Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

Tommy loved trains. He didn’t know why he loved trains and he’d never actually ridden on a train, but for all of his ten years he had lived across the river from the train tracks. Every night he’d slept hearing the sound of train whistles and he guessed that’s where his love of trains started. He gave this answer without expression every time he was asked and adults asked him this a lot, as if this was all that mattered about him. Usually adults would peer down at him invasively, squinting hard, like they might determine what his insides were saying by the way his outsides looked. His mother said it was because he was unusually quiet for a boy—she said he was “sucked into himself.” When she said this, he thought of sitting inside a huge pink bubblegum bubble, trapped and on display.
Already Tommy was tired of school, only 2 months into his fifth grade year. He was bored with the younger kids, in the cafeteria, in the halls, on the playground. He resented their squeaky voices, their little hands rubbing the walls, the tiny toilet in the bathroom reserved for them. Tommy longed for the freedom he imagined that middle school offered and felt dejected when he thought about it, realizing it was a full year away. He especially disliked having to be with the baby-kids on his school bus. They took forever to load and unload, skipping up their driveways, waving to their mothers, annoyingly pausing to pet their dog instead of crossing the street.
It was Tuesday, the fifth of September, that bleak time in the south when the summer is still in full heat-bloom and the next school-respite, Thanksgiving, was impossibly in the distant future. His was the last stop in the afternoon and the first stop in the morning. Most days, school exhausted him and the forty-five minute ride home lulled him into a half-asleep state. When the bus clattered across the train tracks before turning into the gravel, river-side parking that marked the end of his road, Tommy roused from his daze, swayed up the bus aisle between the empty seats and catapulted off the last step, twisting his ankle awkwardly in a deep crater, one of many littering the rough landing. He felt the familiar blast of dust and hot air against his back as the driver slammed the door. Standing on the edge of the gravel, pressed against the tall weeds, he watched as the bus swung wildly toward the river, almost spilling over the bank before grinding noisily into reverse, finishing a tight, three-point turn, and rumbling back out onto the road.
Looking toward the nearly impassable road that led to his home, he immediately discarded going home this early. The dense undergrowth and bulky trees cast an almost permanent dark shadow over the road’s gloomy passage, more like a creek bed, washed out and riveted with large rocks that scrapped the bottom of his mom’s car causing her to say, “Shit!” every time they came or went, as if it was unexpected. Two other homes shared the same road, an old man with a grizzled, sway-backed horse as decrepit as he, and a lady and her full-grown son, a no-good, lazy bum, according to Tommy’s mother. Tommy disliked sitting around in the empty house waiting for his mother to come home, even though he mostly felt an uneasy aversion to being there with her as well. Somehow, although she essentially ignored him when she was there, the hollowness inside seemed more amplified when he was home alone.
Peering into the sky through the heavy green tops of massive oaks, Tommy searched for signs of the typical, late afternoon thunderstorm of Indian summer. Deciding that a storm wasn’t coming anytime soon, Tommy wandered down the river bank and stooped in the thick shade. Picking up a knobby stick, he poked around in the loamy dirt, popping up a worm, fingering its thick-muscled body between his fingers. He liked the way the worm didn’t have a noticeable head and wondered if it could slither through the ground the same in either direction. Releasing his wriggling catch, he watched it disappear soundlessly into the rich soil. Tommy stood and moved closer to the rippling river water, tossing a rock into green-blackness, listening to the dense thud that followed the splash, making him wonder what the river would look like underneath if all the water was gone and he could see the river-bottom exposed.
Using his stick to furrow a path along the fringe of the river, Tommy pretended the groove was a train track and imagined the train charging through the rugged countryside, thrilling around the bends of trees and soaring up the hillsides. He contemplated the fearless engineer who knew all the turns of the track, driving the train through many kinds of weather, sounding the horn at every road in every town across miles of land. Pulled out of his reverie when a chunky web of roots gnarled his stick, splattering black, mealy dirt into his face and over his shoulders, he tossed his stick and shook his head, feeling the cool dirt slide under his collar, down his belly and back.
Eyeing the sky again to gage how much time he had before his mother came home, he decided he still had more time and continue to stroll along the river bank, up the steep embankment, over the guardrail, onto the paved, two-lane road and across the bridge to the train tracks. This is where Tommy had spent most of his time for as long as he could remember. He knew every wooden tie, all the joints, each bolted plate, and the shiny surface of the steel tracks for the entire section from the road to about even with where he imagined his house must be on the other side of the river. He couldn’t be sure exactly where his house lined up because summer vegetation and mountainous slopes effectively hid the winding, rutted road of his home.
Tommy bent down, perching on the track in a tight, athletic crouch and ran his short, broad fingers across the shiny, worn surface of the tracks, tracing the dents and rust. Sighing sleepily, he relaxed onto his back, centering his body perfectly on a single rail, feeling the warmth of a day’s absorbed sun seep from the steel into his spine and ribs. He closed his eyes against the waning sun, letting his mind wander to what he wondered about most in the world, the thing that constantly tore at him inside, a pain somewhere in his chest that burned and throbbed whenever he stopped moving long enough to feel his body. He pondered the man who somewhere walked this earth, maybe with the same shape eyes, thick blond hair or similar curve of his back. He imagined what this man might be doing at this very moment, what he did for work and who his family might be, what his voice sounded like. He wondered, most excruciating of all, whether this man ever thought about him, Thomas Akin Brown, or whether his mother had ever bothered to let this man know that Tommy existed in the world. As drowsiness overtook him, he settled with the almost physical realization that his mother probably never did tell, didn’t care enough to tell and the underlying, ugly truth was this meant he didn’t matter. His being here was not worth telling.
His soft, anguished breaths became deeper as the sun vanished and the earth’s heat disappeared in the stain of late afternoon. After some time, his chest rhythmically rising and falling, he suddenly startled awake, feeling the river-cold mist chilled in his body. Rising stiffly, he rubbed his burning eyes and squinted into the shadows, feeling confused and disoriented. He stumbled, numb and cold, across the bridge, adjusting slowly to the gray-black shapes blanketing the familiar road and followed the well-known contours by using his eyeless senses, across the rocky river-landing and turning blindly onto the final stretch, feeling the dewy slap and gentle tangle of the crowded foliage on his face, arms and legs, up the worn, porch steps, slipping noiselessly into his dimly lit home.
