Walk in the Park
The front door slammed behind me hard. Jack dropped the newspaper into his lap and gave me that look of his, one eyebrow raised—how does he do just one eyebrow?—his chin down so he can look over the top of his half-glasses.
The lamp was on next to the red couch where he sat, and there was a fire in the gas fireplace. He wore blue jeans and a red turtleneck. His black running shoes were under the coffee table. Everything in the living room said comfort and warm and welcome, everything in order, Jack reading in front of the fire, waiting for me to get home from the hospital.
Jack by the fire was a cozy picture framed in a window I observed from a damp chilly distance.
He folded the newspaper once, then again, then again, and laid it down on the arm of the couch. He stretched his arm across the back of the couch.
“Come and sit,” he said. “Take your jacket off.”
“Can’t sit,” I said. I was buzzing frustration, a howl wanting to come out. No, not a howl, more like a roar, a lion maybe. Some loud wild African sound that would surely terrify Jack, if anything ever could terrify him.
I dropped my backpack on the hardwood floor by the door and took off my gloves. Shoved the gloves into the pockets of my black and blue waterproof parka. Tossed my head back to flip the hood off my head. Unzipped my parka.
Zipped my parka back up.
Jack pulled his shoes toward him.
“Looks like we’re going for a walk,” he said.
“I need a walk,” I said.
He put on his black shoes, tied the laces and stood up.
A puddle had formed on the floor around my backpack.
“It’s raining,” he said.
“Sprinkling,” I said. There was another puddle on the floor where I stood, water dripping off my parka.
“I’ll put on a sweatshirt and get my rain jacket,” he said.
I went out to the porch and sat for awhile on the porch swing, waiting.
What is this heavy slow spin going on inside me? The frustration, the damp cold distance from everything warm and good? I kicked the porch swing into motion. It has to do with the hospital visit. Tim is so scared and so weak right now, so done in by this surgery, what is it, operation number six? Eight? I’ve lost track. This one to clean out more of the deteriorating shinbone and replace the steel pin with a new one.
Tim’s misery and pain and fear. The worse his situation gets, the more alone he is. Irene left as soon as I got to the hospital, to get back to the kids. Mom showed up for her usual fifteen minutes. What kind of mother…?
Has she no compassion? No mercy? Does she think he wants this? Yes, she thinks that. She thinks all sickness is from improper thinking and spiritual bleakness. She thinks he’s sick because his prana is clogged, whatever that is. She thinks if only Tim were as strong and determined as she is, he’d overcome this. She can’t stay in the room, she can never stay in the room. She’s never there for him, she never stays longer than fifteen minutes.
By the time Jack came out wearing his heavy black sweatshirt the porch swing was banging rhythmically against the porch rail. He carried his black rain jacket, the expensive waterproof jacket I gave him for his birthday so he could hike in the rain.
Before he could get his rain jacket on I was down the steps to the sidewalk.
“Hey, you in a hurry?” he said behind me.
He caught up, one arm in the rain jacket.
We headed down Bybee Boulevard, toward Johnson Creek Park.
Jack got his other arm into his jacket.
“Wait,” he said, “hold on, I can’t get this thing zipped.”
I stopped and waited while he wrestled his zipper up to his chin and pulled the black hood up over his head.
“Okay, let’s go,” he said.
Our inside legs moved at the same time, then outside legs together. Hips and shoulders bumped, my hip and my shoulder lower than his by half a foot.
The rain was a light sprinkle in our faces. I put my hood up.
“How did it go with Tim?” Jack said. “Is he awake yet? Is he okay?”
“He’s okay,” I said.
The air was that wet dust smell when it hasn’t rained for awhile. Raindrops made dark spots on the sidewalk, and splashed in the puddles. Car headlights behind us, then car headlights going past, the sizzling sound of rubber car tires on wet asphalt.
