Charity

Today, a friend told me that her sister’s name was Charity. I laughed a bit and said, “oh! She is a fellow virtue!” My friend agreed, and I started telling her a story from where I grew up, in Salisbury Cove, about the graveyard.

The graveyard sits at the top of the hill, and we “discovered” it as small children, crouching and crawling up the hillside that felt as big as a mountain in those days. At the top of the hill was a large pile of old timbers which we had to scramble over and were always afraid of falling between. Beyond the gravel drive was the small glen in which the graveyard lies.

All the old residents of Salisbury Cove are buried there, from the 1700s to two present-day people. My friend’s mention of her sister reminded me of Charity, one of the old citizens of the Cove, as well as Thankful and Eben, her husband. There are small gravestones and large ones. There are tiny ones for the babes that passed before they were even named. There are gravestones for men who fought in the Civil War, many miles away from this island in Maine.

The graveyard is always quiet, and the light is always dappled. If you go there at night, the quiet is amplified, somehow, as if the only sounds reverberate between the lichens on the stones, muffling them into a soft whisper that, I think, is mostly the movement of the needles of fir trees.

I have spent so much time there, tracing the names with my fingers, clandestinely smoking and thinking about my friends there buried, some for over two-hundred years! Someone comes and cleans the site, mows it, keeps it maintained and beautiful, although it always seems untouched and trapped in time.

It wasn’t until we were in college that all four of us realized that each of us had heard the people talking at the top of the hill. Each of us thought we were mad, or tired, or making something up, until all four were talking one evening about how, when you walk at the base of the hill at night, you can hear their whispers on the wind, rushing down the hill into your ears. You never hear what they are saying, just that they are saying it. Who is it to say that those that speak are they who are buried: perhaps it is their friends, visiting. Either way, it is a strange comfort to feel so many people around you, knowing that they walked where you are walking now. My favorite epitaph that I have ever found lies in the graveyard, and goes like this:

Behold, you strangers passing by

As you are now, so once was I

As I am now, so you may be

Prepare for death and follow me.

Taking Care of a Dying Person

I remember when I first met MawMaw, she told me to keep Cody on the straight and narrow. To be honest, she kind of scared me: this tiny, old person with a perm was clearly no woman to challenge. Over the years, though, I learned that tough exterior covered an extremely sweet person who felt herself to be much worse than ever could be a reality. She has given me and Cody so much, and so, when the time was right, we moved her in to our tiny, old house, and here she remains, in the slow and strange process of leaving the planet.

Last week was hard; it started with conversations with her dead sister Tootsie about Steve (her also dead husband) going out to the chicken coop in Bossier City only to discover a snake, would you imagine? We advanced to an admission of being afraid and a night of nightmares and everyone being awake trying to coax MawMaw back to our reality from one of her own. She sleeps with a little boy but doesn’t know who he is because she has never seen him. But, the last two days have been clear and almost normal. Her “symptoms” if you can call them that follow the pattern written out in the hospice folder. Perhaps we are within days, or weeks, perhaps not. No one seems to know anything specific about this mystery we call dying.

Taking care of a dying woman who cannot walk and who is bedridden while teaching 8th graders and trying to complete my first semester of grad school is very hard, and everything is suffering. I try to not take it all so personally: I feel defeated and grumpy all the time. I feel overwhelmed and sad and worried and anxious; I have a short temper with my students. I hope that will change, for their sake and mine. It is not their fault, after all, that they are teenagers.

She tells me funny stories sometimes, and sometimes I do nice things like give her a facial with lovely oils to soothe her “onion-skin” as her nurse calls it; paper-thin, almost translucent, and apt to dry out and tear if we aren’t careful. She still has her sense of humor and she winks at me when she is being wicked. I appreciate that very much. When she gets upset I ask her to tell me things about her children when they were little and about Bill (her husband) and when they got married, and how he built their house for $6000. Many times now, she doesn’t remember the details.

