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Posts Tagged ‘Relationships’

Shame

 

 

 

 

My brother and I played

 

Mackie and Jackie,

 

Mackie was the strong one (my brother)

 

Jackie was the smart one (me) who told us what to do.

 

When our family was introduced by great aunts or my grandmother,

 

They would say, “This is Susan, Clara, Nancy

 

And Robert Romulus Moore the Fourth!

 

Being the last sister before the boy

 

Made me invisible.

 

 

 

At five, I was left at a rest stop

 

Because I went to the bathroom a second time.

 

My dad would drive until my bladder

 

Felt like it would burst.

 

The rest stop was in the mountains

 

Without exit ramps for miles

 

After, it took my father a long time

 

To run back along the highway to get me, I’m told.

 

I don’t remember.

 

Sometime that same year,

 

My dad came home from the hospital,

 

Post car-accident coma.

 

My mother took me to the doctor

 

For strep throat, again,

 

And I fell out of the car on the way home

 

In the middle of an intersection.

 

I ran for several blocks

 

Chasing our station wagon,

 

The right, back door swung open,

 

Before my mother noticed.

 

Swabbing my bleeding knees and hands,

 

“Don’t tell your father when we get home.

 

He might have a seizure.”

 

 

 

As a six year old

 

The stair landing was a convenient

 

Catch-mom-going-to-do-laundry,

 

Halfway point,

 

“Are you and dad getting divorced?”

 

I was sitting in the middle of

 

Sifting through burn-barrel trash,

 

The contents scattered around me,

 

Kleenex, scraps of note paper, newspapers

 

And shiny white tubes that slid in and out.

 

Later I would know

 

These as tampon inserters.

 

Mom’s face boiled and pinched.

 

I found it curious that she was more mad

 

About my question

 

Than from my playing

 

In her personal trash.

 

 

 

At eleven

 

I couldn’t sleep on my stomach

 

Because my chest hurt,

 

My mom took me to the doctor

 

Probably so he could explain my body to me

 

Better than she could,

 

He roughly stuck round band-aids on each nipple,

 

He did not talk to me and he did not say

 

It’s normal to have knots of pain

 

In budding breasts.

 

 

 

After my mother had “female surgery”

 

I wrote a poem,

 

Something about taking time to smell the roses,

 

A thirteen-year-old’s idea

 

Of cheering up her mother.

 

Church camp that weekend

 

Was chilled and stiff,

 

Mom’s face hung in hurt-lines,

 

I accepted her condemnation

 

A cheap, scratchy-laced nightgown

 

Against my bones.

 

 

 

At twelve,

 

I was practically decapitated

 

Riding my bike across the neighbor’s property line,

 

The newly, unmarked wire

 

Strung exactly neck high.

 

“You shouldn’t have been riding

 

That close to their house.”

 

Over the next years,

 

The shouldn’ts expanded into

 

“You shouldn’t flaunt yourself”

 

“You shouldn’t hurt people’s feelings”

 

“You shouldn’t be selfish”

 

“You shouldn’t be too confident”

 

“You shouldn’t ask questions.”

 

 

 

My first marriage lasted 3 & 1/2 years,

 

We date my entire teenage and college years,

 

I gifted this time to him,

 

Unquestioned.

 

My mother found my supply

 

Of birth control pills between my 2nd and 3rd year of college

 

“If you’re going to sleep with him

 

You need to get married.”

 

I sit on my mom and dad’s screened-in porch

 

Explaining how the wedding for which they paid,

 

How the vows I promised would last,

 

How my world had veered in a drastically different direction

 

From theirs,

 

“I hired a private detective….

I won’t stay in a marriage with a cheating husband…

 

I gave him the separation papers,”

 

I fling helpless words

 

At their blank faces.

 

I leave out the part where my husband

 

Explained his wandering was

 

My fault

 

“If you hadn’t let me do so many

 

Things without you;

 

If you had just told me no.”

 

 

 

Almost thirty,

 

I feel like calling mom

 

For the first time in years,

 

“Hello,” mom answers

 

In that distant, reluctant way.

 

“The neonatologist at my hospital,

 

Who is super-conservative, he never approves anything,

 

Is going to let me do massages on the NICU babies.

 

Can you believe that?”

 

Silence,

 

Throat clear,

 

“What’s wrong with being a pharmacist?”

 

The phone receiver

 

Burns my ear.

 

 

 

After working at the hospital for 6 years,

 

I learned from listening to the

 

Labor and delivery room nurses

 

That I didn’t want to be one of those

 

“Yelling” laboring moms.

 

Thirty-six hours into

 

Pushing out a 10 lb. baby

 

Can evaporate the resolve

 

To not be a “yeller,”

 

Alone in my

 

Bone-shattering,

 

Baby-extracting marathon,

 

I didn’t care

 

Whether I lived or died,

 

And yelled this fact frequently.

 

Not even my baby girl

 

Nestled in her daddy’s arms

 

Could budge me from

 

My pain reverie,

 

My shocked focus on

 

When I could get

 

Another dose of pain medication.

 

 

 

Now a real boss,

 

Just turned fifty,

 

Telling people what to do.

 

My friend, an orthopedic surgeon,

 

Asked for crossing over help

 

For a physician friend

 

With end-stage pancreatic cancer,

 

Ghost/spirit whispering being my secret life.

 

His friend wasn’t finished living,

 

Refused to cross over, firmly.

 

I watched him hopelessly drag his body around

 

Trying to find a place to plug in his light body

 

Which was withdrawn all the way to the

 

Top of his head (last place before dying).

 

My friend always states the obvious,

 

“No one lives for over a year with end-stage pancreatic cancer.

 

He shouldn’t still be alive.”.

 

After observing his friend deny his body’s decay

 

And ignore his wife’s exhausted vigil,

 

I had to agree.

