dusty boxes of faded physics texts,
outdated Methodist doctrine,
“How to Survive Breast Cancer” booklet with dog-eared pages
Scarves and gloves:
chiffon squares with rolled hems,
Sunday gloves, yellowed and safety-pinned into pairs
suits, and neckties of varying width,
closets stuffed with housedresses
their sizes creeping upward,
a lone prom dress,
its mating call color and shiny fabric
out of place amongst polyester pantsuits.
shoebox of family snapshots
undated, unnamed, unclaimed;
high school graduation portrait
alone in a nail stubbled hallway.
cane, walker, wheelchair
testaments to decline.
Employee of the Year award from a now-gone department store;
gold rimmed 50th anniversary plate;
perfect attendance certificate from the Lion’s Club.
once life’s treasures, their masking-tape price tags
now reduced to MAKE AN OFFER
on the last day of the sale.
A packet of my past is buried in the bottom desk drawer.
I don’t know what these dozen letters say,
even though I wrote them.
The recipient stood in my kitchen yesterday,
handed them to me – a birthday present, he said,
that money couldn’t buy.
The letters, neatly rubber banded together, were in chronological order.
He read them before the return
giving him the advantage
of refreshed memories. I am, however,
more comfortable in my ignorance.
There are things I remember:
sweaty backseat makeout sessions,
his sister dying in a car wreck,
the ways he planned to change the world.
And once, riding shotgun with our friend Doris,
I turned around in the seat, on my knees.
As he caught my hands in his, our eyes met and locked together.
I was the first one to look away.
The next-to-last envelope is dated July 25, 1977. The last one,
twelve months later, is an invitation to my wedding.
He gave us a place setting of our dishes,
a gracious gesture from a jilted lover.
Those same plates watched him hand me the letters.
Tonight, when I replaced the rubber band with a narrow red ribbon,
I realized that he’s not yet broken his gaze.
Two glasses of chianti last night
lead to a headache today.
At the trendy hotel
a half dozen self-consciously hip patrons
eat granola and yogurt by the pool.
Five blocks down Congress
a crotch-to-knee wet spot
on a man’s ill-fitting jeans
trails a faint ammonia aroma.
An indignant street corner prophet
sheds one of his grimy coats
and begins his sermon
to the automobile congregation.
You buy four scones, seven daisies
then drive home.
I choke down three aspirin,
navigate airport security
and fly away.
I liked going to the country, to the farm where my cousins lived, because it seemed so exotic. First of all, while I lived in Lubbock, they lived near Earth, a small farming town in the Texas Panhandle. That just sounded much better. At the farm, there were cows! They grew cotton! And even watermelon, too, one year! That summer my Uncle Donald gathered us kids on the front porch with a watermelon warm from the field. Using a machete, he hacked it into pieces and we ate it, juice dripping from our chins and elbows. At home, we’d have had to use a spoon, and couldn’t have spit the seeds at each other.
My two older cousins, Bill and Donna Beth, hovered on the edge of our trips to the farm. They were enough older than the rest of us to be disdainful of what we did.
But the other cousins, Ruth and Margaret, were almost the same ages as my sister, Laura, and me. In a fit of family unity, we even shared names. Ruth and I had the same first name, Evelyn, after our grandmother who’d died a few years before we were born. Margaret and Laura had the same middle name – Ann – but I don’t think it was as significant to the family as “Evelyn.”
Our visits to Earth, which was an always-funny family joke, seemed to occur with no sort of regularity, except for a mid-May visit to celebrate the week-apart birthdays of Laura and Grandpa. Almost the best part of the trip was that we got to skip church! Yes! A virtually unheard of thing. We’d go to Sunday School, then slip away, to Earth. By the time we got to the farm, they would be just arriving from the Earth Church of Christ. Immediately we’d break into groups. The two women would head to the kitchen to get dinner ready; in rural fashion, “dinner” was the meal served at noon. Meanwhile the men would stand around outside, if the weather was good, talking about crops, or politics, or whatever men talk about. The four cousins headed off to play until it was time to eat.
