

The girl left on a fast, steady jog, dodging a couple of cars as she crossed the street, people honking at her, yelling. Marlene imagined she could run for hours if necessary. Days, even. KZ lived on air and the unreliable decency of others. But not for much longer, she thought. She had to be ten or eleven. She’d had a shaky diet and bad sleep a long time; she could be older or younger than she looked. But she would grow up; she’d be hunted out there. It was enough to ruin Marlene’s entire morning thinking about it.

She did need a good washing even if it wasn’t kind to think it.

It wasn’t the first time Marlene considered all these things but KZ had never entered her apartment. She didn’t think she would, even if she welcomed her with a hot meal in hand. Smart girl. The one time she had brought out a grape jam and peanut butter sandwich for her, everyone in the park was at her for one, too. That lasted a couple of days, then she quit. She didn’t have so much she could always give it away.

“I’m good,” KZ had said and shrugged. “There’s food, just have to know where and when.”

So what did she mean about Sal, anyway? KZ got around; she paid close attention. Her observations had been right, often.

A medium latte came back to her with two cookies.

“Counter guy, Rod? Gave you extra coffee, us another cookie.”

KZ kept one cookie and the dollar, then tucked both into the passed out drunk’s hand.

“Hey, that was for you. And hey, what about Sal?”

“You’ve got a life, right? Ole guy T-Man has a life, too. I got work to do,” she said and took off.

******

It was nine o’clock, it was nine-thirty and then ten, then later than she wanted it to be. Marlene was watching a show on iguanas and desert flowers, things so exotic she almost enjoyed it. Smoking her cigarette after long-delayed noodles with a tuna sandwich made her stomach clench. She checked her cell. No messages. For the tenth time she peered between faded floral curtains into the lonely street, then Angle Park with its amber-lit lanterns. She could see forms moving through the walkways, and when she raised the window a few inches for a wash of night air, she heard strangers talking, rumblings on a cool draft. Maybe they were secret lovers or buddies loose from crummy jobs and on the prowl. More likely they were customers of some kind. It didn’t matter to her as long as they stayed out there.

The park had once been good, a lush green spot among grey, pitted blocks of buildings. That was before rents went up though places decayed. Some were replaced and people moved out. Somehow the park–that whole block–became a stop for foragers and drug users and petty criminals. Marlene was accustomed to it though her mother called once a week to inform her what was for rent in the suburbs. What a joke! She could no more live out there on her earnings! More to the point, she could no more move there after being wedged into this corner than if she was a princess encouraged to move into a tent. You couldn’t change things up like that. Her mother had married better a second time so moved, that was alright for her. Marlene was in a holding pattern with everything, that was all. Right now she needed rent money, not wishes or advice.

A gust carried in a light, high whistle. A pause then another louder one. Marlene put her ear close to the window sash and doused the pole lamp. She moved out of the frame and sneaked a peek outdoors. Nothing looked different; foot traffic was swift, quiet. Another whistle, this time shrill, rising from beneath her window.

“Marlene!”

A spiky top of a head appeared, then KZ’s frowning dark brown eyes.

“Lemme in!”

“Why? You never come in!”

“Gotta talk!”

“Coulda rung the doorbell.” Marlene got up to open the front door.

“Couldn’t. Back door!”

“Alright already!”

Heartbeat upticking, Marlene ran to the back door that opened onto an alley and let KZ in her tiny galley kitchen.

The girl was sweating, face seemed more ruined than usual. Her breath fell out in jagged gasps until Marlene got her a glass of water, then made her sit in the blue painted wooden chair and sip it. Then she saw the line of blood coming from her hand, trickling down her wrist and dripping onto the floor. She examined the long but likely not emergency-type gash, got a damp tea towel, dabbed at it and wrapped it.

KZ breathed more slowly. “Chain link fence. Got caught going over but someone was chasing me and listen–Sal, he’s not coming.”

“So you said. Why are you a mess of nerves and sweat?” She tried to not breathe deeply; KZ had been unwashed a long time and the kitchen was stuffy. She didn’t want to think too hard about Sal but something was bad.

“Sit down, okay?” The girl shook but was firm in tone.

Marlene took the other blue chair and sat. She felt dizzy, as if she had about missed a seat on a moving train, and her shoulder hit the wall.

“He’s gone. G-O-N-E.”

“What? Not true! KZ, stop with the stories!”

