MEMOIR Chapter 61

Chapter 61 is transitioning between the fictional purple prose chapters, and my memoirs, and we all know, memory is just another form of purple prose…

 

MEMOIR

Chapter 61

The mortician comes, a dreary dark man in a blue suit with frayed cuffs, shiny black hair combed straight back. He speaks limited English. Anna leaves the room. The mortician and I go over the form, the directive, try to communicate. Causa de muerte. Yes. Cancer. What does it matter?

“I don’t read Spanish,” I say. “I can’t sign this unless I know what it says. Can you tell me what it says, in English? We want his body shipped home by air, to be cremated there.”

The mortician draws himself up straight, his eyes cold on mine. “This is Mexico, not the U.S.,” he says. “In Mexico, we speak Spanish.” But it was clear he understood what I was asking for. He just wasn’t into being helpful or reassuring.

My hands shake and my eyes burn. It’s not worth it. I sign the forms. I sign them all. It’s his country, not mine. Maybe they will send home his ashes. I’m too tired to care. The mortician plucks the paper from my hands without touching me and walks to the door, his back straight.

The undertaker comes and takes Joe away in a red crushed velvet body bag. The glass doors shut behind the cart, and it disappears into the parking lot. Van doors open then slam shut, and a motor starts up loud and drives away. Drives away with Joe in the red bag to God knows where, somewhere in Tijuana.

Cold. I throw the pillow on the floor and lie back on Joe’s bed. Pull up his sheet and let its salty damp cover and warm me. Listen. Did his spirit linger, can I hear it, sense it, touch it?

No.

He’s gone.

Joe taken away, his body somewhere I don’t know. Jesus, my Elder Brother, gone, too. I am here alone, no brother of any kind in this room. The complete emptiness is all I can feel.

There is one more call after the necessary calls, after the undertaker takes Joe’s body away, after I climb into Joe’s bed. I get up and use  the phone on the wall in the reception area, from where I had called Nellie, Jack, and Mom.

Anna Blessing. A close friend who finally gave up on the dreary gray dampness of the Northwest and headed for San Diego. Permanently.

Anna’s voice is a rising chirp, “Hell-o-oh.”

“It’s me—Judy.”

“You’re in Tijuana! How’s it going?”

“Joe just died.”

“My God! But you just got there!”

“I got here at noon yesterday. He died at four this morning.”

“Oh, Judy, oh shit, that’s horrible. I’m coming right down.”

“No, don’t come. I’m just going back to the airport.”

“But are you OK?”

What does OK feel like? Whatever this is, it’s no feeling at all. It’s unbalanced, not there.

“I’m OK,” I say. “Maybe I’m just numb or something.”

“I can’t hold your hand?”

Anna doesn’t mean actually holding my hand, but I picture it anyway, imagine her concern, her comfort, her small hand warm and sturdy holding mine. I know I couldn’t bear it, I’d break apart, mustn’t break anymore, not right now, things to take care of, have to get Joe home. Have to get myself home.

Anna always dressed like a latter-day hippy—I could picture her in a bright flowing dress of some kind.

“It’s a long trip across the border,” I say. “An hour, anyway. By the time you got here I’d probably be ready to leave anyhow.”

Anna breathes over the phone line, a long breath in, then out.

“I’ve never driven across the border,” she says. “But I’m leaving as soon as I can. I’ll get you to the airport.”

Today I have crossed borders I’d never crossed before. Borders of consciousness, of life and death, of faith. And back again. The border between life and death feel less tangible now, more permeable and shifting. Maybe the border between faith and no-faith is the same. Constantly shifting. Maybe they aren’t even opposing states, but just gradations on a continuum, where faith is at one extreme and no-faith at the other, and we move up and down that spectrum.

While I waited, I was in a nothing-there vacuum, just lying on Joe’s bed.

Three quick taps on the door, and I get up.

It’s Anna. Anna in a bright blue gauze dress with a large open-knit scarf in shades of rose, her purple velvet amulet bag on a long black satin cord around her neck. She drops a big silver thermos on Joe’s bed next to the duffel and wraps her arms around me, rocks me. How strong her arms, how soft her body, as welcome and familiar as I imagine a mother’s would be. We are both crying.

She holds me at arms’ length and unleashes the liquid fire of her electric blue eyes. “I thought you could use some coffee.”

Anna stays with me, walks me out of the room and into the damp dense air outside, around the building a few times, hands me cups of strong, scalding, real coffee in the lid-cup of the thermos. She doesn’t ask about Joe’s last hours. Her blonde hair is pulled into two pony tails with red rubber bands, her fair skin lightly tanned and toughened, the skin around her eyes sunglass-shaded white. She’s her old chirpy self, the way she was in the sunny months in Oregon, how she says she always was in Hawaii, how she misses Hawaii, San Diego the next best place to be, sunshine and warm.

She shapes her attitude to mine, slightly insane. We stop behind the building while she pours another cup of coffee. When she leans forward to hand me the coffee I grab her amulet bag to keep it out of the cup. Anna walks me back to the room. We lean against the foot of Joe’s bed. I see myself in the mirror, arms and hands floating and flying in the air, mouth open round, laughing. I pull my hands down, take hold of the bed frame behind me.

“Let’s go to the airport,” I say.

In Anna’s yellow hatchback I see things in Tijuana that I didn’t see from the shuttle on the way in. Then it was impressions, and the road in front of me. Now I see the dirt, the shacks, the outdoor adobe fireplaces for cooking.

At the border, long lines of cars inching forward, vendors peddle blankets and cheap silver jewelry along the lines of cars. A man in a battered straw hat sells tortillas from an outdoor fireplace.

The border guard is friendlier than I had expected, thanks us for visiting Mexico.

I remember very little about the airport, but here’s what I do remember:

Anna parks at the airport, carries my briefcase and tote bag. I tag along, willing to let her lead the way. Baggage claim is the first stop. Don’t ask where that was. I remember so little. My bag had been lost on the trip down, so I describe my bag to the lost bag person, describe its contents, its I.D. tag, and wait while they find it. I lose my plane ticket. Anna finds it in my purse. Anna negotiates at the airline counter, shows them the letter she got the clinic director to write before we left: This woman’s brother died this morning, please let her on an earlier flight without penalty, Signed, The Director. The agent rewrites the ticket and hands it to me without comment, sympathy in her eyes.

I lose my new ticket. Anna finds it in my pocket. She buys me a taco. We eat, we laugh, I babble, she puts her arm around me and walks me in circles around the terminal. She buys me an ice cream cone. I am wearing Joe’s yellow and green U of O duck cap and his big blue fuzzy jacket. People look at me, nudge each other. It must be the cap.

The flight is called, Anna hears it. She steers me to the gate.

I’ve lost my ticket. Anna finds it in my book.

“I think I’ll walk you onto the plane,” Anna says.

“Just walking her on,” she says to the stewardess, who waves us aboard.

Anna finds my seat, puts my ticket stub in my purse, and grins at me.

“Do I have to fasten your seat belt for you?”

I laugh, tears starting. Her arms around me.

“Thank you, dear friend,” I say. People are waiting in the aisle behind us. Anna pushes me toward the window seat, fastens my seat belt,  and turns to fight her way back up the aisle.

My seat is on the left side of the plane.

At 30,000 feet, buckled in, wearing Joe’s soft blue jacket and his duck cap, the sounds of brass Telemann on Joe’s earphones, I look out my window.

It is the end of the day.

The sun is setting over the gray ocean and black-green landmass. A fire-red ball sits for twenty minutes poised on the line of the horizon, spreads layers of deep violet bleeding up into red-orange then chartreuse then gray-lavender sky, the fireball settling into the dark ocean inch by inch, half of it gone now, now two-thirds, now just a curved fingernail of fire, the chartreuse turning gold above it.

The slit of fire glows through the gray line of ocean edge, dissolving in its own heat, the red flickering glow spreading out, melting, flowing. The last slit of red is a dying ember in a campfire, bursts of red dancing along its length, then a quick green flash and the dark swallows it.

On the earphones, four triumphant trumpets burst into a fanfare. Joe’s sounds. Liquid trumpet sounds. Long, sustained tones flow and pierce, undulating, soothing, transfixing. When I played trumpet in high school, Joe had carried my trumpet case to the bus stop every day, and couldn’t wait to learn to play, himself.

I stopped being numb, leaned my head against the back of the seat and let the tears flow.

A lingering reflection from a fireball out of sight but still lighting the sky, drifting off into dark on the sides. Ocean deep midnight blue. No lights below the plane in the black land mass.

The last faint stain of sienna dissolves into the black.

On the earphones, the music ends.

The day is over.

The music is over.

Joe is gone.

Lights begin to flicker below the plane, maybe Salem, maybe the southern suburbs of Portland. More lights, the city, crowded freeways, tiny cars, their headlights long straight beams, everybody going home, going somewhere, flashing neon, the airport tower. Then landing lights,the runway, engines whine down louder and louder, wheels touch the ground, a bump.

Home.

Jack waits for me at the gate, his dear deep-lined face, his warm arms around me, takes my bag, pulls Joe’s black duffel off the carousel, the car waiting, in the car, the dark, headed home. Now the deep involuntary catching of breath, the leftover sounds of a child who finally stops crying. When I get home, Jack has a fire in the fireplace, waiting.

A year ago, driving Joe to treatments and doctors, I had grown fond of Joe’s music. The music backdropped our conversations and his morphine hallucinations. Joe liked to drive, didn’t like being a passenger. When it rained, he slid his seat back and stiffened his hands against the dashboard, his legs braced against the firewall. I drove his minivan too fast.

“One worries about hydroplaning,” Joe said. His voice was tense. I slowed down.

He once said, gazing at a cloudless sky, “There’s a sailboat right up there, a seven-master. Beautiful.” He watched it for miles.

“There’s a gray cat on your head.” Joe said. “It’s kneading its claws. How can you drive?”

Mom believed in parallel universes, places where we continued our lives in totally different ways at the same time as we worked things out in this reality. Maybe there was a seven-master in the sky, and a gray cat on my head, listening to the brass quartet on the radio.

.

