Disaster Preparedness

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
~Joan Didion

I almost lost my husband, somewhere
between here and home. It’s like I put
him in my pocket without realizing
there was a hole in the stitching. Really
he could be anywhere. I retread my steps,
scanning the ground left to right until
my vision blurred and I thought maybe
I was crying but instead I was tired.

It’s been hours but maybe days since
I last held his hand in my hand. Since
then I’ve bought a condo, a Mini, hired
a nanny. I’ve pre-paid a dog walker
so I’m never in demand. I’ve got people
aplenty, and I’m certain with enough
money we will be all right. It’s funny
now I am without him, it’s like he
was never here. So when I found him
waiting at the corner–we were to meet
here at half-past five!–I’m not sure
what to do with a husband. I’d gotten
accustomed to being a widow if only
for a moment or two. The abandonment
felt like a gust rushing the open door,
scattering my plans like stacked papers
turned to airplanes, to confetti.
The shock of cold air ran sharp along
my future and swept it clean.

But soon I shivered, wanting to lay down
behind him, pull up my shins against
his back, stoke the ember near-dormant between
the half-shells of our old bodies. I return
my purchases–no warranty for wishes–
and hand him the keys to our house
where I keep the needle and the thread.

Lucky Girl

There are nights when I first lie down in bed that I wish it were morning already. That admission hints to a sort of optimism, doesn’t it? It makes me sound like I’m an early to bed, early to rise, tidy kitchen keeping, porch swing tea sipping optimist who can’t wait to take the next day’s tiger by the tail. Instead, it’s my biological warning system that tells me it’s going to be a long night of insomnia, of my feet being too hot and my arms too cold, of my mind already being smack-dab in the middle of tomorrow, of my feelings being too raw, all jacked up on the caffeine of worry. Worry about my son and whether he will sleep through the night, whether the long-dreaded, but no doubt inescapable seizure will strike, as he sleeps next to me. Or I am too conscious of my husband, sleeping or not sleeping in Noah’s bedroom, now my husband’s sick room that is starting to smell stale with lack of movement in the air, of his body. Nights like those, I can feel my heartbeat in my ears. (Zoloft has helped; I don’t have any problem admitting that, even aloud at the brunch table or during a meeting. And it’s doubtful anyone looks at me askance because it’s pretty well-known that if anyone needed some drugs to make it through the day, it’s me.)

Ridiculously enough, I consider myself a lucky girl. And that may be the true test of my inner optimist, but I’m not sure if that’s a result of my brain chemistry or my brain on chemistry. Still, I have few complaints despite my many challenges. If I skim through the pages of medical campaigns on gofundme.com, the community fundraising site, I know in my bones that it could be worse. That’s not just a cliché. There is one woman who has had the majority of all of her limbs removed due to a late-diagnosed case of Rocky Mountain Tick Fever. You can’t tell via the page her relatives created, and obviously I can’t ask her, but I assume she still wants to live, and that’s saying something.

Me, I’m astounded every day that I am someone with a story. Sure, everyone has a story. And I’ve always had a story to tell, about my own adoption, my surgeries, the deaths of my parents. But now I have the kind of story that can be donated to, and that meets the criteria for state assistance. (I mean, we have a freaking case worker! Don’t “other people” have case workers?) Our gofundme campaign earned $7500 in 5 days. The story is this: my husband has recently been diagnosed with leukemia. My son, 10 years old, has a seizure disorder and global developmental delays, and more relevant to anything, needs attention; he is not toilet trained, he would stop eating after 3 bites of breakfast, lunch or dinner, if we didn’t feed him, spooning food into his mouth, or hooking his G-tube up to a bag of non-food food. I joke that if there is something for him to run into, he’ll run into it.

Still he’s kind of a typical kid. Just a young one, for his age, cognitively a toddler, but with a will to do things he cannot do. He loves to swim, but can’t actually stay above water. He wants to climb to the highest point, but he doesn’t really know where his feet are when he places them on the rungs of the jungle gym. He loves the zoo, but his vision impairment prevents him from seeing the animals. He demands a lot of energy and patience. I joke (again with the jokes) that he is 1.5 children, so it’s a challenge to be outmanned by him when you are caring for him alone.

But here’s the deal: I’m not sure what I expected. What does anyone expect from life, when you have no idea who you will be as you age, or what will happen on the way? At some point you learn, if you don’t look too carefully at your sorrows, if you glaze your eyes over just a bit when giving them a stare-down, the edges are dulled and you can run your mind along them, like your finger on the blade of a knife, without feeling the cut.

Material as Memory

There are four blue opaque Tupperware tubs stacked in my basement. They contain all that is left of my mother and father’s house, my brother’s and my childhood. Four boxes of musty memorabilia picked out from mounds of decaying mess in the basement of the house that flooded, it seemed, every spring as my father aged there alone, unable to reverse the tide of time and its subsequent erosion. Mostly the tubs contain my mother’s things; she brought the most to their marriage, both in terms of stuff, and the stuff a life is eventually constructed from: history, health, hurt.

It has been thirty years since she died. It has been four years since I packed up those four containers, bought hastily after googling the nearest Wal-Mart, brought hastily back to our house in Milwaukee, full of musty memories. Just days after his death, a dumpster lay out on the yard, crushing the sea of dandelions, welcoming all that we threw out. My husband and uncle worked in the basement, using shovels to scrape the decayed material, mold, and mice, from the cement floor in the basement. I worked upstairs, separating the destroyed from the desirable. We filled a dumpster that day.

I made decisions, then and there, standing in the aftermath of my father’s death, of what these things meant, and what these things might mean enough to keep, after the land—the corn and bean fields, the tumble-down trees in the unproductive apple orchard, the caved-in roof of the granary building that once housed litters of feral kittens—and the house where we lived, were no longer ours. There, my mother had wept, attempting to stave off an early but inevitable death with a small, brown bottle of nitroglycerin tucked always into a pocket. There, my father had sat, maybe waited, until a neighbor stopped by when he didn’t come to church that morning and found him bleeding into his easy chair.

Strangely I am afraid when I open the containers now the smell will take me back to before my mother’s things—her antique china cups, her travel pamphlets from Denmark and France, her hand-crocheted and glue-glittered stars that adorned our Christmas trees, her boxes of costume jewelry worn by generations of women who lived through wars and childbirth—, became nothing but detritus, when each pretty thing still begged to be touched, admired. I am afraid that to touch might reanimate what now sits passively in my basement, encased in impenetrable rubber, deprived of air, each item empty like hollowed-out milkweed pods along our driveway, the seeds long since lifted into the wind, like bodies absent souls.

Maybe some day patience and pragmatism will override my superstition, and I will bring life to material as memory.

The Birthday Party (Stigmata)

At 41, she chose the low-cut blouse
in aubergine to wear to her party. Not
because at 40 she had gotten a compliment
about her breasts from her friend’s
drunk husband. Not because trolling
for compliments suited her. Instead,
she prayed (with little faith) by fingering her breast
bone and clavicle, which formed a cross
under the thin skin over her heart,
that her 41st year would offer less
suffering than had her 40th.