This Broken House

Columbia Gorge, Cascade Locks, misc 050
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

They had spotted it from the first hilltop. Ed was breathless from another climb followed by a steep descent. His shoulders were hunched forward in muted excitement. Layla had fallen behind though she was supposed to lead the way. She knew how to get to her own house, didn’t she? The vicinity, overgrown as it was, became more familiar with each step. The trouble was, her legs didn’t want to carry her further, nor did her mind. What they had seen was both so familiar and foreign that she balked at the idea, after all. In fact, her entire being recoiled.

It had come up at the twenty year class reunion last night, of course. Miller had accosted Layla with two drinks in hand, waving them at her as if he was selling something she needed. Perhaps she did; Ed was preoccupied at another table, easy Ed, always a friend to anyone who talked back. She appreciated his outgoing nature–it had made the reunion easier so far–but now she wished he’d look her way.

It was not an event she had willingly attended. They’d been getting ready to have a real vacation in the mountains when he’d convinced her it would be a good thing to do this year.

“For me to see what your roots were. For you to wish old friends good stuff and share a couple of laughs. And put it all of it behind you once and for all.”

Why had she listened to him?

******

Miller bent over her (had he been so tall in high school? sweaty? and had they really dated a whole six months?); his cologne and the alcohol draped over her. Layla coughed.

He muttered, “Not what you’d expect, eh, Layla? All of us much older and more tired than we’d planned! Present company excluded, of course.” He’d handed her a glass and grinned at her in the same way he had in tenth grade, all teeth and rotten heart. “Have you anything to say for yourself, girl?”

Of course she did but she held her tongue. “Well, this was a stopover, soon we’ll be languishing in a mountain lodge eating salmon and strawberries and all will be forgotten. You?”

“I make these every ten years. There are cousins and old buddies to drink with, there are basketball trophies to recall, there are some very lovely women.” He lifted his glass to her and drank. “I got out, you got out–among a half dozen others. Who has the better tale?”

“Please tell me, Miller, I always knew you had a mini-spark of genius…”

“Well, what could I do with a lawyer father and an author mother? Fail? Indeed not. I own a tech company, TorchWare .”

“Sounds like a program for arson. Good for you, gives an outlet for that wayward bent.”

“Yes, it illuminates everything simply and well for those in dire need. And I reap fine benefits. And you? You got into Seattle University, didn’t you? English major, was it?”

His small teeth glinted at her. He breathed heavily; she recalled that he’d always had an inhaler at the ready. Or was that ill-placed lust?

“Funny you’d recall that. Yes, and also met Ed.” She pointed at her chatty husband at a nearby table. You’d have thought it was his reunion. “But I turned into a ceramicist and am unexpectedly good at it, while he teaches engineering at U of W.”

Miller lifted scraggly eyebrows and sipped. “How’s all that working out for you–I mean, as a pretty but shy daughter of a rather derelict lumberjack father and a nurse, fortunately, for a mother? Though you sure speak up now! Don’t get me wrong, my own parents weren’t all that honorable despite impeccable appearances…”

“You know, I think I’ll use my big new voice to finally let you know–”

“Quite well, I’d say, it is all working perfectly. Wouldn’t you agree, Layla?” Ed said as he took her elbow and started to steer her away.

“He wasn’t derelict, you fool, he was ill–now dead from MS complications, Miller. Haven’t you learned basic human decency or even good manners yet?”

Miller snorted. “Everyone said he accidentally burned down the house to collect on insurance. It didn’t work as you well know. In fact, it’s still standing. Barely, I suppose.”

“Not worth it, darlin’.” Ed grabbed her wrist just as she lifted her half-full glass to douse Miller who, shaking his head as if in pity, walked away.

The drink spilled on her new navy pumps and she glared at him.

“The house, he had to mention Dad and the house. Do you see now why I never come to these? The villains still wait around to attack the unsuspecting and weaker.”

“Except you are not weak. You’re a bit tipsy, I think, and tired of being here. Let’s say goodbye to the ones we do like before I go punch the fool–then let’s make a run for it.”

Layla put her drink on a table, wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tight. “Good plan, smart guy.”

“You and all the smart guys…I see them looking your way.”

“Yeah, but you won out and you’re a good guy, too, so lucky me.”

******

“Ed, this is not a great idea.”

He turned to her, held out his hand. “You’re the one who says that if there’s a noise in the dark you need to get up to check it out. This has been bumping every night in your adult life. Time to take a look.”

She grabbed the proffered hand but pulled him back a little. “There’s nothing much to see, just rotting wood. You know I came back for Dad’s funeral before we got married. Mom left town that very night. No one was interested in the property, not even to tear it down. I took a quick look from the hilltop then. It just emanated all their miserable life. Our life.”

Ed studied her face, how tight the petal soft jaw, how pale her pressed lips, eyes narrowed against whatever might be seen. His throat constricted; he had to look into treetops, reassure himself the blue sky was up there; they’d get done with this. Maybe he had made a mistake insisting they come. But then she started to walk and he right along with her, down another hill, across the gravel road, right to the property line, if there was one. The lot was so overgrown with tangles of blackberries, spindly weeds and hulking bushes that nothing could have made its way to the front door except for the creatures. Foxes, mice, snakes or insects, whatever had claimed it and moved in.

The front door was torn away under the sagging roof, she could see this through the brush and wondered where it was. Perhaps someone long ago needed a door. She remembered how she and her mother painted it fern green, the radio blaring from the living room, paint dripping, getting on them, her father in his wheel chair that day but directing them. The dirty white of the house seemed less an affront with that new door. The door might have burned. All windows were agape, of course, the fire ruined them, too. The moss overtook the shingles, weakening them, and the insects, took, must have lunched on many seedlings and the birds must have pecked away the bits they could. All like vultures tearing at a carcass. It looked hideous.

“I don’t like seeing all this, Ed.” She released him, though, and put up her hand to indicate she wanted to  proceed a ways without him. He shifted from foot to foot as she waded through high grasses.

Layla worried that she’d be able to smell the smoke still, even after all the years. She’d been in college when she got the news from her mother, that the house had burned enough that it was not salvageable. So they had moved to an apartment right on Main Street, a better place than the house had been but small. It was an ancient kerosene lantern that toppled in the living room–her father had a thing for old stuff collected in younger years and he’d lit it and somehow knocked it off the table. Then he panicked and rolled his wheel chair into the yard.

It was pure luck that her mother had gotten home before the fire engines came, applied the fire extinguisher to wide swaths of area. But people talked because her father was not the most open or pleasant man, not even a reasonable man, they’d decided. He was hard on his wife and his daughter since MS had finally taken his legs and made things so taxing for them all. The truth was, he was never an easy man, one who could move through life on good will and a sense of hope. He had a hard edge to him that just got sharper as he got sicker.

But as Layla walked around the falling-down house she heard his voice wind through the place with a beckoning tone and stepped in at the back, the screen door hinges rusted and wrenched, the door nearly hanging to the dry dirt and brittle grass. Beer bottles and soda cans lay about, a torn and faded girlie magazine, a dirty plastic spoon and fork by a rank container, a torn up tennis shoe half chewed by perhaps a passing dog. Layla wished she had a trash bag but to what purpose? No one cared. Not even, really, herself.

But she stepped around the mess and indoors. She saw the living room, desolate, still filthy with fire’s carbon from so long ago, the wooden stairs having fallen down so she couldn’t go up to her room even if she had wanted to take a look. There was no parental bedroom; the wall had burned. The one third-charred kitchen with its stained farm sink was ruined, counters scratched and torn, even the walls though smudged by the fire seemed to be moldering in winter rains and summer heat. The appliances were long taken, maybe even sold as is. Fire had swirled through most of the lower level like a storm, then was defeated. But it was a bad omen. What was to come for her parents was worse than they’d known before.

But as she lingered she knew what lay beneath the rubble. Once this room had been almost cheery, yellow curtains with tiny green ferns on them; a ceramic rooster on the counter for cookies; a small oak table by a wall with convenient folding ends. They had enjoyed breakfast there, even Dad when he was up to it though he said little more than “Another day, damn it.” Each morning, before school and her mother’s work at the hospital, they had that half hour or more just to sit together, talk about the headlines or drink coffee without words uttered but the radio playing something tuneful and easy. It helped them, that music.

They could also see out the south side yard all the flowers her mother and she had planted and tended. Rose, irises and tulips, a few gladiolas, later the zinnias, geraniums and marigolds, three types of lavender, petunias and pansies, too, and more, so much she could not recall. They came to her as if someone threw back a curtain and she could see them: flashy and happy to be growing there. For the family of three. Even her father loved that garden, messy and simple as it was. But sometimes he became morose, lamented that he’d once been such a lumberman, how he missed the scents and feel of wood and dirt on his hands, the outdoors in his veins. Layla recalled him as he was once: standing so straight, barrel chest high and arms muscled. She had often wondered over his loss. And how it had hurt them all. How he felt so diminished it was a burrowing beast that dug deeper in him each year.

