The First Time I Died

saddle.shoes

When we get back home, I am convinced that I am adopted, that I come from different people entirely than these two grown-ups who ping-pong between sphinx-like impenetrability and crazy, nonsensical laughter.  I start to have scary dreams.  In some of them, we are back on our road trip vacation, and my parents leave me behind at one of the endless places where we stop.  In others, I try as hard as I can to run away from something awful, but my legs don’t work.  It’s like I’m in super slow motion, while the rest of the world – and the scary threat – come closer. 

And then, I die.  For the first time.

 It’s so hot, and so dry.  The sky is a burning blaze of white. No wind.  The air is so still that it’s completely silent.  It’s like being in a movie theater when the sound snaps off, and the picture continues.  I think I must have suddenly gone deaf, and I look around to see if anything is moving – a branch, a lizard, a bird – something I should be able to hear.

curtis2

There is young woman in front of me.  She wears full native dress. A skirt that goes all the way to the ground, a long sleeve shirt with the cuffs rolled up to reveal inches and inches of bracelets. She has a single, waist-length braid that’s bound with a thin leather strap. She turns when I approached the edge, briefly, then looks back down. She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t say hello, which I think is odd, because almost everyone says hello to a four-year-old child, especially one who is approaching the edge of the Grand Canyon.

She sits very near the edge herself. But she’s not actually sitting.  I realize that she’s crouched, and she stays like that, as if it’s the most relaxed position in the world. She is weaving a basket. I watch the quickness of her hands, young hands, and I think she might be very young despite the baby beside her. A papoose. I am proud of myself for knowing the word for an Indian* baby who’s all bound up in a beautiful little cocoon. The baby is wide awake, but utterly silent, his calm black eyes staring far into the distance.

I think that both of them must be miserably hot. In my 1960 shorts and sleeveless blouse, I can’t imagine how they seem so——————

Complete 20 Volume Set Of Edward Curtis' Landmark The North American Indian

My foot slips. My saddle shoe’s heel scrapes against the parched dirt. It’s so slow at first, just a grating of my calf.  I feel the skin rub away, then the first tiny droplets of blood rising to the surface. But then time speeds up.  My feet fly out from under me. I am face-to-face with the white-hot sky.  I am in free fall.  Falling, Falling.

My back hits first. The sensation, the pain I suppose I would call it, lasts for a mere second. It’s like the wind being knocked out of me, except I know that it’s not the wind. I am surrounded by the blackest darkest night, but within the black, an ocean of spark-like bursts fly from my body in all directions at once. I die.

I am dead. 

I am gasping for breath I am trying to reach the surface I am trying to keep my lungs from bursting I am straining to see something besides the sparks inky black nothing and the sparks and I gasp and I cough and I sputter and an arm is on me no two arms are on me, they’re around me and it’s Lula and she’s with  me and I hear words, she’s saying words to me.  She is saying, “You are right here, Mazie.  You are right here.”

curtis

 This partial chapter from my current novel has been reworked from a piece I wrote a few years ago.  You never know (or at least I never know) how writing will proceed.  For me, it’s never orderly. As I now envision The Rocky Orchard, this cast-aside piece now stands as a pivotal scene in my fourth novel.

Bottom three photographs: Edward S. Curtis

 

 

The First Time I Died

papoose

The air was hot, and dry, with a burning white sky ablaze from the sun. There was no wind. It was so utterly unmoving that the scene was completely silent, like being in the movie theater when the sound suddenly snaps off and the picture continues in the dark, silent cave. “Have I suddenly gone deaf?” I thought, and I looked around to see if anything was moving – a branch, a lizard, a bird – something I might be able to hear.

The young woman wore full native dress. A skirt that went all the way to the ground, a long sleeve shirt with the sleeve bottoms rolled to reveal inches and inches of bracelets. Her waist-length braid had been bound with a thin leather strap. She turned to glance at me when I approached the edge, briefly, then looked back down. She did not say a word. She did not say hello, which I thought was odd, because almost everyone says hello to a four-year-old child, especially one who is approaching the edge of the Grand Canyon.

She sat very near the edge. But she wasn’t sitting, actually, she crouched, as if it wer the most relaxed position in the world, and she wove her basket. I watched the quickness of her hands, young hands, and I thought she might be very young despite the baby beside her. A papoose. I was proud of myself for knowing the word for an Indian* baby who was bound up in a beautifully adorned little cocoon. The baby was wide awake, but utterly silent, his calm black eyes focused far away.

papoose2

I thought they must be miserably hot. In my 1960 shorts and sleeveless blouse, I couldn’t imagine how they seemed so——————

My foot slipped. At first there was just the scrape of my saddle shoe’s heel against the dry dirt. Then the grate of my calf. I felt the skin rub away and felt the first tiny droplets of blood rise to the surface. But after that I was in free fall. My feet flew out from under me and I was face to face with the hot white sky, falling, and falling.

