Friday, December 28, 2012

Alive and Kicking

         He had informed me on-line he was not long for this world but when I saw him for the first time in thirty years I thought surely he had lied. The only evidence he'd spoken the truth was the hospital bed in the dining room.
            Within an hour, he allowed me to know him much more than I had before, when he was my professor. As he conversed, his hands decorated the air.   He littered the living room with witty tales, tossed sparkling anecdotes into my lap along with the names of top-notch colleges, world leaders, and movie stars. He spoke also of the things of war.
            You’re not who I thought you were, I told myself. I imagined you a mouse of a man, tottering in dotage, but here you are fascinating and alive, not a dry, curled leaf but a slim, straight tree with laden branches.
            When I finally stood to go, I offered him a gift of food even as I wondered if he could still eat.
            “It will be my supper,” he said, his hands warm on mine. “Thank you.”
            On my way out, I noticed the oxygen tanks lined up against the wall. I turned in the doorway. 
             “May I come again?”
            His smile and eyes burned bright. “Please do. It would be my good pleasure.”


Friday, December 21, 2012

*Do You See What I See?*

Every night was the same. Mary slumbered until some time between the second and third watch. She would wake then lie wide-eyed until dawn. It had been this way ever since the great and terrible day of the angel. After his visitation, Mary found it difficult to close her eyes, to even blink. Every time she did, she watched not her life, but her son's death, pass before her vision.
            How many times each night did she question her divine appointment? She would move her lips but make no sound.
            "Oh, Sovereign Lord, why? Why did you choose me? Holy Father, I do not think I shall be able to bear it. Please, will you not take this lot from me?”
            Almost always, she felt her hair stir as a slight breeze sighed through the room where she lay. One night she thought she heard the wind speak: "I am.” She had turned onto her stomach, to be face down.
            "Forgive me, my Lord. Your will is perfect, and good. Let it be done to me according to what you have said."
            "You are a prophet, Mary," her cousin Elizabeth had said, "a prophetess. But do not tell the men. They would laugh at you, or yell. Scorn your youth, and your gender."
            "A prophet? I think not," Mary said. "Did not Joel, the son of Pethuel, write of our people having visions? I do not speak for the Lord. He merely shows me things."
            This was after Elizabeth had made a fuss over Mary's arrival. She had washed Mary’s feet herself instead of summoning a servant for the task. All the while she murmured things like, "How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?"
            Mary shook her head. "Elizabeth, stop," she said. "I am just a girl, your cousin, the one you see every year at Passover in Jerusalem. Now tell me, what it is like to feel your son move inside you?"
            Elizabeth took Mary's hands and placed them on either side of the tautness beneath her breasts. She glanced down, smiled.
            "Can you believe I possess a bust like this? At my age? Zechariah—"
            Elizabeth stopped when she saw Mary blush, bowed her head, spoke to her belly.
            "Son? Is my cousin, Mary, a prophetess?"
            Mary watched her right hand move. "He kicked me!"
            She knelt and rested her cheek on Elizabeth's swell. "Baby boy, is the child I carry the Son of the Most High God?"
            Mary sat back on her heels and rubbed her face. "That hurt!”
            She gulped and her eyes filled with tears. Elizabeth took her hands and pulled her to standing. She held Mary close and patted her back. Mary thought she could feel faint and gentle movements from inside Elizabeth's belly, as if the baby wanted to communicate to her with his tiny hands.
            "Shalom, cousin. Shalom," Elizabeth said. "Peace be with you. Remember what the angel said? You are highly favored among women. Does that not please you?"
            Mary pulled away, used her sleeve to dry her face.
            "It does, cousin, indeed it does. I am most grateful that my thoughts and deeds please our Lord, but—”
            Elizabeth shook her head. "But what? What could possibly dampen your joy?"
            Mary wrung her hands. "The angel—  He said God would give my son the throne of David."
            Elizabeth drew her breath in. "But that is good. David was a great man."
            Mary walked to the window and peered out. "King David was a man of war.”
            She sighed and glanced back over her shoulder. "Also, King David did not have the Romans to contend with. And . . ."
            Elizabeth crossed the room and stood behind Mary. She removed Mary's head covering and laid it over her arm, released the younger woman’s hair from its constraints and combed it with her fingers. She whispered into the long, dark waves.
            "And what?"
            Mary's inhale sounded frayed to Elizabeth. "And ever since the angel came, I see things, when I close my eyes."
            Elizabeth rested her hands on Mary's shoulders.
            "You see things. It is as I said. You have the gift."
            Mary spun to face Elizabeth, her face contorted. "No gift this, Elizabeth. I see death, suffering."
            Elizabeth gripped her throat. "For our people? God's chosen remnant?"
            Mary lowered her head. Tears fell from her chin to her garment.
            "No," she said. "Of my son, my baby boy, but grown. And no one, no not one, acts on his behalf."
            Elizabeth winced. "How do you bear it, dear one?"
            Mary turned back to the window and squinted across the distance.
            "Promises," she said. "The promises of our Lord: 'Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.'  That comforts, sometimes."
            Behind her, Elizabeth shook her head. "You are so young, and yet, a stronger woman than I.”
            The older woman slipped between Mary and the window. She gathered the young woman's hands in her own, arranged them on her girth again.
            "Tell me what you see."
            Mary shrank back, shook her head. Elizabeth nodded slowly, her eyes narrow. Mary closed hers, saw, shuddered. She opened her eyes wide, to stop the vision.
            Elizabeth's voice was low, almost a growl. "Tell me."
            "No.” The word was a gasp, a plea.
            Elizabeth cupped Mary's chin, lifted it so their eyes met. "I want to know."
            "You do not."
            "I need to, Mary."
            Mary shook her head. "You know not what you ask, cousin."
            "Tell me," Elizabeth said, "so I know how to pray."
            "You cannot pray away his destiny."
            Elizabeth tilted her head. "Can I not?"
            Mary's mouth fell open. Her eyes widened. "No, you cannot. Pray for his strength, and yours, and Zechariah's."
            Elizabeth's eyes glittered with tears. She ran two fingers down the side of Mary's face.
            "I see now," she said, "why He chose you. Now tell me."
            Mary squeezed her eyes shut. Sobs wracked her small frame but she spoke what she saw.
            "I see a king. And a young woman. She is very beautiful, lovely in form. She dances for him. She whispers in his ear. He smiles and then suddenly soldiers— The king sent them, for your son.” Mary twitched as her flesh crawled. She swallowed. "For his . . . head."
            Mary opened her eyes when she heard Elizabeth moan. There she was, on the floor, in a crumple. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Oh, Christmas Tree

