Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Waste Not Love,Want Not

Who saves us from ourselves as we work for and pray for the healing of bodies and minds across this country and the world? As we honor those leaving us and uplift those who need just one kindness shared? Let me tell you about two friends, without whom these days and nights would be more confounding, tiresome and menacing…who help make the long wait worth every small, good effort at making time more meaningful.

******

B. was smart, sarcastic and tough when we met in 1993 and worked with gang youth, but she had a heart and I right away saw it. She thought I was a sort of innocent, a fussy woman with good instincts who could handle her snappishness, anyway. She was right about “handling” her attitude. But she got a clearer picture of my own untidy past and counseling skills soon. We made a good team in our work and would at other agencies to come. Yet from outer appearances, who’d have predicted we both loved opera and blues?

Now, after decades of surviving crises at work and home, it feels like we are getting close to danger of wildfire, one we have tried to avoid facing as her health has declined.

“Well, you’ll never guess where I ended up last night.” She coughs hard, once, her words struggling to get into the air and to me.

We had just talked two days prior; I can guess. B. was very sick with pneumonia well over two months ago. She has lupus and weakened kidneys, a scarred liver, and degenerative arthritis despite being ten years younger than I am. So, it has been a halting recovery, at best; breathing and energy have remained unimpaired. She has tried to work remotely but is a counselor for an addictions and mental health treatment program in a women’s prison. Not very convenient to work from home. It seems unlikely she will return during the COVID-19 crisis. Maybe not after. We have talked often each week as I have waited for events to unfold. She has been taking her 91 year old mother to the store– until finally she agreed to not do so at my pleading. Now, deliveries are made. She helps care for a niece on week-ends, at times, still.

She could get sicker fast. With corona-virus. Anything. So I am prepared, maybe.

“You landed back in the hospital. Lungs?”

“Not that. I got shocked.”

I take that in. “Heart, you mean? They shocked your heart?”

“Yeah. Heart was at 180 bpm. A-fib.”

“Wait–your heart? You mean the suspected anxiety attacks were maybe A fib events?”

I know how that is, the alarm of it, a rapid up-sweep of heart rate, breathlessness, tightening chest. But never at 180; 130-140 is too high for me as a heart patient.

A sharp tingling covers me feet to head with the knowledge of B. in pain, heart a runaway creature she cannot control.

“Guess so. It hurt so went to ER.”

“Lungs?”

“The doc said good news is my lungs look healed.” She takes a shaky breath. “Always something for us, eh? My body is falling apart.”

I think how most people would have said that even 20 years ago as she racked up surgeries for various damaged joints from feet to hips to hands. But this is a new thing, as if finally giving up a charade of “doing okay” and coming to terms with it all. She does not complain, whine, groan. It has never occurred to her to nurture self-pity. But she is worn out by buckling organs.

“Yeah, we get through one thing…. but we played and lived hard, we pay the price. You get up, I get up.”

“Yeah, but I’m a mean ole possum so won’t stay down.”

I laugh with her softer chuckle but all of a sudden feel in my bones how ill she really is. She doesn’t even like possums. White pet rats, that was a thing once. A wild cat or two. A parrot. Mongrel dogs, for sure. Possums and raccoons, no.

“On medicine now for this thing. How are you?”

“I’m okay, hanging in there. Are you–“

“I’m out of it. Just wiped. Have to go. Talk later.”

She hangs up.

B. has talked more of surrender to God over the past year, this woman who fought with fists in her youth, spit in the face of a twisty fate, protested with loud voice against injustices, swaggered across streets with her cane and stopping traffic to meet me on the other side, picked up life’s shattered pieces countless times, reached her hand to others in need without any questions.

My best friend, B. who I’ve long teasingly nicknamed Brenda Starr, the ace reporter from the old comic strip who chased after adventure and hunted down evil ones and rooted out truth at great risk to herself, all the while her beauty unfazed by the grit and sweat. The last part B. would loudly hoot over. She is not the glamorous type. At least, not since she was in her 20s and dressed in a leopard print dress and spike heels…though her hair, light golden auburn, long and voluminous, still is fabulous. But she is brave.

I stare at the phone as I lean against the wall and try to pray but no words come out. My throat threatens to close over and my husband calls me to the table for reheated pasta.

******

This chilly afternoon, a fine steady rain splashing against the windows–it is back again after stunning brilliance of springtime–I know I am fortunate. My current greater solitude since the rabid, often deadly virus has left me musing even more. And lately I consider the friends I enjoy– despite not having dozens at this point in my life. Meaningful ones seem to have crystallized, become denser, sleeker, deeper. Crucial even more than before as so much else becomes irrelevant.

