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MONTHS TO YEARS WINTER 2018

CREATIVE NONFICTION

POETRY

ART & PHOTOGRAPHY


Nothing on this earth is standing still. It’s either growing or dying. No matter if it’s a tree or a human being. Lou Holtz


MONTHS TO YEARS WINTER 2018 Last Words

Kerri K. Morris

6

Crime Scene

John Grey

9

Writing Through Cancer

Ali Zidel Meyers

10

Untitled Photo

Jim Zola

13

Neptune Neptune Omega

Lisa Richter

14

Just One

Sheryl Guterl

17

Father Dearest

Rich Sidlow

18

Dog Therapy

Deborah Burand

22

For My Sisters, Who Died Five Weeks Apart

Judith Katz

24

Untitled Photo

Jim Zola

25

On Bugs and Golfballs and Reality

Kathie Giorgio

26

Pop Pop

Katy Van Sant

28

Your Mother Said

Donna Wallace

30

Bud - Blossom - Spring

Tim Gordan

31

Kindred

Sara Kirschenbaum

32

Dead Man’s Socks

Richard King Perkins III

35

Jane’s Final Adventure

Betsy MacGregor

36

Levels

Ron. Lavalette

41

Love and Death in the ICU

Linda Hansell

42

Untitled Photo

Jim Zola

45

The Last Bumblebee

Hannah Duerloo

46

Rolling The Stone Away

Edna Horning

50

House Empty Now

Catherine Anderson

54

Beyond The Confines

Sarah Bigham

58


FROM THE EDITOR WINTER 2018

Welcome to 2018 and the first issue of Months To Years!

after losing someone. In “Father Dearest,” Rich Sidlow

I am delighted to bring you this inaugural issue. Twen-

takes us into the world of a young pediatric hospitalist

ty-two storytellers, poets, and a photographer have

treating a dying 16-year-old who is suffering but whose

contributed their work and we are so appreciative.

father demands extraordinary care. In “Dog Therapy,” Deborah Burand brings us into her mother’s chemothera-

Months To Years was born, as many of you know, from the

py infusion suite with grace and humor.

experiences my husband Tim and I both had in losing our first spouses. We found there simply weren’t acceptable

In “Pop Pop,” Katy Van Sant brings us two children’s first

forums for talking or writing about mortality and death.

encounter with death through the eyes of young sisters

And so often, we encountered people who hungered for

whose grandfather was murdered. In “Jane’s Final Adven-

such a discussion. I also attended a writing group at the

ture,” Betsy MacGregor explores her sister Jane’s near-

Stanford Cancer Center (Writing Your Cancer Journey) that

death experience as well as Jane’s story of decline into and

helped me cope with my first husband’s terminal diagno-

redemption from heroin, only to later be diagnosed with

sis. Our goal is to bring the power of a group like that to a

terminal cancer and have to rely upon the very narcotics

digital journal.

that had caused her earlier demise.

This first issue presents varied perspectives on death from

In “On Bugs and Golf Balls and Reality,” Kathie Giorgio

storytellers and poets. It includes 13 pieces of creative

reflects with humor and horror on using guided imagery

nonfiction, eight poems, and three original photographs.

to cope with a breast cancer diagnosis and surgery. In

These writers have taken a risk: they write about death in

“Kindred,” Sara Kirschenbaum brings us into her caring

all its sadness, humor, and horror. I am honored to pres-

and heroic quest to save an injured bird while on a writing

ent their work in our first issue.

retreat.

In “Last Words,” Kerri K. Morris explores both her mother’s

In “House Empty Now,” Catherine Anderson tells the story

death and her own bladder cancer diagnosis by consider-

of how losing her parents affected her autistic brother.

ing how aware we are of “firsts” in life but how the “lasts”

And in “Love and Death in the ICU,” we are drawn into

can go almost unnoticed. In “Writing Through Cancer,” Ali

Linda Hansell’s last days with her brother and the simul-

Zidel Meyers explores how writing helped her cope with

taneous intense grief and love her family experienced

her colon cancer diagnosis at age 33. (Ali is the facilitator

together.

of the cancer writing group I attended.)

In “Rolling the Stone Away,” Edna Horning reflects upon her first experience of death, her father’s loss of both

In “Neptune Neptune Omega,” Lisa Richter explores the

religious faith and faith in an afterlife, along with her own

words we leave unsaid and the impact that has upon us

continued belief in an afterlife. In “The Last Bumblebee,”


H.S. Deurloo tells of a grandson’s quest to fulfill his dying grandfather’s wish. The poets in this issue bring a mix of serious reflection and humor to their work. Judith J. Katz, in “For my sisters, who died five weeks apart,” reflects on coping with such extraordinary loss by pushing feelings and literal “cleaning out” off until later. In “Crime Scene,” John Grey personifies heart attacks and illness as criminals stalking his friends. In “Just One,” Sheryl Guterl ponders the terror that a single cancer cell can unleash. Donna Wallace’s poem “Your Mother Said” captures a mother’s smoothing over of her own cancer diagnosis. Tim Gordon’s Bud-Blossom-Spring reflects on Spring literally springing from the cold of winter. In “Dead Man’s Socks,” Richard King Perkins considers the life of the dead prior owner of a box of socks purchased at a garage sale. Sarah Bigham’s poem “Beyond the confines” reflects on illness, pain, and winter. And in “Levels,” Ron. Lavalette considers one cancer patient’s perspective in the context of sicker patients. Jim Zola’s photographs lead us to reflect on things left behind, how shadow and light can overlap

MONTHS TO YEARS

and create something new, and considering what might have been.

Renata K. Louwers | Editor & Co-Founder

I hope these works inspire you. Maybe you will write your

Tim Louwers | CFO & Co-Founder

own story and send it to us. Thank you for reading and let us know what you think via our contact page or by email

Barbara LaBounta | Design Director

at renata@monthstoyears.org. Best, Renata Louwers, Editor & Co-Founder

Renusha Indralingama | Editorial Assistant & Storytelling Coach


Last Words

by Kerri K. Morris My mom’s last words were, “I want some Coke.” She

the fact that my mom was no longer breathing on her

sipped it through a straw and with each intake her pulse

own. He took me by the shoulders and looked into my

slowed. She paused drinking, eyes closed. I asked her to

eyes, “This wasn’t your fault. It was mucus, and then we

take another sip because we needed the numbers to drop.

intubated her incorrectly and ran out of time.”

A mucus plug in her post-surgery lungs cut off her

When the rest of my family arrived — I had begged to be

breathing as she started to take another sip. She choked

left alone on the night shift to get some time with my mom

and then coded.

— I didn’t know what to tell them. I just kept repeating the Coke story, cementing it into my heart and soul.

It’s hard to even remember what happened after. I don’t think she spoke again to anyone in the room. There were

I never told them about her last words because they

so many people in the room. Machines screamed, nurses

seemed too insignificant and small. But I will never forget

and doctors shouted, a crash cart thundered in, followed

her raspy voice, her weakness, and her eyes when she said,

by a pulmonologist on-call at the ER. He intubated her

“I want some Coke.”

esophagus. I suppose I didn’t know they were her last words until a I was huddled in the corner of the room until someone

week later. I hoped that she would recover, but after three

thought to throw me out. At that moment, I fully believed

days she did not and life support was removed. She died

putting the straw into her mouth and urging her to drink

a few days after that. That’s when the words became her

caused her to code.

last words.

For years really, my heart felt like I was to blame. My

I had expected more. Not specifically from my mom, but,

head knows that correlation is not causation. The

in general, I expected last words to have greater depth

pulmonologist came out of ICU to explain this and

and meaning. I suppose if you know the words will be

6


your last, then you might be inclined to make them count.

could see it was true. She accomplished everything she’d

But last things are hard to predict.

set out to do. She celebrated each holiday, shopped for birthdays for her children and grandchildren, took a long

My 19-year-old daughter asked me the other day, “When

driving vacation to Florida on her own, ate whatever she

was the last time you held me?”

wanted and savored wine.

The firsts are memorable. I will never forget her first

When I went to her on that last night, she said, “Kerri, you

breath, her first words, her first steps. But I don’t

know, it’s been a good couple of years, but I wish I could

remember the last time I picked her up in my arms. On

have kept working. I miss my job.”

a specific day at a specific time I picked her up and she, perhaps, laid her head on my shoulder. And, on that

No one, we’re told, says on their death bed that they

same day a few moments later I put her down for the last

wished they’d spent more time at work. But, apparently,

time.

people at their last support group meeting do. She had been a teacher of kids with disabilities and she missed the

She asked as if I’d know precisely, as if there would be a

kids terribly. Over the year-and-a-half that I was there,

story, a memory. I don’t think I could bear to live my life

she lit up every time she told us about volunteering at her

if I knew in advance about all of the lasts. I don’t want

old school.

to have never picked her up again. I imagine if someone had told me, “Today will be the last time,” I’d probably

“I miss my job” weren’t MK’s last words, but they were the

have picked her up and carried her as long as I could and

last ones I heard her say.

then picked her up again and again. I remember her coat, the feel of the brushed cotton when It seems wrong to put a child down and never pick her up

I gave her shoulders a delicate squeeze in lieu of a hug

again. But, it’s inevitable. It is the way of the world.

that I feared would crush her. I remember the tenor of her voice, the slight wobble.

“Goodbyes” are mostly “see you laters.” At least for the optimists among us. For the pessimists, I suspect life is a

Last moments channel all the worth and weight of a

series of imagined last times.

person. They become talismans. Wisdom is the aura of a last moment, except you have to add it in later most of the

When I was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2012,

time, write it back into the story.

I began attending a support group. Of the dozen or so regular attendees, seven died within 18 months. We

I always tell myself that I knew it would be the last time I

experienced loss over and over again. It was excruciating

saw MK and that she knew it, too. Somehow that makes

to watch folks decline. One woman lost weight every

it more momentous. But I doubt very much that MK

week. Though she became frail, she never lost her energy.

would want me to remember her last words as being, “I

She drove herself to her last meeting.

miss my job.” She was an optimist to her core, wry and wily, but an optimist too. She would have wanted me—anxious,

I remember going to her to tell her how much she meant

fretting me—to remember that her last months were the

to me. I’d wanted to for weeks, and now it seemed time

best months of her life. Regret wasn’t a dominant part of

was quickly running out. She always said, “These last 12

her lived experience. It was fleeting, that comment, wistful.

months,” which became 18 months and then 22 months

Still, they were the last words I remember her saying.

and then 24 months— “have been the best of my life.” It’s hard to believe someone when they say such a thing

It was a bit different with my friend B. She and I both

about a terminal diagnosis, but for MK it was true. You

knew that the lasts were piling up and to take note of 7


them. On the last day of our visit with her and her family,

Our lives come down to the prosaic and quotidian.

she stood at the top of her driveway watching us back out in our rental car. Our eyes locked and we knew it was for

Maybe not always, but often enough that we should take

the last time. She was too sick and I lived too far away.

note.

She sent two emails out to a large group of us, both

People are made up of spiritual qualities, the emotional,

described as her “last.” In the first of the two, her

the human connections, the thoughts and ideas. And

penultimate sentence, the one just before “I love you all”

we’re also made up of the material, the needs of the body.

was this: “I’m glad we got a new kitten.” In the second, a

We spend our lives at work and running errands more

few weeks later, she wasted no words and simply invited

often than we spend them meditating or reflecting. Our

people who lived nearby to come over and “recycle” her

relationships are stuffed with life’s ordinariness as well as

shoes and clothes and jewelry by taking what they could

with its power.

use. And, one last time, “With much love.”

We talk more about where we want to eat than we do about what we want to leave behind. If life is going to

Last moments channel all the worth and weight of a person.

mean anything at all, I suspect we have to find it in the day-to-day, the routine, the ordinary. My mom’s last wish was to drink some Coke. Not because it was the last thing she wanted to do, but because it was the last thing she was able to process cognitively. And in

Last words are sometimes ordinary, impersonal,

her last conscious moments on this earth she got to taste

pragmatic, and surprisingly small in scope. In a study

sweet syrup and bubbly carbonation. Maybe the bubbles

of suicide notes by Dr. John Pestian, “neutral” content is

went up her nose a bit. Maybe the syrup coated her sore

second only to the emotional. Writers left instructions and

throat. As I held the straw to her lips, I hope she saw me

to-do lists. He explained:

and knew how grateful I was to give her some Coke.

Secondarily, what you see most often is these practical instructions. Remember to change

* “Analyzing the Language of Suicide Notes to Help

the tires. Remember to change the oil. I drew

Save Lives.” National Public Radio, Inc., May 15, 2013.

a check, but I didn’t put the money in.

www.npr.org/2013/05/15/184232472/analyzing-the-

Please go ahead and make the deposit. *

language-of-suicide-notes-to-help-save-lives Kerri K. Morris is a writer and Associate Professor of English. She is the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Governors State University. Her blog, Cancer Is Not a Gift, explores living with cancer. She lives in the suburbs south of Chicago and has previously lived in the deserts of New Mexico and the tundra of Alaska. If she could have a different life, she would have chosen to be taller and play point guard for Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols. Instead, she delights in living

8


Crime Scene By John Grey

There’s been another death. A heart attack in the night. May as well have been an intruder, plugging Frank with a pistol as he slept. More and more, my life is like a crime scene with my friends its unwitting victims. Seemingly safe in hospital, wasn’t Adriana the victim of a bacterial semi-automatic. And weren’t those stray cancer bullets that smashed through Chris’s window. And then David in a car accident... a robbery attempt by a telephone pole… he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Every day, everyone I know is trying to live but the criminal element is everywhere. They’re not after jewels and money. It’s a heartbeat they’ve got their eyes on.

John Grey is an Australian poet and a US resident. Recently published in the Tau, Studio One and Columbia Review with work upcoming in Leading Edge, Examined Life Journal and Midwest Quarterly.

9


Writing Through Cancer By Ali Zidel Meyers

Hardwood floors bathed in natural light and a dapper

support groups where I was the youngest by decades.

pianist greet me at the entryway of the Cancer Center. I haven’t come for drugs or surgery today. If not for the

“Keep an open mind,” I tell myself. I am not a joiner, and I

flurry of doctors, nurses, and patients ambling amidst the

haven’t written anything other than work-related articles or

scent of sanitizer, I might forget where I am…or even who

journal entries since college. My hands are clammy.

I am: a 33-year-old mother of two facing my mortality, trying to survive

The women talk amongst themselves – sharing information about absent group members and their whereabouts.

“Writing through Cancer” meets on the second floor,

One of them catches my eye and smiles. She has gray-

across from the infusion center. I walk up the white marble

brown hair clipped close to her angular face. Her friend

stairway—30 steps or so—to see if I can do it. These

is plump, with large breasts jutting out and gray hair

steps become a ritual that serves as a barometer of my

hanging in ringlets around her face. The bald man

physical status on a given day; the oxygen and energy it

wears sunglasses that cover half his face. His jaw moves

takes to climb signify my blood cell counts, strength, and

perpetually, as if chewing food, though his mouth is

endurance. Today, I’m not winded.

empty. He keeps to himself.

