One final message

Ken was my son’s headmaster in middle school. He was a popular man in the community and an asset to the school, where his gentle love and encouragement smoothed over those rough adolescent years for many students. Nathan’s transfer to private school was rough – he had a hard time with the academically challenging classes, but Ken saw something that nearly everyone else missed and he and Nathan became fast friends.

Ken gave us the gift of his friendship, and the jewel of his stories about renovating a house out in the country, and sleeping in the bed of his truck when the house was too hot. He was the one who told me, when I was worried about Nathan, “He’ll be fine. When he figures out what he’s passionate about, get ready to get out of his way.”

He was the kind of man who phoned me after I was in a minor car accident to make sure I was OK. “Nathan was sad at chapel today,” he reported to me. “And I wanted to make sure you were OK.”

We were sorry when Ken left the school to attend seminary; Nathan was featured in a TV story about the departure, blinking back tears, voice breaking. The minute the story ended, the phone rang. It was Ken, and he said, “Nath has us all in tears over here.” and they spoke for a long time.

He and I kept in touch after he left. I spoke with him right after he got married. “She looks like Doris Day,” he reported. “Today I spoke to the world’s happiest man,” I noted in my journal.

Nathan got sick and I kept Ken updated on chemo treatments and white blood counts and school work. I asked for his prayers to get the family through the challenges.

The Make a Wish Foundation sent our family, and one of Nathan’s friends, on a week-long trip to Orlando. The boys had fun but I kept trying to shake off a feeling of dread, of something awful on the horizon. Maybe it was knowing that many of the children on the trip would die from their disease, and hoping Nathan’s doctor was right, that his illness was treatable. Or maybe it was something else.

The very night we got back from the trip, our friend Mary Ann called, with unimaginable news: Ken was dead, in a car wreck.

Late that night, unable to sleep, barely able to breathe, I phoned the office to check my voicemail. There was only one message, from two days before. “Hey, Melinda. Ken here, just checking to see how Nathan’s doing.”

September 2008

Clouds of Illness (2003)

I am 12, maybe, or 14. It is the last morning of the family vacation in northern Colorado. We’ve spent a week in our tent at a National Forest Service campground 15 miles down a gravel road just below Rabbit Ears Pass. Or near Red Feather Lakes. It’s always somewhere remote, but researched, and we bring topo maps with us.

This far north this late in the year the weather is already edging toward fall and mornings are frosty. Today, we get up early to break camp. Each of us has tasks: mine are to help fold the stiff-with-cold green canvas tent and assist in tying the tarp-covered bundle on top of the car. When everything is loaded, we hit the road, stopping for gas. And lunch, when we pull over at a roadside park and finish off the supply of pimiento-cheese sandwiches and canned shoestring potatoes.

The plan for the afternoon is always the same: supper in Santa Fe then drive the rest of the way to Lubbock. We stop at the Furr’s Cafeteria on the north side of town; after two weeks of hobo stew and burned Dutch-oven biscuits, a meal of fried chicken and mac-and-cheese is delectable. After we eat, it is back in the car and drive, without further stops, until we get home, usually around midnight.

That year, when we are inside Furr’s, storm clouds begin to build up west of town, in the Jemez Mountains. As we walk to the car, we can see flashes of lightning sparking the insides of the thunderclouds. We’ve come so far south today that we’ve escaped the autumn of the morning and this storm we can see proves it: it’s a late-afternoon late-summer show of light and power.

Everything changed a dozen years ago, when Nathan was diagnosed with diabetes. He was two weeks away from his ninth birthday. Until that moment, he’d had only the usual childhood stuff – colds, ear infections, skinned knees – that all kids have. But the ease of injuries that could be fixed with a Band-Aid or sickness cured by that pink antibiotic that had to be kept in the refrigerator was gone in the instant of the diagnosis.

He was hospitalized immediately, and stayed for a week, getting his body chemistry stabilized and completing diabetes education classes. He only cried once, and that was when I told him he’d have to stay overnight in the hospital. The rest of the time he was charming and witty. There were new medical specialists flung our way – endocrinologists, nutritionists, diabetes ed nurses – as it gradually sunk in to all of us that our former life had changed forever.

Diabetes and its responsibilities surely was an enormous burden for him, but he bore it with grace. The complications of food exchanges and sliding scale insulin dosages and injections became so quickly a part of our family routine that it was hard to remember when they were things we hadn’t even heard about.

A few years later, he began a series of unusual afflictions, none of them related to diabetes or to each other.

