My lessons in listening: To a mother’s final words— Always remember I loved you and was proud Tossed off, too rushed to leave work To get to the hospital, to see her, Always thinking of more days, time. Not thinking all I’d see, Her dead eyes.
To all my dogs– little tells Of cocked heads, whines, barks, The ways of wagging tails, To know what meant what– Hunger, pain, desire to play, A need for love or to go outside. Those I’ve always learned well.
To students, the teens I taught, A puzzle to figure of pieces and placement What each meant for each— The lift of a shoulder, how the eyes met or did not meet mine, The head upon the desk, the work done or not, The things said, not said— To figure needs- Some basic, some not so, Requiring other safety nets, Bruised and broken, Some I could help repair. I knew what to listen for, Almost by instinct, Since I had not been listened to When I was one of them.
To my child, a whirlwind of cries, Hunger, diaper, cold, hot, sick— Each cry different A knowing, animal instinct, Some primal thing beating Inside knew the way Of my infant’s need. When a teen— A different thing, A new species of need, My animal and her animal Had no common language Of smells, signals, or cries In the darkened tunnels We went through.
To my dying wife, my dying wife— So hard to listen to, to understand a language no longer including My daughter or me. Never knowing for whom The last coma spoken words– I’m sorry, so sorry— Were spoken.
Now, I learn the final lesson of listening, A lesson sixty years in the learning,
The magnolia tree stands, filled with blossoms and mocking me. Mocking the freezing weather a series of blue Northers have trailed through the Houston area, that tree still stands in bloom. It is three o’clock in the morning, and I stand in the middle of the yard, staring at the damn tree. Another sleepless, restless night. We both know I’ve had my fair share of them over the last few months. Last five years even.
The light from the street lamp that the county has recently seen fit to erect on the farm to market road which runs behind our backyard casts that mocking magnolia tree in a spotlight, something that showy attention hog of a tree seems to crave. The magnolia tree uses its irony to snicker at me. And I swear I will chop the damn tree down myself. Not the easy way, no power driven chainsaw. Just the old fashioned sweat-dripping body, searing-sore muscles and bloody-blistering hands way. But I know I never will. I feel I’ll never be able to move from this house because this tree, this gift, roots me here. Remember how I joked that you would have to dig this tree up and move it with us to the Hill Country surrounding the San Antonio area when we retired?
I suppose the tree knew, felt it too, that you would leave when the cold hit Houston and leached the color from the Texas sky and land.
We could speak of odds beaten, time had, gratitude for what has been. I could speak of all the things I’ve tried to memorize and how I wish the human brain came equipped with a flash drive or an SD card.
For four hours I’ve watched you sleep. Your sleep is peaceful this night. Your profile outlined, set almost aglow, by the light of the full moon that seeps through the slats of the wood blinds in the bedroom. And I’ve spent the hours trying to memorize all the shadows cast by that moonlight upon the curves of your forehead, cheeks, the line of your nose and jaw, and the glint of the silver waves of your full head of hair that has now returned in full force. I think of the words said to me five years ago by a dear friend who lost her husband to a sudden heart attack at 42, “Had I known he was going to die the next day, I would’ve stayed awake all night and memorized every part of him.”
It is the cruel irony of the human memory that made me leave our bed and drew me out to this tree. I was well educated in the ways of memory and loss when I buried my father, then my mother, and then my younger and older brothers each in his turn, and so now I know how years blur the edges and bleed the colors of memory. I’ll have the photos and videos that only capture so much.
But what they cannot capture is the smell of your skin when you wake from a lazy Sunday afternoon nap, or the gentleness with which you transfer a monarch caterpillar from the butterfly weed in the garden you created to the terrarium to protect it from the wasps seeking to kill it, or how you sing a different song every day and never quite get all the lyrics right each time you sing a snippet of it throughout the day, or a thousand different looks or sighs, or how the Texas accent can become more pronounced in just a heartbeat because of something said or a shift in mood or tone. So many things to memorize and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is, of what I do not want to forget or let fade, of what I want to remain in crystalline perfection within my memory.
