I’ve been this way many times but manage to take one turn off too soon. We are heading into city center and a primary destination of Powell’s Bookstore, a favorite place recently reopened. Anticipation pumps up adrenaline. But I am embarrassed and frustrated about missing my turn and try to discern my way within a warren of unfamiliar streets that skirt the area desired. How did this happen? The traffic is moving along at a fast pace; I am talking with my daughter as I drive and didn’t bother with GPS because I know where I am going. Good reasons or not, I know I need to find 10th or 12th Avenues–or any north-south streets, for that matter– then head to east-west Burnside Street. It’s simple, after all; I know this city. Until I get turned around in notoriously puzzling hills in this section of SW Portland.
I shake my head, tell Alexandra, “I don’t know what happened, I do know where I am going!”
Or so I thought, until that glitch. I dislike being lost, truly lost. But I am only momentarily a little lost. I just need to relax and think clearly, but it is as if I am snagged in a quirky, confounding landscape. I turn this way and that and no matter which way I go I start to feel disoriented. What has happened to my internal compass, so accurate 99 percent of the time? Then she maps things out on her phone, calmly instructing me, sorting things out. Is this what adult children do when their parents get older and older? This thought makes me more irritated and impatient–me, a very patient and competent driver who always finds her way. I joke that this is why an exacting paper map to smooth on your lap to survey the whole picture works very well. And I want to defend myself and do, at which point she reassures me everyone gets lost at times, and the SW hills area is a tough one to figure out on the fly. And it is not a big problem to find the route out and get back on track.
She is correct. She consults her phone and shortly we are headed in the right direction, out of the maze and into the bustling city center. And before long we are in NW Portland, by the bookstore and coffee shop and all else with which we are familiar, happy, relieved to find still intact our beloved, recently beleaguered city.
We have a lovely afternoon. How can book hunting amid endless shelves and stacks of books with Peet’s excellent iced coffee in hand not be wonderful? It is akin to release from a year in jail-like isolation to wander down streets and window shop, walk past groups of chattering people, our eyes sweeping over interesting architecture. Smelling pungent scents of new and old books, noting heft and beauty of each in our hands. Add easy laughs and good talk, something we often plan but rarely get to do, just the two of us, anymore. A successful time for this mother and her youngest daughter. A sense of things being just a little more normal in the world–except for the masks, except for much less crowded stores.
And then, on the way home, I somehow fail to maneuver into a congested lane to avoid funneling onto the freeway, so there we are, caught up in accelerating clots of after-work traffic. Luckily, no true traffic jams. Luckily, I know where I am going. All I have to do is take the right exit and I do. This time Alexandra suggests a lane at end of exit ramp that is not the right one, so I am forced to turn another direction. But it is an easy fix.
At her place, we sit in my car and talk, reluctant to end the outing. I am so glad to have a few more moments together; she is animated, articulate, offers some of her daily life stories, then offers suggestions about an outdoor family reunion/picnic coming up. The first family get together in nearly two years that includes extra family from out of state. Masked and unmasked, all of us to gather to safely enjoy a few hours in blazing June sunshine–under the pavilion roof, under a canopy, extra chairs, grill and coolers lugged along. Once it is all coordinated well. More like normal, for once.
“We’ve got this, Mom, I do this all the time for event planning at my job,” she says, showing me links on her phone, talking logistics. I agree, she will help things go right, she has that knack. But she also has an eye on the time. It’s not easy to enjoy short periods of freedom when there awaits a return to a young family, the multiple demands and needs of twins trumping one’s own need to rest, even eat, work–much less play. I recall very well often lingering at the grocery another ten minutes, hiding out during yard work, finding a reason to delay a return to the fabulous madhouse shared with beloved children who eagerly awaited me. It is the reality: loving others fiercely while also yearning to care for one’s own self. But she says, finally, farewell for now.
I feel her leavetaking. The car empties of her shimmering, bristling, compacted energy. I see her in the rearview mirror, decisively making the way up steps to her home. Time for me to go home, too.
I know where home is, of course. I get there in ten minutes and sipping my iced mocha, I sit under the shade of towering, friendly trees and think on the afternoon. How several times I felt as if in a daze, and vulnerable to The Virus, to who knows what in the stores if I had to squeeze by someone. Then came heady joy when walking in the city under that blue jewel of sky, chatting with Alexandra at my side. Such juxtaposed feelings and moments. It is mind boggling how every person on earth continues to live with threats to our exposed human lives. Except those who do not live. We are, of course, as frail as we are sturdy.
And then I feel that accumulating heaviness descend upon my shoulders and mind. I have had a good afternoon, but I can slip right back to the grief-lined, deep well of restless silence. The lingering loss of a spirited granddaughter and her mother’s (another cherished daughter) everyday, secure life left behind, her harshly torn days, unsettled ache of night hours. The trauma a son experiences since hiking in a remote area and coming upon a violent scene of death of a person, that life gone horrifically wrong. The worry over a grandson’s health as he slowly recovers from Covid-19. The imaginings, the questions that run rampant in my head about the rest of my grandchildren: will they grow up brave and full of love and wonder? Will they- oh God please- just stay safe and alive a long, long, long time?
I don’t know exactly how to navigate all this lately. My head is clogged with it. I am dulled by rumination, stunned by all the events. The fallout makes me feel, at times, unwell. How does one avoid the emotional landmines of unexpected loss? Isn’t most loss unimagined? (Seven family members have now died over the last several years; who would have thought it?) But we cannot often sidestep what crosses our path. Or, frankly, never. The pandemic, for instance. And worse. It is enough to make me shudder and reel, despite getting up each morning and tackling or easing into each hour.
I remind myself that I have spiritual resources and mental resilience, yet cannot put my hand on a good and useful map. Every time I get lost in this life, I have to reinvent my way in and out of places of the heart, mind and soul. It can be like washing up on an island not even charted. I get off the boat/raft that carries me in and out of place and time, and make tentative footfall. But then cannot find balance enough to not stumble or sometimes plummet to ground. Gravity of earth, how tricky a superior force–and if body and mind are not in sync, it is not easy making one’s way after a long voyage. In fact, it isn’t too easy to roll out of bed, find the stable floor and walk in a nice straight line to the sink to splash water on my face. I am discombobulated. This is not my natural state. It is a state of subdued emergency that lingers.
I have a third daughter who suffered (for a year, to varying degrees) from Mal de Barquement syndrome, dizziness with attendant balance issues after leaving an old fashioned tall ship–a strange phenomenon. Seasickness on land. Or land sickness. (And she is an international traveler, independent, confident–imagine the distress over such loss of orientation.) This is an apt comparison when thinking of events during the last three months. I don’t get “dizzy” during most life crises. I function well, manage tasks, tend to others’ needs. Keep my emotions in enough check for all intensive purposes, though if I must cry, I cry; if I need to swear, I swear–and move on. The brain fires away; I take the steps required for the situation. I cope and cope and cope alright. And then, after things settle a bit more, I start to get tired, adrenaline losing steam. Lose sleep, acquire tension in a problematic neck that triggers big headaches, feel somewhat frayed by ordinary stressors, eat less as appetite decreases (chronic digestion issues flare). Mind and soul feel out of sync, thinking has less directed clarity, and I misplace my usual bountiful hope. Tears erupt and recede often. I forget many things throughout the day, have to remind myself again what it is I intend to be doing next. Time slithers by and I can’t make it behave as I desire. I might check the calendar to make sure what day, in actuality, it is. I ask myself: does it matter what day? People are dying everywhere and here I am, like a lame woman hanging from the curve of the earth, determined to get back on. For some reason.
Well, I am not in the moment, something I greatly value and am pretty good at being/doing. No, I am in the land of the grieving, the land of the exhausted, a place I wander through day and night, seeking a long lasting peace.