First, an ear-nose-throat doc removed a cyst from his face beside his ear. Then he had a spider bite that got so disgustingly infected that even the pediatrician was more than a little repulsed by it. He cut his arm at church camp and had to get a bunch of stitches, which left a peace-sign shaped scar on his forearm. He had a mysterious lump on his jaw that was removed by an oral surgeon. The lump was tested and studied, but the nature of it was never determined: no one could say what it was, what caused it, if it might come back. The oral surgeon told me that if it returned, he’d be inclined to think it might be cancer.

Later, he had a lump on his forehead. His pediatrician ordered x-rays, which Nathan took one look at and said, “That looks like what I had on my jaw.” And he saw another spot on the x-ray that turned out to be another lump. The pediatrician handed him off to a neurosurgeon, who removed one lump, but counted a few more. Six weeks after the surgery, we had a diagnosis: histiocytosis, a rare blood disorder. The neurosurgeon handed us off to a pediatric oncologist and Nathan began a half-year of weekly chemotheraphy treatments. By this time, he was in high school, and was able to keep up with his school work and hold a part time job. He went to chemo by himself most of the time: that was important to him. I suppose it made it seem like something normal kids did – drive somewhere after school without their moms along. He charmed the nurses, the doctors, the lab techs, the chaplain. He entertained the little kids in the waiting room – one time he put on a funny hat and sang “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” He even took a date with him once, a redheaded girl he called Crazy Hair Claire. And he protected me, hiding whatever fear and anger he had behind a fortress-like wall of lunacy.

He came through treatment, and the disease seemed to go away, though the oncologist was prepared to monitor him for several more years.

In September of his senior year in high school, he collapsed in the parking lot at school and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. By the time we got there, he was having seizures that were so violent that two security guards were called in to help hold him down while the nurses got an IV started. He was admitted to the ICU and tests were started. Various seizure disorders were ruled out and by the end of the day, he was diagnosed with another rare condition – neurocardiogenic syncope. A new doctor – a pediatric cardiologist – began treatment. He was released a couple of days later, on blood pressure drugs and large volumes of Gatorade to help him stay hydrated.

In January of the same school year: he got a staph infection in his finger which required emergency surgery. This time, he got two new doctors, an orthopedic surgeon and an infectious diseases doctor. He was in the hospital almost a week. One day while he was in the hospital he amused himself by making a hat from a traction boot, an inflated latex glove, two empty syringes, and some ear cones. The surgeon saw him wearing the creation and wrote orders that he (and it) be photographed. (Two years later, I found out that the photo was still hanging in an office at the children’s hospital.) After he was released from the hospital he still had to go back every day for a couple of weeks for painful hydrotheraphy. And he had infusion therapy at home for about the same amount of time. We got to know the wound care nurse and the home health care worker.

At the very beginning of his freshman year in college, a lump on his thigh made us suspicious that the histiocytosis may have returned. We consulted a surgeon, who decided to take a wait-and-see attitude. That paid off: the lump went away on its own.

The winter of that year, he had another syncope episode and lost a lot of short-term memory. The worst part: he sat on the sofa and asked, “What day is it?” over and over, with no memory of the question, or the answer.

Junior year in college, another scare. An eye exam was called “suspicious,” and the ophthalmologist wanted more tests. We headed back to the oncologist, who ordered MRIs of Nathan’s head. I spent several nervous days reading everything I could find about histiocytosis to see if it ever turns up as a brain tumor. The MRI was clear; in fact, the doctor said, “Why are you here?” Those are sweet and fine words to hear from an oncologist; we’d had another near miss.

The illnesses never seemed to stop, only to slack off now and then, to gather momentum for the next storm. Clouds of illnesses hung heavy while we dodged, coped, prayed, hoped.

As we drive toward home, and as it gets dark, we can still see the lightning. Bold lines flash to the ground or glow inside the bank of clouds. It never gets any closer to us than when we’d first spotted it and it seems to follow our path: out of town along Cerillos Road, then to Cline’s Corners, Santa Rosa, Fort Sumner, Clovis, Muleshoe, Lubbock.

After we make the turn south at Santa Rosa, we are away from traffic. The two-lane road is ours alone, the glow from the dashboard barely illuminating the inside of the car. We’re able to get radio stations some of the time – long distance AM stations from Oklahoma City or Dallas – but mostly it’s quiet in the car. The lightning flashes from time to time, still not any closer, but a constant reminder of what is behind us.