We stopped at a Don’t Walk light. Across the street a small Jack Russell terrier pulled at his leash, walking his owner, didn’t know Don’t Walk. The small older woman on the other end of the leash wore a belted gray raincoat. A clear plastic rain bonnet covered her white hair and tied under her chin. We’d seen her before, walking her little dog down this street and past our house. She wore the gray raincoat and plastic rain bonnet rain or shine, except from the Fourth of July to the end of September.
The light changed. The gray raincoat woman gave a little wave with her free hand and said Hello when she passed us. The dog lunged toward us with his tail wagging. She jerked the leash, pulled him away.
“How are you?” I said to her back.
She looked over her shoulder at us.
“Wet,” she said.
The dog pulled her through the intersection and up onto the sidewalk.
“We always see that dog,” I said. “She never lets him say Hello.”
Jack took off his reading glasses, took a white hanky out of his back jeans pocket, wiped the glasses and put them in his jacket pocket.
“Jack Russells are jumpers,” he said. “He’d be all over us.”
He folded the white hanky and put it in his back pocket.
“Next time we see her, let’s stop her for a minute,” I said. “Dogs like to be greeted. I’ll bet if I hunkered down close and spoke to him he’d be the happiest dog in the neighborhood.”
“No doubt. You like dog kisses?”
I put my arm in Jack’s, pulled him closer, put my face up for a kiss the way I do.
“Try me and see,” I said.
He pulled the front of my hood, shook rain in my face.
“Dog kisses are great,” he said. “As long as you don’t have to know what he licked before your mouth.”
We walked past the Presbyterian Church, a low modern building sprawled down the entire block. The center chapel that must have been the original church, brick traditional, taller than the rest, with a steeple and a bell. The bell that rings for Easter and Christmas. And funerals.
We passed the yellow ranch-style house where overgrown holly trees obscured every window, and a massive RV parked in the semicircular driveway blocked the front door. The RV hadn’t left the driveway in five years. The sticker on the RV bumper, We’re spending our children’s inheritance.
The fire station, three garage doors, one door open, the lights inside gleaming off the new red fire truck backed into the space. When Hilda next door collapsed on her porch and we had to call 9-1-1 it only took the firemen three minutes to get there, stop the fire truck in the middle of the street, and rush onto her porch.. They worked over her until the ambulance came and stopped behind the fire truck with the motor running. Paramedics crouched over her body lying on the porch while neighbors gathered in front of her house, speaking in whispers. When one of the paramedics went back out to the street, parked the ambulance and turned the motor off, we knew even three minutes hadn’t been fast enough. She was already dead.
We crossed into the park at the intersection.
Johnson Creek Park. Weeping willow trees draped their green wetness almost to the ground. The pond was a dark sheen beyond the trees. Ornate old-fashioned lamp posts made puddles of yellow light on the asphalt path that bordered the creek.
Under the trees, we couldn’t hear the cars on Bybee Boulevard. All we could hear was the quiet clucking of the Canada geese settled on the pond.
Jack tucked my arm tight in his and led me onto the path where the creek emptied into the pond.
“Watch out for the goose shit,” he said. “It’s really slippery in the rain.”
It was easier to talk that way. Walking, it was easier to say out loud all the damp and dark that was inside me. I’d have exploded if I had stayed in the house right then.
“How did it go with Tim?” I said. “You asked how did it go with Tim.”
I slipped my hand into Jack’s jacket pocket and pulled him close.
“Here’s how it went with Tim.”
“He’s scared and he’s helpless,” I said. “His leg is all wrapped up in gauze and another huge brace kind of thing. When I got there he was just waking up, puking his guts out like he always does. Irene was there and Mom came right after me. Irene could only stay a few minutes, just long enough to give me my marching orders. Mom didn’t stay much longer. Then it was just me and Tim. I guess I’m the only one knows how to hold his water glass, bend his straw, rub his feet, call the nurse when he needs morphine. And after surgery he’s cranky and demanding.”