I feel gratitude well up, a happy balloon floating within my being. I have family who cares, yes. But my friends–they are the once-hidden treasures I never planned on caring for like this, day in, day out. No, when a young woman I believed I was more the person who was there today, gone tomorrow: “love the one you’re with.” And I certainly did. But that foolishness was revealed to be what it was, of course, when I met people to truly love for the sake of who they were/are–not for whatever could be useful, for a thrill in the moment, the sharing of a drug and a suffering poet dream.

First, risk; then attachment; then devotion and loyalty. It was rather hard back then. I had to learn better. But not now. It has come easy for along while; the rewards are great.

I have two non-blood very best friends and that is plenty. It is like amassing spiritual and emotional wealth to know them every single day.

******

E. and I check in at least once a week, often after midnight as we both have insomnia. She also has been ill with a less serious respiratory illness but since she has asthma she is high risk for the worst virus. Her doctor has determined she must remain at home from work now. Her work isn’t sure they will need her to go back. But whatever happens, there is too little protection being in an office setting. Or, for that matter, even going to the store for bread and milk.

She is packing her several rooms full of stuff, off and on; her plan was to retire and move to Arizona near her brother by summer’s end. She has lived alone since I met her 25 years ago, after her drawn out, life-shaking divorce.

“Now who knows? I might just stay inside until I kick the bucket. I’ll knit myself a huge cocoon and stay put, how’s that? Might retire at last, if I can stop buying yarn. And books…well, could build a house with those, too!”

E. is guffaw-prone–both B. and E. make fun of defects of character and life’s travails–so lets loose her light, rippling peels of laughter. We vow not to go down gnashing our teeth

“I imagine you have blankets, scarves and socks galore stacked up in there, maybe tilting pyramids. The books you can give to me if you want.”

Her knitted pieces are evenly made, colorful. She adores soft, bright skeins of beautiful yarn and they take up space on floor, couch, table and bed. I can see her hands fly, the thing she creates growing by the minute.

“Want some socks? Yeah, adding to the mess. Oh, well, I have more boxes. I’ll get by even if I stay here. I’d just like more sunshine, my family closer.” She wheezes a little but assures me she is okay. “How are you? I’m so sorry Marc lost his job.”

“Yes, well, it has happened to millions. We sure aren’t special in this time and place…I’m working on a new budget. Well, scrapping it and starting anew…”

“Tell me how it’s going, you know to call me any time. It stinks for things to not end up as we’d planned, who could have known? We had such confidence! Sort of.”

“Well, what else is new? Nothing is what we thought and we’ve lived interesting, curious lives.”

We talk a bit more about our oddly reduced circumstances. But I’d rather not. It is what it is. And we are there for each other. She is also in recovery so understands each day needs to be met with humility. Acceptance and strength. Faith not fear–our mantra. And I intend on utilizing my practical ability to problem solve, keep heart to endure, adapt. Keep my vision aimed upward and outward. We both are Taurus, for what little that’s worth–but we do tend to think more alike and that can be comforting.

“Miss going to the movies with you,” I say. She adores films and all the arts. We have enjoyed plays together, dance concerts. “We’ve seen so many good ones, and there are always more.”

“I know,” E. agrees, “then getting lunch or dinner out and catching up in person. We know how to have a good time.”

We talk about what we are watching on small screens. My home no longer has cable TV to save money–we do have streaming apps. But I don’t miss things that are not essential, not much. Maybe immediate access to lactose-free ice cream and tons of chocolate chips for cookies to bake, sure, but not pricey steak or 160 TV channels or new clothes for spring or even another shiny hardback book. I have more than enough stuff. I miss movies and dinner out with E., though.

“Let’s meet up for coffee at a drive-through place and sit in a parking lot, 6 feet apart, just gab a little,” I say. “I’ve done that with my kids a couple times. Hard to not hug, but just seeing each other…”

“I love it–tell me where and when. We could dress up, bring cake!”

We commiserate about the tarnish on our “golden years”, share a funny story or two and finally hang up. The residual richness of her voice works like healing balm. her longtime job has been in accounts receivable in a health care system, weirdly considering things as they are. But I realize she is so good at that because her voice emanates her real personhood– warm, honest, empathetic and deeply kind, with a gift for finding gentle humor in hard moments. And that touch of lingering New Jersey accent makes it even better. Much better. I can see her scurrying along a clamorous New York City street, headed to Broadway for a play’s opening. Something I had hoped we might yet share.

I don’t want her to move to Arizona, ever, but if she does I’ll be visiting as soon as I can. I already have my invite.

I text her at midnight. “We could have been Broadway stars, you know, just bad timing, sketchy men. Booze. Good night, Ginger.”

She sends me an emoji–herself dancing with that still- red shock of hair, her purple glasses, mouth wide, eyes gleeful as ever.

******

I just read an extraordinary book called Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. By the end of the novel you emerge slowly from the story with the main character as if coming into the sheerness of dawn. Edward is a youth who was the only survivor of a devastating plane crash that took his family and the others. He muses on how love must not be wasted, time must not be wasted.

