I approach it slowly, overcome by fear and desire, warned to step carefully over the uneven earth that on this hillside haven set behind the rusting wrought iron fence , its master lock dangling askew, peers out through the trees to the Kanawha river flowing unknowingly through the valley.
The stone is set in line with the others, neatly incised, a name, English and Hebrew, two petunias, cornered, in perpetual bloom, a beloved sister and aunt, and unstated, unknown perhaps, a mother whose son, gently touching the stone, washes her with my tears, and we speak of love in silence, and I, a child of sixty-seven, embrace my mother for the first time, and I am finally and for the first time, complete
“Probable metastatic lesions secondary to breast cancer.” Complex words set at the bottom of a page, impenetrable jargon.
Two spots where pelvis and spine are joined, where motion fulcrums down legs, a torso and its twin concavities lever up, fold down, torque in slow rotation living.
The words stare out from the page; defiant, aberrant cells nestling bone foretell a pillow blanketed in hair, rosy skin sheltering burning flesh beneath. I offer platitudes, empty aphorisms neither she nor I believe. For me self-serving hope, weak bracing for a hastily built bridge spanning a gulf of absence and neglect: a young girl abandoned, a woman rediscovered.
For her, baby sister, a smile born of the pain of the surgeons’ hollow handiwork across skull and chest, an unguent smile to soothe my festering guilt.
We watch words shatter against the impenetrable reality.
I have never visited the grave of my mother, either of them, which seems most odd primarily to me. The mother I never knew until it was too late to know her is buried in Charleston, West Virginia a place i intend to visit, grave site included in the coming months, to see where my mitochondrial DNA was planted and grew into the odd shape that greets me in the morning mirror. The mother i knew so well, who could always find ways to frustrate me when I was certain she exhausted every possibility is buried next to my sister, placed there by my brother who couldn’t quite get the funeral together, at least not the one she would have appreciated, with the near famous all pump, never the right circumstances so into the ground she went. I will visit there too, someday perhaps, but helical gravity will always pull me to the Mountain State.
My sister only wanted a horse an my parents thought they could solve that dilemma with a pony at her fifth birthday party where she would get all the extra rides, her friends and playmates be damned. Like most great parental plans, this one was doomed to failure, and failure marched front and center as they learned from the pony was loaded back into the trailer and my sister tried to tie herself to the trailer with ribbon from her gift wrap. She was never good with knots, even when she died at 52, the cancer having ravaged her one organ at a time, but even in her waning days, she whine to our mother that all she ever wanted was a horse, then winked at me, staring around her hospital room, since we both knew there was a pony in there somewhere.
He is four, he announces to all gathered at the extended family table that he will be five soon, in January. It is important that we know this just as it is important that he sit next to his cousin, for boys like he should always sit next to cute girls and sisters don’t count, everyone knows that. Four people in his class have birthdays in January And he tells us their names, we hoping there will be no quiz. As I call him to get his food from the buffet he turns to his father, and says, “Josh, save my seat,” and smiles broadly. He repeats this ensuring we have all heard. When I ask him why he says Josh, not daddy, he laughs and says, “Because it’s his name, silly, like your name is Papa Lou, and anyway he always calls me Charlie, not son.”
The lake arrives each morning, just before she opens her eyes. She’s tried to catch it, getting up earlier or later but it was just lapping the shore outside her window each time she first gazed at it. Once she tried to stay up all night, and it clung to the shore despite its desire to slip away, but she was certain it did when her eyes fell closed a little after 3 a.m. She got up at the usual time, and it slid in just ahead of her. All that day it seemed quieter, almost restive, as if, like her, lacking the energy that curtailed sleep might have provided.
She remembered her grandmother saying that only once in her years along the lake did she ever catch it just coming in around the point. That was a magical day, never repeated, but it bound grandmother to the lake in a way few could understand. She kept asking her grandma to tell the story again, but like that day, she’d just tell it once and only smile when asked to repeat it. She never asked anyone else — she learned as a child of the scorn she would face if she did. She given up Santa and the tooth fairy, but this was real, she could touch it or even take it home in cups or buckets, though she smiled, it always slipped away sooner or later.
She knew from the doctor’s face the chemo hadn’t worked. She could feel it failing even as they pumped into her. It was okay, she wanted to tell him, but it wasn’t and they both knew it. They tried, won some battles, lost others, but in the end they both knew who would win that war.
This morning the lake never arrived, never touch the shore and the house was shrouded in silence.Continue Reading
I want to paint O. Henry’s leaf on the wall outside my sister’s window. She won’t be able to see it for the giant maple that obscures her view. Even when it drops its leaves a few always cling in the neverland between green and mulch. And anyway, she says, her neck is always stiff, so she stays away from drafts and open windows. She says many things. “It’s from my disease.”
Her living room is piles of tchotchkes, stacked coupons, threatening to topple. Something for anyone. She sits on the floor amid strewn clothing, burying her. “I dread that damned MRI,” she mewls. “Not the noise so much. It’s like I’m stuck in a tomb, the earth closing around me.” She fears how it looks into her thoughts, her mind. Native Americans believe a photograph can steal the soul. She stores hers in the large manila sleeved envelopes in her closet, holding a transparent image up to the light to see her humanity. She is drawn into the white chamber. She shakes in fear. She is certain a “God bless you” won’t contain her fleeing soul as our grandmother promised.
My sister’s sixth birthday party. I was twelve, wore chaps my mother made from an old coat, a red cowboy hat. We had a pony in the backyard for rides. The pony only wanted to shit on the covered patio. I walked around, six shooters banging against my thighs, serving sasparillas. They tasted like cherry coke. Evie was there, my old playmate. Evie was thirteen. She wore a short denim skirt and fishnets. She was pubescent. I was in lust. My sister climbed on the pony. The pony put his head down, ate grass. She dug her heels in, he dug in his tiny hoofs. The party lasted two and a half hours, the pony was carted away after forty-five minutes. I stared at Evie for an eternity.
Cells mutate, devour my sister’s life, our memories. Cells slowly eat away the leaf painted on the wall outside her window. The pony shits on the patio.