Sand and Ice

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Daylight: life
burrows out and up.

A common but no less uncommon tern swoops
past bubbling edges. There, a cormorant, black as ash,

gathers the sun in its arcing wings. Prehistoric
pelicans cling clumsily to a pocket of air, then fall

like rocks, shattering through undulating surf as the
red-shorted lifeguard hooks his gaze

onto distant thighs smothered and scented
with coconut . And the dimwitted sandpipers peck

at the straggling sunburnt seaweed, and finally,
late as usual, the seagulls
arrive.

Out there on the frozen plain
the ice is

breathing. Beneath the floes
the water streams faster,

further; sun rays race atop glinting surfaces;
unsuspended ice unfurls

below a red fox pattering berg
to white berg. Life froths

anew. Yawning bears scratch and
stretch and lumber toward meat. Mayflies

flitter away abbreviated lives on
a nanosecond of love while still in flight. Hurrying

toward their beginnings, salmon
muscle past the ocean’s currents. And

here, when the soft shoots release winter’s hold,
the hidden pheromones of humans
begin to seep.

DOWNSTAIRS, UPSTAIRS

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DOWNSTAIRS

Years ago I volunteered at a nearby assisted living facility, spending a few hours each week with sixty seniors. I read the newspaper aloud to them in the morning. We discussed current events and watched movies. I called BINGO, paying out a quarter to each elated winner. I ate lunch with them, played Scrabble and UNO, and sat beside them while local musicians serenaded us.

Being that I am a storyteller by trade, I especially loved hearing about their past lives. Roxanne* and her brain surgeon husband helped found the Vermont Youth Orchestra in 1964. Fred was a Seabee seabeeduring WWII. Louis practiced law in New York City for five decades. Gillian was an assistant to former Vermont governor Madeline Kunin. Margaret taught German literature at a New York State University.

I felt a particular fondness for Josephine, who had been an army officer. After her discharge Josephine battled depression and alcoholism. She kicked both, but lost her marriage in the process. Josephine had a gruff demeanor and was not prone to socializing, but whenever she did join an activity, she was the brightest most loquacious soul in the room.

Whenever I visited the facility, I would traipse down the long hallway to her large sunny room and knock.

“Yes? Who’s there?” she’d ask.

“It’s Lisa, Josephine. I’m wondering if perhaps you would like to read the paper with me today.”

Moments later she’d open the door, genuinely pleased to see me. “Of course I would. Thank you for inviting me.”

And so it went—the same knock, the same invitation, the same acceptance, over and over again. Until one morning she said no.

“Really?” I asked.

“My stomach feels bad. I think I need to stay close to my bathroom.”

“Gotcha,” I replied. “Next time then.”

But there was no next time. Josephine continued to “feel” sick, although she was perfectly healthy. She grew more confused and doleful, and was eventually transferred

stairs

UPSTAIRS

Before entering the locked memory care wing on the top floor of the facility, I punch in a 4-digit key code.

I walk in and immediately the air changes. It slows. It thickens. It smells yeasty. I pass by the caged bird, donated by a relative who believes animals are soothing for people with dementia, and all of the residents up here are afflicted with severe dementia. Most have late-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

I glance at the impressive artwork on the wall. Two of the pieces were painted by Francis, one of the residents. She painted them before her brain could no longer distinguish one color from another. Before she forgot how to hold a paintbrush in her hand.

Breakfast is just ending so I go down to the dining room and shout a spirited “good morning” to everyone. I feel genuinely gratified when Leon says, “hello,” or when Margery waves her napkin at me.

As I grab a slice of bacon off the warming tray, Amina, the lovely Bosnian LPN asks me if I would pay Eva a visit. “She’s in a bad mood,” Amina says, concerned. “You always cheer her up.”

The door is slightly ajar and I can see Eva, a still-beautiful, poised woman in her eighties, sitting on her bed, a look of panic on her face.

“Good morning, Eva,” I say, knocking. “Do you mind if I come in?”

She immediately brightens. “Yes, yes. Please.” She has no idea who I am, but she politely gestures me to the chair across from the bed. The room is tiny, cramped, but tastefully furnished. Eva comes from money—a lot of it. I know this because every time I visit Eva she invites me to look through her photo albums. After twenty times, I have all but memorized the pictures of her family’s lavish home on the beach, her many trips abroad, the cotillions where she danced in dresses made for a princess.

Unlike me, Eva no longer has them memorized. She barely recognizes the people in them. She is aware that the memories belong to her—she just doesn’t understand how they do. alzheimersbrainThat’s what Alzheimer’s does to the brain—it robs one’s connection to the past; those precious personal stories that make up the very essence of social beings. Eventually, Alzheimer’s will probably purloin Eva’s ability to communicate altogether. She is one of only three people here who can still string words together into complete sentences.