I have been watching her sleep and she reminds me of a puppy right now: moving, twitching, frowning and smiling as she remembers…something. I feel she is reckoning with her life at the moment, when both awake and asleep. She said the other day she wished she had been a better mother.

This process is slow, and it is also fast. Sometimes it feels like longer than 4 months, and then I realize how short 4 months actually is. So much has changed for us; our marriage is better for this experience as we actually have learned both to communicate and to take care of/appreciate the other one. We say “thank you” more and give each other breaks when things are hard: walk away even, or just kiss one another or hold each other’s hand rather than trying to prove something. These are good things.

As I type this, the north wind is blowing around the house, as it likes to do on some winter nights. I wonder how much longer she is with us, and if the wind will take her away one evening. I know the wind is a woman, and she a harbinger of change, especially in winter. We all talked about death the other day; we are all on the same page. We will be all right when it happens. Like she says, she has to get to heaven to be with her mama again, and her sisters, her brother, and her husband.

Such a mystery this life.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die.

– Mary Elizabeth Frye

Meredith Drew, Three Years Later

dans garden end of august 2013 024I met Meredith eleven years ago, when she lived in a renovated Arts and Crafts era bungalow in The Heights, a splendid Houston neighborhood. The house had a front porch, and a very small boy inside. The small boy played with everything, but had a true passion for living things, especially insects. In that house, the small boy hatched an egg of hundreds of Praying Mantises, who, of course, escaped their cage and exploded all over the walls, the bed, the floor, the jambs of doors: all surfaces of that small room were covered in tiny mantids.

My memories of that house were of how much I loved its dark wood, the kitchen with its funky tiles, and the artwork that was everywhere. There was an old leather sofa, paintings, drawings, an African mask, a sword or two, books, papers: everything that was in that house reflected the complicated personalities within it. Meredith and her son lived there with her husband, the man behind its renovation and its steady march to monotony. The colors disappeared, the landscaping was typical, and there was only one tiny blotch of color to distinguish the way the house was when they first arrived.

Meredith was my soon-to-be husband’s best friend’s mother. Meredith was disorganized, irreverent, opinionated, sarcastic, and she cursed a blue streak most of the time. She also had a fierce glint in her eye, and when she thought something was particularly funny or insightful, the glint combined with an upturned motion of her jaw, and she would nod as if what she believed was common sense to all, and hilarious.

I cannot count the number of times I cleaned Meredith’s kitchen, or tried to get her papers in order: she was inherently a creature of disorder, of mess, of clutter. Meredith had lived many lives before I met her; she had been married, divorced, raise two sons on her own, was an accountant for a huge accounting firm that later lost their influence during the Enron scandal, was remarried, and had a very young son who was about fifteen years younger than her eldest. Meredith loved history and families, she had a huge respect for her father, had a great Texas accent, knew many stories of the way life was when she was growing up outside of Austin, kept lists of good books with descriptions of why they were great, had amazing collections of everything you could want to peruse on a slow weekend day, and she had an open-ear policy for listening.

Last Sunday, I went with a friend to a friend’s mother’s funeral, and many people whose life she had impacted spoke up. There were stories about skiing and vacations and puzzles and dinners, but the common theme was that this woman had taken in all the lost children she had encountered along her path. Meredith was similar, and our friendship was a back-and-forth of giving and taking of what we knew the other one needed to know.

dans garden end of august 2013 031At the beginning, I saw Meredith as a tough as nails woman who had almost literally fought her way through life and was left standing. As the years went by, though, I began to realize that her tough exterior was a mask covering a very sensitive and uncertain soul. Sometimes I feel like one of the reasons that I am on the Earth is to be a friend to those people who are locked within themselves, and to bring them out. Just as old houses sit for years, asleep, before the right family moves in and fixes the porch and plants some flowers, many people sit, alone and closed off from those around them, even if their surface exterior would show you different.