The conference room door, propped open with a chair,

I feel drawn to a quiet woman at the corner of the table.

points the way toward soft voices and laughter inside. I

She sits alone, her frosty blue eyes peeking out from long

walk in and find Sharon standing at the head of the table,

shocks of white-blond hair. Looking down, I notice her

laying out handouts and pens. I know her face from the

red shoes, like Dorothy’s from the Wizard of Oz, beneath

website. She is taller than I expected, a good foot above

layers of mismatched clothing. Her face is tired and

me, with neck-length auburn hair and a flowing silk jacket

kind. Our eyes meet; we share the tentative smile of two

that hangs to her knees.

introverts.

“You must be Ali,” she says, her warm smile easing my

“Welcome to the group. I see we have some new faces

hesitation.

and some familiar ones. Let’s take a brief moment to introduce ourselves, and we’ll get started with our first

“Yes. Thank you for answering my email.”

prompt. Go ahead and say your name, something about the cancer you’re dealing with, and anything else you want

“I’m so glad you’re joining us. Please take a seat

to share with the group. Nan, would you like to start?”

anywhere; we’ll start in a few minutes.” “Sure. I’m Nan. I had salivary cancer two years ago— Five women and one man sit around the rectangular

went through chemo and radiation, and am doing pretty

table. All of them over the age of 50. I expected to be

well right now. I’m a caregiver for my husband who has

the youngest person here, having attended a couple of

Parkinson’s, so that comes up in my writing a lot too.”

10


“Thanks Nan,” Sharon nods as she looks to the next

The group shares a simultaneous head shake.

person. “Good. Let’s begin. We’ll start with a prompt about “Sylvia Johnston. I did oral cancer in ’98, melanoma

windows. Think of a window you’re looking through these

in ’02, and breast cancer in ’05. Did surgery, chemo,

days. It can be literal or figurative. Write for 15 minutes

radiation, you know: slash, burn, and poison—the whole

about what you see, what you feel, when you gaze

nine yards. I’m good now,” she says with a sheepish grin.

through your window. Begin.”

She talks like a female Frank Sinatra. I fumble to turn on my computer, scramble to mute the We all turn toward the lone man in the glasses. “I’m Ron.

sound as it awakens. I don’t know where to begin; I type

I’ve got esophageal cancer. I’m also going blind in one of

“My Window” at the top of a document, and stare at

my eyes. I’m getting by.”

the screen. The other writers have busy hands—mostly with paper and pen. A couple of them type furiously on

“Good to see you, Ron. I’m glad you’re back.” Sharon

laptops. I take a breath and begin to write. The words

winked at him.

flow surprisingly, and I lose myself in the image of my kids playing outside, just beyond our kitchen window.

Ann speaks softly, looking down between phrases, at the table. “I’m Ann. I have a rare blood cancer. I recently left

It feels like seconds later when Sharon chimes her

my job on early retirement and moved to a cottage in the

meditation bell, and we all stop writing. “Who would like

woods.”

to share what you’ve written?”

“Thank you, Ann. Glad to have you with us today.”

Edith begins. Her writing, which sounded like the start of

We finish introducing ourselves, and Sharon outlines the

a story, paints a picture of her backyard garden. Colors,

group process. There would be prompts followed by time

tranquility, smells. I listen with pleasure. I remember the

to write, then time to share what we had written, if we

joy of being read to, one I’ve scarcely encountered since

liked. The only feedback we’d hear would be comments

childhood. I disappear into the words.

on what others liked, what resonated. I’m relieved to hear there won’t be critique.

“I love this piece, Edith,” Sharon comments. “The image of the birds of paradise fanned like peacocks, and the

“We’re writing from the belly of the beast here. It’s

hummingbirds drinking nectar like wine—just lovely. What

generative writing—in the moment, spontaneous, fresh.

did the rest of you like?”

That means we don’t criticize or ask questions. We simply listen and honor what was written. I’ll ask you, ‘What

Nancy and Sylvia praise phrasing and tone. Say how

stays with you about this piece?’ or ‘What did you like?’

the writing makes them feel at peace. I jump in with a

We do this for the safety of the group and the freedom of

compliment. This is easy. It’s restorative. A literary love

expression. Any questions?”

fest. Sharon deftly transitions, “Who’s next?”


Feeling reassured by Edith’s reception, I raise my hand to

tree. The honesty of mother’s hope to see herself watching

go next.

the scene—alive and well. I love it. What about the rest of you; what stays with you?”

“I wrote something,” I announce. Sharon’s feedback takes me by surprise. Whether the “Go ahead,” Sharon nods.

poem is good or bad doesn’t matter. I feel heard, seen, and understood. The other writers encourage me too.

My Window

The strength of that experience—reading what I wrote and

From my window, I see

having it witnessed and affirmed, feeds a nascent desire

you grown and strong

to write that has been with me since childhood. It teaches

my brown boy shot up

me that I might have something to say that can touch

like a sugar cane allowed to keep

others. It’s the discovery of a wadi I will walk through in

going your dark hair shining

the barren territory of my isolation, at other times in my

your impossible smirk

illness. It is learning to listen to myself and telling others

your bright eyes glowing.

what it means to be alive in this moment.

I look out my window and see

Writing also holds an incredible potency that I will try and

you, my pixie-girl

understand but fail to discover until years later. It has the

your fox-hair jutting out

potential to heal and restore, and I will watch it wield its

like flicks of fire

restorative power time and time again—first on me, then

emerald eyes sparkling

on others, and years later, when I become the facilitator

your wicked smarts.

of the same writing group that I’ve attended for the first time today. Through writing, something will dislodge itself

Self-possessed both of you

inside me, open a pathway to another life and make me

my children

feel whole despite the fractured self I didn’t recognize

under the magnolia tree

through the worst days of my illness.

laughing loud as its scent— clean and untattered, voluptuous with life. Ali Zidel Meyers is a writer, educator, and colon cancer And in the window

survivor. She is passionate about the intersection of writing

I see myself

and healing (and helping others experience it). For over

reflected back

five years, she has led writing groups at Breast Cancer

alive and smiling

Connections in Palo Alto, California and for Stanford’s

not a ghost

Supportive Care program at the Stanford Cancer Center.

but still here and real.

She is also a writing workshop leader at Project Koru. Ali’s work has been published in Survivor’s Review,

I exhale quickly and look up, feel the group’s quiet like a

Coping Magazine, and Chicken Soup for the Soul.

cloak.

Her writing has also been featured in the art exhibitions: Night of Inspiration in White (Los Altos Hills, CA, 2010)

“A rich and illuminated poem,” Sharon breaks the silence.

and Love Your Body (North Carolina, 2007).

“The simile of the boy like sugar cane and the girl’s

She earned runner-up status in the Mendocino Coast

fire-hair—draw such sweetness and vitality out. And the

Writer’s Conference Contest (2009) for her poetry.

synesthesia of laughing bright as the scent of the magnolia

More of her work can be found at Holy Mess.

12


Untitled (Wood) Photograph by Jim Zola

13


Neptune Neptune Omega

by Lisa Richter I’m sitting in our garden wrapped in a quilt, my body

1 Neptune

warmly protected, my head exposed to gusts of chilled air.

2 Neptune

The weather has turned; a storm is blowing in. Adrienne

3 Omega

Rich’s collection of prose, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence rests by my side. I’ve returned to this book several times

The shock of these words. The uselessness of uncovering

over the past years; its pages are marked with comments,

them now, six months later. I don’t recall stashing them

story starts, my own spontaneous poems. I open the

here; how strange to have silenced them within these

book to find an oh! in the margin beside a passage

pages urging the spoken truth.

I’ve underlined. The liar, it begins, leads an existence of unutterable loneliness. I consider what part of my life might be a lie, perhaps to some degree most, for my body has lied to my mind, my mind to my body, and I think of Lyn during her years of treatment, how we never talked about the end, for it wasn’t going to happen, how her doc never mentioned the end for it wasn’t going to happen, and how my mind told my body that it wasn’t going to happen, though my body knew the truth, and hadn’t Lyn, too? Lying is done with words, Adrienne writes, and also with silence. Tucked between pages of the book, I find a loose-leaf sheet folded into a neat rectangle. It is wide-ruled, threeholed. Pale blue horizontal lines, one long thin vertical red. I unfold the paper, and with it the memory. Three simple words stacked one atop each other, a list written with care in loopy cursive, the p connected to the t, the t to the u. 14

* Her name was Marie. She’d had hair dyed the color of butter and shaped in a teased style—rolled bangs, puffed out sides smoothed stiff with spray—a look which dated her and made her somewhat unreal. She was the second try of hospice at our home; the first, Carol, had arrived with a pitying look and an “I’m sorry I’m here....” and was sent packing immediately. The discussed plan was to use hospice just for a while, until Lyn recovered from the lung surgery, to eliminate for a couple days (maybe weeks) the exhausting drives back and forth to the hospital. It had been my suggestion, impelled by awaking to Lyn’s gasps for air in the middle of the night, panics which frightened us both. Just for a while, I’d promised Lyn, though our parents had been in hospice and our experience spoke otherwise. Just for a while, though for them, as for nearly all, it had been a one-way passage. Marie offered encouragement. “We have had patients who’ve entered our care,” she emphasized to Lyn,


“then left, then sometimes came back in, then left again. It

daily with people like me, the numbed ones who loved,

requires a little bit of paperwork, that’s all.” A sympathetic

who stood by and watched and waited, who eventually

shrug, a tight smile.

nodded yes to the worst of news.

Alone with Marie afterwards, outside where I am now, I

When Lyn died one week later, our friend Andy picked up

remember pointing out a cluster of magnolia blossoms

the phone and called the local mortuary, McCormick and

birthed just that morning, their velvety white petals falling

Sons, a fake stone façade building on a gravel lot with a

open like bowls, cupping the sun’s glowing warmth. Marie

small fountain in the front. It was to this sullen place we

didn’t look. She took a blank sheet of paper from a folder

went the following day, he by my side, to sit in the office

and uncapped a black pen and this is what she said:

and discuss the options: the cost of Lyn’s cremation, when it would take place, which vessel would contain her ashen

When it is over, here is who you call.

remains.

Her tone was abrupt, but not harsh. She was, I reasoned,

Who are you? The woman hovering in the mortuary’s

being professional. Death was her specialty.

vapid front room wanted to know. During the preceding years of hospital visits and chemo treatments, everyone

“Neptune,” Marie said as she wrote the name of the

had wanted to know. You a relative? A friend? “Her

mortuary following the numeral “1” on the lined paper, a

partner,” I’d say, and they’d nod – whether doctor, nurse,

sizable diamond and a diamond-inlaid wedding band

or undertaker—and they’d know that legally this meant

flashing on her hand. “It was a family business once.

nothing, but heart-wise it meant I was being ripped in half.

Terrible sibling feud. They split, yet each kept the name.” On the line below she wrote a numeral “2” followed by

I filled out the cremation forms, signed them, spoke a

“Neptune” again. “Either will do...” she said. She paused

couple yes’s and no’s, maybe a thank you at the end,

and then went ahead with the story. “Some of our patient

Andy there, gentle witness, holding steady for me. I wrote

families aren’t aware that there are two...and both local.

a check, and we left, terrorized. “You did good,” he said.

It’s happened that they’ve called one for the pickup and accidentally been connected to the other for the ashes and

Would Neptune, Neptune, or Omega have been any

been informed the body isn’t there, was never there.” She

different? Any less harrowing than the goth woman who

chuckled as she wrote Omega down as a third option. This

opened the door of the mortuary when I returned to pick

was not funny. I wanted to tell her she needed to leave,

up Lyn’s ashes? Black gypsy cloth, dyed raven hair, a

but then Lyn called from inside and Marie got up to tend

face as bland and colorless as moon dust, the foyer in

to her.

which she stood, an unlit gray. She slid the canister across a wooden desk toward me, pushing it with the tips of her

After a couple minutes, I followed Marie downstairs to our bedroom. There had been many firsts, but metering out morphine in a syringe to my love came along unexpected. Roxynol, it was called. Marie drew a picture of a sucker and a bottle, using the same careful movements with which she’d written the names of the mortuaries. “Give her, when she needs it, .25,” she said to me, explaining its position on the gauge. “That is ¼ the way up. The center is .5.” She studied my face, touched my hand. Her job involved interacting

“Who are you?” The woman in the mortuary’s vapid front room wanted to know. A relative? A friend? “Her partner,”.... legally this meant nothing but heart-wise it meant that I was being ripped in half.

15


fingers. The voice rasping in her throat said “Sign, and you

We never said goodbye.

can go.” How does one voice the inconceivable? Our farewells “I’m sorry,” Lyn had said just a week earlier to friends

during the final weeks took the form of spontaneous

when they came to visit before departing on a trip; they’d

guttural wails, begun by Lyn and joined in by me,

brought birthday cards and candles for her 60th birthday

indulged for a couple moments then halted as swiftly

which was, in fact, this day, the day I cradled the small

as they’d taken hold.

canister of her ashes in my arms. I’ve saved some of Lyn’s phone messages, listening to “I’m sorry, baby,” was all I could think to say as I settled

them when I feel strong enough, when the crave of their

the canister in the car’s trunk, propped between books and

comfort is greater than the sadness I know they will

boxes for the ride home. I’m sorry. Not an apology but an

also bring. Her faith was unshakable. In one of the last

admission of utter helplessness. The ultimate surrender of

recordings, she confides in her characteristic sanguine tone

nothing more to give.

that she’s just awoken and is breathing somewhat freer, the aches are somewhat less, perhaps things have finally *

A puff of wind descends in an exhausted sigh. I refold the

turned around. She pauses, an intimacy. Then the whisper, I love you, her words absolute.

loose-leaf sheet and return it to Adrienne’s book, its pages flipping softly beside me.

Lisa Richter lives in Laguna Beach, California. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have appeared in the Santa Monica Review, the Orange Coast Review, the Squaw Valley Review, Unbroken, and bioStories (online and print anthology), among others. In 2014, she was selected as a finalist in Glimmer Train's Family Matters fiction contest. A member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, she holds degrees in creative writing (Antioch University in Los Angeles, 2010) and mathematics (University of Virginia, 1983). She is currently at work on an essay project, www.talismanofhappiness.com, inspired by a classic Italian cookbook once belonging to her grandmother and mother.

16


Just One

By Sheryl Guterl Like solar eclipse dark shadow shows back-lit on film. Cells gone wild, multiply with abandon, hold health hostage. Evaluate tumor. Assess risks. Treat. Cut, soak, remove, Stitch, bandage, soothe. One cell remains, duplicates rampage, consumes life.

