Stream of social consciousness

SONY DSC

Ray of light. KumweniCC BY

Sunlight. Blinding. Hotter than I expect after a week ensconced deep in the techno-bowels of the hospital. The netherworld. A parallel universe of tiny details and proportions. I remember a book where characters forgot the sun, were told it didn’t exist, that it was something they’d imagined, but I can’t think about that now, I have to get my husband—so uncharacteristically frail and fragile—out of this blazing reality and into the doctor’s office.

—Just wait there by your side of the car, I am coming, I’m coming. . . . Hold my arm, take your time across the sidewalk. I know every step hurts. I’ve got the door. Lovely waiting room, isn’t it. Near-empty. Relief. Maybe the wait will not be long and we can go home. He can rest. Except that he can’t rest. Cardiac arrest isn’t as brutal as being resuscitated. There’s a painful price for being brought back to life . . . .

—Sit here. I’ll check in. Two women behind the counter, working on computers. The woman on the left reminds me of someone but the one on the right is asking a question. My husband. He was released from the hospital two days ago. We were told to follow up with his regular doctor within seven days, thanks for getting us in. This woman on the right nods her head. Her hair is very black, long, pulled back. Over her shoulder on the wall is a sketch of the Buddha with the words GOOD VIBES.  

Our chairs face the TV. El Paso. A woman seated across the room by the windows, sunlight streaming in around her, looks at us: When will it stop. 

The woman at the counter, on the left: It’s racism. Clear, emphatic voice. I know who she reminds me of, now. Queen Latifah. Yes. Same face and eyes, shoulder-length hair. Younger. Less celebrity-ish but exuding confidence. She continues: This country . . . .

The girl next to the woman in the waiting room shifts in her seat. Must be her daughter. Pretty girl, hair in a soft bob of loose curls. Poised. Hard to say how old. Sixteen, seventeen? They’re the only other people waiting. 

My husband:  It’s white guys committing these mass shootings . . . .

Woman across the room (nodding): Yeah, they’re not black. We just shoot each other.

Queen Latifah look-alike: People don’t realize I am half black and half white. My birth certificate says Caucasian. My son is a lot darker and we can tell you plenty of stories about the different ways we’re treated . . . people don’t always know they’re doing it.

Me: Implicit bias. It takes a lot to go that deep in yourself, to see it. 

Queen L look-alike: Exactly. It’s part of you, how you’re raised . . . .

The woman on the left with the Buddha over her shoulder on the wall hasn’t looked up nor said a word this whole time and I am thinking, in the end aren’t we all shades of each other, don’t we all bleed red, doesn’t it all flow from the same source if we trace it far enough back? My own largely Northwestern European  DNA carries a fragment of Nigeria from generations ago, a story I long to know. Human genetics shows we’re all descended from one woman in East Africa. Mitochondrial Eve. “The mother of all living.” Genesis 3:20.  My husband, a minister, is olive-skinned, a tiny percent Native American, although he’s awfully pale at present and the underside of both his arms is bruised solid black. We all bruise the same . . . .

The woman who reminds me of Queen L is speaking about needed changes and education, referencing a county nearby with a racist reputation; the woman across the rooms tells the story of her daughter’s car breaking down there, how her phone battery was dead, how she walked to a store at the crossroads and the white workers wouldn’t let her use their phones.

—What did you do? I ask the girl.

—I got back in the car and left it running, I charged my phone enough to call my mom, and I prayed.

—I prayed, too, chimed her mom, the whole way there. Not that county. Not that county.

I listen, heartsick. I do not say it but “that county” happens to be where my Grannie was raised. My Grannie, who took me to a store to buy a doll when I was really little. When I picked a black doll, she bought it for me. In the late 1960s. A white woman from “that county” . . . suddenly the girl’s mother smiles: But there are still good people everywhere. Thank God.

The front door opens. A man enters. He’s huge. Like an NFL player. Gripped in his big brown hand is a clear plastic jug of water; it gleams in a shaft of sunlight and I think Water of Life as another door from the medical side opens and a small man, black hair in a man bun, comes into the waiting area to greet him with a Spanish accent. They’re workers of some kind, dressed in similar gray shirts, khaki pants. They embrace each other and my mind is too weary anymore to wonder why, what the story is. I just marvel. This is how the world should be, like it is in this room, right now. Brotherly love, one human for another, kindred spirits. United in a common purpose. Heaven must be something like this.

