Sylva, North Carolina
You ducked into the coma just in time, didn’t you, Alex? I crawl in with you. Then, the Lindseys descend. Your mother parks on the chair beside the bed, your father at the foot. I clutch your arm like Teddy, my favorite childhood-bear while your mother brags on your brother’s exploits, and your father grunts agreement.
My heart cries as I remember your whisper at the door of your brother’s home. “You are about to meet my parent’s only child.” In your coma, you hear your mother and my heart cracks. I feel your chest muscles tighten, as she bows her head and lets it rest near your groin. I cringe. The odor of rubbing alcohol seeps under the door. “He doesn’t want your head there.”
She sits up. Your body relaxes. The mind-body-spirit workshop I took two weeks ago awakens my awareness of minute changes in your muscles. You already know that, don’t you?
The hospice nurse enters and takes your vital signs. Your dad reads a newspaper he found discarded in the waiting room. Your mother clicks on the bedside lamp, and afternoon settles into evening. She sits in silence, hands folded in her lap. Are you as grateful for her silence as I am?
Almost midnight. Suddenly, you sit straight up and look at your father. I recognize the pain on your face from the times we’ve talked about the way your parents see you. “He wants to hear,” I look at your mother, “that you love him.”
Your arm muscles relax.
“We love you,” her voice tight. She rushes from the room.
Your father stares over the top of the newspaper. “Of course we love you.” The paper falls to the floor and with a grunt he follows your mother. You drop down like you sat up.
I ache at your pain of their disconnect. I grasp your hand and squeeze. I love you. I will always love you. I run my fingers down the side of your face.
Your mother returns with a nurse, her arms fling about as fast and wildly as her speech, “Then he sat up and looked from me to his father have you ever heard of such a thing?”
“I’ve heard of it, but never seen it,” she looks you over like some specimen.
Your mother, as if realizing why she summoned the nurse, says, “He needs pain medication. Now.” Can you hear the nag in her voice?
“He’s in a coma,” the nurse says. “He’s in no pain.” Your stomach tightens.
How does she know what you can feel? Your muscles tremble. Beginning of the shakes? “He’s a recovering alcoholic.” I clutch your hand. “He’s been on oxycontin for over a month. Could he be going through withdrawal?” I struggle to remember how the various bodily systems work. “Couldn’t this be an autonomic response?”
The nurse pauses and checks your chart, “I’ll call the doctor and see what he thinks.” A few moments later, she returns and gives you an injection.
She pats your hand. “This should help.” Your muscles relax.
I jolt awake to the busy morning shift in the hall. My in-laws stand at the door staring at me.
“We’re going down to the cafeteria to get something to eat. Want anything?”
The idea of food, except sugar, nauseates me. “Large coffee. Black. And anything sugary. The sweeter the better.”
Halfway through my gooey pastry, the hospice social worker arrives. She walks straight to you without even a glance at me as I stand on the other side of the tray table with my coffee and food. She leans over and says something to you. I can’t hear. You breathe in. Out. In. Out. In. You pause.
Just like you to increase the drama. An unexpected chuckle threatens to strangle me. I cough. At least you didn’t die last week, on Good Friday. Knowing you, you’d expect me to wait until Sunday to see if you’d rise from the dead. I cover my mouth and bite my lower lip as if stifling a yawn. Is that a hint of a smile on your face? Are you laughing with me?
You breathe in.
I didn’t give you cancer. Partly, you did this to yourself. I can forgive you your years of smoking and drinking. I’m not so forgiving that you’re ready to go. Blood rushes to my face and my heart beats faster.
How can I forgive the spread of Agent Orange in a war that took away my idealism? Body bags on the news brought to the dinner table every night will do that.
Whatever the cause of your cancer, our years together won’t be a lifetime for me, just you.
I take five, slow, deep breaths. My jaw relaxes.
