I’m the one who leaps

On Ethical ELA today, Margaret Simon shared the work of fellow Louisiana native and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Jericho Brown. For the Open Write challenge, Margaret encouraged writers to use an echo line, anaphora, in composing poetry, something Brown does so magnificently. You can read an excerpt of his work and many other moving poems on being “a marcher or a leaper” here.

I lifted a line of Brown’s from The Tradition: “I’m the one who leaps.” My poem is based on a long-ago story told by someone who mattered to me, so much …

I’m the One Who Leaps

I’m the one who leaps
not from here to there
but within.

I’m the one who leaps
not like the farm boy standing rooted
to the old front porch
listening to hounds on the hunt.
Baying, fever pitch, nearing, nearing
when in the clearing
bursts the fawn from the brush.
White spots still visible
here and there
on the body running, running
right toward the farm boy standing rooted
to the old front porch.

No time to think
No turning back
Hounds closing in
-the fawn cries, that final sound
a creature makes when it knows
it’s reached the end.

The boy stands rooted.
No time to think
he just does it
he just opens his arms.

No time to think
The fawn just sees,
sees and leaps …

The farm boy
who caught the fawn
on the old front porch
became a preacher
standing rooted
in the Word of God.

Be the one who leaps,
he told us children,
into the Father’s open arms.
You cannot save yourselves.

I sat rooted to the pew
hearing the hounds on the hunt,
seeing the fawn
and those open arms.

I’m the one who leaps
not from here to there
but within.

Photo: Running fawn. Cropped. USFWS Midwest Region. CC BY

For the love of reading

When our second grade team had quarterly planning, one of the subs didn’t show and I was summoned to cover the class for a while. I knew there would be sub plans.

But I brought three books with me anyway.

I gave a quick book talk and let the class choose which one to hear. The high vote-getter was A Deal’s a Deal, the story of two little rabbits swindling each other while trading toy cars. There’s a (delightfully disgusting) surprise ending, which is why I brought this book; it never fails to elicit big belly laughs and loud cries of EEEWWWWWW!

I wanted, in my few moments with these kids, for them to experience the joy of reading. I love to watch children’s faces while I read aloud; it is my favorite thing to do, next to writing with them.

A read-aloud, done well, is a theatrical performance. The kids hung on every word, they could feel the action building, they covered their faces, they howled and hollered EEEWWWWWWW!

—Perfect.

Then they went to work on the activities left for them.

I walked the room, well-aware that teachers are trying their best to adhere to a new curriculum that offer less individual reading and writing choices. I watched the children at their tasks. I watched the clock … and decided to set my timer.

“All right, you have a few minutes left to finish this work before my time with you is up. Let’s get it done, and I will read you the book that got the second-highest vote.”

In short order, the work was done, desks cleared, random things on the floor picked up. They gathered at my feet to hear The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend.

I first encountered this book in a summer writing institute for teachers. Our guest author, Matt de la Peña, used it as an example of perspective, asking what’s the story really about, who’s it really about. There was a good bit of debate, as I recall …

But I didn’t set it up this way with the kids.

I just read, letting the words and the illustrations work their magic.

Turned a page, heard the collective Oooohhhh.

Saw light playing on their faces, wonder in their eyes.

I savored them as they savored this book on friendship and imagination.

Whispering in my mind: You were my first friend, too. My oldest and my dearest, even now.

All too soon we reached the end of the book, if not the end of Beekle’s and his friend’s adventures. And here’s the interesting thing: the kids knew who the story was really about, what it was really about, something I’d watched grown-ups—teachers—struggle with.

As I prepared to leave, the children gravitated to the stuffed Beekle who’d been sitting off to the side by himself. He usually sits on my bookcase in my room, an outlier amid all my Harry Potter memorabilia. At the last minute I’d grabbed him and brought him along.

Seems he was here by design, waiting for every child in turn to embrace him, in the way that only children can.

Little girl blowing bubbles

Ever wish you could keep a small child safe and innocent forever? It’s a wish as ethereal as bubbles in the wind, drifting away like childhood itself. I took this photo last summer. It’s taken this long to figure out how to convey what I felt.