As the men vanish (for I don’t notice how or where), the quiet woman on the left at the counter calls the lady and her daughter up. They’re finished with whatever it is for which they came. They’re free to go. The woman comes over to us on her way to the door: It is very nice meeting you. I wish you the best. My daughter, she’s going to college.

My husband reaches his hand, his bruised arm, out to her: It’s a pleasure.

She shakes his hand. There’s only one thing I know to do. I stand and hug the woman. Her embrace is warm, tight. Genuine. Her daughter stands by, smiling, so I hug her, too. She feels small in my arms. —All the best to you, too. One day I will see you on TV and you’ll be helping to fix all these things and I will remember that I saw you here.

Her smile widens. So radiant. —Maybe so.

I watch her go with a pang of hope, bright as the sunlight, when my husband’s name is called to check the progress of his repaired, restarted heart.

So much pain, yes.

Gonna be a long, long process.

But healing.

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest…

Long, long ago, your mother sat by your hospital bed, not knowing if you would live or die. Acute bronchitis, emergency tracheotomy, impossibly high fever… I can almost envision your little four-year-old self inside the oxygen tent, packed in ice to get your temperature down, and your mother in the chair, wiping her tears as she wrote you a note. Her beautiful penmanship remains vivid on the inside cover of the Bible story book she bought for you:

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest . . .

When you are well and safe at home again, I’ll read you this little note I’ve written to you during the hours I sat by your bed and watched you sleep so soundly . . . Mommy and Daddy have been so scared . . . We love you so much, our little son . . . Little angels have been all around your bed since you have been sick and Jesus sent them to watch over you and keep you . . . soon all the suffering and fright you have had will pass from your little mind but Mommy will always remember and thank God for giving you back to me.

Your Mother

*******

Five decades later, Dearest, I sit by your hospital bed, typing this note in my phone. When you are well and safe at home again I will tell you how the EMS responders were angels sent to save you, how the doctors repaired your heart, how the nurses watched over you and kept you safe, how – for the second time in your life – your body was chilled in an effort to save your brain. The boys and I have been here with you the whole time. At last you woke and knew us … we will always remember what the doctors said, that everything, everything aligned for you.

At 4:00 a.m. in the hospital – today and every hour of every day hereafter – we thank God for giving you back to us.

❤️ Your Wife

Update 8/6: After a week in the hospital, five days of which were in cardiac ICU, he is home. Weak, sore, struggling with memory, and amazed by his own story. We tell it to him over and over again.

Medical professionals continue to describe the actions of EMS responders – who administered CPR for twenty minutes with defibrillators – as “heroic.”

Live in the moment

I love to write memoir. I usually write it in present tense, as if the event is occurring.

Such as:

The nurse wheels me out of x-rays. I am trying so hard to not cry from pain and fear when I see him standing there in the exam room. He has something in his hands . . .

My Baby Ann doll. Smudged face, short white hair in cowlicks now, from lying so long in the toy box.

Despite my pain, I’m suddenly irritated: I can’t believe he brought Baby Ann! I don’t play with her anymore. Not since I was eight, last year. I want to say Daddy, I am too old for dolls now, don’t you know?

But I look at his face, I see the worry, because of me, because of my arm that the doctor is getting ready to pull and pull, to set the bones . . . and something inside me twists, gives way. I start to cry for Daddy because he’s trying to help me and doesn’t know how. I cry for me, for the pain about to intensify at the doctor’s hands and I don’t know how much.

I even cry for Baby Ann and her smudges and cowlicks.

When I write like this, I am there. It is happening. I see the exam room. I remember my red shirt with ruffled sleeves, ruined by plaster of Paris so that I could never wear it again. I see my father’s face contort, turn grayish-green, when I scream during the torturous pulling of my broken left arm to set it. I see that old doll, so vividly, in Daddy’s hands.

As I write it, see it, relive it, I think, How beautiful, Daddy.

I didn’t think any such thing at the time. Nor did he.

Which brings me to now and the idea of recognizing moments as they occur.

I saw the sign at the top of this post in a shop today. When you’re in the throes of a daily writing challenge, you learn to look everywhere for ideas. I took a picture of the sign as soon as I saw it.

I knew, in that moment, I’d write about it. Somehow.