We had reached the pond where Canada geese wintered every year. Several dozen geese floated near the edge, more geese out in the center. Their quiet clucks were the only sound. We walked through the brief light from a lamp post and back into the wet dark.
I stopped walking and turned to Jack. “For God’s sake, why do I love these people!”
He put his arm around my shoulders. It was a comfort, the way his arm was light but the hand that cupped my shoulder was firm and warm even through the rain jacket. My arm went around his waist.
“Maybe it’s because they need it,” he said. “Not because they deserve it.”
“Do we have to love people in our family?” I said.
“No,” he said. “Not if there’s nothing coming back.”
“But what if there sometimes is and sometimes not?” I said.
Jack squeezed my shoulder.
“Still,” he said.
He turned me back to the path and we walked some more.
“Irene talks about how she never wanted to be a widow, never wanted to raise children alone. She’s coping as well as she can, but looking at a future like she never imagined possible.”
We stopped walking and watched the geese floating in the pond, invisible but for the patches of white at their chins, breasts, and rumps. Jack’s hand kneaded my shoulder.
“And Mom is no help at all, she’s supposed to be some big spiritual teacher, she can’t even comfort her own son when he’s scared and helpless, alone in the hospital, in pain. She stayed exactly fifteen minutes, then left. She’s out the door and headed home. She doesn’t want her precious convictions challenged in any way, doesn’t want to have to admit he’s sick and probably dying, she thinks if she says the words out loud it will make it true. Hell, how much more true can it get, for God’s sake! They’ve cut off or replaced half his body parts, took off his finger, took out his spleen, took out his gall bladder, pieces of bone, pinned his leg, shit, he’s got tumors on the end of his penis now, they going to take that off too? They’ve done all the poisons, the chemo, radiated him into exhaustion, how much worse could it be? At what point does she give it up and admit he’s dying and he needs his Mom, and just hold him in her arms and let him cry?”
How my voice gets high, like an overwrought little kid, it’s a dead giveaway. I hated that. Jack’s hand went to my neck to rub it, but the wet hood got in his way. He went back to the shoulder, squeezed the top of my arm.
We walked across the bridge where the pond emptied back into Johnson Creek. The creek ran faster here, all flash and froth in the light from a lamp post. Then darkness again, and the soothing sound of water over rocks. A brown furry animal crawled out from under a weeping willow next to the creek and up on the bank ahead of us.
“Is that a dog?” I said. “No, it’s a beaver!”
Jack took a step closer to the animal. “It’s a nutria,” he said. “There’s its tail, it’s not flat, more like a rat’s tail.”
“Its teeth!” I said. “They’re orange!” Big flat orange teeth.
We sat on a wooden bench facing the creek, in the light from a lamp post ahead on the path. A brass plaque was set into the back of the bench. In memory of Louise Greene. The wood was wet and cold. The nutria crawled around slow and sleepy on the bank in the mud and leaves, its belly touching the ground. A wood duck floated close to the bank, behind the screen of weeping willow fronds. His red eyes, his dark outfit with flashy curves of white, overdressed for Johnson Creek.
Rain rattled on my hood and muffled Jack’s voice.
“So. Irene. You come, she leaves. Why do you think she does that?”
“I don’t know, she does have to get home to the kids, or maybe she’s already been there so long she’s just plain exhausted, or maybe she just doesn’t want to be there,” I said. “Maybe it’s just too depressing for her.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But she’s with him every night when he’s home, so I don’t think it’s that she doesn’t want to be there. She is there.”
“But he’s so alone with this, he practically lives in the hospital, Irene visits, but she’s worrying about how she’ll raise the kids alone. Sometimes she says she just can’t take it any more. She’ll get him to the ER, but then she calls me to come and take over, the kids are with a babysitter, she has to work the next day.”
Jack leaned back and stretched his arms along the back of the bench. “Irene does have to go to work every day. She’s up half the night when he’s in pain, no wonder she’s wearing down. She’s burning out. It’s been a long nightmare for her, the kids young as they are.”
