In search of story


The river

Denial. We’ve all heard jokes about the river.

Like other rivers, Denial can be hardened into ice, and it can be dispersed into mist. Like vampires: shape-shifting, blood-sucking.

As caregiver, I crashed into a wall of that ice. Dad’s sisters were encased in it, admitting only that I was a worrier, not that their brother’s brain was slowly dying and taking him — and me — with it. Dementia? I was over-reacting; there was nothing seriously wrong with Dad. Of course. And when one of those sisters asked which end of the phone to talk into, there was nothing seriously wrong with her either. Of course.

Both my parents were slipping away, each noting behavioral changes in the other but never in the self. The tension between reality and delusion was subtle and pervasive: the mist. As caregiver, I breathed that mist and choked; it had no oxygen.

Denial. “He just had a bad day.” “It’s his medicines.” “We all forget things!” “Why the hell should I talk to the doctor about driving?” “I didn’t forget — you never told me!”

Leeches live in that river; they all belong to the phylum Blame. They slither out to find the caregiver, then suck life from her spirit. There must be an explanation for the frightening things happening; it can’t be dementia so it must be the caregiver, the unlucky one who must face reality and be blamed for doing so.

Caregivers do not laugh at jokes about the river.


Father’s Day

“We’re going to have a little girl.”

If he had just seen bright seraphim and cherubim, I don’t think his voice would have held more awe. My firstborn was expecting his firstborn, and I think I had never heard such incredulity, reverence, thrill and amazement in anyone’s voice. It was as though his deepest heart’s desire had been granted, as though he had been born wanting a little girl.

When I visited a few weeks after her birth, she slept. He said that he spent surprising chunks of time just watching her sleep. How I remembered. I’d been fascinated into my soul when I watched him sleep when he was that new. Trying to comprehend his being. How do we wrap our minds around a person who didn’t exist a year ago? Who can fathom?

A couple months later, he called with a different voice. He told me he’d just walked into his bedroom and stopped, looking around blankly and saying to himself, “What did I come in here for — OH, NO! I’M MY MOTHER!”

And thus did fatherhood grip him. The brain to mush this soon? Did I laugh? Does a square have corners?

Before too much complacency set in, another announcement. A beautiful boy! My son held both protectively, his newborn son and his little girl, the awe spoken this time in his bowed head. He became fluent in parent-speak, lobbing words like “breast pump” and “diaper rash” effortlessly, acquiring artisanal burping and changing skills. With a smile, a wisecrack, a bit of philosophy, a sense of a secret shared: the lifebond. A man with his daughter and his son. Like a bud meant to bloom, he was a natural. He still is.


Family Reunion 1

My mother used to talk about her summer visits to her grandparents’ place, a tiny homestead in the hills of Buncombe County, NC. One summer when I was a young mother she took me there with my little boys.

As we zig-zagged over mountain roads, with Mom and my younger son shouting Whee! and my older son and me moaning Pass the dramamine, the green darkness deepened, the sky was lost to us, and I wondered if we’d ever be seen again by the loved ones we’d left behind.

But Mom knew where she was going, and there it was: a little house in a clearing. Not her grandparents’ house but the one that replaced it. A yard. A creek. An isolation that spoke of their long-ago poverty in the green thick of that beauty. Mom pointed excitedly — the ice house was still there, right on the creek where it belonged!

Then Mom pointed to a verdant emptiness across the road. That’s where the mill had stood. Her grandpa had been the local miller, and that’s where one of their little boys was killed in a terrible accident. As we drove away, she pointed again; I saw green overgrowth, but she saw the tomato patch where her grandpa’s body was found.

I didn’t see their mill, but I seemed to hear my great-grandmother cry. I never was sent to the ice house to get buttermilk, but I seemed to feel that cool sweaty jar. I didn’t see my great-grandpa’s overalls-shrouded body in the garden, but I know there are worse places to die.

As I wield my suburban trowel, I feel the presence of those people, their living and their dying, in the soil. I think we are not worlds apart, not here in the garden.