I eat the overly sweet crème-filled doughnut. Knowing how you hate crumbs in the bed, I’ll finish before I sit with you. Ah, you’re taking another breath. I’ll wait until the social worker leaves before I go to you.
I stare at the sugary remnants on the cafeteria plate. During these final weeks, we bared our souls and said everything we needed to say. I’ve never felt so exposed, as if my skin peeled away and exposed my heart. Yet, you never turned away from me.
I watch and wait. You breathe in just the way you always do. You’re in control and have everyone’s attention while I subsist on sugar. I won’t feel. Not in front of these people.
What is the social worker saying to you? Her with her accusing looks in my direction.
You breathe out.
You don’t breathe in. Another pause?
No breath in.
You look so peaceful. No more pain. No more agony. I know you’re still here with me.
It’s as if everyone in the waiting room simultaneously understands that you are dead. Friends and family come in and make stiff or tearful good-byes, then retreat.
Time to call your brother? No, your best friend will do it; he’s in the hallway. He promised to call friends and co-workers. Will your brother inform your daughters? Said he would. My love, you continue to make life easier for me, even in death. Have to call my family.
The nurse’s aide arrives to prepare your body. “I will do it,” as I place a protective hand on the sheet.
She snatches the sheet from my hand and off your body, leaving you naked. I grab the sheet. How disrespectful. You would hate this. I cover you. I begin to wash you. I wash your face and neck, moving from your arms to your torso. I stand so she can’t watch. I cover your top half. I uncover and wash your legs and feet. Together, we turn you over.
As we roll you onto your stomach, I see it. A decubitus ulcer. One I’ve not seen, didn’t know about. Bright red. The color of raw hamburger. A cavern of bone and meat. Oozing yellow pus. You never mentioned it.
Had I walled myself off so effectively that my whole being said, I don’t know and I don’t want to know? Was this detachment? Survival? No trips into the danger zone of the psyche for me! I simply hadn’t paid attention.
Guilt arrives, carrying its own bag.
I leave the closing on the beach house and drive to Alligator Point to meet Frank Islip, the man I’ve been seeing for fourteen months. The sun is high and shines warm in a cerulean sky sprinkled with powder puff clouds. One of those January days that entice you into believing spring is here.
I offer up gratitude to Alex who, seven years ago, left me enough insurance money to pay for my doctorate, and my dream house. To Frank for saying, “Cosmetically, it’s a mess. Structurally it’s sound. We can fix it. If you don’t buy it I will.” And, to the friend who offered me my dream.
When I pull in front, Frank hops out of his old truck. “Welcome home,” accompanied by a tight hug and a wide grin.
“I’ve been imagining the stairs moved to the side rather than straight on,” as I return both. “What do you think?” More subtle. More beautiful. More welcoming.
“Easy enough to do.” He looks at the yard. “But, harder to imagine with all the yard junk.”
To my house-gratitude list, I add Joy the woman responsible for the helter-skelter cabinets and carpeting that clutter the front lawn. I turn to view the quiet part of the gulf across the street from my home. “Yeah, but thanks to the girlfriend, we’re standing here.”
Frank rests his hand on my shoulder, and I breathe in the pleasure of this moment before we go in the house. Once inside, we open all the doors and windows to air out the house. We move to the side deck with both the front view of the gulf and the view from the rear of the house. We lean over the back rail, watching gulf waves lazily break on shore. I close my eyes to take in the salt air. Frank slides a finger along my cheek. When I gaze into his eyes, they soften. I am home.
With a sigh, Frank lets go. “Better get to work.”
Months before when Joy had shown me the house, I’d seen evidence of destruction, and now have visions of her yanking up the carpet and heaving it out the door in an explosive rage. “All men are evil! See these light fixtures? Breasts!” The woman seems to traipse along the line of psychosis. Looks like she’s crossed it. The breast-pink paint color is another indication of her disturbed thinking.
I help Frank load the tossed carpet and pad into the back of the pickup. We store the cabinets in the living room. Thank god for the several weeks of no rain.
