Four years of loss. The Chinese fear the number four. Some even refuse to live in a house with the number four in its address. From 2008 to 2012 I endured a series of painful events, events that forced me to look at myself and … Continue reading About “The Hierarchy of Weeds”
(Excerpt from the Hierarchy of Weeds) Work was just that—work. It was as if Christmas never happened. People stomped into the clinic with their wet shoes and boots, their sore throats and runny noses and Purslane was there to check them in. She smiled and … Continue reading In Between Lives
Excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds
She lay with her back to him in their bed. His warm hand caressed her shoulder momentarily and then pulled away, “You did real good Purslane. It was a good Christmas.” She looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was near midnight and she’d be up for work in just five hours. She sighed and felt the bed rock as her husband rolled over and pulled the blankets tight around his shoulders. Purslane’s body throbbed with tiredness. Her knees felt warm with inflammation and her lower back as stiff and rigid as the bare tree limbs outside the bedroom window. She did not taste the food tonight, so overworked and busy with the details of it all. Did not taste the wine or the beer or the coffee and pie and had no idea how her eyes, so weary and worn, could produce anything at all. But they did. As her husband’s breathing flowed and ebbed in the nighttime rhythm of deep sleep, a single solitary tear fell from the corner of her eye, flowed in a burning path across the bridge of her nose and over her ruddy cheek, finding its way into the outer crevasses of her ear. Morpheus was merciful tonight and Purslane fell quickly into his arms.
The morning after Christmas
With every step of her sock covered feet she felt the temperature drop. The carpeted stairs were worn and slippery in places and her hand followed the cool wood of the banister. The kitchen was dark and she opened the microwave letting the small light inside illuminate the counter top, the stove and the coffee pot that sat in front of her. She pulled a ceramic cup from the cupboard, filled it with water and heated it in the microwave for one minute, discarded the hot water in the sink and filled her cup with coffee. She zipped her sweatshirt up and held the mug with both hands and walked to the black leather couch in the dimly lit living room. She perched on the couch making herself as small as possible, shrinking her large, big boned body and hunching over her cup of coffee as it were a great source of heat. She took deep swallows and watched as her breath materialized and disappeared. Black plastic garbage bags full of crumpled wrapping paper and ribbons sat near the front door and the coffee table was piled high with opened gifts. It was a good Christmas. A very good Christmas. Purslane felt cold air moving around her shoulders and pulled the gray hood of her sweatshirt over her head. Even the lit Christmas tree looked cold. Standing next to the bare window, every one of the 300 twinkle lights had a halo of light surrounding it, as if each one was vibrating and trying to produce even a miniscule amount of heat. Purslane raised her eyes to the cathedral ceiling and cursed it for sucking up all the warm air. Empty mug in hand she returned to the kitchen and reached for the coffee pot when her eyes fell on St. Frances. A small prayer card hung on the wall, near the sink and next to the garden window where Purslane would watch the birds flit about as she did the dishes. She gently removed the card and began reading the words she loved but could not memorize. Lord make me an instrument of your peace…Purslane’s heart pounded and pushed her blood harder and harder through veins, arteries and capillaries, her hands grew warm and her face flushed redder and redder with each word. Where there is darkness, let me bring light, where there is sadness, joy…where there is doubt, faith….where there is injury, pardon….May I not so much seek to be consoled as to console… to love rather than be loved…
A small trickle of sweat formed on her upper lip and her hair grew damp at the temples. She carefully replaced the small prayer card back on the wall under the push pin where it had been for years, unzipped her sweatshirt and said aloud to God, “What is my purpose? What am I supposed to do? I want know!” …make me an instrument of your peace… “Make me anything!” Purslane heated another cup of water in the microwave, tossed it and filled her mug with coffee. She sipped at the mug while standing in the middle of the kitchen, eyes on a brass crucifix that hung near the garden window above St. Asissi’s prayer card, “haven’t I lived a life according to your rules? Don’t I deserve to know why I’m here in this world? If not to write—then what?” Purslane waited for an answer, a divine moment of vision and clarity, but it was of no use. God would not part the ceiling, the roof, the clouds. He would not offer a tissue to a woman about to cry. He would not offer a life saver to a woman about to cry so much as to fill a room with enough tears to drown herself. Purslane leaned on the kitchen counter and sighed. She blew her nose on a paper towel and reached for an ice cube from the freezer. Her red swollen eyes would not do. She ran the ice over her eyelids and face but it only made her feel chilled and feverish. Her husband and daughter were still asleep and probably would be for another two hours. Purslane quietly climbed the stairs, taking each step as slowly and deliberately as an old man afraid of falling.