She decided one time–despite her mother’s warning look–to put into his unwilling palms a little pile of fresh soil and tender roots for him to close his big fist over and hold. He had wept a long moment. But it passed and he shook his head at her when she tried it another time. He just sat there each day he could manage it, after they rolled him out and let him be, and he read or drowsed or watched squirrels race about or listened to birds calling. Stellar jays, a favorite, and he always watched for deer at the far edge of the woods at dusk and called to his wife and daughter to see how they stood graceful, proud.

Did he long to be free like the creatures were? Did it anger him to see them work the garden? He was silent much of the time he wasn’t gritting his teeth or snarling. Her mother said once, “He loves me most, you know, when I am deep into gardening, my hair a mess, sweat ruining my shirt, my hands full of bugs and blossoms. I see it in his eyes. ”

And Layla could understand this, knew it meant more than most things to her, even his rough hug or kiss. He was not easy to love, and he was not gifted at it himself though her mother tried to show him and she, too, offered him her hugs that wanted to soothe him. Which he often pushed away. Maybe he knew things he taught her mother, too. They made what they had work; she stayed until he passed. But Layla wanted happiness, not just partnership.

He taught Layla that if helplessness and disappointment seem like the toughest enemies, family and nature are balm. And she wished she could lay her head on his shoulder one more time. She might call her mother, set up a visit but she now lived in Boise with a man Layla found wanting.

She wandered out and around the corner of the house.

“Ed! Come here!”

He ran to find her, glad she called him, praying she had not found things to pain her more. He found her staring , mouth agape, at the end of the lot. Inside the leaning, towering trees, past broken branches and bushes out of control and wild grasses and blackberry vines, there was something more.

Layla pointed straight ahead. “Look!”

“What on earth…?”

The garden was still alive, and it was in summer’s peak bloom.

“It’s me,” said a small voice. “I done it when I could, hope that’s okay with you.”

She was bent over, nearly the size of a child, with wrinkled face and white hair that was piled atop her head with a pencil. A hunched back, as it always had been but worse.

“Mrs. Stanish!” Layla went to her and, bending over, put her arms about her. “You! But why? You and dad never got along too well, as I recall, he didn’t like your dogs getting into our yard and such.”

“Well, that’s so.” She patted Layla’s hand and nodded at Ed. “Your husband, I see. I saw the newspaper notice all those years ago. And your mother, she told me, too.”

He took her hand into both of his. “This is wonderful, really amazing.”

Mrs. Stanish walked into the garden with them. “Oh, he now and then could be sour. I understood sourness with my bad scoliosis. How much pain tries to ruin you, how nosey people think they know things they don’t. I said I’d tend their garden after the fire. If it survived, and it mostly has. Sorta.  But never  break a promise if you can help it.” She smiled up at them, deep blue eyes wreathed in folds of flesh.

They caught up some then shared brief hugs.

“Thank you for keeping it going, It means a great deal to me.”

Mrs. Stanish gave them a once over. “You see, life does as good as it can, we just got to help it along. You two be nice to each other.” And off she shuffled to her equally aged husband.

“I suspect they’re in their late eighties or early nineties now. Incredible,” Layla remarked.

Ed and she climbed back up the hill. She turned back a last time and he did, too.

“Incredible that they are still alive, married or maintaining the garden as promised? Or that you found a few good memories there?”

“Yes,” was all she said and waved goodbye to that old broken-down house, where once her family had worked, suffered, loved as they could. “Let’s get to the mountain paradise before the sun goes down.”

 

Unexpected Beasts

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

She did not desire to visit the country much less live there, with its hidden creatures and ominpresent dirt. Nor anywhere other than their condo with a glass walled view of colorful, heaving throngs on streets below and a daily, even hourly variance of traffic patterns that created soothing and lively background for her work. And the ships leaving with horns blowing and trains trundling down more distant tracks.

Vera drew and painted just a few feet from that view so she wouldn’t be unduly distracted. Though her work was mostly cityscapes, this framed scene was hers and somehow intimate. Thus, not for sharing with strangers. Possessiveness was part of her; she held on to what she needed, was loathe to part with certain things and certainly persons.

The condo was one of them. They had lived there for over ten years, Vera and Putnam (“Put”) Rawlings, and it was the haven they had hoped it would be. He wrote and she made art and they were happier than imagined when meeting twelve years ago at an artists’ residency. Faster than expected–they worked taxing hours, doing even more than they had to but then they made their way into galleries and two museums and onto bookshelves and in libraries and into a fine spot on the tenth floor.

So why did Put want to move now? Unless to another floor above them, a bigger place, perhaps. But her erudite husband could be capricious. And single-minded when he had a wish to fulfill.

“Not entirely move, just acquire a little week-end place, a summer place.”

“How bourgeois of you, a quaint summer cottage,” she laughed, and dabbed a wash of purple and smidge of black then pearly grey onto the damp watercolor paper. “We’d miss so much in the city, week-ends are teeming with things to encounter and do.”

“It’s Chicago, there’ll not be a lack of cultural events if we go away for week-ends now and again. And summer is not the peak performance season in some areas, anyway. Come on…”

“You can’t be serious.” Vera looked him full face to discern the intent of these statements and felt a frisson of anxiety. “I won’t do it. I can barely stand dirt, the way it clings to everything. Me. You know I don’t like bugs up close and personal. I don’t even like to put my feet underneath a picnic table in the park, you never know.” She swished her brushes about in a big plastic cup of water and turned around. “Why are you even thinking of it?”

“I need inspiration. More quiet. I need to step outside and put my feet on ground, not pavement.”

“Your new book drafts are not going as well hoped, I know…but really, the countryside will not further your creative flow, believe me, it will only disturb your focus–all those mice and snakes, wasps and bees.”

She sidled up to him, put arms about his neck and drew him close, put her forehead to his and closed her eyes, beaming her will at him. But Put lifted her arms, let them drop.

“I’ve looked awhile now, sorry to inform you and I found one online that seems perfect. Not so much money and a companionable size. I’m going up this week-end to have a look around. I hope you’ll come along.”

With that he turned and retreated to his study. Vera padded after him, long coral dress billowing in an air conditioned draft. She leaned against the door jamb. She didn’t enter his study unless invited, generally. One thing she wanted was her own good studio space, not just the high-ceilinged living room by windows. It meant she had to put her art supplies in boxes at bottom of their closet each time they entertained. She felt second class with the arrangement but his study had poor light and was too small for her liking, anyway. And he didn’t like to look at any views when writing–“too many odds and ends of stories played out there,” he’d said.

“What on earth are you doing? Making unilateral decisions about something you know I am against…”

Put remained facing the desk. “I had to take charge of this situation and do what makes sense to me for once. I need a change. This may be it. Besides, I love the country, you already knew that. It’s near a lake, you do like water.”

“I do not, there are blood suckers there. Snakes that wrap around your legs and fish that bite your toes and lake muck.”

And with that he started to type again, murmuring, “I’m leaving Friday around three. Takes two hours, I’m told.”

“But…!”

He kept plunking one word after another onto the glimmering screen. She felt like slapping the doorjamb in a fit but left him to his work, pulling the door closed.

Put knew she expected they live in the city. As an urban artist that made the most sense–he could write anywhere–and he’d also concluded she was a little OCD about dirt and wildness. He hadn’t questioned it much. Should he?

Vera put her face close to the window pane, palms pressed alongside and making warm, damp outlines on the glass. Her heart was charging past her thoughts; she was dizzy when she glanced down ten stories. All those decent people and cars and trucks and shops. They were tiny as miniatures, she could scoop them up if she was only a giantess but she felt she, too, was shrinking by the second. Her world was being altered by Put’s whims masked as serious needs, and she had that sinking feeling: powerlessness.

She squeezed eyes tightly to block it all out, but the past took its place. Running, galloping into the present.

The country. She deeply and irrevocably did not want to go to that country.

******

All the way there she slept or was on the verge of sleep. Vera had not slumbered much the night before so drank a large glass of wine after breakfast. Put frowned at that b ut didn’t chastise her. He knew this was hard for her. His main objective was to get to the lakeside village of Callaway before dark. Hers was to stop him from making a foolish decision and she felt wine might fortify her.

A burgeoning community of trees enveloped them. Put whistled tunelessly. Vera opened one eye to see them encroach upon the state highway, their sedan. The sun got brighter, air became clearer and her breathing, faster. She rolled her window up, then down, then up, twisted in her seat.

“I think you’re going to like the house if it is anything what it appears to be. Alright, a cottage, a very old one but it has character, I can tell.” His spritely mood grated on her.

“‘Character’  means rundown, Put, not attractive and desirable. Likely nobody else will have it.”

Why was she being so resistant, verging on insensitive, even mean? he wondered. Was it because he’d gotten a hefty advance for his third book while she’d had trouble with her last series of paintings? Well, another reason he’d wanted to look at the place was to provide both with new environs, a set of unknowns to engage them in different ways.