Sheryl Guterl lives in New Mexico. She counts her six children and seven grandchildren as great blessings; she wishes she could erase the deaths of friends, parents, and her husband. But extensive travel in Europe and Africa has renewed her zest for life and new love has refreshed her hope. Writing poetry has helped reduce the dunghill of grief.

17


Father Dearest by Richard Sidlow

Tall and lanky with delicate hands, long fingers, and a

During Alvin’s first 24 hours in the hospital, the specialists

thin face, Alvin had lost 80 pounds in the prior six months.

offered unanimous opinions:  Alvin would not benefit

Previously the size of a high school football player, he had

from further oncologic treatment—palliative care was the

transformed into a scarecrow. At 16, he was dying of a

best and most useful care we could offer him.  I agreed. 

rare form of intestinal cancer.

Alvin’s cancer had already broken through two courses of chemotherapy, had proven to be insensitive to radiation

I was his doctor during the last two months of his life.

therapy, and had already encased vital blood vessels in his abdomen making surgery an impossibility as well.  

As an attending pediatric hospitalist, I met Alvin a few

years after finishing my residency in combined Internal

On the afternoon of his second day in the hospital, Alvin’s

Medicine/Pediatrics. I had not completed a rotation in

father arrived.  I thought it odd that neither of his parents

pediatric oncology or palliative care and so had to rely on

had been with him until then, especially given that he was

my experiences in adult oncology wards.

so ill. I did not know what to expect.

  

Besides the incessant pain, Alvin complained that he was

I introduced myself to Alvin’s father, only to receive passing

always very tired, nauseous, and lacked an appetite.  I

attention and a faint nod in reply.  I asked if Alvin’s mother

promised him that I would try my best to keep him

was going to arrive soon.

comfortable and relieve his symptoms. It was clear to me

that I would need help, and a lot of it, to fulfill my promise

“Mom’s not around,” Alvin’s father matter-of-factly

I asked my colleagues in pediatric and adult oncology,

retorted, this time making eye contact with me.

radiation oncology, and pain management, to share their

opinions about Alvin’s case.

“Will she be around any time today?” I queried.  “I can work around your schedules.”

 Little did I know how challenging my promise would be to

fulfill.

“No.”

18


“When will she be available?” I asked.

be breaking my promise to Alvin if I honored his father’s

directive. Why were such scenarios not discussed in

“I take care of Alvin alone.  Mom’s been out of the picture

medical school? How does a doctor respect all parties

for a long time.”

and yet also “do no harm” to the patient? These questions

swirled in my mind continuously during the next two

“So, it’s just you and him?”

months I treated Alvin.

He sarcastically replied, “Mmm hmm.”

I tried to stay true to my promise to Alvin while navigating

the unreasonable demands of his father for aggressive

“Ok then, let’s talk….”

treatment. It proved impossible.

My intent during this exchange was simple — I needed

During this time, the only witnessed emotional support

to share the really bad news with the family, and I

Alvin’s father gave to his son was blandly telling others

needed the entire family present.  I was not interested

that “Alvin would be OK” in his son’s presence.   However,

in prying, just doing the right thing.  Yet I felt defensive

it was painfully clear to everyone involved in Alvin’s care

from the starting gate.  Was Alvin’s father’s curtness

that he was suffering.  Despite this, Alvin never articulated

baseline orneriness or cultural quirk?  Was he frustrated

a syllable of dissent and deferred to his father regarding

with questions having to do with Alvin’s mother, with any

his care, whether out of fear or respect I was never able to

questions coming from doctors, or simply with his son’s

determine, even when asked outside the presence of his

situation? Where was this exchange going given its poor

father.

start?

Soon after being admitted, we began experimental

The next ten minutes bordered on the surreal.  A soliloquy

chemotherapy— Alvin tolerated it for only two days after

on my part followed, despite numerous efforts to elicit a

almost dying from gastrointestinal bleeding and diarrhea. 

response from Alvin or his father.  As I summarized the

He had constant headaches, back pain, and rib pain.  It

collective medical opinions, I noticed there was almost no

hurt him to breathe, it hurt him to move.  Physical therapy,

interaction between father and son.  When their eyes did

despite Alvin’s father’s demands, could never be initiated.  

meet little perceptible warmth was detectable between

them.  I ended with the statement, conveyed as gently

The already reduced body mass with which Alvin had

as possible, that the concept of treatment for cure or

arrived continued to decrease since he had no desire to

extension of life was futile, and that the focus had to be on

eat.  Tube feedings of different kinds were attempted,

palliation.

again at the behest of Alvin’s father.  They were uniformly unsuccessful.

Just as I finished speaking, Alvin’s father abruptly broke

his silence and matter-of-factly stated that he wanted

In tandem with our pain management service, I tried to

everything to be done for his son:  chemotherapy,

treat his pain with combinations of drugs at doses that

radiation therapy, nutritional support, and physical

would render a healthy person unconscious for days.  This

rehabilitation.  He added, equally unemotionally, that

still only provided inadequate pain relief.  My and the

he did not want to hear about palliative care or hospice

care team’s repeated efforts to convince Alvin’s father

again.  Alvin was silent.

to invoke palliative sedation to relieve Alvin’s pain were ignored.  He did not want his son to be made unconscious

His insistence stunned me and prompted me to ponder

by our treatments.  Any overtures to the hospital’s ethics

to whom am I responsible? When the patient is a minor,

committee to try and override Alvin’s father’s wishes were

must a parent’s wish prevail? I felt strongly that I would

thwarted—Alvin was a minor, now with questionable and 19


wavering decision-making capacity, and was completely

The nurses who cared for Alvin attended to him with

deferential to his father’s wishes.

great compassion. However, we did not take care of

many pediatric oncology patients on this floor, so the

Over time, Alvin’s bones jutted out from his skin more and

emotional toll of caring for this dying child, exacerbated

more.  Pressure ulcers formed on his buttocks, heels, and

by his father, took its toll on the nurses.  Alvin’s father was

elbows, despite the use of an air mattress and aggressive

often hypercritical of how the nurses cared for his son,

efforts by our nurses to prevent this very complication.

often forgetting to say thank you but never forgetting

to criticize them for trivialities.  One nurse, tasked with

About six weeks into his admission, I noticed that one

his care, was a recent nursing school graduate who had

side of Alvin’s face was more flaccid than the other.  This

chosen specifically to be a pediatric nurse and Alvin was

progressed over the next few days to his having problems

one of her first patients.  I witnessed the depletion of her

pronouncing certain sounds, and then losing the ability

emotional reserves day by day.  Many of the seasoned

to swallow. During this same time, his eyes began to

nurses tried to bolster her up, but they were becoming

slowly jut out of his eye sockets and lose their vital glint. 

emotionally frayed as well, particularly so as the final days

I knew that metastases, the ones causing the incessant

of Alvin’s life rapidly approached.

headaches, were causing this, too.

  Alvin continued to deteriorate and his room took on an odor, not related to any bodily functions, personal hygiene, or substances used to clean the room.  It could only be described as the smell of Alvin’s tumor burden eating him alive.  Every time he exhaled, more of this invisible, foul humor emanated from his open, parched mouth,

About a week before his death,

Alvin’s father... broke his silence... he wanted everything... for his son: chemotherapy, radiation therapy... he did not want to hear about palliative care or hospice.

filling the room with a smell that was a cross between vomit and

Alvin was suddenly more alert, aroused by a new pain that rose above the baseline din of his other pains.  This new pain came with an insidious bonus—it made it harder for him to breathe.  The new pain was located along his lower right chest wall, close to the bottom of his rib cage in the front.  His ability to inhale was impaired now, this made obvious by the unevenness of movement

burning flesh.

between the right and left sides of his emaciated chest.  I

shuddered and paused—how much suffering could one

Throughout Alvin’s hospital stay, any discussion with Alvin’s

person take?  Now, a tumor mass engulfed one of his ribs

father about the status of his son was colored with a thick

and tore it asunder.  It was making every breath an ordeal

patina of unreality.  I did not sense magical thinking on

as the frayed ends of the once intact bone rubbed against

his part.  At no time did he invoke any religious or spiritual

each other and caused lancinating pain. All we could do

explanation for his approach either, and he refused any

was raise the absurdly high doses of his pain medications

visit from our pastoral care department outright.  The best

that remained inadequate.  It was only now, as we kept

I could come up with was that simply, inexplicably, Alvin’s

increasing the dosages of the pain medications higher

father was robotically able to ignore the very real suffering

and higher, and Alvin’s breathing progressively got slower

of his son and navigate his care accordingly.  This, despite

and slower, that Alvin’s father stopped ignoring our daily

every effort the team made to prepare him for the

requests to change Alvin to “do not resuscitate” status.  He

inexorable to come. 

finally agreed three days before Alvin died. 

20


The night he died, Alvin was receiving hourly amounts

All I got was a blank stare in return.  He turned and

of pain medication that were ten to fifteen times the

walked away, and I, not surprised but disappointed

upper limit normally given for someone his weight.  His

nevertheless, continued to the morgue. 

respiratory rate was six breaths per minute, enough to

convey a tenuous connection to life and move enough

After gowning up, the autopsy technician started his work. 

air to moan.  His left eye was jutting out of his eye socket

The tumor metastases were light tan, fleshy, with a pinkish

precariously, the left side of his face was without contour. 

tinge to their surface reflecting their success at achieving

At about 11:30pm, Alvin’s breathing began to slow down,

an independent blood supply.  They were innumerable

and his hands and feet began to turn bluish.  After another

and ubiquitous, visible or palpable on every bony surface

hour, his yellowish skin became much paler and his breaths

revealed by the technician’s knife or saw.  The inside

less frequent and much shallower.  He died at 12:45am. 

surface of Alvin’s skull was riddled with tumors, as were his eye sockets and the base of his skull:  it was now plain to

His father was not there. 

see why he had constant headaches and why his eyes were being forced out of their sockets.  His spine was macerated

Later that morning I found out Alvin’s father consented to

and moth eaten by tumor in various stages of growth and

have an autopsy done on his son.  While Alvin’s cause of

regression, more like a cat’s chew toy than the pillar along

death was clear to me, and I had already visualized in my

which a person’s stature depends.  I saw his rib cage,

mind’s eye the anatomic tumor invasions he had endured

peppered with tumor masses that looked like barnacles

in his last weeks, I needed to be at this autopsy:  I needed

stuck to the side of a ship, and the lower right tenth rib

to actually see my cellular opponent and the damage it

was broken by a solitary tumor several centimeters in size

caused, this while the feelings of anger, disappointment,

completely encasing the bone, no doubt the cause of

and despondency regarding this case still roiled inside of

the sudden rib pain that was the penultimate event prior

me. 

to dying.  The genesis of his ordeal, the tumor located

in his ascending colon, encased and distorted it beyond

I also found out later that morning that our newly minted

recognition.  It was plain to see that Alvin’s road to death

nurse, whose emotional reserve was being particularly

was ineffably horrific, and that we were unreasonably

depleted while caring for Alvin, asked to be transferred to

limited and rendered impotent in our ability to mitigate

another unit, citing the emotional distress of this case as

even a small portion of his suffering. 

the reason for her request.  

Alvin’s death was the only modicum of closure achieved

On the way to the morgue that afternoon, I saw Alvin’s

by anyone involved in his care. All that remains from this

father in the distance.  Initially his back was to me, and

experience are haunting recollections that I was part of

then he turned around.  Our eyes met, and in the couple

an exercise in unnecessarily flogging a dying teenager,

of seconds that passed, I hoped that for a fleeting

leaving a large hospital chart and bad memories in its

moment some shred of emotion would be communicated

wake. 

by him—sadness, anger, relief, understanding, anything. 

Richard Sidlow is a practicing Pediatric Hospitalist and seasoned medical volunteer. His work has been published in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Blood and Thunder, and New Theory.

21


Dog Therapy

by Deborah Burand On the day of my mother’s first chemotherapy treatment,

A woman wearing a head scarf shuffles by our room. She

the family crowds into a small, private room at the cancer

is wheeling an IV tree down the hall. A dangling tube

center in our central Indiana hometown. My mother

stretches from the bag that hangs on the top branch of

sits in the middle of the room enthroned on a vinyl-

the metal tree to the woman’s arm. As we watch the

covered lounge chair that, aside from the hanging bags

woman’s slow progress, my mother says, “People work

of dripping drugs, looks like the seatmate to my father’s

hard to live, don’t they?”

favorite TV chair. Nurses advise us to keep a close eye on my mother so we can alert them if my mother has an

I am tempted to respond by saying, “Don’t settle for this

allergic reaction to the chemotherapy.

sad place. Let’s go find more knowledgeable doctors and more effective treatments. Don’t count on miracles

My father, brother, and I, encircle my mother’s chair as the

to happen here.” But I keep quiet. This is not the time or

room grows hot. Is she looking flushed, someone asks.

the place to start arguing again with my mother about her medical choices. I’ve already lost that battle.

“Aren’t we all?” I reply as I tug at the collar of my shirt, which inexplicably seems to be tightening around my neck.

Around noon a nurse brings a tray of food into the room for my mother. Nearly everything on the plate is white –

The clock on the wall ticks loudly as if trying to

white bread, mashed potatoes, baked chicken and vanilla

compensate for the silence of my unusually quiet family.

pudding. The only color is the bright orange of carrot

Every few minutes one of us asks my mother how she is

rounds. When I comment on how uniformly white the

feeling. “Just fine,” she answers, smiling. Then we all shift

food is, my mother responds quickly, saying, “I like white

position -- crossing ankles, stretching arms, and rocking

food.” Mashed potatoes dribble down her top but she

back on the legs of chairs that we pulled into the small,

doesn’t notice.

airless room. Later I read in one of those “what to expect when you Chemo treatments, it turns out, can be boring. My brother

have chemo” brochures that bland food is best for patients

starts a crossword puzzle. When he leaves the room to call

undergoing chemotherapy. But that is not the point of my

his wife, I snatch up the puzzle and finish it. I then make a

mother’s newly professed appetite for white food. Rather,

mental note to bring my back copies of the “New Yorker”

she is warning me in “mother-speak.” She’s cautioning me

and “The Economist” to future treatment sessions.

to muzzle any criticisms that I might be tempted to lob at this place, no matter how veiled those reproaches might

22


be. Neither my father nor my brother seem to notice the

again except for the ticking of the wall clock. Finally, my

undercurrent in the room. My mother and I are sniping at

father breaks the silence. “Now wasn’t that some dog?”

a sound frequency that’s lost to male ears. “What dog?” I ask barely able to contain myself. “You call Pull yourself together, I tell myself. This is her life and

that ‘some’ dog?”

her cancer, not yours. You need to back off. Let her call the shots even if you think she’s making a serious, even

With the words “some dog” echoing in my ears, it is as

terminal, mistake.

if we’ve somehow fallen into the pages of my favorite childhood book, Charlotte’s Web. But in this cancer

Suddenly one of the largest German Shepherds I have

barnyard, there are no sweet spiders spinning webs that

ever seen bounds into the center of the room. Tethered

extoll the virtues of a beloved pig, rather there’s just me

to a middle-aged woman, the dog circles, sniffs crotches,

- channeling Templeton the Rat as if he crawled out from

and then settles down on the linoleum floor with a loud

under Wilbur’s trough to sneer at the therapy dog. I hear

harrumph and flurry of dog hair. As my family moves

myself say, “Surely you don’t mean the dog that came

our collective feet to make room for this large animal,

into the room just now and then ignored us all. If that is

the woman tells us that the dog’s name is Bear. Bear,

dog therapy….” All heads swivel toward me. The crowded

she explains, is seven years old. He is one of the cancer

room suddenly feels even hotter and I bite my lip to stop

center’s therapy dogs and visits the center every Thursday.

my outburst.