Today, Eva is agitated. Before I reach the chair she jumps up and announces that she needs to find her purse.

trainstation“Why?” I ask gently.

“I have to get to the train station,” she says hurriedly. “I promised my mother I’d meet her there and she’ll be angry if I am late.”

As I reach out to take her hand in mine, I understand that Eva’s thoughts are no longer securely bolted to her past. Nor is her damaged brain allowing them to make much sense of the present. It’s as if she’s frozen in a liminal state; a timeless and incoherent

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IN BETWEEN

My mother, who has recently begun a slow steady slide into dementia, started to see her own mother in bed with her every night. Having delusions is highly typical of someone with cognitive impairment.

Initially, the mirages my mother saw were innocuous. My dead grandmother. The red flowering bush across the lake appeared to her as a tall woman playing with her grandson. The rock outside her kitchen door morphed into a dead dog whose dog friends often came to mourn him. One always showed up wearing a bow.

But then last week something in her hallucinations shifted. They became scorched by paranoia—again, quite common in early-stage Alzheimer’s. My father—the ex-spouse she’s hated for thirty years—started breaking in.

“He left his empty cereal bowl on the kitchen table, so I know he was here!” she shouted into the phone. “I’m calling the police.”

I tried to stop her, but I live in Vermont and she lives in Florida, and my arms can’t reach that far. Her home companion—an amiable, soothing woman named Pamela—also failed to calm her fears. Mom phoned the police, who came and took a report. Afterward, at her desperate urging, I hired a locksmith to change the locks on her door.

My father did not show up the next day, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. But for the last two nights now, three teenagers have broken in through the lanai, stealing a bottle of wine before exiting through the front door. When she told me about the robberies, she sounded more annoyed than frightened, as if it were a burden she could live with.

numberconfusionIn addition to becoming delusional, she’s also losing all sense of time. Dates mean nothing to her. Numbers are often foreign objects. She can no longer read a book, a deprivation that has amplified her ever-growing depression.

She’s still very talkative, particularly when it comes to politics: the vitriol she hurls toward our President is as keen and biting as ever. She remembers names and has no problem recognizing faces. She can regale a listener with stories from her past as easily as a teenager can. While she is, in a sense, fully independent at the moment, I anticipate a time in the not-too-distant future when she’ll no longer be able to stay in her own home.

How and when will I know it’s the right time to move her into a facility; one where she can be safe? One where someone will read to her? One where no one will steal her wine?

One that has both a downstairs and an upstairs.

*Names have been changed.

Like So Much Light (incandescent forays)

elective

radiance like a turnstile in a subway station
changing with each revolution your face and hands
on my breast the light slow and long then
dim and vibrating like electricity in
1950s movies when wires touch
and spark the air that fills spaces and time between.

remarkably the cat rubs my leg and sparks of
static, a bellow of light
emitted. I, seated uncomfortably
in a high back yellow arm chair that smothers
my thighs that sweats my knees as
I talk aloud to the night.

fallow thoughts unburden my justification;
arms sway honest past my denim bookends
you call thighs. Around you wrapped like a fur
unstained and unnoticed warm
and welcome, tight, embroidered on your hips
and back; prickly 3-days of stubble ignite sparks
but only in my head and in the night that is so
rarely noticed these days.

where Native Americans in tepees turn sticks insidespark3
their palms, masturbating the wooden points
embed themselves with lust and fury,
turning turning past the one side then
the other and circles heaved into space when
shadows fleck apart and orange dewdrops, sparks of
fire fall up, spurt, let loose, free to meet the brush below
for the sake of mush and the history that follows.

Irony

Funny thing: I just learned that I was long-listed for a flash fiction contest. Here’s the 500-word or less piece I submitted:

LATE

You called in late for work again. When I overheard Robin ask you what time you thought you’d be in I tried to guess why you were going to be late. Did you maybe have a doctor’s appointment? Or had you, like so many other mornings, overslept? But then Robin said, “I’m sorry,” so I figured it was something momentous and I stopped silently swearing at you for showing up late for work all the time, and making me have to slice and toast and smear and wrap bagels faster than I want to so early in the day. To be honest I almost called in this morning, too, because damn did I ever stay out late last night all because Tripp asked me if I wanted to go see Rough Francis play at the Monkey House and I went and stood next to him, dancing in place, waiting for him to turn his attention from the stage just for a second or two to see if I was having a good time or did I want another drink, but it wasn’t until the show ended and he finished whooping his right fist into the air that I think he remembered he’d brought me along.

