Physics as a Cure for Grief

Published in Concho River Review, Department of English and Modern Languages at Angelo State University, November, 2017 edition.Physics as a Cure for Grief

I come from a long line of atheists. My grandparents were atheists; my parents were atheists. My siblings and I were always encouraged to think for ourselves but along with this freedom was the assumption that we would evaluate facts in a scientific manner to prove or disprove conjecture. Just before my grandmother, Helen, died I went to visit her. She gave me her car and a box of books and papers. I was really busy so I didn’t look at the materials in that box until later.

Two weeks after my visit, the phone rang. The weird thing is, I picked up the phone before it started to ring. My father, who was on the other end, was startled. “Oh, you’re there,” he said with surprise. Then he told me that my grandmother had passed away. My children were small and I didn’t want them to hear me cry so I ran outside into our wooded yard and stood there in the dark looking up at the trees, sobbing hysterically. The moon came over the horizon and shone down on the backyard so it looked like snow, which I thought appropriate considering that my grandmother was from New Jersey.

I stood out there in the beautiful moonlight and wept, recalling how much she meant to me. She was the one who encouraged me to read, widely and often. She was the one who believed I could do anything, even when I was a shy, skinny kid. She encouraged my wicked sense of humor and told me it was good to think for myself, not wait for some man to “rescue” me.

When I went to visit her the last time, she told me about being in the hospital with terminal lung cancer and having a visit from a local minister. She told him she wasn’t religious and wasn’t interested in talking about God. He said, “Now, Helen, where do you think you’re going to go when you die?” Grandmother said, “Same place you are, fella, six feet under.” I laughed when she told the story.

Now, two weeks later the reality of her death set in. I would never see her again. I would never hear her laugh, never listen to her sarcastic comments, never be able to ask for advice. Devastated, I tried to muffle my cries. And then, I heard a voice. Cue the trumpets. Her voice. A voice that said, “It’s going to be all right.” And the strange thing is, I believed that. Because, one of the last things that my grandmother said to me before she died was, “If there’s anything out there, I’ll let you know.”

Okay, I know, I know. I’m not stupid. That was probably my subconscious comforting me. I understand that your brain can act as a shill for real experience. As researcher Warren S. Brown states in his article, Neuroscience and Religious Faith, it’s very possible that there is a specific molecule that allows for such a feeling of transcendence as I experienced that night. “A similar correlation has been found between measures of self-transcendence and a genetic marker for the dopamine transport molecule” (Brown, n.d., http://www.issr.org.uk/latest-news/neuroscience-and-religious-faith/). It could all be scientific.

A few months later, I finally got around to going through all the papers she gave me. There were dozens of pages of a family tree that showed the relatives on her side of the family, the Roth family, going back to the Revolutionary War. In almost every generation, there was a Lutheran minister. Yes, my atheist grandmother came from a long line of Lutheran ministers.

As a matter of fact, some of her relatives were responsible for the development of Theil College, in Greenville, Pennsylvania. The college has an affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. According to their website, “Institutional stability and development of Thiel College during its first decades in Greenville were achieved under the leadership of the brothers Henry and Theophilus Roth, Lutheran pastors who served respectively as Thiel president from 1870 to 1887 and 1893 to 1902, all but six of the first 32 years of the College!” (https://www.thiel.edu/about/history). I was stunned. After all those years of listening to my grandmother rant about how the churches should take their money and give it to the poor instead of hoarding it as gold crosses and expensive stained-glass windows, here I was looking at my family in a totally different light.

Somehow, knowledge of this longstanding affiliation with the church gave me the courage to begin attending church myself. I began going to the Episcopal Church in my hometown of Gainesville, Florida. My son, Bryan, became an enthusiastic attendee and eventually he and I were both baptized into the Episcopal Church. My daughter chose not to go and that was fine with me. As my parents had done for us, I gave my children a choice about whether to attend church or not.

My mother and I never talked much about religion. I knew she agreed with her mother that the church was an institution that hoarded wealth and fooled their parishioners into donating money they didn’t have. As a child, I wanted our family to go to church but she and my father refused to go and they never talked about religion. She let me attend with friends and relatives. When I grew older, we had some interesting discussions on the subject. Like her mother, she felt that religion was the last bastion of hypocrisy. People could excuse their behavior by saying, “Well, God forgives me.”

In my own life, I began to see religion in a different way. I saw it as a comfort. Religion could explain things that were not explainable. I had a dear friend, Jodi, who was at work one morning when she literally fell out of her chair and slipped into a coma. To this day, no one knows what happened. It’s possible she was taking drugs or drinking too much. No one has ever been able to confirm that. When she fell to the floor at work, a coworker tried to revive her, and finally, after a considerable amount of time, called 9-1-1.

At the time, Jodi and I both worked at the University of Florida. She was revived by campus police but was in what the doctors told me was a permanent vegetative state. According to the police she had been clinically dead for over 10 minutes by the time they arrived. I was told she would never survive. As she had no close relatives, it was my job to find someone related to her so we could issue a do not resuscitate (DNR) order.

I spent weeks in Jodi’s ICU hospital room, so many hours that eventually the nurses stopped telling me when visiting hours were and just let me stay. A distant cousin came to visit and issued the DNR. She also gave me permission to be Jodi’s guardian, in case any further decisions needed to be made. For weeks, we waited for her to pass on. She always seemed to move randomly, strange movements that the nurses referred to as “posturing.” I know a little more about this now – according to an article in the journal Critical Care, “Different types of abnormal movements may be seen in the comatose state and may represent motor paroxysms in the setting of cerebral herniation, such as flexor or extensor posturing secondary to severe brain injury and subsequent cerebral edema” (Hannawi, Abers, Geocadin, &  Mirski, 2016). These movements were frightening to watch, as if she were possessed. And though she was often alone, her room was never quiet. The machines performed all necessary functions. She was forced to breathe, fed by tubes, evacuated by tubes. The fact that she was still alive weeks after the initial incident was a scientific miracle.

One day, I went downstairs to get a cup of coffee. There was a kiosk in the hospital lobby that offered strong coffee, and I stopped to get a cup. The woman behind the coffee cart asked me who I was there to visit and I told her I was visiting my friend Jodi, who was in a coma and dying. The woman, who had a decided Caribbean accent, asked me if it would be okay if she said a prayer for my friend. I thought that was sweet. She took my hand, and in a loud voice, so loud that others in the lobby turned to stare, she began to pray, “Father God, please help this woman’s friend. Father God, please bring this woman’s friend back to this world. Or if it is your decision, Father God, allow her to pass on and join you in your beautiful kingdom.” Not used to this type of public display, I was rather embarrassed. My prayers were silent. My prayers didn’t involve a lobby full of people staring. The prayer was very long, and when it was over, I thanked the coffee lady and went back to Jodi’s room.

The next day my daughter, who worked at the hospital as a respiratory therapy aide, said, “Mom, you’re not gonna believe this – my supervisor says Jodi is breathing on her own. They want to remove the breathing tube.”

“There’s no way,” I answered. But the respiratory therapist chose to remove the tubes and surprisingly enough, Jodi did breathe on her own. Now I know there are these myths about people sitting up after months in a coma and saying, “Where am I?” Believe me, it’s not like that. It took months for Jodi to come back to the world. And because she had gone so long without oxygen, she had a severe anoxic brain injury. As her guardian, I was able to move her into an assisted living facility and she and I spent every holiday together.

Do I think that prayer brought her back to the land of the living? Of course not. Those wonderful medical people who never gave up even when her prognosis was “not a chance in hell” were the ones who brought her back. But why did it happen the day after the coffee lady prayed for her? One of the nurses told me that one night when Jodi was still recovering from the coma, she heard her talking to her grandmother. I pointed out that both Jodi’s grandmothers had been dead for over thirty years. Oh, by the way, Jodi was an atheist – she didn’t believe in life after death.

