This empathic piece of fiction was written in class this morning, the day following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. For the prompt, we were to select a postcard and I picked the one pictured above. I hope the recording isn’t too slow to load. I use video from my phone because to convert an iPhone audio requires a laborious trip through iTunes and a widget on WordPress which would cost me $13/month (?!!!). This time, I’ve written out the prompt-response as well. Virtually everything written here is made up and the fact that my imagined scene happens in a wintry clime ought to drive home that fact. That I can so easily render a scene like this speaks to the abysmal failure of our government to control guns.
Every Ash Wednesday from Now Til Death
Heather’s face made the front page. The ash mark more strike than dot, a face crunched in grief. A lost child. A lost child. Another headline. More bodies to count.
Bodies. Children. The teacher who dies saving a teenager or two. Even the sight, crisis over, of high school students filing out of the building with their hands up crushes the spirit.
This is who we are. This is it. Automatic rifles for everyone! Anyone! A soul-less party paralyzed by the Almighty NRA dollar. Let’s pray.
No really. Let’s pray. The profusion of lilies along the altar and lining the steps up to the altar sweeten the air to a sickening degree. The lovely trumpet shapes, the silky pure white, no defense against the death rot sure to come. To the petals, which will shrivel and brown in decline, to the child in the casket, who will shrivel and brown, and to the priest, and to each and everyone of us sitting there.
The priest comes out without his usual sturdy authority, climbing the lectern in a weary resistance. What shall he preach? That God has ways we know not? That He takes the good ones early? That faith will restore even them that despair.
Tilly and Glenda sit in front of me. They didn’t know Drew very well. I, not at all. The fact that I am separated by four or more degrees might make me feel an intruder were it not for the fact that the wreckage rained down by a hail of automatic bullets hit all of us, hit our entire high school body. While some, like Drew’s poor parents, pay a bigger and everlasting price, not a single parent of a child at the high school and not a single high school student emerged unscathed.
The priest clears his throat. Whimpers can be heard and choked sobs from up front.
“It is easy,” he says, “to have faith when the sun is shining. When the tidings are glad, how smooth the extension of our hands, one to the other. When our tables sag with bounty, it’s no challenge to acknowledge the bounty of Our Lord. But in times of darkness, when every message is soaked in tears or blood or both, that is when we are tested. That is when our faith must rise up and meet God’s mercy.”
I fought his every word, even as I was swept up in the intended goodness. It occurs to me that I cannot pinpoint when I stopped believing in God — or at least, in anything but a very remote Supreme Being, one that governs how molecules spin and bounce but has no message or care for any of us individually. How could believing in a God who lets senseless violence of this repetitive magnitude happen offer comfort?
We grieve for Drew. All the soccer games he will not play, the girls he will not tease or tempt, the glories of the flesh essentially unmet, the challenge of growing up, never to be confronted. Holidays for his family, ever after a nightmare. And, no doubt, there will be two excruciating anniversaries a year — the fixed one, February 14, Valentine’s Day, and the roving one, every Ash Wednesday from now ’til death.
What should Drew’s mother give up for Lent? What a hideous idea! Will she become a mother on the Grief Circuit, trying to effect political change? She might want to look at the blank page of Sandy Hook parents’ results before undertaking such a public and exhausting route.
Some parents will close their doors and lock them from the inside. Others will testify before Congress. Still others will go on as before, but hollowed out, a gutted replica of the life they were leading on Fat Tuesday. None of them will ever be the same.
The upstretched arms. The drape of satin embroidered with the old Catholic symbols. When did Drew last receive Communion, I wonder, and why on earth would it matter? Was it a source of contention in the household — one of many conflicts which will, in replay, seem so utterly inconsequential?
Is there any of us who can love our children so hard and so deeply that at this lily-sickened moment, there are no regrets?
Of course not. And anyone who suggests as much, I guarantee you will not be a parent, or at least, not a parent of teenagers.