Marvin, the old guy with eyebrows so bushy that you once suggested he kept his spare keys in them, just walked in and asked for his usual and I hesitated before telling him that I had no idea what his usual was, and that even though we look nothing alike because you’re tall and skinny and I’m, well, I’m not, he must have mistakenly thought I was you because you pretty much know everyone’s usual and I don’t because I’d like to think I have more important things to do than memorize people’s bagel preferences, but instead of just coming right out and saying I’m Sarah, not Gwynn you idiot, and I have no idea what your usual is, I covered my face with my hands like I was all embarrassed and said, “Oh geez, I am so sorry, Marvin, but I’ve totally spaced on your usual,” and he laughed and said, “That’s okay; pumpernickel, toasted with smoked salmon schmear, please,” and after I handed him his usual I was glad I held off being rude even though I hated him and his stupid eyebrows, because you once said that you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar, and besides, Robin was watching me from the register.

You never did show up, so after wiping the counters and mopping the floor I started walking home and when I passed by Manhattans I saw you sitting at the bar so I went in and asked you why you were drinking so early in the day and what’s in that small velvet bag next to your beer, and you said because you were sad, and it’s the ashes of Shelley, your cat, and so I hugged you and said I hope I’ll see you tomorrow.

To Have a Thing

To have a thing or
to give it up for money. To
sell it for less than its worth
then use the money for something
you think you need but then you
miss it. The thing, that is.

ring

It was a high school ring. Asserting
success, artificial amber
colored stone set deeply
within deceptive metal trying
to be important with its date
and place, a chorus of completion.

What did I need the money for anyway?
A trip to the mall where my succulent lips
could peruse waxy colors? Where my friends
and I could giggle and saunter in trendy shoes
and claim all tomorrows as our very own?

Was that why I sold my graduation ring
to that man who looked like Stephen King, black oily
hair drifting over one side of his thick glasses?
I don’t remember why. I only remember his
ad in the paper,
CASH PAID for memories and
unimportant reminders, the one my parents said
they could not afford but I whined
like a stranded seal pup until I won.

What a waste. What a shame. How is my daughter
ever going to find her mother’s adolescent badge,
an antique now probably melted down.
Once there. Once a thing to have.
Now magma.

Me And Tom

During a summer break many college years ago I got a job canvassing for Tom Hayden’s  Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED). After reading a Help Wanted ad looking for PEOPLE WHO WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE I drove down to Los Angeles from my parents’ house in Woodland Hills, and met with Mr. Hayden in a tiny office. For all of ten minutes we discussed politics. Well, no, not really. He talked about his ideas for political reform while I nodded vigorously. He glanced at my spare resume, which listed little more than retail sales and kennel work, but he was impressed by my membership in STAND (Students and Teachers Against Nuclear Development). Enough so that he hired me on the spot.

I knew he was married to Jane Fonda, and I knew he’d been a radical anti-Vietnam War activist. But what mattered most to my nineteen-year-old self at the time, was that he was tomsuper sexy and smart; and that I would earn a decent hourly rate just for knocking on people’s doors, reciting a pre-written spiel, and asking for their help in supporting political change.

An hour later, I was hustled into a van packed with six other idealistic young people, and driven to Manhattan Beach, one of the more posh neighborhoods lining the Pacific Coast. “This is going to be a breeze,” I thought to myself. “So many rich people live here.”

In three hours I’d collected little more than four campaign signatures, about thirty dollars in donations, and over a dozen courteous thank-you-but-no-thank-you’s.

I looked at my watch and saw that I had about ten more minutes until the designated lunch break, so I figured I could squeeze in one more knock-smile-pitch. I walked up the steps of a modest house; one of those much further down from the beach. An American flag hung from its flag holder.

The door opened and a youngish man wearing dirty jeans and a flannel shirt answered. He was holding a beer. I said hi. He asked me what I wanted. I smiled, quickly rattled off the key components of Mr. Hayden’s objectives, and then asked for a donation, or, at the very least, a signature on this legislative petition I was holding.

The man asked me to repeat the name of who it was I was working for.

“Tom Hayden,” I said proudly.

“Oh. Him. Sure. Let me see what I’ve got to give you. Stay right there.” He narrowed the door and disappeared. I waited, hoping that he’d donate a much-needed large sum of money. I really wanted the bonus given at the end of the day to the person who collected the most loot.

I tapped my foot. Wiped some sweat off my cheek.

A few seconds later he kicked the door open and pointed a very large shotgun at me. “You get your Commie ass off my property right now, young lady,” he shouted, “or I’ll shoot you off it.”

I returned to the van, waved hello to the other canvassers, ate my turkey sandwich in silence, and then, when everyone else jumped up to start the second half of their work day, I politely said, “Thank you, but no thank you. I think I’m done for the day.”