I start sneezing as a cloud of fur tickles my nose. I try to

Looking back, I have wondered why I, an avid dog-lover,

stem my sneezing fit by breathing through my mouth, but

took such an instant dislike to that particular German

soon my tongue begins to feel so coated with dog hair

Shepherd. One well-meaning friend suggests that

that a comb seems in order.

perhaps the chatty woman was right that the dog was unusually sensitive to the needs of patients and their

The woman ignores my escalating snorts and sniffles as

families. “Maybe,” my friend says, “the dog knew that your

she brightly extolls the wonders of the animal at our feet.

mother and family were not in need of comfort and that’s

Bear, she says, is unusually sensitive to the emotional

why he turned his back on you.” She does not convince

state of patients and their families. He can tell who needs

me.

comforting. A more likely explanation as to what was vexing me about I stare at the dog who has now turned his back on us. His

that bear of a dog and his happy handler is this: they were

eyes are locked on the exit sign in the hall. It looks like

the safest targets in the room. Better to complain about

Bear has decided that we’re all just hunky dory. No need

an indifferent therapy dog than to give voice to mounting

of comfort here.

fears over my mother’s choice of oncologists and medical treatments. Perhaps Bear was giving me exactly the dog

My mother, ever the hostess, asks the woman about the

therapy that I needed. Some dog, indeed.

training that therapy dogs receive. My father thanks the woman for her service. I, on the other hand, am preoccupied with trying to find a place where I can put my

Deborah Burand is an associate professor of clinical law at

feet without stepping on the plumed tail that seems to be

NYU. When not teaching, she is a freelance writer. Her

expanding like one of those hairy chia pets marketed on

articles, essays and short stories have been published in

late night television.

the Bellevue Literary Review, Utne Reader, Midwestern Gothic, Bear River Review, and various other magazines

After the dog and woman leave us, the room goes quiet

and newspapers. She is currently at work on a novel that she dreamed up while high on fertility drugs.

23


For My Sisters, Who Died Five Weeks Apart By Judith J. Katz Thinking about them is like opening the door to the hall closet. Things just fall out and I find that I am too full; the old and new are a jumble. The childhood and adulthood a messy pile of memories; indispensable and Goodwill ready. What is essential to keep is obscured by too much stuff. What do I love and what loved me? What is the trash of a lifetime that I can let go of? The sisters were complex women so different, so damaged, so loving, so loved, so gone. When I open that door Things fall out and I have to pick them up and there’s never any time to ask the question of what I still need, want or love, because I’m in a hurry, coming and going and I’ll think about it another day. When it’s raining. And then it rains, snows, sleets. The chilled wind blows through my spine and the day of cleaning arrives;

Judith J. Katz is the Lead Teacher for Creative Writing

there is no avoiding it now.

at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High

It is a matter of my own life

School in New Haven, Connecticut, where her signature

and death; to separate

courses focus on writing poetry. She is also the Lead

from the damage. To clean out

Creative Writing Teacher for Yale University’s Summer

my closet. To put on my good coat

Scholar Program where her work focuses on writing the

and find my own way home.

college essay. Her work has appeared in Edify.

24


Untitled (Black & White) Photograph by Jim Zola


On Bugs and Golf Balls and Reality By Kathie Giorgio

While waiting for surgery to remove a malignant tumor

bright blue, round and smooth, like a marble. A gem.

from my right breast, a wait that lasted for 28 days from

I don’t know why I pictured the tumor as blue. But it was.

diagnosis to knife, I listened to healing meditation record-

And not an ugly blue, but a sky blue, a robin’s egg, tucked

ings. In one that I favored, I was told to place my hand

into the pink nest of my breast.

where I was hurting and I was to picture what needed to be healed.

And then the robin’s egg sprouted legs. It was actually an insect of some sort, with six hairy blue legs reaching out

I wasn’t hurting. There was no pain. Yet I was still being

and digging into the pink.

told I was sick. With my eyes closed, headphones on, sitting in my recliner, I placed my hand over my right breast.

Of course, my imagination took off and I braided it quick-

I placed it at the 10:00 position, as I was told that was

ly with reality. I decided this wasn’t a tumor at all. It was a

where the tumor was. I couldn’t feel it, I never did feel it.

tick, maybe, or some sort of spider, that managed to get

But I pictured my breast as if I was looking straight at the

so deeply under my skin that my skin closed over it. It had

face of a clock and I put my hand over the ten.

been living there, inside of me, for who knows how long, until it became engorged enough to show up as a tumor

I collect clocks. Thinking now of my breast as a clock, I

on my mammogram. Why did it test positive for cancer in

meditated on how much I wanted to keep this particular

the biopsy? I had no idea. Maybe insect cellular make-up

piece in my collection.

is the same as cancer. But it was a bug. A parasite. Not a tumor at all.

Following the melodious voice’s gentle orders, I pictured what needed to be healed. The skin on my breast opened

As the meditation went on, day after day, I no longer

and peeled back, like the videos I’ve seen of buds bursting

listened to the voice, but pictured what would happen in

to flower, I looked through layer after layer of undulating

the operating room. The surprise of my surgeon and her

pink, satin pink, and then suddenly, there was the startle of

attendants as they peeled back my skin like a flower in

26


bloom, went to excise the tumor lost in layers of pink, and

for abandoned golf balls and whole tees. I collected these

discovered wiggling hairy blue legs! My surgeon would

and then I set up a stand on the ninth hole, where I sold all

shriek, then reach in with a gigantic set of tweezers, the

that I found, along with yellow and pink lemonade.

size of salad tongs, unplugging the bug from my depths

Some of the balls, I kept. Titleist. Bridgestone. Callaway.

and throwing it across the room, while everyone around

Srixon. Rumor had it that if you peeled away all the layers

her shrieked and tap-danced in horror. And then a brave

of a golf ball, you would come to a liquid center that was

attendant would raise his blue surgical-slippered foot and

so poisonous, your whole hand would disintegrate from

stomp on the bug, and my blood, my blood stolen from

touching even a drop of it. So of course, I had to peel

me for who knows how many years, would splatter around

away the golf balls. Back then, I flirted with potential

the room in a way they weren’t prepared to see. Some

disaster. I didn’t run from it. I didn’t imagine it away.

attendants would throw up in their masks. Some would faint. My surgeon’s hair would turn gray.

As I was wheeled on a gurney through the hospital hallways on July 25, 2017, I pictured my breast, no longer

All while I lay dreaming non-dreams on the operating

like a clock, but like those dimpled golf balls. I peeled

table.

and peeled so many, cutting through the skin, then slicing through what seemed like thick tendons of rubber bands,

I decided that when I woke, my surgeon would be waiting

digging and digging and digging. Every single time, I was

for me and she’d tell me this story and, through our shock,

disappointed to find, not a liquid poisonous center, but a

we’d laugh. Laugh over everything I’d been through, a

small pink rubber ball. Dimpled, like the white skin.

gone-south mammogram, ultrasounds, biopsies, an MRI, a radioactive seed planting to mark the tumor who was

How strange, I thought, as I was rolled through the oper-

actually a bug, fear for my life, fear of my death, every-

ating room doors and I saw the bright lights and my smil-

thing…all because of a bug that buried itself in me. A bug

ing surgeon, the joking anesthesiologist, the tap-dancing

that could be squelched with one stomping foot. And then

eager attendants, how strange that after all these years, I

I could go on with my life.

was finally going to find that caustic poison.

What a nice story.

How strange, that it was inside of me all along.

Every day, when I meditated, I came out of it smiling, my

Not a nice story at all. But reality without imagination.

hand on ten o’clock, because I didn’t have cancer at all. I had a bug. Just like every day, in that month leading up to the surgery, I thought every phone call was going to be the doctor telling me there’d been a classic mistake, files got mixed up, and they gave me someone else’s results, not mine. That was a nice story too. Of course, that’s not what happened. On the day of surgery, I thought about golf balls. I don’t

Kathie Giorgio lives in Wisconsin and is the critically acclaimed author of four novels, two story collections and a poetry chapbook. Her fourth novel, In Grace’s Time, was released in September 2017. She is the Director of the AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Write Well Award, the Million Writer Award, and for the Best of the Net Anthology.

golf, but when I was a kid, I lived next to a golf course and at night, I wandered the woods and the roughs, looking

27


Pop Pop

by K.R. Van Sant The first thing I remember from that night is watching a

woods, a woman with a lot of makeup drinking water with

Woody Allen movie on a borrowed TV.

her friends in a glass house.

We girls had begged endlessly for our parents to buy a TV. 

Suddenly, our parents interrupted our dreams by urgently

But our parents stayed firm in their opposition. They didn’t

stirring us awake. It was not morning yet. But our parents

want us wasting our days cooped up inside in front of an

were dressed and our mother had her purse.  Something

electronic box.  

had happened, they told us, and Mommy had to go. Daddy would tell us about it in the morning, they said. 

Woody Allen, however, was deemed worthwhile. 

Still half asleep, we accepted our parents’ kisses without

So when they heard his film Sleeper was to be the

questions and returned to our dreams.  

NBC Sunday Night Movie, our parents invited the neighbors to come watch it at our house, and to bring a

The next morning we woke up with the sensation that

TV as well.  They set up the television facing the couch,

something had happened.  Or that we’d dreamt

and the whole family, the neighbors, plus a few extra

something had happened, but couldn’t remember what. 

friends (of which there were always some around) watched. 

When we saw our father frying eggs for breakfast, we

They turned off the lights and everyone busted up

remembered that our mother had left during the night. 

laughing at the famous comedian’s ingenious jokes.  

Knots formed in our throats. 

We girls—only five and six-years-old—didn’t understand a

“Where’s Mommy?” we asked. 

thing.  However, happy to actually be able to watch TV with our parents and not behind their backs at friends’

Our father said he’d explain it all after breakfast.  Nothing

houses, we insisted on staying up until the movie was over.

like this had ever happened before and we could not calm

We laughed with our parents and their friends, pretending

our imaginations. 

to know why, hoping to affirm our maturity by showing that we understood grown-up things.  We both fell asleep

“When will she be back?  Why did she leave at night?” we

before the movie ended. My sister and I lived that day like

asked between sobs. 

we lived all others: functioning nearly as a unit because of our closeness in age.

Our father realized that he couldn’t wait until after breakfast. He turned off the stove and set the spatula

When it was over, our parents carried us off to bed without

down on the table. The three of us went outside and sat

waking us.  We dreamed of the images we’d seen before

on a bench in the backyard, one daughter on either side

falling asleep – a man dressed as a robot lost in the

of our father.  He took off his glasses, took our hands into

28


his, and began to cry.  When we saw the tears slide down

grandmother, bravely waiting for her wounds to heal. We

his cheeks and disappear into his beard, we cried too. We

imagined our grandfather, fat and pale in his coffin.  We

still didn’t know what had happened, but we could feel his

thought about how our mother must have felt when a

deep pain. 

voice on the telephone informed her of her father’s murder.  We thought about our aunts, who had also said good-bye

“A terrible thing has happened,” he began. “Last night two

to their kids in the middle of the night.           

men went to your grandparents’ house and they shot PopPop with a gun.”

Victims of a cruel attack that both debilitated and strengthened our family, my sister and I held hands.  And

“That’s why your mother left,” he continued. “She’s in

that physical contact joined us not only with each other,

Florida with Mom-Mom.”

but with our relatives we had never met, crying at the same time in distant parts of the country.

He sighed and seemed to forget he was speaking to his five and six-year-old daughters.

Our grandfather’s blood defied space and joined the hearts of a dispersed family.  Some of them had only met

“It’s horrible to think that humanity is can be so sick,” he

him a couple of times, and like us, didn’t know him well, if

said. “Pop-Pop was a great man.  That they could have

at all.  But now that the aunts, uncles, and cousins were all

done this to him makes me…” 

simultaneously living the same horrific reality, we felt close to them all. 

He couldn’t finish his sentence.     For my sister and me, everything was so big, so far, “Why did they do it, Daddy?” I asked.

so incredible, but at the same time so real.  We didn’t understand the tragedy the way the adults did; we simply

“I don’t know, Sweetheart,” he said. “I don’t know.” 

felt the sadness and suffering caused by it.  We listened to our father’s words. The facts he spoke did not produce

“What about Mom-Mom?” my sister asked.   “Is she

an image, but rather a feeling.  Those facts only took on

okay?” 

meaning many years later.  At that moment, at that young age, we were incapable of assimilating it.  We could only

 “Mom-Mom is in the hospital because she’s hurt,” he

feel it.

explained.  “They stabbed her in the back.”  We went back into the kitchen and ate our breakfast.   As he said these words, his voice broke and he buried his

Then we walked to school where we learned and played

head in his hands. 

just like any other day. But we both knew that something had changed forever. 

“But Mom-Mom is going to be okay,” he assured us. We had encountered death for the first time. We didn’t ask any more questions. The truth is, we hardly knew our grandparents, who lived far away. They had been to visit, but not since we were quite little.  Nonetheless, we cried and cried there with our father.  The entire family’s suffering flooded our bodies. We imagined our mother in the hospital with our

K.R. Van Sant is a writer, single mother by choice, and a full-time Spanish interpreter in criminal court in Oakland, California.  She is writing a novel. She originally wrote “Pop Pop” in Spanish for a writing course while living in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1997 when she was 24-years-old. Many years later, she translated it into English so her mother could read it. 29


Your Mother Said By Donna Wallace

Her new oncologist responded to your email. You, the good son — honest, direct and medically trained — likely know she will undergo imaging on the fourteenth of April and learn results on the twenty-first. Your mother said she likes him — he is young, has two children, and is from Brazil. They speak Portuguese in Brazil, she said, but you probably knew that. I know these things because I asked. Don’t call back. I’m fine.

