Tuesday, November 28, 2017

South of Chattanooga

     Her uncle was a drunk, there's no nicer way to say it. Used to disappear all the time. Used to say he had to go "see a man" and disappear all the time. Wind up in some new ugly situation, jail or hospital sometimes, and her and her mother, your grandmother, his sister... they'd have to go get him. This was a regular thing whenever he was back in Louisville. She saw some interesting things for a girl that age, I can tell you. Anyway, like I said her uncle was a drunk but he had a car and he could drive and so whenever her father got really crazy and they needed to get away from him, get out of town and back down the road to St. Augustine, they called on him, were dependent on him. He had this Cadillac he was so proud of. How he got it is another story for another day.
     This was before the interstates, you have to remember. This is the early 1950s, back in the time of Route 66, and the drive down from Louisville was no joke. No straight shot down I-75 back then. No gas-station Starbucks/Hardees rest-stops along the way. No GPS. No satellite radio. This was two-lane piney-woods highways, a couple of closed up little towns and long stretches of nothing in-between. Farms. Woods. Creatures in those woods.
     Your grandfather, I don't have to tell you what he was like. He was crazy, and the older she got the crazier he got. I'm sure you can put it together yourself. I used to shy away from terms like "evil" - he was crazy and he was out of his mind on speed most of the time, but other people are crazy and other people are stoned and they don't do what he tried to do. He's be OK for a while, then he wouldn't be OK again and then she and your grandmother would head back down to St. Augustine, her uncle at the wheel of his dumb red Cadillac. I suppose she was probably around eight, maybe ten? This one time we're talking about? Eight or ten. Let that sink in for a minute.
     So your Mom and her mom and her uncle cleared Kentucky and were heading down to the Sunshine State. Highway X to Highway Y. Highway Y to Highway Z. Her uncle sweating behind the wheel of his car, her mother talking and talking and talking. Middle of the school year but that didn't matter. Knowing her she probably brought her books along. Her mom and her uncle in the front seat, her working out math problems in the back. This ride already familiar to her. Tedium and radio and cigarette smoke and sometime towards late afternoon she needs to pee. She lets them know, but there's no place to go, so just hold it for now. So she holds it and she waits and the wheels keep turning but she really needs to go and she tells them again. An again, no place to go just hold on. More miles pass and eventually she shad no choice. She tells them again and I imagine there was something in her voice that told her uncle that if he really loved that dumb red Cadillac he'd better pull over quick so he pulls over quick and out she pops. Practically flies out the back seat. Her mom gets out of the passenger side. Middle of nowhere, somewhere south of Chattanooga.
     It's getting dark, but not dark enough, and her mom, your grandmother, looks for somewhere to take her that isn't the side of the highway in plain view of her uncle and the rest of the world. She deserves that much. So she looks around as her uncle gets back behind the wheel of his Cadillac, lights himself another Chesterfield, and waits. He's pissed off, just sick of this shit. Sick of these debts he owed his sister and her angry little bitch of a kid, sick of these drives, sick of this nowhere Georgia heat. Just sick of this shit.
     Meanwhile her mom, your grandmother, spots a clump of trees about twenty yards up off the shoulder of the road, under the most primitive of fences, and the two of them pretty much run for it. She just about makes it. Her mom is close behind. When she's done and she's hitching up her underwear your grandmother has a go. Then they're finished, puddles running down into the dusty red Georgia dirt. Then they're finished, this girl and her mother, this mother and her girl. They stand there looking at each other and dizzy with relief, surrounded by trees somewhere deep in Gordon County.
     They hear the Cadillac's engine turn over while they're still standing there, and whatever smile your grandmother might have been smiling just drops. As they clear the trees, hurrying back towards the highway on the other side of the fence, they catch the sight of her uncle shifting the Cadillac into first. They're running now, but they can't catch up. Her mother cries wait and her uncle calls back out through the passenger-side window that he'll be back, that he can't wait any longer, that he's got to go see a man. And the Cadillac pulls off the shoulder and on down the road, leaving your mother and your grandmother behind. They watch it go until the road curves, then they watch it disappear.
     They walked about three hours south down that same highway until they found the next open town, and then they searched every bar in town until they finally found him. And that's a true story. That's what happened when your mom was a kid.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Vast Distances

Wake up. Make coffee. Stare out the window.

Quarter to five. No need for the alarm. Wake up. Make Coffee. Stare out the widow. Again.

Kids asleep. Wife's asleep.

Radio on. Local news and weather from thousands of miles away. Farm reports. Livestock auctions. Radio used to sound like vast empty distances. Now it sounds like wires. Up close. Too up close. Radio off.

Wake up. Make coffee. Stare out the window. Not waiting. Not thinking. Staring. Again. Still.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Three Witches

The Three Witches, she used to call them. When they weren't much more than kids themselves. Girls. Photo taken early on an Easter Sunday Morning. Easter Bonnets and sun bright against their cheeks, the three of them sitting on the front porch steps of the house in Irvine. Husbands off to war.

