Out of the shadows

Late June afternoon on the porch. A long-settling stillness, the day’s brilliance deepening to amber, shadows slanting across lawns and pavement, a cool pre-dusk breeze riffling trees and wind chimes, carrying the sound of a child calling in the distance. It’s not a child; it’s a little goat from a neighbor’s pen, hidden in a patch of woods. Bleating for its supper, I suspect. Startlingly humanlike voice. A neither-here-nor-there sound, disembodied, suspended in the air like time itself, clinging to these green and gold moments, unwilling to let go…

“Mom, let’s go for a walk,” says my youngest son (aka Cadillac Man).

I grab my shoes.

Walking beside me along our neighborhood street, my boy speaks, as he always does, of music. Songs he is learning, one he wants me to practice with him (it has to be simple for me. He can sing any part he likes in any key he likes; he can play anything he wants on the piano or guitar). I say I’ll try. He speaks of his new job at the funeral home; we reflect on the recent death of a beloved friend who’s the same age I am. Fresh-grated sadness, still surreal.

As we talk I note that no neighbors are out and about this afternoon. We seem quite alone. At one house, pool towels draped over the front railing billow in the breeze. American flags on front porch flagpoles ripple and flap with crisp smacks. A couple of cicadas rattle from high in the trees that frame backyards. Our long shadows stretch out on the pavement before us, where flecks of quartz wink; when my boy and I turn at the road’s end, the shadows disappear.

We pass a row of cypresses where there’s sudden movement in the grass. A black shape materializes, runs after us, crosses right in front of us…

Good thing we aren’t superstitious.

A young black cat, meowing.

“Awww,” says Cadillac Man, as it rubs against his legs. “What a sweet little cat.”

It comes over to me, rubs against my legs, purring madly.

We are devout dog-people. I can’t have a cat. I’m allergic. I learned this at age five or six when my family took in a stray Siamese (Mr. Cat, we called him) that took refuge on the stoop of my childhood home during a storm. Swollen eyes and asthma didn’t stop me, however, from bringing home a black kitten nobody else wanted when I was in college…

“It looks so much like my cat Moriah,” I tell my son. The name came from a magical cat in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, a book I read when I was about twelve.

Cadillac Man bends down, picks up the creature. “I would keep it if you could breathe.” The little cat nestles against him. Animals love my boy. They seem to sense his gentle spirit.

After a moment, the cat twists to get down. Cadillac Man releases it.

“It looks kind of thin. I wonder if it’s hungry…” Do moms always think about this first? Is this our deepest default, this hard-wired compulsion to feed all little living things, to keep them living?

The cat sits looking up at us with big, unblinking, green-yellow eyes. Meow.

And it trots right beside us, like a good dog would, back to our driveway where I feed it some of Dennis the dachshund’s steak-flavored food in an old dish.

“I hope it stays,” says Cadillac Man. “It can be an outside cat.”

I examine the cat as it eats. “It has all its claws.”

“We should name it,” says Cadillac Man.

“Look how rusty its fur is in the sunlight,” I observe. “Black cats aren’t exactly black. It’s a genetic mutation of the tabby pattern. See the faint rings in its tail, there at the tip? So much like Moriah, only she was smaller and didn’t have a tail…” another mutation. She was the last kitten left in the Free Kittens box on campus the day I found her and took her home. Shelters say black cats are the hardest to find homes for; no idea on stats of cats with stumps for tails…

“We aren’t naming it Moriah, Mom.”

“Of course not. She was one of a kind and besides, this one’s a boy.”

Cadillac Man is silent for a moment. The cat has nearly finished his steak dinner. “Well, you know it has to be a musician’s name…”

This is what he does. Since childhood he’s named pet fish after bass singers; his dachshund, after drummer Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.

I can see what’s coming: “Brian, I suppose?”

Cadillac Man smiles. “Not quite. I christen this cat Douglas.

Brian Wilson’s middle name. I was close.