So okay, I want to find the scientific means to defer to the experts. I want them to locate proof that my grandmother told me it was going to be okay that night because she was the energy that existed in my back yard in the moonlight, and that the voice I heard was not my voice but her voice, her spiritual being, staying for a moment in her travels to comfort me. Why comfort me when she had so many children and grandchildren? I don’t know – maybe because I was the one who always argued with her, the one who wanted to find a way to unite religion and science. After all, why did she give me the family tree with all those Lutheran ministers in there? She knew I would keep them, preserve them, promote their legacy.

Out of respect for her feelings, I attempted to understand and find a solution to the dichotomy between science and religion that would work for me. I wanted to put my beliefs into some form that would not be insulting to my grandmother’s memory, that would not be at odds with my mother’s philosophy. As I began to explore, I started reading about physics. Why physics? Because the phrase, “Nothing created, nothing destroyed,” resonated. Because, according to an article in the Atlantic, “And now, equipped with the predictive power of quantum physics, theoretical physicists are beginning to push even further, into new universes and new physics, into controversies once thought to be squarely within the domain of theology or philosophy” (Anderson, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/has-physics-made-philosophy-and-religion-obsolete/256203/).

Of course, physics is so much more complicated than I can comprehend. Still, I found it reassuring, something I could tell my mother I believe in and she wouldn’t lecture me about the uselessness of religion. The First Law of Thermodynamics became my touchstone. As the All About Science Website explains, “In its simplest form, the First Law of Thermodynamics states that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed. The amount of energy in the universe is constant – energy can be changed, moved, controlled, stored, or dissipated.” (http://www.allaboutscience.org/first-law-of-thermodynamics-faq.htm). And what was more energetic that the spirits of my mother and my grandmother?

If nothing could be destroyed, no one could really die. A person’s spirit would become a different form of energy and continue in the universe. I know this is a very simplistic reading of the laws – I’m an English major, not a scientist. But this theory can be expanded. Or should I say, it did expand in my befuddled brain.

My mother, Hazel, found out last year that she was suffering from congestive heart failure. She decided, at 84, that she had lived a good long life, and she wasn’t going to take any more treatment. When Mother went into Hospice, I visited her regularly and we had long conversations about religion and science. Mother was a social worker and a high school English teacher with a Master’s in Education. She, like her mother, Helen, was a brilliant person who read extensively and knew more about every subject than your average person. I tried to explain the miraculous science behind the First Law of Thermodynamics. She just laughed. She wasn’t willing to give me a pass just because I thought I’d found a way to make religious theory work with science.

Albert Einstein became one of my heroes. I read about the theory of relativity and became convinced that somehow, this was the solution to my attempt at uniting science and religion. If the earth could deflect space and time just by its slow movement, why couldn’t we move on in a different way even when our physical selves ended? Would you like to hear my theory of attraction? Okay, scientists, take a deep breath – I know I don’t have this down perfectly. I don’t care.

I imagined that on the space-time continuum, we could all reconnect at appropriate moments. Maybe we wouldn’t even know we were interconnected. Maybe there would just be a moment of comfort, a spell of silence from the aching thoughts that propelled us through our stressful world, a moment of moonlight in a darkened yard. As explained on Space.com, “He [Einstein] showed that the speed of light within a vacuum is the same no matter the speed at which an observer travels. As a result, he found that space and time were interwoven into a single continuum known as space-time. Events that occur at the same time for one observer could occur at different times for another.” If there is truly no “fixed frame of reference” (Redd, 2016, http://www.space.com/17661-theory-general-relativity.html), there is no beginning and no end. There is no end. Or, as Jodi would say, “Everything’s going to be all right, and we’re all going to the House of Pancakes” (Courtesy of the old TV show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074021/ ).

This is how we non-scientists comfort ourselves, by trying to make connections where perhaps none can be made. I’m not a physicist. I am, however, fascinated by the research. I was thrilled when the University of Florida, where I worked for so many years, announced that they had detected gravitational waves that reinforced Einstein’s theories (http://explore.research.ufl.edu/catch-a-wave.html). My ulterior motive is not that of a scientist – mine is only an attempt to make sense of something that makes no sense.

Because of my family history, I can’t routinely accept that I will be “saved.” I can’t dismiss as lost the beautiful lives of my mother and my grandmother, who, by the way, were two of the most helpful, loyal, sweet, caring people in the world. The list of people they helped throughout their lives is too long for this essay. Yes, they were modern women. They were strong, sarcastic, funny.  But each would literally give you the shirt off her back. How did they deserve to go to “hell,” only because they refused to accept any religion?

My mother had very definite ideas about how her life would end. My youngest sister, Laurie, lived with her and took care of her, but Mother refused to allow any extraordinary measures to extend her life. She didn’t want to go to the hospital – she didn’t want any surgeries – she didn’t want tubes or breathing apparatuses, or machines. Like her mother before her, she made a decision that it was time to go and she was prepared. She made sure my father, who was in a veterans’ rehab facility for dementia, would be well-cared for. She made sure my sister, Laurie, would have financial security. To give Laurie a break from caring for my mother, I visited her frequently during the last year of her life, and every time I was impressed by how alert she was, despite having trouble breathing and being on morphine for pain.

Mom and I had long discussions about everything, how her grandchildren and great grandchildren were doing, how my dad would do after she passed away, what would happen to Laurie when she no longer had Mother to care for. And we talked about religion. A lot. Her attitude was so similar to that of her own mother, Helen, that it was amazing. She wasn’t afraid to die. She wasn’t afraid of what would happen if she didn’t accept some form of religion, or some savior. She was ready to go and did not believe there was anything beyond this life.

But there must be something more for them. The limited span of consciousness that is life is just not enough, because if it weren’t for them, so many people would not be alive today. My grandmother, Helen Roth Ihnen, had five children. My mother, Hazel Ihnen Thornton, had five children. And each of them was responsible for rescuing multiple people from tragic situations. They didn’t make a big deal about it. They just did it. After their deaths, people told me stories I didn’t know, about their kindness and their assistance. How could I see them in hell or as dust in the wind?

In early September, my mother called and said, “You need to come up here for a while. Your sister needs a vacation.”

“This isn’t a good time,” I answered. I’d already been to her house many times during the summer. I was very busy with work and various upcoming events. Apparently, I didn’t sense the urgency of the situation.

“You need to come now!” she said. The tone of her voice told me this was not optional. This wasn’t a visit. I got on the road immediately.

My sister, Laurie, had planned a vacation to visit my brother in North Carolina. We figured she would be gone for about ten days. I drove up and settled in, planning to cover for my sister for a week and a half.

The first night, Laurie was still there. Mom seemed fine, if a bit weak. The hospice nurses came by and we talked about her medications, the liquid morphine, how to get in touch if I needed them. My sister packed and headed off for her vacation in the mountains.

We spent the day, Sept. 10, 2016, talking about the presidential election, watching CNN and MSNBC, preparing for the ceremonies related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks coming up the next day. We talked about her children, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren. We talked about football. My parents were both football fanatics.

I should point out here that I married a man who once played football for the University of Florida. My parents were so excited when I started dating Ken. They couldn’t believe that their sports-hating daughter was going to marry a football player. They also adored him for the wonderful man he is. Once when I split up with Ken while we were dating, my mother insisted I go back and apologize to him. Without her, I wouldn’t have my decades-long marriage. So many people were guided by her in similar ways.

It’s easy to say that a bad person is going to hell. It’s easy to say that a non-believer is going to hell. What do you do about someone like my mother, whose list of charitable giving went beyond the norm but who refused to believe in the importance of any organized religion? What do you say about someone like my grandmother, who went out of her way for so many people, but thought religion was a con game perpetrated on the poor and the ignorant?

