Category Archives: Literature and Poetry

I Teach Her What to Fear

Vivi stood at the edge of the sand bar, tugging at her hair and shrieking:

“MAMA! MAMA! PLEEEEEEASE COME BACK! MOMMY! I DON’T WANT TO DIE!” 

I, already knee-deep in the low tide channel between the sand bar and the beach, turned back and watched her hysteria with my mouth hanging open.

“Baby! What are you talking about? This is the same water we walked across to get out there. You’ve been swimming in it all week. Come ON.”

A dad in a red UGA cap waded between us and asked me out the side of his mouth, “Is she alright?” I mouthed back, “D-R-A-M-A.” He chuckled and kept on going.

My daughter was beside herself with fear about stepping into the ocean water. Why? Jellyfish.

She wailed and howled and begged me to come back. She ran towards the King and Prince in hopes that the land bridge was solid. Nope.

I hollered across the 20 yards that separated us: “Honey, it’s the TIDE–I can’t do anything about it. Even if I walk back that way, we’ve got to get back to the beach through this water. There’s no other solution. I hear you, but you’re going to have to get in the water. It’s only going to get deeper the longer you wait.” She stomped and screeched and cried.

Not sure which of those tactics convinced her, but she finally started a shaky walk to me. I took her hand and we made it to the beach together…ALIVE.

What. The. Hell. This kid as grown up on that beach and in that water. Why now?

An hour earlier, we had left our stuff in the sand and waded over to the giant sand bar on East Beach at St Simons Island. We walked to the farthest tip of the sand bar, right out into the Atlantic. She found a hermit crab and named her Crustina. We put her in a shallow tide pool and watched how quickly she could scuttle around. Vivi dug a channel between two pools so Crustina could spread out. We came up with names for her crabby friends. We reminisced about a few years back when Vivi found her friends, Conchy and Nyquisha.

Then I looked down into the clear water of the tide pool and spotted a jellyfish, about 5 inches long. I showed Vivi how to see the clear jellyfish by looking for its shadow on the sand. We found another one in the same pool. As the tide waters rose around the edges of Crustina’s pool, we watched how the jellyfish moved and ate and even shook off some sand that one of us accidentally dropped on them.

Cannonball jellyfish on St Simon's Island sand bar

Cannonball jellyfish on St Simon’s Island sand bar (look for it right above the shadow)

But time and tide wait for no one, so with pink shoulders and wind-tangled hair, we scooted Crustina to the seaward edge of her pools and waved goodbye to the jellies. As we walked along the beach side of the sand bar in search of the easiest crossing point, I saw a REAL jellyfish in the shallows–one about a foot long, pinkish, with feathery tentacles fluttering behind it.

“Now this is the kind you don’t want to touch, even if you see them washed up on the beach. I once fell off of a jet ski in the middle of Chesapeake Bay and got one of these wrapped around my leg.”

“Did you have to go to the hospital???’

“No, Aunt Beth rubbed Adolph’s seasoning salt on it and made some pina coladas. It quit stinging after a while.”

And not two minutes later I started into the water to make my way back to our pile of towels and flip flops on the beach and Vivi started her meltdown.

Because of the jellyfish I had shown her. Not the goofy little cannonball jellyfish in the tide pool, but the menacing tentacled one…in the water that I then ordered her to step into.

Oh look. A very special Parenting Moment.

I teach her what to fear

 

Vivi is at that precarious age where we are beginning to give her more freedom, but that comes along with the responsibility for taking care of yourself. I need to show her the thing to be aware of, the place to be careful, but in doing that, I tipped the balance too far and taught her what to fear. 

While we held hands and made our way back to land, I talked to her about how feelings can get us all worked up and the only thing that will balance them out is facts.

“See all these parents taking their kids out to the sand bar? Do you think we would be doing that if it were dangerous? See that green flag on the lifeguard chair? That means the water’s safe. If there were a bunch of jellyfish around, we would see them washed up all over the beach–we only saw the one. And that’s the first one you’ve seen in TEN YEARS!”