“What about my work?” I said. “It’s in the toilet.”
“She depends on you. She knows you’ll take care of Tim. Maybe, right now, this is your work.”
Mom’s voice, when I was ten. You look after him. Don’t you ever take your eyes off him, not even for a minute!
Irene’s voice. I don’t want to be there when he dies.
“Well, she’s right about that,” I said. “I always have, and I always will.”
“She seems grateful,” Jack said.
Irene beckoning me into the hall outside Tim’s hospital room, her eyes filling up with tears, her voice shaky, “You’ll never know how thankful I am that you’re there,” she said.
“Yes, she is grateful,” I said. “I know that. She has a big heart, she’s just worn out. I know how hard this is for her. She has two little girls to take care of besides Tim, for Pete’s sake. And she and Tim have decided to keep the girls’ lives as normal as possible, not involve them in his dramas.”
“But it’s not Irene, it’s Mom I’m upset about. “The way she is about Tim and his cancer—that’s driving me right over the edge with her. She’s never been a demonstratively loving sort of mother, but he’s dying! How could a mother not have a broken heart!”
Jack’s arm dropped onto my shoulder. I reached up and laid my hand over his.
The wood duck glided away. Mallards come close, beggars for food. Wood ducks leave.
“Didn’t you tell me once that when her mother died Frances was so depressed she tried to kill herself?”
“That’s radical. She must have been pretty desperate.”
“Do you think she ever wants to feel that bad again?”
“Probably she doesn’t.”
“Maybe she just can’t go there. Maybe it’s as hard for her as it is for Tim.”
It had stopped raining at some point. Lamplight made the wet leaves shine and the creek sparkle.
I was crying. “Shoot, I feel that bad, I feel that helpless, and I still have to suit up and show up, I have to be there when he wakes up from surgery, have to be there when he’s scared, have to sit and watch him sleep, watch his hair fall out, grab the basin when he vomits, call the nurse when his pain amps up, tell him his story over and over so he won’t forget. How can she just sit there, doesn’t even take her coat off, doesn’t try to do anything to make him feel better, and leaves after fifteen minutes. Gives him a quick hug coming and going, but leaves after fifteen minutes. Says that’s her limit.”
Jack reached into his back pocket, came up with the white hanky and handed it to me. I scrubbed at my eyes and blew my nose. I didn’t want to start crying now, knew I might never stop.
“Maybe fifteen minutes is all she can bear,” he said.
“But why does she get to have a limit! She’s his mother. What about unconditional love? What about unlimited, unconditional love? Motherly love!”
The damp cold of the wooden bench had seeped through my jeans. Jack leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging between his knees, head down.
“Don’t you think he feels that from you?”
“Well, of course he does, but I’m just his sister. She’s his mother. He needs it from her.”
Raindrops spattered on the creek, geese clucked in the pond, the nutria shuffled through the wet leaves.
“Is it too much for you?”
“No! It’s never too much. Okay, maybe right now it does feel like too much. But I just want more for him, he deserves so much more. Whitney is too young, she cringes away, seeing him with all the tubes and bandages and no hair, it just scares her. And Chelsea, well, Tim and Irene thinks she should be spared too much exposure to suffering, it might damage her. I’ll tell you what will damage her, what will damage her is losing her Dad without ever getting to talk to him about it or tell him how she feels. That will damage her. Not to mention Tim. She’s thirteen. She must know how bad things are, whether or not they tell her explicitly.”
Jack took my hand and got up from the bench. We started off again side by side.
“So you think he’s going to die?” he said.
“No! I don’t believe that,” I said. “He’s asked us not to believe it, he’s asked me to keep telling him the story, his story, and believing it for him. He’s asked me to keep working on my healing power, so I can use it on him.”
My thighs were cold under the clammy jeans.
“Do you think he still believes the story himself?” he said. “Or has he turned that part over to us?”
