Trees, in their giantess of spirit, talk to me on a daily basis. Thank God, or I don’t know who I’d go to for advice.
It’s the end of a long day—a Monday to be exact—and as hectic, overflowing Mondays have the uncanny habit of following slow, afternoon-nap Sundays, I fight the desire to head out to the edge of my property and simply be with my dear friend. No words necessary. Oak always understands.
I wouldn’t have to go into the tedious details concerning the weird dream where I painted a dirty wall then promptly tossed a blanket over a messy box that really deserved to be cleaned out, but, in dream-world impossibility, the blanket would simply have to do.
No need to explain the emails. How does one respond to sincere attempts to communicate in a world where opinions rampage like charging horses in a medieval joust, and it’s frankly disloyal—perhaps even disingenuous—to cheer?
Gordian knot, you’re playing with me.
Today’s foraging through the shops demanded keen instinct—keep to the designated list despite the fact that items left over from the holidays were practically a steal. Who wants to steal holiday decorations when looking forward to spring? Yeah, sure, there’s always next year… But tonight’s dinner quandary demanded my attention more. Fruits and vegetables. A last stand between winter and spring festivities. That or admit that ol’ Oak and I have more in common than I’d like to admit in matters of girth.
Noon found me strolling. Oak greeted me, always the gentlefolk, waving last seasons crumpled brown leaves, rustling a soothing tune. I still had a story to write, online school plans to cajole, money matters with which to contend, and dinner to devise.
Oak didn’t mind a bit of it. The wind blew. Clouds scuttled. With plaintive meows, cats arched their back in invitation, and dogs raced like puppies. A red bird shot onto the woods, a blue bird flashed by, and an eagle soared. If I wasn’t one with nature, it wasn’t for Oak’s lack of trying. Steadfast par excellence.
Pasta with two kinds of toppings kept the kids’ bodies and souls in happy coexistence. Presently sage and citrus incense burn over the glowing heater while Henrietta hamster daintily chips away at her carrot. I am staring at dark windows, knowing full well that Oak is still and quiet this time of night. He doesn’t need to speak. He just needs to be.
Maple out my bedroom window wakes me each morning with waving branches, seasonally decorated. I’m waiting for the spring-fairies to visit. Any day now. Pines pierce the sky, tossing their still-green branches in see-what-I-still-have proud display. A forgotten nest sways, unbroken, a hopeful reminder of summer guests.
In a time-is-running-out reality dotted with doubt, my arboreal familiars offer more than words can say. They speak in rustles, rough texture, variegated colors, off-white tones, but most honestly in their very existence. To be is their way.
No proof. No judgment. No certitude or pride.
To have been created says all. Alive. Perhaps not always perfectly. Rot infests the best of us. But speak, they do well.
Advice is best offered after sampled, and so, I find it true.
“Sucked into Black Holes During Sleep, They Share Their Darkest Secrets.”
Bruno read the headline twice, promptly running his cart into the store shelf. Stunned, he jerked his gaze off his phone.
“Hey, not supposed to read while driving.” A woman, fifties, blunt-cut, short hair, laughed with shining eyes.
Shocked, Bruno stashed his phone in his pocket and shoved his cart alongside the shelf, a guilty child trying to hide the evidence. He forced a grin. No words forthcoming.
She sidled up, her smile dimming by degrees. “Sorry. I tried to warn you. But you were so intent—”
He scratched his head. He didn’t want to have a conversation. A lie formed before his conscience could object. “I had to check a text—”
She lifted a hand. “Not my business. I was being stupid.” Her gaze took in the contents of his cart.
Dang, it. An extra-large bag of his dad’s Depends and a bright blue denture cleaner box bared the naked side of human misery. In revenge, he snuck a look at her cart. Red hair dye and blue nail polish. He glanced at her. Grey hair, fingers unadorned. He frowned.
She grimaced. “My mom’s dealing with that crap too. She was at Wayside, but with everything, I brought her home and got home healthcare. It’s better, but not really good, if you know what I mean.”
Relief, like a spring breeze, washed over Bruno. “Dad’s still on his own, sort of. Lives in the apartment above me. Neither of us can give up our independence. But…”
She snatched up the box of dye. “She gets bored and depressed. So, every couple of months I do a new treatment. This month—” Her lips flapped as she blew a puff of air. “Rad red! I’d like to take her out to eat or something—”
Bruno shrugged in compassionate understanding. “Hell trying to keep ’em on their feet.”
She snorted but a smile crept back into her eyes. “It was easier with a toddler. I could toss them into a cart and strap ‘em in.”