With the front yard cleared, we move inside with notebooks and pencils. Frank measures the kitchen and appliances. I write the dimensions on my paper. He measures again. “Measure twice, cut once.” With his tape, he gathers the dimensions of every room and draws a floor plan. As he goes from room-to-room, he calls out what needs attention: Kilz to cover the girlfriend-slopped paint, two coats flat, two coats trim, material to repair and repaint ceiling, carpet and pads—I have a second page where he gives me a list with the amount of paint, numbers of screws and other needed supplies.
By mid-afternoon we have enough information to begin the repairs. Frank puts away his notebook and pencil. “What you say we quit before we get into work traffic?”
“Sounds good.” I need to practice for my defense. “I have an early day tomorrow.”
As we stand by my white Camaro, Frank hugs me and kisses my nose. “I’ll make a list for what we need first.” He puts out his hand, “Your list.”
I hand it to him.
He mentions he’s to see the doctor tomorrow. In all the house excitement, I’d forgotten that he should soon have a doctor’s appointment because he’d missed the one in November. It had taken two months to get a new one.
“How about dinner tomorrow night?” Hopefully we can celebrate my defense and his good health. We firm up our plans and then leave for Tallahassee.
Something about Frank’s doctor’s appointment gnaws at me.
I open the windows to the sound of birds chirping and inhale the combined scents of pine trees, fresh air, and death from an animal along the side of the road. My arms and shoulders relax as the energy of the trees surrounds me. Everything in this world is exactly as it should be. Traffic slows and becomes heavier as I pass the two universities. I grip the wheel. The clear blue sky turns dark and ominous as I pass the Tallahassee Mall. Crepe myrtles sway. Large drops of rain splat against the windshield.
Before I turn into my parking space, the sun bursts through the clouds.
I barely make it inside my apartment when two pairs of eyes peep around the corner, Yin and Yang, my Japanese bobtail cats. “We have a beach house, little ones.” Yang tugs at my leg and rolls over. I reach down to rub his tummy. Yin, the aloof one, turns her back.
I glide through the living room towards the office, one of two extra bedrooms. I shut the studio door and the distraction of an unfinished painting, a Vietnam War bamboo cage.
Can’t imagine why I chose to dwell on this subject. I suspect it’s my way of working through a war that took so much from me.
As I enter my office, I touch the feathers on the medicine stick, a twisted branch with a large crystal encircled in a rawhide string. An eagle’s feather attached by a leather thong tops the stick. Narrower leather strings hold beads and other feathers in place. The shaman who created this symbol must have infused it with healing powers. I am drawn to its energy.
I toss the closing papers on the desk, and then realize they’ll likely get lost in the mess. I stuff them into an empty cubbyhole above the desk. My cat shadows follow until I pick them up and hold them to my chest.
I put down the cats and pick up a now worn copy of my Theory of Therapy paper. Yin watches, with the disdain only a cat can express, as she lazes on the desk chair. Yang reclines on the floor underneath her, in exactly the same position. How do they do that?
I stand in front of Yin. I begin reading aloud: “As a phenomenologist, I believe people create their own meanings for their lives. Our beliefs influence the meanings we make, which have …”
Yin jumps up and walks across the keyboard leaving a trail of letters on the screen. I turn to face her. Should have shut down the computer. I pick her up and place her on the floor. “Okay, Yin, tell me what you think.” She stares at me.
“What do you mean I’m using highfalutin words to sound smart? This is my field. I’m supposed to sound smart. I do know what I’m talking about.” She cocks her head and crosses her front paws as if to say pride goeth before a fall. “Okay. Okay. I’ll try to give you my theory of therapy for regal cats.” I look at my paper and then at Yin. “So, as a therapist, I want to know what you think when I tell you I love you.” She looks at me as if I’ve misplaced my sanity—which I probably have, considering I’m lecturing a cat.
