The words fell on us like apple blossoms in spring or snow in winter. Seasonal and recurrent came the story: my grandmother died in 1910 when she was 17. Jesus, standing like need on the other side of the river, waved a flowing hand, sending her back. She didn’t die for good until 1970 when she was 77 years old.
We chanted a litany of deaths: Auntie O.T., who was impaled on the goring horns of an angry bull; my father, who barely escaped when he autopsied a cadaver with spinal meningitis; Jesus, who was sinewy and stretched on the crucifix with blood seeping by the thorns on his head; my aunt, who might have escaped breast cancer if she hadn’t put off the doctor for work all summer; and the babies in the woods. Grandma’s bedtime song whirled above our faces in the dark: two babies in the woods, two babies in the woods, those poor little babies, they lay down and died. The prayer we whispered at night: and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Death was a tea we steeped and drank from daily.
I drank my own personal cup when I had just turned forty and the urgent care doctor casually dropped the news that I might have terminal cancer. Teaching a resident in the emergency room, the doctor examined my breast. "In cases like this you can never rule out inflammatory ductile carcinoma," he said clinically.
“Will you do a biopsy?” I asked. A rare, and in 1988, an always fatal form of breast cancer, inflammatory ductile carcinoma mimics breast infection in its early stages.
“We can’t do that because there isn’t a lump to take out. We’ll just give you antibiotics, and if it goes away, we will know it was an infection.”
I took my antibiotics, the doctor pronounced the infection healed, but my pain stayed. The word cancer had caught in my synaptic circling. The word cancer traveled in my blood stream, creating short jabs of pain in my breast, and then jerks in my limbs, palsies in my hands, and even the cliched hair standing on end.
The leaves on the walnut tree had already turned a brittle yellow when my death story threatened. What better word to convey clinical depression? Certainly the word “clinical” doesn’t describe it. “Clinical” sounds clean, well-defined, but depression is chaotic, crazy. It’s a celluloid trap, a burr swept up in a raging wind. It’s shattered glass, reality re-arranged, deranged. It is a death story.
"It still hurts," I told my husband.
"But it’s not cancer," Bob reassured me.
I began to monitor my body constantly for danger signals, such as the spontaneous discharge that can be a sign of breast cancer. I undressed for a shower, afraid to look at my own breast. When my eyes grazed my nipple and I thought I saw a discharge caked on the brownish skin, my breath wouldn’t come. The water pelted the bathtub beside me, and I kept staring, afraid to touch the nipple, paralyzed.
After six weeks, the repeated jolts of adrenaline had changed my life. As I tucked my daughter into bed, I felt myself floating. I ran my fingers the way I always had through her hair, long, brown, thick. I traced her hair down to the middle of her back, and my fingertip came to rest in a chicken pox scar by her spine. I always feel sad when I touch that scar. I should have been able to keep the curve below her shoulder perfect.
She didn't care about the scar. "Marie told me she doesn't like me. That was mean, mom." Her voice came to me through a tunnel. The light from the hall outlined her face, the remarkable rise of her cheek, the dip in her chin. She was right there in front of me. But when I bent to kiss her forehead, my lips brushed a mirage. I pressed my palm to her skin. She drifted away from me.
Weeks went by like a record played too slowly, stretched into warbled syllables, and every day I walked by the lake. I had always loved the willows, leaning big and bulky over the water so any kid could climb them to meet Huck Finn in the hidden forts of the branches. The willows became Van Goghs smeared thickly against the sky. The people I met at the lake became a film I was watching. I couldn't cross the synthetic barrier. Still, they talked to me as if nothing had happened. They could not see that I had been sealed under glass, like a kaleidoscope, little chunks of me constantly rearranging. Sharp, angular, isolated pieces, turned and twisting.
Mornings were tormented. Consciousness exploded on me at 5 a.m. I awoke to find my body lying stiffly on the mattress. Terror turned me into an electric wire. My hands had been shaking for weeks. When I wrote a check, the signature was palsied. I had acquired my dad's "bad nerves"—something I'd scorned for years.
I forced myself to go downstairs. Cold in the house. Gray day.
My son Charlie whined, "Emily made me spill my Cheerios." I hunched my shoulders and turned away. Emily stood on her chair and sang. "Silent Night, Holy night..." loudly. Her hair was matted, her legs and feet bare.
Alexis yelled, "Emily, stop it! I can't read."
"Stop it, Emily," I echoed, but my voice floated away. Bob came downstairs wearing his gray suit, briefcase in hand. He looked good. I wished he would stay home. He opened the door to our water spaniel, who bounded through the kitchen, gritty snow tufted on her curls.