RIP  Tom Hayden. Thank you for trying to make the world a better place.

 

 

Uncaged

A few weeks ago Loy’s pal Emily came over for some summer-is-almost-over-let’s-hang-out time. Since it was such a beautiful day, I figured they’d walk down to the lake or go meet some friends up on Church Street. Instead they chose to hide out in the dark recesses of Loy’s room, Snapchatting their brains into oblivion.

“Hey guys. Let’s go do something outdoors,” I prodded. I would have preferred to continue writing, but the guilt I felt over not spending enough time with my child during her summer break motivated me from my desk.

“Like what?” Loy asked, without bothering to look at me.

“Yeah, like what?” Emily echoed. “I have field hockey practice at 3:00 so there’s not a lot of time.”

I’d forgotten that fall sports began before school did. “That sucks.”

“Yeah, so since Em has to be outside for the rest of the day,” Loy said, finally glancing in my direction, “why can’t you let us just do nothing?”

“Because we need an outing. That’s why. Pick something to do. Now.”

Okay, so shopping at TJ Maxx wasn’t exactly a healthy summer activity, but at least it got them off their phones. After fifteen minutes of browsing around the aisles, both girls declared that they were bored and wanted to leave. We had about 45 minutes left to kill, so we decided to go pet the cats at the Humane Society down the road.

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to touch the cats through their cages. “You can transfer diseases,” the young shelter helper warned. Undeterred, Loy and Em continued wandering by the many cages, cooing and awwwing, and surreptitiously touching a soft face or two.

Instead of staring forlornly into the eyes of the cooped-up felines, I flipped through the picture book of dogs available for adoption. There was an ugly black pup named Victor

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and another named Phil.

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Since I am married to Victor and his BFF from childhood is named Phil, I immediately determined that it was a SIGN from the dog gods that it was finally time to adopt a dog.

We’ve been dog-less for going on nine years now. Nine years since Rivers, the best dog in the world, died. He’d woken up one morning with a cough, and four days later he was dead. Hemangiosarcoma. Blood cancer. He was eight years old.

We’d rescued him from a family of boys who’d dragged him on a rope wherever they went. At night their parents locked him in a garage because they were afraid he’d kill their precious $5000 exotic bird. Rivers, the black-and-tan mutt who was there when we brought Loy home from the hospital and then never left her side. He let her decorate him with ribbons and socks. She leaned on him for balance as she learned to walk. He was fiercely protective, barking at anyone who came near her. He walked with us, ran with us, hiked with us, slept with us.rivers2

We buried him in our front yard and planted a butterfly bush over him.

But his ghost followed me. I often thought I saw him racing around the yard or heard him lapping water from his bowl in the middle of the night. As I sipped my morning tea at the table I reflexively reached out my foot to rub him, but hit only space. After a year of grieving we went to the pound and adopted Scooter, a dog that looked exactly like Rivers, but he wasn’t Rivers—he growled at Victor and hid from Loy—so we found a better home for Scooter and decided not to get another dog for a while. Loy canvassed for a pet crow, but that was out of the question.

Now, all these years later—often when I’m stuck on a sentence or having trouble moving a scene forward—I click open Petfinder.com and scour the photographs, searching for a dog that looks exactly like Rivers. Or one that embodies his spirit. I stare into their eyes and wonder if maybe he’s been reincarnated into a pug from Plattsburgh or a pitbull from Jericho.

As I read through Victor and Phil’s sad histories, I got the feeling that these pups were reaching out to me, as if I—

“MOM!! Stop looking at the dogs. We’re not getting a dog!”

“What?” I broke out of my dog trance.

“Mom. We have two cats and no back yard, and there’s no way you’re gonna make me walk a dog in the snow. No dog. Not now.”

She was right. It was neither the time nor the place to add another egg into our scrambled life. I’d already been feeling as if I didn’t have enough love and time and attention to go around—from my ailing mother in Florida to a teenager who was suddenly interested in boys to my over-worked husband to the two books I needed to rewrite to this blog to exercising to fretting over not yet signing up to volunteer for the Food Shelf to all that gooey sticky STUFF of existence.

But, like Loy says: that’s a first-world problem. She is correct. Would I want my life to be any other way? Would I want to not be in the thick of it, working and trying and thinking and hugging and meditating and wondering and wanting, with a few whines thrown in for good measure? Heck no. I want to be doing exactly what I’m doing.chaos

And sure, getting a new pet to take care of, freeing one of those needy creatures from their cages, would probably not have been too big a deal in the grand scheme, but, for that moment anyway, I realized I had enough.

I sighed, closed the book, and drove Emily to her practice.