She snuffled a bit and asked more questions about THE ONE JELLYFISH that was clearly plotting to take us down. I kept pointing her back to facts so that the feelings would have time to wear themselves down a little. I mean, I was annoyed as hell with all the hysterics, but Parenting Moment.

We made it to shore. Later that afternoon, we came back down to play in the big waves of high tide. She got in that water every day for a week.

I couldn’t quit thinking about it, though, how it was my pointing out the “bad” jellyfish that triggered her fear. Would it have been better not to mention the stinging tentacles? To let her learn about jellyfish the hard way some other day? Because knowing that a thing is possible invites it into her consciousness. That’s the hard balance of parenting for me–wanting her to be equipped with knowledge, but not knowing for sure if she’s ready for knowledge.

This morning, a college sister who is also a reverend, shared a passage from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” that spoke to my mothering struggle:

“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart

and to try to love the questions themselves

as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.

And the point is to live everything.

Live the questions now.

Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

She has to live the questions now. We both do. I have to lead her into the water, dark and deep, even though I have been stung before. The world is out there on the other side of our fears.

 

rilke - i beg you to patient

Your Children Are Not Your Children

I had three encounters today that brought to mind these words from Lebanese poet and artist, Kahlil Gibran:

On Children
by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Khalil Gibran at the age of 15. Photograph by Fred Holland Day, c. 1898.

Khalil Gibran at the age of 15. Photograph by Fred Holland Day, c. 1898.

Vivi, Away

We went through this together last year, right? Vivi being away at camp during her birthday week? Me not being able to make a fuss over her, all that rigamarole. I’ve been doing a lot better this year. Even when I miss her, I know she is safe and enjoying herself. I’ve had very few moments of panic that she might be curled up under her bed in the tent, crying because no one has told her that they love her that day. I’m cool…really.

But it’s been FOUR DAYS and I had yet to see a photo of her posted in the nightly album of scenes from the day. On the first night, I was slightly alarmed at this picture of my firstborn standing in the center of a pack of somber girls:

They're either learning how to raise the flag or acting out Lord of the Flies.

They’re either learning how to raise the flag or acting out Lord of the Flies.

Then today I made a teensy request (with only a touch of hysteria), because it’s her birthday, for a photo of my girl. The camp director replied “We’re on it!” and soon I was holding back tears at the sight of this beautiful creature:

Love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.

Love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.

Who is this woodland spirit? This daughter of Life’s longing for itself, she reminds me every day that “life goes not backwards.” I may spend today thinking back to the moment she was born, how Daddy reassured me “She’s pinking up real nice” when her Apgar score wasn’t so hot the first time. For me, this day is about then. For her, it’s about TODAY–a crown made from pipe cleaners, a cake to share with her unit, a care package filled with books and glow sticks and confetti eggs. She spent today learning to paddle her own canoe, discovering who she is today and getting ready for who she’ll be tomorrow.

Dancing with Jack

“You want to hop out at the door or do you want me to walk in with you?”

“Walk wif me.”

Carlos is at Extra Special People camp this week, and even though he is comfortable and knows from last summer that it’s a fun place, he still needs a hand to hold when we first walk in.

The first activity of the day at ESP is “Flag.” All campers gather around on the lawn to sing, dance, and brag on each other. It’s pretty loud for Carlos, so he hangs back around the periphery with his coach. I tried to coax him up to the circle, and he managed it for a while, but he kept floating back to the shelter of the sidewalk.

Then along came Jack. I know his mother from work, so I know all about Jack but he doesn’t know me. Jack is autistic and doesn’t speak. He’s not a big fan of shoes, but he does like hugs. His shirt today said, “THUG LIFE – drop the T and get over here!” Jack likes to stay on the move during Flag, so his coach was following close behind him to make sure he was safe.

