“Mom, my anxiety. . .”
“Buck up, girl.”
She tried all the way to the grave.
The heart across the room
calls to me
longing to be opened,
revealing all the goodness that lies within.
I want nothing more than to
take all you offer,
drown in your sweetness.
There is no piece of you
I would not savor,
Even as my fingers explore your smooth, glistening surface,
my soul plummets
at those words and symbols:
2 pieces = 38%,
So what can I do
but shove you away?
And wish for a world where I never had to know
all the artery-clogging, saturated fat you hold.
It's been a while.
You're looking rather haggard,
an aching agony apparent
in your contorted visage,
the hitch in your gait
convincing even me
your health would never fail.
When did this start?
How long have you waited?
Why did you ignore
for so long?
Your results show
seething, burning, biting, hollowing
out your very core.
Let’s meet this head on
and not try to treat it
with cheap and ineffective
Even the available solutions
will take some time
and require patience.
Promise me one thing:
You won’t ever again go so long
Discovering the Why
I am compelled to begin by sharing one of my worst moments as a younger teacher. Years ago, I attended a lecture by the author of a book my students were reading. The author stated that people who do not continue reading throughout their lifetime do not truly grow as individuals. I exuberantly entered class the next day and announced these words to my students. While I expected a revelatory moment, they were appalled. They were defensive, they were critical, and I clearly resembled a fish out of water in attempting to explain the nuances behind the declaration I delivered.
After some time passed, I began to understand my students’ reactions. Many of them didn’t enjoy reading, so my statement was insulting to them. After completing their education, they probably didn’t have plans for continuing reading. What they currently read was mainly an avenue to pass classes and receive diplomas. And I clearly had not given them reason to think otherwise.
Fast forward about ten years to when I am older and (somewhat) wiser, but where I still revisit that earlier moment in my classroom and am confronted by the same question: why read? Here is what I would tell those students now.
Reading has taught me there is usually always a reason for why individuals behave the way they do, a realization that laid the groundwork for me to be able to develop a more empathetic response toward others. This doesn’t always mean I like the actions I see or that I ever fully accept them, but seeking to discover the why enriches my life and allows me to offer forgiveness and understanding when emotions run high.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein forged this new rivelet in my reading life although my younger self could not put this into words. Through first-person narration, we are given insight into the creature’s thoughts and motivations. How ironic that my reading epiphany concerning empathy centers on a novel where a character has been perpetually misunderstood and misrepresented in our culture. The creature, who clearly develops empathy while observing the cottagers, never receives the same consideration, never has opportunity to explain how he was abandoned. How different would things have been if someone had lent an ear to his newly acquired words?
The empathy developed through reading not only allows us to enhance our own social acumen, but can create peace for those who crave understanding. The creature laments: “I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me; and finding myself unsympathised with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.”
When my own children struggle with relationships, I encourage them to examine what might have shaped other people and caused them to behave this way, which almost always leads to some form of understanding; tempers are soothed, solutions are sought, and healing begins.
I hope my former students discovered these truths about reading somewhere along the way.
My cell phone rang, jarring me out of a groggy sleep. I looked at my five year old daughter still resting soundly beside me. Not surprising since we had been up until 3 a.m. The day before had been, and still remains, the most excruciating day of my life. Thankfully, our two children were too young to realize the impact of what we had been told.
I answered the phone, and my new boss asked when I would be able to come in to complete some paperwork. Just a few days ago, I had been excited about my new job as a 6th grade teacher. Now it was the furthest thing from my mind.
I told him my two-and-a-half-year-old son had been diagnosed with a brain tumor just the night before, and we were at the hospital. He suggested we talk later. I told him I thought that would be a good idea. And thus went the day, filled with short, plodding sentences as we waited for final confirmation of the diagnosis.
I remembered one of the ER doctors coming in the night before. She sat down on the bed, bending one leg in front of her, as if we were just settling in for a girls’ chat. When a doctor assumes this posture, it’s not a good thing. I was so naive at the time, I didn’t even know what a “lesion” was. I kept thinking “legion” as if there were many of whatever it was in my son’s brain.
“Does this mean there’s a tumor?” I asked.