Tommy’s mother was perpetually irritated at him for reasons that weren’t readily apparent. He was a generally agreeable child, obedient and quiet and this seemed to irk her more than any amount of defiant noise and rebellion. Even more annoying, he was kind-hearted most of the time, tender with and curious about all kinds of nature’s creatures, thoughtfully holding store or restaurant doors open for strangers, purposefully picking up and discarding errant trash while his mother huffed impatiently, aggravated by the interruption. Most school days, when he came in from outside, well after he knew she would have gotten home from work, she would hold him hostage with her accusing inspection and try to find fault with him.
“You should have been doing your homework,” she’d say.
He would meet her eyes, knowing that this too made her mad but unable to stop himself, “Yes Ma’am.”
Sometimes her body’s posture would soften slightly, as if she considered being nurturing but typically lost this notion just as quickly and Tommy knew then that he was already forgotten, a temporary bother she assuaged by calling one of her friends on the phone, stepping outside to have a cigarette or going to her room and closing the door. More times than not, she would have a male visitor who arrived several hours after dark, one more man in a long, boring string of men who would pat him on the head or shadow box with him for an unpleasant two minutes before disappearing onto the back porch or into his mother’s bedroom. Although Tommy hated this, he never talked to his mother about the men and this displeased her as well. She glared at him reproachfully, pinning him with her cool eyes in the front hallway as he tried to escape out the door each morning, “Don’t you look at me like that, young man. You don’t have a clue what it’s like for me. You think you’re better than everybody. You know what you are? I’ll tell you what you are… you’re too big for your own britches.” Tommy learned to escape into his mind when she talked like this because saying something or not saying something had the exact same result. He learned to let her have her say and disappear at the same time, off in his inner world where she couldn’t touch him with her words or her disapproving scowl.
Tommy’s mother was undeniably beautiful, the kind of woman who looked as lovely disheveled in the morning as when she was dressed and painted for a night out. Whenever Tommy would allow himself to acknowledge this, he felt an instantaneous wash of shame, as if her radiance overshadowed his right to be in the world, as if he was an uninvited intruder in her glittery life. Tommy was distressingly aware of the effect his mother had on others, with her brilliant blue eyes, set just-so in her creamy-skinned face and long, dark eyelashes, her stunning blond hair, beautifully shaped body and pink, perfect mouth. He saw the way women’s faces would visibly tighten when his mother was within eyesight of their husbands. He noticed the helpless, admiring eyes of men, fixated on his mother’s every move, attracted to every uttered word. She was steamily alluring and her sensual influence was like a covert drug, softening resolve and blurring commitments.
Tommy’s mother was a waitress, which gave her ample opportunity to capture all the men she desired, and Tommy grimly noted that his mother apparently required a constant variation of male attention. The house-visiting men were rotated regularly by Tommy’s mother but all seemed happy with their own sporadic visits within the constant stream of suitors. Tommy hated everything about this. He found his mother’s appeal mortifying and he pitied and despised the men who were droned into her web. He soothed himself by playing a game of incessant alertness for men who had never met his mother, seeing them as fresh innocents, viewing these men as curious anomalies, pawns who were untouched and unclaimed, reeking with the possible heroism of resisting his mother’s charms. He indulged himself that such a man existed and thinking this thought sometimes was enough to slightly ease his anger, diminish his disgust.
Only once did Tommy try to talk to his mother about his father. He had already learned to calculate her moods, at six years old, and took the chance that this might be one of those amiable moments. She had just washed her hair and was sitting in her purple, silk robe at the kitchen table, mindlessly thumbing through a magazine, cigarette poised in her polished-nail fingers. She smiled absently at him when he sat down opposite her.
“Mom, who is my daddy?”
The smile, still visible on her face, now had a gray-death feel to it, reaching across the table, turning Tommy’s blood to ice. “Your daddy is a no-good bastard and I don’t ever want you asking about him again. Do you understand?” Her words
punched Tommy in the gut as effectively as if she had physically assaulted him. His eyes welled and spilled and she stared at him as if he was as inanimate as the chair in which he sat. He felt as if something inside him balled up and died, smothered alive without any chance of revival. He slid his chair back, watching her impassive face shift into distraction with her nails, examining each tip, admiring its perfection. He got up, trancelike, his stomach lurching, cutting through a cloud of her smoke exhale as he passed her chair, out the door, his head spinning, up the steep stairs to his room. As he lay motionless on his bed, reeling with revulsion and queasiness, he knew without any doubt, but didn’t know how he knew, that she was lying to him. He knew the pathetic truth was that she didn’t know who his father was because she had too many men. Every time since that day, if Tommy would let himself remember, it tasted like vomit.
Occasionally his mother took Tommy to church. Tommy knew these church days were about his mother being seen, coiffed and perfumed, all smiles and implied humility. Still Tommy used to believe, when he was younger, that this might be the one safe place where men could hold their ground against his mother’s temptation. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…” the church members would stand, holding hymnals, vowing in unison. Tommy clung to the words like a sword, a strong protection clasped in his hands until the day when he was eight and he met his mother coming out from the side door of the sanctuary, flushed and fluttery, the married preacher just a couple steps behind her, smiling the dumb smile Tommy had seen splashed on too many men’s faces.
As soon as Tommy sat down in his assigned desk seat at school on Wednesday, he knew something was different. He didn’t smell his teacher’s perfume; the throat-clogging aroma had been a constant in the room since the first day of school. Standing in front of the class with his back to the room was a mysterious man in a grey suit coat, short black hair neatly trimmed to the collar, his long legs strong in his pants. Tommy studied the man’s back, watched the way his muscled shoulders flexed as he wrote on the blackboard, the side of his face, gold rimmed glasses high on his nose, referring to pages in a opened book on the teacher’s desk. Tommy thought he looked powerful and unusual, deciding he was probably not from their town by the way he was dressed, teachers at his school never wore suits.
When the man turned to introduce himself as Mr. Shaw, the substitute who would replace his teacher for at least two months due to illness, Tommy felt his heart pound inexplicably. He pressed his hand to his chest unconsciously and listened as the man began to talk about himself, including how he had journeyed two days ago by train to Georgia from Vermont. Propping a tall, beefy leg over the edge of the teacher’s desk, the teacher smiled warmly, engaging the children with his unhurried manner, answering questions, clasping his hands gently on his lap, letting the children interrupt and share their own stories triggered from what they heard.