I wept as I read the last lines of that story. I have felt a slow burning inside of these truths my whole life, like a brightly lit candle that has guided me every step, even as I have gotten lost. Time and love, not to be wasted: the only rules worth minding. We must inhabit these fully, use these well, give these to others freely.

I feel it more every day, the desire and need. To be that present. To better ensure that love is known when I speak and move in this world.

******

“Hello? Don’t text me. I can’t read without my glasses.” B. chides me.

Her voice is weaker than yesterday.

“Okay, got it. We’ll talk. How is it going now?”

“Feel worse, maybe. Thinking should finally retire… prison doesn’t need me.”

“Well, it does. But of course you should retire. You work too hard. Now you will be in the hospital several days, to get things in order, your heart rested and healed more. I know, my friend, that all of this is hard on you.”

“Tiring. So listen, I talked to my mom. I want you to know”– an eruption of a cough—“I want you to have Spook’s Pendleton blanket. It is clean, it’s folded on the end of my bed at home.”

For a second I thought she had said she saw Spook, an old friend, in her room and it scared me.

“Spook”, now long gone, was a Native American elder, a man she was bonded with for decades. B. is part Native American and the woven woolen blanket he gave her from Warm Springs Confederation of Tribes is unique, special. I knew and respected him. He always had a corny crack, a smile for me. We worked together awhile in the fight against addiction’s ravages on the Native community. He liked that I gave the Native women a chance to dance, to sing their languages, to tell their stories. And he may have known they touched me in my very bone and blood. He seemed to feel for a white woman I was okay. Because I was B.’s friend, no doubt.

But his blanket, to be given to me? I cannot imagine such an honor. I am deeply stilled. Everything holds collective breath– outside, inside, wherever Spook now resides, in the bed where B. struggles to live. From her place in the life constellation, mine and so many others’.

“Okay. You feel Spook will be okay with it. You see him there?”

She laughs a little, coughs. “Naw. It’s mine, anyway. Blanket. I mean it, may as well say these things. Nothing morbid about it. You’re my sister. And I love you.”

I cannot speak again. Why do es language, even easy syllables, keep falling away from me? But she has never said that aloud… “sister”… though such intimate words have not been needed. It all feels bigger than a sum of many parts. I know she has thought about leaving the earth for a long time. She has been that terribly ill, and too often. I close my eyes against the sunshine at my window, and there are flashes of orange behind my eyelids. A riot of pain and grief. And happiness for who she is.

I answer her. “I’m so very glad to be your sister. I needed another true one. We know what we’ve shared all these years.”

“And money, I have money to give you and Alexandra’s babies, not much, but something. And go to a Bonnie Raitt concert for me when you can. We have to hear Bonnie even if I’m not there in the flesh. Take her and Marc, too.” She half-gasps for breath. “They’re good nurses here, I tell them so.” She gives a kind of sputter. “Bonnie, our girl…”

I want to say something else but can only listen, try to take it in, her mind going here and there– so just talk like we always talk, as if this is a conversation we always have.

“Yes–a beautiful power she has. Lots more music, too. What does the doctor say?”

“Trying to get more damned water off my heart.”

A deep intake of breath a sigh from her. Does she know what this means? I know it is congestive heart failure; my sister died of it, my brother–I saw my own brother die. But she won’t say the diagnosis or prognosis out loud, that’s how she is. Or not today.

“So I told Mom these things–don’t forget.”

“You can pull through this. We’ll be meeting again, why not?”

“Yeah…just in case, had to tell you. People need to say things. I should find a priest.”

“You aren’t even Catholic. Talk right to God.”

“Can’t hurt.”

“I hear you, my old friend…sister.”

“Have to go, tired now.”

“Alright, I love you. Praying for healing.”

“Love you.”

******

I haven’t heard from B. today. I may call or I may not. Her breath is precious, she is weak. She will contact me sooner or later. Somehow. I don’t know for certain if she is leaving this world or not. I feel she expects she may. She is more and more enervated by this burdensome body. Her spirit is strong; it will always be. But I sense her drifting more with every moment, and feel the burden of her ill body in every unspoken thought as my own heart keeps beating hard and slow, a reminder that I am truly here, that I am so alive.

Why is mine beating so strong and well now? Why me? Brenda Starr, why?

******

What matters the very most as a life is lived? I will be 70 in a few days. I am not living as I thought I might, but more and less, different. One surprise after another. I am full amid sorrows and strife. As we all have to cope with daily. And we can determine to face it and hold on.

So, good fortune is mine–these friends, their love shared. And another day given me, sweet and tender, aching and resilient, persistently beautiful.

But I wait for B.’s voice once more.