My back hit first. I felt the sensation, the pain I suppose I would call it, for less than a second. It was like the wind being knocked out of you, except I knew that it was not the wind. I was instantly surrounded by the blackest darkest night, but within the black, an ocean of spark-like bursts flew from my body in all directions at once. I died.

I lay in bed for a long time before I believed that I could breathe.

I have died many times in my dreams. This was the first.

scott-snibbe

scott-snibbe

scott-snibbe

*The term “Native American” was not in widespread use at this time.

 Graphic by Scott Snibbe

Angels

angel

Entry #2: A January Diary

The plane was nearly empty. When my mother switched seats to talk with my aunt, I had the entire row of three seats to myself. She probably thought that if I were by myself, I would fall asleep, as my older brother had done, his knees drawn up and his freckled face squished against the seat back. His long skinny legs – like my mother’s- showed a mile of bright white sock before they disappeared into his pants leg.

My grandmother was dying, and we were racing across the country to see if we could make it in time to see her, while she was still “her.” My other grandmother had died three months previously. I missed her terribly and talked with her every night while I lay in bed. This other grandmother, the one who had just suffered a stroke, had always been more distant, in every way. She was a stranger who visited infrequently, made my mother send me to my room when I had disobeyed, and thought a disgusting menthol cough drop was a reasonable peace offering offering that I should leave me deeply grateful

Way below us was a solid floor of dazzling, puffy clouds, like a miles-deep bed that would catch us if we fell. The sinking sun shone on them like it does on a new winter snowfall, making tiny lights dance in front of your eyes from the blinding white. I believed those tiny white blue yellow bursts of light were angels. The same ones you could see in the very middle of the night if you stared very, very hard at the nothingness of the dark.

I spent a lot of time wondering if my grandmother would look like her older self as an angel, the way I had known her, or like her younger self. I wondered if she got to choose. I tried to picture her based on the one picture I had seen of her as a young woman, plain and clear-eyed and strong, her arm around her big sister.

I rested my forehead against the airplane window – wondering what in the world it was made from that could be strong enough to hold an entire airplane together – as the sun dropped below the cloud floor. The light changed to an in-between that was neither light nor dark. It was nothing. I felt perfectly suspended, floating with no effort, in an endless world between light and dark. I was eight years old, and I thought : Death. This is what death is like. Exactly and completely…nothing at all. The angels are all around. And you float.

winged

winged2

Bottom two photos: Winged Victory, also known as Nike

The Ocean of our Love

 

Early in the evening of August 26, 2014, my ex-husband Peter Bacon Hales died in a bike accident near his home in Stone Ridge, New York.  No words of my own could come as close to capturing the enormity of my family’s loss as those of our daughter Molly Hales.   Following is the eulogy she delivered at her father’s memorial service.

 

static.squarespace.com

When I was twelve or thirteen, my dad and I decided to make our own Christmas tree decorations. Somehow one of us got the idea that it would be nice to have a “natural” Christmas tree, decorated with pine cones and with strings of nuts and berries—that sort of thing. My dad bought bags of popcorn and mixed nuts still in their shells. But stringing them together turned out to be an unimaginably labor-intensive and frustrating task. The popcorn crumbled to pieces when we tried to put a needle through the kernels. And the nuts didn’t prove much easier to work with. If you’ve ever tried to just crack a walnut, you’ll realize the futility of attempting to poke tiny holes through those thick, tough shells. My dad ended up getting out one of his power tools, an electric drill—the kind you might use to drill through a solid wooden wall if you needed to hang a picture. And then he painstakingly drilled through each individual nut in that colossal bag, while I sat next to him on the couch and strung them together.

That was my dad. No task was too time-consuming, too monotonous, or just too “maddening” to be worth the effort, if it might bring a smile to the face of someone he loved. If it might bring a little more beauty to the world. Or if beauty proved elusive, then at least a shard of truth.

You see, my dad was an expert spinner of tall tales, willing to stretch the limits of believability in order to color a story as vividly as it seemed to live in his own memory. But for all that, he was a lover of truth as well. Not truth with a Capital T, not the Truth that Critical Theory dismantled, but the glimmers of truth that you recognize by the way they resonate inside of you, like a bell striking, its vibrations reaching all the way to your fingertips. I feel that now in my dad’s writing and in his photographs. They cut straight to the heart of the matter, showing you something that it feels, somehow, like you knew all along, but just couldn’t…quite…see. He certainly knew me as well as anyone ever has. But he also saw the best version of myself. I have tried to live up to the version of myself that I saw reflected in his love, and I know I will continue to do so, as we all will.