After licking the bowl clean, Douglas follows us up the sidewalk, cutting in front of Cadillac Man to roll over just like Dennis the dachshund does for a belly rub.

“Awww,” says my boy, rubbing the proffered belly. “Listen—he’s purring like a truck!”

Indeed he is.

It’s getting late. We need to go in to wash up and have our own supper, so we stroke Douglas one last time. I make sure to wash my hands well, with extra soap.

We peek out of the windows from time to time. Douglas is lying on the porch, and then he’s gone.

But not really.

He’s curled up under the rocking chair, sound asleep.

When he wakes, I take one of Dennis’ soft blankets out and put it in his chosen sleeping spot. Douglas sits on it at once.

“There,” I tell him. “Now you know that if you need a safe, comfortable place to sleep, you have one. If you’re hungry, I’ll feed you whenever you come around. I’ll leave water out for you. It’s summer, see…”

Douglas purrs as if he understands…and maybe he does, for the next morning he comes to polish off a whole bowl full of food, and he’s waiting in the driveway to greet us on Wednesday night when we return from prayer meeting.

And then he vanishes.

A day passes, and another, and another. No Douglas.

It storms. Thunder, lightning. Rain gushing from the gutters.

I hope he’s all right, wherever he is. If he belongs to someone, I hope he’s back home and happy. We ought to have named him Macavity, the Mystery Cat.

I shake out his blanket, fold it, replace it. I toss yesterday’s water from his new dish and refill it with fresh.

I think of Mr. Cat. Of Moriah. So long ago.

I wonder if it’s absurd to keep leaving fresh water out for a cat that may never return.

But I do it anyway, because I told Douglas I would.

I also told Cadillac Man we could have named him Question Quigley (from Harry Potter) for that tail

The best shot I could get of his face; Douglas kept trying to rub against me while I attempted to take his picture

Asking for a belly rub

For comparison: my cat Moriah, almost forty years ago, with my childhood dog, Bagel

—OH, and P.S. Guess who came for dinner last night?

Memories, like little shadows, return, too.

*******

And so it is that black cats are my favorite, despite their long-maligned history (another reason I feel concerned for Douglas). I wrote another take on them if you’re so inclined: 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Cat Crossing Your Path in the Time of COVID-19 While Driving to School to Teach Online Near Halloween of Election Year 2020.

with special thanks to the Slice of Life community at Two Writing Teachers.
We are our stories.

Facing fears poem

National Poetry Month has ended, and I miss it. While I may not be posting every day for a while, I continue to write.

The last prompt on Ethical ELA’s #VerseLove was on fear. Articulating it, facing it…perhaps conquering it.

This got me thinking how facing a thing for what it really is = the first step in conquering. There’s a lot of extreme anxiety in the world today. A lot of hatred. Sometimes we just don’t see things for what they are…including our own thoughts.

And so this poem was born.

Courage, peace, and wellness to you, Friends. Whatever it is…you can overcome.

My Fear Haiku

I once read a book
where people’s eyes turned inward.
They died from seeing

what’s inside their minds.
I trembled to take a look
at what lurks in mine.

Now I remember
what Granddaddy once told me
regarding black snakes:

don’t ever kill them.
See, black snakes eat rats and mice;
they’re good. We need them.

I think fear’s like that
snaking along, with purpose
something quite useful

so I never try
to kill it. Let it consume
the uglier parts

of my thoughts, and go its way
leaving me with a clean peace
and a better mind

so that all I fear,
in the end, is forgetting
memories of love.

Path of peace. The view after turning off the highway to visit my grandparents. The house is my grandmother’s homeplace, where she and her eight siblings were born in the early 1900s. Just ahead, around the bend on the left, stood my grandparents’ home where my dad and his sisters grew up in the 1940s-50s, and where I spent many childhood summers.

My safest haven on Earth. Snakes and all.

Love, life lessons, legacy, and memories live on.

