These are just a few excerpts from the many inspiring selections in Muse 11. To order a copy and read the entire issue, please visit our Support the Muse/Order Copies page.
Amy Haddad, From the Motel Window
Brake lights bleed on the gray snow
as cars and buses move in and out
of the teeming parking lot. Healthy and young,
students and coaches trudge to the stadium entrance,
a swim meet, the sign says. Their breath hangs
in misty clouds over their heads.
She stares down from the motel window,
while the tiny phone delivers crushing news.
Every detail of the scene below is burned
in her mind. She hears the words, all bad,
“tests inconclusive,” “multi-system failure,”
“may not survive the night,” but her attention
is on the dirty snow, the cold she cannot feel,
and the silence in the room. She pulls
the curtains behind her and leans closer
to the window looking down, trying to listen.
The grave voice on the phone
asks about next steps. She knows there are none
merely laying the groundwork for death.
She is trapped here, not where she should be.
Forever she will think this is what grief
looks like, frozen on the other side of a transparent
wall where you can see others move and breathe
but you cannot hear what they say or feel
the cold on your face and in your throat.
Jennifer Heatley, I imagine the poison
—in memory of Margaret Launius
While you were sleeping on the way to chemo
that beautiful Friday morning
from the serene and loving quiet circling around us, I realized
that the thirty-nine-mile drive was only roughly 1/2500th
the length of the bloodways
of the body.
If they were to be unwoven and laid out,
they would circle around
this spinning gem of a planet
(And so would I walk
around this world
for a cure.)
I thought about the life blood of you
and while I sat beside you, with the new poison pumping
I tried with all my might to imagine that the poison was sunlight
shining through your veins with a warmth that heals
to the bone.
I imagined the poison was fresh, robust air
entering you through the medi-port window in your chest
blowing the cancer cells adrift as if they were simply dust
that had gathered on drapes.
I imagined the poison was like chicken broth, soup for the soul
glistening and golden with the sweet fatty innards of love,
floating full of the tender care of mothers, grandmothers,
daughters, sisters, and ancestors who believed
there was nothing that chicken stock
could not cure.
And I imagined the poison was like the water in Dorothy’s bucket
and that the cancer cells would shrink and melt
like the Wicked Witch
of the West.
And I imagined the poison was a long line-up of protestors marching,
holding flags that said “Peace Now!” and “Make Love,
In the line-up were veterans who donned welding masks
and melted their machine guns into a giant peace sign.
I protest this cancer.
And I chant to myself:
May peace be in this body.
Send in the sunlight.
I said a silent prayer while we were waiting for the oncologist.
I imagined that the poison was seed and soil.
(May life and landscape
begin sprouting up again.)
May these nesting grounds fill up with birds
fledging from the watershed
of spirit and hope.
May they rise up
through the branches of your body
and call out
with their song
Angela M. Giles Patel, Silence Over Coffee
I told you I had a cancer
would you still sit,
biding your time,
waiting for me to heal?
Would life carry on
in your view of us
as each day my body
was divided, conquered,
one weakened cell after another?
I could show you spots
or unnatural shadows
on an X-ray film and say
here and here and here
that is where it is,
that is where I am slowly dying,
would you still simply
pat me on the head
and say “Now, now”?
But I can’t
fix my trembling finger
on a single point to tell you
this is where it hurts
and it’s not my fault
I’ve no black and white image
I’m being devoured slowly,
painfully being consumed
by my dis-ease.
And while what you say
may be true,
that “this too shall pass,”
any remission just means dormancy.
I must tell you
the fiercest storms
gather strength while resting
and nature’s cycles
prey on weakness,
they are meant to destroy first
and then, perhaps, rebuild.
For now we both sit
quietly sipping our morning coffee
by my malaise
Elizabeth W. Carey, Waiting Room
One time between 1997 - 2001
My dad said, “If I had my way, I would know it was time to go, and would push off on an ice flow like an old Eskimo, without bother or burden.” With little fanfare or hoopla, my dad wanted to go efficiently and quietly. We do not live near any ice flows, let alone an expansive ocean vast enough to allow for drifting away or floating over the horizon undisturbed.
Drizzle, unabated condensation characteristic of most days that year in Portland, coated us in an instant. In the seconds it took to rush from the back porch to the gravel driveway, where my father sat warming up the car, one gloved hand on the wheel and the other on the stick already in reverse, moisture met skin and Gortex. Billions of droplets coated my mom’s hair, making brown and gray almost iridescent under the low dome light.