And that Christmas, with the homemade decorations? Well after all that drilling and threading, our string of nuts barely reached once around the Christmas tree. So my dad just hung it up vertically instead, weaving it back and forth along the front of the tree like a garland. And then he stepped back, admired the effect, and declared it a great success. As he looked at that bare Christmas tree with its one disheveled string of half-broken nuts, I could see that my dad’s face was lit with joy.

Of all the many things that I will miss about my father, this is the one that I will surely miss the most: his joy. His unbelievable capacity for joy. I have never met anyone who was so ready to be moved to tears by life’s small treasures. Who could feel such wonder at the things that the rest of us learn to see as mundane. The early evening sun reflected off of the trees behind the hayfield. The flash of a cardinal’s wings, red against the snow. The lip-smacking pleasure of a dirty martini. The feel of grass under his feet as he walked, barefoot, to the barn.

When I was 18 and struggling through a difficult period, my dad wrote to me. He said: I hope that in the midst of all of this, you are borne up by the ocean of love on which you float. And I was, even then. My dad had a knack for knowing what to say, especially when life seemed bleak. Especially when you weren’t quite sure if you had the strength to keep going, or if you even wanted to try.

So I will end with this wish for you all, from my dad.

I hope that you are swimming in the ocean of my father’s love, and that it buoys you up. Even now, even when it is his death that is dragging you down.

And dad, I hope that you are feeling the ocean of our love. I hope that you are floating on it.

-Molly Hales

“They Died at Home,” part 2, from “Pushing the River” #MondayBlogs

jbm

He shook at her toe a few more times, then went over and sat down upon his own side of the bed. It occurred to him that maybe if he got back under the covers and shut his eyes for a time, then opened them up again, it might all be different.

Instead he picked up the phone. “Bob,” he said. “Bob, I think Mary’s dead. I’m not sure, but I think that maybe she is,” which was an especially sad and strange thing to say considering that he was a doctor, and he knowed right down into his bones that she had breathed her last.

Five years later, he was a shadow of his former self, which ain’t saying much. He spent most of that five years setting in one chair, at a table in his dining room. From that chair, he sorted through his piles of mail, and leafed through his magazines, and sipped at his bowls of lukewarm broth, and watched whatever happened to be on the television. He drank a goodly amount, and he smoked so much that the walls of the house – which had been painted a cheery eggshell white under Mary’s watch – looked for all the world like the entire major league had been spitting tobacco juice at them for the five years since she passed. He ate nothing but canned soup. Chicken noodle, or cream of mushroom, and he drank his whiskey straight, in big tumbler glasses they had gotten as a wedding present with his initials etched in a diamond pattern. The callous on his thumb was substantial from running it across the letter “M,” over and over, the one initial they had in common.

His hands shook bad, his lungs and liver was both shot to hell, he could hardly feel the ground underneath his own feet cause he no longer had the sense of them being attached to his legs. But worst of all for him, his eyesight was near gone, so he couldn’t see to read his beloved newspaper no more. He drank his full pot of coffee and smoked a great many cigarettes each morning while squinting at it, holding it close to one eye first, and then the other; but the news running on the television was giving him all the information he got, really.

My lady was setting there at that table with him, reading him from the newspaper about how them 1,000 miners way off in Poland was barricaded in the a mine in the Silesian coal district, cause they was the last folks still resisting martial law over there. A couple of the boys had been killed, like usual with such goings on, and my Lady was just getting to the details when her daddy placed his cigarette carefully in the ashtray, got a real surprised look on his face, and slid right on off of his chair and onto the floor. He, too, had died at home.

 

photo of  John B. Monier by Barbara Monier

“They Died at Home,” excerpt from “Pushing the River”

maryb

Her own mama and daddy died at home. Her mama simply did not wake up one morning with no warning whatsoever. She gone to bed the night before same as every night of her twenty years in her big bed in the house where she had spent the better part of her life trying to make the very best of a bad situation, that bad situation being marrying my Lady’s father. She tended the flowers in the beds, and washed the drapes once a year like clockwork, and made sure the little ones was dressed and fed and minding their manners. She joined the PTA and the church guild and the neighborhood ladies’ group that met once a month for a light luncheon and cards. She woke up every morning of her twenty years in the house with a determination to face the new day with capital g Grace and to push whatever suffering somebody else in her postion might have felt under the rugs and between the shades of the blinds and to the dark and far corners.