He told of growing up in Vermont, helping his grandfather harvest maple syrup and of his first job, working in the copper mines of Tennessee as a young man, how the sulfur runoff caused the land for miles to become bare, red mountains, like Mars. He described the snow in New Hampshire, hanging heavily on pine trees and how he cross-country skied through the magical forests for exercise. He revealed that train transportation was his favorite way to travel, how passenger sleeper cars let you sleep as the train moves across the country, how the dining car serves meals with fine china and real silver salt and pepper shakers.
The children were riveted in their seats, fervently listening, glancing at each other with smiles in their eyes, sharing the moment as if they were getting away with something forbidden, this utter enjoyment of class time, this man who was so foreign and different. Tommy suddenly felt urgently self-conscious. He wanted the teacher to notice him but at the same time felt nervous that he might be seen. Throughout the day, Tommy found it almost painful to look at Mr. Shaw, his confidence such a generous thing, his solid chest visible in his fine-tailored shirt, his impeccable speech irresistible. He exuded a lucidness, an other-worldliness that Tommy could sense as strongly as he smelled his mother’s constant disapproval.
As the day’s morning moved into lunchtime into afternoon, Tommy felt dizzy and wobbly inside, his head detached and oddly distant from his body. He foggily noticed the teacher moving through the aisles of desks, touching shoulders with encouragement, clearing his throat occasionally when a child’s attention wandered, smiling approvingly when the children raised their hands or read from their work. When it was his turn to be touched by Mr. Shaw with a light tap on his shoulder, Tommy felt his body tremble with a queer sensation, a new vibration of being recognized; him the unknown boy in the seat, appreciated by the glorious, new teacher.
School days went by in a blur. Tommy felt euphoric with an unimaginable joy of being, each day sitting in his desk, three rows back from the front, two aisles to the right of the teacher’s desk at the front. He had learned the pattern by heart, Mr. Shaw’s morning stories and sharing, standing at the blackboard, drawing and writing, captivating the students in some new lesson, his broad, handsome smile touching each face as if his attention was a ray of light straight from the sun’s core. Mr. Shaw’s magnetism was enormous, the movement of his hands as he spoke, the poise of his confident man-stance. Observing his teacher’s hands, Tommy could not imagine this man’s arms around his mother’s waist, this man’s hands grabbing his mother’s hips as the men who intruded his house. Tommy could not fathom this man appearing after dark and disappearing like a coward before dawn.
Tommy felt a buzz of anticipation as Mr. Shaw strode his daily rounds of the classroom, cultivating, inspiring, supportive in words and touch, connecting and impressing a gift of appreciation for each child, each unique personality. As the days grew into weeks, Tommy’s confidence bloomed, he began to feel lavishly noticed and regarded. Each exchange with Mr. Shaw was like honey-water to his soul, quenching a thirst he had not known was there, relieving the emptiness of a void unnamed. Tommy felt an unusual eagerness to please, a desire for involvement, in a way he had never expected.
Going home each day, however, Tommy would fall into a sodden despair, heavy with fear, holding his breath unconsciously. Each day the dreaded knowing grew, the assurance that his mother would eventually find out, would notice a different lightness in his being, would resent him for it and pry into its cause, would find out from someone in town, her customers, about this marvelous new man, a promising, untouched-by-Tommy’s-mother phenomena. Tossing restlessly at night, Tommy knew that when this happened, the certainty of which he did not deny, his sublime dream would come to a snapping end, crushing his heart and ending his hope in an instant.
Five weeks into his new teacher’s employment, Tommy suddenly felt as if a dam had burst inside of him. All the anxiety of worrying that his mother would taint and ruin this last, pristine man with the lure of her attractiveness had finally reached a crescendo. Riding home on the bus, Tommy felt weepy and despondent. It was as if a lever inside him had turned and a scalding, liquid movement was filling his inner cavity. Disembarking from the bus, the river looked dim and somber to Tommy. The trees felt lifeless and obscure. Tommy sat on the bank of the river for a while, feeling his body hum with some unknown yearning, an unspeakable misery. As he watched the familiar rippling of the water, his eyes stung with grief, the depth of which he had no understanding but felt as a relentless picking and plucking within his belly.
Straightening up stiffly, bewildered at his heavy melancholy, Tommy walked across the bridge to the familiar railroad track on the other side, followed the steel rails of the railroad with his eyes around the corner, deep into the green foliage until it disappeared. He imagined the place called Vermont, his teacher riding the train across mountains, over bridges similar to this one, his teacher sitting with his face near the sun-warmed windows, seeing the beauty of Georgia unfold as he neared the station. He imagined Mr. Shaw selecting him, Tommy, as his favorite student, the most beloved child in his class, lavishing him with praise and adoration that had no bounds, no expectations. He felt the wonder of envisioning such a benevolent focus of a person towards him, the possibility that he could be important enough for someone to regard him with kindness and unselfish commitment.
Tommy lay down on the single rail as he always did, contemplating the yellow-gray sky through his half-closed eyes. The steel felt cold and unyielding between his shoulder blades, his body turning numb except for a dull ache in his chest. As he reflected on all his teacher had said, his movements, his presence, Tommy imagined the rhythmic vibrations of the train that had brought this teacher to him and, just as abruptly, realized with a throbbing dismay that his teacher’s impending final day, probably just three weeks away, would mark the end of the solace Tommy found in him, with or without his mother’s involvement. Either way, Tommy understood with a shudder, his life was doomed, his teacher would ultimately depart from his life forever.
As darkness spread across the river valley, Tommy suddenly felt aware of the time and vaguely realized he was hungry. Entering the front hall of his home, he could hear his mother talking on the phone in the living room. He pictured her in her usual place on the end of the sofa, one arm hanging over an ashtray on the floor, one leg propped up on the coffee table, her head cocked toward the armrest.
“Really? I’ll have to ask Tommy. I didn’t know. What? He came on the train from Vermont? Over a month ago? I don’t understand why Tommy hasn’t said anything about him.”
Tommy could hear her take a long drag from her cigarette as he stood in the shadow of the hallway, invisible to her.
“I know… He’s probably some loser who ran out on his family like all the other losers.”
Tommy moved closer to the stairs, his hand on the banister.
“Tommy, is that you?”
He ignored her and ascended the stairs, his stomach twisted and repulsed, his room first on the left, a cluttered storage room on the right and an uninspired, yellow-sunflower guest room at the end of the narrow hall, never used, collecting spider webs and dust. Flopping on his bed, not bothering to turn on the lamp, his body felt weightless, as if a big chunk of matter had flown away from him and nested somewhere on the roof, bathing in the moonlight, unseen and unremembered by the world. As he laid there, his body barren, his eyes fixed and glazed, his mind grappled with the insight that hope could be such a solid thing and now was flung from him, leaving him split-opened and abandoned. He could hear his mother talk well into the night, interrupted by slams of the screened-in porch and the car that arrived, her raspy, smoker’s cough, a strange man’s voice echoing through the floor beneath his bed.