Saying something back poem

with thanks to Katie at #verselove on Ethical ELA yesterday. She inspired poets to look around the room for an object of great personal significance, followed by a brainstorming process for finding the object’s own voice and characteristics: “Now that you have stilled this object in order to distill it in a piece of art, it’s time to bring it to life. Listen to it, and once you are ready, consider: If it were a character…and say something back.”

For Day Twenty-Nine of National Poetry Month

Repository

high-backed
mahogany cracked
infinitesimal spider veins

ever musty
oh so dusty
relic of bygone days

when the harmonies rang
and people sang
songs by shape note

now more of a reliquary

with touch-memory
of her hands
on your beloved keys

they don’t forget

somewhere in that
high-backed
mahogany cracked
prized-possession frame

amid your hammers and strings
and octavian dreams

surely you must
hold her dust
alongside mine
skin cells of
the child I was

relics of bygone days
side by side
just as we used to be
on your bench, of a summer night
in pale lamplight

singing
of the sweet by and by
when we shall meet on that beautiful shore

in the meantime
despite your need for tuning
and your wonky key

her great-grandson
stirs the slumbering chords again
the dust
the strings
the house
the blood in our veins
pounding out the glory
of the old, old story

blood does not forget

she’d be overjoyed
with my boy

as you must surely be

as you whisper to me

in high-backed
mahogany cracked
corners
where silence
aches

The piano dates to pre-WWII days, possibly the 1920s. My grandfather bought it secondhand for my grandmother. I spent many hours beside her on the bench as she played and sang alto to my soprano. In her last years she moved in with my aunt and finally the nursing home. She gave the piano to me: “It’s my most-prized possession, you know.” I never learned how to play but my my youngest son grew up loving old gospel songs. He’s a magnificent pianist who graduated from college with a music ministry degree; not a day passes that I don’t think of how elated she’d be to know this.

The piano knows, and remembers all.

My grandmother at the piano, long before my time

Unexpected poem

with thanks to Araceli, Deanna, and Michelle at #verselove on Ethical ELA today, for the invitation to write about someone who’s influenced your life, incorporating sensory details. My first inclination is to write of my grandparents – as I often do – but today, my aunt came to mind. I expect she’d be so surprised.

I am.

This one’s for her.

On Day Twenty-Two of National Poetry Month

A Poem for Earnie 

I didn’t expect to write of you today
but here I am, remembering
of all things, the tape recorder
your ready, set, go!
the click of your finger pressing play
and singing for all we were worth,
you, my little sister and me:
Wherever you go,
wherever you may wander in your life
Surely you know
I always want to be there…

one of us flubbing the words
all of us cracking up
you saying, I’ll rewind
let’s try it again

I think of your laughter
wild, free, contagious
your raucous humor
trailing you like an ermine robe
rich, resplendent, priceless
cloaking loneliness
I may not have perceived

The only one of my mother’s sisters
never to marry or have children
which didn’t keep you from giving advice
pressing Mama’s buttons
like no one else on Earth
yet she went and named her youngest daughter
after you

Then there were the wigs on
the featureless disembodied heads
sitting on your dresser
you could pick whatever 1970s hair you wanted
each day
how cool was that?

I can’t recall a thing you ever cooked
only that you loved eating
Mama said you were picky
you didn’t look it
Mama said that’s why you weren’t married
so picky that you didn’t get got

I wondered why you never really left home
living with Grannie most of your life
you’d break away for an apartment once or twice
but would always go back
like you needed to be
within the borders
of her shadow

Perhaps it will surprise you
that I recall the ceramics class you took
and the Pepto Bismol pink statuette
of Hotei, the Laughing Buddha
god of happiness and contentment
that you made for me
his hands thrown high to the heavens
Rub his big belly for good luck
each day,
you said
and I could hear the pleasure in your voice
only much later did I flip him over
to find your inscription of love
on the bottom of his pedestal

Funny how the dress you wore to my wedding
was Pepto Bismol pink
I am glad I asked you to be my wedding director
at Mama’s prodding
I remember the books you ran out to buy
to do the job well
for me