Donna Wallace lives in Lewisville, North Carolina and is the president of Winston-Salem Writers and the director of Poetry In Plain Sight, a state-wide initiative placing poetry in public spaces. Her work appears in Camel City Dispatch, Poetry In Plain Sight, and in various faith publications. Retired from nursing, teaching and stay-at-home-parenting, Donna enjoys cycling with her husband Hugh and writing poetry with her critique group compadres. If you spot a JAVANUT license plate, make haste to the nearest coffee shop—she’s right inside.

30


Bud-Blossom-Spring By Tim Gordon

Friend, listen to each bud beneath birthing, Caressing cold into color, into texture and form, Into green-leafing-life under snow and ice and frost, Under red-clay earth, blossoming into what it was Each time before each unfolding self, each time back Whole notes, Sounds, and sweet airs, each time back Spring, like nothing else in this world, or other—, And everything.

Tim Gordon is a poet who published his seventh book, From Falling, in April 2017. His work has appeared in various journals including AGNI, Cincinnati Review, Kansas Quarterly, among others. He has received National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) fellowships. He divides his time between Asia and the Desert Southwest.

31


Kindred

By Sara Kirschenbaum I spot the bird on Pebble Beach. I’m scanning the

He has a creamy white head with a shy brown eye. The

beautiful rounded rocks of my favorite beach. The tide

mottled brown coloring starts at his neck and gradually

is coming in and splashing the dusty finish of these giant

darkens toward his all brown tail. His wing looks ripped

smooth rocks, turning the light grays into color: dark green,

out of its socket and dangles loose, a few inches below his

yellow stripes, pink speckles, a sash of quartz white. I am

shoulder. His head is pulled in close to his body. He looks

on a two-week solitary retreat to work on my writing and

vulnerable, confused, stoic. When I pass him, he jumps to

stop worrying. About my grown children who have moved

a new rock to maintain distance. His wing drags.

to bad neighborhoods in faraway cities, and about my father’s ongoing, seven year, battle against heart failure.

Further on, I run into two birders on the path and ask

About him recently becoming a hospice patient.

them if they saw the injured seagull and if they know of a veterinarian on the island. “We saw him. There’s nothing

Each day I set out with a large cup of coffee to climb

that can be done for him. Hopefully an eagle will get him

another section of rocky coast around Monhegan Island,

and put him out of his misery.”

Maine, my favorite place on the whole blue green earth. And today, I spot him. A seagull with a traumatically

Two days later I’m back to Pebble Beach to collect rocks.

injured wing. Not survivable, I think to myself.

I’ve successfully put the injured seagull out of my mind.

32


Until, unbelievably, I see him, still alive. “Hello there

The next morning I set out in bright autumn sun with

fella. You’re still here!” I decide to come back soon with

another quiche. This time I find him right away and he

something to eat. I murmur to him, “I’ll be back.”

starts running toward me! I throw the pieces of quiche and he gobbles them hungrily. I snap a photo. How is it I

It is October and the island is shutting down its tourist

am a recognizable figure to this wild bird?

amenities for the season. The one vacationing veterinarian has gone home. Only 55 people live here year-round.

Avian Haven texts back after they get the photo. They

Their one store is closing because it’s lost its lease; the

say he looks like a male juvenile Great Black Backed Gull,

owner wants to turn it into an art gallery by next summer.

the largest gull species in the world. They can’t determine

The island community is scrambling to open a new,

the extent of his injuries from the photo. But…if I can catch

cooperative, grocery. But I came prepared, with two blue

him and put him on the ferry, they might be able to get a

IKEA bags filled to capacity with groceries from Trader

volunteer to meet him at the mainland and drive him the

Joe’s.

hour and a half to Avian Haven where they will take care of him and see if he can be helped.

The next morning I put a half-frozen single portion of Trader Joe’s Broccoli and Cheese Quiche in my pocket and

The whole point of my trip is to be alone and write. But

head straight to Pebble Beach. When I emerge from the

one week in, I’m feeling lonely. A pesky fly is my only

forest path, I can’t see him. I pace back and forth on the

companion. Next door to my cabin is a rental home. A

trail that circles the island. And find him, alive, 50 yards

large extended family is staying there and having nightly

north of where he was. “Hey!” I chortle, so happy to see

dinner parties. They know a local lobsterwoman, Lisa

him. I run toward him almost expecting him to be glad

Brackett, and have suppers of her freshly caught lobsters

to see me. But he runs away to the next rock, dragging

downed with lots of white wine and guitar playing. I feel

his wing. I pull the limp freezer-burned quiche out of its

pitiful in my silent cabin and daily Cambozola sandwiches.

wrapper and toss him a piece. It falls between rocks, out

Like scrooge peering into the parties of Christmas past, I

of his reach. The next lands near him and he hops toward

approach the door and knock.

it. He stares at it, turning his head to look more closely. Then he opens his beak and grabs it, raising his head and

“Hi,” I say, “I’m staying next door. Sorry to bother you. But

gulping it down his gullet in jerks and swallows. I throw the

I’m trying to save this seagull that’s injured. And I think I

rest of the quiche in chunks, with most of it falling between

can catch him and put him in a box but I can’t figure out

rocks. He maneuvers to get what he can. I feel rewarded,

how I will put the top on the box.”

deliciously so. By the time I finish my sentence, they are all pointing to On the way back to my cabin I gain determination to do

the tall patriarch sitting at the head of the table with a

something for this poor dear seagull who has been out

large glass of wine in his hand. “He…He can do it…He’s

there in the weather and eagle territory for at least four

your man,” they say.

days. But what can be done? He may be my man but he is reluctant and practical. Google leads me to wildlife sanctuaries. The closest one is

“There are so many things wrong with your plan. It can’t

an hour ferry ride and 60 more miles away. Avian Haven

be saved. And there are laws. It is not legal to capture a

in Freedom, Maine, takes my call without laughing at me.

wild bird…”

They are caring and methodical, asking me to describe the bird and the injury. I tell them I’ll go back the next day

“I talked to Avian Haven. They said I could do it. They

and take a picture and text it to them, if he’s still alive.

get seagulls all the time. They said to put him on the ferry.” “The ferry?!” Mr. Patriarch says. “I doubt it will be legal to 33


put it on the ferry. You’ll have to talk with the captain. I

That night Monhegan Brewing is having an end-of

could catch the bird. I run a company that sponsors 187

the-season party. I’m standing around a bonfire shyly

bird watching trips in North and South America. Picking

chatting with lobsterwoman Lisa Brackett. I confess to

up a bird is nothing. But I’ll only do it if the Captain

her, “I’m a nutcase: I put an injured seagull on the Laura

agrees.”

B. today.”

When I’m on Mohegan, I try not to bring any attention

She says, “Oh I know. Everyone on the island’s talking

to my subpar tourist status, but trying to save this seagull

about it.”

is getting conspicuous. I call the captain of the Laura B. ferry. He says he’ll transport the seagull. No charge.

I admit, “He probably won’t make it, but I had to do

He’s shipped a lot of odd stuff in his day. Although never

something. He was out there for at least five days.”

a seagull. I look in people’s backyards for a box to put the bird in, and find a banana box someone is willing to give

“I can’t tell you how many injured seagulls I’ve seen, but it

me.

was a nice thing to do.”

The next morning Patriarch and I head out in the sideways

“My dad just went on hospice so I guess I have two in

morning light with my last Broccoli Cheese Quiche and

hospice.”

one of my parents’ towels. When we get to Pebble Beach, the seagull is nowhere to be seen. Christ! I feel so foolish.

“You’re not a nutcase. In my mind, if it feels right to you,

Mr. Practical starts to walk away. I climb north on the

it’s worth it.”

rocky shore and find my fella standing on a rock. I call out and retrieve my doubter.

Later that night I get a call from Avian Haven. They have received the gull. He has a necrotic compound

I throw the towel. He grabs the bird. Holding him, he

fracture of the elbow. “Did you smell the necrosis?” They

says, “He’s so light. Very undernourished.” We get him

can’t save the bird. They are not allowed to amputate:

in the box and I carry this feather-light load to the dock,

federal regulations. But he’s resting now. They are going

grinning to myself. I quietly put him by the outgoing

to feed him trout for dinner. Let him sleep the night, safe.

luggage. I offer him the rest of the quiche through the

Tomorrow they’ll release him to his final flight.

handle hole in the banana box. My bird gobbles it with gusto. I whisper, “Goodbye little guy. At least someone cared.”

Sara Kirschenbaum is a writer and artist in Portland, Oregon. She works in clay, on paper, and with photography, as well as with the written word. She has been published in Calyx, Fiction International, J Journal, Kalliope, Mothering Magazine, The Oregonian, Poetica, Portland Parent, the Portland Tribune, and other publications. She has been a guest commentator for NPR’s Marketplace and has published on Salon.com and the Tin House Blog. She has written a memoir about postpartum OCD. She can be reached through her website: sarakirschenbaum.com or at sarakirschenbaum@gmail.com.

34


Dead Man’s Socks By Richard King Perkins II

I’ve been wearing a dead man’s socks for three years now. His wife was young and still could barely believe she was selling all his clothing, belts and hats at a garage sale. The small collections of things they’d put together in their few years of marriage. Seahorses and dreamcatchers and healthy eating cookbooks. And a beer-flat box full of rolled socks planted upright, asking five dollars for thirty pairs— but she just really wanted them to be gone so I got them all for two bucks. I imagine some of them were still from his days as a single guy, nearly worn through, elastic shot, frayed around the outjutting of an anklebone. Others were newer, barely used, perhaps a literal stocking stuffer from his practical-minded wife who knew he’d keep wearing the oldest pairs until his toes burst through the end caps. And the Kelly green socks, a living island amidst the greys, browns and blacks, I’ve made sure to wear them the last few St. Patrick’s days, just like I’m sure he did, hiking up my pant leg just to let a few people see that I’m part of the gang. I knew when I bought the lot I’d been entrusted with a great responsibility: to wear them nearly as well as the man before me. But still, despite my best efforts, each year a few more unmatched socks get placed in the back of the drawer, stagnant, alone; doubtful at being properly mated again.

Richard King Perkins II is a state-sponsored advocate for residents in long-term care facilities. He lives in Crystal Lake, Illinois with his wife, Vickie, and daughter, Sage. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net and Best of the Web nominee whose work has appeared in numerous publications. 35


Jane’s Final Adventure By Betsy MacGregor

When my younger sister, Jane, hit adolescence, she

and many of those who engage in frequent use become

became a full-fledged rebel, getting into every kind of

junkies, irrevocably addicted and trapped in wrecked lives.

trouble teenagers can find: smoking, drinking, driving fast,

Finally, she made the mistake that’s all too easy for drug

doing drugs, insulting her teachers, and playing hooky

users to make: she overdosed.

from our staid New England high school. After graduation and a futile six-month attempt to buckle down at

When the paramedics found her, she was unconscious and

college, she joined the entourage of a popular blues band

barely breathing. Her resuscitation was a difficult one,

and headed for the bright lights of the big cities where the

and she remained in a coma for a week before regaining

action was. She rarely made the effort to be in touch with

consciousness. When she did, she related an unusual

our parents, which was probably just as well. Her lifestyle

experience. She had found herself floating up near the

would have worried them sick, saturated as it was with

ceiling of her hospital room, looking down at her body

shady and hazardous behaviors.

lying in a bed with the side rails up. She saw how beaten and depleted the poor thing looked, and she felt a sense

Eventually, Jane’s love of living close to the edge led her to

of sadness for it. Then she noticed a window in her room,

heroin, and as happens frequently to those who are tempt-

with sunshine outside and green growing things and blue

ed to flirt with that seductive drug, thinking themselves

sky above. The vibrancy of this scene beckoned to her,

strong enough to avoid getting caught in the spider-web

and she drifted toward the window, feeling an immense

of its allure, Jane quickly found she couldn’t live without

peacefulness waiting for her just outside.

it. For it takes more will power than most people have to wrestle themselves free from heroin’s soul-devouring grip, 36


Yet as she neared the window, something tugged on her

As the figure stared at Jane with its icy-cold presence, to

attention, drawing it back to the scene below, where her

her horror she felt herself starting to slide, ever so slow-

body lay pale and still. Several people were bending over

ly, down the bed toward it, as if the thing possessed an

her body, tending to it, trying to help it recover, and their

irresistible malevolent power. Fear seized her, and she

concern touched her deeply.

gripped the sheets, trying to keep herself out of its reach, but she continued to slide. With enormous effort, she

Suddenly, Jane understood that she had a choice. She

reached for the nurse’s call bell and pressed it frantically.

could continue toward the window and float out into the peace that waited for her there, or she could return to her

After what seemed an interminable amount of time, the

body that was being kept alive by these caring attendants

night nurse stalked into the room, shined her flashlight

and pick up the thread of her life again. The outcome had

into Jane’s face, and asked impatiently what she wanted.

not been decided yet. It was up to her, with one caveat: if

When Jane tried to explain, the nurse scoffed.

she chose to stay, she had to change her ways fully, or she would fail.

“What a whacked-out druggie you are,” she grumbled. With a derogatory wave of her hand, she walked briskly

Without hesitation, Jane made her decision. She said yes

out of the room, leaving Jane realizing that she would be

to living and starting over.

on her own when and if the sinister presence came back for her.

Instantly, she found herself waking up inside a cold, pain-riddled body that was as stiff and uncomfortable as

And it did, the next night. It stood as before, full of men-

a suit of armor. It was an immensely unpleasant sensa-

ace at the foot of her bed. And again, Jane had to strain

tion, but with it was the awareness of being alive, and the

with all her might to resist its insistent pull. She fought

sweetness of that awareness made the discomfort bear-

hard, pitting her will against its strength, fighting with grit-

able— just.

ted teeth to keep from sliding – until the figure eventually faded away, leaving her heart pounding wildly against her

Within a few days, Jane was weaned off the respirator,

rib cage.

and, to the surprise of her doctors, she had no neurological or cognitive deficits whatsoever. Though extremely

The third night was the worst by far. The dark presence

weak, she expected to recover fully. But there was one

exuded scorn for her success in resisting twice and made

final hurdle that she had yet to overcome, and it came in

her strength seem a pitiful illusion. Tonight, the presence

the depth of the night: an ink-black figure that appeared

seemed to promise, she would not get away.

at the foot of her bed. The featureless shadow-figure stood and gazed at her silently, filling the air with ill will.

That night the sheets were more slippery than ever. She

Looking back at it was like looking into a bottomless pit of

couldn’t seem to get a good grip on them, and as hard

darkness, devoid of any hope.

as she tried to hang on, she felt herself losing ground. 37


Still, she refused give up. She had gone far enough into

entered a residential drug treatment program where she

darkness in her life. She wanted to return to the light. So,

lived a strictly regulated life for three years before she was

as there was no one to help her, she called on the only

pronounced “clean.” After her graduation, she married the

resource she had: herself. She called on every cell and ev-

man who had been her counselor and greatest support in

ery fiber and every ounce of energy in her being, and she

the rehab program – a man who had also freed himself

called upon them fiercely. She summoned every dream

from heroin addiction and thus knew her as no one else

and every drop of hope and happiness she had ever

ever could—and, together, Jane and her husband Leonard

possessed, and she hung on to them and would not let go.

set about building new lives.