By all counts, Drew was a good kid. Sam didn’t know him well — different circles and so on. But it was apparently only the usual and forgivable delinquencies — alcohol at parties (but never when driving), a little reefer now and then, a lot of enthusiasm for the school prank, and the usual amounts of contempt for certain teachers. He would’ve gone to college. Studied engineering or biological data collection. He would’ve fallen in love — perhaps for the second time, I don’t know. He’d have hunted for work, recycled, called Congress, made spaghetti. All the acts of a life gone dark.
“Christ be with you.”
“And also with you.”
I’m too far back to hear the words clearly. Murmurs only. Drew’s mother crosses herself, returns to her pew. Husband waiting for her. A non-believer.
Tilly turns and whispers to me, “It’s almost enough to make me consider going to Mass again.”
I mouth the words, “I know,” but I don’t know. Nothing can immunize against this loss. Nothing can fill the void it cracks open.
I’m surprised how many young people (friends of Drew’s) are receiving Communion. I would’ve thought they’d have fallen away already — the way each generation speeds up the progress of the former. In our generation, you went through the motions until college, where you went to Mass exactly once, never to return. Don’t kids these days refuse sooner? Maybe at the same time their recently Bar Mitzvahed friends stop going to temple?
We file out to crisp air and a pewter sky. People mill about, unsure how to be, unwilling yet to leave the group. But I don’t want to be standing awkwardly by when Drew’s parents emerge, so I head to my car, boot heels clunking on the cleared sidewalk in some sort of reassuring percussion — I’m alive. I’m alive. My sons are alive. Alive.
I’m in bed and it’s dark and still raining. Click and glow — the phone in my hand. First up, a hilarious take on Halloween candy, the kind of diversion one hopes for and almost never finds in one’s merry traipsing across social media.
Tap, tap. Next up: an article about how scanning social media first thing in the morning rots your brain. I kid you not.
Click and down goes the phone — I’m no fool! — but carefully, having dropped it enough to have those spider web cracks typical of millennial devices (makes me feel young!).I listen to the rain. Under the covers, I stretch my hips.
Unfortunately, NPR’s on. Oh great, trump will prevent Obama’s student debtor protections from becoming law, because — why? Because we all want our young to be victims of predatory lending – of course we do! Certainly, Betsy DeVos does.Another kind of poison — the inescapable toxic cloud of indecency that is the news. It’s harder to click off. There’s no getting away from it. Not really.
I jog while Nozema-ing my face in the dark — as if it might make me live longer or at least, render my jeans a decent fit again. I don’t feel like a millenial now.
Descending the stairs for coffee and the day’s official start, it’s still dark. I cover the stove and microwave LCD clocks with post-it notes — their glare offends. Okay, leave me alone.
Then, it’s down to business — a vigorous editing session and then an almost-hour-long-walk with the dog in the rain.
Home to a ‘call me back, it’s important’ message on the landline.
Turns out, all I have to do is set a firm deadline to call forth the Gorgon of my sister’s need (did you know the three Gorgons were sisters? I’ll be Medusa! She can be one of the ones nobody’s heard of).
Okay, it’s really serious, having to do with ignored notices from MAHealth, cut offs looming, documentation required (um, two weeks ago?). Even a 1% contribution to medical costs — heck, even a 1% contribution to her DRUG costs — would savage my sister’s finances (or upset the apple cart of my brother’s help — equally catastrophic).
But, wait – what’s happening? No clenching of the jaw. No pleading (her) or heaving of big, resentful sighs (me). What’s changed? Is it the reduction in her meds, restoring mental alacrity and energy? Is it me, ferociously resolved not to be sideswiped by another’s need?
Whatever it is, I’ll take it. She’s handling it (seems to be?) — late, but handling it. I’m laudatory about that, only mentioning the lapsed deadline two (or was it three?) times.
Imagine having no car, needing a walker, owning no real estate, no stocks or bonds, having no savings, no credit or debit card, and paying rent that consumes 75% of a meager income, barely leaving enough for utilities (and certainly not enough for food) and then having to prove one’s poverty to the powers that be.
I’ll blame this on trump. What state wouldn’t want to clear its health insurance rolls of riff-raff in light of all the uncertainty that has so vindictively been inserted into the arena?
Shake your head and note: this personal thread substantiates the earlier point about trump being an all-pervasive toxic cloud.