Mariposa found her mother in front of the lighted tree. “It’s beautiful momma, really nice. After all these years of not having a theme and buying all different kinds of ornaments—we have a theme.”
“And what is it?” Purslane raised her eyebrows half expecting Mariposa to make a joke. So many Christmases her daughter had tried to talk her into buying a matching set of glass balls and to have a color themed tree, but Purslane never would.
“Rustic!” Mariposa hugged her mom and they both agreed. The Nobel fir was beautiful and all the ornaments purchased over the years from second hand stores and after holiday sales, given as gifts or hand- made have finally come together perfectly.
The smell of roasting turkey called Purslane back to the kitchen and she opened the oven door, letting more aroma escape as she basted the golden bird with its own simmering juices. She brought Mariposa a mug of hot cocoa topped with a hand full of mini marshmallows and garnished with a peppermint stick. Mariposa smiled wide took the mug and held it under her nose, “What time will Augustine be here?”
“Augustine will be here when Vance and Cherry get here and that should be any minute.” Reggie said as he plopped down next to Mariposa, skillfully taking the mug from his daughter’s hands. “Dad, get your own hot chocolate!” Mariposa took the mug back from her dad offering him the cinnamon stick.
“Are they really coming early dad? That would be awesome, right mom? I mean we eat kind of early anyway and it would be fun to hang out.”
Purslane’s eye caught something outside the window. Against the brown gray and barren branches nearly blending in with the white gray sky, it fell and rose sharply in response to a sudden wind. She saw it and knew she was not mistaken. Tiny punches moved paper-like in delicate swirls that seemed lost and floaty and then serious and determined as the air forced them down like torpedos or up like rockets. It was snowing! Purslane walked in awe to the window and put her hand against the cold glass. She heard the muffled sounds of her husband and daughter laughing. She heard the distant drone of the television and the faraway harp of the neighbor’s Chihuahua. No one appeared on the street below the window. Only the birds were moved to action. Only the birds and Purslane. While they soared and dipped and perched, chirping and flitting their wings in the cold snow speckled air, Purslane stood at the window. Tears moved in behind her eyes flooding her vision.
“It’s snowing!” Mariposa grabbed her father’s hand and pulled him up from the couch. They joined Purslane and stood looking at grass that was no longer green and pine trees that were dusted with powder. Purslane quickly turned away to tend her food prep in the kitchen, wiping her eyes with a towel that smelled of onions and celery, “Better enjoy it while it lasts. It’s too dry to stick.”
The tree took on a magical glow as shadows fell outside and what little natural light the room had disappeared. The floor was strewn with tissue and wrapping paper, ribbons and bows and boxes. The turkey and ham had been cut, carved and enjoyed by men with appetites like Neanderthals and the girls sat in the kitchen sharing pie and ice cream while the men talked sports. Mariposa and Augustine took turns reading from a book on dream interpretation, “It says here if you dream of a frying pan you may be feeling completeness in love. That’s just weird.” Augustine said as she slid the book across the table to her best friend.
“Let me see that.” Purslane stood up and reached across the oak table taking hold of the book, “You know Cherry, this is really a perfect Christmas present for me. I had a strange dream last night and maybe now I can find out what it means.”
“I only give gifts that are needed and desired by your deepest subconscious wishes!” Cherry smiled. “What’d you dream about?”
“She got pooped on by a bird!” Mariposa quipped and both girls giggled and pretended to wipe invisible bird droppings from their hair and shoulders.
Purslane tried to look up the meaning of her dream searching under excrement, feces, and animal droppings. “This is disgusting. My pecan pie is not looking like pecan pie right now and I’m not finding any answers.”
“Well, maybe some dream meanings are supposed to be a secret, mom.”
“You should keep a dream diary”, Cherry said, ”that way you’ll remember all the details and it’ll be easier to look up.”
The television volume in the living room grew louder as Vance and Reggie laughed. They both appeared in the kitchen with empty pie plates. Reggie walked to the table and gave Purslane and quick kiss on the lips, “Terrific pie my darling.”
“Terrific everything, Vance added patting his large stomach, “Tomorrow I’m gonna join the Polar Ice Team and take a dip in the lake. Gotta shrink this holiday girth.” He smiled, one hand still on his belly and the other holding a plate with a double wide slice of pie.
Cherry laughed and told her husband, “There’s only one thing that’ll shrink in cold water and we know what that is!” The adults laughed and Mariposa and Augustine covered their faces with their hands.