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She knew where the conversation was going before he unfolded his hands and began to talk.  Call it a religious intervention, she had been here with various other people before.  Never with family, however.  This was different because it mattered.  He had waited until the beach house was quiet, the middle of a hot afternoon, midweek of their yearly family reunion.  She wasn’t sure how this strange, no people-coming-in-and-out time had presented itself, but here they were, sitting across the long table from each other, brother and sister, she two years older at 41.  She fingered the sea-shell edged placemat as he began his speech, clearing his throat for emphasis.

“We’re worried about you.  I don’t think this move is a good idea.  What is this place you’re going to anyway?  I don’t think it has anything to do with Jesus.”

She pictured him at home, huddled with his wife for weeks in the evenings, discussing her situation, her decision to move to a new state near a metaphysical center where she would teach.  She could see them touching and thumbing through their bibles, leaning their heads together in prayer and determining the best way to influence her irresponsible actions.

“How do you know it has nothing to do with Jesus?”

Frustration rippled like a wave across his jaw and up to his receding hairline.  His piercing blue eyes were hardly ever soft anymore, hard engineering work and his role as a provider and father worn heavy across his shoulders.  She remembered them giggling in their bunk beds as children, pulling their wool blankets away from the sheet creating lightening pops of static, him on the bottom bunk and her on the top, him doing his first and then her making her blanket crackle in response.  Their secret laughter would leave them breathless, giddy, as the night curved around their joy and closeness.  Looking at his face now, his mouth was humorless and annoyed.

“I looked it up on the internet and I saw enough to know that it isn’t about Jesus.”

She felt her insides wither and her cheeks burn hot, a mixture of shame, anger and aloneness.  Every time she came to this place with someone, it was the same split-earth feeling, leaving her standing on one edge, peering helplessly at the other across a huge, gaping gorge.  This time it was much worse, because it was Rob, her beloved brother.  Her heart thumped recklessly in her chest as she calculated what to say, knowing with a sludgy twist in her stomach that there was no way they would ever be the same again, no way they would be the siblings throwing football in the front yard until way past dark, the shadows cocooning them in an intimacy as they listened for the thudding breath of each other’s catch.

“Rob, why do you believe what you believe?”

She could tell this was an unexpected turn, for him, in the way the conversation, the intervention, was supposed to go.  His face shadowed and he glanced off towards the door, as if wanting an interruption or reinforcements.  Studying his expression, she recalled the day, seven years earlier, they had all gathered at the airport to send him off to war, his face unreadable, his new wife tearfully clinging to his arm until the very last moment.

“I believe because that’s what it says in the bible and the bible is the word of God.”

His shoulders squared on her now and she could feel his religious-dogma shield position itself between them.  A spring inside her released and catapulted into the divided space.  Somehow the moment of acknowledging the loss of their sameness had vaulted her into a place of dangerous confidence and boldness.

Her words tumbled heedlessly, “But how do you know it’s the word of God?”

He looked shocked, as if she had struck him and she sat serenely, waiting for his response, warmed with triumph.

“That’s blasphemy!”

He stood up, bumping the chair with his leg and leaned over the table, resting his hands in the middle for emphasis.

“That place is a cult and it isn’t about Jesus.”

Stones rolled in her stomach, edgy and rough, and waves of nausea rose sourly into her throat.

“I know this, Rob, whenever you’re ready to figure out why you believe what you believe and not what someone TELLS you to believe, then we’ll have this conversation.”

He sat down roughly, the chair back striking the wall as he collapsed into its squeaky, wicker seat.  He shifted his body, turning stiffly away from her, facing the expansive, beach-front window, the humid air clouding the view into a misty blur.  Her ears vibrated wildly from her buzzing thoughts.

Desperate now to get her point across, to liberate his frantic hold on what she saw as empty, narrow beliefs, she pushed on breathlessly, “I believe the bible was written by MEN and it’s not literal and we have MINDS of our own and we’re supposed to THINK for ourselves.  Until then, it’s only CRAP that someone’s told you to believe and it means NOTHING.”