Or was it simply because she hadn’t lived in the country since she was ten? After her father left her mother and she, with him. It had not been a good time of her life, he knew that but divorces happen,  and she’d grown up happier with him in Chicago. The man wremained a fine florist and she by all accounts was a developing artist and a happy helper. Yet, she did not now favor a spectrum of plants, seldom added flowers to their minimalist decor. He thought she even suffered from a paucity of nature’s delights, and he was not the most outdoorsy man. A thinker, a better spectator than doer– well, a writer of philosophical matters, darker than light-filled, subtly ironic literature. But he was a nature nut when he was a kid. It was their city attitude he hoped to challenge, to loosen with a part time stay in the country. He did like to sit on their balcony, watch the seasons play out their dramas.

He might even cut some wood if they wintered there. He accelerated, dodged in and out of swift shadows.

Vera was sound asleep by the time they arrived at a tiny real estate office at village edge. He left her in her seat and met with Darlene Howe.

“It just came on the market; you’re only the second person to view it,” Darlene informed him with a gregarious smile and handshake. “Follow me.”

“Are we at the end of the road yet? The dead end, I might note,” she murmured. “Can I just view it from the comfort of our Volvo?”

“No, Vera, time to get out and face the future with me.” He touched her nose and lips with index fingertip, then kissed her on a pale cheek. “Be brave, we’re only taking a look at it.”

She felt welded to the seat, so unwilling was she to join in, but Darlene was waiting for her, Put was staring at rustling treetops with a show of childlike pleasure. What did he know about trees and other green matter with roots that grew like tentacles into dense earth and took hold with wretched tenacity? Yes, it was magical. But whether good or not, well, she was of two minds–the florist’s and the wood nymph’s.

Her mother had floated around with butterflies, light as air and as erratic, too, though Mother would have said that butterflies did have a path they followed, we just couldn’t map it. Vera had wondered why her mother had acted like she was an interpreter of such things but now knew why.

The single story, dingy white cottage with blue trim had a blue door that was opening. If she went through it she might be swallowed up, but Vera yanked herself back from twenty years ago, she was not a child, this was now. Put was dear to her and would not leave her alone to bear the vicious pounce of an unknown fate. She was watchful, nonetheless. The trees and birds and scrabbling squirrels possibly watched back.

There were hydrangeas restrained by a peeling white picket fence and though it was almost too quaint in effect, they were encouraging. She had put together many an extravagant bouquet with the showy blue-to-purple flowers. As Put and Darlene entered the cottage, she lingered until a group of squirrels started to harangue each other. She gazed down the road; there were a handful of places, all undisturbed, most in need of some upkeep. She longed to see an older, smiling woman pop out, a regular cottage dweller who might share some gravity, tell her how wonderful it was and safe, full of community cohesion. Because Vera knew Put would buy this cottage if he liked it well enough. He’d had that look the moment he’d mentioned it: as if his life would was paused at a crossroads, ready to charge into happy fullness of a country gentleman’s life. So it was necessary. He needed her to be happy with him, too.

But Vera’s mother had told her father that, as well, and they’d moved to Escanaba. And then she’d meandered away, submerged herself in a dream world since she had a husband who was rock solid, a gardener and florist.  But it was for her a darker kingdom of shadows and hard river rocks and many challenging times obscured by her need for escape. They waited for her return. Her conspiring friends said she was only coming into her own, her own gifts, but what they were, Vera had no clue.  The woman knew wild plants and animal ways. She had a sense of unusual things. Her father said nothing of his grief but they both felt the sharpness of abandonment, he like the call to a strange battle, and he lost. They lost.

She shuddered as Put disappeared inside, and then ran up the few creaky wooden steps, into the cottage and with relief found both feet more firmly planted indoors.

“Vera, come into the living room, it faces the water.”

She left the modest foyer’s faded and cracked linoleum, moved past dining nook and small kitchen to find Put in a nearly spacious living room with fireplace as he’d required. He was nosing about and when seeing her broke into his lopsided smile and pointed out the picture window. There was another house across another dirt road. It, however, was sited on a large plot so it afforded an almost unobstructed view of the lake. The barest waves carried a golden glow from the receding sun.

Vera felt her diaphragm relax as Darlene showed them three bedrooms, “cozy” was the word she used, and the outdated bathroom with claw-foot tub and no shower, “vintage, of course, just like the cute kitchen.” Then she took them to the newer deck outside the back of the house which oversaw the very close water.

Put walked the deck, noted the railing as sturdy, stepped down into uneven yard, examined trees and bushes, the Gerber daisies, leggy zinnias, more hydrangeas and many weeds not vanquished. Vera almost wanted to get on hands and knees and start pulling when she recalled she hated the dirt, how it stuck to her skin, how it would not come out of her pores after playing in the forest making hapless camps. Digging a trench around her for protection and then–

“Vera? Sweetheart? What do you really think?”

“It’s an old place, true country lake cottage style, and not even dressed up to be enticing. I appreciate its long history–built in the nineteen thirties, maybe? But it is not for us.”

Darlene put a hand to chest, took in a long breath.

“Sorry, Darlene, she’s a city gal, it might take time for her to adapt but I like it, all of it. I so loved those summers in the Berkshires when I was a boy.”

Darlene offered him a cheery look but raised an eyebrow at the woman she found odd at best, disconcerting at worst.

“I know about country life, Darlene. I grew up in the forests of the Upper Peninsula, a few miles outside Escanaba, Michigan. On the wild shores of Lake Michigan…”

“Lovely up there,” Darlene felt encouraged again. She needed this commission and he was a nice man, maybe he’d be famous one day.

“It’s been years and she’s adapted to the city so well, this seems almost new to her, not easy to consider again.”

Darlene looked sympathetically at Vera. She’d had all the country taken out of her, clearly.

Vera knew better than to contradict him in front of Darlene. This was his adventure, she was also in it so just went along a bit. But she recoiled at the possibility that he was serious about this foray into unfathomable, unassailable forest.

“Your husband says you’re a painter and he’s a writer from Chicago. That’s exciting! I imagine there’d be so much to inspire you. We have a good potter down the road, sells things online mostly.”

Vera smiled obediently as Put held her in his gaze, but she could see the tumbling of his reasonable mind. She was no match for his new thrill. She walked around the cottage, left the other two sliding into business talk.

She wanted to be fair. It was his book advance; he could do whatever he wanted, within limits. Was this reasonable or reckless? He romanticized his family’s summer house but did regale her with funny and good-hearted stories. Put had thought they’d had that in common, experiences in deep, cold lakes and fast, fish-laden rivers., woods. Bonfires late into night and everyone singing, joking and telling ghost stories. Like it was camp night every night and no one wanted to go home.

But for Vera, it was not like that, certainly not after just one afternoon and night. She had shivered among looming trees as darkness dropped like a heavy cloak about her and she had waited for the sound of her name called out. She was nine years old. She knew a great deal about the woods. It had been her playground, her school, her home. But not then. And not after.

Vera shook her head, roused herself at the sound of footsteps and voices.

“Well, you and your wife should think it over and get a good night’s rest. Give me a call tomorrow, I’ll be around.”

Vera stood up from the rickety front steps where she’d waited. They shook hands all around and she made effort to show the woman she was a person who was civilized and could be amenable.

“Let’s get dinner and talk,” Put said, arm slung about her shoulders.

“No,” she said, shrugging him off. “Let’s first go by the water. I have my input for you.”

******

They sat on a bench made of rough-hewn oak. Vera pulled her knees up to her chin to avoid the bugs that certainly crawled about. For a time they watched motor boats head for the docks jutting from steely blue water, commenting on lingering hues of a soft sunset. It was a big lake, bigger than she’d thought but nothing like the inimitable Lake Michigan. Put leaned back, chatted about getting a sailboat if they bought the place. He’d been taught at an early age the happy ways of boating but he’d had very little opportunity to enjoy it with Chicago friends.

“It’s a smallish place but so is the price.”

Vera hugged her knees closer. “Put, hold that thought. There is a whole part of my life you do not know about. It’s time.”

He looked at her but didn’t change his easy stance. Her quieter voice stirred him yet this was not the time to let anything ruffle him. He wanted to be clear and steady about any real estate decisions. He would be steady about any new confessions, too.

“Okay, shoot.”

Vera kept her eyes on the water; she felt safe there with the water’s rhythmic motion, its song. That much was still good.

“You never met my mother because she died when I was twenty, but she was, as I’ve said, very quirky. Too smart, dreamy, rebellious, according to my dad, for that town in that time. He loved her, I loved her, that’s a fact. Did she love him, me? I don’t know. She was fascinated by the idea of having a child. She thought children were closer to the heavens, to earth’s mysteries, too. She was likely right but I was more like a human charm to her, a secret transport to other worlds … like the land of pixies or something nuttier, I never was clear. She may have been emotionally ill, I know, but I am not entirely convince. Just an unusual person and mother, a bit wild, beautiful in deed and appearance. She could be such fun, though. Impractical. Eventually she seemed too in the beyond, not truly connected to us. My father took care of me mostly even when I was younger. I’m grateful for it.”

“I know all this, Vera. But I still don’t know why you’re so repelled by the country you also admit you adored.”