I spoke to my son, Joshua, today. We shared how we both feel this way since Krystal died almost two months ago. After his ordeal, too, then his son becoming so ill. I asked how he is doing with it all, how he labors with his commercial and residential painting business jobs while he also takes care of his family and himself. He told me what he always tells me: he creates things, that is, makes jewelry, paints scenes, makes music, rock hunts then cuts and polished them, works on his garden and yard, camps, builds things, like a handmade camper. And he holds onto Light of God.
“But I can’t even rustle up good enough energy or clear head to create much at all,” I admitted. “It can be tiring to even talk to my neighbor lately.” I think: My prayers have become weaker recently, too, as if signals are hampered.
“Yeah, I can’t do as much, either. I work and am at home and avoid seeing people right now; I need to have time alone. I rest more, yet sleep isn’t too easy, either.” He paused; I wondered over the pain kept close inside. He is a very macho guy but has a warm, responsive heart. “It’s the past and future that can throw us off badly. I try to stay in the moment as much as possible. The beautiful moment we have, or can make.”
“Yes, you are right,” I said, “I will try to be here right now more. Thanks, son. I love you.”
“You’ve been a pillar for us, let yourself rest more. I love you, Momma.”
How fortunate to have such a son, such daughters, I think again, even when we each pulse with our hurting. Even with our respective emotional junk seeping out everywhere, at times. The daughter who lost her daughter is going to get a summery pedicure with me. It is such a contradiction, to carry loss to the nail salon, us two sitting side by side, engaged in that pedestrian activity, chatting about nail polish colors, calloused heels. Another daughter shared her new Chaplain/ministerial website with me today, which looks good, and her job hunt for something different than usual is underway. The oldest daughter checks in with blurbs from an important Colorado visit, her paperwork for tenure, art pieces in progress. And Marc–well, he is back at work. At last.
I have more time alone. The buffer and elegance of a profound quietness. So much more time alone, so much quietness, it wraps around me. But he is glad to be working again. I can play my jazz, classical and Latin music all day long, dance anywhere I wish. When I feel like dancing. Sometimes I hum and sway, lift my hands to the universe.
So this is the only map I have right now. To be focused on the present, if possible. To be cared about and to care. But other than that, I may just stand still in this room a spell, sit on that verdant hill, eat this fresh food, read and write another line, speak to my friend about her own journey, greet my neighbor who is stony but talks to me a little. Take five steps forward, then turn, proceed down another rocky or warm earthen path, up the incline to see what is next. If unbalanced, pause. If stumbling, lift up each foot high and set it down firmly. Sit down, breathe in perfume of all the breezes from places unknown. Find a new spot, claim it, share it. I am my own mother, as my mother is not here in body, anymore. I lost may parents so long ago.
Because this is how it can be done, a piece at a time. I have experience with many things attendant to being a human creature. It is not an strange land but part of the process of being alive during seventy-one years. It isn’t just me, either; you are in the bigger story, of course. Even mine. It will take its own time, just slowly enough, this healing of being hurt then hollowed out, the dissipation of fears, the emptying of tears. I will find ways to release and let go, hold what is essential, the helpful truth-telling parts. And then the return of a strong embrace of ebullience can happen.
It is the circle, isn’t it, and we keep on moving with it. Sometimes we have to stand way back to see the whole blasted, masterful map. Other times we have to–at least I have to–get up close and find the identifying dot is and say “Yes, I am right here”–so that the greater picture will come into focus better.
So I will get there. Get back to my sharper and brighter, hopeful and grateful self. But if you ever wonder where I am when I don’t show up on this blog, or question the rambling words I write, it is only this: I am working and breathing and trying the best I can with a yoke of life’s sorrows about my shoulders. (I know you have yours and are doing the same if not today, tomorrow.) But I do know my way back home. It is following my heart, nourishing my spirit’s yearnings, placing my feet on the trail and my vision on mountains and rivers, the wild things, ocean and trees and the rest. Those close to me whom I care for more each day. And those not yet met. This is where I live, inside an awesome mystery. Today, I am where I am on the intricate map of the living, and I cannot help but feel for us all, even ghosts roaming this world and beyond. I am tired so need wings to carry me above the fray. But what I see, I wonder over; the unseen is simply unseen at this moment.
The upright bass player, JD, was not in Quartz Creek Valley, New York because he had long craved a life in the country. Rima had dragged him there so she could nurse her mother back to health–hopefully–and give a helpful hand to her father. They now shared the 62 acre spread, and lived in the tiny cottage that was built ten years earlier to accommodate visitors and now themselves. There came with the shelter the tasks of keeping chickens, grooming and feeding and exercising two horses, tending the three dogs whose names he barely kept straight and a black, dusty one eyed cat. JD was okay with cats–they minded themselves.
He liked her parents, Neal and Emma, fine and the cottage was good enough–a nice change from the apartment they’d had in Pittsburgh, though so quiet he could hear his heart beating every night when it went dark. That was the worst part–the dark w hen in bed, lying still as can be so as not to wake Rima. For one thing, he was used to being awake until 2, 3 even 4 in the morning. And there could conceivably be menacing spiders creeping out from the corners, and random rustlings that could be anything from bears to racoons to snakes outside their screened bedroom window. They were in a huge forest. (Rima said it was just the woods, with meadows about, too.)
He lay there wide awake, then got up to sit with a book until his head drooped or another foreign noise shook him up. He’d especially never liked racoons, with their mean little faces and grabby hands, how they stood on hind legs ready for a fight he could care less about. They were welcome to his garbage, have at it, party on. But that was a city alley, not here.
Rima had been hesitant at first to ask him to go with her; he and the city were one, she believed. He could have stayed in Pittsburgh, yes. The truth was, his gigs had been less than satisfying and then he got sick. In the last month he’d recovered from a bout of pneumonia; he was still tired out. Not only physically. The club scene had felt a little stale after twenty years. So he said sure, let’s go hang out on a country lane, rescue your parents awhile. It made her happier than he had seen in years. So, Rima left her position as an Admissions Coordinator at a community college and he took time from from his most recent band once assured they’d take him back. They rented their place to a friend of a friend, packed a couple bags.
JD had grown up in Pittsburgh and though he had left twice before for a couple years, he always returned. And he had played in two bit dives, then decent bars, then supper clubs and cabaret, summer jazz festivals. Then strictly jazz clubs, at last. Not that he had trained for that.
Jamisen Dean Hardisty was the son of two prominent Pittsburghers (or Yinzers if you were truly local). By age 10 he knew he wasn’t meant for cello but the upright bass. From then on it was “JD” he answered to, and it was the bass he studied and played with enthusiasm. Jazz crept up on him. Before long he had a bad case of falling in love, and classical music, though it left its mark on him, was pushed to the periphery, to his parents’ misgivings.
Jazz was his life anchor. Rima often said it was his mistress, but in fact it was his first and would be his last love. His wife was his treasured everyday partner, his fine lover–she put up with his music obsession, after all. But jazz– just another category altogether. A different passion he could not explain to those who didn’t get it.
Emma was showing improvement after four months; the chemo was working. They all began to dare to hope. Neal was roused by this change and by JD and Rima’s help with daily chores so he could just be with her more. Although JD did mainly yard work and took the dogs out for runs, he had a quiet presence that helped steady Neal’s nerves. He was surprised; his son-in-law might be moody some days but he was rock solid, it turned out. Rima was the best daughter he could ask for in troubled times.
For a month, JD only played exercises, plucked and bowed whatever came to mind, then he took a break for a couple weeks. His fingertips softened and got grimed over from outdoor work so he kept to the routine, playing after dinner for an hour or two. No one complained; he played, after all, very well even if that music–the more contemporary of the stuff– was not their cup of tea. Sometimes he’d play a tune that Emma requested. it cheered her; he liked that it did.