Of course there’s Jenny…
a love of your life
Siamese as picky as yourself
who’d curl in my lap
purring
That’s rare,
you’d say

Jenny who lived twelve years
who died in the fire
when you woke in the middle of the night
choking on the smoke
phone in your bedroom
hot to the touch
calling 9-1-1 for the first time
because it was
a brand-new thing
I don’t know how you roused
Grannie and Papa G in the other room
nor how any of you climbed out of the windows
onto the roof
into the freezing midnight air
and safety
as the firemen arrived
but you did it

in my mind, Mama’s voice:
It took three firemen to hold her
from going back in
for Jenny.
They found her
the next day
under Earnie’s window.

I hear your anguished sobs
even now
in those wee hours when you
arrived at our house to stay
reeking of smoke
so that the fur coat you wore
would have to be destroyed

I remember the clothes
you bought for my first baby
in bright, beautiful colors,
expensive
so lovingly chosen

You didn’t live to see my youngest
never knew of his gift for music
how you’d have loved it
I can see you right now,
tape recorder in hand

As the disease took your lungs
and reached its insidious fingers
into your brain
I recall the peculiar shine in your hollowed eyes
against the yellowing of your face

when you asked:
Are you still writing?
Have you published anything yet?

Yes and no, Earnie.
I am still writing, yes.
Long, long after we laid you to rest
in your pink dress
(Grannie had your nails painted to match)
and this isn’t really published
but it’s for you
I didn’t expect to be writing of you today
or singing Olivia Newton-John all of a sudden
after all these years,
but here I am
and here you are,
wherever I may wander
in my life
snatches of song, rolling laughter
here in my morning
here in my night.

Summertime poem

with thanks to Abigail, Betsy, and Soshi for the invitation to write on this topic for #verselove at Ethical ELA today (who’s not longing for summer right now?!).

Here’s why summer has such a special pull for me.

For Day Nineteen of National Poetry Month

Summer Second

Sunny afternoon
blue sky
bit of breeze
faint sound of a radio
from a neighbor’s yard
I can’t discern the song
it just sends me into 
reverie
for a second
conjuring
hot sand
under my bare feet
Coppertone in my nose
salt on my tongue
If everybody had an ocean
across the USA
then everybody’d be surfin’
like Californ-i-ay…

snatches of conversation
cresting and dipping
on the breeze
mighty waves of memory
crashing on the shore
my father’s big black sandals
flip-flopping to the old navy-blue Ford
the battered brown Samsonite
suitcase in his hand
the ride is so long
so long
the city gives way
to pastures, meadows
horses
fields
that go on and on, forever
plowed furrows running
like long crazy legs
to keep up 
with the Ford
as we zoom past
until at last
the lonesome highway
comes to a fork
on the left,
the tiny church
where my ancestors
sleep under stones
we veer to the right
turning 
onto the dirt road
my heart beats faster
Daddy drives slower
stirring clouds of dust
and I am already
grabbing the door handle
as Granddaddy’s lush garden 
comes into view
with just a glimpse of 
Grandma’s white angel birdbath
circled by orange marigolds
through the laundry 
lazily flapping
on the clothesline
and there they are, 
walking across
the green, green grass
and I am out of the Ford
before it’s hardly stopped
and in their arms
in the blinding sun
as the forest stands tall
all around
with its cool
dark mysteries
where the rattling cicadas
crescendo
vibrating on and on and on
through my soul
I can’t discern the song
it just carries me
through eternity
in this one
bright second

Title poem

with thanks to Dr. Stefani Boutelier on Ethical ELA’s #VerseLove today. She writes of the way a title can change the interpretation of a poem, or how it might add layers of metaphor: “I invite you to write a poem where the title helps identify its content, theme, or purpose. The topic and form are up to you–the focus today is on the title.”

I will share my poem’s title at the end.