Dinner would be huge, with lots of choices: roast beef, fried chicken, biscuits, corn, limp green beans, green salad, congealed salad, cake-mix cake. No matter the occasion, Grandpa held the head-of-the-family seat at the end of the table. He would say grace, artfully blending Methodist and Church of Christ theology into a prayer that was acceptable to all of us – or at least to the ones paying attention. Bill and Donna Beth would get to sit with Grandpa and the rest of the adults at the big table and the four girls got the card table. We didn’t mind: family tradition was that we got to get our food first and we also had the pleasure of uninterrupted giggling.
The phone at the farm was on a party line, so unless it rang in a certain pattern of longs-and-shorts, no one even made a move to answer it. But I am sure that Aunt Elizabeth noted whose ring it was, so she’d know who was getting calls during Sunday dinner.
At the farm we four girls would pair off most of the time. Ruth and I liked to go for walks along the dirt roads that marked section lines around the farm. We’d walk on the hard-as-pavement dirt until a vehicle approached; then we’d scramble into the bar ditch, which seemed deep and dangerous and steep to me. After all, I was from town and our streets were rimmed by curbs and gutters. (When we’d leave the farm, I was always nervous my dad would back too far into the road – I could always picture our Ford Fairlane teetering precariously on the edge of the bar ditch before pitching us backwards into it.)
Once on one of our walks, we went into an abandoned farmhouse. It seemed like a grown-up thing to do, somehow, stepping through the door that groaned as we pushed against it. We didn’t stay long – it was dark in there! – but before we left we grabbed an old Mason jar off the floor. We were, we said, going to show it to our mothers. That way, we weren’t thieves, just juvenile anthropologists returning from Borneo with a shrunken head. Before we actually made it home with this treasure, this amazing find, we thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if we slammed it onto the hard-as-granite dirt road. I felt a pang of loss as it shattered, but that must have been offset by Ruth’s sense of relief over destroying the evidence and avoiding punishment for being in that old house in the first place.
Once when Ruth and I were walking our usual square walk, she HAD to go to the bathroom. So she squatted down in the bar ditch and took a dump. Right there. Outside. In a ditch. I was astonished. When she was done she covered the turds with some dirt clods and we continued on our way. On our next visit to the farm she confided that she’d told Bill what she’d done. He said that’s just great because it’ll decay and float in the air and every time you walk by THAT PLACE you’ll breathe tiny pieces of your own crap. We stayed in the house during that visit.
Ruth and Margaret (we said their names kind of like one really long word) always had better toys than we did – more Barbie dresses, a Chatty Cathy doll, board games that were more fun than ours. But the best thing they had was the Creepy Crawler set. It had little bug-shaped molds you could squirt variously-colored goo into, put in a metal tray, and bake for a few minutes. Then, you could carefully pop out a still-warm orange worm, or a pink-and-yellow spider, or any number of garish combinations. We’d try to scare Donna Beth and Bill with our creations but of course they never fell for it. Once, though, when Great Aunt Mary Jane and Great Uncle Roy were visiting from California, we snuck a freshly-baked spider onto Aunt Mary Jane’s thigh. I can’t imagine that she felt it through exoskeleton of her good girdle, but when she saw it she squealed in a most convincing fashion. We thought we’d really fooled her, but now I know it was the other way around.
Back then cotton was picked by hand, partly by migrant workers and partly by the farmer’s family and fieldhands. To Laura and me, pulling fluffy cotton bolls off dry stalks looked like a lot of fun, and not too hard, either. One year during harvest Uncle Donald hired us four girls to help. I know now that Ruth and Margaret weren’t as seduced by the 25¢ pay as Laura and I were, but we each got a long canvas bag, slung it over our shoulders, and set to work pulling cotton and poking it into the sack. We kept at it for a long time, too. The sacks were starting to pull down on our shoulders, we were tired, but we knew we’d helped a lot with the harvest. Only we’d covered about ten feet of the half-mile long row and the bulges of cotton in our sacks weren’t even noticeable!