“My twins gave me weekly heart attacks, but they grew out of their hijinks.” Bruno tried not to let the next thought tear his heart out.
With a commander’s wave, she redirected her cart. “Well best of luck then, and keep an eye out for where you’re heading.”
“Ha. I’ll be more careful.” I’m not going anywhere.
Bruno flipped three grilled cheese sandwiches and then stirred a pot of creamy tomato soup. “Lunch is ready, Dad.”
His dad hobbled in. Using his cane with deft power, he nudged a kitchen chair aside and plunked down at the table with a long sigh. “Smells good. He stretched his neck, peering at the pot. “You add something extra?”
“Lots of garlic salt.” He slid one sandwich onto a plate and placed it on the table. Then he poured the soup into a wide bowl and set it alongside. He fixed his own meal, grabbed a couple of spoons, and dropped them into place. He plopped down on a chair across from his dad, folded his hands, and bowed his head.
Hurried sign of the cross, a quick prayer, and they started in.
Slurps and clanks of metal on glass accompanied their chewing and swallowing.
The old man glanced up, wiped his chin, and huffed. “Anything new in the big world?”
Bruno shrugged as he swallowed his last bite. “I ran into a shelf and some strange woman laughed at me.”
His eyes widening in horror, the old man spluttered. “The wretched—”
Bruno grinned. “I wasn’t looking where I was going, and she was nice enough.” He pulled out his phone. “I wanted to check something, and I got stopped by a headline—something about people falling into a black hole. Caught my attention at a weak moment. Smack. Hit the toothpaste shelf full speed.”
Grinning, the old man rested his spoon on his empty bowl and tucked the used napkin underneath. “Good thing you didn’t hit a middle aisle. You could’ve set off a cascade of cat food.” He frowned. “What were you checking?”
A blush burned Bruno’s face. “There was such a variety of adult diapers. I had no idea.”
Dropping his gaze, a flush darkened his dad’s cheeks. “Aw, hell. I wish—”
“Don’t, dad. It’s not so bad. Everyone has stuff to deal with. That woman’s mom is depressed and needs a new perm every month.” He leaned in and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And likes to have her nails done. I’ll take a bag of Depends over that any day.”
The old man’s hand shook as he reached across the table and pressed his son’s fingers.
Though dark clouds scuttled in from the north and the temperature was dropping, there was still enough time to get in one more lap around the park. Bruno shook the last vestiges of tension from his shoulders and focused on a pair of squirrels chasing each other around a tree.
He promptly bumped shoulders with a woman jogging by on his left.
Huffing, she scowled and stopped. “Hey! Look where—”
She looked strangely familiar. Embarrassment and dripping sweat sent an uncomfortable chill down Bruno’s back. “Sorry. I was—”
“Oh, you again.” A smile quirked her lips. “But you’re not texting and driving, at least. Thank God for that.”
A park bench behind the central swing set beckoned.
“I’m ready for a break. You?”
She nodded. “Sure. Mom’s napping, so I sneak out on the weekends to get in a little R & R.”
Trudging across the dead winter grass, he puffed a laugh. “You call running rest and relaxation?”
She plodded alongside. “Don’t you?”
He waited while she brushed broken twigs aside and plopped down.
They breathed freely for a few moments, gazing at the quiet park.
A trio of squirrels scampered past.
Bruno wagged his finger. “It was their fault, really. I got caught up in their drama.”
Laughter filled the park. A happy sound. She settled into a giggle. “Yeah, it’s always something, isn’t it?”
He turned. “How’s your mom doing?”
She blinked and swallowed. “Okay. Not really thrilled with the red. She wants to go back to being a blond, but with her wispy threads, it wouldn’t be pretty. Need something to distract the eye, if you know what I mean.” Changing course, she clapped one mittened hand over the other and focused on him. “And your dad. How’s he?”
“Scarfs down my grilled cheese and tomato soup like it’s going out of style.”
A fresh laugh, softer, but honest and appreciative.
Two plump robins hopped nearby.
He nudged her and signaled with his eyes.
She smiled. “Wish I brought something. Breadcrumbs…”
She cleared her throat. “You ever bring your dad out to eat? Like to your kids’ place or—”
He tipped his head. “I would, but they live in California. An airport would be a nightmare.” He cut his glance aside. “Yours?”
“Naw. They’re not very patient with her. Nice enough when I do everything, but they’re mostly eat-outers.”
Like a bobblehead, he just nodded a bit.
The clouds parted, and a ray of sunshine illuminated the park, bathing the playground in golden light.