For Day Fifteen of National Poetry Month

The stories
of time before my time
I lived them
through your telling
felt them through
your pounding heart
breathed them
with your young lungs
until I wanted to run
coughing from
the reek of smoke
the acrid taste of ash
and I think of
how you spent your years
giving yourself
to others
despite the ghosts
that surely clung
as smoke clings to clothing
and as I enter the doorway
I can hardly breathe
for the cloying scent of flowers
and there you are on the table
ready and waiting
in your little box
conveniently resting
in a little white tote
I dare not trust the handles
I just wrap my arms around you
and carry you against my heart
like I did my babies
only there’s no car seat needed now

still, I must keep you safe
in your new lightness
so I strap the seatbelt across us both
pondering the measure of a man
larger than life
so reduced

but I’ve got you, I’ve got you
cradled close
see now, I’m driving you home
sun and shadows flickering
over us like old newsreels
of liberation

******

Title: What Remains

Dedicated to my father-in-law, a World War II veteran.

His birthday is next week.

Magnolia

Next-to-the last day of March. Early morning. Still dark. Chilly.

I sit at my laptop, sipping coffee, catching up on my Slice of Life blog comments. The neighborhood rooster across the street crows for all he’s worth.

My husband comes into the kitchen: “Is she up yet?” he whispers.

He means our granddaughter. She spent the night. We stayed up way late watching Frozen II (again). We watched her dancing to the ending credits soundtrack, performing her own astoundingly artistic interpretation, cheeks pink, blue eyes glowing…followed by punchy laughter before the crashing.

“Not yet,” I whisper back. He retreats to his study to work on sermons.

Shortly, though, she here she comes, a gift of the dawn, Aurora’s child, barefoot in a blue flannel gown, cloaked in long, disheveled hair, ethereal smile of joy illuminating the semi-dark kitchen. Favorite lines of a Billy Collins poem come to life:

But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

My radiant dawn-child climbs into my lap. I let her read my post about Dennis the dachshund and his toy moose. At five, she reads with exactly the right inflection in exactly the right places, decoding beyootiful without batting an eye.

“That rascally Dennis!” She laughs aloud.

My husband returns, his own face alight at sight of her. “There she is!” he exclaims. “I’ve been waiting for you, Sugar Magnolia.”

He sings the opening line of the Grateful Dead song:

Sugar Magnolia blossom’s blooming

Just so happens that our granddaughter’s middle name is Magnolia. A nod to her Louisiana heritage. A native tree here in North Carolina, too.

I think how, less than two years ago, my husband was dead, until EMS and CPR brought him back. I think of all he’d have missed…

What matters is that we’re here together now, today, in this moment. The Grateful Alive.

Sugar Magnolia, in one of Grandpa’s hats

When we are dressed for the day, she asks: “Can I pick out your earrings? And your necklace?”

“Certainly.”

She picks the magnolia. She and my son gave it to me for my birthday last year.

She hands me the necklace, watches me clasp it, smiles with satisfaction.

She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light

Just beyond the bedroom door, from the windows in the foyer, birdsong.

The finches.

I waited for them all of March, in vain. Then, here at the very end, within the space of these last twenty-four hours, a nearly-complete nest rests on my front door wreath. More on this tomorrow, when I write with the Spiritual Journey gathering on the first Thursday in April…for now all that needs to be said is that the finches always come to my door, every year except this last one. They vanished without warning, without a trace, during COVID-19. Now they’re back, making their home in the wreath.

The magnolia wreath.

Front door wreath and nest-in-progress

Magnolias, magnolias, everywhere…

They are tougher than they look. The oldest flowering plants on Earth. A symbol of love, longevity, perseverance, endurance.

It’s that word that captures me: Endurance.

It is the end of March.

We’ve endured the COVID pandemic for a whole year.

We’ve endured the reinvention of life as we knew it, school as we knew it, teaching as we knew it.

My family has endured distance, isolation, individual private battles…and we all get our second round of vaccinations over these next two days.

My husband has endured. He is alive.

My granddaughter has endured. She is the light of our days.

The finches have endured. They have returned to resume nesting.

