Well, I came through the heart angiogram just fine and am about back on my feet, after a fine conclusion: the third stent implant is not needed! Now I happily turn my attention to the Season’s preparations once more and must think about where we will get our fresh tree this year.
Beck’s Tree Farm was visited over the years as it was our favorite place to get a tree. It was bought later in life by a charming and friendly couple who finally retired from the business; now new owners apparently have other plans. We quite enjoyed the woolly sheep, our endless walks across muddy fields to discover the very best tree which we (or, if our son wasn’t there, a helper) cut down. Such panoramic views were beheld, including glimpses of Mt. Hood. The air was crisp and sweet. It was fun, felt magical to us.
Here are a few pictures from 2013 and 2015 of the annual trip out there with our son, Joshua and his children, Asher and Avery. Happy memories, indeed! (Now Asher is 13; Avery is 16, soon to graduate early from high school.) You will note Joshua is wearing a more typical Northwest attire even in winter: shorts (if at all possible) with a heavy fleece-lined flannel and sneakers (or hiking shoes). Of course, the Santa hat is required for these Christmas forays!
No matter where we discover our next and best piney tree, then decorate and light it up, it will be more good times shared. I can’t imagine anything better. Though I may have a less than perfect heart, it is beating strong and true, overflowing with love for my family and friends as we gather around table and tree.
The heart takes it all in, the tender and piquant,
pings of sadness that stop us in the street,
messages of death carved on the walls,
yesterday’s certainties strewn at your knees,
empires treacherous, unknown or golden
and sound of dew gathering, incense of ancient wood.
The heart gathers secrets: pearls of light to part gloaming,
the wildness of fighting and loving, sleepwalking fears,
shadows of scavengers perched upon pinnacles,
shouts of joy flying on a warm west wind,
your victories and beatings entwined as twins,
betrayals like rust in your mouth. Hope abloom in your belly.
The heart knows and bears and intuits all things.
It is a marthoner, meant to service you without fail,
a constancy overlooked as the air you breathe,
it’s precision a mysterious matrix, sinew and blood.
It doesn’t beg attention nor keep track of favors
nor run you ragged–until it’s become too late.
Within its inner chambers reigns a holiness.
Feel the prayerful music and dance? It lives for you.
Shelter and adore it, rescue and honor it
as it starts and finishes every single moment with you.
February is American Heart Month–this is why I am wearing red today and holding up a stone heart I found–and feeling gratitude. Diagnosed with heart disease at 51 a couple of days after suffering a suspected heart attack while hiking, it changed my life. But this year is my 17th still alive, thanks to medical interventions I’ve received and ongoing management of symptoms. I work at staying well, as 1 out of 3 women (and 1 of every 4 men) in this country die of heart disease. Learn the symptoms and signs of heat attack and stroke as they are not always obvious! Care for yourself enough to preserve this wonderful powerhouse that keeps us going. Check it out: http://www.americanheartassociation.com
It’s the happily blood thirsty and nutrient-carrying, industrious and curiously adaptable heart, when all is said and done–isn’t it? That would qualify as the greatest of something worth noting, this being the organ in the human vehicle that propels us into the world. The one that gets us up and at ’em, then transports us through velvety caves of thought and architecture of sleep and even blurred somnambulance.
I know a little something of hearts, of working ones and failing ones. How mine leaps, thrums and flails, at least. It alerts me sometimes late and sometimes early to what is to be reckoned with: it is an organ that has its own intuition and its own mutable barometer. It shimmers like a rich scarlet light inside the brazen frame of my ribs. I am part of a small percentage of those who literally feel its responses daily and nightly, as if I am its default keeper (am I?) and not the other way around, as if it means to accompany me on every tiny turn of earthly or other pathways I skim and trod. This is a blessing. It can seem to be a curse. Having a heart that whispers and sings, then shakes it fisted mass at me–it is a thing that cannot be ignored for long.