So things went on like that the first couple months, until he got restless. This bucolic daytime life was not a comfortable fit for him, though it suited Rima. They got on well as ever despite a few misunderstandings about how to do things in Quartz Creek Valley–JD never would blend in–and she was grateful he’d come. Still…the music he wasn’t playing began to yank at him all day and night long.
And then one afternoon when he went in for groceries and a new hoe, he saw the woman sitting at front door of Enid’s Grill. She had ear phones on and was bobbing her head to the beat, and singing softly–he couldn’t hear her but he surmised–and her right foot was tapping away. Her eyes were closed. He stopped in his tracks, two big bags in his arms, one hand grasping the hoe. He wanted to run across the street, ask who, what, and why. Because she was not a local–he could see that by her clothing, colorful and verging on outlandish compared to what most people wore (jeans and old t-shirts and work boots or sneakers). And her body was full of music. And her mind, because she was surely another musician. Wasn’t she?
She looked up as if she had felt him watching, and pulled off the ear phones, lips moving to the lyrics and music she still heard in her brain. She lifted a hand and smiled across the street at him, then got up and went inside.
It took JD three days to find out who she was from the bakery owner where he stopped to get coffee and bagels often.
“Oh, that’s Kelsey, has a week-end house but can be gone for many weeks so we don’t see her much. She tours and such.”
“Tours? She plays with some famous band?”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” the woman said, looking anxiously at the line behind him. “She sings but jazz or pop, not good bluegrass or–well, look, can we get a move on now?”
The woman frowned at him then shrugged. “Well, JD…since you’re a musician, too– it’s on Brookhaven Road but that’s all I will say. Next order!”
The next day JD drove up her long gravel driveway, heart happily pounding in his throat.
Kelsey was not born a singer. Her father said she was, but she was born a dancer per her mother and Kelsey agreed, some of the time. She was so often swaying and turning about, tapping and swiveling and bending when she reached a year old and walking. Her feet were happiest sliding and stomping, her arms lifting and reaching to beats of cheery children’s songs. She’d hum a bit and squeal. But put on classical music and she was transfixed. She got so still that it scared her mother at first–it was like she was possessed of a spirit, she told her husband: “Look at her face, she’s seeing angels or something!”
He shooed her away and glanced at Kelsey with a pleased look–he knew she would sing even if she danced well enough. He could feel it; he sang once, after all, in the men’s chorus in college, but teaching suited him best so maybe it was her turn to sing on and out, make things happen.
Kelsey did take rhythm classes, then ballet and jazz dance, and she was good at it, everyone said so. But after her classes she’d put on the old records her dad had of jazz standards and a little opera and learn the words and tunes as best she would. By twelve, she sang a few songs for her parents and their friends on a bridge game day. It was decided: she was a singer and then some.
It was all in the body, that’s why she danced so soon–the music took hold and her nervous system worked it out, but then it went straight to the soul. She practiced and before long she was in a few choirs, then it was bands and she rehearsed and performed so much it threatened her school work. At nineteen she started to sing at a local Detroit club, a few songs here and there, and gradually, one thing led to another until she sang three nights a week with their house band. Jazz was what she did the best. Before long she was full time, then touring with this band or that, small potatoes in the beginning but she stepped up and up. Chicago, at last. A home base. She had no doubt this was meant to be her life. She travelled and made decent money. Each year she became better known and in Europe they turned out in droves.
And then a week before her thirty-fifth birthday her older sister died. The one with cerebral palsy, the one she adored and always visited first when she had a few days free. Ellen, with whom she shared all her secrets. Ellen, who had more patience and compassion than anyone else, and who easily made her laugh and vice versa.
Kelsey quit the band she was with and hid out at Quartz Creek Valley. New York, the countryside, far from the city. It was recommended by someone who loved to vacation there–“a quaint country village, an anonymous kind of place to relax.”
Kelsey had bought a cheap, ramshackle house there. Over time it was fixed up by a team she talked to via texts and long calls and she made quick visits. It was finally a good structure again, inviting and eclectic, a refuge from the stress of travel and performing too much. Ellen liked it, too, but hadn’t visited her there in a year, to their mutual dismay. There never seemed time enough, then Ellen was less and less well.
Everything came to a stop with her death. Kelsey didn’t enjoy eating as before; she didn’t want to go out with friends; she slept long hours, day and night; she had no interest in returning calls from men who had given off a spark. She knew it was the river of sorrow that carried her, that dulled her usual appetites. Even singing became less wanted, a guest that wasn’t welcome, then soon a bothersome ghost that could not remain unobtrusive and stay under the eaves to let her be.
Yet at Quartz Creek Valley she was removed from her large grieving family and from the hustle of the music scene, and from the endless sympathy of friends. This was a good thing, peace. She settled in and was relieved to find it helped ease tension and sadness–woods surrounding her, the creek behind the new deck. Her very house seemed to know how much she needed it and had been waiting, so closed about her in the green shady setting and held her snug, protected.
There was a second hand upright piano in the living room that she played sometimes, tinkering, really–but it, too, failed to move her to do more. Instead, she recalled songs Ellen and she loved as kids and teens and that made music come faster–and more painful. The best she could seem to manage listen to music on her iPod, let it all come as it wished, or not. It seemed enough for a couple weeks, at start.
And then that day the doorbell rang, two short rings and a long third. She peered out her window and determined he looked more or less okay, so opened the door a crack.
“Yes, what is it?”
“You must be Kelsey–I’m JD Hardisty,” he’d said, grinning at her as if they’d had an appointment set up and she was expecting him. He looked pleased. “Tanya at the bakery said you were a musician, and so am I.”
Kelsey opened it a bit more and stuck out her hand. His palm was broad and cool; she gave it a firm professional shake. Did this make them quasi-friends so soon? She took a deep breath, wary and impatient.
“That right? Kelsey Minor. And you thought…that maybe you would just pop on by?”
With a slight frown he noted her drawn, pale face, her pressed lips and bright hair in the sunlight, then let his glance sweep over the big, flower-bordered yard.
“I don’t know, I thought we might talk a little. Maybe I’d find out what kind of gigs you do.” He paused but she said nothing. “That sort of thing.” He hesitated again, stepped back. “I’m from Pittsburgh, play jazz bass–but, hey, maybe this is a bad time? If it helps to know, I am staying with my wife at the Lane’s house. Her mother has cancer…”
She tilted her head at him, then looked up at the sky, then at his flannel covered shoulders. New plaid flannel. So he was a city transplant. How could it help to know his mother-in-law was sick and maybe dying? It felt like a sharp pain in her chest. Still, he was being friendly, that’s all.
“It could be a bad time, all things considered, but maybe not. Go around the side of the house. We can sit out back.” She gestured at the corner of the house and went indoors, then came back out to meet him there.
They got caught up–her sister’s passing, his wife’s devotion to her mother and father. He had been there a couple of months; she had been there barely one month, had taken her time to wrap things up with her band.
“Millstones and the Feast, you may have heard of us…? We play more in Europe.”
“I have. Good band, I think one of my friends played with them awhile-Art G, drums.”
“Must have been before me; I joined them three years ago. I’ve sung with quite a few bands since I started out. How it is. And you?”
“The Evan Blake Quartet. We’ve played in Pittsburgh for many years. Hate to say how many. It’s a decent living, great guys. I toured once, too, but I got older, more sleep deprived and ornery than I wanted to be.”
He laughed easily and she felt his good nature spread among the trees.
“I miss it already,” she said, smoothing her long denim skirt over her knees, fiddling with a silver and turquoise necklace which shone in the sun. She then crossed her arms. I want to sing but can’t quite do it yet…You still play wherever you’re living? I mean, staying in good shape? I worry I will totally lose the skills. But not much to do in this little berg, is there?”
“I’m adjusting alright except for the nights. I play daily. Have to keep the fingers supple, calloused. Why don’t you sing at all?”