“I have a ramp up to the kitchen door. A neighbor helped with it. Got treads and everything.”
Two of the squirrels perched on a branch, sitting amiably. The third bounded toward the swings.
“Your mom likes grilled cheese?”
Though her head stayed down, a smile lit her face brighter than sunshine. “She loves it.” She looked over, shifting in her seat, getting a firmer position. “I make a fantastic beef stew. Really easy to chew but nutritious as all get out.”
“Really?” He pulled out his phone. “You know, I read that black holes have been catching people while they sleep. Thought maybe you’d like to help me keep watch out for ‘em.” He cleared his throat, scrounging up his courage. “Maybe we could have dinner together sometime—your mom, my dad—us.”
A glimmer entered her eyes as her smile widened. “Oh, yeah. Got to keep our eye out for those pesky black holes. They swallow people alive, I hear, unless we help each other out.”
He stood and pointed across the park. “My place is just there. Dad’s got his own ideas about things—but he’s feisty enough to keep black holes at bay. Care to meet him?”
She stood and squared her shoulders. “Only if you’re willing to meet my mom. God knows what color her hair will be.”
He laughed as he nudged her forward. “Long as she hasn’t been swallowed whole—she’ll be all right with me.”
Shailyn jerked upright in bed, jolted from the other world back into her own. The usual, odd discomfort dogged her as she peeled back the heavy bed covers, then trod to the bathroom for her daily ablutions.
I belong there haunted her thoughts as she tugged on her jeans and a heavy sweater, though she knew, realistically, she couldn’t live there. As a between-worlder, she was powerless to pick a permanent lodging.
Shivering in the cold morning air, she plodded to the kitchen and gratefully poured herself a cup of steaming coffee. Her daughter, Win, always got up first and made sure that the pot was full and piping hot before she left for work. Bless that girl.
Retreating to the comfort of the living room, Shailyn added a log to the burning embers in the woodstove and sat on the sturdy rocker before the big bay windows. February rain slanted across the glass as pine boughs swayed against the gray sky.
Misty, her daughter’s tiny pup, scampered into the room and leapt into her lap, squirming with all the energy of young life.
Struggling to keep her coffee from spilling, Shailyn nudged the quadruped to a comfortable spot on her lap, took a sip of the dark brew, and then sat back and closed her eyes. Dream images of herself traipsing along the muddy bank of a beautiful lake, a distant, untidy cottage, and a huge water bird charging with flapping wings over a line dug in the earth while intoning, “Stay where you belong!” sent confused sensations rippling over her body.
Pounding steps echoed down the staircase. Her eldest, Morgan, tromped to the kitchen, splashed coffee into his oversized mug, and then meandered to her side. His hair disheveled and dressed in dark jeans, a pullover sweater, and boots, he peered over his cup as he took his first hurried gulp.
Shailyn waited. She knew what was coming. Just like she knew what her answer would be. Though she’d have to gather strength from somewhere else to make her words believable.
“You’ll be there to pick her up, right?”
“Absolutely. Once I get my old bones ready to face the day.”
“May’s going to need all the help she can get, but I have to handle the newest crises breaking out at work.”
“You take care of your business, and I’ll do mine.”
A snort turned Shailyn’s gaze from the tears streaming down the window pane.
“Technically, she’s not your responsibility. She’s my stepdaughter.” He shook his head. “If only—”
“Stop!” She couldn’t handle if-onlys today. There was no changing the past. No bringing the dead back to life. She glanced at her son’s weary, wounded soul peeking through his gray-green eyes. “She’s all our responsibility—everyone who has a heart to love, should.”
“It’s a lot to ask—by all rights, you’d be in retirement now, enjoying your last days, not taking care of a disabled kid.”
The wind picked up as rage surged through Shailyn. “She’s not a disabled kid! She’s a wounded child. Just like you’re a wounded man, though your wounds are on the inside.”
Chastened, Morgan swallowed the last drops and eyed his mom. “Most are.” He trod to the kitchen, placed the cup on the counter, and called out as he yanked open the door. “She’d be ready at ten. The nurse will have all her stuff packed, and they’ll fold and load the wheelchair for you, so don’t mess with it. May can walk into the house with help. Just get her settled downstairs. I’ll do the rest when I get home.”
The picture of May’s imploring, chocolate brown eyes following her as she puttered around the house sent shivers down her arms. She frowned and bit her lip.
A glittery box stuffed into the bookshelf caught her eye. Jessica from church thought that she’d enjoy an “epic puzzle” in her old age and had sent her one with a thousand pieces. She nudged the pup’s warm body from her lap and rose to her feet. She waved to her son through the window.