The first night after Laurie left, Mom started to get up out of her chair to go to bed. She was using a walker. She tried to stand but was unable to rise. “I can’t get up,” she said.

I ran over and tried to help her. I couldn’t get her up. “Mom, I’m going to call the hospice nurse, okay?”

“No,” she snapped. “Don’t call anyone. Don’t call anybody. Promise me.”

“You need to be able to lie down.”

“No, I don’t want any help. Please, you have to promise me.”

I didn’t want to promise. I felt so strange, sleeping on the couch beside her as she leaned back in her recliner, struggling to breathe. The night seemed to last forever. I would drift off to sleep for a few minutes, then wake when I heard her gasping for breath. She tried to talk, to tell me that she was happy, that she was lucky. At one time, I said to her, “You’ve had a wonderful life.” And she replied, “Yes, I have beautiful grandchildren.”

I have never been so close to the death of a human before. I’ve lost dogs and cats, but it’s different when it’s a sentient being who knows what’s happening. You don’t know what to say. Do you say goodbye? Do you say, I love you? I tried to tell her about my theory that when we die, we just become another form of energy. She waved her arms at me as if to say, “Just another one of those silly afterlife theories.” I didn’t pursue it.

I brought food she wouldn’t eat. I put her ventilator mask on and tried to help her breathe, but she took it off. I gave her small doses of morphine throughout the night, though it didn’t seem to help.

The next day, she seemed more alert. She still couldn’t get up, though, so I called my middle sister, Valerie, who lived an hour away in Birmingham and she drove up immediately. We debated whether we should call the hospice nurse despite Mother’s wishes. We were afraid she would end up in the hospital, furious at both of us for betraying her.

Eventually, we called 9-1-1 and asked the operator to send someone to help us move her. We explained that we didn’t want her transported to the hospital. The town sent a crew of firemen, who very sweetly shifted her into a wheelchair and transported her down the hall to her bed. She was embarrassed about needing their help. Still, she made jokes about how nice it was to be rescued by such handsome young men. They made jokes about how fun it was to help such a sweet old lady. They were all trying to be upbeat. My sister and I had to keep going outside to cry.

Mother had to be cleaned up once she got in bed. It was clear she was going downhill fast. Though she didn’t want us to, we called the hospice nurse, who came and showed us how to tend to her. The nurse asked me privately if I was prepared to be alone with my mother when she passed.

“Is anyone ever prepared?”

“We can move her to the hospital,” she said.

“Right, and she’ll hate me forever.”

“But –” The hospice nurse stopped. “Forever” is a relative term in those circumstances.

“No,” I said. “We can handle it.”

Valerie and I turned on the Alabama football game for her. We debated whether to call my younger sister or not. It occurred to us that Mother had deliberately sent her away because she didn’t want her to be there when she died. Or maybe she was afraid Laurie would insist she go to the hospital. I don’t know. But if we didn’t call, would Laurie hate us forever for not letting her know how fast Mom was going downhill? We called.

Laurie immediately jumped in the car in North Carolina and drove all night to get back to us. That night seemed unending. I held Mother’s hand as she gasped for breath, her breathing becoming slower and slower. Valerie prayed over her. As we sat there all night, waiting for the end to come, we read poetry to her, talked to her, whatever we could think of.

We were both relieved when Laurie finally got there. My sisters were out in the living room talking when I sat in the room with my mother for the last time. I held her hand and whispered, “You’re okay, you’re okay.” She was practically thrashing now, almost as if she were having convulsions, the kind Jodi had when her coma was at its deepest. Posturing. I kept saying, “You’re going to be okay, you’re all right.” I knew from my experience with Jodi that hearing is the last sense to go.

Finally, I said, “You’re all right and we’re going to be all right.” To my astonishment, she stopped flailing, opened her eyes, stared at me, and smiled. Faintly, it’s true, but it was definitely a smile. And then, like a breeze, she was gone. I don’t mean she died then. It would be hours before the labored breathing stopped, hours before the liquid morphine began to bubble up out of her mouth, the fluids left her system, the convulsions stopped. What I mean is that I could feel her self, her personality, her spirit, whatever you want to call it, leave her body. The body was still there but the person who was that person was no longer there.

When it was all over, we three stood over her bed, unsure what to do. Finally, we called the hospice nurse, who brought in all kinds of people to take care of everything, removing the body, filling out paperwork, etc. We were devastated. You would think after all those months of hospice care, we would have been more prepared for her death, but no.

I drove back home the next day. There was no reason to stay. There would be no funeral – she didn’t want any kind of religious service.

On my way home, I turned a corner in the foothills of the Appalachians and the sunlight, which was just coming up, hit the tops of the trees at an angle which made the woods look like they were catching fire. I thought of my mother missing this beauty. Hysterical, I pulled off the to the side of the road. Yes, you can say, see that light shining through those trees, illuminating those woods? That happens because the light enters your eye through the pupil, passes through the lens, focuses on the retina, blah blah, blah. And that would be true. But tell me why, scientifically, when I saw that light shining through those trees on my way home, did I find it so insufferably beautiful that it made me cry?

 

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Found some old poems today – published in:

 

 

UNDERGROUND VOICES: POETRY

WENDY THORNTON

Delegation from the Local Music Scene

As long as a face listens to the music
clean, almond shaped, sucker-boned
growing up in the country
hacking away lazily, ear for genius,
head for notes, shy, waiting to be discovered.

You hover on the edge of nightfall
construction in the details, small changes
that take you off to a different tree
then wherever a ribbon is strung,
a Marquis marked, changed more than you supposed.

The uniform songs about your homeland
embarrass you with their sentimentality.
violent chants about your birthplace
ring like a bell, mutter even louder
than the whipped puppy under the bed
and the singing cement outside your window

at 3 a.m., waiting to find a fist in the mouth,
a peephole through the wooden door
where dark skin against light learns lessons
an organist can trill, ownership of the moon
and the morning shafts of sunlight in a bar.
Here is where you are now, Babe. You’ve arrived.

First Law of Thermodynamics

When it comes down to it, you and I
will deal as we always do
in our own unique ways
with the vagaries of finality.

You will see my passing as natural,
maybe a little karmic,
your punishment for bragging
that everything was going so well.
Nothing can sustain such perfection.

I’ll complain that God is just damn difficult
and what did I do something to deserve this,
alternate between the peace
which passes understanding
and the first law of thermodynamics,
nothing created, nothing destroyed.

People tell me their end desires
as if I had some kind of inside track
“Should something bad happen
let me die. For God’s sake, don’t bring me back.
If I drop dead at this table, move to another.
Walk away. Just let me go.”
Foolish pessimists, what do they know
who expect me to stay past well enough.

Do you think my body will float away,
an uncomprehending corpse?
No, I’ll be the nightmare victim
trapped in a Florida nursing home,
existing for years on nothing but air.

A billboard flashes by – “Someday.”
That’s all it says, all it has to say.
Nothing to understand, no cosmic plan.
On good days, I romp with grandchildren,
on bad days, pick out funeral garb.

And when your time comes, my kinsman,
you won’t go gently either.
We have to play out the parts as written,
see them through to the end.

You play the part of the grieving widower
and I will be the wind.

In The Muir Woods

The bowl-shaped valley hides
from homeless in doorways,
limos ratcheting over the hills,
Victorians descending down to seals,
and the skater in a pink tutu
twirling his lace parasol.

No sunlight invades the bottom of the bowl.
Giant ferns reach outstretched palms to the light,
futile sunbeams stream from the top
towards fire-hardened roots, older than the millennium.
It is so quiet here, so cool
the trees generate their own air.

Somewhere developers pull out
their well-thumbed plans,
diagram their static dreams.
A breeze blows through,
the sigh of an ancient enduring
beyond her ancestors.

Then, breaking the harsh solemnity,
delighted children sprint the paths.
They will enter the cradles created
at the pedestal of the trees
only if no one takes their picture
and no one steals their souls.

