I Want to Tell You

I know it
doesn’t matter, no matter
how I spin it.
And I suspect
you don’t need
to hear it. And I suspect
you don’t want
to hear it. But I want
to tell you–and I
am just sad enough, because
of the gray sky
or maybe all the lost dogs
and definitely the dead
children, that my membrane has
thinned, supple now,
penetrable as the vulnerable
new skin over a newborn’s skull–
that I miss you.

Lamentations at the Tomb

The smell for one thing.
Open the door and the odor
of mold hits you square
in the face. Say you
forgot something. Find sanctuary
in your car, your oh-so-clean
car, even the lingering smell
of McDonald’s lunch a relief.
(It was a long drive
to Dad’s. Only one reason
you rarely made it, traveling along
I-90 through LaCrosse, a glimpse
of the Mississippi and glacial-less
bluffs beautiful, too brief.)

The smell is the basement’s
annual spring flooding,
destroyed drywall downstairs. Descend
the wooden stairway
of the rectangle ranch
you grew up in. The extent! Weird
enough what he had saved. A baby
carriage, Lite Brite,
one of a pair of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots,
school papers and child art, wilted with wet,
stacks of books, pages dried together
like shipwreck survivors
clinging to one another,
a Mexican tooled-leather purse, an old one-eyed bear, your hope
chest. All eroded
by the creeped-in water, not just
this year, but years. Saved
yet not salvaged.

Bugs, but you see those. Sills pilled
with Japanese beetles that look
like harmless ladybugs, but have their own
particular stench if you touch. Daddy
longlegs weaved homes into corners,
fly corpses suspended. The black
and red armor of boxelder bugs
in every corner.
Rodents too. Holes chewed
into walls. Insulation seeps out
like dirty cotton candy. If you are brave
enough to look for a water glass, you will see evidence.
Of mice creeping in and out of cupboards,
over mismatched dishes, Tupperware,
weaving amid yellowing boxes of
Morton’s salt, Hamburger Helper,
and amber bottles of pills
long since emptied.

Also you see your vain
efforts to help. Not enough
in the end, or maybe since
the beginning. You hand-wrote recipes
and taped them to those cabinet doors,
yellow now with age.
A soft blanket
you gifted at Christmas, crusted
with spilled food and obscured by 
shed dog hair, spread
over a sofa. The nice television is still nice, but
the pale blue recliner you bought with your brother
has gone limp with overuse. Strangely
you are reassured
that the casket you both chose
is quite lovely, pale blue satin to match
his eyes, though his eyes,
you both agreed,
were donated fast.

(There was nothing
you could do. There was everything
you could have done. But anger, well,
its seeps and rots too.)

Here there is no resurrection
long in coming. Roll the stone
away, and there is only a failed shrine
to keep your mother’s memory alive, what she left
she died. He shut his eyes
to decay in favor of dreams of days
when her collection
of tea cups, washed to gleaming,
posed on the polished table, debutantes awaiting
the Ladies’ Aid. Maybe he remembers
how he would cross the kitchen
in farm boots of hard leather, and steal
one more cookie, maybe the same kind
his mother had made
him when he was a young boy
coming in
from the fields.

(You will never know.
You will never stop knowing.)

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.

Elegy for My Father

In the heat of the day you could smell dust on the dashboard, dried dirt on the floor mats, black vinyl seats hot from the sun. My father was simple, but the equipment he kept in his pale, yellow Ford, was not–gauges nestled in foam-filled cases, convex lenses, rods with numbers, more mysterious numbers scratched on scraps of paper, sharp-angled 4s and elegant 8s, drawn in black ink, those ubiquitous black metal pens, silver tips tangy on my tongue.

Dad dressed in dark grey Dickies, black belt with silver buckle, crackled from wear, white short-sleeved shirt spackled with black spots along the bottom edge of the chest pocket from those pens, (my mother spritzed Spray and Wash) white undershirt, brown leather boots. I unlaced them–clam-shell hooks holding tight rough laces criss-crossing, tattooing the tongue with age and restraint–, tight heels that required a kid’s full-body yanks to remove after work as he sat in that wide green chair that rocked and spun, watched news, checked weather, noted grain prices, and I sat on his lap to twiddle thumbs and sing “one, two, buckle my shoe.” Later, when I was too big to sit on his lap, I still huddled against him while we watched The Day After, watched a mushroom cloud devour Kansas, 1983’s own War of the Worlds. No, we didn’t believe it could happen, but maybe we did. My mother would be dead in a year, our own devastation.

His metal lunchbox smelled–when flip-latches released and the dome-top was cocked back, a laughing mouth, unhinged–, like browning apple cores, crushed Old Dutch potato chips, crumbs from white bread sandwiches, plastic baggies, bologna. Our mother packed my brother and me into the car some long summer days and drove us to his office, down in the cool of the county courthouse basement. The office smelled like pencil shavings, metal desks and typewriter ink. We swiveled in rolling metal chairs, government-taupe, peered black-and-white maps, spun those black pens across black-and-white maps of roads and fields, clumps of trees, squares of houses. On those days, Dad was one of the office men, these men almost wild in their work, with beards and dirty fingernails and worn shoes, but he was as warm as his hands when he held mine.