Before this one's husband died in Anzio. Before this one's marriage fell apart. Before this one started drinking a little earlier every day. Before her own daughter died in the fire. Before this one got a job in the church and this one started teaching school. Before this one moved to Tennessee. Before this one started to feel a little funny. Before this one got a cough that wouldn't go away.

The Three Witches, back when they weren't much more than kids.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hospice (In Progress)

Green haired waitress with GRL POWR tattoo on her lower inside arm brings plates of eggs and grits and sausages and toast and biscuits and bacon and pancakes to the table across from me. Six or seven suntanned ropy Georgia farmers and their soft faced sons in baseball caps. Huge black women in hospital scrubs standing closer to the register waiting for their breakfasts to-go. Solitary soldier in desert camo sitting in a both by the window, drinking his orange juice and punching something into his phone. Savannah Morning News, shooting on MLK, robbery in a Walgreens on Derenne, High School football and Anne Landers.

It took forever and then it hit all at once. Backache in August, day of the eclipse. Radiation in September. Hospice in October. Phone call in October. November now. Sitting on the edge of my bed in Dublin, staring down at my bare feet, phone against my ear. Hit with a speed that caught us all out.

My sister's boyfriend Ray picks me up at the airport. I'd never met him before but I recognize him immediately. Thelonious Monk beard, leather cap, sleepy eyes and skin so dark it's hard to see what he looks like. On the drive back to the house on Althea we talk about everything, his recon tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. His weekend passes in Budapest. Why he left the army and why he would have stayed. It wasn't the event but the six months on either side of the event that finally wore him down. For every year you spend in the desert, you gotta spend 6 months before getting ready and 6 months after unpacking. We talk about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and Co-Op city where he was born. We talk about Oglethorpe and the founding of Savannah. We talk about everything but the reason we're there, and I'm grateful to him for that. She's more or less gone, he says. She's pretty much gone.

Skin jaundiced and eyes marble blue and rolled back or suddenly slammed right into focus. Front cap missing and exposing the small gray baby tooth that had never grown out. Tooth that she always hid, always hated. Feet swollen, right hand swollen. Hair grown back, hair she was always so proud of. Hair grown back after the chemo stopped. Smell of dead flowers that wasn't dead flowers. Eyes slammed right back into focus and the shock of recognition throws me back against myself, then it's gone again. Fentanyl patches and liquid Xanax and mix the Hydrocodone with apple sauce and the oxygen tank sounding like a train. You have to mix it like this. It's a tiny pill, but you need to split it into quarters. Put the quarters under her tongue. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Wooden heart brought up from Mexico and on the wall above the rented hospital bed. Hospice nurse smoking in the back yard, wooden cross and face to the sun. Spanish moss on clothes line behind her. Donuts that everybody eats and apples and oranges that nobody even looks at. Halloween and pumpkins and sister dressed as Edie Beale and somewhere off in the distance the Astros beat the Dodgers. Somewhere off in the distance some guy plows a truck into some tourists in New York. Somewhere off in the distance a guy shoots up a church in Texas.

My sister exhausted. Sister dealing with this since the get-go. Sister up until morning, then locked in her room until late afternoon. Sister not sleeping at all or otherwise sleeping all the time.

I'm a mess, she tells us. No, you're not, my Dad says. They gave you a bath this morning. Remember? They washed your hair. My mom says nothing. Eyes considering. Yeah, I am, she says.

Main thing is don't argue with her. It gets bad around seven, gets better by nine. Sunsetting, they have a term for it. Animal moaning. Begging to die. Just whatever she says don't argue. Group hug. At night they're still talking. Sister can hear them talking through the wall. At night it sounds normal. She gets confused, gets scared. The red liquid is the liquid Xanax. Up to five, up to halfway up the syringe. Just don't argue with her. Just tell her you can't, don't get into it.

Nowhere to took that doesn't shout back. Photos on every wall. Chicago, 1974. Seattle, 1979. Lexington, 1968. Rome, Paris, South Carolina. Washington Square. She's everywhere in the house. Loom set up and ready to go. Winter hat still half-knitted on the mission desk and mystery three-quarters read. Dentist's appointment written down in red pen on the kitchen calendar. Uneaten okra in the fridge. None of the books she had read in the preparation of death seemed to be much use now that it was here. "The Plague" and "The Year of Magical Thinking" and "The End of the Affair" and "Mrs. Dalloway." Books by Thomas Merton and Alan Watts. "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones." Those books suddenly seemed like a living person's idea of what a dying person needed to hear, a vanity for the living. Now we were here, she was here, and there was no vanity. Now we were here and it was a whole other thing. We tried to sing to her, we played music we thought she might want to hear. Old Paint. The Girl from Ipanema. We tried to tell her to let go, some variation of go-to-the-light, but it wasn't working. It wasn't like the movies. This wasn't like the movies at all. We were lost without a map. This thing was beyond what we knew, beyond what any of us knew. Beyond what she knew, as well.

Waking up to the sound of freight trains early every morning. Waking up from a dreamless sleep. Just a black sleep.