Spiritual Pirate

Mother
I refuse to justify
my fragile faith
in the face
of your perpetual doubt.

Escaping, I defy
generations of atheism.
Circling around Pamlico Sound
trailing clouds of incense and myrrh,
around the Outer Banks I sail,
eyes fixed on a distant horizon
where a tiny dove leads the way
to New Providence.

On Nassau’s shores
I eat pineapple tarts and
entertain the cockatoos
With my whispered prayers.

Like Calico Jack I circle the horn
A spiritual pirate off Paradise Cay,
retracing Anne Bonney’s footsteps,
navigating around Deadman’s Reef,
fishing for shark off Cedar Key
and blessing the sun I definitely know
God created just for me.

In the end I’ll always defy
The sneer of naysayers
Bereft of belief.
Like Blackbeard stumbling
beneath the blow
I will let mortality go
And cry, “Well done, Lad,”
To the swordsman.

Wendy Thornton has published in The Literary Review,
Riverteeth, Confluence and other literary magazines.
She has a new story coming out Summer 08 in the
MacGuffin Magazine. She is a regular invited reader
for the Let’s Go Downtown Series, The Word is Spoken,
Third Eye Spoken and at the Gainesville Civic Media
Center in Gainesville, FL. She has completed a book
of short stories and a book of poetry and is finishing
a novel.

© 2004 – 2009 Underground Voices

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Poems published in Ravens Perch

I was excited to get a few poems published in the online journal, Ravens Perch. You don’t usually get so many accepted all at once.  This is from a book of poems I wrote called, Building a Fire.  I wish someone would take the book 🙂

Grandfather the Mason

What did grandfather find in the freemasons?
A shaft of sunlight illuminating a manuscript,
direct line to God, hidden in the Scottish Lowlands,
the secrets of Rosslyn safe from some silly book.
Would Solomon’s temple rise in his mind?
He would have known the exact dimensions
of the secret society, the points of convergence
the wealth of allegory. He would have learned

Did this man, once the town drunk, rise to the realm
of the Knights Templar, wishing to obscure his past?
Did his wealthy Catholic family object, just as the old ones did?
And what did his Lutheran wife think
of this old knight challenging history?
Was she scornful of the challenge or grateful
for the result? Surely it freed him

He told me once he and a friend poured Sterno
through loaves of bread to strain it so they could drink
on cold nights, as they rode through the country
in an open roadster, repainting billboards.
Frustrated, traveling the empty roads of the Depression,
painting over the art of another. His depression
lasted for years, bound to the bonds of addiction

Freemasonry freed him from poverty,
distinguished him from the men of Sicily
who had come to build their own new world.
He believed in the tradition of revolution,
welcomed as an ambassador of the old and the new,
builder of his own blue temples, creator of fountains,
determined to be his own man with his own business,
in debt to no one, beholden to none, just free

He moved south. Took the legends with him,
established contact with his brothers
who came in the end, dropped petals on his grave.
Intoned, Oh woe dear brother. Grandmother scoffed
but she was comforted by their presence,
assisted by their connection to this new place.
Hard to dismiss their willing grace.

 

The Sound of my Soul by Wendy Thornton

The fire/rescue unit calls me out of the surf.
Too dangerous, waves too high. Hurricanes pound
the coast from stern to aft, dissecting the sand,
intersecting each other with gale force winds,
and rip tides that make you gasp.
Even pelicans won’t land in this mess

But I confess, this is it, where I want to be,
in the midst of wild white foam, dangerous chemistry
Can’t go home – just one more wave
fly through the ages like fiberglass,
as if I could simultaneously touch the sky
and the grit beneath my fingers if I don’t break first

The thirst for the ride is nothing compared to the sound
of wind in my ears, waves thrashing the living daylights,
noise of surf and breeze blowing content from my brain.
If I had to die suddenly, this is how it should be,
floating out to sea on a rip current, no resistance.
I resist instructions to leave this whirling mass,
volunteer to be their practice drowning victim
but the fire/rescue guys don’t laugh.

 

I Won’t Miss You by Wendy Thornton

I won’t miss you when you’re gone.
I’ll be way too busy. Lots of lots of things to do.
I’ll be too too busy to remember you, your soft smile, voice,
your choice. I’m busy drowning in the nearby river

Fish jump into my canoe, birds fly
across the horizon and I –
hands on their tails, eyes on glass eyes –
rarely have time to barely miss you

Everywhere I go, I am feted and fed
as if just returned from the Day of the Dead
cosseted as a fetus escaped from abortion.
I am adored. I have found the sword,
discovered the potion. Despite intention
I inspire devotion with a single word – come

But this separation has struck me dumb.
Tonight, I’ll search for a new art hangout.
For now, I’m just seeking new shoes
to float above feelings as if walking on air.
Not that this indicates I, in any way, care
as long as I don’t come down. While you’re gone.

 

Cognitive Flame-Out by Wendy Thornton

“I’m terribly sorry,” he says in a voice so refined
you are surprised at politeness from this man
who has lately been known for his snarky humor,
his irate comments, his irrational needs,
“But I’ve forgotten who you are”

Who you are is a firefly in a jar flashing,
your face so familiar in the sudden light but extinguished
before his sad cells can really see the name
of the girl child, his first born,
the unspoken pain of lost memories
like reeds floating in darkness
on the edge of a pond where insects fly
unseen except for the edges of wings
flashing briefly in moonlight.

 

 

 

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Margaret and the Two-Inch Tomato

A friend posted this on Facebook today, and it immediately made me remember my short story about my futile attempt to grow tomatoes one year –

Margaret and the Two-Inch Tomato

Margaret has a black thumb. She has never been able to make anything to grow. She transplants all manner of cuttings and they blossom for a day or two, then wither and die. When she plants seeds, nothing happens. They don’t even break the ground. Her house plants, torn asunder by cats desperate for the great outdoors, hang bedraggled and limp, branches broken, leaves frayed.

Every year, she tries to plant the live Christmas tree she buys. Every year it dies.

One spring, Margaret notices that her neighbor across the street has a whole garden full of red, beefy tomatoes. She is so envious. If the neighbor can grow those beautiful fruit/vegetables, why can’t she? She’s an intelligent person. She’s not totally incompetent. The soil is the same on this side of the street as it is on that. She ought to be able to grow freaking tomatoes.

Burned in the past, Margaret knows better than to buy seeds. She buys tomato plants in special pots that guarantee they’ll grow. The tomato plants pop up six inches from their cardboard pots. The soil they are planted in is dark and marled with special ingredients. She plants them on the same side of her yard that her neighbor planted his. He is outside weeding. She waves and he waves back. “I’m growing tomatoes,” she shouts.

He grins and calls back, “Take some of mine. I have too many.”

“Braggart”, she thinks. But she laughs and continues planting her tomatoes.

Immediately, the minute the last trowel of earth is turned, the drought begins. It is the worst drought the southeast has ever experienced, weeks without rain. Drinking water dries up. No one is allowed to water their lawns. Washing your car is a criminal offense. Margaret stares, distraught, at the sticks where her tomato plants used to be. At first, she tries to keep up with the watering. She uses overflow from showers. She puts a bucket in the bathtub and makes everyone in her family produce water after each sojourn in the tub. But the plants are so dry from the record-setting heat, that she knows the effort is futile.

Just when she thinks she’ll mow down the sticks and start over, it begins to rain. From drought to monsoon in one easy session. Every day, she comes home, opens her cumbersome umbrella, drags her briefcase inside and battens down the hatches for the evening. Water seeps into her shoes. Her roof is leaking. Her car is leaking. It is so wet outside, the cats don’t even bother to rush the door. She forgets she ever gardened.