Because that statement about living in the moment and making it so beautiful that it’s worth remembering speaks on two levels. Worth remembering in order to write about, of course. And being fully present for the people in your life. It is a call to be mindful, to savor every moment together. Moments typically aren’t as beautiful alone. Certainly not in being together and feeling alone (read “UNPLUG,” if you wish).

Memories will live, yes.

But what makes them so beautiful is how we live our now. Be present now. Make time now.

For we don’t know how many minutes we have.

-Do we, Daddy.

You are my song

After walking together, one evening.

 

You were a long time in coming

a long time absorbing the world

and deciding to smile

I know the shadows stretch long

in your young life, but 

if you never knew until now,

You are my song,

you are my song.

Noticing patterns in everything

hearing the music before you knew words

It was always a part of you,

the very heart of you

Just as you are my song,

you are my song.

Life’s a composition of

bright major and dark minor chords

The most beautiful timbre, your voice

in your gentle soul I rejoice

For you are my song,

you are my song.

  At the end of the day, know that 

I love you

You’re heaven’s light shining on me.

The tenor of my life,

a smile on the world.

You are my song

you are my song.

Always, forever, my sweet son

—you are my song.

 

A slice of long ago

My mule neighbors

All my life, I wanted to live in the country.

I was the child of streets, sidewalks, bridges, overpasses, a city that set its watch by military bases and the shipyard. 

I am now the sound of roosters crowing before daybreak, geese honking and flying in their “V” against an egg-colored sky, glassy ponds with their rising morning mist, cotton fields, tobacco barns, donkeys, goats, horses, and the occasional peacock.

To be precise: I live on a tiny neighborhood cul-de-sac, not a farm, although fields and rural life surround me.

Just beyond the woods in front of my home is a pasture, and in that pasture live two mules.

The first time I drove down that road and saw them, I nearly wept.

I halfway expected my grandfather as a young man to walk out of the weathered, tin-roofed barn and hitch them to a plow.

See, I am also the child of stories about the old days and the old ways. In the summers I left the bustling city behind for a few weeks to stay with my grandparents in their rural community, where generations of my ancestors lived and died. Every word that Granddaddy and Grandma spoke, every memory they relived in response to my thousand questions, still lives in my soul. 

Because of the stories I sometimes recognize a thing as familiar when I haven’t it seen before.

So it was that my first sight of these mules took me to a time long before my own. For just a minute, I felt like I was there. 

And, in a way, I was.

In 1937.

*******

He was up with the dawn, at the back of the field plowing with those mules. I stood on the porch and waved my apron at him, but he wasn’t looking.

I was alone in the house—a two-story house painted white, we didn’t own it, we were tenant farmers—because his mama had gotten mad with us and moved out. My sisters and my own mama thought there’d be plenty of time before the baby came. I guess I thought so, too.

I shivered in the chilly morning, the beginning of October, but the days still got pretty warm. Such a beautiful time of year, everything so crisp and bright, the sky so blue. We’d only been married for ten months. I had a lot to learn, being just twenty-one, but I was proud of what we had and I kept everything looking so nice. I didn’t think of what we didn’t have because no one had much of anything . . . .

All I could think about in that moment on that morning is that I suddenly needed help and no one knew.

“Lump!” I yelled, as hard as I could, to get his attention.

He was fighting those mules—I don’t know how he always managed to find the orneriest mules on Earth!—and he couldn’t hear me.

Right about then is when my water broke. The warm fluid ran down my legs, past the hem of my dress, into my shoes. I’ve never been so frightened; I sat down on the porch steps and started to pray:

Help me, God. I don’t know what to do! Please send help, somehow.

That’s when Belle, our little bluetick hound, came out from under the porch and sat beside me. She started licking the fluid off my legs like she knew what was happening and I am sure she did. Animals know things. I put my arms around her and cried and cried.

“Bless you, old Belle, for trying to help me,” I told her.

“Bless you.”

******

Of course my grandfather looked up from the mules to see her there. He went for the doctor, who arrived in plenty of time.

That is how my father came into the world.

Grandma said Granddaddy was so, so proud of his boy: “Never saw his face shine quite like that before, when the doctor called him in from the front room and put his son in his arms. Your newborn Daddy looked exactly like him.”

Made up for those ornery mules, I suppose. I don’t know of any other part they played in this story, but it is enough. For me, mules are forever icons of my young grandfather and his farmer-sharecropper life.