KZ’s eyes were open for once. Marlene almost shrank in alarm though they were nice enough, just shy of pretty eyes. Maybe it was the darkness, her being able to see without being readily seen, or maybe she called on her other senses to direct her more. But now those distrustful orbs were round and golden brown in the 60 watt light fixture above Marlene’s kitchen sink.

“They got him.”

“Who got him, what d’ya mean?” She grabbed the tea-toweled hand, released it when KZ winced, then flattened her own hands on the table.

“I dunno, maybe it was cops, undercover. Somebody said so, it was so fast, guns, shouting like when dad was taken, mom shot four times, so much noise everywhere and blood, you can’t believe it’s happening so when Sal was down on the porch like that, face mashed on the floor and then they handcuffed him and guns out, it had to be cops, right, or gangsters, right? And he’ll die or worse—”

“KZ! KZ, KZ, shhh. Breathe, breathe like a yogi, breathe now.”

“–then there were two more guys shooting and I took off because they saw me I was flying you know there was fence back the house and I climbed it hand caught or they’d catch me and then it would it would it wouldn’t it, right? Or if–”

Marlene got up and kneeled before the girl. She grasped her shoulders and shook her gently in slow motion, KZ tumbling forward and backward in her grip, those terrible words ebbing until they were a dribble and all the fear let go and she got quieter so that the room of silence stopped them at one still point, breathless.

The were like that awhile, Marlene and KZ hunched now on the floor, moths beating their perfect wings against her screen door, the alley empty of all but the rats and a few angry fierce cats and a barking dog that cried out in pain eventually just once, and Sal going down for life or forever. It was more than Marlene could bear but she bore it. She held on and KZ held on back until they finally got up and sat on the tattered love seat in the shadow-shrouded living room.

After awhile Marlene reached over and touched KZ’s toweled hand. “Want a hot bath?”

KZ blinked at her as if she now realized who she was, where they were. She looked around. Nodded so imperceptibly that Marlene had to look her in the eye for the okay.

KZ sat on the toilet lid, knees to chin, waited as Marlene turned on steaming water and poured in a cupful of bubbly soap. Then a few clean things were gathered for the girl.

“Soak it all off. I’ll be waiting. We’ll drink sodas and eat cheese and saltines and watch tv. My couch can be yours for now.”

When the door closed, KZ peeled off filthy clothing, then stepped in with each tentative foot. She lowered herself beneath wavelets of sweet frothy water, face turned up to twinkling white Christmas lights that ringed the walls. She wept and wept without a sound and her mind turned sheer blue as mountain skies, her dad and mom and grandfather stepping forward to gather her and hold her, hold her fast.

 

The Heart Knows Its Way Back

 

Columbia River photograph by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

This grief is like a stone I cannot dislodge from the spinning center of my being. It makes my eyes small waterfalls. It is a rough hand in the night when I am in need of a soft touch. It melds me to melancholy, seeds my mind with memories. It makes me reach for something and forget what it is, my feet to stumble over the walk I know so well. The world seems so busy living, glad or mystified or angry about it, yes, full of retorts or words of sudden insights or the volleying about of various sorts of love–but at least not steeped in melancholia’s blues, greys. For me sadness is a pearlescent sheen of hurt that illumines day and night with somber beauty. Then the garish crimson of aching creases time, a slice into what I know and don’t know about sorrow. I bleed a little without you knowing it.

It is a relief to softly shout at God, a bold prayer that takes the air from me. It is made of words that only God knows so I cannot tell you what is said when I call out. Grief moans even when it is silent.

Why do we think we must move on, move on, keep up with the ticking of clocks in the midst of our losses? It is a ruinous thing to hurry forth. The river of sorrow takes with it everything and who are we to try to change it? Sometimes I get a foothold on the banks, pull myself up and tell myself, See, this is still the garden of human life on earth. I walk amidst a wilderness of flowers, I find wonder in the work of bees. I can speak to others and they speak back, eyes open. And seeing what? Is my heart showing, is yours? Is there a bridge to be made? We cannot walk across the chasms without help, without solace rendered by other souls.

But what often pulls me is the deep seat of my chair, the mug of tea that offers fragrant spice and sweetness on my tongue. What can soothe but the simplest things? Light that carries day into all corners of the rooms, the dark that sails me into night and beyond. Lessons of God as I meditate and pray. The strains of Debussy and Bach, Dexter Gordon’s jazz saxophone, the dance and drumbeat of Ireland, a wailing flamenco call. There are poems that remind me to be patient, art that reminds me of more to come. But whatever I see and hear, the surge of tears arrives. They are like warm water over the wound.