The box-cover picture, a fairy child plucking a blue flower under the umbrella of a wide, red-spotted mushroom, while raindrops splattered against the sheltering roof and vibrant grass stems bent in gentle perfection, soothed Shailyn’s soul.
May pressed a border piece into place, her eyes shining at the mighty accomplishment. “I got this side done.”
“You’re quick. I’m only halfway through my edge.”
“They gave me lots of puzzles to do at the hospital.” May’s gaze traveled to the couch loaded with stuffed animals and three colorful blankets. “Giving me stuff makes them feel better, I think.”
Shailyn held a corner piece and considered her options. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to help. Or attempting to make you feel better.”
“They couldn’t keep mom alive or fix my back.” She shrugged. “Not in this world.”
Shailyn pressed her piece into place and sat back. She rubbed her cold hands. “I’m going to stoke the fire and check the stew. You want anything while I’m up?”
“You have any chocolate milk?”
“I’ve got milk and cocoa packets. If I get wild and mix them—well, we’ll see what happens.”
A grin peeked through May’s eyes.
Darkness had laid the landscape still and silent by the time Morgan slipped in the back door. He shoved the wheelchair against the wall and unfolded it, ready for action.
Shailyn met him in the kitchen. “There’s stew left. Though you’re lucky. May managed to work her way through two bowlfuls, much to my amazement.”
Staring through haggard eyes, Morgan pulled off his coat and tossed it on a chair. “She always amazes me. Like her mom. Resilient beyond belief.”
Until she wasn’t.
Shailyn shook her head. “Sit down and take a rest. I’ll get it for you.” She glanced at the ceiling, giving due notice to the room above. “She went to bed at eight-thirty. Not a peep since.” Shailyn pulled a plastic container from the refrigerator and poured the chunky liquid into a glass bowl. She placed it in the microwave and hit two.
Morgan leaned on the worn wooden table, resting his head on his hand. “She do okay? And you—it wasn’t too much?”
“Define too much.” Shailyn shrugged. “She put half a puzzle together at the speed of lightning, slurped down a large chocolate milk, put away two bowls of stew, and agreed to my syllabus for home school for the rest of the semester.”
“Ma, you sure you want—”
The microwave beeped repeatedly, warning that it could keep stew hot only so long.
Morgan stood and waved his mom off. “Sit; relax. I’ll get it.” He pulled the hot stew from the microwave, rummaged in the cupboard for bread, and plunked down on his chair, ready to dig into his assembled meal. He took a large scoop, savored it, and then stared at his mom, his eyebrows finishing his question.
Shailyn peeled a banana and sat opposite. “I’m hardly the best teacher in the world, but I can help her through her online classes. We don’t know what next year will look like, but for now, this is where she should be. You and Win manage this big, old rambling house; I keep it stocked with healthy dinners and fun snacks. We’re family. What else should I be doing—putting bigger puzzles together?”
“You could be traveling, seeing the world, visiting friends…”
“I could be laying in the cemetery, cold and stiff. Lots of could be’s. All fantasy. What is—makes the world go around. I’m right where I belong.”
His shoulders relaxing as the weight of a grievous month lifted just a bit, Morgan offered a lopsided grin.
After dressing in comfortable, warm sweats in the quiet of her room, Shailyn stretched out on her bed, turned off the light, pulled her blanket over her shoulders, and slipped into dreams that would take her away but could never keep her.
Elmer knew better than to believe in ghosts. But when he awoke with sweat beading on his forehead and the sensation that he had just returned from a long journey through wild-lands with only his body and wits intact, he knew that something otherworldly was at work.
His wife stirred at his side. She slapped the blankets, her face half-smashed against the pillow, her eyes squeezed shut. “Don’t get up…too early.”
Too early or too late? He pressed his chest trying to steady his galloping heart. “Hon-honey?”
One eye opened. Not a flicker of interest.
“Do you remember going to a desert town with broken-down buildings and getting kidnapped?”
Lana sat up, groggily rubbing her fingers through her short tufts of hair.
Elmer swallowed the lump in his throat. What happened to her luscious brown locks?
She steered her gaze over her husband, taking the long tour. Dubious. Pity?
His hands shaking, Elmer threw off the wrinkled sheets and stalked to the bathroom. He swiped on the cold water, splashed his face, straightened, and snatched a towel. He wiped the drips running down his baggy t-shirt. Have Ilost weight? He sucked in a shuddering breath. “What day is it?”