Mastectomy scars from ten years before. Surgery scars from when her knee blew out in San Anselmo. Five rapid breaths and then no breath at all. Wait, look, wait. Inhale. Exhale. I waited for her not to breathe, found myself hoping she wouldn't. Five more rapid breaths and then no breath at all. Sat and watched as her right hand swelled to twice its size. Watched as purple bruises the size and shape of my fingertips bloomed across her forearm. I guess by the time this is over your parents won't have any mystery left at all, my father says. He's embarrassed, apologizing. If anything the mystery keeps getting bigger.

I pick my brother up at the airport, standing in the same spot where Ray had stood waiting for me. My brother who had flown in from the Caucuses to JFK, then walked across Queens to La Guardia, then sat in a diner until his twelve o'clock flight. He comes walking up the arrivals ramp waving and smiling like any other family vacation. I can barely speak. He comes rolling up with his suitcase rolling up behind him.

Acorns hitting the carport roof like grapeshot. Squirrels attacking the birdfeeder. Spanish moss hanging off the clothesline. Hospice nurse heads out the screen door, lights another cigarette. Inside, oxygen tank inhales, exhales. Inhales, exhales. Whiskey and smoking. Everybody smoking. Whiskey and Camels and pot. Beer and sandwiches. Macaroni Salad. Potato Salad. Donuts and chicken cacciatore. More whiskey. More beer. No music and then too much music. Bob Dylan, somewhere. Linda Ronstadt, somewhere. Mama Tried. Heart Like a Wheel. The Weight. Willing. Coffee. Beer. Somebody's got to walk the dogs.

We need toilet paper. We need paper towels. We need milk. We need half and half. Is anybody hungry? Nobody's hungry. We need bread. Everybody's thirsty. There's money in the change bowl. Coffee, we need coffee. Dead Palmetto Bug trapped in the dirty dishes, floating belly up under a milk glass.

The urine bag runs from amber to purple to brown to black. That's the kidneys going, according to the hospice nurse. Her heart's beating like a jackhammer. Liver pretty much gone. She's waiting for something, according to the hospice nurse. God's not through with her yet, according to the hospice nurse. She's strong. Weren't for this she'd live to be a hundred and five.

I went to the grocery, came back, and that's how long it took. Deciding between soups, deciding between beers, and that's how long it took. Clothes in the dryer still drying. Hospice nurse came out to meet the car. Coffee, toilet paper, beer. Went to the grocery, came back, and that's how long it took. Brother and sister in the bedroom, brother holding sister and both of them staring, mom in the bed. Mom's face not fighting. Mom's face Mom's face again. Mom dead. Not resting, not passed. Maybe at peace. Eyes closed, oxygen tank off. Oxygen tubes out.

Two eggs over easy, hash browns and bacon. Two eggs over easy, sausage and grits. Two eggs over easy, pancakes, maple syrup. Two eggs over easy, whole wheat toast. Coffee, orange juice. Coffee, just the check. Coffee, thank you. Coffee, please.

She was gone within the hour, and that's how quick it was. Black suits, pink jowls, silver hair. Handshakes all around. Condolences. Will there be a church service? No, no service. That's fine. Has everyone had a chance to say their goodbyes? Yes, thank you. That's fine. We'll just take it from here. Not much more than a hospital gurney, and they're figuring out the angles of the hallway. My mom's body hidden but shape visible beneath the dark velvet blanket. Impossible not to think of who had been under that blanket before, who would be under than blanket the next day. Black Cadillac hearse pulling away from the curb, drove away slow from the front door and then sped up gradually as it turned out of view. Dad and Sister following the gurney down the path towards the street. Standing there together after the hearse pulls away. I'm watching through the Venetian blinds and nobody gets close because they know better.

Nothing I could think made me feel more stupid, more childish, more caught off-guard. When the time came, when the time hit, I was stupid beyond. Beyond stupid. It's the permanence of the thing. We kept marveling to ourselves, marveling to each other. It's the permanence of it. Gone. Just gone. Not coming back. Stupid, because we knew that. But just stupid. Because that's just that's how it works. Phone calls from Dublin. Phone calls from New York. Phone calls to Kentucky, California, Florida, New Jersey. She's everywhere in the house. Now that she's gone she's everywhere. Joan Didion on TV punching at the air with her tiny knotted fist talking about death and gold but I have nothing to say. Driving, nothing to say. Walking, nothing to say. Groceries, nothing to say. Laundry, nothing to say.

I go through her desk and she's saved everything. Every postcard, every letter, every photo of her kids and of my kids. I find a Polaroid picture of my wife and myself taken some thirty years before, taken in Ireland maybe. Taken when we were just kids ourselves. I pocket the picture and eventually close the drawer.

Eating microwave dinners over the kitchen sink, but made it back to the table eventually. Made it back to the table after a couple of days. Without her there to mediate we all just become more of who we already are. Sister leaves, needs to get away, needs to wash her hair, needs to sleep in her own bed in her own house on her own street again. Brother claims Mom's chair. Dad on the porch and smoking. Drive along 16 to the airport, fires along the highway. Processing plant off in the distance, fires there too. JFK, and fire out past the runway. Fire out past the runway on the runway home.