And the memories not made. My daughter still says you are the one she wants to walk her down the aisle on the day she marries. She is your daughter too in all but biology and the three of us know it. But the fourteen year old girl she is now is angry. Angry that you stopped chemo. How does the child in her begin to understand quality of life versus quantity? Even my intellect can barely understand it as my selfish heart insists the only thing that matters is more time. Do I tell her it was her tears that convinced you to try a bowel re-section surgery and a new, even more grueling, chemotherapy regiment when the doctor’s words could not? When I could not find the courage to beg you to do it and convinced myself that it was bravery that helped me say, “It’s your body. And it’s you who has to go through all of it. You know, I’ll support whatever you decide to do.” The child in her can only see that you stopped the chemo half way through.
Thinking this is the last scheduled treatment, you say to the doctor, “I’m ready for this last one. Let’s get this show on the road!”
“I think we’ve miscommunicated. This is only 2A,” she explains.
“But you said three treatments.” Your shoulders slump.
“I’m sorry. I think I haven’t been clear. It is three treatments, but each treatment is given in two parts. 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3A, 3B and so forth for a total of six infusions. I thought I had explained that after your surgery.” The doctor looks to me for back up. I’m not sure why the doc always looks to me for back up or to confirm your assertions that you feel absolutely fine.
“You just said three treatments,” I said, knowing I have that deer in the headlight look, knowing you would not do more than what you had agreed to do, knowing and seeing the price you paid for each surgery, for each chemo treatment.
“I’m sorry for any misunderstanding.” Looking down at your chart, she continues, “Well, your blood work is ok. So I’ll clear you for treatment today. Everything else good?” The doctor looks at you and then at me.
“I’m great,” you say. “Remember, I’m your star patient.”
The doctor looks at me again. I smile. The elevator up two floors to the Infusion Team for port access. Thank God the wait is long and the lidocaine cream had time to work to numb that area around your port-a-catheter so that you don’t have to feel as if you are being stabbed again. The elevator down one floor to the chemo suites. Another long wait sets your nerves on edge, a mix up with the doctor’s signature on the orders makes the wait longer today. Finally, we are in and the pre-meds start. The new, super-duper cocktail of steroids comes first. Then the anti-nausea meds and the acid reducer meds. Then the allergy meds just in case your body decides to rebel against what comes next, the poisons.
Twenty minutes into the hour and a half which the first bag of poison takes to drip into your body, you lose what little color you had, your face turns the shade of death, an ashen white grey. Forty-five minutes into the second bag of poison, I see the first tear escape the corner of your eye. I count my breaths. Thirty. Until you turn and say, “I can’t do this anymore. Please call the nurse and have her unhook me. I want to go home.” I start to protest, but you say, “Please” once more. And my selfish heart melts. I cannot ask you to suffer through more poison and what the poison brings to you.
Our daughter has never seen your face in the chemo room, and she will never get to see your face as you walk her down the aisle on her wedding day or see you hold her first born child though she still talks as if that is in a possible future, yet she knows the truth. That it is not possible unless there is a miracle from God. The God and Jesus she said she knew existed when she was six, remember? We had decided to pack up the dusty, cobweb riddled parcels of our respective pasts and address them “return to sender.” Our decision made, I explained to her what our plans were and that you would be moving into the house. Her face was blank for a moment before her eyes went wide and she said quietly, a whisper of wonder and awe, “Now I know that Jesus is real and God does answer prayers. Because this is what I prayed for, Mama.”
This summer, she does a very teenager thing and rages at you when you ask her to pick up a wet towel off her bathroom floor. The slamming of her bedroom door stabs all of us, cutting us with the brutality of its sound. And the magnolia tree, flourishing, stands, looking up at her bedroom window.
Now the magnolia tree blossoms, your most romantic anniversary present to me. Summer, our 7th anniversary as we counted them, I came home to find you already there, home early from work, a rarity, waiting for me with a bottle of champagne, a lovely card, and a newly planted magnolia tree, my favorite tree. In the card, you had written how we would blossom and grow together through the years like the tree. You told me it was the best magnolia you could find, but the following year, you would have to prune it since it had limbs at the base of the trunk making it more shrub like in its shape. But you were diagnosed with Stage Four ovarian cancer in August and too sick to prune the tree at the optimal time during dormancy.