“I hum, I pull out notes, I run over lyrics. But everything comes back to my sister. We were that close.” She crossed her forefinger with middle finger.
JD said nothing and neither did she as the crows squawked at them from strategic perches. He was thinking how they could try a few things out together. He had noted a piano as he walked by the front windows. He felt that leap in his pulse, anticipation of making music with others once more. Even once a week, a couple times a week–it would feel so good to get back in touch with music in real-time, in the flesh, not just in his head or only exercises, some noodling. Not playing along with tunes on the radio.
But Kelsey thought of how it hurt to sing, how she wanted to cry when she sang, How to ease away from this, yet be kind to the guy? Why would she want to sing with a stranger, anyway? It could take a long time to mesh with other musicians. They had their style; she had hers. JD had his life to tend, she had hers. She did not want to get into their repertoire, into the intricacies of interpretation or performance, or of name dropping–shooting the breeze all afternoon. She had not planned this social call.
“Well, JD, I’m not much of a piano player, and my voice is on hiatus. Maybe another few weeks. I need to just hide out, you know what I mean? Sometimes we need to step back. I am so far back from all of it, I spend my time reading and sleeping pretty much, not dreaming of music.” But as she said it, it felt like a lie and she wondered if he caught it, too.
She rose from her chair and stretched, shaking her chestnut mane off her face and shoulders. When she turned he was standing, too, hands in jeans pockets, face closing, quiet.
“I see. Well, if I find a pianist, I might stop by again, okay?”
Kelsey held out her hand to him. “Maybe. I don’t mind talking music, I guess. Bring your wife–Rima? Is she a musician? Lovely name.”
“No, no, not a musician!” He guffawed at the thought. “Well, thanks, Kelsey, and take care, pleasure to meet you,” JD said, shook her hand, nodded and left.
As he drove away in the rattling truck that no doubt was his father in law’s, she shaded her eyes from midday ight that struck her square in the face. It made her eyes sting, all that streaming early autumn sun power, and the air cooler and richer all at once, and the heady talk of music.
JD Hardisty. Had she heard of him or was she only thinking so? People knew all the good people in the world of jazz and word gets around. He hadn’t heard of her, or so he said and so what, they were both working musicians, thank God–if not actually famous. She might be a little but not for now. She was ready to hibernate. Turn the lock in the door and close the curtains–that was the way she’d intended.
But his face–one that you immediately feel is familiar. The eyes…no rancor, no comeuppance, likely no big agenda, she concluded, other than wanting to play more jazz. He was likely for real, stuck out here in Quartz Creek Valley with an ailing in-law. In backwoods country, did they have to forget jazz?
What or who was she? Too damned good for him since she toured much of the world? Or maybe afraid she wasn’t so good, anymore? Or was she just worn out? Like her heart and soul had been overused. Now her voice was weakened, too. How much did it matter now, no news to give Ellen, no reports of the tours, no songs to share with her as she lay contorted in bed, the pain of it.
Still. It might have been his dark blue eyes. They were so kind it nearly hurt her to look at them. And she’d had enough of that. Did he play like his eyes spoke?
“Ellen, what can I do with myself now? Dig a hole and pull the ivy over top of me?” she asked, face to an empty sky. It was absurd to talk like that, wrong, even–but some days it was all she could do.
He had not been a regular in this circle nor was there a desire to be but there he was, almost a fixture at Frannie Palmer’s house. It had become a week-end thing, and she’d suggested it become a longer term thing until he got his feet back under him. All the booze-drenched parties, then his partner leaving, and his concert schedule heavier than was healthy–it was enough to drive anyone over the edge.
They’d finished a scrumptious dinner once again and were relaxing in the study, which was really a brainstorming room where Frannie worked on marketing and product development for body and face products. He picked up a jar and opened it, gave it a sniff, gave it the thumbs up and closed it again.
“That’s yours now, dear. Really, you have to get off the fast track and take a breather, Rodney, you can see how it has helped me! Anytime I’ve had enough I come to my country house, lick my annoying little wounds and repair any broken brain circuits. I wholly recommend it.”
He sipped his elegant goblet of red wine rather than downing it as he felt a gripping desire to do. “If it’s good for a CEO of a thriving beauty company it must be good for an aging bonnie boy slash pianist headed for rack and ruin from alcohol and a bleeding heart. Right? I swear, if Tony had half a brain he’d know what he’s missing, get humble and come to his senses.”
“You are neglecting to consider the upside in this situation, my dear.”
“There is no upside! I have lost the love of my life…and it’s all your fault since you introduced me to him.”
“Oh, do get over it. More fish in the sea.” Frannie jumped up and opened the French doors to the distant tinkling of the creek and a gust of piney air. “The upside is that you get to start over to a degree, alone and with a clean slate.”
Rodney felt the scrape of those words but ignore it, joining her. The air was soft and sweet and he thought how fortunate his oldest friend had this beautiful second home. Since she was getting older she’d spoken of retirement in this place but Rodney felt it was premature–she was too glamorous to take up residence in Quartz Creek Valley, surely. On the other hand, she was at least ten years his senior– and he was already getting grey at the edges, signs of loosening jowls. Perhaps it would be good to get a few things fixed – Frannie would steer him the right way.
He joined her at the open doors. “I think I’d like to have more fun with music, for a change. One can only be a classical pianist for so long unless you are a genius, and far more devoted than I tend to be…”
He stated this with wistfulness; Rodney truly did want to be much more dedicated to the finest of all performing standards yet had had to be. He had to work very hard to even remain where he was after thirty years–far better than above mediocre, of course, but also a very far cry from the top of the heap. There was always some up-and-comer to take his place, and fast. His days might be numbered.
“I’m getting more accompanist jobs, Frannie. My concerts average a couple times a week at most, in maybe eight or ten states. It has slowly and surely changed. The rest of it… all the playing for someone else. Not that this is so dishonorable…it takes talent and skill to play for the best soloists…”
She lay a hand on his back, nudged him toward the pool and patio. “Better to get paid than not; and better to play some than none. I know you, Roddie, you would not be happy unless you played something until the day you died!”
“I could play for old people, I suppose, if it came to that, just sign me up for the boomers’ dances and swanky retirement homes, darling Frannie.”
“You already play for old people–me, my friends and so many more! We love you as much as the rest of the audiences do.”
“Maybe more, ” he said with chagrin. “Well, I’m based in Coral Gables, Florida–as are you–so how can I lose? I always have a good crowd in that state.” He put an arm around her shoulders as they walked to the chaise lounges. “To think I almost like this place in the northern woods. You came from around here? I forget.”
“No, Roddie, I hatched from a golden egg outside of Chicago, you know that, and was born with this beautiful hair. It was hubby’s summer tromping grounds, not mine.” She giggled as she patted her champagne coiffure and then they fell quiet, at ease.
He stared into the underwater lighting of her turquoise pool and wanted to dive in and paddle about but he’d smell of chlorine, then have to shower. He had no energy for all that. He licked his lips clean after a last bit of wine, closed his eyes, leaned back and listened to the crickets begin their songs.
Fran cleared her throat. “Well, it seems I do know someone who sings, Rodney. She’s had a vacation home here for some time but often is gone on tours. I saw her yesterday. Kelsey Minor.”
“Hmm, never heard of her.”
“She’s a jazz singer.”
“Oh, swell. No arias to belt out for me?”
“Rodney Cannon, you really must ease off the snobbery-“
“Says the pot to the kettle–“
“–because she is that good. Maybe that would cheer you up. I can call her tomorrow, set up a meeting. Maybe you can even do a run-through with our piano.”
Rodney grunted. He was busy feeling wine loosen every muscle and then every knot that squeezed his overwrought mind. “Maybe.” He yawned. “Sure, why not…you often know best, Frannie.”
She smiled to herself and got up to dip her toes in the water. Mission accomplished.
And that was what sealed it, Rodney realized later.