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MEMOIR: Chapter 60 Surrender (Fiction)

Chapter 60

Surrender

 Joe sits on his bunk, legs dangling over the edge, and grins from ear to ear.

What’s going on here? Could he have possibly gotten this much better overnight? Could he be healed?

I make coffee, quickly, frantically, pour him a cup. I place the mug in his hands, covering them with my own. His hands are icy cold.

He sits on his bunk, legs swinging, sips his coffee. I sit down in the chair, waiting. My hands are shaking, his are not.

Joe gazes at me with a calm clarity I can’t recall feeling in recent months.

“Do you get it now?”

“Get what?” I say.

His grin is impish, condescending. And he’s speaking normally.

“About Surrender. What can happen when everybody surrenders.”

“You mean that last healing…”

“You let go of your plans for me,” Joe finishes my thought.

“I did. And now you’re…here. It’s a miracle.”

“Yes, I’m healed. My mind is healed.  And more important, you now know the last step in what you need to do for healing. Are you ready to do another healing?”

“Absolutely,” But why, if he’s already healed?

Joe carefully places his coffee cup on the floor next to his feet. He lies down on the bunk, tossing off the top of his sleeping bag.

“No, Joey, you need to stay warm, your arms and legs are so cold,” I stand up, reach for the sleeping bag, but Joey swats my hands away, not letting me pull it over his nearly blue limbs. His eyes are closed. He seems suddenly so tired.

How can he be so cold and so hot at the same time? Something nags at me, something I can’t quite remember…. I need to figure this out, get some fresh air… I tell Joe, “I’m going outside for a few minutes, I’ll be right back.”

Still in my p.j.,s I pull on my snow boots and slip out the front door with my steaming coffee. I turn the corner of the cabin, and come to a full stop. There are more tracks in the snow, fresh ones, circling the cabin. Kindling bucket is full again. Guardian angels?

I stand in the snow, close my eyes, listen to the quiet. Puzzled. Why did Joe want to come here, to this isolated cabin, so far away from clinics, hospitals, doctors? What was he thinking?

It’s hope. When nothing is certain, hope is an option. When all else fails, go for the long shot from center court just before the buzzer.

Or maybe something else. At home, Nellie took him to the E.R. when his breathing changed. He’d been at the clinic or in the hospital nearly every day for the last six months, for treatments, transfusions, to balance body chemistry, to stop hours or days of hiccups, for yet another surgery, to have tumor-honeycombed bones pinned and set.

Once his heart stopped in the E.R., and they cracked a rib pounding on his chest. The Hickman catheter got infected and had to be removed, then reinserted in a new incision. Joe’s doctors were brave high-tech heroes, dedicated to keeping him alive at any cost, to him or to them. He asked for more, and they found more.

Joe’s hospital room was usually crowded with family, friends, people who love him, people who go out into the hall to cry and hold each other and then return to tell jokes and tease him about his hair.

Here, he has nobody. Just me.

No home, no devoted wife, children, no hot tub, no boatbuilding shop, no playhouse he built, no honeysuckle draping the back porch, no rose bushes along the path, no wildflower garden in the back, no rocking chair by the window, nothing familiar. Just here, this little primitive cabin in the middle of nowhere.

I take a deep breath and pull light through my hot spot, fill up the egg. I don’t seal it.

I’m ready to go back in.

 

Joe’s knees come up, his head turns toward me. “Addie?” His bone hand out to me. My feet quick to his bed.

 “I’m here,” I say.

 My lips on his forehead, the sweet salty damp, my teeth pushed together hard, arm curved around the top of his head, my back bent crooked, doesn’t matter.

 

It’s getting on toward late afternoon. Joe’s been sleeping. He wakes up. Gradually, his eyes focus on me.

“What do you need?” I ask him.

“Shtory.”

 “Do you want me to tell you that story about when you were born?”

His eyes blink Yes.

“It’s my earliest memory,” I say. “I was five years old, kneeling on the floor next to the rocking chair. Mom was holding you and you were wrapped in a soft blue receiving blanket. I could see the top of your head, light colored hair all over, your head round as an orange, the soft spot on the top of your head moving up and down when your heart beat, your hands like pink stars. Mom’s hand lay on your chest and flashed colors from her gorgeous opal ring. She was singing ‘Baby’s boat’s a silv’ry moon.’ You were so tiny and so beautiful, and I was thinking, ‘He’s finally come.’”

“I was thinking, ‘Now we can start’.”

I straighten up and look down at Joe’s face on the pillow.

Joe’s arms lift toward me, then flop back onto his chest.

He’s trying to give me a hug.

I help him, lift the hollow bird bones of his arms, and put them around my neck for a brief embrace. His hands stroke my hair and neck, pat my face the way a baby pats its mother’s face, pats where the tears run down around my mouth, his hands slip down my arms and he pats my hands. Our faces are so close, our eyes inside each other’s eyes. Our foreheads touch. We are joined.

Inside me a soft silent howl begins, twisting through my chest and stopping my throat.

He struggles to form clear words: “For—fi.”

I lay my hand on his throat, touch his jaw with my fingers.

1945. The year he was born.

My fingers on his throat know what this is.

“This feels like…” I say.

Yes.

“…being born?” I say.

Yes.

I lift my forehead off his and sit back.

I hold his hand, let him pound the air with my hand, his tight grip crushing my wedding ring into my finger, the way I crushed Giff’s fingers during last-stage labor, during transition, that bearing-down pure focus of delivery.

He needs to rest. Or maybe it’s just me that needs to rest. So what I do is sing the baby boat song.

I kneel next to his bunk, lay my hand on the crown of his head, and sing.

“Baby’s boat’s a silv’ry moon,

sailing in the sky

Sailing o’er the sea of sleep,

As the clouds float by.

…Sail, baby, sail

out across the sea.

Only don’t forget to sail

home again to me.”

 

His black eyes softened and filmed by suffering look past me, huge, fixed on the face of the Mother, safe in the arms of Love, hearing a familiar song…

“Baby’s boat’s a silv’ry moon, sailing in the sky…”

Once again I can only witness, kneeling in wonder, my newborn brother’s fontanel pulsing hot beneath my hand, my heart catching up to the quick steady beat.

A phrase from another song begins in my mind, floats in and out, familiar. “Watch with me angels, watch with me tonight.”

The phrase becomes a prayer, a mantra, a plea.

He sleeps again.

Joe wakes up, his hands moving, the motions brisk and rhythmic, directing music in quick time, making an emphatic point, his hand a three-fingered fist.

I hold his hands and talk to him, try to connect him with his world. I tell him Giff has finished another layer of epoxy on the boat they are building.

Joe struggles to focus his eyes on me, frowned with effort.

“He’s gotten that far?” he says, then loses the focus.

His eyes film over, the color gone to milky, the pupils beginning to roll up. Inside where I feel him I know he is becoming more and more himself, not less.

He is working again, his body tense and focused, his fingers curling and uncurling against my palm.

“Have to get weaker first,” he says.

“Do you see a light now?” I ask. He nods a small nod, but my questions narrow it down.

“Is it far away?”

Small head shake. No.

“Can you go toward it?”

No.

The light is near, but he can’t go toward it.

“Are you in the light?”

Yes. He is bathed in that light that I can’t see, but can only feel. I feel soft sprinkles, shimmering snow flecks.

Grace.

He rests, his eyes half-closed, pupils rolled up, mouth slack, breathing hard.

Kneeling, my hands hold his hand, my hands feeling what he feels.

 Slipping away from my body. Joe slipping away from his body, feeling “This is it!”

Then remembering. Remembering what it was to be Home. “How could I have ever forgotten?” In my body there is great spaciousness, ease of movement, fluidity. No solidity anywhere. Joe is moving faster, sliding into Home, I’m sliding too, my body still kneeling on the floor, my self moving beyond body, rushing, expanding, leaving, eager, breathless…

This is as far as I can go with him. I have to stay here, he has to go on.

I’m back, kneeling on the floor, holding Joe’s hand.

He’s waking up from the dream he’s been dreaming.

I want to wake up from this dream.

I touch Joe’s hand and feel his urgency, his hard labor. I remember end-stage labor, the transition, remember how I couldn’t quite get it right, until I thought about toothpaste.

I lean in close and say in his ear, “Joe, I think it’s like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. Can you do that?”

His eyes open, the film dissolves for just a second and his eyes are dark, clear, focused, and he is looking at me.

Joe is awake.

His face contracts with effort, a little squeeze, two loud gasps.

It all stops.

The room is quiet. There is only the vibration of the air, the silent hum.

Joe’s mouth opens and contorts, his lips twisting and lifting away from his teeth, then goes slack.

His spirit passing by on its way out.

His heart has stopped pounding in his throat.

His body still, the tension gone from it, the tendons of his neck loose and soft.

There is no light or air left in this body.

He is edgeless. Joe is not in there.

Free.

At peace.

Awake.

 

The palm of my right hand tight over my chest and left hand low on my stomach,  I hold onto my insides with both hands.

I crawl onto Joey’s bunk, stretch out on my stomach next to his cooling body, pull the sleeping bag and let its salty damp cover me and sink warm into my skin. I listen. Did his spirit linger, could I hear it, sense it, touch it?

No.

He was gone.

Scent of peppermint soap and sweat and something else, the weary harsh smell of sickness and death. My arms wrap around his limp pillow, still damp with his salt, I pull it close and push my face into its damp and reek, press it against the ripped openness of my belly. A wail starts  up low and deep inside, animal sound, scrolls up to a high lament, head thrown back, throat stretched straight and corded and long, sounds moving up through my throat and out my open mouth until my breath is gone, then again sucked in fast and harsh, a howl hung there, a song in the cold air, thinning out, breath jerked in fast, again, cry reached through the ceiling out into the air, out into the navy blue sky, up to crescent moon, cradle, boat, the sound pulsing, the throb of a living heart, softened, slipped down and down into low crooning, a breath in, then started up again, lifted back into wild lament, loss, mother for child, love for love, high and long, howl for ripped-open red raw torn away and for some ancient loss, a sound as primeval, innocent, unself-conscious as the howl that started with spiraling down out of heaven, out of the heart of God.