Lana padded across the bedroom. “Sunday, goof. New Year’s Day, remember?”
An electric bolt sizzled through his body. “N-new year?”
With a snarky laugh, Lana strolled into the bathroom wearing a calf-length night dress that should look sexy as hell, but didn’t.
Elmer stared. Why?
She leaned her head on his shoulder, a buddy-nudge, nothing wifely about it. “You remember the year, right?”
Terror gripped Elmer, nearly closing his throat. “Twenty-twenty—”
“Ha-ha! Got ja!” She smacked him, grinning like a lottery winner. “You had a whole year to get used to the thirties, and now you’ve slipped-up. Used to make fun of me!”
His gaze shifted from his wife to the mirror. Where did these grey streaks come from? His eyes—haggard and…vacant? Lord, have mercy.
Frowning, Lana shoved off and crossed her arms, the tilt of her body accenting the sharpness of her bony frame. “Twenty-thirty-one! We toasted and the VR bots cheered. Remember?”
Elmer slapped his face. “Ten years?” He retreated to the bedroom, marched to the window, and lifted the curtain. A barren square of dead grass met his eyes. Only a rotting stump stood in testimony of past life. “What the—” He turned and glared at Lana. “Where’s our backyard?”
“Backyard?” She tiptoed forward and pressed her cold hand against his forehead. “You feeling all right?” She leaned in and stared deep into his eyes. “Time for your new-gen?”
A chill ran down his spine as he stared at the strange woman.
An elegant roll of the eyes. She flounced to the bedside, yanked open a drawer, and gripped a tube. She shook it, grinning. “You skipped your last dose—see what happens? Bad dreams, memory troubles… You need a pop and time inside.” Swinging the tube, she strode out of the bedroom.
His stomach dropped. Dragging it along behind, Elmer followed like a wary dog.
He faced what should have been his living room—a modern setup with overstuffed chairs, a broad couch, a large screen television centered on the back wall, matching end tables with iron lamps—opening to a large island-dominated kitchenet.
Two worn chairs faced a bank of curved screens.
His gaze scraped the bare walls and grey floor. Cold. Dingy. Crumps, dust, stains, clutter. Broken family portraits lay scattered. One oil painting, ripped on the left side, stood propped on the floor, a forgotten project.
Elmer licked his lips. “Wh-where’s the Christmas tree?”
A snort and hollow laughter. “Christmas tree! What the hell is wrong with you?” She lumbered to the kitchen and dragged a chipped cup from the sink. She slapped the faucet, let water fill the container, plopped in a white pill, and watched it sizzle. She held out her offering. “Drink up!”
His whole body trembling, Elmer backed up, his hands raised. “What’s going on?”
Confusion raced irritation over Lana’s face. “I’ve heard of memory lapses, but this is a bit much. What’s the last thing you remember?”
Elmer edged his way to the nearest chair and plopped down, his body conforming to the seat, oddly comforting. “Christmas. We stopped at church for our ten-minute visit, came home, did our family video, then opened gifts. Jason gave us that new Virtual Reality Game…”
Lana sneered. “Ancient history, Elm. Christmas…church—mythology. Video chats for work, yeah, but who cares about family—it’s only DNA.” She wrinkled her nose and held out the cup.
He accepted it and sniffed. Nothing.
She tapped her wrist, bringing the screens to life. Rotating images flashed—a rainforest, a medieval castle, and a desert with broken down buildings. “Time to get back to the real world.”
Sucking in a heaving breath, Elmer shot up in bed, his heart racing. He glanced wildly around.
Lana, her long brown hair running riot over the blankets, lay on her side, her face in peaceful repose.
He heaved a long sigh and softly inched out of bed. Padding to the bathroom, he stared in the mirror. No grey streaks. A little bloodshot and brooding, but definitely his eyes. Thank God.
“I’m so tired. Get me that New-gen Marge gave me last night, okay?”
Blinking, Elmer trotted to the living room and snatched the curtain away from the bank of windows. A soft blanket of snow covered their miniature backyard. The maple tree still standing in the center. Furniture, Christmas tree, paintings on the wall. Familiar. Home. He released a long breath.
“Honey?” Her voice had risen to a whine.
Like a wolf approaching a strange den, he sidled toward the kitchenet. The flash of a curved screen glinted from under the tree as he went by.
A red box with huge letters “A New Generation” screamed on the central island.
His fingers trembling, Elmer opened the box.
Elmer closed the door, padded to his bedroom, and flopped onto the bed.