The first time they all got together at Fran’s–she had that shiny grand piano–thanks to her determination and Rodney’s charm–it seemed like a madhouse. Kelsey was trilling away between scales and vocal exercises. JD was tuning and retuning, then playing tunes with pizzicato as if the strings were wild things to be tamed, while Rodney was working on chord progressions that sounded as if they might be be overjoyed to be let lose in a cathedral. But when all got quiet, they tossed around ideas and settled down some though no one wanted to take the lead.
“Well, how about just trying an old standard?” JD suggested.
“How old do you mean?” Rodney asked. “I only do old, that supreme age from when my father loved standards.”
“You know, like Sinatra?” Kelsey suggested, eyebrow raised as Rodney looked at his hands with a smirk. “Or-okay, then, earlier?”
JD had been scrutinizing Rodney from the minute he came in. “Do you even play jazz, my friend? I mean, not can you imitate it… can you play it?”
“Yes, bud, I do play it when I run out of my usual classical repertoire and every one is begging for more…” Rodney’s words held an edge.
Rodney suspected JD was like every other jazz club musician he’d come in contact with–maybe three or four of them, anyway. Leaning towards arrogance and cloaked in a ultra calm cool. Kelsey was nicer so far but she had probably been trained to be nicer from the cradle, sadly.
JD suspected Rodney was once deemed too fabulous for his own good, and his classical rigor stymied all hope of experimentation. But JD was willing to give it a try. He’d had cello lessons for years as a youth, after all, but he wasn’t sharing that with Rodney. The guy ought to know better.
“Come on, you idiots, let’s get the music going or give it up!” Kelsey bellowed, hand to weary head. “I don’t have the wherewithal to play games. It’s hard enough to consider singing much less with bickering men…”
Both men shut their mouths, composed themselves and were sheepish. Kelsey was, then, not just a lovely gal with impeccable manners–all the better for it, Rodney decided. It took grit to keep in the game.
“Suggestions, then?” JD asked.
“‘April in Paris’? ‘Stairway to the Stars’?” Kelsey said.
“Right,” JD agreed and picked up his bass bow.
Rodney flexed his hands, lay fingers atop piano keys and soon the familiar tune of “April in Paris” was slipping into the dimly lit room like a somewhat crumpled satin ribbon.
Kelsey hummed at first, voice warming a bit more each measure as the musician found their places, out of sync at times but urging themselves closer to the heart of melody, the luxurious beauty of sweetly emphasized notes. They were professionals; they knew how to do this, even Rodney, who was surprisingly adept at the genre. And it seemed they might have promise.
Then Kelsey opened her mouth wide and the richness of her alto suffused the spaces like liquid into hands. The men puzzled out and played with each other’s lines and her interpretation. She, however, soon shaped it, the song growing, breathing, her command of her instrument creating an embraceable tune. It was an offering to them– as if she was singing of their times in Paris, their love affairs as well as hers–and many others’. She swayed to the music, her body gone fluid, too, and they all leaned toward one another, face to face, sounds to sounds, following each other down flowing measures, and to the tender end.
Rodney dabbed at his eyes, then sat up tall. He smoothed his pants legs and nodded at them. Kelsey and JD nodded back, not entirely displeased.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s try it again… JD?”
JD led them into the melody and they were off once more, fewer odd bumps, more attentiveness to one another and the song. Then again they ran through it, embellishing here, simplifying there, interweaving, correcting, emoting more but not too much, making the song a lovelier thing.
Frannie was at the back of the room with Rick, her husband, who had come to the house after a trip to and from Columbus. He leaned against a wall, her hand in the crook of his white shirt-sleeved elbow. As the song started up once more, he took her in his arms and they danced ever so quietly, careful not to disrupt the trio, their movements restrained in the small area.
She patted him on the back as he deftly stepped along with her. “Now that’s a great tune, wouldn’t you say?”
“Indeed Frannie, let’s keep them on, shall we?”
She hummed along in his ear, and he kissed her plump cheek.
Frannie Palmer, CEO, was also quickly planning how she could get them to form a new band, then market them to friends. And, of course, beyond.
One day, she dreamed. For al her brusqueness and learned gentility, she was often just a gladdened dreamer.
That was the start of it, the Quartz Creek Trio. They played every day after that. The name was suggested by Rima, who was glad JD had a purpose other than labors he’d been willing to do (basically forced to do) in that dull, jazz-club-less country life.
JD was encouraged to slough off chores. The family was getting back to a more normal routine. He was so grateful that he yet took the dogs for runs morning and night, still mowed the yard weekly and continued to grocery shop for them. Rima foresaw their moving back home by early to mid-November–he had gigs galore then what with holidays. But for now, peace and easier days reigned.
Kelsey got up in the morning and attended to a healthy bowl of oatmeal and toast, then ran a couple of miles and finally practiced, banging away at her second hand, tuned up piano as needed. She found her voice was getting deeper and wondered if it was all the crying. Or just rustiness. But she was better than she had been before the guys came along. Before the music was gradually returned to her.
Rodney was a perfectly pleasing guest. He entertained them daily with “Breakfast with Roddie” which entailed English muffins with cream cheese and scrambled eggs; fresh coffee; and piano music while they ate. He was fired from cooking but they adored his music, as usual. “Bach for Breakfast” they called it–changing the composer’s name as required. But he enjoyed the jazz standards more as days went by so he slipped one in now and again, to their delight.
The Quartz Creek Trio played that fall for three weddings and two retirement luncheons and two big parties of Frannie’s for which people from New York to Florida came. A few wanted to hire them right then for their future soirees. It left the trio privately gasping with laughter–to think they would do such gigs, just like in the first days of their careers! But they had fun, that was the point of it all, wasn’t it. They enjoyed playing together and they’d’ gotten to know one another. It was a good thing all around.
Their time was short, they knew that. It made the hours seem more potent, at times quite worthy of remembrance and always instructive as they worked out the kinks. They got to know their unique moods, their ins and outs–the individual styles and inside knowledge of each piece. It was building a complex and careful dialogue even as it became freer of constraints, all their playing and singing.
So it got harder to think of saying goodbye. They might cross paths, though. Kelsey would remain there through the winter–she needed more healing rest. JD would be coming over once a month–or as feasible– with Rima to visit her parents. And Rodney, well, he flew all the time, anyway, and he figured he’d make a stop at Frannie and Rick’s, too.
Just once Rodney suggested, “Maybe when we run out of steam doing our usual programs and plans, we can form an official trio. Not just for entertainment of friends and family here…I mean, when we get older, or bored with things. Try a new path.”
“Speak for yourself, buddy. Will it pay the bills? Rima is finally pregnant!” The reality of that scared the heck out of him, but a kid later in life was also a boon, he imagined, and he felt very good about how things were turning out. He had plenty of gigs lined up, anyway–yet, he wondered, too.
“What? And spoil what we have now?” Kelsey said, somewhat appalled at the idea of leaving her band and engaging in this little act once more. But she’d been surprised how it had helped with the loss of Ellen, and how good hearted the guys were–not to say, very fine musicians.
She’d think it over. They’d all think it over. Their worlds connected at the outer edges of the music world, they overlapped in theory, they admired each other greatly. But it would take a lot of effort to make a new commitment. It was a rather serendipitous series of events that demanded greater consideration: a chance meeting, an odd connection, a creative process that grew and made them feel more themselves than they had felt in a long while. Well on the way to being rejuvenated musicians, they were more excited to share music–and also ready to further open up their lives. Together, and apart.
Rennie leans back against the lawn chair, clasps hands behind his sweaty neck, puts his feet up on the stump. Listens to cicadas buzz their overpowering song–it feels like they’ve taken up residence in his head.