Finally, the rain stops. There is a Disney-esque sunrise. The world looks green and beautiful. She comes home from work in the afternoon and gets out of her car, grateful that she doesn’t have to wrestle the golf umbrella into submission. She is about to go inside when something catches her eye, a flash of red.

And there it is, beautiful as a waxed fruit, a perfect two-inch tomato where a stick used to be. The plant has blossomed with leaves and the 2-inch tomato decorates the green foliage. She bends down and stares at the flawless fruit.

It is the same size the next day, and the next. It doesn’t seem to grow. But it is spectacular. Reluctantly, afraid it will start decaying, she plucks the tomato and takes it inside. Her first home-grown anything.

Margaret wonders if there’s some way to preserve the tomato. She has the first dollar bill she ever made. This could be a decorative item just like the dollar bill. But she can’t find anything on the Internet about permanently preserving fruits or vegetables. At dinner, she cuts the tomato into tiny, perfect wedges and decorates a salad with them. “Do you see that?” she asks her husband.

“Oh, great, you grew a tomato,” he answers.

“If I can grow a tomato, I can grow other things, too.”

“How much did that tomato plant cost you?”

“Never mind. That’s not the point.”

The tomato is fantastic. She hates to eat it, but is thrilled by the juiciness of the taste, so much richer than the flat, boring tomatoes she buys in the grocery store. She wonders if she could grow enough food to feed her family. She has a large backyard. She could start a nice garden.

She could bring in a few chickens and have eggs for protein. She could buy goats for milk. Imagine living off the land. When she first started college she had a boyfriend who tried to live off the land. He was very successful with his marijuana plants but, alas, not so much with the other flora. He frequently came to her house to eat when his crops failed. But maybe he didn’t have her abilities. Maybe he didn’t have her patience.

“What would you think if I quit my job?” she asks her husband. He knows how exhausted she has been, how stressful her work.

Nevertheless, “I’d think you lost your mind,” he says.

Margaret decides to buy more plants. She will plant them and see what happens. If they grow, like the two-inch tomato, this will be a sign. She may have a black thumb, but she’s good at reading signs.
– Published in Bright Lights Cafe:

http://www.brightlightmultimedia.com/BLCafe/ShrtStories-MargaretAndTheTwoInchTomato.htm

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Remembering George

I was invited to read for a public event, for the Storytelling Meetup, on the topic of Do Over. I’ve never read for this group before, but I decided to write about my ex-husband, George. I am always a nervous wreck when I read in public, so I wrote everything out and will practice all day. I get so nervous I actually have to ask people afterwards how I did – I have no idea how my writing goes over in the crowd. It’s kind of funny, my friend Marilyn who is a psychologist, says I’ve perfected the art of disassociation for public readings 🙂

Anyway, here is my very rapidly written performance piece for Do Over:

My ex-husband, George, was the funniest, sweetest man on earth. He would literally give you the shirt off his back. So why did I end up leaving him after I had our baby? Well, maybe it was the alcoholism. Or maybe it was because he was the biggest marijuana dealer in the northern realm of Florida. Which I wish I had known before we met 😊…
We’d seen each other a few times at various parties around town and whenever he saw me, he was very attentive, polite, funny, courteous. He made other people move so I could sit next to him. I went to his house, which always seemed to be party central, and he played my favorite songs on his jukebox. Yes, he had a jukebox in his house. And fluorescent lights. You would think that the barroom décor would have set off alarm bells in my nineteen year old brain, but noooooo.

But the first time we really got together was when he invited me to a party at Crescent beach in a huge house right on the ocean. I drove over by myself from Gainesville and when I got there, the place was so packed I couldn’t even find George. Everyone was dancing to the Rolling Stones song Hot Stuff, and I wandered around in the crowd, looking for him. Then I realized that the room was filling with smoke. I started to panic – “We’re on fire,” I told people. “We need to get out – the house is on fire.” Finally, one of the guests took my hand and dragged me over to a nearby hibachi, a little barbeque pit. It turned out someone (three guesses who) had thrown a pound of pot on the hibachi. You could literally not avoid getting high if you were breathing. In no time, it seemed my feet were barely touching the floor.

I had to get away. I went outside and stood on the beach, watching the waves roll in, totally hypnotized. When I went back inside, I drank one beer after another as people handed them to me. Completely lost count. The next thing I knew, I was throwing up in the bathroom, totally humiliated. Imagine my surprise when George came along, threw everyone out of the bedroom, and helped me to bed. I was terrified about what would happen next. Then this craggy forty year old man who knew I was basically paralyzed covered me up with a sheet, lay down on the floor next to me, and slept there all night.
Eventually, I dropped out of school and moved in with George. I was an old soul, one of those people who had never done youthful, crazy things. But with George, I could be totally spontaneous – skip work and go camping, leave class and head to the Ocala National Forest, skip my exam and head to the beach. My parents hated him, but I loved my new life.

Except, it was a little difficult for someone who was an introvert. We were never alone. The party went on all the time. George worked three nights a week at a beer and wine drive through and it took me a while to realize that the way he really made his money was through selling pot. He was always surrounded by a crew of guys. I called them the lost boys. They literally waited on him hand and foot.

One man who moved in with us was a huge, muscular ex-con named Victor. I thought it was so sweet of him to give Victor a place to stay and a job after he got out of prison. Of course, it turned out that the job wasn’t just working at the Beer and Wine mart – he was George’s bodyguard!

George liked jokes. One day about ten of us were coming back from the beach in his station wagon. (Yes, back in the old days, when you didn’t’ have to have a seatbelt). Even though we thought he was crazy, he picked up a hitch-hiker. The hitchhiker was young and handsome and began to flirt with me. George asked him what he did, and the kid said he was a student and a surfer. “And what do you do?” he asked George.

“Me, I’m a shrink.”

“Huh?” the student surfer said. This fuzzy-haired, bearded, balding old man was a shrink?

“That’s right,” George continued. “I wanted to give the kids a little break today.”

“Huh?” the student surfer said.

“Yes, a good beach break is perfect for their mental health. You know, get them out of the facility.”

“I don’t understand,” the student said.

George waved at us “These are my patients.” The kid didn’t flirt with me anymore…

When my daughter was born, I thought George would change. He said he would. He said he’d get a real job, that he’d quit drinking, that he would change his ways. Duh. I believed him. Youth is wasted on the young.

The day we came home from the hospital, George threw a huge party for all his friends. There I was, trying to learn to nurse a new baby, and the house was filled with wild, crazy people, some I didn’t know, who were all there to see George’s new child. George went out to get firewood, leaving me alone with this drunken, celebrating crowd. And he didn’t come back all night.

On her first birthday, George went out to get firewood, and he didn’t come back all night. Now, I’m not always the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to relationships, but I realized that if I didn’t change my life, this was the way my daughter was going to grow up. It’s one thing to make that decision for yourself. It’s another to dump your child into such a situation.

So I packed up my stuff and drove away the next day.

I was never going to get married again. I ended up living with my parents for a while, in Birmingham, Alabama. I dated a few people. One guy said to me, “You know, you could give the kid to your parents.” “When?” I asked. He kind of waved his hands and said, “You know, like – “ Duh. Like permanently? Did not see that one again.

I was very depressed. I had a great job in Birmingham, I was going to college, my parents were very sweet and welcoming. But I felt so out of place there. One day I went to a shrink – a real one. He said, go home and do something you really want to do. I went home and thought and thought. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do. Except move back to Gainesville. So, I packed up and moved back. My mother kept following me around the house as I was packing, saying, “That’s not what he meant, that’s not what he meant.” Whatever. The only thing I could think of that I wanted to do was go home.

I was a single parent, I was not the least bit interested in getting married again. I was doing my best Greta Garbo – I want to be alone. But I had to get out once in a while. After all, I was 25 years old, alone with a 3 year old, and I had no life. So one night, in a bar called Eddy C’s, I met a handsome, bearded young man, and had a one night stand. I never expected to see him again.