Some days I want to move on. I want to write things that are abundant in hope, notations of life that will bring to all more promise of fullness within the realms of Spirit. I want to be able to laugh without it being undercut by numbness or misgiving. But everything–the gym, the household chores, the forays into nature, the music and books and calls to friends who love me well, the family I call often, the spouse and others I tend to and who tend to me–everything I do leads me back to one thing: this is the thirty-second day my sister has not been living here, cannot be called, cannot be written or visited in the flesh. This fact is irrevocable within each twenty-four hours. It stares at me until I look back at it and see her face, hear her voice, know her beauty and kindnesses, want her back…perhaps then let her go a little more. But the crying remains, don’t ask me to try to stop it for it is a force that knows far more than I do.

It cannot be changed, grief. It changes us. It deepens and broadens everything, brings us closer to truth. Makes rich what felt paltry and empties what seemed full. It is a thread of grace wound about my being and stitches my longing to the heavens even as it stings. Grief tells tales of valor that end in loss and yearning that leads to more desire and hope that cannot brighten the lay of the terrain I must travel. It is what I hear and know, now, this moment.

So I thought I would not attempt to write today because I cannot speak of happiness, of wise acceptance of death and tenderest things that bring relief. But then I sat down and began, because this is one thing I must still do, let language shape feelings into something I recognize and can love. If we are fully human, we can and do feel it all, cannot ignore the ones that are hard or confusing, and certainly will not make them different than what they are. Not for long. They find a way to stake their claim on us, anyway. So I allow my innermost being to speak to myself, to others, for where is the value in making mute what wants to make a mission of great and small loves? This is the natural bent of the soul. And we have a heart both muscle and guide that must be heard and cared for in order to do its work. To be whole. But even when it falters, it has the greatest, the definitive say.

This heart, the one that beats within me and you. The one that stopped pumping in my sister after long suffering.

Let me give my heart its due, its authority, as did she, and feel the blessing of it. There is nothing else I can do today but let the rains come and breach the walls and in time, adapt, make a finer place again to be and do.

So please bear with my pensive offerings. I cannot hurry up. I have faith in this way and I will find my way back. I always have, God lighting my next steps. In time, prayer, tears, kindness, the glory of nature, creative work will all bring me to another rise in the path and help me see and long for the horizon once again. I do hope you find it in your life if your are sorrowing, too.

A scene from the last yearly Sisters' Trip taken with my two dear sisters.

A scene from the last yearly Sisters’ Trip taken with my two dear sisters.

 

I Still Have Tulips for My Heart

 

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How does any one of us live knowing he or she will eventually die? And how does a family plagued by a genetic predisposition to a particular disease say farewell to those who pass on, recognizing our own ends yet to come?

Looking at several pictures taken recently, I linger on one photograph. A familiar woman is bent over in the glare of intrusive sunshine, shoulders rounded, holding on to her youngest daughter’s arm and clutching her husband’s hand. A sister wraps her arm around her black-jacketed waist from behind. The woman’s brown hair is streaked with silvery strands, her face creased with sleeplessness and sorrow. She looks unlike I imagined, haggard in the daunting heat of a Texan afternoon.

It is myself I study.

Our large family was standing prayerfully by the church’s columbarium, a wall with recessed areas for urns filled with cremated remains. It would soon hold my oldest sister’s ashes. And it felt almost unbearable to reckon with the truth of it. Marinell, my oldest sister named after our two grandmothers, passed from the serious effects of a massive heart attack. She rallied, failed and rallied again for ten days. She had a pacemaker, had had a heart valve repaired years ago, but developed congestive heart disease. She was only seventy-eight.

I have lived sixteen days of nothingness and dreaminess, of times racked by weeping so deep there were no tears, and tears that fall without sound and with thunderous outpouring. It is simple grief. Nights of wrestling with sheet and quilt, Marinell’s face coming forward, then fading. I awaken feeling she is a phone call away and go back to bed whispering her name. Her lush, eloquent cello playing arrives on a sigh. I felt her hands slip onto my shoulders and her soft smiling as I wrote a poem for her memorial service. I know she has gone on ahead of us. She is just not really here now.

