(excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds)
Purslane resumed her routines and fought hard not to write. Every time she felt an inclination to put down a sentence or if a chapter title came to her she mentally stomped it to death. Telling herself she was an artist but not a writer seemed to work for a time and Purslane purchased a few canvases from the frame shop and went to work. She created an abstract acrylic painting but did not feel any passion. She decided instead to read and went to the library, checking out two books by Pat Conroy. His mastery of words and character and scene made for a wonderful reading experience but also made Purslane feel the old desire again. There was nothing new in the story she wanted to tell and no reason to think she could tell it in a way that mattered. It had been written and filed away and also burned and shredded. It bored the hell out of her so how– oh how could it mean anything to anyone? Her own inability to let go frustrated her and made Purslane feel like she had some kind of mental illness or obsessive compulsion. On her worst days she was disgusted and on her best days she felt it was just not her time yet. She had to put the desire aside for a while and wait. On those good days she felt genuinely happy for Cherry and was tempted to call and ask about her current writing projects, but she knew she wasn’t on the same level as her friend and she didn’t want to embarrass herself.
In July Purslane and Reggie took a trip with Mariposa to California to visit Reggie’s family in San Bruno. They drove and stayed at the Seven Feather’s Casino Hotel in Canyonville, Oregon. Reggie’s winnings at Keno paid for the entire trip as well as a trip to the San Bruno Costco. Cherry went to Europe that summer with Vance and Augustina and Purslane fought hard to stop the images of Cherry making notes in a little book of all her Parisian inspirations for future romance novels.
By fall the clinic where Purslane worked was busy with kids coming in for sports physicals and flu shots. Mothers and sometimes fathers would usher their reluctant sons and daughters to the check in counter and Purslane would greet them with mock enthusiasm, take their copays and pass out health history questionnaires. The same series of events would repeat itself 15 to 20 times a day until November and then the tempo would change slightly. Young and old would appear at Purslane’s desk with the most vile and putrid nasal discharges, rib cracking coughs that hurt her ears and made Purslane cringe, and fevers that dried out the lips gave the eyes a soupy, far away expression. The clinic was small and every time the automatic door opened a gust of cold air swirled overhead causing Purslane to shudder. It snowed a week before thanksgiving and the patients tracked in clumps of dirty snow that stuck to their shoes and boots. They forgot their wet wool hats in the lobby along with an occasional scarf or single glove and Purslane picked these items up and placed them in a cardboard box behind the front desk where the damp wool stayed wet and started to smell like mildew.
In early December the phone rang late at night. Purslane had been asleep but Reggie was awake watching the World Series of Poker. His eyes never left the television screen as Purslane fumbled for the receiver. Her mom was in the hospital. She’d had a minor heart attack but the greatest concern was another exacerbation of her emphysema. Purslane listened to the young sounding voice of the attending physician. He told Purslane that her mother was resting comfortably and that she’d like to talk to her. Purslane wrote down the number on a scrap of paper, thanked the doctor and hung up the phone. Reggie turned the volume down on the TV, “Purslane?”
“My mom is in the hospital again.” Purslane sat on the edge of the bed facing the wall, her back to Reggie. Reggie eyed the blue felt sparrows on his wife’s pajama top. The TV remote was warm in his left hand, his thumb nervously traced the rubbered numbers. Purslane sighed and tossed the scrap of paper with the hospital phone number on the night stand. “I don’t think she’ll make it out this time.”
Reggie waited a minute for his wife to say more but she kept her back to him and only lay down, still facing the wall. He turned up the volume of the TV and the sound of clacking poker chips filled the room.
Purslane awoke with an absence of feeling. Her mother’s drunken voice from a multitude of past tirades filled her head. Her mother had been an embittered, sullen woman for most of her life. Alcohol had lightened her spirits but only at first. The woman’s common demeanor after a few drinks was aggressive and abusive. Purslane’s resolve was strong. She would not call and cared so little about the outcome of her mother’s hospitalization– she didn’t even mention to Reggie that her mother had asked for her, or that she’d had a heart attack. But by the end of the next day the phone rang again in the middle of dinner. Her mother’s common law husband was on the line apologizing and stressing how sorry he was. Purslane listened respectfully for she had no grudge against this man. He had taken care of her mother when she couldn’t and wouldn’t be a part of her mother’s life. Her resolve gave way when the man’s voice cracked and he repeated to Purslane as best he could his understanding of the medical gravity of it all. “They say she’s only got half a heart left. How can anyone live with half a heart?” Purslane took a deep breath and steadied herself against the kitchen counter.