Wednesday’s Word on Thursday/Nonfiction: Our Lives Put on Pause

Today during my daily walk through vivid green trees and other burgeoning plant life, under overarching sky that beamed with radiant blueness, my eyes brimmed suddenly. Such beauty and joy juxtaposed with a flash of longing and sadness. I was thinking of the almost one year old twins; I wasn’t able to write yesterday as I was with those glorious grandchildren. And it just hit me as I power walked: it was a good thing I was there enjoying their effervescence, their happy curiosity, the small new accomplishments, as now I will likely not see them– or our local daughters and son and their families– for some time. Of course, I suspected this might happen sooner than later-didn’t we all, in the back of our minds? The coronavirus has now been confirmed in 24 people in Oregon; half are in the county where A., my daughter and mother of those babies, works in city offices. Not even a couple of weeks ago it was “just” 11.

Portland is starting to shut things down and mandate restrictions on large group events, as is more and more of our country. The NBA? The NHL? Sports have likely never looked like this. More primary and secondary schools are closing for a period or going online. Our neighbor, Washington State and the city of Seattle, is hardest hit now and they are taking emergency measures. Many universities are going online (one daughter’s place of work, University of South Carolina, is for a time) and scores of other employees are starting to work from home if at all possible. As so many say that this all feels unreal but there it is, a conglomeration of facts adding up to more challenges than we have seen in a very long while and more to come.

What will our lives look like shortly? How do we cope with the risks and hurdles and not become fatalistic? It is a tall order these days.

A. and I chatted about things at length yesterday when she got home from work: should we now cease meeting up? She worries that she might become a carrier eventually, and even if never that ill, she then could pass it to me. She truly fears for my health and her father’s, of course. It is hardest on older adults, after all, even kills them it appears…not babies or kids or younger adults. She has been talking about this since the first cases here– while I’ve become increasingly hesitant as i decide where to shop or visit. And I conclude today, best to stay out of stores, finally shop online if needed. This is not my way of doing things. But caution and prudence and wash those hands, I have mainly thought and reminded my family: common sense practices help contain any viral spread. We are everywhere and always now inundated with this advice. Hopefully more and more adhere to it. How else to effectively fight against something so miniscule but powerful?

We are up against invisibility, when you think of it. And what a thought that is.

My husband, meanwhile, was travelling from the East Coast to Mexico to home and back the last three months. He finally asked Human Resources and his boss about curtailing work trips. And they have now, despite concerns economically, as with all businesses lately. I have even encouraged him to take off a couple weeks and relax, rest up–he certainly has that time coming and yet he has forever been and is a dedicated nonstop worker.

Meanwhile, I think of my older and only brother who has been on a photography trip to Cuba with a small group. He is used to all sorts of things happening internationally. But the fact that he has a cold now concerns me. Havana is now barring planes from the US to land. He is due back soon.

I can’t think of a time this kind of scenario has happened in my lifetime. No one my age and younger can, I imagine. Sure there have been influenza outbreaks with complications of terrible pneumonia for too many over the years–and bird flu, swine flu, anyone?–and we had SARS to worry about. I long have had to work with clients who had MRSA infections on (bandaged or not) skin and sitting not a foot away from me,and those with serious health issues of all sorts due to addiction, homelessness and poor if any health care. But this particular virus replicates so fast that avoidance and containment has to be much more immediate everywhere.

Well, I am over 65 and have heart disease. I don’t normally feel like a person at high risk; I am healthy, overall, and the cardiologists last looked in my arteries a year ago stated there was no current issue seen–as partners we’ve managed coronary artery disease very well. But I am on that watchful list, anyway, and it is sobering.

I have been terribly ill from a number of causes several times. I have been near death and did not expect to “come back” four times and lived to recall the tales. And I don’t have an insurmountable fear of dying, nor even of becoming very ill. Of course I can worry at 3 a.m., imagine what it would be like to get coronavirus, then play it out in my head…then I do fall asleep. What else to do but go on? Every one of us has worries about health, at times; this one is big. But I believe that whatever is ahead will do what it will and come and I will be able to meet that physical challenge– or I will not. It is that simple. I can do as much as I can to prepare to stay well, but the spectrum of possibility in human life creates and destroys as it does. And if I must leave this world, it will happen, I presume. Yet–I do not feel fatalistic. Only realistic.

No, what bothers me right now is that with more restrictions placed on our movements–for the good of all, yes–I may well not get to see my friends or family for…who knows how long? For their sakes or for mine and Marc’s, we have to determine choices clearly, pragmatically.

One of my dearest friends has been ill for decades with lupus, debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and a patchy liver and many other things as a a result. Brenda has been recovering from pneumonia the past 8 weeks. She is still weakened. She works as a counselor in a prison. I fear for her well being; she is not cavalier about it. When we last checked in she talked about her will, and her desire to make sure her friends know how much she cares. I listened, swallowed hard. I know this virus could kill her but, like me, she has had brushes with death before and so takes it as it comes. There really isn’t any other choice. But I have loved her a long time and I am hoping against hope she will stay safe.