Where did the dog come from? Did I let her out in the backyard? I had no memory of putting her out. I squeezed Bob's arm, demanded: "I didn't let the dog out. Did you?"
"No, you must have. Who cares?"
"I don't remember it." White light flashed. I couldn't make sense out of it. I wrapped my other hand around Bob's arm. "What's wrong with me," I begged.
I squeezed my hands into clumps. "I can't do this," I said. Bob took my hands in his and said, "Yes, you can." Every morning for weeks he had cupped my shaking hands in his. He had held me with his words, sentence after sentence, reasoning with me until I could make it through the day.
And some days he slammed his words down flat between us, a deck of cards I had to deal. "You are so afraid of death that you can't live life. It's like you are already dead." I hated him for saying that. If I had not been so afraid, I would have screamed at him for losing his patience, for being so insensitive. Only later did I come to understand that he was afraid, too, of this strangeness in me, of the haunted look in my eyes, of the way I shut myself in the bedroom at odd times of the day.
I saw my therapist, I took my antidepressants, but it wasn’t enough. I made a frenzied search for answers, for clues that would let me re-enter the world of the living. Knowledge, whispered my brain. Understand it so you can control it. I investigated my past.
The revival services. Visiting preachers used to end their services with an altar call—the invitation to walk forward and be born again. They gave us a good dose of Armageddon to spur us on. Armageddon was basic to our knowledge of life, as basic as the fact that the lake behind Swenson’s was bottomless and the children in China were starving. Near the end of the sermon the preacher would raise his face skyward, his voice imploring, “And the Lord Jesus will appear in a brilliant light to gather his children to him.” Then he’d move to the side of the pulpit, narrow his eyes, and lower his voice, make it intimate. “A man will be sleeping with his wife, and suddenly she will be gone. Cars will be crashing in the ditches because their drivers have been snatched to heaven.”
Just as I am without one plea would flow slowly through the air, each hushed syllable drawn long, heavy with waiting. The music would flow up a small embankment on the word am, and without would flow gently back to wait again with a long plea. Its gentle, rocking motion would cradle us, pull us together into one hot body. “Is there darkness in your heart? Just come forward today and take Jesus into your heart.” I tried. I wanted to be part of the body even when the music stopped. But when the music was over and I was home in the darkness of my room, I no longer felt part of the collective body of Christ. Instead I would dream of our 1953 Ford crashing into the ditch with dad at the wheel, mom in the front seat, and when I looked around, I was the only one left in the car. The darkness was heavy with silence. So I tried again. I took Jesus into my heart many times because, like an inoculation against whooping cough, I was never absolutely sure it had taken.
All my life I had looked for answers. I had searched in classes, in books, in relationships. Now I unraveled my past relentlessly. I wheeled frantically back, desperate to know why couldn't I stop being afraid.
Eight years old. The last night of Bible Camp. A canoe held a burning cross in the setting sun. Birch leaves splintered the wind. The preacher intoned, "When you crawl into your bunk tonight, your bag packed to meet your mamma and daddy in the morning, what if Jesus comes before the dawn?" I saw mommy and daddy slip away from me through the thin string of pink left on the horizon.
Ten years old. A January evening. Adults debated heaven and hell over the rook cards at our kitchen's Formica table. Once you were born again, were you bound for heaven? Or, if you fell away from God, could you still end up in hell? Was salvation irrevocable, or was it not? I crawled under the table, lay my head on my arms among all the adult legs, feet, clattering voices, and fell asleep hearing my uncle saying, "I don't care if Johnny has been born again. The way that Indian drinks and horses around, he ain’t gonna be in heaven.”
Eleven years old. August. Shafts of light: blue, green, pink, lavender. The aurora borealis undulated in the night sky, and the lights flowed down toward us on the spines of night’s big umbrella. "It must be the second coming." My mother's voice choked with excitement. The shafts of lights were trees slamming in a wind storm, about to crush me.
Twelve years old. Bedtime. The twilight painted my walls golden and lonely. What if Jesus came while I slept and took mom and dad but not me? I could only go along if Jesus lived in my heart. To my knees. “Jesus please come into my heart.” I bounced back and forth between bed and floor beseeching, chanting, “Jesus please come into my heart,” fear forming marrow in my bones.
I worried. I worried about Jesus coming again and I worried about the nuclear bomb. I worried about my eyes being too close together and my hair too brown, about Sweeny's flatbed truck veering across the road because he couldn't see too well, about the bottomless lake behind Old Man Swenson’s house sucking us down. And I worried about my dad dying.
My Dad steeped the tea of death daily. Sitting in his overstuffed chair watching television, he would take his pulse periodically through the evening, worried that his heart would give out. I didn’t understand then that it was not disease, but battle fatigue, that shadowed his heart. He was barely out of adolescence when he bullied a 70-pound pack through pounding surf onto Normandy Beach while bullets picked off the men around him. As a medic, he put 18 stitches into his own foot. Only two men in his company survived.