The woolen rug in my room has a contemporary design of mauve tulips on it, edged in Wedgwood blue. I stand in the middle of it for moments at a time, remembering when she handed it to me. It had graced her light-imbued home, now is in mine, so is a comfort each morning under my bare feet.

I have resisted writing. What can I write about death, about loss, that makes good sense? We each know the ache of it, that indefatigable longing that follows us around. What can I tell of Marinell that would reveal her not only to your mind but soul? You will never know her as I have and so it must be. Sisterhood is a rich palette of colors, a strong weave of emotion and deed. It is far too soon to share the unique quirks of her personality, the intimacies of her creative, gracious, energetic years on earth. Her loving impact on me, on countless others.

But what I can write about is the matter of shared blood. About our physical hearts, their fantastic and wayward ways, how they act up without provocation and despite tending to their needs. Maybe this way I can face it again, then put it back in its place.

The history of heart disease killing my family members is considerable. My maternal grandmother passed from a cerebral hemorrhage. My paternal grandfather had a fatal stroke. My mother’s days were ended by congestive heart failure at ninety-two and my father died following complications of a quadruple bypass at eighty-three. I have two brothers and a remaining sister with high blood pressure. One brother has had two ablation procedures (one in a Bangkok hospital when travelling) that are to improve and possibly quell a potentially fatal rhythm problem called A fibrillation.

My heart problems reached a critical mass at age fifty-one as I was hiking in the Columbia Gorge. (I have written of living with heart disease in this blog’s “Heart Chronicles” posts.) A crushing sensation sent me to my knees. Before I knew it, I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. Two stent implants were placed in a major artery to prop it open. I was plagued by tachycardia, a too-rapid heartbeat, before the mild heart attack and various arrhythmias after, one being the dreaded A Fib. I have taken various medications with mixed results, one a common statin that caused severe muscle toxicity. In the first years I was in emergency rooms often. But over the years I have continued to exercise daily, decreasing inflamation, strengthening the heart muscle and, so far, outliving my prognosis.

At the memorial service I noted how much we all have survived of life. Everyone in my family is a “doer,” eager to learn and accomplish things. We do not fit the typical heart disease profile, for the most part. We are physically active, even rather daring. It is fair to note we are intellectually engaged and creatively oriented, with spiritual beliefs that keep us resilient. No one could accuse us of being disinterested in or lacksadaisical about living. All are happy travellers; college educated to various degrees; eat well and healthily, overall. We have had our share of bad habits to overcome, but my cardiologist still thought my smoking years prior to the diagnosis could not have been enough to tip the balance.

Genetics are the common denominator. The family tree is hearty and adaptable as many, if not most, are. We have been seriously ill only to rebound countless times. Being of the mind that attitude makes a significant difference, and prayer guides and even heals, our essential modus operandi is to live lives of full immersion, with faith and hope.

We live with heart, how else would anyone choose to live? Not without errors or some regrets, certainly, but with an expectation of joyful moments shared. Compassion and common courtesies are both important. And there is a belief in vigorous, positive change when there are snags in life to address.

But we get heart disease despite all this. We are getting older, all of us in our sixties and seventies. It seems impossible to me. I don’t feel like the woman in that earlier photograph, nor do my brothers and sister feel slowed by health issues. My various siblings travel worldwide, perform music and shoot and exhibit photographs, go hang gliding and hot air ballooning, ride motorcycles; collect unusual items, make crafts, enjoy an entreprenurial bent and manage real estate. They also engage in quiet volunteer work and entertain friends and family with care and a joi de vivre.

I stop here and realize I am writing like mad in an attempt to stop the inexorable advance of this illness. To at least impede it, to put it off with my words, a fortress against loss. I tell myself: see how people can live despite the heart’s glitches, its failures? How can it harm us when we love life this much?

But, indeed, why not? This is the way of the human body: it is born, it is an instrument of wonder and navigates us through our complicated lives, it gets hurt and heals, it gets loved and reviled, it brings us to one another and separates us. It does its work day in, day out, exquisitely made, harmoniously humming most of the time for the majority of us. Until it cannot. We all pass this way and then, pass on.

It hurts me to say it. Truth reaches into that tenderest place when every bit of life is known to be mighty yet fragile. It is a precarious balance, more than we know–if we realized how delicate, how thin the veil between life and death we would be awestruck as well feel fearful to get up each day, making elaborate plans that can be erased in a breath, a blink. But we do, and too often forget how fortunate we are to have the will and means to do so.

