Something We Ought to Do

It began to snow, and I thought we should do something that people do when it snows. So we laced up stiff boots, leashed up our dogs, and made for the mounds of white that had already turned our neighborhood into a movie set, like Jimmy Stewart might come shooshing down the sidewalk (in a parka and cross-country skis instead) and we will sing, “Buffalo Gals, won’t you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out…” Or maybe you are Jimmy and I am Donna Reed, and if you were romantic, you’d promise to lasso the moon, but instead, you are quiet and maybe just following along.

The fresh snow–white and silver glitter flickered in the streetlights, layered on the dogs’ backs like inadequate sweaters–, ahead of us was still untouched, ready for our pack to leave tracks, evidence we’d come out into the world, rather boldly into the cold, because sometimes life becomes a movie scene when you venture out into it.

It ended the way most things end. No matter the splendor, my toes got cold, and I got tired of the fleet wind on my face, before we’d even crossed halfway into the park. No doubt you had more stamina for the weather; nature never seemed to dismay you like it does me. So I posed a plan as I so often do: Let’s take the dogs home, I suggested, and walk a few more blocks to that Italian restaurant on the corner. We’ll walk there, like people do in movies, like people who have a watering hole. God knows, we live in Milwaukee; it’s a shame not to have a corner bar to call our own.

The restaurant was warm and warmly lit. Amber lamps glowed on polished glasses lined up on the bar. My wine was red and your pasta thick. It made the walk through the snow and the park in our early-winter stiff boots all the more idyllic, like there might be movie music soon swelling, and the speed of the action would slow just enough to draw out the moment before the two love interests kiss. Eating eased your irritation with me for pulling you out of the house, like a dog on a leash, to fulfill these ideas I have of things we should do, because it’s what people do, and not always because I long to do them.

Things change as they so often change. Those dogs are long dead, and our black and white mutt hates to get cold or wet so there is little point in going on a leisurely walk in the snow with a dog that prefers dry paws. But I suppose he isn’t too unlike me. I only make myself go out if it seems like something I should do. And sometimes it’s worth it because of moments and memories: that night, that snow.

Now, you can’t be out in the snow, well, the cold, and no sun for you either, which makes going out in March in Milwaukee nearly impossible. Maybe in summer you can walk through our park before dawn, before the sun is up. Photo-sensitivity from the chemo is a danger, but so is everything, it seems.

I shouldn’t have been worried that we’d run out of scenes. Sure, we don’t amble about the neighborhood much any more. But when the doctor told me you had leukemia, I wondered what my next lines should be. And when I told your parents, who had already lost a son, that their son had leukemia, I don’t think I was speaking, but my idea of speaking the words was doing the miserable work for me. So many moments these days, when it is easier to become the watcher and the watched.

All through this past year, I’ve put myself in widow’s dress time and again, but it seems as though you’re going to make it and it’s funny how I know less about this old role of being your wife than the one for which I’d been practicing unwritten lines. We have a man from Europe to thank for his stem cells, for your survival. And maybe someday we will meet him–A handshake? A hug?–just like in a movie. It’s definitely something we ought to do.

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
before
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.)

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

Rough Patches

Alice Walker summoned
The kitchen erotica, sent us
Scurrying to cabinets for olive oil
To lubricate skin, scabs and scars.
My doctors erased mine with careful
Cuts and tucks like hospital corners,
skin kissing skin, hurts hidden.

In our kitchen, my husband
Slices into chicken, removes skin,
Cuts careful one-inch cubes. I do not
Handle raw meat. I slice cooked
Sausage at an angle, toss in olive oil
That splatters the thin skin
of my wrist. I tuck my hands
into fists. I do not own an apron.

My brother wore an apron. It read:
A Wolf in Chef’s Clothing.
He made spaghetti for Dad and me
On Sundays after church. He browned
Meat from the half-cow in our freezer.
It was his specialty, as were his biting
words that stung but left no marks.

Autumn Ragout

I should have begun earlier. The recipe calls for pre-prepared Pennsylvania-Dutch Apple Butter. That recipe is printed on the previous page after Prune Breakfast Butter, Cranberry-Maple Butter, Spiced Squash Butter, Spiced Plum Butter, Spiced Pear Butter. Good thing I bought Granny Smiths at the grocery store for a week’s worth of lunches. Five peeled apples and the tips of my fingers are sandpaper. Three cups of pale half moons. I add apple cider, Ground cinnamon, allspice, cloves, ginger. Spices simmer in a Dutch oven, fill our apartment with a savory-sweet scent. I need a bigger knife. I peel squash, carrots, rutabaga, one small red onion. I cube squash, carrots, rutabaga, one small red onion. I chop Napa cabbage, also called Chinese. I should have bought a fresh lemon; I want it only for its rind. I need prepared mustard.

My mother told just one joke her entire life:

​A new bride returns to her mother’s house, says:
​I left my husband.
When? Her mother asks, Why?
​The new bride says: I
​Was making dinner and the recipe
​Said to take one egg, and beat it.

The vegetables are roasting. It is already seven o’clock.

I make my husband slice the chicken, cut one-inch cubes. I do not handle raw meat. The turkey sausage is pre-cooked and I slice at an angle, mimic Julia and Martha, though I do not own an apron. My brother wore an apron when he made spaghetti on Sundays after church. He browned frozen hamburger from the quarter cow in our extra freezer in the basement, and wore the apron that read: A Wolf in Chef’s Clothing. The word ‘ragout’ is French, pronounced the same as the spaghetti sauce my brother fed us on Sundays after my mother died because my father didn’t cook. He ate steak whole, flopping from a fork, plate on his knees.

The vegetables are roasted, but not brown. I send my husband out for bread. It is now seven-thirty. My mother cooked from a Betty Crocker cookbook. The red one, with round metal rings to hold slick pages. Brown stains, blue-inked stars to note if we kids ate it, a checkmark for a potluck or ladies’ aid luncheon. I open the oven door, mitted hands reaching, lifting, combining roasted vegetables with jelly-pink chicken, coins of kielbasa, cabbage, cans of chicken broth, more apple juice. I use only one-half cup of the Pennsylvania-Dutch Apple Butter.

Bake at 350 for 50 minutes, when the vegetables are tender and the chicken is cooked through. While we wait, we dip torn bread into the surplus sweet paste, thick and dark in a bowl painted with a small brown bird, rescued from my mother’s Red Wing pottery set before my father sold the rest. Dinner may be ready by nine o’clock, but I will be too full with memories.

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.

Amputations

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:

182lbs.
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.