And—slowly, slowly—she felt the presence losing its grip on her, until finally it began to fade. And then, like a puff of

While Leonard created a construction business, Jane

smoke, it was gone.

worked days and studied nights, eventually earning herself a college degree with honors. Propelled by a strong desire

On the fourth night, Jane waited with dread for the dark

to do something for others in gratitude for the help she

figure’s return, but it didn’t come. Whatever that expe-

had received, she then set her sights on becoming a nurse.

rience had been – whether a trial to prepare her for the

Having, as she did, a father who was chief of surgery, a

huge task she was undertaking of starting her life com-

mother who was director of a corps of hospital volunteers,

pletely over, or a test to see if she had the strength she

and two siblings who had recently obtained their MD’s,

would need to resist the temptation to turn back—it didn’t

it wasn’t surprising that she would choose to pursue a

matter. Her ordeal was over, and she had endured.

career in the health care profession—but the health care profession was far from welcoming. Of the twenty nursing

By the time I learned about Jane’s overdose and flew

schools to which she applied, not a single one would ac-

across the country to be with her, she had made good

cept her because of her history as a narcotics addict.

progress in regaining her physical health and recovering from the acute stages of heroin withdrawal. She was able

Yet Jane refused to give up. Determined to prove that she

to get out of bed into a wheelchair, and she seemed to be

was free of the pull of drugs, she persuaded a pharmacist

basking in a state of wonderment. When I took her for

to let her work for him and thereby show she could be

short strolls by wheelchair around the grounds of the hospi-

trusted. After a year of work, the impressed pharmacist

tal, she would reach down to stroke the grass, or finger the

wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation. With his

leaves of the bushes we were passing, or peer up through

letter in hand, Jane applied to nursing school again and,

the branches of the trees and let her gaze linger on the

to her great joy, was accepted. Once having earned her

clouds in the blue sky above, as if she were seeing it all for

nurse’s cap and RN degree, she went on to work as a

the very first time.

visiting nurse, tending to home-bound elderly patients: “my children,” as she affectionately called them.

Over the next several years, Jane fought mightily to rebuild her life. She bent her rebellious spirit to her will and 38

With the freedom she had gained, Jane created a home


for herself and Leonard and made good friends until

picked herself up and went on, selling Leonard’s con-

life tested her courage again. Leonard became ill. An

struction business and focusing on tending her small but

infection with so-called “flesh-eating bacteria” started as

flourishing garden. It was a choice she never regretted.

an innocuous red spot on his skin and grew with lightning speed into a conflagration that sent his body into shock.

Many years later, when Jane was diagnosed with terminal

As a team of specialists worked round the clock, trying to

cancer, she called and asked me if I would be interested in

save his life, Jane sat unflinchingly beside the bed where he

spending time with her and helping with her care. Since

lay unconscious in the ICU, whispering, “Fight, Leonard,

I could think of nothing I wanted more than to accompa-

fight!”

ny my one and only sister on her last adventure, I took a leave of absence from my work as a doctor and went to

But the hope of Leonard’s surviving steadily faded, and,

be with her. And thus, it was that I came to witness the

by the end of the week, Jane conceded defeat. Bending

finale of Jane’s life, including her curious release from her

close to Leonard one last time, she whispered in his ear,

oldest wounds.

“It’s all right, my love. You don’t need to fight any more. You can go.” By the time she had driven home from the hospital, the phone was ringing with a call from the ICU to give her the news that her husband was gone.

The weight of Jane’s grief

Morphine, a sister drug to heroin that Jane had had to fight with all her might to free herself from, came in those last three months to ease her discomfort and smooth the path to her dying.

was huge, and the ache of it reverberated painfully through

Understanding that she had a prognosis of only a few months to live, Jane declared she was not about to let the medical profession take control of her life and fill up her remaining time with futile treatment protocols. Besides, she said, she was ready for death to come. She had lived as much life as she needed to and was satisfied with all she

my own heart. Without her long-time partner by her side,

had done. She had faced her greatest fears and stayed

I feared she would finally go down. And indeed, she did

the course, and there was not a thing that she would

later confess that she had considered the idea of ending

change. No, there really wasn’t any reason she could see

her life then and there. But after a time of wrestling with

to hang around, especially with Leonard gone and the

it, she had rejected the idea. The reason, she said, was

emphysema she had developed from years of cigarette

because the prize she had fought so hard to win—having a

smoking slowly beginning to suffocate her. She was clear

life that was hers to live—was not something she was ready

about the matter: she was not afraid to die.

to throw away, even after suffering a wound that terribly deep. And so, with the undefeatable determination of

So, with Jane’s agreement, I helped her enroll in hospice,

which the human spirit is capable, my brave-hearted sister

and she soon found herself being cared for at home by 39


a steady stream of attendants who carefully bathed her,

one who was dying and wished to meet the end of their

massaged her, coaxed her to eat meager amounts, and

life without undue suffering.

kept her house neat and clean. This helpful arrangement allowed the two of us plenty of time in which to set her

So, with a weary smile, Jane accepted the offering and

affairs in order, reminisce about our past adventures, and

used it with a moderation upon which she herself decided,

mull over the mystery of living a human life.

living through those final months with both her hardwon sense of dignity and her persnickety sense of humor

Of all the valuable things that hospice did for Jane, the

intact. Right into her last few days, she was clear-eyed

most significant – and the most paradoxical, as it turned

and conscious, commenting on the curious course of her

out – was the relief they provided her from the gnaw-

life. The peace she had fought so hard to find shone

ing pain of her cancer. The paradox lay in the fact that

through her more and more clearly, until, on the day my

the medication they prescribed in order to give her such

darling sister died, lying in a hospital bed that we had set

needed relief was a close relative of the drug that had

up in her living room, it seemed to suffuse her entire being.

nearly stolen Jane’s life away. Morphine, a sister drug to

Not a trace of effort or illness remained to be seen. Only

the heroin that Jane had had to fight with all her might to

a look of absolute serenity lingered on her face, and a

free herself from, came in those last three months to ease

hint of amusement at the upturned corners of her mouth.

her discomfort and smooth the path of her dying. The

Perhaps, I thought, she was enjoying the satisfaction of

hospice team instructed her to use as much of the drug as

having made a radical adjustment on the balance sheet

she needed in order to remain comfortable. They assured

of her existence. She had certainly come out well ahead in

her that the benefit of the drug’s powerful ability to relieve

the end.

pain far outweighed concerns about addiction for some-

Betsy MacGregor is a retired pediatrician and author of In Awe of Being Human: A Doctor’s Stories from the Edge of Life and Death. She worked nearly 30 years as a senior staff pediatrician and Director of Adolescent Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. There she founded and directed the Pediatric Pain Management Program and the hospital-wide Program for Humanistic and Complementary Health Care. In addition, as a George Soros Faculty Scholar with the Open Society Institute’s Project on Death in America, she designed and directed a three-year research project entitled Dying and the Inner Life, aimed at learning from people with terminal illness about what it means to face the reality of one’s own dying. She lives with her husband of 49 years and their puppy, Zoey, who insists on sleeping in their bed.

40


Levels

By Ron. Lavalette Half of these people are already half dead he thinks, watching them watch each other stare out the tall plate glass of the hospital’s east pavilion solarium into the rapidly fading mid-March sunset; the other half is already further gone than that, but remain resolutely unwilling or merely incapable of simply accepting facts.

He goes down two levels in the oncology elevator and sits silently with the waiters and worriers, sees how long he can hold his breath waiting for a specialist to find and read a chart, to suggest a cure or announce an imminent demise, or to otherwise free him from his tedium and chafe. Here, at least, two levels down, where the truth is at last both known and spoken, there is far less opportunity for being blinded by the false light from above, as there is no such light to be found. Here, at least, everyone knows.

There are, he knows, many other rooms; many other even lower levels, most with even far less light. This he knows with certainty. Armed with this awareness, he contents himself with his current level of twilight.

Ron. Lavalette is a widely-published poet living on the Canadian border in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, land of the fur-bearing lake trout and the bilingual stop sign. His work, both poetry and short prose, has appeared extensively in journals, reviews, and anthologies ranging alphabetically from Able Muse and the Anthology of New England Poets through the World Haiku Review and Your One Phone Call. A reasonable sample of his published work can be viewed at EGGS OVER TOKYO - eggsovertokyo.blogspot.com

41


Love & Death in the ICU By Linda Hansell There were nine family members camped out in the ICU

Implicit in her words was: ‘see him before he dies.’ I assured

waiting room at Boston University Medical Center, our

her I would get there as soon as I could. Terrified, I hung

bodies and our backpacks taking up half of the room. We

up the phone.

had been summoned to Boston urgently by my sister-inlaw Andrea when my brother Jim went into septic shock.

I couldn’t focus on the concept that my beloved brother—a vibrant man pulsing with life and enthusiasm--was on the

Four months earlier, in December 2012, Jim had been

brink of death. Jim was a loving husband, father, brother,

diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare disease caused by a

son, psychologist, professor, mentor, musician, and soccer

build-up of abnormal proteins in the body’s organs. He

coach who was much-loved by his family, friends, col-

underwent chemotherapy at Boston University Medical

leagues, students, and patients. His broad smile under his

Center for ten weeks in early 2013. At the beginning of

bushy black mustache bore witness to the joy he derived

April, he had a stem-cell transplant, the most promising

from teaching his psychology students, planning confer-

treatment for amyloidosis. While he was immuno-sup-

ence workshops with colleagues, and accompanying his

pressed from the chemotherapy, and before the new

son and daughter on runs and bike rides. Jim embodied a

healthy stem cells could take hold, he contracted the

life of helping others, of expanding possibilities, of putting

H1-N1 flu virus. On April 12, he went into septic shock and

more love into the world. Death seemed contrary to his

was transferred into the intensive care unit.

very nature.

Andrea called at 6:30 AM that Friday morning.

I packed frantically in my home in Philadelphia that early morning and called a friend to drive me to the airport, not

“Jim crashed this morning, and they’re taking him to the

knowing how long I would be away. When I arrived at

ICU,” she said. “The doctors are saying that anyone who

the hospital in Boston, Jim was struggling to breathe. I got

wants to see him should get here right away.”

there just in time to say “I love you” before they intubated him. Later that day, other family members arrived—my

42


father, my older brother and his partner, my niece and

Andrea set a tone of caring and compassion, not just for

nephew, and Andrea’s two brothers.

Jim, but also for the intensive care nurses who took exceptional care of him, and for the doctors who brought us

Over the course of the next week, we watched Jim’s body

increasingly worrying reports as the week went on. There

in that hospital bed transform from a robust middle-aged

was no anger at the doctors or nurses, no blaming or

man to an old man. He was unconscious, so he did not

recrimination for Jim’s worsening condition, no judging or

know that his hair turned from black to gray, his kidneys

yelling or keening. In the face of the calamity that was un-

failed, his eyes became swollen and unable to see, and

folding before us, despite our exhaustion, our worries, our

one by one his organs and systems shut down as his body

grief, we loved each other, and everyone around us, hard.

succumbed to septic shock. Towards the end of that week,

We supported each other as best we could. We hugged,

the nurses put pads over his eyes so that we wouldn’t have

we spoke gently to each other, and we looked after each

to see the frightening, monster-like bulging orbs they had

other’s needs for sleep and food. We took turns doing

become. It is a horror that will never leave me.

food runs, bringing back take-out sandwiches, salads and cookies for the group.

But amid all of this dreadfulness, there was love. All through the week, my family and Andrea’s family kept vigil over Jim, our hopes rising and falling with each new development in his condition. We took turns singing his favorite Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones and Alison Krauss songs to him, talking to him, and holding his limp hand, not knowing if he could hear us or sense us. I told him how much

Being in the presence of death and dying can bring out the worst in people, or it can

I couldn’t focus on the concept that my beloved brother a vibrant man pulsing with life and enthusiasm was on the brink of death.

I loved him, and about my newly discovered favorite bands. “We’ll listen to them together when you get better,” I said. “I know you’ll love them, too.”

bring out the best. Somehow during that wrenching week in the ICU, we embodied our best selves, and showed appreciation and gratitude to the people around us, both in our family circle and outside it. This circle of love grew to include Anne, a young woman from Haiti I befriended in the ICU waiting room. Anne was there by herself,

day after day, in support of her mother who was very ill. We shared our food, and shared stories about our loved

We encircled Jim in this caring sphere, trying to block out

ones who were sick. I learned about her devout faith in

the beeping of the monitors from the numerous pumping

God. She told me she was not worried about her mother,

and filtering machines he was connected to, and trying

because God would not let her mother die. I envied her

(but not succeeding) to follow the nurses’ advice to not look

faith in a good outcome.

at the numbers flashing in red, green, and yellow on the monitors showing his vital signs.

43


It was a time out of time. Surreal and sacrosanct. Con-

three-part round. There was a searing sacredness in that

nected by our deep love and care for Jim, we created a

moment.

form of beloved community there in the medical ICU ward of Boston University Medical Center, with death and dying

The initial sharp, stabbing pain of losing Jim has trans-

all around us. In the cheerless, heartrending, anxiety-filled

formed over time into something more bearable, like a

space of the ICU waiting room and Jim’s hospital room,

burl on a tree trunk around which the tree grows. The

where all present were keeping vigil over a loved one at

sadness is always there, in equal measure to my love. But

the threshold of death, I felt a sense of community and

there is also the memory of the circle of love we created.

love unlike any I had experienced before.

There is the knowledge that even when our hearts are cracked open with grief and fear, even when we are faced

When it became clear Jim was not going to survive without

with losing the people we love most in the world, we can

the aid of the machines he was connected to, and the

choose love over anger and bitterness.

time came for us to instruct the nurses to turn off those machines, we formed a circle around his hospital bed.

The circle of love we created while keeping vigil over Jim in

With the room quieter without the whirring and pulsing of

the ICU was the most sacred experience of my life. Out of

the machines that had been keeping him alive, we sang

that circle emerged a truth that I keep close to my heart:

him off to the other world with “Tender Shephard” in a

love transcends death.

Linda Hansell is a writer and educator based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She holds a B.A. from Williams College and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. She has co-authored two autobiographies and has published several journal articles and essays. When not working on her creative nonfiction, she enjoys singing, playing the banjo and walking in the woods.