Little girl

blowing bubbles

in the sun

free of troubles

How they drift

on the breeze

turning, turning

as they please

Colors shimmer

ever bright

just a moment

in the light

Wave your wand

my temporary

iridescent

bubble fairy

All too soon

time shall pass

bubbles pop

in the grass

How I wish

things could stay

idyllic as

this summer day.

Sick Ada, part II


About a month ago I shared this idea for a story about a little girl who loves cicadas and who’s having a hard time dealing with her parents’ separation. The girl’s name is Ada and she becomes seriously ill . . . hence the title, “Sick Ada,” cicada . . .

The story’s been gestating for a while as there were so many things to flesh out: How old is Ada? Why are her parents separated? Who left, Mom or Dad? Why? What’s the deal with her cicada fascination? How does she get sick? Most of all: Where should the story begin?

I considered writing this scene first: Near the end of the story, Ada goes into the hospital, sick enough that her recovery hangs in the balance. It is winter, when cicadas don’t sing, but she hears the heater rattling in her hospital room and believes it to be cicadas. She decides she doesn’t mind dying as long she can hear them . . .

But I am not starting there, and Ada will not die because my friend Kathleen interceded, pleading for the little girl’s life.

Amid much encouragement and a few thinly-veiled threats (thanks, Friends!), here’s the first draft opening scene.

*******

The darkness began to change.

Strips of light glimmered between the blinds until a thin finger of sunshine pushed through, reaching across Ada’s rumpled bed to caress her cheek.

At its warm touch, she opened her eyes.

Morning.

Oh!

Ada sat straight up in bed.

It’s my birthday! I am nine.

She felt strangely old.

Sitting there in the grayness, Ada knew two certainties. Today the cicadas would start singing. They always started singing on her birthday; Daddy said it was their song of celebration for her coming into the world. He would sing to her, too, only this time it would be over the phone. He promised to call today. Next week when school was finally out, Mama would drive Ada to the airport, put her on a plane, and Daddy would be there to meet her when the plane landed. It would be her first flight.

Ada wondered if cicadas sang on the other side of the country.

The other certainty was that she wouldn’t get her biggest birthday wish of all, that Daddy would come home to stay.

*******

So, Friends, that’s how Ada’s story begins for now, rough as it is.

For the record: The cicada is an ancient symbol of change or transformation and the name “Ada” just so happens to mean “noble.”

Photo: Girl with cicada bug. Jose HernandezCC BY-SA

On cicada wings

Cicada wing. Kristine Paulus. CC BY

A hymn, of sorts, on hearing one of my favorite sounds for the last time this year—it echoes from idyllic childhood summers and the country roads of my ancestral homeplace. A strangely sacred sound, it always lifts my spirits and aches in my soul at the same time.

High in the oaks

against the bluest of skies

the rattling swells

as its season dies.

An oxymoron

this buzzing call

from amid the leaves

soon to fall.

This song of my childhood

lingering still

in the last of the light

before the chill.

Full force, the cicada sings

—doesn’t it know?—

summer’s gone on the wings

of a song long ago.

***

‘You were my favorite memory’

BoJangles

New BoJangles at night. Mr. Blue MauMauCC BY

Spring arrives amid a flurry of wings, bird voices rising with the morning sun, daylight hours stretching perceptibly longer, the first warm breath of promise to come.

On such a day, two years ago, my youngest son’s lifelong friend died in an accident.

She was eighteen.

She was one of the prettiest children I’ve ever seen. Big, brown, doe-like eyes in a round cherub face. Musical, like my son. They grew up in children’s choirs at church, were in band together throughout high school. She played the flute. My son occasionally accompanied her and their other childhood friend on the piano during worship services. All three of them sang:

I’ve had many tears and sorrows

I’ve had questions for tomorrow

There’ve been times I didn’t know right from wrong

But in every situation

God gave blessed consolation

That my trials come to only make me strong.

Through it all,

Through it all . . . 

Their voices blended beautifully. Hers was high, clear, pure, almost ethereal.

I wrote to her, told her so. Said that she needed to sing more often.

Perhaps that note was in her things, still, when her mother began going through them after her death. I do not know.

But an essay she’d written in high school was there.

Its title: My Favorite Childhood Memory.

Her mother copied it, sent it to my son and their other friend—for she wrote of them.