In my family, we heard the echoes of those guns, felt the splatter of the shots. Many nights when dad got up to stoke the fire, he walked into our bedrooms, my brothers', my sisters', mine, to make sure we were not dying of spinal meningitis or some other awful disease. Other tormented nights he walked the lakes and swamps. Bad nerves, he called it.
At forty, he came home from the doctor and announced that he had hardening of the arteries. The shock pulsed through my chest. What was happening to my poor father? I was a sponge soaking up his destiny. He reassured us, "No no, it doesn't mean I'll die soon. It could take twenty years."
I needed this man, I needed his answers. How would I live without him?
After my shattering visit to the doctor, I called dad for weeks, asking questions. "Why am I dizzy? What causes nausea? Could it be a brain tumor?" We had been reminded frequently as children that dad was an almost-doctor; trained as a medic in the war, he was the community resource for ear aches, sore throats, swollen wrists, or worse. "Oh, I've been getting such awful headaches," complained an uncle sitting in the flowered gold chair in our living room. "Are you dizzy when you walk?" asked dad. "No, No. Can't say I'm dizzy really," said my uncle. "Then you don't have a brain tumor." I was so proud of the way my dad’s words leaped into the room. They could depend on him to know.
Then he and mom were driving to the city to see me, and when he walked in the house, he grinned. "I thought you were going to look pale and sick." He circled his hand around the back of my neck. It's a gesture that always brings tears to my eyes, I'm so grateful that he cares about me. He felt my stomach, looked in my eyes, told me there was nothing wrong. I let myself relax into his confidence like a soft cushion.
"It's an awful feeling, isn't it?" He narrowed his eyes as he faced me on the couch. "Nobody knows what it's like to live with bad nerves. Sometimes I get so dizzy that...." He was talking faster, his voice excited. "What did the doctor say about your nerves? You know he told me..."
Suddenly I was looking into a mirror. I saw that my dad was delighted. I was sure he did not want me to suffer, but he wanted company. I wept inside with longing to stay there with him.
"Nothing," I said. "The doctor didn't say anything about my nerves."
In the end I had to learn to do as the poet Rilke advised, to let my heart have questions without answers, to love the questions themselves, for the answers I had did not help. Nor did those of my father, or of my doctor or of my husband. All the understanding I could garner of psychological processes or medical processes did not take away the fact that I was going to die someday, and the question still remained: what is it about our lives that matters?
"What do you want to live for?" asked a friend.
"Well, my children, of course."
"And what else? What for yourself?" she asked.
"I'd like to travel," I said.
Twenty years earlier, on a Tuesday morning in late August, Bob and I had left to live for a year in Italy. We waved to my family, my mom and dad and four brothers and sisters sitting around the breakfast table, and climbed into a clunky Buick to catch a flight in New York. My brown canvas backpack and Bob’s orange pack held everything we would wear for the next year.
An entire summer of dry weather had left the dirt road full of ruthless washboards, and we churned dust as we made for the highway. When we turned east onto the tarred road, I began to cry, afraid of going so far away from home. I sunk into the bench seat of the Buick and cried all the way to Minneapolis. I cried as we passed the open farmland to the St. Croix River, and I cried across the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin. I cried all the way to Chicago.
Slowly, as we proceeded through our layover in Iceland, landed in London’s Gatwick Airport, and moved into a temporary flat in Bologna, the fear ebbed away. The old Italian city captured me. The pattern of the cobblestone streets, how they sprouted flowers or fountains stitched together by cobblers’ hands hundreds of years ago; the medieval skyways that arched the narrow spaces between ancient buildings, sultry in the setting sun; the dented brass in the flea market and robust provolone waiting to be cupped in my hands; the old crones lined up like blackbirds on a park bench; the young men strutting their high fashion forms; Bologna captured me.
We ate in cafes almost every evening, tasting tortellini and Chianti, insalata and zuppa, cafe corretto con amaretto. We climbed the due torre, the two towers tilting toward each other like playing children. We shouted Bandiera Rosa to the light of torches in Piazza Maggiore with the clamoring crowd in that proud Communist city. I took Italian lessons, and was mesmerized by the mosaics in the temple at Rimini. We explored the Boboli gardens of Florence and I swooned before Michelangelo’s David. We picked oranges and lemons from the trees in our campgrounds south of Capri. We had our pictures taken with the pigeons in Venice and took too much parmigiano for our pasta when we visited Federico’s mother. I ceased seeing Italy as a country of aggressive men to be avoided, and walked at home with the people.