I ran a few minutes behind—my tardiness measured on the family clock. To arrive at least fifteen minutes prior to the scheduled appointment time, my dad would occasionally drive himself; three people would take two cars ten miles north, skirting the Willamette River through the city, to Kaiser’s Interstate oncology facility.
I had to eat on the way—something or anything—because we were not sure what the doctor would say. And as Phoebe knew, low blood sugar or not, I could start seeing spots across my vision when she’d review size of bone mets or implications of blood counts. I feared fainting in those rooms, especially because I was not the patient. How embarrassing to look up at overworked nurses tending to me, just dizzy. That’s why I would have to focus on breathing, remembering to take each inhale fully, and pull up my sleeves, especially if she OK’d chemo and we’d walk Dad to the injection room.
Down into the concrete parking structure we drove, to park on the purple or orange level. Rain puddled along the open side of the building. To enter, I pushed the handicap button to open the automatic door; Dad pushed the revolving door for himself and Mom and, once inside, would shake off his slicker, handing his satchel to Mom while he got out his card. Smells from a Sysco-supplied cafeteria wafted up the atrium. Few voices rose.
We walked to the double glass doors, propped open by the last person in line. Dad took his place. Mom and I made our way through the seating area, careful to avoid the hard-backed pink loveseat that hurt Dad’s hips, looking for three empty seats clumped together. I took the sliding rocker, the kind that would make his vertigo go, near the puzzle table, in between two low armchairs covered in faded florals. It was not difficult to tell who the patients were. Many were waiting, and about half looked ashen, pale, yellow with bloodshot eyes.
Most eyes, even the receptionists’, looked tired. Dad’s were puffy, like all Careys’ including my own. But his twinkled that morning when he told me about his walk. Unable to sleep from 3:30 am on, he got up at 6 and made it down to the railroad tracks, which he followed to Spokane Avenue, past the little white chapel. Not quite to the park or Monkey Trails from Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge up to the Doug Fir-lined cliff, but more than he’d done in awhile, at least since the pain in his bones spread.
October 29, 1997
Outside Sellwood Middle School, on SE 15th Street, he idled. I’d been called out of class and excused for the day. After I buckled up in Bon Mot, the first of his white Corollas, we drove north to the bridge, then south to Lake Oswego.
My dad picked me up because Grandpa died. Then he cried. I’d never seen his face scrunch up like that or watched him wipe tears away from behind black wire bifocals.
We rode then, quietly—the two of us knowing how miserable Grandpa Joe had been with cancer, how sober for nine years, how crazed with anesthesia, how fascinated with clouds and planes and photography and the Wars and the Orient. And how he enjoyed shooting squirrels with his BB gun and feeding hummingbirds with red sugar water. I thought about how he loved all jellybeans except the black licorice ones, all two grandkids except when they shrieked.
“He’s not feeling pain anymore,” my dad said.
Any time after October 2002
Planning for any trip is interrupted by appointments, pharmacy runs, phone calls, doctor emails, researching experimental studies, tattoo-markers, chemo needles and, oh, pain: the pain of inactivity; the hurt of sitting. This pain melts glaciers, shrinks icebergs, stops snow and brings out the bright, bright sun to shine on our vision of the land of the Eskimos: no running, no biking, no motorcycle riding, no driving, and, then, no walking. This light casts no shadows—just reveals a rock hard landscape.
Out here, the enemy is predatory and elusive, if definable. It is not the cougar that stalked Dad on his antelope hunt, the one who left paw prints in the snow larger than Dad’s outstretched hand around the one-man tent pitched on Central Oregon’s high desert plains. But it is after meat and bones. It waits, stalks, surges forth, slinks back, attacks, and then sits on its haunches, hunting the hunter with no map or compass or track.
Its pervasive presence shape shifts everywhere. I see it in family, friends’ families, at clinics, in the infusion room, on the street; in those hairless or jaundiced or toothless or scarred or perfectly normal except for hallowed out eyes. I see its shifty iterations in every body tagged with a LIVESTRONG band. We, with those plastic yellow wristbands, are on alert. Watching for the formidable enemy, we count the days we are active one at a time.