Seeing that she had him wordless, she added, “Like marriage… it only means something if you’re willing to lay your relationship out on the table and look at what’s REALLY happening, not what you think is happening.  Only then can you really LOVE each other, only then is it real and not just playing at being married.”

As soon as she said this, she could feel the failure of her two marriages lying in a wilted, reproachful heap, making her words echo weak and defenseless.  He did not look at her but she could see that he was no longer available to her, had left the room in his thoughts several long moments ago, his face rigid and unyielding.  Hopelessness wafted up from the gap like a bitter smell, an acrid vapor.  They sat a moment in self-conscious silence.  Coldness crept up to her and sat stiffly across her chest.  He looked at her, dismay clearly revealed in his dimmed eyes.  She realized that she had not won, that there was no winning when togetherness, closeness is what she wanted most.  He was lost to her now, stuck and in his beliefs, disappointed at her stubborn rebellion.

He stood up to leave, sighing and patting his thighs with finality, standing stiffly and dejected.  “I guess this hasn’t done any good.  I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

The room deflated and the air felt tight and dense.

“I know what I’m doing, Rob.”

His back was to her now and she felt the sting of his dismissal as she watched him open the door onto the deck and close it behind him.  She remained seated at the table, clutched in grief and numbness, her fingers mindlessly picking at the edges of the placemat, pushing sticky crumbs back and forth across the embroidered calm sea and blue-gray sky.

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When I first saw her, she was carrying around her limp body in confusion.  I stopped her, asked her to put down her body and have a seat.  She obediently slumped into a chair, tired and exhausted.  After a moment she looked up, “Who are you?”

I tried to explain, “Dr. Benton (name changed to protect his privacy) asked me to help you.  You’ve had a stroke… a couple of weeks ago.”

“I did?”  Her face was showing more clarity, as if just having someone there to talk to was helping her reorient.

“Yes.  You have to make a decision, though.  You can die, which is what your body wants to do or you can hang on for as long as you want.  The decision is yours.  It’s very difficult on your body, however, to just hang on.”

“How do you know this?  Why are you the only one here?”

“I don’t know exactly how I know or why I’m the only one here.  Somehow I know how to find people like you and Dr. Benton asked me if I would help you because he cares about you.  No one feels like they can reach you because your body is laying in the hospital in a coma-state.”  As I observed her, she reminded me of my mother, very practical, intelligent; capable and ready to make decisions when the options are laid out.

“Is there something you need to take care of before you go?”

She thought for a moment, wanting to answer correctly and contemplatively.  “No, everything is okay.”  I could tell her circumstances were starting to sink in and she was accepting the reality of what had happened to her.

I sensed a large community of people on the “other side” who knew her, supported her and were waiting for her.  A man (assumed to be her husband), a dog and a baby who seemed to be one she probably lost when the baby was an infant were the most prominent of the spirits I saw gathered.

“What do I do now?”

“If you decide to die, you have to get back into your body.  It’s not going to feel good.  This part of you that I am talking to now is free.  This is how you will feel when you cross over but when you go back into your body it will feel like you are going into a box.  It will not be comfortable.  But, you can control how quickly you die to reduce the time you are uncomfortable.”  I showed her how she could pull her energy up, from her feet to her head, as fast as she wanted.  I reminded her that everything was totally up to her.

She said she was ready.  I asked if there was anything else and she said that she wanted to give Dr. Benton some roses.  At first she said red and then changed her mind to yellow roses because she thought red was inappropriate for her to give to a married man; he might misconstrue her intentions.  Again, her properness and etiquette reminded me of my mother who is just about the same age, in her eighties.  Just the sort of person who, like my mother, if I were talking physically to her instead of communicating in this “in between world,” would be the first to deny that this kind of contact is possible.  I promised I would give the yellow roses to Dr. Benton.

The next morning, she died.  I delivered the flowers to Dr. Benton that afternoon.  “You know you’re weird, right?”  He smiled teasingly but was obviously touched by my gesture of following through with her wishes.

“I know.  What can I do?”

“Maybe I should send her roses for her funeral.  She asked me to be her pallbearer, you know.  Do you think she will even know if I send roses?”

“She might…some people hang around after they pass to see their funeral.  She doesn’t seem the type to me, though.”

He walked me out to my car, his eyes wondering and thoughtful, “Is this a loaner car?”

“Yeah, I’m getting shocks put on my car.  After about 300,000 miles, I guess it’s about time, huh?”

He shook his head in agreement.  “Hey, thanks a lot for helping her and for bringing me the roses.”

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Nostalgia… no not really.  Sentimental… yes, more this.  The feeling of sweetness, sunshine and fresh lemon-lime-spring day, mother’s, grandmother’s, aunt’s favorite perfumes and lipsticks, the way everyone feels when you give the “family hug” (nephew feels weightless, other nieces/nephews feel tentative and impatient, dad feels strong and tight, mom feels cool yet loyal, one sister feels rushed, the other sister feels attentive and lingering, brother feels like hugging busy thoughts instead of flesh).  A niece’s (well not really, my cousin’s daughter, not sure what you call this) wedding, wanted to do it HER way (got to love the independence), rock music down the aisle, female minister’s casual and flip marriage ceremony script, girls in sandals, and the reception with lots of beer and wine, first dances while everyone hungrily waits for the buffet to start, KC and the Sunshine band songs, line dancing.  My family, the “saintly, churchgoing pod” sequestered to tables on the fringe by my sister and the cousins “raised by the alcoholic (divorced father) reaps alcoholic children clan” splashed throughout the dining tables randomly.