“Yes, there is a tumor.” She spoke softly, trying to cushion the words, but they fell like the sharpest razors on my heart.
We met with a neurological resident a bit later, who told us the tumor would probably require chemotherapy and radiation.
Soon after, they were wheeling my son up to a room. We were a bit behind, but upon arrival, we saw him surrounded by nurses. It was probably close to 3 am by that time, but Andrew, my son, was sitting up smiling. Even then, he was a ham.
A male nurse with dark brown hair spoke first: “He just looked so cute, we all had to come over and say ‘hi’.” I can tell you there was beauty in this moment for me, but not joy. It is one of many images imprinted on my heart, though.
“The doctor said he’ll need chemo and radiation. Will that get rid of the tumor?” I wanted to know everything I could and grasped at each piece of information like a lifeline. In what seemed to be a never-ending flow of medical professionals, I was already excelling at pinpointing the ones with more wisdom, more authority. I was learning to ask the right questions. This man would have some answers.
“It depends on what type it is.” His gaze didn’t waver. So we weren’t pulling any punches here. In some strange way, I appreciated that, filing that fact away to reflect on later.
That night, my husband stayed in the room with my son, and I took our daughter to one of the sleep rooms. What a blessing that she was with us; I had to keep moving and take care of her needs. No time for break-downs. I still hadn’t cried.
Late the next afternoon, I was alone in the room with Andrew when another doctor came in. This was the one we had been waiting for; he was the final say. All day long, I had pictured a panel of doctors sitting together around a long, oval-shaped table, discussing my son’s fate. I didn’t know if that’s how it worked, but the image played itself over in my mind again and again.
And now the messenger was here, and I was alone. Whatever information he delivered, I would have to absorb, and I would have to keep standing.
I can only guess the doctor saw the expression on my face; I’m sure now it’s one he sees almost daily.
“I think your little boy is going to be just fine. Let’s just get that out of the way right now.” He spoke gently, but authoritatively, and a shaft of joy opened in my heart. With every word he spoke, it grew wider.
It turns out our son has a certain type of tumor that is non-cancerous. While it can’t be removed, it can be monitored for growth and there are measures to take if this happens. Andrew did require surgery and it was a bumpy summer, but he survived it. We all did.
But I had seen the dark underbelly of life. For a short time, I had left the plateau on which I normally lived, thrust into a murky, sunless world. So when I surfaced, the elation thrumming through my soul was the most profound I have ever experienced.
Smelling the Roses
It was 10:04 p.m. on December 28th, and I was watching rabbits copulate on my computer screen. When my husband, Robert, hadn’t made it home for dinner (again), I threw our dinner, plates and all, into the garbage. Everything except for the Pinot Noir that had been chilling in the refrigerator. I started out keeping it classy, swirling my wine in its bell shaped glass, but eventually it just became easier to take an occasional swig out of the bottle.
And these rabbits! Goodness gracious, they meant business. Even Newton, my no-nonsense feline, paused mid-wash to gaze at the spectacle on the screen.
I hadn’t sat down intending to search for rabbits. Quite to the contrary, I had suddenly decided to write our family newsletter for the new year. Robert had more education, but I had always had a way with words so producing a respectable, yet witty newsletter always fell to me. This year was going to be something special!
I was looking for an appropriate picture to include in the section where I informed our soon-to-be titillated audience I was quite sure my husband was having an affair. I thought it might be with his assistant Sharon, who to be truthful, looked a bit like a rabbit with her scrunchy nose and front teeth that were a hair (a hare!) too big. I decided to leave the specifics out, though, as I couldn’t confirm it was her. But I was thinking about Sharon, and Sharon with my husband, and Sharon looking like a rabbit, and the two of them possibly doing it like rabbits. . . Well, hence the gyrating images on my screen. I prayed Robert would throw his hip out.
Alas, a video would not work for a newsletter. I could link it. That, however, would possibly create a garbled look for the newsletter. No, better to stay away from links.
I found a simple picture of two rabbits engaged in the act instead. Newton, who had clearly lost interest, curled into a ball and flicked his tail over his head.
I affixed a caption right below the image: Working the night shift! My audacity struck me as funny, but then I slumped back in the chair. I’d have some major editing to do tomorrow, but at least the formatting was in place.