But I’ll end with this — ‘Flake’ should be the new ‘fleek’ (not that I EVER got what that meant — in spite of some effort, mind). It should be a thing and a good thing — as in “the man spoke with the strength of his convictions. He ‘flaked’ in front of the entire Senate Chamber.”
Crossing the parking lot closest to the barber’s, Marianne walked through walls of smell. Non-natural. What was it – Desitin? So definite and remembered, nothing comparable — a chalky scent with overtones of cherry life saver. Couldn’t be, could it?
The heat of the three previous days had subsided but not the mugginess. A mass of grey cloud signaled rain, but so far, it held off. The traffic at the corner was obscene — a re-vamped right of way gone amuck. People were up in arms, zinging emails through neighborhoods and sponsoring data collection after the fact. The mayor was gonna have his head handed to him.
In the crosswalk, Marianne looked up to see the clouds spreading out. Or were they gathering other clouds into their mass? Church bells pealed. There was a sense of drama.
Was it just 24 hours earlier — her face crumpled in grief, the vet kneeling in sympathy — that she’d received the news about Ursula’s cancer? Even overwhelmed with the kind of unmitigated sorrow we can only feel for our animals, Marianne recalled her sister’s aggressive question from the day before, “What makes YOU cry?”
Marianne had been tightly unresponsive knowing that any answer would’ve been employed by her in the undeserved campaign to prove her failings. But she’d also been unable to recall a single instance of recent tears.
“Probably Stage IV,” the vet was saying.
“THIS makes me cry,” Marianne thought, “this.”
Just a few minutes into the wave of uncensored grief came the discomforting certainty that, to put it simply, cost would be a factor.
After hearing the price for chemo, Marianne wailed, “We have two kids to put through college!” The two vehicles in need of repair were not mentioned. The vet continued to kneel and nodded without judgment while Ursula sat between them in a quiet sphinx-like pose. Was the dog merely relieved the muzzle was off and the prodding over or did that posture now include a dignified toleration of pain?
The next day Marianne headed back to the van and wondered how long Sam’s haircut would take. Some days they took you in five minutes. Other days, thirty. That was the summer she coached the boys to say, “I want to wait for Sal.” No one should get a terrible haircut out of polite deferral to the random order in a barber shop.
The rain started its slow pelting after Marianne reached the mini-van. The heat being what it was, she sat with the windows open, letting the splatting drops moisten her shoulder and the window berm.
“What makes YOU cry?”
School had ended, finally, last week. Sam took himself to the barber routinely now, so why was Marianne offering rides and waiting, as if he were twelve? “The spiral of development,” her psychologist friend, Winnie, would chuckle. “Not just the kids regressing before transitions.”
Marianne rejiggered the bounds of dependence in both directions. ‘Here’s a credit card.’ ‘Let me pick you up.’ There was a haunting finality to those weeks between high school and college.
White clouds billowed above maple trees to the east, their curves almost precisely replicating the scalloped canopy below. Then the rain came down in sheets.
What would it be, then, this summer? The sad and inexorable cancer vigil, each night wondering if Ursula would still be breathing come morning? Indulging in trips to the beach, determined to make the summer worthwhile, unsettled by the knowledge that the dog was at home trying to breathe? What comfort could the crashing surf offer when the decision about euthanasia hung above the beach like a scythe and flashed in the summer glare.
They went to the White Mountains in July. Ursula’s last outing. The guys all hiked, while Marianne read a Franzen novel at the picnic table and fed Ursula chips of bacon. If it had been any other year, they would have boarded the dog. Now such a decision struck her as incomprehensible, just as how at this distance, preschool seemed so radically unnecessary.
It killed Marianne that all those white haired women at the supermarket had proved to be right in the end. How she’d gritted her teeth hearing advice that was as predictable as it was intrusive: “Enjoy it while you can! It’s over before you know it!” Yeah, lady. I’m just trying to get through the next hour, she remembered thinking.
The next hour and the next hour adding up to an entire childhood. The penultimate haircut before college.
What makes you cry?