So how does a family–how do I–live with the knowledge of heart disease, the potential for ending our days too soon? We can’t have surgery to excise the heart. We can undergo only so many procedures, in the end. So the conditions are acknowledged. We call and email to check in when we live far away. We come to the hospital when we live nearby. We rally for each other and share information, reassure and embrace one another. We pray and offer healing love. We will likely attend more memorials. But we don’t belabor it, nor do we gather around to bemoan mortality. We must enter this moment with a finely refocused appreciation of all we still can discover, do, be.

I loved Marinell in ways no language on earth can ever entirely and accurately illuminate. It is alright. How little time we have with one another, how we are charged with caring, must practice such love. Let the heart have its due, feed it, fill it, make it your first priority, listen to its music and wisdom and honor it with who you are until it has danced all dances with you, then leads you into a final bow.

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Rescued by Rilke

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Saturday night, the rain less a deluge and more a tuneful patter. I am sitting with my grey tabby, Dickens, and reading poets Denise Levertov and Louise Gluck and just finishing a perfect poem, “Autumn” by Rilke. And the phone rings. I ignore it. I am reading the four stanzas for the fourth time because they break my heart in a way that floods me with tenderness, even joy. I want to feel it completely. What can I say? I’m a therapist but my inclination is toward mysticism. The beauty of life was shaken up long ago but still I see it and reach for it.

The phone keeps ringing, jarring the quietude, until the voice mail takes over. I read again each line, then close my eyes. Dickens sleeps or pretends to as rain drums on the awning of the window. It is the kind of night I wait for, when everything is comforting. Meaningful without being hard. All I need is a mug of tea and a shortbread cookie so I ease myself off the couch, Dickens stretching gracefully, hind legs to front paws.

I stop at the phone on the way to the kitchen and check the voice mail. Nothing. I rarely answer the landline but I can’t give it up. It is my business line, the one that fields after-hour calls from the office, intercepts fundraisers and records appointment reminders. The kettle boils as I read a few pages of Levertov, then add a tea bag that releases peppermint, cinnamon, and ginger, along with catnip and other delights. Dickens will poke his nose into the cooling steam.

I am settling down with Hirsch, a new poet, when the phone rings again. I hesitate, get up to check the number. Same unknown number as before. Wait to see if there is a message left this time. There is not. I sit down and resolve to ignore it, turn to the first page of the new book.

Dickens is unsettled; he smells the catnip or maybe he feels restless after so much napping with me. Rainfall has started to drum harder; rivulets stream from the black and white awning, all the way down to the ground which is at a near-flood stage. I watch as headlights from cars suffuse them with brilliance. I am sleepy. Tea beckons. Dickens walks along the back of the couch and finally sits, but stretches his neck out, catches a whiff of my tea.

The jangling of the phone dissipates my reverie so I get up and grab the receiver.

“Hello?”

Silence except for rain in the background.

“Hello? Can I help you?”

Not even a breath released. I start to hang up.

“Wait, don’t hang up, it’s Renee.” Her voice is low and rich, slow to move. Thick honey. “Maynard’s friend. He gave me your number.”

I mentally run through my client list and cannot recall a Renee. Maynard. Did he ever mention a Renee? No. But Maynard Gentilly, the trombone player with MS and too many bottles of bourbon, is a long-term client.

“Yes, Maynard…he referred you? I’m so sorry, you’ll need to call the office on Monday. The voice mail message gives that information. If it is an emergency–”

“Well, I’m not sure it’s all that. But it’s something. Something big, bigger than me. You’re Martha Berring, right?”

“Marta. Marta Berringer. Do you have the right number? Renee…what is your last name now?”

“Marta, Martha, either way you’re the one. It’s about Elias and Sarita. My kids. They seem to be in trouble and I don’t know what to do. Maynard, he said you could help me out. I think they got with that guy Arnie Z., runs so much around here, you know”–her voice softens to a whisper–“drugs and stuff.”

I glance at Dickens sniffing my tea delicately. “Look, you have the wrong number. You might call the police.” I frown at him when he taps the mug with his paw. “Are you safe? Can you make that call if needed?”

“No, no, no police! Just someone to check things out. You know, see what’s up. You do that, I know, Maynard told me you’re very observant, he pays you good money to get the details and you work pretty fast. He said I’d better call. But that’s all I need, really. Information. I’ll take over from there. It will be better when I know.”