I changed gears for a moment, pulling up my email, feeling my stomach churn a bit as I read the latest platitude from my mom: “Stop and smell the roses!” Adding, before she signed off: “I think Erin would have liked that idea, don’t you, Gwen? After all, roses were her favorite.”
Did I mention that my sister, my big sister, had died recently? Two months ago. Not in a special way. Not in a way that gave us time to say a meaningful goodbye. Erin died in a car accident on her way to the store. For milk. I knew because I had been on the phone with her ten minutes before it happened.
I pushed myself up from the chair, stumbled a bit, but not enough to raise Newton’s interest. I’d do some laundry. Something productive. I gathered up a small load and trekked to the laundry room.
Roses. I didn’t want to smell any roses. Erin’s favorite flower had invaded the room where her funeral was held. No matter where I sat, some type of rose (who knew there were so many!) bent toward me. Due to the vast amount, I’d had to bring some back to my house, letting them sit for a day before I threw them in the trash (which I immediately hauled out to the curb), rinsed out the vases, and donated them to Goodwill.
Thinking of roses was making me smell them now, a sickly sweet smell that caused my eyes to fill and my stomach to clench. I closed my eyes and made myself focus on happy somethings: Newton when the neighbor’s kitten had ventured over and he pinned the little guy to the ground with just a paw to his head, Newton sprawling on his back in the sunshine, Newton and his anytime, big kitty yawns. Oh, to have the complete unselfconsciousness of a cat.
I opened my eyes. The smell was still there. I hadn’t conjured it. I sniffed the load I still held. Not my socks that were on top, that was for sure. But one of Robert’s shirts was right underneath it. I raised it and inhaled deeply. Roses. Perfume. I didn’t wear perfume that smelled like roses, and I never would. Especially not now. It had to be Sharon’s.
I dropped the load, letting it fall where it may, and headed back to the computer, banging my hip on the doorway. I’d examine the damage later.
I fell into my seat. Newton graced me with an anytime, big kitty yawn.
I flicked back to the newsletter, pulled up the group I had created to send it to, deleted my mother from the group, and hit SEND.
When I woke up, my mouth cottony and my hip clearly bruised, I found Robert sitting on the edge of the bed with a cup of coffee.
“You look like you might need this. Got your letter last night, by the way. As did most of my work associates, our friends, neighbors. Your mother, too, I’m assuming?”
I raised my eyebrows smugly, then quickly dropped them. Not good for the searing headache. “I deleted her right before I sent it.”
“Good. I’m not having an affair.”
“The scent of roses wafting up from your shirt last night makes me think differently.” Wafting, that was a good one, I thought. Even with a hangover, I was still a wordsmith.
“Sharon was helping me plan your birthday party. With everything this year, I wanted you to have something special. It’s taken quite a bit of manpower.” He leaned forward to kiss my forehead.
“The perfume?” I couldn’t quite let it go yet.
“She must bathe in it, and I guess there were times we were sitting pretty closely together. You know, looking over things.” He shrugged. “I might have permanent nasal damage. But it was worth it to have everything just the way it should be for you.” He smiled. I smiled back. “Your party is tonight.”
“Hand over the coffee.” I froze. “What about the newsletter?”
“I’ve already fixed it. I sent a message back to the group saying, as best we can figure, one of your students somehow got your password and was trying to have a little fun. I doubt anyone will give it a second thought.”
This was one of the reasons I had married Robert. He always knew just what to say.
I did feel special walking into the party that night. That morning, while Robert got ready for work, I downed the cup of coffee he had brought me, napped for another two hours, dragged myself out of bed to tend to Newton, ate some toast, and took a shower. By 5:00, I felt somewhat human. When I stepped into the red satin dress Robert had bought for me, the last dredges of the hangover were washed away.
Most of our personal friends were there, along with several work friends: some of my fellow teachers and a few from Robert’s law firm. Sharon was there, and I chastised myself for my drunken, thoughtless behavior and once again felt a sense of relief that Robert had rescued me from mortification.
“Sharon!” I waved to her as I approached. “I’m so happy to see you. Thanks so much for helping plan things for tonight.”
“I was happy to help, Gwen!” She smiled. Then paused.