When the next optimal time for pruning rolled around, you wanted to forge ahead with the project to shape the magnolia which was then about 10 feet tall and looked like a large flowering shrub. But I told you not to do it. I was afraid. I’ve never really been superstitious, but they say if you prune a magnolia tree, it will not flower that year when it comes out of dormancy. And for some reason, I was afraid that if the tree did not flower it would be some sort of sign. An irrational fear, I know. I chided myself for thinking of it this way. After all, looking at things as signs and symbols was the territory of fortune tellers and religious fanatics. Signs and symbols were something to be looked for and connected to in literature and art said the analytical part of my English teacher mind. Not something one looked for in everyday, ordinary life.
Last year, you pruned the magnolia tree. And I was heartsick when I came home from the store and found you in the backyard, the saw in your hand, announcing, “I just finished. How’s it look?” You looked at your handiwork, the twisted dismembered limbs piled neatly at your feet as if readied for a funeral pyre.
Wiping the sweat from your brow, you turned to me, your eyebrows raised. Like a child you sought approval and praise for the butchery of your hard work. “Looks great,” I said, smiling, letting you have the approval you wanted. “But will it be ok?”
“Won’t bloom this spring. But it’ll be fine. It’ll bloom next spring though. Likely grow taller than it would have without cutting all these branches down at the bottom here.”
“That’s good. I’ve got to put away the groceries,” I said and left you to clean up the severed limbs. I cried, although I didn’t let you see me cry. In my mind, you and the tree were linked, though I knew it was not a rational link to make. The link was made on emotion, on sentiment, a childish link. But the tree grew. And flourished. And flowered. And so my hope that the cancer was also pruned from your body flourished and flowered. Perhaps the last torturous surgery and the last grueling rounds of chemo had worked and it would not come back a fourth time.
But while the magnolia tree stood dormant, the cancer grew. The last surgery and chemo only purchased ten months before the cancer reappeared, spread to the lungs. Palliative care, the only choice. Not that it mattered. You had made the decision that you wouldn’t do any more treatment. It was “worse than dying” you said. And I know you speak the truth of it. I felt it too. But how could I ever tell you that the minute the poison began to drip, you began to slip away from me, from her, from us. No matter how hard you tried not to, little by little, you slipped away. Until the third day after, then you were gone. The fourth day, I felt the hole within me form and the world turned to sepia then to stark black and white. The fifth day, you would begin your slow return and color washed into the world again. Yes, a dress rehearsal for death, for grief.
This summer the magnolia tree blossomed and flourished as you faded, drying out like a wedding bouquet turning brown around the edges. Pain wilting your strength, shading the light from your eyes. For brief moments and sometimes a few brief hours at a time, we were blessed when you were strong enough to be your old self and we were entertained by your song of the day with mangled lyrics, watching you count the monarch and swallowtail caterpillars in the butterfly garden you planted, mourning with you if you happened to lose one to a wasp or a bird, laughing with you if you suddenly broke out into your “too white to be a white girl dance,” as you refer to it, in the middle of the kitchen.
It was at those moments when I looked into the eyes of that angry fourteen year old and saw the six year old who said she knew God answered prayers, and I recognized the longing there. It was the same longing I felt, and still feel, the longing to once again feel the luxury of taking time for granted. It is the longing of a selfish heart for more time no matter the price, no matter the sacrifice. It is the longing for a miracle like those of two thousand years ago in which we all believe. It is the longing to memorize a person with such crystalline perfection that the edges can never blur and the colors can never bleed away. And the magnolia tree stands outside the kitchen window.