By the time Purslane arrived at the hospital her mother was on life support. She lay in the basement of the county hospital in an area called ‘ICU holding’. It was a place were very sick patients waited for even sicker patients on the third floor to die. The hospital bed was in an open ward with at least a dozen other beds. People attached to all sorts of machines and tubes fought to live or die. Purslane approached her mother’s bed. She carefully slid away the curtain that ran along a metal track in the ceiling. A big box like apparatus hissed at the bedside. Oxygen was being forced into her mother’s diseased lungs in a rough motion that made her mother’s body jerk in response. Purslane stepped quickly to her mother’s side and said in a loud voice, “I’m here momma. It’s me, Purslane!” A nurse approached and adjusted a knob on the machine, “she was combative and had to be sedated”, the nurse said. “Her veins couldn’t be accessed because of the diabetes so we had to tap her femoral.”
The nurse adjusted the thick blanket on the bed and removed a couple of bloody cotton balls that had been left behind. Purslane found it hard to take her eyes off her mother’s face. Tubes were in her mouth and taped in place on both sides of her cheeks. Her mother somehow managed to keep her worn, red bandanna on and it was pushed back high on her forehead. Purslane noticed she had a receding hairline. She had not seen her mother in over a year. A sudden memory catapulted Purslane back in time and she remembered her mother as she once was—as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor. With a container of waxy Maybelline mascara in one hand her mother transformed her eyebrows into beautiful black arches. She’d spit on the waxy cake and smile at the mirror, raking the little brush in grand upward strokes. Purslane tried to pull the bandana down a little but she was overcome and began sobbing and unable to see.
A week later the tubes were removed and her mother was let go. She passed away in just minutes. A single weak gasp for air and the inability to exhale made her passing quick. Purslane and Leif, her mother’s common law husband of 20 years, stood crying near the IV poles at the head of the bed. Leif was drunk and silent, leaning over his partner in a stupor of loss and pain. Purslane was on the other side screaming, “I love you momma. I do love you momma!” She had learned that hearing was the last sense to leave the dying and Purslane wanted to be sure her mother heard her voice. She had to make sure her mother knew she had come, that she was there and that she loved her and cared—despite everything.
Purslane scattered her mother’s ashes at Alki Beach on a cold December afternoon. The slate blue water of the Puget Sound transformed the gray ash into a plume of translucent turquoise. The water’s motion moved and separated the plume, pulling it deeper and deeper into dark water. Purslane leaned over the pier and watched. She smiled up at the sky when a bit of vibrant blue appeared. Sea gulls swooped and cried and Purslane breathed in the salty air remembering how her mother loved this part of West Seattle.
The days and weeks that followed consumed Purslane. Guilt wedged its thumb between every action and thought she had. Why hadn’t she called her mother that night? Her mother was gone. Gone from the world forever. Purslane had a chance to say goodbye and didn’t. Her mother’s life had been hard. Hard from the get go and hard to the end. She’d suffered so much pain and disappointment. So much sorrow. She’d lost her sons—Purslane’s brothers– and how could anyone recover from that? It wasn’t really her fault was it, that she was mean and bitter? Purslane re-lived every event of her childhood and young adult hood and every awful parental crime her mother committed was forgiven. She learned that on the night her mother was rushed to the hospital she’d suddenly lost control of her bowels and couldn’t breathe, even with the oxygen tank turned up full force. Her mother didn’t want to be seen as someone who soiled herself and warned Leif not to call for help. But he must have been terrified at the severity of her mother’s condition, and he called 911. Purslane recoiled at the image of her mother’s pride being so depleted, her last remnant of dignity gone in a stream of her own feces that ran down her leg to puddle on the floor. Purslane should have known. She should have known of the course and progression of emphysema. She worked in healthcare for God’s sake! She should have helped her mother, called to check on her, forgiven her when she was alive!
Grief ran its course through Purslane’s heart the way it does through every mortal’s heart and the guilt, regret and sorrow plowed into her very bones. Eventually her pain surfaced and was only a dried out shell, hollow and light as the bones of a bird. Purslane felt lighter too and one day in early March she awoke and noticed the trees budding. She heard Chickadees calling from the back deck and rushed to refill the feeder. She smelled coffee and gratefully took a steaming cup from Reggie’s hand and noticed the beautiful root beer color of his eyes. Mariposa gave her a good morning hug and Purslane hugged back, breathing in the sweet smell of fresh pear in her daughter’s hair. At work she answered the phone eagerly and listened patiently as people told her of their aches and pains. She smiled at the doctors and nurses and said ‘thank you’ when one of the grumpy, overworked physicians brought to her attention an error on his schedule. On weekends she gardened in anticipation of the summer ahead when all of her plants and flowers would be in bloom. Reggie mowed the lawn and chastised Purslane for working without shoes and without garden gloves, but she wanted to feel the grass with her feet and she found it hard to weed around the flowers without hurting them unless her fingers were bare. One Saturday she awoke to the sun and without so much as a single cup of coffee, threw on her canvas boat shoes, a pair of shorts and tee shirt and shook Reggie awake to tell him, “I’m going for a walk!”