Noon, May 15, 2006
The original prognosis, delivered during the fall of my freshman year of college, did not provide sufficient time for my dad to make it to my graduation. I attended the college he said we ought not go into debt for, the college about which he eventually became enthused, once he realized how many of its professors were interviewed on NPR and even in The Financial Times.
He continued to live with austerity and discipline. Determined enough, he made it to and through my commencement ceremony on this day in New York City. Here, in the most earnest and sincere of moments, he tells me he is proud of my BA in the Big Apple. He sees what I love-hate about Manhattan, the Ivy League, the world; and he sees I no longer hate him and maybe he can some day say he loves me.
In the waiting room, the things that make me queasy are not the same that make me lightheaded in the patient exam rooms. From the sliding rocker, I face the one glass wall of the room, so I can see people coming and going and stay focused on the business of the world as it revolves around the sun, or whatever is going on outside this stuffy, overheated, and hushed place. It is lowly-lit, ill-designed, dimly-fashioned, except for the kids’ play corner.
There, primary colors are scattered like splashes of paint. Elsewhere, some yarn stuffed in and overflowing from quilting bags with narrow circular knitting needles assists in illumination. I see doctors in scrubs and administrators in suits walk past. Dad, to my left, wears a cotton tee shirt and unbuttoned flannel, a Pendleton. Mom, to my right, is still in her black and white plaid rain jacket, which glitters with a bit of remnant mist.
I think there is nothing fair about the weather today or ever in this gray climate, and most certainly nothing (nothing!) sensical about the parade of people hurrying in to line up, to check in, to sit, to wait, to listen, and to watch, then to be called, then to wait again, squinting under fluorescent lights, to find out if chemo is even worth it. My stomach turns.
A tall man in an M’s baseball hat stoops to reach the handlebars of a wheelchair. He pushes a woman through the doors and her youth startles me, but not as much as her burgeoning belly. She is at once pregnant and yellow. A white towel wrap covers her head where hair should be. There is nothing bittersweet about her; it is all sour and sad. There is no room in her tired, tired eyes for color, let alone hope.
I feel miserable. For I get sad when I think Dad won’t walk me down an aisle; that the mets are growing and PSA rises incrementally; and that he has trouble getting into the car. But at least (at least!) I have this: he knows me. I feel my heart break in my chest and fall to my stomach at the same time. I want to vomit.
Midmorning, June 6, 2009
My father, an atheist, penciled future activities in his slim black monthly planner religiously. But the day he knew would come did so on its own time. The transfusions hinted at its arrival, as did his changing demeanor. But no one tells you what to look for when someone’s dying, and it sure as hell does not happen like the euphemisms people use.
Thank god for the straight-shooting hospice nurse. With her black bob motionless atop her petite, plump frame, she put it to me. The force of her words pushed me back against the fridge and I slumped to the floor. She put it to us, my mom and me, to be the ones to care for him; to help him go; to let him be; to push his ice flow into a cold, dark sea, to leave this wretched world and beautiful compassion and all the flighty antelope and sneaky cougars behind.
Christopher Stark Biddie, Don't Look Back
It is one of those white-sky March days with no pattern to it and I am feeling trapped like a fish in a net at this intersection. Plus, little things detonate me these days so I reach out and give her the finger. Then she drifts forward and bangs the back of my Chevy. Just a light tap but enough to bounce me forward an inch. So I lose it and return the favor with a little backward caress of my own and I see her head jerk forward like a bird pecking at a worm. At that point it dawns on me that we have all the makings of a disaster and I need to get out of there. My guess at this point is that Ms. Tight-Ass Road-Rage has no doubt hung up on her stockbroker and is now dialing her lawyer.
I am running over these thoughts as the traffic keeps flowing when there is tap on the passenger window and I look through the window at the face of an older lady with blue-misted hair. Damn if she is not smiling at me. Of course I find this confusing since most women would not get out of their car at an intersection and come up to some guy in a beat-up Chevy who has just given her the finger. Plus the fact that she is smiling which seems a bit weird and I begin to wonder if this is a smile or some grimace of homicidal malice. The thought crosses my mind that she might be holding a gun since I had read in USA Today that lots of women these days were taking pistol lessons. It also occurs to me that the sort of women who take pistol lessons are the sort of women who deep down want to shoot some man in the testicles for the fun of it and so when they tap on your window after you have given them the finger it may be best to accelerate out of there.