“So I am telling you, if you’ll listen well.”

Would she really just tell him everything? She stood up with back to him, vision still of the water as darkness gathered, as moon’s light began to skim all surfaces and lend a silver sheen to easy waves. He was now alert and stood closer, not touching her.

“I had been playing in the woods that afternoon, as I did every day. Mother was nearby picking berries, plopping them into the metal bucket with a pleasing sound and also singing her made up songs, voice bright and pretty. I had picked my bucketful so kept moving on with a stick in hand, batting at tree branches and brambles and mosquitoes, leaping like a deer, going deeper into the trees and shadows where there was less sunlight illuminating all. I lost the phrases of mother’s songs but heard all the birds and scurrying animals and buzzing bees, saw an owl sleeping upright, of course, and a snake slithering through brush. This was all as usual. I was running, jumping about, stoking the air with my stick, becoming a ninja girl, something I believed might be possible. I remember looking back a few times. Noting sunlight through treetops, deciding the house was still in a certain direction. I had never gotten lost. I was never afraid out there. But then the light began to fade and I was tired of wandering, getting hungry. It would soon be full sunset, then twilight, then dark.”

Put saw her enrapt face, tried to take her hand but she shook him off as if he were a fly or a bee.

“I had half a homemade granola bar in my pocket so sat at the base of a big old white pine and ate, looking around, trying to figure it out. The way back. I’d always been told to not panic if I wasn’t sure of directions, find sun’s direction, listen and locate the lake shore then follow along it. Soon I would find something or someone or be found–we had not been deep into the wilderness. I listened to the blueish evening, and the bird song was less familiar. Twigs snapping, underbrush rustling. Wings overhead that sliced the air, bats careening. I rummaged in my jeans pockets and found a rubber band, a favorite Petoskey stone and one of my father’s lighters, borrowed for no good reason. I liked to see the flame flick on and off, that’s all, I knew to not light anything and supposed I’d get in trouble. But now I reconsidered the fire part. I was no longer sure of my way nor so secure in the gathering closeness of night.”

Put reached for her but she stepped close to water’s edge as evening sky began to scatter it’s jewels above. He ached for her but was restless with questions.

“I recalled my mother once taking me into the woods and digging a deep circular trench around her as she stood in the middle of it. She was talking in that special away as if reciting a poem though I was never sure what she meant. Years later I’d recognize it as chanting, in perhaps Romanian as her grandmother was from there. When she was done with the trench she put pieces of brush into it and cleared away all other areas. And then she lit the torn dry stuff and various twigs and they caught fire. I jumped back, warned her to get out but she was swaying a little, smiling at me as she spoke on and on. Afterwards, she seemed calm. She told me that would protect me if I needed help–to make a trench and light a fire in it, go to the center area but clear the spot of all else. And sing a song for courage.”

Vera closed her eyes, opened them again.

“So that’s what I did. I lit the smallest fire and it ran around the ring, then I remained in the center hoping and praying someone would see the firelight or a waft of smoke before it got much later.”

She walked a few paces from him, then turned back. But she was looking into that flame. Not at him.

“I must have gotten drowsy, as I jerked awake. There came a very soft, low growl, more a quiet guttural sound, right behind me. I turned my body, saw nothing. My heart was galloping, legs hurting from being cross-legged and I carefully straightened them but did not get up. A shiny beetle crawled over my ankle, and I saw a large spider following. The ring of fire burned low but steady. What did my mother chant? Why did she not give me words that would help, wasn’t she supposed to share such things? My senses sharpened; eyes penetrated deep into darkness, ears opened to small animal mutterings, whirs of wings, hoots of owls. Then silence. I was afraid I’d cry out and startle the unknown.”

Vera knelt by the lake and smoothed the cold lapping water with flattened fingers. Put watched her squat on her haunches and saw her anew, strangely like a creature deeply at home within woods and waters yet tethered by a terror of it. Somehow she remained aligned with the good even in that  very moment. He sat beside her.

“Then from the corner of my eye there was a movement, hot flash of amber eyes, a huge sleek body leaping toward me over fallen limbs and I screamed but no sound came out, I couldn’t move  so sat paralyzed in the center of a tiny circle of failing fire. I could do nothing to save myself. And no one coming… The beast’s great head came closer, mammoth paws trod earth carefully, those glowing eyes locked with mine. I stopped breathing. Everything in the whole world stopped. I blacked out.”

She was trembling from sudden chill of night, and memory’s loosed burden. He wrapped his arms around her and she wept. He bit his lip to keep from crying with her. Then she calmed some.

“I came to as soon as there were shouting voices, my father’s and his friends who searched for me. Discovered me, at last. It was a cougar!– that was what I met up with, that’s what the men said the next morning after examining the area. A cougar found me but somehow left me unharmed, alive… ”

Putnam Rawlings was dumbfounded. He held his wife so tightly she could not have have left his arms but he was right there with her that night and now this night, and he also was bursting with outrage. And her anguish. Where had that madwoman gone? Why ever had Vera been left to her own devices?

“My mother, she was gone most of the night, Dad said. Didn’t come home from our outing. She sometimes disappeared but never had left me alone like that. Oh, she threw her arms around me when we got home, made a fuss but I couldn’t bear to look at her. I’d lost basic trust in her. I soon despised her as much as loved her. But worse…” Vera took Put’s face into her hands and sputtered out words. “Worse, yes, even worse…a part of me wondered if maybe she had come to me as that cougar. I know it sounds absurd, but I was nine years old, left to roam deep into forest and she didn’t even call my name out, and something in that cougar’s manner–its wildness and yet curious gentleness…It’s how I felt. So awed. So scared. Of her, the forested land, then all country with its shadowy places and its roaming, unexpected beasts…but she did teach me of the fire ring.”

She began to shake violently so he rocked her, rocked her until she grew limp. So long to hold in such misery. So long to keep from him this story he found amazing and treacherous. How it had damaged her. And them, he imagined, in certain secret ways.

They stood and he held her upright; they left behind lake and cottage, the stars and moon, which winked and glowed benignly.

******

Vera holds her painting into a broadening stream of light. A picture is truly forming, beguiling her with uncharted territory, water and sky and richness of light with its twin, shadow, that show her each design as it comes alive from her fingers, her mind. She follows its calls. No more city sights, people mashed together on the buses, trucks and bicycles vying for space on endless streets, skyscrapers creating all manner of blinding light, graffiti scrawled across every blank spot. The noise and gritty smog and sudden sirens and its garish beauty: all gone. Her success, more than a little uncertain now.

“Vera” Put calls from across the hall, “I could use a break from this tiresome second draft. Ready for a stroll by the lake?”

Vera sets her rinsed brushes down. The painting will be very good in time. She glances out her studio window, through the thicket of trees and across a road to the shining expanse of water, now warmed by late summer sun. Inclines her head at the vivid scenes.

“More than ready.”

She still often shivers inwardly as she leaves the cottage and glances about to discern what may be there, if yet unseen. Then Vera moves forward, doesn’t look back. But keeps a lighter in her pocket just in case.

The Fine Art of Brady O’Connell

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What more could she say? It was how things were, wasn’t that right? Some had opportunity and with it, money, and some did not. Some had love and others had less than what they’d dreamed and hoped for, schemed over. Nicola was not the sort who nattered on and on about what she didn’t get. It was tiresome, even to her own ears. But this was harder to take that she’d expected. After  a couple of weeks it still reared up and kicked at her.

Brady hunched over the table. He leaned on his elbows, arms crossed against a massive chest. His shoulders about blotted out the window behind him. Nicola mused that he was beginning to look like one of those aging television wrestlers, still big on top, paunchy form there down. He was, in fact, a middle-aged academician who taught art history and drawing at the community college.  He was good at what he did; she ought to be more proud of him. But he had, it turned out, so little ambition that he hadn’t bothered after a certain point to ferret out a more prestigious position. Say, overseas. Or on one of the finer coastal campuses where you could escape it all, dawdling along an infinite beach. Brady said it himself: “I teach first for love of it, then for a small studio space, then for money.”

“They’ve earned it, this is a reward,” he offered once more.

Nicola stuck out her neck so she could better peer at his guileless eyes. She tried to keep the acid from her words. “We’ve earned it, too, in notable sweat and blood, but it doesn’t add up the same as persistent career ladder climbing. With resultant promotions.”

“We need to be happy for them,” he gently protested, arms opened in an expansive gesture.

“Right, I’m pleased for them. They’re our second best friends–well, maybe third–and they have always wanted to go to the Mediterranean. On a cruise. Not that I would go on a cruise. All those people adrift on a gigantic boat with nothing to see but endless water. Then docking and unloading, touristing about, eating your fill of who knows what, sun rays welcomed as if immune to damage, then just loading up again Ha.”

His considerable brow creased and smoothed as he stretched. “I thought you loved the idea or a boat trip.”

“I did until I heard the itinerary. And Trina is taking a huge basically empty suitcase she can cram full of trinkets and finds. Seems an excessive approach, how much can you buy that you need?” She glanced out the window: sheets of rain, granite sky, forlorn trees. “Still.”