Jack walked past me, just a few inches away, and I reflexively leaned down to his eye level and said, “Hey, Jack!” As soon as I said it, I thought, “Oh, that’s right…Jack doesn’t talk,” and I scrambled to think of how to communicate with him since talking is kind of my thing. But before I could chase my rabbit too far, Jack looked me right in the eye for a moment and smiled. I stuck out my hand for a high five and got two. Then two more, then low fives, then middle fives, then around the side fives and pretty soon we were both giggling. Then I got a hug from Jack and my heart cracked wide open.

His bare foot scraped across my shoe and caught his attention. Jack turned himself around then carefully put his feet on top of my feet so that we could move together. He offered me his hands and I slowly began to turn in small steps, making a circle in the cool early morning grass. We danced for a little while then Jack went on his way.

I had assumed that I wouldn’t know how to talk to Jack because he wouldn’t talk back to me. But we figured it out when Jack showed me the way–start with love then take little steps from there. “You may give them your love, but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts…You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.”

Thank you, Jack, for reminding me how to make a friend without using any words.

Twilight Rockets

End of the day fatigue led to a parenting mistake: I opened a box from Amazon in front of Carlos without remembering what was in it. Along with a Brandi Carlisle CD for me, I had ordered some Rocket Copters with the aim of taking them to the beach. They’re little plastic darts with wings and LED lights that you launch from a slingshot. They sail 120 feet in the air, spinning/blinking/whistling then plummet down to land on your roof or a nearby tree. Hence my aim to keep them a secret until we were at the beach and had a wide open space.

“Can we do them now, Mama?”

“We have to wait until dark.”

“Is dark now, Mama? When’s dark? Is dark after dinner or after bath? Is dark at bedtime or book time? Is dark now, Mama? How about now?”

I was so tired and so not wanting to have to put on bug spray and shoes to shoot a stupid rocket ONCE before I had to dig out the ladder to climb up on the roof. I hid the rockets in my room in hopes that he would forget about them.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…RIGHT.

After bath time and before book time, with his wet hair slicked down like Rudolph Valentino, Carlos came into the den and chirped, “Is it dark now, Mama?”

Dark enough, Baby.

We went out to the deck and I shot the first one straight up…and into the pool. While I went downstairs to fish it out (with the LED light still blinking, so these are actually pretty sturdy little toys), G shot the second one…onto the roof.

I stayed down by the water to rescue any that came my way and G stayed on the deck with Carlos to fetch the ones that hit the roof. For a good 10 minutes as night fell around us and the bats flitted through the graying sky, we shrieked and squealed and laughed. After a few duds, Carlos eventually figured out the magic of a slingshot, how the power is in both the hand that holds steady and the hand that pulls back.

Each needs the other to work. “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.” All this bending that we have to do as parents, it’s so that our children can fly strong and true to the horizon.

Let our bending be for gladness.

carlos tribal summer esp

Living or Nonliving

How do we know if it’s living?

A few weeks ago, after he had spent an afternoon with me at my office, Carlos and I stepped off the curb and cut a diagonal across the parking lot towards my car.

“Mama? What’s trees–living or non-living?”

“What do you think?”

“Living.”

“What tells you that they’re living?”

“Trees can grow. They drink water and eat…what trees eat?”

“Um…They absorb some nutrients from the ground through their roots. And I guess you could say they eat sunshine–they can turn it into energy like you turn food into energy.”

I pointed to a sleek gray Tesla parked in the spot reserved for the radiation oncologist. “What about a car? It drinks gas and it can move around. Living or non-living?”

He giggled. “Cars are non-living.” Before I could ask him, Carlos asked, “Why cars non-living?”

“They can’t grow or change or make more cars.”

He clambered up into his car seat and while I fixed the tangled straps he pulled his prized rocks out of the cup holder.

“Rocks are non-living.”

“Exactly. They don’t eat or grow or change.”

“There are fwee types of rocks,” he told me. “Igmeous, selementary, and mectamorphic.”

“Good job, bud.”

I love kindergarten science.

