Month: January 2015

Warm Blankets and Dog Walking: On Being Alive

It goes like this:

My dog, same walk every day, and it just takes her.  She breaks into a trot, she turns.  Her wrinkles turn up in the semblance of a smile.

She remembers she is alive.  This is nice, I think.  I will use this.  But I don’t.

muddle.          muddle.          muddle.

That night, I read about love.  My brain creaks.  My boss comes home happily in a Christmas sort of drunk.  Driving home.  Swampy blues on NPR (what?).  Radio crackle.  Nashville appears with its hazy cold lights.

I am alive.

The kind that makes me wish for someone in the passenger’s seat, who I can reach over to and squeeze their leg and say–

We are alive!

And they will put on sunglasses because it is now a bright summer day in January–

and it’ll have a cold tint of an indie movie with the eeriness of Blue Velvet

And then I think of how to hold this feeling.  And I think and think of it until I think my way out of it, and by five minutes later I am in my driveway and can’t remember what the feeling is or if I had it at all.

Remembering you are alive is not something you can think through.  You lose it, even if you are pretending to do something else but secretly keeping the corner of your eye on it.  The most playful sorts of characters know when they are being watched, no matter how many brown trench coats and floppy hats and 3AM corner diner booths I occupy.

888230418It goes like this:

I am just past the pool’s surface, but not yet consumed.  I hold my breath.  I dart from one end to the other.  I fetch plastic rings of primary colors from the deep end’s thick blue.

I hear nothing.  I examine the bottom of nine feet down.  I look up.  I am alive.  I am eleven and I am alive.

I stay until my lungs give out.

The surface breaks it.  I dive again, but it’s lost down there in a container of plastic and chemicals and a long diving board overseeing.

At twenty-five, I explain to my passenger friend my love of water, the bursting that can be made from just my feet touching it, as we drive down the long winding of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I recreate it, but it’s lost.  I feel suddenly embarrassed.

If I walk to the pool it began in, I will find nine feet of gravel and concrete filled to the top, metal scraps and spare parts scattered across the surface.  No one needed swimming pools, anymore.  We need work.

951498100It goes like this:

I will go to court in one week to break apart what God or the devil had put together for three long years.  I have traveled to the West and back, complete with sand dunes and kitschy roadside attractions and beaches and Wyoming skies.

Now, in a November backyard in Tennessee, I stand with a someone who will become, in a few months from now, my someone.  We sang our songs.  We greeted our friends.  They listened.  They wrapped in blankets.

This sort of alive does not get fabricated from photographs.  It is not a put upon sort.

The fire is going out, and our gear is packed.  But we wait.  We watch our friends leave in twos.  I turn to my future someone.

They are leaving.  I say, They are going home to their homes where they will remove these heavy blankets quickly and jump into a bed of more heavy blankets.  They may even skip brushing their teeth.  And in the dark, there will be two sets of cold feet touching each other under the blankets.

We stood and watched them go through our own mouths’ steam.

Crusty Bathrooms and Cancer: On Learning to Die Old and Breaking Bad News

My mother has a way of rolling out bad news as though it were the last thing on the agenda, but the card was gently misplaced.  So cancer gets wedged between really-cold-here and I-had-a-delicious-croissant-for-lunch with the ease and hustle of a 72-year-old waitress at an Old Timey diner affirming your request of extra ketchup while halfway across the diner to her next table during tourist lunch rush.  It’s a skill I’ve taken the effort to nurture, but I am also suspicious of a mutated gene, particularly when I begin to fire off the one about the-string-who-walked-into-a-bar just before delivering the accidental punchline of I-had-a-miscarriage.  The hard wiring of brain-to-heart has a few disconnects that spark to my mouth in a way that I am certain makes my mother question whether the gene pool was poisoned in transit.


As the youngest of four, Saturday mornings not spent in the woods were spent alone with my mother, running errands, then covering the house methodically with Pledge soaked rags made from my father’s torn undershirts.  I captured a certain zen from handling each trinket and picture frame, lopping the dust that settled from the week from each arrangement, and creating an intricate storyline from each tchotchke that bled down with family names and scandals that didn’t exist.  Each item could be sacred, although was likely picked up from Walmart.