Another friend of decades, Eileen, has been meeting with me for lunch or dinner plus a a movie for years. Or a tool around books stores or garden walks. I so enjoy her ready laughter and sunny spirit, her intelligence and her wit. We have a particular sort of great time together; the lack of it will be sorely missed as we wait this out. But she is to retire and move to Arizona in August. Perhaps sooner now.

It felt good when Marc and I held a family dinner three weeks ago. Even then I was thinking–when will we easily manage this again between time scheduled for other things, work, and this virus concern? Their youngest sister and her family didn’t come, though; now it will be more time apart. But it was good see them convened at the table, to update on work, activities and experiences, future plans as we shared a hearty meal–as ever it is. But I also thought of ones not here–the daughters in Virginia and South Carolina. I wished for a fuller table, a raucous house, but was deeply grateful our grown children enjoy our company, as we do theirs. I looked at them and thought: this is my clan and how lucky.

And now, the pause on meeting, sharing, hugging at will. No longer can I comfortably and spontaneously call my son, say–“Hey, I’m in the neighborhood, what’re you doing for dinner?” A pause… on visiting my only sister (in early stages of dementia) as I have done every 10-14 days, as her retirement community is barring visitors for at least a month. A pause… on getting together with my old work friend, Jim, with whom I enjoyed lunch and laughs only awhile ago.

And another kind of companion: I for the first time am loathe to keep visiting the library, and find that more sad than most changes. All those beautiful, mind-expanding books…and all those germs. Let’s face it: Whatever we touch can seem too much these days. Thank goodness I have many books waiting to be cracked open in my very home. And I am already reading them more.

It will be difficult to not see folks…to not be with grand-babies (who live ten minutes away) I am used to being with three times a week for almost a year –and what of their one year birthday in April now? This separation from family can make me ache from soul to brain and it is just beginning. It is as if we are being asked to put not only activities on hold but the chances of deep loving and living. We humans need to give and accept actual hugs, to study the face of a loved one, to be near enough to hear a soft sputter of delight or exasperation under the breath. Not send heart and flower emojis, those odd, cutesy emblems of emotion that say so little even when they do mean to say so much. Even virtual/video meet-ups don’t come close to meeting face-to-face, not really. Awkward and limiting, I always wonder what all to say. But I guess I can learn how to do it better, with more heart.

So we get ready for “the long pause” as we–individuals that are whole communities, countries–rally to respond to this serious health crisis that reaches its tentacles farther every day. To preserve more and more lives, it is a no-brainer, and social distancing as they call it, begins in earnest. We need to stay friendly, supportive in any small ways we can. So we remember we are in this together; we can pool resources and maintain a problem solving viewpoint with positive attitude to get through it, somehow.

Love, like water, must find its way, its outlet, its home; it wants to find those beloved. Humans are unavoidably interconnected at heart, that is clear. I hope the best for us all, and do pray we reach out to one another in the manner in which we each can. We can’t let fear run us over and hold us down, make us less willing to care. Better to appreciate singular moments, anticipate and plan for healthier, less strained days and nights. To do what we can with our time, talents and our will for good. Call each other on the phone for a change. Send cards and letters. Video chat and send pictures. Let neighbors know we are around, even at an arm’s length if necessary.

Blogging, of course, is a terrific way to be present despite worries, a safe place we can share our creations and ruminations. I will be right here among you all–that is still my plan!

Eben Waiting

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On the morning he left there was a gathering across the street. Four women and two men sat in a circle by the fountain in front of The Manor apartments. He watched them talk and drink coffee, thinking about his trip. Annie had been cold on the phone when she said good-bye last night. They had argued, same old things, money, their future. He was currently working the counter at a deli while he looked for a better job. She wasn’t thrilled about that.

He was standing outside his place waiting for the taxi. Early, he was always early. To be late was to toy with the outcome of things and that was not a good idea, he’d found. You had to have a plan and stick to it whenever possible. Besides, if he’d stayed in his apartment Uncle Josef would talk him senseless. He’d welcomed Eben after he lost his good legal assistant job to downsizing. Now that his nephew was back on his feet the decision had to be made whether or not he was going to stay or move out. Annie was in Portland; Eben in Seattle.

“Well, you could marry her,” Uncle Josef had advised. “The girl has a career going, she’s pleasant. You won’t regret marriage–it’s said to mellow into a very comfortable thing. With the right one, of course. It’s pitiful that it’s just you and me here. Should have married Jane Hartner back in 1980. Do you think we could find her on the Internet?” He sat back and eyed Eben. “Your trip may sort this out.”