After my mother, father and my sister  leave after eating (mom doesn’t want to see everyone get DRUNK), my brother, wife,  kids and I have fun dancing and mingling with the “others.”  Beautiful string lights under the canopies, the air clear and just the right coolness.  My cousin Johnny, who was recovered for about 10 years and then relapsed, who never liked kids (in fact would usually leave any gathering early with kids present) tells me that his live-in girlfriend has a “no-good” daughter with a 2 year son, Travis, who comes in from day care with his arms open wide for his “Johnny” to kiss and hold him, then “sit on floor with me” to play cars.  Johnny’s eyes teared up, “I’m afraid to push his mom to straighten up because I don’t want him going out into the world with HER.”  I could feel my heart split, some because looking at Johnny is like peering into my father’s face (they look identical, Johnny’s mother is dad’s sister) and some because Johnny was completely and utterly smitten and I felt a wash of relief for the child.  I told Johnny, “At least he has KNOWN love… he will never forget that, it will be inside him all his life.  No matter what happens to him, your love has penetrated and it has taught him what love feels like.”  “I hope so,” Johnny says weakly, as if talking about the intensity of his feelings has spent him emotionally.

I do a crazy, hip/hop dance with the mother of the bride (my cousin), the photographer behind her catching her spastic body convulsions, and she tells me afterward that her daughter didn’t want her help with any of the wedding (just write the checks, mom).  Not really pain in her face, but mostly confusion about what to feel, what it means to have such a strong-willed daughter (carbon copy of herself).  She flips the emotions off quickly, responding to the pull of the bar for another “gin and tonic.”

Looking through the pictures the next day, I edit and crop a picture of mom and dad, walking hand and hand.  It splits me open again, like a fresh strawberry, weeping on the counter.  I am a mixture of feelings but the flush remains in the sentimental category.  I come from parents who have stayed together for 60 years.  I marvel at the steadiness of that fact and the paradox of my own status as a 3rd marriage-goer.  There is a tenderness that runs like a rooted vein through the years of their marriage.  I have benefited from its nourishment.  I have garnered loyalty and accountability qualities of my own.  I watch my children swim in the quiet pool of this heritage.  Yes I have rebelled the tightness, the fear-based judgments of “others,” the lack of adventure.  But the cadence of my life was initiated by a marriage made for “better or worse” and I feel a need to honor that, let it resonate my bones and celebrate its existence.  Thus my ability to KNOW when I told Johnny that his love has not been wasted on Travis.  Travis has known love.  He will never lose that.  This I know.

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It all started with my casual discussion with one of our traveling ER physicians a couple of weeks ago.  He was talking about his night-before three-hour workout and in my ignorance I suggested P-90X as a great workout that he should try sometime.  He immediately sneered at that idea and after I understood what I didn’t understand AT ALL about working out, I realized how inferior something like P-90X might seem to someone who has his body literally down to a science. You see, he is a body builder, not the kind who tries to build huge muscles, but the kind that competes basically against his own willpower; how proportioned he can mold his own physique, not how well he stacks against the size of another guy’s muscles.  His previous night’s workout was 3 hours of SQUATS with 150 to 200 lbs.  Okay, I concede my perceived brilliance in knowing about tough workouts. 

So he proceeded to tell me what his sequence of 3 hours a night workouts entailed and mentioned that he had a competition at the end of the summer.  Now get this… he then casually said, “That’s when I get down to about 2 to 3% body fat to compete,” like he’s saying, “That’s when I go to the store to buy socks.”  In other words, MATTER OF FACT.  I wanted to yell, “Hello!! Did you know that there are billions of dollars spent, countless books, diets, special food, workout DVD’s, fitness clubs, discussion groups, counseling, and I’m not even going to talk about people who have SURGERY to get their stomach’s stapled or bands inserted all to LOSE WEIGHT!  And you just so casually say that you’re going to get down to 2-3% body fat by such-and-such date and you are going to do it without losing an ounce of your precious, hard-earned muscle tissue.”  Wow, he had my attention.  Wow, wow! 

Now I’ve always been athletic and haven’t fluctuated more that 20 lbs over my high school weight except when I had my kids and I gained almost 100 lbs each pregnancy.  Three years after my last child was born, I ended up signing up for weight watchers (had a sobbing meltdown in the parking lot prior to going in because I felt so desperate and out of control).  Weight watchers worked, I lost the rest of my baby fat and have semi-maintained that mode until the last 5 years.  Approaching 50, having a hysterectomy, sitting on my butt at a desk job, whatever the reason, I’ve been feeling that freaky out-of-control feeling again, especially after doing aforementioned P-90X for a year and gaining enough weight to essentially have whittled my wardrobe down to just 3 pants that fit.

So the next question, of course, is how do you do it?  How do you lose the fat, keep the muscle and KNOW it’s going to work?  “Oh, just cut back on carbs and up your protein,” he answers nonchalantly.  JUST LIKE THAT…  I was stunned.  I was mesmerized.  I felt like I had fallen into another dimension.  He didn’t wonder whether it would work.  He didn’t agonize about whether he could do it.  He didn’t give it a second thought.  Again, I think what amazed me the most is that he seemed to have NO idea what it is like to NOT know if the diet will work, NOT know if you can do it, NOT feel like you have any control of what your body has decided to do on its own without your permission. 

So I mulled on that for about a week and then happened to be talking to a diabetic friend of mine who has been immobile for several months due to intolerable back pain.  Obesity is the obvious factor in her back issues and she finally has a nutritionalist working with her.  And guess what diet the nutritionalist started her on?  You guessed it.  Low carbs and high protein.  Alright, we’re on to something here.  I know this idea isn’t new.  Atkins has been around since the 90’s but for some reason I always dismissed it because I love bread, cereal, desserts, pasta and starchy food in general.  Always having been a reactive hypoglycemic and from experiencing many blood sugar crashes in the middle of a sporting endeavor, I somehow determined that my blood sugar would bottom out and I would feel terrible without having carbs in my diet.  And to be honest, I also just didn’t want to sacrifice my favorite foods. 

Now it was time to quit being in denial, quit ignoring what was right in front of me and TRY IT.  So I came home that night from being with my friend and announced to my husband and daughter that we were going to try a new way of eating (my 15-year-old son needs all the calories he can get so he is automatically eliminated).  The first thing my husband said was, “Ketosis?  Isn’t that bad for you? Can I eat rice?  Why can’t I eat rice?  The Japanese eat rice and they’re skinny.”  My daughter couldn’t imagine life without bread.  “How do I eat a sandwich without bread.” 