I stop. It’s not just me howling. There are others, not just one or two, but three, or four, or six.

Wolves have picked up the lament. I can rest.

I listen to the cacophony of sorrow. It’s all around me tender and unabashed.

Breath finally all gone, my body limp, only sounds left come low from deep belly, softened to coo of the mourning dove, small sounds, coo until all emptied out nothing there now but the shattered empty dark. Dark inside me, inside the cabin, outside in the navy-blue sky. Still and silent and dark.

I stumble to the door, and the vomiting begins, green bile bright against the snow. My body wrenches itself into convulsion. Emptied of pain and agony and dying and death, hope desperation longing loneliness desertion betrayal abandonment. Churning again of its own volition, dry heaves, violent shakes and twitches, I vomit until all empties out nothing there now but dark.

Shapes, shadows, circle the cabin. I am not afraid.   

I am shivering, shaking that’s not from being cold or scared, but the kind that happened only once before, after giving birth—a kind of uncontrollable allover palsy that nothing can soothe.

I return to the cabin, and slide into the chair next to the bunk, my arms falling off the sides, and stare at Joe’s empty body while I wait for the shaking to stop. They say the spirit stays for awhile, and one shouldn’t leave too soon. But Joe’s spirit is gone from me, already far away. The white aura around his body fading. There is no one in the room but me, no sound in the room, just that silent hum.

A-flat, The sound of the universe. The sound of God.

Staring at Joe. His body empty, and mine too. He had lost everything but that, the flesh that remains. Now the devastation is complete. I have lost everything, lost my brother, lost my faith, lost my connection to Jesus and God, lost my “job”—healing Joe—failed at my job, in fact, and I’ve lost my feeling of being connected in the Universe. This feels like total devastation.

Into the emptiness comes a vision from ten years earlier, before the concept of devastation had such a personal quality. Joe and I were climbing a cinder cone in Northern California on a warm summer day, the trail in a slow upward spiral. We stopped to drink some water and looked down on the volcanic devastation. At our feet were clusters of small purple flowers nestled in the naked black cinders. Far down the rock slope lay a deep blue lake off to the right, ringed with the green of trees and vegetation.

 “So much for devastation,” I said. “They said after Mt. St. Helens blew up it would be decades before Spirit Lake was anything more than a toxic brew. But then bacteria appeared out of ‘nowhere’ and ate up the acid in the lake. Then when the acid was gone, something else ate up the bacteria and other life forms showed up. In a couple of years, the lake was healthy.”

 “Looks like Mother Nature does a pretty good job of healing herself.” Joe took a long drink from his water bottle and turned to look behind us.

 “What is that?” he said.

 “What?”

He pointed down the steep incline.

A bright blue cloud shimmered close to the surface of the cinder slope.

The cloud became tiny blue butterflies, thousands, millions maybe, moving as one, flickering upward. We stood for long speechless minutes watching the splendid dancers spangle the black cinders with sparkling fluttering blue.

Some mysterious grace, that sends a cloud of blue butterflies to flutter up the slope of a dead mountain, or bacteria to revive a dead lake.

I touch Joe. No more molten lava, just cold, still flesh. So cold.

I watch for awhile. Pull my sleeping bag off my bunk and wrap myself in it.

Watch with me, angels.

 

 

The cold wakes me first. Where am I?

Early light outside filters through rustic cabin windows.

Joe! Where is he? Then I remember. Joe is lying on his back on his sleeping bag, his face peaceful and still.

“Joe?”

But Joe is dead. He died last night, sometime late.

I sit with it for a moment, then pull on a jacket and go outside.

Wood. Kindling. This was the day Mike would arrive, to take Joe out.

I pull back the woodpile tarp and find the kindling bucket nearly empty.

No matter. I need to pack things up inside, get ready to go. Get Joe ready to go. How?

I hear voices, and look up. Two men were coming out of the woods, one of them pulling a long sled, one carrying a bucket.

Mike!

I shield my eyes from the bright rising sun. It couldn’t be, but it had to be. Giff.

The two men trek across the snow. Giff sets the bucket down and gathers me into his arms. “So he’s gone?” he whispers. I nod, letting my tears soak into his coat.

“When?”

 “Last night. Late.”

Giff releases me and picks up his bucket, which is full of kindling. He empties it into the empty bucket in the wood pile.

Mike gives me a brief pat on the shoulder then pulls the sled close to the cabin, goes inside and closes the door.

“It was you,” I say.

“What was me?”

“You were the guardian angel who kept my kindling bucket filled.”

Giff  just smiled.

“You’ve been camped down below, haven’t you?”

“Can’t be a guardian angel from a distance.”

“So you checked on me?”

“Every day, every night. Checked for smoke coming out of the chimney.”

He broke his promise. I try to be mad, but can’t.

How can anyone ever resent having an extra guardian angel?

A black crow lands on the woodpile and fixes one glossy eye on mine. Remember? he seems to be saying.

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MEMOIR: Chapter 59 Healing (Fiction)

Chapter 59                                           

Healing

Day One

Joe needed me to half-carry him to the frigid latrine, and back. Gave him a small dose of Roxinol. He napped. I arranged the supplies in the cupboard, went outside to savor a steaming cup of coffee in the white stillness. Someone had stacked the firewood neatly in a metal crib, a foot away from the house, with a five-gallon bucket of kindling. All of it covered by a green tarp, secured by a bungee cord.

Dog-sized footprints circled the cabin. Must have been several, circling, turning, circling back. Wolves? Coyotes? Wild dogs?

Guardian angels?

In the cabin, Joe has thrown back the top of his sleeping bag. His hands are moving on his chest, one hand squeezes into a fist, then punches the air. His three-fingered hand taps out staccato trumpet melodies on the blanket, Flight of the Bumblebee.

I ask him if he wants me to read to him. His eyes widen—what a good idea!—yes!

What I have with me, in my pack, is Walden, the one thing that will stop Joe’s hands, the squeezing, the punching. Nothing will stop Joe’s hands but Walden.

I open it and read aloud. Thoreau is describing a day spent sitting in his doorway, just watching, just listening, as the sun rose, crossed the sky, and set, the light and shadows changing imperceptibly:

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hand. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.

 Joe’s hands folded on his chest, naked crucified Christ down from the cross, laid out on the suffering ground, his legs stretched out on top of his sleeping bag, eyes closed. 

“Don’t shtop,” Joe says.

Why is he talking this way? The “S” isn’t working. But he’s not taking much morphine. Maybe he’s losing control of his lips and teeth.

I mark my place with my finger and lay my hand where the invisible cord connects to my own chest. His chest is dry and hot. I want to cool it with my breath. I breathe coolness from my own chest into his, into the invisible cord, into the connection.

Then I read.

I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished.

 “Shtop,” Joe says.

I look up. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t wanna hear…about time. Tell me…about the farm…when we were kids.”

That’s what I do. I tell him about the natural world of our childhood, the farm. A fat bumblebee buzzes on a purple thistle blossom, Joe and I catch it in a Mason jar, poke holes in the lid for air, and throw in some thistle blossoms for the bee to sit on. Birds sing in the morning and late afternoon, a leaf falls in the creek by our cricket church and makes widening circles, the cricket angel choir starts up their chorus, Glory to God in the Highest, we lie on our backs and chew Indian grass, watch the sunlight flicker through alder leaves and sprinkle rainbow colors in the creek.

Joe rests, listens, and is quiet. His hands lie on his chest, still.

After awhile, he  turns his head to me and opens his eyes.

“How ya doin’?”

I choke a little. “Joe, don’t worry about me, I’m fine. I just wonder how you are doing?”

He waves his hand around the room. “Thish place…it’s jusht…right for me now.”

He takes a deep, long breath. “I’m ready for some healing.”

I bring in more kindling and stoke the fire while I gather everything I know about healing, collecting it in my mind. I rehearse the steps, the feelings, the movements. Should I start running healing through his feet, or his head? The answer is clear in my mind. His feet.

I pull a chair up to the foot of Joe’s bunk and sit down. Rub his bare feet while he relaxes and sinks into an apparent nap.

Prayer, first, holding Joe’s feet, asking for that elusive Divine Intelligence, asking for trust that whatever happened would be right for Joe, for his best good. Pray that somehow, however it turned out, I could accept the outcome. Pray until the warm energy begins to vibrate in my hands.

I let light pour into me through my hot spot, fill up my egg-shaped aura. Paint the eggshell indigo blue on the outside; protective.

My thoughts became still. The flow of energy begins. Time goes on, or maybe stops. I step aside from my body and allow my spirit to float, watching from above the room while my hands on Joe’s feet continue to vibrate with all my passion, love, longing and energy; energy flowing heat into Joe’s body for timeless minutes, or hours.

I enter an altered state. We are children, we hold hands and float into the starless sky. Joe guides me effortlessly, shows me the silver cords that trail from our bodies back to the cabin. He gestures at the darkness, smiling. So that’s what he described before, where he went during his coma , I think. The darkness was warm, and full of unseen sights, sounds, and beings. I didn’t want to leave. We floated, turning playfully sometimes, our silver cords tangling.

But Joe tugs me back the way we came, silver cords following behind.

The guardian angels hadn’t come along. They must still be waiting at the cabin. I have to go back.

I collapse into my body in the chair at the end of Joe’s bunk. My arms cramp, and the flow stops and then there is nothing but the smell of body odor, wood smoke and evergreens. Joe hasn’t moved, hasn’t flickered even an eyelash. I remember to burn off the energy the way Magdalena taught me, so it won’t harm me, let it burn in my internal furnace and drift out the hot spot on top of my head as white smoke. I press my palms against the floor until the buzzing stops.

Joe’s eyes flicker open and gaze at me without understanding. “You…we…where did we go?”

“I dreamed—I guess it was a dream—that we were floating in that dark, warm place you’ve described. Then we came back.”

Joe says, “I brought you back. I could have stayed. But we’re not done yet.”

 

I’m hungry. Joe isn’t. I step outside for more kindling and more fire wood. A light, drifty kind of snow is falling. The flakes are weightless, floating sideways and up, as well as down.