Eben pondered the situation. Annie had a way with words that could split him into little pieces, then put them back again before he knew what was happening. It made his head spin. He wondered if she was trained to do that in her therapy work or if it was just a defect. He couldn’t be sure; she was generally nicer although she seemed to find him annoying more and more. Not that he had an altogether sterling character. He tended toward introspection and that could be excluding of others. Of her, she noted often. He was particular. He liked documentaries primarily and hated anything made with eggs, beans or pork. He lined up his books as though they were on exhibit. Right up until June he wore cotton socks to bed. He also liked to play bocce once a week or so in good weather which he saw as an asset but she hadn’t decided.

Eben leaned against the wall. He tried to not think about the visit and watched the neighbors across the road. He only waved at them occasionally. They appeared to be an extended family.

A child popped up from the group. He was maybe seven, eight, a wild one– you could tell that from the way he looked: like a wind up toy that never unwound. He was alert to everything the adults were saying, leaning forward, climbing on one lap, then another, popping up between legs and elbows. He was wanting more attention though the adults were engaged in serious chatting. One man yelled at the boy to slow down, so he stood stock still a few seconds. The woman next to him lay her hand on his head, then he zoomed toward the street and zigzagged back to the fountain. He jumped right in; it was a hot day for fall.

“Marty, what are you thinking, getting your new shoes and pants wet?” the man berated him, scooping him up. He took him inside before he could wriggle away.

Eben could hear him screeching and he flinched. Loud, unhappy sounds were not to his liking. He enjoyed his aging painted turtle and Uncle Josef’s aquarium full of fish, silent, fascinating creatures that enjoyed lives of unimpeded ease. Eben did not look forward to the two Yorkshire terriers Annie had gotten when he’d moved out. They liked to bark at nothing, claimed her lap and snapped at him when he tried to be friendly. She said Eben wasn’t around enough to expect friendship but the truth was, he didn’t look forward to adding them to his small social circle.

The taxi was late. He was about to call when Marty came flying down the stairs again. Red shorts now, no shoes. At the edge of the fountain he dangled his hands in the water. The adults were laughing and sharing food, muffins Eben thought, mouth watering.  They took out cards and moved under the shade of a giant black walnut tree. The man who had yelled dealt them swiftly and they all concentrated on their hands. The boy was whipping up the fountain water with his hands. Then he looked across the street at Eben.

Eben looked down the road. No taxi. Marty looked both ways, then walked up to him, dripping.

“Hey, you going on a trip?”

Eben didn’t look at him. “Yes.”

“Family? Work?”

“No.”

The boy fiddled with the suitcase tag and read his name.

“Eben Hanson.” But he said it like “eebean”, drawing out the vowel. “E-bean?’

“Eben. Short ‘e.’ And you’re getting my things wet.”

“It’s just water, Eebean.”

Eben looked at Marty then. He had striking hazel eyes and freckles tossed across his nose. He was grinning and there was a blank spot where a front tooth should be.

“Well, who? A girl?” He giggled and poked Eben’s side with his wet index finger, making him jump.

“Shouldn’t you be with them?” He pointed at the group.

“They can see me. They know Josef. I see you come and go.”

“Really?” This surprised and irked Eben, that a child would know details of his schedule.

“If you have a girl she ain’t heeere!”

Eben sighed. Maybe if he just told the kid his itinerary he would get lost. “Well, I’m off to see her in Portland for four days.”

“Marty! Don’t bother our neighbor!” The big guy waved the boy back.

Eben pulled his suitcase to the street. “That man your dad?”

“Naw. Uncle. Don’t have a dad. I have a big family, though.”

Eben could hear the taxi. Marty tapped the suitcase, then Eben,  damp fingers cool on his arm.

“When you come back, you should play cards with us. You don’t have to be alone.”

“Thanks.” Eben imagined himself playing cards with them and smiled.

Eben nodded to the taxi driver. Marty looked back at him when he got to the other side of the street and waved hard and fast, as though all his energy was exploding from his small hands. Eben got into the back seat, then waved back. Marty climbed into the circle of adults, disrupting the card game.

On the way to the airport Eben thought about Annie and her intelligent insults and his quieter ways and he knew already. He was not moving back in, ever. There was time to find the right one. Someone he might have a family with one day. He wondered if Uncle Josef figured that out. Josef and Marty, they both knew a couple things.

Staying Alive: an Interview

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“So, alright, you have me sitting in a long-past-its-prime chair in a monochrome room and I am supposed to be cooperating so that you can do the work that is in my best interest I am told, but really is all this necessary again? I didn’t agree to come here to talk to you. I don’t even know who you are. I had no choice. I came because it was the last-ditch chance, his way or exit center stage! ‘Get out’ he said! I mean, I nearly…”

Mim’s inhales deeply, then fills the air with a few staccato breaths. She is hurting everywhere, toes to brain.