As a child it was quieter. That is, it was in the same league as the rest of my functioning pieces, neither brighter or dimmer than the other parts as I blithely used the body I was given. I could do all things, I thought. I might well have done if there was time, who knows? My heart wanted so much. That I felt early.To care for it meant to live, simply put, and my heart obliged, letting me love it as much as feet and belly and head and fingertips and teeth that fell out and grew in and tiny hairs on arms that prickled in sudden delight. Or, later, fear.
And the heart grew with me, or so it felt. It seemed bigger in my chest, as if the one who commanded and filled me up. I noticed it took up more of my life. It started to flinch a little and toss about and lie low when uncertainty hit. It often generated poetry of the moment and prayers that had no succinct words. It rocked with the wisdom of ages and stole away into shadows during our brazen escapes. We were partners, co-conspirators. I knew my heart was a thunderous engine that kept my life humming and reaching but even let it make mistakes.
It didn’t show signs of weakening as I grew, changed and became that adult that had once seemed like a distant dream or a warning of likely hardship to come. Yet, wait, that is a lie. It surely wanted to back down, even collapse on bent knee in its autonomic muscular manner; there were times it held back or lurched, but it was incapable of retracting its grand intent way back when. Because it is a heart. It has its duty, its job. It was and is meant to work, to shift and seem to fly easily like silken wings or groan like rusty gears. To draw attention, then harbor itself in its inner sanctum, deep into its chambers so the rest of the body can go about its business.
I had to abuse it some, ignore it more, pretend it mattered less than what I accepted. I had to be a bit heedless of its messages, reckon with its temperament, which well reflected mine too often. I was an amateur trying to live like a pro. My trusty heart waited and gathered intelligence for our future.
We forget about its greater meanings. Its multiple uses. How it is not a paper heart, not a clay or stone or ever actually a smiley heart. It is a serious and unequaled creation of sinew and electrical impulses and valves and rich blood flowing in and out, up and down, without which we cannot live one more mundane or extraordinary moment. It is the Queen/King of our private territory, our fleshly boundaries, our brain’s acrobatics and investigations and musings by candle light or sunrise or at our desks when all else is just ticking about us. It pumps and pumps and we go forth and ignore it if possible, do we not? Until it aches or adores or grieves or exalts. That sort of a greatest thing is part of what it is.
Nonetheless, my companion heart, my devoted and tough and touching heart walloped me hard at 51. Yes, this heart that reflects my greater peace, creative passion and upsurges of soul-inspired kindness and love; despite random terrors survived and frequent conundrums; that thrives on my adoration of its workings and mysteries. It just took me down at the base of a riotous waterfall in the Columbia Gorge forest.
Now, it said, hear me well. Alter your life choices further. Respect your particular genes. Reappraise your forgotten dreams and arduous agendas. Revere the miracles of science as I signal an SOS to keep you sentient.
I obeyed. I found a way to stay alive. Would you not obey a heart that cried out and desperately wanted to rally, strictly on your behalf? I am telling you the truth, you would listen and you would follow that decree and if you had the will and the fortune, you would somehow walk out of that forest to find salvation.
And so, I know that the heart is the greatest. I yet live. It beats its own alternating rhythms and even when shocking or cranky it yet keeps its agreements with me and with God, if unknown in full to me. I follow its lead. We manage to embrace each day with thanksgiving. It knows far, far more than do I and that makes me a willing student. This heart–our hearts–they are given to us as guides, lest we forget we are profoundly, maddeningly human, lest we forget we are here this minor but powerful time. It is a body of light wrapped in sinew that we have been gifted–lest we forget we may even be angels in the making, carrying beacons for this day and beyond time.
You never know what a new morning will bring. I awakened with what can be all too familiar: that clutch of pain in my neck and head, but then as I moved across the room, an increased heart rate that gathered steam, then thundered its way through morning preparations. A shower was not a good idea, at all; it ended fast. I was confounded. Often my myriad heart issues settle and improve with time but no. I felt breathless, not a good sign.