I wondered, when I first learned of this essay, what the memory was. Maybe a birthday celebration, as they were all born in August of three successive years. Maybe working Vacation Bible School or Bible Sports Camp together as youth. Maybe it was the time they went shopping and bought two betta fish that my son named after gospel bass singers, or one of the summer beach trips they took, growing up. The three of them even went to the prom together, once.

My son let me read her essay.

She wrote of Sunday nights when the three of them would go with her family to BoJangles for supper, how they told hysterically funny stories, how she laughed and laughed. She said these were the best times of her childhood, that she would always remember them . . . .

She is gone. Her words, her love for her friends, remain:

You were my favorite childhood memory.

It seems almost like a thank-you letter, now.

My son says once in a while, when he’s out walking laps around the church, exercising his body, easing his mind and his soul—he can hear her singing.

It’s two years today, a Sunday. Tonight her family and friends will gather at BoJangles in her memory.

Happy place

Sitting in the surgical room, waiting for a minor outpatient procedure, I try to redirect my sense of dread by listening to the nurses chatting:

“The knees, they’re the most unforgiving body part.”

“How about the uterus? The uterus is a vindictive organ. You mess with it and it’s going to fight back.”

Immediately I am looking all over the room for something to write with: The uterus is a vindictive organ –! That’s got to be one of the best lines I’ve heard in my entire life. Profound and very possibly inarguable . . . .

But pens apparently aren’t needed in the surgical room, as I can’t see one anywhere, and even if I did, I can’t get to it, I’m hooked to an IV, and besides, here comes a nurse, still talking: “The liver, now, it has a great sense of humor, but the uterus has absolutely none. —How ya doin’?”

She’s addressing me. “Oh!” I say, still etching the dialogue into my brain in a desperate attempt to preserve it. “I’m, um, good.”

—What does she mean, the liver has a great sense of humor? Because it’s able to regenerate? Or is there some other reason? What can that possibly be?

“So, you know you’ll get propofol, right, and this will all be over in a jif,” she says cheerily, busying herself with the tubes and such.

—Propofol. Isn’t that what killed Michael Jackson?

I am just about to ask when the anesthesiologist comes in and says, “All right, let’s do this.”

I want to say, Hang on a second, I really need to know about the liver’s sense of humor, when the anesthesiologist says in a low, silken voice:

“Do you have a happy place?”

I so know what THIS is. Get me talking about something happy so I’ll go under peacefully. A completely obvious ploy.

I don’t want to be put under, I don’t want to talk about my happy place, I want to know about the liver’s sense of humor before I wear myself out wondering about it.

But the moment’s upon me and suddenly this question about my happy place makes me want to cry.

See, I think my happy place is a little like Heaven, and if I start talking about it—will I wake up?

No need to fight. Just embrace it, says my own voice in my own head. At least, I think it’s my own voice.

So I say, “Yes, I have one.”

“Tell me about it,” says the silken voice, as warm as a blanket.

I sigh. “My grandparents’ home.”

“Where’s that?” asks the liver-humor nurse.

“In Beaufort County, out in the country. Some people say at the end of the world.”

“Why were you happy there?” coos the anesthesiologist.

“Well, because they were there. My grandparents. I always wanted to be with them.”

And they always wanted me, I think, but I don’t say it aloud. I can see them, faintly, as I speak. Standing out in the yard, watching for my arrival. One or the other or both, every time they knew I was coming. Watching, waiting.

“What was it like there?”

I’m not sure who asked this.

I can see it as I speak, as if through a window in my mind. The blue sky, the trees. Grandma’s azaleas, the camellia bush, the orchard, Granddaddy’s garden, the old hen house. I am not sleepy, yet. Maybe I can fight this, a bit . . .

“I grew up in the city and in the summers I’d go stay with my grandparents. I loved the country. It was a little paradise . . .”

It was love personified, love-infused, love written in the veins of every leaf, in every blade of grass, in the black earth itself that gave back so abundantly of what was given,  love echoing in every birdsong, in the vibration of every cicada, love painted on the iridescent bodies of dragonflies in a place more alive than any other I have ever known.

“Time to wake up, now,” says a gentle voice in my ear.

Grandma? Is it morning, already?

I’m so sleepy, still.

“Here you go. It’s all over, and everything is fine. You did great.”

It’s the liver-humor nurse.