Lane leans forward. “It seems you didn’t really want to go, not like that. And you came of your own will today.”

“Yes, well, it isn’t that simple. It was a matter of giving in or getting out. I mean, leaving the family. Like, settling for a life on the street, likely, can you imagine? I can’t. He says he wouldn’t throw me out–how would it look to his firm, our neighbors?– but, hey, it has happened to better women than me. I mean, I’ve seen them out there and they are so sad, terrifying. But, then, look at me!”

The clock on the wall is simple, inconspicuous, but the ticking is like a stuttering shout. Mim, her new client, shifts side to side then pulls her shoulders back, finger to mouth so she can chew off a hangnail.

Lane sits still. In the corner of her eye she can see through the window, rain slashing across the parking lot two stories below. Her office is warm but the fortyish woman across from her shivers, folds her arms tight over her white shirt. Lane notes her shoes. They are expensive grey and black flats, slim and scuffed.

“I mean, it’s not like this is the first time. This is number three. Pretty soon I’ll be able to write reviews of all the treatment centers in northwest Michigan. I wrote a column you know. Used to. There can’t be that many more rehabs for me to check out. All the same in the end.” She exhales a guttural sigh that sounds like disgust. “So, yes, I have arrived once more, this year in New Times Center on Lake Michigan. I have to say it looks good out there.” Her good leg bounces. “It would possibly look gorgeous through the magic filter of gin.”

“You’ve had a lot of experience at this. You’re sober five days. It will look better in a week, two weeks. You know this already.”

Mim looks at Lane hard a few seconds but the woman doesn’t blink. Here eyes are moist, very blue, quiet. She is so still Mim wonders how she does it, listening to all the rantings.  Does she go home and have a tall glass of wine while she eats on her deck? Does she have to build a fortress around her before she goes to work? Or is she someone who gets it, this special sort of hell?

“I wonder what I must look like from the other side of the room, from your chair. It looks no better than mine but it must be a heck of a lot more comfortable. I know this isn’t a sabbatical trip I’m on, not a resort where I can kick back and have a good old time. But it isn’t the road to paradise, either. I don’t have to love it, find it new or fascinating. Because it is not.” She wets her lips, pushes her short hair off her forehead. “It is NOT.”

“It’s another try at sobriety,” Lane says, “a chance taken.” She pauses. “On something more. For you.”

200236712-001The clock, rain, the steamy warmth of the room: they have a dreamy effect and  contour Lane’s mind. Mim’s words, edged with gold–“It is NOT”–line up across her mental screen, perilous, brash. All those negatives over the years have become like so many glass words Lane collects, then breaks apart and rearranges with each new client. They create something else or do not succeed.

She picks up her mug of tea. The client doesn’t respond, only watches rain streaking the window, eyes narrowing as though trying to focus on one thought, a moment, the certain feeling that might tell a whole story, the truth, in one sentence. Lane knows it is hard. She sees it takes all Mim can summon to sit there and be seen like this when her nerves feel like they have shark teeth and her heart is a chattering fool. Lane knows it is not yet anything like the promise of well-being the tri-fold brochure intimates. The woman is to smart to see how she runs in circles. Yet. There can be change. There is a stirring in Lane’s chest like a small door opening, then: a steady pulse of compassion.

“I do want life to be different. I want my son and daughter to race up to me on visiting day, feel absolutely sure I am going to be strong. Kind. That is what I want to be: so much kinder than this.”

Mim brought the tender finger to her lips again, but she took it into her other shaky hand. She laced all fingers together so they formed a basket she peered into as they rested in the hollow of her lap. “But I don’t know what I’ll find if I stay sober. I don’t have any idea what I will discover inside, what sort of real woman is there…”

Ticktickticktick. Time slinks away as rain’s counterpoint beats an ancient drum on earth and brick walls. Mim’s fingers unthreading, shoulders sagging forward. Her face is like an underside of the moon, not fortuitously revealed but marked by a terrain confused by misinformation and the inroads of experience. Alcoholic eyes, burning wells. An etching of persimmon scars marches up her jaw line to her temple, slides across her covered, crooked nose. Her left eye is still circled by the palest velvety purple. Her lips move but nothing is let go. Hands fly to mouth, to eyes, to face.

Lane sits forward. “Life will find you, has found you even now. All you need do is be present with it. You have time here, a safety net. I’ll be here while you puzzle out the clues.”

Outside, Lane catches sight of a bony, bespectacled young man looking in the narrow window of the office door. He cranes his neck to see Mim. Crutches in the corner. Cast on her leg. She sees him staring and turns away. He feels sorry for her, her face damaged like that but he is much more angry. He might have been her, he might have ended up like her, but no. Did. Not. Happen. With a forceful push of the wheels, he propels his wheelchair down the hallway.