Once dressed, the question was: do I call 911? My cardiologist or my husband or both? I managed the blood pressure cuff and found the vitals alarming– very high blood pressure and heart rate still unstable. My chest felt better sitting. I didn’t identify any other sign of heart attack yet felt unwell.
I sat and thought about what had entered my mind when I had been awakened off and on by the creeping neck pain and various heart arrhythmias. I had said one prayer in the thick, long darkness: Lord, please let me know what I need to do about this. By morning I was getting the directive to not ignore things. I monitored my heart and tried to drink my tea and eat a little. Heart rate was falling; that was good. But I did not feel okay yet. I felt…stunned, unstable, faint at moments.
The night before had been wonderful. A grandson turned eleven and his dad–he is my son’s son–had made chili and I made the cake and added potato rolls. Their family came plus an aunt, an other “adult child” of ours. The food was good, the gathering even better as we lolled about the living room; the spaces warmed and filled with laughter and random stories. My son and his girlfriend just returned from Hawaii so shared videos and pictures. Young Asher was happy with his gifts–fancy iridescent silly putty being one of the best. His older sister smiled and chatted easily. I felt very happy to be a mother and grandmother.
In the morning it was so bitterly cold that when the snow came it lingered, heated up from all the traffic on roads and then got icy. In the Oregon valley, snow is not welcome, it is difficult, dangerous.I felt exhausted and shaky and uncertain. As a woman living with heart disease for 15 years, I have made countless trips in an ambulance. I always want to avoid it.
Doctor was called: come in, I heard. Husband was summoned and he soon arrived.
It is a mystery, how this pattern has emerged, a sudden shifting of heart rhythms and rates. How blood pressure has skyrocketed when it was not a problem for many years. I would likely only know the latter because I have the blood pressure cuff to take my own vitals–I generally have no discernable symptoms of that. The majority usually do not. I know what is not safe when I read those numbers.
My cardiologist, good Dr. P.– exuding compassion and intelligence while seemingly ignorant he is movie star good-looking—has never steered me wrong. He is the hoped-for combination of attentive listener, brilliant strategist and swift decision maker. I trust him with my life because he has saved it often. I have watched him get older as he has, me, and it is clear he is only mortal, after all. So we always put our heads together; he does the best he is capable of doing.
It wasn’t heart attack symptoms, which an EKG verified. It turns out it is likely the intense chronic pain I have had increasingly over the past few months. The idea is not so surprising; it is clear it has impacted me though I’ve become used to varying degrees of chronic pain throughout my life due to a different health issues. I guess I’ve learned to ignore it mostly, even believe it will not win the battle. I avoid taking OTC pain medicine. (As a person with coronary artery disease I can’t safely use ibuprofen much, though this helps most; it affects heart patients in negative ways as well as health of the stomach.) I do not take opiate medication as I’ve been in recovery from substance abuse for over 25 years. I am anxious even about the drug Dr. P. mentioned, which is not an opiate but perhaps a second or third “cousin”. It targets the same receptors in the brain as do narcotics. I was never an opiate addict, but being recovery means being cautious of all we put in our bodies. And I also know from experience pain can be managed in many holistic ways.
I might have ended up in a bit of a corner now, though. Being stubborn is not so good. I desire to–choose to–live a healthy life each day. I want to stay on the go, enjoy all I can every second. I have a hunger for the wonders and curiosities of life. And sometimes I choose to ignore a difficult need of my own rather than own up and relent. This is not helping me.
“It is time you take something to get the pain under control or you will likely continue to have high blood pressure and tachycardia. The body always reverts to alarm mode with daily pain. And you must find out what you can do next about those old disc issues. Let’s increase your heart medication for now, as well.”
I propped up my aching head on my hand, felt relief but also new fear. What would come of all this?
“I want another really good ten years, Dr. P. Can I do that? I have a lot to do.”