I cook blue box mac and cheese and eat it all myself. Then, while Joe naps, I make a pot of rice pudding, cook the rice, add whole milk and cream, stir until the spoon stands up by itself in the pudding. Shake on some nutmeg. Dessert.

Joe wakes up enough to eat a few spoonfuls of pudding, and smiles with contentment. Quiet eyes.

I give him water. Help him zip up his sleeping bag. He is soon asleep, his soft snores keeping me company while I climb into my p.j.’s and up to the top bunk.

 

Day Two

I pick up the hatchet leaning against the wall by the door and set out to cut more kindling. I’m using it up fast. There are new tracks around the cabin in the fresh snow, and what might be human footprints.

Filling in with the snow falling now,

I tug back the tarp and see that the kindling bucket had been filled. Who…? A hiker, maybe? Cross-country skier? There is nothing to see but white, the frozen lake, snow-laden trees, no human habitation except Joe and me.

Could it be Giff? No, he had promised.

“Guardian angels, for sure,” I mutter to myself, and carry a load of wood and kindling into the cabin.

Joe slept half the morning, very still in his sleeping bag. Comatose, I thought. His eyelids fluttered from time to time, his lips moved slightly, dreaming.

I stoke the fire, drink coffee and eat rice pudding while I watch him sleep, wondering what the day will bring.

When he opens his eyes and focuses on me, his first words are, “I get it now.”

I fill a cup with water, sit on his bunk and help him drink it in tiny sips. Smooth his damp hair away from his forehead. “You get what?”

“’Bout healing…healing is only of the mind…whether or not the body follows.”

He wants rice pudding for breakfast. I warm a cupful for him.

“Does that mean…well, how do you mean that, Joe? Healing of the mind?”

He looks rested. “Means peace, inshide.”

“How does that happen? Some kind of Grace? A gift? Or do you have to work at it?”

I could use a little more peace of mind. Inside.

“It’sh your mishing piece…”

I feed him a spoonful of warm rice pudding. He swallows carefully and pushes the spoon away.

“Shurrender.”

“Surrender?”

“Yesh. It’sh a mystery. Have to shurrender.”

“So you’ve given up?” The final stage of death and dying—Acceptance.

Joe knows what I don’t, yet. “Shurrender. Not asheptance, not giving up. Both…and peace, trust…” He pauses to breathe, waits to speak again.

A skittering of tiny feet tells me there are mice in the cabin. A slide of snow glides off the cabin roof onto the woodpile with a soft shushing sound.

“…living …dying…doeshn’t matter. Shurrender, Addie.” He smiles. “You should…try it.”

“What do I surrender to?”

“God’s Will…perfect happiness. That’sh what I get—I’m happy…even if I’m dying.”

Perfectly happy, while he’s dying? Maybe it’s the morphine talking. No, he hasn’t had morphine today.

“Once I got that…” he says, “…not afraid now. Not afraid of anything…not even dying.”

I offer him another spoonful of rice pudding. He tastes it, licks his dry lips, reaches his claw hand for the cup of water.

“I went away lasht night…” he says. “Space walk…but that cord…tethered to the mother ship.” He gestures to the cabin. “Here. With you.”

Joe pushes at the zipper on his sleeping bag, and I unzip it for him.

What next?

“Joe, I’ll try the surrender thing. It feels like giving up, to me, so it doesn’t make sense that we should be doing this turbo healing at the same time as we’ve given up on it actually healing you.”

His lips curl into a half smile. “You listening? Not giving up. Shurrender to…God. A miracle. Healing me…not your job.”

My hands tingle. “I’ll spend the whole day working on that. When do you want your next healing treatment?”

“Now.” He relaxed into his sleeping bag, rotated his head on the pillow, closed his eyes and folded his hands on his chest.”

I look at my watch. Nearly noon. We have the rest of the day. I wonder how much his one little body can take of the energy flow?

This time I position a chair at the head of his bunk. I remember how I had brought him out of a coma with my hands on his head. And yes, that time I had managed a degree of surrender. I remembered saying a prayer, asking for some kind of Divine Intelligence to take over, asked for help in trusting that, no matter how this came out, whatever happened would be right for Joe. Prayed without really believing, and kept praying until I finally believed. Believed that what was right for Joe would be—would have to be—acceptable to me, too. 

Somehow, I will have to reach that state again.

I pray for a long time, until I finally believe. I can surrender to whatever outcome we achieve. We are doing this together, and Joe has surrendered.

Clearing my aura and filling it with golden light takes a while longer. Clearing my mind another while longer.

Finally, I place my hands on Joe, cradling his head and ears. He sighs, deeply.

The warm/cool energy flows through my hands, so strongly they vibrate and buzz.

Joe has a convulsion.

Too much, too much, too much! I start to withdraw my hands, but an invisible Presence holds them in place. Joe settles down. He is unconscious, near comatose.

I try not to be terrified. Surrender, surrender, surrender. This is all part of the healing. My kyky healed Joe when he was 14, brought him back from near death. I move my hands to the top of his head as I had then, and see him relax more deeply. I do the step-aside and watch from the corner of the room.

In an altered state. Not floating in deep space, but my spirit watches as Joe lies in perfect serene peace, Addie’s hands cradling his head. Time passes. A lot of time. My hands vibrate automatically and Joe falls into a slow-breathing comatose sleep.

The energy stops. I shake out my numb hands, press them to the floor, start up the furnace in my heart and burn off extra energy, white smoke out the top of my head, like when the Vatican chooses a Pope.

I’m shaking while I stoke up the fire, shaking while I heat a can of chicken noodle soup, shaking while I eat the soup. Shaking while I walk outside and breathe the shining air. I walk to a fallen log, brush off the snow, and sit for an hour, listening to the rustling silence of tiny animals. My jeans are soaked. I go in and change to my p.j.’s. It’s early yet, not yet sundown, but close.

Mike will come in a couple of days to take Joe out. Dead or alive.

Too exhausted to stay with him, I collapse on the top bunk, drained.

Joe will wake up, need pain meds or kyky. Or he won’t wake up at all.

I listen to Joe’s slow, halting breathing. Feel my own breath slowing down. It’s time.

I sense Joe is going away. And that means I am, too. Without him, I won’t be a person anymore. I can feel my breath synchronize with his, feel my spirit leaving my body, spinning out on the silver cord, coming back, hearing the breaths, spinning out again, sinking, disappearing.

I’m detached from the outcome.

And finally, sinking into a warm, dark oblivion, I surrender to the mystery. I’m too weary to resist it.

I hope I’ll wake up wherever Joe has gone, even if it’s someplace other than Heaven.

Dropping into an exhausted sleep, a thought: “When a warrior dies for her purpose, she truly becomes a hero.”

Day Three

At the first light of dawn, something hits my hand hard, swinging it.

I sit up too fast, forget where I am, and fall out of bed from the top bunk.

Confused, I pick myself up, rubbing my elbow where it hit the floor.

Joe is sitting straight up in bed, awake and alert, eyes sparkling.

He gives me an impish grin.

“Got coffee?”

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MEMOIR_Chapter 58 (Fiction)

MEMOIR_Chapter 58

Day 1

 “Now we can get started,” I echoed, not sure what Joe meant. Start what? Dying? Wasn’t he already doing that?

I opened the cupboard. “How about we start with some gruel?”

Joe grinned. “Not exactly what I had in mind…but, got honey?”

“I brought some,” I said. “Figured you’d want that. You always did when you were a kid. Honey and canned milk on your Cream of Wheat.”

 I cooked the cereal, warmed the milk, stirred it all together and added a good swirl of honey. Sat on the end of his bunk to watch him bring the spoon, shaking, to his mouth. I brought him a towel, to dribble on. “Do you need me to feed you?” I asked.

“Not yet. Jusht takes…concentration.” He aimed the loaded spoon at his mouth again, and managed to land it without too much spill.

Joe eased the bowl down to the floor. “Guesh I’m not hungry.”

He was slurring his words, pausing for deep breaths between.

“Thirsty?”

“Yeah. Water.”

I gave him water from the tin camping cup. He smiled, seemed sleepy.

“Got shomething to ask,” he said, his eyes closed.

“What’s that?”

“Do you remember… the hospital…after Dad drowned?”

I shuddered, remembering. “How could I ever forget? You were in a deep coma; the doctor kept telling me you probably would never wake up. He called it a ‘persistent vegetative state’.”

 “Well, I was ‘aware’ of…what was happening. I drifted away…in a dark spacious place that sheemed empty…but full…if that makes shense. I knew… you were there. I could hear you…shometimes…way off…talking to me.”

“Really? Sure didn’t seem like you were conscious at all.”

“In the night…you put your handsh on my head. Shot of electricity. Shtayed there a long time…I wandered…in the dark place…it was warm…I wanted to shtay…then I got pulled back.”

“Pulled back?”

“Yanked back. From near death. By you.”

“Wow. I never knew you were even aware that I’d done that.”

“Don’t forget. I was there when you got your healing touch….and you had healed me other times, too. But that time…well, you brought me back from near death.”

He took a long, deep breath, and sipped some water.

“I was already on my way…you brought me back. With your healing touch.”

“So…what are you saying?”

“We’re alone…got three days…now we can get started…I came up here…to…get healed…or to die…no more lingering.”

“Healed?”

“The coma was closer to death…than I am now. You can bring me back…do some turbo healing.”

He slipped down against the pillow. “We’re here…nothing can dishturb us.”

He adjusted the sleeping bag higher on his chest. “You up for it?”

So Giff was right. Joe wasn’t done yet. He still hoped I could heal him.

“Joe…” I got up and went to the coffeepot on the stove, poured myself a cup. Held it up to him. “Want some?”

“No thanks, I’m not really up to coffee lately.”

I went outside to get the quart of milk out of the snow. Left the door open. Breathed in the cold, sharp air and the no-sound of absolute stillness, centered myself and cleared my mind for what was bothering me.

Am I up for it?

I added milk to my cup and replaced the bottle in the snow. “Here’s my problem,”

I went back in, closed the door, and sat at the battered table with my coffee.