“To put this in cat terms, if your mama told you she loved you while she was feeding you or licking you clean, you’d have a different idea of love than if she told you she loved you and then bit your ear or scratched your nose. Or, even walked away.” Yin looks around the room.
“Pay attention, Yin.” She turns her head towards me. “If, for example, when as a small child, I was so completely controlled by my family that I had no freedom, I would value my independence above everything.”
I lean towards her before I continue. “Better yet, remember how your temperature rose every time you went to the vet after your experience in the loud family with the barking dogs, hissing cats, yelling humans, and then in the animal shelter? I know it scared you because you run and hide if I raise my voice. So, we’ll pretend that you believe if you’re yelled at, you will die.”
As she twitches her nub of a tail, Frank’s face pops up, but I can’t think about him now.
“When William James wrote, ‘I don’t smile because I’m happy; I’m happy because I smile,’ he is telling us that we can change our attitude by changing our behavior. In other words, acting as if . . . will make it so.’”
I turn to Yin. “This is important.” Her eyes open wide. I bend down, pick her up and cradle her in my arms.
“You can change being afraid, Sweet Girl, by acting as if you are not afraid.” Yang saunters over and nudges my foot. Yin wiggles out of my arms and jumps on the desk. I bend forward and gentle Yang’s head.
A thud. CRASH. I jump. Both cats disappear. I rush to the den and dial the upstairs neighbors. Laughter greets me. “Knew it was you,” says Mrs. McPherson. “Trying to break apart three frozen chickens by smashing them on the kitchen floor. Yeah, we’re all alive up here. The noise was that loud in your office?”
My adrenalin continues to pulse when I return to the office and sit in my chair, both legs shaking. It takes a few minutes before the cats return.
Yin jumps up on the desk, paws my face, and looks at me as if suggesting, go on. Yang jumps in my lap. Yin creeps to the monitor and stares at the screen.
I want coffee, but refuse to reward myself until I’ve completely explained my theory to Yin.
I put Yang on the floor and stand. “Since what you think and what you do are connected,” I start to pace, “if you don’t feel good and hear a crash upstairs, you’re more likely to think you’re going to die. If you spend a lot of time thinking you’re about to die from fright, you’ll get sick. If you are afraid long enough, you’ll hack up a hairball. So let’s not go there. Okay?” I reach down to pull Yin to me, but she’s gone before my hand is halfway there.
I pour a mug of coffee, move into the den, and pick up the Margaret Atwood novel I’ve been reading before bed each night. I curl up in my favorite chair. The large square one, probably a hundred years old. The wide arms enfold me when I tuck my legs up under. Yin and Yang settle in, one on each side of me facing the same direction.
An hour later, hunger overtakes, and I wander into the kitchen for a fast peanut butter sandwich. Gone are the days when I had time to cook after work on the psych unit in North Carolina. Peanut butter is the one staple in the pantry these days.
The next morning, I dress in a professional uniform for my defense, navy suit with white silk blouse, and navy pumps. Wish I could ditch the pantyhose, but I know the more I look the part, the better I’ll perform.
With morning coffee in hand, I watch Yang chasing Yin, circle round and round the living room, through the dining room, into the kitchen and through the den. They reverse to flash into the office. I follow behind to check email. Maybe someone has answered my late night questions about prostate cancer. Don’t really expect anything this soon. Nothing important.
I gather my notes and stuff them into my burgundy monogramed leather briefcase.
I arrive at the clinic with ten minutes to spare. I pour a mug of coffee and find a seat at the conference table. My practicum supervisor Joe Promough, my major professor Simon Dimsley, and another professor, who is officially on sabbatical, but in town, arrive at eight-thirty with their copies of the theory paper and accompanying transcript of a session.
Joe taps the paper, and then glances up. “The female client, an emergency medical technician, is having a problem with her deputy sheriff boyfriend who is consuming all her free time to the point she can’t visit her mother.”
He tilts back in his chair. “Why did you choose this particular session with this particular client?”