44


Untitled (Yellow) Photograph by Jim Zola


The Last Bumblebee By Hannah Duerloo

Joey hated hospitals more than canned tuna, but more

“I need you to get my notebook and keep up my records

than anything he hated cancer. When he was finally

while they hold me hostage here.”

allowed in to see Grandpa Rusty, he expected someone half-dead from the way his parents spoke in hushed voices

The door opened revealing Joey’s mother, pursed lipped in

drinking the hospital’s lukewarm coffee.

a floral print.

He met Grandpa’s bright eyes under bushy brows and

“Joey get yourself home,” she said. “This isn’t any place for

smiled. “You’re gettin’ everyone riled up out there, Pa.”

kids.”

“Ha! Let ‘em whisper and talk,” Pa said. “I’ve got a job for

Nodding, Joey glanced back at Pa who gave him a

you back at the orchard.”

thumbs-up before the door closed.

Pa’s voice was low and his lips were cracked.

The next morning Joey jumped on his ten-speed bike and raced to Grandpa Rusty’s farm, his fat tires keeping grip

“You’re still givin’ me chores?” Joey asked. “Shouldn’t you

on the dirt road. He knew the notebook Pa had men-

be worried about the tests and all these things?” Joey

tioned. Joey had never saw him without it, always check-

motioned to the IVs and bags dripping clear liquids of

ing and tallying things. He found the spare key inside the

unknown concoctions into his grandpa’s veins. Pa looked

dinner bell hanging off the front porch and let himself in.

like an alien experiment.

He checked the kitchen counter first but found only empty pill bottles. Next, he checked the desk. It was covered in

“Nah, there’s bigger problems- world problems- that need

homemade seed packets, Pa’s scrawling writing impossible

tending,” Pa said.

to read, but no notebook.

“World problems?” Joey asked, puzzled.

“Come on,” Joey said to the tomb-quiet house. He raced up the creaky wooden stairs pausing only a moment

46


before turning the handle to Grandpa Rusty’s bedroom.

Joey approached Pa’s bedside, sitting in the empty chair

Pa’s room smelled like aftershave and looked just as messy

waiting for some acknowledgment of his presence from

as his own room except for overalls on the floor instead

Pa.

of jeans. Then he saw it, in a puddle of sunshine, on the bedside table. He picked it up. The leather was warm and

“How goes the count?” Pa asked unable to open his eyes

faded - the color of dry dirt. With the journal tucked under

from all the drugs and chemo he’d been given.

his arm, Joey retraced his steps downstairs and out to the front porch. Sitting on the swing he opened the journal,

“It’s difficult. They all look alike.” Joey said adding, “What’s

searching for the world problem Pa wanted him to help

the point?”

with. “It’s like an invasion out there, people taking over the land, A Catalog & Count of Bee Activity by Rusty Skinner

diseases, invasive species, and pesticides. They are all drumming toward the bee’s downfall. If we ignore it, well it

Joey flipped through the pages. Each section started with

can kill ya.”

a clipped photo of a bee and a description followed by several pages of tallies from every May for the past twen-

Joey looked down the length of the bed, seeing how each

ty-six years. He found the last set of tallies about halfway

breath barely made an effect on Grandpa’s chest.

through the book. “Bees don’t kill, cancer does,” Joey mumbled. “He wants me to count bees,” Joey said in disbelief. “I’ve known somethin’ was wrong for a while but I didn’t do Wandering down the two-track past the old silo Joey

anything ‘bout it. But the bees still have a chance,” Pa said.

looked over the blooming apple orchard rolling down

“Without them crops don’t grow. Famine and hunger. I

the hillside. Joey started looking for bees while he walked

don’t want that for you later. So count the bees, send in

deeper into the sun-drenched trees, searching for matches

the data, push, petition, use that internets you like to make

between each frail page.

people listen.”

The bees were fast, and Joey found himself spinning in

“I’m just a kid,” Joey protested.

circles trying to keep track. Finally, plopped down on the ground surrounded by white clover, Joey found the bees

“No, you’re Rusty Skinner’s grandson, you’ve got the

coming to the blooms around him, and he watched them

gumption, so go get it done.”

work mesmerized. Moving from bloom to bloom the little insects kept moving, like Grandpa Rusty always had. Joey’s

Joey nodded. In his hands, the notebook felt slippery from

throat caught tight and he blamed the dusty air.

sweat.

Joey counted bees all morning before returning home to

“What about you?” Joey asked. “Me, I’m the first of the

make himself some lunch. His mom had left a hasty note,

bees to go.”

“I’m at the hospital, then headed to work. I left you food in the fridge.” Joey opened the refrigerator door and the

He cleared his throat.

smell of tuna wafted out, he slammed the door looking for the peanut butter instead. Eating his sandwich, Joey felt

“Don’t let it happen to the rest of ‘em,” he continued.

like he should be with Grandpa instead of wasting his time counting bees. He downed a Pepsi, grabbed his bus pass,

A doctor came through the doorway with a quick knock.

and headed to the hospital. 47


“It’s time for another round,” the doctor said.

As the sky changed to lilac in the east, Joey sat on the stump of a maple tree staring at the notebook, wishing

Joey headed back to the orchard. He had to find as

he’d been able to do better. Looking up, he saw the

many bees as he could, for Pa.

headlights of a car coming down the dirt road. It stopped in front of him, and his mom got out. Her cheeks were

He spent the next three days tallying up bees as he saw

flushed and her makeup was smeared. She didn’t have to

them. Some were burrowed deep into apple blossoms,

say anything. He wrote a zero under the Rusty Patched

others flitting between clover blooms, and occasionally

Bumblebee, closed the notebook, and slipped into the

they seemed to hover before him as if he was disrupting

backseat of the car.

their daily commute.

Joey hated hospitals more than canned tuna, but more than anything he hated cancer.

Joey stood stiff legged in the breeze that whirled through the cemetery. He couldn’t focus on the words being said, he just stared at the flowers covering the box that held whatever was left of Grandpa Rusty. His hand was clenched around the notebook in his pocket like the last

lifeline he had to Pa, and he’d failed to find all the bees on the list. Trying not to cry, his gaze caught a slight movement burrowing into a white lily on top of the casket. It emerged

Flipping to the last page, Joey saw a clipping of the

and Joey could see the rusty colored spot on the back of

fattest bumblebee he’d ever seen. It didn’t even seem

the fattest bee he’d ever seen. As it flew away, he opened

possible that the wings would be able to lift such a fuzzy

the notebook to the last page, crossed off the zero, put a

body. Under the photo was the name “Rusty Patched

tally of one and smiled.

Bumblebee.” He searched the flowering apple trees for two straight days. His neck was sun burnt, and he was desperate to find just one.

H.S. Deurloo enjoys writing, reading, and fishing around West Michigan and when not doing those things she can be found exploring nature with her kids. In addition, she manages and contributes to a creative lifestyle blog QuestType.com, is active on Twitter’s writing community @HSDeurloo, and co-leads a local writing group.

48


If you don’t take the chance to live life, what can you say at the end of it? Naveen Andrews


Rolling The Stone Away By Edna Cunningham Horning Until I was nine, my family lived on Mary Street in Gads-

illumination around Mrs. Jeero’s unnaturally still body

den, Alabama. A widow lived directly across from us.  I

where it lay in a casket banked by flowers. Music, creepy

have no memories of interacting with her but considering

as only an electronic organ can make it, emanated from

the proximity of our homes, we likely at least saw each

somewhere.

other. In the weeks and probably months that followed, I often Her last name was pronounced JEE-ro, and that was all

woke up screaming from nightmares.  This was new

I knew of her. Mrs. Jeero had died, or so my child’s ears

behavior and Mother concluded that the funeral was to

had heard the adult voices say.  Not until I was older did

blame. I was simply too young for the experience.  Hind-

I learn that her death was not discovered for a day or two

sight, then as now, remains twenty-twenty.

and that her body was found in a bedroom (presumably in bed).

Which raises the question: exactly how old was I?  I had pondered this over the years and finally decided to find

I don’t think she and my parents were close, but my moth-

out.  The dusty archives of the Gadsden Public Library, in

er, nonetheless, planned to attend the funeral. I begged

combination with the glories of cyberspace, gave me an

to be taken along.

answer.  Several answers, in fact.

Against her better judgment, Mother relented, and we

To begin with, the phonetic spelling of her name did not

headed for Collier-Butler Funeral Home on South Fourth

match the actual.  The lady’s full, correct name was Ela

Street. It was a large, white, columned building that

May Gero, nee Oakley, and the date of her own death

looked more like an antebellum slave owner’s mansion

was given as April 16, 1953. So, after decades of mild

than a mortuary.

curiosity, I finally knew that I had been six years and two months old. This surprised me as I thought I had been

My attendance turned out to be a mistake.

younger. 

While time no doubt has shaped my memories of the

But while my nightmares faded with time, someone else’s

actual scene, I recall the room as dark save for bright

began.

50


If my parents shared only a passing acquaintance with Mrs. Gero, there had existed another relationship that

Maybe they continue to believe in an afterlife-–or not.

meant far more to them, particularly to my father.  I grew up hearing Daddy speak fondly and often of Wilson

This last possibility befell Daddy, and it did not play out

Parris, a friend who died in the early spring of 1950 when

to a happy resolution.  In his forties, my father began a

I was barely three and my brother, Bruce, was not yet one. 

slow descent into alcoholism, chaos, and despair.  I was

But occasionally until I was ten or eleven, usually follow-

then, and am still, persuaded that while his increasing

ing Sunday church, Daddy would insist on driving the

awareness of death’s inevitability was not the sole cause

family to Crestwood Cemetery to visit Wilson’s grave.  The

of his escalating pain, it certainly played a role. And this

frequency with which we did so is difficult to say.  Perhaps

awareness was coupled, not coincidentally, with a loss of

once or twice a year.  Perhaps less or more.

religious faith.

I don’t remember dreading these visits.  Having been

And so, in tandem with his drinking, Daddy’s mid-life crisis

admonished that it was disrespectful to step on a grave,

expressed itself most forcefully in his increasingly derisive

I carefully meandered here and there to truly dreadful

and vociferous attacks on religion and religious belief.  If

music, worse than the funeral home’s, coming from a tinny

he never stated flatly that he no longer believed in the

outdoor sound system while I read names on headstones

existence of God, his behavior certainly suggested so.

and asked the occasional question.  By that age I fully understood that dead bodies were buried beneath, but

Yet Daddy’s prior religious and other values were also

Sunday school had taught me that people’s souls live on

mine.  In particular he valued education, having struggled

beyond death.  Childlike, I accepted this.

mightily as a poor boy to get one at the University of Alabama during the depths of the Depression. Bruce and I

One detail that caught my attention was that certain

happily, and unquestioningly, followed in his and Mother’s

headstones had a photograph embedded in the granite. 

footsteps on that score.  There were no academic dropouts

For me, this left no doubt that the people buried in that

in our family.

place (not just the ones with pictures but all of them) had been real individuals who lived and died in history and

But as for his no-God, no-future-life, religion-is-bunk

not imaginary creations of fiction.   This realization did

positions, I’ve taken a different path.  I was a founding

not particularly distress me, but I was a serious child in

member of my parish, have attended church regularly

any case, and it made me even more pensive.  Eventually

throughout my life, and praying daily.  But I make no

these visits to Wilson’s grave became fewer and faded

claim to an unshakeable faith arising from a numinous

entirely when we moved farther away.

experience of God’s presence and guidance.  And if my faith leans a bit to the rote variety, it nonetheless has been

During this period in our lives, Mother and Daddy were

shaped by science as well as spirituality.

still as busy as young adults typically are. Young adults’ days are dedicated to getting an education, scrambling

When I was little, Uncle Allen gave my family a copy

for jobs, buying homes, and both starting and rearing

of Religion and the New Psychology by Alson J. Smith,

families. Once they securely establish themselves and

first published in 1951.  In my early teens, I found it on

began the slide into early middle age, these same adults

the shelves in the den, and I still possess the same worn

often find themselves with greater opportunity to mull the

copy, held together by an elastic band. It instigated the

meaning of life.  Maybe they realize they chose the wrong

beginning of my lifelong interest in psychical research and

career-–or not.  Maybe they decide they love their spouses

parapsychology.

more than ever or are prouder than ever of their children-– or not. 51


I learned that the earliest psychical researchers (begin-

True enough.  But exactly what is the fate that awaits us? 

ning with the Cambridge Ghost Society which ultimately

Daddy didn’t bother to finish the thought and no doubt

morphed into the Society for Psychical Research, or SPR)

figured he didn’t need to.  As he saw it, the answer was

were focused on the question of survival: whether con-

obvious to anyone with two brain halves to rub together.

sciousness and personality survive physical death. The triumphant scientism of their day smugly declared survival

I have collected fifty or so books on extrasensory percep-

to be impossible and the query itself absurd.  Death is the

tion, psychokinesis, near-death experiences and related

end, so no point in wasting thought or ink over the matter.

phenomena. All are authored not by cranks and crack-

Case closed.

pots but by prominent scholars and researchers. I have delved into far more than those fifty, and will continue

As psychical research became parapsychology and moved

reading in future.  Those by physicists are usually too

from the séance room to the laboratory, it was inevitable

difficult for my understanding, and I slog my way through

that this earlier focus was regarded as, if not exactly an

as best I can.

embarrassment, something that needed de-emphasis. Extrasensory perception and psychokinesis in the living

I wish Daddy had done the same because long before he

became the new epicenter. Zener cards and dice throwing

died at age 74, he was a tortured soul, bent double by the

machines edged out mediums.

fear of extinction. The literature on survival, like the subject itself, is particularly vexed and complicated territory.  I

But as Freud reminds us, the repressed idea returns.

have read and re-read Alan Gauld’s Mediumship and

Thanatos, certainly no less than Eros, cannot be denied

Survival with partial comprehension and explored other

for long.  If survival research (or, as it is properly termed,

sources.

survival-related research) was déclassé for decades, it is respectable again, and researchers are once more listing it on their CV’s.  A good sign, I think. All of us fear death, but simple observations from everyday life reveal that many have a greater fear than others. Reluctance-–and outright refusals-–to draw up a will, buy pre-need burial plots, attend funerals and memorial services, and so forth often betray this dread.

All of us fear death, but....observations... reveal that many have a higher index than others. Reluctance - and outright refusals - to draw up a will... often betray this dread.

Daddy, however, did not noticeably display these rather obvious signs.  Wills, life insurance, burial insurance, paidfor cemetery space and all the rest he had taken care of.  But even so, his fear was boldly betrayed by his words

All this has provided me a rational, evidential, empirical

rather than his actions.

basis for my expectation of a future life, the expectation that at the death of the body our minds, memories, and

Frequently, he admonished, “When you’re dead, you’re

personalities-–our consciousness-–continue. Scoffers who

dead!”  And once when the two of us were in the yard

assert that consciousness is a purely physical/mechanical/

while he mowed the grass, he declared, pointing at Tippy,

materialistic phenomenon, nothing more than electronic

our pet collie, “The same fate awaits you that awaits that

impulses fired off by brain cells, have some tall talking to

dog!”

do in the face of telepathy, remote viewing, precognition and psychokinesis.