“I think maybe he’s stopped believing it,” I said. “But he won’t let me talk about it, because he doesn’t want me to give up on him. He’s just trying to hang on.”
Tim’s aura signaled his switches from fierce, determined hope to resigned despair. Lately, his aura spoke of more resignation, less despair. Little hope. Whatever face he was trying to put on it, he seemed to have given up.
Jack looked at the wet on my face and put his arm around me, pulled me close.
“Looks like you’re just trying to hang on, too.”
It was too late. I might never stop crying now.
“What do you do?” I said. When your wife and then your son died and you couldn’t stop it from happening, what did you do? How did you bear it? How can anyone stand the cruelty of it, the relentlessness?”
It was quiet except for the geese clucking like brooding chickens on the pond, my own clogged hoarse breathing, and the softness of the rain.
Jack cleared his throat. “What’s being cruel and relentless?”
“I don’t know, God, Nature. Yes, Mother Nature. She’s cold and heartless.”
He stopped walking, took both my shoulders and turned me to face him.
“No, she’s not! Nature just is. It just is. Not good, not bad, just is. Not right, not wrong, just is. Nothing you can do about it. It’s cruel and comforting. It’s beauty and horror. Both. When that finally sinks in, you don’t blame any more, you just accept.”
I’d never before seen him this vehement.
“When it gets this bad,” he said, “you just have to lean down, grab your bootstraps, and pull as hard as you can.”
It didn’t sound like him.
“Is that what you did?” I said.
“And then what happens?”
Jack’s dark eyes with the laugh lines at the corners fastened on my streaming eyes.
“You fall on your ass,” he said.
I couldn’t help it, I was laughing harder than I was crying. I wrapped my arms around him all wet and we stood there in the rain and held on to each other with the geese calling their soft nighttime clucks back and forth and laughed until we were so weak we had to find another bench and sit down and wipe the tears and snot and rain off our faces with our wet hands and the soggy hanky.
We leaned back against the bench.
“So then what?” I said. “I’m serious, that is what happens, you fall on your ass. You’re walking along feeling sorry for yourself and you trip over a blind man’s cane and you fall on your ass and then what? You’re on the ground. How do you work your way out of that?”
His face was still. “Pulling on your bootstraps doesn’t work. That just yanks your feet out from under you. You have to reach up, not down, reach for something to pull yourself up out of the muck.”
“God?” I said. That didn’t feel like a solution. And it didn’t sound like Jack.
“Maybe not. Maybe Mother Nature. Look for a branch above your head, one you can reach, and use that.”
“Good old benevolent Mother Nature,” I said. That wouldn’t work either.
“So what was your branch, with Helen?” I said.
“I visited her grave every morning for a year on my way to work and talked to her. That got me through the day. Then one day I went to the cemetery for the last time, came home and destroyed our bedroom. Punched holes in the wall and cursed out God.”
That explained the patched sheetrock in his bedroom. And it explained why he never glanced at the cemetery when we drove past it.
“And all I got for it was really messed-up hands,” he said.
“Doesn’t sound like much of a branch.”
“No,” he said. “It wasn’t. The branch I grabbed and held onto that pulled me out of it was doing my work, teaching, building things, meeting you, my family, friends like Tim. And what pulled me out of it with Lee was remodeling the house that turned out to be your Healing Place. It gave me plenty of time to grieve while I worked, alone. I guess the name is appropriate. It started out as my healing place.”
He had never before been willing to talk about Helen’s or Lee’s death. It was over, he said, not a place he wanted to revisit.
We walked back down the path and across the grass, through the weeping willows, headed for Bybee street and home. Rain dripped from the drooping branches where we pushed through. The ornate lampposts glistened with rain.
Jack’s arm was around my shoulders, my arm around his waist. I could feel his warmth even through the rain jackets. We would start the gas fire when we got home, hang our jackets up to dry, and make a fresh pot of coffee.
The sound of geese clucking quietly to each other on the pond followed us all the way to Bybee Street.