Mostly he worked outdoors, walking miles each day, across fields, through ditches, taking measurement, noting erosion, witness to the changing land just as he worked to conserve it. His feet carrying him through the counties, his maps a testimony of time and place. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him, it seemed. I remember him this way: His forearms tan as the boots he wore, a hat from a farm implement brand pushed back on his head, dots of sweat amid the sun-lightened hairs of his forearms. He leans against the side of that yellow truck, square cab, square bed, parked at the curve of our driveway. Maybe he was listening to the voices of the neighbors whose conversations echo over the noiseless fields, who will come to his funeral when he dies in his eighty-first year.

Or maybe he was listening to his ancestors, Annie who lived in the little shanty just on the edge of the woods, or the laborers, farm hands, of whom he told stories. (“You should have seen the look on his face!”) Or maybe he could hear his Mother who kept him, her oldest son, home from war until it was nearly over, and who would remember him as a boy once she forgot herself. Or to his Father who told Dad’s brothers to take care of him, the oldest, because he knew the world would be too wide and the loses too great for my father to withstand. Maybe they all knew early on that peace would escape my father, about whom people said: he was a gentleman and a gentle man.

But I think he was just listening to the voice of God in the song of the land that still sings as the wind rushes through the corn stalks and bean bushes planted in rows in fields surrounding his family farm, the only place he ever truly belonged.

~for Obert Haldorson 1927-2008

Moments of Impact

After Hiroshima dead bodies were found of people who had been wearing printed kimonos when they were killed. The bomb had melted the cloth on their bodies, but the design on the kimonos remained imprinted in the flesh. It seems to me in later years the deep nerveless passivity of that time together had become the design burned into my skin while the cloth of my own experience melted away.

Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments

Some say they remember where they were, what they were doing, when Kennedy was shot. Of course that means they remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard Kennedy was shot. Some say the same about Lennon. I seem to recall being at Clayton and Maxine’s house, friends of my parents, staying over because my parents were out of town, when Elvis died. I can’t be sure it was Elvis, but I’m pretty sure it was. And I don’t think I remember that moment because I was any particular kind of Elvis fan, but instead because I didn’t understand why this was a big deal. To me, Elvis was only the Elvis of the sparkly white jumpsuits and ridiculous dark glasses; I didn’t understand Elvis as a cultural phenomenon. I didn’t understand that Elvis had changed everything for an entire generation. But my parents’ friends were struck, and I thought I should be too. It was the dissonance of the experience that makes me remember that moment.

I remember being in the band room of my high school when I first heard about the Challenger blowing up in the sky. Perhaps I only remember it because Sally Ride was another Sally, but I think that I remember it because I felt staggered by the realization that the brave were sometimes the least safe.

When OJ took his white SUV on the run, we crowded around a small television set usually reserved for important sports events at the insurance brokerage firm where I temped. At work, where I made copies of documents and then filed those copies, OJ was water-cooler fodder and a spectacle that brought us together for days, weeks, months, with the denouement so deflating it seemed to diminish just how new and bizarre it was to watch news happen in real time.

I had just walked into the gym the morning of 9/11. Instead of running on treadmills, or stepping on ellipticals, or hefting and dropping weights, the people in the gym that morning were standing still and staring up in silence at the silent televisions broadcasting a tower’s collapse. Rebroadcasting the moments of impact. At first, I thought it was a movie. I thought soon Will Smith or Bruce Willis would appear.

Why I remember those events from the past is anyone’s guess. Some events are so dramatic, the impact clears the every day clutter from your head and stamps itself like a brand on your memory. Other events just joins the messy brigade of thoughts marching and encamping throughout the day, denying those moments the time to take root in the soil of memory. I can’t tell you what I was doing when I first heard that Katrina hit New Orleans, when the earthquake hit Haiti, or a defective reactor poisoned the people of Chernobyl, Japan or Three Mile Island.

Seemingly solid memories bleed and reshape like oil drops in water. Tip your brain one way and the memory will elongate; close your eyes and you can drop yourself down in the moment, but it’s a bit like Marty McFly or Quantum Leap: so little control once you project yourself there. When I picture myself in the band room, in the brokerage firm office, in the gym, I don’t move and I don’t react. I only see. Maybe because if I move, I will affect history like any good sci-fi movies warns of, or I will cause the memory to shift and it will never regain its former shape, or I will peer too hard and the clearly drawn edges of the memory will become amorphous and I’ll begin to doubt everything I once thought I knew.

My mother often told the story of announcing to my father they had been approved for an adoption and would be receiving a baby, my brother, by posting the news on the red brick silo just behind our garage. When I think on this now, I simply cannot believe it. How my mother would have posted a sign that big that high-up defies any kind of logic. She would have needed a lift truck to do the deed, but in my mind, that memory of her memory persists.