“Renee…what’s your last name?” I write down the two alleged kids’ names on the note pad by the phone. “I’m not a private detective. People come to my office and talk about problems. Issues in their lives. I try to help them make better sense of things, heal from difficult experiences. Recover from addiction. Maybe that’s why he gave you my number. You mentioned drugs. Do you want help with drug problems?”

“I can’t come to your office. I don’t have a drug problem! I should never have left my apartment. Cold here.” Renee coughed hard. “Elias, he was gone a week, then Sarita took off after him in the Buick. Then they both… just…gone. They’re kids, Martha, just kids….good kids who turned the wrong corner.”

My sleepy mind stands at attention. Kids disappearing, not good. But I need more; she is very distraught. I take the note pad and pen with me, then remove the tea from Dickens and lean back into the couch. Dickens settles once more on my lap. The wind comes up and the awning riffles, making a slapping sound. I grab a woolen throw, toss it over Dickens and my lap.

“Your kids… that is worrisome. How old are they, Renee?”

“Sixteen, seventeen. They took to the streets over summer. June, it was early summer 2013, no, it’s 2014. Right? Right. Now school’s started they’ve stayed out late, never do see them anymore. They fell into the wrong crowd, you know, drugs, do nothing but hang out. Sarita, she’s not like that, she’s smart, she’s got talent. Elias, well, he’s his daddy all over but he could be different, learn a trade, make good money. But they’re just… gone, I tell you! I called because I don’t know who or what else, oh, hell, I don’t know anything, anymore, it gets all mixed up…”

I hold the mug under my chin, warmth spreading to my cheeks and ear lobes. The ginger and mint perk me up more. I’m hungry but forgot the shortbread. In stead, I start to jot things down. “They’re gone, you feel, for good…disappeared? Or they’re gone right now and you don’t know quite where?”

“That’s the thing, I need someone to find out. I called you because you do that, figure things out. Maynard says he trusts you with his life. His life. Sarita and Elias, they left last month and nothing since then. Not a word from them, no one answers their cell phones. I have called a thousand times, Martha. I can’t even leave a message.” Her voice trembles, an undulation of sound that treis to be clear words. “I–I last saw them… in the plaza. They were running past Cal’s Kitchen. I heard it then, all that screaming, those shots like a war starting up. They kept running, running even though I yelled their names, told them to stop! I fell, caught my head on a bench, then got up a few minutes later. They were just…gone. Maynard, he said to I need to lie low now, take it easy but I can’t, I have to find them. You can do this, right?”

“Wait. Gunshots? You heard gunshots in the plaza, is that right? And your kids were there, you watched them run.”

My mouth feels dry despite having sipped tea as Renee talked. I now recall news on television, two weeks ago. Drug house raided. Full of customers. People ran, scattered when shots were fired. Three dead, three on the run. Drug dealer apprehended. But who was it that died? Who disappeared?

“They were there, ran, then gone.” A crying out that was more stifled scream than crying. “What can I do? Where can I look, Martha? They say it’s too late. Maynard even says so!”

The blanket is pulled close around my shoulders and Dickens leaves, no longer intrigued by catnip-dosed tea. My vacated lap is chilly. I shiver. Why did I answer the phone? What can I possibly do for this woman?

Three dead, three runners. If Elias and Sarita were there they were either shot or are in jail or off to points unknown. Renee is terribly lost, too. Grief has throttled her and won’t let go of her mind, body or soul. Maynard knew this. Gave her my number so she could get help. But when the office recording came on, she dialed this number, hoping I would answer.

“Renee, what’s your last name? Number? So I have it in case I need to call you.”

Silence. Perhaps she is looking for her number on her cell phone. I can hear her rummaging in a bag or purse. “Ostrowski. It’s 772-2821. No, 774-3821 or… what is it? What did Sarita say it was changed to? Maybe 772-8321? I don’t know her number anymore!”

“Renee. Listen a minute. Will you do that? Sit down wherever you are. Hear me now. I don’t need your children’s numbers. I would like yours. Maybe I can help you.”

I know I can check my caller ID but I want her to be present right now, focus, alleviate the growing hysteria. I hear her warm voice slip into tears. The phone is held away, perhaps set down, and she is inside sorrow, that place where darkness sifts through all losses and leaves nothing unturned. Pain rises to the surface and forms a bright wound that drains the ache.