Only the neighbor’s cats were out but evidence was everywhere that summer had arrived. In another hour or two the streets would be full of kids riding bikes and teenagers washing their cars and men cleaning grills in preparation for an evening spent cooking chicken wings and drinking beer. Purslane headed to the main road and walked towards the strip mall. She walked quickly and with purpose but not so fast that she failed to notice her surroundings. She breathed in summer. Knew it by heart and smell. She walked under the giant lilac tree that grew wild and unpruned, its clusters like heavy clouds of perfume above her head. A vacant lot on the corner where a viney wild rose grew made Purslane stop and follow its trail. It grew along a dilapidated fence and wound itself up a crab apple tree. Crows sat and cawed in the branches and bees hummed and dived in and around the weeds and flowers. Purslane reached the intersection where traffic moved quickly. She had only her debit card and planned to take some money from the ATM, stroll to the grocery store for fresh veggies and then walk home. The Home Depot parking lot was already full and Purslane could see shopping carts packed with Azaleas and Marigolds being wheeled away. She heard laughter and saw young girls in flip flops heading toward the Smart N Fine Nail Salon. A line had formed in front of the bank machine and Purslane took her spot behind a woman who was reading a Target sales flier. Two others in line as well, perhaps a husband and wife, stood contentedly sipping at Starbucks cups. Purslane could feel the sun making the top of her head hot and her round, bare shoulders were just beginning to turn pink.
She went home and felt the urge to write. She wrote and wrote and didn’t stop until she had a decent essay and then she dove in with abandon, sending her story to the editor of Colors Northwest, a local online magazine. Two days later the editor replied and accepted Purslane’s work. Not only would it be published but Purslane was invited to send in more work for consideration. She wrote of her childhood and the man who became a surrogate father. The story was accepted and she’d be paid $150.00. The editor asked if she had ideas for other articles. Purslane wrote back that she’d like to write about adult education, specifically about the National External Diploma Program. The editor accepted the pitch and gave Purslane a deadline, telling her the article could be the center piece if accepted and would garner a $200.00 payment. Purslane was ecstatic. She roused herself every morning at 3 AM for the next week and wrote before leaving for work. She made a pot of coffee and tried to work at night but the sound of people, pets and Reggie’s constant TV watching proved too much of a distraction so she resumed her early morning routine. She interviewed an instructor in the NEDP and a student who recently graduated and she finished the article two days ahead of the deadline. The editor was pleased and thanked Purslane for doing such a good job. The story ran as a center piece, front page article. Purslane felt she was on her way and that she’d found her voice. She was not a memoirist after all but a journalist!
Purslane made a list of all the issues and concerns she like to address, all the articles she’d write and she couldn’t wait to contact the editor again for feedback. She had earned $350.00 for her writing. It wasn’t a lot but it was a breakthrough and to Purslane it might as well have been three hundred and fifty thousand dollars for it made her feel incredible—invincible. But the checks never came. Purslane emailed the editor but only got a remote response telling her the editor was out of the office. Purslane called the magazine and left a message for the owner. Reggie insulted her by asking if she’d actually paid the magazine to run her stories and she was so hurt and angered by his insinuations that she didn’t speak to him of anything to do with writing for a whole year.
Purslane noticed the name of a man in past issues of the magazine who was a frequent contributor of stories and she found his contact information online and sent him a message. He replied quickly and said he’d been a featured writer for years. He told Purslane the editor had gone on maternity leave and that she couldn’t help what was happening. The owner had health issues and with the economy taking a nose dive the magazine couldn’t survive. The feature writer was owed close to a thousand dollars. She learned that even the editor got stung. She was promised health insurance but her policy had been cancelled just weeks before her baby’s delivery. Purslane’s writing career blossomed and died within a month. Once the magazine was shut down her articles weren’t even retrievable as archives in an internet search. Purslane had saved a printed copy but that was all she had. How she’d hoped to see a check! And not for the monetary value– not that at all. She wanted to say that she’d been paid for her words. Wanted some validation that her writing was worthy—an acknowledgement of even a small seed of talent—of latent potential. But she got nothing. Just the memory of how good it felt to rise at three AM with a purpose. A writing purpose.
She fought against depression and read again of the Buddhists philosophy. The desires that lead to pain. The want and longing that creates attachment. Purslane sighed and pulled a cold beer from the fridge. She sat in a faded plastic lawn chair on the deck at the back of her house. Cottonwood trees in full leaf created a green, shadowy canopy overhead. Purslane slouched low in the chair and drained the last of the beer from the brown bottle. She crossed her legs and uncrossed them. She sat up straight and burped loudly. She grabbed another beer from the fridge and returned to the deck. Purslane took a long swallow and felt the buzz begin. She glanced sideways at the edge of the roof and frowned at the overgrowth of moss. She counted the nicks and cracks in the railing of her deck and stuck her toe in a plank of wood that had rotted away leaving a divot the size of an envelope. She didn’t see the point. The writing that leads nowhere. The mortgage payments that will never result in ownership. Home ownership without pride of ownership. Purslane reached for the necks of the empty beer bottles and stood, arching her back rolling her head from side to side. The back of her thighs were damp with sweat and stuck to the chair when she tried to stand.