Sitting propped against a bank of colorful pillows with a book in her hands, Lana peered at him through narrowed eyes. “I still don’t get why you had to have the whole family over.”
“And what happened to the new VR set Jason gave us?”
Elmer kicked off his shoes and slid back onto the pillows. He wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “We don’t need it.”
She shook her head. “Like Marge’s gift?” She laid the book on her lap. “You know, you’ve been a different guy since New Year’s Day.”
Elmer exhaled and pulled his wife close, his passion real and desire rising. “I hope so, sweetie. I hope so.”
An old woman and her sandwich saved my life. Not that I was starving. I wasn’t. In fact, I hadn’t had an appetite in three days. Moreover, I had no wish to live. She didn’t know that. But, still, she wouldn’t let me die.
Mom reeked of respectability and intelligence. She could entertain a crowd, outpace a runaway train, and beat the devil himself to the punch line. And she could outdrink all the other moms at our daycare center. Her liver didn’t appear to mind. Her brain cells did. But they didn’t let on until much later.
The winter I turned twenty, my world froze hard and deep. Not that December was ever particularly warm in Chicago. But that year, the trip home to Milwaukee on the Greyhound bus left me shivering even after I got inside Mom’s house. The holidays were tough. Lots of memories. Not the jolly kind. But I faced the season with all the joy I could muster. After all, Mom loved Christmas. It was the day after Christmas that got her down.
When I bustled through the door, a blue-green Christmas tree about six inches high with holes for lollipops stood on the phone stand. A rainbow of candies stuck out on each side, aching to send a diabetic into insulin shock. An adorable miniature Santa with his cutesy reindeer attached to his well-appointed sled stood ready for takeoff at the edge of the coffee table. Various Santas, elves, and other decorative pictures adorned the walls. The Christmas tree was bare, waiting for my brother, Jack, and I to do the honors. Which we did with cups of cocoa near at hand and mom’s eyes twinkling.
She sat regally, her evening drink resting in her grasp, comfortably, like the old friend it was. She glowed at our progress and cheered us on with only an occasional, “Missed a spot,” which we would amend with clumps of tinsel and shots of laughter.
God, it was good to be home. I couldn’t think why I had dreaded it.
During the whole Greyhound ride across the snowy landscape, my stomach had churned. Cityscapes and rural townships had passed in picturesque glory. Yet I had only smelled the dank odor of bodies crushed into seats, heard the overworked and underpaid—or so he said—driver grumble, and felt the crack in the seat where the ragged plastic rubbed into my jeans.
Now, as Christmas songs played and snow fell in fat flakes, my brother and I decorated the tree, and my mom watched—happiness pooling in her eyes—I wondered at my moodiness. Why was I always so darn glum? Couldn’t I just relax and enjoy myself?
So I did. I enjoyed the gift exchange. Early Mass. The open house when mom’s friends came and sampled her dark fudge and the variety of snacks we had laid out. I savored every happy smile, every teasing joke, even washing the mountain of dishes in warm sudsy water. There was a reason for the season, and I knew what it was. Love. Joy. Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward men.
After everything was cleaned and put away, exhaustion hit. I lay in my attic room staring at the blackness, as there was no window to peer through. My first year of teaching had left me bewildered and insecure. Was I really cut out to lead kids to educational enlightenment? So far I hadn’t had a whole lot of luck getting anyone to shut up long enough to define the week’s spelling words, much less discover the astonishing exploits of early explorers or memorize the time’s tables. Who knew that eight-year-olds could get so rowdy? Sheesh. Five months in and my teaching fantasy had cracked under the pressure of thirty-one hyperactive little kids. Didn’t take much to make me tumble. But it was a job. That took me away from home.
Why? Mom had been great that year. Life was good. Be happy. I fell asleep convinced that my pep talk had done me good.
Morning came. I knew because the sun rose and nearly blinded me when I went outside to see how much snow had fallen through the night. I stood on the porch amazed at the beauty of fresh snow spread over the neighborhood. Dressed in white caps, the houses along the street matched like siblings at a family reunion. The expanse of woods in the distance put seasonal greeting cards to shame. Even the university across the street arched its towers and pinnacles in newfound pride at thrusting beyond—not just gross ignorance—but the current weather conditions.
I froze. Perhaps not literally but certainly figuratively. The tone, the volume, the acid ‘tude told me that Christmas was over even though the season had just begun.
I didn’t need to respond verbally. She knew I would come. She could hear the front door close no matter how softly I pressed the latch into place. She would hear my footsteps, no matter how carefully I tread. She would know, with some kind of extra-sensory freaky-weirdness when I stood in her doorway.