Standing like silent sentinels in the background as one generation passes to another.

Oh yes, I’ve loved the country all my life, and maybe even before. 

Living here means that long ago is never far away.

*******

Note: Everyone “down home” called my grandfather by his nickname, Lump, short for Columbus. When my father saw me for the first time, he said, with more than a little concern: “My land—she looks just like Daddy.”

The gift

I remember what you wrote but I came to find the book anyway, to read the inscription again.

I hold it in my hands and think about you for a long, long time.

You were the baby who was always smiling, the cheeriest toddler, until I had to launder your blanket. Then you leaned your head against the washer and cried.

You were the little boy in preschool who sat beside classmates on the playground when others overlooked them, excluded them. From the start you noticed the outcast, offered comfort, pulled for the underdog.

You were:

The middle-schooler who won an essay contest for writing about the person you most admire, Pa-Pa. You listened to his stories of service in World War II over and over.

The winner of the Principal’s Leadership Award at the end of your senior year.

The college student who started teaching the men’s Sunday School class at church.

The young man who returned to high school, where your Leadership Award still hangs in the front office, to teach Social Studies. Remember how, when you were setting up your classroom, you cleaned out a cabinet and found your old history exams in that stack of papers?

The teacher who taught your students to dance the Charleston—and who taught your own brother in AP U.S. History (your Dad and I weren’t kidding when we said, “Don’t even THINK about calling us in for parent-teacher conferences”).

The soccer coach who built the program and took the team to the State playoffs for the first and only time. 

An inspiration to so many kids. Their parents still tell your father and me.

—I remember it all.

Teachers don’t make a lot of money; you took an extra job at night.

I remember the call. You’d been taken to the hospital. You’d been assaulted. Emergency surgery, jaw wired shut, liquid diet for six weeks. Having to carry wire cutters if you should vomit, or you’d suffocate.

How you chose to visit that young man in prison, forgave him, became his friend.

How you adopted a rescue dog, reached a crossroads in your life, came back home, quit teaching, enrolled in seminary.

Almost immediately followed by your meeting the loveliest young woman and her little girl.

I think about all these things as setting sunlight spills through the blinds onto this book in my hands, illuminating the words you wrote to me that Christmas, years ago:

It is the first book I read that made me want to change the world.

You may not think so, but you’ve been changing the world since the day you first entered it, baby boy. One word, one breath, one heartbeat at time.

I’m quite sure you always will.

Maybe we should have named you Atticus.  

No matter, for things have a way of working out as they’re meant to. I watch you with your new loved ones. I marvel at the gift of it all, the sheer poetry of life writing itself a day at a time, in the most curious of rhythms—like how pages of a book that stirred your heart long ago should come to us, living and breathing.

In a young mom who loves the same book.

And in a little girl named Scout, crawling into your lap for a story.

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 gazebo

Gazebo at Night. Lori L. StalteriCC-BY

At first he thought he never wanted to see it again, the little gazebo on campus.

How perfect it was when he last saw it.

He couldn’t have orchestrated things better than they’d played out: the June sunlight just beginning to wane after dinner, shining in a deep, golden slant through the magnolias, the fragrance of the last blooms heavy in the air.

And her.

At last, and again, for they’d broken upon once. This time he knew it was meant to be. Side by side they sat, and he gave her the ring.

She started to cry.

“Will you marry me?”

She wiped her tears, laughed, hugged him. “Yes!”

Perfect. That one afternoon, in the whole of his life, was perfect.

In two weeks she was gone.

Not ready, she told him. They were too young.

That’s it then, he told her. Not now, not ever.  

His friends consoled him: “You ARE too young. Just enjoy life before you worry about getting tied down.”

Trouble was, he didn’t know how.

For days, all he wanted to do was sleep. He slept the rest of the summer away. He ate his way through autumn into the winter until he decided (while standing on the scales) that enough was enough.

He started walking, counting his calories. He lost seventy pounds.

He reconnected with old friends.

One asked, “Whatever happened, exactly?”

He told her all of it, just as they were driving past the campus. On the spur of the moment, he said, “I’ll even show you the gazebo where I gave her the ring.”

It was getting dark. He parked the car. They got out, walked the magnolia path. Lights in the lampposts flickered on. It was chilly; he hadn’t thought to wear a coat but he hadn’t planned on strolling to the gazebo tonight, or any night. He shivered as they stepped into the clearing . . .