That damn tree has the audacity to still bloom though it is two days after Christmas and I had to wrap the outside faucets to protect our pipes from the freezing temperatures we so rarely get here in Houston. Like Longfellow’s “Cross of Snow” that lies “sun-defying” on a “mountain in the distant west,” it defies the cold as if celebrating our June anniversary, as if it doesn’t know that you have been vomiting bile every day for two weeks, as if it doesn’t know that you’ve lost fifty-five pounds in the last two months since you could no longer eat more than a bite or two at a time and now can no longer eat at all. The magnolia acts as if it were summer with all its open, creamy blossoms. And I wish it were.
The summer we met. The sun behind you as pulled open the glass door of the restaurant, a silhouette with a halo around your wavy mane of hair. Everything perfectly outlined, perfectly sculpted. Both of us too nervous to eat, drinking too much coffee that Saturday afternoon. You finally admitted it was your sister who put your profile up of the dating site and with whom I had been communicating. I shifted my eyes from yours, convinced I would next hear how you were not interested in meeting anyone, that your sister had taken too many liberties. But you said you were glad she had and invited me to her house the next weekend for swimming and a barbeque. When you saw my hesitation, you told me to bring my daughter as your niece would be there also. And so we began that summer twelve years ago.
The next weekend, my daughter began her journey toward becoming your child as well. Your introductory gift to her, a small, squishy stuffed bunny which she promptly named Special Bunny and which she has never slept without since. What an incongruous sight it is to see the teen she has become sleeping with Special Bunny clutched in her hand and tucked tightly under her chin, making her look still so like her toddler self as she sleeps. But that afternoon twelve years ago, you swam with her clutching onto your back and played with all her water toys to her infinite delight and snuck away with her for ice cream before the burgers and hot dogs were ready. She was ready to admit she loved you long before I was.
It was the next summer before I could admit that. Too gun shy, too many hurts, and a child’s heart to consider in the whole process, I didn’t want to jump into anything. We’d been seeing each other just a tad over a year that Sunday morning as I stood outside on your patio, looking through the window and watching you and your father play cribbage in the living room. I sipped the coffee you had brought me as I watched and the thought that I loved you, and that no matter how things worked out between us, I knew I would never be the same again for having loved you. In that moment, I knew that not even the woman with whom I had my child had ever meant as much to me as you did. The thought rocked me, unsettling me so that you were a bit taken aback by my hasty departure that morning. We’ve laughed about that morning a good number of times over the years.
I hear your groan on the baby monitor I clutch in my hand. You said I didn’t need to buy it. You did not want to admit that you had grown so weak that I could not be out hearing range of you. Yes, it is likely time for more liquid morphine and anti-nausea meds. If it were summer, I’d bring you down the stairs and outside to see your butterfly garden. Although you are a good eight inches taller than I am, I’ve no doubt I could carry you down the stairs now, as you once picked me up and carried me up the stairs, a bottle of champagne clutched in your hand.
Once the healthy muscle of a marathon runner and softball player rippled on your body and now the skin hangs over bones depleted of muscle in an effort to keep the body alive. The cancer starving you to death. So fragile your body seems when I have to move you that my own five foot two, size four frame feels massive and brutish, and I fear breaking you, causing you pain just to bathe you.
Before returning to you, I check on our daughter. I still like to watch her sleep sometimes. She has Special Bunny clutched up under her chin as always. Her lips slightly parted, yes, looking like a toddler in her sleep. I worry for her, who is my life, and her grief for you.
I return to our room. You are restless. There is pain. I measure out the morphine, dribble it slowly into your open mouth. I brush your hair off your face. And you, the one who is my soul, you do not wake.
When you do wake, you will complain of the awful taste in your mouth. I will lift you and give you water, and you will drink to try to rid your mouth of the morphine taste and the dreadful, unquenchable thirst caused by the medications. Then you will vomit bile again, your stomach unable to process that much water at a time.
The hiss of the oxygen tank audible. It will be only days according to the hospice nurse who comes to visit daily. She has said we could have 24/7 nursing care if we wanted, but I know you do not want that. So I’ve refused and told her that as long as I can keep you out of pain, we’d do fine just as we are. I look out the window of our bedroom, staring down at the magnolia tree. Did it know that you would never leave me in summer? Did it know that you could only leave me in winter? Your restlessness subsides, the signal that your pain is held at bay. You are peaceful, your breath coming slow and shallow, rasping. The blossoms on the magnolia are open like empty bone china cups waiting to be filled by summer rain.