“Damn you! I said come here. Now!”
Jack had left early. He had only come home for a couple of days. The best days. No fault of his that he had to return to work. Before things got out of hand. Again. He always said that he was older and wiser. He was right.
I faced mom alone. Well, not entirely alone.
At Mass, I often stared at the lights, the windows, the statues, anywhere but at the tabernacle. Or the altar. The priest swept in and out of my peripheral vision so often, I only noticed the color of his vestments, not his face or form. The vestments rippled deep red.
But that Christmas my eyes had strayed. The golden tabernacle glowed, as if in a spotlight. Must be the sun on the snow, I reasoned. Yet it perplexed me. No slanting rays reached that far. As I sat there, battling my inner demons, I finally settled down and faced the gold box. The house of God. The home of faith. The reason for the season. And for an electrifying moment, I knew that Someone lived inside that box.
Her demands were the same as they had been the year before. Her fury spewed forth at the usual rate. She drank and smoked, nearly setting her bed on fire that night. Numbness came to the rescue. As always. Meals prepared. Refused. I took down the decorations. Perhaps to hurry the season along. The tree got sent to the curb. Tinsel froze on the branches.
Sunday afternoon, I took the Greyhound bus back to Chicago.
As I peered out the window, avoiding every possible human encounter, I decided that I just couldn’t care anymore. Like every kid who had been lied to, I had struggled for so long to believe that perhaps I had simply misunderstood. That a lie wasn’t really a lie. I hadn’t been tricked. And heaven and hell weren’t the same place.
My appetite had died the moment mom called my name in that tone. Too chicken to kill myself outright, after all, it was a sin to do that, right? I figured I just didn’t have to fight to stay alive anymore. I could let death have what despair already prepared, an empty soul.
It was my resolution. Die. As simply and as easily as possible. Before the New Year rolled around, so I wouldn’t have to worry about breaking any promises.
In Chicago, I lived in a house with an old woman named Patricia. I paid a meager sum from my meager salary and put medicinal drops in her eyes every night. A fair exchange. She didn’t ask much of me. We lived across the street from the church, so she attended social gatherings to her heart’s content. She also kept a stack of sultry romances on a chair in her living room. Considering her advanced years, I found her selection rather astonishing. Apparently, she didn’t have any cardiovascular issues.
It was noon when I climbed the steps to her home that she had lived in with her husband of forty years; she had the pictures to prove it. I naturally had to pass through the living room to get to the stairway in order to sneak up to my attic apartment. Painted a sky blue with one window facing north and one south. Not that I could see much more than various roofs and a few stray birds, but it was adequate. And adequate was all I had asked for.
I slipped inside, shut the door ever so softly, quite certain that she’d be napping in her chair and nearly jumped out of my skin when she sprang out from the kitchen like one of those New Year’s Eve’s poppers that idiots blow in other people’s faces. Like that’s funny or something?
She grinned. A Cheshire cat would’ve been proud.
“Katherine? You’re home!”
I hate it when people state the obvious and then wait. As if they really want confirmation of reality. “Uh. Yeah.”
“Oh, good! I just made a sandwich! And I’ve got a nice glass of cocoa ready! Here! Come in and get warmed up!”
Dang. What was up with all the exclamation marks? Her whole body shivered with the delight of a pen smacking the paper with a dot at the end of an exclaim.
“Uh. No. Thanks. I really appreciate it. But I’m not hungry.” No, I didn’t tell her the truth. There is no good way to tell an eighty-something old woman who has survived the demise of her beloved husband, the ravages of breast cancer, the Great Depression, and a World War that I’d given up on life and wanted to starve myself to death as an easy way out.
She shook her head.
What? She couldn’t just shake her head and smile at me like that. It wasn’t fair. I hated my life. My mom’s manic-depressive, schizoid, personality disorder ruined everything. I couldn’t hope. I couldn’t live and be happy. Life was a damned lie and that was all there was to it.
“I made grilled tuna with chips!”
In a moment of insane distraction, I actually tried to figure out whether she meant she had grilled the chips with the tuna or if she just screwed with syntax like a possessed scrabble demon.
Bloody hell but that woman was determined. But so was I. My misery must end. I would not eat another bite of food till…well… Gee. Killing yourself was frowned upon, and I might not get a seat at the Heavenly table. So what? I clamped my lips shut.
Then I made a huge mistake. I stood still and let her look at me. Really look. And she saw. Tears formed. All cheer fled. Compassion arrived. And ran me over.