He took my other cold hand in his warm one. “Let’s work at doubling those numbers. Take even better care of yourself–you’ve done such a good job for son long and you can do more. Take your new medicine, too. And if this doesn’t do the trick, back to the drawing board we’ll go.”
Dr. P. remains a crucial light in my life. From the start when no one believed I had heart disease at such a young age (by 50, likely even earlier but diagnosed at 51 during an emergency) he believed me. He made fast and right choices to save me from death or at least serious impairment.
By the time my husband and I left the office, it was snowing mightily. I felt quiet watching the whitening air swirl about us. How much I loved the snow as a kid and even now, how it draws me–its softness and freshness, all those intricately patterned flakes, how it transforms the gritty world for awhile. I expressed my desire to take a slow, short walk when I got home. My husband shut down the idea fast.
So I took my medicine and I have been lounging around feeling like a very unproductive person. Yet resting when rest is needed is a wise thing to do. I will try the pain medicine tonight. I want to sleep long and well for once, and I need to experience far less misery in this restless, hurting body.
So I decided to share this day with you. If you are a person who has heart disease, first stay as well as you can; the work and fun will still be waiting. And if you are in need of more assistance for any reason at all in your life, don’t hesitate– reach out, find and use it.
My gratitude for every moment runs deep. And even for this trying day–for all human and Godly light that illumine my way. The fiercely exquisite snow. This tough, resilient, tenderly beating heart.
Ever since Duke had trotted down the alleyway and not returned, Marina gazed out her kitchen window with worry and longing. She found herself at the sink several times a day, rinsing out her mug again or wiping down the counter. In truth she was studying the frail, leafy carpet of burnt colors. Or the rough texture of the Hartzell’s brick house, the two fading Peace roses leaning below their living room window. She wondered about their scent, if it lingered, and instead of submerging it in books or radio programs, the odd ache lodged itself in her chest until evening. Marina used to be able to name that scent no matter from which direction it emanated.
But that was long before the need of Duke arose. She suspected he became filled with the despair of ceaseless boredom. He was a good dog, an older fellow form the pound, and after two years they’d become decent friends. But the truth was, she wasn’t fit for any sort of company–she’d had a canary who stopped singing and eating in two months, an angel fish that died sooner–and he knew it, too. Who hires a dog walker when one’s own two legs are good enough to get the job done? Who buys their dogs a basket full of toys and stocks jumbo boxes of treats so one can ignore him a bit longer? So he left her one day. She hadn’t seen him in time. He’d slunk around her ankles through the kitchen door, which was only ajar. Just made a dash for it.
The original idea of a “therapeutic pet” had been her sister’s.
“Get a dog and get out of that darned house,” Ginny implored from Pittsburgh after the first six months of Marina’s lack of activity
“I’m not a pet person. I’ve tried that and failed. Or they fail me, I’m not sure what the difference is in the end.”
“You’re not trying hard enough. Just because you were sick doesn’t mean you’re still that sick! Get back to life, Marina.”
Marina narrowed her eyes at a crow that had landed near her forsythia bush and gave her its usual beady eyed look. She was irked by its grating calls and rued the day she’d bought a home with its own entrenched regiment of crows. She sometimes felt Ginny was actually one of their kind with her frequent directives.
“Well, you’re the healthy one, so it’s easy for you to say. I just need more time to get going…”
Her sister snorted. “A repaired heart doesn’t mend well just hanging out in a house day and night. You have to get it into fighting shape again. I’m calling the Hartzell’s and asking them to take you down to the animal shelter. A pet will get you moving forward.”
Ginny was an RN. She felt she had authority on medical issues as well as other topics. So Marina ventured out with the Hartzells and reluctantly took home an nine year old fair-sized dog that looked a cross between a hound and a beagle. She kept its old name, Duke. He adapted slowly and preferred the back yard to her living, bedroom or even kitchen. They didn’t communicate much. She tried to walk him once or twice then, a chore what with leash and treats and her own heavy feet. The reality was, by the time they got down the front steps and to a sidewalk, her heart was taking off like a freight train. She yanked him back inside.