Over the years of our friendship, Meredith helped me and mine a lot. She helped pay for and plan my wedding. She gave us gold to melt down for our wedding rings, and made sure the baseboards of our house were vacuumed before the wedding, much to the consternation of my mother and my soon-to-be husband’s mother, who wanted to stake their own claim as dominant women of the day. When we moved to New York somewhat on a whim in the early spring of 2005, she helped us pay our rent to our roommate, her son. When she visited, she laughed at the huge vegetable garden and how invested both my husband and her son were in it, a project they did not want to participate in during its inception, when I spent hours tilling the soil at the top of a giant hill in Croton on Hudson, New York. When we returned to Texas, she and her husband and their young son were living in a new, larger house, now in San Antonio, and I spent many hours drinking wine out of tiny wine bottles, the ones that come in four packs at the grocery store, sitting on the edge of their pool, under a canopy of wisteria vines.

dans garden end of august 2013 032Time passed, and my marriage fell apart due to many things, mostly a lack of an ability to talk to one another. We went separate directions but stayed in the same physical space, I think hoping that with time, we would find our way back, but we never did. In the early fall of 2009, we were divorced, our house had been sold, as had most of our furniture. I left the house I loved so well, with its native plant garden in the front, and huge vegetable garden with chicken coop in the back. At that time, I thought that Meredith belonged to my ex-husband’s friends, and although we emailed sporadically, we lost touch.

Later in 2010, sometime around May, my friend Angel told me the news that Meredith was very sick and had cancer and was living alone with her young son in an apartment in South Austin. With phone number in hand, I called her up and went to see her.

When I first saw Meredith, after all that time, almost two years at that point, I was shocked and afraid. She couldn’t use one arm and was very thin, and her house, of course, was a mess. Her young son was struggling in school and was barely leaving his room, and when he did, he would go on long walks in the woods wearing all black clothing, long sleeves even in summer. She had no doctor, no insurance, and no path to healing. She was stuck.

The first words she said to me were: “it is so good to see you.” And it was.

Luckily for me, it was almost the beginning of summer, and I was able to spend every day with her, sometimes for a few minutes, and sometimes for hours. Somehow I managed to find some care for her: an oncologist sometimes, a visit to the emergency room other times, a spiritual healer at others. I tried to clean the apartment, clean the kitchen, get her to eat a little bit. Sometimes, her eldest son and I would fight, like we always do, about what should happen. She became more and more ill as time went past, the cancer spread from her throat to her lungs and her stomach, to her esophagus and eventually to her brain.

During that time, I saw many scary things happen to Meredith and to her family as a result of being a 52 year old woman with cancer and no insurance. I discovered that there are no programs for truly poor women of non-childbearing age. Once, during a crisis, I took her to the ER for a blood transfusion, because her form of cancer seemed to leave her bloodless from time to time, and when we were about to be released, I asked a nurse what on Earth I was supposed to do with her. She said, “move to France?”.

Meredith wanted test after test, scanning for any information she could glean that would make her feel better. She laughed about many things, she fought with her family and friends. She grew angry quickly, because she was so tired. She didn’t want her sons to know how ill she really was, and how she was really feeling. One day, I asked her if she wanted to go to the emergency room, and she said no. I asked her if I called her nurse and the nurse said it was a good idea, would she go and she said yes. A minute later, when her middle son arrived, she changed her mind and said she was fine, so that he wouldn’t know how awful she felt. We took her anyway, into the hospital, where he became paralyzed in speech, and I had to tell the doctors and nurses what they already knew, which was that she was dying of cancer very, very quickly.

My memories of that time are hazy due to the intervening years and the intensity of the experience. I cared for Meredith to the best of my ability, and I know that I failed a thousand times where maybe someone else would have succeeded, but I also know that I tried my very best and so did her middle son who moved to Austin midway through the summer to live with her and her youngest son. He and I started sneaking marijuana into her food since she couldn’t smoke anything and would lie about it because she would actually eat when her avocados were spiked. He was quiet, stoic, calm, like a rock during those times. I will never forget his solitude, his way of clearly experiencing grief in his own, very individual way.