It wasn’t Bologna alone, or even Italy alone, that captured me. It was a sense of possibility, a lust for everything out there, and I went in search of it. We rode camels through the Egyptian desert at Christmas and faced wild dogs in Greece over the Easter holidays. We visited Turkey in March, and stood in the middle of Istanbul looking out over the Bosporus Sea. It was a shimmering, muted watercolor. The setting sun turned the pale blue sea into waves of inlaid gold. On either side of the bridge rose buildings with Turkish turbans, reflecting the same shimmering gold, pale tans, salmons. A man crossed the bridge, his back bent under a tall load of mattresses. A woman balanced a Singer sewing machine on her head. An old truck rattled by with fly-spattered cattle carcasses. The world was laden, swollen with possibility.
Now, even as I said the words, “I’d like to travel,” it seemed a frothy pleasure, like chocolate and frosting, not what nourishes. Somehow I had come this far in my life and nothing nourished me. Despair had settled in me as a profound, bone-heavy boredom.
I don’t know how quietness, or possibility, came to me again. I can only tell you this story. I began sitting by a small bay window in my bedroom every morning. The birds congregated in the spruce branches and chattered to each other, and to me. The cherry wood table beside the bed had a soft shine in the morning. The rose walls were the color of dawn, and lace curtains filtered sunlight into muted patterns on my skin. I sat cross legged on the white rug, books and tablets piled beside me, and pleaded without words, an unformed cry of terror.
It was in this place, this cocoon of white and rose and birdsong, that my broken pieces stopped spinning. It happened over a period of some weeks. I don’t know who or what comforted me. God, Mother, Goddess, Life Force, Universe? I don’t know the name.
This is what went through my mind: My college roommate's daughter died in a car accident when she was sixteen. I remembered my roommate looking like an apparition, her face ethereal as the prairie sky. Her dress hung loosely on her gaunt frame, touching her only lightly and sporadically, as if the day’s light breeze blew through her. After the funeral she sat in a lawn chair by her backyard irises. I remembered how gaudy and disrespectful the irises seemed. She ran a flat hand down her chest and stomach. "All of this is dead," she said. The next day she spoke to me of her daughter. "I was lying in bed last night, and I heard her. She said to me twice, `I'm all right mom. I'm all right.'"
A friend lay critically ill in the hospital, on a respirator in Intensive Care. Staring at the wall opposite his bed, he suddenly saw his deceased father and sister standing at the foot of his bed. His father said, “If you cross over, we will meet you.” This happened twice. He insists the visions of his father’s blue shirt, the sleeves carefully rolled up, of his sister in her long white nightgown, were qualitatively and clearly different than hallucinations of swirling colors and melting faces that he experienced on pain medications.
I thought of Grandma’s death story a bit differently now. She had had pneumonia. The doctor came as quickly as he could, bouncing over dirt roads in a horse-drawn buggy. He could find no heartbeat for several minutes. During that time, grandma arrived at a river, she said, and Jesus stood on the other side. The wind was rustling his long brown hair, and he smiled at her. He waved his hand at her, back and forth with gentle motions, waved her back to earth.
I sat in the circle of sunshine and it seemed as if my grandmother and my two friends had come to sit beside me on the white rug. They were quiet, keeping me company through my thoughts. The vastness of the human hunger for something that goes beyond our bodies and our deaths suggests its truth, I thought. I hadn’t yet read any of the mystics, with their visions of a force that contains us and connects us. I hadn’t yet read any of the quantum physicists, or the physicians, who speak of these mysteries, of evidence that hints at a universe compatible with that described by the mystics, of evidence that suggests a consciousness that supersedes the human body. But I listened to that much-touted, maligned and mysterious voice that comes from inside: Do not collapse inside yourself, it said, for it is being part of something more that keeps us sane.
I decided faith could be an act of will. My fondest hope is that someone waits on the other side of the river, or keeps company with us as we cross back and forth. But I knew hope and faith would have to be enough. Hope and faith, and roses and birdsong.
It is October again, and I am leaning against the open garage door. My husband is polishing the 1970 Triumph convertible he has had painted plum red. It's one of the ways he doesn't worry about dying.
The black walnut's leaves are staying green late this fall. The night is warm and misting. "I want to live so intensely and so intimately with the people I love, that when I die, it'll hurt like hell," I say to him.
He stops polishing and comes to stand next to me in the doorway.
The Virginia creeper on our fence combines with the lilac bush and the weeds to hold us in a lush canopy. It reminds me of the night we were married in Washington, our friends (two of them dead now) milling around the backyard pool, high on the sweet summer air, the magnolia spreading its arms over the party, its fat moist leaves like benevolent hands blessing us.