I’m getting ready to say goodbye, preparing to have regrets. One sentence in a five-minute discussion with a stranger and I already know the outcome.
            “My boss’ll pay to have that giant pine tree taken down.”
            Later that afternoon I walked through the front door, down the steps, and out into the street. I faced the house, tried to hold my hand so that I blocked the fifty foot evergreen on the right side of our home. Failed. I lifted my other hand and partially covered its twin on the left. I’m pretty sure if one goes, the other will follow.
            “The one on the right could be the presidential Christmas tree,” I murmur to no one. “And they could use the other one at the Rockefeller Center in New York City.”
            The men will assure me it’s the right thing to do.
            “Our roof,” my husband will surely say.
            “My rental,” the landlord will add.
            I’ll think a thought but not say it: The sky-touching trees make our house seem magical, like a castle. Do men these days still dream of castles?
            I return to the kitchen. Make a cappuccino and sip it at the table, channel Scarlett O’Hara.       
            “Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll think tree thoughts.”
            Actually, can we please delay the tree talk for a few days? So I can celebrate a little while longer the fact that the nocturnal wraith that lived next door for five years, or was it four, is now gone? I picture the plum-hued smudges beneath her eyes. Recall how they looked like an Ash Wednesday priest missed her forehead, twice.
            I wonder if the lives of her dogs will improve—Doberman, Pit Bull, Doberman, sweet boys all. For the last few months I’ve only spied each of them out in the yard once a week, if that. I imagine their nearly diaphanous pet mom in her dingy camisole and rumpled gym shorts with rolled-down waistband, wearing striped rainboots. By now she must be knee-deep in dog doo. I pity the extreme-makeover-home-edition folks that will soon arrive, consider going next door with my Bath and Body Works three-wick “Winter” candle and some clothespins.
            I ponder what will become of Pet Mom. “I’m going to kill you!” Those words were hurled at her on our street last month. Made us all shudder. Someone called the cops but without probable cause all they could do was knock on the front and back doors. No one answered.
            Earlier this week, I’d peeked out from behind a drape. Watched the U-Haul move slowly down the street, her black sedan with New York plates creeping after. At first I grinned and clapped. Then I stopped myself. Exhaled and sagged. I stretched my hand out till my fingers pressed against the cold window.
            “I should’ve told you shalom,” I whispered. “It means hi, bye, peace be with you, covenant relationship with God.” I gripped my throat. “’cause I think you’re gonna need it, sweetheart, wherever you go.”
            I darted out onto the porch and down to the street, thought maybe . . . But the truck and car had already disappeared around the bend. I spoke anyway, to no one.
            “I really should’ve told you that in person. I’m sorry, that I didn’t.”