I know so well this sound. It replicates, echoing through my dreams. It careens off my office walls. It can tangle my thoughts when I am trying to pursue a simple, good time with friends, pull me back when I let down my guard with the man I am seeing. It can reel me back to those steep ledges where life is perched above a deep valley as I am asked to witness one more person’s hidden truth. Unspeakable, heart-stopping things. But I do know how to step aside–this is my work, discovering trouble and extricating those mired in it– and let anger and hurt run like a river, let it spill from the person who cannot hold it inside any longer. I can be a very still island amid drowning emotions. The world’s mothers and fathers cry out all night and day for their children, for themselves. I can only pray for this patchwork human world.

I hear the need underlining Renee’s voice. She is floundering, becoming more weary.

“I cannot give you more than this, my children are gone, my life is an empty sack, Martha, emptied of everything. I cannot find them in my desperation. It is terrible, terrible, the awful longing.”

“Where are you?”

“Wh-what’s that? Me? I’m at the plaza. Hoping they come back.”

“Wait there. Please don’t leave for a few minutes. Alright?”

I should never do this, not ever, leave my home when work hours are done and then go to someone who is a stranger and there are so many unanswered questions. I have not done this before. But tonight is different. I have read poetry that opened me up, exposed me to abiding Spirit again. And I cannot find a way to staunch the bleeding of this woman’s heart by taking notes. It spills into my life, no matter inconvenience or common sense. I leave my books and Dickens the cat and steaming sweet tea. Leave my safety zone. I hurry down the street in dauntless rain and take a near-empty bus. I get off at the plaza.

Renee is there, alone, sitting on a  bench in the covered bus stop. I know it is she. Clutching a phone to her chest. She looks up, wordless, head shaking back and forth. I am a tall woman in a navy trench coat with long wet hair stuck to my face, tennis shoes and jeans soaked, my glasses beaded with water. I take them off and look at her. See her soft, round, lined face. Her darkened blue eyes, the creases in her forehead. Her anguish a mark upon her.

“I’m Marta, remember?” When she doesn’t respond I start again. “Hello, Renee. I’m Martha Berring.”

She stands up, throws her arms around me, her life turning into sand in an hourglass, her body passing through my grasp, so I grab her under the arms. Grip her back until my fingers hurt. I ask for help and the rain falls like stars tossed down. The night is a cloak pulled about us, taming outrage and despair. We are standing together and rock and rock and the weeping late autumn air gathers about us like the Breath of God.

 

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(NOTE: We all know this world is far too full of sorrow. So today I read poetry by Rainier Maria Rilke, a favorite poet. I came across “Autumn” again, absorbed it, and then this story began to form. Please find the poem; read it yourself. Especially the very last two lines. You will be glad you did.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeting with Ghosts and God at Roadside

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From the car window, travelling at forty-five miles an hour on a lonely country road, the building appears plain. As in plain-spoken, plainly designed, devoid of flourish, uniqueness. Gravestones are glimpsed between trees. It captures my attention instantly but we go on.

“Turn around,” I say to Marc, who is intent on getting to the Oregon coast.

He frowns. I often ask him to slow down or stop and let me get out. My cameras are in my lap, readied.

“What now?”

“That old cemetery back there.”

“Where?”

“Didn’t you see it? A white building with a tidy graveyard. I feel pulled to stop there and take pictures.”

“Tidy graveyard. Really?”

He turns the car around and we pull into a narrow gravel road. Two other vehicles are there, a black truck and a Washington vehicle, an ivory Cadillac. Our car idles, half-off the road.

“I don’t think we should be here… maybe there was a funeral. These people look like they’re here for very private reasons.”

“I suppose so but no funeral from what I can see. I’m getting out.”

Marc sighs heavily, sits back as I open my door and step out. I sense he doesn’t care for graveyards. I’m not one to make a habit of routinely roaming burial grounds, either, but they are what they are. Purposeful. And I am so drawn to this country acreage full of lemony light and mammoth, arching trees, and places marking lives of those passed. To this church with no cross.

I notice a sign but continue. There are voices coming from the unadorned building so I enter quietly, not wanting to interrupt. Inside there is a large rectangular space filled with wooden pews. At front there is a raised platform where one might hold forth on the one who has departed or everlasting life. But there is no pulpit, altar, cross here. Instead, a little girl of about four in a pretty spring dress and matching shoes is sitting there. She is asking an older woman, likely her grandmother, about water in a big jug.