Please don’t mention the newsletter, I thought. She didn’t. Merciful woman, that Sharon. Robert was lucky to have such an assistant. I so regretted the nose and teeth thoughts that had plagued my mind just the night before.
“I know Robert has been covered up with that newest case, so he just handed me everything and said ‘Make it happen!’ It feels like I haven’t even seen him in forever!” She smiled, as if she had just delivered a fabulous piece of news.
I remembered the strong scent of roses. The wafting scent of roses. And then my mouth started moving. “Oh, Sharon. One more quick thing. That lovely scented rose perfume you wear. Where in the world do you find such a delicious scent?”
Sharon eyebrows drew together. “Oh gosh, Gwen. I can’t wear perfume. Gives me a nauseating headache. Roses would probably bring on a migraine. You must have me confused with someone else.”
Jingle Bell Bop
While it is a situation probably seldom pondered, the fact is it can be very lonely being Mrs. Claus. Her husband, through no fault of his own, often steals the show. One can only make so many cookies for the big guy in red before a hint of resentment festers into an ugly sore.
So when a certain, rather handsome elf named Oliver caught Mrs. Claus’s eye, when he complimented her cookies on a daily basis, when he furtively snuck in a little backside pat as she walked away, perhaps we can understand the little flutter in the old girl’s heart.
And perhaps it is even understandable that after Mrs. Claus had her bit of fun (and it was only a bit; Oliver was an elf after all), she felt a prickling of guilt and fear and decided she must put this mistake away from her in some way. That was easy enough. A quick planting of a mutilated toy in Oliver’s locker and a brief whispering in Santa’s ear concerning rumors of a destructive elf was all it took to get Oliver placed far away from the workshop, far away from Mrs. Claus, on snow plow duty.
Oliver was never the wiser about his mistress’s plot. His thoughts centered on the one individual whom he saw as responsible for his demise--Santa, who he just knew had discovered the affair and decided to put Oliver in his place. The secret died with Mrs. Claus when she collapsed in the kitchen one evening, her face falling forward into a rather large container of icing. It was seen as a wholly appropriate way for the latest Mrs. Claus to go the way of the hereafter.
But now, now preparations were underway for Santa’s next marriage. The Christmas hoopla had died down for another year, and the story was that Santa had met an attractive lady on a street corner in one of the bigger cities. When she offered some services right there in the open sleigh that made his red cheeks blush an even darker shade than usual, Santa asked her to be his wife. The big guy was nothing if not honorable.
When Oliver heard of the soon-to-be new Mrs. Claus, his small elvish heart burned within him. How could Santa have replaced his former love so easily? It was inexcusable, but Oliver would set things right. He’d destroy the wedding along with Santa and Mrs. Claus’s replacement. Oliver and his snowplow. What poetic justice that would be!
He plotted, he planned, and he jumped in his snow plow and headed to the ceremony, which was to be held outside on the lawn of the workshop. He was just in time. Santa and his bride-to- be had just approached the altar, and Oliver had a perfect path to scoop them up and hurl them off the cliff just down the way.
What he hadn’t counted on, however, was so many elves. So many elves that, when they saw him coming, that well-known toy mutilator, they formed a line in front of their beloved Santa. Oliver had no choice; he had to stop. These were his friends, his possible relatives (sometimes it was hard to keep track since elves breed like rabbits), and they had no idea of Santa’s deviousness, his maliciousness toward Oliver.
Behind the line of elves, Santa spoke up, “What is the meaning of this, Oliver, great mutilator of toys?”
Oliver stood up on the seat of the snow plow and puffed out his chest. “I never mutilated a toy, you big red ball of jealousy! You know what you did! Mrs. Claus preferred me, so you got rid of me! You sent me away!”
“Mrs. Claus told me herself you destroyed a toy, Oliver. She got it out of your locker and brought it to me. I had no choice but to let you go. The proof was right there!” Santa looked truly bewildered.
“What are you saying, Santa? That you didn’t know that Mrs. Claus and I had done the, as you so fondly like to call it, the “Jingle Bell Bop”?”
“Well, ho, ho, ho!” Santa exclaimed.
“You got that right, Santa!” shouted an elf from the back.