“When I was a kid I had a healing touch, what Magdalena called my kyky, but I lost faith in it, I guess. Some of my healings didn’t work. Remember Alex? I tried to heal him from AIDS. Didn’t happen. And then, after I’ve used it on you so many times, you continued to get…worse.”

“No, Addie…you’ve brought me back…eshpecially from pain, many times… trust that.”

“But…there seems to be something missing now, something really important. I can’t put my finger on it. The healing gets cuts short. Relieves pain, yes, but then there’s no actual healing. It’s an obstacle, and I don’t know what it is.”

“We’ll figure it out…together,” Joe says.

“That’s why you insisted we be up here alone?”

“Yes. But also becaushe…if the healing doeshn’t work…I have to let go…of everything…I’m attached to…if I want to be able to die in peace.” He drinks from the Sierra cup. “Except  you.”

Yet, I am here. I am attached.

Joe continues. “They pull on me, everyone…Nellie, the kids, friends, family…everyone roots for me…wants me to make it…even when I’m like this…they still want a miracle…it jusht pulls on me…pressures me. Because I don’t want to let them go.”

He closes his eyes. “But I know I have to,” he says. 

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MEMOIR: Chapter 57 (Fiction)

Chapter 57

Going In

 Checking the driveway for Mike’s pickup. Empty. The February sky is overcast and dark, the sun too weak to lighten the gray clouds.

I pull on my red down jumpsuit, the red plaid hat with lined earflaps, and my Bear Claw boots, lacing them up over heavy wool socks.

“Mike should be here pretty soon,” I say. “I hate to think of Joe being up there alone for even an hour. I want to be ready to go.”

I leaned over to heft my backpack.

“You’ll have to help me get this on my back. I’m not sure I can even bend over.”

Giff looks at me, laughs. “I’d have to agree.”

He sobers. “You won’t need to get your backpack on until you get to the trail head. Mike will help you. Oh, and he called. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”

“I’m ready.”

“Yes. You are.” His eyes are glossy, shiny, liquid.

He pulls off my hat and wraps his arms around me. His warm enveloping hug shores up my resolve, infuses me with warm energy and confidence. I suck it up, use it to breathe, Mom’s yoga breath. Slow, Expanded, Long, Full. My spine elongates and straightens.

“It’s what you always do,” he says. “Suit up. And show up.”

 

Mike’s pickup pulls into the driveway around 9 a.m. He must have been hiking out while it was still dark, I think.

I meet him at the door, comforted by his husky blonde sturdiness. Hug him, stretching my arms around his big tan parka.

“You’re a loyal and good friend. Joe knows whom to call, doesn’t he! Come in, get warm.”

Mike is brusque, clearly in a hurry. “Don’t want to leave him alone up there too long. Maybe a quick cup of coffee, if you’ve got some made.” He takes off his heavy gloves, but not his parka or his thick knit hat.

Giff is already bringing him a mug of steaming coffee, which he gratefully accepts, blowing on it then taking a big swallow.

“Addie, did you pack food?” he asks. “I left some things up there, bacon, eggs, Cream of Wheat, bread, some jerky and trail mix and stuff, some canned and freeze-dried food, but that might not be enough. I mean…it’s mostly for you. You know Joe eats mostly gruel these days.”

“Gruel. Yes. Cream of Wheat, with warmed canned milk stirred in.”

“But he says he likes your rice pudding, the way you make it, too.”

I went to the fridge and pulled out a carton of whole milk and a pink of half-and-half. Filled a plastic bag with rice, and found places to  tuck it all in my backpack.”

“I’ll have plenty of food. It depends on how long he makes it,” I said. What if he’s doing well after two or three days?”

“I’ll be back up there in any case, in three days, just to check on you, and maybe bring the two of you out.”

Dead or alive, I think. “Will you bring him back out if…”

“I’ll bring him back out, if that’s what’s called for. Do you have cross country skis? Or snowshoes?”

“I do. Should I bring my skis?”

“Might be quicker if we just piled the gear on the sled, and you skied in behind it.”

Giff brings my cross-country skies and poles from the garage and leans them against the door. He sets my showshoes next to them.

Mike finishes his coffee, sets his cup on the dining table, and looks at my gear. “That all you’re bringing?”

Giff laughed. “That pack weighs about 50 pounds. Should hold her for three days. You can always bring in more supplies later.”

Mike lifts my backpack in one hands, the skis and poles in the other, gets the door open, and heads out to the pickup.

Giff turns me around, fastens my earflap hat, and kisses me goodbye.

“It will be the adventure of a lifetime,” he says.

I shiver. “Don’t forget, we’ll have guardian angels.”

He grins. “Keep them close. Very close.”

“I will. Angels aren’t pushy, you know. They wait to be invited.”

“Invite them. Starting now.”

 

In the parking area Mike unloads his rescue sled and my gear, helps me get  my skis on, and loads everything else onto the sled. The trail to the bowl is about half a mile of groomed snow, the skiing easy, uphill but pushing my poles into the packed snow behind the sled. The trees are weighted down with snow, and the low branches dump their load on us if we brush against them. There’s a nightlike stillness in the alpine forest, the snow reflecting light.

When we reach the treeless bowl, we stop to sit on the sled and rest. Mike hands me a bottle of water. “Gotta stay hydrated, even when it’s this cold.”

I twist the cap off and stop.

“So, how is Joe?” I ask. “Why did he want to go to the cabin, really? What’s your take on what’s going on with him?

Mike is silent for a long time. Then, “You know why. He’s ready to die. I told Nellie this, how he didn’t want her or the kids to see it. She protested, but I think he may be right about that—he wants to know the kids are safe with her. They both feel the girls are too young to witness their father’s last breath. He says they’ve said everything they need to say to each other. He’s at peace with that.”

He sighs and takes a long swig of water from his bottle.

“But I don’t think Nell is at peace with that. She’s torn between protecting her babies and being with Joe.”

“Does he have his meds, his morphine?”

“Yes, plenty of that, but he doesn’t seem to need as much, now. Says his pain has softened down some.”

Softened down, I think. Is that what happens when death is near? Some kind of gentle mercy at the end?

Mike stows his water bottle, removes his skis in favor of showshoes, and resumes his place at the front of the sled. “Better use your showshoes from here on. I’ve gotten rid of blowdowns and branches, mostly, but it’s still a rough trail.

He fastens the tow rope to his belt while I change to snowshoes and lay my skis and poles on the sled.

Another half a mile or more of trail, not so well groomed. Picking our way over small branches and tree roots. The snow is packed from repeated traverses with the rescue sled, having the effect of grooming. The surface is glazed and slick. Snowshoes crunch in, but don’t sink. At one point, Mike points to the sled, and I climb aboard. He’s pulling a sled loaded with me and my gear, trudging uphill on a rough trail, on snowshoes. How does he do it? He doesn’t even seem tired. He points out pawprints of small critters, hoof prints of elk or deer. Snow dumps off the low branches when we pass.

We arrive at a small frozen lake, covered with snow a couple of feet deep. Mike’s tiny Forest Service cabin is set back in the trees next to the lake. He parks the sled by the door and we unload. I am anxious to see Joe.

The cabin is one room with bare wood walls, two smudged windows, and an attached room for a toilet. In the center of the room, a scarred wooden table and three chairs. A wood stove against one wall, the fire down to embers. The wood box is filled with kindling and dry stove wood. One cupboard on the wall. Gallon jugs of water lined up under the window.

A monarch butterfly is pinned by its wings to the wall next to the single cupboard, gold and black gleam in the dimness.

No electricity, but propane lamps attached to the walls. Mike lights the propane lamps, one on each wall, and throws chunks of wood into the wood stove, pushes them around with a black poker.

Opposite the stove are two bunks.

Joe is huddled in his sleeping bag in the bottom bunk, too weak to sit up. I toss my sleeping bag on the upper bunk and crouch down to talk to him. An empty metal Sierra cup, the kind with sloped sides and a handle to hook on a belt, sits on the floor by his bunk. I fill the cup from a water jug and hold it to his parched, and cracked lips. He drinks in tiny sips, swallowing, careful. Coughs a weak cough.

Joe’s eyes slowly open, and he greets me in a hoarse but ordinary tone of voice. “Glad you’re here.”

Mike stands over us, his presence filling the room. “How ya doin’, old man?”

“Better, now that you’re here to protect me from the bears.”

“There were bears?”

“Coulda been. Something large, brushing around the cabin while you were gone.”

Guardian angels, I think.

Mike turns and opens the cupboard. Someone has painted it yellow at some point, but now the paint is rubbed and peeled to a patina of gray and yellow collage. The cupboard is almost filled with supplies, flour, cereal, corn meal, cans, boxes, sugar, salt and pepper, cooking oil, a tray with eating and cooking utensils. A stack of chipped plates. Empty jelly glasses, the kind that processed cheese used to come in. a few chipped ceramic mugs.

“You can put your food and stuff in here.”

The fire begins to crackle. I unpack my food and gear onto the table. Fill the blue enamel coffee pot from a jug of water on the floor, add a few spoonfuls of coffee, and set it on the single burner.

Mike opens the primitive door to the side room, and cold rushes into our warming space. He gestures. “Here’s the chemical toilet. There’s an outhouse, too, but this time of year no one wants to go out there.”

“You saw the woodpile, coming in,” he adds. “The wood is chopped stove-size. There’s a hatchet by the door—if you run out of kindling you can chop some more.”

Mike surveys my small frame, still bundled in red down. “You do know how to chop kindling, don’t you?”

From the bunk, Joe snickers.

“Of course I do,” I say, drawing myself up to full height. We grew up on a farm!”

From the bunk: “Dad chopped the kindling. Or me. But you’ll figure it out.”

 

Mike’s farewell to Joe hurts my heart, the way they call each other “Buddy” and “Old Man” and nudge each other. Mike sits on the side of the bunk and pushes Joe’s hair back, rubs his head a little too hard. “See you in the next act, Joe. Hope it’s a warm one.” He chokes up.

Joe grins, lopsided, his chin quivering. “Likely to be pretty warm, for us.”