Cherry continued, “Vance has been secretly dieting. He thinks I don’t know. Maybe he’s afraid I’ll try to sabotage him or something.”
Augustine suddenly sat up straight, her eyes grew wide and declared proudly, “Mom has been secretly writing and now she has a contract!”
Purslane saw the shock and surprise on Cherry’s face and knew this information was not to be shared. Augustine fell back into her chair, stealing guilty glances at her mom.
Purslane felt the weight of the flesh of her cheeks collapse upon the bones beneath her skin, felt her jaw bone disconnect from its hinged mandibular joint and tried but failed to keep the corners of her mouth turned upwards. “What? why didn’t you tell me? What is it? What did you write?
“I sold a novella to an on-line publisher.”
“But why didn’t you tell me?”
Cherry pulled Augustine close, and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder. Purslane felt her own daughter’s eyes and hoped Mariposa could not see her heart breaking.
“It’s kind of embarrassing you know, it’s romance. But I’ll email you the cover copy and you can see.”
“That’s wonderful Cherry. I knew this would happen for you someday-just didn’t know it’d be this soon!”
Cherry sent Augustine to the other room to see if Vance was ready to leave. Purslane sent Mariposa to help gather the gifts and find a shopping bag to put everything in.
“I have a one year contract to write and have my work published. When I found out I couldn’t sit still. This is a dream come true for me.” Cherry stood and gathered the cups and pie plates leaving Purslane at the table. Leaving Purslane to relive and cringe at every conversation she’d had with Cherry about writing. Cringe with embarrassment at her own belief that she could write too.
Reggie and Purslane stood at the front door with Cherry and Vance as they pulled on coats and gloves. Mariposa and Augustine hugged each other and they all moved to the front porch in the cold, peaceful darkness of Christmas night. A string of red, white and green lights illuminated the window and cast a warm glow on the group of friends as they said yet another goodbye to each other. Reggie and Purslane stood in the darkness and waved, watching the minivan pull away from the curb. Purslane thought of the kitchen full of dirty dishes and of the long work day tomorrow. Reggie laughed, and pulled her close, whispering something in her ear. Purslane let her husband guide her back to the house, grateful for the support of his arm around her shoulder but not hearing a word he said. Together they tackled the dirty dishes in the kitchen. Reggie washing quickly as Purslane dried. Too tired to shower, Purslane pealed back the flannel sheet on her side of the bed and let herself collapse onto the mattress. The heaviness of the comforter and the warmth of her husband’s body created a cocoon, a perfectly dark and safe place,–an in between worlds kind of sanctuary where she could surrender.
There were other dogs; Tulip and Buster, Lucious, Chrissy, Suka and Teddy. But there was never a dog like Cleo. She was mine for eight years and it just wasn’t enough time. When she died I cried like a baby—sobbed because my heart was being … Continue reading Cleo’s Purpose
(excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds) December has taken hold like a giant unwelcome beast, straddling my heart and home. Mornings are especially difficult, as this house seems to welcome cold air, giving it sanctuary during the night. I am alone again in my preparations … Continue reading Winged
Short Story (part two)
The next day Richard and I drove to Seattle to get Leif. We waited across the street from the apartment building where he and momma lived. The front doors to the building were large and made of glass and although the lobby was dimly lit we could see the murky green water of a neglected swimming pool inside. Leif appeared in the lobby, hesitated a moment, then pushed through the doors shifting the weight of the backpack he carried from one shoulder to the other. His facial muscles seemed to collapse and pull the skin of his cheeks and eyes and mouth downward and I knew he’d been drinking.
“I-I had some beer, “ he announced like an apology as he hoisted his body into the back seat of the Yukon. He closed his eyes as his mouth tried to form the words his brain searched for, “I-it was squeezin’ my heart so hard!” He let out such a big sigh that I thought he might fall asleep on the way to the hospital but the alcohol had loosened his tongue and he chatted on about nothing in particular. I looked at Richard who shrugged his shoulders and kept his eyes on the road.
Nothing had changed in momma’s hospital room. The window near momma’s bed still framed the tree with its glory of green leaves on November 23 and the breathing machine pushed oxygen into momma’s diseased and dying lungs. I looked at her exposed feet and the perfect little toenails. Leif had to buy baby clippers to cut them with. He said they were soft as white tissue paper.
The respiratory therapist came in and explained what would happen as the tube was removed. Nurses came to disconnect the heart monitor and remove the IV bags and the chaplain came to say a prayer. The hospital bed was lowered a few inches and Leif moved in closer and kissed momma on the cheek. The tube was slowly pulled from momma’s lungs and I watched as the therapist withdrew it, dabbing at spittle that gathered on momma’s lower lip. She gasped inward but seemed unable to exhale and in just a few minutes she was gone.