“I can’t do it,” she told Ginny. “My body doesn’t want to do it.”
“Nonsense. You’re giving up too fast, let Duke lead and help you. Your mind is the barrier; your heart will go wherever you go.”
“I can’t do it. I feel I’m going mad even leaving the house. I’ll have a heart attack out there in some gutter and Duke will take off and that will be that. I can go to the store in my car–that’s bad enough, four blocks away but I feel safer somehow, people are all about me if I need help. But I will not risk heading out there with Duke on mostly deserted streets. He could pull me down in a flash. We could be missed by speeding cars. Or what if i just cannot get back home due to my heart rate edging up to 120 beat per minute ore worse again? I will not go out on foot.”
“I’m absolutely serious. I cannot do this. If he stays, he stays pretty much inside with me. There’s the back yard and, anyway. I’m hiring a dog walker.”
And so it became established that Marina was not going outside at all if she could help it. She started to order groceries and her three medications for delivery. Duke had to get with her program. He’d chewed up three pair of shoes and a handbag. He wore out the oval rag rug in front of the fireplace with his fitful circling and eventual snoozing. He soiled the carpet a few times, out of spite she was sure of it. He disdained all but the most expensive brand of dog food. And he clearly favored the dog walker, a teen-aged boy from the neighborhood who came by before and after school daily. Marina had considered asking if he wanted to have the dog but his family already housed two cats and a guinea pig. She and Duke did share pleasant silences. Marina inquired about his frame of mind throughout the day with a pat on the head and brief ear rubs, even shared some of her thoughts. But they never got close so that he wanted to jump up on the couch beside her for more than a minute. She didn’t expect him to actually like her or vice versa.
So Duke left. He didn’t even stop by the dog walker’s house, it was reported, to the boy’s disappointment. He had to be serious about relocation.
Marina felt ashamed of her incompetency–with the creatures she’d let in her home and with her faulty body and the new fears taking over like weeds. She was, in truth, afraid she would die if she changed things around. She took her medicine and she ate well enough. But she still felt every anomaly of her heart’s innermost workings as if a rude alarm, at times a big nudge and other times blaring. So not changing didn’t improve the state of affairs.
Standing at the kitchen window afforded a good view of the alley if she pressed forward over the sink. It tended to stay empty, providing more privacy which she preferred, but it also was used as a short cut. It had been well over two years since she had stood at its end, looking down toward the parallel street. She watched it undergo seasonal alterations, new leaves greening and flowers blooming–she especially enjoyed the irises and roses. But it had not enticed her until two weeks after she told her sister and neighbors Duke was missing. It all started to alter as she gazed from the window–she kept watch for Duke up and down the alley. Then she worked open the stubborn sliders off the dining area and she stood in the open space between house and deck. And heaved with panic.
One morning after a few days of that she pushed herself through and out. Her heart promptly banged as she stood rooted. From the splintery deck that overlooked her small back yard Marina admired the golden-foliage of the oak tree. The sight of cloud-scudded cobalt blue high above rustling tree tops shook her a bit. How many times had she lately been out under that broad expanse? It seemed impossible now, not so reasonable, that her life had been conducted indoors for most of two years. Yet the atmosphere felt oppressive, despite variable weather.
The openness of outside vistas–even the alley, even back and front yards and tidy sidewalks beyond–brought upon her a feeling of grave uncertainty, as if she was a tiny lone blade of grass threatened by a murderous lawn mower or stampede of feet or icy, side-winding rain.There was too much space, that was the thing. Nowhere to go without having to fend off the whims of the world, all those people marching about with purpose, those vehicles honking and swerving and engaging tempers. Even the pulsing light of day and crows were too much for her. Her heart cried out against such massive life going on so she drew inside. Locked the sliding door and then the rest.