“Just take the bread off and eat the stuff in the middle.” 

“Yuck… if I can’t eat the bread, I don’t want to eat the sandwich at all!” 

“Okay, don’t eat the sandwich at all.” 

“Great, I can see how much you care about me.  Now I’m going to starve!!” 

Daughter huffs away downstairs, husband goes outside to smoke.  I go to the computer to google “High protein foods” and “Carb counts.”  This should be FUN?? 

A week later… daughter has lost 8 lbs, husband 5 lbs, me 5 lbs. AMAZING!  Only had to navigate through a couple of late night carb fits (I’m sick of eating meat.  This CAN’T be GOOD for you) and temper tantrums.  Everyone feeling much clearer, lighter, like a fog has lifted.  I don’t want to nap all the time.  My husband’s up and down moods have lessened.  I don’t have the constant, nagging, background headache that I’ve had FORVEVER. My daughter’s constant food cravings are weakening.  Amazing! 

Next up: I’m running a 5K next week and wonder, “Could being in ketosis help my performance?  Might I be a middle-aged, fat-burning running fuel machine with unsurpassed energy reserves, blowing around the 5K course like it’s a walk in the park?”  Hmmm… could happen.  After all, some people sculpt their body to the exact millimeter muscle size they WANT and get down to 2% body fat to show it all off.  No worries.  What’s a little 5K?  I guess we’ll find out…

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            When the nurse from the emergency room called me that day to come and assist with a patient, I knew it was not good.  As the pharmacy director in a small, rural hospital, pharmacy is usually called when patients have arrived unconscious, are trauma cases, or when a patient is in respiratory or cardiac arrest.  As I stepped into the trauma room I made a quick assessment of what was happening.  The room was full; respiratory therapists, lab tech, physician, emergency medical techs and nurses crammed the room, all busy and crowded around the patient’s stretcher, medical supplies and equipment strewn everywhere.  One of the nurses filled me in on the patient; second or third attempt to kill herself, the last time was with antifreeze.  I looked at the nurse, startled, “She’s serious,” I said.  She nodded in agreement.  “What did she do this time?” I queried.  Typing the patient’s information into the computer, the nurse replied, “Tylenol and Benadryl.”  I could feel my heart sink.  Tylenol is such a nasty drug with which to overdose. It literally wipes out your liver, depending on how much you take.  I have seen too many people overdose on Tylenol and instead of killing themselves as planned, sentence themselves to a lifetime of severe liver dysfunction. 

            Getting a glimpse of the patient between the sea of medical personnel swarming her bed, I saw she was young, barely 20 years old, with beautiful red hair and smooth pale skin.  A stream of charcoal streaked from the corner of her mouth, staining the sheets and covering the floor.  In my head I added up her chances; serious about killing herself, nasty drug choice, vomited the charcoal antidote, unconscious.  Depending on how much Tylenol she had ingested, she was either going to die or she had severely limited her chances of a healthy life.  “Does she have family?”  I asked the same nurse who was recording her information in the computer.  “Her mother came with her in the ambulance but left when we got her in here.”  She shook her head sadly, “Mom’s got a lot of problems too; bad boyfriend and attempted suicide herself.”  I sighed with the weariness of it all, “Some people have it stacked against them, huh?”  The nurse looked at me with years of experience showing in her eyes, “Yeah, some people definitely have it hard.”

            The anesthetist was at the girl’s head, attempting to put in an endotracheal tube down the girls’ throat to establish an airway to help her breathe.  I could see that the anesthetist struggled to see clearly in the girl’s mouth through the black charcoal vomitus.  I held my breath, knowing that the seconds were ticking away quickly.  The anesthetist’s face was stone-like in concentrated effort. “When did she loose her airway?” I asked the emergency medical tech standing beside me.  “After she vomited the charcoal,” he said.  “She was groggy when we picked her up at her house, but arousable.  Since we’ve gotten here, she’s gone completely unconscious.”  The Benadryl kicking in, I thought.  In the medical world, suicide attempts quickly get categorized: those patients that are serious about killing themselves and those patients using the suicide attempt as a call for help. She was in the “serious about killing herself” category, no doubt.  The anesthetist finally placed the endotracheal tube down the girl’s throat.  Respiratory connected an ambu-bag to the endotracheal tube and began to bag her rhythmically.  The radiology tech swung into action with a chest x-ray to assure the tube was placed correctly.

            “Are we flying her out?”  I asked a nurse.  “Yes.  The helicopter team should be here any minute.”  I wondered if she would even make it to the other hospital.  Overdoses have so many unknowns; how much did the person take, did the person take what we’ve been told that they took, what time did the person take it.  All the unknowns make it very difficult to predict how a patient will do.  The anesthetist passed between me and the girl as she walked out of the room, stripping her blackened gloves.  “Did you see her legs?” she whispered, shaking her head with pity.  “No. What about her legs?”  I peered at the end of the bed and got my first look at the girl’s legs as I asked the question.  The anesthetist shook her head as she opened the door to go out, “Gives me chills.” 

            As I stared at the girls’ legs, I went numb with disbelief.  Deep into her legs, the girl had carved her pain, with clear words that pierced my heart.  The large lettered carvings were fresh, but starting to scab, covering the length of her legs from knee to ankle.  On her left leg, on the front inside of her calf, she had knifed the words in capital letters, “EVERYONE I KNOW GOES MISSING AND LEAVES ME.”    On her right inside calf she scrawled. “WHY DO I EXIST?”  Looking at her beautiful, unconscious face I pictured her sitting at home, alone and distraught, one leg propped across the other, a knife in her hand, leaning over and intently and painfully cutting into her flawless skin.  Her pain became suddenly very palpable in the small ER trauma room.  As the immediacy of her condition stabilized, other medical personnel began to notice her legs and I could see their reactions of shock and compassion.  When the helicopter team strode into the room, one of the nurses quickly and respectfully covered her legs. 