I was in Mr. Buck’s 7th grade English class when someone came to the door to pull from class and tell me my mother had died. I remember it being our pastor at the door. I would imagine he had been brought there by our principal but I can’t remember him there in the moment. I think we sat in the principal’s office because somewhere in the school my father waited for me after the telling, but I’m not sure. My mind’s eye can’t see the room, can’t remember the first hug. I do remember sitting on my father’s lap in the front seat of the pastor’s car–nicer than any of ours, I know–as he drove us home, leaving my brother at the high school as he was unwilling, my brother, to let the news impact his regular day.

I can’t remember how I learned that my father had died. Maybe my brother and I were exchanging phone calls? Maybe someone from the hospital called me? How can I not remember that? But I do remember coming home (from the gym? from a tennis match?) and listening to a message on my answering machine (from my aunt? or my uncle? a message from either would have been strange as I hadn’t spoken to either of them in at least a decade) telling me my father had been taken to the hospital via ambulance. I know he lived, in a coma, a few more days. I know I didn’t travel to Minnesota to see him. I don’t remember why not going seemed the best option.

Other news also came on like a slow burn of a ditch fire, carefully watched, but somehow still wild. My son’s disabilities revealed themselves like drips into a bucket that fills surprisingly fast and overflows with a gush. By his first birthday we knew that he was not the child we’d dreamed of having. For the next three years I would fight against that reality, trying futilely to cup the water in my hands and put it back into the full bucket.

My husband’s leukemia took months to diagnose. There was always something else it could be. It was exhaustion; it was cluster headaches; it was a virus. The other possibilities were ludicrous as few suspect cancer in an otherwise healthy, downright robust 48 year old man, despite most of us worrying ourselves over cancer every day. Leukemia. Blood cancer. White blood cells gone rogue.

And maybe because it was just months ago, but I remember the moments with calm clarity. I remember sitting at home, thinking it could be leukemia. I remember telling myself that the most devastating thing is often the least likely. He texted me that they were doing blood dialysis to reduce the number of white blood cells because he had far, far too many. But no, he said, he didn’t know what that meant. It took me a couple of hours to get to the hospital. I knew he was sick, that he had been sick, that he hadn’t been who he usually was for many months. But I didn’t expect to see him stripped and bloated on the table, multiple tubes like computer cables running to a churning machine from a port in his neck, his skin blotched around the injection site with stains of dry brick red blood. Each of the tubes were removing blood from his body, pulling his blood into the machine, separating and hoarding the white while returning the red. I stopped dead at the doorway. He turned to me, knew what I was seeing, and said, “I’m sorry, honey.”

And I think that was the moment we both knew. Even before the technician from the blood center let the word chemotherapy drop from her mouth, before any doctor had warned us of the possibility, or rather, the necessity of treating his cancer immediately, no choice in the matter. The gravity of his words, “I’m sorry,” crushing the hope that anything from this point on would be easy. No, what had already been hard would now become harder. The load would be heavier and the direction of our life together less clear.

The word cancer makes people think of death. So does leukemia, though there are many stories we hear about people who have been cured with much hard work, by the doctors, by the sick. My husband has always been a strong man, a hard worker who has defined himself to himself by putting hand to the proverbial plow. He is two months into what will be the two years of the hardest work he will ever have to do. I choose to believe his body can withstand the impact of the blows. I choose to believe that his will can insure the result. I can only hope my heart’s scars have formed a strong enough infrastructure beneath the minute fractures to keep me from crumbling from each upcoming strike.


Last fall, I visited a friend and we went to meet her lover. We found the woman squatting over her sidewalk like a clam, using her fingers like pincers to pull tiny weeds from between the slabs of concrete. She looked up with red, wet eyes as we approached, and she swiped at tears with a bent wrist, keeping her dirt-blackened fingers away from her damp and florid face.

“I miss my father,” she said to my friend, and since I didn’t know her, I pretended not to hear. During the visit, I pieced together that this day was an anniversary of his death, and that her father had died many more years ago than mine.

I have never been overcome by tears in the middle of the day while thinking about my father. In fact, I’ve never been overcome by tears at any time when thinking about my father since his death. Then and now I wonder what is wrong with me. I loved him. I had love for him.

My journal entry on the date of his death was this:

My father died.

I can’t be certain that I wrote down my weight early that morning and then learned of my father’s death later in the day. I can’t be certain I didn’t note that my father had died, and then sometime later that day, got onto the scale, and then entered the numbers at the top of the page like I did every day. I can’t be certain I wasn’t, as I always am, still thinking about my body’s weight, even under the weight of knowing, knowing my father was dead. I can’t be certain I didn’t grab a fold of skin and wish I could just trim it off like I might my bangs, or the fat off a roast. I can’t be certain that I didn’t just carry on after he was gone.

Last week I dreamed my father was a homeless man, strumming a guitar on the I-94 freeway leading out of Milwaukee, and I was afraid he would be killed.

Of course it was a dream because my father was dead, died of a bleeding colon. We donated his eyes to science. And he never lived in Milwaukee, nor did he ever play guitar, but I have spent the last six days since the dream wanting to rush out of my life and go looking for him, like a lost dog, like a missing limb.

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.