The next morning Marina put on the kettle. Then, rather than grabbing the newspaper from her front stoop to settle in the captain’s chair with blue plaid cushion at the breakfast table, she stepped out. Breathed in rain-cleansed air, nostrils twitching and throat opening, rib cage expanding under the circuitous flow of it. A tabby cat was stalking something in too-long grass at the edge of her street. A man with wide brimmed hat and sitting tall on a bicycle cruised by, a wicker basket of produce attached to the handlebars. Four big crows balanced on a telephone wire as if a quartet of wise overseers, took note of her presence then broke out in reprimand. Marina pivoted, entered the house but did not shut the wooden door over a screened one. Her fingertips pressed against the mesh and her nose found a mixture of things. Stones in mud, wet cat and Peace rose, doggy residues, chilled leafy breeze. Her heart worked inside her, flushed blood through veins while tears crept up and up until they held her eyes and mind captive. The pain radiated from the inside out and back again. But it was not her physical body, but all the rest she had made into a hard knot.
The intimidating beauty of it all. Her pathetic retreat. The sudden hunger for life. Too much to stand in the center of and hold in. Marina felt her health’s damage, an exhaustion that begged for a cave of endless rest. Then came a clarity like fog swept out as her heart presented no jumbled beats, did not recoil or threaten to ruin everything despite her self-examination. An upsurge of curiosity.
The phone rang four times before she answered.
“Weekly check in,” Ginny said in her nurse’s voice.
“Yes, I’m fine. Busy.”
“With what? Are you having any luck with the ‘Missing’ flyers the neighbors put around for you? Signs of Duke yet?”
Her hand went to her lips then to her chest. “Duke? No, no sign. I’m just thinking about photography. Making decisions.”
“Photography? Whatever for? Are you looking at old photo albums and feeling nostalgic?”
Marina shook her head at the cat as it raced after a squirrel and nearly opened the door again to see where they would end up. “No, not this time. I just miss it, taking pictures.”
“Huh Marina, I didn’t know it was ever a hobby.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Well, is everything going alright? Got enough groceries for the week? Tended to your bills alright?”
“I’m not ninety, Ginny. I’m fifty-six. I can manage my life.”
Ginny didn’t respond. Marina could hear a train in the background in Pittsburgh and knew Ginny was on her lunch hour. Ginny always thought she needed to take care of things. It wasn’t her age–she was younger–but her nature, decisive and no nonsense with her patients and overbearing with her sister. Marina knew there was love in it but it grated on her some times.
“I have to go. I was working on something.”
“Baking again? Your weight, Marina–remember that’s important to keep in hand.”
“Just a little something new. Sorta.”
“Wish I was there to help you eat it. My lunch hour is nearly over, anyway. You call one of your friends yet this week?”
“What friends? They all work or are dead. Ginny, I’m just occupied.”
“Marina, really…Alright, later then.”
Marina went into her bedroom, opened up the door to her crowded closet and yanked the chain on the closet light bulb. There were shoe boxes on the shelf above, some with shoes from her legal secretary days and some with odds and ends and others with photos. And her old pocket sized camera. She got a chair form beneath her peeling, white-painted desk and set it up before the closet, then climbed up. Fingering the stacks of boxes, she found the one labeled in black marker, Pictures 2012-2013, and took it into her hands.
No one printed their pictures anymore, Travis, her closest friend right down the street had informed her. She used a computer, of course, yet she wanted to hold each photograph in her hands, up close as she did paper books and magazines. She liked the feel of glossy or satin finishes and their designs made permanent browsing. And she liked black and white pictures, too, how they were comprised of minute gradations grey. The way she could arrange them into albums for leisurely Not everyone had to race ahead with technology; old ways had some use.