This is my last post for the Slice of Life Story Challenge; for thirty-one consecutive days, I’ve endured. My writing has endured.

I wrote a lot of memoir in the Challenge, for memories endure. I wrote of a walled garden and roots and the need to get out of the comfort zone; I did that with some of my writing. I think now of my magnolia metaphor and look back at its deep roots in my childhood. Southern heritage. My grandmothers, steel magnolias (although they wouldn’t have thought it of themselves). Women who endured wars, deprivation, unspeakable losses. The stand over the landscape of my life like the old magnolia trees near their homes, their churches. They were the encompassing, protective shadows against the burning sun and sweltering heat, the solid coolness of the earth under my feet, where lie the curious, fuzzy seedpods of my existence, my remembering, my gratitude, my faith. From these branches waft the eternal fragrance of sacrificial love and forgiveness; nothing on God’s Earth smells as sweet.

One final curious image—it persists, so I have to figure out if and how it will fit here: When I was very small, I spent a lot of time with Grandma, Daddy’s mother. She and Granddaddy lived nearby in city apartments until he retired and they moved back home to the country when I was six. In this scene, I am around four, I think:

I am waiting in the hall for Grandma. She’s turning the lights out; we are getting ready to go. She calls my name from another room. I call back: “I am here.” My voice keeps bouncing, off the walls, off the stairs going down, down, down, into the darkness; we have to go through it before we can get to the door and the sidewalks and the sunlight outside.

“Grandma!” I cry. More bouncing voice, hollow, strange.

She’s there in an instant. “What’s the matter?”

“What is that sound?”

Oh, honey, that’s just your echo.”

She calls out, “Hello”…her voice bounces, just like mine.

“Echoooo…” I call. Echooo-ooo-ooo, says the shadow of my voice, rolling down the stairwell.

And I am no longer scared, because now I know.

What does this have to do with magnolias?

Only that we are on our way to the park, where she would offer me bread to feed the ducks, which would come to eat from my hands, from my little extended arms…and where the magnolias still grow in abundance. The memory is a cup of light I carry with me, just as the echo of her voice remains, just as I find myself echoing her, for we are always echoes of the ones we love most. As blood circulates in our veins, so do remembered light and beloved voices, long past shadows and silence. These are things that endure.

Grandma’s homeplace was named for the dawn, by the way. She’s literally Aurora’s child.

But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her

“Stand right there, honey. Let me get your picture by that tree,” I tell my granddaughter, on our first trip to the park.

It’s a different park. A different tree.

But still, and always, a magnolia.

Our Sugar Magnolia, by “her” tree.

*******

With abiding gratitude to the community at Two Writing Teachers during the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, which concludes today. It was a joy to write alongside you every day in the month of March. Thank you for every cup of light you offered; I will savor the echo of your voices for many days to come.

Yahtzee

She spies the box on the top of the shelf in “her” room (I call it the “Spare Oom,” kindred Narnians):

“What’s that game, Franna?”

“Oh, that’s Yahtzee. I used to play it all the time when I was growing up.”

“How do you play?”

Sounds like an invitation to me.

I reach past Spy Alley, Catchphrase, Trivial Pursuit, the chess set, and Twister (that game floored her. Really. Not just trying to be punny).

Dear old Yahtzee.

The dice rattle inside the box…and I remember…

Whole afternoons elapsing on the worn living room rug, sunlight waning behind the lace curtains, sometimes distant thunder beyond the rain-slapped windows, none of it mattering in the wide circle of lamplight where my sister and I hunched over the scorecards. The exultant cry or groan of despair, depending on whose throw landed all five dice on the same number. Yahtzee!