One day my Lady’s daddy came up the stairs from his morning habit of coffee drinking and newspaper reading and thought to hisself: “Why that’s funny. It sounds like the god damn alarm clock is buzzing.”

My Lady’s mama was laying in the bed still and peaceful as could be with the alarm clock screaming like a banshee. Her daddy came on over to the bed and shook at her big toe as it poked up from under the covers. He called her name into the daytime blackness of the room, the bright July sunlight held back cept for the littlest peek here and there. He went over and pushed the peg of the infernal alarm clock, and stood there with his index finger still pushing on it, cause he had the inkling that when he took his finger off of that peg, he would have to figure out what to do next. And he had the further inkling that this could lead to a chain of events that may alter the entire remainder of his natural life.

 

“I Have a Favor to Ask,” chapter excerpt from “Pushing the River”

3634019326_be0e25be5a_z

“No, no, no, no no.   I cannot stand it one minute longer.”

“That is simply NOT what happened,” she added.

“Well, who lit a fire under you?”

“That would be your department.  I just think that you’re getting it all wrong.  It simply did NOT happen that way.”

“It’s a story!”

“You’re taking too many liberties!  You’re all the way down there, far away from so many of the very things that you’re telling about.”

“It’s MY story!  It’s my story, according to ME.  Course I’m making it up.  S-T-O-R-Y!”

“It seems to me that if you open the door on these, well, these very personal things, that you should have a responsibility to some degree of truth.”

“Oh, truth is it?  Now you’re flat-out playing with fire, talking about the truth!”

            “I suppose you think that’s hilarious.”

“My darling, I have been waiting one hundred years, one full century, listening, and learning, and waiting for my chance to say my piece.  It’s my turn!  Geez Louise, you’re trying to close the barn door after the horse has already left the stable.”

“Again.  Hilarious.”

“Lordy, lordy, what have I done.?  Why do I have to put up with this from the likes of you?”

“Accountability!  Responsibility!  Where is your sense of honor!?”

Honor!  Cripes almighty,  YOU’RE A DOOR!

“YOU’RE   A    BOILER!”

2289515154_bb0cd47958

I ain’t never used this word in all my born days…but…you’re a whore!  You’re a whore of a door!  A door whore!  You’ll let anybody in!!”

“Oh! Oh!  As if you are so very discriminating!  As if you are particular about whose air you warm up and whose you don’t!”

“I got no choice!”

“None of us has a choice.  Not any of us, my old friend.  We are all in the same boat, in the identical situation, in the like predicament, in the same fix, on a par, on even terms, on the same footing, alike, equal, together, cut from the same cloth, brothers and sisters.”

“Pretty speech.  Not sure if it means nothing.  But it was pretty.”

“In short, my equally ancient brother, we are dying.  We stand right at the threshold of death’s door.”

“It ain’t right to talk of such things.  No good can come of it.”

“Ah, easy for you to say, my friend.  But I have heard the whispers; and so, I am sure, have you.”

“What in tarnation are you nattering about now?

“You have the great good fortune to be too large, and too big of a – pardon my language – a pain in the rear end —  to remove.  Even when there is no longer a fire in your belly, you will remain.  The day will come when you will witness this family pack up their boxes, and you will watch the next one move in.  And the next after them. You will be eternal.”

“I don’t want to talk about this.”

“I suppose I cannot blame you for that.”

“You have not seen me lately.”

“Of course I ain’t.  Me being a boiler, in the basement here, like you said.”

“I know that you hear everything though.  I know that even running along the pipes, and echoing through the floor, you have heard the difference in me.”

“Well…”

“After all this time.  All this time.  To think that I could warp so badly after one hundred years.  It’s not my fault, you know.  Everything has shifted.  The whole house, I mean.  My frame.  The very floor underneath me.”

“I am ugly.  I have bubbled, warped, bent, caved, buckled and bowed.  I have bulged out in some places, and folded in on myself in others.  There was a day when I could not budge.  Frozen in place, unable to open even a crack.  That’s when she started calling people in.  I will be replaced.”

“For one hundred springs I have felt the first hint of winter’s end floating on a waft of breeze.  I have been scorched and plumped by the sultry air of one hundred summers.  The gentlest rains and dazzling, torrential storms have knocked against me.  I have witnessed the outside world glow a glittering golden color through one hundred falls, and I have held my breath for the first sign of an early snowflake drifting down to melt on my outer face.  And all the while that my outer face greeted each completely unique day, every shift in light and air, my inner face remained a constant, warmed by you.  Warmed by a family.”

2111333773_4af44a8d90_z

“ ‘Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?’  Do you remember that?”