Mim stares at the empty rectangle of glass. “Lane, look, I can’t promise anyone anything. I don’t even know if I will stay.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“You came today.”

“Yes. I did.”

Lane nods and almost smiles. Mim feels done. She stands up with difficulty. Lane watches her hop to the crutches, steady herself. When her client stands a bit taller she crosses her office and opens the door. The hum of life flows down the corridor, a stream of possibilities. Mim looks over her shoulder, eyes like two dark stones turning and shining in light, and steps forward. She wants to smell the wet earth without alcohol numbing her senses. She wants to smell the rain.

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Gleaning Gifts of a Dream

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Last night I was a moody but confident, passionate but restrained, weary but adventurous sixteen year old again. I was talking to a roomful of people from high school. We had played together in each other’s yards and attended public schools together for many years. My mother was at my shoulder and noted one young man in particular and said something about an event that had occurred. I reminded her I had figure skated with him although he was a far better speed skater.  A sweet affinity was shared with the boy with the honeyed voice; we cozied up on the couch.

I stepped back and examined myself: auburn-brown hair touched with gold, bangs falling over one eyebrow, blue eyes peering out. The style was a modified style based on Twiggy’s, that famous beanpole model from the sixties. I had more curve and muscle. My skin was pale, smooth, softer than seemed reasonable. A smile swept over my face, light and breezy. It was good to be there that moment.

Then the scream of the alarm grabbed me from my dream with such force it felt like being pulled from deep waters–but I didn’t need or want to be rescued. I fell back. The dream arose once more, replete with familiar faces, voices entwined in easy conversation. The contours of living and dining rooms came alive; shadows shifted as bodies rearranged themselves. I sensed food being prepared in the kitchen: a party underway.

My childhood home, a sturdy yellow and turquoise bungalow. I crossed over the foyer, lingered by the baby grand piano, admired the dining table set with flowers. I glanced at the buffet which held a stack of mail, colored glassware, another vase with bright flowers. Music issued from the stereo, something I could not quite define. Was it classical? Did my gentle, dignified father put that on even though I wanted Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez? Then the den (a bedroom in earlier years), television room where a TV did not exist before 1963 because there was no time for it, no interest, really. There was always something else to do; my family got engaged in whatever required attention most. Usually music-making or studying.

Upstairs, two good-sized bedrooms and a bath. I paused on the landing, stared a long moment, then eased my way down. I sat on the third from bottom step. This was the best vantage point for many years, the place that was central to all first floor activities. I could hear most conversations, construct the scenes. It was the place from which I first discerned the fabulous, puzzling adult world. A spot where I used to cry without drawing attention, make a playground for a Barbie, and years later wait for the telephone to be free so I could talk with my best friend or maybe, surreptitiously, a boy. Where all five children waited for the door to be opened to Christmas wonders. I could nearly smell cinnamon rolls and sausage.

Out of some interior space floated my name, the nickname of my childhood. I entered the bright living room. My mother’s laughter became more quiet, then faded away. I glimpsed her fine-lined face haloed by the famous silvery white hair. The room remained filled with those I have known and nearly forgotten but no one is in a hurry. I wondered how long we would stay in this golden place.

Soon crows make a ruckus that punctuates city traffic. I sit up quickly, my eyes not yet seeing, my mind cloaked in secret things, unworldly things. Thin light is caught inside corners of the bedroom and so defines angles as I find my way back to this spot in time. I see the blue differently and realize for the first time it is the blue of my childhood room, before it was lavender. My heart is a cocoon of peace.

I can hear my youngest daughter’s voice. Laughter as she packs up to return to grad school. Her fiancé is washing up a few dishes as they talk.

After greetings and coffee, we pour over a bridal magazine and I know this is going to happen; she is getting married. And I want to tell her: “Grandma came to visit me. She misses you and longs to be at your wedding.”

Instead–there is not time for the tears that will find us–I tell her, “I had a dream of being sixteen. My face was open and so young, soft. There were many people at your grandparents’ house. It was lovely…”

I was married once in a chapel, the first time. I was more than a decade younger than this daughter and choices did not include quite finishing college. I was in love and unprepared, before much understanding was captured from life’s wily snares. I had ached to be wise, braver than brave as a youth, then as a young woman. But now I am a woman surrendering little by little to this ebb and flow of life, growing older. It is not arduous. Much like my mother was, I am filled with relentless curiosity, hope tinged with bittersweet yearnings and a reservoir of love that wants to transform discouragement and pain as well as celebrate triumph. All with a tale and an embrace, duly witnessing and making note of life in all its cantankerous and exceptional fullness.

I take a picture of my daughter and future son-in-law and there are my mother’s grey-blue eyes. Her crooked, sweet smile. Think: Well, here we are, Mom. This and much (you know how much) more to come.

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