52


Uncertainty is the human condition, and my expectation

to the writings of Charlie Dunbar Broad, internationally

is not and cannot be 100 percent.  It falls somewhere on

renowned philosopher and author, professor of logic and

the continuum between pure belief and pure certainty,

epistemology, don of Trinity College, Cambridge, presi-

but exactly where varies.  On good days, my ratio of hope

dent of the SPR 1935-36 and 1958-60, and lifelong model

to despair is 90/10, on bad days 51/49, but unlike my

train and yo-yo enthusiast. Broad once told an interview-

father’s, it is never zero.

er, “Don’t you see?  Because these phenomena are real, they change everything!  Everything!”

I doubt that my father ever read anything by Jacques Monod, the 1965 Nobel laureate in biology, but he would

I cast my vote for Broad’s perspective on this issue and am

have assented to Monod’s bleak assessment, paraphrased

at leisure to ponder the delicious paradox that the ratio-

as follows:

nally-based anticipation of a future life changes absolutely nothing while it changes absolutely everything.

“Because nature has no intention or goal, we must accept that we are alone in the unfeeling immensity of the uni-

Faith stronger than mine may well have no need for any

verse out of which we emerged only by chance. Neither

of this, and individuals so favored might advise that I read

our destiny nor our duty is anywhere spelled out, and our

the above-referenced literature less and the Bible more.  I

very existence is pointless and absurd.  We are merely

understand and respect their viewpoint, but not everyone

chemical extras in a majestic but impersonal cosmic dra-

has been privileged by unalloyed union with the divine. 

ma—an irrelevant, unintended sideshow.”

For such as us, empirical backup is most welcome.  It rolls away the tomb’s sealing stone just enough to admit the

Daddy would have been better off by far (and, for that

beams of a star shining brilliantly against Monod’s--and

matter, so would Monod) to have paid serious attention

Daddy’s--dark, dark night.

Edna Cunningham Horning is a retired reference librarian living in Columbia, South Carolina. She is a native of Alabama and attended college and graduate school in Virginia and Georgia, respectively. Her novella, “God Has One, Too” was published by Bewildering Stories and one of her short stories has also been accepted there.

53


House Empty Now By Catherine Anderson

Before my mother died that August, she gave us the words we needed to talk about her death with my adult brother, Charlie, who has severe autism. Tell him this, she said: “Mother loved Charlie very much, but Mother got sick and couldn’t come home again.” She phrased it in the idiosyncratic grammar my family uses when speaking with Charlie—direct, to the point, and without personal pronouns like “you” or “she” because these are words he doesn’t seem to understand. Our mother also didn’t use the word “death” when telling us what to tell my brother and she didn’t raise the expectation that we take over his daily care. Years ago, she and my father had made sure he was placed in a group home with other disabled adult men. She did expect me to become my brother’s legal guardian once my father, who survived her, passed away. And she expressed a hope that Charlie’s life would continue without change. Over the years, I’ve tried, with effort, to fulfill that promise. I am the eldest and only daughter in the family. My arms permanently open to catch whatever falls.  Our parents brought us up in suburban Detroit until I was almost fifteen, Charlie twelve, and my brother Bill, six years old, when we moved to Kansas City, Missouri. It would be four years later before my parents arranged for Charlie to move from the Michigan institution where he had been living to our home on 63rd St and then later, a group home nearby. As an adult, Charlie uses few words, sometimes speaking rapidly and loudly, with one hand raised in the air as if he were a TV host. He seems to understand what we tell him although conversations are often one-sided interviews because like many people with severe autism and language deficits, Charlie cannot predict what another person may be thinking. He does not initiate speech unless he is really confident in the response he might receive. The short monosyllabic phrases he uses were learned from our mother in the years before he was institutionalized at the age of eight. Doris Anderson was trained to be a


teacher and a “speech correctionist” as it was called in

her last days, she breathed with the assistance of a

the 1950s and 60s. She earned her bachelor’s degree

portable oxygen canister, her voice still melodious between

at Florida State University and started her career by

outbursts of coughing. 

breaking segregation laws to provide speech services in

           

all-black schools. She left the South to marry my father,

The evening of our mother’s wake, Bill, my youngest

and continued working in the schools of urban Detroit,

brother, and I picked up Charlie from the group home

until her second pregnancy with Charlie. 

where he waited for us, holding his good clothes on a hanger. Back at the house, the one he knew as his family

One of the things I miss most about my mother is her

home, we helped him put on his shirt and suit jacket, we

lilting Southern cadence, a speech given to generous

clipped a few fingernails, buzzed his chin with the electric

descriptions and well-turned metaphors. Our mother

razor, just as our mother would do on Sunday mornings

loved the beauty of the human voice, as expressive vehicle

before church. A funeral home was not a church, but its

or musical instrument. This love led her to assist people

close resemblance would make it easier for him, Bill and

from all walks of life—children born with cleft palates,

I reassured each other. There would be people he knew,

wounded war veterans, refugees new to the English

candles, hand-shaking, flowers. Charlie likes to follow

language.  The shape of the tongue reaching for the letter

rituals, to imitate what others were doing. But would he

“r” or the stop of breath required for the sound of “d” at

understand that his mother had died? We didn’t know

the end of a word were movements whose perfection she

if Mom would be laid out in an open casket because

knew instinctively, the way a dancer knows the forms of the

our father, who had made the arrangements, didn’t

bolero or the saraband. One of the central ironies of my

remember. This could be a problem, Bill and I realized. 

mother’s life was to give birth to a child who would only

We repeated as carefully as we could the words of farewell

learn to speak in halting tones, a child who required all of

our mother had told us to tell him. He frowned, eyeing

her maternal patience and vast intelligence. More than

the road ahead as we drove. Entering the visitation area

once she rose to the occasion: in addition to teaching him

of the funeral home Bill and I soon saw the open casket,

to speak by singing songs with him over and over again,

our mother laid out in a blue Swiss-dot dress. In silence,

she calmed Charlie’s temper tantrums by rolling him up in

we each walked up to her and gave our parting words.

a blanket like a cigar and placing him down on her bed,

When it was Charlie’s turn to say good-bye, he stood over

immobile and peaceful for the first time in twenty-four

the casket, looked into his mother’s face, and then raised

hours, his penny-brown eyes finally closed.

his hand toward her, speaking in a loud voice, “Good-bye

           

Mummer, good-bye Mama, good-bye Doris Anderson.”

Our mother was also an addicted smoker for almost

Finished, he turned to join the rest of us, watching, in

forty-five years. She had tried to quit several times and

wonder.

succeeded months before we heard the dispiriting news of her terminal lung cancer.  She claimed that nicotine took

When Charlie turned six few doctors and no educators

the edge off her nerves, and throughout my childhood

knew how to diagnose, treat or teach someone with

both parents filled ashtrays throughout the day, the house

autism. Special education classes were offered to children

dense with smoky dust motes. In January when I flew

with mental retardation, but because a doctor and the

from my home to be with her in Kansas City the night she

school system assumed my brother had a mental illness

was diagnosed, she told me, “Don’t feel sorry for me. I

in combination with mental retardation, he was barred

loved smoking.” It started as a form of rebellion in the

from public school classrooms. After countless evaluations

conservative south of the 1940s. With her girlfriends in

and rejections, my parents realized that the only solution

tow, my mother used to drive down Tampa’s Bayshore

to this double denial of education and health care was to

Boulevard with four or five cigarettes hanging from her

place him in a state-sponsored institution. One morning in

mouth, a stunt to razz the more sedate onlookers. In

March they drove him three hours away to the Fort Custer 55


State Home in Augusta, Michigan. On a summer visit I

at doorknobs and chairs. He had been a newspaper

saw Charlie’s new neighborhood for the first time—block

reporter for The Detroit News, and his hands once typed

after block of mustard yellow army barracks overgrown

on an Underwood manual at 60 words per minute, typing

by weeds and cattails.  On the way home without him,

through the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and

the highway became filled with mirrored puddles that

Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. As a kid, I

appeared on the horizon and then vanished the closer

told my father I wanted to be a writer, like him. “What

we got. My father calmly explained the mirage:  a bright

should I do?” I asked. He said, “Learn how to type.”

pool of water in the distance, a small shimmer of hope, yet as soon as you arrive, it disappears. In truth, it was never

The story of a parent’s decline is the sound of ripping cloth

there to begin with.

and quiet tears, of choked back anger and sighs of relief.

My father lasted one week in the assisted living center of

These were sharp cruelties. They resemble the cruelties of

Armour Home before he had to be moved to the home’s

neglect, though my family wasn’t poor or underserved. In

nursing unit. Within that time, I needed more money

another generation, my brother could have been locked

to pay for his care and began the process to sell family

away in a closed ward for the duration of his life. Instead,

house, the one Charlie knew as home. Everything in the

he came home to our family house on 63rd St. in Kansas

four-bedroom house would have to go, all the papers

City and grew up to be a calm, gentle adult, not the

sifted, all the pots and pans boxed, all the beds unframed,

seven-year-old who roller skated in his bedroom. Not the

the rugs rolled. One morning I began with the kitchen,

child who chewed paper, then flung it to the ceiling where

taking down the stainless-steel frying pan whose handle

it stuck. Not the boy who hoisted a garbage can at his

my mother had cleverly mended by winding ordinary

mother, the boy who kicked the kindergarten teacher,

cotton string around and around, then coating it with

the boy who kicked me. Years later he has a sheltered

Elmer’s glue to seal the grip. Next were the blue cow-

workshop job in Kansas City, a city with many parks and

shaped cream pitcher, the wooden spice rack, the line of

recreational activities, a place in an adult group home

flour sack-shaped canisters, the roasting pan, the nested

where he is loved, and a chance to prove himself as a

mixing bowls, the plastic cup measures, all packed in large

bowler and a Special Olympics champion. 

boxes.

           

Six years after my mother died in a rented hospital bed in

In Kansas City, I work for an organization that resettles

the family living room I took my father to Armour Home,

new refugees. At the time of my father’s move, a group

an assisted living center and nursing home not far from the

of Somali Bantu families had just arrived. Most had

house on 63rd St. It was a Saturday morning in April, and

been warehoused in a camp in northern Kenya for

the redbud tree he loved to view from his kitchen window

over a decade. Of course these refugees arrived with

was in full bloom. A day earlier I had explained to my

nothing and had to learn about stoves and refrigerators,

Dad that the decision we had made together for him to

microwaves and cell phones. Highways, airports,

move was now real. We packed a few things in a suitcase.

speeding cars, trains and busses were all new to them.

I explained again what kind of room he would have,

They had to learn English, get jobs, support their families.

where he would eat dinner, how often I would come to

They needed warm clothes to wear to work and school. To

visit. My father showed me the small army green rucksack

learn how to cook they needed my mother’s plates and

he had owned since his discharge from the infantry at

cups, her pots and pans, including that mended frying

the end of World War II. In this bag he had packed the

pan. Ishmahan, one of the interpreters for the refugee

items he wanted to take to the nursing home: a comb, his

women, told me that some days, after cooking class, the

checkbook, eyeglasses case and a pair of pliers he used

women lingered in the training kitchen, enjoying each

to open jars and bottles. My father had rheumatoid

other’s company. Young and old, the women would

arthritis, his hands curved into claws that grasped clumsily

lean back, sip coffee from my mother’s tea cups, and

56


think of her, an elegant, kind lady, watching them. “In

That afternoon Bill and I decided to take Charlie for a

Somali culture, we think that way about those we love

last look at the old house before it would be sold and out

who’ve died,” she said. “They’re somewhere, looking at us,

of our lives forever. The late September air was brisk,

watching us. Do you believe that, too?” My answer was

with leaves scattered by strong winds riding down from

yes.

the Rockies. It was a quick stride to 63rd St. and Charlie

          

gained speed as we approached.  We let him walk ahead

After only five months since his move to the nursing home,

to the back steps, the path he knew so well. At the door, I

my father died.  I was with him at the time, late at night in

turned the key and said, “The house is empty now.”  When

his nursing home room. I had now seen both my parents’

the door opened, Charlie bolted past us through the

dying mouths form an oval ring to shape the breath they

kitchen, opening closets, cupboards, announcing aloud

left me. 

over and over, “House. Empty. Now. House. Empty.” The words became softer and softer as he wound through

At my home after the funeral, Bill and I marveled at the

the other rooms, until his voice was no more than a whisper

different approaches to death our parents had taken. Our

to himself, “house empty now.” 

father resisted going gentle into that good night, while

our mother accepted her diagnosis of terminal cancer

A sheer surprise, his quiet echo. Bill and I then realized

almost fearlessly. After our mother died, our father had

that to Charlie, losing the house meant the same thing as

lived for another six years with multiple illnesses. He had

losing his father and mother. And it was our own deficit of

experienced so many brushes with death, we concluded,

understanding, our own inability to predict what Charlie

he couldn’t stop fighting, even when the odds were

was thinking that made it hard for us to perceive his range

stacked against him. The list of near misses we knew

of feelings about death and loss. For a few more minutes

about included five major battles in World War II as an

Charlie, Bill and I stood together with our own thoughts

infantryman, a plane crashing right beside his car as he

in that empty house. Then we left, locked the door, and

traveled the expressway home one morning after working

trudged through the afternoon’s ephemeral, fallen leaves.

midnights, a gasoline truck exploding in front of him on that same Detroit expressway, and a metal projectile flying into his car windshield in Kansas City. He was eighty-one when he died from natural causes.    

Catherine Anderson is a writer living in Kansas City, Missouri. She has published three collections of poetry as well as essays and poems in journals and periodicals ranging from the Southern Review to the Boston Sunday Globe. Much of her creative and professional work touches on the intersection of culture and language. She trains new refugees in the field of spoken language interpretation.

57


Beyond The Confines By Sarah Bigham

In the light-shorted days of deep winter I dream of spangled green through a shattered eye of glass made whole by memories from before the squalor of pain the husk-making of illness and the sickness of loneliness. Whitewashed walls meant to divide inside / from / outside echo and crumble under cooling dust and the drifting, desiccated smell of dry rot. Or is it my bones?

Sarah Bigham teaches, writes, and paints in Maryland where she lives with her kind chemist wife, their three independent cats, an unwieldy herb garden, several chronic pain conditions, and nearconstant outrage at the general state of the world tempered with love for those doing their best to make a difference. A Pushcart Prize nominee, Sarah’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of great places for readers, writers, and listeners. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.

58


Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim. Vicki Harrison

7


MONTHS TO YEARS . WINTER 2018

monthstoyears.org

MONTHS TO YEARS - WINTER 2018  

Mty winter2018 v7.pdf

MONTHS TO YEARS - WINTER 2018  

Mty winter2018 v7.pdf

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