Evenings in my aunt’s spotless, light-dimmed, vanilla-scented den, legs criss-crossed, drinking Dr. Pepper in glasses with curiously-cylindrical ice cubes clinking (ice-makers were uncommon, then). The lovingly-fierce competition between my young aunt and uncle, their laughter, their encouragement: Good choice, Hon. Sometimes you just have to take it on Chance

The look of perplexity on kids’ faces at math camp when I bought out the box after a lesson on probability; their brows furrowing as they learned the terminology: three of a kind, four of a kind, full house, small straight, large straight; their faces soon glowing with new zeal; shouts of YESSSS! accompanying fist punches in the air…

Hours at the kitchen table, the warmth of butter-yellow walls, my mother blowing on the dice, sending my sister and me into giggles; we start blowing on our dice, too. Come on, sixes, come on, sixes…years later, as I leave the house for a date: my mother at the kitchen table with a friend from across the street, whose story I never fully knew, only that she’d suffered a mental breakdown and had been taken in by relatives. Her hands shake as she lights one of my mom’s Salems, blue eyes wide and a little too bright, a nervous smile flickering across her face as the dice roll in her favor. Swirls of white smoke heavy in the air, floating after me on the sound of my mother’s cackling laughter, hilarious in itself, uniquely uninhibited, ever-gleeful…

So much depends on the rolling of the dice, on the way you choose to take what comes.

I lay out the pencils and scorecards, scoop up the dice, place them in my granddaughter’s little cupped hands.

“All right, Baby. Let me show you how to play.”

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 25, I am writing around a word beginning with letter y. 

Voices

On the last Sunday in July, 2019, my husband went to the gym after church. He had a great workout on the stationary bike (always proud of accomplishing five miles in fifteen minutes).

He got in his truck to come home.

That is the last thing he remembered for a long time.

At the house, our dog went crazy, barking. Someone in the driveway. Police officer: Your husband’s had an accident. Do you have a way to the hospital… truck ran off the road into the woods…appears to have been a medical event…sorry, I don’t know how bad it is. EMS was working on him when I left…

Both of our grown boys happened to be home that afternoon. We rode together to the ER, not knowing what we’d find.

My reeling mind wondered if their black suits were clean…in case…

At the hospital, a nurse was waiting for us. She ushered us into a side room.

Massive heart attack, said the ER doctor, but he’s alive. He wasn’t when EMS got to him. He was in cardiac arrest. They did CPR, defib…they are heroes…heroes…

Heart attacks killed his father and grandfather in their fifties.

After emergency surgery, he underwent induced hypothermia to allow his brain time to rest from the trauma. No one knew how long he’d gone without oxygen. EMS had arrived on the scene quickly, as the station is just up the street from where the truck ran off. My boys and I learned that their dad endured forty-five minutes of CPR and ten – TEN – shocks from the paddles. We would learn that his sternum was broken. Attending CICU physicians warned: After hypothermia, we’ll do a waking test. There’s no guarantee he’ll wake, or how extensive the damage will be to his brain…

As we endured those long hours, we learned that his truck was barely dented as it ran off the road, that it stopped just short of a deep ravine in the woods. We were told that he swerved into oncoming traffic and back into his lane before running off on the right. He never struck another vehicle. People behind him called 911. One thing different, and all would be different…

As one doctor said: Everything aligned for him. Everything.

He did awaken. He knew us. He was soon able to ask, in a raspy voice after coming off the ventilator: What happened?

It would be a long recovery involving another hospital stay and more surgery…but he recovered.

He could remember leaving the gym, but he could not recall anything from earlier that month, or from many months before. All of his long-term memory remained intact; all his stories, all his sports trivia and stats. There was just a period completely erased, leading up to the heart attack. He could not recall a thing from our family vacation to the beach earlier in July, the glorious time we had.

The brain’s way of protecting itself from pain, our oldest son said. I had a professor who told us about this in class. It’s not good to try to make a person remember…

He didn’t recognize the scenery on the way home from the hospital: Why are we turning here? Everything looks so new…have I seen this before?

The doctors said, Some memories may return as he heals. Some may not. It’s hard to say; everyone is different.

After a couple of months, he returned to his work at the church. He’s a minister. The number one question people had after he began regaining strength: Did he see anything? when he was… you know… ‘gone’? I mean, he IS a pastor… such curiosity tinged with hope, in that questioning.