Cokes. That was biggest treat at the farm. My parents didn’t allow soft drinks at our house. At the farm, though, there were always a couple of wooden cases filled with glass bottles of Cokes on the service porch. The bottles were always gritty from dirt that blew under the door or around the windows. Beside the cases of full bottles, there were usually one or two cases of empties, waiting for the next trip to town when the deposit on them could be applied to a new case of Cokes. Once, Donna Beth had proclaimed – in the throes of adolescent huffiness – that IF YOU TOOK A COKE FROM THE REFRIGERATOR REPLACE IT WITH ONE FROM THE PORCH. She’d even posted a sign on the refrigerator door. We deliberately ignored the proclamation, just because we were pesky. And we even drank extra Cokes that day, just to show her.
Uncle Donald was quite outspoken on the subject of my family’s camping trips. His family had a pop-up camper – which we oxymoronically called a “tent trailer” – and he just couldn’t believe the foolishness of my family camping in tents! Bears? Weren’t we afraid of bears? Or mountain lions? Or snakes? That was all my mother could take; in the only known example of her back-talking anyone, she whirled on Uncle Donald and snapped, “Snakes? SNAKES? Since when can snakes open tent zippers?” Wow – we were impressed; we had no idea she had that kind of fire in her.
My last visit to the farm was in February of my junior year of high school, on the day of Grandpa’s funeral. Grandpa had been in the hospital in Littlefield for a few weeks before he died; he was 88. When Aunt Elizabeth went to his house after he died, she found his suit laid out with a note pinned to it, saying that was the suit he wanted to be buried in. He’d written the note while he waited for the ambulance, which he’d called himself, to come get him.
We gathered at the farm before the funeral. Donna Beth and Bill were both married by this time, so there was significant shift in the family dynamic. While we waited to go to the Methodist church for the service, Bill entertained us by taking extreme close-ups of us with his new camera – a front tooth, an eyebrow. It was the most attention he ever paid us and maybe it was how he dealt with grief.
At the little Methodist church, the pews were filled with Eastern Star ladies and Rainbow Girls, and people I didn’t know. Our minister from Lubbock gave the sermon, though I can’t recall why. Nor can I recall what he said. Grandpa was the first grandparent I’d lost and I was trying to figure out my role in the universe, or something, and didn’t listen to whatever words of comfort were offered. After the service, I rode with Ruth and Uncle Donald and Aunt Elizabeth for the 30-mile trip to the cemetery in Littlefield.
Just north of Littlefield, we passed the house where Grandpa had lived for many years, the cedar windbreak he planted decades earlier grown enough to nearly obscure the house. Seeing the house was sadder than the funeral had been.
The only other things I can remember are that it was bitterly cold, that I wore an extremely short dress, and that Ruth cried (in my opinion) more for effect than in mourning.
The graveside service was on a windy, cold hill in the cemetery in Littlefield, where Grandpa was laid next to my grandmother Evelyn. I’d never been to the cemetery before, and I learned then that my grandmother had died on Christmas Eve, another sad fact to stack with the rest that I’d begun to accumulate. After the graveside service, we got in our car and returned to Lubbock. It took me three days to get warm again.
The family gatherings tapered off after Grandpa died. At some point, Donald and Elizabeth built a new house in town; I guess one of their farmhands lives in the old one. The last time that I saw Ruth was at my wedding, in 1978, when she elbowed her way through the other unmarried female guests and caught the bouquet. Supporting the bouquet-catching tradition, she was the next one to get married, to a crop-duster from Muleshoe.
My mother tells me that Aunt Elizabeth brags “too much” about her grandchildren, which I take to mean that she is overwhelmed by Aunt Elizabeth’s higher grandchildren census.
She also says that Uncle Donald “drinks.” But I think she’s still mad about the snake comment.
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.”
The hotel’s pink stucco façade –
faded from age and sun and inattention –
guards the narrow street.
Four Americans crawl
from a blue Ford
pushing their way through air
glutinous from just-ended rain.
Crossing the desolate lobby
to a jacaranda-shaded veranda
they sit on dented red chairs
drink tepid Coca Cola through paper straws
eat pineapple pan dulce.
a languid river creeps past
its thick water the same color as the pastry.
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.
It’s like sitting behind a car
and noticing that your turn signals
until a tiny difference in their timing
starts to make them,
slightly at first, then more noticeably,
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.