“I love you momma, I do. I do love you!” I wanted her to know I was there, to hear my voice as her soul drifted away but I felt panic that she was leaving, that we had not said all that needed saying. Leif was still at momma’s side and his eyes remained clued to her face. He seemed intent on gathering the details to be stored in memory as he focused on her mouth, her hair, and her closed eyelids. His hands began to motion in the air and I watched him, feeling embarrassed and thinking he was still drunk, but he began to sing something about a fisherman and a little girl and then about a red rose bush. He began working his hands like he was pulling in fishing nets and I stood and watched, deciding not to care what anyone might think. His voice rose and I knew it would make momma happy, ‘all colors bleed to red, asleep on the ocean’s bed, drifting in empty seas, for all my days remaining…’
I had such tender feelings for momma during those first few weeks after she passed. It was like she’d never done anything wrong, like she was an angel or something and I was the one needing forgiveness. Maybe it was God’s grace workin’ its way through my heart. Maybe it’s how those that die get a peaceful send off from this world, even if they’ve done some bad things to the people they loved—even if they don’t deserve it.
But that’s not really for me to say is it? My children had been protected from her and they really didn’t know their grandma. How sad. Momma accepted it like an ordinary thing. Even Richard had nothing but bad experiences with her, and one of those experiences involved a steak knife, so he was not someone who would understand my roller coaster of emotions.
The guilt I carried was mine and mine alone, like a brick at the bottom of my purse, a pebble in my shoe and gravel on my pillow at night. It was mine and there was no one to share it with. The one person I could talk to about momma was Leif but I knew he was probably drinking himself to death, on a marathon bender to beat all others. I called him everyday just to make sure he was alive.
“Lief?” His tongue was thick and slow to form words. “Oh, hey I’m here.”
“Did you eat today?”
“Ah, I don’t…”
“Leif please eat something.” He sighed and dropped the phone. I heard a thump and a bump and a sound like a chair being dragged across the floor.
“Jus miss her. Miss her soo much.”
The silence between us sucked the air from the room I felt that hollowed out painful feeling like I did when he wondered aloud how anyone could live with half a heart. He promised to eat a bologna sandwich and I said I’d call tomorrow but
Leif called me early the next day to say he was going to detox.
“I called 911”. He sounded more exhausted than intoxicated but I knew he needed to be in a doctor’s care. Momma told me once how he stopped drinking and had delirium tremens, how he was hallucinating and she had to take him by bus to the hospital.
“I can’t be alone right now. When I get out can I stay with you guys for a few days?”
His question caught me off guard. I heard a loud pounding at his door providing an interruption to me answering his question.
“Leif are you gonna get that?”
“They’re here. It’s the aid car. Will you ask Richard? I can’t be alone right now.”
“Call me when you get out. I’ll ask him.” And I hung up wondering what Richard would say.
Richard agreed and I went to pick Leif up a few days after Thanksgiving. When I arrived home from work that day, Leif was unpacking his suitcase. He was nervous and jumpy from the ravages of withdrawal. I gave him a big hug and told him we were glad to have him stay with us. We gave him the spare, empty bedroom, setting up an old army cot and piling on several blankets and quilts. He was tired but relieved that he wasn’t alone.
On the first day of December I drove Leif back to his apartment so he could get some more clothes. We would scatter momma’s ashes in the afternoon and Leif wanted to wear something nice. We drove to Alki Beach, where momma loved to spend time. I had the box containing momma’s ashes on my lap. We found a viewpoint at the north end of the beach and walked out on a pier. It was cold and windy but the sun shone on the water and the sky opened up just above where we stood and provided a blue canopy. Leif and I carefully opened the box and untied the metal clasp. Together we gently shook the plastic bag and watched as the powdery remains fell into the Puget Sound. With a soft splash momma’s ashes hit the dark water. Immediately a beautiful pale green plume formed just beneath the water’s surface. It was translucent and captivating and seemed to be filled with light. We leaned over the pier and watched as the form responded to the motion of the water, expanding and undulating like some exotic underwater flower. Leif’s body shook hard as he tried but failed not to cry. I put my arms around his shoulders and squeezed, crying with him. The luminescent green body of ashes slowly dissipated and became less vibrant. Gentle waves lapped under the pier and coaxed the disappearing form into deeper and deeper water.