My daughter, at twenty-one, stands to my right.
The gentleman to my left turns to light my candle.
I do not know him, in that moment he is a friend.
I turn to my daughter, and with the small flame of my candle,
Light the candle she holds.
I lift my eyes to look upon her face and I know.
I feel it within me. A tiny spark jumps back
As I think of my own mother and wonder.
Did she ever look at me and feel that light, that flame inside?
Feel that spark of her soul live inside me?
It matters not what I have left undone:
No trip to Paris, No months spent living in Europe,
No books published, Nothing I wish for is important.
Nothing I long for matters to be lived, matters to be accomplished.
I have accomplished all that truly matters
And I can be at peace with any death
My daughter lives.
A wish to follow the sun
And always know its light
Was a childhood dream.
I never wanted to know night.
Terrors happened without light,
So began my craving
For warmth and light.
The natural world and its order
Cannot satisfy such cravings.
One must learn to live without light.
An adult adjustment, a drooping in the spine
Of spirit, a caving inward happens
When childhood cravings must give way
To the knife sharp edge of the adult
World order, how one learns to avoid
The blade of reality, curl inward.
Others hammered out cages
That seemed to fit for me.
Told me to shut up and be happy.
Each wire in the cage a reason
For my unhappiness
With which the one who wielded
The hammer had nothing to do so it was claimed
Each wire a welded bond of a reason
Why I should be happy
If I shut up and smiled
A pretty smile
and wept tears of happiness
Upon my fiery, welding savior.
For years, I kept silent.
Silence made for a peaceful cage,
So I had learned.
Then it happened.
My silence gathered round me,
Head to toe,
Wrapping me in darkness and warmth.
At first, panic.
Nothing good ever happened in darkness.
But I felt them start to form.
A pain I had never felt before,
Starting in my mouth,
Traveling down my throat,
Seeping out either side of my spine
Between my shoulder blades.
Giving birth had been less painful
Than this, as if new bone and tissue
Formed and moved and settled in.
After a few years,
the chrysalis of silence split open.
I spoke as my new sprouted wings dried,
“You were the wires of the cage meant
To keep me from the warmth I crave,
Meant to keep me from the stirrings of my blood.
Meant to keep me from the sun.”
I am caged no longer now.
I migrate with the sun
And all things those with cages
Sought to keep me from,
Things that stir the blood,
Things that feed on
The warmth of the sun
Are mine to alight upon.
Time broke, And you were there, Black and white upon a screen, Seeming to tumble In time to the thump, thump From a machine.
Time split in half, And you were there, Barely a teen, Trying on a mountain of jeweled dresses Frowning and sighing. Finally smiling After reluctantly putting on a dress I asked, “Just try it, please?”
Time shattered, And there you were, Clattering down the hall, Your tiny toddler feet In my size nine heels.
Time wrecked, And there you were, An adolescent sleeping, Lips parted, A fist clutching a beloved stuffed bunny, So grown, yet so tiny still.
Time crumbled, And you were there In your toddler car seat, Sobbing, fat toddler tears For we had no food To give the homeless man on the corner. So, we drove through McDonald’s and bought a meal for him. Your tears stopped. You smiled as I handed him the meal. But the incongruity of your toddler voice admonished, “Next Sunday, after church, we need to buy a healthy meal And bring it to him. McDonald’s isn’t healthy to eat all the time.”
Time exploded, And there you were, Sitting in a swing, hands reaching for the sky; Crying in my arms, heart breaking for the first time; Laughing on Saturday morning, maple syrup running down your chin; Praying the Lord’s prayer in church, brow furrowed in toddler earnestness.
Time coalesced, Healing its broken, Shattered, Split, Wrecked, Crumbled, Exploded Self.
Time mended, Leaving us broken In its wake To find ourselves— Mother, aged And daughter, grown To know each other Again.
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