 

beach-2217043_1920

 

The Thin and Sudden Line Between

A few hours after Carlos and I talked about living and non-living in the hospital parking lot, I got word from my cousin that her mother was going into hospice care. Aunt Dixie, who baked the prettiest pink cake that ever was, had been sick for over a year with a lung infection that just wouldn’t give in. But even as sick as she was for as long as she was, she was still 100% living. I pictured the delicate green chair that she had been sitting in on Christmas Eve. Everything else in that room is the same, the chair waits for her, but she is gone. That’s the way it goes–we’re absolutely alive and suddenly we are absolutely not.

I was there when Richard slipped across that profound line between living and non-living. When I leaned over him to check his oxygen cannula, he was living. The strange clatter of his ragged breath disappeared into the air between us. I straightened the clear plastic tube under his nose to make sure he was getting all he needed. Was it the silence or the stillness that I noticed first? He took no next breath.

I think now about that first blustery day when we met on the side of the highway, the first time we stood close to each other and our breath mingled in the living air. Saying hello, and help, and thank you for the first time. I value every breath from that first March day to the last March day. He was 100% living and NEVER gave up. I suppose that’s why, even after 10 months of watching cancer eat away at him cell by cell, the moment when he slipped across that thin line took my breath away.

 

Left: Beach gravel Right: Leukemia cells

Left: Beach gravel
Right: Leukemia cells

Some Things, Say The Wise Ones

By Mary Oliver

Some things, say the wise ones who know everything,
are not living. I say,
You live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being behind; I have said, Hurry, hurry!
and they have said, Thank you, we are hurrying.

About cows, and starfish, and roses there is no
argument. They die, after all.

But water is a question, so many living things in it,
but what is it itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming

generosity, how can they write you out?

As I think this I am sitting on the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.

The last trip Richard and I took together was to Maine. We sat beside a harbor like the one Mary Oliver captured in this poem. He ate a cinnamon roll that was bigger than his head. I took a picture of our feet with the boats as a background. Richard had burned with a strange and painful fever the night before, but that morning we were 100% living.

At a beach made of smooth pink stones in Acadia National Park, I slipped two small rocks into my pocket. All these years later, those rocks are asleep upstairs in a bowl on the book shelf. A pair of ancient and silent stones that aren’t living and never have been, but when I hold them in my hand, something else comes to life, a memory. A memory of living, a generous time when I lived my life my way and cheered on the clouds. A memory of the days when our life was blindly and blandly about living. A few days after that, Richard was diagnosed with leukemia and our days became consumed with staying alive.

Given the fear and sadness that entered my life on Richard’s last breath, given the hollow fact that Carlos won’t remember his Papa, my Daddy who would have been 75 today…How will I teach Carlos about living? Not just the facts about living, but the giddy joy of living? The living in a world of pink smooth stones, whether we can say if they are igmeous or mectamorphic. The living in a world of roses and starfish that are always going to die, every one of them every time.

I will teach him to love it all. Oh, my dear boy, the easiest way to tell whether something is living is to know that it can die. Love anyway.

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We Can Do So Much Better: Luvvie Ajayi’s “I’m Judging You”

luvvie-book

 

I used to have a bad habit of flipping to the last page of a new book and reading the last sentence first. It’s not usually a spoiler, because I don’t read a lot of mystery or suspense, but reading the last sentence gave me a general idea of where the author plans to take me. Here’s the last sentence of Luvvie Ajayi’s new book “I’m Judging You: The Do Better Manual”:

“We just need to start now. We can start doing better any time we want.”

Amen. Don’t let the title scare you off–Luvvie’s judgement is cast far, wide, and right in the mirror too. In four sections, the mind and tongue behind Awesomely Luvvie lays out the myriad ways we are not living up to our full potential.

In Life, she had me laughing about these awful people we all know: Dinner Scrooges, Lannister Friends, otherwise sensible friends who have fallen under the spell of Island Peen, booty-hole bleachers, and the fun house mirror culture that calls a size 4 actress “curvy.” This section is classic Funny Awesomely Luvvie. I laughed, but I kept waiting for the insight that I know she can deliver.