Close to the end, Meredith and I had a phone conversation in which she said she was trying to figure out how to “pierce the veil”. When I asked her what she meant, she said that she was trying to figure out how to send us signs so that when she died, if she needed to get in touch, we’d know it was her. She also requested that we get her stuffed, taxidermy style, so that she could still come to Christmas. The closer we got to the end, the clearer were her meditations on the meanings of life, and her most vivid, most intense belief was most certainly that the the individuality of the soul of a person was the most beautiful, mystical, and wonderful aspect of life on Earth. Over time, her conversations about where we came from, in the universal belt of souls, or somewhere in space, or astrology, wherever it is, became clearer and clearer to a point when I knew she wasn’t afraid to die, but she really wanted the people in her life to know how much she cherished them.

When she was moved into the hospital, during the last week of her life, she retained her wit and her spunk and her vigor and her downright mean streak. She asked us to rearrange her room so that she could look at pretty things and nothing that was informational or had to do with being sick. During those last few days, thanks to morphine and the loss of her functions due to the cancer expanding in her brain cells, she began to travel through time and across the world on a seemingly magic invisible carpet. Sometimes she was in Asia, Africa, Australia, America during the revolution, in the air, on the water, on the land. Over and over again, though, she repeated how much she loved her boys. Three of them, each so different and yet connected to the Earth by Meredith, sat beside her and listened to her ramblings, her stories, as she slipped away from us, beyond the veil about which she had spoken earlier.

When she died, I was teaching in my classroom, and was lucky enough to leave and sit with her middle son, his girlfriend, and Meredith’s sister, with whom I had become quite close. Later, only Margaret and I remained in that tiny room with what remained of Meredith: her body, not her at all.

Once, a friend of mine told me that Meredith was scary, in a way. Meredith never was on the Earth, in a grounded sense. Meredith was of the Earth, a powerful, difficult, and dynamic lady who struggled, perhaps more so than most people, but who made her way through with stories to tell and curios to share. Meredith was straight up and had no filters; Meredith made mistakes, sometimes huge and sometimes small. I say this because, in her final moments, her feelings of love were all that were coming out of her, and that shows me that she really was a creature of love, after all.

Three years and two days ago, I lost my friend Meredith Drew to cancer. During her memorial service, I saw photo after photo of my beautiful friend, and learned many things about her life that, sadly, I never had the time to ask her about. So life goes; it moves so fast, and just sweeps us along with it. I was just sitting on my porch, staring at the stars, wondering what now, and I had to laugh, because I realized that if I called her to ask her that, she would just laugh at me and I would be able to see that glint in her eye clear as a bell through the telephone. So, I see it in the stars instead.

dans garden end of august 2013 037

Carousel

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

– Virginia Woolf

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I recognize them by their trucks: the men of the town. Very few women drive trucks, but almost all the men do. Silver F-150s, blue striped GMCs, black and bright green Chevy’s, red construction and demolition Peterbilts. In fact, I live behind a demolition company and walk past their fleet of oversized red trucks every day.

Yesterday, I walked down to the harbor to have lunch and conversation in a truck. It was the blue striped GMC. Its interior was dusty and reflected the country life of its owner: green shotgun shell on the dash, Old Crow Medicine Show music playing from the tape deck, a pack of Marlboros shoved into a cubby hole, an iPhone, a can of Monster, old coats, older boots. The interior was that heavy carpeting of 1980s American cars: the stuff that binds upon itself over time and becomes softer but tangled, stands up from the floors and walls of the truck. As I sat there, I was struck by the memory of my mom’s Oldsmobile station wagon: our childhood car that had the same carpeting all over its interior, and velveteen and vinyl seats.

When we were kids, my brother and I would sit in the trunk of the car because there was a rear-facing seat in there and we could stare out the back window of the wagon and pretend we were driving backwards. I don’t think they make those seats anymore; I have a strong attachment to that memory. Houston, Texas, blue Oldsmobile station wagon, my brother giggling, my mother managing us, moving us across that landscape that was so alien to her. Streets of white asphalt that crunched under wheels and feet, dust, pine trees, humidity, intense heat. Pine needles turned golden as they fell off in the summer and fall, pine cone wars with neighbor kids, swimming, popsicles, Jello eggs.

