The most important lessons he taught were in those moments when he was absolutely silent, the smile across his face shouting across the background din of everyday life, his eyes wide with a sort of childish awe that I had long since given up as adolescent.
The child sees everything for the first time regardless how many times she has gazed at what we adults are certain is the same scene, a pure iteration, hears each call of the cardinal as a never-before-heard song, not the now boring chorus of a too long repeated lyric, its melody now painful.
His lessons too easily slipped away, as he did a few years later, mourning a poor substitute for memories that eased into the damp ground with him, but the smile of my granddaughter at seemingly everything and nothing, her laughter at the squirrel inverted from the crook arm of the bird feeder defying the shield below to stop his constant thefts, the giggles at the clouds filling the sky with characters I could not hope to see, brought him back, and with him the joys of my childhood long suppressed.
Of course, she’s sitting there, calmly, staring off onto space. She has to know something is amiss, no one has come to visit her in days, but she knows that whenever, if ever, whatever it is that is happening is finally over, that they will once again return, stare at her, wonder aloud and silently why she is smiling, and she will as always say nothing, for she was once told that it is better always to leave them wanting more.
Tomorrow Paris will count its newest dead, and the hospitals will pray the tide of bodies has been stemmed, or diminished and none of those in the battle will pause and consider DaVinci’s lady imprisoned forever in her sterile room, an eternal prisoner.
First published in Dreich, Issue 20, Autumn 2020 (Scotland)
“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.
You never know how the news will arrive you are just certain of its arrival. You know it on some level, even as the event is happening, but that doesn’t blunt the piercing tip of the blade that finds the soft spot in you and cuts deeply. You hoped for a miracle for her, for her son, her husband, for those who knew her gentle smile, warm compassion, cutting wit, when the situation demanded. She was a friend who would appear when needed most and slip away when the need began to dissipate. The news came today, the hole is fresh and you can only attempt to fill it with memories, knowing even as it seems again full as do so many others as you age, when you step into it you will plunge back into the well of loss and again struggled to find the sun hiding in a too often darkening sky.
My grandson has a smile that is as old as time itself, as young as the mind of a four-year-old and in this moment, beaming, I am left to guess which it is, for he won’t say, and so I smile with him and time has no meaning, no beginning, no end.
He is only four years old, has decided he will be “an X-ray doctor” in a few years because he wants to see broken fingers and legs, but if he sees bad things he can take them out and throw them in the trash. He is more perceptive that even he can imagine for without any medical training it is clear he can see right through any adult he comes across, and he does it was a gentle smile that says: your secrets are safe with me, probably, maybe.
A crane stands placidly staring through the window as we earnestly attempt to imitate him, hoping he will honor the effort if not the result. The master is graceful and we are far less so, and out of the corner of my eye I see on the crane what could be a smile, or as easily derision, and take comfort in the thought that the root of the word is shared with laughter, and we can accept that not as a mark of failure but effort. The crane returns to the pond the master to his neigong and we imagine we are all noble birds awaiting flight.