And that insight knocked me on my ass in the section on Culture. Luvvie lays it out. Racism isn’t just white hoods and burning crosses. Privilege isn’t nullified if you have to work for a living and studied hard in school. The single story of Africa that we’ve been sold (or clung to because it’s comfortable) is a farce. Rape culture is real and #YesAllWomen. Feminism, homophobia, the frailties of religion–it’s all in there. This is the section that I read slowly so I could learn from a friend who’s not much like me. For example, I know intersectionality is a problem in feminism–the goals of Feminism have often been the goals that benefitted white, hetero, cis-gendered, Western, Christian the most. Luvvie makes it so concrete:

“The misogyny that white women get looks different from ours, and our struggles aren’t in the same box. They might be called “bitch,” but we get called “nigger bitch.” They might make 77 cents for every dollar that a white man makes on the job, but a Black woman gets only 64 cents out of that white man’s dollar.”

If you’re starting to think that this book might be too heavy for the end of summer, Nope. Here’s how Luvvie, a Christian, takes down those who cling to one verse in Levviticus as the foundation of their homophobia but skip over the verses about shellfish, tatoos, and poly cotton culottes:

Leviticus, my ass.

Leviticus, my ass.

The section on Social Media should be a must-read for any child who is about to be given a phone of their own. #WeMustThinkOfTheChildrenForTheyAreTheFuture. We must also put a stop to #HashtagAbuse (#hash #tag is a totally different topic and actually kind of fun, but messy). We all need to get some behavior when it comes to Facebook oversharing, flirting on LinkedIn, falling for fake news, or curating a life made of eSmoke and eMirrors.

And all of that wisdom (and side-eye) leads to the final section of “I’m Judging You”…Fame. Luvvie is famous. She started out Internet-famous and now she’s getting to be famous-famous. She drops some facts about microwave fame, sex-tape fame, reality show fame…all forms of Lame Fame (TM Baddest Mother Ever, all rights reserved).

So what ARE we to do?

  1. Buy the book and enjoy laughing and learning with Luvv.

B. Call out foolishness in all its forms. We all have a platform and a sphere of social influence. Your influence may reach thousands, or it may reach a circle of friends and family. Expect better. Shut down the fat jokes. Call out the casual racism. Speak out on that board you’re on or the club you’re in or the school where you work and speak up for inclusion. Vote. Vote with your dollars and your voice.

iii. Get creative when it comes to spelling. I’m talmbout expanding your vocabulary as much as you worry about alphets. Learn words like “yansh” and “mtchew” and “minuswell.” We often have to search for new words to match our growing world views. Skim the footnotes, iSweaterGawd.

2a. Start doing better. We can start now.

V. One more thing. I started following Luvvie so I could learn how she creates success (and for Game of Thrones recaps). She’s been doing this social networking game since Facebook had 20 members and two of them were those Ken Doll twins. I’ve learned that it’s not all magic. There’s a good bit of magic, but there’s a shit-ton of WORK. Hustle. Consistency. Drive. Determination. All those football coach words. I’m learning to believe in myself. It might take a few more years, but this thing I wrestle with on the weekends is going to be a book one day.

Until then, click the cover to order “I’m Judging You” for yourself!


(This is an affiliate link.)

The Excruciating In Between

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

That’s what Daddy and I said to each other last Sunday, when we had our last good visit. As I crossed the parking lot to my car, I realized that he hadn’t ended our conversation with what he always says when one of us is leaving–“Be careful. I don’t have any extra children.”

He had said it to me and my sister two weeks before when we visited. I remember it clearly because Little Gay chuckled, “Now THAT sounds like Daddy!”

I sat there in my car with the nagging fear that I wouldn’t ever hear it again.

I was right.

The Lion of Lucerne Switzerland.