Relived to hear her dismissal of a big trip, Brady’s mind calmed, then began to fill with images of Trina and his good friend Hans luxuriating on a tawny bluff overlooking a sapphire sea. He pictured how he’d pull out his sketchbook as if it was him not Hans going, and then opening his case of colored pencils. How wonderful to go somewhere mind boggling, experience fresh horizons. He could nearly feel Greek island warmth spread over his balding pate, onto his face and neck. Who knew what masterpiece he might be inspired to create there?

Nicola knew that dreamy, self referential look so got up. She carefully placed their cups in the sink. On the way to the laundry room, she muttered an uncivilized word. What was he thinking– that she would forever hold on for some small reward? All the years she had scrimped and made do and gone along with his plans and they were still barely ahead of the rising costs of living. Life too often felt like a ravenous bear that had to be kept well-fed, then tricked to avert its charging down a short trail to her door.

She’d worked, too, as a dental office manager. Until the highway car smash-up, leg breaking in two places, her right two middle fingers numb after hand injury and so-called reparative surgery. She was no longer fast or accurate on a keyboard, worked only two days a week answering the phone. It was almost humiliating to be there at all.

Nicola dropped things most of the time unless she immediately recalled her left hand was now meant to be dominant. More useful or prized items had been lost to that lapse of memory in two years than were lost in the previous twenty. Now she did lost of crossword puzzles–they didn’t require a fully legible scrawl–or played solitaire or read book after book or puttered in the yard. She took care of Brady. She waited until her fully employed friends were home from work to chat but they always rushed about –could they call her later?

There was a tomato-y spot on Brady’s newer, blue oxford button-down. She saturated it with stain remover, scrubbed until knuckles complained but it remained, a brown blot on an otherwise amenable expanse of blue. The tidy stacks of folded underwear, khakis, tops and towels on a bench gave her some relief. Such a dependable result of her effort was lovely. But as soon as she gazed on them, touching their smooth coolness, her lower lip trembled. The thought of clean laundry making her day right while Trina prepared for exotic shores and bliss–it was too much.

Brady checked his watch, got up and grabbed his jacket from the hall coat tree. He had two classes; time for reveries later. Maybe when he got out his paper, pastels and pencils before turning in. If Nicola didn’t require a lot of care. She had been rather moody of late. Well, since the accident she had, in truth, become more dauntlessly pessimistic. Before then she had allowed room for a gleam of hope here and there at least. That he could live with far better. Now she slipped away into a funk where he, groping, had trouble locating her. It wasn’t a die hard depression, exactly (she had gone through that right after the accident and surgery), just a lukewarm response. Recently it had begun to grow into a predatory resignation, tearing at any peace left.

Since Trina and Hans had informed them of their holiday cruise plans, he thought. All her envy, hurt and regret had come trickling back into their lives, weakening tenuous good will. Brady took his baseball cap from a hook and opened the door. He got half-way out and then stepped  back in.

“Bye Nic, love, see you tonight. It’s Tuesday so I’ll bring Chinese for late dinner.”

He waited as long as he could for her reply, a few beats, but nothing came.

 

******

Brady O’Connell enjoyed seeing the wavering line of colorful, often disheveled students file into his classroom. He loved the lively chatter, anticipating their very occupation of his time and that space. He admired their studied resistance to the banal for fifty minutes while with him. They weren’t entirely thrilled with drawing techniques or an assignment, perhaps, of filling a blank space with a collage of feeling they couldn’t verbalize, nor the history of porcelain or the rise and fall of impressionism. But they did come more than half-ready to attend to his words, ask a number of considered questions. On a good day, that is. The rest of the time, he got to elucidate his knowledge, then demonstrate his skills and wait from them to behave more adult, just catch on. He’d share stories of intrigue, trial and error and creative triumph throughout the centuries. It seemed to help some to utilize this enlarged context for their own aspirations and failures. Brady felt useful, happy when their eyes lit up and they leaned in to him, then got to work.

They asked him occasionally about his own work. He’d refer them to a handful of art journals and an upcoming exhibition. He excelled in detailed colored pencil drawings of nature and also rigorous, elegant architecture, the two intimately related in his mind regarding form and function. Yet it was never done, the demanding work of striving for further excellence. His job depended on it and he knew it was the basis of a vital sense of self-worth. Nicola felt he aimed too low; he felt he was stretching –and was stretched–rather far and high. He wondered how she’d feel if her well being depended on something as nebulous and fickle as creative input and output. How could you measure that? It wasn’t like billing for gold crowns or ordering drill bits. Or like tallying an amount coupons saved on a shopping trip. Or how many hands of solitaire were won out of fifteen. Fifteen in one day she’d confessed, for crying out loud! And that was random, not part of any daily, responsible agenda. That made it more terrible.

There now, this had to stop, he was becoming unkind. But she was becoming more unreachable.

It was the last week of classes until the new term. The students were lazier, missing, inattentive except for one or two motivated artists. Brady gave in their inertia as the afternoon went by. Let his mind go as they worked on a last assignment. They talked in low, chirpy tones of vacation plans. He found himself wandering down nostalgia’s byways, times he had gone skiing with his family over high school week-ends, college breaks. The northern peaks, the place he had perfected slalom skiing. Where he had broken his ankle. Where his parents had announced their separation after twenty years. And where he had met Nicola.

She’d been nineteen, a waitress at Broken Top Ski Resort where his family stayed.

“You going to stare at that menu all afternoon or what?” she’d asked sweetly, with an edge.

Brady had looked up, startled out of a bleary haze. He’d been on the slopes since early morning.

She gave him a grin that flashed teeth, a front tooth just overlapping another. It gave her an approachable look, for she was tall, fit and radiant in the empty dining room.

“You got any cheddar and spinach Quiche left? And more coffee. Please.”

“For you, we might,” she said and poured coffee in his cup, then hummed all the way to the kitchen. He was the most promising thing that had happened in many a day.

When he had finished she asked if he was going to the slopes again that night. He was wiped out, wanted to languish by the massive stone fireplace but curiosity prevailed. And that was the start of young love that became deeper than they expected. He closed his eyes and felt again the razor cold wind on his cheeks, a roaring fire enliven body and soul, her shoulder against his as they talked. Of what did they speak? It was so long ago.

“Mr. O’Connell? My drawing?”

He looked into the smooth brown face of his student and smiled. The work looked wonderful, as usual. She was good. “You’re going to be a fine artist one day, Aarati.”

“Thanks, so you keep telling me.” She smiled back. “Hey, you going anywhere fun for the holidays?”

“Not that I know of, just the usual. You?”

“Snowboarding on the mountain.”

“Mt. Hood?”

She nodded, her whole body emanating excitement. “The snowfall has been amazing. Well, I gotta catch Suzanne and Joe. Have a good one, Mr. O’Connell!”

He beamed at her the best he could but she had already left. As the final student slipped away, Brady stuffed papers, notebooks, pens and pencils into his aging leather briefcase and turned out the lights. Trudged to his office.

“Have a good one.” What does that mean? Have a nice time not a crummy time? Have a decent moment or two with my increasingly morose wife? Root out good stuff from the morass? Is it really all up to me?

The warmth and ease of his day evaporated from his mind. He straightened his aching fullback shoulders that never had done the game enough justice–he was not the player his father had expected. Seemed at times he replayed the same ole game everywhere. Brady put on his hat, tidied up his desk, took off for Ying’s to get dinner.

******

Nicola was sick of Chinese on Tuesdays but she finished every last bite because she was hungry and she hadn’t wanted to dissuade him. She was a decent cook but often disinterested; but she had come to lean on their routines as had he. Brady finished, then cleaned the containers to recycle.

“You do anything fun today? I thought you were going to meet Jude for coffee.”

Nicola pushed back from the table. “She changed plans, said she had to meet with a co-worker for drinks to discuss a new strategy. You know our daughter. Her work is never done, her star is not yet risen high enough.”

He laughed despite himself. It was true, the kid had tenacity and ambition, put them both to shame. Give her time, he thought ruefully.

“Well, I have some things to do. I’ll see you upstairs later.”

Nicola shrugged and opened her crossword puzzle book. What was another word for antelope, nine letters, with the letter “h”?

The wind picked up and sang through a window crack. She moved to the living room, added wood to the low fire and settled into the couch. The flare of flames swirled and danced, released of entrapment. Nicola puzzled over the blanks in her book. What did antelopes look like up close? Why were they fabled for gracefulness? How did they live and die? They had lovely horns.

She faded and dozed, head full of springing creatures in a dazzling desert.

Brady stood behind her, touching the silky ends of her light hair shining in firelight, wondering whether to wake her or wait until morning to talk. About how they had let things get away from them. How they were becoming old prematurely. How he had been neglectful and felt badly about it and knew she deserved much more than he had given her. How he was terribly sorry she still couldn’t well use her hand, that it would have been the end of him if the same occurred. It couldn’t be much easier for her, as much as she enjoyed writing letters and cards to family and friends, doing her crosswords, playing cards.