I’m dressed, wheeled out to the car, buckled in beside my husband who’s driving, and well on my way home before I realize:

I STILL don’t know why the liver has a great sense of humor.

The horse

Secretariat

Secretariat. Charles LeBlancCC BY-SA

They’re gathered at the kitchen table—Daddy, Mama, Grannie, Earnie— as Mama shuffles the cards. With a riffling “flflflflflflflflflflt,” she makes the cards fall in a fancy bridge finish. I don’t know how she does it. They’re playing Canasta. Cigarette smoke hangs thicker than fog in the close kitchen; Grannie is the only one who doesn’t smoke. I sometimes think that the white cloud pouring like an upside-down waterfall from Earnie’s lips straight up to her nostrils looks kind of dragonish. I wonder again why she’s not married, being my mother’s older sister. My sister and I almost never call her Aunt. She’s just Earnie. 

I can’t stay in the kitchen for long. The smoke stings my eyes and makes me cough. I watch cartoons with my sister for a while on TV, then drift back to my room to look at my at rock and mineral sticker books, until I am thirsty and come back to the kitchen for Kool-Aid. The grown-ups pay me no mind; they’re into their game. I pay them no mind as I get my drink from a pitcher in the refrigerator.  

Until I hear them saying a strange name. One I’ve heard on TV.

A lot. 

It sounds like “secretary.”

Earnie is a secretary. For something called Sybil Service. For the Army, I think, but she doesn’t wear a uniform. She can write in shorthand. I have seen her notepads and her little squiggles look made up. How can those little curly marks mean anything at all?

But they’re not talking about a person. I can tell by the way they say the name that there’s something very important about it. 

“Who is Secretary It?” I ask. I gulp my Kool-Aid. 

Secretariat,” Daddy says, enunciating clearly, frowning at his cards. “He’s a racehorse that just made history. He won the Triple Crown—ran so fast that he left all the other horses behind like they were just standing still.” 

Secretariat. Secretariat.

The name is as strange as Earnie’s shorthand. It uncurls in my head like a wisp of smoke. The way Daddy says it is the way people speak in church before the preacher preaches. When the music is just beginning. 

Part of me suddenly envies this horse who can run so fast, who’s so strong. I can’t run. When I do, I can’t breathe; my asthma is as heavy as a horse sitting on my chest and all I can do is wheeze until it passes.

But another part of me tastes something sweeter than Kool-Aid when I whisper his name.

Which I do, over and over.

Secretariat.

*******

I don’t remember seeing him run or win the Triple Crown in 1973. I didn’t know he was the first such winner since 1948, that he broke records with his times, that he won the Belmont by 31 lengths—so much that when I look at the old footage now, the other horses aren’t even in the frame with him. I didn’t know anything about horse racing at all, nothing about the big money, or betting, or odds.

But I remember the awe, the utter reverence, with which his name was spoken. His image, a magnificent, glossy red horse with three white-stockinged legs, soon became familiar to me.

What I understood instantly, the day I learned of him, is that he was the stuff of legend. His name tasted of rare glory, of something almost otherworldly. It’s possible that Secretariat was the beginning of my love of things fantastic.

I celebrate Justify’s recent Triple Crown win. I pulled for him all the way, holding my breath, tears flooding my eyes when he crossed the finish line, another beautiful chestnut horse excelling at exactly what he was born to do.

And I marvel at my weepiness, at my need to go back and watch the clips of Secretariat, to read about him one more time. It’s a longing born of wonder, of the crystallized moment that this big red horse with the strange name seeped into my heart like the red Kool-Aid stain above my lip, sparking something magical in the little girl that I was.

img_4952-4

 

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Nikolaus, 2004. Age 2. 

Dear Nikolaus,

I write to celebrate you and your long, long life.

To thank you for the joy you brought and the love you gave for so many years.

To ask your forgiveness.

When you first came to our family, we were elated.

April 2002. Age 3 months.

You see, we’d been looking for a little dog because we had a little boy who wanted one so badly. Big dogs frightened him.

But you were perfect.

April 2002. Nikolaus age 3 months. Cadillac Man age 4.

And so you grew up together.

You weren’t always easy, but you were always, always loved. Despite the countless accidents in the house and that time you snuck a chicken strip off of little Cadillac Man’s plate and ran for all you were worth with your booty. Not to mention how you figured out a way to climb on top of the furniture to get the boys’ Valentine and Easter chocolate. And ate it all, leaving only the wrappers behind. More than once. How did you do it and not get sick?