Marina sat back on her bed, head on the pillow, and opened the box. One by one she surveyed the meanderings of her healthy–or at least unsuspecting–living. Trout Lake and her favorite cabin and the red canoes. Winding, demanding trails in mountains. The river walk and seasonal markets. Churches and skyscrapers, a phantasmagoria of night’s fake and real lights winking at her in a fifteenth story hotel room in Seattle–how she loved it. And there, there was her buddy, Travis, a mere month before he’d finally left her to her own erratic company.
She traced his trim white beard with her index finger, the squiggly heavy eyebrows, the breadth of his sagging shoulders as he leaned against a tree in pale early light. He was twelve years older, a retired professor, and had had both hips replaced. Once they’d often walked together, he encouraging her to frame eye-catching shots, but in time he wasn’t able to keep up. She visited him often, they played intense chess games, and she brought over dinner or flowers or books. They talked or not. But one night he took himself down to a corner, his ornately carved cane in hand, and when he got back and sat down he was knocked over with a fatal stroke. Marina hadn’t known he was out there or she’d have joined him, helped him, called 911. She could not figure out why he hadn’t called her or come by but when she couldn’t find sleep he drifted into her mind and told her to stop fussing, he was fine.
Travis hadn’t lived to see his “lady friend” suffer, too, and she was glad. She missed him more day by day. Now she took his smiling face and propped it on her nightstand next to a Mary Oliver poetry collection. Then she dug out the little camera at the bottom of disorderly pictures.
And then she laid it next to his picture. She went downstairs and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” CD on the stereo in remembrance. She listened and made a pumpkin spice bread as she did every fall before he died, before her own heart got snared by nasty snags and brought her to her knees.
Early next morning she slipped the camera (after it got fresh batteries) into her jeans pocket, opened the kitchen side door and stepped into the alley. Stood stock still, swaying back and forth a little, feeling her heart, hearing it in her head, sixty-five, then seventy beats a minute. She counted, fingers to wrist. Nothing else occurred so she took a few steps, her knees trembling. The crows hadn’t seen her yet; she feared they’d buzz-bomb her, forgetting she had lived there for twelve years. So she gathered all strength–would she suddenly pass out from too much oxygen; would her heart rebel with fatal arrhythmia?–and went for the roses, burying her nose into petals.
The voluptuousness of deep sweetness drifted into her lungs and triggered a cough that made her eyes water. She inhaled the fragrance again, snapped a picture of it, then stepped forward, one foot before the other, down the alley. Before she reached its end she felt disoriented by arcing and drooping tree branches, the crows which suddenly zoomed ahead and full of strident commentary, the tabby cat crisscrossing before her careful steps. Shaky and lost. She wondered what Travis would suggest and she sat down on a mossy boulder. Her heart was drumming away, telling her something, urging her to do what? To take it easy. So she waited and looked out over the street. It hadn’t changed too much. She thought two houses were different colors, fresh and bright. Bushes and small trees had grown considerably since she last walked this way, taking her time. She pointed the camera at vermilion leaves above her and snapped two pictures, then snapped some of the lovely Wedgwood blue house with white pillars, then a stuffed witch figure perched on a step for Halloween. She took a wavering breath and stood again, her heart keeping up with her, not leaving her behind. Although it took up her entire chest with its hammering presence. She pressed her hand against it.
So much beauty surrounded her. But it hurt to be amid it.
“It’s okay. Be at ease, heart. Please.”
As Marina emerged from the alley, a red diesel truck roared by and she stumbled back, feeling chastened by its brute power and informed of her inferiority. Absurd, she told herself, and kept walking down the sidewalk. Another car and then two cyclists and she kept moving even though by now she was sure her fist-sized organ that was pumping away would escape her chest. What was she thinking? How could she do this alone? She paused, then with her camera framed a little girl arranging tiny fairy figures on a stump. And then saw a yard full of tiny white mushrooms and yard art made of blue bottles and two stylishly painted birdhouses high in horse chestnut trees. Her vision was fresh and seemed unusually acute; things began to appear almost hallucinatory. She blinked a couple of times then took pictures as she sauntered. Her chest space opened wide and her heart slipped into a more tolerable thrum. In fifteen minutes her spirit began to unwind from the recesses of a lonely, dank place, rising up to shake off one small shackle.