He sat beside her and her eyelids fluttered.

“It’s pretty late, Nic.”

“Hmm.” She let her head flop against his shoulder. “Pronghorn…is the word…”

“What’s that? I’d hoped we could talk a little.”

“Now? Why?” Her eyes flew open.

Brady took her hands in his. Her long face with crinkles about the eyes; lips under which was etched a tiny scar where she’d fallen as a child; the changing color of her eyes, two oceans that reflected every feeling. He wanted to make things right. He could at least start.

“I found us a cabin.”

“A cabin? Whatever for?”

“Time away.”

Nicola eyed him suspiciously. “For what? Where?”

“Just to be together. Do things we haven’t done in a long time. Have some fun, damn it. It looks a bit run down on the website, don’t get too thrilled. But it has a wood stove, a nice big bed, homey living space. In the Cascades, near a smaller, out of the way ski resort. For five days following Christmas.”

Nicola’s anxious eyes grew large with disbelief. Deep longing and remnants of sadness showing themselves as the chill, too long  a wedge, began to ease. It was love that graced her heart. She half-wanted to be cynical but fell into him, face buried in chest, arms wrapped around his bulk. He held on as if she might yet take her leave. Kissed her hair and neck, breathed her in. Envisioned their life together rampant with possibilities, a hope made of reclaimed kindness.

Unexpected Gains of Losing Control

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It didn’t even come close to being the most challenging hike we’ve taken. The woods in southwestern hills, five-minutes from city center, are so familiar they seem like an expansive back yard. On perfect Saturday we were enjoying a fairly small portion of Forest Park, the name almost an oxymoron. It is, after all, over 5000 acres of northwest forest and home to all manner of bird and beast. The trails are earthen, trees tower. It is the largest urban forest in the country. To me, it’s more evidence of the genius of nature’s design.

We’ve traversed that particular area a hundred times, though it was the first time since early winter had begun. A glorious mix of scents sailed along on gentling air. Streams of light shone golden among the trees and bushes, bounced across creek and stones. It was so warm I shed a light jacket. Adrenalin pumped through me as we started down the first trail.

If not the most daring of hikers I do have decent stamina and strength, even with a beta blocker that slows my heart and keeps the beats more measured. So I tend to take off, camera readied, eyes absorbing the sights. My spouse, M., is usually nearby though he might stop to closely inspect an astonishing range of fungi. Myself, not so much–that is his special interest. But I kept looking over my shoulder, as this time he was not kneeling to inspect his finds. Was not nearby. He was standing still. Catching his breath.

He lagged as we continued; he was more tired than I had realized. I felt guilty that I had pressed for a forest afternoon. He had just returned from a long business trip the night before. But he was looking forward to being outdoors, as well–until he had some shortness of breath. Well, we both knew he was prone to some huffing and puffing when ascending inclines–he was not as fit as he wished (but hadn’t made time to address). I kept slowing down, doubling back and finally suggested we sit a few. He plopped down.

“I’m exhausted. My legs feel heavy. Flying must be getting to me as I get older. I’ve logged so many miles this year already!”

I scanned his face and watched his chest heave up and down. Even talking seemed an effort. M.’s usually ruddy face had emptied of color; his grey-blue eyes were not clear.

“Are you having chest pain or pressure? Jaw or arm hurt?”

“No.” He shot me a look that said I was fussing too much when I had just begun.

“Nauseous? Light headed?”

“No, just tired, Cynthia–maybe I should have stayed home and been a couch potato.”

“This isn’t like you–you’re far more winded than usual. Something doesn’t feel right.”

“I’ll be fine. I just need a few nights of real sleep.”

I’m not a medical professional but I do have good reason to know signs of the heart’s warning signals, since I personally have experienced them. But I wanted to believe him…halfway did. We continued hiking up, down, around easier trails. Noted frogs, a garter snake, woodpeckers, a scattering of trillium, paused at the spot we had once been entranced by deer a few yards away. But I knew we should be going home sooner than later.

M. was still pale, paused to catch his breath with difficulty. He lacked a sense of ease and that concentrated attention like a microscope when spotting something good. He wasn’t even noting the various bird songs, which we liked to try to mimic.

As if it was being telegraphed to me, I knew he was very unwell.

But we had to finish the hike, there was no way around that, so we continued and as if by silent agreement did not linger, did not even stop at creekside to look for rocks or listen to the water’s litany of delights. At the top of the last hill there was a conveniently placed bench. He sat on it. I waited and observed, saw him check his pulse. And it was then that we looked at each other.

I said, “This is a bit too much like the hike that put my heart into attack mode fifteen years ago. We were just deeper into wilderness then. But you had to nearly carry me back. So I’m asking you, do you think you need to go to emergency now? Maybe I should get help; I am very worried.”

After a survey of his internal operations (he is an engineer, he loves data, numbers) he said, “No. Let’s just get home so I can rest.”

And so, against my instincts, we went home. M. lay on the couch and fitfully slept. I had that bad, angry sexist thought: why do men find it so incredibly hard to let themselves admit to being ill?

For that matter, why do we all have such a strong impulse to deny health issues, emotional problems or life circumstances that are demanding, complex and painful? Because these are life altering and it is tough to accept a strong possibility of bad news. And denial helps us cope by putting it off, keeping it at the far edge of consciousness. If it stays at a distant horizon, we can assure ourselves there is more time to prepare for whatever takes clear form and then becomes unavoidable. Undeniable.

M. would not consider anything more than perhaps a phone call to the doctor. So on Monday after I insisted, he went to his doctor. Then he went on to work. After tests and lab work results came in that afternoon and they made calls to him which he never answered, the nurse called me frantically.

“We can’t reach him–he needs to go to the hospital now!”

On the way to the hospital he couldn’t breath well; he admitted it had gotten harder at work, had been about to call me. He looked pasty. I’d wanted to call the ambulance but since he had refused I drove too fast. And arrived so he could get the CT scan and chest x-rays. End up in an emergency cubicle so they could blast several pulmonary embolisms–blood clots in both lungs–with blood thinning injections in his belly. He was found severely anemic as well; a blood transfusion was discussed as a possibility. He was put on a ferrous sulfate (iron) IV for three days.

Yes, admitted to inpatient hospital. M. was stunned, a reasonable reaction to a sudden health crisis. He is almost never ill, has not ever had a significant  health crisis. I was disquieted, mouth dry and mind curiously blank at times. The only thing for it was to trust strangers with his well being. His life, it turned out: multiple blood clots in lungs are not tolerated; the body’s efficient homeostasis is disrupted, oxygen delivery is severely impaired. It means lung tissue dies if they are not dissolved in time.

I’ll spare you the details, small and larger discoveries resulting from investigation of causative factors. There was other surprising information to absorb. So extra tests, more waiting. You know how that is in those stuffy little, too-warm corridors and rooms where germs float about looking for hosts. There were uncertain nights and days, free floating worry shelved in order to be present, alert. The rounds of calls (more often texts, blast it, fingertips worn down) to and from five children and others with frequent updates.

You know how it all goes if you have lived even a decade or two because these things…Just. Happen. We don’t get to forecast them. We only hope they don’t happen to us.

I recall one daughter asking if I was controlling hysteria for her sake or if I was actually feeling calm. I was taken aback. I was not feeling intense emotions. Stillness had unfolded within–a faint sense of shock at first, then a gradual transformation into simply…a deeper stillness. Quietude. Feeling frayed at moments, of course. The rawness was felt nightly as weariness vied with a need to process things.

But prayer came and went unbidden as if woven into my own breathing. Saying aloud, Oh Lord, may Your Presence bring to him healing and right balance, may his body repair itself, may the Light of Love dominate all systems, bring him to wholeness. Saying things without thought, reaching for solace and guidance.

All our children know how to call upon God’s healing. Their words and voices were a soothing balm. I felt them in the room although most do not live nearby.  One daughter could be there to sit with us awhile, silent and attentive.

Who cannot find a prayer when shadows fall, when not one inch forward can be discerned?

I didn’t feel fear much. It was like being held up, a sort of tall tree or a pillar, or like a lighting rod so my husband would not lose sight of the comfort of my love, nor his weakened grasp loosen, nor the storms inside his body strike him dead. I wanted to be unwavering for him. This is a man who overcame difficult beginnings, gave up an interrupted college education to make a living and yet became expert in his field; who has traveled our country and other parts of the world; who dedicated himself to helping raise a large, blended family. And he did it. So he might well be forgiven if he thought he could avoid health crises via perseverance and faith alone.

There was the exquisite potency of small touches, the ones that sometimes are forgotten but that can salvage almost anything. My hand to his, my cheek to his, the smoothing of a sheet atop his aching chest, the wiping of his brow. The adjustment of the miserable hospital gown that disregards dignity. A glass of water given. A talk with that nurse who never came. His half-smiles in return. And through each exchange flowed peace, care and loving kindness like a current that hummed so softly no one else might guess its power but the two of us. Or perhaps it showed.