We began to think, all things considered, that you might be immortal. After all, you outlasted legions of other pets. The boys began to joke about you plotting the demise of every other dog, for they came and went throughout the years, but you remained. No one questioned your alpha status. Not even the dogs seven times your size, when you took their rawhides and their pillows for your own. They just sat, blinking in respectful disbelief, at your Napoleonic powers.

There’s so much to say, for we shared so much together. I am thankful for my special place in your little heart. How, when you were young and strong, you’d jump up on the couch to curl up beside me or to crawl in my lap. For the hours I spent working on the computer and you were snuggled behind me, between my back and the chair. I loved you and your deep, abiding warmth, always near, just being. Just together.

How the boys loved you. How they laughed as we tried to teach you to roll over, to sit and beg, the two tricks you’d pull off multiple times in succession just to get one treat.

How much comfort you gave them when they were hurting, from boyhood to manhood. They held you in their arms, but you, well—you were holding their hearts all along.

January 2017. Cadillac Man, age 19, celebrating Nik’s 15th birthday with a car ride.

Time is no friend, is it, old sweet Nik. Not when it takes your youth so that you can’t jump anymore but have to be picked up and carried. Not when it turns your face and paws so white. Not when it takes your sight, your hearing, even your ability to understand exactly where you are and what’s going on.

Here’s what I marvel over: That you tried to run through the grass like always, even when you couldn’t see. That you could still find me in bathroom getting ready for work each morning. That you never forgot where your treats were, or that you should get one after coming in from outside, even when it had to be broken into small pieces for you to chew. I knew you could only find them by smell; that’s why I put your broken-up treats on the kitchen rug, so you wouldn’t push them all across the floor trying to get them into your mouth.

I marvel over your ever-voracious appetite, how you ran for your bowl every morning, even if we had to guide you just a bit.

And I worried when you started losing weight.

May 2018. Age 16. 

The vet said your blood work was amazing for a dog of your age; never saw the like. Said your heart was strong. Said things like cancer can make a dog lose weight despite plenty of food, and it wouldn’t show in the blood. Gave you the pain medicine which made you sleep but also tore your bowels up so that we couldn’t give it to you anymore.

And still you rallied, although every day you got thinner and thinner.

Cadillac Man watched you staggering and falling in the yard.

Mom, he looks like a skeleton. He’s just going in circles. 

Mom, it may be time.

Mom, I just got on the scales with him. He’s under seven pounds.

Three weeks before, you were about nine pounds.

When you were a young dog, you were nearly twenty pounds.

On Saturday, when I gave you your last bath, I could see every vertebra on your back, could feel every knob on your tiny tail. For the first time in your life, you sat in the bathwater, too weak to stand.

When we wrapped you in your “Happiness is a Dachshund” blanket to take you to another vet, I didn’t know it was going to be good-bye.

I didn’t.

I thought maybe another medication would help. Or another suggestion. You’d made it so far, so well, until then. The regular vet said your heart was strong, so . . .

The new vet said:

I can’t fix the blindness.

I can’t fix the deafness.

I can’t fix the severe cognitive impairment.

You can run tests to see why he’s losing the weight, but it would only be for academic purposes. Just to know. He’s a very old, weak dog.

Cadillac Man looked at me, holding you in his arms:

Mom, there’s hardly anything left of him.

How to let you go like this, when you’d been so utterly trusting and loving your entire life?

You looked at me with your tired, cloudy eyes, and I wasn’t sure what you were seeing. Maybe me. Maybe not.

I couldn’t know how much pain you felt; you never complained. You just kept going, for it’s all you knew to do.

I loved you. I struggled then, I struggle now with the decision, but I believe the boy—the man—who loved you best knew what was best.

And so we stroked your sweet head when you breathed your last—one tiny sigh, of contentment, of resignation, of release—utterly, utterly peaceful.

And I take comfort where I can find it. When I read about euthanizing suffering pets, when I talk to others who’ve been there, I don’t question the logic. Of course no one wants to watch their beloved endure prolonged suffering. When I think of your ravaged little body, I know you couldn’t bear much more. Your determination, your will, was astounding. That’s where I struggle. That’s why I write. It’s a matter of the spirit, see.