“Oliver, I had no idea about any of that, I assure you. And I probably should be upset about the “Jingle Bell Bopping” but it sounds as if you’ve had a much rougher time of it than I have. Come back, Oliver. Come back to the workshop, and let’s start over. Let bygones be bygones. Maybe Mrs. Claus will whip up some eggnog for us tonight. Do you make eggnog, dear?”
Santa’s bride shot him a look. “I only make Manhattan’s and martinis.” She turned her attention to Oliver. “Yes, Ollie. Come back and join us. It’ll be a new start for everyone,” she purred.
Oliver took a moment to observe this new Mrs. Claus. While she wore the traditional colors, she had obviously made some modifications to the wardrobe. She clearly wore nothing under her red angora sweater and had left buttons open that any former Mrs. Claus would have been sure to close. Her skirt sat well above mid-thigh and black boots crept seductively up over her knees. Oliver pulled his gaze back to her face, and she shot him a quick wink.
Well, well, well. Oliver thought. Santa sure knows how to pick ’em.
I asked to be sent here
where all the good people go?
Those people who remembered
to blow out the candle
beside the baby's crib
before they went to bed.
Those people who never
had a candle
beside the baby's crib at all.
You can take me or not.
I only know I can't stay up there.
But if you're looking for a fresh soul
to feed your fires,
I don't have one to give.
For my soul has already been burning
The bit that remains,
chipped and charred, barely recognizable,
just like the police report said
after they got there too late.
Little Henry Cobb
Little Henry Cobb was waiting for it. He was as sure of its coming as he was of the fact that Santa sent elves down the smaller chimneys at Christmas. Any minute now, Ms. Millwinkler, known to be the meanest lady in the retirement home where his grandmother resided, would shut the door. Henry would then hear a resounding click as she flipped the lock, forbidding entry to even the kindest of souls. He knew this because he had seen it happen before. Christmas carolers, the craft lady who delivered goodies, and even his own grandmother, who simply wanted to borrow an egg, had all been exposed to the finality of that click.
But Henry wasn't budging from the standoff today. Though his mother and grandmother had spoken quietly, he had still ascertained from the morning's conversation bits and pieces that made him sure that Ms. Millwinkler needed him. “No friends, not really even any acquaintances” and “not going to bother trying to reach out to that one” had reached his young ears, his impressionable mind, and his child's heart. Ms. Millwinkler without any friends? Oh, Henry knew how that felt. Why, just this past week, he had accidentally spilled his milk on Terry Coomer's shirt at lunch, and Terry had told everyone he was a clumsy geek. No one sat beside Henry at lunch for two days, even though he was extra careful with his milk.
Knowing how much Mrs. Millwinkler needed him, Henry replanted his feet, crossed his arms, and stared. What Henry stared at was an eyeball, and a slightly narrowed one at that. This eyeball was all that had appeared through a small crack after his persistent knock at the door. The owner of the eyeball, of course, was Ms. Millwinkler, and it was all she was determined to reveal to little Henry Cobb. There were only a couple of reasons people appeared at her door: to persuade her to buy something or to borrow something. Ms. Millwinkler had no patience for either of these situations.
And yet the standoff continued. While Henry was surprised that Ms. Millwinkler hadn't yet shut the door, Ms. Millwinkler herself was even more surprised. Henry, having sensed an advantage, spoke up:
“I came over to be friends,” he said loudly, attempting to crane his neck to get a better view. The eye widened, and then quickly narrowed again.
“I don't remember asking for any friends, especially not pesky little red headed runts who bother people when they are attempting to nap,” she replied sharply.
“I hate naps,” Henry retorted. “Naps are for babies.” He stared sullenly at the eye.
“Naps, young man,” came the reply, “provide restoration for the body and soul.”
Henry thought for a moment, and then undaunted, asked, “Well, since you're up, do you wanna be friends and maybe then you can go to the store for your soul later?”
From behind the door came a sound that could have been interpreted as a chuckle. Henry had given Ms. Millwinkler something to think about: To invite someone in, not shut them out. To not hear only deafening silence following the click of the lock, or to be mocked by the muted laughter of those passing by in the hallway as they shared a joke or a story. But then, this was only one small boy. What good could he really do? Her curiosity won out, and Ms. Millwinkler stepped back to open the door.
