MONTHS TO YEARS WINTER 2018
ART & PHOTOGRAPHY
Nothing on this earth is standing still. Itâ€™s either growing or dying. No matter if itâ€™s a tree or a human being. Lou Holtz
MONTHS TO YEARS WINTER 2018 Last Words
Kerri K. Morris
Writing Through Cancer
Ali Zidel Meyers
Neptune Neptune Omega
For My Sisters, Who Died Five Weeks Apart
On Bugs and Golfballs and Reality
Katy Van Sant
Your Mother Said
Bud - Blossom - Spring
Dead Manâ€™s Socks
Richard King Perkins III
Janeâ€™s Final Adventure
Love and Death in the ICU
The Last Bumblebee
Rolling The Stone Away
House Empty Now
Beyond The Confines
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
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Best, Renata Louwers, Editor & Co-Founder
Renusha Indralingama | Editorial Assistant & Storytelling Coach
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“You must be Ali,” she says, her warm smile easing my
“Welcome to the group. I see we have some new faces
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.”
“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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Untitled (Wood) Photograph by Jim Zola
Neptune Neptune Omega
by Lisa Richter I’m sitting in our garden wrapped in a quilt, my body
warmly protected, my head exposed to gusts of chilled air.
The weather has turned; a storm is blowing in. Adrienne
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
“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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 otherâ€”, 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com.
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-
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,
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-
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,
“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
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.
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 hospitalâ€™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 Vermontâ€™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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
“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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
If you donâ€™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
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.
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
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.
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
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-
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,
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
do in the face of telepathy, remote viewing, precognition and psychokinesis.
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-
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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, Sarahâ€™s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of great places for readers, writers, and listeners. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.
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
MONTHS TO YEARS . WINTER 2018
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