She took my arm and started chatting. A blue jay at the bird feeder filling in all her feathered friends on recent gossip could not have done any better. I hardly noticed when she led me into the warm kitchen and pressed my shoulder hard enough to force my knees to buckle so that I actually sat at the Formica kitchen table. The grilled tuna sat on a plate with little flowers on the border. The chips spilled around the edge. A cup of cocoa sat within easy reach.
It was her question. Not mine. I should have been the one to ask. I should have wondered how she knew I was coming in early. Or why she was fixing me lunch when she never had done so before.
But no. She asked if I would eat to please her. To satisfy some longing she had to watch a miserable, disappointed, despairing woman eat a grilled tuna sandwich at her plastic table.
So I ate the stupid 2000-something calorie meal and watched as she bustled about the kitchen in do-nothing activity that mystified me. I ate every blessed crumb and drank the dregs of the cocoa only slightly surprised that there was a tiny Jesus face on the bottom of the cup.
When I slipped into bed that night, I looked out the window at the sky. Blackness filled the upper echelons of the cityscape, but a few stars twinkled, determined, I guess, not to let the night speak for them.
Christmas was what I had expected, disappointing, yet enthralling none-the-less. Confusion and grief had blanketed my soul. But the light from a golden box spoke of a presence beyond my sight. And an old woman fed me.
Though I do believe that John Donne was right, “No man is an island,” since we are all connected to the God who made us, I must also toss in a clarification: suffering can separate us in ways that islands don‘t dare to dream.
For the past several months, I’ve dealt with neck and shoulder pain to the point where I’ve decided that a good night’s rest is a charming illusion. It’s hard to explain the crucifix of nightmarish exhaustion mixed with throbbing aches. Each night, I just have to survive on my own till I can join humanity’s daily-do at the break of dawn.
Because I’m a mom, I learned long ago that it is possible to feel another person’s pain. If my kids slipped on the rocks, I would cringe on impact and endure their moment of hurting shock. Though my pain wore off while theirs had to heal naturally, still, I felt for them. Literally.
But that’s not how things usually go in this world. More often than not, I turn away from pain and suffering. I hate the sight of it because I know darn well that if I think about it, if I imagine one of my children in that hurting place, I will get hurt, share a loss, suffer embarrassment, cringe in fear, wince in agony. So, not being a glutton for punishment, I shy away.
Yesterday, when I spoke with a nurse about arranging an MRI scan, she mentioned that she knew I was in discomfort. Discomfort is one way to put it. Not particularly accurate, but as a nurse, she can hardly suffer the blows of misfortune with every patient she encounters. If she did, she’d never get her job done. The MRI scheduler jokingly said, “Hope you aren’t claustrophobic.” Deflecting fear with humor helps her do her job, though I didn’t laugh.
So I get it. Sharing each other’s pain isn’t always a good idea. We’ve got to survive and do our jobs. But I have to wonder if we can’t find a middle ground, a sane space between taking on burdens that aren’t ours and insisting, “I feel your pain” when, in fact, we really don’t, and the protection of an island existence that barely keeps us human.
The Internet and online media tend to hyperinflate isolationist islands in our social seas. A casual reviewer drops a few cruel lines, thinking nothing of it but real pain ripples to far shores. The comment section becomes battlegrounds where no blood is actually drawn, but unseen wounds reach deep.
A year ago or so, someone posted a video about a young man in an interview who failed hard. Apparently, lots of people shared the post as slapstick humor. I nearly cried. The guy valiantly struggled through the interview, stammering when he realized he was the cause of the sarcastic laughter behind him. His ability to rise to the challenge plummeted. He stood on an island of misery surrounded by a mocking crowd.
When I served in Peace Corps, I once watched in horror as a teacher called a child who had a severely enlarged head (undoubtedly due to some physical illness) to the front of the class to teach the concept of “gigantic.” I felt the little boy’s embarrassment. I also felt the teacher’s anxiety when I (as a teacher trainer) tried to explain after class that her method wasn’t the proper way to teach that concept (or any concept really). She didn’t think she had hurt the boy, but she was terrified of losing her job. Two islands of pain right there in the same room
The other day, I read a post by someone I know to have suffered greatly. He didn’t share his singular grief; rather his sarcasm insulted many.
Pain comes in so many forms and levels; we can’t feel it all. It would kill us if we did. For me, the key is not feeling everything; it’s being able to feel something. I don’t like pain. But suffering—my own and others’— informs me in a way nothing else can.
Ironically, though suffering may force us to live an island experience— we’re all on the same island.