All he could remember, much to people’s disappointment: It was just like going to sleep. No pain, just fading into sleep. So peaceful.

Then one day he saw pictures of our family vacation and recognized the giant tortoise we chanced upon at a roadside display: I remember that!

Random bits returned to his mind, here and there.

Then on another day, much later, he told me: I heard voices.

What do you mean, you ‘heard voices’?

When my truck ran off the road. When everything was going dark.

What did they say?

They said, “He’s in trouble. We have to get him off the road.”

Did you…did you recognize the voices? Do you think that maybewell, it could have been just the EMTs…

He shook his head. All I know is, I heard them when I was driving and I thought, if I can just get over there to the grass, to that little hill… where that sunset is…everything will be okay.

He left me staring after him as he headed out to the park for the eight-mile hike he makes now, several times a week.

He’s in trouble. We have to get him off the road…

Everything aligned for him. Everything.

I ponder the mystery of memory, and the miraculous…in ceaseless awe that he is returned to us, restored, rejuvenated, whole.

In his own words, with his characteristic wit and big, contagious laughter, as “a member of the Lazarus Club.”

*******

Photo is entitled “The Day Black with Night” and is in the public domain on Creative Commons with this verse: “Go for help to Him who makes Orion and the Pleiades, by whom the deep dark is turned into morning, who makes the day black with night; whose voice goes out to the waters of the sea, sending them out over the face of the earth: the Lord is His name.” —Amos 5:8.

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 22, I am writing around a word beginning with letter v.

Needles

At the end of February, the COVID-19 vaccine was made available to teachers in my state.

My district went to work immediately, setting up sites and online registration.

The quickest appointment I could get was at a high school gym.

Upon entering, seeing the tables set all around the perimeter, I was struck with a sense of déjà vu, sort of.

Flashback to another school gym. For just a second, I was there in a long line of people. Standing with my mother, my little sister.

To be vaccinated against swine flu.

I’d nearly forgotten.

This COVID rollout was so different. For one thing, masks. Another, no long lines; still not safe. I stood six feet behind one person for a just few seconds in the hallway outside the gym before he was directed to enter. Slight pause, and I was permitted. Someone pointed me to a table across the room. After giving my name and getting my official paper, I was told to sit in one of the six or so well-spaced chairs in the center of the gym. I didn’t think to count how many immunization stations were set up around the walls, mostly because I didn’t have time; I sat for less than a minute before someone came over to point me to one of them. Quick review of my info, protocol of a few questions, and the deed was done. Barely felt it before the administrator tossed the syringe into the biohazard container and congratulated me. She gave me a little CDC card. Moderna. A jolt of cheer in the knowledge that this is the vaccine Dolly Parton funded; she got her shot that same day. A layer of comfort, somehow. I’d just written of Dolly and one of her songs two days before. It’s like being blood-sisters now. Kind of.

From the time I arrived to the time I left: less than ten minutes.

Couldn’t help remembering, as I walked out into the warm sunshine of an imminent spring, all the hours spent waiting in doctor’s offices as a child, getting an allergy shot in each arm every week, then every other week, then at home when my mother was eventually allowed to give them. How my mother’s health issues involved so many hospital stays and doctor’s visits that her friends dubbed her “Pins and Needles,” a double entendre on her vocation as a seamstress.

I walked on, considering my own shadow as it glided along the parking lot pavement, mulling how needles prick the arm only for an instant in the aim of protection and preservation and then are gone, whereas needles in the memory can provoke reactions and pain for a lifetime. I feel the swelling of many stories, there.

But just as I did when I was small, I waited the allotted time to be sure there was no reaction to the injection. Once upon a time, my dad waited with me; now it’s my husband driving my inoculated self home. He wants to drive me back for the last one.

In the end, it’s just a matter of doing what must be done, and going on.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 14, I am writing around a word beginning with letter n. Amazing, the number of associations and memories threading through one simple, sharp word.