I was looking for a rumbling in these later moments.  A time for my mother to explain to me the secret that would explain our being here in this small town in Western Pennsylvania.  But I was more often given her rote responses of I-don’t-know-where-that-came-from or that’s-just-your-great-grandmother.  I needed more.  Something to change the family landscape.

Taking a cue from the old man’s playbook, casting myself into a world even smaller, I asked my mother what she intended to do when dad died.

She stopped dusting jam cabinet my brother had made, back turned.

“Mom?” I pressed.

Dad has been in a hopeless fight against time since his late thirties.  “Forty-five,” he would say, “I don’t plan to live a day past forty-five.” My mother fought his prophecies hard enough with eye rolls and don’t-you-dares that held him here past forty-five.  Then fifty-five.  Now past sixty-five, with cancer past and a couple tips of his fingers sawed off, he begrudges her will to keep him with her indefinitely.  Superstition works itself out to keep those asking to move on stuck here, held by the ones who love them.  It is the craft of having others knock on wood for you, when you are surrounded by nothing but steely reservations.


“Mom?” I reinstated.  “Did you hear me?”  The question didn’t seem unreasonable.  He was planning to go any day now, after all.  She turned around.  She looked lost.

“That’s not going to happen,” she said.

“But he said–” I started, pleading for her realize how understandable my question really was.

“No.” she responded, beginning to cry. “I will choose not to think of that.”

The clever play between death and life is not to be administered with planning and fact.  The roar and ripple are delicately balanced with a blatant mockery of our imminent end.


I took to my father’s defiance of death in my early college life.  Maybe it was the unfathomable spool of time unwinding itself faster and longer than I could bend my brain to that made me rattle out my own prophecy of death by twenty five.  I upped the stakes.  The good die young, I learned from the piano man himself, as I cranked old school jangly pop from my bright yellow truck and imagined the ways in which one person could go from a routine college commute to a horrific car accident.  But tricking death only works if you are surrounded by people who want you to stay.  I siphoned the proper eye rolls and don’t-you-dares to keep me to nearly twenty-nine.  But I’ve stopped my prophecies since.  Between a decade of smoker’s lungs and the long swoops into deep depressions, when it’s time to live, it is important to enjoy it.

Yesterday in a gas station restroom in Kentucky, en route home to Tennessee from a well wishing visit to my mother in Pennsylvania before her procedure to remove the cancer they discovered a few weeks prior, an older woman wobbled in as I was washing my hands.  She took care to steady herself from her husband’s hand to the wall when I turned around.  I aided her to the handicapped stall and retrieved the towels she asked for to clean the seat.  Here, in the grime of humanity’s waste, she begged me to never get old.

“I’m sorry to say,” I responded, “that I seem to have every intention of lasting that long.”

My response startled even me.  The genetic line of hope-to-god-I-die-young disintegrated here.

“Well,” she said, “you are a beautiful young lady.  You look like my granddaughter.  I’m glad I found you.  My husband was hoping I would find someone here to help me, and here you are.”

This is the best case scenario.  We stumble forward in hopes to find an arm to hold on to so that we can perform the basest of human functions.  And when we have the leave that steady arm of the one we love, we hope there will be another.  On the other side of the door, her husband waited to receive her again.


I understood, then, what my mother meant that day I carelessly called out our sobering reality.  I simply did not want to think about a time when he wouldn’t be there.

My Ship’s Come In: On Waiting for What We Don’t Know

The sea was going to take my father away.


Never mind that we were mountain people, each Friday spent packing coolers and duck boots for two days of Allegheny mountain living.  Never mind that he had carved us out miles of driveway to the hand built, propane fueled cabin– not a telephone or electric line in sight.  One phone call, and he would be gone.  He was leaving us for the raucous waves that pushed on my childhood security from states away.  And so I accidentally began to pray against my family’s good fortune.