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In high school, I spent much time in a town called Porter, Texas, which was about 45 minutes away from where I lived. Porter was home to my boyfriend’s grandmother, which is also where he lived most of the time. She lived on a few acres surrounded by a hurricane fence in an old, stationary trailer with an ornament of an eagle that hung off the pitched front window. In that kitchen I was served mashed potatoes and fried chicken and Kool-Aid and all kinds of other delicious things over about three years. There was a barn, too, and many, many rose bushes everywhere. She loved roses. There was also a large tree with a swing, a dirt road leading to the trailer, and whole lot of nothing else.

Porter, a town outside of Conroe and near Cut-n-Shoot, was in the piney woods of East Texas, on your way to Huntsville. The trees were tall and skinny, and shady. Despite the heat that seems to pervade all those memories, there was a calm in that shade, and I remember them moving in the wind. When it was very rainy, during the monsoons, sometimes, they would pop: literally explode from over-watering. They seemed to pop at different intervals, as if there were places in the trees naturally designed to expand into a large bubble of water and wood pulp. The smell of East Texas was strong, too: pine, and soil, and heat, and sweat. The sounds of trucks driving along the roads, lawnmowers, tractors, dogs barking, chainsaws. Raccoons lived there, in the woods, as well as copperheads and water moccasins in the rivers and streams. The sun streamed everywhere: I have so many patchworked memories of sitting in a patch of sun, on the dirt, on the ground, stirring it into designs with a stick, watching ants, playing with earthworms, drawing spirals and other shapes in the earth. I still do that, today.

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I am experiencing a feeling of returning and it is very disorienting to me, as if I have been spinning on a carousel for a long, long time, and it is finally stopping; as if the blur of pictures that you see whilst riding a hobby horse on a carousel are slowing down and coming into focus. This place, the country of coastal Maine, not my town exactly, but the places around it, remind me so much of those country towns of East Texas. The people are similar, they drive the same trucks, they do the same things with their time. There are fir trees here, not pine, but the smells and sights are so similar. Of course, in East Texas there are no beautiful granite formations or islands or the ocean, but the feel is there. It’s as if I have returned after a very, very long time. And I suppose, in some ways, I have. Thirteen years away from your family makes returning scary and challenging: starting anew, again, for the third time in a few years, living in small towns in a place with such a long, long winter. Exploring options, trying to forge a path.

I was speaking with a friend about his new bathtub the other day, and how, when he took his inaugural soak, he was transported back to the bathtub in his parents’ house, a series of memories about forty years old. He said he remembered how it felt to be in the bath, how the walls in the bathroom looked, and the sensation of holding your breath under the water as long as possible. We all did that, didn’t we?

And yesterday’s lunch in the blue GMC, with its carpeting and velveteen-vinyl seats, transported me back to a childhood outside of Houston that, at many moments, I plain forget. I thought I had forgotten so many sights and smells and sounds and memories of growing up in the almost-country of east Texas, and yesterday all these things flooded back: the train track behind my high school where a friend of mine got drunk and passed out on the tracks and was run over, my best friend’s almost El Camino and racing boys in cars in it while smoking cigarettes and jamming to the Rolling Stones, my boyfriend’s 280ZX and sitting on his driveway in the afternoons after school. Driving to Huntsville to sit in the sunken rose gardens at Sam Houston State University, time spent at a strange lake house in Cold Spring when I was weeks away from graduation from high school. Camping in the woods in Nacogdoches, making forts in the woods with neighborhood kids, reading books on a blanket in the front yard and waving to the elderly lady who drove past me in her Cadillac each day.

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My parents left Houston about six months after I graduated, and so I never returned there as an adult to have these memories cemented into my mind. Funny how things come flooding back, as you sit talking about nothing in particular, on a cold spring April day, looking at the water move against the dock, in a 1980s beat up pickup truck.

digging in the dirt 2Houston, 1987