I have reverence for the sanctity and power of life that fights for us even if we are unable to intervene, ourselves. Maybe especially when we are weak. We felt the greater medicine in those rooms and it was God; regardless of the outcome, there would remain so. I believe if we are stumbling and shaken we can and will be lifted, held steady. Carried, even, through whatever comes. And over many decades, we have been.

A long time habit of mine is preparing myself for life’s twists and turns the best I can, for even devastating events that may or may not come. But not by anticipating the worst–being shored up by gratitude and the hope that it plants. With spiritual sustenance.  The awareness of grace amidst troubles. We are all vulnerable, subject to hardships, and sometimes it may seem pain is the one constant in various forms. So why not gather up soul and heart strength long before the day arrives when we must call upon our best reserves?

M. came home after three days and nights, then rested for about four more, then returned to work. He has some flexibility so he can work from home at times as needed. But he loves his work, likes being in the mix, wants to move on.

There are a few more tests ordered, new medications. But his energy is returning. We can take a leisurely twenty minute walk. It’s amazing, he keeps saying, I can breathe, nothing feels alarming and set to undo me. He also made an offhand comment tonight about oranges–as he held one close to his nose–being “utterly cheerful, both in fragrance and flavor”. How could I not be happy when he said that? M. seems once more the man I know so well, though his challenges are not completely over. But he was civil and patient and gracefully surrendered to care when knocked down and that confirmed my view of him, too. I have reminded him often he is my oldest and dearest friend, squabbles and mishaps and all.

We perhaps need reminders. That is the gift difficulty can offer: insights, the chance to stand back and survey the whole picture, regroup. Give lots more authentic, mighty hugs.

Today I felt a little teary as I walked in a neighborhood park. Bone-tired all of a sudden. Sad even as gladness jumped up. I told another daughter all I wanted for my upcoming birthday is health, peace, love to receive, to give. And then I realized this is the day my oldest sister passed last year. I have been missing her and other family members I have lost to the other realm. We are much closer than we think to no longer experiencing all the magic and mystery and madness of walking about in our fleshly attire. It’s just one last breath away. So inhale the vibrant air, acknowledge its irrefutable power. Claim your life with honor, treat it as rare, valuable, one of a kind. It is. Yes, my husband, breathe deeply, for you know it truly is.

 

(NOTE: Pulmonary embolisms can be caused by sitting still for long periods, such as in a car or plane–particularly from flying, as it is believed to be in M’s. case. One out of five victims is killed by PEs. Find out how to reduce your risk if you may be a candidate.)

 

More Hocus Pocus

Monday mosey 022

Everything was fine, overall exceptional in fact, until it wasn’t. And Roxie had to fix it.

Phillip had left for West Africa on another medical humanitarian posting–he’d said something about tending to the burn epidemic once more, all that open fire cooking that injured so many vulnerable women and children who gathered round the flames. He was a dedicated doctor, and she had early on adapted to his leave taking. He was fortunate to have married her and said so. Roxie was no clinging vine in addition to having unusual empathy for others. Phillip knew he could trust her to take care of their daughter, house and bills while away, and also suffer little from the loneliness he’d heard colleagues note of their wives.

“Oh, not Roxie. You know her–she’s more capable of entertaining herself than I am. Or she’s on some sort of field trip with Marta or working on the latest home improvement scheme. Or taking some kind of class–remember her flamenco phase?”

He laughed with delight, eyes looking in the distance as if imagining her dancing. The others understood he was perhaps luckier than they could imagine, and envy skirted their consciousness. They did wonder about her. Their wives thought she was a bit of an odd duck if one with impeccable taste. But most saw Roxie as a kind of free spirit who was as dedicated to her responsibilities as Phillip was to his.

She, on the other hand, found her husband sexier, brighter and more thoughtful than any man she’d expected to engage in a lifelong partnership. Other women could honestly agree, in private if not in public. They were like two lovely but mismatched socks that somehow looked and worked very well together.

Phillip had been gone two months last winter; this time it might be three weeks or four. Roxie knew to be flexible. Marta was so used to kissing her father goodbye as they idled at the airport curb that she’d have been alarmed if he had always stayed home.

“Dad texted yet that he got there?”

Marta had stopped by to get her tennis racket. Her friend waited at the door.

“Hmm?” Roxie looked up from the pile of mail. She waved at Ginny and studied Marta’s outfit of leggings and a blousy cotton shirt. “It’s not that warm, get a jacket. No, he hasn’t yet. Time zones, you know, immigration authorities, exhaustion.” She turned the corners of her mouth down and her eyebrows rose in a mock show of dismay. They both knew how it went per his descriptions.

“Okay, tell him I said ‘hi’. Tonight I have that group project at Ginny’s, remember? After we play tennis. And oh, I got invited for dinner before the project.”

Roxie looked from Marta’s to Ginny’s open faces and was satisfied. They were twelve. They were not the same as last year. Even their eyes were different, as if they saw things in a whole new light, or in more shadow, hard to say which. But so far, so good, she most often surmised. Marta kissed her mother on the cheek and bounded out with tennis racket and backpack.

Roxie finished sorting mail, then stowed it in cubbyholes of her desk by the sunroom. She fed the fish in the aquarium, petted Wiley the cat who was curled on the window ledge catching the last heat of day. She saw what Wiley might see, neighbors arriving home, dogs chasing kids versa across emerald lawns, skateboarders whizzing down the sidewalk. It was all so orderly. Predictable. She reached toward the ceiling, stretching.

Roxie couldn’t think what to eat now–she had planned on pizza before hearing Marta was leaving–so grabbed a banana and iced tea and took two steps at a time to the second floor.

Their bedroom was vast. High ceilings, many windows encouraging light to bathe the space. It was so accommodating there was a floral loveseat, another desk (antique one she’d refurbished), the king sized bed, a caramel-colored leather chair with footstool, a small lamp table and two dressers. She pulled several bronze sheers closed, then ate in the chair with feet up. A free night, unfolding like a dream.

Chilled tea slipped down her throat as she closed her eyes. It was nice the first nights he left, shaped by silken quietness if Marta was gone or in her room. Roxie luxuriated in their home, felt as if it expanded with Phillip’s absence. Not necessarily a good thing. But sometimes. Her breathing slowed while the rhythm of the day changed its time signature as the sun hovered above the tree line beyond. A subtle excitement infused her body and mind.

Roxie admitted she at times felt as if her real life leapt up and did a brazen little dance when she was left alone. She might actually sway about the rooms and hallways, humming away. Feelings welled up within the emptiness: relief, restlessness, curiosity, acute awareness of her senses, a desire to reach outward or inward to something else. She had a good and decent life day in, day out, a metronome life in a sense: orderly. Fruitful, too. Even Marta was all she might have ordered for a child. But when they were here, when Phillip was about, there was little time to attend to her other life.

She changed out of navy pants and white shirt, then into a loose aqua caftan and long sweater. Her long straw-colored hair was unbraided, rippling over her shoulders and down her back. She took banana peel and glass down the stairs, feet bare, quick.

In her most used desk, a bottom drawer held among other things a bundle of papers secured with a rubber band. She took it out, picked up her slim, silver-cylindered mechanical pencil and entered the sun room to settle in, tea close at hand.

They were unbound. She first fanned out the correspondence on the glass-topped coffee table before her. Which to choose? It was a group of eight letters received over the last few weeks that she hadn’t had time to address. The freedom to re-read, to study, to respond succinctly.

Roxie was a certified graphologist. She studied people’s handwriting to learn of their assets and liabilities, their public and private lives, their health and hopes. If there was one thing Phillip abhorred it was attempting to label something as exacting, even scientific, when it was all just hocus pocus to his thinking. Phillip disapproved, thought it was a waste of valuable time and attention. They had argued about it when they had become serious so long ago. She had grudgingly agreed to stop “playing around with it” then. But gradually Roxie had begun secretly taking the esoteric (he: “hogwash”) coursework, practicing the art and science of it and finally passed a difficult national certification exam.

She had not told him of it until he had discovered her triumphant notification letter folded up in a drawer of her jewelry box. Six months ago Phillip had been looking for a necklace he’d given her to adorn a dress she was wearing to a formal dinner. She forgot it was there, her little private spot not private anymore.

“You have to be kidding me!” He’d sputtered and gasped. “I can’t believe you did this!”

“But it’s not nonsense, Phillip. Graphologists are engaged in useful, meaningful ways! Police departments use us, employments agencies and human resources departments and psychologists utilize us. I could make money using my skills. I could have a career doing this!”

“Don’t say ‘us’, you’re not one of them yet, Roxanne. Some fortune telling fool. I don’t want my wife pretending this is anything but a game, an entertainment. Certainly it is not science.” His upper lip almost curled. “And you don’t need to make any money. If you really want something more to do, use that good economics degree, volunteer more, take up another hobby.”