 

“You’re right. He shouldn’t.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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My father’s secret life, the suit and tie accountant by day

On his tractor at night, the light pacing back and forth across the field.

The good father, doing his duty, dedicated to family,

My mom pushing his hands away from her hips, cooking dinner,

“Bob, stop…”

Sometimes he’d load us kids on the frame of the plow blade,

Clots of red clay, bubbling up potatoes.

His car accident,

Me, the five year old,

While he lay in a coma,

Deciding whether to live or die.

He lived and something in me died.

Forty years later, I remember.

Wondering on the mystery of

Believing you’re abandoned

Resulting in two failed marriages.

“Your husband is cheating on you”

My rebellion of religion

Yet crying when hymns are sung,

My resistance of tradition,

Hating the celebration of days

Because it’s the day

Preferring to celebrate for no reason,

Yet homemade biscuit-bottomed,strawberry shortcake

Will always mean Valentine’s Day

And German chocolate cake with oozy coconut-ladened icing

Will always mean dad’s birthday.

My dad cut trees and I would dance across the fallen trunks

Like a fancy gymnast.

He’d come home from hunting with rabbits stuffed in the front of his jacket.

He never cranked his tractor for the season

Until the yearly wren nest had finished its duty

Of chick hatching.

My dad in the box of pictures I found in the attic

Lovely pinups taped inside his locker,

He stands proudly in front of the girly display

In uniform, smiling at the camera.

His smile, a secret, unknown smile to me,

The same smile I see sometimes

On my 16 year old

Standing in front of the mirror,

Examining his arm muscle-swelling efforts

The raw splendor,

The unashamed smile of a 16 year old

Growing his body.

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He isn’t just a hearse driver, you know,

But you see him the in the “shadow light”

The time of day when stillness melts over into life.

His back is charged with purpose

As he exits the black limo

And swings through the screen door.

Mama doesn’t care

That he never called her even once,

She only cares that he’s here

And he’s hungry,

And he gives her a smile

That cracks her heart.

It’s the yellow-night-time

When the crows aren’t even

Brave enough to be obnoxious and loud.

He wanders around the house

Touching things.

Her eyes water from the corners,

Self-consciously,

Remembering the tousled-headed toddler

With outstretched arms.

“It doesn’t matter,”

She wants to say,

But the words won’t rise,

Like heavy roads

That burble under the pond foam.

He’s not hearing anyway,

His eyes lost in black and white memories

And unopened presents

From birthdays he missed

While he battled life

With closed fists

And clenched heart.

Everything begins to unwind and unfetter,

The clock moans as darkness

Swarms the room

And the house

And the space between

Mother and son.

“It doesn’t matter,”

Her heart whispers,

But it does,

Lost in the dark;

Nothing.

Even that

Means it matters.

 

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Talking seems so easy, so effortless to many people, but to me it feels like quicksand, taking me down, suffocating, burying me alive.  I don’t remember ever liking to talk unless it’s a deep conversation, the kind that makes your heart throb with pain and empathy.  I like people’s stories, trials and tribulations, stories that mean they’ve questioned and doubted and tested themselves on some level.  Nothing bores me more than an untested person.  I don’t have any patience, especially for a person who professes to be knowledgeable but all the understanding comes from spoon-fed learning or cerebral ego-inflation.  I feel myself quiver on a soul level when a person shares an experience that has essentially plastered them against the wall of all they thought was true, like road kill of their belief system; I love those conversations, the lack of arrogance and invincibility is refreshing and enticing.  I want to talk to the person who wonders if there is a God, who despairs about tomorrow, who sees their child’s feet as the most precious thing that could possibly exist in the world.  I like talking to the person who knows that shadow is as real as the idea of physical reality and both have their designated corners and neither should be ignored.  I enjoy speaking to those who have encountered the worst in themselves, have seen their guilt and blame, anger and manipulation, phoniness and compassion and they can get up the next day and try to care about something in the world outside themselves.  I like someone who is “over themselves” and shares what is interesting and unique while admitting that all the threads of the world make up the fabric of who they are, not just their skin and the blood pumping through their veins.  I want to spend my life with those who see and act through the eyes of kindness and clarity, forgiveness and remorse.  All that “has been” or “will be” can be salvaged in the bath of grace.  I know because I come from the grace-balm and return to the warmth at regular intervals.  Grace is the ability to love what is normally unloveable.  I want to embrace the unloveable, in life, in myself, in others.  To me, this is the only point of talking, of connecting with others.

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There was a time

When everything was smooth

And mellow,

Like a muggy summer night

With lightening bug scents

Suspended in the air,

But yesterday you suddenly

Erupted into your tomorrow,

Full of fear and newfound respect for 

Death and despair.

You are surrounded by friends and family

But are alone in your knowing that

The dreaded tomorrow is already here.

You didn’t realize it would be

This palpable;

A twisted trajectory

Of anguish and near death.

It doesn’t matter that others

Have been here before you,

It’s strange to you,

Untrodden, unbidden.

You felt safe in having paid

Your healthy dues,

Thought you’d mastered the “lack of cause” position,

But it wasn’t enough,

You’re here anyway,

Against all odds,

One heart attack closer to

The conclusion.

Where is death lurking,

If not now?

When will the finale be final?

The rules have been broken 

And you’re reeling in the

Unwritten, unfairness

Of it all.

You say, “What if I go to sleep

And never wake up?”

I don’t know the answer

To give you peace.

Death doesn’t believe in   

Preemptive invitations;

It casually calls your name

Whenever it likes, wherever it likes,

Whether you are ready or not.

Peekaboo, where are you?

Ready or not, here I come.

I have no wisdom;

All I can think to say is,

“Sleep well, my sister,

Sleep well.”

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