When we get home, we unload only the evening’s necessities from the car. Tomorrow is the day for cleaning and archiving the camping equipment for another year. We open the bedroom windows, and the ones in the den, too, to let the cool evening air replace the stale and closed-up house air, then we go to sleep.

Within the hour that storm which had stalked us from Santa Fe arrives, sneaking up on us and crashing into our glad-to-be-home slumber with a roll of thunder and a dusty splash of raindrops against metal window screens.

If we’d kept going, kept driving on through the night, the storm would have lost its energy, died out before it caught us. But we stopped, thinking we were safe, and the storm got us.

And that’s how it is with Nathan. As long as we keep running, keep moving, keep looking back over our shoulders, maybe we can keep illnesses at bay. Maybe those storms will play themselves out before he gets rained on.

Again.

It might be just a phase

It’s like sitting behind a car
and noticing that your turn signals
are synchronized
until a tiny difference in their timing
starts to make them,
slightly at first, then more noticeably,
pull apart.
The difference grows
until they are completely off
from each other.

And if the light is red long enough
maybe they will once again blink together.

2008

The thirst of a dancer

Voyeuristic commuters
end our days with vignettes
from buildings crowded against the L.

On the Brown Line
one postage stamp window glows from the third floor,
three people visible through its wavy glass.
Two ponytailed men
look out toward my train
while behind them
a woman, left hand graceful on the barre,
turns her head,
lifts a bottle to dry lips,
and takes a long drink of water.

Though in separate space
our capsules nudge against
each other that moment,
and she quenches my thirst.

Finding Solace in the Gutter

(A companion piece to this photograph by Leanne Cole)

The idea that I’d be one of those people who could show raw emotion in public and not even care who saw me – that was something I would have never believed could happen to me. I’d always heard not to be too quick to criticize how people act in situations, because you never know – you might do something just as ridiculous in the same circumstances. I’d HEARD it. But I didn’t BELIEVE it.

I’ve never liked being in the spotlight. For a long time, I colored my hair brown because red hair just brought too much attention. But when I lost my job last year, I couldn’t afford to keep it brown and so it’s back to red. I hate it, though, just as much as I ever did.

My sister – she LOVES being the center of everything and when there’s no drama, she sure will create some. Even being on the fringes of whatever she was up to was too much for me; I couldn’t deal with it. That, plus some other things, is why I moved all the way across the country. It was time for me to start over, to make myself into who I wanted to me – not a boring replica of my sister. Distance was what I needed; distance was what I got. No one understood, but a few people like my mom and my friend Darlene at least pretended to support what I was doing. My sister never talked about it; for a while I thought she was jealous that the spotlight wavered from her for just one quick second, but later I decided that she hadn’t even noticed my departure.

I never meant to cut myself off from the family, but it happened anyway. I don’t think any of them knew I lost my job, and I know they never found out about those couple of weeks when I was living in my car. No one knew about that – I could barely even admit it to myself!

That rough part didn’t last long, even though back then it seemed like it lasted forever. I found a new job, got a place to live, and was finally starting to relax. Sometimes I even felt happy. Or what I guessed happiness felt like.

About a week ago, my sister called. I didn’t answer; I didn’t figure I had anything to say to her, and didn’t want to get pulled back into her drama-filled life. She called the next day, too, a couple of times, but never left a message. I wondered about it, but not for long.

The next day after that, Darlene called; we hadn’t really talked since I’d moved, but I answered. That’s when I found out my mom had died.

And that’s when I walked outside, in the rain, and sat on the curb.

I didn’t know what else to do. And it didn’t matter who saw me, or what they thought.

Sky Harbor

The old lady’s enormous plastic eyeglasses,
high on her aquiline nose,
reflect blue-white light of Arrival monitors.
She clutches her substantial vinyl pocketbook tightly
under her left arm,
clinches a creased plane ticket with her right hand.
Her lips work with the effort of reading
the long list of flights. When she reaches the end,
she frowns, looks at the monitors again,
then edges to the ones marked Departures.

Behind her, in the B21 boarding lounge,
a brown and gray sparrow flies toward
a window, seeking a route to the outdoors.
The bird, up against the glass, sits a moment
on the aluminum window ledge, then flits away.

The old lady hitches up her purse,
its outside pockets bulging a crossword puzzle book
and last week’s checkout stand tabloids.
She looks at the monitors
at her ticket
at the monitors.
Noticing her lengthy stay
an airline employee comes to help,
scanning screens briskly
announcing Gate A2.