The gazebo wasn’t there.

For a minute he thought he was dreaming. He looked every which way—yes, this is where it was. This is where it stood.

It’s gone!”

“Gone? How could it be gone?” asked his friend. “Are you sure this is the right place? That you haven’t made a mistake?”

“I made a mistake here, all right, but it wasn’t forgetting where the gazebo is. Was. I even used to ride my bike past it when I was little. Right here.” He scratched his head. “This is like something out of the Twilight Zone.”

His friend laughed. “Well, it’s twilight anyway. And maybe that gazebo didn’t disappear. Maybe it never existed at all, and maybe you never made that mistake because it’s been erased. It just never was.”

To this day, he hasn’t asked anyone who might know what happened to the gazebo, because, as far as he’s concerned, his friend is right.

Although he still occasionally checks, when he happens to think of it, which is less and less often.

It’s not there.

As if it never was.

*******

(True story)

Beautiful child

At a recent meeting of educators, I heard a woman speak of her child’s transition to a new school. The child came home bubbling with excitement on Day One:

“Mom, my teacher looks like me!”

This is the first time her child ever had a teacher of the same race, the woman said. In fact, she went on to say, with quick finger quotes for emphasis, her child was “the only ‘beautiful’ child in the class last year.”

I understood what she meant: Her child was the only one of their race in that classroom.

I’m a mom. I know the protective, fiery love for one’s own, above all else. A proverb comes to mind: “There’s only one beautiful child in the world and every mother has it.” This mom didn’t say there’d been a problem at the previous school but as an educator I know that a sense of belonging and identity are vital to learning. I know that every school and classroom should strive to value, support, empower, and celebrate each child (as well as the adults). For that is how children learn to value, support, empower, and celebrate each other. That’s humanity at its best.

Which is why, as a human being hearing these words from another, a mother and educator, I came away with one heavy, lingering question:

Aren’t ALL children beautiful?

Tale of two chocolates

Last night I was privileged to have guests, one of whom is a three-year-old girl.

While seated at the dinner table, my son’s Valentine stash on the counter caught her eye.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a giant Hershey’s Kiss wrapped in red foil.

“Chocolate,” we told her.

“I want it!” she said.

“No, that’s too much chocolate,” said her mom.

Our little visitor looked at my husband (for support? For overruling authority?). She maintained solemn poise for a few seconds: “Mom says no.”

Then her mouth quivered and her blue eyes went watery.

Poor brave baby, I thought. Trying to accept ‘no’ is so hard.

Her mom got up and reached into the candy basket. “Wait, here’s a little one. You can have this little chocolate, okay?”

The watery eyes brightened: “A tiny one? I can have a tiny one?”

“Sure,” smiled her mom, handing over the regular-sized Kiss.

Small, chubby fingers nimbly divested this Kiss of its pink foil. But the child didn’t eat it. She studied it, then observed: “It’s a baby.”

The rest of us chuckled.

Our small visitor pointed back to the big Kiss and told my son: “I want to see it!”

“Okay,” he obliged. He got up from the table and fetched the giant chocolate.

“Open it! Open it!” demanded the girl, bouncing up and down in her chair.

Her mother looked hesitant as my son unwrapped it: “Just look—you’re not going to eat it, okay?”

As soon as the foil fell away, our little visitor’s face glowed. “It’s the mama!” She held the little Kiss up to the big Kiss: “Here’s your baby.” Wiggling the little Kiss, she said: “Hi, Mama! I missed you.”

As the rest of us dissolved in laughter, a grin spread across the child’s winsome face. She promptly ate the “baby” Kiss and went back to eating her dinner while my own thoughts enveloped me, momentarily drowning out the grown-up conversation.

The beauty, the lightning-quickness of a very small child’s mind, stirring, brimming, spilling over into a narrative with which she identifies, a defining of her world—a child, in fact, who hasn’t been verbal for very long. Easy to dismiss as a simple spur-of-the-moment burst of imagination, but in reality, it’s so much more. This is understanding at its finest, coming naturally through play, through story.

Oh, to bottle it . . . no. Never that. Oh, to open it, let it breathe, let it steep, becoming ever more potent each day, invincible against time and factors that will systematically dilute and evaporate it. Imagination, play, story, the core of who we are from our very beginning . . . the Mama Kiss.

—How we miss you.