Friday, December 7, 2012

*Forever Changed*

On the steering wheel, my husband’s knuckles shown white. I leaned forward to watch the pink dawn illuminate the Cincinnati skyline.
            He glanced over. “May I speed?”
            I winced and nodded. “I reckon this is the only time you can.”
            He snickered as he ran a red light. I stared out the window and murmured. He kept his hands on the steering wheel and his eyes on the road, but leaned his body toward me.
            “What’d you say?”
            I spoke louder. “Nothing’s ever gonna be the same, is it?”
            My husband shook his head as he skidded to a stop in front of the emergency room entrance at Christ Hospital.
            “Nope,” he said. “Today everything changes.”
The beautiful, willowy brunette nurse perched beside me on the hospital bed. She picked up my hand and flipped it over, traced the creases of my palm with a maroon fingernail as she talked.
            “Did no one give you an enema?”
            My eyes bugged out. “No, ma’am,” I said. Kinda glad about that, I thought.
            She huffed. “I swear. So many nurses think it’s old-fashioned, but I don’t want my ladies pushing out poop with their babies. It’s not sanitary.”
            I heard a gagging noise. I peeked in my husband’s direction. He stared at a spot on the ceiling and cleared his throat.
When Dr. Lum arrived, I immediately noticed the peace signs on his socks. He'd rolled up his scrub pants so they'd show. He patted my cheek before he sat down at the foot of the bed.
            “Sorry I’m late. Had to finish recording a Pink Floyd concert.”
            He stood suddenly and struck an air guitar pose.
            “We don’t need no ed-u-ca-tion.”
            He grinned as he tugged on latex gloves.  “You feeling okay, missy?
            I felt fine. I’d had my epidural. Tall, pretty nurse made sure of that as soon as I hit four centimeters dilated. I hadn’t checked out the needle, but my husband did. When his eyes bulged, I gulped and leaned over the bedside table, did snifftas like our Lamaze teacher had taught us. Sniff in with the nose, ta out through the mouth.
            “Husbands,” the instructor had said, “you can use this technique too. Like when you’re in line at the grocery store and you have to go to the bathroom—number two.”
            I liked my epidural. A lot. Too much really. Because of it I never had the urge to push.
            Dr. Lum waved stainless steel tongs like a conductor’s baton. “These are forceps,” he said. “If need be, we can use these to yank baby out.”
            I squeaked. “Fine!  I’ll push.”
            I couldn’t feel pain but I could feel pressure, and its absence. I was fully aware when the baby slicky slid out of me.
            “It’s a . . . . girl!” Dr. Lum said. “Nancy’ll take her over and shine her up, bring her back in a jif.”
            I reached down to touch my belly—empty now—after almost a year. I pressed my fingers in as far as they'd go. My flesh felt like a pouch of Cool-Whip, all wooshy and gooshy.
            “I need you to bear down one more time,” Dr. Lum said, “to deliver the placenta.”
            I wrinkled my nose. “Ew!”
            I pushed half-heartedly. Surely the exodus of an empty membrane sack didn’t require the effort a seven pound baby did.
            The blob Dr. Lum held up resembled a large man ’o war jellyfish. “What’s your baby’s name?”
            “Josephine Joy,” my husband said.
            Dr. Lum pounced the placenta from side to side—first left, then right.
            “This is the house that Josy built, Josy built, Josy built. This is the house that Josy built—” He paused to look at his watch, “on December 7, 1991 at 12:34 p.m. on a Saturday.”
            I tilted my head and squinted. Thought him a bit odd but didn’t say so out loud.
            He peered at the giant Jell-O jiggler. “If we were in—can’t remember which country—we’d cook this puppy and eat it for dinner.”
            My stomach lurched. I cupped my hand in front of my mouth, just in case. 
The lovely labor and delivery nurse finally brought us our baby girl. Her face, the baby’s, was alarmingly scarlet. Dark, silky hair wisped out from under her white-with-a-pink-pom-pom beanie cap. The nurse cooed as she tucked the warm flannel package into my arms.
            “Isn’t she gorgeous?”
            I gazed down at her. How long had it been since I’d held a baby? Was it my niece? Six years ago? I stroked my daughter’s velvety cheek with my pinky. 
            “She kinda looks like a Conehead,” I told my husband. “You know, like on Saturday Night Live?”
            Nancy the nurse snapped her fingers. I glanced over at her. "What?"
            She came close and gripped my face, rotated it toward the baby's. Josy seemed even redder than before and her chin was like an ocean wave, coming at me then retreating, over and over.
            I turned to Nancy. “What do I do? What’s she want?”
            Nancy cocked her head. “You really don’t know? Did you never babysit?”
            I shook my head. “No,” I said. “I had a paper route.”
            She grimaced. “Oh, my.”
            Making tsk, tsk noises, Nancy placed one hand on my shoulder, the other under the baby bundle.
            “How do I say this, honey? Nothing’s ever going to be the same for you, ever again.”

(Happy 21st birthday, Beauty!)


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