She made her way home, passing by Travis’ house, now inhabited by strangers. She gave it the barest smile.
Each day Marina decided to get up early and enter the daunting open space. She added five minutes more to each walk. Her heart jumped about several times. She felt she’d be struck dead when rushing from one corner to another to avoid a cantankerous van but when she rested and breathed slowly things settled again. She thought she saw Duke once but it was appeared to be a similar dog as it loped away. She felt sorry. Was it possible he would return, even now? She gave up thinking of it, as it triggered a hot sting of disgust with herself. Of regrets.
Once Mrs. Hartzell, a heart healthy if bent over old woman with wispy white hair, came out and looked right at her as Marina left the house. Marina waved cheerily to reassure her. Mrs. Hartzell appeared first stricken, then relieved and waved back.
But by the end of the week she’d managed a good thirty-five minutes, much of it pausing as she took photographs. When she returned home she felt tired in a satisfied way, assuring her she was at last making wiser decisions. Her mind clattered here and there less; her heart rested better as she retired at bedtime. She awakened to more daylight: she hadn’t died yet.
Marina had taken over eighty pictures and needed fresh batteries soon.
“Checking in before once more before I go to a conference,” Ginny said when she called. “How’s the busy-ness going?”
“It’s going fine, thanks.”
“What are you up to?”
“I’m taking pictures, for one thing.”
Silence weighted the miles between them.
“What did you say?”
“Pictures. I got my camera out again.”
“You’re taking photos of….random stuff inside your house, a bunch of still life arrangements? Or are you pointing it out windows and doors? I mean, great, glad to hear it but what are you really up to?”
“I’m making changes, Ginny. Taking a couple of steps forward.”
“Alright. Wait. You mean–you’re going outdoors again?”
It took Marina a few seconds to recognize the sound of her sister weeping yet trying not to weep. It startled her, made her want to assure her it wasn’t so big a thing as all that, it was a small move in the right direction and don’t worry–she’d actually be okay without anyone there to hold her hand, for that matter.
“Marina, thank God!”
“I suspect you’re right on that. And Duke, since his leaving got me thinking.”
“He isn’t back, though?”
“I can’t imagine why he would be, can you?”
They started to giggle, a little on the hysterical side but still, a real laugh shared for once.
“He might return if he finds out you’re out and about.”
Marina thought about that. “I’d make it up to him. But I’m afraid he’s really gone.”
Marina hung up and went upstairs to the picture of Travis. She tucked him into her purse and they got into her car and drove to the drugstore, Marina’s foot jerky on the gas pedal and brakes so that she got honked at twice and almost turned back. But they arrived and downloaded then printed her pictures. She drove one block to the tiny coffee shop. On the way in she looked up just to see what there was to see of the aged building she’d missed so long and snapped a picture of leaves clinging to the glass awning. She stood in line, patient under high ceilings, all alone. Let the echoing up conversations of perhaps better adjusted people wash over her as if it was just a sweep of friendly wind.
She ordered and paid for her decaf mocha latte. Sat down at a table and pulled out Travis so that the sun fell over his strong, kind face. Then they reviewed her first work in over two years. Simple and unschooled but it was hers. A couple were interesting, a couple more were good, the rest rubbish as Travis would agree with a laugh. But what it took to venture out and find, then capture each image was more than anyone could ever know. Travis surely did, was cheering her on, but she sat alone in the end.
Still, Marina’s heart was beginning to feel more at home within the world and herself. So when she finally registered the incessant barking and scraping of nails against the window beside her, she knew it was Duke. Dirty, nicked here and there, tongue hanging, hoarse voice demanding her attention, his skinniness begging proper nourishment as he smashed his nose against the window, looking her in the eye. Needing her. She pressed her own warm nose and hands to the glass, smiling. And meant it.