The next day, he showed up at my work and asked me out. I was stunned. But I went out with him. And I even introduced him to my little girl. They hit it off right away. It turned out that he and I had gone to high school together. Of course, I didn’t know him back then – he was captain of the football team, prom king, a basketball player. I was on the literary magazine and the newspaper – and two years younger. But we had passed within a few feet of each other for over 10 years. In fact, one of my best friends found a note with his phone number on it in her bedroom!

We kept dating and he asked me to move in with him. Even though by this time I adored him, I was really nervous. But eventually I decided to give it a try. We lived together for two years. During that time, he asked me to marry him a couple of times. Each time, I said no. “Why don’t we just keep things the way they are?” But eventually I gave in and we decided to marry. And then I got pregnant again.

My new husband, Ken decided he wanted to adopt my daughter so that she would know that she was his child just as much as the new baby. We asked George to give up custody, and he said no. We were in a panic. We’d spent so much money on the lawyer, we were in school, both working two or three jobs, and had a new baby and a five year old. The lawyer was very smart. She sent George a letter that read, “We understand how difficult it must be to imagine giving up custody of your child. Therefore, please send five years of child support as soon as possible.” He signed the adoption papers.

Whenever I saw George around town, he was always sweet and wonderful and welcoming. I liked talking to him. But I had finally realized that some things don’t change. Just for the record, a 45 year old alcoholic dug dealer is not likely to suddenly become a pillar of the community, no matter how sweet or funny he is. I’ve been married to my husband for over three decades, but I still appreciate George. He took a fragile, damaged, old-before-her-time kid and showed her how to loosen up, how to live for the moment. And I appreciate that knowledge every single day

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Out in the Country from Wraparound South

Out in the Country – Wraparound South

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Remembering Robin today

My essay from Literal Latte comes back to my consciousness today. Thought I am not a huge fan of John McCain’s philosophy, I am a huge fan of his bravery. How dare these people in the White House say such awful things about a man who has been through so much…

 

http://www.literal-latte.com/2012/09/im-not-writing-about-robin/ From Literal Latte:

I’m Not Writing About Robin
Wendy Thornton
Second Prize, 2011 Literal Latte Essay Award.

We have all heard the old joke about God and the Devil and the glittering jewel on the path. “What is that?” asks the Devil in admiration. “It is the Truth,” replies God. After a moment’s silence the Devil makes a helpful suggestion, “Let me organize it for you.”

— Brent Mitton

The Guru is Not Absent: The Case for Dharmatherapy

My friend, Robin, died recently. I drove across the country to visit her before she died, to remind her that her bravery made me brave. She seemed comforted by this thought, as much as you can be comforted when you know you’re going to die within a specific timeframe.

The chance of our stories becoming intertwined was unlikely. Robin had traveled the world. She’d been a guide in Alaska. She’d been a long-distance trucker. Me, I’m a wage slave who’s lived in the same town for so long I could drive the streets blind-folded. The circuitous route that led us to each other, that brought two people staring death in the face together, began in a writer’s workshop. We both liked to tell stories. She wrote about her travels — I wrote about relationships.

Fiction is what I usually write. This is not fiction.

I’ve told friends, “It’s like bad television.” You’d never see this played out on Grey’s Anatomy because it doesn’t ring true. And of course, there’s the superstition factor — usurping someone else’s story has got to screw up my own karma.

So instead, I’m going to write about the nature of reality and the writer’s obligation. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since James Frey’s dust-up with Oprah Winfrey. Frey wrote a book, A Million Little Pieces, supposedly the true story of his descent into addiction. After Oprah chose it for her book club, the story turned out to have a number of embellishments. Okay, let’s call a spade a spade — he lied. He lied so badly that he even appropriated the tragedies of others for his own gain.

Outed by a website called The Smoking Gun, Frey came to stand for dishonesty at its most venal. His lie was at least as horrible as Herman Rosenblat’s scam, which was based on a story Oprah once declared “the single greatest love story in 22 years of doing this show.” Rosenblat wrote a memoir, Angel at the Fence, describing how his future wife passed apples through a fence to help him survive a concentration camp. Poor Oprah. I can understand her getting sucked in. What I don’t understand is why these writers wrote “memoir.” Why not write fiction?

Fiction is what I usually write. This is not fiction. When I write non-fiction, I make a strict distinction between what is true and what is invented. What I say here, in this essay, is truth — although admittedly filtered through my perceptions.

Ah, but there’s the rub. My husband, the main victim — er character — of many of my essays has said, “It’s not that you lie. You just remember big.”

Or I remember differently. My children accuse me of making up stories about them. I just tell the facts. It is a fact that my daughter swallowed a battery on a bet when she was fourteen years old. It is a fact that, around the same age, my son put his hand through the wall of our house because I wouldn’t buy him new clothes before school started. Yet, when I state these facts, they accuse me of lying. What do I have to do to establish veracity? Show the X-ray of the battery sitting in my daughter’s duodenum? Or show the fist-sized hole in the hallway of my house, strategically unrepaired? (I think it’s a good object lesson for my volatile youngest child to see that hole on a regular basis.)

The fact that they don’t want me to tell these stories gives me pause. And yet — and yet — when I attend family gatherings and try to be silent, someone always eggs me on, sometimes even the perpetrators. As in, “Oh, sure, Mom’s going to tell that story about me punching the wall again.” This is the stuff of folklore, these are family stories, campfire material, sagas I will pass down to my grandchildren who will someday say to their grandchildren, “And once, when your great-grandmother was fourteen, she swallowed a battery because her younger brother dared her…”

I consider these stories to be my stories. They do not belong to my children. My children have a completely different take on the same events, though the events happened exactly as I have described them. They belong to me because I was there, because I was the one who had to call Poison Control and explain that my yes-indeed-fourteen-year-old not fourteen-month-old daughter had swallowed a battery and to tell my husband that yes indeed our youngest child had put his hand through the wall! By virtue of my participation, these are my stories. I am the ultimate voyeur in my own life.

So, I will not write about Robin because I do not want to detract from the miraculous experience of her life. I don’t want to diminish the horror that befell her, and I don’t want to devalue her courage. However, I know that she will not be able to write about it, because she told me she wasn’t going to and because, by the time you read this, she will be dead. So there should be no conflict about me stealing her story. The only conflict is within me, that somehow, by telling her story, I am dishonoring her memory. And I do not want to dishonor the memory of someone so brave.

When she asked me to take her to the hospital, I knew something was seriously wrong….

When you write a piece of fiction, you must make it believable. Robin and I met in a writer’s workshop. Sometimes, we in writers’ workshops have to tell new writers that what they wrote is not believable. Sometimes their response is, “But this really happened.” And we say, “Ah, but nevertheless, it’s not believable.”

Some truths are just so strange they’re not believable. The fact that they happened has nothing to do with their believability.

So I will not write about how Robin called me one winter morning and said she’d been in a minor car accident the day before and how she had some numbness in her hands and feet. And how I offered to take her to the emergency room to be sure she didn’t have a pinched nerve. And how we went to the emergency room on the Sunday before Martin Luther King’s birthday and the ER doc decided she should have a CAT scan, just to be on the safe side. And how, sitting in the CT waiting room, I knew something was wrong because the CT tech came out and said, “You’re going to be here a while. Would you like a blanket?” And how I got goosebumps when he said that.

You see, I had recently been in that same room, waiting for a CT to pinpoint the rectal tumor that was threatening to kill me. Robin and I barely knew each other then — we had just met. As I progressed through my treatment, I talked to her about some of my experiences. Once I asked in amazement, “Do you know I have to take a shot every week that costs $1,500? How do people without insurance survive?”