The Lion of Lucerne Switzerland.

I’ve talked to him since then, but he hasn’t been able to talk to me. Now we are caught in the exruciating in-between.

My dad has been sick for a long time. My Daddy has been gone for a while now. The strong arms with their topography of scars from angry cats and terrified dogs. The voice that called me Shug. The finger that pointed up at the ceiling when he was about to say something funny. That kissing sound he made to call a dog in for some scratching behind the ears. Even the terrible cheese dip that he made in the microwave and brought out to the little metal table by the pool. All gone.

But his body is still here. He is in between worlds and we are too. Kind people say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and I think “but he’s still alive.” Then there are the people who say, “I hope he gets better” and I can’t find words to say, “That is impossible.”

For a week, we’ve all hovered somewhere in this excruciating in-between. Alone in their house, I cannot bring myself to sit in his chair in the library because it’s Daddy’s Chair. I had no problem sitting in it before, but now I am caught between that comforting memory and the idea that he won’t ever sit there either. In his room at the hospice, I sit nearby on the narrow loveseat but not next to him. That’s my father, right there…but my daddy doesn’t seem anywhere nearby. In-between.

So I go to Griffin for my turn to sit on watch but I can’t do it. And there is nothing but “it” to do. So I go to work to stay busy and it helps some, but every time my phone rings my heart stops. We run out of milk, even in this strange fatherless world, so I go to the grocery store and I buy things that G can cook in case I need to go. I take my kids out shopping for school clothes and I surreptitiously make sure they have something somber to wear for the day that I will soon have to explain to them. But I don’t tell them yet because we are caught in-between.

This isn’t my first time walking down this path. My late husband died at home and I was his caregiver. Richard never gave in to the idea of dying; even as his body disintegrated around his brave heart, he fought. In the small hours of his last night, while he stumbled around our bedroom barely able to speak, he drew together a moment of lucidity and said, “This is a rough patch.” I sat on the edge of the bed in the half-dark and tried to believe him.

He was in hospice care for about nine hours total between me signing the paperwork and his last breath. There wasn’t a lot of room for in-between. There wasn’t much time for “the forethought of grief” as Wendell Berry calls it. There was busy-ness and then there was grief.

None of this excruciating in-between.

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“We’ll Die Walking”: Lessons From Reading In a Hospital

Remember when you could sit down and read a book for a couple of hours? Yeah, me too. That was before kids. I read whenever, wherever, and however I can these days.

Percy Fawcett, explorer

Percy Fawcett, explorer

Yesterday morning, I had a strange experience while reading on my walk into work. I’m halfway through “The Lost City of Z,” which my friend Jill loaned to me last January and I’m finally getting around to. I can’t give you any spoilers because I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s really good (thanks, Jilly!). It’s the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer in the Amazon who set off in 1925 to search for a city of gold and ended up vanishing into the jungle without a trace. Or maybe there are traces later, but like I said, not finished yet.

I was engrossed in the story of one of Fawcett’s early expeditions, a trek to find the source of the Verde River between Bolivia and Brasil. The expedition hit snags and Fawcett and his men–after a few bad decisions about how much canned food to carry–ended up starving in the jungle next to a poisoned river with nary a fish. Fawcett refused to turn back, even though most of his men were falling ill from the fevers brought by the relentless mosquitos and vampire bats.

There I was, hurrying to the end of the chapter in hopes that I could find out how the party made it out alive before I had to clock in. My face buried in the book, I trekked up the sidewalk, right at the crepe myrtles, left at the rosemary, then I ducked into the building through the side door under the Rehab pool. A wall of icy air-conditioning hit me but I never looked up from the page. Just like Fawcett in the “green hell,” I was confident that I could find my way.