“Is this water for Jesus? For the children he loves?”

“No, for flowers outside by the markers. I suppose Jesus, too. Don’t drink it, dear! Let’s go now.”

“Amen!” The child shouts enthusiastically. “Say amen!”

“Amen!” I respond and she laughs, waving the rose in her small fist at me.

The woman turns to me, embarrassed and impatient. “She’s picked up some things at her pre-school, their chapel.”

“Seems so,” I agree, smiling at her but she turns away.

The little girl loudly dissents as her grandmother picks her up and exits the building. I can hear her screaming and the grandmother being very stern. Then, after a car door opening and closing, quietness.

I am alone.

Or am I?

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I take a seat on a back pew. There is a wafting of breath from one end to the other, time heavily woven from past to present with people stung by grief and connected to lives made, then unmade. Such agedness in these walls, on this hill. The place is made of history, pioneers who huddled and prayed in the dark of winter in  this space, then buried those who could not survive. The centuries passed and more arrived with those long-lost, abandoned, taken by illness and age. The perished. Yet the large room vibrates with life. Light scours hardwood floors, warms the bare wooden pews. I can see gravestones through smeary windows. Yet there is something left of themselves, collective energies that linger.

How much resilience does it take to return home without child, wife, a dear neighbor whose company and skills were valued? To adapt to a wild land that demanded as much as it shared? Then the twentieth century dawned. Life kept moving on: big and smaller wars, civil rights marches, asssinations, famine and pestilence, free love, “God is Dead”. Terrorism. Inventions and equal rights, moon landings and holograms and life-saving discoveries. Virtual love. Such changes, yet so much sameness. The devastation and also progress people must endure! We are as fragile as we are mighty. The brevity of life is a flame, powerful enough to instigate shattering change, brilliant enough to illuminate the mysterious dark. But always flickering, finite on this earth.

My mind stills. I am breathing in words spoken by others, sitting where tears have freely fallen and hands were tightly held. I am moved, one more to tarry in this place.

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I have not sung in ages, not in a large open space, not with intention and from a place of raw need; I am a singer who lost much of her voice long ago. But I begin to sing. The old chorus wells up in me, a force that must be released.

I can almost see the lights of the City,
shining down over me…
Well, you know when I see
those lights of the City,
Well, then, I shall be free…
yes, then I shall be free!

The room echoes, resonant with a power I have not experienced vocally in many years, as though my voice and that song were waiting to find this room. Tears spring from my eyes.

I understand I am meant to meditate here, open my heart and soul further. Be in peace. Honor living and the dead. This life I am given is just one more life, but it needs to be shared without fear, generously, before my own time runs out. I register this without sound or language; God’s presence lights me up within. Vibrates in the room.

I seek out Marc. He is reluctant until we read the plaque and then he is impressed. The site of Miller Church and Cemetery is on the National Historic Register. The land for the cemetery was given to the Abiqua community in 1860 by Richard Miller in “love and consideration” for a public burying ground. The structure was built in 1882, and is a good example of a pioneer burying church. We like that it has been a democratic cemetery, not just for those of note or wealth.

Inside we move and speak softly and then I again sing the gospel tune, his tenor harmonizing. It is recorded and catches a subtle tearfulness that is not born of grief so much as tenderness. Some day I may share it with my children and grandchildren, this space, the song and feeling. That God hears seems clear as my flesh and being are touched by gentlest sorrow and undercurrents of ecstasy that linger the whole day.

Outdoors we find notation of abbreviated lives on many tombstones from long ago to the present. I stop before Jane Jett, who died Dec. 31, 1876 at 49 years. I feel a poem for her coming on and want to write. It is time to leave. We listen to the wind in treetops and ponder lives once endowed with weakness or vigor. Which ones were shaped by pain, perhaps revenge or the persistence of hope? How many were altered by profound longings, love and wonder?

Someone comes near. Edna Kelly. My mother. My breath catches in my chest. On this day thirteen years ago she left our worldly realm for God’s other places. I close my eyes until she passes on once more. The intensity of my recognition must also slip away before I go forward with my day.

I watch church and graveyard recede from my car window. I feel myself deepen. Become a little freer. Humbled. Glad to have made another seemingly random stop along the road.

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(Note: All photographs are mine. Feel free to share but please note I am the photographer, or kindly direct others back to this post.  And “Poem for Jane Jett” can be found via the link on this blog to my poetry blog, poetryfortheliving.)