This is the weekly question, asked one way or another. It flees their mouths with little effort, words soft or rough, as an aside out of nowhere, after another discussion. It is Jillian, his mother or Zach, his older brother– and on alternate days, Pops, his grandfather. Mia has been gone near three years; she is never going to take him to task. She would not have before.
Rennie at first took it all seriously and tried to answer–a thoughtful, embroidered statement to keep them satisfied awhile–but then he tried to lighten up, have fun with it. Which aggravated them so they came back at him two-fold. But he’d had enough after the first few months they started on him. After a year it was noxious, tiresome. It made his head want to explode or just take off, running to unknown territory.
This now makes him laugh: his head running away, tiny legs trying to balance with their heavy load all the way to Iceland or the Galapagos Islands or India. What might they think about that image?
To be fair, their emphasis on words changes now and then: why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant–and so on. It’s a refrain or a chant he hears as background noise. So he has different answers, if he answers.
“Resistant to Sal Rogers’ charms? Her hair is just too shiny brown.”
“Resistant to the colds you get? Lucky, I’d guess.”
“Resistant to snake venom? Well, it depends on what type, if I am in the mountains, hills, marshes or fields. If I make it out. So far, so good.”
“Resistant to your words? Repetition does the trick. I don’t hear them, anymore.”
“I’m not resistant to lots of things–let’s talk about those, alright?”
Jillian is hanging out the sheets on the line. She could dry them in the dryer but she likes how they flap and billow–lavender, white and beige with faded leaves–and the sun soaks them with its natural disinfectant properties. When she takes them down she presses them to her face and breathes in the fresh happiness that imbues them for awhile. She likes to hang dry her underwear, too, and the boys’ and Pop’s t-shirts. Makes them whiter, last longer. Makes her feel more secure to smell the sunshine when she hugs them.
Rennie appreciates that she does this. He likes the sun sweetness and roughness of the cotton sheets when he crawls into bed. That moment will endure as a favorite memory when he is old, he realizes: sheets like crazy sails in the world, like peace covering him in bed.
He picks a tiny daisy from dew-dropped grass and twirls it, touches his nose to it though it has no perfume, and looks about. He needs to clip more of the hedge, so he gets up, searches for the pruners.
“I don’t have a new answer yet, I’ll think on it.”
“You have to let the college know in a month or it is gone for good. They have lost their sympathy and very long patience.”
Jillian used to cry about it every single time he shot them a smart ass answer, every time he refused to share thoughts at a deeper level. It was hard beyond hard for awhile, what with Mia gone. Then Zach with a broken hip from the fall during a mountain hike. Rennie was there but couldn’t stop his brother’s sudden loss of footing right at the rocky, narrow path’s edge, of course. A pure accident, Zach said it was though Rennie felt to blame. It could have resulted in far worse. But Zach is good now, has re-started his HVAC trade apprenticeship. He’s lived at home to save money. And is about to move in with his girlfriend. She at least has Pops, he’s not leave her. Until he is done and gone one day… please God, not yet.
Sorrow and the clutch of stress has loosened its hold, though, year after year. They slowly got used to the way things were without her daughter…their granddaughter and sister.
Except for Rennie, they might move on a bit more. He is holding things up, she thinks often. He needs to go forward, too.
Pops says to ease up; he’ll just dig in his heels more if they don’t stop. But even he wonders why Rennie has about thrown away opportunity, that decent scholarship to Blue Ridge College. But he also thinks it is more complicated than they know. Might ever know. The boy–going on twenty, taller than he is and strong as an ox, both boys inherited their fool father’s strength and height–had been struck down by Mia’s illness as if it was his, too. And then she died. It might take a lifetime to get his head back together. She was his twin, yes. But being alive is right here and now; being dead is just gone, the past. It dims, despite what you think.
Rennie is different about things, they have to agree. He takes the raw of life into him and it carves out hollows or plants unexpected seeds or is churned into words that they rarely have gotten to read. Even though this is what got him the scholarship. Pops has lately for many nights seen him on the ramshackle back porch writing by candle light while the other two were to bed. It could be 1889 from the looks of him hunched over in baggy overalls and sweat-stained work shirt, face nearly to paper, the old fountain pen scratching away, his dark hair flopping forward, feet bare. His mind might be from a different time… maybe that is why he’s hard to reach at times. That, and the old visitor with havoc to unleash: the malingering of grief.
Pops gave him that pen as he turned thirteen, along with a new hunting knife. Why not? The boy always had such daydreams stuck in his head, may as well help him get them out. And the knife?–a good hunter when he puts his self to it. But like most things he does well–and there are quite a few–he seldom ever hunts now. He does what he does. Writes and works with his hands.
Why is he so resistant to college, bettering his lot? Though he can repair darned near any broken thing, so that’s good, It is Pops’ own fix-it gene passed to the boy. He learned–Zach, too, and Mia–right at Pops’ shoulder. Rennie can make a decent living with a repair business and that will make Pops feel calmer. Prouder than fancy words might do, if he’s entirely frank. But he wouldn’t stand in the way if the boy has to do his own calling. Too high a price to pay, his will versus the boy’s. They could lose him, too, and that would be impossible. Every man has to make a mark his own way.
Zach is moody lately; he wants his brother to make up his mind so they can all stop pushing and prodding. He isn’t as close as he may like but the several years difference and, well, he wasn’t part of the twindom, was he? But that’s how it goes, and he misses Mia, too…If only Rennie will face up to the next phase of life, get on with it, maybe they’ll be closer in time.
Rennie sees them. He hears them, pleasant creatures with deft mouths and mighty hands and good minds, with ways that are in his bones, too, as he lives on land his family has owned for one hundred-ten years. But he sees and hears as if they enter a stage, say their lines, do their bits and then saunter or dash off, taking their lives with them while he stands there in the middle, quietly observing, waiting for more, hands clenched by his sides, eyes straining at the dark swirling before him. What should he do? Even though he is tall and broad, owns any space in a manner he hasn’t quite realized, he feels invisible to them when it matters the most. It is not even his stage, not even his story–yet.
It takes an easy fifteen minutes to get there, through a wooded acre then down two hills, then following the music of tumbling water until he comes to Fielder and Backward Falls. The second name is due to the way the stream splits off there, around a boulder, and switches to the left. Most of the moving water goes its merry way forward as it should, over and down the earth and rock ledge in a cascade of clear liquid, pure enough to drink. But this is a small waterfall, diverted by a surprise route, and it pools in a natural dip in the land before seeping back to the main tributary eventually.
He settles on spongy dirt by a contortion of roots at pond’s edge. The falls splash and gurgle as it gathers, pools. He glances around to check for creatures, removes his sneakers, sticks feet into the warmish pond, plant debris floating on top. His toes stir up mud and it resettles. The odors of this spot are strong and reassuring, stones and rich dirt and mosses, waters carried from far away. Kudzu vines twist and reach, travel up trees in ownership. Birds call out and he calls back lightly with a thin whistling song that coincides enough with their chorus. The cicadas are relentless with urgent, rasping overtones.
Rennie falls silent. There, a stick cracking, a rustle. He waits. Another soft crackle, and a shushing among birds, their wings closing.
He feels her near, or does he only think it? There is a fine but penetrating charge in the air; his anticipation, yes, but it is their connection that re-makes this into a vibrant site he likes better than any other. It has always been their place. The one they disappeared to over and over. Where they found solitude, or found one another when no one else could or went to, together for a catch up. No one else knew for sure it was theirs, not in all their growing up years. Others might visit, but they alone claimed it at age nine and had a ceremony to mark it as such> Two poems were loudly intoned above the burning of wild grasses in a wide mouthed vase, and a song that Mia offered about trees’ eternal protection and the falls’ “most royal healing waters” and that was that. He closes his eyes.
It was a separate children’s time and place, and the moments made of simplicity in mind and heart. A true and perhaps holy place to Rennie. For she was there with him for everything that mattered all their shared lives.