One awkward, long hug, Joe’s claw hands hanging onto Mike’s back for dear life. Mike bolts for the door. I follow him out.

Hugging Mike goodbye in the snow and thanking him, I have one last request: “Will you call Giff and Nell and tell them I’m safe and warm, Joe’s awake, and all is shipshape.”

“Soon’s I get down.” He puts on his snowshoes and fastens the rope of the sled to his belt. “I’ll be back after three days. If you need anything, try to get a signal out, and leave a message. Those usually get through to voicemail, even if the reception isn’t good enough for a conversation.”

I am still waving goodbye as he fades into the trees.

Alone.

No, not quite. I return to the cabin, where the coffeepot has begun to bubble. Joe has propped himself up halfway on a pillow and he watches me, his eyes hard to see in the shadow of the upper bunk.

 “Finally here,” he says. “We need to get started.”

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MEMOIR: Chapter 56 (Fiction)

Chapter 56

Ready. Or Not.

Giff isn’t in bed beside me. I throw the covers back and head for the kitchen, where I smell cooking.

The garage/shop door is open. I step in, to get my backpack. It’s not there, but Giff’s blue backpack is still propped against his worktable. Is he still going to insist on being there with me?

My red backpack is leaning against the front door frame, my boots sitting next to it, the red jumpsuit draped across the top.

Lovely cooking smells coming from the kitchen.

“Pancakes?” I say to Giff.

He continues to flip pancakes on the griddle. “You’ll need carbs, for the cold and your activity level.” I listen for his tone. Sincerity? Yes, but with an edge of grim.

He takes syrup out of the microwave and sets it on the counter with the butter, and gets out two plates. Pours me a cup of coffee.

What is he up to? All this nicey-nice, after last night?

“Giff…” I gesture at the garage door.

He glances up and shrugs. “Just being…prepared. Just…in case.” I’m doing this my way.

“I don’t understand this, Giff. You were beyond angry at me last night. Why are you being so reasonable? Did you have an angel visitation or something?”

“No, I just don’t want to fight about this.”

I let my face drop to the counter. “So you still think you’re going with me. You are the most stubborn person I have ever known,” I mumble.

Giff slides a stack of pancakes onto a plate and sets them in front of me.

“Not unless you don’t count yourself,” he says.

I gather myself for another go-round. Butter my pancakes, slow things down.

“Here’s the deal,” I say. “Last night I wasn’t sure where my certainty came from, but I knew I had made a promise that couldn’t be broken. I had a vision in the early morning hours, and remembered.”

He turns another batch of pancakes. “And?”

“Joe and I, we were young, maybe five and ten, and we had made an altar in the woods. Remember that woods across the road from our old farmhouse?”

“Yeah, I remember. Cedar trees, and fir.”

“We weren’t supposed to go in there alone, but after Mom turned Joe over to me, I figured we could pretty much do what we wanted to.”

“So you went in there…”

“We built a lean-to out of cedar branches, and made an altar out of a stump. Gathered things to put on the altar and called them sacred. I was very into defining what was sacred and what was not, in those days.”

Giff doesn’t turn around.

“Then some crows hopped on the altar, and Joey and I were talking about how crows were sacred. I told him when we die we can come back as another human, or as an animal or a bird. Like I read in Mom’s books, and like our neighbor Mrs. Clatter explained to me.”

“Do you still believe that?” Giff asks, sitting down with his breakfast.

“I do, most of it. Mrs. Clatter was a Native woman. She told me that sometimes a crow comes back as a human to give knowledge about healing to the Native people. I believed her then, and I believe her now. About healing.”

“You already knew about healing,” Giff says. “Now, you’ve just given up on yourself.”

I bristled. “Well, who wouldn’t, after all the times I’ve tried to heal Joe and failed?”

“What about the times you tried and succeeded? Joe’s told me about a couple, when he was a kid. When you put your hands on my knees, the pain goes away. Joes says the same thing—your healing touch always helps, his pain goes away”

“When we were kids…it was different.” I remembered the hospital the night after Dad died, Joe’s coma, the doctor shaking his head…

“Now, Joe says his pain gets better. But then he gets worse,” I said.

“So you call that…failing?”

“I do.” I tackle the cooling pancakes. “I sure don’t call it healing.”

Giff eats, and doesn’t respond until his plate is empty.

Then, “I wonder what Joe would call it,” he says.

“I’ll ask him,” I say. “We’ll probably have time to talk about such things. Mike said he was lucid, eager to see me.” How much time would we have? I realize I’m no longer hungry, and push my plate away.

Joe stacks our plates and takes them to the sink.

“So where does the promise thing come in?” he says.

“When Mom turned him over to me, I was young—too young—but she trusted my inner Knowing to be able to keep him safe. As long as I can remember, I’ve known that I’d be with him to the end, and at the end.

“While we watched the crows strutting around on our altar, Joey said he was going to come back as a crow after he died. So I said I would, too. We said we’d always be together, just him and me, even when we died. We’d be together, the two of us, in life, in death, and after death.”

“And that’s the promise you can’t break? About crows?”

“No, the pinky promise was what sealed it. We made a pinky promise. It’s the most sacred kind of vow.”

Giff turns and walks away, shaking his head. “I don’t get this,” he says. “You were just kids! And why does it have to be just the two of you?”

He turns back and stands in front of me. “I said this: ‘You were just kids!” This is what I meant: We made a promise to each other, too, when we were married. To love and protect. I take that promise very seriously.” His eyes tear up. “How can I protect you if you keep insisting you have to go alone, because you promised?”

I put my arms around him, soak his heat into my own body. He is trembling. “We made another promise, too, remember? We added a word to our vows. Trust. We promised to love, honor, protect, and trust each other. It was so important to each of us; it’s what the word honor meant—to trust each other’s Knowing, each other’s sense of what’s right for ourselves, without interfering.”

We made a promise,” Giff says, “and that’s why I’m giving this up. But I still don’t get it.   

“But you have to respect my promise, too,” I said.

 “You could send me.”

“That isn’t keeping the promise. That’s saying, ‘I’m too scared to keep a sacred contract—a pinkie promise, Giff—the most sacred of all. So I’m sending a substitute.”

Giff tears up, the corners of his mouth tremble. “Hardly a substitute. I’m one of his best friends. Next to you, he’s been my best friend. I don’t get why it has to be just the two of you.”

“Remember I told you about when he was in a coma, near death? He was fourteen.”

“Right after your Dad died.”

“People were in and out of the room all the time, and he was so far gone the doctor said he probably would never come out of it. In the middle of the night, finally, it was just the two of us. I had promised him I’d be with him when he died, just Joe and me.”

I had to pace. Refilled my coffee while the full memory came back.

 

I was in the dim quiet hospital room with Joe in the bed. Rain spitting against the window, with breaks when the stars came out. I closed my eyes and said a prayer, asked for an elusive Divine Intelligence to be present, asked for help in trusting that, no matter how this came out, whatever happened would be right for Joe. Prayed without really believing, and kept praying until I finally believed. Believed that what was right for Joe would be—would have to be—acceptable to me, too. Prayed until I felt the familiar warm energy begin to vibrate in my hands.

I closed my eyes and imagined a big Easter egg with me inside it. Light poured into me through my hot spot and filled up the egg with a watery bright glow. I remembered the little fairies painting the outside of the eggshell with thick, sticky evening-sky indigo blue so nothing bad could get inside my protective shell.

Inside my head was silence. Stillness, no thoughts.

I placed my hands carefully around Joe’s bandaged head. After a few minutes the flow of energy started as it always had. Time went on, or maybe stopped. I did the step-aside and waited, watching from the corner of the room as my hands flowed heat into Joe’s head for what might have been minutes, or hours.

While my hands held Joe’s head and I watched, I was startled by a smudge of orange light that appeared on Joe’s pillow. The light hovered, then elongated and shaped itself into the radiant figure of a man, leaning toward Joe on the bed.

I wasn’t alone. From where I floated in the corner I could just make out what I recognized as Grandpa’s dear face. Grandpa was here. He had made himself known to me once again, just as he had when I was five years old. I wondered why Grandpa had shown up now, after all these years. Perhaps he was here to get Joe, take him to wherever the dead are. Maybe it was time for Joe to be with Dad. Or maybe it was like my friend and mentor Magdalena, the Finnish healer, had taught me: he only appeared when it served an important purpose, to let me know that there was no death, that I was loved, that I wasn’t alone. The glow of Grandpa’s orange aura seeped into my bones and warmed me like sitting close to the embers of a beach bonfire. I watched for, hoped for, Dad’s ocean blue-green aura to come in too, but it didn’t.

My arms cramped, and the flow stopped. The orange aura faded and then there was nothing but the smell of body odor and Pine-Sol and my Grandpa’s pipe smoke that tasted like chocolate inside my throat. Joe hadn’t moved, hadn’t flickered even an eyelash. I collapsed into the chair by his bed and fell asleep before I remembered to ground myself or burn off the energy as Magdalena had taught me.

When I opened my eyes again it was night; spits of rain whipped against the dark windows and rattled the frames. Someone had turned on an overhead light in the room. Hospital noises murmured outside the room, soft conversation and footsteps passing in the hall. My back and neck hurt from sleeping in the chair, my hands buzzed and tingled, and I had a headache. I leaned over and pressed my hands against the floor until the buzzing stopped, as Magdalena had taught me, then sat up and closed my eyes, stoked up a white-hot fire inside and let the excess energy burn off and drift out the top of my head as white smoke.

Joe’s eyes were open, looking at the ceiling. A tear moved slowly down toward his ear.

I leaned forward, my breath coming fast. “Joe?” I said. “You awake?”

He turned his head on the pillow, this time looked at me instead of through me. He didn’t speak.

I jumped out of my chair, reached for him, then held back, went to the foot of the bed and turned the hand crank to raise the head of the bed until Joe was sitting up.

“Are you awake? Talk to me, Joe, talk to me.” I leaned on the bed and squeezed his hands lying limp on the covers. After a moment, he squeezed back. He was awake! Something that had gone quiet and still inside me leaped up and danced a joyful jig.