PET scan of the brain

PET scan of the brain

No one is ever in that hallway. The only thing back there is a storage closet and the back entrance to the P.E.T. scan area. What’s a PET scan, you might ask? That’s a kind of radiology test where some highly skilled people put a radioactive tracer in you then take a picture or Positron Emission Tomograph to map out disease activity in your body. It’s the test that shows you if cancer has spread. When cancer survivors say they have to go in for a scan, it’s probably a PET scan to monitor the progress or remission of their disease. A PET scan explores the previously invisible life of our organs. In a way, it’s like Fawcett heading off into the jungle hoping to find treasures and fearing what may be revealed.

Like I said, that hallway is safe for reading because no one is ever back there. But that morning, I had to pull up short before tripping right over a group of three people. They walked out of the PET scan doors in a cluster–the radiology tech in his sage green scrubs, a young woman carrying two purses and a sheaf of papers, and one women of about sixty, who looked to be carrying the world on her shoulders. They didn’t pay me any attention, there behind my book.

“We’ll get these read this afternoon, and your doctor will call you with the results,” he said, looking the older woman right in the eye and nodding gently. Neither woman spoke but they both nodded in return. He smacked the button on the wall that opens the doors to the Radiation Oncology department. They hesitated a second while the doors swung open then he led them through in silence. I waited in the hall for the doors to close behind them.

Walking through that spot, the spot where that woman had stood a second before, I felt like I was walking through a cloud of her fear. It was tangible, buzzing, a gray heaviness like a swarm of jungle mosquitos carrying yellow fever. That fear that a cancer patient feels, coming to the hospital for the scan that will bring good news or the worst news. The scan that reveals the next part of her life and how it will go. That ordinary woman seemed like Fawcett chopping his way into the jungle, one foot at a time, never knowing if the next moment would bring a viper or a city of gold.

I thought about that woman and her daughter, how their afternoon would stretch out before them until the jangle of the phone would send their hearts to the ground. I hoped the news would be good. Please, please, please let that scan be clear. Let her laugh with relief and let the tears that they cry today be tears of joy. I took a couple of breaths, thought about all the times Richard and I had waited for one test or another. Thumbs up, thumbs down–will our life go on?

I pressed the button for the elevator. As I waited, I was struck by this passage in the tale of the Verde River party:

The starving expedition. Fawcett far right.

The starving expedition had a camera but no food. Fawcett front right.

“Fawcett soon noticed that one of the men had vanished. He eventually came upon him sitting collapsed against a tree. Fawcett ordered the man to get up, but he begged Fawcett to let him die there. He refused to move, and Fawcett took out his knife. The blade gleamed before the man’s eyes; Fawcett ached with hunger. Waving the knife, Fawcett forced him to his feet. If we die, Fawcett said, we’ll die walking.”

– David Grann, The Lost City of Z

I thought of that woman and how her shoulders stooped. I had assumed she was carrying her fear of dying. But really, she wasn’t like the starving man who wanted to surrender to death. She wasn’t rolling over and giving up–she was still walking, still consulting with her doctors, still LIVING. Regardless of the results of her scan.

I don’t remember if Richard ever had a PET scan. With blood cancers, your cancer is everywhere from the get go, metastatic from square one.

I do know that he never gave up. The man looked at me not twelve hours before he died and mumbled through cracked and bloody lips: “I’m just going through a rough patch.” He insisted on living, right up until the moment he died. He never quit walking, and I followed him right through that jungle, right up to the gate of the golden city.

“If we die, we’ll die walking.”


Want to read it for yourself? Here’s a link!

Loving Your Mammy Isn’t Going to End Racism

Back in college, I was asked to sit on a discussion panel about race. I remember feeling honored to be asked, but I only recall one thing that I said that night. We were deep into the session and people began to get honest about the way they saw racial divides showing themselves on our little campus–in the classroom, in the dining hall, on elected boards.

At that point, a young white woman who was a well-known campus leader took the floor and said, with exasperation shaking the bow in her hair, “I just feel like we’re LOOKING for a problem here. I mean, nobody’s stopping anybody from sitting where they want to in the dining hall. I’m not a racist if I want to eat lunch with my friends. I mean, I was RAISED by a black woman…I love black people!”