I write to celebrate our long run together. Sixteen years.

I write to thank you for your unconditional love, and to tell you that mine is just as unconditional. I love you still, even now that you’re gone.

I write to thank you for the joy you brought to two young boys for so long. You’re indelibly written on their hearts, as long as they live.

I write to say I’m sorry. For all the times I lost my patience, for the times I could have made more time, for being part of that last, anguishing decision. But if you were going to go, I was going to be there with you, all the way.

And I ask your forgiveness, because the weight is so hard to carry. But old age and sickness are hard to carry, too, aren’t they.

For something so little, you are so mighty, Nik.

I imagine you always will be.

Roses in the smoke

Red rosebud

Rosebud. Jan SoloCC BY-SA

By the chain link fence of our backyard, a rosebush grows. 

It’s really growing in our neighbors’ backyard, but, according to my mother, there’s an agreement that the roses hanging over into our yard are ours, and the roses on the neighbors’ side are theirs. 

So, early one Sunday morning, my mother ushers my sister and me out to the fence. In one hand my mother holds pair of shears. In her other hand is a cigarette. Salem. Menthol Fresh.

“Pick out the rose you want to wear,” she says. “From the ones on our side.”

The roses are vivid red with a hot pink tint. Some are wilting. Some are big and full. Velvety. Their fragrance is heavy in the air. 

“This one!” says my sister, pointing to a large bloom.

That one might fall apart while you’re wearing it. Find one that’s not all the way open yet.”

Why did she tell us to choose?

We finally select tight rosebuds that my mother thinks are acceptable. She puts her cigarette in her mouth and clips the two buds. Then she clips a third one that’s partially open.

“Why are you cutting three roses?” I want to know.

My mother blows a cloud of smoke into the air. Menthol and tobacco mingle with the scent of roses. “One’s for me. Grannie is living, so I’ll wear a red rose to church for Mother’s Day, too.” 

She has three straight pins in her sleeve. She removes one to pin my sister’s rose to the front of her dress. 

I am thinking about Grannie. Her mother is not living. “What color rose will Grannie wear, then?”

White,” says my mother, pinning my red rosebud to my dress.

I am sorry for Grannie, her mother being dead, having to wear a white rose. One day my mother will wear a white rose on Mother’s Day. The thought floods me with sadness. The colors make me wonder—why?  Why red for living mothers and why white for dead mothers?

Is red for the blood?” I ask.

My mother, in the midst of pinning her own rose, leans in. She can’t hear well. Sometimes she doesn’t catch everything other people are saying. “What?”

Do people wear red for living mothers because they still have blood in them and white for dead mothers because when they die there’s no more blood?”

My mother frowns. An upside-down V appears between her eyebrows as she looks at me. I can tell she heard me and that she doesn’t understand the question. Before I can try again, she says, “All right, we’re ready. The bus should be here any minute. Let’s go wait out front.”

We ride the bus to church because my mother doesn’t drive. She never learned how. And Daddy is asleep because he’ll be getting up to go to work while we’re at church.

We stand out front, my mother, my sister, and me, wearing matching dresses that my mother made, with our three red roses pinned on, waiting for the church bus. It’s really an old school bus, now painted navy blue and white. My mother lights another cigarette. My sister plays with her necklace—a tan-and-white rabbit’s foot on a piece of yellow yarn around her neck—and I think about colors. Red and white. Living and dead. Blood and no blood.

Good thing we have our own red rosebush for Mother’s Day, or what would we do?

It would be many years before I wondered what color rose a person might wear for a mother in an altered state. As in the case of, say, addiction. As in, if the relationship had disintegrated because of it, because the mother is consumed. Because it happens, somewhere, to somebody, every day. What is the color of dysfunction? Of existing, but not really living? Surely not a blend of red and white, for pink is too cheery. Gray? Does a gray rose even exist in nature? If it did, why would anyone wear it as homage to a mother?

One would just not wear any rose at all, rather than wearing one the color of ghosts, of shadows, of clouded memories, of the mists of time, even if the sun occasionally breaks through to shine on what was good, as on a rosebush blooming along a chain link fence and a bud like a drop of blood on a little girl’s dress, even as swirling smoke envelops it, before the ashes fall.