So at this awkward moment, my dog that is asleep in the passenger seat wakes up and he sees this women and he starts barking and slathering at the window so that it steams up. The predicament is that if I roll down the window, the dog may jump into this gal’s face. Then, with all the barking my son who is in the back seat wakes up and says “What the fuck!” and I say, “Don’t talk like that” and then I tell the dog to shut up and a reasonable amount of quiet ensues. But then she taps a second time and at that point my son who is 16 going on somewhere between 12 and 25 says to me “What did you do, Dad?” which requires a longer explanation than I want to give plus the implication that I have screwed up. So I don’t answer knowing full well he will ask again in 3 seconds which he does and knowing full well that he would be just delighted to hear his old man had given the finger to a blue hair.
But all I can do is to roll down the window and of course the first thing I say is a lie, which is “It was a mistake” at which point she says “Don’t you remember me?” and I get this wave of dizziness since things are unfolding faster than I can process and none of it seems to make sense. I look carefully at her face and her clothes that are about the same as any other suburban blue hair. The be-bop nose, the tan beach skin, the lacquered lips and the sharp gray eyes that are tough because behind them lies the cash that can flatten you. She is wearing the predictable gray cashmere sweater, a little blue scarf, some pearls and funny little silver earrings in the shape of saddle stirrups. At first I thought a memory might blossom but nothing unfurls. And so I say “No, Madam.” The “Madam” is for politeness to defuse the situation and alleviate any later accusation that I have been a jerk. And then she says, “Are you sure?” and she keeps smiling and I sense we are playing a game. Then my son pipes up and he is speaking to me in his grown-up 25 year old voice and he says, “It’s Mrs. Duquesne, Dad.”
And then I am rescued because she says “The hospice, for Janet. About 3 months ago,” and my heart thump thumps and my mind starts to go in a direction I do not want it to. Though the memory is still coagulating, I do remember the hospice. I remember the day Janet asked for the phone and she called them and asked for help. This is unfurling in my mind when I get this picture of a women in a pant-suit and tweed hat walking up our pavement on a white-sun day and knocking on our door and the bulb flicks on and there is Mrs. Duquesne standing there giving me the same smile she was giving me then.
At this point I hear the short beep of a horn and I look back and there is a Fed Ex truck jammed up behind the SUV in high dudgeon to get by. Now my primary goal at this point is to get away from all of this confusion but I can’t leave Mrs. Duquesne just standing there like a hitchhiker and so I say “Oh . . . Of course” and she says “It is nice to see you,” and she looks at my son and says “How are you, Andrew?” and my son says something which I can’t hear because the Fed Ex blows again. At this point, Mrs. Duquesne disappears and I see her emerge behind my Chevy like a flushed partridge and she gets back into her SUV. I feel this sudden relief since the road is now clear and so I pull forward and take a left and accelerate and I don’t look back.
But then my son says “What the fuck!” in an accusatory sort of way, which makes me mad because I hate that word plus the fact that he is basically telling me in his own articulate way that I am a rude jackass. So I slam on the brakes, the tires squeal, the dog goes flying into the dashboard, somewhere a horn blares and I veer off the road splattering gravel. My son says “What the fuck” again.
I take a long hard look at Andrew. He is a thin kid and for some reason has big ears and cuts his hair short and has a small tattoo of a lightning bolt on his neck. Today he has a cold and his nose is red and his hazel eyes are watery. Both he and the dog are looking at me as if I have just burst into flames and I am noticing the sweet metallic smell of burning brakes. I want very much to say something to him but I am not sure what it is. We are looking at each other and I can hear my breathing and I know something is going on between us. His rheumy eyes remind me of tears and I feel dizzy and tired and the anger or whatever demon it was that slammed on the brakes flies out of the window like a bat.
At this point just about the worst thing imaginable happens when I look over and see the white SUV and the little blue rimmed face of Mrs. Duquesne and, yes, she is smiling and I see she is unbuckling her seat belt and starting to get out and I am Bonnie and Clyde at the roadblock.
Mrs. Duquesne was the only hospice volunteer we had. She came about 7 or 8 times plus most of the last week. She always wore a cashmere sweater, had an emerald ring, read horse magazines, smelled of perfume and had blue bleached cotton candy hair. Maybe she was or 55 or 65 but you couldn’t tell because she was carefully packaged and wore a perpetual biblical smile which seemed designed to ward off any ugly impropriety that might attempt to wedge itself into her day. She would come in and tell me about some flower show or a trip that she was planning and then she would go into Janet and give her a bath and rub her arms and legs. I could hear them talking and sometimes laughing and then long silences. And just once a moan that made me want to leave the house.