Evening dinners were not mandatory, they were understood.  Assigned seating, round robin grace saying, mum-is-the-word if you don’t like the taste, and no one leaves until the last forkful.  Except, of course, for the cardinal rule of exception for weather.  As an owner of a family line, ditch-digging, commercial project excavation company, my dad was required to excuse himself at the precise moment the Channel 11 weather report chimed in from the adjacent living room’s blaring, wood framed television.  Through the indoor slotted window above the kitchen sink, we would listen to the low grumble of a man who needed, more than anything, for each day’s report to come up sunshine and 72 degrees to keep his family, and the families of each of his men, fed and warm.  In a plot of Pennsylvania that only receives 22 full, cloudless days of sunshine a year, meteorologist Dennis Bowman didn’t stand a chance against the tirade of a tired father-of-four, slandering his poor TV screen face with you-have-to-be-kidding-me’s and bowman-more-like-bonehead’s that could give Statler and Waldorf a run for their money.


When he would return to finish his last bits of mashed potatoes and meatloaf, head still shaking, we could watch the week’s worth of 90’s graphic rain clouds hover over the too-small table until our nightly ice cream course.

Weather was the only exception to leave the table.  Until the ghost ship that never came.

I didn’t quite understand the ins and outs of the business.  I only remember the night he skipped the weather– who needs it?– because his ship was coming in.

“Dad, what ship?  What kind of ship is coming?” I interrupted furiously.  But he just kept shaking his head and smiling with my mother.  A deal… finally a break… his ship is coming…

888230892 (1)

I never took my dad for a sailor.  I didn’t think he much cared for the lot of cuss-mouthed drinking sons-of-bitches.  But the excitement, the waiting, the new life– they were coming for him, and he wanted it to happen.  As in never before, the business phone– a lower chirp of the not-so-latest technology dual line in our home– would ring past 5PM and be answered.  During dinner.  Because a ship was coming to take my father away to a better life.

The weather ritual resumed the following night– a fluke.  But the new bustle to a ringing business phone was added to the dinner exceptions, accompanied with a holler and a hoot from sparkley-eyed father proclaiming, “This could be it!  Our ship!  It’s coming in!”  By the time he would return to the table, his excitement would be reduced to a simmer– a hopeful glimpse of Christmas from a July evening.  “No, that wasn’t it,” he’d say, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not coming.”

I developed a tasteful indifference to the ocean that year.  Who needed the wild whip of the stupid sandy beaches, the sting of salt, the deep unknown creatures waiting to bite or swallow.  I took special interest in the pines that lined our property.  I snubbed Malibu Barbie.  I prayed for the ship to get a hole in it and fill with water and sink to the bottom with all its rotten treasure and whatever else it had that dad wanted to leave so bad for.  I acted entirely disinterested in my best friend’s vacation photos to Hilton Head.  We are mountain people.  She can sell seashells on some other shore.


What is the way we count time in childhood?  Is it by season?  But at least three winters could pass in a week of cold summer nights.  Birthdays?  But I am sure I grew three years between fifteen and sixteen.  One childhood could last three or four lifetimes, at least.  Any kid who has been in time-out can attest to this.  I used to believe it was my parents, my teachers, the grown-ups, who could accurately report the number of minutes or days between one event and another.  But it seems that the less time they have, the less generous amounts they give to those memories.  Phases I was certain lasted years are reduced to a few weeks in my parents’ memory of me.  Years from now, my two year goth stint may only have lasted a couple days in their recounting.

This elasticity of time stretches my father’s waiting for his ship over the course of years.  And the longer the ship took, the less afraid I became.  The longer the ship took, the less hop-to-it the ring of the phone would jostle him.  The longer the ship took, the less I thought of a crow’s nest and the more I noticed the crow’s feet around his eyes.  “Any day now,” he would snort, “…any day.”

And then, one night, the phone rang, and he said nothing at all.  I had made a terrible mistake.  All my selfishness in trying to keep dad here– I had redirected his ship.  It was my fault.  It wasn’t coming.  And now, my father was devastated.


I reversed my tactic.

“Dad!” I called after him, “Your ship!  It could be your ship!”

A laugh.  “Yeah, maybe so.”

I carried the torch each night after that.  The phone.  “The ship!”  “Yeah, maybe.”

And then, finally, the phone.  “The ship!”

He turned.  He smiled.  He was kind.  “That ship is never coming.  Okay?  That ship has sailed.”

“Okay,” I said.

I didn’t have any idea what sort of ship we were looking for, anyway.  I still don’t.