His eyes blink open. The woods are unusually quiet; even the cicadas are talking in a dull buzzing note that descends into a lull.
“I’ve sure needed to talk to you,” he begins then pauses as his gaze sweeps the woods and water to check for anything or one else. “I miss sharing time and events with you. It doesn’t get easier, though I hear it will. It’s okay. I don’t expect it to be one way or another. I don’t expect you to come back. So I come here, you know.”
He waits; quietness enfolds him more densely.
“If I leave, then what? Will you still find me?”
He feels it, the sadness a net tossed about him and tightened, and he swallows hard, swipes a hand over forehead, stands in the pond. He looks again. It is only the woods, the moss-touched rocks and kudzu-encased trees. Mia is not now going to come out of the thickets and talk to him. He knows she never will, not really. But he wants it, anyway, yearns for the female reflection of his face to come forward, her being to offer words that make such good sense when spoken around his.
There is a distant call, perhaps deer or a bear on the move with a cub, or a grazing horse in fields even farther out. But suddenly he spots movement, a cottonmouth that slips into the pond at the other side, a younger one with light brown and banded scales, the telltale triangular head lifting as it swims. He sits down, scoots back, pulls up his feet and slips shoes on. Stands. He knows it will not harm him as long as he doesn’t threaten it but he backs up, instinct with a hold on him. The snake is placidly swimming into a murky spot and though for a moment it seems to eye Rennie squarely, it gracefully turns its thick body, silently moves across the pond.
It is the snake they saw most often, that semi-aquatic venomous creature at first scaring them, then just a part of the wild. At the falls they often stood on a rocky prominence and held contests, tossed stones into the pond or at any number of trees on the other side. Once Mia accidentally hit a cottonmouth and it raced across the pond and crawled out, searching for their heat. It was well-known for its often-deadly strike when disturbed; they knew better than to wait around. They fled as if for their lives, screaming then laughing all the way home.
He watches the snake now with keener eyes as it turns, swims back round to him, half-floating with head up as it again fixes on Rennie with it’s cat-eye pupils and opening its formidable white mouth. The young man freezes, heart throbbing, wonders if it will come to the ground…but just as quickly the three foot snake moves around the irregular edge of the pond in search of food, perhaps.
The cicadas start up again, unimpressed with his earlier speech or the snake; birds flap wings, chitchat among themselves, tend babies.
He rests at the rim of the woods before entering Tennessee sunshine that will beat on his skin and like a giant spotlight make him go blind a moment. He recalls the last time they came to Backward Falls. A bright blue and gold scarf was wrapped around her bald head; her eyes looked huge, turquoise in the light, her skin whiter than white, her full lips thinner then, slack. But they had read the poem in turns; they’d written together then buried it by the little waterfall. They knew it was their last time there. She leaned heavily on him as they made their way back, and they stopped often.
–Why you and not me? he asked her often. Why not both of us since we’re twins? And how will I manage, sister?
Finally, her answer came then.
–Because, you were meant to travel the world. To find its poetry. I was meant to make sure you did. I’ve been happy enough. I’ll pop up wherever you go. Don’t let us down, Rennie.”
The wind came up after that as a skirmish of storm clouds let rain down fast and hard, with lightning swift as jagged arrows piercing the dark sky. They’d walked as fast as they could hand in hand, drenched and unafraid. Jillian had been worried, waiting on the porch, but when she saw them together she just went in to heat up butter biscuits and make a pot of tea.
They always believed they were safer, better, smarter when closer to each other. Even near the end of the end, when they knew they’d not be in touch as they had all their lives. But the fact was, they weren’t really apart. Even when three days later she was gone.
He’s not disturbed the buried poem; it was a happy story of time together, and yet a stab in his center as they’d read it. Let the earth hold it close. Let their happiness be protected there.
They are done with dinner already, reading aloud the paper and chatting over coffee when Rennie comes in, panting some from running.
“So, family, I have an answer for you. I’m not going to college. I’m going to work at the hardware this year–already talked to Herb about it. I’ll continue small appliance and other repairs on the side for Herb and from home. I need to save a lot more. But then, by next June, I’m leaving.”
“Where to?” Zach asked, incredulous. He was on track to become a teacher but travelling sounded even better. Maybe he needed a road buddy? They hadn’t been all that close–he wasn’t in the Twindom, was he? But it was what it was. He’d like to know him better, it might happen before it was too late.
“First the West and Northwest, then Canada and Alaska, then…who knows. Might have to take a pause to work or come back now and then.”
“What about college? Your writing?” his mother asked, face gone softer with disappointment, her eyes damp, the barest amount. She managed a smile. “Though having you here longer will be nice.”
“I won’t stop. Have I ever? College won’t make me a writer. Writing will.”
Pops folded the newspaper and set it aside, stroked his beard in muted surprise. “Rennard Ames Collings: small appliances repairman. Traveler. Author. Good heavens, some life ahead of you.”
Rennie smiled at his grandfather and gave his mother a hug, his brother a quick tap on the shoulder. Then took a plate of potatoes, pork chops and fried okra and went to the porch. He settled on the top step to better see the dusky horizon, and Mia–it was what he felt so was what he believed–quietly sat down, too.
The summer before my heart attacked me and after my mother died, I went soft. Body and soul. Soft like bread dough, like the down of a baby bird’s head. In truth, softer than anything I had experienced before. Life felt like a landslide, one that moved like molasses. It accumulated things along the way: sleep, spontaneity, belly laughs, security, the signage for all I’d known so well. The hours stole life-giving breaths. When I felt I had to take daily walks again or lose all perspective I had to stop often; I was drowning in tears. When I sat and tried to read or kneeled to pray, my shoulders and arms curled about me like frail, hunched up wings. I was looking for shelter, I guess. Inner protection.
Human grief. The sort that hits when you realize neither of your parents will make a phone call or send a letter and certainly not visit in the flesh. That you won’t be writing back or dialing their number, indexed in the brain since childhood.
Common but taxing experiences can send strength, joy and desire on hiatus. They also can change the physical body: face lax with sadness, eyes nearly vacant, as if looking past an invisible horizon. The body wants to conform to feelings, express them, and may seem unable to alter them despite best intentions.
I had only a vague idea how much my body was affected until fourteen years later, though I should have noted all the signals. What it knew and tried to tell me in complex ways. And today I’m not even addressing heart disease that made itself known while I hiked deep in the forest. I will include nicotine cessation. One of the best decisions I ever made was quitting smoking–five months before mom died.
She gave me tough advice when I told her I’d made it a week without a cigarette.
“Good. Don’t smoke again. No matter what.”
“But what if I have a nervous breakdown next week? I don’t even drink much caffeine, don’t drink alcohol!”
“Have a nervous breakdown, you’ll get over it. Just don’t smoke.”
“I detest this job. I feel nuts without smoking. How can I not smoke?”
“Get another job if you must, but remember work is hard by definition. Don’t smoke.”
In May, she called me a week before she died and asked me to come to Michigan. I quit the job when my boss gave me only three days to visit. But my mother left this realm for the other before I even got my ticket. That is likely when my core began to collapse on itself, when everything started to deconstruct inside and outside. When I look at pictures of my family gathered for the funeral I am still standing upright, even able to offer a smile. I am well dressed and groomed. But it was a lie. Inside I was churning waters within sand; there was nothing to hold the torrent to a good course. It spilled over the next weeks and months.
I sat still more, so unlike me. Dozed in the daytime, became intimate with night’s workings. Prayer was a steady, often non-verbal exchange with God–I hoped God heard me because who else could stand such lamentation ? Or be accepting of it? I was caving in little by little but still not smoking, not even thinking of a drink. I ate because my spouse cooked for me. Those athletic legs were turning into lazy appendages, aching and timorous. My chest felt pressed against squashy ribs. Bruised a debilitated heart. The discomfort in my neck sent electric shocks to shoulders and hands, struck my head with days-long headaches. I couldn’t figure out why so much was unravelling, but the body became a map of sorrow that looked much like protest and despair. Standing up tall was an effort akin to hoisting heavy loads. And I gained more weight as spring and summer turned to fall.