Once I heard her reading a poem about a girl that had been sucked out of the broken window of an airplane and as she fell the wind peeled off her clothes and she could feel the clouds blowing through her rotating limbs. I heard Janet saying, “That is so lovely,” which seemed odd but caught me in the gut and after that I didn’t listen to their conversations.
During those last 10 days or so I did all the cleaning. I would scrub and deodorize the house every day and change the sheets. For the last week it was just the 3 of us during the day waiting together and Mrs. Duquesne helping with the dinner and feeding Janet and making me promise to call in the night if there were developments. In the evening Andrew and I would play cards or read and he would spend time with Janet before going to bed and then I would crawl in beside her. She was usually asleep by then and most of our talking was over as is usually true when you have been with someone for a long time. Of course at the end she did have trouble sleeping and once she kicked the blankets off and swore and another time she sobbed for a few minutes and all I could do was to rest my hand in the valley of her hip.
On the last night Janet woke me and asked for Mrs. Duquesne. I remember she spoke so clearly and her voice was strong with authority and I thought this could not be the end because her tone was bell clear. And Mrs. Duquesne came and was with Janet for about two hours and once or twice I would go in and they were just sitting there holding hands, not talking. Janet looked so strong and healthy that I was surprised when Mrs. Duquesne came into the living room and told me she had died. It had happened quickly, there was no pain. She was so sorry that I was not there. I said that really didn’t matter and thanked her for her help.
So Mrs. Duquesne is at my window and I am rolling it down with the automatic button and there is no way in God’s green earth that I know what to say. I am sitting with absolutely no words on my mind like an old broken windmill and of course wishing that all this would end. I can hear Andrew snuffling and wheezing and smell the burning brakes and as the window spools down Mrs. Duquesne’s blue rimmed smiling face seems to flow into the car like ink in water. I start muttering and Andrew is stuttering hello and the dog is up and bouncing around and waving his tail and then there is a book being handed through the window. And then the window is spooling up and Andrew and I are sitting together and he is thumbing the book open to a creased page and a stalk of forsythia is dropping down into his lap.
I imagine that Mrs. Duquesne lives in a stone house with a circular driveway. There is a fountain in the center of the lawn and the steps to the house are marble with box bushes in planter boxes on either side that will be taken into the nursery in the winter. When you come into Mrs. Duquesne’s hallway you look through double doors to a piano in the distance and a sloping lawn beyond that. In Mrs. Duquesne’s house there is a library to your left and a dining room to your right and there are always cocktails and quiet conversation. I try to think of Mrs. Duquesne coming in from the lawn and walking toward me. She passes by the piano and through the double doors but then she disappears and so I start her walking again with no success. Sometimes I try from the side thinking perhaps she is in the library and reading a book and she will hear the bell and get up and move with decorum into the vestibule but then she always disappears. I tried once and only once to think of her lying in bed under a thick white down comforter. She is reading a book but I can’t see the title and she is falling asleep but I can’t see her eyes.
On that last night Mrs. Duquesne did the dishes. It was the first time I had seen her hands at work. She had very thin wrists and long fingers that curled around the glasses like seaweed and she moved her arms like a conductor, organizing and scrubbing and drying. I remember looking at those hands that had held Janet’s and wondering what memories they possessed. I wonder if you can dream when you die? Do you dream of fingers relaxing and slipping apart or of poems you have read or perhaps of being born?
I never did ask her the question. Perhaps there was not much of an answer but I do speculate. I can hear quiet breathing and see the veins on the back of her white hand. My thumb—or is it Mrs. Duquesne’s—lies across the top of her wrist and the pulse is steady. The sheets of the bed are cool against our arms and there is a distant hovering of lavender in the air. The book is open across her chest and rises and falls as she breathes. And she must be dreaming of the forsythia in the yard and of running through the grass with her son and perhaps of being a bird and then of falling through the sky and shedding shreds of satin, velvet and cotton that bloom up behind her like a meteorite of glory. What haunts me is that instant of transition, that slipping behind the cloud, that infinitely tiny moment of vaporous time. That was taken away from me. All that is something Mrs. Duquesne has kept to herself.