“They don’t,” she answered. It turned out she was hiding a secret from me. She’d been having intestinal problems but couldn’t afford a colonoscopy. Only when her appendix burst and she was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery did the doctors find the tumor in her colon that threatened her life. We were both relieved to get treatment and recover. We were both gun-shy about going to a doctor for any reason, for fear that something else would go wrong.

So when she asked me to take her to the hospital, I knew something was seriously wrong. Perhaps she’d damaged her spine in the wreck. So, I’m not going to write about sitting in that waiting room wrapped in a warmed white blanket while people bustled in and out, not making eye contact, and how I knew it was bad because this was the Sunday of a long weekend and special people had been called in who normally don’t work long holiday weekends. I’m going to write about how I knew something was wrong because I’d been in that same room a year and a half before and that same tech had pinpointed my own tumor like a butterfly stuck to a corkboard. So, see, this is my story, not Robin’s story. Me, wrapped in a warm white blanket, waiting for my friend to be released, thinking, whoa, déjà vu.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to your will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Amen.

— Book of Common Prayer (1979)

I am not going to write about the handsome, distraught young ER doc who came into our sterile ER room and gave us the incredible news. I am not going to describe his shocked face as he told Robin, “You have a huge brain tumor and I’m afraid there’s no cure.”

She actually made a joke. “Thank God, now I have an excuse for forgetting things — I thought I was getting Alzheimer’s,” and we actually laughed. I’m not going to describe how we ended up comforting him — got that? — we comforted him! as he tried to explain that the tumor was huge. I’m not going to mention how he looked when she told him she had five kids and needed to make plans.

A few weeks before, we’d celebrated her birthday at a nearby state park, Paynes Prairie. Robin loved the Prairie. She told me the history of this park right outside my own town, how it had once been the domain of Seminole Indians, how steamboats once crossed its grassy savannah. Our writers’ group celebrated her birthday on the prairie with readings of fiction and poetry. It was a lovely, Florida December day, breezy and sunny, and we toasted her sixty years on earth and wished her sixty more. And here it was, less than a month later, and her life was over.

And I’m certainly not going to talk about the cold, hot-shot young neurologist who told her that she had a glioblastoma, the most virulent form of brain tumor, and that without treatment she had less than a month to live. With surgery she might live for six weeks, but might be blind or paralyzed or not know she was Robin anymore. The neurologist asked her all kinds of pointed questions as if she were a fascinating specimen, with no hint of humanity in his face or voice. “Have you ever blacked out? Do you have trouble remembering things? Have you had a lot of headaches lately?” No, no, no, she’d never had any, none, zilch, zip, no fucking symptoms.

Instead, I’ll talk about how my friend Robin wanted a cigarette and how I held the bag dripping steroids into her system as we walked out the front door of the ER and how some nurse practically assaulted us, shouting, “You can’t take her outside!” And how much, how very much I wanted revenge on the entire medical profession, particularly the many people who’d missed my own tumor for so many years (see how we personalize the most ludicrous moments?) by screaming at this rude nurse, “Listen Bitch, she has an inoperable brain tumor. She can do whatever she wants.” And how I managed to restrain myself because Robin was so brave and I wanted to show I could be courageous, too, but by God in Heaven if she wanted a cigarette, that was her right.

And I’m not going to talk about staying with her all day until we got a hospital bed, and how I was there when she called her oldest friend, Beverly, in Texas and her oldest son in Ohio and asked him to tell the other kids what was going on. And how I didn’t want to leave but she needed things from her condo so I agreed to go and tell her roommate what was happening.

But I will talk about the guilt I felt leaving the hospital and how beautiful the sunset was that night and how I cried, thinking it was insensitive of me to even notice such a mundane thing as a sunset when Robin was dying. And how I couldn’t find the notebook she wanted and how I had to sleep before I went back to the hospital and how just being in the hospital, on the same floor where I’d spent the longest year of my life one week, caused me to feel panicked and breathless. When I returned to the hospital, I was absolutely manic. I wanted everyone to treat her well. So I turned into a one-woman comedy routine. For the sake of Robin, how endearing could I be? How many jokes could I tell? How fast could I talk? Could I throw salt over my shoulder?

Repression… the painful emotions arising out of the conflict, are actively or automatically thrust out of consciousness into the unconscious, in which, however, they still remain active, determining behavior and experience, for the most part indirectly and producing neurotic symptoms of various kinds, as well as determining dreams, both night and day, and underlying many types of deviations from normal behavior.

— James Drever

A Dictionary of Psychology (1952), via Columbia Univ.

I can talk about volunteering my home to Robin and her children so they could assemble and decide what their next step would be. What would you do if you had a month to live? Gather your family, go to the woods, walk deserted paths, explore the edges of lakes and swamps, watch the sun come up every day and never watch it set?

Here is where the curse sets in. If I wrote about the things I saw that week, would that trivialize them? Would I commandeer them against their will, hold them hostage, wring the truth from them and leave them dripping wet on the floor, abused and abandoned? When does someone else’s experience belong to you? Oprah, Oprah, tell me true?

Remember, my friend Robin is a writer. But she chose not to write about this. So does that mean the story is up for grabs?

The truth is so complicated. If I say my daughter swallowed a battery on a dare, that’s the truth. But the complication is that my daughter is the kind of kid who never, ever did anything wrong, and the fact that her wild brother bet her she wouldn’t do it means she practically had to do it. Just to show him that she could be a bad girl sometimes. Just to prove she was normal.

And my son, who put his fist through a wall because I wouldn’t buy him new clothes, didn’t tell me that an older girl had taken a sudden interest in him. This was the first time a girl had ever noticed him and he was flattered and frightened by the attention. He didn’t tell me. I didn’t get it. All I saw was that damn hole.

My truth is much more complicated than saying I went to the emergency room with a friend and she had an inoperable brain tumor. Because at the time, I was hiding a major secret of my own, fear that my cancer had returned. I had a mammogram in October, and was told I was fine. Then the doctor’s office called back and said, whoops, we found something, please come back. So, reluctantly, I returned for a follow-up visit, and the second mammogram showed a lump in my breast. I was then given a sonogram and that clearly showed the lump. So they referred me for an MRI. At this point, I opted out.

“You mustn’t avoid me, anymore. Whatever you decide to do, I’ll respect your decision, but you must not avoid me.”

Maybe if they hadn’t told me I was okay after the original mammogram, I wouldn’t have been so frustrated, so furious and so frightened that I went into avoidance behavior. After a year of chemo, radiation, surgery and more chemo, I couldn’t stand the thought of starting again. I began avoiding the omnipresent members of the medical profession. I refused to return phone calls from the mammogram doctor. I tore up certified letters sent to me.

Cancer had become the blight that blurred the landscape of my life, muddying the horizon as it came ever closer. Right before the mammogram, my youngest sister and my dear friend, Susan, had both been diagnosed with breast cancer. The two of them told me about their treatments, their fears, their intimations of mortality. Because I’d been through treatment for cancer, they felt they could confide in me. I couldn’t tell them my own mammogram had come back positive. I thought I’d rather die.

My primary physician, Dr. Ruben, got into the act. He started to call my house, personally. He left messages telling me I needed the MRI. I quit answering my phone at home and at work. I deleted his messages before my husband could hear them.

Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis. “Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil…” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you…But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.”

— Wikipedia: St Francis of Assisi

So I will not write about Robin having an MRI. I will write about how I felt sitting in the MRI room pretending to read a magazine while Robin was inserted into a metal tube and pounded with noisy waves of magnetism and how I pretended I was fine and made small talk between the horrendous noises to let her know I was still there and how all I could think was, I can’t do that. I will not be able to take that test. And I will not write about standing in Robin’s hospital room listening to her make plans for her death with her children and how the reality of what I was hearing was like an assault and I thought, but I can’t just stay in limbo. So, I told her I’d been avoiding the doctors and that because she’d been so brave I would have the damn MRI. This made her feel better. She said, “If something good comes of this, then maybe it’s been worth it.”