“Joe, you have to talk,” I said. “They won’t let you go home until you talk.” His aura revived, an outline of transparent red close to his body, and began to expand as I watched, inching outward against the white pillowcase and sheet.

He didn’t answer. His eyes were huge and dark green and so full of hurt I could barely look. I crawled up over the end of the bed and knelt on the covers to get close in his face. “Joe?” I said.

Joe’s shoulders convulsed with a choking half sob, half laugh.

“What?” I said.

“You look like something the cat dragged in,” he said.

 

“I put my hands on his head, did my healing touch, and he came out of it. So maybe that’s it. He remembers the promise, and I just know I have to keep that promise.”

When I reached for Giff again, he held me lightly, talking over the top of my head.

 “I think I get it, now. This is just between the two of you. The end of the story, or the next chapter, but you have to do it together, and alone.”

He  sighs. “And I don’t want to be there when he goes. I’ve said all I need to say to him. We’re good with each other. Complete, if it comes to that.”

“So you trust me now, to do this alone?”

“What choice do I really have? I made a promise, too.”

We hold on for a long time, while the enormity of what is happening washes over us and leaves us weak.

“But…but I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do,” I say.

“It’s a huge thing you’re agreeing to. You know how to do it, you’ve done it before. Walking someone home.”

Now I’m shivering. Giff holds me tighter.

“I’ve done it before, but never with someone so close. I just can’t be that objective. I mean, it’s Joe…how can I?”

“Who better? You know how, you teach that principle at your Center…what is it? About Love and death?”

“‘Since Love is eternal, death need not be viewed as fearful’,” I recite.

“So why are you afraid?”

“Love may be eternal, but so is death. I can’t bear the thought of losing him.” I sink against Giff, weak in the knees.

“But you’ll be there with him. That’s what he wants, what he needs. Your healing touch, your love, your serenity, your presence.” He leans back and looks at my face.

My resolve and determination shatter into shards around my feet. All I want is Giff’s comforting, capable presence.

“I want you to go with me, Giff. Maybe build fires and cook.”

“No, Joe’s sending Big Mike away, said he didn’t want people to witness it, and he asked for you.”

“I think I understand what Joe expects,” he says. “It’s about your healing touch. He still wants you to heal him. This is …it’s …your last chance.”

 I walk to the patio door and gaze out at the dirt-filled flower pots. “No. That’s not it. He’s accepted his death and just wants me there with him. I’m not going there to heal him. I’ve been trying to heal him for…what…almost three years now? And why? There’s something missing in my healing touch. Something that isn’t working. I don’t know what that missing factor is, but clearly, I can’t heal Joe, or I already would have. I’m not sure I ever should have even tried.”

“Anyway,” I say, my back to Giff, “it’s too late for that now.”

“Too late?” he says. “Do miracles have limits? I would have thought you’d say it’s never too late for a miracle.”

Sturdy green spears a couple of inches tall are up in one of the large flower pots. Daffodils, already. “No, I don’t think I even believe in miracles any more,” I say. “I’m going there to be his companion while he lets go of his life. Going because…because I promised, and he can’t be alone. Maybe I can help him die, but I can’t help him get well. Not anymore.”

I come back and sit on my stool at the counter

Suddenly I am too tired to think or move. Anxiety ripples through me, turning my muscles to water, and my head drops onto my folded arms.

“Can’t,” Giff says. “I’ve never heard you use that word before.” His hand cradles the back of my head.

“I don’t even want to talk about Joe getting well, I just have to get myself together to go up there and be with him.” My voice is muffled by tears and my sleeves.

I want Giff to go with me. But I can’t let him go with me, not now. Especially not now, after the fight, the vision, and remembering the promise.

We clean up the kitchen, and talk about anything except what is going to happen today. Giff’s latest commission, to build an entertainment center for a widow who hopes the piece of furniture will encourage her grandchildren to visit more often. My work at the Attitudinal Healing Center, now temporarily in the hands of the Board, with Mom helping.

Mom! I should call her…tell her what’s going on. But I know what she’ll say. “He’ll be fine. You’ll heal him.” I didn’t need to hear that again. I’d call her later. After.

Giff comes in from the garage with the small white-spotted blue enamel coffeepot, and finds a place in the top of my pack for it. He grinds French Roast coffee and fills a plastic bag, tucks it inside the pot.

“Sweetheart, I so wish you could go with me,” I say. “I don’t know what I’m doing now, don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

He smiles with one side of his mouth. “I know. There’s nothing I want more than to be there. But Joe just needs you right now.”

“You’ll be all right,” Giff says. “Sometimes you don’t even know how strong you are. You don’t see how you stay serene in the face of other people’s pain.”

Giff has switched sides. And I trust him as I always have. In this moment, I trust him to know better than I do what’s true.

“I’m not serene. I’m scared. I can’t do this.”

“No. You know better than that. You’ve made a sacred promise.”

Looking at him, seeing the confidence in his eyes, I can believe in his belief, if not in myself.

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MEMOIR

Chapter 55

White River Canyon

The purple chapters are fiction–the Alternative Universe portion of the Memoir. Could’ve happened.  Might have happened. Which version is real and true? Do you know? I don’t.

 

Giff lets the door to the shop slam behind him and stands in the middle of the kitchen. He watches me fill the coffeemaker, his eyes dark, jaw tensing and relaxing, tensing again. “Did Nellie call?”

“Yes. An hour ago.”

“Did they find Joe?”

“She knows where he is now, and he’s okay.”

“Come on, are you just going to dribble it out, or are you going to tell me what’s up?”

Grief and fear catch me without warning, turning my self-control into a joke. Giff comes around the island counter and takes my shoulders, turns me around.

“Where is he?” He uses his thumb to wipe tears off my cheek.

I push my face into his chest, breathe in his familiar smell of freshly-turned wood and sweat.

“Mike is taking him up to his cabin, the one Mike leases from the Forest Service. Joe’s going there to die.”

Giff’s arms tighten around me. “Joe thinks he’s ready to die now?”

I shudder. “He says he doesn’t want Nell or the kids to see him die, says she can’t go up there, has to stay with the kids.” He wants me up there, no one else. Why does he have this perverse wish? Something at the edge of my consciousness tugs at me…I understand his wish. We have some kind of agreement, made way back, something I don’t really remember. But Joe, apparently, does.

Giff is very still. The coffeemaker wheezes, and water begins to drip into the filter.

“So… is… Mike going to stay with him?” Giff leans his head back to look at my face. “Surely Joe doesn’t plan to be up there alone.”

I close my eyes. “No. Mike has to go back to work tomorrow. So Joe wants me to come up there to be with him.”

Giff jerks loose and takes a step backward. “You? You can’t be serious. By yourself? No way. How would you get there?”

I can’t answer right away. Giff waits.

“He…Mike…is coming tomorrow morning to take me in. Then he’ll come back after three days to get me, and Joe.”

Giff paces the kitchen, eight steps to the patio door, eight steps back. “Let me understand this. In Joe’s fragile condition he got Mike to haul him up to his cabin? And now he wants you there, too? Why? What’s his purpose?”

“He doesn’t want to die alone. I guess.”

 “If you go, I’m going, too.”

“Giff, please sit down. I have to tell you the details. According to Nellie, Joe says it’s not negotiable.”

Giff’s face locks down, but he sits on the edge of a counter stool.

“Mike’s using his rescue sled to take Joe and his stuff up there, and he can use it for me, too.”

Giff kicks the stool back and stands up. “As sick as Joe is? Is he crazy? You’re all crazy!”

“Giff, I can’t talk to you unless you sit down and listen for a minute.”

He perches again on the edge of the stool and laces his fingers under his chin, the knuckles white.

“He needs me, sweetheart,” I say. “I’m his mainstay, so are you, but for some reason this time he wants me to come alone. Maybe he doesn’t want you to see him die, either.”

“I’ve seen people die, he’s my best friend, I could handle it, what’s that about? And what makes him so sure he’s going to die?”

“People do have a sense of when death is near. I believe that. He’s determined that I be with him.”

Giff swallows hard. “Well, there’s got to be a better alternative than the two of you being alone in a mountain cabin in the middle of February! You got water? Food? Heat up there? Is there cell phone reception up there? You’re not exactly a pioneer woman, and Joe can’t be any help.”

“Well, Nell says there’s plenty of wood, water, food, and a woodstove. No electricity. Spotty cell phone access.”

Giff jumps off his stool and yanks open a cupboard door, takes down two mugs. Pours the coffee and hands me one of the mugs. Gulps his own, burns his tongue, paces quick circuits around the kitchen.

“So the plan is…?”

“Mike will pick me up in the morning, take me in to the cabin. I’ll use my snowshoes, or I can ride on the sled.”

“We’ve skied in that canyon,” he says. “I don’t remember a trail beyond the bowl, and that’s only half a mile upriver.”

“Nell thinks they keep a trail beyond the bowl groomed for cross-country skiers.” I sip coffee, still too hot to drink. “Anyway, Mike’s on the Mountain Rescue Team, he won’t let anything happen to me. I’ll be safe, going in and coming out.”

“How about while you’re there? Who’s going to keep you safe in that godforsaken cabin? And Joe says he’s up there to die? He’s not coming out on his own—where does that leave you?”

Giff is like that, always my protector, watches over me. But this time…he can’t. Being with Joe now is a promise, something I pledged to do, somehow, sometime when we were kids. Gatekeeper, death shaman, whatever I’ve become, Joe expects me to be there when he dies. I have to be alone with him.

I promised.

“This is one time you can’t protect me, Giff. I’m sorry. I promised him I’d be there. I know I’ll be watched over, Joe and I both; there will be guardian angels, like Mom always talks about. Don’t you remember how you trusted my inner Knowing about how to get well from cancer, and about buying this house? And…”

“Yes, I know. But this is different, Addie. This is dangerous.

“More dangerous than metastasized cancer? I followed my inner Knowing with that, and here I am, thirteen years later. Joe’s always trusted my Knowing, too, and it’s always turned out okay. Remember when he got lost that time? No, we were just kids, how could you know? But I’ve told you about it. Mom thought he’d drowned in the river, or in the ditch, and took off running toward the river. I asked my inner Knowing, and heard that he was the other direction, down in The Valley. And that’s exactly where I found him, playing in the ditch with a big old toad. That’s when Mom turned him over to me. Said he’d be safer with me than anyone else.”