Winter hit hard that year and a snow fell that lasted the better part of a week. With our daughter living in the college dorm it was just me, Leif and Richard and we spent most days watching movies and taking naps. I made hamburger soup in the Crockpot and Leif ate it eagerly, commenting that it was just like momma’s, making me feel happy, like I’d somehow brought a small part of her back to life.
I’d wake early each day and start a pot of coffee. Leif would smoke cigarettes out on the deck and I’d watch him through the garden window. He’d sit on a wooden stool and stair out at the bare cottonwoods that filled the greenbelt, blowing smoke into the cold air. Sometimes he’d look up at the sky and I imagined he was thinking of momma and trying to send her a message. We’d sit at the kitchen table, bundled in sweatshirts and with double socks on our feet, talking quietly.
“Don’t you go feeling bad about not calling her.”
“I can’t help it Leif. I think about that phone call from the doctor every day. I guess I’ll just have to think that if I’d called, she would have asked me to help you.”
“And that’s what you’re doing.” He went on to say how sorry he was that momma gave me such a bad time about my trip to Tennessee–the trip to see my after–the man she hated. Leif hung his head over his empty coffee cup and sighed, “When she was harassing you about that I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t tell her anything though, you know she’d get mad and turn on me.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about that. I know you couldn’t stop her.”
When momma drank she not only burned bridges–she would destroy entire towns. My heart was scorched many times but somehow rebounded without too much scar tissue, surviving when other hearts would’ve been full of holes from verbal shrapnel.
Leif and I created a ritual for ourselves, one that gave us both a sounding board for our feelings and a time each day for grieving. I looked forward to our few hours in the early mornings and hoped momma knew Leif was OK. He was feeling better I thought, appearing less jittery and more relaxed. I still awoke every day with the thought in my head, momma is gone—gone from this world forever but my guilt was abating little by little and I had Leif to thank for that. He was on a waiting list for inpatient alcoholism treatment but it would be at least three months before a bed opened up.
Richard was kind, patient and generous, keeping Leif company while I was at work and taking him to his doctor appointments and to the store for cigarettes. He got a little tired of it at one point though and told Leif he’d have to take the bus back from Seattle after one of his appointments. When Leif didn’t arrive home after six hours, Richard called me at work, “Purslane, did he call you? I told him what bus to take. I shouldn’t have to be his chauffer!”
“It’s ok. He’ll get there. He’s a grown man and he’s not gonna get lost.”
Richard was trying my last nerve and I didn’t appreciate the distraction.
“Call me when he gets there.” I sighed and told Richard I had to go. His voice softened then and I knew he was really more worried than anything else.
“I just don’t want him wondering around lost and afraid to call for a ride.”
I smiled and hung up the phone and Leif arrived at our house a few minutes later. He’d stopped to look around at Walgreens and bought some new Tee shirts and underwear.
I sat our coffee cups on the table and waited for Leif to finish his cigarette. Squirrels played in the cottonwoods, nearly invisible against the gray, bare bark, their swishing tails calling out their presence. I watched Leif on the deck as he finished his cigarette and dropped the butt into a rusted coffee can half full of a brown soupy mix. Today we would sort through photos and I would keep what I wanted. It would be a tearful morning I knew, one that we’d started and stopped twice already. Each photo prompted a slew of memories and for the most part we smiled, finding a sweet kind of melancholy that was tolerable. Leif told me about locating momma’s own mother, Ola Mae, a few years ago.
“Poo wanted to see her and had been nagging me about going to see her. We knew she lived in Renton and the lady at the library helped us find an address. That was when Poo could still walk. We took the bus over there and saw Ola Mae.”
I’d heard of Ola Mae but never really thought of her as my grandmother and I knew momma was not on any kind of terms with her. I’d only seen her once and since momma never talked about her, I didn’t ask.
“Poo just stood and looked at her mother but didn’t say a word.” Leif shook his head like he didn’t quite understand.
I never knew about momma’s trip to see Ola Mae and it made me curious,
“Isn’t that strange? I asked, did she invite you inside?”
“No, she said her husband was sick and in bed. I did all the talking and Poo just watched. Ola Mae had on a gold ankle bracelet, I remember.” Leif paused and was gone for a few minutes in the memory of that day. It hurt me to think of momma being too scared to talk to her own mother but Leif said the trip made her happy and she seemed content with the visit. We finished our coffee and Leif took both our cups to the kitchen sink. I watched him rise slowly from the table. The gray sweater he wore had a hole where a button had been torn away and his navy boat shoes had worn spots where his big toes were threatening to break through. I heard a scratching sound and looked out to the deck where two squirrels ran along the railing.
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