“The dog will let you know when it’s time,” the vet had said. At the time, Marianne doubted her but it turned out she was right. Ursula did let them know. The medication helped for six weeks and then it didn’t. Just like that.
During Ursula’s final moments, Marianne fed her nearly a pound of bacon. Her husband choked back tears. The sweet-faced Corgi was lying on a towel the vet had given them in case the dog emptied her bowels at death. Ursula was eager for pork one second and gone the next. Just like that. They wrapped her and the towel in a large swath of red silk. Then the vet showed them a private exit through the lab as a courtesy.
Her husband buried Ursula under the pin cherry out back. They used half of a broken paver stone Marianne and the boys had made ages ago for a marker. The shards of crockery and marbles had been stuck into concrete not quite mixed to last.
And here came Sam at last, looking dapper and ready to meet the world, impervious to the rain.
* * * * * * *
Note: This is a little too long to be flash fiction.
On another note, I consolidated the plot map into one board. Turns out, it was hard to read over two panels and too much light was being blocked. And, I did finally manage to download a countdown app. The home screen icon (lower right) gets a red number, as noticeable as the number for unread emails.
If I click on the icon, I see this:
(Those are slave cabins at McCloud Plantation). I still can’t really tell if this is a do-able amount of time to finish. Truly. But it seems to be helping me stay focused, so I won’t dicker with it.
After being called into service to help my sister supply the Salem housing authority with a bunch of documentation on Monday, I worried I might have to move the deadline. Fortunately, the task was a lot easier than expected. When and if she gets subsidized housing, I’ll let my brother pay for movers.
Next up. I plan to break the sections on the board into four chunks. Each will then get roughly twenty five days.
One hour south & a lifetime away! A seventh annual gathering. I knew this’d be a tribal exercise — all of us women of a certain age, many lawyers, all engaged & smart sharing an exuberant relationship to food. I didn’t expect to find more profound tribal bonds in the realm of heart ache. Without getting into the details, let me just say: what a lot of familial misery between the nine of us!
I went to the first gathering and missed the intervening six. It was useful to acknowledge what prevented attendance in those years, but listening to others describe challenges and interventions for sons, siblings, & parents, I couldn’t help but wonder what I might’ve learned or employed to good effect had I managed to show up.
Put that wonderment in the category of ‘parental hand-wringing.’ Reflexive regret doesn’t get a free pass around here, just so you know. I’m working on it.
I should have handled it differently. Is that true? Not sure. Not definitively. When I think, “I should have handled it differently” I feel bad and there’s no good reason to hang onto the thought. If I turn it around here’s what I get: I handled it just right.
I don’t beat myself up for being an introvert anymore, but I live so privately these days that I have the luxury of forgetting how my style of communicating comes across. It’s not that I forget how interruptive, easily excited, and opinionated I am. It’s that I forget that for some, this is off-putting.
(“I’d rather need modulating than feel compelled to shush people,” is something I would never say.)
Anyway, it was no big deal. And one guest informed me in her quiet way in the kitchen yesterday that she appreciates ‘direct people’. . . likes ‘knowing where she stands’. It was nice to hear, but also just weird to even be thinking about: ‘I’m this. I’m that.’
I’m glad to be home, that’s for sure, nice as it was, even though it is cold and rainy again. I have the heat on. Just a little. No apology. The doctor’s office called. The test was negative for shingles but probably is shingles given the presentation. My brother seems pretty sure that the reason it doesn’t hurt is because of the recent vaccination. Maybe that foiled the test, too.
Whatever else this diagnosis says about my stress-level, chocolate consumption, or immune system, it feels appropriate that my cheek is weeping. Weep, weep, weep. I keep wishing I could go somewhere and cry but I can’t or won’t, so maybe this’ll have to do.
If it weren’t for a phone call with my sister, I would say that today is a very good day and even with a phone call from my sister, the day rounds into new territory. Less hostile, that is. Calmer. Rain or no rain: mine. Blame and vitriol or none: mine. Weeping blisters or none: coming ’round the bend.
I always think I’ll be back sooner than I am, so in case I’m not — will you watch the Comey hearing on Thursday? I will and in real time, with friends.