Literally heavier (ultimately, twenty-five pounds in a year). That may not sound like a gargantuan amount, but to me it meant having to push and pull limbs and trunk around. I had been thin, too thin according to some, all my life. I had once trained in body building and had been a busy, slim mother of five. Now people told me (kindly, I imagined) I looked healthier, robust. But no matter. I was unmoored by work disillusionment and new financial pressures. The grief defined by a sense of being orphaned, a strange state. With that resurfaced all other lossess, which lodge in body and spirit and wait for emotional triggers.
I never did smoke again, but other healthy messages seemed diverted from my metabolism “receiving center”. Feeling sluggish was almost normalized. Over time I no longer appeared to be the petite woman or the shorter woman who appeared taller, the woman who was energized and organized, who found more reserves. Persistent, tough of mind. While I grappled with re-envisioning my life, the taut abdominal muscles became flaccid. The emptiness within my diaphragm could not be filled. It was as if I had been punched several times and no longer could stay balanced on my own two feet. Nor could I keep my chin up as a simple matter of course–like my disciplined, encouraging parents had taught me. As I had practiced since childhood. It seemed my (annoying) pride was taking a beating.
Pride, basic self-worth or obstinacy–whatever the characteristic, this could not be a “lay down and quit” saga. I just had had enough. There is only so much misery (and self-recrimination) one can indulge in, on top of the real difficulties. I became more active at home and outdoors, called friends. Tears surged less and less. I still carried that body weight but my legs held me up and took me on more pleasant walks. Then a heart attack happened in early September 2001.
I was fifty-one and had no grey hair yet, but instantly felt far older. It scared me. The roller coaster of grief, doubt about remaining a mental health and addictions counselor, and that compelling urge to turn inward toward the mercy of God’s presence. And stay there. Now coronary artery disease insured I needed more time. Not do nothing, but avoid undue stress which releases excessive cortisol, which creates inflamation–not good in general. Dangerous for arteries.
I took a total of three years off work. Decided to finish and revise a novel. Practiced prayer and meditation daily, as that made a big difference. Get more physical and delve into more arts. After many months there was perhaps a forty percent imporvement. I had rediscovered great coping skills. Yet… it was monotonous being me. I had to be boring or irritating others. It felt narcissistic to battle even mild melancholia and uncertainty dawn to midnight. When would this end?
It was a step forward and a step back. I knew mental and physical wellness were integral to one another. It was only natural. It was what I’d taught my clients. I worried the athletic aspect of who I was might be permanently diminished. It was integral to my identity to undertake vigorous challenges. Embrace the great outdoors. Would being a heart patient forever curtail this? Had the long sadness limited my initiative? I needed to be an effective mother, grandmother and wife, friend. A counselor again–I missed it. A better writer. Cardiac surgical interventions, a streamlined diet and increased exercise should have done the magic. But implementing new directions was a journey. And I had to stay committed.
In time, I did lose more pounds. I added dance classes. Got a great job and stayed with until retirement. Creative activity saved me many times, l as ever. I hiked new places, walked every evening after working ten to twelve hours, rain or shine. Then joined a gym. I was not going to let my heart falter simply because I failed to work harder. I embraced joy more. In short: I began to make my way back. Despite the aging process being in motion as I neared the sixth decade.
Too, there had remained that odd ambiguity at the core of body and being. It felt like impotence. I didn’t know why it lingered but it was real. A liability. I tried to accept it–it was not overcome by activity or will. Time carried me as it does each of us. The dull roar of grief faded. I lived my life and sought greater knowledge to optimize functioning. Sadness was no longer examined daily. My literal and figurative heart ultimately stayed the course. Breathing felt excellent one more and I hiked withut fear. At last, I thought. But there is always another surprise, right? More lay ahead, including becoming critically ill from a standard heart medication taken for thriteen years, a statin (click here).
In 2014, somewhere between my youngest daughter being married in October and the arrival of Christmas, I developed a spot of lower backache. An anomaly. I have good pain tolerance but I slunk to the doctor. She gave me a physical therapy referral to Faye, a taskmaster who has a gift for her career. She encouraged me to talk as she examined my walk, stance and symmetry (seems I’m a bit crooked, no surprise), then instituted intense massage. I shared about the summer of 2001, thinking it might be a key.
“I wonder about that time as overnight I became ‘jelly’. I remember sitting and thinking it was way too hard to lift up my shoulders and chest. My back curved over. I felt a crumpling inward and pulling downward…I was so sad. My belly like mush. I never was the same. It’s not just my lower back on one side, but shoulder blades and ribs hurt sometimes if I stand too long. It’s been tough to reverse things.”
“You’ve developed an habitual way of sitting, moving, standing. It began with sorrow, stress, then that weight gain. Let me remind you what good posture is, how to walk or be still without harming your body, But you have to work on those lazy core muscles. That’s crucial to whole body strength, as you suspected. You might try yoga, tai chi, more dance after we lessen the pain. First, crunches.”
Bingo! The core! That was what had collapsed in grief, in the burn-out from work, after heart events that required stent implants. I had tried so hard to recover from heart disease, worked on attitude and my spiritual life. Yet all the time I felt a lack. A sense of cohesion, as the whole is comprised of many parts. Steadfast optimism, as well–I’d stopped thinking of the future much. I had gratitude for each moment and what hardship taught. But did my body get that yet? The center of my systems? All that had impact. We were given an intricate and efficient design for our human vehicles. A body superior that God came up with.
But simple answers had been waiting to be revealed.
“I’m a little embarrassed. I used to have excellent posture as a kid and young woman. I want to dance more; I’ve been doing Zumba awhile. I crave more outdoor activities. It’s so important to be strong and resilient. How did I weaken like this when I’m not even very old yet?”
Well, it had gotten harder to live in this body, carry around the accumulation of loss. Lostness. Faye nodded knowingly. She understood life had threatened to cave in awhile. Now I had more to fix, from long ago. Further reinforce the structure. Let those remaining few pounds go. I didn’t need anymore a false sense of safety, nor excuses to drift through rather than engage fully in life.
“You can’t just have your legs and arms swinging as you hike and power walk. You must move from your middle, from that vital core.” She paused. “You know emotional injury and loss impacts our physical health. So now, work harder! You can go back to the gym when you have made enough progress.”
Maybe it ought to be clear to all that core muscles have to be kept conditioned in order to hold us up, to help propel us as well as better endure discomforts. And aging, which happens sooner than you ever think it will. To give internal organs room enough. Allow lungs to take in more oxygen and expel more CO2.
So I do my isometric exercises daily. Crunches, leg extensions and lifts, and so on. They’re not so easy, still make muscles burn after over two weeks. It’s been years letting a slouch take hold, so it requires time now. Progress is liberating. I repeat rudimentaries: tuck in chin, lift chest, pull shoulders back. Gut tightened. I recall what it was to be a young dancer and figure skater, how it felt to move across the floor or ice with lightness. Power. I trained then to do what I loved. So now again: stand straight. Be at ease but strong as possible. Act like a peaceable warrior woman–“act as if” until the behavior follows the intention.
It’s how I want to live–as if I have all it takes. Humans are equipped with wellsprings and wisdom we often forget. If not convinced, reach out for aid. When weary, allow rest. When in pain, reinforce healing that body and soul already know is needed. When weakened by the vagaries of living, seek caring, drink good teas, find sustenance and camp out in serenity. Then organize resources and redouble efforts. Each day that is begun and ended God, my real energy source, is called upon. I already know this can save me from myself. Make manageable multiple losses. God can certainly help me develop that deep core to propel me the rest of the way through life.
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