Giff stares at the floor. Finally, he sits back down on the stool, turns his coffee mug in his hands, not looking at me. The clock over the sink ticks, a dog barks, a door slams. The furnace kicks on.

“Giff…” I say.

“No. It’s not negotiable with me, either. You’re not going in there and be alone in the middle of the winter with a very sick man, and no way to call for help if you need it. Either I go with you, or you don’t go.”

I yank open the fridge, grab greens and radishes and celery from the crisper, and pull out the cutting board. Chop a tomato to smithereens, pieces flying all over the counter and onto the floor, slice vegetables, furiously rip apart leaves of lettuce. Half of it lands on the floor.

I lean on the countertop and raise my eyes. I hear my heart pounding. His eyes on me are narrowed, unblinking, hard as steel. I’ve never seen his eyes like this. Steel meets steel, and doesn’t back down.

“So. Everything is non-negotiable, with everyone,” I say.

“Well, that includes me,” I say. “I’m going in, and I’m going alone.”

I shove the salad bowl toward him. “I can’t do this,” I say. “You do it.”

I stomp out of the kitchen and sit in the living room where I can watch him.

I have never confronted Giff on anything remotely like this, in fact, never needed to. We’ve always had an understanding, that we don’t get in each other’s way. Now, we are in each other’s way.

Giff gets up, goes around the counter, digs through the fridge and takes out a package of ham steaks.

He turns on the stove and stands looking at it, watching the burner turn red around the edges of the pan. He jerks loose a plastic turner from the crock of utensils by the stove, and throws the ham slices into the skillet, arranges them round sides out, straight sides together.

He scrapes what’s left of the salad into the bowl and gets out the salad dressing.

What have I done? Maybe I am crazy. Maybe Joe and I aren’t thinking rationally. But Joe…I’ve been with him whenever he’s needed me his whole life. I can’t leave him now. What if my relationship with Giff is forever changed, the solid basis of trust we have always depended on eroded beyond retrieval? Why is this so important to me? Why not lean on Giff, let him go with me, relax into his strength and calm?

Because Joe knows something I don’t know, and I trust him, too. He knows I have to come alone. And I don’t think it’s about “don’t want Giff to see me die.” Giff can’t see him die, but I can? Doesn’t make sense. There’s something else. Some kind of pledge, promise, contract. If only I could remember…it’s like the edges of a dream, after I wake up, I know it was important, but can’t grasp it.

Giff is silent as he scrapes ham steaks, curling and burned around the edges, onto two plates. We eat at the counter.

“Pass the salt,” Giff says. Doesn’t say “Please.” I shove the salt shaker down the counter and it slides all the way off the counter. Giff gets up and retrieves it, gives me a look of disgust.

We’ve never had a “deep-freeze” moment in fifteen years of being together, but now we’re at an impasse, neither of us willing to give. The outside thermometer shows 34º and inside, it’s even colder.

I toss the dishes into the sink and go out to the garage/shop where there’s a cabinet just for backpacking and camping gear. My red backpack sits on the bottom shelf, empty, next to Giff’s. I pull it out and begin. My fleece vest, my water- and wind-proof north face jacket, arctic-level mittens, wool scarf, a balaclava to protect my head and neck. I go back into the house to get warm socks and flannel longjohns. Giff is finishing up in the kitchen, putting away clean dishes. He follows me out to the garage and pulls out his blue backpack, sets it on the floor next to mine.

I’m mostly packing things to wear—there’s already water and survival food in the cabin.

Giff is packing survival gear. A tarp, the pup tent, snow stakes, water filters, his cooking gear, freeze-dried food, bottles of water. A hatchet. I don’t comment. He still thinks he’s going with me.

He’s not. I’m not certain about the contract I have with Joe, but I know it involves just the two of us.

He glances over at what I’m packing. “Where’s the down jumpsuit you wear to ski?” he asks. “That red one?”

“In the  hall closet, I think.”

“I’ll get it.” He goes back into the house and returns with the jumpsuit and my pillow from our bed. “In case you get a chance to sleep.”

He pulls out a bin from the bottom shelf and finds my Bear Claw hiking boots. Red. Padded. “You’ll need these.” He adds a plastic packet holding a folded silvery blanket to the growing pile on the floor. “And survival gear.” He tosses a second packet into his own backpack.

“Mike will be with me. He’ll have survival gear. He’ll be prepared for anything.”

“He won’t be with you at the cabin, though.”

I imagine the desolation of the rough wilderness cabin, the cold, the deep silence. Joe depending on me to keep a fire going, keep him hydrated, be strong. I don’t feel strong. I feel scared, and uncertain of my own survival skills. I want to ask Giff to come with me, but I can’t. He’s somehow not a part of this contract, whatever it is.

I glance down at his pile of stuff, and his backpack. He’s tying his arctic-level sleeping bag onto the frame under the pack.

“You’re not going with me, Giff, so I don’t know why you’re packing all that gear.”

“I heard you on that. You’re gonna do what you have to do, and I’m gonna do what I have to do—just don’t you worry about me.”

He finds his own lined boots in the bin, and stuffs them into his backpack.

“And why is it so damned important that you and Joe be alone up there? Can you tell me that?”

“No. I just know—and so does he—it’s terribly important to Joe that I come alone.”

“Not going to happen. Not safe.”

I stop packing and sit down on a wooden stool. “Giff. Maybe you’ve forgotten this little detail of your life, because it happened before we met. You climbed Mt. Hood. In February. Alone, Giff. You have photos of yourself on the summit. And you’re giving me a hard time about being in a warm cabin below the timberline without you to protect me?” I watch him get out the pup tent we use for snow camping, spread it out, and refold it into a tight packet. His motions are brisk, fast, hard, efficient.

“You’re telling me I’m not as tough as you?” I said. “Not as capable of handling myself in an emergency?”

“You’re not.”

That did it. Now I would do this thing, and do it alone, if it meant I would have to survive in a blizzard at 10,000 feet. I could almost hear Joe, see him pumping his fist in the air, big grin on his face, “Go, Addie!” And then turning to his friend Giff. “She’ll be fine, Giff. Let her go.”

While I’m getting ready for bed, Giff brings in a book he found in our bookcase, Winter Excursions on Mt. Hood. He stands in front of me and reads from it:

Located along Highway 35, White River is a popular teaching area for novice nordic skiers. The bowl located 1/2 mile up the northwest side of the river is the usual stopping place for most skiers. Beyond here, the route winds through the trees. Approximately 1 mile from the road, you pass under some power lines. Beyond this point, the terrain steepens and the trail continually grows smaller until the skier is at timberline. (This is NOT Timberline Lodge). The narrow canyons in the near distance are dangerous. Avalanches may sweep off the canyon walls unexpectedly. The danger increases the higher you go, and skiing is not recommended above this point. Use caution when crossing the White River as some bridges may not be safe.

He uses his finger to mark his place, lets the book fall closed. “How far up is this cabin, exactly?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never been there, but when Joe talks about it, he’s always said it’s below the tree line.” I take the book from him and look at the map. “I’ve always thought the cabin was about…there…” I jab my finger at a wide spot on the trail. “About a half-mile above the bowl. We’ve only been as far as the bowl, but Joe’s pointed on up the trail and said Mike’s cabin is ‘up there’.”

Giff takes back the book and puts it away in the bookcase, without comment.

The deep freeze between us continues into the night. We lie separated by a glacier of ice, unwilling to cuddle even to get warm. Giff’s light snores finally let me know he’s asleep. I’m not.

Tomorrow, the unknown. White River Canyon, just me and Joe, and he’s dying. What will I need to take, besides arctic gear? I wish I could have talked to him directly, rather than third hand, from Mike to Nell to me. What will he need? What can I give him, this beloved brother with whom I have traveled so far? What does he want from me? I have nothing to offer, I’m empty, terrified, but…resolved. I am going, into the heart of the mystery, and I’m going alone.

Every time I look at the ruby-red-glow-in-the-dark clock, it’s an hour later, and I haven’t slept.

In the sacred hours between three and five a.m., I’m drifting in a hypnopompic state. I love that word, looked it up once, it means “the semiconscious state prior to complete wakefulness.” A time when insights emerge, problems get magically solved, memories long buried in the unconscious float up, and visions reel past like videos. Shaman time, to travel in the middle world.

Now I remember the pledge.

Joe and I are sitting on a moss-covered log in the woods, watching three crows explore the objects on our altar—a tight pale-green cedar cone, an orange-spined shiny black feather with scalloped white edges. A bone, from some animal. We called them sacred objects, because they came from Nature, therefore were connected to God.

“When I die I could come back as an animal, or a bird?” Joey asked.

“I guess so. That’s what Mom’s book says.”

“Then Addie—when I die, I’m going to come back as a crow. And when you die, you come back as a crow, too. Then we can still be together, even after we die.”

I looked at Joey out the corner of my eye, trick question coming up. “What about heaven, then?” I said. “Preacher Butler says we’ll all be in heaven together; we’ll be angels. Can’t have both.”

Joey watched the crows hop around on the altar.

“Rather be a crow.”

“OK, then I’d rather be one too.”  I would have powers. Crows know all about healing, for example.

“And we’ll always be together, always, even when we die?” Joey asked.

“Always. I’ll look after you, the way I do now. Even when you die, or I die.”

“Just us,” Joey said, “nobody else, the way it is now? Just you and me?”

“Just us, for always.”

“Pinky promise?” Joey said.

We hooked little fingers.

“Pinky promise.”

We must have been five and ten, after Mom had turned Joey over to me, made me responsible for him and his safety. We were at our cedar-branch lean-to fort in the woods, and we’d just made a sacred promise to each other. We both knew a pinky promise was the most sacred of all, never to be broken. As young as he had been, Joey clearly remembered it better than I had.

I sat up in bed, wide awake, and looked at the ruby red glow in the dark numbers again. 6:00. I had to be ready to go by nine a.m.

I had promised.

 

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