Meanwhile at B21
the bird wheels in again
to make another attempt at liberation.

The old lady’s face collapses
at the comprehension that she’s not even in the correct terminal.
Her rescuer unclips a two-way radio
and DO YOU COPY? crackles across the lounge.
He then helps her sit down,
facing the concourse, to wait for the transportation cart.
The old lady, perched on the plastic upholstery, twirls her wedding band,
already worn as thin as gold leaf.
The furry ruff of her threadbare gray coat rides up
and uneven ends of her sparse steely hair poke into it.

The bird looks toward the tantalizing outdoors
where catering trucks and luggage trolleys swarm purposefully,
hops a few feet down the ledge, stops, looks again,
then loops away toward the sports bar,
which is blaring Super Bowl pre-game shows.

The old lady looks jerkily up and down the concourse until
the cart arrives. The driver double checks
ticket, departure gate, then settles her
into the backward-facing passenger seat.
Still hugging her pocketbook
a hint of calm at last settles on her face
as the cart driver executes a swift
turn and heads toward the correct terminal.

The bird returns again,
flying at top speed straight into the glass.

The Final Elm

040912
Maybe it was the house north of Steele Hill
or the one southwest of East Afton
but it was the one on a road so insignificant that even
the big atlas didn’t have a number for it

Maybe it was built in the 1930s, as the Depression wound down
or maybe it was built to house a returning soldier,
a once-young man ready for the simple life
of a high plains farmer

Maybe there were elm trees all around, once,
or maybe the trees were only lined up on the west side,
shielding the place from the unending wind

Maybe it was abandoned when the wife died
and the husband did, too, the next winter
or maybe the farmer went broke or sold out to a larger place

but the paint fell away
and the window glass did, too,
and the porch fell down
and the roof caved in

And then the final elm
delivered the coupe de grace
crashing through what was left of the structure
giving it a boost toward oblivion

2009

The color of being old enough

Sixty-four Crayolas –
the box that tinted my childhood.
Midnight Blue was the best, the hue of juvenile dreams:
the color of Sunday stained glass,
of strapless taffeta ball gowns
with tulle underskirts, of glittering
gold-sheathed jewels, of being old
enough to stay up until midnight.

Rose window sentries guard the sanctuary.
Dust floats on cerulean shafts of light,
settling on pews, prayerbooks, penitents –
a bride’s benediction.

In a tumbleweed town, my blue-green dress
balances, for a moment, the raw
sienna sadness
oozing through adobe cracks of life.

A narrow band set with sapphires
rests uncomfortably on my finger,
the stones’ blue coolness unable to
calm hot magenta madness.

The pacific blue midnight sky watches
over my sleepless nights –
a bittersweet reminder of false Crayola promises.

Dancing at the Salvation Army

Cast off televisions,
two dented washing machines, a partly-unraveled
wicker chair, a sun-weathered
beach umbrella, and a rack of donated clothes
crowd the thrift store’s driveway.

An eggplant-colored gown
dusted with rhinestones
hangs at the end of the rack. The wind
catches the thin fabric, throwing shards of light
into the air. Invisible hands
lift the hem in a curtsey
as the dress begins its solitary dance,
backed up by the stag line
of brown and tan shirts
squashed together on wire hangers.

2009

Wonderbra Soldiers

Almost simultaneously
a score of SUVs arrive,
adorned with bumper stickers for recently-victorious Republican candidates.
Society girl drivers check their look in lit visor mirrors –
when mascaraed lashes, Lancômed lips, carefully careless hair
are perfect, they emerge
in the uniform of the season:
slouchy shoulder bags
white shirts tight across Wonderbra breasts
capri pants showing fake-tan legs
casually expensive shoes.
As though choreographed
they open passenger doors
and help small daughters climb down.
Juggling children, beach towels, birthday gifts
the entourage parades to the party room.
Inside
they discard gifts, towels, daughters
and stand in a clump, blocking the door.
Little girls,
all blonde and dressed to echo their mothers.
strip down to their pink swimsuits
and march away, like a team of tiny synchronized swimmers.
Society girl perfume draped on the air
overpowers even the pool chemicals.
I start to leave, picking my way
past pink girls, gossipy moms.
Lacking their protective coloring
I am the one who becomes invisible.
Neither groups moves aside:
they do not budge for one who is not
a soldier in their identical army.

(Previously published in Crazy Woman Creek: Women Rewrite the American West, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004)