            Knowing that she was in the capable hands of the helicopter flight team, I made my way out of the ER.  My heart felt heavy and incapable of comprehending the vastness of the pain I had just witnessed.   My mind was reeling.  “She has carved into her legs the pain of all mankind,” I thought, “The pain of not feeling worthy enough to have love in your life and the pain of not knowing your purpose in life.  If she lives, she will walk around the rest of her life with scars of her pain vulnerable and exposed on her legs for the entire world to see.”  How many times had I felt the same despair at wanting to understand why I am in the world, feeling hopeless that my life had any purpose?  How many times had I felt alone and misunderstood, unloved and unwanted?   How many times had I covered up my pain with work or busyness, trying not to feel my despair underneath?  The experience left me feeling filleted, like all my hidden pain was now revealed as surely as her legs were scarred with words.

            Like so many patients that are treated in our ER and then flown out, I will never know whether she lived or died.  I do know that in her attempt to end her life she probably affected more people far deeper than she would ever believe.  As I drove into my driveway that night, I couldn’t wait to see my children, whole and happy.  Ever since I had left the ER, I had fought the fear that my own children might feel such despair and pain that they would self-mutilate or attempt to take their life in such a way.  As I hugged my children in relief, I knew that I greeted them with a different heart.  The pain I had witnessed that day in the ER had penetrated my heart as surely as the bold, bloody words scarred the girl’s young body.  I knew that the pain I had witnessed was the pain that we all feel when we imagine that we are separate from God, and without that connection to our spiritual nature, there is no hope.   Who hasn’t felt forgotten by God and felt that, just when we need Him, He “goes missing and leaves us?”  Who hasn’t felt the hopelessness of wondering “why do I exist?”  I felt a silent prayer lift from my heart, a prayer of compassion and desire for all to know their pain is witnessed and they do matter.  And this, I realized, was my life’s dream; that all people would know they are loved and have a purpose in life. 

As I lay in bed that night, staring into the darkness unable to go to sleep, I imagined the red-headed girl again.  I imagined her bent over, wounding herself alone in her intense pain, but this time I also imagined that behind her a loving being wrapped tender and adoring arms around her.  I imagined that she allowed the love of this spirit to soak into her and like a tide, wash away her despair and sorrow.  I imagined her suffering face become soft and full of hope.  I imagined her one day becoming a mother, holding her own beloved children in the same way that this loving being had held her, filled and overflowing with unconditional adoration and love.  I imagined her touching her child’s skin with unspeakable devotion and tenderness, kissing the softness with gratitude for the blessings of life   And this is how I choose to remember her, so that her pain will have been witnessed and given seed to hope.  This is how I choose to feel her pain and release it, knowing that the pain she has shared can be catalyst of compassion and healing.  This is my dream, that one day all people will know love like I imagined she could be loved; then her pain, I believe, would have made a difference.

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What is it about the wildness of the wind, the unpredictableness, the cheerful enthusiasm becoming random recklessness as it collects trash paper, splattering it wildly against store windows and rudely unwrapping, elevating pieces of clothing on unsuspecting pedestrians?  The wind was both playful and abrasive today, whistling and howling one minute, gentle chime-ringing the next.  I started out at Waffle King and the “waitress/greeter” (they always say, “Hi, welcome to Waffle King” whenever anyone enters the restaurant so in the course of your breakfast you will hear this ALOT) was having a full-blown hot flash.  Red necked down to her biceps (I thought it  odd the way the red stopped like an inverted “farmers tan” sunburn on her upper arms) and streams of sweat poured off her face and neck.  “Wow, you’re hot!” I said, before thinking.  Walking into the restaurant from my car, the wind was the snappy, cold kind that makes you want to dive from your warm car through the restaurant door as quickly as possible, but instead the wind pushed back on my car door like a linebacker as I attempted to step out, whipped me around the parking lot and then shoved me against the diner door as I fumbled, battling against the door suction thwarting my effort to enter.  Also, early morning, before-coffee daze prevented me from accurately accessing the scene of the perspiration dripping woman in front of me before blurting out my stupid, misguided surmise.  I assumed some type of work she was involved in had caused her to overheat.  “No, baby, I’m having a HOT flash,” she clarified as she blew by me, coffee pot in hand, the heat of her body emanating like a furnace blast.  Immediately my thought was, “Wow, I wonder what that feels like?  How could something inside us turn on within seconds and be hot enough to burn you from the inside out.  That’s amazing, fascinating!”  I was so enthralled at this point, trying to imagine the source of the heat, struggling to grasp how something so ordinary can be so ancient and mysterious at the same time that I almost posed my witless, follow-up question, “What does it feel like?”  I wanted to, but I didn’t.  I mean, I’ve been a pharmacist for 25 years, dispensed tons of hormones, talked to masses of menopausal women about their “choices” and it never occurred to me what they are really going through; a real live chemistry explosion happening somewhere deep inside and detonating through their skin like bullets of hot lava.  I’ve heard plenty of jokes about women running their mates out of the bed at night, watched numerous women flapping their clothes to fan themselves outside in bitter cold weather, heard dry, medical lectures about the latest “best practice standards of care” for menopausal women, but for some reason my empathetic, curiosity “feelers” were not tuning in to this particular phenomena.  Over the 20 or 30 minutes it took for me to eat my breakfast, her neck began to pale and her body’s heat wave currents seemed to dissipate.  Her face relaxed and the tension in the air released.  It was as if we had all been held captive by some kind of unnamed shakedown and we were kindred spirits in our relief of having passed without any understanding of our participation.  I surrendered effortlessly to the whims of the wind as I left.  Nothing to hold on to, nothing to fear, nothing to control.  I had just witnessed the ultimate cataclysm of life. Free and untethered, I let the wind do with me what it would.

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