When Henry returned to his grandmother's later that afternoon, his mother assumed he had been down in the lobby surveying the fish tank or talking the lady at the small shop downstairs into giving him free samples of his favorite treats. When Henry informed her he had been discussing the pros and cons of taking afternoon naps, and that his partner in conversation was Ms. Millwinkler, his grandmother spent the next several minutes fetching water from the sink in order to help his mother recover from her coughing fit. Her bite of pie had apparently gone down the wrong way.
Down the hall, Ms. Millwinkler, convinced that she had promoted the many benefits of naps, ambled over to her bed to take one. Her body, a bit sore from the laughter that had issued forth on that afternoon, sank down easily. She needed her rest. Little Henry Cobb had promised to come back for another visit tomorrow.
The Last Straw
Dear Sir and Madam,
Instead of searching for food this morning, I sought out pen and paper. Words will be my sustenance today, and I invite you to feast with me at what I have come to think of as my last supper. A compassionate school girl, much like your own daughter, took pity on me, stopping in the rain to place these requested supplies in my hand. I hope her parents do not punish her if they hear she chose to speak with me and take pity on an old man. Up until recently this simple kindness would have given me strength to carry on for days. Now, however, I am spent.
Mr. Evans, the previous owner of your restaurant, provided me with many meals these past two years. When he handed the food out back, he was always willing to include a smile, which sweetened my moments even more than the desserts he so graciously gave. I hope he knew, more often than not, I gave those meals away to others more desperate than myself.
I have thought of Mr. Evans often while putting pen to paper for this composition you now hold in your hands. I slid open that drawer in my mind (you have one as well) and sifted, sifted, pulling out my fondest memories in order to revel in them one last time. His face is one of myriad images that have flashed before me.
I have savored each one: my dark-haired beauty in her wedding dress, a former student who came to visit many years later to hold up his success like a completed patchwork quilt for me to admire. Dining with my cousin at our favorite restaurant (I used to actually eat inside. Imagine that!) where we doused the homemade biscuits with cinnamon butter. “Yes,” we would say, “we’d like some biscuits with our butter.” The waitress with bright blue eyes who would smile at our familiar joke. My dog, Sonny, whom I loved dearly even though he crowded me out of the bed nearly every night, but whose warmth was undeniable.
Mr. Evans knew my story, why I am where I am now, but you do not. I cannot fault you, Sir and Madam, for not knowing my history.
I can, however, indict you for assuming you knew me. For shouting at me to “get away from the door, you measly, witless old man.”
I can admonish you for your cruelty. As you well know, after you turned me away, your little daughter brought bread out for me in a small basket with a carefully placed pat of butter. You probably don’t know, however, I heard the punishment you delivered to her soon after discovering her kindness to me. I heard her cries as she was taught a lesson about “wasting food”. In the future, you should be more careful to shut the door all the way.
Before my wife passed, she told me to fill up the world with as much goodness as I could muster. I assume she was speaking of the students I was teaching. She wished for me to remain hopeful, but neither of us anticipated the tsunami of grief that would, for a time, wash away my wits and end up costing me the little I had left. But even here, on the streets, I have tried to do some good. People like Mr. Evans helped me.
I sold my wife’s wedding ring today for a healthy sum. You both probably think How foolish! You could have gotten money for it long ago. As the only piece I had left of our life together, I trust you will understand. I had decided I would never sell it unless I reached a point of desperation I could not overcome. I find I am no longer desperate to stay in this world, though. Buying the pills, in my mind, is buying a ticket to escape this world I no longer belong in so that I can join my dark-haired beauty and, my old man heart smiles at this, maybe even Sonny.
This letter to you is my last endeavor at goodness. I certainly cannot place all the blame on you since I have seen much in my time out here. But I feel you should know you were my breaking point. I have not the courage of Giles Corey in The Crucible; I can bear no more weight. I am too old, too broken, too tired to seek out another Mr. Evans or to hear the cries of a child being thrashed for showing compassion.
So I leave you with this. We can be many things to others in this world, but we should avoid, at all costs, ever being someone’s last straw.
I hope I have been a sufficient host whose words have in some way filled the emptiness within you both.
A Wayfaring Stranger