I called my doctor, and I cried on the phone as I told him about listening to Robin plan her funeral. “If I have cancer again,” I said, “I’m not going to have any treatment. But I’ll have the MRI, so I can tell my family how long I have to live.”

This sweet man, who had taken me on as a patient the week I was diagnosed with cancer, the man who had referred me to the experts who saved my life, said, “You mustn’t avoid me, anymore. Whatever you decide to do, I’ll respect your decision, but you must not avoid me.” I agreed to this, although I didn’t believe him. Doctors are fundamentally incapable of letting you deny treatment. But I respect this man. I told him about my claustrophobia, so he prescribed large quantities of Valium to get me through the MRI.

Dr. Rubin had me pick up my records from the office where I’d had the mammograms and sonogram and bring them to the MRI facility. On the way, I pulled out the X-rays and stared at the tumor. The mass in my chest was so clear it looked like I’d swallowed a marble.

In the same room where Robin had been encased the week before, a young kid directed me to change into a gown and take off anything metal. He was very kind, though it must have been clear to him that I was high as a kite. He asked me if I’d like to listen to some music and I said, yes. “Do you like classical?” I made a face. “Rock?” he asked, and I nodded. “Do you want vintage rock and roll? Or something new?”

“Something new,” I said.

“How about Sting?”

I wrinkled my nose. “Sting isn’t new,” I groused.

He looked befuddled. “Coldplay?”

“Coldplay is good.”

Even with the music so loud my eardrums tingled, even so drugged I could hardly stand, being in that tube made me feel like I was in a coffin. Remembering Robin lying there so quietly the week before, I cried all the way through the test.

A week later I received another certified letter. “Your test results were normal.” You’d think the letter would have come as a great relief. Instead, I was furious that they had put me through this absolute hell, when it turned out nothing was wrong. And I was angry that I’d been made to act out a secret melodrama. The letter said, “Please make an appointment now for a new mammogram.” Yeah, that’ll happen.

Robin was thrilled by the news. She believed because her experience had forced me to take the MRI, she’d been responsible for saving my life. That really made me feel guilty. My life for hers? If I were writing about Robin I would say, is it fair to trade my life for hers? I don’t think so. How do you measure the value of a life?

May all beings everywhere plagued with sufferings of body and mind quickly be freed from their illnesses. May those frightened cease to be afraid, and may those bound be free. May the powerless find power, and may people think of befriending one another. May those who find themselves in trackless, fearful wildernesses – the children, the aged, the unprotected — be guarded by beneficent celestials, and may they swiftly attain Buddhahood.

— The Buddha

If I were writing about Robin, I would say, I drove from Florida to Texas to visit her. (Remember that claustrophobia? We claustrophobes don’t fly unless we have to.) She stayed with her friend Beverly until she died. When you are a cancer survivor, you spend a lot of time thinking about death and dying. It’s an unavoidable subject, even if you don’t expect to kick off within a month. During my visit, Robin and I spent many hours on the balcony of her friend’s home talking about our different beliefs. She thought she would die and everything would come to an end for her. She was on a journey that would soon be over. I believe she’s on a journey that will continue. I think this life is just a stop along the way. I told her I thought there was so much more to life than we can perceive, that there is a whole world of energy just waiting to absorb us, that we go on in a different state, sans corporeal substance. She gave me that look — the skeptical, slightly pitying look I frequently get from my non-believing friends and relatives.

I did not have the privilege of growing up in a religious household, though my parents were strong, righteous, moral people. My beliefs have been patched together through years of spiritual readings, teachings, and absorption. I believe it’s all true, all real, all there beyond our senses. I absorb and believe it all. I can’t explain any of it.

While I was visiting, I told her she should write to her children and tell them how she feels about them. “They already know,” she said.

And I thought, how arrogant you are to tell this dying woman what she should do, how she should feel. And yet I know if I had a month to live, I’d be writing letters to my family for every day of their lives, till someone ripped the pen from my cold, dead hands. “Darling daughter, congratulations on the birth of your first child.” “Dear Son, I want you to know how happy I am that you finally finished graduate school.” “My loving husband, on this, your wedding day, please remember me as the woman who wanted you to be happy after I’m gone.” “To my mother on her eightieth birthday, thank you for teaching me to be strong.” And I would tell the family stories. “Dear grand-daughter, when your mother was little, she once swallowed a battery on a bet.” “Dear grandson, let me tell you what your father once did for love of a girl.” Lord, through this method, I could go on and on. But that would be my story.

If I were writing about my friend Robin I would say, there are moments I can’t get out of my mind and I have to share them, because they are so painful, so recent, so real. Because this is not fiction, this is not me telling a story. This is reality. And reality demands an out. Fiction can waft away like a random thought — I need milk. But truth should out.

One morning just after Robin had been released from the hospital and her family was visiting at my house, I came out of my bedroom ready to go to work. I saw Robin sitting on the front porch, smoking a cigarette and watching the sunrise. Her thirty-year old son was on his knees in front of her, his head in her lap and she ruffled his hair like a child. I had to go back in my bedroom and bite my thumb till it bled so they wouldn’t hear me cry.

I’d planned my visit to Texas so I’d arrive the day Robin’s youngest son was leaving, so as not to interfere with his visit to his mother. Robin’s friend, Beverly, drove the son to the airport in Houston, while I stayed with Robin. Beverly gave me instructions on what to do if Robin had a seizure, what medications to give her, how to administer the suppositories if the oral medications didn’t work. I pretended to be calm and unconcerned about the fact that I might have to force medication down Robin’s seizing throat. Or worse. I pretended I could handle anything, even her death.

As Beverly and the youngest son drove away, Robin and I sat on the balcony of the house and waved to him. He waved back. She watched them drive out of sight, and then began to cry, the only time I had seen her cry since this whole ordeal began. “I’ll never see him again,” she said. “Yes, you will,” I answered. The look she gave me, so bitter, so frustrated, so irritated with my simple platitude, made me feel useless. I was convinced I was right just as she was convinced I was wrong. What brought us together? I believe in fate. I believe if I hadn’t met her, if I hadn’t got the MRI, if I hadn’t faced my fear, I wouldn’t be alive now. Or let’s just say, I wouldn’t be living. Yes, there is more than we see, more than we can know. Yes, I wanted to say, our essence goes on beyond this moment. Listen to me, believe me.

But what do I know? This is a woman who was looking death in the eye with more courage than anyone I’ve ever seen, and I’ve spent hours in chemo rooms with people getting up close and personal with the Grim Reaper. I have no proof of my beliefs, other than a certainty that this can’t be it, that God is in the details, in the pond behind Beverly’s house, in the sunset on a frosty January evening, in the red-rimmed eyes of a youngest child saying goodbye to his mother. For now.

So this is the truth. I cannot write about my friend Robin, who believes there is nothing beyond this life, because I don’t understand her. I can’t write about Robin because I want to scratch and claw for every scrap of time and fill every moment I’m alive so I never have to think and never have to feel and never have to deal with that bus bearing down on me. I can’t write about Robin because I’ll never be as brave as she is.

But if I am writing to her instead of about her, if I am addressing this truth to the Robin who may not be part of this earth anymore even as I’m putting down the words, all guilt fades. Maybe they’re all right — the Buddhists, the Muslims, the Christians, the Hindus, the physicists. Maybe there are many paths to “God” or perfection or infinity or parallel time. To Robin I say, I salute your courage and your spirit. Thank you for helping me to be brave. I’m still here, still thinking about you. Maybe that means you’re still here, too.

Defying the best expectations of the best doctors at two major medical centers, Robin Spaeth lived six times as long as she was told she would. She died peacefully in her sleep at the home of her dear friend in Texas where she could look out over the large back yard and imagine it was a prairie.
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