Roxie thought he was a misaligned copy of her husband for those moments. She had never felt anything but his equal even though she’d stayed at home rather than work in some high-rise. She knew she had a worthy mind; she knew he respected her. This life had been one she chose in part because he believed her capable of so much and encouraged her to enjoy even imaginative leanings, reach beyond comfort zones, learn new things. But graphology? It was just ridiculous to him. As it seemed to be others who didn’t understand its nature and applications.

“But it helps catch criminals, it can decipher hidden talents or liabilities that make one fit for a certain job. It can help determine if one person is a better mate than another.”

“Oh, save me from your impassioned attempt at persuasion, Roxie. I’m not going to change my mind. It was one thing when you messed around with it for fun, another that you now take it this seriously. I still can’t believe you secretly finished coursework–how much did that cost? how did you manage it?–and now you expect me to praise you for it? You know better.”

She watched his forehead furrow in a deeper scowl. His gaze of clear judgment was close to intolerable. Roxie found his masculinity and beauty revolting at that moment and turned away. Left their room. As far as he was concerned his intelligence was marred by egotism–that fabulous mind of his, that command of reality– run amok. What could he be thinking, that he would call her accomplishment ridiculous?

It was a long week of separate bedrooms and by the time he’d left again, she’d determined to carry on with her passionate involvement in handwriting analysis. But he would not be the wiser as long as he felt her foolish. Their marriage didn’t feel as neat and clean after that, but they staunched the rupture with greater good will and their healthy, continued chemistry.

There was a post office box rented for her new Interpretive Analysis Enterprises (IAE). She advertised online at sites he would never look at. She offered cogent evaluations of personality types and offered input on problems with relationships based on samples of handwriting. Roxie opened a savings account in her name at a credit union. What felt at first like deception began to seem more like a tandem life that was well designed and pivotal to her happiness. One day he might come around; one day she would tell him the whole story, yes. Meanwhile, her work was starting to flourish and she found it harder to get it done without him knowing.

Marta knew about IAE and didn’t have to be told to keep it to herself–she had heard their noisy differing opinions on it. She thought her mother was cool to do this if also risky to do it. But Marta didn’t feel it was any of her business so really didn’t care.

Roxie’s eye now caught sight of handwriting that was elegant yet sharply drawn. She held it close, scanned the loops above and below each invisible line, each dotted “i”, every crossed “t”. The handwriting was rapid, almost thready. Intelligent, steady of hand but jarring–slashed “t” crossings and quickly dashed “dots” above letter “i”s. There was a compressed quality to script and a pressure that belied irritation. Roxie moved her fingertips over the inky page and then under it. There was more than irritation, there was anger as each word left progressively deeper indentations. Handwriting that was beautiful at first glance became an instrument of vehemence and displeasure.

She had seen anger before, of course, but it was the fine quality of the paper took her aback. Most used notebook paper or simple computer paper, as not many people had in their possession much, if any, stationary. This page was written with rich blue ink, a micro fine point. Roxie preferred a basic black ballpoint pen to be used as it was easier to read. She could garner different insights due to the sort of writing implement they used. Others sent inquiries written with felt tips or boldly flowing, perhaps pink or purple ink. Some sent penciled letters. The problem with that was that such writers tended to erase often (perfectionism perhaps a trait) and start over–that interrupted the natural flow of letters, spaces and so on. And if the lead was dull it could skew the entire effect.

Frowning at the aggrieved words, she held it at a distance to properly read through. Then she read it two more times.

Dear Roxanne Stannis,

You won’t recognize my name–it is an alias–but I know yours because I know about your husband. Who doesn’t, in the medical center? He’s outstanding in every way, as we all have heard. Gifted diagnostician, reassuring in manner. Generous of time and clear in every intention (more on that later). I could write a well-informed biopic of Dr. Phillip Stannis and his work at Grand Isle Medical Center and Silvertin Hospice. But if I did I would have to include the other side of Dr. Stannis.

I think you should know the rest of the story. Oh, yes, he’s a selfless workhorse and so altruistic he helps the neediest of the lot. He sacrifices precious time and money to travel to dangerous places whenever he’s called to use his skills. He’s the go-to as far as the horrific burn unit, for certain. I am not writing to cast aspersions on his medical abilities. I am not truly able to ascertain his level of expertise as doctor, to even understand some of his methods. So bear with me. This is not professional in a typical manner.
No, it is personal even if within a professional context.

Roxie put the letter down and put hand to throat. Who on earth was this? The name, Cassie Weaks–was to be an alias so it didn’t really help to study a fake signature. She felt like she was going to choke from her own anxiety. She took a long gulp of iced tea and continued.

I’ll simplify, Mrs. Stannis. He’s a dictator to the underlings. He can be boorish, blunt and critical to the point of some wanting to slap him. He finds flaws and then picks, loosening ends until they come undone. If one does the thing instructed but lags a second, then it isn’t done fast enough. His looks can scald when displeased and he doesn’t know the meaning of a genuine compliment. Never have I met anyone so difficult to please–and my parents were despotic commanders of excellence so I should find him manageable in comparison.
Is this the underside of moderate genius? I think not. He is just dismissive and unpleasant to those who have so much less power, who are at his beck and call. And for this, I loathe him.

So I just wanted you to know the rest of the story of your husband. We work so hard and he gives so little to those who are helpless to do anything but take it. We need our jobs. I think we should have trophies for putting up with him. I don’t know how you manage it–you deserve a trophy, too, or maybe you just deserve each other…

He will have no idea who I am. Because I’m just a nobody while he’s a wonder of wonders, a most valiant human being, a handsome paragon of men who deserves all and more. Right? You can have him!

Sincerely,

Cassie Weaks

Roxie felt her insides scrunch up and turn over but she peered at the words, each letter formation, the spacing, the pressure and rhythm. She studied it all; as if they were written of someone other than Phillip.

She could not imagine who this was but after twenty minutes noting all the details and adding them up, there were some things that came through: the writer, likely female from the choice of words and their formation, was completely disgruntled with her job as well as her self-image. She was run ragged by her own miserable perfectionist tendencies. Smart–perhaps smarter than her position encouraged–she was taking the upper hand and protesting rather than feel powerless one more day. Greatly offended by what she perceived as Phillip’s critical responses, she felt it as a far deeper wound than it should have been. She was a person of neediness who was not feeling fulfilled in many ways at home, not just at work. Lonely, if her lack of trust was noted correctly in how the truncated endings of words and the too-close spacing, protective of self. Perhaps even enamored of said doctor for whom she reportedly held contempt; romantically satisfied, she was not. But her anger was certain. She could even snap one of these days, create some havoc.

Roxie looked at a small stack of envelopes but one that matched her handwriting had no return address, of course. She worked on the sample an hour more. After she concluded it was a letter of complaint, one that was to distress Roxie, she determined she might have to turn it over to Phillip or the hospital’s human resources unless she could solve the mystery. She might visit his work space more often, meet for lunch if possible, check out employees he was around, sneak looks at written memos on his desk to compare handwriting. Maybe they could resolve this together–well, that might be a stretch. But maybe he would even suspect who she was.

But did Roxie believe her husband was all that? No. Not one minute. She knew him warts and all, and yet she knew he was a man of principle. Could he pressure others at times? Yes, in more subtle ways than mentioned. Was he liable to ask a lot of the staff? Yes, as he did himself. Was his brilliance difficult at random times, his ego likely to show up as annoying pride? Again, no denying she had seen that. But she could not believe he would be so unkind deliberately or even remotely unfair in his professional interchanges. He believed strongly in the his own as well as the medical code of ethics. Phillip loved his work and his patients, held staff in generally high regard. He sacrificed a great deal to care, to heal, to try to make life better for others. Roxie believed in him even if they were not always in agreement.

Even if he did think her graphology was smoke and mirrors.
So it would be worked out somehow. It might mean telling Phillip what she was up to a gain; her little business was a success so far, after all. But this one letter only served to expose the writer’s personhood, to open up her secret anger and pain, to share her misguided desires for more in her life. Roxie felt a little sad.

She stood on the back steps and looked out over the rolling lawn. The sun was setting making the puffy clouds pink and coral at the edges. Her mind roamed and recalled women she’d met who worked with him or near him. One after another was eliminated until…Anne? An RN. The night shift head nurse who had blatantly looked at him with a changing combination of admiration, desire, coyness and rage? Roxie had noticed her when she’d picked him up three times that winter due to his ancient Volvo having issues. Her coppery hair was pushed back impatiently when he asked her to do something out of the ordinary so he could finally go home. Her eyes flashing, then lingering on his face. My oh my, Anne. Well, Roxie would have to get a handwriting sample and compare. It couldn’t be that hard. She could be wrong. Work to do, for certain.

Her phone rang. She took it from her caftan pocket, put it to her ear without looking.

“Yes, sweetie? Coming home soon?”

“Oh, Roxie, how I wish, just to hold you for a good, long moment,” Phillip responded, his resonant voice laden with weariness. Tender with affection.

They checked in briefly. Hung up. Roxie wandered into the yard, admired tulips, daffodils, hyacinths in their glory. How she loved to hear Phillip’s voice when he was gone. If she wasn’t already married to the man, she would have to fall smack dab in love with him, herself.