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I remember my friend, Terri, catching my eye and looking like she was about to bust. I spoke up and took a chance on satire:  “I loved my Mammy too but that doesn’t fix the problem.”

The punchline worked. It got a good laugh and kept the discussion on track, without saying, “Sit down and shut up, Miss Scarlett.”

And it was true–I did spend several of my formative years under the care of Ms Jenny Mae Bray**, better known in our town as “Quicker.” She never liked her given name so she went by her family nickname, a reminder of how fast she got things done. Quicker watched us while our parents were at work. Now, don’t get any highfalutin’ ideas–we lived in a single-wide trailer with some wooden steps on the front. She had full reign over us and what Quicker said WENT. One time Joe snuck out into the yard without Quicker’s permission and she spanked him with my Bolo Paddle until it cracked in two.

Quicker was a giant presence in my youth. I lost touch with her after we moved when I was in second grade, but my memories of her are sweet and rich. When I was all grown up and in graduate school, Mom took me by to see Quicker at Baby Sister Argroves’ house, where she was working. Later that afternoon, I saw my brother and said, “Joe? How big was Quicker?” He blew out a long breath and said, “Oh man, she had to be six feet at least and maybe 225, 250?” I held up my hand at my shoulder and said, “She comes up to HERE on me! She’s tiny!” We marveled at the truth that time had revealed. And we agreed that we still wouldn’t try any foolishness while she was in charge.

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Yes, I loved Quicker. I still remember how, when she gave me a bath in the green tub, she squeezed the washcloth filled with warm water on my shoulder. I do that to my children and think of her. I remember the smell of her egg custard pies and the way she would put a little pat of butter in the center of each while they cooled on the kitchen table. I remember the smell of the iron and how she sang to herself while she ironed shirts in the center of our tiny living room.

I loved Quicker, but I didn’t know her. I only knew the narrow part of her life where it intersected with mine. That’s why I said what I said on that panel about race at Wesleyan. Loving one person through a narrow lens doesn’t mean you understand what life is like for her or her family or her race. Proximity doesn’t equate to intimacy. That’s why the first step in joining the discussion about race in America is listening. Widening the lens that we’ve used for so many years to “see” our neighbors, our friends, our beloved.

Spoiler Alert I’m about to talk about a scene in “Go Set a Watchman.” Yes, I read it. Go ahead and judge me.

A lot of people didn’t want to read Harper Lee’s “newly discovered” first novel because they didn’t want it to change the way they saw the characters that we’ve all grown to love from To Kill a Mockingbird. How could Atticus be a racist? How could Jem not be around? How could Scout be a grown woman drinking booze and kissing men?

In reading another view of them, from 20 years past the TKAM storyline, I might have to widen my lens. Kind of like getting to know someone like Quicker, who had been a big part of my life, but only on my terms.

The scene that most moved me in Watchman was when Jean Louise visits Calpurnia at her home. Calpurnia’s family has suffered a great blow with the arrest of her grandson. The situation is made hopeless by the racial politics of the time (because if the racial roles were reversed in the car crash, and a young white man had hit a drunk old black man, no charges would have been filed). When Jean Louise shows up at Calpurnia’s knee, she is devastated to find that Calpurnia “is wearing her company manners.” Jean Louise is not welcome; she is cast out into her whiteness. In shock, Scout cries, “Cal, Cal, Cal what are you doing to me? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?”

And Calpurnia answers, “What are you all doing to us?”

With those words, Jean Louise’s lens is shattered because Calpurnia insists on being seen in her entirety, not just as a part of Scout’s life. “She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks.”

Quicker took good care of me. Because I loved her, it’s my duty to honor her too. To seek to understand. To listen. To widen my lens. To right what has been wrong.

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**Edited to change Quicker’s name from Strozier to Bray. My mama corrected my memory. I think the fact that I didn’t even recall her name correctly is a great comment on the point I was trying to make: I loved her, but I didn’t know her.