“I’ve watched the client give up one more piece of her independence each time they’ve come in for a session. After her five previous ones, you can see on the tape that there’s a hesitancy in her walk, and she hunches over in the chair.”
“Do you see any correlation to your own life?” Simon combs his fingers through his beard.
I take a deep breath, “I see me when I was married to an active alcoholic. I made myself sick trying to get him to stop drinking. I had the if onlys:
If only I was more attractive; if only I was more submissive; if only I would lose weight—I was at my perfect weight—he would quit. She’s doing her own version of this process.”
Joe leans forward, “You say that because they are both in crises-type careers, you suspect they are addicted to the adrenalin rushes their jobs provide.
He leans back with his arms crossed. “Any similarities in your family history?”
I have the feeling he thinks he’s tripping me up. “On the surface, you might not think so. Her father abandoned her and her mother to marry a younger woman. She and her mother are very close.” I twirl my ring.
“My father was my ally until I was sixteen. I knew he pleaded my case with my mother even though I never heard it. Mother was more like the deputy sheriff boyfriend.”
The third professor glances up from his non-stop writing. “What about your father? Did he abandon you?”
“No . . . wait.” My heart flutters. “I take that back. I felt abandoned when he attempted suicide. I never trusted that he would be there for me after that. I never trusted my mother to protect me after she had me hide behind the sofa from the Fuller Brush man. I was three.”
I lean my forearms on the table and clasp my hands, “so yes, I guess he did abandon me. At least in my mind.”
I catch a look where Simon gives Joe a just-noticeable nod.
“What happened with the Fuller Brush man that caused you to lose trust in your mother?”
I go back to that day in my first house. “Mother opened all the windows,” allowing the stench of old arguments, fears, and bitter thoughts to escape, from winter’s enclosure, into the fresh spring air. She hummed Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’ while she washed the windows. I chattered to my doll. The Oriental rug hung on the clothesline to be beaten and brought in later when the floors carried the scent of Johnson’s paste wax.”
I flinch. “All of a sudden, she grabbed me, her hand over my mouth, and pulled me behind the sofa, sitting in the middle of the living room. When I turned to look at her, her index finger covered her lips. Shhh, she’d whispered.”
Joe shuffles his papers. He nods.
“Knock. Knock. Knock.” The Spic and Span Momma used on the walls left its perfume in the room. “We held our breaths. The deep brown horsehair covering the sofa tickled my nose.” Off to the side, in Daddy’s chair, lay the soft, beige linen-like fabric slipcovers. They’d cover the sofa and the chair before the sun hid behind the mountain.
“The doorbell rang. We waited, as silent and still as the air before a summer storm. I looked at Momma. She frowned as she put her finger to her mouth once more. The storm door opened and closed.” Fear sucked energy from the room. Silence. “Footsteps left the porch. We waited.” I take a breath.
“Momma peered around and over the back of the sofa. She whispered that we could get up and that I’d have to talk quietly.”
Simon tugs on his beard and shoots a look at Joe.
“When I asked why we hid, she told me the knocker was the Fuller Brush man and she didn’t want to buy anything from him that day.”
Joe’s smile is quizzical. “Why did that experience cause you to lose trust in your mother?”
“I thought she was afraid and that’s why she hid. If she had to hide from someone who had been in our house before, then how could she protect me from someone who might really harm me? Remember, this is the logic of a three year old.” I take a deep breath.
“And you still remember it?”
I let out my breath. “Like yesterday.”
Simon turns a page and points to the paper. He clears his throat, “Do you really believe you can change by acting as if?”
“Nineteen years in twelve-step meetings have taught me the truth of the slogan. Not only in my own life, but in watching a number of alcoholics get sober.” I sit back in my chair.
The next thirty-five minutes are spent debating my theories of adrenalin addiction, whether a smile can change a mood from sad to happy, and the merits of a positive attitude and its effect on real-life outcomes.
At last, Joe points to the door. “Go get some coffee, and we’ll call you back when we make our decision.”