“Course I do.  How could I forget the Little One practicing those lines over and over?

Our Town, was it?”

“That’s right – Our Town.”

“There is something I would like to ask of you.  A favor.”

”What might that be?”

“I would like to tell one part of the story.”

“That’s a awful lot to ask.  It’s MY STORY.”

“Just one part.  Before my time is up.  Before the day when I get carried away.  Replaced.  So I might believe that some part of me remains.”

“Well…”

“Please.”

“Well…”

“I will let you know when the time comes.  When we reach the part that I would like to tell.”

“Let me think on it.”

“Have you ever thought about what your name should be.  You know, if you had a real name, like the people do?”

“Can’t say as I have.  Why?  Have you?”

“Shirley.  I always thought my name should be Shirley.”

“Well, I’m guessing maybe I would be Merle.  Or Floyd.”

“I like Merle.  It suits you.”

“Do you know why I would pick Shirley?  Do you remember when the ones you call The Boy and the Little One were small and high-voiced and running around in footed pajamas?  And on very important occasions, their mama, the one you call My Lady, would make a special concoction for them to drink?  They called it a Shirley Temple.”

“I remember.”

“The children would take all the cushions off the sofas and chairs, and build forts and tunnels, and make up stories, and dress in costumes – their cheeks would flush with excitement…those were…wonderful days.”

“I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Shirley.”

“I must say that the pleasure is entirely mine, Merle.”

5322173023_ee32f1fee4_z

All photos of Evanston, IL from Flickr

“Pushing the River,” excerpt: New, Brief, Fun for Friday

10723397286_c2b7b4ea23_z

            Honor!  Cripes almighty,  YOU’RE A DOOR!

            “YOU’RE   A    BOILER!”

            —

            I ain’t never used this word in all my born days…but…you’re a whore!  You’re a whore of a door!  A door whore!  You’ll let anybody in!!”

            “Oh! Oh!  As if you are so very discriminating!  As if you are particular about whose air you warm up and whose you don’t!”

            “I got no choice!”

            “None of us has a choice.  Not any of us, my old friend.  We are all in the same boat, in the identical situation, in the like predicament, in the same fix, on a par, on even terms, on the same footing, alike, equal, together, cut from the same cloth, brothers and sisters.”

            “Pretty speech.  Not sure if it means nothing.  But it was pretty.”

            “In short, my equally ancient brother, we are dying.  We stand right at the threshold of death’s door.”

10731115795_0c8a5d4a9a_z

“Pushing the River,” new excerpt (continued)

My brother, Roy Mills Monier, would have been 60 years old on October 9.  He died outside of Quito, Ecuador on December 6, 2001.

8295921225_fb7cc32c1a_z

And I don’t just mean with them family members, and their kin and friends and pets that was constantly coming and going; and I don’t mean with all the things they gathered and put in different rooms that marked their lives neither.  I mean that it was full up in the only way that can make a house into a home.

            It was a good long spell that everything seemed to get bigger and bigger.  Not just them little ones, but life itself.

            But the tide, it surely did turn, and thence came the long stretch when everything started going the other way.  One by one, they started packing up and leaving; the Husband, then the Boy.  It was just the Little One left in the house with my Lady when she got the phone call that the very last of her kin had dropped down dead in some far off country.  She was standing right beside me, holding the phone in her hand, when I heared her gasp real loud, and her voice went all shaky.  With that phone call she had no more kinfolk, no more of the people who raised her up or stood along side her while she was doing her own growing, no more people to hold on to her stories.

            I think that might have been the moment, right then with that phone call, that my Lady began trying to push the river.

133232403_4b062b7b78_z

Any Tuesday

6990257300_6252974b9f_z

Accustomed to waking up between 6:30 and 7:00 am, I was in a profoundly deep slumber when my dog Scout whimpered quietly at my bedside around 6:00, letting me know that she could not wait any longer to go out.   I was also deep into a dream, a dream of such intense aching feeling that fully awake and caffeinated as I have been for two and a half hours now, a veil of sad wistfulness remains heavily between me and a rain-drenched, beautiful morning.

Last night, a friend told me that she feels the bottom has been hacked off the hour glass of her life, and that her remaining time is hemorrhaging out, giving her an ever-increasing sense of urgency that she must do everything in her power to ensure that those she most loves in the world will be safe, and loved, after she is gone.

Ah, if only this were possible.

I watched her sob as she recognized that we can love powerfully, ferociously even, but in no way is this a guarantee of anything at all, except that we have done our very best — lived, and loved our very best.

 And that must be enough.

5946912815_2c809ef515_z